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The arrival of Sect Leader Lan at Jinlintai is no longer such an uncommon occurrence that it incites the kind of whispering and fluttering among the servants that it used to, but regardless of how often he comes (or, perhaps, because of it) he’s always preceded by at least a little bit of gossip. Jin Guangyao has never minded this; gossip is useful, and there is never malice in the way people speak of Lan Xichen, only curiosity and awe. Truly, if he were inclined to it, he could easily find himself right alongside them. One never quite gets used to Er-ge, to the sheer weight of his presence when he enters a room, no matter how much time one spends with him.

Jin Guangyao would ask him how he does it, if he thought it was even the slightest bit deliberate. Er-ge is simply Er-ge.

He goes to meet him as soon as he hears of his arrival, Jin Ling cradled comfortably against his hip. Aside from the usual bows, no one really spares the two of them a second glance— not until he walks into the hall where Er-ge is waiting, at least. As always, Er-ge’s handsome face lights up when he sees Jin Guangyao, but then his eyes flick slightly to the side and widen just a touch in surprise, and Jin Guangyao remembers the child currently gnawing on the ties of his hat. Unbidden, a fond smile curves his lips. “A-Ling,” he murmurs, “you haven’t seen Zewu-jun in some time, have you?”

Jin Ling makes a dubious sound, watching Er-ge as if he expects him to sprout a set of claws or fangs at any moment. Jin Guangyao chuckles and gives the child a little squeeze, then approaches their guest. “Er-ge,” he greets him warmly. Though he only has one free arm, he still holds it in front of himself to bow, anticipating the little thrill that will go through him as Er-ge’s large, warm hand catches him and pushes him upright again. He’s never really had an inside joke like this with anyone since his mother died, and it’s a little embarrassing how pleased it makes him feel every time. Er-ge’s warm honey-brown eyes are smiling when he straightens up, and Jin Guangyao smiles back, content.

“It’s a pleasure to see you, as always,” he says. “I hope you don’t mind if A-Ling accompanies us today. His parents are quite busy, and I offered to watch him.”

“I don’t mind at all,” Er-ge agrees pleasantly, and the two fall into step, both heading in the same direction without needing to discuss it. “Do you do this often?”

Jin Guangyao smiles and shifts Jin Ling to a slightly more comfortable position on his hip. “As often as I can,” he says truthfully. The memory of being denied the opportunity to even hold his infant nephew no longer carries the sting it once had, now that Jin Guangshan is dead; it comforts him now to think of how horrified the old man would be to see his only acknowledged son using everything their father had taught him about politics to ensure that no one ever dares question the place his bastard half-brother holds at his side. “Unfortunately, Sect Leader Jin requires me for more than child minding, or I would happily make it my primary duty.”

At his shoulder, Jin Ling coos his agreement. Jin Guangyao’s robes feel slightly damp where the child, who he suspects is working on cutting his third tooth, has abandoned the hat ties in favour of chewing on the fabric instead. Thankfully, the heaviness and colour of his outer robe means very little evidence of this shows, so he doesn’t have to stop A-Ling from doing as he likes.

“I see,” Er-ge says, fond and amused. Then he addresses Jin Ling, who’s been watching him quite curiously all the way along the path to Jin Guangyao’s chambers. “I hope you’re behaving well for your uncle, Young Master.”

Jin Ling giggles— perhaps at being called Young Master with such great dignity, perhaps simply because it’s hard not to smile when addressed so kindly by Er-ge— and stretches his arms toward the blue-clad figure, having seemingly decided that the newcomer is not only safe but appealing. Jin Guangyao doesn’t miss the beat of hesitation in Er-ge’s manner, the way his eyes flick to Jin Guangyao’s face as if looking for a cue, and though he shows no outward signs of his surprise, it sets his mind wondering. Is Er-ge uncomfortable? There should be no reason for him to be; Jin Ling, while shy with strangers at first, is a sociable and happy child, and Jin Guangyao knows that Er-ge has cultivated a close friendship with Jiang Yanli through letters and chats at discussion conferences, so surely he doesn’t feel he’s stepping over any boundaries. Odd. Perhaps he had merely been surprised— perhaps, Jin Guangyao thinks a bit uncharitably, Lan children are taught even this young to be reserved in their displays of affection. “Would you like to hold him?”

