Authors: black_goose and umberela
Pairing: Baekhyun/Chanyeol, Sehun/Luhan, Tao/Kris, Kai/D.O
Word count: 4,089
Summary: "The Oracle has seen the twelve united. War is coming to the Nations. We must prepare for battle."
A/N: I AM DROWNING IN FEELS. this chapter pretty much sets the tone for the rest of this fic t b h IT'S ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE. but no, seriously, this chapter was pretty hard to write, not even going to lie.
The footsteps of Luhan’s attendants behind him were, by now, so familiar that it was easy to dismiss them as background noise. He walked as slowly as he could without appearing to dawdle, taking his chance to look through the full length windows that lined the hallways. His own room only had one window and it was rather sad in size. Today the sky was marked with small, white clouds, and it seemed like a sign of on-going good weather. He wished he could go outside and feel it for himself.
Upon turning a corner he saw a familiar face and he called out happily, “Sehun!” He sped up a bit, walking towards him. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
Sehun looked a little taken-aback, before he bowed his head. “Oracle,” he murmured deferentially.
Luhan waited for him to raise his head again. Sehun didn’t. “Sehun,” Luhan said, quietly, “you can raise your head, you know.”
Sehun’s eyes flicked up momentarily, but then dropped back to the floor. “Soldiers at my level aren’t supposed to look at you for too long.”
“You’re my friend,” Luhan said gently. “You can look at me. I give you permission.”
Sehun looked like he struggled with that, Luhan’s permission at odds with the orders that he had been given. In the end, he straightened, lifting his head so that there was the pretence of looking at Luhan, though he kept his eyes averted.
Luhan held back a sigh, seeing the colors of discomfort pulsing around Sehun momentarily before he remembered to block them out. He didn’t want to make Sehun any more uncomfortable, so he let the matter go. “How is everything going out there, on the war front? They don’t tell me anything.”
“I am not privy to much information, Oracle.”
“But I hear that the Water Nation has arrived?” Luhan asked, eager to know anything at all. “Did you meet them? What are they like?”
Sehun’s eyes flickered back to his face, a small frown creasing his brow. “Such outside events should not be on your mind, Oracle.”
“I think it is safe to let my mind wander from time to time,” Luhan said, smiling slightly. “What about Jongin, did you go to meet him?”
Luhan didn’t need the colors to see that Sehun was uncomfortable with that question. But they were there nonetheless, bright and churning. They were so strong that it was impossible for Luhan to block them out. “I saw the shadow walker,” Sehun said stiffly.
The smile on Luhan’s face faltered. “Is he well?” Luhan asked softly.
The sickly yellow-green of jealousy flared out of Sehun like a whip before retracting just as quickly as it had appeared. “Considering he has been in the Bonelands for years, he is quite well.” A pause, Sehun’s face twisting. “It would have been helpful had you mentioned he was bringing a dragon, Oracle.”
“Let me have the little bit of fun that I am afforded, Sehun,” said Luhan, smiling at him. “Was it funny, the way everyone reacted to it?”
There was a slight peachy glow coming off Sehun now, extraordinarily bright, and Luhan puzzled over it as Sehun replied. “It depends on if you consider the Elders going into apoplectic fits ‘funny.’”
Luhan laughed, immediately smothering it with his sleeve. “Oh, I wish I’d seen it,” he said, with a sigh.
“Oracle,” said Sehun, then stopped himself.
“What is it?”
“Are you aware of the shadow walker’s reasons for coming back here?”
Luhan shook his head. “I only See events,” he said. “I have not been allowed to meet Kai again, so I cannot tell what he reasons are just yet.” He smiled, cocking his head to the side. “But I am certain that we can trust him.”
Sehun scowled. “The shadow walker is not the same person we were once friends with, Oracle. That person is gone.”
Luhan smiled gently at him. “That’s a good thing,” he said. “The person we knew back then was hurt too badly to keep going on.”
