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Operation Old Men

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Jin Ling knows he’s in deep trouble even before reporting to Headmaster Lan’s office, but the words “your uncle will be here soon” still strike the fear of God in him. His only consolation is that Jingyi and Sizhui’s guardians are also in the office, Jingyi’s mom already lecturing her sheepish-looking son. Lan-ayi only stops when Sizhui’s father, a quiet and tall man in white, clears his throat, causing her to engage him in one-sided smalltalk.

This is a disaster. Jin Ling had spent such a nice break at home for Mid-Autumn Festival, and Fairy’s presence had soothed his homesickness after returning to boarding school in Gusu. He knows pets aren’t allowed, but who is going to report Jin Ling when his father pays good money for a private suite in the dorms? Then there was the incident with Jingyi, a box of mooncakes, and a door left ajar. Even whistling hadn’t done the trick. Long story short, he spent an hour chasing Fairy down the halls with Sizhui and Jingyi before finding his dog nosing up to a very angry Headmaster Lan.

“-And I told my Jingyi he needs to stop being such a bad influence on Sizhui,” Jingyi’s mother continues. “Sizhui is such a well-mannered and accomplished child. I’d be so happy if any of my children were like him.” Behind her, Jingyi makes an exasperated face, like he’s heard this too many times. Jin Ling supposes that’s one thing they have in common.

“Not at all. Sizhui is lucky to have a friend like him,” Sizhui’s father replies. It’s the first time he’s spoken at all, and Jin Ling is not surprised at the quiet note of authority in his voice.

Headmaster Lan huffs. “See, I always said you were too soft on Sizhui. Now look where we are! Running? Shouting? Boarding illegal pets in my school? Preposterous. Now we have to deal with the Jin family again, and his guardian has the audacity to be late! Why must history always repeat itself?”

Sizhui and Jingyi will probably be fine, both being a part of the Lan family that funds and runs the school. Jin Ling is the one facing possible expulsion and a shameful return to Lanling, to the quiet disappointment of his mother and the obvious disapproval of his extended family. His time at Cloud Recesses Academy is supposed to be a chance to prove himself, yet Jin Ling struggles with newfound rules and socialization with students his age. Even worse is the fact that Jin Ling has no clue who is coming, aside from the small hint that it would be an uncle on his mother’s side. At least his mother isn’t making the trip. Jin Ling would rather step into Shanghai traffic than make her travel so far just to take him home.

As if on cue, familiar voices carry in from the hallway.

“I told you to not get him that dog! It’s the year of the pig now! Why couldn’t you just send Ling-er off with some ribs instead?”

“Oh, shut up already! As if you don’t spoil him too! And you know he choked on those ribs before!”

Oh god, Jin Ling thinks. He feels his face burning as the door bursts open to reveal both of his jiujius arguing their way into the room. Jiang Cheng is polite enough to greet Handmaster Lan, but Wei Wuxian just flies to Jin Ling’s side and pulls him into a half-hug.

“Ling-bao! Don’t look so unhappy to see me!” Wei Wuxian laughs, obviously on his life mission to embarrass Jin Ling with endless pet names.

“He’s always unhappy to see you,” Jiang Cheng mutters. He gives cold nods of acknowledgement to everyone in the room.

Wei Wuxian just laughs, his voice reverberating. “Tell him you like ribs, Ling-er! And I’ll definitely help if you start choking again.”

“That happened when I was five!” Jin Ling hisses in embarrassment and tries to extract himself from his uncle’s grip.

“Yeah, but you’ll always be five in my-”

“ENOUGH!” Headmaster Lan says, and Wei Wuxian blinks as if he’s noticing everyone else for the first time. “Wei Wuxian! You’re disrespectable as always! You’ve learned nothing since I last saw you, and now your nephew is every bit of a troublemaker!”

Wei Wuxian just grins. “You look as distinguished as always, Headmaster Lan! I see your beard grew!”

Next to him, Jiang Cheng very obviously rolls his eyes.

“Just looking at you is making me age rapidly!”

“And Ling-zi is a good kid! Don’t be so harsh on him!”

