This day was shaping up to be a total disaster.
Chu Wanning reclines in his chair, unable to concentrate any further on his grading. There’s no rush; he still has until the end of the week to post his final grades, but he was always notorious among students for his quick turnaround. It's not like he ever had anything else going on in his life to warrant putting off grading.
A quick glance at the clock on the wall tells him he still had some free time before his last meeting of the academic year, so he gives in and opens the bottom right desk drawer. Bags of his favorite milk candies, half-opened packages of mini cakes and individually wrapped store pastries fill the drawer to the brim. Chu Wanning tears into a package of four small red bean pastries and shoves one whole into his mouth, savoring the sweet paste on his tongue while already reaching for a second.
Nothing seems to be going his way.
He'd managed to sleep through all nine of his alarms this morning (he was normally up by the fifth), leaving him to frantically scramble around his apartment to get ready for work. This left Chu Wanning to catch a later train than he was used to taking, which he soon discovered ran almost 20 minutes late due to the change in traffic. He arrived on campus over an hour later than normal, but his only saving grace was that his 8 a.m. class had already completed its final, so he didn't have to face dozens of students and their questioning stares in shame upon arrival.
It wasn't until he arrived at his office that Chu Wanning realized he had forgotten the flash drive with his presentation on it back at home, along with his extra large travel cup of osmanthus tea. It was his final meeting of the year, but it was where advisers would have to present their cases for additional funding, and Chu Wanning wanted to present his case for the robotics club to receive extra funding for the new term. With two additional wins under their name this year, he was confident he could earn his students the extra funds to have all of them attend the largest university conference instead of only sending one or two students like he'd done previous years.
He didn't really need the presentation to make his point, but it was a formality and visual aids were always nice. Chu Wanning had spent the whole night refining it, adding photos and data to his slides.
Not that Xue Zhengyong would bother with any of the details. University President Xue was his oldest friend before he started working at the school, and made no effort to hide his familiarity with Chu Wanning. Every term brought students the strange, occasional sight of the former dean hanging out in Chu Wanning's office chatting away while their professor worked on his lesson plans.
The robotics club that Chu Wanning advises was small in comparison to others found at neighboring universities, but he prepared his students well. Ever since he took over the club, their school had wormed its way into the top three of competitions consistently over the past five years. It fills Chu Wanning with pride to see his students excel, though he always struggles to express that to them. But of the club members, two had stayed on since early in their undergrad years and were currently serving as his graduate teaching assistants. One of them was Xue Meng, Xue Zhengyong's son.
The other, well-
A knock at his office door interrupts his thoughts.
"Chu-laoshi, are you in?" The question came as the knob was already turning. Chu Wanning all but kicks the open drawer shut with his foot, the loud bang startling him and the person now filling his doorway.
"Uh, is everything okay in here?" the young man asks. His gaze drifts toward the top of Chu Wanning's desk just as he snatches the package of sweets away to hide on his lap. "Are you stress snacking again, Chu-laoshi?" his tone playful and the corners of his mouth twist into something borderline mischievous.
Chu Wanning glares and says nothing, swallowing down the lump of red bean he'd been chewing on instead. It’s enough to make the young man laugh, dimples out in full force.
"What do you want, Mo Ran?" He ignores the way the sound made him feel warm inside.
Mo Ran was many things: Chu Wanning's second graduate teaching assistant, the former president of the robotics club, Xue Zhengyong's nephew and Xue Meng's cousin. He also happens to be the object of Chu Wanning's quiet affections since he was an undergrad student.
Their relationship had changed and grown over the years since he met Mo Ran during his first year. Chu Wanning had a reputation of being terribly strict among the professors on campus. He gave his students one hundred percent and expected the same from them in return. Chu Wanning wasn't popular by any means, but such trivial things never mattered to him. Students feared him and didn't make an effort to get closer to him more than necessary compared to other faculty who had students coming by constantly to visit during office hours or had long waiting lists to join their courses. Chu Wanning knew he was a last resort in the engineering department. Of course, there were a few rare stand-outs who willingly joined the robotics club, but there was still a level of awkwardness that kept them all at an arm's distance from socializing.
