coley_merrin: (Horse in field)
[personal profile] coley_merrin
Title: The Curse
Pairing: Zhou Mi/Kyuhyun
Rating: PG
Genre: a sort of sleeping beauty AU

Summary: It was a wind that blew, that made up his mind, staring down at the road that wound into the forest.



***

Many stories begin in a land far away, where time is different, expectations. So does this. There was a kingdom, bordered by mountains and forests, and in it lived many people, some good, and bad, and in between. The king and queen's first child was a little girl, whom they loved very much. She was the center of their world, learning to walk, and talk, on the stones of the castle floor. But their family was not yet complete. The queen wanted a son, and the king perhaps wanted another daughter, but in due time, their second child was born - a little prince they named Kyuhyun.

Ah, many would think, he was wanted for a reason. His sister is just there to be kind and marry well, and move away one day. But this is not one of those stories. This little boy was not born to rule, instead he was born knowing his sister would one day be queen, and he would make his own way in the world. (Another little boy at the time of Kyuhyun's birth was forming sentences, chasing kittens, and having tantrums when the sparkles on the windows would not fly into his pudgy hands. They were both growing well.)

Kyuhyun charmed his parents, his sister, and nurses. His dark eyes were bright, smile ready - an infectious smile to any who saw it, though sometimes it had to be considered if it was a happy smile or a naughty one. He did not spend his life wanting for love, at least for the first years. But on his third birthday, when his mother came to kiss him and tell him good morning, she noticed a dark mark on his arm. It had not been drawn on him, though he had certainly tried that with charcoal sticks, but it was deep in his skin. Maybe even in his soul.

It was the shape of a ring, a symbol for a promise, and the queen spent much time among the plants in the garden that day, wondering what had happened, how this child who smiled and learned so eagerly, had been cursed.

Kyuhyun's life changed after that, if only in little ways, and they were ways that he was not aware were different. His nanny was replaced, his tutors came and went. They were afraid of what this cursed mark might mean. It was possible for Kyuhyun to avoid invoking the curse entirely, to live his life as normal. If curses were not triggered, they faded, and faded, and at the age of twenty six and two days - not one day before - the curse would disappear entirely.

The first thing Kyuhyun was taught not to do was make any promises, any vows. It was impossible to know what would make the curse happen. Perhaps the ring was for promise, for life, or fidelity. The people in Kyuhyun's life did not stay because they did not want Kyuhyun to form deep attachments. He was allowed to play with the children of visiting dignitaries or traveling merchants, because those children did not stay. The friend of his heart was his sister, and he loved his parents very much. Still, he grew. They decreed the royal children could not wed until they were twenty-six and two days aged, to make life fair for their children. Ahra did not mind, having no attachments for most of her life, but on her twenty-sixth and third day, she wed.

There was a new prince, and Kyuhyun’s life grew easier in a way, as he watched his sister continue to grow in her role as future queen, and to love the man she had married.

But it also highlighted to Kyuhyun a lack, in a way, one he had not truly considered. He had not grown up imagining his wedding, or someone he would sweep off their feet, but the stories all told of a love enduring, and it had been his absent expectation more than his anticipation that he would marry. And he began to wonder if it was something he would want at all. Still, the decree that he would wait until after his 26th birthday meant that he had put off those thoughts as though even the possibility of finding someone he cared about besides his family would have to wait until after that. Caring was not a promise, not a vow. Oh, and he knew the way his family protected him, brushing his fingers over the mark on his arm that had faded to an ashen gray but that still stood out stark on his skin.

It was a wind that blew, that made up his mind, staring down at the road that wound into the forest. It broke his heart to turn to his mother.

“I have to go,” he said.

Her instinct was to reach for him, to protect, as she had from the moment she had known he would exist. But through the course of his life from the time he had crawled, he had never been so certain. The curse was not a place, and it was not a prison. While his sister learned, his heart was yearning. Not for love he didn’t think, but for something more than the walls of his room and the days that slowly ticked away until he would find his freedom. He didn’t want to see his mother worried any longer. So when he climbed onto his horse, he agreed that he would seek no promises, make no vows, and that if someone knew him for who he was, he would leave them, protect himself. He traveled not as a prince, but as a traveler. When they asked how long he would be gone, he had no answer. A day, three, or perhaps more. Perhaps all the way until he passed the day that marked the end of his curse. He only knew that he had to follow that wind, and see where it would lead.

It wasn’t as though he was helpless. He’d been in the woods, wandering with his father, with the huntsmen and soldiers, knew how to make a fire and feed himself. The road was an easy one, with the occasional traveler passing by on horse or by foot, a cart a few times between them. He stopped after a few hours, letting his horse drink and to eat some of the food he had brought. He stopped as the sun fell, and slept until long after it rose, refreshed and a little sore from the riding and the hard ground. But it was still his adventure. His horse ambled at his will, and Kyuhyun was intoxicated by the freedom of being able to go as far as he liked, to stop as he liked. He had food for another several days, and there would be a cottage or villages along the way to seek out more And the forest also would provide a bounty.

Still, it was the explosion of a flock of birds from a tree that startled both him and his horse that made Kyuhyun aware that he could not keep going. The sun had set, and the moon had been his friend a while, but he had passed no travelers in a decent time.

“We should find our rest, my lad,” Kyuhyun said. He stroked the gelding’s neck, appreciating that the horse had kept on for him despite the growing darkness. “Ah, look.”

A shifting wind moved leaves, and a glow caught his eye. A camp, surely. The breeze bit through his clothes, and a fire seemed welcome, if the company near it was as welcoming. Kyuhyun swung down from the saddle, petting the gelding’s nose and leading him carefully into the brush. The fire indeed was small but strong and the air ripe with cooked meat, and Kyuhyun stopped by the edge of the small clearing for a moment. At least, he did until his horse butted him with his head and forced him out so that the man who sat near the fire woke up. Kyuhyun lifted both his hands, indicating he meant no harm, and his traitorous horse just lowered his head to start cropping the short forest grasses.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I had been traveling along the road and saw the fire.”

And Kyuhyun’s stomach betrayed him too, gurgling loudly, though not as loudly as the man laughed in return.

