There’s something… off about Jin Ling this morning. Perhaps it’s the way he’s tilting his head, widening his eyes in an attempt to look younger and more innocent than he is. Jiang Cheng’s nephew is sixteen going on seventeen, and the boy’s every waking moment is spent trying to figure out how to become more of a man – or at the very least, act like it.
That he’s behaving in a way completely opposite is the first clue that something’s not quite right. Jin Ling only pulls out this expression when he wants something. And Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he’s not going to like it.
His worst fears are confirmed when Jin Ling opens his mouth.
“Uncle…,” he begins, dragging the last syllable in something that could have been a whine if Jiang Cheng hadn’t made damn sure years ago that the brat never whined in front of him. “Can we go to the Cloud Recesses?”
Jiang Cheng’s eyebrow goes up and he represses a sigh. He expected something like that.
“Please?” Jin Ling adds. His eyes go even wider, and he’s fucking pouting now, looking for all the world like a puppy begging for a bone. “It’s Sizhui’s birthday today, and I want to give him something. Jingyi said they don’t celebrate birthdays in Gusu, and that’s fucking outrageous.”
“Watch your mouth,” Jiang Cheng corrects automatically. He might cuss like a sailor, but no son of Jiang Yanli is going to use such foul language. Not if he can help it.
Jin Ling ignores him, and continues.
“He’s turning eighteen today, and that’s super special; apparently in Gusu when that happens you get your own jingshi and swap out your forehead ribbon for a different one. To show you’re a man or something. I don’t really get the big deal, but there you go.”
The words all come out in a rush. It’s too early for this and Jiang Cheng’s head is spinning trying to follow everything. Jin Ling has never been a morning person, much like his uncle. Said uncle notes with a sinking heart that he hasn’t seen the boy this excited since the day he received Fairy.
So that’s the way the wind is blowing. He should have seen this coming; after all, he’s been raising the kid ever since he was a toddler still in diapers. The sudden interest in the guqin, the constant litany of “Sizhui says…”, the blushing and stammering whenever the Gusu Lan sect is mentioned, followed by indignant shrieking and an abrupt topic change – Jin Ling’s favourite diversionary tactic.
Really, Jiang Cheng’s an idiot for not seeing this earlier, but then he’s a master of denial. He’s not that stupid: he’s seen the longing looks and the obvious excitement whenever they have to make a diplomatic visit to the Cloud Recesses, but he’s been steadfastly ignoring the niggling feeling in the back of his mind that tells him this could become a problem.
Oh, well. The damage is already done. He crosses his arms in a vaguely threatening pose Jin Ling has seen too many times to be intimidated by.
“And why must we go? Surely you don’t need me to come along on something so simple as a visit to another sect?”
Jin Ling fidgets. “But it’ll be awkward if I go alone,” he says petulantly.
The urge to roll his eyes is difficult to squash, but Jiang Cheng gives it a valiant attempt. He lets his hands fall to his sides again before he sighs.
The answering squeal from Jin Ling almost makes him regret it. He really does spoil that boy.
The journey to Cloud Recesses is a short one, and silent. Despite his excited jabbering earlier, Jin Ling seems to have noticed his uncle’s foul mood, and wisely keeps his mouth shut. Jiang Cheng is thankful for the quiet. It gives him time to collect his thoughts before he goes back to that place. Before he sees him again.
The Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader’s relationship with his adopted brother is… complicated, to say the least. Since the earth-shattering revelation that Jiang Cheng’s golden core is not, in fact, his own, the two of them have been attempting to reconcile. Things are better than they used to be, but thirteen years is a long time to hate someone and Jiang Cheng doesn’t know how to deal with its absence.
For a long time after the debacle at Luanzang-Gang, that hate was the only thing keeping him going. He’d lost his entire family, and been saddled with a baby nephew he had no idea what to do with, on top of his responsibilities as Sect Leader. Rebuilding Lotus Pier had been the work of years, and he’d had to fight back tears every time he saw the burnt-out husk of the home he’d grown up in. It had taken years, too, to stop seeing Ah-Jie in Jin Ling’s face, to stop thinking that’s her smile when his nephew laughed, to find a box big enough to hold all the heartache and lock it away where he couldn’t find it. Sometimes he’d find it a struggle to get up in the mornings, and nothing, not even Jin Ling’s crying or the mountain of responsibilities was enough to push him to face the world.
But then he’d think of Wei Wuxian. Of his adopted brother who had turned his back on Jiang Cheng’s family and destroyed everything he had ever loved, and he’d think I have to fix what he broke. Then the hate would come bubbling up again and Jiang Cheng would clutch it to himself, would cradle it like he cradled Jin Ling in the throes of his nightmares because that was the only thing that didn’t hurt. And then he went on.
Now, he’s floundering. Now, all he’s got is the bone-aching sadness that got dredged up from its cozy little box when Wei Wuxian came crashing back into his life. Surprise, motherfucker, because it’s been thirteen years and he’s only now discovering that time hasn’t dulled the pain at all.
Jiang Cheng shakes himself out of his thoughts. His life doesn’t have room for self-pity in it. He’s better than this; he has to be.
Ah-Niang’s voice rings in his ears. Get your head out of your ass, boy. You’re a Sect Leader now – act like it! He nearly smiles, but catches himself before a grin can slip out. He has an image to uphold, after all.