Er-ge, to his credit, recovers admirably, and Jin Guangyao is sure that anyone who knows him less thoroughly would have missed his moment of discomfort entirely. “If Young Master Jin would like me to,” he says gravely, and Jin Ling giggles again, opening and closing his small hands in a gesture that Jin Guangyao knows to mean pick me up already (or, sometimes, give me that, I want to chew on it , but that interpretation seems less relevant here). Jin Guangyao shifts his grip so he can pass the child over, watching closely— and sure enough, there’s the slight hesitation, the moment where Er-ge is visibly attempting to figure out where to put his hands, as if holding a baby is something that doesn’t come the least bit naturally to him. Almost as if it’s something he’s never done before.

Lan Xichen is reaching down to pick up baby Jin Ling, who is reaching up for him. Jin Guangyao stands next to them, watching Jin Ling with a small smile on his face.

Unbothered, Jin Ling settles into Er-ge’s arms as easily as if he sees him every day and immediately begins tugging on a lock of Er-ge’s hair. Jin Guangyao hides a smile at the resulting wince and leads the way along the remainder of the path to his chambers; he’s not intending to say anything, but there’s something about Er-ge’s expression when he turns and catches a glimpse as he’s sliding open the door to let him in that sets the words tumbling out anyway, his tone light and teasing. “You look as if you’ve never seen a baby before.”

To his delight, a faint dusting of pink spreads across Er-ge’s cheeks at the accusation. “I’ve seen them,” he defends himself, and Jin Guangyao laughs, charmed. It’s so rare to see the unflappable Sect Leader Lan embarrassed that he feels he must treasure the moment all the more for it. Er-ge laughs too, unable to help it, and Jin Guangyao thinks it’s surely safe to tease him just a little more.

“Only seen?” Jin Ling is squirming a little, so Jin Guangyao adds, “You can put him down. I’ve made sure there’s nothing in his reach that could harm him.”

Er-ge does so, setting Jin Ling down with great care and watching as the child immediately crawls over to the low table in the centre of the room and pulls himself up to examine his surroundings. Though Jin Guangyao had only been teasing, after a moment of quietly watching Jin Ling turn a teacup around and around in his hands, Er-ge does indeed answer the question, a hint of regret colouring his voice. “I don’t think I’ve spent time around children this young since Wangji was this age, and I was quite young myself, then.”

Jin Guangyao blinks. He’s not entirely sure why, but in his mind where he’s filled in the gaps in Er-ge’s life that he has no first-, second-, or third-hand knowledge of, this had never really been a consideration. He’s been to Cloud Recesses often enough that he’s seen children of all ages there, learning and helping and being cared for, and perhaps it’s that for him, Lan Xichen is Cloud Recesses— every part of it that matters— that has led him to assume that he interacts with the little ones as regularly as Jin Guangyao himself might, were he to take up residence there. “Is that so?” he asks mildly, tilting his head a touch to make sure his manner conveys only curiosity, no judgement.

The smile Er-ge gives him is knowing; Jin Guangyao has found, of late, that he no longer always fears being known. “You’re surprised.” He goes to sit at the table, prompting Jin Guangyao to move at last from where he’s been standing by the door and go to prepare tea for the three of them. Jin Ling is familiar with this ritual by now, and watches it eagerly, occasionally glancing at Er-ge to make sure he’s still where he ought to be.

“I suppose I am,” Jin Guangyao admits. “I know that you teach, when you have time, and you did so more often before you became Sect Leader. It led me to assume that you must be quite comfortable around children.”

