Authors: black_goose & umberela
Pairing: Baekhyun/Chanyeol, Sehun/Luhan, Tao/Kris, Kai/D.O
Word count: 10,037
Summary: "The Oracle has seen the twelve united. War is coming to the Nations. We must prepare for battle."
A/N: LONG CHAPTER IS LONG
Suho was tired of cold food, but knew they couldn’t risk lighting a fire, so he ate without complaint. Not all of the others were as mature about it as he was, but they all understood. Where there was a fire there would be smoke, and empty cities weren’t supposed to have any signs of life.
“Can we at least go foraging?” Tao had whined two days in.
“You won’t find anything but ash,” Suho had replied. “Besides, I don’t think we should stray far from the dragon. Aside from the possibility of getting lost and caught unawares, this ash may as well be snow. We’re leaving prints. I don’t want Chanyeol to walk in and see fresh trails all around. No. We stay put.”
Four days ago, they had landed in a large courtyard in what Chen told them was near the marketplace of the Lightning Clan’s city. The buildings around them were quite tall, and mostly still standing, so the dragon didn’t stick out too much. She blended in well enough anyway, looking fairly charred herself. From afar, no one would be able to see what she really was. Unfortunately she was beginning to get a little restless, and Kai was having slight trouble getting her to stay put, just like Suho was having trouble getting any of them to stay close. He understood, it couldn’t be easy laying in the same place for days, and Suho was fairly certain that when she’d landed she’d sat on a dead tree, but still. A bunch of burned matter suddenly getting up and rolling about would be somewhat conspicuous.
Even though they couldn’t go too far, they’d explored a little, Suho wiping away the soot on some walls to reveal chipped tile. Even burnt and broken, the city had a beauty, though now it was a cold one. It was remarkably quiet here, the only signs of life when they had arrived the few crows which had been picking at the burned bodies that still lay around. They’d moved the couple of bodies that had been laying in the courtyard to a building nearby, a task nobody had particularly wanted to help with. That first night had been a chilling one, the lot of them huddled close together, and not for warmth. There was something haunted about the place, a strange feeling that made chills run up Suho’s spine.
But days passed, and as they did the boys steadily became less on edge. Suho was concerned about them becoming complacent, and was determined to remain vigilant. So far no ghosts had come after them though, which had been Tao’s primary concern, after the Food Situation. Even Kris had been a bit unnerved by the place.
Now though, Tao was kneeling in what had once been a grassy area and was now just ashes, Sehun kneeling beside him. There were tiny whirlwinds twirling in front of them, and Tao was pointing at them, murmuring something to Sehun. In an attempt at curing his own boredom before he could drive everyone crazy complaining, Tao had taken it upon himself to tutor Sehun in some of the more basic parts of Air Shifting.
Sehun frowned down at the whirlwinds, then his face screwed up in concentration. The whirlwind he created was too large, and not very fast, going in more of a lazy swirl before losing its shape completely and sending a wave of ashes into both his and Tao’s faces. From his perch on a stone bench a little way away, Kris laughed.
Tao, however, didn’t seem overly bothered, like Suho would have expected. He was already so covered in ash that he probably didn’t think anything of it. “That’s better,” he said brightly. “If you keep practicing you’ll be able to do it without even thinking about it.”
Sehun actually gave Tao a tentative smile, and Suho smiled himself at the sight. It was nice to see Sehun finally starting to relax and mesh with them, after holding himself separate for so long.
“Three,” Suho murmured to himself as he went to find the others. He counted heads at least two times a day, making sure no one vanished without his notice.
Kyungsoo was putting together a snack in the shade of the dragon, making a very concentrated effort to keep the soot off his food. They’d attempted to sweep the ash out of their camp area, but only had moderate results. Chewing on ashes was like, well, chewing on ashes, and they tried to take measures to avoid it, but it seemed to be inevitable. At this point they were all so covered in soot and grime that Suho could scarcely remember what color he was supposed to be.
Not far off from Kyungsoo, Kai was leaning up against the dragon’s side, softly speaking to Luhan, who was leaning against his side. Luhan was pale, looking almost gaunt, having lost a worrisome amount of weight recently, but he was listening attentively, looking at Kai with fascination. When Suho neared them he realised Kai was talking about the dragons down in the Bonelands, telling Luhan a story about what had happened when his own dragon was a baby.
“You’re kicking up ash!” Kyungsoo cried, shielding his cheese as Suho neared.
“Sorry,” Suho said, rolling his eyes. Kyungsoo scowled at him like Suho had committed some unforgivable act.
“Hey, Suho,” Luhan said weakly, giving him a small smile. Suho felt a pang of concern, as usual.
“Hey, Luhan,” he replied. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” said Luhan, his usual answer. “Starting to get a little tired of staring at the same scenery though.”
“Same,” grumbled Kyungsoo. “How much longer are we going to have to wait, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” said Suho, exasperated because people kept expecting him to have the answers. “Why don’t you ask Luhan? He’s the Oracle. Are you sure we didn’t miss him?”
“No,” Luhan said simply. “I don’t think we did.”
“Well, he’s taking his time,” Kyungsoo said. “It’s very rude, there’s a war going on.”
“You can lecture him when he gets here,” Suho retorted, turning to leave.
As he walked away he heard something about how they should make Chanyeol eat some of their gritty food in punishment, and he rolled his eyes upwards. “Six,” he muttered.
As he walked through their camp, a lump under some of the furs caught his eye. He lifted a corner and was greeted by Yixing’s sleeping face, his mouth agape and drooling. Suho rolled his eyes. He didn’t understand how Yixing could sleep in this heat under all those layers but clearly he was managing it very well. Yixing was still recovering from what had happened when he’d tried to Heal Luhan, his body struggling to get back to normal, some internal balance usurped. He was sleeping almost as much as Luhan, and complained of generally feeling like crap, but seemed to be getting better. That was one small miracle.
It had taken a full day for Yixing to wake up after the attempted Healing, and even then it had been a fair few minutes before he’d been alert enough to notice that he was actually tied to one of the dragon spikes. Anyone else would have probably been somewhat freaked out by that, but Yixing hadn’t even yelped. Explanations of what had happened to him and where they were headed had been forced to wait until they landed. He’d taken the explanation of what happened to him calmly, but his entire demeanor had changed once he heard that they were on their way to the Lightning Clan’s City. It was probably a good thing that Yixing didn’t have any kind of offensive powers, because Suho would have feared for his own safety if he had. Yixing had been livid, turning first on Suho, then Kris, then Kai for some reason, demanding from each of them an explanation for the crackpot, dangerous plan they had come up with.
