coley_merrin: (Be Reasonable - Do it my way)
[personal profile] coley_merrin
Title: The Thirteen Armies
Pairing: Zhou Mi/Kyuhyun
Rating: R
Genre: AU, war, time travel, pseudo-historical
Warning: war, background character death, injuries, wounds, brief torture

Summary: A single vacation takes Kyuhyun further than he could have ever known.



***

* Part One * Part Two * Part Three * Part Four * Part Five *

***

Zhou Mi knew he was in a dream quicker that time. It was easier, perhaps, because he was not in his own tent, but in a cage made of wood with Kuixian staring back at him from the corner. One side of the covering cloth was lit, as the sun was setting, and the air was close and unpleasant. There was hardly enough room for one grown man, much less two.

“Are you really Zhou Mi?” Kuixian asked him.

“That is my name,” Zhou Mi said. Kyuhyun’s face betrayed nothing, his knee moving beneath the blanket draped over him.

“What are you going to do with me?”

It was a question he would have wanted to know the answer to as well, had their positions been reversed.

“Keep you. I don’t know where you’re from, how you came to be here. It’s not safe to send you away, if you’re a spy, or—“

Or worse. A man of magic. He didn’t know why he hesitated saying so. There were some things best held close.

“I am not a spy. I’m from East of here.”

“Then how were you not pressed to fight?”

Kyuhyun paused before answering that, and it made his answer sound suspect. “This war is not near where I live.”

It was impossible. It stretched to the seas, touched every corner he knew of.

“Then you not from any land I know to the east. Where are you really from?”

“I don’t know if you’ll believe me.”

“Tell me anyway.”

Men had withered under that stare, but all Kyuhyun did was shrug back his blanket, steadying himself on the wood frame. Zhou Mi wasn’t concerned, wasn’t afraid.

“All right. What I’ve told you so far has been true. My home is east of here, and my name is Cho Kyuhyun. I am not allied with any army. But the land, the country I am from, won’t exist in the form it is right now until years from now.”

Kyuhyun clearly took the moment of Zhou Mi frowning and processing to measure his reaction. But what he said made no sense.

“Then if I say, take me to your kin…?”

“I would tell you that they haven’t been born yet. Someone in my family is alive, but I don’t know them, who they are, where they live. There may be a solider fighting for you who is my ancestor. All I know is that I was in my own time, in a place of memorial for this war, and then I was here in the midst of your battle.”

“A memorial for this war,” Zhou Mi said slowly. He watched for a hint of deception, and there was none. There was something alive in Kuixian’s expression, as though he hoped Zhou Mi would leap to his feat and affirm his strange tale.

“If you are the Zhou Mi we know, then you’re…famous, I guess. Some of the others are, just from historical records. But the verses you wrote about the battle, about your life? People still read them.”

Zhou Mi nearly gasped, sitting forward at that. “No one has access to those. How could you possibly know— Then there is a spy.”

His trunk was locked, his tent guarded, and he had always checked to be sure nothing had been disturbed, and yet this stranger knew. Impossible things.

“No!” Kuixian said, shaking his head. “Do you still have my bag? There is a book in there. Please, look at it. It has that information about the shrine, and about you. I think you can read it!”

Kuixian said it like it was his last hope of Zhou Mi believing him. He vaguely remembered a book, but he’d put the bag away.

“I’ll look,” Zhou Mi said. “But what you speak of is impossible.”

Kuixian shrugged back into his blanket, looking so weary. “I thought so, too. I read so much about you. You’re younger than I thought you would be. I pictured you like someone’s grandfather.”

Grandfather! Zhou Mi scowled, and Kyuhyun yawned, his eyes inscrutable in the growing darkness.

Zhou Mi inhaled, his eyes opening to find his lantern flickering. He was in his own tent, and the shadows were growing. The prisoners were all fed and locked away by then. Zhou Mi looked to the bag he had taken from Kuixian, and thought of the dream. He half wanted to reach for it, to affirm for himself that the dream had no truth to it. But it was stubbornness that had him pushing to his feet, and pushing out into the cooling air so that he could inspect the camp for nightfall.

***

Kyuhyun knew the voice within the tent before he saw exactly to whom he was being taken, his arms bound and a hand rough as he was led. But he almost stumbled being led into the shadows, to see the interior. He’d touched that map. He knew that table. But it had just been a dream, he would have sworn it. And yet, there Zhou Mi was, standing as Kyuhyun was led in, but not in some kind of courtesy. He wasn’t in his full armor, the kind that looked riveted, but he was still dressed like a soldier, some kind of yellow over-tunic that made him look more like a general than the men who saw to Kyuhyun’s care. The solider escorting him was ordered out, from all he could tell, and Zhou Mi’s demand was short, sharp, incomprehensible.

