coley_merrin: (Love from gravity)
[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 war, injuries, wounds, blood, background character death.


***

Kyuhyun heard distant shouts, as he lazed near his cell just out of the afternoon sun. Even if he was ordered back to it, he’d learned that if he stayed connected to it in some way, the guards were okay with it. He was in touching distance, at least, taking advantage of mildly cleaner grass and a different pattern of lumpy ground. It didn’t make him as claustrophobic, and he half expected to be ordered back into his cell with the bustling going on. The guards spoke to each other as a soldier rode by and shouted to them. They seemed angry, but not overly agitated or afraid. It wasn’t an attack on the camp, then, or Kyuhyun really would have been ordered back in.

But he watched, Zhou Mi’s tent hidden by some others but the path leading to it wasn’t. He hadn’t seen Zhou Mi leave, but he also hadn’t seen him throughout the day, either, so it was likely he was gone. The sound of hoofbeats had Kyuhyun rolling over so he could look in the other direction, and sitting up when he realized it was Zhou Mi’s horse. The edge of the pants he wore were bloody, and Kyuhyun stood. Zhou Mi did not pause, but his eyes met Kyuhyun’s briefly.

Kyuhyun glanced at the guards, and wasn’t called back as he made his way in Zhou Mi’s wake. Near the tent, Zhou Mi dismounted, a soldier taking his horse away after Zhou Mi gave it two pats to the neck. Kyuhyun wasn’t entirely sure if Zhou Mi knew he was there, but Zhou Mi sank down on the far side of his table, resting his forearms on the table, and sat there in silence as Kyuhyun knelt on the other side.

He half was afraid to ask.

“Something happened?”

“Yes. A scouting party, there were a dozen of them, slaughtered. Half as many wounded who were able to flee. I fear this. This escalation. This—“

The bottom of Zhou Mi’s fist hit hard on the wood, and Kyuhyun felt it shudder. Before Zhou Mi could repeat the action, Kyuhyun covered his hand with one of his own. He closed his eyes for a moment and wished he could draw out that frustration, that pain. But he didn’t know what else he could say that wasn’t trite or something that Zhou Mi already knew. They both knew that Zhou Mi hadn’t sent those men and boys out there intending them to die, but the risk had always been there.

“Did you gain anything by it?”

“Knowledge that they will attack mercilessly to scouting. But we had known that,” Zhou Mi said, hissing out a breath. “They had killed a single scout once, left him as warning. So we sent a bigger party, and they were able to return after some harassment from a lone soldier. This new group didn’t get nearly as far, but even staying to the high ground they were attacked. We’ve tried scouts at night, but because of the rocks, the hills, it is like throwing men one at a time over a tall cliff. Not one of them returned.”

“How many attackers were there?”

“Nearly as many, from what I hear.”

Kyuhyun nodded, thinking through the possibilities. “Then I would say, perhaps you’ve learned that they’ve moved their forces closer. To take on a party of almost two dozen, a party who was being careful and watching, they wouldn’t have kept so many men so close if the bulk of their army wasn’t closer as well. They’ve shown you their hand.”

“You think that they were keeping us away so that we didn’t see their army is moving in?”

“Why else attack so viciously, and with such different tactics? Either it was terrible luck, or…”

“We will double the patrols.” Zhou Mi shook his head. “Ah, I wish I could just change into an eagle and look out over everything. See exactly where their armies were, where their scouts were. We could end this.”

It was not a game of chess, not a video game that could be reset, but lives that were at stake. Lives that weighed heavily on Zhou Mi’s shoulders. His mind surely ached for the mental loss, and his body from burying the dead they had left to them. Zhou Mi’s silence had him searching for something to say, and he realized that Zhou Mi’s neck was angry, dark and red from the sun, and Kyuhyun pushed himself to his feet.

“I’ll be right back,” he said. He left before Zhou Mi could protest, dragging the jar of the salve he’d used for his brand from his cell, and trotting back so that he could settle at Zhou Mi’s side.

“Here, let me,” Kyuhyun said, beginning to gently smear the salve on Zhou Mi’s skin.

“No, you shouldn’t. The men who were killed can’t feel like this,” Zhou Mi said, trying to move Kyuhyun away. As though that were an acceptable reason for him to remain in pain, like he deserved it as punishment somehow.

“Do you think they would want this for you?” Kyuhyun asked. “No. They would want you to be able to rest. To be able to sit with your council with a clear mind, and make sure their friends and brothers can go home safely.”

It made Zhou Mi sit still, anyway. If it helped to sooth a burn like Kyuhyun’s, he hoped it would help for a burn from the sun as well.

“You weren’t hurt elsewhere?”

“No, this isn’t my blood,” Zhou Mi said. “Thank you. You should go back now.”

Seeing the hurt still lurking in Zhou Mi’s eyes had him nodding, not arguing as he ducked back out and that time went fully into his cell. It was closed not long after, his dinner brought after that, and he thought hard with his head on his forearm. He didn’t know how to think, how to help, what to say. It made panic well for a moment before he realized, he couldn’t think like that. Zhou Mi wasn’t the only general, and they had fought many battles before his arrival, and after. If there was something he could do, he would do it. Until then, all he could do was wait.

***

It would not calm. To those Kyuhyun saw hurrying, he didn’t think they wanted it to. It had been tense, blood had been spilled, and Kyuhyun had been confined to his cell more often than not. There weren’t the resources to let him roam, and the thought it was getting closer to the end had him wondering again about his future. If Zhou Mi was killed, he would have to make his own way. If Zhou Mi lived, Kyuhyun didn’t know if Zhou Mi would let him follow him. Maybe it would have been wiser to find a way without prejudice, but Zhou Mi alone understood him, unless he could find a way to travel to find those who spoke an old version of his own language. Zhou Mi was his one spot of familiarity.

And the thought crept in, wondering if they would even let him live if Zhou Mi was killed.

