“Jiujiu?” Jin Ling asks, leaning against the pale blue wall of the tower that belongs to him, now.
Moonlight shines off the lotus pond, gentle and cool. Jiang Cheng sits on one of the low benches, next to the low bright light of a lantern. He’s got a sheaf of paperwork he’s scowling at, but he’s only exasperated, nothing worse.
“Mmm?” Jiang Cheng asks. He lifts his head, taking a dry inkbrush out of his teeth as if this will prevent Jin Ling from noticing it was there in the first place. “What?”
Fairy leans against Jin Ling’s leg, ever-present. He sinks his fingers into the ruff of her neck.
“What do you think are the two most important things to be able to say?” he asks. Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows snap down.
“What kind of question is that?” he demands. “Are you drunk?”
“Of course not,” Jin Ling says. “I had one cup of wine.” Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to object to even this much, then visibly remembers that Jin Ling is a Sect Leader, and seventeen besides, and that he himself watched Jin Ling accept that cup of wine when it was handed to him. That Jin Ling was surrounded by the other sect leaders, by men older than Jiang Cheng. “I’m not a Lan.”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “You’re conscious,” he says, “you’re doing better than a Lan.”
“They’re not that bad,” Jin Ling protests, and gets speared once again by his uncle’s sharpest, most arresting glare. If any glare could twine around an ankle like a whip, this one would.
“Oh? And how do you know that?”
“Sizhui and Jingyi,” Jin Ling says. “Obviously.” And it really should be obvious, because they’re his friends, and that warms him more than any alcohol could. He folds his arms in Jiang Cheng’s direction and waits to find out if he’s going to rant about this. Jin Ling can outwait rants.
Instead, Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “They didn’t pass out?”
“No!” Jin Ling says. “Jingyi talked for half a shi without breathing and Sizhui wouldn’t take his face out of Fairy’s fur.” He also hadn’t stopped petting her, whispering “so fluffy,” over and over again, which is probably why Sizhui is currently her favorite (not counting Jin Ling, of course). Jingyi is probably going to feed her half a chicken to try and regain the lead.
“Huh,” Jiang Cheng says, frowning. He looks genuinely surprised, actually.
“Who passes out after one cup of wine?” Jin Ling demands.
“Hanguang-jun, that’s who,” Jiang Cheng says, giving the stack of papers a shake for emphasis.
“What?” Jin Ling frowns at him. “Hanguang-jun doesn’t drink.”
“Hanguang-jun doesn’t drink because he passes out after one drink,” Jiang Cheng says. “Barely even has time to swallow.”
“When did you see Hanguang-jun drink?”
“Don’t question your elders.” Jiang Cheng scowls and starts flipping through his papers again. Looking down at them, he says, “Anyway, it was your dajiu who saw it.”
Jin Ling’s mouth hangs open, a little.
“When did this happen?” he manages. He has no idea if it’s the right question to ask. Jiang Cheng has never referred to Wei Wuxian as Jin Ling's uncle before. He's never just... mentioned him, like he's an ordinary person.
“When we were around your age,” Jiang Cheng says. He’s still glaring down at the papers in his hands. “He was three times as much trouble as you were.” Some such long-buried trouble makes him roll his eyes. “He’d snuck alcohol into Cloud Recesses when we were studying, so of course we all got caught. And what does the idiot do? He slaps a talisman on Lan Wangji while we duck out, makes him drink, and then gets all of us beaten in the morning after they find Hanguang-jun passed out on his floor.” He swats the papers against the bench in general exasperation. “Lunatic.”
Fairy noses worriedly against Jin Ling’s hand, apparently aware that he is losing his mind.
“You’re making that up, Jiujiu,” he says. Jiang Cheng snorts.
“You think I could make this up?” he asks. “I couldn’t come up with half the stupid things he did.” He sounds… bitter, but he sounds something else too. “Come look at these, they’re a bunch of letters congratulating me on how you’re growing up. We can see who’s being obsequious about what.”
“Why do you have those here?” Jin Ling asks, crossing the garden to his uncle.
“So you could look at them, obviously,” Jiang Cheng says, and hands him the first letter.
(Jin Ling knows these letters aren’t going to mean much about him, personally; they’re flattery to Jiang Cheng, or hints about what they’d like the Jin Sect to become. Still, a couple of them seem kind of nice.)
“You never answered my question,” Jin Ling says, after they've been through a few pages. “I noticed.” He jerks his chin at his uncle, ready for a challenge.
“What question?” Jiang Cheng is rearranging some of the notes.
“The two most important things to be able to say.”
“Oh.” He pauses, and clicks his tongue. “C’mere, Fairy.” Fairy gives Jin Ling a moment to countermand him, and then pads over to settle her head on Jiang Cheng’s thigh. He fluffs the fur behind her ears, runs his hand in long strokes up and down her back. Fairy is good for thinking like that, which is part of why she’s the best dog.
“‘Come home,’” he says at last. “Or ‘stay safe.’ Something like that. And ‘stop.’”
“Huh.” Jin Ling reaches over to dig his fingers into Fairy’s fur, too, next to his uncle's hand. “Why those?”
“Because if you don’t say them, people die, that’s why.” He pats Fairy between her ears. “Your dog’s getting fat.”
“No she isn’t,” Jin Ling says. “She’s the perfect weight.”
Thank you. I’m sorry. Stop. Come home. Stay safe. Jin Ling rolls them around on his tongue, wondering to who he’ll need to say them.
“Ugh.” Jin Ling glares down at the latest letter. “Sect Leader Yao. Does anyone like him?”
“No,” Jiang Cheng said, not looking up from the important business of scratching Fairy's back. “He’s an ass. What did he do now?”
Jin Ling waves the letter in his general direction, scowling. “This is addressed to Jin Rulan.” They’ve been trading letters back and forth for a while, because the Yao need to either handle their own fierce corpses or admit that they can’t do it and let the Jin sect take care of things. At the moment some of Jin Ling’s disciples are just sitting along the Lanling border, smacking corpses down as soon they shamble over the stream that marks it out. Jin Ling suspects everyone’s having a really great time — there’s apparently a competition to make them fall as close to the border as possible — but still. It’s not a good use of his people.
Also, Jin Ling is the sect leader, and thus can’t go camp there for three weeks and win the competition. Which is unfair.
“I know he can,” Jin Ling complains. “He’s my elder. But I’m still a sect leader, and he knows I hate it.”
“Well, don’t say anything about it,” Jiang Cheng says. Fairy makes a whuffling noise and climbs a little more firmly into his lap, keeping him neatly trapped. Not that he’d leave, when Jin Ling has work left to do. Jiang Cheng stays close when he’s at Carp Tower, grouching in the corner and snapping answers to Jin Ling’s questions.
“I know!” Jin Ling protests, and pulls over a piece of paper to begin his answer. The rest of the letter is as obnoxious as the start. “Rulan. Ugh.” It’s an old litany; he’s never liked using the name. Now, though, the complaint feels more like habit — well, and that that Sect Leader Yao is using it to be condescending, which would make him annoyed with anything. His brush whispers over the paper, starting in on the rote beginning. “Why Rulan, anyway?”
Jiang Cheng grunts, scratching aggressively at Fairy’s stomach. She rolls over to allow this, panting in doggy contentment. “I don’t know, ask your dajiu,” he says, and Jin Ling nearly drops his brush all over the ink. He catches it just in time, and attempts to continue his calligraphy as if matters are still extremely ordinary. It’s not as if he didn’t know, of course, that Wei Wuxian chose his courtesy name, but, well. It’s not something he and his uncle Jiang Cheng talk about. It had been a rhetorical question, general annoyance.
“Not like it’s not obvious,” Jiang Cheng grumbles, and catches hold of one of Fairy’s paws. He wiggles it back and forth a bit; her tail thumps against the floor. “Lan. Hah. Even then.”
Jin Ling sets his inkbrush down before he can drop it after all. It's getting likelier and likelier as this conversation goes on. “So it really was after the Lan clan, then?”
“After Lan Wangji,” Jiang Cheng says, nearly a sneer but not quite there. He waves Fairy’s paw, moving it to touch her nose, and then lets go with a speed that suggests that he just realized Jin Ling is watching him. It’s not like Jin Ling hasn’t done exactly that, all the time — Fairy doesn’t seem to mind, and her paws are big and soft and funny — but he doesn’t say so.
“Could be worse,” Jiang Cheng says at last. “He named you after his favorite person. The one he admired the most.” A faint, bitter snort as he scowls at the ground. Fairy, ever alert to sadness, rolls over and starts trying to lick his face. “No, Fairy, that’s disgusting. What’re you teaching this dog, anyway?”
“It’s not my fault you spoil her every time you see her,” Jin Ling says. He bites his lip.
“She’s not my dog,” Jiang Cheng retorts. “Teaching her manners is your job.” He persuades Fairy to turn her attentions to his arm, over the sleeve of his robe. She seems content with it. “Suibian,” he mutters disgustedly. “Could’ve been a lot worse.” He sighs. “I don’t know why she listened to me.”
“Your mother.” He scratches under Fairy’s collar, focusing on her fur as if he’s reading off a script hidden in the strands. “I’m the one who told her to ask him for suggestions, anyway. Should’ve known he’d pick something like that.” He laughs, ugly and hard.
“You were?” Jin Ling’s voice comes out wavery and shaken. He swallows, draws bluster around himself. “I mean — that means this is your fault!”
“Clearly,” Jiang Cheng says. “Don’t point out such obvious things.”
“I — why did you do that?” Jin Ling demands. “I —” The crack in his voice takes him by surprise. “Didn’t you want to name me?”
“Don’t be stupid.” The edge in his voice is blunted, made safe. Jiang Cheng has yelled at Jin Ling while Jin Ling is embarrassed, frustrated, humiliated, sullen. Once or twice when he’s scared. Never, not once, while Jin Ling is hurting in a way that feels deep under the skin. “Of course it wasn’t like that.” He nudges Fairy off his lap, points her over to Jin Ling; she goes, with one last lick to Jiang Cheng’s arm. Jin Ling wraps his arms around her, and she settles her chin on his shoulder, panting contentedly.
