Work Header

you can love me, if you really want it

Chapter Text

In the world of cultivation, there is no higher honor than being selected to serve as a bodyguard for Chu Wanning. 

In theory. 

Mo Ran knows that he’s expected to just be quietly grateful for the opportunity. He knows that there are plenty of people who’d gladly take the job instead if he decides he doesn’t want it. His brother is one of them! Xue Meng would probably cut off his own arm if it meant that he’d be the one who’d been hired instead. 

But... fuck . Sisheng’s board could have approved a bigger salary if they knew Chu Wanning was going to be such a pain in the ass to protect. 

The thing about Chu Wanning is that he’s beautiful, and he’s a genius, and he’s a complete asshole. Basically everyone in cultivation circles knows those three things, and probably a bunch of people outside the cultivation world know it, too, because the cultivation world is a pretty small place, all things considered, and they’re treated in the outside world like celebrities more than like...defenders of the modern world, or whatever. 

And Chu Wanning is the sort of cultivator who has made a singular reputation for himself among non-cultivators. He’s basically a household name! In part because he, you know, actually gives a shit about non-cultivators. 

The modern cultivation world is a lot like it was in the past, based on the little snippets Mo Ran can be bothered to remember about history; big cultivation sects don’t often concern themselves with the issues of the common people or of the sects too small to make a name for themselves. The big sects spend their time and their money on their own problems, their own climb toward the Heavens, their whole lives devoted to something much greater than whether the common people are killing each other for stupid reasons again, or if they have enough to eat. 

But there are always heroes who stand out among those greedy sects, who rise above those masters determined to inwardly-gaze until they ascend and leave the filthy mortal realm behind. Those heroes are the ones that history remembers long after the names of those other masters have faded. And Mo Ran knows from the start that Chu Wanning is going to be one of them. 

Chu Wanning was only in his early twenties when he started inventing spiritual defense systems to keep small villages from having to pay the sects’ exorbitant rates for taking care of even the most basic demons or spirits. He started taking on more difficult demons and spirits himself for a comparative pittance, half the time doing it for free and then fleeing the area so he wasn’t forced to take payment. Now in his early thirties, he continues to make everyone else look bad just by existing and calmly telling sobbing townsfolk that he’s not going to steal all their money because he’s not a gold-hungry prick like the rest of the assholes in the cultivation world. 

Except he doesn’t even say it like that , because he’s determined to be perfect and poised at all times, which mostly means passively aggressively insulting the big sects rather than openly shittalking them. 

Mo Ran hates him. 

But before Mo Ran hates him, Mo Ran adores him, venerates him, because every young cultivator does, especially the cultivators at Sisheng Peak. Mo Ran’s home is one of the larger sects in the lower cultivation world, which is probably why they’re not all complete garbage like those bigger places, interested only in catering to people rich enough to give them as much money for their services as possible. Xue Zhengyong and his brother founded the sect after growing up seeing the shameful lack of care and attention paid to the common people who live in the shadow of the cultivation world, and so of course it’s no surprise that even years down the line, Sisheng is more preoccupied with helping people than it is with its own growth or achievements or its own treasure room piled high with untouched gold. 

Mo Ran ended up at Sisheng when he was fourteen because of a brief mistaken identity situation that turned into a cushy life as Xue Zhengyong’s adopted son, and he’s glad that he ended up here of all places. Not just because he apparently has the potential to be one of the most powerful cultivators to ever exist—a fact which causes Xue Meng no end of jealous rage (honestly its own reward)—but because he likes helping people. He grew up with even less than Xue Zhengyong and his brother. He carries the mental scars of those early years, and he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to fully heal from them, no matter how many years he spends eating well and not having to worry about his next meal. It makes him blindingly, achingly furious to see the way the other sects treat people like the boy he used to be, and it fills him with an unspeakable relief to know that Sisheng isn’t like that .

So of course he reads the stories about Chu Wanning and hears all about the brave, beautiful cultivator who eschews high-minded bullshit in favor of actually helping people. Of course he watches every video of the man that ends up posted online; it’s rare to see videos of him actually fighting the things he fights, because he refuses to allow people in the area ( for their own safety, of course), but there are videos of the aftermath. Chu Wanning, usually bloodied and bruised, limping out of the devastation with no regard for his own injuries, and calmly explaining to the gathered, gobsmacked people what they have to do to make sure the creature or spirit doesn’t come back. His deep voice, his calm gaze, the way he always resettles his glasses on his nose after the fight...of course Mo Ran ends up hero-worshipping the man. 

(And, you know, furiously masturbating to said videos, or whatever.)

And then Mo Ran meets Chu Wanning. 

And then he realizes that Chu Wanning is just like all the others. 

It starts like this: 

There’s a spot in the back hills of Sisheng Peak where the barrier between the human world and the ghost world is thin. It’s part of why Xue Zhengyong and his brother chose this place for the founding of their sect. It had been a dangerous area before, with neighboring towns constantly besieged by ghosts and demons that broke through the weak point. The only people who hadn’t fled were people too poor or too stubborn to do so. Xue Zhengyong and his brother saw an opportunity to make a tangible difference, and so they set about guarding the area and making sure that everything that came through the barrier was stopped before it had a chance to leave the mountain and cause problems in the world below. They were strong enough and organized enough to head off the weaker ghosts and demons, and they figured they could alert the larger sects if anything came through that they couldn’t handle on their own, or if it looked like the barrier was set to rupture. In the past—according to old books that Mo Ran has absolutely no time for but which Xue Zhengyong treats like holy texts sometimes—the barrier has ruptured, multiple times. It’s always an absolute bloodbath when it does, and Xue Zhengyong is the kind of person who understood and accepted such a task. He figured that, at the very least, he and his brother could contain the damage and hold off the ghosts and demons to prevent the mortal world from being overrun, at least for long enough that the other sects would have time to rush to their aid. 

Except then it did rupture. And the majority of the great cultivation sects took days to decide if they wanted to get involved. And while they quibbled over it and wrung their hands and came up with excuses as to why they couldn’t possibly send aid, thousands of people lost their lives. 

Mo Ran was young, then. His mother was still alive, then. And because of her, he didn’t understand half of the things that make him so angry now. He didn’t know why the cultivators weren’t helping them. He didn’t know why the Rufeng Sect closed its doors and refused to let anyone in or out but failed to provide food for the people who were trapped, starving inside their doors. 

He knows now what kind of people are in charge of the great sects. He knows those kinds of cultivators for what they are, and he has promised himself again and again that he will never be like those people who turned their backs on the sufferings of people like he and his mother. 