“It’s the only way we can find Chanyeol,” Suho had protested, almost shrinking back from Yixing, which was silly because Yixing wasn’t even a physical threat. “I know it’s dangerous, so much can go wrong, but—”
“That’s not what I mean,” Yixing had hissed, poking Suho in the chest. “Chen is — I’ve got a patient still in the middle of recovery, don’t you see, and now you want to drag him back to the place where his trauma originates from? You’re supposed to be smart!” Then he had whirled on Kris who had his arms folded across his chest and his expression schooled into blankness. “Or at least you’re supposed to be the smart one!”
The argument — which was really more one-sided yelling on Yixing’s part — had gone on until Chen himself had silently stood up and walked off. Yixing had fallen quiet at that, just enough for Kai to interrupt. “We know it’s stupid,” he’d said. “We know it’s going to hurt him. But Chen agreed to help us. It’s not your decision to make.” Yixing had stared at him, struggling to catch his breath, and then left camp too, stomping after Chen. It had been a while before they’d both returned, neither of them looking particularly happy.
Now, with his hair all over his face and his mouth hanging open in sleep, it was close to impossible to think about how intimidating Yixing had been. Suho added him to his tally with a murmured, “Seven,” and gently lay the corner of the furs down. He only had to find another three. Xiumin could generally be relied upon to stay close, but Baekhyun and Chen both had a habit of straying further than Suho liked; Baekhyun because he was on the lookout for Chanyeol, and Chen because he knew the city like the back of his hand.
Fortunately, this time, Xiumin and Baekhyun were together, sitting on a low wall just outside the courtyard, Baekhyun looking comfortable in the heat while Xiumin looked like he was about to pass out. Of course, that could also have been because of how hard he was concentrating, staring with his eyes fixated on some spot in the distance.
“What are you doing?” Suho asked, and Xiumin yelped, apparently concentrating so hard that he hadn’t even noticed Suho approaching.
“We’re training,” Baekhyun said. He’d stripped down to the underlayer of his uniform and cut the sleeves off the shirt. His arms were streaked with grey. Suho was beginning to wonder if he had the right idea.
“Oh, really?” Suho eyed them skeptically. “Training how?”
“I’m trying to see if I can do the heat thing again,” Xiumin mumbled, looking embarrassed at having been caught, for some reason.
“It’s not working all that well,” Baekhyun said, patting Xiumin sympathetically on the shoulder.
“My Shifting powers never work that well, I am used to it.”
“Keep trying!” Suho said cheerfully. “I’m sure you’ll get it eventually.”
“It would be easier if I had something I could practise on,” Xiumin said. “But seeing as the only living things around here are you guys, that seems unlikely.”
“Please don’t melt any of us,” Suho said solemnly. “Not even Tao.”
Xiumin and Baekhyun laughed, and Suho smiled, adding them to his numbers so that he now had nine altogether and just one more to find.
Suho wandered a bit, trying not to go too far. Once he hit undisturbed ashes, he’d turn back around and resume looking in another spot. “Chen?” he called gently down a wide empty street, the sound bouncing slightly. He was afraid to raise his voice too much, as sound seemed to amplify out here in the desert, and for all he knew a scream could be heard for miles. He got the feeling that everyone else sensed this too, keeping their voices down even when laughing or joking around.
“Chen,” Suho called again, and nearby a crow took flight, the sound of its wings giving Suho a start. This place really did give him the shivers. He waited for a reply and then turned to head back, only to spot a boot print out of the corner of his eye. The ash here was pretty unmoved, but upon looking closer, Suho could see evidence of someone passing through.
He wasn’t nearly as light footed as the previous person had been, leaving a definite trail behind himself as he walked down the street. He walked for far longer than he’d anticipated, half worried he was imaging the ghostly prints and leaving a trail through half the city for nothing. This was definitely farther than they’d ever explored. It finally crossed his mind that he could have been following the footsteps of someone else entirely, a thought he shook away but which put him on his guard.
As he walked the damage got worse. There were less buildings standing here, and everything was just black and peeling, the air acrid. He pushed some of the ashes aside with his foot, and found no blue tiles, just warped discolored glass. He passed by what he thought had once been a giant ancient tree, but all that was left was the barest of stumps, the rest of it turned to dust.
“I didn’t think it could get any worse,” he muttered to himself before walking on.
He finally stopped, not even realizing for a moment he was standing where once a grand building had been. He could vaguely make out where the edges of the room once were, and there were some columns here and there, reaching up to the sky.
“Chen!” Suho shouted, for a moment no longer caring about volume. His neck was prickling at the silence.
“I’m here,” came the soft reply. Suho turned towards the sound, picking his way through the remnants of fallen beams and other debris. Chen was around a precariously standing wall, looking almost as eerie as his surroundings.
“Chen,” Suho panted, making his way to the boy’s side. “I couldn’t find you. You’re not supposed to wander this far.”
“This is my house,” Chen said softly. Suho stopped dead, stomach dropping. “Or, it was. Is? I don’t know.”
“I,” Suho choked out, looking around himself. There really wasn’t much left. The pillars hinted at something extravagant and beautiful, but Suho would never really know for sure. It was broken now, destroyed. The old beauty could never be replicated again, not like before. He touched the crumbling wall beside them, the stone stained black, and found that he’d half-expected it to still be hot.
“I think this is where the fires started,” Chen said. He walked around a fallen beam, tracing his finger over patterns only he seemed to see. “It’s where the damage is the worst, and it shows evidence of burning unnaturally hot, courtesy of my nation’s Shifters.”
“If they wanted to gut the city, wouldn’t they have started in the center?” Suho asked. Their tactics didn’t seem to make any sense.
Chen looked at him sideways, fingers still tracing the invisible patterns. “They didn’t want to gut the city, or at least, that was their secondary motivation. They wanted to hurt me. They wanted me to know the power that they possessed, wanted to punish me for trying to tell them no.”
