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A Hand To Hold

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Jin Ling might only be seventeen, but he’s already far too jaded about the amount of sheer nonsense his family gets into. 

 

The reluctant addition of one Wei WuXian to that number has caused a substantial uptick in the number of incidents that make Jin Ling pray for patience. Normally Jiang Cheng is a safe haven from that, but today is just not Jin Ling’s day. 

 

Can’t they just have one nice, standard night hunt?

 

“Uncle?” Jin Ling calls, peering around trees and underneath bushes. 

 

On an ordinary day, he’d be able to follow the yelling to find his uncle. Inevitably, either Jin Ling himself, or one of the disciples get scolded about their poor performance. 

 

It’s suspiciously quiet. 

 

“Fan out and sweep the area. He went after that monster,” Jin Ling commands. 

 

He’s not worried. Absolutely not. Jiang Cheng is one of the top cultivators of his generation, something silly like this couldn’t take him down. 

 

Jin Ling is right about that, at least somewhat. 

 

“Uh, Sect Leader Jin?” one of the disciples ventures. He sounds worried, which makes Jin Ling scowl. 

 

“What?” he snaps. 

 

“We… found Sect Leader Jiang.” 

 

Oh, Jin Ling does not like that tone. “And?” 

 

“He’s….” the disciple side steps, revealing a child drowning in an oversized robe. 

 

“Are you playing games with me? I’ll break your legs,” Jin Ling snarls. “That’s a child. Where is my uncle?” 

 

“Sect Leader Jin, this is Sect Leader Jiang,” the disciple says helplessly. 

 

The child in question makes a disgruntled noise, prompting Jin Ling to stoop and have a better look. “What is your name?” 

 

He gets a tiny, scowling pout in response. It’s adorable. 

 

“Fine, we can do this another way,” Jin Ling huffs, and whistles up Fairy. “Fairy, find Uncle.” 

 

Fairy chuffs, trotting over to the child and pressing her nose right into the child’s chest. Well that answers that question. Gods, his uncle is a five year old and he’s in so much trouble.

 

Jiang Cheng, the tiny thing, gleefully wraps his arms around Fairy’s neck and buries his face in her fur. “Dog.” 

 

“Oi, that is a spirit dog, not a house pet,” Jin Ling scolds. 

 

What the hell is he going to do with a five year old? Jin Ling has never minded a child in his life. 

 

Jiang Cheng ignores him. “Name is Fairy?”

 

“Yes, her name is Fairy,” Jin Ling resists the urge to bash his head against a tree. “One of you collect his sword and bring me Zidian, we’re going back.” 

 

He has the worst feeling that he’s going to need Wei WuXian’s help for this. Jin Ling hasn’t the faintest clue if this is a curse, a poison, or something far worse

 

“Good name,” little Jiang Cheng approves with a toothy grin. 

 

Jin Ling stares. Jiang Cheng’s smiles are rare, and only growing more so as the years pass. Jin Ling hasn’t seen him more than twitch his lips in the last five. 

 

It’s earth shattering, seeing such a cheerful smile on a familiar face. 

 

He realizes that he’s only known Jiang Cheng in his grief. His uncle had already lost everything by the time Jin Ling had started toddling through Lotus Pier on unsteady legs. 

 

How horrible, that Jin Ling forgot Jiang Cheng was ever happy at all. 

 

“Come here,” Jin Ling beckons around the lump in his throat. “I’m going to take you home.” 

 

“Home?” Jiang Cheng releases Fairy, squinting up at Jin Ling. “Who are you?” 

 

Jin Ling’s mind goes blank. He can’t tell this child who he is, it’ll only frighten him. “Call me gege. We are family.” 

 

Jiang Cheng looks slightly suspicious, but he takes Jin Ling’s outstretched hand. His fingers are so tiny in Jin Ling’s palm, free from the calluses born of wielding Sandu. 

 

“Alright, up you get then,” Jin Ling swings him up and sets the child on his hip. 

 

He puts Zidian on his finger and Sandu on his back, out of the way. Both feel out of place on his person. 

 

The journey to Lotus Pier is too far for a child to walk, but Jin Ling doesn’t trust himself to fly them both, and he won’t let anyone else touch his uncle. Jiang Cheng rests his head on Jin Ling’s shoulder, and Jin Ling wonders how many times his uncle did this for him.

 

They set a meandering pace back to Lotus Pier, and Jin Ling begrudgingly sends a butterfly message to Lan SiZhui. 