It’s not long before they arrive at the Cloud Recesses. The infamous cliff wall has more carvings than he remembers from his time here as a child. Yet more rules to follow – he’s heard the count is up to over four thousand now. Good thing he’s a visiting dignitary and doesn’t actually live here – the stuffiness would kill him. Jin Ling, too.
Idly, he wonders if he ought to send his nephew to study under Lan Qiren’s watchful eye for a few months. Gods know the boy needs the discipline, and he’d be glad of the opportunity to see Lan Sizhui every day.
The thought is pushed abruptly out of his mind when two figures appear at the entrance of the building itself. The shorter one, clad all in black, fairly bounces down the stairs and skids to a stop in front of Jiang Cheng, leaving his taller partner to walk towards them at a far more stately pace. Wei Wuxian looks different, of course, in the body of a disgraced former cultivation disciple, but his cheeky grin is the same. Blinding as ever.
It only gets wider when he sets eyes on Jin Ling.
“Nephew!”, he yells, and moves as if to go in for a hug. Jin Ling, startled, hides behind his other uncle, who resists the urge to hit something. By this time, Lan Wangji has reached them. His trademark blank expression doesn’t falter as he puts a hand on his husband’s shoulder.
“Wei Ying, shouting is prohibited in Cloud Recesses.”
“That’s right,” Jin Ling says sulkily. He doesn’t like being touched, which is something both he and Jiang Cheng have in common. “And don’t call me that.”
It looks like an argument is about to break out and as much as Jiang Cheng loves those, yelling at other people is less fun when you’re not the one doing it.
“Alright,” he snaps. “Just do what you came here to do, and go find Lan Sizhui.”
Luckily, Jin Ling listens and scrams without another word. Which means that Jiang Cheng is now alone with Wei Ying and his expressionless husband. Fucking wonderful.
This is what he’s been dreading the whole way here. The tension in the air is palpable, and it’s so awkward Jiang Cheng wants to run away and hide. He’d never show it, of course, so he cues up his frostiest tone and cocks an eyebrow.
“Good to see you again,” he says.
Wei Wuxian’s smile dims a bit at the cold greeting, and Lan Wangji puts his arm around him. It’s a protective gesture, even though his expression doesn’t change; the message is loud and clear. Hurt him, and I’ll tear out your entrails and feed them to you. Okay, maybe he’s embellishing a little. It’s more like just don’t. Hanguang-Jun is a man of few words, and it’s doubtful he’d waste them on Jiang Cheng.
The grin comes back in full force.
“What are you doing here?” Wei Wuxian asks, in an effort to diffuse the tension. Then he realises how that sounds, and backtracks hurriedly. “I mean, why’d you decide to visit? Is there some sort of inter-sect diplomatic meeting I haven’t been told about?”
“No, actually. Jin Ling told me it’s Lan Sizhui’s birthday today, and he wishes to deliver his congratulations in person.”
The words are stiff and formal, and Jiang Cheng aches for simpler times, when he and his brother-in-all-but-name were joined at the everything, and a look was all it took to have an entire conversation. But too much has happened since then, and it shows.
They devolve into polite, if stilted, conversation about the children, and how their respective sects are doing. The Gusu Lan sect leader, Lan Xichen, is still in seclusion after the whole Jin Guangyao mess, and Lan Qiren and Lan Wangji are running things in his absence.
Honestly, Jiang Cheng can’t blame the guy, though he is a little envious. There have definitely been times in the past thirteen years where he’d love to have done the same thing, but he hadn’t had the safety net to fall back on that Lan Xichen obviously has. The lack of a family and a toddler to raise was a definite disadvantage, but somehow he wouldn’t trade Jin Ling for the world. Irritating as he can be at times.
“…alright with you?” Wei Wuxian asks. With a start, Jiang Cheng suddenly realises he’d zoned out at some point during the conversation and lost the thread of discussion. He tunes back in with an effort.
Wei Wuxian heaves a theatrical, put-upon sigh, like repeating a sentence for his dumb little brother is some great trial to be overcome.
“I said, Hanguang-Jun and I are going down to Caiyi village to pick up some stuff. Are you coming or not?”
“Depends. What are you buying?”
A waggle of the eyebrows, followed by a leer. “Stuff.”
“Mmm,” agrees Lan Wangji.
Well, Jiang Cheng knows what that means, and hell if he’s going to be there for it. Third-wheeling is uncomfortable as shit. He’ll just stay up here where it’s nice and quiet, and he can be single in peace. He says as much to the happy couple (but only the first part – he’ll never live it down if Wei Wuxian figures out he’s less than content with his bachelor status).
The Second Jade of Gusu gives another “hmm” before dragging his partner away, Wei Wuxian throwing out a quick goodbye before they disappear around a corner and out of sight. Jiang Cheng allows himself a quick smile before his customary scowl makes a reappearance. He’s managed an entire conversation without blowing up or someone getting hurt. That’s a win, in his book.
He turns towards the entrance to Cloud Recesses. There’s a quiet corner behind the disciples’ dormitories that he remembers from his student days with his name on it. Maybe a nap is in his future. It has been a while since he’s been able to relax.
Just then, the great doors burst open, and a small, white-clad figure darts out.