Jiang Cheng sat in the throne room at Koi Tower, on Jin Ling’s right, with a stack of papers he had to look over for the discussion conference that was to take place a week later, and a paper bag with a few fruits and a cutting knife. He had been summoned to the room along with Jin Ling’s friends, which had meant that Wei Wuxian had inevitably followed under the pretense of not wanting to be left out, but secretly because he had wanted to help.
Wei Wuxian following the juniors had led to Hanguang-Jun trailing alongside his husband, fiancée or whatever they were, Jiang Cheng really couldn’t care less. What he cared about however, was Jin Ling. He had been working hard for the discussion conference that would be taking place in Koi Tower, and he was required to arrange a night hunt before that with the rest of juniors, which was why he had called them to the throne room as well.
Jiang Cheng hadn’t wondered why he himself had been called there. He would have broken Jin Ling’s legs if he hadn’t called him. This was A-Ling’s first discussion conference, and there was no way he was letting Jin Ling carry the load of arranging it all himself. Heavens only remembered what a disaster Jiang Cheng’s first discussion conference in Lotus Pier had been like, and he had still had a lot of help from the various sects close to Yunmeng.
He knew how Jin Ling got when he had a goal or an aim that he had to achieve. Jiang Cheng had watched with worry, how Jin Ling had aimed to be the best archer in all of their combined sects. He had strived to achieve that goal with hard work and lots and lots of practice, and Jiang Cheng had proudly watched him achieve the goal.
But Jin Ling had been so single-minded in successfully reaching his goal that he hadn’t eaten or slept, or at least he wouldn’t have, if Jiang Cheng hadn’t been there to feed him or remind him to rest or drag him away from archery practice. He had been there to bandage Jin Ling’s hands when they had almost bled from overworking himself at the training grounds.
Jin Ling had become more careful, however, when during one of his afternoon practices, he had fainted on the training grounds with the sun beating harshly above him. Jin Ling had woken up in the physician’s room with Jiang Cheng clutching his hand desperately and crying softly to himself.
He had apologised to Jiang Cheng and had promised to take better care of himself. Jiang Cheng knew he couldn’t blame the kid. He got his stubbornness and single-mindedness and every single other quality from Jiang Cheng after all. Every other quality, that is, except for the blatant lack of self-care and self-preservation. He blamed that one on Wei Wuxian. Never, even during the darkest of times, had Jiang Cheng ever neglected his hunger or sleep or hygiene.
The sheer thought of how his sect would be able to survive if he didn’t take care of himself had kept him going, and thoughts of young Jin Ling having one less uncle because said uncle had been dumb enough to not take care of himself, had driven him forward. Why Jin Ling couldn’t do the same…
But, as Jiang Cheng thought more about it, he realised that perhaps this was something Jin Ling had acquired from him too. He vaguely remembered times in the past when he had been so overwhelmed by his work and his duties that Jin Ling had often complained that Jiang Cheng wasn’t paying attention to him or that he looked tired, and then using one reason or another, he had pulled Jiang Cheng out of his room and into the fresh air.
Sometimes they would end up at the private docks and sometimes up on the roof. Sometimes they would walk outside and go to all of the food stalls Jin Ling randomly pointed at to try some new food. Jiang Cheng remembered one time when Jin Ling had been a child and Jiang Cheng had rejected all of Jin Ling’s requests to take a break.
Jiang Cheng had often bought fruits from stalls which he knew contained the fresh stock before Jin Ling had been due for his visits to Lotus Pier. He had known that growing children were required to eat fruits for proper physical and mental growth. So, he would make sure that he cut the fruits into equal slices and fed them to Jin Ling in the intervals between their daily meals.
Jin Ling had been constantly distracted and very impatient as a child, so it had been difficult for Jiang Cheng to make him sit down to do anything at all. But as soon as Jin Ling used to spot Jiang Cheng arriving with cut up pieces of fruits, he used to sit down immediately, all ready for his uncle to feed the slices of fruits to him. He used to eat them dutifully, without a single complaint, and Jiang Cheng always used to wonder why.
That day Jiang Cheng had been particularly busy and had been rejecting all of Jin Ling’s offers to spend time with him in the hopes that Jin Ling would leave him alone to complete his work. Jin Ling had instead disappeared for some time and had come back holding a plate with an apple and a knife in his tiny hands.
“Jin Ling, what are you doing?” Jiang Cheng had sighed, running a hand over his face. He had been incredibly exhausted that night.
“I’m going to cut this apple for you. Like you do when I need a break,” Jin Ling had said, sitting down some distance away from Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng had tried to blink away his tiredness to register what was happening, but it had happened so quickly that he could not possibly have done anything about it. One second, Jin Ling had just been sitting with the plate containing the apple and the knife, and the next, he had taken the knife into his own hands and was trying to cut the apple.
