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my heart is stone (and still it trembles)

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Jiang Cheng had often dreamed of what it would be like the day he became Sect Leader. Taking care of his people, teaching his disciples, raising YunmengJiang higher and higher in the ranks of public opinion - as high as he could get them. He’d be the pride of his family line, surrounded by loyal followers and family, and all naysayers who had once looked down on his sect would have to look up .

Glory, honor, loyalty. Family. A simple dream, golden and true.

The dream of a fool, really. All of it.

Becoming Sect Leader had not been glorious, but simple necessity. It had not been about raising YunmengJiang high, but desperately keeping it from crumbling to dust. Amidst the chaos of war, Jiang Cheng had been forced to rebuild as much as he’d been forced to fight and had somehow managed to carve out his own future through it all: violent, stone-hearted, stubborn. Alone.

What was left of that golden dream had died in his arms and fallen away, until there was nothing but ashes.

Jiang Cheng’s dreams were far more simple now, easily shifting from the general day to day routine his life had fallen into. Let peace continue for one more year, then one year more. Let the paperwork be less than it was the day before. Let his people weather one more flood, one more harvest. Let the work ease off enough for a break. Let the guilt and grief be easier to carry tomorrow, tomorrow, and the tomorow after that.

Let Jin Ling grow up well, despite having such a miserable wretch of an uncle. And let the YunmengJiang Elders learn to keep their noses out of his business.

Jiang Cheng dipped his brush a tad more vindictively than was warranted, jaw clenching at that thought. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t understand their concerns, given he was the Last Jiang and a fortuitous arranged marriage was pretty much expected of every Sect Leader that wasn’t a Lan. But the years leading here had not opened his heart to the possibility of such a thing. In fact, quite the opposite. Any and all affections Jiang Cheng possessed belonged solely to his nephew and that was that. The Elders could spit blood over it and die for all he cared, which he was certain they knew by now, but that didn’t stop their insistent nagging. Or interfering on his behalf “for the good of the sect” and all that nonsense.

The fact they wanted him to marry a Lan was laughable at best. It was clear to him they hoped a fine lady from such a place would soothe his fury, all while making a firm connection to one of their oldest allies. It was a smart move, politically speaking, but personally Jiang Cheng would rather eat fire. Mellow him out? Make him easier to control? As if Jiang Cheng would give them the satisfaction.

If there was one thing Jiang Cheng could enjoy about being forced to do so much paperwork, it was his mastery of the art of telling people to fuck off in the most polite ways possible. The problem was, however, that this time it didn’t seem to be working.

He’d written this letter at least four times now and still they persisted. They were getting bold, or maybe looking for an excuse to get rid of him at last. He couldn’t exactly fault them for that, either, but that didn’t mean he’d give in without a fight. There had to be a way to win this. But how?

Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes down at the page, but it didn’t last long. The soft, wayward singing behind him had finally tapered off and a small hand tugged on his robe.

“Jiu-jiu?”

“Mm?” Jiang Cheng took a deep breath to calm himself and retook his brush. A lock of hair, usually tied back but gleefully undone by his nephew, slowly slid off his shoulder and flopped against his cheek. He brushed it behind his ear without a thought, the movement so ingrained in him given Jin Ling’s lingering obsession with braids the past year courtesy of one Nie Huaisang .

Jin Ling yawned and got up to toddle to his front. The braid he’d abandoned had been left untied and Jiang Cheng could feel it slowly loosen against his back.

“I think it’s time for bed,” the boy stated, imperious, even though just an hour before he’d nearly thrown a tantrum at the mere idea of sleep. Climbing into Jiang Cheng’s lap, he folded himself into his usual place and sighed, looking sleepy and content. “It’s your bedtime, jiu-jiu.”

“Is it?” Jiang Cheng’s brush didn’t hesitate, finishing the line of text without wobbling, even with his wiggling nephew jostling him. Being a de-facto parent to a squirming child had done wonders for his bodily control. “I think I can finish this page at least.”

On cue, Jin Ling’s little face scrunched up and he pat at Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “Jiu-jiu, it’s your bedtime.” 

