Authors: black_goose and umberela
Pairing: Baekhyun/Chanyeol, Sehun/Luhan, Tao/Kris, Kai/D.O
Word count: 4,326
Summary: "The Oracle has seen the twelve united. War is coming to the Nations. We must prepare for battle."
A/N: GENERAL ASSBUTT. when we posted chapter 5, I was all excited about this chapter. now I'm all excited about chapter 7 orz.
As Chen was led back into the War Council where he had first refused to help, the guard who was accompanying him let go of his elbow, so that when they stepped through the door, it appeared that Chen had walked here of his own accord. He resisted the instinctive urge to bolt, reminding himself of all that was at stake of making a good impression here.
The room was full, just one seat at the table left for him. He sat in it, taking in the faces around him. General Hwang, the general present at the burning of Chen’s city, was there, as was another he had caught sight of during one of his torture sessions. He couldn’t remember most of the others though, and he wondered if any or all of them knew what had happened to him.
“Lord Chen, good of you to have joined us,” an older general said. “We appreciate your change of heart.” He did sound truly happy, and Chen thought he might not actually know the circumstances which had led to Chen’s supposed change of heart. Chen bit down on a rush of anger towards the older man; his ignorance was insulting, not reassuring.
“It is my honor to be here,” Chen murmured, lowering his eyes.
“Phoenix,” said one of the generals, “this is Lord Chen of the Lightning Territory. He is the last of the outlying territories to agree to help us in the war.”
Chen lifted his eyes again, a little surprised to hear the title of Phoenix. He hadn’t recognised Chanyeol until then, his eyes passing over the thin man dressed in the Fire Nation army uniform sitting at the other end of the table. Chanyeol sat slouched, eyes fixed on a spot just in front of him.
“Phoenix,” said the man again, a little sharper.
Chanyeol’s head lifted slowly. “Sorry?” he asked, voice a little husky. He cleared his throat. “Sorry, did someone say something?”
“This is Lord Chen,” said another general, without missing a beat, as if this was something which happened regularly. “He has agreed to send us people to fight in the war.”
Chanyeol’s eyes met his from across the table, and there was no recognition in his gaze. There wasn’t much of anything in his gaze, just a strange hollow blankness. Chen lowered his eyes to escape from it. He had met Chanyeol once before, back when Chen’s father had been the ruler of his people. Even though they had both been young, Chanyeol had already been recognised as the strongest Fire Shifter in the nation, but he had always stuck in Chen’s mind not because of his ability, but because of the way he acted. He hadn’t been snobby, or mean-spirited like many of his fellow Shifters, but very friendly and playful. Chen remembered that during their first conversation Chanyeol had gotten scolded by one of his mentors for being too loud, and after the mentor had gone Chanyeol had giggled behind his hand.
The man sitting at the other end of the table was as far removed from that as anyone could possibly be. He had already dropped his eyes back to the table and didn’t seem to be paying attention to anything. The light in him was gone.
After a couple of moments, Chanyeol’s head lifted again, and he interrupted a general who was speaking. “I heard that your city was destroyed,” he said to Chen. “Burnt by the Air Nation.”
Chen swallowed hard, fighting to keep his face blank. He couldn’t think of anything to say, so he just nodded, knowing this was the story that had been told and that he had to corroborate it.
Chanyeol mistook the emotion on his face, taking it for grief when it was tamped down rage. “Mine was as well.” Chen met his eyes again, and this time there was a strange fervency to them, an edge that made Chen shiver slightly. “They will pay,” he said lowly. It was a promise.
Chen had heard this story, knew that the premise for this war was because the Air Nation had attacked. But Chen couldn’t help but wonder if maybe Chanyeol had also been forced into helping as he had, if Chanyeol was keeping silent for a family member held in a cell.
“They killed my family,” Chanyeol said, almost snarling. “My lover betrayed me and destroyed my people and my home. I won’t rest until I have destroyed them all.”
No, Chen realised, stomach sinking. He does believe that the Air Nation did it. But I don’t. Chen shot a glance at General Hwang and saw he was sitting stiffly, clearly unhappy with this line of conversation. Chen knew he was pushing his luck, but he had to know, had to gather as much information as he could. He didn’t know when next he would see the Phoenix.
“Your lover?” Chen asked. “The Light Shifter, Baekhyun?”