If possible, Headermaster Lan’s face grows even redder in anger. “Do good kids break half a dozen rules and get one of my best students in trouble?!” He points at Sizhui, causing Jin Ling’s gaze to travel to the quiet boy and his equally wordless father.

Wei Wuxian does the same, and his grip on Jin Ling’s shoulder tightens noticeably. “Lan Zhan?”

“Wei Ying,” Sizhui’s father says, voice unreadable. This surprises Jin Ling, for he can’t even remember the last time his parents called his uncle by his real name. Sizhui seems to share the sentiment, with the way he peers up at his father.

“No greeting for me, huh?” Wei Wuxian smiles. “You’re the same as always. It’s nice to see you again.”

Jingyi’s mother decides it’s her turn to speak again. “I’m so sorry that my son bothered young master Jin. He’s always been a troublemaker, you see. I told him to be on his best behavior at Cloud Recesses, but he’s just not one for following the rules. I’m sorry he-”

“It’s not Jingyi’s fault!” Jin Ling blurts out, then closes his mouth when all the adults turn to him. Even Sizhui’s eyebrows are lifted in surprise. Jin Ling sets his gaze on his lap, tears of frustration already welling in his eyes. He hates this childish side of him, but he also hates making others atone for his mistakes. It makes him feel even more helpless, like Jin Ling can never be accountable for himself. When Wei Wuxian sets a comforting hand on his shoulder, Jin Ling continues. “I’m the one who brought Fairy in. Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui were just trying to help me. It’s not their fault. If you’re going to punish someone, then punish me! Expel me instead!”

After a moment, Headmaster Lan coughs. “No one is getting expelled. Wipe your tears. It’s unbecoming.”

Wei Wuxian slips a black and red handkerchief into Jin Ling’s hands. Even Jiang Cheng looks somewhat sympathetic and sets a hand on Jin Ling’s head.

“Lan Sizhui, Lan Jingyi, and Jin Ling: all three of you will serve detention for a week. Administrator Chen will oversee the details.” Headmaster Lan declares, then sighs. “And the dog must go. Bring it in.”

Jin Ling cheers up immediately when the secretary opens the door to let Fairy in. As always, Fairy is excited to see everyone and rushes over to Jin Ling, causing Wei Wuxian to yelp and skitter across the room, to the farthest corner away from Fairy. He looks almost comical, hiding behind Sizhui’s father.

“Get that thing out of here!” Wei Wuxian hisses as he crouches behind Sizhui’s father. He tugs desperately on Sizhui’s father’s arm. “Jiang Cheng! Get rid of it!”

“You’re an embarrassment,” Jiang Cheng says, but clips a leash to Fairy’s collar regardless. Nonplussed, Fairy goes to sniff Jiang Cheng’s feet.

While Sizhui’s father doesn’t move away from Wei Wuxian, Jingyi’s mother seems to be rapidly losing respect for him. It’s normal for people to feel a disconnect between Dr. Wei Wuxian, nationally recognized pediatrics trauma surgeon, and the foolish way he carries himself. Jin Ling had grown up buried in sand by his jokester uncle on family vacations only to have him rush out in the middle of dinner to attend to emergencies at the hospital. Then there was Jiang Cheng, who was harsh with words but soft with his affection for Jin Ling. It’s no wonder that Jin Ling’s mother put them down as emergency contacts on his school file, especially after Jiang Cheng began overseeing the Suzhou branch of Grandpa Jiang's company and Wei Wuxian got transferred to the biggest hospital in Shanghai.

“I have a headache,” Headmaster Lan adds. “All of you are dismissed for the day. And Wei Wuxian, I don’t want to see you or your nephew in my office again.”

Wei Wuxian nods fervently, still hiding behind Sizhui’s father. He’s the first out of the door after the dismissal, and he makes wild-armed gestures at Jiang Cheng to keep Fairy away from him while everyone empties into the hallway. When Wei Wuxian gets pulled into a conversation with Jingyi’s mom, Sizhui moves over to Jin Ling.

