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nothing but time

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Lan Zhan wakes at the first light of dawn like he’s done most of his life. Beside him, Wei Ying doesn’t stir, even when Lan Zhan sits up and the mattress dips with the motion.

But Lan Zhan doesn’t expect him to. After all, it’s not time yet.

Still, he says, “Good morning, Wei Ying,” and focuses on the strong, steady pulse under his fingers from where he drifted off holding his husband’s wrist. Grounding himself in the little movements that Wei Ying still makes—the slow rise and fall of his chest, the calming murmur of his pulse—is the only way he can fall asleep these days.

Yellow light spills through their window as the sun continues its ascent, and something about this growing brightness gives the quiet of the room a life of its own. The silence is deafening, hanging over Lan Zhan like an imposing physical presence. He remembers a time when he felt most comfortable in silence, but he’s grown so used to having Wei Ying’s teasing voice permeating every facet of his life.

This early in the morning, with sunlight catching on Wei Ying’s lashes and casting delicate shadows over his cheeks, it’s easy for Lan Zhan to imagine his husband is merely asleep—a normal sleep and not a cursed one. That he’d wake in a second, hand sliding across the sheets, instinctively reaching for Lan Zhan.

“Lan Zhan,” he’d mumble in a sleep-warm voice, face pressed into the pillows to avoid the light. “Lan Zhan, come back to bed.”

And Lan Zhan, who has never been able to deny Wei Ying anything, would lean over and kiss him wide awake.

But Wei Ying doesn’t move, even when Lan Zhan lets go of his wrist. His breaths remain even and his face remains blank. Peaceful, some might say, but Lan Zhan thinks otherwise. Even in sleep, Wei Ying used to be expressive, in constant motion, from the twitch of his eyelids and the soundless movement of his mouth as he dreamt, to the way he’d shift, throwing the blankets off and later, seeking the warmth of Lan Zhan’s body. This magically-imposed stillness is unnatural on Wei Ying, a man who’s arguably life-personified.

Lan Zhan’s chest aches watching him now, a tangled mixture of love, sorrow, longing, and today—anticipation.

Because it’s the last day of the year. Tonight, Wei Ying will wake and they’ll have thirteen minutes before it’ll be Lan Zhan’s turn to take his place.

Lan Zhan glances at the enchanted candle by their bedside, flame burning boldly, imperious to wind or water. Right now, it’s a small stump, the wax having mostly melted over the year, but thirteen minutes before midnight, it will reset for another year’s worth of sleep.

Tonight, Lan Zhan thinks. He has a lot to do before then.

He allows himself one lingering kiss upon Wei Ying’s brow before pulling away to begin the day, leaving his heart behind.

His first task of the day is to check the barrier spell Wei Ying had set up around their part of the woods.

It’s a necessity with all the stories that have spread about them. Lan Zhan has heard a few on the rare occasion he ventures into town in disguise for supplies.

Some say a cursed witch lies trapped in an endless sleep, finally vulnerable, killable. Others believe a cursed prince slumbers, awaiting ‘True Love’s kiss’. Unsurprisingly, there have been a number of misguided princes and noblemen tromping through the forest over the years, all seeking to make a name for themselves one way or the other.

Fortunately, while there’s some truth to the rumours, time and word of mouth are on their side. With each passing day, retellings get more distorted in favour of flair, turning the tales of their past into myth.

Reality is much simpler: A good witch was cursed trying to save the ones he loved, and the prince who loved him chose not to let him bear that curse alone.

Overhead, trees whisper in the gentle breeze. Lan Zhan finds his way to the barrier’s boundary line with ease, having walked this exact path countless times. Ahead of him, a line of stones between two massive oaks marks one of the four directional points of the barrier array. Each point is about a hundred yards from their cottage and, as he has always done, he begins his perimeter check with the North focal point.

Magic is not a language Lan Zhan speaks or understands very well, but Wei Ying’s notes are thorough and Lan Zhan’s had nothing but time to study them. Besides, Wei Ying does most of the magical heavy lifting when he’s awake and here, Lan Zhan’s job is fairly simple.

