Wei Wuxian generally considers himself to be a fair-minded person. So he feels that the extreme prejudice with which he drops the innocuous little gift bag onto the table and pushes it away from himself says a lot.
“Another one already?” Nie Huaisang asks, already reaching for and upending the bag. A pair of black-knitted socks - with two little red pom-poms hanging off each ankle - fall out onto the table. They look handmade. They’re also adorable.
Wuxian hates them.
“This is the third one this week,” he says, and slumps into the remaining free seat, feeling uncharacteristically glum.
“The third pair of socks?” Wen Ning asks, looking startled, and Wuxian waves his hand in lazy denial.
“No, the third gift left next to my bag at the ‘centre,” he says. The centre housing the Chinese Cultural Society that his forebears established to provide Chinese migrants with community and a safe space in a foreign land - now safe no more, he thinks to himself sadly.
“Oh no,” Jiang Cheng says flatly, rolling his eyes. “Your hordes of admirers are leaving you gifts, boo hoo, let me get out my guzheng and play you the world’s saddest fucking accompaniment to the rain falling in your heart.”
“It’s not as simple as gifts!” Wuxian exclaims indignantly. “Gifts mean a build-up to a confession! A confession means another awkward meeting where I have to turn someone down and then ‘there there’ them afterward!”
He pushes forward into Jiang Cheng’s space.
“What if they cry, Jiang Cheng?,” he whines beseechingly. "You know how bad I am with people crying at me!"
Instead of showing any sort of sympathy, his brother plants a palm onto the side of his face and uses it to push him back down into his seat.
“Just accept and date them then,” Wen Qing says over Wuxian’s cries of “You’re so cold, Jiang Cheng!". She raises an unimpressed eyebrow. “There: problem solved, everyone wins.”
“Everyone does not win!” Wuxian splutters, whirling around to face her. “Dating someone just because they showed up is not a solution!”
“How will he choose between all of them, anyway?” Huaisang pipes up, which Wuxian both sort of appreciates and also ... doesn't. “There are so many.”
“Why are there so many?” Wuxian lets his head drop onto the table. “There didn’t use to be this many."
“Most likely because Jin Zixuan took himself out of the bachelor rankings by marrying your sister, and bumped you up to third,” Huaisang says bluntly, and Wuxian finds it incredibly galling that his friend can sound so reasonable about a situation that is so patently not.
“Bloody peacock,” he mutters, latching onto the first target he has for his resentment. “With his stupid, bloody face. I should’ve punched it again when I had the chance.”
“To be fair,” Huaisang points out, “it’s also partially your sister’s fault. Jin Zixuan didn’t marry himself.”
“You take those dirty words back!” Wuxian demands, although there’s no heat in his tone. “My sister is a perfect, blameless angel, how dare you? She’s as much a victim as anyone else in this, since she’ll be spending the rest of her life being married to him.“
Huaisang shrugs, but makes no move to say anything, so Wuxian just continues his ranting.
“Bloody Chinese people,” he grumbles. “Why do we have to like bullshit ranking lists so much? It’s a medium-sized cultural society, not a university entrance examination!”
“Who was it,” Wen Qing begins sweetly, “who couldn’t stop laughing when Lan Wangji made it to Bachelor #2?”
She assumes a vapid expression and taps a finger against her chin in mock-contemplation.
“I seem to remember the very same person also saying something about the Chinese penchant for ranking things being ‘the best’, and something about excellence deserving to be recognised? Now, do you remember who that was, Wen Ning?”
“Um,” Wen Ning says nervously, looking like the last thing he wants is to be dragged into the discussion at hand. “Should we order? Have we all decided what we want to eat?”
He tries to wave down a server, unfortunately with entirely too much hesitation to actually get anyone’s attention. Jiang Cheng looks at him, sighs loudly and gives an authoritative hand gesture of his own - which immediately has two servers heading towards them at once.
“I didn’t know it would be like this,” Wuxian whines, wriggling petulantly in his seat. “I feel really bad about teasing Lan Zhan so much now. This is the pits!”
Feeling bad, however, Wuxian thinks to himself, is not quite the same as actually regretting it.
(He’s a bad person, he knows; he’s terribly cut up about it.)
“These are really nice, though,” Wen Ning says admiringly, picking up one of the socks and playing with a pom-pom. “They're so soft! They look like they’d be really warm, too.”
“You like them?” Wuxian asks, barely bothering to spare the socks a second glance. “You can have them.”
“I can’t do that!” Wen Ning's eyes open wide in alarm. “Someone made them for you!”
