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    Chapter 191: Master, Between Me and Xue Meng...

    In Mo Ran's world, besides Chu Wanning, the most important person to him was Shi Mo.

    Initially, Mo Ran believed his feelings for Shi Mo were romantic, but even after realizing they weren't, his kindness and affection for him remained unchanged.

    Despite gradually perceiving Shi Mo as distant and unfamiliar, like a different person altogether—a tall, elegant man with captivating features—Mo Ran knew that Shi Mingjing was still the same Shi Mingjing from before.

    He was the companion who smiled at Mo Ran in the darkness and reached out a hand to him in times of despair. He was the senior brother who stayed by Mo Ran's side through loneliness and dissatisfaction, offering comfort.

    Shi Mo was also an orphan, without any family left in this world. Though Xue Meng was proud and had befriended Shi Mo, he had never been addressed by his name; instead, he was respectfully called "Young Master" all these years.

    Perhaps Mo Ran was the only one left who could truly call Shi Mo a "friend."

    And yet, he was the one who ended up hurting Shi Mo's heart.

    Xue Meng hid among the bamboo grove, watching with folded arms as Mo Ran stood guard, lost in thought while fiddling with a silver comb.

    After waiting for half an hour with no sign of anything happening, Xue Meng began to feel like an idiot.

    How could he have thought that there would be any connection between his Shifu and Mo Ran? Was he out of his mind...? The more he stood there, the more awkward he felt, and the more he questioned his own sanity. Eventually, Xue Meng turned to leave, but as fellow disciples, he and Mo Ran had made the same mistake.

    In a moment of carelessness, he failed to control the sound of his footsteps.

    Mo Ran rose to his feet and spoke through the gauzy curtain, "Who's there?"

    "..."

    Under the moonlight, Xue Meng reluctantly and awkwardly stepped forward, avoiding eye contact and clearing his throat softly.

    Mo Ran was taken aback. "What are you doing here?"

    "Are officials allowed to set fires while commoners aren't allowed to light lamps?" Xue Meng dared not meet Mo Ran's gaze, his eyes wandering as he spoke indignantly, though his face flushed red. "I just wanted to come and see Shifu."

    A thought flashed across Mo Ran's mind, and he vaguely realized the possibility that Xue Meng had been following him. His expression froze momentarily, but he quickly composed himself, regaining his composure before Xue Meng could notice.

    "Since you're here, stay for a while," Mo Ran said.

    Xue Meng made no attempt to decline and followed him into the bamboo pavilion.

    Mo Ran asked, "Would you like tea or wine?"

    "Tea," Xue Meng replied. "Drinking alcohol will get me drunk."

    Both wine and tea were available on the table. Mo Ran lit a small red clay stove, and in the night, the flame illuminated his distinct facial features. He started brewing Eight Treasure Tea over the stove. The two brothers sat, one on the long bench of the pavilion, the other leaning against a pillar, waiting for the water to boil and the tea to be ready.

    Xue Meng inquired, "Why are you here so early? Shi Mo should have been on duty for another half night."

    "With nothing else to do, I thought I'd drop by," Mo Ran smiled. "Aren't you here for the same reason?"

    Upon reflection, Xue Meng realized that it did seem to be the case.

    Mo Ran must be feeling the same way, merely concerned for his Master. After all, following the Sky Splitting battle, Mo Ran had gradually transformed. Many years had passed, and he was now vastly different from that youthful, meticulous boy. The disciple Chu Wanning had saved at the cost of his own life had finally grown into an upright and honorable man.

    With his lashes lowered, Xue Meng pondered for a moment before suddenly breaking into a smile.

    Mo Ran inquired, "What is it?"

    "No," Xue Meng replied. "I was just remembering the last time you went into seclusion. Back then, you still didn't fully respect Master. For ten whole days, you only came to visit him once and then said you weren't capable enough to attend to him, so you ran off to help Father with the library. I was still sulking at you in my heart back then. I never would've thought that seven years later, you'd change so much."

    Mo Ran fell silent for a moment before saying, "People do change."

    Xue Meng asked, "If you had another chance to go back seven years, would you still run away?"

    "What do you think?"

    Xue Meng really pondered this seriously before answering, "I'd probably want to stay by Master's side for ten days and nights straight."

    Mo Ran smiled, lowering his gaze.

    "Hmph, what are you smirking about?" Xue Meng shifted his position, propping one foot up on the bench of the bamboo pavilion and leaning his elbow casually on it. Tilting his head back slightly, he gazed at his cousin with the corner of his eye. "Our feelings for Master are the same now. Since I know how I feel, I imagine your thoughts aren't too far off."

    Mo Ran looked down. "Mm."

    Xue Meng glanced away, his eyes landing on the wind chimes in the corner of the pavilion. "It's good, I suppose. When Master sacrificed himself for you, I resented him for using his life to save yours. But looking at you now, it seems you're not entirely heartless."

