coley_merrin: (big dipper van gogh)
[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 *

***

It took Zhou Mi days to make his decision. They were not days that were idle, riding out with his men, meeting with the other generals, and a battle they instigated as a test. That had been of his own suggestion, something nagging from what Kuixian had said that when the armies were four, it would begin to escalate. They made it out of that battle with only one dead, and had nudged the sleeping foe to test it. It had worked, from what they saw, a movement in the camps, a rearranging of the guard. It worked to their advantage, that wariness. Eventually they would learn the routines, and maybe that guard would fall, and they would strike. It was not a war won in hours or days.

He’d seen Kuixian once, when he’d been taken to the healer. He walked better, not the hunched stagger he had taken up after his injury. The medicine to dull the pain had been reduced, so that was part of it. But Zhou Mi still was not prepared to talk, and he wasn’t, as another general had suggested, prepared to move the prisoner into one of the other camps. There was a fascination, and Zhou Mi’s rescue of him perhaps enhanced that. It was not as though he was some lucky item he kept in his pocket. Maybe someone he was meant to keep saving. Pulling him out of the dawn battle, rescuing him from his kidnappers.

There was a thread there that he couldn’t ignore, and a question that Kuixian had introduced. If Kuixian was from the future as he had said, he could know of verses that Zhou Mi had not yet written. Perhaps he was a sorcerer, but the clothes, the odd speech, the way he had appeared in the light, Zhou Mi had begun to reject that even if it was in some way the more logical choice.

But when Kuixian was pushed onto his knees in Zhou Mi’s tent, Zhou Mi was prepared to accept any outcome.

“We will test your knowledge of these verses of mine,” Zhou Mi said. And he didn’t know what to think of the eagerness, and something like relief as Kuixian nodded.

“I will do my best.”

Writing was something very personal to him not something that he did on command, but there was a certain logic to Kuixian’s words. If Kuixian could cite a poem he had not written, then there was a likelihood to there being some truth to his words. Some truth of some kind.

“Turn away from me,” Zhou Mi said. “Cover your eyes and your ears.”

It could not have been comfortable to do that, but Kuixian did not protest. Zhou Mi let himself relax, closing his eyes and reaching for his ink and brush. They would see. They would test this theory. He wrote two different short verses, unrelated. If Kuixian knew neither, Zhou Mi didn’t know what he would do. He didn’t know how far to extend himself before it was folly. Five, ten, a dozen. He would feel it out one by one, in case.

“Turn back,” Zhou Mi said, and the paper in front of him was folded, covered, impossible for Kuixian to see. Kuixian had not seen him write, and he’d kept his brush strokes light so that Kuixian could not have heard as well. “The first line, ‘The mountain cries.’”

The look on Kyuhyun’s face was close to pain as he thought hard. It was the face of someone trying to remember something, not as though he was waiting for a bolt of knowledge from the sky.

“I recognize that, but… It was from the battle section. I wish I’d read it a dozen more times now. The mountain cries… That was the one talking about trust? Maybe? Something about believing in people. That’s very apt, considering you’re not sure you can believe me. But I don’t remember it exactly,” Kuixian said, his shoulders slumping. There was worry there, too, in the dark eyes. It was a risk they both were taking.

A clever guess, again, perhaps.

“I have another,” Zhou Mi said. “‘The wind rises.’”

At that, Kuixian’s eyes brightened. “Oh. Oh, I know that one better. This isn’t going to be exact, but… The wind rises, and…holds the tents down. The birds are crying, letting go and going home. When the scholars do their analysis of that, they say that you were making a metaphor or something, wishing you could be like the birds and take up the ropes of the tents and end the war and fly home also.”

Zhou Mi did not have to open the paper in front of him to read the words he’d just written. But the two verses there were written precisely:

The mountain cries
Waiting for one day, one breath
People lie
But is there truth in trust.


-

The wind rises,
The ropes hold the battle tents secure,
The birds cry,
And they free themselves toward home.


For Kyuhyun to have guessed the first would have been lucky. The second, he had twisted, to make it more difficult for Kyuhyun to follow his train of thought. He half wanted to look behind himself to see if someone had been watching over his shoulder. But Kyuhyun hadn’t been looking to anyone, just at him.

“And you know these poems?”

“There are a few different collections of what you wrote, but there’s one book people mainly read, titled after the war. The Thirteen Armies. There are daily life poems, and poems about battle, and about loss, and love. The battle ones I know pretty well because they always have us read that section when we’re learning about the war in school. War is terrible, but I always thought it was really cool, to be able to see some of his - your! - thoughts, and feelings in this war from so long ago.”

The words made sense. But beyond that, it could have been a nice story, an inflation of his ego maybe. It was still too much to be a lucky guess, his writings. He’d heard of men or women who woke with powers. A seer, or a shaman. No matter what, or how, it didn’t mean he could set Kyuhyun free. He’d satisfied some of his curiosity, but even the part he’d settled only opened more questions.

“People read what I wrote. But I do not even share these myself.”

“That would be strange, I guess. Maybe you never share them yourself? Maybe your descendants do, when you pass on your belongings. We don’t really know how they came to be, just that they showed up after the battles and you were documented as one of the generals. One of the youngest generals, maybe?”

It rankled as much as the first time. Yes, by a decade or two he was younger than most of the generals.

“You told me that once before. Did your…records not speak of my age?”

“Yeah, I mean.” Kyuhyun paused. “It gave a year you were born and the years the wars happened, but when I think war general, I think some grizzled old man. Based on the dates, you’re not much older than me right now.”

