“Did you hear? The honorable Hanguang-jun is to be married!”
“What! He is? To who?”
“That’s the thing. Even he doesn’t know.”
“How is that possible? Is it an arranged marriage?”
“No. A notice was distributed a few days ago. Hanguang-jun will marry the one who presents themself at the Cloud Recesses with his forehead ribbon tied around their wrist.”
“Isn’t that obvious? Only the betrothed can touch a ribbon of the Gusu Lan Sect.”
“But listen to this: the ribbon is tied around the neck of one of Hanguang-jun’s rabbits. I heard that four of the finest cultivators in the country arrived at the Cloud Recesses yesterday to catch that rabbit, but all of them failed. Can you imagine? Four of the finest cultivators! The rabbit is simply too quick and clever.”
“Really? Well, Hanguang-jun wouldn’t settle for just anyone. They have to be even more quick and clever to pass the test. Oh, this is exciting! I wonder who will catch that rabbit…”
“You and me both.”
🐇 🐇 🐇
Wei Ying blinks at the parchment his brother unceremoniously shoved onto his lap. “What’s this?”
Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and juts his chin out at the parchment. “Read it.”
Bemused, Wei Ying begins to skim the elegant characters. His eyes are as wide as moons by the time he gets to the end.
“Was this Lan Zhan’s idea?” he asks, gingerly rolling up the parchment.
His brother shrugs. “I don’t know. I assumed he would tell you. Aren’t you two close?”
Close… Yes, Wei Ying is close to Lan Zhan. Close enough to know if Lan Zhan is amused or angry or tired just by the quirk of his mouth and the hunch of his shoulders. Close enough to know that the cloudy look that passes over Lan Zhan’s face at the mention of marriage is because he’s thinking about his parents. Close enough to know the soft spot Lan Zhan has for bunnies and children.
But not close enough to know about this marriage contest, apparently.
Wei Ying had thought, foolishly, that the second Jade of Lan would never marry. He knows, of course, that Lan Zhan is the most eligible bachelor around. But after Lan Xichen’s joyous wedding to a lovely and respectable cultivator from an eastern clan, Wei Ying had assumed that Lan Zhan is free from all expectations to marry. He had imagined pestering the other man for the rest of their lives, and now…
Lan Zhan will have a wife. Granted, whoever she is will have to catch the bunny first, but Wei Ying knows the day will come. His stomach twists uncomfortably at the thought.
Jiang Cheng frowns at the despondent look on his brother’s face. “Did you really not know?”
Wei Ying shakes his head, suddenly too miserable to speak.
Jiang Cheng sighs, and his scowl loosens as he begrudgingly pats Wei Ying on the back. There is a hint of pity in his eyes when he says, “I’m sorry.”
🐇 🐇 🐇
Lan Zhan looks as beautiful and stoic as ever when Wei Ying goes to visit him. The lack of forehead ribbon isn’t as jarring as Wei Ying thought it would be.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying calls, waving an arm excitedly. His heart still hurts at the knowledge that Lan Zhan will soon be married, but he resolves to continue to treat the other man as he usually does. Anyway, he is actually happy to see Lan Zhan. He always is.
It’s normal, Wei Ying thinks to himself, for a man to be sad when his closest friend is getting married. I won’t be able to spend as much time with Lan Zhan when he has a wife, so I have to annoy him as much as I can now.
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan’s eyes flick over the large trunks that Wei Ying is lugging behind him.
Wei Ying blushes. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I know it’s short notice, but I was hoping to stay with you for a while,” he says sheepishly. “It’s just— I haven’t seen you in a long time, and I— I missed you.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes soften.
“I should’ve asked, I know. I’m sorry for bothering you.”
“Not bothering,” Lan Zhan says. He inclines his head at the small group of servants who followed him outside, and a few immediately come forward to take Wei Ying’s luggage.
“No, no, I can carry them myself,” Wei Ying protests, but Lan Zhan gives him a reproachful look.
“It’s fine,” Lan Zhan says, then begins walking towards the gates of the Cloud Recesses. Wei Ying quickly falls into step beside him.
There is a bustling crowd in front of the gates. Most of them are clearly well-traveled cultivators judging by the renowned sect seals on their robes and formidable swords at their sides. They burst into restless murmurs when they catch sight of Lan Zhan.
Wei Ying tugs nervously on the sleeve of the other man’s robe. “Lan Zhan, are all of those people here just to catch the bunny?”
Lan Zhan’s expression does not change, but Wei Ying sees his lips thin in annoyance. “Mm.”
“Is it really alright for me to be here?” Wei Ying asks, unable to keep the worry out of his voice.
They pass through, and the servants, observing the lateness of the day, prepare to close the gates. Lan Zhan pauses and turns to Wei Ying. The tips of his ears are tinged an adorable pink.
“Mm.” He hesitates. “Wei Ying. I missed you too.”
Wei Ying can’t help the smile that blooms on his face.
🐇 🐇 🐇
Wei Ying tries his best not to bring up the contest, but after seeing the crowd, it’s all he can think about. He pokes at his congee, which is gloriously red thanks to the spices Lan Zhan graciously requested. For some reason, he can’t seem to work up an appetite.