He was holding out the guide book from Kyuhyun’s bag, pointing at the pages, the pictures, the words. Kyuhyun couldn’t read them, because the book was in several languages, but what he was pointing to were characters that he though Zhou Mi could read. That. That was what he’d been hoping for, that Zhou Mi would see it and understand.

“Yes,” Kyuhyun said, gesturing at the pages with his chin and then at Zhou Mi. “You. That’s talking about you. You!”

He had no idea what Zhou Mi said next, but it was probably something to do with the impossibility of it all. And Kyuhyun got that. He wouldn’t have been really accepting either if he was being told someone had been writing about him in a book from the future. Not to mention, the book talked about the war being over even if it didn’t discuss it in depth. Zhou Mi was irritated, impatient, and Kyuhyun didn’t blame him. Though no amount of pointing at the picture and talking could compel Kyuhyun to give him the answers he wanted.

People always asked, oh, who would you go back in time to meet? He’d read hundreds of Zhou Mi’s poems, learned about the war, and yeah, he might’ve chosen him at some point. He could hardly believe it really was Zhou Mi, right there, in dusty clothes, his hair bound back, his eyebrows drawn down like Kyuhyun was a thorn in his paw. It probably should’ve been cute. Hey, my name is Kyuhyun, and I’m a fan from the future. Want to show me around your war camp?

He could’ve stroked a few horse noses, and looked through all the maps and armor, and fucked right off back to reality when the swords were drawn. Prisoner of war, he could’ve lived without that.

Zhou Mi wanted answers, and all Kyuhyun could keep saying was, “You.”

That just seemed to irritate Zhou Mi even more until he seemed to try to glare Kyuhyun into the ground and sounded out an order to have Kyuhyun taken away.

If Zhou Mi had no reason to believe the book, he definitely had no reason to believe Kyuhyun. That, Kyuhyun suspected, was the only way he was getting out of his little cage that the solider escorting him shoved him back into after undoing the rope at his wrists. He didn’t know how far along the war was. When he tried to imagine years more confined, it made it a little hard to breathe. He could hardly imagine another week with nothing but the drone of insects and the sound of unfamiliar speech. He wasn’t a person who craved human contact, but just talking to someone, touching them, interacting. He’d started to crave it, and all he got was an angry and confused general who couldn’t even understand him.

His frustration got him through the rest of the day. No, he was calling it determination instead. When he finally did fall asleep, the men had finally ceased their patrol, and the warmth of the blanket finally lulled him.

***

Kyuhyun woke on the bank of the stream, almost rolling into it as he pushed himself up. Everything was so hazy as he tried to focus, but there was the sound of breathing not far from him and in the light from the nearby, Kyuhyun recognized the structure of the man’s face and his yellow tunic.

“It’s you again,” Zhou Mi said. “Have you come to mock me in dreams again?”

“When have I mocked you,” Kyuhyun said. “Is sleeping outside safe?”

There could be feral dogs, wild animals, escaped horses. Who knew, really.

“Would a prisoner care for my safety?” Zhou Mi scoffed.

“Another jailer might decide I was less trouble dead,” Kyuhyun said.

But the bickering made him pause, made him wonder as he stared at Zhou Mi’s profile. He’d spoken to Zhou Mi like that before, seen the inside of his tent, woken to Zhou Mi close in his little prison. He’d talked to Zhou Mi about the book. Maybe it was coincidence that Zhou Mi had seen it. But he thought there was no harm in asking.

“What were you trying to get me to tell you about the book?” Kyuhyun asked.

He knew that there were pictures of a modern city, of buildings. Zhou Mi, he’d be familiar with painting, with tapestry, and pottery. It would look like nothing he had ever seen. But Zhou Mi sat up at that, leaning toward him.

“It said little about the war, only that it was in the past which is impossible,” Zhou Mi said. “When it talked about the memorial shrine, it says it features a tribute to the “general and poet Zhou Mi.” I don’t understand.”

“One of your poems is there as a tribute to the dead, and as a tribute to you. If someone thinks of this war, they remember you.”

“Then you’re… Are you saying you’re from the time the book is from, the future.”

For all he knew, anyway. That or some alternate universe.

“Yes, I am.”

“It said the war lasted six years. How much longer is it from now to that time?” Zhou Mi asked.

“I don’t know. What year is it? I don’t know how your years are counted. I know from my own time, it is at least three hundred.”

