Honestly, Jingyi thought it was going pretty well until Zizhen arrived at the gates and asked, “So, what did you decide on, for a menu?” and then Jingyi and Jin Ling had stared at one another in bewilderment before Jin Ling said, “Uh. I was thinking we’d serve — food?”
It happened like this: Jin Ling was a sect leader now, which was, and Jingyi really meant this, fucking hilarious. There were few things funnier, in his honest opinion.
Because he was young, and inexperienced, and also — it had to be said — a real shithead, there was apparently some belief amongst his advisors that the best way forward, to promote the picture of a stable, mature sect leader who absolutely did not cry at the drop of a hat, was for Jin Ling to get married.
This the marriage bit was maybe even funnier than the sect leader bit. Jingyi loved politics.
“But who would want to marry you?” he had asked, only half to be a dick. He really didn’t know. Jin Ling was still young, his position insecure, and the Jin clan wasn’t exactly known for being warm and welcoming to outsiders. Besides, by dint of being a sect leader, eligible opportunities were extremely limited, and like, half of them were probably secretly his uncle anyway.
Jin Ling hadn’t even gotten offended. He’d pointed at Jingyi as if to say you see? to his only not-secret uncle, Sect Leader Jiang. “Nobody! They’re all married already, or, or, or like, a hundred years old!”
“Chief Cultivator Lan Wangji is not yet forty,” Sect Leader Jiang said with an absolutely straight face. Jingyi heard himself make a faint sound like all the air was being sucked out of him.
“I can’t marry SIZHUI’S DAD,” Jin Ling shrieked.
“Hanguang-jun is married to Master Wei,” Jingyi said, because Sizhui wasn’t here to do it, and then, as a gesture toward respectability, added, “... Sect Leader Jiang.”
Sect Leader Jiang cut his eyes toward him in a sharp glare. Yikes, in Jingyi’s opinion. “The Jiang sect does not recognize three bows, performed non-sequentially without witnesses or filial blessing, as a wedding,” he said flatly. “Also, who are you again?”
“Lan Jingyi,” said Jingyi.
“Right. Fuck off, Lan Jingyi,” said Sect Leader Jiang, and Jingyi realized with delight that he was probably the bitchiest person that Jingyi had met, ever, in his life. “Listen, A-Ling. Marriage is — a contract. Pick someone appropriate, and ... give them presents, or something. It’ll be fine. You can get concubines later if it doesn’t work out.”
Which was a pretty hilarious opinion from someone who’d been blackballed by every matchmaker in the business for being an overly picky asshole, if you asked Jingyi, which no one had.
Jin Ling blinked a few times. “Aren’t you supposed to like, love them?” he asked, voice gone small. He was looking at Sect Leader Jiang with eyes that promised he was this fucking close to crying. Jingyi didn’t know what that was about, but Sect Leader Jiang seemed to, because he visibly softened, reaching out to give Jin Ling’s shoulder a firm squeeze.
“Love matches among sect leadership are few and far between,” he said, with a gruff kind of gentleness. “Your parents were — very lucky. To have made one.”
Jin Ling sniffed, and nodded. Oh right, Jingyi realized; he always kind of forgot that Jin Ling’s parents were dead, but to be fair, pretty much everyone Jingyi knew had parents who were dead. Basically everyone died during the Sunshot Campaign and those who didn’t died at Nightless City. Zizhen was probably the only person he knew who had even met his dad.
He joined Sect Leader Jiang in patting Jin Ling’s shoulder. It was harder to be an orphan when your sect sucked. Jingyi’s sect was the best one, obviously, where kids were raised basically as a village, not in family groups, so he’d never really felt the absence.
Sizhui had been different, but Sizhui was Hanguang-jun’s heir, so.
Sect Leader Jiang abruptly seemed to decide that he had said all he needed to say, and left with a sharp heel turn. Jingyi assumed he’d just swoop back off to Lotus Pier without saying goodbye to Senior Wei or anything, and then they’d both secretly cry about it, because that’s how discussion conferences in Gusu always ended.
Jingyi and Jin Ling looked at each other. Jingyi had the distinct impression that Jin Ling was looking to him for guidance, but Jingyi wasn’t Sizhui. He wasn’t, like, wise, or whatever. And Sizhui was out on some dumb adventure with his secret uncle.
There were way too many secret uncles in Jingyi’s social circle, he decided. Only he and Zizhen didn’t have any.
“Zizhen!” he cried then, snapping his fingers. “He hasn’t left yet, has he? Let’s catch him. Zizhen will know what to do.”
Zizhen didn’t know what to do.
Or: Zizhen did, but it was the most insane idea that Jingyi had ever heard.
“Me?” Jingyi repeated. “What do you mean, me?”
Zizhen ticked off on his fingers: “Jin Ling has to marry someone he trusts, who’s high-ranking enough to befit a sect leader but not so high-ranking that it looks like he’s trying to combine the sects, who won’t mind if later he wants to take on a concubine, and who can put up with his terrible personality.”
“But I have a terrible personality,” Jingyi reminded him. “I’m the worst Lan. Everybody says so.”
“Sizhui doesn’t,” Zizhen said.
“Sizhui doesn’t count. Sizhui’s ... Sizhui.”
“Can I marry Sizhui?” Jin Ling pitched in, brightening. “He’d be perfect! Everybody loves Sizhui!”
Zizhen rolled his eyes. “Yeah, go ahead, marry the son of the Chief Cultivator and the heir to the Lan sect,” he said. “Because that won’t look like a power grab.”
Jin Ling crossed his arms over his chest, harrumphing. He was the worst. Jingyi really liked him.
“If I marry Jingyi, he’d have to move out of Cloud Recesses,” Jin Ling pointed out. “He doesn’t want to do that.”
“Correct,” Jingyi agreed, then paused. “Or — well.”
Both Jin Ling and Zizhen turned to look at him, eyebrows raised in matching surprise.
Jingyi cuffed one foot against the floor. “It’s just. Without Sizhui, it’s kind of ...”
“Quiet,” Zizhen guessed, sounding sympathetic. Jingyi winced. He hated having nice friends. They always used that terrible tone of understanding. That tone was going to be banned in Lanling, if he — if.
Wait, was Jingyi considering it?
Holy shit, Jingyi was considering it.
He narrowed his eyes at Jin Ling. Jin Ling was staring at him, open-mouthed.
“We’re gonna have to, like, fuck,” Jingyi pointed out, wrinkling his nose. “You know that, right. Like at least one time, we gotta do it.”
Jin Ling made a face. “Yeah,” he muttered. “Ugh.”
“Hey, I’m very good-looking,” Jingyi protested. “I’m practically the Third Jade of the Lan Sect.”
He did not appreciate just how hard his friends laughed. “That’s Sizhui, surely,” Zizhen said. “Seeing as Hanguang-jun’s the second, and he’s his son.”
“His nice-looking face is just a coincidence,” Jingyi sniffed. “He’s not, like, Hanguang-jun’s blood. Almost nobody is anybody’s blood, on account of how everybody died. Even Senior Wei died, before he got better.”
He winced. Jin Ling’s mouth pulled down into a frown.
“Nice,” Zizhen muttered, reaching out to rub a gentle circle on Jin Ling’s back. Jin Ling shot Zizhen a glare, but leaned into the touch anyway. What a dummy. “I thought Lans weren’t supposed to gossip.”
“Who’s gossiping?” Jingyi dismissed. “I remind Senior Wei all the time that he died. And I don’t know why the Little Mistress is getting all sniffly about it when he talks nothing but shit to him anyways.”
Zizhen looked aggrieved. “That’s how they express affection,” he said.
Ugh. He was right. Whatever. Jiangs and Jins were so weird. In Cloud Recesses when you loved someone you let them sit with you in your field of bunnies, and did copies while in a handstand with you when you got in trouble. “My point is,” Jingyi continued doggedly, “he got handsome all on his own, which means he’s got to compete to be the third-most-handsome Lan just like everybody else.”
Zizhen and Jin Ling contemplated this. After a long pause, Jin Ling conceded, “Well — fine. Whatever. I’ll marry you, I guess.”
Jingyi scoffed. Here he was, doing Jin Ling the world’s biggest favor, and all he got was an “I guess”? Incredible. The nerve of this guy.
“Don’t act so excited about it, Little Mistress,” he snapped. “I don’t have to marry you. I could let the minor sects duke it out and stick you with some — some — stranger whose parents still hate you because of your uncle and your uncle and your uncle and your uncle.”
Zizhen buried his face in his hands.
“Only two of my uncles are hated by the cultivation world!” Jin Ling protested. “Nobody even knows about my other shitty uncles!”
“They’re gonna if you don’t treat me right,” Jingyi told him, putting his nose in the air. “I know you’re rich. I better get super nice robes. And — and a headpiece. I want a fancy headpiece like Hanguang-jun’s.”
Jin Ling gave a very deep, and very sarcastic, bow. “Anything for the Third Jade of the Lan Sect,” he said in a horrible little gremlin voice, so that Jingyi had no choice but to hit him over the head with a cushion until he surrendered.
So anyway: he was gonna marry Jin Ling.
When they had gone to Hanguang-jun to ask for his blessing and permission, he’d stared hard at Jingyi the whole time and then sent Jin Ling out of the pavilion. Senior Wei was practically vibrating next to him.
“Lan Jingyi. Is this what you want?” Hanguang-jun had intoned, in that serious voice of his. Jingyi remembered being little, tiny, going with Sizhui to see the rabbits. He remembered falling asleep with their heads on Hanguang-jun’s lap. He felt a tug of, he didn’t know, something, in his chest.
He said carefully, “Jin Ling is my friend. He needs my help. And.” He swallowed. Hanguang-jun waited. Eventually Jingyi managed: “I’ve never been... the best. At being — you know.”
Hanguang-jun did not insult him by pretending not to know. He nodded once. “Very well. Then I will speak to my brother, and the sect will arrange for an exchange of betrothal gifts. But you will always have a home in Cloud Recesses.”
Jingyi wasn’t proud to find he was blinking back tears, but he was saved from doing anything about them by Senior Wei clapping his hands in delight and saying, “Jingyi! A-Yi, do you realize what this means?”
“I’m gonna be higher ranked than Sizhui,” Jingyi said immediately, smug.
Senior Wei snorted. “Well — true,” he agreed. “But actually what it means is that you’re gonna be my nephew! You’ll call me da-jiu, right? Come on, it’ll make Jin Ling so mad.”
Jingyi blinked, doing the math in his head, and just like that the number of people in his social circle without a secret uncle narrowed down to Zizhen alone.
“Uh, so, this is Koi Tower,” Jin Ling said, gesturing around.
Jingyi rolled his eyes at him. “I’ve been to Koi Tower before, Little Mistress,” he pointed out. “And you suck at this. You’re supposed to be like, ‘everything the light touches belongs to you, my sweet bride.’”
Jin Ling gaped at him. Jingyi was gonna have to teach him about jokes. He didn’t think anyone had ever done that, which was, just, so sad. Jin Ling’s life was terrible. He was very lucky to be marrying Jingyi.