He looks up. “Hm?”
Lan Zhan is staring at him, eyebrows minutely furrowed. “Is it… not to your taste?”
“Oh!” Wei Ying shoves a heaping spoonful of congee in his mouth. “Ish goob!”
Lan Zhan snorts and eats a much more conservative spoonful of his bland-looking congee.
Wei Ying chews thoughtfully. Huh. Lan Zhan broke the “no talking during meals” rule to ask him if the food was alright.
Maybe he’s practicing for long, romantic conversations with his future wife, Wei Ying thinks unhappily. Surely if Lan Zhan was eating with a woman he loved, a woman more prestigious and interesting than the likes of Wei Ying, he would talk to her during meals.
“What do you think your wife will be like?” Wei Ying asks, propping his chin on his palm.
Lan Zhan stops chewing. “Wife,” he says dully.
“Yeah! You know, the lady who’ll catch your bunny? Who thought of that, by the way?”
Lan Zhan takes another bite of congee and pointedly ignores him.
Wei Ying pouts. “Fine, fine. No talking during meals.”
They eat in silence, and by the time Lan Zhan stands to clear their bowls, Wei Ying is practically vibrating with anticipation.
“Come on, Lan Zhan! I had to find out about all this from Jiang Cheng,” he stresses, tugging again on Lan Zhan’s robes. He clutches his chest dramatically. “I thought you and I were friends! Tell me what’s going on before I die of a broken heart!”
Lan Zhan averts his eyes. “Uncle said that it was about time for me to find a cultivation partner. I… did not necessarily agree,” he says carefully. “The compromise was the competition.”
Wei Ying blinks, then howls with laughter, startling Lan Zhan.
“So this is your way of making sure that you’re not getting married any time soon, huh? Your bunnies are all too fast for those hotshot cultivators,” he says gleefully.
Lan Zhan’s lips tilt up at the ends, just a little. It could almost pass for a smile. “Mm.”
“But Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying starts with a poorly concealed frown, “someone is bound to catch the bunny eventually. I heard that even some of your uncle’s students are scheming for your hand in marriage. You’re far too popular for this peace to last.”
Now Lan Zhan is definitely smiling. He looks so handsome it nearly takes Wei Ying’s breath away.
“They won’t catch me.”
‘Me’?, Wei Ying wonders, but the sound of a door opening distracts him.
Lan Xichen dips his head respectfully. “It’s good to see you, Wei-gongzi. How is the Yunmeng Jiang sect? I heard that your brother is doing a fine job as Sect Leader.”
“Oh, yeah, he’s great,” Wei Ying replies with a wave of his hand. “Not letting me start any fires and putting out the ones I already made. It’s a lot of work, but he’s adjusting well.”
“Is that so,” Lan Xichen says, voice laced with amusement. “Well, it’s wonderful to see you. I heard that you’ll be staying a while, so please, make yourself at home. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need anything.”
His eyes take on a mischievous glint. “Ah, Wei-gongzi. What do you think of Wangji’s competition?”
“Brother,” Lan Zhan says warningly.
Wei Ying shrugs. “I don’t like that Lan Zhan is being pressured into marriage, but I do hope that he gets a cultivation partner who’s at least half as wonderful as he is. He deserves to be happy.”
Lan Zhan clears his throat. The tips of his ears are pink again. Wei Ying quite likes the look. It’s cute.
Lan Xichen smiles and says, “I daresay that your words are already coming true, Wei-gongzi.”
Wei Ying gasps. “Lan Zhan! You have your eye on someone?”
Lan Zhan resolutely closes his eyes.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying wheedles, “tell me, which woman stole your heart?”
Lan Xichen tilts his head. “Oh. He wasn’t in love with a woman, the last time I checked,” he says blithely.
Wei Ying’s heart stops in his chest. Lan Zhan is in love with a man. He’s in love with a man, and that man isn’t…
“Haha, well, anyone would be lucky to be loved by the great Hanguang-jun,” Wei Ying manages, forcing a smile. “Lan Zhan, where did you say my room was? I think I’m gonna go to bed.”
Lan Zhan frowns. “The sun hasn’t even set.”
Wei Ying fakes a loud yawn. “But I’ve been traveling for days! I’m sooo tired,” he whines. “Are the Twin Jades of Lan so cruel that they won’t let me sleep?”
Lan Xichen chuckles. “By all means, Wei-gongzi, please get your rest. Wangji and I have some things to discuss, anyway. Sleep well and regain your energy for tomorrow.”
The line of Lan Zhan’s shoulders is tense as he bids Wei Ying good night.
A servant, clearly terrified of being alone with the Yiling Patriarch, trembles as he leads Wei Ying to the prepared room. Wei Ying smiles and thanks him, and the servant squeaks before bowing and running away.
Wei Ying sighs and gets ready for bed. He has only been lying down for a short while before his thoughts race back to Lan Zhan and the competition.
