Wei Wuxian is dancing with someone else the first time he sees Lan Wangji.
His partner is Luo Qingyang. She's well-mannered, the tips of her fingers the correct proprietary distance from Wei Wuxian's.
It was perhaps courtesy more than anything else that led her to accept Wei Wuxian's bow as he asked her to take this dance, having been introduced to him by the Duke, but as the two of them make their way through the ballroom, she has proven to be an intelligent and witty partner.
"Qin Su, Lord Qin's daughter," Luo Qingyang murmurs, as they circle near a pretty woman near the wall, not making eye contact with anyone around her. "Lord Fang," she says of a young nobleman in deep greens, "Married; they've recently had a young son."
"Shame," says Wei Wuxian. "He's good-looking."
Luo Qingyang is pretty, and elegant in her steps, and entirely incompatible with Wei Wuxian. They are both in the same circumstances; currently dependent on the charity of others. He had found that out within the first few moments of their conversation, where she had told him frankly, "I'm afraid there is little for you to gain spending time with me. And equally, I understand there would be nothing for me to gain spending time with you."
Wei Wuxian had smiled – not the courtly smile that he has practised along with his bow, but one that splits his face a little too wide - and asked her to dance anyway. "If I may only ever take up a few moments of your time, then I will have to savour them forevermore."
She'd smacked him with her fan.
She didn't have any other offers for this dance, being too lively to be considered a courting dance, and had made it very clear that she is doing him a favour by pointing out who is who as they tromp around the hall. Wei Wuxian rather hopes he will be able to spend more time with her, regardless of their stations. In return, he has pointed out the few people he knows between their various stately visits to Yunmeng and the information that Jiang Cheng plied him with before they arrived.
(Well, more specifically, Jiang Cheng had said, "If you get yourself engaged to any of that Wen Chao's crowd, I'll scalp you.")
Wei Wuxian is a professional flirt. It perhaps sounds unattractive when laid out like that, stark for everyone to see, but it's obvious for anyone who takes a moment to think about it.
He is not doing it maliciously, but it is with intent nevertheless. Every outfit is carefully considered, every ball, party, dinner that he attends is considered, every dance that he gives out a calculation.
For example, the Wen siblings are both out in society at the moment, unusual but not unheard of. They're pleasant dinner companions and, although not likely to inherit much from their ghastly uncle either, of noble lineage and secure in their own estate. Marrying one of them would not be truly advantageous, but not disadvantageous either. It is a shame that Wei Wuxian finds them both to be exceedingly good friendship material and little else.
In comparison, it is the first year that Jin Zixun is in town as well, and Wei Wuxian had hoped that perhaps he was less odious than his cousin, Jin Zixuan, and then perhaps at least he and Jiang Yanli could both be married into the Jins but alas, the man appears to be both more arrogant and less handsome. A shame.
He knows, logically, that Jiang Cheng would not leave him to perish should it come down to it, no more than he would if his sister did not get married, that he would most likely find a position for Wei Wuxian or bestow upon him a small set of quarters and a few hundred a year. But he also knows that should the Duke pass before the Duchess, she would pressure Jiang Cheng to cut ties with Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian does not want to have to put Jiang Cheng in the position of choosing between him and his own mother.
They're making their turn across the far end of the hall, which is when Wei Wuxian sees him. He's tall and straight-backed, standing by himself and surveying the crowd. He's dressed in white that's iridescent with the palest of blues; a colour no one else would dare wear to a ball where it is so terribly easy to have spilled drinks and food stains, particularly later into the evening. It seems to make him emit an aura of light around him, strong enough to keep everyone three paces away.
"Who's that?" asks Wei Wuxian.
It takes a moment for Luo Qingyang (facing the opposite direction to Wei Wuxian) to see him when they swap positions, and she barely needs a glance before she can tell him: "That is the younger prince."
"One of the Twin Jades of Lan?" Wei Wuxian whistles. "I see how he got his name. Jade indeed."
"Both as beautiful and as silent as," she says. "I don't think I've ever seen him actually dance at one of these. I have heard that he attends merely out of obligation."
"I suppose he can't pick and choose at his leisure like the rest of us," says Wei Wuxian, and they both share a mirthless grin at the idea of these matchmaking attempts any sort of leisure activity. "Can't have a prince showing his favour to just anyone."
"When he finally has someone he wishes to dance with, it will be all the more noticeable. Unfortunate, if he doesn't wish to have all eyes on him," Luo Qingyang points out. Once again, Wei Wuxian is saddened that she would not be a good match for him. They think in such similar ways.
Wei Wuxian catches glimpses of the prince as they circle across the hall; now that he's seen him, he appears to stand out amongst everyone else. "He's wearing a sword," he says suddenly, blinking to confirm his eyes have not deceived him.
"He always does," says Luo Qingyang. "For someone who doesn't like to engage in courtly gossip, he certainly inspires a lot of it himself."
It would be very much Not Done for anyone else to bring a weapon in to a ball, especially one where the royal family are in attendance. Wei Wuxian himself feels slightly lopsided without the weight of his sword upon his hip. He wonders briefly what threat the prince thinks there might be in this room.
When Wei Wuxian is introduced to him later, it's perfectly perfunctory. The Duke is important enough that it would have been strange for him to present a ward to society without introducing them to the royals.
"It is a pleasure to finally meet you," says Lan Xichen. It sounds genuine enough, but Wei Wuxian still runs through all the different possible implications. Jiang Cheng was presented two years ago, and it is strange that Wei Wuxian, the older of the two of them, has only been out this year. He wonders if His Highness knows that if it would have been up to the Duchness, Wei Wuxian would never have been presented in society at all. None of this shows on his face.
"The honour is entirely mine." Wei Wuxian sweeps a bow to both the princes. They might be the Twin Jades, alike in looks, but it seems as though they're easy enough to tell part. The elder, Lan Xichen, is smiling at him in the faint way of warm politeness; the younger remains impassively stone-faced. Curious. He's never met someone who doesn't at the very least smile back him.
Duke Jiang is talking about how he and Jiang Cheng are going to be studying at Cloud Recesses in Spring. It somehow seems like the grown-ups are talking over his head, despite that Wei Wuxian counts as an adult himself now, and as far as he knows, Lan Xichen is only a few years older than him. Instead, he locks eyes with Lan Wangji, the children left in the nursery as the adults talk.