“You want me to call you my sweet bride?” Jin Ling repeated.
Jingyi sighed. “There’s this thing,” he explained, “where you say something not precisely true, for comedic effect.”
Jin Ling scowled and shoved at him. “Shut up,” he snapped. “What’s true then, precisely?”
“You can — I guess you can call me A-Yi,” Jingyi decided after a moment, then wrinkled his nose when Jin Ling repeated it. “Ugh, no, that’s so weird. That’s way too weird.”
If the face Jin Ling made was any indication, he agreed. “Silly melon,” he suggested, voice dry.
“Dumb egg,” Jingyi shot back. Then he had a thought: “Does Sect Leader Jiang really refuse to recognize Senior Wei’s marriage to Hanguang-jun?”
Jin Ling heaved a big sigh, making a helpless sort of flappy-arms-gesture. “He’s mad that they just went off and got married and nobody told him about it,” he said, then paused, made a face, made a different face, and added, “...I think? I think that’s it. He’d rather die than talk to me about it. Or anyone about it. Especially Wei Wuxian. But once while he was stomping around being mad he said A-Xian, so.”
Jingyi considered this. “I think Senior Wei thinks Sect Leader Jiang wouldn’t ... want to be involved. In a real wedding.”
“Also he likes just doing whatever he wants all the time without any regard for society,” Jin Ling added, voice petulant.
“And that,” Jingyi agreed, delighted. “I can’t believe the Yiling Patriarch is going to be my da-jiu. For once your army of secret uncles pays dividends.”
Jin Ling glared at him. “Ugh. Of course that would excite you. Everyone’s gonna hate you,” he said glumly. “You’re great on paper but in person my advisors are gonna, just, hate you.”
“That’s okay,” Jingyi assures him. “I grew up in Cloud Recesses and I’m me, so, I’m used to old guys being annoyed at me. But hey! Maybe that’ll make you look better in comparison.”
For a moment, they both considered this; then the clouds cleared from Jin Ling’s face. “Maybe I’ll just tell them that if it wasn’t you, the runner up was gonna be Zizhen,” he mused. “Imagine if they had to deal with his dad all the time.”
They both shuddered.
“This is gonna go great,” Jingyi decided. “How hard is it to plan a wedding anyways?”
The answer was “very, very hard.”
They had to do so much stuff. All the advisors had opinions on who to invite and who not to invite and where everyone had to sit, and Jingyi got fitted for like fourteen different wedding robes, which, look, Jingyi understood the value of ceremony, but that was just absurd.
Jingyi had known that Jin Ling — that the Jin Clan — was rich, but he hadn’t really thought about it. The Lan Clan was rich, too; all the major clans were rich. That’s what made them major. But money worked differently, here. People, like... used it. They dressed in it, to show off to each other. Jingyi was supposed to look fancy all the time, even though he didn’t really get what the point was. He was marrying Jin Ling. He was the fanciest person here already. Why did his robes have to have jewels on them about it? You weren’t even allowed into Koi Tower if you weren’t, quote, “dressed properly.”
Honestly, Jingyi had not given Jin Ling enough credit. It turned out that the Jin were just ... Like That.
(“It’s exclusionary,” Jingyi sniffed to Jin Ling, because it was even though his main problem with it was that he hated taking off all his layers and putting new ones all back on. Honestly, he thought the Lan really took a lot of shit for something that the Jins did way worse. “People should be measured by their work, not their clothes.”
Jin Ling had shrugged. “Okay,” he said, which Jingyi assumed meant he was done listening.)
The sleeping stuff was kind of weird, too, because they’d given him a whole set of apartments for just himself and sometimes Jingyi missed Sizhui and the dorms so much that it gave him a toothache. He just — he wasn’t used to sleeping alone. He didn’t like it.
He took to going down to the kitchens in the early morning and watching the servants prepare for the next day. They were the only ones in this whole dumb place that got up on time. At first it had kind of freaked them out, but then they seemed to get used to him and stopped paying him any mind.
Eventually, one of the head cooks, a round old lady named Jin Lu, said, “You boys are going to have to work out a schedule if you want to keep this up until the wedding.”
Jingyi frowned. “Us boys?” he asked.
“You and A-L ... uh, Sect Leader Jin,” she explained. “He keeps coming in and seeing you and leaving again, presumably because you’re not allowed to be together before the wedding.”
“We’re not?” Jingyi asked, making a face. “Uh. I mean. Yes. Of course we are not, which is why we — haven’t. Been together. Before the wedding. It wouldn’t be proper. Haven’t seen hair nor hide of him. What’s he look like? Soft features, big dimples, right?”
Jin Lu snorted.
“He must like you to give you the kitchens,” she noted. “But we miss him. He used to spend quite a bit of time down here with us. Didn’t have many friends, poor thing. He reminds me so much of his mother.”
Jingyi’s eyebrows rose. “Wait,” he realized, delighted: “you like him!”
Jin Lu gave him the kind of look that Jingyi was beginning to suspect was the Jin equivalent of Hanguang-jun’s slow, unimpressed blink. “Don’t you?”
“Well, of course, I do,” Jingyi dismissed. “He’s terrible.”
“Hm,” snipped Jin Lu, and tossed a roll of dough at him. “Then be a little kinder.”
“Yeah, it’s, I will,” said Jingyi. “I’ll — wait, how am I supposed to work out a schedule with him if I’m not allowed to see him?”
What he did was: he went through the window. Jin Ling screamed; Fairy raised her head from her dog bed and yawned in Jingyi’s direction before going back to bed.
“Calm down,” Jingyi hissed. “It’s me, dumb egg.”
“Make some fucking noise,” Jin Ling hissed. “Fucking Lans, you’re all — whatever. Why did you come through the window?”
“We aren’t allowed to see each other!” Jingyi cried, throwing his hands in the air. “I’ve been just waltzing in and out! People probably think I’m, like, a big premarital whore!”
Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “No one thinks that,” he said. “Absolutely no one believes that you have any interest in sleeping with me, probably because you’re so blatant about it. They all think you’re marrying me because you feel bad.”
Jingyi opened his mouth, and then shut it again.
Jin Ling sighed, sitting all the way up in bed. “You haven’t paid any attention to the rules of being a — you know, bride, or whatever, and people know we’re — that we hang out sometimes, and nobody here likes me anyway, so the only gossip is that you’re marrying me because I’m super pathetic and couldn’t get an actual wife.” He didn’t look at Jingyi, picking instead at his bedclothes.
Jingyi narrowed his eyes. “Who’s saying that?” he demanded. Sure, Jingyi said it all the time, but that was different. Jingyi was the one marrying him, so he could insult his marriage all he wanted.
Jin Lin shrugged, but made no attempt to meet Jingyi’s eyes. “It’s fine,” he said. “That’s just — ” He waved a vague hand. “How it is. Here. Jiujiu helped get rid of all the people who all actively wanted to murder me, so actually it’s a real improvement.”
On the one hand, Jingyi really felt he should have been more explicitly warned that there was a possibility that his new sect was going to try to assassinate him; on the other, it’s not like he hadn’t known that Jin Ling was a Jin and that Jins really loved a good murder.
He had a flash of Sect Leader Jiang, speaking with Zizhen’s voice as he cut down would-be assassins, saying this is how I express affection.
He thought about this for a long second, dropping unceremoniously onto the bed. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked after a long minute, one hand on his stomach and one hand on Fairy’s head.
Jin Ling bent over him, frowning. “You don’t know anybody else here,” he pointed out, sounding offended. “I wasn’t going to leave you to be alone.”
Well. That kind of. That got to Jingyi, a bit. What with the sleeping badly and having just realized how bad Jin Ling’s life sucked and all, he was just — a little wobbly. Sizhui always said you should “feel however you feel,” and Jingyi was feeling like maybe he was gonna can it on the Dead Parents Jokes for a while.
“Silly melon,” he muttered. This guy!!!
Jin Ling huffed a laugh. “Dumb egg,” he said. “Who told you? Was it Jin Lu? She’s always been a rat.”
“Be nice to Jin Lu,” Jingyi scolded. “She was defending you. She thinks I’m mean. Me, like I’m the one who made it a rule that none of you guys eat at the same time so the staff has to constantly be cooking just in case someone gets hungry.”
“Well, yeah,” Jin Ling agreed, frowning. “That’s their job.”
“It makes their job harder. Why do you think we have such strict mealtimes in Cloud Recess? You think I like eating breakfast at mao shi? It’s called courtesy, Little Mistress. Also do you have any idea how much food you guys waste?”
Jin Ling seemed to think this over. “But ... what if you get hungry outside of a mealtime?”
Sometimes Jingyi thought that Jin Ling had been raised in a little room with no doors or windows that he was never allowed to leave. He tried to channel Sizhui as he explained with what he hoped looked like patience: “You develop this magical skill where you learn how to prepare food for yourself. Or I guess you practice the art of restraint, but that’s not really a quality Jin seem to cultivate.”
Jin Ling hit him, but in a half-hearted way, like he was busy thinking about something else. “Shut up,” he muttered. “Can I go back to sleep now?”
“I’m not stopping you,” Jingyi told him, and then, making a snap decision, climbed up to slip into bed beside him. Jin Ling gaped at him, which Jingyi waved off. “I’m already a big unmarried slut,” he pointed out cheerfully. “And you were right, I don’t like being alone, so. Anyway, we’ve slept this close on night hunts before, what’s the difference? I’ll sneak out the window again in the morning if you’re so scandalized.”
“I’m not scandalized,” Jin Ling grumbled.
“Ohhhhh, you’re turned on,” Jingyi said knowledgably, just to fuck with him, and nodded seriously, gesturing at himself. “I get it. It’s because of how handsome I am. Third Jade.”
Jin Ling shoved at him hard enough that Jingyi’s legs dislodged Fairy, who grumped at them. “I’m not!” Jin Ling cried. “Shut up!”
“You shut up!”
“You shut up first!”
“Fine! Same time!”
They glared at one another for a long minute. Then, with a flustered huff, Jin Ling extinguished the lights with a burst of spiritual energy and they both rolled onto their sides, facing opposite directions, and went to bed.
In the morning, Jingyi sent butterflies to Sizhui and Zizhen. To Zizhen he wrote pls come immediately if you ever want to see Jin Ling alive again and to Sizhui he said I know you’re busy with Sad Family Stuff but just so you know I am marrying Jin Ling & it’s going kind of weirdly. Miss you!!! Come to Lanling. Hi to Senior Wen!!!
He didn’t have a plan, but he planned to have a plan, and he’d need help. For one thing, he definitely wasn’t going to let people talk shit about Jin Ling for Jingyi’s bad behavior, but he also wasn’t about to be lonely for six months until the wedding took place on the date the matchmaker had set. What they needed were chaperones that they could speak frankly in front of, and he didn’t know anyone who was more responsible than Zizhen and Sizhui, except maybe Hanguang-jun, but that was only if he didn’t have Senior Wei around because Senior Wei could talk him into literally anything.
It took Zizhen a day and a half to send him a letter back, delivered by courier that said Do Not Do Murder Without Further Consultation Will Be Arriving As Soon As Possible, Pending Permission From My Dad.