He means what he said to Lan Xichen. He doesn’t like the idea of anyone forcing Lan Zhan to marry against his will, but if the end result is his happiness, then maybe the competition is a good thing. Besides, Wei Ying knows that marriage will come eventually, and he’ll have to prepare himself to be happy for his friend.
Yes! Be happy for Lan Zhan!, he tells himself sternly, but his stomach still feels like it’s filled with lead.
Wei Ying sighs again. Why is he so miserable at the thought of Lan Zhan’s impending marriage? He had told himself he was only sad at the thought of spending less time with his friend, but this passed the threshold of friendship the moment he decided to travel to the Cloud Recesses.
It’s almost like he’s jealous.
He shoots up in bed and glares into the darkness of his room. “I’m not jealous,” he tells the empty air. He drops back down on the bed with an indignant huff.
He can’t be jealous. What’s there to be jealous about? He doesn’t want to get married, even though… even though Lan Zhan clearly does. Who stole the heart of the second Jade of Lan, and does he know how lucky he is? Lan Zhan will probably just give the guy the bunny, and then they’ll kiss (passionately, Wei Ying is sure), and then set a date for the wedding, and Wei Ying will be invited (of course), and he’ll have to watch Lan Zhan gaze at the man with that gentle look in his eyes, the forehead ribbon tied around the wrist of someone who isn’t Wei Ying—
A stinging pain yanks Wei Ying out of his thoughts. He looks down at his hands. His fists are clenched so tightly that a few nails have pierced the skin of his palms.
Wei Ying’s eyes grow hot as he stares at the blood slowly welling up from the cuts. He grits his teeth and blinks the tears away.
Of course. He’s in love with Lan Zhan.
He has half a mind to run outside and find the bunny right now. He’s spent many lazy afternoons playing with the bunnies, and he knows they all trust him enough to not run away from him. He could easily track down the one with the ribbon. In just a few minutes, Lan Zhan would be his.
But the thought leaves a sour taste in Wei Ying’s mouth— even more than the thought of Lan Zhan marrying someone else. He’s disgusted with himself for his selfishness. Lan Zhan loves someone, and that someone isn’t Wei Ying. He has no right to force Lan Zhan, who’s bright and beautiful, upright and honest, to someone like him. He has nothing to offer. Most of the cultivation world still thinks of him as a menace, and aside from his tarnished reputation, Wei Ying is loud and carefree and has done nothing but annoy Lan Zhan since day one. Sure, they’re friends now, but how could Wei Ying saddle Lan Zhan with the burden of binding them together for life?
Wei Ying presses the heels of his hands to his eyes to stop the tears from flowing. He immediately knows that he smeared blood on his cheekbones but can’t bring himself to care. He just realized that he’s in love with his closest friend and it’s too late to do anything about it. He deserves a moment to be a mess.
The blood on his face begins to itch as it dries. Wei Ying hauls himself out of bed in search of water to wash himself with and bandages to wrap his hands.
On his way out, he spots a large white rabbit in the courtyard, illuminated by the last light of the sunset. Wei Ying’s heart pounds. It has Lan Zhan’s forehead ribbon around its neck.
“You!” he hollers before he can stop himself.
The bunny starts trembling.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled,” Wei Ying frets.
He carefully approaches it. The rabbit's large, golden eyes flick up to his face, seemingly examining the blood on his cheeks.
“Oh, don’t worry, I’m not a crazy murderer or anything!” Wei Ying chirps, slowly kneeling in front of the bunny. “I accidentally cut my hands and then touched my face. I’m kind of dumb, you see.”
The bunny’s nose twitches.
“Oho, you think that’s funny?” Wei Ying says, delighted. He cocks his head at the rabbit and laughs when it mirrors his motion. It’s a pristine white, like one of the bunnies Wei Ying gave Lan Zhan all those years ago, but bigger than any bunny he’s ever seen.
“You were almost right outside my room,” Wei Ying says. “It’s like you were guarding me. How cute!”
The rabbit's nose twitches again.
“Not a talker, huh? You’re a lot like your master, you know. But then, you must be tired,” Wei Ying says sympathetically. “You were probably running around all day dodging his suitors.”
He reaches out. The bunny flinches.
“I’m not gonna take your ribbon,” he promises, “and I won’t get blood on you. Your fur just looks so soft. Ah, you’re so cute! No wonder Lan Zhan loves you guys so much.”
He cautiously threads his fingers through the bunny’s fur. It makes no move to escape, so Wei Ying digs his fingers in a little bit more, marveling at its silky softness. Wei Ying’s hand brushes against the ribbon as he strokes its back, and after a moment, it slowly closes its eyes in contentment.
“You’re so cute,” Wei Ying repeats. “You poor thing! You have to spend your days chased by big, bad cultivators.”
He pauses and leans down.
“Bunny,” he says, “promise me that you’ll only let yourself be caught by the man Lan Zhan loves.”
The rabbit opens its eyes and stares solemnly up at him. Wei Ying giggles. Lan Zhan’s bunnies really are too cute.
“I mean it!” he says. “I don’t know who the lucky guy is, but I do know that Lan Zhan deserves to be happy for the rest of his life. And not that A-Yuan is lacking in anything, but you know, if there’s gonna be another father, he deserves one who’s just as capable as Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying nods at the rabbit and pinches one of its paws, wiggling it up and down in a poor imitation of a handshake.