Suho shuddered and shifted his feet, sending a small cloud of ash dust billowing around their feet. He wanted to get out of there. This was where the wave of destruction had started, the place where the end had come for all the people living in this town, and he couldn’t help but feel like if they stayed there much longer, they’d be stricken down by something too, like there was something waiting in the shadows for him. He’d probably been hanging around people from the Air Nation too much, he reflected. This bit of logic didn’t stop him feeling sick.
“Regardless of the damage though, I know it started somewhere around here. I saw it start on the east side first, then others pop up around. I think they actually went for the temple second, but I honestly can’t be sure, it blurs together.”
“What?” Suho gasped. “You were— I thought—”
Chen pinned him with a glance, eyes oddly lifeless, shining like marbles. “You thought what? I was left rotting in some cell while this all happened? No. I was here. They had me watch from up there.” He pointed carelessly at a hill in the distance, just visible over the city’s walls. “I didn’t think they’d do this. I couldn’t believe it. I think the worst part was the screaming. Even if I closed my eyes, I couldn’t block out the screaming. They were holding my arms, you see.”
“I didn’t know,” Suho said numbly. And he hadn’t. Maybe if he had, he would have rethought this whole venture and have left Chen behind while waiting for Chanyeol. Dumped him by some nice sulfuric pools with Yixing and Luhan to await pick-up. Suho closed his eyes. Yixing was right.
“There’s a body over here,” Chen said, his voice in a different spot now. Suho opened his eyes, reflecting that Chen moved far too quietly. He didn’t want to see any more bodies, but Chen was gazing at him expectantly, so he came over. He caught a flash of a ribcage before averting his eyes. “A body in my house, I wonder who it is. There’s nothing really left. This was one of the main halls, it could be anyone practically.”
“I don’t—” Suho took a shuddering breath. “I don’t want to hear this. And you don’t need to do this to yourself.”
“You’re the one who brought me here,” Chen said shortly. “You did this.”
“I didn’t know,” Suho protested.
“That doesn’t make it okay,” Chen shrugged. “I mean, I can’t put all the blame on you, I didn’t say no, and if we go full circle I guess I really am the reason everything burned, so I did do this to myself.” He smiled wryly. “Last time I said no, my city burned. Maybe that’s why I didn’t say no this time.”
“You aren’t to blame,” Suho said, horrified at the thought.
“Saying that won't bring back my people, the culture, the streets I walked down or the laughter or—” He cut himself off. “It doesn’t change the fact that this all did happen because of me. It did,” he repeated when Suho was making a noise of protest.
“No,” Suho said, shaking his head. “It happened because of a power-hungry government, because of some cruel generals and corrupt soldiers. They’re to blame.”
“And they will get their turn.” Chen said icily. Suho’s neck prickled, hearing the promise in Chen’s voice.
“Revenge is a poison.”
“It’s also the only thing that keeps me getting up in the mornings. So.”
“It will kill you eventually.”
Chen threw his head back and laughed, the sudden noise loud and jarring in the silence. A few crows in a building nearby cawed indignantly as they rose into the air, and Suho rather wanted to cry. Or shake Chen, because his eyes were empty and his laughter somehow sounded like sobbing.
When the laughter taped off, it left an awkward quietness between them, Suho not sure what to say and Chen looking like he didn’t want Suho to say anything anyway. He went back to staring down at the body before eventually saying, “I don’t think it’s my father, at least.”
“That’s. Good.” Suho grabbed Chen by the wrist and tugged. “We need to get back to camp.”
“Because we do.” Chen let himself be led, for which Suho could only be grateful. When they got back to camp Suho would set someone to watch Chen. Someone frequently bored. He couldn’t be left to wander, not if this was the state he was in.
Suho’s hold on Chen’s wrist tightened. This had been a mistake, but the damage was already done.
Once back on the street Chen pulled away from Suho’s grasp and led the way back. Suho fought not to sigh audibly in relief. He also fought down the waves of guilt pounding at him. He couldn’t change anything now. They just had to hope that Chanyeol arrived soon, before Chen did something stupid.
Nothing eventful was happening back at the camp. In fact from what Suho could see, most everyone was where he’d left them. He looked up at the sky and sent up a thank you for small mercies.
“You were gone a while,” a voice said, and Suho turned to see Kris striding towards them. At some point he had taken off his shirt, and Suho eyed him distastefully. He’d contemplated doing the same thing but considering he’d lived all his life in the Water Nation, where you didn’t remove your clothes outside if you valued your extremities at all, it was exceedingly likely he’d be burned by the sun within five minutes. So he suffered in his long-sleeved shirt and settled for glaring daggers at Kris and his stupid tan.
“I was looking for Chen,” Suho said simply. Chen nodded and then walked away, face blank. He settled among the furs, sitting next to where Yixing was still sleeping. Kris raised an eyebrow at Suho.
“Is he okay?” he asked in an undertone.
“No,” sighed Suho. He ran a hand through his hair and winced when it came away covered in sweat and grime. “We need to keep a closer eye on him, he’s not—”
“Kris!” Tao called, bounding over when he caught sight of the pair of them. He poked Kris is the side. “I could draw designs in the dirt on you.”
“Taozi,” Kris said with the heavy sigh of one truly martyred. “The adults are talking.”
Tao traced something against Kris’s side. “I am an adult too.” He frowned.
“You are probably drawing something horrifically juvenile on my bicep right now.”
“It’s a grumpy face, with your eyebrows.”
“You are proving my point.”
Tao huffed. “Sorry. I’ll go strut about with my shirt off and a horrendous scowl on my face then, because apparently that’s what adults do.” He turned on his heel and walked off, head held high.
Suho examined Kris’s bicep. “It’s a good likeness, he definitely has your eyebrows down.”
Kris turned to deliver a blistering retort, but he was interrupted by Xiumin sprinting back into camp, Baekhyun hot on his heels. “We just saw people,” Xiumin gasped out. Beside him, Baekhyun was hunched over, trying to catch his breath, or, judging by his expression, trying to not have a panic attack. “Riders, on the hill. It’s him. He’s here.”
Chanyeol dismounted just inside the city gates. As he landed on the ground, a cloud of ashes and dust billowed around his feet, catching in his throat and making him cough. The noise was unnervingly loud and he struggled to stop, even though he was the only person in the city to hear it. Breaking the silence that cloaked the city felt like some sort of sacrilege, like he was disturbing a sleeping monster.
