It was a beautiful summer’s day: the sun was set high in a cloudless periwinkle sky. A cool breeze teased playfully at the pond’s edge and toyed with the manuscripts on the table. In the shade of the pagoda in the family garden, Ye Zun sighed in contentment, enjoying the beautiful weather and the dappled sunshine on his face. His older brother, Shen Wei sat nearby, debating the true meaning of this-or-that poem with their neighbour and childhood friend in that soothing teacher voice of his.
Zhao Yunlan sat close by, listening attentively to Shen Wei and replying with his interpretation of the next phrase. He looked at Shen Wei like a puppy would look for approval from its owner. If he had a tail, it would be wagging and that image made Ye Zun laugh. The way Zhao Yunlan had been acting as of late around Shen Wei ever since his return was becoming pathetic.
They were a good match intellectually, Ye Zun admitted bitterly, watching them both like a hawk. He washed the foul taste down with rice wine and reached for another refill.
Out of the three of them, Shen Wei was the one destined for greatness. Shen Wei was the model child: calm, even-tempered, polite, hardworking. Any positive attribute that one can think of, Shen Wei possessed it. Ye Zun, on the other hand, was the yin to Shen Wei’s yang . And although Ye Zun possessed a quick intellect, he was the polar opposite of his gege in temperament; he could not fault Yunlan for falling in love with Shen Wei.
It would be like the pot calling the kettle black. 五十步笑百步.
Ye Zun swirled the wine carafe between his long fingers and studied them further, noticing the unsubtle way Shen Wei leaned in closer to Yunlan, his fingertip tracing down the lines of the text as he read out the next phrase. There was a soft gentle smile on his face, as he coyly looked at Yunlan. It was a look that was reciprocated on Yunlan’s face.
“What do you think about this, Yunlan?”
If only his brother were not so oblivious to matters of the heart, his heart...
That expression was meant for him , Ye Zun thought. How dare his gege look at anyone that wasn’t him like that? It made him want to do awful things to Shen Wei, just to ruffle his feathers a little and refocus that attention back onto him.
The breeze sighed in disagreement to this plan.
He interrupted Yunlan unceremoniously, plopping down next to his brother and throwing an arm casually around his shoulder. “I think it’s stupid,” Ye Zun announced into the silence, hooking his chin over Shen Wei’s free shoulder and grinning wickedly up at Zhao Yunlan.
“So good of you to join us,” Yunlan said sarcastically. “Why does the great Lord Ye Zun have to say about this then?”
“Weren’t you listening?” Ye Zun tsked. “I think it’s stupid.”
“ Didi .” There was a familiar tone of chastisement in those two words, no doubt at how Ye Zun was acting like a child and being so rude as to drink in front of their guest (not that Yunlan would care). “I don’t know how Li Laoshi likes you so much.” Shen Wei always worried about saving face for the family name.
Ye Zun shrugged and boasted, “I’m charismatic and can talk my way in and out of anything.” He ran his fingers idly over the fabric at Shen Wei’s shoulder, taking in the smooth texture of the robe and liking it. It was one of Shen Wei’s nicer ensembles, a cream fabric with contrasting cornflower blue accents that made him seem so… soft and enticing. Was it chosen intentionally for Yunlan?
Yunlan laughed, taking them both in with an air of amusement. “Always the silver tongue with you, Ye Zun.” He was only a few years older than them and already primed to inherit his father’s position one day as a high-ranking army officer to the emperor. Over the past few months, they hadn’t seen much of Zhao Yunlan around. Rumour had it that Yunlan had accompanied his father to patrol the borders out west and to learn some vital swordsmanship skills.
Not that Ye Zun cared. It had been a blissful few months of having gege all to himself and now he had to share again.
Life was cruel.
He sighed dramatically and combed his fingers through gege ’s hair, letting the long strands cascade through the gaps. The better to expose the pale expanse of Shen Wei’s neck. Ye Zun scratched at the skin faintly, teasing, testing out the boundaries of how far he could get away with.
Shen Wei shuddered, squirming away as far as he could with Ye Zun’s other arm clamped over his shoulder. " D-Didi ? What are you doing?" Shen Wei asked, confused. His squirming had brought him closer to Zhao Yunlan, and that was something Ye Zun would not allow.
“ Gege ,” Ye Zun sighed and pouted. How could one man, so learned in literature, be so unlearned in life? One day, someone will come along and gobble his gege up without Ye Zun’s knowledge and that would be terrible .
