Chu Wanning is used to being called many names.
“Dog,” “half-breed,” “trash,” amongst others, until his promotion to service, if one can call it that. Picked off the streets by a woman with a long pipe between ruby-red lips, her eyes intense as they studied his grime-covered face, twisting it left and right between her thumb and forefinger. Even then, the transience of his names doesn’t end, nor his lack of agency in what is chosen for him.
“Henceforth, you shall be Morokoshi,” the woman declares, smoke curling from the end of her pipe, after he’d been washed and scrubbed raw by her servants.
Chu Wanning spends his days on his hands and knees, dragging a damp rag up and down wooden floors. The mornings are quiet; the afternoons bring an occasional guest, coming by to enquire on one of their residents. The evenings are a flurry of activity among the servants, and he’s told to stay out of the way, so he does. He shares a room with other boys his age, but they sneer and turn their noses up at him, cluster together and speculate in loud whispers about his heritage, his family, his past. Every day, Chu Wanning keeps to himself and obeys the orders of the woman—Madam, she asks to be called—who took him in, bathed him, and fed him. Gave him a home.
It’s more than anyone has ever done for him.
His name is changed again six months later.
Summoned to a room on one of the forbidden floors, Chu Wanning sits with his back straight and his heels tucked under his bottom as he’s taught. The woman is there, pipe between her fingers, with a man of the most exquisite features and dress—a black kimono embroidered with the motif of a crane taking flight, held together by a large red obi in the front. The room is filled with furniture and ornaments as exquisite as he, gold glinting off polished lacquer in the candlelight.
Chu Wanning is mesmerized. Until the man’s face twists, his crimson lips curling in an all-too familiar expression.
“This is the attendant you’re recommending?”
Madam clicks her tongue. “He’s the only attendant I’m recommending, Fumikoshi. If you dismiss this one too, I shall have to assume that you don’t want any.”
Fumikoshi’s gaze snaps to her, burning with fury. “Nowaki gets his pick of all your new boys!”
“Nowaki is our highest earner, our oiran.” Madam blows a cloud of smoke into Fumikoshi’s face, who rears back, coughing violently. “Your rank is the equivalent of a tsukemawashi, at most.”
“You stupid old hag—”
“What’s wrong with Morokoshi?” she continues, unruffled. “He works hard, listens well, and learns fast. And with those looks, you can easily find him a patron before he turns sixteen, which would do wonders for your own status. Heaven knows you need it,” she adds, not so quietly.
Fumikoshi looks as if he’s about to say something rude but thinks the better of it. “If he’s so great, why don’t you give him to Nowaki?” he grumbles.
“I would, but Nowaki is our best orandayuki; Dutch men go mad over him. Morokoshi would fare so much better with our Chinese cousins.” Madam nods toward Chu Wanning. “You still speak your native language, don’t you?”
Chu Wanning keeps his gaze fixed on the ground. “Yes, Madam.”
Fumikoshi growls. “He’s a half-breed?”
Chu Wanning’s hands curl into fists at his knees.
“Who cares.” Madam exhales, smoke wafting out from the corner of her lips. “There’s Chinese in him, and that’s all we need.”
A pause, then Fumikoshi lets out a snort. “Fine. Fine. Have it your way. What’s his name again, Morokoshi?”
“That won’t do. It’s got to be poetic. Something scholarly, like mine.”
Madam arches an eyebrow at him. “You want something scholarly?”
“You’re the one who gave me this name, bitch!”
“And no one regrets it more than I do,” she sighs heavily. “Very well. His name shall be Karauta: ‘kara’ for Chinese and ‘uta’ for song or poem. Will that do?”
Fumikoshi nods. “Fine by me. You, Karauta.”
Chu Wanning’s head dips lower. “Yes.”
“You will address me as ‘Big Brother’ and obey my every order. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Big Brother.”
“Then, I’ll take my leave.” Madam drops a hand on Chu Wanning’s head, ruffling his hair. The comforting smell of ash and smoke drifts away with her as she pads out of the room. “Play nice, boys.”
Fumikoshi does not play nice.
He sends Chu Wanning on impossible errands (“Get me candy that tastes like rainbows.” ); makes him clean his quarters three, four, five times a day; forces him to recite Japanese classical poetry and has him kneel outside his room for hours if even a single verse is wrong.
Chu Wanning dutifully does as he's told without a single word of complaint. His only respite are the lessons he attends every morning: calligraphy, koto, singing, and dancing. On the rare days that Fumikoshi has no requests, he spends them devouring every text, scroll, and writing he can find until he dreams in poetry and short stories at night.
For some reason, Chu Wanning’s obedience and growing abilities only serve to fuel Fumikoshi's anger.
But nothing irates his Big Brother more than the attention Chu Wanning gains from his clients—wealthy Chinese merchants who meet with Fumikoshi every night.
The evening activities, Chu Wanning quickly learns, consist of transporting all the Big Brothers of the house, dressed in full garb and make-up, to two different neighborhoods. Nowaki leads one group to an island where the Dutch reside, whereas Fumikomi joins the group that attends to the Chinese on the mainland.
Since Chu Wanning’s arrival, Fumikoshi’s clients have been intrigued by his presence, the way he carries himself so calmly, so elegantly, compared to his Big Brother. They ask about his duties at the house, his likes and dislikes, what it’s like to serve Fumikoshi. Hands on his knees, legs cramping beneath him, Chu Wanning answers each question with his lashes lowered and his voice kept soft.
My favorite color is white, so I may add more colors to it when I so wish.
I both like and dislike fall for its beauty and melancholic atmosphere.
“On the path in the desolate field / the shadows overlapped / and parted.”
“Where have you been hiding this gem,” clients laugh, thrilled, and Fumikoshi shakes with quiet fury beside him.
Once, a client speaks to him in his native tongue. “You look Chinese,” he says.
Chu Wanning’s heart thrums; it’s been so long since he’s heard his own language. He responds before he can stop himself.
Grinning, the client turns to Fumikoshi. “You have this custom, don’t you? Of breaking in your attendants? I want to become his regular as soon as he’s ready.”
Fumikoshi’s face turns venomous.
Chu Wanning is given three lashes of the whip and sent to his room without dinner that night.
He stops responding to clients’ questions.
But the damage is done. Fumikoshi finds the most ridiculous excuses to howl for his punishment, from finding a speck of dust on his chest of drawers to dropping a grain of rice while serving a client. Madam doesn’t intervene, though Chu Wanning doesn’t miss the look of pity she offers him whenever they pass in the corridors.
Sometimes, Chu Wanning wonders what it’s like to serve Nowaki. He’s seen glimpses of the other man and his attendants, watched how he speaks to them in a measured, steady tone, how bright the boys’ faces glow at the mere sight of him. Nowaki is beautiful too, of course, they all are. But his is a beauty that feels warmer, kinder, a stark contrast to Fumikoshi’s wild temper.
