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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.