Minho swims back to consciousness to the sound of a soft, low beeping, and before his brain is even clear of the spider-silk cobwebs of sleep, he knows something is wrong.
The lid on his Stasis chamber opens on its own, white gas overflowing the edges and seeping to the floor like smoke from a witch's cauldron, and that... is definitely not supposed to happen. It must have sprung a leak somewhere.
He has to spend a minute shedding needles and tubes and patches from his skin before he can sit up properly, and when he finally does, Minho can see the view-screen on the far wall projecting the date in glowing red analog. It takes a minute before the numbers can register in his brain, but when they finally do, his stomach sinks.
The year is 2114 — a full decade before their scheduled arrival in the Eridani system. Minho has only been in hyper-sleep for three months.
Things go wrong on every mission; Minho knows this, which is why he doesn't panic. He decides to take things one step at a time — literally.
The stasis-gas has left him fuzzy and slightly nauseous, so Minho shuffles around the room until his head clears and his limbs stop feeling like tingly blobs of goo.
He checks on his other four crewmates, but they are all still nestled cozy and safe in their own chambers, as they should be. Through the clear view-plate, Minho can see Jonghyun's lips moving occasionally, but Minho is fairly sure the Navigator is just singing in his sleep.
Key looks peaceful and serene (quite a change from when he's awake), Taemin somehow has managed to twist himself around so that all Minho can see are his feet, and Onew (their Expedition Leader) looks like he's drooling into his pillow.
Minho lingers at this last chamber far longer than he should have, and starts out of it, shaking the last pins-and-needles out of his legs as he heads for the supply room.
The stasis-gas must have fogged him up more than he'd realized.
He spends three hours with the equipment manual and a box of tools, but the instructions for fixing leaks on a stasis chamber look like they were written in gibberish, the little diagrams like a five year-old drew them, and Minho can't make heads-or-tails of any of it.
Frustrated, Minho tosses the soldering iron back into the box with more force than necessary, and slumps against the side of his broken chamber. He's a xenogeologist, not an engineer, and maybe if this thing were carved out of alien rocks he'd have half a clue what to do. But it's not, and he doesn't, which leaves Minho with just one option.
At least, that's what he tells himself.
Raking his hands through his dark hair (it's gotten too long), Minho jumps to his feet, stalking over to the last chamber in the line and frowning down at the sleeping boy within.
"It's your fault, hyung," Minho mutters, with his fingers hovering over the controls. "If you hadn't written such a lousy manual, I wouldn't have to do this."
Still, Minho holds his breath a minute longer, hesitating. Then through the thick plastic lid, Minho can hear the muffled sounds of Onew snoring with his mouth wide open, and Minho chuckles, forgetting his dilemma just for a second.
Then his fingers move almost of their own accord, punching in the chamber's emergency override, and gas hisses out like steam as the hyperbaric seal cracks itself.
Minho has just violated about fourteen kinds of protocol, but it's too late to take it back.
Even after all the stasis gas has cleared, Minho has to poke the older boy in the cheek a few times before he finally stirs, but Onew only groans and pulls his pillow over his face like a kid who doesn't want to get up for school.
"Hyung," Minho says, prying the pillow out of Onew's grip. Onew immediately flings an arm over his eyes to shield them from the light. "Hyung, wake up."
"Five more minutes," Onew mumbles.
Minho didn't want to have to resort to this, but... "Hurry, the ship is on fire!"
Onew tumbles out of bed in an instant — unfortunately, forgetting to detach himself from the chamber's life support systems before he does.
Wincing, Minho bends down and helps untangle the older boy from his heap of limbs and wires and tubes. Once he's clear, Minho halls Onew to his feet with a steady hand at his elbow.
"Minho?" Onew says, blinking up at him through bleary eyes. "You... the ship... what?" Coherency has never really been their leader's forte, even without the side-effects of stasis gas.
