The emperor hates that he is the emperor.
He hates that his servants kowtow to him.
He hates that the surviving cultivation sects pile what was once Sisheng Peak with lavish gifts meant to be bribes to keep the emperor’s favor.
He hates to be stared at, whether he is being stared at with hate or with reverence.
Mo Ran is probably the only person who understands just how much the emperor hates it all.
To everyone else, Chu Wanning is a terrifying figure whose cold and frosty face hides every emotion behind a mask of practiced disdain, but Mo Ran knows him better. He has accompanied his Shizun through so much, and he knows his Shizun better than anyone.
He knows that the slight crease between his emperor’s brows means concern.
He knows that when his Shizun blinks slowly in the middle of a meeting, lashes fluttering against his cheeks, it means exhaustion.
He knows that when Chu Wanning says no need, what he really means is that he doesn’t expect anyone to help him.
The frosty face that the rest of the world knows so well, the feared mask that drives terror into the hearts of those men who grew too used to the old power structures that allowed them to get away with committing injustices and are now being called on to answer for them by the most powerful cultivator to ever exist, Mo Ran knows that that is what the emperor looks like when he truly hates.
Mo Ran would have learned that eventually, spending as much time as he does shadowing the first emperor of the cultivation world. But he found out quicker than most what it’s like to see that look of roiling hatred on Chu Wanning’s face.
Before he was the emperor, when he was only Chu Wanning, when he was only Mo Ran’s beloved Shizun, Mo Ran learned what it was like to be loathed by him.
He knows that his Shizun hates him.
He knows it because his Shizun tells him, especially in the beginning.
“It’s your fault he’s dead,” he says once.
“You knew he wasn’t as strong as you, and you didn’t save him,” he says another time.
“It should have been you,” is the one that echoes in Mo Ran’s ears most often, even months after the last time the emperor says it.
When Chu Wanning looks at Mo Ran, so often it is with that iced-over mien, that expression of utter contempt that the rest of the world fears. Mo Ran fears it too, though not for the same reasons as everyone else. When he sees it directed his way, he just bows his head and looks at the floor and will not look back until he’s sure Chu Wanning’s eyes are on something else. He knows that he deserves the way Chu Wanning looks at him. He knows it. It was his fault. He should have been the one to die. If it would have made his Shizun happy…
But he wasn’t the one to die. That was Shi Mei, beautiful and gentle Shi Mei, the disciple Chu Wanning loved.
There are few in the cultivation world who would be able to honestly say that the emperor is an unfair man. But it doesn’t matter if he’s fair. He has dismantled every system that used to be in place before he took power, and he ruthlessly slaughters the people who try to stand against him. There are rebel armies, rebel sects that band together to try and return things to some order of normalcy, but they never make it very far.
When Chu Wanning seized power in a fit of what anyone would call madness, cutting down everyone who stood in his way, he abolished thousands of years of rules literally overnight, crafting his own empire out of the wreckage that remained.
Chu Wanning has always been a righteous man, but as emperor he becomes a god of vengeance, a sword of truth, a weapon forged for the sole purpose of delivering a bastardized version of justice. He strikes down all who would try and harm the common people. He has no patience for hypocrisy. He is impossible to bribe, or flatter. He is a stone monument of a man with no emotions beyond the rage that drives him to kill anyone who tries to oppose him.
He kills twenty assassins over the course of his first five years in power, and eventually, people stop trying.
(Most rumors claim that the people who sent those assassins don’t survive long enough to try again.)
(And everyone knows that it wasn’t the emperor who killed them.)
Emperor Chu Wanning has a shadow, they say. An assassin of his own. A loyal dog who descends the Peak at the emperor’s orders and strikes out into the world, cleaning up anyone who would dare go after his master.
Many people try to take advantage, in the early days. They invite Mo Ran into their sects for negotiations. They try to turn him into a spy. They try to turn him into a weapon to be used against the emperor. They think that he’s the sort of brute who will be easily bought.
They learn quickly that the loyalty of a dog like Mo Ran is worth more than they can afford to part with. He laughs off their offers and always returns happily to his master’s side, and he is quick to tell his master everything. When they try to ply him with sob stories about Chu Wanning’s greed and his overreaching and the fact that his standards for the world are impossible, Mo Ran only smiles wider, dimples deepening, and asks, “but is he wrong?”