“Around children who are old enough to attend class,” Er-ge says, chuckling. “And things are quite different, in a setting like that. Besides, even though I was still young myself, they all knew I was the future Sect Leader.”

He doesn’t need to elaborate; Jin Guangyao can imagine the curious, awed stares, the hushed whispers, the careful distance. He’d once thought that power was the solution to all problems, but he’s beginning to discover that too much power is just as lonely as the lack of it. “I see,” he says, and brings the tea over, deftly keeping the tray out of Jin Ling’s reach with one hand as he sits and passing the child his own cup— shaped to be much more difficult to spill, the tea inside lukewarm and milky— before serving Er-ge and himself. They both watch Jin Ling for a moment, and then Jin Guangyao says gently, “You are always welcome to spend time with us, you know.”

He knows at once that it had been the right thing to say. Er-ge can’t disguise the way his face lights up, though he makes an admirable effort at it. “Surely A-Yao has better things to do than teach me how to care for children,” he demurs, and Jin Guangyao laughs and shakes his head.

“Perhaps,” he says, “but nothing I would enjoy quite so much.”

Jin Ling looks between the two of them curiously, then takes the opportunity to clamber into Er-ge’s lap, settling there quite comfortably to finish his tea. Er-ge freezes for a moment, watching him, and then awkwardly puts his arms around the small body; Jin Ling takes little notice except to snuggle in more securely, and Jin Guangyao, watching them, feels an odd tightness in his chest. Unbidden, an image surfaces in his mind— Er-ge holding another child, their child, perhaps rocking him back to sleep late at night with his hair loose around his face and a tired smile curving his lips. It’s not something Jin Guangyao has ever let himself even begin to consider before, well practiced as he is at ignoring the less realistic of his desires, but somehow the idea has slipped the iron control he keeps over his own mind, and he suspects it will not let him be. Perhaps sensing he’s being watched, Er-ge looks up and meets his eyes, and at once Jin Guangyao knows with a breathless certainty that he isn’t the only one thinking such wild thoughts; he has to force himself to lower his gaze lest he do something insane and embarrassing like lean across the table to kiss him right here, like this, with Jin Ling babbling quietly to himself between them.

Thankfully, it doesn’t take him more than a moment or two to recover, and when he looks up again Er-ge’s expression is once again mild and pleasant. “Then, I believe I’ll take you up on your offer,” he agrees. “As for today, what did you have planned?”

Jin Guangyao smiles and inclines his head slightly towards Jin Ling, feeling oddly mirthful. “I am at the mercy of the Young Master’s whims.”

Jin Ling, as it turns out, is an excellent assistant in his uncle’s lessons on childcare. Not because he’s a particularly easy child— Jin Guangyao has certainly encountered many who were far more pliant and agreeable— but rather, because he’s quite intent on communicating his wishes, and determined enough to keep trying when he’s not immediately understood. Jin Guangyao privately credits much of this to his mother’s patience (she’s certainly had enough practice cultivating it, growing up with Sect Leader Jiang and Wei Wuxian as her brothers) but, whatever the reason for it, it’s the perfect match for Er-ge’s natural curiosity and intelligence, and by late afternoon he finds that he’s barely needing to intervene with suggestions. They’ve spent a good deal of the day in Jin Ling’s favourite garden as he crawls around, plays with his toys, and practices the few shaky steps he’s currently managing unsupported, and at last the child has worn himself out and fallen asleep in Er-ge’s arms, small head resting on his broad, blue-clad shoulder. It’s a lovely picture, and with a gentle pang of regret Jin Guangyao finds himself wishing Huaisang were here to paint it.

“How am I doing, A-Yao?” Er-ge’s smiling warmly at him, perhaps sensing the slight melancholy in his thoughts, and Jin Guangyao lets it go and smiles back.

