in gusu, there is a story about the most beautiful man in the world... and the wager he makes to give his hand in marriage.

being from yunmeng, wwx doesn't hear a word about this story until his aimless wandering brings him to the outskirts of caiyi town.
wwx had left lotus pier with the flimsy excuse that he wanted to "find himself." but in actuality the tension in the jiang household was nearing its peak, and wwx couldn't bear to contribute to it any longer.

his siblings are heartbroken (jyl) and angry (jc) when they find out.
so with a bag of food and money from his sister, a punch and a rough hug from his brother, and an extracted promise to both of them to return home within a year, wwx starts on his journey on foot.
(he could use his sword to fly, but where would the adventure in that be?)
wwx decides to head east first, since he's never seen the ocean before. and to make the trip a little easier, he also haggles in the first town outside of lotus pier for a donkey.

an ill-tempered, stubborn donkey, but wwx affectionately calls her "little apple" anyway.
and wwx travels and travels and travels, dirtying the hems of his robes and earning food, shelter, or coin in exchange for performing various odd jobs.

so by the time he steps foot in caiyi, wwx is financially comfortable to spend a night in an inn without working for it.
the palate in gusu is much milder than the fare he's used to in yunmeng, but the flavors are still very good. he thinks about how some wine would pair perfectly with the remainder of his dishes, and after mulling it over, he decides to splurge on a jar of emperor's smile.
wwx is pleasantly full and feeling warm and sleepy when the whispers first reach his ears.

"—almost had it that time! it's too damn fast."

"gods of course it is, are you stupid? a spiritual animal belonging to hanguang-jun can't be caught that easily."
needless to say, wwx is intrigued.

"excuse me, gentlemen," wwx asks, swiveling around and breaking into their conversation. "i'm a visitor to this area, and i know nothing about the local stories. would you mind entertaining this humble servant for a while?"
they spill the story immediately.

"you'll know who he is when you see him," the first man assures. "a cool beauty like hanguang-jun is unmistakable."

"and unattainable," the second grumbles. "he has too high standards for marriage. he'll be alone forever if he keeps this up."
wwx frowns at his disparaging comment, but keeps silent as they continue their story.

hanguang-jun's supposedly "high standards" turns out to be only one standard—he will only marry the person who cam retrieve the key to his home, which can be found around his rabbit's neck.
they both assure him of the task's deceiving simplicity.

"but that seems easy enough," wwx muses, thinking about all the animals he's trapped back in lotus pier. "what's taking everybody so long?"
"it's clever," insists the first man. "chasing it doesn't work. bait doesn't work. it chews through traps in an instant."

"there's got to be another way," wwx says, already thinking about how to successfully trap an untrappable rabbit. "something you're not thinking about."
but the other man sniffs. "if you think you're intelligent enough to do it, then be my guest. i'm sure you'll only fail like the rest of us."

and wwx does.

fail, that is.
it's an intentional failure, though.

he doesn't see any point in catching a stranger's pet just to marry him. wwx doesn't even know who hanguang-jun is!!

(and also, jc would actually murder wwx if he showed up at lotus pier after a year with a brand-new husband in tow.)
the next morning though, wwx has put all his thoughts about hanguang-jun—and his rabbit—out of his mind. he has much more pressing matters to attend to.

after a quick breakfast for both little apple and himself (and paying for another night at the inn), they continue east.
the scent of the sea grows stronger the farther they travel. the mountainous terrain surrounding gusu is so much different compared to yunmeng's marshes, but it's still beautiful nonetheless.

after an hour or so, he hears the sound of the waves tumbling against the cliffs.
wwx spends a while sitting on the cliff's edge, sketchbook in hand as he draws. "we should come back someday," he says aloud, glancing at little apple. "shijie and jiang cheng would like it here."

little apple doesn't reply, of course, but her ear twitches as if she did.
by the time the sun is sinking past the horizon, wwx has drawn all he can. he's disappointed that he didn't get the chance to find a path down to the water yet, but he's determined to try again tomorrow.
the sky is completely dark by the time he drags himself back to town, and he's starving.

wwx also realizes that his savings aren't enough to buy a full meal if he wants to stay at the inn tomorrow night as well, and he resigns himself to putting off his plans to see the ocean.
there must be people around here who are in need of a cultivator's help, he thinks, trading a few coins for a box of dumplings. he'll have to ask around.

maybe he can use tomorrow to explore town as well.
"good luck!" the vendor says as he hands wwx the food, and wwx nearly drops it in surprise at his next words. "you'll need all your strength to catch hanguang-jun's rabbit."

