Mo Xuanyu had always been their make-up artist. Lan Zhan had always been in charge of the costumes, ever since Wei Ying found the sketchbook where he kept the designs he came up with in the hours between sleep and homework, when he allowed himself to flounder the wings of his imagination. Embarrassed as he was of his hobby, he didn’t even know why he had carried the sketchbook with him that day (maybe confused it with his regular notebooks?), but after the initial shock of being discovered, he had relented to Wei Ying’s cries and pleadings and had agreed to be the last member in his brand new drama club. What set them apart, Wei Ying had told him with exaggerated gallantry, was that they’d write their own plays and enact them, instead of somebody else’s. Pretty big talk for someone who wouldn’t actually do the writing, Jiang Cheng barked, but he still joined the club anyway, the flair for the dramatic flowing in his veins as much as it did in Wei Ying’s; truly brothers, no matter the blood ties and several other differences between them.
So the club started then, each one of them being responsible for too many things and also not much at all, in those early days of chaotic planning, until they gathered more members and set a clear goal in mind: the school festival. It was an embarrassment, as school projects often were, but Wei Ying’s joy at seeing all of their work fulfilled in an hour of glory (“What glory? MianMian forgot her lines and ruined my impeccable script, Brother Wei! It won’t do, it really won’t do!”) somehow emboldened them to try harder and strive higher. So, at Wen Ning’s suggestion, on their second year, they started enacting plays at the local orphanage. The reward of the kids’ starstruck faces fed them better than any feast, and so they continued, every year, sometimes twice a year, all the way till college.
With such responsibility on their shoulders, it was natural for everyone to get pumped up, even going so far as to enlist some of their family members to lend their hands. Such as Lan Zhan sewing all of their costumes with his brother’s help, who had an eye for subtle details that Lan Zhan treasured, as he always did with all of his brother’s inputs throughout his life. Along with elder brother Lan came Meng Yao, who enriched Nie Huaisang’s scripts with twists and turns that made the fan-wielding boy think up even wilder twists and turns that Wei Ying’s creative mind ate up like his favorite spicy pumpkin-flavored cookies from the local coffee shop (that literally nobody but him liked). Jiang Cheng was their lead actor, Luo Qingyang, stage name MianMian, their lead actress, and everybody did a little bit of acting, even if they had no lines, as was often the case with Lan Zhan (at Wei Ying’s request).
And Mo Xuanyu was in charge of their make-up.
Not Lan Zhan.
Never Lan Zhan.
Yet there he is, covering for the sick man, standing in front of a smiling Wei Ying, who looks every bit like the evil sorcerer that they had perfected through the years, while Nie Huaisang, the second-best make-up artist of their little rogue troupe, frenzies over MianMian.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, the gentle tone of his voice coloring his name, holding the familiar hint of apology that he often uses when he drags Lan Zhan to adventures his friend doesn’t appreciate as much as Wei Ying had anticipated. “It’s really not that difficult. It’s not too different from coloring your designs, and you’ve seen the end results. This is nothing your brilliant, talented hands can’t handle!”
Flattery could get him anywhere as long as Lan Zhan was involved, but the young man still swallows down around the anxiety that has installed itself at his stomach like acid, not having much to do with being able to pull off a decent make-up job and everything to do with leaning over Wei Ying and painting on him like a canvas.
Unaware of the not-so-honorable battle that Lan Zhan fights against himself, Wei Ying places the eyeshadow palette in Lan Zhan’s palm and leans against the back of the chair, tilting his face up. It’s so innocent, so trusting and professional, and Lan Zhan leans over him for a brief second before remembering he’s not holding any brushes. How surprised would everyone be if Lan Zhan simply bolted out of the modest, well-lit bedroom that they used as a dressing room and screamed in the backyard full of children waiting for the play to begin? He can’t even process the mental image, but knowing that it’s impossible seems to ground him.
Firmly holding a brush in his hand, Lan Zhan swallows again — doesn’t scream —, inhales, and sets himself to work.
It really isn’t so difficult once he begins. He knows exactly what color Mo Xuanyu uses on Wei Ying, so accustomed he is to seeing his friend play the fearsome Yiling Patriarch. It’s a highlight of red on the crease of his eyes, to give him a sharper look, scheming and compelling at the same time. Lan Zhan uses his own thumb to smudge the same red on his eyelids, just a tiny bit, just a brush of color, a gradient of red that matches up with the color scheme that Lan Zhan set up for his character a long time ago, which was really just a fantasy take on Wei Ying’s own style.