Jiang Cheng bows his head, fiddling with the fastenings of his wristband. “This was when he lived in Yiling,” he says, quiet, gruff. “I didn’t know if he’d ever get to see you. All I had to do was come to Lanling, and that’s not far.”
Jin Ling swallows. “Oh.”
“He’s your jiujiu too,” Jiang Cheng says. He shrugs. “I thought you should have something from him.”
“Oh.” Jin Ling buries his face in Fairy’s fur and breathes in the safe smell of dog. Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything.
He’s used to not liking the name. He doesn’t like it as a name; how it sounds, the floweriness of it. He’s used to thinking of it as an ugly, tainted thing. But. He’s also getting used to Wei Wuxian as a warm voice, as laughter, as a safe place marked out by talisman lines. Rulan. Named for someone precious to him.
“Oh,” Jin Ling says again, and looks down at the letter again. At the neat characters at the top of the page.
Sect Leader Yao is still an ass, but — maybe it’s not such a bad thing, after all, if this name is a gift from both his uncles.
Jiang Cheng leaves a week after he tells Jin Ling about his name. Four days after that, Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian arrive at the base of Carp Tower's stairs. They look in decent health, both of them, with a faint layer of road dust on their feet and twigs in Wei Wuxian’s hair. Judging by the sound of distant braying, they came here not only by road but with the donkey. Far below the dignity of a Chief Cultivator, but, of course, no one is willing to tell this to a Chief Cultivator who can still be the most dignified person in sight even when he is in fact wrangling a donkey. That donkey.
The two of them are holding hands, as casually as if this is the only thing two men would ever do with their hands as they climb the stairs of Carp Tower. Jin Ling is waiting on the landing halfway up; he's been greeting guests from here whenever he can.
“Hanguang-jun. Dajiu.” He bows, proper and deep, his father's sword in hand. “Welcome to Carp Tower.” He straightens and glances to Wei Wuxian, adding, “Fairy’s in the southwest garden, she won’t bother you. Just don’t come climbing in my window at night.” Obviously Fairy is still going to sleep in his room, same as she always does.
Lan Wangji’s face changes from one incomprehensibly impassive expression to a different incomprehensibly impassive expression. Wei Wuxian looks theatrically offended. “A-Ling!” he says indignantly. “When have I ever insulted the hospitality of Carp Tower like that?”
A-Ling is new, and curls through Jin Ling’s chest like steam rising in cold air. He rolls his eyes. Hanguang-jun finds a third way to have no expression whatsoever, while Wei Wuxian looks even more amused. “Is there anywhere you haven’t insulted the hospitality of?” he asks, as he leads them back up the long stairs. Hanguang-jun, who lives on top of a mountain, seems utterly unruffled by the climb, and of course nothing ever makes Wei Wuxian look tired unless he’s convenient to him. When, say, Nie Huaisang comes to Carp Tower, he sighs so wearily that Jin Ling has started arranging events so he has to climb the stairs as rarely as possible. Not that Jin Ling plans to assume, if he is ever at the top of a tall flight of stairs and Nie Huaisang at the bottom, that Nie Huaisang will not be able to reach him.
“Address your elders with respect,” Hanguang-jun says. Jin Ling tries to imagine how Sizhui would respond to that — or Jingyi, for that matter. Not that he plans to imitate Jingyi, but it would be easier to do.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, bumping his shoulder. Watching them makes Jin Ling think of a flag on a pole, sometimes: Wei Wuxian all flapping energy, drooping one moment and flaring out wildly the next, and always wrapped around Hanguang-jun’s solid, unmoving anchor. (Jin Ling has watched very few people be married, in his life. Mostly just his shenshen and – and Meng Yao.) “This is very respectful, from a-Ling. What does your jiujiu think about you addressing me like this?”
Jin Ling shrugs, eyes skittering away from Wei Wuxian’s face without his permission. “What’s to think about it? Jiujiu raised me to respect my elders.” He glances sideways at Hanguang-jun, wanting to glare but not quite daring. “He’d probably yell at me if I he heard me calling you anything else,” he adds.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes go wide and startled for a second before he smiles. More noticeably, he smiles slowly, rather than flicking it on. He and Jiang Cheng are alike, in this; the slow versions of his happiness, the slow versions of Jiang Cheng’s anger, are likelier to be real.
“Jiujiu?” Hanguang-jun asks. “Not xiaojiu?”
Jin Ling shrugs. “I’ve called jiujiu that my whole life. He didn’t tell me to stop calling him that.”
Wei Wuxian laughs, still bright and happy. Hanguang-jun glances at him, and his face goes slightly less disapproving around the mouth. Jin Ling is surprised to realize he can notice.
“This way,” Jin Ling says, leading them towards one of the smaller rooms, ones where he can eat without being Sect Leader Jin all the time. “There’s tea for Hanguang-jun,” he adds, with a nod towards the man. “And Dawn Breeze.” It’s a Lanling province liquor, and much better than Emperor’s Smile.
“Hanguang-jun?” Wei Wuxian asks. “Not Lan-shushu?”
Hanguang-jun twitches. Sizhui would probably be able to tell if it’s an I am inexplicably enamored with your insane uncle twitch or an I will kill you with my music if you even think about calling me that twitch.
“Sizhui calls him Hanguang-jun,” he says, on the grounds that this is both true and an unassailable argument. Jin Ling can’t read Hanguang-jun for shit, but Sizhui’s so easy he makes Hanguang-jun readable by context. If Sizhui can’t call him shushu, no one gets to.
“Now that he is an adult,” Hanguang-jun says, with a low nod. Jin Ling nearly trips over his own feet. No possible response to this exists, or if one does, he doesn't know it.
“Well, I’m an adult,” he decides, as the only way out of this conversation that involves neither insulting Hanguang-jun nor calling him shushu to his face. Besides, he has his courtesy name and he's the leader of a sect, and that has to be adult enough. “So there.”
Hanguang-jun gives him another small nod. Jin Ling glances helplessly to Wei Wuxian, who gives him a deeply unsubtle nod and a grin more warm than bright. So at least he hasn't screwed that up too badly.
Jin Ling’s attempt to understand the Jin Sect lesson plans is interrupted by a high-pitched, familiar shriek.
“What are you doing here!” he shrieks back, papers flying as he leaps to his feet. His stool rattles into the table, hopefully not chipping it. Fairy sits up, letting out a startled whuff. Sure enough, in the doorway, Wei Wuxian is cowering behind Hanguang-jun’s sleeve. “Fairy, rug.” She drops flat to the floor immediately, paws and chin and tail all pressed against the tile.
“This is not the southwest garden,” Hanguang-jun observes.
“I had to approve all the lesson plans and no one actually gave them to me until today,” Jin Ling explains grumpily. It’s very stupid that he has to approve all the lesson plans when some of them are for lessons he hasn’t taken yet, but he still has to, and he’s not going to approve anything without actually reading it, and some of the new disciples are starting training tomorrow, and — “If I have to read all this,” he gestures to the stack, “Fairy is going to be here.” He glances at Wei Wuxian. “She won’t move or bark or do anything until I say so, now.”
Wei Wuxian lets out a faint whimpering noise, but he nudges the fabric of Hanguang-jun’s sleeve aside to glance into the room.
“Someone was supposed to tell you,” Jin Ling mutters. “I said.” He sent a servant to let Wei Wuxian know, before he took Fairy out of the garden.
“Wei Ying has been hiding from messengers,” Hanguang-jun says. Jin Ling thinks he might sound just the faintest bit amused.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian whines. “You can’t make fun of me, I’m being menaced!”
“She’s not menacing you!” Jin Ling snaps. “She wouldn’t move even if you kicked her. Don’t you dare kick her or I’ll kick you,” he adds, before anyone can move.
“He would not,” Hanguang-jun says mildly.
“He’d have to stop hiding behind your sleeve for that anyway,” Jin Ling points out, and immediately chokes on his own tongue, because Wei Wuxian nudges his husband’s sleeve a little further aside like drawing a curtain and takes a hesitant step under his arm.
“It won’t move?” he asks. His voice is very small and Jin Ling does not like it.
“She won’t,” Jin Ling promises. Fairy rolls one eye towards Wei Wuxian, who immediately jumps back with a yelp.
“It looked at me!”
“That’s because you’re jumping all over the place making weird noises,” Jin Ling says, and reaches down to pet Fairy’s ears, because she’s being very good. “See, she didn’t move.” Fairy lets out the faintest sigh — not actually a noise, just a slightly louder breath. “Good girl.”
“Ennnhhhh…” Wei Wuxian takes another step into the room, then two. Hanguang-jun slowly lowers his arm, eyes flicking to Wei Wuxian to Fairy to Jin Ling and back again. “You’re sure it won’t move.”
“Not at all,” Jin Ling says. “She’s like a rug that breathes.” Hanguang-jun gives him a slow nod, presumably figuring out what he was talking about earlier. Rug is not exactly an ordinary or obvious command to teach spiritual dogs.
Wei Wuxian sidles in a slow crescent through the room, keeping a solid armspan of space between him and Fairy at all times, until he’s on the far side of the table from Jin Ling. He perches himself on the seat, shoulders protectively hunched. Jin Ling is frankly surprised he hasn’t drawn his flute.
“So,” Wei Wuxian says, high and wavering. He glances to Jin Ling, then back to the door. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, don’t stand so far away from me!” He points to the third side of the table, where there is not actually a seat.
Hanguang-jun’s eyebrows shift position infinitesimally. He crosses the room in a sweep of robes, kneeling gracefully — not where he was pointed, but at Wei Wuxian’s side. His hand settles on Wei Wuxian’s back.
