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[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 *

***

Warning for brief torture in this part.

***

The glow of the sun was warm, and Zhou Mi didn’t want to leave it, sighing and sleepily considering the tent wall. The tent. Morning had come. No. No, he was dreaming because he felt like he could float away and Kuixian was there, still curled in his place. Zhou Mi walked to him, kneeling near him. If he was that asleep, then the storm was over.

“Did it— Did they not attack?” Kuixian asked, looking half afraid.

Zhou Mi shook his head. “They did. We lost thirty of our own men. But for your warning, it might have been twice, three times that many.” And the smile that touched Zhou Mi’s face had no humor in it. “We dealt them their own losses.”

There was relief on Kuixian’s face, and it was explained by his words.

“I worried it wouldn’t happen, if it had happened on another day. I’m only telling you the truth. It’s so frustrating not to just be able to tell you things. But you said Liu had left? It’s just four armies now.”

“Yes, General Liu’s army has retreated. A rider came to us to deliver the news, as you said,” Zhou Mi said, watching carefully for Kuixian’s reaction.

What he saw was relief. Hope.

“Then you believe me?”

“I do not know what to believe. There is no proof. Perhaps your imagination is very good, and very lucky. Perhaps you had been of Liu’s camp, and had been sent to win my trust this way. Perhaps you are colluding with the others.”

Kuixian began shaking his head in the middle of that, each movement getting sharper. “No, I’ve never seen or met anyone from one of the other armies. Your men keep me away from the prisoners as well, so you know I haven’t received any news from them.”

“But hundreds of years of years from now they know of this war,” Zhou Mi said. His disbelief felt like it had melded into his bones. Any other man, and Zhou Mi would not even have bothered. There were enough questions and hints to make him curious, something about this man that was different than the men he commanded. But what, he didn’t know for sure.

“I wish I could show you. Where this tent is, there’s an entire city. Buildings ten, twenty times as tall. You can’t even see the mountains from here. It’s… It’s generations from now.”

“Will you tell me if you remember more?”

“I’ll try,” Kuixian said. “You might have to tell your guards that I’m not just shouting at random. And then, if it’s not like this, then… I’ll draw my best stick figures.”

Zhou Mi laughed a little at Kuixian’s embarrassment. Kuixian laughed with him.

“The information was relayed, still. Talking like this has helped. I might have let you shout down the sky last night, and many more would be dead.”

Kuixian looked toward the tent entrance, to the strange light beyond it. “I wish I knew why I was here. Why we can talk like this, why—“

Their eyes met, before the dream wavered. Zhou Mi roused to the sound of horse’s hooves and the dim light that said dawn was passing. Kuixian’s head rose as well, his eyes still sleepy as they looked to each other again. Zhou Mi didn’t smile that time, rising to his feet and opening the tent entrance to flag down a soldier. Within a few breaths, soldiers were there to pull Kuixian to his feet, to get him back into his shirt, and return him to his prison.

Zhou Mi knew that something was happening, something he couldn’t understand. At the center of it, Kuixian. He’d meant what he remembered in his dream, that men would have died but for Kuixian’s warning. But awake, and sliding his armor on, it seemed too fantastical. They could no more converse than he could speak to his horse. The guard would be alerted that if Kuixian asked for him, he would be brought without question. He would be careful, and he would watch. If Kuixian meant them harm, he would slip up, eventually.

And though Zhou Mi wanted to sleep, he went out to greet the morning and oversee his men.

***

“The strange prisoner is gone.”

It was only something important that had a soldier waking Zhou Mi from a sound sleep. He did not even bother donning his armor, getting on his feet immediately and following the soldier toward where the prisoners were kept. Anger, disgust, roared within him. No, the prisoner had not been some paragon. If someone had been neglectful of their duties, there would be punishment. Spies, there was a reason they were kept close. Kuixian knew things about the camp, things that he could pass on to the three remaining armies. There was no vigilance too great for the danger they were suddenly in.

“We heard a sound on patrol, and started inspecting. We checked every prisoner, but when we got to his, it was empty and open.”

