Yin Yu has been in Hua Cheng’s employ for three years, and in that time he’s taken on plenty of jobs that felt immoral or wrong; it wasn’t really something you could avoid when you worked for the most successful smuggler in the galaxy. Most of the jobs were going to fall outside the realm of legality and you simply had to accept that.
It’s something Yin Yu has learned to deal with, and it helped that Hua Cheng understood his employees. He was never sent to kill anybody, or destroy someone’s livelihood, or given any of the other more intense jobs. He was never given a job that he truly regretted agreeing to, never had a mission that made him wish Hua Cheng had left him to freeze to death in the snowbank where he found him.
That is, until now.
“Shixiong!” The word crackles over the speakers, and Yin Yu winces at how the sound overwhelms the too-small interior of his shuttle. He adjusts the speaker volume - for the third time today - and gives the onboard cameras a weary smile.
“I’ve told you to please not call me that.”
“Aren’t we close yet? It’s so boring in here.”
Yin Yu can’t stop himself from scrubbing his hands over his face, immediately regretting it when the voice asks, “Shixiong? What’s the matter?”
“Nothing.” He drops his hands. “We still have two weeks to go.” He doesn’t even have to check his workstation monitor for their ETA; he’s looked so many times that he’s memorized it by now, can practically see the numbers counting down to their arrival at the facility in his mind’s eye.
He knows what answer is coming, and so he no longer jolts when the speakers give a burst of static along with his passenger’s shouted, “TWO WHOLE WEEKS?!”
When Yin Yu glances at the containment pod in the corner of his little shuttle, its smooth metal surface the only barrier between himself and the prone body inside, he knows now to keep it subtle, to hide it behind the fall of his hair. He knows not to clench his fists or tighten his jaw or show any signs of irritation because Quan Yizhen can see him using the onboard cameras, can hear him using the audio devices installed throughout the cabin. All of these measures were meant to be failsafes in case a passenger woke up early, to keep them from going insane inside their own minds without anyone to talk to or anything to look at.
Yin Yu wonders, not for the first time, if the designers ever thought that such installations would drive the pilot insane.
“You could play minesweeper again,” Yin Yu’s mouth is saying, as his mind drifts. “The film database has more war documentaries you haven’t seen, and the book catalog has plenty of war histories we could read.” While making himself Quan Yizhen’s ‘hands’ was certainly not something he loved, considering he was using his methods of entertainment to keep Quan Yizhen occupied, it was better than nothing. Besides, when Yin Yu was reading, he could pretend Quan Yizhen wasn’t there at all, because, mercifully, those were the few times when his charge was quiet .
Predictably, Quan Yizhen answers, “I don’t want to listen to another book or watch another movie! I want to do something else! Can’t you let me out?”
Another question so tired Yin Yu thinks that it must have worn a groove in Quan Yizhen’s tongue. “It’s unsafe to release you outside of a facility. If the process goes wrong, you could die.” And I’d fail my mission.
“I won’t die! I’m tougher than that, this stupid machine can’t kill me!” There’s a rattle to the words, as if Quan Yizhen is shaking the bars of his metaphorical cage. The smile that Yin Yu turns on the cameras is even more strained than before.
“I’m sorry. I can’t risk it.”
Silence, blessed, wonderful silence, falls over the small shuttle. Yin Yu settles back into his chair, busying himself with diagnostic checks and logistics, anything to keep his mind off of the mounting dread that sits like a weight in his gut whenever Quan Yizhen actually goes quiet. It’s the only peace he’s gotten in the days since his passenger awoke, outside of their sleeping hours. Still,he knows Quan Yizhen won’t stay quiet long, and so even this peace is rife anticipation and strained ears.
At first, when the pod had failed and Quan Yizhen had woken up, Yin Yu was almost grateful. He’d already spent a week in solitude and while he knew he could make it the remaining five, he was lonely. Movies and books and games and occasional calls to Hua Cheng could only do so much. So when he’d first heard that voice, first realized he wasn’t going to be alone the entire journey, he’d been looking forward to having someone to talk to.
“Shixiong,” Quan Yizhen says, dragging Yin Yu out of his reverie. “You don’t like this job very much, do you?”
Yin Yu blinks rapidly, glancing from the cameras to the monitor, as if he’ll see some sort of alert blaring that another system has failed. “Pardon?”
“You’re always shifting and fidgeting, and you smile but you don’t at the same time, and you don’t talk to anybody but me and that pirate guy.” Yin Yu can practically hear the frown in Quan Yizhen’s voice. “You should get a better job.”