He looked around himself for something to tie his horse to, not wanting to have to lead it through the debris. There was an iron ring embedded in the wall, and that would do well enough. He didn’t think it would wander, and there wasn’t really anything here to spook it, but just in case. After he tied the reins off he looked back out of the gate, to his guard that he’d left up on the high hill overlooking the city. They were just specks in the distance, but most definitely still there, waiting.
He’d been forced to bring a guard with him by the generals, who seemed to think that having men with him would protect him from Air Nation foes. The fact that Chanyeol was stronger than all of the guard put together hadn’t seemed to cross their minds. Or maybe it had. Chanyeol had a suspicion that the guards had been sent along more to watch him, than anything else. General Hwang had organized the guard himself, and would probably be rather upset that Chanyeol had been able to con them into staying behind, outside of the city.
He wasn’t doing anything wrong. He’d told the generals he wanted to go home, his real home, that the Air Nation had destroyed. Not to stay, just to see. He wanted closure, he’d said, because he’d never gotten to see his own city after the destruction. They had made clucking noises of sympathy, one general actually patting him on the shoulder, and he found himself feeling guilty for the lie. He wanted to see the destruction, yes, but not for closure. More than that, he wanted to check for evidence of Fire Shifting damage.
“It’s too far,” General Hwang had said tersely. “It would be several day’s ride, and you would need a guard to accompany you. We cannot spare men for that long.”
Chanyeol didn’t have to feign his disappointment. He wanted out of this city. Cloistered in as he was, constantly shadowed, he felt like he was drowning. He needed to know the truth, truly, absolutely, so he could go back to being resolved, so he wouldn’t feel like he was lying on a bed of weeds, waiting to be strangled.
Off to his side, General Jung had sighed at his downcast expression. “It’s a shame you aren’t from the Lightning Clan,” he’d said. “It’s less than a day out from here.”
Chanyeol’s breath had caught. The Lightning Clan’s city would do almost just as well for his purposes. “I could go there instead,” Chanyeol had said slowly. “It was destroyed by the Air Nation as well. I just. I never saw any of the destroyed cities. I would like to. For closure.” Underneath the table, his hands were fisted so hard he thought his nails might have drawn blood on his palms.
He’d seen General Hwang watching him through narrowed eyes, but the others had been sympathetic. There had been a discussion as to whether it was a good idea or not, during which Chanyeol had let some of the constant fear he held inside of him, the fear that someone was going to realise that he was doubting his own nation, slip into his voice. Even just that little bit of emotion had been enough to cause the generals to shift uncomfortably, eyeing him warily.
“I think we can spare a handful of men for a day,” General Jung had said. The others, Hwang excepted, gave nods of agreement.
“Well,” General Hwang had said, teeth clenched together, “I suppose we’ll have to. I’ll assemble some guards to keep the Phoenix safe on his little venture.”
Chanyeol had taken a deep breath, making a show of steadying himself. Then he’d bowed, murmuring a thank you to General Hwang for his consideration. He knew Hwang had an important council meeting with their king on the day he’d chosen to go out, otherwise the general would have most likely accompanied Chanyeol himself. There would have been no escaping the guard if that had happened.
As it was, the guards that had been chosen were ranked far lower than Chanyeol himself. They were Hwang’s men, though more because Hwang was paying them than because of any loyalty. That had made it easier on Chanyeol. Far easier. All he’d had to do once they reached Chen’s city was toss them a silver each and tell them he needed time alone, and they were more than happy to listen. He also sensed, on some level, they were slightly awed of him. The Phoenix. It was funny, because Chanyeol didn’t feel like the strongest Shifter alive, not anymore. Fear had exhausted him. He was just so tired.
Chanyeol turned from the gate and began walking down the wide street. There wasn’t too much debris in his path, just a thick layer of ashes. The smell was acrid, and burned at his lungs. The thought that his own city, once so bright and full of life, most likely looked exactly like this one now made his eyes sting with unshed tears.
He walked briskly, unsure exactly what he was searching for. As he got further into the city the damage got worse, until all around him was blackness, buildings toppled over, and the occasional disintegrating corpse here and there.
“I’ll walk to the center,” he said to himself, “to the temple, then I’ll go back.” He’d been here before once, when he was quite small. It was before he was a Shifter, before he’d met Baekhyun. His family had come here to trade, and he remembered being fascinated by how beautiful the city had been, with the streets lined with mosaics and the people dressed in shades of turquoise and cream, fingers and ears and necks laden with golden jewelry. The Fire Nation as a whole loved gold, as well as gems; it was one of the few things they had in abundance. The Lightning Clan had been opulent in ways Chanyeol could never have imagined though.
“They’re so pretty,” Chanyeol had said in awe, watching a pair of women walk by. “They look like birds.”
“I will be impressed with gems once we figure out how to eat them,” his father had replied with a laugh. Chanyeol hadn’t understood at the time, but he did now. Their nation was practically drowning in riches, but food was often scarce. What good were jewels when their basic survival needs weren’t being met?
But now the beautiful city that Chanyeol remembered was gone, the pretty streets burned and covered in a layer of ash that he left boot prints in as he made his way towards the temple. Chanyeol could remember it as it was, a ceiling made of intricate stained glass, with marble statues several stories high made into the shape of a man and a woman standing tall out front to welcome you inside, the irises of their eyes citrine gems the size of his father’s fist. The Lightning Clan were the most spiritual of all the clans in the Fire Nation, and their temple was the most opulent of the buildings in their city.
He stepped inside the gates to the temple and stopped. He had been expecting a burned wreck, hollow and black. Instead the temple was at least half the size that it had been, walls not even still standing, everything collapsed in on itself. The two statues out front were unrecognizable at first. He’d expected them to be blackened, just like he’d expected the rest of the temple to be, and maybe even toppled. But they had melted, as if they were made of wax and not stone, their color muddy and diluted.
He walked closer and realized the temple had semi-melted as well, the stones warping, causing it to topple. The glass was completely gone, probably liquified in the fire, fallen to mix with the ash. He felt his stomach rolling, his eyes prickling with new tears, as the realization hit him. Normal fire didn’t burn hot enough to melt stone like that. Any fire that the Air Nation created would have damaged the temple but not caused destruction like this. The only explanation for this was if the fire had been helped along by Shifting energy, made to burn unnaturally hot. And air Shifters couldn’t do that, only fire.