It felt like his ears were roaring when they strode up to the empty cell, lanterns bright. The bowl for water had been overset. It looked like the door had been all but wrested from the cell, strong ties that were checked daily. His attention directed to the ground under their feet, soft soil, what looked like the drag of fingers, of something heavier. Footmarks, some that were obliterated.

“It looks like someone was moved without being willing,” Zhou Mi said, and the soldier shadowed him as they worked toward the stream. Something bright shone back at him, and Zhou Mi hurried to it. One of the odd shoes that Kuixian wore. “You said you heard a sound. What did it sound like?”

“Someone fighting. But when I saw the cage, it seemed like maybe someone had come to rescue him.”

“Maybe.”

But those things didn’t add up. The shoe, the marks. For all Zhou Mi’s mistrust, Kuixian had been eager to help, relieved when he had, even when he’d put himself in some danger to get to Zhou Mi with the information. Those things could have been there on purpose, to throw them off. But the odd things Kuixian had come with, those were not so easily conjured.

“I want a small riding party gathered,” Zhou Mi said. “We’ll travel light and fast. I want to see if we can find who it was, and where they took him. Why they took him.”

The feeling of his stomach being gnawed on was back. If it was one of the other armies, he thought of why he would have arranged to steal away a prisoner not even of their own rank. If they had heard there was an informant was one. But if that were the case, then there was a spy or an informant in Zhou Mi’s own camp. That, or they had taken back one of their own before he was ready to go, or perhaps he had changed sides.

Kuixian was just one man, but he also knew things. He had some sort of power that Zhou Mi did not understand. That was what had him taking action. That was power, and information, that he couldn’t let fall into anyone else’s hands.

***

There were two men with lanterns following the trail, and three on horseback including Zhou Mi. All he could have was patience, and the knowledge that it had not been long. The sky was clear, so there was no danger of rain washing away the trail, as long as it was able to be followed. They lost the trail briefly at the tree line, and those on horseback hung back as they watched the sway of light within the trees. Not only that, not only scouting, they were watching for an ambush, if it was some sort of trap.

His horse felt his anxiety, tossing his head and edging to the side beneath him. He murmured an apology, stroking the horse’s neck.

There, the signal, three flashes of light. They’d picked up the trail again. Zhou Mi blew out a slow breath and led the others into the trees. The area was familiar from frequent patrols to be sure of their position, but night changed things. The distances were harder to judge, branches catching at his armor, and the sound of rustling from the wind making his back stay straight and his hand ready on his sword. They followed the lights of the trackers, slowing as they slowed, with little conversation except to note their position. Zhou Mi glanced up at the moon, full and round and infrequently crossed by clouds. If the moon set, there would be no chance he would keep his men out further. The light helped, but it was a danger to them also. It was a risk.

It was a needful risk, and he did not question his decision.

The trackers stopped, and Zhou Mi guided his horse up to them.

“Down there, there’s a gulley, a fire. Four men. One of them might be the prisoner,”

Four men. Zhou Mi dismounted, making his way, slow and quiet to the vantage point they had found. He had three men on horses, two on foot, and it was not enough. Two bows and arrows, but the distance was too great, and the men had not been stupid. There was a cliff abutting the gulley, and no cover of brush to sneak up to the fire with. He wished he had the eyes of an eagle, but even without it, he could see that three of the men were dressed alike, and one man sat without a shirt and his head lowered. That was Kuixian, he knew. He was alive, and the aggressive stance of the man near him told Zhou Mi a great many things.

It didn’t appear Kuixian was known, or had been taken willingly.

Zhou Mi made his way back to his horse, mounting again and listened to the opinions of his men. How to approach, how to draw them away possibly.

The hoarse, distant scream that rent the air was that of a man in desperate pain, and the tremble along Zhou Mi’s skin had him nearly moving forward. He would have except for the hand that found his elbow, held him still.

“We can’t. There’s too many of them.”

“They could kill him,” Zhou Mi said, and the words were thick in his throat.

“They might. It sounds like it could be kinder than what they’re doing now.”

Zhou Mi wasn’t sure if he made a sound, or if it was only in his head as he grabbed for his own shoulder and squeezed until his fingers strained. It felt like the pain was radiating down into the ground, pulsing away from him in great white rings. He gathered the reins, his horse tossing his head.