He checks that all the stones haven’t shifted or cracked under magical strain. Wei Ying once told him that, with arrays like this, placement is key and the slightest change could throw the spell off-balance. Finding nothing out of place, Lan Zhan removes a talisman from his sleeve, Wei Ying’s wild yet elegant scrawl bright red against the yellow paper. With it flat against his palm, he raises his hand and makes contact with the invisible barrier. When he pulls his hand away, the talisman remains suspended in the air. Had the spell been disrupted, the talisman would’ve just fallen to the ground. Now, it glows faintly as it dissolves into the barrier, illuminating for a moment the twisting red strands of Wei Ying’s magic that keeps them hidden and safe.

Lan Zhan reaches out again, allowing his fingers to brush against the living magic, and trembles as Wei Ying’s magic tickles his consciousness. Much like Wei Ying himself, his magic is warm and playful and so full of love that Lan Zhan’s throat feels tight. Connected like this, he can feel all the other points of the array, alight and thrumming, and right in the centre, the brightest spot of all—Wei Ying. Where Wei Ying himself cannot, his magic reaches out to Lan Zhan, burrowing straight into his heart like it’s found its home.

Years ago, the first year after the curse, the first time Wei Ying woke and right before Lan Zhan drifted off to sleep, Wei Ying told him, eyes bright with tears and love and guilt, “I could feel you.”

Lan Zhan wonders if Wei Ying can feel him now.

His breath is unsteady as it leaves his lips. Every single time he does this, it leaves him off-kilter with longing. He misses Wei Ying with a fierce desperation, misses his voice, his laughter, his everything. And knowing that the moment he lets his hand fall, the connection will be severed, and the hole in his chest now filled with Wei Ying’s lively magic will once again be left hollow and aching, makes it that much harder to let go. Knowing Wei Ying will feel this loss as acutely makes it nearly impossible.

It’s only the thought of the precious thirteen minutes they’ll have tonight that gives Lan Zhan the strength to step away. He still has a number of things to do before he can return home and wait for Wei Ying to open his eyes.

Once again, walking away feels like he’s leaving his heart behind.

Lan Zhan returns to their cottage around mid-morning and stays long enough to pack the berries he’d picked along the way with some dried fruits and bread for his brother. It’s been four days since Lan Zhan last visited him, and he never knows what state he’ll find his brother in each time.

Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s hand in both of his before he leaves and presses a kiss to his knuckles. “I’ll be back soon,” he says against Wei Ying’s skin.

Back outside, he mounts their horse and sets off for his brother’s house.

Once the kingdom’s darling prince and later, its king, Lan Zhan’s brother Lan Huan had been a kind and fair ruler. But he was also too trusting of those he cared about. In the end, his royal advisor and trusted companion, Jin Guangyao, took advantage of this and orchestrated the death of the captain of the royal guard, Nie Mingjue. However, Lan Huan didn’t find out until much later, and by then, it was too late. Jin Guangyao had set off a curse on Wei Ying who’d been attempting to expose the truth in order to protect Lan Zhan and his family.

Lan Zhan’s brother was never the same after this. Losing his closest friends was a heavy blow, but losing Lan Zhan to a curse seemed to change him irrevocably. Between guilt and grief, his brother became a shell of his former self. He abdicated the throne and left it to their uncle, the regent, before vanishing one night soon after. The entire kingdom believed him dead when numerous searches turned up empty; the people mourned and they moved on.

But Lan Zhan couldn’t.

Two years later, in the snatch of time between Lan Zhan waking from a year-long slumber and Wei Ying falling back into it, Wei Ying had pointed to a spot marked in red on a map of town.

“I found your brother,” he’d said, smile equal parts sad and hopeful, right before his eyes fluttered shut and he tipped over. Lan Zhan had managed to catch him right before he would’ve hit the ground. The next day, he’d gone to the spot Wei Ying had marked out, and found his brother living in a tiny house on the outskirts of town under a new identity.