There’s no point in wondering, Chu Wanning decides when he’s whipped for the dozenth time, his back stinging, the inner layer of his kimono damp against his torn skin. No point in dreaming, yearning, wanting.
Fate is cruel, and only he can help himself.
A patron seems to be the best way out.
At sixteen, Chu Wanning seizes his chance in the form of a Chinese textile merchant—Fumikoshi’s wealthiest regular, who arrives early for his appointments. Tradition holds for clients to wait in the entertainment quarters for the Big Brother’s arrival, with their attendants in tow.
While Fumikoshi is getting dressed by the servants—for he doesn’t trust Chu Wanning to do it for him—Chu Wanning races to the designated room in a cream-colored kimono that a client once said brings out his phoenix eyes, a pattern of cherry blossoms trailing across the thick fabric. Breathing deep, he tugs at the back of his kimono, dipping it low enough to bare the nape of his neck, exactly the way Fumikoshi and Nowaki have arranged theirs.
Then, he sinks to his knees and slides the doors open.
The client blinks at him, surprised. “Karauta? You’re here alone?”
Chu Wanning bows low. "I wanted to see you," he says in Mandarin.
The client’s gaze turns razor-edged. “Oh?” His eyes rove down Chu Wanning’s figure, lingering at the curve of his neck where his kimono is pulled back. “And why’s that?”
“Because I want you as my patron,” Chu Wanning says.
A beat, before the client throws back his head and laughs. “Direct and to-the-point! I much prefer that to all the foolish dancing these Japanese like to perform!” He grins. “All right. You’re of age, aren’t you? Why don’t we settle that tonight?”
Chu Wanning frowns. “Tonight? But my Big Brother—”
“I will deal with him,” the client cuts in. He pats his lap, mouth curling in a way that sends a shiver up Chu Wanning’s spine. “Come.”
For a moment, Chu Wanning hesitates. Bells ring in his head in alarm, warning him to leave, run, get away before it’s too late. But his back still stings, and the scars still linger, so Chu Wanning shifts to do as he’s told.
That night, Chu Wanning learns what it means to have a patron for the first time. He learns what it means to be broken, to give all of himself, to serve another.
That night, Chu Wanning is promoted by Madam, despite Fumikoshi’s frothing screams of rage and jealousy.
“Sakaki” is the name she bestows upon him.
It’s the last time his name changes.
The last time he’s had to do as he’s told.
If Nowaki is the oiran for the Dutch, Chu Wanning is the oiran for the Chinese.
In weeks, he rises among the ranks, much to the chagrin of the other male courtesans around him.
How silly of him, for not realizing the true purpose of this house sooner. (Ran, it's called. Cherry blossoms, ethereal and fleeting, like its residents within.) Then again, how would an orphaned 6-year-old street rat with no friends or knowledge beyond what he’s told ever find out the truth?
But Chu Wanning is a hard worker, a good listener, a fast learner.
He learns to wrap his red lips around the mouth of his pipe, smoke curling out the corner in grey wisps, framing the curve of his face just so. To inhale and breathe out slow, his chest rising and falling under the heavy layers. To offer the hint of a smile, lashes dipped over a heated gaze.
But only a hint, for the colder he is, the more clients desire him.
Something to do with the thrill of pursuit, Madam explains. The challenge, the hunt, of capturing a prey and holding it down for the kill.
Now, as one of the highest ranking courtesans in Maruyama, Chu Wanning may choose his clients. So he gives the men the hunt they seek, declining to meet them once, sometimes twice. His reputation precedes him—a night with Sakaki of Ran is one to remember—so the merchants will ask for him, repeatedly, until he agrees to dinner. Just dinner. Still, they try, falling to his feet for his attention, his approval.
He does not take attendants for that reason; he has enough men to look over. Not that there's any end to the requests.
Chu Wanning remembers one in vivid detail.
It happens when he’s on his way out of the Chinese neighborhood: a boy slips out from the crowd and lifts his cupped hands to reveal a haitang blossom, pink petals curled slightly at the tips.
"Pretty Sir," the boy says, eyes big and wide, cheeks round and smudged with dirt. "Take me as your attendant?"
Chu Wanning holds up a palm as a servant moves to intercept. He crouches as low as his obi will allow, offers the boy a wistful smile. "This life is not meant for you."
The boy shakes his head, raising his hands higher. "I promise I can make you smile," he presses. "A real smile, not like this one."
Chu Wanning's heart squeezes in his chest. Is he that obvious?
Sliding a hand into his robes, he withdraws a blue silk handkerchief with the kanji ‘Ran’ embroidered in one corner. Wipes the dirt off the boy's cheeks, smiling as the boy flushes pink in response. "I will accept your flower," he says, and holds out the handkerchief. "In exchange, you will take this, and choose a life worth living."
The boy considers this, frowning. When he finally, reluctantly, takes the handkerchief, Chu Wanning slips the blossom in his own coiffed hair, just behind his ear.
"I won't forget you," the boy says fiercely, handkerchief clutched tight in his hands.
Chu Wanning does not forget him, either, the flower pressed and placed carefully into a frame he hangs in his private quarters. He doesn’t want to forget such wide-eyed innocence, having lost his the day he was left on the streets.
Still, for the first time in his life, Chu Wanning is content. Loneliness gnaws on his insides, keeps him awake some nights. But he has a roof over his head and food on the table, and that's all he can ask for. A simple, quiet life.
When the man called Taxian-Jun arrives, years later, it’s the coming of a storm.
He sweeps into a dinner appointment between Chu Wanning and a client, clad in black, a smirk tugging at his mouth. Over the spark of irritation, Chu Wanning can’t help but admire his lean frame, the way his hair, cut rebelliously short, falls over smoldering, dark eyes. The way he towers over him, even when Chu Wanning rises to full height.
Chu Wanning’s heart races as Taxian-Jun leans in close, ignoring the shouts and gasps around them.
“Sakaki of Ran,” he purrs in their native tongue. “You’re mine.”
Chu Wanning lifts his chin. “I don’t know you.”
“You will,” Taxian-Jun says, and leaves.
Boots tracking mud across the mats.
Madam practically vibrates with excitement when Chu Wanning asks about him. “Lord Taxian is one of the youngest and wealthiest Chinese merchants in Nagasaki! He owns plantations across Southeast Asia; sugar plantations. We've been offering him our courtesans for years, even Nowaki.”
"And he hasn't taken any of them?"
"Not one." She sparkles. "Until now."
Chu Wanning's fingers lift to knead at his temple. "He disrupted a dinner meeting, trekked dirt all over the mats, staked a claim on me without going through the proper channels."
"Not good enough reasons to say no," Madam says.
"You've disdained every merchant who tried to meet me without your approval," Chu Wanning points out.