“We go now,” Zhou Mi said, his voice echoing hollow in his ears.

He drew out his sword.

The thunder of hooves on hard ground shook through deep into his bones, protests, warnings, falling away from him. They clattered onto hard rock and two men sitting around the small fire leaped to their feet to join the third. He roared, like he was an army of a thousand men, not knowing how many were at his back. A sentry ran to meet him, and fell as Zhou Mi’s sword dragged out of him. Two men ran, and he ignored them, wheeling his horse and cutting down the soldier trying to take out his horse from behind.

It left him with one man, and Kuixian.

“Now,” Zhou Mi said, and held out his hand in demand.

They clasped each other’s arms, Kuixian vaulting up from a log near the fire and settling behind Zhou Mi’s saddle.

Another soldier rummaged frantically. He saw a bow.

But as soon as Kuixian’s arm was around him, the horse surged against Zhou Mi’s heels, making for the trees. He jolted against a hit on his shoulder, heard his men volleying arrows back toward the soldiers. But they swept into the trees, taking a hill in two long strides and meeting the remainder of his uneasy men as the others on horseback joined them.

“Return to camp,” Zhou Mi said. “They may be going after others.”

No one questioned his recklessness. There could have been a hundred men hiding beyond the hollow, an ambush against the stealing of the prisoner. And yet, he didn’t know how to tell them that he had known there had not been. Or maybe, that he would have gone even if he had known. Even to himself he had no explanation.

Kuixian made soft sounds of pain as they made through the trees, the horses trotting briskly back into the open and into camp.

“You did well. Go, rest. Send a healer,” he told his men.

They asked for no explanation, and he offered none. It would have been weakness. But his bones felt like water when he slid from his horse, looking up and surprised to see that Kuixian was clutching an arrow. Zhou Mi felt for the back of his arm, feeling the hole in the outer later. His armor had stopped it, and he pried the arrow from Kuixian’s hand and threw it near the tent. If not for Zhou Mi’s support, Kuixian would have buckled as his feet hit the ground.

The healer and his attendants hurried just as Zhou Mi got Kuixian seated near the outer fire. It was then he saw the burns, branded into Kuixian’s shoulder.

***

The injuries, none of them were so severe. Kuixian was not entirely unconscious but he was shivering and trying to push at the hands that were trying to help him. They had to fight him down until he was prone, until he could be helped. It was as though after the men had realized he had no answers to give, they had hurt him for sheer amusement. An eye was swollen, his mouth bruised, and blood drying where it had dripped from his hairline and nose.

Zhou Mi winced to see tiny cuts along Kuixian’s back as though someone had jabbed at him with a knife. The brand was still the worst, though, high on his back near his shoulder. It was not one, but several marks like someone had pushed at him with a burning stick. The healer blew out a breath, having returned with fresh water after dumping out the water that had tinged pink from blood.

“Someone ground sand into this wound,” the healer said. All Zhou Mi could do was remember Kuixian’s screams. Water trickled over the burn and Kuixian whimpered. Grains of sand washed away but others were left, and to wash away more was going to be pain itself. Zhou Mi looked away, not because he couldn’t stomach it, but because he felt a need to comfort.

“You are safe. We’re helping you. It will be over soon,” Zhou Mi said. He squeezed Kuixian’s shoulder, trying to ground him, to keep him still. It was over within breaths, salve spread on the burn and a cloth to protect it, and Kuixian brought up to sit and sip something hot from a cup.

“It is all we can do for now,” the healer said. “I’ve cleaned his wounds as best I can. If it doesn’t fester, the burn will heal. The cuts are healing. He will need to move eventually, even if it hurts, to keep this skin from going tight.”

“For now though, he can rest?”

“Yes. The salve should help, and the tea for pain. He should be moving before the midday meal. Send for me, and I’ll check him again.”

“I will do that,” Zhou Mi said.

He was not playing nursemaid, but it was simple enough to watch out for a man in pain. Kuixian was not a soldier, but he had been under Zhou Mi’s protection. It was an act of aggression, and it was not retaliation so much for Kuixian himself, but for the sake of them all. The enemy would be ready for reprisal, so it took a bit of cunning to formulate an attack that would not put themselves in jeopardy as well.

