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Phoenix

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PROLOGUE

Honestly, he’d really been expecting this to go a lot less smoothly.

The systems hijack went off without a hitch. So did docking at the station, breaking in, knocking out the scientists who got in their way. As the job specs had said, the targets were easy to identify - three teenaged boys, all with uncommonly pretty faces and unnaturally glowing blue eyes. The chemical they’d been given did exactly as advertised, dragging the targets swiftly into compliant unconsciousness; only one of them tried to struggle as he was put under.

Kris watched with wary eyes as his crewmen loaded the three targets into the shuttle, listened to Sehun report that they’d gotten the other target of the job, the ship’s data drive. Jobs never, ever went this smoothly. The other boot was bound to drop.

And he could feel it hanging over his head as he swept the disabled science station one last time, checking that the small crew of scientists were all down, checking that there wasn’t anything else worth keeping. They’d already raided the station’s food and medical supplies, and there just wasn’t much else, at least not that wasn’t big equipment. And frankly, Kris didn’t really care about that stuff anyway. He just wanted to get himself and his crew out of there before something went wrong.

He set the bomb himself, just to make absolutely certain it was set correctly. Then he set the timer, and counted down under his breath as he jogged back to the docking bay.

The door shut behind him, and the shuttle detached from the station smoothly and blasted away. And right on time, the explosion went off, silently ripping the space station in half with them well out of reach, destroying it beyond repair and killing anyone inside who might come after them.

Barely half an hour, in and out. Smooth as fuck. Too easy.

So where the hell was the catch?

 

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CH.1

The beep of the proximity alarm startled Jongdae out of sleep. Mumbling curses under his breath, he untangled himself from his blanket and clumsily rolled off the cot and onto his feet.

“What’d you hit this time,” he mumbled petulantly as he stumbled into the cockpit, scrubbing his fist across his eyes in a vain attempt to remove the crusty bits.

“Your mother,” Baekhyun replied without even looking up. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t get out of the way in time, she was just too large.”

Jongdae took great pleasure in smacking his crewmate across the back of the head as he sank down into his chair and scanned the readouts. “Where even are we?”

Baekhyun jerked a thumb at the course plotter. “Garym Asteroid Belt,” he said.

A frown creased Jongdae’s features. “We’ve gone through here a bajillion times,” he said. “At least. There’s never anything here.” Unlike in the old movies, flying through an asteroid belt was in fact very boring; the orbits of the bodies had long ago been plotted and there was enough space between them that sometimes they flew through without glimpsing even one single chunk of rock.

“Yes,” Baekhyun said patiently. “I am aware of that. I just thought you were sleeping too soundly so I set off the alarm.”

Fuck, Baek was on a roll tonight. “Look, quit snarking and just tell me what the bleedin’ hell is going on.”

Baekhyun flashed him a tight smile. “Working on it,” he murmured. “All I know so far is that there is something out here that’s not supposed to be. We should have visual in a moment.”

He flipped on the viewscreens, and sure enough, within a few seconds they were close enough to see starlight glinting off of something decidedly not rock in the distance. Jongdae took over the viewer and zoomed in.

“Huh,” Baekhyun said. “That looks like a space station.”

Yeah. “Correction,” Jongdae muttered. “That looks like half a space station.” Because the hunk of metal was rotating, displaying a cross-section of ship’s-guts and open chambers that clearly were meant to be interior. “I didn’t think there were any stations out here.”

Baekhyun already had the registry up, clearly having the same thought. “There aren’t,” he said, scrolling through. “There’s a couple of small colonies on the bigger asteroids, but they’re all on the inner side of the belt, closer to the system’s sun. There isn’t anything this far out.” He shot Jongdae a look. “Not officially, anyway.”

“Curious,” Jongdae said, totally awake now. “Might as well check it out. Maybe there’s something salvageable on board.”

There were a lot of upsides to being a two-person crew. It didn’t cost a lot to feed them, for one, or take a lot of space to house them. Angel was a good-sized boat but 90% of it was engine and fuel storage, meaning they could go a lot farther on the same amount of fuel and get a lot more distance out of their equipment than a ship the same size that housed a crew of eight.

Of course, there were a lot of downsides too, and probably the biggest one was that someone always had to stay with the ship, meaning literally every off-ship mission had to be solo. Which was how Jongdae ended up strapping himself into his walking suit and crossing the nerve-wracking three meters between Angel and the destroyed station in freefall, alone in the silent darkness of open space.

Well. Mostly alone, and mostly silent. Baekhyun was a constant presence in his ear, spouting theories about the station or reading aloud from the scanners or just humming under his breath. It was a little obnoxious but it was better than radio silence, especially since Jongdae had limited oxygen and was not really supposed to talk back.

That didn’t stop him from narrating a little as he went. “This is pretty obviously a deliberate blast,” he said, keeping his voice low to conserve his air tank as he examined the ripped-up metal. “Laid out right along the support systems to do the most damage. Pro work.”

“Wonder what they were trying to destroy,” Baek’s tinny voice sounded in his helmet. “Wonder if someone had something to hide, or if they just pissed off the wrong person.”

Both were equally valid possibilities. Jongdae hand-walked his way along the inside of the destroyed chamber and pulled himself into what clearly was once a hallway. His in-helmet HUD displayed an atmospheric readout that, while still not breathable, was more than zero, indicating that not all of the air had escaped into space just yet.

“There’s some atmo here,” Jongdae said as he reached the end of the hall, where a large, heavy metal door was still completely shut. “Maybe some of the inner chambers are still intact. I’m going in.”

“Don’t die. I’d get bored without you.”

Jongdae’s lip twitched. “Aw, I love you too, Baekkie-poo.” He schooled his face down against the urge to chuckle at Baekhyun’s spluttered response - laughter used far more air than talking - activated the suction clamp in his glove to anchor him to the wall, and wrenched the door open. Atmosphere started to blow past him, confirming his suspicion; he quickly pulled himself into the chamber and sealed the door behind him.

Jongdae continued down the halls, passing through two more doors in this manner before his HUD showed that the atmosphere was breathable. He unlatched his visor and lifted it, his air tanks automatically shutting off as he did so, but did not take off his helmet. Just because the atmo was breathable in this room did not mean it would be in the next room, or that something wouldn’t come undone and cause a sudden leak. He’d learned that the hard way.

“Anything interesting?” Baekhyun asked.

“It looks like a laboratory,” Jongdae told him, running his hands over the unfamiliar equipment. “It’s weird, it looks like cutting-edge stuff, like I couldn’t even tell you what this thing is supposed to do. But it looks kind of old, too? A little rusty, a little dirty.” He had atmo, but still no gravity, so he had to use the equipment as a launching pad to get himself to the door at the far end. “I’m gonna keep going.”

And so it went. With each door Jongdae passed through, he kept one hand on his visor, in case he needed to seal himself back in his suit in a hurry. But the deeper he went the better the air tasted, a higher and higher oxygen content until he was actually starting to get a little dizzy from it.

The laboratories went on for several more chambers, each more alien and complex than the last. All of the doors had computerized locks, but oddly all of them were unlocked. Baekhyun mused in his ear that perhaps there had been a network attack as well as the physical one, disabling the station’s security before shutting them down and blowing them apart.

Beyond the labs were living quarters, expansive ones. Several suites meant to house multiple people, and a number that were clearly meant to be singles. A large, well-stocked kitchen and a pantry that had been raided, everything edible stolen away. A surprisingly nice fitness center, with strength and aerobics machines and a large open mat.

For how gorgeous the facility was, it seemed surprisingly un-lived-in, like perhaps it was meant to hold many more people than had actually lived there. Half of the living spaces were completely empty, beds unmade and drawers unfilled; and of the other half only about half of those contained any personal items at all beyond clothes. Nothing of value, nothing worth taking, and nothing that could identify who had lived here - not even a photograph.

It wasn’t until Jongdae was out of the living quarters and into the utterly huge, multi-chambered, state of the art infirmary complex that he found something of note.

Or rather, someone.

“Shit,” Jongdae breathed when he spotted the form floating at chest level in one of the medical storage rooms. “Got a body, Baek.”

“I’m frankly shocked you’ve only got one,” Baekhyun said unhelpfully in his ear. Jongdae pushed off from the doorway, momentum carrying him directly into the corpse. They came to rest against the far wall, and with the body pinned between his suit and the cabinetry Jongdae looked down to examine his find.

A man. Brown hair, pale skin, handsome, Jongdae’s age or perhaps a little older. He had a severe head wound, skin visibly torn open and blood pooling awkwardly against his temple in the weightless environment. Despite that, though, he was in surprisingly good shape for a corpse in space; his skin still had a little color, his body limp and malleable rather than stiff with rigor mortis.

Then his head turned, and Jongdae frowned, because there was no principle of physics that should have caused that sort of a movement in a floating body. Jongdae watched, eyes widening, as the man’s mouth dropped slightly open.

Quickly, he unlatched and pulled off one of his gloves and held his bare hand to the man’s neck, in front of his parted lips. The corpse had both pulse and breath.

“Fuck,” Jongdae said in shock. “Not a corpse. He’s alive.”

“You are shitting me,” Baekhyun breathed over the line, sounding about how Jongdae felt. “How?”

Jongdae looked around the storeroom. Was it a coincidence that he was surrounded by medical supplies?

No. There. Jongdae pushed off from the wall and drifted across the room to where a medical sharp floated a few lengths from the ground, the attached tube devoid of contents. There was a plastic bag nearby just the right size to have contained the syringe, labelled with something long and very medical-sounding.

“Look this up,” Jongdae said, spelling out the eight-syllable word. He let the sharp go - making sure it was at rest and not floating dangerously around the chamber - and pushed himself back to the body.

“It’s an anesthetic, a really fucking strong one. You think someone knocked him out?”

Jongdae pawed through the drawers. A lot of things had clearly been taken, and what was left was in disarray, but he did find what he was looking for - a compress. The lack of an ability to drip was keeping the man’s blood inside him, but once he got back into an artificial gravity environment that wound was going to start gushing.

“I think someone tried to knock him out the old-fashioned way,” Jongdae said as he took his find back to his unexpected patient. “I think they failed and he put himself under to conserve oxygen. He must have been gambling on someone finding the wreckage.”

A low whistle. “That is one hell of a gamble.” Jongdae snorted in agreement as he bound up the man’s wound, brushing away weightless drops of already-spilled blood and affixing the compress before any more could ooze out. “How can I help?”

“Go prep your suit,” Jongdae said. “You’re gonna have to airlock it over to me.”

“Shit, I am, aren’t I? Alright, I’m going. Be back in a minute.”

The comm went silent, and Jongdae was left alone with an unconscious and gravely injured man and the sound of his own labored breathing. He went back to the drawers and gathered up what little was there that might be of use - painkiller, blood clotter, some more compresses - bagged it, and tied it to his belt before starting the process of moving his charge back out to the rest of the ship.

It took a while. At every single door he had to anchor his glove to the wall and lock his ankles around the injured man’s leg so that changes in air pressure and the momentum of wrenching the door open wouldn’t send either of them flying across the room. Getting them maneuvered through the doorways was a chore as well, as was sealing each door behind him - he didn’t want to leave them open and risk one of the chambers unexpectedly decompressing.

Eventually, he reached the laboratories, and left the man in the furthest one as he knew from this point forward the air quality got iffier. Locking his visor down, he started the rest of the way on his own.

By this point, Baekhyun’s suit was ready, and as soon as Jongdae made it back out to the exterior of the ship Baekhyun opened the airlock without depressurizing the cabin. The resulting blast catapulted the empty suit across the divide, and Jongdae pushed off from the wall and tackled it in awkward gravity-less slow motion.

Dragging the suit back to the man took a bit. Getting the limp body into the suit took even longer. Fortunately the man was only a little bit taller than Baekhyun, and not much broader; he fit into the oversized suit well enough. Once he was sealed, Jongdae hauled him back to the exit, and, with careful aim, floated them both over to Angel and hand-walked along the side of the ship to the airlock.

When gravity returned, the man suddenly fell like a stone into Jongdae’s arms. Jongdae grunted, falling to his knees despite knowing the weight was coming; as always after a spacewalk his limbs felt wobbly and jellylike. Baekhyun was at his side in moments, helping him to lift.

“Put him in my cabin for now,” Jongdae said breathlessly. “I’m going back over to see if anyone else survived.”

Baekhyun gave him a look, but didn’t comment. Jongdae knew he was thinking the same thing Jongdae himself was - we barely have space for two people let alone more - but they both knew if there was a chance he could save someone else, he would do it.

Two hours of searching later, though, Jongdae returned to the ship empty-handed. He’d found only two more people, both very very dead; one had obviously been caught in the blast and one had suffocated in a depressurized chamber. Neither were wearing nametags or carrying any sort of identification on them, though both were wearing lab coats and carrying key cards.

Stripping off his suit in the airlock antechamber, Jongdae yelled, “I’m back, Baek.” They did have an intercom system, but the living space of the ship was so small there was almost never a need to use it.

“Find any more stiffs?” Baek yelled back, somewhat muffled. From the way his voice echoed, Jongdae deduced he was back in the cockpit.

“Two,” he called back. “Both actually stiff this time. How’s our patient?”

Baekhyun turned to look at him as he reached the hatch of the cockpit. Jongdae pretended he didn’t see the considering elevator eyes, checking Jongdae over for injury. He did the same thing whenever his partner came back from a mission.

Satisfied with his visual examination, Baekhyun turned his attention back to the readouts. “Out like a light, sleeping like a baby, and other such cliches,” he confirmed. “Hell of a nasty head wound but I’m no doctor so I didn’t touch it. You gonna stitch him up?”

Jongdae sighed. Baekhyun was perfectly capable of stitching a wound, but he hated doing so, terrified he was going to do something wrong. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it.”

A nod. “There’s something else, too,” he said, and there was a tone in his voice that got Jongdae’s attention. “The scanners picked up a chemical signature.”

Cocking an eyebrow, Jongdae asked, “Oh?” Only the bigger starships would leave a chemical trail in open space strong enough for their sensors to pick up - they didn’t exactly have the best sensor array. “Was there a match online?”

Baekhyun tossed him an unreadable look. “Yep. The Phoenix.”

Jongdae blinked. “Starfucker.” The Phoenix wasn’t one of the biggest ships out there, but it was certainly one of the best-known. Kris Wu was a notorious mercenary and bounty hunter, his crew said to be some of the best - i.e., the most ruthless - in the business. That Angel had been in operation for five years without running into the Phoenix even once was something of a point of pride for Jongdae.

“Yeah,” Baekhyun agreed. “So whatever they were doing at that station, someone out there was willing to pay top dollar to ensure they stopped doing it.”

Today just kept getting better. “Tell me they went the other way,” Jongdae pleaded.

To his relief, Baek nodded. “They did, actually. Back towards the center of the system.”

“Good,” Jongdae said fervently. “Let’s hope they don’t realize they missed one, huh?” He gestured vaguely at the control boards. “Get us back on track. I’m gonna go see to our renegade scientist back there.” He actually had no idea if the man was either a renegade or a scientist but given the circumstances he figured it was a pretty good guess.

“Yes Sir mister Captain your honor sir!” Baekhyun said brightly, and Jongdae slapped him across the back of the head for good measure on his way back to his cabin.

 

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The beep of the intercom startled Chanyeol out of sleep.

“Captain, just thought you might want to know, the cargo is waking up.”

It took a moment for Chanyeol to actually process the words, and a longer moment to remember what the hell Sehun was talking about. Fortunately, Kris was quicker on the uptake, a long arm reaching over Chanyeol’s body to hit the button on the wall.

“Any issues?” Kris asked, his normally deep voice deeper still and rough with sleep.

“Doesn’t look like it. I mean, they’re not making any demands or trying to break out or anything. Actually, they’re...really freaking calm. It’s a little unnerving.”

Kris snorted. “Maybe they’re used to waking up in unknown cells. Alright, keep an eye on them, and call me if anything changes.” He let his fingers slide off the button and his arm drop across Chanyeol’s bare chest, burrowing sleepily against Chanyeol’s shoulder like a kid who didn’t want to go to school and not an infamous mercenary captain who had just kidnapped three teenagers and blown up a space station less than a cycle previous. “Ugh. I thought for sure they’d be out for hours still,” he muttered into Chanyeol’s skin.

Chanyeol glanced over at the time readout. They’d only been in asleep for about five hours. “We’ve still got half a sleep shift,” he pointed out softly. Kris’s temper got exponentially shorter when he hadn’t slept; it was better for everyone if he got at least eight hours. “Sehun’s watching them. Go back to sleep.”

It didn’t take much convincing. Within just a few minutes Kris’s grip went lax, and a few minutes later he rolled away from Chanyeol. It wasn’t long before he was snoring softly.

Chanyeol himself wasn’t so lucky. He’d never had Kris’s ability to fall asleep instantly, but then, he’d never spent any time in the military, either. So he laid awake for a good half an hour before sighing and deciding if he wasn’t going back to sleep, he might as well go get something useful done. He had some adjustments he’d been wanting to make to the inertial dampener, anyway.

Sliding carefully out of the bunk without disturbing his husband, Chanyeol plucked a t-shirt at random off the floor and tossed it on over his head. It felt a little tight through the chest, which meant it was probably one of Kris’s; Kris was the taller of the two of them but Chanyeol had the bigger frame. His trousers were somewhere near the foot of the bed where Kris had thrown them last night; he groped for them in the semi-darkness and pulled them on.

Padding barefoot out into the corridor, Chanyeol blinked into the dim blue lighting and with the intent of heading to the galley, thinking he could go for a third-shift snack. He redirected his course, though, to the cockpit, figuring he would find out if Sehun wanted anything.

His crewmate was reclined in the captain’s chair with his feet up on the console, autopilot set and the view screens turned to the security feed from the brig. He looked back over his shoulder as Chanyeol entered, flashing him a smile that burned white in the dim lighting.

“Everything okay here?” Chanyeol asked, crossing his arms over the back of the chair and leaning. Sehun nodded, his attention turning back to the screen.

“This shit is better than a fucking video game,” Sehun murmured. “Watch this.”

He pulled the controller board into his lap and started skimming his fingers along its surface. Up on the screen, one of the screens showed the camera panning to the right, circling the perimeter of the cramped cell and its inhabitant. The camera, a tiny little thing no larger than a coin, was behind a line of one-way glass embedded in the crown molding between the wall and ceiling, on a track that allowed it to be positioned anywhere and look in any direction. The entire point of it was so that the inhabitant of the cell would not know where the camera was at any given moment.

Which is why, when Chanyeol realized the boy in the cell was watching the camera, turning slowly in place with his eyes locked on the lens, his own eyes widened.

“That’s not possible,” he murmured, leaning forward.

“Right? I thought I was seeing things. But no, watch this.” A few taps of Sehun’s long, thin fingers brought the camera to a stop, and then reversed its direction. The boy in the cell - tall, dark-haired, with an intense but painfully young face - followed it unerringly, halted as the camera halted, and turned in the other direction when the camera began to pan to the left. Sehun stopped the camera again, took it right, took it left, right left right left aaaallll the way to the right and then sharply left again, and unnaturally bright blue eyes never wavered, never blinked, locked on that camera with singleminded purpose no matter which way Sehun moved it.

“Isn't that the freakiest damn thing you’ve ever seen?” Sehun said gleefully.

Chanyeol crinkled his nose at his youngest crewmate. “It’s a little cruel, isn’t it? You screwing around with him like this?”

Sehun looked back at him, put out. “Hey, it’s not like he’s got anything else to do, right? I’m just trying to figure out how he knows where it is. Kris will want to know, won’t he?”

That was a good point, actually; Kris would definitely want to know this. “Maybe he can see it behind the glass,” Chanyeol hedged. “Or hear it, maybe? I mean, we know nothing about what was done to these poor kids.”

Sehun side-eyed him. “You probably know more than we do, Mister Wu,” he muttered. “Did he tell you anything?”

Chanyeol snorted. “Not on this one. He didn’t even tell me who the client was, which probably means it’s better not to ask.” Being the Captain’s husband did occasionally get him some insights into what Kris was thinking, but in this case he was as in the dark as everyone else. “All I know is that supposedly those scientists were experimenting on these kids. And, I mean, the fact that their eyes literally glow in the dark lends some credence to the claim, don’t you think?”

He leaned over Sehun’s shoulder and tapped on the control board, bringing up the entire brig camera set. Of the four cells, three were occupied. Sehun had been watching the tallest of the three, who looked to be perhaps eighteen; also awake was the light-haired boy, smaller and slimmer but appearing about the same age. He was running his hands around the perimeter of the cell curiously, his lips moving a little like he was talking to himself. The third boy, smaller, younger and auburn-haired, was still asleep, curled up in a tiny defensive ball where he had been laid on the cell’s hard cot.

“Poor things,” he murmured. Sehun gave him a look but didn’t comment. “Has anyone fed them yet?”

“They just woke up,” Sehun pointed out. “And if you think I’m going to let you go down there alone when we have no idea what those kids are or what they can do, you have several thinks coming.”

“Brat,” Chanyeol complained. “Respect your elders.”

“I respect the hell out of my elders. Specifically, Kris. I am not eager to be skinned, thank you very much.” Sehun shot him a look over his shoulder. “I’m not gonna stop you, but if you’re going down there, take someone with you. Jongin should be up.”

So one intercom call and a visit to the galley later, Chanyeol was headed down to the brig. He carried with him three protein packs in various flavors and three bags of vitamin water; Jongin, trailing behind, carried nothing but his blaster.

They went to the blond boy’s cell first. The prisoner cocked his head at their approach, looking very much like he was listening for their footsteps; as Chanyeol reached the cell door controls the boy skittered back.

Chanyeol lifted the one-way vision shield, allowing the boy to see them as well. “Stay back,” Jongin warned the boy, as Chanyeol punched in the code to unlock the bars.

The boy obeyed, but that seemed to be more a product of the weapon pointed at him than the command. “Where am I?” he asked.

Chanyeol carefully pulled the door open and stepped just far enough inside to set the food on the floor. He wanted to answer, but he didn’t; Kris had long ago forbidden him from answering prisoners’ questions because he had a tendency to overshare. Jongin did it for him.

“You are in a cell,” Jongin told him, somewhat archly. “On a ship.”

The boy sneered. It twisted his delicate features into something nearly feral. “I’d gathered that much, thank you.” His eyes narrowed. “Why?

Jongin didn’t answer. Chanyeol didn’t have to glance back over his shoulder to know the younger man probably had an infuriating smirk on his face; Jongin tended to use those like armor.

Pulling back, Chanyeol closed the cell door and re-locked it. “Eat,” he said, keeping his voice light. He gave the boy a small smile and dropped the vision shield, closing him off again.

The second boy, the tall one, gave them even less trouble despite his fierce appearance. He turned to look at the door at their approach the way the first did, but didn’t move away until Jongin commanded him to do so. “Hello,” he said as Chanyeol opened the door, voice too soft and manner too polite for his looks.

“Hello,” Chanyeol told him in kind. “I’ve brought you some food.”

A little head tilt. “Okay,” the boy said.

Backing out of the cell, Chanyeol re-locked the door, but waited curiously for a moment before raising the shield. The boy met his eyes unblinkingly - no malice, no confusion, no fear. It was, to be frank, extremely unnerving.

“You should eat,” Chanyeol finally told him.

A single blink. “Okay,” the boy said again. He moved forward and sank smoothly to the ground in front of the packages with an uncanny grace. Chanyeol raised the shield, but kept watching as the boy inspected the packages, then opened them and began to eat.

The smallest boy, in the last cell, startled awake when Chanyeol opened the door. Chanyeol heard Jongin shift behind him, probably raising his gun, but he needn’t have worried; the boy only scooted as far back against the wall as he could get and watched with huge, round blue eyes as Chanyeol set down the food. As with the other two, Chanyeol requested that he eat; unlike the other two this boy did not speak and didn’t even move until Chanyeol closed the vision shield and backed away. His movement was completely different from the others, almost animal-like.

That done, Chanyeol closed and locked the brig door behind him, and Jongin sighed and holstered his weapon.

“That was interesting,” he muttered, and Chanyeol nodded in agreement. “Anything else I can do?”

Shaking his head, Chanyeol dismissed him, and headed back to his engine room with some things to consider.

 

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It was well into his solo shift, and everyone else on Angel was asleep, when the distinctive sound of a cabin door opening behind him brought Jongdae’s attention out of his game. He hit pause to quiet the music and yelled back over his shoulder, “If you’re headed to the galley, grab me a stim shot.”

“I’m sorry,” a soft, unfamiliar voice said. Jongdae practically flailed right out of his seat in his shock. “I don’t know where the galley is.”

Spinning his chair, Jongdae came face-to-face with the not-so-corpselike corpse. The man was leaning heavily against the doorframe, the gauze around his head soaked with blood, and though his dark eyes were open and aware, they were glassy. He looked awful.

“Shit,” Jongdae swore. “You’re awake. Hey, you shouldn’t be standing like that, you’ve had a hell of a day. Sit down.” He leapt out of his chair and crossed the tiny cabin in less than two strides, wrapping one arm around the man’s waist and tucking the other under his elbow. “Come on, here you go.”

With his help, the man made it into the second chair, plunking heavily down like his limbs weren’t working quite right. Jongdae unwrapped the gauze and gave him a quick, cursory inspection; the stitches looked okay but the wound was still oozing slowly, and his eyes were unevenly dilated.

“I’m not dead,” the man said slowly. Jongdae wondered absently if he always sounded so floaty and out of it, or if that was the head injury talking. “I assume I have you to thank for that?”

He hadn’t actually put the extra med supplies away yet, so they were conveniently within arm’s reach; Jongdae picked up the bag and set to work. “Yep,” he said cheerfully. “We can discuss payment later. I’m Jongdae.”

The scientist’s glassy eyes seemed very dark in his pale face. “Yixing,” he said slowly. “I’m Yixing.” He blinked. “Are you a doctor?”

“Nah,” Jongdae told him. “I’m nobody. Just a space monkey.” He kept his touch as gentle as possible as he cleaned the blood away and taped a new compress to the wound. It probably already hurt like a bitch; no need to make the pain worse.

Pale fingers reached up and prodded gently at the dressing, inspecting his work. Jongdae pulled back and let Yixing examine himself by touch. “Just a nobody who knows his way around a head wound,” Yixing murmured. Jongdae wondered if his unblinking stare was also a product of the injury. “Are you alone? This seems to be a very small vessel.”

Cleaning the traces of blood off his hands with an antiseptic wipe, Jongdae said, “My partner’s on sleep shift right now. I’m sure you’ll meet him later.”

“Oh.” Yixing let his hand drop, looking around. His eyes landed on the control readouts. “Where are we going?” he asked. “Are we following them?”

Jongdae raised an eyebrow. “Them?”

Dark eyes flicked back up to Jongdae’s face. The glassiness was starting to fade a little bit, leaving Jongdae feeling weirdly like the man was looking through him. “The men who attacked us,” Yixing said. “The men who stole my kids.”

Jongdae’s blood turned to ice.

“There were children on that station?” he asked numbly. He hadn’t seen any indication that there were, but then, he’d only had half of the complex to inspect.

Yixing nodded. “Three of them,” he said. “My three boys.”

Fuck. “How old?” Jongdae asked, dreading the answer but needing to know.

“Eight, six, and three.”

Fuck everything. “Are you certain they were kidnapped?” he asked. “The station was ripped apart, and we found a couple of bodies.”

Yixing’s eyes fluttered shut. “Yes,” he said softly, and pointed at his head. “I got this trying to stop them. When I got my feet back under me the boys were gone. Not dead, gone.” His eyes popped open again. “We have to go after them,” he said urgently, reaching out to tug on Jongdae’s wrist. “They’re just kids, they’ve lived their whole lives on that station and know nothing about anything outside it. They’re completely defenseless.”

It struck Jongdae as kind of an odd thing to emphasize, because obviously an eight-year-old or younger child was going to be defenseless, but he figured it was probably just Yixing’s distress talking. “Do you know who did it?” he asked. “Do you know why?”

“No,” Yixing said, his face scrunching up miserably. “They’re good kids, they’re really special, but I have no idea why someone would want to take them from me. No one really even knew we were out there.” He tugged again on Jongdae’s hand. “Please, I have to get them back.”

Jongdae pulled out of his grip and took a step back, swallowing down the lump of ice in his throat. “We can’t,” he said firmly.

Yixing stared at him in upset confusion. “What? Why not?”

So many reasons. “Well, for one thing, we don’t know who took them, where they’re going, or how long ago it was,” he said, lying through his teeth. They actually already knew the answers to two of the three questions - and if they wanted to, they could figure out where the Phoenix had gone. “For another, any ship big and bad enough to do what they did to you is not one this little spacehopper can hope to mess with. We are a two-person crew. Angel doesn’t even have any weapons.” That point was in fact true, but it was the last reason that made Jongdae’s decision. “And we’re in the middle of a job. We cannot turn around and abandon it.”

Yixing stared at him.

“Three children,” he said slowly. “Three helpless kids and not one of them is a decade old. You’re just going to let those men take them?”

Damn it. Jongdae grit his teeth. “I’m sorry,” he said, keeping his voice as steady as he could. “I really am. Once this job is done we’ll take you to a hub planet, and you can find someone to help you there.” It sucked, but Jongdae absolutely refused to tangle with the Phoenix. All that would get them was dead - and he’d promised Baekhyun’s momma that he’d bring him home safely.

“That will take too long,” Yixing pointed out desperately. “By the time I find someone and get back to the scene the trail will be cold. We have to go now!

No.” Yixing fell back, surprised by the force in Jongdae’s command. “That is final, and if you try anything to change it I will handcuff you in the engine bay, I swear to God.” He didn’t need some well-meaning scientist clumsily attempting to hijack his ship, thanks. Pointing at the door, he raised a meaningful eyebrow. “Now. Get back into that room and get some rest. Or do I have to knock you out again?”

His lips compressing into a tight line, Yixing stood. He wobbled, but when Jongdae reached out to steady him, Yixing shook him off. “I’m fine,” he said coldly. “Don’t touch me.”

Jongdae let him go. Fine. If he wanted to throw a temper tantrum, fine. As long as he wasn’t screwing with the ship.

He followed a few paces behind the scientist, waited until he was sitting on the bed, and then took hold of the door. “I’ll bring you something to eat later on,” he murmured, then pulled the door closed before he could get an answer.

Chapter Text

The grav boot was acting up again, so Chanyeol ended up spending the rest of Gamma shift and the entirety of Alpha shift in the engine room, getting it stabilized and running diagnostics. The end result was not encouraging - they were going to need to replace it sooner than he’d thought. Fortunately, part of the pay from the last job had already been used to purchase the replacement, but since the Phoenix’s engine was a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster, the new part was going to need some hefty modifications before it could be installed. And frankly, Chanyeol had been hoping to make some extra mods to get some extra functionality out of the part, mods that could only be made before the part was installed.

So caught up was he in his work that the shift change to Beta didn’t even register in his mind until there was a distinctively heavy knock on the door. Chanyeol looked at the time readout and blinked - 10:40 already.

“Enter,” he called, returning to his work. He was mid-calculation and didn’t want to lose his place; besides, it wasn’t as if he didn’t already know who it was and what he wanted.

Huge, warm hands landed on his shoulders, sliding down to caress his chest. “I love it when you wear my clothes,” Kris rumbled in his ear. “How’s my baby today?”

Chanyeol grinned down at his calculations, making a notation before the number slipped his mind. “She had a bit of a temper tantrum earlier,” he said cheekily, “but I straightened her out.” Kris chuckled and Chanyeol put down his pencil to reach over his shoulder, wrapping his arm behind his husband’s neck and giving him a squeeze. “How about our beloved Captain, how was his day?”

A sigh. “Long and boring, what else is new,” Kris told him. “I spent the shift watching the prisoners. They’re weird, but they didn’t try anything.” He spun Chanyeol’s drafting stool so that Chanyeol was facing him and stepped between his knees. Chanyeol automatically wrapped his arms around his husband’s waist and rested his head against his chest, and Kris’s hands found his shoulders, pressing down on muscles that were perpetually tight.

“They seemed pretty docile when I saw them earlier,” Chanyeol told him, arching his neck and groaning under his breath as Kris’s strong fingers immediately sought out all the worst spots with the ease of long practice. “I’m not too certain how aware of their situation they actually are.”

“The blond one knows what’s going on,” Kris rumbled. “He was scoping his surroundings, I could see it. Almost like a soldier. The other two though, yeah. They seemed pretty out of it.”

Chanyeol sighed, tipping his head the other direction. Kris pressed on the tendon to stretch it and said, “What?”

“What what?”

“You’re wearing a Face. Out with it.”

After so many years, Chanyeol should be used to Kris reading him like a book. “It’s nothing,” he murmured. “Just. Well. You know how I feel about prisoner jobs.”

Kris’s hands stilled. “Do I need to forbid you from going down there?” he asked.

It was instinctive to get indignant but Chanyeol knew Kris meant the question in total seriousness, so he considered it just as seriously. “No. Well, maybe,” he finally acquiesced. “I just...They’re teenagers, Kris. Do we have to lock them up like that?”

“Yeol,” Kris said, with something like fond exasperation in his voice. “We are a six-person crew on a ship meant to house a dozen. We can’t spare anyone to babysit, and we can’t let them roam free on the ship. What else would you suggest?” Chanyeol huffed - when he put it like that it did seem obvious. “Besides, we really know nothing about them, and that is how it should stay. It was made excruciatingly clear to me that the less we know about these guys, where they came from, or where they are going, the healthier it is for everyone.” He cradled Chanyeol’s face in his hands, lifting his chin so Chanyeol was looking up into his shadowed eyes. “Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Chanyeol murmured. Kris quirked a smile at him and leaned down, and Chanyeol stretched up to meet his lips halfway.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The room was a lot more stable the second time Yixing awoke. The time readout told him he’d been asleep for eleven hours, which explained why his bladder felt like it was about to burst. Fortunately, he’d noted the location of the facilities earlier, and fortunately, the ship was small enough that he was able to get himself there with only minor dizziness and weakness of the limbs.

Because the ship was, in fact, ridiculously small, Yixing couldn’t help but overhear the conversation in the cockpit as he exited the refresher.

“Baek, we can’t abandon this job. We can’t.”

“I’m sorry, what part of ‘if I see you again I will kill you’ was not clear?” That was a new voice, not the man he’d spoken to earlier. “Look, I get that this job is important but we’ve really got a good thing going here. I’d hate to have to train a new partner.”

Were they arguing about chasing after his kids? Was there hope that Jongdae might change his mind? Curious, Yixing took a few steps closer, so that he could see into the cabin, leaning heavily on the wall as he went.

Jongdae’s partner was a small man with delicate features and a dark scowl on his face. He was glaring at Jongdae, and Jongdae was not looking at him in a way that felt deliberate.

“I don’t think he actually meant kill me kill me,” Jongdae mumbled.

His partner threw up his hands. “No, probably just torture you and then sell you to human traffickers, which, by the way, would only make up about half of what you owe him!”

“Hey now. I’m worth at least two-thirds of what I owe on the meat market.” His partner snorted derisively, and Jongdae sighed. “Look, this is bad, I get it. But the people down there desperately need this medicine. We’ve already gone through hell and high water to get our hands on it, we can’t just turn tail and run, no matter who is at the docks.”

“Can we at least wait a bit?” his partner pleaded. “Maybe they’ll leave in a day or two.”

Jongdae shot him a look. “Remember the part of the job specs that said that hundreds of people are dying every day down there?” he pointed out. “We’re already running late because of that detour at the space station. Every minute we waste is another death on our hands.”

Oh. Yixing blinked. That explained why Jongdae was so adamant about not dropping what he was doing to chase after his kids. It put their earlier conversation in a completely different light.

“Look, call me a selfish bastard, but I value our lives above the lives of any number of settlers I have never met,” his partner said desperately. “If you go down there, Yongguk will kill you. If I go down there, Yongguk will kill me. We literally have no way of delivering the cargo. What the hell do you suggest we do?!”

“I’ll do it,” Yixing said.

“Jesus!” Both men jumped and turned, wide-eyed. “How long have you been standing there?” Jongdae asked.

Yixing cocked his head. “Long enough. If you need someone who won’t be recognized, I’ll go. I volunteer.”

Jongdae’s partner stared at him. “Holy shit, you’re insane,” he murmured in wonder.

Rubbing a hand over his face, Jongdae muttered, “Baekhyun, meet Yixing. Yixing, this is my partner Baekhyun.” Yixing tilted his head in greeting. “And he’s right, you are insane. Look at you, you can barely stand.”

Yixing fixed him with a look. “It’s just residual dehydration,” he pointed out. “I probably haven’t eaten or drank anything in close to fifty hours. Give me some nutrition and I’ll be fine.” He nodded at the viewscreen, which showed a pretty reddish planet, swirled with thin white clouds. “You need someone to deliver some medicine, right? Send me.”

Jongdae’s eyes narrowed. “What’s the catch?”

Meeting his gaze, Yixing said, “You know exactly what the catch is.”

“Aaaaand I’ve missed something,” Baekhyun grumbled.

"He wants us to go after the ship that attacked him," Jongdae said, his eyes not leaving Yixing's face. "That's the catch."

Baekhyun scoffed. "Why?" he asked, with more incredulousness that Yixing had heard since the last time he spoke to a high school student.

"Because they took my kids," Yixing said quietly.

Baekhyun's mouth opened. Closed. He blinked. "Shit," he muttered. And then, he glanced at Jongdae, who was still regarding Yixing speculatively. "Oh no," he said. "We are not going after the Phoenix. That's an even worse idea."

Jongdae flinched. Yixing raised an eyebrow. "You told me you didn't know who had taken them," he murmured. Baekhyun glanced at Jongdae in surprise, then looked sheepish when Jongdae glared. "What else have you lied to me about?"

He didn't get an answer. Clearly, Jongdae was stubborn. "Fine," Yixing said. "How much is your debt?"

Confused stares. "What?"

"The man you're afraid of. Yongguk? How much do you owe him?"

Warily, Jongdae told him the number. It was a very, very large number.

"I'll pay you double that," Yixing told him.

Two jaws dropped.

"You're crazier than I thought," Baekhyun muttered, awestruck. "You seriously think we'll believe you have that kind of money?"

"I was paid a very handsome salary for my research," Yixing said, seeing no reason to lie. "I have literally not touched it. The station was totally self-sufficient, I had no need for money. You just need to get me to a hub planet, and I can access my account."

"We'll be doing that before we go chasing anything then," Jongdae said. Yixing's heart leapt and sank at the same time, resulting in a weird sort of internal somersault.

"No," he said, before Baekhyun could open his mouth and protest Jongdae's decision. "I'm risking my life to complete your job and I'm paying you four years of my salary. It'll take more than a week to get to a hub planet from here, we don't have that kind of time. We go after them immediately."

Jongdae regarded him critically for a moment. "Deal," he said finally.

Yixing couldn't help it - a huge smile broke out over his face. Jongdae stared. Baekhyun spluttered protests but was ignored.

"Deal," Yixing agreed. "What do you want me to do?"

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It had been close to two full cycles since the space station job, and Sehun was piloting for Gamma shift again because Joonmyun had to go do official boring first-mate things, like preparing the paperwork to renew their license-to-fly in one of the main systems or something equally dull.

The ship was on autopilot for the majority of a long trip like this, so unless they got a distress signal or a proximity alarm, the pilot was mostly there for monitoring and not much else. Piloting was generally easy, mindless work interspersed with short spurts of super-difficult and occasionally terrifying work, and with the exception of Chanyeol they all shared the duty, though usually Joonmyun was called if something difficult like landing or maneuvering had to be done.

Sehun liked it, though, because it usually meant he spent the whole shift by himself, in the quiet of the cockpit with the black expanse of space surrounding him on three sides. Alone time was always at a premium on a spaceship, and Sehun was the kind of person who required lots of it. He generally spent a piloting shift either playing video games or surfing the Core, with one eye on the readouts - and, because they were on a job, the brig cameras - with the ease of long practice.

That was what he was doing when a motion sensor tripped, setting off a little beeping alert. Sehun swiped over to the brig cameras, looking for the source of the disturbance.

The two smaller teens were both asleep on their cots, but the tallest one, the one with the black hair that he’d been messing around with the previous shift, was not only awake, he was on his tiptoes and reaching up to wave at the camera, one hand bracing himself against the wall.

Sehun blinked. It was pretty obvious, now, that these guys were not in any way normal. For one thing, in the slightly dimmed lighting of Gamma shift and with his face so much closer to the camera, Sehun could now see the faint glow in his eyes that Chanyeol had alluded to the night before, casting a dim blue reflection against his pale cheeks. Staring in fascination, Sehun mused that it definitely lent credence to the hypothesis that their vision had been somehow messed with by whomever had been using them as lab rats.

The dark-haired guy reached up again, jumping a little to tap his finger over the glass behind which the camera was hidden. He landed and waved, both hands in the air like a child shyly trying to get an adult’s attention. It was...actually kind of charming, despite the guy’s severe face.

Sehun maximized the camera window, filling his main viewscreen with the guy’s upturned face and studying him. He looked like he was a few years younger than Sehun, maybe eighteen-ish if he had to guess, and though Sehun hadn’t gone down to see him in person yet he estimated that the boy was at least as tall as he was, possibly taller. He had very broad shoulders to go with his angular features and naturally stonefaced expression, and looked dangerous, kind of like a high-priced assassin to be honest. He didn’t move like one though, his actions graceful but with an odd, alien quality about them that was hard to pinpoint but vaguely unsettling anyway.

Pulling the control board into his lap, Sehun selected the camera controls and moved the camera a bit to the side, just to see what the boy would do. The moment he did so, the guy took a step to the side as well, following the camera with his whole body, and reached up to poke at the glass.

Sehun shifted the camera again. The guy followed, but when he reached up to tap the glass, Sehun yanked the camera to the side. The guy got it anyway, hand changing direction in mid-air.

“Okay,” Sehun muttered out loud to the empty cockpit. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

He sent the camera skittering around the perimeter. To his surprise, the guy stayed right with it, sidestepping around the room with a quickness and dexterity that was frankly impressive, and hopping up to bat at the camera every chance he got. He didn’t miss once.

Narrowing his eyes, Sehun upped the ante, shifting the camera back and forth as fast as its little motorized track could go, further and further in uneven, unpredictable spurts. Still, the guy didn’t trip, didn’t stumble even once, and even when Sehun took the camera over the cot in the corner it didn’t faze him. It was almost mesmerizing, watching him change direction so fluidly and leap so gracefully, displaying an athleticism professional sportsmen would envy with his eyes locked unerringly on the camera. Sehun found himself thinking that if the guy wanted, he could easily have a career in basketball someday, he was that good.

Unable to get the better of him, Sehun brought the camera to a halt in the corner above the bed, wondering absently if there was a way he could somehow make the motor speed up. While he was thinking the boy stepped up onto the cot, putting his face level with the camera track. His lips were gently parted, and he looked a little exhilarated, but he didn’t seem tired at all and in fact hadn’t even broken a sweat. Sehun wondered if this boy was naturally so athletic, or if that too had been bred (or maybe injected) into him.

The boy waved at the camera, and though there was no sound Sehun saw him mouth the word hello. Biting back a grin, Sehun shook the camera back and forth to acknowledge the greeting, and was rewarded with a small but shockingly pretty smile erupting on the prisoner’s face, transforming his entire expression into something uncomfortably young and vulnerable.

“He’s like a puppy,” Sehun muttered out loud to himself. (Talking to one’s self happened kind of a lot in space.) “A big, scary-looking dog who looks like he’d bite your hand off but actually just wants to play fetch.”

It took Sehun a moment to realize the guy’s hand was off-camera now, and another moment to realize that was because he was tapping on the glass about a length to the right of the camera. Curious, Sehun shifted his camera to the right until the teen’s hand was in view.

His smile widening, the prisoner moved his hand away again, and Sehun abruptly realized what was going on.

“Alright then,” Sehun murmured, sitting forward in the chair like he did when he was about to start a raid, or a boss battle. “Game on.”

The positions reversed, Sehun was now the one giving chase, eyes darting across the screen and fingers flying across the control board. The prisoner was fast, but Sehun was surprised to see that he never cheated; he never switched hands or even lifted the hand he was using away from the track, keeping it touching or at least pointed at the glass at all times. Still, it was very hard to keep up; Sehun had limited visibility and the camera wasn’t able to make direction changes as fast as he wanted it to. He got the distinct feeling the guy was going easy on him.

Not liking that the game was no longer being played by his rules, Sehun took control back by refusing to follow the guy’s hand the next time it went left and just kept going right until he was on the other side of the room. The prisoner turned around with a surprised look on his face, but recovered quickly and gave chase just like Sehun had hoped he would. Sehun grinned triumphantly, the ball back in his own court, and yanked the camera back the other way yet again.

The screen went black.

Sehun’s hands stilled in surprise. What the...that wasn’t supposed to…fuck. Swiping the maximized windows down, Sehun quickly checked the other cameras.

Nothing. They were all down.

“Fuck,” he said again, out loud this time, and dialed Jongin’s comm extension from memory.

“Mmmmmmwhut?” Jongin mumbled into the intercom, sounding three-quarters of the way asleep. Honestly, that guy slept more than anyone else Sehun had ever met.

“The security cameras are down,” Sehun said urgently. “I can’t get a visual on the prisoners.”

That woke him up. “What? Sehun, what the hell did you do?”

Sehun flushed. “Nothing! At least I don’t think so.” He couldn’t imagine how his messing around with the camera could have shorted out the entire system. If just that one camera was down, maybe, but the whole system?

“Damnit. Okay, I’ll be right up. You might want to call Joonmyun and ask him to check on the cells in person.” During Gamma shift, it was just the three of them on call, so Jongin’s suggestion was a sound one. Sehun did exactly that while he waited for his crewmate to join him on the bridge, flushing harder when Joonmyun asked the exact same question but in a much longer-suffering tone.

By the time he was off the comm, Jongin was letting himself into the cockpit, plopping down in the copilot’s chair with his fingers flying over the controls practically before his butt hit the seat. Sehun watched him work in awe - he was pretty familiar with their systems, but Jongin had been on the ship less than one Earth-standard year and already could make their control systems stand up and do a jig if he wanted. He had a knack for tech that was a welcome addition to the crew, particularly in situations like this.

Watching as the computer spat back diagnostics that Sehun had little hope of understanding, Jongin frowned. “What? No, shut up, that doesn’t make sense,” he muttered, and typed something else. Those results made his eyes widen in a way that sent Sehun’s heart rabbiting through his chest.

“What?” he asked. “Jongin, what?”

“None of these readings make any sense,” Jongin muttered. “The mainframe thinks the cameras are fine. Totally operational.”

Sehun looked back up at the camera board. It wasn’t just that the screens were out; if the cameras were still recording there would be an indicator light at least. “Clearly, the mainframe is mistaken.”

“Which is my point. If there was an issue with connectivity, at all, it would default to showing the cameras out. The only way it would display them as on was if it was capable of successfully sending and receiving all forms of data. Which it’s not, obviously. So why…” His eyes widened, and then suddenly narrowed; he typed in a long string of commands and the computer spat back what looked like a log. “Well, hello there.”

“What?” Sehun asked warily.

“It’s a deliberate job,” Jongin murmured. “Someone is fucking with the cameras on purpose.”

“An outside job?” Sehun said, alarmed.

Jongin didn’t look at him, fingers flying across the controls. “Working on tracking down the origin now,” he murmured. “But I don’t like the timing of it. Maybe you should go down and check on Joonmyun.”

Sehun’s blood ran cold. Because if someone knew they had these prisoners - if someone was fucking with their systems from the outside - then yeah, he’d probably just sent the ship’s first mate down into a trap.

“No need,” a voice said, and both of them turned to the door to see Joonmyun entering the cabin looking grim. “We’re in deep shit.”

Before Sehun could ask what that meant, Joonmyun was at the comm. “Kris, we’ve got a problem.”

A low, sleepy grunt. “What?”

“The prisoners are gone.”

Silence.

Sehun couldn’t believe this was happening. He looked at the time readout over the door - it had been less than ten minutes since he was playing camera tag with the tallest prisoner. How could they just be gone?

“Explain.” Kris sounded very awake.

Joonmyun looked at Sehun expectantly. Sehun cleared his throat.

“I was watching the prisoners. They were fine,” he said. “Then the cameras went dark all at once, cause as yet unknown. Jongin’s working on it and Joonmyun went down to the brig to get a visual.”

Joonmyun picked up where he left off, letting Sehun off the hook. “When I got down there all three cells were opened and empty. No sign of force, no damage. Security logs on the doors all said the doors had been opened by keycode right at the panel.” He let out a breath. “The weird thing is, the door to the brig hallway was still locked when I went down there, and that log said it hadn’t been touched since they were fed last shift.”

“Understood,” Kris said, in that tight way he had when he got his game face on. “Sehun, I want the full battery of internal and external scans. Throw the net out as far as it goes in case this was an outside job. Joon, start a sweep. Start where you are and work your way through the flight halls to the shuttles; I’ll send Minseok to the cargo bay. Chanyeol’s on his way to the engine room in case they try tampering. I’ll try the brig again in case you missed something. We can’t have them running around unchecked on my ship, boys. Find them.”

He signed off, and Joonmyun left without a word to follow his command, leaving Sehun and Jongin alone on the bridge with the computer. Sehun started those tests, beginning with a long-range deep-space scanner and the internal scanners. While those were running, Jongin let out a long breath.

“Kris is not gonna like this,” he muttered. Sehun glanced at him questioningly. “The unlock codes for those doors are tagged as having originated outside our system. Remote access.” Sehun sucked in a breath - the idea that someone could open their doors remotely was utterly terrifying for a number of reasons. A ship taken over from the outside was a deathtrap; the hacker at the other end could do nearly anything to them. And Jongin knew it, too, because he’d done exactly that to the space station when they’d nabbed the prisoners - turned their own systems against them. “Thing is, the firewalls report no breaches. No data coming into or going out of the ship. So if someone got in from the outside, they did it without my firewalls seeing them. Which is impossible.”

“You’re not superhuman,” Sehun pointed out. “It’s possible someone outsmarted the firewalls.”

Jongin shot him a withering look. “Data is, at its core, ones and zeros. The actual ones and zeros have to be extant for data to be read. You can’t cloak data, not at that level. There has to be some kind of signal to carry it and it has to be read by something in the ship for the command to be followed, so there has to be a trace somewhere. The only way the firewalls wouldn’t see it is if…” He trailed off, eyes widening.

“If what?” Sehun asked, as Jongin turned back to the controls.

He was ignored for a moment while Jongin stared at the lines of data flowing by on the screen. “Aha,” he finally said. “I thought so. The only way the firewalls wouldn’t see it is if the signal didn’t actually originate from outside at all. The origination data in the unlock code was tampered with.”

Sehun blinked. “I didn’t know that was possible.”

“Sure it is, if you know what you’re doing. So whoever got them out, they did it on the ship.” Jongin tapped a finger against his lips thoughtfully. “Hey, bring up the tracker map from right before you lost visual.”

Sehun did as he asked, noting as he did that the internal scans were finishing. “Heat map shows nothing unusual,” he reported. “Motion sensors aren’t picking up anything funky either.” Neither sensor was totally, 100% reliable in situations like this, as the heat map was not really calibrated to pick up small variations and the motion sensors were only in the most populated and most vital areas, but it was something. He pulled up the tracker map and scrolled back the time to right before the incident. “Six trackers accounted for, and no one was anywhere near the brig. Literally everyone except me was in their cabin.”

Jongin made a skeptical noise. “Every cabin has a control panel,” he muttered, and Sehun’s eyes widened in surprise as he realized what Jongin was thinking.

“You think someone on the crew let them out?”

“No,” Jongin admitted. “But don’t you think we should rule it out?” He started going through logs that Sehun recognized, this time; they were the security logs for the cabin mainframe access consoles. “Chanyeol was looking awfully upset about taking prisoners,” he muttered.

Sehun’s heart constricted. “Don’t ever let Kris hear you say that,” he hissed.

“Dude, I am not an idiot. And I wouldn’t accuse someone without proof. It’s just for my peace of mind, alright?” He kept scrolling, and let out a long breath. “Okay. That checks out. The only console even active at the time was Joonmyun’s and he was just word-processing.” His jaw clenching, Jongin looked at Sehun. “Which means either the commands were input by a stowaway of some sort, which is terrifying, or the prisoners themselves, which is physically impossible seeing as you were looking right at them.”

Sehun’s stomach dropped out. “Um,” he said tentatively. Jongin looked up at him sharply, and Sehun could feel a flush starting up his cheeks. “I was looking at one of them.”

Jongin stared. “You just told Kris you were watching them at the time,” he choked out. Sehun’s fist clenched.

“I had one camera maximized,” he admitted. “The dark-haired one. Last time I had eyes on the other two was probably...seven to ten minutes pre-incident.” Jongin’s eyes got even bigger and more alarmed, and Sehun quickly defended himself. “They were asleep!

“Because that’s not easy to fake,” Jongin muttered, and Sehun made a small, pained noise. Was this somehow his fault? “Let’s see what the last thing we have on camera is.”

Sehun brought up the recordings in question and blinked. “Starfucker,” he said, with great feeling. “Everything is wiped from the entire last hour.”

Jongin’s eyes widened, and he swiped control of the camera windows over to his own control pad, searching through. “Shit, you’re right,” he said. “Someone ran a full-delete just a couple of minutes ago. Timestamp says it was within two minutes of the cameras going down.” He sat back, his hand tapping thoughtfully against his chin and mouth again. “And it was done from the brig’s main control panel.”

“You are telling me,” Sehun deadpanned, “that those three teenagers got themselves out of locked cells, accessed the control panel without an access code, tampered with their trail to make it look like they had help from outside, wiped an hour’s worth of camera data, and then totally disappeared in less than the amount of time it took for Joonmyun to get the call and walk down to the brig?”

Jongin threw his hands up. “That’s what it looks like from here, man,” he cried. “I’ll keep looking but in the meantime, that’s what we’ve got.” He raised an eyebrow. “Hey, look, the long-range scan is done. If they had help from the outside, it’d have to be close enough to be picked up, right?”

Sehun opened the scan. “Yeah, they’d have to be within half an AU for a short-range burst, unless they somehow hacked the Core tunnel, which, no.” He looked over the readings. “The closest ship is four AUs out, and the closest planet is almost ten. So yeah. Superfast Houdini hacker kids is currently our best hypothesis.”

Shaking his head, Jongin stared up at the screen. “Kris isn’t gonna like this,” he muttered. “Since you were the one not watching the cameras, you get to be the one to tell him, hotshot.”

Sehun paled.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jongdae opened the smuggling compartments and pulled out the payload, explaining a little more about the job as he did so, while Yixing hovered curiously over his shoulder with a big bag of electrolyte water in one hand and a meal bar in the other. Baekhyun, sitting on one of the crates of actually legit cargo, watched them both and made interjections of varying levels of helpfulness.

"Your contact's name is Victoria Song," Jongdae was saying as he dragged the locked metal briefcase forward. "She leads the settlement. Tallish lady, long hair, usually in the center of the biggest ruckus."

"She's hard to miss," Baekhyun added dryly.

"This settlement is off the beaten path, so to speak," Jongdae continued, ignoring him. "Vicky's contracted us a couple of times to pick up shipments that the normal courier ships refuse. She's a good friend and one of our best clients so it's important that things go smooth for her, get me?"

"That, and the people dying, of course," Yixing murmured.

Right, like he'd forgotten that part. "It’s greypox,” Jongdae said shortly. “Highly contagious, highly deadly -”

“And completely curable,” Yixing said with a frown. “I was still in med school when they discovered the cure and vaccinated the populations. It should have been eradicated.”

“Med school?” Baekhyun asked incredulously. “Wait, that was like...fifteen years ago. Just how old are you?” Yixing stopped, his gaze drifting up and to the side as he thought about it. Baek cocked an eyebrow. “That’s not supposed to be a stumper.”

“I haven’t actually counted in a while,” Yixing murmured. “We didn’t have annual cycles on the station, just daily ones. I’m...thirty-four.”

Huh. Jongdae was surprised - he didn’t look to be in his thirties. “Wait a second,” he said slowly. “That means you were in med school at age 19.”

Yixing raised an eyebrow. “I’m a quick learner. Can we get back to the part where the settlement is facing down a disease that shouldn’t exist?”

Sighing, Jongdae heaved the locked metal briefcase up onto another crate. “The disease doesn’t exist on hub planets,” he said wearily. “But like I said, Rockfall is a bit off the beaten path. Like so many other little settlements, the treatment program never quite made it out here. One new settler is a carrier, and bam. Outbreak.” He pushed the case in Yixing’s general direction. “I take it you know what’s in here, then?”

“Hydroxyline,” Yixing guessed.

“Ninety vials of it,” Jongdae confirmed. “According to the doc we bought it from, it’s enough to treat a little over a thousand people. There are more than that sick in the settlement, but the Core government has the stuff on lockdown, so this was all we could get our hands on.”

Frowning into his water - it was interesting to watch him make that expression with his lips pursed around a straw - Yixing took a step closer. “Vials?” he asked. “It’s liquid?”

Jongdae gave him an odd look. “Well, yeah. You inject it.”

“Well, that’s gonna have to change.”

Jongdae gaped. Baekhyun, to the side, snorted. “Okay, first of all, how, and secondly, no. You would not believe the shit we went through to get our hands on this stuff. The briefcase combination is Vicky’s birthday, you don’t even need to know it. You just have to get it to her and take her money.”

Jongdae expected Yixing to argue, to explain what he was thinking. But he didn’t - he just shut up, his expression closing off. In the slightly awkward silence that resulted, Jongdae cleared his throat.

“Okay then,” he said. “The ship currently at the port is the Warrior, captained by Bang Yongguk. They’re mercenaries, not exactly the most scrupulous men in the galaxy, but -”

“Just what exactly were you planning to do to the meds, anyway?” Baekhyun interrupted. “I mean, what kind of scientist are you, exactly?”

Yixing looked over his shoulder while Jongdae huffed in annoyance. “A doctor,” he said, rather dryly. “I would have thought that ‘med school’ would have established that.”

“Okay, sure, but what were you doing way out in the middle of -”

Baekhyun,” Jongdae snapped. “This is kind of important.”

Baek shut up, sulking, and Jongdae sighed, feeling a headache press between his eyes.

"As I was saying. I have no idea why Yongguk would be camped out in a shithole outpost like Rockfall, but chances are it's not anything good. Can you shoot a blaster?"

Yixing met his eyes steadily. "Nope."

"It's easy, I'll give you one with a targeting computer. You just -"

"I don't need one."

Jongdae shut up, staring at him in total disbelief.

"Starfucking hell, you are insane." Baekhyun stared like he was caught between wonder and horror. "Listen, Bang Yongguk kills people just because he's having a bad day. And he's not even the craziest bastard on that crew."

Yixing's steady gaze didn't waver. "No guns. I'm a physician, first and foremost. I won't hurt anyone purposely."

"You're not in the Core anymore, Doc. Things are different out here."

The doctor's lips went flat with disapproval, and Jongdae finally found his voice. "It's his choice, Baek. Besides, if he won't shoot, a blaster won't do him tons of good anyway." It took more than just a targeting computer to actually shoot somebody, Jongdae knew.

Baekhyun snorted. "Well, at least if he dies, we don't have to go chasing after the Phoenix," he grumbled. He was, again, ignored.

"There's a settlement halfway across the continent. We'll dock there, and you can take the train to Rockfall. With luck, Yongguk's boys won't harass anyone coming from that way, but the train drops off at the spaceport so you're probably gonna have eyes on them any way you look at it."

"They're all blond," Baekhyun threw in. "All exactly the same shade of dirty bleached blond. They program it that way, 'cause it's bloody impossible to get bleach that uniform otherwise."

A frown. "Program? What?" Yixing asked. This time his lips were halfway around the meal bar, instead of the straw.

"You know, programmable dye?" Yixing gave him a blank look and Baekhyun's eyebrows hit the roof. "Where the hell have you been? That's been out for years. All the rage with the trust-fund kids."

"I haven't had much contact with the 'Verse for the past few years," Yixing pointed out, pulling his food from his lips and leaning forward. A spark of curiosity lit his dark eyes. "How does it work, precisely?"

"Hell if I know. It's some sort of treatment they do to the root, makes it grow out clear, then you tell the computer what you want and stick your head in this big thing that looks like a second-millennium hairdryer and bam."

"Fascinating," Yixing murmured. "Do you know exactly what they do to the root? Is it chemical? Surgical? Is the process reversible, or permanent?"

For fuck's sake. "Can we please focus?" Jongdae pleaded. "Job? Money? Lives at stake? Remember?"

Yixing turned to look at him, dark eyes zeroing in on Jongdae's with an intensity that that took him aback. "Train to Rockfall, avoid the blonds, deliver the hydroxyline to Victoria Song, combination is her birthday. Got it. Anything else?"

"The money," Baekhyun said. "Don't forget the money."

"Of course. Settlement dying of one of the most painful and fastest-spreading diseases in the 'Verse, but of course, can't forget the money."

Jongdae dragged his hand through his hair. "Considering we suddenly have 50% more mouths to feed and an empty damn fuel tank, yeah. Do not forget the fucking money."

Yixing shut his mouth with a snap, but his eyes remained unnervingly intense on Jongdae's own.

"Good," Jongdae said, his eyes sliding away from Yixing's. "So long as we're clear." The beep of the autopilot alert chose that moment to ring through the ship. "Alright, we're about there. You'll look a bit conspicuous dressed like that, Doc, so go get -"

"Don't call me Doc," Yixing interrupted. "Use my name. The only man who ever called me 'Doc' was on that station." He said it quietly, but it served its purpose - it shut Jongdae right down.

"Fine," he said, and found himself softening his tone. "Yixing. Get something of Baek's to wear. He's a bit closer to your size."

Yixing's lips quirked, a tiny shadow of a smile. "Aye aye, Captain," he murmured, and took his leave, headed for the two tiny cabins. Baekhyun made an incredulous face, mouthing “aye aye?” at Jongdae like it was somehow Dae's fault the scientist seemed to think he was in an old pirate movie.

"Just go," Jongdae mouthed back in exasperation, and Baekhyun threw him a sarcastic salute and went.

Chapter Text

As Jongin had suspected, Kris was not happy. He kept his head down while Sehun made his explanation, winced sympathetically through the low growl of I will deal with you later, and nodded his acquiescence when Kris dragged Sehun out of the cockpit to join in the search, leaving Jongin alone on the bridge to try and get the camera system back up. There weren’t a lot of places that were under video surveillance in the ship - it was a home as well as a business and no one liked to feel like they were being watched every second of the day - but if he could get the cameras back up maybe he could figure out how the prisoners had escaped, and where they had gone.

He was up to his elbows in code when a flash on the screen next to him caught his eye. Sehun had left his scans up, and the motion sensor outside the infirmary had tripped.

Frowning, Jongin brought up the tracker map. He hadn't thought anyone was near the infirmary right at the moment...and that's because they weren't. Other than himself on the bridge and Chanyeol in the engine room, the rest of the crew was searching the ship, but none were anywhere near the alarmed area.

"Gotcha," he muttered, dialing the comm extension for the lower-deck hallway where Minseok was patrolling. "Min, I've got unidentified action outside the infirmary. You're closest."

"Understood," Minseok murmured. Jongin hung up and dialed Kris to tell him the same thing, but as he was mid-sentence, the security logs informed him that the door at the end of the infirmary hallway had opened, shut, and locked.

"Oh no you don't," Jongin muttered, firing off the override command to unlock the door. "Kris, they're in the lower decks headed aft." He glanced at the tracker map. "Min's giving chase."

"I'll head down and cut them off. Get Sehun and Joon down there too." Jongin did so, using the tracker map to figure out which extensions to dial so he wasn't alerting the entire ship to the plan, and simultaneously overriding each door the escapees locked behind them.

Crap, they were fast. Minseok was always at least a door behind them; Jongin doubted he had even gotten a visual yet. He watched with bated breath as the other three dots on the tracker map converged on the lower level, but even before they made it down there he knew it was too late. The door to the cargo hold opened, closed, and locked.

"Well at least they've got nowhere left to run," he grumbled, entering the override yet again.

The system spit back an error.

"What?" Jongin exclaimed. "No, fuck off, no errors!" He tried the code again, to no avail, swore and started digging.

Minseok called the bridge just as Jongin found the issue. "Get this door open, kid!"

"They disabled the override somehow," Jongin said quickly. "Give me just a minute..." This was why he kept extensive backups, not only of data but of settings as well. "Okay, got it." With the command restored, he was able to override the lock just as Kris got to the door. Joonmyun and Sehun were not far behind.

With the comm channel still open, Jongin could hear Kris swearing. "Have any of the other hold entrances been accessed?" he asked, and Jongin told him no. "Okay, then they're in here somewhere. Start in each corner and work towards the middle. Check under, behind and inside everything." Jongin winced - the cargo hold was very full at the moment. They could be anywhere.

"Jongin, what the fuck? Get the lights back on."

Wait, what? Jongin switched over to the lighting chart. Sure enough, the cargo hold had been set to 0% brightness.

"What the hell," he grumbled, correcting it.

Within a few seconds, it dropped to zero again.

"Damn," Jongin said aloud. "Somebody thinks they're funny." He corrected the lights again, this time setting them to a password override to keep whoever was fucking with them out.

And then it hit him - if all three prisoners were in the cargo hold hiding in a box or something, who turned out the lights?

Opening the command logs, Jongin started digging.

One of the first things Jongin had done upon being hired by the Phoenix was set up a wireless scrambler inside the ship. It was specifically created to prevent anyone from bringing a wireless device onboard and using it to access the ship’s systems. That extra level of security had come at the expense of wireless communication by the crew, but the extensive intercom system that the ship had already had installed made wireless devices all but redundant anyway.

In any case, the point was that Jongin knew there was no way the prisoners were accessing the lights wirelessly. They had to be at a physical, stationary control panel, and Jongin had all of those mapped, so he should theoretically be able to figure out where the commands were coming from.

When he found the commands, they were tagged as having originated outside the ship. But Jongin wasn’t about to fall for that one again, so he kept digging, tracing the commands back as far as he could go. The next layer down showed them as being routed through the bridge - hah, as if - and then after that they were a jumbled mish-mosh of pings, proxied off of terminals all over the ship seemingly at random. Each command was different, and each one was routed through at least half a dozen terminals, making it impossible to tell where the command had actually originated. Worse, the door open/close/lock commands were the same - and in many cases, the door terminal in question was not even on the list.

Jongin quickly slapped together an analysis program and ran it on the commands in question. While that was going, he called down to the cargo hold. "Hey Captain, can I have Sehun? I need his help to get the cameras back up."

Some muffled voices from the comm as Kris redistributed the search grid, then Sehun’s voice at the comm. “I’m on my way.”

“Hurry up, okay?” Jongin said distractedly as his little program spat out its results. As he’d hoped, there were some terminals common to all the commands that had been run since the first motion sensor went off. And as he’d feared, none of them were anywhere near the lower decks.

Jongin cracked his knuckles, glaring at the results. He’d completely underestimated the prisoners - it seemed that everyone had. One of them, at least, knew exactly what he was doing, and had clearly been playing them from the start. Jongin fleetingly wondered which one it was.

Sehun came into the cockpit at just that point, breathing heavily. He must have jogged the whole way, to get here so quickly. “What’s this about the cameras?”

“Forget the cameras,” Jongin said. “That was just in case our friends were listening.” He glanced over his shoulder, meeting Sehun’s confused gaze. “They’re not in the cargo hold. I didn’t want them to realize I’d figured it out.”

Sehun’s brow furrowed. “What?

“It was a false trail,” Jongin explained, turning back to his monitors. “I’ve narrowed their actual location down to three places. I’m gonna get it down to one and then lock them in. I need you to run back down to Kris and tell him what’s going on, quietly, and in person. If I was them I’d be tapping into all comm activity.”

It took Sehun a second, but then his eyes widened, narrowed, then went hard with determination. “Got it,” he said. “Now?”

“Yeah, go. I won’t be in communication until I know exactly where they are and have them trapped, but that shouldn’t take long.” He shot Sehun a tight smile. “They don’t know who they’re dealing with.”

Sehun slapped him on the shoulder and left as quickly as he’d come. He was a good kid. When Jongin had first joined the crew he’d been surprised to see someone still at university age working for someone as infamous as Kris, but for all his joking around and his occasional screw-ups, Sehun was actually quite an asset to the ship, surprisingly capable. And he made a great messenger boy.

The comm crackled. “Jongin,” Minseok said, sounding annoyed. “The fucking lights.”

Jongin’s smile widened. That meant his unseen adversary had spent the last ten minutes cracking his encryption. That it only took ten minutes told Jongin he was dealing with an expert; fortunately that wasn’t anywhere near the level of security he was capable of imposing on his data. More importantly, it meant the kid probably hadn’t moved for the last ten minutes.

Four terminals were on his list - the fitness center, the galley, an upper-deck hallway and the engine room. He knew they weren’t in the engine room because Chanyeol was always in the engine room in any emergency, keeping an eye on their most vital equipment. His tracker showed him up and pacing, which was typical, so Jongin concentrated on the other three terminals.

The galley contained the majority of the food on the ship, so Jongin started there. It was an obvious place to go, anyway. Jongin locked out the galley terminal, changing the error message to make it look like the entire system had been shut down, and gave it three minutes.

While he was waiting, he went back to the lighting chart. His adversary had password-locked the lights himself, but it took a bare minute for Jongin to get past that; his location at the bridge gave him higher permissions. He locked the lights on with a higher level of security and sat back to wait, his eyes on the readouts.

Three minutes passed, and nothing. Jongin reset the galley terminal and tried the fitness center, thinking that it was more defensible than a random hallway. The moment the lights in the cargo hold went out again, though, he let that one go and locked out the hallway terminal instead.

While he was working to bring the lights back - little bastards were persistent, and the encryption was better this time - he got a little ping saying that his lockout had been overridden.

Bingo.

He immediately locked down all the doors leading to that hallway, setting them to deadlock at the highest security encryption, and closed down all but one of the air ducts headed to that hall, constricting the oxygen supply by draining the air. Not enough to actively kill them - just enough to make them a little light headed and woozy.

Opening the comm to the cargo bay, Jongin prayed Sehun had done as he was told, or else Kris was going to be very confused and possibly quite ticked off. “I’ve got them,” he called. “They’re in the starboard hall on Deck C. I’ve locked them in.”

“On our way,” Kris answered immediately, and Jongin said a silent thank-you to Sehun for doing his job right.

Knowing full well by now that any one of his lockdowns could be overridden - though, if they managed it, they were way better than even Jongin had guessed - Jongin stayed put, his eyes on the readouts and his fingers hovering over the controls. He watched on the tracker map as the four crewmen raced to the hallway in question.

He waited until all four of them were on the other side of the aft door before unlocking it, and waited. He didn’t have long to wait.

“They’re not fucking here, Jongin,” Kris growled into the comm.

“Wait,” Sehun said in the background. “Look, scuff marks. I literally just cleaned this hall at the beginning of last shift. They’re not here now but they definitely were.

Jongin swore. He heard Kris echoing his sentiments on the other side of the line.

“There’s no way they could have gotten out of there,” Jongin fumed, flicking the ducts back to their usual positions. “I literally locked it down the moment I figured out their location. It’s a hallway, it’s not like there’s anywhere to hide.”

Whatever Kris’s answer was, Jongin never heard it, because everything around him abruptly went down.

Suddenly plunged into darkness, nothing but the faint red glow of the emergency lights and the ambient light from the stars outside the viewshield, Jongin frantically grabbed for the controls. It was no use - the bridge was unresponsive. Worse, the constant hum of the duct fans was missing, which meant life support was out.

Panicking, Jongin immediately scrambled out of the chair and tried the door. He was locked in, and with the mainframe down he couldn’t even attempt to unlock it. There was a manual override, but it required an officer’s key, and Kris, Joonmyun and Minseok were all on the other side of the ship. Worse still, the view through the porthole window in the door showed a darkened hallway, which meant it probably wasn’t just him.

The prisoners had somehow taken down the entire ship.

Clamping a hand over his mouth to keep from hyperventilating - he had limited oxygen now, he had to conserve it - Jongin turned back towards the helm. He instantly froze, because giant red letters were splashed across the screen.

LEAVE US ALONE.

As Jongin watched, the tracker map - and only the tracker map - came back up. The message was obvious. We’re watching you.

At least, Jongin thought distantly, Chanyeol was still in the engine room, and still moving around. With the engine still operational, at least they still had gravity and pressurization. They would totally be up shit creek without that.

The four blinking dots in the starboard Deck-C hallway started moving, back through the door they’d come and towards the fore of the ship. When Jongin realized they were headed for the bridge, he nearly sobbed with relief.

By the time the crew got to him, Jongin had gotten himself mostly back under control. Wouldn’t do to show the captain how badly the silence freaked him out - Jongin was used to a ship feeling alive under his fingers, his feet. Not having that hum of machinery, that line of code to connect him to the ship’s heart made it feel like he was trapped inside a dead whale, eaten alive.

Kris unlocked the door and shoved it open, having to put his full body behind it with the hydraulic controls out. He stormed into the room looking like thunder and Jongin very quickly got out of his way, moving away from the control boards.

“Everything’s down?” Kris asked tightly, planting his hands on the helm and searching the screens in front of him. Jongin saw him catch a glimpse of Chanyeol’s dot moving around the engine room, and tried not to notice the degree to which his shoulders sagged with relief.

“Totally unresponsive,” Jongin confirmed. “I might be able to get the bridge back up if I isolate it from the rest of the ship, but it would take a while.” He would have to physically disconnect all the wires running from the bridge to the ship, then do a hard reset.

Kris turned. “Do it,” he said. “Get Sehun to -”

The lights came back on.

Blinking against the sudden shift in brightness, Jongin unthinkingly shoved past Kris and into the pilot’s seat. He was running the basic diagnostic before he even registered what his fingers were doing.

“Everything’s back,” he breathed, relief making him feel weak. “It’s all back up. We’re okay.”

Jongin felt vinyl creak, and looked back over his shoulder to see Kris’s huge hands clenched into the padding of the chair, so deeply it looked like the material was going to rip.

“Point made,” Kris snarled. “Point fucking made.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It had been so many years, Yixing had completely forgotten what sunlight was like.

It blinded him when he stepped out of the ship, felt like hot tar on his space-white skin. Yixing shut his eyes tightly against the glare, only half-hearing the reminders and encouragement from his unintended crewmates as they shut the hatch behind him. Yixing half-expected to hear the ship taking off behind him, half-expected them to leave him behind, but of course they didn't. He was carrying their livelihood in a very conspicuous steel briefcase.

Once his eyes adjusted, Yixing made for the other side of the spaceport. He was supposed to be heading for the train platforms, because according to Jongdae the next train for Rockfall left in ten minutes, but he took a quick detour at the souvenir shop, and made a single purchase, a three-pack of stim shots in a little plastic case. Black cherry flavored, of course. Had to get his caffeine.

The fact that the bottles they came in were small, opaque, inconspicuous, and resealable helped, too.

Of course, Jongdae had only given him enough credits to get him his train ticket, so that little purchase meant he was a tiny bit short when he went to buy his ticket.

“Oh no!” he said, making his eyes very wide, the way his boys all did when they wanted something out of someone. “I have to get on that train! Can’t you make an exception this once?”

The booth cashier, a youngish and rather bored-looking girl that Yixing had purposely picked in the hopes of her being a little more gullible, pursed her lips. “I can’t, I’m sorry. That would get me fired.”

Yixing let his face fall, again channelling his boys. His features didn’t quite have their heart-melting adorability, but he did his best. “Well, okay, I mean, I wouldn’t want to get you into trouble.” He looked around exaggeratedly, his eyes landing on the train cars halfway down, where they were loading transport vehicles. “Hey, listen, if you let me, I’ll just ride in the transport cars with the vehicles. I don’t need an actual seat.

“Oh!” The girl’s eyebrows raised in surprise. “Yeah, I mean, we’ve actually done that before, when people can’t really...afford the ticket.” She bit her lip. “It’s noisy though, and hot. There’s no environmental controls in there. Is that okay?”

Yixing nodded, and paid, and in lieu of a ticket the girl gave him a handwritten note. With his fingers curled around the note in one hand and the handle of the briefcase in the other, Yixing approached the dockhands, frantically trying to come up with a story if they asked about the shiny silver and very obviously locked case.

They didn’t, fortunately. They just read his note, gave him an appraising look, then let him on. This was, after all, a civilian transport train, not a Core government train or anything high-profile. What did they have to fear?

Yixing waited until the train car’s doors were closed and latched and he felt the train rumble to life beneath him before he opened the case.

Back on the ship, while Jongdae brought them down for a landing, Yixing asked if they had a file on Rockfall, and if he could see it. They did, and they let him, not thinking of course that Victoria Song’s birthday was noted right in that file. There was some other interesting information there too, like a map, and an estimated population and population density, and a few other tidbits about the town. What had caught Yixing’s eye was that it was on the edge of a desert, a semi-arid to totally arid environment made possible by the existence of a reservoir in the center of town, fed by an old underground spring from which all irrigation, drinking water, and plumbing flowed.

When Yixing was in medical school, greypox had been a topic of hot debate. He’d actually done his undergraduate thesis research on greypox and on hydroxyline, which was traditionally given intravenously, the chemical suspended in a saline solution at high concentration. In his research, he had discovered that greypox was highly dependent upon its pH environment, and hydroxyline, while effective, was highly acidic and created an ideal breeding ground for the bacteria even as it was killing it. But when combined with a simple base, the acid neutralized, and the medicine became as much as a hundred times more effective.

His research was groundbreaking. It also never made it into the public eye. Nothing he had ever worked on did - his employers saw to that the moment he signed on. In any case, it meant that right now, Yixing was probably the only person in the entire ‘Verse who could save Rockfall. Assuming, of course, he could find what he needed.

Being alone in a train car full of transport vehicles was a good first step, because any vehicles sent to an outpost would have a gyroscope in the engine - making it possible for Yixing to create a makeshift centrifuge inside the engine.

It took a while. He had to get all the test tubes evenly seated within the gyroscope’s rim, wedging them in and clamping the metal around them with a pair of heavy electrician's pliers that someone had left about. He had to set the gyroscope spinning using the battery, and when the hydroxyline had precipitated out of the solution, he found a clean air filter to strain out the saline and separate out the fine white powder that was the real medicine while the next batch was spinning.

It was stiflingly hot, and dark, and dusty, not at all ideal conditions. But he did what he could, and after throwing back all three stim shots - because honestly, being a little more alert couldn’t hurt - he wiped out the little bottles and carefully funnelled the powder into them.

He only barely had enough time to get everything put back the way he found it before the train came to a halt. (Well, almost everything, anyway; that gyroscope was never going to be the same but with luck no one would notice until he was well away.) He stashed the now-useless metal case full of empty vials in a corner and slid the little plastic pouch containing the three bottles of medicine into his front pants pocket. There. That was much less conspicuous.

When the dockhands unlatched his car, Yixing exited, wondering if anyone was going to notice that he was now empty-handed. But of course, they didn’t. People just weren’t that observant.

Just as Jongdae had said, there were two men at the spaceport’s narrow exit doors, both dressed in studded, marked-up leather jackets too heavy for this heat, both with shaggy, messy hair dyed the same shade of yellowish blond. They were stopping everyone who tried to leave the station and searching them, resulting in a long line of confused and annoyed travellers.

Yixing put on his most clueless face - the face that constantly won him bets in university, because no one would believe he was actually a doctor when he looked and acted like a fourteen-year-old pot addict - and kept his body language open as he approached the head of the line.

"Arms out," the stockier of the two commanded curtly. He patted Yixing down, roughly and very thoroughly, and Yixing resisted the urge to yelp and squirm. He hadn't realized how long it had been since someone had touched him in anything other than a perfectly professional way.

"Shit, dude," the man said, pulling the little case of stim shot bottles out of Yixing's pocket. (These jeans were Jongdae's, and they were way too tight for someone to be reaching into his pocket like that.) "Planning on an all-nighter?"

Yixing, who regularly consumed that much caffeine with his breakfast, just shrugged and didn't bother to answer. The man thankfully didn't open the case, just sort of shoved it back into Yixing’s pocket, and was halfway through gesturing at Yixing to move along when his partner, taller and thinner and wild looking, stopped Yixing short with a far too proprietary hand on his shoulder.

"What's your business in Rockfall, friend?" he asked, his tone anything but friendly.

Yixing had wondered when he would get this question, and had come up with a story on the train - one that was mostly truth. "I'm a doctor," he said. "I heard there was an outbreak here and I came to see if I could help."

Instantly, he knew he'd said the wrong thing. The two men exchanged looks, and before they could even open their mouths, Yixing was working on adapting his story around.

"That's funny," the taller said. His tone was soft, unthreatening, but his body language told a different story, and Yixing nearly took a step back before remembering that he supposedly had nothing to hide. Instead, he put on his most innocent confused face as the taller man said, "I was under the impression no one knew about that. Wouldn't want to cause panic."

Which probably meant the crew of the Warrior had been blocking outbound communications. "Why would you say that?" Yixing asked, as if totally oblivious. "Isn't it more important that visitors know of the danger?" He gestured behind himself, at the line of people who were now not only annoyed, but starting to look concerned, and raised his voice a little. "You're telling me that none of these people knew there was a greypox outbreak here?"

"There's an outbreak?" said the man directly behind him, and the women behind him cried out "Greypox?!" in a horrified tone, and that was all it took. Within moments, the room devolved into chaos, half of the passengership of the train swarming the entrance and demanding information, while the other half swarmed the ticket counters, only to find out that all outbound trains had been grounded due to quarantine.

As Yixing had hoped, the two men lost interest in him in the madness, and he was able to slip into past the gate and into the town unnoticed.

The place was, predictably, all but deserted. Yixing was all too aware of the medicine in his pocket, losing potency the longer it remained in less than air-tight conditions, and possibly a death sentence if he was caught with it on him. Because that little exchange, that single sentence uttered by a single man, had told him an awful lot about what was going on here.

Point one: Jongdae and Baekhyun were wanted by the crew of the Warrior, because they owed a sizeable debt.

Point two: Victoria Song was an old friend of - and thus, a known associate of - Jongdae and Baekhyun.

Point three: The crew of the Warrior was letting people into the city, but not out of it, and they were checking each person as they passed.

Conclusion: The Warrior had somehow learned that Jongdae and Baekhyun were contracted to bring the medicine. Their presence wasn't an unfortunate coincidence, it was a trap.

That didn't do anything to change Yixing's plan, but it certainly changed his approach. He had to get rid of the medicine ASAP, or risk someone being smart enough to figure out what it was.

To do that, though, he was going to need a fairly large amount of acid. He’d considered just draining the battery acid from the vehicle he’d been using as a centrifuge - battery acid was strong enough, he wouldn’t have needed very much - but considering this medicine needed to be consumed he thought it best to go with something a bit less corrosive.

Yixing moved through the town, looking for ideas. His best bet was a restaurant or a bar, something with a kitchen. There were lots of edible acids in kitchens.

The town was dusty, hot, and quiet. The number of parking spaces and personal-transport racks told Yixing that it was normally pretty busy, perhaps even bustling at the right times of day, but at the moment it was quiet. All of the houses had drawn curtains and many of the businesses were closed, but Yixing did happen to spot a fairly large establishment, an inn-and-tavern, where there was some activity. A large, dirty delivery truck was backing up to the delivery doors, and a couple of workers were standing around, waiting to unload.

As the truck’s back doors opened, Yixing came around it and jumped right into the line, taking boxes that were handed down from the truck and walking them into the restaurant’s back room like he belonged. He’d found, over many years of people underestimating or disbelieving him, that that was often the only trick to gaining people’s confidence - act as if you were right where you are supposed to be, doing exactly what you were supposed to be doing. 93% of the time, no one would question it.

And today was not an outlier. The restaurant workers seemed to assume he was with the delivery people; the delivery driver of course assumed he worked for the restaurant. And so, Yixing helped out, and with each trip made into the kitchen, looked around for something to suit his purposes.

He had to wait until he was the only one back there and quickly look through the supply shelves to find it - a 5-gallon bucket of white cooking vinegar, simple, cheap, and essential. White vinegar was not very strong, but a quick mental estimation told him there was more than enough in that one bucket for his purposes.

Getting his prize out of the restaurant was a bit more of a chore than getting in. He didn’t have much time; once the delivery truck left, the kitchen workers would realize he didn’t belong. Fortunately, the kitchen manager and the delivery driver were locked in an argument over the invoice. Mundane, but it kept the staff’s attention while Yixing hiked the bucket in his arms and casually slid out the back doors with it.

There was no good way to explain carrying a giant bucket of vinegar, of all things, across a town, but if Yixing had tried to sneak through the shadows and skulk around the backs of buildings it would have been even more obvious. So he walked right through the center of town with purpose in his step and his head held high, headed directly for the reservoir.

As he did so, he passed a home that had two more extraordinarily conspicuous blond, leather-jacketed men standing out front, and made a mental note. It was the only house guarded, so chances were good that was where Miss Song was. It wasn’t as if there was anyone or anything else in this little dustbowl worth guarding.

The reservoir was almost entirely out in the open, which wouldn’t do. Yixing found the pump control station, a small and rather disgustingly dirty building, and ducked behind it, setting the bucket on the ground.

It was a good thing this did not need to be exact, because Yixing had no measuring tools, and nothing to dump any excess into. But there was more than enough vinegar for the amount of hydroxyline, and whatever vinegar didn’t react would just...remain vinegar. If anything, the extra acid intake would only help inhibit the disease.

So Yixing upended his little bottles into the bucket, waiting for each one to finish fizzing before the next. Then he dumped the entire thing into the reservoir, right near the pump intake where it would get sucked into the city plumbing the fastest. It was the work of mere minutes, and when he was done he tossed all of the packaging into a nearby dumpster and walked out like he had never been there.

Now, the hard part.

Walking towards the house he’d seen, Yixing ran fingers through his sweaty hair to make it stand wildly on end. (Ugh, he hadn’t felt heat like this in over a decade.) He pushed and rubbed at his eyes to make them red and teary, slapped his own cheeks to make his flush mottled and obvious on his pale skin, even scooped up handfuls of dust and rubbed them haphazardly into his borrowed clothes. He needed to look as downtrodden and miserable as possible, because he needed to look like he belonged.

By the time the guarded house was in sight, Yixing had adopted a slightly different stride, shorter and slower, one leg favored like it pained him. The last few years of watching his youngest boy closely mimic every single action that anyone made around him had given Yixing an appreciation for the mechanics of bodily motion, for the tiny but telling differences in the way people walked, talked, gestured, moved. He wasn’t as good at it as Zitao, but then, he didn’t have to be.

He just had to be good enough to fool the two blond leatherheads at the door of the house.

He checked them both out as he approached. They looked...well, bored. Yixing couldn’t blame them. He’d be bored out of his mind in a place like this. Fortunately for them, he was about to make their day a whole lot more interesting.

Yixing had a Plan A and a Plan B. Plan B involved convincing the two thugs to let him into the house, and did not have a great chance of success. Plan A had a higher chance of success, but it relied on three things - Victoria speaking Mandarin, the two thugs not speaking Mandarin, and Victoria being able to hear through the door. The file had stated that Victoria’s birth name was Song Qian and that she was bilingual, which meant chances were good the first one was true, and there was no way to guess what the probability of the third was, but with the second, he could test.

So, as he limped his way up to the door, he called out “Do you speak Chinese?” in Mandarin. The two men exchanged glances, which was a good sign, but just to be certain, Yixing repeated the question, louder and purposely angry-sounding.

“Whoa, buddy,” the man on the left said, taking a step forward and halting Yixing’s progress with a hand pressed to his chest. “You can’t come in here.”

They did not speak Mandarin. Excellent. “Qian!” he called, making it sound like a swear. “You don’t know me but I have been sent by your friends on Angel.” He translated the ship’s name, just in case, and kept his eyes on the man he was supposedly talking to.

“Hey,” the man in front of him said. “Calm down, alright? Hells, what’s gotten under this guy’s collar?” That last bit was said as an aside to his partner, who snorted. Obviously, they were not taking Yixing as a threat, which was preferable anyway.

“You have to get me in there somehow so we can talk,” Yixing yelled, frowning and gesturing like he was still speaking to the man in front of him. “Give them any excuse, just get me in there!”

“Greypox doesn’t affect the brain, does it?” the second man said dubiously. “Guy looks totally crazed.”

“I have no idea. Hey! Buddy! Back the fuck off, okay?” The first thug was now over-enunciating and gesturing widely to get his point across. “You can’t come in here.”

Yixing shook his head and pointed emphatically at the door. Even if Victoria couldn’t hear him, perhaps there was a small chance these two were idiotic enough to let him in the house anyway, if he looked desperate enough. “Qian, I have the medicine,” he called. “If you want to save this town you have to find a way to get me in there.”

That wasn’t quite true, of course; he’d already saved the town, it was just a matter of time. But Jongdae had been adamant about the money, so he needed to secure that before he could tell Victoria so.

“This is bullshit,” the guard said, and drew his blaster, levelling it at Yixing’s face. Yixing let his eyes go wide and quickly shut up - he didn’t actually think the guy would shoot, but better not to give him a reason. “Look, man, I don’t know who you are or why you’re so set on the lady, but you have to turn around.” Yixing gave him his blankest stare, playing as dumb as possible, and got an extremely exasperated eye roll. “Go. Home.”

The window opened, getting everyone’s attention. The woman who leaned out was tall, beautiful, and very clearly ill, with open sores up the side of her neck and across her jawline.

“Hey,” she called out, her voice scratchy. “You said Dae sent you?”

It was in Mandarin. Yixing swallowed down a sigh of relief and called back “Yeah. They couldn’t come themselves for obvious reasons.” He gestured at the two men, playing his vocal inflections like he was complaining about the two thugs getting in his way.

She let out a long-suffering sigh that was, to Yixing’s ears anyway, a little overdone. “Look, I’m sorry about him,” she said to the men, in Common this time. “He’s my uncle’s grandson, and he’s not...Well, let’s just say he’s not all there.”

A mental illness? Sure, why not. It was a good excuse for erratic behavior, anyway. And at least Yixing didn’t have to fake anything else.

“He’s just going to keep yelling,” Victoria was saying. “He gets like this sometimes. He’s harmless, just let him in. I’ll calm him down.”

The first man looked unconvinced, but the second was already walking up the stairs towards the door. Yixing immediately followed, keen to give him as little time to re-think his decision as possible.

“We can’t do that, Yongguk will have our heads,” the first guy said worriedly, but the door was already unlocked. Yixing pushed past and inside like he belonged.

“Ah, what can it hurt?” he heard the second guy say as the door swung shut behind him. “Yongguk will never know.”

Idiots.

Victoria stuck her head out from around the doorway to the foyer and gestured him back. “I really hope you’ve got something for me,” she said, sounding exhausted in more ways than one. “The population’s already down by a third.”

“Well, lucky for you, it’s already done,” Yixing told her, moving away from the windows and towards where he guessed the kitchen was. “The medicine’s been dumped into your water supply. Give it a week to work through the pipes and get into people’s systems and you’ll start to see people miraculously getting better all on their own.” He turned on the faucet in the kitchen and let it run, hoping to get the medicine moving. “If you can pass the word to people to run their water for a bit, drink twice as much as usual, and start eating more acidic foods, you’ll see improvement faster than that.” He tasted the water as he ran it, noting as he did that gradually a very slightly acrid hint of vinegar could be detected. Satisfied, he grabbed a glass off the drying rack and filled it.

“Wait, seriously?” Victoria asked. A glance over his shoulder showed that she was frowning at him quite severely. “That’s your story? I can’t accept that.”

Yixing handed her the glass of water. “Taste that,” he said.

She did, and immediately made a face. “Bleh. Tastes weird.”

“That’s because of the medicine,” he said patiently. He’d known he was going to have to convince her - one did not get to be the matron of a town at her age without being something of a hardass. “Look, I am a doctor, honestly. I know what I am talking about. And I would love to prove that to you but I am not certain I’ve got that kind of time. I made a mess of things getting into here and if those blond knuckleheads outside have any sort of communication system they’re going to put it all together pretty quick. I need the money, and then I need to get gone.”

Victoria gave him a very considering look. Opening his eyes wide, Yixing tried to look as innocent and trustworthy as possible. “How do I know you’re not just swindling me?” she asked.

Honestly. “You don’t,” Yixing told her. “You can’t. Look, all you have to do is get the word out to your people to drink and cook with unfiltered tap water, and to hold off on long baths or flushing the toilet too often so the medicine doesn’t go to waste. It’s safe to bathe in but it’ll do the most good taken internally. Eat lots of tomatoes, wine, soft drinks, citrus fruits, and don’t get too worried if people get unexpectedly nauseous or dizzy, that’s just a little side effect. I’m telling you, you will see an improvement in a week.”

Voices from outside the front door - including one that was way too low to belong to either of the two guards - floated down the hall. Victoria’s eyes went wide.

“That’s Yongguk,” she murmured. “Look, even if I did believe you, I can’t give you the money. As long as Yongguk and his boys are blocking communications, I don’t have access to my interspace account.” She considered him carefully, eyes narrowed. “Tell you what. I’ll get you out of this city. You get back to Jongdae and get him to draw the Warrior away. I’ll tell my people what you said, and then, if after a week I really do see people start to get better, I will wire the money to Jongdae’s account. Deal?”

Someone pounded on the front door.

“Deal,” Yixing said hurriedly. “Get me out of here.”

Victoria reached back around her neck and unclasped her necklace, a beaded chain with a carved charm in yellow jade. She dropped it in his hand. “Since I said you were my uncle’s grandson, I’ll send you to my uncle on the edge of town, out by the ranches. Give him that and tell him I said to let you take the bike. It’ll get you across the desert; leave it in Clay Mills and someone will go get it once this shit is done.” She said it all in a rush, barely getting the words out before the door opened and three men were striding into the house - the two who had been at the door, and a taller, slightly older-looking man with a mean-looking expression.

Yixing slipped the necklace into his front pocket, stepping halfway behind Victoria to hide the motion. He made his eyes look very wide and innocent, hunched his shoulders slightly to make his body look smaller, aiming to seem as harmless as possible.

The new man strode forward and swung his blaster up, not stopping until the muzzle was pressed between Victoria’s eyes. Yixing was close enough to feel her go stiff with fear.

“I told you you were not to see anyone,” the man - probably Yongguk, he guessed - growled, his voice deep enough to vibrate Yixing’s sternum.

“My cousin was having an episode,” Victoria said sternly, in Common this time. Her voice only shook a little bit. “I just got him calmed down. Do you want to set him off again?”

The gun moved, and now Yixing was staring down the barrel. “I could just kill him and solve all our problems,” Yongguk pointed out.

Both Yixing and Victoria froze. Yixing’s mind was racing, but staring down his own death like that he couldn’t come up with anything to say or do that would stop this man from shooting. Bang Yongguk kills people just because he's having a bad day, Baekhyun had said.

Dying right now would be terribly unproductive.

There was a tiny crackle of static, and then a voice, sharp-toned and fast-paced. Yongguk cocked his head, and Yixing realized the voice was coming through his earpiece.

It sounded an awful lot like the man who had frisked Yixing at the station, which meant Yixing was now out of time.

Yongguk’s eyes were unfocused as he listened, his gun drooping slightly with his inattention, so Yixing just ran. Broke into a sprint without warning, flying past Yongguk and the two other men and out the still-open front door before any of them had a chance to react. He cut hard to the right, jumped off the porch, then dove underneath it, crawling forward until he was hidden in the sandy soil under the front stairs.

Footsteps pounded after him, Yongguk’s voice snarling a command to split up and search. Yixing saw boots disappear around both the right and left sides of the porch, but no one thought to look under it, and he could hear Victoria above, luring Yongguk back into the house by being argumentative.

As soon as the front door closed, Yixing scrambled out from under the porch and took off, keeping close to other buildings and half-hidden in the shadows until he was totally out of sight of the house.

Chapter Text

When the prisoners had first escaped, it set everyone on edge. No one knew how they had gotten out or where they had gone, and everyone was hyper-aware that they could shut the ship down at any moment, without warning. None of the crew slept very well, that first night.

Kris had forbidden anyone from actively seeking the prisoners out, loudly, repeatedly, and with the comm channels open. More quietly, he’d passed the word that everyone was to keep a blaster on them at all times, and to set it to stun; he’d ordered extra motion sensors activated in the galley and basically made it known that they had an eight-week spaceflight ahead of them and they could afford to wait the prisoners out. They were bound to get hungry at some point.

Now, it had been three cycles, and Chanyeol had stopped jumping at shadows and inspecting every corner of every room as he moved around the ship. There had been not one sign of the three glowing-eyed young men in that time, and frankly he was starting to think they’d accidentally airlocked themselves or something.

That was why, when in the middle of his night shift he was suddenly struck with insomnia and came down to the engine room to work it off, movement under the engine made him jump three lengths in the air and curse loudly.

The movement stopped, and the room was silent but for the usual engine noises, and, heart pounding, Chanyeol locked the door behind him and sank to his hands and knees, pressing his cheek to the floor so he could look under the engine carriage. Round, glowing blue eyes stared back at him.

“Hi,” Chanyeol said, a little dumbly. What the hell did he do about this? He’d left his blaster in his room like a half-asleep moron and he wouldn’t discharge it in the engine room anyway. Theoretically he should call for backup, get the boy captured and put back where they could keep an eye on him. But the guy was under the engine - if there was a squabble, and something broke, they could be in deep trouble.

Those huge eyes blinked at him, just once. Now that his own were adjusting to the shadows under the engine carriage, he could see that it was the smallest of the three prisoners, the one with the auburn hair and the round face.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Chanyeol said instead, scooting his legs out from under himself until he was laying on his stomach on the composite flooring, his heart pounding. He crossed his arms under his chin, figuring this made him look as nonthreatening as possible. Why did he have to be the one who spotted the prisoners first? “What are you doing under there? It can’t be very comfortable.” Maybe he could convince the guy to get out of there without damaging anything.

There was no response, though. It seemed the guy had totally frozen, staring at Chanyeol like a mouse stares at a snake, barely blinking. After a moment, Chanyeol shrugged, feigning nonchalance, and said, “Well, I have work to do.” He wanted to add please don’t touch anything under there, but he didn’t want to give the kid any ideas. He barely got a blink of acknowledgement - did he even understand? - so Chanyeol got to his feet in slow, measured movements and made his way to his workbench.