"ah uncle, i'm not here for that," wwx laughs, remembering last night's talk. "i'm just passing through!"
when he's lying in bed, wwx thinks about how hanguang-jun's beauty MUST be exaggerated. no one man could have the power to make an entire town chase a rabbit just for the opportunity to marry him!
it's ridiculous, yet wwx is still interested in seeing hanguang-jun's face at least once.

just to see what the commotion about him is. really.
and that's how wwx finds himself within caiyi town's busy marketplace the next day, staring in awe at the white-robed man gliding down the street.

even if he didn't hear the murmurs about this man being hanguang-jun, wwx definitely would've figured this out on his own.
wwx was told this man was worth chasing a rabbit for, but after seeing him—now he can understand the appeal.

but do they even know who he is? wwx wonders, watching the broad line of hanguang-jun's become smaller and smaller in the distance. no one has even approached him!
wwx runs to catch up with him, falling into step. he still has no interest in catching the rabbit or marrying hanguang-jun, but maybe they can be friends!

"i made a friend in gusu," he imagines himself telling jyl and jc. "you won't believe how beautiful he is!"
"hi, i'm wei ying, courtesy wuxian!" wwx introduces himself, grinning when hgj's heavy gaze slides slightly down (down? wwx is shorter??) to face him. and wwx is only dazed for a moment before he continues, "i'm from lotus pier, in yunmeng."

hgj only blinks at him.
ah, fuck it. "you're hanguang-jun, right?" wwx asks, diving right in, and hgj returns his eyes back to the road ahead.

"mn. lan zhan, courtesy wangji." and he says nothing else.

wwx purses his lips. "i'm only visiting, but we should be friends while i'm here," he tries.
lwj glances back down at him, flinty-eyed. "i will not marry you," he finally says, and wwx gapes. "the same rules apply to everyone, whether they are visitors or not."

for the first time in his life, wwx is utterly speechless.
then: "well, then i won't marry you!" wwx bursts out. "i wasn't even trying to—i just want to be your friend!"

wwx suddenly notices that they've walked out of town, and stopped at the base of a mountain. lwj's expression is still as impassive as ever.
but wwx is stubborn, and an expert in smashing through awkward, angry silences thanks to jc.

"you're not going to get rid of me that easily, lan zhan," wwx says, taking a risk, and delights in the smallest fracture in lwj's composed features.
"come with me to the ocean tomorrow morning," he continues. "i'm still trying to find a path down, but i'm sure you can help me since you live near here!"

lwj still says nothing in reply, yet offers a small incline of his head before sweeping away and walking up the mountain.
that was weird, wwx decides. he doesn't know if lwj will even show up tomorrow, but at least he tried!

as he's walking back to caiyi town, wwx thumbs over the remaining coins he has left in his pouch. he really should be finding some work to do if he's going to stay longer.
but as it turns out, there's a cultivation sect that oversees the territory within gusu, so wwx has no hope of finding work with them around.

luckily, the inn he's staying at allows him to work there in exchange for staying in his room, and even gives him a small wage as extra.
when he unties little apple from her post the next day, wwx isn't surprised that lwj didn't show up. what he IS surprised by though, is the white, floppy-eared bunny perched on little apple's saddle.

"hi there," wwx says cautiously. "you're not—lan zhan's rabbit, are you?"
the bunny only twitches its tiny nose and tilts its head adorably. there's also a key attached to a chain around its neck, nearly hidden in the thick fur.'s lwj's rabbit.

wwx sighs. "you can sit there if you'd like," he tells it, "but we're gonna have to share the space."
wwx is mildly disappointed that he's spending his morning with a donkey and a bunny, rather than a donkey and a beautiful man, but he appreciates the company nonetheless.

"up you go," he says, nestling the bunny in his free arm as he holds little apple's reins with the other.
based on the stories he's heard about how difficult the rabbit is to catch, wwx begins to wonder if they were all exaggerated.

it's actually surprisingly docile as little apple takes them back to the sea. the most movement he sees from it at all is the occasional ear flick.
as they travel, wwx pets the spot between the rabbit's ears, marveling at how soft the fur is.