Chanyeol tensed, fingers bent so his nails were digging into his palms. “Yes,” he said. “He sold information about my whereabouts and the city’s defense system to the Air Nation, and fled during the attack, leaving me to die.”
“Phoenix,” interrupted General Hwang, shooting Chen a warning look. “We should discuss the plans for training the new recruits.”
Chanyeol sank back in his chair, chewing his thumbnail. He nodded.
They all began talking and Chen lowered his eyes, tuning them out and thinking. He’d met Baekhyun many years ago as well, though he hadn’t left as much of an impression as the Phoenix had. He was quieter, smaller, more mannered. The thing that stuck in his mind was the way Baekhyun had looked at Chanyeol; there had been nothing but pure adoration in his eyes every time. Chen had a hard time believing that he’d betray Chanyeol, wondered how Chanyeol could believe it, but he took in Chanyeol’s thin frame and the dark circles under his eyes and realized he wasn’t right in his mind with grief. How could he know the rulers of his own country had done this to him? It made more sense for another nation to have done it, and if there was a traitor on the inside helping them, it would have been even easier.
Chen sat brooding in these dark thoughts until the grating sound of chairs being pushed back snapped him back to the here and now. The meeting had been adjourned. The Phoenix was being escorted out of the room by an attendant, too quickly for Chen to do anything but watch him go. He pushed his own chair back, wondering whether he was supposed to make his own way back to the room that he had been given, or whether someone would come for him too.
A large hand fell onto his shoulder heavily, and Chen turned to see General Hwang standing beside him, smiling tightly. He didn’t say anything as he led Chen from the room, and Chen didn’t ask questions, didn’t resist. Once they were several halls away General Hwang shifted his grip from Chen’s shoulder to his hair, yanking hard and forcing Chen to look up at him.
“Next time,” he hissed in Chen’s face, “stay on topic or I will be sending your little sister’s head to you as a gift, are we clear?”
Rage bubbled up in Chen’s throat, fingers tingling with unused Shifting energy. “Yes, sir.”
The general made a disgusted sound and flung Chen away. Chen fell against the wall, hard, holding in his cry of pain. The general strode away as a guard stepped up and took Chen by the upper arm.
Chen watched him leave through narrowed eyes. You will pay, he thought. You will feel the pain of my people tenfold. I don’t care if I have to wait years, I will see you screaming.
Chen lowered his eyes and allowed himself to be led back to his rooms.
Suho leaned against the barrier of the balcony he was standing on, looking down at the soldiers training in the courtyard below him. The drill sergeants had split the Water Shifters and the Air Shifters into small groups, so that they had several teams of six practising together, half Air, half Water in each. Suho thought this was a good idea; their countries had a natural rivalry so putting them into two segregated groups wouldn’t have been as productive as making them mix. The goal of training them together wasn’t to see which army could outdo the other, but rather to teach them how to collaborate. Last time there had been no question of collaboration, and training had become more like a competition, but now it seemed the Air Nation military had become a little more progressive.
A movement to his left drew him upright again, turning just as Baekhyun stepped out onto the balcony. “Lord Suho,” he murmured, with a bow. He raised his head, a soft smile on his face. He looked Suho in the eye, which surprised Suho a little; what he had seen thus far had suggested that Baekhyun was too passive to look anyone in the eye. “I wanted to thank you. I heard that you stood up for me during the first war council meeting.”
Suho frowned. “How did you hear about that?”
“Air Nation nobles gossip. Air Nation nobles with wounded pride gossip louder.”
“I didn’t mean to wound their pride,” Suho said with a sigh. “They are impossible to please.”
The edges of Baekhyun’s lips curved. “No, you just have to roll over when they say.”
“I suppose,” Suho said sourly. “I can’t seem to manage it.” He studied Baekhyun for a moment. “But you seem to have it down to an art.”
“I have had practise,” Baekhyun said, and he lifted a sleeve to show Suho the delicate ornaments that lay against the backs of his hands. “They’re reminders,” he murmured, “so I don’t forget what I am. It’s easy to forget, sometimes, because of the way Chanyeol treats me. But I can’t afford to forget, or think too highly of myself, because the world does not and will not.”
“I don’t think you deserve to be treated the way you are being treated though,” Suho said with a sniff.
