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Silence is what wakes Baekhyun; silence is what finally drives him to give up on sleep.

It's 3 AM when Baekhyun gets up after a night of tossing and thrashing. His tiny bed is too hot and cramped, but the recycled air of the spaceship is cold against his skin, raising goosebumps and sending tremors running down his spine. He shivers, putting on an old hoodie before he ventures out of his room, not bothering to stifle his yawn.

The narrow corridors are dark, only a few emergency lights on the floor to lead him to the bridge of the ship.

Kyungsoo can't sleep at night if the lights are on. It makes Baekhyun snort. Twenty years up in space and Kyungsoo still waits for the sun to set, even when there isn't a sun to dictate day and night out here. Yixing, though, wholeheartedly agreed with Kyungsoo when the man brought it up a few years ago, during a crew meeting, and Minseok shrugged and told them to do whatever they want with the lights. It's not like he sleeps at night anyway, just like Baekhyun.

In fact, Baekhyun finds the captain there, in the main bridge of the ship, collapsed on the soft lining of his armchair in front of a massive galactic map. Lu Han is probably napping somewhere on the bridge: he seldom wanders far from Minseok.

The captain doesn't even raise his eyes to look at Baekhyun. He simply nods to the empty spot next to him, and Baekhyun falls there with an easy, charming smile that Minseok can probably see right through. Baekhyun’s cheeks kind of ache.

"How many hours did you sleep tonight?" Minseok asks without preamble. He tries to keep his tone conversational, but there's always the slight wince of worry in his words. Baekhyun is grateful for it because he's ridden many spaceships in the past, but not all of the captains he's had cared about their crew as much as Minseok cares for his.

Baekhyun shakes his head when he answers and adds a naughty smile into the mix, the kind he knows makes Minseok laughs against his will. "How many hours did you sleep tonight, captain? It takes moment, but Minseok's lips curl upwards, eyes glinting in amusement behind messy bangs. Minseok shakes his head, refusing to answer. Baekhyun sighs.

"It's just," explains Baekhyun, after a while. "Too silent."

Contrivance is an agile little ship, fast and lethal. In all the years Baekhyun has spent flying up between the stars, he's never once been in a spaceship as amazing as this one or one with technologically as advanced as this one. Not even the fleet of the Interstellar Alliance can boast to have a baby cruiser like this in their ranks.

The crew has a bet going on, an inside joke shared between the members of Minseok’s crew, about the way Minseok caught himself such a pretty ship. Yixing thinks Minseok is the son of some military scientist. Zitao thinks he's stolen it from some undefended hangar. Kyungsoo almost convinced all of them it's some long-forgotten alien technology. Only Lu Han knows the truth--he's been there with Minseok since the beginning--but he's not willing to share it with them.

The problem, for Baekhyun, is that Contrivance is too silent, too comfortable for someone like him who spent his first space travel curled inside a box in the cargo hold of an old, shaky merchant ship whose joints threatened to give out at any point during the journey. At that time, Baekhyun thought he was going to die in a wreck. Since then, he's travelled in different spaceships, including a floating jail, sometimes spending months and months inside the belly of a rusty battleship or on the bridge of tiny space “corvettes.” All of those ships had one thing in common: it didn't matter where he decided to drag his sorry ass, Baekhyun could always hear the rumble of the engines. That hum was the dull, buzzing background of Baekhyun's life for almost two decades. It became a comfort.

Baekhyun has been part of Minseok's crew for six years already, but every night he still wakes up drenched in cold sweat, absolutely sure that the engines aren't working and that they're all going to die, alone and lost in the cold emptiness of space.

"It really is too silent," admits Minseok. "But it's not going to break too easily, our Contrivance. Isn't that right, Lu Han?"

The mechanic pops out from nowhere and flops down next to Baekhyun, his long legs stretched out across Baekhyun's lap. He laughs at a secret joke shared between him and the captain and his cat ear twitch excitedly.

"Don't worry, Baekhyunnie, it won't ever let you down."

Baekhyun has seen many catboys in his time, and he's even smuggled some of them out of labs to prevent them being sold on the black market. They're silent, shy creatures who have in their brain more cat than boy. Lu Han has nothing in common with catboys made in a lab.

Lu Han is an alien. He was born a long time ago on a planet that doesn't exist anymore. He's more intelligent than anyone else in their crew, and he's the only one who knows exactly how their ship works. Without him, they would be utterly lost. He’s not without his flaw, however. He's not afraid to sleep on Zitao's pilot post, for one, even if the boy throws a lot of nervous fits when he finds cat's hair on his console. He fucks Minseok, who is the most terrifying person Baekhyun has ever had the honor to meet. Baekhyun's respect towards Lu Han is endless. His fear of him nearly matches up.

"So, where are we going next?" Lu Han asks gingerly, trying to splay himself across Baekhyun's lap to get cuddles and ears rubs. Baekhyun complies just to hear him purr.

Minseok rubs his head and scrunches his nose. "We're out of food. And we're also out of money."

He looks at Baekhyun pointedly. If they're out of money it can only mean that Baekhyun, Kyungsoo and Jongdae will need to go on a mission soon. They usually work as mercenaries for the Interstellar Alliance, doing the dirty work for the man-who-offers-the-most-money in exchange for weapons and credits. When no one offers them a job, they have to look for one themselves. Bounty hunters, bodyguards, thieves...

"The Achaean system?" he offers. "There was that big city, not the capital, the other one, Daimon..."

"Ah, on Axia." Lu Han's tail wiggles. Axia is the planet where Baekhyun first met Minseok and Lu Han.

"Yes, the notice board on Daimon usually has a lot of nice jobs. It's been awhile since we went bounty hunting,” Baekhyun notes casually. If nothing else, the excitement from those jobs would wear him out enough to actually manage a full night’s sleep.

"Have you forgotten that Jongdae almost married the daughter of the Governor?” Minseok interjects. “We can't land on Axia anymore unless we steal a minor ship, but then bounty hunters would be after us."

Baekhyun scoffs. "Ok, Axia is out. The entire Achaean system is out... Any other place?"

Lu Han perks up with a smile, the exact picture of the cat who ate the canary. "It's been an age since we visited Junmyeon and the kids."

Baekhyun smirks before replying, “You mean it’s been awhile since you and the captain saw Sehun.”

Minseok and Lu Han ignore the obvious bait. Sehun has been trying to convince them to let him join the crew for years already, but they always refuse because the boy is too young.

"Junmyeon would likely have a job,” Minseok muses, rubbing his chin in thought.

“Set our course for Aphrodite’s Folly then!” Luhan insists from Baekhyun’s lap. Minseok sighs with something like fondness and long-suffering.

“Go and wake up Tao,” the captain agrees. “He needs to set the course."

Lu Han falls from Baekhyun's lap and onto the ground as Baekhyun jumps up to follow his captain’s orders.

***

Chanyeol wakes up in the middle of the day, dragged out of his pleasant dream by the dull, scratchy sound of the engines of Aphrodite’s Folly. He swears violently, cursing damned, old spaceships that are too loud and uncomfortable for a boy who grew up listening to the chirping of birds and the light rustling of the wind.

Chanyeol forgets he's not in Arizona anymore. Down here in his cabin, the air is foul and heavy, smelling a bit like the old plasma reactors of the first, experimental spaceships.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Aphrodite’s Folly inaugurated the great season of the space cruisers. It was majestic, a Titanic of the interstellar routes without the horrible crashing and sinking. Eighty years later, the great ship was ready to be turned into scrap metal when it was suddenly bought by a young businessman, parked on the dark side of the moon, and turned into the biggest and most luxurious vintage floating hotel in the Milky Way. The renovation to add a casino has contributed to more of that title than any of the ship’s other upgrades.

Finding a job on Aphrodite’s Folly is, like Yura would say, a fucking miracle, but Chanyeol's grandpa and the previous “Mr. Kim” were good friends. Hence, Chanyeol has ended up working for the nephew of the first owner, Junmyeon, in the casino.

Chanyeol doesn't work with the cards, nor does he deal with the roulette wheel. He's tall enough to be part of the security, but he wouldn't stand a chance against a Zaur--giant lizard-esque humanoids with pointy teeth and a bad habit of card counting.

Instead, Chanyeol works as a bartender. It’s not difficult work, but it’s characteristics (long shifts, sleep cycle shot to hell, and delightful anecdotes from drunk people from every corner of the galaxy) occasionally have Chanyeol wondering if he made the right choice in agreeing to take the job. Most of the time though, Chanyeol simply mixes the drinks and silently muses that if he had enough money to book a honeymoon suite in Aphrodite’s Folly, he wouldn't really be bothered by the bride running away with a space pirate who may or may not have too many tentacles.

Tonight is a normal night, like many others. Chanyeol still calls them nights, even if there's no such things as day and night anymore, just the constant, brilliant lights of the casino that are never turned off. It's a normal night, and Taemin is trying to seduce a cute Cerulean girl with blue skin and a silver third eye in the middle of her forehead. Rumor has it the Cerulean people can read minds with that eye. Maybe it's true, and she's reading in Taemin's mind all the dirty things he does with Jongin. That would explain her knowing smile. Jongin scoffs at Taemin's pitiful flirting attempts, and Chanyeol simply sighs, a mere spectator of the game of push and pull his two co-workers put on every single night.

Maybe one day Jongin will stop making cow eyes at Taemin and will allow Chanyeol to take him out on a date.

There aren't many humans aboard Aphrodite’s Folly. Aliens, both staff and customers, make up the majority of the people on board. Sometimes, Chanyeol gets lonely. Needy. He wants to talk to people like him--real people who don't speak through sound synthesizers. Real people made of flesh and bones and red blood, not an exoskeleton with jelly plasma in their veins. Chanyeol is not being racist. Specie-ist. Whatever. He's just human, and the last six months have been amazing--seeing all these aliens, all these different forms of life. It was the first time for him, meeting those who come from different galaxies. After a while, however, the novelty wore off, and the cultural barriers started to annoy him.

Now he'd give anything for the chance to speak with someone who isn't his boss Junmyeon, his two young and horny co-workers, or Kris, the head of the security.

It's a normal night, like many others, until Jongin elbows him, a sharp jab against his kidney.

"What?" Chanyeol nearly yells until he registers Jongin’s wide eyes and frantic shushing motion.

Chanyeol follows the boy's line of vision until he sees them.

Humans. Heavy boots. Combat uniforms.