"It would be my honour to study alongside you at Cloud Recesses," he says, and doesn't entirely manage to stop himself from sounding facetious.
Wei Wuxian falls into the royal family's circle quite unexpectedly. It makes sense, of course, that the Duke is acquainted with the members of the royal family, but to ask Wei Wuxian to join a swordsmanship class - ostensibly to round off the pairs for a convenient number - and find himself there with Jiang Cheng and the two princes is higher company than Wei Wuxian expects for himself.
He means to make a good impression. Favour with the royal family is both rare and auspicious, if he can manage it. And yet, when the younger prince looks at him or, more accurately, looks through him as if Wei Wuxian is hardly worth looking at, he cannot help but bare his teeth a little.
Jiang Cheng – not the elder, but the more senior between them – pairs off with Lan Xichen, leaving Wei Wuxian with Lan Wangji. He bows, the cold of his blade kissing his lips, and crosses swords with him. As with any nobleman taught by the best teachers money can buy, Wei Wuxian expects Lan Wangji to be good – there are plenty of rumours about him floating around court and Wei Wuxian has made himself privy to many of them – but he could not have predicted that watching him fight is like watching liquid steel.
Lan Wangji's hair, unbound down his back, twirls across him like a silk curtain and yet never obstructs his vision. His movements are concise, erringly accurate and without excess. There is a flourish of his wrist, enough to be artistic but not so much that Wei Wuxian could call it dramatic.
"I find it almost a shame that I am your sparring partner for today," calls Wei Wuxian down the hall. His voice echoes; there are only the four of them in addition to their instructor here. "I should love someday to merely be a spectator and have the chance to watch your swordsmanship without fearing for my life."
Lan Wangji says nothing, but his heavy breathing sounds like a judgement all by itself.
Wei Wuxian, as with all properly reared young gentlemen, has had swordsmanship lessons since he was young. He rarely flaunts it against Jiang Cheng, but Jiang Cheng is preoccupied with his own opponent, halfway across the salle, and Lan Wangji requires every ounce of his effort to match him. It is, he realises belatedly as they dance across the hall and back, bad form to spar with a prince like this. Custom or etiquette or even common sense and a healthy dose of fear for his own wellbeing demands that he put up a good fight, and then subtly let the prince win.
He doesn't let the prince win. He doesn't lose, persay, but it's definitely not a win.
They part at the end of the session, both dripping more sweat than is seemly. Lan Wangji's heavy breathing is from strain now (as well as displeasure, not instead of) and Wei Wuxian has been grinning like a madman for long enough that his cheeks hurt.
"I look forward to seeing Your Highness again at Cloud Recesses," says Wei Wuxian before he departs. He is not sure if the prince deigns to reply at all.
Cloud Recesses is a tradition both new and old. The institution has stood for a thousand years. It bears no strategic importance as a stronghold or resources worth fighting for and so it has remained secluded and high in the mountains where it has never been invaded and likely never will be.
Culturally though, that is a different matter. Cloud Recesses has been the Lans' long before they were the ruling family and before there was a court at all. Instead of each branch of the family tutoring their children until they are old enough to be presented into society, they send their children to Cloud Recesses to gather and learn from the wisest sages, the most innovative of scholars, and be surrounded by one of the most extensive libraries in the land.
Over time, certain other families have been invited to also send their offspring. Whether it has been fashionable or not to actually do so has waxed and waned over the years, depending on the whims of court and the ruling family. Now, naturally, it is all the mode to be seen at Cloud Recesses lectures, a sign of a learned and accomplished young noble.
It is everything that Wei Wuxian feared that it would be. At least at court, he had an abundance of options, from minor nobility willing to spare him their time for the pleasure of his wit to rich merchants looking for an introduction into nobility, to large families looking for an appropriately noble young man to tutor their offspring if he did have to turn to working for his keep. But while Cloud Recesses is also full of nobles wanting to make a good impression, it is eminently clear that the only way to stand out here is by virtue of being educated.
Wei Wuxian considers himself plenty educated; it would be an insult to the Jiangs not to be. But the examinations here are clearly aimed towards those of a different ilk to him. Oh, he learns them, and he answers their questions the way that he knows they want them to be answered, but he has no need of understanding the intricacies of governing laws or policies, diplomacy, the things that all of the other actual nobles will need, not when he will never be in a position to utilise them. It is rare that a noble of no real standing like Wei Wuxian is given the opportunity to study here.
And so, he is taking the time to answer his weekly correspondence instead. He has made an effort to keep up with his connections in his time away from the Court, hoping that his absence won't set him back in his journey to find matrimonial stability. Most of the letters are trivial matters. Your absence is like a shadow cast over the court… Your laughter brought music to these halls… I hope you shan't forget me before I return… that sort of thing.
He takes a look at the title of the book Lan Wangji is reading instead, at the desk across from him, and makes a face before he can help himself. He is lucky indeed that Lan Wangji is not the sort of prince who orders someone's nose to be cut off merely for making a face at him.
Lan Wangji does, however, scowl at him as he is wont to do whenever Wei Wuxian makes his presence known.
"No need to look at me like that when I haven't even said anything, Your Highness," says Wei Wuxian, delighting in the way it makes Lan Wangji look back down at his book and pointedly turn a page. The prince is a model of decorum, so it says something that Wei Wuxian can make him behave in such a petty manner.
"Ah, is speaking to me really less appealing than the effect of soil erosion on societal collapse?"
"Yes," says Lan Wangji.
Wei Wuxian laughs. It looks like even the famed manners of the prince can't help but force him to reply, curt though it may be. "Enlighten me then, Your Highness. What is it about that book that has you so captivated?"
He leans – a breach of protocol, he knows – so that his elbow slides onto the table in front of the prince's space. Lan Wangji looks like he's trying to decide whether or not to raise the book higher to block out Wei Wuxian's face.
"Can you truly not see the importance—" The words seem to burst out of Lan Wangji unbidden, sharp, accusatory stabs into the air between them; he pauses. Forcibly calms himself and lowers his book to make eye contact with Wei Wuxian for the first time. Extends a querying lunge instead. "Are you really interested?"
Wei Wuxian parries. "Yes."