“Jin Ling!” Jiang Cheng had exclaimed, but by the time he had reached him, Jin Ling had already accidentally cut his finger. Jiang Cheng had quickly taken the knife into his own hand and put it down before pulling Jin Ling into his arms, trying to calm the crying child down.
“I’m sorry, Jiujiu. I was trying to cut up tasty fruits for you, like you do for me when I haven’t eaten for too long. You say that they are healthy and help us grow strong and focus on our studies. I thought it would help you focus on your work better,” Jin Ling had said in between his tears.
Jiang Cheng had shaken his head fondly, feeling a familiar warmth growing in his chest. This kid. He had still been slightly concerned about the blood falling from the cut to Jin Ling’s finger. But Jiang Cheng had lightly taken the finger and put it into his own mouth to cease the flow of blood and give Jin Ling some relief.
“I’m sorry, A-Ling. This isn’t your fault. I should have paid attention to you. Come on, shall we go outside to the Pier? I’ll get another knife and cut the apple into slices, okay?” Jiang Cheng had responded, and he had felt Jin Ling nodding his head on the top of his shoulder.
So, he had lifted Jin Ling up and walked out of the room without a backwards glance.
Now here he was, and Jin Ling wasn’t aiming to achieve a simple goal, he was planning an event. Jiang Cheng observed the dark circles under the kid’s eyes and the way he blinked faster than usual. The way he turned to the side and tried to stifle his yawn, and his tired smiles. The kid looked as though he might faint at any moment, and Jiang Cheng wondered how many hours he had stayed awake for, and how long it had been since he had eaten anything healthy or solid.
Jiang Cheng would need to have words with his elders and whoever was supposed to be taking care of Jin Ling because they were clearly failing at their one simple task. Jiang Cheng had been expecting this, really, and therefore was here to prevent exactly this.
Jin Ling still, despite being a teenager and a sect leader, behaved exactly the same as he used to when he had been a child. When it came to accepting fruit slices from Jiang Cheng, that is. He obviously didn’t let Jiang Cheng feed him anymore, but whenever Jiang Cheng kept the plate in front of him or knocked on the door to his room, Jin Ling dutifully stopped whatever he was doing to go sit beside Jiang Cheng and eat all of the slices with a patience and devotion that Jin Ling never showed with any other food item. It was always swallow first and chew later with the kid.
So here he was with a bag of fruits leaning against his knee. Jin Ling was angrily ranting about a problem they were going to discuss at the conference. Jiang Cheng had long since stopped listening because he had realised that he would not be required to speak up today. Jin Ling had the rest of his two uncles and his friends to take care of his problems, and Jiang Cheng knew they were more than capable of solving them. That wasn’t what Jiang Cheng was there for.
Luckily for him, things were going according to plan. Wei Wuxian piped up ever so often with suggestions, with Hanguang-Jun agreeing or adding a word or two to his suggestions, making Wei Wuxian smile so widely, Jiang Cheng was surprised his lips didn’t permanently stay that way. Then there were the juniors. They actively took part in the discussion, especially when the topic of discussion turned to the night hunt they had to prepare for.
Here was what irked Jiang Cheng though. He could understand why Jin Ling looked like he did. He knew his kid too well. But why did the rest of the juniors seem to be in similar conditions? Jiang Cheng hadn’t been in Jinlintai to take care of Jin Ling, but surely Lan Sizhui and the loud-mouthed brat, Lan Jingyi, had been taken care of in Gusu. What were idiotic Wei Wuxian and his stupid husband doing in Cloud Recesses if not taking care of their son and his best-friend? And why did they look just as tired as all of these kids?
Ouyang Zizhen’s father was a bit old, sure, but he was quite capable of taking care of his son. What was wrong with all of the adults in these children’s lives? Why weren’t they taking care of their children for fuck’s sake? Jiang Cheng was done with all of them.
He grumpily pushed away his paperwork, hoping that Jin Ling would continue to pay attention to the rest of the people in the room so that Jiang Cheng could be successfully ignored. But the moment he thought that—
“Jiujiu! Are you even listening to us? I didn’t call you here so that you could brood over your paperwork and avoid helping me for the discussion conference and the night hunt. You said that you would help! And yet here you are, ignoring me,” Jin Ling snapped. He looked hurt as he crossed his arms and glared at Jiang Cheng.
If Jiang Cheng hadn’t been busy worrying over the kid, he might have felt guilty for not participating in the conversations that had been taking place and failing in helping Jin Ling.
