Glimpses, daydreams of the night. The sharp edge of his jaw, the electricity running under his skin.
Lan Huan is a thief, snatching moments, here and there and here, behind a screen, behind the camera, under the bright lights of studios, under dark nights. They are only sips, and he wants to drown in him.
He wields storms as his weapons, thunder as his mount, comes crashing in as waves against the coast. He is the subject of countless dreams of all kinds, innocent and perverse, admiring and resentful. A lotus born from the mud, an actor rising and rising to the stars.
They are comets, chasing one another around the sun, close enough to catch each other's trails of light and debris before being swept away once more, far out of reach. Lan Huan takes these snapshots, holds them close, and treasures the taste of the sea.
There are half-spoken lines, passed between them and inscribed on scraps of paper, written to the beat of his heart. Songs flow in his blood and they resound in his core.
After several months, he begins to send paintings with the letters: delicate watercolours that slowly regain their previous splendour. They invoke the tranquility of his surroundings, and yet with some brushstrokes, Jiang Wanyin believes there is a yearning beyond his self-imposed walls.
He sends back lines, many crossed out, at first with the clear sense of trepidation and forced pride. It gradually dissipates, under written confessions and the painted portrayals of his conjured scenes, into a seemingly reluctant fondness. There are fewer mistakes now, as the words pour out from his hands.
Lan Huan jolts and clasps the cigarette packet in his fingertips. The night is young and the presence of the entertainment elite presses incessantly behind him. Light spilling from the windows and doors illuminate Jiang Cheng’s figure as he searches through his pockets.
“Fucking finally.” He pulls out a lighter and the packet from Lan Huan’s limp grip. “I don’t suppose I can tempt a Lan?” he taunts, waving a cigarette he has lit in front of Lan Huan’s gaze.
He swallows. “No, thank you. I merely came out here for the fresh air. If you would please excuse me-”
“Bullshit.” Jiang Cheng’s hand is surprisingly warm, calloused from years and years of toil clambering the unforgiving narrow ladder of an actor and an idol. “I could see the vultures of the press circling you too.”
“I need to protect my brother-”
“Your brother’s elopement was months ago. No, they’re hungry for new meat.” Jiang Cheng studies Lan Huan then smirks, and there are tendrils are grasping at his heart. “Come with me, Huaisang will deal with everything.”
“Is more than capable of sending any unwanted shits scuttling away. Your new album is a collaboration with him anyway, let him handle the interviews for once. Come with me,” he says again, and they are sinking in, piercing his body, so Lan Huan can only be dragged away from the overflowing party and to the motorcycle parked in shadows.
“Here.” He is handed a spare helmet, and when he pulls it over his head, he closes his eyes briefly. Lotuses and cigarettes and a deep, heady musk that draws him in deeper, too deep.
He has his arms wrapped around Jiang Cheng’s waist, inhaling the sharpness of his cologne, watching the blinding lights of headlights and skyscrapers. Racing through the veins of the city, the night thuds with barely repressed energy, and Lan Huan is captivated.
In the morning, when he is almost convinced the night was merely a dream, he writes down the melody that had borne them beyond the earth, to a place between the waters and the sky. There is still the lingering scent on his shirt, so he steals that too, and embeds it into the lyrics. For once, his song is almost finished.
“The Lans have never had the best of fortunes in love.”
“Tell that to your brother and Wei Wuxian.”
“Wangji has suffered greatly as well. It seems that we are destined to care so much for one person that it almost kills us. Until we meet that person, there is a line we cannot cross, an empty piece of ourselves that we cannot even begin to fill.”
“... I understand what you mean.”
Jiang Cheng purses his lips, a trail of smoke rising into the chilly evening air. “Stop staring.”
“I apologise.” Lan Huan is not sorry, not really - the blue of his eyes gleam under the singular lamppost they are under, as they overlook the waves tumbling against the cliffs below. The car park is deserted and most likely out of bounds at this hour. Jiang Cheng had scoffed and raised his eyebrows at him, and Lan Huan laughed breathlessly and followed the other into the night.
His manager and uncle had appeared scandalised when he had stumbled into the recording studio that morning, tousled and five minutes late from ‘oversleeping’. He could feel his brother’s eyes on his back, but Lan Zhan’s intent gaze on the strings of his guqin was concerned rather than disapproving.
Be careful. By nature of their positions, their bond is inherently far riskier than his brother’s relationship with only an adopted son of CEO Jiang and mere high school teacher, and so he told his brother he would act with caution.
Lan Huan is a fool and a liar, and yet he has become addicted.
“Do you think we knew each other, in another life?”
Lan Huan considers the brief meetings, crossing paths in TV studios and banquets. Then before that, when they were young students stumbling through life, when he watched Jiang Cheng first as Wei Ying’s brother, then as he emerged at his debut, yelling and inelegantly ripping apart his cocoon of self-consciousness and uncertainty, and he has been fascinated ever since.
“Sometimes, when we are together, I feel like there is the ghost of something, that there are impressions, half-remembered thoughts.” Of you.
“You don’t find it displeasing.”
“No,” Lan Huan glances down. "Maybe it is fate-" Those calloused fingers tilt up his chin, so he is sinking into the depths of Jiang Cheng’s eyes and he shivers from the sparks passing between their skin.
