The clan elders wanted to throw him a grand banquet, with overbearing amounts of rich food and formal clothes and guests he didn’t even know. Jin Ling thought it was a terrible idea.
“It is the proper thing to do.”
Jin Ling crossed his arms over his (unfortunately still) narrow chest and drew himself up as tall as he could, hoping he looked imposing rather than impudent. He’d grown a little over the past year, but not nearly as much as he’d hoped.
“I don’t want a banquet. I don’t want to celebrate my birthday with people I don’t care about.”
“Young master Jin! It’s about appearances!”
“Yeah? Jin Guangyao cared about appearances and look how things turned out.”
Jin Ling turned and stalked out of the main hall. He knew it was rude, turning his back on elders without so much as a by your leave, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. They all thought he was a spoiled brat anyway. Let them cluck their tongues at him and glare their disapproval and whisper that he was badly raised because he had no parents.
He’d tried to mind his elders his entire life, and what good had it done him? Wasn’t he still all alone at Koi Tower now?
Fairy ran up to him in the courtyard and nosed at his legs. Jin Ling couldn’t help but smile a little at that. So he wasn’t totally alone. And seeing her, he was reminded that he didn’t need to be at Koi Tower either.
He reached down to scratch the thick ruff around Fairy’s head, causing the bells of her collar to jingle.
“You have the best timing, Fairy. I have a message I’d like you to deliver for me…”
The sunset was probably really pretty, but Jin Ling couldn’t pay attention to it. He was pacing at the crossroads of the mountain path, chewing his bottom lip out of habit, nervous about whether they would show up or not. It was stupid to be nervous. Lan Sizhui had said they would come, and so they would. Gusu Lan disciples did not go back on their word. And yet.
Jin Ling’s stomach settled upon finally seeing two figures in white come up the path, and he grinned. He had never formally invited them (or anyone, really) to meet up for a night hunt before. Any night hunts they’d gone on before had been mostly coincidental.
This was the first night hunt Jin Lin had ever gone on that didn’t consist of just him and Fairy, and he was...excited. Happy, even. That he had people willing to come meet him for a little fun, people whose company he actually enjoyed.
On second thought, wasn’t it kind of sad such a small thing made him happy? He’d really had no friends growing up. A familiar weight pressed down on his chest and Jin Ling felt his smile slip.
“Hey, Jin Ling!”
Hearing Lan Jingyi’s loud, brassy voice helped Jin Ling push his momentary melancholy away. Jingyi wore Gusu Lan robes and walked with the proper posture of a Gusu Lan disciple, but he was always going to be intrusively noisy.
“Young master Jin,” Lan Sizhui greeted, ever polite and soft-spoken. “It is good to see you again.”
“So what are we hunting?” Jingyi had dropped to his knees to say hello to Fairy. Never mind that he’d once called the dog fat, it seemed bygones were bygones. From the way Fairy licked his hand, she’d clearly forgiven him the slur. Jin Ling’s lips tilted up again, pleased that they were getting along. It was important to him, for some reason, that they did.
“Fairy discovered a nest of kui in a cave not too far from here, a few days back. I hadn’t had a chance to come take care of them until now,” Jin Ling said. “And I thought...you two could help me because it’s a pretty big nest. We could see who kill the most kui.”
Jingyi stood, carelessly brushing his hands off on his now dirt-stained robes. “You didn’t have cultivators from your own sect who could come help you? We’re pretty busy, you know, calling us all the way out here for kui.”
Jin Lin felt his face burn red and ground his teeth together to stop a scathing reply. Trust Jingyi to be insulting as usual! Jin Ling had thought it would be fun, that was all. Did Jingyi really think so little of him? And it wasn’t like Jingyi didn’t know how things were right now in the Jin sect. No one wanted to be around Jin Ling because it turned out he was related to more monsters than ever before.
His fingers tightened around the sheath of his sword and they trembled when he forced them to relax. Jin Ling had invited Jingyi here, so he ought to control his temper…
Sizhui cut Jingyi a mildly warning look and said, “It will be nice to hunt kui together. Right, Jingyi?”
Jingyi laughed, seemingly unaware of the shower of rage he’d nearly brought upon himself. “Sure, sure. I bet I kill more than both of you!”
Jin Ling met Sizhui’s calm, encouraging gaze and took a deep breath. Thank goodness for Sizhui, he thought, and resolved to enjoy the night. “Okay. Let’s go then.”
