It all starts the first time Mo Ran gets an order that manages to mildly nauseate him from the amount of sugar in it, after two years of making desserts for a living.
Mo Ran loves being in the kitchen. He really does. Baking is his life, and it’s his unfailing enthusiasm for it that makes the stress of running a fledgling bakery in a big city with only two other people on the staff worth it.
What he decidedly doesn’t love, though, is being banned entirely from leaving the kitchen for the rest of the day. At eleven in the morning, with nine whole hours till closing time—all because he’d made the mistake of grabbing one of his tighter shirts that morning, one that clings to his chest just a little too snugly. It hadn’t just been Xue Meng, either, which was the ultimate betrayal—even sweet, gentle Shi Mei had shrugged, a rueful sort of smile on his face.
“A-Ran, he’s right,” he’d said. “I’m sorry! We’ve tried, you know. But your customers just won't stop flirting with you today, and it’s slowing us down. Maybe a bit of time out in the kitchen will be good, we’ll manage things out here.”
So that’s how Mo Ran ends up in the kitchen, frosting pastries, preparing orders, and washing dishes as Xue Meng and Shi Mei flit in and out, manning the register and waiting the tables between them. It’s always busy at Bugui Bakery this time of the day, but it’s particularly excruciating for Mo Ran this morning, alone and sweating copiously in the kitchen. Streaking flour all over his face as he wipes off sweat with the back of his arm, he stares mutinously at the sliding glass window separating him from the main shop. He’ll gladly pay his price for being too sexy, but being deprived of air conditioning isn’t exactly what he has in mind when he pictures that particular scenario.
It’s a train of thought that ends abruptly with Xue Meng appearing in his view, handing him a stack of fresh orders by way of greeting. “Before you ask, the answer is no,” he informs him, lifting up the ready trays Mo Ran had left on the counter. “Everything’s PG-13 out there right now, and I’d like it to stay that way.”
“If I’m going to sweat here the whole day I’ll just have to come in without a shirt next time,” Mo Ran sighs, long-suffering. “You leave me with no other choice, since I guess I’m simply too hot to function in society.”
“Make sure to come in by the back door so you don’t scar the rest of us,” Xue Meng replies blandly, toeing the door shut behind him as he heads out with the trays.
Glaring at the door for a few seconds as if it’ll burn a hole through it and let some of the cool air in, Mo Ran starts to leaf through the orders. He’s hoping for something to break the boredom, but nothing really stands out till he reaches the very end of the pile.
One rice pudding, extra candied fruit garnish; one box of egg tarts, extra filling; one ginger milk pudding, extra sweet; a plate of pumpkin pancakes, extra syrup; a box of osmanthus cakes, extra sweet pear jam—
Eyes widening in escalating horror as he reads the order, Mo Ran walks towards the oven. He feels like he’s about to get a sugar rush just from looking at it, and it’s been two years since he became a professional pastry chef.
He glances back at the window, half-tempted to look outside and see who could possibly have placed the order. He decides against it swiftly enough. He isn’t too keen on Xue Meng throwing another fit right now, not when he’s already halfway to a headache from the mere thought of the amount of sugar in this order.
Besides, it’s probably a suburban mother of at least four who’d lost the day’s battle with her kids to get them to eat something healthy. Mo Ran shudders at the thought of dealing with so many children on a sugar high, and gets to preparing the orders.
When he carries the trays over to the ledge later, he casts a glance around the shop. Four of the tables are occupied—there’s a group of teenage girls, a young couple, an elderly man, and someone at the corner table by the window who he can’t really see. No harried mother or excitable kids in sight, though.
Maybe it’s the elderly man, Mo Ran thinks to himself as he heads back to his counter. Not the healthiest way to deal with a midlife crisis, but he supposes he could sympathise.
Suburban mother of four slash elderly gentleman struggling with a midlife crisis makes a reappearance the very next day.
This time, Mo Ran finds out when he’s checking inventory after they’ve closed shop. The moment he spots an order for a box of dragon beard candy, two pineapple buns, tong sui topped with glazed strawberries and a box of egg tarts with extra custard, he has a hunch he knows who he’s dealing with.
He checks the time the order was placed: half past one in the afternoon, when he was on his lunch break. He stares at the order, going over it a few more times in incredulity before moving on to the rest.
“Hey, do you guys remember this customer from yesterday who ordered a ton of our most sugary stuff?” he asks Xue Meng and Shi Mei the next day, when they’re opening shop. “Egg tarts with extra custard, tong sui with extra candied fruit, and a bunch of other stuff too.”
Xue Meng cocks his head to the side, trying to think, but Shi Mei answers promptly, “Oh, yeah. The guy in the white turtleneck. He’d come in the day before, too.”
“Oh, right,” says Xue Meng. “Skinny, around my height? Took his order to go both times.”
“He was taller than you,” Shi Mei replies, trying his best to sound as kind as possible. “But yes, not by much.”
“Only one guy?” Mo Ran asks, ignoring Xue Meng’s splutters of affront. “There’s no way he’s eating all that alone. Did he look like a creep? Maybe he’s poisoning someone. Shit. If someone actually gets poisoned from our food, does that make us, like, accomplices?”
He looks up to find the others staring at him in surprise.
“Since when do you analyse orders this much?” says Xue Meng suspiciously. “And no, the guy looked fine. Slightly scary around the eyes, but otherwise normal. He did say his order from the day before was lacking, though.”
“Lacking?” repeats Mo Ran with a frown.
“Didn’t have enough filling in the egg tart or something. Oh, and the ginger milk pudding was supposed to be extra sweet.”
“Excuse me?” Mo Ran snarls, incredulous they’d found the order lacking in sweetness of all things, after he’d piled enough sugar into it to give a small army diabetes. “Is he asking for cavities? Is that what he’s going for? I’ll drill a hole in his teeth myself, at least we won’t waste our supplies that way.”
“Be nice, A-Ran, he’s a customer,” soothes Shi Mei.
Mo Ran shakes his head, convinced they’re missing something. There’s no way anyone could willingly consume that much sugar two days in a row and still be considered normal by any stretch of imagination.
It doesn’t stop.
On the third day, Mo Ran is in the kitchen kneading dough for a batch of tangyuan when he catches Xue Meng rattling off an order that has his ears perk up at once. Impatiently quickening his pace, he bounces on the balls of his feet in his hurry to finish as Shi Mei packs the order next to him.
“I think you should drizzle a bit more honey on top,” he says, glancing at the banana fritters being packed. Shi Mei looks surprised, but he does what Mo Ran says.
Despite his best efforts, Mo Ran ends up taking too long to finish up the dough. When he hurries outside the moment he’s done, all he gets is the tinkle of the wind chime over the entrance as his elusive customer shuts the door behind him.
Mo Ran is napping in the back room on the fourth day he visits.
“He seemed okay with yesterday’s order,” Xue Meng is telling Shi Mei when Mo Ran makes his way out blearily. “Looks like you finally managed to square up to his sugar tolerance.”
“Oh, that was A-Ran’s suggestion, actually,” Shi Mei says quickly, and Xue Meng turns to Mo Ran with a look of deeply grudging appreciation.
On the fifth day, Mo Ran is being hit on by a group of girls at the table he’s waiting on. When he returns to the counter, he’s immediately struck with a sense of impending doom when he finds Xue Meng grinning at him.
“You just missed him,” Xue Meng informs him pleasantly. “But go on, feel free to keep flirting with more customers.”
“I wasn’t even the one flirting,” Mo Ran grits out, barely resisting the urge to smack his cousin in the face with his apron as he takes it off and flings it to the side in a heap.
On the sixth day, Mo Ran is on Oasis scrolling through the Bugui Bakery tag. There have been exactly twelve posts in it in the two years since they’d opened, and Mo Ran knows them all by the back of his hand, including the poster’s usernames, tags and captions, like counts and every comment on each post.
There’s a thirteenth post today, though.
The sky had cracked open suddenly that evening, the wind chime over the entrance ringing incessantly as it flutters wildly in the gale. Xue Meng had been yelling out to him from the kitchen to stop daydreaming and take it off before it’s blown away onto some unsuspecting passerby’s face, and after the third time Mo Ran finally puts his phone down. He’s still distracted by the thought of the thirteenth post on the bakery’s tag as he walks up to the door, so when he opens it he’s momentarily stunned by the incoming spray of rainwater that nearly drenches him at once.
Once he has his bearings again, he reaches his hand up to the wind chime hanging from a hook overhead. Extricating it turns out to be a more fiddly affair than he’d expected, but Mo Ran stands firm in the doorway, not particularly keen on stepping any further from the warmth of the shop than is absolutely necessary. He’s been blindly twisting his wrist in an attempt to unhook it for a few moments, when someone hurtles towards him and collides squarely against his chest.
With a grunt of surprise, Mo Ran catches the person instinctively, both hands flying out at once to steady him by the shoulders. For a moment, the man stays frozen in place, his fingers splayed across Mo Ran’s chest and his muddy shoes caught between Mo Ran’s Doc Martens.
Feels nice, is the first, surprising thought Mo Ran has. He doesn’t realise till later how strange it was for this to have been his first thought upon getting an armful of a stranger, half-drenched from the rain outside.
Is it supposed to feel this nice just to have a warm body against yours, forehead tucked under your chin? Not that Mo Ran would know. The most contact he’s had with warm bodies have been in the frenzied heat of his one-night stands back in his first year of college, a whole five years ago.
Then the man tilts his face up, and actually looking at his face is another revelation: he’s beautiful, with dark hair that feels soft against Mo Ran’s chin, a strong jaw offset by a soft pink mouth and the prettiest eyes he’s ever seen.
Pretty eyes that go wide a moment later, like he’s just seen a ghost. Mo Ran twitches his eyebrows and then his lips and ears as discreetly as he can, wondering if he’s got batter on his face again—doesn’t feel like it, but you can never be too sure. It’s not exactly an ideal set of circumstances in case a beautiful stranger ever landed in your arms, but Mo Ran isn’t about to complain. Not with said beautiful stranger currently in his arms, what the fuck. So he stays perfectly rigid, wary of spooking the guy, and watches as the shock in his eyes gives way to some other emotion Mo Ran can’t quite place. Softer, though he still makes no effort to move.
There’s no telling how long this would have gone on, but at some point the man notices his fingers on Mo Ran’s chest. It’s accompanied at once by a very visceral reaction: the next thing Mo Ran knows, he’s been shoved to the side as the man strides in, head high, right into the bakery.
You know, the one Mo Ran owns.
Mo Ran watches him with mild bemusement as he walks right up to the counter. He reminds Mo Ran of a haughty cat with the way he’s standing stiffly with his arms crossed, resolutely not acknowledging Mo Ran’s existence.
That is, till the pastries on display catch the man’s attention.
He’s so engrossed in them, nearly stooping forward to look, that he doesn’t notice Mo Ran quietly approach from behind. Stopping barely a foot away, Mo Ran waits and watches amusedly as the man pores over the glass screen, getting the acute impression that if he looks hard enough he’ll be able to see a pair of fluffy ears perk up and a tail twitch.
Shaking his head to get rid of that ridiculous thought, Mo Ran stoops behind him and murmurs into his ear, “Hey, I appreciate the enthusiasm, but you’ve been dripping rainwater all over my shop.”
The man jumps, straightening up immediately. His back knocks into Mo Ran again, and this time Mo Ran sees the pale nape of his neck flush pink before his eyes.
“Sorry,” says the man. He sounds equal parts annoyed and flustered, but there’s still something pleasing about his voice, like raindrops pattering gently on the rooftop on a warm summer evening. (Is this what you call metaphors? Is Mo Ran actually thinking in metaphors right now? What the fuck.)
“It’s fine, don’t worry about it,” Mo Ran tells him, eyes twinkling as the man frowns with the air of a cat that has just been caught doing something very undignified, like putting his paw in a milk jug. “Why don’t you have an umbrella with you, anyway?”
He reaches around behind the counter, grabbing a towel and handing it to the man. The man has a trenchcoat on over his white turtleneck and trousers, so his clothes have largely escaped; his hair is still a mess, limp and plastered across his forehead. He stares down at the towel Mo Ran is holding out for him for a moment, eyes widening a fraction. Then he frowns, looking up at him without taking it.
“I—forgot,” he replies stiffly, but Mo Ran has the distinct suspicion he isn’t being completely truthful. There’s a drop of water running down the side of the man’s nose, and he tries and fails to maintain the stern look on his face as he furiously blinks it away.
“Look, if you’re not going to dry your hair, I’ll just do it for you myself,” says Mo Ran, advancing in what he hopes is a threatening enough manner.
It works, and the man reaches out at last and takes it. Silence falls after that, as the man turns to the side, towelling his hair dry. Once he’s done with his hair, he moves down to his neck, tipping his head to the side.
That’s a lot of smooth, bare, pale skin, still flushed pink in patches, and Mo Ran’s mouth is suddenly very dry.
Coughing, he looks down and says, “Um, cool, so if there’s anything you want, you can let me—”
The man tosses the towel unceremoniously back at Mo Ran’s chest, like he’s personally offended by it. And the fact that his hands had just been all over said chest barely minutes earlier, maybe.
“Please pack two egg tarts, two red bean paste buns with extra syrup, a slice of snowflake cake and a rice pudding with extra glazed fruit garnish.”
Mo Ran’s eyes grow progressively wider as he lists the items.
Not suburban mother of four, not elderly guy dealing with a midlife crisis, but possibly the sexiest guy he’s ever seen. Who also happens to have the highest sugar tolerance he’s seen in a human being in his two years of running a bakery.
“Wow, someone’s having a party,” he says, after he manages to quell his internal meltdown.
“It’s not for a party,” the man says, and colours again. Then he frowns, seeming to realise it too, and there’s something very amusing about how he looks disgruntled with himself for blushing so easily. Probably doesn’t go with whatever image he’s going for.
Not that Mo Ran is complaining. The pink flush on his pale skin is almost unbearably attractive, and Mo Ran finds his gaze running over his slim form, wondering where else he could blush like that.
“Not even a date?” Mo Ran blurts out, before he can help himself. He finds himself holding his breath as he waits for the answer. It’s an unfamiliar feeling; he’d never use to bother with details this trivial when sizing up potential hookups. Not that he’s felt the urge to size up any potential hookups at all in years now.
Before the man can answer, the kitchen door is flung wide open. “Hey, did you—”
Mo Ran turns immediately behind him to rummage around for a pair of gloves. God, he’s being ridiculous. Xue Meng has walked in on him at parties before, drunk and balls deep in people whose names he didn’t even know. But somehow Mo Ran has never felt nearly as seen as this, and he’s only been trying to find out if the guy is single.
Behind him, he feels Xue Meng boring two holes into the back of his head.
“Hi!” he hears him say to the customer. “Can I get your order, a table—?”
“I have ordered,” the man answers simply. Xue Meng is quiet for a while, and when Mo Ran eventually turns around with his gloves on he makes sure to level his cousin with a smirk.
His brat of a cousin never did trust him around pretty customers.
Xue Meng flares his nostrils at him for a moment, then turns back to the guy. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
Mo Ran glances up at that, and finds the man looking at him under his impossibly long, thick eyelashes. The moment Mo Ran catches his eye, he darts his gaze away to look back at Xue Meng.
“No,” the man mutters. “I’m good.”
His sharp eyes soon turn back to Mo Ran as he prepares his order, narrowing as Mo Ran places the complimentary puppy face cookie he always adds to orders he packs or plates himself in the box.
“That is you?”
Mo Ran looks up at him.
The man coughs lightly. “I mean. Is that something that you do? It was in the box on the first day I came here, but not since.”
The first day had been the only time Mo Ran had prepared his order himself. He grins, warmth spreading through him at the thought that he’d remembered. “Yeah, it’s kind of my thing. You liked it?”
The man is quiet for a moment, then nods. “It’s... all right.”
“You hear that?” Mo Ran crows gleefully at Xue Meng, reaching immediately back into the jar and adding a handful more of the cookies to the box.
“Don’t encourage him,” Xue Meng huffs, addressing the customer. “He’s going to be even more insufferable from now on. Is there any other shape you’d like the cookies in? We’ll use the same recipe, so it’ll taste the same.”