Sehun averted his gaze once more, and Luhan saw the hurt there, felt it in himself as well. It had not just been Kai who had been affected by what had happened five years earlier. Luhan had seen the pain in Sehun as well, the loss of his two friends. It had been far worse though, watching Kai literally break apart.
“Oracle,” an attendant murmured, bowing low. “We must be getting along.”
Luhan would have protested but Sehun was already bowing sharply. When he lifted his head, their eyes met for just a second, and Luhan smiled. The peachy glow which so puzzled him flared up again, radiating so brightly Luhan had to fight the urge to blink. Then Sehun turned and walked away.
Luhan stared after him, unable to avoid frowning. That color, which he had only seen present in Sehun, confused him and left him unsettled. He had never been able to work out what it was supposed to represent, which of the many emotions it related to. If he was allowed to touch it, he could tell, but their laws forbade it. No one was to touch the Oracle, and the Oracle was, in turn, unable to touch anyone.
Luhan sighed and resumed his carefully timed shuffle back to his room.
Tao strode briskly across the grounds, knowing he had a firm scowl in place and not caring. Perhaps it would dissuade people from speaking to him. He had been in these damn robes all day, sitting in stuffy meetings, and he was ready to ball them up and throw them at Kris’ head and then practice his Shifting.
“Tao!” a voice called, far too chipper. They clearly had not seen his glower, so he turned and graced them with its full force, expecting whoever it was to flinch back in fear.
Instead, the Head Shifter of the Water Nation just grinned at him in a friendly manner and said, “I was hoping to catch you.”
Tao inclined his head, somewhat begrudgingly. “Was there something specific that needed my attention?”
Suho shrugged. “I heard that you had a meeting with the Oracle this morning,” he said. “I was wondering if he had Seen anything.”
Tao was surprised; he knew that the Water Nation didn’t exactly believe in the Oracle’s power, which was why they had treated the Seeing of the twelve as such a joke in the beginning. Tao sniffed. “There have been no new visions of late; something is disturbing the Oracle’s Sight.”
“Oh,” said Suho. “Has that happened before?”
“It happens from time to time,” Tao said. “Seeing is not as simple as some may think. It is not possible to See on demand. The Oracle is doing his best.” Tao realized he was beginning to sound defensive, so he closed his mouth.
Suho was nodding, like he understood. “Well, I think we have a good information base to be going on with for now anyway?”
“Yes,” Tao replied. “From what our spies have gathered and the slave’s inside information, we have been able to piece together a great deal. We shall be fine until the Oracle is able to See once more.”
“Can you,” Suho began haltingly, “not call him that?”
Tao frowned. “The Oracle?”
Suho shook his head. “Baekhyun.”
“Oh.” Tao blinked, unsure. The slave was a slave, and there was no real point in beating around the bush like this. But there was a crease between Suho’s brows, and Tao recalled he had been upset over the terminology at the meeting. “If it upsets you, I will not call him such in your presence.”
Suho’s mouth twisted. “Thank you.” He sounded more sarcastic than truly grateful.
Tao once again came to the conclusion that the Water Nation people were weird. He came to this conclusion about three times each day, and yet was still always mildly surprised. As the silence stretched on Tao prompted, “Was there anything else?”
“No,” Suho replied. “Thank you for answering my question.”
Tao nodded his head and strode off, leaving Suho standing in the middle of the hallway staring after him. Tao knew he was being brusque, borderline rude, but at the moment he couldn’t bring himself to care. He knew that the Water Nation didn’t trust the concept of the Oracle all that much, so why Suho was asking such questions, he didn’t know.
In his rooms, Tao changed quickly, before heading to the rooms that Kris and his family lived in. Kris seemed a little surprised to see him so early in the day, especially in informal dress. “I want to go train,” said Tao bluntly, before Kris could even open his mouth. “Come with me.”
There was a pause. “Okay,” said Kris easily, “wait there.” He disappeared into his room for a couple of minutes, Tao waiting outside unable to remove the scowl on his face. He knew that until he’d worked off some of his tension in the practise room, he wouldn’t feel like himself.