“If you are a friend, come and take the night’s chill away. Most take camp before it gets so late.”

“I should have, too, but the moon was high, and my mind was busy. I suppose I should have thought a little deeper.”

His horse shuddered as Kyuhyun took the saddle from him, and the two horses greeted each other briefly, unconcerned as they turned their attention back to eating. He’d need to find water soon enough, for him and the horse, and he took care of his bladder, and stretched his legs as he sat back down near the fire. He hoped the stranger would not think him a thief, or worry. He was just grateful for the fire, and to not be in motion.

“I am a friend, and I am grateful,” Kyuhyun assured him. And he saw no reason to withhold his true name. He was not the only man who bore it. “My name is Kyuhyun.”

“Zhou Mi, also a traveler. There isn’t much left, but there is a bit of rabbit and broth that your stomach was smelling. I can’t eat any more, so you’d be doing justice to it.”

“Fire, and food,” Kyuhyun marveled. But he accepted the little pot on it’s supporting stick gratefully, eating tender meat from the bone, feeling the warmth of it sink into him.

“We all need a warm meal sometimes. Were you eager to get to your destination?”

Kyuhyun shook his head, taking out his own spoon from his pack to work at the broth as well. “I have no destination.”

It was Zhou Mi’s head that tilted then. “Every journey has a destination of some kind.”

“I wanted to find myself, I guess. I’ve stayed in one area my whole life and I’ve had my family looking out for me. I just didn’t want to look out down the road and wonder what was out there.” And at Zhou Mi’s look, Kyuhyun groaned. “Yes, I know. It’s difficult to find whatever it is I am looking for in the dead of night.”

“Those who travel this road in the dark are those who are no friends to time, or those who look to prey on them. Even a fire can sometimes be a danger. Most nights I don’t build one. But the rabbit was a quick snare, and there are some nights in need of light and warmth.”

“Then another night, and I would have ridden by,” Kyuhyun murmured.

“I suppose so!”

The warmth of the fire, the comfort of the food, and Kyuhyun’s eyes were heavy. They lulled into silence, and Kyuhyun leaned his head against his saddle, hearing the cropping of the horses, the dull pops of the fire. He breathed in the familiar scent of leather and oil, and he was asleep before he could finish the thought of how it reminded him of home.

***

Kyuhyun opened gritty eyes to see hands feeding the fire. The sky was light enough to let him know the sun had risen some time before, and he could smell something cooking. He poked his head up and saw a small bird broken down and splayed over several sticks, roasting over the fire’s heat.

“Sadly the snares turned only up this grouse,” Zhou Mi said. “She’ll be a few mouthfuls each, but it’s better than nothing.”

Zhou Mi had been up a while then, finding the bird, dressing it. It made Kyuhyun faintly ashamed as he sat up and got his bearings.

“I have grain enough for porridge,” Kyuhyun offered. Zhou Mi had given him a safe place to sleep, and now offering part of a bird that should’ve been meant for him alone.

“That would be welcome!”

The little pot was soon bubbling away, softening the grain as Kyuhyun took out another little treat, a packet of dried berries. It would sweeten it a little, give it a little life. He did not think twice to share them, enjoying Zhou Mi’s face as they watched them turn the porridge blue and pink in places.

“What a feast,” Zhou Mi said. And there was only honesty in it. It made Kyuhyun hum, happy. He’d made his way to show his own self-reliance, to see something outside of his sheltered life. But he did not want to turn away friends along the way. It was unease that had him thinking of his parents, their warnings and reservations. He ate part of the roasted bird, and his half of the porridge, and pushed the concerns aside. He did not intend to make any promises, as he’d assured his mother. Every day that passed, it seemed the mark faded, its hold on him no longer strong. He was his own man, and bought his own future.

The fire was buried and extinguished, the horses saddled and ready if not delighted to be removed from their enclave. They snatched last-minute mouthfuls as their humans considered the road.

“Which way do you travel?” Zhou Mi asked.

Kyuhyun looked to the sun to gauge his location. He pointed then down the road that would take him deeper into the woods and away from his home.

“This way, for now. Which is your path?”

He did not realize he waited so eagerly, until Zhou Mi smiled and pointed his finger down that same road.

“If you do not mind to ride on together a little longer.”

He’d welcomed the solitude of his horse, the ability to be his own man. But he was still that, only not so alone. He could part ways any time he chose. They watered their horses at the first stream, talking of places Zhou Mi had been, places Kyuhyun had heard of. Zhou Mi seemed unconcerned to find himself with a traveling companion.

The sun made its path, and they talked, and rested, ate, and traveled. Kyuhyun laughed, and did not notice the throb of the mark on his arm, or that it coiled just a little darker.

***

It was easy, easier to talk to Zhou Mi who was wholly disconnected from his life and his worries. He could not speak to his family of some things, and Zhou Mi was so well-traveled that Kyuhyun admired him for many things, from the way he sat his horse, to the serious expression on his face as he cleaned a bird for their meal. He pushed away thoughts that made his face heat, but there were other burdens in his heart, talking as they rested after their midday meal.

“My sister was eager and happy to find someone to love. I suspect before long she will give me nieces and nephews to dote on. Even reading of it, the tales of courtly love, watching servants meet and marry, it brought me joy for them but not envy. I do not wish for children, though I do yearn for companionship. I feel I am…perhaps strange in that regard.”

Zhou Mi was considering him so peculiarly that he wondered if he had given away too much in that confession.

“I do not find it strange. I own many of those same feelings. Though someone to call my own, someone who knows my heart most deeply would be welcome. A meeting of minds, of companionship as you speak of it. A comfort.” And Zhou Mi’s lips curved a little, his words amused, “And a warmth to my bed, that too would be welcome.”

What but a mate filled all those requirements? How to have all those things, but not have children, not conform to the ideal to which so many aspired. He could not even voice his thoughts on the matter, not wanting to see the expression on Zhou Mi’s face. If it was not a woman that he would marry, then there were few other opportunities.

“It is not the way of many,” Zhou Mi mused. “And I do not say it to cause upset, but of the acquaintances of my life whom I would consider to be prospects for such trust and closeness, none of them have been women.”