“And that means that,” Wuxian explains patiently, “since I’m certainly not going to be keeping them, it would be a real shame if you didn’t, because otherwise they’re going straight into the bin.”
“But,” Wen Ning says weakly, and they all know it means that he’s running out of resolve. “Won’t whoever made them be sad if they find out?”
“Just wear them at home,” Wuxian tells him carelessly. "No one will see, so there'll be no problem."
Beside them, Jiang Cheng has foregone interrupting the conversation in favour of simply ordering for the whole table. But they've been meeting like this every week for at least a year and a half now, so it's not as if they haven't long learned what each of the others likes to eat.
As it is, the conversation pauses long enough for Wuxian to notice that Jiang Cheng is pointedly ordering dishes with no chilli in them. He turns towards his brother and pouts pitifully. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but nevertheless points to a four-chilli-rated item on the menu and then asks for extra chilli on the side.
Meanwhile, Wen Ning, still looking a little torn, shyly reaches for the socks and tucks them into his bag.
"So what are you going to do?" Huaisang asks after the server collects the menus. He plants his elbows into the newly-cleared space and rests his chin on his interlaced fingers.
Wuxian considers the question.
"Dunno," he says after a moment. "Can I get myself disqualified from the list somehow? Bumped down?"
Jiang Cheng snorts.
"You punched then-number-three in the face on stage at the society Chinese Lunar New Year concert two years back, and that didn't affect your ranking at all. How far are you going to go?"
Wuxian opens his mouth to say that he's willing to go pretty fucking far, but before he can speak, Jiang Cheng hastily amends the question.
"No, don't answer that - how far are you going to be able to go before Uncle Qiren murders you? He's already banned you from public-facing society events."
"If he murders me, at least I won’t have to deal with anyone crying on me again," Wuxian mutters mulishly.
"Maybe you should start thinking about dating," Wen Ning suggests, and is immediately forced to start waving his hands placatingly when Wuxian shoots him his most betrayed expression. "Not a random! It's just - Jiejie's right; if you were dating someone, the admirers would stop like they did for Jin Zixuan when he started dating your sister."
"Yeah, that one's right out," he says, shaking his head (and why do Wen Ning and Huaisang both look so disappointed?). "What can I do that's not-that, but will still get these people to stop?"
"Lan Zhan!” Wuxian exclaims as soon as the door to Lan Wangji's apartment opens. “Fake-date me!”
The door slams shut in his face.
“Nonono , wait, wait, don't be like that," he begs when the door finally opens again (after five minutes of incessant knocking from him) and reveals Lan Zhan’s glowering face. “Just hear me out!”
The set of Lan Zhan’s mouth is one of extreme censure, but he nevertheless takes a step back, and Wuxian doesn’t waste any time getting himself inside before Lan Zhan changes his mind.
He ends up sitting at the kitchen table, holding the cup of tea that Lan Zhan sets in front of him - rather pointedly, Wuxian feels, because while everyone knows that Lan Zhan doesn’t drink, he usually does stock liquor for Wuxian’s visits.
Given his opening line tonight, however, Wuxian concedes that a little coldness is fair.
“Okay, so,” Wuxian says, taking a refreshing gulp after speeding through an explanation of his request and the events leading up to it (getting even faster every time Lan Zhan’s frown deepens, which is frequently ). “I had no idea that there’d be such a difference between being at number three and number four, and Lan Zhan, it sucks balls. I honestly don’t know how you’ve survived being at number two for so long. What are you telling people when they ask to date you?”
“There’s someone I already like,” Lan Zhan says, and Wuxian nods approvingly.
“I wish I’d known to go with that,” he sighs. Boy, how does he wish that. “But the first one caught me off-guard when she asked me if I was interested in anyone, so I said ‘no’, and word must’ve spread. I guess,” he says thoughtfully, tilting his chair back and righting it again with a grin when Lan Zhan’s expression turns disapproving, “I could just say that I’ve changed my mind, but that still leaves a risk that they’ll keep asking until I give them specifics.”
He peeks up at Lan Zhan, whose sympathy levels do not seem to have moved from their previous rating of net zero, and changes tack.
“However, ” he says with renewed enthusiasm, leaning across the table to better communicate his earnestness (Lan Zhan doesn’t move back exactly, but does blink at him in a way that implies that the violation of personal space boundaries has been noted),”if we pretended to date, that would all be done with. ”
“Lying is-“ Lan Zhan begins, and Wuxian hurries to cut him off in case the train of thought leads to further objections that he doesn’t have responses to.