“Three hundred!” Zhou Mi pushed himself onto his feet, pacing. Kyuhyun stood with him, feeling vulnerable on the ground. Zhou Mi was taller than him. “It is not possible.”

“Apparently it is! I can’t believe it either, but here I am. I didn’t ask to be brought back here into some bloodbath. How many— How many armies are left?”

“Five,” Zhou Mi said after a moment, his face half in shadow as he paused again. “Some have merged. Some have left. Five men are dead from an attack today, and they were rebuffed quickly by the numbers we put up against them.”

“Five armies,” Kyuhyun said softly. “The reason I remember that is because there will be four. There will be four left, when the war is over. One victor, three in retreat and ruin. The last to leave was… What was his name. Their general was famous, too, mostly for ridicule for running away at the very end. But people thought his going was actually the catalyst to the end of the war, because it gave the Eastern army - tired and sick of battle - a reason to attack with force, later. Liu! I think. General Liu. A horseman comes with the message, that Liu has broken camp and retreated. But I don’t know when. I wish I could tell you.”

He’d been rambling, and nearly flushed to realize Zhou Mi had been watching him so closely.

“If it is as you say, that I am remembered and that the Eastern army is renewed with vigor at Liu’s withdrawal, then is it our battle to win?”

Kyuhyun hesitated. He had maybe said too much, though he didn’t know how telling Zhou Mi what he had would affect the timeline, the future. He still existed, so apparently he hadn’t created some blip that shouldn’t have happened. But he also could not refuse to answer Zhou Mi’s direct question.

“If you are diligent and your choices are what history remembers them, then it is your battle to win,” Kyuhyun confirmed.

Zhou Mi’s lips twisted wryly at that. “You mean I cannot just sit back and let victory fall at my feet? No, I cannot become overconfident on the words of a stranger, of a dream. You have proved nothing, even though this book of intricate paintings is strange, and your words are compelling. You are either a skilled liar and most accomplished spy, or very deluded, or perhaps a shaman coming into his power. I still cannot let you free, until this war is over, and I will apologize, because you may have family anticipating your return. But if no one finds proof of your deceit, when the war is ended, you will see freedom. That is all I can promise.”

“But your poems, I know some of them. I could try to prove it to you.”

“If this is a dream of my mind’s own making, then what proof is that?” Zhou Mi asked. “Only me remembering what I have written, coming from the mouth of dream stranger. And there still is the possibility of a spy if it it some magic.”

“But we’ve talked like this before. Your tent. My cage. I told you about the book, and you found it. Have you ever had a dream like these?”

“No. If it were true, it is a magic I cannot believe in.”

“I don’t know what it is, but it is,” Kyuhyun insisted. “There has to be a reason we can understand each other. I had to come back here because of something, and you’re the only one I can talk to. I need you to believe me.”

“You have to believe me,” Kyuhyun murmured against the blanket, and slipped deeper into sleep.

***

It was five days before Zhou Mi saw their strange captive again. His day both ended and began with a briefing with the captains of the guard and scouts, and when he surveyed the camp at dawn, he heard his report of the prisoners. Kuixian was quiet, but mannerly it seemed. On Zhou Mi’s orders, he was let out from his enclosure twice daily under guard to stretch his legs and empty his pot. When the weather permitted, the cloth was drawn back too, so that it was not a plain surface to look at all hours of the day. Not all of their captives had that same treatment, but Kuixian was not, to their knowledge, a prisoner of the war but a casualty of it. Men could lose control of their minds confined too much. And he half feared if Kuixian was a spy, or a shaman, then confinement would only continue to cause the intrusions into his thoughts and sleep. Those little changed had kept it from happening again, or perhaps he slept too deeply.

Besides that report, the prisoners were not on his mind much. He was in control of only one part of the camp, and there was a council, other generals, to meet with, advise, collaborate. And to argue with. There were a number of abrasive personalities, and infighting, but the goals were the same even if there were some who also craved glory in addition to victory.

But the sound of a galloping horse had everyone alert, although the reaction relaxed when the horse and rider both were recognized.

“Generals, sir, I have news,” the breathless soldier said. “General Liu has retreated! Our scouts found their camp broken up and abandoned this morning. They have not gone to join another army, but they have left, sir!”

There were some murmurs, a couple of exclamations of the news. It sounded positive on its surface, but every word had sent prickles across Zhou Mi’s skin. The five armies had become four, the news delivered by a rider.

Perhaps it was coincidence. It could have been so many things, but when he turned it over in his mind as he paced alone, he feared he was beginning to believe. The problem was, he didn’t know what that meant, or what he should do about it.

