Jiang Cheng took custody of Jin Ling when he was a little more than three years old.
It had been long enough that the grief from losing Jiejie had transformed from searing pain to numbness to anger to a dull, haunting sadness. His fury at Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, hadn’t changed at all; it was a cracked, raw place inside him that he couldn’t heal, so he used it to fuel his determination to rebuild Lotus Pier.
Wei Wuxian had ripped the world apart with his bare hands, and it was up to Jiang Cheng to clean up his messes, like always.
He did not, however, expect part of the mess to include a spoiled, orphaned toddler.
Jiang Cheng was a regular enough visitor to Koi Tower; his business in the cultivation world took him there often. When he came during the first two years, Jin Ling would be presented to him for his...inspection? Approval? He never knew what to say. The child didn’t know he was his uncle, he didn’t know anything except how to drool all over his own fists. It was the same every time; after dinner, a nurse would be summoned, and they would bring out a white-clad, red-faced baby for him to look over.
If Jiejie was here, he’d tease her that it was a shame the boy so strongly resembled his father. If she was here, he’d maybe sit the child on his knee and instruct him on how to be a good member of the Yunmeng Jiang clan, not those silly, stuffy Jins.
But she wasn’t here, and Jin Xixuan wasn’t here to strut around like a proud peacock Jiang Cheng was alone, the clan leader who had to think of the right thing to say when faced with his only living flesh and blood. “He seems strong,” he would say. “That’s good.” And then the nurse would bundle him up and away and take him back to his chambers.
“His cultivation is very high,” Jin Guangyao had said over dinner, the last time he was there, but he said it hesitantly, with a wide, pleasing smile that seemed to expect an answer. When none came, he straightened up and added with a conciliatory tone. “Of course, we’re very proud. But high cultivation can mean high, well, spirits.” He paused, carefully sipping the broth in front of him, then delicately placing his spoon down. “As you know.” He ducked his head, apologetic.
Jiang Cheng clenched his hand into a fist under the table. Of course. Who had a stronger golden core than Wei Wuxian? And look what he did with it.
“Well,” Jiang Cheng said, trying and failing to regulate his breathing, “spit it out, what’s wrong with the kid?”
“He’s been quite, ah.” It was clear that Jin Guangyao was looking for a better word, but he didn’t seem to find it. “He’s beingspoiled. The nurses and maidservants were all very fond of his parents, you see. They dote on him.”
“He needs a firm hand, then,” Jiang Cheng said. If the brat was spoiled, that wasn’t any of his concern. He wasn’t sure why Jin Guangyao was bringing it to him, surely this was an issue for the women in his household.
“Well,” Jin Guangyao said, shrugging. “You know how women are. They have soft hearts.”
Jiang Cheng thought privately that, if Jin Guangyao had been closely acquainted with Jiang Cheng’s mother, he might not say such things.
“I’m glad to hear that you think something should be done,” Jin Guangyao said, inclining his head towards him. “Clan Leader Jiang is wise, as always.” He waited a beat, then coughed in his sleeve. “Of course, as his closest male relative, you would be the most appropriate guardian.”
Jiang Cheng almost choked on his tea. “The most appropriate what?”
But Jin Guangyao just smiled at him, raised his hand, and summoned the nurse.
Jiang Cheng had rebuilt Lotus Pier only to see Jin Ling destroy it all over again. The child ran from the nurses Jiang Cheng had hurriedly hired, he tore precious books, and spit out even the mildest of broths. He was most certainly spoiled and clearly took after his father. Jiang Cheng couldn’t imagine his jiejie acting like this, not in a million years.
“Jin Ling!” Jiang Cheng roared as he fished a screaming Jin Ling out of one of the shallow lotus ponds. His heart was pounding. As soon as he heard the nurse screaming, he’d had visions of Jin Ling floating motionless in the water. He’d never experienced this particular kind of fear and fury at the same time before, an absolutely terrified, helpless rage toward the world and toward Jin Ling himself. Didn’t he realize that the last of Jiang Cheng’s heart was in his stupid, careless hands? Didn’t he know that if he hurt himself, Jiang Cheng might not ever recover? Stupid boy.
Jiang Cheng wiped the boy’s face with his own sleeve, grimacing when it came away all muddy and snotty. “You’re coming with me,” he said, putting the boy on his hip. “Do you understand? I’m your uncle and I’m also your clan leader. You must listen to me.”
“Uncle,” Jin Ling repeated doubtfully. He chewed on his dirty fist.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “Bath first. And then you’re going to learn what it means to behave.”
After they had both bathed and dressed, Jiang Cheng knelt across from Jin Ling, who had started out kneeling, but had toppled to one side, more interested in tracking the progress of a bug crawling along the floor than in whatever his uncle had to say.
