Wei Wuxian’s first appearance at court was both expected and unforeseen. Expected in that, by precedence, his formal introduction to the court was years overdue. Unforeseen in that Wei Wuxian had agreed to come at all.
“From what I’ve heard, he is a spirited and outspoken young man,” Lan Xichen told Lan Wangji as they walked down the castle’s northern garden, “who follows his own desires rather than his noble obligations.”
Lan Wangji had heard those rumors, too. Being the eldest albeit adopted son of House Jiang, Wei Wuxian had an odd standing in nobility, and was a ruminating topic in the kingdom of Gusu’s gossip circles. His younger brother was set to inherit the title of Duke Jiang and all the prestige that came with it, and besides the standard privileges of noble standing, Wei Wuxian did not have much tied to his name. But his lack of inheritance did not seem to bother him; he was said to go about his days chasing whatever caught his fancy. Many wondered why one of the kingdom’s foremost houses had taken him in at all.
There were two well-known secrets of House Jiang: Wei Wuxian’s staunch refusal to participate in noble affairs, and Duchess Jiang’s staunch disapproval of his existence. It would explain why Lan Wangji and his brother were more acquainted with Wei Wuxian’s adoptive siblings than Wei Wuxian himself.
When the Jiangs arrived at court, Jiang Wanyin was left to his own devices while Duke Jiang presented Wei Wuxian to several maiden ladies of high repute. He bowed and smiled but did not touch. He was handsome enough to render them all flushed merely by giving them his attention.
It was a clear statement, introducing him to ladies-in-waiting before the ruling family and its heirs. As Wei Wuxian went through the precursory motions of noble courtship, Lan Wangji wondered if the adopted son of House Jiang really was as outspoken as the rumors claimed.
A week of this passed before Wei Wuxian was allowed to meet Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji, joining their sword lesson in the training hall. Duke Jiang was present, as was his true heir, who stood to the side while his adopted brother was presented to them.
“Your Highnesses,” Duke Jiang said as Wei Wuxian stepped forward and bowed low, “allow me to introduce Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, son of House Jiang.”
“It is a pleasure to finally meet you, Wei Wuxian,” Lan Xichen said, polite and warm as Wei Wuxian straightened.
“The pleasure is mine,” Wei Wuxian said. His voice was bright, almost lazy, nearing but not quite stepping over the threshold of disrespect.
Rumors of Wei Wuxian’s insolence came to mind, and Lan Wangji bristled. While Lan Xichen was too kind to take offense, Lan Wangji was ready to take offense for him.
But it did not come to that. Instead, Duke Jiang said, “I thought it fit to finally have you all acquainted with each other, as Wei Wuxian shall be attending the Cloud Recesses this coming spring. Along with my heir, Jiang Wanyin.”
“Is that so?” Lan Xichen responded before glancing at Lan Wangji. “What a coincidence. My brother shall be attending this spring as well.”
Wei Wuxian’s gaze followed his. His voice may have been lazy, but there was a sharpness to his eyes that Lan Wangji had not been aware of until they were focussed on him.
“How fortuitous,” Wei Wuxian said. While it was not as indulgent as those he gave the court’s ladies-in-waiting, the smile he gave Lan Wangji was no less sweet. Crooked, with the hint of a dimple on his left cheek. “Then I look forward to advancing my studies alongside Your Highness.”
And Lan Wangji —
Lan Wangji did not reply. He didn’t say a word. When faced with a lazy voice, a sharp stare, a sweet smile — he found that he couldn’t.
Despite Lan Wangji’s initial trepidations, Gusu’s rumor mill proved sufficient in its painting of Wei Wuxian’s character. House Jiang’s adopted son was surely outspoken and spirited. He was also loud, brash, and unflinchingly brilliant at getting under Lan Wangji’s skin.