“I wouldn’t ask you to say anything untrue,” he assures him. “I know you don’t lie, but maybe if we just … behaved in a way that would lead people to make assumptions, and afterwards didn’t correct them? It’d be enough for me if you were just around, being intimidatingly perfect in people’s faces, and I’d do the same for you. -Well,” he corrects himself, “it wouldn’t be being ‘perfect’ in my case, but maybe I could be intimidatingly annoying?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says flatly, face still frustratingly passive and free of any tells as to his feelings about the situation.
(And, more importantly, what angles Wuxian has the best chance of leveraging to win him over.)
“Come oooon, Lan Zhan,” Wuxian whines, reaching across the table to tug coquettishly on Lan Zhan’s sleeve. “It’d be perfect! I’ve been single all my life, you’ve been single all your life, and fake-dating would let us continue being peacefully single while protecting each other! We already spend heaps of time together - there’d be literally no difference, except that we’d maybe occasionally hold hands or pretend to kiss when someone’s looking!”
Lan Zhan is still frowning, but Wuxian thinks that there’s been an infinitesimal softening of the crease between his eyebrows. He seizes the opening.
“You wouldn’t have to do anything,” he cajoles, picking up Lan Zhan’s hand now and swinging it back and forth as he makes his case. “You could leave everything to me. And if you were to find someone you actually wanted to date, then we could have a fake break-up.”
He’s met with silence, pinned by Lan Zhan’s unwavering gaze, and Wuxian is just about to give the game up for a lost cause when-
“Who’s your backup?” Lan Zhan asks abruptly.
“What?” he asks, not quite following, before, “oh, you mean if you say no?”
Huh, he thinks to himself. That would’ve been an idea - why didn’t he think of it?
“I, uh, don’t have one?” he ventures, and then, not above using any and all of the resources presented to him, jumps straight back into wheedling. “So that makes it even more important that you say yes! Lan Zhan-”
“All right,” Lan Zhan says.
“Come oooon, Lan-,” Wuxian is still saying when the words register. “-wait, what? Seriously?”
Lan Zhan nods.
Wuxian’s answering grin is bright, wide and only slightly manic.
this is the worst idea you’ve ever had
Dude, what, no! It’s a GREAT idea.
I mean, yes, okay, LWJ is a perfect specimen of man-god
and I’m like, objectively trash, but
You’re not trash!
aw, thanks, WN!
dw, I’m not saying it out of low self-esteem or anything!
great things, trash-can, not trash-cannot, etc
but I’m also like, banned from public-facing cultural society events
and I also realised
when I went to the toilet this afternoon
that I had my underwear on inside-out, so
he does things like ask people to FAKE-DATE HIM, WN. he’s trash
but as I was saying in re LWJ, he still agreed to date me
so it’s not SO far-fetched that
he could agree to date me irl
I thought LWJ was the one with the brain cell
but I guess you two are just a brain-free zone
THANK YOU, WN
I’m glad SOMEONE appreciates what I’m trying to achieve here
don’t come looking for me when this all ends in tears!
dw I WON’T
bc my brilliant plan is NOT GONNA
do you have your affairs in order?
bc like, Uncle Qiren is gonna M U R D E R you
on the scale of ‘least to most acceptable people to be dating his beloved nephew’
in the bin
i am most definitely in the bin
not even the top of the bin
no, you’re at the v bottom
maybe slightly above JZX’s creepy dad
but you’re not wrong
Wuxian’s not here to waste time, so he goes straight to the cultural society centre after work the next day and makes a beeline for the room where Lan Zhan teaches the baby kungfu class.
The decision is an eminently strategic one - he knows for a fact that the baby kungfu class (and any class Lan Zhan teaches in a room with a window, to be brutally honest) has a regular crowd of cooing spectators that is not (by a long shot) limited to grandparents, parents and/or bored siblings. If Wuxian goes to pick Lan Zhan up after class and takes him wandering through the building before they leave (together) , they’ll be seen by that captive audience, Lan Zhan’s actual students, the students of any other society extra-curriculars scheduled for that afternoon, and all of their grandparents, parents and/or bored siblings.
If they also grab a bite at the nearest Chinese restaurant afterwards, they’ll see at least a quarter of those people again, as well as the restaurant staff who, throughout the course of any given week, probably see at least half the cultural society’s members come through their doors.
Chinese people being Chinese people, Wuxian has every expectation that the news will have spanned the whole community network by the end of the hour.