“Jin Ling!” Jiang Cheng shouted, startling Jin Ling into rolling back over and looking at him. His lower lip was quivering. Jiang Cheng took a deep breath and tried to find his center. He began again. “Jin Ling,” he said. “You will not be spoiled here, do you understand? You can’t just get what you want by acting out.”
Jin Ling was halfway across the room, chasing the bug again. Jiang Cheng felt a scream working its way up his throat, but he swallowed it. “Jin. Ling. Listen to me!”
There was no indication that Jin Ling had even heard him as he gave up on the bug and rolled back and forth, kicking his legs.
“You get over here--” Jiang Cheng stomped over to Jin Ling and stood over him, not caring how angry he looked. If the boy was afraid of him, good! Good! He should have some respect!
Jin Ling looked up at him, eyes huge, and then he opened his mouth and started to wail.
It was a long time before both their tears were dry.
Tonight was the night they honored their dead. The ancestors’ pavilion had been scrubbed until its gleam could almost be seen from outside. Platters of food rested nearby and the scent of incense infused the air. Jin Ling had not yet been able to sit through the whole ceremony, but this year was different.
Jiang Cheng noted with pride how still Jin Ling was being. His little face was serious as he watched the candles flickering in front of them, golden light illuminating his dark eyes and the dot of vermillion on his brow. He was growing up strong.
The old, familiar pain hit, but gentler than it had in the past. It was so unfair that his sister would never see her son grow to adulthood. (Part of his mind whispered that it was unfair that he’d never see his sister again either, but that was a childish thought, not befitting a clan leader.) They’d all lost so much, but that particular pain was the hardest for him to bear if he thought about it too long.
As if reading his mind, Jin Ling spoke up. “Uncle?”
“Would my mother be proud of me? Did she love me?” He looked worried, unsure. It was a question only a very young boy would ask, and Jiang Cheng felt tender toward him for a moment.
“Of course,” he said roughly. “You’re the heir of two great clans. Never let anyone forget that.”
Jin Ling frowned and straightened his back. “I won’t ever forget that.”
“Your mother was the kindest and gentlest woman to ever live.” Jiang Cheng paused. He sighed internally. “And your father was um...a decent dresser. He wore a lot of fine silks.” A small crease was beginning to form in between Jin Ling’s eyes. “And,” Jiang Cheng added hurriedly, “he was a good swordsman, I suppose. Not as good as your uncle, but he did the Lanling Jins proud.”
“And the Yiling Patriarch killed them both,” Jin Ling said with a frown, anger making his high little voice shake. His small fists balled up into his robes. “Wei Wuxian and the Ghost General, they murdered them.”
“That’s right, they did,” Jiang Cheng said approvingly. The child was learning well. He ignored the way the candlelight flickering off the gold leaf blurred and swam in front of his eyes. “But Wei Wuxian paid with his life. And neither his body or soul was was found for a hundred miles. We don’t have to worry about him anymore.”
That night, Jiang Cheng dreamed of him. The bad dreams were always in the Nightless City, dark shadows swirling around them, Jiejie’s lifeless body in his arms, blood everywhere.
The worst dreams were of his senior brother. Smiling. Laughing. Throwing his arm around Jiang Cheng, pulling him into some joke. Those dreams were the ones that made Jiang Cheng sit up gasping, his chest frozen in ice.
Tonight was the second kind of dream.
Tonight was the kind of night where his mind whispered to him that there was one dead family member he hadn’t properly honored.
Banishing those thoughts from his mind, Jiang Cheng left his bed to check the spiritual wards around Lotus Pier. It didn’t hurt to be overly cautious. It had only been six years. Six years of death was nothing to the Yiling Patriarch, and Jiang Cheng needed to stay vigilant.
Jin Guangyao took Jin Ling back to live with him for part of the year when Jin Ling turned eight years old. “He needs to learn about both sides of his family,” he’d said, like he hadn’t left Jiang Cheng on his own for the past five years.
Truthfully, Jiang Cheng couldn’t put Jin Ling on the boat fast enough. He’d been ill-mannered, cranky, and just plain insolent for the past several weeks, and Jiang Cheng was eager to see how his other uncle would deal with it. He sent Jin Ling in his finest clothes, with several servants, and waved him off happily.
The happiness he felt at his freedom -- no being called to discipline, no comforting a crying child, no defending him against bullies -- lasted the better part of a week, then began to fade. Had Lotus Pier always been this quiet? Surely not. Jiang Cheng could barely remember what it was like before Jin Ling came to live with him...what did he even do all day?
The long summer days dragged on, hot and humid, slow and uneventful. Jiang Cheng took to practicing his swordsmanship to pass the time, going on more night hunts than usual, and trying not to worry about Jin Ling.