It pained him to turn his back on the prisoner, knowing that one wrong move could result in massive damage to the ship, but he was fairly certain trying to bodily drag the guy out would be worse. So he started tinkering with his projects and pretended that he didn’t care, pretended that he wasn’t listening intently for any sound from under the engine.

There wasn’t any. He glanced back a few minutes later just to check if the eyes were still there, but they weren’t. The prisoner was gone.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“How’d it go?” Jongdae asked as Yixing boarded Angel.

“Successfully,” the doctor said shortly. He sat down immediately in the boarding hall and started pulling off his borrowed boots. Jongdae yelled over his shoulder for Baekhyun to take off and sat down across from their passenger.

Yixing looked...rough. Like he’d had a hard time, run into some trouble. There weren’t any visible injuries outside of the still-bandaged head wound but he was filthy, his borrowed clothes stained with dirt and sand and what looked like motor oil, his shaggy hair a wreck. But his cheeks were flush with color, and his eyes were brighter and sharper than Jongdae had seen yet.

“You got them the medicine?”

Yixing gave him a look. “Yes, that is what I meant by successfully.”

Okay, fine. “And the money?”

“Victoria will wire it to us in a week.”

Wait, what? “I told you not to leave without the fucking money!” Jongdae hissed.

Yixing dropped the boots on the floor with a thump. “She didn’t have access to her money. Bang Yongguk is blocking her communications,” he said, tone sharp. “Know why? Because they knew you’d be coming. The whole thing was a trap, meant for you.”

Jongdae blinked, shocked. “Fuck.”

“Yeah. So you’ll get your money, on two conditions - that the medicine actually works, and that you somehow lure Yongguk away. I already took care of part A, so part B is all on you.” He stood, and pushed past Jongdae towards the main body of the ship. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have sand in places that I very much don’t want to think about.”

Reaching out, Jongdae caught the man’s arm as he passed. Yixing stopped short and looked over his shoulder.

“You’d better be right about that,” Jongdae said, “because we can’t go after your boys until we get that money.”

Dark brows furrowed. “But you agreed -”

“Doesn’t matter. We don’t have any fuel. We can get to the closest Core planet, but we’re gonna be stranded there until we get enough money to buy some. Whether that’s Victoria’s payment or yours is up to you, but minimum we’re held up by three cycles.” He prodded Yixing in the chest - the man was surprisingly solid. “You’d better hope you’re right about the medicine working, too. Doctor.”

Yixing pushed his hands away. “I am. And I will get you the money. Just do what you have to to get Yongguk away from Rockfall.” He stomped away and into the refresher without another word.

Jongdae sighed heavily. “Why can’t we ever have a nice, calm mission?” he said aloud, to no one. He put his hand on the intercomm so he wouldn’t have to yell. “Baek,” he said, “Bring up the frequency for Rockfall. We’ve got a show to put on.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Watching the crew was Lu-ge's idea.

Lots of things were Lu-ge's idea, actually. Like Tao getting the camera's attention so that the person behind it wouldn't notice Kyungsoo worming his slim arm through the bars to enter the unlock code by touch. Like whatever Lu-ge did at the computer panel that had everyone on the ship running the other direction.

Like Tao ripping a steel panel off the wall and the three of them climbing inside, slipping away from the locked hallway in a space barely wide enough for Tao's shoulders, the air tasting foul and the metal on all sides cramped and unforgiving.

But now that they had a safe space - Lu-ge said it was safe, anyway, and Tao believed him - Lu-ge wanted them to watch the crew. We need to know more about them, he said. We don't have enough data.

And at first, it was enough just to listen. The ship was echoey and Tao sometimes heard unfamiliar voices right beside him, even when there was no one there. They learned some things that way, like names, and what the parts of the ship were called, and what "shifts" were and how the lights changed as the shifts did.

Lu-ge sent Kyungsoo first, because he was smaller, and quieter. “Find out how the ship runs,” he'd said. “But don't let them see you, or they'll hurt you.”

Tao was inside the cupboards during the blue shift when he heard an unfamiliar voice, too deep to be either Lu’s or Soo’s. ”I’m not going to hurt you. What are you doing under there? It can’t be very comfortable.”

”Tao, come back right now,” Lu-ge said urgently from elsewhere in the ship, and Tao scrambled to obey, gathering up as many food bars in his hands as he could carry and crawling through the back of the cupboard and into the wall. Mindful of Lu-ge's warnings, Tao carefully and quietly replaced the panel, snapping it snugly into place, before skittering sideways through the walls until he made it back to the space where they'd made a nest.

He offered his find to Lu and looked around. "Where's Soo?" he asked, keeping his voice soft like Lu-ge had said to. Lu took his offering and carefully put it away, lining the little packages up neatly in order by size and color.

"He got caught," he said, keeping his head down, and Tao's heartbeat stuttered in his chest, even though he wasn't really sure why. "He can only come back if he can do it without any of them seeing where he went."

Tao's eyes widened. "But what if he can't?" he asked nervously.

"Then he can't come back." Lu-ge met his eyes for only a brief moment. He always only held eye contact for brief moments. "It wouldn't be safe."

But at that moment, Kyungsoo slipped into the nest, his eyes wider even than usual and his fingers clenching and unclenching like they always did when he felt unsettled. Tao sighed in relief and reached out, and Soo immediately moved into his arms, burying his face in Tao's chest and balling his hands into Tao's shirt.

Kyungsoo didn't say anything, but Tao was used to that, and just held him until his shoulders stopped shivering. By the time they pulled away, Lu-ge had set out food, three bars and three water bags arranged neatly on the floor, exactly parallel and exactly evenly spaced.

Tao took a bar, unwrapped it, and passed it to Soo, folding the wrapper neatly flat and replacing it so the pattern wasn't broken. (Lu-ge didn't like it when his patterns were broken.) He did the same with the next bar and handed it to his ge before preparing the last one for himself. The wrapper said apple cinnamon. Tao wondered what a cinnamon was.

Whatever it was, it tasted good. Tao closed his eyes and savored the flavors on his tongue. They'd never had anything like this on the station.

"Are you gonna go back?" Lu-ge asked. Tao looked up in time to see Kyungsoo nod. "Don't get caught next time."

Kyungsoo nodded again, and Lu-ge went to the other side of their nest, where the computer was. Soo looked tired so Tao tugged him down into the blankets they'd piled and cuddled him.

"What was he like?" Tao asked in a bare whisper. "Was he mean? Did he yell?"

Soo shook his head. "Was nice," he murmured back. "Nice." He finished chewing his meal bar and laid his head on Tao's shoulder. Tao wrapped him up in his arms, and in minutes Soo was asleep, because Soo could fall asleep anytime.

Tao had never been that way, and so he stayed awake for a while, wondering if he would meet someone nice, too.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jongin enjoyed pilot shifts.

Everyone on the ship was awake during Alpha shift, but on a normal day only Kris, Chanyeol and Jongin were technically on duty. Chanyeol never piloted - because he couldn’t be in two places at once, and if something went wrong he had to get to the engine room ASAP - so Jongin split the duty with the captain. When Kris was piloting, Jongin had to do menial work, or chores; but when hewas piloting his main duty was to monitor and maintain the computer systems, and Jongin liked that. The Phoenix was not the newest, shiniest ship in the ‘Verse, but she was robust and well-maintained, a joy to work with.

At the moment there was a trio of rats somewhere in her systems, but Jongin was pretty confident they’d make a mistake at some point here. Of course, them making a mistake did no good if the crew didn’t catch it, so Jongin spent all of his pilot shifts (and, to be honest, the majority of his free shifts too) digging through logs, poking at records, checking up on everything to see if he could catch them where they didn’t belong.

Four cycles later, during Alpha shift, he just so happened to be digging through some old logs when he found something odd. A section of the comm logs was missing.

Jongin narrowed his eyes. Before he’d come aboard the ship, if an outbound communication was deleted from the logs, it was gone, without a trace. No way to know that there had even been a communication attempted. But Jongin had done some upgrading after he’d come on and one of the things he’d done was a simple little minute-by-minute tag in the log. It didn’t do much but mark the empty time, but if a conversation that overwrote one of those tags was deleted and the person didn’t know to add them back in, it left a big, conspicuous gap.

This particular big, conspicuous gap was from long before the prisoners came aboard the ship, though. So what was back there that they would want to delete?

Jongin looked. Looked at the date, looked at where they were in the system, looked at who was in the pilot’s chair at the time. It had been a Gamma shift, and Sehun had been piloting, so maybe he’d made an outbound call? For what reason? Why would the kids delete it?

...Unless they hadn’t.

Unless someone else had.

Jongin pulled up the access logs for that server. But no one had accessed it except him, on his usual maintenance scans, and no commands had been run. As a matter of fact, a quick search function on the log showed only one delete that had been run since that time, and it was run from the bridge, on the day in question, and suddenly Jongin remembered. Sehun had caught Jongin down in the fitness area, asked him to hang out for a shift, because Kris had relieved him of duty and kicked him out of the cockpit for reasons unknown.

Immediately thereafter, they’d begun this job.

Okay, so that explained why the prisoners were looking to access it. It also explained what was missing, but not why. Why would Kris immediately delete the communication?

Jongin shifted uneasily in his chair. Kris was the captain, and it was his prerogative to tell his crew as much or as little as he saw fit, but...Jongin hated missing data, no matter what it was.

And - given their cargo - the idea that Kris was hiding something about this mission made him beyond nervous.

Jongin refreshed the log. He wasn’t expecting anything new - it had only been a couple of minutes, after all - but to his surprise there was a new access event, by a familiar fake “outside” tag, just a minute beforehand.

“Aha,” Jongin murmured under his breath. He quickly pulled all of the tag’s metadata and saved it locally, in case the guy got smart and deleted his access record. Sure enough, within a few moments he refreshed the log and the tag was gone - if he hadn’t been physically looking at the log at right that second, he never would have caught it.

But he was, and he did, and now he had a lead.

Chances were good the guy had not gotten on the system just to poke around in one log and then gotten off again. Chances were good he was still poking around. So Jongin wrote a quick search program that ran on only the last five minutes of data, on all of the logs on the ship, and entered that fake “outside” tag’s visible data as the search parameters.

Setting the program to run - and to keep running, on repeat - Jongin turned to the metadata he’d saved. It was buried in the headers of the individual packets, in hex code, but with some snooping and some translating he was able to figure out where the data had come from. Like before, it had been bounced off of terminals all over the ship, and the data was scrambled up enough to make it difficult to tell which terminal was the origination point.

His search program pinged at him softly, and Jongin glanced over at the readout to see where his snooping friend was now. It was the tracker logs, this time, and Jongin quickly brought them up, checking to be sure the intruder wasn’t tampering with them. But no changes had been made to the logs he was accessing - he seemed to be just looking. Jongin let him look, adding in each new tag’s metadata to his database. Eventually, he was going to find out the commands’ point of origin - and thus, where the intruder was hiding.

The intruder moved from the tracker log to the motion sensors, and from the motion sensors to the records database. That made Jongin a little nervous - there was some very personal information in there - but the intruder did not try to break open any secured records; he just seemed to be flipping at random through the ones that were open. It was an odd thing to spend time on, and Jongin thought the guy must be quite bored to be doing so, but he didn’t let his attention wander, knowing that it would take just one well-placed command for the guy to screw up their systems royally.

He didn’t figure out what the intruder was trying to do until he moved from the database to the camera system. Jongin looked back over as his search program caught the intruder in the cameras and froze - because if he was looking at that data right, that meant that the guy was watching him right now.

Reflexively, he minimized his searching protocol to a little, barely-visible widget on the screen, and made it look like he was just perusing the still-open database himself, blindly pulling up something mundane. He forced his shoulders and face to relax, to let his body language appear bored.

The search widget popped up with another notification - the kid’s attention had moved again. Letting out a breath, Jongin brought it back up and watched as the guy flicked through the cameras in all the hallways and public spaces, bringing up tracker data at the same time.

He was trying to learn about the crew, it seemed. Patterns, maybe, or positions. Who knew. It was smart; any information he had would help him, and it made Jongin uncomfortable, but at this time he thought it was better that he be able to watch what the intruder was doing than to stop him and alert him to the fact that he was being watched. If he thought he had free rein, he might slip up.

Jongin hoped it wouldn’t take too long, because as of right now it looked like keeping his eye on the kid was about to become his full-time job.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

On a hunch, the next night Chanyeol cut his sleep shift short again, slipping out of Kris’s arms and down to the engine room in the hopes the auburn-haired prisoner would be there.

He wasn’t. The room was empty and quiet. Disappointed but not surprised, Chanyeol went to his work table, figuring he might as well get some work done since he was up.

As soon as he sat down, though, he realized something was off. It took a moment to pinpoint exactly what it was - he knew he’d put that extra grav boot back in its static-proof wrapping before he’d left the room last time. The crew knew better than to touch any of his stuff, so maybe…

Chanyeol bit his lip and acted as if he hadn’t noticed, on the off chance that he was being watched still. He pulled the boot closer and set to work, tinkering with the levels and testing it against the new inertial dampener he wanted to install.

It was maybe an hour later when a soft footstep behind him had Chanyeol’s hands stuttering. He quickly recovered, going back to what he was doing as if he hadn’t heard. Another footstep, and another, and then Chanyeol glanced up and to the side to see the same young man standing just out of arm’s reach, his glowing eyes darting warily between Chanyeol’s face and the piece of machinery in his hands.

Chanyeol kept working on autopilot - he was just polishing at the moment - and watched the prisoner out of the corner of his eye. He was oddly cute, though there was something a little bit off about his features. His eyes were too big for his head, his chin too pointed for his round cheeks, his lips too full for how small his mouth and nose were. It made his face look younger than his height and nearly-adult build suggested. He honestly looked a little bit like a caricature, like a cartoon character, and Chanyeol wondered if he was naturally like that, or if the sick-fuck doctor who had been experimenting on him made him look that way.

The guy was dirty, too, smudged with dust and engine oil, and his auburn hair was greasy and matted. His loose, plain clothes were as dirty as his skin, torn in places, and he looked thinner than Chanyeol remembered. Chanyeol wondered when was the last time he’d eaten.

The guy realized he was looking and took a step back, eyes locked on Chanyeol’s face, again reminding Chanyeol of a skittish animal. Chanyeol smiled at him as gently as he knew how - sometimes his smiles were a little over-toothy - and turned his body slightly so the boy could better see what he was doing.

“Do you know what this is?” he asked. A blink, and then the prisoner shook his head, just minutely. It was the first indication Chanyeol had gotten that he even understood language. “It’s a gravity boot. It helps make the ship float when we’re near a planet, so that we don’t need to use as much fuel to fly away.” A gross oversimplification - without a grav boot getting out of a planet’s gravitational field would be impossible for a ship this size - but the teen cocked his head, looking at the housecat-sized piece of machinery with new interest. Chanyeol wasn’t sure how much he was understanding, but he kept talking anyway. “When you hook it up to an inertial dampener,” he explained, pointing to the other piece of kit on his worktable, “it creates the artificial gravity environment inside the ship, too. The ones we have in the engine right now are getting old, so I’m getting these ready to replace them.”

The prisoner blinked, then backed off, moving towards the engine. He studied it for a moment, then pointed right at the existing grav setup, looking back over his shoulder with a question in his huge eyes.

Chanyeol’s heartbeat sped. The boot and dampener that were currently installed in the engine were old enough that they looked completely different from the ones Chanyeol was working on, plus they were so embedded in the machinery that even Chanyeol had trouble deciphering which piece was which without studying them. That implied this guy could identify the kit from its function, not its form, which was, frankly, impossible without training.

“That’s right,” Chanyeol said, and a tiny little smile twitched at the corners of the boy’s mouth. He placed one slim finger on the coupling between the grav boot and the catalyzer, then traced his finger along a path, over and around the boot, through the dampener and out to where the cables connected to the ship’s hull. Chanyeol’s jaw dropped - he’d just traced the exact path of gravitational energy through the engine.

Standing, Chanyeol made his way slowly towards the engine. The boy skipped back, staying out of arm’s reach, but he didn’t try to run, or to duck underneath the engine again. “These are the compression coils,” Chanyeol said quietly, hovering his hand over the main part of the engine. “You don’t want to touch these, okay? They get really hot.” A little, wide-eyed nod. “They turn our fuel into energy. If one of them malfunctions, the ship can’t fly. If they both malfunction then we lose everything except emergency life support. Power, gravity, everything.” It occurred to him, after he said it, that he probably should not be telling this silent, skittish and possibly abused young man exactly how to cripple their ship. (Though, if he was honest with himself, he was pretty certain he could have found a way to do exactly that anyway, if he’d wanted to.)

The guy took a step forward, pointing with a tentative finger at the piece of equipment between the coils and the gravity kit. “That’s the catalyzer,” Chanyeol told him, warming up to the subject now. “It converts the energy from the coils into gravitational energy for the dampener to use.”

And so it went. The prisoner pointed at each part of the engine, and Chanyeol explained what it was, how it worked, how it connected with the other parts of the engine. At one point he even got down in the service bay under the engine carriage, and after a moment, the other hesitantly followed, staying as far away from Chanyeol as he could manage in the cramped space. Chanyeol pretended he didn’t notice as he explained the converter, the main life support system, and the fire suppression system.

His every word was absorbed with unnerving attention, tracing slim fingers over the engine’s parts as if learning them by touch. The teen seemed fascinated in particular by how all the parts fit together, by the connectors and cables, and kept tracing the path of the energy through the machinery, even flicking his fingers out in little exploding motions at the places where energy was converted from one type to another.

Chanyeol had never seen anything like it. Though silent, the young man was clearly very smart, possibly savant levels of smart. It made Chanyeol want to test him, see just how much of this he was really retaining, but he couldn’t think of a way to do so that wouldn’t frighten him off.

They both jumped when the intercom buzzed. It was Kris’s voice, murky and deep with sleep. “Yeol?”

The guy turned wide, terrified eyes onto Chanyeol, and Chanyeol didn’t need words to know what he was trying to say. Chanyeol wanted to put a hand on his shoulder, to reassure him through touch, but he didn’t dare. Instead he just smiled gently and called out, “I’m here, Duizhang.”

“Why are you there and not here?” Kris muttered. Chanyeol could hear the sleepy pout in his voice.

“Couldn’t sleep. Thought I’d get a jump on things.” He winked at the boy conspiratorially, and was rewarded with a small but very beautiful smile.

“Well get your gorgeous ass back here and get a jump on me.”

Chanyeol had to resist the urge to salute. “Yes sir!” The comm crackled off, and Chanyeol turned to the boy, who was biting his lip now, looking unsure. Poor thing. “If you want,” he said, “as long as you don’t touch anything, you can stay here. No one’s allowed in here without my permission, so you’ll be safe. Okay?”

Another innocent blink, and a soft smile. He was an extraordinarily beautiful young man, and Chanyeol wondered how much more beautiful he’d be cleaned up and well-fed, and then he wondered if the scientist who had screwed with his anatomy had had that in mind when he created him and felt a little bit sick.

He again resisted the urge to touch the prisoner, to ruffle his hair or squeeze his shoulder. Instead, he shot him a wide smile and a thumb’s up, and closed the door behind him on his way out, putting his trust in fate that the boy wouldn’t cause any trouble.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Tao was bored.

Lu-ge had told them they had to hide, because the men on the ship were bad. And so Tao had been good - he had been very quiet and moved only within the hidden places, listening carefully for footsteps and voices and avoiding them.

But he wasn’t used to staying still, wasn’t used to being quiet and not having space to run or jump or move. Back home, his Xing-ge had spent time with him every cycle, teaching him new games and giving him new challenges. Run the perimeter of the station three times as fast as you can, he’d say, or See how many times you can lift this over your head.

By far Tao’s favorite were when he got to learn a new thing. Xing-ge or one of the scientist geges would show him something new, a new action, a new trick, a new skill, either by doing it themselves or sometimes by showing him a holo of someone else doing it. And then Tao got to do it, too. His geges always seemed happiest when he learned something new, muttering excitedly to themselves and scribbling with their styluses on their tablets. They always told him how amazing he was, how smart, how strong, and Tao liked that the best.

He missed them.

But now his body felt all itchy and strange under his skin, jumpy and restless. His legs ached from lack of use and he felt kind of weak and slow. It was awful. Tao didn’t like it. And he thought maybe Kyungsoo felt that way too, because for the entire rest of that blue shift, then the yellow shift and green shift that followed, Soo was even more skittish even than usual, glancing warily at Lu-ge in his corner and pacing back and forth in their cramped little nest area. Lu-ge finally told him he had to sleep and made him lie down, but Soo didn’t seem to want to sleep, which was really strange, because Soo loved to sleep.

Luhan finally went to sleep himself about an hour into the next blue shift, curling up in the corner of their nest where they’d piled all the blankets and cloth they could find. As soon as his breath deepened, Soo gave Tao a small smile and a pat on the cheek before he slipped away. He didn’t tell Tao where he was going, but then, Soo very rarely spoke at all, so Tao hadn’t really expected him to.

Left alone, Tao’s restlessness got the better of him. He glanced back at his ge one last time to make sure he was really asleep and then slipped out himself, headed in the opposite direction as Soo. He wanted to explore.

Luhan’s warning that he could not let himself be seen, could not even step out into the open areas because of cameras and sensors and a whole bunch of other things Tao didn’t really understand rang in his mind, and so even though it was cramped and he longed to just run, he stayed within the walls. That by itself was enough of a challenge to keep him busy. In some places the space was so small he had to crawl, or turn sideways, in order to keep going; in some places there were bars or barriers to weave around or he had to pull himself up to another level to keep going. In one place, the floor was gone entirely, and Tao had to press his hands and feet against the narrow walls and pressure-walk across the gap. He liked that one - it felt good to use his muscles like that.

He was just dropping back down to the floor when he heard a voice muttering through the walls. He stopped, and listened, because that was not Lu or Soo but it was kind of familiar.

It took a moment to figure out which direction the voice was coming from - this ship was so echoey. But once he’d figured it out, he moved towards it, staying as silent as he possibly could.

There was a clang, and an annoyed-sounding huff, and then the voice muttered “Fine. You know what? Fine. You want to play that game, let’s play.”

And that was when Tao realized where he’d heard that voice before. Alright then. Game on. It was the man who’d been operating the camera, the one who’d played with him on the first night. Even from down in the locked rooms they’d been put in, Tao had heard him, talking out loud as he moved the camera as if he knew Tao could hear him. Maybe he did know? But no, Lu-ge had said the men on the ship didn’t know how well they could hear, and couldn’t hear as well as they did. Lu-ge was always right.

Tao liked that man. He was willing to play. He hadn’t done anything mean, and when Tao wanted to play he’d indulged him. It had been even more boring in the little room than it was now so Tao really appreciated that.

He hadn’t really wanted to trick him, but Lu-ge said to, so Tao had done it. He felt kind of bad about that, especially since the game was so fun. Tao wondered if the man would play with him again, if he asked.

Oh, but he wasn’t supposed to talk to him. That was sad. Well, he could go look, right? Lu-ge hadn’t said he couldn’t look.

So Tao sidled through the wall on silent bare feet, carefully working his way closer to the voice and the clanging noises.

“Okay, seriously,” the man was saying, sounding very annoyed. “Your function is to steer. To do that, you need to move. Not grind and get stuck every time I press a damn button. What the hell is your problem?”

Tao wondered who he was talking to. It wasn’t Soo or Lu-ge - Lu was still asleep, and he could faintly hear that same low voice from before speaking in the background, so he knew Soo had gone to see his nice man again. He knew there were only three people normally awake during the blue shift, so there weren’t really many options.

His curiosity getting the better of him, Tao pulled himself up and perched on a support bar, his bare toes spreading for balance against the cold steel. There was an air vent here, right near the ceiling; he leaned over so he could peer out of it.

At first, it took him a moment to figure out what he was looking at. It was a huge piece of machinery, very complex and important-looking, twice as tall as Tao was with lots of moving parts and blinking lights. There was a person half-inside it, his entire upper body hidden from view; all that was visible were the longest, thinnest legs Tao had ever seen.

He planted his hands more firmly against the wall, spreading his stance on the bar and leaning forward to get a better look. It was a difficult position, but Tao was strong, and again, it felt nice to put his muscles to use. As he got settled, the man backed out of the machinery, sliding down to land on the floor.

Tao’s breath caught. Everything about this man was smooth and slim and long, and atop his head was a mop of messy, soft hair in the brightest, prettiest color Tao had ever seen. Tao didn’t even have a word for that color - he had never seen anything like it before. It wasn’t blue, it wasn’t green, it was something in between, and Tao desperately wanted to touch it.

The man planted his hands on his hips and kicked at the machine in annoyance. He sighed, and reached up to run slim fingers through his hair, and Tao nearly whimpered out loud because it looked so soft. He bit his lip, though, remembering at the very last second that he couldn’t make a sound.

Turning, the man came towards the wall where Tao was hidden. Tao leaned to the side to keep him in view, marvelling that the man’s face was as pretty as his hair, though kind of annoyed-looking still. He was younger than Tao had expected - he’d been thinking this man would be like the man who’d come to feed him when he was in the small room, or maybe like Xing-ge, features well-formed and adult. This man didn’t look much more grown than Lu-ge, and there was a little softness to his cheeks, his lips, that Tao thought meant he was not totally done growing.

It was the only part of him that was soft and round. Everything else was made up of long, sleek lines and sharp angles, and Tao found it completely fascinating. He looked different from any other man Tao had ever seen, and certainly different from Tao himself.

“Joonmyun hyung,” the man was saying, his hand pressed against the button on the wall. “The drive pod is grinding.” Tao traced his outstretched arm with his eyes, running a hand down his own arm to compare. Tao’s arm was curved, rounded; the muscles under his skin made arches and bumps. The other man’s arm was like a series of thin triangles, straight lines rising from his wrist at an angle to form his elbow, then a sharp angle where his bicep met his elbow that turned into a long, hard line up to his shoulder. Tao had no idea people came in that kind of shape.

Maybe it was normal, to be shaped like that. Maybe Tao was the one who was strange. He knew his scientist geges always told him he was different, anyway.

“Have you tried oiling it?” a tinny voice sounded through the speaker on the wall. Tao could hear, faintly, the other man speaking elsewhere in the ship; it made an odd, echoey sort of lag effect to be able to hear both.

His playmate man huffed out another annoyed breath. “I can’t get it to open enough for me to get in there. Something’s out of alignment.”

Where Tao’s shoulders were sloped, a curve of muscle connecting his neck to his arms, this man’s shoulders were straight out, a sharp angle between his neck and collar and a broad line across. Where Tao’s torso was curved, outward at his chest and inward at his waist, this man’s was a long v-shape, sleekly connecting his broad shoulders to his tiny waist and then dropping straight down into hips only barely wider than his waist was. His legs were the same way, too - near-perfect straight lines from ankle to hip, broken only by a little bump for the knee.

“Check all the bolts on the pistons. If something’s loose, it can make the parts grind.”

The man looked over his shoulder at the machinery. The motion made his neck look long and smooth. Tao wanted to run his hand over it. “Ugh. Fine. I’ll let you know what I find.”

“Better you than me. Have fun, kiddo.”

The man dropped his arm and made a face that twisted his features up in surprising, improbable ways. Fascinated, Tao imitated the face, enjoying the way it made his nose scrunch and his lips curl. He wondered if he looked as interesting as this man did when he made that face.

Turning, the man again planted his hands on his hips, looking up at the machinery consideringly. And, oh - there was one part of him that wasn’t all lines and angles, after all. His lower back had a deep curve that flowed out into a small but perfectly round bottom, the roundness all the more exaggerated for how slim and straight his legs were. His butt was rounder even than Tao’s, at least as far as Tao could tell, and it looked kind of out of place on his thin body but Tao found he liked it anyway. He cocked his head as the man moved away to get a better look, an odd sort of warmth fizzing in his stomach.

Tao watched in total fascination as his playmate, still muttering to himself, grabbed a tool of some kind and started to climb up the ladder on the side of the machinery, hand-over-hand. His muscles moved in sort of a similar way as Tao’s did when he climbed things, but they were shaped differently, so it looked different, and Tao just...could not look away. He was glad he’d snuck out, because this was way more interesting than pacing back and forth in the nest while Lu-ge slept.

He lost track of time, just watching the man move and work and talk to the machine as if it could talk back. There was definitely a pattern to his actions; after a while Tao realized he was methodically checking every connector on the machinery, using the noisy spinning tool in his hand on each one.

When he was done with the entire machine, he jumped back down to the ground, landing with an ungraceful bang, and went back to the controls. He pushed a couple of buttons and pulled a lever, and the machinery groaned in protest but started to move. The man watched it for a moment, lips thoughtfully pursed, before he turned the machine off again, grabbed a different sort of tool, and climbed back up.

Tao watched him work for the rest of the shift, and when the lights started to fade from soft blue to bright yellow, the man finally put down his tools. He raised his hands over his head and stretched, and from this angle his body was one long, thin arch, from his upraised hands all the way to his feet, broken only by the round bump of his butt. Tao's chest felt warm.

Another voice startled him such that he nearly fell off his perch. His muscles protested, stiff from holding the same twisted position for so many hours. "Hey, Sehun, how's that drive pod?" Tao was surprised to realize that the voice belonged to Kyungsoo's nice man. Did that mean Soo was back in the nest now?

Wait, was ‘Sehun’ the name of his playmate man? He was moving back towards the speaker on the wall and responding, so maybe it was!

"It's okay for now," the man - Sehun - said. "I tightened and oiled everything and made some adjustments to the calibration, but hyung, it's not going to last much longer. We need a new one. This thing is dirty and rusty and bent and I wouldn't be surprised if it crapped out on us at the worst possible time."

"I know, kid. I already requested a new one, it's top priority. This one just needs to last until we get paid next, okay?"

Sehun nodded, looking relieved, and it wasn't until then that Tao realized he'd been worried. That was sad. Tao didn't want Sehun to be worried. Kyungsoo's friend really must be nice, since he made Sehun not worried.

"We can't do anything about it being rusty and bent, but we can take care of the dirty part, anyway. Put cleaning the couplings on your to-do list, okay? That thing could use some TLC."

"Sure, hyung," Sehun said. "Right now, though, I'm going to go get something to eat."

"Yeah, good plan. I'll meet you there." And then Sehun was picking up a rag and wiping off his hands and leaving the room and Tao nearly fell over in his attempt to keep him in sight.

He caught himself before he could fall and make a big bang, and slid off his perch, his legs stiff and sore. He'd been in the same position for most of the shift - at least six, maybe eight hours. Tao stopped for a moment to shake his legs out and stretch, wondering what he should do now.

He should go back to the nest. Lu-ge would be waking soon and Tao didn't want to get into trouble, and besides, he wanted to ask Soo about his friend and maybe talk a little about Sehun. But he also wanted very badly to follow Sehun, to keep watching him, to learn more about him. He was so interesting and so pretty and Tao was so, so curious.

In the end, curiosity won. Sehun had said he was going to get food, and Tao knew where the food was kept, so he set off, wishing again that he could just walk through the halls normally, maybe actually at Sehun's side, talking to him. He thought that would be so nice. But Lu-ge said no, so Tao stayed inside the walls, hidden and alone.

Sehun and Kyungsoo's friend were already in the galley when Tao got there. He could hear them talking. He couldn't find a grate to watch them from, though, so he went to his usual place behind the cabinet and sat down to just listen.

Sehun's voice was nice. It wasn't high or low, soft or loud, it was just...smooth, like his skin. And Soo's nice friend made him laugh a few times, and his laugh was so nice too, bright and happy. It made Tao happy just to hear it, bringing a wide smile to his face. He hadn't really smiled much since he was taken from home.

Tao had a moment of fear when he heard the cabinet door open, and Sehun, still talking to the nice man, reached inside. He sounded so close, and before he could stop himself Tao had reached forward and pressed his palm to the panel. Sehun was right there, on the other side. If Tao moved this panel, Sehun would see him. He'd be close enough to touch.

But Lu-ge said no. So Tao just sat there, heart pounding, separated from Sehun by a single piece of metal.

Sehun closed the cabinet and moved away and Tao let out a breath he didn't know he'd been holding. Sehun didn't notice him. That was good.

Wasn't that good?

"Tao," he heard, from far away. "Come back. You've been gone too long."

And Lu-ge always knew what was best, so Tao quietly moved back and slipped away, the fading notes of Sehun's conversation keeping him company.

"Hey, has there been any sign of those kids yet?"

"Nah, hyung. They've totally disappeared. Jongin and Joon and Minseok are keeping watch but Kris thinks we're going to have to wait them out. He said they'll turn up eventually. Either hunger, or curiosity, or boredom and loneliness."

"Yeah. He's...probably right."

Chapter Text

Despite his invitation, it was a few more cycles before Chanyeol saw the smallest prisoner again. There were signs that he had been there - things slightly out of place, greasy fingerprints on the engine’s outer shell, that kind of thing. Nothing ever seemed to be damaged or lost, however, so after a cycle or so Chanyeol started leaving old parts out, the first with a little note on it that just said play with me! He came back the next shift and found it had been taken completely apart, laid out on his worktable with all of the bits carefully arranged like an exploded diagram. It was totally accurate down to the angle of the bolts and it made Chanyeol grin.

So the next time, Chanyeol left out a sheet of drafting paper and a pencil, with an old, deactivated grav boot, and a note that said draw me! He left it for the majority of his free shift and the entirety of his sleep shift, and came back to find a carefully drawn diagram, complete with three different viewing angles, an exploded view, and even measurements and short notations in tiny, precise handwriting. It was utterly gorgeous and so accurate Chanyeol thought an exact duplicate of the part could probably be manufactured from the drawing alone. He held it up and whistled softly, impressed. “Forget the bounty,” he muttered out loud, “we should just hire the guy.”

His professional curiosity piqued, Chanyeol swept a section of his worktable clear and laid the drawing out, pulling his lamp closer to inspect it more carefully. Several notations were clearly educated guesses at what function each individual part served; some were incorrect but for the most part the accuracy was uncanny. Chanyeol made a few corrections, and then noticed that in the exploded diagram, an arrow pointed at the emptied reaction chamber with a tiny note that just said boom?

Chanyeol laughed out loud. He’d never actually explained how such a small device generated such a massive amount of anti-gravitational energy, and in the old boot the reactionary elements were completely cleared out, giving the guy no way to tell just from looking, but it seemed he’d made a guess. He quickly scrawled down yes, boom and then put the drawing to the side, having work of his own to do.

At the end of his work shift, he left out the same boot and a second one, a little newer and of a different style, with another piece of paper. The note this time said Which one is better? Why? He couldn’t wait to see what the guy had for him when he came back.

That beautiful drawing stuck in his mind all through his free shift, through eating dinner and his maintenance chores and a pickup game of basketball in the cargo bay, and when Kris retreated to their room to read for a bit before their sleep shift, Chanyeol decided to stick his head into the engine room and see if he could catch the prisoner working. He grabbed a protein bar and a bag of juice from the galley on his way, thinking about how thin the prisoner had seemed.

Sure enough, he was there, sprawled out on his stomach on the floor with the paper, pencil, and deactivated parts around him. He’d fallen asleep with his arms crossed under his cheek. Upon realizing it, Chanyeol’s heart melted into a puddle of goo on the floor.

When he was able to approach the young man without waking him, Chanyeol figured his sleep was pretty deep, so rather than wake him Chanyeol carefully and gently rolled him over and picked him up. He was a lot heavier than he looked, and Chanyeol’s back protested, but he tucked the guy against his shoulder and brought him over to the bunk in the corner, where Chanyeol himself stayed when the engine couldn’t be left alone, or he was fighting with Kris.

Once the teen was securely tucked in, Chanyeol went to inspect the drawing. It wasn’t done, clearly, the two parts half-sketched, but some of the notations were on there already, and Chanyeol could see that the prisoner had looked at the corrections on his last drawing, because he was using correct terminology. He’d even started comparing the parts, making notations that answered Chanyeol’s question. A little arrow pointing to the reaction chamber that said larger. Another, pointed at the coupling, that said better connection. And a little chart in the corner comparing the two against each other, features of each that he’d observed, the thickness and material of the casing, the size, the weight, differences in shape and how the energy was processed.

Chanyeol crossed his legs on the floor and dropped his chin into his hand, considering what he was looking at. This was a frightening level of intuition and instinctive understanding of machinery. It was more thorough than most university students studying the subject could do. And he wasn’t even finished yet - this was only a couple of hours’ work.

It was possible this ability was natural, but considering what they knew of the teenagers’ backgrounds, not likely. It was far more likely he’d been bred for this, engineered for this. If the other two had even half this level of talent, it was no surprise whatsoever they’d managed to override the computer locks on their cells, and letting them loose on the ship was asking for disaster. By now, he trusted this particular young man would not harm the ship or any of the crew; he had no idea about the other two, both taller and older and angrier-looking.

He had to tell Kris about this. He couldn’t get away from it any longer.

Looking up at the small figure on his cot, Chanyeol swallowed around the lump in his throat. Because he loved his husband, he did. But he knew, better than anyone, what Kris was like when he had a job on his mind. To him, this talented, innocent teen was at best no more than his bounty, than the credits he was worth. And at worst, he was a threat - even an unintentional one - to Kris, to the Phoenix, to Kris’s husband and crew and everything Kris cared about.

Could Chanyeol protect the guy from his own husband? Maybe. Could he do it without angering him? That was less likely.

He didn’t have much choice, though, so he squared his shoulders and stepped outside, going to the intercom panel in the hall rather than the one in his room.

“Kris,” he said, keeping his voice low. “Can you come to the engine room, please?”

A crackle of static. “On my way.” The tenseness in Kris’s voice told Chanyeol that he knew something was up. Chanyeol rarely called anyone to the engine room; it was his sanctuary and he was rather protective of it. Steeling his nerves with a deep breath, Chanyeol stuck his head back in his room to ensure that the teen was still asleep - he was - and when he turned back, Kris was coming down the hall.

Chanyeol immediately held a finger up to his lips, signalling for quiet. Clearly, this alarmed Kris, because his hand immediately went for the blaster at his side; Chanyeol quickly shook his head and reached out to pull Kris’s hand away from the weapon. Kris let him, shooting Chanyeol a confused and slightly suspicious look.

He opened the door, making sure to enter the room before Kris, to keep himself partially between Kris and the young man on his bed. Kris looked warily around the room, eyes falling first to the drawing on the floor. Then, he spotted the prisoner, and his eyes widened, and his hand went again to his gun.

Chanyeol shook his head as violently as he could, reaching out to silently plead for Kris to put it down. “Don’t,” he whispered. “Please don’t hurt him.”

The wheels turning in Kris’s head were very obvious on his face. He looked at Chanyeol’s expression, at the drawing on the floor and the pieces carefully laid out around it, at Chanyeol’s workbench, and then at the teen. And Chanyeol suddenly wanted to kick himself for not moving the drawing - he’d been half-considering telling Kris this was the first he’d seen of this prisoner, but Kris knew that was not Chanyeol’s work on the ground, not his sketching skill, not his handwriting, and he knew Chanyeol would never, ever just leave a piece of kit lying around like that.

Kris’s eyes hardened. “What the fuck is going on, Yeol?” he hissed.

Fuck. He had to explain, and it had to be fast. “He’s just a kid,” he blurted out, keeping his voice as quiet as he could. “I couldn’t - he was so scared, and - fuck, Kris, look at him. I couldn’t just…” Damnit, Chanyeol, now was not the time to be getting tongue-tied! He sounded like an idiot and he knew it.

Clearly, Kris did not have the patience for Chanyeol’s babbling right now. He made to stride past Chanyeol, but Chanyeol took a step to the side, blocking him, curling his hands around his husband’s shoulders in a mostly-symbolic attempt to hold him back.

“Get out of my way, Yeol,” Kris snarled.

“Promise me you won’t hurt him,” Chanyeol begged. “Please, Kris, I didn’t call you in so you could hurt him. Promise me.”

Kris’s expression was colder than a corpse in space. “If he doesn’t resist,” he growled, “he has nothing to fear from me.”

“He doesn’t know that,” Chanyeol argued. “Please, Kris.”

But Kris pushed, and Chanyeol was strong but he didn’t have Kris’s training and it wasn’t as if he could bring himself to actually raise a hand against his husband. So Kris got past him, and Chanyeol turned to see that the guy was awake now, probably woken by the noise, and had scrambled to the back of the cot, cowering in the corner with gigantic, terrified eyes darting from Kris to Chanyeol and back.

Kris’s gun was out in his hand, but he hadn’t raised it yet, which was a small victory but Chanyeol would take what he could get. “He won’t hurt you,” Chanyeol said to the prisoner, holding out his hands and trying to remember why he thought this was in any way a good idea. “It’s okay, he’s not here to hurt you.”

Clearly, he was not believed, because the guy was violently trembling, his hands balled hard in the dirty, ripped knees of his trousers, his shoulders practically vibrating. Kris stopped moving, his eyes narrowing, and Chanyeol said “See? It’s okay, it’s okay.”

But it wasn’t. Something was wrong, something was really wrong, and the shakes weren’t stopping, they were getting worse and worse until the prisoner’s head bounced off the metal wall he was backed against.

Shit,” Kris swore, and he leapt forward, his blaster clattering to the floor. He grabbed the guy’s upper arms and yanked, pulling him forward, and Chanyeol cried out in alarm and jumped forward as well, tugging Kris’s hands off the guy.

“Let him go!” he cried, but Kris shook him off.

“Stay back,” he snarled, but it was the real alarm in his tone, the veiled panic, that made Chanyeol actually listen. “He’s having a seizure. If you touch him, you could injure him.”

And that was when Chanyeol realized Kris hadn’t been trying to hurt the prisoner, he’d been trying to get him away from the wall, to keep him from hurting himself. “Oh my God,” he muttered. “What do we do?”

“You stay put, bleeding heart,” Kris rumbled. He crossed the room in three strides and smacked the comm button. “Jongin, get the fuck up.”

Chanyeol waited, watching as the guy’s convulsions worsened. He was starting to foam at the mouth, and Chanyeol wanted nothing more than to help him, but there was nothing he could do; he had no medical experience at all. Fortunately for them both, Kris did - he’d been a field medic, once.

“Captain?” Jongin murmured into the intercom, voice groggy with sleep.

“Get your ass down to the infirmary. In the top drawer on the right side of the surgery table is a package labelled phenomide. Grab it and get it to the engine room as fast as you fucking can. You got that?”

The commanding, urgent tone in Kris’s voice woke Jongin right up. “On it,” he said shortly, and the comm clicked off. Kris came back to Chanyeol’s side, bending to pick up his blaster and re-holstering it as he moved.

"It's 17:32," he noted, dark eyes flicking to the time readout above the door. "If he comes out of it in less than five minutes, we don't do anything, okay?"

Chanyeol nodded silently, biting his lip. It was going to be really hard to just stand and wait for five minutes, but if Kris said that's what he had to do, Chanyeol trusted him. Kris wouldn’t let the young man suffer needlessly.

A broad, warm hand landed on Chanyeol’s back. “Why are you so invested in this?” Kris asked, his voice quiet and terse. And Chanyeol was not in the best mood at the moment, particularly not in regards to his husband, but as always Kris’s touch dragged some of the tension from his shoulders. He couldn’t find a satisfactory answer, though, so he just shook his head silently, watching the young man he’d unconsciously become so fond of convulsing helplessly on the bed, his huge blue eyes glazed over and frightened.

Pounding footsteps on composite announced Jongin’s arrival, and Kris’s hand fell away from Chanyeol's back. Jongin came into the room with his arm outstretched, and as Kris took the vacuum-sealed package from him, he stopped and stared at Chanyeol’s cot. “Fuck,” he muttered, eyes wide.

"17:36," Kris muttered.

"He's not stopping," Chanyeol said, trying to keep the panic out of his voice. Now there was blood mixed with the spittle dripping down the guy’s chin, and it was really freaking Chanyeol out. Kris nodded, rolling up his sleeves.

Stripping the packaging revealed a small, needleless syringe, the kind one used to administer liquid medication to an animal or a baby. It was already full of a pale yellow liquid, and Kris arranged it in one hand while bracing a knee on the cot so that he was half-over the convulsing prisoner. His other hand slid under the guy’s shoulders, gingerly lifting his upper body without trying to restrain his shakes. The guy’s head lolled back, mouth gaping open, and Kris quickly stuck the syringe as far into his mouth as he could reach and depressed the plunger, squirting the liquid directly down the guy’s throat. He pulled back just as quickly, carefully lowering the guy down again, this time turning him on his side.

“Will that help?” Chanyeol asked softly.

Kris gave him a look. “No, I just risked getting my fingers bitten off for no reason.” Chanyeol winced. “Assuming he has anything resembling a normal human constitution, yes, it should help.”

“Why is he all…” Jongin asked, watching with horrified fascination.

“How the fuck should I know? And what are you still doing here?” Kris took a swing in the general direction of Jongin’s ass, making him jump. “Get out.” Jongin was swift to obey.

Chanyeol mostly ignored them, coming closer to the bed. Was it his imagination, or were the convulsions slowing?

No, that was not his imagination. “It’s working,” he breathed, sagging against the wall. “It’s working, he’s gonna be okay.”

A snort. “For the moment.” Warm, familiar hands pressed briefly to Chanyeol’s shoulders. “He’s going to be disoriented and probably terrified when he comes out of this. I’ll leave it to you to calm him down, since you two seem to have such a thing going.” Chanyeol looked up, to try and judge if Kris was still angry, but Kris’s expression had completely closed off, hidden behind his Captain pokerface. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. Don’t you dare let him out of your sight, got me? That’s an order.”

Chanyeol stiffened. Kris didn’t pull rank on him often, and it never failed to get under Chanyeol’s skin. “Yes, sir,” he bit out. Kris nodded once, satisfied, and strode out of the room, closing the door behind him.

True to Kris’s prediction, within a minute the blue-eyed teen had stilled, laid out flat on Chanyeol’s cot, panting like he’d run a marathon and covered in sweat and spittle and tears and blood. Chanyeol crouched down next to the bed, and the guy tried to move away, eyes wide, but he was too weak and barely managed to move at all.

“Hey, hey,” Chanyeol said, keeping his voice as soft and calming as he could. “It’s okay, it’s just me. You’re safe. You’re okay.” He kept talking reassuring nonsense for a few minutes, and slowly the prisoner relaxed, and recognition came back into his eyes. Eventually, he was calm enough for Chanyeol to sit by his head, his movements measured and slow. He shrank back when Chanyeol lifted his hand, but Chanyeol just displayed the soft, clean polishing rag he’d pulled from his workbench. “I’m just going to clean you up a little, okay?” he murmured. “Is it okay if I touch you to do that?”

Those beautiful eyes seemed to stare right through him, unnervingly intense, but the guy did nod, hesitantly and weakly. Heart hammering, Chanyeol swallowed around the lump of emotion in his throat and did as he’d said, carefully wiping off the guy’s face and neck. The blood seemed to have been coming from a bit tongue, but it had already stopped bleeding.

When he was done, Chanyeol set the rag on the nearby table and scooted further back, resting his back against the wall. “Can you sit up?” he asked softly. The guy nodded, and did so, looking up at Chanyeol as if waiting for further instruction. Chanyeol swallowed again - the trust in his eyes was doing scary, scary things to Chanyeol’s heart - and put on a soft smile, holding out his arms. “Do you want to sit with me?” he asked, very careful to word it as a question, not a command.

But the teen nodded immediately, and to Chanyeol’s great surprise, scooted right into his arms without any hesitation. He laid his head against Chanyeol’s neck, and as Chanyeol’s arms settled gingerly around the teen’s shoulders, he felt him heave a long sigh.

For how ethereal he looked and how silently he moved, the prisoner was a surprisingly solid and warm presence against his side, if a little smellier than he might be under more normal circumstances. He desperately needed a bath, and some new clothes, and probably a decent meal or three, but though his body felt thin, he was definitely a lot less soft and delicate than he looked. Chanyeol found his weight and heat to be reassuring, actually - the past few days it had been rather hard to believe that he was really real, and not a figment of Chanyeol’s imagination. Actually touching him like this made him painfully real, and made an equally painful tightness well in Chanyeol’s chest.

The moment of calm was broken by Kris returning, shutting the door behind him. He had a small bag in his hand, and the moment he entered the young man stiffened in fear, burrowing desperately into Chanyeol’s side.

“Shh, shh, it’s okay,” Chanyeol said for at least the twelfth time. “He’s not going to hurt you.”

The young man whined in fear, a soft, heartbreaking sound, and the first sound Chanyeol had heard him make with his voice. Chanyeol held him closer and continued to shush him, locking eyes with Kris and pleading silently that his promises weren’t in vain. Especially after this, he didn’t think he could handle it if Kris did something heartless.

And maybe Kris could see that in his eyes, because he crossed the room with slow, measured strides, and, like Chanyeol had done only minutes previous, crouched down next to the cot so he was at eye level with the prisoner.

“I’m Kris,” he said, his deep voice not gentle, but not threatening, either. “What’s your name?”

Chanyeol expected Kris’s question to go unanswered. To his utter surprise, though, after a long moment of silence, the prisoner actually spoke. “Kyungsoo,” he said, voice soft but lower and more mature than Chanyeol was expecting. “I’m Kyungsoo.”

And now Chanyeol felt like an idiot for never asking. Why had he assumed the prisoner couldn’t speak? He wrote just fine, after all!

Kris nodded matter-of-factly, taking this in stride. “Kyungsoo, this is my ship. It is very important to me that this ship and everyone on it is safe. I don’t know you, so I can’t trust you. Do you understand?” The prisoner - Kyungsoo, he had a name - nodded solemnly. “I’m telling you this because I want you to fully understand the choice I am giving you right now.” Kris reached into the bag and pulled out a pair of heavy, solid metal restraints, the kind used on dangerously unstable criminals. “You were able to escape your cell, so if I put you back in there, you’ll have to wear these.”

Kyungsoo stiffened at Chanyeol’s side, and Chanyeol couldn’t blame him. He opened his mouth to protest on the prisoner’s behalf, but Kris shot him a quelling look and kept talking. “Or,” he said, pulling out the other item in his little bag, “if you agree, I can give you this instead.” He held up another needleless syringe, this one full-size. “This is a subdermal tracking device. If I inject you with this, I will always be able to find you, no matter where you are. If you agree to this, then you can stay with Chanyeol, and I won’t lock you up again. Do you understand?”

Oh. Oh. Chanyeol blinked at his husband in awe. The tracking devices were standard issue for all crew members, but it had never occurred to him that they could be used to track a prisoner as well. What a good idea! And honestly, it was clever of Kris to present Kyungsoo with the options and let him decide for himself like this. Knowing the alternative made it far less likely the teen would fight them.

Kyungsoo was nodding again, his eyes bright and curious, and Kris held out both devices to him, close enough that the guy could point but far enough away that he couldn’t snatch them or knock them away.

“Alright, then,” he said. “Which do you choose?”

Kyungsoo didn't even hesitate. He immediately pointed at the syringe. Kris’s nod was curt.

“You understand, that if I let you take this option, you are becoming Chanyeol’s responsibility,” he explained. “If you cause any trouble, or try to escape us, it will reflect badly on him. I don’t want to punish him, so I am trusting that you will keep your word.” He cocked a very meaningful eyebrow at the prisoner. “Understand?”

Chanyeol’s mouth dropped open. That sneaky bastard, using their budding friendship against them! But Kyungsoo was already nodding emphatically, even moving forward out of Chanyeol’s arms. He ducked his head, using one hand to pull his shaggy hair up and away, exposing the back of his neck to Kris.

Kris and Chanyeol exchanged surprised looks. “You’ve had an injection like this before,” Chanyeol observed. Kyungsoo nodded again, very slightly. The way he was kneeling made it look very much like he was offering himself up as a virgin sacrifice to some ancient, vengeful god, and the gesture of compliance didn’t seem to be lost on Kris. He handed Chanyeol a prepackaged antiseptic wipe, and Chanyeol gently cleaned the spot at the base of Kyungsoo’s neck.

Chanyeol knew from experience that the tracker injection hurt like hell, the injection mechanism designed to shove the razor-sharp edge of the tracker into the skin and push down until it was completely submerged, but Kyungsoo didn’t make a sound or move a muscle as Kris pushed the device against his flesh and thumbed the plunger. When it was done, Kris pulled the device carefully away, and Chanyeol cleaned the spot again, pressing the antiseptic wipe down until the bleeding stopped.

“There,” Kris said. “Make sure you’ve got someone to watch him before you come to bed.” Kyungsoo plopped back down on the bed, his bright eyes turning to look at Chanyeol, and when Chanyeol grinned at him in relief, he received a tiny smile in return, brief but relieved.

Kris was already halfway out the door, but Chanyeol called out to him. “Kris, wait,” he said, and Kris stopped, one hand on the latch, his face unreadable. “Thank you.”

The captain’s expression stayed neutral. “Don’t make me regret it,” he said gruffly. Then he was gone.

It took the rest of the shift to feed Kyungsoo, show him how to use the sonic shower and find clothes for him. (Minseok was the closest to Kyungsoo’s size; Chanyeol had to bribe him with part of his share of the chocolate to get him to part with them.) The young man remained quiet through most of it, watching Chanyeol with wide unblinking eyes, and when he was finally fed and clean and dressed Chanyeol sat down on the bunk and studied him, wondering what he should do now.

Dressed in a plain green t-shirt and dark jeans, both a little too big for him, with the grease scrubbed from his pale skin and his soft reddish-brown hair brushing his brows, he looked like a completely different person. More normal, more approachable, somehow older than before. The illusion of normalcy was broken by his eyes, but honestly, by this point, Chanyeol was getting used to the glow. It was easier to pay attention to his expressions, now, and not just get distracted by the unnatural blue.

“Are you tired?” Chanyeol asked, and the prisoner shook his head. “Alright. Well, I have to go to bed soon. I’m going to call someone to stay with you. Okay?” A nod. Chanyeol went to the comm and paged the cockpit, asking Minseok to come down to the engine room after Joonmyun relieved him of duty. Minseok replied that Joonmyun was already up there with him, and that he’d be down shortly, and Chanyeol signed off and turned back to Kyungsoo.

“You feel alright? No more seizures?” Kyungsoo nodded again, his expression suspiciously patient. Chanyeol wondered if Kyungsoo found his fussing exasperating. It was an odd thought. “Okay. I’d like for you to finish the drawing, if you want to.” Kyungsoo agreed again and Chanyeol found he was out of things to fuss over. “Alright then. If you need me, you can press this button here.” He showed him briefly how to use the comm system, which button would page the room he shared with Kris. “Okay? Oh, here’s Minseok,” he said as the older man let himself into the room.

Minseok stopped in the doorway, eyeing Kyungsoo warily. Chanyeol introduced them both, watching with more anxiousness than was probably valid as Minseok nodded curtly and Kyungsoo stared silently. “Um...I guess I need to go. I’ll be back later, okay, Kyungsoo? Good night.”

Kyungsoo gave him a shy little wave as he closed the door behind him. It brought a smile to Chanyeol’s face, and he was still smiling when he got to his room.

The smile slid right off, though, when he saw Kris sitting on the edge of their bed, elbows braced on his knees and a look on his face that promised Not Good Things.

“We need to talk,” he said.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It was hard to miss the way Yixing’s lip curled as they walked down Angel’s gangplank and entered the spaceport. He looked terribly unimpressed with everything around him, with the slightly rusted docking stations and the loud chatter of dozens of crews milling about and the gray grime that seemed to permeate all outer-rim Core spaceports, too big to be well-kept by the overworked, understaffed crews who manned them.

Jongdae wasn’t certain why he felt like he should apologize to Yixing for the state of the spaceport. It wasn’t as if he had anything to do with it, and it certainly wasn’t his fault the doctor was so spoiled by fancy Core hospitals and state-of-the-art space stations that he couldn’t handle the tarnish of the ‘Verse. So he resisted the urge and instead ushered Yixing along to catch up with Baekhyun, who was coming out of the spaceport’s registration office.

“I reserved our dock just for tonight,” Baekhyun said as they redirected towards the cantina. “If we’re careful what we spend tonight, we have enough for tomorrow too if we need it. After that we’re up shit creek so I hope you’re prepared to make good on your promise, Doctor.”

Yixing’s shoulders were tight, his gaze darting around at the crowd. “Just need a terminal,” he muttered.

“So are you like, expecting someone to jump out of the walls and tackle you or something?” Baekhyun asked suddenly. His tone was flippant but his eyes were hard, watching Yixing carefully.

The doctor shot him a withering look. “I don’t like people,” he said shortly. “And there was a nearly-successful attempt on my life just over a week ago.” But he must have figured out why Baekhyun had said something, because his shoulders deliberately relaxed, the tightness in his expression loosening to something neutral, even innocently pleasant. Jongdae felt his eyebrows raise - it was a very convincing change. He made a note not to judge Yixing’s mood by his expression in the future and followed Baekhyun and Yixing into the cantina.

Yixing made straight for the corner, where the public terminal was tucked away, partially blocked from the rest of the room by a built-out wall. His fingers were flying on the keypad almost before his feet came to a stop, logging into the Core. Jongdae was close enough behind him that he saw that Yixing’s password was, like, 24 characters long.

It also didn’t work. The system spit back an error and Yixing frowned, trying again. Since his password was so stupid long, Jongdae figured he’d just mis-typed it and didn’t start to worry until Yixing attempted to use the fingerprint scanner to reset his credentials.

ERROR - MATCH NOT FOUND.

Yixing’s eyes widened, as Jongdae’s stomach lurched. Baekhyun, behind them both, swore loudly.

“That doesn’t happen,” Baekhyun hissed.

“I’m aware,” Yixing said tightly. He wiped off the fingerprint scanner and his own hand on the tail of his shirt and tried again - with the same result.

“Great,” Jongdae growled, his insides twisting. “You don’t fucking exist. And I’m pretty sure non-entities don’t get bank accounts so we’re all fucking screwed thanks to you.”

Yixing was ignoring him, which made anger rise like bile in Jongdae’s throat. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he murmured, trying it again, as if expecting the answer to be different.

It wasn’t.

“Fuuuuck,” Baekhyun moaned, collapsing against the wall in despair. Yixing sneered at him and suddenly, Jongdae was just done with this bullshit.

“Been nice knowing you, Doc,” he said, purposely over-familiar. Yixing looked up sharply. “But now we gotta figure out how we’re going to survive past tomorrow, so this is where our association ends. Have a nice life. Try not to get killed.” He grabbed Baek by the arm and started pulling him away.

Warm fingers wrapped around his wrist, pulling him up short. “You can’t just leave me here,” Yixing protested, his eyes wide.

“We damn well can,” Jongdae snarled. “And we are.”

“But my kids - ”

“Are not my problem.” He yanked his arm out of Yixing’s grasp. “We saved your life, and look where it got us! I’m calling this even. Don’t contact us again.”

He turned his back, and this time, Yixing didn’t follow.

Chapter Text

Two years aboard the Phoenix had trained Sehun into the habit of immediately checking the lighting whenever he awoke. The ship’s displays and footlighting were color-coded to the shift; his room’s ambient lighting was by default set to mimic a planetary daylight cycle. It took barely a glance and was nearly as reliable as a numerical time readout, especially when he was still mostly asleep.

So when Sehun blinked awake, he dropped his eyes to the side and looked. The faint green light around the edge of his room declared it to still be Beta shift; the level of darkness meant Sehun still had at least a few hours left before shift change. Nothing was better than waking up in the middle of the night and realizing you could go right back to sleep, so Sehun rolled over with every intention of doing exactly that.

He saw the shadow of a face on the pillow next to his, outlined in soft green light, and nearly jumped out of his skin, crying out in alarm. The noise made the person in his bed jerk awake and scramble back, eyes opening wide. Eyes that glowed.

“Holy shit,” Sehun gasped, his half-asleep brain barely comprehending what he was seeing. As his eyes adjusted to the dim and his mind cleared out the sleepy fog, he realized he recognized his unknown bedmate. It was the tallest of the three prisoners, the one with the dark hair, the one who had followed the camera with his eyes on their first night on the ship. “What the hell are you doing in my bed?!”

A wide-eyed blink. “Sleeping?” the guy ventured tentatively. His voice was too soft for his fierce looks, his angled features.

The guileless answer, the unthreatening tone, went a long way towards soothing Sehun’s jangling nerves. Sehun wasn’t sure if that was supposed to be a joke, or if this guy actually did not see anything out of the ordinary about sneaking into a stranger’s bed. Judging by the innocent curiosity in his eyes, he was inclined to suspect it was the latter. “Okay, obviously,” Sehun said. “Better question. Why my bed?”

The guy cocked his head, regarding Sehun for a long moment with eyes that cast bluish light against his pale cheeks. It was really fucking surreal. “Because it looked nice,” he said finally.

It was Sehun’s turn to blink. “It looked nice,” he deadpanned, unable to believe what he was hearing. “You crawled into a total stranger’s bed because it looked nice.” The guy didn’t answer. Sehun resisted the urge to drag his palm down his face. “Okay, next question. How did you get in here?” He glanced at the door; the display still read locked.

“I’m not supposed to tell you that,” the guy said immediately. Sehun looked at him in surprise. “Lu-ge said so.”

Who was Lu-ge? Well, that was a dumb question, he had to be one of the other two prisoners. So maybe this one was naive to the point of stupidity, but at least one of them was not. Great.

The boy was still staring at him. His posture had relaxed a little bit, leaning up on one elbow, watching Sehun with glowing, unblinking, unnervingly pretty eyes. He seemed fascinated, like he’d never seen someone like Sehun before. Maybe he hadn’t. Maybe he’d never seen anyone other than his fellow experiments in his whole life, Sehun had no way of knowing.

Sehun didn’t realize he’d let the silence go too long, spent too long staring himself, until the other guy broke the silence. “Are you going to make me leave?” he asked.

It was a good question. Sehun knew what he should do - he should keep the guy here, knock him out if he had to, and then call Kris. “Do you want to stay?” he asked in return, stalling for time, his mind racing to figure out what to do.

A nod, immediate and guileless. “Yes,” he said. “I want to stay.”

Well, at least Sehun wouldn’t have to knock him out. “Only if you promise not to hurt me,” Sehun hedged. He knew nothing about this kid, after all.

This nod was more vigorous. “I promise.”

Fuck, this was such a bad idea. “Okay, you can stay.”

The smile that broke out over his face was wide and excited, showing off perfect teeth. “Thank you!” he said, and immediately burrowed down into the bed sheets. Sehun gingerly lay down beside him, facing him with his back to the door this time, too wary to turn his back on this unknown person.

His plan was to lay there and wait for the boy to fall asleep, then get up and quietly go get Kris, and to that end he remained with his eyes open, studying the guy’s face. He’d thought when he’d first seen him on the camera that this one was uncommonly handsome, tall and broad, with perfect proportions and a build that spoke to an athletic life, not a caged one. His face was pretty close to perfect as well, beautiful bone structure and flawless skin and lusciously curved lips turned purplish in the blue light cast by his eyes. His eyes, angled and ice-blue and glowing, were what ruined the effect, made his unnatural beauty just plain unnerving.

Sehun soon realized, though, that as long as he remained awake and looking at the guy, the guy kept his eyes open and stared back. After a few minutes of laying there staring at each other - which should have been far more awkward than it was, honestly, but the other guy didn’t seem to mind so Sehun didn’t either - Sehun finally spoke.

“What’s your name?” he asked quietly.

A blink - the first blink he’d seen since they laid down. “Zitao,” the boy said. “Your name is Sehun.”

Sehun furrowed his brows. “How did you know that?”

Zitao lifted a hand and pointed over Sehun’s shoulder, at the door behind him. “It said so there,” he said, and Sehun kind of wanted to smack himself. Right. His nameplate.

As Zitao brought his hand down, he stopped for a second, with his arm hovering half-outstretched in the air, and then, to Sehun’s great surprise, changed course and softly stroked his fingers over Sehun’s hair. Sehun jerked away in shock, and Zitao pulled his hand away, letting his arm drop rather reluctantly.

“Pretty,” he said softly.

Sehun stared. “You really need to learn about boundaries,” he muttered, but his cheeks heated anyway. “Go to sleep.”

“Okay,” Zitao whispered. This time, Sehun closed his eyes, intending to stay that way until Zitao actually fell asleep.

Apparently, though, he wasn’t counting on how late it was, how tired he still was. He fell back asleep himself, and when next he woke, it was time to get ready for his shift and his bedmate was gone.

Sehun searched the room, looking for any sign of how Zitao had gotten in, or how he had gotten out again. He couldn’t figure it out - the only thing he could think of was the environmental vent, but it was too small for a human, especially one with Zitao’s broad shoulders. It was barely big enough for a cat to get through. And there were no other entrances or exits, except for the door itself. Sehun checked, but the door’s security log showed that it had been locked all night. Honestly, other than the person-shaped indent in the sheets next to him, there was no sign at all that he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.

Fucking weird.

Shaken, Sehun decided it was still early enough in gamma shift that Kris probably wouldn’t be asleep. He quickly threw on some pants - fuck, he’d had a strange man in his bed and had only been wearing his boxers - and headed down the hall to Kris’s room, making absolutely certain the door locked behind him.

But when he approached the room, he could hear raised voices through the heavy metal door, and his stomach plummeted. Chanyeol and Kris were fighting.

In the two years he’d been on the Phoenix, Sehun had only ever witnessed the captain and his husband fighting once. They were both pretty difficult to rile - Kris was stonefaced steady and Chanyeol endlessly positive - but when they did argue it exploded like an aerosol can in a trash compactor and set everything around them on proverbial fire. The entire ship had been walking on eggshells for days after that.

No matter how weird his night had been, Sehun wasn’t willing to get in the middle of that, so he quickly backtracked and headed for the cockpit and the only other person he knew for a fact would be awake during this shift.

To his surprise, he found that Jongin, who had a free shift during Gamma and usually tended to sleep through at least the first half of it, had had the same idea. He was already in the cockpit, seated in the copilot’s seat and deep in discussion with Joonmyun. They both looked up when Sehun entered.

“Am I interrupting?” Sehun asked, hovering in the doorway.

“Nah,” Joonmyun said, flicking his eyes back over the readouts. “We’re just gossiping.”

Sehun settled in one of the secondary chairs, pulling a leg up and resting his chin on his knee. “Anything exciting?” he asked.

Jongin swung his legs sideways in his chair so he could look around the seatback at Sehun. “One of the prisoners was in the engine room a couple of hours ago,” he said, and Sehun’s eyes widened. “The littlest one. He was having a seizure on Chanyeol’s cot.” Jongin’s dark eyes were practically sparking with interest. “Yeol looked like he was about to jump out of his skin, he was so freaked. And Kris looked pissed.”

Well then. “That explains why they were yelling at each other when I went past a few minutes ago,” Sehun murmured, and Joonmyun and Jongin exchanged a look. Everyone knew just how badly it sucked when mommy and daddy were fighting. “Did we recapture the prisoner, then?” Maybe he should have manned up and just told Kris about Zitao right then; maybe it would have diffused their argument, whatever it was about.

“He’s not in the brig,” Joonmyun said, gesturing at the security feed, “but look at this.” He brought up the schematic of the ship with the tracking blips marked. Every crew member had a tracker injected when they signed on; it was a small sacrifice of privacy for the insurance of knowing they’d always be able to find each other. “The three of us are here,” he said, pointing, “and Kris and Chanyeol and Minseok are all in their rooms. So who’s that?”

Sehun looked. In the engine room was another blinking dot, and Joon was right, the entire crew was accounted for. “The prisoner?” he asked. “They injected him with a tracker?”

“Guarantee you it was Kris’s idea,” Joonmyun said. “It’s the kind of thing he’d come up with. I mean, we know our cells won’t hold them, right? If they got out once they can get out again. This way, even if we can’t catch them, at least we always know where they are.”

Sehun blinked. “And maybe we can find out how they’ve been getting around the ship?” he asked. “Because one of them snuck into my room last shift while I was asleep.”

Two pairs of eyes were instantly on him. “What?!” Jongin asked in shock.

“The tallest one, the one with the dark hair. Woke me up in the middle of the night.” Sehun ducked his head, trying to figure out how to explain without sounding really bad. “I, um, was going to turn him in. But I wanted to wait until he fell asleep so I could go get Kris without him getting away, and, well…” He scratched sheepishly at the back of his hair. “I fell asleep myself. When I woke up, he was gone.”

Jongin was staring. “How the hell did you manage to fall asleep with one of them in the room with you?”

Something about the way Jongin said one of them grated on Sehun’s nerves, but he dismissed it. “He asked me to stay, and I told him he could ‘cause I figured it would be a bad plan to just, y’know, let him go. It just took a really long time for him to fall asleep, and I was tired.” He frowned. “Shit happens. I figure he’ll probably come back, anyway. He seemed really...I dunno. Interested in me.”

The eyebrow Joonmyun gave him was exceedingly skeptical. “Interested how, exactly?”

“Um. Interested in my hair, actually.” Sehun ran his hand through his short locks, making them stick straight up. The programmable dye made his hair a little coarse, and it tended to stay in any shape it was given, at least until something touched it. It had been teal for a while, but he’d been thinking about changing it. “I don’t think he’s ever seen anyone with dyed hair before.”

Joon’s eyebrow relaxed. “Huh. Yeah, probably not. I can’t imagine they were exposed to a lot of stuff on that little station.”

Jongin was giving him a thoughtful look. “You can make your hair do basically anything, color-wise, right?” he asked. Sehun nodded. “You should do something really, really eye-catching. See if you can lure him in again. Like, I don’t know, pink and green polka dots.”

Ew. “I’ve actually been meaning to try a full spectrum,” Sehun said. “There’s this new download that just came out and it looks awesome.”

“You’re lucky we don’t have a dress code,” Joonmyun mumbled. Jongin and Sehun both looked down at Jongin’s legs, still clad in his pajama pants, and laughed. “Well, since you’re too chicken to go talk to Kris, I’ll sign you out one of the tracking injectors and you can lure him in and use it. Then maybe we can find out where the hell they disappeared to. He glanced over his shoulder at Sehun. “I’ll tell Kris, too, so you don’t need to go face the big scary Captain.”

Sehun flushed embarrassedly but ducked his head in thanks. “Thanks, hyung,” he muttered.

“You’re welcome. Now If I recall, you’re supposed to be cleaning the drive pod couplings tonight.” He shot Sehun a look, and Sehun got the message and stood.

“I’m going, I’m going. See you later.” He took his leave, closing the cockpit’s door behind him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Two hours into Gamma shift, Chanyeol was on his way right back to the engine room. He couldn’t stay in the cabin any longer, couldn’t stand to even look at his husband right now.

Kris’s words were ringing in his head like sirens. He’s a freak. We have no idea what he can do, what he’s capable of, whether he will turn on us. We don’t even know if he’s human. You can’t get attached, Yeol, I don’t care how cute he is. We’ll be on Sola in twenty-eight cycles, and when we get there we’re turning them all in. I won’t bring hell down on my ship for the sake of a couple of kids.

The worst part was, Kris was right. Kris was right and Chanyeol hated it because there was nothing he could do.

Even worse than that was the barb Kris had flung at him in a fit of frustration. The only reason I took this job in the first place was because of that expensive part you wanted. That had been the point when Chanyeol fled, because the idea that this was his fault made him want to puke. Yes, they needed that drive pod, it was threatening to fail and if it did steering would be made functionally impossible, and yes, a new drive pod was a large and very expensive piece of kit. Was it worth what they’d done to those three teenagers? Chanyeol didn’t know.

He reached the door to the engine room and stopped, leaning against it and scrunching his eyes closed. Maybe he was getting worked up for nothing. Maybe the end client intended to rescue the kids, to find them real homes and real families instead of scientists on a space station. He could only hope.

A small noise on the other side of the door made Chanyeol’s eyes blink open. “Chanyeol?” he heard, soft and unsure. Hearing his own name in Kyungsoo’s voice did weird things to his insides.

“I’m coming in,” Chanyeol said, just in case Kyungsoo had his ear pressed to the door or something. But when he opened the door, Kyungsoo was all the way across the room, spread out on the floor with his drawings and the kit he was examining. Chanyeol blinked - either the kid was really, really fast, or he’d recognized Chanyeol breathing on the other side of the fireproof door from across the room. Chanyeol wasn’t sure which was more impressive, honestly.

As he shut the heavy door behind him, Kyungsoo rolled up to sitting and cocked his head questioningly, his brows pulling together in concern. Was Chanyeol’s upset really that obvious? Probably. He’d never exactly been great at hiding his emotions.

Minseok certainly could tell Chanyeol was upset, but Minseok also knew better than to question. “You back here for the night, then?” he asked gruffly. Chanyeol nodded, and Minseok stood up and stretched. “Good. I’m starting to see double.”

Headed for the door, Minseok halted briefly as he passed. “Kid hasn’t moved in hours,” he murmured. Chanyeol nodded, and Minseok let himself out.

Chanyeol shot Kyungsoo the best smile he could muster and headed straight for the bunk, plopping down on it and dropping his head into his hands. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “I guess I’m staying in here tonight.”

There was no immediate answer, but then, Chanyeol hadn’t really expected one. He did hear a little bit of rustling, though, and a few moments later the bunk dipped. Chanyeol looked up to see Kyungsoo climbing up onto the bunk next to him, his drawing in hand. He held it out with a question in his eyes.

It melted some of the tension gripping Chanyeol’s heart, brought a much more genuine smile to his lips. “Shall we see what you have?” he murmured, and Kyungsoo nodded earnestly. Chanyeol took the drawing and spread it out over his knees.

“Wow,” he said, because, well, wow. In the few hours since he’d left, Kyungsoo had completely finished drawing one of the parts and nearly finished with the other, and his comparison charts had doubled in length. Chanyeol looked it over, noting where the mistakes were - there weren’t many - and what traits Kyungsoo had picked out. There were a couple of places where Kyungsoo had picked up on something Chanyeol himself hadn’t even noticed, like that the older part had a longer energy pathway but the newer one had a more cramped one, with more places for the energy to get stopped up. What he didn’t see, however, was a conclusion. “Have you decided which is better?” Chanyeol asked.

Kyungsoo cocked his head. “Depends on the ship,” he said softly. Chanyeol nodded, encouraging him to explain himself. Kyungsoo bit his lip, considering his response carefully before he spoke. “This one, better for cargo, transport, deep space,” he said, pointing to the newer of the two grav boots. “Better for large ships. This one for small ships, for fighters or racers.” He touched a gentle finger to the second drawing and looked up at Chanyeol with big, soft eyes, looking for confirmation.

Chanyeol couldn’t help it, his smile started taking over his face. “Why?” he asked. “You’re right, but tell me why you came to that conclusion.”

Kyungsoo nodded. “Faster,” he said, his voice a little more confident, a little more sure. “And higher output.” He moved his finger back to the first drawing. “This one though, it’s more efficient. Less fuel used.”

He was right, he was exactly right. Chanyeol had in fact chosen those two pieces for comparison for precisely that reason. He’d been intending to turn it into a lesson, to take whichever Kyungsoo deemed inferior and explain how it could be the better choice in some situations, but it seemed Kyungsoo had already beaten him to the punch. “Okay,” he said, “if that’s true, which do you think is better?” Kyungsoo blinked, like he didn’t understand the question. “I mean, if you had your own ship, your own engine, to put together however you wanted. Which would you choose?”

Turning his eyes back down to the drawings, Kyungsoo thought about it. He traced over certain parts with his fingers, and his expression contorted slightly, button nose crinkling and lips pursing. He was adorable, and the thought of turning him over to some unknown end client for some unknown fate made a black hole open in Chanyeol’s gut.

“This one,” he said finally, pointing. He was pointing to the older model, the one meant for speed and power. Chanyeol frowned - he’d been expecting, given what he’d seen of Kyungsoo’s cautious personality so far, that Kyungsoo would choose efficiency over power.

“Interesting,” he murmured. “Why?”

Kyungsoo picked up his pencil and made a few quick changes to the drawing, some swiftly drawn arrows and some scribbled words. Somehow, his fast scribbles came out neat, tiny and perfectly legible, his drawn-on additions as precise and clear as the original lines. “Easier to modify this one for efficiency than the other for power.”

Chanyeol blinked. He hadn’t even...just...what. “Let me see that,” he muttered, pulling the drawing up a little so he could examine the changes.

Holy shit. The changes were not possible to make in an on-ship setting, of course; they would require a full workshop and the tooling of some new custom parts, but those few changes would, in fact, conserve quite a good fraction of fuel without sacrificing power. He’d never seen anything like that and dammit, now he wanted one for the Phoenix.

“This is brilliant,” he breathed, and Kyungsoo smiled up at him shyly. “You’re certain you’ve never worked with this kind of kit before?”

Kyungsoo shook his head. “Xing-ge told me, I have a machine soul,” he said.

Chanyeol didn’t know who Xing-ge was, but he thought he was probably right, and Chanyeol knew exactly how that felt. “Machines are easier than people, aren’t they?” he said, and Kyungsoo nodded understandingly. “Machines never hurt you.” He looked down at the paper, but he wasn’t seeing the drawing anymore.

A soft touch on his hand made him look back up, and then Kyungsoo was pressing close to his side, concern shining from his glowing eyes. Chanyeol tried to smile at him, to reassure him, but he was pretty sure it came out weak and unconvincing. Kyungsoo made a small noise and burrowed into his side, and Chanyeol put an arm around him, pulling him close.

“I’m sorry,” Kyungsoo murmured. Shocked, Chanyeol looked down at him. The boy’s lower lip was quivering. “You fight over me?”

Damn. How had he - well, that wasn’t important. “It’s not your fault, Kyungsoo,” Chanyeol assured him swiftly. “Kris and I fight sometimes. And, well...we were the ones who did this to you in the first place. Who took you away.”

“Why?” Kyungsoo asked guilelessly. No accusations, no judgement. Just the question. A question Chanyeol couldn’t answer. The crew had killed everyone Kyungsoo had ever known and blown up what was probably his only home, for money. It made Chanyeol sick, and sicker to think that it was money he had requested. And the fact that Kyungsoo didn’t even seem very upset by it - probably didn’t even understand what was happening - made it even worse.

Chanyeol sighed and pulled Kyungsoo in a little closer, dropping his head on Kyungsoo’s hair. “I don’t have a good answer for that,” he said softly. “I wish I did. I’m sorry.”

Slim hands clenched in Chanyeol’s t-shirt, but Kyungsoo didn’t reply. His warmth, his weight, his total trust in Chanyeol went a long way towards calming Chanyeol down, though, and eventually the length of the day caught up with him. When he finally laid down, scooting back to make space for his smaller companion, Kyungsoo laid down next to him without hesitation, tucking himself right against Chanyeol’s chest as Chanyeol pulled the covers over them both. His ankles tangled around Chanyeol’s knees and Chanyeol wrapped his arms around Kyungsoo’s back.

It had been a long, long time since Chanyeol had laid in bed with anyone other than Kris, and Kyungsoo was so much smaller than what he was used to, and almost a complete stranger, really, but somehow holding him was comfortable and not awkward at all. Kyungsoo let out a long sigh of contentment, and Chanyeol had to swallow down a lump of emotion. No one had ever just trusted him like this before.

If Kyungsoo hadn’t been there, Chanyeol would never have been able to sleep, not after an argument like that. But the teenager’s presence soothed him, and after a while Chanyeol drifted off with Kyungsoo’s soft breaths reassuringly even against his neck.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kris never slept well when Chanyeol wasn’t there.

There wasn’t anything to be done about it. It was just a fact, and after half a cycle of trying Kris gave up. He shoved his feet in his trainers and headed down to the cargo bay to shoot some hoops, resigning himself to a sleepless night.

He was down there by himself for a good hour or two before anyone came through, and by that point was totally zoned out. His body moved on autopilot, nothing but muscle memory, as his mind worked through the sudden change in their situation.

They had one boy tagged. That was good. And honestly, it was not a bad thing that Chanyeol had befriended the kid, at least not from a strategic perspective. Chanyeol may not have recognized the boy’s obvious hero-worship crush for what it was, but Kris knew what it was like to be in awe of Chanyeol’s...everything, and he saw that in the kid’s glowing eyes. It meant that Kyungsoo was very unlikely to do anything actively against Chanyeol, and by extension the ship and the rest of the crew, especially if they could keep him separated from the influence of the other two boys.

From the perspective of Chanyeol’s husband, of course, it was a fucking disaster. Yeol was, by nature, an adopter, a protector, a defender of the weaker and the less fortunate. It made him a very good man and a gigantic pain in the ass to have on a mercenary ship, and if Kris wasn’t so fucking in love with him he would have kicked him off a long time ago.

He knew, that when the time came to turn the kids in, it was going to rip a hole in Chanyeol’s heart. He could see it coming a light-year away and it killed him because there wasn’t anything they could do to stop it. The only thing he could do was try and keep Chanyeol from getting even more attached than he already was. He’d have to see that the kid didn’t spend all his time with Yeol in the future, then. Had to find a babysitter, someone much less likely to be suckered in by doe-eyes and a pretty little pout.

First things first, though. They had to know what they were dealing with. Once Alpha shift began he’d take the kid to the infirmary and run a full diagnostic. Maybe that would give them a better idea of what had been done to Kyungsoo, what the kid was capable of, what had triggered the seizure, and if he was likely to keep having them.

Right about at that point, Kris became aware that he was being watched. Dark hair and dark eyes and legs clad in dark pajama pants caught his eye from up on the catwalk, and Kris caught the ball as it fell free from the net and tucked it under his arm. “Just the man I wanted to see,” he said, reaching for his water bottle.

Jongin shifted in surprise. “Captain?” he asked, quiet and unsure. Uncharacteristically quiet and unsure, actually, Kris must have been projecting his mood. Jongin did tend to be more sensitive to that kind of thing than most.

“I want you to rip that data drive we took from the space station,” Kris said, wiping excess water from his mouth. “Don’t alter it, just make a copy to break open. I need to know what’s on there, and I need for the end client to not know I know.” He glanced up at his newest crewman. Jongin had come to them less than a year ago, desperate for passage off a planet where he’d accidentally made himself public enemy number one. Kris had agreed, not to save him, but for his skills with data. A hacker was a handy thing to have.

“Yes, sir,” Jongin agreed. “Is there a time limit?”

Kris snorted, coming over to the rack to put the ball away. “How about before we get any more surprises?” he rumbled. “I don’t need to find out too late that one of those kids is deathly allergic to floor polish or something. We have to deliver them in one piece, understand me?”

“Oh,” Jongin murmured. “Right. The seizure.” He bit his lip. “That guy...is he okay now?”

That dragged a sigh from Kris’s throat, rather against his will. “He’s fine now, as far as I can tell,” he said. “But who fucking knows? We only have, what, three doses of phenomide on the ship? They’re supposed to be for emergencies only, and we don’t actually have a real doctor on this ship. Just me.”

That got him a small smile. “You stitched me up just fine,” Jongin pointed out.

Right. Kris gave the younger man a judgemental eyebrow. “There’s a bit of a difference between a knife wound and a congenital defect, kid,” and that wiped the smile right off Jongin’s face.

“You think it’s a congenital condition?” Jongin asked. Kris ran a towel over his sweaty face, scrubbing it through his short hair.

“All we know about these kids is that their genes have been messed with,” he pointed out. “One of them just happens to have seizures? Yeah, I think that points to a genetic cause, don’t you?” He threw the towel in the laundry basket with rather more force than was strictly necessary. “People shouldn’t play God,” he growled under his breath. “It’s unnatural.”

Jongin didn’t answer him, but Kris wasn’t really looking to start a debate, anyway. The time readout by the door read less than an hour until shift change; Chanyeol would be coming out any minute. “What did you have on your work list for today?” he asked.

“Laundry,” Jongin said without hesitation. “A couple of maintenance scans. Helping Sehun with those drive pod couplings if he hasn’t already finished them.”

Nothing important then. “That can all wait,” Kris told him. “Spend the shift on the data drive and give me a report of your progress before you go to sleep, got it?” The schedules were set up so the entire crew was awake during Alpha shift, which was starting in a few minutes; half slept during Beta and the other half during Gamma. It was a good setup, the best way to run a ship this size with only six people. They may not always be working, but at least three people were awake and alert at all times in case of an emergency.

“Yes sir,” Jongin said, throwing a very sloppy salute as he got to his feet. “Guess I’d better grab some food before the shift change then.”

He ambled away towards the galley, and Kris himself took a deep breath and headed back to the cabin. It was empty - he’d been half-hoping Chanyeol had returned but no such luck - so he changed out of his sweaty clothes and into something a little more functional. Then he headed down the hall to the engine room.

The heavy metal door was just the tiniest bit ajar. Chanyeol never locked it unless he had a good reason, because one never knew when one would need to very quickly get to - or get away from - the engine. Kris pushed the door open and stuck his head in.

He’d been expecting Chanyeol to be awake and at his workbench, knowing his husband had just as much trouble sleeping after a fight as he did, but to his surprise not only was Chanyeol sleeping like a baby, but there was a second body on the cot, smaller and pale and auburn-haired. Leaning his shoulder on the door frame, Kris crossed his arms over his chest and regarded them for a moment.

They made a cute picture, anyway. Chanyeol always looked far more angelic in his sleep than he did awake, and the way the two of them were cuddled up was...comfortable. He was a little bit annoyed that Chanyeol had managed to fall asleep after the screaming match a few hours ago, especially when he himself had not, but he was grudgingly grateful, too. Not sleeping sucked. At least one of them had gotten some rest.

The comfy way they were snuggled up, though, told Kris his instinct was completely right. Chanyeol was getting way too attached way too quickly and if he didn’t do something about it, it was going to cause a Big Fucking Problem later on down the line.

Motion from the bed caught his attention, and Kris refocused to see that Kyungsoo was moving, lifting his head and blinking at the doorway sleepily. His eyes widened when he saw Kris, but he didn’t move, didn’t cry out or do anything to wake Chanyeol.

Kris crooked a finger at him silently. He really expected to be ignored - the kid had no real reason to obey him, after all - but to his surprise Kyungsoo carefully and rather gracefully extracted himself from Chanyeol’s arms and crossed the room on silent bare feet.

Well then.

Not wanting to wake Chanyeol, Kris ducked out of the room and waited until the boy had followed. He shut the door behind them.

“Follow me,” he said lowly. Kyungsoo nodded, and when Kris moved away, Kyungsoo stayed with him, one step behind and one to the left.

Kyungsoo’s willingness to follow direction was unexpected, but it did make things much easier. Kris headed for the infirmary, and as he did, wondered if Kyungsoo had made a conscious decision to cooperate, and if so, what had changed his mind.

He didn’t ask, though. It hardly mattered, and the less interaction he personally had with the prisoners, the better. After all, it was bad enough Chanyeol was getting attached.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

In the last six years of living on the Phoenix, Chanyeol had spent a lot of nights in the engine room. Before he and Kris had gotten together, he’d just straight-up lived there, but even after he’d moved into the captain’s cabin there had been nights when they fought, and nights when the engine was acting up, and nights when he just never made it back to their room, falling asleep in the middle of working on a project.

Which is why, when Chanyeol awoke and found himself in the engine room, he didn’t immediately think anything of it. It wasn’t until he had gotten up and stumbled sleepily down the hall to the refresher that he remembered what had happened last night - and realized that he’d lost Kyungsoo.

Shit.

He immediately dialed up the bridge. It wasn’t quite Alpha shift yet, still in the last few minutes of Gamma, so Joonmyun was still in the pilot’s seat.

“Hey Joon, I need you to tell me where everyone is on the tracker map right now,” he said without preamble.

A chuckle, over the intercom. “If you’re looking for the kid,” Joonmyun said knowingly, “he’s down in the infirmary with Kris. Has been for about ten minutes.”

Chanyeol blinked, uncertain if he should be relieved or terrified. “Oh. Thanks.” He let his finger slide off the intercom button, mind racing. Why would Kris take Kyungsoo to the infirmary? Had something happened? Another seizure, maybe? He couldn’t think of another possibility, so it was with a fearful lump in his throat and a panicked heartbeat that he made his way down to the lower level of the ship, not quite running but definitely not taking his time, either.

He found them there, just as Joonmyun had said. Kyungsoo was laid out on the table with Kris prepping the multiscanner above him. They both looked fine.

“Morning, snoozeface,” Kris said without looking up. Kyungsoo turned his head so he could see the doorway and, upon seeing Chanyeol, smiled shyly.

“Morning,” Chanyeol said, sagging against the doorway with his relief. “What’s all this?”

A shrug. “If we’re going to be responsible for getting them to the client in one piece,” Kris said flatly, “we had best know what we’re dealing with.” His gaze flicked up to Chanyeol’s for just a moment. To anyone else it would have looked totally expressionless, but Chanyeol knew what that look meant. I’m still annoyed at you but I’m not going to let it get in the way of business. “You’re just in time. Have a seat.”

Good enough for now. They had a lot more to deal with on the subject, Chanyeol was sure, but for the moment he would let it slide. No sense starting an argument before breakfast. “You putting him through the whole battery?”

A snort. “And then some. Kyungsoo, close your eyes and don’t open them again until I say so.”

The order was curtly given, and Kyungsoo followed it without one tiny moment of hesitation, perfectly obedient. Chanyeol frowned - it was unusual for anyone in Kyungsoo’s situation, but particularly a teenager, to be so acquiescent. But Kris was a fairly imposing figure, so perhaps it was best that Kyungsoo seemed to be showing no will to disobey.

Kris turned on the scanner, which involved, amongst other things, a very bright white light shining directly onto Kyungsoo’s face, and a high-pitched whining noise. To their surprise, Kyungsoo recoiled like he’d been slapped and made a small noise of distress.

Chanyeol - who had not, in fact, followed Kris’s command to sit down - was at his side in an instant. He barely even realized he was doing it; it was pure instinct. “Kyungsoo,” he said worriedly. “Are you alright?”

“Bright,” Kyungsoo said softly, his eyes scrunched tightly shut as if to better block out the light. “Hurts.”

Kris shot him a look over the table. Chanyeol returned it, because he was thinking the same thing - the light was bright, yes, but not painfully so, at least not from behind eyelids. Was Kyungsoo’s eyesight more sensitive? It would make sense; after all keener senses would be one of the first things most people would think of when given the opportunity to mess with the human genome. Chanyeol remembered the way the tallest of the boys had followed the camera with his eyes on the first night, even though it was behind one-way glass where it should have been impossible to see.

Chanyeol reached out, intending to block some of the light with his fingers. Kris smacked his hand away.

“Stop that,” he said. “I need a brain scan, not a Chanyeol’s-hand-scan. It’ll be over in a moment.”

Annoyed, Chanyeol stuck his lower lip out and pouted as hard as he could. He knew Kris had a weakness for that face, but unfortunately Kris knew it too, and was studiously not looking at him. Damnit.

So instead, he reached down and brushed the backs of his fingers against the backs of Kyungsoo’s. Kyungsoo’s hand twitched, then uncurled slightly as if in invitation; Chanyeol looped his index finger around Kyungsoo’s and smiled to himself when he saw some of the tension flow from the boy’s shoulders.

The scanner beeped, and Kris unlocked the clamp and reset the settings. Chanyeol had been in this same scanner and knew what was coming; he stepped back towards Kyungsoo’s feet, stretching his arm out a little so he could keep ahold of Kyungsoo’s finger as the scanner started to move down his body. He kept the touch until the scanner was completely off Kyungsoo’s face, dropping his hand just before the light reached it.

“You can open your eyes,” Kris said distractedly, his eyes on the readout. Kyungsoo did as he was told and immediately looked down his body for Chanyeol, blinking rapidly. Chanyeol skirted around the bulky scanner as it finished moving down Kyungsoo’s body and came back beside Kyungsoo’s head. The boy’s pupils were almost completely constricted against the bright light, tiny black dots in a sea of intense blue.

“You okay?” Chanyeol asked him softly, and Kyungsoo nodded as the scanner came to rest at the foot of the bed.

“Huh.” Kris glanced from the readout down to Kyungsoo’s face. “Kyungsoo, how old are you?”

Kyungsoo turned his head to meet Kris’s eyes. “One thousand seven hundred and ninety-four cycles,” he answered.

Kris glanced up at Chanyeol with a question in his dark eyes. Obligingly, Chanyeol did the math in his head.

Wait. No. That couldn’t be right. “Was a cycle where you used to be the same length as the cycles on this ship?” he asked. Because that was the only way that number made sense.

“No,” Kyungsoo said immediately. “Our cycles were twenty-four hours, not thirty.” He cocked his head. “I already corrected for the difference.”

Chanyeol blinked at him in shock.

“What?” Kris leaned on the scanner. “Yeol, what is it?”

Without looking up, Chanyeol said, “If he’s right, in standard Earth years that makes him a little over six years old.”

Silence. Kris’s eyes narrowed.

“That is fucked up,” he murmured, “but it explains some of these weird readings.” He swung the viewscreen around and pointed, not that Chanyeol really knew what he was looking at. “The program gave me an error because it has no idea how to calculate his age, so I made it split up the calculations. Hormonally and growth-wise, his body’s about seventeen. His intellect is consistent with someone closer to your age, late-twenties. But on a cellular level, yeah. He’s about six.” Kris flipped the monitor back around. “Out of morbid curiosity, how old are the other two?” He glanced down at Kyungsoo.

Kyungsoo cocked his head. “What is the calculation for Earth-standard years?”

“Three hundred sixty-five twenty-four hour cycles,” Chanyeol told him, internally thinking he should probably not be surprised Kyungsoo didn’t know it. He may have never even heard of Earth.

If Kyungsoo did the math in his head, it happened so fast Chanyeol didn’t even see him hesitate. “Then Luhan is eight and three-tenths, and Zitao is three and one-eighth.” Another innocent blink. “Approximately.”

Chanyeol suddenly felt like he needed to sit down.

While he was hanging onto the bedframe and willing his knees not to give out from the sheer shock, Kris’s brow furrowed. “Which one is which?” he asked.

“Luhan has light hair,” Kyungsoo said softly. “Zitao’s is dark.”

That meant Zitao was the one who had followed the camera on the first night. “He’s three?” Chanyeol asked incredulously, thinking of the guy’s broad shoulders, muscled arms, sharp face. “He looks older than you do.”

Kyungsoo’s pupils had started to return, making his eyes look almost normal in the harsh infirmary lighting, but for their brightness. “I don’t grow right,” he said softly.

That froze Chanyeol right in his tracks.

Outwardly, Kris didn’t seem to be fazed by it, but Chanyeol could see telltale lines appearing between his brows. “In what way do you not grow right?” Kris asked. No pity, no compassion, just business.

Kyungsoo answered him in kind - just business. A stray bitter thought passed through the back of Chanyeol’s mind that the two of them actually got on rather well in their emotionlessness. “My body doesn’t keep up with my brain,” he said, very matter of fact, like he’d heard it said to him or around him before. “It was supposed to.”

“And how do you know that?” Kris prompted, his gaze turning back to the readouts. The report on the screen was long and complex; Chanyeol could see him saving a copy of it to be studied later.

“Xing-ge told me,” Kyungsoo replied. “When Tao got taller than me, I asked.”

Kris pursed his lips. “I am probably going to regret asking this, but when was that?”

Again, Kyungsoo answered immediately, completely expressionless. “Three hundred twenty-two cycles ago.”

Kris met Chanyeol’s eyes. The dark-haired boy was at least a good fifteen centimeters taller than Kyungsoo, which meant he’d grown fifteen centimeters in less than a year. Probably more, to be perfectly honest - at his rate of growth, Kyungsoo was probably considerably smaller three hundred cycles ago than he was now.

Chanyeol wasn’t really certain what all the implications of that were, but he was pretty sure they weren’t good.

“Xing-ge,” he said suddenly, remembering. “You’ve mentioned him before. Who is he?”

To his surprise, though, Kris answered him before Kyungsoo could speak. “Doctor Zhang Yixing,” he said. “The head scientist on the station.”

He shot Chanyeol a quelling look, and it took Chanyeol a moment to realize why. If Kyungsoo’s Xing-ge had been on the station, that meant he was now dead. And Kyungsoo probably had no idea.

“Oh,” he said softly.

“Yeah.” Kris glanced at the clock - 29:56. “Alpha shift’s about to start. Get back to your station.”

Asshole. Chanyeol glared, but Kris had Captain Face on and he knew better than to think he was going to budge. “What about Kyungsoo?”

“I want to run a few more tests, then I’m putting him with someone who is not you for the day.” Chanyeol blinked and opened his mouth to protest, but Kris interrupted him before he could. “Do not fight me on this one, Yeol. He’ll be around. You don’t need the distraction.” He pointed at the door. “Get.”

Chanyeol got, but not before patting Kyungsoo’s arm reassuringly. Kyungsoo graced him with a smile, and he didn’t seem frightened or anything, so reluctantly Chanyeol let them be, swinging past the galley to pick up breakfast then returning to his engine room to attempt to get some actual work done.

Chapter Text

As soon as the lights changed to yellow, Luhan sat down in his chair and turned on his workstation.

Remote dial-in, active. Routing protocol, randomized and active. He double-checked all of it before touching anything outside the safety of the little dark space he’d carved for himself in the systems.

Luhan had almost been caught too many times to take chances.

As had become habit, the first thing Luhan did was hijack the cameras in the cockpit, to see who was at the controls this cycle. Today it was the darker one, Jongin.

Frowning, Luhan quickly deleted the record of his access from the log. He didn’t want Jongin to know he was watching - and despite what Jongin seemed to think, Luhan was perfectly aware that Jongin’s program could catch him.

Fortunately, so far Luhan had stayed several steps ahead. And even when Jongin had caught him, he still hadn’t been able to trace the connections back to Luhan’s nest.

That was good. Because as far as Luhan could tell, this was the only place on the ship with a terminal he could use without detection. He hadn’t worked out yet exactly why this particular terminal was hidden away from the others, disconnected until he had reactivated it, but that was just a matter of research, and he had a massive amount of free time on his hands.

Of course, he thought as he scowled at the tracker map, a large chunk of that free time was now spent worrying over his younger brothers. Once his watcher had fallen asleep, Kyungsoo had softly called to Luhan, apologizing for having the seizure, for getting caught. Luhan had no choice but to tell him he couldn’t come back now, not with that thing in his neck; Kyungsoo’s silence told him he agreed.

At least Kyungsoo had been able to find out something of use. Luhan cocked his head, but even quieting his own breath to near-silence, he could not hear Tao, had no idea where his youngest brother had disappeared to.