One could anticipate Wei Wuxian’s arrival only by listening for his approaching laughter. It was a booming laugh that echoed without any walls to bounce off of. And he laughed often: with Jiang Wanyin, whose shoulders he often wrapped an arm around in a brotherly embrace, or at Lan Wangji, whose royal standing lost any reverence from Wei Wuxian the second he caught him trying to sneak into the dormitories after curfew with jars of contraband alcohol.
“If I gave you a jar of Emperor’s Smile, can you pretend you never saw me?” Wei Wuxian asked. There was no attempt this time to conceal the casual disrespect laced with his amusement. When Lan Wangji, in a fit, drew his sword and challenged him to a duel, Wei Wuxian dodged his attack, threw his head back, and — and this was Lan Wangji’s first encounter with Wei Wuxian’s laughter. It had not left him since.
Everything about Wei Wuxian made Lan Wangji simmer. It was not entirely Wei Wuxian’s fault, as Lan Wangji was just not particular toward the type of person Wei Wuxian was. Loud. Arrogant. Profane. The Cloud Recesses was a sprawling distance, but Wei Wuxian’s presence was something Lan Wangji was always far too aware of. It was an uncanny ability that only strengthened after their shared month in the Library Pavillion; Wei Wuxian’s punishment for his belligerence, and Lan Wangji’s punishment, no matter how unintentional it may have been given, for something else entirely.
It must be because of how striking a figure Wei Wuxian embodied. He seemed more larger-than-life than he already was. It was almost like he had his own gravitational pull.
“Keep furrowing your eyebrows like that,” Wei Wuxian said, appearing like a clap of thunder over Lan Wangji’s shoulder, “and one day they might end up staying there.”
Wei Wuxian’s punishment had ended nearly a week ago. There was no need for him to be in the Library Pavilion, but his unwelcome presence was still a constant one. He certainly wasn’t here to study, as his laziness regarding anything of the sort was both well-known (Wei Wuxian’s routine of going into examinations essentially blind was an infamous one) and well-documented (he consistently scored top the class, often exchanging the spot with Lan Wangji). He must be here with the sole intent to annoy, which he was doing in spades.
“When I choose a book to read,” Wei Wuxian said as Lan Wangji ignored him, “it’s usually something entertaining. Not —” He reached over and flipped to the cover of the book Lan Wangji was reading. “...The effect of soil erosion on societal collapse. By the gods, you madman, where the hell did you even find this?”
Lan Wangji swiped the book from under Wei Wuxian’s hand and said, “Go away.”
“What, a book about dirt is more stimulating than a conversation with me?”
Lan Wangji wasn’t joking, but Wei Wuxian laughed anyway. “Enlighten me, then,” he said, taking the seat opposite of him. “What about it has you so entranced?” He leaned back and gestured with a sweep of his hand, as if giving Lan Wangji permission to continue.
Lan Wangji could have him stripped of his status and exiled if he wanted to. It wouldn’t be difficult, especially given who Wei Wuxian was, and who Lan Wangji was to be. But from the short time they had known each other, he was already well aware of how insistent Wei Wuxian could be when sating his own curiosity.
So he said, “During the rainy season, Qinghe often floods. If heavy enough, this may strip their farmland of topsoil. The loss of farmland runs the risk of displacing those whose livelihoods depend on its fertility.”
“I fail to see how you find this topic interesting.”
Lan Wangji shot him a look that, if not for years of rigorous etiquette training, could have been taken as judgemental. “I fail to see how you find this topic uninteresting. As future members of the royal court, are we not expected to address and resolve such matters?”
Well. One of them was. Wei Wuxian had no inheritance, and his reputation in noble society was already tainted by his attitude as well as the public disapproval of his adoptive mother. His prospect of lasting political power was nonexistent. What a shame; even Lan Wangji, with his general dislike for him, could admire that underneath his gaudy disposition, Wei Wuxian was articulate, a great debater, and had the inherent skill to become an astute politician.
“Hm,” Wei Wuxian hummed as he took a moment to ponder. It made Lan Wangji grit his teeth in annoyance, as his question was meant to be dismissively rhetorical. “I mean, yeah. Long live your dad or whatever. Though I’m not sure what help a book about dirt could do about that.”