There was a reason that he was where he was, but he was not going to share it with a stranger. He felt oddly annoyed, as though Kuixian was questioning his place, even though he knew that hadn’t been what Kuixian had been saying at all.

“Despite that, I am here,” Zhou Mi said, standing. “Soldier! Take him back.”

The man standing watch outside of the tent came in and tugged Kyuhyun onto his feet.

“Wait. Do you believe me?” Kuixian asked. “I promise—“

His next words were lost as he was led away, and Zhou Mi stared down at the words he’d written. He was getting closer to believing, was perhaps his worry. Kuixian had given Zhou Mi a good way of testing him. But he wondered how many it would take before he looked to Kyuhyun’s face and saw truth, instead of danger.

***

Kyuhyun began to understand what a dog felt like, tied away from the action but unable to join in. It wasn’t that he wanted to drill with the soldiers, or carry endless supplies of wood for the signal fires, but it was definitely a loneliness being held apart. He was for a reason. Even if Zhou Mi believed him, and his newer freedom indicated at least that Zhou Mi did somewhat, he still wasn’t all the way safe. Zhou Mi barely looked at him, rarely talked to him. He wondered if it was kind of like Zhou Mi was fighting himself on believing. Kyuhyun probably would’ve been too, and Zhou Mi had more important things to be thinking about, really. It wasn’t some pleasure cruise for Kyuhyun. He was grateful he got meals every day, plenty of water, and a better smelling cell. And he was definitely grateful to be let out in the times where there were soldiers enough to keep an eye on him.

So he wasn’t getting hugs from his mom, but at least he could sit by the creek and contemplate life. Even if it made him feel like an old man, sighing and rolling his injured shoulder. It still stung a bit but at least it hadn’t been over the joint. Every so often he took a little of the salve from the jar the healer had left him and rubbed it against his skin. He stretched a little, rotating his shoulder and feeling the tug of the scarring. The blisters had scabbed, and that was mostly gone. The worst of the burns, he couldn’t feel anything, and the rest of the skin was tender. But he’d learned to keep it wrapped, because the movement of the cloth against his skin was unbearable.

Kyuhyun stuck his fingers into the water, wiggling them. He rubbed against the edge of the bank, idly staring into the distance. All he saw were hills, trees, mountains. It was so weird, like being in the middle of some nature movie. He glanced down, rubbing a piece of dirt between his fingers to make it dissolve in the water. It did, but slowly, thick between his fingers.

“Oh,” he murmured, digging out a bigger chunk. Not dirt. Clay. Of course they’d had art classes in school, making a few ugly, lumpy vases and pots. But they’d had an outing once, to old houses. They’d all gotten filthy that day, his whole class. Big tarps spread out, lumps of clay, water, straw.

Kyuhyun could still hear his teacher. “This is how they made brick for foundations, and walls. The grass is like rebar, holding the clay, reinforcing it.”

It couldn’t be too wet. Some of the boys made their clay too wet on purpose, ending up with some disgusting straw soup. Bricks couldn’t be fired without a kiln, but something like that, with that reinforcement, it could stand the test of time. Not only could it, but it had. It had.

Kyuhyun splashed across the stream, waving back at a grunt of warning from his watchful guard. He snatched at the dry grasses until his hands were getting sore, hauling it back across. He didn’t have a tarp, or anything waterproof for that matter, but he would have to make do. He pulled up chunks of clay first, making a pile not far from the edge of the stream. When he had enough that he thought was the size of a brick, he used his hands to cup water, wetting it, working it. It had been so long ago he hardly remembered what it had felt like, what the consistency of the clay had been. He didn’t even know if what he was working with was pure enough to hold together. He didn’t have anything to lose. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do. The watchman wandered by on his round, but left Kyuhyun alone. Apparently he was going to be allowed to play with dirt. He almost giggled to himself, laying the grass across the clay and beginning to fold it in, working it, making it and the clay one.

He didn’t know how much was right of that, either, but he figured he’d try a few different ways. If one crumbled, he’d try again. He made little beds of grass for the bricks up away from the bank, so they didn’t just become one with the ground underneath of them, molding them into crude but flat rectangles. More clay, more grass. His fingers stung and his hands ached, and he was sweating, but when he was finally satisfied, he had four bricks done. The second one he’d put less water in, and the last two had a smaller amount of grass. But they looked like what he remembered, when he was ten and smeared with dirt.

He was still trying to wash his hands clean of the clay when he heard footsteps. It wasn’t his guard, but Zhou Mi, crouching to nudge at one of the bricks with his finger.

“I was told you were doing something strange,” Zhou Mi said.

“It’s clay formed into a brick,” Kyuhyun said. “It should dry in the sun, and get hard, and then it can be used for things like building, or cooking. Or maybe leveling your table.”

Zhou Mi just considered him in silence, like he was judging him, and Kyuhyun just shrugged. “I wanted to see if I could do it. I was taught as a child once, but I didn’t remember how much work it was.”

“Things that are worthwhile almost always are,” Zhou Mi said. “It is almost time to eat.”

It was a suggestion, to go back to his cell.

Kyuhyun checked on the bricks like they were his children. They dried in the sun, and Kyuhyun made more, having little else to do with his afternoon and there was a certain kind of satisfaction in it. His charges grew from four, to eight, to twelve, to sixteen, and with the exception of one that someone had stepped on - intentionally or not, they were in good shape. The lesser the water amount worked the best, because his first brick had been crumbly. Zhou Mi wandered by at least once to nudge at the bricks drying or stacked. He supposed if he had to use one to bludgeon someone he could have, if Zhou Mi was worried he was making some kind of weapon. Mostly he was just tiring himself out so he wasn’t in his own head all the time with all the what-ifs.