There’s an aura of danger about them--a rough, unsettling feeling. They look like pirates, like hunters. Chanyeol has a lot of comics back at home with stories about soldiers of fortune, roaming through deep space, looking for a new target, a new way to make money. In the comfort of Aphrodite’s Folly, he’d almost forgotten those comic books are based on fact.

Facts that are walking right in front of him right now.

A shiver runs down his back. There are three of them, short in stature but no less intimidating for it. Kris looks at them with contempt as he searches for weapons that they're not carrying (Allegedly! a small part of Chanyeol’s brain whispers harshly at him), and Kris can't really stop them without a good reason.

One of them shakes his head and laughs loudly. The sound flies through all the room and reaches Chanyeol behind the counter. It's textured and full bodied--a nice laugh. The man with the nice laugh and the bad perm pats Kris' shoulder and whisper something to his ear. Kris' back straightens, and he looks towards the lounge bar.

"Chanyeol!" the head of security calls, leading the newcomers begrudgingly towards the bar. "These three gentlemen want to see Mr. Kim. Bring them to his office."

Chanyeol nods. "Please follow me."

He tries to keep his face neutral, but his blood is boiling from the force of his curiosity. He kind of feels two seconds from passing out, but the thought of how embarrassing that would be keeps him upright. He's leading the way, unable to even glance behind himself and look at the intimidating men casually, but nothing is stopping him from listening to what they’re saying.

He manages to steal one or two short glances now and then, playing it off like he’s just making sure they’re still following him. In his short looks, he learns that Nice-Laugh has sparkling eyes and a really nice laugh. Chanyeol labels the dude next to him Grumpy because of his stern expression. The third one doesn't laugh.

He smirks. And he's the loudest of the bunch. He uses a girly voice but only when he's teasing Grumpy to make Nice-Laugh explode in a fit of giggles. When he speaks normally, his voice gets low. It's not necessarily pleasant, but it's... memorable. Chanyeol would really like to see his face, to have a picture to go with such a memorable voice, but they’ve already reached the office, and the third man’s hood doesn’t seem to be coming off anytime soon.”

“We're here," he announces, stopping in front of a hickory door. "This is Mr. Kim's office."

He knocks, waiting for Junmyeon's muffled permission before he opens the door and allows the three men to enter. Memorable-voice brushes against Chanyeol’s elbow as he enters the room first. Chanyeol makes to look at him, but then he sees the way Junmyeon’s pissed off expression untwists into a surprised smile when he sees his guests and shock keeps him from turning his head to see Memorable-voice’s face.

He has never seen Junmyeon’s visage show anything but disdain.

"Baekhyun!" his boss exclaims, and Memorable-voice, Baekhyun, answers back with his voice saccharine and viscous like sugar, dripping into Chanyeol's ears and sticking there.

"Junmyeonieeee!"

Baekhyun prolongs the last syllable, and it’s so cheesy Chanyeol almost cringes. Baekhyun reaches forward to pull Junmyeon into a hug. All Chanyeol can see are his broad shoulders and his bright magenta hair as he crushes himself against Junmyeon.

Nice-laugh and Grumpy follow him. Grumpy turns and shuts the door in Chanyeol's face just before Baekhyun turns around. Baekhyun’s face still a mystery, Chanyeol can only snort at his own pathetic actions and head back to the bar, avoiding Jongin's questions and Taemin's crude innuendos with silence.

It’s not difficult to ignore them when his thoughts are focused on Baekhyun. He promises himself that he'll pay attention to Baekhyun's face when the group of hunters walks back from Joonmyun’s office. They have to pass in front of his station before heading back to their ship.

Despite his best intentions, he doesn’t really get to do that. He's serving piña colada to a slug in a suit when he catches a glimpse of magenta-hair disappearing behind the great doors of the hall and a cheery Kris waving them off. Nice-laugh follows suit. Grumpy must have already gone.

Chanyeol pouts. They snuck away while he was busy. Now he really regrets not looking at Baekhyun’s face before. What if he has lost his only chance?

It’s a bit silly, and maybe Chanyeol is a bit too desperate for human contact, but he pesters Kris about them during his break anyway.

"Who were they?" he asks, trying to keep his composure. Judging by Kris’ raised eyebrow, he’s failing.

"Old friends of the boss," the man answers with a grimace and a half-snarl. Chanyeol almost jumps at his vicious expression. Clearly, Kris and the hunters are not on good terms. But then again, Kris has never liked anyone who breathes in Junmyeon’s general direction. He’s kind of possessive. "They work for his uncle-cousin-something-or-other. They probably came here to look for a job. The army doesn't pay much nowadays."

“The army?”

“Yeah,” Kris sighs. “Hunters usually work as mercenaries for the Interstellar Alliance, but sometimes they accept other jobs.” He glances out at the patrons with a suspicious eye. “We have a lot of clients who wouldn’t say no to a personal specialty squad who doesn’t care if the job is dirty or not.”

"Will they come back?" Chanyeol blurts out next. Kris’ eyebrows furrow at him.

"If Junmy- I mean, the boss found them a client, you can be sure they’ll come back to retrieve their credits," he says slowly. “Why do you need to know?”

Chanyeol shrugs and turns to walk back to the bar quickly, his questions answered.

They'll come back, he thinks triumphantly. When they do, Chanyeol will finally have a face to match with Baekhyun's memorable voice, memorable name and memorable magenta hair.

***

The sky is blood red on Crysos. The entire planet is surrounded by a sheer patina of powders, fragments, and scraps of unfortunate wrecks that float at the extreme edge of Crysos' atmosphere. If Jongdae were here, he'd explain to Baekhyun the mystery behind the crimson hue that coats the entire surface of the planet whether Baekhyun wants to hear it or not.

"It's just a game of light reflections," Jongdae had said the last time they’d been here, closing in on a target and speaking in low whispers. Baekhyun wished he could've had the time to elaborate, but then they were under attack and their focus was solely on surviving.

That’s where Baekhyun’s focus should be right now, out on the job like this, but he’s busy running through Jongdae’s short explanations of the atmosphere in his head instead. It keeps him calm.

It's a very rich color anyway, the sky is, muses Baekhyun softly, pulling at the roots of his once bright magenta hair. The dye is slowly fading and dark roots are starting to peek. Maybe next time Baekhyun should dye his hair red--not magenta, just red, a deep, bloody red like the sky.

The door of the mining station opens with a loud hiss and a ting, distracting Baekhyun from the interesting topic of his future hair color. A man tumbles through the doorway--wild eyes, harsh breathing, looking like an animal on the run--his eyes zoning in on Baekhyun, on the plasma rifle he's holding. The man raises his own gun, trembling in his hands, ready to clear his path towards survival with fire if he has to. He opens his mouth to demand something--

Baekhyun shoots him.

No hesitation, no fear. The shot flies true through the man’s heart. Baekhyun delivers a second shot to the head as he falls. Just to be sure.

The door opens again. Baekhyun gets his finger on the trigger, butt of the plasma gun pressed to his shoulder, eyes narrowed in the crosshairs. He's already aiming towards another possible enemy, but it's only Jongdae, panting harshly and grinning a bit too wide with the adrenaline.

"Sorry," he coughs. "That one got away.” He nudges the corpse with the toe of his boot and wrinkles his nose. “I tried to stop him, but the damn bastard runs faster than me."

Baekhyun coughs out a laugh. "It's because you have short legs, Jongdae!"

Jongdae scoffs, then pouts like a puppy.

"Be nice to me, you fucker!” he warns, waving his gun at Baekhyun. “Or next time I’m not risking my ass to chase people down just because it could mean your ass on the line.” He fixes Baekhyun with a very serious stare. “Don’t want you dead, Baek.”

"Please,” Baekhyun boasts. “You think one of these could sneak up on me? As if one of these bastards would ever be able to kill me. Next time, focus on your job, and don't let anyone escape alive, Jongdae." He adjusts his jacket, cocks his head to the side, and hopes that Jongdae won't kick him in the balls for his attitude. "But don't be too harsh on yourself Jongdae. Even if you fail, at least there's one of us who is actually able to do his job well.” He checks his fingernails. “Look, I even corrected your mistakes, and you’re the one breathing hard.”

He points to the pile of corpses that surround the door. Almost all of them are humans--only a couple of Zaurs scattered between them--and the redness of the sky seems to reflect the color of their spilled blood.

"Are you done chatting like old ladies?" Kyungsoo's voice is crisp and clean, almost no static coming out of the earpiece. "I've finished here. Their leader didn't want to collaborate."

"I thank you for your extraordinary observational skills, Kyungsoo,” Baekhyun drawls. “I wasn’t sure if they were trying to kill us or invite us to tea when they started shooting at me, but now all doubts have been erase--”

"Is your perimeter clean, Baekhyun?" Kyungsoo cuts him short.

"Yes."

"Jongdae?"

"Yes," the other man confirms.

"Lu Han?"

Silence and static.

"Lu Han?" There's a tiny note of urgency in Kyungsoo's voice not because Lu Han is the only one who can take care of their ship, but because the captain would leave all of them to die on this horrible red stain of a planet on the intergalactic map if something were to happen to his boyfriend.

"Lu Han, are you there?"

Baekhyun bites his lip, finger twitching over the trigger of his gun and reaching down towards his belt for a new cartridge of ammo just in case a rescue mission must be staged. Another few seconds drag out, and then, finally, Lu Han's voice fills the air with a humoured laugh hidden in his words. "Aye, alive and breathing. You're not going to get rid of me that easily!"

"Thank god," mutters Jongdae.

"Worried, human?” Luhan teases. “I'm three times stronger and faster than you, Kim Jongdae. And I’ve never let one of my targets wander away from my perimeter to stumble into Baekhyun's."

Jongdae looks ready to argue, but Kyungsoo kills the fight before it can even start. "The day something like that happens I'll feel sorry for your target, Hannie.”

“I feel sorry for everyone who has the misfortune of meeting Baekhyun during a mission," Luhan agrees with a dramatic sigh.

"Oh, come on, guys!” Baekhyun whines. “You make me sound like a heartless war machine."

Baekhyun feels himself pouting cutely, even if Kyungsoo and Lu Han can't see him and can't be swayed away by his cute act. Jongdae sees him though, and he tries to kick Baekhyun in the balls. Baekhyun hisses at him.

“I knew you would try that.”

"That's enough, my little ladies, time to come back to the big mama ship."