 

‘I need your assistance in Lotus Pier. Bring your parents.’

 

He’d prefer to only have Wei WuXian come, but he knows that wherever Wei WuXian goes, Lan WangJi goes also. It’s very annoying. 

 

Jin Ling is ready for bed by the time they set foot in Lotus Pier, but Jiang Cheng has been whining about being hungry for the last several li. 

 

“Hush, or I’ll break your legs,” Jin Ling grumbles, setting the child down. 

 

He hasn’t had time to parse out what Jiang Cheng does and doesn’t remember, nor his current mental status. Honestly, he’s afraid to know. Will Jiang Cheng be disappointed when they arrive and Jin Ling’s mother isn’t waiting for him?

 

“Hungry,” Jiang Cheng repeats petulantly, puffing his cheeks up. “Gege, I want food.” 

 

Jin Ling pinches one cheek with his free hand because he can’t help himself. “Alright alright, lets get food.” 

 

The Jiang sect disciples, curse them, are far too happy to leave the child in Jin Ling’s inexperienced hands. It’s fortunate that the kitchen thinks nothing of Jin Ling ordering some of Jiang Cheng’s favorites to be sent to his room. 

 

Jiang Cheng’s brow begins to pinch together as they walk through Lotus Pier to Jiang Cheng’s personal rooms. 

 

“Different,” he mutters under his breath. 

 

Jin Ling tugs his hand to distract him. Jiang Cheng seriously needs a bath and fresh robes—the odd bundling of his adult robes they fashioned to keep him covered isn’t working very well. 

 

“Bath first, then dinner,” Jin Ling says, pushing open the doors to Jiang Cheng’s quarters. 

 

It’s fortunate he’s intimately familiar with them, to the point that he knows that Jiang Cheng, secret sap that he is, has some of Jin Ling’s childhood robes stashed in a chest. Those at least should fit him. 

 

“Don’t want a bath,” Jiang Cheng pouts. 

 

Jin Ling makes a face as he fills the tub from the pump. “Stinky kids need baths.” 

 

“Not stinky!”

 

“Oh yeah?” Jin Ling arches a brow. “How about we find out?” 

 

He makes a grab for Jiang Cheng, who dips swiftly out of his reach. 

 

“No bath gege, no bath!” 

 

“Get back here!” 

 

They circle Jiang Cheng’s rooms a good six times before Jin Ling manages to catch hold of the wriggling child. The flailing doesn’t truly stop until Jin Ling has plopped him in the bath, soaking the front of his own robes in the process. 

 

Gods if he was this bad to Jiang Cheng when he was five, he owes his uncle big time.

 

“No splashing,” Jin Ling scolds, rolling his sleeves up to wash Jiang Cheng’s hair. 

 

Getting him undressed was… well.. There are some things it’s better that Jin Ling doesn’t dwell on. It’s a small mercy that Jin Ling’s fingers massaging his scalp seems to be an off switch for Jiang Cheng. 


He’s practically asleep in the bath, his head lolling against the rim of the tub. 

 

Jin Ling hauls him out and towels him dry, squeezing the water out of long strands of hair. “Sit,” he instructs, dragging over a stool. 

 

Jiang Cheng blinks sleepily at him, settling on the stool as Jin Ling combs through his hair. It’s a strange sensation. 

 

Jin Ling has never combed anyone else’s hair but his own, and Jiang Cheng is the only person who ever combed it for him. 

 

Everything that was ever done for Jin Ling as a child was done by Jiang Cheng. 

 

By the time Jin Ling has dressed Jiang Cheng in sleeping robes and found a dry pair for himself, dinner is waiting for them. He’s more than a little satisfied that Jiang Cheng dives in eagerly, stuffing his face and trying to steal bits off Jin Ling’s plate. 

 

Jin Ling deflects his chopsticks gently. “Eat your vegetables.” 

 

“You sound like A-Jie,” Jiang Cheng complains, but obediently eats them. 

 

After their meal, Jin Ling pulls out a game that they only get halfway through before Jiang Cheng starts to droop. His blinks are too slow, tiny yawns stretching his precious face. 

 

Jin Ling sighs in relief. “Bed time.” 

 

Surprisingly, he is not fought on this. Jiang Cheng climbs into bed and settles into the pillows with yet another yawn. 

 

“Goodnight,” Jin Ling says. He only makes it three steps to the door when something slams into his legs. 

 

Jiang Cheng is clinging to them, smushing his face into the backs of Jin Ling’s thighs. “Not allowed to leave.” 