With a thin brush, he sets to draw a perfect black contour on Wei Ying’s lash line, for when he opens his eyes, he needs him to look as if he could transmutate into a cat at any given moment, so round and marble-like those brown eyes look then, mesmerizing the audience.
Satisfied with his job on his eyes, Lan Zhan sparkles a peach color on his cheeks so he looks healthy and ready to gobble up misbehaving children. And then his lips...
He curses Mo Xuanyu and his food poisoning, and then he mentally apologizes. All those years in high school trying to ignore just how pretty Wei Ying is as he tried to get Lan Zhan’s attention, how pretty he even was when he was asleep and drooling on Lan Zhan’s dinner table where they were supposed to brainstorm the theme of their next play. Years of trying not to betray the honesty of their friendship, because he could spend forever watching the endless capability Wei Ying’s ideas, and he liked being included in his group, doing something that he had been curious about but ignoring for the sake of his academic success, until Wei Ying taught him that he could have both the success and the fun of doing something you like. All of it, and also the dreams where Wei Ying kissed him (because he was never the one to initiate it), touched him, pinned him to the floor from where he fell in endless loops — all of his inappropriate desire falls upon a single, tiny brush of red.
Holding Wei Ying’s chin, he glides the brush, shiny and glossy, over the center of Wei Ying’s lower lip and then out to the sides. Then he draws the heart shape of his upper lip, careful not to color outside the natural lines of Wei Ying’s mouth, slowly, slowly covering every corner with calculated precision. He’s mindful not to use too much product, knowing by its consistence that it can smear unsightly, but it still accumulates in the corners, and he wipes it away with his digit, using the tip of his nail to draw the proper line again.
His gaze moves up and the eyes he framed are looking straight at him. How long had he been staring at him? How long had Lan Zhan even been working? And why can’t he hear the others getting ready around them?
His breathing, that had been steady — and he had, by all accounts, been touching Wei Ying’s face as he hovered over him, trying to make him even more beautiful than the memory of their past plays — fails him as the tip of Wei Ying’s tongue peaks through, just the tip, before he touches his lips together. His teeth look whiter with that red framing them, and Lan Zhan can’t look away, he’s mesmerized by that mouth that loves to talk to him, pouring out considerations from topics Lan Zhan had never even considered but that he understands when Wei Ying talks about them. But now he’s not talking, his lips are just perfect and unmoving and parted, and Wei Ying still has his chin tilted up at him, and he’s so near. Why isn’t Wei Ying saying anything? Where is everyone? Why is he gripping the arms of Wei Ying’s chair—
“Are you done there yet?!”
Jiang Cheng’s call is very clear and very near, and Lan Zhan is aware that he has made an undignified jump away from his position in 0.1 seconds flat. He expects Wei Ying to laugh at him, as he does in almost every situation, but when Lan Zhan dares to raise his eyes back at his friend, he’s also standing and adjusting his cuffs before checking his reflection on a nearby mirror.
“Wow,” is all that he says about Lan Zhan’s work, and Lan Zhan is surprised that, despite the panicked drumming of his heart against his chest that spells out all of his secret infatuation, he’s still glad that Wei Ying seems pleased about the results.
“I... I kept it simple,” he says, and it’s true. Xuanyu uses a plethora of products that Lan Zhan doesn’t quite begin to understand the purpose of, and he still wouldn’t have taken as long as Lan Zhan did given his expertise.
Wei Ying, however, just shakes his head and gives him an honest (and painfully distracting) smile.
“These kids are in for an especially striking Yiling Patriarch today,” he says and smirks, and Lan Zhan wants to kiss him and die, and those ideas don’t feel as isolated as he originally thought they’d be. “Let’s go, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan is terribly relieved that they had decided to write him out for today, because he’s not confident he’d remember to say any of his lines, even if they were just mostly hums, with Wei Ying playing his flute in a particularly intense tempo, eyes glued on him, as if he was the one he wanted to enchant.
“Lan Zhan, create my new character with me.”
That is the sole reason why Wei Ying arrives early to one of the few classes they have together, the very next week after their performance. Their professor is never late, but that doesn’t keep Wei Ying from throwing his notebook at him, an old thing, full of scribbles that date to a place in time when they didn’t even know each other. Wei Ying makes a list of attributes, sitting in his own space but leaning over Lan Zhan’s desk with inspiration at the tip of his tongue. He looks up at Lan Zhan with eyes that might as well sparkle like in the comics he once convinced Lan Zhan to read.
“I want to be a hero,” Wei Ying says, voice brimming with an emotion Lan Zhan can’t quite place, and they’re only forced out of their own world when the professor clears his throat loudly, quite pointedly looking in their direction.