It's Zitao's voice this time, and Jongdae complains loudly about being called little lady by a kid who can barely drink liquor.

"What about the target?" asks their navigator. "Captain here wants to know if you have taken care of the rebels, like our client asked."

"The mining site has been cleared. Mission accomplished," confirms Kyungsoo.

"We're coming to get you."

Baekhyun doesn't lower his guard until they're back inside the safe walls of the Contrivance..

center***

Chanyeol didn't bring many things from Earth; a couple of old comics, holophotos of his family, his guitar, and a couple of ratty hoodies pretty much makes up his collection of personal items. Everything is stored inside the little box of metal he calls his room. He doesn't spend a lot of time in his room--too narrow and cramped and too close to Jongin and Taemin's room. The thin walls don’t do the best job of muting the moans of his coworkers. Chanyeol only returns to his room and crashes on his bed when his body is so tired he starts to see the dark crawling at the corners of his field of vision, and his muscles are screaming, aching for rest.

When he's not working, he explores the ship by his lonesome. Aphrodite’s Folly is huge, a labyrinth of corridors and huge halls. The casino and the hotel occupy only half of the ship. There are the staff quarters, the wide storehouses in the ship’s hold, and the colossal engine room as well.

Chanyeol wanders around all the time, asking a lot of questions: how does this ship work? How can we float? Is that a solar storm? Cool! Wow! Why aren't we dead? How does the plasma shield work? How--. The rest of the crew is very patient with him as he tries to drown his boredom in seeking out endless knowledge.

He whines about it to Taemin who gives him this sympathetic look.

"It happens to everyone who came to work here," Taemin explains to him while they’re wiping down glasses before the big evening rush. "It happened to Jongin too, and to Amber, when she first arrived. Irene too-- you know the head of the maid staff? It's normal. After the first few weeks of euphoria, the ship becomes extremely boring. You can't spend all of your money in holo-calls home, you miss you family, your girlfriend, your dog, whatever. Your goldfish, maybe. You get tired of spending all your free time with the same people, so you start to explore the ship. It's just a phase, Chanyeol.” He punches him in the shoulder, and Chanyeol hides his wince. “Don't worry."

"Did you pass through this phase, too?"

Taemin smirks. "I was fourteen when I first set a foot on this ship. My step-brother brought me with him when he started working here." He's talking about Minho, the previous head of the security. Since Kris arrived, he started working as a personal trainer for hotel guests. "We didn't have anyone else--and he had just found this wonderful job, but he couldn't leave me all alone on Earth... So I came with him, and I've stayed here since then."

"I always thought you grew up with Jongin," Chanyeol adds conversationally, turning around to start working on inventory.

"He was my best friend on Earth,” Taemin answers. “We were from Neo-Seoul, both of us. Neighbors. I was the one who convinced him to come here. At the beginning he was lost, just like you."

"Then what happened?"

He really needs to know, because exploring the ship can only work as long as he still has something to explore. But Aphrodite’s Folly is just a ship, and it's not endless. One day, he'll know this place like the back of his hand, and he won't have anything else to distract him from the crushing solitude he feels.

Taemin shrugs. "He found out that living here wasn't so different from living on the Earth. Wouldn't you wake up every day on the same bed if you were on Earth? See the same people-- friends, co-workers, the old ladies of your neighborhood? Sure, Arizona is big--bigger than this ship. I mean, the whole Earth is bigger than this ship, but how many chances would you have had to see it all? How many chances to meet new people? Life here is not that much different, Chanyeol, even if the sky is black all the time."

He doesn't know what to say. Taemin already has everything he needs. He likes this ship, he considers it home. He has Jongin. How could he possibly understand Chanyeol's feelings?

"In the end, Jongin is still here because he found something worth staying here for."

"But there's nothing here that--” Chanyeol starts to protest, then cuts himself off. “Look, I know I'm incredibly whiny. I really needed this job, but I'm starting to think I'm simply not cut out for this. Something worth staying here for, what Jongin has found... I don't know if I can find it here."

Taemin nods. He looks a little sad.

"I like you, Chanyeol. You're way much better than the boy who was here before you.” He places a hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder, his tone serious but not unkind. “But this is your life, and you shouldn't waste it being unhappy here."

A Windigo--from the Andromeda galaxy--interrupts them, asking for a drink and Chanyeol polishes his best smile as he mixes a glass of liquor and blood for the client. He tries to ignore Taemin’s gaze as it lingers on him and the forced curl of his lips upwards.

Chanyeol opens his mouth to promise his co-worker that he'll think about it, his “happiness,” but something catches his attention: a flash of red--bright, shocking--and a loud, high-pitched, memorable laugh. Baekhyun. Chanyeol only catches the back of his jacket and his newly-dyed, messy hair. He has a nice ass, Chanyeol notes before he shakes his head. Baekhyun and his two fellow hunters from before wave at Kris and disappear behind the automatic doors of the elevator that will bring them down to the hangar.

"Shit, I missed him again!" Chanyeol swears, kicking at a cabinet behind the bar in frustration.

"Who did you miss?" Taemin hums, hands flying around to get drink orders out.

"The hunters,” Chanyeol says shortly. He gets a hum from Taemin, and he goes on, “The ones who came last month to talk to Junmyeon. They came back today."

"Ah, you mean the crew of the Contrivance!” Taemin crows. “Jongin calls them the cute, tiny men with the guns. They arrived before your shift began.”

Chanyeol turns towards the other bartender, who has now his full attention. “Do you know them well?”

Taemin gathers up a few tips and gives a few more charming smiles to patrons on his end of the bar before he answers. “They work for the Alliance in the ship of Mr. Kim's uncle, but sometimes they come here to look for part-time jobs. I haven’t actually talked to them since the last inside job they did here. About six months ago."

"Will they stay here for long?"

"They usually do hit-and-run visits,” Taemin says, shrugging. “But if they set the anchor in this system, they'll probably stay until the Alliance gives them a new mission or until our boss runs out of jobs for them. Who knows.” Chanyeol pouts at that, forgetting he’s not supposed to seem invested. There’s a wicked glint in Taemin’s eye.

“Aw, bud. You'll see them again, that's for sure,” he continues. “They'll go back and forth for a while since all their employers are here. If you’re lucky, they’ll do an in-house job. Maybe one of them will stage himself as a bartender. That happened last time.” His grin is slow and greasy. “Would you like that? Working right beside one? You seem like you want to know them, perhaps a bit biblically."

"I'm just curious,” Chanyeol says defensively, his cheeks burning. Taemin cackles.

"Kris hates them, you know? Every time they come, they hide a weapon in the most unexpected places, just to force him to search them thoroughly. One time he head to take a gun directly out of Jongdae's pants. That was probably the best day of my life,” Taemin laughs. A strange kind of nostalgic-slash-curious expression twists his features. He goes on, “The boss laughed too--which, in retrospect, is probably the reason why Kris hates them so much. Kris wouldn't stop blushing, and even the Zaurs who were with him on the security squad laughed. Bloody amazing because, you know, Zaurs usually don't even have emotions. Oh! And Baekhyun had to be brought to the infirmary because he laughed so much he fell on the floor and twisted his ankle."

Baekhyun. Chanyeol has only two fragmented impressions of him, of broad shoulders and colorful hair and his low voice ready to fracture into high pitched giggles. Baekhyun, Jongdae and...

"Who's the third one?” Chanyeol asks. “There's three of them, right? Baekhyun, uhm...Jongdae, and who? The grumpy one." Taemin wheezes at that.

"Actually, there's seven of them, but you probably mean Kyungsoo. He was head of security before I got here with my brother."

"He looks young," Chanyeol interjects, eyebrows furrowing. He wonders just how old Baekhyun is then. He looks only a couple years older than Chanyeol at max, but that’s probably not accurate.

"Alien junk does that to your body,” Taemin says with a scoff. “They’re all older than they seem. Just wait until you see their mechanic! He’s a few thousand years old and he looks twelve.” A disgruntled growl interrupts his tirade, much to Chanyeol’s displeasure. He was enjoying Taemin’s tales, but his co-worker shakes his head. “Come on, chin up, Chanyeol. Don't get distracted. That Zaur is waiting for his drink."

Chanyeol adds an extra shot of Gringe Juice, alcohol aged on the Zaurs’ home planet, in hopes of salvaging a tip.

***

It takes another three weeks for Chanyeol to be able to finally meet Baekhyun. Flashes of his colorful hair, every time a different color--blonde, black, an interesting shade of grey that Chanyeol wants to try on his own head too --and cracks of too silly, haphazard laughs haunt Chanyeol like the memory of a flash of lightning, but he always misses the other man. Baekhyun is like a ghost, a lingering presence that teases him with his mystery.

"You have the hots for him," Jongin states one day.

"It's not like that!" Chanyeol tries to explain. "I just want to see his damn face. Is that too much to ask?” He tosses his dishrag angrily over his shoulder. “Every time I try to catch a glimpse of him, he fucking disappears."

"Oh god," cackles Jongin, pretending to fall down from the counter from the strength of his laughter. "You really have the hots for him, and you never even met him! Let alone seen his face!” His giggles turn shrill, and he leans over the bar to poke Chanyeol’s chest. “You're. Hopeless.”

Chanyeol knows it's weird, but Baekhyun’s unknown face has really started to become an obsession of his. He's always liked space hunters ever since he was a child. He used to read comics about them, adventurers in deep space, romantic figures living at the edge of the universe, suspended on the thin line between good and bad. Chanyeol supposes it's only normal that he wants to look in Baekhyun's eyes and dig the secrets of the universe out of his eyes.

"Why Baekhyun, though? Why not the other ones? Jongdae or Kyungsoo would be more than happy to have a little puppy like you tagging along and pestering them with questions." Taemin passes him a crate of clean glasses, and they start to arrange them in even rows on the shelf. "At least, Jongdae would be happy,” Taemin says, rethinking his words. “Kyungsoo would probably kick your ass. But Jongdae is friendly. And easy. He and Baekhyun are both easy, I think."

But Chanyeol is not chased by the echo of Jongdae's laugh. He hears it in full force every single night--unless the Contrivance and her crew are out for a mission--because Jongdae likes to hang out at the casino, switching back and forth between seducing the clients and swindling money out of them. Chanyeol would simply have to walk to him with an adoring look in his eyes and chat for a few minutes. Jongdae would definitely listen. Maybe he'd even tell Chanyeol where Baekhyun is because Baekhyun appears randomly and vanishes quickly. Chanyeol can only ever manage to watch his retreating back before the crowd swallows him again.