The problem was, now that Jingyi knew what people were saying, it was impossible not to hear it. They were — so mean, some of them. It was like anything Jin Ling did was wrong, no matter what. Jingyi considered himself a fairly judgmental person, but this was ridiculous.
“Gossip is forbidden,” he found himself snapping at one of the, like, eight hundred thousand Jin cousins after they muttered something about Jin Ling’s hairpiece being — too shiny? Shiny in the wrong way? How could something be shiny in the wrong way?
The cousin — ah yes, Jin Chan, Jingyi remembered now. He hated this guy. Senior Wei hated this guy, and Senior Wei didn’t remember enough people to hate them. Or like them, honestly. Sometimes Jingyi was pretty sure the only people Senior Wei was capable of holding in his head if he wasn’t directly in front of them were Sizhui and Hanguang-jun. For everyone else he had a real out-of-sight-out-of-mind policy. — frowned at him.
“Since when?” he snorted. “And who are you to tell me what’s forbidden?”
“Oh, right, sorry,” Jingyi admitted snidely. “Jin Ling is so refined that I forgot the rest of you Jin don’t know any manners.”
Jin Chan raised his eyebrows. “Jin Ling?” he repeated. “Refined?”
Admittedly, this was not Jingyi’s best cover story. “More than you,” he said, doubling down with a jut of his chin. “I suppose while you were running around gossiping and being generally useless, he was studying how to be a good sect leader. But of course I wouldn’t expect you to understand, it’s not your fault you were raised poorly.”
“You — !” Jin Chan cried. “You’re acting like — like you like him! Everyone knows you’re only marrying him out of pity, because no one else will.”
An idea occurred to Jingyi.
A wonderful, terrible idea.
He said, “Ha! Is that what you think? Clearly your taste is as bad as your manners. We had a whole adventure last year, overthrowing your former Sect Leader. You wouldn’t know anything about it, because you were too unimportant to invite. But I really saw a whole other side of him, and now, I’m just. Whew.” He waved his hand vaguely. “You know. Woo-woo.”
“Woo ... woo,” said Jin Chan.
“You think I’d move to Lanling on purpose, if it weren’t for the power of my love? It sucks here. They make me try on, like, eighteen robes a day, for no reason at all.”
Jin Chan and his friends were gaping at Jingyi like he was the Yiling Patriarch. “Then — all the time you’ve been in and out of his room,” one of them said. “You mean you really were — ?”
“I wish,” Jingyi sighed. “Jin Ling is so upstanding and traditional. He won’t even let me touch him at all! I’ve been trying to seduce him but he keeps saying ‘Jingyi, we have to wait until the wedding’ and ‘Jingyi, it’s not appropriate’ and ‘Jingyi, you stay on that side of the room by the window so people can see you and know that I’m not impugning your honor.’”
“I thought the Lan were supposed to be stuffy,” Jin Chan said, eyes narrowed.
Jingyi scoffed at him. “Sure, about stuff that matters,” he agreed. “But like, you’ve seen Hanguang-jun with Senior Wei. They basically go at it in public.”
The Jins nodded their heads thoughtfully. Jingyi spared a moment to be grateful to Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei for being super gross all the time.
He couldn’t believe the Jins accepted their marriage but Senior Wei’s own brother didn’t. It was so unfair.
“Anyway, that’s why we have to get proper chaperones in,” he lamented. “Because even my very honorable husband-to-be is weakening to my seductive advancements. There’s no telling what I might do to him without decent oversight!”
Jin Chan blustered again, raising a hand like he was going to, what, hit Jingyi? Jingyi? Jingyi had more cultivation strength in his left elbow than this guy had in his whole body, because Jingyi got his by doing handstands and copying rules. When Jins got punished they probably just, like, weren’t allowed more than one outfit change during the day.
“What’s wrong with Jin chaperones?” Jin Chan spluttered, and Jingyi was very glad he asked.
He turned his nose up, pulling his best Xiansheng impression, and said, “Didn’t you listen? I said we’d require a proper chaperone. I think the four of you have proved exactly what’s wrong with the Jin offerings,” before turning on his heel and marching away, flicking his forehead ribbon over his shoulder as he went.
“Why does Jin Chan think you’re in love with me,” Jin Ling demanded without looking up from his correspondence, when Jingyi swung in through the window that night.
“I cannot be held responsible for what Jin Chan thinks, when he deigns to think anything at all,” Jingyi sniffed. He was tired. It had been a long day. He’d spent most of it in Jin School For Being A Jin, where he was supposed to study like, Jin customs. For someone whose clan had over four thousand rules about how to get from mai shi to hai shi, Jingyi could appreciate a good set of instructions. But as far as he could tell the only consistent Jin custom was being sneaky and murdering people — feedback which his teachers did not appreciate.
Jin Ling scowled at him. “Shut up, he’s my family,” he spluttered, but he was flushed pink, so Jingyi knew that what he meant was thank you for also hating my worst cousin. Jingyi was great at hating people in solidarity, or because the person who should hate them wasn’t allowed. He did it for Sizhui all the time.
Hanguang-jun did for Senior Wei, who should hate a lot of people but could never remember who they were.
“I’m gonna be your family pretty soon,” Jingyi pointed out blithely, and then the stricken look on Jin Ling’s faced panicked him so badly that he went on: “Assuming they don’t cancel the nuptials because I don’t pass Remedial Jin School For People Who Don’t Think Anybody Should Be Like The Jin.”
He was clearly leaning too heavily on the Jin content, because this barely got a rise out of Jin Ling, who just made a face at him and half-heartedly gestured at Fairy to bite. Fairy declined to do this, instead hopping up on the bed and settling her heavy, fat head in Jingyi’s lap for pets.
“There’s nothing wrong with being like a Jin,” Jin Ling grit out. “At least we have fun! You Lan don’t even drink. You go to bed at baby bed time. Your food is bad!”
(Jingyi conceded that the food was bad.)
The thing was, the Lans had rules. And Jingyi knew that sometimes rules had to be broken for the greater good, but at least they were, like, an organizing principle. Even the Jin customs he was learning weren’t rules, they were just ... dumb hierarchy structures, and tax laws.
And they weren’t even good tax laws.
“What’s wrong with them?” Jin Ling asked, looking combative, like he was going to argue even though Jingyi would bet anything he didn’t know shit about the Jin tax laws.
“For one thing, you don’t tax cultivators,” Jingyi pointed out, “even though they’re the ones with all the money.”
“...Huh,” said Jin Ling. He peered closer at Jingyi. “Well then, why don’t you change it?”
Jingyi blinked. “What?”
“Change the tax law,” Jin Ling reiterated. He had a stubborn set to his jaw. “You’re going to be my husband, aren’t you? So we ... y’know. It’s supposed to be a partnership. I don’t know shit about tax laws. My uncle never let me learn any of it.”
“Probably so that you’d be terrible at being a Sect Leader and nobody would support you in a coup,” Jingyi agreed thoughtfully. At Jin Ling’s look, he added, “Sorry. I’m right, but uh, that sucks for you.”
Jin Ling sighed. “I mean. Yeah, probably. The point is, I don’t know anything about it, and you do, so,” he flapped his hands in a shooing gesture, “come up with something better and we’ll just do that.”
Jingyi narrowed his eyes, even though he was already thinking about Lan rules that he could adapt for Lanling’s agricultural areas. “Well what are you gonna bring to this partnership, then?” he demanded. “If I’m on taxes, what are you on?”
“I’m the people person,” Jin Ling answered, in all apparent seriousness. Jingyi gaped at him for a long second, til his face broke into a grin. “That was a joke. You know, when people say something not precisely true, for comedic effect?”
“Fuck off,” Jingyi laughed, but he was a little delighted. What a shit. “Okay. I’m gonna. I’m gonna just change your fucking laws, I guess.”
“Cool,” said Jin Ling, and then went back to — whatever he’d been doing. When Jingyi tried to read it, he blocked him with an arm and dislodged Fairy enough that she yelped scoldingly at both of them. Sheepish, they resettled, Jingyi curling up in bed and Jin Ling balancing his papers on his lap.
He thought about taxes. About how it worked in Jiangnan’s more rural areas, where the main crop was rice. Jiangnan had more rivers and water access, broadly; they worried more about flooding than drought, and their commerce was in porcelain, tea, and silk, all of which has been controlled by the Lan before Sunshot decimated everything, but which in the aftermath became instead a source of heavy capital tax. Langling’s money came from its concentrated merchant base and sale of salt from along the seaboard. Like Jiangnan, the Jin had controlled the salt trade pre-Sunshot, and released their grip during and after; but instead of heavy taxation, they relied on a mix of merchant support (Jingyi wasn’t stupid; he knew they meant bribes) and heavy cultivation fees for their wealth. So the heaviest tax burdens fell on farmers, whose land holdings might have been large but their yield certainly wasn’t making them rich.
Jingyi was pretty sure he’d read about this. He... it was late, but he was still awake. He had the brain power. He wanted to figure out —
Jin Ling put a hand over his eyes. He sounded cranky when he said, “Go to bed, silly melon, you’re distracting me,” and Jingyi gave up, and did.
Sizhui got to them first.
“Hey,” he greeted, and the perfunctory vibe of his bow was enough to tip Jingyi off to how freaked out he was. “You’re — was your letter for real? I came as soon as I got it. I couldn’t tell if it was just a very weird prank. You go a little nuts without someone to workshop ideas with, sometimes.”
Jingyi bowed back, because it was polite and Sizhui liked to be polite. Then he flung himself into Sizhui’s arms even though Jingyi wasn’t really, like, a hugger, usually. It was just that Sizhui was his favorite person in the whole entire world, and now that he was here Jingyi was sort of struck by the fact that he was marrying Jin Ling. He was going to have to live in Koi Tower. Where Sizhui wasn’t! Where nobody was!
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” he explained weakly. “Zizhen said I should. Blame Zizhen.”
“Okay,” Sizhui agreed, soothingly. “So — not a prank.”
“No. I really did commit to marrying our worst friend,” Jingyi confessed. He scrubbed at his forehead ribbon. “What was I thinking? I can’t run a sect. I’m Jingyi. I wasn’t even good at being in my own sect.”
Sizhui gave the front of Jingyi’s robes a firm tug. “Do not tell lies,” he says sternly, looking so much like Hanguang-jun that Jingyi wonders whether maybe they were somehow blood relations. Everybody had secret relatives all over the place; no reason Hanguang-jun shouldn’t. “You were great at it. The best Lan, I think.”
“Sizhui, I’m already in the middle of a crisis, you can’t say nice stuff to me or I will lose it all over your travel robes,” Jingyi told him helplessly. “C’mon.”
The laugh Sizhui gifted him with was soft. “Appreciate the good people,” he said, like the fact that he was quoting the Wall of Discipline made it any less of an attack on Jingyi, personally. “Jingyi. Do you — want to marry Jin Ling?”
This was close to the question Hanguang-jun had asked him weeks ago, when they’d first presented him with the idea. Is this what you want? He had asked. The answer to that question had been yes, I want to help my friend. But did Jingyi want, specifically, to marry Jing Ling?