“This is fine,” the man answers briefly, a light flush appearing on his cheeks again. Then he squares his shoulders, tilting his chin up as he turns to address Mo Ran again. “But since you prepared my order from that day, I hope you know they had several inadequacies too. Please make sure they haven’t been repeated.”
A vein throbs in Mo Ran’s temple. Distractingly sexy or not, looks like this guy is just as much of an asshole as he’d seemed from the first time he’d complained about the ginger milk pudding in his order. “It was supposed to be extra sweet” —the nerve of saying that, when Mo Ran had felt like he was about to get a sugar high from osmosis or something simply from preparing it.
“Just a load of sugar in everything, got it,” he says, just as Xue Meng cuts in.
“He means,” he says, with a vicious look at Mo Ran, “We’ve tried to make everything to your satisfaction.”
Asslicker, Mo Ran doesn’t say but tries to convey with an exaggerated eye-roll as he hands the customer his order. But just when the package is about to touch the man’s fingers, Mo Ran pauses.
“You should wait here,” he says awkwardly, not sure why the words come to his lips. “Till the rain stops.”
The man starts, his hand seeming to falter inches away from the box. Then the moment passes, and his eyes grow cold and distant again.
“No, thank you,” he says, and pulls the package out of Mo Ran’s hands. He turns on his heels, and walks towards the door.
Mo Ran watches him walk away, clutching the package to his chest. The man approaches the door and opens it, his frame silhouetted against the sheet of rain battering down from above.
Something unexpected happens then: Mo Ran finds himself struck with an abrupt, overwhelming urgency that he doesn’t quite understand himself, to say something, anything, to make him look around, to stop him leaving at any cost—
The man freezes for an instant, then slowly turns around. Shi Mei has just emerged from the kitchen after cleaning up; he and Xue Meng both whip around to look at Mo Ran.
Mo Ran bites the inside of his cheek. He hadn’t thought this far ahead.
“An umbrella,” he blurts out, eyes falling on the shelf below the counter where the three of them store their umbrellas in case they need it. “You should—Take it.”
For a moment, there’s dead silence in the room. Then the man answers in a quiet voice, “It is—not necessary. The subway station isn’t far.”
“Are you crazy?” Mo Ran says, stepping out from behind the counter with his umbrella and walking towards him. “It’s at least ten minutes away. You’ll get soaked.”
The man frowns. Mo Ran steps closer to him, not missing the way he clutches the package closer to his chest.
“What are you doing?” the man snaps, clearly discomfited enough that he’s still frozen in place and unable to just turn away. “I told you I—”
Mo Ran leans in, pressing the umbrella towards the man as he taps at the package in his arms. “Don’t put my pastries through all that, they’re moist enough on their own,” he says, grinning.
He cringes internally the next second. Moist? Is this really the hill he’s going to die on? But something about the act seems to bring the man back to reality—eyes widening, he wheels around and begins to walk really fast towards the door.
That leaves Mo Ran no choice but to follow him, ignoring Xue Meng’s splutters behind him and Shi Mei’s hesitant, “Um, Mo Ran—?”
He’s simply being a decent person.
He’s almost caught up with the guy, a hand outstretched to touch his shoulder, when he stumbles. His hand lands on the man’s waist instead. For a moment, Mo Ran stares at the way his hand spans almost the entire breadth of the man’s waist. The man freezes in place, and for an uncertain length of time they just stand there like that, Mo Ran’s hand on him.
When Mo Ran’s brain stutters back to life, he tears himself away, muttering a hasty, “Sorry.”
He holds out the umbrella, slightly dazed at what had just happened. What he isn’t expecting, though, is that the man grabs it. He then turns right around, walking towards the door.
“What’s your name?” Mo Ran is proud he manages to unclench enough to ask, even with his feet still inexplicably glued to the ground. Right. He’ll need his umbrella back. He’ll need to know his name for that. A fucking plus.
He’s not sure what he’d been expecting, but the man stops. Turning his head a fraction to the side, he says, “Chu Wanning.”
Chu Wanning, Mo Ran thinks to himself, mouthing the name experimentally before realising what he’s doing. The man resumes walking to the door, back stiff and straight as he approaches the door—
Shi Mei and Xue Meng gasp as the man walks right into the door, but the impact seems to have helped him jolt back to reality. Before any of them can react, he pushes open the door and walks out into the rain with Mo Ran’s umbrella.
They end up closing pretty late that evening, and the three grab hotpot at a nearby restaurant together before they head home. The rain lets up quickly, so Mo Ran walks back home from the subway station alone. He’s in a strange mood, because he’s still thinking about the guy who’d walked into his bakery earlier and stirred up memories he hasn’t thought of in a very long time.
It’s probably the rain. Mo Ran has never been very fond of the rain, since the day his mother had died and he was five years old, coming home drenched to the bone to find her. They have a way of sticking with you, days like that. And it had, till the night near the end of his first year at college when everything changed.
Xue Meng and Shi Mei were the only friends he’d ever had, so when Mo Ran found himself at a different college from theirs, he’d kept firmly to himself. He’d always thought it’d be easier this way. Mo Ran has always been endlessly grateful to his uncle and aunt for finding him and taking him in when he was fifteen, but they were a bit too late. He’d already spent ten years of his life shuttling from one foster home to another, convincing himself that everyone he’d start to get attached to would inevitably let him down.
It had crept up on him before he’d known it. The mornings he’d find it harder and harder to get himself out of bed and into lecture halls, words bleeding together on the screen, plummeting grades. Nights spent trying desperately to feel something. Drinking alone at first, later with one-night stands he wouldn’t remember in the morning. Waking up no less numb than the night before—maybe he hadn’t been trying hard enough. He’d had no one to tell him otherwise. And repeat.
Of course, this would all come to an abrupt halt at the end of the year, one night in the rain.
When Mo Ran reaches home, he face-plants into bed immediately, taking out his phone to distract himself from the train of thought his brain had decided to take. While he’s thumbing through his apps, he realises that in everything that had just happened, he’d forgotten completely about the thirteenth post on the bakery’s tag. Curiosity surging in him all over again, he opens up Oasis.
The thirteenth post is by someone with the username yuheng. It’s a picture of an open box of their egg tarts, one that Mo Ran had packed himself. He knows this because he spots his trademark puppy face cookie in a corner.
He clicks through to yuheng’s profile, and finds a total of twenty three photos on their page. They’re all of desserts; Mo Ran clicks through for the locations tagged and realises immediately this is a connoisseur. They’re all excellent bakeries from all around the city, some of them even pretty niche. There’s no name or profile description, unfortunately, but they do have an avatar: a photo of a cat.
Mo Ran isn’t sure what about this profile inspires him to mess around with the person running it a bit, but he opens the latest picture they’ve posted from his bakery, and begins to type a comment.
taxianjun: what’s up, came across your page and it’s pretty cool. bit of a sweet tooth huh? you liked this place?
He’s about to fling his phone to the side and attempt to sleep, when his phone lights up with a reply.
yuheng: Haven’t sampled all their items, but it seems passable so far.
Mo Ran holds back all the witty comebacks that flood his brain at the use of the word passable. He doesn’t have long till this person figures out they’re talking to the owner of the bakery he’s lowkey roasting, and he’d rather play with them a bit longer.
taxianjun: you want to sample all their items? something there really caught your eye then huh
yuheng: Yes... quite pretty.
yuheng: The items on the menu. They look pretty.
Mo Ran frowns. It takes him a moment to realise that the user is clarifying his first comment, as if there’s anything else in the bakery that he could be misconstrued as calling pretty. Shi Mei, maybe? Or perhaps the new decor they’d put up last month.
Mo Ran waits for more, perhaps a disdainful follow-up on how desserts that look flashy are mostly overcompensating for how shitty they taste. It doesn’t come. Biting his lip, he types another message.
taxianjun: you’ll have to try them out, though. they could just be okay on the outside and taste like shit
yuheng: Whatever I’ve had so far was good.
yuheng: The filling could have been sweeter, but it was better than others I’ve had.
It’s pretty bare minimum in terms of praise, but Mo Ran sits and stares at his phone for a long moment. It’s not often small business owners like him get a lot of feedback; especially not when your clientele consists mostly of tired college students with extremely low standards. Mo Ran knows this—he’s been there not long ago himself, and knows he wouldn’t dream of going up to the staff to complain about an order unless there were actual live organisms in it. Sometimes for dead ones, but mostly you wouldn’t even notice.
He’s on the other side of the things now, though, with his primary patrons now students from Sisheng University. Which is good for business since they’re always hungry and never calorie-conscious, but pretty awful for his constant craving for validation.
So it stands to reason that a message like this makes his heart flutter. Only a little. He thinks he’s allowed that, after two years of catering to kids who’ll eat anything as long as it isn’t literally moving around on the plate.
He huffs a laugh at the comment about the sweetness, though. Is there actually more than one human out there in the universe with a sugar requirement as abnormally high as Chu Wanning’s? Mo Ran makes a mental note to check if the sugar they’re using could have gone bad—could sugar even go bad?—and starts to type out a reply.
taxianjun: idk, looks pretty sweet to me!!!
taxianjun: i mean the desserts ;)
taxianjun: i’m sure you are too from all that sugar you seem to consume. is that your cat in the profile pic?
taxianjun: oh. is that your fursona then?
There’s a pause of a few minutes. Mo Ran waits for the reply, biting his lip to suppress a laugh. Then:
yuheng: I was not aware those existed. My profile photo is of a neighbourhood stray.
taxianjun: oh yikes. did i just make you look up furries on the internet? ummm. sorry about your search history.
Mo Ran winces, wondering if that’s obnoxious enough to get yuheng to visit his profile and discover they’re talking to the owner of the bakery they’re discussing. It’s written right on top of Mo Ran’s profile, not to mention the numerous gym selfies he sprinkles in with pictures of his desserts on his page just to keep things interesting. But there’s no reply after that, so he puts that thought on hold as he drifts off to sleep.
Mo Ran barely just misses Chu Wanning next morning, as he’s triumphantly informed by Xue Meng the moment he skids into the shop.
“He returned the umbrella you gave him yesterday,” he tells him. “You know, while you were sleeping in,” he adds with a self-satisfied smirk, because that’s the kind of little shit he is.
Mo Ran curses in his head. He’d been looking forward to meeting the guy, and spent an embarrassing amount of time on the ride here wondering if he’d thank him for the umbrella. Maybe with that adorable blush of his that Mo Ran hadn’t been able to stop thinking about since last night.
He gives himself a shake.
“What did he order today?”
“Box of honey drizzled coconut and osmanthus cakes and a mango cheesecake,” Xue Meng replies, failing to hide a slight grimace.
It’s not even eight thirty yet. Mo Ran feels mildly nauseous again at the thought of all that sweetness this early in the morning as he walks into the kitchen to get ready.
He’s on Oasis again later in the day, when he finds another post tagged with his bakery. Squinting in surprise, he opens it up and finds it’s from yuheng again. It’s a photo of a box of osmanthus cakes, this time without Mo Ran’s trademark puppy shaped cookies.
Maybe he’s just being petty, but Mo Ran finds himself hoping they’ll say their last order was better. The one that Mo Ran had packed and they’d complimented in stilted words that Mo Ran hasn’t been able to stop replaying in his head, as pathetic as that sounds. Frowning slightly, he types a reply.
taxianjun: were these sweet enough for you? ;)
This time, the reply comes an hour or so later. Mo Ran wonders if they’d been working, maybe finding time to reply only when lunchtime hits. The next moment, he’s berating himself for thinking so much about it at all.
yuheng: What makes you think you have any idea about what is “enough” for me?
Mo Ran puts his feet up on the table, grinning to himself. Looks like yuheng still hasn’t realised they’re talking to the person who’d made the cakes he’d photographed. There’s something about this user he can’t quite place: they’re some sort of weird amalgamation of an old professor and a petty teenager, is as much as Mo Ran has got so far. Either way, it feels like the most entertainment he’s had in a while.
It probably also says quite a bit about him and the general state of entertainment the world has to offer, but he’s too busy typing out a reply to think too much about it.
taxianjun: you have even MORE needs than an overabundance of sugar??? damn yuheng you’re a hard one to please huh
yuheng: Good thing you don’t need to worry about pleasing me, then.
taxianjun: idk about you but my work ethic won’t allow me to leave any customer of mine unsatisfied <3
There’s a pause after that, which Mo Ran is expecting. He pictures yuheng opening his profile and frantically going through it, finally realising who they’ve been speaking to all this while. Mo Ran grins wider, scrolling idly for a while before going back to his page.
He’s been blocked.
It’s a bit more extreme than Mo Ran expected, to be honest. But he laughs as he gets up to head back to the kitchen. For some reason, he’s suddenly reminded of Chu Wanning pushing Mo Ran to the side and striding into the bakery he owns, refusing to acknowledge his presence in the room like a disgruntled cat.
The rest of the afternoon is pretty busy, so the next time Mo Ran manages to check his phone, it’s almost five in the evening. The first thing that jumps out at him as he pulls down his notifications is that yuheng has replied, which means he’s also been unblocked.
yuheng: Well in that case, I have more constructive criticism for you. The egg tarts could do with some more custard filling. And the pumpkin pancakes would benefit with some extra syrup. Oh, and the tangyuan balls are a bit too big in size.
Mo Ran stares at the comment. Reads it over and over a few times. It’s all fine, oddly sweet in the way the interactions had been so far, right up to that last sentence. Did yuheng even realise how suggestive that was?
In any case, two could play at that game.
taxianjun: too big, huh? isn’t that what i’m supposed to be going for, guaranteed customer satisfaction and all
yuheng: They stick to my mouth. You should try making them smaller next time.
Mo Ran almost laughs out loud. To answer his previous question, looks like his yuheng really is that pure.
taxianjun: all right, all right, whatever you want
“Stop smiling at your phone before you take table 5’s order, you look like a creep,” says Xue Meng, shoving the tablet they use to take orders in his face.
The next day, Mo Ran is just about to head out for lunch when someone walks in through the door. He freezes halfway through shucking off his apron, and hastily pulls it back on.
“Uh, Xue Meng—do you mind exchanging your lunch shift with me?”
Xue Meng glances at him through narrowed eyes, then follows his gaze to the doorway. “Yeah, and leave you alone to flirt with the new customer?”
“Please?” says Mo Ran. He doesn’t bother with the pleading puppy eyes, because they never work on Xue Meng anyway. “You know, I think Mei Hanxue posted on one of his socials—the younger one, he said he’ll be dropping by around lunch—”
Like clockwork, Xue Meng strips off his apron and tosses it to the side. “I was never here,” he hisses, and runs to the kitchen to make his way out through the back entrance.
When Mo Ran turns back around, Chu Wanning is standing in front of him in a soft white cardigan layered over a grey turtleneck today. If Mo Ran’s brain hadn’t started making microwave noises the moment he’d walked in, he’d have wondered just how many of these turtlenecks he owned.
He’s trying so hard to calm himself down that it takes him a moment to notice that Chu Wanning has started to speak.
“That, that and that,” he says, jabbing his finger at three locations on the glass screen over of the display area.
“Sorry?” says Mo Ran blankly, coming out of the haze.
“Isn’t it too early to be spacing out?” he says sharply, repeating the motions that Mo Ran manages to catch this time.
“Are you a teacher?” Mo Ran blurts out, before he can help it.
Chu Wanning frowns. “What does that have to do with anything?”
Mo Ran shrugs, putting his gloves on and bringing out the pastries to warm them up. “You’ve just got that vibe about you.”
“I’m a professor,” he says. There’s still a thin crease between his brows, and after a few seconds of seemingly waging a silent war within himself, he says, “What vibe do you mean?”
Mo Ran resists the urge to laugh at the way he enunciates the word vibe, like he’s never used it before.
“The way you’re scolding me in my own bakery,” he says petulantly. “Also, aren’t you a bit too young to be a professor?”
“But I have reached the minimum required age for faculty at Sisheng University,” says Chu Wanning, brows furrowed in confusion. “And I don’t think I... scolded you.”
“See? You don’t even realise what you’re doing.” Mo Ran grins easily, watching with interest as confusion and embarrassment flash alternately across Chu Wanning’s face. “Just like you don’t realise what a flex that was. Youngest professor at the university, I bet. Which department?”