“You’re a natural,” he says, and means it. Far from the awkwardness and hesitation of this morning, the steady, sure way Er-ge is holding Jin Ling’s sleeping form now speaks to how much more comfortable he’s already grown. “Truly, all you needed was a little push in the right direction.”

Er-ge hums, hand moving in slow, soothing circles on Jin Ling’s back. “Perhaps. I am grateful for your guidance nonetheless.” His eyes twinkle at Jin Guangyao in that way they always do when he’s teasing, or the two are sharing some private joke. “Ah, but I’m curious— how did A-Yao become such an expert? You speak as though you’ve been doing this sort of thing for much longer than A-Ling has been alive.”

“I have,” Jin Guangyao answers easily. He’s speaking with the one person with whom he has no hesitation about sharing these memories; there has never been any awkwardness, any strange distance or uncertain, fumbling attempts at sympathy, when he’s spoken about his past to Er-ge. Er-ge simply listens, and has never once let it change anything. “I grew up in a brothel, after all. Even the most reliable methods of preventing pregnancy cannot work every time.” He sighs. “Most women simply took certain herbs, as soon as they’d missed their cycle. But there were those who couldn’t bring themselves to do it— and some who did, but it didn’t work. There were quite a few children living there at any given time.”

Er-ge is quiet for a moment, thinking it over. Picturing it, perhaps, a much younger Jin Guangyao— Meng Yao, then— herding a handful of even smaller children. It’s a fond memory, as much as anything from those days can be, and it makes Jin Guangyao smile to recall it. “We were no Lan disciples,” he murmurs, “but we had enough food, and mothers who did their best, and each other.”

“The other children were certainly lucky to have you,” Er-ge says in that painfully sincere way of his that never fails to pierce through Jin Guangyao’s best defenses. “As is A-Ling, now.”

They sit in companionable silence for a good long while as Jin Ling sleeps; Jin Guangyao takes the opportunity to get some work done, and Er-ge closes his eyes and slips into what might be meditation or might just as easily be a half-doze. After about an hour, give or take, Jin Ling makes a soft sound and starts to stir, and Er-ge opens his eyes again and watches the child blink awake, bewildered for a moment until he recalls in whose lap he fell asleep and gives Er-ge a wide, drowsy smile. Jin Guangyao has been the target of that smile often enough to know just how heart-melting it is, and Er-ge is certainly not immune, smiling back at Jin Ling with a warmth Jin Guangyao has only ever seen directed at Lan Wangji, Nie Mingjue, and Jin Guangyao himself. “Did you sleep well, Young Master?” he inquires, and Jin Ling giggles and reaches up to tug curiously at Er-ge’s ribbon.

“A-Ling—“ Jin Guangyao begins, already reaching out to pull him away, but Er-ge chuckles and lifts a hand to stop him.

“It’s all right,” he says gently, tilting his head down so Jin Ling doesn’t have to reach quite so far. “He’s just a child. There’s no harm in it.”

No matter how hard he tries, Jin Guangyao can’t rid himself of the image of the two of them like this, and by dinnertime he’s still distracted by it, even as he carefully feeds Jin Ling in between bites of his own meal. There was a time when he’d have been angry at himself for it, frustrated at his own inability to shut off his emotions when it comes to Er-ge; these days, though, he’s looking at things a little differently, and rather than considering it a weakness he’s beginning to think that perhaps it’s a sign. That perhaps it’s finally time to talk about the thing they’ve been talking around for so long.

Er-ge goes with him to bring Jin Ling to his parents after dinner, and Jiang Yanli greets him with evident delight in spite of the weariness that always dogs her after a long day of politics and negotiations. The two converse while she gets Jin Ling ready for bed, and Jin Guangyao takes the opportunity to discuss a few things with his brother, being sure to keep it to matters that will relieve stress rather than cause more of it. He’s not sure he’ll ever get used to Jin Zixuan’s deep (and frequently expressed) gratitude for the work he does, but he’s certainly become far less suspicious of its sincerity over time, and he has to admit it does make everything a touch more pleasant. As nice as it is, though, they don’t stay long— the whole family is tired, and Jin Guangyao knows that Jin Ling will be too excited to fall asleep with the two of them still present. So with a bow towards Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli, and a goodnight kiss on his nephew’s chubby little cheek, he leads Er-ge out of their rooms and back towards his own. 