He hummed thoughtfully. He’d spent the last few weeks sleeping in Jin Ling’s rooms, coming in through the window and leaving the same way, and otherwise avoiding him so as not to feed the rumors. Jin Ling never teased him about it, or even said anything; he just said, “I’m not going to bed at your dumb kid bedtime,” and stayed up working on whatever correspondance he was so obsessed with, knees tucked up against his chest and all the candles blown out except the small one he used to write by. Sometimes in the morning, Jingyi woke up to find Jin Ling curled up beside him, the crown of his head resting lightly against Jingyi’s side. He had really small ears. They were — kind of cute.
“I mean — someone has to marry him, and someone also has to marry me,” he pointed out. “I guess I want to marry him as much as I want to marry anybody.” He certainly wanted to marry Jin Ling much more than he wanted Jin Ling to have to marry a stranger, because with Jin Ling’s luck, that stranger would be terrible, or like, an assassin.
What, Jingyi was supposed to be like “no I won’t marry you” and then live for the rest of his life with the knowledge that Jin Ling was definitely going to get murdered on his wedding night? Probably before he even got to have sex one time?
“Lots of people would be lucky to marry you,” Sizhui told him, sounding really confident for a guy who had once seen Jingyi with boils all over his face from a ghost who thought he talked too much.
He couldn’t quite read the look in Sizhui’s eyes; but the way he reached out and gave Jingyi’s hand a squeeze said a lot. “Really,” he added, voice quiet.
Before he could say anything else, Jingyi spotted a familiar rustle in the nearby bushes. He grinned as Senior Wen’s head popped up, waving one shy hand before bowing deeply. “Young Master,” he greeted.
Jingyi bounded over to him to give his shoulder a firm pat. Senior Wei was always doing that, touching Senior Wen with affection, probably because he was a spooky-looking dead guy and most people didn’t. But Jingyi could read body clues, okay. He knew Senior Wen liked it when people acted like he wasn’t a corpse. He followed the pat with a bow, to be respectful.
“If you’re gonna call him A-Yuan you might as well call me A-Yi,” Jingyi reminded him sternly. “How did it go with all the, uh ...” He gestured vaguely to indicate burying and honoring all your dead relatives.
Senior Wen gave a flickering smile. “It was very different traveling with A-Yuan than with Wei-gongzi,” he said diplomatically.
Jingyi nodded knowledgeably. “Lots fewer people trying to kill you, I bet,” he said, and Senior Wen didn’t agree per se, but he did give a sheepish little blink. He was so cute. Jingyi understood why Senior Wei got all weepy about him. “Well, that’s good. I missed you!”
The look Senior Wen shot him was wide-eyed and startled. “Me?” he asked, pointing at his own chest.
Jingyi looked over his shoulder to where Sizhui was watching them, his big smile soft. He had both his arms wrapped around his middle like he sometimes did when he was feeling something but wasn’t ready to talk about it yet.
“Me, he asks,” Jingyi said to Sizhui, hooking his thumb over his shoulder toward Senior Wen. “Who else? Night hunting sucks without our badass Ghost General. I’m glad you’re both back. Or — well. I guess not back, in the strictest sense, since we aren’t in Gusu. But back with me. Oof!” The air went out of him as Sizhui flung himself against Jingyi’s back in a tight hug.
Jingyi stared down at Sizhui’s arms and then gave them a pat, looking with big eyes at a beaming Senior Wen.
“We missed you too,” Sizhui mumbled without letting up. Jingyi felt warm down to his toes. He patted Sizhui again, firmer this time.
“Well. I’ll go with you next time,” he decided. “All of us can go. Then — then nobody has to be missed.”
“Okay,” Sizhui agreed, and slowly drew back. He cleared his throat. “Shall we go in and see Jin Ling?”
Jin Ling was overjoyed to see Sizhui. He flung aside all his paperwork and leapt up, before seeming to remember himself and straightening his robes with a sharp tug and bowing, clearing his throat.
“First Disciple Lan Sizhui,” he greeted.
Sizhui grinned at him, bowing back. “Sect Leader Jin,” he greeted. Jingyi made a sound of disgust at them and flung himself onto Jin Ling’s bed.
“Yeah, yeah, everyone knows everybody’s title,” he grumbled. “Oh, hey, Sizhui, you realize that once A-Ling and I are married I’ll be higher ranked than you?”
“Don’t call me that,” Jin Ling snipped at him, gently bopping his head with his fist. “Dumb egg.”
“Silly melon,” Jingyi tossed back, cheerful. “You’re just grumpy because you haven’t been sleeping well. Maybe if you didn’t read til mao shi every night—”
Sizhui’s eyebrows rose, and his cheeks flushed a little pink. “You’re sleeping together?” he squeaked. “But — you — but the wedding isn’t for months!”
Jingyi and Jin Ling gave him matching frowns. “So?” Jingyi asked.
“It’s not like we weren’t already doing it on night hunts,” Jin Ling added.
Sizhui’s eyes got round. “You — you were doing it on night hunts?” he repeated.
Jingyi reached out to touch the back of his hand to Sizhui’s forehead. “I mean ... weren’t we all?” he asked. “Didn’t you and Senior Wen, on your travels? When it got cold especially?”
“Wait,” interrupted Jin Ling, because he was rude. “Is the Ghost General, like ... warm? I always assumed he’d be kind of. I don’t know. Clammy.”
“Don’t call Senior Wen clammy,” Jingyi scolded him, appalled. He gestured at the window. Senior Wen always insisted on staying outside when he came to Koi Tower, out of respect for having murdered Jin Ling’s dad. Jingyi thought that was sweet in its way, but honestly, he’d died a long time ago and Jingyi was pretty sure Jins were naturally built to shrug off the violent death of their leaders. You had to assume that as a population they just got used to it. “He can hear you, maybe!”
Sizhui flapped his hands in a horrified shut up gesture. “He’s my uncle,” he hissed. “How can you even ask me that!”
Jingyi blinked, first at Sizhui, then, at Jin Ling. This seemed like a very weird thing for Sizhui to be getting upset about, but he was agitated, enough that he had hidden his hands in his sleeves, probably so that he could fidget without being noticed. But the joke was on him, because Jingyi was very observant, and also, it was Sizhui. He knew everything there was to know about Sizhui.
“I am beginning to sense that perhaps there has been a miscommunication,” he deduced.
An expression of appalled horror crossed Jin Ling’s face. “You — you mean you thought we were — ” He lowered his voice to a whisper, like they were going to be overheard. “ — doing it?”
Sizhui, flustered, looked down and away. “Well, you said — you really did say — ”
“Me and Jingyi?” Jin Ling went on, heedless of the fact that Jingyi was genuinely right there and could hear him. “Us? Together?”
“Okay, well, no need to be quite so vehement,” Jingyi muttered.
Jin Ling stuck his tongue out at him; he did it back; Sizhui held up both hands and said in a much calmer tone, “All right. It’s fine. I misunderstood. When — I was at Lotus Pier with shufu when I got the letter and we were both ... neither of us was sure whether it was true.”
Jingyi’s head snapped around to gape at Jin Ling. “You hadn’t told him?”
Jin Lin’s cheeks were dark red, his shoulders hunched up to his ears. He looked like Jingyi had walked in on him naked. “It’s — I — shut up! I was going to! I just hadn’t ... gotten around to — wait, Sizhui, did you just call him shufu?”
Now it was Sizhui’s turn to blush. “He said I could,” he defended quietly. “Because of Senior Wei.”
“Oh, so he’ll recognize you as Senior Wei’s son just fine but his marriage is off the table,” Jingyi grumbled. “That’s rich.”
Jin Ling and Sizhui shot him matching glares. “It’s different,” they both said at the same time.
“Being a dick is how jiujiu shows you he loves you,” Jin Ling said, jutting his jaw out in a particularly stubborn way.
Jingyi gestured at Sizhui, because surely Sizhui could understand how insane that was. Sizhui didn’t quite meet his eyes, shrugging instead. “If he had nothing to yell about,” Sizhui murmured, “what reason would he have to talk to Senior Wei?”
“He could be like, ‘hey, what’s up, let’s drink some chili oil,’” Jingyi suggested flatly. “Or whatever it is those guys eat.”
“The cuisine at Lotus Pier is — unique,” Sizhui agreed with a wince and a nod. “He isn’t mad that they love each other. I think he just feels like Senior Wei... I don’t know. Abandoned him, maybe. Right before we left he took me to the ancestral hall and he said, ‘Jiejie, look, A-Xian managed to do a good thing by accident.’”
It was kind of an objectively rude thing to say, but Sizhui looked pleased about it, and shy. Jin Ling’s jaw dropped.
“He really did?” he asked. “Wow. He must really like you. Last time I was there he told my mom that I was ‘surviving fine.’”
Jingyi snorted. Jin Ling hit him without looking; Sizhui reached out to give his knee a warning squeeze.
“Hanguang-jun would agree with me, if he were here,” Jingyi muttered. Nobody was a bigger bitch to Sect Leader Jiang than Hanguang-jun. They had a real understanding between them about this.
Sizhui’s face morphed into something softer, amused. “You can’t keep running to Hanguang-jun anymore, now that you’re going to be married to a Sect Leader,” he teased. “You’re going to have to take Jin Ling’s side when they disagree.”
“Not a chance,” said Jingyi, immediately. “Anyway, I wouldn’t let our little A-Ling disagree with Hanguang-jun. I’m on laws, he has to listen to me.”
“You’re ... on laws?” Sizhui repeated.
Jin Ling coughed. He looked embarrassed, but also — stubborn, like he thought Sizhui was going to scold him. “He has good ideas,” he muttered. “About taxes. And stuff. The Elders got really mad but they’re good ideas. We’ve implemented a bunch already.”
Jingyi blinked, startled. “Wait, what? What ideas? Didn’t they yell at you?”
He wasn’t allowed into Jin Ling’s Super Secret Sect Leader meetings. He hadn’t known that... anything had progressed. He’d assumed they’d get shot down and that would be that.
“All of them, more or less, and of course they yelled at me,” Jin Ling told him, rolling his eyes. “All they do is yell at me. They said we’d been doing a 25% land tax and 3% capital tax for all non-cultivators for generations and it had been working great. So I said our last two clan leaders were so bad that we’re the joke of the cultivation world, and showed them the diagram you drew me about much more money we’d be making if we just started taxing people who had money, and then they all grumbled at me and said I was a disrespectful upstart, which means I won. We made the announcement last week.”
“But won’t everyone hate you?” Jingyi asked, at the same time Sizhui said gently, “I’m sure that will be very challenging for you to manage.”
Jin Ling shrugged. He looked deeply uncomfortable. “Everyone who’s going to hate me already hates me,” he pointed out, not for the first time. “But yes. We’ve been getting a lot of letters.”
Jingyi startled, thinking suddenly of all the times he’d half made note of Jin Ling poring over what he’d assumed were ... he didn’t know. He hadn’t really been interested enough to wonder.
The dress requirements, the mealtimes, the tax laws, half a dozen other things that Jingyi had complained about. Jin Ling had — he’d been listening, the whole time, and then — then he’d — ?
