One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen.
Taeyong mentally does a recount, eyes darting throughout the ship as members duck out of the cabin. Sixteen now? Taeyong frowns, unbuckling his seatbelt and pulling Hyuck into the seat he had been occupying. “Buckle up. Johnny, let me know when the jumps come up.”
”Won’t be jumping for a while unless we’re attacked. Those last ones did a number on the ol’ girl, we’ll need to find a rest stop soon, or an outpost somewhere. Any place we can get her stable until we get back home really.”
Taeyong nods, pats a wall. “She’ll get us where we need to be, there should be a rest stop a few quadrants from here. You’ll need to change if you’re getting out though, everyone this side of the universe has probably seen the broadcast.
”You think so?” Hyuck asks with excitement, leaning forward in the co-pilot’s seat absolutely not wearing his belt.
”I think you’re going to faceplant the moment Johnny lands this ship.” Taeyong turns back to the flight deck. “Hey, you counted everyone before we left?”
”There wasn’t really time for that, what with the shooting going on,” Johnny says lightly, looking at Taeyong out of the corner of his eye. “Is something wrong?”
”I don’t know, just feel uneasy. Maybe it’s nothing.”
”Hm, tell Jisung to do a headcount. We’ve never gone wrong trusting the Taeyong Gut.”
Hyuck snickers, and Johnny’s eyes turn into crescents as he beams at the boy. Taeyong steps away from them, ducking out of the cockpit to find Jisung. The cabin is quiet but thrumming with energy from the babies; Jaemin and Jeno sit outside of Command, their heads bowed together over a tablet mapping out a mission report. It’s not necessary really, they didn’t answer to the Galactic Federation anymore, but the kids liked accounts of the jobs they’d been allowed to sit in for, and well, Taeyong wasn’t going to take that piece of joy away from them (even if it did create a damning paper trail).
In the mid deck, Jisung, Renjun and Chenle are huddled together whispering furiously. They stop as soon as Renjun spots Taeyong, nervously shouting his name above their chatter.
”Yu-“ Renjun is pushed back into his seat before he can answer, Chenle standing up and smiling at him cutely.
’Of course, Hyung. We’re just really excited, the broadcast was crazy.”
Taeyong smiles at them, crossing the room to get to where they’re sitting. “Light work after all that prep we did for it. Good job holding the fort down.”
”Thank you, Hyung,” they murmur as a chorus, not really looking as excited as they usually do when he praises them. Adrenaline was a fickle bitch though, and Taeyong knows the fatigue that she brings so he shrugs it off.
”Jisung I was looking for you actually.”
”M-Me?” the boy stutters from where he was half-hiding himself behind Chenle’s much smaller frame. An eye pokes out over Chenle’s shoulder, nervous.
”Yeah, I have a job for you. With all the mess going on we didn’t have time to do a headcount, mind handling that for me?”
All three teens are deathly quiet, their eyes averted from him.
”Or I could just fini-“
”No, Hyung, you’re probably more tired than any of us. Jisung will get right to it.” And then Chenle’s smiling again, charming and cute as he always is. Taeyong is tired, but he’d stay up a bit longer if there was still work to be done.
"Okay, thanks, Buddy. I’m in the cockpit with Johnny, just let me know once you’re done.”
The ol’ girl makes it to the dingy rest stop two planets away - spluttering and hacking - but she makes it. “Do they have service here? I so want to check the news, everybody must be talking about us.”
’Hyuck, don’t turn your device on in here. We told you to hand it over to Yuta before using it again.”
”Can you chill out? I have anti-spy software.”
”Like that works,” Johnny scoffs, unbuckling himself and stretching his arms out above his head. “You think galactic government bodies make trackers that can be discovered by free phone software?”
”It took me three minutes to hack their servers, so yes, I do think they’d make and use trackers that shitty.”
’Hey, language! I don’t think you should be hanging around Mark anymore.”