"i guess you don't know how to get down to the water," he says, gently scratching its neck, and it freezes when his fingers nudge the chain. wwx moves back up to its ears. "sorry."
wwx does eventually find a pathway down, carved in the cliff face a few li down, and grins.

"lucky rabbit," he says, tapping its nose.

the rabbit sneezes.
the rabbit seems content to stay in wwx's arms as long as he doesn't touch the key around its neck, and wwx is completely fine with that.

"has your hanguang-jun ever brought you here?" wwx wonders, watching the rabbit turn its head to face the shore.
"he must have," he muses, "if he trusts you so much with the key to the rest of his life."

once they reach the shore, wwx deposits lwj's bunny back onto the saddle.

"i'm just going in the water, so don't go anywhere," he orders, shaking his finger at the two animals.
after one last glance around to make sure he's alone, wwx strips down to his trousers. he folds his robes in a way his shijie would be proud of, and sets his boots and socks on top of them in a neat pile.

"see you soon!" he chirps, and finds that the bunny has closed its eyes.
hm. maybe it's tired.
the ocean is pretty from a distance, but not so much when wwx is up close and personal. why didn't anyone warn him about how disgustingly salty ocean water is? it's gross! it's nasty! how do people live like this??

(he really has been spoiled by the clean lakes in lotus pier...)
even so, he spends the morning by the sea again, chattering away to both little apple and lwj's bunny as he dries off and continues doodling in his notebook.

"i actually invited lan zhan to come along," wwx says after a while, setting down his brush and lying on his outer robes.
"what a weird guy," he says, scooping the bunny up and placing it on his chest. they stare into each other's eyes. "do you know what he told me? he said, 'i will not marry you' within the first TEN seconds of our meeting. can you believe that?"

the bunny butts against his palm.
"okay, okay, so maybe i was a little forceful," wwx concedes, stroking its fur. "jiang cheng—my brother—always tells me that i never think before i start 'talking at people' and i guess that's true? but STILL," he insists, restarting his rant, "what do people even see in him??"
"he's so rude and probably incredibly dull and boring—ow!" the bunny had nipped at his fingers, and wwx pulls them away with a quiet hiss. "you're biased, so you can't say anything," he scolds, "but i really did want to be his friend! i had no interest in marrying him at all."
but wwx also knows that's not completely true. while he does want to befriend lwj because of the story he'd heard, he also still remembers the hushed whispers surrounding lwj as he walked through the streets of caiyi town, his head held high and his eyes fixed on the point ahead.
he remembers how lwj looked like a priceless jade statue come to life—a deity walking among them.

but wwx also remembers how lonely lwj looked, as a strip of solitary white in the golden sun.

the townspeople clearly knew /of/ him, given by how much they gossiped about his life.
but how many have tried to /actually/ know him? how were his many suitors so sure that lwj was the one they were destined to marry?

he'd even rejected wwx much too swiftly to not be practiced—which is why he felt that he had no choice but to safeguard his future with a rabbit.
he admits this to the bunny, who has tilted its head in apparent interest.

"it's sad, now that i'm thinking about it," wwx says, before giving it a smile. "so don't worry, i won't take the key from you unless lan zhan gives it to me himself! both of you will be safe with me."
then wwx laughs. "aiya, thank the gods you can't talk," he says fondly, scratching under its neck. he's careful to avoid the key this time. "it's embarrassing to talk about my feelings! your hanguang-jun is so pretty, after all!"

wwx sighs and sits up, cradling the bunny close.
"i should apologize when i see him next," wwx says. "you can help me if you're around, since i'm sure he won't be happy to see me anytime soon."

but the bunny only blinks, then paws at wwx's inner robes.

"ah, you're right—holding you probably won't make him like me any better."
wwx takes the bunny to the base of the same mountain where he and lwj had parted yesterday.

"be careful," he says, lowering it to the grass. "tell your hanguang-jun that i said hi."

the bunny presses itself into his touch, then zips up the mountain in the space of a heartbeat.
wwx isn't sure how long he's going to stay here in caiyi town. if he's been counting the days correctly, he's been away from lotus pier for just over a month now.

he wonders how he'll be received when (if?) he goes back, and if anything changed while he was gone.
that evening, after helping the innkeepers out with all their responsibilities, wwx wanders outside of town with suibian strapped to his hip.

he runs through the jiang sword forms underneath the moonlight, starting with the basic forms he learned as a child.
his muscles strain uncomfortably as he progresses into the more advanced sets, but he still flows through them even as breathing becomes more difficult.

ah, wwx should've been more diligent with his training while on the road—madam yu would be so disappointed in him.
then wwx is pointing his sword to a spot in the dark even before his mind catches up to what he's done.