Baekhyun gave Suho a soft smile. “You sound like Chanyeol.”
“It’s true, though,” Suho argued. “You’re a powerful Shifter, it shouldn’t matter what your parentage is.”
“That is easy enough to say,” Baekhyun said, “but harder to put into practise. There’ll always be people who treat me less for it. But it does not matter, not really. I can play the game. If acting the low-born slave gets them to help me get Chanyeol back, it’s a small price to pay.”
Suho raised an eyebrow, impressed. “That’s pretty manipulative,” he said, certain that he was probably not supposed to approve of it, but not caring. “And proof that the Air Nation nobles are fools for dismissing you so quickly.”
Baekhyun merely smiled at him again, before he too neared the barrier and looked down at the soldiers. After studying them for a moment he said, “They’ve mixed them.”
“Yes,” said Suho, “I was surprised too.”
“How abnormally forward thinking of them.” Baekhyun’s mouth twisted, and Suho couldn't blame him if he sounded a little bitter. “They don’t usually let people from outside the Air Nation see their men in training.”
“I think they’ve realized their age old training secrets aren’t as important as our armies’ ability to fight side by side. We’re already at a disadvantage, we need every leg up we can get.”
“You’d think so,” said Baekhyun with a wry smile, “but there is plenty of untapped potential in this city that is going to waste.”
Suho nodded, thinking about Kris and the abilities that Tao had implied that he possessed but which had not been honed. “It’s too late to start training men from scratch, though,” he said. “We must use the resources that we have, and use them effectively.”
“And if you do that?” he asked. “Do you think that you will be able to defeat the Fire Nation?”
Unnerved by such frankness, Suho said, “That’s hard to say. I think we’ll stand a chance retrieving the Phoenix, and who knows how having him will change things. Losing him may be such a blow that the Fire Nation backs down.”
Baekhyun shook his head, leaning against the barrier again. “The Fire Nation is a machine. Losing Chanyeol will merely slow them down, not cause them to stop.”
Suho sighed. “Yes, they have a great deal of pride, as my own nation does. Still, I can hope. A long drawn out war will not favor us. We need more forces.”
“The Oracle Saw the twelve,” Baekhyun said softly. “He Saw that Chanyeol was one of them. Perhaps once we have him the rest will appear, and turn the tides in our favor.”
“Do you really believe in what the Oracle says?”
Baekhyun’s eyes bored into his. “I believe that if any Shifter on this earth is a member of the twelve, it’s Chanyeol.”
“I believe that too,” Suho murmured. And the enemy has him, Suho thought. We can only hope that we can rescue him in time.
Xiumin let his hands drop to his sides, frustrated. The other Shifters in his group were casting disdainful glances at him, both Water and Air Nation alike. He lowered his gaze to the floor to avoid their eyes.
The sergeant in charge shouted at them to form up again, and Xiumin hurried to do so, finding his line. They were being given a quick break. He was grateful for it; he’d spent the entire morning ashamed of his abilities, or lack thereof. It had quickly become apparent that he was the black hole of any training group that he had been put into, and there was only so much embarrassment he could take.
His fellow Shifters meandered off in groups, some to find a small snack and others to sit in the shade. They all avoided him. He looked around for a place to rest and caught sight of Lord Suho in a balcony above the training center. He’d been there almost since the start, which hadn’t helped Xiumin’s nerves.
Suho saw Xiumin looking at him and gave him a two-fingered salute, but Xiumin pretended he hadn’t seen. He looked back at the ground and hurried out of the courtyard, just a bit, face burning. Suho had been able to pick him out too easily among all the other soldiers, and the salute had seemed just a little too much like encouragement. Knowing that Lord Suho was watching all the soldiers was one thing, but knowing that he had seen Xiumin make an embarrassment out of himself, and out of the Water Nation, was unbearable.
He turned a corner and found himself in another courtyard, this one tiny and enclosed by higher walls than the one they had been training in, grassy and peaceful. There was a young man sitting on the edge of a small fountain, staring across the courtyard to the building which was just visible over the edge of one of the walls. Xiumin followed his gaze and found that the building was what he had been told was the spiritual temple.