Kyuhyun sat, his hands unnaturally still on his knees as he mulled and turned Zhou Mi’s words.

“You put trust in me to reveal that,” Kyuhyun said, hoarse.

“Of a sort. If my parents had been listened to, I would be living near them with a wife and several children. My place was not there. I sought out to find my own path.” Much as Kyuhyun had! “To find a man who feels as I do, that was almost more than I could dream. Though I know there must be others.”

“Yes, many would not say,” Kyuhyun said, his worlds halting. “Perhaps we are more alike than we had thought.”

His confession had no doubt spurred Zhou Mi’s, a venture, a risk to reveal what he had to Kyuhyun. Kyuhyun could not even say it was a man or a woman that he most longed for, only the type of relationship it was that he wanted. Still, faced with a man who could have found Kyuhyun desirable as a partner, it merely lifted him up and revealed some part of himself that was fascinated almost without him knowing.

“Are we?” Zhou Mi asked, considering him.

“I would like to get to know you a little better to find out,” Kyuhyun said, teasing with his words if not his eyes.

A smile swept over Zhou Mi’s face. “I’d like that, too.”

Heat flooding his cheeks had his head ducking. “We should go so we can find a place to stay overnight. The horses will start dragging us away, soon.”

It was true, the horses were about to start scaling trees to get at leaves, but Zhou Mi laughed, helping him to clean up so they could mount up and start down the road again. He didn’t know if they would run out of things to talk about, and even when they spoke of the same topics, it was in a different way, a new perspective. Zhou Mi was so animated, so lively even on the back of his long-suffering horse. Time passed as quickly as the trees seemed to, seeking a place near a stream to bed down for the night, sheltering against a hill that protected them and the fire from wind.

The next day they passed through a town, buying supplies, walking from town and leading their horses while eating fresh apples and enjoying the warmth of the afternoon sun.

“Someone said there would be rain coming, not tonight but midday,” Zhou Mi said. “I don’t look forward to being wet.”

“Maybe we can find a place we can shelter until the rain passes.”

“With enough time, the two of us could make a comfortable place,” Zhou Mi said.

They shared a glance, and a nod, and set out to find their place. They followed the stream away from the road, finding a place large enough for the horses to graze, and trees enough to settle their shelter. They had oiled cloths, and crafted a lean-to of sorts, careful to make it high enough so that the rain wouldn’t settle down around them.

“We have enough food to last,” Zhou Mi said, tossing little twigs and bits of moss into the fire that Kyuhyun had started. “Even if the rain passes quickly, it would be nice to stay a while and rest.”

Rest, with the water nearby and the horses content, sounded wonderful. His wanderlust, it was partly satisfied, though he knew they couldn’t stay in their little hollow too long.

“Do you want to live near to a town?” Kyuhyun wondered. “Or somewhere free?”

“Near enough to a town, but not within it,” Zhou Mi said. “I like to see people, and having those nearby you can trust and admire makes life easier.”

“Near to your family?”

Zhou Mi’s eyebrows rose, challenging him. “Near to yours?”

“There could be too close,” Kyuhyun mused.

“Though how could you spoil your nieces and nephews too far away?” Zhou Mi teased. “How far had you traveled before we met?”

“A day or two, not more. I came straight up the great road, but my journey was sedate. I was relishing my freedom, and had no one to set my pace.”

They smacked at each other’s knees, and landed one small fish to share between them for their meal. Even without the rain, the shelter was welcome. It created a small space for them, a protected place as they crawled into their blankets, and talked until the fire was little but embers. He could hear Zhou Mi’s breath, his head close, not a foot away. It was not cold, but he still wondered if Zhou Mi was warm.

Kyuhyun woke once, to the sound of rain dripping onto the cloth above him. He realized Zhou Mi had let down the cloth in the night, so they were protected. He could hear the horses eating outside, could see the very hint of dawn, and he pulled his blanket up around him, content.

He dreamed of laughter, dreamed of buckets, and baskets of shining rings, so many they rustled against his fingers. There were jewels and precious metal, and he passed them, all of them.

There was one, very plain, but it was offered with a smile.

Kyuhyun whimpered in his sleep, and his arm burned.

***

The rain made him sleepy, and it seemed like he was not the only one as they ate their cold breakfast with tousled hair and cautiously lifted one side of the cloth to look out into the gloom. It was a direction away from the wind, so at least the rain did not blow in on them, and the horses grazed. Perhaps he was sleepy, but he was not tired. He felt…invigorated. He wanted to stride off through the forest, find a plot of land, plan out a house. There would be a room for books, a comfortable room. It would be set for good light, so a fire could be laid in the winter. Zhou Mi would likely know best, on those matters.

And Zhou Mi startled, looking back at him, when he realized that Kyuhyun was considering him.

“What deep thoughts do you think?” Zhou Mi teased, his hand nudging at Kyuhyun’s elbow.

“There should be books. A whole room of them, to be the second-most cherished companions,” Kyuhyun said.

Zhou Mi’s eyes widened, but he nodded. “Have you seen into my dreams, then?”

“Maybe? Or maybe that is another dream we share,” Kyuhyun told him. Even if there were still things about himself that Zhou Mi did not know.

“You would not tease me on this?”

“I would not,” Kyuhyun said. “To read by the fire, warm.”

He steadied himself on Zhou Mi’s forearm as they leaned together, as though sharing that dream right then. He thought of all the time they had spent together, the long talks, the companionable silences, the laughter. He thought of Zhou Mi’s quiet confession, the way it had woken something in him. Zhou Mi was something he could want so very much with, that there was a greed in him, a hunger, a need to know. He met Zhou Mi’s eyes and there was such softness there, something rather amazed as he breathed in the smell of rain and could not bring himself to pull away.

“Do you sit alone?” Zhou Mi asked, and Kyuhyun shook his head, his eyes dropping to Zhou Mi’s mouth as he leaned closer. “Is there room at that fire for…”

The breath caught in Kyuhyun’s throat as Zhou Mi’s lips pressed to his. He had not realized that kissing would be so warm, taking away the chill of the rain, and leaving him with nothing but the warmth of Zhou Mi’s mouth against his. He wanted that future, wanted that joy, wanted his life to come full circle, to be filled with something he hadn’t realized he’d needed until Zhou Mi had smiled, had made him believe that yes, he wanted Zhou Mi there, to learn everything about him, to sit by that fire and live.

