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you can love me, if you really want it

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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.”

Chapter Text

It isn’t that things change between them right away. Maybe Mo Ran is a little more respectful of Chu Wanning, generally. More aware now of the kind of person that Chu Wanning is beneath the still-cold face and the still-judgmental looks. The long hours that he works, the unforgiving way that he expects so much of himself. His drive to finish the barrier repair before one of the assassins manages to take him out. His strength and his determination and the compassion that spurs him on. It’s all stuff that Mo Ran noticed against his will, and once you notice something like that, you can’t just stop noticing it.

Chu Wanning is still the same man he’s always been. He acts as he always has. Mo Ran still thinks he’s an asshole, still thinks that Chu Wanning could stand to be taken down a peg, still bristles when Chu Wanning looks at him with that particular judgmental expression. 

But he also doesn’t want the man to die, and he is, with deep reluctance, impressed by Chu Wanning. Moved by him, in some way. 

Captivated by him in a way annoyingly similar to how it was when he was younger, watching those videos of Chu Wanning and feeling overwhelmed by them.

It’s deeply annoying, whatever it is, and it makes the days move even slower, the way he stands there outside Chu Wanning’s door like an unwanted stray and tries to puzzle out exactly what it is about Chu Wanning that makes him unable to stop looking.

The second attempted attack is in the middle of a board meeting. Someone from Sisheng has to be feeding the attackers information, because the attackers know exactly which room in exactly which building the meeting is being held. It’s Mo Ran’s first thought, before all else, when the attack is happening. Like some deeply naive part of him is going, hey, wait a second, no fair! You’re cheating! even as he’s about to have to fight for his fucking life.

They’re hit with some kind of barrier that freezes them all in place. Xue Zhengyong at the head of the table, an irritated expression still carved into his face. Chu Wanning next to him, glaring across the table at Tanlang Elder, who had, moments before the attack, started to float the idea that Chu Wanning might be a conman who doesn’t actually know how to fix the barrier, since it’s been taking so long. Tanlang was heating up into quite a rant, which is how Mo Ran first notices that something’s wrong, because he cuts off with a suddenness that’s unnatural. Like, even if this wasn’t the most long-winded, most blowhardy of all the board members, it would be suspect. Since it’s Tanlang, it’s immediate alarm bells. 

Mo Ran is actually in the room for this, he and a bunch of other guards lined up along the walls, because they’d figured that a board meeting might be a good time for someone to strike, and apparently they were right. There’s no indication as to where the barrier was cast from. No indication whether the person who cast the barrier is in the room with them, but it’s not like Mo Ran can look around and find out; he’s been frozen in place, too. 

He can blink, forcing his eyelids to open and close with the kind of effort he’d normally need to expend to sprint up a staircase carrying Xue Zhengyong bridal style. He can breathe, forcing air in and out of his lungs. But that’s all. He can’t move a finger, can’t move his feet. He’s stuck staring across the room at Chu Wanning, who immediately lifts his eyes to Mo Ran’s.

There is panic in them.  Mo Ran can see it clearly, can recognize it for what it is, even though it’s the first time he’s ever seen Chu Wanning look anything but unruffled. Chu Wanning is trapped, and he’s afraid , and Mo Ran can see it. 

He refuses to examine exactly why that lights a fire in him. 

He starts working on freeing himself with a franticness that would border on pathetic if he did examine why Chu Wanning’s visceral fear affected him so much. He closes his eyes and prods at the spell holding him in place. It’s not his area of expertise; this kind of spell usually requires a lot of delicate prodding to find its weakness, and that’s not Mo Ran’s style. 

But he’s strong. 

Brutally strong, when he’s properly motivated. 

The moment he finds the slightest sign of weakness in the weaving, he starts to pull at it with everything he’s got. There’s this sound that’s steadily growing louder, and in the back of his mind he recognizes it as a helicopter approaching, and gradually coming to hover over the building, and he understands what’s going to happen before it does. It only makes him work harder, pouring all of his considerable strength into destroying the magic that’s keeping him trapped. 

One of the walls of the room is made of glass. The board does love their views of the Peak. Mo Ran can imagine the attackers getting out of the helicopter, can imagine men rappelling down the side of the building, crashing through that window, taking out Chu Wanning with a simple gunshot to the head while Chu Wanning can only sit there, helpless, eyes still locked on Mo Ran. Maybe taking out the board members of Sisheng Peak while they’re at it. Killing Xue Zhengyong for being the one to dare to try to seal the barrier. 

Mo Ran breathes harder, his imagination fueling his strength, which builds behind the wall of the spell with a ferocity that can’t be contained for long. His eyes twitch behind his eyelids, and finally snap open. His pinkie finger twitches at his side. 

Later, Tanlang Elder will tell him that it’s impossible for someone to break out of this kind of spell. He’ll say that Mo Ran needs to be investigated, will imply very hard that Mo Ran may have been the one who cast the spell in the first place. 

He’s wrong. It’s not impossible. 

Mo Ran does it.

Chu Wanning’s eyes fly to the minuscule movement of Mo Ran’s finger, and then they fly back up, and the look in his eyes…

Mo Ran decides that it’s pride. 

And then he breaks free. 

The glass on the other side of the room shatters, just as Mo Ran knew that it would. It doesn’t matter. They took too long. His finger twitch evolved quickly into a curling of his hands which evolved into a bending of his elbow as Chu Wanning watched and Mo Ran stared back, desperate. By the time the first person drops into the room through the window and unclips his harness, Mo Ran is whipping his arm up, Jiangui clenched in shaking fingers. 

He sends that person flying right back out the window.

Time slows down. 

Or it doesn’t, not really, but it feels like it’s slowing. He can’t feel anything. His body is numb. His mind is eerily empty of anything except the next move, and then the move after that, and then the move after that

Twelve men. 

He was waiting for a chance to show off, a chance to test his own limits. 

Well, he got it.

Twelve men, and he kills all of them. 

By the end of it, his chest is heaving, and sweat is pouring down his face. He heads over to the wall and he pulls the security alarm. The helicopter takes off, the pilot and whoever is still left on the roof abandoning the mission as hopeless. 

Mo Ran has known most of the people in this room for half his life. Xue Zhengyong has been a father to him. Tanlang Elder, dickhole though he may be, has looked after his health since he was a boy. The guards in the room, still standing against the wall, still frozen in place, have been his brothers, growing up with him, training with him. 

And yet it is Chu Wanning he goes to. 

Chu Wanning he kneels beside. 

Chu Wanning to whom he says, “it’s all right. They’re dead.” 

Next to Chu Wanning’s chair, looking up at him. Helping him move his frozen hand, which is just beginning to tremble. Helping to massage feeling back into those pale, shaking fingers. When Chu Wanning can finally turn his head and look down at Mo Ran, Mo Ran smiles, and Chu Wanning, unbelievably, smiles back.

He doesn’t hate Chu Wanning. 

Which is a problem for him, emotionally, because it must mean that he likes Chu Wanning. 

Mo Ran is like that. It’s all or nothing. He either loves someone or he hates them or he’s so aggressively indifferent to them that it basically is hate.

In the aftermath of the incident in the boardroom, Chu Wanning’s security tightens, and Mo Ran is assigned to a twenty-four hour detail. It infuriates Xue Meng even more, and Xue Zhengyong tells him he doesn’t have to if he doesn’t want to, but Mo Ran doesn’t complain. Something has changed in him. Chu Wanning…Chu Wanning may not be the kindest person, or the most encouraging, or the most gentle. Maybe Mo Ran really is just a horny monster who has a latent vulnerability kink, but he doesn’t think that’s it. He’s just…angry. If he gives it words, it’s too embarrassing, but it’s something like: this person is his to protect. His to help. A bizarre territorial instinct that has awoken within him and changed the way he looks at Chu Wanning completely. 

He doesn’t pretend to understand it. He doesn’t have to understand it. And he doesn’t do anything to change it, either.

He is given a room in Chu Wanning’s apartment, the temporary quarters in which Chu Wanning has been staying. It’s supposed to be one of the nicest apartments in the Peak, used for visiting dignitaries and stuff, but Chu Wanning has turned it into a bit of a pigsty, which he’s clearly embarrassed about. 

(Mo Ran thinks it’s cute. He wants to think Chu Wanning is just disgusting, but he thinks it’s cute . Something is wrong with him. Maybe that concussion did more damage than he realized.)

His new job is basically to shadow Chu Wanning everywhere he goes. To spend every second of every day following Chu Wanning around. Taking bullets for Chu Wanning if he has to, even if Chu Wanning is in the shower when the shots start coming. Chu Wanning is adamantly against it, which only makes Mo Ran more eager to prove himself. He becomes Chu Wanning’s shadow, his black clothing stark against the white-button up shirts and light gray blazers that Chu Wanning favors. When Chu Wanning is in meetings, when he’s sitting in his office, when he’s doing anything , Mo Ran is with him, and it doesn’t matter how he feels about it. 

Mo Ran has proved his worth to Chu Wanning. He’s sure of that, even if he’s still so unsure about everything else. That automatic rejection from back at the beginning doesn’t hold water anymore, and Mo Ran knows it, and it fills his every step with confidence.

And yet. 

There’s always room for Mo Ran to make an even bigger ass of himself than he already has. 

The third time’s the charm is the saying, right? Except in Mo Ran’s case it’s the third time’s the time you almost fuck everything up irreprably , which feels more generally fitting for his personality anyway. 

It’s not really even Mo Ran’s fault, necessarily, and he knows that. He knows that even as Chu Wanning is telling Xue Zhengyong that he wants Mo Ran fired, that he refuses to take on another bodyguard, that he would literally rather have no one watching him than an idiot who gets distracted enough to let a whole fucking assassin team sneak up on him. He knows it’s not really his fault because the attackers were in a prime position to get the jump on him. Even if he wasn’t distracted at the time, there’s every chance they still would have managed to knock him out with that fucking tear gas or whatever it was that they used to put him on his ass. If anyone’s to blame, it’s the person inside Sisheng Peak who’s clearly working with the assassins, because there’s no way they should have been able to get to the elevator and all the way up without alerting someone in security.

But…it also is his fault. He can’t avoid that fact no matter how defensive it makes him.

It’s his fault for getting distracted, and it’s his fault for getting complacent. He knows now, in the way you can only really know once you’ve been tried by fire, that he’s good . He’s a good fighter, and he has good instincts, and he’s a good bodyguard to Chu Wanning. Maybe he would have managed to get the jump on those assholes, and now he’s never going to know, because he didn’t manage to get the jump on them. A few pathetic moments of not paying attention, and he fucked up, and he almost got himself and Shi Mei and Chu Wanning all killed. 

But, at the same time…he has tried to get Chu Wanning to let him stand in the room with him. He has tried to get Chu Wanning to take him seriously as a bodyguard, to actually let him do his job for the entire day and not just when they’re back at the apartment and Mo Ran has to lurk around the kitchen making sure the most brilliant cultivator of the modern age doesn’t burn the building down by trying to cook anything more complicated than microwavable meals.

It was Chu Wanning who refused. Chu Wanning who always insisted that Mo Ran’s presence was too distracting, as if it was Mo Ran’s fault and not Chu Wanning’s problem that he apparently can’t focus if anyone else is in the room. 

If this was even a few months ago, at the beginning of their time together, Mo Ran might have clung to that fact. Might have tried to shove all of the blame on Chu Wanning, because it’s easier to do that. But things are different now, somehow. He is different. And he can shoulder some of the blame himself while also knowing that it doesn’t have to all be on him. He can feel the guilt that sits on his shoulders without spiraling and collapsing under the weight of it, or trying with the instinctive, animal panic that is so familiar to him to haul the weight of that blame onto someone else.

It helps, too, that the whole thing ends with him realizing something extremely important about Chu Wanning. Something that changes everything. 

During the initial assassination attempt, the one at Rufeng, before Mo Ran ever met him, Chu Wanning suffered some injuries that continue to have side-effects. Something to do with his heart, apparently, which Mo Ran knows nothing about except that Chu Wanning occasionally gets checked on by some of Sisheng’s healers, who take turns coming up to the office to see him, because Chu Wanning insists he can’t take any time to go see them. One of the most competent healers at Sisheng—and a man who has the kind of effortlessly gentle personality that’s perfect for dealing with Chu Wanning—is Shi Mei, one of Mo Ran’s closest friends, and it’s no surprise to Mo Ran that Shi Mei is usually the one who gets sent up to Chu Wanning’s office.

The presence of the healers always puts Chu Wanning in a foul mood, but with Shi Mei, Chu Wanning is more mellow, more patient. Shi Mei has that effect, and it’s amusing to watch Chu Wanning fall for it the same way that Mo Ran used to, when he first arrived at the sect and was angry and hungry for validation and always looking to start a fight. Shi Mei had done the same routine then, too. Asking him caring questions and giving Mo Ran enough of the time of day that Mo Ran had read too deeply into it, and ended up crushing hard on a guy who really just had a killer bedside manner. 

Not that Mo Ran doesn’t still love Shi Mei, but he understands better now what parts are actually Shi Mei and what parts are the pleasant mask he wears to get him through the day. 

