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Out of Mud

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Ouyang Zizhen had never personally experienced Sect Leader Jiang threatening to break his legs before this, and he couldn’t say it was an experience he was eager to repeat. From Lan Jingyi’s terrified squawk and even Lan Sizhui’s pale face, he rather thought the others agreed. 

Jin Ling assured them that it meant his uncle was happy to have them at Lotus Pier, but Jin Ling wasn’t always reliable when it came to self-preservation. Ouyang Zizhen had heard him mutter “If I die, I die” too many times to be strictly comfortable trusting his ability to judge what was or wasn’t dangerous.

Especially when the “what” in question was Sect Leader Jiang.

It was just like Jin Ling to invite his friends on a “diplomatic bonding experience” in order to get away from the machinations of his sect elders, only to drag them directly into the lair of a very different but equally terrifying beast. The swiftly falling dark and a small army of menacingly glowing lotus-shaped lanterns only served to increase Sect Leader Jiang’s intimidation factor.

Personally, in Jin Ling’s place, Ouyang Zizhen wouldn’t have greeted the Sandu Shengshou with, “Hi jiujiu the elders were giving me a headache so we’re going to hang out here for a bit don’t worry about us we’ll stay out of your way also if anyone shows up looking for me please pretend you’ve never seen me before thanks!”

But he had to concede that perhaps Jin Ling did understand his uncle’s moods after all. Sect Leader Jiang only threatened their legs once with surprisingly little malice, almost as if out of habit, and then he responded to Jin Ling’s verbal vomit with a heavy sigh and resigned grumbling that Jin Ling knew when meals were served and it wouldn’t be his fault if they went hungry because they missed the window.

Jin Ling opened his mouth again, and Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes. “Your room is where it’s always been. Your friends can all pile into your bed or you can ask Jiang Shanyu to have the servants set up some of the empty rooms if that's not fancy enough for your diplomatic guests.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked between uncle and nephew and wondered if the late Jiang Yanli had shared the same grumpy manner of showing affection, or if Jin Ling had picked that up directly from the man who had raised him.

Jin Ling flushed and crossed his arms. He looked to be about five seconds away from stomping his foot like a child. “Who would want to share a bed with these idiots!” he snapped, and then flounced away in a swirl of glittering gold silks.

Lan Jingyi chased after him, whining, “How cruel, Young Mistress! After Sizhui and I fled our home to answer your desperate plea for rescue, and Ouyang-xiong worked so hard to escape from under his father’s nose, you don’t consider us close enough to bed down with?”

As Lan Sizhui started to follow the two loudmouths at a more sedate pace, Jin Ling’s retort drifted back to where Ouyang Zizhen was still standing, frozen, in front of Sect Leader Jiang: “Who asked to be rescued?!”

Sect Leader Jiang snorted, his arms crossed in front of him. His eyes were fixed on the two gold and white shapes in the distance, and his right hand loosened and then re-clenched around his left bicep in a strange, aborted twitch.

That dark gaze shifted onto Ouyang Zizhen’s face, as if Sect Leader Jiang could sense that he was being watched. He lifted one of those strong eyebrows in a silent question.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Sect Leader Jiang!” Ouyang Zizhen squeaked, hastily bringing his arms up in a salute. “We’ll do our best to stay out of your way!”

If he almost tripped over himself trying to turn and run at the same time, Lan Sizhui, who had lingered at a short distance to wait for him, was too kind to mention it.

Ouyang Zizhen took it all back. He was never trusting Jin Ling to know anything ever again.

“I’m fine!” Jin Ling argued, swinging his feet over the edge of his bed. Ouyang Zizhen watched in horrified fascination as his face went white and then green, and then the youngest sect leader blinked like he was trying to push his own eyeballs out the back of his skull.

His hands were clenched into such tight fists that his knuckles had turned a bloodless white. Ouyang Zizhen could tell when the newest bout of pain faded because Jin Ling’s grip relaxed and red flowers bloomed across the backs of his hands as blood rushed back into his extremities.

“You’re not fine,” Lan Jingyi said firmly, struggling to shove Jin Ling back into a reclining position. “Look at you, you can’t even stand up without wobbling!”

