Jin Ling had been prepared for things between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng to still be awkward, he’d expected that nearly two decades of hurt and misunderstandings and grief couldn’t be wiped away in one conversation.
What he hadn’t been prepared for was for them to immediately revert back to whatever counted as a normal relationship between them.
There were still pauses or skip in the conversation, they still kept giving each other too heavy looks whenever the other person wasn’t looking, but for the most part they’d fallen back into old habits like pulling on an old and beloved cloak.
They were driving him insane.
“You should have seen them at Cloud Recesses when we were kids,” Luo Qingyang says when he goes to her to complain about it. “Always fighting and always joined at the hip, and good luck to anyone that tried to get in between them. They were exhausting. Nie Huaisang was the only one who could manage to hang out with both of them at the same time for any period of time without wanting to strangle one of them.” She pauses, then amends, “Well, maybe he did want to strangle one of them, but he never acting like he did, which was a step up from everyone besides your mother.”
“Which of my parents do you think would have ended up disciplining me?” he asks, momentarily distracted from complaining about his uncles. Having Wei Wuxian and Luo Qingyang in his life means he can do things like ask hypothetical questions without someone bursting into tears. If he’d asked Jiang Cheng that, it would have ended poorly for one of them.
She frowns, the movements of sharpening her blade becoming slow and methodical rather than brisk. “Depends on what you were being disciplined for, I suppose. If it was for being rude or arrogant, probably your mother, although based your uncles her method was less discipling and more being very sad about it until you apologized. If it was for something like causing trouble or, I don’t know, killing someone you weren’t supposed to kill, then it definitely would have been Jin Zixuan.”
He stares. “Wouldn’t my mom have been upset if I’d killed someone I wasn’t supposed to?”
“Only if you weren’t polite about it,” she says, completely serious.
“So you’re saying my mother would approve of me poisoning everyone at the next council meeting?” he asks sarcastically.
Luo Qingyang’s expression turns darkly amused. “I’m saying that the things she cared about in relation to her loved ones often had very little to do with the opinions of others. She was aware of other’s opinions, something Wei Wuxian absolutely could have learned from and saved us all a couple hundred headaches, but rarely did she allow those opinions to shape her own.”
It sounds like she would have done great in Koi Tower.
Jin Ling allows himself a moment to imagine a Koi Tower where his parents had lived and his father was the clan leader with his mother by his side and how the person Luo Qingyang is describing would have changed the Jin. Then it starts making him too sad, so he stops.
“This doesn’t solve my problem with my uncles,” he says to her.
“Endure?” she suggests. “Jiang Cheng can only stay for so long before the council members start giving you shit for it and the other clans start making up improbable and nefarious reasons for his presence.”
He brings it up to his friends, who are no help at all.
“Logically I know he’s less angry and that apparently this is how he shows affection,” Zizhen says, “but my fight or flight instincts don’t know that. Is this how he was when you were a baby? Just yelling at you all the time? Did you yell your first word, Jin Ling? Were your stomping and screaming as a little baby because that’s just how you thought we all communicated?”
No, but mostly because Jin Guangyao had been his other model of behavior, which was the exact opposite of Jiang Cheng. This just proved you couldn’t trust people who weren’t willing to throw a tantrum or two to express their emotions. Also, he’s pretty sure Jiang Cheng did less yelling at him when he was a baby than just crying all over him. Both of those answers will really kill the mood, so instead he just says, “I come by it honestly.”
“I’m glad they’re getting along,” Jingyi offers. “Their tension was really stressing me out before. This is definitely better.”
They look to Sizhui who shrugs then says, a smile curling around the edges of his lips, “Baba is happy. That makes me happy too.”
Uhg. What is he supposed to say to that?
“Maybe it’s for the best we didn’t grow up as cousins,” he says. Sizhui’s face is just starting to shift to hurt when he adds, “You would have definitely been everyone’s favorite and it would have been unbearable. I’d have killed you before we even got our swords.”
Hurt gives way to amusement. “You could have tried.”
Jin Ling raises an eyebrow and says, “Spar?”
When it comes to swords, Sizhui is better, but Jin Ling beats him easily at archery. However, at hand to hand, they’re pretty close. That means it’s the most fun.
Sizhui’s eyes light up even as Jingyi and Zizhen groan. He ignores them to say, “Well, I have to keep my skills sharp somehow.”
“Hey,” Jingyi protests. Zizhen pus his hand on his shoulder and shakes his head
The fact that beating the shit out of each other is their go to bonding activity probably means they’re a little too similar to Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng for Jin Ling’s comfort, but he’s not going to be the one to point out.
The council tries to turn Jiang Cheng being here to their advantage, which is a bold move that has never worked out for them before.
But apparently there’s a first time for everything.
“Have you considered your succession?” Jiang Cheng asks while they’re all hanging out after dinner having a perfectly civilized conversation. “I can talk to a matchmaker.”