Though at the rate he was going, if he had to make a house, he’d have it done in another year or so. At least if he wanted enough room to stretch out in or to stand in. A roof was something else entirely. Probably the easiest was just building one wall a little taller and then angling things down from there, he thought. Though, that depended how big it was again. He didn’t have anything to cut with, a knife, a hatchet. If Kyuhyun was still there and Zhou Mi kept his word at the end of the war, then maybe he’d supply Kyuhyun with a few essentials. He didn’t particularly want to stay with the soldiers, but if there were some going back toward civilization - as much as there was anyway - maybe he’d go back that way, too. He had too much city in him most likely to stay out on his own. There had to be animals to snare, but people would make things a lot easier. At least he could try to find someone to work for, a steady source of food. That was the same as his old life in a way. If he’d realized he was going to get hauled into the past, he’d have packed a bit more appropriately than some candy and a book.

He laughed at himself, though, because it was such a turnaround from what he was used to. Before, it was which restaurant to go to eat at. Instead, he figuring out just basic survival.

***

Kyuhyun was summoned, and he knew it the moment that the guard had grunted at him and gestured for him to stand. To be let into Zhou Mi’s tent wasn’t a surprise. Little had changed, with the progress of the war. Kyuhyun had changed, his pants getting looser, but that hadn’t really been a goal. Seeing Zhou Mi with all the items Kyuhyun had arrived with spread out in front of him like some kind of memory game, that he didn’t really expect. And yet, he knelt near Zhou Mi’s table and waited for Zhou Mi to decide what to tell him.

“Tell me about the purpose of these items.”

Kyuhyun nodded, considering how to go about it. He could start at one end, or just start with the least strange item and go from there.

“This is a face mask,” Kyuhyun said, rescuing it away from Zhou MI who was trying to hold it something like a basket. “People wear it if they’re sick, or maybe if they don’t like how their skin is that day, or don’t feel like dressing up.”

Kyuhyun slipped it up over his ears, adjusting it over his nose and mouth and trying not to look like a total wild man as he struck a bit of a pose.

Of course that deflated a little as Zhou Mi blinked at him, his face more or less unchanged.

“So yeah, it’s pretty nice. I wear one when I travel even if I’m not sick sometimes. They say it doesn’t help, but…” Kyuhyun shrugged, and set the mask aside. He picked up the candy, which had been opened for who knew how long from the petrified way it looked inside. “This is just food. They package it up so you can carry it around, but this isn’t good to eat any more.”

If he ended up staying to the point where he felt it was long term, that was something he was going to have to burn. No one was going to dig up 300 year old plastic, or however long it would last, if he had anything to say about it

“And this?” Zhou Mi asked, pointing to the ink pen once the candy was set aside.

“That’s a pen. It’s— You probably do most of your writing with a brush, or maybe charcoal or something? This is like that, only the ink is inside of it. Here,” Kyuhyun said. He flipped to the back of the tour book where there was a place for notes. “You hold it it like you would a brush, more or less. And then you just press, and move.”

He wrote his own name, not that Zhou Mi could read it, and Zhou Mi considered it, lifting the pen and rolling it between his fingers as though testing it for weight. He gripped it, much as Kyuhyun had, and pressed, concentrating with each line. It wasn’t perfect, but the name he’d written was readable.

“Too bad I don’t have anyone to tell I just got my book autographed by the great general Zhou Mi,” Kyuhyun said.

The snort was soft but audible as Zhou Mi turned the pen around and set it and the book aside as well. He picked up Kyuhyun’s wallet, and Kyuhyun accepted it.

“This holds my identification, and my money. This paper is money. These cards are…” And again, Kyuhyun’s mind went blank. “If you show them, it’s the promise of money.”

That seemed to stymy Zhou Mi a little as he turned over the money. He had some won and some yuan as well, but Kyuhyun didn’t really know what to do to take the perplexed look off of Zhou Mi’s face. Another thing he’d have to burn. Driver’s licenses weren’t really required with horses. And Kyuhyun’s mouth opened before he could think better of it. Maybe if Zhou Mi was in a curious mood, he’d be willing to indulge Kyuhyun as well.

“Can I ask you a question?”

Zhou Mi waited a moment, but he nodded.

“How did you come to be here?”

Here, the battle, as a general. Any of it.

“My father,” Zhou Mi said. “I was his only son, and I could nearly hold a sword before I could walk. Thinking back, it’s lucky I have both my eyes.”

Zhou Mi chuckled a little, as did Kyuhyun. And Zhou Mi’s head tilted, considering him.

“What do you make your living at?” Zhou MI asked. “In… The place you are from.”

Not the time, but Kyuhyun would take it. At least it let him know that Zhou Mi thought of him as somewhat an other.

“I work on these really complicated machines that you wouldn’t even— This black thing from my bag? That holds hundreds and hundreds of books. I work on things that store other things. Images. Paintings. Books. Music. I could play you a song right now.”

Zhou Mi eyed the phone with skepticism. “You can play a song? Is it an instrument?”