Although he takes his notes dutifully, Wei Ying keeps throwing him glances with barely contained excitement, and in the back of Lan Zhan’s mind, in-between the professor’s pauses, he’s already working on the design.
The troupe doesn’t have to meet for some time, given they all also have to focus on their own assignments and upcoming exams. When they do, after New Year celebrations, it’ll be time to brainstorm, and Wei Ying, diligent for all the wrong things at the wrong times, plans to pitch his brand new concept.
“He’s going to be one of two prides,” he says, sprawled on Lan Zhan’s couch, his hands raised high, as far as he can reach, palms splayed, as if he can already see the scenes playing out on the ceiling.
“Prideful?” Lan Zhan questions from his place on the floor, leaning against the couch and looking at Wei Ying, his sketchbook on the low table before him, waiting.
“Hmm, not his definitive trait. His brother is though — that’s Jiang Cheng, of course —, as the rightful heir to the kingdom. I’ll be...”
“A loyal servant and prized adviser? You know, sort of like Merlin. But I don’t wanna be a sorcerer this time, I wanna wield a sword. I love brother Mingjue’s props.”
Lan Zhan huffs, and whether it’s about Nie Mingjue’s props or the idea of Wei Ying being an adviser, he doesn’t say.
“Lan Zhan, close your eyes and imagine it.”
He leans his head back, more against Wei Ying than the couch, and does so. One of Wei Ying’s hands sets over his eyes, for unnecessary effect, and Lan Zhan can’t help but allow himself to smile.
“A prince and his right hand, the twin prides. One is the rightful heir, the other is... adopted, yes. Together they defend Lotus Pier against invaders, and their rising success brings them notoriety among the other kingdoms. What do you think?”
“The royal color of Lotus Pier should be purple. Pink is too light, purple is better. Like Yunmeng’s sky in the summer.”
“You still remember that?”
Wei Ying lifts his hand from his eyes, resting it on his hair as Lan Zhan turns his head around to look at Wei Ying, acquiescing with a hum. The last time he went to Yunmeng for the summer, he sent Lan Zhan dozens of pictures, including one from the beach at sunset, when the sky was a gradient of orange and purple, like a painting. Wei Ying thought Lan Zhan would love that one, and he did, making sure he told Wei Ying that instead of keeping it to himself.
(Although he loved and saved all of them to his phone anyway, but he kept that to himself.)
“Isn’t that what you were thinking about? Lotus. Yunmeng.”
Wei Ying smiles and hums an agreement of his own, his fingers brushing Lan Zhan’s bangs away from his face. And because they’re both so easy to read to each other, and Wei Ying’s gaze is so unmistakably fond, and because he feels himself too open, Lan Zhan lifts his head from the couch and leans forward, fingers hurriedly taking up his mechanic pencil to scribble down a few keywords. Purple. Twins. Adopted. Adviser.
“I haven’t figured out how to go about it yet,” Wei Ying says as he moves from the couch to sit beside Lan Zhan on the floor, “but I wanted to create a different kind of hero than we’ve worked with before.”
“The adoption part will be important for the children,” Lan Zhan points out with a nod. “It’s good, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying lets out a strangled noise and takes hold of Lan Zhan’s left arm, rubbing his face on his upper arm before looking back at Lan Zhan. His cheeks and nose are red, but he has the same excited glint in his eyes that he had when he approached Lan Zhan in class the day before, and Lan Zhan thinks it simply belongs there. This is his favorite Wei Ying, creative and free, and though he’s bound by his academic responsibilities, as long as Lan Zhan is with him, he’ll make sure he succeeds in everything he does. Everything for that crescent moon smile, full of stars.
“So, what else?”
Lan Zhan’s mechanic pencil hovers over the paper as they think, scribbling down more keywords, until it becomes so late in the evening that Wei Ying misses his dormitory’s curfew and has to sleep at Lan Zhan’s flat, in a guest bedroom that holds more of Wei Ying’s forgotten possessions than those of Lan Zhan’s brother, who was supposedly the person he kept the room for.
“Why did you keep the red ribbon?”
Lan Zhan sets his red pencil down, lifting his sketchbook so both of them can think about it together.
“Both Wanyin and Wuxian use the same clothes and hairstyle, as twins and members of the royal family. Wanyin, as the heir, wears the crown’s jewelry in his hair. Wuxian is a main character too, so he can’t look any less striking, so, the red ribbon.”