He whistled and Fairy took off into the woods, leading the way. The three of them fell in line after her, traipsing steadily through the purpling shadows as evening gave way to twilight.
“I was a little surprised to get your message,” Sizhui admitted as they walked. “I thought the invitation would be for your birthday banquet, instead of a simple night hunt.”
Jin Ling blinked at the older boy for a moment, surprised -- and, to be honest, glad -- the other boy even knew his birthday was coming up. Then it occurred to him that perhaps Sizhui might have wanted to attend a fancy banquet instead of an easy night hunt, and he looked away sharply.
“Yeah, well, who wants a stupid stuffy banquet anyway! It’s my birthday, and if I want to go on a night hunt with...with my friends...then I will!”
Jin Ling looked back in time to catch the full force of Lan Sizhui’s warm smile and he momentarily forgot how to walk, skittering to the side slightly as he missed a step. Heat prickled across Jin Ling’s face as he picked up his pace.
Fortunately, Sizhui was not the type who would mention such things, and he only said, “I’ve always thought simple celebrations to be best.”
Jingyi called forward, “I wouldn’t mind having a birthday banquet instead of just getting an extra large bowl of that boring herbal soup...if only I’d been born a sect leader.”
Jin Ling’s retort was cut short by Fairy barking, and then a short scream. The three of them exchanged a curt look and took off through the trees, gripping the sheaths of their swords tightly. When they found the dog, she’d already stopped barking and was enjoying the attentions of...Ouyang Zizhen?
“Zizhen? What are you doing here?” Jingyi relaxed, but he was frowning. “You said you were busy when I asked if you wanted to come with us on Jin Ling’s night hunt.”
Jin Ling shot Jingyi an outraged look. “What are you doing inviting other people on MY night hunt?”
Though truthfully, he’d invited Zizhen as well, and had gotten the same response as Jingyi. So he turned his glare towards Zizhen and crossed his arms expectantly.
“I am busy,” Zizhen said. “Look, I’ll explain, but could Fairy please leave first? Teacher Wei won’t come down unless she does.”
“Eh? Senior Wei?”
And that was when they saw Wei Wuxian perched precariously above them, shaking so hard the branches rustled. Behind the tree Wei Wuxian was in, was Little Apple, stubbornly ignoring them all (and Fairy in particular).
Jin Ling felt his stomach twist, like he’d been caught in one of his own golden nets, upon seeing his supposed uncle. It wasn’t that Jin Ling didn’t want to see Wei Wuxian -- well he did, but he didn’t? It was complicated -- but suddenly meeting him again like this, now, was not what he was expecting.
“Hello, children,” Wei Wuxian called down, a terrified chuckle in his voice. “Fancy running into you here. Could Fairy please, please go away? She’s a very nice dog, as far as dogs go, but I --”
He yelped when the branch he was clinging to swayed ominously under his weight.
Jin Ling sighed. Why did things always seem so chaotic whenever Wei Wuxian was involved? He signalled apologetically for Fairy to head back to Koi Tower without him.
Stupid Wei Wuxian had better appreciate it!
After Fairy had obediently trotted off, Wei Wuxian slithered out of the tree with a relieved smile.
“A-Yuan! Jingyi! Jin Ling! Long time no see!” He clasped their shoulders, but Jin Ling jerked away before Wei Wuxian could touch him.
“And whose fault is that?” Jin Ling snapped. Stupid Wei Wuxian! A whole year and not a word from him. It wasn’t like Jin Ling had forgiven him for everything -- or apologized properly for stabbing him, really -- but how was he supposed to start when Wei Wuxian had wandered off without a goodbye? When he’d left Jin Ling even after Jin Guangyao had -- even though everyone had --
It was too much, too much. Jin Ling hadn’t prepared for this. He felt his eyes start to burn and steeled himself. He was practically a grown man now, he was not going to shed tears over someone who did not care about him.
“Ah, Jin Ling, as prickly as Jiang Cheng, per usual.” Wei Wuxian sounded a little wistful, but Jin Ling just drew in on himself, crossing his arms again to form a barrier between them. He didn’t care if Wei Wuxian sounded sad. Wei Wuxian didn’t have the right to sound sad!
Then Jingyi broke the tension like the hard-headed mallet he was. “So, explain, explain! What are you two doing here?”
“Teacher Wei was passing through town and heard about kui in these forests, and he said I could come with him to help get rid of them,” Zizhen said brightly.