But what was set in motion, did not stop. It was another battle, and another, and Kyuhyun watched as preparations were made, and soldiers were moved. His own guard dwindled to one, over all the prisoners, food sporadic, though water was plentiful. It was a small thing, but something he was grateful for when his stomach grumbled. And when his cell was opened, he scrambled out, following the pointed finger of a soldier. To where was obvious, as Zhou Mi did not have a helmet on, but he was in full armor, as he had been for several days. He was in a tight knot of soldiers, speaking to them as they nodded. He clasped one on the shoulder and turned, making his way directly to Kyuhyun, who waited at the edge of Zhou Mi’s tent.

“You won’t go back to the cell any more,” Zhou Mi said, after Kyuhyun had ducked inside after him.

At first, Kyuhyun thought he had misunderstood. “I won’t?”

“There aren’t enough hands right now to look after everything. This war will end, no matter which side wins, and there is no stopping it now,” Zhou Mi said. “You’ll stay here, in this tent. You’ll be able to get your own food, and water. If I don’t return, you’re the only one who knows of the verses. So it is up to you to see I am remembered.”

Kyuhyun wasn’t amused, even though he barked out a startled, awkward laugh and saw Zhou Mi’s lips twist in response. “History doesn’t record you dying here, so you have to come back.”

Zhou Mi ignored his declaration in favor of continuing to check his supplies, and check his sword belt.

“They may move the remainder of camp, so be prepared to go with them. Stay near the tent because you’ll need to move fast.”

If that happened, then the battle was not running in the favor of the general’s and Zhou Mi’s favor. There wasn’t enough time. He had so many questions! Zhou Mi’s childhood, Zhou Mi’s life. If Zhou MI felt he couldn’t love a soldier, then had he wanted to? Or maybe, Kyuhyun had just misunderstood. And he could see that Zhou Mi was tired already, and he was getting ready to leave, to go to a place he would almost surely see even less rest.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Kyuhyun asked.

“If you see something that needs done, do it. Those staying behind know you’ll be here, and are part of the camp. They may ask you help, so cooperate if you can. They won’t hurt you.”

Maybe Zhou Mi overestimated how people looked at him, but he didn’t know what Zhou Mi had told them, either. He was being upgraded to first class from a prison, more or less. He’d have been excited about it, aside from the fact that people were dying, and the man in front of him was going to join them.

He was a general. That was what he’d been trained for. That didn’t mean it was right. It had been some distant, exciting thing. It wasn’t exciting, and he wanted to tell Zhou Mi to stay. Zhou Mi, he wouldn’t laugh. Maybe, he’d be disappointed. Or maybe send Kyuhyun back to his cell. It was treason, for an army that wasn’t his.

But he wondered if it was written on his face, when Zhou Mi studied him so carefully, stepping closer and his voice pitched low.

“I wanted to thank you. I was tired. My parents are gone; the glory of battle has long faded. There have been…times I wondered if the war could ever be won, if the armies would just merge, and merge, until we would fight a fight against no one.” Zhou Mi shook his head. “There was a reason to fight.”

“It’s an important thing,” Kyuhyun said. And to be there, to wonder if it would ever end. There had to be a weariness to it, worried, knowing there were men relying on him. His foresight, telling Zhou Mi he’d be remembered, if that had helped, then he’d had a purpose, too.

But the hopeful moment lasted just that, a moment.

“You have water and food?” Kyuhyun asked, feeling nothing but dread as Zhou Mi picked up his pack.

“Yes, I have everything I need.”

His armor, his sword. A promise that his contribution to the world in word and action would be remembered.

“Come back alive.”

It was half demand, half request, said lightly almost as though it was a feeble joke.

“I always try,” Zhou Mi said.

But it wasn’t enough. They were looking at each other and it was like sending someone off to a day at work, something so utterly normal without any risk at all. And all he had were words? He should’ve been afraid, afraid of being cut down, of so many things. And yet, there were things that he was afraid of that seemed so much greater than that.

When he reached for Zhou Mi’s shoulder, when he stepped forward, Zhou Mi was there. The bump of mouth against mouth was too quick, almost too hard, and yet they both strained, desperate for it, before Kyuhyun nearly gasped away when the buzz became too much.

“Just come back,” Kyuhyun said again.

Zhou Mi didn’t answer him, not verbally anyway. The kiss he pressed against Kyuhyun’s lips was steady and slow, like he was savoring something, or maybe assuring Kyuhyun instead. And yet—

Kyuhyun swayed forward as Zhou Mi pulled away, but that was it. Zhou Mi met his eyes once and ducked out of the tent. He wanted to run after Zhou Mi, and it was ridiculous. He couldn’t go along. It wasn’t a scouting mission, and having someone to look after would just put Zhou Mi in danger. If determination could bring someone back alive, he was trying. Kyuhyun just had to put his trust in Zhou Mi, that history was right and that Zhou Mi and his army were victorious. Or that at least in the omission of Zhou Mi’s future after the battle, that Zhou Mi’s death in it hadn’t been skimmed away.

***

Waiting was a special kind of torture. Kyuhyun was in the lap of luxury, for a battle encampment, and he found it hard to stay still. Enjoying it felt almost disrespectful. It wasn’t as though they could hear the fighting, or even if there was fighting happening. That made it worse somehow, because sometimes when the men who remained were quiet, all that could be heard was the occasional bird and the sound of the stream. Basically, it sounded like a normal day, when it was anything but.

Zhou Mi had expressly told him not to go far from the tent, and Kyuhyun did listen. But he wandered down the rows of tents, edging past those who were preparing food, and talking. So many severe faces. A rider came and went, and Kyuhyun had never wanted more to know what was being said. Good or bad, at least he would have known.

Then the wagons came. Shouting, men and boys scurrying. There was blood, dripping from the wagon’s box like from a slaughter. Kyuhyun watched as one man was helped down, another. A third, was lifted and put aside.

He’d seen dead people. He’d been to funerals. But his chest, his throat went tight, his lungs constricting. He nearly turned, his mind retreating as much as his body wanted to. Back to the tent, back to pretending it was just some kind of vacation and that dozens, maybe hundreds of men weren’t being injured, dying. The dead man wasn’t Zhou Mi. None of them were and yet, he couldn’t know if he hid. He couldn’t know.