It’s your color goes unsaid. His hair is long, past his shoulders, though Jiang Cheng keeps telling him to get it cut like a normal person, and he always ties it with a red velvet scrunchie. As the Yiling Patriarch, he wore a red ribbon in his hair, and when he played the dizi and a gust of wind blew by him, he was mesmerizing, the red unforgettable against Wen Ning’s hand-drawn background. There was always something red about Wei Ying; a red backpack, red converse, and that red lipstick... Lan Zhan still dreams about it.
It should be there. Yet Wei Ying keeps his brows furrowed at the drawing.
“But isn’t it too striking? I don’t think Jiang Cheng is going to like it.”
He takes Wei Ying’s wrist, bringing it away from his face, where he was chewing on his nailbeds. Sitting side by side without a space between them, he lowered their hands to their laps and his hold moved to keep his palm against Wei Ying’s. It’s a lax hold, unambitious, just sharing warmth.
“You can be a hero too.”
His lips part, but he doesn’t say anything. He holds Lan Zhan’s gaze for long seconds (maybe two) before he bites his lip, huffs a repressed laughter, and lets his head fall on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“Lan Zhan,” he says it like a whine, like a plea, and he feels his fingers intertwine with his, the connection still comfortable, still known, still familiar.
“This whole project is yours,” Lan Zhan speaks into his hair. “You should be able to do what you want.”
Wei Ying snorts.
“Isn’t that vain?”
“...You’re not exactly humble.”
He lifts his head from his shoulder and bumps into him with a pointed, “Hey.” Lan Zhan chuckles, almost without sound, and pats the hand that’s still holding his.
They look back at the design. Lan Zhan can already envision the fabrics he’s going to use, the details that he wants to add, and he already regrets saying that both Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng’s characters are going to dress the same.
Wei Ying sighs. “You spoil me with your designs, Lan Zhan.”
And he can’t really deny that.
It’s as difficult to keep Wei Ying focused on his studies as it is for Lan Zhan to not drop his books and go to his workshop to sew Wei Ying’s costume. Even though exams are merely weeks away, Lan Zhan still finds some time to secretly buy all of the material he needs while Wei Ying tries to keep up with his own study group. And it proves to be a wise decision because Wei Ying doesn’t last two days with his classmates before he shows up at Lan Zhan’s flat with thick books recently checked out from the library and teary eyes.
“I hate studying,” he dramatically announces as he flops down face-first on the couch. Lan Zhan knows it’s true as much as he knows that Wei Ying actually really enjoys being practical.
He opens Wei Ying’s bag and puts his books on the low table. “Why are you even taking classic literature?”
“It’s inspiring,” Wei Ying says, eyes closed and voice muffled by the leather of the couch. “It’s food for the soul. It’s pretty like you.”
Lan Zhan halts his movements, not daring to turn or do anything else; one hand lies atop Wei Ying’s bag and another on the advanced physics book he last set down.
Wei Ying is by his side before he blinks twice, putting his bag away and apparently trying to choose which of the books he wants to open, but too rushed and flushed to be doing much thinking at all.
“You,” Lan Zhan begins, swallows, inhales and tries again. “Do you want me to help?”
Wei Ying’s head snaps in his direction. With big eyes and his lower lip hidden under his upper lip, he just nods, and Lan Zhan either saves or dooms them both as he sets all books aside and puts the Advanced Physics book in front of them.
Flipping the pages to the subject that would be covered in his exams, Wei Ying takes out his notebook, and he explains.
The end of the year is marked by heavy snowfall, the kind that has Wei Ying’s teeth clattering together outside, even if he’s covered in layers that are short from hindering his mobility and wearing a scarf so wound around his head that only his eyes peak out between the wool. It’s the only time of the year that Lan Zhan feels bad for his staying in Gusu, as if the city is like a stern parent testing the object of his affections and Wei Ying barely passes, or maybe bypasses it, by sticking close to Lan Zhan even when they’re indoors. He indulges in their practiced proximity, and if his body yearns for more, he sternly shuts it down, unable to sacrifice all the years of accumulated mutual trust for the gamble of a confession.
As always, however, he’s saved from the trap of his feelings by Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng’s end of the year trip to Yunmeng. And on cue, he leaves his own flat to spend the turn of the year with his uncle and brother at the Lan estate, set in the part of the city where the hills are high enough to almost sit among the clouds.
Between hot tea brewed to perfection by his brother, television cooking programs that his uncle has become oddly fond of in the past year, and the occasional reading (both required and unrequired for his studies), Lan Zhans works on Wei Ying’s costume in the studio his brother arranged for him when he first enrolled in Wei Ying’s drama club.