“I most certainly did not. You invited yourself,” Wei Wuxian muttered.
“Teacher Wei?” Sizhui’s voice was light with amusement, but his glance at Jin Ling seemed to reflect concern. Jin Ling ignored it, pulling away until he was deep in the shadows. He pressed his back to a tree and curled in around the ball of hurt growing in his chest.
“Yes, I’m studying with the Yiling Patriarch now --”
“I have not agreed to this,” Wei Wuxian pointed out.
Zizhen continued blithely, “Not the demonic stuff, of course, although I still think it would be pretty neat to command corpses with a whistle, and I’m getting pretty good at the flute as well.”
“No corpse calling at all, whatsoever,” Wei Wuxian groaned, face full of intense exasperation. “Do you think I want your father hounding me? In fact, don’t you eventually need to go home...”
“Teacher Wei, huh,” Jin Ling finally bit out. So that’s how it was. A year of silence for him, wondering if he’d perhaps messed up so badly there was no repairing the fledgling relationship between him and Wei Wuxian. Oh, but tutelage for Ouyang Zizhen! “I suppose that title is worth more to you than being called uncle. Go to hell, Wei Wuxian.”
“Jin Ling…” Wei Wuxian seemed taken aback and...rueful?
Future sect leader or no, Lan Jingyi wasn’t scared of smacking Jin Ling’s shoulder. “Jin Ling! Watch your language, young mistress!”
Jin Ling pushed forward, glowering, and shouted, “Hit me again, Lan Jingyi! Go ahead and see what’ll happen! Of course you’d take his side as well! I shouldn’t be surprised, no one ever -- I always have to --”
It was too hard to get the words out, and his voice broke on a held-back sob. The burning in his eyes became near overwhelming, causing his vision to blur. Jin Ling shook his head savagely to clear it and knew he couldn’t be around them anymore. He shouldn’t have asked Sizhui and Jingyi to meet up, he shouldn’t have thought he could have a good time because what was his life if not one lonely tragedy after another?
So he fled. Distantly, he heard Sizhui and Wei Wuxian call after him. Jin Ling just ran faster, until the shadows of the forest swallowed him up.
Who needs them? I don’t need anyone!
Jin Ling viciously cut down another kui, then another. His sword dripped with stinking ichor and his arm ached with overuse, but he couldn’t stop now. He’d take care of the whole damn nest by himself and go home by himself and live out his stupid life by himself.
Jin Ling was going to be just fine.
There were so many of them, a seemingly endless parade of legs kicking and scratching. A razor-sharp claw caught his leg, but he hardly felt it and continued to stab, stab, stab, fueled by spite and rage.
Something dark splattered on to his robes. Jin Ling jerked his sword back, tottering slightly as his injured leg didn’t quite hold his weight. Perhaps the injury was worse than he thought?
And that made him even angrier. How embarrassing, to be injured while dispatching such low-level demons! Good thing no one was around to see it.
No one was ever around, and that was just fine.
The last surviving kui made a run for it, dashing for the exit of the cave in speedy hops. Jin Ling threw Suihua savagely after it in a move he’d seen Hanguang-jun execute once, but the sword went wide and clanged harmlessly off the side of the cave before returning to his hand. He was tired now, so tired. He clenched his teeth, gathered strength to try again --
A glowing talisman hit the escaping kui , incinerating it in seconds --
And Jin Ling folded to one knee, his arms falling bonelessly to his sides.
“Leave me alone.” He tried to spit the words out, but they came out weak and forlorn. It was as though his anger had burnt up with the final kui . He sank the last few inches to the ground until he was sitting on the filthy cave floor, surrounded by limbs cleaved into pieces and sticky dark blood. It was disgusting (and smelled even worse), but he didn’t care. He’d rather stay in the cave than face the person outside. “You left so easily before, it should be no trouble now.”
“Jin Ling.” Wei Wuxian appeared at the mouth of the cave. He took a cautious step in, and why did he need to be cautious? It wasn’t as though Jin Ling were going to stab him again. Wei Wuxian would know that if he’d bothered to see how Jin Ling had grown up since then.
I’m much better about not stabbing people now, Jin Ling thought, lips twisting bitterly.
“Jin Ling. Remember when I told you there are two phrases you’ll have to learn to say eventually? I’ll say one to you again now: I’m sorry. I’m sorry I haven’t come to see you before now. Truly, I am. But I honestly thought that was what you wanted. That you wouldn’t want me for an uncle.”
