Xu Shu remembered Chi Bi. He remembered finding Pang Tong onboard, too late to warn anyone, the burning in his eyes and lungs as the boats caught fire, and falling behind, unsure if he even wanted to escape.
It was Jia Xu who found him, trying to help some of the men escape with their lives when he happened to glance down the corridor where Xu Shu had stalled. Changing direction abruptly the senior strategist had seized Xu Shu by the arm and dragged him behind as they escaped. A concerned look with an insistent band of warmth around his wrist and suddenly Xu Shu belonged somewhere, if only for a little while.
They slipped past Wu and Shu patrols, looking for stragglers, the soldiers trusting Jia Xu to lead them safely without a single word of complaint. And he lead them true, avoiding their pursuers long enough to outstrip the scouts. When they finally picked up traces of Cao Cao’s trail Jia Xu finally let him go. Xu Shu, who had been following in obedient silence, startled, glancing up at him only to look away hurriedly when the senior strategist looked back.
Jia Xu sighed. “We’re still close enough, if you wanted to sneak back and join them,” he offered in a low voice. “I’m certainly not about to stop you if that’s what you want.”
Xu Shu flinched, curling in on himself. “You think I’ll run back to Shu after one bad loss? Or maybe you think this is just the first time I”ve been close enough to try?”
“You were Shu, before I dragged you in front of Cao Cao,” Jia Xu pointed out. “And I’m not stupid. I know the look of a man prepared to take his own life. I just don’t want you to waste your life like that when it’s my fault you’re here in the first place.”
“Oh,” Xu Shu blinked. “Well, I do not wish to leave. I simply… wish I could have been more useful.” He shook his head ruefully. “But I couldn’t even warn anyone of Pang Tong’s deception before he made his move. Lord Cao Cao was right to dismiss me as worthless.”
He was looking away, so he missed Jia Shu’s deepening frown. This wasn’t Yue Jin’s self-esteem issues, but somehow even less self worth. He hadn’t spent much time considering the captured strategist since his recruitment, mostly because they weren’t assigned to the same command. But the part of the blame that was his, for deciding the other wasn’t worth the time it would take to track him down and get to know him. He regretted it now, without a rapport it was hard to predict how the other might react to compliments. But he couldn’t just leave things as they were.
“When we met you’d managed to infiltrate the 8-Gates formation within just a few hours, showing an intellect that was beyond impressive.” Xu Shu tried to shake his head in disagreement but Jia Xu ignored him and pressed on. “Lord Cao Cao dismissed you for your lack of ambition, because he cannot understand a modest man. However, I believe he was wrong to discount your worth so easily.”
He met Xu Shu’s startled gaze without flinching.
“You might not want to have my job, with all the credit or responsibility that goes with it, but that doesn’t mean you want nothing. So tell me, what is your ambition?”
“I… I wished to be of some use in ending this age of chaos,” Xu Shu admitted. “To be of use in reaching that end, even though I know I am of no true use to anyone.” He glanced at Jia Xu with a small smile before looking away again. “You must have thought I could be worth something, to drag me in front of Lord Cao Cao. I am sorry I was unable to live up to that expectation.”
“Well,” Jia Xu mused, “Who’s to say you won’t?”
Xu Shu’s head shot up in shock and he met the senior strategist’s gaze for a stunned moment before jerking his gaze away again. Only, this time he hesitated before risking another glance up. “You mean, you would find use for me?”
“Cao Cao may not put much stock in intelligence without ambition to back it up but that’s no excuse to squander it,” Jia Xu replied with a shrug. “I’m his strategist, it’s my job to know better anyway.”
Xu Shu just stared at him in disbelief a moment longer, searching his expression for some sign of dishonesty. Then he realized what he was doing and looked down again. This time, however, he was smiling faintly, cautiously hopeful. “Then… what now?”
“Well, for now need to lead these troops past the enemy lines to safety,” Jia Xu decided. “Find Lord Cao Cao if we can and regroup. Otherwise we need to make our way north and hope the others catch up with us.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start with such a plan,” Xu Shu admitted sadly, face falling again. “It has been some time since I was informed of any reports, let alone those of this area.”
“No matter,” Jia Xu replied, dropping a hand onto the taller man’s shoulder. “I’ll fill you in as we go. Two heads are better than one, you know.”
Xu Shu nodded and offered him a hesitant smile. “I would be in your debt.”
They managed to make it safely to the main camp, with Jia Xu and Xu Shu conferring along the way. The senior strategist filled his subordinate in on everything he could think of as they walked, not limiting his discussion to the task at hand. Xu Shu was thankful for the chance to recover at least some understanding of the state of the war.
Unfortunately Jia Xu was whisked away to be consulted as soon as they arrived, and Xu Shu was relegated to the background again. The troops from Chi Bi were reincorporated into the army at large, and after they said their goodbyes he had nothing left to do. He’d resigned himself to the state of things returning to the way they’d been before when Jia Xu showed up again.
“You found me,” Xu Shu startled, rising from the corner he’d settled in to stay out of the way. “Was there something you forgot?”
“Well, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to check on you, make sure you were settling in alright,” Jia Xu shrugged. “I wouldn’t want you to convince yourself I’d forgotten about you, after all.”
“If you did not want to forget, does that mean you may have further use of my skills?” Xu Shu suggested hesitantly. “Not right now of course, but in the future?”
