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Even Loved Ones Scatter (Like Petals in My Hand)

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Jin Ling feels like a fool when he realizes what’s happened.

He knows that it’s not his fault, not really: he’s a sect leader now and he’s so busy. He barely has time to have fun, has to write to Lan Sizhui or Ouyang Zizhen to strongly hint that he needs to go night hunting before he loses his mind. (And he’s pretty sure that Lan Jingyi is the one who gets Sizhui to come at all; Lan Sizhui listens to the rules too much if no one intervenes.) He and his uncle write to each other constantly, but it’s not the same as when he wasn’t leader of the Lan sect, when Jin Guangyao probably preferred him in Yunmeng rather than underfoot while he schemed.

It means almost four months can pass in an instant, and he decides then that he absolutely must leave things in the hands of Jin Xiu (his great-aunt with a thundercloud face that makes even Jiujiu seem cheerful) and go to Lotus Pier for several days. He has to maintain diplomatic relations with Yunmeng Jiang, and Jiujiu’s last two letters were to the point and missed clear opportunities to scold him.

And he knows that Jiujiu is busy and that perhaps he didn’t announce that he was visiting, flying with two of his most trusted disciples before anyone could bother him with stupid nonsense like if they could raise the grain tax again (and no, they cannot, because Jiujiu and Sect Leader Nie have written to him to say it was a bad plan, though he’s still pretty sure that he only wrote to Jiujiu about it). So he’s not really surprised when he lands at Lotus Pier to find things quiet. Disciples are training archery across the way, and children and old men are harvesting lotus seeds, but he doesn’t see Jiujiu with either group.

He goes through the side entrance as he always did before he became Sect Leader, and the training yard is empty, which he knows is odd. Even if the seniors are at archery practice, Jiujiu will take time to train with the juniors or even children too young to cultivate. They can use wooden swords! It’s never too early to learn a proper stance.

Weirder still, there are plum blossoms in the main hall, by Jiujiu’s seat. His uncle rarely decorates with flowers to begin with, and even if he did... well, it is Lotus Pier.

He tries to make himself walk upright and stately, like a proper sect Leader, but Fairy races ahead barking, and what if something is wrong. He runs after her. He’s already thinking of the worst: what if Jiujiu is hurt; what if he’s fallen ill somehow; what if--

Except he turns a corner and runs right into his uncle, falling back like he runs into a wall. Fairy yips excitedly, because she knows precisely what she did, and see if Jin Ling gives her scraps at dinner tonight.

“Jin Ling, you didn’t mention you were coming,” his uncle says, and even before Jin Ling can scramble to his feet, he realizes that something is really wrong. Jiujiu is winded, voice low and wheezing, as if he can’t make himself yell.

He goes to stand and then he sees the bloom of blood on his uncle’s robes. It looks fresh. Jin Ling looks up, then, and there is sweat beading along Jiujiu’s hairline, his lips colorless. There’s blood on his chin.

“Jiujiu, what’s wrong?” He scrambles off the floor, but he can’t stop looking at the blood on his uncle’s clothing.

Jin Ling can distance himself from Jin Guangyao and admit that the man probably never loved him. (Even if he sometimes misses him still.) He was a murderer and cruel, and he would have killed Jin Ling to escape with his life.

But that means he only has Jiujiu left, and he can't lose him yet. He still needs him, even if he can’t show it as openly anymore.

He watches his uncle rebuild himself, standing straight and tall, and then scowling. “I just returned from night hunting,” Jiujiu says, then clears his throat. “Go show those layabouts how to fire an arrow. I need a few hours of sleep, and then we can have dinner.”

Then he turns on his heel and walks back down the hall, away from Jin Ling. Fairy whines, turning in a circle. She doesn’t believe that Jiujiu is fine either.

“Watch him,” he tells her, and she wags her tail before trotting off. (And Jin Ling decides she’s owed some scraps, if only because he knows she will keep his Uncle safe.)

Jin Ling attends archery practice with the seniors only because he needs to think, and he’s always found the repetition of target practice meditative. If Jiujiu is sick, he’s not going back to Koi Tower immediately. He could write to Hanguang-Jun, if only because he knows that way Wei Wuxian will find out. He doesn’t know how Wei Wuxian fits into their family, exactly, but he knows that he’ll work himself into a frenzy to get Jiujiu healthy.

He should probably write to Sect Leader Nie. He doesn’t know what the Headshaker can do to help, but he gets the sense that he wants to help. And he’ll need it.

Jin Ling will write to Lan Sizhui and Jingyi, too. They can’t help Jiujiu, but if they can, they’ll come to him. He tries not to cry in public. He’s turned 17; he’s not a child.

But behind closed doors, in front of his closest friends, he might be allowed.

His arm begins to burn after a solid hour, but he keeps shooting. It’s an extravagance to use arrows like this, but he will just reimburse his uncle. His world narrows to the pull of the bowstring, the flight of his arrow.

Jiujiu has to be okay. Jin Ling isn’t ready to be alone in the world. He’s going to be okay.

He keeps repeating the mantra as he dismisses the sore and tired disciples, when the sun has sunk low. He repeats it as he goes to his rooms and adjusts his robes and washes his face. He whispers it under his breath as he goes to the table where he and Jiujiu take most of their meals when it is just the two of them.

And the table has been set, a simple meal left with two place settings, but his uncle is missing.

Instead, there are specks of blood and more plum blossom petals.

Jin Ling will not panic yet, but he does run to the master bedchamber. He doesn’t care who sees him or now undignified he seems; there is a trail of blood and petals. His throat burns with the need to cry out, but he manages to hold it in until he finds his uncle. He registers that the bedchamber door is open, and he knows that’s wrong because Jiujiu always keeps it closed.

His uncle kneels on the floor, one hand shoved into Fairy’s thick fur. There’s so much blood; there’s too much blood. At first he is sure that someone has come and attacked Jiujiu, or perhaps his uncle has had a qi deviation. He knows either is unlikely - it’s as likely that someone could hurt Jiujiu with Sandu as close as it is as it is his uncle would have a qi deviation so suddenly - but those options are easily explained and somewhat easily cured.

Except there are also flowers everywhere, white plum blossoms through the blood, and when he kneels beside his uncle, he can see the smear of blood on his mouth and there is a cluster of petals stuck to the gore at Jiujiu’s mouth.

And for once: Jin Ling is happy for Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen and their obsession with romantic novels that no one is supposed to know about. (Despite the fact that they never shut up about them.) It means that he knows this rare disease on sight, thanks to Ouyang Zizhen groaning on and on about how terrible it was that Moon Jade and Peony ended so sadly because the young lover never confessed his affections until he was a ghost, until he literally died of love.

It should make him feel better, but instead he’s numb as he helps his uncle from the floor and into his bed. He doesn’t say anything, and Jiujiu doesn’t offer an explanation. Jin Ling sends one disciple to the kitchen for tea to call his uncle’s couch and another to find the sect physician to see what can be done to ease the symptoms.

Jiujiu can’t be cured though. He has flowers in his lungs and in his throat. He’s choking to death because he’s fallen in love, and it’s much less romantic when he has his uncle’s blood on his sleeves.

He wants to scream because he should be happy to know that his uncle - who has always been alone, for as long as he can remember - is in love. He’s so in love that his cultivation has turned against him.

And Jin Ling had no idea.

He presses his hand against Jiujiu’s cheek and forehead, and he’s not surprised that he’s burning hot. “You should have told me,” he snaps irritably, because he doesn’t know what else to do until the doctor comes.

Well, besides tucking the blanket over Jiujiu and snapping for Fairy to curl up beside him.

His uncle’s dark eyes open, and it’s a pale imitation of his usual glare. “This isn’t your concern, A-Ling,” he whispers.

“You’re dying,” Jin Ling snarls. His voice doesn’t shake with the fear he feels. He can barely manage his sect as it is, and he only manages because he knows that he has Yunmeng to run to, that he has his uncle.

His eyes burn, and he realizes just as the door opens for the Jiang Healer to rush in with her medicines, her light purple sleeves already pinned back. She isn’t shocked or upset at the mess on the floor or the grayish pallor of Jiujiu’s skin.

“How long has he been this ill,” he demands, glaring at the doctor as she lays out her vials.

She doesn’t stop working, pulling a pestle from her qiankun bag along with herbs. “You are not my sect leader,” she says evenly, and he scowls.

“There’s nothing to be done but manage the symptoms,” Jiujiu says, and he dry swallows the tablets that the healer offers. “I pushed too hard today. I’ll be fine in a few days.” He closes his eyes, and that’s the end of their conversation.

Jin Ling uses his anger to straighten his spine and make himself stand as tall as possible. It’s a trick that Jiujiu showed him, as a way to try and keep from lashing out. “I’ll check on you tomorrow then,” he says, and he doesn’t bother hiding the crackling anger in his voice as he turns on his heel.

He holds onto that anger until he’s out of Jiujiu’s room and the main building of Lotus Pier, until he’s at a corner dock and alone. It’s only then that he lets himself cry. He’s a sect leader, and he should be better than this.

Jin Ling cries until he has no more tears, and then wipes his face on his sleeves and begins to make a Plan.

Jiujiu is the only family he has left, and he’s not going to let him die without a fight.

The first letters he writes are to Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen, because they know the most about this. He knows they’ve read their books and told him the plot, but it’s possible he missed most of the details. The important part was that the heroes always died.

That is unacceptable, so if they have ideas, he’s all for it.

Then he writes to Lanling, to tell his council that his uncle is ill and he will be at Yunmeng while he recovers. He trusts their judgement in his absence (that’s a total lie, but he can’t actually split himself in two, so the lie it is), but he will do his best to make himself available as he assists his uncle.