“Mechanical engineering,” he replies. “What am I flexing, exactly?”
Mo Ran smiles, leaning his elbows on the countertop. “Definitely not your knowledge of urban colloquialisms,” he says. “Professor.”
The move has brought him a lot closer to Chu Wanning’s face than he’d expected, and the man stumbles back. To Mo Ran’s delight, there’s a light flush on his cheeks again.
“You—” He tries to collect himself, and fails. “You’re a... student—?”
“No, I graduated from there two years back. The business school, but same campus. Maybe we were there at the same time?”
“Impossible,” says Chu Wanning at once. He lowers his gaze. “I am much older than you.”
“What?” says Mo Ran in surprise. “No way.”
“I graduated seven years ago.”
Mo Ran stares at him, trying to reconcile himself with two facts. One, that he has to be public enemy #1 to dermatologists everywhere, with his smooth, soft-looking skin putting twenty year olds to shame. And two, what a ghastly fucking travesty it was that their times at Sisheng had coincided a whole year and Mo Ran hadn’t seen him even once.
“Oh,” he says, after a pause. “That’s the year I joined. So we did overlap for a year. Maybe we ran into each other.”
There’s a sudden twinge in his chest as he remembers the kind of person he’d been that year. How he may have treated him if he’d met him back then. Maybe it’s not so bad that he hadn’t after all.
An odd look crosses Chu Wanning’s face. “Highly unlikely,” he says quickly.
Mo Ran shrugs. “You’re probably right. I mean, you’d remember this face, wouldn’t you?” He gives him a shit-eating grin, pointing at his dimples.
Chu Wanning gives him an irritated look, not deigning that with a reply.
“Sorry, sorry,” Mo Ran says placatingly. “I know I’d remember a face like yours, though.”
But Chu Wanning turns away, a tiny frown appearing between his brows. Mo Ran stares at him, unsure what to make of it. It seems like it’s a touchy subject—his face, though? It’s ludicrous to think someone as beautiful as him could be insecure about his looks, although he’s not sure what else could be the matter.
He stands there staring at him, brain fuzzy, till a voice brings him back to the present again after an unknown length of time.
“Um, hey, is the burnt smell from the microwave what you were going for, or—?”
He jumps, locating the source as a young woman standing behind Chu Wanning. He hadn’t even noticed when she’d walked in. The next moment, he manages to confirm that there is indeed the smell of something burning from the microwave. Another minor detail he seemed to have missed while conversing with Chu Wanning.
Busying himself with salvaging the order, it’s a few minutes before he turns back to face his customers. He finds the woman who’d called him out talking to Chu Wanning.
“—seen you around campus in ages, Chu-laoshi.”
Chu Wanning has his face turned to the side to regard her, so he doesn’t immediately notice that Mo Ran is right in front of him across the counter. Mo Ran coughs, a little louder than is probably necessary.
“Your order’s ready,” he says, quietly pleased the moment Chu Wanning’s eyes are on him.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long. Averting his eyes quickly, Chu Wanning takes the bag with a brief nod and turns away towards the door.
“Give it up.”
Mo Ran starts, looking around at the girl who’s now moved right in front of the counter. She meets his gaze evenly, a bored sort of expression on his face.
“You know, half the people on campus are thirsting for him, right?”
“Wait, you go to Sisheng?”
“Yeah, but I’m in the arts department. Not that that stops me from hearing about this guy everywhere I go.”
“What’s he like?” Mo Ran asks, trying not to sound too excited about finding someone who may potentially have information about the strange, borderline infuriating, ridiculously beautiful guy he can’t get out of his head.
“Brilliant, super strict, unapproachable, cold as fuck.”
Mo Ran blinks, nonplussed. “Cold?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I mean, he’s really hard on his students. Most people who doesn’t want to fuck Chu-laoshi are terrified of him. For the rest, it overlaps.”
“He doesn’t seem that cold, though,” Mo Ran says, frowning. Brilliant and strict, sure. He’d practically schooled Mo Ran in his own bakery. Twice. But he also blushes too easily and likes sweets a little too much and walks head first into doors when he’s embarrassed. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to talk to a bunch of annoying college kids.”
“Um, no,” she says. “One of his graduate students had to go to his place for a project, and he said his flat’s a mess and probably hasn’t seen another living human in years. You’re probably thinking he’s waiting for you to swoop in and change his life around overnight. Men. So typical.”
“Hey, I never said he needs to change,” says Mo Ran, a knot forming at the pit of his stomach. The way she’d described Chu Wanning, he’d just sounded extremely lonely. Mo Ran thinks back to the look on his face when he’d asked him if the order was for a party, and the way he’d been ready to walk out into the rain without an umbrella.
“Are you going to get me my order, or what?”
He busies himself with work, telling himself it’s none of his business. After all, Chu Wanning is only a customer, one of the hundreds walking in through his door.
It rains again the next day, and Chu Wanning hurtles in around five in the evening with his briefcase over his head.
Mo Ran doesn’t realise he’s stepped out from behind the counter to meet him with a towel in his hand till he catches the eye of the customer who’d been waiting to order. Tossing him an apologetic grin, he turns back to Chu Wanning.
“You forgot your umbrella again,” he says in mild exasperation, holding the towel out for him.
Chu Wanning gives his head a shake, so brief Mo Ran wonders momentarily if he’d imagined it. But a spray of water lands on his forehead, and he absently reaches up to thumb it away.
“And?” says Chu Wanning sternly, the effect somewhat diminished by the drops of water dripping off his hair into his eye.
Mo Ran resists the urge to wipe it away and sighs, beckoning him to a table in the warmest corner of the bakery where the air conditioning doesn’t reach. “Sit here,” he says, pressing the towel into his hand. “It’s cooler near the counter, so I’ll just take your order here.”
Chu Wanning sits, but there’s a look of confusion on his face. “Why?” he asks.
“Because you’ll catch a cold, you idiot,” says Mo Ran gently.
Chu Wanning looks scandalised, standing abruptly and drawing himself up to his full height. He still barely comes up to Mo Ran’s chin, he notes with a touch of amusement.
“Why do you think you are, addressing me in that—” He makes to walk past, shoving Mo Ran to the side, but Mo Ran is too quick for him. He grabs his wrist, putting another hand at his waist to steady him.
“Stop being like this, okay?” he says, gently. This close, he can see every one of Chu Wanning’s pretty eyelashes in excruciating detail. His heart skitters. What is wrong with him lately. “I mean, this is the second time you’ve walked into my shop on a rainy day without an umbrella?” he says, changing tack as he wills his heart to slow down. “If you start leaving my bakery with colds that’s not exactly good PR for me, is it?”
Chu Wanning doesn’t respond. Mo Ran realises suddenly how close they’re standing; if someone saw them from a distance and didn’t know otherwise they’d think they were embracing. Swallowing thickly, he takes Chu Wanning by the arm and pushes his suddenly pliant form back onto the chair.
“I—I’ll take your order in a second.”
He turns around quickly, suddenly hot with the realisation that he’s not sure what he could end up doing if he looked at him a moment longer. He hurries back to the counter, ostensibly to get his notebook to take the order. But his mind is racing fast enough to rival his heartbeat, and it’s giving him a headache. His brain really isn’t wired to process this much all at once.
When he’d come close to Chu Wanning just now, he’d been reminded once again of the same night that had surfaced from his memories the first time he’d crashed into him at the doorway.
Inexplicably, a night towards the end of his first year at college. The aftermath of a party he’d really rather forget, a chill settling into his bones as he’d tried to make his way back to his dorm all alone in the rain, and the warmth of a person coming close to him and pressing a umbrella into his hand.
What the hell?
It can’t be that long since Mo Ran had been so close to another person, could it, for him to recall how that had felt simply from coming in contact with him? Mo Ran gives himself another shake, before turning around to walk up to Chu Wanning again to take his order.
“What can I get you?” he asks.
There’s a book open on the table in front of Chu Wanning, and he doesn’t look up. “Just an almond croissant, please.” As Mo Ran notes it down and turns to leave, he suddenly clears his throat, and says, “And a plate of lotus mooncakes.” Then, lowering his voice to a mutter with his face hidden behind his book: “Two pineapple buns.”
Smiling, Mo Ran notes all of it down and heads to the kitchen. If he adds in a hot soy milk latte on the house, well, that’s only him being a decent person who doesn’t want his customer to freeze to death in his rain-drenched clothes in his bakery.
Chu Wanning had been working at his corner table by the window, nibbling at his pastries from time to time for three hours already. Mo Ran isn’t about to admit even to himself how often he’d been glancing over at the man, but he’d noticed how he’d slumped over gradually at his seat and barely touched his glass of water at all. It had made Mo Ran wonder if Chu Wanning’s shitty self-preservation instincts extended beyond his disregard for the rain, so he’d come over a few times to ask him if he needed water, even if his glass was full. Starting at the interruption, Chu Wanning would sit up a bit straighter and take a sip, and Mo Ran’s heart would squeeze in an unfamiliar way.
He’d slouch over again not long after and leave his water forgotten again, so Mo Ran would end up doing this a second time. Then a third, and a fourth, after which he’d lose count. Three hours later, turning around after he’d finished attending to another customer, he’d suddenly found Chu Wanning heading out the door.
If Chu Wanning hears him call out to him from the doorway, he doesn’t show it. Briefcase poised over his head again, he keeps striding onwards right into the rain.
Hissing in annoyance, Mo Ran opens his umbrella over his head and runs over to him. Once he’s near enough, he catches his arm and places his umbrella over his head.
“What are you doing?” says Chu Wanning, voice a pitch higher than usual.
“Where do you think you’re going?” says Mo Ran. “I’m starting to think you’re, I don’t know, part amphibian.” He flips Chu Wanning’s arm from side to side, but all that achieves is the terrible, horrible, awful awareness of how soft his skin is over his forearm, even if his hands are rough and stained with ink. He coughs. “Did you, uh, did you even realise it’s still raining?”
Chu Wanning’s eyes are fixed on Mo Ran’s hand on his arm. Afraid he’s overstepped boundaries, Mo Ran lets go.
“What’s that to you?” says Chu Wanning, turning his face away and starting to walk again.
Mo Ran hurries after him to keep up, holding the umbrella over both their heads as they walk further down the street. I’ve always hated the rain. Been afraid of it, almost. Can’t stand the way you’re always ready to walk out into it alone. Why is that? Why aren’t you afraid of the rain, Chu Wanning?
But he can barely explain all of that to himself, much less say it to someone he’s met three days ago. Instead, he asks, “Why won’t you take it?”
“I don’t need your help,” says Chu Wanning.
“But I want to help you.”
Chu Wanning stiffens at that, and his pace slows. “And what if I don’t want it?”
“I’ll follow you home with the umbrella,” he says. Then he amends himself quickly, realising how unfortunate the wording had been. “Uh, not in a stalker-ish way. I won’t say a word. You can go wherever you want. I’ll let you go a respectable distance away from where you live. Wherever you tell me to stop.”
“What if I go to Hongqiao station?” says Chu Wanning, looking at him with furrowed brows.
“Um, isn’t Nanxiang closer? Ah, fine, if that’s what you want.”
“And if I take Line 2?” he snaps
“Of course,” says Mo Ran, fully aware what that means. It’s one of the busiest lines in the city, and you’d regularly have to let several trains pass before being able to fight your way through the crowds and manage to get on. He’s only being dutiful, he reminds himself. It has nothing to do with the fact that he’s just realised he wouldn’t mind spending all that time with this oddly fascinating person he can’t get out of his head.
“At six thirty in the evening,” Chu Wanning presses, voice rising half an octave.
“Shit, is it that late already?” says Mo Ran. It’s also peak rush hour, when the whole city is wrestling to get back home. But that doesn’t even cross Mo Ran’s mind. “Yeah, yeah, it’s fine, but can we please not delay any longer? I’ll have to come back, since it’s my turn to close up tonight.”
“What about your customers?” asks Chu Wanning. “Won’t you be missed?”
“I mean, yeah, but my co-workers will understand.” Mo Ran tries not to think about how that conversation will go.
“What if it’s raining when you return home?” Chu Wanning says, frustration building in his voice.
“Ah, we have extra umbrellas in the store.” Mo Ran grins, trying and failing to squash the wave of disappointment pooling in his stomach at the thought of not being able to spend the rest of the evening with Chu Wanning.
“Oh.” Chu Wanning pauses a moment, uncertain, lips parting for a moment like he’s about to say something. He seems to decide against it, suddenly reaching out abruptly and taking the umbrella from Mo Ran’s hand instead with a shake of his head and a soft, annoyed exhale. Turning on his heels, he starts to speed walk away in the direction of the station.
Mo Ran watches him go, not even registering he’s getting drenched in the rain till Chu Wanning turns the next corner and disappears from view.
Back home later that night, Mo Ran is idly scrolling through his Oasis feed when he gets a notification that has him jump nearly out of his skin.
yuheng followed you.
He tries to wait a respectable length of time so it wouldn’t look like he’s absolutely jobless on his phone all the time. Three seconds later, he tells himself fuck it and opens up his DMs.
taxianjun: finally decided to grace your favourite pastry chef with a follow? must have done something right today
There’s no reply for a long time. Mo Ran opens up their gallery again, scrolling through their posts for the hundredth time in the last week. He smiles to himself as he goes through the captions. For every positive comment they’d add a piece of critique, as if to keep the restaurant owners on their toes. If yuheng is a teacher, they’re probably a pretty good one.
Nice texture to the mousse, contrasted well with the fruit garnish. Could have done with a bit more syrup.
Peach blossom wine would have balanced out the sourness, but it was unavailable. Quite good otherwise.
The menu called it sweet dragon beard candy, but it tasted like regular dragon beard candy. Wouldn’t adding the ‘sweet’ imply an extra degree of sweetness? Disappointing. If not for the false advertising, it would have been more enjoyable.
Mo Ran feels a rush of warmth run through him, almost hearing the petulant voice from the captions in his head. Cute, he thinks.
That is, till he realises he’d heard them in Chu Wanning’s voice.
Groaning, he rolls over and presses his face into the pillow. Is this what it’s come to? Is this really how he’s going to be? Twenty five years old and acting like a fucking pre-pubescent kid with a crush?
He’s glad for the buzz that emanates from his phone a moment later, signalling a notification from yuheng. Relieved for the distraction, he quickly swipes his phone open.
yuheng: Please don’t make me regret my decision.
taxianjun: noooo don’t leave me. what would i do without my most loyal customer? you’re singlehandedly keeping my bakery’s tag alive on this otherwise pointless app
yuheng: I’m doing nothing of the sort. I follow several bakers and pastry chefs, to form my opinions on which are worth it.
Mo Ran types: you don’t seem to have visited anywhere other than my place in the last week tho, then backspaces. He doesn’t want to push his luck.
taxianjun: this venerable baker will be sure to remember to blow your mind!
The conversation ends there, and Mo Ran falls asleep to fitful dreams about wading through knee-high water and a warm hand covering his own.
After the second time Mo Ran had successfully made Chu Wanning accept his umbrella, it becomes a thing between them that they don’t really end up acknowledging.
July rolls into August, and it starts to rain more days than it doesn’t. Chu Wanning forgets to bring his umbrella more days than he doesn’t as well, but at least he starts to accept Mo Ran’s offer of his own with slightly less protest than before.
Mo Ran always wishes he’s there when Chu Wanning drops by to return it in the morning, but he misses him every time. He’ll hurtle in at nine only for Shi Mei to shrug apologetically and Xue Meng to smirk, pointing at Mo Ran’s umbrella right back where it’s supposed to be. It’s just Mo Ran’s luck, but Chu Wanning probably comes by on his way to campus to prepare for his morning class—a bit inconvenient since Mo Ran has never seen the inside of a lecture hall before at least eleven in the morning, and old habits die hard.
Still. Pretty eyes, a nice ass and an all-consuming crush are decent motivators, surprisingly enough.
So three weeks of attempts later, Mo Ran finds himself out of bed at seven thirty in the morning.
He reaches the bakery before eight and opens up the shop, making his way into the kitchen. Since he’s already here, he decides he might as well make some progress on a new steamed egg cake recipe he’s been toying with.