Jingyi somehow manages to choke on air while Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. “You can talk to a matchmaker? Will they even let you through the door?”
“Shut up,” Jiang Cheng says, mostly without any heat. “You know I don’t like listening to the Jin council about anything, but they do have a point. A-Ling not having clear line of succession does weaken him.”
“Not as much as having a wife and child they could control would,” Jin Ling points out in exasperation. This is some sort of divine punishment for luring Jiang Cheng here under false pretenses to make up with his brother, but he can’t get himself to be too mad about it. Besides, he’s had this same conversation with his council a dozen times, although he just throws a temper tantrum about it until they changed the subject instead of saying he’s refusing because he doesn’t trust any of them. “I’m not getting married until I can be sure that they won’t get poisoned. What about you, Uncle? You don’t have a wife. You get married and then I will.”
Wei Wuxian starts laughing and Jiang Cheng scowls. His friends have all gone perfectly still, as if moving will attract Jiang Cheng’s attention. He’d laugh about it if he wasn’t too busy giving his uncle attitude. “That’s different,” he snaps. “I don’t need a wife. I’ve already named Li Shuchun my heir. So providing any more heirs for the Jiang is her problem.”
In another life, one where Rusong lived, Jin Ling might have been able to take up the position of heir to Lotus Pier. It would have been a perfect way to ensure that he wouldn’t threaten Rusong’s status as the Jin heir while ensuring the Jin and Jiang continued to have a strong alliance. A way to get rid of him while still letting him be useful to the clan who raised him. Jin Ling had though it was something he might be able to have, that would solve several people’s problems.
Little did he know that if Jin Guangyao had ever wanted to get rid of him, he’d already be dead.
Wei Wuxian stops laughing, instead staring at Jiang Cheng with his mouth agape. “You named A-Chun your heir?”
“Well, who else was I supposed to name?” Jiang Cheng asks, and it only comes out a little bitter. “You’ll have to be extra nice to her at the conference. She’s furious with you with you for not coming to visit and with me for putting her in charge of Lotus Pier while I was gone instead of taking her with me.”
“But,” Wei Wuxian starts, looking lost, “wasn’t – didn’t people have a problem with you appointing her? Making her first disciple must have been controversial enough–”
“No,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, his face harsh but his words soft. “No. No one had a problem with her appointment.”
He smiles, eyes bright, and says, “That’s – that’s good.”
Jin Ling abruptly realizes that his friends, even Sizhui, don’t have any context for this conversation and if he lets this go on much longer someone is bound to get weepy. Past experience has shown that that person is probably going to be him.
“Well, it’s not like there’s anyone decent I can appoint,” he says, and both his uncles turn their attention towards him. “Zizhen already said that Jin Chao wasn’t an acceptable option.”
The way everyone’s faces contort into similar expressions of distaste is hilarious.
“Then I suppose marriage is the only option,” Wei Wuxian says, but he sounds like he’s teasing. “Except that our little A-Ling is too young for a wife.” He pauses, then adds, “Well, I suppose that your mother was already engaged by your age.”
Wow. Betrayed by Wei Wuxian. Is this how Jiang Cheng felt?
“It doesn’t have to be a wife, does it?” Jingyi asks, looking at the space on the wall rather than at any of them. Sizhui’s whole face twitches before it smooths out. “It can be anyone, can’t it? You can always adopt.”
“That’s true,” Wei Wuxian says, throwing Sizhui a fond look that makes him flush and Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, but Jin Ling isn’t pay attention to them anymore.
He can adopt, can’t he? He’s the clan head. Stuff like that falls entirely under his purview, and while the council may not like it, or may try to kill whoever it is, they can’t really stop him either. He’s tested that quite thoroughly.
“A-Ling?” Jiang Cheng asks at the same time that Wei Wuxian says, “Uh oh.”
He glances up and they’re all staring at him, even Jingyi having take a break from inspecting the wall to frown at him. “What?”
“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng repeats sternly, sounding a lot like he did back when he was a kid.
Jin Ling would be more annoyed by that except he’s just had an idea and he wants to do something right now. It all almost comes tumbling out of him, but as much as he wants to tell all of them, to talk it out before he makes a decision, he can’t. Discussing something like this with a foreign clan head and foreign clan heirs before doing it or telling his council is something they could bitch about him for and he’d like to give them as little to reasonably complain about this as he can. It won’t stop them, of course, but he’ll take what he can get.
“Uncle Ying,” he says, already walking to the door, “come with me.”
Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow but gets to his feet without comment. Zizhen and Jiang Cheng start yelling at him at the same time, but he only waves at them before following Jin Ling out of the room.
Li Qiang turns a worrying shade of pale. Luo Qingyang has gone perfectly still, her eyebrows pushed together. Jin Ling had been hoping that if he ever managed to surprise her this thoroughly, it would be in a spar, but that was probably wishful thinking.