“He was telling the truth,” he murmured, pressing his hand to his eyes in an attempt at stopping the tears which he could feel gathering there. “Chen didn’t lie to me. My own nation did this.”
If he told the truth about this, he thought, was he telling the truth about the rest? About Baekhyun, about what actually happened to my city? Was that the truth too?
He was almost so preoccupied with these thoughts that he almost missed the sound of shifting stone behind him, like something had knocked into the crumbling walls around the temple. Chanyeol whirled, fingers already burning hot, his sudden panic making him react before he could really think about what the noise could be. It was too late anyway. He turned just in time to see a pebble flying towards his face. It struck him in the forehead sharply, and his head snapped back. He fell backwards, onto stone, and his head hit the ground with a thump. He was already reeling from the pebble, but now his vision was skittering in and out. He couldn’t get his bearings around the pain.
There was a ringing in his ears, but under it he could hear the soft sound of footsteps, muffled by the ashes. And then there were voices.
“Nice shot, Kyungsoo,” someone said. A man’s voice. Chanyeol couldn’t quite see yet, but his fingers were tingling, he might be able to summon enough energy to attack.
“Did you hurt him?” a second voice asked, laced with concern, and Chanyeol knew that voice. His concentration scattered, and his head throbbed. He couldn’t get his mouth to form the name he knew so well.
There were hands on him now, and a voice right above his head saying, “He’ll be fine.” There was a warmth in his chest, spreading out from where the stranger was touching him, and the pain decreased, but his vision went fully dark, and the voices faded, and then there was nothing.
Luhan watched as Kai and Suho struggled to tie Chanyeol’s unconscious body to one of the dragon spikes, their struggling lying with the fact that Chanyeol’s limbs were too long for him to fit comfortably. Below them, on the ground, Baekhyun was watching as well, every so often calling up reminders to avoid hurting Chanyeol in any way. Kai was beginning to get irritated by it, Luhan could sense.
“Okay,” said Suho, after another minute. “I think that’s it. It’ll have to do. We don’t have time to mess around anymore.”
“But what if he falls?” Baekhyun called.
“Then I guess we’ll have a lovely Phoenix pancake,” Kai snapped at him. “I’ll teleport and grab him, what more do you want from us?”
“Certainty,” Baekhyun replied, frowning.
“Too bad,” Kris said, beginning to shove Luhan toward the dragon. “Chanyeol’s guards aren’t on the hill anymore. Either they saw us or they can just sense something is up. Either way, we need to move.”
Luhan stumbled, his legs feeling so weak that his knees simply gave way. He would have fallen to the ground if Kris hadn’t stopped shoving and grabbed his arm, yanking him upright. “Luhan, are you,” he started, but then Sehun was there, pulling Luhan towards him and hurrying him towards the dragon while supporting his weight.
Kai grabbed his hands and helped haul him up. Luhan couldn’t help but notice that Kai didn’t teleport him, even though it would have been faster. He did teleport Kyungsoo though, after Luhan was safely settled behind his spike. His spike was right behind Chanyeol’s. The others wanted them to be near to Chanyeol in case he woke up and began to panic. They wanted him to try to keep him calm. Luhan wasn’t sure how well he’d be able to do that in his current state, but he’d try.
Sehun settled himself behind Luhan, arms clamping around his middle to keep him from falling, for which Luhan was immensely grateful. It had been days since they’d been in the air and he no longer thought he’d be able to hold on properly on his own. He didn’t voice this thought aloud, already sensing Sehun’s concern enough.
“Hold on!” Kai shouted, the need for secrecy forgotten. The dragon rumbled to her feet, wings extending and sending the ash around them flying. Luhan squeezed his eyes shut. He already felt so awful that he didn’t need the fear and sickness that heights made him feel adding to that. The swooping of his stomach as they took to the air was bad enough.
Someone behind him gave a cry of alarm and Luhan opened his eyes just in time to see a jet of fire shoot up from the ground, missing the dragon’s flank by several feet. Luhan could still feel the heat. The dragon banked sharply away, and Luhan scrambled at the neck spike in front of himself as everything tilted.
“Fire Shifters,” Sehun muttered in disgust as they leveled out again. Luhan looked back to see another jet shoot out at them, but it fell far short. They were already passing over the city’s walls, the ground speeding by underneath them. Luhan was a bit confused though, as the dragon didn’t seem to be flying as high as she usually did. It was still high enough to make him nervous.
Soon Chen’s city was just a speck on the horizon, and Luhan could sense the relief of those around him. They hadn’t flown over the Fire Nation in the daylight before, and Luhan found it was terribly monotonous. Reddish brown earth as far as the eye could see, just now they had scorching sun to deal with. Before long he could feel the sun beginning to weigh down on him, his lips drying, his skin feeling hot and almost feverish.
“If I had anything in my stomach, I’d be barfing it up right now,” he mumbled to himself.
“What?” Sehun yelled in his ear, the wind pulling the word away.
Luhan grasped Sehun’s arm, rotating a bit to reply, but caught sight of something out of the corner of his eye that caused his mouth to snap shut. There was whiteness on the horizon ahead, the colour bleeding out of the land.
“Luhan!” Sehun called, “what is it?” Luhan pinched his arm to quiet him.
Soon they had reached the whiteness, and Luhan still couldn’t see what it was really. The earth had inexplicably turned pale, suddenly and without reason. “Why is the ground white?” he shouted, unable to keep the fear out of his voice.
“I don’t know,” Sehun replied. “Maybe it’s sand.”
“It’s white.” Luhan’s voice was shrill, and he shut his mouth because the sound of his own scared voice just frightened him more. He could sense that Sehun was just confused anyway, and explaining was not something that Luhan wanted to do.
He stared out at the white land, numbness spreading through his body, and so was brought back sharply to his senses when there was a sudden dip in their altitude. He heard Kai shout something but then they dipped again, and were suddenly heading for the ground, faster than Luhan’s stomach would have liked.
They landed heavily, a few people crying out in shock and pain. The dragon shook herself once she had all four feet on the ground, and it jerked Luhan’s head a bit, making him dizzy. She made a noise that even Luhan could tell was discontented.
“Kai?” Luhan called weakly.