Yin Yu opens his mouth to say that he can’t, that this is the best he’ll ever get, that he’s lucky enough to have even this--but common sense smothers the words before they can reach his lips. He then tries to say something along the lines of ‘I don’t mind this job’ but apparently ten seconds of no response is too long for Quan Yizhen, because he starts speaking again before Yin Yu can say a thing.
“When I get out of this dumb pod, you should work for me. You could be my second in command! You’re good at numbers and stuff, right? So you can do all that, and I’ll kill things. I’m still allowed to kill things in this century, aren’t I?”
“Ah, our region of the galaxy has an agreement of peace between all species--”
“That doesn’t mean anything.” The dismissiveness in Quan Yizhen’s voice has Yin Yu bristling. “There’s always something to fight. And I’m the best at fighting, whether it’s in space or on the ground! But you already know that, right? You’ve heard about me?”
“Yes,” Yin Yu says tightly. “I read your file.”
“See! So you know I can do it, and you can work for me and do all the other stuff, the paperwork stuff. I’ll make sure you’re happy and get paid well, and you won’t look so sad anymore--”
“ Enough! ”
Yin Yu’s voice is the one to ring through the shuttle this time, and Quan Yizhen immediately stops talking. Yin Yu is standing, having pushed himself out of his chair, his fists clenched at his sides and his chest heaving. He doesn’t remember moving, hardly remembers shouting , but there’s something raging and boiling inside of him that keeps him on his feet, keeps his eyes bright and burning as he stares down the closest camera.
What am I doing? he asks himself, a tiny thought poking at the storm inside him. I should take a break. Ask for some quiet. That’s all. I’m not the type of person to get angry. I’m not the type of person to--
“Shixiong? Are you mad? I meant what I said, I’ll pay you whatever you want to work for me!”
The dam breaks.
“Work for you? Work for you?! ” Three weeks of nothing but Quan Yizhen’s incessant chatter and whining and aggressiveness crash over him all at once, and Yin Yu is screaming, hurting his own ears with how the sound bounces around the small shuttle. “You are the most irritating, self-centered, oblivious person I’ve ever met! Why would I ever want to work for you? I can’t stand you!”
“You don’t sound okay,” is Quan Yizhen’s response, the foolish idiot that he is, when the pod malfunctioned it must have deleted half of his brain, “I know, we should read one of those books! The one about the three ancient kingdoms again!”
“Shut up! Shut up! ” Yin Yu presses his hands over his ears, body bowed. “Just shut up! If you say one more gods’ damned word I swear I’ll, I’ll--!”
The shuttle jolts, throwing Yin Yu to the side, and he hisses in pain when he slams into the wall. Alarms paint the interior scarlet as Yin Yu hurries back to the monitor, holding onto the bolted-down chair when another harsh shudder of the craft nearly sends him careening into the ceiling. He hears Quan Yizhen over the speakers, asking what’s going on, what he can do, let me out and I’ll help --it’s overwhelmed by the shriek of the alarm as Yin Yu checks the shuttle’s exterior cameras. What he sees has his blood running cold.
The problem with working for a smuggler was that, when you were given something to do, you had to do it through less-than-legal channels. Yin Yu’s course had been charted through a quieter sector, one that skirted the edges of protected space where similar shuttles could fly safely knowing their charted paths were heavily guarded by intersystem police. Obviously, Yin Yu could not come close enough to said police to be stopped and questioned, so he’d been instructed to remain out of scanner range of patrols.
Yet despite their quiet nature, sectors such as the one he flew through were not devoid of activity. Small bands of bandits scoured the unprotected space, picking off those stupid enough to travel where help wasn’t readily available.
Yin Yu charted his course himself, this time, believing it to be a simple job. Usually he asks Hua Cheng for advice, as his boss has the uncanny ability to know which routes were risky and which weren’t. Yin Yu hadn’t asked him, this time, and now he’s paying for it, his heart in his throat as he watches the two small ships circle his shuttle, no doubt preparing to fire on him again.
These shuttles aren’t built for combat, so all Yin Yu can do is activate the manual controls and yank them to the side, barely avoiding the next volley. He’s lucky that these ships don’t seem to want to blow him out of the sky, or they would have already; he’s practically a sitting target, even as he tries to outmaneuver his pursuers. He knows it’s futile when he rolls the shuttle again and still feels the jerk of a successful hit, the controls shaking in his hands - or maybe that’s just him.
“ SHIXIONG! ”
Yin Yu nearly falls out of his chair. He somehow manages to keep a hold on the controls, to do another barrel roll that has his head spinning more than the shuttle does. He ignores the static-filled yelling from the speaker, focusing on evading. They’ve been traveling past a binary-star system, and if he can dart behind one of those large gas giants, he can surely hide long enough for the bandits to lose sight of them and move on to easier targets.