“Not exactly, and yes, any song. Well, if you have a connection, any song. I don’t know how to explain… It probably seems a little like magic. If my battery still works, maybe…”

He thought it was dead, at first, until the logo came on the screen. He’d turned it off, the morning he’d left, because he’d been charging it. It was still at 60% battery, which wasn’t bad. The screen flashed on, and he stopped, wondering what he should go to first. The camera icon got a swift tap, and Kyuhyun turned a little, leaning back.

“Hey, look up at my hand and smile.”

“But…?”

The second Kyuhyun saw a tentative smile, he snapped the picture, and he turned back around, offering it for Zhou Mi to see. Zhou Mi stared at the screen, looking up where Kyuhyun’s hand had been in the air, and back at the phone. He’d wanted them both to be in the picture, because Kyuhyun was something tangible that Zhou Mi could see.

“Here’s something else it can do,” Kyuhyun said, opening up his music app. It took only a few seconds before a song was being played from the little speakers. And Kyuhyun hissed, a snap between their hands as he handed the phone to Zhou Mi.

“I can feel it,” Zhou Mi marveled as the music played. “How does it do that?”

It felt like he’d made the damn thing himself.

“It’s something that’s saved inside it, and then played through these little speakers. I don’t… I don’t really know how to explain it.”

“And this is your language?”

“Oh yeah, but I have others!” Zhou Mi retained possession of the phone, but Kyuhyun swiped and skimmed, picking out a song he knew was in Mandarin. He kicked himself for not just starting with that. Zhou Mi’s head tilted, listening intently, and his eyes widening as he realized maybe that he could understand part of it. He watched Zhou Mi’s face intently, the way his lips parted, the thoughtful look in his eyes. He almost got caught looking too, when Zhou Mi looked up suddenly.

“Can you understand it?” Zhou Mi asked.

“No,” he said, before considering maybe Zhou Mi was trying to trap him in a lie. “I have a translation of it, here.”

It took a swipe, revealing the lines of lyrics.

“This is your language, too?”

“Yeah,” Kyuhyun said. Just seeing it gave Kyuhyun a bit of calm. At least that was familiar to him.

“It can do so many things.”

“The only thing it can’t do just about is make your breakfast and sweep your floors,” Kyuhyun said, and Zhou Mi laughed. “Though, if you had the right stuff, it could probably tell other things like it to do those. And start your car, and all kinds of stuff.”

“Car?”

“Oh. A…mechanical horse. Or, a cart I guess.”

“A mechanical horse.”

Zhou Mi looked like he was right on the verge of telling Kyuhyun he was a giant liar, but then he looked down at the phone still playing music in his hands.

“So many things.”

“Did you want to try taking a picture?” Kyuhyun asked. It was easy to get overwhelmed, but that at least he could do. With the music still playing, he switched it over to the camera, and Zhou Mi watched what was beyond it waggle with fascination. “Here, you point at what you want to see, and tap here on this red button.”

Zhou Mi turned, looking behind him out the opening of the tent to the mountain beyond. It wasn’t even, but Zhou Mi pointed the phone in the right direction, and tapped just as Kyuhyun told him.

When he turned around, Kyuhyun pulled up the picture. And there, in the tent, was a small depiction of the mountain itself, even though it was pointed at the table again. Zhou Mi lifted it, turning it around, frowning at it.

“You can zoom in, too,” Kyuhyun said. He moved his fingers against the screen and the mountain got larger, exposing more details as Zhou Mi’s eyes got bigger, too. “Just move your fingers out or in, yeah, like that. And move by pressing and—“

Zhou Mi caught on quickly. He pressed too hard, but the phone responded, moving the picture for him, making it bigger and smaller. He swiped his finger and startled as it went to the picture that Kyuhyun had taken of them. Zhou Mi looked to Kyuhyun’s face and back again.

“That is magic,” he said.

“Just don’t go inventing a camera way before they’re supposed to be,” Kyuhyun joked.

Though, it was half not a joke, too. Maybe he’d go back to his own time, and they’d all be wearing space suits and sipping protein drinks because he got Zhou Mi off to a running start. Though knowing something was possible and knowing how to make it were two different things. Plus then it was plausible he wouldn’t exist any more either.

A voice from outside had Zhou Mi looking up and handing the phone back to Kyuhyun. Kyuhyun silenced the music, and Zhou Mi called for whoever it was to enter. Even if Kyuhyun couldn’t understand half of the exchange, he put the phone back on the table with resignation and prepared to stand.

“Take him back to his cell,” Zhou Mi told the soldier.

Kyuhyun wanted to get more of Zhou Mi’s thoughts, see more of that amazement. He didn’t know how it would be to try and understand all the things he’d been talking about, but he wanted to hear Zhou Mi’s questions. Maybe because it was more fascinating than making bricks, or staring at the inside of his little cage. Maybe to a lot of things.

***

Zhou Mi woke to the sound of a strange humming, like the distant drone of bees that rose and waned. He blinked up and thought for a moment the sun was shining through the ceiling of a house, only, it looked solid. The walls were gray and cool, and stone, and he could see through hazy clear material outside. Across from him, Kuixian was tense, his hands tight on his thighs. It was not any place like Zhou Mi had seen, and he followed Kuixian’s line of sight.

He blinked, and blinked again. And he rose, touching the dark wood on the wall, and the writing seared into it. His words, his verse, and his name.

“I feel like I’m going to wake up. This is a dream, isn’t it?” Kuixian asked. “But we’re here. You’re here.”

“What is this place?”

Kuixian gestured wildly around them.