Once, only once, a failing sect manages to capture Mo Ran.
It is a desperate move, because they know they’re going to be the next sect crushed beneath Chu Wanning’s bootheel, and they are ready to join the rebels at last. They have ignored Chu Wanning’s directives, they have stolen the money that was meant to go to the common people, and they have stood against him for too long.
So, they figure, if they’re going to be destroyed, then at least they will take something from Chu Wanning before they are.
They think to kill Mo Ran. A message to the emperor and a way to rid him of the only person who has stayed loyal out of anything other than fear. The surviving members of Sisheng Peak who have joined the rebels tell them it’s a terrible idea.
You’re making a mistake, they say. He will kill you all if you harm Mo Ran. But every spy in the emperor’s palace has told the rebels of the hate that Chu Wanning carries in his heart for this former disciple. Mo Ran may be a mad dog, content to curl up at the feet of someone who despises him, but Chu Wanning will regard his passing as an inconvenience. Mo Weiyu’s death is not intended to be a message that will pierce Chu Wanning’s heart, but a message that will display the strength of the rebels as they take away the one person who remains wholly committed to the emperor’s lunatic goals.
Chu Wanning arrives in the dead of night, as if he has been drawn by the screams of Mo Ran’s torture. He is bright, gentle-looking in the moonlight as he stands on the roof above the courtyard. Mo Ran, kneeling on the ground, shackled and bound and hurting, smiles up at him like a normal man might smile up at the stars.
The emperor does not make demands.
The emperor does not show mercy.
When he releases Mo Ran, shattering his bindings with a flick of his wrist, and when he sees Mo Ran’s blood and feels Mo Ran’s sluggish heartbeat, he burns with a righteous rage.
He takes the hands of every cultivator who dared to touch Mo Ran, and then he kills them slowly.
No one ever tries to harm Mo Ran again.
The emperor may hate his disciple, as the rumors say.
But the boy is his, and no one else’s to torment.
There is a shackle on Mo Ran’s soul.
Sometimes he thinks of telling his Shizun, his emperor, his master, that there has never been any point in tying their fates together. He doesn’t need magic to feel that his soul and Chu Wanning’s soul are meant to be as one. He would feel the throb of Chu Wanning’s heart in his own chest even if there was nothing to it but love.
Chu Wanning hates him. Chu Wanning does not trust him. Chu Wanning disdains him.
But Chu Wanning has also owned him from the moment he took Mo Ran on as a disciple. Mo Ran has loved him, quietly. He doesn’t know what Chu Wanning would say, if Mo Ran told him. There’s little point. Sometimes, he wonders if Chu Wanning can feel his pointless, helpless love through the bond that links them together. It is meant to be a chain, a punishment, a torture. If Chu Wanning dies, Mo Ran dies. It is meant to make Mo Ran wary.
But to Mo Ran, it feels like a promise that his Shizun will never abandon him.
He knows that the point of it is to ensure Mo Ran’s loyalty. Chu Wanning will always know where he is. Chu Wanning will know immediately if he has chosen to betray his master. Mo Ran cannot lie to Chu Wanning, cannot deceive Chu Wanning. He isn’t allowed. If he tries, it will kill him.
He’s just lucky, he supposes, that Chu Wanning never thinks of asking the questions that would hurt the most to answer.
Are you loyal to me?
Would you die for me?
Do you love me?
Chu Wanning is worshipped as a god by the common people, but he is a cold god, and unforgiving. He has no patience for people who defy his rules. Anyone who tries to take advantage of the poor who live below them, everyone who tries to steal what isn’t theirs, everyone who harms another, they are all punished ruthlessly and without remorse. Greedy merchants and rogue cultivators who have overcharged for their services and small sects who fail to respond to the grievances of the common people are all swept away by the wrath of Chu Wanning and Tianwen.
Merchants who are swindled by powerful cultivation sects love him until they try to swindle their workers, and then it is their turn to die. Farmers who have their food stolen love him until they try to sabotage their competition in the market, and then their lands are seized and given to more obedient subjects. Chu Wanning watches over them all, an emperor who appears to see every grievance.
And Mo Ran, the constant shadow by his side, loves him all the while.
Sometimes, the emperor presses his hand flat against his chest and closes his eyes, like he’s in pain.
He only shows that pain when he is alone.
(With only Mo Ran beside him.)
(Mo Ran doesn’t count.)