While Shen Wei had the book smarts, Ye Zun had long since decided that he would sacrifice a little and cultivate his street smarts. For the sake of protecting Shen Wei from the wolves that were bound to circle around him, of course.
He never thought that one day, time would present a wolf in the form of Zhao Yunlan.
"I just want to see what he would do when I do this..." Ye Zun murmured, keeping his eyes on Yunlan and deftly coaxed the robes sitting on Shen Wei's shoulder free, pressing his mouth against that delicate pale skin.
Yunlan’s eyes became as round as the moon, his laryngeal prominence bobbing up and down as he swallowed swiftly. His mouth hung open as he could not quite believe Ye Zun’s audacity.
It was glorious.
With his suspicions confirmed, Ye Zun chuckled against Shen Wei’s shoulder and sucked just a little harder, just to see what would happen. His brother bruised so easily...
" Didi , stop!" Shen Wei squeaked as he tried to shove Ye Zun’s face away. His ears turned a delightful pink that was spreading to other parts of his face, and yet he sat rooted to the spot, thoroughly flummoxed. “Y-Yunlan?”
With one tanned hand, Yunlan pushed Ye Zun's arm off of Shen Wei's shoulder. "Ye Zun. This isn't funny. You shouldn’t do that to your gege ," Yunlan murmured, taking on the arduous task of fixing Shen Wei's robes and casually smoothing his hands down the lapels. After a moment, as if suddenly realising what he was doing, Yunlan flinched away as if scalded by hot water.
Ye Zun pulled back to give Shen Wei some breathing space and laughed in earnest. "Oh no, I think this is all positively delightful ."
“I’m sorry, Yunlan. I don’t know what’s gotten into him lately…” Shen Wei apologised, running his fingers through his hair. He scratched his ear and tried to play it off as a joke. “I think he misses winter...”
Ye Zun did, in fact, miss winter. He missed the snow and the long nights spent in their room, dozing beneath warm blankets with his head on gege ’s lap as he was read to. He missed having the excuse to curl up close to gege under the guise of conserving body warmth.
Yunlan had not returned until the spring, and that was when it all changed. Their friend had grown broader, his musculature had changed and the way he carried himself spoke of his training. He had grown darker with how much time he had spent in the sun, so much so that Shen Wei had taken to comparing their forearms in greeting instead.
“You know,” Ye Zun drawled, his head perched upon his hand as his elbow carelessly crushed a piece of parchment into the table. “You can kiss him. He would enjoy it... And I would enjoy watching you do it...”
Yunlan made a strangled noise, his cheeks darkening instantaneously as his gaze involuntarily flicked to Shen Wei.
"Or perhaps," Ye Zun continued, his voice dropping an octave into a lower register. "Or perhaps, you would enjoy watching me kiss him?" He licked his lips and grinned at Yunlan with a challenging stare and dived in again to press a kiss to Shen Wei’s neck...
Shen Wei stood up abruptly, cutting off whatever Yunlan had been about to say and leaving Ye Zun pouting once more; he had probably toed the line of that boundary. "Enough! I won't have this continue any further, didi . You can't do this. It is not polite!" Shen Wei’s voice cracked.
Ye Zun looked up in surprise, startling when he realised that Shen Wei was actually close to tears. From embarrassment or from something else... " Gege ...I..."
"And how can you say something like that to Yunlan? He is our friend. You must apologise immediately for your behaviour." Shen Wei glared, bringing his sleeves up to wipe furiously at the corners of his eyes.
Yunlan raised both eyebrows. It seemed the even-tempered and perpetually calm Shen Wei was balancing the precipice of anger. It took a lot to push Shen Wei’s buttons; a pastime that Ye Zun had dutifully spent perfecting.
He pretended to mull over the question, tapping at his lower lip with a finger. "No, I won't."
"What?" Shen Wei asked incredulously.
"I won't apologise, not when it's so painfully obvious." Ye Zun flapped a hand at Yunlan who looked about ready to throw himself off the seat and into the pond water below. “This is worse than that lovey-dovey play—Madame something… White Snake?.”
Shen Wei looked between them, his face morphing between mortification and surprise before settling on being carefully blank. “Unbelievable.” He whirled past Ye Zun and out of the pagoda, hurling across the bridge and down the garden pathway and then disappeared behind one of the buildings.
Yunlan cursed underneath his breath and closed his eyes, his head falling against the hardwood below, sending the porcelain clinking. "Ye Zun," Yunlan moaned in between more thunking. "Why? Why would you do that? I thought we were friends."