No one else would even think to speak to him this way. “You read the title. It is not merely about dirt.”
“Uh-huh. Dirt and the end of civilizations. Got it.” Wei Wuxian waved a hand, flippant. “My point still stands. How would reading about that help Qinghe refugees?”
A table separated the two of them. It kept Wei Wuxian at a respectable distance, unlike how he peered over Lan Wangji’s shoulder a moment before. Lan Wangji had felt Wei Wuxian’s breath, then, a warm puff misting across the back of his neck. He was still thinking about it now, when Wei Wuxian had already moved away. He continued to think about it, even after trying to stop. He didn’t know why he couldn’t stop. It was not a nice memory. It only made him angrier.
“I pray you haven’t forgotten the correlation between books and knowledge,” Lan Wangji told him. Wei Wuxian was an outrageous man, so he felt warranted to counter with an outrageous statement.
Wei Wuxian laughed again. Harder, this time. In a fit of giggles, he slapped a hand on the table and held his stomach with the other as he slid down his chair. The scene was one Lan Wangji was increasingly familiar with, for Wei Wuxian often mistook his level headed remarks as banter.
If Lan Wangji’s composure wasn’t so level, he would report this mockery to court and rightfully arraign it as heresy. Yet his instinctual reaction to it was the same: his chest tumbled, his throat dried, and his exasperation both steepened and lessened. A truly peculiar contradiction.
Still chuckling, Wei Wuxian regained control of himself and answered, “You’re the silliest prince I’ve ever met. I only mean to say that researching how past civilizations lost their farmland is much less productive than, say, thinking up your own solutions in aiding the displaced.”
“And how will I develop these solutions without the guidance of our predecessors?”
“By speaking with me, of course!” Wei Wuxian framed his head with his hands, the most impudent of expressions on his face. “I grew up helping tend the Yunmeng apple orchards, and I have experience relocating and providing aid to farmers when their lands prove to be impotent. You wanna talk about dirt? I know a lot about dirt. Let’s talk about dirt.”
It was always like this. Wei Wuxian found great joy in wasting Lan Wangji’s time: roping him into pointless conversations that go nowhere, twisting his way through discussions disguised as substantial only to be revealed as a dirty trick meant to deceive Lan Wangji into spending his day entertaining him.
“I do not want to speak with you,” Lan Wangji said, dizzy from his mounting anger. Nonetheless, the book that started this mess laid under his hand, unopened and forgotten.
“Why not?” Wei Wuxian asked, sounding like a man who already won. And then he smiled.
“I’m certain you will find,” he said, “that I am much more entertaining than a book.”
Something about the timbre of his voice made Lan Wangji’s blood boil. And that cocky demeanor did nothing to defuse the sudden buzzing in his ears an innate part of himself instinctively took as a warning that something was about to explode. Lan Wangji felt —
Lan Wangji felt.
Wei Wuxian was a member of an influential House, yet had no inheritance in his future — an undesirable trait of both a noble and betrothed. Coupled with House Jiang’s blatant attempts at marrying him off young, this should have made his courting attempts difficult.
But he was also well liked by his peers. His less than favorable reputation as an disobedient aristocrat with no blood ties to his adoptive House was disregarded for the irrefutable fact that he was a kind and charming man. Friends came easily to him. He did not struggle at making people like him.
And so Wei Wuxian’s pool of suitors was plenty. Young unmarried nobles were drawn to his quick wit and approachable character, and found his rebellious nature to be enticing. It helped that he was also very handsome. His days in the Cloud Recesses were spent training, attending lectures, and entertaining those he enchanted with flattering words and noncommittal platitudes. He certainly didn’t mind the attention, either.
“What, are you jealous?” Wei Wuxian teased when Lan Wangji confronted him about this behavior. He seemed surprised, but also pleased, as it was uncommon for Lan Wangji to initiate conversation with him.