He sits at his uncle’s writing desk and debates writing to Wei Wuxian. Technically, he wasn’t told that he couldn’t contact him. And Jiujiu doesn’t mind when he goes on night hunts with his friends, Wei Wuxian, and His Excellency.

Jin Ling sets down his brush. If Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen have no ideas, and the healers can’t make him better, then he’ll try Wei Wuxian. Jiujiu would probably be mad enough to spit blood if Jin Ling made the decision to invite him here, and he’s doing quite enough of that already.

Of course, the problem about consulting your romantic friends about deadly love diseases is that they get distracted. Jin Ling accepts that it’s partially his fault for inviting them to Lotus Pier without saying exactly what he needed them for, but he also assumed that they could focus on what’s important here.

They need to save Jiujiu.

“He never mentioned it before,” Ouyang Zizhen repeats, and he has this dreamy look on his face again. “And it’s already this bad.”

“Clearly he’s been hiding it for years.” Lan Jingyi, at least, has managed to bring a book with him about it. He’d handed it over to Jin Ling before starting a list of the other books they’ll need.

(He’d arrived first, and once Jin Ling explained what was going on, they’d tried to look for books in the Lotus Pier library. Lan Jingyi had not been impressed.)

“Suffering in silence,” Ouyang Zizhen agrees before sighing again. “Because he’s too proud.”

Jin Ling scowls. “Jiujiu is not too proud. He’s busy.”

“He’s proud but he’s also very unlucky. He’s been blacklisted, and he has a scary reputation,” Lan Jingyi says. He sits across from Jin Ling at Jiujiu’s desk because he’s the Lan and therefore the best at taking notes.

“No one would believe that he can love anyone,” Ouyang Zizhen agrees. “Except Jin Ling, of course.”

“He loves lots of people,” Jin Ling grumbles, face hot. He knows his uncle loves him, and that he can be difficult, but no one has to say it so plainly.

Lan Jingyi’s eyes light up, and he sits up straight again, fresh piece of paper ready. He has his brush poised and ready to go. “We’ll need names, then, so we can narrow down who it is.”

Jin Ling opens his mouth to start listing the people he knows that his uncle loves, and there’s really only one name that comes to mind, because everyone else is gone and has been gone for years. It’s easy to forget sometimes, because he hears Jiujiu talk to Jin Ling’s mother in the family shrine when he shouldn’t be lingering. It’s an old pain, one that aches deep at the center, but it’s not important.

Jin Ling isn’t going to lose Jiujiu.

Ouyang Zizhen pours some wine for Jin Ling, carefully avoiding his gaze. “Maybe we should include people he likes too. He loves people, but Jin Ling may have missed how much he loves this person. Grownups like to be dumb.”

(Technically, Lan Jingyi is of age, and Jin Ling is already leader of his sect, but they can all agree that their elders are idiots.)

“Well, he likes...” And perhaps this is harder than Jin Ling thought. “He likes most of the senior disciples here. And a lot of the juniors. If you know him, you can tell. He tells them he’s going to kick them out all the time.”

Lan Jingyi puts down his brush and crosses his arms over his chest. “It can’t be a Jiang sect member,” he says as if Jin Ling is very, very stupid. “Because then he wouldn’t have gotten sick with love like this.”

“Jingyi-xiong means it’s unlikely,” Zizhen Ouyang interrupts. “In the books, it’s usually someone that you can’t see every day or maybe someone you absolutely can’t be with. No one would think twice if Sect Leader Jiang fell in love with and married one of his own disciples, especially since he’s blacklisted.”

“Besides, does he treat any of them special? Like he’s meaner to them than the rest!” Lan Jingyi is still shaking his head. “It has to be someone else.”

Jin Ling gets up and starts walking around the room, careful of the stacks of letters they moved off Jiujiu’s desk to brainstorm. “He likes Sect Leader Nie, I think. He still calls him Headshaker but not in a way that’s mean.”

Lan Jingyi purses his lips, and there is a mutinous flash in them before he kicks over into the old argument they’ve been having since at least the Burial Mounds. “How can you tell?”

“Because when he hates someone, he says their name like he says Hanguang-Jun.” Jin Ling rolls his eyes. Last time they had this fight, Lan Sizhui put them both under a silencing spell, but Lan Jingyi knows. He’s seen Hanguang-Jun and Jiujiu interact, and Jiujiu doesn’t hide disdain well.

Or at all.

“He should be nice to His Excellency, really. Hanguang-Jun only lets him be so mean because Senior Wei would be upset if Hanguang-Jun were mean back.” Lan Jingyi’s mouth sets in a mulish line. “Because he’s a good man.”

“You’re not having this fight again!” Ouyang Zizhen slams his hand on the desk, making the wine and Lan Jingyi’s tea jump. “Not when Sizhui-xiong isn’t here to help me.”

Jin Ling pouts. “You can’t tell me what to do, Young Master Ouyang,” he snipes, just to be a brat.

Lan Jingyi actually growls at him. It’s impressive and maybe a little scary because of the Lan handstands. He’s definitely broader than he was a few months ago. “He’s right and you don’t get to be all Sect Leader at us while we are trying to help you, young mistress.”

Ouyang Zizhen takes a look at Jin Ling’s face and blurts out, “What about the other Sect Leaders?”

He doesn’t want them to start fighting. Jin Ling can respect that as he slumps back into his seat. (He probably should have invited Lan Sizhui, to be fair to Ouyang Zizhen. He knew how he and Lan Jingyi like to fight.)

“I don’t think he knows the new Moling leader that well. And he likes Yao even less than he likes Hanguang-Jun.” Jin Ling wrinkles his nose. “And your father is old.”

Ouyang Zizhen makes a soft, disgusted noise. “A-Die is also married. What about Zewu-Jun?”

“I mean, who doesn’t like Zewu-Jun?” Jin Ling scoffs. “He’s just a nice person.”

Lan Jingyi writes it down. “It’s still another name. Which brings us to two. I thought you said he loves lots of people.”

“He does. Just not...” Jin Ling makes a face. “He doesn’t love them like that. He loves me.” Saying it out loud is like agony. “He loves Wei Wuxian.”

Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen give each other long and significant looks over the desk. Jin Ling is going to break both of their legs. “Not like that. He used to be Jiujiu’s brother. I think he still considers him that but he can’t say that because Wei Wuxian defected.”

“Right,” Ouyang Zizhen says, and he doesn’t sound convinced. “It’s just that it...fits. I’m sure I’ve seen a book where a man fell with his sect leader and then he sacrificed himself.”

“I’ll add that one to the list,” Lan Jingyi offers. “I didn’t include it because it’s not about the flowers. You think I should?”

“Couldn’t hurt.”

“I should have invited Sizhui,” Jin Ling says miserably. He takes another piece of paper and lets his supposed friends chatter on about romance novels between brothers at arms falling in love as he writes the letter that he probably should have written first.

If there is one other person in the world who loves Jiujiu anywhere near much as Jin Ling does, it’s Wei Wuxian.

The other problem with Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen is that they are loud. They pester him about night hunts and about going swimming and about what kind of dinner they can talk the kitchens into making. They practice with the disciples like a credit to their sects, but then they are crashing through the hallways and shouting for him, encouraging Fairy to bark behind them.

“I’ll tell them to stop,” Jin Ling says, from where he sits beside Jiujiu’s bed. His hands are balled in his lap because they keep shaking. They’re supposed to be responding to letters, but Lan Jingyi shrieks outside.

Jiujiu doesn’t look better, and he needs sleep. His lips are blue. He only wears a dark purple shirt and trousers, the quilt over his body stained with blood. There’s a bucket beside his bed that is filled with flowers.

“They don’t bother me,” he murmurs, as he tries to drink the medicinal soup the healers have given him.

Jin Ling picks up a letter. In all the years that Jiujiu was helping train him to take over the sect, even when it looked perhaps Jin Rusong would take Lanling Jin, and the Jin Ling could inherit Yunmeng Jiang, he’s never needed help answering correspondence.

Jiujiu needs help now, and Jin Ling’s hands ache from three hours of responses. He’s already had to replace the bucket twice, and he’s watched blood drip from his uncle’s chin. They both know he’s dying; neither of them know how to address it directly.

His hands keep shaking as he pulls off the deep blue ribbon. The letter is only sealed with wax, no sect insignia, and he expects it to be a request from Yunmeng proper, perhaps mentioning raiders along the lake coast.

Instead, the calligraphy is beautiful and careful. “Dear Wanyin,” he reads aloud, and his breath catches because no one calls Jiujiu merely Wanyin. Jiang Wanyin, surely, and Wei Wuxian still uses his given name like they are still the closest of brothers.

Someone this familiar with his uncle could be the secret love that they’re looking for.

He goes quiet to read the letter, his eyes raking over any hints that could tell him who wrote it. The letter is long, more than one page, and the tone is happy, kind. The writer talks about the new disciples, their returning strength (so Jiujiu’s love has been ill!), and missing their talks. The writer asks if Jiujiu might be up for travel when the weather warms the mountains, which means they are from either Qinghe or Gusu.

When he tries to go switch pages, his uncle takes the letter, rolling the scroll up and sliding it under his quilt. Jin Ling wants to protest, except that Jiujiu’s fingers seem blue at the end.

He grabs for his hands. “Jiujiu,” he says.

“A-Ling,” Jiujiu whispers, and he tucks his hands under the quilt, with his letter. “Go be with your friends. I’ll be fine.”

Jin Ling’s eyes burn. “Can I send the healer?”