The road to his brother’s house is familiar now after all these years, as is the house that waits for him at the end of it. Surrounded only by a copse of spindly trees and sparse patches of wilting grass, the little house paints such an excessively lonely picture that it breaks Lan Zhan’s heart.

He dismounts and loops the horse’s reins around a tree before moving to knock on the old wooden door. There’s a beat of silence, then another, then finally the sound of slow, shuffling footsteps. When his brother pulls open the door, Lan Zhan’s heart sinks lower in his chest.

Lan Huan is only forty years old, but he looks so much older. In the sixteen years since the curse, his brother’s hair has turned mostly grey and his figure stoops as though an unseen weight rests upon his back. His face is ashen like he hasn’t seen the sun in a long time and he’s lost more weight since Lan Zhan’s last visit, his skin practically hanging off his bones. His eyes are dull and his mouth is tired, unsmiling even when he meets Lan Zhan’s gaze.

“Brother,” Lan Zhan greets, holding out the food he brought.

“Wangji, you look well,” his brother says with a hint of the warmth he was once capable of. Nonetheless, it’s something, and the child in Lan Zhan who used to cling to his brother after their mother’s death clings fiercely to this little bit of familiarity.

His brother steps aside to let him in. It never gets any less jarring, stepping into his brother’s house. Lan Huan’s old room in the palace was full of personal artefacts, of character and treasured memories. This place is threadbare with only the essentials—a sleeping mat, a small table, a rickety chair—and haunted by the ghosts of his brother’s past.

“Today is the day, isn’t it?” His brother says, shutting the door.

“Mn.” The fact that his brother is still able to keep track of time gives Lan Zhan hope that he hasn’t truly given up on life.

His brother nods, sets the food down on the table but makes no move to eat. Lan Zhan reaches over to undo the knots on the bundles and slides the cloth containing the berries over to his brother.

“Try some, brother,” he says gently. “They’re good.”

His brother nods again, but his eyes have taken on a faraway look and Lan Zhan knows he’s already lost him. Time spills like running water through his fingers as he sits with his brother and keeps him company. All too soon, the sun begins to dip in the sky and it’s time for him to leave.

“Take care, brother. Wei Ying will visit you soon,” he says, clasping his brother’s hand. Physical displays of affection was rare in the palace after their mother passed, but it’s been a long time since then. His brother’s hand is thin, but warm, and in a moment of clear-eyed lucidity, his brother squeezes back.

“Wangji, I’m sorry,” his brother says, the words so heavy they settle like stones in Lan Zhan’s belly. He isn’t sure what his brother is apologizing for, but he shakes his head anyway.

“You have nothing to apologize for,” Lan Zhan assures him and thinks he sees a shadow of the man his brother once was in the weak smile he receives in return.

As he makes his way back through the town, all Lan Zhan wants to do is bury his face in Wei Ying’s neck and have Wei Ying wrap his arms around him, too. He thinks about how Wei Ying will wake tonight, how he’ll be able to lose himself in Wei Ying’s smile, his voice, his smell, and forget everything else, even if just for a moment.

Thirteen minutes is far too short a time for a reunion, but Lan Zhan will take even a second of Wei Ying’s company over nothing at all.

It will have to be enough.

The sky is bleeding into dusk by the time Lan Zhan returns. Anticipation hums like a birdsong in his veins, fluttering excitedly against his ribs.

But there’s still hours to go before Wei Ying wakes, so he attempts to calm himself with the methodical task of cooking. He washes some rice in order to make congee, not wanting to overwhelm Wei Ying’s stomach right after he wakes. Then, he sets the rice to cook over the fire, and dices some spring onions and chili for garnish. Finally, he unpacks the pork floss he bought in town knowing Wei Ying will enjoy having meat in his meal.

It’s simple, and he’s not certain but perhaps he rushes a little because he’s done sooner than he expected.