“We are enrolled in the Cloud Recesses to become educated members of the nobility for the betterment of the kingdom,” Lan Wangji told him, unimpressed. “Your courting antics achieve nothing and are unbecoming.”
“You think everything I do is unbecoming,” Wei Wuxian pointed out, not at all vexed. “And besides, the Jiangs want to get rid of me anyway. I’m only heeding their wishes.”
The tumultuous effect Wei Wuxian’s addition to the Jiang household had on the Duke and Duchess’ relationship was a popular topic of gossip, so he wasn’t surprised at this non-confession. It was the factual way Wei Wuxian said what he said that made Lan Wangji pause.
So he asked, “Did you want to begin courting?”
Wei Wuxian blinked. Opened his mouth, then closed it.
“It doesn’t matter what I wanted,” he finally said. “The Jiangs wanted me to, so I did.” His voice lightened, like he was about to tell a joke. “Just because I’m not a true Jiang doesn’t mean I can’t be a filial son.”
“I...did not mean to imply you weren’t. I apologize.” Lan Wangji bowed his head, but Wei Wuxian waved him off.
“Gods, I’d probably be thrown in prison if someone saw you apologizing to me. It’s fine, it’s fine. If anything, I take your interrogation as a show of concern. Thanks.”
“I only ask because,” Lan Wangj said, then stopped. He chose his next words carefully. “You aren’t the type of man who does things merely because someone tells you to.”
Wei Wuxian squinted at him. “And how do you know what ‘type of man’ I am?”
Lan Wangji countered with, “Am I wrong?” After months of his acquaintance, he knew the other man far more than he would have liked, if only because Wei Wuxian took it upon himself to be a terrible nuisance. He did not allow himself to be embarrassed for something that was essentially Wei Wuxian’s fault.
At this, Wei Wuxian grinned and leaned his body to the side, seeming to enjoy the game they have unwittingly found themselves playing. And it was a game; Lan Wangji’s heart was thudding the way it did when he was faced with an unexpected challenge. What was Wei Wuxian going to say next? How should he respond? Never would he have predicted Wei Wuxian of all people would bring out his competitive spirit at the strangest of instances.
“I concede,” Wei Wuxian said, “that I don’t have the best reputation, nor am I the biggest fan of the noble standard of peacocking showmanship.” His face then sobered.
“But I owe the Jiangs everything. It’s — I already fool around enough. If marrying me off is what they want from me, who am I to say no?” He let out a chuckle, but it wasn’t a happy one. “I already disappoint her enough as it is, so. Whatever happens happens. I guess.”
His words were vague and addressed a much larger problem than what could be explained in a single conversation. Lan Wangji had no part in this. He had a strange feeling that, despite Wei Wuxian’s weary, accepting manner, Lan Wangji was the one losing.
“Whatever happens happens,” Lan Wangji echoed, because that was all he could think to say.
Wei Wuxian nodded his head. “What about you?” he asked him. He acknowledged his blatant attempt at shifting the topic with an upturn of his lips. “You’re the second prince and a son of the most uppity House in the kingdom. I assume your family arranged a politically advantageous marriage between you and a Duchess before you were even born.”
Lan Wangji ignored the dig against his lineage and took the bait. “I have no betrothed.”
“Really? Wouldn’t have expected that for a member of the royal family. What if you end up wanting to marry some nobody?”
“An unlikely occurrence,” Lan Wangji sniffed. “And yes, there would be backlash from both my House and the court. But I am not heir to the throne, so the person I marry is not as large a concern as, say, my brother’s.” He hesitated, then said, “Also.” He hadn’t shared this thought with anyone besides Lan Xichen.
But perhaps Wei Wuxian would understand. “I believe,” Lan Wangji said, “that when it comes to matters of the heart, one must be acceding.”
Wei Wuxian raised an eyebrow. “Huh. That’s...sweet, if not a bit naive. I wouldn’t have taken you as a romantic.” He shook his head in mock disbelief. “But I guess even you must have some faults.”
Lan Wangji’s eye twitched. “How is love a fault?”
