Authors: black_goose and umberela
Pairing: Baekhyun/Chanyeol, Sehun/Luhan, Tao/Kris, Kai/D.O
Word count: 5,438
Summary: "The Oracle has seen the twelve united. War is coming to the Nations. We must prepare for battle."
A/N: well that hiatus went on for longer than i thought it would. like i seriously thought it would take three or four weeks at most, not two months. flops around sadly. getting internet access in japan is the most stressful process in the entire world and if there's one thing i'm happy about it's that i don't have to do it again. so yes, sorry about that!
alsooooo while i was away, ela posted the first part of the kaisoo side story! it can be found here! GO READ IT. IT'S BRILLIANT AND HILARIOUS AND DID I MENTION BRILLIANT.
Kyungsoo was shaken awake at some point in the morning, when the sun was still low in the sky and the light it cast was grey and misty. He groaned and rolled over away from the person who was rudely trying to wake him up, and Kai laughed as he nudged him in the side with his foot.
“Come on, Princess, we have to get moving,” he said, hunkering down and pulling at the hairs at the back of Kyungsoo’s neck. Kyungsoo batted him away with a groan.
“Where are we going?” Luhan asked from a few sleeping pallets away. He cracked a wide yawn, rubbing at his eyes. Then he started. “I had a vision last night.”
Kyungsoo lifted his head to look at him, and he heard Kai hiss between his teeth. “I knew it,” he muttered. Kyungsoo looked at him in confusion, because it was news to him, and as far as he knew he and Kai had been together all night. “It was when you fell asleep on watch duty,” Kai said quietly to Kyungsoo when he caught sight of his expression, and Kyungsoo reddened.
“Yeah, sorry for drooling on your pants,” Kyungsoo muttered.
“I shall wear the stain proudly,” Kai replied solemnly.
Suho spoke softly. “What was your vision of, Luhan?”
“It was a dream, to begin with.” Luhan glanced at Kai, squeezed his eyes shut for a second, and then continued, his voice a little shaky. “I was dreaming about what happened... what happened the night we rescued Chen. Sometimes I dream about it. I always know it’s a dream because in the dream, nobody comes for us.”
Kyungsoo shivered, gripping Kai’s wrist. Kai didn’t seem to notice, staring at Luhan with an intent expression.
Luhan took a deep breath before continuing. “And then the dream changed, and it didn’t feel right anymore. I felt more lucid, more awake.”
“It had morphed into a vision,” Kai murmured. Luhan nodded. “And?”
“It was war. More war. But in a different place. The scenery had changed. It was much more lush, with mountains in the distance.”
“Probably the Air Nation,” Kris said matter-of-factly. “There’s bound to be fighting here now, what with the Fire Nation troops marching for our capitol.”
“Were we there?” Suho asked sharply. “Or did you just have a vision of it without us?”
“I don’t think we were there?” Luhan said tentatively. “It was the aftermath I saw, mostly. Everything was blackened. I saw the Twelve too, but not their faces. And I saw—” Luhan frowned, eyes screwing shut as he tried to remember. “I saw a city on fire. It was made out of red bricks.”
Chen inhaled sharply. “That’s the capitol. The Fire Nation capitol. Did it have high walls? Was it by the sea?”
“It had high red walls, yes, but I don’t know if it was beside the ocean. It was on fire too. Black fire.”
“Black fire?” Baekhyun asked, confused.
“Is such a thing even possible?” Kris asked.
“I’m just saying what I saw,” Luhan said, looking like he was on the verge of panicking. “There was black fire, everywhere, and a black dragon — not Kai’s, not like that, pure black—”
“Luhan,” Kai interrupted, and Sehun lay his hand on Luhan’s arm, rubbing soothingly. Luhan seemed to calm a little. “It’s okay, we believe you. That’s what you saw.”
Luhan brought his knees to his chest, hugging them, looking more childlike than Kyungsoo had ever seen him look before. “There was pain,” he said, quietly, just more than a whisper.
“Pain?” Kai frowned.
“Pain, just like last time. Everything slowed, and quieted suddenly. I was standing on a vast flat landscape, alone. And then there was agony.” He curled in tighter. “I don’t know what it meant.”