The smile Wei Wuxian gives him is… private-looking, somehow. Jin Ling looks away, looks down at Fairy instead, burying her fingers in the ruff of her neck. Her eyes fall closed. This is probably Fairy’s dream command: just lie there and don’t do anything. (Jin Ling would absolutely fight anyone else who said this, up to and including Jiang Cheng, but Fairy is a little bit lazy.)
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian says at last, and swallows. He glances at Fairy, then away, shuddering the way other and less notorious people might shudder at a gruesome corpse. “What’s going on with these lesson plans, then?”
Jin Ling glances at Hanguang-jun, who stares unhelpfully back, and then decides: Wei Wuxian knows he’s capable of sending Fairy away. Wei Wuxian has wailed for him to do it before, and Jin Ling has her confined to the garden and his room for the whole time Wei Wuxian is here and sent someone to warn him that he was making an exception. If Wei Wuxian wants to pretend he isn’t shaking, fine.
“They don’t make any sense,” he complains, and shoves the pages at Wei Wuxian. “And I have to read all of them by tomorrow.”
They do make sense, it’s just that he’s not sure whether or not he should change them, or how. Wei Wuxian does not make this any faster — in fact, he probably makes the process take twice as long — but he has a lot to say about the importance of practical demonstrations, and time allotted for questions, and whether it makes sense to learn light talismans before fire talismans, and obsolete misunderstandings that need to be changed. Hanguang-jun weighs in at odd moments, sometimes just pointing at the page and catching Wei Wuxian's eye, sometimes raising an eyebrow or tilting his head until Wei Wuxian reconsiders his argument.
But when they’re done, Jin Ling has some idea of what his sect will be teaching this year, and how, and why they’re teaching it the way that they are.
“There,” Jin Ling says at last, setting down the last page of approvals and suggestions. “Fine. I’ll take Fairy back to the garden.” He pauses, glancing between her and Wei Wuxian. She still hasn’t moved. He scratches her ear, just to check, and one eye blinks open, so she’s not actually asleep. Good. She won’t be startled awake and into motion.
“Do you want to touch her first?” he asks.
Wei Wuxian’s mouth drops open.
“Do I want to touch the dog?”
“Fine, don’t then!” Jin Ling yells back. “It doesn’t matter!” He stands up, and then realizes he isn’t sure if he should tell Fairy she can move or not. Should he let Wei Wuxian leave first, or something?
Some kind of silent conversation is happening between Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun, in widening eyes and tiny movements of shoulders and chins. Finally Wei Wuxian lets out a long, shaky sigh, and Hanguang-jun takes his hand.
“All right,” Wei Wuxian says. “Fine. But I’m being very brave, Lan Zhan.” He pouts disgustingly in Hanguang-jun’s direction, which is unfortunately a relief to Jin Ling.
“Mmm,” Hanguang-jun says, with a nod, and helps Wei Wuxian to his feet. He keeps hold of Wei Wuxian’s hand as they circle around the table again — Wei Wuxian’s grip is visibly white-knuckle tight, but apparently Hanguang-jun is immune to having his fingers crushed. Jin Ling kneels, settling his hand on Fairy’s back again.
“Rug,” he tells her, just in case. She rolls an eye in his direction, saying more clearly than words ever could: yes, I know.
Wei Wuxian stretches out his free hand, then snatches it back. Stretches, snatches. Fairy looks at him — still only moving her eyes, because she’s a good girl — then decides this is uninteresting, and looks back to Jin Ling.
This time, when Wei Wuxian stretches out his hand, his fingers actually brush her fur. He jumps back so quickly Jin Ling is amazed he doesn’t pull Hanguang-Jun over backwards, but of course Hanguang-jun just takes one small step and he’s fine.
Wei Wuxian laughs.
“Huh!” he says, looking down at his hand. He looks between Fairy and his fingers, chews on his lip, and finally says, “That’s softer than I thought.”
“She’s the softest,” Jin Ling says delightedly. “Good, good girl, Fairy.” He gives her an extra-thorough scritch around the ruff, and then looks up. Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun are standing directly in the doorway, now.
“You can leave first,” he says. “So she doesn’t have to walk past you.”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Right, right!” He nudges the door open and sidles back, a little, still not taking his eyes off Fairy. Fairy has not started caring yet. “Right.” He pauses. “Anyway, we’ll be in the Lotus Garden.”
“Of course,” Jin Ling says, rolling his eyes. Wei Wuxian darts outside, but Hanguang-jun lingers, looking at him. Jin Ling lifts his chin and looks back.
Hanguang-jun gives him a tiny nod that might almost be approving, and slides the door closed.
The day after Wei Wuxian, once the Yiling Patriarch and scourge of the Wen, gathers all his courage to touch Jin Ling’s dog — the day after that, as the sun is setting over Carp Tower, Wei Wuxian drags Jin Ling up to an isolated patch of roof, with a bottle of liquor between them and a bag of roasted nuts. It’s a weaker drink than Wei Wuxian usually likes, which is probably for Jin Ling’s benefit, so that he doesn’t fall off the roof. Jin Ling considers picking a fight about this, but he’s fairly sure there isn’t a cultivator alive who can out-drink Wei Wuxian. (Jin Ling is not sure, yet, if that’s an ordinary fact, or part of the same whole story that no one ever told him, that everyone replaced with the Yiling Patriarch instead.)
They watch the sky turn pink and gold, and Wei Wuxian tells Jin Ling about old adventures, letting stories from last week bleed into ones from sixteen, twenty years ago. Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother making it at all distinct, what was then and what was now; Jin Ling has to piece it together from the supporting cast. By the second cup of wine, he pictures every scene with the unknown face of Jiang Fengmian lingering next to Sizhui and Jingyi and Zizhen, next to Hanguang-jun and Wen Ning and Jiang Cheng, all of them waiting to step forward into the tale.
Wei Wuxian tells him about the origin of Hanguang-jun’s rabbits, and swears up and down it’s true when Jin Ling calls him a liar. Wei Wuxian tells him about his parents, about soup on a battlefront and confessions shouted in front of half the world, about a woman called Mianmian who was his father’s friend — “we should find her!” Wei Wuxian says. “She’s probably got a better memory than this hole-filled head of mine, she can tell you things that I’ve forgotten.” Wei Wuxian pretends that he doesn’t see Jin Ling wiping his eyes, and Jin Ling listens to the lightness of his uncle’s voice and lets him pretend that it stays steady.
Wei Wuxian tells him about Nie Huaisang, about Wen Ning, about Hanguang-jun, about caught chickens and pornography in the Cloud Recesses library and a parade of people down to fight what weren't at all water-ghouls. About dirty jokes and who didn’t get them, about jokes so cutting Wei Wuxian didn’t catch them until years later. Story after story, interweaving.
Jiang Cheng runs through the stories like a harmony line in a song: your uncle was so mad. Your uncle hated listening to him but he wanted that damn chicken. Your uncle couldn’t believe it when he saw us stumble out of the cave, your uncle showed up just as everyone was starting to laugh, your uncle said if I mentioned Lan Zhan again he’d gag me, your uncle only got me the bucket but he tried to tell your grandfather it had all been his idea, your uncle was so annoyed with the papermen he started swatting at anything that floated and murdered a leaf with Sandu…
“My jiujiu this, my jiujiu that,” Jin Ling says finally, topping up his cup with the weak wine. (It’s probably too nice a cup to bring up on a roof: delicate celadon porcelain, thin as the petals of a flower. On the other hand, it’s Jin Ling’s cup, now.) “Is he in all of these stories?”
Wei Wuxian goes still, for a moment, before he shrugs. “And what’s wrong with that?” he asks lightly. “We grew up together, after all. He was there for most of the trouble I got into.”
“Mmm.” Jin Ling tosses the cup of wine back, lets the last drops drip to the blue-tiled roof. Weak as the wine is, it’s warm in his joints; not clouding his thoughts, exactly, but giving him an excuse to let them wander. “Are you angry with him or not?” he asks, not looking at Wei Wuxian. “I can’t tell.” It comes out sulky, he knows it does. “You don’t talk like you are, but — he killed you.”
He keeps his gaze fixed past the edge of the roof, on the little brown birds swirling against the sunset. Movement flickers at the corner of his eye; the glug of liquor being poured, the muffled clink of a bottle being set back in Wei Wuxian's lap.
“He didn’t kill me, first of all,” Wei Wuxian says. When Jin Ling glances sideways, he has the cup in his hand like a prop, not drinking it just yet. “That’s a story. He pulled the blow. If he says otherwise, well, I’m sure he has his reasons.”
“He’s never actually said he did,” Jin Ling admits. “He’s never said anything about it. But everyone else says so.”
“Pshh, everyone.” Wei Wuxian waves the cup at the world, dismissing all its people out of hand. “Who got killed, them or me? He pulled it back, I let go of Lan Zhan before I could drag them both over the cliff. That’s the truth of it.”
“Huh.” Jin Ling hunches his shoulders, spins his empty cup between his hands. The sunlight makes its shadow an immense blotch to his side. He thinks about asking why Wei Wuxian let go.
“So are you angry with him or not?” he asks instead. Wei Wuxian sighs.
“Here’s the thing you need to understand about Jiang Cheng,” he says, voice going soft like aged paper. “The Jiangs took me in when I was, oh, nine, ten or so? We were never quite sure. Your grandmother, she never liked me much.” He shrugs. “Which is fair, really. A lot of people don’t.” He toasts the absent woman, drinks.
“She let your grandfather take me, for which I am grateful. But she wasn’t happy about it. People said I was her husband’s bastard — I’m not, incidentally — and, well, some other things.” He picks up the bottle, sets it down again without pouring. “But your jiujiu was going to be sect leader; I wasn’t. That meant your grandpa needed more from him, you see? He had to expect more from him. That wasn’t easy, for Jiang Cheng.” A quiet sigh. “He never… your grandfather wasn’t very affectionate with him, very often. It hurt him. Badly. And your grandmother… your grandmother would tell him that it was because of me, that it was because I was there. That, well.” He sighs, makes a face like he’s scooping up something distasteful with a shovel. “That his father didn’t love him, that he liked me better. That Jiang Cheng wasn't enough.”