Minho walks the older boy around the room, helping him get his coordination back before beginning the explanation about the leak in Minho's chamber and his failed repair attempt.
After Onew has stood blinking at Minho for a solid two minutes — during which time Minho is positive he's going to get scolded for breaking the rules, and asked why he didn't call in a report in to Central Command, and all sorts of other things he's not prepared to answer — the older boy merely scratches his neck, and yawns, then shuffles over inspect the broken device.
Okay, so maybe Minho had assumed too much about Onew's current state of wakefulness.
Onew gets to work, penlight clenched in his teeth as he pries off the side paneling and rummages around inside. In three hours Minho hadn't even gotten that far, and he might have felt like an idiot for that — except that their Expedition Leader, while an absolutely brilliant engineer, is pretty much at hopeless at explaining how things work.
Which is why Minho doesn't ask for particulars when Onew emerges, three minutes later, and matter-of-factly declares that they're screwed.
"A whole year?" Minho stares, disbelieving.
"I'm sorry." Onew looks genuinely apologetic, even though the situation is not really his fault. "At least it's better than ten, though, right?"
Apparently, Minho had woken up because a tiny fissure in the chamber's seal had leaked all the stasis gas, slowly draining the storage tank down to zero-percent. Their only chance to refill it was at the Edge Space Station, a tiny little international outpost located in between Pluto, and the nine-year leg of the rest of their journey out of the Milky Way and towards Epsilon Eridani.
The time to reach the Edge, however, was still another eleven and a half months.
"It won't be so bad," Onew goes on, smiling and obviously trying to make the best of the situation. "We'll have all kinds of fun. The ship's computer has about six hundred kinds of board games. A year will go by in a flash, you'll see."
"Hyung, you're not going back into hypersleep?" Minho asks, frowning. There is nothing wrong with Onew's chamber, after all.
"Nah," Onew waves a hand, then his eyes widen. "Oh! But I guess you could use it, if you wanted to? I wouldn't mind."
"But it's yours, hyung; you should go back to sleep."
"I'm the Leader, how could I leave you out here wandering around by yourself? You're my responsibility."
The glint in the older boy's brown eyes is unexpectedly determined. After a beat, Minho gives in and laughs, defeated. And if he's being honest, he's actually sort of touched.
"Fine," Minho says, reaching out and circling Onew's wrist with his fingers, tugging him towards the door. "But don't get mad when I beat you at Parcheesi," he warns, voice teasing.
"As if," Onew scoffs, and turns his wrist just enough so that their hands slide together instead, fingers lacing almost as if by accident. They walk towards the ship's rec room, and Onew's voice takes on a regaling tone. "I was the Junior Regional Champion of Parcheesi back in '02, didn't you know?"
Minho hadn't known. But somehow he finds it easy to believe.
A week (and twenty-one Parcheesi games) go by before Minho thinks to ask if Onew has broken the news about their slight mission hiccup to Central Command.
When he mentions it, Onew starts, as if guilty. "Oh, right. I was just about to do that, actually. After... dinner."
"Hyung," Minho examines the older boy critically, where he is hunching over a pile of wires and scrap metal on a workbench, and not meeting Minho's eyes. "Are you trying to keep me out of trouble? Because I'm a big boy, I can handle it."
Onew's hand jerks, and Minho reaches to catch the screwdriver that he's knocked off the table. "I told you, I'm going to call. It just... um. It slipped my mind."
Enlightenment dawns then, and Minho puts a hand on the back of the older boy's chair, leaning far into his personal space and lowering his voice. "They're going to tell you to go back into Stasis, aren't they," Minho says, knowing he's guessed right when Onew looks away, biting his lip.
"It is the proper protocol," Onew mumbles, and just as Minho is about to ignore the way his stomach is sinking and give a short speech about rules and safety and the necessity of both, Onew reaches up and lays a finger over Minho's mouth.
"Don't even start," Onew says, and then wrinkles his nose at what Minho presumes is the face he's making. "You're so predictable, sometimes.