Eventually, enough of the sects of the lower cultivation realm, and a few of the upper cultivation sects who could no longer ignore the chaos, banded together and managed to seal the barrier, but it was a sloppy and imperfect solution, and everyone knows it’s going to rupture again. Mo Ran still has so much hate in his heart from the last time, and the hate only grows the longer they wait, anticipating another horror show. Knowing that the big sects like Rufeng are going to have to be prodded and pleaded with again. 

Xue Zhengyong has the face to do it. He’s jovial and friendly and kind, and he isn’t above begging if he thinks it’s necessary. But he shouldn’t have to, and it infuriates Mo Ran every time he thinks about his adoptive father having to ask these people for anything when they should feel it’s their responsibility to do it! 

But they don’t. They don’t care about the mortal world. They don’t care about anyone outside their walls. He and his mother were trapped in a desperate situation because of them. His mother died because of them, because the medical clinics had been overflowing by the time she fell sick with an infection after an injury, and no one had been able to attend to her for hours . And then Mo Ran, left on his own so young, had nearly starved before the calamity was finally over and Rufeng deigned to open their doors. 

And it was all because a bunch of lofty cultivators who considered themselves near gods decided to do a fucking cost-benefit analysis to figure out if it was worth it to them to do their very basic jobs.

Which is where Chu Wanning comes in. 

Ever since Xue Zhengyong realized that the upper cultivation world could not be relied upon in times of crisis, his goal became finding a way to firm up the barrier completely. Keeping it closed with barrier techniques was all well and good until it stopped working, and he wasn’t willing to sit by and wait for another calamity, especially now that he knew he would be sacrificing his own people for nothing while the upper cultivation sects took their sweet fucking time.

He had assumed that the announcement of his intentions would be met with enthusiastic agreement from everyone in the upper cultivation world, but instead he was met with vehement disapproval, even outright fury. The sects convened faster to warn him not to follow through on fixing the barrier than they had ever convened to save the lives of the common people when the barrier ruptured. 

Mo Ran was only fifteen when Xue Zhengyong started talking about his ideas, and he was still too new and too shy to really speak up, but he could have told Xue Zhengyong all along what would happen. He was still young, but he already understood people in a way that Xue Zhengyong probably never would. Xue Zhengyong was still too convinced that people were basically good , that they would listen to reason, that they were all as kind and gentle and magnanimous as him. Mo Ran knows that the opposite is true.

But really...why would Xue Zhengyong think for a second that the upper cultivation world would want the barrier fixed? The barrier is one of the best sources for demons and spirits, even with Sisheng Peak guarding it, and the upper cultivation sects rely on those things for income! They need the barrier, and the fact that it weakens by the year. They need the threat of another rupture because it makes people eager to pay for their services, and eager to get into their good graces in the hopes of inspiring a quick protective response when the time comes. When those sects waited so long to help Sisheng Peak with the barrier rupture, it wasn’t because they didn’t have the skill, and it wasn’t because they didn’t think it was important to seal it back up again. It was so that people would get desperate enough to offer them anything to help. 

Cultivation sects aren’t what they once were, and their fading relevance has made them cling to whatever sources of income they have left. And so when Xue Zhengyong put his idea out into the world, and when he asked for assistance from the other big cultivation sects, naively certain that they would want to help him figure out how to protect people, naively sure that they were all like him in that their cores were good and noble and that they didn’t like to see the common people suffer…

He was ignored. 

Xue Zhengyong is a good man. He’s a smarter man than people give him credit for, because the overall impression he gives off is of a man who blissfully goes through life with a head filled with cotton candy instead of brains. He’s a good adoptive father, and a good sect leader, too. But he also knows his limits; he’s not the kind of person who can invent techniques. He’s strong with the things he knows, but he’s always been good at surrounding himself with people who can fill in the gaps of things he doesn’t know. And unfortunately he doesn’t know all that much about the art of creating and maintaining barriers.

But Chu Wanning? Chu Wanning is a master of barrier techniques. 

Not just a master. Chu Wanning is the master. He’s only about ten years older than Mo Ran, and yet he knows more about barriers than people twice his age. He invented techniques that are taught in advanced-level classes!

And so Xue Zhengyong and his very thick face approach Chu Wanning. He lays out his plan, probably expecting to be rejected once again. 

Except he doesn’t even have to plead with Chu Wanning a little: Chu Wanning agrees immediately to join Sisheng in the hopes of one day completely sealing that weak barrier to the ghost realm. Xue Zhengyong goes into that meeting insanely over-prepared, nervous about it for weeks ahead of time, constantly practicing his pitch to his poor wife. And Chu Wanning only listens to the opening salvo before saying that he’ll start working on the problem as soon as he can. 

But before Chu Wanning can leave the Rufeng Sect—the sect at which he has for several years been serving as a guest cultivator—there’s an assassination attempt. 

Which, like...of course there’s an assassination attempt! 

The sects of the upper cultivation world have the most power, they’re the least averse to doing shitty things that they can talk themselves in circles to believing is for the greater good, they have the connections to do those shitty things, and Xue Zhengyong wants to use Chu Wanning to do something that will eventually take away their easiest revenue stream: extortion. 

Of course one of them tries to kill him. 

Mo Ran has never claimed to be a genius, but he feels like one when he watches the way the sects scramble about in their extended panic attacks about the encroachment of the modern world. It’s like watching people on a sinking ship who, instead of trying to escape on lifeboats, decide that the answer is to go around plugging every hole, convinced that they can eventually stop the ship from sinking.

Except there are thousands of holes in the hull, and there just aren’t enough people on the ship to keep the thing afloat. The modern world doesn’t need cultivators the way they used to. Technology and weapons and the internet have seen to that. And there’s no putting that shit back into the box once it’s out. Sure, people still need cultivators now in the more rural areas, and even the cities need some help with the bigger threats. But that’s not going to last forever. People like Chu Wanning exist. Powerful governments with lots of money and scientists and evolving technologies at their fingertips exist. If cultivators don’t adapt, they’re going to be left behind completely, and it’s so bizarre to Mo Ran, the fact that they bend themselves backwards to deny that fact so violently when the evidence is all around them. They think that the old ways should be enough. They think that people should cling to those old ways, and should venerate them because of their skill and their power. They think the common people are greedy and ridiculous and entitled for expecting anything of them. They think things haven’t changed from the past, but they have. The world doesn’t care what the cultivators think they’re owed. The world is moving on, and the upper cultivation sects need to learn to move with it or risk being swept away.