Jin Ling stares, drawing his knees up to his chest. Wei Wuxian braces his chin against his upturned hand, letting the empty cup tap aimlessly against his jaw. “So you see how I made things difficult for him, right from the beginning. Really, all things considered, he was… astonishingly good to me. Your uncle, that is. Your mother, too, and your grandfather, with all the trouble I caused, but especially your uncle.”
“But —” Jin Ling swallows. He doesn’t want to speak ill of the grandmother who died before his parents married. He doesn’t. She’s his family. But. “That’s not even your fault! How would you — you can’t make people love you —” He stops, mouth clamping shut over the words.
It’s true. You can’t.
“No one’s ever said anything like that to me,” he says. It's very small.
“Well, of course not,” Wei Wuxian says. “Do I see an irritating little orphan running around, getting you into trouble? No? I thought not.”
“That’s not what I meant, you idiot!” Jin Ling snaps.
“Hey!” Wei Wuxian shakes his cup at Jin Ling, as if it’s a tool for admonishment. “Show some respect for your dajiu, youngster.”
“I’m respectful!” Jin Ying yells back, and tucks his chin onto his knees with an indignant hmph. Wei Wuxian is laughing at him.
“I’m sure everyone would love you, Jin Ling,” he says gently. “No matter who else was or wasn’t running around. Who couldn’t love you?”
Jin Ling tries to say something — people don’t, more than enough — but to his horror, his eyes are hot, his throat gone tight and useless. He swallows hard, twice, and holds out his cup for more wine. Wei Wuxian gives him a mere slosh, doesn’t fill the cup completely, but it’s liquid, at least, and solves the dryness of his mouth.
“It's not like anyone ever told me they couldn't,” he says indignantly, as if he needs to defend the people who raised him against his own tears. “Not Jiujiu, not Xiaoshu — not Meng Yao, not anyone.”
“Mmm.” Wei Wuxian reaches out, squeezes his shoulder. “He’s a kind man, your uncle. Kinder than most people think.”
“I know that,” Jin Ling says, a little sulkily, because: come on. There’s plenty that Wei Wuxian can tell him, plenty that’s new, but this? No.
“Of course you do,” Wei Wuxian says. “Anyway. Your question! See, my memory will stretch to that, you asked one.” He pours himself another cup of wine; this one, too, only about half-full. “No, Jin Ling, I’m not angry. After the position I put him in… all the positions I put him in, really. When we were children, then the clans — you know about that — and then, well.” He throws the wine back like it’s the strongest baiju. “I would have died rather than hurt your parents,” he says softly. “But it doesn’t bring back the dead. Even I only managed that the once. One and a half, I suppose, counting myself.” He shrugs one shoulder. “We could probably try that one again, but there’s no one I hate enough to trust the ritual to work, and frankly, I’m surprised it ever did —”
“Don’t do that!” Jin Ling squawks, grabbing his arm and shaking hard. “Shut up! I’ll — I’ll break your legs! I’ll set Fairy on you!”
“Jin Ling, Jin Ling!” Wei Wuxian laughs, tugging his arm loose. “Jin Ling, I’m only joking. I promise. I’m not trying… I have no intention of going that far down that path, ever again. And I wouldn’t… if anything went wrong, I wouldn’t want to risk their souls.” He grins, as if a wide enough smile will make Jin Ling’s heart stop racing. “Also, I do like being alive. Since I have the chance.”
“All right.” Jin Ling scowls, inching a little further away on the roof. “Good.”
“Love you too, waisheng,” Wei Wuxian says, and scoots right along the roof after him. “I’m touched.”
“Good,” Jin Ling outright snaps, and relaxes his grip on his own knees. “So you’re all right with…”
“Well, now, that’s not the same as not being angry.” Wei Wuxian sighs, pours a thin stream of wine directly from the jar into his mouth. Smiles, when he’s done, the smile of a man making an old trick work again. It’s a common expression on his face. “I can live with it,” he says softly. “I can live with my mistakes. I can leave them dead with me. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets, Jin Ling. Sometimes that’s as good as it can get, once things get to a certain point. But no, I don’t blame him for being angry. He had every right to be angry.”
Jin Ling frowns, tilting his head back. The sun is out of sight, the sky starting to fade into its deep and gentle blue. There’s a faint sense of something missing, something left just out of sight.
Why don’t you come to Lotus Pier? But, no, Wei Wuxian answered that too, after all.
“You should come to Yunmeng,” he says instead. “I want you to tell me about that too.”
Jin Ling’s next trip away from Carp Tower is not, in fact, to Yunmeng, but to Cloud Recesses instead. It’s for a conference — not a grand one, with all four great clans in attendance, but a meeting of sect leaders who have headed their sects for less than ten years. The Chief Cultivator wants to meet them, and to offer them a chance to meet each other, without being overshadowed by their elders. Jin Ling will still be the youngest, but none of them will be three times his age. None of them will have fought in the Sunshot Campaign.
Everyone else who has to travel to Cloud Recesses, of course, chooses to tag along with the cultivators — there’s safety in numbers, after all, and safety in swords. Couriers, merchants, pilgrims, visitors, all take to the road in the cultivators’ wake if there’s a contingent going their way. Letters and laughter and bundles and bags all pour into Caiyi Town and split off up the mountain, and Lan disciples wait — politely, calmly — by the gates, waiting for everything else the conference brings.
Thus, when Jin Ling abandons his bags in the guest room and makes his way to the back hill, he is not particularly surprised to find Sizhui already there and reading a letter. What’s a little more odd is that Sizhui is standing frozen on the grass, staring at the thing as if it’s written in a language he’s never seen before.
“Sect Leader Jin?” he says, looking up.
“Call me that again and I’ll sic Fairy on you,” Jin Ling says. Sizhui laughs.
“She won’t do anything to me, will you girl?” He crouches to greet her, and she, because she is a dog and does not understand the dignity of a sect leader, traitorously leans into his petting and tries to lick his face. “No, Fairy, not the face, not the headband.”
“Fine, if you call me that again I’ll let her into Wei Wuxian’s house,” Jin Ling grumbles. Sizhui’s eyes go wide and horrified. “Don’t look at me like that! Obviously I won’t really do it.” Fairy, unaware of her use as a threat, settles herself on top of Sizhui’s feet. She’s already been taught to leave the rabbits alone, because she is a good dog, and can be taught to get along with other people’s animals, and the problem is entirely that damn donkey.
“He was less scared of her last time he visited anyway,” Jin Ling adds. Sizhui isn’t listening, has already straightened up and turned his gaze to the paper again.
“Jin Ling,” he says, “do you know what this is?” He holds the letter up for Jin Ling to inspect.
“A letter, obviously,” Jin Ling says, but he takes it.
Greetings from your shushu. I hope this letter finds you well. Everything is fine at Lotus Pier and I am sure Jin Ling would be glad to see you if you would like to come by. I have included a few useful things. Do not let your father push you around too much.
I wish you good luck in your studies.
Jin Ling sits down hard on the hill. “C’mere, Fairy.” He wants to get on Suihua and fly straight to Lotus Pier and see his uncle, and do — what? He isn’t sure. Hug him, maybe. Be near him, see him.
He buries his face in Fairy’s fur instead.
“Jin Ling?” Sizhui asks. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” Jin Ling says, lifting his head. “What’s not to understand about it? It’s a letter. He says hello.”
“Why’s he sending it to me?” Sizhui asks, reaching for it. Jin Ling holds on to the edge and jabs his finger at the opening.
“You’re his nephew, that’s why,” he says. “Obviously.”
“I…” Sizhui tugs at the paper again, and, point made, Jin Ling lets it go. Sizhui settles next to him, smoothing out the page again. “Why now?”
“Because no one told him you were his nephew until now,” Jin Ling says. “Obviously.”
“Only Hanguang-jun really knew,” Sizhui says, a little absently. “Jin Ling?”
“Yeah?” Jin Ling still feels tight around the chest, neck burning for his uncle’s sake. Sizhui isn’t looking at him. The sun is high and bright above, and the rabbits form a distant circle, out of Fairy’s harmless reach.
“If I’d shown up at Lotus Pier these last years, would he have called me his zhizi then?” Sizhui asks.
Jin Ling takes a moment to think about it — which he can do, thank you very much. “Not if you showed up with Hanguang-jun,” he says, finally. “But if you showed up at the door and said you were, it’s not like he’d throw you out.”
“You know I was a Wen,” Sizhui says, glancing up at him. His stare is… almost a challenge. “It was my name.”
“Yeah, I know,” Jin Ling says. “I’ve seen you with the Ghost General, haven’t I?” With the man who killed Jin Ling’s father. Who almost sliced off his own fingers rather than bring his sword down on Jin Ling himself. Who holds everything, even metal and melon seeds, like it’s both fragile and precious. Frankly, Jin Ling is proud he gets the sentence out in a voice that’s almost normal.
Sizhui folds his arms. “And you still think he would let me in, if I showed up and called him shushu?”
Jin Ling stares right back at him. “Yes.”
Once, on a night-hunt when Jin Ling was twelve, Jiang Cheng and his disciples took him up into rocky hills, and found an old and rattling wooden bridge stretched over a gorge. Their prey couldn’t fly but could leap, and lived in number on both sides of the gorge, so they crossed back and forth across that bridge, paying no heed to how it swayed and creaked. No reason to waste energy flying, after all — and Jiang Cheng didn’t like to take Jin Ling flying, he suspects now. Jin Ling was not allowed anywhere near the monsters, at twelve, only permitted to watch.
Then one of the disciples did fly, wanting to get a look at something halfway down the gorge, and happened to look up at the bridge above. Jin Ling still remembers watching his face go gray. There was a crack in one of the supports, long and deep and deadly, and utterly hidden from sight as they trotted blithely above it, feeling the bridge shake but thinking it normal.