"hello?" he calls. he squints, but can only see a white blob in the distance.

"i apologize for startling you," a soft voice says back, and wwx's eyes widen.
"lan zhan?" wwx blurts, lowering his sword as lwj steps into the clearing. "why are you here?"

"you were not at the inn, so i searched for you," he says simply.

"no, but... why are you here?" wwx repeats, emphasizing the last word.
lwj had looked at wwx like he was the scum of the earth just yesterday. what changed his mind?

"it seems that i have misjudged you," lwj replies, lowering himself into a deep bow, and wwx feels himself flush. "i came to apologize."

wwx sheathes his sword as he rushes over.
"ah, please stop bowing," he begs. "apology accepted, okay?"

but there's still a funny feeling in wwx's chest; as the son of a servant, he rarely gets any apologies. so seeing lwj—someone who clearly looks very important—admitting to a fault against him? it's weird, but... nice.
lwj straightens to his full height, and—huh. wwx hadn't paid attention to lwj's eyes before now, and doesn't think he's ever seen an eye color of this shade before. it's pretty.

then embarrassment ripples across lwj's face. oh... wwx had said that aloud, hadn't he.
"your swordplay is excellent," lwj says stiffly, and wwx beams.

"thank you!" he says. "i'm yunmeng jiang's head disciple, so—" he pauses. wait, could he still call himself their head disciple? shijie and jc never mentioned anything about him being struck from the sect records...
(well. he sorts this into the mental pile of "stuff for future wwx to think about.")
"i am part of gusu lan," lwj says, saving wwx from having to explain why he'd cut himself off mid-sentence. "my father is the sect leader."

"lan-gongzi then?" wwx asks, but lwj shakes his head.

"i am the second brother."

"lan-er-gongzi! er-gege?"

"wei ying," lwj says, pained.
wwx grins. "so you do remember my name."

"of course. i am not so forgetful," he says, and wwx grows indignant when he realizes he's being teased. then lwj looks up at the sky. "it is nearly hai shi. i must be going home."

already? he just got here!
"spar with me tomorrow," wwx says, hand shooting out to grasp lwj's wrist when he turns to leave. "i haven't faced off against a proper opponent in ages."

lwj nods. "i will be here at this time."

when lwj is nearly out of his sight, wwx cups his hands around his mouth.
"and take better care of your bunny!" he yells. "i'd kidnapped it all morning, you know!"

"i do know," lwj calls back, his voice still managing to sound soft even as he raises it. "thank you for placing him in your care."

wwx laughs. "you're so weird," he says to himself, fond.
he begins a letter before bed that night, addressed to jiang yanli and jiang wanyin of lotus pier. he writes:

[shijie! jiang cheng! i'm currently in caiyi town, in gusu territory. i'll be staying here for a while, so please send me a letter or two if you can!

(and some money!)]
[also, have you heard of the gusu lan sect? i met their er-gongzi here and i thought he was so rude at first, but i think we're becoming friends! he's probably just shy.

he also has a rabbit with a key around its neck! listen to THIS story...]
wwx continues writing, telling them about everything he's seen and slipping a few of his drawings (of the ocean, lwj's rabbit, the buildings in caiyi town) into the letter as well.

then he signs:

[keep me updated on everything at home! missing you lots!
- a-xian]
wwx is almost thankful for the amount of the work he's given the next day, keeping him distracted enough from the thought of meeting lwj later.

"a-ying, take these water buckets to room three, won't you?"

"go to the restaurant—a-hui's bound to be overwhelmed with orders soon."
then at the end of the lunch rush, wwx is at the inn's front door, humming quietly as he sweeps fallen leaves from the steps. then he hears the shouting.

his head snaps up at the commotion, and he squints as he watches a group of people race across one of the nearby bridges.
then another group runs up to block off the other end of the bridge, leaving only a small space between the two crowds.

he thinks, wildly, maybe it's some sort of tradition here? but that thought is quickly discarded when the group stationed closest to the inn falls into chaos.
"catch it!" someone screams.