Not that he needed to ask, really. For several cycles now, Tao had spent the majority of his time watching one crew member, and no matter how many times Luhan had ordered him to come back, the moment he wasn’t paying attention Tao was gone again. He’d stopped bothering.

Still, Luhan kept part of his attention on the sounds he could hear from all over the ship, just in case either of the younger two needed him, as he picked his way through the systems, careful to erase every trace of his access as soon as it was created. He kept another part of his attention on the camera, watching Jongin to be sure he wasn’t spotted, but today Jongin appeared to be distracted with something. He had a tablet out, and another piece of equipment, something Luhan wasn’t entirely familiar with.

Hmm.

A quick search of the ship’s database identified it as a hard drive. Specifically, the hard drive from a Zodiac T40 hex-core shipboard systems management console. The exact model that had been in the space station where Luhan had grown up. It could be a coincidence, but the chance was low.

Luhan froze, his mind racing.

In the ten days since they had been taken from their home, Luhan had assumed that was all it was. That they had been taken. But he knew the station couldn’t run without that hard drive, so at the very least, the station had been disabled. At worst, it had been destroyed, and everything Luhan had ever known was gone.

And Luhan was quick-witted, Xing-ge had always said so. Quick to understand, to absorb new information, to adapt.

But this...this took a moment.

He’d been operating this whole time under one assumption - that Xing-ge was still alive, still out there. That he was on his way to come get them, or if he couldn’t, he would at least be there if Luhan could get away, could get back to him.

Now, though, Luhan could no longer reasonably operate under that assumption. The safest assumption for him to make would be to assume that he and his brothers were alone in the universe; that they had no one but each other and would have to make their own way.

It changed everything.

Luhan quickly tallied everything he knew about the ship. It wasn’t nearly as much as he would like, but then, he’d only had access to the system for about a week. According to the ship’s autopilot, their destination wasn’t for several weeks more. He had some time to learn more, to come up with a plan.

In the meantime, he quickly rearranged his objectives - not only figuring out how to get Kyungsoo away from the crew and how to escape, but also where to go once they did so, and how to survive when they got there. He was going to need more information - a lot more.

With a glance at the camera to ensure that Jongin was still busy, Luhan carefully circumvented the firewall and accessed the Interspace Core.

Research took him hours, but he did find something promising - a large planet with a high population, much of it relatively poor. Not the best place to live long term, but easy to get lost on, with a low cost of living, and even some ways for them to earn money. Labor, it looked like, and sporting competitions.

Luhan had never actually had to provide for himself or anyone else before ten days ago, but he learned fast. He’d find a way.

Checking once again to make sure Jongin wasn’t looking, Luhan made a two-degree adjustment to the autopilot, just enough of a change to take their course significantly closer to that planet. He was just finishing the process of obliterating the record of the change when his sensitive hearing caught an echo from both sides of the ship.

He looked up, cocking his head as he watched the screen. The cameras didn’t have sound, but that hardly mattered to Luhan, he could hear the Captain both through the intercom on the bridge and in his room on the other side of the ship.

“Jongin, how’s the drive coming?”

In the camera, Luhan saw Jongin sit up straighter, turn his head to look at the intercom - they all did that, even though the comms didn’t have any visual stimulus beyond an indicator light - and heave a sigh, his chest rising and falling. The sound of the sigh came a bare half-second later, filtering through the walls.

“Slow, sir. It’s very deeply encrypted. I’ve already broken through two layers, and the third is giving me trouble.”

“Oh yeah?” Kris asked, his deep, raspy voice unreadable. “Why is that?”

“It’s...well, sir, it’s encoded using an algorithm that’s...uncommon.” Jongin’s gaze had gone back down to the hardware in his lap. “Very uncommon.”

“Have you figured out which algorithm?”

A pause. Jongin was hesitant to say; even though he was alone his body language was loudly projecting it. “I think...it might be a GCSF algorithm, sir,” he said, more quietly. “And it’s an old one, hasn’t been in use for close to a decade.”

“Special Forces, huh?” Kris asked. “Odd. There’s no way that was a military facility.”

“It’s an old enough algorithm that someone non-military might have gotten their hands on it,” Jongin pointed out. “Not terribly likely, but who knows.”

“Yeah. Well, I’ll keep that in mind. You keep at it, kid.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, and Jongin, do me a favor and stop giving Sehun hair advice, okay?”

A blink. “Sir?”

“Sehun. He looks like someone left a pack of crayons on the solar deck and then upended him into the melted wax. Says it was your idea.”

Jongin started to laugh. Luhan cocked his head in interest - it was a loud, raucous sound, completely different from his usual soft-spoken tones.

“To be fair, sir,” he said when his giggles had quieted, “I told him to go with green and pink polka dots.”

Luhan frowned and quickly looked up ‘polka dots.’ It took him a few tries to get the spelling right.

Oh. Well that would be very ugly.

“Great,” Kris said. “Remind me to never let you design anything.”

He signed off, leaving Jongin still chuckling and Luhan not quite sure what the joke was.

 

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As soon as the medical scan was done, Kris took Kyungsoo to the galley for some food, then down to the gym for a physical fitness test. The results were...shocking, to say the least.

With each new tidbit revealed about the kids, it became more and more obvious that there was too much they didn’t understand about them. The unknown quality of it made Kris beyond uneasy and he needed to find some answers. So he took Kyungsoo down to the lowest level of the ship, away from the others. It was a measure of how the kids had been treated on the station that when Kris shut and locked the door, Kyungsoo didn’t even seem to notice he was trapped.

This workroom was one Minseok had claimed ages ago for his robotics hobby. Minseok wasn’t a scientist or an engineer by any means, but he was a tinkerer, and the workroom was strewn with half-finished new projects and half-cannibalized old ones. Kyungsoo moved from one worktable to another, curiously examining the projects without touching them.

Kris leaned against the door and watched him for a moment. The boy looked like a teenager, like a kid with a year more to go of high school, but he didn’t move like one. His steps were precisely placed, his gaze directed, not a movement wasted. It was a quality of movement that reminded Kris of Minseok more than anything, and he found that very interesting indeed, because Minseok had spent five years in the Galactic Core Special Forces.

And yet, when Kyungsoo turned to look at Kris with an unspoken question in his eyes, his face was so sweet and innocent that Kris had to violently squash the urge to coo. And that, he knew, was dangerous.

Kyungsoo was easy to underestimate, and Kris was not about to fall into the trap.

“What?” Kris asked, cocking his head. Kyungsoo didn’t answer the question immediately, looking at the project on the table and then back again at Kris. Kris was pretty sure he knew what he wanted to ask, but he still said, “You can ask your question.”

“What is this?” Kyungsoo said finally.

Kris shrugged. “I’m not exactly sure,” he admitted. “This is Minseok’s workroom. You’re going to be staying with him a lot, so you can ask him.” Kris was pretty sure it was a prototype for a prosthetic arm, but he didn’t know how secretive Minseok was going to be about his projects.

Kyungsoo’s gaze was unnervingly steady. “With Minseok?” he asked. “Not Chanyeol?”

Yeah, separating them was a good idea. “Chanyeol is busy,” Kris explained. “You’ll see him sometimes.” Kyungsoo nodded, showing no emotional reaction to this, positive or negative. Kris cocked his head. “The other two guys,” he began, keeping his tone neutral, “are they okay?” A blink. “Not hurt,” Kris elaborated. “Not hungry or in trouble.”

Slowly, Kyungsoo nodded. Okay, that was a start.

“Good,” Kris said. He tugged over Minseok’s task chair and straddled it backwards, crossing his arms over the backrest. “You said their names are Luhan and Zitao?”

Another nod. “Lu-ge,” Kyungsoo said softly. “Tao.”

“That’s what you call each other?” Nod. “Do they call you Kyung then?”

Kyungsoo shook his head. “Soo,” he corrected.

Cute. “So you call him Lu-ge, and you call Dr. Zhang Xing-ge. Who taught you that?”

“Xing-ge did,” Kyungsoo said. Which was what Kris had expected, since Zhang was a Chinese name, but the question was less about the answer and more about getting Kyungsoo talking.

“‘Ge’ means brother,” Kris noted. “Are Luhan and Tao your brothers?” A nod. “Is Xing-ge your brother?” Kyungsoo shook his head. “No?”

“Not the same,” Kyungsoo explained. He held out his hands, one stacked on top of the other. “Here.” He put his fists side by side. “Not here.”

So, a father or an uncle figure, rather than a brother. Kris wondered briefly why the scientist had chosen to have the kids call him brother rather than father. To make himself more approachable, maybe? Interesting. “Are you very close with your brothers?” Kyungsoo glanced around himself, as if he’d misunderstood the meaning of close. “I mean, do you spend a lot of time together? Do you talk a lot, touch each other?”

A little, silent oh. “Yes,” Kyungsoo agreed. “Lu-ge, talk. Tao, touch.”

Now he was getting somewhere. “That’s interesting,” Kris murmured. “Does Luhan not like to touch? Does Zitao not talk?”

Kyungsoo shook his head. “Lu-ge doesn’t like touch,” he said. “Tao likes touch very much.”

“And you accommodate them?” Kyungsoo nodded. Kris wasn’t too surprised - after all, Chanyeol was the touchiest person he’d ever met, and it was pretty obvious Kyungsoo had picked up on that. The kid was smart in unconventional ways as well as the normal ones, it seemed. “Do you talk to Lu-ge now?” he asked, casual and offhand.

Kyungsoo nodded. Kris’s gut lurched with triumph. Now they were getting somewhere.

“You have some way to communicate with him?”

Full lips opened, then abruptly closed again. Kyungsoo’s eyes went wide, alarm written across his face.

Shit.

Kris kept his face emotionless, disinterested, but he was kicking himself. Kyungsoo was way smarter than he looked and Kris hadn’t been careful enough.

When long moments went by without Kyungsoo answering, Kris tried a different tack. “If Tao likes to touch,” he said, thinking out loud, “and Luhan doesn’t, does Luhan indulge Tao, or does Tao keep his distance from Luhan?” There, that was safer.

Kyungsoo hesitated longer than before when answering. “Both,” he said finally. “Xing-ge said to.”

Hmm. “Are they okay, with you gone?” Kris asked, still aiming for a casual tone. “Do they miss you?”

“Tao does.” Kyungsoo seemed very sure of this.

“Is he lonely?”

Kyungsoo nodded.

“Is Luhan lonely?”

There was more hesitation on that one, but finally, Kyungsoo nodded.

Okay then. Kris took another stab at his goal. “Would they come out, if you asked them to?”

Kyungsoo cocked his head. “I won’t do that.”

Kris’s eyebrows raised. “Why not?” Kyungsoo shut his mouth and wouldn’t answer. “You don’t want them to come out? You don’t want to be together with them?” Plush lips pressed tighter, giving away Kyungsoo’s hidden emotions. Kris pushed his advantage. “Aren’t they hungry, cold, dirty? We would take care of them. We won’t put them in a locked room again as long as they choose the tag, like you did. Isn’t that a good choice?”

Kyungsoo still refused to answer, and Kris’s patience was wearing thin.

“Where are they hiding, Kyungsoo?” he asked.

Nothing.

Kris stood up, took a step forward. Kyungsoo took one backwards, instinctively, but he hit the worktable and could go no further. “Kyungsoo,” Kris said, his volume low but his tone steeling, “tell me where your brothers are.”

Frantically, Kyungsoo shook his head.

“Why not?” Kris asked, keeping his tone reasonable, logical. “You agreed to the tag freely. Why won’t you give them the same choice?”

Kyungsoo shook his head more, refusing to meet Kris’s eyes. His solid conviction to not say anything about this when he was so forthcoming about other things made Kris think someone had ordered him to keep his mouth shut. He wondered if this was just a matter of asking the right questions.

“How are you getting around the ship without anyone seeing you?” Kris asked.

Still nothing.

“How are you getting into the food? We know you’ve been stealing. That’s very bad of you.”

Kyungsoo’s eyes widened impossibly further, but again, he didn’t make a sound. But the admonishment had gotten a reaction when straight-up asking a question had not, so that was something.

Kris came closer and dropped into a crouch, putting his face below Kyungsoo’s eye level to reduce his threatening appearance. He reached up and took Kyungsoo’s shoulders in his hands. “Kyungsoo,” he said, “look at me.”

Kyungsoo followed his command, looking down, meeting his eyes.

“It is my responsibility to make sure everyone on this ship is healthy and safe,” Kris explained. “Right now, that means you and your brothers, too. I can’t do that if they’re hiding, and I can’t trust they won’t hurt someone.”

“They won’t hurt anyone,” Kyungsoo whispered.

Kris let his face show how little he believed that. “Kyungsoo,” he said, “you three shut the ship down. I can’t forgive that so easily. It was wrong of you to do that. It was bad.” Kyungsoo’s eyes slid away from his guiltily. Kris reached up and took his chin in hand, turning his face and forcing him to look at him. “You have to tell me where they are.”

“I can’t,” Kyungsoo whispered, distressed.

“I think you can. I think you won’t, because someone told you not to. Was it Luhan?” Kyungsoo’s reaction told Kris he’d hit on the truth. “This is my ship, Kyungsoo. I can’t have people I don’t know hiding in it and messing things up. What if Luhan touches the wrong thing, and something breaks? That could hurt everyone in the ship. You, me, Luhan, Tao…” He cocked an eyebrow. “Chanyeol. You don’t want that, do you? Do you want people to get hurt?”

Kyungsoo shook his head vigorously, nearly shaking loose Kris’s grip on his jaw.

“I didn’t think so. If you don’t want people to get hurt, you have to tell me how to find Luhan and Zitao. Otherwise, when something goes wrong, it will be your fault.”

That got a nerve. Kyungsoo jerked like he’d been hit, but he still didn’t speak.

“Tell me how to find them, Kyungsoo.”

No answer.

“They’re going to get hurt and it’s all your fault.”

Still no answer.

“Kyungsoo, tell me how to find them.”

Kyungsoo’s eyes were starting to fill with tears.

“Tell me!”

“No,” Kyungsoo said, shutting his eyes tightly. His shoulders were starting to tremble under Kris’s hands. He was close to giving in, Kris could feel it.

Kris gave Kyungsoo a little shake. “It’s all your fault,” he repeated, for effect.

“No!” Kyungsoo ripped himself out of Kris’s hands, pulling away with enough force that Kris nearly lost his balance and ended up on his ass. He righted himself and stood, reaching forward with the intent to catch Kyungsoo before he ran away, but Kyungsoo wasn’t running. He was crouched under the table, curled up in a ball, and his body was shivering violently, and fuck, starfucking fuck, Kris had triggered another damn seizure!

“Shit,” he murmured, dropping to his knees so he could reach under the table. “Kyungsoo, I’m sorry. Come on, kid, look at me.” Big, wet blue eyes met his, glassy and frightened, and Kris wanted to punch something. “You can’t hide under there, you’re going to hurt yourself. I’m going to pull you out, okay?” Kyungsoo didn’t answer - Kris wasn’t sure if he could, now - but he didn’t resist when Kris reached under the table and carefully slid him forward until he wasn’t within kicking distance of the steel table.

He laid a hand on the kid’s forehead, not liking how clammy he felt. Kris pulled off his jacket, folded it in half and carefully pushed it under Kyungsoo’s head. “Soo,” he murmured, in the most soothing tone he could muster, “I need you to listen to me. Breathe in.” He made a gesture like air filling his chest, counting to seven in his head. “Breathe out.” He reversed it, counting to eleven. Kyungsoo didn’t seem to be following, so Kris did it again, until Kyungsoo caught on and tried to follow him. The seizure hadn’t really begun, and it was clearly stress-triggered; if he could calm Kyungsoo down maybe he could stop the seizure, or keep it from getting too out of hand.

It seemed to help, in a limited way. When Kyungsoo started seizing, it wasn’t nearly as violent as the first one, and he was able to ride it out without the rescue medication. Kris found a polishing rag and wet it at the refresher, and as Kyungsoo was coming down, trembling and confused and unable to process his surroundings, Kris carefully wiped the sweat from his forehead, his exposed arms. The warm water seemed to help bring him back, but it was a long process.

Finally, Kyungsoo was coherent enough to form words. “I’m sorry,” was the first thing he said.

Kris was pretty sure he was the worst human being in the ‘Verse. “It’s okay, Soo,” Kris assured him. “It’s my fault. I didn’t realize...I won’t do that again.” He put his hand on Kyungsoo’s shoulder, both to comfort him and to reassure himself that the shakes had calmed. “Can you tell me how often that happens?”

Kyungsoo tried to sit up, but he was still shaky. Kris helped him up. “Only when I don’t take my medicine,” he said.

Of course, he would have been on medication. “Do you know what medicine you were taking?”

A nod. “Diazepam, five milligrams twice a day.” He recited it like he’d heard it said to him many times.

Okay then. Diazepam was a fairly common drug, all things considered. “We’ll try and get you some as soon as we can, okay?” They couldn’t have Kyungsoo seizing every time he was under duress; that could be terribly dangerous.

Kyungsoo nodded. “Thank you,” he said, voice still shaking.

Kris’s lips pressed down into a line. “Rest,” he commanded. Kyungsoo laid his head back down on Kris’s jacket and closed his eyes. In minutes, he was asleep. Crossing his arms over his upbent knees, Kris let his eyes rest on the teen’s lax features until his gaze went out of focus.

Interrogating Kyungsoo further was out of the question, at least until they had that medicine and he wasn’t in danger of seizing. Making sure the three kids reached the client completely unharmed was Priority Number One, and there was far too much riding on this job for Kris to take any chances.

But the longer they went without finding the other boys, the longer they ran free in the bowels of the ship, the more chance there was of something going wrong.

Fortunately, Kris had other options. Joonmyun’s report to him earlier had revealed that Zitao had taken an interest in Sehun, so maybe the youngest prisoner would be a better target for questioning. Or maybe, if Kris was patient enough, all three of them would come out of hiding eventually, overcome by curiosity and loneliness.

Considering these kids had shown themselves capable of completely disabling the ship, Kris was wary of pushing things too hard for no reason, for fear of them retaliating. Still, there was minimum of six weeks of travel time left to go - they could afford to wait the kids out.

Kyungsoo slept, and Kris sat beside him for a long time, watching over him, deep in thought.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Baekhyun reminded him, repeatedly, that they barely had money for food, let alone alcohol. It sucked, because Jongdae hadn’t felt so much like getting drunk in a long time.

“For fuck’s sake,” Baekhyun muttered as Jongdae brooded over his glass of ice water. “None of this was our fault, Jongdae. We weren’t going to leave a wreck like that station unsearched, we weren’t going to leave the doctor in there to die, we would currently be dead if we hadn’t let him take the mission and we had no way of knowing he was bullshitting about having the money. There was literally no other way this could have gone.” He prodded Jongdae in the side. “Your face is scaring away potential customers, so fix it!”

Sighing, Jongdae shot Baekhyun an annoyed look but schooled his expression into something less thunderous. Baek was right - they had used a chunk of their very limited funds to place an ad in the local news feed, because taking on a new job fast was the only way they were going to get the money to fuel up and get off this rock. So far, though, no one had come by to talk to them, and they were starting to get dirty looks from the bartender for taking up a table for hours and hours without buying anything.

“Maybe we’ll luck out,” Baekhyun was saying, “and Vicky will come through with the payment for that job.”

Jongdae’s eyebrow felt scathing enough to stripe burns across Baekhyun’s face. Baekhyun remained unimpressed.

“We can’t count on that and you know it,” Jongdae muttered. “She told him she’d wire us the money in a week. Even if she comes through, it’ll be too late. Angel gets impounded in two days if we can’t afford to pay for the dock.”

Baekhyun didn’t have anything to say to that. And normally, even though they spent nearly every waking moment in each other’s company, there would still be conversation between them as they observed the people around them, shared things they’d seen on the Core, discussed the future. But today they sat in silence, two morose-looking men with half-empty glasses of water sweating on the table in front of them.

It would be a wonder if anyone dared approach them in that state, and yet, someone finally did, late in the evening after they’d been sitting and waiting for nearly five hours.

“Hey,” he said as he approached. “You two the fellas with the ad in the feed?”

Immediately, Jongdae sat up straighter and plastered on his suave, handsome ‘dealing with clients’ face. Across from him, Baekhyun did the same.

“That’s us,” Jongdae said. “How can we help, friend?”

The man scratched the back of his neck awkwardly. “Ah, y’see, it’s just that...Well, I’ve got a big haul in my hold, and find myself without a crew to haul it.” He shrugged. “It’s not glamourous, but...I need help, and I can pay.”

Baekhyun made a face, but fortunately the prospective client was not looking at him. Jongdae kicked him under the table and asked kindly for more specifics.

In the end, they did end up taking the job, even though the labor-to-payoff ratio was a lot lower than their usual. They didn’t exactly have a choice. It was enough money to keep Angel docked and them fed for another day, anyway.

The man, as it turned out, was not kidding about the cargo load being big. It was actually huge, a massive freight ship with a proportionally massive hold that was filled to the brim. Even with the three of them, and even with power equipment, it would take all night to unload it.

Jongdae grit his teeth and rolled up his sleeves. “How the heck did you get all this into the ship in the first place?” he asked conversationally as he hauled himself up into a powered pallet jack.

The man heaved a sigh. “I started out with a crew of 20,” he muttered.

Oh. Shit. Baekhyun and Jongdae exchanged glances. “What happened?” Baekhyun asked.

A shrug. “Traffickers, what else? We stopped on a little planet for shore leave. I stayed on the ship, but my entire crew was drugged, taken, and off the planet before I even knew anything was wrong. Probably press-ganged into an asteroid mine somewhere now, who knows.” He dragged a hand down his face. “I lost a lot of good people, gone without a trace. Nothing else I could do but get as far as I could by myself, and sell off what I had.”

Damn. “I’m sorry,” Jongdae said, and meant it.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“So,” Kris said as he shut the door to the engine room behind him, “I’ve learned some interesting things today.”

Chanyeol glanced up at him warily. “Oh?” he asked, though he had a feeling he knew what this was about. “Like what?”

Kris didn’t immediately answer. Instead, he dropped a reading tablet onto Chanyeol’s drafting table. Chanyeol picked it up and started through it.

It was a results report from a physical fitness test. He was familiar with them - they all were, Kris had a military background and put them all through a baseline test every hundred cycles - but it took him a second to register the scores.

Holy shit.

Chanyeol scrolled back up to the top where the name of the examinee was and his jaw dropped. “These are Kyungsoo’s scores?”

“He scored higher than anyone on this ship, except Minseok,” Kris growled. “He’s half my size and considerably stronger than I am, and he’s the smallest of the three kids. What can the other two do?” He crossed his arms over his chest. “Still want to tell me they’re harmless and innocent?”

Something in his tone - the anger, or maybe the genuine fear buried under that anger - made Chanyeol’s stomach twist. “I never said they were harmless,” he spat. “I’m not a total idiot, despite what you seem to think about me these days. But they are innocent, Kris, or at least Kyungsoo is. He can’t help how he was made any more than any of the rest of us can.”

“Which is exactly why I am not treating this any differently than I would any other job!” Kris said, obviously exasperated. “It is none of our damn business, Yeol. There is a whole lot more going on here than just a regular prisoner transfer and I want no part of it. We are doing the job, according to the specs. The end. Kyungsoo’s not getting locked up again because I’m fairly certain there’s no point, but I will not just trust him, I will not let him roam this ship freely, and I am not letting you get attached.” Shocked at the outburst, Chanyeol opened his mouth, but Kris cut him off. “He’s staying with Minseok or with me until further notice.”

“Kris -”

Kris dragged a big, square hand down his face. “Please don’t fight me on this, Yeol,” he muttered. “Just trust me. Please?”

Damn. Chanyeol could never resist that. “Fine,” he agreed grudgingly. “Can I talk to him sometimes, at least? Or are you imposing a no-contact rule, too?”

Kris regarded him with unreadable eyes. “...I’m not going to stop you from talking to him, no,” he said finally. “Just. Be careful, okay? You know sometimes you start talking and things just fall out of your mouth.”

Yeah. He knew. “I can do that,” Chanyeol said, and it came out a little more eager than he meant it to. Clearing his throat, he adopted a more professional tone. “It’ll be fine.”

His husband cracked a smile. “Sure it will,” he said, but his tone had become teasing. “You’re totally not going to blurt out the manual override password or anything.”

Honestly! “That was once,” Chanyeol whined, and Kris actually chuckled. The sound of his laughter made that twisted knot that had been there since their argument last night loosen.

Chanyeol couldn’t help it, he stood and stepped into Kris’s arms. Kris pulled him close, resting his head against Chanyeol’s hair.

“You are so stubborn,” Kris muttered.

“Look who’s talking,” Chanyeol retorted, prodding him in the side. Kris felt so solid and strong in his arms; it was really very difficult to believe little Kyungsoo could outperform him physically. “Good thing you love me.”

He felt more than saw Kris’s wide smile against his hair. “Yeah, good thing I do.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The next time Sehun woke up with a stranger in his bed, he was a little more prepared. Still, it didn’t stop him from being startled into wakefulness by a tentative touch to his head, and when he jerked awake, Zitao pulled his hand sharply back.

“Sorry,” the guy stage-whispered. His eyes were still glued to Sehun’s hair, and Sehun internally thanked Jongin for his ridiculous idea. “It’s even prettier now,” he said softly.

Sehun huffed out a breath, propping himself up on his elbow. Personally, he thought the full spectrum had turned out great, vibrant and eye-catching. And at least he was wearing pants tonight, wary as he was of nighttime visitors. “Are you aware that this is not normal?” he asked conversationally.

Zitao’s glowing eyes met his. Sehun blinked a little - the blue light was bright enough to sting his dilated pupils. “Yes,” he said, still keeping his voice low. “But I’m not normal.”

Well. At least he knew it. “Look,” Sehun said, getting down to business. “I could get in very big trouble if you were found in here.” Zitao’s eyes widened - apparently this had not occurred to him. “My captain said, you’re only allowed to stay with me if you let me tag you.”

Zitao cocked his head. In the soft ambient light of the floor strips and his own eyes, his jawline looked razor-sharp. “Tag?” he asked. And then, with a blink of realization. “Oh, like Soo?”

So they were paying attention to what was going on on the ship. Sehun wondered exactly how. “Yeah, like that. Everyone on the crew has one. It means you belong to the ship.” He had rehearsed this speech in his mind a couple of times, and chosen that wording specifically. He didn’t want to say part of the crew, in case the kid got delusions of equality, but he definitely did want to use inclusive language. Considering Zitao, knowingly or not, was risking his life just to touch Sehun’s hair, he was guessing the kid was, on some level, lonely.

“I have one,” he said suddenly. “See? Right here.” And in a burst of genius, he picked up Zitao’s hand and pressed it against the back of his neck, where the tiny scar was raised against his skin.

Zitao’s hand was warm. Like, way warmer than it should be. The sudden shift in temperature made Sehun shudder, and Zitao’s fingers curiously exploring the spot were not helping.

Then Zitao’s fingers slid up, into the short hairs at Sehun’s nape, and Sehun really should have seen that coming. Really. But it wasn’t hurting anything to let him touch, and Sehun was trying to build some trust, here, so he didn’t move.

A slow, pretty smile spread over Zitao’s face. “So soft,” he murmured. Sehun’s breath stuttered.

And then Zitao’s smile abruptly folded in on itself, replaced with consternation. “Lu-ge says, I can’t,” he said. “I’m not allowed.”

Wait, what? By now Sehun had guessed Lu-ge must be the last one of the kids, the blond one, but had he somehow listened in on their plan and warned Zitao?

“Do you always do what Lu-ge tells you to do?” Sehun asked, mostly joking.

“Yes,” Zitao answered immediately, completely guileless.

And, well, Sehun couldn’t help but gape at that. “What? Why?

Zitao opened his mouth. Closed it again. Cocked his head, looking like nothing so much as a confused puppy. “Because he’s older than me,” he said. “And smarter.”

“Who says?” Sehun asked, partially because he was, in fact, trying to convince Zitao to give in, and partially because that attitude just really grated on his nerves. “Who told you he was smarter?”

“Lu-ge did,” Zitao said, and Sehun could see it, could actually see the moment it clicked. “Oh,” he said, voice small.

“And even if it was true,” Sehun said, really warming up to the subject now. “That doesn’t mean Lu-ge is always right. Even smart people are wrong sometimes. You gotta make your own choices.”

“But what if I pick wrong?” Zitao asked, looking very genuinely concerned about the possibility. It was equal parts endearing and frustrating.

“Then you pick wrong,” Sehun said. “You deal with the consequences and next time you know better. That’s how it works.” He sat up and reached over to his bedside shelf, where the tracking injector sat. “It’s your choice. Either you let me do this, or you can’t come visit me anymore.” It was a gamble, giving him an ultimatum like that; if Zitao chose not to accept the tag and took him seriously on his threat, he might be losing his only chance. Unless he tried to like, tackle the guy to the ground or something, but Joonmyun had said that the trackers were really difficult to inject into an unwilling person, unless they were unconscious.

Zitao’s face was slowly compressing under the weight of his consideration. “Lu-ge says, if I say yes, I can’t go back to him,” he said.

“Oh.” Well, that was going to make it a little bit of a harder sell. “Well, I’m sure he didn’t mean forever, right?”

His eyes were so bright. Sehun wondered what he would look like with dark eyes.

“I - ” Zitao bit his lip. Sehun’s eyes dropped down to his mouth reflexively. “No. He doesn’t mean forever.”

Well then. Sehun held up the syringe gun. “It’s your choice.”

Silence. Zitao thought, and thought, and thought, and Sehun held his breath. Finally, Zitao’s expression changed, going hard and determined.

“Yes,” he said decisively. “I want to stay with you. I’ll let you tag me.”

Sehun’s heart leapt oddly. “Good,” he praised, giving Zitao a bright smile of encouragement. “Let me see the back of your neck, then.”

Zitao ducked his head, exposing the knobs of his spine at the back of his neck. Sehun found the right spot, up high near his hairline where it would be difficult to spot and impossible to remove on his own, but off to the side where it wouldn’t touch the spinal cord, and pressed the syringe to the skin. “This might hurt,” he warned, and pressed down before Zitao could react.

“Ow,” Zitao said as the tracker pierced his skin, but he didn’t move, didn’t flinch. It was over quickly and Sehun set the emptied syringe down and pulled the antiseptic wipe from his bedside shelf to clean the little wound.

“There,” he said, letting out an internal sigh of relief. “You belong to the Phoenix now.”

Zitao’s eyes were very wide in the dark. “I’ve never belonged before,” he said, and wow, okay, that hit Sehun harder than he had expected. “So...I can stay? With you?”

Oh. Right. This meant he was going to have to babysit indefinitely, didn’t it? “Yeah,” Sehun said. “I guess it’ll be easiest if you just stay on my schedule with me.” He glanced over at the clock. “We still have five more hours in Gamma shift. We should get some sleep.”

“Okay,” Zitao said agreeably, burrowing down into the sheets facing Sehun just like he had the first night. “Thank you.”

Sehun shook his head - he’d just chained the boy to the ship and the crew, taking away the freedom he’d worked so hard for, and Zitao was thanking him for it. Weird. “Hey, Zitao,” he said, before he could think the better of it. “Why did you come to me, specifically? Out of everyone on the ship...why me?”

Zitao watched him as he got comfortable in the sheets, lying on his side with half a person’s-width between them. “Because you played with me,” he murmured. Surprised, Sehun’s brow furrowed. “On the first night,” Zitao clarified. “You wanted to play.”

Gaping, Sehun asked, “How did you know that was me?” But Zitao didn’t answer, he only gave Sehun a small, soft, mysterious smile. “Fine,” Sehun said, not wanting to push his luck too much. “Well, you’re stuck with me now, so you’d better get some sleep.”

“Okay,” Zitao said, closing his eyes obediently. Blinking into the sudden darkness - he hadn’t realized how much light Zitao’s eyes actually gave off - Sehun stayed awake and thinking until he heard Zitao’s breathing deepen, slow and steady. Eventually, his own eyes drifted closed, and the rhythm of the boy’s breath lulled him to sleep.

Chapter Text

Kris caught Sehun about ten minutes into Alpha shift, when he was just finishing up his chores. Sehun had been contemplating what to do during his free shift, especially now that he’d suddenly gained a shadow in the form of Zitao, perched on the counter where Sehun had told him to wait and watching him work with intense blue eyes, just like he had been for the last four hours. Sehun kept waiting for him to fidget, or ask questions, or get up and move, but he didn’t do any of that. He just sat, and watched, seemingly perfectly content to glue his eyes to the back of Sehun’s head, and it was fucking weird at first but after the first hour Sehun all but forgot he was there.

When Kris came in, he stopped, blinked rather sleepily, and then glanced at Sehun. “Nighttime visitors again?” he asked dryly as he resumed foraging for his breakfast.

“Yeah. He agreed to the tag, so I told him he could stick around.”

Kris’s noise of acknowledgement was slightly muffled by his head in the fridge. “Works for me. If he causes trouble, you will be paying for it.”

Sehun frowned. It was not like Kris to make threats like that, and the way it was worded was awkward - when he did make threats, they were a hell of a lot more creative than that. Kris pulled his head out of the fridge and caught his eye, cocking an eyebrow. His gaze flicked to Zitao, and Sehun followed it, to see the dark-haired boy staring at them with wide-eyed concern. Then Sehun got it - Kris thought threatening Sehun was more likely to inspire compliance than threatening Zitao directly. And, judging by Zitao’s stricken face, he was probably right.

“Understood, sir,” Sehun said, schooling his face into an emotionless mask to keep from smiling. Kris’s ability to know exactly what to say to get obedience from the people around him never failed to amaze Sehun.

“Good.” Kris looked over at Zitao. “You must be Tao. Kyungsoo mentioned you to me.”

Tao. Sehun liked it. Zitao was a pretty name, but Tao was a cool name. It suited his ninja-assassin looks much better.

“Are you being nice to Kyungsoo?” Zitao - Tao - wanted to know. “Lu-ge says you’re not nice.”

There it was again. Lu-ge. Sehun was starting to not like the guy just on principle.

“Lu-ge is right,” Kris said pointedly, pulling himself up to his full height and staring down at Tao with narrowed eyes and arms crossed intimidatingly over his chest. “I’m not nice. But Kyungsoo knows I won’t hurt him as long as he’s good. He’s promised to be good, so I won’t hurt him. Make sense?” Tao nodded, looking relieved. Sehun found it really annoying that Tao just believed Kris, without even a second thought. The kid didn’t have a suspicious bone in his body and Sehun could tell it was going to get him into trouble someday. “Okay. So then, if you are good, no one will hurt you. Just listen to what the crew says and do as you’re told and you’ll be fine. Agreed?”

“Okay,” Tao said, nodding very solemnly. “I’ll be good.”

“Glad to hear it.” Kris gathered up his chosen breakfast and gave Sehun a look. “When you’re done here, I want you to run him through a full fitness test. Start at the Advanced level and go down if you need to, but I doubt you will. Really push him, I want to see what he’s capable of. Have a full report to me by the end of the shift.”

Damn, the Advanced level? That was usually reserved for Special Forces level fitness; Sehun himself couldn’t do it. Kris could, as could Joonmyun, and Minseok actually had tested even higher, the bastard, but the Intermediate level was all that was required to crew most spaceships, and all that Kris required of his crew.

“Yes sir!” Sehun called after Kris’s retreating back; the Captain hadn’t even bothered to wait for an answer. He stuck his tongue out in Kris’s general direction, gathered up his cleaning supplies, and started putting them away.

"Are you hungry?" he asked absently as he moved, because he was.

Tao gave him big eyes. "Yes," he said.

So Sehun fed him, watching him scarf down a meal while chomping on his own. He ate quickly, and a lot, and his table manners were atrocious. But then, so were Sehun's, so he could hardly call him out on it.

It was a half an hour later by the time they headed down to the fitness center. Tao looked around curiously as they entered.

"Oh," he said. "I know how to do this."

Sehun blinked at him in surprise, but in the next minute realized, right, those broad shoulders hadn't come from Tao sitting on his ass his whole life. He'd probably been put through a whole fitness regimen by the scientists on the station.

"Alright then," he said, grabbing the tester's tablet off the wall and selecting the Advanced exam. "I'm going to ask you to do certain things. Do your very best, okay?"

Tao nodded, looking determined, and Sehun started the test.

By the third exercise, Sehun switched to the Expert test. By the sixth, he'd given up on the benchmarks entirely and just let Tao go as long and as hard as he wanted while Sehun picked his jaw up off the floor.

Tao was off the fucking charts. His strength and stamina in the calisthenics alone was unreal. The Expert level tested at the hardest variations of basic exercises, so instead of pushups, he did handstand pushups, instead of squats, pistol squats, etcetera. And he got through a hundred or more reps of each without stopping, slowing, resting or even fucking breaking a sweat. It was baffling, it was ridiculous, and it was really bloody impressive.

Sehun held his breath when Tao got on the machines.

True to his word, Tao knew how to operate them. Clearly, some things were in different places, but he figured it out quickly, and when Sehun saw just how much weight he was loading on he nearly called Tao to a stop, because he was going to hurt himself.

Then Tao started curling the entire stack like it was nothing and Sehun shut his mouth.

Really push him, Kris had said. I want to see what he’s capable of. Watching Tao lift the maximum amount of weight in a motion that used one of the smallest muscle groups in the body, Sehun was starting to think they didn’t have the equipment on this ship to really push him.

The weird thing was, Tao didn’t look like he could lift that kind of weight. He was nicely built, sure, at least what Sehun could see in that shapeless gray outfit he’d come to them in, but he wasn’t huge at all. Sehun had never seen anyone lift like that who didn’t have biceps bigger than their head. Now that he thought about it, the physics of it were pretty damn unlikely. This wasn’t a comic book; the power had to be coming from somewhere.

Tao let the weight down with a sharp exhale and rattled off his rep count like he’d done this a hundred times before, then moved to change the machine around for the next exercise.

“Tao,” Sehun called out, and Tao looked up at him with bright, questioning eyes. “Take your shirt off.”

“Okay,” Tao said, and yanked it off over his head without a second thought.

Sehun blinked. He’d been all set to answer the inevitable why, some bullshit about watching his form, but Tao hadn’t even asked. Just done as he was told. Without questioning, or hesitation.

And...wow.

Unconsciously coming closer, Sehun watched Tao prep the machine and tried not to drool. Tao’s face might have looked young, but that was not a teenager’s body. He wasn’t particularly big, but holy cow was he ripped, muscles visible that Sehun had only ever before seen on those slightly freaky anatomical drawings where the figure had no skin.

By the time Tao had reset all the pulleys, changed the attachment, and sat down on the bench for lateral pulldowns, Sehun had moved right up behind him. So he got a nice, up-close view of the complex, deeply cut muscles of Tao’s shoulders and back bunching and flexing as he pulled the bar down to touch his chest and eased it back up. Sehun had to do these for his own test, with about one-sixth that amount of weight, and knew they were pretty intense if done correctly, but Tao made them look easy. His form was utterly perfect - shoulders back, chest lifted, lower back arched just enough - unconsciously showing off every line and curve of his body.

Curious, Sehun reached out and placed his palm flat between Tao’s shoulder blades. His back felt hot under Sehun’s hand, skin way too warm but surprisingly still not very sweaty, and his muscles were tighter and firmer even than they looked, solid in a way that Sehun had never felt a human being be before.

Tao stuttered for just a second, surprised by the touch, but quickly recovered and kept going, pulling the bar down again. The muscles under Sehun’s hand contracted with the movement, hardening completely. Sehun blinked in surprise. He’d heard muscle referred to as steely before, mostly in advertisements for the latest anabolic, but Sehun had handled a lot of steel in his last few years on a spaceship and knew better. The human body never actually felt steely, no matter how good shape the person was in. There was always some amount of give, if you pushed hard enough; a human was still just human. Tao, on the other hand, actually felt like steel, so hard Sehun could not find any give in his muscles at all.

“What the hell are you even made of?” Sehun mumbled under his breath, poking curiously at Tao’s back. Tao let the bar down and looked over his shoulder, cheeks finally starting to pink with exertion after a workout that would have caused most men to pass out.

“Cells?” Tao guessed, sounding unsure.

Caught off-guard, Sehun laughed. Tao watched him with wide eyes. “Sorry, that was rhetorical. But are you sure you’re not an android or something?”

With his head cocked back over his shoulder like that, Tao’s eyes looked very big and innocent, his jawline and nose very sharp. “What’s an android?” he asked.

“A robot,” Sehun told him, finding this conversation more amusing than he probably should. “A man made of metal.”

“Oh.” Tao somehow cocked his head even more, his black hair falling across his forehead. “I’m not made of metal.” Then his brow furrowed in thought, eyes dropping away from Sehun’s face for a moment before snapping back up, wide and distressed. “I don’t think I’m made of metal. Am I made of metal?”

Laughing, Sehun put his hands on Tao’s shoulders instinctively. “I don’t actually think you are,” he assured the guy. “But if you like, when we’re done here, we can go down to the infirmary and check.” Sehun knew Kris had put Kyungsoo through a full diagnostic, so he’d probably want to do the same with Tao anyway.

Tao nodded fervently. “I don’t want to be made of metal,” he said. Then he blinked. “Why did you think I might be?”

Sehun hummed thoughtfully. “You’re just a lot...harder than most people,” he explained clumsily. He let his hands slide down Tao’s shoulders and over his upper arms, fascinated by the slightly alien feel of Tao’s body, and squeezed Tao’s biceps; even at rest the muscles had almost no give at all, carved stone under warm smooth skin. Tao kept his eyes on Sehun’s face, seeming to not notice - or at least not care - that he was being touched. “Are you this hard all over?” Sehun asked, mostly rhetorically.

Tao blinked, and to Sehun’s shock, looked down at his own crotch consideringly. “Not at the moment,” he said, gaze returning to Sehun’s face.

Sehun burst out laughing. Tao smiled in return, but it was a bemused sort of smile, like he wasn’t quite sure what was so funny. That made it even more hilarious, and Sehun did nothing but hang onto Tao’s shoulders and laugh for an inappropriately long amount of time.

“Okay, hotshot,” Sehun finally choked out, still giggling like an idiot. “You ready to keep going?”

Tao’s cute, confused smile faded back into that determined face, which was way more intense but somehow just as cute. “Yes,” he said firmly.

Sehun moved away and let Tao get back to work.

With the ice broken even further, Sehun found himself falling into a playful rapport with Tao, encouraging him and teasing him into more weight, more sets, slower, further, harder. His heart jumped with excitement with every step Tao took towards total physical impossibility, until he was actively cheering when Tao managed to push out one more rep, face flushed and arms shaking.

They got through the entire test, and Sehun set down the tablet and joined Tao on the mat, folding his body into stretches that were second nature after an entire childhood’s worth of dance classes. Tao mimicked his movement, going just as deep and holding each one for just as long.

“How do you feel?” Sehun asked, settling into a Russian split and pulling one arm across his chest to stretch his shoulder. Tao did the same, seeming to have no trouble getting his long legs out in a straight line, and Sehun internally wondered how someone with a body so tight could be that flexible.

“I feel…” Tao stopped and thought about it. “....Trembly.” He cocked his head. “Everything’s buzzing.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Sehun said, internally thinking well at least that’s human enough. “You were amazing,” he told Tao in total honesty, and the praise had the kid lighting up like a ship taking off. “I’ve never seen anything like that. Kris is going to flip.”

“I can flip,” Tao said eagerly. “I can flip all sorts of ways.”

Somehow, Sehun wasn’t surprised. “Finish stretching and you can show me,” he said, because if Tao had any more surprises up his currently nonexistent sleeves, Kris would want to know.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The next morning saw Jongdae and Baekhyun, after a fitful night’s sleep and a too-meager breakfast, right back where they were the night before - the same table in the same shitty little bar, hoping and praying that a client would approach them.

After an hour, someone did approach them, a rubberbanded stack of credits dropping onto the tabletop in front of Jongdae’s face. Startled, Jongdae jumped, and looked up.

“Is that enough?” Yixing asked.

Jongdae stared, momentarily too shocked to answer. Baekhyun reached across the table and picked up the stack, ruffling it with his thumb.

“Holy balls. Where did you get all this?” he asked, sounding impressed.

“The very grateful mother of a young boy with an undiagnosed gluten intolerance,” Yixing said shortly. “Is it enough?”

Baekhyun counted. Jongdae watched Yixing warily while listening to the count climb up. The doctor looked like he hadn’t slept at all, more pale and drawn and tired-looking than even right after they’d brought him in.

“That would get us to Rhydia,” Baekhyun finally said, “but probably not further, with fuel prices as they are.”

Yixing’s eyes narrowed. “That’s in the opposite direction.”

“It’s the only spaceport close enough. I think you underestimate how much it costs to fuel a damn spaceship.”

Clearly, this was not what Yixing wanted to hear. He flopped heavily into the booth next to Baekhyun, who squawked and shifted hurriedly to get out of the way. “I think you are underestimating how far I will go to get my kids back,” he said flatly, hands folded, forearms braced on the table and eyes boring into Jongdae’s.

Jongdae threw his hands in the air. “What would you have me do?!” he cried. “I can’t magically make fuel appear. And you are asking me to risk my life, and Baekhyun’s, and my ship, without offering us anything in return or even a damn explanation.”

A frown. “What is there to explain? My children were kidnapped, I want them back.”

Jongdae took a deep, meditative breath. “Okay, well, I’m going to start by calling bullshit on that right there,” he said, his voice back down to a normal register and volume. “The station you were on was clearly a lab of some description, and clearly had lots and lots of cash sunk into its construction. According to the Core, that station does not exist, and apparently neither do you.” Yixing opened his mouth, but Jongdae kept talking, running him right over. “You said your eldest kid was eight years old, but you also said you’d been on the station for ten, which means the kids were born on the station. What about their mother? You haven’t mentioned her even once.”

“And for that matter,” Baekhyun interjected, “why the hell would a big-name contract mercenary ship like the Phoenix have any interest in taking a couple of brats? The only answer is that someone wants them badly enough to spend a fuckton of money to get them, it doesn’t matter if it’s legal, and clearly, they want you dead in the process.”

Yixing shut his mouth, his face going carefully blank. Fuck. “Damnit, Yixing, there’s more going on here and you’re doing a piss-poor job of hiding it,” Jongdae growled. “If you want our help, you owe us some kind of an explanation.”

Yixing stared. Jongdae stared back, waiting. Baekhyun glanced between the two of them curiously.

Finally, Yixing closed his eyes. “Fine,” he said grudgingly. “You want to know what’s going on, I’ll tell you. But not here.”

“Fortunately,” Baekhyun said cheerfully, “we have a lovely ship just a short walk away.” He gestured, and Yixing got up.

Jongdae followed, making sure Yixing’s credits were safely tucked in his inside jacket pocket. “Just so we’re clear, this deposit does nothing but buy you our consideration,” he said firmly. “No guarantees.”

Once inside the ship, Jongdae closed the door but halted the forward progress with a word. “That’s as far as you go,” he said. “You wanted to talk in private, well, this is private enough.” He gestured at the mostly-empty cargo hold around them.

“Fine.” Yixing pulled himself up onto a nearby crate, folding his legs up under him crisscross. For a doctor, he was improbably flexible, his knees dropping easily to the plastic. He looked like he was settling in for a long tale, so Jongdae sank to the floor with his back to the wall, and Baekhyun followed their example by perching on another crate nearby, feet dangling.

“Well?” Jongdae asked when they were settled.

A sigh. “Ten years ago, when I was just out of my residency and beginning to practice, I was approached by a man with an...unusual job offer. My area of specialty is medical genetics; I’d studied it since well before university, worked in genetic labs throughout my education, spent every free moment for over a decade looking for solutions to genetic conditions and diseases.”

Baekhyun cocked his head. “Why genetics?”

Jongdae rolled his eyes. “Don’t sidetrack him, Baek.”

But it was too late; Yixing had already turned to Baekhyun to answer. “My true love didn’t die of an incurable genetic disease, if that’s what you’re wondering,” he said dryly. “I just love the field. It’s fascinating. Humanity is out here in the stars, making the very laws of physics bend to our wills, but we can still be destroyed by weaknesses in our own construction. My dream was to change that.”

Eyebrows raising, Jongdae murmured, “You don’t dream small, do you?”

It won him the tiniest hint of a smile. “No. And when the job offer was made to me, it was my dream come true.” He looked down at his hands. “A large foundation dedicated to the eradication of certain deadly genetic diseases had discovered my research and used it as a basis for a huge breakthrough in the field.”

Yixing stopped, and was silent for a moment. Jongdae ended up reaching out with a foot to kick the crate he was sitting on. “Well?”

Shaking himself, Yixing continued. “They’d found a way to manipulate the human genome that was much more reliable, much more applicable, than the methods previously available.”

Jongdae blinked. “You’re talking about genetic engineering.”

“The study has been around for centuries, but for a wide variety of functional and sociopolitical reasons, was never mainstream adopted. The technology that man showed me rewrote my worldview. I’d never been so excited in my life. I had to be a part of it. Fortunately, that was exactly why he approached me.”

Baekhyun nodded thoughtfully. “He offered you a job.”

“He offered me a space station. The perfect lab environment, anything I wanted customized to my exact specifications, and a team of researchers as skilled and dedicated as I was.”

Something about the direction of this story was starting to give Jongdae goosebumps. “And what did he want you to do with this perfect lab, exactly?”

Yixing smiled at him, a little bit dreamy. “Create the perfect human.”

Those goosebumps broke out into full-on chills.

“Shit,” Baekhyun breathed. “So your kids…?”

“Are the result of my research, yes. The process is much more versatile than any method before it, but it’s more volatile, too, unfortunately. I lost two embryos and one child before I realized I was being too ambitious, and scaled back my attempts. Luhan, he was my first true success.” Yixing’s smile was soft, fond. “Not perfect, not without fault, but the first step towards my goal. Kyungsoo was the next child to survive, and he is...more. More issues, more problems than Luhan, but more of what I wanted in my end result, too. He’s so smart, it’s almost frightening.” He laughed, sounding anything but frightened. “I lost one more child after him, but then, finally, I got it right. Zitao, he’s my crowning achievement. Strong, fast, smart and quick to learn. Friendly, sweet-natured, kind. Talented. Resistant to disease and difficult to injure. Practically perfect in every measurable way.” Yixing’s face clouded suddenly. “Well...except for one.”

Jongdae’s heart was pounding oddly in his chest. The way Yixing talked about his experiments had him partway between sympathetic and completely freaked out. “Do I want to know?”

Yixing’s smile was sad. “One requirement imposed upon my research was that I induce accelerated aging. It makes sense from a scientific standpoint - I can’t really afford to wait a lifetime to see how my kids grow up, after all. It does make things a little complicated, though.”

“Wait.” Baekhyun held up a hand in protest. “What do you mean, accelerated aging? How accelerated?”

Yixing looked at him. “Well, for example, at eight standard years of real time, Luhan looks like he could be in university.”

Wait. What. No. What. “I thought you said kids,” Jongdae hissed. “Small children.

A blink. “I never said they were small,” Yixing pointed out. “I only said their ages, their true ages. It is not my fault if you made assumptions.”

Stung, Jongdae crossed his arms. “Forgive me for not immediately suspecting illegal genetic engineering,” he growled. “Sounds to me like you’re sore over losing your research, to be honest. They’re not even really your sons.”

Yixing’s glare pinned Jongdae right to the floor. “They are my sons,” he snapped. “I used my own genetic code as the base, but more importantly, I raised them. I changed their diapers. I taught them to speak and walk and read and write. I held them when they cried and I celebrated all their successes with them.” The impassioned anger in his voice, in his eyes, shocked Jongdae into silence. “They are mine and they are helpless out there! Literally the only humans they have ever known are me and the scientists who worked for me. They have never known hate, or violence, or deceit. They will instinctively trust anything anyone says, instinctively obey orders. They are vulnerable and they need me.” Yixing’s lips thinned into a line, his hands clenching into fists in front of him. “I will find them.

Silence. There wasn’t one thing Jongdae could find to say. Baekhyun was never at a loss for words, though. “Shit, man.”

Yixing turned to him. “Either you two are going to help me, or you’re not, but I am not wasting any more time. Every day they are out there is an increased chance that I’ll lose them forever. Whoever wants them, whoever has taken them, it can’t be for anything good and I can’t stand the thought that they might - ” He cut himself off, his lips pressing together unhappily, and Jongdae’s insides jolted strangely.

He got to his feet. Yixing’s eyes widened, questioning, but Jongdae held out a hand to stop him from speaking. “Shut up for a second. I need to think.” His legs started moving, feet taking him forward without any real direction, just away from Yixing’s big brown eyes and too-convincing pleas.

Genetically engineered supermen. Well, okay, superboys. But, wait, no, if what Yixing was saying about them aging faster than normal was true, then even if they were boys now, in a year or two they would definitely be men.

So yes. Genetically engineered supermen. Three of them. Currently in the hands of a notorious mercenary, likely hired by someone with a lot of money who desperately wanted their hands on said supermen.

Why?

Well, there was at least one really obvious answer.

“Yixing,” Jongdae called, turning around. His thoughtful pacing had taken him halfway around the cargo bay; he had to raise his voice to be heard. “Could the technology you were working with have a military application?”

Yixing blinked, surprised. “Military? No no, that wasn’t the point! I was trying to make people better, to remove disease and weakness and bring humanity’s potential to the surface.”

“Yes, fine, I get that, but could it be used by the military?” Jongdae started pacing again. “You said the youngest kid, Zitao, he’s really strong and fast, and resistant to injury.”

“And that he would obey orders instinctively,” Baekhyun pointed out quietly, and fuck, Jongdae had almost forgotten about that one.

“Yes, but…” Yixing trailed off, his eyes wide. “You don’t think that whoever arranged for them to be kidnapped is planning to...”

Jongdae blew out a sharp breath. “I think that if anyone has that kind of technology in their hands, the galaxy is screwed,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s the government, or a private organization, or the freaking Pope. There’s absolutely no way that technology wouldn’t find its way into the hands of an army at one point or another. Super strong, super fast, super smart, and super obedient, and on top of all that they’d mature in only a few years? You’ve created the ultimate human weapon.”

Yixing dragged his hand down his face, eyes horrified. “That wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” he murmured, distressed.

“For someone so smart,” Baekhyun said, “you’re awfully naïve.”

“We have to get them back,” Jongdae realized out loud. “Like, this isn’t even about the money any more. The Core government finds out about this tech, they’re going to use it, and the first people who are going to suffer are the ones living out here on the fringes, the ones living at the edges of the law.”

Baekhyun stopped kicking his legs, looking up at Jongdae in alarm. “Whoa, man, hold up,” he said, brow furrowing. “That’s skipping A, B and C and jumping straight to Q. We don’t actually know who hired the Phoenix or why they want the kids. We can’t drop everything and go sprinting across the system chasing a vague and frankly slightly unbelievable story.”

Jongdae wheeled on him. “Anyone with the kind of money and lack of morals it takes to hire the Phoenix for a burn-and-grab is not someone who should have super soldiers,” he argued. “It doesn’t actually matter who it is. If they wanted Yixing’s research for legit reasons, they would have gone through legit channels.”

“Literally all we have is this guy’s word that his research even is what he says it is!” Baekhyun pointed out. “And I don’t know if you’ve noticed but he seems to be a hell of a good liar.”

That was...actually a really good point. Baekhyun raised an eyebrow at Jongdae, a look that Jongdae could interpret as you’re being super gullible again. Pursing his lips, Jongdae turned to Yixing. “Well?” he asked. “Can you back up your story at all?”

Yixing met his gaze flatly. “Give me Core access and I can.”

Baekhyun snorted, but Jongdae was already moving to the cargo hold’s check-in terminal. “You don’t have an identity, remember?” he sneered.

“Yes, and isn’t that interesting?” Yixing shot back. “I had one the day I was attacked, and now I don’t?” Baekhyun didn’t have an answer to that, because they all knew what it meant. Someone had declared Yixing dead. “This isn’t tied to my fingerprint. Anonymous account.”

Jongdae ran his own finger over the scanner and logged in with his password. “Here,” he murmured, stepping to the side. Yixing crowded in next to him, with Baekhyun coming up behind them to peer over their shoulders.

It took a few moments for Yixing to navigate to the service he was talking about, an anonymous data storage system that Jongdae himself also had an account with, and log in using a more traditional username and password. He was close enough that Jongdae felt him blow out a relieved breath when his credentials were accepted.

The folder he opened contained hundreds of files, each labelled with a universal stardate. Yixing opened the very first one at the top, dated for just over a week before Angel had found him. “There,” he said, stepping back to let Baekhyun take his place. “That’s the last report I sent to my backer.”

Jongdae leaned in, Baek at his side, and started to skim. It was a long-ass and very dry report, very science-y, including charts and graphs and tables. The summary at the end stuck out, though.

“This past week’s tests have proven that Zitao meets or surpasses all goals set for this project,” Jongdae read aloud, pointing to the screen to show Baekhyun where he was seeing this. “As of today I am declaring the project a success. I ask the Company for further direction and respectfully submit that the accelerated aging requirement be removed in future experiments. As I have stated in the past, the process of accelerated growth may be affecting the results of the experiments and will need to be dropped to test the feasibility of public use of this technology.” Jongdae glanced over his shoulder. “You were trying to get them to let your kids grow up normally?”

Yixing’s smile held absolutely no humor. “Zitao’s expected total lifespan is fifteen years,” he said quietly. “Yes. I was.”

Baekhyun pulled a hand down his face. “You sent your superiors a report that you had completed the goals of the project,” he thought out loud. “You included a note indicating you weren’t happy with the parameters they set for you. A week later, someone is sent to kill you and kidnap your research.”

Jongdae glanced at him. “That looks pretty bad, doesn’t it?” he murmured. Baekhyun’s lips curled unhappily, but he nodded. “I seriously cannot think of a single scenario that doesn’t end with the technology being used to overthrow the balance of power in the ‘Verse. Whether it’s Yixing’s own employers who did this, or someone else intercepted the report and decided to take this for themselves, there is just no way they’re not planning to use it for personal gain.”

Glancing between the two of them, Yixing asked, “So...you’ll help me?”

Jongdae took a deep breath. “I don’t think we have much of a choice,” he said, glancing to Baekhyun. Baekhyun nodded, looking uncharacteristically solemn. “Literally the only other thing we could do would be to leave you behind and wait for the inevitable shitstorm to ruin our lives.”

“I can’t pay you,” Yixing pointed out. “Like you said, apparently I don’t exist. What’s in your pocket is all I had in the ‘Verse. If I can’t pay you, how will I be able to trust you won’t betray me, or run and leave me to die when it gets dangerous? Because it probably will.”

“Fortunately for you,” Baekhyun said, slapping Yixing on the shoulder, “danger is not new to us. And Jongdae’s right. What you’ve let loose in the universe could literally rip apart humanity if it falls into the wrong hands.” He leaned on the crate and eyed Yixing. “We’re invested.”

Jongdae growled under his breath. “Unfortunately, none of this solves the problem of us needing fuel to get off this rock,” he pointed out. “We could take what we have and go to Rhydia, try our luck in a bigger port, but there’s no guarantees there either.”

Baekhyun’s eyes slid over to Jongdae. “Or we could go with Plan B.”

Fuck. “No, Baek.”

Yixing looked from Baekhyun to Jongdae and back again. “There’s a Plan B?”

Damnit. “Plan B is an absolute last resort, because it has a tendency to get us banned from ports. Or shot.”

Baekhyun shrugged. “Only if we get caught. We get caught a lot less often these days.”

Damnit. “We can’t afford the risk! Not now, not if we’re planning to go chasing after the goddamn Phoenix.”

“What’s Plan B?” Yixing asked curiously.

“A con,” Baekhyun said. The glimmer of mischief in his eye made Jongdae want to groan. “A variation on the old fiddle game.”

A blink. “Ah,” Yixing said. “I see why that might get you banned from ports.”

“It’s too old, now,” Jongdae argued. “People are too wary. No one’s gonna buy that fiddle, no matter how hard you sell it.”

“I can be very convincing,” Baekhyun murmured. “So can you. And frankly, so can Yixing, if the way he handled the Warrior is any indication. And I won’t be selling a fiddle.” His grin was not friendly in the slightest. “You’ll be selling the fiddle. I’m the shmuck our mark is going to get the better of.” He jerked a thumb at Yixing. “Our doctor here can just play the bait.”

Yixing looked intrigued. Jongdae put his face in his hands to keep from smacking his head into the wall.

“This is a terrible plan.”

Chapter Text

While Tao was in the sonic shower, Sehun dug through his closet for something the guy could wear that wasn’t two weeks rank. He ended up pulling out a pair of sweatpants - because he was dead certain none of his skinny jeans would fit over Tao’s muscled thighs - and an old baseball-style shirt, grey heather with long charcoal-grey sleeves, thin and soft and well-worn. It had always been a bit too big for him, anyway. He had a brief moment of indecision regarding whether to lend Tao underwear or let him freeball in Sehun’s pants, but ended up digging out a pair of boxer-briefs that he had only just purchased and hadn’t worn, deciding he could sacrifice them to the noble cause of not letting this guy’s dick swing free.

Tao came out of the shower wrapped in Sehun’s robe, though of course since the dude had no sense of modesty the fronts were barely overlapped, revealing a nice long slice of torso and flashes of thigh that were high enough to be nearly obscene. Sehun shoved the clothes at him and turned his back just as Tao shrugged out of the robe.

“Okay,” Tao said a few moments later, “I’m dressed.”

Sehun turned, half expecting him to have the boxers on his head or something equally ridiculous, but he’d figured the clothes out correctly, at least. The sweatpants were fine, a little tight through the thighs maybe, but since Sehun had twigs for legs that was only to be expected.

The shirt, though. What was Sehun thinking, giving Tao a shirt so soft and worn, so…clingy? It hugged every hard curve of his chest, his arms, his shoulders, bunching up in the dips between muscles as if to underscore how incredibly fucking sexy Tao’s build really was.

Sehun’s mouth was dry, his pulse rapid. He couldn’t tear his eyes away. It was downright terrible. He felt like the worst kind of pervert.

“Did I do it wrong?” Tao asked softly, his bright eyes wide with dismay.

Ripping his gaze away from the way the underarm of the shirt bunched in a fan, stretched out to accommodate the depth of Tao’s chest, Sehun licked his dry lips unconsciously and asked, “What?”

Tao’s eyes seemed to look right into his mind, like he could read every thought in Sehun’s head. (That was a mortifying concept.) “You’re staring at me,” he said, sounding very unsure. “You look upset. Your breathing went strange. I did something wrong.”

Shit. “No, you did nothing wrong,” Sehun said with a sigh. He closed his eyes and willed his heart rate down. Prisoner, he reminded himself. Genetic freak. No idea what he could do. Also, kid. Totally innocent. You’re a sick fuck, Oh Sehun.

Warmth at his front made him open his eyes. Tao had moved closer, inspecting Sehun with a worried look, his palms open in front of him and hovering over Sehun’s shoulders, like he wanted to touch but was stopping himself for some reason. “Are you in pain?” Tao asked, all innocent concern. “Can I help?”

You could let me touch you, Sehun’s traitorous mind whispered, and Sehun felt himself flush. The problem was, if he said that out loud, Tao would allow it without question. He’d figured that out earlier. He could touch Tao, probably in any way he wished, and Tao wouldn’t stop him.

Yeah. Sehun was a terrible person.

Dark brows were furrowed. “Your face is turning red,” Tao observed, which of course made Sehun flush harder. Tao made a distressed noise, his eyes widening, and reached up, as if to cup Sehun’s face in his hands. Sehun’s heart stopped - but so did Tao’s hands, the motion aborted before he made contact. “Sorry,” Tao said immediately, locking his hands behind his back like a recalcitrant child.

Sehun frowned. “Why are you sorry?”

“Xing-ge told me I can never touch someone else,” Tao explained, totally earnest. The factualness of the statement made Sehun’s blood run cold. “I must let others touch me, but I must not touch.”

Why?” Sehun asked, a little more sharply than he intended. Tao flinched visibly at his tone, drawing in on himself, making Sehun feel like he’d kicked a puppy. “No, Tao, I’m sorry, I’m not angry at you. Please, just...why?”

Tao blinked up at him, biting at his lower lip. The very apples of his cheeks were stained the lightest pink. Was he embarrassed?

“I...I have to be careful,” Tao said slowly. “I hurt people. If I’m not careful, I hurt people.”

Oh.

“I don’t mean to!” Tao exclaimed, very earnest. “It’s just...Xing-ge said, I’m strong. I’m very strong. If I’m not aware of how I touch, I...I get excited. I squeeze, or I gesture too big, like this,” and he demonstrated, throwing his arms out in a way that made Sehun jump back instinctively. “One of the scientist ges, I...I didn’t mean to! But I hit him. It was an accident, but...I broke his arm.”

Oh.

“I didn’t mean to,” Tao said miserably, bringing his arms back in and wrapping them around himself, as if to rein them in. Sehun watched his long fingers wrap self-consciously around his bicep and thought, this is wrong.

“Have you been practicing not hurting people when you touch?” Sehun asked. Tao looked up, and he looked so hopeful, Sehun couldn’t help it. He put his hand on the kid’s arm, unable to miss how the tension dropped from Tao’s shoulders the moment he made contact. He’s starved for affection, Sehun realized. Poor kid.

“I have,” Tao said, nodding. “Kyungsoo, and Lu-ge, they’re...they’re more like me, I don’t hurt them when I touch them. So I practice, with them. And one of the scientist ges, Minho-ge, he was...taller, bigger than the others. He let me practice with him, too.”

Sehun had a sudden, terrible realization of what an unscrupulous scientist could ask of Tao in the name of practice. “What kinds of touches did you practice?” he asked, scared of the answer but needing to know if Tao had been used - abused - in that way.

“Just...touches?” Tao asked, cocking his head like he didn’t understand the question. “Like, here, or here,” and he held his hands over Sehun’s shoulders, his forearms. Sehun let out a long breath of relief. Thank you, evil geneticists, for not being that kind of evil. “Sometimes holding hands, or hugging. That’s the best, but it’s hard, I have to concentrate or I squeeze too much.” He opened his mouth, as if he was going to say more, but then closed it, that little bare flush coloring his cheeks again.

Sehun cocked an eyebrow at him. “What?”

“Um.” Tao looked down, up, to the side, anywhere but at Sehun - then slid his eyes back to Sehun’s face, exactly like a puppy. “I...I’m sorry. But. I really want to…touch you.” He bit his lip. “Is that okay?”

Fuck. Sehun had just gotten his heart rate back to normal, too. “I don’t know,” he said, stalling for time. “Will you hurt me?”

“No!” Tao assured him immediately. “I just...you’re shaped differently. I’ve never seen someone made like you.”

That made Sehun crack a smile. “Like a bunch of sticks tied together, you mean?” His utter inability to gain weight had been the bane of his existence since puberty began.

Tao blinked at him. “You’re very thin,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard the joke, or more likely hadn’t understood it. “Very very long and thin. It’s…it looks interesting. It’s different.” His hands were hovering again, over Sehun’s upper arms. “Can I touch you?”

What a fucking question. “Only if I can touch you,” Sehun shot back impulsively.

Another innocent blink. “Of course you can,” Tao said, as if it was obvious. “I said, I have to be careful, but people don’t have to be careful with me. That’s not how it works.”

And just like that, there was ice in Sehun’s bloodstream again. “Tao,” he said, making his voice as serious and earnest as he could. “This is very important, so I want you to listen carefully, okay?” Tao’s big blue eyes made him feel like he was talking to a small child, which is why he locked his gaze onto them, forcing himself to forget for the moment the deceptive adultness of Tao’s body. “Not all touching is good touching. Even if it doesn’t hurt, some touches feel bad, or wrong. And if someone’s touch feels wrong, you always have the right to tell them to stop, and you must. Do you understand?”

Tao cocked his head. “No,” he said truthfully. “Touching is nice. Touch is...I like touching.” He frowned. “Why would touching feel bad?”

“It’s not something I can explain,” Sehun said, trying to figure out how to get his point across. “But if it ever happens to you, you will know. Just because you haven’t felt a bad touch yet doesn’t mean you won’t someday. And, you know, it goes the other way, too. If someone tells you to stop touching them, you have to stop, even if you know you’re not hurting them.”

“...Okay,” Tao said, sounding confused and vulnerable. “But. Is my touch bad? Should I...not touch you?”

Sehun sighed. “I don’t know yet, Tao,” he said gently. “Let’s find out.” He held out his hands in invitation.

Carefully, almost reverently, Tao slid his fingers over Sehun’s. Sehun had expected him to take his hands, but Tao kept going, his too-warm touch sliding up Sehun’s forearms, ghosting over the ticklish insides of his elbows and coming to rest with his palms flat on Sehun’s biceps.

Sehun’s heart was going to pound out of his chest.

“Oh,” Tao breathed, his eyes locked on Sehun’s arms. “It feels cool. And soft. I didn’t think…”

Well now he was self-conscious. “Not everyone is as hard as you are, Tao,” he said, annoyed. And because his pride was stung, he clenched his fist and tightened his arm muscles, flexing his bicep into Tao’s hand.

“Oh!” Tao’s eyes went wide. “Do that again!”

Huffing, Sehun rolled his eyes. “You’re so easily amused,” he muttered, but he indulged the guy, who moved his fingers around, poking and prodding at the muscle as if to determine exactly how it was constructed, how it was attached, how it functioned. He hissed softly as Tao’s prodding got a little too enthusiastic. “I see now what your Xing-ge was talking about.”

“Sorry!” Tao said, yanking his hands back with wide eyes.

“No, don’t - ” Sehun let out a long breath. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to say you were hurting me. But that, that’s about the line, okay? You can’t touch me any harder than that.”

“O-okay.” Tao held his hands out, exactly the way Sehun had. “My turn?”

Sehun met his eyes steadily. “Are you saying that because you think it’s what I want, or do you actually want me to touch you?” he asked.

“I want you to touch me,” Tao assured him quickly, even a little too quickly. Sehun’s eyebrows raised, but he took the offer, sliding his fingers across Tao’s palms and up his arms.

Unlike Tao had with him, Sehun kept his touch full-contact and firm, not wanting to tickle, or, heavens forfend, tease. Tao was every bit as marble-hard as he had been while he was doing the test, but this time there was a layer of thin, soft polyester blend stretched over his body, adding an element of touchableness that had Sehun’s breath coming short. It’s just to get him comfortable with me, Sehun reminded himself, as he wrapped his hands around Tao’s upper arms, thumbs resting over the crest of his biceps.

Just as Sehun had done, Tao clenched his fist and flexed his arm. His bicep expanded impossibly in Sehun’s hand, to the point where Sehun could no longer span halfway around with his fingers, inhumanly hard with deep, muscular striations that were visible through skin and fabric, almost grotesque. Sehun knew his eyes were wide but he couldn’t help it - that was just not possible.

“Tao,” he breathed, and then winced at how aroused he sounded. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Did the scientists ever explain to you why you’re so strong?”

Tao nodded. “They said it’s flexion-induced muscular hyperplasia combined with an increased capacity for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and lowered production of cortisol.”

Sehun blinked. “I have no idea what that means,” he said.

“Neither do I,” Tao told him, “but that’s why. Lu-ge understands it, but he’s not very good at explaining things.”

Sehun hummed. “Maybe Kris would know what it means,” he wondered aloud. “Or Joonmyun. Or maybe we could look it up.”

Tao took a small step forward, shrugging. The movement made Sehun’s hands slide higher on Tao’s shoulders. “I don’t understand me,” he said quietly. “I just am me. Other people, they understand.”

His hands rose slowly to Sehun’s waist, resting against his sides with a tentative, delicate touch. He wasn’t meeting Sehun’s eyes, but Sehun could feel his body shifting, preparing to take another step forward when he thought Sehun wouldn’t notice - like a dog trying to sneak into your lap. Sehun hid his grin and asked, “Tao, do you want to hug me?”

Big blue eyes blinked softly at him. “Yes, please?” he murmured.

Sehun’s heart just melted, pooling on the floor at his feet. “Be gentle,” he admonished, but he pulled the boy closer, wrapped his arms around his shoulders. Tao’s own slid around the small of Sehun’s back, and he tucked his head against the crook of Sehun’s neck and let out a long, low sigh of contentment.

After a moment, Sehun let his own head drop to Tao’s shoulder. Tao was very warm, and very solid, and very close to Sehun’s height, and this should not feel as good as it did. “Do you want to understand?” he asked, going back to their conversation. “Are you curious about why you are the way you are?”

Tao’s nod made his hair tickle Sehun’s neck. “I asked, sometimes,” he said, “and sometimes Xing-ge would explain. But sometimes, he’d just say, ‘You don’t need to know that’, and so I wouldn’t ask again.”

Without thinking, Sehun rubbed little circles on Tao’s back. Tao arched like a cat, pushing his spine into the touch without moving his arms or face away from Sehun, stretching all those beautifully defined back muscles out. They felt tight, and after the stress he’d just put them through they probably were, so Sehun started digging his fingers in, attempting to massage out some of the stiffness. Tao groaned in pleasure, his grip on Sehun’s waist tightening. Sehun’s heart thumped at the sheer power in Tao’s hands - he wasn’t even trying to squeeze, but already it felt like his grip might bruise.

“Watch your hands, Tao,” he said, keeping his tone as gentle as he could. He didn’t want to scare the guy off.

“Sorry,” Tao said, his hands relaxing. “I really am practicing.” He sighed, shifting to push a different part of his back under Sehun’s fingers. “This feels so nice,” he whined. “I miss touching. Since Soo’s been away I haven’t touched anyone.”

Sehun chuckled. “It’s only been a couple days.”

Tao made another little whining noise under his breath, this one more petulant. “But I like touching,” he pouted. “It’s the best.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Sehun murmured. “When I’m working, I have to be professional, so no touching. But when we’re alone, you can touch me, okay? As long as you’re always careful not to squeeze or hit me, you can touch me.”

That made Tao raise his head. “Really?” he asked, eyes shining with hope. “Thank you!” He pulled Sehun close, hugging him with a force that knocked the breath from Sehun’s lungs, made his spine crack.

“Tao!” Sehun squeaked, and immediately Tao’s arms relaxed. Fuck, he was so strong.

“Sorry!” Tao said, but he was still smiling, and he looked so happy, Sehun couldn’t help but smile back.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jongdae ate his dinner at the corner of the bar, alone and quiet and carefully not looking around the room too much. The "alone" part was an illusion, and one he couldn't afford to break; Baekhyun and Yixing were both eating in the same establishment but their entire plan revolved around the mark believing the three of them were total strangers.

The mark in question was the bartender, a slightly grizzled, rather mean-looking older man. Jongdae didn't know if he actually was mean, and it hardly mattered. They only needed him to be two things - gullible, and greedy.

Jongdae did risk looking up as he was coming to the end of his food, glancing aimlessly around the room and noting his partners' progress through their own meals. Baekhyun's waitress was handing him his check, and Yixing was just finishing up, which meant they were right on schedule. Jongdae went back to his meal, focusing on finishing up.

He was just signalling the bartender for his tab when Baekhyun went up to the register, making some cheerful small talk with the hostess as he paid. He left, without incident, and Jongdae held his breath. The next step - the hook, so to speak - they'd trusted to Yixing, and if it wasn't done right, they were right where they were when they started, but out the cost of three dinners.

But right on schedule, a few minutes later Yixing was approaching the bartender, just a few seats from Jongdae's position. "Excuse me," he said, and Jongdae let out a quiet huff of relief. He sounded cheerful, earnest, and not the least bit shady, which was perfect for the role he was playing.

"Yeah?" the bartender asked.

Yixing set a cheap, common tablet on the bartop. "This was sitting on the seat at one of the tables over there," he said, and that was Jongdae's cue. He sat up straighter, feigning great interest in these proceedings. "I guess that man must have left it. Do you have a way to contact him?"

The bartender grunted, uninterested. "Which table?" Yixing indicated the table Baekhyun had just vacated. "Nah, that guy paid in cash. We'll hold it, I guess." He reached for the tablet, and Yixing picked it up to hand it to him.

"Hey, wait," Jongdae called, just loud enough for the bartender and Yixing to hear him. Yixing stopped mid-motion, and they both looked at him. "I'll buy that off of you."

Yixing gave him a confused, incredulous face. "Sir, did you miss the part where I said I found this? It's not mine to sell."

Jongdae raised an eyebrow. "I'll give you ten thousand credits for it," he said.

That got the bartender's attention, which it was meant to. Yixing, however, played his part perfectly, taking a step backwards and giving Jongdae his most judgmental look to date. "Um, no thank you," he said. "It's not mine to sell." He gave the bartender a look, like get a load of this whackjob. It was perfectly played, honestly. Jongdae was actually kind of impressed.

Jongdae shrugged, and Yixing handed the tablet over. "Have a nice night," he said, and walked away.

The bartender looked at the cheap, unassuming tablet in his hand, then up at Jongdae. "Ten thousand?" he asked.

His eyes widening eagerly, Jongdae leaned forward, all but making a grabby-hands motion at the tablet. Alarmed, the bartender leaned back, instinctively protecting the tablet in his hands.

"Fifteen thousand," Jongdae said immediately.

The bartender's eyes narrowed shrewdly, and Jongdae knew they had him. "What's so special about this tablet?" he asked. "It can't be worth more than a couple hundred at most."

"It's not the tablet, friend," Jongdae said, his voice lowering conspiratorially. "It's what's on the tablet."

Slightly watery eyes stared in confusion. Jongdae sighed.

"Look," he murmured. "That guy, who was at that table? He's a top engineer at a my employer's competitor. What's on that tablet would be worthless to you, but it's very important to me." Jongdae crossed his arms on the table. "Are you going to give it to me, or not? If that guy comes back you can just tell him it never showed up, someone must have taken it."

The bartender looked down at the tablet in his hands. Looked up at Jongdae, who tried very hard to look as shady and greedy and slimy as possible. This was the hard part - walking the line between making the mark uncomfortable, and appealing to his greed.

"I don't know..." the bartender said quietly. "That guy is right. It's not mine to give, really."

Perfect. "Twenty thousand," Jongdae said.

A bit lip, slightly overplayed hesitation. The bartender was trying to con Jongdae, which was kind of hilarious, to be honest. "I really don't think I could part with it," he said.

And now, Jongdae went in for the kill. He sighed heavily, his face falling. "Well, if that's how it's gotta be," he said, straightening up like he was planning to leave. "Too bad."

Pale eyes widened in alarm. "Well," the man said hurriedly, "maybe not for twenty, anyway."

Jongdae stopped, and regarded him carefully. "Okay..." he said slowly. "How much?"

The gears crunched in the mark's head as he tried to gauge how far Jongdae might be willing to go for these 'trade secrets'. "Your employer would be compensating you for these, right?" the man said.

Oh. The mark had inadvertently just given Jongdae the perfect opportunity to up the stakes considerably. "Yeah," Jongdae admitted. "And I'm not gonna drop any names, but trust me, this is a big one.”

The bartender nodded. "Then you can give me a hundred thousand," he murmured. "Since I'm compromising my integrity."

Ooooh, damn. Jongdae pretended to consider carefully, chewing on his lip and eyeing the tablet. The bartender waited, visibly holding his breath.

Finally, Jongdae nodded. "It's a deal," he muttered, grudgingly. "I don't have that kinda cash on me, though. I'll have to call my employer and get the funds. Hang onto that and do not lose it. I'll be back in an hour."

The bartender nodded, grinning, and Jongdae walked out of the restaurant, suppressing the urge to skip with his heart pounding giddily.

Well out of sight of the restaurant, Jongdae met back up with Baekhyun. "How much did he go for?" Baekhyun asked quietly.

"A hundred," Jongdae crowed, soft but triumphant. "If you can get a fourth of that back we're set for quite a while."

"A fourth?" Baekhyun asked incredulously. "Please. I'll get half at least. You be ready to get us the hell off this rock." He slapped Jongdae's shoulder companionably and strode past, headed back to the restaurant.

For his part, Jongdae broke into a jog, headed for the docks. He found Yixing waiting by Angel, slouched carelessly against her side entrance.

"Hey," Jongdae called, and Yixing looked up. "You did pretty good there. He ate it up."

Yixing snorted. "You literally just told me play dumb but honest," he pointed out.

"Yeah, well, you have a good face for it." Jongdae entered the keycode into the ship's door, making sure he blocked the pad with his body. They might have agreed to help Yixing, but that didn't mean Jongdae was ready to hand over the keys to his girl just yet.

They entered the ship, and Jongdae began preflight procedures, setting the diagnostics in motion and making his way to the cockpit. They'd used the money Yixing had given them to purchase enough fuel and supplies to get to Red Rock, where they'd pick up the rest of what they needed.

"Okay," Yixing said, following Jongdae to the cockpit. "So how, exactly, does this work again?"

Still riding the adrenaline high from his part of the con, Jongdae saw no reason not to divulge. "Goes like this," he said, powering on systems and checking readouts like second nature. "Me jumping in with the offer to buy the tablet for stupid amounts of money, that gets the mark's attention. You refusing reminds him of ethics, that just letting it go is not really the right thing to do."

Yixing blinked. "Why would you want to remind him of that?"

"Because," Jongdae explained, "it gives me a reason to drive the bargaining up higher. He knows it's wrong, so it takes a larger amount of money for him to give in - but he does give in, eventually. In this case, he upbid me to a hundred thousand."

A low whistle. "Wow. What did you tell him was on it?"

Jongdae grinned. "Trade secrets," he said gleefully. "Works every time. Because then, he's not swindling a person, you see? He's swindling a corporation, and in his mind, probably a very big one for whom that kind of cash is chump change. It makes it more believable that I could actually come up with the money, and gives me a reason to leave without actually making the purchase."

Yixing plopped into the co-pilot's seat, and Jongdae started the ignition, warming up the thrusters. "So right now, that guy thinks you're coming back?"

Jongdae nodded. "He thinks he's got a hundred-thousand credit payout coming to him within the hour. And Baek is probably storming in there right about now, making a scene and demanding to know where his tablet is."

His chin resting in his hand, Yixing regarded Jongdae with shrewd eyes. "An honest man would give Baekhyun the tablet back," he murmured. "But, an honest man probably would not have agreed to sell something that wasn't his for such a huge amount, either."

That made Jongdae smile. "You got it," he agreed. "Baek will do everything from burst into tears to threaten to call the cops to get the bartender to offer to buy the tablet from him. Then he'll barter him up, but not so high that the bartender doesn't think he isn't going to more than make it up when I get back with the money. He pays Baekhyun out of the restaurant's safe, planning to put it back once I pay him and pocket the rest."

"But you're not coming back," Yixing realized. "That's why it's important for you to bid high, so Baekhyun has room to do the same."

Jongdae nodded. The diagnostics were back - everything was humming and they were good to go. "Baekhyun can't overbid," he agreed. "The mark has to think he's making a significant profit, or he'll never go for it."

Yixing shook his head. "Downright evil," he murmured, but he sounded rather impressed.

Still, Jongdae gave him a look. "We're out to survive no matter what it takes," he pointed out. "If you want our help, you better be up for that."

A half-smile, tight and humorless. "There is nothing I will not do to get my kids back," Yixing said. "Try me." Then, his smile turned more genuine. “Or did you not notice that I didn’t actually pay for dinner?”

Jongdae grinned back. “I did notice, actually. Neither did I.”

At that moment, the side door opened and Baekhyun was yelling up the hall for them to get gone, already! As requested, Jongdae began launch procedures the moment the outer door was locked and sealed.

"How'd we do?" Jongdae asked, as Baekhyun stumbled into the cockpit, out of breath and high on adrenaline.

"Sixty," Baekhyun shot back gleefully. "Mister get-a-fourth-and-we're-set. O ye of little faith. Get us the fuck off this rock, I want to be light-years away before he realizes he's been had."

Grinning, Jongdae strapped himself in and did just that, blasting into the freedom of space.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It always made the best sound when Chanyeol hit the bunk on his back.

“Fuck,” Chanyeol breathed, reaching. Kris was already climbing up onto the bunk and into his arms.

“You are such a damned pain in my ass,” Kris gasped against Chanyeol’s mouth, letting his jaw drop and Chanyeol lick in past his lips and trace out his teeth.

Chanyeol hummed smugly. “You love it,” he cooed. “God, fuck me baby.”

Kris was totally on board with that. “How do you want me?” he asked, mouthing up Chanyeol’s slightly stubbly jawline towards his ear.

“Hard,” Chanyeol growled, without hesitation. “Fucking wreck me.”

Shit, that never failed to make Kris’s heart thump wildly. But this was a game they’d been playing since they met, and it was easy for Kris to fall into the role, sliding his hands down Chanyeol’s arms and wrapping around his wrists. Chanyeol’s struggle of protest was token - Kris was a little bit taller, but they were pretty evenly matched for strength, and if Chanyeol wanted to get free, Kris would have to work to hold him.

But Chanyeol didn’t want to get free. Some nights, Chanyeol wanted Kris to shove him down and push him around and fuck him like he didn’t love him, and apparently tonight was one of them. It had taken Kris a while to really get that, but once he understood, neither of them had looked back.

Kris slammed Chanyeol’s wrists down to the bed, far enough from Chanyeol’s body to make his muscles stretch but not enough to strain. Predictably, Chanyeol gasped and arched eagerly into it, his long body pressing up against Kris’s and his legs raising to frame Kris’s hips.

Digging his teeth into Chanyeol’s trapezius won Kris a choked-off moan. Curling inward so he could shove his thigh roughly against Chanyeol’s cock elicited an even better reaction, Chanyeol’s eyes rolling back into his head and his hips jerking frantically. Kris held on for a long moment, letting Chanyeol work himself up while he plotted his next move. It took thought and planning to walk this line, but after four years of marriage Kris was well-practiced.

He pulled away while Chanyeol was still mid-grind and sat up, pulling Chanyeol up with him. Transferring both of Chanyeol’s wrists to one hand, Kris used his control over Chanyeol’s arms to turn his upper body, his other hand sliding under Chanyeol’s hips and lifting. Pliant and obedient, Chanyeol flipped over onto his front, settling on his knees with his ass in the air. Kris dragged his wrists out far enough in front of him that Chanyeol had to balance on his shoulders and collarbone, his head turned to the side, cheek resting on the sheets. His big brown eyes were locked onto Kris’s, adoration and trust shining through his eyelashes and making Kris’s breath come short.

Kris had long arms, which came in handy at times like these, when he was able to hold Chanyeol’s wrists down and still reach down his body to pull open his belt and his fly and yank his pants and underwear down to his knees. Chanyeol made a small noise at being manhandled, his lip finding its way between his teeth and his eyes fluttering shut.

It took a little bit of contortion to get to the lube without letting Chanyeol’s wrists free, but he managed, and flicked the cap open with his thumb before upending it over his husband’s exposed ass. Normally, he’d prefer to be less clinical about this, prefer to take his time and treat Chanyeol the right way, but Chanyeol had asked to be used. Experience told Kris to drag open his own trousers before getting his hand wet, for the triple purposes of not getting lube on his clothes, making Chanyeol wait and feel the cold lube dripping down his crack, and letting Chanyeol get a good view of his own cock, already stiff and well on its way to rock-solid, standing out proud from his body. As always, the sight made Chanyeol moan, and as always Chanyeol’s moan made Kris’s cock jerk and harden further.

Fuck, he was so gone on this man.

“I’m going to fuck you into next week,” Kris promised, sliding his fingers through the mess on Chanyeol’s skin and probing roughly between his asscheeks. Dirty talking didn’t come naturally to him, but Chanyeol had a thing for his voice and he knew it. “I’m going to break you open.”

Chanyeol moaned, arching back into Kris’s hand as Kris plunged two long fingers inside him, all the way up to the knuckle. They did this often enough that Chanyeol’s body opened for him easily; if Kris wasn’t planning to be so rough he wouldn’t bother with fingering at all. As it was, he ground his fingers in hard, pushing into Chanyeol’s prostate until Chanyeol was squirming and crying out from the stimulation.

Kris added a third finger much more quickly than he normally would have liked, scissoring them widely open as he pumped his hand in and out. There was a glimmer of a tear in the corner of Chanyeol’s eye, and Kris fought the urge to stop, to slow down. If Chanyeol was in pain, he would say so - he liked to be dominated, not hurt.

“Kris,” Chanyeol breathed. “Please, please -”

Fuck. Kris shut his eyes tightly and swallowed down the jolt of arousal that slammed into his body. “Please what?” he growled, mostly for effect.

“Please fuck me,” Chanyeol begged. “Please, I need you, I need your cock, please give it to me - ”

Well shit. Kris had been planning to drag this out a bit, but he was crawling up behind Chanyeol and laying out over his back before his brain caught up to his body.

“Yeah?” he asked breathily, covering his eagerness with the persona. “You want it that bad? You’re begging for it?” It sounded stupid to his own ears, but Chanyeol moaned like he was already coming and arched his back impossibly further, tugging perfunctorily on his wrists just to feel Kris holding him in place. Kris tightened his grip - his arm was starting to ache from being stretched out for so long, but whatever - and used the other hand to deliver a stinging slap to the back of Chanyeol’s thigh.

“Ohgod,” Chanyeol cried, his hands jerking in Kris’s grip. “Fuck fuck fucking fuck me.”

Yeah, that was all Kris could take. He used his fingers to line his cock up and drove roughly forward, sinking in until his hipbones connected with Chanyeol’s ass. Chanyeol wailed, his face turned down into the sheets to muffle the sound. The walls were thick, but not soundproof, and the crew made fun of them enough as it was.

Kris took a moment there, closing his eyes and just loving the feeling of being inside Chanyeol. “Fucking you is like coming home,” he gasped, and Chanyeol turned his head and threw him a crooked, loving smile over his shoulder. Then he wiggled his ass backwards, seating himself further.

“I said fuck me, Romeo,” he laughed.

The taunt stung a little, and Kris pulled himself back up onto his knees, twisting Chanyeol’s arms behind his back instead. He folded them carefully - right forearm stacked on top of the left, elbows close to his sides but not too close for comfort - and wrapped his big hand around both arms in a grip just shy of bruising. That done, he palmed Chanyeol’s hip with his other hand, pulled back rapidly and slammed forward.

Without having use of his hands, Chanyeol was kept in position only by the grip on his hip. Not the one on his wrists - Kris was very careful not to pull on them, only hold them together - but only the one hand keeping his knees from sliding out from under him and his hips hitting the bed. And Kris knew the lack of control was what made Chanyeol moan, squirm, flutter desperately around Kris’s hard shaft, moreso than the act of getting fucked itself.

It was a hard position to hold for long, but Kris knew he didn’t need long. They’d gotten this down to an art - Kris knew all of Chanyeol’s triggers, and losing control of his hands was one of them. Sure enough, it took Kris only about a minute of hard thrusting, angled to hit Chanyeol’s prostate just so, before Chanyeol was shouting and pulsing and dirtying the sheets under him with come.

“Aahhhh,” he moaned in satisfaction. Kris let his grip loosen, and Chanyeol got his hands braced on the bed under his shoulders and let his hips drop, uncaring that he was lying in his own mess. Groaning, Kris dropped as well, covering Chanyeol’s back with his body, his nose pressed to the nape of Chanyeol’s neck.

Chanyeol arched his back, pressing his hips back into Kris’s. “Thank you,” he whispered, blissed out.

Kris rolled his hips forward, thrusting into Chanyeol at a slower, deeper, and much more satisfying pace. “You’re welcome,” he rumbled, pressing a kiss to the patch of skin closest to his lips. “God, you feel so amazing.”

Humming contentedly, Chanyeol laced his fingers through Kris’s, picking up his hand and bringing to his lips. The first press of his warm mouth to the tip of Kris’s index finger had a bolt of lightning shooting down Kris’s body and right to his already straining cock.

“Shit, Yeol,” Kris panted into Chanyeol’s skin. “Play fair.”

“Nope,” Chanyeol said, smug but still a little floaty. “You did the arm thing.”

Well, okay, that was a good point. Kris opened his mouth to find some kind of argument, but whatever he was going to say melted right out his ears when Chanyeol sucked three fingers into his mouth, laving lazily.

Groaning, Kris resumed thrusting, stroking mindlessly into Chanyeol’s familiar tight warmth as Chanyeol worked his fingers over in an all-too-practiced fashion. Like Chanyeol, it didn’t take long for him to come, his orgasm washing over him and leaving him wrung out and satisfied.

He burrowed into Chanyeol’s back and let out a huge sigh of contentment. “Mmm, I needed that,” he murmured.

“My shirt is gross,” Chanyeol chuckled, “and I do not give one solitary fuck about it.”

“Probably because it’s my turn to do laundry,” Kris pointed out, but there was no heat to his admonishment. “I can’t feel my toes.”

“Good.”

“Rude. I need my toes. For balance purposes. Do you know how hard it is to walk without toes?”

“You would look pretty silly without toes, too.”

Kris snorted. “Sure, that’s all you care about, how I look. I see how you are.”

Chanyeol laughed and surged upwards, rolling over onto his back and squishing Kris under him. Kris wrapped his arms around Chanyeol’s chest, avoiding the come stain on his belly and pulling him close. His bony shoulderblades were digging into Kris’s chest, but Kris hardly cared.

“Captain,” they heard, tinny through the wall speaker.

Kris groaned, but wiggled out from under Chanyeol enough to turn towards the speaker. “What is it, Minseok?”

“Just thought I should warn you, you’re about to have a visitor.”

What? Frowning, Kris pushed up, and Chanyeol rolled off so he could sit up. “What does that mean?”

“The prisoner. Kyungsoo. He slipped away from me.”

Kris growled, a jolt of panic making his heart thump. “What?

“Relax, sir, I let him go. I was watching the tracker map the whole time. I thought maybe he might lead us to…But anyway, he didn’t. He’s headed straight for you.”

Chanyeol and Kris exchanged a look. Kris glanced down at the come stains on Chanyeol’s shirt. Chanyeol followed his gaze. His eyes widened, and he quickly stripped off his shirt, tossing it aside and yanking on one of Kris’s t-shirts in its place.

“Jesus Christ I’m fucking leaking,” Chanyeol mumbled, waddling towards the refresher with his pants still around his thighs. Kris smothered a laugh and wiped himself off with Chanyeol’s stained shirt, then tossed it at the laundry chute and did up his pants.

He opened the door and stuck his head out just in time to see an auburn head poke curiously around the corner, freezing when he spotted Kris, bright eyes wide. Kris leaned on the doorframe, arms crossed.

“You’re supposed to be with Minseok,” he accused.

Kyungsoo took a few steps closer, looking around like he expected something to jump out at him. Kris felt his brows furrowing as he watched Kyungsoo’s shoulders hunch around his ears.

“...Kyungsoo?” he asked warily. “You feel alright? Not going to have another seizure, are you?” Sometimes, animals or humans could feel a seizure coming on, and would seek out safety. And Kyungsoo looked...freaked out.

But Kyungsoo shook his head, and looked at a spot sort of vaguely up and to the right, like he saw something on the ceiling. He glanced at Kris, then glanced back at the spot, and Kris followed his eyes instinctively, half expecting to see a big ship-rat or something, but there was nothing there.

“Kyungsoo?” Chanyeol asked, coming up behind Kris with clothes again assembled. “Something wrong?”

This time, Kyungsoo nodded, rather frantically. Chanyeol reached out a hand and without hesitation Kyungsoo crossed the hall, coming right up between them.

“I hear something,” he murmured, his normally smooth voice shaking.

Chanyeol reached out to pull Kyungsoo closer, probably to comfort him, and Kris opened his mouth to ask what that meant.

But at that moment, a loud explosion rocked the ship.

Instinctively, Kris’s hands flew out, one to steady himself on the wall and the other to steady Chanyeol. Chanyeol, being Chanyeol, had reached for both Kris and Kyungsoo, and Kyungsoo himself looked startled, frightened, but hadn’t lost his balance at all.

“What was that?” Chanyeol asked.

“It felt like it came from outside,” Kris muttered.

The comm crackled to life in the cabin behind them. “Captain,” Minseok said. “We have a problem.”

Chapter Text

“Remind me again, where we’re going?” Yixing asked, munching on a protein bar with his legs folded up in the seat.

“It’s called Red Rock,” Jongdae replied, “and it’s a rock, in space, which is red.”

Yixing gave him the most judgemental look Jongdae had ever experienced, outside of Baekhyun’s mother. Jongdae grinned - after all the dancing around the truth Yixing had done, Jongdae was getting a kick out of getting him back.

But they were stuck together, and deep space was in general an extraordinarily boring place, so Jongdae relented. “There’s an outpost there,” he said, “where we have friends. They’ve got resources we don’t.”

“Hmm.” Yixing readjusted in his seat. He’d foregone shoes pretty early on in the trip, and his bare feet were laid on his thighs in lotus position, soles pointed up. Really, for a doctor, he was extraordinarily flexible. “What kind of resources?”

“The deep-space ship-tracking kind,” Jongdae said. “We know, in general, which way the Phoenix went, but it’s been more than two weeks since your station was destroyed and they could be anywhere in the system by now.” Yixing was silent, staring at the screen readouts unseeingly. “Fortunately for us,” Jongdae added, “your station was remote enough that there’s no way they could have gotten out of the system within two weeks. So we’ll go to Red Rock, and Amber will find them, and then we’ll figure out how to intercept.”

Yixing grunted. “What if we can’t catch up?” he muttered. “What if we’ve already lost them?”

“You let Baek and I worry about that,” Jongdae said, purposely a bit condescending. “We have ways.” Yixing glanced at him incredulously, and Jongdae shot him a winning smile, but quickly, he sobered. “Honestly, I’m more worried about what comes after we catch up.”

Yixing shifted in place again, unfolding his legs and stretching them out to rest them on the console. Jongdae considered telling him to put his feet down, but he knew Yixing had already seen Baekhyun doing the same thing, so he decided to let it go. “Tell me about the Phoenix,” Yixing asked. “What do we know?”

“Rumors, mostly,” Jongdae admitted. “Stories. They’ve got a hell of a reputation, and it goes back a decade.” Yixing looked comfortable, so Jongdae mimicked his position, feet up on the console, one leg crossed over the other. “Kris Wu is her captain, and from what I hear he’s a pretty hard motherfucker. Former military, but zero regard for the law, and willing to take on just about any job if the price is right.”

Yixing's lips pressed into a thin line. "And this man has my kids."