“It’s the shrine. Oh. The shrine from the book! For the Battle of Thirteen Armies, see? This is where I was, before I fell into the battle. I was just where you were, looking at the plaque, and then trying not to get run through. And hey, this shrine. Look, it still has the same brick foundation,” Kuixian said. “Kind of, anyway. It’s concrete on the outside, but they left the brick on display in here. I don’t know when it was built originally, but… I guess they are a little like my bricks.”

“Or maybe they are,” Zhou Mi mused. “You were there, after all.”

Kuixian paused, considering it, looking at the building as a whole. He shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. Maybe they replaced it, if it was built right after the war After all, the structure has been rebuilt several times.”

“Then this… This is the future you spoke of.”

“Yes. Yes, come see.”

Kuixian took his arm and pulled him out, and they passed through the clear haze that Kuixian called “plastic” and stood on a path made of stone. And the buzzing was more intense as just in front of them there were people speeding by.

“Cars. Mechanical horses, like I told you,” Kuixian said, and Zhou Mi was mystified, looking around at all the stone, all the gleam and colors. “It’s kind of hard to take glass windows and metal cars for granted, but I know I do. I wish I could feed you here. You’d be amazed, though it’s probably a shock.”

And then Kuixian laughed at himself. “Right, the food would be a shock. We just were with horses and tents, there’s this.”

Cars. Glass. Zhou Mi fondled the plastic they’d come through before Kuixian was tugging him along further. There was music loudly coming out of an open door, people selling items, talking high and fast, and strange even to his ears.

“Can you understand them?” Zhou Mi asked.

“No,” Kuixian said. “Hey, can you see me?”

Zhou Mi gawked as Kuixian stepped in front of a woman who passed right through him.

“If this is a dream, why does gravity work? Why can’t we just fly?”

“No wings,” Zhou Mi said. “You go by so fast in these…cars, but only birds fly.”

The look on Kuixian’s face was so peculiar.

“So, about that. I wonder if we can go on an elevator here.”

“A what?”

Half of what Kuixian pointed out Zhou Mi didn’t understand, and they were going so quickly, Kuixian pulling him along in fear they would wake up before he got where he wanted Zhou Mi to go. They walked into the entrance of a large building with ceilings so high that Zhou Mi almost tipped over trying to see them until Kuixian guided him forward. There were people all around, not even reacting to them as they got in something Kuixian called an elevator, standing near the sliding entrance to it. It rumbled under their feet as his stomach swooped and he held tight to Kuixian’s arm.

“We don’t even have to pay,” Kuixian said, and he smiled reassuringly, tugging Zhou Mi with him. “Come and see.”

It was more of the glass, stretching out and around them, windows from floor to ceiling looking out over the city. Not just a village, but bigger even than the imperial city. There was building after building, stretched so far, dizzying lights and frames so far below them.

“Over here,” Kuixian said, and his hand closed around Zhou Mi’s, and pulled him to another incredible view.

“It’s impossible,” Zhou Mi said. He almost staggered, dazed, incredulous that any city could be so large, have so many people, and them so high above it. The people looked like ants down below them, the cars buzzing along. Everything was so bright, so loud, so quick.

“It must seem like it,” Kuixian said. “Obviously I’ve had all my life to get used to it. This is normal. Where the battle is, that’s… That’s unusual. Quiet places.”

“Oh look, the mountain!”

And lights and buildings stretching almost to the foothills almost. The mountain he greeted every day, wanting to ride toward it, to free himself from the chains of battle.

“It’s hard to explain. People have expanded. Where there was nothing, there’s this. People living, dying, being born. They pass by that shrine and a lot of people don’t even think about it,” Kuixian murmured. “That the battle you’re fighting means they live here peacefully. More or less peacefully, over the years anyway.”

“I don’t even know how to think,” Zhou Mi said. “How could you explain it? I couldn’t have… Not even in my strangest dreams, could I have conjured this. And it’s just as you said.”

“I told you, I wouldn’t lie to you.”

Zhou Mi looked to Kuixian, his clothes so different to those around them. But the clothes Kuixian had been in, he saw reflected all around them. So many different types. Young, old, laughter, smiling faces.

It was not a lie, but it was a dream. A dream he woke from after he had studied Kuixian’s profile and weighed his words, and words were trapped on his lips. Zhou Mi woke to the ceiling of his tent, and the sound of a horse snorting, and the faint ringing in his ears as though getting used to the absence of sound. He flexed his hand and paged through the book again, Kuixian’s book, and he saw words that echoed his experience, but no pictures that would have made him imagine it.

He went to Kuixian, who sat near his cell with his breakfast, and looked up at him with wide eyes.

“I don’t know that I like elevators,” Zhou Mi said, and watched. The relief as Kuixian relaxed told him so many things.

“You’d get used to him,” Kuixian promised. “There are ones completely enclosed in glass, so you can see yourself rising off the earth.”

Kuixian laughed at his back as Zhou Mi shook his head and started to walk away.

“Hey, you saw it, too, though? Can we talk…?”

“Another time,” Zhou Mi said, and left Kuixian there.

He felt… Unsettled, perhaps. It was as though he had woken up in some realm he thought only true in tales, and discovered it was real. Kuixian and his verses, the items he’d brought, the dreams they’d shared. He’d been so reluctant to believe, to think anything like it could be true. It was easier to believe Kuixian could do some sort of magic, or was some type of shaman. Or maybe even a traitor. Zhou Mi watched his soldiers drill, and searched himself for the last bit of doubt. He wondered if he was a fool, that he found none, if Kuixian had won some sort of battle of his own.