Not that Mo Ran really cares if they are. Every other sect can get fucked, as far as he’s concerned. But it would probably be bad for, like, historical value or whatever. Tradition. Stuff that people who aren’t him care too much about.

And, sure, maybe Xue Zhengyong’s solution of turning Sisheng Peak into what amounts to a cultivation theme park is a bit...hokey. And maybe it does make a mockery of a long and storied history. A bit. Maybe. If you’re the sort of person who cares about that. But they’re raking in more money than any of the other sects of the lower cultivation world, and that money goes right back into helping people. It’s why Xue Zhengyong can often afford to operate at a loss when he sends groups out to take care of minor demons and ghosts in the area. It’s why the towns around Sisheng Peak are absolutely flourishing, producing fucking art and culture and whatever other important shit. It’s easier to do that when you aren’t constantly worried about demons! And instead of just expecting everyone to pack up and move to some safe, modern city, Xue Zhengyong is doing what he can to make sure that the history and culture of this region isn’t lost! In short: Xue Zhengyong’s plans for Sisheng Peak are exactly what the upper cultivation realm has always feared and tried to avoid. The lower cultivation world has become more savvy, and they’re more likely to make the risky choices to assist people, and they’re able to more cheaply handle the crises that the upper cultivation world has, for years, been inflating artificially so that they can continue to make money. 

So obviously there’s already a grudge! Obviously the upper cultivation world is already low-key panicking about what Xue Zhengyong will do next. And then Xue Zhengyong essentially announces that he and Chu Wanning are going to make the rest of them obsolete.  

It’s not a surprise that there’s an assassination attempt, but it’s a surprise that the assassin gets so close, actually managing to wound the grandmaster. At’s a surprise until Chu Wanning accuses Nangong Liu, head of the Rufeng Sect, of being one of the conspirators. It’s proven almost without any fuss, and Nangong Liu is removed from his position along with two other sect leaders who were found to be conspiring with him. 

The rest of the upper cultivation world pretends at being shocked and horrified that such a thing could have happened, and that Nangong Liu could have been behind it, but everyone basically knows the gears are turning in all of their heads: Nangong Liu fucked it up, but someone’s going to have to step up and succeed.

With Rong Yan—former wife of Nangong Liu and all around badass—taking over as the sect leader, there’s some talk that Chu Wanning will stay with Rufeng after all to help them rebuild. Rumor has it that Chu Wanning was only ever at Rufeng in the first place because of his respect for the sect leader’s wife. But Chu Wanning sticks to his agreement with Sisheng, saying that attacking the problem of the barrier is more important than the internal affairs of one sect. Rong Yan, who is nothing like her husband, lets him go with grace and gratitude. 

And so then that’s where Mo Ran comes in. 

Whenever it comes up later, Mo Ran will vehemently deny Xue Zhengyong’s laughing reminders that Mo Ran begged for the position, but he knows that’s basically what happened. But it’s not just because it’s Chu Wanning! Mo Ran has been working for Sisheng’s security forces for a few years, and everyone knows he’s basically the strongest cultivator Sisheng has; they just don’t say it aloud because it’s not polite to Xue Meng. 

He’s an obvious choice to serve as Chu Wanning’s personal bodyguard while the grandmaster works on fixing the barrier, and he decides early on, with a stubbornness that Xue Zhengyong recognizes well, that he’s going to be the one to do it. 

“He’s a particular man,” Xue Zhengyong warns right before the first disastrous meeting. “With particular tastes. He might take offense to the idea that he needs to be babysat.” 

“Maybe, but we both know that he does,” Mo Ran answers stubbornly. Xue Zhengyong was the one who came up with the idea of assigning someone from Sisheng to tail Chu Wanning constantly, but now he’s fidgeting and hesitating and sighing like he’s been bullied into it. Chu Wanning must have made quite an impression on him. 

“It’s not too late to back out,” he says, voice quiet and weirdly meek in the otherwise empty elevator. Xue Zhengyong is the boldest person that Mo Ran knows. Maybe the combination of those facts should make him take a second to think that Chu Wanning might not be the elegant angel he’s expecting. It doesn’t!

“I won’t back out.” 

“Ran’er, he’s...he’s got quite a temper, and very little patience.” 

“I can be quiet when I need to be.” At Xue Zhengyong’s sideways look, Mo Ran laughs. “I can! Give me a chance.” 

“I’m not the one you’ve got to convince,” Xue Zhengyong reminds him grimly. 

“Give me a chance,” Mo Ran says, with a big grin and a pointed peek back at Xue Zhengyong while he sticks out his hand for Chu Wanning to shake. Chu Wanning stares up at him blankly—he’s not small, but he’s smaller than Mo Ran expected, in a way that is already fucking him up—then turns to Xue Zhengyong. 

“No,” he says coldly. “I don’t want a bodyguard. Especially not one so young.” 

“I’m twenty-two,” Mo Ran snaps, rattled immediately by the icy dismissal in Chu Wanning’s voice. “I’m not too young.” 

Chu Wanning looks back at Mo Ran, still expressionless. Maybe a little surprised, as if he didn’t think that Mo Ran would dare to defend himself. It’s…kind of infuriating. Mo Ran is used to being treated like a moron. And he knows he bears the blame for some of that; it’s part of the facade that he can’t seem to stop wearing. The jolly idiot who hides a calculating mind behind all the laughing and the dirty jokes. It’s enough to fool most people, and there’s a real advantage to being underestimated! But he can feel Chu Wanning seeing beyond it, looking past it to the man that he is beneath it and finding that man still lacking. It makes Mo Ran feel exposed. It makes him feel rejected. He doesn’t like it. “I’m the best choice to keep you safe,” he says, pushing his way past the squirming discomfort that comes with being so blatantly and cruelly cast aside. “It’s going to be me no matter what you think.” 

Chu Wanning frowns deeper, casting his eyes up and down Mo Ran’s tall form once, as if taking it all in and dismissing it summarily. 

“No,” he says to Xue Zhengyong, and then he storms out of the room. 

Within three hours, Mo Ran is posted outside Chu Wanning’s office door. 

“How’d you get him to change his mind?” he asks Xue Zhengyong before being sent over. Xue Zhengyong just grins at him. 

“I’m learning how to talk to him,” he says with pride.

Chu Wanning doesn’t like Mo Ran. That much is obvious. And it’s not like Mo Ran doesn’t understand that he’s an acquired taste. He’s loud and irreverent and performs stupidity like it’s his job. He likes being underestimated, usually. He likes when people dismiss him as just some dumb mutt because he lives for that moment when he’s able to reveal himself as so much more. Xue Meng tells him daily that he needs therapy, but what’s therapy compared to proving some stuffy cultivator wrong after making him think you’re a bona fide dummy? Nothing! 