“I trust you, Bunny,” he continues. “You seem to be a good judge of character, seeing as you haven’t let yourself get caught yet. Hold off until you find the man that Lan Zhan loves. Got it?”
The bunny blinks at him.
“Good,” Wei Ying says firmly before bursting out laughing. “Gods, if anyone could hear me right now they’d think I’m insane. You can’t even understand me. But still, Bunny. I trust you.”
The bunny’s ears perk up as it raises its head and looks up into the dark sky. With one final glance at Wei Ying, it scampers away.
Wei Ying stands up and winces as his knees creak. His bad mood is gone, replaced with a mellowing bitterness and a settling resignation. He loves Lan Zhan. He’s probably always loved Lan Zhan. But Lan Zhan doesn’t love him, and that’s okay. Loving Lan Zhan means being happy for him and supporting him through everything. So when the day comes and the bunny is caught, Wei Ying will welcome the person with Lan Zhan’s ribbon tied around their wrist with open arms, and thank them for making Lan Zhan happy when he could not. If that is all he can do for his friend, then he’ll do it gladly. No matter how much it hurts.
Wei Ying grimaces at the pull of the dried blood on his skin. He really should go to the infirmary. Hopefully Wen Qing won’t yell at him.
(She yells at him.)
🐇 🐇 🐇
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!”
The man glances up as Wei Ying rushes towards him, eyes bright with excitement.
“Your bunny! I saw it last night!”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan responds. He looks pointedly down at his food.
Wei Ying pouts. “Okay, fine, I get it, no talking during mealtimes. But seriously, Lan Zhan, you should’ve introduced us yesterday! It’s so cute! Wait, is it a boy or a girl?”
Lan Zhan blinks at him.
Wei Ying giggles. “Bunny did that to me, like, ten times while I was talking to him. He really takes after you, Lan Zhan. Can I say ‘he’? Bunny’s a boy, right? Correct me if I’m wrong. But anyway, did I mention that I talked to Bunny?”
Lan Zhan rolls his eyes upward as if praying to some deity for patience.
The rest of lunch passes in the way that all of their meals do: Wei Ying blabbers on about anything and everything while Lan Zhan fastidiously eats his food.
“I really think it’ll work out, Lan Zhan! I told Bunny to wait for the man you love. He really looked like he understood. If he lets himself get caught by anyone else, I’ll fight him.” Wei Ying sees the affronted look on Lan Zhan’s face and hastily adds, “I’m kidding, of course. I’m not gonna fight a bunny, Lan Zhan. Especially not a bunny as cute as him.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says suddenly.
“Hm? Oh! They’re fine,” Wei Ying says, waving his bandaged hands in the air. “Wen Qing said that I’m way too accident-prone for my own good, and she’s right, of course.”
He isn’t going to tell Lan Zhan that he hurt himself by thinking about the other man’s potential marriage. That would be weird. And a lot of emotional incompetency to unpack right after lunch.
Lan Zhan puts away his dishes and returns to stand next to Wei Ying. He carefully takes one of Wei Ying’s hands in his own, lifting it up to eye level to examine the bandages. His eyes are soft and concerned. Wei Ying feels his face heat up at the gentle attention.
“Be more careful,” Lan Zhan finally says, and lets go of Wei Ying’s hand.
His warmth lingers on Wei Ying’s skin. Wei Ying averts his gaze and wills his heart to calm down.
“You know me, Lan Zhan. I’m so clumsy.” He sheepishly rubs the back of his neck. “Bunny noticed the blood right away too. Well, it was all over my face, so it would be impossible not to see it. I must’ve looked like a demon.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says.
Wei Ying looks up. There’s a strange mixture of fondness and downright exasperation in Lan Zhan’s eyes.
“Wei Ying,” he repeats firmly. “I am the b—”
A-Yuan bounds into the room and throws his arms around Wei Ying. “Senior Wei, you’re back!”
Wei Ying laughs and returns A-Yuan’s fierce hug. The boy— man, honestly, seeing as he’s now almost nineteen— grew up well-mannered but with a playful streak, and hugs everyone as freely as Wei Ying does. Wei Ying likes to think that it’s because of his influence, not Lan Zhan’s, but never voices this out loud.
(Because that would mean he is also A-Yuan’s father, and therefore he and Lan Zhan would be— well. The thought isn’t good for Wei Ying’s heart.)
“I missed you,” A-Yuan says, voice muffled in Wei Ying’s shoulder.
Wei Ying melts. “Oh, A-Yuan. I missed you too.”
A-Yuan pulls back, embarrassed. “Sorry for jumping on you like this, Senior Wei. I’m just so happy to see you,” he mumbles.
“That’s okay,” Wei Ying responds, patting A-Yuan’s cheek. “I am too. You’ve grown so much since the last time I was here. Since when did you get so handsome, hm? You’re practically the third Jade of Lan!”
A-Yuan blushes. “Thank you, Senior Wei.”