"it" turns out to be a small white blur, zooming down the street and leaping between countless legs and slow-reaching hands.

and it veers right towards wwx.
"oh, xiao-tuzi!" he says, surprised when he suddenly finds his arms full of tiny, wriggly bunny. the broom clatters to the ground. "what are you doing here?"

the bunny burrows into wwx's robes, mostly hidden from sight except for the obvious lump.

"i'll hide you," he promises.
"hanguang-jun's rabbit?" wwx asks, feigning ignorance when the group of people eventually makes its way in his direction. he keeps his back to them and looks over his shoulder; he can feel the bunny's little body shake against his chest. "i think it went down that way!"
they thank him, then leave.

"all gone," wwx whispers, loosening his robes as the bunny pokes its head out, nose twitching. "and go home! why do you keep going outside if people are trying to catch you?" he sighs. "what is your hanguang-jun doing by letting you go into town?"
but the bunny doesn't move, seemingly content to stay put in wwx's robes.

wwx rubs the back of his neck. "ahh, i guess you can stay with me while i work? that way, we can go see lan zhan together tonight."

so wwx goes about the rest of his day with a tiny bunny in his clothing.
no one calls him out on it for some reason, so wwx uses this to catch xiao-tuzi up on everything that had gone on since they were last together. a short summary includes:

- his letter to lotus pier
- the spicy meat stew he had for lunch earlier ("it wasn't rabbit, i promise!")
- his planned spar with lwj tonight ("he's not as bad as i thought! i didn't get a chance to say sorry to him, but i think that's all behind us now. also i'm sure you know this already, but his eyes are the prettiest color—")
- and his plans to still drag lwj to the ocean someday
wwx gives xiao-tuzi a soft scratch between the ears, smiling when he sees its eyes drifting shut.

"you definitely had too much excitement for one day," he says. "lan zhan is probably wondering where you are."

wwx extracts the bunny from his robes, and places it on his bed.
"you can stay here and sleep," he says. "i'll just bring lan zhan over when we're finished instead, so that way you'll be together when going home!"

xiao-tuzi relaxes into the blankets.

"i'll tell him to watch over you more carefully too," wwx whispers.
"the key to your heart isn't something you give to just anyone."
when wwx walks back into his room hours later to retrieve his sword, he discovers that lwj's rabbit is gone. there's still a small indentation from where he'd left it, and the window is slightly ajar.

wwx wonders if he should be worried, but it's more likely it left on its own.
and besides, wwx's room is 1) locked, and 2) on the second floor. no one could've seen xiao-tuzi.

wwx waves goodbye to the innkeepers as he bounds down the steps, suibian attached to his hip once again. he doesn't necessarily /run/ through the streets leading to the clearing,
but it's a near thing.

wwx's blood buzzes with excitement. he hopes this will be a fun spar—he noticed last night how lwj had carried himself like a seasoned cultivator, and the spark of qi he'd felt when they touched was surprisingly strong.
lwj is already there when wwx stumbles into the clearing, and wwx takes a small moment to admire how nice his silhouette looks in the starlight.

lwj is just standing still, his white robes and white ribbon tails shimmering as the wind swirls by. his sword gleams by his side.
i want to paint this, wwx suddenly thinks, trying to preserve the scene in his memory. then lwj turns, and wwx breaks into a grin.

"lan zhan!" he says. "i'm not late, am i? i couldn't get away fast enough!"

lwj shakes his head. "you are fine," he says.
then wwx remembers: "wait, lan zhan. i found your rabbit in town earlier today. is it back home now?"

"he is," lwj confirms, and wwx sighs deeply.

"good. that's—good."

"i must thank you for taking care of him again today," lwj says. "i know he can be... troublesome."
wwx huffs. "i can't believe someone as righteous as you can be so irresponsible. this wouldn't be happening if you stop letting him get outside!"

"mn. i will keep this in mind next time," lwj says. there's the smallest uptick in the curve of his lips.
wwx is thrown slightly off-balance. "good," he says again, mollified. "you do that—i won't always be here to defend your virtue!"

"i am grateful for wei ying's generosity," lwj says solemnly. "my rabbit is grateful as well."
"next time i see him outside, i'll just keep him with me!" wwx threatens. "just you watch."