On this particular day, Shi Mei stops at the door to chat with Mo Ran. Just a few pleasantries exchanged as always, nothing out of the ordinary, but it irritates Chu Wanning enough that he opens the door and barks out into the hallway that he isn’t going to sit around waiting for his checkup all day. Mo Ran is amused by the unusually prissy tone, and Shi Mei covers up a smile with the back of his hand, and Mo Ran strains his ears to listen to the brusque, irritated drone of Chu Wanning’s voice and the softer, lilting notes of Shi Mei’s as the conversation continues in the office. 

Chu Wanning practically shoves Shi Mei back out into the hall at the end of a very quick checkup, lobbing a parting shot about how I told the sect leader that this is a waste of time that Shi Mei doesn’t seem bothered by. Chu Wanning’s moods are just something you get used to. He’s never really cruel . Just rude enough to drive people away faster. Shi Mei seems to have absorbed the same lesson that Mo Ran eventually did. 

It’s funny, sometimes, to think of Chu Wanning as an overgrown kid, submitting to having his temperature taken but loudly expressing his displeasure to anyone in earshot. Mo Ran is in a cheery mood as he bids goodbye to Shi Mei, and so Shi Mei stops to chat for a few more moments, asking about dinner plans with Xue Meng later in the week. Mo Ran can practically feel Chu Wanning fuming on the other side of the door, always annoyed by other people having friends around him even though he rebuffs almost every attempt at friendship himself, so he’s sort of trying to hurry Shi Mei along, nodding and agreeing to everything that Shi Mei says. 

And it’s like…it’s not like Mo Ran’s crush on Shi Mei just disappeared . It’s not like it’s not there anymore. It has just been, for a long time now, one of those things where you don’t think anything’s ever going to come of it. And you don’t even want anything to come of it! You just…kinda like them, like spending time with them. Think they’re cute, want to hang out with them. Nothing serious, but Shi Mei is fun to be a little pathetic and flirty with, and he’s sweet to look at, and he never tells Mo Ran he’s being a dumb dog or an idiot, and he never looks at Mo Ran in the disdainful way that Chu Wanning sometimes looks at him, and overall he just makes for a very good distraction. 

It just…turns out to be the wrong time for said distraction.

Mo Ran is looking at Shi Mei, smiling at Shi Mei, and then he’s waking up with a searing pain in his side and a huge gap in his memory. Shi Mei is sitting on the floor next to him, holding a bloodied gray jacket wadded up against the spot on Mo Ran’s side that burns like fire, his face pale and his fingers shaking. His mouth is in a thin, terrified line. Mo Ran doesn’t understand. 

Understanding comes slowly, over the course of the next few minutes. There are bodies all around them. People in tactical gear. Cultivators and common soldiers together, with guns among them, sliced in half. The work of a willow vine. Mo Ran can’t remember if he did that or not. He turns his head, seeking out Chu Wanning even though Shi Mei keeps telling him not to move, that he’s been shot.

There. Chu Wanning is standing in the middle of the hallway, his hands on his hips. In just his white button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled up, he looks particularly angelic, even covered in blood. It looks like some kind of demon or creature pierced five holes right through the meat of his shoulder, and unlike Mo Ran, there’s no one attending to it. Like no one has noticed that he’s hurt at all. Mo Ran’s side is in agony, but he instinctively tries to get up, feeling useless, lying on the floor, knowing already that he fucked up somehow. As if he can sense Mo Ran, Chu Wanning whirls and glares at him, the intensity of that expression pinning Mo Ran in place. 

“Stay there,” he says, his lip curling with disdain. “You’ve done enough.” 

It’s the last thing he says to Mo Ran for a while. 

About Mo Ran, though, he has plenty to say. He tells Xue Zhengyong, right in front of Mo Ran, as if he has forgotten Mo Ran’s presence completely, as if Mo Ran isn’t even a real person , as if his feelings aren’t worth any consideration, that Mo Ran is too young, and too inexperienced, and too easily distracted, and that Chu Wanning wants him reassigned.

“It’s going to get him killed,” Chu Wanning says. Mo Ran hears, he’s going to get me killed

He isn’t good enough. 

I don’t want him. 

I don’t trust him

He’s still sprawled half in Shi Mei’s lap as Tanlang Elder bends down to heal him, taking over for Shi Mei, who has apparently burned himself out for the time being. Probably because he had to fight while Mo Ran lay unconscious in a heap on the floor because he’s the worst bodyguard on the planet.

“Give him a chance, Yuheng,” Xue Zhengyong is saying gently, like he’s talking to a startled, ruffled animal. Chu Wanning scoffs. 

“Why would I do that? What has he done to deserve it? He doesn’t even want this job, and he’s...” 

“I do ,” Mo Ran snaps in reply. Both Xue Zhengyong and Chu Wanning look at him, and Mo Ran struggles to his feet, ignoring Shi Mei’s stammers and Tanlang’s disappointed sigh. “It won’t happen again.” 

“You are putting everything at risk,” Chu Wanning says to Xue Zhengyong, ignoring Mo Ran’s plea completely. “If you don’t reassign him.” 

Xue Zhengyong doesn’t reassign him. 

Mo Ran gets out of the hospital earlier than he was supposed to, and he goes back to work earlier than he was supposed to, too. 

While he was in there, Shi Mei visited him from time to time, bringing him treats and books and things that Mo Ran wouldn’t have even thought to ask for. Candy and home-cooked meals and words of praise. Gentle smiles.

Xue Meng even dropped by a few times, mostly to bitch about the fact that Mo Ran almost got Chu Wanning killed, but even his harshest words were said with genuine concern in his trembling voice, and it was so cute that Mo Ran didn’t even make fun of his little brother too much for it.

He got calls and emails from his friends in other sects, and a few of them even stopped by to make fun of him and see how he was doing. Ye Wangxi came by all the way from Rufeng just to stand over his bed and shake her head and call him a fool, but she also tucked him in before she left, and kissed him on the forehead when she thought he’d drifted off, which he’s never going to let her forget. His room was filled with flowers, all his little shidis and shimeis sending him well-wishes. His bed was piled high with stuffed animals, and his bedside table was stacked with cards. 

But Chu Wanning?

Chu Wanning didn’t visit him once.

Didn’t send him flowers. Didn’t send him a card. Didn’t send him even a simple note on a post-it.


Mo Ran tried not to be upset about every day that went by without a single acknowledgement from Chu Wanning, but he failed so miserably that he even had to admit to himself that he failed. None of his usual purposeful obliviousness about his own feelings worked! From Xue Zhengyong and Xue Meng and Madam Wang, he heard all about the progress that Chu Wanning was making on the barrier. He heard about the long hours that Chu Wanning was working, and the fact that he almost never left his office, and about the fact that he kept rotating bodyguards out, never sticking with any of them for long, and about the fact that he kept arguing with Xue Zhengyong about the need for having any bodyguards at all. 

It might look like fear for his own life, maybe. Fear that the bodyguards couldn’t protect him. Fear that he might end up getting killed for this barrier after all. 

But it didn’t look like fear to Mo Ran. 

Not fear for himself, anyway. 

It was a kind of creeping awareness within Mo Ran. Something that ate away at the indignant anger that he felt at first. He’d been so blindingly furious his first few days in the hospital, remembering the way that Chu Wanning had been so dismissive. Remembering Chu Wanning’s immediate quiet certainty that Mo Ran needed to be fired. It’s so easy for Mo Ran to get angry. Anger is usually his default position. He got used to it young, fighting against everyone else for every little crumb of acknowledgement. Always on the defensive because he knew that there was no one else who was going to watch his back. He’s gotten better at it over the years. Stemming that knee-jerk reaction and swallowing back the automatic fury. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a struggle, and it tends to be an especially big struggle when he knows he could have done better. 

And the thing with Chu Wanning…it was definitely his mistake. But it still didn’t take him very long to see .

“He refuses to accept that he can be seriously hurt if he doesn’t have anyone watching his back,” Xue Meng said, in a tone of admiration like it was a good thing that Chu Wanning was the most stubborn person on the planet. Mo Ran simply scoffed and told Xue Meng that his boner could be seen from space, and that was that. But it stuck with him, afterward, remembering. Remembering the way that Chu Wanning reacted when their SUV was attacked. Remembering the way that he reacted when the board was attacked. 

Remembering the way that he stood over Mo Ran, shaking with anger when the office was attacked. 

Remembering that Chu Wanning’s first instinct was, in all of those instances, to check to make sure that Mo Ran was all right.

Remembering that, when Mo Ran swam back to consciousness, Chu Wanning’s sleeves had been rolled up, and his hands had been stained with blood. 

Remembering that the jacket held against his wound, the one he had first assumed came from Shi Mei, was light gray. 

And that Shi Mei had been wearing blue.

It doesn’t take a genius. Maybe all it takes is an extended hospital stay spent stewing about his boss’s stupid, handsome face and his cold lack of care. By the end of his recovery period, he can look back on everything with a clearer head. He can remember his anger over the fact that Chu Wanning cares so much about the common people but doesn’t care about his own bodyguard. He can think it over enough to realize that Chu Wanning’s indifferent face might be as much a mask as Mo Ran’s performative stupidity. He can remember Chu Wanning’s shaking tone and his actual words that day in the hallway, instead of the assumption that Mo Ran had read into it: it’s going to get him killed

Not he’s going to get me killed , even though that’s what Mo Ran felt

It’s going to get him killed. 

Chu Wanning does everything for other people. He never does anything for himself. And Mo Ran understands suddenly why that kind of person would try to reject the necessity of a bodyguard. 

And he knows exactly why that kind of person would rather risk his own death than let someone else take a bullet for him. 

It’s because Chu Wanning is not an asshole. Chu Wanning is the biggest bleeding heart on the planet, and his coldness is just a front, and Mo Ran is a fucking idiot. 

So he spent those first early days in the hospital having angry fantasies about fucking Chu Wanning to tears over his desk, and then the last few days thinking about how best to beg Chu Wanning to give him another chance (fucking him to tears over his desk might have also played a part in those fantasies, but they were like… kinder fucking Chu Wanning to tears over his desk fantasies), and a few miserable hours in the middle imagining how wretched Chu Wanning must have felt, bursting out of his office, seeing Mo Ran shot in the side, unconscious on the floor, while Shi Mei struggled to hold his own against the intruders. He knows that’s exactly how it happened, because Xue Zhengyong told him, but he doesn’t know exactly what Chu Wanning’s reaction looked like, and he finds that—in those few hours in which he allows himself to think about it—he desperately wants to know. He remembers Chu Wanning’s dyed red hands and the way they shook, and he wonders... were you worried about me? 

He thinks about Chu Wanning’s anger after, and the insistence that Mo Ran had to be fired, reassigned. What would it be like to care even a little bit about the person who was supposed to be hurt in your place? What would it be like to care about the person whose entire job was to take a bullet so that you didn’t have to? Chu Wanning is so used to giving all of his hours and all of his days to try and make peoples’ lives better. It must have been hell to think that his very presence was making Mo Ran’s life worse. And it’s not like Mo Ran has been very clear about not feeling like that. Sure, it was in retaliation to Chu Wanning’s indifference, but still! Of course Chu Wanning thinks he doesn’t even want this job! Of course Chu Wanning thinks that Mo Ran is miserable, being assigned to protect a man he doesn’t even like, being expected to die for the greater good. 

And Chu Wanning is not a person who knows how to care for people openly. Mo Ran somehow knows that, even though he knows so little about Chu Wanning generally. 

Something warm and disbelieving fills him when he thinks about the fact that Chu Wanning was worried about him. 

Warm and disbelieving and like a slide that he can’t stop going down once he’s started. Because it fills some hole in him that he didn’t even know was still there, somewhere inside his heart. Some unmet need that he didn’t realize he still had. This desire for affection and attention, ignored for years, maybe since his mother died, and now he’s projecting it on Chu Wanning, of all people. 

In a way, he’s surprised that he can reach this epiphany at all. He’s surprised that he doesn’t automatically start thinking that the worst case scenario is true: that Chu Wanning hates him. That Chu Wanning thinks he’s a waste of space and doesn’t want him as a bodyguard becuase Mo Ran fucked up and doesn’t deserve a second chance. Maybe at the beginning, that’s exactly what he would have thought. He’s always had a streak of self-loathing, and he does hate himself a little bit for the thought that either Chu Wanning or Shi Mei could have been hurt because he wasn’t paying enough attention to the threat. 

But…he’s somehow able to see the truth. And that makes all the difference. 

When he heads back to work to start guarding Chu Wanning, it’s a normal enough day. He shows up in time for what used to be his old day shift, before they assigned him to babysit Chu Wanning full time. He waits outside the office door for Chu Wanning to arrive, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t feeling a little bit giddy at the prospect of surprising Chu Wanning like this. 

Nervous, sure. But in a giddy kind of way. Mostly, he knows how Chu Wanning is going to react. He knows he’s going to have to convince Chu Wanning to let him stay. He knows he’s probably going to have to grovel a little bit, and show Chu Wanning that he really doesn’t see it as a burden, guarding him, protecting him, making sure that he’s able to complete his work for all the people who would otherwise be harmed. He doesn’t mind doing all of those things if it will mean Chu Wanning understands how important he is.

The elevator dings loudly in the otherwise quiet hallway. Mo Ran suddenly has this panicked moment of, like, trying to decide if it’s sexy or just obnoxious if he stands with his back straight and his eyes ahead like he’s just a tool for Chu Wanning to use. Then he decides that would probably run counter to what he’s trying to do here, so he decides to be a little more chill and turn his head to watch Chu Wanning approach. But what if Chu Wanning thinks he’s being disrespectful?