 

“Who are you to boss me around?” Jin Ling scoffs. “It’s time for bed.” 

 

He attempts to pry himself free, but only succeeds in making Jiang Cheng cling tighter. “Don’t go.”

 

The tone—somewhere between angry and plaintive—makes Jin Ling pause. He turns back towards Jiang Cheng, who’s scowling almost hard enough to hide the sadness in his eyes. 

 

“You’re not allowed to go,” Jiang Cheng says, like he’s trying to hide just how vulnerable he sounds. 

 

Was he like this at five, or is this fear of vulnerability a remnant of his adult self? 

 

“Says who?” Jin Ling plays along, though his decision is already made. 

 

“Me,” is the huffed answer he gets.

 

“Only if you ask nicely,” Jin Ling says, because this is the only time he’ll get to scold his uncle and not get yelled at for it. 

 

Jiang Cheng looks like he’s swallowed a lemon, but he says, ‘please’ like a proper young master. 

 

Jin Ling can’t believe he’s willingly losing to a five year old. He scoops Jiang Cheng up and sets him on the bed before sitting on the edge to pull his boots off. 

 

Laying down in Jiang Cheng’s bed is… weird. Even weirder—the child lays far too close to him. 

 

Jin Ling feels crowded, but arguing with Jiang Cheng will delay sleep and he’s exhausted. 

 

“Goodnight, gege,” Jiang Cheng mumbles, curling up against Jin Ling’s side and promptly falling asleep. 

 

Jin Ling tucks an arm around him because otherwise it’ll be numb within a few minutes. It’s not because Jiang Cheng is clearly hoping to be cuddled. 

 

It takes a lot of staring at the ceiling in an effort not to succumb to panic before Jin Ling manages to sleep himself. Maybe he’ll wake up and this will all have been a dream. 

 

*

 

Jin Ling wakes to the sound of crying and tears soaking the shoulder of his inner robe. He’s paralyzed for a moment until he manages to place where he’s sleeping. 

 

Jiang Cheng is crying

 

Sitting up, Jin Ling awardly bundles the child against his chest. “Shhhh,” he smooths his hand over the top of Jiang Cheng’s head the way his uncle used to when he cried. 

 

Jiang Cheng shudders as he sobs—a raw sound that nearly rips Jin Ling’s heart out. 

 

“A-Jie,” he mumbles, nearly unintelligible. “A-Jie, no.”

 

Oh. Oh no.

 

He’s known on some level that Jiang Cheng has nightmares, but broaching the subject was never allowed. Jin Ling sees the most vulnerable parts of Jiang Cheng, however, the nightmares are too raw to be shared with even him. 

 

“It’s okay,” Jin Ling murmurs, rocking back and forth as snot gets smeared across his collarbone. “It’s okay, A-Cheng."

 

Calling his uncle so familiarly is odd, but it feels right in the moment.

 

Jiang Cheng’s arms around his middle squeeze tight enough to be uncomfortable. Jin Ling holds him in return, one hand remaining in his hair and the other rubbing circles on his back. The sobs eventually settle into sniffles, though his grip never loosens.

 

Is Jiang Cheng remembering the people he lost, or is he a child crying because of the enormity of emotions he has and doesn’t understand? 

 

Jin Ling has a headache brewing at his temples, and he’s so tired he can barely keep his eyes open, but he stays awake until Jiang Cheng’s breaths even out and he falls asleep on Jin Ling’s chest. 

 

 

A rap on the door draws Jin Ling out of restless sleep. 

 

“Sect Leader? HanGuang-Jun and the GusuLan disciples are here.” 

 

Jin Ling heaves a sigh. Jiang Cheng is still out cold, so he lifts the child off his chest and tucks him in before dressing himself. At least one of them deserves to sleep. 

 

Wei WuXian and the rest are in the courtyard. His troublesome uncle is hanging off Lan WangJi, looking as tired as Jin Ling feels. He must have gotten up way earlier than normal to be here at this hour. 


It’s a little touching, that Wei WuXian would hurry here on his request.

 

“Wow Jin Ling, you look terrible,” Lan JingYi says, earning himself an elbow to the ribs from Lan SiZhui. 

 

“Shut up,” Jin Ling snaps, despite lacking the energy to put any bite behind it.

 

Smothering a yawn, Wei WuXian squints at Jin Ling. “So, dear nephew, what was so urgent that you asked SiZhui to bring us, instead of asking me yourself?”