“Fate can fuck itself. Whatever you say, I’m choosing this.” And Lan Huan can taste the mint of Jiang Cheng’s tongue against his lips, and he gasps. He clutches at his clothes, hair, shoulders, drinking in Jiang Cheng, gulping him down, consuming his essence. More, he wants more.
“Will you regret this?” Jiang Cheng murmurs into his mouth. Lan Huan traps him against the railing and presses his body against his, melding them together with a single touch. Jiang Cheng chuckles, “I’ll take that,” and the scent of lotuses fills Lan Huan’s mind.
He is taking and giving and soon there will be nothing left of him, except the ashes he entrusts to Jiang Cheng’s hands.
They say that the First Jade of Gusu Lan has fallen, felled by a mighty beast that has ravaged half the world. They say his life has been snatched by a jealous goddess, as a price for his perfection and purity. They say Zewu-jun had encountered a spirit who demanded the one thing he could never give up, and was killed as his punishment.
They say Hanguang-jun is missing and when grieving disciples searched Zewu-jun’s body, they found a folded sheet of paper, brimming with spiritual energy that resisted any attempts to be opened, bound neatly with a white and blue ribbon and smelling of lotuses.
They say Sect Leader Jiang almost devastated the lands surrounding Yunmeng when he heard the news. That he was found holding a jade pendant carved with his own hand, magnolias half-open on the white stone. A gift unsent, and a proposal, they say. The pendant was never seen again.
“Brother.” Lan Zhan places a comforting hand on Lan Huan’s shoulder, even as there is a piercing coldness in his amber gaze.
Lan Huan waves away the anger. “No, don’t blame him,” he sighs, and he peeks once more at the leaked pictures, grainy and dark and yet very clearly him by the long hair, and the figure at his side could be seen as Jiang Cheng. It is what most of the press and social media assumes the other person is, and by their positions, there is little doubt the nature of their meeting.
“... Mn.” He takes away some comfort from his brother’s unfaltering support, and he braces himself as they wait in their uncle’s office. He can bear his uncle’s tirade of scandal and responsibility, that he must deny and break off ties in order to remain a respected musician, to have his beloved memories remain as stolen moments.
They do not hurt as much as Jiang Cheng’s acute silence, after all.
Drink this and you will forget.
Drink this, and the pain will vanish.
He closes his eyes and takes the tea cup.
It is warm under his hands.
He raises it to his lips.
Why? Why drink?
There is too much to lose, I cannot lose this-
I still have not told him-
We have not-
Who cares for fate.
They open their eyes and a clear drop of tea rests on the rim. There, in front of them, they manage to steal one last look before they are falling, one last glimpse of-
They gasp, and then they scramble to their respective desks, in desperation, in hope.
The internet is in flames and Wei Ying is laughing his head off.
Lan Zhan gives his husband a look, and then exhales and presses the play button once more at Wei Ying’s cajoling.
On the small screen of the phone, Lan Huan sings softly, the mellifluous tone of his voice he is so loved for accompanied by a bare piano accompaniment. The recording is rushed and the held notes tremble slightly, and the message interwoven with the lyrics, in the gentle curve of his mouth and intensity of his eyes, is clear to all.
“A love confession! As a song! Uploaded the same time as Jiang Cheng’s video! No wonder you weren’t home while I was wrestling with my brother’s outdated computer, you were helping your own brother!”
Wei Ying switches to Jiang Cheng’s account, where a thread gives a wordless series of images: meticulously edited photos, portraits and landscapes in watercolour and other mediums, all of one person. The last post is a video, declaring, in decidedly more blunt terms, the same intent conveyed by Lan Huan’s song.
Lan Zhan patiently waits for Wei Ying’s giggles to fade away, for him to mute the countless notifications surging in from the aftermath of such shamelessness and to rest his head on Lan Zhan’s shoulder.
“They’ve finally found each other,” Wei Ying smiles.
“Mn. They have.” I’m here. We're here.
“It’s you,” they both say.
Lan Huan clears his throat and Jiang Cheng tenses, and in the middle of a now very busy car park by the sea with people staring and phone cameras flashing would not be an ideal environment for anything. But Lan Huan has been running for so long, he wants to take his time now, to savour each moment.
“Are you… disappointed?” Jiang Cheng questions, and he is closed off behind walls.
Lan Huan smiles. “Do you remember?” he says, and Jiang Cheng’s eyes widen.
He steps forward so he can feel the warmth of Jiang Cheng’s breath. “That night, you asked me if I would regret it. I have your answer, if you will let me.”
At the nod, Lan Huan raises Jiang Cheng’s hand to his lips, his nose drawing patterns against the skin as he kisses each finger. He murmurs against his palm: “Whatever there may be, in this life or the next, by the decree of the heavens or fate, know that I will never regret you, Jiang Cheng. I hope you will accept me.”
Jiang Cheng is laughing and tears are poised at the corners of his eyes, and Lan Huan kisses them away, gently, reverently, a devotee kneeling at the feet of his god rather than a shadow, reaching for scraps and lingering tastes.
“All of it, I’ll take all of you.”
“As I will you.”