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A Lingering Sweetness

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Chu Wanning detests mysteries. More precisely, he detests frivolous mysteries. It's one thing to puzzle over a complex piece of machinery for days on end, or to unravel why, exactly, a specific cave seems to be eating local townsfolk. At least then he can expect the satisfaction of discovering a solution, of bending metal and energy into the shape he demands, or he can rest knowing that he has taken some small step toward protecting the innocent.

But this — this tease, this joke, infuriates him, leaves a red haze over his eyes and tightens the skin on his back until he wants to scream. What is the point of this? Why me? Why bother?

A pale-blue box sits, neatly innocuous, at the threshold, inches from his feet. It's the sort of box sweet-sellers use to package their wares, because they know a pretty exterior can persuade their customers to part with a few extra coins, even if the contents aren't anything special.

It's the third box of its kind to appear at his door this week, without a knock to announce its presence or a note to explain why someone thought it would be wise to leave it here to begin with. And while the gold paint along the crisp edges is pleasing to the eye, all Chu Wanning feels as he stares at it is a pain like a wasp's sting.

Because it is a joke, without doubt; why else would someone leave such gifts at his door, without claiming them? Perhaps it's some disciple's misguided attempt to curry favor, though he can't imagine who would dare. 

As he has each other time a box has so arrived, he sends a thread of spiritual energy through the air, searching for threats hidden within. And, as he has each other time, he finds nothing, other than a common spell to preserve the contents.

Why? he asks, silently.

There is no answer, save for a light breeze crossing the path to his door, heralding the easy shift from afternoon into evening. The boxes are always left in the hour before dinner, after Chu Wanning returns to prepare the evening's work, before making his way down to Mengpo Hall. Like if someone wants to be sure he'll find them, when he leaves.

He sighs, cutting a glance both left and right to make sure no one lingers close to observe him. The breeze, though gentle, is strong enough to bring a familiar scent to his nose, and his sigh fades into a deep breath of satisfaction — the one and only sign he gives that this mystery is not, in fact, completely unwelcome.

Bending quickly, he scoops the box up, and carries it back inside. There's room enough on the main room's table to set the box down, and time enough before dinner to take a quick glance at what lies inside. Chu Wanning breathes in again, savoring the sweet, almost delicate scent, then lifts the box's lid.

Osmanthus cakes, studded with wolfberries. They shiver slightly as he lifts his hand, holding back his sleeve so the fabric won't drag and stain — but then his stomach rumbles, and he lets his hand fall, now clenched into a fist.

Ridiculous. He slams the box shut, hard enough his fingers dent the edges, and turns away. It can sit there with the other two boxes, untouched, until he figures out who's to blame — who dares — and then he can be rid of them all, his mind clear.

And yet…

…his fingers slide along the gilded edge, and he wonders. No, he hopes — and then he shakes his head, and smothers the fresh seedling before it has a chance to flower. He may not know who is leaving these gifts at his door, but he can be sure of one thing: there is one person who never will.

                                                                                                   


 

The mysterious gifts continue to arrive, one box every three or four days. Chu Wanning continues to bring them inside, indulging in a single glance before shoving them into the ever-growing pile and trying to forget about them. His disciples continue to labor for his approval, though by now they've all surpassed even his great hopes for them, and Sisheng Peak continues to ring with life, with the echoes of a thousand voices.

Life, in other words, continues to continue. Chu Wanning is left to his own devices, quite literally, much as he ever was. While he has no reason to doubt the rest of the sect is glad to have him returned, he also has no reason think their joy is anything but transient. They have other business to attend, their own lives and stories to nurture. Lives and stories Chu Wanning missed, in those five dreaming years of seclusion.

He tries not to linger on such thoughts, and notably fails. At least when his mind chases its own tail over all that has changed and all that has grown in his absence, the pain is tempered by nostalgia to a dull ache. Pride gentles it further: his disciples are men now, in whom any teacher would be delighted — and isn't this the sharp joy all teachers seek? To look at those they've taught, and know they've been surpassed?

But there are days — and if those days are the ones when no boxes appear on his threshold, he resolutely does not notice — when he eats alone, or surfaces from a delicate piece of machinery to find he hasn't spoken to anyone from sunrise to sunset, or hears a stark burst of laughter he doesn't recognize, and he thinks: Perhaps it makes no difference that I've returned.

The world, after all, kept turning without him. Seasons flowed in their mellow way, one into the next. The sun shone on river and mountain alike. Meals were eaten, fields were tilled, children were born — as they were when he was alive, as they are now while he labors in his pavilion. As they were while he slept, as they were while he was dead.

In the darkest moments, when Chu Wanning feels like he's drowning under the weight of a grief he hasn't earned and a loneliness he well deserves, he thinks his life only mattered on the stairs. He doesn't remember his long seclusion, save for moments glimpsed through smoked glass — a bright ray of sunlight, the distant sound of rain, salt at the corners of his mouth — but he remembers each stair, each tear in his skin. Each breath and heartbeat of the body in his arms, and then on his back.

He never doubted he would reach the top. He simply never considered anything coming after.

                                                                          


                         

He reaches his breaking point when the tenth box is delivered. Or appears, because he is still no closer to unraveling this mystery than he was when the first arrived. He is, however, much closer to breaking his own legs, because he discovered the box on his way to bathe, and is now nursing a dark bruise across the arch of his foot.

Chu Wanning is not given to great shows of emotion, unless that emotion is anger. There's been a bitter vein in him all his life, a venom commingled with his blood. It twists in him like a worm within the apple, and now it bursts free as the sun falls on the pretty box, with its graceful gold edges catching the light.

Eyes red, face bloodless, he picks up the box and carries it inside, not bothering to shut the door. Osmanthus cakes, again, shivering as he drops the box beside all the others. He already tastes them in the corners of his mouth, at the tip of his tongue. The wolfberries would give up their juice reluctantly. He could —

How his rooms reek of sugar and fruit. He hadn't noticed till now, but standing before all the boxes, this little mystery he's too pathetic to solve, it's inescapable.