It’s a long several seconds before the elevator doors open and Chu Wanning steps out.

But when he does, and when he sees Mo Ran standing there, he falters.  

Mo Ran can sense the tension simmering beneath Chu Wanning’s frosty expression. He can feel the prickling anger that Chu Wanning wants to let out. He can feel the moment when Chu Wanning decides to swallow that prickling anger, when he forces it back down. He signals with a wave of his hand to the guard who had been escorting him, allowing the other man to leave, and the guard takes off, practically scrambling back into the elevator. Mo Ran feels a distinct wash of pleasure through himself. Not everyone knows how to handle Chu Wanning. Not everyone sees Chu Wanning the way he does. And, for some reason, he likes that. 

When the other guard is gone, Chu Wanning moves past Mo Ran to his office and says, “in.” 

Mo Ran follows without question, though he can’t help prickling a little bit at Chu Wanning’s clear irritation. Even though he told himself that he was going to be cool about this, he still feels this knee-jerk drive to defend himself. He almost opens his mouth to do it several times, but he stops himself. He takes a few deep breaths as he stands in front of Chu Wanning’s desk and waits. He already made the decision to treat Chu Wanning more carefully this time. He knows now what kind of person Chu Wanning is, and he knows that Chu Wanning won’t back down if he feels like he’s being attacked, but he also believes now that his bark is way worse than his bite. And he knows that he can withstand whatever fierceness is behind that bark, now that he knows the truth of what kind of heart Chu Wanning possesses. 

Chu Wanning fusses around at his desk for a little while, looking put-out, pretending to be busy so he can continue to ignore the person watching him. Mo Ran thinks it’s cute! It doesn’t have the same effect on him that it used to. It’s really wonderful how quickly it changed. It wells up inside him, this affection. He knows Chu Wanning would be disgusted if he realized it, which only makes it bigger, to be honest. It’s an odd power that he has over Chu Wanning now. The ability to see through the mask. No one else can do it. 

“I told Xue Zhengyong to reassign you,” Chu Wanning says when he finally realizes that he can’t avoid Mo Ran forever. “I don’t need a babysitter.” 

Snappish and fussy and completely without power now that Mo Ran knows . He swallows back a smile.

“No, but you need a bodyguard, and I need a job,” he says evenly, going for reasonable and a little bit scared and inevitably succeeding. “If you have me reassigned, it’ll look bad. You know how fickle the board of Sisheng is. I’ll look like a screw-up. The Sect Leader is helping me out by insisting you keep me on.” 

Chu Wanning freezes at that, blinking up at Mo Ran with a suspicious gaze. But it softens when he sees that Mo Ran is serious, because Mo Ran is a good liar. Or, not a liar, maybe; it really wouldn’t look good for him to get fired as Chu Wanning’s bodyguard, and the Sisheng board really does think he’s kind of a waste of space. The only thing he’s lying about is pretending to give a shit what the Sisheng board thinks about him.

“Fine,” Chu Wanning says after a pause. “But you won’t allow anything to distract you this time. I won’t be so forgiving in the future.” 

Mo Ran nods and tries to look contrite enough to fool Chu Wanning into thinking he actually is. 

Or, well, he is contrite, but not quite for the reasons Chu Wanning thinks.

“Of course,” he says. “It won’t happen again, sir.” 

“Don’t call me that,” Chu Wanning hisses, scandalized as if Mo Ran had called him something filthy, and Mo Ran bites back a laugh.

And, look. Mo Ran would call him something filthy, if he thought Chu Wanning would react well to it. 

It actually doesn’t even occur to him as a possibility. Like he knows that he would like to be railing Chu Wanning as regularly as Chu Wanning’s busy schedule allows, but for some reason the thought of Chu Wanning being into men never even occurs to him. It’s not like he looks at Chu Wanning and thinks, that’s a straight man . He’s not that oblivious. It’s more like he looks at Chu Wanning and sees a void of sexuality. Like, how would Chu Wanning even be able to have sex? He grimaces every time someone tries to shake his hand. He looks like he wants to die every time someone touches him in even a non-sexual way. The thought of him ever being relaxed enough to fuck or be fucked is so far out of reach. Mo Ran is an imaginative guy, especially when it comes to boning, but trying to figure Chu Wanning out gives him a headache. 

It’s not that he’s mentally locking Chu Wanning away into a sex-free glass cage or anything. That’s what he did when he had a crush on Shi Mei; he kept thinking that Shi Mei was too pure for sex, whatever that meant. The thought of Shi Mei and sex together almost actively repulsed him, even though he was also trying to convince himself at the same time that he was sexually attracted to Shi Mei. His late teens were a weird time. He understands himself better now, though, and he knows that he’s sexually attracted to Chu Wanning, and he doesn’t think that the very act of his penis penetrating his boss won’t suddenly sully said boss forever or whatever. It’s more like he’s putting Chu Wanning inside a mental box in order to try and protect Chu Wanning from the very vivid sexual fantasies that Mo Ran could be having about him. Or maybe he’s trying to protect himself from those fantasies. It’s difficult to say. Whatever the attempt is for, it isn’t working. He’s still horny for Chu Wanning in any context. Actually, it’s becoming a problem. The mental box might be actively making it worse.

Because it’s not like he thinks to himself, I am going to eventually fuck Chu Wanning . It’s not like he’s thinking I am trying to work Chu Wanning up to the point where he will let me fuck him . It never escapes fantasy and encroaches into the realm of possibility for reality. Which means that he just doesn’t think about why he does things like stand obnoxiously close to Chu Wanning, leaning over his shoulder to whisper something in his ear. Or why he stares so much at that pale, delicate neck as he stands behind Chu Wanning’s chair at meetings. He doesn’t think about why he doesn’t mind spending basically his entire day with Chu Wanning, or why he’s always at least half-looking at Chu Wanning at all times when they’re together. If he did think about it, he would probably think that it was something to do with not fucking up as badly as he did when he almost got Chu Wanning killed. Dedication to his job or whatever. But that’s only because all other thoughts of Chu Wanning have been relegated to that horny mental box, which is just rattling ominously in the corner into which he haphazardly tried to shove it. 

And then the suit thing happens. 

And, like, the thing is…

Mo Ran is an okay dresser. Better than he has any right to be, considering he never buys designer clothes if he can help it. He isn’t trying to be arrogant when he says that he makes anything he wears look good; it’s just true , and lots of people have told him so. He has an easy grace and a careless kind of vibe that makes him wear anything well, so it doesn’t matter where he gets his clothes or what name is on the label.

But it’s also true that he doesn’t really own anything nice .

He has three essentially identical suits for work—just basic, black, and nice enough for a bodyguard who’s not expected to be noticed. They were all gifts from Xue Zhengyong, who only cares about appearances to the extent that his “wifey” likes it when he dresses nice, so they aren’t anything special, but they always make Madam Wang pronounce him “very handsome” in that proud, cooing voice she uses for he and Xue Meng.

And for his off-hours—when he’s not assigned to guard fussy grandmasters for twenty-four hours a day—he’s gotten better at picking out bargain bin blazers and dress pants for those rare occasions when he has to show up to some function as the sect leader’s adopted son. Black or dark blue, usually, because they’re easy and interchangeable and they always look good enough. It’s not like he needs much. So when Chu Wanning leaves his bedroom one morning and immediately asks, “do you have a better suit than this?” he can probably be forgiven for being a little confused by the question. 

“What’s wrong with this one?” he asks. He’s drinking coffee at the counter, having woken up early to brew it properly, since he learned quickly in this temporary cohabitation that Chu Wanning will just dump a shitload of whatever coffee into a pot and then proceed to char the shit out of it. 

“Is that the best one you have?” 

Chu Wanning is standing in the doorway, fully dressed and put-together, looking like an accidental model as always, looking at Mo Ran with that suspicious look he does sometimes when he thinks Mo Ran might be fucking with him. 

“Yes,” Mo Ran confirms. “It’s fine. I look like a bodyguard.” 

“Mm,” Chu Wanning says tonelessly, in a way that could mean it’s a good thing or a bad thing that Mo Ran looks like a bodyguard. Mo Ran laughs, pouring Chu Wanning a mug and handing it over. Chu Wanning always frowns when Mo Ran does stuff like this for him, but he doesn’t complain about it, and he always seems to like the way that Mo Ran makes coffee, anyway (as long as Mo Ran sweetens it appropriately ahead of time, of course). He takes it in both hands and sips from it, never caring how hot it is. Mo Ran watches him, fascinated as always by everything he does. 

“What do you want me to look like?” Mo Ran asks, as Chu Wanning nearly chokes on his coffee. Apparently it’s still too hot even for him. 

“You should have a good suit,” Chu Wanning manages between red-faced sputters. “In case we need to go to the kinds of places that care about stuff like that.” 

“Like where?” Mo Ran asks. Chu Wanning sighs and, having lost patience with Mo Ran already, waves him off as he heads for the front door. He does this when he’s uncomfortable with something; just tries to fucking leave the room. Which is the kind of thing that might work on Mo Ran if he wasn’t literally paid to follow Chu Wanning out of said room. 

“Benefit dinners,” Chu Wanning answers once he realizes that Mo Ran is, in fact, following him. “The sect leader wants to start trying to drum up support for the project, and part of that includes fundraising from the common people. Sisheng cannot afford to fund this project indefinitely, especially if the other sects insist on continuing to send people after me.”

Mo Ran tries not to preen too hard under the force of that, the knowledge that Chu Wanning assumes Mo Ran will be accompanying him to those benefit dinners. Which, like…of course he’ll be accompanying Chu Wanning. He’s not sure why it makes him feel so… included. 

“I’ll look into getting a flashier suit,” he says offhand as they head down the hallway to the front door. “I can probably scrounge up something cheap that looks okay, but I don’t think anyone will...” 

Chu Wanning stops walking suddenly. 

“What?” he asks. He sounds weirdly annoyed about it, or angry, like Mo Ran said the wrong thing. 

“Should it not be cheap?” 

“It shouldn’t be,” Chu Wanning says slowly. “Why would it be? You’re the son of the sect leader.” 

“I don’t like to take money from the Xues,” Mo Ran says modestly. Chu Wanning frowns deeper. 

“You’re still in a good position. Are you not being paid enough?” 

Mo Ran hesitates. In truth, he doesn’t think he is , but it’s a pain in the ass to get the board to approve higher pay for guards, even those who are technically the sect leader’s children. But it’s not like he needs a lot of money. He gets to learn to cultivate, he has a place to live, and he has a steady job and access to all the food he can eat. There was a point in his life when he had none of those things, so he’s more than happy to have them now. 

But he knows his salary could be better. He knows that getting by and being given what you deserve are very different things, and sometimes it does make him uncomfortable to know that the board of Sisheng keeps voting down the salary increases that Xue Zhengyong always proposes. Like, the guards are good enough to protect the board with their lives, apparently, but not good enough to earn a good wage? It’s ridiculous. 

But…what right does he really have to complain? He remembers being a starving kid on the street. He remembers thinking that he would do anything to have the kind of circumstances that he has now! Why would he be so ungrateful?

He doesn’t have to say a word. It’s the hesitation that does it, apparently. Chu Wanning’s expression sharpens even further, goes even more suspicious, and Mo Ran can practically see the thundercloud forming over his head. 

He calls Xue Zhengyong as soon as they’re in the office. Mo Ran—inside the office, now; quite the step up—pretends not to be listening as Chu Wanning demands a higher salary for him, saying things that annoyingly make his heart flutter, like, if he’s going to be risking his life, he at least deserves to be compensated accordingly in this bitchy, clipped tone that makes his deep voice somehow even sexier. 

When he hangs up, he’s angry, which means Xue Zhengyong probably said the same thing he always says about the board.

“It’s really not a big deal,” Mo Ran says, helplessly, oddly bothered to see Chu Wanning so flustered on his behalf. 

“I didn’t realize you weren’t being paid enough,” Chu Wanning says. “Not that any amount can...still. There should be adequate compensation.” He looks at Mo Ran, and there’s something almost helpless in his expression. “But how much would even be enough?” 

Mo Ran frowns at him. He understands the guilt. He understands the fact that Chu Wanning doesn’t want anyone to die for him. 

But the helplessness in Chu Wanning’s voice, the way he sounds tense and confused and clearly makes Mo Ran feel something unexpected. It makes him want to tell Chu Wanning that it’s fine, that he’s fine, that he doesn’t mind. He wants to tell Chu Wanning some cheesy shit like it’s an honor to guard you with my life or something, even though he knows that Chu Wanning wouldn’t take that very well. It’s something tense and uncomfortable; not anger, but something similar. Something he’s never felt before, and it makes him feel helpless as well. 

And he's distracted by this strangeness for long enough that he ends up just saying...nothing. And so Chu Wanning takes that however he wants to take it. 

And so Chu Wanning takes him to buy a suit. 

Mo Ran feels terrible as soon as it’s clear where he’s being taken, and he wants to tell Chu Wanning no, forget it, let’s go back. But he knows that if he tells Chu Wanning it’s weird for a man to buy his bodyguard a suit just because he doesn’t think the one he owns is nice enough, Chu Wanning will turtle-shell back within himself in humiliation for the social misstep, and that’s not what Mo Ran wants, either. 