Kris came back wearing the plain tunic he used for Shifting. “Let’s go,” he said, and Tao scowled harder. Kris reached out and rubbed the heel of his hand over Tao’s forehead, like he could erase the frown. “Careful,” he said. “You’ll get wrinkles.” He led the way out.
It was busy in the training quarters, which only furthered Tao’s bad mood. Too many people stopping and staring and muttering. Too many people bowing at him and completely ignoring Kris. He was glad to enter an empty practise room and block them all out.
After a few minutes of Tao stretching his limbs, Kris said, “Are you going to tell me what’s wrong?”
“No,” Tao replied. A strong gust of air against Tao’s back almost toppled him over, and he turned to glare over his shoulder at Kris. “I hate meetings. I hate having to be the perfect Head Shifter. I hate having to be so aloof with the other Head Shifters just so I can save face, and I hate the fact that I no longer know how else to act anymore.”
“You manage alright with me,” Kris said.
“That’s you,” Tao muttered. “When I’m around you, there’s no one trying to rank my performance on a scale of crass to commendable.”
Kris looked musing, and finally shrugged. “You could tone the formality down a notch, you don’t have to act like all the other nobles. What’s the worst that could happen? They aren’t going to demote you. I doubt anyone would even correct you. And maybe if you acted more like your usual self and less like Lord Tao the cold Head Shifter you could make some friends.”
“Friends? No one wants to be my friend. The only people here who have tried to approach me with such offers were clearly trying to use me to boost themselves up in rank.”
Kris sighed. Tao knew it was because Kris knew what Tao was saying was the truth. Several of Tao’s fellow Air Shifters had made vague overtures of friendship after he had started to show prodigal skill. They were less than tolerant of Kris though, or at least, as intolerant as they dared be with Tao present, which showed they were only interested in appearances and had immediately put Tao off of them. “What about the other Head Shifters? From what I have heard they don’t seem the using types. You need other people besides me, Taozi. You can’t keep walling yourself off.”
Tao shuffled his feet, suddenly feeling tired. “I know even less than usual about how to act around people from other nations. I am not used to the way they do things. I don’t understand them.” He paused, thinking about the Head Earth Shifter who had thus far not spoken to him, clearly intimidated. And then he thought of Suho and his stilted attempts at conversation that Tao couldn’t figure out the reasons for. “I haven’t even had a conversation with Prince Kyungsoo, and Lord Suho is weird. He keeps talking to me about things I know the Water Nation has never cared about, like the Oracle, and he fixates on things that don’t matter. He actually stopped a meeting the other day to reprimand the Elders on our use of the word ‘slave,’ and just now he corrected me again.”
“Water Nation or not,” Kris murmured, “he may have a point with that. I don’t like the use of that term either. Who were you even calling a slave?”
Tao waved his hand. “The Phoenix’s lover.”
Tao sighed, impatience tugging at him once more. “Yes, him. I don’t understand why Lord Suho is making such a fuss.”
“The term is very condescending and derogatory.” Kris was frowning slightly now. “And Baekhyun isn’t a slave, his parents were servants in a manor, and even if he was—” Kris spoke slightly louder, as Tao had opened his mouth to interrupt, “it doesn’t give you, or anyone, the right to treat him badly for things outside of his control.”
Tao didn’t want to argue about this. He had agreed to stop using the term out of politeness, but it didn’t change the facts, and the fact was Baekhyun was a slave. Kris must have been able to guess his thoughts because he strode stiffly to stand right in front of Tao, face hard. “Do you know what they call me when you’re not around?”
Tao blinked, taking a step back and Kris followed him. “I—”
“They call me your bastard dog. They hiss it at me in the halls, ask me how many times I had to get on my knees for you before you even condescended to talk to me. Sometimes they say if I’d spread my legs for them like I clearly do for you they’ll—”
“Stop!” Tao said, horrified, shoving at Kris’s chest and taking several steps back before knocking into a wall. There was nausea rolling around in his stomach, hot and leaden, and a flush had crept into his face at the thought that people were saying that to Kris and truly believing it. “Why didn’t you tell me this before? I could have stopped them.”