After catching up, A-Yuan rushes off, saying he has class. Wei Ying watches him go with a tightness in his chest.
“Our son is all grown up, Lan Zhan,” he finds himself saying.
His eyes widen as he processes his words and he claps a hand over his mouth. Lan Zhan’s lips part very slightly.
“Sorry, sorry,” Wei Ying says hastily, “not our son, of course. Your son, Lan Zhan! You raised him so well. You should be proud.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan says. He coughs. “Wei Ying helped too.”
“Raising him,” Lan Zhan clarifies with another delicate cough. “Our son.”
Wei Ying feels the tightness in his chest again and swallows around the lump in his throat. He would normally be delighted to hear those words, but with his feelings for Lan Zhan, it’s just painful.
“Ah, Lan Zhan, you flatter me,” he manages. “You basically did all the work, haha. Anyway, what should we do today? Should we laugh at the cultivators trying to catch Bunny?”
Wei Ying gestures for the other man to follow him as he makes his way out of the Jingshi, and hears Lan Zhan release a quiet sigh.
What’s on his mind?, he wonders, before catching sight of a group of prowling cultivators.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, look! Those losers are actually here!” he whispers, smacking Lan Zhan’s arm repeatedly to get his attention.
Next to him, Lan Zhan’s lips turn up in a tiny grin.
🐇 🐇 🐇
“...and no matter how hard they looked, they couldn’t find you,” Wei Ying says, cackling.
Bunny is perched on his thigh, ears flat and eyes closed as Wei Ying gently strokes his back.
“You’re clever, aren’t you? Hiding from everyone during the day and only popping up at night when the gates close. Where did you go? I wanted to show Lan Zhan that we’re friends!”
Bunny opens his eyes and stares up at Wei Ying. If animals had the ability to speak, Wei Ying swears that the rabbit would be saying, You’re an idiot.
“Don’t look at me like that, Bunny! How would I know where you stay? I don’t know everything.” Wei Ying sighs. “I wish I did, just for a moment. Then I would know who Lan Zhan loves, and I could convince him to take your ribbon.”
Bunny’s ears flick and his eyes narrow slightly. How can you be so dumb? Wei Ying imagines him saying.
“I told you that I don’t know everything, Bunny! Maybe you know who it is, but I don’t.”
Bunny closes his eyes. Whatever. Just keep petting me. Wei Ying laughs and continues threading his fingers through Bunny’s soft fur.
“I just want Lan Zhan to be happy, you know?” Wei Ying murmurs. “He deserves to be happy more than anyone. He’s been through so much…”
Wei Ying shakes his head. “There’s no use in dwelling on the past, Bunny. I’ve made peace with myself, but I still can’t forget everyone I hurt. I’m lucky that so many people forgave me, I know. But I miss Shijie. A-Ling grew up without parents. Things between me and Jiang Cheng will never be the same. And Lan Zhan… He doesn’t say anything, but your master went through hell because of me. Sometimes I wonder why he still puts up with me after knowing what I’ve done and who I am. It can’t be good for his reputation, after all.”
Wei Ying blinks. The rabbit is trembling under his hand.
“Am I upsetting you, Bunny? I’m sorry! Haha, maybe you do understand me. Well, like I’ve said, there’s no use in dwelling on the past. The only thing that matters is the now.”
Bunny makes a snuffling noise, and Wei Ying smiles.
“You agree with me, huh? Do me a favor, Bunny. Find the man Lan Zhan loves.”
Bunny snuffles again and opens his eyes. He lightly bumps his head against Wei Ying’s arm, the ribbon brushing against the back of Wei Ying’s hand.
“Hey! Don’t you know that only Lan Zhan’s betrothed can touch his ribbon?” Wei Ying says with a laugh.
Bunny butts his head against Wei Ying’s arm with more force.
“Okay, cranky boy, I think it’s your bedtime now.”
Wei Ying stands and stretches, suppressing a yawn. Bunny’s nose twitches once before he scampers across the grass.
“Hm. Maybe he really can understand me,” Wei Ying muses, then laughs. “Ah, listen to me. As if.”
🐇 🐇 🐇
Lan Zhan is strangely tense the next day. Wei Ying accidentally interrupted him while he was meditating, and has the sense that the other man would’ve stayed like that the whole day if Wei Ying hadn’t stumbled upon him.
Whatever is going on, he has a hard time looking Wei Ying in the eyes, and constantly wears a faraway expression on his face.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, worried after hours of a basically one-sided conversation, “what’s wrong?”
The other man blinks at him.
“Am I bothering you?” Wei Ying asks. He clenches his robe in his hands once before letting the cloth fall. “I mean, I’m always bothering you, I know, but do you want me to leave so you can continue meditating?”
Lan Zhan frowns. “Wei Ying is not always bothering me.”
“Well, okay, I guess I can’t always be bothering you, haha. My company must be tolerable some of the time, right?”
Lan Zhan’s frown deepens. “Never bothersome. Wei Ying’s company is always more than tolerable.”
Wei Ying blinks. “Okay, debatable, but thank you. Lan Zhan, you’ve been distracted the whole day. Are you alright?”