Zhou Mi’s lips parted from his, and joy made him want to sing, want to smile. His forearm pulsed, and he sank forward, his cheek pressing to Zhou Mi’s cheekbone. He breathed in. His exhale was slower. He breathed in.

***

One moment Kyuhyun was beginning to smile, and the next he was going lax against Zhou Mi’s chest, and Zhou Mi laughed, thinking it a joke.

“Did you not sleep so well?” Zhou Mi asked, touching Kyuhyun’s hair. But Kyuhyun did not rouse, not even when Zhou Mi eased him back. His head lolled like a man drugged, and Zhou Mi supported his head as he helped Kyuhyun lie down. “Kyuhyun? Kyuhyun!”

Kyuhyun slept as though he had no cares in the world, and nothing Zhou Mi did could rouse him. He tried cold water, shaking him, pinching him, shouting at him. It was as though nothing he did affected Kyuhyun in the slightest. Kyuhyun had not been the happiest to wake, but he had, even bleary eyed. It was too much for him alone. The rain had already put out the fire, and he struggled and managed to drape Kyuhyun onto one of the horses, riding and holding him and leading Kyuhyun’s horse behind. At the nearby town, he roused a healer, and nothing they tried would wake Kyuhyun either.

Then, they found the mark on his arm.

A curse, Zhou Mi was told. It was no wonder he would not wake. Kyuhyun had been so happy, his eyes alight with it, and they had kissed, and— That mark had been on Kyuhyun’s arm long before they had met, but he did not know why a kiss would have caused it to start. He had to put it away before he thought of it further, else it made him sick to consider as he made sure Kyuhyun was safe.

He hired a cart, and rode beside it as they went back down the way they had come. Kyuhyun rested still within it, and each home they could see beyond the place they had met, every town, Zhou Mi searched for someone who might know who Kyuhyun was, who his family was.

“Nay, I know no one but that name. Save the prince, of course,” an older man told him.

It took Zhou Mi four steps after giving his thanks to stop and consider. The clothes Kyuhyun had worn were plain but fine. His gear also was of good quality. He spoke well, had clearly been well-educated. But Kyuhyun had never portrayed himself as a prince, had never shied from work, or put on airs. And yet still, it nagged at him.

Zhou Mi approached a soldier at the castle gate, and hesitated only a moment.

“Do you know if the prince is in residence?” Zhou Mi asked.

“He is away,” the solider said, eyeing him. And it made Zhou Mi’s stomach sink. “Why do you ask?”

“I met a man named Kyuhyun, and I may have news of him for his family. Bring me your superior, if you would,” Zhou Mi said.

Zhou Mi led the pony pulling the cart closer, having left his horse with the man he had hired. Behind the cart, Kyuhyun’s horse was tied, nibbling on hay that Kyuhyun rested on.

“You say you have word of the prince?” a man asked him, clearly one of the higher ranking guards.

“I may have,” Zhou Mi said honestly. “I do not know the look of the prince, and he told me only his name.”

“That is his horse!” the man said, stepping forward. “Look here—“

“Please, sir. Come this way,” Zhou Mi said. He pulled back the cloth he’d hooked to the cart’s seat, and revealed Kyuhyun lying there. And before the man could fear, he said, “He is not dead, only sleeping. I have searched for some time, bringing him back the path he was traveling to try and find his family. Please, is this him? Your prince?”

“It is he,” Zhou Mi was told. “His mother— Bring the cart inside, quickly.”

A woman who resembled Kyuhyun rushed to the cart after the man had went inside.

“Oh no! Oh, my sweet boy.”

Only to her Zhou Mi said, “I found for him a healer, once he fell into this state. I was told it was a curse.”

“Since he was a boy,” Kyuhyun’s mother said. “Please, tell me your name. You brought him to us, thank you!”

“I am Zhou Mi. We traveled together, he and I. He was— Is my friend.”

It was his fault, he suspected, that her son was in that state. Somehow, something had happened to trigger that cursed mark. A single kiss. Zhou Mi left the castle grounds only long enough to return the pony and cart and to retrieve his own horse.

He found Kyuhyun’s family welcoming, even in their grief and their wondering of what had caused the curse to trigger. He admitted he feared he caused it, that they had become close. He said everything but that they had kissed. No, they had made no promises, or vows. He suspected it was something quite different, that future they had seen, that hearth they had imagined themselves beside. He would have gladly given up his wanderings for the wonder of that, something Kyuhyun had offered with shyness. There had been no promise of forever to it, but however unspoken it was, however new the feelings, he had seen every possibility and reached out eagerly. Too eagerly, it seemed, for Kyuhyun.

And yet, he wondered if he had been brought such tidings if he would welcome himself the same.

***

The room was cool, though Kyuhyun was covered with a blanket from his feet to mid-chest. It was lush, marked with the royal seal. He could not see the cursed mark, but it taunted him from where it was hidden. Kyuhyun’s face was so soft, so still, his chest rising as though he was in deepest sleep. Zhou Mi wondered if he dreamed, or if it was rest that was unknowing. He stroked the softness of Kyuhyun’s cheek, studied the mouth that had tempted him. It was his temptation that had brought Kyuhyun to this, some half-life.

“I am so sorry,” Zhou Mi said, smoothing back a strand of hair from Kyuhyun’s temple. He looked as though he would wake if Zhou Mi just shook his shoulder, squinting his eyes against the light and shoving Zhou Mi away. Or maybe to laugh and pull Zhou Mi closer.

Zhou Mi jolted as the door opened, ready to protect Kyuhyun. But it was Ahra, Kyuhyun’s sister. The affection on her face as she came up beside him and did much as Zhou Mi did in smoothing Kyuhyun’s hair was an additional ache in his chest.

“At least he still breathes,” Ahra said. “There is always hope as long as he still breathes. He does not waste away, so there is some magic in that. It’s as though time has stopped for him. I have no doubt he will wake hungry, though.”

The words that hung unsaid between them, was of hoping that he woke at all.