Jin Ling has thought a great deal about that since he watched his uncle sob on the floor of the Guanyin Temple. He is never, ever going to mention this to Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng probably would have threatened Sizhui’s life, a few years ago. Probably would’ve held Zidian over his head and demanded to know where he came from, and what he was playing at, and whether he’d ever so much as thought the words demonic cultivation. But it would have ended with Sizhui sleeping under Lotus Pier’s roof and eating Lotus Pier’s overspiced food for as long as he needed to stay, whatever happened in between.
Neither Jiang Cheng nor Jin Ling has enough real family to send any of them away.
“What did he send you?” he asks. Sizhui holds up a little pouch, bulging gently.
“Dried lotus seeds and Yunmeng local tea,” he says. “Some socks. And a little bit of silver.”
That makes sense. Jiang Cheng has never had much reason to send things to Jin Ling, though he may start now, but that’s exactly what Jin Ling would expect to be sent. It’s what he would’ve received if he’d had a chance to study at Cloud Recesses, he’s absolutely certain.
“You better eat them,” he says, and flops backwards on the grass, patting the ground so Fairy will sit within easy petting reach of them both. Sizhui frowns down at the letter, worries at the edge of the paper with his fingers and worries at his lip with his teeth. Jin Ling tugs at a fistful of grass, scowling. “He doesn’t like how things went during the war,” he says at last. “He doesn’t talk about it, but — well, he doesn’t talk about it.”
Sizhui raises his eyebrows.
“Shut up!” Jin Ling says, and tosses the grass in his general direction. “I mean… you know what I mean. Hanguang-jun is your… look, you have to know about different ways of not talking about things.”
“That’s true,” Sizhui admits. He brushes the stalks of grass away from his sleeve. “Don’t throw things, you’ll scare the rabbits.”
“No I won’t, they’ve never seen anyone throw anything that wasn’t food. All fat and pampered.” He laces his hands behind his head, though, gazing up at the sky. Sizhui is clear at the corner of his eye, nothing but blue behind him, as he turns over the little bundle of his shushu’s gift. Jin Ling’s jiujiu’s gift. “Are you going to eat your lotus seeds or not?” His heart is clenched tight under his ribs.
Sizhui lets out a long, slow breath, one that shudders his way out of his chest. “All right,” he says, quiet and far-away. But he’s saying it, and that’s the important part. “All right.” He tugs at the blue drawstring and fishes out a seed. Inspects it for a moment, then chews it, slow and thoughtful. Jin Ling blows air out between his lips and closes his eyes against the sun.
“Why do you call him Hanguang-jun, anyway?” he asks, when he blinks his eyes open again. “He’s — something to you, isn’t he?”
“Yangfu,” Sizhui says, with a small and fleeting smile. Foster-father; father by the right of raising him.
“So why not call him that?” Jin Ling demands, and the smile fades from Sizhui’s face. Crap.
“People asked him questions,” Sizhui says quietly, and: oh, all right then. Not something Jin Ling shouldn't have asked, just a somber answer. “Who I was, who my parents were. Sometimes they implied… I’m sure you can guess what they implied.”
“So, what, he told you to stop?”
“No, of course not,” Sizhui says, shaking his head. “Not him. But the questions hurt him, I could tell once I got old enough, so…”
“Hanguang-jun,” Jin Ling finishes. He wonders if Hanguang-jun still cares, with Wei Wuxian alive again, with the past all rearranged. Sizhui probably knows better than he does; Sizhui grew up with him, and Jin Ling only just — became a sort of family. Lan-shushu. He can’t imagine it.
But this conference will help him, this gathering of young leaders in Gusu. It will help a lot of people, and probably the Lan the most; Hanguang-jun won’t favor Lanling over his — what, his lover’s nephew? His husband’s nephew? Particularly not a whoever’s-nephew who stabbed the whoever, one time. Probably Hanguang-jun won’t favor anyone over anything, given the kind of man he is. But it will help.
The past is supposed to be immovable, unchanging. Instead it’s full of buried things that all sprout up and trip him.
The conference is busy and exhausting and only sometimes boring, and involves all the young sect leaders jammed in a room together, talking to each other all damn day. After the meetings, they wander from room to room, sharing tea and stories and the general social gestures, which, like his jiujiu, Jin Ling hates, but which his xiaoshu taught him never to ignore. When Jin Ling still called him that.
He does it. It's a duty, and an important one, and he's not going to slack off. But he's going to spend at least some time exploring Cloud Recesses, while he's here. He can improve his knowledge and cultivation.
If he uses that excuse right now, of course, he’ll never hear the end of it from Jingyi, because what he’s doing right now is watching Sizhui attempt to teach the baby disciples. And eating peanuts. There are far worse ways to spend his time than with Fairy lying on his feet, the sun bright and the breeze cool, with peanuts in his mouth and an excellent show before him.
“Listen — listen,” Sizhui says to the giggling five-year-old who is chasing one of her fellow disciples with a stick. “We cultivate with the way of blades, okay, not sticks, so give me that —”
“This is my blade,” she retorts, brandishing it. “I’ve named it Rabbit.”
“No, that’s not a blade, that’s a stick —”
“It’s Rabbit!” she insists, and adopts… actually, a decent stance.
“Okay, well, I’m in charge of all the rabbits here, because of Hanguang-jun, so give me Rabbit, okay?” Sizhui coaxes. The girl considers this.
“No,” she decides. “Because those are real rabbits, and this isn’t. It’s a sword named Rabbit.”
“Do not disrespect your elders,” Sizhui says firmly. “Remember the principles of the Lan.”
“I can copy out the rules later,” she says, with a small and devastating shrug. “I’ve done it lots of times.”
Sizhui sets his hands on his hips, then glances over at Jin Ling. “Stop laughing.”
“No,” Jin Ling says, and eats another peanut.
“A-Hai,” Sizhui says. “Give me the stick.”
“It’s Rabbit!” she insists.
“Listen,” Sizhui says. “If you don’t give me Rabbit the stick, a-Hai, I’m going to pick you up and plant you in the vegetable garden, okay? Then you’ll grow into rabbit food and I’ll feed you to the rabbits and you won’t be able to cultivate with anything — Jin Ling, are you all right?”
Jin Ling is not all right. Jin Ling has, in fact tried to inhale four half-chewed peanuts, and is coughing bits of peanut out of his lungs while Fairy whines in concern. Sizhui grabs Rabbit the stick — his shimei is concerned enough about either being planted or Jin Ling’s imminent death to allow this — and rushes over to wallop Jin Ling between the shoulder blades. Eventually, once his throat hurts so much he’s tempted to use qi to heal it, his breathing clears.
“What happened?” Sizhui asks, switching from thumping on his back to rubbing a slow and soothing circle. Jin Ling wipes his streaming eyes.
“Jiujiu used to say that to me!” It comes out a little accusing, as if Sizhui has somehow been spying on his life.
Sizhui blinks. “That he’d feed you to rabbits?”
“No, obviously not that he’d feed me to rabbits!” Jin Ling rolls his eyes. There are rabbits in Yunmeng, of course — there are rabbits everywhere — but not white ones like these, not kept ones. “But he always said he’d put me in the river to grow with the lotuses. He said it just like that.”
Sizhui’s mouth forms a perfect surprised O. Jin Ling nods, vindicated — this is not ordinary! This is specific!
“Who did —” Impossible. “Hanguang-jun never threatened to plant you in anything!”
“Hanguang-jun doesn’t threaten anything, he just does it,” Sizhui says. “No, that — that was when I was even smaller than they are,” with a gesture towards the swarming little disciples. “That was Wei-qianbei. It could be a coincidence, couldn’t it?”
“That’s a stupid coincidence,” Jin Ling scoffs. “Maybe... do you think someone said that to them, when they were this age?” Not his grandmother; not the woman Wei Wuxian described to him on Carp Tower's roof.
Sizhui winces, so someone has told him that part of the story too. “His shijie, maybe?” he says. “Wait!” His mouth drops open; Jin Ling blinks at him. Sizhui grabs his shoulders. “That’s your mother, right? That would’ve been your mother!” He’s smiling, now, sudden and bright. Jin Ling stares.
“Yeah,” he says, and his voice comes out strange and low. “It would’ve.” He clears his throat. “I... maybe that was the kind of thing she would say.”
Sizhui pauses, his hands still on Jin Ling's shoulders. Zizhen said once, slightly drunk, that Sizhui looks at things like a good doctor wields a scalpel: gently, but unflinchingly, and sharp. “Does Sect Leader Jiang not tell you about her?”
“He tries,” Jin Ling says. “When I ask.” He knows that his mother’s name was Jiang Yanli, and that she was kind; that she was a good cook; that she was a good person in a way the world doesn’t appreciate. That she was braver than anyone knew. That her health was not good. That it took his father a while to appreciate her, but he got there in the end. That Jiang Cheng loved her. That — he said once, strained and sad — that she was good at making peace, at getting people to get along.
He does not know what she looked like, or what she wore, or whether she laughed often, or how she spoke, or whether she used to threaten to throw Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng off the pier and let them grow new lotuses.
“Jiujiu isn’t good with words.” He frowns, and smacks Sizhui in the arm. “And he’s your shushu!”
“We can ask Wei-qianbei when he gets back, maybe?” Sizhui says. “About the planting, and your mother.” He glances over Jin Ling’s shoulder and winces. “Oh no. A-Hai, you can’t — a-Hai, if this Rabbit is your sword, you can’t just pick up a different stick and have a different sword —”
“It’s my guqin!” she yells back. “You hit people with your guqin sometimes —”
Jin Ling is more than relieved to return to watching Sizhui chase his shimei over the grass, and tucks this maybe-true thing away safe to wonder about later. Would his mother have threatened to put him in the lotus pond? Or maybe, at Carp Tower, the beds of peonies?
After the conference in Gusu, Jin Ling spends six weeks in Lanling with no one watching over him. It’s a longer span of time than he’s used to, though he knows the senior disciples still do far more of his work than they should. (Not all the senior disciples. Some, quietly, have become… ceremonial. Some of them adored Jin Guangyao – Meng Yao – but some of them are the ones who hated him ardently. One of them kicked at Fairy when he thought no one could see, and for the combination of those things, Jin Ling put him on the list with the others.)