"Anyway, I already told you," Onew bounces out of his chair, pushing his hair out of his eyes with a sunny smile. "I'm not leaving you alone. And I'm the Leader, so... yeah. That's that."
He has that stubborn look again, and Minho knows better than to push it. They go to eat dinner, and Minho gets his ass handed to him at chess, checkers, and backgammon. Neither of them brings up the subject of Central Command again.
This is bad.
It's only been a month, but they are both already so sick of board games that any mention of them causes an automatic eye-twitch.
Minho spends a lot of his time in the gym, or reading. His Palm Reader has a digital library of over fifty-thousand popular novels, magazines, and comic books.
At the rate he's going, he'll have burned through them all by New Year's day.
There's another loud crashing sound from Onew's room down the hall, and Minho resists the urge to get up and investigate. The last time he'd tried, the older boy had peeked out through a crack in the door and insisted that the thunderous booming noises had all just been in Minho's imagination.
Sometimes Minho worries that the confinement is affecting Onew a bit more than it should be.
He hits the Browse button on his Palm Reader and types in a search for "cabin fever".
"Oh, it's a..." Finding he actually has no idea what he's looking at, Minho clears his throat, saying brightly, "Thanks, hyung, I've always wanted one."
They're in the ship's mess room, where instead of breakfast, Minho had walked in that morning to find the walls decorated with streamers and colorful twinkling lights, and Onew pouncing on him with a large box in his arms, which he'd promptly shoved into Minho's with a loud Happy Birthday!
"It's a dogbot," Onew explains, pulling the bulbous heap of scrap-metal from the package and setting in on the table. "I had one when I was a kid, but it fell into the bathtub and short-circuited when I was nine. Anyway, I had to design this one myself, obviously — but isn't it cute?"
If Minho tilts his head just so, he can sort of make out a vague canine-shape amidst the welded metal and exposed wiring. "Yeah," he says, realizing the older boy is waiting for a response. "It's adorable."
"Go ahead, turn it on," Onew says, flapping a hand at him.
Minho obeys, flipping the prominent switch just behind the dogbot's orange plastic collar. The switch snaps off like a twig, and the dogbot's eyes flare to life, glowing bright, menacing red.
"Uh," Minho stares, gingerly holding the broken part between two fingers. Unperturbed, the dogbot jumps off the table, gears and limbs moving in a clanking, hissing cacophony. Then it barks, but instead of the typical "Woof, woof," the staticky sound that emerges from its speakers is more like "Whomp, whomp."
Onew beams proudly. "What are you going to name it?"
The dogbot starts running around the room, still barking; but there seems to be something wrong with its visual sensors, because it crashes headfirst into the walls more often than not.
"How about Jjong," Minho suggests, and Onew claps his hands in approval.
The dogbot is a menace.
The one good thing Minho can say about it, at least, is that he's far less bored these days — mostly due to the fact that he spends half his life running around the ship after that stupid animatronic animal.
This task is made exponentially more difficult, however, whenever gravity cuts out — which it does at least three or four times a day now, ever since Jjong chewed halfway through the gravity stabilizer during one of his terrorizing escapades.
Onew had patched it back together as best as he could, but sometimes gravity will still stutter on and off without warning, and Minho had almost killed himself the other day trying to bench press what he hadn't realized was a three-hundred pound barbell.
There's no way to turn the dogbot off, and short of cramming the thing into a storage cabinet, (which Onew had caught Minho doing once, and his face had crumpled as if he'd just been told Santa Claus wasn't real, putting the kibosh on that), there is no controlling its unruly behavior. So they put all the breakable stuff out of reach and cross their fingers a lot.
It seems to listen to Onew more than Minho, though. But Minho has always found the older boy's voice particularly nice to listen to, too, so that's not all that surprising.