"It is expected – and necessary, and useful – for anyone who will be governing land to understand the effects of soil erosion." A step forward, cautious. "Not just for farmers or food but also to recover regions struck by floods or drought, and the surrounding regions that will harbour the displaced peoples."
"Then in that case, it concerns neither of us, long live your father, and your brother." A riposte.
Lan Wangji evades and twists. "I intend to serve my brother as an advisor. I would be well equipped to advise."
Wei Wuxian laughs, swatting his words away inelegantly. "In that case, I very much fail to see how reading this book would help displaced refugees!"
That does the trick; Lan Wangji's hands on the book tremble, his knuckles white. For a moment it looks like he might strike Wei Wuxian for real instead of countering verbally. "It is more productive than answering all of your love letters. I pray you haven't forgotten the correlation between books and knowledge."
"You could have all the knowledge in the palm of your hand about how soil erodes, and it would not increase your understanding of refugees," says Wei Wuxian, on the counter-attack with his sword sharp and his smile sharper. "Knowing what ails a person is not the same as knowing the cure."
"And how would you propose I cure anything without first knowing what ails a person?" asks Lan Wangji. He's angry, but still listening. That's... surprising. Wei Wuxian had not expected to get this far into the conversation; he'd intended to provoke only, at first. But having the ear of a prince, even if only for a moment... that is not an opportunity to pass up.
"Ah, Your Highness," says Wei Wuxian, and his smile is real this time. "That would involve talking to them."
Witty repartee of this ilk somehow becomes an actual basis of conversation between the two of them. Perhaps it's because no one else dares speak to Lan Wangji that way, but Wei Wuxian finds himself unable to stop. He likes to think that Lan Wangji lets him or maybe even secretly likes it, by virtue of not having had Wei Wuxian thrown out and locked in a dungeon somewhere for his impertinence yet. He doesn't always engage; but more often than not, Wei Wuxian can see the moment when Lan Wangji goes from trying to ignore him to actually listening to him.
"Must you always?" asks Jiang Cheng once, when they're back in their chambers for the day. Technically, the curfew for students has passed, but it's difficult to convince his body to sleep at such country hours.
"Yes," says Wei Wuxian. Jiang Cheng scowls at him, but with no real heat. Wei Wuxian squints up at the ceiling, traces the lines of the inlaid painting of a cloud with his eyes as it swirls. "It's like something comes over me when I see him, sitting away from everyone else."
"You are poking the bear," grumbles Jiang Cheng.
"He's much more handsome than a bear," says Wei Wuxian. He can feel Jiang Cheng rolling his eyes from where he's lying across the bed. Wei Wuxian is on the recliner in Jiang Cheng's room, because Jiang Cheng is pretending that he might be obeying the curfew and Wei Wuxian knows that he isn't. That is the difference between them, he thinks, a stray thought that enters his mind and is quickly batted away.
"One of these days, that sharp tongue of yours is going to cut too true and then you'll be in trouble for it," says Jiang Cheng.
Wei Wuxian agrees. "Perhaps. But no one else dares to speak to him at all. If I don't keep trying, he'll never find out that he can bleed like the rest of us."
There's the creak of the mattress, and Wei Wuxian tips his head to see that Jiang Cheng has rolled over and is staring at him in the dimness of the candlelight.
"Only you," says Jiang Cheng. "Only you would talk of trying to make a prince bleed."
He stares some more. Wei Wuxian thinks that perhaps they are not quite having the conversation that they think the other is participating in. It would do Lan Wangji some good, he thinks, to be treated like a normal person every now and then.
"Go to bed," Jiang Cheng says eventually, throwing one of his pillows at Wei Wuxian. "It's too late for this kind of talk. If you get hauled off for impudence, Mother will cut out your tongue." It's more a warning than a threat. Wei Wuxian throws the pillow back at him, and disappears to his own rooms.
Cloud Recesses is a place to be endured. A place where spoiled nobles attend for a year, half a year, claim the betterment of their mind and soul, and then return to court and the pleasures of their previous life. Wei Wuxian has heard it described so by other people, and he is largely in agreement.
Which is exactly why he has taken to slipping out in the evenings down the mountain to the local town to remind himself of the pleasures of life: conversation, loud and cheerful; drinks; spiced food and sweets. If he sees any of the other students there, their eyes glaze over and slide past each other as if they hadn't seen anything at all.
Jiang Cheng has some strange sort of aversion to doing this, even though he clearly wants to, which leaves Wei Wuxian to do it by himself. He can, of course, imagine the Duchess's ire if they were discovered but it's not like she doesn't already dislike him so he pays little attention to it.
Wei Wuxian is pleasantly in his cups before he heads back to Cloud Recesses. He's not drunk enough to be insensate, but just enough that the world feels fuzzy at his fingertips. He waits, deliberately, until after the curfew to sneak back in. In part, it's because he wants to maximise his time outside of the walls of Cloud Recesses, but in part it's that if everyone is sequestered away in their rooms, there are fewer people around who might accidentally witness him sneaking back in. He forgets, almost, that there is a guard patrol.
The wall is easy enough to get over, even if he does spend a moment too long stroking the rough brick, marvelling at the way the rasp feels under his numb fingertips. But he's balancing precariously on the top, wondering if he should hop down (as he is perfectly capable of normally) or if he's going to concede the amount of wine he's had and sit down and ease himself down, when that decision is taken out of his hands.
Also taken out of his hands are the two earthen jars of wine he had brought back with him, stabbed with a glint of steel, leaving him clutching empty air.
"What," he splutters. He'd spent good money on that wine!
"You are out after curfew."
Oh, he recognises that voice. Wei Wuxian has no rebuttal to this because, well, yes. He is. That is in fact a thing that he is doing. He follows the line of the sword up to the arm, and then the face of its owner. Lan Wangji, face only half illuminated by the lantern on the wall, but enough for Wei Wuxian to see the frown on his face.
"So are you," says Wei Wuxian, not drunk enough to be unaware that this is an unwise reply but drunk enough to not care and speak it regardless.
"I am on guard duty," snaps Lan Wangji.
"They put the Prince on guard duty?" asks Wei Wuxian, looking mournfully at his cracked jars of wine, all that deliciousness just seeping into the grass, which will never appreciate it as much as he. Who in their right mind assigns their prince to guard duty? Surely he is one of the things that require guarding.
Lan Wangji ignores his question – his perfectly reasonable question, he thinks – to repeat: "You are out after curfew."