Still, it’s not a surprise to him when Jiang Cheng tells him to come to Yunmeng. He’s glad to go, even if it’s just for a little while, taking the river down. He’s gone this way more times than he can count, growing up, drifting in between his homes, between his mother’s family and his father’s. He loves the Lanling mountains, but he loves the lowland lakes too, even if they can’t be home anymore. Because that’s the sticking point, the thing he can’t run from like a child could: Yunmeng was his home for half his life, and now it’s someplace that he visits. At least Jiang Cheng has never cleared out his old room.
On this trip down the river it occurs to him that his uncle is the only Jiang left, unmarried and alone. Jin Ling can barely manage the Jin sect, can only do it with Jiang Cheng’s help; he’d never be able to run the Jiangs, too. Even if, deep in his heart, he loves Lotus Pier better.
Is there no one who can be brought into the family, if Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to marry? No disciple he’d trust with this legacy, who would be glad to have a place here? More Jiang disciples than most have no family known or living; more Jiang disciples than most would be glad to take the name. (It was Meng Yao who explained this to Jin Ling. Who explained that Jiang Cheng had to take in the desperate because only the desperate would come to him, when he was only a few years older than Jin Ling is now and Lotus Pier was in enemy hands.)
Nothing on the river answers his questions. On the night that he arrives, he and Jiang Cheng eat supper out on the pier, while the mist and the fireflies rise up from the water. Steam floats up from the tea, a local Yunmeng green as fresh as any of Lanling’s most expensive, and Jin Ling picks at his rice and thinks about family.
“Do you think I should get married?” he asks. Jiang Cheng almost drops his chopsticks.
“You’re seventeen!” he says, loud enough that Fairy lifts her head to see what’s going on. Jin Ling glares.
“I’m seventeen now,” he says. “Who knows how long it would take to find someone!” He gives Jiang Cheng a pointed look. He’s fairly sure you have to be work at it to be blacklisted by four matchmakers, especially when you’re a sect leader, but still! And besides, it’s not like Jin Ling wants to marry just anyone. He wants time to be a little picky.
“Find someone? Do you even know what kind of person you’re looking for?” Jiang Cheng asks.
“Of course I do!” Jin Ling says, and then realizes that he does not. “I. I mean, shut up.”
The look that Jiang Cheng gives him is an entire lecture series of its own.
“Think about that, first,” he says, once Jin Ling is thoroughly wilted. He pours himself another cup of tea, glaring down at his cup. “You don’t want to marry someone you can’t get along with,” he says abruptly. “You’ll just make each other worse. And miserable. It’s not worth it.”
“Is that why you never wanted to get married?” Jin Ling mutters, loud enough that he knows his uncle can hear it. Jiang Cheng’s hand jerks, sloshing tea onto the table.
“And what would you know about it?!” he snaps, a little too loud. He grabs furiously at a napkin, not looking at anything else. Jin Ling’s mouth goes slack.
“You did?” he says. “What — who? Why didn’t you? Did she marry someone else? Have I met her? Is she —”
“How am I supposed to answer a question when you keep asking more, that’s what I want to know,” Jiang Cheng says over him. He rolls his eyes.
“Are you going to answer them?” Jin Ling demands. Belatedly, it occurs to him that this mysterious person might not have been a woman at all. He's not sure whether to say something about it or not. Jiang Cheng glares at him for his impertinence, but his gaze goes slack, drifts out over the edge of the pier. When he speaks, it’s like he’s dredging the words up from somewhere buried deep under the green water.
“Her name was Wen Qing,” he says. The corner of his mouth twists grimly up. “That should answer most of your questions.”
“I — jiujiu!” Jin Ling squawks, gaping at him. “No, who, what, how? How did this happen? What — what was she like? Was she beautiful and demure and —”
“No,” Jiang Cheng cuts him off. He sips his tea, lowers the cup slowly. “Well. She was beautiful.”
“But she wasn’t mild and obedient?” Jin Ling asks, leaning in over the table. And a Wen?!
“Not at all,” Jiang Cheng says. “She was quiet until she had something to say, but that was as close to obedient as she got.” He shakes his head. “You wouldn’t be here if she were. She saved your mother’s life, during the war.” He touches two fingers to his stomach, just below his chest. “Mine, too, in a way. More of your dajiu’s crazy ideas.”
“So why did you want to marry her, then?” Jin Ling asks. “Or is that why, because she saved your life?” It’s the kind of thing Zizhen would think of.
“Ask me the easy questions, why don’t you,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. A swirl of wind blows hard enough to catch the lantern-flames, makes the light flicker and throw shadows over his face. He sighs. “I don’t know,” he says quietly, though Jin Ling is fairly sure he means I don’t know how to say it. “She was brave. Proud. She had integrity, which wasn’t easy for a Wen to have, I can tell you that.” A long breath. “She was… responsible. There were people she needed to keep safe, and she took that seriously. Her brother, especially. She wanted that more than anything.”
Jin Ling chews on the inside of his cheek for a moment. “She sounds like you,” he mutters, not quite looking at his uncle. Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything, but his cup clunks clumsily against the table.
“What happened to her brother?” Jin Ling asks, into the silence. Jiang Cheng snorts.
“What, Wen Ning never told you his sister’s name?”
Jin Ling only barely stops himself from shouting what?! a second time. Wen Ning does talk about his sister, sometimes, but — at least when Jin Ling is there — she’s always a-Jie, Jiejie, as if he doesn’t want the rest of them to remember that she was a Wen. A great doctor, Wen Ning has said. Always took good care of me. And, yes, from what Wen Ning has said, Jin Ling can believe that she was brave and honorable and proud.
“Why didn’t you ask the matchmakers for someone like that, then?” he asks. Jiang Cheng looks at him as if he’s asked why Jiang Cheng doesn’t habitually stand on his head and sing.
“Because she was dead,” he says flatly. He pours another cup of tea for both of them, setting the pot down on the table with a little too much force. “I don’t know if she would have married me anyhow. I didn’t ask until… we both had other obligations.”
“Mm.” Jin Ling has no idea what else to say, honestly; had never imagined this, when he began to ask. He reaches over to Fairy, digs his fingers into her fur. His uncle was in love with the Ghost General’s sister. Jin Ling tries to imagine someone telling him this, two years ago; he would have set Fairy on them.
In a way, he should have guessed at something like this when his uncle’s hand first slipped on the teapot. He’d begun to suspect, years ago, that there were parts of his family history that had been crossed out, long streaks of black where Wei Wuxian had been. The truth is more like whole books being brought up from their hiding places again.
He slips Fairy a piece of shrimp — Jiang Cheng doesn’t say anything, probably because he fed her half of his noodles earlier — and watches the fireflies dance over the dark water. He’d like to be married to someone brave. And kind. Maybe not too proud. Someone good at talking about old sharp-edged unhappy things.
“Hanguang-jun’s visit last month went well,” he says, for the sake of something to say. It’s good news, too, which helps. “We looked at the training plans. He’s putting together a map of all the corpse and monster attacks so I had to dig out all the old reports.” Meng Yao had them all cataloged perfectly, sorted by date, marked with different-colored ribbons for fierce corpses and ghosts and monsters, with an index listing out date and creature and cultivator and place. Also in different-colored inks. It was immensely useful. Jin Ling went straight to his room afterward and sat with Fairy for an hour. “You’ll probably get someone asking you about that, soon.”
“A few disciples came by last week.” Jiang Cheng prods some rice around in his bowl. “Anyone come with him?”
It’s now, officially, not Jin Ling bringing up Wei Wuxian. “Of course,” he says, rolling his eyes. It doesn’t actually go without saying; both Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian travel alone, at times, as they choose, as their work takes them. But Wei Wuxian usually pops up at Carp Tower, when Hanguang-jun is there, and if Jin Ling’s honest, it’s somehow become a relief that he does.
“He pet Fairy, this time,” Jin Ling says, and Jiang Cheng chokes on his food.
He actually chokes; bits of noodle and ginger sauce spray across the pavilion as he wheezes for air. Jin Ling leaps across the table like he’s in the thick of battle in order to pound his uncle on the back. It’s possible he yelps, a little.
“Calm down, calm down,” Jiang Cheng finally wheezes, “I’m not dying, calm down. Stop hitting me!”
“You were choking!” Jin Ling protests, retreating back to his own side of the table. Around it, this time.
“I was only coughing,” Jiang Cheng corrects indignantly. “Wei Wuxian did what?”
“Pet Fairy?” Jin Ling says, a little tentatively, though there’s no longer food in his uncle’s mouth.
“Is he possessed? Did you check?” Jiang Cheng demands, apparently dead serious.
“Hanguang-jun would notice, wouldn’t he?” Jin Ling asks. “What’s so surprising about this, anyway? He’s a grown man, shouldn’t he be getting over a fear of dogs by now?”
“He’s not just scared of dogs,” Jiang Cheng says. “That one servant girl is scared of dogs, what’s-her-name, with the freckles. A-Ning. He’s something else.”
“Jiujiu, what are you talking about?”
Jiang Cheng sighs. “Dogs nearly killed him when he was young, all right? Much younger than you are, not even old enough to hold a sword. As soon as he sees one he forgets he’s gotten bigger than they are, now. Forgets everything else, too.” His mouth twitches again, in a way Jin Ling isn’t quite used to. “Being afraid never stopped him from doing anything, the idiot. It’s how he gets into half his trouble. But dogs? Right back to being helpless.”
Jin Ling opens his mouth, then closes it. All right, maybe it makes sense that there would be a reason that he’s so afraid, but… “What do you mean, dogs nearly killed him?”
