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Trade Secrets

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Wei Wuxian might have saved Jin Ling’s life an approximate total of five times, and he might have also been proven mostly innocent of all the sins Jin Ling initially despised him for, but the fact still remains that he is a demonic cultivator who doesn’t use his sword and has no ties or affiliations with any prominent sect to keep him in line. Therefore, Jin Ling is doing this for the good of the cultivation world as the new leader of the Jin Sect. No one else seems to want to take precautions so Jin Ling will do it for them.

There was a bit of robe that had been torn off during the debacle at Guanyin Temple, and, recognizing it clearly as Wei Wuxian’s, Jin Ling had pocketed it for Fairy to scent later on that week. It has everything to do with wanting to keep a tab on Wei Wuxian since clearly no one else is taking the initiative to do so, and the only person who seems to have any stretch of authority over the Yiling Patriarch (namely—Hanguang-jun) appears to be more than happy to let him run amok. 

It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that, life-threatening, earth-shattering, heartbreaking revelations about his deceased parents and traitorous uncle aside, the period of time that Wei Wuxian whirled into Jin Ling’s life was the most fun, the least alone, he’s ever remembered feeling for a long time. 

Some weeks after everyone returned to where they belonged, and Jin Ling was hastily rolled into a post he doesn’t feel at all prepared for—and isn’t even sure he wants to take right now—Fairy returns from her usual scouting of the major towns in Lanling, eagerly barking and running past Jin Ling in the courtyard, straight to his new personal quarters as Sect Leader. He jogs after her curiously, and finds her sitting, tail wagging, directly by the table where he’s kept that torn bit of black cloth all these days. 

Jin Ling attaches her leash, and says, trying to tamp down his stupid nerves, “C’mon, then. Show me where he is.”

Fairy leads him to one of the smaller towns, surprisingly, nestled far enough from Carp Tower that Jin Ling knows he’ll miss a smattering of his afternoon meetings. The town is small enough that Jin Ling is certain there’s only one inn, and he can find it himself easily enough. He bades Fairy to wait at a little shop at the edge of the town, tying her leash around a post and asking one of the shopkeeper’s young daughters if she could fetch his dog some water. 

He has to repeatedly wipe his palms against his robes as he walks towards the center of the bustling, quaint town, towards the sole inn. He sees Little Apple already tied to the fence outside from a fair distant away and his hands start sweating profusely harder. 

It’s honestly just stupid Wei Wuxian, he tells himself, but even his mind’s voice sounds unconvinced and childish. 

Hanguang-jun isn’t even with him, he tries instead, and while that doesn’t quite stop his hands from sweating, it at least makes him feel like there’s less of a risk of getting the Silencing Spell humiliatingly cast on him again. 

Not many people who were actually involved in the entire disaster last month knew Mo Xuanyu as Mo Xuanyu. Jin Ling himself, for one, and—well—the person who apparently drove Mo Xuanyu to no longer have his own body in the first place. Since that person was buried beneath the ruins of Guanyin Temple, it left just Jin Ling as the only person to truly have to adjust to seeing Mo Xuanyu’s face and body with an utterly different soul within it. There were, of course, a handful of Jin Sect disciples who had also encountered Mo Xuanyu during his time cultivating at Carp Tower, but they had little to no reason to even be involved or meet with Wei Wuxian. 

Mo Xuanyu, in all honesty, hadn’t been a harmful character by any means—just a pitiful one, and one to be avoided. He was odd—prone to outbursts that would make absolutely no sense to anyone—but for the most part, he was quiet and considerably soft-spoken. Timid and introverted until things began to cage him from all sides—and Jin Ling supposes now he knows what those things had been. He hadn’t been all that much older than Jin Ling even though he had also technically been Jin Ling’s uncle—Jin Ling had definitely not considered him as such, not in the same way he’d considered Jiang Cheng and Jin Guangyao. 

Now that there is no imminent danger and the exposition of family secrets to distract him, Jin Ling is struck a little speechless, stepping into the teahouse attached to the base of the inn, and seeing Mo Xuanyu as—not Mo Xuanyu. 

He wonders if it says even more about Wei Wuxian that he could make a body that he had not even been born in seem like his own. 

Still, it’s odd to see those eyes sharp and twinkling with mischief rather than distant and shy—odder to see, even though Wei Wuxian only sat, a pot of liquor and some side dishes in front of him, somehow the vivacity and confidence thrummed through his whole being. Jin Ling had heard—when he may or may not have been eavesdropping over a conversation between Sizhui and the Ghost General before they all parted ways—that Wei Wuxian in his previous lifetime had been nearly as tall as the Twin Jades of Lan. He believes it now that he realizes the way Wei Wuxian carries himself in Mo Xuanyu’s body is that of someone who is much taller than Mo Xuanyu is. 

