AN: I told myself when I first started writing that the stories are mostly for my own enjoyment, but that was before I saw the wonderful reviews. So thank you to everyone for reading my ramblings! This particular story is for Sharance, who shares my love for ErKang/Ziwei stories. Their courtship is not as tumultuous as that of Yongqi/XYZ but their devotion to each other always moves me and was the reason I got sucked into the show. What can I say, I'm a romantic at heart, and you can't get more romantic than 'shan wu leng, tian di he, cai gan yu jun jue'

Sunshine – ZiWei

ZiWei had always been a sensitive child. As a girl, she spent much time within the protective walls of her home. Not that well-bred young ladies of her station would normally be spending time rambling about town, not even a town as beautiful as Jinan. But ZiWei knew the darkness that lay beyond the physical boundaries of the courtyard. She remembered the only time she went to the market-place with her mother, her beautiful and talented but always sorrowful mother who seemed more than content to live out her days in the seclusion of their home. But even her mother could not refuse the small child's month-long pleas to experience the world outside, if only for a little bit. She remembered the wide-eyed wonder with which she regarded the bright colors, the noisy calls of vendors, and the overwhelming rush of people. She had clung tight to her mother's hand, for surely a young girl of five would be easily lost in this hustle and bustle, but found to her surprise that it wasn't needed. Wherever Xia Yu He walked, silence followed. The townspeople gave mother and daughter a wide berth so they never had to fight their way through the crowd. Even before the whispers started, ZiWei knew the parting of the crowd wasn't because of reverence, though the Xia family was part of the local gentry. Even before ZiWei heard the word 'whore' directed at her mother, she knew they were not wanted. But still her mother walked on, her head held high, the only sign of her discomfort was in the tight grip with which she held ZiWei's hand. Her daughter wanted to see the town and Xia Yu He was not about to disappoint the one ray of sunshine in her rather miserable life. When they were once again safely ensconced in the parlor of their home, ZiWei could sense the tension ebbing out from her mother's petite frame. She quickly kissed her mother's cheek, whispered 'thank you, mama,' and quietly withdrew to her favorite place in the garden. Sitting in the padoga, ZiWi paid no attention to the bright koi in her family's pond, instead, she reflected on the unfairness of the day. ZiWei loved her mother, who was always so patient and kind, even when ZiWei played wrong notes on the zither for the millionth time or smudged the paper when practicing her calligraphy. The child didn't understand why the townspeople could be so mean to someone who had done them no wrong. But ZiWei knew that she had never admired her mother more and vowed to show the same kind of strength. Nonetheless, never again did she ask to go into town.

As ZiWei grew older, she understood more the nature of her mother's perceived wrong. She learned the importance of a woman's virtue and the impact one decision could have on a whole family's fortunes. She learned of the reasons behind her grandparents' death; her grandmother's sorrow proved too great for her mind and her grandfather's anguish too strong for his heart. She learned to bear the condescension of her 'uncle,' who really was just her mother's cousin and who had always been upset that the family's resources were all left to Yu He instead of him. She learned to hide her hurt and sorrow behind a smiling face and to keep forgiveness in her heart. She bore the burden alone and buried her resentments deep. For her mother's sake, she fought to maintain a sense of peace, to be her mother's sunshine. She fought so hard that it became who she was. Despite her acknowledgement of the darkness that existed, she refused to let it claim her. Instead, she sought to understand the reasons for others' actions. Above all, she stayed strong and hoped with all her soul that her belief in the goodness of others was not misplaced.

She knew JinSuo, dear capable JinSuo, saw her as someone to be looked after, someone who was naïve and forgave too easily. And perhaps JinSuo was right, perhaps ZiWei did give of herself and shouldered the blame too easily. The Empress certainly thought of ZiWei as a weakling, someone who she could not only walk over, but squash with those tall shoes of hers with little effort. But ZiWei knew better. ZiWei saw the ill treatments for what they really were; the bitterness of a lonely woman who lacked the strength and goodness ZiWei's mother had. So, ZiWei carried on and bore it all patiently. Her attackers didn't truly know her or understand her; they were behaving out of ignorance. After all, ZiWei knew that even Xiao Yan Zi, loud boisterous Xiao Yan Zi, who never thought before she leapt but whose heart was always in the right place, sometimes still saw ZiWei as a dainty flower that needed protection.

In the end, none of it mattered so much since ZiWei had the love of the one person who saw her clearly. ZiWei knew that ErKang understood her, that they understood each other on a level that countless life and death situations only served to reinforce. She knew he could and would protect her, always, to the best of his abilities. But she also knew that he saw her strength and appreciated her for it. He was also the only one who saw her true moments of fragility. In turn, she saw his insecurities and was his rock. At first glance, they seemed quite typical of couples of their day; he, the intelligent and dutiful son and subject who could be, and was, relied on to complete any given task to perfection, and she, the talented and knowledgeable lady who was gentler than the smoothest silk. But the role of protector and protected was really not so simple. Beneath his outward strength, Er Kang was conflicted; he admitted to her that he never recognized his own insecurities until meeting her, never felt he trusted someone enough to reveal those weaknesses. He confessed that his pride was easily wounded and his emotions, especially regarding her, easily stirred. He had doubts that came from the disparity between the realities of court and the idealisms of his education, doubts regarding the ability of people to act on good principals and for unselfish reasons. It was she who pushed him to examine motives in the scope of the person's experiences, to dig deeper for reasons behind someone's actions, to understand others not only based on their actions but also based on the environment around them. It was she who reassured him when he felt powerless, she who shared his burdens when his frustrations at the rigidity of their society made him restless. She was his sunshine.

But unlike with her mother, ZiWei knew being Er Kang's sunshine was completely different. Yu He's whole life seemed shrouded in a gray cloud that needed constant brightening. But with Er Kang, ZiWei could let that light dim because she could rely on him to lend her strength. With him, she did not feel the need to hide behind lofty thoughts or poetic words for he always saw her meaning. One day, when they were reminiscing of the first time he laid bare his feelings, he asked who she had meant when she said there were people she wanted to protect by leaving. She had merely smiled at him and he had nodded gratefully before claiming her lips with his own. For they both knew it wasn't just Xiao Yan Zi she wanted to protect, not even just the lives of the Fu family or Wu Ah Ge. It was her heart and his. Even before JinSuo made her comment regarding the way Er Kang looked at her, she had felt something. At first it was gratefulness, then it was admiration, before finally the feelings of love. No matter how much she tried to ignore it, to tell herself that it was a futile road that led only to pain, she couldn't stop the blossoming emotions. She tried to reason with herself, tried to reason with him. She had even left to try to avoid taking that path, to avoid repeating her mother's mistake. But when she heard the sound of the galloping horse, when she saw the anguish, determination, and hope in his face, her strength cracked. She couldn't help but fling her arms around him and let his strength engulf her. After the initial elation of their reunion, however, she tried again to repair the crack in her strength. Even so, she could not look at him as she stubbornly refused to return; she couldn't bear to see the hurt, the disappointment. When he continually stood firm and declared that he only wanted her in his life, the crack spread until she let his determination to fight fate overtake her. As they rode from Yo Yo Gu towards Xiao Yan Zi and the others, she couldn't help but feel safe in his arms. When he told her that she didn't have to be strong alone anymore, she was shocked and only their position on the horse prevented her from staring at him in shock. But Er Kang understood. He merely held her hands tighter as ZiWei breathed out a long sigh of contentment. For in his arms, she had found home and a sanctuary. In him, she had found her own sunshine.