It’s unseasonably warm and humid this morning, and Mo Ran has barely finished gathering his supplies when he starts to feel his clothes stick to his back. Considering the facts for a moment, he strips his shirt off. It’s not like Xue Meng is around yet to yell at him for trying to scar any potential early bird customers for life. Besides, Mo Ran still thinks it wouldn’t necessarily be that disastrous for business if he gets shirtless sometimes to deal with the heat of the kitchen, whatever Xue Meng has to say about it. If he gets an opportunity to test his theory today, he looks forward to it.
He’s halfway through sifting the flour, when there’s a loud crash from the doorway.
Mo Ran nearly jumps out of his skin. He’d been so sure he was alone. Walking over to where the sound had come from, he finds his umbrella lying on the floor. Glancing up, he’s greeted with the sight of Chu Wanning’s retreating back, almost halfway to the exit.
“Hey, wait!” he says, jogging up to him. Chu Wanning quickens his pace, but Mo Ran is too fast for him. In seconds, he’s got his fingers entrenched in Chu Wanning’s sleeve.
“Let go,” says Chu Wanning instantly, recoiling as if he’d just been burnt.
Mo Ran’s heart sinks at the motion, but he recognises he probably overstepped. “Sorry, I—Uh.”
He finds himself suddenly at a loss for words. How had he expected this encounter to go, exactly? There’s a part of him that has been hoping for Chu Wanning to thank him, maybe flushing prettily with embarrassment. The other part doesn’t stop at that, subconsciously indulging himself with a picture of Chu Wanning reaching out to clutch at the back of his shirt as he turns to leave, looking at him with pretty, pleading eyes, asking wordlessly for a kiss. A kiss Mo Ran will oblige him with wholeheartedly, followed by a second, leading inevitably to him naked and writhing under him right here on top of one of the tables.
Shit. Mo Ran has always known he’s an idiot, but to self-insert as the protagonist of a particularly terrible porno co-starring the customer standing right in front of him? Definitely one of the more idiotic things he’s done in his life, because he can’t get that particular visual out of his head anymore. Even imagining Xue Meng’s shriek of horror when he discovers the mess they’ve left behind in the kitchen doesn’t seem to help, which is how you know it’s really bad.
He’s panicking, so caught up in trying to rid his brain of that very vivid fantasy that he almost misses it.
“What?” he breathes.
Chu Wanning turns his face to the side, the back of his neck flushing pink. “I didn’t say anything.”
His reaction is enough confirmation that he had, in fact, said it.
Mo Ran feels like he could float up into the sky at any moment. “Sure, sure,” he says, face cracking into a grin. “I didn’t hear a thing.”
Chu Wanning twists his lips into a pout. He’s so fucking cute.
“Your—” he begins suddenly, still not making eye contact, waving vaguely in Mo Ran’s general direction. “Your. Your—your chest. It has something. There.”
Mo Ran glances down, and finds a trail of flour down the front of his chest, spreading lower onto his abs. Running a palm over his chest to wipe it off, he grins easily. “Ah, this? It’s just flour. Been trying out a new recipe this morning, so...”
He notices that Chu Wanning has turned his eyes discreetly towards him again, eyes slightly wide and transfixed by something on Mo Ran’s person. Probably horror at how messy and unhygienic it is to be baking without a shirt. His lips have parted, and suddenly Mo Ran is studying the shape of them, recalling for some wild reason what yuheng had told him about his tangyuan balls being too big, and wondering if it’s the same for Chu Wanning’s mouth too.
Fuck. By the time Mo Ran has managed to calm himself down and rid his brain of any more inappropriate thoughts about a customer, he finds that Chu Wanning has already turned around to flee towards the door.
Staring helplessly at the bright red colouring his nape, Mo Ran digs his nails into his fingers before he does something stupid like run over and embrace him from behind. Maybe press a kiss onto that flushed skin, just to see if he could make him flush any harder.
Then he’s gone with a tinkle of the chime above the door, and Mo Ran sighs. It’s a pity he’s late for his class; Mo Ran suddenly wishes he’d been able to let him taste the recipe he was testing out.
For a brief, fanciful moment, he wonders what that would feel like. It’s not the first time he’s imagined having someone to test his recipes on, someone with maybe a sweet tooth he’ll be able to indulge as often as they liked. But this someone suddenly has a face now, and Mo Ran is absolutely fucked.
Later that night, Mo Ran has just flopped onto his bed and is about to turn off the lights when a notification slides down his screen.
yuheng liked your photo.
Eyes widening, he clicks on it. In all these weeks, yuheng has never acknowledged any of his photos at all. His eyes widen further when the photo they’d liked opens up.
It’s a shirtless mirror selfie from four years ago, back when his account existed for the sole purpose of posting thirst traps.
Mo Ran bites his lip, unsure what to make of it. There’s a lot to unpack. First of all: the fact that noted dessert connoisseur yuheng has ignored the hundreds of carefully taken photos of his cakes and desserts he must have had to scroll through for this particular one. Second: if it is accidental, what the hell is he doing two hundred photos deep into his account anyway?
Then he notices the notification has disappeared.
Either it was a mistake, or he’d just imagined it. Groaning at the fact that he’s even analysing it this much, Mo Ran tosses the phone to the side and lies back to stare up at the ceiling.
Chu Wanning starts to spend more and more time at the bakery after this. He almost never takes his orders to go anymore, dining in instead every evening and sometimes even at lunchtime. Minutes stretch to hours, and he quickly becomes a regular sight at his favourite spot in the corner by the window, working on his laptop right till closing hours.
Sometimes, if there aren’t many customers around, Mo Ran heads to his table and strikes up a conversation with him.
Xue Meng and Shi Mei clock out early one day, leaving Mo Ran to close up since footfall had slowed down in the past hour. Bored but holding back from approaching Chu Wanning directly since he’s working, Mo Ran fiddles around with the decor at the next table for so long that Chu Wanning looks up from his laptop at last with an irritated expression on his face.
“Can’t you sit still?” he snaps.
Mo Ran had been waiting for this. Turning around immediately, he flashes him with what he hopes is a winning smile.
“I’m hard at work, can’t you see,” he says with an exaggerated pout. “Someone looks like they’re distracted from their work, though.”
Huffing, Chu Wanning turns his face back to his laptop, glaring daggers at it.
Mo Ran creeps over to his table, turns around the chair opposite him and straddles it. A few moments pass. Slowly, Chu Wanning’s head rises over the top of his laptop.
“What’s wrong?” Mo Ran says innocently. “Can’t work?”
Chu Wanning rolls his eyes and returns to his work. Smiling, Mo Ran reaches over to play with the salt shaker.
Like clockwork, he’d catches Chu Wanning staring at him again not even a minute later.
“Am I that distracting, or is your work that boring?”
Chu Wanning presses his lips into a thin line, then says, “It’s a research paper I’m working on. I’m currently... analysing the data.”
“Sounds fun,” Mo Ran says, suppressing a laugh. “What’s it on?”
“Vertical axis wind turbines,” Chu Wanning says, lips twisting like a child who’d been set a particularly boring piece of homework.
“Wow, fascinating,” Mo Ran says, secretly delighted at the information that Chu Wanning does, in fact, get bored of working. “Do you know what’s more fun?”
In the past weeks, the corner of his brain dedicated to Chu Wanning has grown and grown, filling steadily with details that Mo Ran has collected with zeal and carefully stowed. The way Chu Wanning often forgets to do his laundry, and mass purchases the same items of clothing he’s comfortable with—like his white turtlenecks—so he doesn’t have to think too much about it. The complicated Lego cityscapes he likes to build, one of which is his laptop wallpaper. The Hello Kitty pencil case he keeps his markers in, and would probably commit commit murder if Mo Ran ever breathed a word of to anyone. It’s still never enough, and Mo Ran hangs on to every word he says in hopes he’ll learn just a little bit more every time.
Chu Wanning raises an eyebrow at the question but doesn’t hit him with a rejoinder, which is a win in Mo Ran’s book.
“The new recipe I’m working on,” he continues. “Want to see?”
Chu Wanning doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t say no either. Taking that as all the encouragement he’ll get, Mo Ran gets to his feet.
“Come join me if you want,” he says, and walks towards the kitchen.
The recipe he’s working on is a personal spin on tau huay, with coconut panna cotta, tapioca pearls and pumpkin ice cream. Mo Ran has prepared the main ingredients, and what’s left is to only put the ingredients together and garnish it.
He’s taken out what he’ll need from the freezer, when he hears soft footsteps approaching. It’s Chu Wanning.
Arms folded across his chest, he observes the proceedings from a distance.
“What are you making?”
“Just a new dessert I’ve been trying,” he says. He takes out a cocktail glass and spoons in the panna cotta. “Been playing around with flavours, and I thought it seemed cool. Good thing I have you to test it out on today.”
“Am I your guinea pig for the day?” Chu Wanning asks stiffly, a furrow appearing between his brows.
“You’re the only one who’s ever had the honour of being invited here,” Mo Ran assures him.
“Honour is a dubious word choice,” he says, but his forehead smooths out.
Mo Ran grins. “What, being the first person in the world to taste my soon-to-be legendary recipe? I hope you’re ready to be swamped with interview requests about the experience when it blows up.”
Chu Wanning scoffs. “You seem to be pretty convinced,” he says. “I don’t know why my presence is necessary.”
Mo Ran glances up at that. “What, and not find out if you like it or not? What if it’s too sour, or you’re allergic to something I’ve put in. Do you hate coconut? Please tell me you’re okay with coconut.”
“How does it matter?” says Chu Wanning, sounding annoyed. “I’m only one customer of many. You have enough more to shower you with praise and inflate your ego further.”
Mo Ran shrugs, scooping out the pumpkin ice cream and adding it over the panna cotta. “You’re right,” he says. “I still want to know what you think, though. It’s important to me.”
“You care about what I think?”
“Of course,” says Mo Ran incredulously. “You’re coming to my bakery every day and staying all these hours. You’re the reason we stopped pretending to be customers turn by turn, so it wouldn’t look like we didn’t have any people coming in.”
“You can’t possibly have done that,” says Chu Wanning.
“You’re right,” says Mo Ran, bursting out into a laugh. ”We used to, but we haven’t in a long time. My point still stands, though.” He looks at Chu Wanning steadily. “I want to know if you like it.”
Chu Wanning looks flustered, turning his gaze around the rest of the kitchen instead. Mo Ran finishes the parfait, and hands it out to him.
“Here,” he says. “It’s done.”
Chu Wanning gives him a look, then walks up to him. Taking some of it into the spoon, he draws it to his mouth. Suddenly, Mo Ran notices that he hasn’t got all the ingredients in the scoop. Reaching out, he grabs his wrist.
“Wait,” he says. Taking the spoon from his hand, he dips it into the glass again. This time, he takes out a bit of everything: the ice cream, the panna cotta, the tapioca pearls and the desiccated coconut flakes sprinkled on top. “It won’t taste right until you have a bit of everything.”
Chu Wanning stares at the spoon he’s holding up in front of his mouth; for a moment, Mo Ran has the wild feeling he’s about to lean in for a taste. Then he seems to start to his senses, and takes the spoon from Mo Ran’s hand instead.
In Mo Ran’s first year of college, someone had started to leave unlabelled packages of dumplings hanging from the door handle to his dorm room. It hadn’t been Xue Meng, Shi Mei or his uncle or aunt: he’d asked each of them, and had no other friends at college who’d bother. Someone had probably left them there by mistake and there was a slim chance they could be poisoned, but Mo Ran had found them the first time early in the morning after a whole night out, trying and failing to feel something. He hadn’t been about to say no to free food. As he’d eaten the clumsily folded dumplings in the early morning light streaming through his window, he’d fancied for a moment he could feel the love in the fingers that had prepared them.
It had definitely been meant for someone else, but Mo Ran had felt the warm tendrils wrapping around his heart anyway. It had been the first thing he’d really, truly felt in a very long time.
He’d found a similar package again a few days later. Then again, and again, right till the end of his first year. The full idea to start a bakery would take shape later, but it was here that Mo Ran had started to realise what it could mean to bring happiness to a person through something as simple as food.
Chu Wanning doesn’t respond immediately, but his eyes brighten. This, Mo Ran thinks, this is why he does this. After a long moment, Chu Wanning says, “It’s not bad.”
“Really?” says Mo Ran. He gets the distinct feeling that’s the most praise any living human has ever received from him, and he’s already preening.
Chu Wanning nods. “A bit less of the coconut flakes, maybe,” he says, sounding pensive.
Mo Ran hangs on to his every word, warm at the way he’s putting so much thought into this. Even if Chu Wanning hated it, it’d be worth it just for the way he’s looking at him now.
“Thank you,” Mo Ran says finally. “If I lure you out here ever again, just know that it’s your fault for being such a thorough reviewer that I can’t make a new recipe without your help ever again.”
Chu Wanning’s ears turn pink. “What are you talking about?” he says irritably. “I hardly said anything.”
Mo Ran grins wryly, watching Chu Wanning take another spoonful of the dessert. “It means more than you think.”
Chu Wanning frowns at him as he swallows. “Your family and friends must support you,” he says.
Mo Ran turns around to put the items he’d taken out back in the fridge. “Yeah, my uncle and aunt are awesome,” he says. “Xue Meng is a little shit, but I know he cares in his own way.”
Chu Wanning doesn’t pry, seeming to wait for Mo Ran to say more if he wants to.
Mo Ran isn’t really sure why he keeps going. “They’ve been so kind to me, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, but—it started before they adopted me, this thing I have where I—I need to be told I’m doing okay,” he says. He laughs self-consciously, scratching the back of his head. Thanks to my formative years bouncing from foster home to foster home and convincing myself I’ll never be good enough to have a family, he doesn’t say. “Not sure why I’m telling you this, hah. I really did want to make a good impression on you. But yeah—that’s me, looking for validation everywhere.”
Chu Wanning’s eyes widen a fraction. For a long moment, he looks steadily at Mo Ran, searching his face. Mo Ran feels his heart thunder against his ribcage as he looks back, wondering if Chu Wanning could read everything he hadn’t said in his eyes. He realises in that moment he wouldn’t mind if he did.
After what feels like forever, Chu Wanning lowers his gaze to the glass Mo Ran is holding in his hand. Reaching out, he takes it from Mo Ran and begins to wolf down the rest of the parfait.
Mo Ran watches in slight bemusement as he finishes, then looks at the spoon and pointedly licks it clean, a sliver of pink tongue through his lips.
“It’s good,” he tells Mo Ran.
He hands the glass back to Mo Ran. Nodding faintly as his heartbeat skyrockets, Mo Ran turns back around to place the glass in the sink.
“You can ask me,” says Chu Wanning quietly behind him. “If you want to test your recipes.”
Mo Ran starts, not sure he’d heard right. “What?” he says, turning to look at him, but Chu Wanning has already disappeared through the door..
As it turns out, Chu Wanning does end up testing more of Mo Ran’s recipes over the next few weeks. He’s still not open with words, but he follows Mo Ran into the kitchen after closing hours whenever he asks, and eats everything he’s offered with a quiet nod of approval and a diligence that speaks volumes.
He’s watching Mo Ran putting the finishing touches to a sponge cake one day long past closing hours, when he suddenly says, “You’re faster than you used to be.”
Mo Ran quirks an eyebrow at him. Chu Wanning had come into the bakery soaked to the bone today, and Mo Ran had given him one of the spare shirts he keeps in the back room in case he spills something on his clothes during work. It’s far too big for Chu Wanning, hanging off his frame and exposing his pale collarbones against the dark blue of the fabric in a way that’s driving Mo Ran steadily crazy every time he looks at him.
Pale cheeks flushing slightly, Chu Wanning continues. “I’ve seen—your process. Even in the past few weeks. You’ve... improved a lot.”
Mo Ran swallows.
Inexplicably, he thinks back to the captions of yuheng’s posts from the past few weeks. Somehow, something had changed. They’d grown more effusive than they’d been before, longer and more detailed.
Warm and flavourful ginger pear crisp. Good mix of textures and the right amount of sweetness.
Egg tarts much creamier and sweeter than they had been some weeks ago. Chef seems to be trying to innovate and improve.
Tangyuan balls the right size this time, sweet and chewy too.