Jiujiu sighs, and he looks like he wants to argue. Instead he closes his eyes and turns away. “Send her in if it will make you feel better.”

He takes the dismissal, but he can relax knowing that someone else is with him. And then he can let Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen talk him into taking them out on one of the Jiang Sect boats. He might lose his temper a little more easily than normal, and when Jingyi calls him “young mistress,” he smiles, inviting Jing Ling to snarl at him.

He is in an important meeting when Wei Wuxian and Lan Sizhui arrive at Lotus Pier, which really means he and the others are slumped in the main hall and trying to decide the very few clues Jin Ling got from the mystery letter. Lan Jingyi suggests stealing the letter from Jiujiu’s bedroom, as if Jin Ling is an idiot and didn’t already try. He’s fairly sure that Jiujiu either burned the letter or has it in his qiankun bag, and Jiujiu is too light a sleeper to try and steal something from it.

“He was able to join us for breakfast,” Ouyang Zizhen says with a sigh. “Reading the words of his beloved made him better for a few days.”

Jin Ling nudges him with his foot, and he means to snap something mean, but he’s interrupted by Wei Wuxian strolling into the main hall as if he’s still a disciple here. “No welcome? I’ll have to tell Jiang Cheng how you treat your guests, Jin Ling.”

Lan Jingyi jumps to his feet. “Sizhui, you brought the books, right?”

Jin Ling ignores them because the books don’t matter anymore, now that they know that there is a real person out there that Jiujiu loves. It makes more sense to him to find a person than a magic cure in a fairy tale. (Though if Lan Jingyi finds one, he’s not against using it.)

Sizhui bows quickly to him once he’s handed his own qiankun bag off to Jingyi. “Sect Leader Jin. I’m sorry to hear your uncle is unwell,” he says, and his smile is kind but sad.

Jin Ling bows back. “I know you and Wei Wuxian will do your best to help him.”

“A-Yuan brought his guqin, for healing while the rest of us look for a way to save Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, and he grips tight at Jin Ling’s shoulder. “We’ll do everything we can.”

Jin Ling doesn’t mean to start crying, really. It’s not as if he’s surprised that his friends and Wei Wuxian would come to help him if he asked. He knows that, as obnoxious as Lan Jingyi can be and as silly as Ouyang Zizhen is, they don’t want anything bad to happen. Lan Sizhui has more kindness in him than Jin Ling thinks is natural. Wei Wuxian would kill for him.

All of this is true, and yet he’s left overwhelmed because they’re here. He’s used to Lotus Pier being strangely cold, just he and Jiujiu. There are disciples, and some of them are even his uncle’s friends, but it’s different from anything like family.

He scrubs viciously at his face, because the tears won’t stop. He can’t trust himself to talk yet, because he is a sect leader now and he will not sob. Sobbing is for children.

“We’ll set up in the office,” Ouyang Zizhen says, not unkindly. “We’ll need the space of the books.” He squeezes Jin Ling’s elbow.

“If you could show me where the healer stays,” Lan Sizhui says, turning towards the other boys. “I should talk to them before I begin playing for Sect Leader Jiang. I don’t want to interfere where I am not welcome.”

Jin Ling knows what they’re doing, scampering off to leave him alone with Wei Wuxian. Later, he’ll get them for it, but before now, he’s still trying to keep his mouth shut around a sob.

Wei Wuxian gently directs him to the dais, so they sit before Jiujiu’s throne. “It’s okay to be scared,” he says softly, and Jin Ling isn’t even that scared. He can’t think about it, not really. He’s always had Jiujiu; even when his grandfather was alive and kind of scary, Jiujiu was there to wipe his tears and take him for a swim or a walk in the gardens.

He can let himself be frustrated that they haven’t saved him yet, but he can’t think about what will happen if none of this works.

“I’m not scared,” he says, and his voice only quivers a little.

Wei Wuxian reaches over and gently wipes tears from Jin Ling’s cheeks. The touch reminds him of Jiujiu, even though Wei Wuxian doesn’t have sword-calloused fingers. “Of course,” he says. “Because we’re not letting Jiang Cheng go without a fight.”

“We’re not letting him go at all,” Jin Ling corrects. It would be easy to just let Wei Wuxian be his uncle in his moment. He’ll never be as good as Jiujiu, of course, but he’s someone who loves his mother.

Wei Wuxian tugs on one of the gold beads in his hair. “Then how are we going to stop this?”

“I know that he’s in love with whoever calls him Wanyin,” Jin Ling whispers. “They wrote him a letter, and it said something about disciples in the mountains.”

“Did the letter look like it was written by a man or a woman?” Wei Wuxian moves his hand down to rub Jin Ling’s upper back. “Has Jiang Cheng... courted anyone, that you know of?”

Wei Wuxian probably wants to ask if Jiujiu has had lovers. As if Jin Ling would know something like that! He only knows that, for as long as he can remember, Jiujiu has slept alone. When he was a child and thunderstorms made him cower, he always knew that he could race to Jiujiu’s room and curl up beside his uncle. If someone else was ever there, he would have known.

Jin Ling probably would have told them to get out.

“It was pretty, their calligraphy. Much nicer than mine.” He wraps his arms around himself and scowls. “Of course I don’t know. I mean, none of the matchmakers managed anything.”

“I suspected as much.” Wei Wuxian clicks his tongue like a granny. “He was always too virtuous for his own good. Aiyah, this would be easier if he’d just taken a lover.”

Jin Ling shoves him lightly. “There’s nothing wrong with maintaining your virtue for your spouse,” he says nastily. He hasn’t really given it much thought. He’s too young to marry, and most days, when he manages to escape his council and sleep, he’s too exhausted to even imagine what it would be like to have someone else beside him.

Besides, he’s rather certain he’s supposed to marry some random woman from a “good” sect, and he doesn't want that. He wants someone who knows his foul temper and likes him anyway.

“But if he had a lover, we’d have a starting point, better than mountains. I know my bro—I used to know Jiang Cheng very well. He’s not the sort of man who could be intimate with someone without feelings.”

Jin Ling slams his hands over his ears. “I do not want to hear about this,” he cries unhappily

And Wei Wuxian, the bastard, just laughs and wraps Jin Ling in a one-armed hug. “It’s a good quality! He’s very loyal!”

“You’re the worst.”

“I know.” But then Wei Wuxian pulls away, tapping a finger against his nose. “Do you have any ideas?”

“We made a list, but it’s just other sect leaders. I don’t think he’s in love with a Jiang disciple, and he doesn’t like most of the Jin cultivators.”

Wei Wuxian nods, mouth scrunching up. “I think... I’m going to write a letter to an old friend, to see if he’s noticed anything. And you, little A-Ling, are going to take a nap.” He taps a finger off the end of Jin Ling’s nose. “You look ready to sleep on your feet.”

He glares, and the retort that he’s a Sect Leader and Wei Wuxian isn’t allowed to call him A-Ling at all is sharp against his tongue.

But there’s kindness in Wei Wuxian’s eyes, and maybe his friend knows something. He’s willing to endure (some) indignity to keep Jiujiu safe. “Will your friend be able to help?” His voice is quavering again. He will not cry again; he will not.

“He’s very good at finding things out. If you don’t know who Jiang Cheng’s heart belongs to, he’s the only other person who might. And he lives in the mountains with disciples, so depending on how familiar his reply is...”

He’s fairly sure that Wei Wuxian means Sect Leader Nie, and Jin Ling remembers the temple, the tricks Jin Guangyao had accused him of just before he died. Jin Ling still doesn’t understand what that means, except that if Sect Leader Nie is that tricky? Jiujiu probably isn’t in love with him.

“Thank you,” Jin Ling says, and he means it. He means it so much that when he leaves the main hall, he calls for Fairy and makes sure she’s locked in his bedroom with him. He won’t keep her locked away for Wei Wuxian’s entire visit, but he can start nice, at least.

Despite never leaving his room, Jiujiu knows Wei Wuxian is in Lotus Pier within the day. He has a disciple pull him into the master bedroom while Jin Ling is in Yunmeng with Ouyang Zizhen. He wants to buy Jiujiu new robes and shirts; his others are too stained to keep wearing.

Zizhen won’t comment that perhaps he should look at mourning robes either, because he lacks that damnable Lan practicality that their friends have. He has an eye for good fabric, too, what won’t stain as easily or what dyes can hide blood.

He also stays close to Jin Ling’s side and doesn’t try to make him talk. The silence is welcome, even in a bustling market.

One of Jin Ling’s disciples comes to get him, and they fly back to Lotus Pier because it’s not good for Jiujiu to yell now, and if there is one person that can make Jiujiu yell, it will always be Wei Wuxian.

Except they’re both just staring at each other with Jin Ling bursts into the bedroom. His disciple has run off - no one wants to face the anger of Sandu Shengshou, even when he’s ill - but Ouyang Zizhen stands by him as he declares, “I invited him. It was my idea!”

Both men look at him, and Jiujiu already looks exhausted. “So he said.”

“Please don’t send him away,” Jin Ling says. “He’s helping us.”

Jiujiu’s eyes flicker in the late afternoon light, his mouth drawn into a small, angry line. “A-Ling,” he whispers, and he sounds defeated in a way that makes Jin Ling want to collapse against Zizhen.

“Jiang Cheng, it might be for the best that I’m here.” He spread his hands, almost beseeching. “Who else is there?”

Zidian sparks large, and for a moment, he thinks Jiujiu will hit Wei Wuxian with it. Instead he covers it with his other hand and looks away. “Do what you want.”