“It’s not,” Wei Wuxian said, scratching his head. “Well, it shouldn’t be. But for us it is. Kinda sad, isn’t it?” He yawned with his whole body, stretching his arms out as if trying to touch every corner of the Library Pavilion in one go. “So. What happens if the unlikely occurrence of you falling in love with some nobody does occur, and your family disapproves of her?”
“I find it hard to believe I would fall for someone my family wouldn’t welcome. But in regards to your hypothetical situation, I would restate the sincerity of my suit to House Lan and the court.” He pressed his fingertips against his temple, suddenly very aware of what he was saying. “And if they still oppose us...I would pursue my intended anyway. For at that point, the importance of our shared future far outweighs the court’s approval.”
Wei Wuxian clutched a hand over his heart like he was about to faint, disconcertingly joyous. “Who knew the second prince of Gusu was such a rebel? Oh, the romance, the drama! My heart can’t take it!”
Miffed at once again being teased, Lan Wangji turned away with a huff and made to stand. But before he could fully extract himself from the conversation, Wei Wuxian reached up and tugged at his sleeve. At his, “C’mon, I’m joking,” Lan Wangji sat back down, albeit with a furrow to his brow.
The flash of annoyance brought the beginning of their conversation back to mind. Wei Wuxian had been so detached when discussing his adoptive parents’ attempts to oust him from their House through marriage. How could he be so unbothered? How could he just go along with it? Wei Wuxian was known for skirting his noble obligations; why, of all things, was this the one order he abided to?
And why did it make Lan Wangji so irrationally angry that he did?
There was still a trace of a grin still on Wei Wuxian’s face when Lan Wangji looked at him again. “It would be nice if we could love like regular folk, wouldn’t it?” he mused, tone less wistful than it was pragmatic.
“None of these stuffy rules.”
Lan Wangji didn’t reply, as he did appreciate the inherent romance of courtship if done with mindful intent, but silently agreed that it could be excessive.
“Much less complicated that way. Easier.”
“Less complicated, yes. But not easier.”
Wei Wuxian scoffed goodnaturedly. “Will that romantic drivel of yours ever cease? I swear, the maiden who ends up stealing your heart is bound to be spoiled rotten by you. What a lucky woman.”
Lan Wangji couldn’t pinpoint the reason why he felt so playful today. “I will be the lucky one.”
Wei Wuxian groaned in disgust, and Lan Wangji used every bit of self-restraint he’d refined over the years to stamp down an unbidden smile.
Lan Wangji wrote his first courting poem before he could truly fathom what he was doing. With a posture unbefitting of his status, he sat his pen down and stared. If it weren’t written in his handwriting, he wouldn’t have recognized it as his.
He folded it into an unsigned envelope before he could convince himself to burn it over his evening candle.
With a strange sense of mortification and relief, Lan Wangji deposited it into Wei Wuxian’s mail — full, with what Lan Wangji assumed were letters sporting similar intentions. By doing this, he reasoned, this accursed affliction would leave his system. Whatever invisible vise that had taken hold of him would finally let go.
Later, Lan Wangji opened his bedroom window. He leaned out and settled his folded arms on the windowsill. The cool breeze of early morning sent a shock through his bones.
There were already a multitude of suitors vying for Wei Wuxian’s attention. One more wouldn’t hurt.
The day after Lan Wangji left his poem in the mail, Wei Wuxian did not disrupt the early morning peace with his usual chatter. He entered the morning lecture with his brother under his arm and a clap to the second son of House Nie’s shoulder. He told them, in an unusually demure yet nonetheless friendly manner, about an upcoming festival at a nearby town, and how he looked forward to the fun it would bring, to the eventual abundance of good company and laughter that would be undoubtedly shared.
Lan Wangji’s poem had been about Wei Wuxian’s laugh, the tenuous contradiction it held — how such a flourishing ruckus could instill in Lan Wangji such a quiet calm.