Yeah. Jongdae sighed. "Could be worse, you know. If Kris took them instead of just killing them, that means someone wants them alive. So Kris has a vested interest in keeping them safe." Yixing looked at him, and Jongdae shrugged. "Better than Bang Yongguk and his crew of trigger-happy whackjobs, or a human trafficker selling them as slaves. At least the Phoenix has a reputation for professionalism."

Clearly, this was not much comfort to Yixing. “Just because he needs them alive doesn’t mean he won’t hurt them,” Yixing pointed out. “Or abuse them, traumatize them, assault them, starve them…” He blew out a long breath. “Even if, by some miracle, he’s honorable enough to treat them respectfully, just being out of a controlled environment could be extremely damaging. Luhan has numerous mental and developmental quirks, and Kyungsoo has a seizure disorder. Both of them were on medication. They’re probably both in withdrawal right now and I honestly have no clue how that might affect them.”

Jongdae’s face compressed. “Damn.”

“Yeah. And Tao...he’s just so pliant, so impressionable. I don’t like to think about what kinds of things he might be picking up, what he might start thinking is right or correct. He’ll believe anything that’s said to him, unless someone he trusts more refutes it.” Yixing’s fist clenched. “Maybe it’s dumb for me to be worried about that when Kyungsoo could be having seizures, but I can’t stop thinking about what you said, about the technology being weaponized. If Tao was fed the right bullshit...someone could mold him into anything, including a weapon.” He shrugged, his eyes downcast. “When I took on this project, I did it with the interests of society in general in my mind. It never even occurred to me that someone might use it for...something else. The thought of someone using my children as soldiers makes me sick.”

His eyes on the readouts, Jongdae said softly, “I find it hard to believe, in ten years of working, that you never once considered that the technology could be used that way.”

He glanced to the side to catch Yixing’s reaction, and was surprised to see a small smile creeping across his face. “You say that because you don’t know them,” Yixing said confidently. “Trust me. No one would look at Kyungsoo and think, weapon. Or Luhan, for that matter.” His smile melted. “Tao...maybe. He matured so much faster than any of my kids before him, and he’s bigger, stronger. But have five minutes of conversation with him and you’ll change your mind. He is the sweetest, most innocent person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.”

The wistfulness, the love in Yixing’s tone made Jongdae’s chest ache. “Yixing,” Jongdae murmured, “whoever wants your kids isn’t after them for their winning personalities. They’re after the possibilities they represent. It doesn’t matter how sweet they are.”

A deep breath. “I know. That’s why I’m here.” Yixing glanced back at him. “Why all of us are here.”

Jongdae nodded. “Yeah.”

A beep from the console got both of their attention. Jongdae glanced at the incoming call and blinked.

“Oh, damn, I hope this is what I think it is,” he murmured, flipping the call on. He approved the video feed to go through on the screen, but just in case he left his return video feed as the pilot’s-side camera only. No sense in advertising Yixing’s presence if he didn’t need to. “Stay quiet, okay?” he said, and waited for Yixing’s nod before accepting the call.

To his relief, the face on the screen was Victoria Song, and only Victoria Song. No blond-haired whackadoodledoos pointing blasters at her head or anything, and her smile was wide and cheerful, which was a reassuring hint that there weren’t any off-screen whackadoodles either.

“Vicky, my love,” Jongdae said cheerfully. “I’ve been waiting ever-so-anxiously to hear your voice.”

“I just fucking bet you have, you asshole,” Victoria said, and yeah, she was just fine. Jongdae knew her well enough to know if she was threatened or under duress, there would have been no swearing in that sentence. “You’ll be glad to know your insane plan actually worked. Yongguk swallowed the bullshit you and Baek broadcasted about heading to Andromeda. He packed up and left about three days ago.” Her smile widened. “And this morning, the last of our deathly ill got up and out of bed. That doctor friend of yours is some kind of genius, I swear. The town’s well on its way to recovery.”

Wow. Vicky never spoke that highly of anyone. Jongdae resisted the urge to glance to the side and give away the fact that Yixing was sitting right next to him. “That’s great, Vic. I’m glad to hear it.”

“Yeah, me fucking too. I thought we were all goners.” She leaned her elbow on her desk, chin in her hand, long, dark hair trailing against her shoulder. “Anyway, I made good on my promise. The money’s been transferred to your account.”

Jongdae blinked, and brought up his banking application in a window. Sure enough, there it was. He whistled. “Vic, this is almost twice what we agreed on.”

“Yeah, I know. The rest is for that doctor. Story spread like wildfire about how he slipped in right under those muscleheads’ noses and performed some kinda hoodoo magic to heal the populace.” She rolled her eyes. “Half of my people think he’s a guardian angel. I didn’t dissuade them of the notion. Anyway, the town put together a collection to thank him. I trust you’ll see that he gets it?”

Jongdae nodded, dumbstruck.

“Great. Pleasure doing business with you, as always.” She winked, and the call cut off.

Jongdae looked over at Yixing, who looked smug as a cat who’d just caught a ship-rat. “Think that’ll get us where we need to go?” he asked.

Jongdae snorted. “Well, it’s a hell of a start.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sehun had a tendency to hang his limbs off the edge of his cot at night. It was a leftover instinct from years and years of sleeping on beds too small for his long frame. Normally, it wasn’t an issue.

But that night there was an extraordinarily loud bang, and the entire ship rocked violently, and Sehun, who had as usual been hanging half-off the bed, came awake with a violent start as he was knocked off the cot.

Strong hands shot out and grabbed his shoulder, pulling him back onto the bed before he could fall. “What was that?” Tao whispered, sounding urgent and frightened.

“I have no id-” Sehun’s mumbled response was cut off by the alarm siren, and the floor strips suddenly switching from Beta-shift green to bright warning red. “Shit.”

He scrambled out of bed, shoving his feet in his boots without bothering to change out of his sleep clothes, and raced down the hall to the cockpit, his sleep-numbed mind trying desperately to crawl into wakefulness. Until he came to a skidding halt at the cockpit doorway and felt a broad warm presence stop just mililengths behind him, it didn’t occur to him to tell Tao to stay where he was. Damn. Too late now.

“What’s going on?” he gasped, noticing as he did so that Joonmyun was racing up the side hallway, also in his sleep clothes. Sehun pressed his back to the wall, his arm instinctively holding Tao back and out of the way as Joonmyun practically dove past them on his way to the pilot’s seat. Jongin was already in the co-pilot’s seat, the shield and weapons consoles open on the screen in front of him.

Minseok got up and let Joon have the controls. “Traffickers,” he snarled, voice tight, and Sehun’s heart stopped. “Come on, kid, you’re with me.”

Sehun - with Tao behind him like a big, frightened shadow - followed Minseok back down the hall at a jog. They passed Kris and Chanyeol outside their bedroom. Kyungsoo stood between them, looking very small and just as confused and afraid as Tao.

“I don’t like it, Yeol - ”

“We don’t have time to argue about it!” Chanyeol snapped. “Go captain, Captain, I’ll watch him.”

Kris snarled, but he turned away, leaving Kyungsoo half-huddled against Chanyeol’s side. He caught sight of Minseok and Sehun and Tao and jogged over to them.

“What happened?” he asked, falling into step with them as they headed for the top level.

“Heat torpedo to the starboard side,” Minseok said. “Shields ate it but it drained us a good chunk.”

“Damn. Traffickers?”

“Does anyone else use torpedos?” Minseok murmured dryly. “Ship like that, we have maybe two more minutes before they fire again.”

Kris’s expression had a hard set. “They aren’t getting another chance. Min, I want you on the starboard gun, Hun, you take port. Load them up with plasma charges.” Sehun blinked, and opened his mouth to protest, but Kris’s glare made his words die in his throat. “And Tao, you stay out of their way and don’t wander off, got it?”

“Yes, Kris,” Tao whispered, sounding cowed. Sehun resisted the urge to step in between Kris and Tao.

But then Kris was gone, turned on his heel and striding back towards the cockpit, and Minseok was already halfway down the hall towards the weapons stations, and Sehun had to jog to catch up.

“Maybe I’m new at this,” he said breathlessly, “but don’t plasma charges require our shields to be down?”

“They’re also the only thing we’ve got that has a chance of incapacitating a ship that big,” Minseok said shortly. “He knows what he’s doing, Sehun. Do your goddamned job.”

Sehun let out a long breath. “Yes, sir,” he muttered, thinking to himself that he sounded like Tao.

The weapons bays were at the very top of the ship, port and starboard cannons connected by a long hallway. Minseok banked right at the top of the stairs, so Sehun went left, automatically reaching behind him to take Tao by the wrist. “Here,” he muttered, pointing at a little alcove just outside the cannon bay. “Stay right there until I say otherwise.”

“Okay,” Tao said, and pushed himself into the corner, back to the wall so he could peer around the doorframe and into the bay. Sehun plopped himself in the seat and glanced at the comm - someone had already opened all channels wide, so everyone could hear everything on the entire ship.

“Port gun powering up,” he reported.

“Starboard gun operational,” he heard Minseok say, and, shit, that was fast.

“We have maybe forty-five seconds,” Kris’s voice came over the comm, the soft beeping and sound of keyboard clacking in the background telling Sehun he was in the cockpit with Joon and Jongin. “Their shields will lower when they shoot, so that’s when we hit. You looking at them?”

Sehun flicked on his targeting screen. Holy shit that was a big ship, blackened and scarred, easily three times the size of the Phoenix and built like a tank. “Yes,” he said, as Minseok reported the same.

“She’s an M-84 Saturn deep-space destroyer,” Kris rattled off. “A war ship. Only actionable weakness is the drive pods on each side. Each of you pick one and target it.”

A little indicator on his screen showed Minseok pointing his cannon at the starboard drive pod, visible only by the orange glow of its internal combustion core. Sehun hurried to target the other one.

“Got them,” Minseok said.

“Twenty seconds. When that torpedo fires, one of you knock it out of the sky, and the other hit a drive pod. You’ve got about a two-second window to react, and if you fuck it up we die or get enslaved.” Kris’s voice was tight, wry. “No pressure.”

Sehun swallowed harshly. Behind him, he heard Tao whimper, and glanced back to see the tall boy crouched down with his hands around his knees, muttering to himself something that sounded a lot like don’t, don’t, please don’t.

“Tao, you okay?” Sehun hissed, muting his mic momentarily. Tao didn’t look up.

“Eyes up!” Minseok snarled in his ear, and Sehun looked back up just in time to see the faint glow of the other ship’s external shields fading. His heart leapt into his throat, and his fingers almost depressed the trigger, but he stopped himself in time.

A small, barely-visible flash signalled the torpedo. It was on Sehun’s side.

“Get it!” Minseok’s indicator on the screen fired, headed for the drive pod he’d been targeting, so Sehun swung his own target away, trying to get a lock on the torpedo. It was spinning wildly, weaving all over the place, and the targeting computer couldn’t get a lock. Sehun’s world narrowed down to the screen as he chased it.

A bright flash as Minseok’s plasma blast hit home startled him, and Sehun’s fingers squeezed reflexively, launching his own before he’d meant to. His heart stopped. Was he close enough?

Two seconds later, he had his answer. The blast caught the torpedo across the back fin, melting half of it away and knocking it off course - but not enough. It was still headed for the port side of the ship.

“HARD TO STARBOARD,” Kris roared, and Sehun grabbed the sides of his seat as the ship suddenly jolted to the right. Instinctively, he looked back, and found Tao braced in the corner, palms pressed hard to the composite walls to hold himself in place.

Then, suddenly, his stomach rolled, and Sehun instinctively clutched the control panel in front of him for balance. He thought at first it was fear making his stomach drop, but then he heard creaking and saw loose items shift and realized it wasn’t fear.

“Grav boot’s failing!” Chanyeol yelled over the comms. “Everyone hang on!”

Sehun was in a seat, so he scrambled for the harness, quickly bucking himself in as the entire contents of the ship listed dangerously to the side. The moment he was secure, he turned to look for Tao. Somehow, the younger boy was still braced in that corner, muscles standing out hard under his skin with the effort of keeping himself in place as gravity shifted out from under him.

“Yeol, can you fix it?” Kris asked.

“If I can get to it,” Chanyeol said tightly. “We can’t take another bank like that though. It’ll blow and we’ll be dead in the water.”

“Hate to interrupt,” Minseok said, “but they’re gearing up for another shot.”

Sehun looked up, and sure enough, the other ship’s cannons were beginning to glow. Quickly, he set his own to power up, hoping it would be ready in time. “Hyung,” he asked shakily, not even really certain which hyung he was addressing. “What do we do?”

“What’s our power look like?” Kris asked.

“47%”, Jongin replied. “We can absorb maybe one more shot like that.”

“No, we’re gonna need our power reserves to get out of here the moment that boot is operational again,” Kris said. “Lower shields. Boys, it’s up to you to knock out anything that comes at us.”

“I’ll take this area,” Minseok said, and about half of Sehun’s targeting screen highlighted. “You get the rest. Watch that itchy trigger finger; we only have so many shots.”

“Got it,” Sehun said, ignoring the jibe about his overactive reflexes. He was going to feel shitty enough once the adrenaline wore off and the guilt set in.

If he’d hit that torpedo straight on, this wouldn’t have happened.

“Heads up,” Joonmyun said, and Sehun’s fingers curled tightly around the controls.

The blast came from Sehun’s side first, and this time he was ready for it. The targeting computer shifted to it head-on, and Sehun watched its pattern of movement, compensated, and shot. Another torpedo launched just as the one he’d targeted disintegrated, but Minseok’s target slid over to it and took it out.

Sehun let out a long, slow breath. “Okay. That didn’t suck.”

“Sehun!”

He looked up, to see another torpedo coming at them, too far over for Minseok’s canon to get it. He quickly powered up, heart in his throat as he watched the cannon’s ready gauge crawl towards 100% and the torpedo spin closer and closer to the ship.

“Sehun, what the fuck?” Kris snarled.

“It’s not gonna be up in time!” Sehun said in a rush.

“Fucking - NOSE UP!” Everything jerked as Joonmyun blasted the underside steering pods and the ship shot suddenly straight up.

A heavy, ominous creak, and then a crash, and a scream, deep-voiced and agonized. Gravity had slipped entirely to one side, leaving Sehun dangling from his harness, his back no longer touching the seat, and it felt wrong, too heavy. His arms felt like lead; lifting his head up enough to see the screen took monumental effort.

“Chanyeol?!” Kris cried.

No response.

“Fuck,” Sehun breathed, certain he was going to puke. “Oh fuck.”

Then, suddenly, an unfamiliar, soft voice. “He’s hurt.”

“Kyungsoo,” Kris said, his normally steely voice shaking. “Is he conscious?”

A long pause. Numbly, Sehun focused on the screen. The torpedo did miss them, thanks to Joonmyun’s piloting, but there was another glow building. Sehun’s lip lifted unconsciously in an angry sneer, and without thinking about it he targeted the canon bay itself.

“Huh,” Minseok said softly. “I think you have the right idea, kid.” His own target moved to the other canon bay.

“Conscious,” Kyungsoo confirmed. “But he’s having trouble breathing. He’s trapped under the desk.”

Fucking shit.

It was hard to see, but the very moment he saw the bay doors begin to open, Sehun fired. Minseok was less than a second behind him, twin plasma blasts streaking across the void of space.

“Can you get him out?” Kris asked. “Without hurting him more?”

Two explosions. Both cannon bays went abruptly dark. Fierce, angry victory shot through Sehun’s mind, mingling with his guilt and adrenaline and nausea and making him feel distant and sick.

“No,” Kyungsoo said.

“Their canons are out,” Minseok reported, as Sehun let out a long breath, attempting to get his stress levels back down. “But a ship like that will have fighters, so we’d better get gone quick.”

“We’re not going anywhere without that grav boot up,” Kris said tightly. “Kyungsoo, are you certain you can’t get him free?”

“Yes,” Kyungsoo said, sounding terribly upset about it. “I’m not strong enough.”

“I am,” Tao said suddenly. Sehun looked back over his shoulder - his head felt like a boulder in this gravity - to see Tao drop heavily to what once was the opposite wall of the hallway, now the floor. He stood, and Sehun could see in his body that it took more effort than was normal, but he got his knees straight and his head up despite the crushing gravity. “I can help, Kris,” he said, raising his voice so the comm would pick it up.

“Fucking hell,” Jongin muttered. Sehun agreed.

“...Sehun?” Kris said. “You would know. Could Tao help?”

Sehun tried to imagine what it would take, to get all the way down to the engine room in these circumstances, gravity twice as heavy as normal and the floors now the walls and vis-versa. There were several places where he’d have to find his way across doorways that would now be holes in the floor, some of them twice as wide as he was tall. It would be a superhuman feat.

Tao looked very, very determined.

“I think he could,” Sehun said. “I think he’s our only chance.”

“Okay, Tao. Get down to Chanyeol. Go straight there as fast as you can, and yell if you need help. We’re listening.”

Sehun wasn’t really sure what help they could really be, since just moving was all but impossible, but it seemed to reassure Tao. “Okay,” he said, and shot Sehun a small smile before taking off down the hall at a dead run.

Sehun’s heart jolted painfully against his ribs.

“Sehun,” Minseok said, “eyes forward.” Guiltily, Sehun did as he was told. “Switch to the laser charges. We need to conserve power.”

“I’m diverting from non-essential systems,” Jongin said. “We’re up to 63% and rising. Nobody take a shower for a cycle or so.”

A couple of low, tight chuckles at Jongin’s weak joke sounded over the comm.

“Holy moly,” Joonmyun murmured, “look at that kid go. He’s already all the way aft.”

Sehun’s eyes widened. “How?” he asked.

“I think he jumped down the hallway.”

“How the fuck did he not break both legs?” Minseok grumbled. “In this g-factor that’s the equivalent of a six-story fall.”

Something new joined the cacophony of emotion in Sehun’s chest, something which felt rather uncomfortably like pride.

Silence fell for a moment. Sehun was alone in his cannon bay, but he could feel the rest of the crew doing the same thing he was - watching the monitors and listening to the comms, holding their breaths, waiting.

Finally, Tao’s voice came over the speaker.

“I’m here,” he said, sounding just the tiniest bit breathless. “I see them. Oh. That’s. That looks bad.”

Sehun wanted to shut his eyes, but he didn’t, because that other ship out there had been awfully quiet, and he didn’t like it.

“Can you get the desk off him?” Kris asked.

“I think so. Maybe, if - Soo, you - yes.” A horrible screeching noise, metal scraping on metal, and then a crash. “Okay,” Tao said, and now he sounded breathless. “That was very heavy.”

“Good job, Tao,” Sehun said softly. Tao didn’t respond, but Sehun could imagine his pleased smile.

“Can he be moved?” Kris asked.

Kyungsoo was the one who answered. “How do I tell?”

“Ask him.”

Shuffling. Muffled voices. Movement caught Sehun’s eye; Minseok was wiggling his targeting icon to get his attention. An area of the viewscreen highlighted briefly - they looked like docking bays. There were lights on there that were not before.

Sehun locked his target on the bay to show Minseok he was following.

“He says he thinks he can, if we’re careful,” Kyungsoo was saying. “Should we?”

“Do whatever he tells you to do,” Kris said.

“Kris,” Minseok murmured. “Look up.”

Sehun did so too, seeing what Minseok was seeing. The docking bay doors were opening.

“Well damn,” Kris said. “We aren’t moving at all until that boot gets fixed. I’m not gonna risk it. We’ll spot-shield what we can from here. The rest is up to you two.”

Funny how Kris was willing to risk so much, until Chanyeol was in danger. Sehun adjusted his grip on his controls.

“Hey,” came a low, breathless voice. “Not dead.”

Chanyeol. Sehun let out a long breath.

“Good to hear,” Kris said, and his tone was tight but Sehun could hear his relief. “Are you able to repair the engine?”

“Yeah, about that,” Chanyeol murmured. “I don’t think I can. The engine is now up on the wall and I’m pretty sure my ribs are broken. But I think I can talk these two through it.”

“You’re nuts,” Minseok said. “You can’t let them near the freaking engine.”

“Trust me.” Chanyeol sounded exhausted, and pained, but his tone was vehement. “Kyungsoo has the capability.”

Kris’s exhale was audible. “You better be right,” he said. “Do it.”

“Yes sir. Kyungsoo, bring me that grav boot, right there. Yes, that one.”

“We’ve got company,” Minseok said. Sehun looked up to see the trafficking ship spitting out half a dozen short-range fighters.

“Take them out, boys.”

“Yes sir,” Sehun muttered.

“Okay,” Chanyeol was saying in the background. “This is almost ready, but the connector is not compatible. We have to replace it. I need - yes, that, thank you.”

“Here we go,” Jongin warned.

Within moments, the fighters were within range; Sehun saw Minseok aiming for the one furthest to the outside, so he did the same, firing on the fighter in a sweeping motion and cutting it in half.

The next few minutes became a blur, everything emotional and physical fading as Sehun’s world narrowed to his cannon, Minseok’s actions, and what he saw on the screen. He was vaguely aware of Chanyeol murmuring instructions in the background, of Kris barking the occasional direction, of Jongin’s muttered swearing as he blocked stray shots and Minseok’s victorious whoops when they made another hit.

“Starfucker,” Joonmyun swore, as the eighth fighter broke apart. “We can’t possibly be worth this much effort to them.”

Kris snorted. “We disabled their ship. Traffickers take that kind of thing personally.”

“Traffickers take everything personally,” Minseok grumbled. “Sehun, on your left.”

Sehun swung his target up, locked on, and fired. At the same time, the ship rocked, blasted from a different angle.

“Fuck!” Jongin swore. “Sorry, Captain, I didn’t see him.”

“Damage?” Kris asked. “Chanyeol, you okay?”

“Nothing some Vicodin wouldn’t fix,” Chanyeol gasped. He sounded very much in pain. “Tao, bring me that drawing pad, and a pencil.”

“The hit glanced off the rear port side,” Joonmyun reported. “External damage but nothing’s ruptured. We’ll have to repair it before going into atmo, though.”

“He’s coming back around,” Sehun called, swinging his target up.

Minseok was faster. “Die, bitch,” he growled, as the fighter split apart.

“Okay, look. This is what the part looks like. You need to disconnect here and here.” Chanyeol had Teacher Voice on, and Sehun couldn’t help but be impressed with his calm, considering they were in very real danger of all dying and he had probably multiple broken bones. “Do not touch anything else, okay? Especially not those coils, remember they’re hot.”

“This?” Kyungsoo said. “This here, and this here?”

“Yeah, you got it. Tao, do you understand?”

“No.” Despite the situation, Sehun had to smile at his bluntness. “Do I have to understand, if Soo understands?”

“Probably not,” Chanyeol said, and he also had a little smile in his voice. “It’s just, you’re taller. Soo can’t reach.”

“Oh, that’s easy,” and then there was some shuffling noises. “How’s this?”

“Uh.” Chanyeol sounded stunned. “That will work. Okay here’s the part. Go, quickly.”

More shuffling noises. “What did he do?” Sehun asked, eyeing the other ship’s docking bays. He could see still more fighters being lined up to go out - these guys were persistent - and wondered if it would be worth trying to make a shot inside the bay. Probably not. It was both shielded and out of range.

“He picked Soo up and put him on his shoulders,” Chanyeol said.

“Christ.” That was Kris. “Soo weighs more than I do, and we’re in double gravity.”

“Yeah. Didn’t seem to bother him. Okay, they’re about to disconnect, so things might get wonky. Brace yourselves.”

Sehun could not do more to brace himself than he already was, so he just kept his eyes on the screen, his fingers re-settling on the controls as more fighters poured out of the other ship like ants from an anthill. “Minseok…”

“I see them. This is gonna be fun.”

“You’re crazy.”

“Yep.”

Gravity shifted wildly, and they both opened fire.

There were too many of them for Minseok and Sehun to get them all, but the one shot that had gotten through had apparently pushed Jongin to the top of his game, because his little spot-shield popped up and blocked every stray shot. “Shit,” he said into the comm. “Power’s down under 30%. We’re out of time, Chanyeol!”

“They’ve almost got it,” Chanyeol replied. “The engine’s on the ceiling now, Tao literally has to hold Soo up over his head so he can reach it.”

“At least it’s bolted down,” Joonmyun muttered, raising chuckles from all over the ship.

“Aaaand here they come again,” Sehun said.

“Try not to drain our reserves too much, we need enough to get out of here.”

“We’ll do our best.”

And again, chaos erupted.

Halfway through the volley, while the adrenaline was so high Sehun could barely hear anything outside the pounding of his own heart, there was the biggest thunk yet and gravity abruptly righted itself, returning to normal levels. Air left Sehun’s lungs in a rush as his body scrambled to re-orient to both the directional change and the sudden lightness.

“Thank fuck,” Kris said. “Punch it.”

Acceleration was so smooth this time that Sehun barely felt it, but he could see the other ship sliding off his viewscreen and then getting smaller as they blasted away. He took one last potshot at a fighter with more ambition than the rest, and then they were out of range.

For the first time in fifteen minutes, Sehun let go of the controls. His hands were cramped up. “Is that it?” he murmured.

“Kris is already gone, so, probably,” Jongin told him.

“I’m gonna stay here for a bit in case they decide to follow,” Minseok added. “Go.”

Sehun unbuckled himself and made his way on shaky legs down the stairs. He was halfway down when Kris yelled over the comm for someone to grab the stretcher cart from the infirmary; since he was closest he called it and made the detour.

The engine room was a bit more crowded than usual. Kris was at Chanyeol’s bedside, helping him to unstrap himself from the bunk; Chanyeol himself looked deathly pale and clammy, half-dried blood leaking from his mouth and dripping down the side of his face. Kyungsoo and Tao were close by, hovering, Kyungsoo wrapped up in Tao’s arms and looking upset. Tao was also bleeding, a nasty scrape down one forearm that he seemed to be completely ignoring.

“Give me a hand,” Kris said tightly, and Sehun did as he was bade, balling his hands in the bedsheet under Chanyeol so they could lift him onto the cart. “On three. One, two -”

They lifted, Chanyeol cried out behind gritted teeth, and behind them Kyungsoo made the saddest noise Sehun had ever heard. It was a moment’s work. Sehun reached for the driving bar, but Kris got there first.

“Joon’s meeting me there, we’ve got him. You watch these two.” He jerked his chin at Tao and Soo. “And we’re having a talk later.”

Shit. In all the craziness, Sehun had forgotten that most of this was his fault - the damage to the ship, the grav boot failing, Chanyeol’s and Tao’s injuries. Guilt hit him like a bullet and he let the cart slide out from under numb fingers as Kris pushed it out the door and towards the infirmary.

Kyungsoo pulled out of Tao’s arms and made to follow. Sehun caught him around the waist. “No, you have to stay here,” he said, the words feeling heavy and odd on his tongue.

“But Chanyeol - ”

“I know. Just...Come on, there’s a first aid kit in here too. We should see to Tao.”

He directed them to sit on the bed, and pulled the kit off the wall, opening it. His hands were shaking hard from the release of adrenaline, from shock, from exhaustion; he almost couldn’t get the antiseptic pack open.

Small, pale hands covered his, taking the antiseptic from him. Kyungsoo pulled it open and started wiping Tao’s scrape down. Deprived of the only thing keeping him busy, Sehun’s hands clenched into fists, and he sat down heavily at Tao’s side.

Tao wrapped an arm around him. “You’re shaking,” he whispered. “Are you scared?”

“No,” Sehun mumbled, but his body turned in towards Tao’s, his forehead braced against Tao’s neck and his hands balling in Tao’s soft shirt. “But I was. I was scared.”

“I was too,” Tao said, and Kyungsoo nodded silently in agreement. “It’s okay. It was scary. But we’re okay now, right?”

Sehun shook his head. “It’s my fault. Chanyeol’s hurt, and we almost died, and it’s my fault.” He swallowed hard, and reached out to put a hand on each of Tao’s and Kyungsoo’s wrists. “You two saved us,” he muttered. “You - you were amazing. Thank you.”

Tao’s head came to rest on the top of Sehun’s. “Some days, I don’t like being different,” he admitted in a whisper. “But today...it was good.”

“Yeah,” Sehun said, burrowing into Tao’s warm strength and allowing himself to hide there for a moment. “It was.”

Chapter Text

Watching Sehun and Tao together made Kyungsoo feel...funny, inside.

Kyungsoo cocked his head, watching as Sehun’s body shrank in on itself, curving into Tao’s like he was trying to hide. He was scared, very scared, for all that he’d told Tao he wasn’t, and Kyungsoo knew that Tao knew it too.

Kyungsoo understood that. He hadn’t really understood what was happening, for the past quarter-hour while everything was loud and frantic and people were angry and getting hurt. But he understood the fear, because when gravity had gone wrong and the work desk had slid across the room to pin Chanyeol to the wall, Kyungsoo had felt fear. More fear than he ever had felt in his life.

But now, seeing Sehun’s hands shake and watching Tao cover them, try to still them, Kyungsoo wasn’t feeling fear. He was feeling something else, something he didn’t have a word for, something that hurt, but was good, too.

Tao and Sehun...fit. They worked so well, like gears in a machine; parts that slotted together and make one another function at maximum capacity. Since meeting Sehun, Tao was already different in ways Kyungsoo couldn’t quite pinpoint, but they weren’t bad ways. Kyungsoo thought maybe he was growing up.

Sehun was paying little attention to Kyungsoo, and Tao seemed to be indecisive, wanting to keep holding Sehun but clearly thinking Kyungsoo needed to be held, too. And he knew Tao would attempt to do both, so Kyungsoo smiled at him to show he was okay, and slipped out of the engine room so they could be alone.

“Lu-ge,” he called softly, as soon as he was out of earshot of any of the crew. “Okay?”

A pause, a long pause, and Kyungsoo’s heart started thumping again, as did Tao’s behind him, listening.

Then, Luhan’s voice floated faintly through the walls. “Everything’s messy,” he said, sounding distressed.

Two rooms back, Tao sighed in relief. Kyungsoo’s own heart rate slowly returned to normal. “Not hurt?” he asked again, because he knew Luhan could be injured and too distracted to say so. Luhan didn’t like when his things were moved, and with gravity having gone wrong, Kyungsoo knew the nest was probably a wreck.

“I’m not hurt. But everything’s ruined.” He sounded like he was about to cry. Kyungsoo wished he could go comfort him.

“Sorry,” Kyungsoo said. “Fix it?”

“Yeah. I’m working on that now.”

Kyungsoo nodded a little. That would take a while, but it would make Luhan feel better.

He was slow as he walked through the ship’s halls, one hand on the metal to feel the pulse of the engine through the frame. Kyungsoo liked being on the Phoenix. It wasn’t like the station where he grew up, it was more alive. It hummed, it buzzed, it spoke to Kyungsoo in wordless sounds and rhythmic beats. It sang when it was happy. It cried when it was not happy. And when it was in pain, it screamed out to Kyungsoo for help.

The people were not much different. Kris didn’t have to say the words help Chanyeol, please don’t let him hurt, I can’t exist without him, because Kyungsoo had heard it in his tone, in his heartbeat. Just like how Chanyeol’s heartbeat screamed out for Kris when they were arguing, or when they just weren’t together.

If Sehun and Tao were parts in a machine, Kris and Chanyeol were two halves of the same part, designed with prongs and gaps so carefully designed that once they were fitted together, they could never be separated again. Total opposites, created to make each other whole. It was the most beautiful thing Kyungsoo had ever seen, and he was drawn to it. Every time the two of them were together, he found his feet taking him towards them, or his ears perking up to listen to them. He heard them argue, and it ripped his insides apart; he heard them sweetly murmur and it put him back together.

They were murmuring now, Kris fussing over Chanyeol’s injuries and Chanyeol reassuring him, sounding odd and floaty as medicine made his systems slow. Kyungsoo automatically listened to them, tuning out the other voices all over the ship as his steps took him towards the infirmary.

“We’d better make sure that desk is bolted down right away,” Kris was saying. From the qualities and directions and subtleties of the shuffling sounds, Kyungsoo could catch impressions of movement; he thought Kris was probably doing something with a machine. Kyungsoo hoped whatever he was doing would help Chanyeol feel better.

“Baby, it was bolted down,” Chanyeol said, his deep voice a little slurred. “The brackets must have come loose.”

“We’ll bolt it down better this time,” Kris growled. “Wait, maybe we should get you a plastic work surface, just in case. Or laminate, something lightweight. Something that won’t turn into a half-ton death projectile if gravity goes strange again.”

“Kris. Kris, stop, look at - Kris, stop. Kyungsoo heard a clatter, and then stillness, with only Kris’s pounding heartbeat in counterpoint to Chanyeol’s medicine-slowed one. “I’m okay, and this isn’t your fault. I can see you beating yourself up. Stop.”

“It is my fault,” Kris snarled, sounding hurt and angry and...just, bad. Kyungsoo ached for him. “You fucking told me the engine couldn’t handle another hard jolt and I did it anyway.”

“And if you hadn’t, we would all be dead,” Chanyeol pointed out. “What did you say to me when I nearly got us killed on my first job? ‘When you know you have no choice, just do it, and deal with the fallout after.’ You had no choice, and no time to ponder if it might have adverse consequences. You did what you had to do.” A long, shaky sigh. “It’s a good thing Kyungsoo was with me, though.”

Kyungsoo froze, his breath held. Every time Chanyeol mentioned his name to Kris, they ended up fighting. Kyungsoo didn’t like that at all. Kyungsoo wished Chanyeol wouldn’t say his name to Kris, if it was only going to make them sad and upset. He didn’t like knowing it was his fault they fought so badly.

But this time, Kris didn’t get angry. He didn’t yell. His voice was strange, but all he said was, “Yeah, it was.”

Sighing with relief, Kyungsoo kept moving. He was closer now, close enough to hear machinery hum and a steady drip of liquid.

“Kris...we can’t give them away now. Not after what they just did for us. Tao saved me, they both saved the whole ship. You can’t just ignore that.”

“Don’t do this right now.”

“When should I do it? When we’re in the relay and it’s too late?”

“I will knock you out, I swear I will.”

Chanyeol huffed. “Look, can you at least lift the ban on Kyungsoo spending time in the engine room? If he’d been with me the past two weeks I wouldn’t have had to talk him through the replacement while injured. He would have already known.” He shifted, and Kris remained silent. “Heck, we might have been able to get the replacement done ahead of time, if I’d had his help, and then this wouldn’t have happened. He’s brilliant, Kris, it would double my efficiency. I could get so much done.” His voice dropped a little, low and breathy. “Please?”

A pause. Kyungsoo waited, his lip caught between his teeth. Chanyeol wanted to teach him? That would be...basically the best thing Kyungsoo could imagine.

Finally, Kris blew out a long breath. “I’m going to regret this,” he murmured. “Fine. Kyungsoo can stay with you in the engine room sometimes. Only when you’re there too, understand me? And if he still manages to destroy the ship when you’re not looking, on your head be it.”

Kyungsoo’s pulse leapt so high he felt like he needed to swallow it. A few hallways down, Chanyeol’s matched his beat for beat.

“Have I told you today that I love you?” Chanyeol said, delighted laughter in his voice.

“No, and why is it you only say that when I let you have something?” Kris shot back. But he sounded fond, not angry, and something knotted up in Kyungsoo’s heart eased.

“I love you,” Chanyeol said, lilting, almost singing it. “I love you and you’re my faaaavorite.”

“Okay, time to go down for nappies,” Kris growled, but it was playful.

Kyungsoo hadn’t really heard him sound playful before. He decided he liked it. Chanyeol was laughing and there were swooshing noises, and then stillness, and...a soft moan.

Biting his lip, Kyungsoo picked up his pace. He’d heard Chanyeol and Kris doing things like this before, but he hadn’t seen. Maybe, if he was fast enough, he could actually see this time, instead of just hearing. He always was just hearing.

He reached the infirmary, silently cracked the door open, and peered inside to see what was going on.

Chanyeol was laid out on the table in the center of the room, his shirt gone but white bandages wrapped around his ribs. Kris was leaning over him, his face sort of...pressed to Chanyeol’s face. Specifically, his lips pressed to Chanyeol’s lips, slotted together and moving gently. It was a familiar sound to Kyungsoo, the sound of mouths moving together, but he’d never actually seen someone do it.

As Kyungsoo watched, Kris’s hand slid down Chanyeol’s arm, and Chanyeol turned his hand over. Their fingers intertwined, perfectly suited to each other, exactly like the complementary parts to which Kyungsoo had earlier compared them.

Kyungsoo leaned his head against the door and smiled. They were so pretty. And he didn’t know what to call the thing they were doing, but it looked like it felt nice.

Really nice, if the happy way Chanyeol was sighing was any indication.

But very soon, Chanyeol’s heartbeat slowed even further, and his fingers went lax in Kris’s hand. Kris disentangled himself from Chanyeol and guided his hand back down with the gentlest touch Kyungsoo had seen him employ, ever. He pressed his lips to Chanyeol’s forehead and murmured, “I told you I was going to knock you out.”

“Is he okay?” Kyungsoo asked, before remembering Kris didn’t know he was there and these kinds of things were private and maybe he should stay silent. Kris jumped and spun, but relaxed as soon as he saw Kyungsoo, and beckoned him into the room with a large hand.

Kyungsoo did as Kris commanded, coming closer. “He’s fine, Soo,” Kris said, quiet. “He needs rest, so I put sleeping medicine in his IV.” He pointed something Kyungsoo hadn’t noticed, a plastic tube that connected Chanyeol’s arm to a bag of liquid hung on a tall hook. “Let’s leave him to sleep, okay?”

He crossed the room, and his hand came up to hover behind Kyungsoo’s back, guiding him out of the room. Kyungsoo let Kris lead him. Kris was always leading him, leading everyone, either with his hands or his words or his expressions. Kyungsoo sometimes thought he didn’t even realize he was doing it.

“Did you fix him?” he wanted to know. “He said he was broken.”

“People don’t fix the same way machines do,” Kris told him. “But, miraculously, he wasn’t very badly hurt, and we have some bone-builder on hand for emergencies. He’ll be back to normal in a few cycles.”

Kyungsoo nodded. That made sense. “Good,” he said.

Kris stopped, and Kyungsoo stopped too, in the middle of the hallway. He turned, and hands bigger than Kyungsoo’s entire face wrapped around his shoulders.

“Soo, I - ” He stopped, and sighed, and started over. “Listen. You did a very...good thing today. You saved the ship. For that, I owe you one.” A small smile quirked around the edges of his mouth. “I can’t promise you I’ll ever be able to repay you, but...thank you. For watching out for Chanyeol, and for my ship, thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Kyungsoo said, because that was what Xing-ge had told him to say, when thanked. It seemed like the right thing, because that little half-smile bloomed into a real, full-on smile, the first time Kris had ever smiled directly at Kyungsoo.

Helplessly, Kyungsoo smiled back, his heartbeat leaping strangely in his chest.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Joonmyun stayed in the cockpit to help with diagnostics for about an hour, but then he left to go begin some repairs, leaving Jongin alone in the cockpit. Rubbing at his aching ribs - the initial blast had caused him to slam into the control board - Jongin started going through the records from his scanning program.

He’d been so sure, in the chaos, that Luhan would pull some shit and fuck them over. On top of guarding stray shots and controlling their power levels, he’d kept an extra-sharp watch on all the computer systems, just waiting for the one malicious command that would take out their weapons or cut power to their shields or turn off the lights in the engine room right when Chanyeol needed them most. Luhan honestly could have done anything, and the crew would have been all but helpless to stop him.

But there hadn’t been a peep from their hidden guest, and that made Jongin twice as suspicious. Now he was wondering if Luhan used the cover of the chaos to set up something else, something in the background that would screw them all later.

The scan returned nothing out of the ordinary, and Jongin frowned, uneasy. He found it very hard to believe Luhan hadn’t done anything to take advantage of the chaos.

Then he blinked, another thought occurring to him. Tao and Kyungsoo had been accounted for the entire time, which meant of course that Luhan had been alone. What if something had happened to him? What if he was injured, or dead, hidden somewhere within their ship?

Jongin’s brow furrowed unhappily. He really hoped that was not the case, for a number of reasons.

His thoughts were interrupted by the cockpit door opening. Jongin turned and looked up, expecting Kris or Joonmyun, but it was Sehun, with Tao trailing behind him, his ever-present shadow.

Sehun looked pale. Well, Sehun always looked pale, but today Sehun looked white, and there was a fine tremor in his fingers, only barely visible before he stuffed his hands in his pants pockets.

Jongin raised an eyebrow. “All right?” he asked.

A flash of a smile, tight and fake. “Yeah, we’re fine,” Sehun said. Jongin raised his other eyebrow at the inclusive we - like he and Tao were a unit - but didn’t comment. “Everything okay up here?”

Jongin shrugged, and turned back to the console as Sehun plopped in the other chair. Tao remained standing, leaning on the back of Sehun’s chair, curiously looking around. Jongin wondered if he’d been to the cockpit before. He knew Kyungsoo had, because he’d been charged more than once with watching the quiet teenager. Soo was easy to entertain - at Chanyeol’s suggestion, Jongin had given the boy a tablet filled with textbooks on engineering basics, on physics, on the history of spaceflight. Kyungsoo hadn’t moved for hours at a time, devouring the information; it was the easiest babysitting gig Jongin had ever had.

From what he’d seen, Tao needed a lot more active entertainment than that. Even now, he was restless, shifting his weight from side to side as he took in his surroundings. Jongin supposed it was a good thing he’d ended up as Sehun’s charge - no one else on the ship had that kind of constant, fidgety energy.

“Nice shooting, earlier,” Jongin said softly as he went back to scouring the systems. “All those video games pay off, yeah?”

Sehun’s laugh was tight. “Not good enough,” he mumbled. “I almost got Chanyeol killed.”

Jongin blinked at him. “You’re not blaming yourself for that, are you?” Sehun didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to - over his head, Tao nodded at Jongin, confirming his guess. “Hun, no one can be a perfect shot. Shit happens. That’s why we have a team and you’re not out here by yourself.”

The noise Sehun made was somewhere between protest and anguish. “I had it,” he whined petulantly. “I did. I just got startled and squeezed too early. There’s no excuse for that.”

He sounded really upset. Jongin turned, planning to put a hand on his arm or something to comfort him, but to his surprise, Tao was already doing it, a delicate, soothing brush of fingers against Sehun’s shoulder, his neck. His hand migrated up into Sehun’s multicolored hair and began to stroke over the strands, and Jongin saw the lines of tension in Sehun’s shoulders ease.

Well. That was...

Jongin frowned, watching Sehun lean his head into Tao’s touch, watching the look of concern on Tao’s face melt into a small smile.

That was probably not good.

Clearing his throat, Jongin looked up at Tao. “I don’t suppose you know if Luhan is okay,” he asked idly, mostly to distract Sehun from guilt-tripping himself.

He didn’t expect an answer at all, let alone a positive one, but to his surprise, Tao nodded. “He’s not hurt,” he confirmed. “He’s okay.”

Jongin stared. Sehun twisted back over his shoulder and stared as well. Tao blinked back at them, obviously confused by their reaction, but it only took him a moment before his eyes widened.

“Oops,” he whispered.

“How do you know that?” Sehun asked incredulously. “You’ve been right next to me since the moment I got to the engine room. How could you have had any contact with Luhan?” He frowned. “Unless he somehow got word to you before I got to you and Soo in the engine room?”

“No, it was - ” Tao stopped, closed his mouth, and started over, his cheeks pink. “Yes. That. That’s what happened.”

Jongin resisted the urge to pat him on the head. “You’re a terrible liar, Tao,” he said, amused.

Tao made a face. “I know.”

“So tell us the truth,” Sehun said. He pulled one knee up into the seat so he could turn more fully and look Tao in the eye. Jongin did not miss the way Tao’s eyes followed the motion, either. “How do you know he’s okay?”

Shutting his mouth tightly, Tao stared at Sehun with pleading eyes.

“Nope, that’s not going to work.” Sehun’s eyes narrowed. “Tell me the truth, Tao.”

“Kyungsoo asked him,” Tao said, all in a rush, like it would hurt less if he did it quickly. “He asked and Lu-ge said he was okay but things were a mess. I heard him.”

Sehun’s gaze didn’t waver from Tao’s face. “When?”

“Right after Soo left the engine room,” Tao admitted.

Jongin blinked. He’d been watching Kyungsoo’s tracker at the time. Kyungsoo had walked straight from the engine room to the infirmary - no stopping, no detours. “That means...all three of you were in different parts of the ship,” he realized out loud. “But you had a conversation, as if you were standing right next to each other.” He blinked. “Your hearing is that good?”

Tao winced. “You weren’t supposed to know that,” he whispered. “Now Lu-ge is angry at me.”

Shit. Luhan was listening to them right now. “Don’t be mad at Tao, Luhan,” Jongin said impulsively, raising his voice a little, though he suspected he didn’t need to. “I only wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt.”

“You don’t care,” Tao said. Jongin glanced at him. The look on his face told Jongin that Tao was speaking Luhan’s words, not his own. “Why would you care?”

Jongin crossed his arms. “Of course I care,” he shot back. “You seriously think the crew wouldn’t care if there was an injured kid alone in the ship? You don’t think it matters if something bad happens to you?”

“Only because of the money,” Tao said. It was weird, hearing him speaking for Luhan; he was pretty clearly imitating the other boy’s speech patterns and tones as well as his words.

“No,” Sehun jumped in. “Not because of the money. Because we would never let anyone be hurt on this ship without helping them, prisoner or no prisoner.” He looked at Jongin. “Right?”

“Right,” Jongin confirmed, nodding emphatically, both for Tao’s benefit and just in case Luhan was tapped into the camera system and watching this unfold. “When Kyungsoo had a seizure, Kris woke me in the middle of my sleep shift to get medicine and run it down to him as fast as I could. It didn’t matter to him that Kyungsoo had escaped; it only mattered that he was sick.”

Tao looked mollified by this, making a satisfied little noise. Jongin rather doubted Luhan was so easy to placate, but they had time.

Jongin eyed Tao. “I don’t suppose you can tell me how you three escaped?” he asked.

Immediately Tao’s eyes widened in alarm. “Don’t ask me that,” he said sharply. “I’m not allowed to answer. Lu-ge said no.” Jongin raised an eyebrow. Tao closed his eyes tightly. “Stop,” he pleaded. “I can’t say. I can’t.”

“Jongin,” Sehun murmured, warning. Jongin held up his hands placatingly.

“Okay, I won’t ask,” he said. “Sorry.” Tao was seconds from breaking with just a simple question asked, acting like he’d been subjected to water torture. It was a comfort to know that if they absolutely needed to, they could basically just ask Tao repeatedly until he gave in and told them. The kid didn’t have a defiant bone in his body.

But for now, it would be better to play nice, and to wait. They still had a long spaceflight ahead of them, after all. Now that Jongin knew Luhan could hear him from anywhere on the ship, he could work on the boy, earn his trust, maybe get him to come out of hiding willingly like the other two had.

Jongin changed the subject again, distracting them both. “So, Sehun,” he murmured, “how long are you planning to go around looking like a child’s art project?”

Sehun raised his eyes as if he could see his own hair on top of his head. “I don’t know, I kind of like it,” he said. “It’s flashy. This ship needs a little flash.”

Jongin snorted. “Flashy, sure, if that’s what you want to call it.”

A petulant glare. “Why, what color do you think it should be?”

“Red,” Tao said. Jongin and Sehun both looked up at him in surprise. “Bright red. I think that would look nice.”

Surprised both at the suggestion itself, and also that Tao sounded so sure in his opinion, Jongin just stared. Sehun, on the other hand, leaned forward and logged into the Core, navigating to his library of hair downloads.

“This one?” he asked, pulling up a deep, almost purple cherry red.

Tao shook his head. “Brighter. Like the lights, before.”

Sehun ran a search. Fascinated, Tao leaned over him, his eyes flicking side to side, tracking as Sehun scrolled through the catalogue.

“That one,” he said suddenly, pointing at a solid swath of eye-searing red.

Maximizing the image, Sehun frowned. “I don’t usually pick something so monochrome,” he murmured. “It looks better if there’s highlights and lowlights.”

Tao cocked his head. “But isn’t it pretty?” he asked. Sehun shrugged. “On the station...there was nothing so bright. I like it.” He turned big, impossibly blue eyes on Sehun, his lower lip wobbling just the tiniest bit. “Please?”

Sehun caved, making a sound of resignation and saving the download to his library. Jongin didn’t blame him - he wasn’t sure he’d be able to stand up to the force of that poutyface either.

Next to Jongin’s shoulder, the comm crackled to life. “Jongin,” Kris said. “Where’s Sehun?”

Beside him, Sehun stiffened. Jongin bit his lip, but it wasn’t as if there was any use trying to protect him. “He’s here with me, Captain. Tao, too.”

A grunt of acknowledgement. “Well, Tao can stay with you, but I need to see Sehun in my quarters. Now.”

“Shit,” Sehun whispered, too soft for the comm to pick up. Louder, he called, “I’m on my way, Captain,” and got out of his chair. Jongin reached over and flipped off the comm as Sehun ran his fingers down Tao’s arms, squeezed his hands reassuringly. “Stay with Jongin, okay?” he said, and Tao nodded, looking unhappy. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

As soon as the door closed behind Sehun, Tao turned to Jongin with wide eyes. “Is Kris angry?” he asked urgently. “Did Sehun do something bad?”

Jongin motioned for Tao to take the seat Sehun had just vacated, mostly so he would stop looming anxiously over Jongin’s seat. “Sehun made a mistake,” he explained, bringing up his gaming console on the co-pilot’s side of the screen and choosing a fast-paced platformer game. “He didn’t mean to, and it doesn’t make him a bad person, but Kris still has to punish him so he doesn’t do it again.”

“Oh.” Tao nodded. “Okay. I understand. Xing-ge did that too sometimes, when I made mistakes.” The game’s flashy graphics and cheery music started playing, getting Tao’s attention just like Jongin hoped it would. “What’s that?”

“It’s a game,” Jongin said. “You like playing games, right? Here, let me show you.” He pulled out the touchpad and showed Tao the gestures to use to control the avatar on the screen, explained the goal of the game in very simple terms. Then, he handed the touchpad over, and Tao immediately started to play, his dexterous hands dancing skillfully over the control pad. Jongin watched him trial-and-error his way through the tutorial level, but by the time he got to the first real level it was clear Tao had a handle on it and Jongin turned his attention to the tablet he’d used to entertain Kyungsoo.

Luhan could hear anything happening on the ship, which meant spoken conversation was out. He also had access to their mainframe, so intraship messaging or emailing was also out. That left written communication, so Jongin opened the tablet’s word processor and started a new document.

Captain,

You should know that Sehun and I have discovered that all three of the kids can hear all over the ship. I recommend that all crew treat all spoken communication as if they are listening at all times.

I am planning to use this to try and make contact with Luhan, to coax him out of hiding. I will keep you updated on my progress.

Decrypting the drive is still in progress. It would go faster if I could connect it directly to our systems, but as I am still not certain to what extent Luhan has access, I am unwilling to do so, so it’s taking quite a while. I have determined, however, that the encryption is indeed Galactic Core Special Forces in origin, and that this particular algorithm has been out of commission for at least twenty years.

One more thing...Sehun and Tao appear to be becoming quite attached to each other. This might be useful later, but it will almost certainly cause problems too. Just thought you would want to know.

Jongin

He set security access to only himself and Kris and locked the tablet. He’d find a way to get it to the Captain later.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“So when you said a rock, in space, which is red, you actually were not kidding, huh?” Yixing murmured.

Jongdae laughed. Baekhyun looked over his shoulder, where Yixing was hovering behind them, one elbow braced on each chair. “Red Rock is, in fact, the reddest rock in the system,” he quipped. “You should hear Amber bitch about cleaning the iron oxide off their landcrawler.”

“He’s going to,” Jongdae pointed out. “He probably can’t avoid it. Hush now, I’m calling.” He dialed, and Baekhyun turned on the copilot's-side camera, allowing the receiver to see the entire cockpit.

A familiar face filled the screen. "Oh, not you two again," Luna lamented, running a hand through her blue-grey dyed bob. She stopped mid-motion, her eyes landing on Yixing. "Huh. You taking on passengers these days, Dae?"

"This is a special case, and hello to you too, my darling dove," Jongdae crooned. Luna snorted, but a smile quirked at the corner of her mouth. "Permission to land?"

"Only if I've got no other choice," Luna grumbled, but despite her mutterings the landing information popped up onto the nav screen.

"You're a saint."

"You're full of shit."

"You love me."

"You're delusional and also full of shit. Land, boys, I'll see you in a minute." Luna winked in Baekhyun's direction and shut off the camera.

"You certainly have a way with the ladies," Yixing said dryly.

Jongdae glanced over his shoulder, the smile lingering on his face fading in the wake of Yixing's tone. "Luna, Vicky and I grew up together," he murmured, as if defending himself. "The two of them snipe at each other just as hard as they do at me, believe me."

"Despite appearances," Baekhyun said, coming to Jongdae's defense, "they are actually friends. Good friends. So don't do anything weird, okay?"

Yixing shot him an unreadable look. "Weird? Me? I'm the epitome of normalcy."

Baekhyun snorted to show what he thought of that.

Landing on Red Rock was always a bit of an adventure, and Baekhyun took the copilot controls to help Jongdae guide the ship into the rickety old landing docks. They managed it without too much thunking about, and as the ship shivered to a standstill, Baekhyun looked back over his shoulder to see Yixing uncurling his fingers from the death grip he had on the backs of the chairs. But he didn't make any comments about their flying, and so Baekhyun ignored him, standing up and pushing past to head out into the station.

"Baek," Luna said as he closed the door to the airlock behind him. "Lovely to see you. Why'd you have to bring the other guy." Then she leaned back from her workstation and actually looked at him, and her face fell. "Darn it, that's not as amusing if he's not right there."

Baekhyun grinned at her and came forward to steal a hug. "He's back dealing with our guest," he said. "They'll be out in a minute. How's the Rock?"

"Dirty and quiet, what else is new. So is this a casual visit or do you two moochers need something?"

Right about here, Jongdae would probably hem and haw about seeing their lovely faces, etcetera, but Baekhyun just grinned. "Oh, we're totally here to mooch."

A sigh. "At least you're up front about it." The door to the airlock opened, and Luna glanced at it. "Hi, asshole."

"Hi, bitch." Jongdae crossed the room and wrapped his arms around Luna's shoulders. "Missed you."

"Sure." But she leaned her head into his, rubbing affectionately at the arm around her collarbone. "Baekhyun says you need something. Spit it out."

Jongdae pouted. "I don't even get a second to sit down?"

"No."

"Cold." Jongdae beckoned. Yixing, who had been hovering rather awkwardly around the door, came forward. "Luna, this is Dr. Zhang Yixing. He doesn't exist."

Luna eyed Jongdae. "I guess that answers what you need, then." To Yixing, she said. "Nice to meet you. Hope these two clowns aren't giving you too much shit."

Yixing shrugged. "Only moderate amounts."

Snorting with laughter, Luna grinned up at Jongdae. "Sounds like he can take you."

"Yes, but can we take him," Baekhyun mumbled. "There's a second part, too. Where's Amber?"

Luna jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Out in the shop. Want me to call her?"

Jongdae sighed, and stood. "I guess you'd better. It'd be better to explain this only once."

Amber was called, and bounced into the shop with her characteristic boundless energy, exclaiming over them and hugging them both and shaking Yixing’s hand vigorously. It made Baekhyun smile to see Yixing look so taken aback - after Luna’s feigned coldness he obviously wasn’t expecting her partner to greet them so cheerfully. Good. Keep him off-balance. Served him right.

As Jongdae started to explain, Amber plopped into her chair and pulled Baekhyun down into her lap, winding her arms around his waist and resting her chin on his shoulder. Baekhyun let her manhandle him, more interested in what Jongdae was saying - and what he wasn’t. He and Yixing picked up the narrative surprisingly smoothly from each other, back and forth to weave the story of Yixing’s kids being stolen away.

They told the girls that Yixing had been doing Top Secret Research, but at no point alluded to the fact that Yixing’s sons were the research in question. Instead, they hinted that his sons had been kidnapped to terrorize Yixing into sharing his research or complying with other demands. Luna and Amber ate it up, gasping with horror and expressing their sorrow and telling Yixing how brave he was, and of course they would do anything they could to help.

Baekhyun felt a little bad deceiving them, and he could tell Jongdae did too, but really, it was for their own safety. In this case, there was a chance the knowledge could put them in very real danger.

“So yeah, we need a new identity for Yixing,” Jongdae was saying, “but we also need help tracking the Phoenix.”

Luna was nodding, but Amber was quiet, uncharacteristically so. Baekhyun looked back at her over his shoulder. “Can you do it?” he asked.

She looked up at him. “Can I? Obviously. I’m just confused. I served on the Phoenix for a year. This is way out of character for them.”

Yixing immediately sat up straighter, and Jongdae cocked his head. “I didn’t know that,” he said.

Amber waved a hand at him dismissively. “It was a while ago, maybe...oh, five or six years ago now? And I was only aboard for a year. Kris needed an engineer, the previous one had gotten killed in a job. The pay was good, so I signed.” She shrugged.

“So you know him,” Yixing said, the urgency in his tone poorly veiled.

“Yeah, I do, which is why I’m confused. Kidnapping’s out of the ordinary for them. They tend towards smash jobs, or theft, or smuggling.” She pursed her lips thoughtfully. “They must have been pretty desperate, to take on this job. Or the pay was too exorbitant to pass up. Or both.”

Yixing shook his head. “I don’t care why they took my kids, I just want them back.”

“It could be important though,” Baekhyun said, his mind racing. “I mean, we still have to figure out how to get the kids back once we catch up. Maybe if we know the motivation we can negotiate instead of trying to shoot our way in.”

Amber immediately burst out laughing. “Do not try to shoot your way in!” she gasped. “Believe me, if it comes down to a space battle or a blaster fight, you are six ways fucked. You better be prepared to either sneak aboard or talk your way through it.”

"Fine by me," Jongdae muttered. "I prefer talking to shooting any day."

"Do you think it might be possible to negotiate with them?" Yixing asked.

"I mean...sure? Assuming you have anything at all to offer them. I can tell you, at least, that Kris isn't going to mistreat your kids. It might not be sunshine and happy happy fun times but he's not going to be cruel to them. He doesn't like to admit it, but he's got a soft spot for kids." Amber shrugged again. "Maybe you could find a way to use that?"

"Appeal to his humanity, you mean?" Yixing said, tone drier than a desert.

"Yeah, exactly," Amber shot back. "He doesn't like people to think he has any but trust me, that's a front. You dig deep enough, you'll hit guilt. It might give you the advantage." She pushed at Baekhyun's hips until he got off her, and stood. "All this is moot if you can't find them, though, so I'd better get to work. Make yourselves at home, I guess. This might take a bit."

Baekhyun caught her around the waist before she could get away and gave her a squeeze. "Thanks, Amber," he said.

"Yeah, yeah, sure. Thank me when I've got something for you."

She left, and Yixing sighed heavily.

"Now we wait?" he asked.

Jongdae nodded. "Now we wait."

Chapter Text

True to his word, when Chanyeol’s injury was stable enough that he could go back to working on the engine, Kris allowed Kyungsoo to go with him, under several caveats.

1. That Kyungsoo never be left alone,
2. That Chanyeol keep a blaster - set on stun - on him at all times,
3. That Minseok or Joonmyun remain with them as well, until Chanyeol was up and walking around without pain, and
4. That Chanyeol never reveal any password or key location.

Chanyeol thought the extra precaution was a little bit ridiculous, since he couldn’t imagine Kyungsoo ever even attempting to hurt him or sabotage the engine, but since Kris had quietly passed around the word that the prisoners might be able to hear anything said on the ship, possibly including commands from their still-missing older brother, he saw where his paranoid husband was coming from, and obeyed.

For Kyungsoo’s part, he didn’t seem to care one little bit that he was constantly watched, treated as a potential threat. Rather, he was visibly excited to be allowed in the engine room again, and now that he was more comfortable with Chanyeol, with Minseok and Joonmyun and the ship in general, he was much less shy about asking questions, making guesses. He still wasn’t much of a talker, but Chanyeol quickly got used to watching his facial expressions and his gestures, interpreting his little wordless sounds, and when that wasn’t enough, he learned to ask direct, pointed questions that Kyungsoo could clearly answer with few words. Kyungsoo absorbed knowledge like a sponge, and with his help, Chanyeol was able to power through projects that would have taken him weeks to complete on his own.

Sometimes, Minseok and Joonmyun were both too busy to babysit, so other crew members would swing by to check on them, with a regularity that told Chanyeol it was arranged. (Kris was not nearly as subtle as he liked to think he was.) Three days after the incident with the trafficker ship, that duty fell to Sehun, who of course dragged Tao with him. The tall, bright-haired young man and his equally tall, dark-haired shadow were quickly becoming a familiar sight around the Phoenix.

Kyungsoo looked up when they entered, his expression brightening into a smile at the sight of his brother. Tao grinned back at him and made a sort of grabby reaching gesture, and Kyungsoo looked up at Chanyeol, eyes wide.

“Go on,” Chanyeol murmured, amused. Kyungsoo’s smile went utterly brilliant, wide and gorgeous, and he hopped to his feet and crossed the room to hug his brother tightly.

Sehun gave them both the look one usually reserves for a basket of newborn kittens and crossed the room himself, propping himself up on the edge of Chanyeol’s freshly-bolted-down work desk. “How’re you feeling?” he asked.

“Much better,” Chanyeol admitted, his hand automatically coming up to smooth over his aching ribs. “It still hurts if I bend the wrong way or breathe too hard or someone pokes it, but that bone-builder stuff is magic in a pill. I wish we had more of it.”

Huffing out a breath, Sehun nodded. “Yeah, well, if it didn’t cost half the worth of the ship, we probably would.” He smiled half-heartedly. “I know I’ve said this at least forty times, but I’m really really sorry.”

Chanyeol patted his hand. “No lasting damage done, kid,” he said. “I’ll live, the ship is okay now, even Tao’s cut is healed.” Kris had thrown a fit when he’d gone back to check out Tao’s injury less than a cycle after the attack and found it healed to no more than a new pink scar line, as long as Chanyeol’s hand. Two cycles later, Tao’s golden skin was back to being completely pristine, not one hint of injury left.

“Yeah, well,” Sehun murmured, dropping his voice to a murmur so low Chanyeol could barely hear it, “that was all those two, and everyone knows it.” He glanced at the teenagers, who were engrossed in some conversation that barely seemed to contain any words, and the back at Chanyeol, and his eyes reflected things Chanyeol felt in his soul but hadn’t dared voice. “Do you think Kris is still…?” he asked, his tone a little desperate but his words cut off, stilted with the knowledge of who might be listening.

He didn’t need to finish the thought, anyway - Chanyeol had been thinking the same thing for days. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “I find it hard to believe he would...But he’s being unusually hard-headed about this.” Chanyeol sighed. “I’m working on it. We’re still at least five weeks out.”

“Thanks, hyung,” Sehun murmured, sounding painfully relieved. “He’s so…” He glanced back at Tao again. “I don’t know if I could…” Again, Sehun didn’t have to finish the sentence for Chanyeol to hear his meaning. He’s so innocent. I don’t know if I could live with myself if I knowingly sent him into danger.

Chanyeol knew how that felt.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jongin and Sehun worked opposite shifts, so it was rare that the two of them had free time together. But early on in that Alpha shift, Kris had kicked Jongin out of the cockpit, and so Jongin had wandered down to the lowest levels of the ship and found Sehun and Tao in the gym.

Since Tao had been put in his charge, Sehun rather thought he was getting in the best shape of his life. Just keeping up with Tao’s energy had him pushing himself past the sedentary laziness that was all too easy to fall into in the confined space of the ship, and Sehun was now, two weeks later, finally starting to feel like he wasn’t going to collapse from exhaustion. Part of that involved letting Tao wear himself out in the gym several times a week.

When Jongin came downstairs, poking his head into the space curiously, Tao let the weights down with a huff and Sehun looked up from where he was stretching out on the mat. Jongin had jerked his head at the mirrors in the corner and asked if Sehun was up for some choreography.

Sehun had spent most of his childhood in dance class. Dance was there for him when nothing else was, not his family or his school or his so-called friends. Dance was familiar, comforting, and before Jongin had joined the crew, Sehun had spent hours down in front of these mirrors alone.

Jongin had never taken a dance class, according to him. But Jongin was a natural. Dance was embedded in his body, written in his soul, a talent he hadn’t really known he’d had until he stumbled across Sehun in front of the mirrors in his first week on the Phoenix. Now, this was their thing. In the rare times they were both awake and off-duty, this was where they would be.

And so now, nearly an hour later, Sehun was laughing and sweating and jibing Jongin for screwing up that complicated footwork sequence, all the while trying not to pay too much attention to Tao’s reflection in the mirror, gaze glued to them with an expression that looked suspiciously like awe.

“Dude, you’re the one who created it, how come I’ve got it down better than you,” Sehun teased.

Jongin shoved him. “Again,” he said, and reached for the tablet to restart the music.

The comm speaker crackled to life, halting Jongin mid-motion. “Jongin, I’m done. Return to duty.”

Damn. Sehun huffed quietly, pouting, and Jongin made a face. “Yes, Captain,” he called. To Sehun, he said, “Sorry, man. Catch you later.”

He left the room, and Sehun sighed, reaching for a towel to wipe off his neck. He glanced at Tao. The kid was still watching him, biting at his lip, bouncing his knee and kneading his fingers into the padding of the weight bench he was sitting on. He looked like he was about to jump out of his skin.

“You okay, Tao?” Sehun asked.

“I want to try that,” Tao blurted out, like he’d been holding it in for the entire hour. Maybe he had.

Well, why not? “Sure,” Sehun said. “Come here, I’ll show you.”

Tao jumped to his feet, but he was shaking his head. “I know it,” he said.

Sehun blinked. “What?”

“I saw it. I know it.” He came up to Sehun’s side and took the routine’s starting pose, stance spread and head down. Then he glanced back up at Sehun through his dark hair. “I’ll do Jongin’s part?”

Speechless, Sehun just stared for a moment. Tao stared back, expression mildly quizzical.

“Um,” Sehun finally said. “Okay…?” A flash of a pretty smile, and Tao dropped his head again, ready.

Sehun started the music.

This particular routine involved Sehun doing a four-bar combination first, and then Jongin doing it. When his cue hit, Sehun started to move, more aware than ever before of Tao watching him sidelong. He hit his freeze and glanced up into the mirror as the downbeat that would normally be Jongin’s cue dropped.

And, exactly in time, Tao started to move.

Sehun’s jaw hit the floor. Not only was Tao right about already knowing the routine, but his form was eerily perfect, his angles precise, his timing exact. He didn’t make a single mistake in those four bars, and Sehun was so shocked he missed his cue to join back in.

Tao turned and pouted at him. “Why did you stop?” he asked.

“How did you do that?” Sehun breathed, still too stunned to move.

“Do what?” Tao asked, relaxing and looking at Sehun curiously.

That,” Sehun hissed, waving a hand at Tao’s general everything. “It took us hours to get that down.”

His cheeks pinking, Tao bit his lip. “Oh. Sorry.”

“No, don’t - ” Sehun blew out a breath. “It’s not bad, just. Tell me how you did it?”

A shrug. “I just did. I don’t know.” Tao pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Xing-ge said I learn by seeing. All the ges would show me new things, and I would do them.”

Learn by seeing. What did that mean, exactly? How fast could Tao pick things up? “Okay. Well. I guess we’ll try again?”

Tao lit up. “Okay!”

Sehun restarted the music, and this time, he was marginally more prepared for the precision of Tao’s movement. Marginally. He managed to make his own cue this time, and they launched into the main body of the routine, and Sehun was glad he had good muscle memory because he was able to walk through the steps with most of his attention on Tao.

Wow. Really, wow. Jongin had come up with much of the routine, and it had his characteristic mix of power and sexuality, and watching Tao do the same movements was really messing with Sehun’s head. But it wasn’t until that damned difficult footwork sequence that it hit Sehun why it looked so eerie.

Because Tao made the same exact mistake that Jongin had, using the wrong foot and landing in the wrong place. Even the angle of the mistake was the same. And Sehun realized why the movement looked strange - because it wasn’t Tao’s movement. It was Jongin’s movement, down to the pop of his shoulders, the roll of his hips, the flourish of his hands, even his facial expressions, but it was on Tao’s body, larger, broader, younger.

Once he realized it, it couldn’t be unseen, and Sehun had to stop, unable to watch any more. It was downright freaky. Like Tao was possessed with someone else’s spirit.

Tao stopped as well, turning to him again with a familiar why in his eyes. Sehun interrupted, an idea occurring to him that had him both curious and apprehensive.

“Let’s do it again,” he said. “This time, do my part with me, okay?”

“Okay,” Tao agreed, compliant as ever. Sehun restarted the music and watched in the mirror as they began the routine together.

He only got through the first four bars before he had to stop the music again. “Holy fuck,” he muttered, closing his eyes. As he’d suspected, Tao had not only changed which part he was dancing, he’d completely changed the quality of his movement. Gone was Jongin’s natural, fluid sensuality; in its place was Sehun’s own ingrained training, limbs shaped by years of classroom work.

Sehun remembered the first day in this gym and Tao down on the mat, matching Sehun’s stretches angle for angle. He wondered if Tao even realized he did it.

“Sehun?” Tao asked. Sehun opened his eyes. “Was it wrong?”

Sehun took a deep breath. “No, Tao,” he said gently. “It was perfect. Let’s show Kris.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“Yes, of course. I understand.” Kris waited for more to the call, but all he got was a curt nod and the screen going dark. He turned off the camera, noting vaguely as he did so that his hand was shaking.

Shit. Kris clenched and unclenched his fingers a few times until the tremors quieted. Checking in with clients didn’t usually get to him like this, but then, this wasn’t an average client.

As soon as he could function again, Kris copied the call onto his personal tablet and then erased it from the comm logs. He’d keep it for his own reference but no one else on this ship needed to see that. He’d even worn earphones for the call so the prisoners wouldn’t be able to hear the conversation.

Kris rather wished he could erase it from his own mind, but alas, that was not how the universe worked.

The tracker map showed Jongin down in the fitness facility, so Kris paged down there. “Jongin, I’m done. Return to duty.”

“Yes, Captain,” Jongin said immediately. Kris hung up and checked over the logs one last time, making sure there was no trace of the call. He knew Joonmyun sometimes scrolled through them when bored on a piloting shift, and the thought of his second-in-command finding that call made his blood run cold.

He was enough engrossed in what he was doing that the sound of the cockpit door opening made him jump. But it was just Jongin, of course. Kris took a deep breath, hoping his jitteriness wasn’t too obvious.

“How’s your project coming?” he asked, jerking a thumb at the hard drive Jongin had left on the co-pilot’s chair.

“Getting there,” Jongin said, lowering his voice instinctively. “I’m estimating two, maybe three more cycles.”

Kris nodded. “Give the copy to me the moment you have it,” he said. “Wake me up if you have to. I’m done not knowing what we’re dealing with.”

Jongin promised that he would, and Kris left it at that, closing the cockpit door behind him and heading down the stairs, down the hall, and down more stairs, his feet carrying him while his mind was too preoccupied to pay attention. He ended up in front of the steel doors of the engine room, which, honestly, was no surprise. After a call like that, Kris just needed to hear Chanyeol’s voice, to see his face, and remember why things had to be this way.

The door was open, and Chanyeol was of course inside, with Kyungsoo beside him, watching raptly as Chanyeol explained some nerdy engineering thing. Kris leaned his shoulder against the doorframe, his heartbeat returning to a more normal pace as he observed them.

Kyungsoo had fixated on Chanyeol in a way that reminded Kris an awful lot of the crushes he’d had at that age. And in another circumstance, Kris would probably have let it be, let the guy have his crush and let Chanyeol revel in the attention, in having someone to mentor. It was why he’d given in and let them spend time together, even though every fiber of his being screamed that it was a terrible idea. They obviously liked each other very much, and they were cute together, and despite everything Kris couldn’t bring himself to separate them.

He hated himself for that. It was going to make everything a hundred times worse.

Still, there was something extraordinarily soothing about watching them interact. Chanyeol asked a question, and Kyungsoo quietly provided the answer, and Chanyeol’s brilliant smile was a balm on Kris’s strained heart.

Worse, the sight of Kyungsoo lighting up at Chanyeol’s praise had an actual lump of emotion rising into Kris’s throat. He swallowed it down and tore himself away, leaving before he did something stupid, like spend the rest of the shift just watching them.

Sehun paged him to call the gym a few moments later, anyway. Glad for the distraction, Kris returned his page. “What’s up?”

“Captain, can you come down here? Tao has something to show you.”

Kris blinked. That was ominous. “I’ll be right down.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kris had erased a section of the comm record again. Jongin huffed, staring at the conspicuously blank space in the logs.

“I don’t suppose you were listening to him, Luhan,” he said out loud. He didn’t get an answer, but then, he wasn’t expecting one.

Since realizing Luhan could hear him, Jongin had made a habit of speaking to the guy whenever he was alone. It felt a little like talking to himself most times, but he knew there was a good chance the escaped prisoner was listening, which made it easier to keep up the dialogue.

Kris had made it abundantly clear that the prisoners were not to be harmed in any way, but it still bothered Jongin that Luhan was hidden from them, uncontrolled. The guy had to be lonely; if Jongin could earn his trust…

Well. Baby steps.

“I hope he knows what he’s doing,” Jongin mused aloud as he sat down with the encrypted drive for the fourth day in a row. “I’m kind of new around here, but it doesn’t seem to me like he should be hiding things from his own crew. Don’t you think?”

Glancing up at the screen, Jongin saw his tracking program pull up a result. Luhan was in the camera system.

He hid a grin, and instead held up the drive, making eye contact with the security camera in the corner of the cockpit. “He’s got me breaking into this,” he said. “Well, I’m sure you already knew that. What will we find out, I wonder?” He let the drive drop back to the table, hooking it up to his tablet. “I’m getting closer now. Finally got through that second layer of encryption last night. There’s one more, but it’s more basic. Won’t take too long to crack.” He set the cracking program to run and leaned back, kicking his feet up and looking up at the camera again. “Hell of a lot of security on this thing. I wonder if your Xing-ge knew how many layers his password was unlocking. Did he set this system up, or was it set up for him?”

Jongin knew he was rambling, but it did have a purpose. He was trying to pique the kid’s curiosity. No way to tell if it was working, but Jongin could hope.

Still, he’d been laying it on kinda thick, so he backed off, going silent and letting Luhan chew on that idea for a little while. In the meantime, he ran his usual diagnostics, the same ones he ran every shift. A couple of minor errors from ongoing scans, a sensor with a failing circuit, a slight correction needed to the autopilot course. Nothing serious.

“Gonna be a quiet shift,” Jongin said with a sigh. “Hope you’re getting enough sleep, Luhan.”

No answer, of course.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

In the time it took to refuel the ship, change out the air and restock on food, Amber and Luna had results. Unfortunately, it seemed like in both cases, the results were mixed.

"Here's your new identity," Luna said, handing over a printout. "Jiang Lay, nurse practitioner. And here's your new fingerprint." She dangled a thin Dermitex cylinder delicately between two fingers. "Careful with that."

Yixing's face was unreadable as he gently took the synthesized skin from her and stretched it over his right pointer finger. It was cut to blend seamlessly into his nail bed, and once settled, it was almost undetectable, but for a slightly raised seam around the base of his finger. They'd have to get him a nice, thick ring to cover that.

"You'll need to wash that at least once a week," Luna said. "Don't bathe with it on."

"I know how to handle Dermitex, I'm a doctor," Yixing muttered. "Jongdae made it sound like you would reassign my actual fingerprint."

Luna snorted. "I would have, but there's an issue. You're flagged."

Jongdae looked up at her sharply. "He's what?"

"Flagged. Apparently, your identity was blocked because you were declared dead. When you tried to log in, the system sent a notification to the Core, and your status was changed. Now you're wanted for identity theft."

Incredulous, Yixing frowned. "I'm wanted for impersonating myself?"

Smiling unhappily, Luna said, "Standard procedure in cases when a dead man's fingerprint is used to access the Core. There's a process of appeals to get your identity reinstated, but it takes an assload of time and you may or may not get thrown in jail and interrogated in the meantime." She raised a fist in the air sarcastically. "Yay!"

"That's awfully fucking convenient," Baekhyun grumbled. "Put out a hit and then declare him dead, and if he survives, not only do you get a lovely notification of it, but he's effectively beggared, hobbled, and criminalized. Nice and neat in one little package."

Yixing glanced at him. "You think whoever took my kids was the one who declared me dead?"

"Well, it couldn't have been Kris," Jongdae said, thinking out loud. "That'd be pointing the Core interspace police right back at himself." His eyes widened. "That means...there's a good chance whoever hired Kris knows he failed to kill you."

"If whoever that was called Kris out on it, then the Phoenix might be expecting you to come after them," Baekhyun said, seamlessly picking up on Jongdae's thought.

Blowing out a breath, Yixing murmured, "It would take a lot of clout to get someone declared dead without a body." He tapped his fingers thoughtfully against his lips, then grimaced at the feeling of the fake skin against his own. "Money for a bribe, or someone owing favors, or a really convincing fake. These things are regulated, you know."

From Luna's other side, Amber asked, "Got any big-shot enemies?"

Yixing shook his head. "I didn't think so, but apparently I was wrong." He looked over at her. "Any luck finding the Phoenix?"

"Ha. I found her, alright. That particular combination of hydrogen drive exhaust and orange spray paint is pretty distinctive." She leaned forward, swiping her hands across a control panel to bring up a starmap on the screen. "I was able to map their path for the last week-ish, so we have a pretty solid trajectory." She drew the path with her finger, a red line appearing on the screen. "Good news is, they're probably heading to the Sola relay station, so they've got minimum five weeks of spaceflight still ahead before they can leave the system." She used two fingers to zoom in. "Bad news is, they've got a two week head start, and Phoenix is a hell of a runner for her size. Even on an intercepting course at full blast, there's absolutely no way Angel could catch up."

Jongdae made a frustrated noise under his breath, staring at the map. "There isn't a ship in the 'Verse that can hold that kind of speed for that long," he muttered. "Our only hope is to follow at top speed and pray something delays them."

"That isn't good enough," Yixing growled. "I can't leave my kids' fates to chance."

Crowding in behind Jongdae, Baekhyun asked, "Can we relay-hop to get there?"

Amber pulled up a bigger map, one that showed all of the Core systems and the relay lines that connected them over vast stretches of empty black space. "The closest relay is on Heracles," she mumbled, "and it goes to the Outer sector. There is a planet out there that connects to Sola, but they're not close together." She ran some numbers. "No. That's the shortest possible path, and it's minimum eight weeks travel time."

Baekhyun snapped his fingers in disappointment. But Jongdae saw how he'd come up with the idea, and expanded on it. "Okay, so if that won't work, is there a chance we can guess where they're headed and catch them on the other side of the relay?"

"You three really wanna work my brain today, huh?" Amber grumbled. "Look, there are nine relay gates on Sola. Two go to the Outer sector, four to the Core sector, and one to the Rim and two to the Cluster. I don't see how you'd even narrow it down to which freaking sector they were going to, let alone which part of it, unless you had some way to find out which gate they went through and by that point it'd be way too late to follow."

"She's right," Yixing said. "That's just as chancy. We need to intercept them before they get out of the sector."

Silence.

"Anyone got any bright ideas?" Baekhyun mumbled.

More silence.

"Ahem." The four of them turned to look at Luna, all but forgotten in the argument. "I have one. But...you're probably not going to like it."

"Is it more sure than follow and hope they break down?" Yixing asked.

"Not in the slightest. But if it works, you'll beat them to Sola with days to spare, maybe weeks."

"Lunabear," Amber said apprehensively. "You have the crazy face on."

Luna's smile was dangerously sweet. "I said you wouldn't like it."

She did rather look like a crazy person, but after the week he'd had, Jongdae was pretty sure nothing was going to faze him.

"Lay it on me," he said.

Luna turned to face him. "Ever heard of Area 51?"

Amber groaned, covering her face with her hands. "Luna, we've talked about this," she mumbled.

"You hush, humbug. Well?"

Jongdae shook his head, not believing what he was hearing. He'd thought Luna had grown out of this kind of shit. "Area 51 was a military base on Earth back before commercial spaceflight," he said. "It was decommissioned. And if you're about to say the word aliens I am walking out of this station."

Luna threw her hands up. "Why do people always say that?!" she exclaimed. "We know they're out there. Relay tech was based on found alien technology and everyone knows it."

Jongdae stood. To his surprise, a warm hand, one finger feeling slightly fake, wrapped around his wrist, halting him. "Let her explain," Yixing said, looking up at him with big, dark, frustratingly unreadable eyes.

"Thank you," Luna huffed. "Look, all I'm saying is, there's lots of evidence that the Area 51 program wasn't decommissioned, it was just moved. And I am pretty sure it was moved there." She pointed at a section of space about ten days' flight from Red Rock.

Fine. Jongdae crossed his arms. "Say you're right," he began. "What exactly does that get us?"

Luna turned towards him, her eyes lighting up. "There's this report that got leaked from there," she said in a hushed, excited tone. "A researcher found a device on some planet out on the Rim, one that could create a sort of mini-relay. Hyperspace travel, available on demand. But they haven't been able to replicate it yet, right? So it's still in there. If you can get your hands on it and get it to work, it can take you anywhere in the system in a matter of seconds."

"Sounds good to me," Yixing said placidly. Jongdae and Baekhyun both looked at him incredulously. "What?"

"You can't be fucking serious," Jongdae sputtered.

Yixing's stare was steady. "I've suspected for years that part of the material I worked with in my research had alien origins," he said, and, wait, whoa. "It would not surprise me in the slightest if the Core or the military had a place to study and reverse-engineer such things. Actually, it would explain a lot."

Well then. That took the fuel right out of Jongdae's engines. He looked back to Luna. "I don't suppose you can give us more to go on than 'it's in this general area somewhere', can you?"

"I can't," Luna agreed. "But I know someone who can."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kyungsoo liked the green shift.

It was the quietest time on the ship. Sehun, Jongin, and Joonmyun were asleep, and Chanyeol and Kris were not, but they usually used the time to work on personal things separately, or spent the shift together. Only Minseok was working, in the front part of the ship with all the screens that they called the cockpit. Which meant, usually, that Kyungsoo was with him, sitting in the second chair, with a tablet to read or a diagram to draw.

Minseok didn't try to talk to Kyungsoo, the way Chanyeol or Jongin or even Kris did. Minseok barely acknowledged Kyungsoo's existence. That was okay, because he wasn't mean, and Kyungsoo didn't mind having time to himself. Except for when he was in the refresher, it was the closest thing he got to privacy, now.

And sometimes, during the green shift when the ship was quiet, Kyungsoo heard things.

"Yeol, no, stop it!" Kris rumbled from across the ship, laughter in his deep voice. "You're still not recovered, I'm not going to throw you around tonight. Be romantic for a change, you animal."

Oh. They were...

Kyungsoo kept his eyes on the tablet, but he wasn't seeing the words any longer.

"Okay, fine. If you insist." A soft, wet sound, barely audible at this distance, and a deep, deep moan. Kyungsoo gave in and closed his eyes, dropping his head to the side as if he was sleeping, and let the texture of the sounds paint a hazy picture behind his eyelids.

It was far from the first time Kyungsoo has heard something like this. Two of the scientist ges on the station had also done these things - soft words, low noises, all only when no one else was around - and Kyungsoo had gathered, from their attitude of secrecy, from Xing-ge's reaction when he caught them, that these were not things one was allowed to show to others. These things were secret things.

So he'd never let anyone know he'd heard them, never asked about them. He knew Lu-ge had heard these things too - more than once, he'd heard his older brother muttering in annoyance under his breath when the noises began. Lu-ge was not interested in these things. And Tao, if he heard them, never seemed to realize they were out of the ordinary. Those two scientist ges, they had stopped meeting in secret by the time Tao was old enough to make sense of what he was hearing.

Kyungsoo never did find out why they stopped. All he knew was that those two ges were awkward with each other afterwards, quiet, unfriendly. He thought that was sad.

He also missed the way it made his body feel, hearing sounds like that.

Chanyeol's moan was distinctive, stuttery and low and deep, filled with a thickness Kyungsoo could never find the words to describe, even in his mind. His own breath hitched, his throat unusually dry, and there, that was the feeling.

Kyungsoo shifted in the chair, pulling his knees up and tilting his body away from Minseok. He didn't know much about all this, but he knew it was not something he should share. Minseok was not supposed to see him like this. No one was supposed to see him like this. He didn't know why, but it was bad.

"Fuck, Kris," Chanyeol moaned, accompanied by the sound of sheets rustling on the bunk. Kyungsoo let his hand drift down between his legs, hidden from Minseok by his body. He pressed the heel of his hand against his growing hardness and bit his own lip to keep sounds from coming out.

He could hear the creak of the bunk's slats, too labored to be under the weight of one man alone. He could hear them panting, sighing, the wet sliding and popping noises of mouths moving. Kissing, Lu-ge had called that, the one question Kyungsoo had been brave enough to ask after seeing them do it in the infirmary. Pressing mouths together was called kissing.

Kyungsoo imagined Kris and Chanyeol kissing, and started to move his hand gently. His clothes rustled, and Kyungsoo heard a noise from much closer, and froze.

Minseok shifted, then re-settled, going back to what he was doing. Kyungsoo let out a silent sigh, his heartbeat racing. He knew other people did things like this - he’d heard them, on the station, even seen someone once. But the ge that he’d seen had yelled at him, told him to get out, so Kyungsoo had quickly figured out this kind of thing was a private kind of thing. So he didn’t talk about it, didn’t ask about it. Didn’t let anyone see him, or let on when he accidentally saw someone else.

And he didn’t want Minseok to see him now.

"Baby," Chanyeol said, drawing Kyungsoo's attention again. "What are you...?"

"Shush." Another creak, heavier, and the sound of a bottle opening. "Stay put."

A barely-audible noise, skin meeting skin. "Wait, are you...Shit, is it that time of the year already?"

This time, the slap was definitely audible, distinctive, open palm meeting solid muscle. Kyungsoo wondered where Kris had slapped Chanyeol, and how hard, and why there had been no sound of cloth between. "You shut it. Sometimes I'm in a mood."

"Once in a proverbial blue moon!"

"Shhh, keep it down.” And then, quieter, “Are you complaining?"

"Hell no I'm not. But you'd better not just be offering because I'm injured." A hitch of breath, a soft, wanting noise. "Oh. I...Okay, if you insist."

The sound of wetness on skin, too thick to be saliva-kissing-noises, familiar to Kyungsoo. Though he didn't know what that sound was, he did know what usually came next, and when he heard the sticky slide of skin on skin and two moans on two deep notes, his heart started to pound, pulse beating beneath his hand. He pushed down again, reveling in the feeling of relief.

"Holy fucking hell, you are a stunning man," Chanyeol murmured, sounding awed, breathless.

Kris's laugh was just as breathless, but more strained. "How's the view?" he asked, light and teasing, and suddenly, Kyungsoo wished more than anything that he was there, that he could see. What was happening? Why wasn't he allowed to know?

"Gorgeous," Chanyeol said. "Incredible. A work of art. I mean, the angle alone - " Another light slap, and Chanyeol's deep chuckle. "Seriously. You're beautiful."

"Glad you think so," Kris said, and then a wet pop, and shuffling, and a low gasp that could have come from either of them, and Kyungsoo held his breath and waited for the sounds he knew might be coming next.

What he heard was a hiss, slightly strained, and a ragged moan so long and deep and thick that Kyungsoo couldn't keep his own small noise inside, tumbling out from behind teeth and lips to echo in the quiet of the cockpit.

Kyungsoo froze again. Behind him, Minseok grunted and stood, and Kyungsoo resisted the urge to turn around and look. He was pretending to be asleep.

Clearly, he was not pretending well enough, because in the next moment, a heavy, warm blanket was dropped unceremoniously on his head. Startled, Kyungsoo pawed his way out of it and looked back over his shoulder at Minseok, confused.

"I don't want to see that," Minseok said gruffly. "Or hear it."

Kyungsoo felt his eyes go wide, stricken with horror at being caught. "I'm sorry!" he whispered.

Something flickered behind Minseok's eyes for just a moment, and the downturn of his mouth softened. "You're - it's...okay. Just keep it down, alright, kid?" He reached over to the console and grabbed a box of paper tissue, tossing it gently on the chair next to Kyungsoo. "And don't make a mess," he muttered, turning away and going back to his chair.

Feeling weird and too-warm, Kyungsoo pulled the blanket over himself, hiding away. He pulled the tissue box into his little makeshift nest and stared at it for a moment, before Minseok's meaning sank in.

Oh.

Did that mean he could...? As long as he was quiet?

Too shy to ask, Kyungsoo just kept his motions as quiet and small as he could as he pushed down the front of the pants Chanyeol had given him, exposing himself to the warm, humid air of his blanket-nest. He put his hand on himself and closed his eyes, listening for Chanyeol and Kris.

When he sorted through the other sounds - Sehun snoring, engine noises, Luhan muttering to himself on the far end of the ship - and finally found what he was searching for, Kyungsoo's belly went tight. They were already up to the rhythmic part, the beat, the part that Kyungsoo wanted to hear the most, and he'd been so busy paying attention to Minseok he'd almost missed it!

Chanyeol was swearing, a string of words Kyungsoo only knew were bad because Xing-ge always glared when the other scientists forgot and said them around Kyungsoo or his brothers. And Kris was panting, his breath coming in jerks and going out in stutters, in time with the bounce of the bunk slats and the slide of skin. The sound, though faint from this distance, wound into Kyungsoo's ears and wove through his bones, pooling down in his cock and making him stiff and red and sensitive. He bit his own lip, hard, mindful of Minseok's admonishment to be quiet, and lifted his hips against his hand in the tiniest of movements, skin pulling on skin, efficient but pleasurable.

"You fucking asshole," Chanyeol breathed, his tone the exact opposite of his words. "You tight fucking asshole, oh my god."

A laugh, deep but strained. "Glad to know that's what I've been reduced to," Kris murmured.

"Shut up, you're killing me here," Chanyeol whined. "Kris. Kris, my god, Kris."

He sounded desperate. Needy. Kyungsoo's breath hitched, not knowing exactly what Chanyeol needed, but wanting to give it to him all the same. But he wasn't there, and all he could do was wrap his fingers around himself and squeeze as the rhythm gained speed and Chanyeol made a noise like he was dying of pleasure.

Kyungsoo wondered if Chanyeol felt anything like he did right now. Was it more? Was it different? He rocked his hips, and moved his hand, and held his breath, and wondered.

There was a second beat now, a little quieter, a little different in tone, still wet, still skin-on-skin, and now Kris's moaning was becoming as needy and desperate as Chanyeol's. Kyungsoo gripped himself tight and pumped, still trying to be quiet and still as possible, his other hand groping silently for the tissues and pulling out a few. Minseok said not to make a mess, and though he'd only done this a few times before, he knew what Minseok meant.

And it was getting close.

"Come on," Chanyeol was murmuring. "Come on, Kris, I want to feel you."

Kyungsoo could not stop the tiny noise that fell from his lips. He pressed his mouth tightly shut, hoped he hadn't disturbed Minseok, and moved his hand faster, using his other to hold the blanket up so the motion would not be seen. It was getting more difficult just to keep his breathing quiet - he was starting to pant with the pleasure curling up his spine.

"Chanyeol," Kris groaned, and oh, oh, that sound, that was exactly how Kyungsoo was feeling right now. He let his lips unpress just to form them silently around Chanyeol's name, testing out the shape of the word.

Somehow, just moving his mouth around the name made him jerk that much closer to the end.

"I've got you," Chanyeol was saying, the beat of skin speeding faster and faster as Kris gasped, sounding wrung out. "I'm -"

The sound he made then was need and relief and pleasure and pain and the most incredible thing Kyungsoo had ever heard. He got the wad of tissue in place only just in time, and all other sounds beyond his own heartbeat were drowned out by the silent eruption of pleasure.

The white behind his eyes was slowly replaced by the dim of the console lights filtering through the blanket, and Kyungsoo took a deep, shuddering breath, wondering what had just happened to him.

Well. He knew. Sort of. But it was never like that before.

His hands felt weak, shaky, as he carefully wiped himself off, meticulously folded the tissues so that no wetness was visible, and rearranged his clothes. That done, he pulled down the blanket and timidly looked out, hoping he'd been quiet enough, that he hadn't disturbed Minseok.

Without even looking at him, Minseok pointed at the corner of the room. Kyungsoo followed his eyes to the trash chute.

Quietly, he got up, padded over, and disposed of his mess. He returned to the chair, huddling back under the blanket, even though he was not cold. Actually, he was a little overheated, his skin damp with sweat, but he felt better with the blanket hiding him from view.

When he was finally settled, Minseok glanced over at him. "Done?" he asked. Kyungsoo nodded silently. "Good."

Kyungsoo huddled in the chair and wondered if what he'd just done was okay.

Chapter Text

When Sehun awoke, he immediately became aware that he was much, much warmer than usual.

Waking further and opening his eyes, he realized that was because Tao was wrapped around his back, his arm around Sehun’s ribs and his forehead pressed to the back of Sehun’s neck and his legs tangled in Sehun’s.

It wasn’t the first time Tao had gotten snuggly in his sleep, but this was closer than before. This was full-body, full-contact, pressed together all the way down. And Sehun didn’t realize exactly how full-contact until Tao shifted sleepily and he felt something pressing against his behind.

Sehun blinked blearily into the dim, late-Beta-shift glow, his sleepy mind trying to make sense of that. Tao had morning wood. Okay, sure, that was normal enough. So did Sehun. Nothing wrong with that. The part Sehun was having trouble with was how firmly it was pressed into his ass, and how low.

Also, how much Sehun actually liked it.

He should move away. Clearly Tao did not realize what he was doing; even if he was awake Sehun doubted he would have any idea of the implications. But the moment Sehun started to shift, Tao’s grip tightened unconsciously, pulling him back. Sehun could feel his shoulder blades digging into Tao’s chest.

Okay then.

It wasn’t so bad, really. Despite the heat and the strength of Tao’s grip, Sehun was quite comfortable, and the bulge pressing into him did not detract from that in the slightest. Judging by the dimness of the room, he didn’t have to get up for a bit, so he let himself relax into the hold, absently cataloguing the way Tao’s body felt against his own as he settled back into a doze.

Sehun drifted back to wakefulness some indeterminate amount of time later to a soft, sleepy noise in his ear, a hand sliding down his side, and a gentle rocking against his ass. He made a noise like a purr and pushed back into it, not realizing what he was doing or with who until he heard a tiny moan breathed against the back of his neck.

Eyes flying open, Sehun came fully awake. Tao was definitely rubbing up on Sehun’s ass, his fingers slowly curling around Sehun’s hipbone to hold him in place as he thrust. Too surprised at first to react, Sehun didn’t move, and Tao pushed forward again, another near-inaudible moan brushing over Sehun’s skin.

He felt good. Really good. Whoa.

If this was any other situation, Sehun would have tilted his hips back, given Tao the access to hump him freely, because wow that was nice. The idea made his heart pound but Sehun managed to shift, to pull away, twisting his upper body to lay his shoulders on the cot and look back at Tao.

Blue eyes stared back at him, wide and surprised. “You’re awake,” Tao murmured.

“What are you doing?” Sehun asked, his throat scratchy with sleep.

Tao cocked his head, as if he hadn’t understood the question. He didn’t show any sign of remorse or embarrassment, so Sehun figured that yeah, he had no idea that what he’d just been doing was highly inappropriate. That made it both easier and more difficult to deal with.

“Tao,” Sehun groaned, trying to keep the exasperation from his voice. “You can’t just go rubbing your cock up on people without their permission.” It occurred to him as he said it that Tao might not know the word cock, but Tao immediately looked down at himself, down at where he was still holding Sehun’s hips back against his own in a gently unbreakable grip. So he probably did know the word, then. Sehun idly wondered where he’d learned it.

“Oh,” Tao said. “I didn’t know that. I’ve never wanted to before.” His eyes slid up Sehun’s twisted body, tracing out the curve of his spine before returning to Sehun’s face.

Sehun blinked in shock as the realization hit that Tao was sexually attracted to him. Like for real, not just because they were laying in bed together and Tao had morning wood.

It changed nothing, but somehow it changed everything.

“Sehun?” Tao asked, concern pressing his brow towards his nose. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know. Don’t be angry.”

Shit. Sehun refocused on Tao, smoothing out his expression. “I’m not angry, Tao,” he murmured. “Please let me go.”

To his surprise, Tao didn’t. “Do I have to?” he asked, rather plaintively. “You feel so good.”

“So do you,” Sehun said before he thought about it, and held back a wince. That wasn’t helping. “But you can’t, uh, touch people with your cock without asking first. It’s wrong.”

“Oh. Okay. Can I touch you with my cock, Sehun?” Tao asked guilelessly.

This time, Sehun had to hold back a smile. Tao’s utter lack of embarrassment was endearing, one of Sehun’s favorite things about him.

Then he realized he had to answer the question, and his smile faded. Could he let Tao do this?

It was a sticky question. They spent so much time together, had gotten so close, that Sehun sometimes forgot the circumstances of Tao’s upbringing, that his physical body and his emotional maturity and his mental acuity and his social experience were all mismatched from each other, making it near-impossible to determine if he was ready for this kind of thing. And it wasn’t exactly like Sehun had a ton of experience with teaching it - he’d only had two boyfriends in the past, and both were older and more experienced than him.

He wanted to say yes. He was pretty sure that was the wrong answer.

“Why do you want to?” Sehun asked, in part because he was curious, but mostly to stall for time to think.

Tao cocked his head. “It feels good,” he said, with an unspoken obviously. “You’re all thin and bony but this part of you is soft and bouncy.” His hand slid lower on Sehun’s hip, sweeping over the side of Sehun’s ass. “It’s nice.”

Heat crept into Sehun’s cheeks. “You like my butt?”

A nod, immediate and unselfconscious. “Mhm. But I’ve never seen anyone touch anyone else’s so I wasn’t sure it was okay. I guess it’s not?” His lower lip jutted a little. “But it’s so nice.”

Damn, this was torture. “Tao...look. I’m gonna be totally honest with you. You feel so good right now and I would love for you to keep touching me. But it’s not a good idea. We can’t.”