Or—it could really just be the confidence. 

(Arrogance —provides his uncle’s voice in his head—and Jin Ling doesn’t want to disagree, but at the same time, it no longer sounds right.)

Jin Ling is so distracted, standing stiff in the doorway, that he doesn’t realize Wei Wuxian has clearly seen him in return until a loud, obnoxious, “Is that Sect Leader Jin?” rings throughout the entire teahouse in a voice that couldn’t be further from the way Mo Xuanyu spoke if anyone had tried. 

Jin Ling rushes over, ears already flaming and prickling from the sudden whispering that fills the teahouse. He immediately takes a seat, slams his sweaty hands down on the table, and hisses, “Could you not?”

Wei Wuxian regards Jin Ling with a lazy, playfulness, even though there is something else in his gaze that Jin Ling can’t quite name because Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to want Jin Ling to see it at all in the first place. “Could I not what?” he echoes, eyes dancing. 

Jin Ling feels his ears absolutely on fire. He scowls. 

“What is the new, acclaimed, young Sect Leader Jin doing at this humble establishment?” Wei Wuxian asks further, gulping down the contents of one cup of liquor and pouring himself another. His tone is truly curious but also warm—warm enough that even though Jin Ling thinks his ears are about to fall off, perhaps this won’t be as embarrassing as he thinks it will be. 

“You can’t stay here,” he says, glaring down at the table. 

There’s a strange pause.

When Wei Wuxian next speaks, his voice is abruptly devoid of most of its playfulness, intent and uncharacteristically quiet, instead. “Here in this inn, or here in Lanling?” 

That confuses Jin Ling enough to startle him into glancing up. Wei Wuxian suddenly looks sad , of all things—sad but smiling, which confuses Jin Ling even more. 

“In this inn?” he answers even though it sounds like a question—maybe because it is because why wouldn’t Wei Wuxian be able to stay in Lanling. He’s clearly already in Lanling and has been for some time. “I know you’re here to—to nighthunt—and do other demonic things,” he sniffs, “and cultivators don’t stay in these small towns. You’re going to scare off civilians and normal tourists and make bad business for the innkeepers. You should—I’m ordering you to come to Carp Tower.”

He surreptitiously wipes his hands on his robes underneath the table. 

Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen, his mouth opening slightly and then closing again into another smile—one that is decidedly less sad that it’s predecessor. “I’d never dream of disobeying Sect Leader Jin,” he says, and there’s laughter in his voice that sounds rather as if he’s enjoying a joke with himself—though not at Jin Ling’s own expense. 

Jin Ling inwardly breathes a sigh of relief—the nerves that he hadn’t realized had bundled themselves into knots in his chest loosening instantly. He slips out an engraved, white jade token. “Here,” he says, putting it onto the table. “Show this at the gates. They’ll let you in. I—I came with Fairy, so I need to take her back first. I’m very busy,” he adds hastily in case Wei Wuxian gets any funny ideas of why Jin Ling insists on not returning together—like caring about Wei Wuxian’s stupid fear of perfectly harmless dogs.

Wei Wuxian’s smile is bright and amused. “Of course, you are, Sect Leader,” he says, waving Jin Ling off cheerily with the token in hand.  

They have dinner together in the vast, dining hall that feels too large and too hollow with the last relative Jin Ling had remaining in this clan now gone. It wasn’t as if he spent every day with Jin Guangyao—it wasn’t even as if Jin Guangyao had all that great of a hand in raising him. For the most part, he took over whenever Jiang Cheng could not leave Yunmeng for extended periods of time—and even that was only after Jin Ling came from Lotus Pier to Carp Tower at the fairly late age of ten. Before that, it had only been birthdays that he’d spent here. 

Still—it’s off-putting, to eat a meal here without him and Qin Su present. Even if he had not raised Jin Ling, he had still been one of the only family Jin Ling had left.

The loneliness, before, had always been present. These past few weeks with him being moved into all of Jin Guangyao’s now-evacuated quarters, after his Sect Leader appointment, have made the loneliness absolutely suffocating. 

Even with Wei Wuxian here, this evening, it still doesn’t feel right. Nothing feels right anymore, lately. If he thought Jin Chan and his cronies would relent just because he’s been made Sect Leader, he was devastatingly wrong. If anything, their snide remarks just became more snide and more passive aggressive. Even worse, he truly can’t pick physical fights with them anymore and they know it. 

“Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian says, suddenly, when the silence has stretched for at least five minutes and Jin Ling has picked his braised oxtail apart into mush. 

“What?” Jin Ling mutters, looking at Wei Wuxian briefly and then looking away quickly once he sees that Wei Wuxian’s gaze is far too knowing. 

“Have you written to Sizhui at all lately? Or Zizhen? Or Jingyi?” Wei Wuxian’s voice is so, so, carefully nonchalant. 

Jin Ling determinedly remains staring at his ruined oxtail. “What for?”

There’s a longer pause this time, and Jin Ling’s curiosity eventually gets the better of him. He sneaks a glance upwards across the long table. Wei Wuxian’s expression is not patronizing—nor is it pitying. There’s nothing unbearable or infuriating or even irritating about how he looks at Jin Ling. He only looks thoughtful as he meets Jin Ling’s gaze. “For them to hear from you, obviously!” Wei Wuxian grins easily, as if it truly is just that simple.

Jin Ling frowns down and takes an unenthusiastic bite of his food—everything is objectively delicious but he has no appetite tonight. “You’re an idiot,” he mumbles, as he chews. 

“Don’t speak with your mouth full,” Wei Wuxian says breezily as if he hadn’t been doing just that earlier during the meal. 

Jin Ling rolls his eyes, but remains silent until his mouth is empty—not because he’s listening to anything Wei Wuxian says, but because he wasn’t planning to speak while he eats like a barbarian anyway, that sentence had just let slip at that moment. 

After another stretch of quiet, during which Wei Wuxian stops eating his actual food entirely and begins drinking all of the liquor on the table dry, he abruptly says, in a tone that is too sincere for Jin Ling to be comfortable with, “Having friends doesn’t make you a child—it means you have people you can trust, Jin Ling.”

They’ve been served dessert now, which Jin Ling still doesn’t have the appetite for, so he settles for glaring daggers at the way Wei Wuxian hasn’t even asked before he helps himself to Jin Ling’s own serving of sugared rice cakes. “Uncle says a Sect Leader should be able to depend on himself.”

“I said friends,” Wei Wuxian says, literally with his cheeks close to imploding of rice cakes ten minutes after he’d told Jin Ling himself not to speak when chewing, “not political crutches.”

“It’s not like you’ve ever been Sect Leader,” Jin Ling says waspishly, “or Sect anything.”

Wei Wuxian blinks, swallowing down his mouthful and gazing steadily and silently at Jin Ling for long enough that Jin Ling starts to shift uncomfortably in his seat, wondering if he’d gone too far. Sometimes, he hates the way he can’t seem to control what he says in front of Wei Wuxian—it’s a habit he has towards everyone, but it seems to grow worse when he’s around the Yiling Patriarch in particular. 

“True,” Wei Wuxian finally says, rather lightly. He pours himself out the rest of the liquor from the pot. “I’m terrible at politics, so what would I know?” he laughs in a way that makes Jin Ling horribly unsure if it’s actual laughter.

It also suddenly sparks a horrible, anxious feeling within Jin Ling’s stomach.

What if Wei Wuxian just—leaves tonight? Decides he’s better off staying at an inn after all?

Jin Ling’s mind is running through all the possible scenarios and excuses he’d begun to prepare earlier, attempting to sift through to the most convincing and realistic one to choose from, when Wei Wuxian pats the liquor pot he’s just emptied, and asks, brightly, “In any case, are you free tonight, Sect Leader Jin?”

“What?” Jin Ling blurts out, startled.

The dancing spark is at the forefront of Wei Wuxian’s gaze again. “I came to Lanling for a nighthunt—I hope Sect Leader Jin doesn’t mind that I’d already set some traps on the way in.” Jin Ling watches as his fingers tap absently at his waist, where Chenqing is tucked in. “I was also wondering if Sect Leader Jin had enough time on his hands this evening to supervise the nets I’ve created.”

Jin Ling scrambles for his sword, leaning against the table during dinner, and stands up so quickly that the servants surrounding the hall on shift for their meal jump slightly in reaction. Wei Wuxian merely tips his head upward so he can continue to meet Jin Ling’s gaze even as he himself remains seated. “Well?” Jin Ling snaps impatiently. “C’mon—there’s—I don’t have all night. I’m—I’m still a little busy.”

Wei Wuxian laughs again, but this time Jin Ling is absolutely certain it’s a real laugh—the sound encouraging and warm, and Jin Ling is leading the way out the door before Wei Wuxian has even stood to his feet. 