 

“It’s Uncle…” the way he says it makes Wei WuXian visibly tense. 

 

“What’s wrong with him? Is he okay?” 

 

Lan WangJi’s arm comfortingly circles Wei WuXian’s waist, and it’s so sappy Jin Ling’s feels nauseous. He might just hurl over how nervous he is to confess that he somehow got his uncle turned into a child.

 

“It’s better if I just… show you.” 

 

Both these men are idiots for not seeing how much they care about each other. Wei WuXian is clearly worried about Jiang Cheng, and Jin Ling knows that Jiang Cheng worries about Wei WuXian in turn.

 

“Jin Ling,” Wei WuXian sounds like he’s going to ask a thousand more questions, but he’s interrupted by a child tackling Jin Ling’s legs. 

 

Jin Ling winces. Apparently, leaving Jiang Cheng sleeping by himself was not the best idea. 

 

“Gege,” Jiang Cheng grumbles into Jin Ling’s legs.

 

“Oh my god,” Lan JingYi says. “Who let Jin Ling have a child?” 

 

Jin Ling would kill him, but the disapproving look Lan WangJi gives Lan JingYi does more than enough. Wei WuXian stares with his jaw hanging open. 

 

It makes sense that he would recognize Jiang Cheng in this form. After all, they spent the entirety of their childhood together. 

 

“Jin Ling… why is my brother a small child.” 

 

Jin Ling shrugs helplessly, lifting Jiang Cheng to rest on his hip when the child won’t stop tugging on the hem of his robes. 

 

“We were night hunting and got separated, I’m not sure what happened,” Jin Ling frowns at the top of Jiang Cheng’s head. 

 

Wei WuXian leans in for a closer look, drawing Jiang Cheng’s attention away from Jin Ling for the first time. 

 

“Wei…” Jiang Cheng says, his face pinched into some sort of recognition. 

 

“Xian-gege,” Wei WuXian corrects him. “Call me Xian-gege.” 

 

Shameless. Of course he is. 

 

“Xian-gege,” Jiang Cheng repeats reluctantly. 

 

“God, I forgot how cute he is when he isn’t frowning,” Wei WuXian laughs.

 

Lan WangJi hangs back, sensing Jiang Cheng’s dislike even before the child turns a very familiar glare on him. 

 

Jin Ling doesn’t understand why the two hate each other so much, only that it has something to do with Wei WuXian. But then again, so do most things. 

 

“You can call him HanGuang-Jun,” Wei WuXian says, though he seems to know that Jiang Cheng probably won’t speak to Lan WangJi at all. 

 

Lan WangJi is too dignified to dislike a child, yet he refuses to interact anyway. 

 

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi touches Wei WuXian’s elbow. “I will go investigate.” 

 

The pair of them make extended eye contact, communicating in their own creepy way. 

 

“Okay Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian hums. “Take JingYi with you?” 

 

“Hey, why me? Can’t I stay?” Lan JingYi complains.

 

“Mn,” Lan WangJi agrees with Wei WuXian, departing in an elegant swish of his robes. Lan JingYi follows, put out but knowing better than to argue with Lan WangJi.

 

Jin Ling shifts Jiang Cheng’s weight on his hip and tries not to sigh in relief. He doesn’t have the emotional capacity to deal with Lan JingYi just now. 

 

Lan SiZhui, at least, is a calming presence and will temper Wei WuXian. 

 

“Can I hold him?” Wei WuXian asks. “I want to check his spiritual energy.” 

 

Jin Ling knows better than to just hand Jiang Cheng off. “A-Cheng, can Xian-gege hold you?”

 

Jiang Cheng hides his face in Jin Ling’s neck while he thinks about it. “Will gege stay?” 

 

“I’ll be right here,” Jin Ling promises. 

 

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng consents, and Jin Ling passes him over to Wei WuXian, who handles him expertly. 

 

“So cute,” Wei WuXian sighs. “Not as cute as SiZhui was, but close.” 

 

Lan SiZhui smiles. “Senior Wei is biased.”

 

“Am not,” Wei WuXian huffs. “Actually, SiZhui, could you go pull some things from the library for me? There are a couple things I want to check.” 

 

Lan SiZhui departs for Lotus Pier’s library, leaving just the three of them. 

 

Wei WuXian holds two fingers over Jiang Cheng’s wrist—quiet as he checks his meridians. 

 

“You didn’t see what he fought?” he directs this to Jin Ling. 