Mo Ran stands in the corner of the throne room and watches his Shizun, his fingers twitching as he longs to go to him, reach out to him, take all of the emperor’s pain as his own. He would take this burden from his Shizun, if he could.
(He tried to, once.)
It always happens after the harshest punishments have been dealt. Always after the emperor has done something cruel in the name of justice. The servants will shake in terror as Chu Wanning pushes past them, and he will stalk back into the Red Lotus Pavilion in a flurry of white robes, and he will cast his jade crown across the room, and he will grip his chest, tight. Breathe in and out in harsh, painful pants.
“I can’t,” he will say. “I don’t want…”
Sometimes he will cry out, and sink to his knees, and Mo Ran will kneel in front of him, and hold him, and Chu Wanning will not push him away.
“Mo Ran,” he will say, again and again, as his words turn into sobs. “Mo Ran.”
“I know, Shizun,” Mo Ran will say. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m here.”
“I’m here,” he had said, kneeling in front of Chu Wanning, bound motionless by Shi Mei while Shi Mei put the flower in Chu Wanning’s chest. “I’m here, Shizun.”
“He can’t hear you,” Shi Mei had answered, contemptuous and pitying both. Mo Ran had thought that Shi Mei was his friend. He’d thought that Shi Mei cared about him. He was too stupid to realize, too slow to realize.
And Chu Wanning, beautiful Chu Wanning, perfect Chu Wanning…Mo Ran couldn’t save him.
He begged to take the flower instead, and he pleaded with Shi Mei to give it to him, but in the end, Shi Mei didn’t want Mo Ran’s heart. He wanted Chu Wanning’s.
“You would only fuck it up,” Shi Mei said.
Sometimes, Mo Ran wants to tell the emperor the truth.
It's a pointless impulse.
Chu Wanning would never believe him.
Mo Ran tried, once, just after Shi Mei died.
He used to bring flowers to Chu Wanning, starting after Shi Mei maimed Chu Wanning’s heart with the curse. He didn’t know what else to do. He was a naïve idiot who thought that maybe if he brought enough flowers of his own, Chu Wanning would not forget that Mo Ran loved him. Would not replace Mo Ran too fully in his heart with Shi Mei. Like he could somehow counter the curse with just a few gestures of kindness. He was too afraid of Shi Mei to tell Chu Wanning the truth outright, too afraid of what would happen, and so he did the only thing he could think of.
(Another failure that he will never forgive himself for.)
He left the flowers on the steps outside the Red Lotus Pavilion, and it was only after Shi Mei was gone that he realized that Shi Mei had been taking credit, all the while. Taking the flowers from the ground and handing them to Chu Wanning with a shy little smile.
After Shi Mei was dead, Mo Ran went to see Chu Wanning with a whole bundle of flowers in his hands, and he tried to tell Chu Wanning the truth. The danger had passed, he thought. He would finally tell Chu Wanning what happened, and then Chu Wanning could find a way to take the flower out, and everything would be okay.
But Chu Wanning saw the flowers, and he thought that Mo Ran was trying to take Shi Mei’s place.
He whipped Mo Ran with Tianwen almost to the point of death.
Then he locked Mo Ran away for nearly a month, leaving him practically insensate as his wounds burned and festered on his back.
Mo Ran didn’t see the sun for a month, didn’t see anyone else for a month, didn’t even see Chu Wanning for a month, and when he was finally released, he understood: there was no point.
The curse of the flower in his heart made Chu Wanning love Shi Mei.
Shi Mei was dead, but the flower had not stopped growing.
Chu Wanning would never believe anything bad about the one he’d loved and lost.
And he would never stop hating Mo Ran for letting that person die.
And so Mo Ran lived quietly with his secrets.
And he never mentioned Shi Mei’s name again.
As time passes, Mo Ran wonders.
Shi Mei told him, once, that the flower only brings out the qualities that are already in a person. Mo Ran had been almost relieved.
His Shizun was good, and kind. He was a moral man. A righteous man. Whatever it was that Shi Mei wanted to gain from planting that flower in his chest...Chu Wanning wouldn’t do it. Mo Ran was sure.
But time passes, and Chu Wanning…
He is still a good man. He is a moral man. Righteous. He is no longer gentle, and no longer kind. He hates openly, and loudly, the people he only politely disdained before. He has killed so many people, and he will kill so many more.