But with Chu Wanning, right away, it’s different. It’s not fun with Chu Wanning. There isn’t the usual anticipatory buildup to proving someone wrong. No, there’s something about Chu Wanning’s immediate dismissal that makes him furious . Chu Wanning’s disdain isn’t cartoonish or pathetic in the way that it is with a lot of people. He doesn’t look at Mo Ran like he’s unworthy scum. He just...he looks at Mo Ran like Mo Ran is nothing to him. He looks at Mo Ran blankly, and he sizes Mo Ran up, and he clearly finds Mo Ran wanting, and that’s worse than the outright disdain. It’s like Chu Wanning is measuring Mo Ran by some metric that Mo Ran doesn’t understand, and if he doesn’t understand it, then he can’t live up to it, and it’s frustrating . He usually doesn’t want to live up to anyone’s expectations. He likes to defy expectations! That’s his whole jam! 

But Chu Wanning...Chu Wanning. 

The thing about Chu Wanning is that he’s very smart, and very cold, and he’s hot. He’s like this bizarrely imperious milfy fantasy that Mo Ran didn’t even know he had. He has a slender little waist that Mo Ran refuses to stare at. Delicate, pale wrists. He wears his hair in a fucking high ponytail, and it swishes down his back when he walks. He puts on and takes off his glasses like he’s in a porn about your hot stepmom and/or boss and/or college professor who’s telling you you don’t have to fail his class if you get a little creative. If he showed up in heels one day, Mo Ran would somehow not be shocked, and he would also jump straight out the window, and the sheer size of his boner might save his life like one of those emergency bouncy trampoline things. 

There is something about the combination of all of the parts that make up Chu Wanning that is absolutely lethal to Mo Ran. He wants Chu Wanning’s approval, and he wants Chu Wanning’s dick in his mouth, and he wants to rail Chu Wanning up against those giant windows in his office, the ones that look down on the entire peak. He wants Chu Wanning to tell him that he’s good. He wants Chu Wanning to look at him with red-rimmed eyes and a fucked-out expression. He thinks he might also want Chu Wanning to tell him he’s terrible.

He also wants to see Chu Wanning trip and fall on his ass. He wants to see Chu Wanning humiliated , taken down a peg or two. He wants to see Chu Wanning get absolutely obliterated by four dudes who all look like Mo Ran, coincidentally, in his fantasies. He wants Chu Wanning crying and desperate and finally admitting that he isn’t, like, some untouchable, perfect immortal. 

And maybe he just also wants Chu Wanning to show that he’s human , like, even a little bit. He wants to see Chu Wanning smile when it isn’t sarcastic or bitter or cold. He wants Chu Wanning to laugh at his jokes. He wants Chu Wanning to thank him, or acknowledge him, show any kind of sign that Mo Ran is anything other than some irritating moron he’s been stuck with as a consequence for being allowed to attempt something legendary. 

And all of it combined, all of these impossible wants and fantasies, are driving him insane. 

Chu Wanning doesn’t talk to Mo Ran. He barely even looks at Mo Ran, at least at first. It makes Mo Ran burn with something hot and hating, to be ignored by Chu Wanning. Anyone else...he thinks that anyone else could ignore him, and he would just roll his eyes and move on, but something about the way Chu Wanning’s gaze slides past him makes him feel absolutely wretched, and Mo Ran has had enough experience with wretchedness in his life that his brain now automatically turns it into fury. He doesn’t want to feel that sick oily feeling of not good enough, you don’t deserve this anymore. He doesn’t want to always feel like he’s catching up, because he spent his childhood being nothing , and everyone around him grew up as someone . He’s tired of always feeling like he’s lagging behind even though he also knows he’s one of the most powerful young cultivators today. They told him that he was special. They told him that he was strong, and that he would be able to protect anyone he wanted. He would never have to lose anyone ever again, because he would be able to stand up to anyone who might want to hurt them.

But Chu Wanning treats him like none of that is true. Like Mo Ran is just that street kid, still, who grew up not knowing the etiquette of the fancy sects. He sits there tapping away at his computer all day, scowling at the screen like it beat up his dad, slamming on the keys of the keyboard as if he’s trying to get them to play music. Mo Ran stands guard outside his door—because Chu Wanning doesn’t even let him stand inside it—waiting to be asked or told to do anything, but Chu Wanning doesn’t even acknowledge him. Doesn’t seem to realize or care that he’s having Mo Ran work unreasonable hours because he refuses to return to his quarters and go to fucking sleep. Like Mo Ran isn’t a person at all. 

Except, okay. 

Mo Ran’s not an idiot. He just plays one most of the time, partly because it’s useful, and partly because his natural vibe is idiot-adjacent, and he never saw why he should change his personality just to make some stuffy old dudes like him better. The people that matter know that he’s smart, know that he’s capable and trustworthy even if he makes more dick jokes than the average cultivator. And the people who think he’s a dummy tend not to watch what they say around him, either because they don’t think he’ll understand what they’re saying or because they don’t really give a shit if he hears or not, because they don’t think there’s anything he can do about it. 

And so one of his biggest skills, one of the things he’s best at, is observation. Even when he has a grudge against someone—like, say, Chu Wanning—he’s always watching, always waiting for them to prove him wrong. Or not prove him wrong, exactly. It’s more like he doesn’t want his assumptions to lead him astray the way other people do when it comes to him . He doesn’t want to be a hypocrite, especially not the kind of hypocrite who gets caught up in the same trap that he uses so often.

Because first impressions are one thing, and Mo Ran’s perfectly willing to hold a bit of a grudge for that alone. But he doesn’t want to fall prey to a lasting misconception about someone. He doesn’t want to be like those idiots who fall for it, those fools who think he’s sutpid just because he pretends to be, just because he wants them to think he is. And so he observes Chu Wanning a lot, in those early weeks. Maybe as much for his own edification as wanting Chu Wanning to prove him wrong. 

Well, that and the fact that it’s his literal job. 

Technically, Mo Ran’s only job is to make sure that Chu Wanning isn’t assassinated. He stands outside Chu Wanning’s office for hours. He rides in the armored SUV in the passenger seat with Chu Wanning in the back as they head up to the barrier for Chu Wanning to run his tests. He herds Chu Wanning into and out of said SUV, herds him to any meetings with Sisheng’s elders and board members, and herds him back to his apartment at the end of the day, turning him over to the bodyguard who has the night shift. 