“I am sorry to stay like this. I’m sure it must bring your parents pain to see the person who had put their son into this state.”

“You should not speak of yourself like that,” Ahra said, squeezing Zhou Mi’s arm. “You did not mean to. How could you have known? Not even Kyuhyun knew what would trigger it.”

Perhaps. All of that was true, but it didn’t lessen Zhou Mi’s guilt.

“I would do anything to see him wake from this,” Zhou Mi said.

“I know. So do my parents. In two days time, a witch from the kingdom south will arrive, to see if she can divine what will break this curse. We thought to wait it out, to protect him that way. I think my parents most regret not doing more to find out how to help when he was young.”

Two days more of wondering what he could have done differently.

“If it is permitted, I will stay, and then I will be here, if there is anything I can do.”

“Of course,” Ahra said, smiling up at him. “I know Kyuhyun would want that, too. I can tell you regard him highly.’

“We did not know each other long,” Zhou Mi answered truthfully. “But yes, it’s true. It was a battle I could not protect him from.”

Ahra sighed, linking their arms together. “Sometimes it does not take long. Will you eat with my husband and I? I want to know you better.”

There was no polite way for Zhou Mi to refuse Ahra, not as Kyuhyun’s sister, nor as princess and heir to the throne. But he looked back at Kyuhyun, peaceful and still, before exiting with her. And they both paused, as the wards were placed, to keep Kyuhyun safe in their absence. Just because the curse had been struck did not mean that Kyuhyun was safe.

***

Zhou Mi watched Kyuhyun as often as he could, and did not worry the searches before he entered. Everyone, even the king and queen were searched, so that no one could assume another’s form and slip in to see the prince harmed. He sat against the wall most days, reading aloud from a book that Ahra had noted as one of Kyuhyun’s favorites. Perhaps Kyuhyun could not hear, but it was a connection even so. Perhaps it could be a comfort. There was magic in that as well. He slipped out silent, head bowed, when Kyuhyun’s mother or father stepped in to see their son. He had already thanked them for allowing him to stay, and he made sure at all times he held himself away from Kyuhyun as much as he wanted to touch. After the first few times of him gently holding Kyuhyun’s hand, and then easing away, he wondered if they thought he was somehow keeping Kyuhyun in that state. He’d almost started to wonder himself, so he kept himself to speech, and sight. Staring at Kyuhyun’s lashes fanned out, the tiny mark beneath his eye, and the straight line of his nose. Rippled ear, and stubborn chin, marks that life had left scattered across his skin.

And his mouth. Zhou Mi had kissed Kyuhyun twice - once in their little shelter, the kiss that had triggered his curse. And once after, as some sort of hope against hope that if a kiss had felled him, then a kiss would wake him. Perhaps it had been silly, feeling Kyuhyun’s mouth warm and soft against his, but absent of all else. No joy, as had been with the first moments of their shared kiss, Kyuhyun against him, reaching for him. It did not matter what the witch said was the cure, if it was something that Zhou Mi could help with, he would do it.

“Your horse is waiting for adventure,” Zhou Mi said, standing several feet away and still feeling almost too close. “He’ll be ready to ride out at dawn. I’ve been feeding him treats when I go to the stable. He misses you. As do I.”

More than he had realized. He had not known a prince was sharing the only food he had, and even though Kyuhyun had possessed the funds to purchase more, there had been no guarantee of when he might have found it. They had been in the middle of the forest, and Kyuhyun had felt like a friend of years upon years sat down to feast with him. It was as though he had not known his own allure, easy, making Zhou Mi’s wariness relax.

They waited, all of them, Zhou Mi stoic near the wall as the witch examined Kyuhyun. She lifted his arm, and Zhou Mi glared at the mark, as though it would dissipate under his thoughts. Though the curse would have faded quite naturally, once it was invoked, it did not fade further. The mark on his arm was a stark mockery. The man who rested there so still, that was not the man who had stumbled sheepishly into his campsite and startled him half to death.

“What is a ring, a promise, fidelity. It took him from safety, the confinement of it, and took him to the fulfillment of the curse. He must go,” the witch said, and looked to Zhou Mi.

Zhou Mi stood straighter, wanting to look at each face but unable to look away from the stare of the witch.

“Of course, I will leave you to this.”

“Not from this room, but from this castle, this land.”

Prepared to leave while the witch was working, Zhou Mi was frozen by the demand. “I must? For how long?”

“As long as this child lays sleeping.”

He had said he would do anything. Zhou Mi took a step forward.

“May I say goodbye…?”

“You must go!” the witch said, and Zhou Mi half bowed, backing away.

“Thank you for your hospitality,” Zhou Mi told Kyuhyun’s parents. “I am sorry.”

Ahra tried to follow him, to ask him of his journey’s goals, to be sure he left with supplies. He appreciated it, and was dizzy that his last good memories of being in the room with Kyuhyun were of hating his curse instead of admiring his sleeping face to write into his memory. He stroked the nose of Kyuhyun’s horse, and set himself in the direction he had come from, the direction they had been traveling once in together.

***

The worst part was not knowing. There was no hurry for Zhou Mi ambling down the road, but he did not know if his reluctance was stubbornness or worry, or perhaps still some measure of guilt. He followed the orders of the witch as best he could, leaving the castle grounds. Though he knew not where the edge of the land of Kyuhyun's parents lay, whether it was over the river that he forded, the mountain in the distance. After the first day of riding like he had someone to get away from, that was when he slowed. Perhaps Kyuhyun would follow, if it was Zhou Mi's distance which helped to wake him. He did not want to race into the distance, and prevent Kyuhyun from catching him. He dreamed all manner of strange dreams, of beasts catching him unawares, of thieves chasing him down the forest path.

His horse nudging his knee brought him out of his reverie, glaring so hard into the water that he was surprised it had not burst into flames. But all his horse had wanted was the grass that Zhou Mi's leg was hiding.