“She’d still be your daughter,” he assures them. “She’ll be a Jin, but it won’t change who she is or who you are.”
“Like the Jiang heir?” Li Qiang asks.
“Not like the Jiang heir,” Luo Qingyang says slowly. “She’ll end up engaged to one the Jiang cousins, ones that share Jiang blood if not the Jiang name to ensure the Jiang clan is still lead by the family it’s named after. But from what you’re saying-”
“Li Mianmian wouldn’t have to do that,” he confirms. “I mean, hopefully she won’t have to become clan leader, but even if she did, she won’t have marry a Jin to take her seat.”
Luo Qingyang lip curls into something approaching a snarl. Jin Ling has to resist the urge to hide behind Wei Wuxian, because wow, Luo Qingyang has never looked like that at him before and she never wants her to again. “You’d do all of this just to have my daughter as a placeholder?”
“Mianmian,” Wei Wuxian says sharply, but Jin Ling places a hand on his uncle’s shoulder and he falls silent.
Jin Ling could get offended at that, but there’s no room for that here, not with what he’s asking them. Technically, he doesn’t have to ask them, he could just demand it and they’d have to agree because he’s their clan head. But that’s not the type of clan head that he wants to be. “Of course not. I hope that she won’t need to. She’s only ten years younger than me, and I hope we both live long lives, I hope that I live long enough to have children of my own to take my place when I’m gone. But I want her because she would be safer than anyone else, because everyone already knows the consequences they’d face from us both if she were hurt. I want her because you’re raising her to be a good person, because she’s clever enough to lead and more intelligent than I was at her age, because even though she’s a child still I trust her. If I were to die before I can have my own children, I trust her to lead my clan as I want it led. I trust the both of you to help her do it.”
Luo Qingyang’s snarl has melted back into a frown, at least. Li Qiang clears his throat. “But – what about her sword work? She has a decent golden core, from what Qingyang has told me, but she’s no great swordsman. What if she grows up and never becomes more skilled than she is now?”
That’s unlikely, but even if she did, “It doesn’t matter. We’re Jin, not Jiang.”
Li Qiang’s face creases in confusion. Jin Lin opens his mouth to explain, but Luo Qingyang beats him to it. “Our clan’s inheritance structure isn’t dependent on skill, only rank. It wouldn’t matter if she wasn’t even a cultivator, technically speaking. As long as she holds the appropriate rank and title, that’s all that matters. The Jiang are different. They believe that if their leader isn’t strong, then the clan can’t be strong. That’s why Jiang Yanli wasn’t the heir even though she was older than Jiang Cheng. It was obvious that she would never be strong enough to lead the Jiang, so she was engaged to Jin Zixuan.”
Jin Ling is obviously glad that his mother was engaged to his father, because he wouldn’t be here if she hadn’t been, but he can’t help smart a little at that, even though of course he understands it. He’d grown up almost more Jiang than Jin, after all.
“Neither Jin Guangshan nor Jin Guangyao were great cultivators,” Wei Wuxian says. “Jin Zixuan and Jin Ling’s skill make them outliers as far as Jin clan heirs go. It’s good if A-Mian is a strong cultivator, for obvious reasons, but even if she grows up to be a mediocre one it won’t matter.”
“This isn’t just a contingency plan or a stalling tactic,” Jin Ling says. “If we do this, it’s not just until I have a child of my own. Li Mianmian’s place in this clan will be permanently changed. She’ll always have the privileges and responsibilities of her position even if she’s no longer the heir.”
Li Qiang and Luo Qingyang look at each other, having a whole conversation in that glance just like he’s seen Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji do. He wonders if that’s something his parents shared, or if they died before they got the chance to know each other that well.
They both get to their knees before him, bowing deeply, and Li Qiang says, “Sect Leader Jin. If she is willing, you have our permission to make our daughter your heir.”
Li Mianmian doesn’t agree immediately, which makes Jin Ling more sur than ever that this is the right call. She looks from Wei Wuxian to her parents then back to him. “Ge,” she says carefully, “what’s the difference, really, if you don’t die? You already call me sister.”
She’s so smart. He loves her. “The difference is that now the power you hold in this clan belongs entirely to me. You are listened to and pampered because I listen to you and pamper you. Now, if you accept, you’ll be like your mother. You will have power and influence that I support, of course, but in the end you will have your own power, one that you can grow separate from my own. Even if I have children of my own, you will still retain your high rank and influence.”
“You’ll have to be careful,” Li Qiang warns. “Your words will have power now that they didn’t before.”
Li Mianmian scowls. “How?”
“Your mother claimed to kill a member of my council in front of all the high ranked members of out clan and I said that she was right to do so,” he says. “I would do the same for you. You can punish everyone who is ranked below you. You can issue any command that doesn’t contradict my own and expect to be obeyed.”