Jin Ling spends half the night being chased by the irate ghost of a spider beast, while Wei Wuxian stands on a tree branch and lazily flutes the beast in the direction of some of his nets—the likes of which Jin Ling has yet to see before, spirit nets the Yiling Patriarch had apparently adjusted the design of. Jin Ling spends the other half of the night learning a few lure array arrangements that he’d seen Sizhui use, briefly, when they’d been attempting to escape the cave early on, but that he never thought he’d bother with himself since it didn’t seem much like the Jin Sect style.

“You don’t have to use everything you know all the time,” Wei Wuxian says, after Jin Ling had mastered the new array enough to have brought in the beast’s ghost into one of the nets himself. “But it’s good to know it, right?”

Jin Ling begrudgingly grumbles his assent and allows Wei Wuxian to pat his head for a bearable maximum of five seconds. 

They return to Carp Tower in time for sunrise and just in time for Jin Ling to parade past a gawking Jin Chan and his cronies with the Yiling Patriarch on his left, and a netted spider beast ghost floating to his right. 

Wei Wuxian ends up staying for an entire week that Jin Ling will never admit flies by so fast, he embarrassingly starts yelling about Wei Wuxian trying to escape the premises when Wei Wuxian, over lunch, mildly mentions about how he needs to return to Mo Village. “You have not been here for a week,” Jin Ling tries to insist, ears flaring red when his eyes dart to the large, ceremonial cultivational calendar in one of the main halls of Carp Tower. “And even if you have, it’s not like you’re needed anywhere.”

“Exactly!” Wei Wuxian snaps his fingers, as he continues to stride past Jin Ling on his way to fetch his dumb donkey from the Carp Tower stables. He’s balancing a bucket of apples against one hip, and twirling Chenqing with his free hand, long ponytail waving behind him as he walks. It’s odd to see Mo Xuanyu’s body have such long hair—Jin Ling remembers him to have always kept his hair short, tied into a messy bun with the rest covering his face as if trying to hide from the world.

Not that Wei Wuxian is any better at keeping hair out of his face—but there’s so much movement in every fiber of his being that it’s as if there’s a constant breeze blowing the strands out of his eyes, even if they fall right back over seconds later. “I’m not needed anywhere, so I can go everywhere!” he singsongs, setting the bucket down a ways away from where Little Apple is tied. He moves to untie the donkey as Jin Ling folds his arms and snorts.

“Why Mo Village anyway?” he asks, attempting to stuff away his curiosity and settle on casual. 

“Resentful energy is the same as good energy,” Wei Wuxian explains absently, patting down Little Apple’s mane while she began inhaling the apples. “Like attracts like, and everything that began in that village attracted more energy—and the sorts of spirits drawn to that sort of energy—to it. No harm in me heading over there to calm it down for the villagers.”

I’m coming, then rests on the tip of Jin Ling’s tongue for a moment too long before he swallows it down and looks back up towards the grand pillars of Carp Tower. 

“That reminds me, actually,” Wei Wuxian says, as he adjusts the saddle. He faces Jin Ling with a smile. “Sizhui and Wen Ning are travelling, too. They might be in Lanling soon.”

Jin Ling ignores the flare of excitement in his stomach. “So? Why should I care?”

The way Wei Wuxian searches his expression lets Jin Ling know that Wei Wuxian knows exactly why Jin Ling should care, and exactly what Jin Ling plans to do with the information. “No reason,” Wei Wuxian shrugs, still smiling. “Just thought I’d let Sect Leader Jin know that the Ghost General will soon be in Lanling—for the same security reasons that Sect Leader wanted to keep an eye on me as well.”

Jin Ling frowns at the empty bucket of apples. He hears the sound of Wei Wuxian taking Little Apple’s reins. “Jin Ling,” Wei Wuxian speaks again, tone no longer as playful and softer than it was before. Jin Ling glances up carefully, and he’s met with a warm gaze. “You don’t have to go see them when they come. Or, if you only want to see Sizhui, I’m sure he’ll understand, too.”

Somehow, in that moment, all Jin Ling can do is nod dumbly, the warmth of Wei Wuxian’s hand on his shoulder heavy and oddly comforting at the same time. Wei Wuxian pulls away slightly and begins to walk towards the gates with Little Apple trailing along beside him. Jin Ling watches his retreating back, watches him wave one hand in the air without turning back. “I’ll write soon!” he calls, back to simple and cheerful. “Feel free to find me if you need any help!”