He opens the newest box, hardly looking the contents before he moves on to the next. The smell thickens as he draws each box out of the pile, throws open the lid, then shoves it away. He has to drop the last box on the floor, because there's no more room on the table. Just the boxes, and the sweets within, glowing in the dim afternoon light, all of them just as fresh as the day they appeared on his doorstep.

"Why," Chu Wanning hisses, to no one at all, "why? Did you think this was kind? Did you think it would help?"

What he's saying makes no sense. There is no one to hear, there is nothing to help. The world kept going while he remained a fixed point, vanishing into the distance. And now — now he is alive again, and he can eat and drink and watch stars cross the night sky, and he can smile at his disciples as they keep surpassing him, and he can tolerate the years he missed, because there is nothing else to be done, but he cannot bear to be a joke.

He picks up the oldest box, aware of tears beading heavy along his lashes, and walks to the brazier at the far corner of the room. Once there, he does what he should have done from the beginning, and dumps the box and all its contents into the fire. Then he waits until the flames have begun their devouring, and turns back to the table to fetch the rest.

 


                                                                                  

By the time only one box is left, his rooms are filled with sweet, clinging smoke, and Chu Wanning can't tell if he's crying or if his eyes simply won't stop watering. Still, he can endure a little longer, if it means the task is finished. And maybe, he thinks, savagely, whoever keeps dropping these things on his doorstep will see, and know their attentions are unwanted.

He hesitates over the last box. The smell is strongest here, despite the smoke, and abruptly, wearily, Chu Wanning thinks, Why not?

No one is watching. No one is here. It's just him, alone, and if he takes one moment to pretend that these gifts are no joke but an invitation, it will remain secret. As it should.

So he takes his time choosing a cake, careful to touch only one. It gives slightly under his fingers, and fits perfectly along the curve of his tongue. He shuts his eyes, a little dizzy from the smoke and from his quick-fading temper, while the world seems to waver all around him.

Do you like it, Shizun? How does it taste?

His chest aches, and not only from the smoke. Chu Wanning returned not just to his life, but to his longing, which is just as much a part of him as that bitter, bitter vein.

How quickly it melts, sweet-sharp, and is gone. Within seconds, Chu Wanning is left with sticky fingers, a tart aftertaste at the back of his mouth, and a great hollowness in his belly. Without giving himself time to pause or doubt, he dumps the box on the ashes of its fellows.

Pointless to indulge. He coughs a little, wipes his face, and turns back to the door. There's yet time to bathe before the sun goes down, and he can wash the sweet heavy smell of burning sugar from his hair. And then —

Footsteps, coming up the path. Quick at first, then breaking into a run. Chu Wanning is suddenly very aware of how hideous he must look, eyes streaming, hair loose and tangled, wearing nothing but a thin bathing robe, but it's too late to hide or dress or leave. His visitor has arrived.

"Shizun?" calls an alarmed voice from the open door. "Are you all right? There's so much smoke. Shizun!"

Of course it would be Mo Ran, Chu Wanning thinks, dazed and on the point of hysterical laughter. He passes his hand over his face, as if he could wipe away any expression that would give him away, and is ready with a blank look when Mo Ran bursts into the room.

Chu Wanning waits for the sweet aftertaste to curdle at his disciple's appearance. When has he been able to look at Mo Ran without mingled guilt and longing? Perhaps there had been a moment, at the top of the stairs, when he looked at that slack, bloodied face, and felt relief. Felt peace.

Now, he feels the world waver again, as Mo Ran comes far too close and searches his face for something Chu Wanning cannot name. The smoke makes it impossible to pick out the violet tint in his eyes, but with Mo Ran hovering close enough to touch, Chu Wanning doubts he'd be able to see it anyways. Mo Ran as a youth was absorbing, all color and brash laughter. Mo Ran as a man is overwhelming, heat and wheat-gold skin and broad shoulders. A lake, and now an ocean; rain, and now the storm entire.

He backs away before Mo Ran touches him, which is a half-second after Mo Ran realizes he has a hand raised to — to do something, though Chu Wanning's mind disconnects from reality when he tries to picture what that might be.

The fading smoke still obscures most of the room, but it doesn't hide the clean, honest smells of Mo Ran's sweat and soap. Chu Wanning watches a single drop of sweat travel down Mo Ran's temple, and jaw, and then disappear beneath his collar. A muscle jumps in Mo Ran's neck, and at that point Chu Wanning has had enough, of himself and this situation, and takes three more steps back.

"What do you want?" he asks, thankfully without coughing, because he's already embarrassed enough for one day. Perhaps if he's sharp-tongued enough, Mo Ran will be too afraid of Tianwen making an appearance to notice Chu Wanning's lack of proper dress. "Well?"

His voice alone is enough of a whip-crack to make Mo Ran startle. He rubs the back of his neck, scratches his head, somehow looks up at Chu Wanning through his lashes despite being much taller — honestly, all that's missing to complete the picture of a contrite, hapless disciple is shuffling feet. Ah, and there they are, the gentle scuff of shoes upon wood the only noise in the room.

Not the only noise. Chu Wanning is very aware of his heart pounding, and the blood rushing in his ears.

"Shizun," says Mo Ran, the way one would speak to a spooked cat. Chu Wanning half-expects him to be foolish enough to make that abominable pspspsps noise at him, and then he will have to bring out Tianwen — but the fire in the brazier chooses that moment to crackle merrily, drawing Mo Ran's gaze.

Without his disciple's regard, Chu Wanning feels himself waver, all his sharp edges and great coldness fading into mist, and he falls against the table as Mo Ran charges across the room to beat out the flames.

There's a great deal of muted cursing — Mo Ran's vocabulary grew a bit these past few years, Chu Wanning thinks, wiping at his face and trying not to laugh — and then a fwoosh as the flames are put out. Perhaps he should have paid more attention to just how much fuel he'd given the fire.