"Sorry, my friend," Zhou Mi said, stroking the horse's shaggy neck. The nights were growing colder, moving from summer toward autumn. Once the leaves fell, the snows would follow. No one, not even a prince would journey out without necessity. It also meant his journey would need to find a conclusion. He would not reach the mountains in time to find what was beyond, and he had no desire to winter near the sea. He looked over his shoulder, seeing the road that led to the castle where Kyuhyun was. Perhaps he still slept. Perhaps he would sleep until the curse would have found its natural end.

At each fork on the road, Zhou Mi went forward. Perhaps there were nicer paths, better chances. Something drove him forward, only forward.

He stopped where the fork did not continue. One path curved to the left, and the other to the right. He camped there for three days, buying a new and thicker blanket and considering his choices. If he were followed, there would be no way to know, no logical process to divine which road was chosen. He could not carve his initials on every tree he passed, and though he knew very well that his indecision could be in vain - Kyuhyun might never wake, or if he did, he might never seek Zhou Mi out.

Traveling had been a good way of taking his mind from everything. He had travelled to free himself, and had the brightness Kyuhyun had brought, he did not want to see it as a shackle. It was simple enough to find a farmer working frantically to prepare for the upcoming winter. If traveling had eased his mind, so did labor. He was social by nature, but that was not why he made alliances of houses along the road, or at the home that boasted rooms to let. If they remembered him, and they would, then if someone asked after him they would know him, know where to point someone toward.

It seemed ridiculous even to think of "someone" when he knew exactly who it was that he wanted it to be. His journey was ended, shoveling straw and sleeping deeply in a room off of the kitchen. He passed his days to the lowing of cattle, the squeal of pigs, and his nights by candlelight, with one of the few and precious books he carried. He asked for no payment from the kind couple, only a place for his head, and food to eat. The work and the books, they filled him. But it was inevitable to be not enough, that he would think at night, think so many thoughts that he wished he could share. He looked from wall to wall, stretched out his fingertips from edge to edge of his room and knew there was not really enough room there for two. But whether there were two in reality, or sometimes only in his mind, he took up a precious pencil and unfolded a blank page from his pack. He had written to his family already, the letter carried away. He resisted it a long time, his thoughts of Kyuhyun. But when he began, he found he could not stop.

Even if he had no plans to send the letter.

“To the north there are hills, and today they are ringed in by mist. I should have liked to have ridden out with you today, to chase that, to find ourselves caught amongst it, or to emerge into the sunlight above it,” Zhou Mi wrote. “Light grows dimmer it seems, and the limbs are caught by frost most mornings. If you go out, you must wear a hat, so that you don’t fall ill. I would gladly let you warm your nose against my cheek, or your fingers in mine.”

Perhaps word of Kyuhyun’s waking would make its way. He did not know if word had spread of Kyuhyun’s curse, or if it was explained as merely an illness.

The thought of Kyuhyun so still and lifeless clutched at his throat, his chest, and he turned from the paper, covering it with the others and sliding onto his bed. It was cushioned with the same straw he had carted, and it smelled like the sun, but even that did not keep him from rubbing his face as he was chased by grief. Kyuhyun’s laughter would have been so welcome, filling the room.

***

Winter was not a time of leisure, with livestock to be cared for, haystacks to be uncovered, and paths to be forged. Zhou Mi spent only a little time with a hot mug of tea, watching huge flakes fall to pile on top of the others. There had been no news, though Zhou Mi asked any visitor he saw that had come that way. The snow fell and covered the tracks on the road until another passerby came that way. He put tracks of his own there, trotting out on his horse on particularly fine days, where the light glinted off the snow and showed off just how bright the world could be. He had not written a letter to Kyuhyun in some weeks, slowing himself. He feared he would run out of paper, that as well, far before the thaw came. The days grew slowly longer, the air not quite so close as he tugged his scarf down away from his mouth.

His horse snorted, and it was to an unfamiliar gray mare tied at the post in front of the home where he made his lodging. One of their children, perhaps. He took his time, rubbing and making sure his horse was dry, and warm, and fed, before he made his way to the house. It was a man he was unfamiliar with, who was introduced to him, a man who regarded him with some curiosity.

“They said you were the one who would be interested in news from the castle,” the man told him.

Zhou Mi’s heart startled, having to catch himself before he leaned forward too eagerly.

“I— Yes, I have acquaintances there. Do you have news then?”

“A little. The castle is not much to share beyond its walls. There had been rumors of an illness in the family, though the last I heard there were plans being made for the prince’s name day. That seemed to dispel those. They plan a celebration near to what was made for the princess’s wedding.”

“Then the prince has been…seen. He is well?”

“That I do not know. Only that they plan his celebration. Do you travel back that way?”

“No, I do not think so. Thank you for the news,” Zhou Mi said, and his feet felt leaden as he excused himself and retreated to his room. There had been no word, none but that. A celebration spoke of only two things, that they celebrated the life given back to them, or they made preparation in hope that it would wake Kyuhyun for them.

He hoped it was the former. Even if he had been sent no word, even if Kyuhyun had forgotten him, or resented him, he hoped that Kyuhyun was awake and in the embrace of his family. His heart would have felt lighter, if someone had seen Kyuhyun, if he knew. He pulled out his pencil, too weak to keep himself from it.

“The longer days make me long for spring, to hear the birds again and ride hard over solid ground. There is a stream nearby, and I look forward to catching the first fish of spring, making a fire and enjoying it crisp in the new air. I have promised myself for the winter’s lodging to stay until the fields are planted and ready, but no longer. I hope before then I have confirmation that you are well, so that I might set myself to my next destination. If I know that, then I know I can move on without regrets, to find my happiness and hope that you have found yours also.”

News should have made him happy, but it made him unsettled instead. At least putting his thoughts to paper helped him to put it from his mind, and when two weeks later he heard confirmation that the prince was awake and had attended his celebration, he rejoiced, and he watched. He both could not wait for the weather to warm, and dreaded it, because it took him closer to that time when he had promised himself he could wait no longer.

***

Zhou Mi had to brush off an early flying insect, but even with that, he rested, half in the sun, half in shadow. He could hear the wind, the distant cropping of the horses. Settled like that calmed the restlessness in him, as though he wanted to find his horse and ride until he could not ride further. Another day’s work done, another day closer to finishing the turning of the earth. It was a satisfying feeling, and a promise he was fulfilling, and that was not something he would have given up. The comfort and safety of a home, security that he hadn’t had really since leaving his own home. Maybe he would travel back that way, before the next winter. He missed them suddenly, an ache. He remembered his mother singing, and that lulled him, soaking in the last of the day’s warmth.