 

Jin Ling shakes his head. “We split up to track it.”

 

“Hmmm,” Wei WuXian thoughtfully straightens Jiang Cheng’s robes. “Nothing else seems to be wrong with him.” 

 

Jiang Cheng squirms, twisting toward Jin Ling. 

 

“I think he wants you,” Wei WuXian says, amused. “I’m surprised he let me hold him this long.” 

 

“But why does he want me?” Jin Ling asks as Jiang Cheng is passed back to him. “I don’t think he even recognizes me.” 

 

He’s more than old enough to stand on his own, but he clings to Jin Ling or demands to be held at every opportunity. Jin Ling never thought his uncle capable of such clinginess. 

 

“Subconsciously, I think he knows. He loves you,” Wei WuXian’s smile is wistful. “You’re the only person in this world that he loves and trusts unconditionally.” 

 

Jin Ling glances down at the child snuggled against his shoulder. “He loves you too,” he protests, looking back at Wei WuXian. 

 

Wei WuXian gives a self deprecating laugh. “Maybe. We’re doing better, but his feelings about me are still complicated.” 

 

“You’re both idiots,” Jin Ling says flatly. 

 

“Forgiveness isn’t so easy, dear nephew. Not with so many lost between us.” 

 

“Idiots,” Jin Ling repeats. 

 

“Idiots,” Jiang Cheng chimes in, sticking his tongue out at Wei WuXian. 

 

“Jin Ling, you are teaching him terrible things!” Wei Wuxian gasps. 

 

Jiang Cheng looks exceptionally pleased with himself. “Gege?”

 

“Yeah?” 

 

“Can we play?” 

 

“Uhhhhh,” Jin Ling falters. 

 

“Go shoot some kites. He can at least watch,” Wei WuXian suggests. “I won’t join, because you’d be upset about how badly I’d beat you.” 

 

“Shut up,” Jin Ling tells him. 

 

“Shoot kites?” Jiang Cheng’s face lights up. 

 

Both Jin Ling and Wei WuXian freeze. Tiny eyes are crinkled at the corners, a smile as bright as the sun highlighting rosy cheeks. 

 

“Oh, Jiang Cheng. I wish you’d be this happy always,” Wei WuXian whispers, almost too quiet for Jin Ling to hear. 

 

Tragic. Their family is so gods-damned tragic. Jin Ling wishes desperately that they could all just be happy because if anyone deserves to be happy, it’s Jiang Cheng. 

 

“I’m going to find SiZhui and see what we can figure out,” Wei WuXian disguises his fleeting sadness with a false smile. 

 

“Yeah, whatever.” 

 

Jin Ling sets Jiang Cheng down as Wei WuXian walks away. “You can hold my hand, but you have to walk. I can’t draw my bow if my arms are tired.” 

 

Jiang Cheng pouts, hanging fiercely onto Jin Ling’s hand. Another day spent baby-sitting, then.

 

He can’t say it’s that bad. Jin Ling has always loved shooting kites with his uncle. 

 

*

 

“You guys have the worst luck, I swear,” Wei WuXian laughs over dinner. 

 

Lan WangJi returned in the late afternoon bearing news of their quarry, having spent the day tracking it with JingYi. 

 

“How you found one of the rarest beings out there on a low level night hunt, I don’t understand.” 

 

“You fought and killed the XuanYu, I don’t want to hear it,” Jin Ling snorts. “A-Cheng, eat your food properly.” 

 

Jiang Cheng, who was making odd shapes out of his rice with his chopsticks, frowns at being caught. 

 

Lan JingYi snickers into his own food. “You sound just like Sect Leader Jiang. Are you sure your personalities didn’t get swapped too?” 

 

Jin Ling is so tired of being the adult. He flings a chunk of chicken and it smacks Lan JingYi right in the nose. 

 

“Oh, you didn’t!” Lan JingYi yelps. “Mistress Jin, are you five as well?”

 

Lan SiZhui presses his fingers to his temples. 

 

“Children,” Wei WuXian interrupts in a petulant whine. “Don’t you want to hear what’s wrong with Jiang Cheng?” 

 

Lan WangJi’s face says that if they don’t shut up of their own accord, he will use the silencing spell on them. 

 

“Fine, tell us,” Jin Ling grumbles. 

 

“A day for the past, a day for the present, a day for the future. These three shall reveal the heart,” Wei WuXian recites in a lofty tone. “These are the conditions for those who encounter the White Tiger.” 

 

“What.” 