Now he does laugh, breathless and reedy, head thrown back and eyes closed. The air is so sweet, even with the acrid edge of smoke in every breath. His chest hurts every time he inhales, but it feels good to laugh, like a knot coming undone, so he doesn't stop until he feels a timid hand settling on his shoulder.

Amazing, how such a man can be so gentle. He tries to shrug the touch away, but Mo Ran won't be denied, and in any case Chu Wanning is still trapped against the table.

"What do you want, Mo Ran?" he snaps. The harsh words solidify him, ground him. He is Chu Wanning, the Yuheng Elder. Irascible, cold, unfeeling. A liar.

"You weren't at lunch, and it's almost time for dinner," says Mo Ran. "You should eat, shizun. They're making —"

"I already ate." Chu Wanning turns, puts his shoulder to Mo Ran. At least Mo Ran's eyes haven't left his face. It's too much to ask that his disciple hasn't noticed the single sheer layer protecting Chu Wanning's modesty, but he's managed to suppress his body's reaction to Mo Ran's proximity, so Chu Wanning supposes he should be grateful. "Go. Don't be late."

"Shizun, ah, this disciple —"

Stop calling me that. Stop looking at me. I know what you see, Mo Ran. I know what I am.

"Go," he says, and punctuates the word with a shove to Mo Ran's chest. He doesn't expect it to do anything, given that Mo Ran has more muscles than should be allowed, but the push sends Mo Ran stumbling back, hurt clouding his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous," he adds, for no reason at all.

"I can bring dinner back, if shizun would like," Mo Ran says. "What did shizun already eat? I'll get something light, and some tea."

Chu Wanning shuts his mouth on the temptation to say I ate a strange cake someone left in a box at my door, because the situation is already ridiculous enough without trying to explain the last month to his disciple. Still, a light-headed part of him wants to see the look on Mo Ran's face if he did.

He would never look at me the same way again, he thinks, and then shuts his eyes.

It would be so easy to give in to Mo Ran's doting care; no doubt every other elder in the sect is used to such treatment. And oh, how Chu Wanning wants it, to nod and watch Mo Ran run back down to the kitchens and bring him back a meal for them to share as the day winds slowly into night.

He would ask for nothing else in this life. Just a quiet handful of moments, a shared peace, a dream.

He asks for nothing, in the end. Mo Ran asks for him.

"What does shizun want?" He takes a step closer, and then another. Chu Wanning refuses to open his eyes. "This disciple is his to instruct, to command. This disciple waits for —"

Mo Ran's voice catches. Chu Wanning is startled into opening his eyes. There's barely a hands-breadth between them now. Each quiver of Mo Ran's lashes, each beat of his pulse, all of it laid bare — and the pale pink of his tongue, darting out to wet his lips.

Chu Wanning makes one noise. Only one. Later he can't even imagine how he sounded, shame at his own weakness devouring the memory itself, but Mo Ran groans like the air has been punched out of him, and puts his head in his hands.

"Forgive this disciple, shizun," he says, to his palms, already backing away. "I will leave you now."

Chu Wanning's blood turns to lead. His bones are ice, and they will shatter when Mo Ran walks out the door. He can't speak, his throat closed up with too much longing, but he lifts one hand — and Mo Ran sees, and pauses.

He is a man past his prime, Chu Wanning knows, and even then he was no beauty. He is clever, yes, and powerful, but he's never once been kind or wanted. The world passed him by long before he died.

But he reaches out, once, and Mo Ran surges forward, the ocean and the storm.

 


                                                                                                    

He's been so unfair to Mo Ran, in countless small and vicious ways. Never has that been more obvious in the moments before Mo Ran touches him, when he has time to prepare himself for the onslaught of his disciple's want.

And want is what he sees, in the lines of Mo Ran's body, in the fevered heat of his gaze. Pretty it up and call it desire, make it base and call it lust — the truth is Mo Ran wants him, for a moment, for a breath, and Chu Wanning is weak enough to give in.

Mo Ran wants him. Chu Wanning wants him in return. In this, at last, they are equals.

It won't endure. In an hour, maybe less, Mo Ran will realize how misplaced his attentions are, and the fragile web connecting them will snap. If he truly deserved his reputation for stoicism and restraint, Chu Wanning would have turned Mo Ran away long before this moment — if only to save himself the pain of watching Mo Ran leave, while his own need remained.

But he is tired now, of wanting, and while the past five years are little more than shreds of old silk, falling through his hands, Chu Wanning would like to feel alive. For a little while.

So: he watches Mo Ran advance, broad rough hands already reaching out, and he trembles. It will be quick, he decides, in those few seconds. The heat in Mo Ran's gaze won't allow it to be otherwise. A few fumbling moments, pleasure sparking briefly beneath his skin, and then —

Then he will put aside all his wants and be, as he always should have been, the teacher Mo Ran deserves.

Oh, but for now, for this moment — he closes his eyes and tilts back his head, baring his throat in invitation. Shameful! hisses his own voice. Vulgar! If anyone could see you, Yuheng Elder, what would they say? That Chu Wanning is a weak man, to give in so easily to desire. See what it will bring you, in the end.

He almost sobs as the blood rushes to his face. His cheeks and ears heat while the misery builds in his chest. Every dream and every stolen glance have been leading to this: these breathless moments when he is all Mo Ran sees, and all Mo Ran wants. His disciple is close enough for the heat of his body to surround Chu Wanning, and beneath the filmy layers of his robe, his cock begins to stir.

Weak, whispers his voice. Where is your power now, Chu Wanning?

"Shizun," Mo Ran whispers. His breath fans across Chu Wanning's throat and collarbone. "May I — may this disciple…touch you?"