His foot knocked a small stone and sent it skittering, and the young man by the fountain jumped. “Oh, sorry,” said Xiumin, wincing. He hadn’t wanted to break the peace of the courtyard. It was nice, after the organized chaos of the training ground. “I didn’t mean to...I’ll go.”
“No, it’s okay,” said the man, standing and straightening. “You don’t have to. I just didn’t hear you come in.” He was an Air Nation Shifter, and Xiumin thought his face was familiar. Probably one of the poor men who had gotten stuck in a group with him at some point that morning. “I’m Sehun,” he said, holding out a hand.
Xiumin took it and shook it. “Xiumin,” he said.
Sehun repeated it, a bit unsure. He had a slight lisp, and his pronunciation was off anyway, but Xiumin didn’t correct him. “I was in your group earlier.”
Xiumin winced. “I thought you might have been. I’m sorry.”
To his surprise, Sehun grinned at him. “Don’t be,” he said. “You were so bad that no one noticed how terrible I was.” Xiumin flushed, and Sehun added quickly, “Oh, I didn’t mean it like that. Sorry. It was just a relief for me, because usually I’m the only one who can’t do the drills.”
“I’m not usually that bad,” Xiumin said, trying to do damage control. “It’s just that there were a lot of new people to impress, and I don’t do well under that kind of pressure.”
Sehun made a kind of grunt, sitting back down on the edge of the fountain. “I don’t have a reason for today’s catastrophe, I’m just a bad Shifter.”
“But you’re a member of your Nation’s army,” Xiumin pointed out, confused.
“Because my family ranking is too low for a government position, but too high for them to ignore me. And what about you? You’re here, not only a member of your army but brought along with only the most elite of your people’s Shifters. Someone high up must like you.” He eyed Xiumin a little too shrewdly. “Or dislike you, depending on how you look at it.”
Xiumin shifted, uncomfortable. “Lord Suho felt that I might be able to help,” he muttered. “I’m really not as good as the others. I think this is supposed to be a chance to prove myself.” If that was the case, he thought, then he was failing miserably at it. Lord Suho had too much faith in him.
Sehun shrugged. “Maybe he was right,” he said. “You never know what will happen, right?” The next moment, he glanced at the temple again, and his expression became pensive, his forehead creasing a little. Then he looked back at Xiumin and smiled. “After all, no one saw this war coming. Not even the Oracle.”
Xiumin decided to hold his tongue on that matter. He sighed, looking up at the sky. “I am going to die.”
Sehun looked shocked. “That’s not a particularly good way to think about it,” he said.
“It’s true,” said Xiumin, without much feeling. “I’m not strong enough to fight against even a normal Fire Nation soldier. Going out on the battlefield is my suicide mission.”
“You must have some ability,” Sehun said, peering at his face. “Lord Suho seems really practical, there must be some reason he brought you, right?”
“My ability?” Xiumin cocked his head to the side. “Would you like to see what it is that I can actually manage to do?”
“Yes.” Sehun folded his hands on his lap and looked at Xiumin intently. “I would, actually.”
“You might want to stand,” Xiumin muttered as he touched two fingertips to the stone of the fountain. Sehun did so and turned to watch as Xiumin felt out the water in the fountain, dropping the temperature so fast that it froze within seconds, cracking loudly as it did so. The whole thing happened so quickly that the water falling from the upper tier of the fountain froze in a clear arc.
“Impressive,” Sehun said. He actually sounded like he thought that it truly was. “Can you do it to larger bodies of water as well?”
“I can in the north, but temperatures are already low there. I am unsure about my abilities here, even more unsure about how well I will be able to do in the desert of the Fire Nation.”
“Can you freeze people too?”
Xiumin fought not to squirm uncomfortably. “Maybe. I have never tried, but I can feel the water in their bodies, so I imagine I could.”
“You probably could freeze troops of Fire Nation soldiers if you so wished.” Sehun frowned. “And if you were trained in your own way.”
“Perhaps,” Xiumin said, shuffling his feet. “And what about you? Do you have another ability?”
“To make up for my shocking lack of anything resembling Air Shifting?” Sehun paused, contemplating Xiumin’s face. “I do have something.”
“Could I see?” Xiumin asked, curious.