“One more character,” Jiang Cheng bargained, though he decidedly wrote out more than one. Jin Ling was nevertheless mollified and he got away with the rest of his sentence before the whining started again. “All right, fine, done,” he huffed and set down his brush in an exaggerated manner so Jin Ling couldn’t accuse him of cheating. He still got a squinty stare before his nephew nodded, satisfied.

Jiang Cheng felt his heart swell with fondness, so much it was painful. He scowled to cover a smile. “Just who is the uncle and who is the nephew here?”

Jin Ling’s round cheeks puffed out in an approximation of the same look. “Jiu-jiu works too much. It’s time for sleep, not work.”

He often wondered how distressed Jin Ling would be to know the truth of just how much work Jiang Cheng actually did. That this bedtime his nephew insisted on with him was a time he considered early. But wondering was as far as he carried it, given falling a little behind on paperwork to fit in Jin Ling’s schedule was better than upsetting the boy. He shoved the thought aside.

“If the little lord proclaims it so, then it must be,” Jiang Cheng indulged that pout which he feared Jin Ling had very much learned from him. He only had Jin Guangyao as his other guardian to take his cues from, after all, and Jiang Cheng was certain the man was only capable of smiling, no matter what he was truly feeling. Gifted though he was, pouting was not a talent he possessed. Probably for the best. He ruled the cultivation world as it was with his smiles alone. He’d rule all of China with a pout and teach Jin Ling how to do it too. Then they’d all be doomed.

Jin Ling’s pouts were devastating enough on him. He hoped one day he’d grow a callous to it, if only for the sake of his sanity. He wanted Jin Ling to grow up strong, confident in his own abilities, not on how easily he could manipulate others into doing what he wanted. That meant working hard, no matter his station, the way Jiang Cheng did.

Just because Jiang Cheng was hopelessly wrapped around his tiny fingers did not mean everyone else had to be.

“Jiu-jiu?” He was patted on the cheek again and he stared down at the curious look he was getting, hoping his expression didn’t show how much he was melting on the inside.

“What is it?”

“If I helped you work, would you have more time to play?” Jin Ling asked. It was like a shot of guilt straight to his heart, gods damn it all.

“Help me how?” Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop the warmth from flooding his voice that time. What good was it to hide from a five year old, anyway? He’d already promised his whole life to seeing Jin Ling grow up. How could he do it without giving all of himself? Surely small glimpses wouldn’t ruin Jin Ling, wouldn’t make him realize his favorite uncle was little more than an ugly shell?

A determined face now. He’d gotten that from his father, most definitely. “How can I help if I don’t know what it is?” the boy demanded, nose in the air. His mother’s nose, that, coupled with her soft, soft eyes. Jiang Cheng’s heart broke all over again, the way it did whenever her ghost echoed through her son’s face, though he smiled through it, because her sweet features had never done that. 

“That is true,” Jiang Cheng picked up his brush, knowing Jin Ling was distracted enough to delay putting off the rest of his letter, and started in on the last of the lines. “A true leader does not act rashly. He asks questions, learns what he can. If he has all the facts, he can come up with the best solution. Remember what I’ve taught you, A-Ling. Small steps always lead to big results.”

Jin Ling nodded seriously, absorbing his words like a sponge. “I’m asking,” he said and never had he looked so much like a tiny lordling. “Let me help.”

“That wasn’t a question,” Jiang Cheng snorted, but let him have the victory if only so he didn’t stop Jiang Cheng from writing once more. “The Elders want me to get married. Again.”

He probably needed to discourage Jin Ling’s immediate distaste of the idea. Marriage was a duty sect leaders were unable to dodge out of. Hell, Jin Guangyao had already begun vetting various matchmakers to seek out potential brides for when Jin Ling was old enough. It was altogether normal and expected and Jin Ling should really not be wrinkling his nose at it.

One day, Jiang Cheng promised himself he would curb it. Sometime. Eventually. Much, much later.

Tonight, he just rubbed the crease from between Jin Ling’s brows, careful of his vermillion Jin mark, his letter once more forgotten. “I’ve told them no, but they are relentless. Should we just break their legs?”