He hadn't expected Mo Ran to ask, not while he's splayed out like the most salacious illustration imaginable. In all the times he imagined this moment, Mo Ran had never asked. He'd taken, and Chu Wanning had been happy to let him. Whatever part of Chu Wanning pleased Mo Ran was his.

While he struggles to force out the words — why is it so hard to give permission? A single yes would suffice — he hears Mo Ran's breath hitch.

"If shizun has changed his mind —"

"Don't," Chu Wanning snaps, without opening his eyes. If he did, he would only see Mo Ran's own mind changing, want shifting into disgust as his disciple realizes what he was about to do. Better to stay ignorant, and let himself believe a little longer Mo Ran is here for him. "If you're going to do something, do it. Don't — don't stand there and talk about it."

There's a beat of silence, and then a noise Chu Wanning doesn't immediately recognize. A low rumble, warm and earthy. A chuckle.

"This disciple thanks shizun for his kind instruction." Chu Wanning's eyes snap open on reflex — he knows what the sly edge creeping into Mo Ran's voice means, and it means trouble — but then Mo Ran's smile confronts him, and he is lost. "And for his permission."

"You —" Chu Wanning shuts his mouth so quickly he bites the inside of his cheek. The pain makes him jolt, but it vanishes as Mo Ran steps into his space. They're breathing the same air, he thinks, light-headed again as Mo Ran presses him back against the table without touching him once.

Here it is, the singular moment. In two score heartbeats, maybe less, it will be over. Everything after this will take him further away from this warmth, and Mo Ran's smile. Chu Wanning holds his breath as his desire diffuses through his whole body, every inch of skin crying out with hunger.

Don't hesitate now, he screams silently. Do it. Please. His cock throbs under the silk, but he barely feels it. How secondary that part of his arousal feels, compared to his need.

Mo Ran reaches out. Chu Wanning's lungs ache. At the last moment he turns his head away. He never knows he missed how Mo Ran bites his trembling lip before wrapping both arms around Chu Wanning's shoulders, and drawing him close.

Chu Wanning's breath leaves him in a gust. Mo Ran shudders against him and hides his face in Chu Wanning's neck. His hands, so broad and rough, stroke Chu Wanning's shoulder-blades with what Chu Wanning would call desperation, if he didn't know better.

"Shizun," Mo Ran says, hot and wet against Chu Wanning's skin, and holds him tighter.

This is — unexpected. This is unthinkable. Nothing in Chu Wanning's experience has prepared him for this: to simply be held.

Mo Ran can't seem to get close enough. The movement of his hands doesn't stop, but he burrows closer, until the table cuts into the back of Chu Wanning's legs and he can do nothing but bear Mo Ran's weight. His rough clothes chafe against Chu Wanning's thighs and the sliver of bare chest at the vee of his robes. The sensation goes straight to Chu Wanning's cock, which twitches shamelessly beneath the silk. They're so close, chest to chest, that Mo Ran can't miss his flagrant, helpless desire, but he shows no sign of minding.

Or, indeed, of doing anything except cradling Chu Wanning to him, and running strong fingers through his hair.

Chu Wanning is paralyzed. Any move he makes adds pressure against his cock, already so sensitive even breathing makes him want to cry out, but the rest of him seems, impossibly, even more electrified. Mo Ran's mouth at his neck, Mo Ran's fingers tugging at his long, tangled strands of hair, Mo Ran's heavy thigh nudging Chu Wanning's legs open.

"You smell so good, shizun," Mo Ran whispers, brokenly. "You always have. But you — you smell delicious."

With exceeding gentleness, Mo Ran lifts Chu Wanning's hands to his mouth, and kisses his scar-littered knuckles. When that is done, he smiles, full of mischief, though there's a flush of high color on his cheeks, and his tongue darts out to lick the last of the stickiness from the cake off Chu Wanning's fingers.

Chu Wanning makes a strangled noise deep in his throat as his cock pulses. Shameless, weak, overwhelmed — but then Mo Ran seals his mouth around Chu Wanning's thumb, and sucks.

"Mo Ran!" Chu Wanning's blush begins at his cheeks, and rapidly descends. How attractive he must be, covered in mottled red, sweat beading at his temples. He swipes half-heartedly at Mo Ran's shoulder. "Don't be — ridiculous. Don't."

"But shizun." The shameless disciple of five years ago has clearly only been sleeping; Chu Wanning hears his echoes in every syllable coming out of Mo Ran's mouth. "It's the truth. This disciple wouldn't lie." Slowly, slowly, he closes his hand into a fist and winds Chu Wanning's hair around his fingers. The movement bares Chu Wanning's neck, but before he can wonder why, Mo Ran's mouth traces a long line over his skin. "Shizun must taste delicious, too," he whispers, before sealing his mouth over the hollow of Chu Wanning's throat.

He should be ashamed of the noises he makes, especially what comes out of his mouth when Mo Ran's tongue laves a slow circle against him. But Mo Ran's groan drowns him out completely, and the hand in his hair tightens, casting sparks behind his lids.

"Ah — ah — Mo Ran —"

"Shh." The hand loosens and strokes his nape. "It's all right. I want to make you feel good. That's all I want."

Chu Wanning is discovering there are apparently no limits to how much he can blush, or to his disciple's shameless mouth. "Stop saying these things."

"Why?" Mo Ran looks up, eyes wide, mouth slick. Chu Wanning whines, but catches himself before he can thrust into Mo Ran's thigh. He can take pride in that much, and does, until Mo Ran licks his lips and dives back in, sucking now, the hint of his teeth against Chu Wanning's collarbone searing through all other sensations. "I mean every word. You deserve to feel good, all the time. Every day, shizun deserves to —"

He must have said more, but his teeth have latched onto Chu Wanning's earlobe, and while that was not a place that ever figured into Chu Wanning's shameful imaginings, it certainly is now. He cries out, bright and silvery, then bites the back of his hand to shut himself up.

"No, no." Mo Ran catches his wrist and gently tugs. "Let me hear you, shizun. Please."