It’s still stiffly worded and slightly awkward, with the air of someone who probably isn’t used to giving praise, but still wants to. Like they’re trying their best. Mo Ran basks in it, reading them over and over and glowing with happiness.
All he’s wanted his life is to be seen, to be told he’s doing all right. So he cherishes each word, not sure what had triggered the sudden change but grateful for it anyway.
So to be told this by Chu Wanning now, standing before him, solid and real—Mo Ran can’t help the rush of warmth that courses through his veins all over again.
“You’re doing well, Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning continues. For some reason, Mo Ran is reminded once again of yuheng’s compliments, hesitant but determined. “Your bakery. It makes—It makes people happy.”
Colour blooms deeper on his cheeks, and Mo Ran’s heart is racing madly now. It’s only been weeks, but he doesn’t think he can even remember a time before he’d met Chu Wanning anymore. After wanting him for what suddenly feels like an impossibly long time, it’s excruciating now to have him so close, telling him words he’s craved to hear his whole life. Staring at Chu Wanning, Mo Ran feels his brain grow steadily foggier. There’s hesitation in his eyes warring with what looks like want, a flush spreading across his pale skin, his slim frame drowning in Mo Ran’s much larger shirt as his fingers clench reflexively into the fabric of his trousers.
Mo Ran tries to breathe. He really does. But every thought in his head has started inexorably to fade away, till the one thing left is the way he wants to kiss him so badly he thinks he’s going insane. Before he even realises it, he’s leaned forward a few inches.
“I—” Chu Wanning slides off the table, an edge of panic in his voice. “I should go. It’s raining.”
It’s probably not what he’d intended, but getting off the table brings him even closer to Mo Ran. So close that Mo Ran can almost feel the heat radiating off his body in waves.
“Oh,” he says, his voice sounding far hoarser than he’d intended. It’s so hard to think. Is thinking supposed to be this hard? “Uh, where do you live? Line 2, that—that’s the one you take—?”
“Changning,” says Chu Wanning quietly. Then, so faintly Mo Ran barely just catches it, “And you?”
Mo Ran feels his throat close up. Chu Wanning looks like he’s frozen in place, his eyes darting to the door like he knows he should be running away, but can’t understand why he isn’t actually doing it. He looks up at Mo Ran then, and there’s something in his eyes that makes Mo Ran feel like he doesn’t want to leave just yet.
“Yangpu,” he answers shortly, not trusting himself to say any more.
He’s aware Chu Wanning probably only said that as a follow-up to his own question, because he didn’t know what else to ask. He’s not like Mo Ran, after all. But Mo Ran doesn’t know if he can be blamed for his thoughts running wild, with the man he’s been so wildly attracted to standing inches away from him now, in his clothes, smelling like him, flushed and out of breath for some unfathomable reason and looking at him like he wants to stay a little bit longer.
Chu Wanning clutches the edge of the table behind with both hands. He still looks like there’s more he wants to say, and Mo Ran swallows, trying to think how he could coax it out of him.
They both jump, turning to find Shi Mei standing at the kitchen door. Shit. Mo Ran had been sure they were the only ones here.
“Mo Ran,” he says. “Was waiting for you to finish since it was raining—thought you might need my umbrella. It’s stopped now, but we can still head home together.”
Mo Ran turns quickly back to Chu Wanning, but the soft, open expression on his face that had been there just moments ago has gone. Face cold and expressionless again, he sidesteps Mo Ran and walks wordlessly to the door. Mo Ran watches him leave, unsure what the hell had just happened.
He shares Shi Mei’s umbrella for the way back, and they stop by for dinner at a restaurant. Mo Ran is distracted for most of it, unable to stop thinking about what Chu Wanning had been trying to tell him earlier. Or Chu Wanning’s collarbones, and the way Mo Ran’s shirt had threatened to slip off his shoulder—not following through, luckily, because Mo Ran isn’t sure what he would’ve done if it did. Or the thought of Chu Wanning reaching home too tired to change completely, maybe going to bed in only Mo Ran’s shirt skimming the top of his bare thighs—
“Mo Ran,” says Shi Mei.
“Yeah?” Mo Ran stuffs a whole dumpling in his mouth, face burning at the train of thought he’d just been having.
“It’s been a while since we’ve hung out like this, just the two of us.”
Mo Ran swallows the mouthful and really looks at Shi Mei this time. “Sorry,” he says, suddenly abashed at how distant he must have been acting. “Had something on my mind.”
“That’s fine,” Shi Mei brushes aside. “You seem to be a bit preoccupied lately. Everything good?”
Guilt pools in Mo Ran’s stomach. He knows exactly what Shi Mei means. “Sure,” he says quickly, trying to veer away from this turn the conversation had taken. “These are great, aren’t they?”
Shi Mei picks up a dumpling with his chopsticks, nodding.
“I like that they’re not all perfect,” says Mo Ran. “I don’t know why, but somehow they taste better when they’re slightly wonky.”
He pops another in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. When he finishes, there’s a lopsided grin on his face.
“Hey, you remember those dumplings I kept finding outside my college dorm back in first year? Still wonder what that was all about sometimes.”
Shi Mei places his chopsticks down, and looks at him in surprise. “You… You never found out?”
“Huh?” Mo Ran frowns at him a moment before reaching for another dumpling. “No, should I have?”
Shi Mei is quiet for a moment. There’s soft instrumental music playing in the background of the restaurant, sweet and nostalgic. “A-Ran, I would have told you if I knew you still wanted to know. It was the guy who stayed in the room opposite yours. I... I caught him doing it one day, but he told me not to tell you.”
The chopsticks drop from Mo Ran’s fingers. “What?” he says blankly.
“It was a long time ago,” Shi Mei says. “I don’t remember what he looked like. But he said you were out working most nights, so he left them for you in case you got hungry.”
Mo Ran feels like the whole world just tilted on its axis. All that time, the person who’d made him feel like there was something good left in the world had been living opposite him. Barely six feet away. Had Mo Ran even met him? He’d probably walked right past. Everything had been a blur back then. Then he’d graduated at the end of the year, and that’s when the dumplings had stopped.
“All right?” says Shi Mei, glancing at him.
“Yeah,” says Mo Ran. “Thanks. Thanks for telling me.” Head still spinning, he continues the meal in silence.
After they finish, Mo Ran looks at Shi Mei and feels a pang of guilt. This dinner has opened his eyes to the reality that in all these years, he’s never even thought to share his feelings about the dumplings with Shi Mei. Or anything else, for that matter. If he had, he’d probably have found this out long ago. They work well as colleagues now, but it does make Mo Ran wonder if they’ve ever even truly been friends. During their four years apart at different universities, Mo Ran hadn’t even realised how easily they’d drifted apart—when they’d met afterwards, they were almost strangers.
Mo Ran has been an idiot for the better part of his life. He knows this. He’s been trying to make up for it, but forgotten that an attempt at becoming friends with Shi Mei should be part of it too.
“Hey, why don’t we take a selfie?” he blurts out. It’s a silly, bumbling gesture, but he wants to make it anyway. Taking out his phone, he opens the front camera.
After the picture is taken, Shi Mei says, “Will you post it?”
Mo Ran stares at him, slightly unsure how to reply. To be honest, he hadn’t been planning on it. But since he’s asked, he couldn’t just say that.
“Uh, sure. You’re okay with it?”
Shi Mei smiles gently. “Yes.”
“Ah cool. Uh. I’ll do it then.” Oddly aware of Shi Mei watching him the whole time, Mo Ran finds himself opening up Oasis. There’s a new picture from yuheng on his feed, but he quickly scrolls past it. Shi Mei’s eyes are still on him, and Mo Ran wouldn’t know how he’d explain his relationship with this faceless, anonymous stranger on the internet if he asked. Hurriedly, he posts the selfie to his stories and turns off his phone.
When he’s done, silence falls between them again. A strange feeling takes over Mo Ran suddenly that he can’t shake for the rest of the evening. Like he’d just set something in motion without even realising it.
The next day, Mo Ran is heading to a table to take orders when he recognises the girl from Sisheng University who’d spoken to him about Chu Wanning. She’s sitting with a friend, eyes bright as he approaches.
“Hey,” he says, nodding. “What’ll you have today?”
“Two crepes, two lattes. So, has Chu-laoshi been showing up lately?”
Mo Ran feels his face heat up.
“Uh, yeah,” he says. Then, because he has no self-restraint, he asks, “How has he been lately, do you know? Like, around campus.” He shrugs, as if it’s the most casual, inconsequential question in the world. Inside, he’s vibrating fast enough to launch into hyperspace.
The truth is that before Mo Ran knew it, Chu Wanning had seeped into parts of his life he didn’t even know had cracks in it. Mo Ran has someone’s preferences to keep in mind now, whenever he tries out new recipes. Someone who’ll say or do things about his work that Mo Ran can remind himself of when he feels uninspired. Someone who fills Mo Ran with warmth with as little as drinking a glass of water or sitting a little straighter or leaving the bakery with an umbrella over his head thanks to him. Mo Ran hadn’t realised he’d been waiting for someone to take care of just as badly as he’d wanted to be seen, till Chu Wanning had entered his life and given him all of that.
“Funny you should ask,” the girl says. “You know, normally I wouldn’t keep track, but people have actually been talking about him. He’s mellowed down, weirdly?”
“What do you mean?”
“Apparently he’s not been as hard on his students this week as he used to be?” says the girl, looking at her friend across the table, who nods. “He’s even coming to work late and leaving early, which is unheard of for him.”
“You know if it was anyone else people would be saying they’d started dating,” the friend adds, laughing. “But Chu-laoshi and dating? Alien possession sounds more likely.”
Mo Ran ignores the wave of relief that passes over him at the information that Chu Wanning probably isn’t dating anyone. “When does he usually come into work?”
“Like eight thirty in the morning, when he’d normally always be in his office by at least seven,” she says. Mo Ran feels his face grow warm. Just yesterday when Chu Wanning had come to return his umbrella in the morning, Mo Ran had pulled him away into the kitchen to taste his morning’s steamed custard buns. “It’s worse when it comes to leaving hours. He’s known for staying up in his office really late, sometimes even spending the whole night there working till he falls asleep on his desk. The past few weeks, though, he’s out of the campus by five.”
Mo Ran bites his lip, heart squeezing in his chest at the image of Chu Wanning falling asleep at his desk alone regularly. He’s reminded for some reason of the unfeigned confusion in his eyes as he’d asked Mo Ran, “Why?” when he’d offered him his umbrella.
He leaves the table with the girls’ orders, head full of questions about the reason behind this sudden change in Chu Wanning’s routine. Whatever the reason, he’s relieved that at least it’s changed now, that Chu Wanning spends his time here at his bakery instead of his office alone, falling asleep at his desk.
He’s so lost in thought he takes a while to notice that Chu Wanning is standing at the counter, taking his packed order from Shi Mei. Even from a distance, Mo Ran can tell his fingers are covered with smudges from the markers he uses to teach. Mo Ran’s pulse quickens. He wonders if Chu Wanning has a bit of time—just enough to take him into the kitchen, to help him wash them off his hands. An excuse, obviously. Mo Ran has been fantasising about it for days now, but he suddenly can’t wait a second longer.
Today’s the day he asks Chu Wanning on a date.
Smiling to himself so wide it hurts, he rushes up to Chu Wanning as he approaches the door with his package. “Hey,” he says brightly, touching his arm.
To his surprise, Chu Wanning pulls away. Their eyes meet for a moment; the expression on Chu Wanning’s face is so chilly it makes Mo Ran want to shrink ten sizes too small. It’s nothing like the way he’s been looking at him for weeks now.
“Sorry,” says Mo Ran, lowering his eyes. “Ah, are you in a hurry?” He points at the packed order. Chu Wanning hasn’t packed an order in weeks, opting to dine in instead every time he comes by.
Chu Wanning doesn’t grace him with a reply, turning to continue towards the door instead.
A knot begins to Mo Ran’s stomach. He follows him uneasily for a moment, unsure what had just gone wrong. This Chu Wanning is nothing like the Chu Wanning from yesterday, who’d flushed, made hesitant conversation, and looked at him like he didn’t want to leave just yet.
Suddenly, Mo Ran notices it’s started to rain again.
“Hey,” he says, jogging over to catch up to him a few feet from the door. “Wait, let me get you my umbrella, I’m guessing you don’t—”
“What does it matter to you?”
Mo Ran freezes, shocked at the frostiness in his tone.
“I—I don’t mind,” he says. If it were anyone other than Chu Wanning, he’d wonder if it was a trick. “You can take my umbrella. You know that. We’ve been through this already.”
Chu Wanning turns to look at him at last, an unreadable emotion flashing through his eyes before they go cold. “Why?” he says. “So you can keep pretending to be a decent person? Someone who cares about how others feel?”
“What?” says Mo Ran, stunned. Around him, people have turned to look at the scene.
Chu Wanning doesn’t answer. A sick feeling rises in Mo Ran’s stomach as he watches him turn to leave, but he can’t even react, every muscle in his body suddenly like lead. Feet plastered to the ground, Mo Ran watches him helplessly as he walks up to the door, opens it, and disappears outside.
Afterwards, Mo Ran stays frozen like that in the middle of the room for an uncertain length of time. As he stands there, he remembers something he hasn’t thought of in a long time.
He’s five years old again, in the dingy flat he used to live in with his mother. She’s fondly telling him, “Aiya, I knew this would happen—you always get attached too easily. That boy wasn’t your friend. I mop the floors of his house and wash his family’s dishes—do you really think he’d invite you for his birthday party with his friends from school? A-Ran, this world isn’t as full of love and kindness as you are. I’m sorry, my darling, I’m only telling you this so you don’t get hurt when you’re older.”
Fuck, thinks Mo Ran, something ugly starting to build in his stomach. He’d gone and done just that, hadn’t he, and it had turned out exactly the way his mother had warned.
He goes back to the counter, head buzzing with white noise. He readies the girls’ order by muscle memory, piling up the tray and carrying it over to them.
“Hey,” the girl says when he reaches, “What just happened with Chu-laoshi?”
Bitterness rises to Mo Ran’s throat again at the mention of him. “Chu Wanning?” he says harshly, louder than is probably necessary. “You were right. He’s just as much of a cold, unfriendly asshole as you said he was, and I don’t think he’s changed.”
He senses something wrong even before he finishes. The two girls are staring at something over his shoulder, faces ashen. Slowly, Mo Ran turns to find Chu Wanning there, arms folded around himself, face pale but carefully blank.
The moment they make eye contact, he turns on his heel and exits.
“Did you have something to say to him?” Shi Mei calls out to Mo Ran from the counter. “I had given him an extra package by mistake, he’d just come in to return it. A-Ran, is everything okay?”
“Yeah,” says Mo Ran. He reminds himself of his mother’s words, of Chu Wanning’s cold eyes as he’d sliced right through him. “It’s okay.”
The rest of the work day passes by in a sort of haze. Xue Meng and Shi Mei watch in confusion as Mo Ran buries himself in his work, staying overtime just to postpone going home and being alone with his thoughts. Later, Mo Ran turns his music up on the subway ride back home, but it does little to drown out his thoughts.
He keeps trying to think of what he could’ve done wrong. It’s ironic, but when he’d been at his worst back in college, no one had ever called him out for it. When everyone around you is barely holding it together themselves, nobody’s going to notice you’re spiralling. But Mo Ran is really, truly, trying to be better now, but still been shot down by the person who’d crawled into his heart in a few short weeks, for some reason he can’t even understand.
But it’s fine. Mo Ran shouldn’t be surprised. Nothing about him could ever really have changed, after all.
Back home, he’s scrolling numbly through Oasis in his bathroom when he finds the photo yuheng had posted late last night, just before Mo Ran had posted his selfie with Shi Mei. With Shi Mei’s eyes on him, he hadn’t been able to take a closer look at it in the restaurant, and when he’d reached home he was too distracted with thoughts of Chu Wanning to remember.
It’s not a photo of the food this time, though. It’s a photo taken from one of the corner tables, capturing the whole interior of the bakery.
Toothbrush clenched between his teeth, Mo Ran zooms in to look closer at the picture. The bakery looks soft and inviting, and even if you couldn’t see anyone’s faces, you could tell it’s a happy place. Mo Ran himself is animatedly talking to someone at the counter, laughing, his face lit up in a soft glow from the late afternoon sun. It feels intimate, somehow, like the person who’d taken the picture had tried to capture just how the scene—and Mo Ran—looked in their eyes.