“I don’t know,” Kai replied, and it sounded a tad desperate. “She doesn’t want to fly.”
“What do you mean she doesn’t want to fly?” Suho nearly shrieked. “The Fire Nation is going to be sending people after us, and we barely were up in the air for an hour, she has to fly.”
“I can’t make her fly,” Kai said, irritated. “If she doesn’t want to, there’s nothing I can do.”
“Is she hurt?” Yixing asked.
Kai shook his head. “Sehun?” he called.
“Is Luhan... alright? Is he secure?”
“I’m okay,” Luhan chirped, far happier than he felt. He gave a little wave. “Why?”
“Just. Wondering.” Luhan could feel the lie, but he decided not to mention it right now. Kai wasn’t saying something. Maybe the dragon had sensed his panic, and Kai just didn’t want to point fingers.
“Will she walk at least?” Kris asked.
There was a beat of silence before Kai said, “Yes.” The dragon began to move, and it was far slower than her flying pace, but Luhan supposed it was better than nothing.
This close, the ground sparkled, sunlight glinting off it. It was slightly cracked still, just white. The dragon’s feet crunched as she walked. “Chen,” Luhan called behind himself, “where are we?” He was shooting for nonchalance and only slightly missed.
“It’s the Sea of Silence,” Chen replied. “It used to have actual water, salt water. It was pretty much a dead sea, nothing lived in it, it was too salty. We had an earthquake and not long after all the water disappeared.”
“Oh,” Luhan said. “So the white stuff is—”
“Salt,” Chen finished for him.
Kyungsoo grumbled out something about first ash, now salt, but Luhan heard him as if from a long ways away. He was staring out at the land, the whiteness stretching out in front of him, exactly how it had been in his visions. Somehow, he hadn’t thought the white place was real. And yet here it was, and this was all too horribly real, and not a vision anymore. “It’s too soon,” he whispered. “I’m not ready for this.” He gripped the spike in front of himself so hard his fingertips turned white, and he shuddered. He wasn’t ready to feel that agony in real life, for it to run through him and tear him apart. And he wasn’t ready for the empty darkness after.
“Luhan?” Sehun’s arms tightened around his waist. Luhan struggled to hold back a sob. “Are you okay?”
Yes, Luhan tried to say, but was scared that if he opened his mouth he wouldn’t be able to stop himself from crying with how terrified he felt. He was saved from the need to reply by the spark of a new consciousness in front of him, Chanyeol waking from the sleep that Yixing had put him in.
“He’s waking up,” Luhan called, voice urgent. “Chanyeol’s waking up, guys.” As if understanding his words, the dragon stopped walking.
“We’re not far away enough yet!” Suho shouted, voice almost hysterical with panic. “He can’t wake up!”
“Quick,” Xiumin said, “hit him with a rock!”
“There are no rocks,” Luhan cried.
“No more rocks,” Baekhyun yelled.
“Oh no,” Luhan said, because he could feel Chanyeol waking up enough to panic. “Oh no no no no.” He pushed Sehun’s arm off himself so he could scoot forward and lean around the spike in front of him. “This is going to suck,” he muttered, just before laying his hand on Chanyeol’s shoulder.
Chanyeol jumped and shrieked, and his panic flowed into Luhan. He was able to stifle it a bit, but there was no calming him entirely. Chanyeol began to struggle in earnest, and Luhan could feel his powers warming up.
Then Chen was there, stepping around Luhan carefully. He navigated himself in front of Chanyeol, and Chanyeol was struck dumb by the sight of him. Luhan couldn’t say Chanyeol was happy to see Chen, but he wasn’t unhappy either. It was a start.
“It’s okay,” Chen said, reaching slowly for Chanyeol’s bindings. “I’m not going to hurt you. We tied you down so you wouldn’t fall off, is all.”
“Chen,” Chanyeol gasped. “You really did make it out alive. I wasn’t sure what— they didn’t exactly tell me— what happened to your face?”
Chen’s hands fumbled for a moment. None of them really ever mentioned the scars, and there weren’t any mirrors out here. Chen no doubt knew they were there, burn marks spreading across his left temple and cheekbone, but it couldn't be pleasant to be reminded. His fingers steadied again and he simply replied with, “Hwang happened.”
There was dismay in Chanyeol’s aura now, and guilt. He shuddered under Luhan’s hands. Once Chen had removed the ropes, Chanyeol jerked away, breaking the connection Luhan had with his emotions. Luhan sat back warily, not overly convinced that Chanyeol wasn’t going to blow up still.
Chanyeol turned around quickly, taking in Luhan’s face curiously. “Hi,” Luhan said, “I’m the Oracle.”
“You look like a ghost,” Chanyeol said numbly. He looked beyond Luhan, to Sehun, then leaned over further to take in all the others. “You all look like ghosts,” Chanyeol muttered, as his eyes swept down the line, then Luhan felt his emotions spike, the intensity making him recoil. Behind him, Baekhyun had a similar reaction, shrinking under Chanyeol’s gaze. Chanyeol opened his mouth, pointing at Baekhyun, and all that came out was a choked garbled noise. There were emotions roiling through Chanyeol, anger, confusion, joy, hope, guilt, suspicion, and Luhan didn’t know which was going to pop up on top.
“We should get off the dragon,” Kai suggested. “This is a conversation best had on the ground.”
“Dragon?” Chanyeol shrieked, as the dragon lowered herself to the ground so they could dismount. Chanyeol would have slid right off her side if Chen hadn’t grabbed him.
They all climbed off, everyone watching Chanyeol warily, as if expecting him to explode at any given moment. Only Chen seemed somewhat relaxed with him, helping him down because Chanyeol was still reeling. Once on the ground Chanyeol didn’t stand straight, going into a kind of half-crouch as he whirled around, looking at his surroundings and at the others, as if afraid one of them might spring and attack. Luhan watched his eyes dart around, and thought that this Phoenix was very different from the one he’d felt before. If there was one thing Chanyeol hadn’t been on that battlefield, it was afraid. And yet now the fear was pouring off him as he looked them over, clearly concerned with his odds against so many foes.
“Luhan?” Kai asked tentatively.
“It’s okay,” Luhan murmured, “he’s just afraid.”
“You don’t have to be scared,” Chen told Chanyeol. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
“You hit me in the head with a rock,” Chanyeol pointed out, still not standing up from his crouch.