The other man’s shoulders tense.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” Wei Ying says gently.
“No, I…” Lan Zhan closes his eyes. “It is… difficult for me to say.”
Wei Ying says nothing. He knows Lan Zhan, and he knows when to keep his mouth shut and let the other man gather his words.
Lan Zhan sighs and opens his eyes, pinning Wei Ying with an earnest gaze.
“Wei Ying. I don’t… put up with you. I want you here. I apologize if I did anything to make you think otherwise.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, surprised.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan continues firmly, “I don’t care about your reputation. I don’t care if I have to go through hell again for you. I just want you here with me, in the now.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, his eyes welling with tears. “You…”
Lan Zhan ducks his head. The tips of his ears are pink.
“You listened to me talk to Bunny!”
Lan Zhan’s head snaps back up. “What.”
“You totally did! I remember the things I told him last night, and you definitely repurposed some of that. Wow, Lan Zhan, I’m so— so touched,” Wei Ying says with a sniff. He wipes his tears with the back of his hand. “Sorry I’m not making any sense, I’m just blabbering because I’m happy. Thank you, Lan Zhan. That meant a lot to me.”
The other man’s eyes soften. “Mm.”
“Wow, back to your eloquent self, as usual,” Wei Ying teases.
He discreetly brushes a hand over his cheek, praying that they’re not as red as they feel. If Lan Zhan keeps pulling stuff like this, Wei Ying will have a heart attack.
“So you saw how close I am to Bunny, right? He was on my lap and everything! He’s my new closest friend.”
Lan Zhan snorts quietly and shakes his head. “Wei Ying…”
“Nothing. Let’s go eat dinner.”
“Okay, but you have to let me put some chili oil in your soup! It’ll be so good, I promise!”
“Yay! Lan Zhan, you’re the best!”
“Oh, your ears are pink again. Wait, Lan Zhan, why are you walking so fast? Lan Zhan, wait for me! Lan Zhan!”
🐇 🐇 🐇
The days pass in a slow, dreamlike fashion. Wei Ying spends most of his time with Lan Zhan, watching the other man read over papers, instruct classes, and care for the bunnies. He can’t follow Lan Zhan into sect meetings, of course, but he does his best to make himself useful in the meantime, and teaches swordsmanship to small groups of older students.
Wei Ying easily falls into a routine, and to his surprise, he likes it. As much as he complains about the stuffiness of Gusu Lan, he finds that he is content. There are everyday joys, like A-Yuan’s exhilaration after perfecting a move without dropping his sword, the small bowl of chili oil that now sits on a table in the Jingshi, and Lan Zhan’s surprised smile every time he sees Wei Ying waiting for him after a meeting.
(Wei Ying’s heart feels full to bursting because of those smiles.)
But the frustrated suitors don’t leave, and night after night, Wei Ying sees Bunny outside his door with the ribbon still tied around his neck.
It scares Wei Ying, because these are constant reminders that the little happiness he has built for himself here in the Cloud Recesses can easily be snatched away.
It scares Wei Ying, because every day, his love for Lan Zhan grows.
He tells himself that absence will make the heart colder. He forces himself to stop taking meals with Lan Zhan and to quit waiting for the pesky meetings to end. He hides in his room, nursing a jar of Emperor’s Smile that Lan Zhan so kindly gifted him, and curses his weak heart.
He doesn’t last very long, though. It only takes one concerned look from Lan Zhan for Wei Ying to cave and reattach himself to the other man’s side.
(“He smuggles me Emperor’s Smile,” Wei Ying tells Bunny later, shrugging, “and he says that he ‘more than tolerates’ me. There isn’t a friend in the world like Hanguang-jun, I tell you.”)
Wei Ying wonders, sometimes, if it would’ve been like this had he accepted Lan Zhan’s request and came to Gusu Lan all those years ago. Would there be the same sweet, serene happiness as he feels now, or would he have kept going down that dark path? Would Shijie still be alive? Would he have kept his sanity, his reputation, and his body?
He pushes the thoughts away, because, of course, there’s no use in dwelling on the past. Wei Ying focuses on picturing Lan Zhan’s smile instead. He’s been seeing a lot more of it nowadays, and he hopes, wishes, prays that he is the cause. He doesn’t know how much longer he'll have that smile before the ribbon is taken and he loses Lan Zhan forever.
🐇 🐇 🐇
Wei Ying, so far, has refrained from telling Bunny about his more-than-friendly feelings for Lan Zhan. Sure, Bunny can’t understand him, but still. Wei Ying feels ridiculous unloading his romantic woes on an animal, and a hunted animal, at that. Bunny is stressed enough. Remembering Lan Zhan’s attempt at comforting him all those weeks ago, it’s also clear that anyone could be listening at any time.
So Wei Ying tries not to let slip something that shows his partiality. Although he did once tell Bunny that Lan Zhan is “really incredibly handsome.” Bunny immediately ran away, but Wei Ying is pretty sure that the rabbit isn't reporting to Lan Zhan, so that worked out okay.
The problem is that Wei Ying hates keeping his feelings secret.