Lan Sizhui sighed almost inaudibly. “Don’t tell him that, Jingyi, he’s going to take it as a challenge,” he chided, but it was too late.

“What did you say to me?!” Jin Ling shot upright, only to bounce right back down onto the mattress as his face scrunched up once more in pain.

“Jin Ling, we can just take it easy for today,” Lan Sizhui said soothingly. “You don’t have to worry about entertaining us. We’ll be here for a few more days, after all.”

Jin Ling grit his teeth. “This has been happening every morning for the past week. It’s fine. Just… just give me a few minutes to make this headache go away and I’ll take you to the market.”

Lan Jingyi’s voice rose in alarm. “The only place you’re taking us is the healers’ wing!”

“Sh-shut up--”

Just what is going on in here?!

The boys fell silent as the door to Jin Ling’s room slammed open. Sect Leader Jiang stepped through, eyes immediately homing in on his nephew’s face. Lan Jingyi scrambled out of the way as Sect Leader Jiang strode to the side of Jin Ling’s bed, barely sparing the others a glance as he went.

“Why are you in pain? Are you sick?” He smacked Jin Ling’s shoulder when the boy tried to push himself up into a sitting position, laying the back of his hand against Jin Ling’s forehead.

“I’m fine, jiuiju!” Jin Ling tried to protest. “I’ve just-- The sect elders have been a pain in the ass these past few weeks, and it makes my head ring first thing in the morning, but it goes away--”

Sect Leader Jiang scowled, a fierce expression that was totally at odds with how gently he tilted Jin Ling’s head back and forced his nephew’s mouth open so he could inspect the inside of Jin Ling’s throat.

Lan Sizhui coughed lightly and politely turned his back on the red-faced Jin Ling and his uncle. “Jingyi, Ouyang-xiong, let’s wait outside.”

Not that it made much of a difference, anyway. From outside the room they could still hear the plaintive, “Jiujiu, I’m fine,” and Sect Leader Jiang’s curt, “You’re an idiot, is what you are. You have a fever, dumbass.” Then, without warning, a heart-stoppingly loud roar of “Jiang Shanyu!

A round-faced young woman who wore an aura of competence like a cloak appeared from behind Ouyang Zizhen without a sound, knocking politely on the door before sliding it open. “Sect Leader?”

Ouyang Zizhen clutched a hand to his chest, willing his heartbeat back to normal as Sect Leader Jiang continued at a more normal volume, “Send one of the healers to check on Jin Ling as soon as possible. He’s not to leave his room until someone has seen him, and he’s to follow the healer’s instructions afterward.”


Jiang Shanyu bowed. “Yes, Sect Leader.” She straightened up and addressed Jin Ling directly. “Jin Rulan, would you like pork congee or chicken congee for your meals today?” Her tone made it very clear that those were his only two options.

“Stop treating me like I’m sick,” Jin Ling complained. “I can take care of myself. I’m a sect leader, you know.” Then, after a pause: “Chicken, please.”

Jiang Shanyu nodded and withdrew from the room. Ouyang Zizhen stared after her as she strode down the hall, presumably headed for the healers’ wing. What a capable, authoritative young woman! No wonder Sect Leader Jiang had called for her in his--or rather, Jin Ling’s--hour of need!

Back inside Jin Ling’s room, Sect Leader Jiang snorted. “You don’t get treated like a sect leader when you run away from your own elders to take refuge in my house.” His voice grew more threatening as he stood up from the bed. “All of my disciples know it, too, so don’t think you’ll be able to bully anyone into letting you leave before a healer sees you. And you’d better finish all of your food, or Jiang Shanyu will let me know.”

Ouyang Zizhen heard a noise that sounded like Jin Ling was screaming into his pillow. “Just go away, jiujiu!”

Sect Leader Jiang huffed. “I’m going, I’m going. Brat.”

Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi leapt to their feet as he slid the door closed behind him. Lan Sizhui, ever well-mannered, had been standing the entire time and was predictably the first to react with a bow. Sect Leader Jiang returned the greeting with a nod of his head and rubbed his forehead as he surveyed them.

