He’s in his study, as always.
It’s just like Chu Wanning to work deep into the night, long after the Emperor has retired to his palace.
Mo Ran slips in and pads toward the desk where Chu Wanning stands, reviewing a report.
“I leave for the front tomorrow. At dawn.”
Chu Wanning pauses. The ink beneath his brush grows, darkening, spreading across the page.
“I see,” he says stiffly.
He lifts the brush and sets it down, reaching for the inkstone. His movements are slow, deliberate—grinding the ink stick over and over, sharp and harsh—as light from the candle casts shadows over his face.
“Master Chu,” Mo Ran says.
Chu Wanning doesn’t respond.
Mo Ran swallows, takes a step closer.
“Wanning,” he murmurs.
In the flickering light, Chu Wanning’s jaw clenches. His movements quicken, the grinding noises getting louder, more grating.
“That is highly inappropriate, Your Highness,” he says.
“You didn’t give a proper greeting, either,” Mo Ran points out.
With a flick of his sleeves, Chu Wanning drops to his knees. “This humble servant greets Your Highness.”
Mo Ran opens his mouth to protest, but Chu Wanning has already risen and turned back to his desk. Gods, the obstinacy in this man! “I meant to say that I appreciate informality from you,” he huffs.
“As I said,” Chu Wanning says, “It is highly inappropriate.”
“As prince, I say that it is not,” Mo Ran says.
“That is not for you to decide,” Chu Wanning says, his voice sharp as a whip.
“It is when we’re alone,” Mo Ran counters.
Chu Wanning whirls on him. “I am His Majesty’s Imperial Advisor and you are the First Prince. It is never appropriate for you to address me so, so…”
“Intimately?” Mo Ran says, softly.
In Chu Wanning’s fist, the ink stick snaps in half.
This was a mistake.
Chu Wanning uttered those words in the silence, in Mo Ran’s arms. After they’d come together, his cry of Mo Ran reverberating through Mo Ran’s core. They’ve touched before, kissed, and that’s all it takes for Mo Ran’s heart to thunder, Chu Wanning’s voice to quiver. After years of locking eyes across rooms—of holding back the urge to hold each other and cling—Mo Ran knew it was only a matter of time before they fell into bed.
He knew, too, that Chu Wanning’s shame would overwhelm him when they did.
The Emperor’s most trusted, dallying with his adopted son and commander of his Imperial Army—a scandal that would rock the very foundations of the Forbidden City. Chu Wanning would rather drink poison than allow such shame to befall the Imperial family. Indeed, his loyalty and sense of duty have always been their biggest obstacles.
That, and his stubbornness.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran says again. The phoenix eyes smoulder now, alight with fury and some other emotion that makes Mo Ran’s pulse quicken. “I just want to say goodbye. And hold you before I leave,” he adds, gratified at the way Chu Wanning's breath hitches.
After a moment, Chu Wanning turns away, his back straight as a plank. "Shameless," he says.
The shake in his voice betrays him.
Slowly, carefully, Mo Ran steps forward and slips his arms around Chu Wanning. Waits for Chu Wanning to exhale, the tension to loosen in his shoulders, like a cat relaxing in a forced embrace.
“You are to marry Lady Song,” Chu Wanning ekes out through clenched teeth.
"Whose fault is that," Mo Ran scoffs, tucking his chin over Chu Wanning's head. Chu Wanning is warm against him, and they fit perfectly like this, two halves of a pendant clicking into place. (If only Chu Wanning would admit it.)
Chu Wanning twists back, brows knit tight. "His Majesty agreed that there are political and economical benefits to an alliance with a Han General's daughter—"
"But I like you," Mo Ran cuts in.
Chu Wanning's chest rises with a sharp inhale. "Impertinent!"
Chuckling, Mo Ran takes Chu Wanning's hand in his. Flips it over to reveal black ink smudges, stark against pale skin. "I am shameless and impertinent, Master Chu." Lightly, he traces a word into Chu Wanning's palm with his forefinger. "What are you going to do about it?"
"I have half a mind to report your madness to the Crown Prince." Chu Wanning's gaze drops to the character on his palm. "Xiang* ," he reads, voice gone soft. "For—"
"I miss you,” Mo Ran whispers. “I'm thinking of you."
He presses his mouth to Chu Wanning's ear.