“Did you make this jinbu, A-Zhan?” Brother Huan asks when he brings him tea and biscuits, picking up the accessory with a purple tassel, light and dark purple beads and a white lotus that could pass as jade. At his younger brother’s nod, Lan Huan’s smile is so delighted that Lan Zhan has to look away. “It’s beautiful work, A-Zhan. You could really make a profession out of it.”
“Brother, it’s just...”
He trails off as his brother chuckles and gently places the jinbu back down.
“I know. It’s just for Wei Ying, isn’t it?”
Lan Zhan leans even further down into the fabric he’s working on, pretending to check something in the sewing machine.
“It’s just a hobby,” he admits instead. Lan Huan doesn’t discredit him, patting his head like he’s still a child, and Lan Zhan doesn’t have it in him to dislike the touch.
“Just remember that if you ever question the serious profession you’re seeking, A-Zhan, the answer always lies closer than you think.”
The older Lan Sibling tilts his head, taking in all of his little brother’s work laid out in the space of his studio. He looks at the design Lan Zhan is trying to bring to life and then at all the materials on the station, and an imperceptible frown touches his face, like a ripple on calm waters.
Lan Zhan sighs, knowing exactly what fabric he’s questioning, without even having to try and see it in his brother’s hands.
“I know. I couldn’t find the one I wanted in time.”
He works the machine to keep the frustration away, so he doesn’t notice his brother leaving with the offending fabric, only to return, hours later, with such a fine material that Lan Zhan breaks into a bright, grateful smile. During dinner, even uncle, so often taciturn, makes the table inviting with an amicable mood, the three of them enjoying a meal that their caretaker made with his own hands, the elder rambling on and on about every detail of the cooking process while his nephews pay dutiful attention and encourage the little passion that seemed to burn quietly in the heart of every Lan.
Wei Ying’s praise for Lan Zhan’s work was ever grandiose, and any other man could let it get to his head like an invincibility potion. Lan Zhan, however, is a simple man, and only his heart swells with contentment at every exaggerated compliment that falls out of that beloved mouth.
When Lan Zhan shows him the finished the prototype costume for his twin pride character, however, Wei Ying seems to be, maybe for the first time since they started collaborating, at a loss for words.
“It’s so...” He starts, touching the rich purple fabric with hesitant fingertips. Lan Zhan knows it’s more than their budget, and that they don’t even have a proper story yet, just the core concepts that they came up with together. But Wei Ying had been so engaged, so inspired, and though he’s usually that way when he’s working with Nie Huaisang, it’s the first time he asks Lan Zhan to create a character with him. So he was impulsive. It’s not a crime. “Lan Zhan, it’s...”
Wei Ying brings the costume to his face, rubbing it against his cheek, and the pleased hum he lets out makes Lan Zhan’s breath cease for a couple of seconds.
“Make-up test?” Lan Zhan offers, a little weakly, a little shy, but Wei Ying practically jumps in place at the thought, electrified with excitement.
“Make-up test!” He announces before he runs to the guest bedroom in wide steps and Lan Zhan, left with unwelcome nerves, nervously puts Wei Ying’s backpack away on the couch from where he had unceremoniously dropped it on the floor.
When Wei Ying comes out of the bedroom, Lan Zhan was thinking about making tea after he had paced from the living room to his own bedroom, then to the kitchen to drink some water, to the window to check the weather, until he finally stopped to sit on the couch, where Wei Ying finds him. His best friend comes out of the bedroom in the costume Lan Zhan designed for him (just for him, he decides right there, he’ll simply have to rethink how to proceed with Jiang Cheng), sets a hairbrush, a red ribbon, and a big pouch on the low table, before twirling around himself.
“So? What do you think?”
Wei Ying had always favored black and red. They weren’t the sole colors he used, and Lan Zhan particularly liked when he wore white, the color brightening up his features like a beacon, but Lan Zhan is sure he had never worn something like the bright purple of the robes Lan Zhan made for him. When he twirls, the light plays tricks on the fabric, like a multi-colored bouquet of hydrangeas glistening after a rainshower. The inner robes are a simple black, but the outer jacket is more fascinating still, of a dark purple, almost black, iridescent, see-through fabric that he knows his brother bought from someplace outside of Gusu. Lanling, he believes. On the back, he embroidered a lotus motif with nine petals, the symbol of Wei Ying’s royalty.
“I love it so much,” Wei Ying says, without waiting for his response, unknowingly almost sending Lan Zhan into cardiac arrest. His hands keep petting down on the costume, and he giggles when he touches the jinbu that jingles with a small bell that Lan Zhan added as a last-minute detail. “Lan Zhan, I can’t believe you made this. We haven’t even finished creating Wuxian, and it’s really...” He laughs, somewhat strained, covering his face with his hands, before dropping on the couch beside Lan Zhan. “How am I supposed to kill him now?”