From where the photo has been taken, it looks like it’s from one of the tables just by the door. Looks like it’s evening time, so Mo Ran tries to think of who’d been sitting there yesterday. Chu Wanning had come in around six, but it’s laughable especially now to think he could be yuheng, willingly humouring his stupid messages and even carrying out whole conversations with him. Ignoring the painful twist in his chest, Mo Ran tries to think of who had been sitting there before, but his brain comes away blank.
He types a comment instead.
taxianjun: nice pic! thanks for capturing my best angle ;) drop a selfie next time!
There’s no reply. Mo Ran shifts his weight from one foot to the other for a few moments, oddly antsy.
There’s no reply, so ten minutes later, he comments again:
taxianjun: ah come on now, my most loyal customer, you don’t have to be so cold
There’s no reply after that, not for the rest of the day. Mo Ran keeps rereading the comments he’d left, wondering what had gone wrong yet again.
Chu Wanning doesn’t come to the bakery the next day. Or the next day, or the day after. Days pass, and Mo Ran still looks at the door every time the wind chime tinkles with his heartbeat in his throat, but it’s never the person he truly wants to see.
It sounds pretty pathetic to admit this even to himself, but Mo Ran feels like it would be slightly better if yuheng still talked to him. Mo Ran isn’t used to being in his own head so much—he’s a simple person, and thinking too much has never been something he’s coped with well. He feels like at least talking to yuheng would help him take his mind off things, but they seemed to have suddenly dropped right off the face of the internet as well.
So Mo Ran has no choice but to throw himself headfirst into his work, trying out new recipes he’s wanted to experiment with and procrastinated on forever. Even Xue Meng is stunned, robbed of any opportunity to roast his cousin for his laziness and shitty work ethic. But Mo Ran is nothing if not doggedly persistent, and what he lacks in precision and finesse he makes up with raw talent and determination.
Some days are worse than others, and on the particularly awful ones he’ll fling a readied cake into the bin in frustration, wondering if he should quit this line of work altogether. Later that night, he’ll scroll absently up and down yuheng’s page, looking at the critical comments, the grudging praise, escalating over time into stilted but honest appreciation.
He’ll go back to the kitchen the next morning, energised and ready all over again to start all over again.
The days pass like this, and Mo Ran continues to spam comments on yuheng’s older photos and messages, often holding one-sided conversations with himself. He tries to forget how pathetic it all is, and instead on how it feels oddly cathartic.
taxianjun: [IMG_5791.jpeg] hey, do you think you’ll like this one? i thought you might since you said those tarts may have been better with peaches. it’s not peach season, but i managed to get them for you from jiashan market
taxianjun: we’re stocked up on peach blossom wine now. it’s not on the menu, but if you ever come in you should ask. pulled some strings just for you ;)
taxianjun: next time you come over, you should try the tangyuan balls again. i tried making them a bit smaller after you said they were too big, hope it works for you now
taxianjun: [IMG_5798.jpeg] this is what i’m working on today. hope you’ll like it, i’ve tried to make it in a way i think you will.
September soon rolls around, bringing with it the second anniversary of the bakery’s opening.
Mo Ran walks into their bakery a week before the big day, and takes a moment to look around, appreciating how far they’ve come. When they’d started this, fresh out of college, Mo Ran hadn’t really thought it would amount to anything. He’d been surprised that Xue Meng and Shi Mei had humoured him at all when he’d half-heartedly mentioned his idea after graduation. But he was grateful for Xue Meng’s head for the business side of things and Shi Mei for taking over the responsibility of decor, transforming the place with his quaint and delicate aesthetic.
Mo Ran had tried to be innovative at first, but when you were just starting out it took everything you had just to stay afloat. Still, he’d added to the menu item by item, and when he looks at the display now two years later, he starts to feel like he might just be proud of how far they’ve come.
He takes a few quick photos of the interior and some close-ups of the desserts on display, and adds them to a new post on Oasis. Then he types up a caption:
Second anniversary of Bugui Bakery on 9th September! Come over for special offers and sample the new items we’ll be launching on that day!
He’s just about to head into the kitchen, when someone enters the store with a tinkle of the chime above the front door.
Mo Ran turns to find the girl from Sisheng University who had told him about Chu Wanning.
“Hey,” he says, slightly less enthusiastically than he would have normally greeted a customer. She’s stirred up the memory of the look on Chu Wanning’s face after he heard Mo Ran telling her how much of a stone-cold asshole he is, in even starker detail.
“Hi,” she says. “Uh, can I get a cappuccino. Please make it quick, got to be somewhere before eight.”
Mo Ran heads behind the counter to prepare her order. He’s not really interested, but he asks, “Early morning class?”
“Not really,” she says. “I mean, not mine. But actually—uh, Chu-laoshi does, and I need to meet him before that.”
Mo Ran’s eyes snap up to meet her at the mention of Chu Wanning, then he turns quickly to rummage in the shelf behind him. With his back to her, he asks, “Any specific reason?”
“Actually,” the girl hesitates, uncharacteristic for someone who’s been so brazen in all their interactions thus far, “I—I need to return something.”
Mo Ran wants to glance around at her, but he stops himself. He. Doesn’t. Care.
Surprisingly, the girl doesn’t stop. “You know, I was wrong. I told you about how he’s cold and unapproachable, but he—he really isn’t.”
Mo Ran turns, unable to hold back his curiosity any longer. “What are you talking about?”
The girl bites her lip, then reaches into her bag to retrieve an umbrella. “He gave this to me yesterday evening? It was raining really hard, and I didn’t even know how I’d make it to the dorm. It was so bad I could barely see my way. Then this guy comes over, gives his umbrella to me and just... leaves. I got only a split second look at him, but it was him. It was Chu-laoshi.”
Mo Ran stares, unsure what to think.
“The funniest part is,” the girl says bitterly, “I mentioned it on a group chat yesterday, and suddenly everyone started coming up with similar stories. Sometimes they didn’t even get a good look at him, and even if they did they thought they’d seen wrong. It’s just not the kind of rep he has around here, you know? But it came out slowly. Turns out he’s helped so many kids around campus, any normal person would’ve caught pneumonia at least three times this last month.”
Mo Ran swallows, thinks of all the times it would rain and Chu Wanning would inevitably come in without an umbrella. “But he doesn’t—he always forgets—”
That’s not it, though. He doesn’t forget. He gives it to kids around campus making their way back to their dorms in the rain, without a care that he’ll get soaked himself.
Mo Ran clenches his fists. He remembers all the times Chu Wanning had walked in and Mo Ran had chided him for being forgetful. Why wouldn’t he care about getting wet in the rain himself, and why hadn’t anyone noticed and told him to take better care of himself?
“Oh no, it’s him for sure,” says the girl. “It happened really fast, but I know who I saw.”
Mo Ran glances at the umbrella she’s holding in her hand. Chu Wanning’s umbrella, that he’d let everyone use but himself. Suddenly, he spots an embroidered design at a corner of the fabric.
“Can I have a look?” he asks.
She looks curious, but hands it to him wordlessly. Mo Ran opens the umbrella out—sure enough, on the white fabric there’s a tiny haitang blossom embroidered into the corner. Absently, he thumbs the flower for a brief moment. He wonders if Chu Wanning has ever even used this umbrella himself, with how easily he gives it away, and how many times he’s been caught in the rain since Mo Ran had seen him last.
“I’m going to take a picture of this, if that’s okay,” he says suddenly.
The girl looks taken aback, but she shrugs. It’s not like it matters to her anyway. Mo Ran takes a few shots of the embroidery and hands it back to her.
After she’s left, Mo Ran secludes himself to the kitchen for as long as he has till Xue Meng and Shi Mei arrive.
Mo Ran sends a message to yuheng three days before the anniversary event.
taxianjun: hey, not sure if you saw my post about it but we’re having a special event at the bakery for our two year anniversary! it’d be cool if you could come - maybe say hi? i’m trying really hard to live up to your tastes, been going through our message threads for pointers
There’s no reply—it stings, but there’s nothing else Mo Ran can do if they don’t want to talk anymore.
It’s not like it stops him, though. yuheng hasn’t blocked him yet—which he’s clearly capable of, as he’s demonstrated already. So, he sends a picture of the cake he’s preparing.
taxianjun : [IMG_6113.jpeg]
taxianjun : i’m making a new cake for the anniversary event. just wanted to share this with you. hope you’ll like it when it’s ready!
Heading to his desk after this, he picks up an old folded up umbrella he’d dug out from his store room a few days ago. Smoothing out the fabric, he looks at the haitang blossom embroidered at the corner of it. It’s yellow with age now, but it’s just like the one he’d photographed at the bakery.
Mo Ran finds himself smiling again as he looks down at it. All that’s left to do is to put finishing touches to his cake, and he knows exactly how to do it.
At twenty six minutes past nine the night before the anniversary event, Mo Ran straightens up from the counter. It’s over.
He looks down at the osmanthus cake he’s just finished decorating, and feels his chest flush with warmth. It’s bite-sized, extra sweet, with fresh peach slices garnishing it. Crowning it is a haitang blossom he’s drawn on with vanilla soy icing.
The same flower embroidered on the umbrella the girl from Sisheng University had brought to his bakery, and the same one on the old, fraying umbrella that had been in his store room for years now.
He takes a photo of the finished cake, and sends it to yuheng before he can stop himself.
taxianjun: sneak peek of the special new dessert i’m preparing for tomorrow’s event! exclusively for my fav customer ;)
Well, maybe not completely exclusive. As grateful as he’d been to yuheng for the inspiration, there’s someone else who’d played a pretty big role too. Mo Ran puts his phone down, and pops the cake in his mouth. Unbidden, an image of thin pink lips closing around the dessert enters his head, pretty eyes squeezing shut as he swallows.
Mo Ran’s heart lurches as he thinks of the person he’s thought of the entire time he’d been making it. The same person he’d decided to name it after even if it’s only in his head. The person who’ll probably never know any of this.
It’s eleven in the morning on the day of the second anniversary of Bugui Bakery’s opening when the sky cracks open.
Mo Ran’s phone runs out of charge three times because of how often he checks the weather app. First, it says the storm should end by one in the afternoon. Before he knows it, this has changed to three. Not long after, they’ve amended it to five in the evening.
Idly opening his phone to yuheng ’s page for possibly the hundredth time that day, Mo Ran starts to type a message.
taxianjun: wish it wasn’t raining today haha we’ll have so much stuff left over
taxianjun: on the plus side, meals for the rest of the week sorted. may end up in the hospital at some point with a sugar overload but hey. worth it.
He’s expecting radio silence, just like it’s been the past week. So when his phone buzzes almost instantly with a notification from yuheng, he scrambles to swipe it open, scarcely believing he read that right.
yuheng: Is it possible to make online orders from your bakery?
Heart in his throat, Mo Ran types in a reply.
taxianjun: hey! uh sure, we haven’t done it like this before but why not. let me know what you want
yuheng: How about the payment?
taxianjun: yeah dw about that, everything is free for today
yuheng: That seems like a ridiculous business decision. Is it yours?
taxianjun: lmao just made it up. just tell me what u want and don’t worry about the rest ;)
yuheng: I want everything.
yuheng: Everything you have available, I mean.
taxianjun: oh so like one of each item? do i confirm this?
yuheng: I meant everything you have prepared for today. You can wait till closing time. Whatever you have left, I want it all.
Mo Ran blinks. He reads the message once again. Then a third time. This goes on for a few seconds while he processes what he’s saying.
taxianjun: wait what
taxianjun: you want the whole batch
taxianjun: haha is this for like a party or something
yuheng: Not really. Please send me your info so I can send you the payment.
Mo Ran blinks. Okay. So. This is happening. So yuheng has a lunatic all along? That’s why he never revealed himself. Great. Perfect. He’s actually willing to buy all the desserts from today? No big deal.
Mo Ran passes a hand through his hair. So first of all: what the fuck. Obviously. Second of all—a brainwave descends on him. It’s not something that happens often, so he lets himself preen a little. Heavenly rays descend upon, setting him aglow for a moment. Then he starts to type a response.
taxianjun: ok. but only if you agree to my terms.
taxianjun: you have to let me give you the order in person
yuheng: In person? But it’s going to be a lot...
taxianjun: oh, that’s nothing. you’ve seen my gym selfies ;) i’ll be fine
yuheng: What if I don’t want you to come to my home? Is there really no other way? You are even worse at managing your business affairs than I thought.
Mo Ran huffs a laugh at that, but at least they don’t deny having seen his gym selfies so he counts it as a win.
taxianjun: hey dw i don’t want to intrude or make you feel uncomfortable at all. we can definitely meet at a public place. wherever you’re comfortable.
taxianjun: but yeah. these are my terms. you’ve come to my shop before, so i must have seen you before. i think i’m being pretty reasonable actually.
yuheng: But it’s raining so hard. It’s flooded.
taxianjun: lol not like i have much else to do here
taxianjun: so. where.
He waits for a reply after this, checking his phone every minute. But there’s silence at their end again.
It’s six in the evening before Mo Ran knows it, and so far footfall at their shop since morning has reached a grand total of six. One of them was a plumber who’d come to fix their kitchen drain, whom Mo Ran had practically bullied into taking a seat and partaking of their free sample cakes.
The rain doesn’t let up, and he can tell even Shi Mei and Xue Meng are eyeing him in concern from time to time.
He doesn’t even have anyone to be angry at, which is the most frustrating thing. Except the elements, which even he is aware is a pointless exercise. Still, he aims a few well-directed curses up at the stratosphere, and continues to stare at the door. Surely the next moment, the door will open with a chime, and someone will come in—
If that someone in Mo Ran’s head is dressed all in white with a briefcase over his head instead of an umbrella, well, no one has to know.
It stands to reason, then, that when this exact thing happens at ten minutes past seven, Mo Ran doesn’t even flinch, he’s so sure he’s imagined it.
Except the apparition walks right up to the register, where Xue Meng greets him.
“Hey, we have some special samples for you to try—”
“I’ll take them,” says the apparition that looks like Chu Wanning, “All.”
“All?” repeats Xue Meng. “You mean, one of each?”
Chu Wanning pauses for a moment, glancing around at Mo Ran for a split second for some reason. Then he clears his throat and nods, and points at one of the desserts in the display. “That one,” he says. “I’ll take three more.”
Mo Ran is momentarily transfixed by the way Chu Wanning’s ears colour before he realises which desserts he’s picked—they’re his osmanthus cakes, extra sweet, with the haitang blossom on top. It’s not quite as extreme as yuheng wanting to clear out the store, but Mo Ran feels warmth spread through him after what feels like a very, very long time.
Do you like them? he wants to ask. Do you like the blossom? They’re extra sweet, just how you like them. I’ve named this cake, even if it’s still only in my head. I’ve named it Wanning. Wish I could tell you. I’m sorry. You’re wonderful.
Breathless, he watches Chu Wanning wait, slim fingers burrowed into the fuzzy material of his sweater as Xue Meng prepares his order. Fifteen feet. That’s probably how far he is. It’s feels so much more, though. He feels like he’s frozen to the spot, unable to take a single step forward. Chu Wanning looks down at his hands, without a word.
“Hey, could you bring over one more of the osmanthus cakes from the kitchen?” asks Xue Meng suddenly, turning to Mo Ran. He hands him a box with three cakes placed in it. “I’m prepping the rest.”
Mo Ran jumps. They can only keep a limited number of items on display, with the rest stored in the kitchen. With a nod, Mo Ran takes the box and heads over.
The moment he turns, he winces. He’s an idiot. After a whole week working late into the night trying to perfect a dessert with Chu Wanning in mind, even naming it Wanning in his head, he can’t even say a word to him. But he’s afraid—afraid of that same cold look on Chu Wanning’s face again, afraid that he’s done exactly what his mother had told him not to: given his heart to someone and with it, the power to crush him.
When he’s in the kitchen, he takes out a cake from the oven and places it on a tray with tongs. He looks at the haitang blossom on top, lost in thought about Chu Wanning, wondering if he’ll like it. If he’ll perk up, maybe lick his fingers. The image makes him smile, and he suddenly reaches for the frosting and pipes it onto the side of the box in the shape of cat ears and whiskers.