Jin Ling didn’t have the foresight to also snag a piece of the Ghost General’s robes for Fairy to scent. Fortunately, Sizhui had the money pouch of a Lan cultivator that was considered practically family by Hanguang-jun, and he and the Ghost General were found at one of the most reputable inns in Lanling—fairly close to Carp Tower itself. They also don’t make it as big of a deal as Wei Wuxian did to come and stay with him as well, considering it shouldn’t be a big deal—a responsible, security detail, really. 

Nighthunting with Sizhui and Wen Ning is a vastly different experience than nighthunting with Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling learns less—gets a few more cuts and bruises than with Wei Wuxian’s skilled protection—but he laughs more—a fact that surprises even him, considering the Ghost General’s presence. He thought, perhaps, it would finally hit him again—seeing Wen Ning fight, being surrounded by the resentful energy he draws upon to sustain him and his inhuman strength. He thinks that the disconnect will stop, and he’ll be faced with the realization that, despite the machinations of his uncle, his father’s murderer is still in front of him. 

It doesn’t happen.

Perhaps it’s the way Wen Ning seems to steer clear of Jin Ling for the first few days, simply trailing a good few paces whenever Sizhui walks beside Jin Ling. Perhaps it’s the way Wen Ning always bows at the waist, eyes downcast and voice small, whenever he greets Jin Ling like the Sect Leader he still doesn’t feel like he is. Perhaps it’s the realization Jin Ling has that when this—this—happened to Wen Ning, he’d been not much older than Jin Ling is. Perhaps it’s the evening that Jin Ling returns late from a meeting with the sect advisors to see, in the middle of the courtyard, Jin Chan and his dumb, stupid cronies crowded around someone that is curled up and limp on the ground. 

They are beating Wen Ning—kicking him and hitting him with their scabbards. 

What are you doing?” Jin Ling all but bellows, Sect Leader propriety be damned. 

He hates that there is no fear in any of their eyes when they turn to look at him—no fear, and no respect. He may be Sect Leader now, but he knows they all still see him as nothing more than the friendless heir with no mother, no father, and now no uncle within the sect to protect him. 

“The Ghost General is in Carp Tower,” Jin Chan says, sneeringly, eyebrows raised and arms folded. “We are giving him his due since it seems our Sect Leader is too busy attending to his duties to do so.”

“The Ghost General,” Jin Ling grits out, shoving through with his shoulders as much as he could without it seeming like the Sect Leader is searching for a physical altercation with his cultivators, “is my guest.” His hand twitches for the hilt of his sword, as he stands in front of Wen Ning, who has not spoken or stood up. 

“Right,” one of the boys behind Jin Chan speaks up, scoffing and cold. “I also like to have my parents’ murderers as houseguests.”

Jin Ling’s entire body goes cold with fury. 

“Sect Leader Jin,” Wen Ning’s voice comes quiet and tiny from behind Jin Ling. He hears the tell-tale rustle of worn robes as the Ghost General stands. “I will find accomodations else—”

“Shut up!” Jin Ling snaps, turning his head only enough to see Wen Ning’s startled expression as he clamps his mouth shut almost reflexively. He has never regretted more not having heeded Wei Wuxian’s words and scrapping with these boys before his uncle had gone and gotten himself exposed for every sin under the sky, sticking Jin Ling with this godforsaken position.

He sucks in a breath and exhales in frustration. It does absolutely nothing to calm him down, but he thinks about his other uncle—the one who’d held him when he couldn’t sleep at night, who he’d seen crying and shaking when he thought Jin Ling was already in bed, the one who is far, far away from him right now, leading his own sect the way he had been since he was little older than Jin Ling himself. He thinks about how, despite his uncle’s brash temper and how he never restrains himself from yelling loudly at Jin Ling, his uncle rules his sect with composure—how all of the Jiang cultivators, even those the same age, if not older, than his uncle, fall in line behind him. 

“He is my guest,” Jin Ling repeats, without the gritted teeth, without the volume, without the outrage. He doesn’t think he’s ever spoken so evenly to Jin Chan and his shitty little followers. “He arrived with Lan Sizhui, Lan Sect Head Disciple, beneath Hanguang-jun—current Chief Cultivator. The clearance of any of crimes previously under his name falls under their jurisdiction for now—if you have any grievances to air, I will send them, in writing with your signature, to the Chief Cultivator. Good night.”

Jin Chan snorts, stepping forward, closer to Jin Ling. “Do you think—” he begins.

Suihua suddenly crackles with energy, sparking at Jin Ling’s hip with a flare of qi that he knows he isn’t emitting on purpose—he’s filled with rage and finished with speaking to these boys, and the next thing he knows, golden sparks are jumping out of Suihua’s hilt, oddly similar to the way Zidian responds sometimes to his uncle’s own emotions. 