Heating water was all he could think to do. He thought to all the historical dramas he’d watched, and hot water was helpful. He wasn’t sure anyone knew about bacteria. The gross medicinal tea he’d been forced to drink, and the balm, obviously the healer was skilled, but even if all they did was make tea with it at least there was hot water.

No one stopped him. So that was something, he guessed. It wasn’t like he had a way to split the bigger wood, but he used what he could, making sure the fire didn’t get too low, and carrying buckets of water to the two big pots. Maybe they could use it for defense. Not that he was going to stick around if it came to that and maybe hope to splash someone. He’d be out with the rest of the army like Zhou Mi warned.

Zhou Mi was going to be back, though. Victorious. Smiling. Maybe he could tell Zhou Mi why he kissed him, or ask why Zhou Mi had wanted him to. Or maybe, they were just kisses shared of two men in a bad situation. It could have meant nothing. Maybe Kyuhyun was making the best of his traumatic time displacement, and maybe he’d fixated on Zhou Mi for that.

And maybe he was a blue goose, and was going to wake up in a sequin factory. He had no idea. He considered it, put it away. That was all he could do. Right then it didn’t matter.

The hot water, people came for it. No one thanked him, he didn’t think. But it wasn’t enough. When the water was topped off and warm, Kyuhyun steeled himself and filled a bucket with cool water, and found a bowl to make some sort of dip of. He started out at the fringes, peeking in tents and holding his breath as injured soldiers held out cups or bowls outside of them. Those men did thank him, and then he repeated the process over again with the warm water for the caregivers, over and over until his arm felt like the rubberiest rubber band. He wasn’t the only one helping. A boy no more than thirteen snagged him, giving him a bowl of broth, and he stared up at the darkening sky and wondered when he’d eaten last.

It gave him strength enough to make a couple more rounds. He never went in the tents with the moaning, standing with closed eyes as someone took the bucket and gave it back to him empty.

He fed the fire, filled the pots of water, and his stomach swooped when he saw he was being gestured to. Maybe it was Zhou Mi, maybe someone needed his help. He was pointed to a corner outside, near a fire so he could see. They put a pile of cloth in front of him, and showed him what to do. Bandages, he realized. Some of it was very nice cloth, some of it almost threadbare, but he ripped and tore, and ripped some more bandages out of the cloth. They were carried away, and more cloth was brought. Maybe they were saving limbs, or maybe healing burns, or cuts. He wasn't sure he needed to know. His fingers felt raw, his legs aching when he got up and handed over the last of the bandages. Others were dipping into the water, and Kyuhyun shuddered as he closed himself in Zhou Mi’s tent. He saw the dead, heard the wounded.

Kyuhyun’s muscles were trembling as he curled onto his side, only getting half of the blanket over him before his arm dropped. He jerked awake several times, seeing Zhou Mi as one of the men.

“You promised,” he mumbled, sinking back into sleep.

***

There was more soup, after the sun rose, and more wagons. Kyuhyun realized he didn’t know how many more had come while he was sleeping, and it was the damn bucket that got him access, steeling himself as he went into tents and looked at every face in every pallet, every person who walked by, every soldier who sat to see if he saw Zhou Mi. He didn’t know if he hoped that he would find him, or that he wouldn’t. If he was on a bed, at least he was alive. But the wounds, they were horrible. The stench. No, he didn’t want Zhou Mi moaning and thrashing in pain.

The sun was almost directly overhead when he saw the first smile, watching as he shoved chunks of rice into his mouth and washed them down with water. The conversation was quick, and the reaction happy, but he didn’t know what it meant. Did they find more food? Had something good happened?

He lingered in the shadow of a tent as night fell, watching as people passed. No one looked at him in pity, and he saw so many faces. Grim, determined, smiling. He wanted to shout for them to tell him what they knew, and knew nothing he could do would get him his answers.

But it was the sound of horses that had him looking up after almost nodding off. Not just a single rider, but many. He stood, squinting in the low light. Five horses, ten. A wagon.

He saw a flash of red, and stood up on his toes. There! Yes, a second glimpse confirmed it, and Zhou Mi emerged from behind the wagon. It almost rocked him back, the relief. Zhou Mi’s helmet was gone. He was on a different horse, Kyuhyun realized after a moment. If that was someone else’s horse, then what had happened to the rider, he wondered. Or to Zhou Mi’s horse. Maybe they’d swapped, or someone had died. There were wet patches on the horse’s chest. Blood.

Zhou Mi saw him as he dismounted, and lifted a hand slightly to tell Kyuhyun to stay. He did, but he didn’t like it, crouching back down, watching. There in front of everyone, Zhou Mi shed his outer armor. The heavy armor slid to the ground, and Kyuhyun saw dark places, bloody places, on the shirt beneath it. Not large, at least, but Zhou Mi was making for the wagon as his horse was led away. Kyuhyun saw why. Men were being carried from the wagon, as they had been from others. But Zhou Mi was part of it, that time, carrying the wounded to any flat place. Filling new tents.

For a bit he thought better of waiting, darting into the tent and making the bedding ready so that Zhou Mi could rest. But when he came out, another wagon had rolled into camp. That one was emptied, too, as Kyuhyun almost vibrated in waiting.

No one was with Zhou Mi when he reappeared, and all Zhou Mi’s gait told him was that he was tired.

“Are you hurt?” Kyuhyun asked, before Zhou Mi could say anything. There was more blood on his clothes, but he didn’t think it was Zhou Mi’s, all over his hands and arms.

“Yes. No. My head hurts from not sleeping. Maybe other places, but it’s sleep I want most. I should…I should wash.”

His skin must have been going tacky with the blood. The water. Kyuhyun almost laughed in his ridiculous realization that he’d kept the water warm for Zhou Mi.

“I’ll be right back, just wait behind the tent,” Kyuhyun said. He had two buckets, one of cold, one with heated water from the fire. Mixed, it was warm but not hot and Zhou Mi stripped off his clothing, washing what he could from his skin as Kyuhyun poured slowly. Zhou Mi’s hands were shaking

“The blankets are ready for you,” Kyuhyun said. Zhou Mi was there, in the tent again. Not just a figment of his imagination, but real, relieving himself even as the set of his shoulders spoke of exhaustion. “Is it…over?”