“What happened to staying out of my way,” he grumbled to himself. “Now I’ve got to entertain your guests because you don’t know how to take care of yourself?”

Lan Sizhui hurried to say, “Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t need to bother himself on our behalf; we can just--”

His polite words faltered upon contact with Sect Leader Jiang’s venomous glare.

“Jin Ling promised to take you to see the market, didn’t he? We’re not such poor hosts that we’d leave our guests wandering about aimlessly.” One corner of his lip quirked up almost imperceptibly into the ghost of a smirk. “Especially not when they’re diplomatic guests.”

Lan Jingyi groaned, with a muttered, “I knew letting the Young Mistress come up with the cover story was going to come back to bite us.” But he perked up at the promise of entertainment.

Ouyang Zizhen swallowed nervously. “We would be honored to be shown around by Sect Leader Jiang.”

If Sect Leader Jiang was treating them as diplomatic guests, then he probably wouldn’t break their legs. Right? Right?

“Besides, I can’t let everyone think Jin Ling only has one fun uncle,” Sect Leader Jiang said under his breath, and Ouyang Zizhen swallowed hard, terrified for his life because he was certain he hadn't been meant to hear that.

Sect Leader Jiang seemed to be thinking, one finger tapping against his thigh as he stared off into the distance. “All right,” he said finally. “I have a meeting in an hour. I should be finished by lunchtime.” His eyes narrowed. “I’d better be finished by lunchtime, or those old bastards will regret ever coming here.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s eyebrows flew up toward his hairline. Those were very strong words to say in front of any visitors, diplomatic or not.

Sect Leader Jiang looked unabashed at his own language. “I’ll have lunch sent to your rooms when they bring Jin Ling’s congee. After lunch, I’ll come fetch you and we’ll go to the market.” His scowl darkened. “If anyone tries to slip Jin Ling their own food, I’ll break their legs.”

Without waiting for confirmation, he spun on his heel and was turning the corner before any of the boys had recovered enough to speak.

Lan Sizhui let his shoulders fall in resignation, and Lan Jingyi opened and closed his mouth as he stared in the direction in which Sect Leader Jiang had disappeared.

“He and Jin Ling really are very much alike, aren’t they?” Lan Sizhui said weakly. 

“I feel like I’ve been trampled for my own good, and I hate how effective it is,” Lan Jingyi said. “I kind of wish I knew how to do that.”

Ouyang Zizhen nodded faintly.

Ouyang Zizhen had to admit that the market was a lot of fun. He even enjoyed the mild fear factor of being in close proximity to the living personification of the threat of broken legs as Sect Leader Jiang led them along the noisy street. 

Walking beside Sect Leader Jiang, Ouyang Zizhen realized that Jin Ling and his uncle were actually close to the same height, but Sect Leader Jiang was broader across the shoulders and chest and so felt taller than Jin Ling. He thought the span of their waists might be about the same, but he wasn’t suicidal enough to spend more than a quick second looking.

Both Jin Ling and Sect Leader Jiang walked with their shoulders tucked back and their chins lifted, but when Jin Ling did it he looked like a teenager with something to prove, whereas on Sect Leader Jiang it just looked natural. Ouyang Zizhen took mental notes, wondering if he could incorporate some of that into his own posture without looking like a peacock.

Ahead of them, Lan Jingyi had already pulled out his coin pouch. He had started out on his best behavior, conscious that they were in the presence of the leader of the one of the Four Great Sects--Jin Ling didn’t count, okay, he was just Jin Ling--but in short order, he was bouncing from stall to stall with stars in his eyes.

The sunlight reflected off the surface of the nearby river and danced across the faces of the market-goers. Ouyang Zizhen listened to the sloshing of the water against the docks and the frantic chatter of the street and felt it settle in his soul.

Lan Sizhui was just as awestruck as Lan Jingyi, only a bit quieter. Ouyang Zizhen watched his eyes dart here and there, always coming back to rest on the stalls selling paper lanterns. 

“You’re interested in lanterns?” Sect Leader Jiang asked without warning. Lan Sizhui swallowed and murmured an affirmative. A muscle in Sect Leader Jiang’s jaw relaxed, and he beckoned them all over to a stall draped in red cotton, strung up with a number of delicate paper lanterns.