"They're not Lord Taxian," she says, simply.
Chu Wanning's headache worsens.
Despite her encouragement, he declines Taxian-Jun's first request for him.
And the next.
And the next after that.
Madam laments Chu Wanning's foolishness when the requests cease after the sixth attempt.
Until Taxian-Jun himself sets foot into Maruyama, into Ran, and Chu Wanning feels his entrance before he sees him at the door of his private quarters, hands clasped behind his back. Like a clap of thunder before a monsoon.
"Shoes off," Chu Wanning hisses in Mandarin before Taxian-Jun steps onto his mats.
Taxian-Jun lifts a foot. "Take them off for me."
"I am not your servant," Chu Wanning says, frostily.
"True," Taxian-Jun laughs, three huffs of amusement. "No servant would dare reject me six times." Bending over, he finally removes his boots and enters Chu Wanning's quarters, taking in the room with half-lidded eyes.
Unlike Fumikoshi’s room, Chu Wanning keeps his minimal and sparse. Gifts he receives from clients are donated to those in need, while his quarters consist of nothing more than a plain bedding he stores in the cupboard every morning, a make-up table and a writing desk, a pile of cushions in the corner.
The only gift he's kept is one from the small boy who asked to be his attendant.
Taxian-Jun lingers on it, his gaze riveted to the dried flower hanging on the wall.
“Very simple,” he hums after a while. “How unexpected for a whore of your status.”
Chu Wanning bristles. “Leave.”
A flash of white teeth, and Taxian-Jun stalks forward, closing the gap between them with slow, deliberate strides.
Chu Wanning could have left, could have called for the servants. He's hyperaware of the sheerness of his gossamer undergarment, of the heat coming off of Taxian-Jun's body as he leans over until they're nose to nose. No, Chu Wanning holds his ground, glaring into twin pools of black that threaten to consume his soul.
He will not cave so easily.
"I could take you right here," Taxian-Jun says. Croons it, soft and low, like a caress. "Fuck you on your precious mats and make you come all over them."
Chu Wanning's throat trembles as he swallows, Taxian-Jun's eyes dropping to follow the small movement. "Madam won't allow it."
“Madam gave me directions to your room as soon as I said your name.”
Heart sinking, Chu Wanning closes his eyes.
He cannot cave so easily.
For only he can help himself.
“Sakaki,” Taxian-Jun says suddenly. Chu Wanning opens his eyes to find Taxian-Jun smiling at him with the intensity of a shark circling its prey. “What a disgustingly Japanese name.”
He’s not wrong. The name has its roots in Shintoism, a religion originating from the land of the rising sun. And Chu Wanning knows that that is Madam’s reminder to him, each time his name is called, breathed, moaned against him: you are one of us now.
“My clients like it,” Chu Wanning says through clenched teeth.
“Your clients will say anything for a good fuck,” Taxian-Jun snorts.
“None of my clients have come to my private quarters unannounced.”
“None of your clients have the balls.”
Before Chu Wanning can respond, Taxian-Jun reaches out. Ignores the flinch to stroke his fingers down Chu Wanning’s cheek, strangely gentle.
“What is your real name?”
Chu Wanning stares at Taxian-Jun. Stares at the sweep of dark hair across his chiseled features, the dangerous curve of his mouth, dimpling at the corners. He stares, and his heart beats, and he looks away, lost in a wave of emotions.
No one has asked that before.
No one has cared to.
But Taxian-Jun sees his reaction as defiance, long fingers curling like claws before pulling away. “Fine, keep your little secret. I’ll have you screaming it by the time I’m done with you. Madam,” he barks in accented Japanese.
In seconds, Madam races up the stairs and drops her head in a deep bow. “Lord Taxian.”
“I want to buy Sakaki.”
“Oh,” Madam gasps.
“No,” Chu Wanning says, furious.
They spend the rest of the night in negotiation. Rather, Chu Wanning steadfastly refuses to be bought, while Madam coaxes and cajols him, driven by Taxian-Jun’s increasing offers. When Taxian-Jun offers an amount that triples the debt and expenses Chu Wanning owes to Ran, Madam looks as though she’s about to faint from pure joy.
Chu Wanning throws out his final card.
“I am one of Ran’s highest earners, second only to Nowaki. It would benefit Madam to retain my services.”
To his relief, Madam falters. “That is true, Sakaki does bring in great profits to Ran.”
But Taxian-Jun laughs, more breath than anything. “How much does he earn each month?”
Madam gives him the amount.
“I will give you double that number as monthly donations to Ran.”
Madam’s eyes go wide as the size of a copper coin.
Chu Wanning’s hands curl into fists at his knees. This is it, then. After clawing his way up to a simple, quiet life, he will become some rich bastard's shiny new plaything, until he's broken or something shinier comes along.
Fate fights dirty.
But he will not and cannot cave. Not yet.
He packs the dried flower with a set of clothes.
The next day, he steps out of Ran with a bare face for the first time in years, hair pulled back in a simple high ponytail, a hand rising to shield his eyes from the sun. A servant hastens to slide open a red parasol for him, while Taxian-Jun stands by the side of a bright red sedan with golden-yellow tassels hanging from its roof and crimson silk sashes tied in balls at the ends.
A Chinese bridal sedan.
Heat rises to Chu Wanning’s cheeks. But he approaches the sedan, wordless, and Taxian-Jun offers a hand, palm turned upward.
“I am not worth that much,” Chu Wanning tells him, then.
You will tire of me and throw me back in the streets where I came from, he doesn’t say.
“We shall see,” Taxian-Jun says, lips tilted up at one side.
His arrogance is oddly assuring.
Chu Wanning slides a hand into Taxian-Jun’s and steps into the sedan. He lifts the curtain to gaze out at Ran one last time. To see Madam by the entrance, bent over in a ninety-degree angle, remaining low in her bow even as the sedan bearers pull away.
(“You’re in a position every courtesan would die for,” she says, running a fine-toothed comb through his hair. “So you’d do well to stop sulking before Fumikoshi poisons your tea.”
Chu Wanning sighs, “Must I do as he says?”
“Of course. You are his now.”
Eyes closed, Chu Wanning centers his breathing to ground himself. “Thank you,” he says. “For everything.”
The comb in his hair pauses, briefly, before it moves again.
“You are my greatest pride, Sakaki. Never forget that.”)
Chest tight, Chu Wanning turns away, and lets the curtain fall.
The Chinese neighborhood is a massive compound, sealed off by tall fences and five guard houses. No women are allowed, save for the female courtesans from Maruyama, so crowds start to gather at the sight of the red and yellow sedan, pointing and whispering among themselves. At the gates, Chu Wanning lifts the curtain to watch a Chinese guard rush out from his post to greet Taxian-Jun, who looms over the shorter man, tall and foreboding.