Zhou Mi nodded as he turned back around. “Yes, it’s over. But there is still much to do.”

He was like an old man, lowering himself to the ground, and he did not protest as Kyuhyun covered him. Of course, then Kyuhyun realized his problem. That was where he had slept. Of course, there was his cell, but Zhou Mi had already told him he wouldn’t be going back to that. With the second blanket, he could at least curl up in a corner, much as he had during the lightning storm. He had questions, and it wasn’t the time.

“It’s won, you can sleep now,” Kyuhyun said. He started to gather his own blanket, so that he could move.

“Stay,” Zhou Mi said, one of his hands reaching out from under the blanket. Kyuhyun realized how hoarse Zhou Mi sounded, and he stretched out and tugged his blanket up over himself.

For a moment he stared at Zhou Mi’s hand, and he covered it, grasping it even though his own skin felt raw. It shook, Zhou Mi’s skin warm, and his fingers clasping loosely back.

He woke when Zhou Mi jerked awake, an unintelligible shout in his throat.

“It’s all right,” Kyuhyun said. Their hands had slid away as they slept, and he touched Zhou Mi’s arm.

When Zhou Mi woke again, he got up.

“Stay there, I have to check on the men,” Zhou Mi told him.

He heard the rustle as Zhou Mi dressed, and stared at the empty space beside him as he strained to hear noises from beyond the tent. It was only fidgeting that kept him awake, and he felt the groan with his soul when Zhou Mi returned and rested again next to him. It was Zhou Mi’s hand against his arm that time, not as shaky as it had been, but it was comfort just the same. He wavered to the sound of Zhou Mi’s breathing, and dreamed of blood welling over the buckets he carried, like a flood.

***

The days were some of the longest of Kyuhyun’s life. The sun woke Zhou Mi, and Zhou Mi woke him, and they worked. Food was eaten on the go, and Kyuhyun was not left out. He was given his instructions by Zhou Mi, or by gestures from the others. Always with others, they gathered wood, stoked fires, carried water. They carried away pots of waste, sullied clothes, bloody blankets. Some of it was washed to be used again, and some of it was burned.

Kyuhyun staggered out of one tent to vomit, the scent of infection, of defecation, so strong that it overwhelmed him. And he picked up his bucket of water and steeled himself and went right back in. Water was not a choice, it was a necessity. He staggered back out with a pile of cloth and flies streaming behind him.

When he slept, it was because he couldn’t stay upright, the sun long set and eyes bleary in the light of the fires. Men were waking to replace them, and Zhou Mi caught his elbow, and they walked together. Or limped, he didn’t know which. He was too wound up, lying stiff beneath the blanket after he’d tossed away his stinking clothes and washed as much as he could from his skin. It hurt, and he almost whimpered as his body began to relax.

Because he wanted to reach for Zhou Mi, he turned on his side, breathing carefully.

Zhou Mi’s chest was a searing heat against his back, and Zhou Mi enfolded him, his breath warm against the back of his neck. He relaxed, because he had no choice, or else Zhou Mi would not sleep either.

“There were times I thought I could not make it, when I saw men fall. My horse died with them,” Zhou Mi said. “I told you I would try. I remembered. Is it true, you have no sorcery?”

The soft words, he wondered that Zhou Mi didn’t know. He was just a man, too. But then, there were so many things he didn’t have answers for.

“I don’t have any powers. I just wanted you safe.”

Just safe. And Zhou Mi nodding, relaxing with him.

And the dawn woke them to start over again.

Zhou Mi was everywhere, nowhere, showing up at his elbow, helping to carry away litters burdened with the dead. He’d seen so many bodies, and he wondered how many more that Zhou Mi had seen.

“If they rinse off their hands with hot water,” Kyuhyun suggested, breathing carefully. “Or even cold water.”

He watched men going from injured to injured, and wiping their hands clean. Some washed, others didn’t. Men moaned, some injured, others dying. Some would live if they had luck, and others only waited for death. But there wasn’t enough hot water, not for the whole camp. Zhou Mi said a few words about it, and that was all it was. A suggestion, if it could be followed. Blood, and waste, and the gathering of herbs.

Even the sight of an animal carcass being chopped up for the next meal almost made his stomach turn, veering off and breathing carefully with his hands on his knees. It was chaos, organized chaos, men with no training turned into healers, doing their best to save their friends as the healers themselves picked and chose who to treat. It was a deadly triage, and day by day, the camp grew quieter.

“Men are leaving,” Zhou Mi said, when Kyuhyun mentioned it. It was not all because of the dead. “The war is ended. Their families wait. Day by day, we’ll see the numbers reduced. Some leave with the wounded, wagons full of those who can travel. Some who can’t but who cannot stay.”

Zhou Mi wasn’t going to stop them, was what he was saying. It wasn’t as though risks were being taken. There was another portion of men who were ensuring the retreat stayed just that, but it was out of Zhou Mi’s hands. They were in the mode of recovery, not of fighting. And recovery meant the tents could come down, and the dead would be left to rest.

Zhou Mi brought a salve with him that night, and Kyuhyun’s hands almost cried with relief, near to cracking from the carrying, and washing. It was sticky as they rested, his fingers stroking against the calluses on Zhou Mi’s palm.

Kyuhyun’s head tilted, when he realized Zhou Mi was moving closer, taking in a long breath. When Zhou Mi pressed his lips against Kyuhyun’s, a shudder stroked down his spine. It was slow, a kiss that almost refused to end as his nose pressed against Zhou Mi’s cheek.

“Thank you,” Zhou Mi murmured. “I would not have— Thank you.”

He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what Zhou Mi was thanking him for or if it was just that, appreciation.

“Thank you,” Kyuhyun said in return. For returning, for showing him that the kiss had not been some desperation before battle. For being there. For holding his hand as he slept.

***

There was a lull, enough for Kyuhyun to wash his own clothes, and eat for all the meals he’d had too little of or had forgotten. His stomach grumbled, and he sipped tea as he sat swathed in a blanket and drowsing while using Zhou Mi’s desk as a pillow. Zhou Mi had left, but that was no surprise either. He’d taken his food with him, leaving with a stroke against Kyuhyun’s hair that had had him reaching up to touch. What that meant, he didn’t know.