He knows it's stupid and childish--he has an infatuation with a stranger he hasn’t met, based on his voice, the bright color of his hair and the fact that he's a hunter--but he can’t do anything about it.

He knows it'll go away by itself the moment he'll see Baekhyun's face. The game will lose his purpose, because there won't be anything left for Chanyeol to chase. Until then, he still squints every night, scanning the hall for Baekhyun, keeping his ears open for his memorable laugh.

***

The silence inside the Contrivance is deafening. It shatters with any tiny sound, amplifying it so that is pierces through Baekhyun’s skull. Baekhyun can hear everything--every tiny beep, every creak of metal--that punctuates the heavy stillness of the air.

In the dim light, he sighs and laces up his boots. Lu Han catches him near the main door of the ship.

"You look like shit," he says, scanning Baekhyun’s disheveled clothes even if he doesn't look that much neater himself. Baekhyun takes a look at his bright eyes, red cheeks, the mussed hair. If he reached out to touch his skin, he'd still find the lingering warmth of sex.

"The captain won't be happy when he finds out you've left him alone in your bed to wave me goodbye," Baekhyun says, keeping a firm hold on his voice to stamp out the bitter edge.

"The captain would've come to find you personally if I hadn't fucked him so hard it hurts to walk," Lu Han lears.

"Ew,” Baekhyun states. “Too much information."

Lu Han laughs and pats Baekhyun's back. "We're leaving for the mission on Venus in seven hours. Don't get into trouble, and don't be late, ok?"

Baekhyun scoffs at him. "Oh, come on, I'm only going to hang at the bar counter to see if I can drink myself silly. Maybe then I'll be able to sleep."

Lu Han's ears perk up, twitching cutely. "You're still having problems? Maybe you should ask Yixing to give you something." He’s giving Baekhyun this stern look, the one that says he will talk to Minseok if Baekhyun starts being disagreeable. They take care of each other on this ship: that’s Minseok’s rule, and Lu Han is probably its biggest enforcer.

"It's gotten worse recently,” Baekhyun reveals. “But I still don't want to take pills."

Lu Han hums with something like pity in his eyes, but he opens the main doors for Baekhyun anyway.

***

Baekhyun met Junmyeon for the first time on Calkos, a tiny planet near Krysos, during an assassination mission. It was before he met Minseok and Lu Han, before he met Jongdae and Kyungsoo and the rest of the crew, before he went to jail and decided to put his life on the right track. At that time, he was traveling on a pirate ship full of Zaurs, and he was the only human aboard. They kept him because he was useful for infiltration missions, but he was well aware that they would've killed him at the first suspicion of betrayal. Baekhyun was fine with that--he didn’t particularly trust the Zaurs either, but he did pick up a few tricks on how to put the much larger beings on the ground in a fight.

When Baekhyun meets him, he has nothing against Junmyeon, but someone wanted him dead and Baekhyun needed the money to survive. It should've been an easy mission--become his friend, kill him at the first chance, disappear--but Junmyeon was smart and pretty, he cracked silly, awful jokes and wrapped his fingers around Baekhyun's wrist lovingly in a way no one else had ever done. Baekhyun was twenty-three, and he had never fallen in love. He ended up telling Junmyeon everything.

He spent the three following years running away from the pirate ship he had betrayed, but it was totally worth it. When he met Junmyeon again, as the nephew of his new captain, the feelings of love had cooled down considerably and what was left was just a nice friendship.

Baekhyun holds on to it tightly. After jail, Joonmyun had been the first person to gain Baekhyun’s trust. He’s the only one who has kept it as long as he has.

When Baekhyun reaches the bar counter, Junmyeon is already there, chatting with the tall bartender who took them to Junmyeon's office last time. Junmyeon's smile is overwhelming and warm.

Baekhyun finds himself smiling back, but he falters a little when he meets the bartender's eyes. They're fixed on him, and he’s biting his lip, too attentive and serious. He looks like he was waiting for Baekhyun to show up. Baekhyun shakes his head. He’s probably just going stir-crazy. Happens often enough in deep space.

The smile is back in full force when he leans down to hug Junmyeon from behind. "Junmyeonie, hi!" He takes place next to him and turns his smile on the bartender. "And who might you be?"

"Baekhyun,” Junmyeon says, hand on Baekhyun ‘s shoulder. “Meet Park Chanyeol. Chanyeol, this is Baekhyun. He works with my uncle." With is a rather nice term for ‘does my uncle’s dirty work,’ Baekhyun thinks, but this bartender does’t need the details no matter how much Baekhyun is desperate to just exhale and tell someone everything that’s weighing on him.

Besides, this boy is young, several years younger than Baekhyun. Tall with grey hair, the same color Baekhyun was sporting a few days ago.

"I like your hair," Baekhyun hears himself saying, and Junmyeon laughs excitedly and pats his back. He’d always been in support of Baekhyun befriending his staff. You need someone, he used to tell Baekhyun every night.

Chanyeol looks at Baekhyun with huge eyes, paralyzed in surprise, before he mutters a low, "Ah, thank you." He smiles to himself, but it's Baekhyun's turn to feel surprised. He has such a pleasant voice.

Chanyeol's attention is soon stolen by other clients and he apologizes before he scurries to the other end of the bar and back to his job.

"I can't slack off in front of the boss," he jokes, and Baekhyun winks at him, slow and flirtatious.

"He's a cute kid," he says to Junmyeon. "I bet he has a lot of success with the ladies."

"That would be Taemin, or Jongin. Chanyeol is the professional one. He arrived from Earth a few months ago, and he's still adjusting. I hope he stays, to be honest. He's a sweetheart."

He looks adorable, Baekhyun thinks, stealing a glance at the way his hands mix drinks before handling them to a Cerulean patron. His eyes meet Chanyeol's, and he resists the urge to abruptly turn his head like he was busted staring. He winks instead, waving with two fingers.

"Are you flirting with my staff, Byun Baekhyun?"

"As if. He's, like, ten years younger than me," he soothes Junmyeon, dropping a hand on his thigh. Junmyeon makes a disapproving expression. "He probably wouldn't be interested in these old bones."

His comment makes Junmyeon almost choke on his drink in disbelief, trying to suppress his giggles. "’As if’ my ass. If you wanted him, you could have him flat on your bed in thirty minutes."

Oh, Junmyeon. Always assuming that Baekhyun is this great seducer. Or maybe he’s still flying that ‘you need somone’ flag. Seduction is Jongdae's job. He's the one with the sly smiles and the softest touches that can make anyone fall for him. Baekhyun has never had anything more than brief flings and one night stands in between missions. He's thirty-three, and the only thing he can do well is kill people. Sure, he can force his body to relax and wink at the cute bartender, making him think Baekhyun is the one in control, but he wouldn't know how to do anything beyond that. If a boy like Park Chanyeol tried to talk with him, he'd probably make some excuse and scurry away as fast as he could.

He dismisses Junmyeon's words and diverts him to safer topics. His relationship with Kris, how is business, his relationship with Kris, what's going on lately on Earth, his relationship with Kris. Baekhyun doesn’t really understand how, but Junmyeon could talk about his relationship with Kris for hours without getting bored. It's his second favorite thing in the world - the first being Kris himself. That's why, as soon as Kris wanders inside the hall, dressed in casual clothes--his shift must be over now--and looking for his lover, Junmyeon leaves Baekhyun alone with his scotch on the rocks and walks with an extra sway of his hips up to his boyfriend.

"Thank you Junmyeonie,” Baekhyun mutters, tossing back the rest of the drink. “I'll remember this. Ditcher." He leans over the bar and snags the bottle of scotch from below the counter, refilling his own glass liberally.

Now it's only the two of them, Baekhyun and the bottle, alone for the rest of the night. It's a slow night, not too many customers, most busy playing in the casino to come and bother the bartenders. Baekhyun closes his eyes and feels his head rolling to the side. He could let the purr of the old engines lull him to sleep. He's so tired. He could simply lay his weary head on the counter and sleep there, in front of the tall bartender who stares at him too much.

"So, Baekhyun? Do you need company?"

Baekhyun gulps and opens his eyes. Chanyeol is watching him, batting his eyelashes and licking his lips nervously, waiting for an answer. That makes three of them, Baekhyun, the bottle of scotch, and Chanyeol, and Baekhyun doesn’t know if he likes the feeling of relief running through him at the potential lack of loneliness. His muscles seize up.

***

Chanyeol stares, even if it's impolite. He feels like a creep, and maybe he is. He stares at the way Baekhyun's arms are wrapped around Junmyeon's chest as he leans down to greet him, notes just how slim his fingers are.

"Junmyeonie, hi!" His fingers curls around the fabric, tapping playfully, before he sits down and looks at Chanyeol.

In his mind, Chanyeol had drawn a map of the other man's face, imagining the signs of countless battle, the experience imprinted into his eyes like a secret code. He thought Baekhyun would've looked more imposing, more sure of himself. But Baekhyun's face is not remarkable or memorable, like his voice. Baekhyun is average, just average with tired eyes and purple bruises underneath, and Chanyeol feels stupid because he was expecting... He doesn't know what he was expecting, some sort of epiphany maybe, a revelation.

He ignores that the curiosity, the romantic image of Baekhyun he’s built up for himself, doesn’t really disappear, just alters itself to fit the face he can now put with the name.

He turns his attention to other clients, but it's difficult to drown out the conversation between Mr. Kim and Baekhyun. If he closes his eyes, he can pretends things have changed and Baekhyun is still only a voice in his mind--a voice that belong to a powerful warrior, to a hero, to a legend, to someone who could possibly change Chanyeol's destiny. But he’s still got a voice that Chanyeol can't ignore, so he turns around and looks at Baekhyun again, trying to glue the impression of that voice--so strong, so elastic and fluid and vibrant with energy ready to burst--to the pale face in front of him. Baekhyun catches him staring, looks at him with the wide eyes of someone who's startled, taken aback. He winks at Chanyeol, but it feels hurried, weird, too forced. It wasn't like that when he winked at Junmyeon, but maybe Baekhyun is simply uncomfortable with strangers.

Maybe he’s just as lonely as Chanyeol is.

Junmyeon blabs something, and Baekhyun smiles at him but squirms on his chair. His eyes purposefully avoid Chanyeol's, but they brush against the skin of his neck in a tepid caress.