“I’m going to hug you,” Jingyi announced, much to Sizhui’s amusement and Jin Ling’s apparent horror. But it was too late. He was already gathering him up and squeezing the life out of him. This was a gesture of affection he’d picked up from Senior Wei, and Jingyi had to admit, it was growing on him.
“Get off!” Jin Ling whined. “I don’t — what are you doing!”
“Who knew you were such a sweet, dumb egg?” Jingyi asked, pulling back. He straightened the front of Jin Ling’s robes, feeling a little misty. “Sizhui, Sizhui, look at him. He’s so cute. Isn’t he so cute?”
“He’s very cute,” Sizhui agreed. He had his hands clasped behind his back. He was smiling. He’d been gone for ages, and now here he was, with Jingyi and Jin Ling, who’d changed his whole sect’s laws because Jingyi thought it was a good idea.
Jingyi was going to do a hug again, he decided, and dragged them both down onto the bed.
By the time Zizhen arrived making insane demands about menu options, his eyes pinched at the edges when he first knocked at the gates as if he really worried he’d come to Koi Tower to find Jin Ling dead and Jingyi running a coup.
“Oh, thank heavens, Sizhui’s here,” he’d sighed, relieved, which made both Jingyi and Jin Ling say, “hey!” but really more out of habit than real offense. Zizhen was right; wedding planning was going much better with Sizhui here, who’d taken to sitting in on all the long meetings about it which meant that Jingyi and Jin Ling couldn’t zone out and pass each other notes.
Zizhen waved them off. He was looking at the seating arrangements. “Oh, you can’t sit Sect Leader Yao next to Sect Leader Leader Yu. She’s got zero patience for him and you’ll end up having to deal with it. Put him next to Dad, then they can gossip amongst themselves and leave the rest of us alone.”
He made deft work of the rest of the chart — “Sect Leader Fu can’t be near the door, he’s always cold, and Sect Leader Wang must be kept away from anyone who exports iron” — and then claps his hands together once, satisfied.
“Right, so, the menu?” he prompted.
The remaining three were staring at him. “I’ve been trying to finish that dumb thing for weeks,” Jingyi complained. “You did it in four minutes!”
Zizhen looked back at the chart, and then at Jingyi. Eventually he shrugged. “I grew up an heir,” he reminded them. “A proper one, no offense Jin Ling. My mom’s obsessed with this stuff, which is funny given how little attention my dad pays it.”
Sizhui knocked shoulders with him. “We like you no matter how frustrating your dad is,” he assured Zizhen quietly.
“Yeah, I mean, Jin Ling and I don’t even have dads,” Jingyi volunteered, and Jin Ling must have been getting used to him because instead of being put out, he just laughed.
Zizhen heaved a put-upon sigh. “Well, now you’ve been talked through all the reasons, so you can do it yourself,” he said. “We’ll do the menu together, too. I’m much better at the behind-the-scenes stuff than any of the actual front-facing Sect Leader stuff. I don’t have the patience.”
“Who does?” Jin Ling grumbled; as one, Zizhen and Jingyi said, “Sizhui.”
“All four of us together make a pretty decent Sect Leader,” Sizhui mused.
“Well, I can’t marry all three of you,” Jin Ling said, sounding mad about it. “So you’ll have to come by often, okay? And — check in.”
Sizhui and Zizhen glanced at each other and then back at Jin Ling, their smiles a matched set. All of Jingyi’s favorite people in one room. It was pretty good, sometimes, being alive.
Pretty pretty good.
It was two months before the wedding and Jingyi honestly kind of thought they were ready. They had the menu, the four hundred robe outfit changes, the seating arrangements, the invitations sent and returned, the guest rooms ready. Zizhen and Sizhui were everywhere, one with him and one with Jin Ling at all times, the picture of propriety. In the mornings, all four of them went to the kitchens to bother Jin Lu. She yelled at them all the time, and called them A-Ling and A-Yi even though it was definitely not okay for her to do that.
The crazy thing, Jingyi was realizing, was that Jin Ling really was the people person. Not with the cultivators, who were a mess and would need years of retraining before they got it together, but with, like. The people. The servants all liked him; the people in Hedong really liked him. Jingyi was pretty sure there were like three orphanages that he was secretly patronizing, by the way the kids reacted to him when they saw him in town.
Anyway, now that the meal times had been implemented, Jin Lu had more time, to teach Jingyi stuff, like how to make lotus and pork soup. Sizhui had told him about it, apparently a tip from Sect Leader Jiang, who said his sister used to make it. They were going to serve it at the wedding, but Jingyi wanted to know how to make it, too. In case. Whatever.
They were going to be married. He should know how to do this kind of thing, even if the marriage wasn’t a love match. They were friends, weren’t they? Jingyi could do nice things for his friend who was also his husband and not have it be weird.
“I think we should have sex,” Jin Ling announced, when Jingyi swung into his rooms, and he was damned lucky that Jingyi didn’t fall out the damn window.
“What,” he squawked.
Jin Ling was sitting on the edge of his bed in his inner robes only, ramrod straight and blushing furiously. “You heard me!” he yelled.
“Stop yelling at me!” Jingyi yelled back. “Why do you want to have sex!”
“Because!” Jin Ling folded his arms across his chest, puffing out his cheeks, then blowing a long sigh. “....Because what if we’re bad at it,” he manages after a minute. “And then we’re — stuck.”
“We’re already kind of stuck,” Jingyi pointed out. “And anyway, you can always just — sleep with other people, I don’t mind.”
Jin Ling got that stubborn look. “I’m not going to — to be unfaithful,” he snapped. “Shut up! I’m not like that.”
Jingyi thought about Jin Ling’s gross grandfather and all of his secret uncles. He winced. “I know,” he assured him, coming fully into the bedroom and taking a seat next to him on the bed. “Sorry.”
Jin Ling nodded once, a sharp jerk.
“So, we should,” he said. “So that you, you can, you know. Test it out. See if you like it. Me.”
All of Jingyi’s friends were so cute. It was really difficult to deal with sometimes. He flopped back on the bed and spoke to the ceiling. “I’m sure that it’ll be fine,” he said. “I mean. I don’t know that much about it, practically? Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun are the only cutsleeves I know and Senior Wei is incessant but also somehow really vague about it.”
Jin Ling was quiet. Thoughtful. Eventually, he offered, “Well. I could. Uh. I could ... put ... my mouth on it?”
Jingyi sat up so fast he saw spots. Jin Ling’s whole face was red, even his ears. He folded his arms over his chest. He met Jingyi’s gaze like he was going to start arguing about it, his chin sticking out. His hair was all out of sorts, like he’d been running his hands through it. Jingyi was like — hm. He wanted to ... hm.
“Uh,” he said.
“Don’t you want to?” Jin Ling snapped, like Jingyi was inconveniencing him by not immediately disrobing.
“I don’t know!” Jingyi admitted. “Maybe!”
Jin Ling kissed him.
His hands curled in the front of Jingyi’s robes, mashing their mouths together. Jingyi startled, then held very, very still as Jin Ling relaxed a little, and the sharp press of their mouths kind of ... gentled. That was nicer. Jingyi sort of — tilted his head, a little, and Jin Ling’s mouth popped open. That was nicer still. Jingyi had sort of a idea that you were supposed to do something else, that kissing was more active than just breathing into each other’s mouths, but —
Jin Ling’s tongue darted out, nervous, and Jingyi made a little surprised sound that had Jin Ling pressing closer, a nice pressure this time, mouth starting to move.
Ohhhh this is kissing, Jingyi thought.
Kissing was great.
Jingyi was a big fan of kissing.
Jingyi hauled Jin Ling into his lap.
“Eep,” said Jin Ling, but didn’t stop, hands going up and around the back of Jingyi’s neck, and everything felt sort of like it was on fire, and it was so embarrassing to think that it was Jin Ling doing this, Jin Ling in his lap, Jin Ling’s tongue in his —
The door opened, and Jingyi vaguely heard someone shouting, and then Jin Ling was being dragged off him and Jingyi felt sort of ... like ... bereft.
Zizhen was holding Jin Ling by the waist. Sizhui was standing between them, looking as close to panic as Sizhui ever looked. Jin Ling’s mouth was pink, and shiny. Jingyi felt — he felt very — it was —
“Guess that bit works,” he croaked, and Zizhen started yelling at him, and Sizhui was worriedly straightening his robes and quietly reciting a whole list of principles that Jingyi had just been caught violating: “Behave yourself, be modest, perform acts of chivalry, do not be promiscuous, do not engage in debauchery ... ”
But Jingyi was still looking at Jin Ling, who was still looking back at him, and then Jin Ling’s lip twitched, and twitched again, and then he was laughing, sinking back against Zizhen and letting himself be held, and Jingyi was laughing, too, maybe out of relief or just straight-up panic, he didn’t know, but their laughter made Zizhen shout, “Stop! Stop laughing! I am yelling at you stop laughing at me — ” which only made it worse, and then Sizhui was leaning his head against Jingyi’s shoulder and laughing, too, and Jingyi felt a little drunk with it, with having been kissed, with knowing he was going to get kissed again, and — and more. Lots more. I could put my mouth on it.
“You can’t,” Sizhui told him quietly. “Jingyi. Hey. It’s not just about the rules. If people found out, it would ... they’d call the marriage off, and you’d be done for, forever. Jin Ling’s already-fragile position would be at huge risk. You can’t.”
Jingyi nodded, sobering a little. Zizhen was still yelling. Something about propriety and... the history of silk? He’d gone a little off the sword, maybe. “I know,” he admitted. “I didn’t mean to. It just happened.”
Zizhen ran out of steam. “And that’s why the Lan export so much silk, and you absolutely under no circumstances can have sex before the wedding,” he concluded, somewhat out of breath.
Jin Ling huffed and fussed with his hairpiece, which had come a little loose. Sometimes, when he was up late responding to letters, he forgot to take it off, and Jingyi had to gently remove it in the morning.
“Premarital sex means no more silk for fancy Jin robes, got it,” Jingyi said, and then, to gentle it, gave Jin Ling a smile. “We’d never risk something of such vital importance.”
Jin Ling took a few seconds to work this over in his mind as if to figure out whether Jingyi was insulting him or not; eventually, he gave up, and smiled back.
It had been a very bad idea to make people think he wanted to have sex with Jin Ling, because now that he did kind of want to have sex with Jin Ling, he couldn’t.
For one thing, he was never alone. There was no more sleeping together, not even innocently; Zizhen and Sizhui had decided that they weren’t to be trusted alone, so Sizhui was now sleeping in Jingyi’s quarters and Zizhen had moved into Jin Ling’s apartments.
“We’re not going to go crazed with lust,” Jin Ling muttered over dinner. He nudged grumpily at Zizhen, who kicked out at him; he grabbed Zizhen’s foot on its retreat and yanked, and they nearly overturned the whole table.
Sizhui took a long, patient breath, probably learned at the feet of Hanguang-jun watching Senior Wei be Senior Wei. “We know that,” he said. “But it’s good for appearances. Also, we did very much find you kissing Jingyi from his lap.”