“Taxian-Jun, Sir, as you know, women aren’t permitted at this yashiki, which includes—”
“My bride is a man,” Taxian-Jun declares.
The whispers halt abruptly.
In the hushed silence, Chu Wanning shrinks into his seat, away from the window. It’s common for men to seek comfort in other men, perhaps even love, but it’s painfully uncommon for a man to announce that in public without a single hint of shame.
“Oh,” the guard says, flustered. “But… well… families are also not allowed…”
“Then we shall call him my lover,” Taxian-Jun says with a note of finality.
The guard turns to his fellow guard in the guard house, who shrugs back at him helplessly.
“Very well then, Sir. If I may just take a look at your, uh, your lover—”
“You may not,” Taxian-Jun says.
The guard blinks up at him, mouth open. “Sir?”
“I said,” Taxian-Jun’s voice drops low, “You may not.”
“But I must ascertain that he is a man.”
“No one but I may lay eyes on him.”
“Surely your servants—”
Taxian-Jun chuckles without mirth. “Any fool who dares lift their head in my lover’s presence will have their eyes dug out with iron tongs.”
The guard swallows, loud enough for all to hear. Then, he bows, shuffling backward.
“Welcome home, Taxian-Jun, Sir.”
Chu Wanning hears the gates creak open, and with a small jolt, the sedan moves again.
There must be some validity to Taxian-Jun's cruelty for the guard to give in.
At least his life in Ran was predictable; Taxian-Jun is anything but.
There's no trace of that ruthlessness as he, once again, offers his palm for Chu Wanning to step out of the sedan. Only pride and a touch of smugness when Chu Wanning's wide eyes take in the sheer size of his estate, separate from the two-storey longhouses that house most of the Chinese nationals. It's as big as the estate Ran and the other teahouses use to entertain their clients. Maybe bigger.
"With me, you will want for nothing," he says, smirking, and Chu Wanning believes it.
Until his interest shifts to another, that is.
Heads bowed, servants guide Chu Wanning to his room, spacious but simple in its design. Surprisingly simple, given the ostentatiousness and extravagance of every other room he's come across. Setting down his belongings, he notes the plain bedding, the make-up table, the desk, the cushions…
Chu Wanning's heart leaps, struck by the revelation like a punch in the gut.
His room is an exact replica of his quarters in Ran. Right down to the material and color of the furniture.
Taxian-Jun's breath is hot against his ear, his hands large on his waist.
Chu Wanning flushes.
"Thank you," he says. "Now my flower won't look so out of place."
Something flickers across Taxian-Jun's face, too quick to catch, before he's spinning Chu Wanning around with rough hands.
Taxian-Jun kisses like the world is shattering and there's nothing left but them—them and their harsh breaths, caught in the spaces between. He sucks on Chu Wanning's tongue, tugs at his bottom lip with his teeth. Tastes of spices and ash, a fiery blend that sparks the embers of Chu Wanning's desire, turning his insides molten.
When Taxian-Jun pulls away, he’s breathing hard, sides expanding as he presses back in, nosing into the crook of Chu Wanning's neck.
"I want you," he mumbles. "Want you so bad. Wanted you for so long."
Exhaling, Chu Wanning cards his hands through dark strands, silky against his fingertips. He doesn't know what Taxian-Jun is saying, but he hears the sadness in it, the pain. Such a far cry from his usual arrogance that Chu Wanning is pulled to soothe him, resistance crumbling.
"You have me now," he says, softly.
A tremor runs through Taxian-Jun's body, before he lifts his head and crushes his mouth against Chu Wanning's again, hot and desperate. Hands gripping, clutching, at Chu Wanning as if he’s sand falling through Taxian-Jun’s fingers.
They stumble toward the bedding, Chu Wanning reaching up to tug at the ribbon in his hair, dark strands spilling down his back and over his collarbones. When they fall, Chu Wanning hitting the sheets with a gasp, Taxian-Jun's mouth moves to bite up the line of his throat, sucking bruises into his skin.
At Ran, Chu Wanning would have maneuvered a client away—many don't appreciate the reminder that he's shared goods.
But, here, he belongs to Taxian-Jun and only him.
So he smooths his hands across Taxian-Jun's broad shoulders, tilts his head back to give Taxian-Jun more access. Savors the pleasure that follows each zing of pain as Taxian-Jun soothes each darkening mark with his tongue.
One pull of his sash, and his kimono slips open, revealing the same gossamer undergarment he wore when Taxian-Jun barged into his private quarters. Taxian-Jun pauses, his eyes heated as they trail down Chu Wanning's body, as though drinking in every dip and curve beneath the translucent layer. Then, gaze flitting up to meet Chu Wanning's, he peels the last layer off with steady fingers. Slowly, deliberately, lowers his head to wrap his mouth around a dusty nipple, then another.
Chu Wanning watches Taxian-Jun watch his reactions—lips parting around soft moans, chest stuttering with hitched breaths—and his cock twitches, begging to be touched. He knows Taxian-Jun can feel it against his thigh, sees the cocky, appreciative curl of that talented mouth, but Taxian-Jun doesn't give it to him. Won't, for a while, judging by the way he lavishes all his attention on Chu Wanning's hardened nipples.
It's the longest foreplay Chu Wanning has ever experienced. By the time his clients have him, many are so eager that they hitch his robes up and thrust into him as soon as they're on the sheets, unable to hold back.
It hurt, of course. But Chu Wanning isn't so sure this is any better, his ass neglected, his cock throbbing painfully between his legs.
"Taxian-Jun," he starts, blood rushing to his ears at what he's about to say. "Taxian-Jun, I—"
Chu Wanning blinks at him, confused.
Taxian-Jun looks back at him with a layer of tenderness that makes his chest tighten.
"Mo Ran. My birth name, before I changed it."
Chu Wanning nods, reserves his questions for later, much later. But Taxian-Jun doesn't move, his gaze still and expecting. Waiting.
Chu Wanning draws in a shaking breath. It's obvious what Taxian-Jun wants. So Chu Wanning pulls him closer, presses his lips to the curve of Taxian-Jun's ear.
"Mo Ran," he whispers.
Again, there's a shift of expression, a sudden surge of movement, and Taxian-Jun's mouth is around his cock, hot and tight and wet, Chu Wanning's back arching clear off the sheets.
It's hard to think like this, to breathe, the feel of Taxian-Jun's tongue dragging up the length of his cock, his lips sliding back down to his base. The sight of Taxian-Jun's head bobbing up and down, hair falling over dark eyes that stare up at him, lashes dipped low.
"Mo Ran," Chu Wanning breathes again, and Taxian-Jun moans deep in his throat, the vibration rolling through Chu Wanning, right down to his toes. There's a significance to his name, something about hearing it on Chu Wanning's lips that spurs him on, so Chu Wanning says it, over and over, like a prayer.