And Zhou Mi startled to the sound of a voice.

“I hope you did not fall to slumber when I woke.”

Zhou Mi’s eyes opened just as a shadow fell over his head. He blinked up at the upside down face as the words trickled into his brain.

“Oh, no, you are awake,” he was teased, and he sat up as Kyuhyun crouched down, smirking at him.

Kyuhyun. There, in front of him.

“You’re here,” Zhou Mi said, his words sounding ridiculous to his own ears.

“I am.”

He stank of the earth, of labor, but Kyuhyun was there, settling down, sitting beside him on the cold ground. He’d watched for visitors, dreamed of a knock on the door, heard the sound of horses, and not once had he imagined Kyuhyun arriving just like that, stealing up on Zhou Mi like a thief.

“I can’t—“ Zhou Mi’s hand reached, but stopped before he could touch Kyuhyun’s skin to assure himself of what he saw. “I am afraid,” he admitted.

The last time they had touched, had kissed, it had been an ending.

Kyuhyun lifted his sleeve, showing his skin, free of the curse.

“It will not return. No matter what dreams, what plans are made. Even if I were cursed again, it would not be the same. Fate would not be that cruel.” Kyuhyun looked to him, his smile a bit pained. “When I woke, my last recollection was that you kissed me. I was reaching for you. But you weren't there and they said you had been gone for many months.”

The thought of Kyuhyun reaching for him when he woke was one that Zhou Mi had not let himself dwell on. His family had been there, so at least he would not have been alone or among strangers.

“Did they tell you why I had to go?” Zhou Mi asked.

“Yes, and that you stayed, until you were made to go.” Kyuhyun looked around, at the barn, the little home. “I didn’t expect to find you in a place like this. I feel like I have inquired at every home in the world.”

Kyuhyun had looked for him. Kyuhyun had found him.

Zhou Mi smiled, as much as his face would let him. “I came as far as the path went straight, and stopped, in case you would wake and follow. But time passed. I heard at first that they were preparing at first for your name day. And then I heard you had woken.”

“Did you give up on me coming after you?” Kyuhyun asked, the words halting from his mouth. It didn’t make it any easier to admit.

“Perhaps. I was preparing that I would move on from this place, and if I did, that I would never see you again.”

“All the witch could tell us was that you had to go. But one day… I woke up. I’ve thought of every possibility as I’ve been looking for you, and I have to wonder if that is when I woke. The curse took from me that promise of a future with you. Maybe that is why I could not have woken with you by my side.”

It made him ill to think of it, and he had no idea what Kyuhyun must have thought of him. “I’m sorry. I would have waited had I known.”

“If you had known, who can say what might have happened? All I know is that I walk among the waking again. To move on from a dream, does it mean to give it up forever? Or to let go so the pain will not follow. Have you let go of all hope?

“Not so long as I knew you breathed,” Zhou Mi said. “I think I would always have been looking behind me.”

Kyuhyun’s fingers were cold in his as their hands clasped. At least Kyuhyun did not blame him, did not think he had left because of lack of devotion. And had not given up because of a lack of want. There was relief in the set of Kyuhyun’s shoulders.

“My family scolded me that if I were to find you, I must bring you back so they could meet with you again and know you better,” Kyuhyun said, looking down a little bashfully. “I told them some of my feelings, and they were too glad to see me awake I think to reprove me. Do you think… If you are willing, the ride back is some distance. Perhaps we can discover a dream together again on the way.”

“I cannot leave now,” Zhou Mi said, though part of him wanted to shout for his horse and agree to anything. To Kyuhyun, everything was as though it had happened so recently, so maybe Kyuhyun would have some patience with him as well. “I have promised to stay until the planting is done this spring, and we are still working at it. But after that, yes, I would be glad to return with you.”

The words buzzed between them, a sharing of smiles, Zhou Mi’s breath coming a bit harder as he waited.

“Could you use another set of hands?” Kyuhyun asked.

“I can’t speak for my hosts, but I imagine it would be welcome! More hands would quicken things.”

And unspoken, set them on their way faster. When Zhou Mi looked at him, Kyuhyun’s expression was one as though he hadn’t even considered such an idea, and Zhou Mi laughed, the sound echoing out over the field.

Zhou Mi squeezed Kyuhyun’s hand. “Are you really here?”

“Do you want me to be?”

Zhou Mi sputtered, laughing. “Yes!”

“Then I am,” Kyuhyun said, his chin lifting, his eyes full of the tease.

Kyuhyun was there. Zhou Mi pulled Kyuhyun into a hug, leaning together there on the cold ground, and part of himself he had begun to tuck away lit into life as Kyuhyun laughed into his shoulder.

***

Zhou Mi had been correct, the room was not made for two, but he found he did not mind the closeness, and Kyuhyun had refused staying away from him. The first night, they stayed awake long after they should have, unable to stop talking, stop touching as though in the dark one of them would disappear. One of Zhou Mi’s hands was on Kyuhyun’s forearm, one of Kyuhyun’s hands on Zhou Mi’s side, and they stayed that way, talking of Kyuhyun’s journey, of the work that Zhou Mi had been doing. They stayed away from sad things, like Zhou Mi’s journey away from the castle. It would be something to talk about eventually, but not then.

In the dark, it felt like it had in their makeshift shelter before the rain, though they hadn’t been so close then, or the emotions so raw. Sometimes the conversation was comfortable, and others the strain of awkwardness pressed on them. They were learning again, with soft laughs, and warmth shared by the way they held on.

The sun was ready to rise far before they were, but with a hot meal, there was ample enough work to see them awake. Another set of hands was indeed welcome, and it made the work both lighter, and quicker. The sun was ever stronger, taking the last of the chill from the ground, and moving them from any chance of frost. They walked some nights to dying sunsets, content from their dinner, and eager to talk alone. Kyuhyun had not changed, bright, and bold, and intensely stubborn. He made Zhou Mi laugh until he couldn’t breathe, discussing, and arguing, and talking until they had to sneak back into the house at least one night like they were children.

