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    Chapter 175: Master, Do You Like Me?

    As Chu Wanning was finishing his last steamed bun, the door behind him opened, and Mo Ran walked in, holding a pile of items. He placed them all on the bed.

    "Master, I found some unused talismans and scraps in your outer robe, so I put them here for you."

    After he finished speaking, he lowered his head and walked out again.

    He really couldn't bring himself to directly ask Chu Wanning about the sachet. No matter what the response might be, the atmosphere would undoubtedly become awkward. Besides, Chu Wanning was so sensitive, and Mo Ran's tongue was clumsy. If he said something wrong and upset him, what should he do then?

    Mo Ran pressed his lips together, his dark eyes shimmering with a bright glow, a mix of confusion and bewilderment.

    Suddenly, a thought struck him that even he found unbelievable—

    Could it be that Chu Wanning...

    actually liked him?

    Startled by his own daring fantasy, Mo Ran quickly shook his head and muttered softly, "Impossible... impossible..."

    As the saying goes, one cannot perceive the true form of Mount Lu until one is outside its misty veil; such is the nature of being immersed in the situation.

    If this silk purse had belonged to someone Mo Ran held no affection for, like a female cultivator, he would have instantly recognized its significance upon sight.

    —Who, if not fond, would carry a hair-entwined silk purse belonging to another person for so many years?

    The matter was initially that straightforward.

    But with Chu Wanning involved, Mo Ran's thoughts became muddled. People tend to overthink and act foolishly when they care deeply, unsure of how to behave or where to place their hands, agonizing over the slightest glance from the other party, or meticulously deciphering the hidden meaning behind their silence.

    Thus, even the simplest matters became subjects of endless contemplation, slowly digesting every nuance, extracting layers of complex emotions.

    Did I misunderstand?

    Did I get it wrong?

    Did Chu Wanning forget to discard it?

    Questions that could be dismissed with a simple thought occupied his anxious mind for hours. Lost in his reverie, he absentmindedly washed the clothes in the tub. The water grew colder, yet his heart burned hotter.

    Mo Ran couldn't help but lift his gaze, peering towards the house. Through the crisscrossed old wooden windows, pasted with rice paper, glowed a mellow golden light from a flickering candle. Its flame danced, alternating between brightness and shadow, causing the tender sapling within Mo Ran's chest to tremble softly, swaying gently.

    If Chu Wanning truly liked him...

    Once upon a time, he was the Invincible Immortal Emperor, known for his rugged resilience, yet now, he could only ponder half of that sentence before his face flushed red.

    Mo Ran felt a slight warmth and a hint of thirst.

    It was a thirst that could not be quenched by water, a heat that only the person within the room could soothe. Only the sweetness from that person's lips could offer him immense comfort and a fleeting moment of peace. Only that person, the one he had sworn to cherish, protect, and honor, was capable of such solace.

    At the thought of "reverence," it was as if a basin of cold water had been thrown over Mo Ran's fervent heart. In the past, whenever he found himself unable to control his intense longing for Chu Wanning, he would sternly remind and reprimand himself in this manner.

    But tonight was different.

    Tonight's silk pouch seemed to have added fuel to the blazing fire within his heart, a piece of soaked in pine resin kindling that stoked his ambition even further.

    Show respect.

    He kept telling himself this, but it was like trying to extinguish a raging fire with a mere cup of water. The thoughts that could once be quelled now fiercely raged, turning the cooling rain into tendrils of steam that blurred his vision with their haze.

    Thus, Mo Ran was shocked to discover that the "Respect" spell had finally and utterly –

    ceased to work on him.

    In the room, Chu Wanning finished his last steamed bun and wanted to wipe his fingers. He walked to the bed, reaching into the pile of clutter to retrieve his peach blossom handkerchief.

    He sighed, thinking to himself that his memory was truly terrible. He should have taken out the contents before washing his clothes, or else he would have spared himself the embarrassment of being laughed at by Mo Ran. He wondered what the other man must think...

    "Hmm?"

    Before he could finish his thought, he suddenly spotted a thin red string under a stack of talismans.