Zhou Mi stood, intending to call for a soldier, to have Kuixian taken back to the cell. And yet, he thought of Kuixian, who had just barely begun to stop shaking. There wasn’t even room to stretch out in, in that cell, and the door had not been repaired. Besides, the men who had taken him had learned he was in that place, and that would be the first place again they would look if they dared return again for him.

“Make a pallet in my tent,” Zhou Mi said, and a soldier left to comply.

He would keep no weapons but for his sword, and he did not sleep deeply. At least for that night, with the morning approaching too quickly, it would have to do.

Kuixian staggered between Zhou Mi and a soldier, but they got him to the pallet. The soldier was dismissed, and the tent closed, and Zhou Mi made sure the cloth was still covering the burns. A blanket was drawn up over Kuixian’s body.

“You stay there,” Zhou Mi said, tapping the ground to emphasize his words. Kuixian nodded, and Zhou Mi was satisfied, standing fully.

“I didn’t tell them anything.”

“What?” Zhou Mi asked, studying Kuixian’s shadowed face.

“They wanted me to, I think,” Kuixian said. “But I didn’t tell them anything.”

“You did well, then,” Zhou Mi said.

Even soldiers would break under threat of pain. Kuixian seemed to relax from the praise, but the way his hand was still tight on the cloth he rested on, Zhou Mi knew the pain of the burn and the cleaning must have still been radiating through him.

Zhou Mi found his place across the tent, his heavy armor shed, and he leaned against his trunk and listened to Kuixian’s careful breathing. His eyelids tugged down, ready to whimper as much as his guest, pain darting through his shoulder as he sank into sleep.

***

Zhou Mi roused to the sound of footsteps, light bright in the tent. Kuixian didn’t seem to have moved, still face down on the pallet, his back moving slowly as he breathed. Clearly asleep. One less thing to worry about. He’d been up several times, and the guard had been tight through the night after their impromptu rescue mission. There could have been no way to predict against retaliation, or information gleaned, no matter how much that Kuixian had insisted that no information was given.

There in, daylight, Zhou Mi blinked, staring hard at Kuixian again. Up to that day, Kuixian’s only words had been halting. Yes, you, number words. But the night previous he’d spoken in perfect sentences.

And if he could speak in sentences to Zhou Mi, he could have spoken in sentences to the raiders. The burns could have been little more than—

Zhou Mi pushed to his feet, nudging firmly against Kuixian’s side. It took two more pushes before Kuixian groaned and turned his head to look at Zhou Mi.

“Tell me again what information you gave to the men who took you,” Zhou Mi said, his voice low and even. Anger trembled inside of him, for the risk he had taken, had put his men through. And if for a spy—

Kuixian’s eyes widened, his pupils blown. “I didn’t tell them anything! I couldn’t understand their questions—“

And he gasped, almost pushing himself up before wheezing with pain.

“Couldn’t understand their questions. Soldier!” Zhou Mi shouted, standing and waiting for one of the guards to push into the tent. “Get someone to help and take the prisoner to be questioned. Find out what information he relayed. Beat him if you must.”

“Yes, sir.”

“No! No,” Kuixian insisted, on his knees and gripping at his injured shoulder. “I’m not lying! I can understand you, but I couldn’t understand them. Is this— Is this like one of the dreams? You sat with me in my cell and talked to me. We talked about your maps, here. Right here! At the river, I told you about the rider and the four armies!”

Zhou Mi shook his head. They were ruses. A man telling tales, words he couldn’t listen to. He’d allowed the man to sleep in his tent. He’d been blinded by the injury, by the assurances of some fantastic dreams and scratches in the dirt.

“Sir, should we take him now?”

Two soldiers had returned, and Zhou Mi nodded at them.

“Yes, take him.”

“No, no. Please! You have to listen to me! They burned me because I couldn’t understand their questions! They burned— Ow! Please, stop! Please, make them— Zhou Mi! No, stop!”

Kuixian’s voice rose almost to a shriek, and Zhou Mi looked at that, fingers of the solider clutching into the bandage over his shoulder as they had him halfway out of the tent.