“Who do they want jiu-jiu to marry?” That crinkle in his forehead was not going away, it seemed. Jiang Cheng sighed.

“A Lan,” he told him and set his brush down with a creeping feeling of failure gripping at his insides. The letter was unfinished, but what was the point to complete what he’d already written out so many times before? They would only push the matter even more, would they not? And that would mean… that this was it. Was this as far as he could delay the inevitable?

A tiny gasp broke through his thoughts and suddenly Jin Ling was tugging on him, a fist full of fabric and hair. “Jiu-jiu is marrying Zewu-jun?!”

Jiang Cheng stared down at him in stupefied silence. The way five year old brains worked sometimes… what the actual hell? What did the First Jade of Lan have to do with anything he’d just said? He thought hard on that, trying to puzzle through Jin Ling’s thought process, and quickly before the boy thought he was being ignored.

He supposed it had to be that Lan Xichen was constantly around Carp Tower, a silver jewel radiating alongside the golden glow of his sworn brother. It stood to reason that besides Lan Qiren, who had sat and played with Jing Ling at the previous year’s Conference, Lan Xichen was the only Lan that Jin Ling knew about, and certainly was the only Lan he had regular contact with. Therefore, not a terrible jump to make.

Hoping he was correct, Jiang Cheng tugged on the end of Jin Ling’s own braid, half falling out as it was from all the playing he’d done after dinner. “There’s an idea,” he said, because really, what an idea. “And you sound so surprised. Do you think Zewu-jun wouldn’t marry me? Do you doubt your jiu-jiu that much? What an ungrateful brat you are! Perhaps it’s your legs I should be breaking!”

Of course Lan Xichen wouldn’t marry someone like Jiang Cheng. Who would? But that wasn’t the point. Honestly, it was amusing just to think about and seeing Jin Ling’s surprise dissolve into giggles was worth everything.

“Zewu-jun is nice,” Jin Ling told him, beaming and patting at Jiang Cheng’s hand. “Jiu-jiu needs someone nice.”

Great, and now his nephew was giving him his blessing. Sure, he wanted to scoff, I’ll just fly up to Cloud Recessess and ask Sect Leader Lan to marry me. Wouldn’t that just make his council lose their collective minds?

Wouldn’t that just… wait .

“A-Ling,” he said slowly, feeling the dots connect in one horrible, glorious moment. It was a foolish, absolutely terrible idea that formed, but by the gods, it could actually work. “I think you might be onto something.”

He swept the unfinished letter from his desk and retrieved his brush. Jin Ling peered over his arm to watch him furiously write, too excited to complain about bedtimes anymore. Jiang Cheng had only managed such a thing a few times and knew it’d only last a mere couple minutes. But it was enough.

The Elders demanded he marry a Lan, because a Lan had perhaps the only chance in all the cultivation world to meet Jiang Cheng’s list of standards. He wrote them down now, the attributes of what he’d always considered to be the perfect fit for himself - altered rather recently, of course, to fit Jin Ling into the equation - and smirked viciously when he realized that yes, Lan Xichen actually fit nearly all of them. All but one, in fact: cultivation level not too high.

He’d added that the first time Elder Sister had asked him what he wanted his wife to be like. It’d been innocent at best, given her cultivation had not been strong. He’d wanted to marry someone just like her, so that was the standard it became. But as he grew and watched the rift form between his parents, it’d come to mean something else, that he could marry someone not only just like her, but someone who didn’t make him feel he had to compete. He was at odds with everyone, it felt like. He didn’t want his spouse to be just another opponent he had to prove himself to.

Lan Xichen was formidable, certainly, and there was no question that the man was in a league Jiang Cheng could only hope to match. Yet the Lan had never made him feel that distance. He was always warm, welcoming, and happy to see him, even when no one else seemed to be. At Conferences, he made a point to sit beside Jiang Cheng and talk to him at length, and it wasn’t mere small talk the way it was with everyone else. He asked about Jin Ling and listened to Jiang Cheng go on and on about him. He let Jiang Cheng complain about the day to day life in his sect and even wrote him letters during the times they could not meet in person.