They don’t get anywhere. Wei Wuxian writes his letter and sends it off to Qinghe. Jin Ling doesn’t think Sect Leader Nie will help at all, but he doesn’t care anymore because Jiujiu isn’t getting better at all.

After the letter, his color had been good enough to take exactly one meal on the docks with him. They had eaten lotus seed buns and had soup, and when Fairy was silly, Jiujiu had laughed and tossed bits of rice onto the floor for her to eat. He always scolds Jin Ling for the same thing, that he spoils her, but he’s even more guilty. Fairy knows that Jiujiu will give her bits of pork or chicken, if only she licks his fingers.

But the reprieve of the letter didn’t last, and the healers don’t chase him out of the room anymore when they light the lamps. He’s slept three days in a row at the foot of Jiujiu’s bed, waking when the coughing gets bad. He knows the sound of Jiujiu’s labored, wet breathing better than he knows his heartbeat.

On the fourth day, he wakes to the sounds of the ducks on the lakes and some of the disciples setting off for early morning fishing. His head feels loaded with sand and he’s aware that someone has placed a thin blanket over his shoulders.

“Master Jiang,” the healer whispers, and Jin Ling realizes that they don’t know he’s awake. He screws his eyes shut and moves his hand slowly to hide most of his face. He’s already facing away from Jiujiu, which can only help the illusion. “I don’t know how much longer the medicine will work. We could send word to the Gusu Lan healers. Most of the texts we’ve been consulting originate with some of their old masters.

“Sunyin, I don’t want them involved,” Jiujiu whispers, and he sounds different when he speaks to her. His voice is softer, squeezed tight. “We have two Lan disciples trying their best, and that must be enough.”

Jin Ling bites hard at the inside of his cheek. Lan Sizhui’s music is a constant balm on his fraying nerves, even if Jin Ling thinks it might be more for his benefit now than his uncle’s. Lan Jingyi is still looking for a way to fix this that lies between “die from yearning” and “confess your true feelings.” It’s less successful, but he’s still trying.

“They’re young. If I could even try to write to Lan Qiren, he would know if there is anything that might be done. Perhaps even a better pain reliever.” Her words are gentle, even as she argues. “I don’t believe even Gusu has a cure.”

Jiujiu coughs, his legs shaking with the force. He’s so careful not to dislodge Jin Ling, even when he has to be in pain. “I know there is nothing to be done,” he whispers, when he can speak again. “I will fight as long as I can, under your care and with the help of A-Ling’s friends.” There’s a thread of steely resolve in his words.

Jin Ling knows that tone: the lake could rise in protest tomorrow, and Jiujiu would still stand against it. He will not change his mind. Sunyin can say nothing.

“Shall I tell your council then,” she whispers, and there's a small waver of tears in her voice. Jiujiu is fierce and demanding, but he rebuilt Yunmeng Jiang with his own two hands. The people love him.

“They know.” Jiujiu’s hand brushes over Jin Ling’s snarled hair. He hasn’t combed it in two days; he knows that he looks a fright. “What will happen to the sect will be decided after. I don’t want him concerned about it now. He has enough to worry about with Lanling.”

Jin Ling can’t open his eyes, because he doesn’t know how close Sunyin is, and he has to bite his lip hard enough to draw blood to keep from crying. The sect can hang for all he cares in this moment. He’d give up being the leader of Lanling Jin and all his fancy robes in a moment if it meant he never had to listen to Jiujiu talk like this again.

He’ll become a rogue cultivator if it will keep his uncle alive, a nameless wretch who banishes ghosts and fierce corpses just for a bit of supper and the chance to sleep in a barn. Jin Ling has never really known what it’s like to live like that - he knows he’d be a disaster, that he’s a spoiled little princeling in many respects - but for Jiujiu’s life...

He doesn’t often pray, but he does it now, holding himself still as Sunyin finishes her work and Jiujiu strokes his hair. He knows there are tears soaking into the quilt under his face, that he should be more adult about this, but he can’t.

“I’ll have the kitchen send up soup and breakfast for Jin Rulan,” Sunyin says, and her feet seem loud on the floor as she exits, closing the bedroom door behind her.

Jiujiu strokes his hair for another half-minute before tweaking his ear. “You know better than to eavesdrop, Jin Ling,” he says, in that same breathless voice.

Jin Ling scrubs his face on the quilt. It’s already wet, and it’s not like Jiujiu can get much sicker. He knows he’s a mess - uncombed hair and rumpled robes, face blotchy with tears - and it’s somehow worse when Jiujiu can’t scold him. Jiujiu will probably never scold him for acting like a child again.

“You can’t just die,” he says, and there are still tears in his voice.

Jiujiu sighs. There is old blood at the corner of his mouth. “Almost everyone dies, Jin Ling. It’s a rare talent to reach immortality.” He wipes his thumb along Jin Ling’s cheek bone, wiping the tears that stubbornly won’t stop. “I’m just dying sooner than I intended.”

Later, Jin Ling will wish that he was a gentler person, that he could be like Lan Sizhui or even Ouyang Zizhen, who choose their words so carefully.

Now, though, he stands up and pushes away from Jiujiu’s bed. “You’re choosing to die. You could tell her and maybe she loves you.”

Jiujiu looks at his hands, and he looks small in his dark violet robe, under his blanket. “They don’t love me,” he whispers. Zidian sparks on his hand, and Jin Ling doesn’t care.

“You can’t know that. You have to tell her!” Furious tears fall down Jin Ling’s face. Angry crying does not make him feel any better than sad crying. He doesn’t even bother trying to wipe them away anymore.

“I will not trick or obligate them into trying to love me,” Jiujiu spits back. “They deserve better than that. They get to make that choice, and he didn’t choose me!”

He begins to cough, viciously, petals falling from his mouth, and Jin Ling can’t be in this room for another minute. He shoves the bucket onto the bed before opening the door to the hall.

Lan Sizhui is there, biting at his lip because he’s too much of a Lan to barge into the middle of a shouting match, even if he’s meant to play for Jiujiu now. And Sizhui follows him. He tries to stop Jin Ling, all gentle touches and soft Lan words. Jin Ling doesn’t want to hear it. He keeps running, and he doesn’t care if Sizhui follows. As soon as he’s at the docks, he jumps onto a family boat and uses a talisman to shove off.

He glares at Sizhui from the boat. He’s calling for Jin Ling but he doesn’t care. He needs to get away. He can’t leave Jiujiu but he can’t be at Lotus Pier anymore.

And even as he slumps against the boat side, he’s aware that Jiujiu gave something, a quick slip of the tongue.


He sleeps fitfully under the boat’s awning, anchored just far enough that he’s out of sight of Lotus Pier. He doesn’t know what he wants to do, besides going back and shaking Jiujiu until he understands that he can’t just give up like this.

Jin Ling isn’t a child. He’s a Sect Leader, and he’s in Lanling all the time now. None of that means that he needs Jiujiu any less.

It’s past noon when he feels the boat rocking, the unmistakable sound of someone hoisting themselves on board.

Jin Ling is up, and he only realizes then that he left Suihua in the sword stand by Jiujiu’s bed. He only has a few talismans in his robes and raw power, and he was an idiot to forget his sword and Fairy.

Except then he sees the bright red ribbon from under the stranger’s mass of black hair, and he decides that he’s not the idiot. “We have other boats,” he snaps at Wei Wuxian.

“You do, but I could see this one from shore, and the water isn’t that deep here.” He motions over to the shore line, where villagers are passing from the docks towards the outskirts of Yunmeng. His long black hair looks like seaweed. “Or at least it wasn’t when I was your age.”

Jin Ling sits down on one of the benches. “We have had heavy rains the past few springs. The lake is deeper than usual.” He glares. “You still should have taken a boat.”

“Ah, swimming is good for me. And it’s too cold to swim in Gusu. Have you ever been in the cold springs at the Cold Recesses?” Wei Wuxian finally gets his hair situated, pushed away from his face. “It’s why the Lans can act like they have ice in their veins. Only way to survive.”

“There are other places to swim.”

“Yes, but there aren’t other nephews to pester.” Wei Wuxian smirks shamelessly, as if he is just owed that familiarity.

(Maybe he is. Jin Ling doesn’t know what to do with Wei Wuxian most days, but he’s the only other person left with stories of his mother, who might be able to sing him her songs and talk about her smile...)

Jin Ling crosses his arms across his chest and forces himself to stop thinking. “I should have brought Fairy.”

“Ah, you are so mean, Jin Ling. I just swam all this way to see if you were all right and you want to get me with your dog again?” Wei Wuxian gives an exaggerated pout like he’s an actual child. “A-Yuan woke me up to check on you, and this is how I am thanked.”

“I saw Sizhui hours ago.” Jin Ling glares at his hands. “If you could find me so easily—“

“A-Yuan is a good boy who knows how important it is that Jiang Cheng stay strong. He played first, and he thought you might want some time alone.”

Jin Ling’s eyes aren’t burning again. “It’s still none of your business.”

Wei Wuxian says nothing, just watches him with careful dark eyes. Jin Ling hates it; he feels like he’s being sized up. His other uncle had the same sort of look, one that saw deep into his insecurities and flaws. It’s no more comforting to see it on Wei Wuxian’s face now. He squirms under that gaze, but he won’t look away.

It’s Wei Wuxian who chooses to break first, sighing loudly. “We are running out of time,” he says, pulling the red ribbon from his hair so that he can reset his top knot and look slightly less drowned. “And I’m almost out of ideas.”

“Jiujiu told me that he doesn’t want us finding him,” Jin Ling whispers. “He doesn’t want them to be forced into anything.”