Baekhyun closes his eyes when Mr. Kim leaves to drop himself in Kris' lap. He closes his eyes and lets out a small sigh. His shoulder slump, his face relaxes, almost as if he was putting an effort to hide the signs of time and weariness. His hair is a violent, alluring, electric blue today. Chanyeol's hair is grey but only because he caught a glimpse of that color on Baekhyun and thought he looked cool. He could simply let this strange man sleep, or he could call security and have him escorted to his ship.

Instead, he clears his throat.

"So, Baekhyun? Do you need company?"

Baekhyun jolts and opens his eyes. Chanyeol watches him, bats his eyelashes, and licks his lips, waiting for an answer. Baekhyun’s eyes are glazed, and there's no trace of redness on his cheeks from drunkenness. However, he still looks unfocused after all the scotch he drank.

He looks small and big, old and young at the same time. There's a war of contradictions on his face--accept, refute, don't trust strangers, we're pretty drunk here--until he smiles at Chanyeol, a tight quirk of lips that Chanyeol takes as a warning.

"I wouldn’t want to steal your time."

"My shift is over,” Chanyeol says, hoping he doesn’t sound too desperate. “Taemin will be here shortly to take my place. I can stay with you, if you’d like."

He doesn't know why he offers, but the moment the words leave his mouth, Baekhyun freezes. He gets up suddenly, so swiftly his eyes lose focus, and he would've fallen without Chanyeol's support.

"I'm sorry," he says, when he’s steadied himself again. "It’s already late, and they're waiting for me..." He gestures vaguely towards the bay where Contrivance is parked before he scrambles on his feet and literally runs away. Chanyeol watches him leave, feeling the usual, constricting sense of unfairness in his chest he has started to associate with Baekhyun's quick disappearance. The tips of the other man's blue electric hair are still flashing in his eyes.

"What the hell happened?" asks Taemin, a few moments later.

"I really don't know."

Loneliness, Chanyeol is realizing, can be a terrifying thing.

***

"What the hell happened?" Kyungsoo demands. Baekhyun simply grunts and motions towards their client, still sitting between them. Among all the jobs they could've found, Kyungsoo chose babysitting. Of course they're not really babysitters, they're bodyguards, but the modus operandi is the same: protect the client. Shoot possible enemies. Don't end up with Kyungsoo. He's grumpy.

"Baekhyun, you almost took a bullet to your forehead! What the hell is wrong with you today?"

"I'm fine,” Baekhyun snaps. “I just got a little distracted. Where do we need to go now?"

Kyungsoo bristles, swelling with rage. "You're not going anywhere except back to the ship. Jongdae is already on his way here."

"What? Kyung-"

"Don't. I'm the leader of this operation, and you've just committed a mistake that put you in danger."

"The client was unscathed," he objects, feeling the first pangs of desperation in his voice. “This isn’t about my safety, it’s about his.”

"That wasn't the point."

Kyungsoo and Baekhyun stare at each other, metaphorical hackles raised.

They both turn abruptly to the side as the sound of hurried footsteps, but it's just Jongdae. Baekhyun stares in silence as he and Kyungsoo talk with their client, before they turn towards him again.

"You're not even going to let me defend myself? Am I just dismissed? Like this?"

"Baekhyun," begins Jongdae, but Baekhyun doesn't need his pity now. He doesn't need his soft voice to drop on the open wounds in his pride, licking the humiliation away.

"There's no shame in admitting you aren't feeling well, Baekhyun. You're a professional, you've always been the best in our group and I've always trusted you more than anyone else." Kyungsoo's eyes are hard, and his voice doesn't waver. Kyungsoo is tiny--compact, as he likes to put it--a little ball of suspicion and contempt, with hard eyes and an unwavering heart. It was really difficult to gain his respect, but Baekhyun knows he can't doubt about that. He also knows Kyungsoo is right. He's a professional, has been doing this for twenty years. He was only fifteen the first time, raw and scared and ready to do anything to survive.

He knows Kyungsoo is right, knows he's not feeling well, and he should've prioritized the mission over his own stubbornness, knows he's being an idiot, and yet...

"You're right, I'll go back to the ship. Excuse me."

He runs away from Jongdae's comforting pat and Kyungsoo's frustrated sigh. He disconnects his earpiece and avoids Lu Han's and Yixing's inquiries. He doesn’t want to be alone, but he doesn’t know how to be anything else.

***

Baekhyun flops on his bed, breathing harshly and trying to chase away this odd feeling of inadequacy that has taken residence in his chest. It hurts, and he kind of wants to cry. He scoffs at himself, a thirty-something man, crying because he's not enough.

It was so much easier when he traveled with random people, when he didn't have to care. But he does now, he cares about Kyungsoo and Jongdae, he cares about their captain. More than everything, he doesn't want to be seen as weak. Baekhyun is not weak, nor useless. He can do his job well. He can. Hasn’t he proved that?

Fear hits him like a space freighter to his chest. He remembers the shape of the plasma gun, pointed right to his face. A single press of the enemy's fingers and his head would've exploded. Dead. Just like that. Cold shivers run down his back, while nausea grips his stomach in a cold hold.

I could've easily died today. He wonders when making a good impression--showing his friends he's worthy of their friendship and consideration--became more important than his own survival. He wonders when he became so stupid.

***

Baekhyun doesn't get out of his room for days, not even when Yixing brings him food, not even when Zitao comes to knock on his door because he's worried as fuck. Baekhyun can hear the tears in his voice. Zitao is the youngest, the frailest, and it hurts Baekhyun too to confuse him like this. Kyungsoo, Jongdae, and Lu Han don't try to knock on his door. They've been on the battlefield with him, and they respect his privacy. For that, he's grateful.

Minseok simply forces his door open from the main computer and gets in.

"You do know this is stupid, right?" He says by way of greeting.

Baekhyun scoffs. "Am I not allowed to be childish, then? Not even once in my life? Am I not allowed to have a bad day or to feel ashamed because I messed up?"

Minseok's eyes soften at his words. "Everyone is worried for you."

"I'm worried for everyone too."

There's silence.

"I think you should get off this ship for a while,” Minseok says slowly, watching Baekhyun carefully for his reaction. “You've been cooped up in here for too long, and it's slowly consuming you."

Baekhyun can feel a dark, heavy thing, settling inside his stomach and dragging him down. This is it, they're leaving him behind.

"Will you come back for me?" he whispers, and Minseok blinks, confused. "Pardon?"

"Will you come back for me?” Baekhyun nearly pleads, his voice breaking as panic starts to take him over. “In a while? I promise, I'll fix this, it won't even take that long. But please, don't leave me here, Captain. I like you guys. I want to-”

"Baekhyun," interrupts Minseok. His soft, calm voice brings back memories of their first encounter, of the moment Baekhyun decided he really wanted to travel with this man.

"Baekhyun-ah." This time it's softer. “We're not leaving you here. We're not leaving, period, unless you're with us. I just meant you should go out and have fun."

Oh, thinks Baekhyun, feeling a little stupid. He assures Minseok he's going to think about it, but he doesn't know if he will ever have the courage to step into Aphrodite’s Folly again after last week's fiasco.

"Spend some time with Junmyeon maybe,” Minseok suggests. “Or with the cute bartender who has a crush on you..."

Baekhyun feels his heart stutter. It's like a click, someone pressing a button on him, and suddenly he remembers what happened the other day. His blood starts to boil so much. It feels like it's flowing backwards in his veins, and he knows he's blushing. He knows that Minseok can see him; he feels so embarrassed.

His captain smirks. "Ah, I see how it is,” he says, light, easy. “Please go easy on him, Baekhyun. He looks like a cute kid."

"Captain, you know Jongdae is more the type-”

Minseok cuts off his protest and waves at him, leaving Baekhyun alone with his thoughts.
In the darkness of his room, Baekhyun relives the bar lounge incident, remembering the startled look he received from the bartender as he ran away as quickly as he could. He wasn't expecting Chanyeol's interest in him. He wasn't expecting the other boy to actually have time for him. He shouldn't have smiled at him; he should've simply refused and gotten away from Chanyeol, his long limbs and his big eyes, before the boy had a chance to ask him if he could stay.

He shouldn’t have given Chanyeol the chance to make Baekhyun realizes he wants him to stay.

He doesn't understand why everyone feels like Baekhyun should go easy on Chanyeol when Chanyeol is the one in another league. Baekhyun can't even think of going back to the Folly and seeing him again, let alone talking to him. Chanyeol has a future still, something bright and clean. Baekhyun can’t ruin that.

He hides his face in his pillow, breathing heavily against the soft cotton as he feels his heart begin to race.

***

Chanyeol finally manages to catch Baekhyun again less than a week after their previous encounter at the bar. His shift is barely over when one of the Cerulean maids warns him that his hunter has been seen wandering around near the indoor swimming pool on the bridge. Chanyeol all but rushes there, tripping in his haste. Only in front of the door does he stop, deciding to enter slowly and silently. Air catches on his lungs when he finally sees Baekhyun.

The room is dark. All the lights are off, but they're not needed anyway because a shower of white cascades inside the room through a big panel of reinforced crystal on the ceiling that let starlight enter the room and paint the water with the colors of the universe. Under the soft lights of the Milky Way, Baekhyun's hair shines silver. His skin is pale, wet and crossed by a constellation of scars, big and small, flexing with every stroke of his arm. He's not a graceful swimmer, but he's methodical with one hell of a good stroke, pulling him along fast and sure.

When he stops--breathless, chest heaving up and down, hard panting bouncing off the walls of the deserted room--Chanyeol walks towards the edge of the pool. He doesn't want to startle Baekhyun, but the other boy immediately notices him.

"Who's there? Come out!"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you," confesses Chanyeol, stepping under the light. He can't see Baekhyun's reaction, swallowed by darkness in the barely lit room, but it's hard to miss the step backwards the other man takes when he recognizes Chanyeol.

"What are you doing here? The pool is closed."

There's another pool, on the opposite side of the ship. It doesn't give the same amazing view on the universe like this one, but Junmyeon prefers to keep the big pool to available to his wealthiest clients only. And, apparently, old friends too.

"I could ask you the same thing."

Baekhyun looks at him, for a long time. "How did you know I was here?"

Chanyeol shrugs. "I asked the crew to warn me if they saw you. I wanted to talk with you." He winces just after saying that. It may sound too creepy.

Baekhyun looks taken aback. "Why would you want to talk with me?"