Minho takes refuge in the bathroom one morning (apparently Jjong has decided it would be fun to chase Minho for a change) and sighs relief when the dogbot sniffs forlornly at the door then leaves. Onew had programmed it to avoid bathrooms and water; in here, Minho was left alone and safe.
Or... maybe he isn't as alone as he'd thought.
The water for the farthest shower-stall turns on, and the sound of Onew's voice rises up with it, singing.
Minho recognizes the tune as some silly pop song that had been making its way up the charts before they'd left home, but Onew is singing as if it's the world's most epic love ballad, adding on endless runs at the end of every line.
Minho listens for a minute or so, hand over his mouth to contain his snickers — then the older boy powers through a high note, and Minho can't hold it in anymore — he bursts out laughing.
Predictably, Onew shrieks like a girl, and slips on the wet floor, his body hitting the side of the shower stall with a loud thud.
"Hyung, I'm sorry," Minho calls out, getting himself under control and venturing a few steps closer. "I didn't mean to startle you. Did you hurt anything?"
"I'm... fine," comes the answer, sounding a bit reedy.
By then Minho is close enough that the blur-shield on stall's clear plastic walls isn't doing very much blurring at all, and Minho wonders vaguely if the ventilation ducts are working properly, because suddenly the room seems overly close and stuffy, humidity and steam causing his palms to sweat.
"Hey, what's that noise?" Onew says, his voice breaking through the fog, and Minho can hear it, too — a muffled, metallic sort of grinding, crunching sound.
"Minho, is that coming from your room?"
Turning on his heel, Minho runs out of the bathroom, footsteps echoing loud from the tiled walls, because he has remembered something very important: that he hadn't locked his door this morning.
The crunching gets almost deafening, and Minho slams his palm against the door control to his room and then he sees it, right there in the middle of the floor, bold as brass.
It's that stupid, malfunctioning, pile-of-junk dogbot. It's already chewed half of Minho's prized rock collection to small piles gravel and dust, and is just starting to work on the other half.
Minho lunges for the beast, seeing red — but the ship's gravity chooses that particular moment to cut out, and Jjong escapes, floating just barely out of reach.
Minho swears that its happy Whomp-whomps are taunting him.
The next couple months pass by fairly smooth — partly because Onew feels so apologetic about Minho's demolished rock collection that he starts locking Jjong up in his rooms for most of the day — but mostly because Minho persuades Onew to cobble together a makeshift karaoke machine out of a large view-screen and a micro-music player.
With the twinkling lights still strung up from December, because neither of them bothered to take them down, it's a lot like their training days back at space camp, when they would all stay up way past curfew in Kibum and Jonghyun's dormitory — singing, telling stories, trading jokes at each other's expense. They'd stay up, and when it got really late, the five of them would lay down on the floor, staring up at the constellations that Taemin had mapped out on the ceiling and wondering aloud about what their first mission together would be like.
And just as Minho is about to start feeling really wistful and nostalgic, Onew whirls around, clutching his favorite socket-wrench like a microphone, singing a song so old it hadn't even been hip when Minho's parents were kids. But somehow he knows every word to the lyrics, anyway.
From across the ship, Jjong reacts to the music and the singing, starting to howl. It sounds like hovercar getting smashed to pieces by a humpback whale.
Minho laughs so hard that he nearly doubles over, and Onew smiles back at him, eyes creasing up till they're almost invisible under the fall of his bangs.
And just like that, Minho doesn't miss the other boys at all anymore.
"You need to stop," Onew says, voice shaking as much as the finger he is pointing accusingly in Minho's direction. "I can s-see what you're doing. I'm n-not going to stand for it."
Minho, who is sitting on a bench lifting hand-weights, has no idea what the hell the older boy is talking about.
"Hyung, what are you talking about?" he asks, opting for the straightforward approach, and exchanges the weights for his towel, wiping streaks of sweat off his face.
"All this," here Onew gesticulates a bit wildly, presumably indicating Minho and every piece of equipment in the ship's small gym room. "You're in here every day. Getting all — all toned."