“Shixiong, SHIXIONG! Let me out, I can help, I’m a pilot-- YIN YU!”
His name is punctuated by a laser burst scraping along the outer hull, sending them careening to the side, tumbling through space. Yin Yu grips the controls so tightly his knuckles crack, the rest of his body thrown about the cabin, slamming into the desk and the chair and the nearby walls. It hurts, gods does it hurt, but he’s had worse.
“Get me out of this pod!” A desperate whine threads itself through Quan Yizhen’s words as Yin Yu finally returns to his seat. “I can get us out of this, you don’t have any weapons---”
“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” Yin Yu snarls. He pivots the shuttle, the exterior cameras shifting in order to bring the bandits’ ships back into view. “I need to concentrate.”
“I can beat them!”
“You? You haven’t seen combat in decades. You’re as old and useless as those documentaries we watched! What use could you be?” He has so much more to say, words borne of anger and fear and helplessness, every dark emotion he’s felt in these past several years finally finding a target, something they can hurt the way Yin Yu has been hurt. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the chance to keep going, because the next shot that grazes the hull hits something important and part of a nearby console explodes in a shower of sparks. Yin Yu cries out, pain streaking up the arm he uses to shield his face as the burning streaks of charge eat through his biosuit.
He is, he realizes dimly, his seared arm dropping uselessly to his side, probably going to die here. The bandits will take out his propulsion systems, leave his shuttle drifting, and take their time boarding and looting valuables. Valuables being Quan Yizhen, who, as an ‘expert’ from the past, is an extremely lucrative asset to whoever has him. Hence why Yin Yu was transporting him to one of Hua Cheng’s facilities in the first place. There’ll be no use for the shuttle’s pilot when the real prize is in their hands.
Part of him finds the idea appealing. Finally, a sleep he won’t wake up from. Part of him is terrified, because death is final and this time there won’t be a Hua Cheng to bring him back. And part of him…
Part of him doesn’t want to go down alone.
Abandoning the controls, Yin Yu surges away from his chair and toward the cryogenic pod in the corner. With the console where his monitor sits partially destroyed, he won’t be able to send the command remotely. No, he has to get right up against the pod and search for the emergency defrost controls. Quan Yizhen’s voice - he can’t shut up even now - buzzes faintly in his ears as the fingers of his good hand key in the override code. The telltale hiss of an airtight lock releasing is the first sign that it’s working; Yin Yu is knocked backward by another hit, another scrape along the shuttle’s exterior that means to leave them unable to move. Considering Yin Yu hasn’t heard the alarm for a damaged engine go off, he can only assume these bandits have terrible aim.
Assuming the defrosting process will take time, that Quan Yizhen will emerge about when the bandits board the shuttle, Yin Yu stumbles back toward the controls. He only vaguely knows how the pods work, how they keep a body in its prime despite lack of exercise or solid food or anything a human normally needs. How they keep someone alive long after death should have set in. It’s all very advanced tech and the most he’s ever needed to know is that it works , yet he’s always thought that such a device would be slow in its processes. Slow to freeze, slow to defrost. It’s simple logic.
He’s dragging himself back into his seat, grimacing at the pain that streaks up his arm like a hot poker whenever he tries to move it, when he startles at a sudden slam of metal on metal. Before he can even turn around he’s being pulled away from the monitor and back against a toned chest. There are arms around him, arms corded with muscle beneath the biosuit, yet they hold him with a surprising gentleness. What?
Yin Yu lifts his head and blinks up into eyes of dark honey as Quan Yizhen says, more softly than he’s ever said anything, “Hold on to me, Shixiong. I’ve got this.”
What follows is...confusing. And irritating. Yin Yu had been handling it, thank you very much, even with his injured arm. He didn’t need his whiny passenger to turn out to be some broad-shouldered Adonis that easily slipped into Yin Yu’s chair, took the controls, and piloted the shuttle as if it was the sleekest, fastest spy-craft in the galaxy. No more laser bursts rock their ship. No more consoles explode, no other alarms go off, and through it all, Quan Yizhen holds Yin Yu against him, so close Yin Yu is practically suffocating on the wild mane of curly hair his passenger possesses. And it’s soft, too, which is so incredibly unfair on top of everything else. How can the man have hair like that when he’s been in a cryogenically-frozen pod for so many years?
At some point, Yin Yu regains enough of his mental facilities to point at the nearby system peeking along the edge of his monitor’s screen. “We can swing behind that gas giant,” he murmurs. “Their radar won’t be able to detect us, and we can hide until they leave.”
