Suihua lays on Jin Ling’s lap as he flips through documents on his desk. It’s already past midnight, but there’s still work to be done—in the three years since the Guanyin Temple incident, Jin Ling hasn’t gotten much sleep.
The candles in his room burn brightly against Lanling Jin’s white and gold. Although he’s been wearing the colors all his life, he can’t help but imagine the stain of blood on the sleeves of his robes. His clan might be revered and opulent, but all of it comes with a price.
He signs his name in rich black ink on the bottom of the leaf of paper, and moves his left hand to grip his sword by the hilt. He only knows his father through stories and songs and this sword; he is determined to keep what little he has by his side.
Of his mother, he has even fewer. Last year, Jin Ling had been gifted Jiang Yanli’s disciple bell. His jiujiu had held it so gently as he passed it over. Since Wei Wuxian’s return, Jiang Cheng has become more subdued. He’s still prone to his fits of anger, but he’s somehow softer—whenever Jin Ling leaves Lotus Pier, his uncle wraps him in a tight hug. Jin Ling is taller than Jiang Cheng now, but in his arms, he always feels so small. Neither of them are very good at words, but Jin Ling hopes that means his uncle is proud of him.
And as they often do on these lonely nights, his thoughts drift to Jin Guangyao.
After all, how could they not? Jin Ling sleeps in the quarters that he slept in and uses the same calligraphy brushes that he used and sits at the same desk where Jin Guangyao had sat, and bounced Jin Ling on his knee when he was still a small boy. When Jin Ling closes his eyes, all he sees is Xiaoshu’s sly smile, because as much as he still feels the phantom pain of Jin Guangyao’s thread to his throat, he wants to believe that his uncle really loved him.
The secret chamber where Jin Guangyao had kept Suibian and Nie Mingjue’s head has been cleared out and sealed closed, and the mirror on the wall is just a mirror now. When Jin Ling looks into it, he sees a rippled reflection of the two men that raised him. Despite his projected arrogance, he will never be as intimidating and powerful as Jiang Cheng, nor as smart and calculating as Jin Guangyao.
He takes a deep breath, and releases Suihua from his tight grip. There are no more papers to read or sign, no more responsibilities for him to fulfill tonight, but he doesn’t feel any desire to rest. There is still so much work to be done—he hears what people say about Lanling Jin these days, about how they’ve been shamed in the eyes of the cultivation world.
Yes, Jin Guangshan was a power hungry leader, undeserving of the title of Chief Cultivator, and an unfaithful husband with no regard for anything but his own pleasure (Jin Ling feels disgusted to think that the man was his own grandfather). And yet, he is lauded over Jin Guangyao, who was, yes, a manipulator and a murderer, but still managed to do more good for Lanling than Jin Guangshan had in years. Jin Ling feels disgusted to hear Jin disciples and the people of Lanling whisper about how a whore’s son had been given the world in the palm of his hands only to misuse it, as if Jin Guangyao had not spilled blood and sweat and tears and forced a smile through the pain to achieve power. Yes, Jin Guangyao was hungry too, but he had been made that way by the same people who still bring up his bloodline instead of his actions.
Jin Ling remembers Mo Xuanyu, before he had become Wei Wuxian. His uncle had been a kind and demure man until his family had rejected and abused him. Jin Ling remembers Qin Su, who had taught him to write and cook and sew, and who had applied ointment to his bruises and soothed his tears when he’d run home after being chased by his bullies, and who had committed suicide in front of him because of Jin secrets that had never been spoken aloud. Yes, Jin Ling’s family deserves to be shamed, for all the pain and death that they’d caused.
And yet, Jin Ling cannot help but love his uncle. When Jin Ling had come to him about the bullying, Jin Guangyao had just clenched his jaw and said, “You will rise above it.”
Jin Ling doesn’t feel like he has. Under the sharp gazes of elders trying to usurp him of his position and the judgment of every citizen under his jurisdiction, Jin Ling feels just as small as he had as a child. He wonders if Jin Guangyao had felt this way too, walking on eggshells every second, knowing that if he made one mistake, he would lose everything.