"he will still make his way back home. your room was very easy to escape from."

wwx squints. "how do you know that?" then realization dawns on him. "wait... can xiao-tuzi actually talk?"
lwj shifts. "...only to me," he says.

wwx freezes. "oh! he hasn't—uh. said anything weird to you, right?"

lwj is silent for a moment. "that you miss home," he finally says. "you've talked greatly about your brother and sister. they sound wonderful."
and that launches wwx into a full spiel about jc and jyl, and everything about lotus pier. they end up sitting on a fallen tree as wwx talks (and lwj giving the occasional encouraging noise), their swords forgotten by the wayside.
"what's your home like?" wwx asks when there's a lull in the conversation. "i should've known that there was a main cultivation sect in gusu since it's so large, but i've never heard of the gusu lan sect before."
"we often keep to ourselves," lwj says. "as a sect, we are not very sociable."

"but the townspeople call you hanguang-jun," wwx points out. "a person with a title like 'light-bearing lord' doesn't sound like someone who's unsociable."

"i nighthunt more often than the others."
"so /this/ is why everyone wants to marry you, er-gege," wwx intones. "they witness your combined beauty and prowess and think 'ah, this man must be my husband.'"

"ridiculous," lwj tells him, turning his face away.
wwx grins. "i'm complimenting you! i know we still don't know each other that well, but i think you're very good. and your rabbit is good, too—even if he keeps telling you all the things i told him in confidence."

then wwx's eyes catch on their forgotten swords.
"shit, we never did get around to our spar tonight," he realizes, disappointed. "it's late for you, isn't it?"

lwj nods, looking apologetic. "it is almost curfew," he says.

wwx wants to curl up into a ball. "ahh, it's my fault. i distracted us. sorry."
lwj shakes his head. "there is no need to apologize. i enjoyed my time here with you." then he glances at their swords. "it is rare for me to get the chance to speak so freely with another person."

wwx huffs out a laugh. "then i'm glad this wasn't a total waste of time."
lwj nods. "and if you would like, i am available in two days' time to meet again," he promises, rising to his feet. "i was also looking forward to experiencing your swordsmanship for myself."

wwx grins. "yunmeng jiang's maybe head disciple vs. gusu lan's er-gongzi? you're on!"
and before he knows it, wwx settles into a routine.

he works at the inn, writes and receives letters from home, finds xiao-tuzi in increasingly odd places, and meets lwj whenever he can.

and much to his delight, lwj is an excellent fighter—their first spar ends in a draw.
and during this time, the townspeople have begun to notice the tiny bunny that frequently appears around wwx's person.

they are also shocked to see the little key swaying from the bunny's neck, marking it as hanguang-jun's.
"an outsider," they whisper, "easily finding favor with hanguang-jun's beloved pet!"

"you just like me because i feed you and talk to you," wwx tells xiao-tuzi later, dangling a piece of lettuce from his fingers. the bunny, disappointingly, does not rise to the bait.
wwx places the lettuce strip on the plate and xiao-tuzi nibbles at it delicately.

he pulls his knees to his chest. "this should be lan zhan's job," wwx comments, running his hand over the bunny's back as he eats. "poor xiao-tuzi, not getting enough attention from your master."
the bunny sits back on his bottom, ears flopping. his nose twitches as he stares soulfully into wwx's eyes. he laughs.

"shijie and jiang cheng said to come home in their last letter," wwx says, picking xiao-tuzi up and placing him on his knees.
"ah, i guess i never told you why i left," he says, tugging gently on the bunny's ears. "i've already told lan zhan about my family, but not everything."

over time, wwx has grown to realize that xiao-tuzi, much like lan zhan, is a very good listener.
even though he knows he's going back, he regrets leaving sometimes. wwx owes the jiang sect everything—his life, his cultivation—and he'd repaid them by abandoning them without warning. how unfilial.