“You can’t anyone do anything but you especially can’t make someone love you.” Wei Wuxian gets that terribly soppy look in his face, the same one he had when he declared, as Mo Xuanyu, he’d fallen in love with someone else.

He curls his knees to his chest because he wishes he could make the man love Jiujiu. He deserves to be happy and loved, not dying for his stubbornness. “I don’t think there’s anything else we can do for him, if he doesn’t want his love to know,” Jin Ling says, and his voice doesn’t sound like himself.

He sounds small and scared, like a child again. He wishes desperately that he could go back to being a little boy again, whose biggest problems were Fairy chewing on priceless Jin artefacts or that he couldn’t string his bow properly.

Wei Wuxian carefully reaches over and takes his hand. Jin Ling allows it, even if it’s cold. “Lan Zhan said that he’d help if we needed him. He’s busy being Chief Cultivator, but if I ask him, he’ll be here.”

Jin Ling shakes his head. “Jiujiu said no help from Gusu. He refuses.”

Wei Wuxian’s hand spasms around Jin Ling’s. Jin Ling probably should have worded that better. “Then I need Lan Zhan here as my husband,” he murmurs, and he has that look in his eyes again, like he’s seeing a battlefield. It doesn’t match the tone of his voice. “Because my brother is dying.”

Jin Ling nods and pulls away from Wei Wuxian. He carefully doesn’t think as he lifts the anchor and uses the oar to shift the boat’s position in the water. He still uses a talisman to get them moving back towards Lotus Pier, but docking requires more skill than just jettisoning yourself into the lake.

They’re halfway home when Wei Wuxian takes the oar from him. “Jin Ling, I think you should write to Zewu-Jun and tell him that Jiang Cheng is ill. Tell him what is happening and that perhaps there might be a book in Gusu that could help him,” he says, as if they haven’t been over this five minutes ago.

“Jiujiu forbid—“

“Jiang Cheng forbade his healers from reaching out to the Lan healers, and I’m not saying you should write to Zewu-Jun for them.” Wei Wuxian smirks. “He can’t forbid Sect Leader Jin Rulan from Lanling from talking to Zewu-Jun, Sect Leader of Gusu Lan, can he?”

Jin Ling blinks, and he sees the shape of what Wei Wuxian is suggesting. It’s a little duplicitous, but it’s absolutely his right to do as he wills. “Do I say I worry about my uncle, if I’m doing this without his permission?”

Wei Wuxian taps a finger against Jin Ling’s nose. He’s so embarrassing, even if it’s just the two of them in the boat. “Emphasize that we are running out of time, and that Sizhui’s music is working. Maybe Zewu-Jun knows something else. And I suspect Zewu-Jun would respond very well to indicating the great Sandu Shengshou is very near to a father to you, despite a fearsome reputation. The Twin Jades feel very similarly to Lan Qiren, after all.”

Jin Ling nods and steps to the bow of the boat, already beginning to compose the letter in his mind.

Lan Jingyi agrees to fly the letters back to the Cloud Recesses, citing that he and Ouyang Zizhen aren’t getting anywhere and Sizhui is better at healing sounds than he is. It leaves Lotus Pier quieter, like they’re all just waiting for the end.

Jin Ling can’t even watch over Jiujiu anymore, Wei Wuxian declaring that he needs to sleep before he can keep watch. As if he’s actually Jin Ling’s uncle, like the Sect Leader of Lanling Jin has to listen to him.

(He might only listen a little because Wei Wuxian promises that he won’t be alone, and that if anything happens, he’ll send a paper man for Jin Ling in an instant.)

Instead, he’s in the guest quarters that Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi have been sharing, picking at the dinner they’ve been served. He can’t eat; Jiujiu is dying just a few hallways over.

Sizhui has his guqin out, idly plucking the strings as Jin Ling rambles and paces. “Senior Wei will watch Sandu Shengshou. And I’m sure Hanguang-Jun will be here tomorrow. If Senior Wei needs him, nothing will keep him away.”

Jin Ling gets up from his seat and paces. “But what if there is nothing. Hanguang-Jun is just a man.”

“You are so lucky Jingyi-xiong isn’t here,” Ouyang Zizhen offers from his place on the floor. He’s still reading over a dumb romance novel, even though they all know it’s too late for that.

“Wei Wuxian can’t fix it, and he’s...” Jin Ling looks at Lan Sizhui, as if the other boy can add something. Sizhui is staring at his hands. “His Excellency wouldn’t bend the rules of cultivation for Jiujiu, especially if Wei Wuxian didn’t have an idea how to do it.

Lan Sizhui sighs. “What happens if the worst happens,” he says softly, his eyes gentle. “If Sect Leader Jiang dies, what happens.”

Jin Ling rocks on his heels like he’s been slapped.

Ouyang closes his book. “Sizhui,” he snaps, tone harder than Jin Ling has ever heard it.

“No, no... Sometimes it helps me talk through the worst,” Lan Sizhui says, and he offers Jin Ling a sad smile. “Because once I’ve said it, I know that it’s manageable. Like if Zewu-Jun didn’t leave seclusion or if he let himself...wither, what would have happened?”

“Hanguang-Jun would have taken over. Lan Qiren would have helped.” Jin Ling frowns. “And you would have probably formally been named the heir.”

Sizhui nods, and he looks uncomfortable, pulling his hands into his lap. “And other sects would have begun to pay attention to me. They’d want to visit me, and they might want me to court their daughters.” He wrinkles his nose, cheeks pink. “It’s not so bad, I guess, but until I admitted it, it seemed worse.”

“I would have supported you, and Jiujiu. He likes you.” He offers Sizhui a small smile. He doesn’t quite understand why they’re almost-cousins now, because Lan Jingyi won’t talk about it and Sizhui just says that Senior Wei adopted him when he and Hanguang-Jun married.

It doesn’t explain why Jiujiu tries to be less grouchy at him, but maybe Lan Sizhui just has that effect on people. He is exceedingly kind and gentle, even if he has appalling taste.

But they aren’t discussing Sizhui.

Jin Ling makes a face, but his heart is beating too fast. “If Jiujiu... I would become the leader of Yunmeng Jiang and Lanling Jin. Jiujiu never named another heir.” Fairy starts following him as he paces.

“The sects would probably want you to marry soon, then. Realistically, they wouldn’t want one family to have that much power, but if you have two children, one can inherit Lanling and the other could have Yunmeng.” Sizhui is staring hard at his guqin, like what he’s saying isn’t terrifying. “I’m sure the Jin elders have a list of potential brides already. Even ours have had lists for Zewu-Jun, according to Senior Wei.”

“I hate this exercise of yours,” Jin Ling snarls with real feeling. “I don’t even look at their lists of brides that they send me now. You think I would have time if I have to look after Yunmeng Jiang too?”

“Well, you don’t have to marry a woman, if you don’t want to,” Ouyang Zizhen says, and he’s staring very hard at their abandoned dinner, as red as his robes. “Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun are married, and they adopted Sizhui...”

Jin Ling looks away from Ouyang Zizhen and his own neck is hot. He doesn’t want to talk about this; he doesn’t want to talk about this with Lan Sizhui. He definitely doesn’t want to talk about this with Ouyang Zizhen.

“We’re not talking about the particulars now,” Sizhui says, and when Jin Ling glances at him, he has the audacity to look amused. “That’s just the absolute worst thing that would happen. More than likely, you’d place a Jiang disciple that you knew that you could trust in charge of Yunmeng Jiang. Even if you split the titles between children, that’s years away.” He plucks at his guqin again. “But you wouldn’t do it alone. You know Gusu Lan would help. I don’t think you’d be able to keep Senior Wei away either.”

Jin Ling sits back down, pulling Fairy close and pushing his face against her neck. “I don’t want Jiujiu to die,” he says, and he wants to say more. His skin is still hot. “It’s different. I don’t remember them, but he’s always been there.”

He doesn’t talk about Jin Guangyao. He can’t, not even now when it’s been over a year. When he remembers him as kind, he can’t forget how it felt to have the string to his neck, how he lost his father because of his uncle’s bitterness.

But his parents live in stories, and those stories mostly live in Jiujiu. If he loses him, it’s like losing all three of them.

“You won’t be alone,” Lan Sizhui says. “We’ll be here. I’ll stay, and Jingyi will too. Senior Wei knows Yunmeng Jiang well, and he can help you run the sect, if you’d like.”

It’s worse when he feels Ouyang Zizhen move close. Lan Sizhui begins playing softly, just a hint of spiritual power behind the notes. “We can stay as long as you need,” Ouyang Zizhen says, and he’s helping Jin Ling stand. “Father can’t call me home if I’m helping Lanling Jin, and Zewu-Jun can surely spare at least Jingyi-xiong. And you know that you can’t separate Jingyi-xiong and Sizhui-xiong for long.”

He realizes what they’re doing too late, his eyelids growing heavy. “I don’t want to sleep,” he murmurs as someone bushings today move him into one of the guest beds.

The bed isn’t his. It smells like a different incense, and there are two pillows instead of one.Ouyang Zizhen lifts his head onto one and moves the other away. Fairy still tunnels under the quilt like she does at home.

“In the morning, Hanguang-Jun will be here, and you’ll feel better if you can talk without crying.” He feels someone begin to take the beads from his hair, and Sizhui is still playing, which means...

He means to murmur that he’s going to break their legs or throw them into the lake or something but he’s unable to form the words.

He’s not tired when he wakes up, but that doesn’t keep him from glaring at Lan Sizhui as he stalks from the guest quarters to his own room. He washes his face and combs his hair, but he only puts his top knot back in when he’s done. His hair beads require too much focus and time; he needs to get back to Jiujiu.