Xue Meng had known Chu Wanning since he was a child, so he was capable of acting normal around him, to a degree. He had the privilege of having Chu Wanning as a tutor while in middle school and greatly admired him, but still didn't know how to act around him either, even after all these years. Shi Mei, Ye Wangxi and Nangong Si didn't mind being around Chu Wanning, but they were much more cautious and kept things fairly formal with their instructor.
But Mo Ran... Mo Ran was unlike anyone else Chu Wanning had ever encountered.
Honestly speaking, he and Mo Ran did not see eye to eye for the first few years when he started taking Chu Wanning's classes. Mo Ran wasn't afraid to stir the pot and challenge him, most of the time in front of his stunned peers in lecture. This led to him getting saddled with more research homework than anyone else in the course, but Mo Ran never failed to meet his assignments head-on. It also didn’t stop him from taking whatever course Chu Wanning taught that term. This went on for another year, but somewhere between his second and third years, something appeared to change. Suddenly Chu Wanning found Mo Ran visiting his office once a week, then twice, three times, until by the time he started his fourth year, he was coming by Chu Wanning's office even outside designated hours for lunch with too much food that he would end up sharing with him. Sometimes he'd even find Mo Ran waiting outside of his office, like a puppy waiting for its owner to let it back inside the house.
Mo Ran’s attitude wasn't the only thing that had changed.
That pale, tired youth who always came to class late had blossomed like a haitang tree to become a tall, sturdy young man. Sun-kissed skin covered strong, corded muscles and he loomed over Chu Wanning with ease.
That was the other thing. As of yesterday, Mo Ran was officially done with his graduate program and is no longer Chu Wanning's TA.
"Nothing, just wanted to see if you needed anything from me before I finished entering the last of those grades for you," Mo Ran said, leaning against the door frame.
Chu Wanning frowns. "That's not necessary," he said. "You don't have to worry about doing such things anymore. You must have other things to focus on today."
"I know I don't have to," Mo Ran smiles, and his eyes soften at the corners. "But I want to help you. It's the very least I could do after all you've done for me these past few years."
Chu Wanning's lips flatten into a thin line and he does not press the subject any further.
Mo Ran really had grown up. It scared him how much his own heart softened for the younger man. Chu Wanning wasn't ready to think about what the coming years would be without seeing that bright face in his classroom again.
"Mn. Fine. Do as you wish," he said instead, and takes another look at the clock. "I'm going to be in a video meeting for a while, so any questions will have to wait until after I'm done."
Mo Ran nods. "Chu-laoshi, I'm going to start logging the last of the final project grades for you. I'm going to be in the lab in case you need anything," Mo Ran announces, leaving Chu Wanning alone with a dimpled smile. He leaves the door halfway open.
Chu Wanning takes out his laptop and pulls up the conference link. He was hoping things would turn out okay during the web meeting. It was his first time using such a thing. The professors normally met in one of the smaller presentation halls on campus for these types of meetings, like last year, but Xue Zhengyong wasn't on campus today. He was taking his wife and Xue Meng away on a week-long trip to celebrate their son's graduation and he wasn't going to have enough time to travel between their home and the university before having to depart for their flight. Mo Ran was originally asked to go with them, but he declined. He said he had some other things to take care of in the city, according to Xue Zhengyong.
He wasn't sure what there was to take care of – Mo Ran already told him about the job offer he had lined up to start that spring, so it wasn't like he was still in the middle of the job search or interviews. No matter; what Chu Wanning's former student did now was none of his business. As of now, he was nothing but a memory in a chapter of Mo Ran's life. Chu Wanning accepted that long ago.
It took some navigating and lots of clicking on his part, but Chu Wanning had the conference window open and loading to connect soon enough. It looked as though he was the last one to join the call as multiple screens with familiar faces popped up on his screen.
"Hello. I hope I didn't keep everyone waiting long," Chu Wanning greets.
No one on the screen responds to him, and makes him wonder if he forgot to turn on his laptop microphone. Was his volume on too low?