They don’t speak on the way, as is often the case when they’re together. Jin Guangyao suspects that Er-ge has a good deal to think about, after such a pleasantly full day, and the comfortable quiet gives him time to decide what he wishes to say, how he’ll approach the topic that’s been taking up space in his thoughts for the last several hours. He’s surprised to find he’s actually a little nervous, a reaction he’d thought he’d long since trained out of himself— there’s no doubt that Er-ge returns his feelings, Jin Guangyao has known this for some time, but speaking the truth of it out loud will require a response, require a change , even if materially their lives remain exactly as they are. And deliberately introducing change into the most stable, reliable part of his life… 

A year ago, he would never even have considered it. It is, he thinks, either foolishness or growth that he is doing so now. 

“Er-ge,” he begins, at the same time as Er-ge turns to him and says, “A-Yao—” There’s a pause, a beat of silence, and then both of them laugh, and all at once the nervousness is gone from Jin Guangyao, replaced with a strange, giddy flutter of excitement in the pit of his stomach. Er-ge inclines his head slightly, motioning for Jin Guangyao to go first, and Jin Guangyao’s smile lingers on his lips as he steps a little closer, grateful for the relative privacy of the garden in which they’ve stopped. Honesty has never come easily to him, but he owes Er-ge so much more than the conversational dance he performs with everyone else, which leaves him with really only one thing to say. 

“This humble one,” he begins, peering up through his lashes at Er-ge, because he would not for anything miss seeing the look on his face just now, “would like to ask permission to court Sect Leader Lan, if he is amenable.” 

And then he bows, and this time when he feels Er-ge’s hands on his elbows he lets his own arms slide back so he can catch those warm, elegant hands in his. 

“A-Yao,” Er-ge breathes, and the soft wonder in his voice makes Jin Guangyao’s heart sing. “I had thought— that is—” It’s a rare gift to see him speechless, and particularly so with the way he keeps laughing a little at himself each time he stops mid sentence. “You must know—” he says at last, helplessly. “Surely you must already know my feelings on the matter.” 

Jin Guangyao smiles sweetly. “Of course,” he agrees. “Er-ge wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to the people he loves.” 

The gentle exasperation in Er-ge’s expression at the teasing would be reward enough, were it not immediately followed by the feeling of being pulled close against him and kissed, finally, finally , with a tenderness that feels almost worshipful. “I have loved you,” Er-ge murmurs against his lips while Jin Guangyao is still trying to remember which way is up, “since the moment we met. There is no need to court me, A-Yao. I have always been yours.” 

“Er-ge,” Jin Guangyao breathes, reeling. He’s always thought them more or less evenly matched in the art of pretty words, but if this had been a contest he would have no choice but to admit defeat in the face of such devastating sincerity. All the more reason, then, to be grateful that they’re on the same side— that Er-ge is on his side, always. “I want to do this right,” he manages at last, hoping his meaning is clear; the expectations and judgements of others, for once in his life, matter so little that they’re not even worth noting, but what Er-ge wants, what he deserves, that matters. That matters more than almost anything else. 

The flush that creeps up Er-ge’s neck and settles across his nose and cheeks is perhaps the loveliest thing Jin Guangyao has ever seen. “All right, then,” he says, and he sounds so boyish and shy that Jin Guangyao aches with the need to kiss him again. “We’ll do it right. But—” He holds a hand up, forestalling Jin Guangyao’s attempt to give in to that impulse. His other hand splays across the small of Jin Guangyao’s back, keeping him close. “You must promise me you won’t drag it out longer than necessary, just to tease.” 