“I’m listening Jin Ling. But the rest of your uncles and your friends are making great points, so I have nothing to add. Why don’t you continue the discussion and I’ll just…join you when I have something to add to the conversation,” Jiang Cheng spoke, trying to keep his expressions neutral as he put his hand into the fruit bag.
“Jiang Cheng, are you alright? This isn’t like you.” Wei Wuxian said, his brows furrowing slightly, and Jiang Cheng sighed. This was perfect, really. The one time Jiang Cheng did not want to get noticed had to turn out to be the only time he did get noticed.
Jin Ling narrowed his eyes at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng could see the gears turning in his kid’s brain. “What are you up to, Jiujiu?”
Jiang Cheng pulled his hand out of the bag and pushed the bag behind him as fast as he could. He tried to be subtle about it, but he could tell that Jin Ling had noticed the bag. “What is that?” Jin Ling asked. He stood up and began to walk over to Jiang Cheng. Shit. Abort mission. ABORT-
Jin Ling reached behind Jiang Cheng and pulled the bag out in front of everyone’s view.
“What’s in that?” Lan Jingyi asked, the nosy brat.
Jiang Cheng tried to muster his scariest look. He was the Sandu Shengshou after all. “Jin Ling!” He scolded the kid, but Jin Ling had already opened the bag and was staring inside wide-eyed.
Something about the look on his face made a soft tenderness appear in the middle of Jiang Cheng’s chest.
“Come on, tell us what’s inside,” Ouyang Zizhen said all of a sudden. Jin Ling looked at Jiang Cheng and swallowed heavily. He gave the bag back to Jiang Cheng.
“Jin Ling, what does your uncle’s bag contain?” Lan Sizhui asked politely.
Jiang Cheng could tell that they were all dying to know what was in the bag, but Jin Ling did not say a word. Instead, he sat down next to Jiang Cheng, just like he had all those times when he had been a child, just like he had continued to do as he had grown up.
Jin Ling looked up at Jiang Cheng expectantly, a soft glint in his eyes. Even his features had changed, becoming more relaxed and brighter somehow. Jin Ling, in his entirety, was practically glowing.
“Can either of you just talk to us and tell us what is in that bag?!” Wei Wuxian dramatically exclaimed. But neither Jiang Cheng nor Jin Ling payed any attention to him or anyone else.
Jiang Cheng took an apple out of his bag. Jin Ling already had the plate in his hand, and he set it down on the table in front of him and Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng smiled softly to himself as he held the knife in his hand. Jin Ling watched patiently as Jiang Cheng cut up the fruit and kept it on the plate.
“Here kid,” he said, ruffling Jin Ling’s hair and patting him on the back. “You’ve done a good job so far, with the conference and this night hunt, and I’m proud of you.”
Jin Ling looked to be on the verge of crying, but he held it in, nodding his head and holding a slice of apple in his hand. “Thank you, Jiujiu.”
Jiang Cheng then looked up at the rest of the tired faces and proceeded to pour the rest of the fruits on the table in front of him. He sliced them all in quick succession and took a large plate over to the three juniors.
“I know all three of you have been working extremely hard for the hunt but overworking yourselves won’t get this event set up any faster. It will only exhaust you and make you work slower. So, take care of yourselves. I’m sure the rest of the Sect Leaders will appreciate all of your efforts just as much as I do,” he told them.
Then he took the second, medium-sized plate he was holding over to Wei Wuxian and set it down in front of him and Hanguang-Jun. “I don’t know why the two of you haven’t been sleeping properly or taking care of yourselves, but there is no excuse to be made for it. Take care of yourselves, but most importantly, take care of your kids,” Jiang Cheng paused and pointed at the two Lans who were staring at him wide-eyed, their mouths gaping open. “You cannot hope to take care of them if you don’t take care of yourselves first,” he said and stood up, walking back to Jin Ling.
Jin Ling had almost finished eating the apple slices, so Jiang Cheng put the rest of the slices on the table on Jin Ling’s plate. “Eat all of this,” he said. But instead of nodding along like Jiang Cheng expected him to, Jin Ling protested.
“You should have some too,” Jin Ling said. Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes at his stubborn kid.
“I already had some in the morning, along with a heavy breakfast unlike the rest of you, so eat up,” he stated to the room.
“Uhm, Sect Lea— I mean…what are we supposed to call you?” Lan Jingyi was at a loss for words. Ha! Fucking ha! Jiang Cheng seemed to have done the impossible.
The rest of the juniors seemed to be stunned speechless too. They seemed to be looking at Jiang Cheng as if they had never seen him before, as if they did not know how to react. Had nobody ever fed them apple slices during their childhood or showed them any concern? It wasn’t as though Jiang Cheng was doing something weird or unique, was it?
“You can call him ‘jiujiu’ too,” Jin Ling responded cheekily to Lan Jingyi.