Finally, when the weather had cooled into autumn, then deepened into the early edges of winter, Jin Ling returned. He was not alone.
“Uncle!” he called as he disembarked from the boat. He looked much bigger than he had when he left, and was dressed even more finely, in ivory silks, with gold and jade adornments in his hair and at his waist. He looked like a little prince. “Look! Look what Little Uncle gave me!” Jin Ling held up a massive black squirming puppy. He could barely hold it in his arms. The dog was clearly no ordinary animal.
“A spiritual dog,” Jiang Cheng said, reaching out to ruffle the dog’s ears. “That’s a very generous gift.”
“Fit for a young prince,” Jin Ling said proudly, putting his nose in the air. “I’ve named him Little Fairy and he’s going to protect me forever.”
Jiang Cheng had missed having dogs around, and a dog would be extra protection against Wei Wuxian, should he end up resurrecting himself. Jiang Cheng felt sure his fear of dogs would follow him through several lifetimes. “Well, let’s get you both fed,” he said, trying hard not to pull Jin Ling to his chest. It wouldn’t do to be seen coddling the boy like he was still a baby.
“You should have seen the feasts we had at Golden Unicorn Tower,” Jin Ling bragged. “Course after course of food I’ve never even seen before! I ate until I was bursting and then Little Uncle slipped me some candies after. I had five of my own servants and they did whatever I asked them to do!”
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes so hard it was a wonder he didn’t damage his eyesight. “Oh,” he said, sniffing in contempt. “Then I suppose you have no appetite for your favorite lotus seed congee, then.”
“No!” Jin Ling hugged the dog so hard that it yelped. “No, uncle, please, I’ve missed it, pleeeeeaaase?” He had developed a truly unappealing whine in his time away, but Jiang Cheng decided to ignore it.
“Lotus Pier will give you a homecoming truly befitting a prince,” Jiang Cheng said. “Just you wait, you won’t even give Golden Unicorn Tower another thought.”
“Little Uncle wants me to go back next year,” Jin Ling said happily. “He says he wants to see me more. I’m going to inherit the sect, you know. He needs to teach me all the ways of being a good leader.” Jin Ling walked along, his chest puffed out. “I’ll be the greatest leader the cultivation world has ever known.”
“Delightful,” Jiang Cheng gritted out. “How nice for you.” He resolved to himself that Jin Ling would want for nothing -- nothing! -- in his house as long as he drew breath, and also that he would see what real leadership was like by watching Jiang Cheng.
“Come on,” he said, allowing his hand to fall onto Jin Ling’s back in a rare show of affection. “We need to get some things for Little Fairy, make him feel at home.”
“There is a child,” Lan Xichen said, after they’d observed the formalities. His hands were in his lap and he looked as put together as he always did. Nothing about his expression gave away his thoughts. Jiang Cheng wondered if the Gusu Lan clan members would fall over dead if they ever tried to say anything outright.
Jiang Cheng tried to hold himself as aloof as Lan Xichen, but his irritation got the best of him. “What child?”
Lan Xichen’s expression didn't change, despite the truly outrageous statement that fell from his lips. “My brother’s child.”
Jiang Cheng snorted. Loudly. Rudely. He didn't care. “I didn't take you for a joker, Zewu-Jun. You and I both know that Hanguang-Jun is too upright for such a thing, unless he’s quietly gotten himself married without my knowledge.”
“He has not.”
Jiang Cheng was too well-mannered to reach across the table and shake him until he spit it out, but it was close. Still, he couldn't help but try to rile him a little. “And we also both know that Hanguang-Jun’s taste does not run in that direction. He was more fond of Wei Wuxian than any of the maidens in the Cloud Recesses.”
That got him a small smile. “Just so. But he's adopted the child and cares for him as his own, and our clan recognizes him as a full member and a disciple. He's right around Jin Rulan’s age, and I thought they might get along.”
“Perhaps,” Jiang Cheng said. As frustrating as dealing with the Lan clan could be at times, Jiang Cheng could admit to himself that perhaps Jin Ling could benefit from some discipline, and the Lans were nothing if not disciplined. Hanguang-Jun, however...Jiang Cheng didn’t trust him.
“We’ll see,” he said. He didn’t love the idea. He was already sharing Jin Ling with Jin Guangyao -- he didn’t need him to have an even wider circle of influences.
“Uncle, I--” Jin Ling came in, scowling darkly, Little Fairy right on his heels. Upon seeing Lan Xichen, he stopped and bowed, eyeing him warily.
“What did I tell you about interrupting?” Jiang Cheng said. His face heated with shame. The Lans were stuck up and snobby, but he didn’t want Zewu-Jun thinking that Jin Ling was undisciplined.