    Mo Ran wasn't sure what to say, so he simply responded with another "mm."

    The delicate bells tinkled melodiously, chiming in the breeze.

    After a moment of silence, Xue Meng couldn't resist turning his head. His eyes burned with intensity, his eyebrows slightly knitted as he suddenly asked, "Um, there's something... actually, I wanted to ask you."

    "Go ahead."

    "Be honest with me, that day on the back mountain, did you two really..."

    Mo Ran knew that Xue Meng had been longing to ask this question.

    Despite all the detours and delays, it still couldn't be avoided. He waited for Xue Meng to continue.

    But Xue Meng fumbled for words, his face alternating between pale and flushed. Eventually, he couldn't bring himself to say it, only staring fixedly at Mo Ran and asking, "Were you really... searching for osmanthus-sweetened rice cakes?"

    The water boiled, tendrils of steam rising and dissipating in the cold night air, forming and breaking apart.

    Their gazes met, Xue Meng's eyes filled with urgency, flickering with an intense flame, while Mo Ran's dark eyes remained as still as a bottomless well.

    "The tea is ready."

    Xue Meng suddenly grabbed his arm and stared at him. "Are you really looking for osmanthus sugar rice cakes?!"

    "..."

    Mo Ran paused for a moment, broke free from his grip, and went to the table to pick up a black cast-iron kettle. He poured a cup for each of them.

    Then he lifted his eyes and said, "If we're not looking for osmanthus sugar rice cakes, what else could we be doing?"

    "You—"

    "Your Master wouldn't lie to you easily. If you don't believe me, you should at least believe him."

    Xue Meng seemed like a snake whose throat had been seized, his hands on his knees twitching slightly. Then he suddenly lowered his head and said, "I didn't doubt him."

    "Then drink your tea," Mo Ran sighed. "What are you thinking about all day? Useless things." He lowered his head and blew away the rising steam. Through the mist, his face appeared handsome yet somewhat indistinct, like a reflection in water, making it hard to see clearly.

    The eight-treasure tea was warm with a salty and mellow taste. Xue Meng sipped it slowly, feeling the warmth calming his racing heart. After finishing the tea, the cup still held some residual heat, gently steaming.

    Xue Meng lowered his head, seemingly talking to Mo Ran but also muttering to himself. "I must care about him too much to think so much. Even the slightest hint of a disturbance…"

    "I know," Mo Ran said. "Me too."

    Xue Meng turned to look at him.

    Leaning against the pillar of the pavilion, Mo Ran sipped from his cup of tea, not yet finished with it, and then spoke, "Just now, I misunderstood Shi Mo because of this. At least you're better than me; you didn't act on impulse."

    Xue Meng was slightly surprised. "No wonder he left after just a few words with you. What did you misunderstand?"

    "…It's better if I don't say." Mo Ran smiled bitterly. "I'm even more prone to wild imaginings than you are."

    Xue Meng wrinkled his nose. "He's a pitiful person. During the famine, people were exchanging their children for food. If Father hadn't saved him, he would have ended up as meat in someone's pot… Shi Mo has always treated you well. Don't bully him."

    Mo Ran replied, "Mm, I know. I was just momentarily agitated before. It won't happen again."

    The two of them waited in the pavilion for Chu Wanning, chatting in a casual manner.

    It was a peculiar feeling. As Mo Ran gazed at Xue Meng's handsome face, which carried an innate arrogance, he remembered that this was the person who had pierced a hole through his heart in his previous life. Every subsequent encounter had been accompanied by tears and blood.

    He hadn't expected that they could still talk so calmly, under the moonlight by the lotus pond, brewing tea and drinking wine.

    Indeed, let's warm some wine.

    With the tea finished, Xue Meng had no intention of leaving.

    Mo Ran heated another pot of wine and sipped a few cups to keep the conversation going, as long as he didn't get drunk, it was harmless.

    But he seemed to have overestimated Xue Meng's tolerance.

    Of their four master-disciple pairs, Chu Wanning could drink a thousand cups without falling, Mo Ran was passable, Shi Mo's tolerance was terrible, but the most hopeless was Xue Meng.

    After just two small cups of Pear Blossom White, the man started to feel dizzy and his speech slurred.

    Worried that trouble might ensue, Mo Ran hastily put away the wine and refused to give him more.

    Though Xue Meng's senses were muddled, he hadn't completely lost his wits. His face flushed red, he smiled and said, "Good idea, I... I can't drink any more."

    "Mm," Mo Ran replied. "You should go back and rest. Can you walk by yourself? If not, I'll send a message to your uncle to come fetch you."

    "Oh, oh, no need for him to come. No need at all." Xue Meng waved his hand, grinning. "I can walk back myself, I still know the way."