"I can't," Chu Wanning says through a shudder. To his shame, he's almost in tears.

"You can," say Mo Ran, infinitely sweet. "Shizun can do anything."

He's ridiculous. Mo Ran is utterly, entirely ridiculous, and Chu Wanning adores him, so he lets Mo Ran clasp both his hands to his chest, while he stays silent and trembling in his arms.

Then — then Mo Ran kisses him, and this, at least, is almost what Chu Wanning expected. He kisses with such hunger, graceless and hot and wet, but there's no demand in it, just a plea for more, more, more. And Chu Wanning, weak as he is, lonely as he is, gives it to him. He opens his mouth and lets Mo Ran take, aware of the faint moans he's making but not caring, for a little while, that he is.

"Shizun," Mo Ran hisses around a sharp gasp. "Shizun, you…"

"Stop calling me that while we —" Chu Wanning hisses, trying to wriggle his hands out of Mo Ran's grip, though what he'll do with them when he does is beyond him. The thought of touching Mo Ran is intoxicating, terrifying — he doesn't know what to do. He wants to do everything. "It's—!"

Mo Ran, unbelievably, grins and kisses him on the nose. Chu Wanning almost kills him on the spot. While he's spluttering, Mo Ran tilts his chin up and gives him a sweet, almost chaste kiss on the corner of his mouth.

"What would shizun like me to call him while we do this?" That sly edge is back, sharp enough to cut, but Mo Ran's eyes are warm, almost joyful, as he holds Chu Wanning's gaze. "Gege? Baobei?"

"Mo Weiyu!"

"What about Wanning," Mo Ran says against his mouth.

More than the name itself, Mo Ran's tone stuns Chu Wanning into silence, though he wants to protest. Such longing, such need, such care, all of it bound up in a single word Chu Wanning has heard uncountable times before.

It breaks him open. The first tear falls, stinging, from the corner of his eye. Mo Ran kisses it away.

"Wanning is good." Another kiss. "Wanning is kind, and strong." Another. "Wanning is clever and brave and righteous."

Somehow, Chu Wanning manages to break from Mo Ran's — everything — and face him at a safe distance. Or as safe a distance as he's going to get, with Mo Ran's arms about him and the table still pinning his legs. "Stop it," he says, with as much force as he can manage. "These things you're saying — just do what you like." Take what you want.

"I am," Mo Ran says. Whines, really. And now the fool is pouting, running rough fingers along the edge of Chu Wanning's robe, a gesture too artless to be unintentional. "Saying these things, telling you what I've been thinking — that's what I like. Almost as much as I like making you feel —"

Chu Wanning kisses him out of pure self-defense. A thin logic — worn almost threadbare by Mo Ran's presence, let alone his hands and his tongue — says that if Mo Ran's mouth is otherwise occupied, he won't be able to talk, and Chu Wanning won't have to hear all the words his disciple apparently can't help saying.

Mo Ran certainly stops talking when Chu Wanning kisses him, but he makes a noise so obscenely needy Chu Wanning can't help thrusting forward, seeking the slightest friction, the smallest relief.

And then Mo Ran is devouring him, all teeth and heavy tongue, still making those sounds while he tries to crawl inside Chu Wanning's body one kiss at a time. The simple thought — Mo Ran inside him — blazes through every nerve he possesses, leaves him shaking and clinging to Mo Ran's arms.

He wants — he wants what he's always wanted. A little of Mo Ran's attention, the weight of his regard, and now that he has it, he can only hold on for dear life.

"Yes," Mo Ran groans, nipping at Chu Wanning's lip and laughing breathlessly when Chu Wanning hisses. "Yes, yes, just like that." His hands fall to Chu Wanning's hips, the calluses snagging the silk, and pull him forward, until Chu Wanning's cock is trapped against his thigh. "Come on, Wanning. Let me — ah —"

It's too much. Chu Wanning wants to savor each new flood of sensation as Mo Ran's attention turns to an undiscovered part of his body, but with the pressure against his cock, he's not going to last. He's going to humiliate himself, and then this will be over.

The thought is unbearable. He pulls away again, pushing Mo Ran back when he tries to dart in for a kiss. His disciple pouts — again; if the situation were literally anything else Chu Wanning would make sure that expression goes extinct — but holds still when Chu Wanning levels a glare in his direction.

"I don't —" He licks his lips while he gropes for the right words, and doesn't miss Mo Ran's gaze tracking the motion. Predictable, he thinks, on a rush of exasperated fondness he knows all too well. Mo Ran must catch an echo of the thought in his face, because he grins, sheepish, and gently strokes Chu Wanning's hips with his thumbs. "Do you want to…be done?" he finishes, swallowing hard, still tasting sweet osmanthus at the back of his mouth.

He regrets it instantly, though really, he's not sure why he thought he could manage anything other than a waspish irritation. A habit of a lifetime; perhaps he really is too old to change. To hope.

"No," says Mo Ran. His hands are so damn huge, and his thumbs dally now at the crease of Chu Wanning's thighs. "But…"

"But what?"

"But Wanning should take what he wants." Mo Ran cuts him a sly glance through thick lashes, a flash of violet, there and gone. "This disciple wants him to. Even if that means…"

His voice trails off, and then his eyes drop, to where Chu Wanning's cock strains at the silk, a small wet patch growing with each passing moment. He shivers, as if he's not looking at a shocking lack of restraint, or a shameful display of lust, then lifts one hand to trace just under Chu Wanning's eye.

"But Wanning." Mo Ran's eyes go bright with new clarity. "If you want to come, then come." His smile, so sweet, turns wicked and merry. "There's time for more than one."

"You —" Chu Wanning spits, but his mind is too busy whirling with that particular declaration to figure out what the rest of his sentence should be.

He's aware of the mechanics of their — situation. Yes, Chu Wanning knows what happens, and what goes where, and what the end results should be. His awareness, however, is purely theoretical; he's lived too long in his ascetic state for any attempt at pleasure not to be instantly dismantled by guilt. Never once did he think there could be more than…once.