“That was once!” Jin Ling protested. “We were just making sure we were... were... sexually ... compatible!”
“A very smart experiment to run,” Sizhui agreed. He spooned more soup broth into Jin Ling’s bowl. “Perhaps we’d have to be slightly less diligent if you had found that you were not.”
Jin Ling, who was not used to Sizhui being firm with him, caved immediately, mumbling something under his breath but not pushing the issue. Zizhen sighed, but reached across the table and patted his head. “I guess the key piece of learning to take away here is that I was right and all my ideas are good,” he said.
Problematically, Jingyi wasn’t sure whether the issue was that he wanted to keep kissing Jin Ling specifically, or if it was just that kissing was the best, and he wanted to do it with everybody, all the time. He found himself sometimes with his eyes catching on the way Sizhui’d cheeks got round and soft when he smiled, thinking, huh! I could bite that!
Once, when Zizhen was lecturing them about why the new Moling sect leader should be sat between Clan Leader Zhao and Clan Leader Rong, but that Clan Leader Rong cannot be seated anywhere near Sect Leader Jiang, because of a disastrous blind date, Jingyi had become sort of fixated on the way his hands, like, moved. He had good hands, Jingyi thought.
The point was, Jingyi felt sort of like he’d been absolutely fine before, and then Jin Ling came along and opened a door he hadn’t known was locked, and now every time Jin Ling said something annoying, instead of wanting to hit him, Jingyi kind of wanted to pin him down and. And.
He didn’t know! Nobody had ever told him!
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, clearing his throat and forcibly not Thinking About It. “Don’t get too smug until we get through the wedding. There’s a very real chance someone will still get murdered. It might even be me.”
“The only person who’s at risk of being murdered is Wei Wuxian,” Jin Ling disagreed. “Because if I put him with Hanguang-jun and pour tea for them as Jingyi’s representatives, he’ll be furious that Wei Wuxian isn’t, whatever, acknowledging that he’s my da-jiu. But if I put them together, they will definitely stab each other before anyone has a chance to pour tea for anyone else.”
“Plus, Hanguang-jun will be so sad,” Jingyi added.
Sizhui nodded at him. “That too,” he agreed.
“And you know someone with their eye on Koi Tower is going to make a comment about the marriage’s legitimacy, given how fast everything happened, and how little to-do there was about the six etiquettes,” said Zizhen. “Honestly, you only got away with it because everyone’s clans are a mess from all the fighting and the collapse of... uh, you know.”
Jin Ling gave a tired wave. Jingyi was proud of him. Look at how controlled that temper was.
“There just wasn’t any courting at all, really,” Sizhui worried. “Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei courted for almost two decades before they even kissed.”
“No,” Jingyi and Jin Ling said at once, and then Jingyi just decided not to look over in that direction, for no reason.
The four of them sat quietly, contemplating. The wedding was just a month away. When he thought about it, Jingyi was often beset by a deep, bird-quick flood of panic. To avoid this, he blurted out, “Well — Jin Ling. Where would you want Senior Wei to sit?”
Jin Ling gave him a look of surprise; beside him, Jingyi could feel Sizhui’s warm, beaming smile. The one he gave when Jingyi had done something really good. Something he really liked.
“Why would I care?” Jin Ling said, louder than he needed to, which meant that he did, in fact, care enormously. “He can sit wherever. He can sit outside.”
Sizhui leaned his shoulder’s into Jingyi’s. “I know you have your own relationship with...” He swallowed, then said with a determined tone, “...my dad, but I’d appreciate it if you were kinder about him, in front of me.”
Jin Ling visibly startled. “You really think of him as your dad?” he repeated. “But — Hanguang-jun is — ?”
“I’ve got two of them,” Sizhui agreed, patient to the point of rudeness. “I’m very lucky in that sense. I told you that Sect ... that shufu acknowledged me, didn’t I?”
“Well. I guess I thought it was because Hanguang-jun is your dad, and Wei Wuxian is... you know. With him.”
“Xian-gege birthed me from his own body, in the Burial Mounds,” Sizhui said, with a perfectly straight face.
Jin Ling gaped at him until Zizhen elbowed his side. “What! Why am I getting elbowed! Don’t you hear the nonsense he’s spouting? Elbow him instead!”
Zizhen heaved a heavy sigh. “It’s a metaphor, Jin Ling,” he said, and Jin Ling started spluttering at him but didn’t bring up making Senior Wei sit outside again, so Jingyi figured that conversation was tabled and Sizhui had, as usual, won it.
It’s going to be A-Yi from now on because you’re a good and filial Lan boy and you have to let me, now that you’re going to be my nephew. Sizhui lets me call him A-Yuan but he gets all pink-eared about it, and it’s too cute and it takes me days to recover, so I can only do it once every new moon.
Hope all the wedding planning is going well. Listen: I’ve been eavesdropping on the adults and it turns out everyone has big plans for who should sit for you. It’s a big enough deal that they’re contemplating Zewu-jun, or even Lan Qiren. But I’m a romantic, I guess, and I think it would be nice if you had family there. So — if you want Hanguang-jun to sit, tell me. He’ll do it! He doesn’t play favorites other than all his favorites, which of course you are. (He’s been mopey about the idea of not seeing you for a whole year after the wedding. I tried to tell him that you’re not a bride so it probably doesn’t count, but apparently it very much does count. Propriety! Bah!)
Well, anyway. Let me know. How many robe changes will you have to undergo? I think with my shijie it was definitely in the thousands.
“Ohhhh,” said Sizhui, shaking his head a little. He looked fond, and a little sad. “He really wants to sit for you. He and Hanguang-jun.”
Jingyi re-read the letter. “That’s not... what it says.”
“Yes it is,” Sizhui told him confidently, “and Hanguang-jun does too. He must be really grumpy about it if Senior Wei is writing without telling him.”
“Well, fine,” said Jingyi, feeling like his whole body was glittering, maybe, for no reason. “I’d — that would be, um. Good. Yeah. I mean, if Jin Ling doesn’t know what a cool dajiu he’s got, I can ... I can take him.”
Sizhui’s smile was warm and soft and grateful; he pulled Jingyi into a one-armed hug. “Thank you,” he murmured. “Hey, you know, once you’re married to Jin Ling, we’ll kind of be cousins. Or ... wait. My dad will be your ... uncle-in-law? Does that make us cousins?”
Jingyi had no idea what that made them. Probably nothing. It didn’t matter anyway; what could they be that would be closer than they already were?
He nodded, a small lump gathering in his throat. “I’ll talk to Jin Ling,” he managed. “But... you’ll have to trust us to be alone. He’ll get all... Jin Ling about it if you guys are there.”
Sizhui hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “After dinner,” he said. “I’ll take Zizhen to the library. But no kissing.”
They shook on it, and Jingyi spent the rest of the day being useless. He got every question wrong in Jin School, couldn’t stand still enough for his final re-fitting, and by the time everyone was retiring to bed he felt very on edge.
He wanted Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei to sit for him very badly, he realized. He hadn’t known it was something he was supposed to care about, but here he was, caring so much his fingers itched.
Jin Ling looked ready for him, waiting with his papers neatly laid out on the bed. “I thought you might come yell at me,” he grumbled. “About lunch.”
“I’m not going to yell at you,” Jingyi told him, doing his best to channel Sizhui’s most gentle voice. “But. Um. I wanted to talk to you about it.”
Jin Ling sighed. He folded his arms across his chest. “I know that he’s — my dajiu, or whatever,” he said slowly, and even though Jingyi was pretty sure he was trying to be mature about it, he still sounded kind of bitchy. It made something small and fond flower in his chest. What an idiot. Jingyi liked him more now than he ever had before, and not just because he had surprisingly soft lips, once he stopped using them as a weapon. “It’s not... I know that I was told a lot of things that weren’t true, growing up. I don’t think I blame him anymore. Sometimes I still want to beat him to death, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because of his personality, not — you know. Other reasons.”
Jingyi nodded. This was a reasonable response to Wei Wuxian.
“But,” Jin Ling went on, blowing out a long breath. “It’s still hard. It’s really hard. I don’t know why it’s so hard.”
His voice cracked, and Jingyi went over to the bed, sitting close enough next to him that they were touching from their shoulders to their knees.
“My mom really loved him, I think,” Jin Ling said, taking Jingyi’s hands and kind of ... toying with it. “And — it’s not like I have a ton of family to choose from. But I had an uncle that I really liked, who seemed to love me a lot, and then he tried to murder me and also like, everybody, and was also kind of directly responsible for the death of my dad and indirectly for the death of my mom, and certainly for the death of my Auntie Su, and Wei Wuxian is also kind of responsible for the death of my mom, and my jiujiu is kind of responsible for the death of my dajiu, and my grandfather is responsible for the death of Sizhui’s, like, whole family, and it’s — all of it is so — ”
He broke off with a frustrated sound, leaping up onto his feet and pacing around. Fairy lifted her head with a soft, sympathetic whine, watching him.
“And it’s just — and now you’re here, and you — you’ve been — it’s — I really like ... there isn’t anybody, don’t you get it? There isn’t anyone left. And I know you’re always talking about how everyone’s parents are dead and I know I’m not special for it, but there’s nobody. Not even in my memories, because all of those are ruined, too. It’s not like I lost everyone but I can still remember them, because it turns out all of them fucking sucked the whole time. There isn’t anybody here I’d want to sit with jiujiu. Not anybody. I don’t like any of them, and they don’t like me. The only people I get along with are the servants and the villagers, and I’m not even allowed to go see them anymore now that I’m Sect Leader because of — of rules, I don’t know, the Elders said it wasn’t appropriate, it would be seen as favoritism, and Jin Lu won’t call me A-Ling in front of anyone but you anymore, and without her there just. There isn’t anybody to do it.” He sniffed, visibly running out of energy. “It’s not that I don’t accept that Wei Wuxian is my dajiu. It’s just that I don’t know him, and he’s — he’s tangled up in all kinds of other things. And if I sit him next to jiujiu and they fight, I’ll... I’ll cry. I really will. Right there at the wedding, I’ll just fucking lose it.”
He stopped pacing and stood looking at Jingyi, a lost expression on his face. His hands were curled into fists at his side. Jingyi regretted a lot of jokes he’d made.
Instead of any of the things that jumped immediately to mind to say, Jingyi thought about what Zizhen would say. What Sizhui would. He thought about times when he’d gone to Hanguang-jun as a kid and fallen asleep with his head in his lap, bunnies tucked in around him. Jin Ling hadn’t had anyone to do that with, and even if he had, it had probably been his Auntie Su, who was dead, or one of the seventeen secret uncles that would eventually try to kill him.
Jingyi wanted Hanguang-jun to sit for him, because Jingyi didn’t have parents, but he’d had — people. Who’d loved him. Who hadn’t ever turned away or against him.
Eventually, he settled on: “Well, what if Jin Lu and the rest of the kitchen sit for you?”
Jin Ling blinked. “What,” he said. “They can’t do that. It’s against — they’re servants. They can’t sit for me. It’s against the rules.”