    Mo Ran, still worried, held out a finger before him. "How many fingers am I showing?"

    "One."

    Then he pointed at Chu Wanning. "And who is this?"

    Xue Meng chuckled. "My Immortal Elder Brother."

    "…Speak properly."

    "Haha, it's Master, of course. I know who you are." Xue Meng laughed as he clung to the pillar.

    Mo Ran frowned, inwardly cursing how Xue Meng's tolerance for alcohol seemed to worsen each year. Still uneasy, he pointed at himself and asked, "And what about me? Look carefully, don't joke around. Who am I?"

    Xue Meng was momentarily dazed.

    Time seemed to overlap with a past memory. On that New Year's Eve at the Netherworld Bridge, Xue Meng had also been drunk. He had recognized Shi Mo's face but called Chu Wanning "My Immortal Elder Brother." Then, looking at Mo Ran, he had burst into laughter, calling him a dog.

    Mo Ran watched him expressionlessly, ready to secretly pounce on Xue Meng and give him a sound beating if he dared mention the word 'dog' again. Afterward, he would call for Xue Zhengyong to come and take this little drunkard back home.

    Yet Xue Meng gazed at him with a strange, dazed expression for a long moment, his lips parting slightly as if to utter the word "dog."

    Mo Ran was about to reach out and cover his mouth.

    "Brother..."

    The hand that had yet to lift froze in mid-air. Through a hazy gaze, Xue Meng softly called out to him, "Brother."

    Mo Ran was taken aback, as if stung by a bee, the pain spreading and intensifying into a searing ache that then numbed him. His throat constricted, leaving him unable to utter a single word; he could only stare blankly at Xue Meng's face, young, arrogant, and full of spirit.

    On this face, Mo Ran had seen hatred, anger, and disdain countless times.

    But never had he witnessed this look.

    Xue Meng rubbed the Longcheng sword at his waist, a blade that Mo Ran had risked everything to slay a powerful demon spirit and seize the top-grade spiritual stone, all to have it embedded for him.

    Without this sword, he might not have claimed first place in the Spirit Mountain Summit. Without it, he might have remained an obscure cultivator, burdened by the regret of his potential unfulfilled.

    In his lucid moments, for various reasons, out of pride and dignity, he had never properly expressed his gratitude to Mo Ran. Yet, every time he polished Longcheng, his heart overflowed with a myriad of emotions.

    Especially after the Confucian Wind Sect returned and learned that Mo Ran had saved them from Xu Shuanglin's clutches, Xue Meng suffered even more. Upon waking up and hearing that Mo Ran and Chu Wanning were still missing, he wept bitterly. Everyone assumed he was crying for his master, but only Xue Meng knew that, that night, clutching Longcheng's sword, lying on his sickbed, he gazed into the darkness and croaked an apology:

    "Brother, I'm sorry."

    Where are you... Are you and Master both doing alright...

    Mo Ran was unable to speak or move; it was as if he were frozen in place, standing there motionless.

    The past was like rushing water flowing swiftly before his eyes.

    He remembered the previous life, when Xue Meng had climbed up to the Summit of Life and Death alone, standing in the cold temple on Wu Mountain, asking him with red-rimmed eyes about Chu Wanning's whereabouts.

    Xue Meng had said, "Mo Weiyu, turn around and look..."

    He recalled how, after becoming the Immortal-Step Emperor, Xue Meng and Mei Hanxue had ambushed and attacked him. In broad daylight, Mei Hanxue blocked his path, while Xue Meng, his face twisted in rage, plunged his curved blade into Mo Ran's chest, blood spurting wildly.

    Xue Meng had shouted, "Mo Weiyu, no one can save you! This world has no place for you!"

    He thought of all the grievances, the anger, the searing flames, like dragons and snakes writhing.

    Recalling the day of Chu Wanning's demise in this life, he saw Xue Meng spring up furiously, pinning him against the wall. Veins bulged in his neck as he roared like a caged beast, "How could you say that he wouldn't save you... How could you say that he wouldn't save you!!"

    Suddenly, a flicker of insight sparked in his mind, as if a gentle beam of light had illuminated before his eyes.

    Perhaps it was because Mo Ran had stood stiffly for too long, so long that it stirred up the earliest, faintest memories buried deep within him.

    He seemed to see two youths, one of them extremely thin, cowering in fear, like an abandoned dog accustomed to being beaten, nervously squatting before a small table in the disciples' quarters, on a bench, his tiny hands clenched tightly, guarding his knees, not moving an inch. That was himself.

    Beside him stood another youth, his face as fair as snow jade, with a winsome and proud demeanor, much like a brilliant and arrogant fledgling pheasant. He leaned against a chair with a graceful curved sword at his waist, one foot perched upon the seat, his large, jet-black eyes fixed unblinkingly upon him.