"Arrogance is unbecoming," he says, though the steadiness in his voice is somewhat undercut by how hard he's clinging to Mo Ran's robes, and his leaking, aching cock. "As are — as are false claims."

Mo Ran, thick-faced as always, just nods. "Shizun is right," he says, the picture of respectful agreement. Chu Wanning is going to smother him in his sleep. "Shizun is always right. But it's not arrogance." Without breaking eye contact, he licks his hand, palm to finger, and before Chu Wanning realizes what's happening, he slips that hand beneath Chu Wanning's robe and closes it around his cock.

He cries out. He cries out and nearly comes right then, back arched, hips thrust forward into the tight, rough heat of Mo Ran's hand. It's not nearly wet enough, and Mo Ran's other hand braces his hip and keeps him from fucking too far into that warmth but — it's perfect. Tight and close, Mo Ran's gaze hot on the side of his face as he tries to turn away. It's so much — more

"Yes, yes," Mo Ran chants, pure nonsense between panting breaths. He's kissing Chu Wanning again, sloppy and with too much tongue, but even that's perfect, too. He tastes so sweet as he nips and sucks at Chu Wanning's lips. "Ah — gods, Wanning, look at you. Feel so good. So pretty and hard for me. You're —"

"Shut — shut up." Chu Wanning gasps as Mo Ran's hand tightens, his thumb dragging roughly over the swollen crown of his cock. The tiny flare of pain keeps the pleasure at bay, so he chases it, burying his face in Mo Ran's chest while he fucks his hand.

How do people stand it? How do they manage to think or breathe when they're like this, whining and sweating, instead of flying out of their skin completely?

He sobs at every twist of Mo Ran's hand, his face wet with tears and sweat, but he can't hold on to his embarrassment, or be too ashamed of how he must look. He should be caring about all the noises he's making, or how anyone could come look at what he's doing, what he's letting be done to him, but he can't, he can't care about anything except Mo Ran's hand, and his mouth, and the way his voice anchors Chu Wanning to this moment.

"Wanning," Mo Ran rasps. "Please —" He bites Chu Wanning's lip, hard enough to break the skin, and that spark, shoves Chu Wanning against the limits of his control.

And then — that control shatters, and the pleasure swallows him whole. He spasms in Mo Ran's arms, back arched, hips pinned once more against Mo Ran's thigh, while his come spatters across his belly.

It should disgust him. It does disgust him, but somewhere deep down that's easily ignored, especially when Mo Ran lets out a breathless laugh and smears a kiss across his slack mouth.

"So good," he whispers. "Perfect, Wanning, you're perfect. You did so well."

I didn't do anything, Chu Wanning wants to point out, but then Mo Ran's tongue slips into his mouth and he just moans again. Mo Ran is still stroking his cock, which twitches helplessly and drools another little burst of come. That too should disgust him, but his legs choose that moment to give out and trying not to brain himself on the table becomes his first priority. Or tries to. He's still too preoccupied with how the remnants of his climax play up and down his spine like fingers upon qin strings to care about staying upright. Or conscious.

He read, a long time ago, the work of a poet who compared such release to dreams. Both, according to the poet, were too brief, always forgotten, and best bordered by sleep. They were wrong, Chu Wanning realizes, as Mo Ran catches him and bears him down to sit on the table's edge. It isn't at all like dreaming. It's like finally waking up.

And somehow, though his body feels deliciously wrung out, he isn't satisfied. He still wants more, of Mo Ran's touches and kisses, and he flushes all over again, hating himself for his greed, helpless to feel any other way.

His disciple crouches between his legs, eyes wide and somewhat awed. Chu Wanning, flushed and stained by his release, is now all too aware of what he looks like: a dry stick of a man, never handsome, angular and cold and pale. A drab, short-tempered creature, as appealing as a splinter in one's foot. But Mo Ran looks at him as if he will never get his fill, and part of Chu Wanning thinks, What if —?

He shakes the thought away before it can form. Best to kill the hope now before it has a chance to grow. It will hurt less, when Mo Ran comes to his senses.

"Wanning," the man before him breathes. Trembling hands settle on Chu Wanning's spread thighs. "That was…Wanning is perfect. Thank you."

"For what?" Chu Wanning can't see how that did much of anything for Mo Ran, all that shaking and crying out like a man driven mad. "Don't talk nonsense."

"I'm not." Mo Ran's hands stroke soothing, meaningless lines down Chu Wanning's legs, then back up over his hips. His touch is measured and light, and something small and sore aches in Chu Wanning's chest. He won't break, or if he does it wouldn't matter, but Mo Ran is so careful with him regardless.

Try as he might, Chu Wanning can't understand why. Surely Mo Ran knows he's not some frail, delicate thing. He doesn't have to hold back. He doesn't have to be tender. He can't be, because Chu Wanning doesn't know how to accept that.

"Shizun will be disappointed in this disciple for such thoughts but…I dreamed of that often. So many times. Just — making him feel good, making him give in, seeing his face when he —" Mo Ran inhales sharply, a new, wet gleam in his eyes. "But the real thing, I couldn't have imagined that. It was perfect."

He lifts his head, meets Chu Wanning's gaze. The unadorned want still burns in his eyes, and Chu Wanning's body answers as his voice can't, thighs spreading, cock stirring with new interest, heart beating like a fist against his ribs.

"Let me do it again," Mo Ran pleads.

Chu Wanning nods. What else could he do?

Yet again, his expectation that Mo Ran will simply take the most efficient route is torn apart: Mo Ran beams at him, as if he's the one been granted a gift, and then they're kissing again, unhurried, like lovers of long standing. And there is a sense now, a certainty stirring deep within his body, that this is how they should be, a shared desperation barely held in check.