“I didn’t know your uncle was Dr. Wei,” Sizhui says softly, watching Wei Wuxian charm Jingyi’s mom.

“More importantly.” Jingyi lowers his voice. “Are your uncles always like this?”

Jin Ling doesn't know how to explain that Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian’s banter doesn’t even scratch the surface of Jin Ling’s convoluted family dynamics, especially with his father’s large extended family. He’ll never admit it, but Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian are probably his favorites. Now, Jin Ling watches Wei Wuxian chat with Sizhui’s father with the same overt familiarity he does with the children in the pediatrics ward. He knows that his parents, and probably the parents of everyone here, once attended Cloud Recesses. Yet his family rarely speaks of their time at school. “It’s a long story,” Jin Ling says at last.

“Are your uncles friends with Han Guang-Jun?” Jingyi asks. All three of them look as Wei Wuxian throws an arm around Sizhui’s father’s shoulder.

“If you can even call them that,” Jiang Cheng tsks, having supernatural hearing as always. He dumps Fairy into Jin Ling’s arms and watches as Fairy leans up to lick Jin Ling’s nose. “Oi, Wei Wuxian! Stop blabbering and get over here! We’re leaving!”

Jin Ling’s heart falls. “You’re leaving already?”

Jiang Cheng looks at him for a moment, then pats Jin Ling’s arm. “Don’t be so soft. You can still come see me on the weekend. The headmaster went easy on you. Don’t think I’m not gonna punish you for sneaking Fairy in. You said the dog was gonna stay in Lanling! Did you lie to your parents too?”

“Punish-?” Jin Ling begins.

“Your punishment is to eat dinner with us!” Wei Wuxian cheers. He puts both hands on Jin Ling’s shoulder and gyrates Jin Ling in his spot. “You don’t have any more classes for the day, right? Just skip them if you do!”

“Jie is not paying for this school just so you can set a bad example for A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng huffs, but leads them towards the direction of the building exit regardless. For a moment, Jin Ling had forgotten that they both attended Cloud Recesses too.

Wei Wuxian just cackles. “Bad example? I’m his favorite uncle!”

“Oi!

“Okay, I’m his favorite dajiu-”

While his uncles argue, Jin Ling turns around. He doesn’t quite try, but still manages to catch Jingyi’s eye as Jingyi gives him a hasty wave goodbye. Sizhui stands next to him, a soft smile on his face. Yet, Sizhui’s father gaze is direct and unwavering, fixed very obviously on Wei Wuxian’s retreating back. Weird, Jin Ling thinks.

“Anyways, we should go to the Sichuan hot pot place I discovered-”

“I’m not eating anything that will burn my mouth off,” Jiang Cheng cuts in. They’re out of the building and heading to the east part of campus, towards the parking area. “Anyways, Fairy can ride in my car. A-Ling, you go with this idiot so he doesn’t get distracted, take you to McDonalds, and leave you in the bathroom again.”

“Okay, that was one incident-”

“Sichuan hotpot is fine!” Jin Ling croaks. They’re still on still Cloud Recesses grounds and people are starting to pay attention to the noise. Jin Ling can’t have any of his classmates hearing this. Jingyi would never stop bringing it up!

Later, when they’re stuck in traffic and Jin Ling has sent his parents an abridged version of today’s events on WeChat, Jin Ling turns to his uncle. “Does Sizhui’s father hate you?”

“Who? Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian taps his long fingers on the steering wheel. “I haven’t seen him in a decade. Who knew he even had a child?”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “Sizhui is older than me, so you should’ve known about him more than ten years ago. You suck at math!”

“Yeah, but you’re barely nine.”

“I’m fourteen!!” Jin Ling yells, then frowns when his reaction sends Wei Wuxian into a fit of laughter. “And he couldn’t stop glaring at you! His gaze is colder than Grandma’s when she’s out for blood!”

“Lan Zhan’s not a cold person. He just, I guess, doesn’t like me? We’re better off avoiding each other.” Wei Wuxian replies easily, his eyes on the road. “And don’t bring your grandma up. I’m scared of her!”