“Maybe it means you have to undergo some deep, personal transformation,” Yixing said, waggling his fingers like some sort of mystic. Suho hit him over the head lightly. “What?” Yixing asked. “We had to take a dream interpretation class during Healing School.”
Something he’d said made Luhan look thoughtful. “Maybe,” Luhan said softly, and then didn’t say any more. Sehun leaned in to whisper in his ear, tentatively rubbing circles on his back.
“Well, worrying about this isn’t going to get us anywhere,” Suho said. Suddenly a small ball of water appeared in his hands and he dumped it on the campfire, extinguishing the embers left. “We should get moving as soon as possible, if we want to keep ahead of the Air Nation.”
Tao blinked at him, still not actually out of his makeshift bed. “But... we haven’t eaten anything yet.”
“We can eat later,” Suho said decisively. “Or on the move. It’s not safe to stay in one place now that the sun is up.”
“But. Food,” Tao said piteously. An apple struck him on the head then, thrown by Kris.
“There, breakfast, now move.”
Tao grumbled, but obliged. “Where are we going? South?”
Suho was already buckling his pack, essentially done with his packing. Kyungsoo hastened to stand and roll his sleeping pallet up, shivering in the cool morning air. “No,” Suho said, “I think we should head west, into the Earth Nation.”
Kyungsoo’s stomach twisted in surprise. “My home? Why?”
Suho frowned at where the sun was rising over the trees. “The Fire Nation is flat. If we cross it to meet the oncoming army, they’ll see us coming for afar. But we know they’re coming up through the Earth Nation to converge on the Air Nation’s capitol in full force. There is plenty of cover in the forests and mountains. We’ll find a place to hunker down, and wait.”
“And that’s where Chanyeol is,” Baekhyun said quietly.
“Right,” agreed Suho. “If we want to find the Phoenix and bring him onto our side, we need to head into the Earth Nation.”
“I’m not sure I want to go anywhere near the Phoenix again,” said Xiumin solemnly.
Chen gave him a scathing look. “Then why are you here?”
Xiumin frowned, cheeks puffing out in upset, but he didn’t reply.
“With any luck we won’t be fighting Chanyeol again,” Suho said soothingly. “But at this point, he isn’t just our only chance of winning the war, he’s also our only ticket back into our homelands. We have to retrieve him. We can’t go home until we do.”
“So no pressure then,” Yixing said, swinging his pack onto his back.
“Worse comes to worse you can all come live with me,” Kyungsoo offered, wrestling with his pack straps. “My nation doesn’t care.”
“We appreciate that so much,” Kris said dryly. He had magically managed to buckle his pack one-handed, and Kyungsoo slitted a glare at him.
Before Kyungsoo could rescind Kris’s invitation Kai had wrapped a hand around his waist. “Let’s go?” he said to Suho, but it was clearly meant for all of them.
The dragon slowly unfurled, standing and stretching. She moved gingerly, clearly not used to so many tiny creatures around her.
“She won’t eat us, right?” Xiumin asked slightly fearfully.
“Not unless I tell her to,” Kai said with a grin.
Yixing had begun trying to scale her side, with very poor results. Kai frowned at the dragon for a moment, and Kyungsoo had the urge to poke him. Then the dragon hunkered back down, dislodging Yixing in the process. She put a leg out, so they could use it to get onto her back. Yixing immediately scuttled up, picking a neck spike towards the front.
Kai pulled gently, and Kyungsoo found himself teleported onto the dragon’s back. Kai pushed him behind a spike, before turning to help the others climb up. Luhan was already slightly green. “Don’t worry, Luhan,” Kai said cheerfully, as he helped Luhan settle down behind Sehun, “if you fall, I’ll teleport after you.”
“That is so very comforting,” Luhan snapped.
Kai scrunched his face up as he laughed. He nudged Kyungsoo’s thigh, and Kyungsoo immediately scoot back a little so Kai could settle right in front of him. “I am squished. Find your own spike,” Kyungsoo griped.
“I like this one,” Kai said simply, leaning back against Kyungsoo’s chest so he was even more squished. Kyungsoo pinched him, then shrieked as the dragon rumbled to her feet. He clutched at Kai’s waist.