"Yeeeees," says Wei Wuxian slowly. "And now I am off to bed. Earlier already than I would be if I were at court, I might add."
"We are not at court."
"I hadn't noticed." Perhaps it is the drink thinking for him, but it seems to Wei Wuxian that Lan Wangji is just spouting obvious facts here.
Lan Wangji has not put down his sword. The tip of it is still pointed at Wei Wuxian's chest, unwavering. In the back of his mind, Wei Wuxian admires the strength and poise he possesses. It is difficult to maintain such a position for so long without even a little tremble of the muscle. He steps around it, and heads for his quarters; he is not expecting the tip of the sword to follow him as he moves.
"Stop right there." Lan Wangji's words drop into the night, carrying clear across the stillness as if he had shouted.
Wei Wuxian looks back at him in astonishment. "Why?"
"You are out after curfew."
Wei Wuxian suspects that Lan Wangji is getting as irritated by the repetition of this as much as he is. "And you are on guard duty," he parries back, the wine making him bold. He spreads his arms, baring his chest. "You've seen me, you know who I am, you know I am not breaking in, you know that I am unlikely to be stealing anything. You've already ruined the end of a very pleasant evening, Your Highness, what else do you want from me?"
A step forward from Lan Wangji, enough that his sword brushes against the front of Wei Wuxian's chest, enough that Wei Wuxian wonders wildly for a moment whether he means to spear Wei Wuxian through, enough that he reacts upon instinct, as would any trained swordsman would, by throwing his own sheathed sword up and brushing it away – and Lan Wangji also reacts as any trained swordsman would do, by following it up.
They fall, not into the rigid lines of the salle, but the lightning quick movements of a duel; Wei Wuxian's body yields to his years of training and reacts before he even thinks about it, blocking Lan Wangji's thrusts, turning out of the way as he shuffles across the grass. He parries, feints, blocks again.
Their swords clang in the night, louder than any of their words just now. The rush of the fight is starting to clear Wei Wuxian's head of the alcohol; he can feel the tiniest breeze as it catches his hair, he's aware of the pebbles hidden in the grass beneath his feet.
It's not clear enough though. The back of his heel touches an upraised tree root and he falters for a heartbeat. For a man as accomplished as Lan Wangji, a heartbeat is enough.
Time slows. Wei Wuxian sees with crystal clarity as Lan Wangji's sword slices through the air towards him, and knows with absolute certainty that he isn't going to be able to get his own up in time to block. He sees Lan Wangji's eyes widen as he also realises, too late to pull his arm away.
Time resumes. Lan Wangji's sword quivers in the air next to Wei Wuxian's shoulder where it has cut him cleanly across the chest. Wei Wuxian looks down, to see the many coloured layers of his clothing spilling out through the slash like blood. He's not sure if there's any actual blood.
"Wei Wuxian—" Lan Wangji steps forward, dropping his sword, but Wei Wuxian slithers sideways out of his reach.
"Congratulations, Your Royal Highness," he says quietly. "It looks like you won this one." He slips into the night.
There is blood, he finds after he steals back into his rooms and gets out of his ruined clothes. The gash is a straight line from collarbone to collarbone, about the width of his handspan. It's not so deep that it will require medical attention, but it stings when he daubs it clean with cold water. That feels like it should be a metaphor for something, but he's too tired to think of what.
Lan Wangji is avoiding him. Wei Wuxian knows this because he is in turn trying to avoid Lan Wangji, and is finding it difficult to find him, in order to avoid him.
"He's not avoiding you," says Jiang Cheng. Wei Wuxian hasn't told Jiang Cheng about the alcohol, the fight, or the wound. He'd gone back, the next morning, to the site where he had climbed over the wall. There had been no trace of their presence left from the night before, no broken shards of pottery, no puddled stain of alcohol.
It's been two weeks since then, and Wei Wuxian has not spoken to Lan Wangji once. He'd spent the first few days after the incident waiting to be called up to the Grand Duke to be reprimanded for his transgressions, but no such summons had come. Wei Wuxian does not know whether this means that Lan Wangji never reported it, or whether he did but recommended that no action be taken. And because Lan Wangji is avoiding him, he can't ask.
"How do you know?" He and Jiang Cheng are headed towards the courtyard, taking advantage of the long break between their morning lectures and afternoon lectures to get in some sword practice. Cloud Recesses does not officially hold combat classes – such things are the responsibility of each noble house to take care of – but it does provide the space for its students to ensure a well-rounded education nevertheless.
The courtyard tends to be sparsely populated at this time of day, most students not wanting to deal with the hassle of getting hot and sweaty in the middle of the day and having to clean off before afternoon lectures, but Wei Wuxian finds that getting his blood flowing before the afternoon sessions helps keep him awake.
That, and also because the most popular time for combat training is at dawn, which he has no interest in getting up for if he can help it.
"He's the prince, and this is his ancestral home. He probably has more duties here than he would at court. More duties than you do, anyway. He'd have to spend time and effort thinking about you in order to consider avoiding you," says Jiang Cheng, his tongue sharper than his blade.
Wei Wuxian is about to deliver a scathing retort when something blares across Cloud Recesses. It's so unfamiliar that it takes Wei Wuxian a moment to place it – an alarm. A single sustained brassy note of a horn, followed by the urgent thumping of drums, loud enough that even clear across Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian can hear it vibrate his bones.
He exchanges a look with Jiang Cheng. "Come on."
They pick up their heels and run towards the front gate. Neither of them actually know if this is the right thing to do; Cloud Recesses has never been attacked before and they are guests here. But as they draw closer, they see other students doing much the same as they, loping down the grassy slope as everyone ignores the rule of no running within Cloud Recesses grounds.
The Grand Duke, Lan Wangji's uncle, stands waiting for them behind the front gate, looking as though he just arrived himself. He holds a sword in his hand with ease though Wei Wuxian can't imagine him wielding one after the hours spent watching him teach from the front of a classroom. In turn, the Grand Duke looks him up and down. Well, all of them really, but Wei Wuxian feels it keenly since he knows the Grand Duke is not fond of him already.
"We have an unknown enemy, unknown number of forces and unknown reason for attack," says the Grand Duke crisply. "If you can shoot, there are bows at the base of the stairs. Take one and you will be assigned a place on the wall. If you can only wield a sword, stay here with me. If you cannot, head to the Mingshi watchtower, gather everyone else who cannot fight and barricade the doors."