She swallows, twisting her hands in the front of her robes.
Jin Ling softens, kneeling in front of her so she can look down at him. “Meimei. You don’t have to accept if it seems like too much.”
“There are too many spies,” she says, her childishness gone in this moment, leaving behind only her father’s serious eyes and her mother’s stubborn mouth. “Too many people want to use you for themselves, too many people using others. It’s wrong. They want you to make someone else the heir, someone that they can control.” She tosses her head back, flicking her ponytail over her shoulder. He likes to think that she at least learned some of her arrogance from him. “They won’t be able to control me. Mama and Papa are loyal to you and I am too. Make me your heir, gege. I won’t be someone that can be used against you.”
Jin Ling can see the pride he feels reflected in the faces of those around him.
He declares Li Mianmian his heir in front of the council and all the highest ranking member of his clan. He gifts her a new gold belt with embroidering that declares her status to everyone who’s clever enough to understand it as well as a gold and ivory encrusted sword that she’s strong enough to unsheathe even if that’s about all she can do with it.
His council is furious. His various cousins are nearly incandescent in their rage, at the slight he’s made against them for choosing a girl of an unremarkable bloodline over them, but he doesn’t care.
He’ll never have their approval so it’s pointless to worry about losing it. This isn’t something they’ll try to assassinate him over it, and even if they did –
They probably wouldn’t succeed.
Miss Fei controls the kitchens and all the house staff. No poison will make its way to any of his dishes. Luo Qingyang leads their cultivators in his name and those who would have caused trouble have become intimately familiar with the consequences, with the feel of Luo Qingyang’s blade against their neck and now they know that if she were to ever “accidentally” slip during practice it wouldn’t matter, because none of them could reasonably claim to be more valuable than an elder clan member, and since he was able to get away with not punishing her for it, he’d be able to do the same in the event of their deaths. Even the old stuffy scholars are coming over to his side, are learning to rely on his librarians, are coming to trust and like them and starting to let things slip to Li Qiang’s gentle, unassuming face.
Then, of course, there is Wei Wuxian.
He has no title, but he’s Jin Ling’s closest advisor, and not a single person has forgotten who he is and what he’s done.
If anyone wanted to kill him, they’d have to kill Wei Wuxian first, otherwise they’d be signing their own death sentences with his last breath. And Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly easy to kill.
Jiang Cheng claps him on the shoulder after and murmurs, “Good choice” in his ear and having an heir doesn’t change anything, really, but it feels like something.
It feels like someone else’s end and his beginning. It feels like he’s finally getting the room to breathe.
The day before Jiang Cheng returns to Lotus Pier, a servant rushes into the spare room they’ve claimed to eat breakfast together in with his friends and gasps, “The Chief Cultivator is here!”
Jin Ling blinks then turns to Sizhui. He feels less bad about it when he sees that Jingyi and Zizhen have done it too. He pauses with his spoon of plain congee halfway raised to his mouth. It’s one of his biggest character flaws. Jingyi at least takes with honey.
“Why is your dad here?” Jin Ling asks.
Sizhui slowly lowers his spoon back into his bowl.
Zizhen asks what they’re all thinking. “What did you say to him?”
“Nothing,” he insists, but he looks guilty. Jin Ling is still confused. News of Li Mianmian’s appointment has probably made it to every clan by know. He knows Zizhen wrote his dad about it. Even if Li Sizhui had told Lan Wangji as soon as it happened, that doesn’t explain why he’s here. He can’t think of a single reason that Lan Wangji would care about him making Li Mianmian his heir.
“Sect Leader Jin,” the servant says, his voice going up several octaves.
Forgot all the murder and intrigue in Koi Tower. It’s going to be unannounced guests that end up doing his servants in at this rate. Miss Fei will be pissed if she has to hire more staff because clan leaders keep turning up at his door.
“Coming, coming,” he sighs, getting to his feet. He looks around the table, speaking mostly to Sizhui but addressing all of them. “Come on, I’m not going alone.”
Zizhen and Jingyi spring to their feet and a moment later Sizhui reluctantly does the same. Jin Ling almost wants interrogate him about what exactly he said to his father, but he supposes he’ll find out soon enough.
“Go get Uncle Ying,” Jin Ling orders the servant. He’s almost certain he can solve whatever Lan Wangji is upset about by throwing Wei Wuxian at him. If he can’t, it should at least provide a decent enough distraction for him to run.
As an absolute last resort, he supposes he can just hide behind Sizhui.
They hurry down the hall, luckily not too fair from the main hall. Lan Wangji stands there, head held high and air nearly crackling around him he’s so furious.
Several of his advisors are hovering around the corner of the room, looking nervous and wringing their hands, but none of them seem willing to get any closer than that. They didn’t survive this long in Koi Tower by being stupid, after all.
“What did you do?” Zizhen mutters out of the corner of his mouth, horrified, but Sizhui just flushes and doesn’t answer.