Lan Zhan immediately snaps out of his reverie, blinking rapidly.
Wei Ying sighs, letting his hands drop and leaning his head against the couch backrest.
“Yeah. I was thinking that Wuxian would sacrifice himself to save Jiang Cheng and the kingdom. Like, he runs out of good ideas in a crisis but the kingdom and his family are bigger than he is, so he makes his decision. The kingdom sings songs about him after he dies, and he’s widely recognized as an important member of the royal family.”
Lan Zhan can read too much between the lines of that script, and the fact that Wei Ying has come to the conclusion that his death, however metaphorical, is the answer, sits heavy on his stomach.
“Wei Ying,” he calls, a bit too sternly, perhaps, as Wei Ying looks up from fiddling with his jinbu like a child ready to be scolded. “Wei Ying, you can’t kill him,” he says, more softly. “You can’t kill the adopted son in front of an audience of foster kids. What kind of message would we be sending them?”
“I know,” he whines. “But isn’t it heroic?”
“Death is just death.” He takes Wei Ying’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “Even in fiction. The ones that stay behind are never happy to part with a loved one.” Wei Ying turns his hand in Lan Zhan’s grasp so they’re palm to palm again, puzzle pieces fitting together. Lan Zhan inches closer, brings their clasped hands to his chest, and firmly says, “We’re not killing Wuxian.”
Wei Ying’s laugh is just a huff of air, and he can’t hide his tears when he wipes them away from the corners of his eyes.
“Okay. Wuxian lives in the end.”
Lan Zhan nods, letting their hands fall between them, but not letting go. The silence that follows Wei Ying’s sniffles is not uncomfortable, but there’s something in the space between them, in the way Wei Ying is wearing that beautiful purple that Lan Zhan made for him, in the way Wei Ying keeps looking at his face, that Lan Zhan feels is both thick and fragile like glass. Or maybe he’s a coward, just a coward in the end, consumed by his desire to hold that man and touch him and kiss him, but ultimately defeated by the overbearing affection that wants him to make sure he never leaves Wei Ying, never lets him think he has to sacrifice himself for anyone, when he’s the brightest star in everyone’s lives.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying calls, and he seems to be closer than he was just a moment ago, the tears gone, leaving only a shine in his eyes in their wake. “Aren’t you going to finish our make-up test?”
At Lan Zhan’s nod, Wei Ying smiles his wide, crescent moon smile and hops to the floor, handing Lan Zhan the hairbrush from over his shoulder. Lan Zhan, who has experience at both being a younger brother who played with his elder brother and a long-time drama club member, brushes Wei Ying’s hair without hesitation or clumsiness. Given the sheer volume of hair that Wei Ying possesses, there’s no way that the bun can be secured for long with just the ribbon, but Lan Zhan doesn’t want to get up to get any pins, so he just works with what he’s given, tying a pretty bow near Wei Ying’s nape, the ends of the ribbon still falling long, down his back. He had been right. The red looks almost mystical against the purple.
“So, since the royal color is purple, should my make-up be purple too?”
Lan Zhan climbs down from the couch, kneeling beside the other, and shakes his head. He takes the pouch from Wei Ying (that he’s sure is Mo Xuanyu’s, when did Wei Ying even take it?) and pulls a neutral-colored palette and a brush.
“The clothes are already flashy enough, so we’re only framing your face,” Lan Zhan explains, although he’s more versed in colors than in make-up specifically, but it’s a test. If Mo Xuanyu has any better ideas once the story is pitched to the group, then he’s free to use them. Right then, Lan Zhan stands on his knees for a better angle to paint Wei Ying’s eyeshadow an earthy, reddish brown. With a thin, black pencil, he traces the line along his lashes in a much finer touch than the one he used for the Yiling Patriarch, just so the audience knows that his eyes are just as important as his clothes, that his person is just as big as his position.
For his lips, he chooses a similarly neutral, peachy shade, just so he doesn’t look pale under the stage light, so his smiles can reach even the chairs in the furthest rows. The traditional lipstick makes less of a mess than the glossy, liquid red one he used before, but still the corners... No matter how careful Lan Zhan is, he still misses his mark when he gets to the corners. So he reaches out, just as he did then, to wipe the excess at the corner of Wei Ying’s lips with his thumb, and it’s so much easier this time.