***

Kyuhyun again felt like Zhou Mi was ignoring him. Oh, sure, he wandered by every so often in his inspections, but when he would meet Kyuhyun’s eyes, there was no invitation even if Kyuhyun was trying to make him offer one. Which was fine. He just played with his clay for a bit every day, and pouted in his cell when Zhou Mi wouldn’t talk to him. Sure, he knew it was hard to take it. Elevators, and high rises, cars. It was huge, and he just wanted a chance to explain. Though, maybe Zhou Mi didn’t need explanation. Maybe he’d taken it all in, and—

He could come up with possibilities all day.

But when soldiers almost pulled him from his lunch but for a few quick swallows, Kyuhyun knew something was up. Zhou Mi wasn’t in armor so much as in a longish type of coat, and he turned, looking Kyuhyun over.

“Can you ride a horse?”

Kyuhyun blinked. “It’s been a few years, but…yeah?”

“Good. Then you won’t have to be looked after while we’re gone.”

Zhou Mi gestured, and a horse was brought forward. One of the soldiers all but threw him up on it, and he took a bit getting used to the unfamiliar saddle, the reins, with the horse shifting a bit nervously under him.

“What—“ Kyuhyun started, but Zhou Mi was mounting his own horse, and ten more men on horseback were riding up. So, it wasn’t some pleasure ride, then.

“I thought you were going to warn me not to try and escape,” Kyuhyun said. Zhou Mi looked askance at him, and Kyuhyun’s mouth firmed for a moment. “Okay, I guess that would mean you thought I could escape to begin with.”

He thought maybe, just maybe, he heard a chuckle as Zhou Mi urged his horse forward. It took Kyuhyun a second, but he got his horse moving as well. A couple of soldiers trotted by him and there he was, smack in the middle of a group of soldiers who couldn’t understand a word he said.

“You understand me, though, don’t you?” Kyuhyun asked, patting at the horse’s neck.

An ear flicked back at him, but the horse was just as impressed it seemed. It gave him the chance to see the scenery, he guessed. Not that fields and trees were all that fascinating, but it was nice to be away from the stink of humanity and animals. He could tell they were climbing, trees getting a little sparser as they rode up the highest vantage point that Kyuhyun knew of behind the army’s line. He wasn’t sure if he rode the horse, or if the horse was taking him where he needed, but he didn’t fight as she picked her way, and carried him through some rocky terrain. He wanted to ask what they were doing, besides scouting which was obvious, or where they were going. How long they’d be, why Zhou Mi had taken him along. He had more questions than fingers, and not even getting smacked in the face with a tree branch - and getting laughed at by the soldier nearest him - was answering those questions.

Not moving was a relief, as was the realization that he had water and food in a pack behind his saddle. Obviously he hadn’t expected to be starved, but it gave him a little bit of control as they all sat and had a moment enjoying not having to be in motion. The biggest relief was that he was allowed to creep forward and sit near Zhou Mi. A soldier tried to hold him off, but a slight incline of Zhou Mi’s head had them backing off and letting Kyuhyun sit. It was a little like trying to get near the popular kid at lunch time or something. But Kyuhyun’s main objective was to sit near someone he could understand. Plus, those questions.

“Is this mostly for scouting?” Kyuhyun asked. He’d waited a good three minutes after sitting down, giving Zhou Mi time to get through the bulk of the food he’d pulled out. He knew Zhou Mi wasn’t exactly free to relax and just eat for unlimited amounts of time, so he didn’t want to make his life harder somehow doing that.

“Getting a different viewpoint, mostly, and just getting out to see. It’s not good to stay in one place too long. We can see movement, if the water levels have changed.”

Zhou Mi shrugged a shoulder, taking another bite of food.

“I’m kind of surprised the others haven’t blocked off your water, or diverted it or something,” Kyuhyun said, wiggling his water skin. He didn’t know if the stream he’d been near was running toward them from the enemy camps or not. “Or maybe they have, I don’t know.”

Zhou Mi looked at him, his head tilting. “Is that what you would do? Why would you think to do that?”

“I play these…” And how to describe video games? “Pretend battles, I guess. Games. So we learn a bit about strategy. Enough guys, they could try and divert it, or really seriously dam it up. Get some logs, haul in some stone or dirt. Of course, they’d have to be far enough away to not cause a lake in their own camp. I guess they could put something in the water, too.”

Zhou Mi nodded. “We take precautions. We do have scouts that go up the stream to check for blockages, but we can’t go to its source.”

The precautions were wells, Kyuhyun knew that by then. But Zhou Mi wasn’t going to tell him everything.

“Probably somewhere in the mountains, yeah? Have you thought about doing that to them?”

“We’re always looking at that. The water that is nearest them, it’s not so easy to attack. Extending ourselves to do that would cause more problems than help.”

“Too bad you can’t dye all their water red or something. That would really freak them out.”

Zhou Mi laughed, a sound so surprising and natural that Kyuhyun’s head ducked for a moment.

“I wonder if that would truly send them into retreat,” Zhou Mi said.

“One could hope. We could blast music at them, but I don’t think my phone would do very much good.”

“Your…phone? Is that the box from your bag?”

Kyuhyun blinked. How easy it was to forget. He didn’t remember if he’d told Zhou Mi what it was called. “Oh. Yeah.”

Zhou Mi nodded. “Yes, that would not reach far.”

Might confuse a few people, though.