“If you grip into his burns, he will fight you the whole way there,” Zhou Mi said.

“Understood, sir. But sir… All he rants in is gibberish. How will we know what information he gave?”

“You’ll understand just as he’s been speaking now,” Zhou Mi snapped.

The soldiers looked at each other. “But he hasn’t said a word we understand.”

“He’d been speaking clearly since we brought him back,” Zhou Mi said. “Have you cleaned your ears?”

“They can’t understand me?” Kuixian asked, panting and staring Zhou Mi. “Is that what they’re telling you?”

Zhou Mi ignored him, speaking to the soldiers. “There. Tell me what he said.”

“Can you understand him, sir? It sounds like he is rolling words in his mouth, but words I’ve never heard.”

Zhou Mi wanted to argue back, to tell them it was impossible, but he knew the two men. They had never been known to lie, and he was tempted to have them drag the prisoner right back to his cell.

“Perhaps, if you can understand him, then you might wish to speak to him?” the soldier suggested. “Maybe there is someone else in camp who speaks whatever dialect he speaks?”

“Put him there, on the pallet,” Zhou Mi said. “And bring the healer.”

“What did he say?” Kuixian asked, looking at the soldier who had spoken, and barely catching himself from sprawling onto his face as he was pushed down onto the pallet again. He groaned, the action likely stretching the wound. Kuixian didn’t move, panting as he stayed still there on the ground. Zhou Mi paced only as far as his sense would let him, standing on one far side of his table and waiting until the healer asked for entrance.

Zhou Mi only watched, offering no assurance as Kuixian sat still and let the healer pull the bandages from him. From Kuixian’s face it hurt, and badly, pulling away from his flesh even with the layer of plants that the healer had placed over the salve. The wounds were angry and red, but the redness had not spread far beyond the borders, and there was no pus that he could see.

“Tomorrow, the next day, will tell the story of how this will heal,” the healer said. “If there is still no purification, it will heal more easily. If it does… We can clean the wound, but it may be a hard battle for him to win.”

“Do what you can,” Zhou Mi said.

Kuixian was listening intent as the healer spoke, but his eyes swung startled to Zhou Mi.

“Is it bad? What did he—“

The sound was utter pain as the healer cleansed the wound with some type of dark liquid. Kuixian’s hands tightened to fists as he whimpered. Then, the salve which wracked him with shudders as it raced over sensitive skin.

“Please, no more,” Kuixian rasped, and the healer clucked his tongue, finishing with the layer of healing plants and wrapping him again in bandages.

“That is all, and you will heal,” the healer said, and began to gather his tools to leave.

“Did you understand his words?” Zhou Mi asked.

“No, General. I don’t understand his tongue, whatever it is.”

“But you answered him.”

The healer smiled. “The language of pain requires no words. He should drink this tea now, and once more at sunset with the second packet, and it will help him sleep. Is there anything else you require?”

“No. Thank you.”

They were alone again, and Kuixian’s eyes were red, bright with unshed tears.

“Could he understand me?” Kuixian asked.

“No.”

“But why. Why do you?”

They stared at each other, one man miserable with pain, and he utterly with doubt.

“I don’t know. You said you were no spy—“

“I’m from the future,” Kuixian said. He didn’t care he was interrupting, that was clear. His eyes were fierce. “I fell into your battle, and I wanted to help you. Then they…took me. And I couldn’t have told them anything, because I didn’t understand. I didn’t understand.”

Zhou Mi turned as Kuixian began to weep silently. Pain, exhaustion perhaps catching up to him. He could have gotten a soldier to brew the tea, but he did it himself. It gave him time to think. His anger had cooled, but his confusion hadn’t. They had been unable to understand each other before, and there was no reason to have then. He’d found nothing familiar in the curling sounds that Kuixian had made. And he knew that was what Kuixian still spoke, but he knew beyond doubt that he understood every word that Kuixian said. Perhaps it was he that was deluded. The dreams, everything adding to omens that spelled nothing good.

Kuixian had collected himself by the time that Zhou Mi returned with the tea, and Kuixian took it gingerly from him.

“Thank you,” Kuixian said.