All that’s left for him to do is take a bath. He’s quick but thorough about it. While they’ve discovered that the curse has a preservatory effect, keeping the body in a temporary stasis, something about knowing he’s going to be asleep and unwashed for a whole year makes him want to be as preemptively clean as possible. By the time he’s dry and dressed, hair loose around his shoulders, the sky outside is dark and pricked with stars.

He makes his way over to the bed, a tome of curses in hand, one of the many he and Wei Ying have taken to reading in the hopes of finding a way to dispel their curse. So far, neither one of them has found anything, but Lan Zhan isn’t ready to give up and he’s certain Wei Ying isn’t, too.

Their time together is worth fighting for, no matter how long they’ll have to search. They’ll find a way, of this Lan Zhan is sure.

Settling in to wait, he flips to the last page he stopped at, his other hand stealing across the sheets to comb slowly through Wei Ying’s hair. Inside, his heart crashes against his chest, racing like if it quickens, time might, too.

Lan Zhan feels it when Wei Ying wakes, like the very air around him comes alive. He’s long since stopped reading, and in the minutes before Wei Ying awakens, his eyes find their way onto Wei Ying’s face in order to watch him return to himself.

First, Wei Ying’s breathing changes, a hitch in the ever-steady rhythm, and he snuffles. Next, his body moves, slowly twisting onto his side, hand poking out from the sheets, searching; his fingers bump into Lan Zhan’s arm and curl instinctively around his sleeve. Finally, his eyelids flutter and—

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying rasps, voice rough with sleep and disuse. He rubs at his eyes as he pushes himself up. All the while, Lan Zhan tracks the moment, his entire world narrowing down to the space Wei Ying fills in it.

Wei Ying blinks at him, eyes a bright, stormy grey that Lan Zhan has missed seeing, and staring into them now, it feels like the storm is in Lan Zhan’s chest.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says again, so much undiluted joy in those two syllables, in the curve of his lips and the high points of color on his cheeks.

Lan Zhan doesn’t realize he’s stopped breathing until he tries to reply but finds himself breathless. “I’m h-” he starts, but Wei Ying’s already laughing, throwing his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck. It’s the sweetest sound Lan Zhan’s heard in a year and he’s torn between listening to the magical sound and drinking it straight from Wei Ying’s lips.

Wei Ying makes the decision for him. He clambers onto Lan Zhan’s lap, straddles his thighs and pulls their bodies flush like he never wants to be apart again, like he could fuse them together if he pressed close enough. His hands slide into Lan Zhan’s hair, blunt nails tickling his nape, and his breath when he speaks again brushes against Lan Zhan’s lips, a suggestion of what’s to come: “I’ve missed you. Did you miss m-”

This time, Lan Zhan doesn’t let him finish. The answer is obvious, and he’d much rather show Wei Ying just how much he’s missed him.

Wei Ying makes a noise of pleasure in the back of his throat, lips parting eagerly. Lan Zhan relearns the shape of Wei Ying’s mouth and the sounds he makes, relearns the feel of his body under his hands as he slides his palms up Wei Ying’s back, under his sleepshirt. Wei Ying’s skin is so warm and his heart is beating so fast Lan Zhan can feel the thrum of it beneath his hand. He’s sure his isn’t any better, but just knowing Wei Ying is as overjoyed and desperate to make up for lost time makes his heart feel full to bursting.

Ironically, it’s the thought of time that makes him pull back, breaking the kiss with herculean self-control.

“Come back.” Wei Ying pouts his kiss-flushed lips and Lan Zhan wants to, he wants so much but there are things more important than his own desires.

“You must be hungry,” he says, rubbing soothing circles into Wei Ying’s back. “I made dinner. You should eat.”

Wei Ying’s hand cups his face, calloused fingers brushing almost reverently along his cheekbones. “Thank you, Lan Zhan, but I’ll eat after, okay?”

He doesn’t say after Lan Zhan begins his year-long sleep, but he doesn’t have to. Lan Zhan casts a glance at the enchanted candle. The flame is frozen mid-flicker as the melted wax rebuilds itself to its original height, already halfway done. They probably only have about five to six minutes left.