There are so many things Chanyeol could ask, but he doesn't know what to say. He has all the right questions--why did Baekhyun run away the last time? Why the bright hair colors? How is his life as a hunter? How does he know Mr. Kim?--but he can't translate them into words that he’s certain won’t offend Baekhyun or make him run away again.

He can't explain this feeling. It started as simple curiosity, as Baekhyun appeared and disappeared like colored smoke right in front of Chanyeol's eyes. Chanyeol simply wanted to see his face, nothing more, but then Chanyeol had a name-- Baekhyun--to hum in his mind. He had started to fantasize, about Baekhyun's voice, about Baekhyun's life, the adventures he gets to live, his past. Chanyeol had built a whole world around a man whose face he didn't even know, and when he finally met him, he had found out that simply knowing his face wouldn't do. He had wanted more.

He wants more. He just doesn't know how to ask for it because for all his bravado and his winks and his smiles, Baekhyun now is alone and defenseless, and he looks like he'll bolt out of the room at Chanyeol's first move.

He takes his breath, feels Baekhyun do the same, and he tries not to focus on the way water rolls down Baekhyun's body or his little shivers.

Start easy, Chanyeol, don't let him get away this time.

"Couldn't sleep?" he asks, keeping his breathing even to see if Baekhyun will choose to answer his question or leave him alone again.

Baekhyun, much to his surprise, climbs out of the pool and wraps himself in a fluffy towel, vigorously rubbing at his hair. Like this, with his head hanging low, covered in a veil of damp cotton, he answers. "Not really.” There’s a pause, anticipation crackles through the air. “I haven't been able to sleep well in a long time."

He kicks his shoes and sits down next to him, feeling the water on the ground infiltrate into his clothes. "Me neither. This ship is too loud."

"Are you kidding me? This ship is perfect! My ship is too silent."

Chanyeol looks up at him, baffled, but Baekhyun's eyes are still hidden under the towel.

"I was fifteen when I sailed for the first time, and I've been a mercenary my whole life. The first thing I learned along the way is that you can't trust silence,” Baekhyun states, solemn. “Silence betrays you. If there is silence, there is a problem with the engines. If there is a problem with the engines, you're mostly fucked. No one would ever assist an illegal ship."

"You've been a pirate?” Chanyeol is a bit shocked. “I thought you worked with the Interstellar Alliance..."

Baekhyun's shoulders shake, and Chanyeol wonders if he's said something insensitive. Then he realizes that Baekhyun is only laughing.

"I work for the Alliance, not with them,” he clarifies. “They're sneaky bastards. I'd leave them all to rot, but the Contrivance needs its propellant, and we all need to eat, you know?" He pats his hair with the towel and shakes his head like a dog, splashing drops of water on Chanyeol's arms. "I was a pirate, yes, and a cabin boy, a killer, a thief, a spy, and a lot of other things."

"And now you're a hunter."

He nods. "Now I'm a hunter, yeah. And for all that experience in methods of reading people’s motive, I can't understand what you want from me."

"To simply talk with you, like I told you!” Chanyeol bursts out, hands up in a universal sign of innocence. “I think you're interesting, Baekhyun."

Baekhyun blinks at him, and Chanyeol rewinds. “I- I mean, that’s how Mr. Kim introduced you, so I just-”

“It’s fine,” Baekhyun interrupts. “Baekhyun is fine.”

"Ok, Baekhyun." Chanyeol was already calling Baekhyun Baekhyun in his head, even before Baekhyun gave him permission, but the other man doesn't need to know that. "Why didn't you want to talk to me, Baekhyun?"

Baekhyun feigns nonchalance, exploiting the partial coverture offered by the lack of light inside the pool. It's only them and the waves of the pool projecting a faint, wavering replica of the light of the stars right on their faces. Chanyeol wants to see more, to check if Baekhyun is more invested in this conversation than he’s letting on or if he’s just barely holding back the need to bolt.

"What are you talking about?"

"Last time…” Chanyeol takes a breath. “You ran away?"

"I was simply late," Baekhyun says, defensive.

"As if,” Chanyeol says, sitting down on a chaise. Baekhyun glances towards the exit, towards the skylights, and then promptly collapses next to Chanyeol. Chanyeol holds himself still, certain that any sudden movements will send Baekhyun bolting, and besides, he doesn’t really know where or how to move anyway. This development is odd and, frankly, unprecedented.

He cranes his head up, looking at the sky. Entire universes are burning, turning into dust, just as Baekhyun closes his eyes and leans his head on Chanyeol's shoulder.

"You're not allowed to doze on me," he says playfully, but he doesn't receive any answer. Lulled by the snore of the engines and the artificial waves lapping at his knees at the edge of the pool, Baekhyun has already fallen asleep. Chanyeol sighs. He hadn’t gotten the answers he wanted, but Baekhyun looks exhausted, his body drained. His full weight drops against Chanyeol, and Chanyeol does the only thing he can think of: he picks the man up and angles himself towards the staff quarters.

He sends a prayer to whoever is listening that Baekhyun doesn’t kill him when he wakes up.

***

"You're awfully cheerful today."

Baekhyun shrugs, grimacing when the sudden movement causes the butt of the sniper rifle to slide lower on his shoulder. He shifts his grip around the handle, shuffling around until he finds a better position, keeping the the head of the Zaur who's talking with Jongdae in the big clearing only a few hundred meters from them perfectly squared in his crosshairs. Kyungsoo crawls down with him, checking the situation. They're hiding behind a rock formation, ready to intervene in case something should go wrong and Jongdae needs help. Baekhyun licks his lips, his eyes focused on the Zaur. "You should've asked Jongdae to do this. He's way better than me at long distance snipes."

"He's also way better than you at talking with people without making them want to kill him slowly."

Baekhyun doesn't like this position. Like this, lying on the ground on his tummy, he's completely vulnerable. If someone tried to sneak up him, they’d be successful. And he'd be dead. A real bummer.

"You're too nervous," comments Lu Han, currently hiding behind another cliff on the opposite side of the clearing. The voice, carried by earphones, is a little scratchy.

"You know, I really prefer to see the whole picture. Staying focused on that guy's helmet makes me uneasy." The need to watch his back is strong, but he can't take his eyes off the dangerous alien in front of Jongdae. If something goes wrong, Baekhyun needs to be ready to shoot to save his friend.

"Relax, Baekhyun, I'm here." It's so unlike Kyungsoo to be this comforting, and Baekhyun laughs. It's not bad being babied every now and then. Kyungsoo’s job here is literally to watch Baekhyun’s back, but the sense of unknown is still grating on Baekhyun’s nerves.

“It’ll be fine,” Lu Han assured them.

Of course, because Lu Han said that, things go to hell not even thirty seconds later. Baekhyun is forced to shoot the Zaur in the head before his claws tear through Jongdae's stomach, and space thugs appear from nowhere, trying to steal whatever thing Baekhyun and the rest of the crew were trying to recover.

"How did it go?" asks Zitao excitedly, when they come back to the Contrivance covered in blue Zaurian blood.

"The usual," answers Jongdae, hurrying to take off his combat suit and grimacing at the sticky substance dripping onto his skin. "Gore, blood, guts all over my arms. Was nearly disemboweled..."

"That thing is poisonous, you know?"

"I'm a cyborg, fuck the poison." Jongdae sticks out his tongue at the resident doctor of the ship, but Lu Han swaps him on the back of his neck. "Hey, Mr. Cyborg, your skin is still organic. I'm not going to spend the money gained with our sweat and blood to buy you a mecha-arm just because you were dumb enough to melt your true one with acid Saurian blood." Jongdae’s exaggerating anyway. He’s just got most of the working parts of his limbs replaced with machines after severe frostbite on a long term mission got to him.

"By the way Baekhyun, you haven't told me why you're so cheerful."

Baekhyun nearly jumps out of his skin. There's a reason Do Kyungsoo was called the cobra when he was chief of the security on Aphrodite’s Folly. He's silent and lethal, hitting when it’s least expected.

"I don't know what you're talking about," he tries to say, but Jongdae is already perking up and chirping like a bird after scrambling to get clean of Zuarian blood.

"No, wait, I'm interested too, Baek,” he crows. “You came back yesterday morning looking fresh and well rested.” He lowers his voice conspiratorially. “And you were whistling."

"Baekhyun was whistling?" exclaims Zitao, clapping excitedly.

A metallic voice startles them, echoing on the cramped corridor. "Tao, this ship is not going to pilot itself. Come here and do your job. You'll have time for gossips later.” Tao hangs his head, spouting off a quick curse and a loud ‘Yessir!.’ “By the way, Baekhyun, did you take my advice and visit the cute bartender?"

Baekhyun mentally curses their captain, while Lu Han and Jongdae laugh maniacally next to him. Jongdae pokes him in the chest. "The cute bartender...are you talking about the tall new one? Baekhyun, my man, you have good eyes.” He wiggles his eyebrows. “So, how is the kid in bed?"

Baekhyun resists the urge to run away. It would be useless, and it'd only give Lu Han and Jongdae a reason to chase after him and torture him with more inappropriate question. Kyungsoo’s stare would be judgemental if he were to make that cowardly move. He may as well answer immediately.

"How would I know? I only slept with him." A perplexed silence welcomes his words. "Slept as in slept. Sleep. REM. Not had sex. I fell asleep on him while he talked, and he took me to his cabin. Best sleep of the last three years."

He ignores Lu Han's annoyed scoff and muttering about how his ship is the prettiest and the most comfortable of the whole universe. It's not like Baekhyun doesn't like his ship--it’s perfect for their type of work--but sometimes he simply needs something else.

"So you didn't have sex with the bartender? Not even a kiss?"

Refraining from punching Jongdae's face has never been so difficult.

***

Alone in his bed, surrounded by a cocoon of silence, Baekhyun doesn't sleep. He thinks of Chanyeol, and the scribbled post-it stuck to the door of his room that Baekhyun only saw when he woke up, alone and feeling better than he had in months.

Going to work! :D

The little symbols formed a cute and silly face, but Baekhyun felt like dying on the spot. He fell asleep. When Chanyeol was talking. How stupid, how naively embarrassing, how blindly trusting...

"Oh, you're awake!"

Chanyeol opened the door and stood awkwardly next to him, shuffling on his feet and looking almost shy.

"I thought you went to work," Baekhyun murmured, lacking anything better to say.