He looks rumpled as he runs back to Jiujiu’s room, only his under robe changed, but he just needs to see that Jiujiu is still safe and comfortable. Yesterday was too much, and today he has no other plans but hiding in Jiujiu’s room and glaring at Sizhui when he comes to play healing songs.

Wei Wuxian is awake when Jin Ling slips into the master bedroom, twirling his flute in one hand. “I told you I’d tell you if there was a change,” he says pleasantly, giving Jin Ling a quick once over. “Did A-Yuan have to knock you over the head, or did you actually sleep?”

Jin Ling glares at him and stalks over to check the bucket for flowers. It’s already full, and he hates that it seems to be bloodier than yesterday. He hates that Jiujiu’s lips are bluer, his skin greyer. His hair is uncombed and wild over the pillows, jaw unshaved.

“We should try to get him presentable,” he says, clutching the bucket to his stomach.

“I think this is better, actually,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, and he comes close to the bed to take the bucket off of him. “We don’t want to undersell how serious this is, when company arrives.”

“He won’t want anyone to see him like this.” Jin Ling isn’t stupid. He knows how Jiujiu feels about His Excellency, and even if he didn’t, expecting Jiujiu to receive the Chief Cultivator when he looks like this is cruel, almost shameful.

Gods, Jin Ling hopes Hanguang-Jun has a plan, that Gusu has some secret love texts to fix this.

Jin Ling sets about doing his best to wash Jiujiu’s face and hands as Wei Wuxian cleans the bucket. Jiujiu barely stirs through all of it until he tries to take his robe off and replace it with one that isn’t sticking to his skin with sweat and blood.

“A-Ling,” Jiujiu whispers, and his eyes are so dull. “Give me your hand.”

Jin Ling tosses the old robe towards the laundry. “Jiujiu, you’ll be fine,” he says, voice full of bravery that he doesn’t feel.

He doesn’t expect that his uncle would reach out and snatch his hand, that he would begin to feel the warm sizzle of Zidian along his skin. He can see the bracelet coming to life. He realizes what Jiujiu means to do a moment before the snake can move onto his own wrist.

“No,” he says clearly, backing away from the bed and going to his uncle’s wardrobe for a clean robe. “I refuse to take Zidian from you.”

Jiujiu coughs, and full flowers fall out onto the floor. “A-Ling, it’s no good to me anymore. Zidian needs a new master.”

He pulls out a dark indigo robe, and when he helps Jiujiu into it, he keeps his hands closed, arms tight to his body. He will pull back again. “I won’t give up yet.”

“I’m not leaving this room, A-Ling,” Jiujiu whispers, so defeated that Jin Ling’s hands begin to shake. “And Zidian belongs in the hands of family. Please.”

He shakes his head, pushing his uncle’s hair back from his face like Jiujiu used to do for him when he was a child. “I have a dead man’s sword already, Jiujiu. I’m in no rush to take another weapon.”

Jiujiu sighs and slides back onto his bed, staring up at the ceiling. “I don’t want to die without it recognizing you as its new master,” he whispers.

Jin Ling takes the cloth from the bowl again, wetting it. “I’m afraid to take it,” he says, as if his voice isn’t trembling. “Because I know you won’t fight as hard once I do.”

Jiujiu sighs and tucks his hands under the quilt. “When I tell you, you have to take it,” he whispers. “There isn’t much time.”

He takes his seat beside the bed again. “Why didn’t you tell me you were this ill?” If they’re going to talk about uncomfortable topics, he’ll decide where to start.

“I didn’t want you to sit at my bedside and wait.” Jiujiu’s smile is small and sad. “Last time someone did that for me, I lost him.”

Jin Ling glances at the door, where Wei Wuxian should appear at any moment. “You can’t lose me, Jiujiu. If this... I won’t leave you until it’s over. You have to know that.” Carefully, he strokes a piece of dark hair from his uncle’s damp face.

Jiujiu takes a deep breath that rattles through his lungs. Jin Ling thinks, under the near-present iron tang of blood, he can smell the plum blossoms on Jiujiu’s breath. They’re crawling into his throat; it won’t be long now.

“Stubborn,” Jiujiu says, in a way that means Thank you.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t come back for over an hour. Without the bucket, both Jin Ling and Jiujiu are a mess. The cream sleeves and front skirt of his robe are ruined from catching flowers, from carrying them to the open windows and shaking them onto the docks. Jiujiu tried to keep neat, but what can be done? He’s just as terrible a patient as Jin Ling is a nursemaid.

He’s finally, fitfully asleep when the bedroom door opens. Jin Ling races around the privacy screen when he hears the bedroom doors finally open. “Where have you been, idiot? I’ll sick Fairy on yo—“

It’s not Wei Wuxian at the door, bucket and tray of soup in hand. It’s Zewu-Jun with the tray, in silver and blue and staring at Jin Ling. He looks especially grand when Jin Ling stands in front of him in messily fine hair and filthy robes.

“Shit,” Jin Ling says, because today is determined to be the worst. He takes a steadying breath and bows. “Apologies, Zewu-Jun. I was expecting—“

“I know, Jin Rulan.” He moves forward to set the test down, the bucket tucked into the corner of his elbow. “Wangji felt it was important his husband sleep. I didn’t mean to delay you.”

His eyes flicker over Jin Ling’s robes, and there is a small tightening of his mouth, around his eyes. “Wei Wuxian mentioned your uncle was quite ill. I would have brought a healer with us, to assist.”

Jin Ling tucks his hand behind his back, making himself stand as tall as he can. He’ll never be as tall as Zewu-Jun, but he has to try to save some face. “We have our own healers caring for him,” he says. “And Lan Sizhui has been playing for him, to help him heal. It has been most appreciated.”

“Jingyi mentioned.” He hesitates, eyes cutting towards the privacy screen that hides Jiujiu’s bed. “May I see if I can be of assistance?”

“I...” He knows that Jiujiu will be mad if he wakes up; no one wants to be seen when they’re this ill. But Zewu-Jun is Zewu-Jun, one of the strongest cultivators alive. If anyone could help Jiujiu, it would be him. “He’s sleeping, so you will have to be quiet.”

Zewu-Jun bows his head, letting Jin Ling take him back to the bed. “Wangji didn’t tell me the specific illness,” he whispers, and then they’re around the privacy screen and he says nothing else.

“It’s the flowers,” Jin Ling whispers, and he wonders how much the Lan sect actually knows about it. He knows that a monk in love started their way of cultivation, so it would make sense that they would. “He doesn’t want to tell us.”

Zewu-Jun stands like a statue, eyes huge as he sinks to the seat Jin Ling has been using. He doesn’t seem to notice that his under robes are white, that the blood isn’t entirely dried. “How long has he been this way?”

He reaches for the water bowl and wet cloth, and Jin Ling scrambles to help him. Jiujiu’s hair is damp with sweat again, each breath whistling out of his throat. Zewu-Jun’s hands shake as he presses the cloth to Jiujiu’s brow.

“I don’t know. I know this latest attack has been bad.” Jin Ling begins to fold back his sleeves, to try and hide the blood stains. He didn’t think Zewu-Jun would be this upset.

He didn’t think Zewu-Jun would come at all.

“Why didn’t you reach out before? I don’t think there is much we can do, if it’s progressed this far.”

“He didn’t want me to know.” Jin Ling traces the pattern on Jiujiu’s quilt. “He’s too stubborn.”

Zewu-Jun smiles, and his thumb brushes against Jiujiu’s hairline. “Oh, Wanyin, why would you do this,” he whispers, and his voice is heavy with sadness.

Jin Ling sighs and begins to fold up his other sleeve, and then stops. He stares at Zewu-Jun. “What?”

Zewu-Jun lives in the mountains, and he would train disciples. Jin Ling’s heart is thundering in his ears.

“I consider Jiang Wanyin one of my closest confidants,” he says, head bowed. Neither of them mention the temple, that awful night. They don’t have to.

“He never mentioned that you’d become close,” Jin Ling can barely speak. He stares at Zewu-Jun, at the robes embroidered with silver clouds, the Lan headband.

Jiujiu didn’t want them to contact the Lans because Zewu-Jun would find out, not because he was being hard-headed. Zewu-Jun is the only person that he’s heard call the fierce and tempestuous Sandu Shengshou “Wanyin,” as if that’s simple.

Zewu-Jun’s smile fades as he wets the washcloth again, pressing it to the underside of Jiujiu’s jaw. “It’s no matter. It’s more troubling that he’s told no one about this. Have you any leads? Wangji said Wei Wuxian has been working on theories.”

Jin Ling blinks and sits down hard on the edge of Jiujiu’s bed. He wishes Jingyi were here, or even Ouyang Zizhen. Someone good with teasing out romantic notions, because Jin Ling’s still reeling over the idea that his uncle is in love with Zewu-Jun.

Worse: he can see why Jiujiu doesn’t want to trap Zewu-Jun.

He chews on his lip. “You said he was your confidant. Has he ever mentioned that he was in love with you? It’s more likely—“

“No,” and there’s such sadness in Zewu-Jun’s voice. He sets the washcloth down. “If he hadn’t become ill, I never would have suspected that he loved someone so deeply.”

He has to be delicate here. He has to be, and he can’t figure out the words. He just wants to shake Zewu-Jun and tell him to say something, anything to keep his uncle alive.

Zewu-Jun takes Jiujiu’s hand in his and sighs. “I wish he would have trusted me with this.”

He shifts as if he means to stand, and Jin Ling jumps up first, one arm thrown out because Zewu-Jun can’t leave. “I think it’s you,” he says, all in a rush. “I think it has to be you.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Zewu-Jun says, and now his voice is rough, strained. He swallows twice, and Jin Ling watches him rebuild himself into the untouchable First Jade of Lan. “Wanyin knows he could trust me with anything.”