Jin Chan’s words trail off into silence. 

The rest of the boys stare, apprehensive and wary, at Suihua. 

Jin Ling breaks the standstill with another, cold, “Good night,” before they suddenly all exchange glances and swiftly turn to begin walking away. 

Another, less uncomfortable—though awkward in a different way—silence settles down now, as Jin Ling turns to face Wen Ning, who is staring at Jin Ling rather peculiarly. His gaze flickers down to Suihua as well. “Sect Leader Jin’s cultivation is developing well,” he notes softly. 

Jin Ling coughs—several times—loudly. “Still not as satisfying as punching them,” he mutters. He looks up at Wen Ning, words catching on his tongue about how even tho Jin Ling couldn’t meet blows with them, Wen Ning definitely wasn’t Sect Leader and could have. He manages to hold those admonishments back just before they’re blurted out, the fact dawning upon him that Wen Ning was in an even worst position than him when it came to options for retaliation when others attacked him. 

Wen Ning blinks, as Jin Ling stares, frowning, a little too long without speaking. “Stay with Sizhui,” Jin Ling settles on ordering instead. “I don’t even know why you’re wandering around by yourself. It’s not safe. If they bother you again, though, you’re supposed to tell them you’re my guest. Did they not listen to you when you told them?”

Wen Ning’s eyes widen, as round as dish plates on his face. His mouth opens and closes wordlessly, before he dips into another low bow and Jin Ling thinks, with a great deal of irritation, that he’s really starting to dislike all this bowing. “Sizhui is your guest,” Wen Ning murmurs, still held in the bow. “I assumed that Sect Leader Jin’s generosity simply accommodated myself to—”

“If you weren’t my guest, I wouldn’t have let you in,” Jin Ling says, confused and incredulous in the same breath. “Why is everyone brainless these days?”

Wen Ning splutters towards the ground and dips deeper into the bow. Jin Ling catches something that might’ve been amusement pass over his face, however, as he rises, eyes still wide as they search Jin Ling’s expression. 

“Anyway, I’m tired and I have a meeting at sunrise, tomorrow,” Jin Ling says, turning on his heel. “Go back to the guest quarters before those idiots decide to try anything else.”

Suihua’s hilt is warm, comforting, to the touch as Jin Ling heads on to his chambers. 

Naturally, when it appears as if Wei Wuxian has written and sent only Sizhui a letter, Jin Ling is not jealous. He does not stew over it in his room for the better part of a day, following all of his usual Sect Leader attendances. He is not upset that Wei Wuxian seems to consider Sizhui his son, whatever odd past connections they’d had when Sizhui was a child in Wei Wuxian’s previous life, even though Sizhui does not share a drop of blood with Wei Wuxian. Not that, technically, Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian did either—although, technically-technically, now they did considering Wei Wuxian was in Mo Xuanyu’s body. 

It doesn’t matter!

In any case, Wei Wuxian had literally been raised alongside Jin Ling’s mother. However many years in his previous life Wei Wuxian had been associated with Sizhui, it was definitely not more years than his entire childhood and adolescence beside Jin Ling’s mother and uncle. That absolutely made Wei Wuxian Jin Ling’s uncle as well, whether Wei Wuxian liked it or not—absolutely regardless of his adopted lovechild with Hanguang-jun. 

Of course, Jin Ling will say any of this out loud over his own, very dead body because he is—admittedly—terrified of Hanguang-jun, not that there was any shame in that since at least ninety percent of the cultivation world was terrified of Hanguang-jun.

Therefore, Jin Ling is not jealous. Wei Wuxian, to no one’s surprise, just simply doesn’t seem to understand or care to obey the rules of propriety and priority when dealing with extended familial relations. Jin Ling isn’t quick to blame him, however, and only has begun to consider writing a strongly worded letter of his own when, in the middle of resting after a nighthunt, Wen Ning nearly gets brained by a carrier pigeon.

Jin Ling does not nearly fall off his perch on a tree trunk in his haste to take the little, furled scroll from Wen Ning’s hand. Warmth also decidedly does not spread from Jin Ling’s chest throughout his entire body as he reads the letter—as he sees the length of the letter as compared to Sizhui’s, as he reads how exactly Wei Wuxian signs off to him. 

“May I read it?” Sizhui asks, mildly, the corners of his mouth quirking. Jin Ling’s mood is suddenly too good for him to even care that the other boy is clearly amused. 

Jin Ling hands over the letter, and contentedly—not smugly—goes on to finish his steamed bun. He begins to plan an expansion of the Jin Sect menagerie—a carrier pigeon section, perhaps, with the birds trained for efficiency so that all letters will arrive in a more timely fashion.