”Huh? What did I do, Hyung?” Mark whines, trudging into the flight deck. His hair’s messy like he’d been asleep the ride over and he’s got a hoodie and sneakers on along with pajama bottoms, so maybe he had after all. Or it was just new age fashion that Taeyong didn’t understand, which wouldn’t be the first time.
As Johnny plays Dad scolding them both for Hyuck’s colourful vocabulary, Taeyong goes over to Command to run scans. A few holes in the hull and back, a busted engine, overheating engine room and the usual damage to the breakers after making excessive jumps. The ship was old, but reliable and hard-earned off of a guy from Exoplanet back when Taeyong and Johnny were still scavenging for pay – they still did that, don’t get him wrong, but now the pay cheques were much bigger considering how high profile their hits were. Long story short, the dude was trying to get off world and needed an out, and Taeyong had a friend who piloted for The Vision (and smuggled occasionally), and that was that.
As far as damage and the amount of units he has to transfer to keep things hush and sweet for waking the only mechanic on-world at this hour go, this is inconsequential. As the boys file out to explore the fuel station and its café that was probably last visited by the health department when their planet still had six moons, Taeyong scopes out the garage trying to inconspicuously tune into the radio. Forty three jumps from here, a planet has exploded (unnatural causes). Solar system P-3525 is being evacuated by the Galactic Federation as fears for their dying star escalate, and two warring factions at the edge of the Universe have both staked a claim on Planet V. A man claiming to be an Earthian Norse god has landed on Wreath looking for a forgemaster.
The usual hubbub of the Universe, but no word of the Galactic Federation getting robbed or their airwaves getting hijacked despite Jaehyun tracking the receivers to at least fifteen galaxies. Taeyong hears Johnny and the grease monkey go back and forth with ease, and decides he too might check out the café, if only to load up on snacks. It’s been awhile since he’s enjoyed his snack of choice in anything other than small quantities.
A bell rings overhead as he pushes inside. It’s surprisingly warm in here and relatively cleaner than outside, so he trudges on, winding between the aisles beyond the tables and booths looking through their stock. He comes away with an armful of cubed sweet potato snacks close to their expiry date, a cute hairband with a pink cartoon character’s likeness on the front and a crate of the Cleavean fruit Jungwoo’s been obsessed with recently.
He spots Jisung as he’s transferring the units for the products, squished as usual behind Chenle. Taeyong finds it comical how he always slinks behind the shortest members in their company.
The boy looks up at him with cartoonishly large eyes when he approaches the table they’re at, pulling his hand out of Chenle’s lap as a high blush dusts his cheeks. Chenle turns to him, frowning.
”Are we all good?”
”Yes, Hyung,” he squeaks, averting his eyes away from Chenle and Taeyong both.
”The headcount. Did you get everybody?”
”O-oh. The headcount.” Jisung speaks slowly, stretching his words out for eons. “Yes, I did, Hyung. Everybody’s here. One hundred percent.”
"Good, sorry if I scared you guys earlier, the way things left off back at the Federation was just… I don’t know, weird? Something was off.”
”Yeah, I think we felt it too. Feds must have got a new weapons contractor,” Chenle says, pointedly ignoring Jisung’s nervous petting beside him.
”Yeah, the ship’s busted like I haven’t seen her in a while. Might take the grease monkey and Johnny hours to get through the damage.”
Winwin awakens slowly to the comforting aroma of tomato and egg soup. He tries to sit up to locate the direction from which it’s coming from, only to gasp in pain.
”Easy now,” an unfamiliar voice says, and even his strong arm sliding beneath his shoulders can’t stop Winwin from jerking away. His chest and ribs burn something fierce, and his entire body screams at him in protest, but he knows he has to get away.
The man let’s out a yelp uncharacteristic for his size when Winwin’s foot connects with his chest, and it is only when he’s collapsed on the ground in a painful heap of lanky body parts that Winwin realises this was a very bad idea. At worse, he’s aggravated his captor and worsened what injuries he has even further, at best, this was a hyper realistic dream born from sniffing poisonous gas on some planet in the middle of bumfuck nowhere. Either way, neither were good prospects.