 

“The White Tiger?” Lan SiZhui’s expression is thoughtful. “He encountered a greater being, not a beast, then.” 

 

“Correct!” Wei WuXian says, delighted. “Therefore it is not so much a curse as an opportunity for him to reflect. At the end of day three, he will be set right.” 

 

Jin Ling’s head aches. “What is this, some backwards lesson?” 

 

Wei WuXian shrugs. “How would I know? The greater beings are a mystery, all we have is stories.” 

 

“Mn,” Lan WangJi agrees, because of course he does. 

 

“And he’s going to be like this for another day.” 

 

“Yep!” 

 

Jin Ling might cry. Minding an emotionally volatile toddler is exhausting. When the emotionally volatile toddler is your only living relative and the man that raised you, well... Jin Ling is definitely going to cry.  

 

“You’re doing great, Jin Ling,” Lan SiZhui reassures him. “We can help, if you want.” 

 

“I don’t know that he’ll stay with any of you,” Jin Ling despairs. 

 

“Perhaps not,” Wei WuXian agrees. 

 

Jin Ling thumps his head down on the table with a groan—truly bad table manners—hard enough that Jiang Cheng looks concerned. 

 

He must look miserable, because even Lan JingYi shuts up and gives his shoulder a pat. 

 

“However,” Wei WuXian says, and Jin Ling perks up. “I think I can keep him busy long enough for you to have a few moments to yourself.”

 

Jin Ling isn’t above pleading at this point. “Please?”

 

“Trust your uncle to watch your… other uncle,” Wei WuXian grins. “It’s nearly bedtime, so how about tomorrow morning? I’ll come get him.” 

 

It won’t be a true break, because Jin Ling needs to catch up on so many correspondences as sect leader, but he’ll take what he can get. 

 

“Don’t be late.” 

 

“Are you really being rude to Senior Wei when he’s trying to help you?” Lan JingYi can never seem to keep his mouth shut.

 

Jin Ling glares daggers. 

 

“Ah, that’s the love language of my family JingYi, don’t mind it,” Wei WuXian says, unconcerned. “He inherited Jiang Cheng’s inability to have outward emotions other than anger, but we’re working on it.”

“I’ll break both your legs,” Jin Ling threatens. 

 

“Yes yes,” Wei WuXian waves his chopsticks. “Lan Zhan, you should play your guqin tonight, it might help everyone sleep better.” 

 

“Mn,” Lan WangJi nods. 

 

Jin Ling would fight him, but he’s too tired to even think about it. Jiang Cheng is suspiciously quiet. When Jin Ling looks over, he’s practically dozing right into his food. 

 

Time for bed, then.

 

*

 

After another night of poor sleep, Jin Ling is more than ready to hand Jiang Cheng to Wei WuXian. 

 

“Gege?” Jiang Cheng’s big eyes peer up at him as Wei WuXian takes his hand. 

 

“Gege has to do some work, I’ll meet you guys later,” Jin Ling explains. 

 

Wei WuXian knows Lotus Pier like the back of his hand, even rebuilt, and has promised to take Jiang Cheng to the market. Jin Ling just wishes he didn’t feel like a bad parent for leaving Jiang Cheng for the morning.  

 

Jiang Cheng is giving him the big sad puppy dog eyes, which is frankly unfair. 

 

“Oh, A-Cheng those are some shameless eyes,” Wei WuXian snickers. 

 

Immediately Jiang Cheng scowls, making a face up at his brother. 

 

Jin Ling resists the urge to ruffle Jiang Cheng’s hair. “I’m off.” 

 

“Bye bye Jin Ling!” Wei WuXian smirks. “Have fun with your paperwork.” 

 

Smug bastard. 

 

The morning drags. Jin Ling has allowed far too much paper to accumulate while he’s been watching child Jiang Cheng. In his defense, it’s very hard to do paperwork and watch a toddler at the same time. 

 

Several important papers suffered doodles yesterday when his attention wandered. He really ought to buy Jiang Cheng a thank-you jug of wine when this is done. 

 

The sun is high in the sky when he finally gives up and wanders down to the market. Lan SiZhui and Lan JingYi are nowhere to be found—presumably out night hunting with Lan WangJi as he avoids Jiang Cheng—so he makes the journey by himself. 

 

It’s not hard to find them.

 

“A-Cheng! Make it go away!” Wei WuXian shrieks. 

 

Jiang Cheng is shaking Fairy’s paw, seemingly unconcerned, but Jin Ling notices that he’s placed himself between the dog and Wei WuXian. 