It was a brief reprieve, though, as soldiers began preparing to leave and Zhou Mi himself swung up on his horse. He waved Kyuhyun along though, out to a rocky outcropping. Kyuhyun walked up beside Zhou Mi, and though his vantage point was lower, he could see most of what Zhou Mi did.

Looking out over the hills, they could see the winding of streams and rivers. The mark of men was there, below them a hilly meadow clearly filled with tents, and the stream nearby. That was the camp that they had come from, down over the rocks. In the distance, there was the trail of smoke in the air. It was too far, with them in the tree line, for anyone to be able to see them.

He looked up to see Zhou Mi scanning from horizon to horizon and back again.

“Have they—“ Kyuhyun started, and stopped himself before shrugging and going on. “Are they moving?”

“I don’t see that they’ve spread, or moved closer,” Zhou Mi said. “But it’s easy to set up tents, and keep fires lit, and that’s why we are continually scouting the forest. The lack of movement makes me…uneasy.”

“Watching an animal still before they pounce.”

“Exactly that,” Zhou Mi said. “To win, to repel what I know will be coming, the losses will be great.”

If Zhou Mi minded the hand that Kyuhyun placed just above his knee in support, he didn’t show it.

“It’s good to keep an eye on the higher ground. That way they can’t overtake you. Will we go back another way?”

“Yes. We’ll find our way down the back of this hill. A good vantage point, and to be sure we see no changes. You must be very good at the games you play.”

Even if the things he said were the things that Zhou Mi knew, at least maybe he validated Zhou Mi’s decisions in some way. It had to be a difficult thing, to have the lives of men on his shoulders. The stress of it, he would have needed an outlet. Getting away from the grind of camp, though, was a relief itself, at least for Kyuhyun. He knew the reason that Zhou Mi had given for taking him along, but Kyuhyun still wondered. Not leaving Kyuhyun behind to be looked after was one thing.

“We ride lower until we still have vantage on topmost fire,” Zhou Mi said.

Kyuhyun moved away, taking back his hand and walking back up so that Zhou Mi could turn his horse. He was proud of himself, when he found a fallen log and mounted the horse himself. Again, he was in the middle of the line of soldiers, with a scout and Zhou Mi at the lead. Zhou Mi looked right on a horse, sitting very straight, the length of his legs, the strength of his jaw making him look very official. No painting would have done him justice, which he didn’t even know if any had survived. The most important part was that he was there, and that Zhou Mi and his trust only went so far. But as he looked back over his shoulder at the distant smoke, he wondered how Zhou Mi trusted him at all despite all that had happened.

The hours of riding had compounded by the time that they had reached the place that Zhou Mi felt comfortable enough to call their camp. Kyuhyun could feel the soreness well before he made his way to dismount, but as he tried to stretch out, hobbling and trying to shake out his legs, he realized he had an audience. He sniffed, seeing both the soldiers and Zhou Mi chuckling.

“Glad to give you all something to laugh at,” he muttered.

He got the saddle off the horse he had ridden, a soldier stepping in to help at the last and take his horse off so that it could crop at the dry, short grasses. Kyuhyun was careful, letting himself be directed and staying near as wood was gathered, a fire started. He had his own little pouch of food, but he knew they would make both tea and likely some rice. His stomach was grumbling just thinking about it.

Zhou Mi stayed up, talking to the men. And though Kyuhyun could hear at least Zhou Mi’s side of the conversation, it wasn’t very stimulating. Some talk of war, others just talk of home. It wasn’t conversation meant for him, and besides the talk earlier, they had exchanged only a brief few words. With the fire nearby and his blanket warming him, and the ground he’d picked for himself at least mostly flat, he dozed to the sound of Zhou Mi talking, and the wind ruffling his hair.

***

Zhou Mi wasn’t sure what he was looking for. Validation, maybe. He could have left Kuixian behind, confined to his cell. It would have been minimal work, and it was safe. He saw the soldiers and their glances, wondering. Whatever gossip made the rounds, he wasn’t concerned by it. Whether they thought Kuixian was a shaman or not, or some sort of advisor, they would have only been in disbelief by the truth. Buildings so many more times taller than trees, mechanical contraptions that seemed almost to skim the earth. All around him, conversations of people absorbing something so utterly normal to them, talking to each other in a way he understood. No, taking Kuixian along had half been to assure himself that Kuixian himself was real, to hear his strange insights, to be amazed by his forward thinking. But partly also, it was for safety. Neither of them had forgotten Kuixian being taken, and though Kuixian’s burns were healing and almost always covered by cloth, Zhou Mi could glance at Kuixian’s back and see where they were, exactly. He could still feel echoes of Kuixian’s pain, and that was something he didn’t understand either. Kuixian was not a soldier, just a man.

A man whose hair was getting to be in need of tying back, who spoke with earnestness, who laughed at, with him.

He argued to himself that he also had something to learn to keep Kuixian close, that perhaps in Kuixian there was a secret. And there was undoubtedly an answer.

***

The confinement of camp was not a welcome one once they had returned. It wasn’t like he’d been truly free, amidst all the soldiers, but they’d been moving and seeing things Kyuhyun hadn’t seen before. There’d been a sense of accomplishment in that, little goals. Making it to their camp, staying on his horse. He hadn’t fallen off, and that was a point of pride, even though the saddle had left something to be desired. But all he was left with after was trying to stay out of the sun, and walking back and forth to the stream. He’d lost interest in making bricks, and they were stacked, looking less than uniform, but still there at least. But there was a tension, one that had Kyuhyun watching carefully as supplies were moved. Zhou Mi rode by several days in a row but did not stop, and Kyuhyun wondered.