Jingyi hummed and said, “Is it? Honor good people. Do not despise poverty. Help the underprivileged. Do not take advantage of your position or connections to oppress others. Do not exclude others. Be loyal. Honor the teachers and respect the elders. Promote good. Be a filial child.” He paused, thought about it, and added, “Do not interact with Wei Wuxian.”
“I’m just saying, by a certain perspective, you’d be breaking the Lan rules to have Wei Wuxian sit for you. And you’d be breaking them not to let Jin Lu sit for you. She’s the one who learned to make your mother’s soup, isn’t she? She’s the one who told me she missed you. She’s the one who still calls you A-Ling when she thinks she can get away with it. And ... in a way, as sect leader, isn’t the whole clan meant to be like your family? What better way to show Lanling that you’re going to be a different kind of leader than your forerunners than to have ordinary people sit for you?”
Jin Ling was staring at him. “I can ... I can do that?” he asked.
“Sure,” Jingyi said on a shrug. “I mean, no. Absolutely not. But you’re the sect leader. Plus, Hanguang-jun does stuff all the time that he’s not supposed to. People kind of get used to it.”
“Do you think ...” Jin Ling was holding himself very still. “Do you think she’d say yes?”
Jingyi thought of all the hours Jin Lu had spent teaching him how to make soup. He thought of all the times she’d said A-Ling, you silly brat, don’t eat that yet! It’s too hot! He thought of her saying be a little kinder.
“Yes,” he said. “I think she will.”
Jin Ling launched himself forward, knocking Jingyi onto his back. Jingyi had a moment of panicked delight — were they going to kiss again? Could they... how much could they do before they were caught? Was it okay? Should he do it? Should — but Jin Ling was just laying there, face pressed into the curve of Jingyi’s neck and shoulder, breathing wetly.
“Aw, c’mon, Little Mistress,” Jingyi teased fondly, hand coming up to rub a slow circle on his back. “Don’t do that. Hey, I want Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei to sit for me. Okay? Get mad at me about it. It’ll make you feel better.”
“Shut up, you dumb egg,” Jin Ling grumbled, burrowing deeper in.
Jingyi grinned. The door opened, quietly, and Sizhui and Zizhen’s head poked in, stacked on top of one another. He grinned at them, giving his head a minute shake and pulling Jin Ling in a little tighter. Ah, what a crybaby. What a little idiot. “You shut up first, silly melon,” he scolded.
They lay there for a long time.
Guests started arriving a week before the wedding, and Jingyi was so stressed he felt like he was going to vibrate out of his skin. It all felt real now, suddenly. Too real. Too fast. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Jin Ling, that he wasn’t very excited to be able to get to kiss him and, and, do other — stuff, they’d have to figure that part out, Sizhui said that Senior Wei said that Sect Leader Nie had books? Jingyi was a quick study. Jingy had confidence in himself in this regard.
It was just ... everything had moved so quickly, and now the guests were here, and Jingyi wouldn’t be able to go back to Cloud Recesses for a year, and he — and it just felt like —
But he’d made a commitment. To Jin Ling. He wasn’t going to back out, but he might throw up everywhere.
“You’re nervous?” Jin Lu hissed at him the morning of the actual ceremony, smoothing her fancy robes down over and over. Sizhui gave her a reassuring hand pat, which she quickly turned into an iron grip hold. “I’m the cook sitting for a sect leader, they’re going to eat me alive!”
The kitchen staff had been horrified and delighted in equal measure to be invited to sit for Jin Ling. Most of them cried. Most of them also said that absolutely no way were they going to sit for him, in front of all those fancy people, eating food that they’d prepared. It was going to be horrible, that was undeniable, but Jin Lu had gotten a familiar stubborn set to her jaw and said, “Fine. I’ll do it. Do not cry on me, A-Ling,” and then they’d both cried anyway.
“Sect Leader Jiang won’t let them be mean to you,” Jingyi assured her, which he knew because Jin Ling had showed him the letter in which his jiujiu had written plainly, This is such a terrible idea, it could only come from a Lan. But better than having to sit next to Wei Wuxian. If she’s the one who makes the soup then I am honored to sit beside her and will, quite simply, whip to death anyone who says anything about it.
“He’ll whip them to death,” Jin Lu murmured, mostly to herself, in reassurance. They’d shown her the letter as well. “He does have that whip. I’ve seen it. Very scary.”
“Terrifying!” Jingyi agreed cheerfully. “Hey, if I throw up, and you throw up, maybe Jin Ling can also throw up, and then it’ll just seem like a weird Jin ceremonial thing. Right?”
Jin Lu whacked him over the head with a fan.
She took a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and then said, “Right! Okay,” and Sizhui led her into the banquet hall to take her seat. She was accosted immediately by Senior Wei, who snatched up her other hand and gabbed loudly at her, walking close enough that no one else dared to approach. Hanguang-jun took her other side, gently dislodging Sizhui and speaking quietly and politely, as if she were Jin Ling’s real family. They were the best people in the world, probably. In Jingyi’s opinion.
Behind them, Zizhen’s dad opened his mouth; Zizhen stamped down on his foot so hard that he doubled over. Zizhen flashed the startled Jin Lu a smile, rubbing a comforting circle on his dad’s back, mumbling something.
They handed her off to Sect Leader Jiang, who said something pointed to Senior Wei, who laughed, and said something back, and then Jin Lu said a third thing and everybody was laughing, and when Jingyi spotted Jin Ling, he was watching it with such a look of hunger on his face that it made Jingyi’s heart hurt.
He was so busy watching Jin Ling that he didn’t notice when Sizhui and Zizhen left the small group and appeared at his side, hustling him to his rooms to have his hair done before the ceremony. Zizhen left them at his apartments and went to find Jin Ling, to make sure he was also being tended to, and not having a panic attack.
“Are you okay?” Sizhui asked quietly, his hands carding through Jingyi’s hair before he went in with the comb. “Nervous?”
Jingyi snorted. “You know how I’m scared of ghosts?” he asked.
“But you still night hunt,” Sizhui pointed out. “Because you’re brave.”
“It’s not — I’m not scared exactly,” Jingyi said, furrowing his brow. Sizhui’s hands felt nice, deftly wrapping his hair up, maneuvering the pins. “I’m just. I don’t know. Confused. It was one thing when I thought I was just... doing a friend a favor, you know? But now it’s. Now he. Sometimes, I think maybe I feel... I don’t know. Because maybe I don’t! It’s Jin Ling! Sometimes I look at you or Zizhen or, like, once, there was this pretty lady that came to ask for help with a fierce corpse in her village and I couldn’t even look her in the eyes. So maybe it’s Jin Ling in particular, or maybe it’s not. Is that normal?”
Sizhui made a soft choking sound. His hands were completely still in his hair. “Me?” he squeaked.
Jingyi waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t get weird about it,” he commanded. “You’re not special. Zizhen too. I can’t help it. Jin Ling made a monster.”
“Have you tried meditation?”
“Have you tried meditation,” Jingyi mimicked. Sizhui huffed a laugh, gently knocking Jingyi’s temple with his knuckle and finishing his hair dressing. “My point is, when I didn’t want to try... stuff... with Jin Ling, this was a lot less scary. Now it’s all a mess.”
Sizhui hummed, thoughtful. He nudged Jingyi to his feet and came back around his front to inspect him. His eyes were very focused on the details of Jingyi’s hair, his robes, his posture. When he was satisfied that all Lan standards were met, he let out a deep breath and stepped back.
“Well, whatever happens, we’ll figure it out,” he decided. “Good or bad. Whether ...whether things with Jin Ling go well or badly. You’re — it doesn’t matter. You’re my... my ...” He frowned, clearly casting around for the right word, then gave up and said helplessly, “My Jingyi.”
“Aw, c’mon,” Jingyi said, voice breaking.
Sizhui opened his mouth, probably to say some other casually devastating thing, but was thankfully cut off by the door opening and Zizhen poking his head in. “Hey guys,” he greeted. “Uh, Sect Leader Jiang wants to see Jingyi in Jin Ling’s apartments.”
Jingyi and Sizhui looked at one another. “Uh oh,” Jingyi said.
Sizhui straightened his shoulders. “I’m sure it’s fine,” he assured him. “It’s fine, right Zizhen?”
Zizhen made a face, shrugging as they emerged from Jingyi’s apartment into the hall. “He didn’t seem ... mad,” he offered. “Can’t say beyond that.”
They walked in ominous silence through the palace; when they got to Jin Ling’s rooms, Zizhen and Sizhui paused outside the door, knocking. Sect Leader Jiang opened it. Behind him, Jin Ling was shifting nervously from one foot to the other.
Sect Leader Jiang nodded once, sharply. “Come in,” he said to Jingyi. “Zizhen. Zhizi. Thank you. We will see you at the ceremony.”
Sizhui and Zizhen shared a glance. “Shufu,” he began, but at Sect Leader Jiang’s look snapped his mouth closed. He looked apologetically at Jingyi, who shook his head; it was fine. Whatever Sect Leader Jiang had to say, he’d say it eventually. Might as well be now.
Jingyi followed Sect Leader Jiang’s gesture into the apartment and gave Jin Ling a reassuring nod, going to stand at his shoulder.
Sect Leader Jiang turned to look at him, his mouth tight as he regarded them.
“So,” he said.
“So,” said Jingyi.
“Jiujiu,” said Jin Ling, “let’s — ”
Sect Leader Jiang held up a hand. “I was wrong,” he announced, and this startled Jin Ling so badly that he sat down, right on the floor.
In solidarity, Jingyi dropped down next to him.
Sect Leader Jiang raised his eyebrows at them both, then sighed, and lowered himself down to sit with much more grace than either of them had done. So there they all were, on the floor. Staring at one another.
Jingyi cleared his throat. “Uh,” he said. “About... what?”
Sect Leader Jiang looked very much like he’d rather be dead than have this conversation, which was fair, because Jingyi wasn’t having a great time either. Poor Jin Ling looked like he was having some kind of silent psychological meltdown.
“About marriage,” Sect Leader Jiang admitted, through gritted teeth. “When I said that it was just a contract, that didn’t matter. It... I’ve been thinking. I spoke with Jin Lu. She is very invested in your happiness. That’s good. I think I... it is important. To be happy. Marriage should make you happy. It’s more than a contract. It’s — you’re young, after all. You have time, to make a love match.”
Jin Ling and Jingyi both gaped at him.
Outside the door, someone squeaked. Jingyi thought it was probably Zizhen. Sect Leader Jiang pursed his lips and rolled his eyes, clearly hearing it too.
“But,” Jin Ling stuttered, “but you said — ”
“I know what I said,” Sect Leader Jiang snapped, then softened. “A-Ling. I know what I said. I was wrong to say it. I forgot that ... it’s different for me, than you. Marriage is never going to be a love match for me, because... ” He trailed off, clearly struggling to find the words.
Jingyi nodded knowledgeably. “Because you’re terrible on dates,” he guessed. “We all heard about Rong Yan.”
“Shut up, Jingyi,” Sect Leader Jiang said, but there wasn’t much bite in it. “But yes. Probably. I am a very — difficult person. I have been told.”