Jin Ling hung his head, fingers running over Suihua’s pearly hilt. It was his father’s sword. His father, who had died because of Wei Wuxian, because of Wen Ning, because of Jin Guangyao. He’d spent a year thinking through it, and maybe Wei Wuxian should still shoulder some of the blame, but...but Wei Wuxian was also here, now. And it wasn’t like Jin Ling wanted revenge on him, not anymore. He’d settle for reparations.
“I don’t know,” Jin Ling croaked. Being bone-weary had one upside: everything felt so dull and swaddled that the words could come out without cutting up his insides. “I don’t know what kind of relationship we can have. But I want us to have one.”
His breath hitched, but his eyes mercifully stayed dry. He’d have no face left if he started crying while leaking his heart out.
“I’m just tired of losing family. I’m tired of being left behind.”
“Jin Ling.” Wei Wuxian’s voice was softer than he’d ever heard it. “I’m so sorry.”
Wei Wuxian sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around Jin Ling’s shoulders. Jin Ling couldn’t help leaning into the hug, just a little bit. When was the last time anyone had hugged him? Perhaps Auntie Qin Su, right after A-Song had been born...and how long ago was that?
Long enough that they were both dead.
Jin Ling closed his eyes. He didn’t need to think about that now. They were gone, but Wei Wuxian was here.
Jin Ling mumbled, “You said that already.”
He felt Wei Wuxian’s hand pet his head gently and relaxed further. Who knew Wei Wuxian could be soothing? Jin Ling’s chest warmed at the prospect of being able to learn such things.
“Some things need to be said more than once. I’ll say this too: if you want me to visit, I’ll come visit. And you can call me uncle, or teacher, or whatever you want. Whatever you’re ready to call me. We can figure out our relationship together."
It was a start. Not enough to erase the melancholy Jin Ling still carried, the dark hurt he’d always deflected with anger. But enough to ease it a little. And that was more than enough, for now.
“Can I call you...that bastard dog Wei Wuxian?”
“Oh ho, clearly if you’re feeling good enough to insult me, you can get up and go outside. Come on. This cave is really nasty, and trust me, I’ve been in my share of nasty caves.”
Lan Jingyi stood awkwardly by Zizhen and Wei Wuxian’s stupid donkey as Sizhui and Wei Wuxian examined his injured leg.
“It’s not that bad,” Wei Wuxian finally declared. “Zizhen, saddle up Little Apple. A-Yuan, you learned how to transfer spiritual energy for healing, right? Can you help Jin Ling stop the bleeding? That should be fine until we find a healer.”
“Of course, Senior Wei.” Sizhui carefully took hold of Jin Ling’s wrist -- the older boy’s fingers were calloused from sword and guqin practice, yet still soft, Jin Ling couldn’t help noting. But before he could begin the energy transfer, Jingyi stepped forward.
Jin Ling stared up at him, brows raised in question.
“I’m sorry,” Jingyi blurted out. “Teasing you so much before, and hitting you. I don’t always read the room very well, it’s one of my few shortcomings. But anyway, Jin Ling, I apologize, because that’s what friends do when they fuck up, and we’re friends.”
“Jingyi, language,” Sizhui chided, but he was smiling gently.
Jin Ling offered, “Thanks, I guess?” Because friends also forgave each other when they made mistakes, and as annoying as Jingyi could be...they were friends.
Then Jingyi grinned, his lips curling at the edges like a pleased cat. “It’s just hard to resist, teasing you, because you’re so cute when you get all upset, young mistress.”
A wave of outrage roared through Jin Ling’s veins. Just why were they friends again? “You!”
“Lan Jingyi, know when to stop talking,” Wei Wuxian groaned.
Sizhui’s grip tightened on Jin Ling’s wrist, preventing Jin Ling from attempting to leap at Jingyi’s throat.
“Later. We’ll get him later,” Sizhui promised, and the quick conspiratorial look they shared was enough to unruffle Jin Ling’s feathers.
Jin Ling settled back with a small scowl. Perhaps he’d have a banquet after all. Perhaps there could be a harmless, but embarrassing incident for Lan Jingyi. It’d be difficult to arrange because Lan Jingyi’s face was so thick, but with Sizhui’s help (and Zizhen, Zizhen could always be counted on for mischief) it would be possible. And perhaps Wei Wuxian would be there too, to upset all the elders and give him some more tips on fighting.
Jin Ling’s scowl relaxed into a smile.