Jin Ling glances at Jingyi, who just looks bewildered and gives him infinitesimal shrug, so no help there.
“Lan Wangji,” he calls out, ignoring the way Zizhen turns several shades paler than a living person should reasonably be. No matter what Lan Wangji is here about, he can’t be here as the chief cultivator or as the Lan sect leader, because if he is then just barging in here with no notice has the type of political implications that Jin Ling refuses to deal with when he hasn’t even had breakfast yet. The quickest way to remind Lan Wangji about that is to call him by his name rather than a title, and it’s also the only way he can remind him of that while they’re surrounded by his clan.
Lan Wangji turns that intense scowl in his direction, but it doesn’t get worse, which is a positive. “Jin Ling,” he greets stiffly, which hopefully means that he’s understood what Jin Ling was hinting at and not that he’s decided to disrespect him in front of everyone has a precursor to trying to kill him.
“Is something wrong?” he asks because Lan Wangji doesn’t look like he has the patience to exchange any more pleasantries than that.
His eyes dart around them before he gives a very unconvincing, “No.”
Well, at least he doesn’t want to do this in front of everyone. “Everyone out,” he orders, pitching his voice so it carries throughout the banquet hall even though there aren’t that many people. He’s hoping the servants outside will take the hint and make sure no one eavesdrops but he doesn’t want to draw people’s attention by making it an explicit order. Miss Fei’s people are usually pretty good about picking up hints.
They must all be really scared of Lan Wangji, because none of them even argue with him before filing out of the room. His own level of intimidation is tempered by the fact that he’s Wei Wuxian’s nephew, so the chances of Lan Wangji doing anything to him are pretty low. Besides, if he were going to do anything, it would make sense for him to have done it when Jin Ling offered to let him stab him.
Wei Wuxian ducks in at the tail end of everyone is filing out, his arms hooked with Jiang Cheng’s in a way that makes it clear that he dragged him here. If that wasn’t obvious, the irritated way Jiang Cheng keeps trying to tug his arm out of Wei Wuxian’s grip is a decent hint. He’s not using cultivation to get himself way, so he must not mind too much, but he’s obviously not pleased to be here.
“Lan Zhan!” he cries out joyously. “What’s with the grumpy face? You’re scaring the servants.”
As if to emphasize his point, the last person leaves, closing the massive doors behind her with a dull bang. That leaves him, his uncles, Lan Wangji, and his friends all alone in the massive great hall. It probably would have been easier to just move them all to a private room, but it’s too late to worry about that now.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Lan Wangji asks, his voice even but the barely contained rage beneath the surface is easy enough to hear. Wei Wuxian flinches and Jin Ling can feel the beginning of genuine anger when he realizes that Lan Wangji is looking at Jiang Cheng, which isn’t ideal but is preferable to the alternative. It’s not like them being pissed at each other is new, but as far as Jin Ling knows they haven’t spoken since the clan leaders summit.
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow, pushing back his shoulders and standing to his full height instead of awkwardly slumped to the side so Wei Wuxian can cling to him. Wei Wuxian still has a hand in Jiang Cheng’s sleeve, possibly just in case he has to pull him back from bodily leaping at Lan Wangji.
It hasn’t happened before, but Jin Ling can’t exactly say he’d be surprised if it did.
“Is there a problem, Hanguang Jun?” he asks coolly.
“Yes,” Lan Wangji snaps.
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Stop that. Both of you. Lan Zhan, what’s wrong?”
Lan Wangji finally looks to Wei Wuxian and some of the anger drains away to something softer, but something pained too. “Wei Ying. You don’t have to do this.”
He glances at his friends in case this makes any more sense to them than it does him. Sizhui is staring at his fathers with an intensity Jin Ling doesn’t have the energy to interrupt, Zizhen has his hand over his face which seems a bit pointless with the way he’s peeking through his fingers, and Jingyi is – huh.
Jingyi is looking at him.
His face flushes and he jerks his head away. Jin Ling almost asks him about it, almost throws a proper tantrum again about why he was standing there looking at Jin Ling like that with everything else going on, but considering everything else going on, it’s probably not the right time.
“Don’t have to do what?” Wei Wuxian asks slowly. “Lan Zhan, what are you talking about?”
“It’s not fair of him to ask this of you,” Lan Wangji says intensely, which doesn’t explain anything. “I know you feel as if you owe the Jiang, but this is too much.”
“Now hold on,” Jiang Cheng snaps while Wei Wuxian’s eyebrows dip together. “What does my clan have to with this?”
Lan Wangji’s lip curls back in disdain. “Everything. Was this your idea or your heir’s?”
“A-Chun?” Wei Wuxian sounds properly bewildered. “What does she have to do with this?”