Emotions flitted across Tao’s open features, curiosity, then elation, then disappointment. “Why not?” Tao asked plaintively.

How to explain? “Because that kind of touching, it...it’s meaningful, okay? Or it should be. Not just because it feels good, but because you care about the other person and want to be as close as possible.”

Innocent blue eyes met his. “But I do care about you,” Tao said simply. “I do want to be close to you.”

Sehun closed his eyes. He was afraid of that. Worse, he was pretty sure the feeling was mutual - but letting himself feel that way was a disaster waiting to happen. “I’m sorry,” he said. “If things were different...just, trust me, okay? This can’t happen. Not right now, maybe not ever. Please let go of me.”

Tao let go. Sehun opened his eyes to see confusion and hurt radiating from Tao’s, and before he could think about it he’d rolled fully over and pulled him into a tight hug. Tao hung onto him, burrowing his face into Sehun’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Tao murmured into Sehun’s shirt. “I won’t do it ever again.”

Dammit, he wasn’t trying to traumatize the kid. “Tao, it isn’t always bad,” Sehun clumsily tried to explain. “Someday, with someone, it will be okay to touch them like that. But you have to ask first, and they should ask too, okay? You have to agree on it, together. And if anyone ever tells you to stop touching them, you have to do it, even if you think it’s good.”

Tao lifted his head to look at him. “Is my touch bad?” he whispered.

Sehun’s heart jolted painfully. “No, Tao,” he murmured. “That’s not what I mean. It goes both ways, okay? It goes all the ways. If someone’s touching you and you don’t like it, you can tell them to stop, too. You have to tell them to stop. And if they don’t stop, that makes them bad, not you.” This was something that had been bothering him for a while, ever since Tao had said that he allowed the scientists to touch him any way they wanted. It seemed they hadn’t taken advantage of that, but not everyone Tao met in his life would be so upstanding. It might be fruitless, but he felt like Tao should at least understand that he had the right to say no, especially since Sehun knew full well there were people out there that would take see his gorgeously sensual body and his pretty, innocent eyes as an invitation.

“Okay,” Tao agreed, though he still looked confused.

Sehun reached up and smoothed Tao’s dark hair away from his forehead absently. “Come on,” he murmured. “It’s time to get up.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Luhan scowled, correcting the autopilot for the third time. Both Kris and Jongin had noticed and deleted his change, but this time, he was prepared, with a little alteration to the navigation system that would make it look like the ship was on track while actually veering half a degree to starboard, just enough to bring them within range of a cluster of inhabited planets.

There. Now there would be no more setbacks.

Closing his eyes, Luhan looked his plan over yet again in his mind. He was pretty sure it was a solid plan. He’d addressed absolutely everything he could think of.

It helped that he was already stationed in the escape shuttle. Figuring that out had been a major breakthrough. That was why this section of the ship was sealed up, shut off; that was why Jongin couldn’t find him. He was inside the ship physically, but at the same time the shuttle was its own entity as far as the ship’s systems were concerned.

It also meant that he had a way to get away from the ship, as soon as they were close enough to a planet that the shuttle’s limited range would make it.

Luhan had never flown anything. But in the past two weeks he’d gotten good at accessing the Core without leaving a record of it in Jongin’s logs, and there were tutorials and manuals and videos, and he thought he probably had a handle on it. He was a fast learner, and most of the major navigational functions were automated anyway.

"Morning, Luhan."

Luhan blew out an annoyed breath. He'd just had about nine hours of blissful silence while Jongin was sleeping, but unfortunately that couldn't last. Since figuring out Luhan could hear him - since Luhan had made the mistake of actually conversing with him, with Tao as a proxy - Jongin had been a near-constant presence in his ears.

Luhan wondered if Jongin was thinking about the fact that Kyungsoo and Tao could hear him, too. He never spoke to them by name though. The only person he addressed directly was Luhan.

"I slept like shit, thanks for asking," Jongin was saying now, as if Luhan had done any such thing. "Got a lot on my mind. It's gonna be a long cycle."

There were no cameras in the private quarters, but Luhan brought up the tracker map, mostly out of habit. Jongin was moving around his quarters, a pattern of left side-right side-left side-refresher that was by now familiar.

Jongin liked certain things to be the same every cycle. Luhan understood that.

"Have you eaten this morning?" Jongin said.

"Why do you always ask me that?" Luhan muttered.

Jongin, of course, continued without hearing. "I'm getting really sick of space rations," he said idly. "Have you ever had a real meal cooked with real food on a real stove? Did anyone ever cook for you, on that space station?"

Despite himself, Luhan's mouth twitched a little. "Sometimes," he admitted. "Xing-ge always said he was no good at cooking, but Kibum-ge would cook sometimes. When the supply drone brought us fresh things."

"I'm a terrible cook," Jongin said. "I've been known to burn water. But when we're planning to stay within a cluster for a while, they'll pick up real groceries instead of the prepackaged preserved shit. Did you know Kris is actually a pretty good cook? Wouldn't think it to look at him. Joonmyun's not bad, either."

Jongin fell silent, and Luhan looked up at the tracker map to see him exiting his room and moving down the hall to the kitchen. He never spoke to Luhan while he was in the public spaces, always waiting until he was alone behind a closed door. Luhan wondered why, when everyone on the ship now clearly knew about the range of their hearing.

Slowly, Luhan resumed what he had been doing, inspecting certain systems inside the shuttle so he would be familiar with them before he had to rely on them to survive. Jongin ran into Joonmyun and had a short conversation, mundane, that Luhan listened to with barely an eighth of his attention. Then that went silent as well, leaving Luhan only with the other ship noises and conversations - Minseok turning Kyungsoo over to Chanyeol for the shift, Tao asking Sehun dozens of questions about whatever thing he'd latched onto to this time, the usual.

He fully expected Jongin to start talking again once he got to the cockpit and got settled, and he wasn't wrong. Luhan brought up the camera - no reason not to, Jongin knew he was listening and Luhan knew Jongin could see he was watching - and followed the familiar motions of Jongin fiddling with the hard drive.

"I'm expecting to break into this today," Jongin said, glancing up at the camera as if it would give him Luhan's reaction. "Might wait a day or two before telling Kris, though. I want a copy for myself."

"Of course you do," Luhan said. "You're as curious as I am." One of the first things he had done after getting access to the system was go through the personnel files and read what was in there on the crew. He probably knew more about them than they knew about each other.

Once the drive was going, Jongin ran all of his usual tests, checks, routines. Luhan watched him, mostly to see if he spotted the correction to the autopilot. He didn't, so Luhan's programmed disguise had worked. Good.

That done, Jongin pulled up the program he had that tracked Luhan's progress through the system and stared at it. Other than the notation that he was in the camera system, there was nothing to see; Luhan had deleted every other trace of himself.

"Luhan," Jongin said quietly. Something in his tone made Luhan pause, look up to watch him. "I...I figured out where you're hiding."

Luhan frowned. "You're lying to me."

"You're in the shuttle."

Luhan stopped moving, breathing, thinking.

No. No.

"I figured it out last night, right before I went to bed. I guess you must have been sleeping or busy stealing food or something, because I thought for sure you would see me test the path back to you, but you didn't. So. Yeah. I know where you're hiding."

"Why are you telling me?" Luhan asked out loud, before remembering Jongin couldn't hear him.

Jongin was still talking. "I should have sent a message to Kris the moment I figured it out, but...I don't know. Something's not right. He's definitely hiding something and I just..." Jongin let out a long sigh, one Luhan felt himself echo.

He waited for more of an explanation, but none was forthcoming. If Jongin knew where he was, then there was no point in disguising his tracks any longer. So Luhan opened up a system log at random and typed in a message.

Why protect me?

A few moments later, Jongin's tracking program returned the result, and with it Luhan's message. He glanced up at it briefly, then looked up again, clearly startled.

"Um." He laughed. "I guess because...What we did to you and your brothers, what we're planning to do...It's not right. Kris sold this mission to us as rescuing you boys from a facility where you were being abused, treated like you were less than human, but honestly, I'm really starting to doubt that was the case. And any way you look at it, it's clear he has ulterior motives, and they've got to be more than just 'we need the money'."

Luhan thought about that. He sat, and he thought, for a long moment. Jongin's eyes were glued to the screen, clearly expecting a response.

Eventually, Luhan gave him one.

You asked if I was listening to his call, Luhan wrote. He saw Jongin nod. I couldn't hear it because he put in earphones, but I was watching the camera. He looked very scared.

Jongin sat back. "Scared?" he asked thoughtfully. "You're sure? Could it have been anger? Or frustration?"

As if Luhan couldn't tell the difference. No. He was afraid.

Running a hand through his hair, Jongin muttered, "Afraid of what, I wonder?"

That, Luhan couldn't answer, and nor did he particularly care. He deleted the text from the log, deleted all traces of himself as usual, and left the camera system.

"I'm not going to reveal your location yet," Jongin said quietly. "Don't give me a reason to change my mind."

"I won't," Luhan muttered, calculating how much time before he could reasonably set his plan into motion. "You're not going to get a reason until it's too late."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Having a third person on the ship took some serious getting used to.

Jongdae and Baekhyun had been partners for seven years now, and they had their routine pretty well down. A standard three-shift rotation, like most space vessels. It meant that they got a full shift together every cycle, but it also meant they got a full shift of alone time while the other person was sleeping, which was very important for their continued collective sanity and not strangling each other.

Now, with Yixing aboard, there was no more alone time. Yixing fell into the habit of sleeping when Jongdae and Baekhyun were both awake simply because the cockpit only had two chairs, which meant he was awake for the entirety of both Baekhyun and Jongdae’s solo shifts. He slept in Jongdae’s bunk, because Baekhyun had flat-out refused to share his own, which meant Jongdae’s room and his bed were starting to smell like Yixing, even when he wasn’t there.

It was a good thing Yixing wasn’t much of a talker. Mostly, he kept to himself, and Jongdae appreciated that. Still, it was a tiny ship, and there was little they could do to get away from each other. They’d been officially on this mission for less than a week and already both Jongdae and Baekhyun had walked in on Yixing in various states of undress, and he on them. It seemed to bother Baekhyun the most, and Jongdae had caught him muttering huffily to himself about how unfair it was that a nerdy scientist have better abs than him.

But it was, indeed, a very small ship, and so it was probably inevitable that sooner or later Yixing was going to open the refresher door with a little too much force and brain Jongdae right in the face as he was walking past.

Crying out, Jongdae stumbled back, and his heel caught on an exposed pipe near the wall. He went down, his ankle twisting under him with a sickening pop.

“Shit,” Yixing breathed, dropping to his knees at Jongdae’s side. Jongdae had one hand on his ankle, fruitlessly trying to soothe the pain shooting up his leg, and the other over his bleeding nose. He pried open eyes that had squeezed shut in pain and glared balefully at the expression of concern on Yixing’s features.

“Thanks,” he spat. It came out sounding kind of funny. Ow.

Yixing reached up and gently pushed his hand away from his face. “Let me see,” he commanded. And Jongdae didn’t really want to, but Yixing was a doctor, so he let his bloodstained hand drop. Yixing examined his face with a feather-light touch. “It’s not broken.”

“Good,” Jongdae muttered. “I need this pretty face.” He pressed his hand against his nose again. “What about my ankle?”

Dark eyes blinked at him. “Don’t push at your nose, pinch it,” Yixing said. “Ankle?”

The urge to kick him in the knee with his good foot was very strong, but somehow, Jongdae refrained. “I twisted it,” he grit out.

Yixing looked down. “Oh. Shoot.” He scooted back a little and examined Jongdae’s ankle the same way he’d examined his nose, with a gentle, searching touch. “Hmm. Doesn’t feel like a break, but without a scan I can’t tell you for sure.” He looked up. “Let’s try and put weight on it.”

He helped Jongdae to his feet, a steady arm around Jongdae’s ribs, and Jongdae hissed through his teeth as he put pressure on his foot. It hurt, but it was able to bear some weight, so Yixing decreed it ‘probably just a sprain’ and helped him to hobble his way into the cockpit to sit down.

Flitting away, Yixing left Jongdae to hold some tissues to his nose and wait for the bleeding to stop, but was back relatively quickly with the hand-scanner and an armful of supplies from the first aid kit.

“So, like, are you going to say sorry?” Jongdae asked as Yixing sat in the copilot’s chair and lifted Jongdae’s ankle up onto his own knee.

Yixing shot him an eyebrow. “Sorry for what?” he asked. “There was no way for me to have known you were on the other side of the door at that moment.”

Jongdae stared, flabbergasted. “You’re kind of a dick, you know that?”

Gaze dropping down to the task at hand, Yixing muttered, “So I have been told.” He turned on the scanner and ran it over Jongdae’s ankle, eyes flitting over the display. “Mmm, inversion sprain, grade one. Could be worse.” He looked up. “I’m gonna take your boot off and wrap this, okay?”

“Fine,” Jongdae agreed, and Yixing did just that. Pulling the boot off jostled his ankle a bit, and Jongdae winced, but despite his brusque bedside manner Yixing’s touch was extraordinarily gentle.

The silence between them was stiff and awkward, and Jongdae had never been very good at silence anyway. As Yixing finally worked his boot totally off, Jongdae filled the quiet by blurting out “What did you mean when you said some of your research had alien origins?”

Yixing paused only momentarily, and didn’t look up. “I said, I suspected that some of the material I was given had alien origins,” he murmured. “I don’t know for sure.”

Semantics. “Okay, fine, but what did you mean by that?” Jongdae pressed.

“It was a part of the research given to me to build upon,” Yixing explained, as he pulled off Jongdae’s sock. His ankle was already swelling and turning colors. Jongdae absently hoped his foot was extra smelly today. It would serve Yixing right. “Part of the parameters of my assignment. Learn how to use and stabilize a particular genetic compound that would produce a number of effects, the most pronounced being accelerated aging.”

“And you think that compound was alien?” Jongdae asked as Yixing dropped his sock to the side, activated a cold pack and slid it into a cloth sleeve.

“Not all of it, no. But I spent quite some time in those ten years examining the compound, and there was definitely a lot of non-human genetic material in there. I was able to identify some genes selected from Earth-native animals, big cats and the like, but there were some that were...unlike anything I’d ever studied.” He looked up briefly, flashing a tight smile at Jongdae. “Also, it makes their eyes glow in the dark.” Jongdae’s eyes widened in surprise. “So yeah. The notion that our government or our military might be hiding recovered alien technology hardly seems outside the realm of possibility.”

Jongdae’s impressed whistle was cut short by a yelp as Yixing pressed the wrapped cold pack against his skin. He bit at his lip. “So how much are the kids really your kids, then?” he asked curiously.

Yixing eyed him. “Genetically? It varies between them. I couldn’t imagine asking any of my staff to donate the base material, knowing very well the chances of the subjects surviving was low, so the base code is all me. There was quite a bit of manipulation done, though.”

Jongdae was pushing, and he knew it, but he was curious and he still kind of felt like Yixing owed him explanation. “Okay, but do you think of them as your kids, or your work? Seriously.”

Settling Jongdae’s ankle in his lap, Yixing held the cold pack on and looked up into Jongdae’s eyes. “They’re both,” he murmured. “They’re...they’re everything.” Clearly, Jongdae did not look convinced, because Yixing suddenly laughed self-consciously. “It’s complicated.”

“Somehow,” Jongdae muttered, “I am not surprised. So un-complicate it.”

A sigh. “Despite my profession,” Yixing began, “I am not really a nurturing person by nature. I never wanted children of my own, never had an urge to start a family. When the first child survived past the fetus stage, they represented a triumph of research and development, not a new life being brought into the world.” Yixing wasn’t looking at Jongdae anymore, staring instead at the blank air next to his knee. “I wasn’t even planning on naming them, at first. I was planning to number them. My second-in-command, Jinki, he was the one who insisted the kids be given names. He named the first child Taemin.”

“Good for him,” Jongdae muttered.

Yixing huffed a laugh. “I suppose. There were times I cursed him for it. It would have been a lot easier not to fall in love if the child had a number, instead of a name.” He sighed again, heavy. “At the insistence of my employers, I had used quite a lot of the unknown genetic material. Taemin’s rate of growth was something like twelve times the rate of a genetically normal human boy, but his body couldn’t take that kind of stress. He didn’t make it to his first birthday.”

Jongdae’s brow furrowed. “Shit.”

A nod. “I knew it was likely that a few of the children would not make it before I found a formula that worked. I knew it. I thought I had prepared for it, but the loss hit me...much harder than I anticipated it would.”

He was silent for a moment. Then, he shook himself out of it, and busied himself putting the scanner away in its case. “When I reported the setback to my employers, I made the strongest case I could for dialing back the compound in the next child’s genetic structure. I argued that I needed to start small, and work my way up to the result they were requiring of me. It must have been convincing, because I received permission to do so and scaled the genetic abnormalities way back for my next subject.” He smiled at nothing, soft. “This time, I named him myself. Luhan.”

That was a name Jongdae knew. “He lived,” Jongdae observed. “He survived.”

“Yeah.” Yixing met his eyes for just a brief moment. “It was a struggle at first. He was a very sickly child, and all his developmental markers came out of order. And it hadn’t occurred to me that someone was going to have to take responsibility, in the end, for teaching the children, for taking care of them and watching them and answering questions. For all the other scientists under me, this was a job, nothing more. None of them wanted to be the one getting up in the middle of the night when a toddler was screaming because his limbs were growing too fast for his body to handle. So it fell to me.”

“Daddy Doctor,” Jongdae muttered, teasing.

Yixing shook his head. “I never taught them the word daddy,” he admitted. “I didn’t want them to refer to me as their father. It didn’t feel right, to me, even though genetically speaking I am exactly that.” He smiled then, a real smile, soft and fond and faraway. “They call me Xing-ge. Brother.”

Silence, for a long moment. Yixing slowly removed the cold pack from Jongdae’s now-numb ankle, picked up a compression wrap and began to wrap the joint with professional acumen.

Jongdae didn’t know what to say, really, but eventually Yixing kept talking anyway. “Luhan is...in many ways, he’s very much like me. But in even more ways, he’s unlike anyone I’ve ever met. We spent a lot of time together as he was growing up and to be honest...we became so close, so fast, that it frankly scared the crap out of me.” Yixing swallowed, his Adam’s apple visibly bobbing in his throat. “I’m not really cut out to be a father,” he admitted softly. “But I did try.”

Jongdae watched him without a word.

Yixing clipped the end of the wrap in place and patted it gently. “I didn’t mean to ramble on and on,” he said, a bit ruefully. “I haven’t actually had a chance before to speak to someone about this who wasn’t right there with me when it was happening.” He flashed a tight smile that didn’t touch his eyes. “How’s your ankle?”

“Cold,” Jongdae said automatically. Yixing chuckled. “It still hurts, but I’ll live, I think.”

Nodding, Yixing said, “I suspect you will. Don’t put too much weight on it for a couple of days, okay? And ice it for ten to twenty minutes every hour until the swelling goes down. I’ll go put all this away.” He picked up the scanner and the various discarded materials wrappers and padded out of the room.

Jongdae expected him to come back, but he didn’t.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Tao and Kyungsoo were never out of sight of at least one member of the crew, and for the most part, Tao did not mind. When he couldn’t be with Sehun, he spent most of his time with Joonmyun in the cockpit or Minseok in the workrooms. Kyungsoo didn’t seem to mind either, sticking with Chanyeol in the engine room where the noises and sounds and smells were a bit much for Tao, where the machinery Kyungsoo liked so much was there to keep him company, and when he wasn’t, he was with Minseok, or occasionally Jongin or Kris.

Sometimes, they were both with Minseok, and Minseok never cared to try and entertain them, so they entertained each other, snuggling up to nap or talking softly in the stilted verbal shorthand that they’d long since adopted with each other. Tao missed spending time with his Lu-ge, but sometimes, when whomever they were with wasn’t watching them, Lu-ge would speak to them from his nest on the far end of the ship, his words echoing through the walls to be picked up only by his brothers’ sensitive ears. He’d tell them about what he was doing, or something new he’d read, or stories of their old home and their old geges and Xing-ge. And as long as there was a crew member close by, Tao and Kyungsoo couldn’t answer, but sometimes Tao made a little noise to let Lu-ge know they were there, they were listening.

Then, one day during the yellow shift when all six members of the crew were up and about, Sehun brought Tao down to the huge room they called the cargo hold. It had been much more full when Tao first came aboard, but now it was more than half empty, and what crates were left were stacked up in the corners, leaving a huge, open flat space in the middle that made Tao want to do a line of flips just for the sheer joy of having the space to do so. But Sehun just told him to sit, pointing at the balcony, so Tao sat, watching in forlorn confusion as Sehun bounded down the stairs to meet up with the rest of the crew.

Heat and movement beside him announced Kyungsoo’s presence as he sat down, mimicking Tao’s posture with his arms crossed over the balcony rail and his feet dangling off the side.

“What’s going on?” Tao asked him, because Kyungsoo usually knew exactly what was going on at any given moment.

“It’s a game,” Soo told him. “They’re playing.”

Playing? Tao knew Sehun liked to play, and sometimes he got to see Jongin playing with him, games that involved a lot of sitting in one place and moving their hands over the cockpit control panels and calling each other names, but Tao didn’t think Minseok or Kris or Chanyeol or Joonmyun ever played. They seemed too grown-up, the way Xing-ge was.

So Tao watched curiously as the six crew members divided themselves into two groups of three, Sehun and Jongin and Joonmyun on one side, and Kris and Chanyeol and Minseok on the other. Kris picked up a dirty orange ball from a rack and Chanyeol reached up to unfold a weird ring with a net attached to it from the wall.

When the six crew members started to move, Tao made a little noise of surprise, and felt Kyungsoo shifting beside him curiously. The game was fast. Tao hadn’t expected that. Most of Sehun’s games weren’t this fast, this physical; they were usually on the computer screens. But this was very very physical and Tao found himself getting totally entranced in watching them move, his muscles twitching in sympathetic mimicry.

Usually, when he was shown a new skill, he had only one person, one movement style to learn from, and he repeated exactly what he saw. This, though...there were six bodies, six totally different ways of moving, of playing the game. Automatically Tao analyzed the movements, picking out the goals of the game and figuring who was the best at which parts. Kris, he decided, was the best jumper; he got the most height and seemed to have no trouble going straight up from a standing start. Chanyeol was the best at covering the floor quickly, getting from one place to another on long strides, while Sehun was the quickest, the most agile at sharp turns and the best at recovering from surprises. Joonmyun had the best aim, while Minseok had the strongest throw, and Jongin was not particularly good at any of those things, but he was sneaky and seemed to have a knack for stealing the ball away from the other team. Tao watched them all, piecing together in his mind how he would play, if he was given the chance.

Chanyeol passed the ball to Kris, who leaped up and dropped it easily into the ring, despite Sehun’s attempts to stop him. Tao made a noise of disappointment even as he heard Kyungsoo make a tiny, almost imperceptible noise of excitement, and they looked at each other in surprise. But really, Tao thought, why would he be surprised? Of course Kyungsoo would cheer for Chanyeol and his team, and Tao would cheer for Sehun’s.

Kyungsoo seemed to come to the same conclusion, because he smiled cutely at Tao and prodded him teasingly in the thigh, and Tao grinned back and ruffled his silky hair. “My team’s gonna win,” he whispered challengingly.

Kyungsoo shook his head vehemently. “Kris, Chanyeol and Sehun are best at this,” he pointed out. “I have two. You have one.”

Well. Okay. That was unfailingly logical. “Nope,” Tao said stubbornly. “They’ll win anyway.”

Wrinkling his nose at Tao’s stubborn illogicality, Kyungsoo huffed and turned back to watch. “It’s pretty,” he murmured, and, well, yes it was. “I wish...”

“Me too,” Tao said. “Maybe we could ask?”

Shaking his head again, Kyungsoo said, “No. You could. I’m too small.”

Tao gave him a look.

“I am,” Kyungsoo protested. “Height is advantage, in this game. I’m not tall.”

“Neither is Joonmyun,” Tao pointed out, just as the man in question scored a goal, the ball sailing all the way across the room to fall neatly into the ring. “See? Different ways of playing.”

Kyungsoo pursed his lips consideringly. Content with that, Tao turned back to the game.

They seemed to be taking a little break, standing along the sides of the room now, some of the crew drinking water while others wiped sweat off their faces with cloths. Kris reached back over his head and yanked off his shirt, and Tao locked onto him curiously, because there were marks on his body, black marks that didn’t look natural. Were they words? How did he have words on his skin? That was pretty, pretty in the same unexpected, unusual way that Sehun’s ever-changing hair was pretty. Tao liked it. He wondered if he could put pictures and words on his skin someday.

“Oh,” Kyungsoo murmured softly from beside him, and Tao followed his gaze to where Sehun was teasing Chanyeol in the corner. Like Kris, they’d both pulled off their shirts, only Chanyeol had another shirt on under it, thin and white with no sleeves. Sehun didn’t have anything on underneath, and Tao stared.

His skin was so pale. Tao had never seen skin so pale. Even Kyungsoo was not quite that shade of pale, having a pinkish tinge that Sehun did not. It was so pretty, and even prettier with the bright red hair that Sehun had let Tao pick for him, and with the thin sheen of sweat that coated him, his skin nearly glowed.

Jongin, also half undressed and sweaty, came up behind and threw an arm casually over Sehun’s shoulder. His skin was much darker than Sehun’s, even darker than Tao’s own, and Tao had the darkest skin of anyone he’d met before this. The contrast between them turned Sehun’s skin blinding white and as Sehun laughed at something Jongin said, his eyes crinkling playfully and his head turning to look back over his shoulder, Tao suddenly wanted very much to move Jongin’s arm and replace it with his own. He wanted to know if Sehun’s bony, broad shoulders would feel as smooth under his hands as they looked. He wanted Sehun to smile at him like that.

A small hand slid over his knee, and a familiar head of auburn hair tilted against Tao’s shoulder. Tao pulled Kyungsoo close, knowing full well the older boy probably knew exactly what he was thinking, because he always did. Considering the way Kyungsoo’s eyes were locked onto Chanyeol’s broad, bare shoulders, Tao thought he understood.

The crew went back to their game, and Tao snuggled Kyungsoo on the catwalk and watched silently, aching to be down there with them but unsure how to make that happen. Sehun had told him to stay put, so put he would stay, even if all he wanted to do was to run and jump and play and find every opportunity to touch Sehun all over.

A noise behind them made both Kyungsoo and Tao come out of their reverie, and when Tao made to look over his shoulder, Kyungsoo stopped him with a sharp squeeze to his knee. In the next moment, Tao realized why - the only person who could have made the noise was Luhan.

“Lu-ge?” he asked under his breath, his lips barely moving.

“I have to talk to you two,” Lu-ge said. His voice sounded close, closer than it had been in days, and Tao wished he could see him, hug him, make sure he was okay and he hadn’t forgotten to eat again. “This might be my only chance, so pay attention.”

Kyungsoo nodded, and Tao said for both of them, “Yes, ge.”

“We can’t stay here,” Luhan said bluntly. “I know you two are starting to feel comfortable but it’s a lie. The crew, they don’t want us, they aren’t going to keep us. They’re going to give us to other people, bad people.”

Tao felt rather than heard Kyungsoo’s distressed frown. “They wouldn’t do that,” Tao protested softly. “Chanyeol is nice. Sehun is nice. Joonmyun and Jongin are nice, too. And Kris isn’t nice, but he said we’d be safe if we were good, and we’ve been good.”

“Kris is lying,” Lu-ge said, and Kyungsoo made a sad, disbelieving noise. “Kris just wants you to feel safe so you won’t resist when he forces you to leave. And it doesn’t matter what the rest of them think, Kris is the one who makes decisions. All the rest of them could be the nicest men in the stars but it wouldn’t matter.” They could hear Lu-ge shift restlessly from behind the wall. “I’m going to get us away from here before they can do that.”

Kyungsoo looked up at him, and Tao could see the upset in his eyes, the consternation. He didn’t want to leave. Tao knew exactly how he felt.

“Where will we go?” Tao asked softly.

“Anywhere. We’re approaching a system soon, so I’ll pick a planet, and we’ll make a new home, just the three of us. I need you two to be ready to leave at any time, the moment I say so. I’ll give you the signal, and you have to get away from anyone you’re near and sneak back to the nest. Got it?”

A small hand came up and touched the back of a pale neck. “The tags,” Tao said, realizing abruptly what Kyungsoo was thinking. “They’ll know where we are.”

“The tags won’t matter if their computers don’t work,” Lu-ge said, and, oh. Tao should have known. “I’ll try to do it when most of the crew is asleep, so you can get away without them seeing. It will be in two to three cycles. Be ready.”

He was moving away before Tao could respond, the sounds of his soft, sure footfalls fading away. Kyungsoo made a distressed noise and burrowed into Tao’s side, and Tao squeezed him close and tried not to think about the time when he wouldn’t see Sehun anymore.

Chapter Text

Pounding on the door made Kris startle awake.

Groggily, he looked around the room. At first, he thought he’d dreamed it, was still dreaming, because there was nothing but darkness and silence all around him. He reached out blindly, instinctively, for Chanyeol, and his hand connected with his husband’s warm skin next to him, solid and real.

The pounding started again. “Captain! Captain, wake up!”

“I’m up,” Kris called, his words slowed with sleep. “I’m awake. What’s the matter?” The act of speaking cleared out some of the fog, and Kris became aware that something was really, really not right here.

Where were the floor strip lights?

Why couldn’t he hear the engine?

“The ship’s dead,” the voice said on the other side of the wall, confirming Kris’s fear. Kris was awake enough now to recognize it as Joonmyun. “All the systems are down, all we have is gravity and emergency lighting.”

No. Nonono no. “Chanyeol, get up,” Kris snapped, shoving Chanyeol’s shoulder. He knew Yeol could sleep through almost anything, so he pushed hard, hard enough that Chanyeol nearly rolled off the bunk. As soon as he heard spluttering protests, he got out of bed, making his way to the door by memory and touch.

With the power down, the automatic door was locked up, so Kris groped for the manual override handle and yanked hard, dragging the door open. The pale, ghostly glow of the emergency lights illuminated Joonmyun’s expression of disguised panic.

“Report,” Kris said curtly, as he heard Chanyeol stumbling to his feet behind him.

“Power cut without warning and for no discernable reason,” Joonmyun said in a rush. “Jongin’s already in the cockpit working on it.”

“How long have we been out?”

“Five minutes, tops. I ran straight here.”

Okay then. Kris took a deep breath and tried to hear himself think over the warning sirens in his mind. “Yeol, engine room. Joon, rouse Sehun, then get to the emergency generators. What about Minseok?”

Joonmyun shook his head. “No word since the comms went down. He was down in his workroom with Kyungsoo, last I saw.”

Kyungsoo. Shit, the prisoners! “Find them both, and make sure Tao and Kyungsoo are never out of sight, got it?”

Joonmyun agreed, and Kris took off, running for the cockpit and the person most likely to give him some answers. When he arrived, leaning on the doorframe to catch his breath, Jongin was already underneath the console, his toolbag out and the panel opened.

“Jongin?”

Jongin jumped in startlement, then twisted his body to look at the door. “Sir?”

“Gimme good news.”

A shadowy twist of a smile. “Wish I could, sir. We are well and truly crippled.”

That’s what he absolutely did not want to hear. “How did this happen?” he growled.

Jongin went back to his work. “Don’t know for sure yet, but frankly, my bet’s on Luhan. If this was a simple technical error it wouldn’t be resisting efforts to re-start.” He glanced back at Kris and lowered his voice. “Tao would tell you, if you pressed him hard enough.”

Kris let out a long breath. Why the fuck had he let Luhan go unchecked for so long? Now they were screwed and it was on him.

Fighting back rising panic, Kris glanced at the manual environment gauges and did some quick mental math. “Looks like we have about four hours of life support left,” he muttered. “Can you get it back up before then?”

“Too early to tell, sir. I’ll do absolutely everything in my power.”

Considering his life was on the line like all the rest of them, Kris had no doubt of that. “I’m going to go help Chanyeol get the backup systems functioning. Would it help if you had Joonmyun or Sehun up here with you?”

A flash of teeth in the darkness, too quick and narrow to really be called a smile. “Yeah, it would.”

“I’ll send someone to you.”

He turned to let himself back out of the cockpit. “Sir,” Jongin said quickly, before he could leave, “take a tablet. My wireless blocker is down like everything else, so their short-range communication will work as long as their batteries last.”

“Good idea,” Kris said, and grabbed the tablet from the co-pilot’s station. He let himself out of the cockpit and jogged back down the hall, quieting the voice in his head screaming your fault your fault how could you be so stupid by running through the priority list that had been drilled into him years ago, when he was a cadet in the Core Marines. They needed power before anything else, power to run the air filtration and the temperature control. Once they had that, their lives would be out of immediate danger and they could concentrate on getting everything else back up and running.

Busy frantically trying to come up with a solid plan, the footsteps coming down the hall didn’t register in his mind until he turned a corner and nearly ran Sehun over. Sehun pulled up short, and Kris did the same, and he noticed the look of sheer panic on their youngest’s face one bare second before Sehun blurted out “Tao is gone!”

It was like engine coolant poured down his spine, caustic and freezing. “What?” he snapped, sharper than he intended.

“We were cleaning the kitchens,” Sehun said in a rush. His voice was trembling. “Tao was helping me scrub out the cabinets. Then the lights went out, and by the time the emergency lights kicked on, he’d disappeared. I didn’t hear a door open, I didn’t hear anything, he was just gone.”

“Fucking fuck me with a power converter,” Kris snarled. “This was fucking planned.” Sehun didn’t say anything, just stood there, fidgeting and wide-eyed and frightened and unsure, waiting for instruction. Kris took a deep breath and forcefully shoved his anger to the back of his mind - they had to get life support back before they could worry about anything else, and clearly his crew needed him right now. “Get to the cockpit and help Jongin get the systems back up. We’ll worry about the kids when we have heat and air.” Sehun still looked like he was about to shake out of his skin, so Kris put a hand on his shoulder in an attempt to calm him. “Concentrate, kid. First things first.”

Sehun nodded, taking a deep breath like Kris just had. “Yes sir,” he said, sounding marginally less freaked, and left, brushing past Kris and back towards the cockpit.

Kris started back towards the generators, bringing up the call application on the tablet as he moved and calling the engine room. Chanyeol almost never used a tablet, preferring old-fashioned pencil and paper for most of his design work and calculations, so his tablet was probably sitting in its docking station on the wall, fully charged.

Sure enough, Chanyeol picked up after a few rings. “Hello,” he greeted, sounding a little out of breath.

“Hey, it’s me. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Kyungsoo is with you?”

A huff of a sigh. “Not for lack of me yelling for him,” Chanyeol admitted. “I could really use his help right now, but he hasn’t answered. Do you know if Minseok’s keeping him from leaving?”

Kris closed his eyes. Some days, Chanyeol’s naivete felt like a cosmic test. “Yeol,” he said softly, “they’re gone. Tao disappeared from under Sehun’s nose and Jongin thinks the shutdown is Luhan’s work.”

Silence. Then, “Shit.”

“Yeah.”

“And we have no idea what happened to Kyungsoo?”

“I’m on my way to Minseok right now,” Kris said. “We’ll find out. How’s the engine?”

“Dead, but the grav boot is still humming. I could redirect the energy of the reaction to jump-start the engine if we need it, but that means losing gravity.”

Kris nodded, taking the stairs down to the workrooms three at a time. “Good thought. It might come to that. Keep that tablet close, got it?”

“Yes, Duizhang,” Chanyeol murmured, with the ghost of a smile in his voice. Kris smiled back, not that Chanyeol could see him. Chanyeol always knew what to say. “I’ll do what I can here. Keep me updated.”

“Love you,” Kris said, more for himself than because he thought Chanyeol needed to hear it.

“You too, baby. Stay safe.” The call ended, and Kris shoved the tablet in his back pocket as he reached Minseok’s workroom.

“Minseok,” Kris called, knocking on the door. There was no answer, so Kris entered his code into the manual override and forced the door open.

Inside, there were no emergency lights, so Kris turned on his tablet and turned the screen forward like a flashlight. It was dim, but enough to see Minseok’s form slumped on the floor in the middle of the room - and no one else.

“Shit,” Kris hissed, leaping forward towards him. Dropping the tablet to the side, he felt for Minseok’s pulse and breathed a sigh of relief when it was there. A cursory examination, the best he could do by touch and in the dim light, revealed no obvious injury. “C’mon, Min, wake up,” he muttered, gingerly shaking him by the shoulder.

It took a moment, but Minseok came around, with a wordless noise of pain and a startled, groggy flail of his limbs. Kris - who had known Minseok long enough to expect it - leaned back out of striking range. “Min! It’s me.”

It took Minseok a moment to focus. It was pretty clear now he’d been hit in the head; his pupils didn’t dilate the same in the light of the tablet. “Captain?”

“Yeah. What happened?”

A long blink. “I don’t. Um. Did something hit me?”

Damnit, did he not remember? “Kyungsoo’s gone,” Kris observed. “Could he have hit you?” It was hard to imagine Soo taking out a combat vet in one shot like that but Kris had the sneaking suspicion that was exactly what had happened. He was certainly strong enough, and if someone had taught him exactly where and how to attack, he was also precise enough to do it right the first time.

Fuck absolutely everything.

Minseok shook his head to loosen the fog in his mind. “I think he must have,” he mumbled. “Sorry, Cap, I should have known better than to turn my back on him.”

Kris shook his head and helped Minseok to his feet. “They caught us all off-guard,” he rumbled. “They acted friendly and sweet and helpful and we all fucking swallowed it. Even knowing what they’re capable of, we still let our goddamn guard down.”

Minseok paused and peered up at Kris with narrowed eyes. “This isn’t your fault,” he said.

Kris’s lips flattened. “I never said it was.”

“Don’t bullshit me, you’re thinking it. You always think this kind of crap is your fault.” Minseok carefully got his balance under him and pulled away from Kris, standing on his own feet, albeit slightly shakily. “Stop thinking about why it happened. We can deal with the blame after we fix this.” He gestured at the general surroundings.

He was right, of course. “Show some respect to your Captain,” Kris muttered, and Minseok snorted dryly. “Come on, let’s get somewhere we can be of some use.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

As it turned out, flying the shuttle was both easier and more difficult than expected. Easier in that the shuttle was basically capable of flying itself; Luhan only had to choose a destination from the scanner and tell it how fast he wanted to get there, making the hours upon hours of in-depth study of the shuttle’s systems all but pointless. More difficult, though, in that he had nothing to occupy his attention. The shuttle didn’t have a Core transmitter and it wouldn’t be wise to put out any kind of signal right now anyway. They were not very far from the Phoenix yet, and Luhan could only guess at how long it would take Jongin to unravel what he’d done to the systems.

Jongin. Luhan closed his eyes, pushing down the ugly feeling in his chest. He’d fully expected to hear Jongin speaking to him the moment he set his plan into motion.

He had not expected Jongin to sound so frightened.

Luhan, no, don’t do this, he’d said, the words fast and frantic. Please, Luhan, give us power back. Please. I can’t stand being inside a dead ship, I can’t stand it. Please don’t.

Shaking his head, Luhan pushed the memory away. Jongin would be fine. Luhan’s plan was destructive, but not irreversible, and the Phoenix had more than enough supply in the backup life support to keep them alive for the time it would take to fix the damage.

They would be okay. And now, Luhan and Kyungsoo and Zitao would be okay, too.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The hex wrench clattered to the floor for the third time, and Sehun finally had to say something. “Do you need me to do that?” he huffed, exasperated.

Jongin’s smile was wan and humorless in the ghostly light as he picked up the wrench again and leaned back over the console. “I’m fine,” he said. “Sorry. It’s just that these panels are rarely opened. The bolts are a little sticky.”

Leaning over the console with him, Sehun watched for a moment. “Jongin,” he said warily. “Your hands are shaking.”

A laugh, as humorless as his smile, dry and strained. “Yes, I know that.” He settled the wrench in the bolt and gave it a couple of twists. Within seconds, the wrench was on the floor again. “Dammit,” he breathed.

Sehun sighed and slid under the console to get it before Jongin could move. “Let me do it,” he snapped. “We don’t exactly have a lot of time.”

Jongin collapsed to the floor next to him, despair in his every line. “I know that,” he whispered again. Sehun stared at him, surprised. That wasn’t at all the snappy comeback he was expecting.

“Dude, are you okay?” Sehun asked, glancing between Jongin and the bolt as he lined up the wrench.

In the dim light, Jongin’s eyes were pitch black. “No,” he admitted. “I have cleithrophobia.”

Sehun frowned. “What?”

“Cleithrophobia. The fear of being trapped or locked up. Closely related to claustrophobia.” Jongin looked around the dead cockpit. “I might be. Panicking. A little bit.”

Well shit. “You’re hiding it well,” Sehun muttered.

Jongin’s laugh was only the tiniest bit less strained. “Yeah, well, I’ve had to learn.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I’m okay. Really. It’s better than it used to be. The first time a ship went dead on me like this, I hyperventilated and passed out.” He wove his fingers together in front of him, trying to still them. “Shaky hands is an improvement.”

The panel suddenly slid loose, making both of them jump. “Aha,” Sehun said, pulling the last bolt loose and setting the panel on the ground. “Okay, what am I looking at?”

“Let me in there,” Jongin muttered, getting up to lean back over the console. “This is the ship’s power balancer. It’s what regulates the electricity that runs all over the ship and, near as I can tell, is the thing that’s not working.”

Sehun leaned back a little to get out of his way and watched with interest as Jongin, slightly less shaky now that he had something to be doing, carefully snaked a cord in between the console and the wall and felt around with it. “Why was it put in such an awkward position?”

“To keep people from doing exactly what I am doing,” Jongin said. “It’s one of the most critical parts of the ship, as you may have noticed.” He waved a hand at the dark surroundings. “If you don’t know what you’re doing you can royally break a ship. But it’s already well and fucked, so I don’t have a whole lot to lose by digging into it. Aha, got it.” Jongin withdrew his hand, the cord now plugged into some unseen port in the panel. “What I’d really like to know is how the heck Luhan got into it remotely. That shit should have been impossible.”

He plugged his tablet into the other end of the cord and started flicking his fingers across the screen. Sehun leaned over his shoulder, trying to decipher what he was doing.

“Are we even certain it was Luhan?” Sehun murmured thoughtfully. “Could it have been a glitch or an error or something?”

Jongin flinched. He covered it up, he kept his eyes on his tablet, but he definitely flinched. “No,” he said. “It was Luhan. Trust me.”

If he hadn’t flinched, Sehun would have let it go. But something about the way he said that set off a warning buzz in Sehun’s mind.

“How do you know?” he asked. Jongin’s lips pressed shut, and Sehun leaned closer. It wasn’t like Jongin to keep something hidden like this. “Jongin, what?”

Jongin’s fingers wrapped around Sehun’s wrist, and he looked up, eyes wild. “Can I trust you, Hun?” he asked, his voice dropping to a bare whisper. “Can I trust you to have my back no matter what?”

He looked half-crazed, and Sehun found himself nodding, not really even sure what he was promising. “Yeah, of course,” he said, his volume dropping to match Jongin’s.

Jongin took a deep breath, his gaze dropping to the side. “I could have stopped this,” he murmured. “I knew where Luhan was hiding.”

Sehun could not have possibly heard that correctly. “What?”

“I knew where he was. I could have told Kris but I...didn’t.”

A nasty stew of conflicting emotions began bubbling in Sehun’s gut. “Why not?” he hissed.

“I don’t fucking know!” Jongin still wasn’t looking at him, his hands shaking as he did whatever he was doing on the tablet. “I just had this image of Kris storming in there, guns blazing, and I couldn't bring myself to…” He trailed off, full mouth twisting into a self-deprecating sneer. “Clearly, that worked out well.”

He fell silent, jamming his fingers into the tablet touchscreen with rather more force than was necessary. Sehun watched him for a moment, digesting that.

"Okay, so, can we go find them then?" Sehun asked. "If the entire ship is down, then Luhan won't be able to use the computers against us...Do you think we should..." He trailed off, finding himself not wanting to finish the sentence. Jongin was right - it would be Kris and Minseok and Joonmyun, and they would go in with guns blazing, stun first and worry about the rest later. The image made his already rolling stomach jerk.

Jongin shook his head. "No. Even if I could find a way to tell Kris without bringing hell down on myself, it wouldn't matter. They were in the escape shuttle, Hun. That blast we felt right after the lights went out? Bet you anything that was them detaching."

Sehun blinked. "Oh. Shit." He tried to imagine Luhan, Kyungsoo and Zitao, out in space on their own.

Now his heart and his stomach felt sick.

"I don't know how much my opinion matters, but...I think you did the right thing," Sehun finally murmured. Jongin looked up. "Or...I don't know. Maybe it wasn't right but I think I would have done the same. I mean, I thought about convincing Tao to tell me where Luhan was a few times. I think he would have told me freely, if I asked him the right way. But I never even tried."

Jongin's smirk was a tiny bit less twisted this time. "I'm not sure that's reassuring," he mumbled. "Because all that's gotten us is trapped in a dead ship."

"Hey now." Sehun leaned on the console next to him. "Are you saying you don't think you can get power back in the next..." He glanced over at the environmental readouts. "Two and a half hours?"

A snort. "If what this diagnostic is telling me is true, it shouldn't take me more than one."

"Then the ship's not dead, it's just...uh..." Sehun wracked his brain. He didn't think injured or in a coma were going to help Jongin here. "Sleeping. The ship is just sleeping. Wake her up with a kiss, Prince Charming."

Jongin smacked him, but his smile was genuine this time. "Sure, if that's what you wanna call it." The smile faded. "You aren't going to say anything, right?" he asked.

"And get you shanked? No." He tried out a smile of his own. "You're the only one who puts up with me."

"Such love. Such friendship," Jongin muttered. He was silent for a moment, and then, "I hope the kids are okay...wherever they are."

Glancing out the cockpit windshield at the vast sea of stars, Sehun couldn't help but feel the same.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It was a little bit weird to be communicating using the tablets again. It was more than a year since Jongin had joined the crew and summarily scrambled all wireless communication. Using the comm was a bit less convenient for day-to-day, but Minseok had been on too many ships where vital systems were wirelessly taken over by outside forces. He agreed with the precaution.

Still, it startled him when his back pocket started vibrating, and it took him a moment to remember how to fumble open the lock screen and get to the call app. He expected it to be Kris, but it wasn’t. It was Chanyeol.

“Hey,” Chanyeol, said, slightly tinny through the little speaker. “Kris is headed your way. I kicked him out because he was driving me up the wall and around the corner.” Minseok snorted. Chanyeol’s crooked grin stretched across the screen. “He’s doing that thing where he’s trying to drown out his thoughts with physical stuff.”

Minseok had never actually tried to put ‘that thing’ into words before, but he knew what Chanyeol meant. There was a reason Kris had installed the basketball hoop in the cargo hold, and it wasn’t for crew bonding time.

“We’ll put him to work,” Minseok promised. “Thanks for the head’s-up.” He swiped the app closed and stuffed the tablet back in his pocket. “Hey, Joon, looks like we’re on captain-sitting duty.”

A flash of a smile in the darkness. “Good. We need all the help we can get.” Joonmyun was up on top of the starboard drive pod, re-oiling all the connections as quickly as he could manage. The drive pods had to be in the ‘default’ position when the ship’s engine started back up again or they could be damaged, and without power that meant they were going to have to be manually shifted. On new pods the hydraulics would have made that a one-man job, but these pods were rusted and creaky and old and had refused to budge no matter how hard the two of them had pushed.

They heard Kris coming before they saw him. “Look, I don’t give a shit about the specifics, Jongin. Get it back up. Now.” His tone was hard, harder than was really called for given everyone on the ship was more than aware of the clock ticking. Minseok saw Joonmyun pursing his lips disapprovingly out of the corner of his eye.

Kris shoved the door to the drive chamber open with his shoulder, his hands occupied with putting his tablet away. “Report,” he barked.

“The drive pods are shit and we need to replace them,” Minseok told him, before Joonmyun could open his mouth.

“I’m aware,” Kris snapped. “How about something useful?”

This time, Joonmyun spoke before Minseok could open his mouth. “We’re working on getting the pods reset to the default position,” he murmured, in a tone that clearly said please calm down. “They’re sticky. We could use some help.”

Kris blew out a long breath. “Fine. Let’s do it.”

Joonmyun was basically done oiling the starboard pod, so he got down off it and the three of them found positions where they could get a grip on the huge piece of machinery. “On three,” Kris said. “One, two - ”

It took a couple of minutes and a whole lot of muscle, but eventually, the pod clicked into place. “Got it,” Joonmyun gasped, and Minseok let go, stretching out his cramped fingers and hissing with pain under his breath. There was a deep red line down both of his palms from the support beam he’d been gripping.

If Kris had a similar injury, he didn’t show it. “Now the other,” he commanded, already halfway across the room on long strides.

“Want to give it a second?” Minseok muttered in annoyance, rubbing at his palms.

“No. Move.”

Minseok moved, with Joonmyun not far behind him. “Captain,” Joonmyun said carefully, “we’ll probably need to oil that one too.”

He didn’t even get a look back. “Don’t argue with me.”

Okay, that was out of line. “He wasn’t,” Minseok snapped, picking up the oil can and striding across the room to catch up. “It has to be oiled before it will move.”

Kris rounded on him. “Then do it!

Minseok stopped in his tracks, shocked at the outburst. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Kris this amped up. Kris usually got calmer in stressful situations. This was fucking weird.

He must have stood and gaped for a second too long, because Kris growled and reached over to swipe the can from his hand. “Damnit, I’ll do it.”

Minseok let him take it, because fighting him for it seemed like an exercise in futility, his eyebrows shooting higher as Kris fumbled the can and nearly dropped it. Snarling at nothing, Kris strode over to the drive pod and started to climb up the side.

A touch on his shoulder had Minseok looking back, into dark, worried eyes. Joonmyun glanced up at Kris, then back at Minseok, and he didn’t have to voice his question for Minseok to gather what it was.

Minseok shrugged, because he had no fucking clue what bug had crawled up Kris’s ass.

“Fucking shit,” Kris spat, and Minseok looked up to see Kris’s silhouette frozen, staring down at himself. It took him a moment of squinting into the dim light to figure out what had happened. Kris had somehow managed to spill the engine oil down his entire front.

There was silence, for just a moment. Joonmyun broke it first.

“It’s okay, Captain, we can just -”

“No, it is not fucking okay!” Minseok’s arms flew up in defense as the empty can went whizzing past them, a wild, undirected throw. “Fuck! Starfucking shit!

Minseok exchanged a glance with Joonmyun, and then they were both moving, crossing the room to get to Kris before he actually broke something.

“We are so fucking screwed!” Kris’s voice sounded hoarse now, shaking as well as furious. He managed to get down off of the drive pod, half-sliding, leaving a trail of oil from his soiled hands.

“No, we aren’t!” Minseok snarled, taking him by the shoulders and resisting the urge to shake some sense into him. “We have gotten out of way worse than this. Get your shit together.

Kris’s shoulders were trembling with restrained anger under his hands, his lips pursed to hold back more cursing, but he did manage to refrain from more yelling.

Joonmyun reached around Minseok to touch Kris gently, getting his attention. “Maybe go look for more oil in the storerooms?” he suggested carefully.

Kris stared, then wrenched himself away. “Fine,” he growled, and took off, dirty shirt and all.

As the door slammed shut behind him, Minseok breathed out a long sigh and turned to Joon. “You have more oil in the cabinet over there, right?” Joonmyun nodded. “Good. Let’s get this done before he comes back.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The first crash of an empty crate against the storeroom wall was loud and sickeningly cathartic. Kris dug his fingers in the grid of another plastic crate and whipped it at the wall with all his strength. It rebounded and skittered across the floor, coming to rest just before hitting Kris's foot. He picked it up again and threw it even harder. Something in his shoulder pulled as he did it, and the pain only magnified his fury.

"Gone," he snarled aloud. "They're fucking -" Blindly, he reached out, toppling a stack of crates to the ground. His fists slammed into the wall now revealed behind where the crates had been, and his forehead thunked between them, the impact reverberating in his ears and all down his neck.

He barely felt it. All he could process was they're gone they're gone I lost them I'm fucked we're all fucked it's my fault my fault my -

As if the stream of thought was taking over his body, Kris's boot connected with the wall, kicking out over and over.

"Everything okay?"

The faint, concerned call filtered hazily through Kris's mind, and wordlessly he snarled and flung the nearest item to his hand out the open storeroom door. He didn't recognize Sehun's voice until he heard swearing and footsteps moving hastily away.

Shit. Was he turning on his own damn crew now? Kris forced his body to still, forced himself to breathe.

It felt like all the stillness did was make the spinning of his mind gain momentum. Kris grit his teeth against the barrage of mental images of what would happen if he couldn't get the kids back.

He hadn't even gotten to the worst part when his body rebelled, and the next thing he knew the steel storage rack on his right had been yanked off its legs and toppled, smashing into the nearest wall. The resounding crash finally broke through Kris's fog of furious terror, and suddenly, all he was was tired.

"...Dammit," he muttered, his shoulders slumping. He stopped still for a long moment, everything numb and no sound but his heartbeat.

"What the hell are you doing, Yifan," he mumbled at himself. "Your mothers would be ashamed."

With a sigh, Kris wrapped his hands around the felled storage rack to lift it back into place. They’d only just gotten this storage room put back together after the grav boot had blown.

The rack hit something, jerking out of Kris’s grip and falling back to the floor with another loud crash, narrowly missing Kris’s toes. Swearing, Kris picked up his tablet and turned on the light to see what the rack was caught on.

It was pretty easy to identify the issue - the top corner of the rack had ripped into one of the interconnecting steel wall plates, bending it out of shape and getting stuck in the hole that resulted. It took a moment for Kris to shove the rack backwards until the top shelf came free of the twisted steel, then he brought the light closer to survey the damage. Three plates were bent from the impact, which could be worse. They’d be easy to replace - that was the point of the modular wall construction, after all.

Something brightly colored caught Kris’s eye from behind the wall. He raised the light higher to look.

It was a food bar wrapper.

In a flash of understanding, Kris realized what had happened. How the kids had gotten around without being seen or detected by sensors, how they’d walked in and out of every room on the ship without using doors. The modular panels were heavy and difficult to disengage without the right tools, but Kris had no doubt at all that that was exactly what the kids had done. It was so obvious that he couldn’t believe it hadn’t occurred to him. He was used to thinking of the ship’s walls as solid, even though in his mind he knew they were not.

“Lot of good that does me now,” Kris muttered out loud. He set his tablet on a crate nearby and bent down to lift the rack back into place.

With a painfully buzzing screech, the lights came back on.

Kris stopped mid motion, collapsing into a crouch as relief stole all the impetus from his body. He could faintly hear cheering from all over the ship.

The comm crackling to life was one of the more welcome sounds Kris had ever heard. “Gentlemen,” Jongin said, “we have power.”

“Good job, Jongin,” Kris called, hoping the tremble in his voice wasn’t too apparent. “What’s the status on the systems? Can you run scans?”

“Basic ship audit scan is the only thing up. All the extra programs and plugins need rebooting. Working on it.”

That would work. “Run it.”

“It’s already running,” Jongin assured him. “Results pending in a minute or two.”

The prospect of actually being able to do something about his predicament got Kris up off the floor. He muted his end of the comm so the entire ship wouldn’t hear the commotion as he lifted the heavy storage rack back into place and started piling the mess of crates back onto the shelves.

He had gotten the worst of the mess cleaned up and was just digging through the other shelves for that engine oil when Jongin got back to him. “Scan complete, sir. Everything looks as well as can be expected, except…”

Kris took a deep breath and mentally braced himself. “Except?”

“The escape shuttle has been jettisoned.”

His eyes fluttering shut, Kris held back a growl. He wanted to yell, but it wasn’t like it was Jongin’s fault. “Unfortunate, but unsurprising,” he said instead. “Work on getting the rest of our scanners up ASAP. Yeol, what’s the status on the engine?”

“Dead as a doornail, as they say,” Chanyeol told him, rather more energetically than Kris thought was appropriate. “We’re gonna need to jump it. I could use a hand.”

Good. Something useful to do. “I’ll be right down. Joon, I couldn’t find any engine oil in here.”

“We found an extra can stashed away up here, Cap. The pods’ll be ready by the time you get the engine jumped.”

Those assholes probably sent him away just to get him out of the drive room. Kris decided not to call them out on that. “That’s the best news I’ve heard all cycle. Keep it moving, boys. We can’t let them get too far.”

He picked up his tablet and left the room, leaving the comm channels open shipwide. Right now, he wanted to be connected to everything.

Chapter Text

There were more people on the spacedock than Tao had ever seen in his life. Frankly, there were more people on the spacedock than Tao had thought existed. He knew that other people existed outside of just the ones he'd met, but this was so much more than he was expecting.

And they were all so different.

Every size. Every shape. Every color, in skin and hair and clothes. They all moved differently, too, and Tao couldn't help but watch them all as they passed, his eyes catching on a hundred different quirks and tics and gestures and patterns.

It was just. So much.

"Tao," Luhan said, and a warm, familiar hand slid into his own. "Come on, stay with me. Concentrate on me."

Until Tao did as his ge said and brought his attention back to familiar light hair, familiar blue eyes, he didn't realize he'd stopped dead in the middle of the street, overwhelmed by the amount of new to look at. He opened his mouth to apologize, but Luhan was already doing the same with Kyungsoo, who looked much more unhappy about the commotion around them than Tao. Kyungsoo didn't like loud noises or lots of action, and he clung to Luhan's hand in distress, his eyes wide and wary.

More than the people, Kyungsoo was staring up at the sky, and how it went up and up and up and it just didn’t end. It was really strange, but Tao kind of liked it, actually. Even though there were so many people, it felt like he had infinite space right now, like he could run and keep running and never have to stop. But Kyungsoo liked to be inside things, under things, sheltered; he must have been so uncomfortable with the complete lack of ceiling.

Tao wished he could hold Kyungsoo's hand too, but then they would be holding hands in a circle and that wasn't very conducive to walking. "What do we do now?" he asked.

"We have to find a place to stay, a way to eat, and a way to make money, not necessarily in that order," Luhan said. "I stole some credits from the crew members when I could but they didn't have a lot laying around, so we have to find work."

"Work?" Tao asked.

Glancing back at him, Luhan said, "Tasks in exchange for money. There should be some basic labor things around here. I saw job postings on the Core." He tugged on Tao's hand. "Come on. Try not to get caught up watching the people."

But there were so many of them. "Yes, Lu-ge," Tao said.

Luhan lead them through the crowd of people and towards another, bigger and even more tightly packed crowd of people. Kyungsoo made a small, distressed noise; Tao's eyes went wide.

"Hey, boys, where're ya headed?"

Until Luhan looked up, Tao didn't realize the comment was directed at them. He turned and looked. It was a woman, older and more wizened than any person Tao had ever seen in real life. He had no idea people came in that degree of wrinkly.

"Looking for work," Luhan said shortly.

"Ahh." The woman smiled. Most of her teeth were missing. It was fascinating. "Check out the Red Lion. There's always someone hiring around there." She took a step forward, reaching out to put her hand on Tao's shoulder as she pointed down the street. Tao watched her movement raptly. "It's just down there. See the pink neon sign at the corner? Turn right, and it'll be on your left halfway down the block." Bony fingers squeezed at Tao's arm, and she looked up at him and grinned. Tao smiled back, though he wasn't really sure why.

Luhan pulled Tao forward and out of the woman's grip. "We'll look," he said. "Come on, Tao."

The woman didn't stop smiling as they moved away. "Tell 'em I sent ya!" she called.

"Sure," Luhan muttered, in a way that made Tao think he was probably not going to do any such thing. "Nosy."

Tao squeezed Luhan's hand gently. "She moved wrong," he said. "Lu-ge, why did she move wrong? Is she sick?"

"She's just old, Tao."

"She smelled funny," Kyungsoo observed quietly.

Luhan rolled his eyes. "Yes, that is what happens when people get old. They move weirdly and smell funny. You two would know this if you ever tried to educate yourselves on the real world."

Tao frowned, stepping to the side to avoid hitting a pair of men coming the other way. "What?"

"Read. You need to read. Also interact with people on the Core."

"I read," Kyungsoo protested. "And I don't like people."

"You read textbooks and manuals. And you'd better get used to people, because this is our life now." He jerked his chin at the crowd around them. "This is the 'Verse, and we're on our own. We have to take care of ourselves."

Kyungsoo glanced up at Tao behind Luhan's back, looking quite alarmed at this prospect. Tao wished again he could hold Kyungsoo's hand. "Can't we take care of each other?" he asked.

Luhan looked up at him, a rare, momentary flash of softness in his usually guarded gaze. "Of course," he said. "I'll take care of you, and you'll take care of me. We're together."

He squeezed Tao's hand, and Tao squeezed back.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kris was unusually quiet when he got to the engine room. It was actually kind of distracting, because fifteen minutes ago in the dark, dead ship, he'd been almost manically loud, barking orders with more fervor than necessary and snapping at anyone who looked at him the wrong way. But now, with the lights back on and the ship humming and the air tasting fresher with each breath, he was unnervingly silent, going where Chanyeol asked him to go and doing what Chanyeol asked him to do with absentminded movements.

Getting the engine going from a dead stop in deep space was always something of a challenge. On a planet, the reactionary energy of the gravboot was tapped to get the generator moving with no issues, but right now in order to do that they had to lose gravitation, and they would have to start the rotor spinning by hand. Chanyeol hooked his tablet into the gravboot with his longest cord, hovering a hand over the rotor to see if it was cool enough yet to touch.

It was, and he looked up to tell Kris so, only to see him leaning on the engine casing, staring at nothing, looking lost. "Hey," Chanyeol said. When Kris didn't look up, he snapped his fingers to get his attention. "Hey. You with me? I need you to be paying attention for this. I like your hands, I don't want them burnt off."

Kris blinked, refocusing. "I'm here. What do you need?"

Chanyeol explained the slightly complicated maneuvering they were going to have to do as soon as gravity ceased to be. "And we have to do this as fast as possible, okay?" he stressed. "If we're not far enough away when the engine is jumped we will get burned."

A nod. "Okay. I'm with you. We doing this now?" He moved to the engine, wrapping his big hands around the rotor.

"Hang on," Chanyeol cautioned. "Let me check in with the rest of the ship." He dropped his tablet on the desk and moved to the comm, opening all channels. "Hey, everyone, we're ready to jump the engine."

"Drive pods are back to default and locked," Joonmyun reported. "We're out of the room. Good to go."

Awesome. "Jongin?" Chanyeol asked.

"Gimme just one more minute. The systems are still rebooting."

"Okay," Chanyeol agreed. "Call when you're ready." He shut off the line and went over to his husband, putting a hand on his shoulder. Kris jumped, like he'd drifted away again. "Hey, are you sure you’re okay to do this? You're acting like you're spacedrunk." It wasn't the first time they'd been in a dead ship and rebreathing unscrubbed air, and Kris had not shown particular susceptibility to CO2 poisoning before, but every situation was different.

Kris pulled away from his hand. "I'm fine," he muttered. "How far off course do you think we are?"

Chanyeol blinked. Was that what he was worrying about? "Uh, well, it's only been a few hours," he thought out loud, "but we were travelling just shy of top speed, and without the drive pods correcting for the difference we probably got knocked off course when the shuttle detached."

Taking a deep breath and blowing it out, Kris ran a hand through his hair. "So we could be anywhere," he mumbled.

"Well, not anywhere. But mathematically, it would take us at least a few hours to get back to where we were. Hopefully the shuttle is still in range of the sensors and we won't have to backtrack to find it." Kris nodded, again staring at nothing, clearly lost in thought. Worried, Chanyeol stepped closer, sliding his hand around Kris's ribs. "Hey, we're gonna get them back, okay? We're in the middle of nothing and they're in a dinky shuttle, they can't have gone far."

Kris stared at him for a moment, unmoving, unnerving. Then he lifted his own hand and pulled Chanyeol close, burying his face in the side of Chanyeol's neck. Chanyeol made a small, surprised noise, but he wrapped both arms tightly around his husband and held on.

"We have to get them back, Yeol," Kris whispered fervently into Chanyeol's skin. "We have to."

"We will," Chanyeol assured him, rubbing his back soothingly. Kris's shirt was damp with sweat, despite the chill in the still-recovering ship.

Long arms tightened sharply around him, his shirt pulling taut against his skin as Kris balled his hands up in the fabric. "You don't understand," he muttered. "You don't understand. I can't lose them. I can't."

Now Chanyeol was starting to get a little bit freaked out. "We're going to find them. It's gonna be okay, baby." Kris never took jobs this personally - what the hell was going on?

Kris didn't answer. He just clung, clung to Chanyeol with his face hidden like a scared child, and wow, yeah, this was freaky as fuck.

"Kris, baby - " Chanyeol didn't get to finish his sentence, because the comm crackled to life.

"The system's rebooted, we're ready to go."

Shit. Okay. "Open all the channels, Jongin," Chanyeol called, and another crackle told him it had been done. "You ready?" he asked Kris, who had let him go and straightened up, his shoulders square and his face set.

"Yeah," Kris muttered. His eyes were reddened, but other than that, there was nothing to indicate he'd been on the verge of breaking down in Chanyeol's arms. "Let's get her moving."

The jump required a coordinated effort, and Chanyeol was a little bit worried that Kris was too out of it to be paying attention, but he needn't have been. Kris's actions were as sure as always as he braced one foot in front of the other, knees bent, and again wrapped his hands around the rotor.

Chanyeol locked his drafting stool to the floor and curled one foot around the leg to hold himself steady. "Ready?" he asked.

"Ready," Kris confirmed.

Picking up his tablet, Chanyeol began to turn down gravity.

As Chanyeol had instructed, the moment Kris felt the floor falling away from his feet he heaved, setting the rotor spinning with all of his strength. Chanyeol reached out, grabbed the back of his shirt, and tugged him backwards, his foot around the drafting stool keeping him from flying forwards in reaction.

Gravity reached zero, and as Kris floated past him, Chanyeol swiped his fingers over the tablet's surface to start the jump. A flash of light and heat, and the spinning engine started to ramp up, faster and faster until it was a humming, glowing blur, familiar and reassuring.

"We're back," Chanyeol called, and cheers erupted through the comm. More quietly, to Kris, he said, "Let's get over the cot before I turn gravity back on."

They both pushed off, floating right over the spinning engine to the opposite corner, Chanyeol carefully guiding the cord connecting him to the gravboot around the side so it didn't get caught in anything. "Okay," he called. "Gravity returning in three, two..."

He turned the dial back up, and they fell rather ungracefully in a heap on the bed.

"Ahh. We did it," Chanyeol sighed in relief. He looked down, where his husband was huddled against his side, again staring at nothing, lost in thought. "Baby? You okay?"

Kris blinked at him, then shook himself off. "Yeah," he said firmly. "I'm fine. I'm going to go see if Jongin's got the sensors back up yet."

He climbed off the bed and strode out of the room before Chanyeol could say another word, leaving Chanyeol feeling rather uncomfortably like he was missing something.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

By this point, Yixing could no longer remember what it was like to get a full night's sleep. He was up every other hour, whether he wanted to be or not, woken by nightmares he couldn't remember or sudden noises or unfamiliar motion or plain old uneasiness. It had been this way since he'd first awoken on Angel, and he doubted it was going to change any time soon.

He rarely, if ever, ventured out of Jongdae's room when he awoke, though. Even if he couldn't sleep, he'd use the time to do yoga, or to read on the tablet Jongdae had given him, or to try and mentally work through who could be after his boys, what might have happened to them, how he could get them back.

This time, he'd managed an entire four hours of only slightly interrupted sleep before he found himself wide awake and unable to do anything about it. And for once, he didn’t feel like remaining shut in this unfamiliar room by himself for hours.

So Yixing pulled on a borrowed too-small t-shirt (Jongdae’s) and too-roomy jeans (Baekhyun’s) and padded out into the hallway.

“I still don’t like it.” Baekhyun’s voice floated down the hall from the cockpit. “There’s way too many variables here, way too much we don’t know. We’re really just going on the word of one visibly weird doctor, here.”

Yixing stopped mid-step, frozen in the middle of the hallway.

“He showed us the reports, Baek,” Jongdae argued.

“He showed us one report. One. One text file that could easily have been fake.”

A snort. “That would be a pretty elaborate fake.”

“Oh come on, Dae, you know that kind of shit happens all the time. How many elaborately fake documents have we forged to get something?”

Yixing’s chest tightened. Why couldn’t they just believe him?

"Yeah, but how likely is it that he faked an exploded space station?"

A huff of breath. "Okay, fine, but still. He keeps everything so close to the chest. How can we trust him?"

I'm not sorry for that, Yixing thought rebelliously. You don't need to know. You don't deserve to know.

"Look, it's not that I trust him, per se. But I do think we have good reason to help him. The stuff he was working on, that's heavy stuff. It really makes me nervous to think what it could do in the wrong hands."

"It's also the kind of stuff that people get killed over," Baekhyun hissed. "Do you really think it's worth it? We really have no idea what we're getting into here!"

Yixing took another few steps forward, just far enough that he could see into the cockpit through the cracked door. Jongdae was in the process of running a hand through his hair.

"It's the kind of stuff people get killed over, but it's also the kind of thing they pay through the nose for," he murmured.

Baekhyun froze. So did Yixing, eyes wide and heart horrified.

"You're thinking of selling it," Baekhyun muttered in shock. "The research."

A noncommittal shrug. "I don't know, maybe? The thought crossed my mind. Or maybe destroying it. I guess we'll have to see how dangerous it really is. I just...I don't like the idea of that kind of thing being out there and not knowing whose hands it's in."

Baekhyun's expression was guarded. "And the kids?"

"What about them?"

"You planning to sell them too?"

Yixing's heart stopped, but Jongdae immediately reached over and walloped Baekhyun upside the head. "Don't even say shit like that," he snapped, and his vehemence went a long way towards getting Yixing's heartbeat pumping normally again. "If we can get them back, we'll find a place for the Doc to take them. Somewhere really out-of-the-way and unknown. Hell, maybe Vicky would take them in." He shivered dramatically. "I ain't gonna sell anyone, ever, but I’m not gonna let them flit around the 'Verse willy-nilly either. Doc's enough of a space-case, I can't imagine what his kids are like."

"They're not really his kids," Baekhyun grumbled.

"Sure they are," Jongdae argued, to Yixing's surprise. "Got his baby batter in them and everything."

This time it was Baekhyun who whapped Jongdae. "What the hell, dude. Did he actually tell you that?"

"Well, he didn't use the term baby batter but yeah, he did." Jongdae pursed his lips. "I wonder if he just like, you know..." He made a lewd motion, his fist pumping on nothing in the air over his lap. Shamed heat crawled up the back of Yixing's neck.

"Keep your sick fantasies out of this, man," Baekhyun said. "I don't need to be thinking about Doc's dick." Jongdae made a face, but Baekhyun sobered. "Seriously, though, if we do manage to get his research and his kids back, what are we gonna do with them?"

Jongdae shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted. "Guess we gotta cross that asteroid belt when we come to it." He sighed. "This shit hurts my head. You up for a game or something?"

Baekhyun agreed, and as they moved away from discussing Yixing's future to discussing how they were going to violently murder each other's scantily-clad avatar, Yixing moved away from the cockpit and back towards Jongdae's room, his mind racing. He'd thought that he'd finally convinced them, that he finally had allies. Clearly, he was wrong.

He'd have to remain on his guard, then. If they couldn't trust him, he was not going to trust them.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

There was no reason to follow the old woman's advice, but there was also no reason not to follow it. She was probably working for the bar in some capacity - she wouldn’t have approached a total stranger on the street with such helpful advice if she wasn't - but a bar would have food, and if there was a possibility of finding work that way, so much the better.

The Red Lion was a dirty, foul-smelling place, dimly lit, with loud music that thunked painfully in Luhan's sensitive ears. He could instantly see that Kyungsoo hated it; to someone who didn't know him it wouldn't have been obvious but to Luhan it was written in the tightness across his narrow shoulders, the furrow in his brow, the downturn of his lips.

Tao, on the other hand, was staring at everyone and everything in utter fascination, drinking in every sight and sound as fast as his eyes could register them. Luhan could feel him twitching as his mind absorbed and assimilated a thousand new movements and wondered vaguely what all this was going to do to his already patchwork motion.

Luhan led them through the crowd, skirting around tables and trying to ignore raucous laughter and loud conversation, straight up to the long bar at the back of the room. He didn't know a whole lot about bars and restaurants and such, but he did know that in a bar, if you had a question, you asked the bartender.

There was a bit of a line, so Luhan queued up to wait, keeping his hold on the other two tight. It was reassurance for Kyungsoo, and grounding for Tao, but for Luhan it was simply a matter of not wanting to let either of them out of arm's reach. Until he was more sure of their situation, he had a feeling he wouldn't be letting go of them very often.

The group of women in front of them took glasses of brightly-colored and foul-smelling liquid from the bartender and turned to go, stopping for a moment to eye the three of them and giggle. Luhan held back a rude comment and instead tugged his brothers up to the bar with him.

The bartender, a middle-aged woman with black hair streaked neon and a shirt that exposed more freckled skin than it covered, leaned on the bar in a way that was probably supposed to be enticing or something. "What can I get you boys?" she asked.

Out of the corner of his eye, Luhan saw Tao's eyes slide curiously down the woman's neck and into her cleavage and resisted the urge to yank on him until he looked away. Tao had no idea what he was doing was rude or could be construed as suggestive; he was just curious about the woman's body and movement the same way as he was curious about everyone's.

"We're looking for work," Luhan said, raising his voice so he could be heard over the music. "Someone said there might be people hiring here."

The woman cocked her head. "Someone said? Who's someone?"

Tao jumped in before Luhan could formulate an answer. "An old woman back there," he told her, pointing in the general direction with his free hand. Luhan yanked on his hand to get him to shut up, but it was too late.

The bartender's entire face changed. "Ahhhh, she sent you. I see." The woman looked them up and down, her mouth twisting consideringly. "Well, I'll tell you what. Take a seat, grab a bite. I'll send someone your way as soon as I can get a free moment." She pointed at a table in the back right corner, small and empty.

Luhan nodded and pulled his brothers away. Tao yelled "Thank you!" over his shoulder, because Tao sometimes remembered those kinds of politeness things that Luhan never bothered with.

When they got to the table, Luhan finally let go of his brothers' hands, ushering Kyungsoo into the bench seat first so he could put himself between the smaller boy and the room. He knew full well Kyungsoo always felt safer in sheltered, enclosed spaces. Tao slid into the seat across from them, twisting over his shoulder to keep staring around the room.

Luhan snapped his fingers in front of Tao's face to get his attention. "Stop that," he chastised.

Tao pouted. "But there's so much!"

"You're going to have the rest of your life to look at it. Right now you're drawing attention to us." He turned to Kyungsoo. "Doing okay?" he asked, tone softer.

Kyungsoo nodded, but it was hesitant, which was about what Luhan had expected. Tao seemed to finally realize how uncomfortable Kyungsoo was and slid to the edge of the seat, blocking some of the lights and motion from view with his broad shoulders. Tucked back into the corner and as sheltered as he was going to get in this place, Kyungsoo finally relaxed a tiny bit.

It only lasted as long as it took for a waiter to come over and ask them about their order. Tao clearly had no idea what he was talking about, and Kyungsoo just as clearly did not care, he just wanted the strange man to go away. Luhan said they were waiting for someone and could they just have glasses of water in the meantime? That did the trick. The man left, and Kyungsoo unknotted a little.

So far, Luhan thought, they were doing pretty well. No one had immediately looked at them and said you're wrong, you don't belong. The darkness in here was not quite enough for their eyes to become apparent and he hadn't heard even one comment about their stolen clothes or the way they moved. It made something that had been wound up tight in his chest ease just a little bit. They could do this. They could survive on their own.

Luhan saw someone coming for them just as Tao heard the footsteps and turned to look over his shoulder. It was a man, a large man, and he was definitely looking to talk to them in particular.

"Heard you boys were looking for work," the man said, looking them all over.

"That's right," Luhan told him. "Are you hiring?"

A grunt. "That depends what you're looking for."

Luhan looked him in the eyes, because that's what everything he'd read had said to do in these kinds of situations. It felt wrong to him, but if Kyungsoo could bear being in a space this crowded, Luhan could manage this much. "Anything that pays," Luhan said, keeping his voice firm. "Anything at all."

An eyebrow. The man's entire face contorted when he did that, tugging up a puffy, pockmarked cheek. "That's unhelpful," he grumbled. "Don't you have any...skills?" He reached out when he said it, meaty hand falling on Luhan's shoulder.

Luhan had to fight not to recoil. He hated being touched. "We can learn anything you can teach," he bit out sharply. "Are you hiring or not?"

If the man heard his question, he didn't respond to it. Instead, he slid his hand up and cupped Luhan's jaw, turning his face to the side. His grip was sweaty and too tight and Luhan suddenly found it very difficult to hold still and take it. Luhan's fists clenched in his lap and his eyes raised, meeting Tao's across the table.

That was a mistake, and Luhan knew it the moment he did it. "Hey," Tao said, getting to his feet and reaching out. "Let him go. He doesn't like that." He put his hand on the man's arm to tug him away.

The man brushed off his hand. "Shut it, kid. I'm evaluatin'." He pushed his thumb against Luhan's lips, lifting them as if to look at his teeth, and Luhan couldn't take it any more, he jerked away, hard. Kyungsoo made a small sound as Luhan nearly hit him in his effort to get away.

It earned him a scowl. "Get back here, you little - " He reached, but he didn't connect, because Tao was suddenly out of his seat and in between them.

"I said stop," Tao said, very firmly. "I said stop so you have to stop. Sehun said so."

Luhan's body went suddenly cold.

Because Luhan had recognized what Sehun was talking about, a few days ago when he'd said that to Tao. He'd heard it, of course, like he heard everything on the ship, but unlike Tao he'd understood it, understood why Sehun would say that and why it was so important. And yet, when it was actually happening, he hadn't recognized it. Not until Tao had said something.

He realized why the man had been touching him that way, looking at him that way, and his skin started to crawl.

"You need some manners, kid," the man growled, angry and dangerous, and Luhan quickly got Kyungsoo's attention with a poke to his thigh. Hide, he mouthed.

Kyungsoo nodded and slid under the table, quick and silent. It wasn't perfect, but it made Luhan feel a tiny bit better, knowing the most vulnerable of them was at least slightly less in the way.

He turned back towards the room in time to see Tao plant both his hands in the man's chest and shove. The man went stumbling back, knocking into a chair and falling flat onto a table.

Tao had been careful, clearly. He had not used anything close to his full strength - he almost never did, no matter what the circumstance. Still, the man was large, and the noise he made when he hit the furniture was loud enough to catch the attention of a good portion of the room.

Luhan thought now would be a good time for him and Tao to get out. Kyungsoo hadn't been noticed by the large man and he was very sneaky; he would find his way to them. But Luhan didn't get a chance to say that, because the man was stumbling to his feet and snarling and Tao was pushing Luhan behind him and puffing up protectively.

"Tao, don't," Luhan whispered, but it was too late. The man was coming for them, and Tao was clearly determined to protect his brother no matter what. The man threw a punch, which, in all honesty, was a terrible mistake on his part. Tao caught it easily.

"Why are you not listening?" Tao said, confused and clearly starting to get angry himself. And that scared Luhan more than anything else - because Tao almost never got truly angry, but when he did, it was terrifying.

The man tugged on his hand, but Tao wouldn't let go, his grip steely around the man's wrist. "Let him go," Luhan urged. "Let's just leave."

"No," Tao said stubbornly. "He made you feel bad. He has to say sorry."

"He really doesn't," Luhan muttered. Tao looked back over his shoulder at Luhan, looking confused and naive and this was so bad. This was so bad.

Tao's lapse in attention gave the man the opening he needed. He wrenched his hand away and threw another punch, a right hook to the jaw that Luhan thought would have knocked a normal man flat out.

Of course, Tao was not a normal man, and his head only turned with the impact. He stopped. Blinked. Raised a hand to his jaw, fingers probing the area curiously.

"Ow," he said.

Wide-eyed, the large man raised two fingers to his lips and let out a piercing whistle, so loud and high-pitched that both Luhan and Tao winced and instinctively covered their ears.

When Luhan looked up again, there were suddenly eight large people where before there had been only one. The first man looked much more confident with the others behind him. He advanced again, headed for Tao.

Tao wound up and threw his own punch back at him. The same right hook to the jaw, hard and fast and precisely placed, with all of his considerable strength behind it. With a sickening crack, the man dropped.

The room erupted into chaos.

Luhan tried to get out of the way, shrinking back as he watched attacker after attacker come at Tao and his younger brother stop everything they threw at him and then throw it right back. Tao was everywhere at once, a frightening turbine of mimicked violence he probably didn't understand.

He was only one person though, and only so large, and one of the attackers, a woman, snuck around him and came for Luhan, and the next thing Luhan knew he was struggling against a strong grip and being dragged out from the booth. Two hands on his body turned into four, turned into six, and Luhan only caught a glimpse of wide, terrified blue eyes under the table as he was dragged out onto the floor and pinned down. He screamed and struggled with all his strength, but it got him nowhere.

There was a heavy, floorshaking thunk, and Luhan managed to turn his head in time to see Tao’s eyes flutter shut and his body go limp. A different man than the one who started all this leaned down and pulled a dart out of Tao’s shoulder, then turned to Luhan. He took a similar dart from a pouch at his belt and jabbed it unceremoniously into Luhan’s thigh.

Within moments, the world began to go fuzzy around the edges. Luhan only had enough time to whisper, “Run, Soo,” before everything went dark.

Chapter Text

Kyungsoo stayed folded up in the dark corner under the booth bench for hours and hours, terrified to move. Finally, the people started to leave, the loud noises started to quiet, and then there were just a few, moving around and cleaning up, talking and laughing as if they hadn’t just witnessed Kyungsoo’s brothers being attacked, put to sleep, stolen away.

There was a moment of breathless, heart-pounding fear when a woman came and swept under the back corner table, but she didn’t sweep under the bench, and Kyungsoo made himself very small and did not make a sound and she didn’t notice him. Then, finally, the last voice called goodnight, the last footsteps receded, and the click of a door locking announced that Kyungsoo was alone.

He stayed put for another few minutes, just in case, but eventually felt brave enough to slip out, to stretch out his cramped limbs and look around. It was dark and silent inside, though Kyungsoo could still hear noise from outside the building.

He had to get out. Had to find Lu-ge and Tao. He had no idea where to begin but he had to try because otherwise he was alone. Completely alone.

Pressing the heel of his hand to his eyes to wipe away impending tears, Kyungsoo looked around. There was the door they came in, and a few windows, but all of those were locked and barred, and in any case the sounds of people and machines were loudest from that direction. There was also another door on the other side, a swinging door with no latch, so Kyungsoo crossed the room warily and slipped through. The other side was kitchen and food prep space, judging by the implements and the metal countertops and the shelves of cans and bottles.

Kyungsoo briefly considered looking through the shelves for something to eat - the last time he’d eaten was right before Lu-ge had called them back to the nest - but his stomach felt shaky and he was too wary of someone coming back and finding him here. So he ignored the food, and instead searched the walls for a way out.

There was a door, but it was locked, and the blinking light on the handle made Kyungsoo wary of touching it. Doors sometimes had sensors, alarms; he didn’t want to risk letting anyone know he was here. He kept searching and eventually found a grate high on the wall through which he could smell airflow.

Kyungsoo stretched up and pried the grate off the wall with his fingers, catching it so it didn’t clatter to the ground. The grate was about half as wide as he was tall - plenty of space.

He clasped the metal grate between his knees and lifted himself into the opened space with his arms. It took a little scrambling, and much more noise than Kyungsoo wanted, to get his body into the air shaft, but he eventually got himself seated and pulled his legs in, digging his fingers into the little spaces in the grate and maneuvering it until it clicked back into place.

Okay. Now he felt a little bit better.

The air shaft was cramped, but bigger than the ones on the spaceship had been, big enough that Kyungsoo could crawl through and around the corner and all the way to the grate on the other side. He pushed it out and dropped to the ground.

The first thing he noticed is that it was cold. Kyungsoo shuddered violently, surprised. He’d been cold before, sometimes, when he wasn’t feeling well, but never like this. And the air moved, pushing him around like giant hands. And it was loud. And dark. And there was no ceiling.

Kyungsoo looked apprehensively above him. For his entire life there had always been something over his head, sheltering him and holding him down. Now it was just darkness, above the buildings and the lights of the city, darkness that went on and on forever, like the darkness outside the space station that Xing-ge had said would freeze and crush him. Kyungsoo reached out for the solidity of the building beside him, closing his eyes so he didn’t see the neverending nothing above him.

It hadn’t seemed to bother Lu-ge or Tao this much. Maybe he just needed to stop thinking about it.

“Lu-ge?” Kyungsoo called softly. He didn’t expect an answer - it had been hours, and this place was enormous, chances were good his brothers were too far away now.

How was he supposed to find them? There were people everywhere, and so many places to go, and vehicles to take people far away. He could search for hours and hours and hours and never even come close.

Well. He couldn’t stay here, in any case. Kyungsoo opened his eyes again and reached up to put the grate back on the air shaft, then cautiously started out from between the buildings towards the busy street.

He managed to get all of four steps out into the crowd before someone jostled him as they passed, making him startle and flinch. He forced himself to keep going, blindly and without direction, except for away from the bad place.

Why did everything have to smell so wrong?

The next time someone came at Kyungsoo without looking, Kyungsoo hurriedly stepped out of the way, nearly running into a metal pole but managing to not run into the person. After that, he kept to the very side of the street, by the buildings. It felt safer there, anyway. He could see less of the darkness above.

Crossing his arms over his chest in a futile attempt to protect himself from the cold, Kyungsoo walked and walked. Every ten steps something startled him, until his heart felt like it was going to explode from stress and fear, and the cold felt like it was ripping at his exposed skin, and he was so alone.

Then, he felt a drop of wetness fall onto him. He looked up, but there was nothing there, nothing above him for the water to have fallen from.

How…?

Another fat drop of water plopped right onto his nose, making him jump. And then another, and another, and then there was just water everywhere. Falling from nothing.

What.

No one around him seemed surprised by this, though no one seemed happy about it, either. All around him, people were yelling, swearing, walking faster or running, pulling hoods over their heads or opening contraptions like sheets on wire frames to protect themselves.

Kyungsoo didn’t have anything to protect himself, so he just kept going, his shoulders hunched as the freezing water soaked him.

“Don’t give up,” he muttered at himself, out loud. Kyungsoo never talked to himself, preferring not to use his voice unless he had to, but Lu-ge did, and hearing the words in his ears helped him to feel like Lu-ge was with him. “Xing-ge said never give up. Remember?” Sometimes things won’t work the first time, he’d said, when Kyungsoo was in tears over an idea he had been so sure about that hadn’t worked the way he’d intended. Sometimes you have to try over and over again. If I had given up the first time things didn’t work out, Luhan would never have been made. Kyungsoo could almost feel Xing-ge’s arms around his shoulders. And sometimes, even if things don’t work out the way you expect them to, they can still be good. Like Luhan, and like you. So don’t get discouraged.

“I won’t,” Kyungsoo promised Xing-ge out loud. “I’ll find them.”

A terribly loud, wailing noise cut through Kyungsoo’s reverie, and he panicked and jumped, practically diving into the alcove of a doorway. A huge vehicle streaked past far too fast, colored lights flashing and the loudest, most painful, most ugly noises Kyungsoo had ever heard, searing his eyes and ripping into his ears and scrambling up his mind. His senses clogged and gasping for air, Kyungsoo stumbled forward, groping along the wall with his hands until he felt the wall fall away into a small passage between buildings. Thinking of nothing more than that was bad I feel wrong get away hide hide hide, he all but ran from the noise and bustle of the street.

He was on his knees and wedged into the smallest space he could find - he wasn’t even sure where he was - when his consciousness finally struggled enough to the surface for him to realize what was happening. He was going into seizure, right here and now in this smelly, dirty place with no ceiling to protect him and water falling from nothing and drenching him. And there was not one thing he could do about it.

Helpless and feeling sick on top of cold and alone, Kyungsoo pulled the collar of his shirt into his mouth and bit down on it, using the fabric to push his tongue out of the way. He laid down on his side, like Xing-ge had taught him, and tried to make sure there was nothing near his head that he might hit.

Then he lost track of everything for an indeterminate amount of time.

The first thing he registered when his mind came back was that someone was touching him. Too drained to move, he tried to force his swimming vision to focus on the touch, on the dim shape above him. He hoped it was someone who he knew, or someone friendly, but he knew in his heart it probably wasn’t.

The tone of the voice became apparent before Kyungsoo’s brain could process the actual words. It was a man’s voice, unfamiliar, and the tone was cautious and concerned. Not threatening, not scary, but still unfamiliar. Kyungsoo tried to move away.

“Hey, whoa, whoa there boy. It’s okay.” Blinking into the darkness, Kyungsoo focused hard until features began to form out of the fog. An older man, holding one of those sheet-on-a-stick things. Abruptly, Kyungsoo realized there was no longer water falling on him. “You need a hit of something, kid?”

Kyungsoo frowned at him, confused. He knew all those words, but they made no sense in that order.

The man saw his confusion and rephrased. “You taking something? On something?”

Oh. “Diz...pm,” Kyungsoo mumbled, but his shirt was still in his mouth and his tongue felt like flop, anyway. He spat out his shirt and tried again. “Diazepam.”

Grey eyes widened, making the crinkled skin around them pull in odd ways. “You’re actually sick. This is a medical thing?” Kyungsoo nodded, because what else would it be? “You poor thing,” the man murmured. “You’re alone out here?” Kyungsoo nodded again. “When was the last time you ate?”

Kyungsoo wasn’t actually sure of that at this point - how long had he been walking? - so he just estimated. “Twenty-two hours.”

Bushy eyebrows furrowed. “You need to get warm and eat,” the man said. “Come with me.” He stood up, and offered his hand to Kyungsoo.

Not seeing much of a choice, Kyungsoo took it.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It was the second time Tao had woken up in a small, cramped, unfamiliar room, but this time, when he called out for Lu-ge and Soo, there was no answer.

There was no sound at all. Tao had never been in a place where there was no sound save his own breathing, his own pulse in his ears. He couldn’t even feel that low hum of systems running. No engine, no ventilation fans. Nothing.

“Lu-ge?” Tao called again, louder. His voice bounced off the solid walls and back to his ears, sounding lost. “Where are you? Are you okay?”

No response.

Tao got up off the floor. This room was made from solid grey, no windows, no doors. Nothing but a grate in the ceiling through which air was flowing, barely as big as Tao’s palm. And there was nothing in the room at all. The last room he’d been trapped in had at least had a door, and a bed, and a place to go to the bathroom. This one was barely big enough for Tao to lay down flat.

He pounded a fist on the walls, experimentally. They didn’t move at all, not even the slightly bouncy bend of metal or composite, and they were rough, gritty. Tao had never felt a material like that.

Tao tried the same on the other walls, with no success. He was completely enclosed, completely trapped, completely alone.

“Lu-ge!” he yelled, as loud as his voice could go. “Lu-ge, where are you? Help me!”

There was still no answer, and Tao pulled back and slammed everything he had into the wall. His shirt and his skin tore, ripped open by the sharp, gritty greyness, and it hurt but Tao did it again, harder and harder until it felt like his bones would snap. He managed to work a little grittiness loose from the wall, but that was all. It was obvious his skin, his body would give long before the wall did.

With no ideas and nothing else to do, Tao stopped his futile attempts to break free. Instead, he curled up in a corner and cried until he fell asleep.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It took hours to untangle everything Luhan had done to the systems.

“That little bastard,” Jongin said as he found the fourth trap that caused a system crash. “I’m almost fucking impressed.” But he was pretty sure that was the last one, and once he got the system rebooted yet again, things seemed to be finally cleaned up.

Just in time for Kris to call to him. Again.

“Report, Jongin.”

“System’s back up now. If there are no more surprises I should have us back on course shortly.”

“You better. We can’t lose any more time.” Kris clicked off, and Jongin swore under his breath.

“No fucking kidding, you dictator. Don’t you ever sleep?” he grumbled. Like Kris, Jongin had been woken by the emergency, and it had now been almost an entire cycle and no one had been allowed to rest. Kris was the only one not showing it, seemingly running solely on stim shots and anger.

Jongin glanced at the drive lying next to him in the copilot’s seat. He’d broken through the code, finally, the shift before all this craziness had gone down. It was ready to be examined, but he hadn’t told Kris right away.

He was making a copy for himself, first.

Because he knew Kris would want to know where they were before anything else - and on that count, Jongin was in agreement, little was more terrifying than the idea of being lost in space - Jongin went straight for the navigation system, getting the equipment warmed up and the software loaded.

As soon as the spacemap and autopilot loaded, Jongin knew something was wrong. Because there was a very large nebula right in front of him - not close, but close enough to see, close enough that it should have been on the map.

And it was, but not in the right place.

“Oh no. You sneaky blond asshole, what the hell did you do to this ship?” It was kind of odd, knowing Luhan couldn’t hear him, for once. He’d gotten used to thinking of the boy as this nebulous presence all around him, always watching and listening. “You better not have broken the sensors entirely.”

As it turned out, he had not. All it took was a reset of the navigational settings and a long-range scan of the surroundings to re-orient before they were back on track.

Sort of.

Jongin swore some more under his breath and thumbed the comm button. “Captain, there’s something you should see up here.”

As he let go, his tablet made a soft bing noise. His copy was done.

Heart pounding, Jongin disconnected the drive and put his tablet and the connection cord in his pocket, getting it all settled just as Kris entered the cockpit.

“What have we got?” Kris asked, leaning on the back of Jongin’s chair. His weight felt weightier than usual, and Jongin wondered if maybe he was tired after all.

Jongin pulled up the maps. “We’re way off course,” he said. “Judging by the ship’s records, we’ve been off course for a long time.” He showed Kris the path outline - they’d started veering away from the plotted course over a week ago.

“You’re shitting me,” Kris muttered, leaning forward. “Starfucker.

Taking a deep breath to keep his heart rate down, Jongin quickly said, “I’m sorry, sir. Luhan must have done something to the system so that we wouldn’t notice. I should have caught it.”

He expected to get reamed out for it - that seemed to be going around today - but to his surprise, Kris only sighed heavily.

“It’s not your fault, Jongin,” he said. “I noticed a blip in the navigation myself, and didn’t think anything of it. They fooled all of us, in more ways than one.” He shook his head. “When we get them back, we’ll need to be triple-cautious.”

Biting his lip, Jongin looked back over his shoulder. “Captain...do you really think we’re going to get them back?”

Kris’s nod was firm, his face set determinedly. “Yes. This right here is actually good news. Know why?” Jongin shook his head. “Until this point, I had been thinking we were spaceleagues from anything habitable. That Luhan had taken off with the other two without understanding the limitations of the shuttle. My greatest fear was that we were going to get back to them, and find a dead shuttle floating in space with three dead teens inside.”

Jongin shuddered, the image hitting him viscerally. Oh God.

“But look, Luhan’s smarter than we even realized,” Kris said, pointing at the map. “See how far we’d gone off course, where we were when he disengaged? Right near this cluster. Three habitable planets within range of that shuttle. A needle in a haystack, but we have a metal detector.” He tapped the back of his neck.

“The trackers?” Jongin asked. Kris nodded. “But we’d have to be within a few hundred lengths of them to track them, wouldn’t we?”

Shaking his head, Kris said, “Those are the longest-range trackers money can buy. I can find any member of this crew from orbit, I just need the planet.” He jerked his head at the screen. “It will take a bit to scan three planets, but once we know where they are, it’s just a matter of collecting them.”

“Shit,” Jongin murmured. “That must have cost a ton. Why spring for the long-range trackers?”

Kris didn’t answer him. Instead, he changed the subject, pointing at the drive sitting on the copilot’s chair. “How’s that coming?”

“Oh!” Heart pounding, Jongin tried to come up with a reason to stall more. He couldn’t find one. He had his copy, and this might be the distraction Kris needed to get off everyone’s case. “It actually finished right as I called you. It should be ready to go now.” He picked up the copy - the official copy, the one he’d first made to break into - and handed it to Kris.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Kris rumbled. “Look, do you think the system is stable now?” Jongin nodded. “Then go to bed. I’ll take it for a while.”

Jongin blinked. “Are you sure, Captain? You haven’t slept either.”

“I’ll be fine.” Kris prodded him. “Get going. We’re on emergency shifts until this is over, so I’ll expect you reporting back to duty in ten hours.”

Jongin didn’t need to be told twice. He murmured his thanks and slipped out of the cockpit, swinging past the kitchen to grab some food before he locked himself away in his room. Tired as he was, though, his mind wouldn’t stop spinning, and he found himself pulling up the cracked database files instead of sleeping.

The drive was very organized, and Jongin very quickly discarded anything technical about running the station. He didn’t care about their shipments or their maintenance or anything like that. What he wanted was the stuff about the kids, and he found it with minimal searching - thousands upon thousands of meticulously organized reports. He opened a few at random and found them to be dense, dry, and full of genetic and medical jargon he didn’t understand.

Great. It was like finding an ancient tome in a ruined city - it would take a lifetime to decipher. Jongin didn’t have the brainpower for that right now so instead he poked around until he found the internal email client. It took a minute to get to, but part of cracking the drive had been cracking the administrative account, so the mailboxes were easy enough to get into.

He clicked around rather aimlessly at first, reading snippets at random, until something caught his eye.

from: krystal
to: kibum
re: the blond one

Can we please get Luhan to start looking people in the face when he’s speaking? I feel like he’s staring at my tits all the time.

_____________________________________________________

from: kibum
to: krystal
re: the blond one

You don’t have any tits.

But I know what you mean. It’s freaky. Have you said anything to the Doc yet?

_____________________________________________________

from: krystal
to: kibum
re: the blond one

Yep. Know what he said to me? “It doesn’t matter if Luhan knows social conventions, he’s never going to leave this facility.”

_____________________________________________________

Jongin immediately put the tablet down, feeling sick.

Maybe taking the kids out of that place was the right thing after all.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

A sharp pain in his shoulder had Tao jerking awake, wide-eyed and confused.

“Get up,” an unfamiliar voice commanded.