That he’ll also be able to watch Lan Zhan gently drill a group of 4-year-olds (maybe also 3- and 5-year olds? Babies.) who absolutely adore him in kungfu basics is just a bonus. The only thing cuter than Lan Zhan bending in half to correct a baby’s intensely earnest fight-me pose is when he takes his little herd to a different training room and sweeps silently down the halls with a trail of rapt ducklings following behind.
(Wuxian saw it by accident once after running a Chinese-language climate-change action education session for retirees, and he had to duck into a side room to squeal into his own jacket.)
To Wuxian’s great disappointment, he only arrives in time to catch the class running through one last form before Lan Zhan lets them out for the day.
Still, he thinks, watching 16 excited toddlers run out to their parents is pretty nice. (And it seems that the non-guardian half of the peanut gallery agree, if their continued presence is any indication.)
One little girl even runs back in towards Lan Zhan, clutching a crumpled piece of paper to her chest and presenting it to him with both hands. When Lan Zhan bends down (elegant even when he’s wearing an oversized T-shirt and loose pants, which is just unfair to humanity) to listen gravely as she explains the picture she’s drawn him, Wuxian is forced to spin around and clutch his chest to ensure his own continued survival. Beside him, a girl staggers and has to be held up by a companion who looks a bit stunned himself.
Wuxian knows the feeling.
After the last of the children have run out to their parents (and the danger is past), Wuxian steps into the open doorway and props himself against the frame.
“Lan-Er-gege !” he calls, and gives his cutest finger-wave when Lan Zhan looks up.
Lan Zhan doesn’t smile, exactly, but something about his face softens as he makes his way across the room.
("So,” Wuxian says, flopping against Lan Zhan on the sofa. “Are there any PDA boundaries you don’t want me to cross? Like, no kissing, or-”
“No,” Lan Zhan says.
“Right, no kissing-” Wuxian repeats, but is interrupted by Lan Zhan’s hand on his wrist, and a small headshake.
“No,” Lan Zhan clarifies, “no boundaries.”
“Um,” Wuxian says. He knows that there’s probably an implied “within reason” in that statement, and that (unlike him), Lan Zhan probably isn’t thinking that statement through to its logical extreme, but even so, that’s a heady thing to hear. “Are you sure?”
Lan Zhan nods once.
“Well,” Wuxian reasons out loud, “I guess there are in-built boundaries. I mean, it’s not like you’re at risk of me trying to have sex with you for the cause, right? So that’s cool, but you can change your mind at any time, okay? Just say the word.”)
As soon as Lan Zhan gets close enough, Wuxian reaches out and grabs his hand under the shiny, new, unlimited-PDA licence he’s been granted. To his credit, Lan Zhan only freezes for a second. Then he relaxes and turns his palm so that he can lace their fingers together.
Nice, Wuxian thinks, and rewards Lan Zhan’s hand with an approving squeeze.
(“And you?” Lan Zhan asks.
“And I what?” Wuxian asks, half-listening and half trying to get his laptop to play the rabbit video he’s just assured Lan Zhan that he has to see.
“What are your boundaries?” Lan Zhan clarifies.
Wuxian doesn’t want to say, “Well, I haven’t ever done anything, so I don’t think I really have any opinions at this stage”, so he just shrugs.
“I think I’m up for just seeing how far we’ll need to go, for now,” he says. “So we can put me in the ‘revisit later, if necessary’ box, as well.”)
So far, at least, there don’t appear to be any downsides to the warmth of Lan Zhan’s skin against his, and so Wei Wuxian remains 100% up for this.
“Come on,” he says, backing out of the room and tugging gently until Lan Zhan follows. “Let’s go get some dinner.”
Their walk past the lingering crowd is everything Wuxian could have either hoped for or dreamed. Lan Zhan nods to various people as they pass like they’re not staring at him open-mouthed, and, even better, like he hasn’t given them anything worth staring at open-mouthed. Phones are out and messages sent even before Wuxian and Lan Zhan have made it far enough away for plausible deniability. And this is all just because they're holding hands. It's great.
After the fourth double-take from an unsuspecting passer-by, Wuxian even starts to swing their joined arms, just feeling really satisfied with the success of their plan, Lan Zhan’s company, and life in general.
“So how was class today?” he asks, remembering vaguely that Lan Zhan had once mentioned having a morning Law and Society lecture to deliver before baby kungfu (“Junior kungfu,” Lan Zhan corrects him mildly and Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Look at them, Lan Zhan, some of them are still having trouble walking straight. They’re babies.”). “Have you shocked your students with the ‘justice is relative’ tale of three Chinese arseholes, yet?”
Lan Zhan sighs.