In the first few years after Jin Ling was moved from Lotus Pier to Carp Tower, he spent at least a week, if not two, out of the month at Lotus Pier—ridden with homesickness as a child barely over his tenth birthday. The rest of the month, Jiang Cheng would come up with some intersect excuse or another—reasons that Jin Ling didn’t realize until he was much older were made for Jin Ling’s own sake—to visit Carp Tower at least once a week. 

Once he was thirteen, and settling in, having begun more rigorously involved cultivation training, Jin Ling forced the homesickness down and turned away the frequent visits. It was around that time as well, anyway, that Jin Chan and his lackeys began antagonizing Jin Ling—mocking him for still latching onto his maternal uncle rather than Jin Guangyao’s particularly distant brand of parenting. They would leave him alone whenever Jiang Cheng visited, only to return more viciously than ever once he’d left Carp Tower. 

“Is your uncle your only friend? You didn’t have a mother or father to teach you how to make friends, so now he’s your only friend? Him and that dog?”

A week before Jin Ling’s fourteenth birthday, he’d told Jiang Cheng that there was no need for him to visit so often—that Jin Ling came to Lotus Pier enough times for nighthunts with Jiang Sect anyhow, that there was no need for Jiang Cheng to see him additional times during the month. “Do you think I have nothing to do?” Jiang Cheng had said, snorting. “If I come, I have business with Sect Leader Jin. How much time do you think I have that I’d travel all this way for you?”

Jin Ling had rolled his eyes, right back, walking away with Fairy at his side. He was more than used to letting his uncle rest comfortably inside his prickly shell. It was better that way, considering the times when Jin Ling inadvertently had seen Jiang Cheng vulnerable and human had hurt too much, and confused him too much, for him to know what to do. 

The week that Sizhui and Wen Ning leave Lanling is the same week that Jin Ling is due for his bimonthly dinner with Jiang Cheng at Lotus Pier. 

The moment Jin Ling walks into the main hall with Fairy, his uncle seated on the blooming throne, surrounded by three advisors and infinite documents, Jin Ling somehow knows that he’s—not exactly in trouble—but that there would be questioning. 

Definitely questioning.

Jiang Cheng looks at Jin Ling in a way that only someone who’d held him when he cried after eating enough sweets to make him vomit could. He looks at Jin Ling as if he knows exactly why Jin Ling feels oddly guilty even though he honestly has no reason to. He is, after all, rightfully Sect Leader by blood and he may allow anyone into Carp Tower, so long as he correctly judges that they are no danger to the sect—which they were not.

“Uncle,” Jin Ling says with his best not-guilty voice, as Jiang Cheng coolly dismisses the advisers with a wave of his hand.

He wonders how long it’ll take until he can achieve that level of cold, regal, Sect Leader-ness. When Jin Ling dismisses his advisors, it feels as if he’s a child trying to escape the vegetables on his plate. 

“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng tempers. 

Fairy helpfully bounds forward to Jiang Cheng, eagerly putting her paws up into his lap. Unfortunately for Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng’s eyes don’t move away from him even as he scritches the dog behind her ears. 

Jin Ling stands there, and determinedly does not sweat, as he wonders how would Jiang Cheng even know that Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning have both been to Carp Tower within the month. There is no conceivable way—it is not as if either of them are on speaking terms with Jin Ling’s uncle. Although, he supposes that there is probably a Jin Sect member or two, or twenty, who would be unhappy enough with Jin Ling’s choice of guests to write to Jiang Cheng themselves in hopes of an intervention.

“What’s for dinner?” Jin Ling eventually asks, because he cannot handle this silence any longer, but he will also not cave in because he has done absolutely nothing wrong here—clearly.

“Do I look like the cook to you?” Jiang Cheng counters, raising his eyebrows, as Fairy, the traitor, continues to sit beside him and wag her tail. 

“I’ve done nothing wrong!” Jin Ling blurts out, defensively, because the real lesson he honestly should have requested Wei Wuxian teach him is to shamelessly withstand Sect Leader Jiang’s cruel and unusual interrogation methods. 

Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger. “Dinner is in an hour,” he sighs, irritably, waving the same dismissive hand he’d directed at the advisors now to Jin Ling. “Get out of my sight, and go wash up.”

Jin Ling sets to storm out, dramatically, when he feels a furry head butting at his hand. “Not you,” he snaps down at Fairy’s shameless face. “Traitors can go choke on a frog.”