 

“Fairy is a good dog, she doesn’t bite,” Jiang Cheng tells Wei WuXian, giving Fairy’s ears an affectionate ruffle. 

 

“Where is Lan Zhan when I need him,” Wei WuXian whimpers. “Make Fairy go away, A-Cheng.” 

 

“I won’t let her hurt you,” Jiang Cheng huffs with an astounding amount of irritated sincerity. 

 

“Fairy, heel,” Jing Ling commands. 

 

Fairy trots to his side, turning her face up for pets. “You don’t even do a paw shake for me, you traitor,” Jing Ling tells her. 

 

Tongue lolling out, Fairy does her best doggy grin. 

 

“Alright, off you go,” he tells her. 

 

She gives him a betrayed look, going back over to Jiang Cheng to lick his face before disappearing into the crowd. Wei WuXian sags in relief. 

 

Jiang Cheng looks extremely judgemental but he gives Wei WuXian’s leg a soothing pat. 

 

“Jin Ling, your dog kills me,” Wei WuXian complains. 

 

“You know she doesn’t bite,” Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “I think she likes teasing you.” 

 

“Evil,” Wei WuXian says flatly. 

 

“Gege!” Jiang Cheng bounces over to hug Jin Ling’s legs. 

 

“Xian-gege didn’t make you mad?” 

 

“Hey!” Wei WuXian protests.

 

Jiang Cheng scrunches his nose up. “Only a few times.” 

 

Wei Wuxian staggers dramatically. “A-Cheng, how could you?”

 

Jin Ling fails to hide his smirk. “Good job, A-Cheng.”

 

Jiang Cheng stills, his eyes wide. 

 

“You broke him, Jin Ling,” Wei WuXian hisses. 

 

“I did good, gege?” Jiang Cheng asks haltingly. 

 

Wei WuXian is trying to communicate with his face, but Jin Ling isn’t Lan WangJi and he doesn’t speak nonsense. 

 

“Yes, you did very good,” Jin Ling lifts him, thanking all the upper body work Jiang Cheng made him suffer through. 

 

Jiang Cheng’s face is an absurd shade of red and he hides his face in Jin Ling’s neck. Jin Ling bounces him instinctively. 

 

Wei WuXian’s face is indescribable. 

 

“What?” Jin Ling asks, head tilted. 

 

“Aiya, Jin Ling. It’s nothing,” Wei WuXian smiles. “Jiang Cheng is lucky to have you.” 

 

Jin Ling straightens Jiang Cheng’s off-center bun, set askew by his antics with Wei WuXian. “I’m lucky to have him,” he disagrees. 

 

“My emotionally constipated family, what will I do with you,” Wei WuXian shakes his head. 

 

“Leave us alone?”

 

“Not a chance, Jin Ling, not a chance.”

 

“It was worth a try,” Jin Ling laments, and Jiang Cheng giggles. 

 

“Let’s grab something to eat and then head back, I miss my Lan Zhan.” 

 

“Disgusting.” 

 

Wei WuXian sticks his tongue out. “JingYi is right, you are just like him.” 

 

“You take that back!” 

 

“Not a chance!” Wei WuXian laughs, taking off down the street at a run. 

 

Jin Ling, burdened with a child, can’t match his pace. “A-Cheng, we’re going to get him later.” 

 

“Mmm!” Jiang Cheng agrees, clinging to Jin Ling’s neck. “Get him good!” 

 

Taking care of little Jiang Cheng is exhausting, but Jin Ling is growing fond of these moments. Jiang Cheng still has flashes of his adult sadness, but he’s a pleasant child. 

 

“Hey A-Cheng?” Jin Ling says, swallowing hard.

 

“Gege?” the soft voice chirps in his ear. 

 

“I love you, A-Cheng. A whole lot.” 

 

Jiang Cheng’s arms squeeze around his neck in a gentle hug. “Love gege too.” 

 

Jin Ling blinks furiously. If he’s teary-eyed when he gets back, Lan JingYi will never let him live it down. 

 

*

 

“What are you doing in my room?” Jiang Cheng growls sleepily.

 

The sun is barely up, and Jin Ling’s spot on the floor isn’t near as comfortable as sleeping on Jiang Cheng’s bed again would have been. But knowing his uncle would wake up himself this morning, he thought it better to sneak down on the floor once the child fell asleep. 

 

He’s exhausted, emotionally raw, and it’s the excuse he’s sticking to for what he does next. 