Okay, well, that was a rough thing to have to sit there and hear with his own ears, so Jingyi was definitely going to make a note to set Ouyang Zizhen on matchmaking. If anyone was going to be capable of finding someone for Sect Leader Jiang, it would be him, for sure.
“Are you saying I can’t marry Jingyi?” Jin Ling choked out.
“I’m saying you should make a love match,” Sect Leader Jiang returned evenly.
Jingyi and Jin Ling looked at each other. Jin Ling winced, but in a way that was startling, that wasn’t me? A love match with Jingyi? Jingyi’s mouth dropped open. “Wait,” he said, “wait! Are you in love with me?!”
Jin Ling shoved at him. “Shut up!” he shouted. “I don’t know! I might! I could! Probably not! Shut up!”
“You shut up!” Jingyi yelled back. “What do you mean you don’t know!”
“I mean I don’t know!”
“Well — I don’t know either!”
They glared at each other.
Sect Leader Jiang pinched the bridge of his nose and said, “I cannot believe you are running a sect.”
Jingyi and Jin Ling glared at each other. Jingyi’s heart was beating really fast. I don’t know. I might. I could. He — he might. He could. He didn’t know! He just didn’t know, everything had happened so fast, and then the kissing was so good, and everything was so much bigger than he’d thought it would be. He didn’t know what it was supposed to feel like. He didn’t know what any of this was supposed to feel like.
“So what... so what do we do?” Jin Ling asked, voice small. “If we... don’t know?”
The door fell open as Sizhui and Zizhen spilled inside. From their tangled heap, Zizhen asked, sounding puzzled, “Why is everybody on the floor?” and Sizhui said, voice excited, “Shufu. I have an idea. I have a really good idea.”
“What,” said Senior Wei; Hanguang-jun said nothing for a minute, then somberly murmured, “Hm,” and then Senior Wei, talking over him, went on, “No, seriously, what?”
Sizhui was so excited he was bouncing on the balls of his feet, hands clasped behind his back. Behind them, Sect Leader Jiang was standing with his arms crossed tightly against his chest, mouth pinched, but in the kind of way that Jin Ling had taught Jingyi to read: he was nervous. He was ... hopeful. There was actually a lot more going on with Sect Leader Jiang than being Big Sexy Angry all the time, once you knew how to read him.
“You never got to have a ceremony and a banquet,” Sizhui pointed out. “Lots of people don’t recognize your marriage as legitimate.” Nobody looked at Sect Leader Jiang, but Jingyi felt that spiritually they were all looking at Sect Leader Jiang. “And maybe they wouldn’t have come if the invitation had been for you. But now they’re all here, and it’s too late to leave without being impolite. Right, Zizhen?”
“Correct,” Zizhen agreed. “Plus, I’ve done a great job with the seating arrangements, they’re all going to be too anxious about networking at the banquet to want to miss out.”
Senior Wei narrowed his eyes in Zizhen’s direction. “Never hang out with Nie Huaisang,” he commanded. “He’ll make you too dangerous.”
Zizhen clearly made a mental note to absolutely, immediately do exactly that, but nodded deferentially anyway. Senior Wei rolled his eyes.
“You want to give us your wedding,” he repeated, for like, the hundredth time. “Just ... give it to us. Here you go! Free wedding.”
“Just like that,” Jingyi agreed.
Hanguang-jun turned to him, clearly tuning out everyone else in the room. “Have you decided you do not want to marry Sect Leader Jin?” he asked, very seriously.
Jingyi could feel himself flushing. “Not... precisely,” he hedged. “It’s just. Um. Sect Leader Jiang said that — that we should get married for, uh. You know.” He gestured between Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei, who both nodded. They knew.
“And you don’t,” Senior Wei deduced, looking between where Jingyi and Jin Ling were standing, admittedly, very closed to one another, the backs of their knuckles brushing. He raised his eyebrows.
“We don’t... know,” Jingyi said. Jin Ling nudged his shoulder, looking embarrassed. “We would like some time to figure it out. There wasn’t any courting process, this time around, so. So we... so we’re not sure. But. There is. Some evidence. That maybe, uh, one day, it... marriage isn’t off the table.”
“Well said,” said Senior Wei, like an asshole.
Hanguang-jun hummed again. “I see,” he mused, and then turned to Sect Leader Jiang and said nothing else. They stared at each other. Jingyi had no idea what they were saying with their eyebrows, because usually what they were saying was death threats, but this didn’t seem like... that.
Eventually, Sect Leader Jiang grit out: “Well. If you’re going to be married to him, you might as well do it properly. Hanguang-jun’s family is here, too, so you can pour for them.”
Senior Wei melted against Hanguang-jun’s shoulder. “And,” he asked, swallowing thickly, “and you’d — you’d want to... sit? As my... for the tea?”
Sect Leader Jiang’s mouth pinched again. He didn’t look at Senior Wei. “I’m your brother, aren’t I?” he snapped, and Jingyi knew Jin Ling well enough now to know that he was definitely feeling emotional about it, in a big sappy way.
Senior Wei flung himself at Sect Leader Jiang, who caught him with a punched out, “Oof!” They stood frozen like that, for a second, then pulled quickly apart and didn’t look at each other.
“I’ll sit, too,” Sizhui said. His eyes were gleaming. Jingyi suddenly sort of half-wondered whether Sizhui had somehow masterminded this whole thing just so he could get his dads married in public. It didn’t seem like a Sizhui thing to do, but then again, he’d been gone a long time. Maybe he’d started getting sneakier when Jingyi wasn’t looking. “A-die can pour tea for me and shufu.”
Sizhui rarely called Hanguang-jun anything other than Hanguang-jun, in other people’s hearing; Jingyi watched both his dads melt a little. Huh. He was getting sneaky.
“And me,” Jin Ling said. He looked grumpy about it. “You’re my dajiu.”
Jingyi grinned. “If you were going to sit for me, it’s only right I should sit for you, right?” he mused.
Senior Wei was looking distinctly wobbly.
Sect Leader Jiang cleared his throat. “There’s — that’s not really how it’s supposed to work,” he said, but he didn’t seem to feel that strongly about it, because he made no move to stop Zizhen from dashing off to rearrange things in the banquet hall.
“Your uncle’s gonna throw a fit,” Senior Wei told Hanguang-jun, but he was wrapping himself around one of his arms like a noodle, so Jingyi knew he wasn’t really trying to talk his way out of it.
Hanguang-jun said, “Perhaps. But brother will be pleased.”
Sizhui gave up on the fight with himself and flung himself at his dads, who each caught him around the middle. Over his shoulder, Senior Wei met Jingyi’s eyes.
Thank you, he mouthed at him and Jin Ling.
Jin Ling shrugged with affected ease, and then, in a fit of obvious emotion, took Jingyi’s hand and squeezed it.
It happened like this: everybody cried.
Senior Wei cried, and Lan Xichen cried, and Sizhui cried, and Jingyi himself cried a little. Even Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Jiang cried, though they both pretended not to. Master Qiren took the news surprisingly well, simply saying, “Hmph!” and looking mad the whole time, but not actually protesting. He sat there and allowed Senior Wei to pour tea for him, so Jingyi figured that was about as close to enthusiastic approval as they were going to get.
At the banquet, Senior Wei spent the whole time being incredibly embarrassing, hanging all over Hanguang-jun, who looked — well, his ears were pink. He had his hand under the table, which Jingyi quite simply Did Not Trust.
“They’re so gross,” Jin Ling muttered from next to Jingyi.
Sizhui, who’d been weepy the entire time and showed no signs of stopping, said, “Yeah. Isn’t it great?”
Senior Wen gave his head a delighted, comforting pat. He was outside, leaning in through one of the windows. They’d told him a hundred times to come in, but he’d consented only long enough to sit with the rest of them for Hanguang-jun’s tea pouring. Then he’d quickly fled back outside and stood at the window. Jingyi guessed if that was where he wanted to be, that was fine. But he, Sizhui, Jin Ling, and Zizhen stood next to it, to make him feel included.
Sect Leader Jiang and Senior Wei were bickering again, but it didn’t feel like anybody was going to get stabbed, so that was good. That was progress.
“If you think this is bad, you should have seen them at school,” Sect Leader Nie said, appearing seemingly from nowhere. There was a look in his eye that made Jingyi wary. “When Wei Wuxian asked me for those books, I was very surprised. But now of course it seems very obvious why he wanted them.”
The four boys looked at one another. On the one hand, Jingyi very much wanted to know. On the other, he very much didn’t.
Jin Ling asked, “What books?”
Sect Leader Nie smiled a beaming smile, shaking his head. “Oh, I don’t know, I don’t know,” he dissembled. “I used to collect them, just as a little joke. Just some instructional pictures, for ... the romantic arts, you might say.”
“Porn books,” Sizhui (Sizhui!) deduced immediately. “You’re where Xian-gege got them from?!”
“Ah, aha,” Sect Leader Nie laughed, flicking open his fan and hiding behind it. “I was young, I was young. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t stash any here, in the guest apartments, under the third floorboard by the window. Ah — yes — Sect Leader Rong, so good to see you, I wondered if I could ask you a question, people keep talking to me about transport and I just don’t know ...”
He flitted away.
Jin Ling and Jingyi looked at each other.
“No,” said Sizhui, firmly.
“Later,” said Zizhen. “You can’t leave yet, it would be rude. And you certainly can’t leave together, now that you’re courting officially. Not unless we go with you, and if either of us leaves now, it’ll be a whole thing.”
It had been decided, at some point, that Jingyi would stay at Koi Tower, for now. They’d court for a year. That was enough time, he figured, to decide whether it would be a love match. To decide whether he wanted to marry Jin Ling, specifically, for no reason other than that he loved him.
Maybe he did. He might. He could. He didn’t know. He wanted to find out.
He looked out at where Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei were leaning against each other, soft in the fading light. They looked happy. Everyone looked happy. It seemed odd, that they could live in a world where everyone was happy and nobody was dead.
“Hey,” he said suddenly, “who’s... the bride?”
Zizhen frowned at him. “Nobody,” he said. “That’s... very much the point.”
Jingyi shook his head, waving his hand to push the words away. “No, but like, since I was marrying into the Jin sect, I was the bride, kind of, in terms of traditions, right? I wasn’t going to be allowed to go back to Gusu for a year. What about for Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun? Senior Wei isn’t... becoming a Lan, really, is he?”
Zizhen opened his mouth, probably to tell him the obvious answer, but then closed it again.
Sizhui said, “...Huh.”
“Maybe they’re both the bride,” Senior Wen pitched in. “It’s not movement in one direction or the other. They’re just meeting in the middle.”
A light sparked in Zizhen’s eyes. “That’s so romantic,” he said mistily, and then narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at where Hanguang-jun and Senior Wei were sitting. “...Hey, Koi Tower is about equidistant from Lotus Pier and Cloud Recesses, isn’t it?”
Jin Ling frowned. “More or less,” he agreed. “Why?”
“Well,” Zizhen said slowly, a smiling blooming, “it’s just — Senior Wen has given me such a wonderful idea.”