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nine pm

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jin guangyao steps out of his office and realizes he’s completely forgotten what he’s just spent three hours working on. something about his father’s deposition. that alone sends him rubbing his temples, yawning, trying to exhale and wring out the disgust. no more compartmentalization--he’s promised himself this--just clearing his head. he can’t put his son to bed and say goodbye to his... ex? -alpha if his mind’s still stuck on election fraud. he shuffles through the kitchen, dumps the rest of his mug of useless, room-temperature coffee into the sink, and heads toward the living room. he calls out softly, “a-song, it’s bedtime, baobao ,” and he halts when he reaches the carpet.

 

nie mingjue has never slept in a way guangyao would call “peaceful.” he stays still, sure, isn’t much of a snorer, but even sleep can’t take away his frown or the heavy knit of his eyebrows. back when they shared a bed regularly, especially when he was pregnant, guangyao would wake up any of a dozen times in the night and look over at his alpha and frown, himself, and wonder.

 

“you’re unhappy,” he would say, a half-question asked over breakfast.

 

“why would i be unhappy,” mingjue would reply again and again, until the day he found out guangyao was protecting god only knew how many criminals, violent and white-collar alike, and left guangyao to wait out his ninth month of pregnancy alone in the apartment his father’s lies paid for.

 

almost three years since, and mingjue still sleeps that way. guangyao finds him passed out on the couch, his feet up on the arm and dangling over it, the sheer size of him hiding all the cushions beneath him. their son, too, is asleep on mingjue’s chest, clinging to his t-shirt. rusong is a toddler now, and he’s always been small, but scrunched into a little ball on his father’s broad chest with his tail curled around himself, guangyao could swear he’s even smaller than he was when he was born. he sighs.

 

he’s robbed himself of this. for what? jin guangshan? for a sliver of a second a tingling, burning wave of rage crosses in front of his eyes like night lightning. even years ago, were he being candid, he would admit to his father being a two-timing, boot-licking, narcissistic, cruel, reprehensible monster, yet he spent all that time party to his corruption anyway. he rubs his eyes. the anger ebbs. it can flood back in when he’s gotten some sleep. for now, he gazes at nie mingjue and jin rusong, son and alpha father together if nothing else, and he lets himself hurt all over.

 

at some point, wandering like a tiny frankenstein, guangyao pads over to the couch and kneels beside it, head on arm, arm resting bend on couch cushion beside mingjue’s head. he can feel his breaths, his warmth. when they fell out, mingjue’s deep pine scent had taken on a tinge of copper or iron, like a wound, and it had stayed that way until guangyao forgot there had ever been a time when it wasn’t there. but as he breathes in now, it’s nearly vanished. mingjue is nearly all pine again, cool and green. lan xichen’s influence, guangyao assumes.

 

he dares not touch his former alpha, ferocious as he is in slumber, but he curls a finger, reaches up, and strokes rusong’s cloud-soft cheek. he’s done the best he can for his son, just as his own mother did the best she could for him. are they a family, he wonders? rusong loves them both. he and mingjue both love rusong. even in his angriest, most hateful moments, mingjue never accused guangyao of not loving rusong. and guangyao counts that among the many reasons he still, after everything, loves mingjue. but even if love alone made a family, he couldn’t count on mingjue’s feelings.

 

he isn’t crying. he doesn’t dig his face into the cushion. he wipes no tears on the upholstery, doesn’t clench his lips around his teeth to silence the sound, doesn’t fix his thoughts on how truly whole he felt when mingjue first mated him, how bright and warm it felt for his love to be returned.

 

a weight and a heat land on the crown of his head. a voice, even deeper than usual and hushed in the evening darkness, calls him, “a-yao.”

 

guangyao does what he can to dry his eyes on the linen. he looks up, says nothing. it’s better to simply let mingjue stroke his hair. that voice hasn’t called him a-yao in three years.

 

mingjue shifts enough to let their eyes meet but not enough to make rusong rouse. the redness in guangyao’s eyes is palpable and unavoidable, but after a soft twitch in his brow, mingjue seems determined not to call attention to it. “you can’t be comfortable down there,” he whispers, groggy.

 

“i’m fine,” guangyao lies. if mingjue can move on, so can he. he takes a breath. “how long’s a-song been out?”

 

mingjue grumbles, rustling. that’s another thing guangyao’s almost forgotten, how when he can’t quite get comfortable, mingjue moves like some beast trapped below the crust of the earth. “uh, what time is it, nine?”

 

“nine.”

 

“so like an hour? i might have been asleep longer than he has, though, to be honest.”

 

the first smile guangyao has seen on him spreads across his face, shallow and sleepy, but there. guangyao returns it.

 

mingjue glances up. his right horn pushes against the couch. “shit, i didn’t tear this thing, did i?”

 

he shakes his head no. “i don’t think i’d really care if you did, it’s just a couch.”

 

that huge hand combs through guangyao’s hair again. it’s been there the whole time. when it moves, guangyao sways in its absence, nuzzling into air that hadn’t been there a second before. his eyes fall shut. the tv has shut off on its own after an hour of disuse, but the cyan glow from the cable box glimmers just beyond his eyelids. he likes this silence, he decides.

 

“what are you even working so hard on,” mingjue asks. “am i allowed to know?”

 

guangyao opens his eyes enough to see his lashes and the plaintive furrow on mingjue’s face. the same knit when he sleeps, and when he yells, and when he cries, and when he worries, and when he cares. guangyao bites his lower lip. it’s an unhappy knit, yes. but only sometimes.

 

his lungs feel weak. “i’m.” he looks away from mingjue, then rethinks it. “i’m testifying against my dad.”

 

he hasn’t finished speaking when mingjue’s thumb brushes his cheekbone. he’s wiping the sheen of a tear away.

 

and mingjue’s brows lift.

 

“a-yao,” he murmurs.

 

guangyao replies, “dage.”

 

rusong grunts in his sleep, not quite awake but nearing it. both his fathers break away from each other to glance at him, and mingjue pushes himself up, stroking rusong’s back as he moves to keep him calm and maybe even mostly asleep. “let’s get you into bed, buddy,” he tells him.

 

guangyao’s hand drifts to mingjue’s lap. he places no weight in it, the touch alone enough for what he wants to do. “dage,” he repeats.

 

mingjue looks back at him, still holding onto rusong. a nap flush runs across his face. he keeps his smile locked in his eyes.

 

“will you stay here tonight?” guangyao asks.

 

rusong stays nestled in his father’s arms, asleep.

 

“yeah,” mingjue answers. “no reason not to.”