Sehun nodded. He raised a hand, fingers outspread, and after a second or so, the air under his palm grew more and more opaque until an ugly cloud of mist had formed, brown and foul to look at. He had it under control, swirling slightly and well contained. After giving Xiumin a good look at it, he sent it drifting gently to a nearby bush covered in white flowers, the brown mist spreading over it until the entire surface was covered. Within seconds, the entire bush had wilted, and Sehun dispersed the gas he had formed with a wave of his hand.
Xiumin stared. “Poor flowers,” he said, unable to think of anything else to say. The bush was still wilting, leaves and petals curling in even though the cloud had gone. They stood staring until it was completely brown. “What did you do, exactly?”
“Poison,” Sehun said. He was staring at the brush, his face somewhat twisted. “I can concentrate the impurities in the air, drawing them out to form a miasma.”
A pause. Xiumin was slightly unnerved. “I imagine you could kill people with that as well.”
“I imagine so,” Sehun murmured. “I have never gotten the chance to try. My power is not clean enough for the Air Nation. I’ve never had the chance to put it into practise on actual people. But I imagine I will soon.”
There was a deep ringing coming from the training center, signaling the end of their break. Sehun and Xiumin both sighed heavily at the same time, then looked at each other and laughed.
Xiumin still couldn’t manage most of the drills, but he kept an eye on Sehun and saw he didn’t either. He found that reassuring.
Luhan was sitting in the temple, breathing deeply. He could hear the gongs from the training center in the distance, and as they regulated the drills that the soldiers did, they also regulated his breathing, until soon he had relaxed enough to block out all external sound.
He was on a deep inhale when there was a shift, part of time and space sliding to the left like it had been shunted out of place. His breathing faltered, eyes snapping open but unseeing, and then there were images flooding his mind too fast for him to comprehend, and for the first time in Luhan’s memory, the vision hurt.
Black smoke, thick in the sky, battle scenes flipping through Luhan’s mind, one after another. Bodies littering the ground, faces he did not recognise but would never forget. Too many flicked past until he was nauseated. His heart stuttered as he caught a flash of Kai laying on hard packed earth, choking on his own blood next to a man disfigured by burns. Luhan cried out, reaching forward as if he could help Kai, but then the vision passed and he saw the one that they had called the slave, the lover of the Phoenix, crying and screaming as faceless men dragged him from a room. He saw more fighting, a dragon, dark as ink, spitting silent black flame. Intangible shadows of Shifters standing side by side blew by, the same murky vision of the twelve that he had seen many times before. Then there was nothing but fire, rolling towards him and then sweeping past, searing wings of flame that made his vision white out.
When he opened his eyes again, he was curled on the floor of the room, hugging himself tightly. His side ached where it met the hard stone floor, so he knew he had been laying there for awhile. His attendants hovered, not willing to touch him to make sure he was okay.
There was an Elder kneeling near him. “Oracle,” he asked, sounding scared, “are you alright? Can you hear me?”
Luhan didn’t answer. He was still gasping for breath, trying to sort out what to say, how to impress upon them the urgency of what he’d just seen. He tried to struggle to his feet but found that he was shaking too hard, and he sank back down, tears pressing at the backs of his eyelids.
“Fetch the rest of the Elders!” one of the attendants ordered. Luhan heard hurried footsteps as someone ran to obey.
“Something’s happened,” Luhan gasped, knowing he wasn’t conveying enough. He forgot himself and clutched at the hem of one of the attendant’s robes. “Something is wrong.”
The attendant gasped and pulled his robes out of Luhan’s grip, stepping back so that he was no longer at risk. The Elder frowned at Luhan. “Oracle,” he said sharply, “you are disgracing yourself.”
“You don’t understand,” Luhan said frantically. “Something is wrong.” There was a horrible feeling in the pit of his stomach, and somehow the acrid scent of the smoke from his vision was lingering in his nose, the back of his throat. This vision was too near, too close to breaking into the here from the there. It sat on him like a weight.
The doors to the temple room opened, and the rest of the Elders filed in, ashen faced. “My Lord,” they said to the Elder beside Luhan, “Oracle.”
“What’s happened?” Luhan moaned, gagging on the taste of smoke in his mouth.
“The Fire Nation has declared war,” said the High Elder, and the Elder kneeling beside Luhan gasped.
All the bloody nameless faces from Luhan’s vision whipped through his mind, ending once again in fire so near he could swear he felt the heat on his face. “What?”
“They are marching.”