Afternoon had come, and Kyuhyun had dressed, and helped with the fires, by the time Zhou Mi returned to the tent. He took the tea that Kyuhyun offered, and tugged Kyuhyun down beside him, leaning against him, pulling Kyuhyun into him as well.

“More are leaving,” Zhou Mi said. “We won’t leave the dying, but there are few that will last the day. Most will leave, not tomorrow, but maybe the next.”

“What will you do?” Kyuhyun asked. The cloth had fallen open, and the skin of Zhou Mi’s chest was warm, comforting as he stroked against it, fingers skimming the pendant that Zhou Mi wore. A crest, of some kind. It was a luxury, and his hand stayed when Zhou Mi made no indication of discomfort. Even with the rough skin of Kyuhyun’s fingers, he didn’t protest.

“I’m not sure. When the bulk of camp breaks up, I will leave with them,” Zhou Mi said.

It made sense. He would be able to help coordinate those who were leaving, maybe. He wondered if all of them knew how they could get home.

And he wasn’t quite sure why he hesitated so long before asking, “And me?”

“I promised you when the war was over that you were free,” Zhou Mi said.

“As long as you couldn’t prove I did anything bad,” Kyuhyun put in helpfully.

“That also. And it would be difficult for you to go without knowing how to speak the language. If you did not mind the direction, I can acquire a horse for you. I might need someone who can make bricks.”

Kyuhyun could hear the smile in Zhou Mi’s voice well before he snorted. He moved, minutely, pressing his face against Zhou Mi’s neck.

“I won’t mind which direction,” Kyuhyun told him.

The way that Zhou Mi squeezed his side and stroked firmly for several moments spoke so much of relief, or maybe happiness, that Kyuhyun relaxed. It was one question that no longer had to weigh on his mind, and maybe no longer on Zhou Mi’s mind as well. And there were other secrets under the skin of a man who was wounded in more than physical ways. Neither of them were perfect. Maybe he could soothe Zhou Mi’s nightmares, a little. He couldn’t just let Zhou Mi take care of him. But it was a way forward.

Zhou Mi laughed a little, when Kyuhyun stole back the tea. But he made sure there was some left when he gave it back. There weren’t any words, just leaning together. And that was enough.

***

Zhou Mi felt like he had been cored out, empty, and too aware, and off balance. The tent was his solace, walls that hid him from what was outside, from within and without. A shield, an escape. He wanted to leave, and could not. He owed a debt, and at times the verse that Kuixian had remembered came flooding back to him. Yes, he wanted to be those birds. He wanted to fly away, to take himself to the mountain, to lie still and not think and hope that it did not bring images of war to him. He could have been still, but Kuixian was there. He didn’t think that Kuixian would have questioned him, and maybe even joined him. But if he stopped, he wasn’t sure he would move again. He was still trying to find himself, and Kuixian was keeping him at least the smallest bit steady while he got through what he needed to.

It was a perplexing thought that he didn’t know if he’d seen Kuixian happy. Explaining about the strange items in his bag, maybe, or in the dream at Kuixian’s city. Though Kuixian there, stretched out on his back after eating and just relaxing, it was as close as he had seen recently. Kuixian had grown thinner. It had not been for lack of food, because for all of the troubles they’d had, food had not been among them. No, Kuixian had missed meals, helping. He’d heard tales of the “stranger” as they called Kuixian, staggering around the camp with buckets of water, making sure the injured had something to drink, and the healers water to wash with. He’d asked Kuixian to help, and he had. It was perhaps the truest thing Kuixian had done for him since he’d arrived. He could have stayed in the tent, and never left. And yet, it felt as though he had done what he had for Zhou Mi. Maybe it was conceit, and maybe the plight of the injured had moved him.

He’d never forget looking to his tent and seeing Kuixian standing there, staring in shock as Zhou Mi returned. Maybe that had been happiness. Relief. He knew it had been for him, and he’d wanted Kuixian in that moment to tell him it was okay, that it had been supposed to happen that way. But he’d had reality, injured men who needed him, and dead to be tended to. It was not about him, in that moment. There were men that had died because of his sword, and those who had died because of his orders. It was over, and maybe would never be over, as he relived shouting his men forward.

But Kuixian had stayed beside him, worked, slept, ate. Familiar, encouraging, non-judgmental. Kuixian hadn’t seen all that had happened, didn’t know except for the aftermath, and in so many ways he wanted it to stay that way. In some way, he was glad that the men were leaving, and it shamed him. Fewer to look to him, to blame him for the friends they had lost. He’d been shouted at by a soldier, and he’d ordered no one to be beaten. It was over, and that was most important. Being busy had been something that had saved him from breaking, focusing on others, putting off feelings. They were things he could shout, or cry, or make himself sick over.

Instead, he picked up his brush, and pulled out his paper. He stilled his mind as best he could, exhaling, letting images form, letting words come to him. At first, it was chaos, that molded together, and began to be familiar. Ink smoothed onto the paper, words forming, thoughts expression his horror in the blood, in being covered in it. Men he had known dying, his horse. The weight of all those things was so heavy, and he shed them putting them down, until he realized he was breathing heavily, his brush strokes uneven and thick.

Zhou Mi shook his head, forcing himself to write the last ones again, smoothing wetness from his cheeks. He couldn’t let his discipline falter, and it was set aside to dry. A sound had him looking up, and his lips tugged at the corners. Kuixian was waking, making little noises like a puppy and it gave him a thought. A man who’d waited, who’d believed in him. Maybe not because of himself, maybe only because he thought there was proof, but he’d kept that belief even after he had met Zhou Mi. Kuixian had asked him how he had come to be there, and it was because of his family. If he’d been lackluster, he would have been put to the back lines, he supposed. His father hadn’t allowed that.

“What are you doing?” Kuixian asked, having rolled on his side toward Zhou Mi but still lying down.

“Writing down some thoughts,” Zhou Mi said.

“Oh? What about?”

“The war, and about other things.”