 

Jin Ling throws himself at his uncle, nearly knocking him flat as he hugs him. The arms that hug him in return feel like home. 

 

“Thank you, Jiujiu.” 

 

“God, Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng grunts, his tone suspicious. “For what?”

 

Ah, Jin Ling is definitely crying. He tries to hide it by swiping the tears away with his sleeve, but Jiang Cheng is too familiar with him to be fooled. 

 

“Everything?” he mumbles. Everything sounds good. 

 

Jiang Cheng’s resting angry face goes blank with confusion. He lifts a hand to tug the end of Jin Ling’s ponytail. 

 

“Stop crying,” he scolds gently. 

 

Jin Ling sniffs defiantly. “Who’s crying.” 

 

“The last three days,” Jiang Cheng begins, and then trails off with a frown. “I dreamt I was a child?”

 

“Ha,” Jin Ling’s gaze skitters off to the side. “Not a dream.” 

 

“I was a five year old for three fucking days?” Jiang Cheng looks as if he has a headache to match Jin Ling’s. 

 

“Um, yeah.” 

 

Jiang Cheng drags his hair back from his face, still loose from sleep. “And nothing burned down?” 

 

“I’m a capable sect leader,” Jin Ling says indignantly. 

 

“You are,” Jiang Cheng agrees after a pause. “But if I was a toddler, who—?” 

 

“Me,” Jin Ling doesn’t know why he’s so nervous about confessing this. “Wei WuXian came to help figure out what was wrong with you, but you were mostly with me.” 

 

Wei WuXian is still here, waiting to make sure Jiang Cheng does turn back as predicted. He’ll probably sleep till noon, something Jin Ling envies him of. As soon as he gets time, he’s going to sleep off the last three days.

 

“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng’s frown is back. 

 

“I didn’t shirk my sect duties,” Jin Ling defends himself. “At least… not that much.” 

 

“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng says again, his tone giving Jin Ling pause. 

 

It’s vulnerable and tired, worn in a way that Jiang Cheng usually disguises with anger. He looks at Jin Ling, and Jin Ling looks back, wishing he knew what Jiang Cheng needs from him.

 

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng finally gets out, earnest if not a bit strangled. “For taking care of me. I only remember pieces of it, but...”

 

He’s turning a concerning shade of purple. Jin Ling sits back and tries to act unaffected. 

 

“It’s not a big deal, you’ve taken care of me all this time. I can’t imagine it was easy, toddlers are a huge pain in the ass,” Jin Ling makes a face. 

 

“You were a fucking pain,” Jiang Cheng agrees. “Especially when you didn’t want your hair combed.” 

 

Jin Ling runs self conscious fingers through his well groomed ponytail, tugging out the knots he acquired in his sleep. 

 

“Uncle,” he ventures quietly when it’s been silent too long. “Do you… do you think you’ll ever be happy again?” 

 

It’s a dangerous question—one that might get him in serious trouble. But after seeing the smiles on five year old Jiang Cheng’s face the last three days, he has to know.

 

Jiang Cheng is momentarily furious, but it fades quickly into resignation. That’s happened more and more since Wei WuXian came back from the dead, as if a part of Jiang Cheng is finally starting to heal.

 

“I… yes,” Jiang Cheng glares a hole into the covers on his bed. “You make me happy, A-Ling.”

 

Jin Ling starts crying again. 

 

“Brat—“

 

“I love you,” Jin Ling blubbers. 

 

He says it less now than he should—rebellious in his teen years. 

 

“I love you too, A-Ling.” 

 

Maybe , Jin Ling thinks. Maybe they’ll find their way to happiness after all. 

 

*

 

“Is that bastard still in Lotus Pier?” 

 

Jin Ling simply points to where Wei WuXian is sauntering across the courtyard, Lan WangJi at his side.

 

“Aiya, Jiang Cheng. Not sucking our thumb anymore?” 

 

“I will fucking kill you.” 

 

“This is the thanks I get for rushing here to help you? Where are your manners?” Wei WuXian sticks his tongue out. 

 

Jin Ling starts counting down from ten in his head. 

 

Jiang Cheng dives forward to put Wei WuXian in a headlock, swearing as Wei WuXian wriggles free and takes off running. 

 

“Get the hell back here!” 

 

“Catch me if you can, slow poke!” 

 

“WEI WUXIAN!”

 

Jin Ling turns back toward his bed. They’ll figure it out. Probably. He deserves a nap.