And that’s technically the extent of his duties! But he can’t help but notice other things. Like how Chu Wanning is the sort of person who gets so wrapped up in his work that he forgets to eat, ignoring the fact that his stomach’s rumbling is audible even to Mo Ran standing outside the door. Or like the fact that he almost always has dark circles under his eyes, a sure sign that he hasn’t been sleeping well. Or like the fact that he seems to have no personal life to speak of; he seems to live for his work in a way that would be deeply off-putting, except for the fact that Chu Wanning’s work is the kind of work that’s going to eventually save countless lives, so it doesn’t even have the effect that it would if Chu Wanning was just some businessman working for some stupid corporation or something, dedicating all his hours to something that doesn’t really matter.

And these things, these signs that Chu Wanning is dedicated to his work to an astounding degree, are...comforting? Maybe infuriating? Mo Ran can’t decide. It changes day to day. Because the thing is, even despite the terrible first impression and the fact that Chu Wanning clearly has no time for him...Mo Ran does want Chu Wanning to be a good man. Or he wants Chu Wanning to be an obvious, irredeemably bad man. Because he has so much trouble reconciling the difference between the way Chu Wanning’s legacy appears in the wider world and the cold and unlikable personality he shows to the people around him. 

He speaks to the elders of Sisheng Peak like they’re all beneath him. He sneers and rolls his eyes and cuts short any discussion that isn’t going the way he wants it to, apparently because he knows that Xue Zhengyong and Sisheng Peak need him more than he needs them . He’s curt to the point of coldness when he speaks to others, and he doesn’t have any time for the people who show up at Sisheng wanting to discuss his future plans about the barrier. He’s not polite. He’s not ingratiating. He doesn’t know how to talk to people the way that Xue Zhengyong talks to people.

And yet he is doing so much

And as the days pass, Mo Ran notices more and more, and all of it just further clouds his picture of Chu Wanning. 

Like: Xue Zhengyong loves Chu Wanning. Xue Zhengyong likes almost everybody, sure. He’s easy to please, and he’s the kind of person the word jovial was invented for because “nice” wasn’t a jolly enough word. And at first Mo Ran is convinced Xue Zhengyong is just sucking up, because maybe he spent a lot of money getting Chu Wanning to Sisheng in the first place and maybe the investment of it all has made him more tolerant of Chu Wanning’s entire personality. But Mo Ran soon realizes that they actually... get along , oddly, with Xue Zhengyong saying inappropriate things, and Chu Wanning glaring at him, and Xue Zhengyong laughing and slapping Chu Wanning on the back and calling him “funny”, like Chu Wanning has told a clever joke or something. Mo Ran is sure that Chu Wanning is going to snap and tell Xue Zhengyong off one of these days, but instead the opposite seems to be true! Chu Wanning continues glaring, and huffing, and rolling his eyes, but sometimes there’s a little twitch at the corner of his mouth like he might be smiling . And then Xue Zhengyong will dismiss Mo Ran because he’s taking Chu Wanning out for drinks, and Chu Wanning agrees and actually goes with him . And it’s absurd to be jealous of his adoptive father, but Mo Ran is jealous. Why does Chu Wanning like Xue Zhengyong, when Xue Zhengyong is so coarse, and completely indelicate, and everything that Chu Wanning seems to hate in other people?

And why, despite Mo Ran’s steller impression of wallpaper over the past few weeks, does Chu Wanning remain completely indifferent to him? 

That’s part of the problem, really. In all his weeks of observation, in all that time he spends finding that Chu Wanning is more complex than Mo Ran wants him to be...he realizes that he kind of likes Chu Wanning. He likes his bitchiness and his fussiness and the fact that he’s kind of an asshole to everyone except for Xue Zhengyong. Or he would , if he allowed himself to. But he can’t like Chu Wanning, because Chu Wanning doesn’t like him, and Mo Ran might not be the most prideful or dignified person, but surely he has more pride and dignity than that

Everyone likes Mo Ran. Everyone who matters, anyway. Anyone Mo Ran likes inevitably likes Mo Ran in turn, because Mo Ran wins them over. But Chu Wanning remains completely unmoved no matter what he does. Why? What is it about him that Chu Wanning finds so objectionable? 

In his moments of Attempting To Maintain Dignity, he pretends to himself that he doesn’t really care. Why should he care? Chu Wanning is a job. He's a tool. He's going to be solving the crisis of the lower cultivation realm, and Mo Ran can like that about him, even if he dislikes the man’s attitude towards him. Not everything has to be black and white. It’s fine if Chu Wanning doesn’t like him. He’s going to keep the dick alive anyway, and he’s going to be good at his job, and that’s that. 

Anything else... 

Anything else doesn’t matter. 

So why does it feel like it does matter?

And then things start to happen, and wholly against his will, he starts to notice some things, because he is good at his job, and because Chu Wanning isn’t as good at hiding as he thinks he is. 

Mo Ran wishes that he was better at it. It’s so much easier to just hate someone, and it’s easier to hate them when they don’t give you any reason to feel anything more complicated. 

And it does feel complicated. Like when he’s working late one night, as always, standing blankly outside Chu Wanning’s door. 

Well, in theory he’s standing blankly outside Chu Wanning’s door. 

In reality, he’s playing a game on his phone, because there’s a single hallway that leads from the elevator to Chu Wanning’s office, and he can keep his eye on it and on his shitty mobile game at the same time, and if Chu Wanning is going to insist on working this late, then Mo Ran is at least going to try to enjoy some of it. Sometimes he reads on his phone or fucks around on social media, but it’s late, and he’s exhausted, and the distraction of bright colors and flashing multiplier bonuses is exactly what he needs to keep himself awake.

He’s been playing mindlessly for probably hours when he realizes that he hasn’t heard anything from within the office for a while. 

He shoves his phone into his pocket and sticks his head around the corner, feeling a hot flush of shame. He can just imagine the fucking inquiries and the investigations and the utter shitstorm that’ll follow if Chu Wanning somehow got himself killed in his office while Mo Ran was standing right outside. And they’d be right , and it would be Mo Ran’s fault, because he shouldn’t even be outside the office. He should have told Chu Wanning he was fucking dreaming back when Chu Wanning demanded it, but he just didn’t bother to argue, and then started playing games on his phone like a petty fuck, because he was daring Chu Wanning to notice and be annoyed with him, or pay attention to him at all, beyond thinking he’s just some tall idiot kid. 