Minho lifts an eyebrow, examining the other boy's panicked expression and wondering if he'll have to start reading up on some psychology journals again. Maybe symptoms of cabin fever include an irrational fear of exercise. "I'm just trying to stay healthy," he says, patiently.
"Oh, this is not just healthy," Onew accuses, and stalks over, grabbing Minho's right arm and wrapping fingers around his bicep. Minho can't not do it — he flexes the muscle, and Onew yelps, jumping back.
"You see?" he says, flustered; and no, Minho doesn't see at all.
But then he looks closer, and there is a pink flush spreading slowly over Onew's cheeks, and he's darting furtive glances at Minho from underneath his shaggy fall of hair, looking almost... almost shy.
"Ah," Minho says, getting it. And though his tone is mild, his heart is already starting to pound just a little bit faster.
But all he does is smile, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees. "Hyung," he says, gently, "Are you saying you think I look... good?"
"Yes," Onew nods, the color in his cheeks staining darker. "Exactly. That. So, okay, you'll stop now, right? Great, I'm glad we had this little chat," he blurts, and then lunges for the door, obviously ready to escape.
Minho snags his wrist as he passes by, and Onew jerks to a stop, with his back to Minho and shoulders pulled in tight.
"Wait," Minho says — and maybe the older boy is kind of fragile these days, and Minho shouldn't tease him like this — but it's been a long, long five months, and Minho pretty much can't help himself.
"Hyung, this is important," Minho says, solemn as he can manage. "I think we need to talk more about how attractive you find me."
The older boy falls for it. Onew's shoulders slump in defeat, and he pulls free of Minho's grip only to plop himself down on the nearest bench, head in his hands and fingers pulling through his hair in frustration.
"I know, I know, I shouldn't," he says, voice nearly a wail. "B-but, Minho, you're just so — and then when you — and your legs —"
"What about my legs," Minho says, and a grin has spread across is face from ear-to-ear by that point, but Onew is too busy staring at the floor to see it. "I run ten miles a day, you know. Is it my calves?"
"I — um, what?" Onew says, looking up, and Minho tries to hide his smile with his hand; but it's too late, he's caught. "You're laughing at me," Onew exclaims, leaping to his feet.
"No, hyung, wait," and Minho is laughing, but it's not for the reason Onew thinks. He has to stand up and snatch the other boy when he makes another break for the door, and Minho turns that momentum to his advantage, tugging Onew around and into his arms.
Onew blinks up at him with wide, brown eyes, his hands trapped up against Minho's chest; in a few seconds Minho's laughter fades to nothing, because suddenly he barely has enough air to breathe, let alone laugh.
"You should know something, hyung," Minho says, and there's no way that Onew can't feel how hard his heart is pounding by that point.
"O... okay?" the older boy ventures, tentative.
"I really — " Minho begins, just to make sure Onew is properly off-guard. Then, without saying another word, he bends and catches the other boy's mouth with his own.
Onew stiffens in surprise for about three seconds, and then he — well, the best word Minho can think of to describe it is attacks — and suddenly Onew's hands are fisted in Minho's shirt collar, yanking their bodies flush. Their tongues slide together, mouths open and hot, and Onew is pressing against him so tight that Minho wobbles, losing his balance.
He stumbles back a step, the backs of his knees hitting the bench and forcing him to sit, and Onew follows him down, their lips never detaching as Onew more or less straddles Minho's lap, hips fitting together right where they'd left off.
Minho gasps out of the kiss, blinking up at the older boy in awe. Onew's eyes are half-lidded and dark, lips swollen, and Minho has to grip firm onto Onew's hips to hide the way his hands are shaking.
"So..." Minho says, groping through his scattered thoughts. "Does this mean... I'm allowed to keep working out?"
Onew chokes on a sound that is half-laugh, half-groan, and his forehead drops onto Minho's shoulder. "Yeah, can we just, you know — forget about how I kind of — uh, went off the deep end like that?"