Kuixian looked like he belonged there, stretching and sitting up. It was something else he would have to write down, but maybe not when Kuixian was watching him. Had Kuixian read the verses he had just written? Some of those verses maybe that Kuixian didn’t know were about himself. Before he had left, there had been so many confused thoughts about Kuixian’s role in the war, about what Kuixian made him feel about himself. Kuixian had made him promise to return, and it hadn’t been as a general.

He hadn’t kissed Kuixian as a soldier. And there were words of that, of that surprise, of that charge he’d felt go through him as he’d ridden away, the determination, that it would take many more pages to fill. What it meant for the future, he didn’t know if Kuixian knew either. And Zhou Mi smiled as Kuixian stared at one of the papers without touching it, as though he could somehow read it, even though Zhou Mi knew he couldn’t.

“Can I get my bag?” Kuixian asked.

There was no reason not to, and Zhou Mi pulled it from his chest, handing it across his table to where Kuixian reached. Kuixian was only half dressed, and it had him staring down at the table for a moment before watching to see what Kuixian had wanted. Out from the bag, he pulled the little black box he called phone, and it chimed as Kuixian did inexplicable things to it.

“Don’t pay attention to me, just write,” Kuixian said.

No, not strange at all. Zhou Mi looked down at the very least, twisting his brush until Kuixian made a sound of accomplishment.

“There. Writer at work,” Kuixian said. He held out the phone, and showed Zhou Mi his handiwork. The image that Kuixian showed him was of him at his table, pondering the paper in front of him. It looked so real, as though he were looking somehow himself.

“People would call this faker than fake if it ever got into the future,” Kuixian mused. “But if people knew it was real?”

Kuixian blew out a breath as though it would be something unbelievable. That felt just that way to him as well, Kuixian’s insistence he was famous, and Zhou Mi stacked up his new writing, tucking them away.

“If you want to dress, we’ll go look to see if anything needs to be done.”

Kuixian didn’t pause, getting to his feet and reaching for his clothes. Zhou Mi readied himself as well. Moving reminded him of all the reasons he had to keep going. What was a general without a war?

***

Zhou Mi kept the best secrets, and was also terrible at keeping them at all. No, that wasn’t entirely true. Sure, maybe he’d been cagey about what he’d been writing, sometimes putting out paper int he middle of the day or writing by candlelight late the night before. But Kyuhyun knew beyond a doubt that Zhou Mi had a secret, from the way that Zhou Mi had been smirking at him, and making sure to talk to people out of earshot, or making excuses for Kyuhyun to stay in the tent.

But the culmination of that was Zhou Mi riding up with a horse in tow and a wagon of soldiers behind that.

“We’re taking a ride,” Zhou Mi said.

They found a place Kyuhyun could mount from, and they rode away from the oppression of the tents, the injured, the milling soldiers who wandered without aim. He wasn’t surrounded by men, just Zhou Mi and a lumbering wagon. It almost made him want to kick into a gallop and ride until his horse wanted to stop, but he stayed at Zhou Mi’s side, letting Zhou Mi point out various places, or speak of how preparations to move the bulk of camp were going, or how well the injured were healing.

Most of them. Two more were buried that morning, but he knew Zhou Mi would not speak of it until they were alone, and until there was time to deal with it in private. What Zhou Mi would speak of at all. If Zhou Mi needed to, he figured he would eventually, and it wasn’t as though Kyuhyun was gong anywhere. He had his own worries that he figured one day he’d lay on Zhou Mi’s shoulders too, but some of those he figured would be answered after the camp dispersed and Zhou Mi decided the direction they would go in. Life answers by doing.

Kyuhyun watched the trees out of habit, like some remnant soldiers were going to come swooping in, and he was startled when Zhou Mi pulled his horse to a halt.

“This is where we stop,” Zhou Mi said, swinging down from his horse.

“Okay,” Kyuhyun said, extending that word and dismounting as well. “You’ve been so secretive. What’s going on?”

“Do you recognize this place?”

“I don’t…?” Though Zhou Mi kept looking at him so intently it was obvious that he should, so he kept looking, and it dawned on him. “Is this where I…?”

Faceplanted into a battle from the future. Yes, his dream goals.

Zhou Mi nodded. “It is. And it’s here where we build the shrine.”

Oh. Oh, goosebumps broke over his skin, and he scrubbed at one of his arms.

“We salvaged lumber from temporary shelters that were assembled. And someone helpfully made us bricks for a foundation,” Zhou Mi said. The soldiers gathered near enough laughed, and Kyuhyun flushed. Zhou Mi had spoken of it, since their little dream trip into the future. The foundation of something, going forward.

“Where do we build?” Zhou Mi asked.

He had five pairs of eyes staring at him. Which, that wasn’t in the least bit full of pressure. But trees looked a hell of a lot similar in a place he’d only seen in a pot of adrenaline.

It was larger than he remembered. He remembered this tight little knot of trees, and it was actually quite a spacious meadow. There were still areas where the battle could be seen, places the earth had been torn into, but there were no more traces of blood. Where had he fallen? Gawking around wasn’t exactly helping. He walked around with his eyes closed to see if he could ping some kind of emotional response, and all that got him was stubbing his shoe on a tree root. It was nearish the tree line. Which tree had Zhou Mi hauled him to, anyway?

“I don’t know,” Kyuhyun said. “And I don’t know if it matters, really. Here’s a good enough place. It’s flat here.”

Zhou Mi considered it, probably drawing on his own memory as well.

“We’ll build here, then.”

There was a lot of conversation that went on that Kyuhyun wasn’t privy to, between the soldiers. The bricks were carried over, but not before the earth was flattened and a shape made. It seemed strange, to see it being laid, to see them mixing more clay and water into mortar, resting dry grass along it and stacking brick after brick. It wasn’t tall, the foundation, maybe six inches altogether, but it gave them a base on which to build. Zhou Mi helped, and Kyuhyun eased around the edges, mostly trying to stay out of the way and petting the horses. Construction wasn’t really his deal, and it wasn’t like they had a bunch of nails, or a screwdriver.

Kyuhyun scouted the bushes for berries, thinking maybe at least that’d help.