Sealing the box, he makes his way out and hands it to Xue Meng. Glancing at Chu Wanning, he finds him standing the exact same way as before he’d left, avoiding Mo Ran’s eye entirely.
“Thanks for coming in,” Xue Meng tells him finally, as he hands him the full order. “You’re like the seventh person we’ve had come in all day.”
Chu Wanning looks up at that, his sharp phoenix eyes narrowing into a frown. “Seventh?”
“Yeah, you know how it rained all day.”
The frown on Chu Wanning’s face depends. Hesitating a moment, he says, “But you had advertised this,” he says quietly. “The event. People must have known.”
Xue Meng laughs. “Yeah, well, it’s not like people are going to wade through waterlogged roads to come have a few pastries. It’s fine, though. Don’t worry about it,”
Chu Wanning’s eyes flit to Mo Ran for a moment so brief he’s sure he imagined it. Then he takes the package and turns abruptly. “Thank you,” he says, and heads out through the door.
Xue Meng stares incredulously at him, then turns and spots Mo Ran sitting a short distance away from him.
“You!” he splutters. “You were right here—and you didn’t say anything?”
“What would I say?” says Mo Ran.
“I don’t know,” Xue Meng mutters, “You’re always been kinda weird around him. I mean, weirder than usual. Do you—do you, like, like him?”
“What are you talking ab—”
Mo Ran’s protest is interrupted by his phone vibrating in his pocket. Pulling it out, he finds a notification from someone he hadn’t been expecting. It’s yuheng. They’ve posted a new photo.
The photo seems to be of a lower quality than usual, taken outdoors in the dim light of what looks to be early evening, streetlights just turning on. Mo Ran glances outside—the exact way it is right now, in fact, with the sun having just set. The photo is of the special osmanthus cakes from today. They’ve copied and pasted Mo Ran’s caption from his last post advertising the event today, and Mo Ran’s heart rate picks up instantly.
No. There’s no way.
But there have only been seven people at the shop today—with the list of suspects narrowed down this much, yuheng’s true identity seems suddenly very close. Inhaling sharply, Mo Ran looks closer at the photo.
Cat ears and whiskers.
The silly doodle he’d made with frosting on the corner of the box not even five minutes ago looks back at him. Mo Ran squeezes his eyes shut, then opens them to look again, half-expecting it to have been a figment of his imagination.
“Fuck.” Grabbing his umbrella from the stand, Mo Ran launches himself forward, pushing Xue Meng to the side.
A deafening buzz in his ears, Mo Ran hardly registers he’s said anything at all. Reaching the door in a few long strides, he pushes past the door and dashes out into the pouring rain, opening the umbrella up over him.
Operating on pure instinct now, he takes a split second decision to run in the direction of Sisheng University. It’s still pouring rain, and Mo Ran’s heart clenches at the thought of Chu Wanning—yuheng—making his way through the flooded streets without his umbrella.
Just like he’s done countless times before.
But there’s no way he would’ve been able to make it to the subway station like this, and Mo Ran remembers what the girl from Sisheng University had told him about how he’d often fall asleep in his office while working and end up staying there all night. Perhaps that’s where he’ll go now, maybe eating the cakes he’d taken from the bakery by himself at his desk. Alone.
Just how many times has he done that before?
The wind changes, and suddenly there’s rainwater angling under the edge of the umbrella into his face—Mo Ran blinks it away carelessly, rushing forward as fast as the muddy water pooling around his feet will let him. The streets are unnaturally empty for rush hour, all the shops closed; no one in their right mind would venture out of the warmth of their homes in this weather.
Just like it had been years ago, down this very path, as a chill had settled in his bones and a young man had pressed an umbrella into his hand and run away before he could see his face.
The memory grows stronger and stronger as he runs, on and on, past familiar places from his university days. It had been raining that day, just like this. Wet hair dripping into his eyes, shirt sticking to his skin, the way his sky-high ambitions from before had plummeted to meet his grades at rock bottom—it had all felt oddly metaphoric somehow. Mo Ran had known he wasn’t ever going to be clever, but he’d still wanted to be someone. College, he’d swiftly realised, had a way of ending those delusions pretty damn definitively. He’d pushed everyone away already, afraid to let in more people who’d end up hurting him like they were sure to, just like his mother had taught him. So it really shouldn’t have surprised him that he’d ended up that way, alone in the rain with no one around for miles.
When Mo Ran spots the figure at the side of the road a few metres ahead of him, he’s almost certain for a good few seconds it’s an extension of that memory. He’s been replaying it so much in his head, he’s tricked himself into thinking it’s real. In a different perspective with a reversal of roles, weirdly enough, but whatever. Brains are weird, and Mo Ran doesn’t plan on attempting to decipher the way they work.
He’s almost reached the figure, when he first starts to doubt himself.
The person is too clearly defined to be an illusion. He’s also dressed in the clothes Chu Wanning had been wearing earlier—soaked completely now as he stumbles forward, arms wrapped around himself. There’s a package hanging from his wrist.
“Chu Wanning?” Mo Ran yells out. There’s no answer—not that he’d been expecting one, with how deafening the rain is all around them. “Chu Wanning—Wanning!”
He crosses the remaining distance in a flash, and skids to a halt right next to him. Chu Wanning turns, the same moment Mo Ran holds the umbrella up over him.
“Wanning—fuck,” he says, pressing close to him. He’s soaked to the skin, his thin trenchcoat no match for the rain.
“What did you call me?” He can barely talk, his teeth chattering as he curls up on himself.
“Wanning,” says Mo Ran, ignoring him. “Fuck, why are you like this? You’re shaking.” He pulls Chu Wanning against his front, wrapping both his arms around him as he covers them both with the umbrella.
“What are you doing—” gasps Chu Wanning, squirming against Mo Ran’s chest. “Let me go—”
“If you really want me to, I will,” Mo Ran says into his ear. “I don’t want to, but I will. Wanning, do you really want me to let you go?”
“You—” Chu Wanning splutters for a second, then falls silent. After a moment, he stops moving at all.
Mo Ran glances down at him, lashes lowered, fanning out over his cheekbones. They’re tinged pink, and Mo Ran has never wanted to kiss someone so badly in his life.
Holding him, Mo Ran starts to walk forward. It’s pretty awkward at first, moving with your arms around someone and holding up an umbrella over the both of you, like some sort of four-legged race. A few steps in, he feels Chu Wanning relax in his arms, letting Mo Ran propel them forward. If Mo Ran were a dog, this is when his tail would start wagging at hyperspeed.
Mo Ran loses track of time right about here, too. They walk wordlessly for what could either be hours or barely a minute, and Mo Ran is grateful for his muscle memory leading him down familiar paths. His brain splutters to life every now and then only to short-circuit every time a fresh area of Chu Wanning’s body comes in contact with him.
“Wanning,” he murmurs at last as they approach the engineering building. “Why do you do this?”
“What do you mean?” he says stiffly, the impact ruined significantly by the way he’s currently cocooned in Mo Ran’s arms.
“I know why you never have an umbrella with you,” Mo Ran sighs. “You don’t forget, do you?”
“What’s that to you, anyway?”
Mo Ran smiles. “Let’s see,” he says. “You drip water all over my shop, you could get a cold after leaving my bakery, which doesn’t look good for us—”
“If it’s such an inconvenience for you, I’ll find a different café,” Chu Wanning says stiffly.
“No,” says Mo Ran, resisting the urge to hold him the way he really wants to. “Never, you’re not allowed to.”
“Why?” says Chu Wanning suddenly, confused. “I drip water all over your shop, and—”
“Who’s going to critique my recipes then?” says Mo Ran quietly, heart clenching painfully as he finally lets himself remember their little sessions together that he’s missed so much.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Chu Wanning. “You can get anyone else to do that for you, it doesn’t have to be me.”
“It does for me,” says Mo Ran, not missing a beat. His heart quickens, a jackrabbit in his chest. “If you want to, of course.”
“Why?” says Chu Wanning, sounding increasingly frustrated.
“You’re great,” Mo Ran says simply.
Chu Wanning goes quiet, turning his face to the side. “You hardly even know me.”
“Not as much as I want to, sure,” says Mo Ran. “But enough to think you’re wonderful anyway.”
“I haven’t even done anything,” Chu Wanning presses, urgency building in his voice.
“You thinking that is exactly why I’m sure of it,” says Mo Ran, voice rough. “Wanning, you—”
The trees they’re under right now are dense enough that the rain doesn’t pierce through, so Mo Ran comes to a stop. Tightening his arms around Chu Wanning, he lowers his face to skim the surface of his hair.
“Wanning, you—you don’t know it, but you changed my life around.”
Chu Wanning inhales sharply. “Stop being ridiculous, what are you talking about?”
“Years ago,” he says, voice heavy as he finally puts in words everything he’s been piecing together over the past minutes and hasn’t been able to articulate even to himself. “I was—different. My first year of college I—I kept fucking up, drinking, sleeping around a lot. I just—I wasn’t good to people.” He bites the inside of his cheek, tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. “I met you at an interdepartmental party. I was drunk, so I couldn’t remember your face later on but I know now—”
“Stop,” says Chu Wanning. He inclines his face very slightly to the side. “You don’t have to say anything. We all make mistakes.”
Mo Ran shakes his head, desperate to let it out after all this time of beating himself up over it. “I wanted you, and I was so, so drunk, and back then I—I didn’t understand boundaries too well. I tried to force myself on you, and it took you a while to get me off.”
“It’s okay, you don’t—”
“It was raining when I was trying to get home later,” Mo Ran cuts in bitterly. “Just like today. I was alone, obviously—I was a piece of shit, of course I deserved to be fucking alone.”
“Please, hear me out... I was here, on this very street, barely able to walk because of how cold it was, and how hard it was raining, and how shitty I felt, but—then someone showed up, gave me their umbrella, and just left before I could say anything. I couldn’t catch their face, but I knew the way they smelt, the clothes they were wearing, because—because just a little while back I’d been trying to force myself on them. It was you, Wanning. You helped me, the person who least deserved your help.”
“Mo Ran,” says Chu Wanning, voice firm. He turns around, looking up at Mo Ran with a crease between his brows. “You weren’t yourself.”
Mo Ran swallows. The sick feeling that had taken shape when he’d seen Chu Wanning in the rain like a warped replay of an old memory rises up his chest till his throat closes up. “You knew,” he whispers. “All this time. You knew, and you still came into the bakery. Wanning, I don’t understand, how could you stand to look at me—”
“Enough.” Chu Wanning’s voice is firm, and Mo Ran instantly goes quiet. He looks down at how close they’re standing, and makes to step away. What the hell had he even been thinking—
Chu Wanning moves with him. Stunned, Mo Ran tries to take another step away, but Chu Wanning closes the distance between them again.
“You needed help,” he says, looking steadfastly up at him. “You deserved help, and no one around you recognised it. It was—the least I could have done.”
“What do you mean?” says Mo Ran, bemused. “I was only a first year back then, you can’t even have known me.”
Chu Wanning is quiet for a moment, looking like he’s struggling to put something into words. After a while, he says, “It’s not that I didn’t know you. But it—it doesn’t matter, it was a long time ago.”
Mo Ran frowns in confusion, wondering what he could have meant. Maybe Chu Wanning had mistaken someone else for him, been tricked into thinking Mo Ran had any trace of decency in him, and it had all been a lie—of course that made sense, why else would Chu Wanning ever see anything in him—
“Stop thinking so much,” Chu Wanning snaps. He hesitates a moment, the flush creeping back onto his face again. “I—I stayed in the room opposite yours, so I saw you outside the dorm building sometimes, when it rained, and there was a cat who lived—” He clenches his jaw, too embarrassed to say any more.
But Mo Ran knows what he’s talking about, and gasps quietly. It’d been so long ago, he’d forgotten about it himself. “The kittens.”
A stray cat in the neighbourhood had given birth to a litter back then, and the kittens would keep getting lost in the nearby streets in the rain. Mo Ran had looked for them so many times that he’d eventually taken to tracing their soft mewling to locate them, bringing them to their mother whenever it had looked like it’d be raining soon. Even on his haziest days, Mo Ran hadn’t been able to stand the thought of them alone in the rain, not knowing how to get to their mother.
Mo Ran scratches his head self-consciously. “Anyone could have done that, though, it’s not special. Doesn’t mean anything or excuse what I—”
“You’re a good person,” says Chu Wanning simply. “You needed help, and you deserved the chance to get it.”
Mo Ran stares at him, at the unwavering sincerity in his eyes, and struggles to breathe.
“I tried to get better after that, Wanning,” he says, slowly. “I—I was numb all the time, so I ended up seeing a therapist, tried to get my shit together. I knew it wouldn’t take back the way I’d almost hurt you, but I tried. You turned my life around.”
Chu Wanning turns his head away. “You’re being dramatic again,” he says. “It had nothing to do with me.”
“When will you believe me when I say you’re wonderful, and you changed my life?” presses Mo Ran.
He can hardly believe he’s allowed to even talk to the person he’d very nearly hurt, the person he’d tried to become a better person for, whether or not he’d ever meet them again. But now that he has the chance, he won’t let Chu Wanning go a moment without knowing just how wonderful he is.
Chu Wanning makes a soft noise of frustration that rumbles against Mo Ran’s chest, turning around till his back is to him and starting to walk again without another word. Mo Ran follows, not sure what he’s done to deserve this second chance but only too happy to walk like this, warming Chu Wanning up as much as he’s able to.
When they reach the engineering building, Chu Wanning makes to extricate himself from Mo Ran’s arms. “You can let go now,” he says.
Mo Ran doesn’t want to, but he respects it. He’s had his moment, for far longer than he deserves. As he frees Chu Wanning from his arms, he looks up and realises it’s stopped raining. Chu Wanning seems to notice the same, and turns towards the building. His back to Mo Ran, he says, “The rain stopped. You can go now.”
Mo Ran closes the umbrella. He watches Chu Wanning, suddenly overtaken by a longing that almost scares him. This is it, something seems to be telling him. He’s at the edge of something—he’s not sure what yet, but if he lets Chu Wanning walk away now he’ll never know.
In this moment of clarity, he remembers something Chu Wanning had just said. The room opposite yours.
No. Fuck no.
“It was the guy who stayed in the room opposite yours,” Shi Mei had told him, when he’d brought up the subject of the dumplings he’d been finding hanging from the handle of his dorm room door for the past year. “... I caught him doing it one day, but he told me not to tell you.”
Standing in the grounds of Sisheng University as he watches Chu Wanning walk away from him, Mo Ran suddenly feels faint.
Chu Wanning freezes, halfway down the path leading to the building.
“Can I—come with you?”
Chu Wanning is motionless for a brief moment. Then he turns halfway, still not looking at Mo Ran as he says, “Why?”
“I don’t know,” says Mo Ran, heartbeat thundering so loud in his ears he can barely even hear his own thoughts. But it’s true. He really doesn’t know anything beyond the fact that he can’t let Chu Wanning go just yet. “Wanted to get a live review of my new cakes?”
Chu Wanning’s shoulders relax. “Do you always fish for compliments like that?” he says, sounding weary.
“I prefer to call it a hunger for validation because I wasn’t praised enough as a kid, but sure.”
Chu Wanning exhales deeply. For a long moment, he doesn’t answer. Finally, he says, “Do whatever you want.” Holding his shoulders very straight, he heads towards the building.
Mo Ran watches him go, eyes wide, unsure he heard right. He’s having a minor breakdown internally, when Chu Wanning turns his head around again surreptitiously. As if to check if Mo Ran is following.
So. Well. This is really happening. He skips over, and follows Chu Wanning into their building.
Mo Ran had finished four years at college without knowing where a lot of the lecture halls were located, but he does have a borderline encyclopaedic knowledge of the best spots in campus to lie back with a beer and stare up at the sky. They make their way up to Chu Wanning’s office, and Mo Ran waits as he enters the bathroom to change his shirt. He paces up and down, and suddenly decides he might as well just follow through with the idea that had taken over him the moment they’d entered the lift.
Tearing a piece of paper from a notepad, Mo Ran scribbles a note and leaves it on Chu Wanning’s desk.
Come up to the roof when you can. I’m waiting there.