Lan Wangji freezes then lets out a small breath that almost sounds like how someone would laugh with a sword through their lungs. “Unless. Unless it was your idea, Wei Ying.” His lips thin and he inclines his head. “I shouldn’t have presumed.”
“You seem to be doing some of that right now,” Wei Wuxian says, exasperated. “Lan Zhan, what on earth are you talking about?”
“Your engagement to Li Shuchun,” he answers.
Jin Ling blinks several times, then repeats the words back to himself in case that will make them make sense, but it doesn’t do any good. It’s still nonsense.
“A-Chun is a child!” Wei Wuxian shrieks.
Jiang Cheng raises an eyebrow. “She’s six years younger than you. Or ten years older, depending on the way you look at it.”
“No, stop talking, she is not,” he insists. “She’s a little girl. A baby disciple, even.”
“Try saying that to her face when you see her and see how well that goes for you,” Jiang Cheng suggests and Jin Ling winces. Li Shuchun had often been one of the disciples Jiang Cheng assigned to watch him. She never let him get away with anything and she was mean about it, the complete opposite of her brother. “Even Wang Yan won’t be able to save you from that.”
“I don’t need to be saved from A-Chun,” he scoffs. “She was my first disciple. She loves me. You said so yourself.”
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “I don’t know why you think that will stop her from beating you up.”
Jin Ling vividly remembers Li Shuchun dropkicking her elder brother into a lotus pond and then immediately freezing the top of it with a talisman because he was annoying her. Li Jun was a strong enough swimmer that he was able to get to the non-frozen part before he’d run out of air, obviously, but she hadn’t stuck around to make sure of it.
Wei Wuxian must be remembering something similar because he’s frowning. “Okay, you might have a point with that one. But you’ll protect me, won’t you Jiang Cheng?”
“You’re on your own with that one,” he snorts.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian whines, tugging on sleeve like a little kid. Jiang Cheng just crosses his arms and ignores him, which is impressive considering Wei Wuxian is tugging so hard that his robe is starting to go askew.
Lan Wangji settles his hands behind his back, falling back into that classic Lan formality. “Does this mean you’re not engaged, Wei Ying?”
Wei Wuxian lets go of Jiang Cheng so he can tug on his ponytail and then darts over to Lan Wangji’s side before he can get strangled for his trouble. He rocks back on the balls of his feet, smiling. “Don’t be silly, Lan Zhan. Who would marry me? Of course I’m not engaged.”
Lan Wangji’s mouth opens and no sound comes out.
Jiang Cheng grips the bridge of his nose and Zizhen makes some sort of strangled noise Jin Ling generously decides to label a muffled yowl.
Jin Ling literally can’t stand here and watch this anymore, because that’s it, he’s had enough, Wei Wuxian will literally die again, of old age, before Lan Wangji gets around to having a clear conversation with him.
He’d decided that he was never going to tell anyone this, that it was something that wouldn’t help, it would only upset people without helping them, so there was no reason to bring it up. Unfortunately, he’s tried outright telling Wei Wuxian how Lan Wangji feels about him and he’s just refused to believe him, so it’s going to have to come from Lan Wangji, and it looks like he’s going to need some sort of nudge.
“I first brought Uncle Ying to Koi Tower unconscious and mostly dead,” he announces, heart somewhere around the base of his throat. “He had an infection and his fever was so high that he was delirious with it.”
Everything stops. For a moment no one in the room is breathing.
“What are you talking about?” Jiang Cheng snaps.
“A-Ling, stop, it wasn’t that bad,” Wei Wuxian says, voice several octaves too high, and then makes a face probably because he can hear himself.
“You were in a filthy inn that was in the middle of nowhere, alone, without a piece of silver to your name, still covered in blood from a night hunt gone wrong, and the only reason you didn’t die there was because someone mentioned where you were to me in a report,” he continues, feeling pressure against the back of his eyes whenever he thinks of how Wei Wuxian looked, too pale and collapsing against him in that terrible room, when he thinks of how sick he’d been in the weeks after.
Wei Wuxian softens but insists, “I wouldn’t have died, it’s okay. I’ve survived worse than that.”
“Well, that’s how death works, isn’t it,” Jin Ling glares. “You survive everything except what kills you.”
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, probably to continue arguing about how he would have been just fine, but Jiang Cheng interrupts by harshly saying, “Wei Wuxian.”
He winces and then turns to Jiang Cheng. “It really wasn’t that bad, A-Ling is just exaggerating a little.”
Jiang Cheng glances at him over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and he shakes his head.
“You,” he says, hands clenching into fists before taking a deep breath and consciously letting them relax. “Why did you – you could have – no matter what was – you’re still my brother,” he settles on angrily. “You’ve been my brother. You could have came to be. That shouldn’t have happened.”