Fairy, as always, ignores him and happily trots at his side as he makes his way to his childhood bedroom.

Dinner is, objectively, delicious, especially considering that Jin Ling’s tastes have always been suited more by Yunmeng’s cuisine than Lanling’s. He isn’t sure whether it’s because this is the food he’s eaten in childhood, or whether his appetite simply ran more towards his mother’s side of the family. He doesn’t get to have dishes from Yunmeng often anymore, literally only twice a month—since the other instances when Jiang Cheng visits, they eat in Carp Tower—which means he’s rather disgruntled that he can’t even enjoy one of the two times in an entire month he gets to eat the food he prefers.

There is, frankly, no way that Jin Ling could taste anything he puts into his mouth in the atmosphere that’s stifling the dining room at the moment. 

The worst part is that Jiang Cheng continues, the entire time, to ask formal, even-toned questions about Jin Ling’s Sect Leader responsibilities—mostly the housekeeping details that are less Jin Ling and more just Jin Ling’s signature on various administrative documents. This is honestly the most passive-aggressive dinner Jin Ling has ever been a part of and he’s sat through dinners between Jin Guangyao and Nie Mingjue during his childhood. 

Dessert is lotus milk pudding and this is where Jin Ling draws the line. This—this—is his limit. Lotus milk pudding is his favorite dessert—possibly his favorite dish—of this entire, misbegotten earth, and the last time he had it was over a year ago. He is going to taste every damned spoonful of this pudding or he’d rather strike himself dead. 

“Can you just scold me and get it over with so I can at least eat this in peace?” Jin Ling bursts out in exasperation, just as Jiang Cheng himself dips his own spoon into the pudding. 

Jiang Cheng sets his spoon down. “As you’ve already said,” Jiang Cheng says, setting a cool gaze on his nephew. “You’ve done nothing wrong. What do you expect a scolding for?”

“Fine,” Jin Ling retorts. “Then, can you hurry up and yell at me for doing something you clearly disapprove of so I can eat this in peace?”

“What makes you think—”

“You wouldn’t be acting all weird if I hadn’t done something you didn’t like,” Jin Ling cuts him off impatiently because the pudding is starting to get watery. 

“Did you have fun nighthunting with Wei Wuxian?” Jiang Cheng spits finally, and Jin Ling rolls his eyes so hard he’s certain he’s just seen the inside of his own skull. At least he hadn’t brought up the Ghost General—maybe because even Jiang Cheng knew that that was Jin Ling’s own territory to tread around as he so chose. 

Jin Ling glances down at his pudding, slowly becoming a victim to the passage of time, and scowls across the room at his uncle. “Yes,” he says emphatically out of spite, even though it was the truth in any case. “I did, actually, thanks.” He stuffs his mouth with the largest shovelling of pudding the miniscule dessert spoon can hold for good measure. At least now the strange atmosphere is broken, and he can at least partially enjoy his food. 

Jiang Cheng, for some absolutely confounding reason, stands up at that. “Then, go eat dinner with him!” he says, loudly. 

In the back of Jin Ling’s mind, he thinks faintly that this was all escalating quite oddly considering the fact that Jiang Cheng wasn’t exactly lecturing Jin Ling of the dangers of fraternizing with the Yiling Patriarch—it seemed more towards the fact that Jiang Cheng was just upset about Jin Ling—what—nighthunting with Wei Wuxian?

The forefront of Jin Ling’s mind, unfortunately, is still filled with his ruined dinner, his nearly lost pudding, and the sheer short-temper he’d received from being raised by his maternal uncle and most probably, from what he’s heard, inherited directly down from his own father as well. “I already have!” is the intelligent, eloquent, reply he comes up with before standing up as well, cradling his pudding bowl in the crook of his elbow, spoon and all, and storming out of the dining hall with Fairy at his heels. 

The next day, Jin Ling is told that Sect Leader Jiang will be closed away in meetings all day and cannot see Jin Ling off at the pier. The usual boat that’s been prepared for Jin Ling has, already within it, an icebox containing packages of fresh, lotus milk pudding—enough for at least two weeks, even if he were to eat more than one a day.

Jin Ling rubs his face and sighs. 

By the time the boat has docked in one of the river towns between Yunmeng and Lanling, and Jin Ling sets off for the rest of the landlocked way on sword, he realizes he also hadn’t even remotely made an attempt at Wei Wuxian’s requests of him for Jiang Cheng in the letter. 

He sighs again—heavier this time—the packages of pudding in his qiankun pouch a phantom weight against his belt. 

He makes up his mind to write a letter to Sizhui once he lands at Carp Tower.