Sometimes, when Jin Ling’s in the Cloud Recesses, he looks away from Lan Jingyi’s antics and Lan Sizhui’s amused smile to wonder about Lan Xichen. The Gusu Lan Sect Leader was, in some way, related to him too, being Jin Guangyao’s sworn brother and Wei Wuxian’s brother in law. He’s also one of the only people who knew Jin Guangyao like Jin Ling did, as a smart and loyal friend and confidant. Jin Ling hasn’t gotten the chance to talk to him since he went into seclusion, but even if he did, he’s not sure what he would say. He could apologize, perhaps, but Jin Ling isn’t sorry about anything, except for the fact that it all went wrong so quickly and nobody could stop it until it was too late.
He could say I loved him too, and I still do. Nobody can understand why Jin Ling’s shackles go up when people talk about the scheming and corrupted Jin Guangyao around him, but maybe Lan Xichen would. Lan Xichen would understand what it feels like to have blood on your hands that won’t seem to wash away.
(Jin Ling doesn’t go to Qinghe very often, but sometimes, he wants to shake Nie Huaisang by the shoulders, and beg him to give him his xiaoshu back. Nie Huaisang is Chief Cultivator now, having shed the know-nothing image for the intelligent man he’s always been. Jin Ling’s golden core may be stronger than Nie Huaisang’s, but his resolve could never be. If Wei Wuxian’s suspicions are true, and Jin Ling thinks they are, the man bided his time for years, orchestrating Jin Guangyao’s downfall in silence. He, perhaps, had known Jin Guangyao better than all of them, and Jin Ling wonders if he had once loved him too.)
So yes, Jin Ling has a family, but it’s all disjointed, jagged edges and bad blood. He would do anything to bring it together again.
He rises to his feet, tucking Suihua at his side. He goes to flip the calendar on his wall to the next day, and the date of the new day pops out at him.
“Ah,” he says, quietly to himself. “It’s my birthday.” He’s been so busy that he didn’t even realize. Jin Ling’s birthday means flowery letters with insincere congratulations from minor sect leaders and expensive gifts from suitors trying to win his favor—not like he’s looking to get married anytime soon. He’s only seventeen (well, eighteen, now) and Jiang Cheng would kill him if he got married before his own uncle did.
Jin Ling’s birthday means his jiujiu will make the trip to Carp Tower, and if Jin Ling’s lucky, so will Wei Wuxian, meaning that if Jin Ling’s lucky, his estranged uncles will talk for a minute more than they did last year. If he’s lucky, Wei Wuxian will bring Lan Wangji and Lan Wangji will bring Lan Sizhui and Lan Sizhui will bring Lan Jingyi and Lan Jingyi will bring Ouyang Zizhen and—
And Jin Ling will have his family, even for just one day, because although he’s not related to all of them, the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Jin Ling has fought for and with these people, and they have fought for him too. One thing that Jin Ling knows about his mother is that she had accepted Wei Wuxian into their family as her own little brother, never giving a thought to the fact that he was born from parents of a different class. Jin Ling hopes to be like that too. Lanling Jin has been scarred by willful discrimination of the mistreated and the selfishness of the rich. Jin Ling is going to change that, no matter how hard it may be. He is young, but he has already paid the price of keeping hatred in his heart. He’s never going to make that mistake again.
The sounds of Fairy barking from outside the door snaps Jin Ling out of his own head. He pushes past the curtains that separate his work area and gets ready to draw his sword when the doors burst open—the intruder had gotten past Fairy? How?
Then Jin Ling sees his visitors, and he understands. Ouyang Zizhen is crouched down on a knee, petting Fairy as he barks and wags his tail happily and Lan Sizhui is dusting off his pale robes with a satisfied smile. Lan Jingyi doesn’t waste a second before hurtling towards Jin Ling, tackling him into a fierce hug.
“Happy birthday, Jin Ling!” he says, loud in Jin Ling’s ear. Jin Ling’s heart lifts, up and up and up, until he’s floating. “You’re eighteen now! How does it feel?”
“Feels like you’re crushing me,” Jin Ling replies, and Jingyi loosens up a bit, but then Sizhui and Ouyang Zizhen are coming in for hugs too, and Jin Ling thinks he can no longer breathe. He feels sort of odd, he feels like he’s, he’s—
Oh, he realizes. I feel like I’m loved.