"I did. I asked for a few minutes of break,” Chanyeol explains casually. “Yesterday night, while I carried you here, you murmured something about having to wake up for work, so I came back to make sure you weren't still sleeping."

Luckily, Baekhyun's body was so used to its rhythms that he woke up at the right time on his own. Chanyeol's words took a few beats more than usual to reach Baekhyun's sleepy brain, but when they did, he found himself feeling warm, his heart beating a few extra beats per minute.

"You carried me here?"

Chanyeol, at least, looked even more embarrassed than him.

"I couldn’t leave you there, don't you think?” He says, wringing his hands. “All alone and asleep on the pool deck. What if you had fallen sick?"

His eyes had been so big and sincere on Baekhyun's face, the question in them killing the faint protest, the vague and what if I had fallen sick? It wouldn’t have been your business that was blooming on Baekhyun's tongue.

Even now, in the darkness of his own room, Baekhyun has to force himself to not hide his face in the pillow, trying to will the impossible warmth in his cheeks away.

His mind keeps playing Chanyeol's last words before Baekhyun left.

"Good luck on your job! Don't run away next time, ok?"

Baekhyun, for once, hadn’t felt lonely. He wonders if Chanyeol, maybe, had felt the same. He thinks he kind of hopes he does, but he doesn’t know what being not lonely together might mean. He’s not sure he wants to.

***

About a fortnight later, Baekhyun catches himself falling asleep to the memory of Chanyeol’s gentle snores. He’d run his body into the ground again with their latest mission, staying awake for about 90 hours straight to run a siege on a Zaur ship. They’d allegedly stolen from the Alliance, and sure enough, after one week on a ship with a cargo hold only large enough for three days’ rations, the Zaurs had given in.

Jongdae and Kyungsoo had gone in with guns blazing while Baekhyun slipped through behind them to reclaim the stolen treasury. The job bulletin had read “DEAD or ALIVE,” and to be honest, DEAD is always an easier choice.

Minseok catches him holding himself up, leaning against the wall in the corridor outside of his bedroom with his shoes half-laced and his jacket on upside down.

“Whoa,” he says. “Yixing said you were actually asleep for once.”

“The silence,” Baekhyun murmurs like it’s an explanation. It kind of is, but Minseok has never traveled on the old space cruisers or the pre-millennium pirate barges. He doesn’t understand Baekhyun’s fear of silence.

He also doesn’t know the strange comfort Baekhyun has found in the way Chanyeol snores. That he’d been about to sleep based on the memory of some child bartender had been enough for the insomnia to sink back under his skin, but it’s not enough to get his reasoning back.

“So you’re going to the other ship?” Minseok asks. “The Folly?”

“Yeah,” Baekhyun says. To Chanyeol, he doesn’t say. Luckily, his captain asks no more questions. He presses something into Baekhyun’s hands.

“A replica scan?” Baekhyun asks. The little fob has Minseok’s name scrawled across the top, and he recognizes that the captain has just handed him a way in and out of the Contrivance without needing high level permission, i.e. Minseok or Lu Han.

“You need to do what you need to do,” Minseok says. It’s a bit cryptic, but Baekhyun understands.

“Thanks,” he whispers, breathless with how much he means it, and clicks the display on the fob, holding it up to the scanner. The airlock hisses as the door slides open, and Baekhyun steps out into the hanger of Aphrodite’s Folly.

He makes a beeline for the staff quarters of the ship, not giving himself time to think through what he’s doing. He just needs to sleep--needs his hands to stop shaking, needs his ears to stop feeling crushed in the silence. He needs to know if focusing on Chanyeol’s breathing in the form of a memory when he’s sleeping is okay.

Baekhyun wonders if it’d be okay to be “not lonely” together.

Just a kid, some nasty part of his brain says. Baekhyun pauses with his hand raised to knock on Chanyeol’s cabin door.

Loneliness doesn’t know age, he reminds himself. The words were something that Junmyeon had told him right before Baekhyun gave in and told him his intentions to kill him. Junmyeon had held him tight that night, had told him that feeling alone is something that time can’t heal, only the presence of another can cure that.

Baekhyun kind of wants to be held.

He knocks. The door slides open after just a moment, and Chanyeol, hair sticking up in every direction, torn tank falling off his shoulder when he jolts in surprise, sleepy eyes wide as he focuses on Baekhyun, opens the door.

“Baekhyun?” He squints like he’s half-convinced he’s sleep-walking.

“Chanyeol?” Baekhyun says back to him in the same manner, something like comfort suddenly flooding him as his body realizes sleep, honest to goodness rest, isn’t too far away. He wonders if it’s sick to feel so dependent on someone he’d slept with only once.

Lu Han’s leer swims in his mind’s eye, and Baekhyun shoves it down with an annoyed grimace.

“S-sorry!” Chanyeol blurts out, jumping back. “Come in. Come in.” He ushers Baekhyun inside. “Didn’t mean to like- stare at you, but I didn’t really expect-”

“It’s fine,” Baekhyun assures him, waving his hand sleepily. “I just.” He looks at the bed.

“Haven’t slept in awhile?” Chanyeol asks, and Baekhyun nods gratefully, glad he doesn’t have to say it.

“I need to be up for a mission breifing in approximately eight hours,” Baekhyun reports. Chanyeol puffs out his chest.

“Count on me,” he says, and to Baekhyun, it sounds a lot like Chanyeol wants him to need him. Baekhyun kicks off his shoes.

“Don’t snore too loudly,” he warns even if Chanyeol imitating a bulldozer would probably be more of a comfort than an annoyance.

“I won’t,” Chanyeol promises, slipping back into bed. His hair fans out across the pillow, and the urge to brush his fingers through it comes to Baekhyun unbidden. Baekhyun pretends he doesn’t notice how Chanyeol’s hand, warm, comforting, lands on his upper arm, and he thinks maybe lacing their fingers would be nice. Something to cling onto, to assure himself that he’s not alone. The dull roar of the engine echoes in Baekhyun’s ears along with Chanyeol’s snores, and sleep consumes him before any other odd urges can overtake him.

***

Jongdae is standing on the table of the briefing room when Baekhyun bursts in about five seconds past the ordered meeting time.

“Baekhyun, my main man,” Jongdae nearly bellows. “You’re late!”

“You’re on a table, my dear buffoon,” Baekhyun jests. “Where is Minseok?”

“I think Lu Han is sucking his dick on the bridge,” Yixing states blandly, flipping through a medical textbook from the 21st century with his tongue caught between his teeth. “And Jongdae, your boot is untied.”

“So?” Jongdae says, spinning to face the in-house medic. Grace proves to be his middle name when he steps on the free lace and promptly trips, crashing on the floor and taking two chairs down with him.

Baekhyun stares, Yixing glances at him, and Jongdae is silent in his mortification.

“Told you,” Yixing sighs. Baekhyun bursts out laughing, kicking Jongdae in the side as he passes him to prop his chair back on four legs and take his seat.

“Fucker,” Jongdae grits out, holding his side.

“Didn’t hurt,” Baekhyun retorts.

“Wow, it sure is lively in here today,” enters a new voice, and Jongdae scrambles to get to his feet as Lu Han and the captain enter. Lu Han’s lips are, as predicted, dark pink and a bit swollen. He looks even prettier, and Minseok looks like his focus is a little lost.

“Are we just going to stand in the doorway, or are we going to have a meeting?” Kyungsoo’s voice sounds, just as grumpy as usual, from behind Minseok and his paramour. The Captain laughs and leads the rest of his crew into the briefing room.

“So,” he says, slapping the bulletin up on the board. “This is one we’re all familiar with.” The ding of the information transferring successfully rings, and Minseok drops the bulletin. It’s projected on the big white board instead, and Jongdae whoops loudly.

“Haven’t done of these in awhile,” Kyungsoo states, but the excited edge to his voice can’t be mistaken. “And I think I know the perfect position for Baekhyun.”

Baekhyun finishes reading over the details and glances at Kyungsoo with trepidation. “What might that be?” He almost regrets asking as soon as the words are out of his mouth, and everyone turns toward him with the same wicked grin on all of their faces.

“Well if we’re going undercover,” Lu Han starts. Minseok finishes for him. “Our Baekhyun should play a bartender, don’t you all agree?”

***

In-house missions are usually ten times more dangerous, ten times more deadly, and twenty times more quiet. There is no chase, Tao piloting the Contrivance just so so that the enemy ship’s thrusters go out and a forced boarding is possible. There are no big weapons and blatant hostility, Baekhyun, Jongdae, and Kyungsoo toting around plasma guns that can take out three Zaurs with one shot with their narrowed eyes hidden behind their visors and the screams of each others’ targets ringing in their own ear pierces.

In-house missions are instead about nervous energy crackling under Baekhyun’s skin as he forces himself to play a part, to look like he’s no one, like he isn’t a trained killer with a history of inter-galactic piracy.

In-house missions are also about becoming responsible for the lives of hundreds of casino patrons. At least, this is the case when the crew of Contrivance takes charge of an in-house mission on Aphrodite’s Folly.

Apparently some Zaurs have decided the casino is the perfect next target, deciding taking Kim Joonmyun hostage would allow them to regain the treasury that the hunters (Minseok’s crew) had reclaimed for the alliance. Baekhyun thinks there is more to life than money, but the Zaurs circulate their lives around how much they can have. He knows this first hand, having worked with them. Their plan is to quietly protect Joonmyun better than the hotel security staff can, much to Kris’ chagrin, without letting the Zaurs know that they’re there.

Hopefully then, they can kill them without a huge fight breaking out. Any casualties that are not attacking Zaur will probably be docked from their pay, and Lu Han’s been wanting to do some expensive renovations on the Contrivance.

“Your hair looks nice,” Chanyeol says, breaking Baekhyun out of his thoughts as he takes on the menial task of cleaning glasses. Baekhyun had died his hair black again for the occasion. He hasn’t had the color since he left for space when he was fifteen, so he hopes that it’ll make him pretty much unrecognizable. Jongdae had whistled at his appearance--The bartender boy is pretty much done for--but Baekhyun had felt kind of exposed with his hair returned to its natural color.

“Thanks,” he says with a wink, keeping up his persona. He shifts, and the weight of the plasma glock stuck in his waistband gives him comfort. Chanyeol’s presence is nice, but his presence is also in danger, and Baekhyun would very much like for him to stay alive.