But Chu Wanning, somehow, by some miracle, isn’t sprawled across his desk in a pool of his own blood. He has his head pillowed in his arms, and his mouth is just slightly open. 

He’s sleeping. 

Mo Ran can tell this immediately from the way the hair hanging in front of his face flutters in the breeze of his breath. Still, he rushes over and pushes that hair aside, gentler than he really wants to examine right now, so that he can press at the pulse point at Chu Wanning’s neck. It’s strong and unwavering. So he hasn’t been poisoned, then. 

Just an idiot who thinks he knows his own limits. 

It’s funny. It’s not like Mo Ran didn’t realize that Chu Wanning must have been tired. He noticed those bags under his eyes, noticed that Chu Wanning was working insanely long hours. If Mo Ran has been tired in the mornings, dragging himself to pick up Chu Wanning from his apartment and accompany him on the short drive to the office, then surely Chu Wanning has been tired as well. 

It’s just that Mo Ran hasn’t really been thinking of Chu Wanning as someone who even can get tired. 

Like he’s somehow better than human. More than human. Not human at all. How stupid of him. Of course Chu Wanning fell asleep at his desk. Chu Wanning doesn’t think he’s human either. 

Mo Ran thinks about leaving Chu Wanning here, waiting for him to wake up on his own. It would serve Chu Wanning right, he thinks, for setting these insane hours in the first place, never considering how his schedule impacts everyone around him. He’d be embarrassed when he realized that Mo Ran was still standing outside, where Chu Wanning told him to stand, refusing to even step a single foot inside his office to wake him up. Malicious compliance, that kind of thing. He might yell at Mo Ran for not waking him up sooner, but it would be worth it for the brief expression of horror that would have to be on Chu Wanning’s face. Even if it was just for a second.

But he feels guilty the moment he steps away from Chu Wanning’s desk. It can’t be good for the guy’s back, hunching like that. Chu Wanning may look like an ageless immortal, but he’s got a human body just like the rest of them. 

So he walks back over to shake Chu Wanning awake, trying to think of something that he can say—something snappy and just a little bit bitchy without getting to the level of disrespect that would make Chu Wanning feel like he has to retaliate or tattle to Xue Zhengyong—but then he glances at Chu Wanning’s monitors. There are three of them, spread out across the surface of the desk. He can’t stop himself from taking a lingering peek.

The first monitor is obvious enough: schematics for Chu Wanning’s Guardian Armor that’s so popular at the moment. Chu Wanning designs and fabricates every single piece of armor and infuses it with his own spiritual energy, which is irritatingly sexy of him. Mo Ran had assumed that Chu Wanning was taking a pause on the Guardian now that he’s been working for Sisheng, but it looks like he’s been trying to improve on it. 

On the second monitor: Chu Wanning’s emails. The one that’s open is from Tanlang Elder, one of most annoying members of the board of Sisheng Peak. It’s...not the most polite email. Looks like Tanlang Elder didn’t get the memo that Xue Zhengyong would throw all of them into a volcano for the chance of retaining Chu Wanning long term. 

Mo Ran knows he shouldn’t be reading it. But his eyes are like creatures of their own free will, scanning down the previous emails. He can only see the first line of all of the unopened emails, but he can see enough to know that it’s a discussion between the board of Sisheng and Chu Wanning. Chu Wanning is rejecting their plans to sell his new line of Guardians at a steeper profit in exchange for being allowed to use their manufacturing facilities. In his last email, it looks like he rejected the entire proposal and said he would continue to manufacture the Guardians himself. Tanlang’s last email had been a snide, dry, goodness, Yuheng Elder. Where do you find the time? I thought the barrier was supposed to be your first concern

So is this bitch the reason why Chu Wanning has been working long into the night? Had Chu Wanning maybe believed that Sisheng Peak would help take some of his burden and help him complete more Guardians in a quicker amount of time? Had Chu Wanning stood firm on raising the price, ensuring that anyone who needed protection would be able to afford it? Mo Ran clicks through a few more of the emails, figuring he’s fucked if Chu Wanning notices already. Might as well dig himself into a deeper hole!

Chu Wanning had worked out all the math in one of the emails; Sisheng Peak would basically be operating at neutral; it wouldn’t end up costing them anything, but it also wouldn’t make them much money. When that wasn’t enough, Chu Wanning had offered some of his own salary into the bargain. But Mo Ran understood why the elders didn’t approve; the profit they could make if Chu Wanning wasn’t so set on giving his Guardians away essentially for free would far outweigh anything that Chu Wanning could pay in a lump sum even if Chu Wanning gave his entire salary. Which he couldn’t do, because he was using basically the whole thing on materials for the fucking Guardians.

And yet Chu Wanning had not budged. 

On the third monitor, there are calculations. Timetables, prices of manufacturing materials. Chu Wanning had not bothered to reply to Tanlang’s email, sent seven hours earlier. He had simply opened up another screen and started figuring out how to shave hours off his already-packed schedule so that he could continue to produce the Guardians without accepting any help from Sisheng Peak. 

He could have gone to Xue Zhengyong directly. He has to know that Xue Zhengyong would give him anything he asked for. At the first sign of trouble, Xue Zhengyong would whip the other elders into shape! But Chu Wanning hadn’t done that. He just quietly went back to working on his own. Like it never even occurred to him to ask. 

Mo Ran doesn’t allow himself to think about how any of this makes him feel. It’s too big to look at, and too difficult to face. It ties into a big knot in his stomach: he and his mother trying to survive the starvation and the cruelty of the other refugees and the punishing restrictions of the Rufeng Sect. The rich people safe in their walled-in estates, who looked down their noses at the unwashed masses suffering in their city. Who laughed when his mother tried to perform when she was too sick to stand. No one cared about them. No one reached out a hand to help them. 

But Chu Wanning cares. Chu Wanning is making sure that no one will have to rely on those big sects again. 

Mo Ran’s hand is still awkwardly extended, hovering just over Chu Wanning’s shoulder. It feels a little bit like it’s going numb. He sighs, pushing out a despairing breath, and he finally shakes Chu Wanning awake. He pretends not to have looked at anything on the screens. He informs Chu Wanning in his most professional voice of the time. Chu Wanning flushes appealingly red, though he doesn’t quite look Mo Ran in the eyes. It doesn’t feel like the victory Mo Ran had expected, earlier. Chu Wanning thanks him for checking on him, and tells him that he should go back home and get some sleep. He pages the other guard, the one who’s supposed to drive him back to his apartment, and has him sent up to the office before dismissing Mo Ran. 

Clearly, Chu Wanning isn’t planning on going back to his apartment tonight.  