Wei Ying is still stroking his cheek and, when Lan Zhan meets his gaze again, his eyes are sad. He opens his mouth, but Lan Zhan already knows what he’s going to say.

“I do not regret this,” Lan Zhan says before Wei Ying can apologize like he tries to every year.

Wei Ying smiles, grateful, but like every year, it’s tinged with guilt. “I never wanted this for you.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, because he knows. Wei Ying would bear the weight of the world if it meant his loved ones didn’t have to. “You do not have to do everything alone anymore.”

Wei Ying huffs a humorless laugh and buries his face against Lan Zhan’s neck. “Lan Zhan ah,” he mumbles, almost too quiet for Lan Zhan to hear. “I don’t deserve you.”

Lan Zhan tightens his arms around him and presses his face into his hair. “You deserve so much more.”

Wei Ying’s breath wobbles on the exhale and he shifts to press a lingering kiss just below Lan Zhan’s jaw, right on his pulse point. Then he’s sitting back, taking Lan Zhan’s face in his hands once more.

“I love you,” Wei Ying says, serious and true. It’s not the first time he’s said it, but Lan Zhan’s sure he could hear this a hundred times, a thousand times, and it would always feel like the first time: like Wei Ying’s magic in his veins, like awe and safety and home, a heady mix of every single pleasant emotion he’s ever felt, condensed into three little words.

“I love you, too,” he replies. After all these years, he still marvels at how he’s allowed to say this to the man in his arms, even as his ears warm.

“I will break this curse,” Wei Ying says, another irrefutable truth.

“I know,” Lan Zhan says, because he does know. And because he can already feel the sticky hands of sleep tugging at him. This time, he doesn’t spare the candle another glance. He doesn’t need to look at it to know it’s likely nearly full-sized. Besides, he wants to keep looking at Wei Ying, at the love and determination shining in his eyes; he wants to bring this image with him into his dreams.

He knows Wei Ying can tell that the curse is about to take effect. His eyes have taken on a frantic edge, and Lan Zhan doesn’t want that. So he says, even as his eyelids grow heavy, “I felt you today. With your magic.”

That makes Wei Ying smile, small but real, and for a moment, his eyes are clear. “I know. I felt you, too, Lan Zhan,” he replies, sliding off Lan Zhan’s lap. Then, he’s lowering Lan Zhan’s head onto a pillow and arranging his limbs under the covers. Lan Zhan feels all of this, but can do little else, his body weighed down by unseen magic.

The last thing he sees is Wei Ying’s face, smile crumpling, before everything goes dark.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!”

There’s a hand on his shoulder, shaking him awake, and there’s something tickling his face. Lan Zhan blinks blearily as Wei Ying’s face swims into focus overhead, illuminated by sunlight.

His hair is in a messy bun, fringe spilling all over his face, the longer strands brushing along Lan Zhan’s cheek. His skin is pale and his eyes are bloodshot, dark bruises beneath them like he hasn’t slept in days.

But his grin is blinding in its intensity.

“I did it,” Wei Ying says in a whisper, like it’s a secret. Sure enough, when Lan Zhan’s gaze darts to the side, he finds the candle, its flame gone out.

His heart soars and he surges up, capturing Wei Ying’s lips and tasting the warmth of his giddy laughter.

They kiss and kiss and kiss till they’re gasping and Lan Zhan rolls them over so that Wei Ying is pressed against the bed, his hair fanning out around him. Wei Ying’s eyes are dancing and he hasn’t stopped giggling. Lan Zhan’s hair spills over his shoulders, cocooning them, and it’s like they’re the only two people in the world.

Wei Ying reaches up, fingers brushing against his lips. Lan Zhan presses a kiss to his palm.

“We don’t have to rush,” Wei Ying says, like he’s only just realizing this, too. “We have all the time in the world.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, his lips tilting upwards, and he presses the rare smile against Wei Ying’s lips because it’s all for him, always.

They take their time, kissing slow and sweet, as their days stretch out before them, endless.