“That’s not what the case is called,” he says, but his voice is only slightly disapproving, which means that Wuxian is in the clear to continue. And so:
“It should be!” he insists as they turn a corner into the main part of the building. “A dude in Qing Dynasty China dies in a fist-fight, the killer offers to bribe the dude’s dad to pretend it was an accident, the dude’s dad agrees, they both bribe the coroner and the whole thing only unravels when the dude’s brother, the Last Just Man in the Village, comes home! And then,” he continues, voice climbing in indignation, “the judge punishes not only the corrupt arseholes, but also the brother because he was apparently ‘unfilial’!”
He pauses to take a much-needed breath.
“And there’s also something about mortgaging ancestral property,” he adds as an afterthought. “But I think I’ve forgotten how that connects to the rest of it.”
“Justice requires context,” Lan Zhan says, with the serenity of a bodhisattva.
“What kind of context,” Wuxian half-splutters, “explains giving part of a corrupt man’s punishment to his son, whose commitment to justice was the only reason the corruption was exposed?!”
“You’ve been influenced by Western concepts of individuality and freedom from State control,” Lan Zhan observes, no less calmly (although if he thinks Wuxian hasn’t noticed the corner of his mouth curving upward, he’s lying to himself).
“I know you think the outcome is unfair, too,” Wuxian says, giving Lan Zhan some serious side-eye.
“I, too, have been influenced,” Lan Zhan agrees, blissfully unconcerned.
Wuxian is laugh-shouting his offence when Lan Xichen and Jiang Yanli approach them from the opposite direction and Wuxian stops short, internally kicking himself for not being able to trot out an explanation he'd prepared earlier. Passing acquaintances are one thing, but their nearest and dearest are not going to just make their assumptions and leave.
He’s wondering if he should just let them in on the secret too, when Yanli-jiejie spots their linked hands and starts clapping delightedly.
“Oh, A-Xian!” she exclaims, smiling brightly, and Wuxian smiles uncertainly back. While she’s usually happy to see him, he has no idea what he could have done recently to make her this happy.
“Finally! I’m so happy for you both!”
Finally? Wuxian wonders, but his train of thought is cut off by Lan Xichen’s more muted - but no less delighted - smile.
“We all knew it was coming, but to be honest, I thought it would take you two at least another year,” he comments ruefully. “I shouldn’t have had such low expectations of you - I apologise.”
Wuxian glances at Lan Zhan, who has elegantly sidestepped the need to invent appropriate reactions to shocking comments by virtue of years spent conditioning the people around him to expect no reactions. Wuxian is passionately jealous.
It all feels, he thinks, eyes narrowing as he watches Lan Xichen have some sort of further speech-nod exchange with his brother, like two very different sets of exchanges are going on here, and that he’s privy to neither of them.
(Maybe Lan Zhan has already told his brother about the entire plan? That would certainly explain why Lan Xichen is playing along instead of subjecting them to a cordially brutal round of suspect interrogation. Which is great - Wuxian has absolutely no problem with Lan Xichen being in the know, but he probably should have thought to check beforehand.)
“So when can we expect to see you at a family dinner?” Lan Xichen asks, turning to Wuxian.
“Oh yes, and you with us, too, Wangji!” Yanli-jiejie says. “Mother and Father would love the chance to get to know you.”
“Uh,” Wuxian hedges awkwardly, smiling and hoping that it’s somehow convincing. “It’s a little new right now, so is it all right if we take a raincheck? Until we’ve had a bit more time to settle in?”
To his slight confusion (but great relief), both Lan Xichen and Yanli-jiejie seem to take his tenuous excuse at face value, and even go so far as to smile at him indulgently - possibly because they have a committee meeting to be getting to, possibly because Yanli-jiejie is a trusting older sister whom he should feel bad about deceiving.
“I just want to say that I’m happy for you, too,” Lan Xichen tells Wuxian warmly in parting. “But if you ever even think about hurting my brother, please keep in mind that they’ll never find your body.”
His face doesn’t shift one bit from its usual expression of gentle benevolence.
It’s mildly terrifying.
“So you told your brother about what we were doing?” Wuxian asks Lan Zhan after their siblings leave. “How did you convince him to play along?”
“No,” Lan Zhan says, shaking his head and looking mildly puzzled at the line of questioning. “I didn’t tell him anything.”
“Huh,” Wuxian says. "That’s - a bit weird, then."
He frowns, but then quickly decides that he shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth and sets off down the hall again, pulling Lan Zhan along with their still-joined hands.
“Well, whatever. Let’s go eat. I’m going to be so lovey-dovey to you that even your ancestors will be embarrassed.”