Jiang Cheng gestured sharply toward the door. “And interrupting as well? Jin Ling, we will speak later.”
Jin Ling stomped his foot once, enough to startle the dog, then turned and stomped out the door.
Lan Xichen looked entirely unaffected by the entire scene, and was even smiling slightly, gentle and understanding. Jiang Cheng thought he could read a hint of triumph in there, like his point had been made, his point that the Yunmeng Jiangs and Jin Ling needed the Lans -- for friendship, for guidance, for discipline--
Well. They didn’t need anyone. Not Jiang Cheng and certainly not Jin Ling.
“Are you done?” Jiang Cheng asked, trying to will away the embarrassed flush in his cheeks. “Is this what you came for?”
Lan Xichen nodded. The smile hadn’t dropped from his face. “Yes. That and to remind you that you have friends, sect leader. The doors to the Cloud Recesses are open to you any time.”
“I’ll think about it,” Jiang Cheng said.
As Lan Xichen left in a flurry of white robes on the wind, Jiang Cheng told himself that Jin Ling didn’t need anyone else, and certainly not some bastard child that Lan Wangji was raising. He and Jin Ling had each other, that’s all they needed.
Wei Wuxian arrived mouth-first, like he always did. Jiang Cheng could hear his loud chattering from the boat as it pulled up to Lotus Pier before he could make out his face clearly. Hanguang-Jun, of course, sat still and silent next to him. “Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian leapt up as if to wave, then stopped midway, letting his hand fall slowly to his side as the smile on his face slid away.
Jiang Cheng wondered what his own face looked like to cause that kind of response. Well, he didn’t care. He’d invited them here, that was enough of a concession. He wasn’t going to change his own damn face! Zidian flared to life on his wrist and he cracked it against the ground impatiently.
“Are you nervous, uncle?” Jin Ling stepped next to him with a truly unbecoming smirk on his face. Jiang Cheng looked at him, then realized that he was looking Jin Ling right in the eyes. That child was going to be taller than him by the end of the year, at the rate he was going. Who had allowed this to happen? He blamed Jin Xixuan; he’d always been tall.
“Insolent,” Jiang Cheng muttered. “You never listen to me anymore.”
In the past, Jin Ling would have gotten angry. Now, he just smiled.
As the boat bumped gently against the dock, Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun disembarked with twin graceful leaps and bowed to the two of them. Jiang Cheng returned the gesture, but he could feel black resentment crawling up his throat. What was he thinking, inviting them here? There was too much ugliness between them to reconcile now.
“Clan Leader Jiang,” Hanguang-Jun said, inclining his head. “Thank you for your invitation. I look forward to seeing Lotus Pier again.” On better terms, he didn’t say, but Jiang Cheng felt it.
Not trusting his own voice, Jiang Cheng nodded once, short and sharp.
“Jin Ling, you’re looking well,” Wei Wuxian said, looking him up and down and nodding in satisfaction. “Almost taller than your uncle, I see.” Jiang Cheng focused again on his breathing.
“Please,” he gritted out through clenched teeth. “Make yourselves comfortable. Someone will see you to the guest quarters.”
“Truly,” Wei Wuxian said, bowing again. “Jiang Cheng. Thank you. This means…” he smiled, that irresistible little smile, dimples poking out on the corners of his mouth. He looked eight years old again. “This means a lot, you having us here. Thank you,” he repeated, then followed after his husband, who had been eyeing Jiang Cheng like a circling hawk.
They followed a servant and Jiang Cheng stayed behind, not trusting himself to follow too closely. He realized that Jin Ling was still with him, hovering by his shoulder. “Well?” Jiang Cheng snapped. “Go on, your fun uncles are here. Go bother them instead of me.”
“Uncle,” Jin Ling said, softly, looking at him with more open kindness than Jiang Cheng had ever seen from him. “I’m proud to have been raised by you. You taught me well.”
Jiang Cheng’s face lit on fire. His gut burned and he felt small and exposed and strange. He hated it. “What?” he said, shoving at a smiling Jin Ling. “Why would you say these things now.” He hated how much it meant to him, a balm on an injury he didn’t know he had.
“Goodbye Uncle,” Jin Ling said, waving over his shoulder as he walked off. “I’m going to go play with my fun uncles now.”
“Brat!” Jiang Cheng yelled after him. “Disrespectful!”
Jiang Cheng watched him walk up the stairs, tall and strong. He had grown so well, his Jin Ling. He would be a fine young man. A pride of both his houses. Sect leader in a few short years.
He’d taught him well. As well as he could.
Jiang Cheng closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment of sentiment before ascending the stairs to join his family.