Taxian-Jun's fingers sink into his thighs, the flush on his cheeks spreading to his neck, his chest.
He looks utterly wrecked, nothing like the man who shamelessly declared Chu Wanning as his bride.
Deep inside, Chu Wanning's gut coils, pleasure rising to its crest, ready to crash at any moment.
"Mo Ran, I—I'm—"
Taxian-Jun swallows all of him.
Chu Wanning comes, shuddering, eyes rolling to the back of his head.
His heart is still struggling to calm when Taxian-Jun surges up to kiss him, the taste of his own salty bitterness coating his tongue. But the kiss is gentle this time, lazy and slow, and Chu Wanning can't help but respond, sighing into it.
Taxian-Jun hums, pleased. Like the flick of a switch, the air of smug confidence returns tenfold.
Firm hands grasp his hips, flipping him over. Chu Wanning keens, his own hands curling into the sheets, when Taxian-Jun presses his mouth to the spot between his shoulder blades.
He feels more than hears Taxian-Jun's laugh, a huff of air against his skin. "You have a thing for my mouth, hmm?"
Chu Wanning shakes his head, or tries to, but Taxian-Jun laves a wet trail down the curve of his back, tongue flat, teeth scraping, and he's lost in the sensation, overwhelmed.
"Look at you, hard again." Taxian-Jun's fingers wrap around his swollen cock, and the most shameless sound slips past Chu Wanning’s lips. "But you can’t come this time.” Taxian-Jun’s voice goes rough, mouth on Chu Wanning’s shoulder as he thumbs over the head where the pre-cum gathers, teasing. “Not until I let you."
It's too much, the way Taxian-Jun is suddenly everywhere, the only thing Chu Wanning can focus on.
"Mo Ran, stop," he whimpers, a plea for respite. The hands on him tremble, seconds before his hips are hauled up, and Taxian-Jun's hips rock into his from behind. And Chu Wanning feels it for the first time, Taxian-Jun's hard dick against the curves of his ass.
Hard, thick, and so impossibly big.
On reflex, his ass clenches, bracing, when Taxian-Jun's knee nudges into the space between his thighs, spreading them apart. Once, he's taken dry by an impulsive client. Recalls all too well the sudden breach, the feel of something tearing within. Chu Wanning had discouraged it since, leaving bottles of oil and salve in reachable distance, sometimes stretching himself open before appointments as part of his routine.
He doesn’t have a choice with Taxian-Jun.
Who folds over Chu Wanning’s back, purring.
"You keep calling my name, yet I don't know yours."
Chu Wanning’s eyes slip shut, lashes kissing his cheeks. Nobody does, not since he was four. Morokoshi, Karauta, Sakaki—all his, but not him. Just parts of him, used to adapt, to survive. To belong and finally be worth something.
“Chu Wanning,” he murmurs. “My name is Chu Wanning.”
Taxian-Jun lets out a breath that tickles the nape of his neck. “Wanning,” he says, and Chu Wanning understands, right there, why Taxian-Jun responds the way he does when his name is called. He’s afraid he might fall to pieces with Taxian-Jun sounding like that, voice gone soft and reverent. Like he’s a rare gem that’s worth everything.
“Please,” Chu Wanning says before he can stop himself. “Please…” He doesn’t know what he wants yet, doesn’t know what to ask for. All he knows is that he wants, truly wants, for the first time in his life.
He whines through his nose as Taxian-Jun pulls away.
That’s definitely not what he wants.
Chu Wanning’s about to call for Taxian-Jun, ask him to please come back and put his mouth to him—on him, in him, anywhere he’d like—when Taxian-Jun is back again, hands slick on his hips, cock sliding between his thighs—
“Fuck, you feel so good.”
Chu Wanning moans as the head of Taxian-Jun’s cock nudges against his balls. Tilts his hips for a better angle, and Taxian-Jun swears again, grip tightening.
They pause, a breath, then Taxian-Jun is rocking forward, hips rolling, and oh, it feels like a tease, the wet slide and thick heat between his legs, but the realization that Taxian-Jun had slicked himself—that he’s not the beast he first appeared to be—makes some unnamed feeling burn bright in Chu Wanning’s chest. A feeling that spurs him to tighten his thighs around Taxian-Jun, pant for him softly against the sheets.
“Wanning,” Taxian-Jun says, and thrusts, and Chu Wanning shudders beneath him. “Wanning, come for me.”
It’s a command, long fingers curling around Chu Wanning’s cock as it’s given.
And Chu Wanning can’t help but obey. Shakes as Taxian-Jun comes with him, adorning his thighs with his white, hot seed.
Dazed, Chu Wanning vaguely feels Taxian-Jun lay him on the bedding, grip gentle. Feels Taxian-Jun’s body curl around him, damp kisses pressed to the side of his face, his neck, his shoulders.
“Mine,” Taxian-Jun sighs.
Chu Wanning’s heart skips a beat.
They fall asleep like that, wrapped together, until a servant asks in a tremulous voice if the Master and his guest would care for lunch by the doors.
The open doors, Chu Wanning realizes, far too late.
Taxian-Jun is out nearly every day, for most of the day.
Chu Wanning finds shelves of Japanese texts in the study room, spends his time perusing them by the window where a flowering haitang tree stands outside, its blossoms yet to open. Seasons came and went when he was at Ran, a flow of time that never slowed. But now, he can gaze at the tree and take in the pale shade of pink dotting the dark branches. Now, he can breathe deep, and smell the sweet coming of spring.
The servants attend to him well, their eyes kept low to the ground. They serve him meals and offer him small plates of desserts in between, prepare silk robes for him to wear, even bring in a koto for him to play at his leisure. But Chu Wanning itches to write that day, verses of classic poems bursting forth in his mind as he gazes out the window, so he asks for brushes, ink, and paper, the servants scurrying away to fulfill his request.
That’s how Taxian-Jun finds him later, head bowed, hand guiding a brush over paper.
Chu Wanning stops mid-stroke as Taxian-Jun presses himself against him, chin resting on his shoulder in an intimate gesture. He’s used to the sudden invasion of space now, the envelopment of warmth around him as soon as Taxian-Jun returns. As if Taxian-Jun had been waiting and thinking about this moment all day, unable to stay away any longer.
“You’re back,” Chu Wanning says.
“You didn’t even notice when I entered the room,” Taxian-Jun grumbles, and Chu Wanning lets a small smile touch his lips. Behind the swagger and unending hubris, there’s a childishness to Taxian-Jun that he’s come to find endearing.
“I was focusing,” Chu Wanning tells him.
“This poem by Matsuo Basho.” Chu Wanning sets the brush down and smooths out the paper. Still wet, the characters gleam in a neat, elegant cursive. “Very brief – / Gleam of blossoms in the treetops / On a moonlit night.”