When he reaches the roof, Mo Ran is flooded with memories all at once. Out of all the buildings on campus, he’s always loved this particular roof best. This building has always housed the offices of some of the most senior members of faculty, so most people steered clear, not keen on running into any of them by accident. It’s always been empty as a result, just the way Mo Ran had loved it. So he’d spent countless hours here when it’d all become too much, certain he’d never run into anyone here.
Choosing his old spot by the wall, he sits down and looks up at the sky. It’s dry here thanks to a parapet overhead, but the rest of the roof is glistening wet in the moonlight. There’s a smell of wet earth brought in by the light wind, just like it used to feel here after it rained.
He doesn’t wait long.
Turning around at the sound of soft footsteps, he finds Chu Wanning walking up to him. He’s changed into a white shirt that seems slightly too thin for the weather, holding the package from the bakery in his hand.
“Hey,” says Mo Ran, irrationally happy even though he’d asked him to come here himself. “You came.”
“You asked me to come,” says Chu Wanning, sounding slightly miffed.
Mo Ran grins, watching him stand stiffly to the side like a prickly cat. He pats the floor next to him. “Sit here.”
“No,” comes the immediate answer.
“Come on, Wanning, you worried your trousers are going to get wet? You can sit on my lap if that’s what’s bothering you—”
There’s always been something about him that makes Mo Ran want to tease him, rile him up a bit, and coax out that adorable blush of his. And he responds spectacularly too, pale skin flashing red as he instantly sinks down next to Mo Ran and draws his knees to his chest.
Once he’s seated, he looks a lot more comfortable. A thought strikes Mo Ran—is Chu Wanning afraid of heights? Would explain why he’s a lot more relaxed sitting down, when he can’t look over the wall. He presses closer.
“What are you doing?” says Chu Wanning, bristling.
“You look cold,” he says.
“I’m not cold,” says Chu Wanning.
Mo Ran reaches out, heart thudding, and trails a finger up the goosebumps on the soft skin of his forearm in response.
“I’m not cold,” Chu Wanning repeats, considerably weaker than the first time. “You just have an abnormally high baseline body temperature.”
He opens up the box on his lap in a huff, and stares at the decoration on the cake for a moment. Then he picks up on and stuffs it into his mouth. Mo Ran watches eagerly: it seems to be sized just right for him, and he swallows it easily, a sparkle appearing in his eyes. Mo Ran flushes with pride: all of the blood and tears he’s put in this past week, all of the frustration of today—in this moment, they’re all suddenly worth it.
“Good?” he says, probably sounding as breathless as he feels, but he doesn’t have it in him to care.
Chu Wanning colours deeper, probably realising how he must have looked as he’d devoured it. Slowly, he nods.
“I—I hoped you’d like it,” Mo Ran blurts out suddenly.
Chu Wanning turns to him, confusion written plainly in his pretty eyes, “Me?”
“I mean I, uh, obviously didn’t know if you’d be coming today. But. I tried. Is it sweet enough?”
Chu Wanning stares down at his fingers. “Mm,” he says quietly.
Mo Ran’s heart thuds frantically against his ribcage. “Are they the right size for you?”
Chu Wanning nods.
“Did you like the haitang blossom?”
Chu Wanning’s stays quiet, fingers tightening on the package in his hands.
“I—I saw them on your umbrella,” says Mo Ran. “The one you’d given me all those years ago, and I never got to give back because I couldn’t remember your face. I tried—asked so many people. But it doesn’t matter. You got another umbrella just like that, didn’t you, with the haitang blossoms—the one you’d given it to one of your students just a week back. Wanning, I—” He exhales, digging his heels into the ground. “What you heard that day, when I was talking to that customer—I didn’t mean it, I was just upset and confused—”
“Mo Ran,” says Chu Wanning suddenly, “I haven’t been completely honest with you.”
“Is this about you being yuheng?” says Mo Ran. Chu Wanning’s face drains of colour, and Mo Ran reflexly reaches out to grab his hand. It’s cold to touch, so he grips it tighter. “I don’t care—I mean, I do care, but I’m glad it’s you, I didn’t dare to hope but I don’t think I’d have wanted it to be anyone else—”
“That day,” Chu Wanning cuts him off, “You had posted a picture the previous night. I—I thought—”
His voice trails off, cheeks flaming red again. Mo Ran’s eyes go wide: he’s talking about the picture he’d posted with Shi Mei.
“The picture with Shi Mei?” he asks in surprise, when Chu Wanning doesn’t seem willing to elaborate. “Wanning, what—”
Chu Wanning looks utterly mortified, half inclined to run away, fingers tucked deep in the fabric of his sweater. It seems to be a thing he does, holding on to himself when he’s uncomfortable. Mo Ran holds on to his other hand and searches his face in bewilderment. He thinks back to that evening, of Chu Wanning making halting conversation and looking at him like maybe he wanted to stay a bit longer with him.
“Wanning,” he breathes, hardly daring to believe what he’s saying, “That night, did you want to be with me?”
He doesn’t realise how he’s worded it till Chu Wanning jumps to his feet in consternation, his hand still tight in Mo Ran’s own. He has a hand clapped over his mouth, face bright red.
“Stay with me,” Mo Ran corrects himself, “Did you want to stay with me a bit longer that day?”
Chu Wanning doesn’t reply, but he doesn’t need to.
“Were you jealous?” Mo Ran murmurs. “Did you think I was using you as an excuse, so I could share Shi Mei’s umbrella on the way home?”
His heart clenches at the awareness that he could have made Chu Wanning think that way. That his apparent acts of kindness were all part of an elaborate excuse for Mo Ran to spend more time with someone else. There’s no way he could have known back then that Chu Wanning was yuheng, and that he would see the photo he posted, but guilt pools in his stomach anyway.
“Wanning,” he calls out. “Wanning, please look at me. I like you.”
He tugs gently at his hand, and that coupled with Chu Wanning’s shock at the words makes him tumble down right onto Mo Ran’s lap. Secretly delighted, Mo Ran secures his arms around him before he can move.
“Wanning, I like you,” he says. “You’re the one I like.”
Chu Wanning’s eyes go wide. Turning to face Mo Ran, he seems to suddenly realise how close they’re sitting. Placing a hand on Mo Ran’s chest, he makes to push him away.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “Why?”
“You’re amazing,” says Mo Ran. He feels drunk off the feeling of having this perfect man so close to him, close enough that if he only leans in a fraction they would be kissing. “God, Wanning, you’re perfect.”
“But no one has ever liked me before,” says Chu Wanning, urgency in his voice, almost like he’s willing Mo Ran to tell him this is all a prank. “I’m cold, and ugly—and I don’t —”
“Look at me,” says Mo Ran. “You’re kind and sweet and funny and ridiculously beautiful, what the fuck, and—Wanning, those dumplings on my dorm room door, years ago. It was you. Fuck, it was you, wasn’t it?”
Chu Wanning looks stricken, as if he’s about to make a run for it again. “I—” His voice sounds faint, so he coughs. “I—I didn’t want to intrude, but you were coming home late all the time and—”
Eyes burning, Mo Ran reaches up to lightly thumb Chu Wanning’s cheek. “You don’t know what they meant to me.”
“What are you on about?” Chu Wanning says, shifting his gaze away as a flush rises in his cheeks. “They were just—just dumplings.”
“They were everything I needed at the time,” says Mo Ran, a soft smile at the corner of his lips. “Something to find waiting for me every other day, without fail.”
Taking Chu Wanning’s hand, he links their fingers together before continuing.
“See, I’ve known you as Chu Wanning and I’ve known you as yuheng, and I’ve known you as the mysterious maker of the cutest dumplings I’ve ever had, and I fell for you each time. Even when I didn’t even know anything about you—your name, your gender, your age—nothing. Every time, it was you.”
Chu Wanning can’t seem to be able to look at him anymore, lashes fluttering lower to meet his flushed cheekbones. Mo Ran tips his chin up with a finger, the longing so unbearable now there’s no way Chu Wanning wouldn’t be able to feel it rolling off him.
“Wanning, can I kiss you?”
Chu Wanning doesn’t nod, but he tightens his grasp on Mo Ran’s shirt, almost pulling him in a fraction. It sounds like a yes that he’s still too embarrassed to articulate, but they can work towards that. Mo Ran leans in slowly, but he doesn’t pull away. Chu Wanning smells like flowers this close, and there’s no way Mo Ran can hold back anymore.
The kiss starts gentle, a shy, slow press of lips together, taking their time to learn the shape of each other. Chu Wanning’s mouth feels soft and sweet and pliant against his, and Mo Ran thinks he’ll be perfectly okay if this is the only thing he does for the rest of his life. He pulls him closer, tightening his grip on Chu Wanning’s waist—he gasps at this, and parts his lips against Mo Ran’s mouth.
It’s all too much for Mo Ran to take, and before he knows it he’s licked his way into Chu Wanning’s mouth, deepening the kiss. Chu Wanning holds the front of Mo Ran’s shirt tighter, a soft moan escaping his lips as Mo Ran holds him in place and kisses him till they’re both out of breath.
“Mo Ran,” Chu Wanning pants his name, eyes glazed over, lips bruised red and body arching against his as they break apart, and Mo Ran is so turned on he starts counting backwards from hundred in his head to calm himself down. It works as well as could be hoped—if there’s one thing Mo Ran could count on, it’s the way numbers never fail to break his brain.
He looks down to find Chu Wanning’s fingers still gripping his shirt; following his gaze, Chu Wanning realises this too and immediately pulls away. Covering his hand with his own and bringing it back over his chest, Mo Ran says, “You can hold on to me. I like it, I want you to.”
“Ridiculous,” Chu Wanning mutters, but he’s sitting on Mo Ran’s lap, thoroughly kissed, and doesn’t disentangle their fingers, so it doesn’t exactly have the intended effect.
Smiling, Mo Ran takes one of his cakes out of the box and holds it to Chu Wanning’s lips. Chu Wanning’s lips part a fraction automatically to Mo Ran’s delight, but then he instantly whips around at him. “What are you doing?” he snaps.
“I thought you loved giving me constructive criticism,” says Mo Ran. “But I guess there are other ways to find out how much your mouth can fit.”
Chu Wanning looks at him through narrowed eyes for a moment, trying to figure out what he means. When he finally does, he splutters, face lighting up like a stop sign as he smacks Mo Ran lightly on the head. “Shameless,” he says.
“Wanning,” Mo Ran croons, holding him even tighter. “Won’t you help me make better cakes for you?”
Chu Wanning huffs, his eyes shifting to the cake still in Mo Ran’s hand. He looks like he’s waging a war within himself before he leans in and takes into his mouth. Mo Ran watches him in shock as he swallows it down. When he flicks his tongue out to lick his lips, Mo Ran has had enough.
An unknown length of time later, Mo Ran pulls apart. He looks down at Chu Wanning’s bright red lips with a touch of pride, making a mental note to himself to ensure that he looks this well kissed at all times.
“How was it, Wanning?”
Chu Wanning turns his face to the side, “Good,” he murmurs. Then his face darkens again. “Oh, the cake—it was, it was nice.”
Mo Ran presses his lips to his forehead, feeling close to floating right off into the sky. “I’m glad,” he says. “I’ll try to get even better for you, Wanning. Both at kissing you and making desserts for you, just the way you like.”
There’s a pause, during which Mo Ran is fully expecting a pair of metaphorical claws to appear at any moment. Except—
“It’s fine,” says Chu Wanning instead, seeming to struggle to form words, “It’s fine if it’s from Mo Ran.”
Mo Ran gasps. “Aiya, Wanning, you can’t do this to my heart—” he groans. He picks up the third cake and grins down at it. “I really tried, you know. I feel like the inspiration is partly from you and partly from yuheng. You know the funniest thing? I wasn’t sure what to name it—Wanning, or Yuheng. Jokes on me, they were both you.”
“They are ridiculous names,” says Chu Wanning flatly. “Why would you name a dessert that?”
The moon shifts out from behind a cloud just then, setting Chu Wanning’s face alit in a pale glow. Mo Ran takes his hand in both his own, and smiles.
“Because I made them for you,” he says. “I know they’re not the best—not as good as I wanted them to be for you, anyway, but they’re the first, and they’ll always be memorable. Wanning, I can’t wait to make so many more desserts for you.”
one year later
Chu Wanning looks half-spent on Mo Ran’s lap by now, clutching onto his shoulders as he rolls his hips up and down on him, much slower than before. Mo Ran is already pretty much at his limit as well from the way his fiancé— fiancé! —had looked bouncing on him, and he’s ready to pin him down and drive into him till he sees stars.
“Wanning,” he groans as he pulls out, lifting him off and pressing him down onto the mattress. He kisses him, covering the petulant cry that escapes his fiancé’s lips at the loss. Fiancé. Fiancé . He can’t stop saying it in his head.
Breaking the kiss a few heated seconds later, Mo Ran positions himself to enter him again. Just as he’s about to, he catches the glint of the matching rings on their linked fingers on the sheets.
This is really happening, he tells himself for what feels like the hundredth time that evening. Warmth floods his chest till he feels like he could burst at the seams any moment. Unable to help himself, he cranes his neck to kiss each of Chu Wanning’s fingers, then finally presses his lips to the ring he’d slid on him just a few hours earlier.
Mo Ran lifts his head at Chu Wanning’s strained voice, turning to face him. There’s an annoyed look on his face despite the dark flush staining his cheeks.
Mo Ran resists the urge to preen. Knowing how proud his fiancé is, this is as close as he’ll get to begging for him.
“What’s up, baby?” he says like he’s commenting on the weather, resting his elbow on the bed and hovering just over him.
“Mo Ran, you—” His frown deepens, even as his body arches upwards and his eyes mist over with need. Mo Ran loves how honest his body is, and how deep and visceral his love for Mo Ran runs for him to react this way without even realising it.
“Yeah?” says Mo Ran teasingly. He’s definitely playing with fire, but he’ll deal with the aftermath later. “Didn’t catch that.”
Chu Wanning clenches his jaw, face turned to the side in embarrassment. Then suddenly, catching Mo Ran off-guard, he hooks his leg around Mo Ran’s and tugs till he falls right on top of him.
Mo Ran is taken aback for a second—even a year later, Chu Wanning still manages to surprise him. Smiling at the impatient look on his face, he lifts himself up just enough to position himself at his entrance. “Love when you beg for me, husband to be,” he murmurs, Chu Wanning’s annoyed huff breaking off into a whine of pleasure as Mo Ran grinds into him.
Several minutes later, Mo Ran rolls off him heavily, and pulls Chu Wanning against his side.
He’s still basking in the afterglow, when his phone buzzes under him. Groaning in irritation, he extricates it. There are notifications still rolling in for the photo he’d posted a few hours ago. Two hands with matching rings, linked together by the side of the cake Mo Ran had offered Chu Wanning after a simple homemade dinner, and asked the question he’d been longing to ask for months.
“Yeah, baobei?” Mo Ran flings the phone to the side and holds him closer to his chest.
“When are you starting preparations on the wedding cake?”
Mo Ran looks down at him in surprise. “It’s my wedding, baby,” he says slowly. “Do I have to make my own cake too?”
“But I don’t want anyone else but yours,” says Chu Wanning immediately. Then he flushes, rolling around to the other side.
It takes a moment for Mo Ran to realise he hadn’t heard wrong. Turning, he wraps his arms around his fiancé from behind. “You don’t want anyone else’s cake but mine?” he says, grinning uncontrollably.
Chu Wanning doesn’t answer, but the blush that spreads all over the nape of his neck is a dead giveaway. Pressing kisses all over it, Mo Ran says, “In that case, that’s what you’ll get.”
Chu Wanning stiffens. Then after a while, he says, “You’ll do it?”
“Anything for you,” says Mo Ran, burying his nose in his hair. “Tomorrow morning, let’s start experimenting on recipes together.”
What he means is: he’ll experiment as his fiancé sits on the table near him and works at his laptop, as Mo Ran smears cake batter on his nose from time to time and kisses it off. Later, Chu Wanning will eat all of the finished cake with unabashed enthusiasm, forgetting whatever critique he might have had halfway after Mo Ran makes out thoroughly with him on the counter.
But it’s fine. After all, they have forever to work it out together.