***

Rain was a relief at times, ridding some of the muggy air, washing away smells. On particularly warm days, when Kyuhyun was let out to stretch his legs, he’d washed out his underwear and shirt, letting go of any inhibition and just plunging right into the creek. He felt more human when he got back into his pants, huddling back in his cage in his blanket as his clothes dried. It made him feel less itchy, and it got the stink of fear off at least. He didn’t know what else he smelled of. Boredom. Apprehension. Every time he left, he made mental notes. Positions of trees, the closest tents, the other prisons. Kyuhyun was on the end closest to the main encampment, and furthest from the Pit of Poo as he’d been taking to call it. His end was a little more protected, and more patrolled. It made it harder to imagine just slipping away.

He slogged through the mud of the day’s rain to empty his pot, to clean his hands and race right back into his shelter. Even then, he was mostly drenched, and he shrugged back into his dry shirt that he’d left behind, breathing into his hands as he gripped tight on his blanket. Kyuhyun didn’t see the lightning, but the rumble of thunder seemed to shiver through the ground.

Kyuhyun groaned, but he was still quick to reach out and tug in the bowl of soup that he’d been provided. Just because he was a big sitting duck for getting offed by lightning didn’t mean he had to do so hungry. The food, not being able to be choosy about it, wasn’t all that bad. He’d seen wagons rolling in, food from beyond the lines. Most days there was no meat, but some days there was, even if he didn’t know what it happened to be. Probably it was better not knowing. He’d lost weight, there was no doubt about that, but his clothes weren’t exactly falling off of him yet. He actually preferred soup to anything else. At least he knew it had been boiled.

A bolt of lightning snaked across outside the split in the covering. He left it open, if the wind wasn’t blowing in rain. The guards had never reprimanded him for opening or closing it, as long as they could still peer in at him and make sure he was still there and breathing.

Lightning. Lightning. Blood. Thunder.

No, he remembered. He remembered that. It had him gulping down the rest of his soup to shake the wood of his cage.

“Hey! Hey, someone! Can someone hear me! I need to see Zhou Mi! Hey!”

His voice got progressively louder until not one but two guards came over to see what the problem was.

“Zhou Mi! I need to see Zhou Mi. Tell him— Fuck, what can you tell him. Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi!”

He wished he knew the word for general. He pointed at himself, toward the direction of the tent.

One of them said something and shoved at stick in at him like he was some kind of dog who needed to be quieted. Kyuhyun shook his head and kept saying Zhou Mi’s name and pointing.

They left him even as he shouted after them. He hissed and smacked his palms against the wood.

All that got him was sore palms. He was going to give it five minutes, and if they didn’t come back, he’d start shouting again. And again. All night if he had to, until someone either knocked him out or took him to Zhou Mi.

It was pouring down rain when they dragged him out of his cage, even as he braced for a beating. They bound his arms and marched him forward, and he was dripping and cold when he was pushed into Zhou Mi’s tent. Zhou Mi was dressed in unrelieved brown, his hair wet like he’d been out in the rain as well, and Kyuhyun could have shouted with relief. But that was only half the battle, as Zhou Mi gestured for the men to go. They took the ropes that bound him, too, and Zhou Mi looked him over, tilting his head.

What did Kyuhyun want, was his clear question.

“I remember the lightning, and the other armies are going to attack,” Kyuhyun said. “I don’t know if it was tonight. But I know people died. But how do I tell you that?”

Paper. Or dirt. Most of the ground was covered, but there was a strip along the edge, and he went to that, gesturing Zhou Mi to follow. He drew a crude stick figure in a circle.

“You,” Kyuhyun said. That was one word he knew, pointing at the stick figure and at Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi nodded his understanding.

Kyuhyun drew four other stick figures and four circles further away to represent the other armies.

“You, and this is them. Them,” Kyuhyun said, gesturing like he was pointing into the distance.

Zhou Mi crouched down near him, and Kyuhyun wondered if he understood what he was getting at. Zhou Mi reached out, and with a finger, slashed through one of the far circles.

“Liu,” Zhou Mi said, meeting Kyuhyun’s eyes. He crossed through the circle again to prove his point.

The only word that sounded like that that Kyuhyun knew in numbers was six. Which meant, if he was crossing out Liu’s camp, then the army had left as Kyuhyun remember. He counted in his head. One, two, three—

“Four?” Kyuhyun said.

Zhou Mi nodded, and Kyuhyun had a dozen questions that another boom of thunder had him sitting on because it wasn’t the time. They had bigger issues.