"Hello?" he tries again. Everyone was looking at their screens funny, some appeared confused while Xue Zhengyong let out a booming laugh.
"Chu Wanning, this is so unexpected of you!" Xue Zhengyong laughs. He's dressed in a tropical shirt, sitting in what can only be his home office. "Though I wouldn't necessarily say this is the right timing for such a thing."
Chu Wanning is definitely confused now, and he hopes the others can see that. "I do not understand," he argues. "What did I do?"
"Professor Chu," Professor Xuanji speaks up this time. The head of the English department was one of the most popular and respected professors on campus, and someone Chu Wanning got along well with despite his frosty appearance. His face is kind, but Chu Wanning can see the amusement that colors his eyes and smile. "I think you should check your camera settings."
He blinks and goes silent as his sharp eyes carefully roam the screen. Frankly, Chu Wanning isn't entirely sure what he should be looking for. He expects to see a flashing red icon or something to be turned off, but nothing appears to be wrong.
Until his eyes catch something white moving in the bottom corner.
Chu Wanning leans in closer toward his screen and then the white blur moves with him. When he jolts away from his screen in shock, so does that thing on his screen.
"No ," slips from his mouth, and Chu Wanning feels himself simultaneously pale and flush in complete mortification.
The small, white kitten that takes up his space amongst the faces of his peers does not express the same level of horror as its human counterpart, opting to look adorably surprised with its wide eyes and tiny open mouth like a person had taken its favorite treat away.
The cat was Chu Wanning.
Chu Wanning was a cat in a faculty meeting.
"I," his mouth felt like sandpaper. "I'm not sure how this happened."
"What's the matter Professor Chu, cat got your tongue?" Professor Tanlang snickers, not bothering to hide his amusement.
Chu Wanning's eye twitched, and suddenly found himself glad that the ridiculous filter was hiding the blatant rage on his face. He and Professor Tanlang had never been able to see eye to eye after all these years. Chu Wanning was a younger professor who'd managed to make the tenure track and become department head much faster than his senior. In return, Tanlang chose to be as obnoxious as possible by bragging about his students and their accomplishments and his popularity at any given opportunity, which was during every one of their encounters.
"I-I'm not a cat." Chu Wanning's face flushes hot in embarrassment as soon as the words leave him. Did he really just say that in front of his peers?!
Xue Zhengyong grins, but does not laugh again. Chu Wanning is temporarily grateful for this. "We are well aware you are not a cat, my friend," he says. "If you prefer, we can wait while you go ahead and take a few minutes to get this resolved."
"I'm not sure how to fix this." His palms feel sweaty. He's not even sure where to start looking, let alone how to turn off this bizarre filter. Who would design such a thing in the first place?
The longer this goes on, the more ridiculous he feels and the more tempting it feels to just slam his laptop shut and hide under his desk.
Is 35 too early to consider retirement?
"Chu-laoshi? Is everything okay?"
He instantly turns toward the voice and finds Mo Ran's head poking in through the half open door. He's never been more relieved to see Mo Ran in his life.
"Mo Ran," Chu Wanning calls before he can stop himself, "I need you."
The words make Mo Ran straighten up to his full height and he slips into the office, the door closing behind him with a soft click . Chu Wanning digs his nails into the flesh of his palms and feels his neck burn. Why on earth did he have to say it like that?
In a few long steps, Mo Ran is now kneeling at his side, looking every bit like a loyal husky awaiting its master’s command. He’s still taller than Chu Wanning in this position, and perhaps this wasn’t the best idea after all.
“I don’t know how to turn that thing off,” is all he says. He can’t bring himself to tell Mo Ran exactly what the problem is, but Mo Ran is already leaning in to look at the screen and the bright smile that spreads across his lips makes Chu Wanning’s ears burn.
He feels ridiculous. Chu Wanning’s spent his life building and taking things apart—he’s an engineering professor who advises a club that builds robots —but at this very moment, he feels like a silly old man who can’t even work his computer settings.
“Ah, I see,” Mo Ran spares him any further embarrassment. “Let me see what I can do, Chu-laoshi. Hello, Uncle.” He waves at the screen.
