Rumours travelled fast in the inner palace and the children of the servants court soon heard that Prince Jing had returned to Jinling. Tingsheng did his best to ignore the sly comments of the other children.
It wasn’t as if Tingsheng didn’t know that Prince Jing could loose interest in him. It was just he was finding it harder and harder to believe that he ever would. There was something dependable about Prince Jing. Still, every time he appeared Tingsheng’s heart would jump for happiness and he would have bit his cheek hard to keep from beaming.
Prince Jing asked him questions about how he had been and listened gravely to his answers, even when Tingsheng rambled, and gave him advice about his problems even though they must seem so tiny and petty to him, and sometimes put his big hand on Tingsheng’s shoulder, heavy and rough and reassuring. This time Prince Jing had brought a writing brush with him and Tingsheng was able to show him that he remembered his characters by the writing them with water on a flat flagstone. Prince Jing taught him some new ones and Tingsheng did his best to remember them.
Afterwards they sat next to each other and Tingsheng tried to ignore the voice inside his head that was telling him he should be doing something to justify Prince Jing’s interest in him. At one of their first meetings Prince Jing had told him that Prince Jing would tell Tingsheng if he wanted him to do soemthing. If he didn’t he just wanted Tingsheng to do what Tingsheng wanted to do. Tingsheng was getting better at thinking of those things but mostly what he wanted to do was just be next to Prince Jing, and sometimes he worried that Prince Jing would find that boring.
There was a rustle of stiff cloth next to him. “Here,” Prince Jing said, and handed him an orange.
Tingsheng took it, his eyes wide. An orange? He had never one all for himself before. He rubbed his fingers over the waxy, dimpled skin and dug his nails into the peel, they way he’d seen others do. It caught under his fingernails as he peeled small pieces off the fruit. When he finally very carefully put a small piece in his mouth he gasped a little.
Suddenly self conscious he looked up. Prince Jing had taken another orange out of his sleeve and was focused on it intently, peeling it in one long narrow strip. Relieved, Tingsheng turned his attention back to his own orange. He broke it carefully into sections, trying not to loose any juice, and ate it in the smallest bites he could. No one was shouting at him to do something. Prince Jing was sitting next to him, and he had brought him an orange, and they were both sitting next to each other eating oranges. Prince Jing was a Prince and hero (no matter what the other boys said Tingsheng knew it was true) and he wanted to spend time with Tingsheng.
Tentatively, he leaned a little more of his weight against Prince Jing’s side. Prince Jing didn’t object. In fact, he shifted slightly so Tingsheng could rest more comfortably against him. Tingsheng nestled in and wished he never had to leave.
Lin Chen was having a lovely dream about beautiful accommodating ladies when he suddenly started choking. He woke up hacking frantically, and spat out - a piece of orange peel?
“Ah Fei Liu is so clever! He is getting so good at sneaking.”
Lin Chen looked up wildly through watering eyes in time to see Fei Liu wrap himself contentedly around Mei Changsu’s shoulders. There was a pile of oranges and organ peel on the ground next to them.
Changsu shrugged gracefully. Fei Liu rode the motion easily. “You sleep with your mouth open. It’s very uncouth.”
Lin Chen opened and shut his mouth for a moment, then held up a finger. “First of all I do NOT sleep with my mouth open-”
“Snores,” Fei Liu contributed helpfully.
“AND SECOND,” Lin Chen raised his voice, “If I DID, why did Fei Liu put orange peel in my mouth.”
The two of them regarded him blandly with the exact same cobra-patient stares.
Lin Chen sniffed, drawing his dignity around himself. “Fei Liu, did you know there are men who can swallow an orange whole?” Fei Liu perked up, looking interested. Lin Chen grinned and picked up and organge. “Shall we see if Fei Liu is one of them?”
Fei Liu’s eyes widened. “No!” he yelped, and fled, and Lin Chen gave chase cackling.
Mei Changsu ate another orange.
Mu Qing was frowning down at his book, trying desperately to stop the characters swimming before his eyes. The lamp was burning low. Yesterday’s essay had been waiting for him when he staggered in from practice, his sister’s neat annotations filling up the empty spaces and pointing out everything his analysis had overlooked.
“Better,” a voice said by his ear.
“Jie!” he exclaimed, twisting around in his seat to beam up at her.
His sister had met with the generals today, and had reviewed the troops, and done her own practice, and received intelligence reports, and had still found the time to review his work. He was convinced his sister had learned a secret technique to add more hours to the day because she was just that awesome. And she was looking down at him with that faint smile she wore when she was pleased with him, and Mu Qing swelled up with pride to see it.
To his delight, Nihuang produced a orange and put it down on the corner of his desk. He got a stinging rap on the knuckles when he reached it. “After you finish your essay,” Nihuang told him.
“Yes Jie,” Mu Qing said obediently, reaching for a fresh sheet. He felt her hand press gently against his shoulder for a moment before she moved across the room to her own desk and he straightened upright, beaming. He was going to write her the best essay she had ever read!
The three Xie siblings had absconded to the water pavilion with a basket of fresh oranges after lunch. They were all now feeling a little overfull but none of them were willing to be the first to stop.
“The Zhuo Family will be coming next week,” Xie Qi said idly, tearing pieces of peel into smaller pieces. “It doesn’t feel like its been a year since Jingrui-gege came home.”
Xie Bi glanced slyly sideways at his sister. “Yes, but the dashing Zhuo Qingyao will be among them.”
Xie Qi huffed and stuck her nose in the air. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said haughtily.
“Qingyao-gege is very noble,” Jingrui agreed, smiling at his sister. She pinked a bit and smiled back at him. “We’ll have to save some of the oranges for them.”
“Ahh, Jingrui’s taken the last orange,” Xie Bi complained.
Xie Qi sighed loudly. “Eldest brother is so greedy.”
Jingrui glanced at the basket and saw guiltily that they were right. “No look we can share,” he offered, already splitting the orange apart into segments. He looked up to see his sister and brother rolling their eyes at each other. “What?” he said, confused.
After putting four valleys between themselves and the Old Master they had challenged the three of them regrouped to compare bruises. None of them could meet the others’ eyes.
“Well,” Yan Que said at last. “That was humiliating.”
“I suppose the entire purpose of this journey is to improve our skills,” Xie Yu said. The other two could hear his teeth grinding.
“It wouldn’t have been so bad,” Lin Xie said mournfully, “if he hadn’t laughed.”
They each studied the sky, the ground, and a particularly interesting bird.
“…was all our food in the bag he took in payment for wasting his time?”
After turning out all their pockets and sleeves Lin Xie produce a single rather bruised orange. They regarded it dolefully. Breakfast had been a long time ago.
Lin Xie picked up the orange, cut it into three, and handed each of the others a segment. “Let us all swear,” he said solemnly, “to never speak of this again.”