"do you really think things have changed?" wwx murmurs. "i've been selfish."
xiao-tuzi headbutts his hand and trills, almost sounding angry, and wwx laughs wetly. "i don't want to talk about this anymore if that's okay. we should talk about more fun things! like lan zhan!"

the bunny places a paw on his wet cheek.
"he's just so good, you know? even /if/ he keeps letting you outside the cloud recesses," wwx says, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. "ah, xiao-tuzi, xiao-tuzi. i hope someone worthy of him catches you soon. he deserves only the best."
wwx lowers himself on his back, feeling strangely sentimental. "do you think he'd come see me at lotus pier even after he's married?" he asks, watching xiao-tuzi sit on his chest. xiao-tuzi bats at the key around his neck and gets one of his paws tangled in the chain.
without a second thought, wwx touches the chain to free xiao-tuzi's paw—and his eyes widen when he realizes xiao-tuzi had /let him./

"no. i can't take this," wwx says, jerking his hand away. "lan zhan deserves to marry someone better than me! i know we've become friends, but—!"
xiao-tuzi disappears in a puff of blue smoke, and is immediately replaced with a /much/ heavier weight. a few locks of soft, dark hair fall onto wwx's face. the key drops into his line of vision.

and when the smoke clears, wwx is staring straight into lwj's familiar gold eyes.
lwj speaks first. "wei ying," he says, looking and sounding painfully earnest.

"lan zhan," wwx whispers, barely managing to find his voice. "you... you're xiao-tuzi?"

lwj nods. "the inner family of gusu lan has always had the ability to shapeshift," he says.
"it's a secret we've guarded for generations."

then they both sit up, their knees touching. without thinking, wwx reaches out, and lwj holds his hands tight.

"lan zhan," wwx asks helplessly. "i don't understand."
"i had never wished to marry anyone before meeting you," lwj says quietly. "i created this challenge so that i would be left alone, and did not allow a single person to catch me." lwj tightens his grip.

"but you let me pick you up that first day," wwx remembers.
"you never reached for my key," lwj says simply. "and you were kind."

then he lets go of wwx's hands and reaches behind his neck, unclasping the chain. he holds out the key. "you do not have to say yes," lwj continues. "but my heart has been yours for a very long time."
wwx looks at the key. looks at lan zhan.

"my duty is to yunmeng jiang first," wwx says, listening to his mind first even as his heart screams to say otherwise. "lan zhan—i can't abandon them again."

and lwj nods. "that is acceptable," he says, pressing the key into wwx's palm.
wwx startles. "no, lan zhan—i can't!" he insists, trying to give the key back, but lwj only closes wwx's fingers over the key.

"i hear lotus pier is beautiful this time of year," lwj says, his expression soft. "i would like to see the world outside of gusu."
wwx's heart thumps against his chest.

"will you show me?" lwj asks, smiling tenderly.

one second passes. then two. a smile begins to bloom on wwx's face after the third.

by the fifth, wwx has already launched himself into lwj's arms.
"i'll show you everything!" wwx gasps, laughing tearfully as lwj holds him close. "lan zhan, you'll love lotus pier so much!"

and wwx's heart sings as lwj says, his voice full of love—

"i will be with wei ying, so i have no doubt that i will."

thank you so so so much to everyone for hanging out with me over these past few days and cheering me on as i wrote this! ;w; i'm also definitely planning on polishing this up and fixing all the odd pacing and making it an Actual Fic +
so be on the lookout for that whenever it happens! :D

(also this whole thing is 5.7k!! what the heck!!! how did this happen!!!)

and lastly, a few ending notes below!!
- lwj later takes wwx to meet his family, who are also rabbit shapeshifters. it's a little. weird to see so many rabbits dotting the fields in the cloud recesses. wwx constantly has to ask which ones are Actually bunnies and which ones are human
- lqr is a little suspicious of the boy his straight-laced nephew has been gallivanting around with for the past month, but he's just glad that lwj's weird "thing" re: his marriage is finally over
- when wangxian gets to lotus pier, jc immediately tackles wwx into the water
- jyl, expecting this, is ready with a dry robe. lwj's opinion of her—which was already high bc of how much wwx loves her—skyrockets
- jfm welcomes wwx back with open arms, but it takes a few tongue-lashings and several hours kneeling in the ancestral hall for yzy to accept him
- wwx suspects that the only reason yzy wasn't harsher is bc he and lwj are courting
- wangxian do eventually get married!!! there are several arguments over where to hold the ceremony, and so they decide to have two of them—one in lotus pier, and one in the cloud recesses
- they split their time evenly bt yunmeng and gusu, and have plots of land under their name in each territory
- and ofc, they later adopt a son c: (and several additional children after that!)

- everything is good, and they've never been happier đź’ž
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