“I don’t know, I wasn’t there.” Jiang Cheng scowls at him, starts wiping up the table with unnecessary focus. He relents after only a moment, as if Jin Ling’s been pestering him: “His parents died a while before we found him. He…” His mouth works. “It wasn’t good. He had to eat whatever he could get, and the dogs would fight him for it. That’s all he ever said about it.” He flicks a bit of chewed noodle viciously into the water. “He has bite scars, though. I have eyes.” He pauses. “Well, he did before he died. I don’t know how all of — that — worked.”
“He had to fight dogs for food?” Jin Ling demands. It comes out high and squeaky, like he’s five years younger. Jiang Cheng grimaces. “Where did he live?”
“He didn’t live anywhere,” Jiang Cheng says, nearly a growl. “Believe me, if someone had been letting that happen, their house wouldn’t be standing anymore.”
Fairy whuffles softly and settles her head in Jin Ling’s lap. She’s not supposed to do that at the table, but she’s probably also noticed that he isn’t touching what’s left of his food. He runs his hand over the soft fur of her ear. “I didn’t make him pet her or anything,” he mutters. “I taught her to lie still in case he ever has to be around her, and she was doing that. It was his idea to not leave, and after we’d gone through the lesson plans I asked if he wanted to. That’s all that happened.” He bites his lip. “He just kind of touched her and ran away, too.”
Jiang Cheng snorts, but softly. He starts to say a few different things, before finally settling on, “Another great deed for the Yiling Patriarch.” It’s the first time Jin Ling has heard him use that name since Guanyin Temple. He’s almost smiling.
On Jin Ling's third night in Lotus Pier, a true Yunmeng thunderstorm sweeps in off the mountains. It will crackle and rage for a while and then fade into steady hours of rain, until the river surges high and wild. Jin Ling sits with his door a handspan open, knees drawn up to his chest, and watches the lightning flare across the sky, watches the rain hammer against the river. He knows people who are afraid of storms — Zizhen, it turns out, always wants to sleep far away from the window on stormy nights — but Jin Ling has loved them since before he can remember. He’s always felt like they’re on his side.
Through the wild sheets of rain, he sees talisman lights moving along the shore.
“What —” He barely remembers to grab an umbrella before he darts out into the rain. (Fairy is instructed to stay. If he lets her out in this she won’t be dry by morning.) “Jiujiu! Jiujiu, someone’s coming!”
“In this?” Jiang Cheng demands, pulling his door open, and squints at the shore too. “What kind of lunatic…”
Thanks to Jin Ling’s warning, they’re able to greet their guests in the main hall, Jiang Cheng fully dressed on the lotus throne, and with towels on hand. Jin Ling stands at his uncle’s right hand until the first sodden guest stumbles in, and then he’s bolting across the room with a towel in hand, because — “Sizhui?” he demands. “What are you doing here?”
The next figure to stumble in says “Drowning, apparently!”
“Jingyi?” A conclusion is scrabbling to the front of Jin Ling’s mind. He catches sight of Jiang Cheng’s set jaw just in time to realize —
— Wei Wuxian slumps through the door, laughing uncomfortably.
“Sorry, Jiang Cheng, didn’t mean to trouble you but —”
“Are you night-hunting in Yunmeng?” Jiang Cheng demands, eyebrows snapping together in a way that has never boded any good for anyone.
“No!” Wei Wuxian holds up his hands; he’s holding Chenqing, which is dripping even more water than the rest of him. He could have been playing deadly resentful songs on the doorstep of Lotus Pier. He could also have wanted something to twirl in his hands. “No, no, we were just passing through, didn’t want to —”
“Shushu,” Sizhui interrupts, and every single one of them goes still.
Sizhui, who has Wei Wuxian’s shamelessness and Hanguang-jun’s unflappability, continues: “We were passing through Yunmeng on our way back to Cloud Recesses, but the inn had a small fire last week —” Jin Ling didn’t know this, though he’s sure Jiang Cheng did — “and there were no usable rooms for us. We were going to camp, but then the storm hit, and I’m a little worried Jingyi will drown if he rolls over in the night. Is it possible that there’s room for us here?”
Jin Ling holds his breath as all of them glance from face to face to face.
Jiang Cheng folds his arms. “Someone who grew up in Yunmeng,” he says, not addressing the words to anyone in particular, “should be able to tell when a storm is coming.”
“I was hoping we’d have a little more time.” Wei Wuxian peels soaked strands of hair away from his skin. He and the Lans are still dripping all over the floor. “I really didn’t mean to interrupt you.” His smile is almost a flinch.
“It was Sizhui’s idea,” Jingyi adds. Jiang Cheng closes his eyes. The rain roars down outside.
“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng says. “Find somewhere to put them.” He stalks down the long carpet, but his footsteps slow as he passes Sizhui’s spreading puddle of rainwater. “I’ll have something made for breakfast that you can eat,” he says, not looking at him. Sizhui smiles anyway.
“Thank you, shushu,” Sizhui says, with perfect courtesy. Jiang Cheng squeezes his shoulder once in passing, brief, and vanishes out into the rain. Jin Ling slides the door shut behind him and whirls on Wei Wuxian, glare at the ready.
“Jin Ling,” Jingyi interrupts. “If you get in a fight with Wei-qianbei right now I’m just going to drip all over your floor, okay? No, wait, I’ll take off all my robes and find a dry spot and sleep on your floor naked. I haven’t had a real night’s sleep in three days.” With a glance at Wei Wuxian, he mutters, “Unlike some people.”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says mildly. He’s spinning Chenqing already, shedding drops of water in a loose circle around him. “You needed the practice. I needed a nap. It worked out, didn’t it?”
“Until now,” Jingyi says morosely. “A bed? Please? Jin Ling? I’ll never call Fairy fat again if you let me sleep in a bed.”
“I thought lying was prohibited,” Jin Ling mutters. He glances at Wei Wuxian. “Fairy’s in my room, she can’t come out in the rain. So.” A faint easing of his uncle’s shoulders; a quiet, relieved nod.
Jin Ling stalks over to the towels and chucks one to each guest, doing his best to land them over Jingyi’s and Wei Wuxian’s heads. Sizhui, the only one who hasn’t upset Jiang Cheng tonight, gets a gentle underhand toss. “Stop dripping,” he says. “I have an umbrella.” It’s still propped up against the door; it was what sheltered Jiang Cheng, on his way over.
No one tries to speak over the storm as they go. Of course it gets them wet again, but the umbrella keeps off the worst of it. Jin Ling deposits Sizhui and Jingyi in one of the guest rooms, clasping forearms with them both as they pass. They are worn out: Jingyi’s eyes are shadowed, Sizhui’s shoulders slumped. Probably Wei Wuxian is tired, too; a nap is only so much help.
This does not stop Jin Ling from following his dajiu into the next room, sliding the door shut behind him, and saying, “You are such an idiot!” He folds his umbrella, leaving it to drip against the door. “Ugh!”
“I know.” Wei Wuxian’s smile, when Jin Ling turns, is sadder than some people look crying. “I was trying to find someplace else to stay, but Sizhui —”
“I,” Jin Ling decides, “am going to break your legs.” He stalks over to jab his finger into his uncle’s chest. “You should’ve come here in the first place!”
“Jin Ling…” Wei Wuxian catches his wrist. “If it were Lanling, of course I’d stop in, but…”
“I hate you,” Jin Ling decides. “I can’t stand you. I — you —” He tries to twist his arm out of Wei Wuxian’s grip and finds, to his immense annoyance, that he can’t. (Well. He could, but not without drawing on spiritual power that Wei Wuxian can’t match.) “Haven’t you — ugh!”
Wei Wuxian sighs, looking down at his hand on Jin Ling’s wrist. Most of the time, when Jin Ling and his friends have a chance to hunt with Wei Wuxian, strangers think that all of them are of the same generation. Most of the time, Wei Wuxian doesn’t look like he does now. “We’ve hurt each other enough,” he says. “I’d like to leave that with the dead. Why bring it back with me, eh?”
“You’re leaving him with the dead, you mean,” Jin Ling snaps. Wei Wuxian blinks, and blinks again. “You’re so stupid.”
“Jin Ling,” he says. “What are you talking about?”
“Argh!” Jin Ling almost screams, and flings his hands to the ceiling — which he can do, in fact. Wei Wuxian’s grip on his wrist has gone slack enough to let him. “Dajiu, you just…” He grits his teeth. Breathes in, breathes out again, like Sizhui always tells him.
Wei Wuxian waits.
“He told me he wanted to get married, once,” Jin Ling blurts, before he can think about it. Hopefully that’s not news to Wei Wuxian? “And about getting into trouble at Cloud Recesses, and a conversation he had with my mother, and what he named his dogs, and — a lot of things.” He paces in an angry little circle, trying to get the words in order. “He never told me any of that! Not until you came back.”
Wei Wuxian takes a half-step back, squeezing his eyes shut. “Jin Ling, I know,” he says. “I know I hurt him. I’m trying not to make it worse.”
“You’re! Not! Listening!” Jin Ling stamps his food like he’s ten years younger. “I — do you know how much I’d hate Sizhui if he just left one day? And I’ve only known him for a little while, and I have you and Jiujiu and Jingyi and Zizhen and Fairy. And I’d hate him! If he just left.” His voice cracks, just thinking about it, and the next sentence comes out small and wavering and fragile: “I’d hate him until he came back.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, closes it again. “I,” he starts, and his mouth stutters open around silence again.
“Come home,” Jin Ling says, folding his arms tight across his chest. He stares down at the floor, as if there’s a message hidden in the damp lines of their overlapping footprints. “Come home once in a while. He misses you.”
It’s very quiet, except for the rain. Jin Ling lifts his head, enough for a peek at Wei Wuxian’s face. His uncle is wiping his eyes on the back of his hand, but he’s smiling.
“Ah, waisheng,” he says gently. “You’re just like your mother.”
“What?” It startles Jin Ling into standing straight. “I — my mother was kind, everyone says. Kind and patient and she never yelled at anyone.”
“She was,” Wei Wuxian agrees. “Shijie was all of those things. She was also clever and stubborn and very wise, and she hated to see the people she loved not getting along with each other.”