Chu Wanning lives like a gremlin—Mo Ran has seen the inside of his bedroom a few times when Chu Wanning wasn’t quick enough to close the door and prevent him from seeing it—and Mo Ran is of the opinion that if the man didn’t have the sect workers providing his groceries, he would probably just starve to death. But one thing Chu Wanning does know is how to pick out clothing. 

Doesn’t know how to wash said clothing, since a laundry service was like the first thing he requested in his contract, but at least he looks good in his clothes once they’ve been laundered for him. 

He suggests several suits in different colors, suits that feel expensive to the touch somehow, suits with silk-lined insides and flattering patterns and almost bizarrely peacocky vibes that Mo Ran somehow doesn’t hate. He refuses to let Mo Ran look at the price until Mo Ran tries them on, and then he refuses to let Mo Ran agonize over the cost while he takes the suit jackets and the pants and the shirts up to the front to be purchased. Mo Ran carries the bags afterward—literally the least he could do—and he watches Chu Wanning in awe as Chu Wanning stands there waiting for the light to turn so they can cross the street, sunglasses perched on his nose, hand on his hip. 

Chu Wanning has no idea, is the thing, how good he looks like this, and how weirdly squirmy and weirdly good it makes Mo Ran feel, to be... taken care of like this. It’s just a suit. That’s what he keeps telling himself as they go back to the office. And then, later, as he’s in his room in Chu Wanning’s temporary apartment, trying it on, looking at himself in the mirror and seeing that, yeah, there apparently is a difference in quality in these things. He looks better, more mature, more grown up. And Chu Wanning has done it. It’s just a suit, and he knows that Chu Wanning didn’t mean to be weirdly intense about it, and he didn’t mean to make Mo Ran both uncomfortable and also, weirdly, more comfortable than he has ever been in his life. He just wanted to give Mo Ran a suit. Maybe as a way to assuage that guilt he clearly feels about Mo Ran’s profession. Maybe as a way to make sure that Mo Ran doesn’t embarrass him at those functions or whatever it was he was talking about. That’s all it is. 

Except. It keeps happening. 

It’s like there was some tension inside Chu Wanning that has now burst and exploded all over Mo Ran. Like Chu Wanning was just waiting to find a way to make up for the fact that every day he works for Sisheng, every day he doesn’t figure out the barrier thing, he is putting Mo Ran’s life at risk. 

Chu Wanning has been looking for ways to make it right within his own mind. He probably even understands that he won’t be able to make it right. Not really. It’’s class inequality and fucking cultivation sect bullshit, and it’s all tied up in the fact that Mo Ran was born into a family that did not have a lot of money, and even though he now lives with a family that makes more money than his mother ever dreamed of, he has never stopped feeling like an outsider. Still feels that need to prove himself, to keep climbing, to refuse to back down from anything. Of course he’s young, and of course he’s Chu Wanning’s bodyguard, and of course he sees success in that while Chu Wanning only sees a senseless waste of life, a young man being sacrificed for the good of an older one. 

And so the gifts—because that’s what they are, gifts, even though Mo Ran knows that Chu Wanning would hate to hear them described like that—are fine, they’re okay, they make sense, and they don’t make Mo Ran feel anything inappropriate, because he understands the intention of them, and there’s no reason for him to read into anything else. There’s no reason for him to want anything else from Chu Wanning. 

And it starts small, like Chu Wanning buying them coffee every morning. Buying Mo Ran the largest black coffee they have while he himself turns his coffee into a bubbling potion of sugar and cream and whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon, like that makes it more grown-up, somehow. It starts small, like Chu Wanning telling Mo Ran to sit down in the comfortable chair in the corner when they’re in the office. It has a good line of sight to both Chu Wanning and the window, so Mo Ran agrees, but he knows that it’s more about Chu Wanning showing his concern and trying to make Mo Ran’s day pass more easily. 

It starts small, like Chu Wanning ordering food for both of them on nights when he’s working late, even though in the past he wouldn’t order anything at all, would just keep working through his audible stomach rumbles, so loud that he didn’t even notice that Mo Ran’s stomach was kicking up a fuss, too. 

It’s like he used to try to ignore his conscience about Mo Ran’s presence, like he thought that would help. Pretend that it didn’t bother him. Pretend that the problem didn’t exist. But now he’s doing the opposite. He’s appeasing the problem the only way he knows how. He is giving to it. 

And Mo Ran, slowly, has learned enough about Chu Wanning over these past months that he knows that Chu Wanning gives. He gives and gives and gives and he never takes, ever, if he can help it. He thinks he has to be strong. No, worse, he thinks he has to be the strongest . It must be so fucking lonely. Mo Ran never sees him talking to anyone out of pleasure. Never sees him looking down at his phone and smiling about a text from a friend. Xue Zhengyong seems to be the only person capable of wringing a smile out of him, and even that is a distracted, uneasy smile. Mo Ran knows that Chu Wanning believes that he’s taking too long on this project, even though no one since the beginning of time has been able to strengthen the barrier at Sisheng Peak. Mo Ran knows that it’s eating Chu Wanning alive. But it doesn’t even seem to be about that. Chu Wanning just seems like he has always been this way. Did he have friends, growing up? What was he like as a child? Mo Ran is desperate to know. He can’t imagine Chu Wanning as anything other than alone, and it makes Mo Ran want to shelter him in more than just a physical way. Is it possible that Mo Ran is the only person who has ever bothered to look close enough to spot Chu Wanning’s kind heart?

When he orders dinner, Chu Wanning always orders spicy foods but only eats the plain dishes that they deliver on the side. When he knows they’re going to be traveling to the barrier, he starts bringing Mo Ran these spicy wontons that he always has on hand, somehow, and Mo Ran assumes he’s ordering them with his grocery deliveries except then one night he wakes up and goes to the kitchen to grab a drink and sees Chu Wanning folding the wontons himself, flour on his nose, his gaze narrowed in the same perfect concentration that Mo Ran saw when he was taking on those attackers at the car. He backs off, goes back to sleep, and Chu Wanning somehow doesn’t see him, but now when Mo Ran eats the wontons, sometimes they almost get stuck in his throat, like he can’t quite swallow around the emotion that builds up there. The thought of Chu Wanning waking up in the middle of the night to make them, quietly, hunching over the stove, not wanting Mo Ran to know that he’s making them but wanting to do something for Mo Ran, making Mo Ran food with his own hands…

The Xues have been kind to him since they took him in. He loves them as his own family, and he appreciates everything that they’ve done for him. But something about Chu Wanning quietly doing something for Mo Ran, not wanting the credit…it reminds him of memories of his mother giving him the larger bowl of food, thinking Mo Ran wouldn’t notice. Distracting him so he’d eat it even though she had to be very hungry herself. 

And he doesn’t know how to reconcile his memories of that care with the realization that he’s now being cared for in the same way, except by…his boss.

His very hot, but also freezing cold, but also insanely warm but only when you know what you’re looking for boss. 

It creates a warmth within him that he doesn’t know how to handle. Eating those wontons, knowing that they were prepared with care, knowing that Chu Wanning has been going out of his’s enough to make him want to cry, for some reason, every single time. It makes him think of his mother, it makes him think of those years without her when he was on the streets and didn’t know where he was going to get his next meal. Chu Wanning always watches him eat with a keen, side-eyed look, like he’s making sure that Mo Ran actually likes the wontons, like he’s seeing for himself whether he did a good job, and Mo Ran is always practically licking the bowl at the end, sometimes because he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s about to fucking cry, and sometimes just because he wants to see the way Chu Wanning’s eyes quietly light up even as he scolds Mo Ran for eating like an animal. 

It’s a weird situation. 

He casually mentions it one day at lunch with a few of his friends. He’s trying to make it sound like it’s funny, because it is funny, in a way, he thinks, as long as he doesn’t say the shit about his mom. And the newest gift was the funniest, so he tells that story. He and Xue Meng had been discussing this new gaming system in front of Chu Wanning, and Mo Ran had said something to the effect of I’ll have to save up for a few months to buy it, but I’ll get it eventually . Chu Wanning, later, had given Mo Ran his credit card and said that he wanted the gaming system for himself. Mo Ran had seen through it, obviously; he assumed that Chu Wanning was just going to set the gaming system up in the living room they share and let Mo Ran play it whenever he wants, essentially giving it to him. But Chu Wanning is so awkward , and so of course when Mo Ran came back to the office after his lunch break with the gaming system in tow, Chu Wanning said, somehow with a straight face, “I changed my mind. I don’t want it anymore. You can have it.” 

He then ignored Mo Ran’s delighted peals of laughter, ignored everything that Mo Ran said to try and get him to take it back, and coldly informed Mo Ran that he was being distracting and should stand by the door like a good bodyguard. But his lips kept twitching up into a smile whenever he looked over and saw that Mo Ran was still beaming, and the mood for the rest of the day was so light that Mo Ran thought he might actually start levitating if he wasn’t careful. 

He doesn’t mention how happy it made him at the lunch, obviously. He just tells the story like it’s another Fun Day of Wacky Hijinks With My Boss, casually brushing by Chu Wanning’s guilt complex and the fact that he’s been finding ways to make it up to Mo Ran, the fact that the board of Sisheng doesn’t think he’s worth more than the salary he has. 

But when he’s done, Ye Wangxi is looking at him oddly, Mei Hanxue is leaning back in his seat with a dangerously smug expression that makes him look more like his younger brother than himself, and Nangong Si has his head tilted to one side, because the man doesn’t have any mannerisms that aren’t dog-like. 

“Is he fucking you?” Nangong Si asks finally. Mo Ran sputters on a sip of water. Mei Hanxue covers his mouth with his hand and snorts. 

“What? No. And I’m not fucking him .” 

“But you would,” Mei Hanxue guesses, smarmily. Mo Ran is beginning to suspect that he and his brother switched places again. Mo Ran sighs. 

“I would, in a heartbeat.” 

“Well, sure,” Nangong Si says. Nangong Si, much like Mo Ran, isn’t an idiot, but he plays one from time to time, and he’s definitely laying it on thick now. “But... bro . You have to know what this looks like.” 

“He’s awkward , but he’s not...I mean, I’d know if he was trying to hit on me or whatever.” 

“He’s not trying to hit on you. He’s trying to daddy you.” 

“Sugar daddy,” Mei Hanxue corrects before Mo Ran can say anything in response. Maybe it is the older Mei Hanxue. Younger Mei Hanxue prefers to let Nangong Si talk himself into holes just for the chaos of it. “He’s your sugar daddy.” 

“He absolutely wants you to rail him,” Nangong Si continues. 

Mo Ran stares at both of them. Looks at Ye Wangxi for a much-needed sanity check. She nods apologetically. 

“Fuck, what?” he asks. “No way. I would have noticed . I’m not...that’s like my one skill!” 

“What, noticing when people throw themselves at you because everyone knows you’ve got the biggest dick?” Ye Wangxi asks, causing both Mo Ran and Nangong Si to sputter indignantly. “Most people aren’t exactly subtle about it, A-Ran.” 

Mei Hanxue laughs. “She’s right.” 

“Shut up.” 

Nangong Si, still looking a little betrayed by his girlfriend’s casual fact drop, says, “Chu Laoshi isn’t an easy person to get along with, and he’s not an easy person to read. You know that. I know that. Everyone knows that. He’s kind of an asshole.” 

“No he’s not,” Mo Ran snaps defensively, even though he knows how it’ll sound. It absolutely sounds like that, judging from the way Nangong Si rolls his eyes. 

“He is . He’s not diplomatic. He says whatever he wants. He’s fierce. He’s an asshole. He’s great. I’m not trying to insult him. He’s one of my favorite people on the planet. He put my fucking dad in jail. But he’s not the most…social of people. And he doesn’t really...I mean, I never saw him date anyone when he was with my family. I always just assumed he didn’t think about sex at all. Like it wasn’t even a thing for him. But I’m pretending I don’t know him, pretending you’re just telling me about some random boss, and there’s no other fucking explanation.”

None ,” Mei Hanxue agrees unhelpfully. 

“He’s too awkward to show you that he’s into you. No question. So he’s trying to, like, show his appreciation, or woo you, or whatever, with gifts. Sugar Daddying.” 

“Please stop saying that.” 

“Not until you admit that that’s what’s happening.” 

“It’s not what’s happening!” 

And maybe it’s not. But maybe it is. And maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s what’s happening or not, because now Mo Ran is thinking that it might be what’s happening, and so every time Chu Wanning does something nice for him or says something snappy and a little bit bitchy that’s actually kind if you look at it a little more closely, Mo Ran thinks about it. It doesn’t help that the younger Mei Hanxue has been sending Mo Ran a barrage of videos with audio of people saying Mommy? Sorry , because both of the Mei Hanxues have always been way too perceptive about Mo Ran’s entire deal.

Mo Ran’s method for dealing with things that he doesn’t want to think about is typically to just ignore them and not think about them. Maybe get drunk if ignoring them doesn’t work. He’s good at that, at pretending even to himself that he’s more ignorant than he really is. And so he has ignored his growing attraction and his growing fondness for Chu Wanning, because it was never going to go anywhere, so thinking about it was pointless. 

Except, you know, maybe it’s not pointless? Maybe Chu Wanning does want to be railed and is just the kind of awkward person who doesn’t know how to go about letting someone know that he wants to be railed? 