Perhaps even more telling, he was the only one Jiang Cheng turned to for help and Lan Xichen never made him feel less for asking. He gave his aid and gladly, no matter how silly the situation, and always thanked him genuinely when Jiang Cheng responded in kind. From advice with dealing with this sect or that, to medicines he could give to Jin Ling, Lan Xichen never failed to answer him back, his words all ageless wisdom and that soft hint of amusement he always seemed to carry with him whenever he was with Jiang Cheng.

So, despite his cultivation level, Jiang Cheng had to admit he did not see Lan Xichen as a threat, or an opponent. He felt nothing but deep respect for the man and Lan Xichen had made it clear he felt the same. Honestly, if Jiang Cheng had to choose a rival that was also a Lan, it would be Lan Wangji.

Ah, and that was something else to consider. Marrying Lan Xichen would mean being an in-law to the steely Second Jade, who probably hated Jiang Cheng as much as Jiang Cheng hated him. Jiang Cheng wondered if the revulsion Lan Wangji would no doubt express hearing the news would be enough to overcome having to consider him family. It was decidedly hard to imagine any sort of expression like that on Lan Wangji’s face, but that only made it funnier.

Jiang Cheng decided far too easily it would be worth it just to see Lan Wangji have to call him brother-in-law. Or at least have to swallow the idea of it. He was absolutely that petty.

It wasn’t as though Lan Xichen would say yes, anyway, but again that wasn’t the point. In following the demands of his Elders, Jiang Cheng could make fools of the lot of them by choosing to propose, not to some fair maiden like they expected, but to the Sect Leader himself. Where his written, polite fuck off would not work, this certainly would ring out loud and clear. Hopefully they would finally get the hint that he was not someone to push. He’d ask Lan Xichen to marry him in front of the entire Cultivation Conference if it meant he could watch them drop dead of shock.

And on the very off chance Lan Xichen did agree? Well, that would be a whole new headache for them. In the centuries of Clan history, in all the rises and falls of each great sect, never had two sect leaders married one another. How would they negotiate visitations? Marriage titles? Heirs? Hell, even the damned wedding? To marry Lan Xichen would not be to forfeit his status as a YunmengJiang Sect member, the way it would if he were a mere disciple, and to marry him would not make Lan Xichen’s status as a Lan forfeit either. Jiang Cheng had no idea himself how he’d approach such a thing if asked. How badly would the Elders flounder if faced with the same?

The more he imagined it, the more he almost wanted Lan Xichen to indulge the joke just so he could get a good laugh in. The man had a sneaky sense of humor, to be sure. Perhaps he even would?

Fuck, was he actually going to do this?

Staring down at the list he’d made, Jiang Cheng tried to logic himself out of it, but the more he tried, the more he wanted to do it anyway. He was grinning as he set down his brush, all teeth.

Yes, he realized with a petty jolt of glee. He was.

“Jiu-jiu?”

Jiang Cheng pushed his writing desk away so he could stand with Jin Ling in his arms and felt the plan slip to the back of his mind. As it did every night, his world slowly condensed to the size of a five year old boy, currently yawning against his chest. “A-Ling, would you like to see snow?”

“Snow?” Jin Ling’s eyes lit up, even as he rubbed them sleepily. Jiang Cheng shifted him in his hold so he could pull free the lopsided braid hanging over Jin Ling’s shoulder. He ran his fingers through the sad loops to test how bad of a rat’s nest his nephew had managed and sighed as they immediately tangled.

“I’m going to Cloud Recesses,” Jiang Cheng explained and sat the boy on his bed. Grabbing a comb, he worked out the knots that seemed perpetually trained in Jin Ling’s hair. How he could still get a brush through it was a mystery to him most of the time.

“I want to see snow,” Jin Ling agreed, humming as his eyes slowly blinked closed. It was a habit he’d gotten from his mother, this soft music as he started to fall asleep, which defied all logic. She’d died too early for him to have picked it up from her directly. Yet he hummed all the same, aimless, a tad tuneless, the way it was with little children.