    "Young Master Xue Meng huffed, "My mother asked me to come and see you. I've heard you're my cousin? ... You look quite unsightly, don't you?"

    Mo Ran remained silent, his head lowered, uneasy under such intense scrutiny of his appearance.

    Xue Meng inquired, "Hey, what's your name? You're... Mo... that Mo... what was it again? Refresh my memory, I can't seem to recall."

    "..."

    "Why aren't you answering my question? Speak up."

    "..."

    "Are you mute?!?"

    After three attempts with no response, the young Xue Meng huffed in amusement. "They all say you're my cousin, but looking at how timid and scrawny you are, I'd be blown away by a mere gust of wind if I were you. How could I possibly have such an embarrassing older brother? What a joke."

    Mo Ran lowered his head even further, refusing to acknowledge the other.

    Silence persisted until a vivid red suddenly appeared before his eyes. The person who offered it was so rough that the item nearly poked Mo Ran's nose. Dazed for a moment, he realized it was a string of sugared hawthorn berries.

    "For you," Xue Meng said.

    "I can't eat them anyway."

    He had brought a box of pastries, casually tossing it onto the table with a condescending air. Yet, as Mo Ran stared blankly, he found the gesture incredibly generous. No one had ever been willing to give him so much, not even if he had begged on his knees.

    "I... This..."

    "What?" Xue Meng frowned. "What do you mean by 'me, me'? What were you trying to say?"

    "Can I eat all of these beads on the string?"

    "Huh?"

    "Actually, just one would be enough... If you can't finish it, I'll..."

    "Are you crazy? Are you a dog? Eating what's left behind by others?" Xue Meng's eyes widened in disbelief. "Of course, they're all yours! The whole string, the entire box, it's all yours!"

    The lacquerwood pastry box was exquisitely crafted, adorned with golden powder illustrations of immortal cranes and auspicious clouds, a grand style that Mo Ran had never seen before.

    He didn't dare to reach out, but his dark eyes never left the box, causing Xue Meng to feel uneasy under his gaze. Thus, he simply lifted his hand and opened the pastry box for him. A rich blend of milk, fruit, and red bean paste aromas wafted out. The box was arranged in a grid of three by three, holding a total of nine pastries. Some were golden and crisp, others delicate and soft, while still others had translucent skin that seemed fragile enough to be blown apart with a breath, revealing a faint glimpse of the tender red bean paste inside.

    The young Xue Meng didn't even spare a glance, pushing the entire box of pastries towards him and said impatiently, "Hurry up and eat. If it's not enough, I have more at my place. There's so much that I can't finish it anyway, so I might as well share them with you."

    This young noble's demeanor was contemptuous, his tone equally unkind. With his round, lustrous eyes of stark black and white rolled upward, he exuded an air of arrogance, looking down on everyone through his upturned nostrils.

    Yet, the pastries and fruits offered to him were sweet and tender.

    Through the bitterness and bloodshed of two lifetimes, that faint trace of sweetness from the distant past seemed to return to their tongues. Mo Ran gazed at Xue Meng's flushed face in the moonlight, while Xue Meng squinted his eyes, looking back at him. After a moment, Xue Meng laughed, his intoxication obscuring the reason behind his mirth.

    Letting go of the pillar he was hugging, he seemed to want to lean over and pat Mo Ran's shoulder, but his steps were unsteady, and he stumbled, falling into Mo Ran's arms.

    "Mm... Big Brother..."

    Startled, Mo Ran slowly lowered his eyelids and gently patted Xue Meng's back. As the night wind blew, his disheveled hair shielded half of his handsome face, leaving no one to discern the true expression on Mo Ran's face. After a long while, when the wine-addled Xue Meng had fallen asleep in his embrace, Mo Ran finally spoke in a hoarse voice:

    "Xue Meng, I'm sorry, I don't deserve to be your brother..."

    Author's Note:

    Short Scene: "This Really Happened"

    Today, I received a cake from a friend, with the words "Chu Wanning is the coolest" written on it.

    I felt unhappy about this, so I sternly warned her that the coolest character in the story is the doggy attacker, and I won't accept any argument against that.

    She then said to me, "Should I have written 'Second Doggo is the coolest'?"

    Me: "..."

    She: "How about writing that Mo Ran is the most handsome?"

    Me: "Is there anything wrong with that?"

    She: "Oh please, I haven't come across a male lead character with such a cliché name since my primary school days, like something straight out of a novel from the early days of a web fiction platform. I wouldn't want to embarrassedly tell the store clerk that."

    ...Pfft.

    I just had a little discussion with her and, with her permission, I'll reveal her former nickname:

    Strong Hair. (Gender: Female)

    She didn't change it until she started junior high.

    So, what right does she have to criticize Doggie's name?!

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