But as time passes, Mo Ran wonders.
He thinks about the times Chu Wanning looks at him with hate in his eyes.
He knows why it’s there. He knows that the flower has sapped any good memories of Mo Ran, and has left only those memories of Shi Mei untouched.
But he sees it so often. Sees it enough.
Maybe Chu Wanning would have hated him anyway.
Maybe Chu Wanning would have lost patience with the upper cultivation realm anyway.
Maybe it isn’t all Mo Ran’s fault for not being able to stop Shi Mei.
Maybe this is who Chu Wanning was always going to be.
(Or maybe it’s just easier to live with himself if he tries his hardest to believe that.)
The years pass, and Mo Ran wonders, but he never strays from his Shizun’s side. No matter what Chu Wanning does. No matter what Chu Wanning says. He can be so cruel sometimes, his words biting, mocking Mo Ran for his lack of cleverness, calling him stupid and useless. But then he will barge into Mo Ran’s quarters in the middle of the night, and he will desperately say Mo Ran’s name, and Mo Ran will pull Chu Wanning into his arms, and he will hold him, and he will let Chu Wanning cry.
He is taller than Chu Wanning now.
He is broader than Chu Wanning now.
He wonders if that’s why Chu Wanning always seeks him out. Does he feel safe? Does he feel like Mo Ran can protect him? Mo Ran can’t; he proved that when he failed to convince Shi Mei to put the flower in his chest instead. But that doesn’t mean he will ever stop trying. Whatever comfort Chu Wanning can find in him, Mo Ran hopes that he keeps taking it.
“Mo Ran, I think have gone mad,” Chu Wanning whispers one time, his head buried in Mo Ran’s lap. Mo Ran cards his fingers through Chu Wanning’s silk-soft hair.
“I know, Shizun,” he says. He lets out a quiet, defeated sigh.
“You have to stop me. You have to…”
“I’ll set you free. I’ll take the shackle off. I…”
He raises his hand. His wrist is thin, too thin. He has been losing weight again, carrying the weight of the entire world on his shoulders. Mo Ran makes a note to make sure that he eats better as he takes Chu Wanning’s wrist delicately in his own hand, preventing him from removing the shackle.
“Don’t,” he whispers. “Please, Shizun. Don’t ask me to do that.”
“I’m getting worse,” Chu Wanning whispers. He looks at Mo Ran, and there is so much awareness in his eyes. It breaks Mo Ran’s heart.
Mo Ran prepares a bath for the emperor, while Chu Wanning lies curled on the bed.
Mo Ran keeps his eyes lowered, half-closed, even though the temptation to look when Chu Wanning sheds his robes is almost too great to ignore. Chu Wanning rarely allows himself to be pampered like this, but it feels like a gift when he does. Mo Ran touches him, cleans him carefully, scrubs every bit of dirt and sweat off his Shizun’s flawless back. Chu Wanning has his knees pulled up to his chest in the bathwater, staring out at nothing.
Sometimes, when they do this, he doesn’t say a single word.
This time, still in the grip of a horrible lucidity, he speaks.
“I almost killed you.”
“That was a long time ago.”
“You still have the scars.”
“You haven’t whipped me since.”
Tears spill over Chu Wanning’s lashes, and his hair falls around his shoulders, an inky, disheveled sheet. He shakes his head. Mo Ran kneels in front of the bath, and he raises his eyes, and he meets Chu Wanning’s gaze.
“It’s not right,” Chu Wanning says. “It’s not right. What did I do? Why…”
“Shh,” Mo Ran says, and he pulls Chu Wanning into his arms, and he holds him there until Chu Wanning stops crying.
Sometimes, Chu Wanning praises Mo Ran.
When he takes care of another assassin.
When he manages to ferret out some secret information about the rebels.
When he leads their forces into battle and returns victorious.
Chu Wanning will almost smile at him, from where he sits on the throne. Mo Ran will kneel by his feet, and Chu Wanning will say, “Well done, Mo Ran,” and heat will shiver up Mo Ran’s spine.
Sometimes, Chu Wanning looks at Mo Ran.
Shy, almost coy looks. Anyone else would be terrified to see the emperor looking at them with such a calculating expression, but Mo Ran blooms under the attention. He stands straighter. He is more attentive to Chu Wanning’s every desire. Heat builds and builds inside him when Chu Wanning looks at him like that, because he knows what it means, and he knows what his answer will be, if Chu Wanning ever asks.