"I want you."
Chu Wanning shivers. "Your Highness…"
Mo Ran lets out a sigh. "Even with our numbers, the battle will be a difficult one. It’s unclear when we will return. If we will return.” Chu Wanning stiffens in his arms. “So please, Wanning, before I leave... say my name?”
The silence drags on, thick as melted wax. For a moment, it feels like Chu Wanning can’t say it. Won’t, despite all they’ve said and done, all that they’ve been through.
This was a mistake.
The ache in Mo Ran’s chest burns, and he starts to pull away, grip on Chu Wanning loosening.
That’s when he hears it: a whisper so soft that it’s nearly lost.
Any doubt in Mo Ran simmers and dies, washed away with two simple syllables. He doesn’t think he’ll ever get tired of hearing Chu Wanning say his name. “Again,” he says, dropping a kiss on Chu Wanning’s jaw.
Chu Wanning hesitates. “...Mo Ran.”
Another kiss, two, on the line of his throat. “Again.”
Dragging Chu Wanning’s collar down, Mo Ran presses a third, open-mouthed, on the crook between Chu Wanning’s neck and shoulder. “Good boy.”
Chu Wanning flinches. “You—ah!”
Mo Ran soothes the bite with his tongue, fingers lifting to flip Chu Wanning’s buttons open. His mouth moves to follow the trail of fabric as it falls from Chu Wanning’s shoulders, clinging at the curves before sliding down, down, down to the small of his back.
To his delight, Chu Wanning doesn’t resist. Instead, his hands grip the edge of his desk, back arching, as Mo Ran presses close.
“Why can't you be more honest like this?” Mo Ran’s voice is thick, his breath ghosting over damp skin. “With me, with yourself.”
Against him, Chu Wanning trembles. "Because it will never work,” he mutters. “I am too common, too old, too ugly… everything about this servant is undeserving of—mmf !”
Fingers on Chu Wanning’s jaw, Mo Ran breaks the kiss, licking his lips for another taste of him, sweet as honeyed osmanthus cakes. “No one may insult my baobei. Not even you…” He smiles, the corners of his mouth gone soft. “...baobei.”
“Is my name not casual enough?” Chu Wanning snaps.
Mo Ran laughs. “Not enough to convey how I feel about you, no.”
Chu Wanning’s fingers flex on the desk. “You are im—”
He stops with a high-pitched keen when Mo Ran rolls against him, and something molten zings through Mo Ran at the sound, the way Chu Wanning’s hips rock back against his.
“So beautiful,” Mo Ran breathes, his hand shifting down to brush Chu Wanning through the layers of robes. He’s hard; they both are. “I’ve always thought that, since the day we met.”
Chu Wanning swallows. “Mo Ran…”
There’s so much in his voice—quiet, broken, filled with want—that Mo Ran can’t help but tip forward to fit their mouths together again. Chu Wanning’s lips part for him, shyly, and Mo Ran feels hot all over as he accepts the invitation, the tip of his tongue brushing against Chu Wanning’s.
They pull away, startled, when sharp knocks ring from the door.
“Master Chu? I would like your guidance on this irrigation project I’ve just received from Royal Father…”
Irritation sparks in Mo Ran’s gut. “Not now, Xue Meng,” he growls.
“It’s ‘Crown Prince’ to you, Mo Ran,” snaps the voice behind the door. A pause, before it returns, confused. “Wait, what are you doing in Master Chu’s study?”
Chu Wanning’s hand slaps across Mo Ran’s mouth, muffling the rest of his words.
“I will see to Your Highness as soon as I’ve driven the First Prince out,” Chu Wanning calls, his voice even.
“Let me know if you need any help,” the voice says, far too gleeful.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran starts, intent on complaining about his annoying brother, only for Chu Wanning to pull him close, palms flat on his back.
“Come back to me.”
Mo Ran’s breath catches. The feeling in his chest swells, overwhelming him, and he barely notices Chu Wanning, now fully-clothed, ushering him to and out the door. Barely cares when Xue Meng tells Chu Wanning that he’d be glad to enact punishment on Mo Ran for his intrusion, any punishment at all.
He knows Chu Wanning’s feelings now.
Mo Ran touches his fingers to his lips, remembers Chu Wanning’s against them.
He’ll just have to keep his promise then, won't he?