“The thunder, the lightning, it’s a good cover,” Kyuhyun said, babbling and unable to help himself even if he knew Zhou Mi couldn’t understand. He drew lightning into the dirt between his depiction of Zhou Mi and their camp and the three other armies. “Boom! Boom!”

He mimicked thunder, and the sound of attacking men, using his fingers to simulate men running in from the other camps to Zhou Mi’s. Thunder rolling, men attacking, under the cover of night and sound.

“You wrote about it,” Kyuhyun said, saying “you” again, and then miming writing. He made the sounds again, repeating his actions.

Zhou Mi said something, and Kyuhyun wanted to shout that he couldn’t understand it. But Zhou Mi was standing, going to the opening of the tent and speaking to whoever was waiting outside. He stayed where he was, ready to argue, to figure to get his point across if he had to.

A dry rag landed half on Kyuhyun’s head, half on his shoulder, and Zhou Mi tugged at the wet cloth at Kyuhyun’s shoulder, giving an order with it that was pretty plain. A shiver wracked him as he started to peel off his shirt, and a moment later, a robe was set near him. Zhou Mi was still giving orders as he was working, people scrambling in and out of the tent. It was obvious something was happening, something was being set in motion, and he sat in that robe and didn’t move until he and Zhou Mi were the only ones left in the tent.

“What if it’s not tonight?” Kyuhyun asked, huddling in the robe Zhou Mi had given him. Zhou Mi stared at him, and Kyuhyun shook his head. He had a lot of worries, and a lot of hope to go with that. Unless Zhou Mi’s poem and the historical record had lied, something had happened on a night of a storm. He no longer was worrying about Zhou Mi not believing him as much as he was about exhausting the men who had to watch for an attack that might not come. In telling Zhou Mi too, he wondered what would happen. Would the attack still happen as it would have, or was it some kind of time traveling paradox where Zhou Mi in all versions of events was warned so that he and the generals could make adjustments. He wondered what Zhou Mi’s plan was, as Zhou Mi draped the armor he had donned with some sort of oilskin.

Zhou Mi pointed to Kyuhyun, and then at the spot he was sitting in and spoke. It wasn’t hard to figure that one out.

Kyuhyun nodded, still rubbing at his hair with the rag. “Yes, I’ll stay here.” And he paused, inhaling. “Good luck.”

He hoped Zhou Mi at least understood those words.

The last thing Zhou Mi did before leaving the tent was to toss a blanket at Kyuhyun’s feet, and then he was gone. Kyuhyun wrapped it around his shoulders, and exhaled. And still he gasped as the tent lit with a flash of light, and thunder startling him even so. The storm approached. Enemies, if he was right, were too. Rain ebbed and fell, wind tugging at the tied opening of the tent. He wanted to stay awake, for when Zhou Mi returned, or if someone else did. He had a moment of panic, almost standing up, when he wondered what would happen to him if Zhou Mi were killed. But it wasn’t the end of the war. He knew Zhou Mi lived at least to the end of the war, unless he had done something to change that. It made him groan, curling into a ball and resting his head on his knees as he waited. He heard footsteps, distant shouts. The storm continued, and Kyuhyun moved onto his side on the ground, his eyes on the opening of the tent that Zhou Mi would come through. He just needed to be sure that Zhou Mi was okay.

***

The armor felt heavier on Zhou Mi’s shoulders than usual, perhaps from the rain. Even if the rain still fell, one edge of the sky lightened as the sun struggled to rise. Men were dead. One section of the encampment of a fellow general had been overrun. And yet still, they had fought back with a fury, repelling the surprise attack. He didn’t know if it was intended as a blow, as a raid. But no man left with anything more than he had come with. And some less than that. It was all he had needed.

When his men asked him why they were preparing for battle in the dead of night, in the midst of a storm, he hadn’t known what to tell them. One person of every tent stayed awake, lights extinguished, ready on his orders as he stayed high and watched the trees.

He’d been tired, and cold, and cranky, but a flash of lightning - that should have been the source of their cover in the thunder’s roars, revealed the mass of men and horses racing from the tree line.

He’d sounded the alarm. They’d been ready, and he’d walked through puddles tinged red. They’d dealt a blow.

Kyuhyun had not moved from the spot Zhou Mi had pointed to, though he was on his side. He didn’t stir when Zhou Mi entered, or when he shed the heavy armor and changed. He had one last thing to do, and he pulled the paper to him, picking up his brush.

Zhou Mi tucked the new verse away that he had written, his eyes lingering on Kyuhyun’s sleeping form for a moment before he prepared for his own rest.

Lightning strikes,
Blood stains the ground,
The thunder crashes,
But quiet words are louder.

***
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