More nonsense. Chu Wanning has never once deserved this, much less been owed it. The problem, however, is that it's hard to feel anything but right when Mo Ran presses their foreheads together, laughing, and impossible not to meet him halfway when he bends down for a kiss. Mo Ran has always been Chu Wanning's reckoning.

 


                                                                                                    

They go slowly, this time, for no other reason than because Chu Wanning is still overwhelmed by pleasure's echoes, and the lightest of Mo Ran's touches feel like fire against his skin. He's grateful, pathetically so, that Mo Ran ignores his cock even as it twitches and fills again, stirred by the light fingers at his throat and chest.

Of course he wants Mo Ran to touch him like that again, and drive him toward that indescribable peak, but this…interlude will surely end then, and now that the immediate, clutching desire is sated, Chu Wanning wants to savor every last moment. For later, when Mo Ran is gone, and he's left alone with his rooms and tools and books, again, always.

His reluctance to speed things along seems to be in happy agreement with Mo Ran's inclinations. His disciple — and really, Chu Wanning needs to stop thinking of him like that, at least while they're like this — mouths at the line of Chu Wanning's throat for what feels like hours, nipping a dozen marks into his skin and laughing when Chu Wanning tries to bat him away.

"How will Wanning remember all of this, if I don't leave him something to look at later?" Mo Ran asks, his lips tickling the hollow below Chu Wanning's ear. "Now I'll be with him, just a little, until these fade. I don't want him to forget him too quickly."

I won't. I couldn't. "Absurd."

"Mm." Mo Ran's pleased hum buzzes through Chu Wanning's neck and chest. "Still. Wanning will forgive this disciple for wanting to make sure." His mouth trails down, down, down, till he reaches a nipple. His tongue swipes teasingly across the bud, but before Chu Wanning can even gasp, his teeth fasten against the delicate skin and tug.

"Ah!" Chu Wanning claps a hand over his mouth and tries to shove Mo Ran away, even as his body — always, traitorously honest — leans forward, begging for more. White sparks dart across his vision as the pleasure rises, twinned with pain, both almost too sweet to bear.

Mo Ran lets him go, and licks the poor abused nipple until Chu Wanning is writhing and panting against him. "Wanning is sensitive," he says, far too pleased with himself. "So sensitive."

Chu Wanning gives his hair a tug, rolling his eyes when Mo Ran lets out a yelp far louder than required. What did you expect, Mo Weiyu?! I've never done this before. Did you expect I'd be a block of wood or a stone in your hands?

"Shizun is so cruel," Mo Ran murmurs, already sucking at Chu Wanning's other nipple. "This disciple is only telling the truth, and see what he receives for his trouble."

"If you don't stop talking," Chu Wanning breathes, while his eyes roll again, back into his head, floating on a warm current of pleasure, "I'm going to gag you."

Mo Ran makes the most undignified noise Chu Wanning has ever heard in his life. An impressive statement, given how long he's known Mo Ran. He glances down to find Mo Ran staring up at him, open-mouthed and with that awe-like expression written across his face again.

Oh. Oh. So Mo Ran is…

Right.

Chu Wanning pulls the tattered bits of his mind back together, and arches an eyebrow. "Well?" he says, all his authority poured into that word. "Will you stop?"

"I don't know," Mo Ran replies. The color is back in his cheeks, and his eyes are wild. "I — I don't think I can. So I should be — be —"

He throws back his head and groans. Chu Wanning feels the vibrations scatter through his body, and almost cries out himself when Mo Ran thrusts against him, once, twice, still groaning.

"I'm sorry, Wanning," Mo Ran pants. "But I need — I need to —"

He never finishes the sentence. What he does, instead, is brace his hands behind Chu Wanning's thighs, spread them even further, and then throw them over his shoulders. Chu Wanning's thoughts become one long static hiss, and then nothing at all, when Mo Ran swallows him in a single move.

It's too much, all over again. Mo Ran is all around him and still groaning and every sound and twitch of his tongue knocks the breath out of Chu Wanning's lungs. He's clumsy, but only out of desire, so Chu Wanning weathers the scrape of his teeth and simply digs his hands into Mo Ran's hair. 

For all of Mo Ran's urgency, Chu Wanning doesn't fear embarrassing himself by coming too quickly. Renewed arousal aside, his body isn't yet ready for a second climax, and so he's free to sink, mind unmoored, into the slow-cresting waves of pleasure. He hears himself cry out as Mo Ran pushes him to the knife's edge of over-stimulation, but Mo Ran's hands are tight on his thighs and he has nowhere to go, nothing to do but endure as too much evolves into not enough.

"Mo Ran," he whines, in tears again and far past caring about it. "Mo Ran — what about you? I —" Want to touch you.

The words won't let themselves be spoken, and in any case Mo Ran seems far past hearing him. He looks up when Chu Wanning says his name, but only pulls off his cock long enough to seemingly make sure Chu Wanning doesn't want him to stop. Then he licks around the head, swollen and dark once more, before taking Chu Wanning into his mouth again, cheeks hollowed, eyes closing in what looks like bliss.

Chu Wanning's pleasure inverts at the thought of Mo Ran liking this, wanting to do this for his own pleasure as much as Chu Wanning's. Now all he can think of is being in Mo Ran's position, kneeling while he takes Mo Ran's cock into his own mouth, sucking and licking, taking him deep as he can — he's filthy for thinking such things, unrepentantly obscene, and his body revels in it.

The coil of desire in his belly flares white-hot, the peak reached so abruptly Chu Wanning has no time to gasp more than a warning before he comes down Mo Ran's throat, a half-intelligible apology melting into Mo Ran's name, and then into weak cries as Mo Ran swallows around him, again, again, again.

He sees strange, unaccountable things as he climaxes: blood against snow, a tree unfurling fresh leaves in mad profusion. They vanish almost before he comprehends them, and he's alone in his body again, wracked by pleasure.