The first downwards sweep of the dragon’s wings sent them a few feet in the air, the gust it caused blowing out over the grass around them in a ripple effect like a stone dropped in a pond. The take off was not particularly elegant, but Kyungsoo got the feeling that a dragon taking to flight was rarely graceful. Somewhere ahead of him, he heard Yixing yelp, though it sounded like it was more from excitement than fear. He didn’t think Yixing really knew what fear was.
Soon they were a good distance into the air, making their way at a decent pace across the Air Nation. For an adventure, it really was particularly boring, with very little to see on the ground below them, and only the horizon stretching on and on in front of them. He tried looking at the others but found that looking around himself meant noticing how far off the ground they were and he could live without that knowledge. Plus, the only thing he could really see was Luhan with his head buried in Sehun’s back, and it wasn’t actually comforting to know that he wasn’t the only one who was a little scared by this.
“You aren’t going to fall,” Kai called back at him, the wind snatching at his words.
Kyungsoo didn’t answer, simply held onto Kai’s waist tighter until Kai grunted. He lay a hand over Kyungsoo’s and tried to loosen him just a little. “Hold on,” Kyungsoo shrieked at him. He heard Kai chuckling at him.
By the time they landed, the sun was high in the sky, perhaps mid-afternoon or later. They had eaten as best they could as they flew, and Kyungsoo had even managed to drift off while they were in the air, lulled to sleep by the monotony of it all. He couldn’t understand how Kai could have coped flying all the way from the Bonelands, a journey which had even less to look at.
Kai teleported him off the dragon and Kyungsoo immediately flopped to the ground, laying on his back with his limbs stretched out, groaning as his joints tried to readjust to not being in one position. Kai turned to help Sehun coax Luhan off the dragon, something which was looking to be a near impossible task; Luhan was refusing to even open his eyes, never mind actually begin the process of walking down the dragon’s back to the ground.
In the end Kai teleported him off, placing him gently on his feet and then turning to face the dragon, but not fast enough that Kyungsoo didn’t see the telltale trickle of blood at his nose. He opened his mouth and then closed it again. When Kai turned back, he was grinning, teasing Luhan about being the almighty Oracle in his tower and yet somehow being unable to handle heights.
“Being behind walls isn’t the same as being on top of a dragon,” Luhan moaned. He’d flopped on the ground as well.
Suho put his hands on his hips. “Okay, come on, we need to set up camp.” No one stirred. Kyungsoo was still trying to regain feeling in his legs. “You guys.”
“Can we eat first?” Tao asked.
“We need a fire to cook food,” Kris said simply, and Tao pouted. “You people,” Kris gestured towards Kai and Kyungsoo with his remaining hand, “get some firewood. Suho? I saw a stream while we were flying. I assume you can catch fish.”
Suho puffed himself up. “Yes. I can. And I can sense the stream too. Let’s go.”
“The rest of you,” Kris added while walking away, “set up camp.”
Tao promptly flopped over onto the ground as well, and Yixing imitated him with a grin.
“We are really bad at this whole survival thing,” Chen quipped. Then he reached down and grabbed Yixing’s arm, trying to yank him upright. “Come on. You can’t just lay there. We have to actually set up camp.”
“Everyone else is just flopping though,” Yixing said.
“I am not useless, I am hungry,” Tao whined. “And I am laying on a rock.”
“Then move,” Chen said, and he tried to yank Tao up too. Tao pulled away looking affronted that Chen would even think of touching him, and then deflated as Chen fixed him with an unimpressed look. Tao begrudgingly began to unpack.
“Come on,” Kai said, nudging Kyungsoo. “We need to get wood for a fire.”
Kyungsoo considered arguing, but didn’t want Kai to go wandering off on his own. So he followed him through the trees, picking up dry sticks as he did so.
They had been walking in silence for a couple of minutes before Kyungsoo spoke. “So,” he said. “What do you think Luhan’s vision was about?”
“I imagine it was just the end of a battle,” Kai said, shrugging. “There’ll be plenty of them, we’re at war.” He hunkered down, pulling sticks into his arms.
“Well, yeah,” Kyungsoo said, “but not that. The black fire. He said something about a black dragon, but it wasn’t really black. What did that even mean.”