    Chu Wanning's heart skipped a beat. He reached out to pull the string out for a closer look, but his finger froze in mid-air, hesitant to proceed. After a moment's hesitation, he withdrew his hand and instead reached into his shirt to touch the spot closest to his heart.

    His face paled instantly upon contact.

    His mandarin duck pouch containing the osmanthus flower was really gone!

    Chu Wanning's expression became extremely grim. Frozen for a moment, he recalled – he usually kept the sachet from the Ghost Conductor inside his inner robe, but the inner lining of Xue Zhengyong's ceremonial robe was slightly tilted. The pouch was smooth, and he was afraid it might slip out accidentally, so he had placed it in the pocket of his outer garment.

    Upon closer inspection of the pile, he was struck dumb, immobile as if struck by lightning.

    The small candies were placed at the very top, followed by the talismans, while the red string was conspicuously hidden beneath them all, as if the one who hid it was blushing, frantically waving their hands, saying, "I didn't see anything, I saw nothing."

    "..."

    After a moment, Chu Wanning held his breath, clutching at the slender hope that remained, and gingerly pulled the red string from the jumbled talismans.

    ...Just as he had suspected.

    Someone had tampered with the red string of the silk pouch, tying it in a manner entirely different from his usual practice.

    Despite his composure, his fair cheeks flushed rapidly, and the back of his ears turned crimson, almost bloody. He untied the red string to open the pouch, revealing the two intertwined strands of jet-black hair that had entangled for years, just like the thoughts he had secretly harbored for so long. They now lay exposed under the warm yellow candlelight, delicate and pliable between his fingers.

    Mo Ran had seen his silk pouch!

    And then, in an attempt to cover his tracks, he had buried it at the bottom of the clutter!

    This realization sent a thunderous boom through Chu Wanning's mind, blood rushing fiercely, leaving his heart unable to regain its calm. His entire face burned hot, resembling a blazing coal.

    What should he do?

    Has Mo Ran already realized the hidden feelings in his heart?

    ...It's over.

    Mo Ran has feelings for Shi Mingjing. If he found out about Wanning's affection, it would surely shock him. Wouldn't their current gentle and harmonious relationship crumble into dust? Chu Wanning's mind was in chaos, gripping the silk pouch tightly, before finally calming down after a long while.

    He hoped that Mo Ran didn't know.

    Risking his years of self-restraint and good reputation, he wished that Mo Ran had noticed nothing. Normally, it would be a wonderful thing if a long-standing unrequited love could one day be known to the beloved, a kind of liberation. But for Chu Wanning, it might not be so.

    He was thirty-two years old now and had long grown accustomed to being alone.

    While Mo Ran and Shi Mo were at the prime of their youth, filled with vigor and vitality, Chu Wanning had always been on his own. He never imagined that, at his age, he would have the chance to be with the one he loved. Revealing his true feelings could mark the beginning of a romance, but it could also end in failure and disappointment.

    Chu Wanning put the silk pouch away and paced back and forth in the room, eventually stopping in front of a dusty copper mirror.

    He lifted his eyelids and peered into it. The mirror hadn't been used for a long time, covered in a thick layer of dust that only allowed a vague reflection. So he raised his hand to wipe it clean, revealing an imperfect face beneath the dust.

    Upon the copper mirror, there was a scratch, precisely across his eyelid. Chu Wanning blinked and gazed at his reflection.

    "How ugly."

    He suddenly felt annoyed and frustrated towards the person in the mirror.

    "How could I... have grown up to look like this?"

    He knew that Mo Ran favored gentle, handsome, and delicate young men.

    Yet, he had failed to meet any of those criteria.

    Though he didn't have wrinkles, the weight of time that had settled upon him was undeniable. Chu Wanning had always been mature beyond his years, and now, devoid of any youthful vigor, how could he possibly engage in romantic pursuits with a young man, let alone his own disciple?

    If word were to get out, not only would it be shameful for himself, but also for Mo Ran and the Summit of Life and Death.

    Moreover, he had slept for five years, during which Shi Mingjing had blossomed into an even more handsome and captivating figure. Even without a smile, his eyes seemed to hold the radiance of blooming peach blossoms. Upon comparing himself to the man in the mirror again—

    His eyes conveyed nothing but unappealing hostility and arrogance.