He says it calmly, but the way he directs them... well, everyone here is all too aware that none of them are trained soldiers. Most of them are court nobles, unlikely to see combat at any point.
The two of them head towards the walls, but they get separated after they get handed a bow and a bucket full of arrows from the rack, Jiang Cheng pushed towards the main gate and Wei Wuxian ending up one of four people on a section of the wall that overlooks the east gate. There are fewer people than Wei Wuxian would expect to see up here, given that archery is one of the main accomplishments for a young nobleman.
"Huaisang," says Wei Wuxian as he recognises the young man shuffled in next to him.
"Don't sound so surprised," says Nie Huaisang, as he examines the bow he's been given.
There are sounds to Wei Wuxian's left, towards the front gate, but he can't see anything in front of him yet. There is only one path leading up to Cloud Recesses, that in itself a substantial walk from the base of the mountain, so the east gate doesn't actually lead anywhere. It's primarily used to get to the fields where the Lan tend to their own resources, and access to the back hills.
He takes the time to look over his own bow, check the string tension, try the strength. He wishes that he had the familiarity of his personal bow, but no one had thought it a necessity to bring to study at Cloud Recesses.
"Over there," says Nie Huaisang suddenly. His eyes must be keener than Wei Wuxian's, because it takes him a moment to separate the swaying of the tree in the wind from the movement of a troop, moving in between the trees. If someone is coming from this direction, they must have come up the back of the mountain and circled around.
The person overseeing their section of the wall – one of the Lans from the wider family, most likely – also has to lean forward and squint to see them. "Can anyone shoot that far?"
Most of them shake their heads. Wei Wuxian turns his face into the wind to feel how strong it is. "I can."
"Really? Huh. Down one of them as a warning and see what they do. Everyone else, hold your arrows, loose as soon as they break the line of trees."
Wei Wuxian notches his arrow and exhales. He can down a rabbit from this distance; a human face peeking out from behind a tree is no different. He fires.
"Good shot," says Huaisang admiringly.
"Don't sound so surprised," says Wei Wuxian, and they spare a moment to grin at each other.
"They've slowed," says the Lan. "You–"
"Wei Wuxian. Pick off as many as you can before they get through the trees. Irregular pattern if you can, punch some holes into them. We'll get you some more arrows."
Wei Wuxian slides another arrow out of his basket, and breathes again. It's repetitive, almost peaceful, as he gets into a rhythm of spotting one attacker, drawing an arrow, firing, looking for the next target as his fingers feel for the feather of the fletching behind him.
It's the only peaceful moment he gets. When the troops break through the trees, Wei Wuxian reels from how many there are. He must have dropped four, five people already, but there's still a force of – twenty-five? Thirty? He's not sure.
Things get hectic after that. Cloud Recesses is not a fort or a keep; the gates are just gates and the wall is just a wall. Even Wei Wuxian climbed over it when drunk.
At some point, he ends up trading places with Huaisang, shuffling around with the others to try and keep the gaps between them at a minimum, darting down the wall to get more arrows as they run out, no servants in sight, and then reassigned to the main gate.
The force at the main gate is even larger. Wei Wuxian whistles under his breath when he sees it: rows of soldiers marching up the mountain, four abreast on the narrow mountain path, at least triple the number of nobles he can see clustered inside Cloud Recesses. A dozen of their dead have been rolled to the side already. The only saving grace is that the mountain is too steep for the enemy forces to be mounted.
Half the archers have been pulled from the wall to join the ranks of the swordsmen, now that it looks like close combat is imminent, so Wei Wuxian hastily leaves his bow on the wall and jumps down to join the phalanx getting ready to open the gates and charge, forcing the bottleneck before it comes to them inside the walls.
This is possibly the worst time for Wei Wuxian to come shoulder to shoulder with Lan Wangji for the first time in two weeks.
"You!" splutters Wei Wuxian. "Why are you here?" He adds, belatedly, "Your Royal Highness."
"To defend the Cloud Recesses," says Lan Wangji, as if it's obvious. He raises his sword as if to say, See? You know what this is used for, don't you?
The scabbed over scar across Wei Wuxian's chest pulls as he twists into formation, and he scowls. "What if what they're looking for in Cloud Recesses is you?"
"Unlikely. There are many things more valuable here than me."
Perhaps Lan Wangji is not entirely wrong. Cloud Recesses is regarded highly as a font of knowledge, culture, and history. But the value of these things is not easily taken off away from the Lan. "You don't think anyone is here for the books, do you?"
Wei Wuxian is not looking at Lan Wangji. And yet, he can still see out of the very corner of his eyes the way Lan Wangji's lips thin.
"If it is me, they will have a hard time of it."
To the side of them, the Grand Duke raises his hand. Wei Wuxian shifts his weight onto his toes, ready to charge. The gate opens; the Grand Duke's hand drops. They charge.
The formation is, to put it simply, mediocre at best. Entirely expected, given that they are a group of students who have never trained together before, but it's still frustrating when Wei Wuxian knows they must have all studied the same battle tactics. Staying shoulder to shoulder with the person next to him, two paces behind the row in front; these are the very basic building blocks of a formation, and yet his neighbour on the other side peels off almost immediately.
At least Lan Wangji is there. They move forward in time, matching each other's steps, and in no time at all, they reach the front of the formation, like they were designed to be the tip of a spear all along.
"If you must be out here, you should at least refrain from putting yourself at the front," grunts Wei Wuxian, swinging his sword.
Lan Wangji replies not at all, presumably because he's busy fighting.
Their enemy have numbers, but Wei Wuxian finds his swordsmanship better by far. In the midst of the attack, as his blood roars in his ears, he takes a moment to be gratified by that. There are many nobles who train, and train, in the art of the sword, and their skill escapes them when it comes to the real thing.
Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, sees with startling clarity where his opponents are. The shift of their stance that indicates which direction they're moving in, the shadows that indicate a second person on the side. He remains dimly aware of the sweep of white remaining solidly at his side, indicating that Lan Wangji is taking care of his half of the path so that Wei Wuxian doesn't have to watch out for his left.