“The thing about love,” he says, “is that you wanna tell people about it. You wanna scream from the rooftops, you wanna show off. Because that’s how happy you are.”
Bunny blinks up at him with those golden eyes that remind him so much of Lan Zhan’s. Truly like master, like bunny.
“I wish I had Lan Zhan’s self control,” Wei Ying admits. “He’s in love but he doesn’t act like a fool. And then you look at me, and it seems so obvious.”
He flops down on the grass next to Bunny and groans.
“You know what, Bunny? You look like you can keep a secret. And it’s just past nine, so everyone should be asleep and not snooping about.”
Wei Ying sits up and makes a show of looking around before smiling down at Bunny.
“I’m in love with Lan Zhan.”
Bunny blinks. Then starts trembling.
Wei Ying frowns. “This again? Are you sick, Bunny?”
He leans forward to scoop Bunny into his arms, and runs his hand down the rabbit's back in what he hopes is a soothing way.
“Really, what’s wrong?” Wei Ying asks. “Maybe if I tell you more about Lan Zhan it’ll calm you down. Lan Zhan could calm anyone and anything down.”
Bunny immediately stops trembling, but fixes his eyes on Wei Ying’s. If Wei Ying didn’t know any better, he’d say the rabbit looks desperate. He clears his throat and stares up into the inky night sky.
“I think I’ve always loved Lan Zhan. He’s beautiful, smart, kind, strong… Even when I was A-Yuan’s age I was always trying to get his attention. He probably hated me, but whatever. If I had come back here with him when he asked me, maybe I would’ve had a chance. But the past is done and over with. Like I said, it’s the now that’s important, right? And now, I want Lan Zhan to be happy. It doesn’t matter how I feel, honestly. If the best way for me to love Lan Zhan is like this, then I’ll stay. If it’s best for me to go, I’ll go. But above all, I just want him to be happy.”
He looks back down at Bunny, frozen in his hands, and grins.
“That’s why, Bunny, I need you to find the man Lan Zhan loves, so whoever he is can put that ribbon around his wrist.”
Bunny leaps out of his hands and insistently nudges his head against Wei Ying’s right wrist.
“Bunny, what are you— HEY!”
In a flash, Bunny bites the end of the ribbon and completely unravels it from his neck. Using his paws and his teeth, Bunny is clearly attempting to tie the ribbon around Wei Ying’s wrist.
Afraid that if he flails too much he’ll accidentally hit the rabbit, Wei Ying stays still, panic rising in his chest.
“Bunny, I told you to find the man Lan Zhan loves, not sign my death warrant!” he wails. “Lan Zhan is gonna kill me! Wait, where are you going?”
The ribbon now secure around Wei Ying’s wrist, Bunny streaks across the grass before Wei Ying can catch him.
“BUNNY! COME BACK!”
Wei Ying leaps to his feet and starts running, but the rabbit is obviously much faster, and seems to immediately disappear in the direction of the Jingshi.
“Shit shit shit,” Wei Ying mutters under his breath as he turns a corner, and promptly smacks into someone’s chest.
“Ow, fuck, I’m so sorry— Lan Zhan?”
As if the night couldn't get any more hectic, Lan Zhan is standing in front of the Jingshi, perfectly poised as if he was waiting for Wei Ying. He steadies Wei Ying with strong arms, and Wei Ying fights back the blush threatening to explode across his face.
“Ah, Lan Zhan! I was just, um, looking for Bunny!” Wei Ying says, quickly covering the ribbon with his other hand. “Isn’t it past nine? Why aren’t you sleeping?”
Lan Zhan’s eyes dart down towards Wei Ying’s wrist. A sliver of white peeks through his fingers.
Wei Ying breaks.
“I’m…” Wei Ying uncovers the ribbon, miserably holding it up so Lan Zhan can see it. It’s crumpled from Bunny’s tugging. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan! I promise I didn’t do this on purpose. Bunny was biting it, and he somehow tied it around my wrist, and I know this all sounds like a crazy excuse, but I promise—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan cuts in.
“—that I would never— Huh?”
Lan Zhan takes Wei Ying’s hands in his.
Wei Ying’s hands shake in the other man’s hold.
“I’m Bunny,” Lan Zhan repeats.
“But… but you can’t be. How is that even possible?”
“I tried telling you before, but we kept getting interrupted,” Lan Zhan says, huffing a short laugh. “A couple months ago, an old, powerful cultivator visited the Cloud Recesses. She overheard my conversation with Uncle and gave me the idea for the competition. She said she could tell that I have someone in my heart.”
“I know you do, which is why I’m even more sorry that Bunny forced your ribbon on me!” Wei Ying frets.
“Don’t interrupt,” Lan Zhan chides gently. “Before she left, Madame gave me a drink. She said I would be able to transform into a bunny whenever I please, but only until a condition is met.”
A crease appears between his eyebrows. “Madame is very powerful. Brother and I still don’t know how she made the drink.”
Wei Ying squirms, hyper-aware of his hands trapped in Lan Zhan’s.
“The condition,” the other man continues, “is that my forehead ribbon must be tied around someone else’s wrist.”