When they separate, Sizhui having muttered soft words of congratulations, Ouyang Zizhen reaches in to grab Jin Ling’s face and give him a wet kiss on the cheek like the romanticist that he is. Jin Ling squawks and tears away from the embrace.
“Gross!” he exclaims. “You’re not Fairy!” The three other boys just crack up in response and Jin Ling turns an embarrassing shade of red. “Why are you here?” he asks to divert the conversation. Despite everything, Jin Ling’s smiling so wide his face hurts. “It’s way past your bedtime,” he points out to the Lan duo. Sizhui has the decency to look a little shy about it; Jingyi just grins.
“We can break the rules for once,” Jingyi says. Jin Ling tries not to point out that Jingyi breaks at least one of the four thousand rules nearly every day.
“Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun are coming in the morning!” Sizhui pipes up. “They’ve got all our gifts for you. We didn’t want to show you them too soon.”
“You didn’t have to get me anything…” Jin Ling trails off, but Ouyang Zizhen just scoffs in response.
“Why wouldn’t we?” he says. “You’re our friend.” Jin Ling feels his stomach twist. Truthfully, he’s not very used to easy affection—things like words of praise or physical touch were hardwon when he was growing up. He feels a bit overwhelmed when he receives them so casually now.
The fixed attention of his friends starts to prickle down his spine, so as he’s learned to do so well, he turns it onto another one of them. “Hey, Sizhui,” Jin Ling says. “When are you gonna start talking about Hanguang-jun and my uncle like they’re your parents, huh?”
Sizhui’s the one blushing now, as Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen descend into giggles. “It’s true!” Jingyi adds. “I’m sick of the bullshit, Sizhui. They’re your dads, accept it.”
“I know that! It’s just…new, okay!” Sizhui replies, voice a little strangled.
Ouyang Zizhen claps Sizhui on the shoulder. “It’s cute,” he says. “I’m glad you guys have each other.” Jin Ling’s always marveled at Ouyang Zizhen’s ability to say the sappiest things with a straight face.
“Yeah,” Jingyi agrees, nodding his head. “I mean, sometimes it’s nauseating, but I guess it’s worth it.”
Sizhui puts his head in his hands. “You are all so embarrassing,” he says, and then he looks up at Jin Ling. “If they’re my dads, you know that you’re my cousin, right, Jin Ling?”
Jin Ling pauses. “Hm,” he considers. He thinks about family, about all the people he loves in the same room, all the years of pain far behind them. “I wouldn’t be so mad about that,” he says, giving his friend an uncharacteristically gentle smile.
He doesn’t expect Sizhui’s eyes to sparkle. “Jin Ling,” he says, and grabs Jin Ling’s hand tight, squeezing it between his fingers and his palm.
“Hey,” Jingyi cuts in, warning in his voice. “I’ve known you since you were five, Lan Yuan, you better not leave me out of this,” he complains, and drags them both in for another hug.
“Me neither!” Ouyang Zizhen chirps. He wraps them all up in his long arms, while Fairy barks and licks at their legs, trying to get in on the fun. Jin Ling can’t really breathe again, but it doesn’t feel so bad.
In the middle of it all, he hears Sizhui’s sweet voice like a beacon. “Jin Ling,” he says. “We’re family now.” And Jin Ling thinks, haven’t we always been?
Because if there’s one thing he remembers, it’s the faint glow of what it felt like to be loved by his mother and father. He feels that same glow in Jiang Cheng when his stern expression breaks into a smile and in Wei Wuxian when he reaches up to ruffle Jin Ling’s hair. He feels it in Jingyi when he laughs like a maniac after helping Jin Ling play a prank and he feels it in Ouyang Zizhen when the boy looks at him with his glittery unblinking eyes and tells him that he matters. He feels it in Sizhui, when the older boy calms him down from nervous rage and speaks to him in that soft tone that makes everything feel like it’s going to be okay.
(He felt it in Jin Guangyao, a long time ago. But he realizes how the burn of revenge had swallowed that light inside his xiaoshu. He realizes that now, he has to let go, just like Jin Guangyao let go of him.)
Jin Ling feels tears come to his eyes, and for once, he doesn’t feel ashamed to cry. “Yeah,” he replies, muffled into Sizhui’s shoulder. He takes his free hand and closes it around Suihua’s hilt. Everything feels like it’s going to be okay. “We’re family.”