One of his eyes is swollen almost shut, and he can barely make out the man peeking over the edge of the bed at him. Neatly cut brown hair frame a handsome face, and muscular arms box in the one foot Winwin has splayed out on the bed.
”Are you okay? Don’t worry I won’t come any closer,” the man reassures when Winwin attempts a last-ditch effort to drag himself away.
Winwin stops trying to crawl away. He grits his teeth as he drags his foot away from the man and toward himself, clearly feeling the sprain he’d either self-inflicted or worsened. It is that moment that he realises he’s naked as sin, and he’s quickly fumbling around for something to defend himself with.
”You’re asking me if I’m okay? What kind of-“ Pain shoots up his jaw silencing him mid-tirade. Winwin crouches over himself, regretting so when the pain his chest and ribs flare back up.
”Take it easy with yourself, nothing except that foot’s been healing well and now you’ve, you know.” He quiets at the glare Winwin shoots him, instead sliding off the bed to tend to the pot he has on the stove in the other room.
Winwin finally gets a good look at the room he’s in. Morning light streams in through the gaps in the shutters covering a window above the bed. The light hurt his eyes, but so does every other form of stimulus do every other part of his body. The carpet is rough beneath his hands and ass, the beads dividing this room from the other hurt his ears (and eyes - gods what an ugly colour and pattern to pick), and every breath he takes feel like molten lava being poured down his throat.
Pathetically he manoeuvres himself onto his knees, dragging himself up to the bed by grasping the sheets. The man does not comment on this, nor is he looking Winwin’s way when he cautiously looks out beyond the ugly bead curtain. The place is small, not smaller than his shared compartment with Taeil in the ship, but small nonetheless-
Winwin freezes. Snatches of things come back to him, little bits and pieces of memories… the mission at the Federation, the computers going haywire, a portal(?), falling, so much falling, years of falling, and then someone asking him-
His heart thuds in his chest and he all but tears the bed apart looking for it, screaming lungs be damned. Behind the pillow he’d been sleeping on is a ring attached to a chain, three bands of different metals. He reaches his hand out tentatively, embarrassment colouring his cheeks red as he wraps his hand around it. This, he remembers. A man had bent over him once he’d fallen out of that godforsaken never-ending void, and the first thing Winwin had become aware of was the ring dangling above him on this flimsy metal chain. Aching fingers couldn’t stop him from grabbing onto the cool metal before collapsing from tiredness.
The throbbing in his head worsens, and he is too miserable to care about his state of undress when he hears the beads tinkle.
”You should eat something. It’s tomato egg drop soup, not as good as my ge’s, but I’m still his chef in training.”
Winwin stays kneeling on the bed, his fingers wrapped around the chain. “What happened to me?” His voice is croaky, and worse shaky, and Winwin just feels like jumping out of a window.
The man stays quiet as he sets a folding tray down with what Winwin assumes is his breakfast, right on the spot where he had been minutes earlier. He fusses some more talking about the weather and how he’d need to get gas for the heater all while pointedly ignoring Winwin’s question.
”Are you going to answer me?”
"I don’t know what to tell you- and you should really try not to speak so much. I don’t have anything to set your jaw with.”
Winwin glares at him again, holding back a moan of pain as he pushes himself over to the tray. The man picks up a spoon looking down at him neutrally, and Winwin sees that he means to feed him. Winwin says something low and foul beneath his breath, instantly rewarded with the throbbing of his jaw as he overestimates his pain tolerance.
The man stares at him with eyes as big as planets, spoon halted on it’s way to him. “Well that was unnecessary. My mother’s an amazing person, for your information.”
Sicheng freezes, watching him out of the corner of his eye. “You understood that?”
”Even if I hadn’t known the language, you make it pretty clear when you’re insulting someone.”
"Yes, but you do know the language?”
”Obviously? I understood you didn’t I?”