Against his own better judgement, Mo Ran starts paying more attention. He notices the way that Chu Wanning looks at him. He pays more attention to the way that Chu Wanning is always careful about the words he says to Mo Ran, the way he flushes when he says something that might accidentally sound flirty if you read it the way Mo Ran is starting to read it. It’s clear that Chu Wanning has little experience with it. Mo Ran didn’t need Nangong Si to tell him about Chu Wanning’s nonexistent dating history to figure that out. He always seems flustered at even the barest mention of other people possibly having sex, and so even acknowleding his own libido is probably impossible to him. 

But Mo Ran knows what he looks like. He knows what he’s capable of. He has plenty of issues with self-confidence, but none of them are related to the physical, and he’s pretty quickly able to ascertain that Chu Wanning is, in fact, looking at him like he wants him. Privately, coyly, and always when he thinks that Mo Ran isn’t looking. But he’s definitely doing it. 

And so like, okay, that’s all well and good, and Mo Ran is glad to notice it, glad to finally nail it down as the truth. But what the fuck is he supposed to do about it? Chu Wanning is stoic, and frosty, and likely to fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, and Mo Ran overtly making a pass at him is definitely something that would count as a provocation. So how is he supposed to organically make the transition to actually fucking his boss when his boss refuses to acknowledge that he wants to be fucked? Because if Chu Wanning gets pissed off enough, even if it’s what he really wants, then Mo Ran will have to back off, and maybe move to another sect entirely because he’s starting to think that maybe he wouldn’t be able to handle being rejected like that.

Chapter Text

Mo Ran isn’t an idiot. He’s not, no matter how much he sometimes feels like he is secretly a moron who just thinks he’s pretending to be one. 

But his solution of just asking Chu Wanning for things to see how far Chu Wanning will go? It feels a little stupid. 

Just money, at first. Asking if he can borrow a little bit of cash because he wants a coffee or lunch or some new game or whatever. Escalating amounts that never quite get into the realm of ludicrous but definitely get into the realm of more money than your boss should just hand you with no questions . Chu Wanning always gives it to him, his sharp brows doing that concerned little furrow they always do, and Mo Ran thanks him profusely until Chu Wanning waves him off, flushing red. 

And so then he starts dropping subtle hints about things that he wants, things he’s been looking at. Things like fancy coffee for the apartment, or a new pair of sneakers, or fairly cheap workout equipment. Little things, at first. But Chu Wanning just buys them and leaves them around the apartment without any fanfare, and so in desperation Mo Ran moves on to bigger things, and he finds that there’s literally no end to the amount of shit that Chu Wanning will happily give him. 

But if Mo Ran tries to show his appreciation for those gifts in any way other than a brief handshake or a casual ‘ thanks, bro ’ or something, Chu Wanning slips away, turtle-shells back into his little hole, glowers over the rim of his glasses at his computer screens, his face burning (cutely!) red, and works without pause for the next fourteen hours.

Which is how the caretaking shit starts. 

It’s just something that Mo Ran has noticed. Initially tried very hard not to notice, at first because he kept telling himself that it was none of his business if Chu Wanning wanted to live like an animal. He was getting paid an absurd amount of money to repair the barrier. He could afford a housekeeper or something. He could afford a laundry service. It wasn’t Mo Ran’s responsibility to take care of him.

Was it driving him a little bit batty? Sure. Mo Ran’s a young man, a young man who has for the past few years been living a life of luxury in a fancy sect, and who lived before that literally on the streets begging for scraps. No one would blink twice if he relied on maid services and laundry services and fucking chefs or whatever. Xue Meng has never held a broom in his life, probably. 

But there’s something about cleaning and neatness and organization that appeals deeply to Mo Ran. He likes having a space to keep tidy. He likes looking at his clean floors and his organized closet and his sparkling kitchen counters. Growing up with nothing has, maybe, given him the kind of deep appreciation for having something that a young master like Xue Meng just isn’t going to be able to understand. 

So of course the mess in Chu Wanning’s apartment makes his eyelid twitch. In between his regularly scheduled horny nonsense dreams, he has literal stress dreams about firing the maids and mopping the kitchen floor properly .

And after months of telling himself that it’s not his place, not his job, and after testing the Sugar Daddy waters for a few weeks with no further progress in the whole get my boss to break down and beg me to just fuck him already plan, Mo Ran’s own guilt is flying through the roof. 

The truth, and one of the reasons the Sugar Daddy plan was so stupid to begin with, is that Mo Ran hates accepting gifts.

The Xues took him in, saved him, gave him a purpose. He has been paying off that debt with his loyalty and his help and his refusal to leave the guard service even though Xue Zhengyong has told him multiple times that he would have no objections to Mo Ran trying to make his own way, leaving the service that underpays and undervalues someone with his spiritual strength. It’s just not in Mo Ran’s nature to not repay kindness. If someone does something nice for him, he remembers it forever. 

Asking things of Chu Wanning and tricking gifts out of Chu Wanning was funny at first because he was trying to figure out just how far Chu Wanning would go before finally snapping and asking Mo Ran to fuck him. Except Chu Wanning’s willpower is apparently unbreakable, and he doesn’t ask. And so this anxiety-inducing imaginary debt in Mo Ran’s mind just continues to run up the numbers, and Mo Ran starts to reach the point where he can’t stand it anymore. He knows it’s probably stupid. It’s not like Chu Wanning expects anything in return. He’s assuaging his own guilt even as he’s accidentally stoking Mo Ran’s higher. 

He just continues to do nice things for Mo Ran even though he’s practically working himself to death. Continues to visibly hate putting Mo Ran in danger. Continues to be cute and perfect and, terrifyingly, everything that Mo Ran wants, and maybe that’s part of why the debt looms so large. If Chu Wanning turned out to be a man like the one Mo Ran thought he was at the beginning—someone who didn’t care about people, someone who didn’t notice money only because he’d always had so much of it, only because he was so greedy as to hoard all of it to himself—it would be different. 

But he’s not that person. 

He isn’t an easy person to get to know, even now that they’re becoming more friendly with each other, but Mo Ran has picked up enough to form a more complete picture. 

Like how Chu Wanning was taken in by a man who called himself Chu Wanning’s father, but who abandoned him at the first sign of disobedience—Master Huaizui believed that he and his disciples should be above modern concerns, but Chu Wanning went down into the world during the calamity that claimed Mo Rans’ mother’s life, and he saw the suffering firsthand, and he could not remain hidden away from the world when he could instead use his strength to help it. He has spent his entire life since then trying to make up for the fact that he spent his early years so sheltered. It’s the same kind of guilt that drives Mo Ran, in a way, and it makes Mo Ran want to crack open his own chest so that Chu Wanning can look inside him and see how much they are the same. 

He learns about how Chu Wanning trusted Rong Yan, and liked her enough to work with Rufeng Sect for a while,but that he always felt like Nangong Liu didn’t have the best interests of the people at heart, and only cared about making his own sect more powerful so that he could live a life of leisure. His disgust with the upper cultivation world comes out in his words, in his every action, in the fact that he is spending so much of his time and energy on this thing that everyone says is impossible, and that the upper cultivation world actively is trying to stop him from doing. 

He learns so much about how good Chu Wanning is, and it’s all against Chu Wanning’s will, because Chu Wanning will only say the barest of minimums, and it’s up to Mo Ran to put the pieces together and see to the softness behind his icy tone. 

And it’s terrifying. Mo Ran is starting to care in a way that’s threatening to morph into something much bigger and much scarier than that very simple Desire to Rail. 

And so he starts taking care of Chu Wanning. 

Not openly at first, and never in a way where it looks purposeful, because he knows Chu Wanning wouldn’t allow it. But he starts doing all the dishes instead of just letting Chu Wanning allow them to pile up in the sink until the housekeeper’s once-weekly visits. He starts cooking when they’re in the apartment, pretending at being a beginner, getting Chu Wanning to try his “experiments”, figuring out what Chu Wanning likes to eat the best. It has the added benefit of getting Chu Wanning to at least do his late night office work in the apartment’s living room—Mo Ran just has to drop a hint about how he wants to learn how to cook better but never gets a chance since they’re at the office all day, and suddenly Chu Wanning is suggesting they head home early, packing up his laptop to do the rest of the work from the comfort of the couch. Mo Ran tells Chu Wanning that he likes cleaning, which is true anyway, and he sets about tidying up the clutter that has grown in the past few months thanks to the, in Mo Ran’s opinion, very inefficient maid service. Eventually, he talks Chu Wanning into letting him reorganize. Even more slowly, he works his way up to getting Chu Wanning to agree to let him tackle the bedroom. He has to frame it like it’s an exciting project, and Chu Wanning eventually caves. Mo Ran takes almost an entire afternoon while Chu Wanning hovers in the doorway, biting his lip to keep from apologizing again about the mess. Mo Ran is careful with Chu Wanning’s things, going through papers and bits of machine prototypes and sorting them all into a careful filing system. 

“It’s just going to get messy again,” Chu Wanning warns anxiously. 

“Then I’ll reorganize it again for you,” Mo Ran answers. 

It’s really too close to the truth. The truth that it’s about more than just the repressed lust and desire that Mo Ran now knows is behind Chu Wanning’s eyes. The truth that it’s about more than just impressing his boss, and maybe always has been. The truth that Mo Ran looks at Chu Wanning now and sees everything good in the world, and he has become just as bad as Chu Wanning about trying to figure out how to get it. Chu Wanning giving him gifts. Mo Ran offering care and attention. One of them has to snap eventually, right?

Mo Ran has never really been one for relationships. Which actually isn’t true, but it’s what he tells everyone, and it’s what he tells himself, because the truth is that Mo Ran is too suited for relationships. Every time he has tried seriously dating someone in the past, it blows up in his face because he gets too close too quickly. He loves too intensely. He throws his affections at the person until the person drowns in them, and then they beat a hasty retreat and tell him that he should tone it back a bit for his next unlucky victim. 

But Mo Ran just...doesn’t know how to do that. 

Functionally, sure. He could be as aloof and as bored and as disinterested as the next fuckboy, but he doesn’t see the point in it. It hurts his heart to ignore the person he likes, the person he loves, and he always hated to see the way his previous relationships would grow tepid and cold, colder the more he showed them bits of his heart. So after he failed spectacularly with Rong Jiu, and after he failed with Song Qiutong even worse, he kind of gave up on the idea of love. He isn’t made for it. He makes too much of it. He’s too broken, maybe, from those early years of not having enough, and now he doesn't know how to do it in moderation. He loves the same way he eats, and it invariably disgusts the people around him: he consumes selfishly, wholeheartedly, always convinced that something is going to snatch it away. Always convinced that the answer is to consume it faster .

And he can see the signs of it forming now, which is a problem. Chu Wanning doesn’t love him. Chu Wanning probably doesn’t even like him that much. He probably just feels guilty, and he thinks Mo Ran’s hot, and wants to fuck him. But Mo Ran finds himself doing things like memorizing exactly how much spice Chu Wanning can tolerate so that he’ll like the food Mo Ran makes, and rearranging things in the apartment so that Chu Wanning won’t have to spend any time looking for what he needs. And it’s all just very familiar. This instinct he has to protect the person he loves from the slightest inconvenience, and how weird they get when he does it too much, how concerned , like they’re just a hair’s breadth away from being frightened of him. 

Chu Wanning doesn’t seem frightened, not yet, but then again, Chu Wanning has no idea what’s going on in Mo Ran’s brain, what’s going on behind his eyes. Every time he looks at Chu Wanning and sees something helpless to be protected, he can feel it building in him. This pressure, this need to suffocate the target of his affections in layers of that protection. It’s disgusting. It’s shameful. He needs to grow up. 

He doesn’t.

Chu Wanning falls asleep at his desk again, and Mo Ran gets him up, gets him home, watches him stumbling sleepily through the motions as he gets ready for bed, and he desperately wants to crawl into bed next to him and hold him, soothing him back to sleep. He hasn’t even come close to fucking the man yet, but he’s already thinking about this kind of stuff. 

“You didn’t have to do that for me,” Chu Wanning says the next morning, embarrassed now that he’s gotten some sleep in him. 

“I wanted to,” Mo Ran says, and he hopes that Chu Wanning doesn’t realize just how much more he wants to do. 

He considers asking either Nangong Si or one of the Mei Hanxues if it’s still just a Sugar Daddy thing if he’s spending his free time looking up recipes for sweet desserts that he thinks Chu Wanning might like. Or, like, if he spends most of his time at work daydreaming about kissing Chu Wanning rather than bending him over his desk and making him cry (or, like, kissing him before bending him over his desk and making him cry, at least). Is it still just a sex and power thing then

He doesn’t ask, because he’s embarrassed to ask. 

And maybe a little afraid of the answer. 

Chu Wanning makes a breakthrough. 

And it’s great. It’s wonderful. They’re nearing the end of the line, and it’s an objectively good thing for humanity! Soon, Chu Wanning will be able to seal the barrier for good. They’ve been taking more frequent trips to the back hills, and Mo Ran can tell that they’re getting closer from the way that Chu Wanning begins to look less burdened as the days pass. Brighter, less haunted, less hungry for answers that he cannot find. 

Mo Ran is glad. He’s glad because once the barrier is closed for good, it will mean that the assassination attempts will probably stop. Chu Wanning will probably be safe. Unless some sect leader is feeling spectacularly petty, there will be no reason to kill him. 