The stall owner, a lovely young woman with a baby in her arms, smiled at them as they approached. Ouyang Zizhen watched in surprise as Sect Leader Jiang bowed to her, addressing her by name.

“Madam Liu, you’re looking well today. And A-Pang looks happy. How has business been today?”

Madam Liu’s cheerful smile widened as she bounced the baby. “Sect Leader! We’re doing well, thank you! Business has been slow so far, but I expect it will pick up this evening, once it gets dark.” She turned to the others. “Please feel free to take a look at my wares, young masters.”

“Madam Liu’s paper is so thin you can almost see through it,” Sect Leader Jiang said gruffly. “Her husband and her mother make the frames from a very light wood, so they’re not heavy at all. Jin Ling used to carry one in each hand when he was little.”

He gestured briefly to one side of his knee, and Ouyang Zizhen’s heart melted at the thought of a tiny Jin Ling toddling after his uncle. Or maybe toddling in front of his uncle; Sect Leader Jiang didn’t seem like the kind of caretaker who would let a child out of his sight in such a crowded place for even a moment.

The lantern-maker nodded as Sect Leader Jiang spoke, tapping the side of one lantern to show how thin the paper was. Lan Sizhui drifted closer, looking intrigued. Ouyang Zizhen was content to watch from further back, more interested in the emotions on Lan Sizhui’s face than the actual construction of the lanterns, exquisite as they were.

“There’s a metalworker further down the street who does the most delicate filigree lamps I’ve ever seen,” Sect Leader Jiang said quietly when Madam Liu disappeared to the back of her stall for a moment. “I don’t see him yet, but he usually shows up once it’s dark out. I’ll point him out later.”

When Madam Liu ducked back out to the front of the stall, he cleared his throat. “Do you have any lanterns that you’re working on at the moment? If you don’t mind, I think Lan-gongzi would find the process interesting.”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes widened, and he looked hopefully at Madam Liu.

She chuckled, a low, soothing sound that Ouyang Zizhen could have listened to forever. He listened with half an ear to her response, thoroughly distracted by that lingering laugh, but when the words registered in his brain he was jolted out of his daydream.

“Certainly, Sect Leader. But as you can see, I don’t have any free hands right now. You’ll have to take A-Pang while I show the young master our lantern-making process.”

Lan Jingyi choked on his own spit and Lan Sizhui’s face fell in disappointment, but Sect Leader Jiang just shrugged and reached out for the baby.

Ouyang Zizhen watched with bated breath as Madam Liu handed A-Pang over, apparently without any qualms. Even the baby seemed perfectly comfortable with the transfer, babbling and squealing as his tiny hands flailed up at Sect Leader Jiang’s severe face.

And that stony face softened as Sect Leader Jiang cradled the baby to his chest, rocking the warm little body with astounding confidence.

“Come around here, Lan-gongzi, and I’ll show you the two lanterns I started this morning,” Madam Liu said, and Lan Sizhui startled. He hurried to follow the lantern-maker’s instructions, shooting glances over his shoulder to where the other two were still spellstruck at the sight of Sect Leader Jiang--not smiling, but not frowning either--as he soothed the baby in his arms.

“Sect Leader Jiang is good with children,” Ouyang Zizhen managed after a moment. “I suppose it makes sense, since you raised Jin Ling.”

Sect Leader Jiang shook his head, placing a gentle kiss on the baby’s forehead before looking up at Ouyang Zizhen. “It’s not just because of Jin Ling. I mean, of course he gave me a lot of practice--that brat could never fall asleep unless I was holding him--but. When we rebuilt the sect.” He huffed, frowning as if frustrated that he couldn’t find the words he wanted.

“The orphans,” Lan Jingyi spoke up, strangely subdued. “From the Sunshot Campaign.”

Sect Leader Jiang nodded curtly, catching A-Pang’s hand as it swiped at his nose. He shook the tiny limb very softly and watched as the baby burst into pealing giggles. 