Lan Wangji found Wei Wuxian waiting for him outside his bedroom. When he approached, Wei Wuxian looked up.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said. He hadn’t called Lan Wangji by his title since their first encounter, under the counsel of Duke Jiang and Lan Xichen. “Can we talk?”
No teasing this time. Wei Wuxian’s face, his voice…Lan Wangji swallowed. In his rush to purge whatever sickness was afflicting him, he had foolishly forgotten just how perceptive Wei Wuxian could be.
He let Wei Wuxian in and closed the door behind him. Without a word, Wei Wuxian took a seat in Lan Wangji’s desk chair and turned to him, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap.
Lan Wangji stood there. He didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he let them hang at his sides. He didn’t know what to say, so he kept quiet.
“To be frank, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian said, “I didn’t think you were this bold.”
Lan Wangji dared to look at him. Wei Wuxian stared back, entirely different from how he had looked at him before. Lan Wangji could observe, then, that his eyes held no judgement. Confusion, mostly. Curiosity. He did not seem to believe Lan Wangji’s intentions. Or, at least, he did not seem to fully understand him.
“Are you pleased by my boldness?” Lan Wangji asked, because he did not fully understand his own intentions, either.
At this, Wei Wuxian relaxed. He was relieved, even, if the softening of his brow was any indication. Lan Wangji hadn’t noticed how stiff he had been until now.
“Read me another one of your poems,” Wei Wuxian bargained, “and then I will tell you.”
By way of proper courting etiquette, it was indecent for them to have this conversation at all. For them to even be alone with each other at such an early stage of the courtship was greatly improper. Wei Wuxian shouldn’t have responded to Lan Wangji and his advances for another five attempts, ignoring Lan Wangji and his gifts until he proved the sincerity of his suit, thus allowing the next stage of courtship to begin.
Wei Wuxian did not do that. He leaned back against his seat and stared up at Lan Wangji. Expectant, like one of those ladies-in-waiting he had wooed months before.
But he was not a lady-in-waiting. He was not even a lady. A man courting and even wedding another man was not unheard of, but Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were not just men. What would his uncle think, if he found out? What would the court think, if it caught wind of the true reason the adopted son of House Jiang was in the second prince of Gusu’s bedroom?
Lan Wangji breathed in. He watched as Wei Wuxian, clearly unnerved by the extended pause, bowed his head to stare down at his hands, knuckles white from how tightly they were clasped. The silence was not broken, which may have been what was most telling in that what was happening was, for once, not a game.
And there, even in the absence of his laughter, Lan Wangji felt it, blanketing over him and making it both easier and harder to think: this perturbing peace that was beginning to resurface more and more frequently, but only when Wei Wuxian was around.
Lan Wangji nodded and took a step forward, lowering himself into a half kneel, hands resting over his right knee. Wei Wuxian inhaled sharply as he looked up in alarm, but Lan Wangji did not allow him the chance to voice out the blasphemy that was a prince kneeling at another’s feet. He had penned a poem the night before about watching Wei Wuxian as he sparred with his brother, the receding sunset casting indistinct shadows over nimble swordwork and dexterous hands, and recited it to him instead.
Night had fallen. Lan Wangji’s evening candle, lecture studies, and dinner sat on his study desk untouched.
Alone in his room, Lan Wangji laid on his bed and stared at the ceiling. His face was still warm from the heat of the calloused palm Wei Wuxian, who enjoyed Lan Wangji’s metaphor about sunlight and his inspiring passion for swordplay, had graciously allowed him to rest his cheek against. His lips still tingled from when, in a foolish, impulsive haze, he turned his head against that calloused palm to kiss it.
Wei Wuxian had gasped at that. Blushed, too. But he didn’t pull his hand away. His long fingers curled inward, framing Lan Wangji’s cheek and jaw, and Lan Wangji had mustered what little self-control he had left to stop himself from throwing away the last sense of propriety he half-heartedly clung to, surging forward and doing — something. A bad something. One he wouldn’t necessarily regret.
Perhaps for his next gift, Lan Wangji mused, head clear and heart beating, he would write Wei Wuxian a song.