Sicheng is not a patient man, as much as he seems like it, and this toying is fraying his already frayed nerves. “Do you have a translator in?”
”Nope, Feds won’t let me get a new one until I’m off probation.”
”Probation? What is going on here?”
”I don’t know either, like I told you. All I know is that you were pretty banged up when I found you. I thought pieces of the moon were falling off again and falling into the atmosphere, but it was just you.”
”Your moon crumbles?”
”Don’t they all?” His smile is charming, open. Winwin is not endeared at all.
”So I fell out of the sky?”
”Yeah, you landed a few miles away from here.”
”I don’t understand.”
”The universe works i-“
”Please don’t say it. My jaw hurts and I can’t properly cuss you out right now.”
The man laughs so loud, Winwin jumps in his spot. His mouth is just as big as his eyes. Everything about him seemed big, so big he dwarfed the room. Winwin’s stomach growls.
”No time for complaints when your belly’s screaming like that. I won’t rush you or make fun of you, promise.”
Winwin glares at him, but gives in anyway. He was starving, and the broth that’s spooned into his mouth is better than anything he’s had in a while, like home fashioned just for him and put in a bowl. (In the quiet of his own mind, he misses his neos and the noise that came with mealtimes).
His jaw aches horribly, but filling his belly brings some relief for his other aches and pains. The throbbing in his head isn’t so bad anymore; the sting in his hand has lessened now that he has it resting in his lap. Perspiration beads on his forehead with the painful effort to stay sitting.
Slowly and stiffly he moves his head to the side when the next spoonful is lifted to his mouth.
”No more? It’s only a little left.”
”I’ll throw up.”
”Okay then.” The man shovels the spoon into his own mouth, raising the bowl to his lips next to empty it of whatever Winwin hadn’t finished. Winwin judges him silently.
”Is this your home?”
”Anybody else around?”
”Nope. Just us and the open land. And the drones of course.”
The man nods, wiping the corners of his lips clean with his wrist. ‘Special courtesy of the Vision if you’re wondering.”
"I thought you said the Feds had you on probation?”
"They do, I’m the Vision’s problem though, so they get a piece of the meat.”
”I can’t imagine an intergalactic tech company going through all this trouble to watch one man. What did you do?”
”Can I have your name?” The man asks instead, that big smile on his face again. “Mine’s Yukhei.”
Sicheng considers him for a moment, as he sits there sweating and trembling to keep himself upright. He despises the casual arm this Yukhei has stretched behind him.
”You’re a criminal, why would I share my name with you?”
”Not saying you have to, I shared mine with you though,” Yukhei pouts, which should look silly on a man this large.
”What did you do to have the Vision and the Feds up your ass like this?”
”What did you do to end up on a dump like this with me?”
Sicheng smiles mockingly at him, turning away to collapse sideways against headboard. “Why do you have a headboard in an RV?”
”It’s comfortable. Reminds me of home. You need help?”
Sicheng grits his teeth. Nods. He files away the mention of home for later.
Yukhei stands, putting the tray up against the side of the wall and away from the bed. Sicheng doesn’t fight the hand that pushes him to lay on his back, and quietly watches Yukhei fluff up pillows to put behind him and under his sprained foot. A cool grey sheet is shaken out by the closet, and Yukhei spreads it out over him once he’s satisfied that he’s got Winwin set up as comfortable as he can.
Winwin does not expect to be tucked in, nor for a cool cloth to run over his face moments later. He’s silently thankful that Yukhei didn’t push it any further trying to wipe down the rest of his body, because as much as he was prone right now, a man still had his boundaries and limits.
He blinks tiredly, gazing unseeing across the room. A big black trunk stood shoved in front of a closet with blankets stacked on top of it, including the striped blue and white one he’d thrown off the bed in his haste to find the ring he’d thought he dreamt up.
It takes effort and a whole lot of pain for him to reach said ring where Yukhei had put it on the bedside table. Between his shaking fingers, the three metals shine as bright as stars.