Oh, no, Jin Ling isn’t going to let this get turned around here. “It shouldn’t have,” he agrees. “You should have kept a better eye on him. All the Jiang spies everywhere, and you can’t keep track of one notorious demonic cultivator? It’s not like he’s hard to spot! Even if he was, half your people know his face. How did he end up there without you knowing about it? How could you just let your brother going wandering around, on his own, and not keep an eye one him? I can’t even leave the tower without you hearing about it!”
Jin Lin turns away from him before he can respond, because he and Wei Wuxian have made up, mostly, and he’d genuinely been intending to let this go. Lan Wangji has gone scarily still in that way that makes it look like he really is carved out jade, except instead of the normal bitchy or impassive face he’s so fond of wearing, he looks anguished. His mouth is parted and his arm is partially raised, like he’d wanted to reach for Wei Wuxian but had stopped himself, which was the whole problem to begin with.
“He called out for you but you weren’t there,” Jin Ling says and Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen. He called out for Jiang Cheng too, and Sizhui, and a lot more people, but that doesn’t matter right now, bringing all that up won’t help. “Lan Wangji. How many times must he die? What will it take for you to hold on and not let go? He’s not a bird and you’re not a cage.”
“Jin Ling!” Wei Wuxian snaps. “That’s enough.”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t usually get angry at him, not like he means it, and he sounds like he means it now. That makes him want to cry a little bit, but that’s not important right now.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji rasps.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, walking over to him forcing a smile that Jin Ling can’t believe anyone has ever believed. “Don’t mind A-Ling. He’s just not thinking about what he’s saying-”
“Wei Ying,” he repeats, reaching out to wrap his fingers around Wei Wuxian’s wrists. Wei Wuxian’s words die in his throat and then he’s just looking at Lan Wangji, wide eyed and uncertain. He meets his gaze evenly, squeezes his wrists tight enough that it looks like it’ll bruise, then he says, “I love you. I’m in love with you. I have been in love with you since we were fifteen years old.” He pauses, then adds, “I’m sorry that I did not love you better.”
For once, Wei Wuxian is speechless, although his eyes are wet. He twists his hands in Lan Wangji’s grip, but instead of stepping away, it’s so he can clasp their forearms and pull him closer.
“Uhg, no, not again, not like this,” Jiang Cheng says. He reaches out, grabs Jin Ling and Zizhen by the back of their robes and stomps towards the door. “We’re leaving now, right now. Lans, that means you too.”
The last thing he sees before the door shuts behind them is Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji staring deeply into each other’s eyes. He’s seen that happen before, including the time they were surrounded by disciples with their swords drawn, so that doesn’t mean much. He hopes this time they kiss or something.
Jiang Cheng stands there glaring at the wall for a moment, obviously torn between scolding Jing Ling for not telling him sooner and his own guilt that he had to be told at all. Jin Ling doesn’t know what to do with that, which is part of the reason he’d decided to keep it to himself. He reaches out, but Jiang Cheng just shakes his head, squeezes his shoulder, and disappears down the hall.
“Sizhui,” Jingyi says, “what did you do?”
Sizhui finally pulls his eyes away from the closed door and a deep flush makes its way down his neck. “I just, uh. Sent a letter. About heirs, and the Jin and Jiang, and Li Shuchun having to get married, and maybe I just wasn’t, um, clear enough about who she’d be marrying? Possibly.”
Zizhen starts laughing and Jin Ling covers his face with his hand to hide the fact that he’s smiling.
“Look, it seemed to work when Jin Ling did it, so,” he finishes, shrugging awkwardly.
That just makes Zizhen laugh harder. Jin Ling groans. “I’m pretty sure Uncle Ying doesn’t want you learning bad habits from me, like lying to adults to manipulate them into having honest conversations.”
“Okay, hold on,” Jingyi says. “To be clear, we are also adults. You’re literally the leader of your own sect.”
He waves a hand dismissively. “Not the point. If I need an adult, I’m not going to be looking for one of you.”
“You know,” Zizhen says, finally getting his giggles under control, “that you’re the adult people look to in your clan, right?”
“That’s different,” he insists, even though it really isn’t. “Whatever. I still haven’t finished my breakfast. Let’s go hide out in the kitchens before any of my council gets brave enough to head back over here.”
When Wei Wuxian enters the banquet hall for dinner, he’s mussed in a way that Jin Ling never wanted to see his uncle and Lan Wangji is so obnoxiously pleased with himself Jin Ling kind of wants to punch him on principal.
Jiang Cheng must have gotten a chance to talk to Wei Wuxian at some point because his shoulders are free of tension as he sits down.
Li Mianmian grins at him as she takes her new customary seat next to him. When he doesn’t attend the common meals, she just sits in his seat. It’s not exactly proper, but it offends the most annoying of his clan members, so he can’t bring himself to care.
Jin Ling is generous, so he waits until the meal has already started and everyone is mostly not staring at them to lean in Lan Wangji’s direction and say, “The formalities will have to wait until your brother comes out of seclusion, but Uncle Ying isn’t leaving the Jin. You’ll have to marry out of the Lan. Don’t worry, you’ll look good in gold.”