With Shen Wei vacating the space, Ye Zun slid closer to Yunlan and said nothing.
Yunlan stopped banging his head eventually and peered out of the corner of his eye through his mussed hair at Ye Zun.
"What?" Ye Zun prompted just to be an ass about the whole thing.
"When did you know?"
"When did I know what?"
"About two minutes after you figured it out."
Yunlan let out out another groan of disbelief and pressed his face into the table, this time with no intention of moving. “Ye Zun ah…”
There was a hidden amount of muscle underneath those robes. What was so good about that? He doesn’t get what Shen Wei saw in Yunlan, not really. There was an obvious affection born through years of friendship from having grown up together, going to Li Laoshi to learn, and playing with lanterns... There had even been that one fateful family trip when Shen Wei and Ye Zun had tagged along with the Zhao family to visit the Capital.
That had been fun: when the journey had been filled with indulgent picnics, chasing one another about on the road, all gangly legs and giggly about the simplest of things like chasing butterflies.
Yunlan had been an average-looking boy at best, but had grown into a… somewhat attractive young man. He stared at the top of Yunlan’s head, unable to parse together how the easy friendship between Shen Wei and Yunlan had become… this. And then: why Shen Wei and not him? Was there something inherently wrong with him that made him less desirable than Shen Wei?
And what was it like kissing someone else? The spirit of inquiry demanded to know and when Ye Zun saw his chance he took it, darting in as Yunlan looked up and pressed their lips together.
He wasn’t sure what he was expecting, pulling back after a beat with a frown. There wasn't anything that would draw anyone to do something like that, let alone his purest of freshly fallen snow gege .
"I don't get it," Ye Zun said at long last. There really wasn’t anything special.
"Wh-WHY DID YOU DO THAT?" Yunlan looked disgusted, mildly horrified and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He looked like Ye Zun had done something completely nefarious. “Haven’t you done enough damage today? Ye Zun you little—. Ugh!”
“Stop making such a huge fuss about it. It’s just a kiss.”
"You— I— WHY?"
“Get over it. What do you have to complain about anyway?” Ye Zun had the same face as his brother; Yunlan should not be having such an adverse reaction. A lot of people would have given anything to be kissed by Ye Zun, after all.
“First kisses are meant to be special .”
“Why would they be when no one has any idea what they are doing? The memory would be replaced by the next one.”
“But that is what makes it special ,” Yunlan said sadly like Ye Zun was the unreasonable one here.
Ye Zun stood up, pissed off, and scrubbed at his mouth with his sleeve. “Come on. Get up.”
He sighed when Yunlan made no move to get up. "Look. Do you want to go find gege or not?"
Yunlan had a ridiculous I’ve-been-mortally-wounded expression on his face but reluctantly got to his feet. “How am I going to face him now?”
“With your eyes, stupid. Now follow me.” Ye Zun had always been a masterful strategist, able to win by attrition no matter whether it was a game of weiqi or Shen Wei being indulgent as older brothers are. He grabbed ahold of Yunlan's sleeve—in case Yunlan was thinking of actually escaping—and made a beeline to Shen Wei's not-so-secret hiding space. It was only not-so-secret to Ye Zun because he always had a sixth sense of his brother's location.
The family estate is a modestly sized labyrinth with gardens to promote serenity and prosperity. In one of the lesser travelled corners, separate to the family library, was one of their father's storage rooms. Shen Wei's love of literature would have led him there, comforted by the scent of old pages and the escapism offered by the words written upon them.
Ye Zun dropped Yunlan's arm once they got close and rapped his knuckle against the door. "Shen Wei, open the door." No sound came from inside. Typical, pretending to be quiet when Ye Zun always knew. Always. "I won't knock again, gege ."
"He's not here," Yunlan bemoaned after a long beat of nothing.
"He's in there. Just stay quiet," Ye Zun snapped.
"You know, I had it all planned out. H-How I'd tell him," Yunlan continues as if Ye Zun hadn't spoken. “Tell him that I liked him, that is.”
" Gege !!" Ye Zun slapped at the door with his hand, now eager to escape what might be a heart-to-heart with Yunlan. Feelings? Plans about revealing them? That thought was just terrifying.
"I was going to ask him to see the acrobats with me after lessons are over. We would have a little bit of tea at the place he likes... I was going to suggest we go have a look at the bookstore. And then, I'd walk him home and if it was right— He was going to be my first kiss, Ye Zun! You ruiner of things!" Yunlan whined, hands gesticulating wildly in the air and looking like Ye Zun had tortured him, his family and his cow.