He had no reason to believe Kuixian was lying, when his own men could not understand. Magic, again? But even in the depths of his pain, the healer could not understand.

“This isn’t poison, is it?” Kuixian asked a moment later.

As though he would kill Kuixian after saving him. Even if he’d been a traitor, it would not have been his decision.

“No, it’s medicine to help you heal, and for the pain.”

“It tastes like poison,” Kuixian muttered.

Zhou Mi’s lips twitched without his consent. But he left Kuixian there to drink his tea, returning shortly with a soldier and clothes. Kuixian rose and walked carefully, the cloth clutched to his chest. They’d move him to a different cell, and he would stay there. No more intrigue.

And yet, he pulled out the book that Kuixian had arrived with, stroking a finger against its glossy pages and reading of the war memorial. His own name, there on the page. Kuixian’s screams, and the way he’d almost felt it. He didn’t know what to make of it, any of it, and he had no one to ask. All he could do was wait.

***

The cell they took Kyuhyun to was of a size to the first one, but it smelled of an old toilet and things he didn’t want to think of. He’d been brought some kind of shirt, and after he’d been locked inside, he shrugged into it, trying not to dislodge his bandages. The tea had made him feel heavy, almost floating, which was preferable to the searing pain. The burn seemed to sit on his skin, sparking across his nerves, fading into the background only rarely only to come roaring back when he moved, or breathed even.

When he’d seen Zhou Mi riding up to rescue him, he’d just wanted to get away. There’d been part of him half afraid of being cut down with his attackers, but Zhou Mi had pulled him up onto the horse with him, and all of his thoughts of being sure he would die had begun fading. They were going to get away, arrows whistling.

The men had shouted at him, shook him, stripped him of his shirt. He twisted as he sat, reliving how he had twisted to try and get away from the glowing stick they had branded him with.

“No,” he said half out loud, and turned and pressed his cheekbone against a pole of the cell. He breathed so carefully, trying to fight the panic clutching at his chest, his throat. He wasn’t there, they weren’t hurting him any more. He was in a cell, surrounded by guards. It was daytime, and no one would sneak in to steal him again.

He’d thought he was safe, and Zhou Mi had— Zhou Mi had ordered the soldiers to beat information from him. His laugh was bordering on hysterical, nails digging into the fabric of his pants. He didn’t know why he’d lied to himself, why he’d trusted. They were in the middle of a war, and it was not a decision that was personal. Zhou Mi had thought him a traitor, and them being able to understand each other suddenly reinforced that fear. It made sense, when he explained it to himself. But Zhou Mi, he’d attached all his hope to after falling into the battle, and he didn’t know where he could put that any more.

All he could do was get through it. Get through the pain, make it through to the next day. He half didn’t want to lie down in case someone came to drag him away again.

He belatedly realized he had only one shoe on, and didn’t care right then. It was enough to make himself a pillow with. He checked which corner smelled the least disgusting, and put his head there, whimpering as he tried to arrange the blanket over himself. He made it, partly. He barely got his arm tucked under, before he shivered and slept.

***

His dinner had come with another cup of the horrible tea, and the contents made him even drowsier than the tea from before. He slept, much as he had before, waking to tweaks in his shoulder, to pain that seared and faded to throbbing. It matched his head, as he fished bugs out of his water and drank it anyway. Sounds had him jolting, and he woke to a bowl of soup and wiped sweat from his forehead as he drank it.

When he was ordered out, he crawled, walking on his dirty socks and sitting as a man he took to be the healer clucked over his shoulder and smeared more of the soothing, stinging liquid onto him. He was bandaged and wrapped, and sent right back to his cell.

And even being shaken, he’d looked for Zhou Mi and hadn’t seen him. Maybe on purpose. Maybe Zhou Mi was off doing whatever it was that generals did.

The less he was consumed by pain, the more he wanted when he was shut back up in his cell. All he wanted was an ice pack, a bowl of juk, and maybe a gallon of something sweet. And maybe a toothbrush. Though the gross tea the man had forced on him had at least quieted his mind as he drowsed until he was brought his dinner.

He stiffened, remembering the wound being cleaned, the scream he’d tried to hold back. It felt like it had been someone else, some other life, and he pressed his cheek into his shoelaces and stared at the wood bars of his cell.