He does stand then, and his movements are deliberate, telegraphing that he’s leaving, that he won’t stay. He’s going to leave.

“What if—“ Jin Ling licks his lips, and his mind races. He thinks wildly of something he can say, because he and Zewu-Jun are cordial if not especially close. He knows that he reminds the Lan Sect Leader of Jin Guangyao; Jin Ling still remembers the way Jin Guangyao screamed when Zewu-Jun stabbed him.

“If Ou—“ and he stops because his neck is flushed again. The easiest, closest parallel to Jiujiu and Zewu-Jun makes his whole body seize up. “If Lan Jingyi were in love with me, I couldn’t walk away from him.”

Zewu-Jun allows himself a small smile. “I don’t think that is a concern, Jin Rulan. You and Jingyi are too alike in temperament and too fond of fighting.”

He rolls his eyes because there are a dozen reasons why he and Jingyi wouldn’t work, and their bickering isn’t even on the list. “Even so, I would have to think about my own feelings, and if I thought I could be in love with him—“

“A-Ling, no.”

Both he and Zewu-Jun stop, and it’s then that he realizes Jiujiu’s eyes are open, that he’s trying to push himself up into a seated position. Jin Ling’s neck burns because his uncle wasn’t supposed to hear any of this; he was almost hoping Zewu-Jun would just agree to try and say the words or maybe kiss Jiujiu once Jin Ling wasn’t looking.

Zewu-Jun sits on the edge of the bed, gently trying to keep Jiujiu from rising, and his entire face changes. There’s something tentative and raw in the way he looks at Jiujiu, enough that Jin Ling wants to look away. He won’t. He isn’t going to let either of them out of this room until this is settled.

“Wanyin, why didn’t you tell me?” Zewu-Jun murmurs, and Jin Ling purposefully moves closer to the edge of the privacy screen. He doesn’t want to intrude, but he doesn’t think he can let them handle this on their own.

Jiujiu sighs. “You don’t have to worry, Xichen. I would never try to trap you with this.” He begins coughing, again, great racking coughs that sound as if his ribs mean to leave his body, and he doesn’t have the strength to move.

Horror creeps across Jiujiu’s face because he can’t help the blossoms that fall from his lips onto Zewu-Jun’s fine robes, the large blood stains spreading across his lap.

But Zewu-Jun is unfazed, rubbing Jiujiu’s back. “Don’t try to hold it back. It’s worse for you that way,” he says, and he’s almost holding Jiujiu now, letting him slump against his chest. “We’re going to save you, Wanyin.”

“You can’t,” Jiujiu murmurs, and he tries to push away weakly. “Because I won’t hold you to any promises you make because A-Ling won’t keep his mouth shut.” His eyes close; he looks comfortable against Zewu-Jun, like he belongs. “I’ll break his legs when this passes.”

Except with Zewu-Jun’s hands on him, the fight seems to go out of Jiujiu. His eyes slide closed again, and his breathing actually seems to even out. It seems easier, the smell of plum blossoms fading.

Zewu-Jun says nothing. He strokes Jiujiu’s unbound hair and seems to stare off. And Jin Ling watches them from his place by the screen, at the foot of the bed. He listens to Lotus Pier around them, the disciples practicing swords in the main yard and the excited chittering of children going to their bow lessons. He can even hear Jingyi talking to the others, hearing what he missed.

And as the day goes on, Zewu-Jun doesn’t move. He holds Jiujiu against him, mindless of the gore in his lap except to keep the other man from laying into it. After an hour, the blue tinge in Jiujiu’s lips recedes. After two, he thinks he sees color in Jiujiu’s cheeks.

“He’s getting better,” Jin Ling whispers, when he can’t ignore it any longer. He moves forward and checks Jiujiu’s wrist, where his heartbeat feels strong.

Zewu-Jun closes his eyes and exhales slowly, his hand still in Jiujiu’s hair. “That’s very good,” he murmurs, and he bows his head slowly, to touch his forehead to the top of Jiujiu’s head. “I don’t want to lose him.” He sounds so fond that it’s honestly embarrassing.

Jin Ling wants to look away but this is too important. “Do you love him?” He’s surprised by how cool his own voice sounds, as if his heart isn’t pounding. “If Jiujiu weren’t sick, would you still love him?”

Zewu-Jun meets Jin Ling’s eyes, and there are tear tracks on his face. “Jin Rulan, I don’t think you should be the first one I tell. Perhaps after I talk to Wanyin.”

It takes a moment but he understands. He can see the way Zewu-Jun is cradling his uncle, the gentleness of his touches. He doesn’t need to hear Zewu-Jun say it. He absolutely sees it.

He stands up and bows. “I should get cleaned up and see to the other guests. Is there anything you need, Zewu-Jun?”

Jin Ling absolutely intends to go and tell his friends before he makes any attempt to be nice to Wei Wuxian. He’s still half-convinced that he set this up and didn’t tell Jin Ling, and he really, really is going to set Fairy loose in his bedroom.

“Ah, if someone could prepare a bath,” Zewu-Jun says, looking regretfully down at the drying gore in his lap. “I have an extra robe, but I fear this will grow uncomfortable soon.”

He bows again. “Of course,” he says.

Jin Ling only hovers a minute longer. He watches Zewu-Jun adjust his hold, almost gathering Jiujiu into his lap, and then he flees because he really needs to see no more.

“When do you go back?” he asks Lan Jingyi as the three of them lay in the warm sun. Lan Sizhui is with his fathers, apparently Wei Wuxian more frayed around the edges than he let on. He wants to be angry about it, but he knows that Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi are doing the same thing with him, surrounding him with friends in case he falls apart now that the stress has passed.

Even if he knows that he can’t risk falling apart like that. Wei Wuxian isn’t a sect leader.

“When Sizhui wants to, probably tomorrow or the day after,” Jingyi says breezily. He’s helping himself to peeled lotus seeds and not sharing. Jin Ling appreciates the return to normalcy. He might actually break down if Lan Jingyi kept being nice. “Lotus Pier is nice, but he’s not super comfortable on the water.”

Jin Ling makes a face because he can’t imagine hating water. Lotus Pier will always be his second home, though thankfully not like that.

“Jingyi-xiong,” Ouyang Zizhen says slowly, teasing warming his words. He catches Jin Ling’s eye with his own. “How tragic that Sizhui-xiong will never have a romantic boat ride in Caiyi Town. What will you do instead?”

“I’d never bring him--No,” Lan Jingyi snaps, and he throws two lotus seeds at Ouyang Zizhen. He’s gone entirely red. “Hanguang-Jun could hear you. There aren’t any walls here!”

Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen start laughing, and he keeps pelting them with lotus seeds. Jin Ling hopes Jingyi doesn’t notice the way Ouyang Zizhen moves so he’s slightly in front of Jin Ling, but he thinks that he could argue that it’s just because Jin Ling is dressed in his last unstained cream and gold robe while Ouyang Zizhen is in dark blue.

They’ve started throwing lotus seeds back when Zewu-Jun steps into the courtyard, and they don’t hear him at first. How could they? He’s a Lan, and every one of them but Jingyi moves like they have silencing charms on their boots.

“Jin Rulan,” Zewu-Jun calls, and it’s the loudest he’s heard him speak since the temple, when Jin Guangyao stabbed.

Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen scramble to standing, hurrying to bow. “Zewu-Jun,” they say, as if their hair isn’t slightly in disarray and there isn’t a lotus seed stuck to Jingyi’s silver comb. (Of course, Zewu-Jun still has blood on his robes. He hasn’t washed yet.)

He stands slowly, because he is a sect leader and he won’t be intimidated, even if Zewu-Jun has led Gusu Lan longer than he’s been alive. “Zewu-Jun,” he says, with a small bow, and then, boldly, “You should call me ‘Jin Ling.’ In front of my friends, at least.”

And family goes unsaid.

Zewu-Jun smiles, nodding his head. “I need to change, but I thought you’d perhaps want to see your uncle.”

Jin Ling nods, bowing quickly, before he’s running to his uncle’s room. He wants to see what Jiujiu looks like now; he wants to talk to him and not hear his breathing whistling through his lungs.

Jiujiu’s doors are open when Jin Ling gets there, and his eyes burn to see Jiujiu sitting at his table and out of bed, dressed in a clean under robe. Fairy sits by his legs, and even she seems to be smiling as he runs in and all but collapses across the table from him.

“Jiujiu,” he says, and he doesn’t know what else to say. He can’t help the way tears trace down his cheeks. He reaches for the teapot to pour his uncle a drink, but Jiujiu waves him off, extending a clean handkerchief across the table.

“Stop crying,” he says, but his tone is gentle, smile warm.

Jin Ling glares at him, spitting, “You almost died.” His voice trembles and catches, and he can’t say any more because he’s pretty sure that he’ll start crying in earnest.

It’s a shame they spent so much time and effort saving Jiujiu, because Jin Ling is going to strangle him.

Jiujiu pours him tea instead, pushing it across the table. “A-Ling, you know how...” He stops and licks his lips. They aren’t alone in the room, servants moving behind the privacy screen to clean up flower blossoms and bloody bedding.

It occurs to him that Jiujiu hasn’t bathed yet; the tub in the corner of the room is still empty. He wonders if Zewu-Jun will be coming back--

He decides that he doesn’t want to think about that.

“Zidian needs to stay in our family, A-Ling,” Jiujiu says, and his eyes are dark, sad. “And it must always have a master.”