“Ran-er! Are you sure you don't want to come along with us? It's not too late for me to get you a ticket – you could be with us by tomorrow!" Xue Zhengyong inquires. Even though they had taken Mo Ran well into his teens, he was basically a second son to the man.
"Thank you, but I'm sure. Besides," he shook his head and tilts his head to catch Chu Wanning's gaze, "what would Chu-laoshi do if I wasn’t here right now?"
Chu Wanning huffs. "I would have figured it out," he argues. A lie.
"Chu-laoshi would have," he agrees, sounding so sure.
“Chu Wanning, you’re in good hands now,” Xue Zhengyong beams. “Now, Professor Xuanji, would you like to start us off in a moment?”
Some of the tension begins to ease from Chu Wanning’s shoulders, knowing this disaster will be over soon.
“What is it?” Chu Wanning is already dreading the answer as he looks for the problem and pales.
The cat filter is still on, but now it looks like the small animal is calling from a white sandy beach. There’s a palm tree and part of the ocean in the background as well. Some of the professors who’ve been watching appear to be trying very hard not to laugh.
Mo Ran barely hits the mute button in time before Chu Wanning’s practically seething.
“Mo Ran! ”
“Sorry, sorry! I didn’t even know that was an option,” he says half to himself between a few more hurried clicks. As soon as it appears, the background and cat filter have finally disappeared, leaving Chu Wanning and Mo Ran’s faces to stare back at them in the display.
“There you go, Chu-laoshi,” he sighs in relief, and shoots Chu Wanning another full dimpled grin.
He can’t stop the tiny smile that graces his lips for a moment. “Thank you, Mo Ran.”
Mo Ran's smile was something sweet like the red bean that lingered on his tongue. "Anything for Chu-laoshi," he said, and out of the view of the webcam, his fingers brushed softly over the back of Chu Wanning's hand. It sends a chill straight up his arm and throughout his whole body as he watches Mo Ran stand up and quietly leave the room.
The meeting goes on without any other problems. He's proud of his presentation and feels confident that he will get the funding the club needs to do more for his students, if Xue Zhengyong's positive reaction told him anything.
Chu Wanning closes his laptop as soon as he exits the meeting tab and shoves another pastry into his mouth. He's never felt so grateful to be done with a meeting before. It's already late into the afternoon now, and he sits slumped in his chair finishing the last of his pastries before he finally gets up.
Mo Ran has most likely left after helping with the whole camera setting debacle. Chu Wanning pushes down the empty feeling that sits in his chest while he packs his bag. The last time he'll ever see Mo Ran until who knows when, and it was wasted on something completely stupid like a cat filter.
Mo Ran will be off, living his life, meeting new and exciting people, making a name for himself in whatever he chooses to do because he's too vibrant to ignore, and fall in love with someone just as young and beautiful as he is.
And Chu Wanning will continue on with his boring, post-Mo Ran existence filled with machines and everyone keeping their distance from him once again.
He shuffles out of his office, head down, as he locks up for the day. As often as he's spent full nights in his office, just this once, he would rather be back home than here.
Chu Wanning drops his key with a start. It hops across the floor and stops at a pair of familiar scuffed black boots.
Mo Ran bends down and takes the key. He at least has the decency to look sheepish. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you," he says, handing back the key. The touch lingers when he curls Chu Wanning's fingers around it. He feels like it may melt in his hand.
"What are you doing here?" a hint of surprise leaks through his voice. "I thought you left."
"I still have your grade book," Mo Ran points to the bulky folder under his arm. "And I couldn't leave without saying goodbye to Chu-laoshi." He smiles, though it doesn't quite reach his eyes.
"Mn." He turns his back to Mo Ran to lock his door. Chu Wanning doesn't expect to see him still hovering near him.
"I'm surprised to see Chu-laoshi leaving so early," he says as he continues to follow Chu Wanning out into the hall. He doesn't explain why, just offers a small shrug in place of the actual reason. It's quiet and he's certain they're the only ones on the floor at this hour. Orange light pours in through the windows as they make their way toward the exit.