“We recruited as many adults as we could. We kept an eye out for people who had experience with being parents and grandparents. Promised them a home if they would help care for the children.” His lips tightened as he remembered. “But even then, we all had to help out with feeding the littlest ones and putting them to sleep.”

He snorted wryly. “It’s ironic. We were so busy begging the children to sleep through the night that we barely got any sleep ourselves.”

Lan Jingyi shuffled his feet. “Did you consider not taking them in? You were at war. You could have left the orphans to be raised by civilians.”

Sect Leader Jiang shrugged. “I considered it. Every time I had babysitting duty, I considered it.” He sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, then blew it back out. “But that would have been short-sighted of me. A sect is more than just an army.”

He paused thoughtfully. “If I’d just been trying to build an army, I would have gone about things very differently. Would have gotten to sleep a lot more, too.”

In front of them, Madam Liu was straightening up as Lan Sizhui bowed to her in thanks. Ouyang Zizhen was vaguely aware that he had missed the entire demonstration.

Sect Leader Jiang watched the two finish up their conversation, clearly in no hurry to give the baby back to his mother. “Madam Liu’s husband was only four when he came to us, you know,” he said offhandedly. “Never met a vegetable he liked.”

“It’s forbidden to talk about people behind their backs,” Lan Jingyi said reflexively, then went red.

Madam Liu laughed, taking A-Pang back with a nod of thanks at Sect Leader Jiang. “It’s common knowledge,” she waved the objection away. “Thankfully, he grew out of it before I met him. Can you imagine, trying to cook for a man who won’t eat vegetables unless you hide them in his food?”

“Did Madam Liu also grow up in Yunmeng?” Lan Sizhui asked, waving cheerfully at A-Pang and looking like his entire evening had been made when the baby waved back.

Madam Liu hid a smile behind her hand. “No, I’m originally from Qinghe.”

Sect Leader Jiang’s shoulders went back in a way that reminded Ouyang Zizhen of Jin Ling whenever he was particularly proud of himself. “Sect Leader Nie has never forgiven me for bringing Jiang Haian with me to Qinghe that time.”

“Sect Leader Nie called it poaching,” Madam Liu said conspiratorially to Lan Sizhui. “He thought Sect Leader Jiang introduced us with the intention that I would move to Yunmeng to be with my new husband.”

“Of course,” Ouyang Zizhen said, moved. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “Naturally a young woman in the flushes of romance would want to follow where her lover went!”

Madam Liu looked at him with amusement. “Oh, he was absolutely ready to stay in Qinghe with me. But Sect Leader Jiang offered me my own stall and a tax deal for the first two years, so I packed up with my mother and we moved our shop here.”

Ouyang Zizhen deflated, a little disappointed at the lack of romance, but Lan Jingyi laughed. “...That is poaching, then, isn’t it?”

Madam Liu winked at him and bustled off to take care of another customer, but neither she nor Sect Leader Jiang disagreed with his assessment.

“Don’t tell Nie Huaisang any of that,” Sect Leader Jiang said as he led them away from the lantern stall. “He’ll whine at me even worse than he already did when she first announced she was moving. Besides, her mother is originally from this area anyways, so really I was just returning a favor.”

“We Lans don’t gossip!” Lan Jingyi said, feigning offense. “Sect Leader Jiang, how could you--”

Sect Leader Jiang patted his shoulder in a way that Ouyang Zizhen had only ever seen him do to Jin Ling, and Lan Jingyi’s jaw snapped closed.

“Don’t try to pull that bullshit on me, Lan Jingyi,” Sect Leader Jiang told him. “I’ve met your clan, you know.”

Ouyang Zizhen, who had also met most of the Gusu Lan sect, winced. It wasn’t like Sect Leader Jiang was wrong

“I’ve also met your Wei-qianbei,” Sect Leader Jiang continued under his breath. “His mouth is big enough on its own.” Then, as if he regretted having said anything, he immediately pointed them toward a stall full of games. “Here’s some pocket money. Go play some games. Whatever.”

When they tried to politely refuse the coins, he crossed his arms. “It’s either you take the money, or I tell the stall owner to charge everything to my account anyways. Jin Ling will yell at me if I make his guests pay for their own entertainment when he’s supposed to be hosting them.” He grinned viciously. “Don’t worry, I’ll take it out of his hide.”