Zhou Mi took him to the crossroads where he had stopped, the lines of trees, the ragged sign posts.

“When you reached the end of this road, with only the choice of left, or right, which way would you have chosen?” Zhou Mi asked, as they stood together.

“Left,” Kyuhyun said, without hesitation.

“So quickly! And why is that? Don’t tell me I list that way when I walk.”

“I would have followed my heart,” Kyuhyun said.

Zhou Mi could have groaned, demanding that he be serious, but Kyuhyun had been serious. There was another reason, because that path followed the forest, while the right followed the farms. It would have been why Zhou Mi would have chosen that path as well. But even though there was no empty road to follow, they could do no more than that.

Still, not all fears could be put off. It was not in the grand confines of a castle, but in the privacy of the barn that Zhou Mi pulled Kyuhyun close.

“I promise,” Kyuhyun told him, and he didn’t have to tell Zhou Mi just what it was he promised. That he would be there, that he wouldn’t sleep again, that it was safe.

Zhou Mi kissed him, their lips pressing for a moment, two, and they parted, breathing together, and very still. Kyuhyun laughed at Zhou Mi’s wonder and pulled him into another kiss, and Kyuhyun was warm against him, against his hands, against his lips. How much he’d nearly lost—

How much he had lost, and found again.

***

It was sadness to leave his hosts, to wave as they set out with their bags laden with food for their journey. Zhou Mi had fulfilled his promise, and made friends of two people he promised he would stop to see again if he ever was near. He’d come up the road that they traveled alone, though Kyuhyun had as well. They traveled back over it together, having no goal to travel so far each day. And even though he knew that they would reach the point where their journey together had ended, it was strange to pull his horse to a stop, with Kyuhyun having stopped before he did.

“It was in here somewhere, wasn’t it?”

Their shelter, close and protected. Zhou Mi remembered that tug of hope inside of him, hoping, even if he had known it had been unwise to. They dismounted and let their horses drink from the nearby stream.

“I didn’t stop here on my way, because it wouldn’t have meant anything alone,” Kyuhyun said. Zhou Mi hadn’t on his journey alone for much the same reason, except that it had also been too painful to consider.

“I wonder where we would have gone, if we’d continued traveling,” Zhou Mi mused. “Which way would our path have led?”

“Home, eventually,” Kyuhyun said. “I always knew I would want to find my way home, even if it wasn’t to stay. Though, I suppose when I set out, I knew it wouldn’t be a place that I would stay again. After we visit my parents, I’ll happily follow you to see yours.”

“Maybe we’ll find that place for us in between,” Zhou Mi said.

“That’s your dream still?” Kyuhyun asked.

“It’s less a dream now, isn’t it?”

More an eventuality. Kyuhyun grinned, nudging him, leaning in when Zhou Mi’s arm pulled him closer. Maybe in their travels it would not be soon, but as long as that want was there, all they had to do was make it a reality.

Zhou Mi would’ve kissed him there to prove a point, but Kyuhyun was too busy splashing water at him, making him laugh as they mounted up again and continued their journey. They slept in a different place with nothing but trees around them, Zhou Mi nuzzling against Kyuhyun’s hair and a little more of his worry that it would all slip away again, dissolving into the night.

***

There was no prouder an uncle than Kyuhyun was cuddling his baby niece. Not a single care passed his mind of not being the next in line for the throne. He was just fascinated by the princess’s tiny toes, making all sorts of faces of amazement at Zhou Mi.

And then the little dear began to cry, and Ahra accepted her child back with gracious amusement.

“No, you didn’t break her,” Ahra said, sharing a look with Zhou Mi. Not that Zhou Mi had anything to boast about, considering he was no more familiar with babies than Kyuhyun. But the baby was both frighteningly small, and terrifyingly strong, and it was hard to leave even if they’d been there a month already.

“She’ll be enormous the next time we visit,” Zhou Mi said, and Kyuhyun made a sound of agreement.

“Still, it will be nice to get back to our routine. Maybe we should get a dog.”

Zhou Mi warmed to the idea immediately. “Oh, there is a litter expected in town soon. Maybe we should take a look when the puppies are born!”

Zhou Mi didn’t know that before they had left, Kyuhyun had shook hands with the owner that they would have first pick. That pleased him as his horse fell into step beside Zhou Mi’s.

Few in the kingdom really knew where their prince went off to, or that he spent the journey to and fro with Zhou Mi occasionally bursting into song. No one knew the little home they had built, with some help of course. It had a little covered porch so they could look out over a meadow, of a space for what would be a garden with some effort. The trees sheltered them more than any castle walls, and every time they went for supplies, they returned with a book. A fire would burn in their rock-faced hearth, and they would be safe from wind, and rain.

Sometimes Zhou Mi teased him, “Your highness.”

But his feelings for Kyuhyun had not begun for him as a prince, though they were no less for knowing. He had watched as Kyuhyun read the letters that he had written, showed Kyuhyun a part of himself, his fears, his love. Kyuhyun smiled at the handwriting, at the way that Zhou Mi wouldn’t quite meet his eyes after. They were no longer a point of sadness, but a sweet reminder that Zhou Mi had done everything he could, hurting himself in the process, to give Kyuhyun another chance.

They read together, by what would be a fire one day, ankles crossed over each other’s, trading off passages and hearing the wind outside. They had found their own kingdom, even if it had not been what they had first known they sought.

***

Date: 2015-11-29 05:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] jeynebesterling.livejournal.com
real life kicked my ass so hard but NOW I CAN FINALLY COMMENT
ok ok
so sleeping beauty is a favorite of mine especially more so when its re imagined

Date: 2015-12-01 11:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] g-odalisque13.livejournal.com
;;;;;;;;;;;
I took an extra ten minutes for lunch bc i was scared it wasn't gonna be a happy ending. Which is silly since you wrote it. But i read until kyuhyun found him and then i went back to work XD
So sweet ㅠㅠ
I love fairytale things ♡

Date: 2015-12-02 01:19 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tahoeturquoise.livejournal.com
Lovely, just lovely! Thank you!

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