He chooses his words carefully, every time they are alone.
“You’re only still here because I tied you to me,” Chu Wanning says once, and Mo Ran can’t tell if he’s more disgusted with Mo Ran or with himself.
“I would follow Shizun anywhere,” he says. “Take off the shackle, and I’ll show you.”
Chu Wanning almost melts under Mo Ran’s steely gaze, but he slinks away, muttering something about a meeting that Mo Ran knows he doesn’t have.
But then, eventually, as the look behind his eyes grows more wild, Chu Wanning starts to ask for more.
“Tell me again,” he pleads, seconds after beheading one of the rebels who made it nearly all the way to the Red Lotus Pavilion before Mo Ran captured him alive. There is blood splattered on his cheek, and Mo Ran wipes it off with his thumb before he speaks. Chu Wanning looks up at him, wide-eyed, his pupils huge.
“I would follow you anywhere,” Mo Ran says.
A promise, an oath.
It evolves, because Mo Ran cannot keep silent when he knows now what Chu Wanning wants but is too proud or too afraid to ask for.
It’s what he’s wanted for so long. What he’s wanted for years but never thought he would get.
Just the chance to tell him, even. The chance to offer Chu Wanning any part of what he feels.
“I would do anything for Shizun,” he says.
“My life is Shizun’s to do with as he pleases.”
“I belong to Shizun.”
“If Shizun lets me, I will stay by his side for the rest of my life.”
And then, gradually.
“Shizun is beautiful.”
“I have always wanted Shizun, ever since I was young.”
“Did Shizun really not know? Could Shizun really not tell?”
He knows that the emperor hates himself for the lustful thoughts he has about Mo Ran. He can practically feel those lustful thoughts with every pained throb of Chu Wanning’s heart within his chest. He has never been gladder to be so tied to the life of the emperor. Chu Wanning’s eyes are dark, and his heart races, and he leaves the room quickly when Mo Ran says such shameless things, but he never tells Mo Ran to stop, and Mo Ran knows it’s because he wants it.
Mo Ran lingers more in Chu Wanning’s rooms, long into the evenings.
He doesn’t tie his robes as tightly as he should, letting his collars hang open.
He lets the emperor look, and in his mind, he is begging the emperor to take what he wants.
Chu Wanning has always led an ascetic life, a pure life, and Mo Ran knows that he is frightened, and certain that he won’t know what to do, and certain that his touch will taint his disciple, who has already bloodied his own hands for Chu Wanning so often. The curse of the flower has made Chu Wanning more moral, more righteous, but those lustful thoughts don’t fit into the flower’s agenda at all.
It feels like a victory to Mo Ran, to know that there is something the flower has not managed to take.
It isn’t righteous to want Mo Ran, but Chu Wanning wants him anyway.
It has nothing to do with the flower at all.
The Rufeng Sect is gearing up for an attack. They have been suspiciously compliant for all of Chu Wanning’s reign once Nangong Liu was executed back at the beginning, but the emperor has always suspected that it was only a matter of time. They were the largest sect, the most powerful sect, the sect least disposed to caring about the common people. Of course they were going to try something eventually.
Chu Wanning learns of it through his network of spies that operate among the servants in all the larger sects, and he prepares to head there himself, his own army behind him. Men who once belonged to other sects but are now just glad to be alive, who follow Chu Wanning out of fear.
Mo Ran goes with him, as always. A shadow just a few feet behind the emperor.
He isn’t sure why, but as they stand on a cliff overlooking the seventy-two cities of the Rufeng Sect, for the first time, Mo Ran feels the compulsion to tell Chu Wanning where he really came from.
It isn’t that he thinks Chu Wanning will care, necessarily. Xue Zhengyong and Madam Wang were killed by the rebels a long time ago, and Xue Meng is somewhere in hiding. There is no one left to care about the fact that Mo Ran is not Mo Ran except for Chu Wanning, and even then…
Chu Wanning has always been a righteous man, but the flower has made him righteous beyond reason. He might just whip Mo Ran to death right here for the deception.
But Mo Ran tells him anyway. He wants someone to know.
Chu Wanning listens.
He listens to Mo Ran describe his mother’s death.
He listens as Mo Ran describes the days that came after it.
He stands on the cliff above the Rufeng sect’s territory, and he listens, and when he waves his hand and orders its cities razed, Mo Ran isn’t quite sure what he’s hearing.