***

Kyuhyun felt more in control of himself, when he was sent for again, his arms bound behind his back before they left the cell. It had him squeaking in pain as the skin around his burns was tugged and moved, but he breathed through it. It had rained heavily through the morning as predicted with the sunrise, but it had cleared at last. He staggered as he walked, the sun low and starting down toward the other horizon, and he squinted, stiffened, as he was led toward Zhou Mi’s tent. But for all the terrible he felt, Zhou Mi looked worse. His face, his hair, was slightly damp as though he’d washed up before Kyuhyun was pushed in. Zhou Mi wore some sort of robe, but his face was haggard like he hadn’t slept in weeks. Kyuhyun had so many questions, so many questions and he knew that if Zhou Mi had sent for him, it wasn’t for Kyuhyun’s curiosity. Maybe the war was over. Maybe Zhou Mi would order him beaten just because.

“Have you eaten?” Zhou Mi asked, when Kyuhyun was pushed down on his knees in front of the low table.

“No,” Kyuhyun said.

Zhou Mi nodded at the man who had brought him, and it was only minutes later that a bowl with a hearty-smelling broth in it and a mound of rice was making his stomach rumble. It mocked him there, sitting in front of him. There was an earthenware mug, too, water.

“Release his arms, and leave us,” Zhou Mi said.

The soldier protested it seemed, and Zhou Mi scowled.

“Does he have a weapon? Can he run me through with a bowl of rice, or shall I talk to him as he laps at his food like a dog?”

The rope was removed from Kyuhyun’s arms. He didn’t want to be seen as weak, but moving his arms back forward took a fair amount of effort, done in stages and trying to school his face as Zhou Mi watched every second. Kyuhyun lifted the water first, drinking half of it and sighing before starting in on the food.

“The healer tells me your burns are healing. That you’ve been docile when he treats you. The soldiers have said you’ve given them no trouble, but that you haven’t spoken at all. No shouting to see me in the middle of the night.”

Kyuhyun gulped at the stew to wash down the mouthful of rice he had taken.

“You know all I know about the war, all I remember anyway. The healer’s helping. If I talk to the guards, maybe they’ll beat me like you said.”

That had an effect, Zhou Mi’s chin rising a little before Kyuhyun went back to his food. Hot and fresh weren’t a priority for the prisoners, so he was not letting it go to waste.

“Only traitors would be beaten, to find out what they know,” Zhou Mi told him.

“I’m not a traitor. I was taken, and tortured,” Kyuhyun said, his shoulder chiming in with a series of sharp throbs. “I only told you the truth.”

“From the future. On the side of the Eastern army. With your strange books, and strange clothes. Dressed like that, you almost could belong here. But how could they have known of you?”

It was rhetorical, Zhou Mi speaking half to himself. If Kyuhyun wasn’t the traitor, then someone was, or was watching very closely.

“What did they think I was telling you? What did they think I know?” Kyuhyun wondered.

“The night of the lightning, there were people who knew you had given me information,” Zhou Mi said.

But he looked more tired even than before, pressing fingers to his forehead as though trying to conjure everyone who had ever known of Kyuhyun’s existence.

“I wouldn’t lie to you,” Kyuhyun said, when Zhou Mi finally looked back up. He was fiddling with the last grains of rice, and at least he could say it. “I don’t just want the Eastern army to win, I know they do. There is a way I can prove myself to you. Maybe you won’t believe I’m from the future, but you’ll know I’m getting my information from no spy.”

Zhou Mi frowned. “How could you possibly?”

“I told you before. Your poems. Your verses. You can’t test me on the ones you’ve already written, but what about ones you haven’t written? I don’t remember all of them, but I might be able to remember something. If you give me the first line of something you write, I can see if I can remember the rest. It’s not a dream any more.”

“It still feels like one. No. I don’t know. It’s enough to know I can find out who may have spoke of you to others. Soldier!”

Kyuhyun didn’t protest as he was pulled to his feet, didn’t bother looking back. He’d tried. It was the only way he could think of to at least be sure that Zhou Mi didn’t see him as a threat. For his own safety.

***
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