Wei Wuxian has fought against Lan Wangji more than once now, and he had thought that an exhilarating experience. The knowledge of an opponent matched to his skill, the mental somersaults required to out-thinking his tactical genius, his skill, his experience. But fighting alongside him? This is a whole new experience entirely, and Wei Wuxian wishes to be on the opposite end of his sword no more.
It is like their minds, instead of racing to out-think the other, are working in tandem, both knowing the advantage in moving to the right as one, deliberately letting a hole appear to lure an enemy through. He braces his back against Lan Wangji's, able to tell the movement of his muscles when they align across the backs of his shoulders.
All of these things slot into place, and he rebuffs enemy after enemy. It's not until the enemy troop thins out down to the last two or three around them that Wei Wuxian realises that they've split off ahead of the rest of the students. Perhaps they are as bad as the others at this organised fighting thing.
Wei Wuxian takes his man down a moment before Lan Wangji finishes off his opponent, which is the only reason why he sees it first.
"Wait!" He cries, lunges past Lan Wangji's shoulder, slices cleanly through a rope to disengage a trap before Lan Wangji steps into it.
He hears Lan Wangji cry out, "Wei Wuxian!" far too close to his ear, and then he is yanked sideways, the breath punched out of his lungs when he lands on Lan Wangji's chest.
Lan Wangji's eyes are lighter than he thought. Like molten gold, now he can see them up close. Wei Wuxian has never had the chance to get this close before. And then the moment is over – Lan Wangji's hand clamped around his arm lets go; Wei Wuxian rights himself, looks behind to see the shower of fist sized rocks flung across where he had been standing a moment ago. Another trap.
"Thank you, Your Royal Highness," he says.
Lan Wangji gestures towards the cut rope. "Thank you, Wei Wuxian."
"Really, what else was I going to do?" asks Wei Wuxian. "I could hardly say that I was fighting next to you and then let you die."
Lan Wangji makes a little sound. It almost sounds like... amusement?
"And anyway," says Wei Wuxian, flustered slightly, "at this point, you could call me Wei Ying by now."
"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji, sounding it out. He looks at Wei Ying questioningly.
"Wei Wuxian is the name that the Jiangs gave me, when I became a ward. But before, I was Wei Ying."
"Hmm," says Lan Wangji, which is neither a comment nor a judgement. "Wei Ying. Do you expect to call me Lan Zhan?"
Wei Ying nearly trips over one of the rocks. "I – of course not! That, that would be–"
"Oh." Wei Ying looks up at Lan Zhan, and then away, and then back. Each time, Lan Zhan is looking at him with some amusement. That, alone, is more distressing than anything else. Wei Ying busies himself kicking leaves from the ground to reveal the spike-lined ditch that Lan Zhan was about to step into. Hastily dug, but impressive.
"Look at this! What would you have done, Lan Zhan," says Wei Ying, the overly familiar name sounding heavy and exciting and forbidden in his mouth. "You're just making yourself easy to get hurt or get captured by being out in the open like this. And then what would your brother and your betrothed do?"
Lan Zhan is checking one of the bodies; he puts down the arm of the dead man and looks up at Wei Ying. "Betrothed?"
"Yes? And your brother."
"I don't have a betrothed."
"Oh." Wei Ying is taken aback. The topic had never come up in their debates (arguments, possibly) in the library. "I just assumed. That you would have had one lined up. When I was coming to court and trying to work out who might be a good match, it felt like all the major families had made their arrangements for their heirs from birth."
There are no identifying features on the dead men. They expose the traps and check for any others, before heading back up the mountain. It looks for a moment that Lan Zhan wants to say something to him, but then they hear the sounds of fighting just up ahead, and they speed up to join the fray again.
It's not until afterwards, when several of the attackers have been captured and taken away by the Grand Duke for questioning and Wei Ying has volunteered to help with clearing things up that Lan Zhan falls into step next to him, picking up the legs of the dead body that Wei Ying is trying to lift by the arms.
"Earlier," says Lan Zhan, entirely not out of breath despite hauling a dead body backwards up the steep mountainside, "when you mentioned coming to court to find a match. The Jiangs did not arrange anything for you?"
"No. You think I would dance with anyone who will have me if I already had a match?" Wei Ying pauses when he sees the look on Lan Zhan's face: blank. "Oh, you did."
"Forgive me," says Lan Zhan stiffly. "I – The Jiangs are also one of the major families." That's fair enough.
"I'm a ward, I'm not in line to inherit and never would be," says Wei Ying cheerfully enough. "I suspect the Duke never made a decision for me because he secretly wanted me to decide for myself. And the Duchess... well, it wouldn't have made a difference for her."
"Is it going well?"
"The... matching," says Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying wants to put him out of his misery when it's so evident he does not wish to be speaking of this, but he doesn't know how. "Reasonably well. The most promising lead at the moment is Lord Yao, but–"
Lan Zhan makes a face approximate to what Wei Ying also feels about Lord Yao.
"Yes, exactly. But regardless, if he were to make an offer, I am not in a position to decline."
Lan Zhan departs the Cloud Recesses for court the next day. Jiang Cheng, as Duke Jiang's heir and therefore privy to all sorts of missives that Wei Ying is not, tells him that it is a response to the attack on Cloud Recesses; he has been called back both to make a report and to remove himself from the institution if his presence was what warranted the attack.
Wei Ying does not hear anything from Lan Zhan himself, which is entirely normal, because princes don't keep random classmates apprised of their every movement. It does not stop him from feeling oddly bereft though, as if Lan Zhan had left him hanging halfway through a conversation. They were getting somewhere, he thinks. At the very least, he doesn't think Lan Zhan is avoiding him anymore.
A week after that, among Wei Ying's correspondence from the capital, there is a letter from Lord Yao. It tells him that the second prince had spoken very highly of him upon his return to court, and that in light of that conversation, Lord Yao is interested in taking things further and will be speaking to Duke Jiang at the earliest opportunity.
Wei Ying stares at it for a long time, until the words swim like smudged ink in front of his eyes. The second prince had spoken very highly of him. He rifles through his letters – several other flirtations and invitations – until he finds one from the Duke, probably sent a few days after the first letter even though they only receive correspondence once a week here.
Duke Jiang writes to him on an irregular basis, so most of the letter is filled with other matters, catching Wei Ying up on happenings at home and at court. Apparently, the fishermen miss his presence on the docks. He finds what he is looking for nestled neatly into a single line. 'Lord Yao has extended an offer; if you would be willing, I will make the necessary arrangements.'