Taxian-Jun snorts. “Don’t know him, don’t care.” He nuzzles into the side of Chu Wanning’s neck, drops a kiss there. “If you’re going to write, write something more interesting.”
Chu Wanning sighs, a hint of exasperation in his breath. “Such as?”
Startled, Chu Wanning turns to stare at him. “What?”
Taxian-Jun’s mouth tips up in a smirk. “I want to know the characters to your name.”
Chu Wanning tries to find the joke in it, the playful glint in Taxian-Jun’s eyes. Finding none, he wordlessly picks up the brush, dips it in ink, and slides it with a careful sway of his wrist down the page. It’s been a while since he’s written his own name, so he hesitates on one character, nearly leaves out a stroke in another.
When finished, Taxian-Jun reaches out, traces a line down the side of his name with a finger.
“Chu, Wan, Ning,” he reads slowly, mouth forming around each word, as though imprinting it in his memory.
Chu Wanning flushes. The more Taxian-Jun says it, the less sensitized he is to hearing his name. But when Taxian-Jun says it with such intensity, the way he croons it like a filthy word in bed, Chu Wanning can’t help but react to it, heat pulsing.
Despite Taxian-Jun’s busy schedule, they’ve had countless sex since Chu Wanning arrived. Every night, they surge and cling together, hearts beating, the sound of their breathing filling the air. Taxian-Jun hasn’t entered him, not once, but they’ve done nearly everything else—come on nearly every surface, on Chu Wanning himself—that Chu Wanning stops wondering why, stops questioning.
After all, it’s clear that Taxian-Jun hasn’t stopped wanting him. He must have his reasons for avoiding penetration, whatever they may be.
“How is your birth name written?” Chu Wanning asks, quelling his desire.
Taxian-Jun’s hum rolls through him, a quiet vibration. “‘Mo’ for ink and ‘Ran’ for burn, used in the word for fuel.”
He’s certainly a good fire-starter, Chu Wanning muses. In more ways than one.
“Why did you change your name?”
This time, it’s Taxian-Jun’s turn to startle, and Chu Wanning feels his heart go off-rhythm against his back.
There’s a lengthy pause before he speaks.
“Because I thought it’s more likely to get y—” Taxian-Jun stops, inhales sharply. “—people’s attention.”
Chu Wanning decides not to remark on the hasty correction. “More than ‘Mo Ran’?”
Another pause, then a nod.
Chu Wanning has seen the characters for Taxian-Jun on envelopes addressed to him in that name. One who steps on immortals. A fitting name for an ambitious young merchant who’s dominated the trading business in such a short amount of time. But…
“I’m more drawn to ‘Mo Ran,’” Chu Wanning says. Taxian-Jun’s arms tighten around his waist. “There’s a softness to it that ‘Taxian’ lacks, a sense of passion that’s steeped in loyalty and scholarly intelligence.”
For a moment, Taxian-Jun just holds him, his breath warm and quivering against Chu Wanning’s neck. Then his fingers slip beneath Chu Wanning’s jaw, twisting his head back for a deep, bruising kiss.
“Fuck,” he hisses, the harsh sound going straight to Chu Wanning’s cock. “The things you do to me…”
They don’t make it back to their rooms.
Ink splatters across the floor, brushes and papers flying as Taxian-Jun sweeps everything off and slams Chu Wanning onto the desk, tearing his sash off in one move. Loosens his own sash before he drops to his knees and sucks at the delicate skin of Chu Wanning’s thighs.
Chu Wanning knows he’ll have marks for sure, bruises in the shape of Taxian-Jun’s mouth and fingers. The thought boils the want deep in his belly, drives up a shameless moan when Taxian-Jun spreads his ass apart, lapping slow, teasing strips up his hole with his tongue.
Soon, he’s arching off the desk with a gasp, Taxian-Jun’s tongue and fingers deep inside him. Soon, Taxian-Jun is coming on him, hand stroking his massive cock until he strips pale skin with yet another adornment, Chu Wanning’s name on his lips.
“Master,” comes the same tremulous voice by the doors. “For dinner, we have prepared Master Chu’s favorite dishes, as you have instructed…”
“I told you to always check the doors first,” Chu Wanning snaps, heat dampened by the crack in his voice.
Taxian-Jun laughs, breathless.
Spring comes, and the blossoms open.
If Chu Wanning was content at Ran, he might be… happy, with Taxian-Jun.
The man is still volatile, still petty, still brimming with more confidence than any man should possess.
But there's glimmers of kindness in there, evident by how he meets all of Chu Wanning's needs and wants, without declaring it, without demanding recognition. And Chu Wanning enjoys the way his face lights up, soft and pleased, each time his birth name is called—Mo Ran, come look at this; Mo Ran, what are your thoughts on this; Mo Ran, Mo Ran, Mo Ran.
There's something about that that affects Chu Wanning too, being called by his own name, Taxian-Jun's mouth curling lovingly around it. After a lifetime of names, Chu Wanning is finally Chu Wanning again, and he's wanted now, loved and accepted for it, not in spite of it.
For that, above all else, it becomes Chu Wanning's choice to stay with Taxian-Jun. For as long as the man will have him.
That week, Taxian-Jun is away on a business trip. But he writes every day, and Chu Wanning sees Taxian-Jun in the letters, in his clumsy handwriting and plodding turn of phrases. For a paragraph, he talks of the idiocy he faces around him, the incompetence. The rest of the letter then devolves into utter filth, starting with how much Chu Wanning must miss him and his talented mouth and hands, ending with vivid, graphic details of what exactly he would do if Chu Wanning were right there with him.
To Chu Wanning's shame, he's lost count of the times his hand has moved to touch himself while reading these letters. The times he’s let his head tip back, sighing, as he strokes himself to the image of Taxian-Jun's dark eyes on him, Taxian-Jun's lips wrapped firmly around his cock.
He neglects to share this in his written responses.
On the last day of Taxian-Jun's trip, Chu Wanning decides to surprise him with a gift, something small and embroidered. He asks the servants for a sample of Taxian-Jun's favorite colors and patterns, so he knows where to start. As always, they're quick to comply, bringing an entire box of samples to his room in the blink of an eye.
Gaze fixed to the floor, the servant who brings it picks out an item, spreading it out on the desk for Chu Wanning to see.
"This is Master's greatest treasure," she says.
It's a handkerchief. Silk, a pale blue in color.
The kanji 'Ran' embroidered in one corner.
Chu Wanning's chest goes hot and tight.
He thinks of the big, wide eyes, the round cheeks caked with dirt; the innocence and earnest determination, burning bright and fierce as the sun at noon.
He thinks of a haitang blossom, slightly crushed, cradled in the palm of two hands.
Pretty Sir. Take me as your attendant?
I promise I can make you smile.