    In comparison, the choice was obvious; only a fool would opt for himself.

    Staring into the dim copper mirror, Chu Wanning thought to himself: if time could be rewound ten years and this ugly fellow in the reflection had fallen in love with someone in his twenties, he might have still had the courage to confess with all his heart, even if it ended in a bruised and bloody defeat.

    But now, he was already in his thirties.

    His youth had long faded, leaving behind only clumsiness, vigilance, bitterness, and a fearsome face that would scare children into tears.

    Mo Ran was at the height of his attractiveness, while Shi Mo was breathtakingly beautiful.

    Yet, Chu Wanning was merely an aging, unattractive man. He didn't dare to desire anything; all he wanted was to hide away.

    He just wished for a peaceful existence, never daring to dream of mutual affection. It was enough for him to be allowed to secretly love someone, to be permitted to treat that person kindly under the guise of being a teacher.

    That was sufficient.

    It was quite satisfying.

    At that moment, a creak echoed from behind him. Chu Wanning didn't turn around but watched through the mirror as Mo Ran entered the room, carrying a wooden bucket.

    Silent, they both stood there. The bronze mirror remained somewhat blurry, allowing Chu Wanning to discern only a tall figure standing at the entrance, but not the expression on that face or the shimmer in those eyes.

    Despite having repeatedly told himself to remain calm, Chu Wanning's heart pounded uncontrollably. He didn't want Mo Ran to detect his unease, so he untied his high ponytail and held the hair tie between his teeth, lowering his head as if he were busy redoing his hair in front of the mirror.

    He felt clever for finding an excuse not to speak by biting the hair tie. This way, he could—

    Suddenly, a hand brushed against the back of his ear, causing Chu Wanning's body to tremble violently, despite his efforts to suppress it. His shoulders quivered slightly.

    Rarely did he have physical contact with others, so he was quite unaccustomed to it. It was even more unsettling when the one touching him was Mo Ran. The rough, broad palm against the delicate skin of his earlobe sent shivers down his spine, leaving him numb from waist to back in an instant.

    Chu Wanning kept his gaze lowered. He suspected that if he raised his head now, even in the dim light and hazy reflection of the bronze mirror, Mo Ran would notice the abnormal flush on his face.

    Still biting the hair tie, he tried his best to compose himself and asked, "Are you done washing?"

    "Mm."

    The man's voice was low and slightly hoarse.

    Chu Wanning sensed him drawing closer, so near that he could feel the chill the other had brought in from the cold night. But beneath it all, he could detect the potent heat of Mo Ran's masculine aura. It made him dizzy, clouding his thoughts and slowing his ability to react.

    With a hesitating touch, Mo Ran brushed aside the stray hairs that had fallen from Chu Wanning's temples as he began, "Shifu, just now, I..."

    "..."

    What was he about to say?

    Chu Wanning bit down on his hair tie, his eyes lowered, heart pounding wildly.

    The question he wanted to ask seemed too difficult to voice. Mo Ran paused, then ultimately changed the subject, "Forget it, it doesn't matter. It's so late, why are you still tying your hair?"

    Chu Wanning didn't respond, only feeling how close the body behind him was pressed against him.

    It was so warm.

    "Are you going out?"

    Chu Wanning replied, "No, just going to wash some dishes."

    "I'll help you."

    Chu Wanning said, "I have both hands and feet."

    Mo Ran chuckled behind him, seemingly laughing awkwardly to fill the silence. "Having hands and feet is good, but Master, you're quite clumsy. You might bump into something."

    Chu Wanning: "…"

    Seeing that he didn't respond, Mo Ran assumed he was unhappy. He wiped the smile from his face and said earnestly, "The water outside is cold. Remember to mix some hot water before bringing it out."

    Chu Wanning acknowledged with a sound that was half a "hum" and half a "yes," a muffled nasal tone that was nonetheless pleasing to the ear. It stirred the tender sprout with yellow buds within Mo Ran's chest, making it stretch its tendrils even more fiercely. His Adam's apple bobbed slightly, and his gaze darkened as it fell upon the pale nape of Chu Wanning's neck, exposed when he bowed his head.

    Feeling an intensifying thirst, he swallowed reflexively but did so quietly, not wanting to be heard by Chu Wanning.