Wei Ying leaves his answer unwritten until the night before the weekly courier departs the mountain. He tries, he really does, to compose a measured letter, but he fears he betrays himself with how short his letter is this time.
When the letter is delivered, Wei Ying tries to put it out of his mind. He has two months left at Cloud Recesses before he is due to return to court. There is no point fretting about his return and wasting away his time here. He asks the librarian where he can find the book on soil erosion and societal collapse.
It is another few weeks before Lan Zhan returns to the Cloud Recesses, so little time left on their series of lectures that it surely cannot be worth him returning, especially since, from what Wei Ying has seen, he is aware of all the material already.
Wei Ying finds out, as he does everything of import, entirely by accident when he near runs into him on his way back to his rooms after his combat training. "Oh! Your Royal Highness! You're back!"
It appears that he has literally just arrived, his travelling cloak still over his shoulder and his bags hefted in one hand. Only Lan Zhan would be carrying his own luggage despite the two servants trailing after him.
"I am," says Lan Zhan, and adds with emphasis, "Wei Ying."
He eyes Wei Ying, until Wei Ying leans in close to speak confidentially, "I can't call you Lan Zhan when there are other people around! That would be terribly improper!"
Lan Zhan flicks his eyes up and down Wei Ying's personage, which is understandable given Wei Ying is currently wearing clothes soaked through with sweat, hair dishevelled, terribly unseemly for a young nobleman. There's nothing proper about him anyway. Lan Zhan does not point this out. "Have you been well?"
If Wei Ying does not leave right now to strip off his clothes, he won't have enough time to scrub himself down before his afternoon classes. It's happened before, and he's had to sit in his drying, cooling sweat as it gets progressively more itchy through the afternoon. He would like to avoid repeating that experience.
And yet, still he lingers to answer. It's an odd question, from Lan Zhan. He is not in habit of asking meaningless questions.
"Yes, quite," says Wei Ying. "Has the matter with the attack been resolved?"
Lan Zhan shrugs minutely. "It is being investigated. I heard that you declined a marriage proposal from Lord Yao."
That is... quite the change in subject. Wei Ying blinks, wrong-footed. "I – yes. I did. I'm sorry. I know you spoke well of me to him for my sake."
"Have you accepted a different offer?"
"N-no. But I thought about it, and, well." Wei Ying forces a smile. His muscles ache, he can feel the sweat rolling down his back. He is almost definitely going to be late. He feels ambushed by this conversation. "The Duke made it evident that should I not want to accept, I did not have to. And so I did not."
"I see," says Lan Zhan.
"I'm sorry to have wasted your endorsement, Lan Zhan," says Wei Ying, but Lan Zhan shakes his head almost imperceptibly, cutting him off.
"Have you had any other offers recently?" Lan Zhan seems distressed about something, but Wei Ying cannot place his finger on what it is.
"I don't think so? Not last week, in any case. We haven't had the courier arrive this week yet."
Lan Zhan nods sharply, and walks past him. His two servants bustle past, and Wei Ying takes a step back off the road to let through. He scrubs at his face, and groans. He's barely going to have enough time to rub a cloth over his chest to get rid of the worst of the sweat before heading back out again.
He ends up slipping into the hall barely on time – which is usual for him at least – and when he gets there, Lan Zhan is back in his usual seat near the front even though he too needed to get to his chambers and change out of his travelling clothes.
For the next two days, it feel as though someone has wound back the hands of time. Lan Zhan resumes his usual study place in the library and Wei Ying slides in next to him to ask what he's reading now. It is precariously close to feeling like the last few months have not existed, that they never had an argument in the middle of the night. Except, now, it has become impossible to rile Lan Zhan up, like when he tells Lan Zhan that his book is boring, Lan Zhan smiles as though he expected Wei Ying to say that.
There has been a few moments now, where Wei Ying has started teasing Lan Zhan about his book only to find himself grinning in delight, making the most disparaging remarks of the poor book that he can think of, opinions he doesn't even believe in himself, to try and unsuccessfully get a rise out of Lan Zhan, like it is a joke between them.
It's late when Wei Ying gets back to his rooms. He'd stayed out late with Huaisang until the warning bells of curfew had sent Huaisang scuttling back to his rooms, and then snuck into a corner of the library to find some texts he wanted to read ahead of the next set of classes.
He'd forgotten that the courier arrived today until he finally gets in and sees the bundle of letters that the servants have left on his desk. And when he looks through them, he thinks it a trick at first. But who would be so bold as to impersonate the prince?
Wei Ying unfolds the letter. Not only an impersonation, but to sign it off using his name. And when Wei Ying looks it over again, he recognises that handwriting all too well, from the hours spent watching him write in the library. Which means that this was genuinely written by Lan Zhan himself.
It's a poem. It's only after a while that Wei Ying realises he's just been staring blankly at the piece of paper, trying to accommodate such circumstances where Lan Zhan would send him a poem. He doesn't even know what it says; he hasn't had the presence of mind to read it properly.
He has to put it down, and walk away. Not too far – close enough that he can still see the piece of paper there, so that he's convinced it's real. But he flicks through some of his other letters first; a correspondence with Jiang Yanli, an invitation to a party that he will no doubt have to turn down because he still has the rest of the month here in Cloud Recesses, a few other pieces of poetry that he will have to send complimentary replies to.
He comes back to it at the end. It's a love poem.
Wei Ying is a well-educated young man, accomplished in the six arts. He knows the classical canon of poetry. This is not one of them. Which means that Lan Zhan wrote it.
He didn't know Lan Zhan wrote poetry. Not in the same way they've all attempted poetry as part of their education, anyway. This is – good. Good enough to be memorised or taught or immortalised forever in a book. He's sure that if the younger prince of Gusu was in the regular habit of writing poetry, he would have heard it at court.
He turns the piece of paper over, but there is no accompanying note, no explanation as to whether it's just something he's working on and would like Wei Ying's opinion on, or if it's... actually for him. It feels blasphemous to even think it; Wei Ying glances around, as if some courtly spy might spot him thinking such outrageous thoughts.
It remains empty, the only noise Jiang Cheng getting ready for bed from the next room.