A real smile, not like this one.
I won’t forget you.
Overcome, Chu Wanning barely remembers to dismiss the servant, who shuffles backwards out of his room on her knees and noiselessly slides his doors shut.
But why wouldn’t he tell him? Why keep it a secret? Perhaps it’s simply an item he happened to procure from a store called Ran, a fairly common name in Japan.
Yet, it makes sense. The way Taxian-Jun lingered on the dried flower on his wall, the way Taxian-Jun reacted to any mention of it. Why Taxian-Jun chose him, out of all the courtesans he could have owned in Maruyama.
Chu Wanning touches the kanji with the pad of his forefinger.
“All this time,” he whispers, “Have you been trying to make me smile?”
The haitang tree, the shelves filled with Japanese readings, the koto, the writing materials, his favorite dishes, snacks, desserts. Even his room, designed in an exact replica of his quarters at Ran.
With me, you will want for nothing.
Chu Wanning lingers on the handkerchief for a moment, before he reaches for the sewing box.
He knows what to gift Taxian-Jun now.
When Taxian-Jun returns, Chu Wanning is on his koto, fingers weaving a tune that sweeps and falls, wistful in sound. He lifts his gaze to meet Taxian-Jun’s, before his mouth tilts up at the corners, and the melody changes, lilting on joyful, high notes.
“Welcome home, Mo Ran.”
Taxian-Jun’s smile is incandescent.
“I still prefer the qin,” he sniffs, bending over to steal a kiss.
Chu Wanning lets him. “I have always wanted to learn.”
“Then you will have a qin by tomorrow,” Taxian-Jun declares.
Chu Wanning can no longer ignore the quiet surge of feeling in his chest. It's lurked just beneath his breast, surfacing each time Taxian-Jun revealed his eagerness to please, well concealed behind that prideful veneer.
The truth has made it so much stronger.
“I have a gift for you,” Chu Wanning says.
It takes him a moment to calm an elated Taxian-Jun, whose hands reach, like clockwork, for the sash of his robes. Really, can a man have more of a one-track mind? It’s with great reluctance, and a huffy growl, that Taxian-Jun lets him pull away to retrieve the gift.
Chu Wanning has chosen something simple, something that he hopes can convey the feeling inside him. That he knows.
Taxian-Jun’s breath catches when Chu Wanning holds it up for him to see: the silk, blue handkerchief, the added border of haitang blossoms around the square, his name ‘Mo Ran’ sewn in neat white characters next to the printed ‘Ran.’
“You…” He swallows, voice quivering slightly. “How did you…”
“One of your servants brought it to me,” Chu Wanning says.
Taxian-Jun’s jaw clenches, and then he’s moving, striding for the open doors. On instinct, Chu Wanning grabs his arm, ignores the murderous look Taxian-Jun shoots at him. “Where are you going?”
“To punish the fool who went through my things,” Taxian-Jun hisses.
“They did it for me,” Chu Wanning says, sharply. “I asked for a sample of your favorite colors and patterns.”
“Doesn’t give them the right,” Taxian-Jun snarls, jerking his arm out of his grasp. “Especially not this. You were never meant to find out!”
Of all the reactions Chu Wanning anticipated, this was not one of them.
Anger blazes through him, the flames licking at his insides, searing into his bones. He should have known. The great and powerful Taxian-Jun, ashamed that he’d considered serving a courtesan, that a former courtesan knows of his foolish past endeavors.
In his growing fondness for Taxian-Jun, he had mistaken the keepsake for sentimentality and yearning.
“Why?” he snaps. “Why hide this from me? Why keep this handkerchief if it brings you such shame? Or does it motivate you to do better than this worthless, tainted—”
“I thought you would leave me,” Taxian-Jun barks.
Chu Wanning’s words fizzle out in the back of his throat. “What?”
“I thought you would leave me, if you found out,” Taxian-Jun says again, softer. He sighs, raggedly, and looks away. “I worked hard to get here. To become Taxian-Jun, to become worthy of you. Madams, courtesans, even geisha… they all flung themselves at me, groveling like dogs for my attention. But you… you're different. I had to take you out of Ran before you'd finally notice me. Had to make you see my estate, my worth, everything I've achieved with your own eyes.”
He lets out a strange noise, halfway between a laugh and a choke; Chu Wanning feels cold at the sound.
“Why would you look at a man who was some dirty street urchin with a flower he picked off someone else’s tree?”
Gone is Taxian-Jun, replaced by Mo Ran. Scared, lonely Mo Ran, who’s spent his entire life finding a way to please Chu Wanning and make him his.
Someone who couldn’t be more undeserving of such devotion.
But this isn’t about him.
“I kept the flower,” Chu Wanning says, quietly.
“I know,” Taxian-Jun mutters. “Because you like haitang flowers.”
“That’s not the only reason."
Taxian-Jun looks at him, the corners of his eyes tinting red. He hesitates, then in a small voice, “What’s the other reason?”
“Because it gave me hope," Chu Wanning says. "Because you gave me hope."
Taxian-Jun’s expression shifts, and Chu Wanning sees it now, finally, the look that’s flickered on his face, vanishing as soon as it appears. As if he can’t believe Chu Wanning is still here, with him, as if he’ll never believe it.
Chu Wanning lifts his hand, frames it on the curve of Taxian-Jun’s cheek. “You’ve built yourself a life worth living. But I haven’t stayed for Taxian-Jun, his money, or his achievements. I’m here for Mo Ran. Sweet, kind Mo Ran, who offered me a flower and a promise that he's more than fulfilled.”
Taxian-Jun makes the choked noise again, trembling.
“Mo Ran.” Chu Wanning smiles up at him. “Mo Ran, I’m looking.”
Mo Ran holds him, and cries.
It’s not frantic this time. No scrambling at clothes and desperate kisses, just the surety of Mo Ran’s weight against his hips, Mo Ran’s lips against his, soft and sweet and slow.
Robes slipping off, Chu Wanning folds back on the bedding, and Mo Ran follows, pressing him into the sheets, knees against his sides. He brushes the curl of hair at Chu Wanning’s temple, following it down the curve of his neck, the line of his collarbones. Leans down to trace the same path with his mouth, hands shifting to grip Chu Wanning's hips, fingers brushing his nipples along the way.
Chu Wanning sighs, his own hands smoothing across the wings of Mo Ran’s shoulder blades, down the line of his spine. Mo Ran’s reverent touches—the way he’s looking at him, layered with heat and fondness—makes something inside of him crack open, that same feeling spilling between his ribs. He’ll have to share it with Mo Ran sometime, in words, but now, for now, he shows it to Mo Ran in his smiles, his kisses.