Ye Zun was rolling his eyes so often that he was certain they might fall out of his head by the end of the day. “Get over the kiss already!”
" Ah Ge —"
The door flew open and Ye Zun's palm nearly collided with Shen Wei's stony face.
" Gege ," Ye Zun smiled brightly and then smugly informed Yunlan, "I told you he was here."
Shen Wei glared, grabbing at Ye Zun’s wrist and pulling him in close. That was a dangerous look on Shen Wei’s face. Ye Zun was thrilled. "What. Did. You. SAY . You. Did."
Yunlan exclaimed "He kissed me!" at the same time that Ye Zun said, "I kissed him." Fingers were pointed and Ye Zun smacked at Yunlan’s extended hand like a cat.
Shen Wei's fists were clenched hard around the collar of Ye Zun’s robes and, well, fury looked beautiful on his brother's face. Beautiful and utterly terrifying. "Ye Zun. Why."
Uh oh. Gege was using his name. Ye Zun was in deep trouble now. And it was in that tone of voice that meant business. Ye Zun paled and then panicked. He pulled his brother in and then sealed his lips over Shen Wei's.
Ye Zun’s mind stopped working. All thoughts escaped out of his ears and he angled his head. There was only the background chirping of the birds and another strangled noise from Yunlan behind them. Absentmindedly, Ye Zun noted that Shen Wei’s lips were softer than Yunlan’s, opened partially in surprise and just a bit salty.
From tears? Ye Zun wondered and remembered how to breathe again, pulling back lest Shen Wei pushed him away. It was child’s play slipping out of Shen Wei’s slack hold.
"There. I've transferred his kiss," Ye Zun announced, jabbing a thumb over at Yunlan, "to you. So it counts. You can still be each other's firsts if it matters so much. You know, as I suggested in the first place."
"You have no romantic bone in your body," Yunlan said sadly, his eyes tracking between them like he isn’t sure who to look at first.
"Romance is for losers."
"Y-You can't just transfer something like that," Shen Wei hissed, fists clenching and unclenching at his side.
"Sure you can," Ye Zun said with a wicked grin. "Look, I just want you to be happy, gege . But you were going to take forever about it. And who knows what kind of trouble Yunlan is going to get into with all those people hoping to marry into the Zhao family. And then when we go take the Imperial examination, we’ll be separated and..."
He felt someone brush past his shoulder, stopping the ramblings of a madman, and Ye Zun blinked as he was nudged out of the way by Yunlan.
"Shen Wei," Yunlan began earnestly, his fingers twitching with uncertainty as he stopped respectfully away from Shen Wei. "I—"
"Y-Yunlan?" Shen Wei looked up, startled and a little hopeful.
"I'm sorry," Yunlan began and gamely took Shen Wei's ink-stained hands in his own.
"You don't have to be… If anyone should be apologising, it’s Ye Zun."
"Technically, you can still have a first kiss with one another, you know," Ye Zun piped up, pointing out the fucking obvious like the fact water is wet or fire is hot. "AND it's going to suck."
" Didi ," Shen Wei said coldly, "I'm still angry with you."
Ye Zun scoffed, taking those words with a pinch of salt. Not for long. Shen Wei couldn't hold a grudge even if it were bound and tied to his hand. "My ears were getting tired of hearing about Yunlan this and Yunlan that." He flapped a hand dismissively at the pair, carrying an air of of cultivated nonchalance, even as his heart thudded heavily at how he had almost cultivated Shen Wei’s anger.
"Whatever. One day you two would look back and thank me." Ye Zun doesn't bother checking to see if either of them heard and beat a hasty strategic retreat.
“Shen Wei ah, Shen Wei…” He quickly fled out of earshot. No need to hear Yunlan’s crappy love confession (even if it would be excellent blackmail material).
Ye Zun’s footsteps only stopped when he was about to turn the corner and be out of eyesight. He cast a glance at the doorway, feeling a pang of something when he saw Yunlan folding his arms delicately around Shen Wei, pressing his face close against the side of Shen Wei’s head and looking like the luckiest man alive.
Brotherly love was the closest he was ever going to get from his gege , and it pained Ye Zun to see the happiness reflected in Shen Wei's face.
They used to be an inseparable trio. Well, not any longer, Ye Zun thought with jealousy and made himself walk away. He loved his gege too much to jeopardize whatever little happiness Yunlan could give him, but nevertheless still precious like the first bud of spring.