Mo Ran hesitates awkwardly at the door before leaving. In the end, he doesn’t say anything. And it eats away at him, later, when he’s in his bed and trying to sleep. Remembering the way that Chu Wanning had looked, curled in exhaustion on his desk. And then waking up and getting right back to work. 

The first thing Chu Wanning did when he woke up was look at the clock and frown in obvious distress. 

It shouldn’t eat away at Mo Ran, but it does. Should he offer to help? He knows how that would be received, and what could he do, anyway? He doesn’t know anything about constructing, or enchanting, or anything that would be involved with what Chu Wanning is trying to do. He’d just get in the way and prove himself an even bigger embarrassment than he already has. 

By the time he falls asleep, his guilt has mostly been assuaged. 

Whatever. Chu Wanning can figure it out himself. 

And then they’re riding in a car together up to the barrier. An armored SUV, just a few steps below a tank, but that doesn’t stop someone from firing a blast of something heavy at it. It doesn’t destroy the car completely, because the enchanted armor is no joke, but it manages to pop a few of the tires, which flips the SUV through the guardrail and sends it sliding down the mountain, spinning horrifically until it comes to a rest upside down on a ledge that dangles out over the edge of the cliff. 

Mo Ran never quite loses consciousness, but he comes close enough that his vision is speckled with black when he manages to figure out why the fuck his arms are hanging next to his ears. Chu Wanning is next to him, head lolling, inky hair spilling and pooling on the roof below them, broken glass glittering in it, for a moment looking like it’s jeweled with some kind of beautiful hairnet. Mo Ran reaches out his fingers to touch it, thinking of nothing beyond how soft it looks, but then he sees that his fingers are dripping with blood, and he remembers, and he slams back into his body. 

He manages to undo his seatbelt, and he crashes onto his back on the twisted metal of the roof. It’s jarring, wakes him up further, especially when he bites his tongue in the process like a fool. He can hear the sounds of a firefight outside: the driver’s door is hanging open, the driver nowhere in sight, so he must have scrambled up the incline to engage the attackers, and probably the guards in the following car were able to avoid the worst of the blast and join. 

It means that he has some time, but not much. If the attackers gain the upper hand and hit the SUV again, they don’t have anything to stop them from going off the edge of the cliff, and the frame of the vehicle is damaged badly enough at this point that they might just get fried on the spot.

One of his arms is bleeding pretty badly, and the way the blood is dripping down his fingers makes it makes it difficult to grab Chu Wanning’s seatbelt, to find the button to release it. He gives up and just rips it eventually, his muscles burning with the sudden infusion of strength. Chu Wanning falls right on top of him, chin hitting Mo Ran’s shoulder hard enough to probably bruise, and Mo Ran oof s out a pained sound right as Chu Wanning’s eyes fly open. 

“Are you hurt?” Chu Wanning asks, though he sounds pretty hurt himself, his voice hoarse, shredded, somehow making Mo Ran think of the ground glass in his hair. They’re crouched awkwardly in the dubious shelter provided by the overturned SUV, and even though there’s fighting just up the ridge, it feels oddly private. Chu Wanning’s hair is still glittering, his ponytail disheveled, laid around his shoulders like a cape, fanned out over his gray suit jacket. Mo Ran wants to touch it, almost reaches out and starts removing the glass himself, his vision going odd and blurry for a moment before he catches himself. Concussion, maybe. Though a concussion that makes him horny for hair? Can’t blame everything on the head wound. 

“I’m fine,” Mo Ran manages. “Stay here. I should…” 

But Chu Wanning isn’t listening to him; he’s already up and scrambling away, sliding through the broken window with ease. 

“What are you—” Mo Ran starts, but Chu Wanning is already gone, lifting himself up the edge of the cliff, past the broken guardrail, and engaging in the battle with a flash of golden light.

Mo Ran is furious with himself, furious with Chu Wanning, furious about all of it. It’s harder for him to get out of the mangled car than it was for Chu Wanning, because Mo Ran is broad in all the places where Chu Wanning is slender. His shoulders scrape against the glass, shredding his jacket, drawing blood in places, but he hardly notices. He’s already bleeding. What’s a little more? 

In the moment, he doesn’t think about how little he likes Chu Wanning. He doesn’t even think about the fact that Chu Wanning is important, and needs to be saved. He barely even registers that, yeah, it’s his job to save Chu Wanning. It’s like the part of his brain that’s devoted to conscious thought has just completely turned off. He only knows that there’s a fight, and that he’s going to join it.

It registers, maybe in the back of his mind somewhere, that it’s his first real fight. He has sparred, obviously. He’s trained for this. But this is the first time he’s going to be using his full strength in any meaningful way. The thing about the other cultivation sects is that even though they are all generally pieces of shit who Mo Ran hates, they’re sneaky about the kinds of pieces of shit that they are. They don’t do a lot of overt warfare. It’s all covert, all behind the scenes, sneaking around and making deals against each other and constantly getting in each others’ way, but not in a way where there’s actual fighting

And he’s...kind of fucking thrilled about it.

To be told by people that you have a strong core, that you have potential, that you might be one of the strongest cultivators in the modern era if you practice enough...that’s all well and good, and he’s been proud of that for ages. 

But to actually use that strength? To actually prove to the people who have doubted the words of the elders since he entered the sect as an untrained pup? That is a rare opportunity.

He always figured he’d be guarding a series of doors to important rooms until he retired. Maybe he’d get to use his full strength against a few lower-level demons or spirits, if he was lucky. Or he’d get a chance to go all out if the barrier weakened again, which would be less lucky. But this? A chance to go against assassins? A chance to just... be , without holding back? He’s hungry for it. He might be starving for it. 

But he’s also undeniably injured. Not at his best. Held back by his own limitations in a way that’s going to frustrate and humiliate him if he doesn’t get his shit together soon. He manages to crawl his way out of the car, and then stumbles to his feet and manages to get himself up the side of the incline without embarrassing himself too badly. He stumbles at the top, and he feels incredibly exposed, with no real cover except for a cluster of rocks that wouldn’t look large enough to hide behind even if the driver wasn’t already crouched there, trying to make himself too small to spot, licking his wounds. 

The road cuts like a ribbon, weaving around this particular bend, and the attackers must have been hiding on the other side of it, up above, further up the mountain. They’re on the road now, though, and they’re spread across it, their backs to Mo Ran, facing a Chu Wanning who has been cornered against the wall. They’re not unskilled fighters, clearly; the road behind them is littered with Sisheng Peak guards from the second car, who might be only wounded or might be dead. There’s no time to check. And if they’ve managed to get Chu Wanning into a corner, that can only mean they’re good. 