So much easier, and still... He runs his thumb along the lines of Wei Ying’s lower lip, as if there’s something there to correct, but there’s nothing, just his lips, parted and colored and waiting. Just his lips and that birthmark underneath, distracting, beckoning, a natural wonder that Lan Zhan can’t ignore, he looks, and he touches, and he’s lost, dazed again.
Those lips open, form the syllables of his name.
He looks up, wide-eyed, at a Wei Ying that is closely watching him. Eyes as round and attentive as they always were.
“Lan Zhan. Do you want to kiss me?”
He swallows and tries to look down, but Wei Ying takes his face between both of his hands and doesn’t let him.
“Do you?” He repeats, and because he cannot lie, because he especially cannot lie to Wei Ying, he nods, and he closes his eyes, and he waits for his best friend’s judgment.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying calls again, and Lan Zhan can hear him shift his position. “Lan Zhan, look at me.”
He opens his eyes and he does. Wei Ying is at his eye level, standing on his knees as well. Wei Ying, always so expressive, doesn’t look anything like Lan Zhan had feared; he looks kind and patient and good. Lan Zhan’s hands, without him even noticing it, have moved to hold Wei Ying’s wrists.
“Lan Zhan,” he calls, and in Lan Zhan’s mind, it could be the last time. But it sounds just as melodious, just as full of Wei Ying’s sincerity as it always did. “Can I kiss you?”
All of his thought processes, all of his observations trail off then. Wei Ying looks a little flushed, though Lan Zhan didn’t apply any make-up to his cheeks. And his mouth, his beautiful, glistening mouth, displays a half-smile. Expectant. A little scared.
Once Lan Zhan nods, everything seems to resume at a much faster pace, as if they stepped too hard on the gas pedal and their car flew off the road with a loud screech. Wei Ying exhales before their lips meet, as if meeting two necessities at once. He throws his arms around Lan Zhan’s neck and pulls, his lips opening and closing around the other’s as many times as he can before he needs to breathe again. And then breaks away just to catch his breath before he’s lounging forward again, forcing Lan Zhan into a sitting position so he can climb on his lap and rob him of all coherent thought. Lan Zhan circles his arms around his middle, underneath the outer jacket, securing Wei Ying flush against him. The kiss is messy, wet, open-mouthed and inexperienced, Lan Zhan just following Wei Ying’s lead, which isn’t much of a lead, as Wei Ying whimpers between touches. The sound is enough to make Lan Zhan lose the last grasp he had on control, and that sends him to fall backwards, all the way back where he has no support, and they only have a second to disconnect their mouths before Lan Zhan’s head hits the hard floor.
“Oh my God, are you okay?!”
Lan Zhan winces, seeing stars in front of his eyes, and Wei Ying is quick to pull him back to an upright position, helping him lean his back against the couch before climbing back on his lap.
“Lan Zhan, does it hurt too bad? Is it bleeding? Do you have a concussion? We should go to the—”
“I’m all right,” he says, his voice a little hoarse. Wei Ying touches the back of his head and he winces, but he reassures him again. “It’s okay. It’s just a bump.”
Wei Ying pats his hair into place after the mess that his hands made.
Wei Ying’s lipstick is smeared all around his plump mouth (from kissing; from kissing him), and Lan Zhan be damned, he didn’t think Wei Ying could look more attractive and then he looks like that. It’d be unfair if Wei Ying wasn’t following a similar train of thought, thumbs touching around Lan Zhan’s mouth in a weak effort to wipe away the lipstick there. And because he wasn’t really trying, he just kisses him again, slow, unhurried, almost chaste, a kiss that lasts long, a whole time unit in its own.
His hair is down, red ribbon lying somewhere on the floor. Lan Zhan pushes it away from his face so he can take a good look at him, his best friend, brilliant and full of life and beautiful around him, in his embrace, his cheeks flushing darker the longer he observes him, until Wei Ying throws his arms around him again and hides his face on his neck.
“I have a confession to make.”
Lan Zhan hums, his hand moving up and down Wei Ying’s back.
“I didn’t really plan on writing a play with Wuxian... I created him as a way to spend time with you.”
When Wei Ying takes a deep breath, Lan Zhan can feel it, against his chest, on his neck, the exhale making him shiver.
“After our last performance, I— well, we never really...”
Wei Ying sighs, and Lan Zhan’s hand moves to his hair, petting, fond. He barely ever allowed himself to think of touching Wei Ying, yet it feels like the right thing to do, a natural step from all the hand holding and working in each other’s personal spaces. And it’s just what he can do to tell Wei Ying to go on, that he’s there, listening, although he’s not done collecting all of the fragments of his own confession, shattered in the car crash of a kiss long suffered.