He's almost too dazed to notice when Mo Ran pulls off and stands on unsteady legs. Blearily, Chu Wanning looks up at him, boneless and floating, and watches as Mo Ran shoves his trousers down just enough to free his cock.

Even dazed, Chu Wanning has a flash of panic — that cursed pamphlet didn't lie — though that's soon washed away as Mo Ran starts to stroke himself, mindless and rough and impatient, showing his own cock none of the care he lavished on Chu Wanning's.

And Chu Wanning, whose shamelessness has no end, lets himself fall back against the clutter on the table, and spreads his legs. He can't bear to look at Mo Ran's face, in case he's finally disgusted his disciple, but all he hears is a throaty, helpless groan, and the heavy, wet weight of Mo Ran's come coating his belly, thighs, and cock.

How pointless, Chu Wanning thinks muzzily. As if Mo Ran needed to mark him, in any way. As if he has ever been anyone else's.

Mo Ran drops to his knees, hands blindly searching out Chu Wanning's body. He almost protests as Mo Ran clings to him — they're both sweaty and covered in each other's come, and he's fairly certain Mo Ran didn't bring a change of clothes with him — but his disciple sighs against his throat, and Chu Wanning closes his eyes.

"Wanning," Mo Ran breathes. "Wanning."

Chu Wanning cradles the back of Mo Ran's head. "I'm here," he whispers back, already drowsing. "I'm here, Mo Ran."

 


                                                                                     

When he wakes, Mo Ran is gone. The smoke has dissipated, the last of the sweet aftertaste has faded, and Chu Wanning is draped awkwardly across his floor, his robe come loose all about him.

He stretches and rises up on his elbows to survey his rooms. Apart from a bit of spilled ash in front of the brazier, they look as they did when he woke that morning. The only difference between then and now is the dried layer of come on his belly and thighs, and a growing hollowness in his chest. No marks show on his skin save for creases left by his robes. 

And so: Mo Ran is not gone, but never here at all. There was no interlude, only a worn-out old man's sordid dreams. There was no shared laughter or joy, there was no Wanning, only the sour echoes of his own words come back to haunt him. 

The most wonderful dreams are rarely ever real. 

He stays where he is for a long time, listening to nothing. Then he gets up, ties his robe, and walks slowly to the bath.

 


                                                                                                   

Halfway through drying his hair, Chu Wanning hears footsteps clattering up the path. He forces down a surge of irritation — he had hoped to stay hidden here, until the sting no longer showed in his face — and composes himself, opening the door before the first knock lands.

"What?" he snaps, clearly having failed at said composing, squinting into the late-day sun. "What do you —"

"Shizun?" The sun's glare fades, leaving a familiar form limned by sunlight, hovering almost close enough to touch. "It's Mo Ran, shizun."

Of course it is. Chu Wanning lifts his chin and refuses to blink, though his eyes water in the light. "Yes?" he prompts, when his disciple just shuffles and scratches his head. He does not let himself think of anything. He does not let himself remember. "What is it, Mo Ran?"

"Ah, shizun." A soft chuckle floats through the air between them, and Mo Ran shifts to block the sun. And he smiles, eyes bright, and shifts something from one hand to the other. "This disciple is — I mean —"

Chu Wanning closes his eyes. He has no patience for this, his already tiny well run dry by his own self-loathing. "If you have no business here, Mo Ran, then leave." His eyes follow the motion as Mo Ran shifts again, and he startles as he recognizes what, exactly, his disciple is holding.

"Mo Ran," he says, slowly, though his heart leaps in his chest, "where did you get that?"

"This?" Mo Ran looks at the gold-edged box as if he's never seen it before. His cheeks flush red, and he gives Chu Wanning a bashful, guilty look. "Heh. Well. Shizun will want to scold me, but — I found it outside my rooms. I've been finding them, and today I — that is, I checked them first! I was careful, but I was so curious, ha, and…" He shrugs, one side of his mouth quirking. "This disciple has been very foolish, shizun."

Chu Wanning nods. Truer words have rarely been spoken.

They're silent for a time, alone at the end of the day. Mo Ran stops fussing with the box and looks down at his feet, casting glances at Chu Wanning and then looking away with an odd, shy smile.

Wanning, comes a voice at his ear.

"Look, shizun." Mo Ran opens the lid, and with no surprise at all Chu Wanning makes out what lies within. "Osmanthus cakes."

Chu Wanning looks long enough to see how the sunset tinted the wolfberries red as blood, then turns his eyes to his disciple. For the first time he sees how haphazardly Mo Ran's robes hang from his shoulders, how clumsily the belts are tied. The flush on Mo Ran's cheeks isn't simply from the journey up to the Red Lotus Pavilion. His hair hasn't simply been disheveled by the wind.

How Mo Ran looks at him. How bright his eyes.

Ignoring the chorus of second-guesses crowding his mind, Chu Wanning reaches out and brushes the hair off Mo Ran's forehead. His disciple startles, but only for an instant. Then he leans eagerly into Chu Wanning's touch, almost shivering, lips parted and eyes heavy-lidded.

What mystery has come to them, and why, Chu Wanning can't say. Right now, he finds he doesn't care. He is alive and Mo Ran is alive and they are, for now, together.

Well. Almost.

"Silly," he says, smoothing a few stray pieces of hair back into place. The gesture feels at once alien and totally familiar, as if he's done this before a thousand times, but in another world or time. Another mystery, for another day. Mo Ran is still watching him, still leaning into his hand. Chu Wanning can hardly breathe. "Come in. There's…much to discuss."

He steps back into his rooms, not waiting to see if Mo Ran follows, but he hears Mo Ran's footsteps, and feels Mo Ran's warmth at his back.

The door clicks shut, and the entire world seems to hold its breath. Chu Wanning hides his hands inside his sleeves, refuses to admit they're shaking.

Then: "Shizun?"

Chu Wanning finds he knows exactly how to answer. It almost makes him smile as he turns around, to face his patiently waiting disciple.

"I'm here, Mo Ran."