Jin Ling takes a prim sip of his tea, and he chooses his words carefully. “But you are its master, Jiujiu. It lets me recall it and use it, if you are injured. That’s enough.” His lips quirk. “Besides, I believe you might have an heir someday.”

“A-Ling,” Jiujiu snaps, and he’s still pale but with the finest blush on his cheeks.

Jin Ling makes a face, remembering Lan Sizhui’s attempt at practical “comfort.” “I’m begging you, actually. I don’t...”

Jiujiu reaches across the table and grips Jin Ling’s hand tightly. “I’m not planning on leaving you for a long time, A-Ling,” he says.

He nods and changes the subject, to what’s been happening in Yunmeng while Jiujiu has been ill. He doesn’t want to talk about what ifs anymore, not when Jiujiu is breathing normally and looking at him with an amused smile and soft eyes.

Wei Wuxian is under one of the pavilions with Hanguang-Jun before dinner, with two pots of wine beside his hip and his hand playing with the ends of the Lan ribbon. He approaches them slowly and stays a respectable distance away as he announces himself. Lans don’t gossip, but he’s seen Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui hesitant to go to the Jingshi. He knows that there is a sense of shamelessness around the married couple.

He does not want to actually witness it.

“I should sic Fairy on you,” he says, before he’s even out of his bow to His Excellency, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t expect courtesy. “You planned all of this.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t answer the accusation. Instead he points and leans heavily on his husband. “Lan Zhan will save me from Sect Leader Jin’s dog. You can’t scare me.”

Hanguang-Jun says nothing, but he raises one eyebrow at Jin Ling. It conveys the message well enough. He’s not to summon Fairy at all.

Which is fine. He was mostly joking.

Jin Ling shifts the wine back with his foot, so that he might sit beside Wei Wuxian. His chest is tight, and he knows that he must thank Wei Wuxian for saving Jiujiu, for seeing through the secrets. Jin Ling never would have invited Zewu-Jun otherwise; in general, one does not invite other sect leaders into your troubles.

Without Zewu-Jun here, Jiujiu would have died, and he would have been alone.

“Wei Wuxian,” he says slowly, drawing himself to begin to thank him.

“Jin Ling, don’t,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, and he circles one hand around Jin Ling’s fingers. “I’m not Yunmeng Jiang anymore, but I would never abandon either of you.” His eyes are soft and warm, and Jin Ling hates that his eyes burn again, that he feels ready to cry.

He looks at the water until his jaw stops trembling. He still has to wipe away tears, but neither Wei Wuxian nor Hanguang-Jun say anything. What is there to say, anyway? If Wei Wuxian will not accept his thanks.

Jin Ling looks at the bell hanging from his belt, and he supposes there is one thing. He stands slowly, concentrating on being perfectly proper. “I will see you at dinner,” he says, as if he is ordering them. He honestly doesn’t care if he does or not, because he’s more interested in seeing if Jiujiu joins them.

“Of course, Sect Leader Jin,” Wei Wuxian teases, even though the emotion in his eyes joins.

“Your Excellency,” Jin Ling says, as if Wei Wuxian hadn’t spoken at all. He bows, and then looks Wei Wuxian directly in the eye as he murmurs, “Da-jiu.”

He turns on his heel only when he sees Wei Wuxian’s own eyes start to shine with unshed tears because he doesn’t want to be hugged or to start to cry again himself.

In the evening, they eat together overlooking the water. Ouyang Zizhen bravely sits with him despite the fact that they face the water, as Lan Sizhui can’t seem to watch the lake and eat at the same time. Or at least that’s what Lan Jingyi insists, and he keeps touching Lan Sizhui’s back when he thinks that they aren’t watching.

Based on the way Wei Wuxian keeps elbowing Hanguang-Jun, he’s not the only one who has noticed, but His Excellency either doesn’t want to draw even more attention to it or he really finds his braised lotus root that interesting.

He still isn’t quite hungry himself, easily sliding bits of his own food onto Ouyang Zizhen’s plate and looking back towards the house. The healers had promised that Jiujiu was well enough to join them; there’s a table set up for him and Zewu-Jun. Jin Ling doesn’t want his food to get cold, or - worse - for Fairy to decide that she’s had enough of sleeping or begging for kitchen scraps to come out and see that they’re up to.

She is very well trained, but abandoned plates of food are really asking too much even for the best dog in the world.

Wei Wuxian is being almost normal, and Jin Ling doesn’t want to hear him scream about her. It’s not Fairy’s fault that he’s terrified of dogs, and it seems unfair to keep her away from his friends, especially when they’ll be leaving soon.

Jin Ling moves another slice of radish onto Ouyang Zizhen’s plate and ignores the way Lan Jingyi tries to catch his eye.

“A-Ling, you are still growing,” Wei Wuxian says in a clucking tone, like an old Jin Auntie, and then he’s piling food from his own plate onto Jin Ling’s. “You’re too skinny. What do they feed you in Lanling? Lan Zhan, we should visit Koi Tower more.”

“Mn,” Lan Zhan says, and Jin Ling thinks he sees him smile. It might be a trick of the light though.

Jin Ling holds his head high and looks down his nose at Wei Wuxian. “I haven’t invited you,” he says. He doesn’t care that he plans to call him “Da-jiu.” He’s still a sect leader, and he’s not about to let someone push him around just because they might be family.

Even if he wouldn’t mind for Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian coming to visit, just to make sure he eats more.

“We could go night hunting,” Ouyang Zizhen says, and he grins at Jin Ling. He has to smile back. “We haven’t done that in a while.”

Lan Jingyi smirks as he takes a sip of his wine. “You’ve been here for almost two weeks, Zizhen-xiong. Won’t your father miss you?”

Jin Ling feels the back of his neck get hot, and he means to snarl that he knows exactly how shameless Lan Jingyi is currently being. Lan Sizhui cuts him off though, before he can.

“That’s not the same, Jingyi,” he says, and his tone is lightly scolding. “Besides, you enjoy hunting on Phoenix Mountain, and I would very much hope Sect Leader Jin would invite all of us. It has been a long time.”

He gives Lan Sizhui a suspicious look, but his smile merely widens, polite and kind and absolutely infuriating.

Jin Ling sniffs. “I’ll have to check my schedule,” He already knows that he’ll be able to find time, but his councilors and advisors will like that he didn’t immediately agree. They get funny about that sort of thing. “But I’m sure we can arrange something.”

“Well, let me know when you have time, and I’ll clear His Excellency’s schedule.” Wei Wuxian grins at his husband, who barely pauses to glance at him.

“Wei Ying,” he says, with a light frown. Jin Ling wonders what happens when the Yiling Patriarch clears the schedule of the Chief Cultivator. He decides that he absolutely doesn’t want to know.

(Maybe he wants to know a little, if only to know how close he brings Grand Master Lan to a qi deviation. Lan Jingyi has stories.)

They continue to eat, and it’s mostly silent except from small exclamations for Wei Wuxian over the food. He supposed even Lan courtesy isn’t enough to keep him quiet.

But then the silence is broken by the familiar jingle of Fairy’s collar, her excited yip as she sees Jin Ling and his friends. Wei Wuxian yelps and jumps back from the table as if he’s burned, pulling on Hanguang-Jun’s sleeve as he does.

Better, though, is that a few steps behind Fairy is Jiujiu. His hair is still wet, but he has silver comb in it again. His robes are far from what he normally wears, almost as simple as the regular disciples, but he is clean and healed, even as he leans against Zewu-Jun to walk. He scowls at all of them, alert enough to be grumpy!

Jin Ling knew he was getting better, had only talked to him a few hours ago, but he still jumps up from his table to rush to Jiujiu’s other side. He doesn’t cry, but his vision does perhaps get a touch blurry as he pulls on his uncle’s sleeve like he’s still a child. “Are you ready to be up? The healers said you would be, and we made sure that you had a place for dinner, but we can bring it to you. If you want to go back to bed.”

He’s rambling, and he doesn’t care because Jiujiu’s fierce glare focuses on him. His eyes are clear even as he goes red.

“How much longer are your guests going to be here?” He pulls away from Zewu-Jun and doesn’t even sway on his feet. After how ill he’s been, it feels like it shouldn’t be possible.

Jin Ling can’t see his uncle’s face through unshed tears. It’s awful to be this happy, but Jin Ling has missed him so much.

“My staff doesn’t need to be serving this many freeloaders,” Jiujiu continues, but he’s smiling at Jin Ling and at Zewu-Jun. “I’m sure they’ve been making two sets of meals because you’re too soft on delicate Lan tastes.”

He throws his arms around Jiujiu, even though it’s wildly inappropriate to do so in front of so many people: another Sect Leader, the Chief Cultivator, the Head Disciples of two different sects, and then Wei Wuxian.

And Lan Jingyi, but Lan Jingyi hardly counts.

His uncle smells like soap and rain, like there’s a gathering storm from Zidian. He doesn’t smell like blood anymore, or like flowers. Better, after a minute, he returns the hug as fiercely as he used to hug him when Jin Ling was small and scared.

“Thank you, A-Ling,” he says, so softly that Zewu-Jun might be the only one who can hear. Jin Ling is getting tears on his robes, and that’s what makes him finally pull back, face twisting into his usual scowl. “Even if you disobeyed me.”

Jin Ling laughs, and it’s watery. He rubs his eyes with his sleeves and then gives Jiujiu a withering look, something reminiscent of his worst Jin cousins. “I’m a Sect Leader now. You can’t tell me what to do.”

“Unfilial brat,” Jiujiu snaps, smiling, before he lets Jing Ling hold onto his sleeve and pull him towards dinner with their family.