“Why the sudden change?” Chanyeol asks conversationally, leaning over the bar to coax a tip from a human woman with his huge, innocent eyes and sincere voice. Taemin’s been teaching him tricks, Baekhyun notes.
“Ah, just,” he shrugs. Saying “secret mission” would kind-of defeat the purpose. “Shits and giggles,” he settles on finally.

“I like it,” Chanyeol says. “Hello, sir. What can I do for you?” Baekhyun turns to look at the customer Chanyeol has started talking to and feels his heart try to crawl out through his skin.

A Zaur.

A Zaur is sitting at the bar, ordering a drink, and though Baekhyun keeps his demeanor cool, doesn’t need to stereotype (not all Zaurs are rotten, he reminds himself firmly), this Zaur is staring at him with something like recognition in its slanted eyes.

“Right away, sir,” Chanyeol says, cheerful and turning to grab the necessary juice and liquors.

Baekhyun tries to keep himself from staring, but recognition is flaring in him too, and he’s realizing, moments too late, why he’d been so uneasy on the job with Diplomat Jongdae, why he’s so uneasy right now with this Zaur staring at him.

“It isn’t possible,” the Zaur whispers, its voice like the crunch of dried bones. “Byun Baekhyun, the human Zaur.”

The old nickname sends panic racing down Baekhyun’s spine. He knows this Zaur. He was on the crew of the Zaur pirate ship Baekhyun was once a part of--the old First Mate.

“You know each other?” Chanyeol interrupts, setting the Zaur’s drink down. “Small world--err, universe. 15 credits, sir. Would you like me to open a tab?”

“You owe a debt, Byun,” the Zaur spits, ignoring Chanyeol. The bartender’s eyes go wide, and Baekhyun’s hand is itching to grab the gun in his waistband. “To our old Captain. You ran out on us.”

“Humans and Zaurs are oil and water,” Baekhyun tries to soothe. He notices Chanyeol’s frantic gaze flicking back and forth between his patron and his pretend co-worker. “You know that, Voke. I probably did us all a favor.”

“You cost the Captain some of his crew, Byun,” the Zaur, Voke, Continues. “You’re a dead man walking.”

“I’ll sit down if that makes things better,” Baekhyun manages. “These shoes are killing me.” Voke growls, low and rumbly, and Baekhyun knows that message. It means he’s about to die, it means the target has been found, and in this case, it means attack.

“Hey, now,” Chanyeol tries, his voice shaking. “No violence here, please.”

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun snaps. “Get behind me.”

“Baekhyun, I don’t-”

“Get behind me!” He screams just as Voke’s claws slide out and he bares his teeth. A loud roar rips from his throat, and Zaurs seems to stream into the room from their various hiding places. Baekhyun flicks the alarm wired to their head-pieces on the bracelet on his wrist.

“Mission compromise!” He shouts.

“Protect the patrons,” Minseok orders. “And protect the client above all else!” Joonmyun’s office door is closed tight, and Baekhyun knows Kris is in there with him, but he’s got about two seconds to consider whether or not his friend is safe before the Zaur is launching himself over the counter. Baekhyun leaps up, taking the Zaur’s attack head on.

They crash down on the counter of the bar, glass shattering under Baekhyun’s back as he kicks hard with both feet, driving the Zaur down onto the bar stools. Voke roars at the pain as he collapses on the floor, and Baekhyun jumps to his feet, grabbing for the gun in his waistband. His fingers brush nothing but fabric and air.

“Shit,” he whispers, and Voke is up, swiping at him. Baekhyun ducks, kicking hard right. Voke grabs his leg, and Baekhyun twists, landing on his hands and dropping his weight. His thin ankle slips right from between Voke’s claws. The sting of knives against skin has Baekhyun gritting his teeth as he launches himself from the floor, wrapping his arms around Voke’s neck and swinging around his shoulder to hang from his neck.

The Zaur’s back bends, and Baekhyun heaves backwards, grabbing at the loose skin on the Zaur’s chest and kneeing him hard in the small of his back. He throws Voke over his head with the force of his stance and momentum, and the Zaur lands hard on his stomach.

“Report!” Is screamed into Baekhyun’s ear.

“Jongdae!” Jongdae yells. “Death toll counting. Spare casualty at two. More fuckers headed my way. Alive.”

“Kyungsoo!” Comes Kyungsoo’s voice. “Similar. Alive.”

“Kris?” Minseok asks.

“Alive! Joonmyun is safe.”

“Good,” Lu Han yells, followed by a grunt. But I just saw some Zaurs take off for our ship. Yixing, Tao, kill those fuckers dead.”

“Redundant,” Baekhyun snaps. He’s sorry. He is the only reason this mission has become a bar brawl. “Alive. No spare casualties. Hand to ha-” Voke takes advantage of his distraction, and his fits slams into Baekhyun’s stomach.

“Shit!” Baekhyun yells, grabbing onto the Zaur’s extended limb and slamming a knees into the back of its elbow. The limb snaps, and Baekhyun pants hard as the Zaur stumbles back, clutching it’s broken arm.

“Wracking up your debt,” he hisses.

“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun screams. “On the floor--the gun!” He gets a whimper from Chanyeol in response. “Chanyeol!” He ducks under Voke’s next attack, dropping to the ground and swinging his legs out. Voke crashes to the ground, and Baekhyun climbs over him, using his full weight to hold the Zaur down.

“Die!” Voke screams at him.

“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun screams again.

“I- g-got it!” Chanyeol stutters, and Baekhyun can only glance at him and the angle Chanyeol is from them. Baekhyun is lucky- the bar hadn’t been crowded, and the patrons had cleared out the moment Voke growled, but Chanyeol is now his only chance of survival.

Even if a shot to Voke’s head will have to travel through Baekhyun’s shoulder.

“Chanyeol!” Baekhyun shouts again, muscles screaming as he fights to hold the Zaur down. “Shoot him!” Baekhyun’s grip is slipping.

“I’ll hit you!” Chanyeol shouts. Voke twists his broken arm, his claws sinking into Baekhyun’s hip.

“Shoot him now!”

“I’ll hit you!”

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun screams, eyes burning with the pain. Voke is roaring, and Baekhyun is slipping. “Shoot the fucking gun!”

Pain rips through Baekhyun’s shoulder and Voke instantly stops struggling. The room falls silent, and Baekhyun bites his lip hard. He can’t pass out. He needs to check in.

A loud sob echoes from Chanyeol.

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun breathes, panting hard. He forces himself to his feet, grabbing his shoulder and pulling his hand away bloody. He can’t really feel his arm, but that’s not really his concern right now. He slips behind the bar and collapses next to Chanyeol.

The boy is curled into himself, his head in his hands and the gun on the floor where he’d presumably dropped it.

“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun whispers, reaching up and running his fingers through the boy’s hair. “Chanyeol, hey, hey, you’re okay.” He pats his knee. His vision is tinged with black. “You did great, yeah?” He laughs humourlessly. “I’d be dead without you. You saved me. Thank you.”

“I shot you,” Chanyeol whispers.

“I told you too,” Baekhyun says. His voice sounds weak, and he really can’t focus anymore. “It’s okay. I can take--” He stops to breathe. “A hit.”

“Baekhyun?”

“Report!” comes Minseok’s voice again.

“Bar lounge,” Baekhyun slurs. “Secure. No casualties. Dead.”

“Baekhyun?” Chanyeol asks, echoing the others in his ear. “Baekhyun!” Chanyeol screams. Unconsciousness takes Baekhyun away with Chanyeol’s screams for help in his ear.

***

“Oh, you’re awake,” Yixing greets Baekhyun as he opens his eyes. His hands are soothing as they redress Baekhyun’s wounds. “Lost a lot of blood. Lucky thing you are.”

“Yeah,” Baekhyun croaks.

“Water?” Yixing asks.

“Water,” Baekhyun confirms, word more of a whisper.

“Drink slowly,” Yixing commands. Baekhyun nods, focusing on sipping lightly to ignore the sting of Yixing cleaning the scratches on his ankle. “Chanyeol’s been a mess. He’ll be glad to see you’re awake.”

“He thinks he killed me,” Baekhyun states. He kind of knows how this injuring people thing goes.

“Yes,” Yixng confirms.

“Can I see him?”

Yixing finishes wrapping his ankle and goes to open the door of the medical bay. “Chanyeol?” He calls into the corridor. “Come in.”

Chanyeol does, looking haggard and terrified and stricken when he sees Baekhyun spread out on the hospital bed.

“I’ll give you two a moment,” Yixing says. “Drink slowly.”

“Aye, sir,” Baekhyun agrees. He looks at Chanyeol. “Don’t look at me like that. Come here.” Chanyeol stumbles towards him, taking a seat on the edge of Baekhyun’s bed.

“I was worried,” he whispers.

“I’ve taken worse,” Baekhyun tells him. “You’re not at fault, and it doesn’t make me hate you any.” The words seems to do something in Chanyeol’s mind because the next second he’s cupping Baekhyun’s cheek with one hand and licking his lips nervously like he always does.

“So,” he says, so quiet Baekhyun has to strain to hear him. “If you don’t hate me any?”

It’s Baekhyun who leans up, ignoring the pain in his shoulder, and kisses Chanyeol first.

“I don’t hate you, Chanyeol,” he confirms. “I think I’d rather like to like you. If that’s okay.”

Chanyeol kisses him again, slow hesitant. “Definitely,” he mumbles against Baekhyun’s lips. They’ve got a lot to talk about, a lot to figure out with their jobs and their friends, and their personal quirks, but right now, this moment, the hero and his sidekick after a fight and the kiss that’s been waiting to happen since forever according to Jongdae, is perfect.

Baekhyun loses track of time and feels all the loneliness evaporate from him. He thinks, judging by the smile Chanyeol can’t seem to lose even as they kiss, that Chanyeol feels the same way.

***

They develop something of a system, Baekhyun and Chanyeol do. They call it being “not lonely,” and everyone else calls it “dating.” But it’s easy enough. Baekhyun still goes out on missions, and Chanyeol still bartends. But when they’re both tired, when the loneliness gets to be a bit too much, Baekhyun always finds his way back to Chanyeol and lets himself be held as he catches up on all the sleep and affection he’d been missing.

(And, as it turns out, Chanyeol doesn’t really care about Baekhyun being old. He claims the sex is still fantastic. Baekhyun usually smacks him upside the head for whispering about it with Jongdae and Lu Han, but he never can quite hide his grin. After all, they’re kind of in love.)