    Mo Ran took a deep breath and forced a smile. "This mirror is rather blurry."

    "It hasn't been used in a long time."

    "Master must have trouble seeing clearly. Give me the hair tie, I'll comb your hair for you."

    Chu Wanning bit onto the sky-blue ribbon, but before he could refuse, Mo Ran already held it in his grasp. With no choice, he reluctantly released the ribbon, allowing Mo Ran to tie his hair into a ponytail. He huffed disdainfully, affectingly pretending to be nonchalant, "Do you even know how to do it? If you mess it up, I'll still have to redo it myself."

    "Master, have you forgotten? In the Land of Peach Blossoms, it was me who braided your hair."

    Chu Wanning fell silent abruptly. Xia Sini represented his embarrassing past, and he had no desire to revisit those memories. He closed his eyes, furrowing his brows as he allowed Mo Ran to comb and tie his hair.

    However, Mo Ran's palm kept brushing against his earlobe, causing discomfort. His scalp tingled, and thirst prickled at the back of his throat, making his frown deepen.

    "Why isn't it done yet?"

    Mo Ran chuckled lowly, "You're always in such a rush. Don't worry, it's almost finished."

    His voice seemed closer now, whispering against the nape of Chu Wanning's neck. The hand hanging down inside Chu Wanning's sleeve clenched involuntarily.

    Was it just his imagination, or did he sense that Mo Ran's breathing had grown heavy, like a predator preparing to pounce? This stirred a sharp sensation of being watched, as if he could feel wolves or tigers lurking behind him, ready to pounce, pinning him against the mirror, hungrily biting through his throat and feasting on the blood flowing through his veins.

    Human intuition can be eerily accurate, but Chu Wanning, plagued by self-doubt, didn't dare to trust his feelings.

    If he were to lift his head at this moment, he would see in the mirror Mo Ran's dual-colored eyes, one bright and one dark, their gaze reflecting a battle between desire and reason. Sparks flew, and tension simmered beneath the surface.

    Mo Ran, holding the smooth silk ribbon, maintained his composure as he diligently tied Chu Wanning's hair, while the darker side of his soul was in turmoil, longing to—

    What on earth was he doing?

    Tying a headband?

    But the headband was clearly tied in the wrong place!

    He felt he should roughly pin Chu Wanning against an old, abandoned vanity table, bind his eyes with the scarf, then grasp his chin with the other hand and hungrily kiss him, pressing tightly against him to savor the sweetness of his mouth and suck on his tender tongue. He should be fiercely rubbing against Chu Wanning's ear, licking the tiny mole behind it, breathing heavily as he leaned close to whisper in his ear —

    "Chu Wanning, my dear Shifu. Why did you hide that silk pouch?"

    "Wanning... Wanning... Do you... like me?"

    His longing heart felt like it was about to tear apart, his blood boiling, his eyes hot and red.

    Author's Note:

    The confession won't come so quickly. Impatient readers can stockpile a few chapters. If you're not in a hurry, you can enjoy watching them slowly rip open the last layer of their emotional barrier.

    Mo Ran's courage meter needs to reach 800 for him to confess. Don't ask why it's 800, not 500, 400, or 1000 – it's just 800, 800, 800! Being stubborn! Look at the last point in the synopsis for a laugh, 2333333.

    Daily Courage Points are added rather casually. Today's Courage Points +... uh... let's also add +100!

    Student Mo Ran: Courage Points have reached 200.

    Student Chu Wanning: Mental preparation, 20% complete.

    Mini-Theater: "What Does Everyone Carry With Them?"

    Chu Wanning: ...There are too many things to carry.

    Mo Ran: I must always have money on me. No particular reason, just scared of being poor.

    Xue Meng: I carry a treasure with me. Shut up, it's not shorter than any worthless thing, okay??

    Shi Mo: I carry needles... not for pricking people, they're for acupuncture.

    Nan Gongsi: Quiver.

    Ye Wangxi: Arrows, because the person upstairs only remembered to bring the quiver but forgot the arrows.

    Mei Hanxue: A myriad of amorous tokens symbolizing their affection.

    Pork Bun: A steel helmet, out of fear of being struck.

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