Everyone is scared of her, Jin Ling thinks but doesn’t say. It’s bad enough that she’s the toughest on him for being the oldest. He’s pretty sure his parents only narrowly avoided her scorn by being the only pair to bring her grandchildren. Jin Ling has heard her berate Jiang Cheng on more than one occasion for ruining his own matchmaking sessions, and Jin Ling doesn’t even want to think about the kind of people Wei Wuxian would date, much less procreate with. Adults are so weird.

“Anyways, don’t let my bad blood with Lan Zhan ruin your budding relationships! I’m glad you’re making friends!”

Jin Ling can feel his face flushing, so he turns towards the window and stares out into traffic. The kids at home always made fun of him. First for his haughty nature, then for his lack of hobbies outside of archery, and then for being the prettiest out of four kids when three of them were girls. Jin Ling doesn’t know how to interact with real people besides his younger sisters and caretakers. Jingyi has even taken to calling him Jin Daxiaojie, although his voice is starting to irritate Jin Ling less these days. “Whatever. They’re not my friends.”

“They’re not your friends yet you still defended them? In front of old man Lan, no less? Wow, you’re so chivalrous!”

“Stop making fun of me!”

More laughter. “I’m not making fun of you! I love you! You’re my favorite nephew!”

“Y-you! How can you say that so easily! You’re so shameless!” Outside, a red Tesla edges past them on the right only to get stuck at the next traffic light. Maybe they shouldn’t have driven so far out of Gusu. There were perfectly fine, non-spicy food options near Caiyi. “And I’m your only nephew! How far is the place anyway?”

Wei Wuxian just hums. “We’re here!”

Sure enough, they pull into a parking garage connected to a large mall. Jin Ling follows his uncle out of the car only to be led on a strange winding path behind the building, into a series of hutongs. They eventually arrive in front of a nondescript looking store framed by lanterns. Jiang Cheng is already waiting outside, looking irritated.

“Where’s Fairy?” Jin Ling asks immediately.

“Relax, your dog is fine. I left a crack open in the window for him. I don’t see you worrying or apologizing to me for making me wait.”

Wei Wuxian makes silly face. “Sorry! I got lost!”

“You’re the one who recommended this place! Haven’t you been here before?!”

“I have bad memory!”

Thankfully, Jiang Cheng’s mood improves when they’re seated inside. He orders a clear broth for their side of the table and ignores the liberal amount of spices Wei Wuxiang orders for his section of the hot pot. The food arrives quickly, and both of Jin Ling’s uncles engage in a race to see who can put the most on Jin Ling’s plate.

The food is good, probably the best he’s had since coming to Gusu. Jin Ling is chewing on a piece of tofu when he remembers something else. “Headmaster Lan said something about dealing with my family again. What does he mean? Did Father get in trouble?”

A piece of mushroom slips through Wei Wuxian’s chopsticks. He says “Eh,” while Jiang Cheng snorts. “Your Father is… A good person. We get along now. You know? Richie Ren Boys forever!”

“Okay?” Jin Ling squints. Although he’s never seen Wei Wuxian display obvious affection towards his father, Jin Ling could never forget the year he was eight and spent Chunjie in Yunmeng. Wei Wuxian had challenged Jin Ling’s father to a karaoke competition that ended with them drunkenly dueting to Richie Ren. Even worse was that Bingbing, Jin Ling’s first sister, had gotten ahold of the matching tambourine and given him one. Jin Ling had gotten so excited that he consumed too much fried peanuts and soy milk, only to throw all the food up later. Grandma had been furious with everyone involved. “So what? Where is this going?”

“Did your mother tell you that this guy here was kicked out of Cloud Recesses during our first year?” Jiang Cheng portions more dipping sauce into Jin Ling’s bowl.

Jin Ling’s mother didn’t tell him that, but he supposes the timelines match. He knows Wei Wuxian studied abroad in Canada for a few years before going to Beijing for medical school. “What did you do to get expelled? Did you get in a fight with Sizhui’s dad?”

This makes Jiang Cheng laugh. “Not that Lan kid’s father! He got kicked out for punching your father!”

“WHAT!?!?!”