Jiang Cheng swallowed around the lump that usually formed to hear it and started to hum along with him, gently guiding the artless melody into one far more complex. One of Elder Sister’s lullabies that she’d sung to him, so many years ago. Her music and stories, these days, were the clearest memory of her he had, and he gave them all to Jin Ling.

“We’ll see snow,” he promised once the song drifted to a close. He set the comb down and quickly set in a new braid. “But only if you sleep.”

Tiny fingers wrapped around his sleeve. “Jiu-jiu? Can I sleep here?”

Jiang Cheng sighed, but knew he didn’t have the heart to tell him no. Not tonight. “Fine, but if you wake me up too early, you’re sleeping in your own bed from now on.”

“I won’t,” Jin Ling pouted and raised his arms up without prompting so Jiang Cheng could pull off his outer robe. He was back to rubbing his eyes while Jiang Cheng knelt to remove his shoes and stockings. “Jiu-jiu?”

Jiang Cheng bit down another sigh. Jin Ling always got chatty when he was this tired, but it didn’t stop the spike of anxiety that preceded each question he asked. He dreaded certain questions, dreaded the answers even more. He knew Jin Ling would ask them one day, he just didn’t know when. All he knew was that he wasn’t ready. Not even close. “Mn?”

“If you get married, will that mean I can’t come here anymore?”

If Jin Ling had kicked him in the face, it would have not hurt nearly as much as hearing that. Jiang Cheng felt a flare of fury in his chest, his anger snapping into his veins like an instant, liquid fire. 

“Who gave you that idea?” he demanded, more harshly than he intended. Thankfully, Jin Ling was tired enough that his show of hushed outrage did not bring him to angry tears of his own. He still sniffled a bit, wiping his nose with his sleeve, which was almost worse.

“If you marry, I’ll be in the way,” Jin Ling said, sad and soft. Jiang Cheng forced himself to breathe so as not to scare his nephew as he took his little face between his hands.

“Listen to me A-Ling, you will always be first in my life. Always,” he said, firm and solid in that. “You will always have a place here. This will always be your home. And I will always want you here. Married or not, you are my first priority. Do you understand me?”

Jin Ling smiled at that, wobbly but happy enough. “You promise?”

“You’re not getting rid of me that easily,” Jiang Cheng huffed and caressed under Jin Ling’s eyes with his thumbs to preemptively keep tears from spilling over. “I will always be by your side. I promise.”

“Okay.” Jin Ling folded forward, arms wrapping around Jiang Cheng’s neck. That hated lump was back in his throat, choked down even more with a helpless anger that someone, somehow, had planted such a terrible thing in his nephew’s mind. If he ever found out who, they’d have more than broken legs by the time he was through.

For now, he settled for turning the tired embrace into a lift. He held Jin Ling comfortably in one arm and adjusted the blankets on his bed with the other. Settling Jin Ling near the wall, where he could best protect him, Jiang Cheng sat back down to remove his own shoes and shrug out of his outer robes, then stretched out a foot gracelessly to drag over his discarded hair ribbon.

As he wove it into his hair for a braid to sleep in, Jiang Cheng’s eyes slid over to his desk, to the list halfway lit by a dying candle. For a moment, he considered his plan, formed in stubborn resentment at being controlled, and weighed it against Jin Ling’s quiet words that felt like barbs piercing under his skin. Logically, he knew it was rash and toeing that line of impropriety he’d never stepped over before, but on the other hand…

On the other hand, with a proper wife to make him proper heirs, what would Jin Ling think then? Would he be happy his family was growing, or would he fear he had to compete with them? That he’d always be second best?

Jiang Cheng felt his resolve close in around that and looked down at his sleeping nephew, watched his peaceful, gentle breaths, and swore that Jin Ling would never question his worth in such a way as long as Jiang Cheng could help it, not the way Jiang Cheng had done all his life. It wasn’t much, but it was all he could give, so he would. And to ensure that resolution, he had to propose to the First Jade of Lan himself. The scandal and embarrassment of rejection would ruin his chances of marriage for good, and he would be alone, possibly forever.

For Jin Ling alone, it would be worth it. So he would. It was that simple.

Resolved, Jiang Cheng tucked himself in and sighed, closing his eyes. Tomorrow then.