"Well. Thank you. For your assistance today." Chu Wanning's never been good at small talk. Even with all the times Mo Ran has invited himself to his office, he's still the one who did most of the talking, always taking the lead but never asking more than what Chu Wanning was willing to give.
He was going to miss that so much, and the realization made him dig his nails into the leather bag strap.
Chu Wanning didn't know how to express himself. He felt like there’s something he should say, but hasn't a clue what or how. Mo Ran's companionship was going to leave an aching chasm in his daily life and heart going forward. There was no way to convey his true thoughts without sounding pathetic, so perhaps it was best he said nothing at all.
He looks up at Mo Ran.
Mo Ran stares at him with soft eyes. "You didn't have to walk me all the way to my car."
Oh. He didn’t notice they walked to the parking lot already and Chu Wanning feels his face grow warm. "Sorry," he said.
They stand in silence for what feels like forever until he finally works up the resolve to speak up.
Chu Wanning unfurls the hand that has his bag strap in a death grip and tentatively reaches up, patting Mo Ran on the head like he's a small child and not a man towering over six feet. "You’ve done well."
Before his arm could drop back down to his side, Chu Wanning's wrist is enveloped in warmth. Mo Ran's gaze is too intense, piercing. Chu Wanning feels see-through and doesn’t like it.
"I lied," he said. "I lied to Chu-laoshi."
Something akin to dread bubbles in his stomach. "What-"
"When I said I couldn't leave without saying goodbye," Mo Ran continues. "That was a lie. I don't want to leave or say goodbye to you. I've waited too long to say what I want to say. It's why I came to campus today, why I didn’t want to go on the trip."
He takes a deep breath and strokes the inside of Chu Wanning's wrist with his thumb. "I was a real brat to you when I first started your classes. I gave you a really hard time every chance I could back then, and for that I'm sorry. I don't know how you put up with me for so long, but I've been grateful that you did every single day. You cared about me, in your own way, even though it took time for me to notice it. You gave me opportunities, even if I didn't know it."
Chu Wanning knows exactly where this is going and tries to pull away. "I didn't do anything-"
"You did," Mo Ran insists, and only holds on tighter. "When Uncle let it slip that you paid my and Mengmeng's way to our first student conference during our second year, I didn't want to believe him. You told us that we had won some grant money for our work that could cover all of our expenses to go. But that conference didn't offer any student funding. So when you told us that we got the money again the next year, I knew he was telling the truth."
Chu Wanning stops fighting him. "You're smart," he said. "You deserved it as much as anyone else."
"No one outside of my family has ever gone out of their way to do anything like that for me before," Mo Ran's voice drops close to a whisper. "And ever since then, I've done everything I could to prove you didn't make a mistake."
Chu Wanning looks him square in the eye. "Are you doubting my judgment?"
That earns him a laugh. "No, Chu-laoshi is so wise," he grins. "He never makes mistakes."
Chu Wanning hums, seemingly pleased with that answer.
"He's very firm, very kind, very thoughtful and very smart. Pretty much perfect," he smiles, and his hand slides down to gently lace Chu Wanning's fingers with his own. "Chu-laoshi is the best laoshi ever. The bestest . And this former student likes him very, very much. He has for so long."
For a moment, he wonders if Mo Ran could feel his heart hammering through his pulse.
"Wanning," he starts, and the tenderness Mo Ran says his name has his world completely thrown off its axis. "Will you go out with me?"
Chu Wanning stares down at the way their fingers entwine and he feels his brain short-circuit.
"But I'm old," the words tumble out. "And I don't know how to use filters." He’s not sure what he’s saying, but right now none of this makes sense.
Mo Ran's laugh is hearty and deep, and Chu Wanning can feel it in his fingers and against his ribs when he's suddenly pulled against a broad, firm chest.
"That's okay," Mo Ran's voice is as warm as the arms that embrace him, and he sounds as overwhelmed as Chu Wanning feels. "This one will show you how, if you’ll let him."
When Chu Wanning gradually allows himself to lean into Mo Ran and his warmth, he thinks that’s an arrangement he can live with.