Unthinkingly, Tao did as he was told, scrambling to his feet before he even got a good look at who was speaking. It was a woman, long blonde hair and a completely bored look, and she had a blaster pointed at him with one hand and a tablet in the other. Her boots were very pointy - she must have kicked him awake.

“Where’s Lu-ge?” Tao asked immediately. His voice was raspy, and forming words was difficult. How long had it been since he’d had anything to eat or drink? Tao had no way of knowing.

His question was ignored. The woman was walking around him, looking him up and down with judgemental eyes. With her not taking up his view, Tao could see now that one of the grey walls had tilted down, becoming a ramp that led upwards to light and air and sound. He considered running, but there were boots visible at the top of the wall-ramp, at least two pairs. And maybe this woman could tell him why he was here and where Lu-ge was.

“You don’t look like much,” the woman muttered. “But they said you were taking on a gang at once, so I guess you must be tougher than you look.” She looked up, met his eyes. “I’m Chaerin, kid. I’m your handler from now on.”

“Handler?”

A scoff. “Yeah. I get to feed you and teach you tricks. And you better learn good, or else.”

Tao cocked his head. “Or else what?” The woman, Chaerin, looked up at him incredulously. “You didn’t...finish your sentence,” Tao murmured, cowed by her mean eyes.

An eyebrow arched. “Or else this.” She flicked open something on the tablet and turned it towards Tao so he could see.

A familiar body kneeling, familiar blond hair grasped in unfamiliar fingers and yanked back to reveal familiar but utterly terrified blue eyes.

“Lu-ge,” Tao gasped.

There was a buzzing noise, and Lu-ge screamed, his body jerking unnaturally. Tao yelled in protest, wordless horror, and reached, but Chaerin pulled the tablet away and turned it off.

“Is he okay?” Tao asked urgently, stepping into Chaerin’s space and lifting his hands to grab her shoulders. Chaerin brought the blaster up between them, halting his forward movement. “Is he okay, tell me!”

“He’s alive,” Chaerin said quickly. “He’s alive and this has stopped. They only did it to show you what would happen.” It was enough, enough for Tao to step back, for the anger and fear in his veins to slow. “So this is how it’s gonna be, kid. You do exactly as I say. If you don’t, he hurts. And if you die, or run away, he dies. Understand?”

No. Not at all. Why? Why would anyone do something like this? How could anyone even conceive of something this horrible? But Tao was too afraid to ask those questions, too afraid of what might happen if he wasn’t good. “I understand,” he lied.

“Good boy.” She pointed at the ramp with the blaster. “Move.”

Tao went up the ramp, his cramped leg muscles protesting at having to climb after being curled in a ball for who knows how long. There were indeed two more people at the top of the ramp, men with guns pointed at him. Tao thought it was very unnecessary - if obeying would keep Lu-ge from screaming, he would obey.

They led him down a hall, made of that same grey gritty stuff. Tao noticed that there were lines in the floor the same size as the wall-ramp he’d just climbed up, and realized there were dozens of little rooms under the floor. How many of them held someone else alone and scared? Was Lu-ge somewhere underneath his feet right now?

At the end of the hall was a door which Chaerin opened with her fingerprint. On the other side was another hall, and another fingerprint door, and finally a room with a table and chairs. There was food on the table, a bowl of something that smelled bland but edible, and Tao suddenly realized he had never been so hungry.

“Eat,” Chaerin commanded, and Tao hurried to do ask she said before she changed her mind. Whatever was in the bowl was sticky and thick and tasted strange, but it filled him, though it sat a little bit funny in his stomach. There was a bottle of water, too, and Tao drank it greedily. Even that tasted odd, metallic and dirty. Tao couldn’t imagine why even the water was wrong in this place.

The two silent men kept their guns on him, but Chaerin was at the other end of the room, rummaging through racks of clothes. “What kind of image are we going for, here,” she muttered out loud. She didn’t seem to be looking to Tao for an answer, and he had no idea what she was talking about anyway, so Tao kept his mouth shut. “Do we try to go badass, or do we play up the little boy lost thing?”

One of the men spoke up for the first time. “Do you want the marks to bet on him, or the other guy?”

Chaerin glanced the man’s way. “Good point. No one’s gonna bet high on the new guy, no matter how promising he looks. We’ll tone it down for the first match. If he wins, the take is bigger; if he loses it won’t matter anyway.” Her eyes turned to Tao. “Hey you. Take off your clothes.”

Tao blinked. “All of them?”

A sneer. “You can leave the underoos.”

Slowly, Tao stood, and did as she asked. It wasn’t as if she was the first person to ask him, but, she was mean, and he didn’t know her at all. It felt weird.

It felt weirder when Tao took off his shirt - one of Sehun’s, and it pained him to let it drop to the dirty floor - and Chaerin’s eyes widened.

“Well then,” she said, the first twist of a smile crossing her face. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Good to see we’re working with something here.” She turned back to the clothes, and Tao took off his pants - also Sehun’s - while her back was turned.

When she looked back, her eyes slid down his body and dragged back up, and Tao had never in his life felt so naked. “Not bad, kid. Here, put this on.”

She tossed him a bundle of clothing, which he pulled on quickly. The pants were made of flimsy, itchy material, with lines pressed down the legs; there was also a stiff shirt with buttons down the front but no sleeves, and a dark blue jacket. The jacket was too tight, restricting his movement. The entire thing felt alien to him. He’d never worn clothes that weren’t soft before.

“What’s with the prep-school look?” one of the men commented.

“Hides his physique,” Chaerim explained. “Get people to think it’ll be an easy win for the other guy.”

Rolling out his shoulders, Tao complained, “I can’t move right,” before realizing he should probably not.

“You’ll be taking that jacket off before you have to do any moving.” Chaerim pointed at the door. “Come on, we’re late.”

Tao followed her back out into the hall, and through a maze of grey halls that all looked the same, so much so that Tao nearly lost track of where they even were. Eventually, though, they came to a staircase, and as they climbed Tao started to hear voices shouting, lots of voices.

“Oh damn, I almost forgot,” Chaerin said, her hand on the door separating them from the noise. “What’s your name, kid?”

Tao blinked at her. “Zitao,” he said. “Tao.”

She nodded. “Tao. Good enough.” Chaerin opened the door for him.

After the near-silence of the grey downstairs, Tao felt blasted by a wall of noise. There must have been hundreds of people, all crowded up against railings, level upon level upon level of people looking down onto a flat, caged-in ring.

Tao froze, momentarily overwhelmed by the amount of movement around him. Chaerin grabbed his wrist and yanked him along after her. She seemed to have no trouble shoving her way past people, and Tao followed in her wake, the assault on his senses making his bland, heavy meal feel squishy and sick in his stomach.

She muscled out a space at the railing and tugged him alongside her. “Alright, kid, since I have a vested interest in you not sucking at this, I’m going to be nice and give you a preview.” She pointed at the ring below. “You’re going in there next, so pay attention.”

Tao did, bracing his hands on the railing and looking down. There were two men in the ring below, and they were fighting with each other. And not the kind of fighting Tao had done with Lu-ge when he was smaller, the kind with raised voices and uncoordinated openhanded strikes and hurt feelings. This was violence so pointed, and so desperate, as to be almost an art, a dance.

Tao’s eyes darted from one man to the other, absorbing and cataloguing their every move. He’d never seen anything like it before.

“Why are they fighting?” he asked quietly. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Chaerin give him an incredulous look, and realized that was probably a question a normal person would not have asked. Maybe to them, it was obvious.

Fortunately, Chaerin decided to answer him anyway. “You see all these people?” she said, gesturing at the crowd. “They’ve all bet on who’s gonna win.”

Tao had no idea what that meant, but he was afraid to ask. “How do you win?” he asked instead.

Below him, one man got the other pinned to the ground with his body. The entire crowd started to count down from ten, thousands of voices booming in Tao’s ears, and Tao watched in curious apprehension as the man on the ground tried to struggle free, but failed.

The crowd reached zero. The man on top placed both hands on the head of the man under him and pulled them violently apart. There was a crack, and the man underneath went still.

“That’s how,” Chaerin said. “Come on, you’re in the next match.”

More stumbling along behind her as she pushed through the crowd, back to a door that led to a staircase that led down and down and down. The two men with guns were no longer following, but Tao hardly thought anything of that. If he was to keep Lu-ge safe, he had to be good, and do what he was told.

He could see the ring now, through the bars of a grate at the end of this tunnel. Chaerin stopped them just out of view of the crowd.

“Okay, listen up,” she barked. “In a minute that gate is going to open. You get out into that ring and you let the crowd get a good look at you. Don’t show off or anything, just be cool. They’re gonna put your name up on the board and give people a chance to bet.” She tugged at the sleeve of his stiff jacket. “When the bell goes off, you take this off and drop it, and then you fight for your goddamn life, because that’s what’s at stake, you got me? Your life and your friend’s.”

Tao nodded, still confused but too scared to ask anything else.

“You win this,” Chaerin said, “and I’ll get you a pillow and blanket for tonight.” The grate opened, and Chaerin gestured. “Get going.”

Tao went, barely seeing Chaerin moving to the side wall and the comm system set up there. The crowd roared above him as he stepped into view, staring up at the seething mass of people in fear and awe. There were six levels of them, stacked on top of each other, all looking at him.

“Tao.”

The voice was soft, almost unnoticeable under the yelling of the crowd, but so achingly familiar that it cut through the noise and right to Tao’s ears. Tao looked around frantically, but there were too many people.

“Lu-ge?” he asked, too soft for anyone but Lu-ge to hear him. “Where are you? I don’t see you!”

“I’m all the way at the top. You wouldn’t be able to see me. I can only see you because they have a screen showing the ring.”

On the other side of the ring, another grate opened. A woman, as tall as Tao and nearly as muscular, stepped out, and the crowd noise doubled. Unlike Tao, she turned to face the crowd immediately, smiling and flexing her arms and waving. Was Tao supposed to be doing that? No, Chaerin had said not to show off.

“Tao, what are you doing down there? Get out of here, run!”

Tao resisted the urge to look up towards the voice. By now, he was very aware of how important it was that no one know how well he could hear. “I can’t,” he said urgently. “They said they’d hurt you if I ran away.”

A huff, soft and distressed. Tao wondered if he was worried about someone hearing him speak. “I don’t care. You have to get out. They didn’t get Soo, so he’s out there somewhere alone. You have to go find him and you have to take care of each other. Forget me.”

Well that was never going to happen. “I’m not going to leave you,” Tao said. The woman turned to face him, and her expression hardened, looking him over. Tao tried not to move his mouth too much. “I’m going to protect you.”

A bell chimed out, just as Chaerin said it would. Tao slid the jacket off his shoulders, just as Chaerin had told him to, baring his arms, and then for good measure he pulled open the top two buttons of his shirt, giving himself space to move and breathe. The crowd noise got even louder than before and if Lu-ge said anything else, it was totally drowned out.

The woman crossed the ring, coming towards him with long, confident strides. Tao didn’t like the idea of her trapping him against the wall behind him, so he moved forward to meet her, much less confidently.

Her leg snapped up so fast Tao almost didn’t even see it, let alone block it, and caught him right across the ear. Unprepared for such a fast strike without warning, it knocked Tao off balance, his head spinning. Before he could recover the same leg hooked around the back of his knee and yanked, and he was on the ground on his back before he registered what had happened.

Tao rolled, getting out from under the woman before she could get on top of him and pin him down and win. She was fast. Strong, too, but Tao wasn’t too worried about that, he was stronger. But he wasn’t certain he was faster.

Getting his feet back underneath him, Tao stood, watching her carefully for her next move. She came at him with a leap and a yell, a big motion with her fists, and Tao was able to deflect the hit this time.

Except then the world spun, and he was on his back again. How.

Instinct had him pushing his feet into her stomach and shoving her bodily off of him, body moving without his mind as he replayed what had just happened and tried to figure out what she had done from the memory of the touch alone. She’d used his own body weight against him, yanking when he’d grabbed her hands and driving her knee up into his gut with the force of an engine piston. It drove all air from his lungs in a pained gasp, stunned him long enough for her to knock him off balance again and throw him down, pivoting his body right over her hip.

As Tao scrambled back to his feet, the physics of it clicked into place. The woman didn’t give him more than a bare moment to recover, but this time when she came at him, Tao was ready. Like before, she attempted to distract him with one motion while her real aim was another one. Like before, she tried to pull him off balance, throw him to the ground.

This time, Tao stopped her in her tracks, firming all his muscles to make himself unmovable. Her eyes widened, and Tao quickly shifted his weight, and threw her the exact way she’d just thrown him. It was very easy to do, and she hit the ground so hard she bounced. A cry of pain escaped her throat.

“I’m sorry,” Tao said automatically. The woman blinked at him in confusion, but that didn’t last long. She arched back and flipped back up to her feet. Tao stepped back to give her the space to do so.

“You’re sorry?” the woman asked incredulously, circling him. The crowd above them was so loud, Tao knew no one could hear them, except maybe Lu-ge. Though they were surrounded by people, it was as if they were alone. “Kid, what are you even doing here?”

Tao shrugged helplessly, widening his stance and bracing his legs as he saw the woman’s body prepare to rush him. “I have no choice,” he murmured.

She came at him again. He reached up to catch her punch, but it never followed through, her other fist hitting him in the gut while he wasn’t paying attention. He did manage to grab that hand, gasping but not stunned like before, since her arm was not as strong as her leg. Tao yanked her in to throw her again but her elbow crashed into his throat, and that did stun him, sending him reeling. She managed to knock him to his knees and wrapped a strong arm around his neck, pressing against his airway and the blood vessels to his brain.

Tao’s world began to grey around the edges, and in a panic he lashed out blindly, thrashing with all his strength. It broke her grip, and he spun in place, hooking his foot behind her knees and yanking her down on top of him. She landed with a thunk and Tao rolled, pinning her entire body beneath him, legs tangled and hands clenched around her wrists to hold her in place.

She surged up and smashed her forehead right into his cheekbone. Pain exploded up Tao’s face.

“None of us have a choice,” she growled as she ripped her hands out of his grip.

Through the pain, Tao scrambled blindly, moving mostly on touch and instinct to get her back in his control. And she really was fast, but in the end his strength won out, and she was again pinned underneath him, unable to move.

Above him, Tao heard the crowd starting to count down from ten. It felt far away in his ears, his attention on the person below him.

“I have to win,” he told her. “I’m sorry, I have to win.”

There were tears in her eyes, but she’d stopped struggling, stopped fighting. The crowd above was down to five.

“No, Tao!” he heard, faint and desperate. “No, you don’t know what you’re doing! Don’t!”

But underneath him, the woman smiled, sad. “Do it,” she whispered as the crowd approached one. “I’ve got nothing left anyway.”

“Stop him!” Lu-ge wasn’t talking to Tao now, clearly; his voice was raised like he wanted to be heard. “He doesn’t know what death -” His words were choked off by a scream, high-pitched and pained and terrible.

Tao winced, and the crowd reached zero. With Lu-ge’s scream of pain ringing in his ears, Tao wrapped his arms around the woman’s head, just like he’d seen the man do just a little while ago.

“Make it quick,” the woman pleaded. Tao nodded to her. He could be quick.

He pulled with all his might, whipping her head around. There was a sickening crack, and the crowd reached new, deafening levels of loud, but underneath him, everything stopped. There was no movement, no heartbeat, no breath.

Why wasn’t she breathing?

“What have you done, Tao?” Lu-ge whispered, sounding horrified. “What have you done?”

Chapter Text

They had been drifting for about thirty hours when they finally managed to turn the Phoenix around. At top speed, it took another fifty hours or so to get to the planetary cluster. And so, the prisoners had been gone a full two and a half cycles before they could even begin to really look for them.

Kris ordered that Andrus be scanned first, as it was the smallest, closest, and least populated of the three planets. Of the three, Andrus was by far the least dangerous. If Luhan had any sense, he would have gone there.

Unfortunately, scanning a planet required quite a lot of time. The most area they could cover at once was about a third of the planet's diameter, and it took a good four hours flying against the planet's rotation to complete one pass. Twelve hours later, the sweep was done, and Joonmyun reported in, interrupting Kris's sleep shift as Kris had requested.

"Scan came up blank," he said, sounding weary. "Unless they've found a way to deactivate the trackers, they're not on Andrus."

"Damn," Chanyeol murmured, half-asleep but distressed.

Kris leaned up to the comm. "Thanks, Joon," he said. "Take us to Inglis, then."

A pause. "Course set. We'll be arriving right around when you're back on duty, Captain."

Nodding, Kris turned off the comm. "Shit," he muttered as Chanyeol pulled him back down into bed. "I was really hoping they'd be there." Andrus had an active, well-known, planet-wide law enforcement system which kept the worst human spacetrash from gaining a foothold. The other two planets in the cluster did not, making them hotbeds of illegal, immoral, and sometimes downright evil activity.

"I know," Chanyeol whispered, enveloping Kris in his arms sleepily. "I'm worried too. But there's nothing we can do until we get there. You need to sleep, baby."

He was right, but it was easier said than done. Even with his husband's warmth, his steady breath, his heartbeat in his ears, Kris's mind was a swirl of what if they're hurt what if they're dead what if I can't find them what if I fail.

It was a long time before Kris managed to drift off again.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

By this point, Kyungsoo thought he should be expecting everything to be different. Yet somehow, he was still shocked by the place the older man brought him to, because it was wholly and completely unlike anything he had ever seen.

The man referred to it as ‘the club’. A building, quite large, but the size wasn't what made it so odd. It was the ornateness. The space station, and the Phoenix, had both been built for function before anything else, nothing extraneous or useless. This club was filled with so much useless decoration it almost made Kyungsoo feel woozy to look at.

It was also dark, though, which Kyungsoo found he rather liked. The walls were painted deep red or deep blue or deep green, and thick, ornate, carved wood molding stained a rich coffee color framed the floors and ceilings, every doorway and window. All of the furniture was equally ornate, most of it also dark-stained, and the lighting was soft and golden, emanating from sporadic fixtures on the walls and ceilings rather than the embedded lines of bright, neutral light that illuminated ship hallways.

The place felt old, and suffocating, but it was infinitely preferable to being outside in the unsheltered void, where the very air felt like it was trying to hurt him.

The man lead him up the stairs and down a hallway to a room near the end. It was small, but the floor was carpeted and soft, and there was some furniture, all of it dark and heavy. The center of the room was dominated by a massive bed, far bigger than any bed Kyungsoo had ever seen, with four thick carved posts from which hung a heavy, dark red canopy. It looked intimidating, but kind of inviting, too. Kyungsoo liked the idea of having something like that over his head while he slept.

"This can be your room," the man said, and Kyungsoo looked up at him in shock. His? This place? All of this for just him? The man smiled at his reaction, and gestured. "Go on," he said. "Look around. There's clean clothes in the drawers, something should fit you. I'll be right back with some food." He quietly left the room, closing the door behind him with a click.

Kyungsoo did as he was told, stripping out of his damp, cold clothes and cautiously opening the drawers to look for more. A huge variety of colors and patterns greeted him, and Kyungsoo started pulling garments out, inspecting them. Some looked soft and light. Some were small and tight, so much so that he wasn't sure they'd fit even him, let alone someone bigger. Some were clearly made for women. And some were so complicated and odd that Kyungsoo wasn't even sure how he would put them on.

In the end, Kyungsoo decided on a big, shapeless black shirt, soft and slightly sheer, but comfortable-looking. It had a wide neckline that slipped off his shoulders, but it was warm and dry. There were no long pants at all in the drawers, so Kyungsoo instead pulled on a pair of short pants, settling them around his waist. They were a little tight, soft and stretchy, but the shirt draped down to mid-thigh anyway, so Kyungsoo felt covered enough.

He put the clothes away and inspected the room. The bed was every bit as soft and comfortable as it looked, with deep red sheets made of something shiny and smooth that felt soothing against his bare legs. The moment he sat down on it, Kyungsoo became all too aware of how exhausted he was, and the urge to curl up and nap was strong.

But he was hungry, and still so worried about Tao and Lu-ge, and the man had said he would be back soon anyway. So Kyungsoo reluctantly got off the bed and looked around a little more.

There was a door in the back corner, huge and heavy, leading to a refresher with an odd, curvy porcelain toilet, an equally odd sink basin and a real water shower with a slightly rusted metal showerhead. Kyungsoo used the facility and rinsed off his face, noting in the mirror that he'd had dried blood and spittle on his lips from his seizure.

Other than that, there was not much to the room. There were two windows, but when Kyungsoo pushed aside the heavy, musty curtains he found that the glass panes were welded shut and the outside of the window was blocked with thick metal bars. Kyungsoo didn't mind that so much, because though he didn't like being blocked in, he could understand someone wanting to keep all the awfulness of outside away.

He didn't start to panic until he went to the door, intending to stick his head into the hallway and get a better look around, and found it to be locked.

Was he trapped? Why would that man lock him in?

No, it was probably okay. The man didn’t know Kyungsoo, after all. Like Kris had said before, he couldn’t trust someone he didn’t know. It would be fine. He wasn’t a bad man, right? It was only that he couldn’t trust Kyungsoo just yet.

Kyungsoo decided to not be impatient. He went back to the bed and curled up to wait.

The man didn’t come back for a long time, though, and Kyungsoo had fallen into a fitful doze by the time the door opened, startling him. The man set a plate of food on the dresser and came over to the bed, sitting down on the edge as Kyungsoo struggled back to consciousness and sat up.

“Feel better?” the man asked. One rough, wrinkled hand came down onto Kyungsoo’s bare knee, his thumb sweeping gently along the skin. Kyungsoo nodded, rubbing sleep grit out of his eyes.

“I’m hungry,” he admitted softly, his eyes on the food.

Smiling, the man gestured. “Go on, then.”

Kyungsoo got up and got the plate. There was nowhere else to sit in the room, so he brought it back to the bed, settling with the plate on his knees. The plate was warm, and the food on it looked actually cooked, and it smelled incredible. There was no utensils, so Kyungsoo picked up the food with his fingers, a pastry of some description filled with real meat, fresh vegetables and sauce. It was some of the richest food Kyungsoo had ever eaten. He made a small, pleased noise, unconsciously, but the man next to him chuckled.

“Feel better?” he asked. Kyungsoo nodded, because he did, in fact, feel better. The man smiled, and reached up, wiping a bit of sauce from Kyungsoo’s lips with his thumb. His hand cupped Kyungsoo’s chin, tilting his face up. Kyungsoo swallowed his mouthful just as the man leaned down and pressed his lips to Kyungsoo’s.

Kyungsoo blinked, confused. This was...a kiss? The man was kissing him? Why? It felt strange. Not bad, really, but...Kyungsoo thought this was something people did only when they were very close with each other.

He didn’t even know this man’s name.

Kyungsoo pulled back, knowing his eyes were wide. The man smiled at him, but something in his face looked...odd.

“Don’t be scared,” the man said.

“I’m not scared,” Kyungsoo replied, because he wasn’t. Just confused. “Why did you do that?”

“Because I wanted to.” He leaned in again.

Kyungsoo put a hand on his sternum, stopping him mid-lean. “I don’t want to,” he said softly.

The man stared at him, and for a long moment, Kyungsoo thought he might yell, or lash out. But he didn’t. He pulled on a smile and sat back up straight again.

“Well, that’s alright for now,” he murmured. “You’re new, and clearly you’ve had a bad night. You should rest.” He patted Kyungsoo’s thigh, his fingertips trailing against the inner part and making Kyungsoo jump in surprise.

But then he got up, and he left the room, taking the empty plate with him. This time, Kyungsoo heard the door lock behind him.

He didn’t like being locked in, not at all. But he could still hear water falling on the ground outside, and the man was certainly right about him having a bad night, about him being tired. And the bed, big and soft and sheltered, looked so inviting that it was too easy to convince himself that it would be okay to just get a little rest. Lu-ge and Tao would want him to take care of himself, and he had no idea how to start looking for them, anyway.

Kyungsoo burrowed under the sheets and was asleep in minutes.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Inglis was a dead end, as well.

“They’re probably on Sarena,” Minseok pointed out unnecessarily. “I mean, it is the biggest, and by far the most populous. If they were looking to get lost…”

Kris dragged a hand down his face. “I was really hoping that was not the case,” he muttered. “Sarena is a fucking cesspool. It’s a human sewer.”

“Tell me about it,” Minseok said with a snort. “If they landed there and traffickers got them, they could already have been taken off-planet. It’s been days.”

Horror lanced through Kris’s gut at the very thought. “You better pray that’s not the case,” he snapped, “because we are not losing these kids. If they’re on a trafficking ship, we are fucking going after them.”

Minseok stared. “Kris,” he said slowly, “there isn’t a bounty in the world worth taking a trafficking boat head-on. We only just barely got away from the last one.”

This isn’t about the bounty, Kris thought, but saying that out loud would only invite questions he couldn’t answer. So instead he commanded, “Get us to Sarena as soon as possible,” and left the cockpit.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Baekhyun was glad that Jongdae was sleeping when the coughing fit hit.

They weren’t uncommon for him, really. This one was a little more terrible than most, hacking, phlegmy coughing that started slow and kept getting worse to the point where Baekhyun had to abandon the cockpit and stumble to the bathroom, as his lungs attempted to turn inside out and crawl out his esophagus.

Eventually, his lungs calmed the fuck down, and Baekhyun leaned on the sink, attempting to catch his breath.

“Are you taking anything for that?”

Baekhyun jumped, but of course it was just Yixing. “Starfucking hell, Yixing, why you gotta sneak up on the man who can’t breathe?” he gasped. Yixing leaned on the doorway and regarded him coolly. “It’s just station hack,” he explained, still trying to get enough air into his body. “I’m a little susceptible to it.”

Yixing hummed. “I did notice the air on Red Rock tasted kind of sour,” he muttered. Baekhyun nodded - this particular episode had started not long after they left the station. “The question stands, though. Do you take anything for it?”

Making a face, Baekhyun muttered, “I don’t need to see a doctor for fucking station hack, Xing. It’ll be fine in a few days. Just gotta cough it all out of my system.”

The eye roll he got made Baekhyun bristle. “Do you even know what station hack is?” Yixing asked. “It’s chronic allergic bronchitis. It’s only going to get worse the longer it goes untreated.”

“Chronicawha?” Baekhyun grumbled.

“An allergic reaction to mold in the air ducts that makes your airways swell up,” Yixing said patiently. “It can cause permanent damage if it’s not controlled. For you to be experiencing dyspnea and coughing four cycles later after spending one cycle in an enclosed station tells me your lungs are already damaged.”

Shock and fear mixed with incongruous anger made Baekhyun lash out. “Fucking butt out,” he snarled. “I’ve been doing just fine without your help so far. It will go away on its own. It always does.

Silently, Yixing reached past him, to the medicine cabinet behind the mirror. Angel was far too small to have a dedicated infirmary, so the bathroom had to make do. He rummaged for a moment, then came out with a bottle and pressed it into Baekhyun’s hand.

“Next time you start to feel a coughing fit coming on,” he said, “take one of these.”

Baekhyun turned the bottle over in his hand. “This is a steroid compound,” he said incredulously. The particular brand he’d been handed was meant to fight muscle and bone atrophy brought on by extended weightlessness. They kept some on hand in case Angel ever lost gravity for a long period of time.

“Yep. A number of the ingredients are also short-term bronchodilators. Not as good in pill form as inhaled, but the sooner you can curb an attack, the less likely you are to break a fucking rib coughing.” Yixing jabbed a finger in Baekhyun’s general direction. “And the next time you’re in a civilized system, see a fucking specialist and get a prescription. Twenty-whatever is too young for you to sound like that.”

And with that overly-aggressive statement, Yixing flounced off, leaving Baekhyun rather feeling like he’d just been scolded by an overbearing aunt.

Scowling, Baekhyun put the bottle back in the cabinet. Yixing could shove his unwanted advice where the stars didn’t shine.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Luhan was dragged out into the high box and made to watch his youngest brother commit murder over and over again.

The men and women who ran this operation seemed very pleased with Tao’s performance, a fact which made Luhan more than a little bit sick. Sicker still was the mindless glee of the crowd, the roaring excitement when Tao stepped out into the ring - tall and handsome and much fiercer on the outside than Luhan knew he was on the inside - and the frenzy that followed the kill.

There was a scoreboard placed up high on the wall, ranking the fighters in the ring, and Tao was climbing it with alarming speed. But that was better than the alternative - in this place, Luhan had found, you climbed the ranks, or you died. And as much as it ripped at Luhan’s insides to know what Tao was going through, what he had to do to survive, he still preferred it to the alternative.

And there was one advantage to being forced out into the box every time Tao stepped into the ring. It gave them a chance to get in contact, even if just for a moment.

“Lu-ge,” Tao called softly, his familiar voice slicing through the noise. “How long has it been? There’s no clocks anywhere.”

“I’m not sure,” Luhan admitted. “I rarely get a chance to glance at one. Three cycles since we left the ship, at least.” He watched the big screen next to the balcony overlooking the ring from where he was chained to the floor by the collar around his neck. Tao had picked up from the other combatants that it was expected that he engage with the crowd; he was waving, and miming blowing kisses at them in a robotic way that told Luhan he didn’t know what it meant. Today he’d been given all-black clothes to wear, and he looked very strong and striking.

The reaction of the crowd was immense. Tao was quickly becoming a favorite, and Luhan really hoped it wasn’t going to his head. He thrived on praise, but this was not a good kind of praise.

“Have you heard anything about Kyungsoo?” Luhan asked quickly, as Tao’s opponent entered the ring. This man was the largest Luhan had ever seen, ever. Even Tao’s eyes went a little bit wide as he looked up and up.

“No, Lu-ge,” Tao replied. “I don’t see anyone except Chaerin unless I’m here.”

Of course, they were keeping him isolated, just as they were keeping Luhan isolated. “You have to try and escape,” Luhan said, as he’d said every moment he’d had a chance to. “Please, Tao, Kyungsoo will need you. He’s alone out there.”

On the screen, he saw Tao shake his head minutely. “I won’t leave you, Lu-ge,” Tao murmured. “Figure out how to get out and tell me what to do. I’ll do anything, just tell me.”

Luhan stared at the woman in the overstuffed chair in the center of the room. He knew full well that the remote that controlled his electrified collar was in that woman’s pocket, but he was constantly chained and under the eye of at least two guards. He didn’t think he’d ever get a chance to get away.

“I don’t know how, Tao,” he admitted. “I don’t know how we could get away.”

The bell rang, and the fight began.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kyungsoo was startled awake by the door opening and multiple sets of footsteps entering the room. Instinctively, he scrambled to find shelter, barely managing to keep himself from hiding under the bed and instead curling into a ball against the headboard with the blanket pulled up around him.

He relaxed only a little when he recognized the man who brought him here, because there was a man and a woman with him, younger, but not as kind-looking. Both were staring at Kyungsoo in a way that made him want to hide his head under the blankets as well as his body.

“Time to wake up,” the older man said, his voice soft and reassuring as it had been the night before. It helped Kyungsoo relax a tiny bit more. “I have something for you.”

He held up a small bottle. The writing on it was tiny, but Kyungsoo could still make out the letters, even from this distance. Diazepam.

Hope raced through Kyungsoo’s throat. Medicine! The enticing possibility of not losing control of his body and mind every time something vaguely not-nice happened had him reaching for the bottle.

“Ah-ah,” the man said, tucking the bottle into his pocket. “A few things, first.” He nodded to the other two.

The man and the woman approached the bed. Kyungsoo wanted to run and hide, especially when the man came around the other side of the bed, but he wanted the medicine very badly so he stayed put. The man wrapped arms around Kyungsoo’s shoulders, holding him, trapping him, and the woman crawled across the expansive mattress and held up something, black and steel.

“Hold still now,” she crooned, “there’s a good boy.” Thin fingers with long nails reached around his neck, fastening the thing around Kyungsoo’s throat. She slid two fingers in between the material and Kyungsoo’s skin - testing the fit? - then pulled them out and instead cupped Kyungsoo’s jaw in her hand just like the older man had done the night before. She leaned down, but Kyungsoo jerked his head away, halting the kiss before she could do it.

“Don’t be like that,” she murmured, leaning in again.

“Let her kiss you,” the older man commanded. And because he still had the medicine in his pocket, Kyungsoo did as he was told, and didn’t pull away. Her lips felt strange, like there was something waxy on them.

Then, the man behind him pulled him back and away, and turned his head so he was looking over his shoulder. When he kissed Kyungsoo, it was rough, and he used his teeth, and his grip was tighter than it needed to be.

Kyungsoo didn’t like it. But he didn’t struggle, didn’t protest. He wanted the medicine.

“He’s cute,” the younger man said, looking Kyungsoo up and down as he pulled away. His hands, as rough as the older man’s but not as wrinkled, slid into the collar of Kyungsoo’s shirt, dragging over the skin of his shoulders. Kyungsoo jumped in surprise and pulled away before thinking the better of it.

“That’s enough for now,” the older man said, coming over to the bed and shooing the two younger people away with a gesture. “You’ll be seeing him plenty. Get going.”

The woman left without protest, but the man didn’t let go immediately. “See you later,” he whispered, his breath fanning over Kyungsoo’s ear and making him shudder.

Then he left, and Kyungsoo rubbed at his skin, not liking the way the feeling of touch clung to him. The older man sat down on the bed and gestured to him, and reluctantly, Kyungsoo came closer, and allowed the man to tug him into his side and wrap an arm around him. It didn’t feel like it did when Tao held him like this, or even when Chanyeol did, it felt...strange.

“Is this the right stuff?” the man asked, holding out the bottle. Kyungsoo made to take it, but the man didn’t let go, so instead he inspected it without touching. The pills were a different shape, but the right color, and the label said three milligram, not five.

Kyungsoo nodded. “I should take two of these twice a day,” he explained. Better to have a little more medicine than not enough.

“I guess I have to trust you know what you’re talking about,” the man said. He thumbed open the bottle and dropped two tiny pills into Kyungsoo’s hand, watching as Kyungsoo swallowed them dry. Kyungsoo reached for the bottle again, but the man closed it and tucked it back into his pocket. “Ah-ah, I don’t want you overdosing. I’ll hold these.”

“But I have to go,” Kyungsoo protested. “I have to leave. My brothers are out there.”

That stopped the man. “You have someone looking for you?” he asked, sounding apprehensive.

Unfortunately, no, so Kyungsoo shook his head. “No. I have to look for them.” The old man looked confused, so Kyungsoo explained shortly about the woman at the docks, and what had happened at the bar. He didn’t talk about how he escaped, though.

“I see,” the man said slowly. “Kid, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but they’re probably long gone. I know which bar you’re talking about. It’s a front for a trafficking ring. That woman on the docks, everyone knows she sends new travellers there. People who don’t belong to a big ship. People who won’t be missed.” He sighed. “You’d be better off forgetting about them, kid. You’re never going to see them again.”

Kyungsoo’s throat felt tight in a way that had nothing to do with the collar around his neck. Was he right? Could that be true? Within a few hours of landing on a populated planet, his brothers were stolen from him forever?

No. No, this man didn’t know Lu-ge, didn’t know Tao. They would be okay. They were together and they were smart and they were strong and they would be okay.

They had to be okay.

Even as he internally reassured himself of this, there were tears welling in Kyungsoo’s eyes. The older man made a small noise and pulled him closer, and Kyungsoo leaned into his chest, wishing it was Tao’s, or Lu-ge’s, or Xing-ge’s. Or if not theirs, Chanyeol’s, or even Kris’s. He didn’t want to be here, he didn’t want to be in this house with this man who still hadn’t asked his name or offered his own, whose friends touched him without asking and who locked the door whenever he left Kyungsoo alone.

But here was where he was, and this man was all he had. So Kyungsoo leaned on him and cried, softly, hiding his face from view. And the man just held him, and let him cry, for a good several minutes, which made Kyungsoo feel a little bit better.

However, once his tears started to slow, the man lifted his chin and kissed him again, right through the tears. Kyungsoo froze, surprised, and the man opened his mouth and pushed his tongue past Kyungsoo’s lips.

Kyungsoo pulled back. “Why do you do that?” he asked.

The man regarded him with an unreadable expression. “This is why I brought you here,” he explained. “This is why I fed you and clothed you and bought you medicine. So be good, okay? I don’t have to keep you here.” His thumb swept over Kyungsoo’s cheek, over his lips. “I could take you back to the bar and hand you over to the same men who took your brothers. You don’t want that, do you?” Kyungsoo shook his head vigorously. “Then be good, and let me touch you.” A shadow of a smile. “Don’t worry, you’ll learn to like it eventually.”

Kyungsoo wasn’t really sure of that, and it made him feel weird and slightly sick to think about. Kris had told him to be good or else, but his or-else hadn’t been anything like this, and Kyungsoo didn’t really think Kris would have ever acted on his vague threats, anyway.

He didn’t have that assurance with this man, and among other things, he really needed that medicine. So Kyungsoo ignored the rolling sickness in his stomach and closed his eyes and tried not to pay too much attention to the man’s lips on his own, or his hands on Kyungsoo’s skin.

It lasted an eternity, but somehow, went by in a flash. Then the man pulled away, with a small, pleased smile on his lips, and said, “Alright, that’s enough for now.” He stroked Kyungsoo’s hair. “You’re clearly new at this, so we’ll go slow. I’ll send up some food later.” He nodded to the dresser. “You should bathe, and find something less shapeless to wear. You have a pretty body, you need to show it off a little.”

With that slightly confusing comment, the man got up and left, taking Kyungsoo’s medicine with him.

Kyungsoo ended up taking the man’s advice and getting in the shower. He spent a long time in there, longer than usual, because it felt like the sensation of hands was never going to come off his skin.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

This was the third time Sehun had awoken alone, and he still wasn’t used to it. In only two weeks, he’d gotten accustomed to Tao’s constant presence, his incessant questions and his tentative touches. Without him, the quiet of the ship felt oppressive, and Sehun’s cot felt unnaturally empty.

Which is why Sehun was up a full two hours before he was scheduled to go on duty, wandering the ship in search of companionship. He ended up slipping into the engine room, where Chanyeol was finishing up his own work shift, leaning on his freshly bolted-down desk and staring at a technical drawing with a blank look on his face.

“Hey,” Sehun murmured, getting his attention. Chanyeol started, then calmed when he saw who it was.

“Hey, sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you come in.” Then he did a double take, and looked at the clock. “You’re up early, aren’t you?”

Sehun smiled tightly. “Haven’t been sleeping well lately.” He came over to the table, rubbing his hand over Chanyeol’s upper back.

Chanyeol scoffed. “Yeah, I don’t think any of us have,” he agreed. “Even Jongin’s got bags under his eyes.” He blew out a breath, and looked over at Sehun. “Think those kids have any idea how worried we are?”

Sehun wasn’t sure he even wanted to think about that. It felt a little bit like being stabbed in the heart with a dull butter knife. “What’re you working on?” he asked instead.

“Oh. This is Kyungsoo’s design, believe it or not,” Chanyeol said, gesturing at the drawing. “We were…” He stopped, and took another deep breath. Sehun waited. He knew how that felt. “We were trying to come up with a way to make his idea work. Designing the extra parts, figuring out what we would need to machine them.”

Damn. The way he was talking was...damn. “We?” Sehun asked quietly. “As in...you and Kyungsoo?”

Chanyeol nodded, his face compressed unhappily. “I keep turning to ask for his thoughts on things,” he said, distressed. “I keep looking and he’s not…” He didn’t finish his sentence, and he didn’t look at Sehun, instead staring at the drawing with red eyes. Sehun rubbed his back some more and didn’t try to speak.

After a moment, Chanyeol shook himself, and tore his eyes away from the drawing. “Kris told me this would happen,” he muttered. “He warned me I would get too attached. I thought it would be okay, but...He’s right. I’m way too invested.” He glanced up at Sehun. “I’m not sure which is worse, the thought that we won’t be able to find them, or the thought that we will, and then we’ll have to give them up again.”

Sehun inhaled noisily through his nose. “I’m trying very hard not to think about it, to be perfectly honest,” he admitted. “I just want them back. Especially if Minseok’s right and they ended up on Sarena.” Unlike some of the older members of the crew, Sehun had never been to that particular planet, but he knew its reputation, and the thought of Tao anywhere near that kind of place made him want to puke.

Chanyeol closed his eyes, and Sehun could see the same kinds of thoughts were running through his head. And he had every right to be worried - of the three, Sehun thought Kyungsoo was probably the most vulnerable to the terribleness of humanity, moreso even than Tao.

“Chanyeol,” Sehun asked, lowering his voice to the point almost of nonexistence. “Do you think Kris is still…” He made a face. “Look, no offense, but is he still seriously be planning to complete this job?”

“I don’t know, Sehun,” Chanyeol murmured. He sighed. “Don’t repeat this to anyone, but...I’m still hopeful I can convince him otherwise. Of course, the point is moot if we don’t get the kids back.” He smiled tightly. “At least on that point, everyone on the ship is in wholehearted agreement.”

A buzz from the comm. “Hey, Yeol, is Sehun down there with you?”

Kris. Shit. “I’m here, Captain,” Sehun called.

“Cargo hold, now. I need to talk to you.” Kris clicked off.

“Is it just me,” Sehun said, “or has he been a lot more…” He made a clawing motion with one hand.

Chanyeol chuckled, but it was humorless. “He’s worried,” he said. “He’s probably more worried than you are. You all don’t realize how seriously he takes the protection of people on his ship, even prisoners. All this has hit him harder than anyone.”

And Sehun found that really hard to believe, honestly, but he rethought that when he got down to the cargo hold and found the captain shooting hoops with a manic energy that was quite out of character. He caught the ball as it came down, spotting Sehun up on the catwalk.

“Guess what I found out,” he said. He didn’t wait for Sehun to guess. “There’s a way to block the kids’ range of hearing.”

Sehun blinked in surprise. “There is? How do you know?”

Kris dribbled the ball aimlessly, something for his hands to do as he spoke. “Been looking through the hard drive we took from the station,” he explained. “Apparently it’s something they only recently figured out, by accident. A certain frequency of white noise that resonates in the science science mumbo jumbo I didn’t read the rest.” Kris caught the ball, eyed the net for a second, and shot, bouncing it off the wall and neatly into the net. “Put that particular noise on low in the background, throughout the ship, and their hearing will effectively be no better than yours or mine.”

That Sehun’s first thought was no, don’t take away the things that make him special, and not that would be an advantage, spoke volumes about how intensely fucked he was. He kept his hesitancy to himself, though, and only asked, “What do you need me to do?”

“Figure out a way to make it work,” Kris said. “You spend more time in more weird nooks in crannies of this ship than anyone else, so, figure out how to get the sound distributed throughout the ship. I’ll send you the report I found it in, so you’ve got something to work with.” He stopped messing around with the ball, bracing it against his hip with one hand. “Think you can handle that?” he asked.

It was actually rather rare that Kris gave Sehun projects of his own like that, and Sehun found he was already thinking about what he knew of the ship and how it might work. “I think so,” he said.

“You can ask the crew if you need help, but only if you’re stuck,” Kris said. “Get it set up before we get the kids back, if at all possible.”

Sehun nodded, his eyes drifting listlessly to the basketball in Kris’s hand. He vaguely remembered the stray thought he’d had on the first night the kids had been awake, that Tao would be great at basketball.

“Captain,” he murmured, “do you really think we’re going to be able to get them back?”

A huff. “Yes,” Kris said, voice full of a conviction Sehun wished he felt. “We will.” He studied Sehun’s face for a moment before adding, “I have no illusions about the wide variety of terrible things that may have happened to them out there, but I am reasonably certain they are still alive. Traffickers tend to prefer not to kill if there’s a chance they can sell instead.” His eyes were hard, determined. “And if they’re alive, we will find them.”

“So we can sell them instead,” Sehun muttered, the words out of his mouth before he could stop them.

The basketball bounced off the floor and landed neatly in the storage bin. Kris followed, closing and locking the bin lid.

“You think I wouldn’t be chasing them down if it wasn’t for the bounty, don’t you,” he muttered. Sehun didn’t answer, so Kris looked up at him, leaning on the lid of the bin. “Believe me,” he said, “if they were passengers, or even stowaways, I would go after them. You’ve never experienced what a big trafficking ring can do to a person, but I have.” He shook his head, expression clouding. “I’d never abandon someone to that. Never.”

There wasn’t a lot Sehun could say to that, so he was silent for a moment, thinking about what he’d heard about traffickers and simultaneously trying not to think about what he’d heard about traffickers.

“Kris,” he said finally. “What happens if we can’t find them, or they’re dead?” Kris, who had been wiping sweat off his neck with a towel, froze mid-swipe. “What if we can’t finish the job?”

Dark eyes bored into his. “Kid,” Kris said roughly, “you better pray to whatever you believe in that you don’t find that out.”

Sehun frowned, and opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but a crackle cut him off.

“Captain, we’ve got a signal,” Jongin said, sounding slightly breathless. “We found them.”

Chapter Text

Chanyeol didn’t want to believe that the kids had ended up on Sarena, but here was the proof, right in front of his face. The Phoenix’s escape shuttle, somewhat clumsily docked in between two much larger ships, with a tag on the door warning that it was ten hours away from being confiscated for unpaid docking fees.

Luhan had apparently changed the door unlock code, but Kris’s officer override code still worked, so they were able to get in. The kids were not inside, of course. The shuttle was a wreck - old sheets and towels and other soft things that belonged to every member of the crew stashed in a mound in lieu of a bed, a small, out-of-the-way pile of discarded food bar wrappers, other signs of habitation.

“This is where they were all along, isn’t it?” Kris muttered, poking through the one-room shuttle. “That’s more food than they would have eaten just on the flight from ship to planet.”

“It would explain why I was never able to locate them,” Jongin said, not looking up. “I thought they were manipulating the code to appear that it was coming from outside the ship, but they weren’t. Technologically speaking, the shuttle is outside the ship.”

“I wonder how they managed to pay the dock fee?” Chanyeol wondered aloud.

Minseok snorted. “Probably has to do with my credit stash going missing. Lucky for them the shuttle doesn’t cost a lot to dock.”

Joonmyun came back at that point, with Sehun behind him, ducking a little to avoid hitting his head on the hatch frame. “According to the dockhands, no one has accessed the shuttle since it first docked,” Joonmyun said. “They haven’t been back.”

“Probably abandoned it,” Jongin muttered.

Minseok eyed him. “Or they couldn’t come back.”

“Okay, that’s enough standing around,” Kris said. “Jongin, you synced the tracking program with the tablets, right?” he asked.

Jongin nodded. “Everyone’s tablet has it,” he agreed. “We can all see each other, and Kyungsoo and Tao as well.”

“Hopefully, Luhan is still with one of them,” Joonmyun commented, “or they can tell us where he went.”

“We’ll run that course when we get to it. Okay. Minseok, you’re with me, we’re going after Soo. Joon and Sehun, you guys go after Tao.” Kris eyed Chanyeol. “Yeol, you and Jongin take the shuttle back to the ship and wait there to hear from us, okay? I’m not leaving her alone for any length of time.”

Chanyeol frowned. “But -”

A long finger halted his words. “Don’t argue. You’re not going out there.” Kris’s voice was firm, but his eyes hid fear. “Between the two of you, you could fly the ship, if you had to. Everyone has to report in every two hours. If you stop getting reports, you two get the hell out of here, got it?”

Kris -”

“That’s an order, Yeol.” He pulled Chanyeol in for a fast, hard kiss, and despite his annoyance, Chanyeol melted against him, the same way he always did. “I love you,” Kris muttered against Chanyeol’s lips.

“Love you too,” Chanyeol breathed. “Be careful.”

Kris nodded, and tapped Minseok on the shoulder. “Come on.”

They left, and Joonmyun and Sehun prepared to do the same. “Next check-in will be at 14:30, ship’s time,” Joonmyun said. “And I don’t care what Kris says, if we don’t answer, come save our asses, okay?”

Sehun and Jongin both laughed, but Chanyeol nodded solemnly, knowing full well Joonmyun was not kidding. “We will,” he promised. “Kris only needed to say that for his own peace of mind.”

“Good,” Joonmyun said. “Because this place is already bringing up a lot of memories I’d rather not re-live.” He double-checked his blaster, then tucked it into a midback holster, hidden under his jacket. “Hun, you better stick close. I know Kris wants you with me because he thinks Tao is more likely to listen to you, and trust me, if I didn’t think the same thing I’d be going out there alone. This is not a good place for you to be.”

Sehun squared his shoulders. “It isn’t a good place for anyone to be,” he pointed out. “But it’s where Tao is.”

Joonmyun nodded. “I know. Let’s go get him back.” He turned to Chanyeol and Jongin. “You two be careful too, okay? Watch each other’s backs. There are people who wouldn’t think twice about snatching you right off the docks themselves.”

And with that cheerful thought, they left, leaving Jongin and Chanyeol to fly the shuttle back to the Phoenix, to wait, and to worry.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sehun was expecting Sarena to be a lot more...dirty. Decrepit. Violence in the streets, screams from blocked-off buildings, that kind of thing. It was weird that Sarena looked like any other planet, with the same terraformed, flattened landscape, the same controlled weather, the same streets and buildings and vehicles and people, and he said so to Joonmyun.

“Did you think there would be strings of chained slaves in the streets?” Joonmyun murmured to him. “This is a fishing planet. They can’t catch people if it’s totally obvious you’re in danger the moment you step outside.” He stepped a little closer to Sehun’s side, his gaze darting everywhere. “But we are, and don’t forget it. Probably a good third of the people you see right now are involved in a ring.”

Sehun looked around him. “Everyone looks so...normal.”

“They are,” Joonmyun said. “Being a shitty human being is more normal than you think.”

Swallowing down a bubble of fear that rose in his throat, Sehun glanced down at the tablet in his hand. “Tao’s that way,” he said, gesturing down a main street, “but this says he’s quite a ways away. Should we get a cab?”

Joonmyun snorted. “Only if you want to end up in that string of chained slaves. Never put your well-being in someone else’s hands in a place like this. We walk.”

And walk they did, for over an hour. When the little blue dot that represented Tao finally came onto the screen, instead of an arrow just indicating direction, Sehun’s heart jumped. He halted Joonmyun with a hand on his arm, tugging him to the side of the street and out of the way of passers-by.

“I think he’s in that building,” Sehun hissed, jerking his chin at a two-story, nondescript concrete building with barred, frosted-glass windows. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but Sehun was very nervous about what might be on the inside.

Joonmyun cocked his head. “Huh. Cameras, but no automated weapons, no guards. It looks like it’s open to the public.” He looked up at Sehun. “Should we find out?”

Sehun gulped. “Uh. Can we check in with Chanyeol and Jongin first?” he asked. “Just so they know where we are.”

“Good idea.” Joonmyun called the ship on his tablet, and gave them a quick update. “We’re gonna try just walking in, see how that goes. We’ll still try to make check-in in an hour.” He gnawed on his lip. “Have you heard from Kris and Min?”

“Not yet,” Jongin said. “They ended up coming back to pick up the land rover, though. I guess they had a ways to go.” Joonmyun and Sehun looked at each other - how had the kids gotten so separated? “We’ve got the shuttle back now, so we’re good to move whenever. Keep us in the loop.”

They promised they would, and they signed off, and Joonmyun checked his blaster again. Sehun did the same, not that he thought he’d really be able to gun someone down unless it was literally that or die, but here, who knew if that could actually be the case.

“Okay,” Joonmyun said, taking a deep breath and squaring his shoulders. “Let’s go.”

They really were able to just walk right into the building. There were cameras, but no one around, and only one way to go - through a door, down a hallway, through another door.

The noise hit like a tidal wave when they opened the last door. Cheering, yelling, whistles, catcalls. Joonmyun froze, eyes wide.

“Oh no,” he murmured, barely audible over the noise. “Oh my God.”

“What?” Sehun asked, afraid of the answer but needing to know.

“It’s a fighting ring,” Joonmyun muttered. “I mean, of course it is. Any trafficker with half a brain would immediately see that Tao is perfect for the ring.” He took a deep breath. “Fuck, we have got to get him out of here.”

Joonmyun was shaking. Sehun had never in his life seen Joonmyun act less than 100% calm about anything. “Are you okay?” he asked.

He got a flash of a smile, bright and completely fake. “Not at all,” Joonmyun said. “Come on.”

They passed through the door and let it swing shut behind him. Inside, the people were packed shoulder-to-shoulder, down a narrow, curved hallway that stretched for lengths and lengths in both directions. Joonmyun wrapped fingers around his wrist and tugged him into the crowd, keeping ahold of him to ensure they would not be separated.

It took a minute for Sehun to realize one side of the hallway was open, and in the next minute Joonmyun had shoved his way over to it and carved out a space for them at the railing. To Sehun’s surprise, he found himself looking down several stories into a huge, open ring, where two people seemed hellbent on killing each other with their bare hands.

“The tablet, Sehun,” Joonmyun muttered, leaning in so no one else could hear. “Where is he?”

Oh. Right. Sehun pulled up the tracking program. “He’s below us,” he said, swiping his fingers across the screen to reorient the view. “A long way below us.”

A nod. “Of course he is. He’s probably held down there between fights.”

Sehun blinked as the true scope of what Joonmyun was saying finally hit him. “Wait,” he hissed. “You think he’s…No, Joon, Tao would never hurt someone on purpose.” He thought about how sad Tao had looked when he’d admitted to accidentally breaking a scientist’s arm, how guiltily he jumped back whenever Sehun made even the slightest indication that he was using too much strength.

A snort. “Tao’s a fighter, and apparently, a successful one.”

Sehun frowned. “What?”

“Look.” Joonmyun pointed at something over Sehun’s shoulder. Sehun turned and looked. On the wall of the ring, halfway down, was a giant display board, showing a competition chart. To Sehun’s horror, Tao’s name was in the list, spelled out right there in big, blocky letters. “See the odds they’ve got on him? Our runaway has been kicking ass in here.”

“No.” Sehun shook his head. “Tao would never.”

Joonmyun stared at him. “You have no idea what this kind of a place can do to a person,” he said. “No idea. He wouldn’t have a choice. It’s fight or die, here.” Sehun looked at him in complete horror, his insides twisting themselves up in knots, but Joonmyun only sighed and tugged at his wrist again. “Come on, let’s try and get lower down before he comes out.”

It took a distressingly long amount of time to get through the crowd, find a staircase, and get to the lower levels. The first level on the bottom seemed to be reserved for VIPs only, so they went out onto the second level, pushing through an even more tightly packed crowd until they got back to the railing.

They got eyes on the ring again just as the fight ended, and as the crowd began a bloodlusty countdown from ten, Sehun found himself reaching for Joonmyun’s hand instinctively. They weren’t exactly handholding-close normally, but Joonmyun didn’t make a comment, just allowed Sehun to lace his fingers through his own and squeeze hard as the crowd reached zero and the woman below stomped viciously on the man’s throat, over and over until he stopped moving.

“I’m going to be sick,” Sehun whispered.

Joonmyun squeezed his hand even harder. “Do not,” he hissed. “Don’t do anything to draw attention to yourself. It’s bad enough we’re not betting.” He looked up at the scoreboard, and Sehun did the same, tearing his eyes away from the crew cleaning away the dead body as the victor was led back into the bowels of the building. “Shit, he’s up next.”

Sehun held his breath as the announcer introduced the next match to the crowd. Tao was introduced as “up-and-coming” and “vicious”. Sehun wasn’t sure if he wanted to laugh, or burst into tears.

All thoughts of anything else went flying out of his head when Tao stepped out into the ring.

“Holy shit,” Sehun whispered.

Standing tall and confident, shoulders back, chin up, and stance spread, Tao looked absolutely nothing like the shy, bright-eyed shadow that had followed Sehun around for two full weeks. His strong body was encased head-to-toe in black leather, his intense blue eyes had been lined in black, and his expression was carefully neutral, even a little bit haughty as he faced the crowd.

That is, until his eyes landed on Sehun, and all of the blood drained from his face.

“Tao, do not let them know you saw us,” Joonmyun hissed, a forceful stage-whisper. To Sehun’s relief, Tao’s eyes slid past them, continuing his slow turn in place, as if he was letting the crowd look at him. “If you can hear me, extend two fingers.”

Sehun’s heart jumped when Tao did exactly that, his hand held casually at his side.

“We’re going to get you out of here,” Sehun said, trying to find the balance between being loud enough for Tao to hear him, and being quiet enough that no one else did.

To his surprise, though, Tao glanced at him, quick, but enough that Sehun could see it was deliberate, and shook his head.

“What? Why not?”

Tao bit his lip. The other grate was opening now, and the announcer was introducing Tao’s competition, a big, very fit man who looked like he could snap Sehun’s neck with one hand. As dangerous as Tao looked right now, this man was half a head taller and a good deal more muscular-looking, especially with Tao’s physique covered up like that. The crowd was going crazy, yelling catcalls at the competitors and arguing amongst themselves, and Sehun saw the bet counters spinning as people wirelessly placed their bets. It seemed like the crowd was pretty evenly split on who they thought was going to win.

“Tao,” Joonmyun said, “is there some reason you feel like you can’t leave? Do they have something on you?”

A slight nod, barely perceptible. Tao’s gaze moved slowly and deliberately up, and up, and up, until it stopped on something far over their heads.

“It’s up there?” Sehun asked. “Your reason for not leaving is up there?”

Another little nod. His opponent was engaging the crowd now, getting them hyped up with gestures and expressions and yelled insults. It effectively held the crowd’s attention, giving Tao the space to momentarily face Sehun and mouth something.

“What?” Joonmyun asked.

“Lu-ge,” Sehun murmured. He’d only recognized it because of the number of times he’d watched Tao’s mouth form around those syllables. “Luhan. They’re holding Luhan to force him to do this. Oh my God.”

“Well at least we know where he is,” Joonmyun said. A bell rang out, and Joonmyun tensed at Sehun’s side. “Here we go. Don’t distract him.”

Sehun nodded, the hand that wasn’t wrapped up in Joonmyun’s curling around the railing and hanging on as Tao slid out of his leather jacket, rolling out his broad shoulders sinuously. Underneath was a plain black sleeveless shirt, stretchy and clinging. It was a stunningly hot look on him but Sehun was too distracted by how thin he seemed, how pale, and the fading old bruises and scrapes all up his bared arms.

The jacket dropped to the ground, and as if it was a starter flag, Tao’s opponent rushed him.

Tao’s response was so fast, Sehun didn’t even see it. Just one moment, the bigger man was reaching for Tao, and the next he was on the ground, and Tao was letting him go, backing away. The man got to his feet quickly and turned to rush him again, and just as quickly he was put down.

The crowd loved it, and Sehun realized why a few moments later, when the man got his hands in Tao’s shirt, and Tao effortlessly broke his grip and slammed his elbow into the man’s throat, knocking him to the ground for the third time. Tao wasn’t fighting to win, to survive; he was just mimicking. Mimicking things he’d surely seen his opponents in the ring do, without really understanding the intent. He wasn’t even trying to hurt the other man, let alone kill him.

But to the audience, he looked like a jungle cat with a little mouse, toying with the man before he got bored and ended him. And they were eating it up - some of them had even started chanting his name.

It was sickening to watch. Sehun was going to have nightmares about this, he could already feel it.

In a terrifyingly short span of time, Tao had the man facedown on the mat, muscular arms twisted behind him and held effortlessly in place, one knee in the small of his back keeping him from moving. The man struggled wildly, but it was no use.

The crowd started to count down. Tao glanced up and met Sehun’s eyes, and Sehun had to hold back a gasp, because there was something there that told him Tao knew what he was about to do was bad. He knew.

But Sehun was still pretty sure he didn’t know why.

The count reached zero, and Tao reached up and snapped the man’s neck in one smooth movement. Bile rose into Sehun’s throat, and he closed his eyes against the screams of the crowd, fighting his breakfast back down.

Joonmyun squeezed his hand hard. Very hard. “Breathe, Sehun,” he murmured. “Tao, listen to me,” he said, slightly louder. “We’re going to get you both out of here, okay? You and Luhan. But I need you to cooperate with me. Got that?”

A blonde-haired woman was guiding Tao back underground, her touch on his wrist too familiar, and Sehun’s gut lurched in a different way. But Tao glanced up at them and nodded, just a little, just slightly, his eyes wide as he disappeared from view.

“Luhan,” Joonmyun muttered, “if you can hear me, that goes for you too.” He turned to Sehun. “Hun, I need you to - hey, you with me?”

Sehun blinked, and shook himself off. He’s been staring at the grate where Tao had disappeared. “Yes. Sorry.”

Joonmyun eyed him skeptically, but didn’t comment. “I need you to get up to the top floor and figure out where Luhan is being kept. Don’t try to get him out by yourself, just locate him, okay?” He glanced at his tablet. “And call Jongin, we’re about ready for check-in here anyway. Tell him we found Tao and Luhan and tell him I’m ordering he come help. If we’re going to have to wrangle two kids out of a place like this, we’re going to need backup.”

Sehun’s brow knit. “But Tao -”

“I’ve got him. Don’t worry about it. You find Luhan and don’t let him out of your sight. I’ll call you when I’ve gotten Tao out.”

“Hyung -”

“Do not make me pull rank on you, Sehun. Get going. And keep your fucking head down,” he growled vehemently. “Believe me, you would not last one minute in that ring.”

The implications behind the threat were all too clear. “Got it,” Sehun said, more confidently than he felt. “Please be careful.”

A nod. “Yeah. You too. Get Jongin out here to back you up as fast as you can.”

They separated, and as the next fight was gearing up, Joonmyun disappeared into the crowd.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kyungsoo was left alone for a large chunk of the day. There was nothing to do in the little room, so Kyungsoo ended up falling asleep out of sheer boredom. It was too much sleep, and so when the door finally opened again, Kyungsoo was over-drowsy, and found it very difficult to pull himself out of his fitful dreams.

He expected to see the older man, but it wasn’t, it was his younger friend, the one with the searching hands. Kyungsoo dragged himself upright, his mind fogged over with drowsiness, and scooted back against the headboard as the man crawled on his hands and knees onto the bed.

“Shush,” the man said, though Kyungsoo hadn’t made a sound. “Come here.” He leaned over Kyungsoo, trapping him underneath his body, arms and legs penning Kyungsoo in.

Sheer, panicked instinct kicked in, and Kyungsoo kicked out, planting his feet in the man’s sternum and pushing with all his might. The man was launched off the bed, hitting the floor with a loud thunk and a cry of pain.

Kyungsoo didn’t have time to contemplate the fact that he’d never hit someone before. He didn’t wait to see what the man would do next. The man had left the door slightly open, so Kyungsoo just ran.

No sooner had he reached the doorway than buzzing pain exploded from his neck all down his body. Kyungsoo screamed as his limbs gave way underneath him, all his muscles locked up and his heart pounding. His vision swam, and he felt sick, kind of like he did when he was going to have a seizure, but different.

He could smell something burning. It took a while for him to realize it was his own skin.

By the time the world came back into focus, Kyungsoo was being lifted into the air, the man grunting at his weight. He was dropped unceremoniously onto the bed, his cramped legs forced out and apart, and Kyungsoo tried to fight back, but his body wasn’t cooperating.

“Stop that.”

The voice cracked like a whip. Motion ceased, and Kyungsoo managed to look up, nearly sobbing in relief when he saw the older man, the man who had taken him off the street, standing in the doorway.

The younger man looked up. “Aww, I was just having some fun.”

“Hmph. I told you not to touch him yet. He’s too new for you.” He came over to the bed and sat down by Kyungsoo’s hip. “Here, boy, none of that,” he murmured, and reached up to wipe a hand over Kyungsoo’s face. Kyungsoo realized he’d been crying.

Looking at his friend, the old man said, “You’re always too rough on them. They need to be broken in, first.”

Them. Plural. Kyungsoo thought about the wide variety of clothes in the drawers and wondered just exactly how many other people had been brought into this room, thinking it was safe.

Sneering, the younger man said, “You just want to have him first.”

The older man looked unimpressed. “I found him. And it’s my club.” He pinned the younger man with a look. “I’m going to fetch his medicine and some food. You play nice, or you’ll be the one in the collar.”

And then he left, and Kyungsoo whimpered in fear.

“Shut up. You’re fine.” The younger man leaned over Kyungsoo again, one hand reaching out towards his neck. Kyungsoo jerked as fingers brushed over his burnt skin, pain searing up his throat. “Those look kind of pretty on you. I bet they’ll scar nicely.”

He leaned down and kissed Kyungsoo. It was not a nice kiss. Kyungsoo hadn’t known it was possible to kiss in a mean way, but this man managed it.

Kyungsoo bit him.

The man pulled away with a start. His face twisted, cruel-looking, but before he could say or do anything else footsteps sounded down the hall, and he pulled away.

“We’ll finish this later, boy,” the man hissed. “I’m not done with you.”

He got up and left the room as the older man entered, with a plate and a bottle of water. As before, the food was hot and delicious, but Kyungsoo found it much harder to eat, half because his stomach was still unsettled by the shock and half because of the lingering smell of the younger man on his skin.

But food was important, so Kyungsoo ate it all, and drank the entire bottle of water. The older man sat in silence the entire time, just watching, and at the end of the meal, he pulled the jar of diazepam from his jacket and shook out two pills. Kyungsoo took them with a nod of thanks, his burned skin pulling as he bent his head.

“I’m sorry that had to happen,” the older man finally said. “Please don’t try to leave the room again.” He cupped Kyungsoo’s face in one hand, his rough, calloused thumb rubbing over Kyungsoo’s cheek. “I was hoping to begin working with you tonight, but you’re too twitchy, aren’t you? I suppose it will have to wait.” He leaned down and kissed Kyungsoo, much more gently than his younger friend. Kyungsoo allowed him, trying not to jerk away from the touch that occasionally brushed his burnt neck, and thought to himself that this might be very nice, if the old man was someone he liked or felt he could trust. He was better than the young man, anyway.

Apparently, his pliancy was pleasing to the older man, because he smiled at Kyungsoo and patted his head before gathering up the plate and leaving Kyungsoo alone.

Again.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sehun was here.

Sehun was here.

Tao was in a daze, letting Chaerin lead him to the room where he waited between fights, unseeing and uncaring of what was going on around him. Sehun was here and it sent a swirl of new, unsettling emotions through Tao’s gut.

Because he’d thought he’d never see Sehun again. He’d resigned himself to that. And he was happy to see him, and glad that he didn’t seem to be angry that Tao had run away, and grateful beyond measure that he and Joonmyun were going to try to save them. But he was also ashamed that Sehun had seen him in the ring, seen him hurting someone, on purpose.

And he was afraid. Afraid that something would go wrong, and Sehun would end up like Luhan, screaming in pain because of Tao.

Chaerin put food in front of him and chattered on with the guards about the fights, something about how they were going to market Tao now that he was becoming a fan favorite. Tao ate mechanically and tuned them out, his mind running in circles. Sehun is here. Sehun came for me. Sehun’s in danger. Sehun saw me do the bad thing. Sehun will save me.

He never knew exactly how much time passed between fights. In this place, time hardly seemed to matter at all. Lu-ge had said they had only been here for a few cycles, but in that time Tao had been in the ring half a dozen times, and his eating and sleeping times seemed random, arbitrary. There was no pattern to anything, and Tao never knew what was going to come next.

Today, it felt like a lifetime of sitting in that little room, nothing to do but to eat his bland food, drink some water and listen to others speak over and around him. He had no idea how much time passed before Chaerin took a call in her earpiece, then motioned for Tao to stand.

“Come on,” she said. “There’s something different going down. You need to see this.”

Chaerin had figured out rather early on that Tao did better in the ring if he had a chance to watch his opponent fight ahead of time, so she often snuck him out into the crowd or got him a screen to watch. Tao had learned so many more ways of moving than before, a library of actions in his head that he was getting better and better at combining into strings and patterns, and even at taking the movements apart and rebuilding them into movements all his own.

He just wished so many of them weren’t violent.

As always, Chaerin tugged him along with a hand on his wrist. She’d become familiar with him, comfortable, and had stopped pointing the blaster at him every moment, though it was always close at hand. She brought him to the grate of the ring entrance and pointed at the combatants already there. “See that little guy?” she muttered. “He’s asked to fight you, specifically. They told him he could only do it if he beat another fighter first.”

Tao looked, and though the man’s face was covered with a black cloth mask from the nose down, he recognized the shape of the body, the quality of the movement instantly.

Joonmyun.

Was this his plan?

How would fighting in the ring help Tao and Luhan to escape?

Cocking his head, Tao stepped closer to the grate, watching the fight avidly.

The man Joonmyun was fighting was big, nearly twice as big as Joonmyun himself was. But Joonmyun was fast, surprisingly fast, and he fought like the first woman Tao had faced, using his opponent's own body against him. Tao watched as the man roared in frustration and swung wildly, his arm brushing uselessly against Joonmyun’s hair as Joonmyun ducked, wrapped his arms and one leg around the man’s larger body, and flipped him easily to the ground. It looked totally effortless.

The large man was clearly stunned, all the wind knocked out of him. Joonmyun stepped over him, took a split-second to aim, and drove the heel of his boot down brutally on the man’s face. Tao heard bones crunch and flesh squish, and the man jerked, and went still.

The crowd erupted into noise like Tao had never heard before, shocked, angry, impressed. Joonmyun stepped away, scraping blood and ruined flesh from his boot heel on the ground without looking down, his eyes raised up to the crowd, silent and emotionless.

Tao, himself, could not believe what he had just seen.

“He did it wrong,” Tao murmured out loud. “He didn’t wait for them to count. He just…”

Killed the man.

Just like that.

“Shit,” Chaerin muttered. “Looks like you’re about to have the fight of your life, kid.” She slapped his shoulder. “Do me proud. Don’t die.”

There were figures in grey dragging the body away, and Joonmyun finally looked around the edges of the ring, his eyes scanning the grates that lined it. His gaze landed on Tao - and then slid away.

“Tao, I hope you can hear me,” he said. Tao blinked. He could, but he couldn’t see Joonmyun’s mouth move, because his face was covered by the cloth mask. Was that why he had put it on? So he could talk to Tao and no one could tell?

It was such a smart thing to do, such a sign of careful planning. It reminded Tao of something Lu-ge would think of, and that reason alone helped to ease one tiny bit of the tangle of knots in Tao’s chest.

Joonmyun was smart. Joonmyun had said he would get Tao out.

Tao could trust him.

“Listen carefully,” Joonmyun was saying. “They agreed to let me take you out of here under the condition that I had to beat you in a ring fight first. So you have to lose. But you have to make it look like you tried your very best, okay? Don’t be afraid to hit me. It has to look real to them.”

Tao wished he could answer, because how could he know where that line was? He’d barely touched Joonmyun before. He had no idea how easy or hard it would be to break him.

“I’ll try and talk you through as much as possible, but when that grate opens, you have to act like you’ve never seen me before, and you have to come at me as if you want to win.” A deep breath as the voice over the loudspeaker began announcing Tao. “I’ll tell you when it’s time to let me beat you.”

The grate opened. Tao stepped out, pretending to ignore Joonmyun at first, turning to the crowd like he usually did.

Closer now, Joonmyun could speak at a normal volume and still be heard. “Okay, good, you did hear me. Don’t worry about Luhan right now, okay? Sehun and Jongin are going to get him.”

Tao caught Joonmyun’s eye and nodded, as slight a motion as he could make it. The corner of Joonmyun’s eyes crinkled.

“Good. I’m trusting you, Zitao,” he said. “I’m putting my life in your hands. Please take care of it.”

The bell chimed.

Tao and Joonmyun circled each other for a moment. The crowd was loud, wild, but Tao pushed the noise out of his mind, concentrating on watching Joonmyun.

One hand, pale fingers protruding from fingerless gloves, raised to Joonmyun’s head, touching behind his ear. Tao followed the motion with his eyes, wondering if Joonmyun was trying to tell him something.

Joonmyun’s other fist came out of nowhere, catching him right across the jaw. Caught completely off guard, Tao stumbled back, shaking out his head.

“Starfucking - fuck, Tao, hitting you is like hitting a brick wall.” Joonmyun clenched and unclenched his hand.

“Sorry,” Tao murmured, keeping his lips nearly still.

“You don’t usually attack, do you,” Joonmyun muttered. “Guess that means I have to do the advancing.”

He ran at Tao.

In a normal fight, Tao knew exactly what movement he would use, exactly how to turn that energy around and knock Joonmyun to the ground. But he hesitated, not sure if it would hurt him too much, and Joon swept him off his feet. For the first time since his first fight, Tao found himself looking up at the ceiling, six stories above.

Before he could get his feet under him, Joonmyun was on him, shin planted against his chest and his knee pressing dangerously against Tao’s throat.

“Fight back!” Joonmyun hissed.

Instinct kicked in and Tao grabbed the collar of Joonmyun’s shirt and folded himself completely in half to get one foot into Joonmyun’s stomach. He kicked up with all his might, throwing Joonmyun over his head so hard he felt reverberations when Joonmyun hit the floor and bounced.

Tao flipped up to his feet and turned around in time to see Joonmyun rolling swiftly to his own. “Better,” Joonmyun gasped. “Keep doing big, showy moves like that. We want the crowd amped up.”

He rushed Tao, not giving either of them time to catch their breath. His elbow came for Tao’s face; Tao blocked it. Joonmyun managed somehow to turn Tao’s grip on his elbow around, and then Tao was yanked off-balance, his weight forced downwards as Joonmyun’s knee drove upwards and directly into his gut.

It was a lot of force - a lot of force - and Tao by now could tell that on someone who was not him, it would be debilitating. For him, though, it was only pain, and he twisted as he overbalanced, tangling his legs in Joonmyun’s and toppling them both to the floor. He forced Joonmyun under him and pinned him down, rearing back with a balled fist.

“Dodge,” he whispered, and waited until he saw which way the tendons in Joonmyun’s neck were going to tighten before he threw the punch. As he’d hoped, Joonmyun threw his head to one side, and Tao’s punch missed Joonmyun’s head by almost nothing, crashing into the floor next to his ear.

He pulled back again and made to punch again, but Joonmyun’s face came back into the path of his fist, and in a panic he pulled back on the strength of the hit. To his relief, though, Joonmyun only deflected his hit, catching his wrist open-handed and pushing it away, then hit him with a sharp blow to the temple, strong enough to daze. And Tao could have fought through it, could have forced his body into rigidity that Joonmyun would not have been strong enough to break, but he didn’t, he let Joonmyun throw him off and rolled to his feet.

This went on for a few minutes, and quickly Tao learned all of Joonmyun’s tells, all the ways to know what was going to come next, but he kept up the balance as best he could, letting Joonmyun take as many small victories as he did himself.

It was hard to watch Joonmyun’s skin rip open under the impacts, hard to be the one dealing the blows to him, hurting him. But Joonmyun kept talking to him, quietly, reassuring him that he was doing well, that this was okay, even though Tao was pretty well certain it was absolutely not.

There was a brief moment where they were both on their feet, but neither moved forward, silently watching each other as the noise levels of the crowd reached new, deafening levels. The crowd was so loud that for the first time, Tao worried that if Joonmyun were to speak to him right now, he would not be able to hear it.

Joonmyun crossed the floor in purposeful strides, this time, rather than rushing him. Tao raised his hands between them, a vague sort of warning guard, ready to react to whatever was thrown at him.

It came as a flurry of blows, fast and hard but not at all as hard as Joonmyun had shown himself capable of delivering. A distraction, and a show, and Tao found out why when somewhere in the chaos of blocked hits Joonmyun managed to grab both his wrists and flip him hard onto the floor without letting go. Before Tao could react, all of Joonmyun’s limbs were wrapped around his own in a way that Tao would not have thought physically possible, locking his joints and pinning him.

“Let me win,” Joonmyun gasped in his ear. “Struggle, but let me win.”

And Tao thought he probably could have gotten free, if he really, really wanted to, but it honestly wasn’t too much of a lie to fake a futile struggle. Anyone else, Joonmyun would have had them, even someone considerably bigger.

Amongst the screaming and cheering from above, Tao heard the counting starting, first a few voices, then many, then all of them. He struggled, just hard enough, and Joonmyun held him down.

The count reached zero, and Tao closed his eyes, letting his body fall limp to the floor, letting everyone see he’d been beaten. The crowd fell silent in expectation.

Joonmyun untangled his body and stood up, one boot pressed to the back of Tao’s head. Tao let him, unable to do anything else but trust.

He could hear Chaerin’s voice, all but buried in the noise from the crowd. “What the hell is that guy doing? Why isn’t Tao dead?”

A deep breath, and Joonmyun’s voice boomed out into the confused crowd, as loud as he could project it. “Ringmaster!” he called.

The crowd fell silent. Tao wished he could turn over and see what was going on, but he suspected his prone, defeated form on the ground was a part of Joonmyun’s plan.

“I was promised this fighter as my prize,” Joonmyun challenged. “Will you go back on your word?”

Still more silence. Tao wondered why Joonmyun was calling this out in front of all these people, but then the crowd began muttering, then calling out to Joonmyun or to the unseen ringmaster, and then screaming and chanting, and Tao abruptly understood why. The ringmaster, the person up at the top who hurt Lu-ge and forced Tao to do all these things, they were not nice. They would have no reason to hold their end of Joonmyun’s bargain.

So Joonmyun was getting the crowd on his side. And, to Tao’s surprise, it was working.

In the distance, under the floor, Tao heard a rumble of mechanics, and Joonmyun lifted his boot off of Tao’s head. Tao got to his feet, looking around. One of the grates had opened, one Tao had not been through before.

“Go,” Joonmyun said, prodding Tao in the back. “Don’t look happy about it.”

Tao did as he said, but inside, mixed emotions had his heart feeling like it would burst.

Chapter Text

The building the tracker lead them to was large and bolted-down. It looked like a house, a mansion, in the early-millenium neo-Victorian revival style. A declaration of wealth in completely unnecessary frills.

"So what do you think are the chances that this is a legitimate home?" Minseok asked, tightening the strap of his leather gloves.

"Slim to none," Kris answered in a low growl. "Why do you think I brought you with me?"

Minseok flashed him a smile. "Ah. Smart."

"I have my moments." Kris eyed the building. "Motion sensors, cameras. Possibly automated defenses?"

"Mmm, nope." Minseok shifted his weight at Kris's side, scanning the front of the building - or what they could see of it beyond the clearly electrified fencing. "There's no ports for blaster barrels or aiming sensors. We just gotta get past the fence, then we can walk right up to the door."

Kris flattened his lips. “Think we could just blow the door open and go in to get him?”

“You sound like me,” Minseok quipped. “Unfortunately, around here that will probably draw a lot of unwanted attention. And I didn’t bring my demo kit.”

Kris crossed his arms. “Think we should just knock?” Then he sighed, and answered his own question. “No, not before we know what we’re walking into.”

He looked around, maybe trying to find someone to ask about the house, but Minseok had his tablet out instead, orienting it to the house and the position of Kyungsoo’s tracking dot inside. He started walking down a side-street, not waiting for Kris to follow.

Kris did follow, of course. “You got something?” he asked.

“Just wanted to check out the kid’s position,” Minseok murmured. He glanced around, knowing they were being a little bit obvious about casing the house, but he didn’t see anyone watching them. “He’s in the second floor in the back corner, look.”

They crossed the street and worked their way around the outside of the fenced-in yard - an actual yard, what a fucking useless waste of good land - until they were as close to that room as they were going to get.

“The windows are barred,” Kris growled. “And they’re the only ones.”

Minseok took a deep breath. “They’ve got him in there as a pet, haven’t they?” he guessed. “No other reason for them to have one bedroom with barred windows.” He’d seen it before - they both had. Rich fucking assholes who bought up the pretty people from the trafficker lines and used them until they wore out.

The sickest part of “pet owners” was that they thought of themselves as better than the traffickers they purchased from. Some of them - most of them - had actually deluded themselves into thinking they were saving these people, saving them from backbreaking labor or fighting rings or forced prostitution. And sure, being a pet was somewhat less tortuous than the other usual fates of a captive, but that didn’t make it less evil.

“He isn’t moving,” Kris noticed, voice tense.

Minseok eyed him. “He’s probably sleeping,” he pointed out. That was 90% of what Kyungsoo did when Minseok was watching him, anyway.

“Kyungsoo!” Kris called. Not shouting, but loud, loud enough that Minseok winced and looked around warily.

The dot on the screen moved closer, and a moment later a familiar pale face appeared at the window. Blue eyes widened in surprise.

“Thank fuck,” Kris muttered. Then, louder, “Are you injured?”

He wasn’t moving as if he was injured, but to Minseok’s surprise, Kyungsoo nodded. He tilted his head, gesturing at his neck. There were red marks stark against his pale skin, burns in a fractal pattern that stemmed from the leather and steel collar around his neck.

“Shit,” Minseok breathed. “That’s a fucking shock collar.” He would know the distinctive, fractal pattern of a shock burn anywhere.

He saw it whenever he took a shower.

Kris actually snarled under his breath, like an animal. “We’re getting him out of there,” he declared. “I don’t care if we have to shoot our way in.”

If Kyungsoo heard that, or had any thoughts on the subject, he didn’t get the chance to try and communicate them. Something had him looking over his shoulder, and the way his body went tense and he hurriedly dropped the curtain told Minseok that someone had come in.

Evidently, Kris had come to the same conclusion, because he was already striding towards the building. Unholstering his blaster, Minseok set his jaw and followed.

Overloading a civilian, personal-grade electric fence with a pair of military-grade blasters was the work of a moment. The circuit blew out, and Minseok grunted in satisfaction, putting his gun away.

“Help me up,” he requested, and Kris didn’t hesitate, lacing his fingers together and holding them down by his knee. Minseok stepped into his hands and pushed up to grab the top of the fence and roll over to the other side. He hit the ground just as Kris left it, leaping straight up to catch onto the top of the high fence and push himself up and over as well.

“If they have anything resembling security,” Kris murmured, “they know we’re coming.”

“Let them know,” Minseok growled back, drawing his gun again. The memory of the agony of repeated shock torture danced through the back of his mind, taunting him. There was a very good reason the crew of the Phoenix never employed shock control on prisoners, no matter what.

Kris shot him a completely unhumorous grin. “See? This is why I brought you, and not Joon.”

They marched right up to the back door of the house and blasted it down.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Finding Luhan was easier than Sehun expected.

The hard part was getting onto the top floor. At first, Sehun couldn’t even find the staircase up; then he found one, but the door only opened from the staircase side so he couldn’t go through it.

So he lurked against the wall, close enough to be in reach of the door but far enough away to blend in with the crowd. It took a while - thirty nervewracking minutes - but eventually, someone did come down the stairs and open the one-way door.

Sehun stretched out one long leg and caught the door with his foot before it could close.

He waited, glancing around to make sure the man who’d gone through the door was too far away to see, and that no one else was looking. Then he pulled the door open and headed up the stairs.

The top floor was far less crowded, which made Sehun nervous that he was standing out too much, but he tried to act like he belonged as he walked the circle. Half of the top floor had rooms like theater boxes instead of just a railing, so Sehun went that direction, figuring it was his best bet.

He wasn’t wrong. Through the window into the biggest box, Sehun spotted a blond head, a slim body kneeling on the ground. It was definitely Luhan, because that was Jongin’s old hoodie he was wearing, the one that went missing a few weeks back that Jongin had blamed Sehun for losing in the wash. And though the hoodie obscured Sehun’s view somewhat, he could see there was something that looked an awful lot like a collar around Luhan’s neck, and that he was actually chained to the ground, the heavy composite chain too short for him to be able to stand.

Sehun kept moving, passing the window with his heart in his throat. Too wary of what might happen if someone realized he wasn’t supposed to be up here, Sehun resisted the urge to call Joonmyun or Jongin on his tablet right then, and instead kept moving until he found a pillar to lean against, where he could see the door to that box clearly but was not very obvious unless someone was looking right at him.

Once settled, he pulled out his tablet, and typed a message to Joonmyun and Jongin.

I found Luhan. I’m standing just outside the room where he’s being held.

A long pause. Joonmyun was probably embroiled in whatever his plan was, so Sehun was not expecting an answer from him, but after a few minutes he felt his tablet vibrate and pulled it out to find a notification from Jongin.

Good. Stay there. I’m probably a half an hour from your location.

So Sehun waited, leaning against the pillar as nonchalantly as he could, fiddling with brainless games on his tablet so that it wouldn’t look like he was watching the booth. No one gave him a second glance, which was reassuring. They probably assumed if he was up here, he was supposed to be.

It was a very long half an hour. He could hear the announcer introducing the next fight, and the slightly muted roar of the crowd, but he couldn’t see the fight itself without crossing to the other side of this level, so he had no idea what was going on.

Quickly, it became clear that something was going on, because not a single person passed him for a full ten minutes, and the noise of the crowd was both deafening and rather shocked-sounding. Sehun almost considered trying to find a vantage point where he could see both the door he was watching and the ring below, but before he could move to change locations, his pocket buzzed again.

Okay, I’m outside. Got you on the tracker map. You’re on the west side of the building, facing away from the street. There’s a VIP-only entrance back here.

Sehun pulled up the tracker map, and sure enough, there was Jongin’s dot, one story down from him and just on the other side of the wall. Holding out his tablet to orient himself, Sehun looked in Jongin’s direction, and realized there was a keycard elevator right there.

I think you’re in the right place, he typed back. There’s a VIP elevator. Keycard operated. I bet it drops off right at that entrance.

He glanced up quickly while waiting for Jongin to respond, but the door had not budged. Maybe, if he was lucky, Luhan would stay in one place until Joonmyun was done with whatever he was doing.

A buzz. Yeah, the door is keycard, too. Bet I could get it open, given enough time.

Some days, Sehun really, really appreciated Jongin. I don’t think we’re going anywhere soon, he replied.

As he was closing out of the messaging app, Sehun noticed on the tracking map that Tao’s dot had moved. He was down in the ring, now.

And so was Joonmyun.

“What the fuck…” Sehun looked around, trying to determine if there was a place up here where he could see both the ring, and the door. Nothing immediately jumped out at him, but Sehun started moving anyway, dividing his attention between the door behind which Luhan was held, the hallway in which he would have to not run into people, and the tracking app, on which he saw two little dots swirling around each other in a way that made him beyond nervous.

Eventually, Sehun found his spot. Right at the edge of where the boxes and the open railing met, he could stand at the back corner of the last box and see most of the ring, while still just barely able to keep the door in the corner of his vision.

He looked down in time to see Joonmyun drag Tao to the ground and pin him brutally.

From up here, Joonmyun looked like a tiny, frail thing. And Tao’s thrashing was violent, but Sehun knew - knew - that if Tao wanted to be free, he would.

It was an act. It had to be. Sehun wasn’t at all sure exactly what purpose the act served, and the idea of Joonmyun going into the fighting ring on purpose made him feel queasy, but it was the only thing that made sense.

The crowd began the countdown. Sehun glanced back at the door, but there was no movement, of course. There was no movement anywhere. Everyone’s attention was on the combatants in the ring.

The count reached zero, and Sehun inhaled sharply, fear spiking through him even though he knew perfectly well Joonmyun had no plans to kill Tao.

Joonmyun stood up, and the crowd hushed, clearly confused.

“Ringmaster!” Joonmyun called, his voice echoing off the high ceiling, the steel walls. Sehun blinked, watching as a number of people on the first and second levels turned to look at the VIP booths. Specifically, at the booth in the center.

The booth where Luhan was held.

“I was promised this fighter as my prize. Will you go back on your word?”

Sehun had no idea what was going on, but his heart felt like the double-bass drum of a heavy metal revival. He wondered if Luhan could hear it from his precarious position only a few dozen lengths away.

The crowd started to yell, to chant, but Sehun lost track of what was happening, because out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a door opening.

“Shit!” he hissed to himself, under his breath. No one was paying any attention to him, so he took a step further behind the wall and picked up his tablet to call Jongin as he watched two large men, armed and clearly ready to fight, leading a chained and unsteady Luhan across the hall and right to the keycard elevator.

“Sehun, what?” Jongin said as the door closed behind them.

“They’re moving Luhan,” Sehun hissed. “In the elevator and headed your direction. I lost sight of him.”

Colorful, muttered swearing. “Fuck, okay. I got this. Get back to Joonmyun, go!” He ended the call, and Sehun watched his dot move away from the building.

Sehun had an idea that he did not want to be anywhere near this floor when the drama downstairs ended and people started pay attention to their surroundings again, so he booked for the fire-escape door on long strides, taking the stairs three at a time. This stairwell only went down one floor, so that’s where he went, watching on his tablet as Joonmyun and Tao’s dots left the ring.

Just as he was pushing into the crowd, his tablet buzzed in his hand. A message from Joonmyun, one word.

Outside

“Fine with me,” Sehun muttered, and headed for the exit.

It took a few minutes, as the crowd was excited, agitated, chattering on and on about the fight they just witnessed, and who was that little guy, and what do you think he wanted with Tao, and I can’t believe the ringmaster let him go. As he shoved his way through the throng of people, Sehun caught snippets of theories - that Joonmyun was an agent for a rival fighting ring sent to poach the talent, that they were estranged lovers, that they were aliens, or, most worryingly, that the ringmaster wasn’t really planning to let them go, and that assassins were going to kill them both before they left the building.

Hoping against hope that that last one was not true, Sehun finally managed to free himself from the building, glancing around him warily as he crossed the street and ducked into a tiny side alley. He opened up his tablet, and found, to his immense relief, not one, not two, but a full three tracker dots converging on his position.

Jongin reached him a few moments before the other two did. He was alone.

“Luhan?” Sehun asked.

“Loaded into a rover and taken off the premises,” Jongin said shortly. “I managed to toss my tablet in the cargo bay as they were leaving. We can track it.”

“Good thinking.” They looked up to see Joonmyun entering the alley, one hand locked around Tao’s wrist and his tablet out in his hand. He was bloodied and bruised, his clothes ripped up.

Jongin blinked. “Shit, hyung, you’re a mess.”

“Sorry,” Tao whispered, sounding cowed. “I’m really sorry.”

Sehun let out a long breath. So his experience hadn’t changed that part of Tao, anyway.

That was good.

“Well,” Joonmyun said as he peeled off his black cloth mask, his hands a little shaky and his face pale. “That’s one down. Two left to go.” He held out his tablet to Jongin. “Do the tracking thing. Sehun, get this guy back to the Phoenix.”

Tao turned to him. “But Lu-ge -”

“We’ve got him, Tao. We’re going after him right now. Go back to the ship with Sehun and wait for us there, okay?” Tao didn’t look happy about it, but he nodded. Joonmyun looked between them. “You two have to watch each other’s backs, got it? Don’t buy or take anything from anyone. Do not let anyone take you anywhere. Do not eat or drink anything. Don’t even speak to anyone if you can help it.”

It was an indication of what he’d been through, Sehun thought, that Tao did not seem surprised by any of this slightly alarming advice. Instead, he only nodded along, his face uncharacteristically solemn.

Jongin held Joonmyun’s tablet up. “Got it, hyung.”

“Okay.” Joonmyun clapped both Sehun and Tao on the shoulders. “Take care of each other.”

“Hyung,” Sehun said worriedly, “are you sure you’re okay to go with him? I could go. You look…”

Freaked.

But despite his pale skin, the blood still oozing from multiple scrapes, Joonmyun shook his head. “No. This is not up for debate, Sehun. Get Tao to safety.” He jerked his head at Jongin. “Come on.”

They took off together, Joonmyun’s strides quick to make up for Jongin’s longer ones. Sehun watched them go worriedly.

“Sehun, I’m sorry.”

Sehun looked back over his shoulder. Tao was staring, watching him from under dark fringe, his eyes large and sad-looking. He pursed his lips. “You ran away,” he muttered, his heartbeat starting to race again, for different reasons this time. “You crippled the ship, left us to die, and ran away.”

Tao cringed. “I didn’t want to,” he whispered. “Lu-ge told me to.”

“Yes, and look where that got you,” Sehun shot back, waving an arm at their surroundings. “I told you, no one is always right.”

Warm, hard arms wrapped around him, yanking him close and squeezing him tight. “I’m sorry,” Tao breathed into his neck, on the verge of tears. “I know that now. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to leave you. Please don’t hate me.”

Like an overfilled helium balloon with a slow leak, Sehun deflated, all his anger and fear and confusion and betrayal seeping out of him. He curled his arms around Tao’s back, turned his head to bury his face in Tao’s neck.

“I don’t hate you, Tao,” he murmured. “I was worried. I don’t hate you.”

Powerful hands clenched into Sehun’s jacket. Sehun heard some of the stitching rip, and couldn’t find it in himself to care. “But...you saw me,” Tao whispered, wrecked and pitiful. “You saw me hurt that man. Kill him.” His shoulders were shaking. “They just stop, Sehun. When you kill a person, they stop. They cease. I didn’t know...How can someone just cease?”

Oh fuck. Fuck everything. “It’s okay, Tao,” Sehun said, more strongly than he believed, because no, it was very definitely not okay. “It’s okay. You did it because you had to. Because you were protecting Luhan. Right?”

Tao nodded against Sehun’s hair. “I could hear him scream,” he whispered.

Shit.

Shit.

Sehun squeezed Tao as hard as he could manage. “Joonmyun and Jongin are going to save him,” he asserted. “He’s going to be okay. You’re okay, and Luhan is going to be okay, and Kris and Minseok went after Kyungsoo, so he’s going to be okay too.”

“Okay,” Tao whispered. “Okay, Sehun. I believe you.”

“Good.” Sehun pulled back to look Tao in the face. There were tears streaming down his cheeks, and Sehun distantly realized he was not much better himself. He cupped Tao’s jaw in his hands, ran his thumbs over the tear tracks in a rather pathetic attempt to staunch the flow. “Don’t run away like that again, okay?” he found himself saying. “I was really scared.”

Tao nodded, his quivering lips attempting a firm, determined set and failing. “I won’t,” he promised. “I’ll never leave you again.”

The words rang in Sehun’s ears in a dangerous, too-exhilarating way, and before he could think the better of it, Sehun leaned in and kissed Tao hard.

Tao made a small noise, his grip on Tao’s shoulders tightening to painful levels, but he didn’t pull away. Eventually, Sehun was the one to pull away.

“I should not have done that,” he said dazedly.

Tao blinked. “No,” he agreed. “Do it again.”

He leaned, and Sehun met him halfway, tilting his head so their lips fit together more naturally this time. Tao’s lips were blazing hot, soft and full, and when Sehun moved his mouth just a little, Tao immediately repeated the motion back, and oh, that felt so good. Too good.

In an act of extreme stupidity brought on by adrenaline and the total weirdness that Sehun’s life had devolved into, Sehun brushed his tongue softly against the seam of Tao’s lips. Tao squirmed, whining softly into Sehun’s mouth. One of his hands came up to cup Sehun’s face, and he tried a little tongue of his own, licking out a little bit, tentative.

Gasping, Sehun broke away and stared at him.

“Did I do it wrong?” Tao asked, wide-eyed and concerned.

Sehun patted his cheek. “No, Tao, you’re fine,” he murmured. I’m the one who’s a fucking mess. “Let’s get back to the ship.”

He pulled away, intending to give himself a little breathing room, some space to think about his intensely stupid life choices. To his surprise, though, Tao caught his hand, entwining their fingers.

“Joonmyun said we have to protect each other,” he explained, when Sehun gave him a questioning look. “The bad people separated me from Lu-ge and Soo. I won’t let them separate me from you.”

“Oh,” Sehun said, sounding dumb and not caring. He was possibly also blushing, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care about that, either. It wasn’t like Tao was going to make fun of him for it.

So instead, they started out into the street, side-by-side. And though Sehun should have been concentrating on keeping his eyes open for any possible threats, all he could really think about was how much he liked the way Tao’s fingers felt between his own.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

"At least this port is slightly less shitty than the last one," Baekhyun muttered as they locked Angel behind them and stepped out onto the docks.

"And it's got the prices to match," Jongdae grumbled, coming up to meet them. "We're set for a few hours," he explained, indicating the dockmaster's office behind him. "Hopefully we won't need more than that."

Yixing ignored them, looking around himself. "This place is government-owned, isn't it?" he guessed. The clearly-labelled, uniform signage in Core blue and silver was a dead giveaway.

"Yeah. So be careful where you put your fingers, Nurse Lay," Baekhyun snarked under his breath.

Taking a deep breath, Yixing ran his thumb over the ever-so-slightly-wrong-feeling Dermitex on his pointer finger. Baekhyun was snotty about it, but he was right. The wrong fingerprint in the wrong place could bring the Core police down on their heads.

Yixing put his hands in his pockets and followed Jongdae down the dock. "So who is this person we have to meet?" he asked. Jongdae had just gotten off a call with Luna and Amber when Yixing had woken this shift, with an update on their contact and also on the location of the Phoenix. The ship they were chasing had stopped at a cluster, slightly off-track from their projected destination. Yixing had no idea why, and he didn't particularly care, since it was buying them more time to find this mysterious technology and figure out how to use it.

"His name is Dr. Cho Kyuhyun," Jongdae said as they exited the docks and headed out into the street. "He's a former cybernetics scientist at the facility. Apparently he's active on the conspiracy boards, as well, which tells me he has a fucking death wish. But if he can tell us what we need to know, great." He glanced around himself. "So long as we don't get shot in the process."

Yixing pursed his lips. "I've had a target on my head for four weeks now," he grumbled. "Frankly, I'm getting used to it."

The rendezvous point was a very open, very public outdoor cafe, and Dr. Cho himself was already seated at a corner table, his back to the wall of a building. Yixing only knew it was him because Jongdae pointed him out - apparently he'd received a description of what Dr. Cho would be wearing from Luna.

"Doctor Cho," Jongdae said brightly as they approached the table. "Good to see you again."

Cho was a lanky man about Yixing's age, perhaps a bit older, with shaggy dark hair and shrewd eyes. He stood to greet them with a guarded smile.

"Good to see you guys again as well," he said as they all took a seat, as casual and familiar as Jongdae. "I was surprised to get your message. What can I help you with?"

Yixing opened his mouth, but Jongdae kicked him under the table to shut him up. “We need to get across the system fast. We...thought you might have a solution.”

An eyebrow. “As fast as humanly possible?”

Jongdae leaned on the table. “Faster.”

Doctor Cho hummed, sitting back and tucking his hands into the pockets of his jacket as he pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I’m not sure how much help I can be to you,” he said after a moment. “I know you’re aware of who my former employer is. I’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement, the highest level. I’m afraid any help I might have been able to provide is covered under that agreement.”