Minho takes advantage of the position to press kisses along the curve of the other boy's neck, lips dragging warm and soft, and feels Onew shiver in reaction. "Depends," Minho says between kisses, low and teasing.
"On if you tell me what you thought I was plotting by getting all toned up."
"I d-don't know... I guess to stage a m-mutiny and — " here Onew gasps, as Minho's hands find their way up the back of his shirt, " — and throw me over as Expedition Leader." He chuckles a little, though the sound is breathy. "Crazy, right?"
"Not really," Minho says, fingers sliding warm and easy along the other boy's skin. "That part is true."
But Onew has caught the hitch in Minho's breath, and when he lifts his head to see Minho's expression, they're both wearing the same stupid grin.
Onew moves in close, till their lips are just millimeters apart, and the messy strands of his hair are tickling Minho's face. "You'll never take me alive," he whispers, just before Minho bridges that small gap and sinks into his mouth once more.
Minho never could resist a challenge.
"Hyung, I don't care how bored you think it is — you're not taking the dogbot for a walk in space."
They are lounging on the floor of the rec room, where Onew has laid out a Parcheesi board that he's fashioned from a patchwork of wood, metal, and plastic, and was now in the process of trying to teach Jjong how to play it.
So far, the only progress the dogbot has made has been to eat three of the game pawns and a set of dice.
"But, Minho, just look at the poor thing," Onew gestures. "Even the world's best game isn't stimulating enough for him. What if he needs to run wild and free around Saturn's rings?"
Minho looks. Jjong is rattling a bit, noisy like a string of tin cans caught in a windstorm. At first, Minho thinks it might be having an electrical spasm — but then it hacks, and a misshapen green pawn comes flying out of it's throat.
"It looks fine to me," Minho says, going back to his Palm Reader.
Onew's hand returns to Minho's head, which is resting comfortably in the older boy's lap, fingers threading through his hair. "You need another haircut," Onew mutters, obviously pouting.
"Maybe later," Minho answers vaguely, after recalling with brief but chilling horror the last attempt Onew had made to play barber. Laser-cutters were definitely not meant for use on humans.
"We already have the suits in the airlock and everything," Onew says after a few minutes of peace and quiet, still fixating on the space-walk business. His tone turns cajoling. "Don't you want to go out and get some more rocks for your collection?"
Minho hesitates, tempted. Luckily, he is saved from any unfortunate, rash decisions by the gravity stabilizer stuttering and dying for the first time that week.
Everything in the room that's not bolted down floats up into the air, weightless. Onew, who has never quite gotten the hang of swimming in zero-g, even after all this time, flails around after the pieces of his game with very little success.
"Look at you," Minho scolds, sailing forward to hook both arms around the other boy's waist, pulling him close just before he's about to crash into the table. "And you think I'm going to let you try this out in space?"
"Hey, show some respect for your Leader," Onew says, squirming around until they are face-to-face. The shift of momentum sends them spinning on an axis, and Minho doesn't bother trying to correct it. He curls one hand around the nape of Onew's neck, tugging him forward until their mouths meet, lips lingering and warm.
"How's that," Minho asks, more sincerely than he'd intended; but they are just over halfway through their journey, and passing the time no longer feels like life's most onerous chore — and Minho knows exactly who to thank for that.
Onew's face is the shade of pink between pleased and embarrassed. "You know, um, a passing thought has just occurred to me," he says, and Minho grins, sliding a hand up the back of the older boy's thigh; he's been having the same thought since gravity kicked out in the middle of their showers last week.
"If I disassemble those big crates in the cargo hold," Onew goes on, eyes lighting in eagerness, "I'll probably have enough raw materials to build a space pod, and —"
Or, maybe not the same thought.
Jjong sails past them, clanking and snarling, somehow managing to chase its own tail even while floating through the air.
Minho summons his mental calendar, and starts counting down the days.