Jia Xu chuckled. “In the future? You have my word. As for not right now, well you’d be wrong about that.” He threw an arm around Xu Shu’s shoulder, uncertainly and a little tense but quickly overcoming it, pulling the other strategist along after him, chatting about plans and troop movements all the while. They would need to find a way to recover at least some of their resources, and bring home their scattered troops. Xu Shu let himself relax, slowly, and just enjoy the company.
Jia Xu had kept his word over the years, even as others dismissed the conscripted strategist as useless the senior strategist found numerous tasks for him to assist with. Tasks out of the public eye, away from recognition but also blame. Xu Shu didn’t mind, it was a relief at least one man found him useful. Maybe even saw him as a friend.
Waking in an unfamiliar tent on a front he hadn’t visited in years was a shock. Around him were the men from Chi Bi, he remembered the terrified look on their faces perfectly. Only, Xu Shu was certain this was not a camp they’d made during that journey either, and their terror was of the unknown this time, not pursuit. They looked to him for strategy, those who remembered him from Chi Bi also remembering Jia Xu’s constant conferences with him. And so, for the first time, Xu Shu was lauded by those around him as a most gifted strategist and leader worthy of trust. He wished it could fill him with confidence, but it just made him aware of how little he really knew.
Jia Xu was not here, missing with the rest of Wei, and that was possible the most nerve-wracking part - that this time he was alone.
Xu Shu could walk without the creeping ache of age, without the heaviness in his limbs he’d grown accustomed to, was armored and armed in a way he hadn’t been in years. Were they at war? What sorcery had brought them to this place? And was his maybe-friend, definitely-benefactor stranded somewhere in this world as well?
“This makes no sense,” one of the soldiers he didn’t remember complained to the man beside him. “My Father marched with you to Chi Bi, but I know I’ve never met you before.”
“I remember making it as far as the healing tents,” the second man replied hesitantly, “But nothing beyond that.”
“We must consider what the last date we each remember is,” Xu shu decided. “We know we were all in different places, but were we all in separate times as well?” Everyone nodded and considered carefully, but the results were strange. Some were at the end of their lives, or in a pitched battle where they might have met their end, while others were in safety and times of relative peace. Dates spanned the course of over 60 years, but no two were the same.
“We can’t all be remembering wrong,” one of the lower ranked officers pointed out hesitantly. “But… to travel in time? Is that truly possible? And to where?”
“I am unfamiliar with this area,” Xu Shu told them, “Which means we are unlikely to be stranded anywhere in China, unless it is the distant past… Other than that,” he shrugged, “We should set up a guard rotation and scout the area around camp with care, just in case.”
There was a murmur of agreement and the men moved to obey, leaving Xu Shu alone with his questions and facts that didn’t add up. How was he supposed to create strategies when he wasn’t sure where they were, where their allies might be, or even who or what could be their enemy?
Fortunately his worries proved to be unnecessary, as it was less than a day before Jia Xu found them with a small contingent of scouts.
“Ah, so you’re here as well,” the senior strategist greeted with a strained smile.
“Master Jia Xu,” Xu Shu bowed, relieved. “It is good to see you. You look… different.” He looked young, armed and armored as he might have been at the start of the war. But his eyes were the same, shrewd and tired.
The diplomatic statement still made him laugh. “Younger than when I last saw you, I know. You’ve already notice, haven’t you? That strange forces are at play here.”
“Yes. Have you discovered more?” Xu Shu asked curiously.
“That I have,” Jia Xu agreed. There was regret, and a tinge of disgust in his voice. The senior strategist hesitated for a long moment before stepping closer, pointedly casual. “It seems great armies from across time have been summoned to this world by magic, time and time again. The Demon Orochi, and he is a demon not just a metaphor like with Lu Bu, summons them to wage war. As soon as we arrived he swept across the land, conquering everything in his way. Lord Cao Cao is dead, and Lord Cao Pi has allied us with Orochi to stop Wei from being enslaved the same way the other kingdoms have been. That’s why I’m here, trying to gather our forces under Lord Cao Pi’s banner before Orochi hunts them down himself.”
Xu Shu processed that with a frown, then nodded. “You wish for us to return with you.”
But Jia Xu didn’t reply immediately, closing his mouth on whatever he’d been about to say and glancing at his subordinate consideringly. He rubbed at his beard in thought, then nodded once, sighing as he nodded to the other strategist.
“No. I’ll take the men back to Cao Pi with me, but I want you to run.”
“I…” Xu Shu started, but Jia Xu cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“I’ve served terrible men before, I can hold on until Lord Cao Pi comes up with a plan. But I doubt anyone will think to look for you if you don’t return with me, besides myself of course. This alliance is the opposite of everything you wanted to accomplish. I can’t ask you to come back only to suffer.”
“If it would assist you to have me return…”
“We don’t need another strategist trapped under Orochi’s command,” Jia Xu disagreed firmly. He stepped even closer, lowering his voice. “Get as far away from the snake and his demons as you can. Find someone to help and help them stay safe from him as well. I’ll be fine. I’m sticking with Lord Cao Pi and he’ll look out for us, so find someone out there it makes you happy to help. Coming with me would only make both of us miserable.”
Xu Shu searched his face, before bowing over his clasped hands. “I will do as you say. Thank you, Jia Xu.”
“Take care of yourself,” the senior strategist told him with a smile. “You can tell me about it after this is all over.”