He saw Kai’s shoulders stiffen, just for a moment, before he stood up, holding his sticks in his arms. “I guess,” he started, and then stopped, pressing his lips together tightly. “I think I know what it means,” he said.
“Really?” Kyungsoo could read the signs in Kai’s body language but he was too interested to not ask. “What does it mean?”
“It means I’m going to do something I didn’t know I could do,” Kai said. “We should head back now, I’m sure the others will be—”
“No.” Kyungsoo reached out and grabbed Kai’s arm. Kai started and dropped his collection of firewood. “You can’t just run every time you don’t want to talk about something. What does the black dragon mean?”
“It has something to do with my abilities,” Kai snapped, bending to pick up his wood. Then he seemed to think better of it and straightened, turning to look at Kyungsoo intently. Kyungsoo had his stubborn face on, but he wavered in the face of Kai’s intensity. “And why are you so interested anyway.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Kyungsoo asked. Kai took a step towards him; Kyungsoo a step back. “You’re the one who’s hiding things. I think that’s pretty important.”
Kai backed him right up against a tree. “It’s not really that important,” he said, voice husky. “What’s more important is the fact that you’re still holding your firewood for some reason.”
Kyungsoo glanced down and then promptly dropped the sticks at his feet.
“Should we send someone to get them?” Luhan asked over the fish cooking in the fire. When Kyungsoo and Kai hadn’t returned by the time Kris and Suho got back with two armloads of fish, a few of the others had retrieved some firewood instead. “They’ve been gone a long time, and it is getting dark.”
“No,” Suho said sharply, turning his skewer so his fish cooked evenly. “They’re fine.”
“Fine,” Suho insisted. “Who wants fish?”
Sehun wandered over to the fire and brought back two fish, holding one of the skewers out to Luhan. “He’ll be fine,” he said, somewhat stiffly, as Luhan took the fish from him. It was as though talking about Kai physically pained him sometimes. “If anything happens to them he’ll just teleport out of there.”
“Hmm.” Luhan hummed under his breath in acceptance and then nibbled at the fish. After a moment he pulled back. “There’s bones in this!”
“Well, yes,” Sehun said, mouth twitching. “It’s a fish?”
“I know but.” Luhan blushed, pulling a sliver of skin from the fish. “I’ve never actually eaten one that had the bones left in.”
“Oh.” Sehun looked between his fish and Luhan’s. “Do you want me to take the bones out for you?”
“No!” Luhan said. “I can eat them! It’s okay.”
“Well, uh,” Sehun began, but Luhan was already biting into the fish. Sehun looked panicked, reaching out to grab the fish off him when something caught in Luhan’s throat and he started to cough, his own fish dropped without thought onto the ground beside him.
“Oracle?” Sehun grabbed his shoulders, shaking him lightly. “Are you okay?”
Luhan waved at him. “I’m fine,” he managed to get out before hacking again, trying to clear his throat. Perhaps he wasn’t supposed to actually eat the bones. He kept coughing as he began to look around for his wineskin.
Sehun scrambled for it, even taking the lid off before he handed it over. Luhan gulped at it gratefully, but his throat still felt itchy. “Augh, it’s stuck,” he said.
“Are you choking?” Sehun asked frantically. “I think the Oracle is choking!”
Luhan hit him with the wineskin. “I am not choking.” He coughed again, and a tiny bone came flying out. Luhan made a triumphant noise.
As Sehun continued to fuss over him — unnecessarily, as Luhan pointed out — Kai and Kyungsoo finally returned. Luhan cried out happily, jumped to his feet, and raced over to scold Kai about taking so long to collect some sticks. There were leaves in Kyungsoo’s hair. “Did you fall?” Luhan asked, peering at them.
Kai reached up and brushed the leaves from Kyungsoo’s hair. “Yeah, he fell. Tripped over a tree root. You’d think an Earth Shifter would be more in tune with the ground.” Kyungsoo punched him in the side.
Luhan cocked his head to the side. “His back’s all muddy too.”
“He fell a couple of times.”
Luhan squinted. “Where is the firewood?”
Kyungsoo suddenly looked down at his empty arms, and Luhan could see a flicker of genuine alarm in his aura. “Aw, crap. We forgot it.”