There are sounds of several people choking, Wei Wuxian included. “A-Ling!”
Lan Wangji just raises an eyebrow.
“Well, technically speaking,” Zizhen says, “since Lan Wangji is a main family member of the Lan and Wei Wuxian isn’t a main family member of the Jin, Wei Wuxian is the one who should be marrying out.”
“He’s my uncle,” Jin Ling points out incredulously. “Of course he’s part of the main family.”
Zizhen shrugs. “Sect Leader Jiang is your uncle too. That doesn’t make him part of the Jin family.”
He huffs and calls out, “Jin Liu. Retrieve the register from the treasury.”
He knows she’s irritated, but she doesn’t show it, instead neatly getting to her feat, bowing, and saying, “Of course, Sect Leader Jin.”
There are whispers spreading out the hall that he’s happy to ignore. Jiang Cheng’s eyes are narrowed. He knows Jin Ling is up to something but he can also sense a misdirection so he’s not sure what to think.
“A-Ling,” Wei Wuxian says, alarmed, “you can’t just add me to the family register!”
That’s a really stupid thing to say, because he obviously can, so he ignores him to say to Lan Wangji, “I know you’re the acting Lan sect leader, but we’ll have to wait for Lan Xichen to set up a formal engagement contract. We can iron out the details amongst ourselves, if you’d like, if you want to speed up the process a little bit.”
“Who said anything about marriage?” Wei Wuxian squeaks. “Why do you keep talking about marriage?”
“You already have a son together,” Jiang Cheng grumbles. “What’s marriage at this point? You can’t do anything right, including this. You’re supposed to fall in love, get married, then have a kid, idiot.”
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow, but Wei Wuxian just laughs, warm and not even a little offended, so he relaxes.
Jin Liu reenters the hall, the thick scroll held in her hand, and everyone quiets.
Wei Wuxian shifts in his chair. “Jin Ling, you can’t do this, think of the consequences, of my reputation-”
“Hand it to Uncle Ying,” he says, cutting him off. Under different circumstances he’d be worried about everyone’s opinion about all this, but the council members and most of the rest of the clan found out about this a long time ago. He probably should have told Wei Wuxian already, but it’s been so long and he’s so smart that he’d thought that he must have figured it out by now. Clearly that was wrong. Wei Wuxian’s only a genius when he isn’t busy being an idiot.
For a brief moment Jin Liu’s face contorts to make it clear she’s unhappy before it smooths into a neutral mask. She walks over and hands it to Wei Wuxian, who takes it uncertainly.
“Well?” he asks. “Open it.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him for several seconds before slowly unrolling the bottom of the scroll. Jin Ling knows what he’s seeing.
Li Mianmian is in there, of course, freshly added as Jin Mianmian as of a couple days ago.
Then right above her is Wei Wuxian. He knows exactly what it says, because he wrote it in himself.
Birth name: Wei Ying
Courtesy name: Wuxian
Clan name: Jin Ying
“But,” Wei Wuxian says quietly, eyes wide, “but – this is dated months ago. This is – we barely even knew each other.”
“The first time you woke up, you told me you didn’t belong anywhere,” Jin Ling says. “That’s stupid. You’re my mother’s brother. You’re my family and you belong here. I didn’t need to know you to know that. I added it that night. You’re my uncle, you belong to the Jin, and the Lan can’t have you.”
Jin Ling is pretty sure the reason his clan hasn’t started causing a fuss is because none of them are willing to ruin the chance of Hanguang Jun joining their clan, even if it is just because of the Yiling Patriarch.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, blinking to keep his tears from falling. If they were alone, Jin Ling would hug him. “Okay.”
Jin Ling expects Lan Wangji to angry or frustrated, but instead he has that almost smiling look on his face. “It is good that Wei Ying has family who is unwilling to give him up,” he says, and Jin Ling doesn’t wince but it’s close. “I will speak with my brother.”
“Really?” Wei Wuxian asks, his voice filled with both excitement and disbelief. “You really will Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji reaches out and tucks a strand of hair behind Wei Wuxian’s ear. “I wore white for you for sixteen years. I’ll wear gold gladly.”
He’s not even hungry anymore. He hopes they’re not like this after they get married, but he’s not holding out much hope.
“So romantic,” Zizhen sighs. “Isn’t it so romantic?”
“It’s something,” Jingyi agrees, leaning over him to deposit a perfectly cooked piece of pork on Jin Ling’s plate. “Here.”
He has his own food, obviously, but food given from the plate of someone who cares about you always tastes better.
“Thanks, A-Yi,” he says, just to see, and Jingyi actually drops his chopsticks in surprise, but he’s smiling too, so Jin Ling thinks it’s alright.
He thinks that everything is going to be alright now, actually.