Jiang Cheng glared at him, but before he could say anything, Ouyang Zizhen spoke up as though directly from his heart. “Thank you, Jiujiu.” Jiang Cheng stared at him stunned, but the next second—
“Thank you, Jiujiu,” Lan Jingyi piped up sincerely.
“Thank you, Jiujiu,” Lan Sizhui said, and his voice cracked a bit. Jiang Cheng could swear that he also saw a few unshed tears in his eyes.
“Thank you, didi,” Wei Wuxian said, following their lead.
Jiang Cheng would have spoken up if his throat hadn’t suddenly clenched up. He was not overwhelmed by emotions, dammit! How dare all of these juniors call him ‘jiujiu’? And how dare Wei Wuxian think it appropriate to call him ‘didi’ again?
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth to speak up again but was interrupted by Hanguang-Jun this time. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang.” He stood up and bowed to Jiang Cheng. Jiang Cheng almost dropped his jaw at the respect shown to him by Wei Wuxian’s fiancée-husband. He was referring to him by his title, instead of his courtesy name or nothing at all. Jiang Cheng was in absolute shock.
“We are all grateful to you for reminding us of our duties and how important it is to take care of ourselves,” Lan Wangji said, nodding at Jiang Cheng in approval and acceptance and then sitting down.
Jiang Cheng didn’t know how to react. He hadn’t done anything other than giving out pieces of cut fruit and telling everyone to take care of themselves. He did this with Jin Ling all the time. It was not really a big deal. But everyone else in the room seemed to think that it was.
He watched Jin Ling throwing him the biggest smile he had seen in a while as Jin Ling ate a slice of a pear. It was as if he was proud of Jiang Cheng, and fuck, when had that happened.
As the rest of the people in the throne room shifted their attention to the fruits on their plate and began to eat, talking to each other in hushed voices, Jin Ling shifted closer to Jiang Cheng and muttered to him. “Jiujiu, do you think you could feed me? My arms feel numb from all of that writing and planning, and it hurts to lift them up to eat.”
Jiang Cheng smiled to himself, flicking Jin Ling on the head. “Ow, Jiujiu!” He said, rubbing his head.
“Brat! You think you can make excuses and lie to me like this? You realise I can still discipline you even though you’re a Sect Leader now, don’t you? Just like I can feed you apple slices despite it.” Jin Ling started out scowling at Jiang Cheng, but he ended up grinning sheepishly at him.
As Jin Ling rubbed the back of his head, clearly feeling embarrassed at getting caught with his lie, Jiang Cheng took a slice of pear and held it in front of his A-Ling.
“Jiujiu.” A sudden call out to him made Jiang Cheng turn to his side. He realised that it was Lan Sizhui who had called out to him. The Lan junior had turned a bright shade of red. “Could you— Could I— Can I be fed the fruits, too? I— My arms hurt, too.”
Jiang Cheng blinked in surprise at the request. He was even more surprised when the rest of the two juniors followed Lan Sizhui’s request with their own.
“Me too, Jiujiu.”
“Ah, my arms hurt so much, Jiujiu.”
Jiang Cheng turned to look at Jin Ling, who seemed to be glaring daggers at the three of them. “Shut up! He is my jiujiu. He can only feed me.” Jiang Cheng’s lips twitched and the hand that wasn’t holding the sliced pear reached up to ruffle Jin Ling’s hair affectionately.
Jin Ling flushed and quickly opened his mouth to bite the pear.
“I want a pat on my head too!”
“Could I get one too, please?”
Jin Ling looked as though he were about to explode, and Jiang Cheng knew this meant that his nephew’s friends were in danger of being shouted at, so he spoke up. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come here, then! Let me feed you and pet your hair.”
The three juniors looked as though they had just discovered the secrets of the universe and scrambled to get up. Jin Ling, on the other hand, looked away from Jiang Cheng and all of his own friends. Jiang Cheng tried to hold back his fondness as he looked at Jin Ling. This kid.
“It doesn’t matter what they call me, A-Ling. Even if they do call me ‘jiujiu’, you’re still my kid, alright?” Jiang Cheng said, quietly, as he picked up another slice of pear. You’re my son. You’re irreplaceable, kid.
Jiang Cheng looked up as Jin Ling caught a hold of his wrist. “And no matter how many uncles I get, you’re still my adult— my guard— my parent.” Jiang Cheng forgot how to breathe. “So, I’m still going to need you to be present here, and to actively participate and help me no matter how many other people speak up, okay?” You’re my dad. And my mom. You’re everything to me.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes and breathed out heavily, trying to hide his tears as he spoke softly. “I’m always going to be here for you, A-Ling. You’re my kid, after all.”