Luhan pursed his lips at him. “Suho isn’t going to be happy with you,” he said.
Kai frowned at him, then jerked his head to where the fish was cooking over a fire. “Apparently you didn’t need us for the wood anyway.”
“It’s the principle of the matter,” Luhan said. “We sent you to get firewood and you didn’t come back with any. If we don’t all pull our weight then—”
Kai grinned at him. “And what did you do while I was away getting firewood, hmm?”
“I choked on a fish,” Luhan said primly.
“Such productivity.” Kai ruffled his hair, and from somewhere behind Luhan there was a garbled noise. Kai snorted and went to claim a fish for himself. Luhan turned to see Sehun staring accusingly at Kai.
“Come on,” Luhan said, dragging Sehun closer to the fire so they could join the circle of the others eating their dinner. Sehun sat to his left, and Kai to his right. Kyungsoo squeezed in on Kai’s other side. Luhan resumed nibbling his fish, with Kai showing him how to eat around the bones so he didn’t choke again. Luhan now felt a little silly over the whole thing.
As they ate Kyungsoo and Kai began to whisper to one another. Luhan couldn’t hear the words, but Kai was getting uncomfortable, Luhan could feel the emotion pouring out of him. Their arms were brushing, so that made it even more intense. “What are you guys whispering about?”
Kyungsoo leaned around Kai to say, “Kai knows what the black dragon from your vision means.”
Luhan’s mouth fell open in a silent ‘o’. “Tell us!”
Kai’s aura turned decidedly grumpy. And stubborn, Luhan could feel that too. “No. Not now.”
“Please,” Luhan drew the word out, so it went on for several seconds. Kai was unmoved.
“Please what?” Yixing asked from a few people away.
“Please tell us what the black dragon from my vision means.” Luhan smiled sweetly as Kai’s aura turned downright surly.
Suho perked up. “You know what it means? Is it another dragon, a special dragon? Are they going to come help us?”
Kai clamped his lips together. “Kai,” Kyungsoo whined, leaning against his side. “Tell us.”
“Jongin,” Luhan said, wondering if his whining would be any more effective.
“Jongin,” Kyungsoo echoed, a grin twisting his lips. For a moment Kai’s aura went haywire, so intense it was like a slap in the face. It was prickly, affronted, but under that was the sharp taste of arousal, and Luhan felt Kai make an effort to stamp it out. Luhan’s face turned hot. He turned his attention back to his fish, suddenly finding it very interesting.
“Oracle?” Sehun asked. “Are you alright? You’re flushed.”
Kai made a strange noise and Luhan very determinedly blocked his aura out. “I’m fine,” Luhan muttered, chancing a glance at Kai. His friend looked mortified.
“Jong—” Kyungsoo began again but Kai shoved him over roughly. Kyungsoo went down with a squawk.
“Alright,” Kai snapped, face rosy. “Alright, I will tell you.” Kyungsoo scrambled back into a sitting position, looking at Kai intently. The others had all fallen silent, and were waiting. Kai looked supremely unhappy, though he was leaking a bit, and Luhan could feel he was more flustered than upset. “It has to do with me,” Kai muttered. “With my powers. I think.”
“Your powers?” Suho frowned. “But you can teleport, that’s your power.”
“No,” said Kyungsoo quietly. “He can do something else. Can’t you?”
Kai nodded, eyes dark. “My abilities deal with space, in the same way Luhan’s deal with time. I can do more than teleport. I.” He frowned, shaking his head, “It’s hard to explain.”
“Can you show us?” Luhan asked softly. He gave Kai’s arm a reassuring squeeze.
“Yes.” He didn’t move, and his expression didn’t change, but Luhan could feel a shift in him. It darkened around them, and at first Luhan thought that the sun must have gone down completely, but then he realized the shadows around them were darkening, deepening. They were just black, pitch black, like voids had opened. Luhan edged his toes away from the nearest one, and Xiumin clutched onto Suho’s side.
Kai grabbed a rock about the size of his palm and casually tossed it onto one of his strange shadows. It should have stopped, should have hit ground, but it didn’t. It disappeared into the blackness, without a whisper of sound.