Kris shook his head. “No, you couldn’t have, and trying would have just made you look foolish. The importance of bloodline purity is heavily ingrained in this country, but that doesn’t make it right. I can’t change their minds, but I can change yours.”
“I don’t think that about you,” Tao said, edging on desperate. “I have never thought that.”
Kris stepped up to him again, and with the wall at Tao’s back he had nowhere to go. He stared down at Kris’s feet, unable to bring himself to look at his face. “I know,” Kris said, gentler now. “But you still have some of their snobbery in you, and I don’t like it. Stop saying slave.”
Tao frowned down at the floor. “That’s not the same thing.”
“Isn’t it?” Kris said softly, clucking Tao under the chin so he would look up and meet his eye. “I think calling me a bastard dog is more apt than calling Baekhyun a slave, since he truly isn’t one. But I am a bastard.”
“You aren’t my dog.”
“In this city, I may as well be. Blood isn’t everything Taozi, do not reduce someone to their parentage, to things they can’t control. We’ve both been judged our whole lives because of these things, you should know better.”
Tao swallowed, feeling shame bubble up in his throat. Kris ruffled his hair before stepping back and giving him some space. “I’m sorry,” Tao mumbled.
Kris made a noise to acknowledge he’d heard him, and this time it was Tao left staring at someone’s back as they walked away. Even after Kris had been gone for some time, Tao continued leaning against the wall in the large practice room feeling very, very small.
Chen lay on the bunk of his cell. The manacles on his wrists had rubbed the skin raw some time earlier, so now they were bleeding, crusting brown on the metal. He had been held there for three days, without food and just enough water to keep him alive. And they were definitely trying to keep him alive on some level. They’d been in to beat him each day, cracking bones, and then every night they’d bring Healers in to patch up the worst of his injuries and start anew on him the next morning.
They wanted his help, but he wasn’t going to give it to them, not now, not after this. Something was wrong, these tactics not normally employed on their own people. Chen didn’t know what this war was truly about, but he would not yield to them.
The sound of metal keys outside the cell made him sit up, swinging his legs so that when his captors entered, he was sitting facing them. He wondered which part of his body they would start on today. He’d found that different people had different preferences; the guard who stood in front of him had started with Chen’s toes the day before. It was easier than it should have been to brace himself for the upcoming pain.
“Stand up,” ordered the guard. Chen hesitated, just a split second of refusal, before he pushed himself gently to his feet, fighting back the urge to wince. Even with the healing, the pain of scores of broken bones still lingered when he moved. “The Generals have gotten impatient, so they’ve ordered a change of tactics.”
Chen couldn’t help the twist of dread in his stomach. “What does that mean?”
The guard ignored the question. “This is your last chance,” he said. “Agree to join our fight, or willingly suffer the consequences of your decision.”
Chen stuck his chin out defiantly. “I will not give into scare tactics. My answer is the same as it was yesterday.”
“You will give in, in the end, but by then it will be too late.” He turned and shouted at someone over his shoulder, “Bag him!”
Although Chen struggled, he was easily overpowered. He was forced to his knees on the ground, the heavy black bag coming over his head and blocking out his vision completely. After that it was a case of relying only on his other senses, all of which were affected by the heavy material. He was grabbed under the arms by men on both sides, they hauled him up and led him up some stairs, so Chen could only assume they are taking him outside. If he stumbled, they didn’t stop, so that a couple of times he was physically dragged across the floor before he regained his footing.
He knew when they made it outside, the sunlight didn’t filter through the material on his head but it warmed his skin. The men weren’t speaking to each other, so Chen didn’t know what was happening. He had assumed they meant to kill him, but then where were they taking him?