He'll go to sleep, he thinks. Perhaps he'll dream about it, and know what to do, how to respond, when he wakes. His late-night thoughts are always tempered in the morning; sad for his inventions but probably fortunate for any ill-advised replies he might want to pen to the prince now and send with a servant in the dead of night. He'll know what to do in the morning.
He does not know what to do in the morning.
Perhaps it is because he struggled to sleep at all and therefore didn't dream of it. Instead, he got up so many times to look again at the poem, read it over even after he traced the characters so many times that he could see them in the eye of his mind. After a few too many times scorching his fingers from lighting and re-lighting the candle, he'd brought the letter back to bed with him. He'd laid it by his pillow, carefully to one side where, if he rolled onto his side, he could see the faintest outline of it by the starlight that filtered in through his window.
The morning dawns too soon, and Wei Ying is facing the sun when it rises. It seems to pierce through his eyelids and into his very soul, rendering him hollow from the heart out. He makes himself sit up. Oh, no, wait, it's just a headache. He groans, and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. He feels like he has a hangover, except he hasn't even been drinking. An emotional hangover, perhaps.
Jiang Cheng notices something wrong immediately. "You're – up?" He asks suspiciously as he wanders into their shared reception room and Wei Ying is already there. Usually, he has to knock, loudly, on Wei Ying's door to awaken him, and then come back a second time before he leaves for breakfast to make sure that he is actually up.
"I think I'm sick," says Wei Ying. "Or delusional. Seeing things that aren't there."
"Uh," says Jiang Cheng.
"I need to show you something and I need you to not laugh. Or read it. Just tell me if it's... there."
"Uh," says Jiang Cheng again, except this time he actually looks concerned.
Wei Ying has thought this through. He's going to show Jiang Cheng the poem, except not the right way around because he doesn't want Jiang Cheng to read the poem or realise it's from Lan Zhan, because Lan Zhan is a private person and Wei Ying doesn't think he'd like Jiang Cheng to be the second person ever to read his poetry. If it's real.
The piece of paper is slightly rumpled in the bottom corner now, from where Wei Ying has been holding it, but he holds it up to the window to let the sun stream through and asks triumphantly, "Can you see that?"
Sometimes, Jiang Cheng will refuse to do things for Wei Ying unless he's given a proper explanation. But there must be something about the frenetic, wide-eyed way Wei Ying is asking him now, because after another concerned look, he actually squints at the piece of paper. "Yes. I can see the writing on the other side."
Wei Ying points out the two characters at the end specifically. "These?"
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng leans in. "It'd be easier if you'd just turn it the right way around."
Wei Ying folds it back up and slides it into the folds of his robes. "Alright. I'm not delusional, I think. That's probably worse."
"Are you going to explain to me what's going on?" asks Jiang Cheng tiredly. "You get letters all the time."
"I – will," says Wei Ying. "But I need to answer this first."
He darts out of the room and towards the library. He doesn't even know if Lan Zhan will be there, but he does know that he relishes the hour or two in the morning before the guest students are usually up and about to take full advantage of the library's solitude. He skids to a stop just outside the library. It'll be difficult to disguise the fact that Wei Ying has been running; he's panting and he can feel the sweat gathering below his collar and the flush of his face. He presses each side of his face, briefly, against the wall cool in the shade. He's not entirely sure that it helps.
He's both relieved and terrified when it turns out that Lan Zhan is indeed in the library. He looks up; Wei Ying sees him glance out of the window to check the rising of the sun, that he had not stayed past the breakfast hour, and then look back at Wei Ying to confirm that he's really there.
Lan Zhan is, Wei Ying realises, blushing. It is only the faintest of pinks that stains his ears, like a daub of ink that spreads across the pale paper, and it would be entirely unnoticeable if not for the morning sun shining through the window to illuminate him. He is, Wei Ying realises, beautiful.
It's not the first time that Wei Ying has realised this, but this time, it feels like he's allowed to.
The silence hangs between them, like the drop of dew on the tip of a blade of grass, suspended in midair and waiting to fall.
Wei Ying is the one to break it. "I should have written you a reply," he realises suddenly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"A reply. I – I should have composed a poem back to you. That would have been the appropriate thing to do. It's what you deserve. I didn't think of it," says Wei Ying, stunned. "I'm going about this all wrong."
"You wanted to reply to me?" Lan Zhan asks. His face softens, subtle as the first thaw of snow in the sun.
"Yes. Immediately. Except, I knew you were asleep, Lan Zhan. It would have woken you up. Why didn't you tell me about this when you realised I hadn't received it before you arrived?"
Lan Zhan rises and comes to him and Wei Ying meets him in the middle a little too fast and trips over his own feet and Lan Zhan catches his elbow, sets him back on his feet with a little push and doesn't let go afterwards. "I wished to give you the space, to decide how you wanted to respond."
Wei Ying clasps his hand over where Lan Zhan is holding him. His hand is sweaty. This is awful. This is the most blessed day of Wei Ying's life.
He pulls out the poem - now slightly crumpled in the bottom corner and smelling like sweat - and unfolds it reverently. "I've ruined it, Lan Zhan," he says. "It was all beautiful but I touched it too much and now it's ruined. And I didn't reply properly. I'm terrible, you don't want me."
Lan Zhan does not look angry at all that Wei Ying his ruined his work. "I will write you another. And this is reply enough." He tilts his head, considering. "You are terrible–" Wei Ying chokes out a laugh. "–but I want you anyway. If you will have me."
He pulls out a missive from his clothes. It is a letter, folded over and sealed; it is warm from the heat of being pressed to Lan Zhan's chest, and soft around the edges – as if, Wei Ying realises, he has been carrying it with him all the way from the capital, waiting. Waiting for Wei Ying.
The seal on is tells him it’s from Duke Jiang. It is short: 'His Royal Highness, the Second Prince of Gusu, has extended an offer; if you would be willing, I will make the necessary arrangements.'
Wei Ying finds himself laughing uncontrollably, his frayed emotions acerbated by his lack of sleep.
"Lan Zhan," says Wei Ying when he's finally capable of speech. He finds that he has no other words. Perhaps he merely wanted to say Lan Zhan out loud and know that he could, that he could be allowed to. He beams up at Lan Zhan, his smile so wide that it hurts his cheek.
"Wei Ying," says Lan Zhan, and he doesn't add anything either. There is nothing else he needs to add.