“We needed you to come with us, and listen,” Suho said gently. “But we Healed you, you’re alright now.”
“You kidnapped me,” Chanyeol cried. He whirled on Chen, “Why would you do that? Who are you people?” Luhan could feel the panic returning, and with it despair. Small flames began to flicker at Chanyeol’s fingertips, though Luhan thought they might be involuntary, because he didn’t seem about to attack.
“Chanyeol,” Baekhyun said softly, stepping forward and holding his hands up in a peaceful gesture. The burn scars on his palms shone in the sunlight. “We aren’t going to hurt you, I promise. We just want to talk to you.”
Chanyeol took a step back, and the flames on his fingertips went out. “Your hands,” he said, the end tapering off into a sob. He looked away swiftly.
Baekhyun snatched his hands back, holding them to his chest tightly. “I’m okay,” he said. “I just, are you alright? Please don’t be frightened, none of us want to fight you.”
“And even if you were thinking of burning us up,” Chen added, managing to sound very casual about such a prospect, “where would you go? Look around yourself, Chanyeol. It’s not worth fighting us when you’d never get out of here on your own anyway.”
Baekhyun looked at Chen reproachfully, but as Chanyeol looked around himself again, Luhan could feel all the fight go out of him. After a moment Chanyeol stood up fully, hands dropping to hang by his side limply. “What do you want from me?”
“To understand that we didn’t just kidnap you,” Chen snapped. “We just rescued you.”
“Who did? Who are you all? Rescued me from what?” Chanyeol looked back at Baekhyun. “And why is he here?” The hurt didn’t show on Baekhyun’s face, but Luhan could still see it.
“I guess he wouldn’t recognize us, would he?” Kyungsoo said, looking down at himself.
“We’re friends,” Suho said simply, accurately guessing that Chanyeol wouldn’t be thrilled to find out he was surrounded by Shifters from the other nations.
“He said he was the Oracle,” Chanyeol said, pointing a finger at Luhan. “What — I mean, the Oracle. What is even happening?”
Luhan was struggling not to sway under the onslaught of emotions everyone was throwing at him. “I’m your friend too,” he managed to say eventually. “Really, truly, we just need you to listen to us.”
Chen derailed Chanyeol’s comeback by asking him, “Why were you in my city, Chanyeol?”
“I’m the one asking the questions,” Chanyeol choked out. “How did you even know I was going to be there?”
“Oracle,” Chen reminded him, pointing at Luhan. Chanyeol looked somewhat mollified by that. “He saw you there, but didn’t see why. So, why?”
“I wanted to see,” Chanyeol murmured, and suddenly there was suspicion and guilt and belligerence roiling in his aura.
“And did you?” Chen asked, eyes strangely clear.
The guilt won out, and Chanyeol visibly deflated. “Yes, I did.”
“I didn’t lie to you,” Chen murmured. “I told you the Fire Nation destroyed my clan, burned it to ashes, and they did the same to yours.”
Chanyeol was shaking his head, backing away. “No.” The guilt and fear rolling off him actually made Luhan stagger.
“You’ve been lied to, just like I told you,” Chen said. “They manipulated you into fighting for them, the people who killed your family—”
“No,” Chanyeol said again, and there were tears in his eyes now. “No. They destroyed your home because you wouldn’t cooperate, but it doesn’t mean they destroyed mine. I didn’t do anything wrong, why would they—”
“If that was true, then why would they lie to you about what they did to me in the first place?” He gestured at his own face. “Look at what they did to me, just for telling you the truth about what happened to me.” Chanyeol was back to shaking his head, mouthing ‘no’ repeatedly. Chen made a frustrated noise and reached over, grabbing Baekhyun’s wrist and forcing his hand out, palm up. “This is what they made you do.” Baekhyun struggled to pull away, looking horrified. “Chanyeol, look at his hands.”
“I can’t, it hurts,” Chanyeol cried, covering his face and crumpling in on himself.
There was an odd gleam in Chen’s eye. “Baekhyun didn’t betray you, and deep down you know it.” Chanyeol shook his head, moaning slightly.
“Don’t,” Baekhyun whimpered. “Please, it wasn’t his fault, he’s been lied to. Let me go.”
Yixing strode forward and gave Chen a sharp shove to the shoulder. “You’re being an ass.”
Chen let Baekhyun’s wrist go, face twisting. “He needs to understand.”
“The truth is on our side,” Yixing said tersely. “You don’t have to push him into a panic attack. I don’t want to have to deal with that. We’re already running low on calming tea, and we’ve only just started back.” Chen subsided with a look.
They were all standing in a fairly large circle around Chanyeol, all too scared to move too close, but then Baekhyun was stepping forward. He reached out, palm down, and touched his fingertips gently to Chanyeol’s upper arm. Chanyeol flinched back, his hands snapping away from his face to see who was touching him.
“Baekhyun,” Suho said, warning in his voice.
“He won’t hurt me,” Baekhyun said softly, his hand following Chanyeol’s movement until it was able to rest fully on his arm. “I know you don’t trust me, may never trust me again. But please, don’t, don’t be sad, don’t be upset. Chen is concerned for you, we all are, we’re just going to help you find out the truth. I will never hurt you.”
Chanyeol said nothing, he was staring wide-eyed at Baekhyun, leaning away slightly like Baekhyun’s touch burned him. Luhan gently reached his senses out and wished he hadn’t. Chanyeol was, oddly, completely horrified, and almost sick with a noxious guilt. There was suspicion under it all, but more than anything Chanyeol was just working not to sob.
“Baekhyun,” Luhan said, “you need to step back.”
“He’s not going to hurt you, I think he’s going to hurl,” Luhan said simply, as Chanyeol turned to retch. “There, see?”
“Lovely,” said Kris tiredly. He began yanking at the bundles of furs tied to the side of the dragon. “We should set up camp while he does that.”
“Please don’t touch me,” Chanyeol moaned, as Baekhyun had been doing just that. He stepped away, expression concerned.
“Do you believe us?” Chen asked, and Yixing whapped him.
Chanyeol gagged. “I believe the Fire Nation burned your clan, and that they forced you into fighting for them.”
“But what about the rest?”