“Will I die if I eat this?” Kyuhyun asked, holding out a handful of berries.

Zhou Mi eyed them for a moment. “No. But you may wish you were when your bowels—“

“Okay, okay,” Kyuhyun said, throwing them all back toward the trees. And his voice lowered, even though the soldiers couldn’t exactly understand him. “What do they think of this?”

“It’s a idea I hope we would have had, even without this,” Zhou Mi said. “It is…a kind of peace.”

Closure, he supposed, in a way. Like going to a grave. A ritual.

And it turned out that Kyuhyun did have a use, holding wood upright as it was fastened. Zhou Mi sent a smirk his way as Kyuhyun felt he was turning into a statue, but with that done, it almost started looking like it was going to be a shrine and not just a collection of wood and some bricks.

And even with his industriously help, it still took several hours, a midday snack, and Kyuhyun turning down a kind offer to be hoisted up to thatch the roof. But it was there, a squat, open little building just tall enough for a man to stand, and big enough inside for the memories they had brought to place in it.

On a peg within, Zhou Mi hung a flat piece of wood with carving that was rudimentary but well done. It was not the sign of the modern shrine, and Kyuhyun looked to Zhou Mi.

“What does it say?”

“We remember the lost of thirteen armies,” Zhou Mi said.

The soldiers carved their names into the wood, and he spied Zhou Mi’s name among them. It was a solid little building. It would stand. Maybe not forever, but it would stand.

It was quiet, on the way back to the camp. It was diminishing, less smoke in the air, less voices.

“Tomorrow we load the wagons,” Zhou Mi said, and the smile on his face was infinite. The shrine was built. The battles were done, and the place they had fought would be abandoned.

***

Sleep was supposed to be an easy escape, Kuixian’s deep and even breaths beside him. He saw blood when he closed his eyes, felt the screams with his fingertips. And when he wanted to leap up and run, he clutched tight to the shirt Kuixian wore, and tried to focus on little things. Kuixian was warm, and he was alive, and sometimes he remembered Kuixian’s screams of pain as well. He hadn’t been able to save Kuixian from that, but he had been able to rescue him from more. That was one thing he could allow himself. The battle had brought Kuixian pain. He might have been a good general himself, taking in his people, thinking ahead to what must be.

But he didn’t want that, not for Kuixian. The little laugh, the way he almost shook with it, he would see that away from bloodshed. They would keep horses. They would find a place, a home. The secrets, Kuixian would teach him, with his stories of strange lands. A life could be whiled away like that.

All he wanted was rest, and to find his purpose. And what purpose he could have, away from all he’d ever know? It worried through him, as he breathed.



The river was wide, wider than any Zhou Mi had seen or crossed, and out over it, lights sparkled. It was a strange reflection as he stood on the sandy banks, of tents, and men, and mountains. But from the other side, reaching toward them, there was a city. No, not a city of his own time, but a city like Kuixian’s. Tall buildings, stretching over the water, and glowing from within, more, and more. It was like looking at the tide of two worlds meeting, tent against stone, past against the future, all on the ripples of the water.

“It’s beautiful,” Kuixian said, and the splash of the water was loud as he began to wade in, for a moment obliterating the images of the tents.

“Be careful!” Zhou Mi said, and the water rose cold against his own legs, up past his knees as he waded just behind Kuixian. He reached out, the water cool against his fingers as he tried to touch those sparkling lights. They looked like stars on the water though the clouds above them were dark and unrelieved. Dark, like Kuixian’s eyes and the softness there. “Don’t go far.”

But Kuixian got only further, beginning to float, swimming, kicking, like he was falling down into that big trench between high walls, to a shore too far away to see.

“Stop,” Zhou Mi said, and it came out of him stumbling and harsh. “Stop! If you don’t—“

He couldn’t get there. The further that Kuixian went, he couldn’t reach. There was no way to make it across, to stretch and protect. He had no boat to carry him, or even to see, air catching in his throat as he waded forward and lost Kuixian to the gray for a moment.

“Can’t you swim?” Kuixian asked.

“I can! But I—“

Zhou Mi looked back at the tents, the faces of the dead, his parents. He waded several feet further, his hands illuminated by the lights in the water and his eyes on Kuixian. The current pulled at him, tugging at his clothes, and still he walked forward, reaching for Kuixian’s hands. He lunged forward, trying to kick and swim, and fought, his legs like rocks, his arms sold and heavy, pulling him down. So he walked, until the water was at his throat, at his jaw, his lips.

His eyes closed as the water swirled up over his hair, one last gasp, and he reached, and he reached.


Zhou Mi jerked awake, rolling, his body half over Kuixian’s before he heard what was being shouted from the soldier in the tent’s entry.

“A light, out of the forest! General, come and see.”

Kuixian grunted as Zhou Mi moved off of him, and accepted the hand Zhou Mi offered to help him stand.

“There’s something they want me to see,” Zhou Mi explained, and they went outside together.

The land around them was lit, truly, though not as if it were day. Into the sky, a beacon glowing high and bright all the way to the clouds. It was as though it was welcoming something going up, or maybe coming down.

“Where is it coming from?”

The question was high, excited, afraid, and the consensus was to follow it.

“What is it?” Zhou Mi murmured. “Do you know what it is?”

“I don’t know. I just— This is stupid, but—“ Kuixian’s face was half lit in shadows as he looked at him. “What if it’s the shrine? What if…?”

Kuixian couldn’t even finish his sentence, frowning like he maybe didn’t want to say, but Zhou Mi understood him. It was no less unbelievable than Kuixian arriving, and there had been light when that had happened, too.

“Do you think it’s calling you back?” Of all the things he considered, it was not that Kuixian’s purpose there was finished. Sickness twined in his gut, hardening, congealing.

“I don’t know,” Kuixian said.

Zhou Mi nodded once, and did not let the fear consume him. “Let’s find out.”