In the way he grips the base of Mo Ran’s cock, fingers warm and certain.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran gasps. “You—”
Chu Wanning strokes him, lips curving as Mo Ran shivers and pushes up into his hand. It's not the first time he's held Mo Ran, but it's the first time he's done it without prompting. Any other night, he might be embarrassed by the boldness of his actions, the sheer lack of shame. But not tonight.
Tonight, he knows exactly what he wants.
“Come inside,” Chu Wanning says.
Mo Ran stares at him, slack-jawed. “I thought you wouldn’t want… after all those years in Ran…”
Oh, is that why?
Chu Wanning laughs, and Mo Ran flushes, pouting, before he leans down to swallow the huffs of breath in a deep kiss.
“We have a lot to catch up on,” he purrs against his mouth.
It’s Chu Wanning’s turn to flush, then Mo Ran is pulling him close, levering himself up to reach for the bottle by the bedding. They’d decided, without words, that it’d be easier to leave that there, even if they end up somewhere else. (They often do.)
He watches with hooded eyes as Mo Ran pops the lid, slicking his fingers with oil. This part, they’ve done a million times; this part, he’s familiar. Still, his pulse jumps at the feel of Mo Ran’s fingers circling his entrance, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran breathes, and the look returns, full of wonder.
How open he is when he’s not Taxian-Jun, how vulnerable.
Chu Wanning wants to tell Mo Ran that he’s the lucky one, that Mo Ran is the beauty who deserves so much better. But he loses his words when Mo Ran slips a finger in; withdraws and slips it in again, deeper. Lets slip a moan as Mo Ran opens him up, first with one finger, then two. Even this has turned gentle, slow, unlike the sharp, rough thrusts fueled by need and desperation. Because they have time now, together, and Mo Ran knows that Chu Wanning isn’t going anywhere.
Chu Wanning sinks his teeth in his bottom lip as Mo Ran pulls out to reach for the oil again, slicking his fingers and palm. Exhales, shakily, when Mo Ran takes himself in hand, guiding himself toward his entrance.
Mo Ran is big.
Chu Wanning knows this, remembers it, all the times he’s choked on Mo Ran’s thick girth, lips stretched uncomfortably as he tries to take him all in.
Will it fit?
Mo Ran pauses, his brows knitting together. He's always had a sixth sense for Chu Wanning's discomfort. “If you don’t want this—”
“I do,” Chu Wanning says, before his traitorous mind changes course. “I do, but can you…” His eyes flick down to Mo Ran’s length, his throat going dry at the sight of it. Can he what? Go slow? Take him with shallow thrusts? He’s not sure what to suggest; years as a top-ranked courtesan hasn’t at all prepared him for this.
“It’s all right.” Mo Ran kisses his forehead. “We can stop anytime."
With Mo Ran, he has that option now.
Chu Wanning nods, the smallest of movements.
So Mo Ran presses against his entrance—presses in, in, deeper, further, inch by inch, and Chu Wanning feels the stretch of his insides making way for Mo Ran, the clench of his hole around the thick shaft. His heart is rabbiting wildly, but he hasn’t felt this way in so long—hasn’t felt this filled—so he can’t help but shift his hips to chase the feeling, get more in him.
Above, Mo Ran’s breath comes out in a hiss, lips held hard between his teeth.
“Don’t,” he rasps. “If you move like that, I—”
Chu Wanning looks up at him, cheeks flushed, eyes in half-slits.
Mo Ran swears, and then he rocks in, right to the hilt, and Chu Wanning’s mouth falls open in a gasp, the breath punched out of him.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran says, shaking. “Wanning, did I hurt you, did I—”
“I’m fine,” Chu Wanning manages. He’s not, but he will be. “Just.. move.”
Mo Ran licks his lips and nods. Then he’s thrusting, rolling into him and opening him further, face tucked against the curve of Chu Wanning’s neck, breath coming hot and fast as he mumbles against him, “Wanning, baobei, so tight, so good, so perfect—”
A new name.
Chu Wanning curls his arms around Mo Ran’s neck, shameless sounds punctured out of him each time Mo Ran sinks in all the way. He dismissed the affectionate names his clients had given him, knowing that he’s nothing but luxury goods used for their entertainment. But a name from Mo Ran is something he wants to hold onto. Cradle to his chest and keep it safe until his last breath.
“Baobei, gods, the way you suck me in—I, ngh, should’ve fucked you ages ago—”
The flush on Chu Wanning’s cheeks burn; maybe not when it’s used like that.
“Stop talking,” he huffs. Mo Ran laughs and rocks into him, finding that spot that makes fireworks explode behind his eyelids. Finding it, and pushing against it, over and over, until Chu Wanning comes with a soft cry of Mo Ran’s name, Mo Ran following him over, hands tightening at his sides.
Mo Ran doesn’t pull out. Just collapses on top of him, sticky and breathless, heart thudding against his.
Chu Wanning would complain, but he’s just as breathless, still coming down from the moment. Instead, he slips his fingers into Mo Ran’s silken strands, scritches gently at his scalp.
Mo Ran sighs, utterly content.
They’re drifting off, Mo Ran pillowed on Chu Wanning’s chest, Chu Wanning’s hand resting on the back of Mo Ran’s neck, when a thought flits into Chu Wanning’s head.
“Did we close the doors?” Chu Wanning asks into the silence.
“Mn,” Mo Ran says, half-asleep. “I closed them as soon as we came in.”
Chu Wanning smiles.
The qin arrives the next day, along with a teacher and an entire collection of music scores.
Chu Wanning also asks for Chinese texts, in addition to various tutors well-versed in Chinese history, economics, culture, and governance. Swiftly, Mo Ran seeks tutors out in three days, arranges for them to meet with him in the presence of a servant.
“No one is to meet you alone while I’m away,” Mo Ran says when Chu Wanning asks. “And I can’t possibly punish your tutors for looking you in the eye.” He pauses. “Or can I?”
Chu Wanning lets out a sigh. It’s hard to stamp out Taxian-Jun completely, he’s learned, not when it’s a persona Mo Ran has based his success on. He’d barely managed to persuade Mo Ran out of whipping the poor servant who brought him the handkerchief. (“She’s the reason we both know the truth, Mo Ran.” “How else will the others learn not to meddle in my affairs?”)
Mo Ran tugs Chu Wanning close, presses his lips to his forehead. “Play for me when I return, Wanning. On the qin, under the haitang tree.”
Chu Wanning nods. The blossoms are falling, but he'll be back before they’re all gone. “Do you have everything?”
Hand in his robes, Mo Ran pulls out the silk handkerchief, a flash of blue. “This is all I need,” he says, cocky, before he slips it back in and gestures for the servants to grab his bags.
Chu Wanning walks him to the entrance.
“I will be here,” he says.
Mo Ran’s smile is soft as he leans in for a kiss.
Chu Wanning is used to being called many names.
Now, he has two.
And he never wants to get used to hearing them.