“Can you bring it back?” Kris asked hoarsely.
“No,” Kai said very decisively. “So don’t fall in.”
Xiumin made a scared noise, and most of the others looked uneasy as well. “I can come back though. I have to pass through this, this blackness, this emptiness, every time I teleport. But when I lose something in it, it’s gone for good. I can never find it again.”
“That cold place is this?” Kyungsoo asked.
Kai nodded. “It’s only a split second, but yes. It’s like it’s, I don’t know, space, or non-space, maybe.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know how it works, it just exists.”
There was silence as they all absorbed this, the shadow voids eating up the light. “What does this have to do with the dragon? The one Luhan saw.” Kyungsoo’s voice was small.
Kai’s lips quirked. And then suddenly the void nearest Kyungsoo was moving, and a black hand reached out of it to grab at his calf. Kyungsoo let out a scream, and the hand receded as if it had never been. “IT TRIED TO EAT ME,” he yelled, pointing at the shadow accusingly.
“You can make them come to life?” Suho asked. Xiumin was still cowering against his side, and on the other side Tao was sitting bolt upright, face pale.
Kai thought about that. “Sort of. If the shadow was cast by a person, I can pull it up into the shape of that person. They aren’t alive. They can’t think. Not really. I have to push them with my energy to make them do anything. And it’s tiring.” He let his powers go, and the shadows lightened some, going back to being normal shadows. “It’s easier to pull up shadows from things like rocks. People are complex, and the larger and more complex the creature the more difficult it is for me.” He shot a glance at the dragon. “But I guess, somehow I manage.”
“Oh,” Yixing said, eyes lighting up. “You think Luhan saw a duplicated dragon?”
“I think so.” Kai nibbled his lip. “I don’t see how though.”
“I do think that is what I saw,” Luhan said. “The dragon was black, like those shadows were.”
“I’ve never been able to duplicate her. It hurts thinking about it.” Kai shook his head. “I must get some kind of magical power boost, because I get the bleeds just trying normally.”
“Hmm.” Luhan sat back in thought.
Kris tossed some more wood onto the fire. “A shadow dragon,” he said musingly. “I imagine that would be pretty helpful in a battle situation.”
“Well, considering the one dragon we have right now didn’t really damage the Phoenix in any way, shape or form,” said Sehun, “I’d imagine it will come in handy.”
“Chanyeol is very strong,” Baekhyun said simply. “He doesn’t burn. He never has.”
Kyungsoo was still holding his leg where the shadow had grabbed him, and for a moment Luhan thought he was going to continue to freak out. Then he turned to Kai and started talking excitedly about all the different things he could do with that kind of power. Luhan could see that Kai was a little taken aback by that reaction. Probably he had been expecting Kyungsoo to run screaming in the opposite direction.
“Well, it’s not that great,” Tao said grumpily. “Kris can fly.”
“Taozi,” Kris hissed. Tao ignored him, staring sullenly at the fire. He had been in a bad mood most of the night, and Luhan couldn’t see any signs of it abating in his aura.
“What do you mean, fly,” asked Suho.
“People can’t fly,” Xiumin pointed out.
“Kris can,” said Tao. “People said that he couldn’t Air Shift so I helped him and he can fly—”
“Zitao, I swear to god,” Kris said, and he clamped his hand over Tao’s mouth, shutting him up. There was a struggle for a minute, before Tao managed to shove him off, glaring at him with a certain amount of potency. Then he climbed to his feet and stalked off, heading into the woods at the side of the camp ground.
Kris sighed, feeding yet another twig to the fire, like he was trying to find something to do. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s not used to having to camp like this, or find his own food. He’s still getting used to it.”
“Should you maybe go after him?” Luhan asked in a small voice. He could no longer hear Tao thrashing through the trees.
“No, he’ll not go far,” Kris said. “He’s a kid but he’s smart enough to know that if he can’t handle camping he can’t handle being lost in the woods by himself. He’ll come back soon enough.”
“What do you mean, he’s a kid,” Kai asked, scoffing a little. “He’s the Head Air Shifter. Or he was. He’s easily as old as I am.”
“Wait, wait,” Suho said, “never mind that, what did he mean, you can fly.”