With a sinking feeling, Wei Ying glances at the ribbon very clearly tied around his wrist.
“So… you can’t turn into a bunny anymore.”
“...You were really Bunny.”
Wei Ying’s entire body feels like it’s on fire.
“Everything I said,” he says slowly. “You heard everything I said. Even— even when I said that I—” He looks down at his feet, humiliation and shame coursing through him. “Even when I said that I love you.”
“Lan Zhan, I’m sorry. Just ignore all of it. I ruined everything,” Wei Ying murmurs. His shoes are blurry. A teardrop falls and darkens a small spot of dirt. “Can’t you find Madame again and ask for another drink? Or just tell the man you love that you wanna marry him?”
“Mm.” Lan Zhan strokes the backs of Wei Ying’s hands with his thumbs. “Wei Ying. I want to marry you.”
Wei Ying looks up sharply, tears earnestly coursing down his cheeks. “Lan Zhan. Don’t joke,” he chokes out.
He’s shocked to see that Lan Zhan’s eyes are shining.
“Not joking,” the other man says. He smiles, and he's so handsome that Wei Ying’s heart hurts. “I love you. I’ve always loved you. Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying lets out a sob and rests his head on Lan Zhan’s chest. No one else says his name so tenderly, like it’s precious and not a foul thing that must be spit out.
“Lan Zhan, Lan er-gege, I love you,” he cries. “I love you so much. It’s you, it was always you. You know that, right? It couldn’t have been anyone else.”
“Mm,” Lan Zhan replies, wrapping his arms around Wei Ying. “Couldn’t have been anyone but Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying closes his eyes and listens to the steady thrum of Lan Zhan’s heartbeat under his ear. He's content to stay in the embrace forever, but Lan Zhan lets out a tiny yawn. Wei Ying pulls back with a frown.
“Oh, Lan Zhan, it’s past your bedtime! I should go so you can get your rest.”
Lan Zhan reluctantly releases his hold. “...Mm.”
Wei Ying hesitates. “Um. Lan Zhan?”
“Can I sleep with you tonight?” Wei Ying blurts out.
Lan Zhan’s eyes widen.
“No, no, not like that, Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying squeaks. “I just— I think I’d rather be in your arms tonight. My room is really cold. And big. And lonely. And it doesn’t have you in it.”
The corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth quirks up. “Mm.”
He takes Wei Ying by the hand and leads him into the Jingshi. The tips of his ears are that familiar and endearing pink as they lie down on the bed. He carefully folds Wei Ying into his arms, and Wei Ying, head pillowed on Lan Zhan’s chest, sighs contentedly.
“I love you, Lan Zhan,” he says quietly, and smiles when he feels the other man’s heart beat faster.
“Mm,” Lan Zhan murmurs. “Love you too.”
He presses a sleepy kiss against the top of Wei Ying’s head, and Wei Ying almost passes out from how unbelievably happy he is.
“I can’t believe you love me,” he says, breathless. “I promise I won’t make you regret it, Lan Zhan. I’ll do right by you. I’ll make you as happy as you make me.”
Lan Zhan shifts underneath him and draws Wei Ying even closer. “Wei Ying already makes me happy.”
“No, but like, even more! A thousand times more! Ten thousand times more!”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan says, voice tinged with amusement. “I’m already the happiest man on earth.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan sighs. “Sleep now. We can argue about this in the morning.”
“Fine,” Wei Ying sulks. He brightens as a realization pops into his head. “Hey, it’ll be our first argument as an engaged couple!”
“Okay, okay,” he grumbles, then smiles into Lan Zhan’s chest. “I can’t wait to marry you.”
My betrothed, Wei Ying thinks to himself, still smiling, as Lan Zhan’s steady heartbeat lulls him to sleep. My Lan Zhan.
🐇 🐇 🐇
“Not me, that’s for sure.”
“You don’t think the Yiling Patriarch…”
“No! He’s an honorable man now, I’m telling you! Besides, Hanguang-jun is too strong to fall to any evil schemes. He married Wei Wuxian because he wanted to.”
“But do you think the Yiling Patriarch…”
“Of course Wei Wuxian wanted to marry Hanguang-jun! You think the fearsome Yiling Patriarch would do anything he doesn’t want to do?”
“True, true. They’re just such an unlikely pair. I wonder what they see in each other.”
“Tell me about it. I don’t know why anyone would willingly marry into the stuffy Gusu Lan sect. Kidding, kidding, stop glaring at me like that. Anyway, aren’t you curious about the other thing?”
“What other thing?”
“The rabbit. How did Wei Wuxian catch the rabbit? Did Hanguang-jun just give it to him? He would’ve known from the start that he wanted to marry Wei Wuxian.”
“Haha, what if Hanguang-jun was the rabbit? OW! What did you hit me for?”
“Maybe if you stopped saying stupid things I wouldn’t hit you!”
“Fine, fine… But think about it, isn’t it funny? OW! Okay, I’m sorry, I’ll stop!”
“You better! Don’t say anything that ridiculous again! Hanguang-jun turning into a rabbit… As if! That would never happen in a million years!”