Something cracks inside his chest.
He thinks, if Madam Mo were still alive. If her son was still alive.
He would kill them, too.
He would kill them for me.
Anyone who tried to hurt me.
He would kill them.
Chu Wanning hates him. Mo Ran knows this to be true.
But he cannot deny the determined look in Chu Wanning’s eyes. With the flames from the Rufeng Sect reflected in them, Chu Wanning looks like some kind of vengeful demon, a creature who has emerged from the underworld to tempt Mo Ran.
Mo Ran didn’t need much tempting. He has killed before. He has hated before. He understands the things that Chu Wanning wants of the world, and even though he knows that this is not Chu Wanning’s choice, and not Chu Wanning’s fault, he still keeps thinking, he did it for me.
He kisses his emperor. His Shizun. His master. He kisses him, and Chu Wanning sputters and shoves his hands against Mo Ran’s chest, and his hands are already glowing golden, Tianwen threatening to come out.
“I’m your Shizun!” he barks, horrified. Mo Ran laughs. His lower lip is bleeding, where Chu Wanning bit it in surprise.
“You’re my emperor,” he says. “You’re everything. I’ll do anything you want me to do.”
Chu Wanning searches Mo Ran’s eyes. Mo Ran knows that he’s looking for falsehood, the silly man, apparently forgetting that Mo Ran cannot lie to him.
Look at me, Mo Ran thinks. I will do anything to you. I will let you do anything to me. You have gone after everything you want, and I know you want me. Take me. I’m here. I’m yours.
Chu Wanning rubs his chest, and he shakes his head, and he moves away, steps back to look out at the fires of the Rufeng Sect as his army razes it to the ground.
“This isn’t what was supposed to happen,” he whispers. “I never wanted this.”
“I know,” Mo Ran says.
“Do you?” Chu Wanning asks. He turns and looks at Mo Ran. “I wanted…I think I wanted to help people.”
“I think I wanted you.”
“I’ve killed more people than I’ve ever helped, and I’m not done,” Chu Wanning says, like it’s a warning. He looks fierce and proud, the emperor. Fierce and terrified. “I’ll kill all of them. Everyone who stands against me.”
“How can you still…?” Chu Wanning breaks off, and he breathes out, and he seems to realize something. For some reason, Mo Ran is afraid.
Chu Wanning raises his hand, and he waves it. There are tears clumping in his lashes again. Rolling down his cheeks. Mo Ran feels something lessen inside him. Some pressure going away. He feels empty.
“No!” he shouts, and he reaches out, and he grabs Chu Wanning’s wrist.
He sees the panic in Chu Wanning’s eyes.
He sees the realization of what he has become.
Chu Wanning released him from their bond.
Chu Wanning is trying to leave him.
The emperor already has his other hand raised, ready to do…something. Mo Ran isn’t sure, but he knows what Chu Wanning wants to do.
Of course, if given a moment of realization, if granted a moment of awareness, he will try to stop himself.
And in his last moments, he is trying to leave Mo Ran behind.
“Put it back,” Mo Ran orders, as if he has any right. Chu Wanning’s hand is trembling in his grasp. “Put it back, Shizun.”
“No,” Chu Wanning answers.
“I will go with you. Wherever you go. I don’t need the shackle to follow you, but put it back.”
Whatever madness had seized Chu Wanning passes.
Whatever flicker of conscience came through the flower’s choking hate, it’s gone. Chu Wanning blinks away his tears, his frosty expression returning. He nods, and then Mo Ran feels that pressure inside himself again. The awareness of Chu Wanning that’s more than just physical.
“Thank you,” he whispers, and he pulls Chu Wanning into his arms. “Thank you.” And he kisses the emperor desperately.
If anyone saw the gentleness and the tenderness with which Mo Ran treated Chu Wanning the first time, they would laugh.
Or maybe they would be too frightened to laugh. Chu Wanning panting and moaning softly as Mo Ran kneels over him and works him open. Mo Ran gazing down at Chu Wanning, eyes wide with desire. Maybe that would be more frightening than anything else. The world thinks that Chu Wanning hates his disciple. The world thinks that Mo Ran is a thrall. Let them think that. Let them think this is hate. Everything still smells like ash from the burning of Rufeng, and Chu Wanning killed them for him.