“Oh.” Jin Ling has to swallow, suddenly.
“Don’t forget, she could always tell when you were being an idiot,” Jiang Cheng’s voice comes from the doorway, and both Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling jump like they’ve heard a sword drawn.
“I — what — when did you get here?” Jin Ling sputters, whirling around.
“I live here,” Jiang Cheng says. “Can’t I walk around my own home?” He takes a step into the room. He’s not as soaked as Wei Wuxian, but his robes are more rain-darkened than dry. “And what, Jin Ling, you don’t have enough problems of your own, you need to worry about mine? You have that kind of time on your hands? If I catch you at this again, I’m making you mop every dock in Lotus Pier. I can take care of myself.”
Normally, Jin Ling would argue, complain and justify himself and say that he’s a sect leader now and if he mops any floors they’re going to be his own. Now he just says, “Yes, Jiujiu.”
“Now get lost,” Jiang Cheng says, pointing him towards the door and the rain. “I need to talk to your dajiu.”
Jin Ling takes a few quick steps towards retreat and nearly trips when his uncle's arm hooks around him, reels him in. Jiang Cheng pulls him close and holds him tight, pressing Jin Ling’s head into his shoulder as if Jin Ling needs to be guided into it, shown the proper way to be hugged. Jin Ling grabs two fistfuls of his uncle’s robes and clings to him.
“He’s right,” Jiang Cheng says, gruff and low. Not low enough to get lost in the rain or the room or Jin Ling’s shoulder. “You’re just like your mother sometimes.”
Jin Ling buries his face in his uncle's robe, letting a few tears mingle with the rain. He can hear his uncle's heart beating in his chest, steady and sure. Jiang Cheng doesn’t let go until he does.
“Go on, scram,” Jiang Cheng says, once Jin Ling steps back. “And I mean it, worry about your own problems!”
“Whatever,” Jin Ling says, rolling his eyes, but he goes, and slides the door shut behind him. Given the noise of the rain covers footsteps, he waits outside, his ear against the frame.
“He’s a smart kid,” Jiang Cheng says, low enough to nearly be lost to the rain. “No thanks to his father.”
Wei Wuxian laughs, low and bright. “Damn right.” A pause. “I know you don’t like me to talk about her, but… Shijie would be proud of you.”
There’s a faint, choked sound that briefly doesn’t make any sense. Then it does, and Jin Ling jumps back so fast he nearly slips on the soaked wood of the dock. He doesn’t want to listen to his uncle cry a second time.
Jin Ling wakes up half-suffocated by Fairy’s fur — just one of the many ways that he never needs to remember where he is, when he wakes up at Lotus Pier. Now that Carp Tower is his, he’s been allowing her on the bed there too, but it’s taking her a while to get used to it. She doesn’t always do so well with changes to the rules she knows.
“You’ll be sorry if you smother me,” he tells her, spitting stray hairs out of his mouth. She makes a valiant attempt to lick his cheek, and is persuaded to settle for his forearm instead. “No, you have to stay here today, okay? I’ll bring you back a steamed bun, I promise.” She forgives him enough to let him nuzzle the top of her head, right between hear ears. This in no way prevents her from flopping directly in front of the door when he leaves, gazing sadly after him as if he’s going off to war.
Fairy is sometimes a little dramatic.
The storm has cleared away in the night, though recently enough that the wood of the pier is still all damp and dark. The river laps high at the pilings, though not high enough to worry about, not yet. It’s not something Jin Ling needs to know, but he knows it anyway. How could he not?
As he gets closer to the breakfast pavilion, he can hear Jingyi laughing.
When he rounds the corner, he finds four people around the table already: Jingyi and Sizhui in borrowed purple robes though of course they’re wearing their proper headbands. Wei Wuxian, facedown on the table, hair a wild cloud like a bird's mud nest. Jiang Cheng, next to him, stiff and upright and contentedly rolling his eyes.
“Never changes,” Jiang Cheng says, and reaches out with his chopsticks to grab hot dry noodles from his brother’s dish. Wei Wuxian’s head does not move, but his hand shoots out to Jiang Cheng’s wrist. “Oh, so are you awake or aren’t you?”
“I am asleep,” Wei Wuxian says distinctly, though muffled by the table, “and you are a thief.”
“A thief, am I?” Jiang Cheng demands. “And what is this, anyway? Aren’t you supposed to be rising at five, now that you’re a Lan?”
“Please say that in front of Lan Qiren,” Jingyi mutters to Sizhui, presumably under the impression that Jiang Cheng won’t be able to hear him. Or, actually, he might know perfectly well that everyone can hear him, because it makes Wei Wuxian laugh and pick his head up from the table.
“No, no,” he says. “If Sect Leader Jiang kills a respected elder of the Lan sect we’ll never get it sorted out. It won’t be worth it. Give me back my noodles, you animal.”
“Oh, now it’s too much trouble to kill people,” Jiang Cheng says. Wei Wuxian flinches, just a little, smile going suddenly stiff. Jiang Cheng looks away.
“If you’re going to kill anyone, kill Jin Chan,” Jin Ling suggests, so loud it echoes over the water. “Or Sect Leader Yao. Now that would be useful.”
“Just wait until Lan Qiren is writing you about your disciples getting into trouble,” Jiang Cheng says. He drops the pilfered noodles back in Wei Wuxian’s bowl and adds another pile from the central dish, and starts loading a bowl for Jin Ling. “Well, sit down, do you think you’re a post?” he demands.
This table isn’t meant to fit five, but Jin Ling crowds in anyway; Sizhui and Jingyi inch aside to give him space. “My disciples won’t get in trouble,” Jin Ling says, knowing it’s not true but not caring, and Jiang Cheng snorts so hard it’s almost a laugh.
“Oh, is that what you think?” he says. “You’re going to be the first clan leader to have a perfect sect, is that it?”
“You taught him too well, Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, starting in on his breakfast before it can be threatened again. “That’s definitely impossible.”
“Yes, well.” Jiang Cheng fidgets in a way Jin Ling has never seen him do before, but he doesn’t look upset, nor angry. “Eat your food before it gets cold.”
Jin Ling isn’t sure if it’s him or Wei Wuxian being addressed, but he shovels noodles into his mouth anyway. “I know they’ll get in trouble,” he mumbles, and swallows. “I even know who.” Because he does, or at least he can guess. He’s been trying most of all to learn his disciples, to relearn them now that they are his disciples and not his seniors, now that they’re his to look after instead of to avoid. He doesn’t know them as well as Jiujiu knows the Jiang sect, but he’s at least getting a sense of them: of the small ones just learning to hold a sword; the ones his own age who don’t know how to speak to him now that they can’t kick him around; the grown ones who he’s afraid to speak to for fear he’ll see indulgence in their faces; the ones coming back to the practice yards after slow-healing injuries and long illnesses, stretching out their unsteady limbs in the old drills once again.
“Mmm, I don’t know,” Wei Wuxian says, one cheek bulging with noodles. He swallows. “People surprise you.”
“They do,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. He shakes his head a little, refocuses on the table. “Tan Jing behaved perfectly for years, then she went to Gusu and I got angry letters four times.”
“Wait, I think I might remember her,” Sizhui says. “We were too young to spend much time with the guest disciples, but — was she the one with the frogs in the Lanshi?”
Wei Wuxian sits bolt upright. “I’m sorry, someone released a frog in the Lanshi and no one told me about it?”
“Frogs,” Jingyi says, with a nostalgic sigh. “A lot of frogs. They had to cancel class. For the guest disciples, but for us too, because Lan-xiansheng had to go help get them out.”
“Amazing,” Wei Wuxian says. He glances sideways at Jiang Cheng. “My shizhi filled the Lanshi with frogs and I wasn’t even here to — and no one told me about it.” Jiang Cheng raises no objection to his shizhi, just keeps chewing.
“Probably someone did tell you and you forgot,” Jin Ling says. He doesn’t know anything about this — Tan Jing is at least six years older than he is — but he’s not going to let that hold him back from making fun of his dajiu.
“She had a bucket of tadpoles she wanted to show one of the Lan disciples,” Jiang Cheng says, with fond disgust. “Put it in the back of the classroom in the morning, hid it under something, and then they all started to hatch and next thing you know, I get to deal with Lan Qiren.”
“Why did she want to do a thing like that?” Jingyi asks. One of these days, Jin Ling will decide whether to curse Jingyi’s general fearlessness or be grateful for it. Today he’s leaning towards the latter.
“Who knows,” Jiang Cheng says, rolling his eyes, and immediately undercuts it by saying, “I think she and whoever-it-was still write to each other. Putting together a bestiary for harmless creatures, or something.”
“I’ve decided I like her,” Wei Wuxian says, propping his chin on his hands. “Do I get to meet this shizhi of mine, Jiang Cheng?”
“She’s on a night-hunt by the Xiaochang border,” Jiang Cheng says. “Restless spirit, or maybe a few of them.” He clears his throat. “She’ll be back in a week or two.”
“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian puffs out his cheeks, sucks them back in. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to come back, won’t I?”
“Corrupt all my disciples,” Jiang Cheng complains. “If I find frogs in the Main Hall I’m throwing you in the river, you hear me? And if you bring that damn donkey —”
Jin Ling hides his face behind his sleeve, because he’s not sure what it’s doing, yet. Sizhui — his cousin, his biaoge — nudges him gently, concerned, and Jin Ling nudges him right back. Jingyi nudges Sizhui, apparently wanting in on the trouble; Sizhui is too well-behaved to keep it going, and the little war stops there. Jiang Cheng is still complaining contentedly, and Wei Wuxian is still smiling.
This is not the table where Jin Ling’s mother fed her brothers soup. That’s long burned. But Jiang Yanli looked out at the same stretch of river that Jin Ling sees from where he sits, and listened to these two men bicker just like this. No one has told Jin Ling this exactly, and yet, by now, he’s sure.
He smiles just a little as he eats his breakfast.