His stomach sinking into his toes, Yixing leaned forward. “I’ll pay you anything,” he hissed. “Anything you want, I’ll get it.”

Dark eyes flicked to him and narrowed. “I know a little bit about your circumstance,” Doctor Cho murmured. “And I’m really very sorry. But my hands are tied. Metaphorically, at the moment, but I’d like to keep that from becoming literal. I can’t help you.”

He stood, and Yixing stood as well, ready to leap across the table and sit on him until he gave in. A grip on his elbow held him back - Jongdae.

“We understand that,” Jongdae said. “Thanks for coming to meet us anyway.”

A half-smile. Doctor Cho extended a hand. “Not a problem,” he said, as Jongdae took his hand and shook it. “I wish you all the best of luck in your endeavors.”

He walked away, and with him went all of Yixing’s internal organs, leaving him feeling empty and hollow and defeated.

“Fuck,” he whispered.

“Keep it together, Xing,” Jongdae muttered. “Let’s get out of here.”

Yixing growled in protest. “We can’t just - ”

“Doc,” Baekhyun interrupted him, his words almost soundless and his mouth barely moving, “please shut up. We’re being watched.”

Closing his mouth, Yixing looked around. He didn’t see one single thing out of the ordinary - but then, he didn’t know what he was looking for.

Yixing let Jongdae lead him out of the restaurant before pulling his arm out of Jongdae’s hand. The walk back to Angel was short and tersely silent, and Yixing managed to keep from exploding until the ship’s hatch was closed and locked behind him.

“Shit!” he yelled, both fists coming down on the metal wall. The jolt reverberated up his arms; he paid it no heed. “What a fucking waste!”

“Calm down, Xing, we’re not out of this race yet,” Jongdae said. Yixing looked at him, and Jongdae brought something out of his pocket and held it up.

A stick drive.

“Oh damn,” Baekhyun said in admiration. “Did he slip you that?”

Jongdae nodded. “Luna said she thought from the way his answers to her had changed that he thought he was being monitored. I was expecting that he wouldn’t be able to give us the information outright.”

Yixing gaped at him. “Why didn’t you say something to me?!” he snarled.

“Because you had to act naturally,” Jongdae said. “And because I like seeing you freak out.” He grinned. “Come on, let’s see what we’ve got.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When he heard the door open and dropped the curtain, Kyungsoo was really, really hoping it was the old man again, come to bring him tasty food and talk to him quietly and touch him in a way Kyungsoo could bear, if he didn’t think about it too much.

Unfortunately, it was not the older man. It was the younger one, and he had an unfriendly smile on, and as he shut the door behind him and advanced, Kyungsoo backed away, wondering if it would do him any good to call for help.

He quickly decided against it. He didn’t think it would be a good idea to make this younger man angry, and anyway, Kris was coming to save him.

Kyungsoo held onto that thought when the younger man grabbed him by the collar of his too-loose shirt and pulled him in for a rough, angry kiss, his other hand grabbing at Kyungsoo’s butt in a way that made him want to jump and squeal.

Kris is coming.

He kept thinking it when the man sneered and pushed him to his knees, fisting a hand painfully in his hair and growling, “Time to earn your keep, boy.”

Kris is coming.

The man’s cock was hard in his pants. Kyungsoo had never seen a hard cock this close before, save his own. He had no idea why the man was showing it to him. Wasn’t that something you were not supposed to do? Kyungsoo had thought that was something you were not supposed to do.

“Suck,” the man commanded.

What? Kyungsoo blinked. “I don’t understand,” he murmured hesitantly.

The man yanked his head back and slapped him hard across the cheek. “I said fucking suck me off, you stupid little dickmonger. Do your goddamn job.”

Kyungsoo put a hand to his own cheek, feeling the heat from the sting radiate.

Kris is going to save me.

“What, are you really that challenged? Let me spell it out. Open my pants. Take out my dick. Put it in your mouth.”

Kyungsoo stared at him in confusion and shock, trying to keep his disgust at the idea off his face and probably failing. “No,” he said.

The man hit him again, harder.

Kris, help me!

Kyungsoo was still reeling from the blow when the man started undoing his own pants with his free hand. “Fine, little fucker. Hold still.”

Once he realized - in a big, ugly image in his head - what was about to happen, Kyungsoo did not hold still. Kyungsoo squirmed, reaching up to try and wrench the man’s hand out of his hair. He had a tight grip, and it felt like Kyungsoo could not get free without leaving all his hair in the man’s hand.

He was seconds away from doing exactly that when the door opened. Surprise made the man’s grip loosen, and Kyungsoo quickly twisted away, slipping free and only losing a few strands of hair in the process.

Kyungsoo got to his feet as fast as he could and quickly backed away as Kris descended on the man like a meteor. The punch he threw was fast enough that Kyungsoo almost didn’t even see it, and strong enough that it knocked the man all the way to the ground.

Kris stomped his booted foot down right into the man’s crotch, grinding with all his strength as the man screamed in pain. Horrified but also a little fascinated, Kyungsoo could only watch as Kris leveled his blaster at the man’s face.

“Give me one good reason not to murder you right now,” Kris snarled, utterly furious.

“What the fuck, man!?” the younger man wailed. “Who the fuck are you? I wasn’t even doing anything wrong!

Kris’s face twisted. “Wrong answer.”

He pulled the trigger, blasting the man right in the face. The man jerked, then went still.

Kyungsoo had seen death once before. There had been a child, his brother, four hundred and twenty-three cycles younger than Kyungsoo. Taekwoon. Something happened to him when he was very small, and he died. Kyungsoo hadn’t known what that meant, so Xing-ge had sat with him next to his brother’s tiny, still body, and rubbed his shoulders, and explained the cycle of life, how fragile it could be.

At the time, Kyungsoo had felt immense sadness. Grief, Xing-ge had called it. He’d felt sad that he would not watch Taekwoon learn and grow, sad that his tiny body had betrayed him, sad that all his potential was gone forever.

But as Kyungsoo stood and watched the pool of blood from the man’s destroyed face spread and seep into the carpeted floors, he didn’t feel sad at all. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, exactly...but grief was not it.

“Kyungsoo. Hey. Don’t look.” Kris stepped over the body, putting himself in between it and Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo tilted his head back and looked at him, taking in the concerned lines between his eyebrows and the downward turn of his lips.

He reached forward.

His brothers, or Xing-ge, or Chanyeol, would have understood his wordless request and obliged it. Frankly, though, Kyungsoo expected his plea to go unanswered in this case. Kris had touched him a few times before, but he’d never held him.

To his surprise, though, Kris didn’t hesitate for a second. He pulled Kyungsoo close, wrapped his arms around his back, and held him. Kyungsoo buried his face in Kris’s chest and just...held on.

Kris didn’t ask him if he was okay. Kyungsoo appreciated that, because he didn’t think he knew the answer.

Finally, though, Kris did speak. “We need to go,” he murmured. “We need to get you out of here and off this shithole planet.”

Kyungsoo looked up. “Tao and Lu-ge got taken away from me,” he said, his words rushed.

Kris nodded, his lip twitching into a shadow of a smile. “I know,” he said. “The others are out there getting them back right now.”

Relief slammed into Kyungsoo like gravity coming back after weightlessness. Tears jumped into his eyes unbidden, and he ducked his head back against Kris’s chest to hide them.

“Whoa,” Kris murmured. “Hey. It’s okay.” He squeezed Kyungsoo tightly. “Kill a man in front of you, and nothing, but you break down when I tell you we’ll get your brothers back,” he murmured. “I like how you think.”

Kyungsoo might have giggled, but it was hard to tell through the tears. “I don’t want to be here,” he whispered. “Can we go?”

Another hard squeeze. Kris’s hands felt very big on Kyungsoo’s shoulders. It made him feel sheltered, like curling up in the canopy bed did. And it was probably as much of a lie, but for right now, Kyungsoo was not going to think about that. Being under constant watch on the Phoenix was infinitely preferable to this place.

“You tell me,” Kris said. “What’s the trigger for that collar? Can you walk out of here?”

Oh. “The doorway,” Kyungsoo told him. And then something else occurred to him. “Ah! The man, the other man. The older man. He bought me Diazepam. I need it.”

Long fingers ran through Kyungsoo’s hair. The softness of the touch felt impossible after the pain of the bad man’s hands. “Then we’ll find it and take it with us,” Kris promised. “Here, let me see that collar.” He leaned back a little to take a look, careful fingers manipulating Kyungsoo’s head and neck without touching the still-sore burns. “Damn, it’s a fingerprint lock,” he muttered. “Any idea who would have locked it?”

Kyungsoo guessed he knew exactly who. “The older man,” he said. “He said this was his place, and that he found me, so I was his.”

Kris’s lips pursed, holding back anger. “I’ll go find him,” he said. “Stay here. Don’t...don’t stare at the body.”

He left, and Kyungsoo felt the lack very much like a chill. Being alone in the room made him restless, nervous, but there wasn’t anything he could do about it, so he climbed onto the bed and pulled the blanket up so he couldn’t look at the body on the floor, and he waited.

Eventually, Kris did come back into the room. “Soo?” he asked softly, and Kyungsoo sat up, untangling himself from the blankets. “I found the Diazepam.” He held out the bottle for Kyungsoo to take.

Hesitantly, Kyungsoo took it from him. Kris was...giving him the medicine? Letting him hold it? Dispense it to himself? That had never happened. Someone else had always told Kyungsoo when to take his medicine, and how much. Someone else had always held the bottle.

“How long will that last you?” Kris asked.

Kyungsoo looked at the label and did the math. “Five weeks and two days,” he murmured.

“Good enough. Here, let me see that collar.”

Bending his head, Kyungsoo saw Kris take something out of his pocket, something he kept hidden in his broad palm so Kyungsoo couldn’t see it. He pressed whatever it was to the back of Kyungsoo’s collar.

With a beep, the collar came open, and Kyungsoo pulled it off, dropping it to the floor. He looked back, but Kris was tucking whatever it was back in his pocket.

“Let’s go,” he said.

And they went. Kyungsoo hesitated at the doorway, and Kris let him, watching from the hall as Kyungsoo gingerly reached one hand past the invisible barrier, then quickly stepped through. He held out his hand, and Kyungsoo took it, letting Kris pull him close and wrap an arm around Kyungsoo’s shoulders.

“Soo,” Kris said as they reached the stairs. “Close your eyes, and don’t open them until I say so.”

Confused, Kyungsoo looked up. “But I’ll fall,” he said.

“I’ve got you,” Kris said. “I don’t want you to see what happened down there. You’re going to have nightmares as it is.”

He took ahold of Kyungsoo’s arm in one hand to guide him, and curled the other around his head, so his broad palm was blocking Kyungsoo’s vision. Instead of closing his eyes, Kyungsoo dropped his gaze and navigated with the tiny strip he could see under Kris’s hand.

The stairs were okay. They went slow, and Kris guided Kyungsoo well. But then, on the bottom floor, Kris took him in looping curves, as if they were walking around things.

Kyungsoo realized what, exactly, they were walking around when he spotted a familiar wizened hand by his feet, unmoving, with one finger missing. After that, he shut his eyes, and just let Kris guide him.

Kris was right. Kyungsoo did not want to see.

He just wanted to leave.

Finally, after what felt like a full cycle, there was cold air on Kyungsoo’s face, and the sound of a door shutting behind him. Kris removed his hand and let Kyungsoo look around, but he kept a grip on Kyungsoo’s arm.

Kyungsoo didn’t mind that. It felt like protection as much as entrapment, and he found himself gravitating closer to Kris’s side, gripping onto Kris’s forearm. Kris looked down at him. His face was unreadable, flat, but he turned his palm over in invitation. Kyungsoo took it, holding Kris’s much larger hand between his own.

Only then did Kyungsoo notice Minseok ahead of them, opening the gate. For some reason, the sight of Minseok reminded Kyungsoo that there were people who would want to know what had become of him, what he had been doing for these past however many cycles. People like Tao, and Lu-ge, and Chanyeol.

He tried to imagine explaining it to them, and an inexplicable feeling of guilt and dread washed over him.

“Kris,” Kyungsoo blurted out, looking up. Kris blinked down at him in surprise. “Don’t tell anyone, okay? Please don’t tell them what I was...What you saw.”

Kris furrowed his brow, and for a scary moment Kyungsoo thought his request would be refused. But then, his face softened. “Okay, Soo,” he said. “I understand. I won’t tell anyone. Your secret is safe with me.”

He squeezed Kyungsoo’s hand, and Kyungsoo squeezed back, blinking tears out of his eyes.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Luhan had fully expected to dislike humanity. Everything he had read on the Core, in the history texts, and everything he'd seen and experienced interacting with people on Core sites had told him that the majority of humankind was selfish and moronic.

Nothing could have prepared him for the horror and hatred of the real thing.

When Luhan was younger, he'd questioned Yixing about their isolation. Once he'd learned there was more to the universe than just one space station, he'd wanted to see it. Xing-ge had told him the outer world was not a nice place, and that he wasn't ready for it, and possibly never would be.

Luhan had wanted to prove him wrong, but he'd failed. Spectacularly. And the 'Verse was every bit as terrible as Yixing had described.

Just once, Luhan thought, I would like to experience freedom. Just once. But clearly today was not that day, seeing as he had already been dragged from a vehicle and into yet another totally unknown but probably terrible situation. He wasn’t electrocuted this time, but the collar wasn’t taken off, either, and he was thrown into a small bedroom and locked in.

Luhan of course, immediately set about scoping out his surroundings. The lock was computerized, but without a computer of his own he couldn’t get to it; unlike the barred cells on Phoenix this door was solid, so he couldn’t reach the keypad. There were no other weaknesses immediately apparent; no windows, no vents.

At a loss for what else to do, Luhan sat on the floor. At least this time, he couldn’t be used against Tao. He thought - he hoped - that Joonmyun and Sehun had gotten Tao out of there. They must have found Tao using the tracking chips; Luhan hoped they could find Kyungsoo as well.

Tao and Kyungsoo being taken back to the Phoenix was better, right? Better than this planet. Especially if Luhan stayed behind, was never found. Then Kris couldn’t complete his mission anyway, so maybe he’d just...let them stay?

Luhan shook himself. Wishful thinking. Kyungsoo and Tao were probably still in danger from Kris, just as much as from the people on this planet.

Maybe.

Probably.

Not that it mattered, since Luhan was probably never going to see them again.

Chapter Text

Alone on the ship, and with nothing to do while they were docked, Chanyeol tried his best to keep busy and not think about what his husband and his friends were doing out there, what danger they might be in. He finished the plan Sehun had laid out, activating a low-level white noise throughout the ship, and since Kris had told him what he’d figured out about the kids moving behind the walls, he re-set the entire security system so that the gaps between the walls were covered by the heat or motion sensors.

Five hours in, he’d made the ship as genetically-engineered-teen-proof as he could, and then finally got his first good news.

“I’ve got Tao,” Sehun said over the calling app. “Jongin and Joonmyun have a bead on Luhan, they’re going after him.”

“That’s great,” Chanyeol breathed. “Is Tao okay?”

“Depends on how you define ‘okay’,” Sehun muttered. “He’s walking and talking, so that’s something.” A sigh. “We’ll be back in half an hour.”

The next call came from Joonmyun, about fifteen minutes later. “We tracked Luhan down,” he said. “It looks like since they had no more use for him, they sold him to a whorehouse. Jongin’s going in.”

A whorehouse. Shit. “Any chance you can get him out of there before he’s forced to take a client?”

“That’s what we’re hoping. I’ll keep you posted.”

He hung up. Chanyeol’s first instinct was to call Kris, but he knew better than to try and call in the middle of a job; the distraction might come at the worst possible time and Kris likely would not answer anyway.

To his surprise, though, there was a text message waiting that must have come in while he was on the call with Jongin. It was Minseok.

Got the kid. Looks like it was bad. Kris is doing damage control so I’m driving us back. See you in an hour or so.

Relief made Chanyeol’s knees give out, and he sank into the pilot’s seat, staring at the message. It was bad? How bad? In what way? Minseok hadn’t said either of them were hurt, so Chanyeol hoped they weren’t, but they could be. But they were both alive, and probably okay. Right?

What happened to Kyungsoo? What ‘damage control’ could Kris do?

Almost as quickly as he sat down, Chanyeol got back up and headed for the engine room. If he just sat here and thought about all the possibilities, he was going to drive himself right out the airlock.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Since docking at the Core port was actually more expensive the cost of than fuel to idle - and since there was a chance that someone on that planet might get suspicious of them if they stayed too long - Angel took off from the planet and parked in orbit around the equator while they figured out what was coming next.

The moment they were stable enough, Yixing unstrapped himself and made his way forward to lean on the back of Jongdae's chair. "Open it up," he demanded.

Jongdae looked over his shoulder. "Xing, you really gotta learn some manners," he said, reproachful.

Yixing sighed. "Please hurry up and open it?" he asked, forcing his tone into something more pleasant.

"Well, that's a slight improvement, at least," Baekhyun muttered, as Jongdae rolled his eyes and plugged the stick drive into the console. There were dozens of files on there, but one of them was titled readmefirst so that's what they did.

I'm sure I was probably very rude when I gave this to you. Sorry. I realized they were watching me soon after L contacted me the first time. Had to follow the rules. You understand.

In any case, maps of the facility are included. The location of the thing you need is marked on file 3-G. The location of the research that has been done on the thing you need is marked on file 2-J. And a thing you will probably need in order to get into the area where they're holding the thing you need is marked in file 7-A.

I would be more specific, but I can't be sure this won't fall into the wrong hands. You understand.

Good luck. -CKH

"That's unhelpfully unclear," Baekhyun grumbled.

Yixing ignored him, leaning over Jongdae to reach the control pad. He started flipping through the files, familiarizing himself with their contents. Maps, yes, but some of the files were not maps. Archival lists. Security policies.

"He's all but handed us a plan," Yixing muttered in surprise. "All we need is to put the pieces together and wrap it in a pretty bow."

Jongdae looked up at him. With Yixing stretched over the chair, his face was rather unexpectedly close. "How do you figure?"

Yixing blinked. "Um." He turned back to the screen, feeling a little warm. "Well, he's told us we're going to need something to get into the section with the...thing." He squinted. "We should probably figure out what the Thing is called."

Baekhyun snorted. "Nah, that can wait. Keep calling it the Thing. Has a nice ring to it. Mysterious."

"Okay, sure." It didn't really matter, anyway. "So the Thing is kept here," Yixing said, bringing up document 3-G and pointing at the spot marked in red. "It's pretty clearly in a high-security area, look." Sweeping his fingers over the control pad, he zoomed out to show the surrounding area, with a very clearly defined security wall. "There's only one way in or out of here, and entrance requires a miosic retinal scan."

"Really?" Yixing looked back down at Jongdae. "Retinal scans are easy to defeat. All you need is a printed contact lens that matches a person with access." His catlike lips curled up at the corner, disdainful. "Some super-secret government facility this is."

"No," Yixing said. "A miosic retinal scan. The scanner will be looking for a constriction response in the pupil in response to a bright light, as well as scanning the retinal pattern. Specifically created to defeat a static, printed contact lens." He started clicking around again, opening file 7-A and looking up the item number marked in red in the archival list. "And Doctor Cho's already figured out how we can get past it." He pointed at the list. "Augmented reality photo-receptive display lenses."

"What?" Baekhyun asked.

But Jongdae got it. "Contacts that can project an image?" he asked. "A digital image?"

"An idea proposed long ago that we never could quite find the right solution to. Bet you anything those prototypes use materials derived from alien sources." Yixing worried at his lip. "But someone wearing a pair of those, if they had the right programming, could theoretically walk right into the high-security area. And a whole lot more."

"If I'm reading that list right," Jongdae muttered, "it looks like they have a couple dozen prototypes."

"Considering the fragile nature of contact lenses, I'm not surprised," Yixing said thoughtfully. "They probably wouldn't miss three pairs...at least not right away."

Jongdae sat back. "So we're looking at a two-stage plan," he thought out loud. "One person goes in alone, gets past the first stage of security, gets the contacts, gets a scan of an authorized retina, gets out. We figure out how to program the contacts. Then, all three of us go in, use the contacts to get past the higher level of security, get the Thing and a copy of the research on the Thing, and get out."

"Crude and incomplete, but it's a start," Yixing acquiesced. "I'll go in to get the lenses."

"No you won't," Baekhyun said immediately. "I'll do it. That's a high-security government facility; if you get half a smudged fingerprint in the wrong place the entire building will probably lock down."

Yixing sneered at him. "You can't do it, you'll attract just as much attention! Or did you miss the part of the maps that indicated that this is a space station."

As Jongdae looked between them in confusion, Baekhyun pursed his lips angrily. "I'll be fine for the couple of hours it will take to do the job."

"But what if you're not?" Yixing argued. "What if you have an attack while you're in a room you're not supposed to be, and someone hears you? What if you're immobilized by coughing at a critical moment?" He shook his head. "As your doctor, I forbid it."

"You're not my fucking doctor!"

Honestly! "Since you refuse to go see one, I bloody well am," Yixing snapped back. "Look, if you would take my advice and use the steroid compound to combat the effects, I might be convinced."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," Jongdae jumped in, pressing his hand to Yixing's chest to get him to lean back so he could see Baekhyun. Yixing did so, huffing in annoyance. "What's this about steroids? Baek, what's he talking about?"

Yixing didn't wait for Baekhyun to answer. "The steroid compound you already have in your medicine cabinet is a short-term bronchodilator. If he takes one right before he leaves, it'll help keep his airways clear during the mission. No obstruction, no discomfort, no coughing and choking at inopportune moments." He eyed Baekhyun. "But he's too stubborn to take the advice of a medical professional."

"How do I know you're not fucking with me?" Baekhyun asked.

Affronted, Yixing opened his mouth to respond, but Jongdae put his hand back on Yixing's chest, stopping him. "He's a doctor, Baek," Jongdae said. "Doctors don't just fuck with people for fun." Baekhyun gaped, and Jongdae rolled his eyes. "Take the damn pill, Baek, it won't hurt you. And if it helps your condition, so much the better."

Baekhyun's mouth snapped shut. "Only if I can go on the solo mission," he bartered. "I don't trust Doctor Strange to do it and we all know I'm a smoother talker than you, Dae."

Yixing narrowed his eyes, wondering why Baekhyun was really so adamant. But Jongdae was already nodding. "Deal."

Fine. Whatever. "Now that that little dick-swinging contest is over, can we get down to actually figuring out a plan?" Yixing asked.

"Please do not swing your dick," Baekhyun sniped. "Maybe Dae wants to see that, but I do not."

"Baekhyun," Jongdae said with terrible patience, "don't make me ground you."

To Yixing's great relief, Baekhyun shut up.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Getting into the brothel was easy. All Jongin had to do was scan his fingerprint; when the system verified that he had an active bank account, the door opened for him.

Much more difficult was actually getting to Luhan. Jongin had been in a hurry to get inside for fear that Luhan would be given to another customer before he could get to him, but it seemed he’d jumped the gun, because now he was out in the customer showroom, with a dozen eager whores plying their trade in his general direction, and no Luhan in sight.

He found an armchair in the corner and sat down to watch the room, trying to make it look like he was just choosy and not like he was looking to rob the place. From the other side of the room, Jongin could see a security guard eyeing him, but he hadn’t made a move in Jongin’s direction yet so Jongin kept his eyes on the entertainment and tried to keep an amused smirk on his face.

That lasted for all of three minutes, before one of the girls came right up to his chair, swung a leg over his thighs and dropped right into his lap. “Hi, handsome,” she breathed, all enticing smiles and stale perfume. “What’re you doing over here all alone?”

Jongin flashed her a shield of a smile. “I’m indecisive,” he murmured. “And I’m sorry, but you’re not my type.”

An exaggerated pout. “I could be,” she whined. “C’mon, don’t push me away.”

Jongin looked up at her, looked closer. There was something tired and a little desperate under all that eye makeup.

“Look,” he said softly, “I’m not looking for a woman tonight. But if you want to keep me company for a little while, I won’t say no.”

The woman’s caked-on smile softened and faded, hidden from sight from the rest of the room. “Just for a little while,” she purred, but she sounded relieved. Jongin wondered how many customers she’d already served today, and how many more she was expected to take before the night was over. Judging by the way she sagged in his arms when he wrapped them around her back, probably more than he wanted to think about.

“Since you’re being such a sweetheart,” the woman said, getting comfy on his lap, “want to tell me what you’re looking for tonight? Maybe I can make a recommendation.”

Jongin hummed, thinking fast. “I’m not sure, exactly? Someone different.” Right, that was real specific. “Someone...fresh. New to the scene. Like...really new.” The urge to specifically name Luhan’s features - blue eyes, blond hair - was strong, but with Jongin’s luck they’d already have another blue-eyed blond-haired boy working there, or they’d slap some contacts and a wig on one.

The woman eyed him. “Someone to play virgin, maybe? Sweet and innocent?”

Well, shit, she’d just handed him the perfect opening. “Maybe not sweet, but...a virgin. An actual virgin. Yeah...that sounds perfect.”

He sounded like a creep, and he knew it, but the woman didn’t seem too terribly fazed by it. “There’s always fresh faces coming through here,” she said thoughtfully, shifting a little in his lap. “I can see if there’s a new boy today.” She leaned down. “Gimme a kiss, handsome. Big Brother’s always watchin’.”

Jongin obliged her, leaning up to kiss her waxy lips and giving her a little squeeze, because she was right - the security guards were still eyeing him, and she was as much a cover for him as he was a respite for her.

But then she left, an exaggerated, eye-catching sashay across the room which Jongin locked his eyes onto as if he was actually interested. Then, he was alone again.

It wasn’t long before someone else came up to take her place, someone more insistent and pushy. Jongin politely declined, three times with increasing firmness, before she got the hint and flounced away. Then there was a man, a rather large man who was even less Jongin’s type than the women were. He had some trouble taking no for an answer, seeming to think that he could change Jongin’s mind through sheer tenacity. Then, when that clearly was not working, he decided that he was going to change Jongin’s mind by sucking his cock, and Jongin had to physically push him back, get out of the chair, and walk away, feeling rather queasy.

The queasiness only got worse when the door to the back opened and the first prostitute came back leading Luhan behind her by the hand. Jongin’s breath caught, and he allowed his eyes to go wide, though not for the reasons the woman probably thought. Luhan had been dressed in nothing but a small, sheer black tank top and tiny baby-blue briefs the exact color of his eyes. It showed off a body that was frankly more masculine than Jongin would have expected, but the dull despair in Luhan’s downcast eyes wiped away any fleeting thoughts of anything else.

As he crossed the room, Jongin felt sick, but he did everything in his power to hide it, to appear eager and lustful, to convince the room that Luhan was exactly what sort of toy he was looking to play with tonight.

“Thank you,” he said to the woman, and meant it. “He’s perfect.” He reached out for her hand first, scrolling through the options on the locked smart-bracelet around her wrist, choosing blowjob and paying with his fingerprint. It was a bribe - she would never see the money, but it would count towards her totals tonight, giving her some extra leeway to relax between customers. The best he could do for her.

She took it for what it was, and winked conspiratorially before sauntering out into the fray again, leaving Jongin with Luhan, who still had not looked up.

“Luhan,” Jongin murmured, almost voiceless. Luhan flinched, but still didn’t look up. So he had recognized Jongin after all. Taking his wrist, Jongin flicked his fingers over the screen on his bracelet. He was higher-priced than the woman was, with a big flashing notification that he was UNTOUCHED!!!

Lovely.

Jongin paid for two hours, because he didn’t think it would take that long but he wanted it to be a bit before anyone came looking, and then tugged on Luhan’s wrist.

Luhan didn’t budge.

“Come on,” Jongin said quietly. “We have to go.”

Still, Luhan did not move. And he was very solid about it, rooting himself to the spot, so Jongin didn’t think he could force him without making a very big scene. Getting nervous now and ever-wary of the security guards still eyeing him, Jongin put himself in between Luhan and the closest guard, wrapping his arms around Luhan’s waist to disguise their discussion. Luhan immediately stiffened.

“Don’t touch me,” he snapped, quiet but sharp.

“I don’t have a choice,” Jongin muttered back. “And if you would just come with me, then I could stop pretending I wanted into your non-existant pants and we could figure out how to get you out of here.”

Luhan’s jaw muscle jumped visibly. “I don’t want you to save me,” he hissed.

“Too fucking bad,” Jongin snapped back. “I’ve paid for you, and I am not walking out of here without you.” He pinched Luhan’s side, hard. “Move it.”

Huge blue eyes glanced up at him, betrayed, but Luhan finally did move, letting Jongin lead him into the back hallway and into an unoccupied bedroom. The moment the door was closed, Jongin let him go, and Luhan yanked himself away, putting as much distance between himself and Jongin as possible.

Jongin sighed. “I’m sorry, Luhan,” he murmured. “I won’t touch you again. But I need you to work with me. If I’m not out within the hour Joonmyun will be storming in here after me, and believe me when I say none of us want that.”

No answer. Luhan crossed his arms and didn’t look up, didn’t engage him at all. Huffing, Jongin came over to him. Luhan flinched, but Jongin didn’t touch him - only the bracelet around his wrist.

“We need to get rid of this before anything else,” he muttered. “It’ll have a tracker in it.”

“It’s password locked,” Luhan said. “Voice recognition.”

Jongin glanced up at him. “What, you don’t know how to crack a voice lock?” Luhan’s lips pressed flat. “C’mere, look.” He tilted his tablet towards Luhan. Luhan clearly was trying to ignore him, but his eyes gravitated to the screen. “It’s not much different than cracking a character password.”

He started explaining how voice recognition software worked, how it broke down sound into components that acted like characters, and that like written passwords there were certain common combinations and patterns that could narrow the range of possibilities, all the while showing him how the console on the tablet could be used to get into the device wirelessly and test all the possible combinations, in order from most to least probable.

“It’s not playing the sound combinations out loud?” Luhan asked, his curiosity betrayed in his voice.

“No, that would take too long. The sound components are translated into strings of code in the back end; it’s testing those.” He handed Luhan the tablet. “Here, this is going to take a bit to run. I’m going to see if I can figure out our next step.” When Jongin went to the door, Luhan tried to follow, but Jongin stopped him. “If you leave the room while that’s still on, it’ll trip an alarm. Just wait.”

He left the room, closing the door quietly behind him. This hallway was semi-open to the public, which meant there was probably no direct exit from here; but there was a Staff Only door.

Jongin put on his most clueless face and walked right through. Another hallway, and some offices, a dressing room and some stairs Jongin wasn’t very interested in. There was also a kitchen, which was a good possibility, so Jongin sauntered in, looking around exaggeratedly.

“Hey, man, you can’t be in here!”

Jongin held up his hands. “Sorry, I was just looking for a restroom,” he said hurriedly. There was an exit, in the back left corner. Judging by the grey concrete visible through the tiny window, it lead out into a parking lot or an alley.

One of the cooks came over and - politely - strong-armed him back into the public hallway, but Jongin had seen what he needed to see. He ducked back into the room Luhan was in.

Luhan glanced up at him, a flash of blue eyes quickly averted. “It’s done,” he said, holding out the opened bracelet.

“Leave it on the bed,” Jongin said. “You didn’t run away?”

Luhan didn’t look at him. “I was going to, if you didn’t come back.” Jongin chuckled. Luhan finally glanced up at him again. “Are we leaving now?”

“Let me call our backup.” He held his hand out for the tablet. There was a moment of frozen hesitation, but then Luhan held the tablet out.

The call to Joonmyun was quick. “I need a distraction,” Jongin asked. “A loud one.”

“Can do. Give me five minutes.”

“Thanks, hyung.” Hanging up, Jongin switched to the tracking app so he could keep an eye on Joonmyun’s position.

“Tell me your plan,” Luhan asked suddenly.

Shrugging, Jongin said, “Easy enough. Loud noise causes confusion. We slip out the back door. Anyone in our way gets stunned.” He reached behind himself, pulling out the blaster that had been hidden under his jacket at the small of his back. “I saw uniform lockers in the kitchen, so we’ll grab you some pants on the way out the door. Here, take my hoodie.” He pulled said garment off his shoulders and handed it to Luhan.

Luhan took it, his movements hesitant. “The one I took from you is still upstairs,” he murmured. “In my cell.”

Jongin’s stomach did a weird little flop. “Don’t worry about it,” he reassured Luhan. “Let’s just get you out of here.”

The hoodie was oversized on Jongin, and Luhan was a little smaller, so it fell down past his hips. He pulled up the hood, burrowing into the fabric until there wasn’t much visible beyond a pale nose and luminescent eyes.

They waited in silence for a moment, awkward. Jongin watched Joonmyun’s dot circling the building on the screen and wracked his brain for anything he might be missing.

“Jongin,” Luhan abruptly said. Jongin looked up - he’d never heard Luhan speak his name before. “The Phoenix isn’t safe for me, but...it’s better than here.”

Jongin had the feeling that was the closest thing to a thank you he was ever going to get.

“You’re welcome,” he said. Luhan nodded.

A loud explosion echoed through the walls. Ushering Luhan ahead of him, Jongin ran.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kris barely managed to get all the way out of the land rover before Chanyeol came barrelling out of nowhere and slammed into him. This was not unexpected, though, so Kris just braced himself and caught his lanky husband in one arm, instinctively angling his body to shield Kyungsoo, still clinging against his side, from the impact.

“You’re okay,” Chanyeol mumbled into Kris’s neck.

“Mostly,” Kris muttered. Chanyeol ignored the quip and kissed him hard, one hand cupping the back of his neck. Closing his eyes, Kris let himself sigh once into Chanyeol’s mouth, tension leaking out of him at the touch of his husband’s hands.

He felt movement, and broke apart from Chanyeol to see Kyungsoo tugging on Chanyeol’s shirt. He held out his hands, and Chanyeol immediately dragged him into a tight hug. Kris let them have their moment, pulling away to close the rover door behind him and pretending he didn’t notice how both Chanyeol and Kyungsoo sighed in relief, how their body language curved into one another.

“I’m sorry, Chanyeol,” Kyungsoo said softly, his words barely distinguishable against Chanyeol’s shirt.

“Hush,” Chanyeol chided. “You’re back now. It’s okay.”

Right, as if all their problems would just magically disappear in the face of togetherness. Kris held back a snort and kept his expression turned away for a moment. Chanyeol’s unendingly positive outlook was one of the reasons Kris had married him, but some days Kris found it difficult to believe someone could really be that naive.

Kris spotted Sehun and Tao up on the catwalk and motioned them down into the cargo bay, leaving Soo to Chanyeol for the moment. Tao was in skin-hugging leather pants that looked a lot like something Kris would have worn to go hunting for a hookup pre-marriage, and he wouldn’t let go of Sehun’s hand. Kris decided not to ask - he’d get the full story in the reports later, anyway.

“Tao, are you hurt at all?” he asked as the two young men approached. Tao shook his head. “Good. Did that project ever get done?”

Sehun nodded. “Chanyeol finished up the last of it while we were gone,” he said. “I just tested it, too. Tao says he can’t hear more than two rooms away.”

Kris eyed Tao. “Are you lying?” he asked.

Tao met his eyes squarely. “I can’t lie,” he pointed out. “I don’t know how.” And Kris would have called bullshit on that, except everything he’d read in the research station’s drive so far indicated that was absolutely the truth, and also that of the three, Tao had the best hearing of all, so if it worked on him, chances were good it would work on the other two.

“Okay,” Kris said. “I need a report on the mission in my box by the end of the shift.”

Sehun nodded, but Tao cocked his head. “Me too?” he asked. His face was very earnest.

Hiding his amusement, Kris kept a straight face and nodded. “You too, Tao. Start with why and how you slipped away from Sehun.” He didn’t really care if Tao wrote one, but if he did, it would probably be informative, at least. He didn’t wait for an answer - or for Sehun to stop gaping - he just went back to the gangplank.

“I’m going back out for a few minutes,” he announced to the room at large. “Might as well restock while we’re here.”

“Don’t you dare,” Chanyeol said instantly. “You’re not going back out there alone.”

Swinging himself back up into the rover, Kris jabbed a finger in Kyungsoo’s general direction. “You stay with him,” he ordered. “He’s had a shittier day than both of us put together. I’ll be fine. If you don’t hear from me in an hour, then you can send a search party.” He glanced at Minseok. “I need a report from you, too, just for the record. And message me immediately if you hear from Joon or Jongin.”

“Kris?”

Kris looked back at Kyungsoo. “What, Soo?”

Big, nervous blue eyes met his. “Do I have to write a report?”

Shit. Thinking fast, Kris said, “Only if you want to. If you don’t want it written down, you can report to me verbally in private later.”

Kyungsoo nodded, looking relieved. Kris shot him a half-smile and started the vehicle, backing out of the ship to the sound of Tao asking Sehun why Kyungsoo got to report verbally when his had to be in writing.

Despite Chanyeol’s worry, shopping was uneventful. Kris was openly carrying two loaded blasters and a loaded scowl and nobody seemed to care to mess with him. He purchased food, and supplies, and fuel enough to make up for that which they’d burned fixing Luhan’s mess, all without incident.

And it was all stuff they needed, of course, but frankly, that wasn’t why Kris had decided to go alone. He needed time to think, and mindlessly browsing shelves or waiting for workers to load up the rover was just the time he needed. Something was bothering him, and it had taken him until just these last few minutes to pinpoint what it was.

Too many members of the crew were hurtling past the point of no return with their attachment to these kids. Kris had known it was happening, but he hadn’t really realized how deep it went until he saw the way Kyungsoo and Tao were clinging to Chanyeol and Sehun. He knew fully well how traumatic events could forge deep bonds between people - Joonmyun and Minseok were a textbook perfect example.

But the job still had to be completed. That came before anything else - before the prisoners, before his crew member’s opinions of him. Even before Chanyeol’s opinion of him.

Because he was already pretty sure that finishing this job was going to finish his marriage, too.

It didn’t matter. Kris was going to complete this job if he had to do it all by himself, and he knew that it could very well come to that. So be it. Nothing else mattered.

With that thought like a lead weight in his chest, Kris returned to the ship.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Sehun had seen Tao interact with Kyungsoo before, so he wasn’t really sure why it took him by such surprise when Tao stopped mid-sentence to yell “Lu-ge!” and rush over to the gangplank. Luhan did not jump into Tao’s arms the way Kyungsoo usually did, but he did allow Tao to hug him. It was weird to think Tao was the younger of the two - he stood half a head taller than Luhan as was at least that much broader through the shoulders.

Also, his ass looked fantastic in leather. Sehun tore his eyes away and looked at Jongin instead, because that was much safer. But he didn’t get a chance to ask anything he wanted to ask - what happened, did you get to him in time, is Luhan okay - because a horn sounding had them hurriedly clearing the gangplank as Kris drove the rover back into the cargo hold.

“Good, you’re all back,” Kris said as he swung himself out of the high driver’s seat and dropped to the ground. “Everyone get over here, I’ve got some shit to say.”

Curious, Sehun did as he was told, gravitating automatically to Tao and Jongin and Luhan. To his surprise, though, Kris came over and grabbed both Tao and Luhan by the shirt sleeves, leading them away from the others, to where Kyungsoo already stood.

Within moments, it was Kris standing next to the prisoners, and the entire crew opposite, facing them. The crew exchanged glances - confused, intrigued, nervous, unsure.

“Okay, listen up,” Kris said, his voice snapping like a whip across the mostly-open space. “We’ve all been through one hell or another in this past week. It’s been shitty. You guys are basically the best damn crew I could ask for. So I don’t want to say this, but it needs to be said.”

He pulled out both his blasters, letting them dangle at his sides, an unspoken threat. Sehun stiffened in shock, and all around him he felt the others do the same.

“Kris?” Chanyeol asked, sounding lost.

From this distance, in the overhead light, Kris’s eyes were black and hard. “The shit we’ve been through this week, the shit we just went through today. None of it changes anything, do you understand me?” He jerked his head at the three young men standing around him, looking just as confused and nervous as the crew. “These boys are still prisoners. We are still taking them to Sola. We are still completing this job.” He took a deep breath. “And anyone who can’t handle that, get the fuck off my ship right now.”

A flash of Joonmyun risking his life - his freedom - in the ring to save Tao danced behind Sehun’s eyes, and he was stepping forward, words tumbling out of his mouth before he could stop them. “You can’t be serious,” he said. “You can’t really still be planning to -”

Kris brought his blaster up between them, pointed right at Sehun’s chest. Sehun tensed - and he saw Tao do the same, his hands raising, ready to tackle Kris to the ground to save Sehun.

Sehun stopped advancing, not because he really thought Kris would shoot him, but because he was afraid of what would happen if Tao thought so.

“I am very definitely still planning to,” Kris snarled. “So can you fucking stomach it, Oh Sehun? Are you going to be able to stand next to me when I let someone lead Tao away in chains?” The image hit Sehun very hard, right in the gut. Kris saw his reaction, and his lip curled. “I’m giving you the chance to walk the fuck away, kid. You don’t have to be a part of this, but if you don’t walk away now, you better be prepared for the consequences. Because if you try to stop me from finishing this job, I will kill you.

Fuck. Fuck. The inside of Sehun’s head was nothing but a litany of fuck fuck fuck because what the fuck was he going to do about this?

He couldn’t imagine letting Tao go. Not on purpose. None of them had any idea what their client actually wanted with the kids - or, actually, who the client even was - but there was basically no chance it was for something good.

But if he walked away right now, he would be leaving Tao behind. And not only would that lead to the same conclusion - just without him there to possibly stop it - but Tao had just promised he would never leave Sehun.

Silently, Sehun promised Tao the same, right there.

He held up his hands. “I’m with you, Captain,” he murmured, lying through his teeth. He took a step backwards, standing again between Jongin and Joonmyun.

“We all are,” Chanyeol said softly. “Kris, baby...put the gun down.”

Slowly, Kris did exactly that. “I’m serious, you know,” he said, less angry and more tired. “There’s a transport ship three docks down. Legit, not trafficker, I checked. You want to walk off this job, any of you, now is your chance. I won’t hold it against you.” His lips flattened out to nothing. “Don’t force me later to choose, because you are not going to like my choice.”

No one said a word, but no one moved, either.

Finally, someone broke the stillness - of all people, Kyungsoo. He stepped up to Kris’s side and wrapped his arms around Kris’s waist, burying his face against Kris’s chest.

Any fight left in Kris leaked out of him, leaving him looking drained and sad. Chanyeol made a small noise and crossed the room in long strides, wrapping both of them in his long monkey-arms.

Kris pressed his forehead to Chanyeol’s shoulder. “Get out of here, Yeol,” he whispered. “Don’t do this to yourself.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Chanyeol murmured back. “Don’t suggest it again, or I’ll get angry.”

They stood there for a while, silent.

Joonmyun got Sehun’s attention. “Go prep the engine pods for takeoff,” he murmured. “Take Tao with you.” Sehun nodded shakily and did as he was ordered, gesturing for Tao to follow him.

As they left the cargo bay, Tao said, “Maybe you should have left.” Sehun glanced at him. “Maybe it would have been better.”

“Is that what you want?” Sehun asked.

Tao stopped, and Sehun did as well, letting Tao take his hand.

“No,” Tao admitted. “I’m glad you stayed.” His bright eyes dropped to Sehun’s lips. With his heart in his throat, Sehun leaned forward, an invitation.

Tao took it, closing the distance and pressing a soft kiss to Sehun’s mouth.

“I hope I did the right thing, Tao,” Sehun whispered against his lips. “I hope I did the right thing.”

Chapter Text

Tao was terribly confused, and he didn’t like it.

As soon as they were back in space, Kris had come down to the drive pod room and led Tao away from Sehun. He’d taken Tao to an empty room and sat him down on the bed.

"Unless I say otherwise," he said, "you will remain here for all of Beta and Gamma shift, every cycle. You may only leave this room during Alpha shift, and only if Minseok, Joonmyun, or I are with you."

Tao frowned. "But -"

"Don't argue with me. And I'm setting up the systems so if you set foot outside this room without permission, an alarm will blare and wake up the entire ship. You understand me?"

"But Sehun -"

Kris held up a finger. "Stop thinking about Sehun. Don't try to contact Sehun. You'll see him sometimes, at meals perhaps, but you're not to spend any time alone with him ever again. Is that clear?"

It was clear, but Tao didn't understand why. "Did I do something wrong?" he asked softly. "Was I bad?"

Kris didn't answer him, his brow furrowed and mouth set. "Just do it, or else." He left the room without another word, leaving Tao upset and confused.

Was this because of what he had done on the planet? Did Kris somehow know? Tao was already dreading having to make a report, having to find words to string together to explain what he had done, but Kris was already punishing him and he hadn't even written anything yet. What would he do when he found out everything?

What would Sehun do when he found out he wasn't allowed to see Tao?

What was Tao going to do now, if he couldn't see Sehun anymore?

Tao tried to call for Lu-ge, to ask his advice, but that buzzing that Sehun had asked him about earlier filled his mind like a cloud and make it too hard to differentiate sounds. Disheartened, Tao looked around the room.

It was set up much like Sehun's, small and square, with a cot, a refresher cubicle, and console. Tao tried to access the console, but it asked for his passcode, and Tao didn't have a passcode. Lu-ge would have made it let him in without one, but Tao was not Lu-ge.

He didn't want to be stuck here, all alone, for twenty out of every thirty hours.

Plopping heavily on the cot, Tao tried to see the positives, the way Jinki-ge on the station had always taught him. At least this room was bigger than both the cell in the brig he'd first been locked into, and the tiny grey room where he was kept when he wasn't in the ring. It was also warm, and the cot was soft and had blankets and pillows, and he had an actual refresher instead of having to reserve one smelly corner for waste.

And Kris wasn't asking him to do anything terrible, like hurt someone. Kris wasn't threatening to hurt Lu-ge if he didn't behave. So that was an improvement.

Still. Kris said he couldn't see Sehun. Tao had a hard time imagining a worse punishment than knowing Sehun was so close, and not being able to see him, talk to him, touch him, make him laugh. Well, Jinki-ge had always taught him to look for the positive, but Xing-ge had taught him to never give up. He would see Sehun again, somehow.

He wasn't brave enough to try right away, though. Not so soon after Kris explicitly told him not to. Kris's strict expression and firm tone felt like chains holding him down - it was going to take real courage to break that, and right now, Tao was very sad, and very tired.

He ended up laying down and falling asleep for a while, not waking until there was a knock at the door some indeterminate number of hours later. The lights along the floor were still green, so he must not have slept for too long.

The knock came again. "Tao? Can I come in?"

It was Joonmyun. He was...asking? As if this room belonged to Tao?

No one had ever asked permission to come into Tao's space before.

"...Yes?" Tao guessed.

The door opened, and yes, it was Joonmyun. "Hey, kid," the man said, closing the door gently behind him. "How are you holding up?"

Tao looked around, trying to figure out what Joonmyun thought he was holding up. "Um..."

A chuckle. "I mean, how do you feel?"

Oh. "Physically, or...not-physically?"

Joonmyun came over to the bed and sat down next to him. "Not-physically."

Tao pursed his lips. He'd been hoping Joonmyun was asking after his body, because that was a lot easier to talk about than what was swirling in his mind. "I feel..." He took stock for a moment. "Uneasy."

"Considering the day you've had, I can't say I'm surprised," Joonmyun murmured dryly. "Do you want to talk about it?"

Wary, Tao eyed him. "Talk about what?"

"About the ring."

Oh, Tao thought again. And then...oh. He met Joonmyun's eyes, and saw in them a deep understanding of what Tao had experienced.

"I...I don't know if I want to talk about it," Tao mumbled. "I don't really want to think about it."

Joonmyun smiled, but it wasn't happy. "That's fair," he agreed. "Is it okay if I talk to you about it a little, then?"

Tao nodded, because he was pretty sure he didn't actually have a choice, but also because he was curious. Joonmyun smiled again, the same way, and dropped his eyes, looking at his hands instead of at Tao.

"Six years ago," he began, "through a series of unfortunate circumstances, I found myself in a ring like that one. I was there for over fifty cycles."

Fifty. That was so many. Tao himself had only been slave to the ring for perhaps five, and it had felt like forever.

"Minseok was there with me," Joonmyun said. "And others, other friends, crew members. We were sold to the ring and left to die there, but not until after..." He cut himself off and started again. "There were four of us, at first. One didn't make it through his first week. The other three of us, we got further. And then Minseok was forced into the ring, to fight against our friend."

Eyes wide, Tao tried to imagine being in the ring, and watching the other gate open to reveal someone he knew, like Lu-ge, or Sehun. His heart twisted up and shuddered at the very thought.

"What did he do?" Tao asked.

Joonmyun did not look up. "He fought for his life, and he won," he murmured. "He killed our friend, our crewmate, because his other choice was to die."

"That's terrible," Tao whispered.

A nod. "Yeah." He bit his lip. "We dreaded the day we would be pitted against each other, but it never came. I was purchased by someone else, sent away for...a different purpose, and eventually Kris found us, and he saved us both. That was when he started using the trackers, so he’d never lose track of his crew again." He sighed. "But when I saw Minseok again, he was...different."

Tao cocked his head. "What do you mean?"

Finally, Joonmyun looked up, meeting Tao's eyes. "Tao...when you kill someone like that, when you...when you murder someone. It's hard to deal with it, right? Knowing that you're the reason someone else no longer exists?"

Hearing it said out loud, put into words, made Tao's twisted-up heart feel black and sour. "I didn't have a choice," he whispered.

A small, rough-calloused hand touched his. "I know, Tao," Joonmyun said very gently. "No one in the ring has a choice. I'm not putting blame on you."

Okay. Tao took a deep breath. "It's very hard," he admitted. "Even though I didn't have a choice, I can't help but feel like I could have..." He trailed off. "Something. I don't know what. Something." He blinked back tears. "The first one, the woman, she told me, make it quick. She...she wanted it to be over. I didn't understand that then, but now, now I do." He turned his hand over, hoping Joonmyun would take his hand, the way Sehun would. "If you hadn't come...if no one had come for me, I might have..."

"Given up?" Joonmyun finished for him.

Tao nodded. "Yeah. I only kept going because they said, if I died, they would kill Lu-ge."

Joonmyun did take his hand then, squeezing his fingers. "I'm sorry," he said.

Shaking his head, Tao said, "No. Don't be sorry. I don't deserve..." He bit his lip and stopped speaking. Joonmyun waited silently until he finished his thought. "Doing...that. Killing. It got easier." His brow furrowed of its own accord. "How could it get easier?"

Joonmyun's other hand came up around Tao's back, gentle fingers tracing soothing patterns. Tao arched into it, desperate for the connection. "Tao, when you kill someone, you have to come to terms with it. And you can do that a couple of ways." He sighed. "Minseok, he came to terms with it by making it a part of himself. He looks in the mirror now and he thinks, I kill people. I am a killer. And it's become a part of who he is. Not the only part, not the biggest part, but it's a part he knows, and understands, and accepts."

Tao looked at him in shock, trying to understand that, to come to grips with it.

"Me, on the other hand," Joonmyun said, "I'm the opposite. We lived through the same experience, but when I look in the mirror, I say to myself, I am not a killer. I am not a murderer. I have done those things, but they are not who I am. Do you understand the difference?"

Tao nodded, but, "How can I say that to myself?" he asked. "It's not true. I...did that. I killed people. Several people." He shook his head. "I can't lie."

"Look at me." Tao looked up. "What you have done in the past does not have to be what you do in the future, Tao. What you have been in the past does not have to be what you will become." Oh. Tao blinked, digesting that. "Perhaps I have killed is the truth, but you can still fight to make I will never kill again the truth too."

Could he do that? "That sounds hard," he muttered.

A shadow of a smile, small but more real. "It is," Joonmyun confirmed. "Believe me, it is. But please, Tao. Don't let what you were forced to do become who you are." He patted Tao's back, squeezed his hand. "You're better than that."

Tao met his eyes. "Are you sure?" he asked, in a very small voice.

"I'm sure, Tao," Joonmyun said. "Just keep your mind on that, and some day, you'll be sure too."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Waiting for Baekhyun to return or to contact them was, in a word, nerve-wracking. There was nothing worse than a solo mission that Jongdae was not on; all he could do was sit and twiddle his thumbs metaphorically and think about all the things that could go wrong.

If Yixing was as worried, he didn't show it. Rather, he was curled up in the passenger seat, curiously flicking through the information Doctor Cho had given them.

"How can you be acting so calm about this?" Jongdae finally asked, about three hours into waiting.

Yixing's eyes flicked over to him. "What good would it do me to not be calm?" he asked, as if it was that easy. "Baekhyun is the one out there on the mission. Right now, my kids' lives are in his hands. I can't change that, not now. I have to believe he will do what he said he would do. I have no other choice."

"But what if he can't?" Jongdae asked urgently. "What if something happens to him?"

Dark eyes returned to the screen. "Then we will deal with that when it happens," he murmured. "If we have to find a way in there to complete his mission and get him out, then so be it."

Narrowing his own eyes, Jongdae said, "You would go out of your way to rescue him, if he was caught?"

"Of course I would."

Of course, he said, as if it was obvious. "But you don't trust him," Jongdae pointed out.

"I also don't trust you, and yet, here I am," Yixing said dryly. Jongdae made a small, affronted noise, and Yixing's gaze turned to him again, placid. "Trust is not absolute, and you know it," he murmured. "It's not black or white. You love Baekhyun like a brother, but there's still things you would not ask him to do, not because you think it would hurt him somehow, but because you can't trust him to do them." Yixing cocked his head. "I don't trust you to always have my best interests in mind, but in this case, for this goal, I do trust that you are on my side. You would not have flown me all the way out here if you didn't want the same thing as me, at least in the short-term."

Jongdae sat back in his chair, regarding Yixing in a new light. "That's very pragmatic of you," he observed.

A shrug. "I'm a scientist."

"You're a paradox," Jongdae shot back. "You're idealistic and pragmatic, you're rude and kind, you're stubborn and you're yielding, you make no goddamn sense. You drive me nuts."

Yixing laughed, startled. "Well, the feeling's mutual," he said. "Every time I think I have you pinned down, you do something that upsets my profile. But that's life. That's people." He eyed the screen. "Baekhyun's easier than you. He'll go against me just because it's me. That's easy enough to predict." A smile. "I should have told him not to take the steroids. It probably would have gotten a better end result."

Yeah, about that. "Thank you," Jongdae said.

A blink. "For what?"

"Getting on Baekhyun's ass about his condition. I've told him to see a doctor a hundred times, but as you may have noticed, he's a stubborn little fucker. And I had no idea we had something already on the ship that could help him."

"Oh." Uninterested, Yixing went back to looking at the files again. "Don't thank me for that. I'm a doctor. I wouldn't let someone suffer if I could help, no matter who they were."

Jongdae regarded Yixing for a long moment, absently studying his handsome profile while trying to reconcile everything he had learned about the doctor, and mostly failing. "You make no sense," he said again. "But thank you, anyway."

A noncommittal grunt, and they fell back into silence.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

It was a little weird - okay, more than a little weird - for Jongin to have himself a light-haired shadow the way Sehun had previously had a dark-haired one. Tao and Kyungsoo had been taken away, banned from seeing Sehun and Chanyeol, but, as Kris put it, he didn’t trust Luhan to be left alone for even one second, not even with the extra security measures in place. So Luhan was to become Jongin’s responsibility, because as far as Kris was concerned, Jongin was the only one with a chance in hell of catching anything he tried to do to their systems.

So here they were, sitting in the cockpit together. Jongin had had no trouble speaking to him across the ship, but now that he was right there, he found talking to Luhan to be extraordinarily awkward. This was, in a large part, due to the fact that Luhan rarely answered his attempts at conversation, and never looked him in the eye. He understood, now, why the scientists had found it freaky.

“Dr. Zhang really did a number on you, didn’t he,” Jongin muttered, when Luhan rebuffed his fourteenth attempt at conversation.

To his surprise, that got a reaction when nothing else he had said did. “What’s that supposed to mean?” Luhan asked, tone sharp even if his eyes remained on the display readouts in front of them.

Jongin stared at him. “Well, I mean,” he stammered, “he didn’t really...teach you a lot, did he? He didn’t really raise you like a normal person.”

Luhan’s lips pressed flat. The expression looked a whole heck of a lot like Tao’s, when he was upset and trying to hide it. Jongin suddenly wondered if it was genetic - and then wondered if the three kids were actually genetically brothers at all.

“I’m not a normal person,” Luhan argued. “Why would Xing-ge raise me to be one?”

“Because, you…” Jongin cut himself off before he could say you freak me out. “It’s not right, what he did to you,” he said instead. “You can’t disobey, you know nothing about the ‘Verse, you’ve been so sheltered that you barely understand how to interact with people. How he created you, how he raised you, it’s criminal.”

A sneer, not pointed at Jongin but aimed at him all the same. “Who the fuck are you to decide that?” Luhan snapped. “What do you even know about how I was raised?”

“You can’t even look me in the eye when you say that!” Jongin exclaimed, exasperated.

Luhan looked up. Turned his entire body in the chair so that he was facing Jongin head-on, and raised his eyes to lock onto Jongin’s, piercing blue and furious. “You want me to look you in the eyes, fine,” Luhan snarled, his gaze completely steady, pinning Jongin to the spot. “Here I am, my eyes looking at your eyes at the same time your eyes look at mine. Does that make you feel better? Does that make you feel like I’m a normal person?”

Shit. “Luhan, I didn’t mean that -”

“You did. You meant exactly that. You meant you’re different and I can’t handle it.” Luhan’s sneer was a hell of a lot more potent facing Jongin head-on. The expression reminded Jongin rather unnervingly of a jungle cat, cold and calculating and hungry. “Xing-ge tried to get me to conform to social convention,” he said, spitting out the words like one would spit out the rotted part of an apple. “He tried for weeks. I remember it distinctly. I only came up to his waist at that time. He reminded me every time we spoke to look up, look at his face, look him in the eyes. I finally broke down crying and told him I couldn’t, because it felt wrong to me.”

Jongin didn’t have a single thing to say to that.

Luhan finally dropped his gaze. His hands were shaking. “He didn’t do anything to me, Jongin,” he said, more quietly. “But when he realized that was who I am, he stopped trying to force me, and he yelled at the scientists until they stopped, too.” He took a shaky breath. “Xing-ge has never tried to make me into something I’m not. He accepts me for what I am. So does Soo. So does Tao. But there isn’t another person I’ve ever met who ever did. So don’t you fucking say to me that he raised me wrong.” His lip curled up. “You know nothing.”

Silence, for a long time.

Jongin was still floundering for something to say to break the oppressive awkwardness in the room when Luhan said, suddenly and very quietly, “I miss him.”

Damn. Really, damn. Now Jongin felt like the worst kind of person.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

A snort, derisive. “Sorry. Sure.” Luhan’s lip lifted again. “He’s dead, isn’t he? They’re all dead. And the station is gone.”

Jongin didn’t ask how he’d worked that out. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. “Yeah. I’m really sorry.”

“Why did you do it?” Luhan asked. “Why did you attack us, kill them, take us away?”

A good fucking question, and one that Jongin was surprised hadn’t been asked yet. He wondered if Kyungsoo and Tao actually realized what had happened to them yet. He wondered what would happen when they did.

“We were under orders,” Jongin murmured, knowing very well that wasn’t an excuse at all. Truthfully, it had been easy for him, personally, to distance himself from the job. All he’d done was hack the station and get Kris, Minseok and Joonmyun inside.

All he’d done was give them access, and sat back while they did the job.

“Orders,” Luhan said. “Of course. Yet my brothers and I are the ones who can’t disobey.” Jongin winced. If Luhan saw, he didn’t comment. “Orders by who, though? That’s what I want to know.”

Jongin blinked at him. “Kris’s orders.” But as soon as he said it, he realized what Luhan was actually getting at. “Oh, you mean...who hired us? Who gave Kris the job?”

“Yes. Who wanted Xing-ge to die. Who is paying for it. Who is responsible, really responsible.” He glanced to the side. “Who is Kris afraid of, Jongin?”

Something about the way he said it made Jongin frown. “He’s just doing a job. He’s not afraid.”

A snort. “You’re an idiot if you think that. He’s terrified. And I want to know why. Who is it? Who can scare a man like that into murdering innocents and stealing children?”

He didn’t want to admit it, but the more Jongin thought about it, the less it made sense. He’d been surprised when they took this job, but had assumed it was because of the dire need for certain expensive parts. Now, though, the way Kris was acting…

Maybe Luhan was right.

“How can we find out?” Jongin thought out loud. “Where do we even begin to look?”

Luhan looked up at him, surprised. Jongin met his gaze, and this time it didn’t feel so wrong when Luhan couldn’t hold his eyes, when his gaze slipped away.

“You still have a copy of the drive, right?” Luhan said, volume low. “Let’s start there.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The hardest part about creating a plan was figuring out how to get into the station in the first place. Really, that was the only plan. Get inside. From there, Baekhyun was going to have to wing it, mostly.

That was fine with Baekhyun. He was good at winging it.

It took a full two days of observing the asteroid space-base before they figured out their way in. They actually would need two ways in, since once Baekhyun got the contact lenses and the retinal scans of people who had access, they were going to need time to figure out how to use those things together. And just to be safe, they'd wanted two different ways of entering the station, in case someone caught on to the first way.

The easiest way would have been to get themselves onto the nighttime cleaning crew that was shuttled in every night from a nearby colony. Because that would be a good choice for sneaking in more than one person, they were reserving that for the second half of the plan, when all three of them would be going in together.

So for the first part, Baekhyun had chosen a much more difficult path - actively impersonating a scientist.

Scanning and decoding secured communication out of the station had eventually gotten them the name of a scientist who was about to go on personal leave. They watched the shuttle go by, and then a call to Luna got Baekhyun's fingerprint reassigned to the name and government profile of the scientist who had left.

It was risky, and it relied on the base being large enough that security would not know this particular scientist by face, but it worked. Baekhyun called in a day later to tell security that his leave had been cancelled, and he would be returning. He docked his shuttle - the same make and model as the one the scientist had used, rented from the same nearby colony - and walked through security with his head held high and a cheerful smile, as if he knew exactly where he was going.

There was a moment of breathless fear when he pressed his finger to the identity scanner, but Luna had done her job, and the system recognized him as the scientist and allowed him access. He was in.

Baekhyun started down the hall, down the path he had memorized that would take him to where the contact lens prototypes were stored. He would get those first, then figure out how he was going to get retinal scans to use with them.

The place was huge, and busy, and bright and very sterile feeling. The air was close and claustrophobic, smelling and tasting stale and recirculated, but Baekhyun hadn't started coughing yet, so maybe Yixing's unconventional medication was doing its job after all. Or maybe this system actually had high-quality filters, and Yixing's meddling hadn't been necessary. In any case, the steroids in his system had Baekhyun feeling a little jittery, all his senses on high alert.

All too aware that his fingerprint was leaving a trail in the systems for anyone to follow if they knew where to look, Baekhyun did everything he could to confuse the system. He would press his fingerprint to the locks of doors he had no intention of going through, just to confuse things; a lovely older woman who politely held the door for him at a critical juncture absolutely made his morning because there would be no trace of him entering that doorway.

Baekhyun arrived at the archive where the contacts were stored with relatively little incident, which had him high-strung, waiting for the other boot to drop. So far, this was too easy.

The archive was empty of people, which was convenient, but not entirely unexpected since the files had indicated this particular space was used to house projects that were on hold or inactive. The particular drawer that housed his prize was password-protected, but it was hardly the first time Baekhyun had used a password-hacking program, so all he had to do was hook it in and wait nervously, hoping no one would come in before he could get the drawer open.

No such luck. Fortunately, Baekhyun had had the foresight to tuck his tablet on top of the cabinet, not immediately visible unless you were looking for it. He looked up as the scientist, a woman, entered.

She smiled at him, polite, and Baekhyun smiled back. Knowing he looked suspicious as fuck being in here without actually having any drawers open, Baekhyun started to pace, letting a natural motion move him away from the drawer he was trying to get into.

"You waiting on something?" the woman asked curiously as she went to a different drawer and entered a passcode.

"Inspiration," Baekhyun said grandly, making shit up on the spot. "I needed to think through a problem, and this place is usually quiet, so..."

"Ohh." The woman nodded, opening the drawer and pulling out something that looked a little bit like a cybernetic octopus. "Good idea. It gets so noisy in the lab I can barely hear myself speak, let alone think."

Baekhyun's smile was as easy and charming as he could make it. "Right? It's so obnoxious." He jerked his head at the cabinets. "Files are much better listeners when I think out loud, too."

The woman laughed and closed the drawer, the cyber-squid in one hand and a tiny stick drive in the other. The drawer locked automatically, indicator light turning red. "Well, good luck with your problem," she said. "I'll have to remember this the next time I'm stuck."

She left, and Baekhyun sighed in relief. "You are a master of the art of bullshit, Byun," he muttered aloud to himself.

As if in answer, the drawer behind him beeped softly, its indicator turning green. Baekhyun immediately went over and opened it. Inside, in neatly organized little compartments, were more than a dozen contact lens cases, each with a prototype number, a universal stardate, and a corresponding stick drive labeled control.

Baekhyun grabbed the three most recent prototypes and their control sticks and tucked them all in the pockets of his slacks, letting his costume lab coat drop over his hips to disguise the oddly-shaped bulge. He closed the drawer, let it re-lock, tucked his tablet away again and left the room post-haste.

One objective down, one to go.

Moving through the halls with false purpose and no direction, Baekhyun considered his options carefully. They were operating under the assumption that a high-security facility would have a safeguard against the same pattern being used to access the space twice in a row, to guard against exactly what they were doing. So, they couldn't all just share one iris scan. He had on his tablet a program that would take a few seconds of video at the highest resolution human technology had created; he needed somehow to get three different videos of the irises of three different authorized individuals constricting in the face of a bright light. He'd practiced the action of filming on Jongdae and on Yixing, and he could start the video, trigger the camera's flash to force pupil constriction, and save the video in the span of a few seconds.

He just had to identify three people with access and find an excuse to shove a camera in their faces. It would probably require him to be obnoxious but also charming enough that said people thought he was harmless, and didn't think too much about what could be done with a recording of their face.

This was why he'd wanted this job for himself - neither Jongdae nor Yixing had a chance in hell of pulling it off.

Well, the first thing he had to do was figure out who had access to the secured area. There was probably a list somewhere in the systems, but Baekhyun was no hacker, not when it required more work than hooking up a tablet and touching go. So he'd have to go a more direct route.

Baekhyun found a directional sign to the high-security area and started walking, head held high, like of course he belonged here. No one stopped him or questioned him, despite the fact that he felt like he had a neon sign over his head screaming INTRUDER.

The second he spotted the retinal scanning station, he stopped and backtracked, back around the corner. In that one-second glance he'd seen that this hallway was the only approach to that station, so this was as good a place to set up his trap as any. Anyone who came from that direction would be coming out of the secured area.

Apparently, though, there was not a lot of traffic in and out of that space, so Baekhyun stood there with his tablet out in his hand, ready to literally pounce on anyone coming around the corner, feeling more and more conspicuous as time went on.

Finally, finally, he heard voices, and footsteps. Multiple people? That was perfect, maybe he could get all three irises in one video!

The moment he saw motion, he stepped out, stopping the scientists in their tracks. It was only two, a man and a woman, and they were pretty clearly arguing something so far over Baekhyun's head that he wasn't even sure what language it was in.

"Smile and wish our Fearless Leader a happy birthday!" Baekhyun said brightly, holding the tablet in their faces and turning on the recorder.

"What?" the man said, but the woman was quicker on the uptake.

"Oh! Um, happy birthday, Commander Kwon!" The woman flashed a smile, and Baekhyun flashed the light, causing them both to blink. The woman elbowed her companion, who grunted, then repeated the sentiment, with considerably less cheer.

"Perfect!" Baekhyun said, not bothering to hide his glee. He stopped the recording and dropped the tablet. "Thanks for your time!"

He moved past the two of them, hoping fervently that they would just keep moving, would not think about it further. And it seemed like it worked, because when he reached the corner, he looked back over his shoulder, and they were already all the way down the hall, back to arguing over whatever.

Okay. Two down. He only had to get one more person, and then he could get the hell out of here.

In hindsight, he should have just cut his losses and left at that moment, but of course, hindsight could see what foresight could not. He had no way of knowing the person who would next come around the corner would be the same woman he'd spoken to in the archive, and that she would recognize him.

"Oh," she said, as Baekhyun stuck the tablet in her face. She reached up and covered the camera with a hand, eyeing him with suspicion. "You again? What are you doing here?"

Baekhyun smiled at her in his most charming fashion. "Filming a birthday greeting for Commander Kwon!" he said. "Won't you participate?"

She didn't move her hand, and her narrowed eyes were making Baekhyun nervous. He wondered if he could force the tablet out from behind her hand, but decided against it, since it wouldn't work if she wasn't looking directly in the lens anyway.

"Commander Kwon's birthday isn't for almost half a year," she said, "and most of this base doesn't know that name anyway. Let me see your badge."

Baekhyun felt his smile falter. "I, uh, forgot it today."

A nod. "Uh-huh." The woman took two steps backwards and pressed a button on the wall. "I need security down to Level Three," she said into the mic on the wall.

Whoop. "Bye!" Baekhyun called, and took off down the hallway.

The clatter of heels told him the woman was following, and while running, Baekhyun was far too suspicious, so the moment he turned a corner and was out of sight-line, he ducked into the first door that would open, a maintenance closet. A simple trick, but it worked - the woman ran right past him and kept going, giving Baekhyun just enough time to slip out again and sneak back the way he came, moving quickly but not running so as to avoid suspicion.

Two security guards ran right past him, down the hall and back towards where the encounter had been. Baekhyun knew he probably had only seconds before his double-back was figured out and the entire place was put on lockdown, so he pulled out his tablet and quickly called out to Jongdae.

"I'm going to need extraction," he murmured. There was no way he was going to get out the way he came now, not when someone could recognize him by face. "Loading docks, five minutes or less."

"On it," Jongdae said, and Baekhyun ended the call.

The freight elevator fortunately responded to his fingerprint, so his false identity hadn't been discovered just yet, and the men in there already were workers, not scientists. They gave him no trouble, clearly used to assuming the scientists had reasons to be wherever, and Baekhyun got down to the dock without issue.

He went right up to the most official-looking man on the dock, the one holding a tablet and making a face like he was sucking a lemon. "Hey," he said cordially, "I need to get some rock samples to use in a test. Can I take a rover?"

The man grunted, angling the tablet towards him. "Sign it out," he said, bored.

Perfect. Baekhyun pressed his fingerprint to the tablet, breath held as he waited for it to be accepted. It was, and he was handed an ignition starter and pointed at a closed-top rover.

The front tires were literally on the dark rock of the asteroid when the alarm went off. In the mirror, Baekhyun saw the dockhand's eyes go wide when he realized what had just happened.

He gunned the engine and got out before the dock doors could lock down behind him.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Normally, Kyungsoo was the most perfect prisoner a man could want. He was quiet, and polite, and completely capable of entertaining himself, and half of the time he just slept.

Tonight, though, Kyungsoo was restless, pacing, making indistinguishable noises under his breath. He was getting on Joonmyun’s nerves. And considering Joonmyun had not had a day as stressful as this one for a good few years, Joonmyun didn’t have that many nerves to spare.

After his talk with Tao - which brought up memories he tried desperately to repress every day - he’d given the young man a limited-access console code and helped him get started writing his report. Then he’d left Tao to his thoughts, which unfortunately also left Joonmyun to his own.

Finally, Joonmyun couldn’t take it anymore. “Would you please sit down and be quiet?” he snapped.

Kyungsoo froze, staring at him with fearful eyes, and guilt washed over Joonmyun, making him feel even more tired and stressed than he already was. Kris hadn’t told anyone what he’d seen when he’d rescued Kyungsoo - and everyone had been too afraid to ask him - but Minseok had told Joonmyun a little, just enough that Joonmyun knew Kyungsoo was probably jumpy as fuck right now and would continue to be so for the foreseeable future. “I’m sorry, Kyungsoo,” he said with a sigh, rubbing a hand over his face. “I’m not angry with you. Just...do you think you can lay down, or something? It’s late, you should sleep.”

Shaking his head vigorously, Kyungsoo said, “I can’t sleep.”

Joonmyun eyed him. “You haven’t even tried.”

Another shake of the head. “Nooo. What if I’m not here when I wake up? What if I’m - ” He stopped himself, but Joonmyun didn’t need him to finish the sentence. Unfortunately, Joonmyun knew exactly what that felt like.

“Do you want me to knock you out?” he asked, completely seriously. “I could give you sleeping meds.”

Kyungsoo pulled a bottle out of his pocket. “I’m on my Diazepam again,” he said, showing Joonmyun the bottle. “I can’t take anything else unless Xing-ge says I can.”

“Okay, point.” Joonmyun regarded him carefully. “You have to sleep, Kyungsoo. What would help you sleep?”

An innocent blink. “Tao,” Kyungsoo said immediately.

Right. “Kris said you guys aren’t allowed to be in the same room for any length of time, remember? He doesn’t want you to fly away again.”

Kyungsoo’s face compressed. “Lu-ge?” he asked plaintively.

Joonmyun crossed his arms. “Same answer.”

Making a face, Kyungsoo said, “Then Kris.”

Wait...what? Joonmyun frowned, sure he hadn’t understood that correctly. “What are you asking me right now? Rephrase that.”

Kyungsoo stood up straighter. “May I sleep with Chanyeol and Kris tonight?” he asked, polite as anything and clear as day.

Joonmyun’s first instinct was to say no, of course not, are you crazy, but the more he thought about it, the better it sounded. He was tired as hell, and had had a shitty-ass day, and the idea of not having to babysit a jumpy, frightened teenager who had just been through who-knows-what definitely appealed.

In the end, Joonmyun’s desire to be alone won out over the voice in his head telling him it was a bad idea. “We can go ask them,” he decided.

Kyungsoo was at the door before Joonmyun was even on his feet, like a dog waiting to go for a walk. Joonmyun didn’t even bother to comment on it - he just put a hand on Kyungsoo’s shoulder to keep him from running ahead and opened the door.

The walk to the captain’s cabin was short, and Joonmyun knocked on the door, half-expecting there to be no answer.

There was, though. “What?” Kris called through the door, his voice sleepy and rough.

Joonmyun prodded Kyungsoo into speaking. “Kris,” he said. “I can’t sleep. Can I sleep with you?”

Silence. The young man looked apprehensive, afraid Kris would say no, so Joonmyun took pity on him and added, “He’s driving me nuts, Captain.”

A grunt, then rustling sounds and footsteps. The door opened, revealing a very sleepy-looking Kris, who regarded Kyungsoo with squinted eyes.

“Please?” Kyungsoo whispered.

Kris sighed heavily, looking defeated. “Fine,” he grunted. “I’ll take him, Joon, you’re relieved of duty.”

Brilliant. Joonmyun gave him a thumbs-up, and Kris let Kyungsoo into his room and shut the door, leaving Joonmyun to head back to his room alone.

He didn’t end up going straight back there, though. With his only distraction removed, Joonmyun ended up wandering the halls rather aimlessly, his mind drifting back through the events of the day.

Joonmyun had never, ever thought he would go back into a ring again, let alone willingly. But watching Tao fight, knowing what that environment could do to a person...He’d had no choice, really. Not only because Kris was so adamant about getting the kids back, but also because he would never have been able to live with himself if he’d left someone so innocent behind in a place like that.

He was still in shock that his plan had worked. It was a long shot, at best; it had hinged entirely on him being able to get the crowd on his side to pressure the ringmaster. Fortunately, audiences like that were cult-like in their tenacity. He knew if he could get the crowd, he would get his way, because no ringmaster was stupid enough to incite a riot in a packed ring like that.

Joonmyun had been in a ring when a crowd rioted. It ranked in the Top 5 most terrifying experiences of his life, and considering the rest of that list, that was an impressive accomplishment.

Lost in his thoughts, Joonmyun wasn’t really looking where he was going, and ended up running face-first into Minseok as he rounded the corner. Both of them lashed out, startled, and ended up shoving each other away. Then Joonmyun stopped, and saw who it was, and started to chuckle.

“Sorry,” Minseok said ruefully. “I’m jumpy tonight.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Joonmyun muttered. “I’m wound up tighter than Sehun’s jeans.”

The image startled a laugh out of Minseok. “Let me guess,” he said wryly. “Rough day?”

“Understatement of the fucking year.” It wasn’t normal for him - for them - but Joonmyun reached forward, putting a tentative hand on Minseok’s waist. “Did Sehun tell you?” he asked in a whisper. “Did anyone tell you?”

It was a measure of how bad a day Minseok had had, that he lifted his own arms to reciprocate Joonmyun’s touch. “He said enough,” Minseok said. “I’m sorry, Joon. It should have been me in there, not you.”

Joonmyun’s laugh was distinctly humorless. “I saw the collar burn on Soo,” he shot back. “If I have a choice between reliving the collar or reliving the ring, I’ll pick the ring, thanks. At least there I have some kind of control over the pain.”

Minseok was shaking, so Joonmyun took a step forward, pulling him close. “They were just sitting there,” Minseok muttered. “Playing games, drinking, talking. Just having a grand old time. With a teenaged boy chained upstairs.” He shuddered. “I saw red, Joon.”

Yeah. Kris’s report had said there were no survivors.

“One of them asked me why,” Minseok muttered. “Why, why?!” His grip on Joonmyun tightened. “He should have known why,” he snarled.

“Minseok,” Joonmyun murmured. “It’s over.”

Minseok took a deep, shaking breath. “It’s never over,” he retorted. “It’s never over, and we’re never safe. Not even out here.”

There wasn’t anything Joonmyun could say, so he just held on, running his hands up and down Minseok’s back.

“Fuck.” Minseok knocked his head into Joonmyun’s shoulder. “I am never going to sleep tonight.”

A familiar feeling - with a familiar solution, though it had been a while. “You need a distraction tonight?” Joonmyun asked.

Tilting his head, Minseok looked up at Joonmyun, his temple still on Joonmyun’s shoulder. “Don’t you?”

Instead of answering, Joonmyun leaned down and kissed him. Minseok responded immediately, familiar and warm. His hands snaked up under Joonmyun’s shirt, tracing out the deep scars across his stomach.

Once upon a time, Joonmyun had hated those scars. Hated what they represented, and what they turned him into. Once upon a time, Minseok had helped him see that a scar was nothing but a scar, and that it didn’t have to define him. And Joonmyun had done the same for Minseok’s, a different shape and in a different place but no less hard to accept.

It did help to have a reminder every once in a while, though.

“My room or yours?” Joonmyun asked.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Kris closed the door and locked it before turning to Kyungsoo. “What’s this all about?” he asked quietly.

Kyungsoo glanced at the bed, where Chanyeol was leaning up on one elbow and blinking at them sleepily. “I’m sorry,” he said first, because he felt like he probably should. “I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about…” Trailing off, he glanced at Chanyeol again, one hand rubbing absently at his shoulder. He was still in the clothes he’d taken from the dresser in the house, the too-tight shorts and the too-loose shirt.

Chanyeol frowned, obviously not knowing what he was talking about. But Kris knew, and his face softened.

“Right,” he said reluctantly. “Well, I don’t suppose it would hurt too much for you to stay here tonight. As long as you don’t make a lot of noise or move around a lot.” Kyungsoo nodded in eager agreement. “Yeol, that okay with you?”

“Of course,” Chanyeol said immediately, his deep voice thick and rumbly, like an idling engine. “C’mere.”

Kyungsoo took the invitation immediately, climbing up onto the bunk and burrowing as close to Chanyeol’s side as he could manage. Chanyeol pulled him in, one hand rubbing gently up and down his back, and the sense of peace that washed over Kyungsoo helped to drive away his anxiety and fear.

Then Kris got into the bed, enveloping Kyungsoo’s back in warmth and blocking out the dim light of the floor strips. “Better?” he asked.

Kyungsoo nodded slightly. “Thank you,” he whispered.

A hum from Chanyeol, sleepy and lax. He was already breathing deep and even, as if he hadn’t even fully awoken. They lay in silence for a few long moments.

“Soo,” Kris murmured, so soft Kyungsoo thought he’d imagined it. “You’re safe here tonight, okay? Anything that wants to hurt you is going to have to go through me, first. So sleep well.”

Lacking the words to express his gratitude, Kyungsoo reached over his shoulder and squeezed Kris’s fingers. Kris squeezed back, then left his hand there, his fingers entwined in Kyungsoo’s.

With that to ground him, and with his body enveloped on all sides in warmth, in soft, steady breath and the sound of slow heartbeats, Kyungsoo felt truly safe for the first time in weeks. He laid there for a long time, silent and still, just listening and feeling and revelling in the shelter, before he finally drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

It had been over a week since they'd returned from the planet, and in that time, Sehun had laid eyes on Tao a grand total of twice, both times in the galley. The first time, Kris had been there as well, and he'd kept Tao close to his side, eyeing Sehun as they both made themselves food as if silently daring him to try to speak to Tao.

The second time, though, Tao was in Joonmyun's care, and with a bit lip and a compassionate look, Joonmyun found something to busy himself on the other side of the room, giving them the illusion of privacy, a moment to speak.

After checking to be sure they were outside of the view range of the security camera, Sehun held out his arms, and with a small noise Tao enveloped him. He was warm and so strong and clung to Sehun like a lifeline, and oh, Sehun hadn't realized how badly he'd missed this.

"Are you okay?" he murmured in Tao's ear.

"I'm not hurt," Tao whispered back. His breath was hot against Sehun's neck, making Sehun shudder in his arms and curve in closer. "It's not bad, but it's not good, either. I'm lonely, and bored, and I miss you."

Sehun closed his eyes. "I know," he said softly. "I miss you too." He glanced over Tao's broad shoulder. Joonmyun had his back to them, prepping the last of their fresh vegetables for dinner.

Leaning in, Sehun presented himself, making it clear he wanted a kiss but not initiating it, not sure if the week's separation would have changed anything for Tao, not sure if he was pushing for too much, too fast.

But Tao closed the distance with no hesitation, pressing himself to Sehun and sighing gratefully into Sehun's mouth. Sehun closed his eyes, letting Tao lick at his lips experimentally, letting him tease Sehun's lips open and hesitantly brush tongue to tongue. It was so sweet, so longing, that it nearly brought tears to Sehun's eyes, and really, he missed Tao so much.

Then Tao made the tiniest noise into his mouth, and wrapped his hands lower, spanning Sehun's waist and pulling him very, very close. His knee nudged between Sehun's, his thick thigh pushing up between Sehun's legs, and Sehun couldn't help the answering noise that escaped, or the way he took over the kiss, licking into Tao's hot mouth with increasing desperation.

"Hey, cut that out!"

Tao and Sehun sprang apart guiltily. Joonmyun was regarding them both with disappointed anger on his face and his hands on his hips.

"Joon - " Sehun began, thinking he would plead for Joonmyun's silence and internally kicking himself for getting carried away.

Joonmyun wagged his knife in their general direction. "I don't want to hear it. If Kris saw that, he would airlock you, and then airlock me for letting it happen. And what the fuck are you even thinking, Sehun?" he hissed. "As if this situation isn't going to be hard enough on Tao! As if he's not at his most emotionally vulnerable right now! How dare you take advantage of him."

Shocked, Sehun had no answer, no idea what to say. To his surprise, though, Tao stepped in front of him, physically shielding Sehun from Joonmyun's words. "He's not," Tao announced, his voice firm. "He's not taking advantage of me."

Over Tao's shoulder, Sehun saw Joonmyun's face compress. "Tao, you don't know what - "

"I don't care," Tao said, interrupting. "I don't care what you think. Sehun's not bad. He's not doing anything wrong. He's not doing anything I don't want."

Sehun blinked at him, his heart pounding, confused and more than a little awestruck. He’d never seen Tao fight back against anyone like this before.

"Everyone always does this," Tao continued, warming up to the subject and getting increasingly frustrated. "Everyone decides things for me. Everyone makes my choices without asking me. I don't like it. I'm sick of it. I'm a person. I want things. Why can't I decide things for myself?"

He reached behind himself, feeling for Sehun's hand and tangling their fingers together. Sehun let him, squeezing his hand, trying to support him without being actively insubordinate to a ship's officer.

"Save me from teenagers who think they know shit," Joonmyun mumbled, rubbing his palm down his face in frustration. "Tao, under normal circumstances, I would agree with you. But these are not normal circumstances. You're a prisoner, and you and Sehun are destined to be separated and never see each other again. Anything you do now is only going to hurt you both in the long run." He glared over Tao's shoulder at Sehun. "And you both know it."

"I don't care," Tao said plaintively. "That's not now. That's the future, that's not now. Why can't I have this now?"

"Tao, do you know what airlocking is?" Joonmyun said pointedly. "It's when someone is thrown out of the ship into open space. It's one of the more terrible ways to die. And I have seen Kris do it. So do me a fucking favor, and listen to his orders, got me? You're only putting both of you in danger if you don't."

It was a low blow, but it apparently hit home, because Tao looked over his shoulder at Sehun, his blue eyes wide with disbelief and fear. Sehun squeezed his hand.

"Maybe he's right, Tao," he murmured. The words hurt him, felt like blades against his tongue, because Joonmyun was right, and Sehun hated it.

Tao's brow furrowed, and his lips went flat. He turned back to Joonmyun, and with one last squeeze, hard enough that Sehun's knuckles cracked, he let go and crossed the room.

Sehun gathered up his meal and quietly left, his mind a jumble of things he didn't want to consider.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Because all three of them were going to need to be awake at once to complete the second half of the plan, the crew of Angel had rearranged schedules slightly, Jongdae piloting the ship on his own while Baekhyun and Yixing slept.

Well. Ostensibly piloting, anyway. Because when Yixing awoke, he smelled, for the first time in weeks, the distinctive aroma of cooking meat.

Drawn by the smell, Yixing stumbled rather blearily out of Jongdae's room and into the tiny galley kitchen, barely more than a hallway tucked between the bunks and the cockpit. Sure enough, Jongdae was there at the little electric stove, frying up strips of steak and stirring something else in a pot.

Leaning on the doorway, Yixing blinked. "There's real food on this ship?" he asked.

Jongdae glanced up at him, a rueful smile curling his lips. "Not a lot of it," he admitted. "We keep it in deep freeze for special occasions. There's a real good chance we might die or get captured this cycle so I figured, what the heck."

"Possibly a good point," Yixing muttered. He came further into the kitchen, leaning on the counter next to the stove, watching the steak sizzle in sleepy fascination. "That smells amazing."

A little laugh. "Dr. Zhang, I do believe that's the only compliment you've ever given me." Yixing looked up at him, unable to gauge if he was teasing from his tone alone. Jongdae flashed him another smile, and yeah, he was probably teasing. "Good to know the way to your heart is through your stomach."

Yixing snorted. "Unless you're going to engage me in deep scientific theory, yeah, probably." He leaned in, wanting to get a better sniff. He hadn't had steak in absolute ages.

"Whoa, hey," Jongdae said, pushing Yixing back. "There's oil in there, don't get burned."

His hand was warm from the stove, and felt hot on Yixing's skin, and Yixing was suddenly very aware that he was not wearing a shirt, and that Jongdae's eyes were drifting down below his neck as if he was only just realizing the same thing.

The pot crackled, startling them both. Yixing moved back, because yeah, a hot oil burn would not be a great way to start the day.

"You're not likely to get a whole lot of deep scientific theory out of me," Jongdae said, picking up the conversation as if nothing had happened. Because, really, nothing had. "Are you awake enough to discuss this job with me, Dr. McGenius?"

"Sure," Yixing said, though he did still feel a little sleepy. Talking shop would get his brain moving, though. He moved back another step and clasped his hands behind his back, stretching out his chest and arms. It was hard to maintain his preferred level of fitness in this cramped environment; everything felt tight and stiff. "Did you figure out how to program the contacts?" When he'd finally gone to bed, they'd just gotten the control programs loaded onto Angel's mainframe and had figured out how to dial in to the contacts remotely.

Jongdae glanced at him, his attention divided between his words, the food, and watching Yixing. "Yeah, I got them programmed, and I isolated the retinal images from the video Baekhyun took. Only two, though. Baek was right, the second video didn't get a good enough shot."

Yixing took a deep breath and bent in half, dropping his head somewhere around his knees and pressing his arms behind him into the air. "So only two of us can go in?" he asked, breathing through the stretch.

No answer. Yixing tilted his head to the side to catch an upside-down glimpse of Jongdae, who was regarding him with undisguised curiosity, his tongs resting still and forgotten in his hand.

"Jongdae?" Yixing prompted.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, only two of us can go in. And considering Baekhyun was seen by a number of people and probably caught on camera, I'm voting it be you and me that do it."

Yixing let his arms drop, folding them behind his calves instead. "Fine by me," he said to his knees. "Did we ever figure out what the Thing is called?"

"It's got some long-ass sciencey name. Superlumi-something-something-navigator. I'm comfortable continuing to call it the Thing. You are really fucking flexible, you know that?"

Just because Jongdae had commented on it, Yixing put his palms flat on the floor and dropped down into a side split, his legs spread out in a straight line. He almost didn't fit in the narrow hallway, but fortunately, he had relatively short legs.

Jongdae made a disbelieving noise. "Show-off," he grumbled, turning back to the food.

Yixing tried not to grin too much. "We can continue to call it the Thing for ease of communication," he agreed, bouncing a little as his stiff thighs settled into the stretch. "But we need to be able to recognize it, so we should probably memorize that long-ass sciencey name.”

"Sure, point." Jongdae's eyes flicked down to him again, briefly. "Oh, but I didn't tell you the best fucking part!"

As Jongdae reached over to turn off the burner, Yixing followed the curve of his back with his eyes. "What's that?" he asked.

"The contacts aren't just HUDs," Jongdae said, sounding gleeful. "They don't just display, they also transmit audiovisual data back to the control station."

It took a moment for Yixing to parse that. "Wait, what? They're cameras?"

"Yep! And, by the way, Baek and I are keeping them as a part of your payment to us. Just so you know."

Fine, whatever. It wasn't like Yixing had a need for that kind of thing anyway, no matter how cool it was. "Sure. We can work that out later. So you're saying that someone at the control station can see and hear everything the person wearing the contacts can see and hear, and can also transmit messages that only that person will be able to see?"

Jongdae flashed him a grin, moving the steak from the pan to a plate in rapid, deft movements. "That's exactly what I'm saying," he agreed.

Yixing folded his legs under himself. "Well," he murmured. "That could come in handy."

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

After he’d - in Tao’s eyes anyway - sided with Joonmyun against Tao, Sehun was pretty convinced he’d killed any chance he might have had at ever being close with Tao again. Which is why, when Beta shift came and he was getting ready for bed, he never expected that the knock on his door would reveal Tao standing in the hall.

“Tao!” he hissed, immediately ushering him into the room and closing the door behind him. “Are you crazy? How did you get out of your room without setting off the alarm?”

“I saw Lu-ge,” Tao murmured, his eyes very steady on Sehun’s face. “He promised me he’d help. Sehun, I -” He made a small, unhappy noise, and swooped in, capturing Sehun’s face with his hands and kissing him hard.

All the protestations in Sehun’s mind melted away into a litany of oh no oh fuck what is he doing what do I do now. But while his mind was confused, his body took over, and his hands slid up Tao’s muscular arms and tangled in his hair, the kiss getting more heated by the second.

“How long do we have?” he gasped into Tao’s mouth.

“Just the shift,” Tao replied. “Lu-ge’s with Jongin in the cockpit, he said he’d stop the alarms.”

One shift. Ten hours, with Tao, alone. Sehun had a feeling he wasn’t going to sleep much tonight. “Okay,” he murmured. “Okay, Tao, take it easy. Slow down. Just because our time is limited, you don’t have to - ahh,” fuck, Tao had started kissing across his cheek and down his jawline, clumsy and enthusiastic and wet. “Tao, don’t rush.” He gasped again as Tao’s hands slid down his back, cupped his ass and squeezed with a determined strength that drove all the breath from his lungs. “Tao!”

The terribly undignified squeak of his last word seemed to break through. “Sorry, I’m sorry,” Tao said in alarm, letting go and taking a step back. “You said I have to ask, and I didn’t ask. I’m sorry, Sehun.”

He looked so genuinely remorseful that Sehun just melted, any last bit of resistance in his mind dripping out his ears. “You’re learning way too fast,” Sehun muttered, looking Tao up and down. He wasn’t sure which had his heart pounding faster, the intensity of the want in Tao’s eyes, or the size of the bulge growing in his pants. “Ask me, Tao. Ask me for what you want.”

Tao made a soft noise. “I’m not sure, exactly, I…” He blinked, and straightened, seeming to come to a conclusion. “I want to touch you. I want to put my mouth on you.” He nodded, decisive. “Yes. That’s what I want. Can I do that? Is that okay?”

Sehun swallowed, thinking fast. Tao didn’t know to ask for sex, he wouldn’t be expecting anything like that. Maybe they could get out of this without passing the point of no return. “Will you hurt me?” he asked, pointed.

Shaking his head, Tao said, “No, no Sehun, never. I promise I’ll be very careful.”

He shouldn’t allow this. It was directly against Kris’s orders and Joonmyun’s advice and he knew it was a terrible idea besides. Sehun opened his mouth to tell Tao no, to tell him to leave, but what actually came out of his mouth was “Okay, Tao.”

A blink. “Really?” Tao asked, breathless and excited.

Well, fuck. “Until I tell you to stop,” Sehun warned, trying to backpedal, to place some kind of control before this got even more wildly out of hand. What the fuck was wrong with him lately? “If I tell you to stop, you stop, okay? And I’ll do the same if you tell me to stop.”

Tao nodded. “Okay, yes, good, I promise, Sehun -” and he descended again, picking up exactly where he left off, hands on the ass and all.

Moaning in shock, Sehun gave in, arching against Tao’s body the way he’d wanted to since he’d first noticed Tao had one. He dipped his head to lick up the column of Tao’s neck, tilting his hips back to give Tao better access to his butt, feeling Tao’s throat vibrate and his forearms flex under Sehun’s hands as he groaned and hauled Sehun closer.

“You feel so good,” Tao whispered into his skin. “You feel - how can you - impossible.”

That was a familiar emotion, anyway. Sehun wondered if he should lead, or if he should just let Tao explore. He felt like he had a responsibility to the first, but he really liked the idea of the second. Instead of answering Tao, Sehun just pet over his arms and laid kisses on his jawline and waited to see what Tao would do next.

Tao seemed to be waiting for the same thing, for Sehun to move, but it didn’t take long for him to realize Sehun was waiting on him. He slid his hands up, carefully burrowing under Sehun’s shirt, his broad palms too-hot on Sehun’s skin.

“Is this okay?” Tao asked softly, his hands sliding higher and higher. The contrast of his elevated body temperature with the relative coolness of the room made Sehun shudder. Sehun nodded, too anticipatory to speak. “Can I...Can I take this off you? I want to see.”

Sehun was going to explode. “Will you take yours off too?” he asked. Tao nodded, bright-eyed, and Sehun indulged him, raising his arms so Tao could pull his shirt off over his head. They let it drop and Sehun immediately reached for the hem of the one Tao was wearing, which he was pretty sure was one of Chanyeol’s old shirts.

That one dropped to the floor too, and Sehun couldn’t help it, he stared.

It had only been about two weeks since Tao had been shirtless around him. The guy had no modesty gauge and Sehun had gotten used to not looking. But he was looking now, and Tao was somehow more intensely, impossibly perfect even than Sehun remembered.

Tao reached for him, sliding his hands around Sehun’s ribs and pulling him in close, until they were pressed together from knees all the way up to chest. They were exactly the same height, now, Sehun realized distractedly. When they’d first met, Tao was shorter, but they were the same height now.

When they’d first met, Tao had been physiologically younger, but Sehun was pretty sure they were physically the same age now, too, or almost. It took a moment for his worldview to re-arrange around that.

But the wonder with which Tao looked at him, the unsure reverence in his purposely over-gentle touch, reminded Sehun that Tao was not at his level in experience. And so he kept his touch relatively tame, relatively innocent, and he waited again for Tao to make the next move.

For a few moments, Tao didn’t do anything but run his hands over Sehun’s body, learning him by touch, and Sehun was more than content to let him do so, resting his forehead on Tao’s broad shoulder and drinking in the sight of Tao’s bared torso in a way that felt illicit - nearly pornographic - all by itself. Eventually, though, he couldn’t resist any longer, and he brought his own hands to Tao’s stomach and traced out the muscles with the tips of his fingers. They shuddered under his touch, sensitive.

Lips landed on Sehun’s shoulder, and he groaned, and tilted his head in wordless invitation. A line of wet, hot kisses started up Sehun’s neck towards his jaw, and when they started down his jawline Sehun realized Tao was mimicking what Sehun had done to him just minutes previous and made a face. It was weird to feel his own kisses against his skin, exactly the same right down to his tendency to lead with a soft press of his tongue before letting his lips contact.

Of course Tao would learn from what Sehun did. Sehun wasn’t sure why that hadn’t occurred to him earlier. He was trying to puzzle out a way to teach Tao things without having all his own moves repeated back to him when a soft question in his ear made all rational thought disappear. “Sehun, can I touch you with my cock?”

It took a beat too long for Sehun to remember the conversation they’d had before Tao had left. Right. He’d told Tao he had to ask permission.

Sehun looked down, and saw that Tao was straining hard, needy and obvious. Moreover, so was Sehun.

He looked up, and met Tao’s eyes. “Yes,” he whispered.

Tao tugged him forward, arranging them so that their thighs alternated and their cocks were pressing into each other’s hips. The firm, too-warm pressure made Sehun gasp, and Tao moaned, long and deep, like it had come from his toes.

“That feels…” Tao leaned back, keeping their hips in contact but looking Sehun in the face. “Why is that so good?”

Sehun tried very, very hard not to roll his hips. It took monumental effort. “Have you ever touched your own cock, Tao?” he asked softly, grateful for Tao’s lack of embarrassment about such things. “Have you ever made yourself feel like this?”

“Sometimes, but it wasn’t - it never - ohhh,” and Tao broke the stillness, thrusting against Sehun’s hip minutely, instinctively. Sehun could feel Tao’s cock jerking against him, his insides bubbling with something he didn’t even want to think about, let alone voice. “This is better,” Tao confided.

Sehun was pretty sure his hands were shaking. As a matter of fact, his entire body might have been shaking. “Can I make a suggestion?” he asked. Tao nodded, curious. “Can we move this to the bunk?”