Quan Yizhen shifts in the chair. “We can take them,” he insists, and though his voice is different in person, it still holds that childish stubbornness.
“This shuttle isn’t outfitted with weaponry.”
“We have no weapons. ”
Quan Yizhen huffs, lips puffing out in the pout Yin Yu swears he’s heard through the speakers. “Fine,” he agrees at last, and whips the shuttle around in a way Yin Yu is certain it is not meant for, piloting them into the binary-star system.
Using the gravity of another planet’s satellite, Quan Yizhen slingshots the shuttle around the gas giant Yin Yu indicated, expertly pulling back on the controls and decreasing the thrusters to nothing. The shuttle drifts, and several tense moments pass by as they wait to see if the ploy worked; while the bandits scanners can’t find them, the shuttle’s scanners don’t work in turn. Yin Yu’s body remains tense for a long time, even as he leans against Quan Yizhen.
When Yin Yu decides it’s time to check, Quan Yizhen inches the shuttle around the curve of the planet, and Yin Yu goes boneless with relief when he sees that the bandits are nowhere in sight. He pulls away and lets himself crumple to the floor, legs gracelessly folding beneath him.
“We escaped.” He says it to the floor, eyes unfocused. “I can’t believe it.”
“I told you I could do it!” Quan Yizhen stands, and when Yin Yu looks up he once again realizes just how large the sniveling boy in the pod turned out to be. He’s still having a hard time wrapping his mind around it, especially considering the fact that this shuttle is built to house one full-grown adult and one stationary pod. Quan Yizhen took up so much of Yin Yu’s space with only his voice, and now he has an entire (tall, muscular) body taking up even more .
“Yes, you did.” It’s so much harder to return to the pleasant politeness he’d once used with Quan Yizhen. “Now that we have a moment, I should run a medical scan on you. Just to make sure nothing went wrong--”
“Sorry can’t hear you, I need the bathroom!” Quan Yizhen disappears into the closet-sized lavatory, latching the door that gives shuttle pilots just the tiniest bit of privacy. Well, that’s one thing Yin Yu knows about cryogenic freezing that’s coming true: Quan Yizhen isn’t going to be out for a while.
Seated on the floor, Yin Yu lets his head sink into his good hand. He doesn’t realize how much time has passed until a warm hand rests on his shoulder.
“Shixiong,” Quan Yizhen says in that same soft, caring voice of before, the one that startles Yin Yu and leaves him scrabbling for his higher brain functions. “Shixiong should rest, and take care of that arm. I’ll take the helm for a while.”
“They don’t call it that anymore,” Yin Yu mumbles, but he can feel himself listing to the side. All the excitement, the pain, the shocks; he’s not able to handle things the way he used to, back before everything happened. He gets tired more easily, worn out more easily. It’s frustrating, and the frustration only exhausts him further.
He pushes himself to his feet anyway, hand curled around his bad arm, and begins to cross the very short distance between where he’d been sitting and the alcove where his bunk is. “Don’t stop orbiting the planet until I’m back, alright? I’ll need to check the shuttle’s systems and exterior for damages, see what we can patch to make it to the facility. And you still need a medical check-up.”
“I’ll stay right here.”
“Good.” The alcove where he sleeps boasts an angled corner that also keeps it mostly hidden from the cameras, even if it doesn’t have a full on door the way the lavatory does. It’s here that Yin Yu stops and glances back. Try not to die before I wake up, he thinks, and aloud he says, “If you feel ill at all, or if something else goes wrong, come get me.”
“I will.” Quan Yizhen fiddles with the controls, and Yin Yu can easily see that he’s...running a systems diagnostic. He’s already figured out how to do that on a shuttle more advanced than those he would’ve once flown. How…?
“Oh, shixiong?” Quan Yizhen looks up, pinning Yin Yu with his gaze. “When we’ve done all that and we’re back on course, would you read me another one of those books?”
Yin Yu stares at him for a long moment, his expression neutral while his emotions rage. There are so many things he has to do, between calling Hua Cheng, fixing the shuttle’s damage if he can, figuring out how to ration food for two people, figuring out where in the hell Quan Yizhen is going to sleep and what Yu Yin is going to do if the medical scan brought up something problematic---
Amidst all the buzzing of ‘to do’ in his brain, one thought catches and holds on tightly: Quan Yizhen wants to be read to, even now when he can freely read on his own. Yin Yu feels something hard inside of him soften and loosen.
“Alright,” he says, eventually. “Once we’re back on course.”