It will mean that the most vulnerable people won’t have to worry anymore about the rift opening like it did the year his mother died. It will mean more safety and stability and it will mean that the upper cultivation world will have to find a new way to survive that doesn’t involve padding its charges so that it can continue to live in luxury while everyone else lives in fear. 

Mo Ran is glad. He is.

But doesn’t it also mean that Chu Wanning is going to leave? 

Chu Wanning hasn’t said anything about his future plans, and he seems happy here, especially now that Xue Zhengyong has convinced the board to fund most of the Guardian project. Xue Zengyong clearly wants him to stay, clearly hasn’t stopped attempting to woo him, and the sentiment seems to be pretty universal throughout Sisheng Peak. 

(Maybe not Tanlang Elder, but fuck Tanlang Elder. He’s just mad that Chu Wanning is supporting Xue Zhengyong about the theme park thing, because of course Chu Wanning likes the idea of making more money so that they can help more people, and of course Chu Wanning doesn’t care how they make that money as long as it’s done ethically.)

And so there are certainly signs that Chu Wanning is planning to stay for longer, but he hasn’t actually said anything! And Mo Ran feels this growing ache inside him. Pathetic and yearning and fearful of being abandoned by a man who has made him absolutely no promises. A man who’s literally just his boss , no matter how many awkwardly tender moments they’ve shared over wontons or early morning coffee!

He convinces himself that it will be easier to bear if he can fuck Chu Wanning once . Just once! Like, in the front of his mind he’s thinking once we fuck, I’ll feel like our unfinished business is finished, and I can be happy with whatever decision he makes , but in the back of his mind it’s just once I fuck him, he won’t want to leave .

He doesn’t let any of this show to Chu Wanning, of course. What would be the point? He watches Chu Wanning from the sidelines as Chu Wanning gets closer to achieving this thing that everyone said was probably not going to be possible. He watches Chu Wanning solve a problem that has existed for thousands of years. Every cultivator in history, all of the most powerful people, were unable to do this, but Chu Wanning will, and Mo Ran will be there to watch it, and that’s significant. It is. That’s a lot to celebrate. Mo Ran should not let his dick, well, dic(k)tate how he feels about this. 

Not that there’s much time for the useless pining Mo Ran wants to do. Chu Wanning getting closer isn’t a thing that can stay secret for long, considering all the holes that are apparently in Sisheng Peak’s security forces. There are more attempts. More attacks. None of them get very close, but they still keep Mo Ran busy in dealing with the cleanup and in trying to ferret out whoever in Sisheng Peak is selling information to the other sects.

(And does Mo Ran notice that, every single time, Chu Wanning rushes to check on him immediately after the threat has been taken care of? Of course he does. It’s the only thing he can notice!)

He almost starts to crave those little moments, which is super fucked up, right? There’s this feeling, even in the middle of an attack, of growing bliss, because he knows that Chu Wanning will tend to his wounds after, and will be worried for him, and will tell him that he did a good job. All delivered as prissily and as scaldingly furious as possible, because that’s just how Chu Wanning is, and Mo Ran wants that. 

He’s a grown man, and yet he’s seeing the praise of his boss like a child , and he has long since reconciled that, but still sometimes he’s amazed at his own shamelessness. 

All of the attacks are easy enough to handle, though word has apparently gotten around that Mo Ran is a force to be reckoned with, and a lot of the more sly cultivation sects try to get around the Mo Ran problem by trying to get him to go to their sects instead. Offering him riches, offering him higher-up positions, telling him that he doesn’t have to be a bodyguard all his life. Even if it wasn’t a transparent attempt to get Chu Wanning guarded by someone not quite as good as Mo Ran, he wouldn’t take any of the offers, and he’s fucking insulted that any of them thought to ask. The Xues are his family now, and he won’t leave them. 

If anything, those offers only increase his dedication to Chu Wanning. 

If they want Chu Wanning out of the way so badly, they’re going to have to go through Mo Ran to do it. As long as Chu Wanning will have him, Mo Ran will be watching his back. 

For the rest of his life, if he’s lucky.

And so the attacks continue. 

The big one, the last one, the one before Chu Wanning finally puts an end to it by closing the barrier, is more brutal than the others. Whoever hired the mercenaries wasn’t sparing any expense, and they hit the Sisheng Peak offices out of nowhere, in the middle of the night. Mo Ran isn’t sure how they got in, even, how they got past the guards, how they managed to pack so many people into the building so quickly. But they did, and they even got into the elevator before someone downstairs finally sounds the alarm. It’s reminiscent of that one really bad attack, the one where Mo Ran took a bullet before the fighting even started. But this time, they’re ready.

Chu Wanning is in his office, tapping away furiously at his keyboard, and Mo Ran is half-dozing on the couch, feeling particularly indulged because Chu Wanning told him to rest his eyes and rest his head on a pillow if he wanted. He’s up and awake the second the alarms start, summoning Jiangui. Chu Wanning is on his feet too, Tianwen glowing golden, dangling from his hand. They stare at each other in the moments before the chaos starts, and Mo Ran has this moment of thinking…. does he have as much to say to me as I have to say to him? 

But then the moment is over, and neither of them says anything to break the silence.

Mo Ran has always been a good fighter. It was always the thing he excelled at the most, the lessons he needed the least amount of time to master. Chu Wanning has taught him even more in the time in which they have been working together. But it’s like second nature already. He gets into a defensive position in the hallway, and he waits, and Chu Wanning waits behind him, ready to defend him too. Mo Ran knows that he should be telling Chu Wanning to get back inside his office, but he also knows that Chu Wanning wouldn’t listen anyway. Would never leave Mo Ran on his own. 

Because Chu Wanning is a good person, and someone wants to kill him for being too good a person, and Mo Ran allows the anger that he feels at the thought of that to fuel him. 

There is no one left alive of the mercenaries by the time five minutes has passed. 

Chu Wanning is fighting for his life. Mo Ran is fighting for his life. But he’s fighting for Chu Wanning’s life, too, and that gives him an extra edge. He had been afraid, when he first started recognizing that he was feeling something for Chu Wanning beyond the responsibility of keeping him alive, that he would become sloppy because of it. But the opposite is true. His every instinct seems honed, his every movement seems infused with more than just his usual spiritual power. He doesn’t give himself a chance to rest, doesn’t give them a chance to advance any further down the hallway. 

He takes a few injuries, but they’re so minor that he doesn’t notice them until after, until everyone in the hallway is dead, and then he’s leaning against the wall, half-collapsed there, breathing heavily, still waiting for more trouble, Jiangui coiled in his palm. 

Chu Wanning is in front of him suddenly, his eyes big and wide as he stares at the wounds along Mo Ran’s body. There are more of them than he thought. He can feel them now, the pain of them and the blood dripping down his arm. Can feel blood smearing on his face when he goes to wipe it. 

Chu Wanning isn’t injured at all. Mo Ran’s vision swims when he looks down at his boss, but he can tell that there’s no blood on him except what gets put there when Chu Wanning starts to try and clean Mo Ran’s face with his own sleeve. Mo Ran shrugs him off, forces himself to stop leaning against the wall, gently tells a doubting Chu Wanning, “I’m okay.”

He calls for Xue Zhengyong on the radio to report what happened. Xue Zhengyong promises to send someone to clean up once they’re done with the mess in the lobby, but Mo Ran doesn’t particularly care. He just wants to sit down. 

He does, sliding down against the wall. Chu Wanning tries to catch him, but can’t, and he says something about sending for Shi Mei. Mo Ran can’t figure out why for a few beats. 

“I’m fine,” he says, when his brain catches up. “I don’t need a medic.” 

He remembers the way, when he took that last wound, Chu Wanning flew into a fury. It’s not an easy thing, to fight with willow vines in a hallway like this, but Chu Wanning managed to use Tianwen to its full frenzied potential, made it look almost fucking easy . He had been practically glowing, or maybe that was already the bloodloss, getting to Mo Ran, making him see a halo of something around his vision. Maybe he was hallucinating the whole thing, but he prefers to think that he was seeing only exactly what was there. Chu Wanning fighting to protect him. Chu Wanning crying. 

He was crying, wasn’t he? Mo Ran remembers it. Remembers the way Chu Wanning cried out when Mo Ran fell. Mo Ran was back on his feet quickly enough, still fighting, not quite beaten, but he remembers that moment, thinks about how it would have looked, thinks that Chu Wanning probably believed he wouldn’t get up again. It does something to him. Gives him some reserves of strength he didn’t know he had. 

The elevator whirs to life, heading back down to the first floor. Xue Zhengyong is sending people up. 

“Wanning,” Mo Ran says. He forces himself to his feet. Chu Wanning is hovering anxiously. His eyes are still red-rimmed. Still wet. Maybe Mo Ran is a fucking idiot and he’s about to ruin ths whole thing. Maybe. Maybe he’s read all of this wrong. Maybe Chu Wanning was crying for Mo Ran just because he’s a good person and because he didn’t want his bodyguard to be hurt. 

But Mo Ran doesn’t think so. 

And so he  takes Chu Wanning’s face in his hands, and he kisses him. 

He doesn’t regret it immediately, but something like regret washes through him. Fear, maybe. Fear that can’t help but drown a little bit in regret because there’s no going back from this. He doesn’t know how Chu Wanning is going to react, and he doesn’t want things to be ruined, and he’s losing blood, and, and, and. Chu Wanning will be leaving soon, anyway. Chu Wanning is too good for him, too smart, too wonderful, too giving and kind, even if no one else notices. Even if it took Mo Ran himself too long to notice. 

What will he do when Chu Wanning turns him away? 

And what if Chu Wanning doesn’t turn him away yet, but then turns him away eventually because Mo Ran is too much, just like every other time? How will he survive that? Feeling the way he feels right now, how could he possibly endure that kind of rejection?

But…Chu Wanning kisses him back. That’s the first concern taken care of. Chu Wanning doesn’t yell at him and push him away or whip him to death with Tianwen.

No, he wraps his fingers in Mo Ran’s suit jacket, draws him closer, kisses him back. Kisses him with a hunger and a clumsiness that somehow encapsulates everything that Chu Wanning is to Mo Ran in a single kiss. Mo Ran’s heart feels like it’s literally soaring, literally becoming disconnected from his chest, something…something…he can’t come up with anything fancy to describe it! It just feels like pain, but like the opposite of that, somehow. Like his chest is hollowed out, but in a way that feels right . A kind of lightness. Just from Chu Wanning’s awkward kiss. Fuck, he’s got it so bad.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters except for this, except for Chu Wanning’s face in his hands, Chu Wanning’s pulse throbbing under his fingertips where his hand slides down to the side of Chu Wanning’s throat. It makes him feel alive in a way he forgot he could feel. Like he’s never felt like this, even though he knows that isn’t true. He knows that he has cared for other people. He knows that he has felt love for other people before. But this feels larger somehow. New, impossibly large inside him in a way nothing ever has before.

When the elevator dings, they are as far apart as they can stand to be, which is several feet. They make it through the follow up discussion with Xue Zhengyong, they make it through Shi Mei checking them over and helping to treat Mo Ran’s injuries. No one would guess that anything was wrong at all. Xue Zhengyong tells them to head back into Chu Wanning’s office.

He says that he’ll clean up the mess.  

Chu Wanning closes the door. 

He locks it.

He! Fucking! Locks! It!

And he stares up at Mo Ran. 

Mo Ran initiates again, because he knows he’ll have to, because Chu Wanning looks so uncertain of his own welcome. Mo Ran needs him to understand. 

Mo Ran will kiss him whenever he wants, will fuck him right here against the door if it’s what Chu Wanning asks for. Anything that Chu Wanning desires, Chu Wanning can have.

Mo Ran doesn’t fuck him against the door, but only because there are people outside, and because he’s still injured, even with the painkillers and the hasty healing Shi Mei gave him, and even though he’s aching so badly for Chu Wanning that it almost hurts worse than the wounds. 

He can’t stop thinking about the way Chu Wanning looked fighting against those attackers. The way he seemed to burn hotter when Mo Ran was injured, the way he reacted with furious hate. It pings around in Mo Ran’s brain, thinking about the way that Chu Wanning cried out for him. Thinking about the way that Chu Wanning kissed him.

It’s not just how Chu Wanning looked so beautiful and so fierce fighting against the attackers. It’s not just any one thing at all. It’s everything that came before, when Chu Wanning looked at him like he was nothing, and it’s everything that has happened since. It’s Chu Wanning fumblingly trying to care for Mo Ran with gifts. It’s the way his long fingers had looked carefully folding those wontons. 

It’s all of it. It’s him. It’s all of Chu Wanning. His cold face and his sharp expressions and his hidden inner softness that Mo Ran has worked so hard to expose. It’s the fact that he looks the way he does, and it’s the fact that he lives his life the way he does, and it’s the fact that he’s so good, so good, and never asks for anything in return. Mo Ran wants to give him everything.

He kisses Chu Wanning again, hungry. Chu Wanning makes these quiet little noises against his mouth that seem likely to drive Mo Ran to madness entirely. Chu Wanning be mortified if he realized he was making any sound at all, but Mo Ran can just tell that he doesn’t, and he doesn’t want Chu Wanning to stop. He walks forward, edging Chu Wanning back towards his desk. Chu Wanning frowns a little bit at that, looking over his shoulder at the paperwork strewn across it. It makes Mo Ran want to laugh and push him harder, makes him want to wipe his hand over the entire surface, sending everything scattering to the ground. Completely wrecking Chu Wanning’s workspace. A petty little desire, like he needs to have more attention on himself. Like he’s not doing his job right if Chu Wanning is able to worry about his paperwork right now. 