“It’s important.” Chen tugged hard at Yixing’s ponytail, causing Yixing to flail at him. “Do you believe they did the same to you?”
Chanyeol shook his head, wiping his mouth off with the back of his hand. “I don’t know,” he groaned. “I didn’t do anything, not like you did. I don’t understand.”
“It wasn’t you. It was your father.”
Chanyeol’s head snapped up. “My father?”
“They wanted his support, because if they had him, they had you, the Phoenix, the strongest Shifter alive. But he refused.”
“My father never liked that they were trying to pull me into military affairs,” Chanyeol whispered. “He never told me about this.”
“I know,” Chen said, tone suddenly much more gentle. “And they knew too, otherwise this whole ruse might not have worked.”
Chanyeol shook his head. “I can’t.” He looked at them desperately. “I can’t, I can’t.”
“It’s too much for him to take in at once,” Yixing said, adjusting his ponytail haughtily. “It’d be too much for anyone.”
“We don’t exactly have forever.”
“What if we took him home?” Baekhyun said softly. “Would you, do you want that? Then you could see for yourself.” He paused. “I haven’t been back, since what happened. I think I need to see it too.”
Chanyeol’s expression was unreadable. “Yes, I want to go home.” It appeared his bout was over, and he stood up fully again, towering over most of them. “I need to judge it for myself. But what if I don’t see what you’re hoping I do?”
“You will,” Chen said simply.
Chanyeol looked unsure, but he wasn’t volatile. Luhan made for his pack, deciding he wasn’t in immediate danger of being burned alive. Chanyeol skittered away from Baekhyun, not meeting his eyes, and Baekhyun didn’t follow. Luhan sensed his sadness, but shut it out. Baekhyun’s face was stoic, and it was clear he didn’t want anyone to know he was upset, so Luhan busied himself with his pallet.
“I’m Suho, by the way,” Suho said, plopping himself down on his pallet. “Do we have any spare furs or something for Chanyeol?”
“He can use my pallet,” Kris said. “Tao’s been sleeping on me, so we can share.” Tao’s cheeks reddened and he kicked at Kris’s shins.
“My furs are gritty from the salt,” Kyungsoo nearly wailed.
“You sleep on me, why are you complaining?” Kai asked shortly.
Chanyeol was rolling out his assigned pallet, looking very subdued, but he stopped as something seemed to hit him. “Wait,” he said slowly, “Suho? As in, Head Water Shifter Suho?” He did a double take at Suho’s face.
“Yes,” Suho said. “Please don’t attack me, I am tired and ashy and in no mood for it.”
“I fought you on the field,” Chanyeol said numbly.
“Yes, and if you recall, I did not fight back.” Suho gave him a pointed look. “Now, would you like some stale bread and moldy cheese?”
“Not. Really?” Chanyeol replied.
“It’s all we have,” Kyungsoo said helpfully.
“Oh,” said Chanyeol. “Still no.”
Kyungsoo shrugged. “More for me.”
They ate fairly silently, and for once Sehun didn’t pester Luhan overmuch to eat, and he got away with only nibbling a tiny bit of bread. Not long after that they called it a night, and Xiumin claimed the first watch, Kai the last.
Luhan flopped down on his pallet, feeling his weariness down to his bones. He determinedly blocked everyone else out, needing his body back to himself. Closing his eyes meant that he could pretend like the land around him wasn’t bleached to whiteness, like the presence of his own death wasn’t pressing down on him. He felt exhausted and weak and like he was being pulled apart by all the emotions he had felt that night.
He became aware of someone beside him and he opened his eyes a little to see Sehun rolling out his own pallet beside him. Once Sehun had laid down too, Luhan scooted over, burying his head into Sehun’s shoulder.
“I can’t believe we got the Phoenix,” Sehun muttered. “It was the stupidest plan I’d ever heard and somehow it worked out.”
“Chanyeol was already doubting everything,” Luhan said softly. “We were lucky. Hopefully he stays rational long enough for us to fully open his eyes.” The words were out before he could really think about them, and he found it odd to think that he wasn’t actually going to be there when Chanyeol finally flipped to their side. He curled tighter into Sehun’s chest, clutching him close.
“Are you cold?” Sehun asked, voice right against Luhan’s ear.
Luhan pulled his head back, raking his eyes over Sehun’s face, taking in his features in the pale light from the moon. “Kiss me,” he murmured.
There was a pause. “What?” Sehun asked, voice a little squeaky.
“Kiss me,” Luhan repeated. “Don’t argue, don’t — please, Sehun, just kiss me. Close your eyes and pretend I’m not the Oracle and kiss me the way you’ve always wanted to.”
“I don’t under—” Sehun said, and then stopped. Luhan saw his adam’s apple bob as he swallowed, his hand coming up to brush Luhan’s hair away from his face. Then Sehun’s head leaned down and he kissed Luhan, not tentative or shy, but full of heat. Luhan closed his eyes and focused on the feeling of Sehun’s mouth moving against his, Sehun’s thumb brushing lightly against his cheekbone, the way the kiss seemed to travel through Luhan’s body and made his toes curl against Sehun’s calves.
More than anything, it made his heart ache; this kiss promised so much more, and Luhan was never going to be able to have any of it.
Sehun pulled away, the arm still around Luhan’s waist tightening so that their bodies were pressed together. “Luhan,” he said, very softly, “are you—”
“I love you,” Luhan interrupted.
Luhan didn’t have to be able to feel Sehun’s emotions to know that he was shocked. Luhan got the feeling that on some level, even through all of the nights Luhan crawled into his bed, the kisses that they had shared, Sehun had never believed that Luhan felt the same way about him. But here it was, the confirmation straight from Luhan’s mouth, and Sehun was staring at him, confused and surprised and clearly not knowing how to react.
“I know how you feel,” Luhan continued. “You don’t have to say it back. I just — I need you to know. I need you to remember that, no matter what happens.”
“You’re beginning to frighten me,” Sehun said, disconcerted. “Luhan, what are you — I mean, I — I — you know.” Luhan could sense his blush more than see it.
“I do know. And now you know how I feel. And nothing is going to change that.”
Sehun made a helpless noise, and leaned down to kiss him again. This time was worse and better all at the same time, igniting something in Luhan that he didn’t think was possible to put back to sleep. Gods, he thought, trying desperately not to cry, I am going to die hopelessly in love with you.