Mo Ran is the only person that Chu Wanning can trust to see him like this, and touch him like this. In bed, he is as gentle and soft as a kitten, clinging to Mo Ran’s arms, gasping into Mo Ran’s neck, peppering Mo Ran’s skin with adorable little kisses. Mo Ran has never wanted anything as much as he wants this. This softness. This want from Chu Wanning.
“I love you,” he says against Chu Wanning’s mouth. “Shizun, I love you.”
He believes, he chooses to believe, that Chu Wanning would love him too, if he could.
The emperor hates him. He knows that. The emperor thinks that he killed Shi Mei. Maybe it is his fault that Shi Mei is dead. But the emperor keeps a place by his side for Mo Ran, and the emperor does not want Mo Ran to ever leave, and the emperor is currently on his back, his ankles hooked on Mo Ran’s shoulders, and he is gasping up at Mo Ran with something in his gaze that isn’t hate at all, and so it can only be love. It has to be love.
Mo Ran chooses to believe it is love.
Chu Wanning gasps and writhes beneath him, and Mo Ran protects him, and gives him what he needs. That is what he wants. That is what he is for. However much of this man is the flower curse that was given to him a decade ago, and however much of this man is the gentle Shizun Mo Ran loved from the moment he saw him standing beneath that haitang tree, Mo Ran will follow him, and give him anything he wants.
Anything he wants.
Chu Wanning lies in bed, after, his head pillowed on Mo Ran’s chest. Listening to Mo Ran’s heartbeat. His hand is on his own chest. He grimaces. Mo Ran soothes him, stroking his hand over Chu Wanning’s pale, unmarred back.
“I almost killed you once,” Chu Wanning whispers. He doesn’t touch the scars on Mo Ran’s back. Doesn’t look at them. He closes his eyes like he doesn’t need to look at them to see them.
“You didn’t,” Mo Ran replies.
“I still could.”
He is looking up at Mo Ran now, from where his head is laid on Mo Ran’s chest, deceptively gentle. Mo Ran feels at peace with it. An odd, watery sort of feeling.
“Yes,” he says. “You could.”
“And you would let me,” Chu Wanning says. Mo Ran isn’t sure if he sounds happy about it or not. It doesn’t matter. Mo Ran has to answer honestly.
“Yes,” he says. “I am Shizun’s, remember? I belong to Shizun.”
Chu Wanning frowns, but there is something almost yearning in his expression, and Mo Ran knows that that was exactly what he wanted to hear.
“I am yours,” he says quietly. “However you want me.”
Chu Wanning frowns even more deeply, and he presses his forehead against Mo Ran’s chest, like he’s embarrassed by the words, and Mo Ran laughs.
“You shouldn’t say those things,” Chu Wanning says.
“They’re the truth.”
“You won’t leave me.”
“You want to be here with me.”
“You love me.”
Mo Ran puts one finger under Chu Wanning’s chin, and he lifts it to force the emperor to look at him. He knows that Chu Wanning is the most dangerous man in the world. He knows that his temper could change in an instant. But he also remembers a man gentle and kind, who hid his loneliness behind a prickly façade.
That man is still in there.
That man is still with him.
“Yes,” he says, and he says it with all the feeling he can muster. “I love you.”
Chu Wanning closes his eyes, and he nods, like he is resigned to the fact of Mo Ran’s love. He doesn’t say it in return. Mo Ran wasn’t expecting him to. But a shy, delicate hand curves around his hip, and Mo Ran chooses to believe that it means love.
“There is something wrong with me,” Chu Wanning says. His whisper is hoarse. “This is not who I am supposed to be.”
“No, Shizun,” Mo Ran says.
“Something inside me,” Chu Wanning says. Mo Ran hesitates.
“Yes, Shizun,” he says, finally.
“I want to fix it.”
“I will help you. Whatever you need.”
“Will you tell me what it is?” Chu Wanning asks. He looks up at Mo Ran. His fingers are still heavy, wrapped around Mo Ran’s hip. There could be an accusation there, but instead it seems like an acknowledgement. Like he has long thought that Mo Ran has more answers than he has been willing to give.
“Will you believe me?” Mo Ran asks. His voice is a trembling, pathetic whisper. “No matter what it is? No matter who did it to you?”
Chu Wanning stares at him for a very long time.
Then he says, “Yes.”
And Mo Ran chooses to hope.