But Mo Ran…He may not know Chu Wanning very well. He might not like Chu Wanning a whole lot. But he venerated the man before he ever started thinking he was an asshole, and veneration, particularly for teen boys growing up in cultivation sects, means knowing absolutely everything about a person’s fighting ability. 

If these people think that they’re going to be able to stop Chu Wanning , they’re even dumber than Mo Ran pretends to be. 

Chu Wanning is holding a willow vine in his hand. Mo Ran has never seen him use this particular weapon before, but he knows just by looking at it that it’s a holy weapon, and that it’s a statement , just the fact that Chu Wanning has broken it out at all. Holy weapons are incredibly rare in this day and age, and cultivators who possess them are venerated for that fact alone. 

Mo Ran should know. He’s got one too.

Chu Wanning’s vine and its leaves are golden, and it whips through the air with a precision and a strength that Mo Ran might already be kind of salivating over. The would-be assassins were foolish enough to let their guards down, apparently, believing that they had successfully cornered one of the most powerful grandmasters of the modern era. There’s no cure for that kind of cockiness, really, and they pay for it with their lives. 

They go flying . The willow vine whips out, and three of them are sent full-bodied shooting over the edge of the cliff, gaining the awareness of what happened to them only as they’re already falling, their screams full of panic and disbelief. They may not even be cultivators, just hired mercenaries, because a few of the people actually manage to withstand the hit without instantly being yeeted into space. But Chu Wanning isn’t finished; with a cruel-looking snarl on his face, he whirls the willow vine around his head, and it creates a cyclone of wind that pretty quickly takes care of the rest of them. Mo Ran even finds himself sliding back towards the edge of the cliff an inch or two before he manages to steady himself. The attackers, who have already been battling for a while, can’t take it, and they follow their weaker brethren right off the side of the mountain. 

Through it all, Chu Wanning stands untouched, unruffled, and for a moment it’s easy to imagine him in the cultivator robes of old. Maybe it’s the concussion, but Mo Ran has this moment where he swears he is seeing Chu Wanning in those robes, as if he’s seen it before, as if some memory is tugging at the back of his mind as he watches white billow and furl around Chu Wanning’s body. Mo Ran can’t even move. This was his one chance to let loose, his one chance to actually use his strength in the way that it was meant to be used, and he’s wasting it watching Chu Wanning do his job for him. 

When it’s over, seemingly exactly one minute after it started, he understands why Chu Wanning kept insisting that he didn’t need a bodyguard. 

Of course he doesn’t need a bodyguard. Look at him! He’s barely broken a sweat. 

His willow vine dissolves into golden specks of light as he sends it away. He looks impossibly ethereal even just doing that, even with the hallucination of the lofty immortal finally disappearing. He shrugs out of his blazer as Mo Ran stands there watching him like an idiot. He bunches it up, this ridiculously expensive looking suit jacket that probably cost more than Mo Ran makes in three months. He starts dabbing it against his own forehead to mop up the blood there. It’s just a thin stream, some kind of scalp injury that keeps trickling down his forehead. Mo Ran stares at it. 

He backs up and leans his weight against one of the rocks. The driver is up and checking on the hopefully-just-unconscious guards, casting looks over his shoulder at Chu Wanning as he goes, wide eyes almost comically tracking his movements. Chu Wanning doesn’t seem to notice, but Mo Ran can’t stop noticing everything that’s happening around them. A hyper-awareness that’s also somehow a daze.

Chu Wanning walks up to him, his brow furrowed in concern. In the distance, Mo Ran can hear the wailing of sirens approaching from the direction of the sect; reinforcements finally on their way.

“Are you all right?” Mo Ran finally manages to ask, before Chu Wanning can ask him the same. He’s not sure he’s all right, honestly, but he doesn’t know what else to do. He feels like he’s floating. An odd disassociation with his body, still trying to parse the last few minutes. Chu Wanning stands there looking up at him, because he is shorter than Mo Ran, and he looks so frail and vulnerable, so slender in a way that Mo Ran isn’t, and yet Mo Ran has just seen, right in front of his eyes, how powerful Chu Wanning really is. 

“I’m fine,” Chu Wanning answers, in his cool, deep voice. “Are you all right?” 

“Yes,” Mo Ran answers, even though he knows he isn’t. Chu Wanning nods, that furrow between his brows still twitching there. He moves away, towards the injured men in the road, the willow vine appearing from nowhere and coiling in his hand. Mo Ran pushes himself off the rocks and follows him. His footsteps start out stumbling and awkward, but he regains his balance quickly, and manages to keep pace. Chu Wanning glances back at him once, as if surprised to see him following, but he doesn’t say anything. That concerned little forehead furrow is still there. Mo Ran, for some reason, can’t stop noticing it.

One of the injured men in the road isn’t one of the guards from Sisheng Peak. Chu Wanning walks up to him leisurely as the man attempts to crawl away. His ankle bends at a nauseating angle beneath his black mercenary gear, and for some reason in seeing it, combined with the obvious concussion, Mo Ran feels himself perilously close to vomiting all over his maddeningly hot boss. Chu Wanning ignores the man’s squeals of pain and grabs him by the collar, yanking him up, sneering in his face.

“Who sent you?” he asks. 

The man refuses to answer, though he begs and sobs desperately, promises that he doesn’t know anything. Mo Ran is of the opinion that this guy is a liar, and he starts to say as much, but Chu Wanning is way ahead of him, yet again. He unfurls the willow vine and uses it to wrap around the man’s torso. When he asks his questions again, it’s clear that the willow vine is prying out the truth. 

The man continues to sob in pain, but he still doesn’t give them any answers. Either he’s not lying or he’s better at resisting the willow vine’s compulsion than most people would be. Chu Wanning sighs, and frowns, and finally walks away. 

When Mo Ran rejoins him further down the road, the sirens are even closer. 

“Whoever hired them was careful not to let anything leak to the foot soldiers,” Chu Wanning says. “They must have known about Tianwen.” 

“The willow vine?” Mo Ran asks. Chu Wanning nods and glances over at him. Mo Ran can’t help it. This desire to show off. There’s a part of him that doesn’t want Chu Wanning to know, a petty desire to keep this close to the chest. But in the end…

He summons Jiangui. 

Chu Wanning’s eyes go wide and fascinated, the red of Jiangui’s light reflecting in them. It makes Mo Ran hungry in a way he refuses to examine. 

“Look at that,” he says dryly. “A perfect match.”