Tao turned, and looked, and his bright eyes glazed over. Sehun wondered what he was imagining. “Good idea,” he agreed, and moved to do just that, tugging Sehun with him.

Wanting Tao to remain the one leading the action, Sehun took over just long enough to ensure it was his own back hitting the bed, pulling Tao down on top of him. Tao caught his upper body on his hands, but his lower body connected with Sehun’s, heavy and solid and warm and perfect.

Sehun’s instinct was to lift his legs, to wrap them around Tao’s waist and roll his hips up. He managed, somehow, to refrain. Instead, he reached for Tao’s face, and guided him into another kiss, sloppy and passionate, knowing it was only a matter of time before instinct took over.

He wasn’t wrong. Within minutes, Tao’s hips were rocking, his length rubbing clumsily into Sehun’s thigh, and he was full-on whimpering with need into Sehun’s mouth. Sehun swallowed Tao’s cries and let his hands wander down Tao’s skin, adoring the feel of his shoulders, his back, his waist shifting and flexing as he moved. The feel of Tao’s own thigh, solid and thick and heavy, pushing against Sehun’s cock was torture of the absolute best kind, too slow to bring him off but strong enough to wind him up tight.

“Sehun,” Tao murmured against Sehun’s lips. “Can I...will you do something for me?”

Sehun tried to remember if Tao had ever asked him for anything, before tonight. “What is it?”

Tao pulled back to look at him, and licked his lips. “Will you turn over?” he asked. “Lay on your stomach?”

It took a moment for Sehun to figure that out, figure out why he would ask that. Then, again, he remembered their previous conversation, and the revelation that Tao liked his ass.

Oh.

Swallowing down incongruous nerves, Sehun said, “Sure, Tao.” Tao smiled at him, brilliant and breathless and anticipatory, and he lifted himself, bared body flexing as he pushed up. Sehun spared a moment to run his hand over Tao’s gorgeous arms before turning over, dragging a pillow under his chest to support himself.

He felt Tao sit back, straddling somewhere down by Sehun’s knees. “So pretty,” Tao murmured, reverent hands spanning Sehun’s thin thighs, dragging up to knead into his butt, then sweeping over his back to trace out his narrow waist and come back down to his butt again. Sehun hid a pleased smile in the pillow - Tao’s fascination with his body was intensely flattering, especially considering what a perfect body he possessed himself.

Then, Tao came forward again, and lowered himself over Sehun’s body like a blanket, the bulge of his cock slotting perfectly against Sehun’s clothed butt. He gasped, and Sehun moaned, instinctively arching his back and tilting his hips up to give Tao better access. He felt so impossibly good pressing against Sehun’s ass, pleasantly large and very hard.

“I should have known you’d have a great cock,” Sehun muttered, mostly to himself. Everything else about Tao was perfect, why not this?

“Do I?” Tao asked, voice low and right in Sehun’s ear. “I didn’t know that.”

Sehun chuckled. “You do,” he said. “It’s just right.” It was weird, how easy and comfortable this was, how right it felt to have Tao covering him, but Sehun liked it. It was nice to not have to dance around someone, not have to use innuendos and veiled come-ons, not have to worry about expectations. Tao had no expectations whatsoever and Sehun knew it. “Feel good?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Tao breathed, and wow, okay, he sounded like he was really into this. Satisfaction bloomed in Sehun’s chest. “I - oh.” Tao’s hips shifted, just a tiny motion, but Sehun felt every bit of it intensely. “This is...very good. Very very good.”

“I can make it better,” Sehun murmured, and Tao’s soft, anticipatory noise in his ear spurred him into rolling his hips back, a big movement, slow and hard. Tao’s hands tightened abruptly into his shoulders, moaning in Sehun’s ear as Sehun gasped at the unexpected spike of pain.

“Do it again,” Tao whispered, his voice shaking.

“Watch your grip, Tao,” Sehun admonished, but the moment Tao’s grip slackened he rolled his body again, planting a palm on the bed to get some leverage.

At the edge of his vision, Sehun saw Tao’s fists clench into the bedsheets, probably his way of keeping himself from crushing Sehun. “More,” Tao moaned in his ear. “Sehun, it feels so good.” And it did, it really did, Tao’s cock was so hard and pressed so low, and suddenly Sehun had a crystal clear mental image of that cock pushing into him, of the strength with which Tao could fuck him and the broken, disbelieving, totally overwhelmed sounds he would make, and goddamn if that image didn’t have him nearly ready to come in his pants.

“I thought about this,” Tao said breathily in Sehun’s ear. “You asked if I touched myself, sometimes. Once, I did, and I thought about this.”

Sehun closed his eyes and groaned, a mental image of Tao jerking off to the thought of his ass assaulting his mind.

“This is better than my hand,” Tao whispered. “This is...Oh,” Tao gasped in his ear, and Sehun felt a powerful thrust against his backside that made all his joints go weak. Sehun collapsed against the bed, holding his ass up in the air for Tao to grind against, undignified as fuck and giving not one single shit about it because it was amazing. “Oh, oh, Sehun, what…ooohhhhh...” His thrusting was picking up in pace, hard and fast, and it was so very much like getting fucked that Sehun had to choke back a sob. He was so busy feeling Tao’s thick cock against his rim through two layers of cloth - and imagining what it would feel like if the clothes weren’t there and the angle changed only the tiniest bit - that it didn’t register that Tao’s moans were getting higher-pitched and his cock pulsing noticeably until impossibly powerful hands clenched painfully into his arms. Sehun gasped in surprise and Tao let out a whine, high and soft and desperate, as he came right against Sehun’s ass.

Tao collapsed against Sehun’s back. Sehun rubbed at his suddenly bruised arm and tried to remember how to breathe. They lay still for a long moment.

“You okay?” Sehun finally asked.

A soft, confused noise. “I...think so?” Tao murmured. “I don’t understand. What just...happened?”

Shit. Wait. Shit. Sehun turned over onto his back and faced Tao with wide eyes. “Please tell me that’s happened to you before,” he said.

Pink-cheeked - not from embarrassment, it seemed, just pleasure - Tao looked down at himself. Sehun automatically followed his gaze. Tao’s stomach was heaving with his breath, rows of chiseled abs and a tight v-cut that pointed right at the rather impressively wide wet spot in his pants, at the still-large and still visibly twitching bulge underneath. He was so sexy it almost hurt, and Sehun’s head pounded with confusion and need and guilt.

“Not like that,” Tao said. “That felt totally different.” He wrinkled his nose a little. “Smells different, too. But the hardness is going away now.” He blinked. “Is it supposed to go away?”

Sehun dragged a disbelieving hand down his face. Tao had never come before. That was Tao’s very first orgasm, and Sehun took it.

Well. Sort of. Okay, so Tao had actually done all the work; Sehun had just been a willing body. A very willing body. “I thought you said you’d touched yourself,” Sehun accused breathlessly.

“I have!” Tao protested. “But not like...I didn’t realize…” He blinked. “Wait, can I do that to myself? Like, if I kept going when I was touching myself, would that happen again?” Sehun nodded, and Tao’s expression widened, like an entire new world had just been opened up to him. “Oh. Oh. But...is that okay? What is this, what just happened? Is it bad?”

Oh god. “No, you did nothing wrong,” Sehun assured him quickly. “Well, except you grabbed me too hard again, right at the end.” He gestured at his aching arms to clarify what he meant, and Tao’s face collapsed in remorse. “What you just did, that’s called an orgasm. Anyone - well, most people anyway - can have them. They’re good, right? Didn’t it feel good?”

Wide eyes met his. “It did,” Tao said, with great feeling. “It felt so good. Anyone? Like you, too?” His eyes dropped down again, this time looking at Sehun’s cock instead of his own, slightly wilted now from lack of attention but still full and heavy inside his pajama pants.

“Yeah,” Sehun said, suddenly feeling quite breathless. “Me, too.”

Tao cocked his head. “Could you show me?” he asked curiously. “I want you to feel good like that, too.”

It hit Sehun, in that moment, that he could literally ask anything of Tao right now, and Tao would do it willingly. He could coach Tao through a handjob, or a blowjob, or he could fuck him, or he could instruct Tao to fuck Sehun instead. Anything he wanted, he could have, and Tao would do it, would not understand why it should mean more than just the act.

Moreover, this was Tao’s first introduction to intimacy, in anything, ever. Unlike most boys his age, he hadn’t grown up with parents and siblings and friends and the media bombarding him with ideas and perceptions of sex; had no idea what to expect, or even that he should expect anything at all. Anything Sehun told him, Tao would take as the absolute truth.

It was a lot of pressure. It was almost too much pressure to take. But Sehun knew that if Tao didn’t learn these things from him, he might learn them from someone else, someone who could easily skew Tao’s perceptions, make him believe...anything.

“If you want me to show you,” Sehun said, his heart pounding so hard he could hear it in his ears, “I will.”

Tao nodded, eager.

“Okay. Here, get off me,” Sehun instructed, guiding Tao onto his side next to Sehun instead of on top of him. Tao settled down, watching intently, the light from his brilliant blue eyes illuminating Sehun’s body so that when he looked down at himself, he saw thin curves and long lines outlined in pale blue like moonlight.

Acutely aware of his audience, Sehun trailed his hand down his body and cupped his own cock through his pants. Tao made a small noise.

The motions of teasing himself back to full hardness, of rubbing himself, were instinctive, second nature. Sehun was barely paying attention to what he was actually doing, instead watching as Tao watched him, his eyes glued to Sehun’s hand. He was utterly stunning, the most intensely beautiful man Sehun had ever had the privilege of laying eyes on, and as he greedily drank in the sight, Sehun had the distinct feeling that he was completely, utterly screwed.

When Sehun finally slid his hand under the waistband of his pajamas, Tao moaned softly, an unmistakably lustful expression temporarily twisting his mobile features. His hand was clenching into his own thigh, a visibly powerful grip that still didn’t dent the dense muscle. Just above where his hand rested, Tao’s crotch was bulging again, hardening right before Sehun’s eyes, and of course he had a short refractory time, of course he did, because some scientist had clearly created him specifically to drive Sehun crazy.

He probably had a bull’s stamina.

Why did he just think that?

Clearly because he was a masochist.

Sehun’s hand sped, his insides starting to draw tight. “Tao,” he moaned, pleasure racing up his thighs and curling down his spine. His back arched with it, and Tao’s expression tightened, his gaze on Sehun’s body as heavy as hands. “Fuck, Tao.”

The hand that had been clenching into Tao’s thigh drifted down, and Tao cupped his own erection, fingers curling around it and thumb absently stroking up the length. For one beautiful moment, the fabric pulled taut around him, and his shape and size was clearly visible, and fuck, he looked so thick, Sehun had never wanted something inside him so badly. He moaned again, embarrassingly loud.

“Can I,” Tao whispered, his hand already starting to move.

Sehun nodded, not trusting his voice. And the sight of Tao stroking himself, a little clumsy, the motion still kind of new to him, had absolutely no right to be hotter than a professionally-filmed porn film, but it most definitely was, and if Sehun didn’t slow down he was going to come.

Despite thinking it, Sehun could not make himself slow down. His head tilted back and his back bowed up at an extreme angle, his eyelids fluttered shut and all he saw behind them was Tao. A pained moan and a wet, slick sound, and Sehun managed to pry his eyes open and look down, to see Tao had followed Sehun’s example, his hand in his pants and wrapped around his cock.

Dumbly, Sehun wondered what Tao had found as lubrication for one brief second. Then he realized Tao’s dick was probably still wet with his first load, and that was it, it was too much, Sehun gasped and arched like a bridge and came all over his own hand.

Coming down from the high with a long sigh, Sehun opened his eyes just in time to see Tao clutching at his cock and curling in on himself as he came for a second time. He watched it in awe, too strung-out to do anything else.

Tao collapsed next to him, his hand still down his pants and probably terribly gross. He was panting like he’d run a marathon - or rather, like Sehun would be panting if he’d run a marathon, since Sehun was pretty sure Tao could actually run a marathon without breaking a sweat.

Satisfaction and fondness swept over Sehun like the wave of his orgasm had only moments previous, less overwhelming but more pervasive. He smiled, his heart leaping when Tao smiled weakly back, exhausted but exuberant.

“I feel sticky,” Tao complained softly.

Laughing, Sehun pulled his hand out of his pants. Yeah, sticky was a good word. “We should clean up,” he murmured.

Tao’s eyes fluttered shut. “In a minute,” he agreed.

They did eventually make it into the sonic shower, letting the vibrations cleanse skin and clothes at the same time. Sehun couldn’t resist kissing Tao again, and Tao seemed all for it, pulling him close and licking at him with languid, unhurried, satisfied movements.

Sehun knew he should send Tao away now, while he still had a chance, before they got caught. He knew he should. But it had been so long since they slept in the same bunk, and Sehun had slept so badly since Tao had been away, and Tao was pouting at him in a way that had to be calculated, damnit, it was too damn difficult to resist for it to not be.

In the end, Sehun set an alarm for a full two hours before shift change, to give Tao enough time to slip back to his own room. A few hours more with Tao was worth the risk.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

"Out," Kris snapped, startling Jongin and Luhan.

"Captain?" Jongin asked, confused.

"I have to make a call. I'll page you when you can return." Kris jerked his thumb at the hallway behind him. "Get moving."

They did so, scrambling, Jongin instinctively herding Luhan in front of himself without touching him. Kris watched them carefully as they went, looking for any signs that they were developing a connection the way the younger two of the prisoners had with the crew, but so far, they seemed barely cordial, nothing more. Good. Kris had enough on his hands with Soo and Tao.

Locking the cockpit door behind him, Kris sat heavily in the pilot's seat, glancing at the time readout. He actually had a good five minutes before he was due to make the call, but he had kicked Jongin out early to take a moment to collect himself.

He'd been dreading this for days.

It wouldn't be so bad, if it wasn't for the fact that Chanyeol insisted on disobeying Kris's order in small ways, ways Kris couldn't bring himself to punish. He wasn't going to throw his own damn husband in the brig for spending three hours in Minseok's workroom while Kyungsoo just happened to be there, and Chanyeol knew it. It wore on Kris's psyche. He'd never been disobeyed like this before, not in this insidious, pervasive, creeping way. It felt like his control of the situation was slipping out from his fingers and there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it.

Allowing Kyungsoo to sleep in their bed was his first mistake. Half-asleep and burdened with the knowledge of what had been done to the boy, Kris hadn't been able to say no, but when he woke up in the morning, he'd known it was a mistake. Because he'd woken to a soft conversation, gentle teasing and soft chuckling, and the first thing he'd seen upon awakening was Chanyeol's brilliant smile, the smile he'd fallen in love with, and a shyer but no less contented smile on Kyungsoo.

It had been utterly beautiful, heartwrenchingly sweet, until Kris woke up enough to remember what was coming. His insides had twisted into knots and he'd immediately separated them, sent Kyungsoo back to the locked room he'd assigned, extracted a promise from Chanyeol that he wouldn't go to Kyungsoo's room, wouldn't try to see him.

They were already attached to each other, that much was obvious, and there was nothing Kris could do about that. But he didn't think the attachment was too deep just yet - and he was determined not to let that happen, for Chanyeol's sake. He wouldn’t watch his husband go through that kind of heartbreak, not if he could prevent it.

All of this was for Chanyeol's sake. He just wished he could explain that, to anyone, anyone at all. It was a large burden to bear alone, but he was the Captain, and this was his duty. He'd bear it. And with a heaping helping of luck, none of the crew would ever know what he'd had to do, to keep them safe.

Taking a deep breath, steeling himself, Kris flipped on the cockpit comm camera and made the call.

The face that flickered onto his display screen was familiar to him, in a way that sent icy shivers down his spine. There weren't many men in the 'Verse that Kris hated more than Choi Seunghyun. Actually, there was only one. One man that Kris hated more. If he was lucky, he wouldn't have to see that man on this call.

"Captain Wu," Seunghyun said, deep-voiced, a quirk of an eyebrow and a twist of his lips. "You're late."

Kris didn't glance at the clock. He knew this game. "This call is exactly at the agreed-upon time," he growled.

"That's not what I'm talking about," Seunghyun murmured. It did precisely what it was meant to do - it made Kris nervous. What was he talking about? Did Kris miss something, was something wrong?

Recognizing what was happening, Kris pushed his doubt out of his mind, clamped down on it. Seunghyun could get under his skin in seconds, and they both knew it. Better to not give him the satisfaction.

"We remain on schedule for the check-in point," Kris said curtly. "We are on course to arrive on Sola in fifteen cycles.”

Seunghyun tilted his head. "You're behind schedule," he said, his low voice non-committal. "You should be on Sola in twelve cycles."

Fuck. That must be what he'd meant about Kris being late. How the hell did he know? "We had a minor setback," Kris responded, lying through his teeth. "Engine issues. It's fixed and we are back on course." And then, because Seunghyun just loved to make him feel like a failure even when he did everything right, Kris pointed out, "Fifteen cycles is still within our agreed-upon window of arrival."

"Just barely," Seunghyun said. "I'm worried about you, Kris. So far, you haven't performed to your promised standard at all."

A chill crept up Kris's insides. "What do you mean?" he asked. "You'll get the kids and the drive within the time frame, safe and whole, as promised."

A smile spread over Seunghyun's face, slow and terrifying. "You don't even know, do you?" he said. "You already failed one of the mission objectives."

What? No. No, no, no. "I have completed everything exactly as specified."

"Doctor Zhang is still alive."

Kris stopped. Stopped moving, breathing, thinking.

That was not possible.

"So you truly weren't aware," Seunghyun observed. "Disappointing. We received a call from the end client, demanding to know why the first objective hadn't been completed correctly. He was utterly furious, Kris. Jiyong and I had to make a lot of promises and soothe a lot of ruffled feathers."

Jiyong. Fuck. Kris had no idea what kind of promises Jiyong would have made, and he was 142% certain he did not want to find out, ever. Seunghyun was evil, but Jiyong was evil and also batshit fucking insane.

Kris's instinct was to jump in with promises, with apologies, with a vow that he would hunt the doctor down and finish the job. Long experience, however, told him to keep his mouth shut. Apologies would get him nowhere, and promises would only prolong his contact with these two evil fuckheads. If they wanted him to make up the failed objective, they would say so.

There was a tiny part of him, the same part that couldn't turn Kyungsoo away from his bed, that was fiercely glad Dr. Zhang had survived. Kyungsoo would be overjoyed, if he ever found out. The rest of him, though, recognized that this made his situation twice as precarious. "We will be at the relay point within the time limit," he stated again, as firmly as he could manage with his very lungs shaking in fear. "We will deliver all three prisoners unharmed, and the data bank untouched. As agreed." And then, because he needed to hear this, he needed to confirm it, "And then, neither you nor Jiyong will ever contact or interact with me or any member of my crew, present or future, directly or indirectly, ever again. As agreed."

Seunghyun's mouth was sly. "If you uphold your end of the bargain, we will uphold ours," he said, slick and entirely unreassuring, but it was the best Kris was ever going to get, and he knew it.

Kris nodded. "Understood." He reached for the comm switch, but didn't turn the camera off. It would be insulting for him to disconnect first. He'd only made that mistake once.

But Seunghyun, it seemed, was not done. "Captain," he said, in that casual, just-so-you-know tone that always seemed to precede something utterly terrifying, "please be certain you do uphold your end of the bargain. I know how much your crew means to you." His black eyes glittered, in a way that made Kris feel abruptly sick. "Jiyong has recently broken his record for number of boxes. But your husband's very tall, isn't he? I'm sure Ji would relish a chance to break his record again."

He signed off.

With shaking hands, Kris ended the camera recording. Then he stood, took two steps across the room to the garbage chute in the wall, and puked.

Boxes. He'd had to bring up the boxes.

Six years ago, Kris's previous mechanic had been sent to him in two dozen boxes. Some of the contents were recognizably human - fingers, a foot, an organ. Some were unrecognizable, mangled flesh.

The boxes had been spaced out over weeks. They'd been delivered to the Phoenix every time she landed, no matter where that was.

The absolute worst thing about it was the terrible, horrifying feeling of relief when he'd opened the box and found a human heart. Because up until that point, his medic training had been enough to tell him that each piece had been cut off of a living body.

He'd been relieved, because his crewman wasn't suffering anymore. The thought of that happening to his Chanyeol, to his sweet, caring husband -

Kris threw up again.

Shaking violently, Kris wiped his mouth and closed the chute, removing the evidence of his weakness to the incinerator with a push of a button. He went back to the pilot's chair and quickly removed the evidence of the call as well, backing it up to his own tablet before deleting it from the system's logs.

Chanyeol, Sehun, and Jongin were too new to the ship. They didn't know what the crew of the Phoenix had gone through six years ago. They would never understand why Kris was so terrified, why he had no choice but to follow through on this job, even though his entire being screamed that it was wrong.

But Joonmyun and Minseok had been with him. They'd lived through it. They'd been held, tortured, and then casually sold to a fighting ring, because Kris had failed. Of the twelve-member crew they'd had at the time, they were the only ones Kris had managed to save.

And if they knew that Kris was working for the men who did that to them, the men that still haunted their dreams and plagued their bodies six years later...they would turn on him.

So Kris couldn't tell anyone. This was his burden to bear. Alone.

It was a weight, a demon sitting on his chest that made it impossible to breathe, impossible to think. He needed some kind of relief from the terror, some kind of reassurance that he hadn't screwed up yet, he hadn't let them down yet, they were all still safe and whole and blissfully unaware of the fate that lurked if Kris made a slight misstep.

So he brought up the tracker map, and counted them. Five men who were under his care, who relied on him for their livelihood. And three teens he would protect with his life, until he had no choice but to turn them over. Even if he had to protect one group from the other. Even if he had to protect them from themselves, their own unreasoning hearts and minds.

Kris frowned. There were two dots in Sehun's room, and one was blue, not yellow.

Two dots, practically on top of each other. On the bed. In Sehun's room.

After everything Kris had done for them. After every horror he'd borne alone, every sleepless night, every lie he'd been forced to tell. They defied him again.

Why couldn't they understand that it was for the their own protection?

Why couldn't they just obey?!

Kris slammed his hand down on the comm. "Jongin, return to duty," he snapped. He was up and out of the room before he received a response, storming down the hall like a fireball was at his heel.

Chapter Text

Sehun was awakened by his door opening and a snarl like a wild animal. Disoriented by sleep, he didn’t realize what was going on until a hand fisted in the back of his shirt and yanked him out of bed.

“Get the fuck up!” Kris roared, and Sehun’s reality came crashing in as his body crashed to the floor, hands and knees hitting first.

“No, don’t!” he heard. It was Tao, he was panicking, and Sehun remembered.

Sehun scrambled to his feet and turned in time to see Tao attempt to put himself between Kris and Sehun. Kris didn’t try to put a hand on him - instead he pinned Tao with the fiercest, angriest, most frightful glare Sehun had ever witnessed a human being aim at another human being. Sehun froze, and so did Tao.

“Do not fight me, Zitao,” Kris hissed. And even though everyone in the room knew Tao would win that fight, he shrank back, too cowed to do anything but obey.

Kris turned that glare on Sehun, and Sehun felt it like a physical blow. “You deliberately disobeyed a direct order,” he snarled. “And you’re fraternizing with a prisoner.”

“You had Kyungsoo in your bed,” Sehun shot back, desperate and not thinking straight. He knew that wasn’t going to make this better, he knew it.

Angry features twisted even further. “The entire room smells like jizz, Sehun! Don’t fucking try that shit on me!”

Obviously terrified, Tao blurted out, “Don’t airlock him, please Kris, please don’t hurt him,” and fuck if that didn’t twist Sehun’s heart and gut and lungs and throat into a dozen painful knots.

Kris made a wordless noise, this one impatient on top of angry. “I’m not going to kill him, Tao.” He turned to Sehun. “Brig. Move. Now.”

Wait. No. No. “Captain - ”

“Are you really going to argue this with me, Sehun?” Kris snapped. “Is that actually happening right now? Get. Your ass. To the brig.”

His voice cracked like a whip, and Sehun got moving, sparing a thought for the fact that he was wearing only pajama pants and nothing more. He managed to glance over his shoulder one last time as Kris marched him out the door.

The frightened, haunted, guilty expression in Tao’s beautiful blue eyes hit him far harder than the snap of Kris’s words.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The contacts worked exactly as expected, which was surprising, and kind of really strange to experience, actually. Baekhyun had two windows open side by side, filling the screen in front of him - one showing Yixing’s vision, and one showing Jongdae’s.

What he hadn’t realized, however, was how much of a wandering eye his partner had - and it kept wandering in the same direction.

Would you stop staring at him? he typed onto Jongdae’s display. I can SEE you.

Jongdae couldn’t answer him verbally - not while in the transport shuttle, sitting between two strangers - but he did look down at his hands in his lap and flip a rude gesture at Baekhyun.

Very mature, Baekhyun retorted. Seriously though, stop looking at him. No one should have a clue you know each other.

That must have gotten through, because Jongdae instead turned his body in his seat to put his back to Yixing, staring up at the entertainment screen in the corner as if he really gave a shit about the adventures of the latest family sitcom sensation.

Yixing did not have this problem. Yixing was sitting with one knee pulled up on the seat, his chin resting on it and his eyes trained steadily at the floor. It made his camera view completely monotonous, and it made Baekhyun wonder what he was thinking about.

He didn’t get an answer, and the rest of the shuttle ride was uneventful. When they docked, Jongdae and Yixing stood with the rest of the cleaning crew, and filed onto the base.

Baekhyun saw Yixing glance down at his hand, adjust the Dermitex sleeve on his right forefinger. At their request, Luna had reassigned Jongdae’s identity and Yixing’s fake identity to show them as being employed by this particular cleaning crew, but she couldn’t touch Yixing’s real fingerprint without setting off alarms. Yixing had been warned over and over again that he couldn’t let his real fingerprint touch a scanner.

Yixing pressed the fake print to the scanner, and Baekhyun held his breath, but there were no issues. The security guard waved Yixing through the doors, and then he was in. Jongdae followed a few people behind, and they both stood in the knot of workers as the foreman handed out cleaning assignments.

Then they were released to work, and they split up, and Baekhyun sat up straighter in his seat. He was their connection, now, their link. Their safety net.

Within moments, Baekhyun realized it was going to be surprisingly difficult to keep track of them. The two screens showed two entirely different views, gazes shifting so quickly Baekhyun had trouble making sense of what he was seeing, and now that they were separated, there were two differing audio streams pumping into the cockpit as well, layering over each other in a muted cacophony.

Baekhyun changed the cockpit settings so that the sound from Jongdae’s feed came from only the leftmost speaker, and the sound from Yixing’s from the right. There. That was better. At least now he could easily identify which person was hearing what sounds.

Jongdae had been assigned a row of offices, working alone. It was easy for him to slip away the moment no one was looking, easy for him to duck down the hall and start heading towards the high-security area.

“How are we doing, Baek?” came Jongdae’s voice, barely above a murmur on his left.

Yixing’s been assigned to a workgroup, cleaning one of the larger lab spaces, Baekhyun told him. I assume he’ll find an excuse and slip away at some point.

Jongdae nodded, his view bobbing up and down disorientingly. “I’ll go after the Thing, then,” he whispered. “Send Xing after the research.”

Will do.

Baekhyun switched windows and let Yixing know Jongdae was moving. Yixing couldn’t answer, but flashed Baekhyun a thumb’s-up when the other people he was working with weren’t looking. By the time his attention returned, Jongdae was already at the security checkpoint.

“Ready?” Jongdae asked quietly, his view sweeping side to side as he checked to confirm no one was looking.

Hold up, let me load the scan, Baekhyun hurriedly replied. They’d discussed how Baekhyun’s timing had to be exactly correct here, or the scanner would not recognize the recording of the constricting iris to be a match, and possibly set off an alarm.

He uploaded one of the videos to Jongdae’s contacts, and Jongdae immediately said, “Shit, that blocks my entire view.”

Crap. Baekhyun minimized the video so Jongdae could see. Maybe pop one contact out? he suggested. The scanner only reads one eye.

“I can’t just pull a contact lens out of my face and then stick it back in again,” Jongdae grumbled. “My hands are greasy from that dirty-ass shuttle. Here, just let me get into position.” He put one hand on the wall next to the scanner, keeping his face out of view so it wouldn’t activate. “Okay, ready?”

Sure.

“On three. One, two -” Jongdae leaned, and Baekhyun brought up the video, pressing play the moment he saw the bright light flash.

A beep. Jongdae leaned away and Baekhyun closed the video.

“It worked,” Jongdae breathed, quickly scooting through the door, as if worried it would somehow change its mind.

The other side of the door looked about the same as the rest of the facility - narrow hallways lined with locked doors, painted lines on the floor to direct traffic flow, everything dim and quiet and sterile.

The blue line leads to the active labs, Baekhyun reminded Jongdae.

“I know,” Jongdae grunted, already headed that way. He glanced down, showing Baekhyun that he was checking the charge on his blaster.

“Finally,” Baekhyun heard from his right. Switching his view, Baekhyun checked on Yixing, to see him alone and quickly moving to follow Jongdae into the secured area. “Baekhyun?”

Loading. Dae’s already in. Be prepared, we found out the video will block your vision.

“So noted,” Yixing muttered quietly, his quick strides echoing off the walls. “Is he going for the Thing?”

It was kind of hilarious how they all said it with a capital letter in their voices. Yeah. Head for the research.

“Fine. I’ll probably have a better idea of what all to copy than he would anyway.” Yixing turned a corner, and Baekhyun caught a bare glimpse of movement before he reversed and whispered, “Shit.”

Oh. Baekhyun knew this hallway. Maintenance closet behind you on your left, he typed quickly.

Yixing found it and ducked inside just in time for two men, dressed in the same baggy coveralls that Jongdae and Yixing were, to go past him. “Thanks,” he breathed, and slipped back out, headed for the door.

They got Yixing through the secured door with even less fuss than Jongdae, and he took off in the opposite direction, following the red line instead of the blue.

Xing’s in. So far, so good, Baekhyun sent to Jongdae, just as he was reaching the lab in question.

“Why would you say that?” Jongdae said immediately, inspecting the door. A computerized lock with a passcode. He pulled out his tablet and started the hack program. “Why would you tempt fate like that?”

Baekhyun didn’t bother to answer him, instead checking on Yixing. Keeping track of the two of them was already giving him a headache.

Yixing had stopped in the middle of a hallway. And not the hallway he was supposed to be going down, either. He’d stopped, and he was staring at a door, a door labelled with a string of letters and numbers that meant nothing at all to Baekhyun.

What’s wrong? he asked.

Shaking himself, Yixing started moving again. “Nothing,” he muttered. “Everything. Fuck. Shit.”

Wow, usually Baekhyun had more lag time than that between someone pointing out that nothing had gone wrong, and shit starting to go wrong. What?

“GC-161.” Yixing’s voice was uncharacteristically low, and trembling audibly. “It’s the fucking genetic compound I was given at the start of my research. It came from here.”

Oh. Shit.

“I mean, of course it came from here,” Yixing mumbled, talking to himself more than Baekhyun. “I had already guessed it had alien origins, and this is where they reverse engineer alien materials. But I didn’t think…”

Baekhyun wasn’t sure if he was actually supposed to be listening, but Yixing sounded like he was really getting freaked out, which was unlike him, in Baekhyun’s experience. So he couldn’t resist butting in.

You didn’t think what?

Yixing’s viewscreen jerked, like Xing had forgotten he was listening. “Uh. I didn’t think…” He glanced to the side, and Baekhyun caught a glimpse of his Yixing’s face, reflected in the darkened windows of some closed-off lab. He was wide-eyed. Horrified. “The man who approached me, Kwon Daeshin, he said he was from a non-profit, charity organization. A humanitarian organization. No connection to the government or the military whatsoever.”

Something clicked in his mind, and Baekhyun froze.

Did you see the recordings I took at the base earlier?

“What?” He sounded confused, and wary. “No, why?”

The scientists I recorded. They said the base was run by a Commander Kwon.

Yixing stopped in the middle of the hallway.

“No.”

I’m sorry.

“I was contracted by a humanitarian organization. Not the military.” He sounded like he was panicking. “Ten years. Ten. Years. Do not tell me I was working for the goddamn military the entire time.”

Shit. Keep it together, Xing. You can freak out when we have the Thing and and you and Dae get out of there safely.

Yixing drew in a deep, calming breath. “Right,” he said, his gaze sweeping behind himself to confirm he was still alone. “Research.” He strode quickly to the end of the hallway. “This is the door, right?” he asked.

Baekhyun double-checked their map. Yeah, that’s the restricted data consoles. Is it locked?

The viewscreen tilted down, and Baekhyun watched Yixing try the handle. “It’s locked, but it’s just a passcode. Give me a moment.” He ran the password-hacking program again, and sure enough, within a few minutes the door opened, revealing rows of desks with console screens and control boards. “This might take a bit.”

Yell if you need me. Baekhyun switched his attention back to Jongdae.

Jongdae’s screen showed nothing but darkness.

Fear rising in his gut, kicking himself for letting Yixing’s personal crisis distract him from his partner, Baekhyun quickly typed out a message. Dae, you ok?

Nothing, for a moment. Baekhyun’s heart was going to pound out of his throat. Did Jongdae pass out? Or was he…

Something shifted, on the screen, barely visible. A tablet screen appeared, set to the lowest brightness, and the silhouette of fingers typing out a message on the screen. Security snooping around. Hiding until they go.

Baekhyun let out a long breath. Where?

Storage closet.

Of course. There seems to be a lot of that going around.

He was pretty sure Jongdae made a witty retort to that in his head, but just then there was a noise, and Jongdae shut off his tablet, plunging the viewscreen into darkness again. Baekhyun leaned to the left to better hear what Jongdae was hearing.

It was hard to tell, but it sounded like footsteps, the footsteps of multiple people. Baekhyun couldn’t tell if they were coming closer or moving away. He hoped Jongdae could.

For a long few minutes, things were tense, and quiet. On his right, Baekhyun watched Yixing get into a console and start looking for all the files on the Thing. On his left, the screen remained dark, with only the faintest impressions of movement indicating Jongdae was looking around.

In his left ear, Baekhyun heard a voice, not Jongdae’s. “Intruder must have slipped out. There’s no one here.”

He could hear Jongdae’s sigh of relief, and hoped the security guard could not.

“There’s been a second breach,” a tinny voice said, clearly through a communicator. “Unauthorized access to the data labs on the west side.”

Shit. Baekhyun swung over to Yixing’s screen. Xing, you’ve been made. Guards on their way to your position.

On the screen, Baekhyun saw that Yixing was selecting files to copy. Files titled with GC-161.

YIXING

“I have to know,” Yixing hissed. “The other files are already copying, but I have to know.” He swiped down the window to show the progress bar of the file transfer he’d already set into motion.

You don’t have time! You’ve gotta move!

“Fuck you, this is my life’s work,” Yixing snapped.

“They’re gone,” Jongdae breathed in his left ear. Baekhyun glanced over to see his viewscreen lighting back up as Jongdae slunk out of the closet. “Going for the Thing now. How’s Xing?”

Stubborn and a pain in my ass. Careful, Dae, you don’t want to bring them back down on you.

“If Yixing keeps them busy, that won’t be a problem, huh?” Jongdae murmured. “Get him to buy me ten minutes somehow.”

Fucking hell. Baekhyun switched to Yixing’s screen. Dae says he needs ten minutes. Can you keep the guards busy?

On screen, Yixing began the second file transfer. “I’ll think of something,” he said quietly, turning off the monitor to disguise the transfer screen. “This will take at least that long, anyway.”

Baekhyun eyed the map of the facility, estimating distances in his head. They’ll be there any second, he said.

The now-dark monitor showed Yixing’s reflection, eyes hard and mouth pressed determinedly, for one split-second before he got up and started to run.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Since Kris had kicked Jongin and Luhan out of the cockpit - again - they moved to Jongin’s room, where they had essentially been living together for a few days now. Jongin had not been too happy about sharing his space, and judging by the grumbling, neither had Luhan, but fortunately Luhan was a very quiet roommate, and his idea of comfortable sleeping arrangements was a literal nest of blankets and pillows on the floor, so cohabitating wasn’t too taxing.

Normally, when they were in the same space, Luhan did everything in his power to pretend Jongin wasn’t there, and Jongin, who was a pretty heavy introvert and preferred less interaction anyway, usually obliged him. Today, though, instead of disappearing into his nest of squish, Luhan sat on the bed right in front of Jongin and stared at him, blue eyes piercing.

Jongin eyed him over the edge of his tablet. “Can I help you?”

“I want to show you something.”

Letting his gaze drop over Luhan’s thin body, Jongin dryly said, “I’m not sure I want to see anything you’ve got to show me.”

Luhan’s lip twisted. “Don’t be disgusting. It’s something on the station’s drive.”

That got Jongin’s attention immediately, and he sat up straighter. “What? Really?”

“Yes, really. While Kris is occupied, come on.” He gestured at Jongin’s tablet.

Scooting so that he was sitting beside Luhan instead of before him, Jongin navigated to his fingerprint-protected locked files and opened up the copy of the drive. They’d been digging through it together, looking for some clues as to whom might have known enough about the project to order the attack, but so far, there had been nothing. No clue that any of the scientists were double agents, no outward communication with the ‘Verse, nothing at all.

To his surprise, Luhan leaned over and entered an address into the file search bar. It brought up a password prompt, one Jongin had not seen. Luhan entered a string of numbers, and it cleared, bringing up a file tree that Jongin had no idea was there.

“What the fuck,” Jongin murmured. He started scrolling through. Each file was labelled with a star date, and they went back ten years.

He opened one at random. It took him only moments to figure out what it was.

“These are progress reports,” Jongin realized. “This is, in one place, a summary of everything that occurred in the station, isn’t it?” He glanced up at Luhan, who was back to avoiding his gaze, but nodded. “How did you know these were here?”

“I found them ages ago,” Luhan admitted. “Years ago. When I was first learning my way around computers. It took me a while to get the password.” He smiled. “It’s the stardate of my birth.”

His birthdate. Yixing had locked his most secret files with Luhan’s birthdate, rather than his own. That felt significant, to Jongin.

“Why didn’t you show me these earlier?” Jongin asked, a little miffed.

A blue gaze flashed at him, then returned to the floor in front of them. “I didn’t know yet if I could trust you,” Luhan admitted. And then, a little smile. “And I wanted to see if you would find them yourself.”

Well, now he felt like an idiot. “I didn’t know to look for them,” Jongin grumbled, embarrassed. “You think there’s anything in here that can help us?”

Luhan shrugged. “As far as I know, those weekly reports were the only official communication out of the space station. Everything else was prohibited. So if the perpetrator wasn’t linked to someone on the ship, this would have been their only way of knowing what was going on there.”

There were hundreds of reports here. Going through them was going to take quite a bit of time. “I guess I have some reading to do,” Jongin said.

At that moment, though, Kris’s voice in the comm startled them both. “Jongin, return to duty.”

“He sounds angry,” Luhan murmured. “I hope he didn’t - shit.”

Jongin blinked. Had he ever heard any of the kids swear? “You hope he didn’t shit?”

“Nevermind. Come on, come on,” and Luhan was already at the door.

They moved quickly through the halls and back to the cockpit. The moment he sat down Jongin immediately went to the outbound communication logs. Sure enough, Kris had wiped something. There was a nice, big, conspicuous blank space. Curious, Jongin brought up the camera system, but to his surprise, fifteen minutes of camera footage were wiped as well, corresponding with the missing communication.

“What the hell is he hiding?” Jongin asked, frustrated with this whole crazy ordeal.

“Oh no,” Luhan mumbled. “Jongin, look.”

Jongin looked up at the camera array in time to see Kris bodily throwing Sehun into a brig cell and locking the door.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The Thing, as it turned out, was about the length of Jongdae's arm and looked a little bit like a bright green long-range rifle with a dinner plate attached to the barrel. It was, in fact, extraordinarily silly-looking, and also extraordinarily conspicuous.

Also heavy. Shit, it was heavy.

Jongdae dug through the first aid cabinet on the wall until he came up with a length of cloth medical bandage. He used that to create a shoulder strap for the Thing, wrapping it first in a piece cut from a dark tablecloth so its color wouldn't be so obvious, then tying the bandage as tightly as he could around the barrel and base, and slinging it over his shoulder and across his back like an awkward bandolier. He kept the rest of the roll of bandage in his pocket, in case the makeshift sling broke.

"How's Xing doing?" Jongdae asked as he got the Thing settled and tested its security. It felt wobbly, so he used a little more bandage to secure it around his waist, distributing the weight and keeping it from bouncing around too much as he moved.

Running security ragged. He's got a hell of a lot of stamina for a man who's done nothing but research for ten years.

A flash of Yixing's bare, tightly muscled torso in the kitchen earlier flitted through Jongdae's mind. "I think he keeps himself in pretty good shape," he mumbled. After all, he probably spent at least eight of those ten years trying to keep up with his genetically supercharged children. "Alright, I'm going to head for the rendezvous point then."

I'll let him know. Hopefully he can ditch the guards, get the data stick and meet you.

Right. Hopefully. Jongdae moved, carefully listening at the door before moving out into the darkened hallway, and following the green line painted on the floor towards the elevators. With the Thing in hand and security alerted, there was no way they were getting out of here the same way they came in, so the plan was to leave through the cargo dock as Baekhyun had earlier.

GET TO YIXING

Jongdae froze. "What?"

They boxed him in blue line to your right HURRY

Unthinkingly, Jongdae obeyed, pivoting over one shoulder and taking off, following the blue line down the hall to the right.

Okay now red

Whoa. Okay. Jongdae switched paths as the blue line veered away.

Just ahead!

Jongdae drew his blaster and charged it up, skidding around the corner. He took one bare moment to asses the situation - three guards, one had Yixing on the floor, they were cuffing him - then raised his arm and fired off three shots.

Auto-aim did its work, and all three guards went down, leaving a panting, wide-eyed Yixing kneeling in the midst of the bodies. Jongdae was at his side in seconds, examining the restraints.

"Hi," he gasped, as out of breath as Yixing was.

"Hi. I hope you didn't kill them," Yixing replied.

Of course, that would be the first thing on his mind. Muttering incoherent annoyance under his breath, Jongdae picked up the hand of the closest guard and used his fingerprint to unlock the cuffs. They fell away, and immediately Yixing reached for the guard, taking his pulse and lifting an eyelid to examine something or another.

"Xing - " Jongdae huffed. "They're just stunned, come on."

Yixing snorted. "Right, because that doesn't wreak havoc on your systems."

Jongdae grabbed him by the wrist before he could examine all three of them. "We have to go," he hissed, getting to his feet and yanking Yixing up after him. "Baek, which way to the data labs?"

Blue line, back the way you came. Careful, there's probably a lot more where they came from.

"Inevitably," Jongdae grumbled. "Someday, a mission will go perfectly smoothly."

"The odds of that are astronomical," Yixing muttered. He tugged his hand out of Jongdae's grip, but he followed, looking at least as wary as Jongdae felt.

The door to the data lab had been re-locked.

“Damnit,” Jongdae muttered, as Yixing pulled out his tablet and restarted the passcode hacking program. They had to just stand there in the hallway conspicuously? “I don’t suppose you made note of what the passcode was, or saved the search?”

“I was not expecting to need it again,” Yixing shot back. “I don’t keep useless knowledge in my brain, there’s too much other stuff I need to retain.”

So they stood at the door and waited in awkward, nerve-wracking silence. Jongdae kept his back to Yixing, his blaster out, totally expecting more security to come around the corner at any second. The more time passed without a peep, the more nervous Jongdae felt, because he knew, he just knew, that it wasn’t going to be this easy.

He found out he was right when Yixing got the door unlocked, made a small noise of triumph, and opened it. The distinctive whine of a charging blaster hit his ears and before Jongdae completely processed the thought, instinct kicked in.

He turned on his heel and tackled Yixing to the ground, knocking him bodily out of the doorway as blaster bolts whizzed past them, barely missing. Long experience with this kind of thing had Jongdae cupping the back of Yixing’s head with his hand as they fell, protecting him from cracking it open on the laminate floor.

For one long, frozen moment, they stared at each other, Jongdae laid out on top of Yixing with his head cradled in his hand, Yixing staring up at him, surprised, confused and vulnerable. It was broken the next moment by the sound of voices and Yixing pushing at his hips to get him up.

Jongdae scrambled to his feet and pulled Yixing after him, and they started to run. “Baek, any ideas?” he gasped.

I’m looking, nothing yet

“There has to be a second way in or out of that lab,” Yixing bit out. “It’s fire code.” There was a pause, probably while Baekhyun answered him, and then, “It might be unmarked. That’s done sometimes with high-security labs.”

The footsteps behind them were too close, and Jongdae was running out of energy, carrying that heavy-ass piece of kit on his back. Besides, he could feel his makeshift sling starting to come loose, and the thought of dropping and breaking it - no. They needed somewhere to hide.

There was a big, heavy door with a wheel lock at the end of the hall. Jongdae skid to a stop in front of it and started heaving the wheel around as fast as he could. To his credit, Yixing didn’t question it, he just lent his strength, and between them they got the massive deadbolt retracted and the door heaved open.

They crowded through, and Jongdae pulled the door closed behind them, just as footsteps rounded the corner.

It was a tiny space, almost completely dark, and really freaking cold. So tiny a space, in fact, that even pressed right up against Yixing, he could feel wall behind himself, and wall behind Yixing. Where were they? What was this space? It was far too cold to be a closet, and no one used a wheel bolt on a closet anyway.

Jongdae’s ears were filled with the sound of Yixing’s breath and his own, both of them trying to remain quiet while gasping for air after their sprint. In the darkness, Jongdae couldn’t see Yixing, which meant Baekhyun probably couldn’t see anything at all, but Jongdae could feel him, feel his body shifting restlessly and his breath hot on Jongdae’s cheek.

“Where are we?” Jongdae asked in the barest, most silent of whispers, counting on his proximity to Yixing and the resonance of sound through his skull to make himself heard.

I have no idea, Baekhyun said, the glowing, floating red text particularly stark against the backdrop of black. That door isn’t on the plans Dr. Cho gave us.

In response, Yixing reached out and touched Jongdae’s arm, running his fingers lightly down the outside until he found Jongdae’s wrist. Picking it up, Yixing guided Jongdae’s hand behind himself. It forced them closer together, forced Jongdae to press his entire body to Yixing’s, all the way down.

Steadfastly ignoring the easy way their thighs slotted together, Jongdae felt around, until he realized what Yixing was trying to tell him, what was at his back. A steel ladder.

“It’s an escape hatch,” Jongdae breathed, his words nothing but hissed consonants. Yixing was so terribly close that Jongdae could feel him nod. His hand was curling around Jongdae’s waist, probably for lack of anywhere else to put it.

Footsteps outside the door had both of them freezing, breath held. Yixing’s pulse pounded nervously against Jongdae’s skin, slightly off-tempo from Jongdae’s own, marking out a jaunty tattoo in Jongdae’s ears. Ba-dum-bump. Ba-dum-bump.

Okay, I think I figured out where the second entrance to the lab is, Baekhyun wrote across Jongdae’s vision. Jongdae felt Yixing turn his head as if in response, and wondered if Baekhyun had found a way to type messages to both of them at once. One of you provide a distraction, and the other go get the data stick. If you can get to the top of the escape hatch and fire off a shot, I’ll be waiting to pick you up when you get back here.

It wasn’t a very thought-out plan, but it was something. Jongdae found Yixing’s hand and guided it behind himself, mimicking what Yixing had just done, reminding him about the Thing still tied to his back.

I’m going to guess you’re not answering me because there’s guards too close by. I suggest Xing go get the data, and Dae provide the distraction.

Of course he did. Jongdae huffed in annoyance, and felt Yixing’s ribcage contract as he snorted a silent laugh. Yixing leaned forward, and Jongdae turned his head, offering his ear.

“I can take this,” Yixing whispered, barely more than a mouth movement, felt as much as heard. He jostled the Thing slightly, so Jongdae knew what he was talking about. Jongdae nodded, his fringe brushing against Yixing’s cheek.

With slow, silent movements, communicating through touch alone, Jongdae and Yixing managed to unravel the makeshift sling and get the Thing transferred to Yixing’s back. The old bandage was rather stretched out, so Jongdae pulled the extra out of his pocket and re-bound it to Yixing’s waist, pulling it as tight as he could manage to ensure their prize was secure.

It was awfully close quarters, awfully intimate, but they stayed professional, and soon enough it was done. Jongdae rolled out his shoulders, grateful to be rid of the weight, especially if he was about to run for his life.

Yixing’s fingers brushed over his shoulders, down between his shoulderblades, and then pushed, somehow finding the most sore spot and digging deeply into it. Jongdae bit back a groan, arching, shocked at how good that one touch felt. Too quickly, it was gone, and Jongdae had only the barest impression of white teeth flashing in the darkness to tell him Yixing had smiled.

“They can’t see you go through the door,” Yixing pointed out, soft and soundless.

Jongdae nodded. Then, remembering, he unholstered his blaster and pressed it into Yixing’s hand. “To signal Baek,” he said, when Yixing instinctively refused to take it. Reluctantly, Yixing’s fingers opened, taking the gun. “It’s already on stun.”

Yixing wrapped his hand around Jongdae’s arm for one moment, squeezing. “I’ll go as fast as I can,” he promised.

He’d better. Jongdae was fast, but he couldn’t exactly run forever.

Shifting, he listened carefully at the door, Yixing going still beside him. There were no more footsteps, no more sounds. He tapped Yixing’s arm twice to indicate he was moving, and very, very slowly pushed open the door.

No one. Okay.

Jongdae flashed a smile over his shoulder at Yixing, and started down the hall. He was quiet, as quiet as he could manage at first, but as soon as he judged himself far enough he started making noise, allowing his footfalls to pound, allowing himself to brush doors and pass in the path of security cameras.

Xing’s moving. You gotta get their attention.

Hmm, how to do that? Jongdae’s eyes fell on the closest door. He had no idea what was behind it, and didn’t really care, but…

He pressed his finger to the lockpad. UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS ATTEMPT flashed across the readout, and Jongdae grinned.

Ah, what the heck. He moved down the hall and pressed his finger to another door. And another. Just to make the security logs blow up, just to make them wonder what the fuck he was up to.

In a few minutes, he heard footsteps in the otherwise-silent facility, and huffed under his breath. “Here they come,” he murmured, gauging his surroundings for routes of approach and escape.

He’s at the secondary exit. Working on getting in.

Yixing needed more time then. Alright.

Jongdae saw movement at the other end of the hall and took off down a side path.

After running in circles through this part of the facility for the past forty minutes, Jongdae was becoming familiar with the layout. He stuck to the routes with at least three approaches, remaining in the main areas, always leaving himself at least two ways out.

And it worked, for a while. A good ten minutes of scattered sprints, always remaining one step ahead, moving as erratically as he could manage.

Okay, we got it. Xing’s headed back. Time to lose them.

That part, unfortunately, was easier said than done. By this point Jongdae had counted five guards after him, and they’d split up, and Jongdae found himself having to double back more often than not. He realized a little too late they were herding him, and within minutes found himself in a t-intersection, looking at two guards approaching from either side and one from the front.

“Freeze! Drop to your knees!”

If he’d had his blaster, he would have taken out the single man and run. But he was unarmed, and now he saw that had been a really dumb thing to do.

Jongdae walked forward, getting out of the sightlines of the four guards and closer to the fifth. “Hey, man, sorry, I just got really lost, you guys scared me.” Nonsense, smokescreen, there was no way they would buy it but maybe it could distract for a few seconds. He held up his hands. “Don’t shoot, I’m just lost, I must have gotten on the wrong elevator or something.”

All that got him was a nice view down the business end of a blaster. “On your knees!” the guard shouted.

“Okay, rude, that’s really uncalled for,” Jongdae babbled, dropping to his knees to keep from getting shot. The blaster barrel followed his descent, dropping to his forehead, and distantly, Jongdae registered the indicator light was red, not blue.

It wasn’t set to stun.

Time seemed to slow. Jongdae actually saw the man’s forearm twitch, the impulse to his trigger finger, and thought, that’s it. But before the trigger was actually squeezed, a shock of blue light wound around the man’s body from behind, and he jerked and fell forward, directly on top of Jongdae.

Instinctively, Jongdae’s hands shot up, pushing the falling body away from him to roll on the floor. He was up and on his feet and running before he registered Yixing at the end of the hallway, blaster lowering.

Shit. Doctor “I-will-never-use-a-blaster” Zhang just stunned a man to save Jongdae’s life.

He didn’t have time to dwell on it. Yixing was already gone, disappearing around the corner, and the security guards behind him were yelling, and Jongdae just ran.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

The only - only - good thing about Kris catching them and Sehun being sent away was that Minseok came to watch Tao, taking him back to his workshop in the lowest level of the ship. This was a good thing, not because of Minseok himself, but because Kyungsoo was also there, and Tao needed Kyungsoo very, very badly right now.

“I’m sorry,” he said immediately, the moment the door was closed and the three of them were alone. “I made a mistake, I did a dumb thing, now Sehun’s in trouble, it’s all my fault -”

Tao’s joints felt wobbly, his body outside his control in a terrifying way, and he dropped to his knees on the composite floor. Soo was there in moments, standing over Tao’s kneeling form, wrapping his arms around Tao’s shoulders and letting Tao bury his face in Soo’s chest. His heartbeat was more rapid than Sehun’s, his body warmer, and it was comforting, but also it was a reminder of what Tao had done, what his recklessness had cost.

“Slow down, kid,” Minseok said gruffly. “What happened?”

He felt his shoulders rising towards his ears, instinctive, defensive. “I disobeyed,” he whispered. It was easier to say it when his face was pressed to Kyungsoo’s shirt, and he didn’t have to look either of them in the eye. “I went to see Sehun when I wasn’t supposed to. When Kris told me not to.”

“And Kris found out?” Minseok asked. Tao nodded unhappily. “Shit. What’d he do?”

“He sent Sehun to the brig,” Tao admitted. “He didn’t punish me. Yet. But he sent Sehun away, and told him he had to stay there for the rest of the mission.”

Silence. Kyungsoo stroked Tao’s back, pet his hair, and didn’t say a word. Tao was very thankful for that.

A touch on Tao’s shoulder, though, made him pull back, look up. Minseok stood next to them, his expression unreadable. “Say that again,” he requested. “How long?”

Tao thumbed away the single tear that had formed at the corner of one eye. “The rest of the mission,” he whispered. “That’s us, right? We’re the mission. So he’s stuck until…”

Minseok frowned, finishing Tao’s thought. “Until we transfer you kids to the client? Shit, that’s another three weeks, at least.” He huffed. “How the hell are we supposed to keep this ship running if we have to babysit you three and we’re down a man?”

His expression compressing with guilt, Tao whispered, “I’m sorry.”

He wasn’t going to be allowed to see Sehun, ever again, and it was all his own fault.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

When they finally got back aboard Angel, the dock doors closing and locking behind them and a jerk in his stomach indicating they were taking off, Yixing was surprised that Baekhyun met them in the cargo bay, and more surprised when the first thing he did, before even speaking, was throw his arms around Jongdae’s neck and cling.

“You fucking scared me,” Baekhyun muttered.

Yixing would never have pegged them as cuddle-friends, but Jongdae’s body welcomed Baekhyun’s easily, familiarly, curving towards him and accommodating him in a way that told him this was not as uncommon as he would have thought. “Sorry,” Jongdae said, rather roughly. “I’m okay, Baek.”

With the Thing in hand, Yixing slipped out of the cargo bay and down the hall, leaving the two of them to reunite in private. Heading for the cockpit, Yixing set the Thing down carefully on the counter behind the control panels, and reached in his pocket for the stick drive with the research.

He looked up, and found himself looking at Baekhyun’s face, and realized the contacts were still active. The other screen showed...itself. The screen Yixing was looking at, recursively reflected within itself into infinity.

Yixing quickly looked away. He’d better go take the contacts out. Ignoring the fact that in the other screen he could see Jongdae’s hand cupping Baekhyun’s cheek, could hear Jongdae’s voice reassuring Baekhyun that he was indeed alive, unhurt, and out of danger, Yixing ducked down the hall to the refresher, washed his hands and took his contacts out, carefully returning them to the lens case they’d come from.

By the time he was done and returned to the cockpit, Baekhyun was there, gingerly inspecting the Thing. Yixing looked up to see Jongdae had entered the refresher to do the same, his face taking up the entire screen as he examined his own eyes in the mirror.

The way the corners of his mouth curled up made him look like he was smiling all the damn time. Yixing thought it made him look teasing, almost smug. He wondered how Jongdae always managed to get people to trust him, when his resting facial expression taunted I know something you don’t know.

Jongdae’s finger blotted out the image, and then the screen went dark, all extra ambient sound gone.

“Stars,” Baekhyun muttered. “This thing looks complicated as fuck. How the hell are we going to figure out how to use it?”

“Well,” Yixing said, “according to your friend, we have less than fifteen days.” He pulled the stick drive out of his pocket. “I’m reasonably certain I made a copy of every document pertaining to this project there is. We’ll figure it out.”

Baekhyun eyed him. “Unless you have a second doctorate somewhere in that brain, Doc, last I checked none of us were quantum physicists. Are we even going to be able to read the research?”

Yixing looked Baekhyun in the eye and vowed, “I will make it work if I have to teach myself quantum physics.”

A hand landed on Yixing’s shoulder. He looked up, into darkly lashed eyes and that curved mouth he was just contemplating. “Try not to blow up my ship in the process?” Jongdae murmured.

Normally, Yixing would have made a snarky comment here, or scoffed at him. But Jongdae had saved his life, just a few hours before.

“I’ll do my best,” he promised softly.

Jongdae smiled at him, lips curling prettily.

“Starfucking shit,” Baekhyun swore, getting both of their attention. He had the stick drive in the console and a document pulled up, and Yixing’s heart pounded uncomfortably.

“What, what’s wrong?” he asked.

To his surprise though, Baekhyun’s shoulders started shaking, his hand thrown over his mouth. Laughing, he was laughing.

“The Thing,” he said, between gasps for air. “Its real name. Oh my god, how did we not notice that?”

Yixing looked up at the screen, and beside him, felt Jongdae do the same. Displayed there at the top of a research document was the full scientific name of the Thing - the Superluminal Parallel Outer Orbit Navigator.

“Why is that funny?” he asked, bewildered.

“It’s an acronym,” Baekhyun giggled, scrolling down a little ways and pointing to where the name was abbreviated in the text.

Yixing’s eyes went wide.

“Gentlemen,” Jongdae murmured beside him, “I believe we have just stolen the universe’s very first Intergalactic S.P.O.O.N.”

Yixing looked at him, twinkling dark eyes and barely restrained mirth behind curved kitty lips, and the dam broke, stress and terror and adrenaline breaking free of his control all at once.

Simultaneously, all three of them burst into hysterical laughter.

Chapter Text

Chanyeol was surprised, when he walked into the galley at the beginning of Alpha shift, to find Jongin there, alone. For several days, at Kris's order, Luhan had been all but attached to Jongin at the hip.

"Where's your charge?" Chanyeol asked sleepily, digging in the refrigerator unit for something not-water to drink.

"With your husband," Jongin said dryly. And...tightly? Chanyeol looked up immediately, looking Jongin over with new eyes. The younger man's shoulders were too high, his usually relaxed features tense. He kept glancing up at the time readout.

Chanyeol closed the unit without pulling anything out. "What's wrong?" he asked, crossing the room.

Jongin flinched visibly, and Chanyeol half-expected a weak denial that anything was going on. But Jongin acquiesced. "Something happened," he muttered. "Kris locked Sehun in the brig."

Chanyeol could not possibly have heard that right. "What?"

"The brig. Sehun. Until the mission is complete." Jongin was actually twining his fingers in the hem of his shirt, now. He was really upset. "And he came and got Luhan, I think he's questioning him, and I saw Tao basically sobbing in Kyungsoo's arms on the camera, and - " Seeming to remember who he was speaking to, Jongin abruptly shut up.

Frowning, Chanyeol asked, "Do you know what happened?"

"Not really," Jongin admitted, shaking his head. "But Kris has been..." He eyed Chanyeol carefully. "I don't know, you spend more time with him than anyone. How has Kris been?"

Chanyeol thought about it. "He's been restless," he muttered. "Most nights, he doesn't stay in bed the whole shift. He hasn't been there when I woke up in days."

The way Jongin was studying him made Chanyeol want to squirm. "Kris's behavior has been kind of erratic, don't you think?" he asked quietly. "I mean, especially since the kids escaped, but even before that, he was acting strange. He hasn't said anything to you?"

Other than the momentary breakdown in Chanyeol's arms just after they got the engine jumped, "Not really." Chanyeol shrugged helplessly. "He's always been private."

"Yeah, but...this isn't really a private thing, is it?" Jongin pressed. "This isn't him keeping quiet on his past, or his political opinions. This is something that affects all of us." Leaning on the counter, Jongin regarded Chanyeol carefully. "He hasn't said a thing to you about who hired us, has he? Or for how much? Or where we're going, once we get to Sola?"

Uneasiness stirred in Chanyeol's gut. "We don't need to know," he argued. "It's easier if the Captain just handles that kind of thing."

Jongin stared, clearly not believing that for a second. Honestly, it sounded weak to Chanyeol, too.

Footsteps down the hall had them both turning and looking. It was Kris, with Luhan quite literally in tow. "Here, this is yours," he said, shoving Luhan forward. Luhan stumbled towards Jongin; Jongin put out a hand to catch him but didn't reach further when Luhan got his feet under himself without help. "And you better keep a closer damn watch on him," Kris snarled. "He tampered with the system right under your starfucking nose again."

He turned, and left, without acknowledging Chanyeol, seemingly without even noticing he was there.

"You okay?" Jongin asked, voice low.

"Fine," Luhan muttered. "I gave in quickly. There was no reason not to tell him, since he'd already gotten everything out of Tao and Sehun anyway."

Chanyeol cocked his head. "What did you do, exactly?"

Luhan did not meet his eyes, but from what Kyungsoo had told him, that was normal. "Just blocked the alarm from going off when Tao left his room," he said. "I told Tao it was a bad idea, but he insisted he had to see Sehun." He shrugged. "He was willing to take the risk, so I let him."

Tao was willing to take the risk...just to see Sehun?

Jongin guided Luhan out of the room with a practiced hand, herding without touching.

"Gives you something to think about, doesn't it?" he murmured as he passed.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Jongdae had assumed, for obvious reasons, that Yixing was exaggerating about teaching himself quantum physics. He found out rather quickly, though, that Yixing was not exaggerating in the slightest. Jongdae and Baekhyun had both attempted to read the scientific papers Yixing had downloaded from the base, and both had failed miserably. They were too dense, too filled with terminology neither of them could understand, and to make it worse, all the papers and reports referenced each other, and trying to read them was like trying to understand the web of favors and funding in the Core Congress.

"When was the last time you slept?" Jongdae asked, when he woke up from his own sleep shift and found Yixing exactly where he'd left him ten hours previous, sitting in the pilot's chair with the Intergalactic S.P.O.O.N. in front of him and a dozen windows open on the viewscreen above. "Or ate?"

Baekhyun would have made a snarky comment there, but Yixing didn't even answer. He was scribbling with a stylus on the touchpad, drawing diagrams and taking notes. None of it made any sense at all to Jongdae, and he wondered how much Yixing had already absorbed. The man was, in fact, terrifyingly smart.

Jongdae put his hands on Yixing's shoulders, making him jump in surprise. "Shit," he snapped. "Don't sneak up on me like that."

"I've been standing here and talking to you for at least thirty seconds," Jongdae pointed out. "Food. Sleep. When was the last time you had either of these life necessities?"

Yixing was already turning back to his touchpad, uninterested. "I ate a few hours ago," he muttered.

Okay, that was something, anyway. "How many hours have you been awake?" Jongdae asked. "I know you were up before I came on duty, you were up for my entire shift, and now it's ten hours later and you're still here. I count at least twenty-one hours there."

Wordlessly, Yixing pointed at the desk beside his elbow. Half a dozen empty stim shot bottles sat there, lined up in a neat little rectangle.

Jongdae blinked. "You're insane," he muttered. "With that kind of caffeine overload, how are you not seeing sounds?"

"Synesthesia is not induced by caffeine," Yixing grumbled, as if this was so very obvious that he should not be wasting his time with it. He shrugged Jongdae's hands off himself. "I'm fine. I'm close to a breakthrough, I can feel it."

Stepping forward and leaning against the console, Jongdae faced Yixing, and studied him. He was paler even than normal, his lips seeming blood-red against his near-translucent complexion, and the circles under his eyes were dark bruises. "You look like shit," he said frankly. "You need to sleep. How the heck can you even trust your mind to be working correctly in this state?"

His admonishment earned him a glare. "I have worked longer hours than this, on more difficult problems," Yixing shot back, hackles raised like an offended cat. "This problem has already been solved for me! I just need to understand how." He huffed. "It's not helping that the lead researcher on this project clearly has a ten-year-old's command of grammar. And the formatting is atrocious."

Yixing sounded so annoyed, Jongdae couldn't help but smile at him. "A scientist who's bad with language? Inconceivable."

Squinting suspiciously, Yixing muttered, "I can't decide if that's supposed to be a personal insult, or just a generalized one."

Laughing, Jongdae reached out and tugged on Yixing's arm. "Go to bed, Dr. Brainy," he said. "We still have ten days and you're not actually a superhero."

Yixing shook his head, pulling away from Jongdae's grip again. "No. I'm so close to a breakthrough. I just need to make sense of this last paper." He gestured to the screen. "I'll sleep when I get it figured out."

Jongdae reached over and locked down the console with his administrative key.

"Hey!"

"You're going to bed, and you're going to sleep for at least six hours," Jongdae said firmly. "I am prepared to make it an order, if I have to."

Full, too-red lips twisted into a disbelieving sneer. "I don't take orders from you," he said.

Rude. "You damn well do," Jongdae snapped. "It's still my ship. Don't make me enforce this, because I will."

"Please." Yixing's eyes rolled, revealing the blood vessels creeping in along the corners. He was far more tired than he pretended to be, and Jongdae knew it. "You and what army?"

"You asked for it," Jongdae told him. He grabbed Yixing by the collar and hauled, lifting him bodily out of the seat.

Despite being small-boned and short, Jongdae was, in fact, a heck of a lot stronger than he looked, a fact which he took great pride in and which had come in handy on many, many occasions. Now was no exception, and Jongdae had Yixing on his feet, turned around, and his arms locked in a hold behind his back before Yixing even realized what was happening and tried to resist.

"Fucking - Let me go, Dae!"

It was a measure of how tired Yixing really was, Jongdae thought, that his struggling was so weak. He and Yixing had to be more evenly matched than this, but Yixing's limbs didn't seem to be cooperating with him, and his attempts to get free were uncoordinated. As it stood, though, Jongdae had surprisingly little trouble dragging Yixing out of the cabin and down the hall to the bedroom they'd been sharing.

"Jongdae, no, I have to keep working." Yixing was babbling now, breathless, anxious. "I'm so close, we're running out of time, I have to make it work, they're counting on me, my kids need me, Jongdae, please, let me go."

"No," Jongdae said firmly, the way one would say it to a disobedient dog. "You are going to get some rest if I have to sit on you to keep you there. Try me."

Yixing's writhing grew stronger, but it was still uncoordinated, and Jongdae's grip held. He kicked the door to the room closed behind him, and shoved Yixing forward, letting him go. "Bed. Get on it."

The doctor planted his feet in the center of the room, crossed his arms over his chest, and glared, silently daring Jongdae to make him.

Jongdae took that dare. He shot forward and scooped Yixing up, bending down to fit one shoulder into Yixing's gut and then standing to lift him bodily onto his shoulder. Yixing squealed - actually squealed - as Jongdae upended him on his back on the bed and climbed on top.

"Get comfy," he said cheerfully, scrambling to get a grip on Yixing's wrists before Yixing could shove him away. "We're going to be here a while."

"Jongdae," Yixing whined, breathless, tired, overwhelmed. Something about the way he sounded made Jongdae's smug smile fade, made him really look at the man underneath him.

Pleading, anxious dark eyes, behind thick lashes that glimmered faintly in the corners, unshed tears of exhaustion and emotion. Reddened lips parted around breath, panting with exertion. The body under his own, tensed and defensive and warm, very very warm.

Distantly, Jongdae realized Yixing's legs had parted to allow him to kneel between, his thighs slightly lifted and pressing against the sides of Jongdae's own. Jongdae swallowed this realization down, his breath quickening when he saw Yixing's eyes drop to watch his throat work.

"Yixing," Jongdae murmured. It came out too breathy, too soft. "You really...You need to sleep. It'll all be there when you wake up, I promise."

Yixing's dark eyes lifted to meet his own again. "I can't let them down," he whispered. Jongdae could hear, in his voice, that this was the truest, rawest thing the doctor had ever said to him. "They need me. They need me."

Sensing that the fight was leaving Yixing's body, Jongdae let his grip loosen. Thoughtlessly, he brushed Yixing's sweaty hair from his forehead. "You really love them, don't you," he realized aloud. "You really do."

Yixing's lips compressed unhappily, and for a split second, Jongdae mourned the loss of their plush appearance. "Of course I do," he said. "They're my children."

Right. Right.

Of course.

Except that had never really hit Jongdae, until just now. He'd never really believed that was what Yixing was after, why he wanted this so badly. He'd just assumed it was about his research, his life's work.

But it was about them. Yixing's...sons.

"I swear to you," Jongdae said impulsively, "that I will do everything in my power to help you save them." Yixing's eyes widened. "And right now, that means not letting you work yourself to death. Sleep, Yixing."

Yixing didn't move, but the last of the tension in his body faded, leaving him pliant and defeated under Jongdae's body. Jongdae moved to get off him, to leave him be so he could actually rest.

To his surprise, though, Yixing switched his grip, wrapping his fingers around Jongdae's wrist. "Can you stay?" he asked in an embarrassed rush.

Jongdae blinked in surprise. "You want me to...stay here? Sleep with you?" He winced at that wording. "Nap with you, I mean?"

A small, self-conscious chuckle. "My brain won't shut up," Yixing admitted. "If there's nothing to distract me, I'll just be thinking about what could happen, what might have already happened, what I've done wrong."

Ah. Yes, Jongdae was familiar with that feeling. He lifted himself up and pushed a bit at Yixing's hip, encouraging him to scoot closer to the wall. When Yixing had moved, Jongdae rolled off of him, settling beside him instead.

"You wanna cuddle?" he asked, grinning. He'd meant it as a joke, just trying to lighten the mood, to make Yixing smile. To his surprise, though, Yixing bit his lip, obviously considering, and then actually nodded. "Wait, really?"

Yixing shrugged, not looking at him. "The physical contact will help calm my mind," he admitted. "Something to concentrate on that's not what a failure I am." He reached out his arms, hesitantly.

Well, fuck. He had offered. And Jongdae was not afraid of a little bodily contact, as the previous events had shown. He scooted closer, letting Yixing's arm slide under his neck, curling his own left arm against Yixing's chest and throwing his right over Yixing's waist. Their legs tangled easily from the knees down, and Yixing's cheek came to rest on Jongdae's forehead.

"Thank you," Yixing murmured. Jongdae nodded, not trusting his voice.

This was...much too comfortable for Jongdae's peace of mind.

They spoke no more. Eventually, Yixing's breathing evened out, and his heartbeat slowed under Jongdae's palm.

"If it helps," Jongdae murmured softly, "I don't think you're a failure. I think you might be the bravest man I've ever met."

Sound asleep, Yixing didn't answer.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

“Oh, now that is interesting.”

The statement, like many others uttered within his hearing, was contrived to catch Luhan’s attention, to appeal to his curiosity. Jongin was nowhere near as subtle as he likely imagined himself to be. Rolling his eyes, Luhan ignored him.

Jongin, as Luhan had learned, did not like to be ignored. The tablet on which Luhan had been messing around - locked down to Core access only, no ship access, despite Luhan repeatedly and rather unsubtly trying to break through - suddenly blanked, and a different screen popped up.

Luhan closed his eyes, annoyed. “Jongin.”

“Seriously. You’ll want to look at this.”

Deciding it would cause less disruption if he just went with it, Luhan looked.

It took a moment to determine what it was. A Coresite for some company called Humans Towards Tomorrow. The page was very prettily designed, very eye-catching, but Luhan could not figure out exactly what Humans Towards Tomorrow was supposed to be.

“Why do I care?” he asked.

Jongin hummed. “That’s a cached copy of the site, the latest one I could find. Look at the stardate.”

Luhan pulled up the site code and looked. “The day you attacked us?”

A flash of a smile. “Yep. Click on About the Company.”

It brought up a timeline and a biography, and a list of executive’s names. “O...kay…” he murmured. “Still don’t know what I’m looking at.”

“The Executive Director,” Jongin said, gesturing uselessly from across the room. “Does that name look familiar to you?”

Dr. Kwon Daeshin? No, why would - oh. Wait. Oh.

“He’s the man Xing-ge sent all his reports to,” Luhan realized aloud. “The ones I showed you.”

“Got it in one.” Jongin pushed his rolling chair with his feet, sliding across to the corner of the room where Luhan sat, back to the wall. “I looked this company up in the Core database. Interestingly enough, though their site says they were created twenty-five years ago, I could find no record of them older than ten years. Well, a little over ten years.” Jongin arched an eyebrow. “And they officially dissolved a few weeks ago.”

For once, Jongin was right. That was very, very interesting. “A company run by the man that ge was sending reports to, that came into being right before he began his research, and dissolved immediately after he was killed,” Luhan murmured. “How...tidy.”

Jongin turned the tablet in his own hand around, showing Luhan the screen. “Because the company was, nominally, a not-for-profit charity, their financial records had to be made open to the public.” He pointed. “They received a very large donation from an anonymous source, six months before the date of Dr. Zhang’s very first report. According to the published summary, the donation was for ‘research’.”

Luhan’s eyes widened at the number displayed on the screen. “Correct me if I’m wrong,” he muttered, “since I’ve not had direct experience, but that seems like an awfully large amount.”

“Oh, it is,” Jongin confirmed. “Oddly specific, too. Donations are usually nice, rounded-off numbers, aren’t they? Nobody donates down to the credit.” He made a small, sure noise. “Humans Towards Tomorrow was a front company, I’d bet money.”

“A front company?” It was a term Luhan had not heard before.

“An organization created for a different purpose than it’s advertised as,” Jongin clarified. “In this case, judging by the excited, I’m-gonna-save-the-world tone of Dr. Zhang’s early reports, I wouldn’t be surprised if the only purpose of this organization was to recruit him, make him believe whatever line they fed him, and fund his research.” He shook his head. “Whatever cause your Xing-ge was recruited for, whatever he was made to believe, it was a lie. This company never really existed.”

It was a hard thing to hear, a hard thing to imagine, and it made the low simmer of anger that had been constant in Luhan’s heart for weeks spike. “Why?” Luhan asked, his brow furrowing. “Why lie to him? What was the point?” His frown deepened. “Who would do this?”

He glanced up momentarily, catching a glimpse of the glitter of interest in Jongin’s eyes. “That,” Jongin murmured, “is what we need to figure out next.” He reached over to point at Kwon Daeshin’s name on Luhan’s tablet. “I searched, but according to the Core records, this man does not exist. I was hoping you’d have another idea.”

Oh. He was...asking for help? Luhan blinked at the tablets in front of him, his mind spinning over the possibilities.

“What about the donation?” he asked finally. “It must have been a way to cover the real transfer of real money, right? Or else the number would not be so specific.” He cocked his head. “Can we see if there was a transfer made at the right time for the right amount?”

Jongin pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Not legally, we can’t,” he murmured. “But every financial transaction that isn’t in physical credits has to go through the credit network, and their transaction records are maintained for a quarter of a century. I’ve never attempted to get into them before, though.” He cocked an eyebrow. “They have some of the highest-security systems in the ‘Verse.”

Luhan couldn’t help the small smile that crept over his features. “Sounds like fun.”

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

At first, Sehun had been scared. He'd never been imprisoned in any way in his life; it was a frightening experience, and it was compounded with worry, for Tao, for the other two prisoners, for what was going to happen next.

But it had been days, and now, Sehun wasn't just scared and worried, he was scared, worried, and bored.

And hungry. Really hungry. He was fed three times a cycle, usually by Joonmyun or by Kris himself, but the meals were minimum nutrition, not meant to be satisfying or filling. Sehun hadn't realized how much he snacked, how often he reached for his stash of food bars or sweets, until he couldn't.

At least he had constant access to water, thanks to the tiny sink in his refresher cube.

At least he had a refresher cube in the first place.

Kris had forbidden him from contacting Tao since they came back from the planet, but that hadn't stopped Sehun from accessing the report Tao had written about his experience on the planet. Tao hadn't had so much as a hole in the ground in his cell, let alone a refresher cube. He hadn't had water. He hadn't known how often he would be fed, or when. Tao had described the experience as disorienting, dazing; his life had become a blur of nothingness punctuated by bouts of fighting for his life.

If Tao could handle that, could come out of that not only alive and sane, but also with his faith in humanity intact, then Sehun could handle this, even if his own faith in Kris had been shattered.

If you try to stop me from finishing this job, I will kill you.

Sehun wanted nothing more than to stop Kris. This was insane. Kris had gone insane. How could he seriously believe this was the right thing to do? He didn't, he couldn't. He'd basically said as much. Are you going to be able to stand next to me when I let someone lead Tao away in chains? There was no way he didn’t realize this was wrong.

Kris was totally aware of what he was doing, but he was doing it anyway. He had to be stopped, but right now, Sehun had no idea how. And no clue if he could count on anyone else to listen to him, if he suggested it.

Well...Jongin. He could probably count on Jongin. Jongin had had the chance to turn Luhan in ages ago, and he'd hesitated. Clearly, Jongin knew, deep down, that it was wrong.

Could Sehun count on Chanyeol? He was pretty sure Chanyeol wanted this job completed even less than Sehun did, but Kris was Chanyeol's husband, and Chanyeol was nothing if not loyal. How far did that loyalty stretch? If Sehun or anyone else tried to stop Kris, which side would Chanyeol land on?

Joonmyun was as loyal to Kris as Chanyeol was, and he managed it without the incentive of loud, screaming sex. Sehun thought things would have to get pretty heavy for Joonmyun to turn on Kris. And Minseok was a total unknown, too reserved to predict.

Sehun really wished that he hadn't followed Kris's order to create the white noise blocker on the ship. He was pretty sure, if Tao heard him pleading to be set free, no one on this ship could stop Tao from doing so. But Sehun's words didn't reach Tao, and he still had no idea how the kids got free the first time. Basically, he was stuck.

Variations on this thought pattern swirled through Sehun's mind for hours, for days, both while waking and while dreaming. Was Tao okay? How could Sehun get free? How could he stop Kris? Who would side with him, if he tried? Over and over without conclusion.

The shift lights were Gamma-blue and Sehun was dozing on the hard cot for lack of anything else to do when his third meal of the cycle arrived. This time, Sehun was surprised to see that Minseok brought it to him.

"Hey," Sehun said, grimacing as his voice cracked. He hadn't used it much in the past few days.

"Hey. How you holding up, kid?"

Sehun smiled, and shrugged, and didn't answer. Minseok didn't need an answer; he had to know exactly how Sehun felt about this situation.

Minseok pulled out the food transfer tray and set the plate onto it. Pushing it through the gap in the bars, he said, "Jongin asked about you." Dark eyes flicked up to his. "So did Tao."

Something tight gripped Sehun's heart. "Tell them I'll be fine," he murmured. "Just angry." He took the food and went to sit on his cot, pretending he didn't notice Minseok sharply looking up at that last statement.

The food was hot tonight. Sehun wondered who was cooking. He ate quickly and with relish, enjoying the rare treat of a genuinely cooked meal, more rare and treat-like for his current circumstances.

"I don't blame you for being angry," Minseok said quietly. Surprised, Sehun looked up. "Shit like this is the reason I left the military." He gestured at the cell, making it clear what this was.

There was something in his tone, something that told Sehun he had more to say, something that made Sehun slow down and regard him with a tilted head. "Kris is the captain," he said carefully. "It's within his rights to lock me up for insubordination."

Minseok snorted. "Yeah, but it's a dick move." Absently watching him eat, Minseok muttered, "So you know, basically no one agrees with this. Locking you up like this. Even Yeol had something to say about it."

It was an overture if Sehun ever heard one, and invitation to open the conversation. "What about the rest?" he asked. "The job? The kids? Do people have things to say about that?"

Shifting his weight, crossing his arms, Minseok said, "The topic's come up a couple of times."

Sehun's heart was pounding. He put down his chopsticks, suddenly uninterested in eating, despite the fact it was the tastiest, most filling meal he'd been given in days. "And what's the consensus?" he murmured, carefully choosing his words. This was skirting mutinous territory and they both knew it.

Dark, shuttered eyes met his, betraying nothing. "There isn't one," Minseok admitted. "There's a divide on the subject."

Of course there was. "How so?"

"Joon keeps telling me to trust in Kris. Keeps reminding me of all of the times he's pulled our collective asses out of the fire." Minseok raised his eyebrows. "I pointed out that at least a few of those times, Kris was the reason we were in the fire in the first place. He didn't have an answer for that."

Sehun took a deep breath. He knew better than to ask about Chanyeol, but..."Jongin?"

 

Minseok snorted. "Up to something, but he hasn't told anyone what, yet. Whatever it is, that blond kid, Luhan, he's in on it. They think they're being sneaky, but they're clearly working on something."

"Can you find out what?" Sehun asked impulsively.

Regarding him carefully, Minseok said, "Yeah, I'll find out what. And I'll keep you in the loop." He pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning on. "I'd better head back to my station. Keep your chin up, kid." Minseok ran a hand through his hair. "Kris is a formidable man, but he's still only one man."

He left, leaving Sehun behind with a rapidly cooling plate and a whole lot more than that to chew on.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Yixing had fallen asleep in Jongdae's arms, but he'd woken up alone. Completely expected, and frankly, preferred; he could only imagine how awkward it might have been to wake up still entwined, however...chastely. Yixing had expected that would be the end of that, and that things would go back to the way they had previously been. A moment of weakness on his part, momentarily indulged on Jongdae's.

To his surprise, though, it seemed Jongdae was completely serious about his promise to help Yixing in any way he could, because when Yixing made his way back to the cockpit eight hours later, he had found Jongdae at the console, with all of his notes spread out on the screen.

"You're awake," Jongdae had said. "I think I've got the gist of most of this, but I still have a couple of questions. Think you can spare an hour or so to bring me up to speed?"

Surprised by the request - and by the offer of help it implied - Yixing agreed, and did exactly that. To his shock, Jongdae had studied hard in those eight hours, using the notes Yixing had already created to aide his understanding of the extraordinarily complex subject, and getting him on the same page as Yixing took much less time than he would have thought.

From that point on, Jongdae barely left Yixing's side. It took him longer to grasp the concepts - mostly because, as he pointed out, it had been close to a decade since he'd had to study anything at all - but once he got them, he internalized them, and often had a way of looking at ideas that translated even the most complex and esoteric concepts into something easy to manipulate and use. Once they fell into the rhythm of it, they found that they actually worked quite well together, that their widely different points of view assisted them in problem-solving from all angles.

Yixing's schedule shifted automatically, aligning with Jongdae's. Now, they had a shift to themselves while Baekhyun was asleep, a shift in which all three were awake and Baekhyun listened to them work with the occasional question or snarky comment, and a sleep shift. And somehow, without them ever discussing it, they continued sleeping in the same, tiny cot, wrapped around each other. The next shift, Yixing did wake up in Jongdae's arms, and found, to his surprise, that he didn't really mind it.

Despite that they had a tendency to elbow each other in their sleep, that Jongdae was a sleep-mumbler and that he sometimes snored, for the first time since the research station was attacked, Yixing was getting a full night's sleep on a regular basis. As the shifts passed and they got closer and closer to their goal, it energized him. They were racing against time, and updates from Amber every cycle on the interstellar position of the Phoenix only served to make the ticking clock seem louder.

They had four days left until the deadline - a term Yixing sincerely hoped was not going to turn out to be literal - when they finally had the breakthrough they needed. For two full shifts, they'd been struggling to come up with a power source that was strong enough for the incredible, impossible amounts of power necessary to actually make the S.P.O.O.N. function. The original research they'd stolen had indicated that the researchers had borrowed another project from elsewhere in the base to power it for testing, an energy-storing crystal of alien origin that the researchers had been trying and failing to reverse-engineer into a mass-producible, super-high-output battery.

For those two shifts, they'd been arguing about whether to try and find another power source, or to risk sneaking into the space base for a third time to steal the power crystal. Yixing had been on the verge of just calling it, getting them together to plan another mission, when Jongdae, who had been buried deep in the Core encyclopedias looking for ideas, suddenly blurted out, "We can use a star."

Yixing blinked at him. "What?"

With a flick of his fingers, Jongdae moved the article he'd been reading to Yixing's side of the screen. It was a scientific paper published a few decades before, about a research project that successfully used a star to power a generator, not using the light emitted as had been around for centuries, but by using a form of wireless power transfer to harness the power emitted by the fusion reactions in the core, resulting in a generation of power on a far higher magnitude than anything ever seen.

Yixing frowned. "This is revolutionary. Why was it not all over everything?"

Using his touchpad, Jongdae pointed at the bottom of the article. "The cost, what else? Building something that could utilize this in a practical way cost more money than any company was willing to put in, so the idea was kept theoretical and faded into obscurity. And besides, they didn't have any application that required a power source that massive." He patted the S.P.O.O.N. "But we do."

Thoughtfully picking at his lower lip, Yixing stared at nothing and murmured, "Wireless power transfer? That's how the S.P.O.O.N. harnessed the crystal, right?" He brought up the Core database and started looking for all the information he could find on wireless power transfer.

"Yep," Jongdae confirmed. "That was the search term I used to find the article in the first place. I just can't figure out if it could work exactly the same way, or if we'd need to modify the power converter somehow."

It was a glimpse of a solution, though, and it spurred Yixing into a veritable frenzy of research, ideas and equations. Jongdae raced to keep up, throwing wild ideas and sometimes just seemingly random words at Yixing, sparking his creativity and his memory.

Finally, they had a plan, and in every theoretical test they could think to run, every equation they could think to check, it seemed that it would work. They had the exact calculations, the exact location they would need to be in, which star to use, how long to absorb power and how much to turn before activating the device. The S.P.O.O.N. would have to be mounted on Angel's nose, pointed out in the direction of travel, which would cause a minor delay, as would creating a mechanism for activating the device while inside the ship, which Jongdae assured him Baekhyun would be able to handle.

It would take another day to prepare, and possibly one more to execute, but that was it. As long as nothing went wrong...

They had it.

The last calculation came out perfectly, confirming that they would land just outside the orbit of Sola's second moon. Yixing looked up and met Jongdae's eyes, and saw all the triumph and exhilaration and hope he felt reflected in them.

He reached. Jongdae met him halfway. And Yixing had been aiming for a hug, a tight, celebratory, much-needed embrace.

But Jongdae kissed him, full on the mouth, hard and joyful.

It shocked Yixing into stillness. Shocked his mouth into falling open. Shocked him into wrapping his arms tightly around Jongdae's slim waist, pulling him close, kissing him back with breathless, giddy glee. Jongdae made a heartfelt noise and clamped both hands behind his neck, fingers digging into the hairs at Yixing's nape and giving back as good as he got.

"We did it," Jongdae gasped against Yixing's lips. "We did it we did it we did it."

Halfway between laughing and groaning, Yixing attempted to pull back, to compose himself. "We haven't done it yet," he pointed out.

"You hush, humbug," Jongdae murmured. "We've been fighting this thing for a week. I've never used my brain this hard for this long in my goddamn life. Let me have this, I deserve it." His eyes were dark, glittering, coaxing. "We both deserve it."

Yixing wasn't 100% certain what it was, exactly, but if it had anything to do with Jongdae's chest heaving with his breath against Yixing's, with his tight grip on Yixing's hair and the memory of his curly kitty lips wrapping around Yixing's own, then Yixing was feeling like he might be right.

"You're bad for me," Yixing whispered, even as he leaned down and sank his teeth into Jongdae's neck. Fuck, it had been so long since he'd felt like this. Years and years and years since he'd last felt want.

Jongdae gasped, clutching at Yixing's shoulders, his hips rolling forward until they connected with Yixing's thigh. He was starting to harden. Yixing couldn't remember the last time he'd touched an erect cock not his own, and suddenly the lack felt unbearable.

"I think," Jongdae breathed, "you are very good for me."

Chapter Text

Something weird was going on.

To be fair, things had been weird ever since they’d brought back the S.P.O.O.N. from the space base. No, if Baekhyun was totally honest, things had gotten weird the moment they spotted the ruined space station. He was regretting, now, his curiosity when he’d seen something unusual on the scanners; regretting his decision to veer off course to check it out.

Well, okay, no he wasn’t. He wasn’t so callous as to actively regret saving a human being’s life, even one as obnoxious as Yixing. It was just that he had barely seen or spoken to Jongdae in a week. And Jongdae was more than his best friend, Jongdae was his partner, his platonic soulmate, his life-long bro.

It stung, that Jongdae was spending every waking moment - and actually, every sleeping moment now too - with Yixing.

They seemed to be making good progress, though, so Baekhyun let them be, figuring the sooner they got the S.P.O.O.N. figured out, the sooner they could get going. In the meantime, he’d been experimenting with the contact lenses they’d stolen, testing them, playing around with their control programs. He’d even written a little bit of code to make the interface more user-friendly, introduced some easy keyboard shortcuts, that kind of thing. The contacts were scientifically brilliant, but it was very clear the scientists had not given a shit about ease of use, and Baekhyun had learned, when juggling two input-output streams in an attempt to keep both Jongdae and Yixing alive, that ease and speed of use were, in fact, utterly essential.

He was tinkering with it still, programing a color-coded multi-user input interface, when Jongdae stumbled rather heavily out of his bedroom and flopped dramatically into the other chair.

He reeked of sex.

Baekhyun turned to him, crossed his arms, and gave him the judgiest of judging stares. “Is that why you two have been crawling all over each other’s nuts for days?”

Jongdae, for his own part, just stretched luxuriously and grinned at him, lazy and smug. “Quite possibly,” he murmured. “We figured that out.” He gestured at the S.P.O.O.N.

“So you decided to celebrate by jumping him?” Baekhyun asked incredulously, to cover up the jolt of surprised triumph. They did it?

“Mmmm. It was a mutual jumping. Dr. Stick-In-The-Mud is a tiger in the sack. ‘Repression’ doesn’t even begin to describe.”

Oh starfucking hell. “I don’t need to hear that, Dae,” Baekhyun whined, closing his eyes against the mental images.

Jongdae grinned at him, wicked. “Then we’ll try to be quiet, next time.”

Next time. Shit. Baekhyun eyed Jongdae carefully, trying to see how serious he was about that. Was he just saying it to rile Baekhyun up, or were he and Yixing actually a thing now?

Nope, Jongdae had the dazed, faraway look in his eye. Baekhyun knew that look. For all he pretended to be cynical, jaded, a tough-as-nails star captain who couldn’t be tied down, Jongdae was a closet romantic, and he got attached easily, formed strong bonds quickly. To Baekhyun, it was clear that he was totally gone on Yixing.

“So you figured it out,” Baekhyun said, changing the subject, looking away, slamming down on the betrayal he felt curdling in his gut. It had been just him and Dae for years, damnit. “When are we going to try it, then?”

“Soon, I think. As soon as possible. We need your help with some of the mechanical aspects, and then we were thinking we could enlist Luna’s help to test it. Send something through, and have her track it with that deep-space scanner of hers and tell us if it makes it to the destination.”

Oh. Hmm. “Not just any old thing, I hope,” Baekhyun said. “We should send one of the spacesuits. Empty, obviously. They have a full range of diagnostics so we’ll be able to test that it makes it there whole and undamaged, as well as just, you know, getting there.” This technology wasn’t going to be much use to them if they came out on the other side in a billion little pieces.

Jongdae’s smile softened. “See, I told Yixing you’d have a solution,” he said, sounding...proud?

Baekhyun did not flush, but it was close. “Dae, are you - Are you and he - ” He couldn’t finish the thought. He wasn’t even really sure what he was asking.

His smile fading, Jongdae studied his face. “I don’t know yet,” he answered, and it sounded honest, honest and raw. “We haven’t discussed anything, and knowing Xing, we probably won’t, not until after all this.”

Right. Of course. “This ship is only so big,” Baekhyun pointed out. “You can’t keep him long-term. Not unless you kick me out.”

 

Almond-shaped eyes blinked at him, stunned.

“Baek,” Jongdae said, leaning forward. “I’m not kicking you out. I would never kick you out. Fuck, are you really worried about that?” He pushed Baekhyun’s shoulder, admonishing but gentle. A very familiar gesture. “He’s - look, I like him. I admire him. But he’s not my partner. That’s you. Always.”

This time, Baekhyun definitely flushed, dropping his eyes. It was exactly what he needed to hear, and he knew Jongdae well enough to be reassured that he really meant it. “Thanks, Dae,” he muttered.

“Idiot. How can you think so little of me? I’m offended.” He wasn’t, and Baekhyun knew it, but it made Baekhyun smile. “Besides, if you left, Yixing would have to buy out your share of the ship, and he can’t even come up with the money to pay us for this job.”

Well yeah, that was true. Baekhyun’s share of Angel was worth quite a lot; they’d pooled everything they had to buy her. “Darn. There go my dreams of an early retirement to Capricola.”

Jongdae burst out laughing, and Baekhyun felt better. Things hadn’t changed all that much.

 

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Days later, when Kyungsoo told Joonmyun he was ready to make his report to Kris, he was very glad that Joonmyun seemed to understand what he meant by that. Joonmyun called Kris on the comm and spoke with him for a moment, and Kris, sounding very solemn, agreed to meet with Kyungsoo in Kris and Chanyeol’s room.

Kyungsoo was glad for that, too. Other than the engine room, Kris and Chanyeol’s room felt the safest, the most comfortable. He was a little worried that Chanyeol would be there, but when Joonmyun ushered him into the room and left him behind, he saw that Kris was alone.

“Kyungsoo,” Kris greeted. He tapped on the cot beside himself; Kyungsoo came over and sat down next to him. It was a low enough cot that Kyungsoo’s feet still touched the ground. Kris’s long legs were bent up, his knees higher than his thighs. It made him look younger. “I know I asked you for a report, but...You don’t actually have to tell me what happened to you, if you don’t want to.” Kyungsoo looked up at him in surprise, and Kris smiled, brief and tight. “I saw enough to know it probably is not an easy experience to relive.”

It wasn’t. It wouldn’t be. But, “I want to,” Kyungsoo assured him.

Kris cocked his head. “You do? Why?”

“Because I have questions.” So many questions. “If I report, then can you answer my questions?”

“Ah.” Kris nodded. “I’ll do my best.”

“Okay.” And Kyungsoo, slowly and haltingly, told him everything.

Kyungsoo knew that Tao had already put most of it in his own report. At first, nothing he said was new to Kris. But the moment he began to talk about escaping the bar, about wandering alone, his voice began to shake, and Kris took his hand, winding his fingers through Kyungsoo’s in a way that was becoming familiar. His hand was so huge.

“I’m sorry,” Kyungsoo said softly, when his voice cracked so badly he couldn’t even finish his sentence.

Shaking his head, Kris said, “This is more words in ten minutes than you’ve said the entire time I’ve known you. Take all the time you need.”

It was more words in a row than Kyungsoo had ever said to anyone, at all, for any reason. He took several deep breaths before continuing.

Telling Kris about how the man had found him was harder than he anticipated. In retrospect, Kyungsoo was a complete idiot to have trusted that man, and his cheeks burned with the shame of it. Kris did not say a word, and Kyungsoo was again grateful. His story only got harder and harder to tell, and Kyungsoo could feel himself losing grammar, losing language, his sentences getting shorter and less complete as he fought to put into words something he’d never before had known there were words to describe.

He ended by explaining what the younger man wanted from him, what he’d been trying to get Kyungsoo to do. “And then you came for me,” Kyungsoo said.

“Yeah,” Kris said. His voice sounded tight, rough. Kyungsoo wondered what he wasn’t saying. “I’m sorry, Soo.”

Kyungsoo blinked at him. “Why are you sorry?” he asked, confused. “I ran away. I got in trouble.” It was no one’s fault but his own, that this had happened to him. He was too inexperienced, too trusting. Not clever enough or defiant enough to fight back, to get away.

A sigh, deep and unhappy. “I’m sorry that there are people in the ‘Verse who are like that,” Kris said. “I’m sorry that Xing-ge didn’t teach you to defend yourself, or to be wary of strangers. I’m sorry this happened to you, you didn’t deserve it.” His other hand was winding around their clasped fingers; Kyungsoo took it in his other hand, so they were holding with both. “And I’m really, really sorry you had to see me…”

He trailed off, but Kyungsoo knew what he meant, and shook his head. “I’m glad,” he whispered, fierce. “I’m glad I know he’s gone.” It was a little sickening, feeling this way, but it was better than knowing that man was still...somewhere. “The others...they...did you…?”

Kris squeezed his hand. “I didn’t, but Minseok did.”

Kyungsoo nodded. He’d thought as much. “Why did he…” He cocked his head, started his sentence over again. “Minseok doesn’t...like me. Not like Chanyeol does, or like you do.”

Was it Kyungsoo’s imagination, or did Kris’s gaze sharpen just then? “There is nothing that makes Minseok angrier than what was done to you,” Kris explained. “The practice of keeping a human as a pet is unfortunately rather widespread in certain systems, and Minseok hates it more than anything.”

It seemed an oddly specific thing to hate. “Why?” Kyungsoo asked.

Kris sighed. “Because once, a long time ago, he and I had to save someone we cared about from a place just like that,” he admitted. Kyungsoo gasped. “Only he’d been there for weeks and weeks, and had things done to him that I am never, ever going to tell you. And don’t you go asking about it, either.”

Kyungsoo shook his head vehemently. He didn’t really want to talk about what had happened to him, let alone what had happened to someone else.

“Why would someone do that?” Kyungsoo asked, turning his body a little more so he was facing Kris. Automatically, Kris did the same, one long leg pulled up onto the sheets, folded in front of himself.

“Do what?” Kris asked softly. “Capture you?”

Kyungsoo nodded. “What was the point? What did they want from me?” Their hands rested between them, and Ky