Kris glanced at him, then focused his attention on Kai. “Just because he’s the Head Air Shifter doesn’t mean he’s not a kid. Do you even know anything about him?”
“Well, I spent the last five years in the Bonelands,” Kai pointed out. “Not much about the new Head Shifter found its way to me.”
“The reason he’s acting like a bratty child is because he is a bratty child,” Kris said. “He’s only sixteen.”
There was a sharp intake of breath around the campfire. “Are you joking?” Suho asked, voice full of disbelief.
“No. I’m not.”
“But he’s Head Air Shifter,” Suho said. “He’s been Head Air Shifter for two years now.”
“Yeah.” Kris stood, looking out into the woods as if he thought he would be able to see Tao through the darkness. “They made him take the position when he was fourteen. He didn’t get a choice in it.”
“How did I not know this?” Suho asked, outraged.
“Because they knew the rest of the Nations would be horrified. You can’t have a child be Head Shifter, it’s cruel. But we needed someone and Tao was the best, even at that age. The Elders knew he wouldn’t be a kid forever, he’d grow up, but he’d probably remain the strongest Shifter. And he did, and he is, and here we are.”
“You sound almost as though you approve of it,” said Baekhyun softly.
Kris fixed him with an unimpressed look. “Believe me, if the people responsible for it were ever punished, I’d happily carry it out myself. But I couldn’t change anything back then and I certainly can’t change it now. I just have to make sure that he doesn’t get too maladjusted from it.”
Suho rubbed a hand over his face. “I would never have taken him along, had I known this.”
“He’s old enough for the Elders to have dragged into a war,” Kris said. “Old enough to have stood on a battlefield.” Suho made a weak noise. Luhan felt shaken, almost guilty; this had happened right under his nose, and he’d never even suspected. All those times he’d met Tao before now, he’d never guessed at his age. He knew what it was like to be fourteen and frightened, forced into a position he didn’t want and would have to bear for the rest of his life.
“Is it just me,” Yixing asked, “or is the Air Nation really messed up?”
“No,” said Kai wearily. “It’s not just you.”
Luhan bit back the swell of emotion he felt at Kai’s words. He curled into Kai’s side, trying to be comforting.
“Are any of the rest of you sixteen? Speak now, please.” Suho sounded tired.
“I’m eighteen?” Sehun ventured.
Suho groaned and eyed the campfire like he wanted to throw himself into it. Xiumin patted him.
“Children or not, does it matter?” Chen asked softly. “Children can still die, so why not fight? Kris is right. This is war. And we might be the only hope our countries have.”
“That is beyond depressing,” Sehun said.
Luhan elbowed him. “I don’t think so. If the Fire Nation was going to win, I think I would have Seen it. But I haven’t. Everything is up in the air. We can do this.”
Suddenly there was a loud crashing noise from their right. Everyone was immediately on their guard, Sehun tugging Luhan behind him, but it was just Tao returning at high speed, bursting into the clearing and grabbing Kris so hard he almost fell off his feet. Kris looked somewhat alarmed. “What is it, what’s wrong?” he asked, trying to hold Tao still so he could look him over.
Tao took a deep breath, and then another. “There was a giant spider,” he said, almost shrieking, “and it landed on my face.”
There was a second of silence and then they burst into laughter. Yixing was practically rolling around on the ground. Tao looked highly offended by this. Kris managed to just about keep a straight face, wrapping an arm around Tao’s shoulders and pulling him gently to where the sleeping bags were set up. “It’s okay,” he said, as soothingly as he could manage. “It’s gone now. You should sleep, I think.”
Slowly but surely they all drifted off to the packs, apart from Kai and Kyungsoo, who were taking the first watch again. This time Luhan didn’t even make any attempt at sleeping in his own bag. Instead he waited until Sehun was half inside of his and then climbed in with him, wrapping his arms around his waist and burying his face in Sehun’s chest, brokering no arguments. Sehun spluttered for a couple of seconds, and then sighed, hand resting lightly on Luhan’s shoulder.
“Goodnight, Luhan,” he heard Sehun mutter.
“Goodnight, Sehun,” Luhan said chirpily, trying to keep the triumph out of his voice.