“I’ve always really admired you, Lan Zhan. Your talent, your imagination, everything you do is so good. I wanted to make something with you, to spend all of my time with you, to create something out of nothing that was ours.”
Lan Zhan can feel Wei Ying raising his head, his chin resting on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“You see, Lan Zhan, I’m really selfish. I’ve had a crush on you since I first laid eyes on you when we were fifteen but now I really wanted all of your attention. The way you looked at me that day, I... You don’t have any idea what you do to me.”
Wei Ying tries to hide again, but Lan Zhan holds his shoulders, pulls him back to look at him. His mouth is still a mess of lipstick, but his eyes are wide, exposed. Lan Zhan tries to wipe the lipstick away, just to save Wei Ying some grace, because the weight of his their attraction pulling them together was nothing compared to the weight of the heart against one’s palms.
“I’ve always admired you.” Lan Zhan echoes, eyes still focused on those lips, still trying to clean up their mess. “Your talent, your imagination, and everything you do. I want to spend all my time with you, and create things with you, things that everybody will look and know it’s ours.”
His hand, on Wei Ying’s face, moves to cup his cheek; his gaze moves up, without hesitation, because being there with Wei Ying when he falls is all he’s ever done, when people laughed at their plays, when their plans were foiled, when their ideas went nowhere. They’d come together, the two of them, and rise the whole group back up, one more time.
“I really like you, Wei Ying. I’ve liked you for a long time now.”
How could he be pretty even when he cries?
“Why didn’t you say anything?”
“You’re my best friend. The only one in this lifetime.”
It’s only when Wei Ying touches his cheeks that he realizes he’s crying too.
“You’re my best friend too, Lan Zhan. And I really, really like you back.”
The kiss they share then is somewhere in-between the other two. It’s tender like a first kiss between their teenage selves, pecks that follow one after the other and another again, followed by kisses on each other’s cheeks, on noses and foreheads, marked with promise and lipstick. And when they finally regain their breath from their confessions, from their laughter, it’s open-mouthed and eager, ready to discover each other’s taste, and the best angles for their tongues to come together, to elicit delicious sounds from their throats.
Wei Ying finds as much delight in delicately peeling the clothes Lan Zhan made for him open as he did in putting them on. And the view is almost too much for the designer, who both marvels and suffers at all the layers of his creation, sprawled underneath Wei Ying, still so beautiful against his skin, but ultimately forgotten.
It’s a snowy night. Cold and white and long, sure to trap them inside when the morning comes.
The answer to Wei Ying’s sensibilities, in the end, turned out to be simple; cuddle up as close as he can to his boyfriend, underneath thick and fluffy blankets.
“I thought up a nicer end for Wuxian.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t bother to open his eyes in the dark. He just turns his head to touch Wei Ying’s, his nose cold on the other’s forehead.
“In the end he sacrifices himself for the kingdom but he doesn’t die. He ends up powerless but he meets someone who takes care of him regardless of the fact that he’s a royal.”
Wei Ying plays with the collar of his pajamas and Lan Zhan could burst with contentment, but he only smiles against Wei Ying’s skin.
“So when Wanyin finally finds Wuxian again, a long time later, Wuxian has become wiser because he realizes true strength doesn’t come from battles or sacrifices, but human connection. So he promises to be Wanyin’s adviser because he loves and supports him, but he’s not going back to the palace, he’s staying with Wangji.”
Wei Ying hums. Lan Zhan likes that ending. It’s a good message for the kids, to follow your heart rather than a life mission.
It takes his sleepy mind a few seconds to remember his brother’s words. He’s going to like Wei Ying’s play, very much so.
“Will you be my Wangji?”
He kisses Wei Ying’s forehead and places his hand against the hand that lies on his chest, next to his heart.
“Mn. I will be Wei Ying’s commoner wife.”
Wei Ying snorts before nuzzling his shoulder.
“I haven’t decided if he’s going to be a commoner yet. But you’re going to wear blue. Blue and white, like Gusu’s clear skies.”
Lan Zhan doesn’t comment on how Wei Ying didn’t deny being his partner in the play, even if they had just confessed to liking each other. There’s still so much more to be said, and Lan Zhan loves the anticipation, will dream about them with Wei Ying in his arms all night, and all of the next day, too.
“I thought you didn’t like Gusu that much.”
“Of course I like Gusu. All of my memories with you are here.”
Lan Zhan turns to his side, hugs Wei Ying tight against his chest, making him laugh. He kisses him all over his face before meeting his lips, then covers him up to his chin to protect him from the cold, and together, they fall asleep, the future holding a different shape in their creative, clasped hands.