“The door is locked, Wanning,” he murmurs into Chu Wanning’s ear, so low it’s almost like a growl. Chu Wanning shivers . “But that doesn’t mean they won’t be able to hear you if you get too loud.” 

That frown deepens, the furrow between Chu Wanning’s brows growing more pronounced. Mo Ran feels a kind of lightness that he can’t even understand starting to fill his entire body. It was meant to be a genuine warning, a reminder to Chu Wanning that he should be quiet if he doesn’t want Xue Zhengyong to hear. But something about Chu Wanning’s defiance, his clear acceptance of the challenge, makes Mo Ran feel utterly reckless; he wants to make Chu Wanning fail. 

He lifts Chu Wanning up by the hips, and he plops him down on the edge of the desk. Chu Wanning’s gray pants slide on the papers, and he frowns but seeks out Mo Ran’s lips for more kisses anyway, ignoring it. It feels like a victory. Mo Ran wastes no time in rewarding Chu Wanning by sliding his hand down Chu Wanning’s chest, reaching for and cupping his cock through the material of his pants. Chu Wanning gasps into his mouth. When Mo Ran pulls back from the kiss, Chu Wanning looks almost affronted. He licks his lips, reddened, his cheeks deepening with a blush as well to be looked at. Mo Ran thinks it might be some kind of miracle, the fact that he has managed to hold on to his composure for this long. Everything Chu Wanning does, every sound he makes, every time he looks bullied the way he looks right now, it makes Mo Ran want more and more. 

“Don’t look at me like that, Wanning,” he teases, caressing Chu Wanning’s inner thigh, making the muscles there twitch and jump beneath his fingertips. Mo Ran could watch him come apart for hours. Imagines wrapping Chu Wanning’s suit jacket around his elbows, tying his hands back, imagines Chu Wanning at his mercy. It’s a feast to his imagination. There was a part of him that had been convinced that Chu Wanning wouldn’t even want to be touched by him, and now the possibilities are opening before him, now that he knows that Chu Wanning does want it. 

“Like what?” Chu Wanning manages to ask, his voice low and half-broken. Dazed with even just this much. His hips hitch forward, chasing Mo Ran’s feather-light touches against his thigh, and Mo Ran feels an almost dizzying rush of arousal to watch his prim, uptight boss already starting to crack around the edges. The pristine mask beginning to slow-motion shatter under Mo Ran’s careful hands. 

“You’re thinking too loud about the mess,” Mo Ran says. “I’ll tidy it for you later.” He whispers the promise against the underside of Chu Wanning’s jaw as he nibbles on the sharp edge of it, as he laves his tongue over the jut of his throat. Chu Wanning gasps, a hand thrown over his mouth, knuckles white as he stares at the ceiling with fascinated horror. Mo Ran drags his fingertips again over where Chu Wanning is so hard already. He pulls back so that he can gently tug Chu Wanning’s hand away from his mouth, taking both his wrists and pinning them to the desk on either side of his hips. As Chu Wanning looks at him, helpless with want, he slots his thigh between Chu Wanning’s legs and presses it forward. Chu Wanning trembles as his shoulders hunch forward, something that Mo Ran can feel better like this, so close like this, with his thumbs digging into the thin skin of Chu Wanning’s delicate wrists on either side. 

Chu Wanning’s lips are pressed together, but sounds escape him anyway. Muffled, confused sounds that spur Mo Ran on. He releases one of Chu Wanning’s wrists so he can slide an arm around that slender waist, cup Chu Wanning’s ass, and pull him forward so that Chu Wanning is forced to rock against his thigh. Chu Wanning looks at Mo Ran with shock for less than a second before his eyes are squeezing shut and he begins to move, responding to the light pressure of Mo Ran’s hand against his lower back. 

It makes Mo Ran feel half feral to be guiding Chu Wanning like this, and even more unhinged when he stops guiding Chu Wanning and Chu Wanning just… keeps moving. 

There is nothing in the world he’s ever wanted as much as he wants to fuck Chu Wanning. Right now. Right here. On this desk, mere minutes after an assassination attempt that nearly killed him. Wounded him, at least, badly enough that he shouldn’t be fucking anyone. 

But he won’t fuck Chu Wanning now. He can’t. He knows that Chu Wanning has never fucked anyone before, and maybe there is a part of him that wants to bully Chu Wanning to a moaning, sobbing wreck right here, in this room where Chu Wanning spent the first months of their acquaintance studiously ignoring him. It’s what he’s been fantasizing about all this time. Bending Chu Wanning over the desk. Fucking him absolutely stupid.

Maybe, in the beginning, that’s exactly what he would have done if he had been given this chance.

But he feels differently now. It’s not just surging want. It’s a softness, a tenderness that wells within him as he looks down at Chu Wanning trying so hard to cling to control and utterly failing as he chases his own pleasure . Mo Ran wants to take him back to their apartment. He wants to lay Chu Wanning back on the bed, undress him slowly. He wants to take his time, and he wants to treat Chu Wanning gently, wants to take him apart and give him everything that he clearly doesn’t even know how to ask for. Mo Ran is so sure that this is the first time Chu Wanning has gotten off with anyone else. That thought doesn’t make it any easier to control himself, but he tries, for Chu Wanning’s sake. He can’t fuck him for the first time like this. Chu Wanning deserves something kinder, and softer, and less unhinged. They can work their way up to the desk fucking.

But this, they can do. Chu Wanning moving against him, making those absolutely filthy little sounds, drawing himself closer to something he doesn’t even seem to understand. Mo Ran could watch him like this forever. Could stay like this for hours, just staring at Chu Wanning’s face. Bullied and harsh and confused and tender. The way his eyes flit back and forth from Mo Ran’s face to Mo Ran’s chest to the place where his own crotch rubs ceaselessly in little circles against Mo Ran’s thigh. The way he then looks away, unable to keep looking at Mo Ran for long, like he thinks he won’t have to acknowledge what’s happening if he’s not looking at it. 

“That’s it,” Mo Ran says, even though he’s half convinced that trying to soothe Chu Wanning is going to get him clawed in the face. But right now, Chu Wanning looks like he needs it, looking up at Mo Ran with wide eyes, made guileless and unsuspicious by his pleasure, so trusting that it makes Mo Ran harder just by looking at him. He wants to take care of Chu Wanning. He wants to make Chu Wanning feel good. He wants to make Chu Wanning writhe and gasp and whine out his pleasure just like this for as long as Chu Wanning will let him. “That’s it,” he promises. “You’re doing so good.” 

Whispered words, breathy little gasps, but they sound insanely loud in the quiet of this office. The calm after the storm. They’re both covered in blood. This is probably gross. It doesn’t matter. Mo Ran doesn’t care. Chu Wanning finally comes like that, against his thigh. Mo Ran can feel it throughout Chu Wanning’s body, the tense lines of him under Mo Ran’s hands, his spine stiffening and then going slack, all the energy melting out of him. Mo Ran holds him up, and he has this moment of terrible epiphany. Or maybe it’s not terrible. Maybe it’s only terrible because he’s been trying to avoid looking at it, and now it’s staring him in the face.

He would do this every day, if Chu Wanning let him. He wants it. 

He wants to wrap Chu Wanning up in his arms, carry him all the way back to the apartment. Show Chu Wanning that he is wanted and loved with every atom of his existence. 

It’s the same thing that always happens. The slightest affection turned into deadly poison, turned into suffocation. 

And so Mo Ran does something unfathomably stupid: he opens his mouth. 

Later, he can hardly remember exactly what he even says . Something stupid and pithy about how finally they’re getting around to it after all those weeks of sexual tension. Which might be fine on its own, but it’s the way he says it! Dismissing what just happened. Belittling it in an attempt to keep Chu Wanning from seeing just how much he was feeling, watching Chu Wanning come apart against him. 

He definitely uses the words sugar daddy , because he’s the fucking worst, and because his instinct is to try to immediately put distance between them. His chest is just too full, almost bursting with this unlimited affection, this too-much love of his, and he never for a moment considers that Chu Wanning might feel the same. 

During the time they’ve gotten to know each other, it’s true that Chu Wanning has become a lot easier for Mo Ran to read. But even if he wasn’t, even if he was still as much of a mystery as he was at the beginning, Mo Ran would be able to read his expression now. It’s confused, then hurt, then shuttered off, gone cold and blank in that familiar way, and then Mo Ran’s arms are empty of Chu Wanning. He’s left standing there like an asshole, still hard, still warm and wanting, his arms literally still held open, waiting for Chu Wanning to walk back into them. But Chu Wanning is straightening his clothing, pretending that he didn’t just come on Mo Ran’s thigh. When his clothing is straightened up, he goes on to straightening his desk , which is when it really settles in to Mo Ran that he fucked up. Chu Wanning cleaning?  

“You should be at the infirmary, like Shi Mei suggested,” Chu Wanning says. His voice is cool and deep, but the remnants of those higher-pitched, almost whining moans, quiet as they were, are still echoing in Mo Ran’s ears. He can’t just pretend that didn’t happen, the way that Chu Wanning is apparently capable of doing.

“Wanning,” Mo Ran says, placating, even though he doesn’t know why, even though he doesn’t know what Chu Wanning is apparently angry about. He’s still reeling from the fact that Chu Wanning did that , and probably still reeling from his injuries, and sure, he’s definitely still a little in pain from said injuries. But there is a much stronger panic starting to build within him, and he hates that he feels like this, hates that he has been so easily kneecapped by his own fucking nonsense. Offended Chu Wanning with his words somehow. Implied something he didn’t mean to imply and embarrassed Chu Wanning in some way. 

Had he been too flippant? Too dismissive? Or had Chu Wanning seen through it to the ugly, yawning hunger beneath? 

“Get your wounds checked,” Chu Wanning says. He’s still looking at anything except Mo Ran. Moving papers around on his desk. Fussy, like he can’t believe the mess he’s been making of this desk for the past months and has just decided he has to do something about it. Mo Ran desperately wants to find it funny, but he can’t. Chu Wanning isn’t looking at him. He’s very pointedly not looking at him. 

But Mo Ran doesn’t know what to say, and he doesn’t have his head on straight enough to figure out something that’ll fix it. Not right now. A strategic retreat and regroup seems like the best choice, even if it’s also the last thing that he wants to do.

“If that’s what you want,” he says. He tries to keep his voice blank and unobtrusive, but surely Chu Wanning will be able to hear the way it breaks and cracks unappealingly. The way Mo Ran’s neediness comes through in the way he refuses to move for the door until Chu Wanning confirms it for him. 

“That is what I want,” Chu Wanning confirms, and so Mo Ran leaves.

He doesn’t spend very long in the infirmary. Shi Mei is overwhelmed with all the cleanup work, because the guards in the lobby ended up almost as bad off as Mo Ran, but he takes the time to check Mo Ran over again to make sure he didn’t miss any internal injuries in the immediate frenzied patch-up in the hallway. He basically just jabs Mo Ran full of painkillers and tries to send him on his way, and doesn’t do as good a job as he usually does at hiding how annoyed he is to be bothered.

“You’ll be fine,” he says. “Come see me tomorrow. It isn’t like you to seek treatment at all, and this is twice I’ve seen you in the last hour.”

He says it almost jokingly, and Mo Ran usually wouldn’t take offense, but he’s feeling a bit sulky and like a bit of a baby, so he can’t help but mutter, “I only came on Chu Wanning’s orders.” 

Shi Mei’s expression does something interesting at that; his eyebrows twitch a little, and the sides of his face, as if he’s trying not to laugh. When Mo Ran looks at him questioningly, Shi Mei looks away, finally allowing the grin to spread over his face. 

“Well,” he says. “That explains it.” 

“Shut up.” 

“You’re not as subtle as you think you are, A-Ran. You weren’t subtle with me, and I’m sure you haven’t been subtle with him.” 

“That’s not true. You had no idea until Xue Meng told you!” 

“I was politely pretending not to notice anything until Xue Meng blew my cover,” Shi Mei corrects him absently as he packs away his supplies. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not very subtle either, you know.” 

“What? Chu Wanning ? He’s a statue.” 

“How appropriate for the pedestal on which you have placed him,” Shi Mei points out with a cheeky little smile. This kind of teasing has basically defined their friendship since Mo Ran gave up on his crush, but still sometimes it’s a bit of a surprise how much Shi Mei likes to be a troll when he stops pretending to be nice. And he’s right, and it’s painful to be reminded, because the whole pedestal thing was the same mistake Mo Ran made with Shi Mei, and Mo Ran knows that he hasn’t grown. He has no idea how to love someone halfway; he only knows worship.

“I’m trying not to do that,” he says. “But I’m fucking it up the way I fuck up everything.” 

“A-Ran.” Shi Mei says it with an expression of pity, which Mo Ran really cannot stand seeing right now. He looks away, fiddles with the edge of one of the bandages that Shi Mei grudgingly redid for him. “You’re not listening to me.” 

“I’m listening.” 

“No you’re not. You’re hearing what you think I’m going to say. You always do that. Hate yourself before anyone has the chance to do it for you. It’s not as cute as you think it is.” 