On the fourth day, Zhou Mi was not on his horse and he paused, waited for Kyuhyun to pop up, to follow him to a space beside the stream.

Kyuhyun eyed the sticks in Zhou Mi’s hands. He didn’t think he’d done anything to call for a beating, but he was staying quiet because he didn’t want to give Zhou Mi any ideas.

“Do the war games you play teach you to fight?” Zhou Mi asked.

Considering they were all virtual, not so much. Though he could imagine someone standing in their living room with a sword making sounds and accidentally stabbing their TV.

“Not really. They’re more… theoretical,” he said. Not exactly what he was going for, but trying to explain those kinds of things wasn’t exactly something he was prepared for.

Zhou Mi considered him for a moment, before holding out one of the sticks toward him.

“There’s a chance you’ll never be called on to defend yourself,” Zhou Mi said. Considering he was surrounded by soldiers, he hoped that was true. “But it would not hurt you to learn how to defend.”

Kyuhyun looked around him, like someone was going to rush at him from somewhere with a sword drawn for daring to attack their general.

“Did you tell them this was okay?” Kyuhyun asked. He tried to keep his voice mild, and wanted to scowl when Zhou Mi all but smirked at him.

“I wouldn’t have to. If you got a stick like that, it would only be because I let you.”

Okay, fair point. The stick was kind of glorified anyway. The worst damage it could probably do was if it got in an eye or maybe gave someone a splinter. It wiggled a bit in the air, mostly as ineffectual as he supposed his technique was going to be.

Zhou Mi’s fingers were curled around his own stick, urging Kyuhyun to match his position. There was the soft tap of wood against wood, and Kyuhyun was so intent on not being knocked over or not getting his head pretend cut off, that he didn’t get the double entendre of what they were doing for several minutes. And then he had to struggle not to guffaw, because no, that was not something he was explaining to Zhou Mi, no way.

Zhou Mi’s stick snapped none too delicately against his arm and Kyuhyun stared at it, with his own stick ineffectually ahead of him.

“Am I dead?” he asked, wiggling his arm.

“Maybe not quite. Now you are,” Zhou Mi said, poking him in the stomach.

Zhou Mi was completely unfazed by the glare, looking instead rather pleased. It seemed liked it was game, actually, like how many ways he could kill Kyuhyun.

“Admit that you just want to give me a bunch of bruises,” Kyuhyun said.

“I wouldn’t if you tried harder,” Zhou Mi taunted. He jabbed out, and Kyuhyun clutched the “wound”, sinking dramatically to the ground. It got him a grin, and a laugh, and an offered hand to help him stand. That was an attack itself, that grin, coming out of nowhere in the midst of the impromptu session.

His squawk of outrage as Zhou Mi took off his “arm” for the third time straight had Zhou Mi shaking his head.

“Up. Up! Don’t hold it like you’re afraid of it. It’s not a snake, it’s part of you. Someone is coming after your family. Protect yourself!”

Easy for Zhou Mi to say. He wasn’t the one who had a sweaty general being all intense at him making him cede ground until he could feel the slope of the stream behind him. His eyes flickered, watching, parrying, trying not to give. And when he saw his opening, he lunged with his stick like a fencer’s foil, the tip bending against Zhou Mi’s chest. And though Zhou Mi’s eyes widened, his own stick was laid up against Kyuhyun’s neck.

“That wouldn’t have been a great success,” Kyuhyun half wheezed, laughing.

“It depends on if you’d have killed your target before the blow to you was finished. Sometimes a risk is necessary,” Zhou Mi said.

He was being praised, albeit faintly, and he’d have sworn Zhou Mi’s lips twitched.

“The stick is light, so there’s that. You killed me about fifteen times over, so I will only have hope if I have to protect myself that whoever it is is less skilled. Years of practice paid off.”

He definitely didn’t want Zhou Mi going after him with a real sword. He’d be hacked up like a chicken dinner before he could get an arm up. And at least Zhou Mi hadn’t shoved him in the water.

Zhou Mi had told him to protect himself, protect his family.

“Do you have family? A wife?” Kyuhyun asked. He didn’t think that was recorded in history, but there were poems in the collection that seemed to have a romantic twist to them. He remembered groaning in middle school having to analyze some of them.

“I do not. Some soldiers have wives that visit the camp, though it is often not allowed. There are women that follow the camp, as well, but to send them away would cause a lot of anger.”

Prostitutes, he was inferring from that.

“But no, there is no one for me, not for some time. And I cannot send a man into battle that I would need by my side.”

It was a lonely life, that of a soldier. Surrounded by people, but their superior, and— Kyuhyun’s brain couldn’t even grasp the implications. Being a general, it was something maybe he didn’t have to be with Kyuhyun. Zhou Mi was authority, yes, but not officially in command of Kyuhyun. The sticks went back into the pile that was set to be burned, and Kyuhyun brushed bark from his hands.

“Perhaps we will try again, if ever there is time,” Zhou Mi said.

A man shouted, getting Zhou Mi’s attention, and Zhou Mi looked to Kyuhyun.

They nodded at each other, and Kyuhyun made his way back to his cell, tired, but with a mind that was not so easily put to rest. It only dawned upon him later, like a slow and creeping nausea, why Zhou Mi would be encouraging Kyuhyun to be able to defend himself.

Maybe if Zhou Mi knew a time was coming fast when Zhou Mi wouldn’t be there to defend him himself.

***
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