***

They left shortly after, after Kyuhyun had retrieved the bag he had taken with him. Nothing could stay behind, if it really was a way back. Kyuhyun watched as Zhou Mi spoke to a few soldiers, their heads shaking as Zhou Mi gave some kind of instruction. Kyuhyun wanted to run, when Zhou Mi began to lead him toward the light. If they got to the shrine, and it really was sending up some kind of time-traveling bat signal, then Kyuhyun wasn’t sure what he was going to do. Throw himself through? It wasn’t like he had a lot of experience with the whole time travel thing. But the future! He would have ramen. Ice cream. And the thought of going home made him weak in his knees. His family.

All they could do was follow the light, and Zhou Mi had to steady him several times over the path as he tripped. It was the only reason his mind wasn’t racing on ahead, having Zhou Mi there. Questions poured out of him, how it could have happened, what it meant, how it couldn’t be real, or make sense. Maybe it was a trap.

“That is nothing like I have seen,” Zhou Mi told him.

He wasn’t sure if that made it better or worse. The closer they got, the brighter it was, until they got to the edge of the clearing. The shrine was there, in the middle, its edges fuzzy in the brightness and Kyuhyun found it hard to look, and hard to look away as well.

“Kuixian,” Zhou Mi said, and he startled. The ringing in his ears cleared, and he wasn’t there alone. Zhou Mi was there, in his simple clothes, his hair bound up. He looked utterly right there, and his features were in such harsh relief in the light.

The light was a promise, his future, his own time.

“Do you think it will take you back?” Zhou Mi asked.

“Or maybe obliterate me,” Kyuhyun said. But his eyes weren’t on the light, but on Zhou Mi. If he left, Zhou Mi would still be there. He had all the tools to be successful. He’d won the war! And yet, he’d be alone. And some of the joy dimmed as he realized the choices in front of him. Once, he’d asked Zhou Mi what plans Zhou Mi had for Kyuhyun’s future. He asked so many questions when he said, “What about you?”

Zhou Mi exhaled slowly, looking to the light, to the bag Kyuhyun held, and meeting Kyuhyun’s eyes again. “Perhaps, it will depend on you. I told the men that if I did not return by dawn that they should leave without me.”

Kyuhyun tilted his head, his mouth dropping open. “What?”

“I have never felt like I belonged in this place,” Zhou Mi explained, gesturing hard behind him. “In this…time. My parents, my grandparents, they are all gone. My cousins will not miss me. What does your history say became of me after this war?”

“We know nothing about you. The war ended, and there were no records.”

Zhou Mi nodded slowly.

“As though I vanished,” Zhou Mi said. “Or left.”

Kyuhyun could hardly grasp it. “Are you saying— You think it’s always been this way?”

“The poems you know, the things that I felt, that I wrote to test you, you knew them from your future. Maybe my future isn’t one that dies out before you are born, but continues after.”

“But if you go, if you even can go, you might not be able to return?”

He wanted to laugh, such ridiculous warnings coming out of his mouth, things he had never thought of before just that moment. Had he thought it, dreamed it? Of course, being able to do more than show Zhou Mi just a few things in a dream. Dreams, they were surreal, hard to interact with. The life Zhou Mi led was not less, but there was so much more. So much that had changed. It wasn’t that Zhou Mi was more worthy to go with him than any of the other men. He was just a man. A man Kyuhyun could—

“There are no dangers I fear,” Zhou Mi said. “Maybe it’s folly. Will there be twelve armies waiting for us?”

“No,” Kyuhyun laughed. “Though there may be twelve rounds of bureaucracy. We’d be able to figure out something, though.”

Even if he had to empty out his savings, they’d figure it out.

“I want you to go with me,” Kyuhyun said. He’d have wanted to hear the words, not just some acceptance of it.

When Kyuhyun held out his hand, Zhou Mi took it. He squeezed, and Zhou Mi squeezed back. Don’t let go, he said without words. He didn’t know if it’d make any difference. He didn’t know anything. They walked toward the shrine together, the light no less, no greater. There was no heat, or cold. It just was, and Kyuhyun stared into it, dazzled, as though it was just another dream. The tiny building, so newly built, just waiting for them.

“What if it doesn’t work?” Kyuhyun asked, freezing before they could step inside. “What if—“

Zhou Mi, the realist, smiled.

“Then I’ll remember you, all of this. I’ll travel and live,” Zhou Mi said. “I won’t forget you.”

But parted by hundreds of years. That scared Kyuhyun, more than worrying about how they’d make it in the future did. But he didn’t belong in Zhou Mi’s time, and the shrine had proved it. He had to go. He couldn’t just change his mind and walk away. And though his words were assuring, Zhou Mi’s eyes were wide in the light, and he could see his own thoughts reflected there. Maybe his own fear.

“I won’t forget you, either,” Kyuhyun swore. “But I won’t have to.”

He said it so firmly, and when he pulled Zhou Mi close, his eyes stung as Zhou Mi kissed him. It was a goodbye kiss, a just-in-case kiss. A promise. His throat ached and he held Zhou Mi’s hand so tightly.

No matter what, they would move forward. No matter whose time they ended up in, whether the shrine left them, or took them back to Kyuhyun’s time. It just had to be both of them, no matter what.

There wasn’t time for what-ifs, or worry then. They stepped in, both of them taking the first step together, and then the next. It was small, smaller than it had been over time, and they stood there, close, the light enfolding. It felt warm at last, and their hands were slick and trembling as they waited.

Kyuhyun breathed in as Zhou Mi exhaled. He pictured the shrine as it was, the hint of smog, the words of Zhou Mi’s so elegantly written. His skin began to prickle, hair standing up along his skin, and he opened his mouth and spoke silence into the light. He couldn’t feel, couldn’t see anything but light. He was light, and he closed his eyes so tightly they hurt.

He was standing, vertigo vicious and swinging him forward, breathing harsh in his ears, swaying into Zhou Mi’s chest and inhaling once, sharply. Zhou Mi’s hands came up, gripping his shoulders until Kyuhyun dared to peer through his lashes.

“Are we—“

It was the sound of a car horn that had him sputtering, laughing, his knees nearly giving out as he clung to Zhou Mi’s clothes and hardly believed.

He smiled up at Zhou Mi’s shocked face, as he took in the modern shrine, and the bright sun outside of the plastic barrier. They were home.

***
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