“Yes it is,” Mo Ran mutters in reply, because he knows it’ll make Shi Mei do that soft, fond smile, even if it also makes him sigh. 

“You care for people very intensely, but they’re just people , A-Ran. Chu Wanning is just a person. He’s special, yes, fine. I completely understand what you see in him. But when you fall in love with someone, you only end up seeing the good parts of them. You make them into something they’re not.” 

“That’s not true.” 

“I know you don’t mean to, but you end up feeling like they’re something so much more perfect than what they are. And I’m telling you that it’s a lot of pressure to live up to, when it’s on you.” 

“Is that what I did to scare him away?” Mo Ran wonders. Shi Mei sighs and glances back at the rest of the infirmary, looking like he’s hoping that someone will be hovering on the edge of life and death and will need his intervention so he doesn’t have to deal with this. Unluckily for him, the other medics are doing a perfectly competent job, and he sighs and turns back to Mo Ran, leaning back against an unused cot behind him, folding his arms across his chest, overall looking like the very picture of regret. 

“Tell me what happened exactly ,” he says. Mo Ran tries not to visibly perk up, but he can’t help it. Shi Mei will know what to do. 

He launches into the story. He leaves out anything to do with Chu Wanning coming against his thigh, mostly. Has to kind of imply it to get the point across, but Shi Mei doesn’t just fling him out of the infirmary, so apparently he doesn’t mind. 

When he’s done, Shi Mei presses the back of his hand to his forehead, like a very disgruntled version of a wilting maiden. 

“A-Ran,” he says helplessly. “Sometimes I think you’re fucking with me.” 

“I’m not,” Mo Ran promises. 

“I know.” Shi Mei sighs again, and he grips Mo Ran’s shoulders in both hands, shaking him once, maintaining eye contact. “You thought you were saying something stupid to keep him from thinking you’d gotten too attached. Him , a man who famously keeps no company, who’s about as ascetic as they come, and who probably had to work up a great deal of courage in order to allow what he allowed. And by making some stupid comment about him sugar daddying you, a comment you can’t even remember the wording of, you basically accused him of using his position over you, and his comparative financial superiority, to buy sex from you.” 

Mo Ran can feel the world slipping away a little bit at that. 

“No,” he snaps. “No way. That’s not...that’s not what he was thinking.” 

“A-Ran,” Shi Mei says with more of that horrible pity. And Mo Ran knows that he deserves it, but that doesn’t stop his stomach from clenching with this horrible feeling of wrong-ness. 

Shi Mei is right, isn’t he? Mo Ran remembers the stiff way Chu Wanning had begun to hold himself in the moments immediately following Mo Ran’s stupid nothing of a comment. He thinks about the way his expression closed off like a wave, confusion followed by blankness. He’s been priding himself on recognizing Chu Wanning’s emotions better now, but he was too wrapped up in his own self-loathing to actually recognize the meaning of those emotions when it would have mattered the most. 

Fuck ,” he says. 

“You have to go,” Shi Mei points out blithely. 

“Yeah, I have to go.”

“You have to apologize.” 

“Shut up. I know what I have to do,” Mo Ran says, already heading to the door. “Thanks!” he calls back, on his way out, and he can hear Shi Mei laughing behind him. 

Mo Ran debates with himself all the way up to Chu Wanning’s office, and then all the way back down from the office when he’s told that Chu Wanning was escorted back to their apartment, and then all the way up to the apartment. He turns the premise over in his mind: was Shi Mei right? Or is Mo Ran maybe just seeing what he wants to see? Is it possible that he was right when he thought that Chu Wanning thought he was an annoying, clingy limpet who needed to be held at a distance? Or is that exactly what Chu Wanning wants? 

Is it possible that he didn’t hurt Chu Wanning with his careless attempts to distance himself?

Is it possible that Chu Wanning wants to be distant from him? That Chu Wanning wants to be left alone? 

By the time he reaches the front door of the apartment, he’s pretty sure he knows what the answer is. Mo Ran has never been the type to shy away from admitting fault when he’s hurt someone. He’s much better at blaming himself than he is at giving himself any kind of grace. It was instinct to think that Chu Wanning wanted him to stop clinging, and now it’s instinct to think that he hurt Chu Wanning with his callousness.

But it’s more than just instinct. When he remembers the way Chu Wanning looked at him, when he remembers the way his stomach sank…he knows. He knows exactly what the truth is. 

It’s just not an easy thing, to talk yourself out of feeling something that you’ve felt for basically your entire life. It’s not that no one has ever wanted Mo Ran, or even that no one has ever liked him. Since he arrived at Sisheng Peak, he has always been well liked. Charming. People flirt with him, they smile at him, they lust after him. They like spending time with him! But those are surface things, and surface likes. 

No one has ever wanted Mo Ran the way that Mo Ran wants other people. No one has ever felt for him the way that he feels for other people. When he loves someone, he wants to give them everything, and no one has ever wanted that from him.


He supposes he can see how Chu Wanning might be such a person. 

He thinks of Chu Wanning curling up alone at his desk, looking small and frail and lonely. He thinks of Chu Wanning’s visible surprise every time Mo Ran does something nice for him. 

He remembers those passing references to Chu Wanning’s early life. The adopted father who isolated him from every chance at friendship and then rejected him in the end. He thinks of how Chu Wanning always looks awkward, and lonely, and like he doesn’t have a place anywhere he goes. 

Isn’t it possible that a man like that might be able to withstand the onslaught of Mo Ran’s affections?

Isn’t it possible that a man like that might even be craving it?

He enters the apartment like it’s on fire and he’s bursting in to save Chu Wanning’s life. He’s not surprised when Chu Wanning startles himself badly enough to slam his knee on the underside of the table, where he has apparently been doing more work. The jarring motion knocks his mug of thankfully cold tea off the edge, splashing over the front of his oversized sweater. Chu Wanning sighs. His hair is wet and hanging unbound around his shoulders, and he looks up at Mo Ran with accusing, irritated eyes that somehow also hold so much uncertainty. Mo Ran could cry.

“I fucked up,” Mo Ran blurts. 

“I wanted to apologize,” Chu Wanning says, ignoring him, standing up smoothly, with the patient grace of someone who has been rehearsing this moment in his mind. 

“You...what?” Mo Ran asks. “Here, run that under water. Come here.” 

Chu Wanning allows himself to be led to the kitchen sink. Mo Ran can feel the tension where he grips Chu Wanning by the elbow. There’s a part of him that’s curious to hear the apology Chu Wanning wants to give him, but there’s a part of him that’s afraid to hear it. What if it’s convincing enough that he fools himself into believing it? 

“I wanted,” Chu Wanning persists fussily, turning steadily red as Mo Ran dabs with a wet towel at the front of his sweater. “To apologize. If...if that was the impression that I was giving off. If you thought that I...that I wanted…that you had to…” 

“No, nonono,” Mo Ran insists, cutting him off. “No. That’s was a joke! It was so stupid. I’m the one who should be apologizing. I just…” He stops, forces himself to ask, even though he knows that Chu Wanning is going to be mad about it. “Do you not want me to fuck you?” 

“No,” Chu Wanning splutters. “I don’t.” 

But Shi Mei’s words, and Shi Mei’s fair point, are very much at the front of Mo Ran’s mind. He does put people on a pedestal. He does end up worshipping the people he loves. And Chu Wanning is a wonderful person. He’s an inspiration. He’s one of the strongest cultivators of the modern age, possibly of all time! Mo Ran very firmly believes that. 

But he’s also just a man

And he’s a fucking liar.

“You’re lying,” he says. Chu Wanning tries to protest, but Mo Ran is laughing with delight, so relieved that he can feel it like a physical force, like something that’s plucking the tension out of his body by force. “You are! You’re lying. You want me to fuck you. I want that too. So badly. You have no idea.”

Chu Wanning breaks off into a strangled sound, seemingly forgetting what he was protesting. 

“What?” he finally asks, once he has collected himself enough to speak. It’s a quiet sound, disbelieving. Mo Ran has this moment of realization, then. Or maybe not realization. Maybe it’s not so concrete as that. It might just be faith , really. He looks at Chu Wanning, and he feels so certain that he has finally found the person who will be willing to accept all of the unseemly love that Mo Ran has to give. He sees the disbelieving, the hopeful look on Chu Wanning’s face, and he just...he knows . He knows. 

“Oh,” Mo Ran says aloud. “Fuck. Come here.” He pulls Chu Wanning in by the collar of his sweater. He kisses him hungrily. Chu Wanning lets him, and kisses him back almost shyly, kittenishly. Like he doesn’t quite understand but wants to kiss Mo Ran anyway. “I didn’t mean to make you think I didn’t want it. I didn’t want you to think I was getting too attached.” 

“I didn’t think that,” Chu Wanning says, still thinking he has to protect his thin face from Mo Ran’s probing gaze. Like it’s not too late. Like Mo Ran doesn’t already understand everything.

“I am too attached,” Mo Ran clarifies, meeting Chu Wanning’s eyes, making sure that Chu Wanning cannot mistake his words for anything other than what they are. “And I didn’t want you to realize it.” 

Chu Wanning stares at him, his face heating up.

“What does…I don’t know what that means,” he says. On anyone else, maybe it would sound like he was fishing for compliments, but it doesn’t sound like that on Chu Wanning.

“It means I want to fuck you,” Mo Ran says, feeling this kind of almost…anticipation, this fear, but also the courage to keep going. “But that’s not all I want. I want to wake up in the morning with you and make breakfast for you. I want to wake up in the middle of the night and see you sleeping next to me. I want…I want to, shit, I don’t know, go see movies with you, and hold your hand the whole time. I want to hold an umbrella over you when it rains. I want to take fucking showers with you, and go grocery shopping and be that annoying couple everyone hates and is secretly jealous of because we don’t need anyone else and they hate that about us! I always do this, I always want so fast and so much , and I know how it sounds. I know it’s a lot. I fell in love with you. I love you. It’s not just want, and I didn’t want to scare you away, because when I love someone, it’s always too much for them, and I was afraid of losing you before I even had the chance .” 

Chu Wanning’s eyes are so wide they’re practically round orbs bulging out of his face, but he’s not afraid. He’s not backing away. He’s not looking for the nearest exits like some soon-to-be-victim in a slasher movie. His face is still tinged pink with want, and he’s somehow, unbelievably, moving closer, like he’s waiting for Mo Ran to stop babbling so he can kiss him again. 

And when Mo Ran finally stops talking, panting like he’s run a marathon, kissing him is exactly what Chu Wanning does.

Mo Ran can practically hear the last restraints around his heart exploding into dust.

“I didn’t want...I didn’t want you to think it was…a condition of your employment,” Chu Wanning says between kisses, sounding prissy and silly and exactly like he always does. It only makes Mo Ran want him more.

“I quit, then,” Mo Ran says. Chu Wanning makes an affronted noise against his lips. “Temporarily. Until after I fuck you. And then we can renegotiate from there.” 

Another strangled sound, and Mo Ran realizes that this one is a surprised almost-laugh. Chu Wanning hides his face in Mo Ran’s shoulder after, as if he’s embarrassed. Mo Ran laughs aloud. He can’t help himself. All of the tension that has been in him for weeks feels like it has evaporated, leaving nothing inside him but warm contentment.

“Does that work for you?” he asks. “You’re not going to have me carted off for being a stalker or whatever?” He asks it more seriously than he means to. He thinks it sounds like a warning, and all things considered, maybe it’s meant to function like one. Chu Wanning is still smiling, but it fades slowly as he looks at Mo Ran, as if he understands exactly what Mo Ran is asking, as if he understands exactly what Mo Ran fears, and exactly what Mo Ran wants. 

“Yes,” he says finally. “That works for me.” 

It looks like it causes him physical pain to say it aloud. Mo Ran understands. He knows that it was difficult for Chu Wanning to admit that he wants anything.

But he did it. 

He did it, because he wanted Mo Ran to know. 

Mo Ran kisses him again. Less hungry, this time. Gentler, because he means to take his time. 

It takes Chu Wanning three more weeks to seal the barrier. Three more weeks, and Mo Ran is by his side for all of them. 

Well, by his side or inside him , but either way, he’s there.  

When Chu Wanning finally figures out the mechanics of strengthening the barrier, the whole of Sisheng Peak gathers to watch him do it, and afterward, they have a raucous celebration just for him. He plainly hates the entire thing. Scowls to see everyone’s eyes on him, fumbles over the speech that Xue Zhengyong insists he make. Glowers harder the longer he’s forced to deal with small talk. He endures for just long enough to put in an appearance before he allows his bodyguard to steal him away. 

They don’t get very far. Just an alley between two of the buildings, where Mo Ran captures Chu Wanning’s lips, and then goes to his knees in front of him, even though Chu Wanning puts up a token protest about how they’re going to get caught, and how it’s dirty, and how Mo Ran shouldn’t…

And then after, when Chu Wanning is holding onto Mo Ran’s shoulders, still quivering, still looking up at Mo Ran with those dew-wet eyes, looking aggrieved the way he always does after his bodyguard has been so shameless as to wring pleasure from him, Mo Ran presses his lips against the side of Chu Wanning’s neck, and he whispers his fondest hopes against Chu Wanning’s throat. 

And it’s just one word, repeated, stay, stay, stay

Chu Wanning clutches him tighter. 

And he promises, I’m staying, I’m staying, I’m staying.