There were suddenly hands on his lower legs and under his arms, lifting him bodily off the ground. Before he could think of struggling, he had been thrown front first over a hard surface. Even through the black bag, he could still make out the smell of horse. They tied him down to the saddle, like he would usually tie down bags of provisions. Even though he had been expecting the worst, the idea of any kind of journey stuck in this position had him cringing. His chest and stomach were already beginning to hurt and they hadn’t even begun to move yet.
When they finally did move, it was quickly, and Chen could hear quite a few horses galloping with them. The pace is gruelling and Chen didn’t know how long they rode for, the sun burning his skin and his chest and stomach bruising. The pain intensified as the time passed and he found he couldn’t breathe, gagging desperately under the bag. He felt the sharp spike of pain when one of his ribs cracked, unable to believe that it was possible to hurt anymore than he have been previously. When the second broke, he passed out.
When he woke there was darkness, and Chen momentarily thought the black bag was still over his head. He realized after a moment though that he was laying on hard ground, staring up at a dimming sky. There was a familiar face next to him, one of the Healers they had brought in for the past several nights. He shifted on the ground tentatively, and sighed in relief when no more pain resounded in his chest.
“Ah, awake? Just in time too,” one of the Fire Nation generals said, and Chen blinked. He hadn’t seen this man since the war meeting, but of course he must have been in on this. “Just to clarify, your family lives on the far east side of your city, correct?”
Chen sat up, glaring at him. “Why?” he asked, realizing too late that that was a confirmation of the general’s question. The general merely smiled and turned his head away. Chen followed his gaze and then froze. He stood up on wobbly legs, tottering forward slightly. They were on a high hill outside of his city. It lay spread out beneath them.
“Well, I don’t want to kill your entire family, we do need some leverage after all.” Chen’s head whipped around to stare at the general, completely horrified. “Ah,” said the man, sounding pleased, “it looks like it’s begun.”
Chen didn’t want to look but he turned to the city, his city, and for a few seconds didn’t know what was supposed to have begun. Then he saw the soft red glow on the Eastern side, close to where his family lived, and the faint sound of screaming reached his ears.
“What are you doing?” Chen asked, slightly frantic, unable to look away from the glow.
“Convincing you,” said the general. He sounded like he was entertained by Chen’s distress.
Another scream echoed, and Chen could have sworn he knew the voice. “Please stop,” he said, “I’ll help you, just stop, leave my city alone.”
The general ignored him, and the screams got louder, more numerous, the fire’s roar beginning to drown them out. “I said I’ll help you,” Chen said desperately, stepping forward and someone pulled him back, holding him steady.
“We offered you a chance to help,” said the general. “You knew it was your last chance. You have to deal with the consequences.”
Chen began to struggle in earnest, swearing, but the men holding him were too strong. Soon there were more fires cropping up until the entire city was ablaze. No one was escaping through the gates, they had somehow been trapped, and the sight was awful but the sounds were what had Chen twisting and screaming. “I’ll help you!” he shouted, almost hunched over as he tried to escape from the sounds of his people dying. “Please please please—” He felt bile rising in his throat and he retched. None of them paid him any mind. When he stayed hunched over for too long someone came over and grabbed him by the hair, forcing his head up so he had to watch the city burn.
They kept him there all night, until the last of the fires had burned out. Then their soldiers swept through, and this time there was no roar of fire to drown out the sounds of the survivors screaming as they were slaughtered. Chen was still begging, even though he knew it would do no good. He couldn’t help the sobs tearing from his throat.
By sunrise, a handful of his people had survived, and they were marched to the foot of the hill, soot-stained and frightened. Chen could see his mother and one of his sisters, but his father and other sibling weren’t there.
He moaned, sobbing dryly. After a curt order the men holding him let him go, and he fell to the packed earth. The general hunched down beside him. “Now,” he said softly and with relish, “now, I ask you again, will you help us? Or will I lay the heads of the remainder of your people at your feet?”
“Yes,” Chen whispered, voice trembling. “I will help you.”