Jin Guangyao’s smile is so wide that his cheeks ache with it. “Would I be that cruel?” he asks archly, giddy with the joy of it all, drunk on the sound of Er-ge’s laughter. 

They do, eventually, manage to part long enough to finish their journey to Jin Guangyao’s rooms; the garden they’d paused in is secluded, but if they’d lingered there long enough some hapless servant would undoubtedly have stumbled on them and the scandalous news would have spread through the entirety of Jinlintai within the hour. Just this once, Jin Guangyao allows himself to forget propriety and pull Er-ge over to sit next to him on the bed, in no small part so he can continue to steal kisses in opportune moments as they talk. Not having to let go of Er-ge’s hands is an extra bonus— Er-ge keeps running his thumbs across Jin Guangyao’s knuckles in a way that sends pleasant shivers down his spine. 

“Tell me, A-Yao,” Er-ge says once they’re settled, “why now? What brought this on so suddenly?” 

“Was it sudden?” Jin Guangyao says mildly. He’ll have to explain himself eventually, but it is a little embarrassing. “Perhaps it simply felt like the right time.” 

Er-ge smiles and shakes his head. “I know you better than that,” he points out, no hint of accusation in his tone. “You never do anything without a reason, and certainly not without thinking it through quite thoroughly first.” 

Caught, as he’d known he would be, Jin Guangyao looks down at their joined hands and smiles too. “It was seeing you with A-Ling today,” he admits. It’s not as if Er-ge hasn’t likely already guessed at it, anyway. “It was very sweet, and… well, it made me think of the future. Of… a possible future.” 

The soothing motion of Er-ge’s thumbs sweeping across the backs of his fingers doesn’t falter. “Do you want children, A-Yao?” It’s a simple question, gently posed and not tainted with any hint of judgement, but Jin Guangyao feels himself tense slightly in response anyway. It will never be an easy thing, he suspects, to let down the walls around his most deeply held desires. 

“I do,” he whispers. “Very much.” 

Er-ge lets go of one of his hands, and a breath later Jin Guangyao feels the soft brush of that callused thumb over his cheek instead. He turns his head to kiss it, and smiles when Er-ge fits his hand along the curve of his jaw in response, touching for the mere pleasure of being close. “It’s something I had never let myself think about,” Er-ge confesses, “between my duties as Sect Leader and…” He takes a deep breath, and the wry twist of his lips strikes a chord of painful kinship in Jin Guangyao’s chest. “Well, I didn’t exactly have the most shining example of fatherhood to aspire to.” 

It’s about as poorly as he’s ever heard Er-ge speak of anyone; Jin Guangyao desperately wants to ask, but his curiosity is not worth bringing such a shadow over this moment, so he kisses Er-ge instead, sweet and chaste. “You would be a wonderful father,” he says when they part, hoping his eyes convey how deeply he believes it. 

“I hope,” Er-ge says, leaning forward to press their foreheads together, “that we get a chance to find out if you’re right, one day. I would like that very much.” 

Neither of them have much desire to part ways, in spite of the late hour. Any other day, Jin Guangyao would have showed Er-ge to the guest rooms he typically occupies when his visits span more than a day, but tonight he can’t find it in him to sleep alone knowing that he doesn’t have to. Thankfully, he also doesn’t have to figure out how to bring it up— he simply begins taking his hair down from its braids, and Er-ge smiles and reaches up to take his own guan off and set it down next to Jin Guangyao’s hat, and they both continue this way in companionable silence until they’re ready for sleep. Stretching out next to Er-ge is not an unfamiliar feeling, recalling bittersweet memories of the time they’d spent in hiding together, sharing a room in a different inn each night, but the way Er-ge shifts closer behind him and pushes his hair aside to kiss the back of his neck softly is new. Jin Guangyao immediately decides to make sure there are as many opportunities as possible for that in the future. 

“Good night,” he murmurs, closing his eyes and smiling as he feels more than hears the drowsy rumble of Er-ge’s reply. Between one heartbeat and the next, relaxed and warm and safe, unconsciousness finds him and he doesn’t resist its pull. 

He wakes to sunshine on his skin and small, cool fingers patting his cheek. Disoriented, he blinks himself awake more slowly than he’d like, cursing himself for his sloppiness— sleeping that deeply, anyone could have walked in and simply slit his throat without even the semblance of a fight— until he remembers where he is, and when. And that no assassin is likely to have such tiny, faintly sticky hands. 

“A-Ling?” he murmurs, wondering for one bewildering instant if he’d somehow forgotten to bring the child back to his parents the day before. 

“I’m sorry, A-Yao,” Jiang Yanli says from the doorway, sounding somehow both apologetic and far too amused. “He was quite determined to see you.” 

Jin Ling babbles his agreement, and Jin Guangyao sighs and sits up, forgetting for a moment that he isn’t alone— at least, until the motion dislodges Er-ge’s arm from where it had lay draped across his chest. It slides down to rest on his hip instead, and Jin Ling, noticing it, crows delightedly and grabs hold of one of Er-ge’s fingers. Jin Guangyao’s gaze darts to Jiang Yanli, who’s watching with raised eyebrows and a smile on her lips that reminds him far too much of Wei Wuxian. 

“Well, I suppose this makes it a little easier,” she says lightly. “He wanted to see Zewu-jun, too.” 

Jin Guangyao opens his mouth, then closes it again, for once entirely at a loss for words. Jiang Yanli’s laughter, clear and sweet, rings through the room, and he knows he’s well and truly lost all hope of escaping this situation with any scrap of dignity when he hears Er-ge, from behind him, chuckling along with her. 

“I am ruined, A-Ling,” he tells the baby mournfully. “No one shall ever take me seriously again.” 

“Ah,” Jin Ling says, distracted by examining the embroidery on the sleeve of the shirt Er-ge had worn to bed. 

Jin Guangyao rolls his eyes. “You can leave him with us, if you’d like, Yanli-jie,” he tells her. “We’ll bring him back to you after breakfast, provided he tires of our company by then.” She looks exhausted— he can’t blame her, given how Jin Ling seems to have made it his mission of late to wake earlier than the sun each day— and while he won’t presume to tell her outright to get some rest, they both know what he means by his offer. 

She gives him a grateful smile and nods. Even more tired than she seems, then, if she’s not putting up so much as a token protest; perhaps Jin Guangyao can find a way to rearrange her schedule a little without her taking notice. “Be good for shushu,” she tells Jin Ling, who doesn’t even look up as she leaves. 

“Have you considered coming to study at Cloud Recesses, Young Master?” Er-ge sits up and lifts Jin Ling onto his lap, where he’ll have easier access to more of the embroidery he’s so fascinated by. “You seem to have a good sense for the schedule already.” 

Jin Guangyao turns to look at him, at the beautiful picture he makes— hair down, forehead ribbon set aside, face still soft with sleep. “Er-ge,” he says as sternly as he can manage, “stop trying to steal my nephew. He is, at least at present, the only one I have.” 

“My apologies,” Er-ge says, sounding not the least bit sorry. “A-Ling, I shall have to find another way to repay my debt to you.” He must sense Jin Guangyao’s confusion, because he has the audacity to wink at him— Jin Guangyao has never been more grateful for his ability to keep from appearing noticeably flustered. “The two of us do owe him a great deal, do we not? He is, after all, almost directly responsible for our current situation.” 

Er-ge. ” The effect of Jin Guangyao’s scandalized tone is somewhat spoiled by the laughter he can’t entirely suppress. He’s seen hints of this playful side of Er-ge before, of course, but never quite like this. How much more does he still have to learn? 

How fortunate he is, then, to have the rest of his life to learn it all. The future seems unusually bright these days. And for once, rather than question it, he’s simply looking forward to discovering what else it holds.