Ouyang Zizhen prayed for his friend’s safety.

Lan Jingyi accepted the money with the kind of thick face that so often led people to wonder if it wasn’t perhaps him who was Wei-qianbei’s adopted son, instead of Lan Sizhui. Reluctantly, Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Sizhui followed suit.

“Thanks, Sect Leader Jiang!” Lan Jingyi exclaimed. “Do you have any recommendations?”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes widened at the audacity of asking a sect leader about something as trivial as street games, but Sect Leader Jiang gave it some serious thought.

“There’s a fishing game over on the right there. My--Jin Ling’s mother used to enjoy those kinds of games.” He scratched the back of his neck. “But neither Jin Ling nor I ever had the patience for them.”

“Maybe we can catch something for him,” Lan Sizhui suggested, gently herding the others in the direction of the game that Sect Leader Jiang had indicated. "Does Jin Ling like fish?"

Sect Leader Jiang inclined his head. “You should have seen him the one and only time we managed to catch one here. Big eyes, loud mouth. Lots of bouncing all over the place. You’d think he’d never seen a fish before. As if they don’t just catch the prize fish from the docks over there.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked over at Lan Jingyi and--yes, clearly these childhood memories were going to be held over Jin Ling’s head forever. It seemed there were advantages to hanging out with Sect Leader Jiang after all.

He wondered if Sect Leader Jiang had any portraits of Jin Ling at that age. If he managed to get his hands on one, he might actually die on the spot.

Lan Sizhui bowed to Sect Leader Jiang. “We’ll be right back, Sect Leader Jiang. Please excuse us!”

“Take your time,” Sect Leader Jiang said. “By the time you’re done, the other lamp-maker will be open. Jin Ling gave me a list of food stalls that you apparently must try, but they’re all on the way to the lamp stall, so it works out.”

He stood at a distance as they huddled around the fishing pond, and occasionally Ouyang Zizhen saw him hail this vendor or that one and sink into a conversation for several minutes before moving on to the next person.

“Do you think Sect Leader Jiang knows every single person on this street?” he muttered to Lan Sizhui as they watched Lan Jingyi wrestle desperately with a fish the size of his pinky finger.

Lan Sizhui smiled softly. “It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it?” His smile faltered as he saw the tension in Ouyang Zizhen’s shoulders. “What’s wrong, Ouyang-xiong?”

Ouyang Zizhen wasn’t sure how to explain. “It seems like a lot to keep track of, doesn’t it? Sect Leader Jiang probably knows the history of every single stall here. Hell, he probably helped strike the business deals to establish half of them.” He bit his lip. “...Do you think all sect leaders are supposed to know that much about their people? Even the ones who aren’t cultivators? How often do you think he comes out here and talks to everyone? Why does he do it, do you think?”

“Oh, Ouyang-xiong.” Lan Sizhui patted his shoulder comfortingly. “Are you worrying about the future again? You told us your father started having you sit in on his public audiences and help with his paperwork. Can you talk to him about it?”

Ouyang Zizhen blew a strand of hair out of his face. “He’ll laugh at me if I ask something this stupid,” he grumbled. “And I don’t want him to think I can’t handle the responsibilities, or that I haven’t been paying attention.”

“I almost had it that time!” Lan Jingyi cried, wiping sweat and pond water off his face. “Sizhui, you’re patient. Sect Leader Jiang said patience was important, so you should try next!”

Lan Sizhui squeezed Ouyang Zizhen’s shoulder and stood up, taking Lan Jingyi’s place at the side of the pond. He eyed the fish consideringly and pulled his sleeves out of the way before lowering the net into the water.

“You know,” Lan Jingyi said as he settled down next to Ouyang Zizhen, voice pitched low so as not to break Lan Sizhui’s concentration, “you could always ask Sect Leader Jiang. Who would know better why or how often he does something than the man himself?”

“Jingyi has a good point,” Lan Sizhui said softly, his hand steady above the surface of the water. Lan Jingyi vibrated with excitement as they watched several gold and black fish approach the net.

Ouyang Zizhen huffed. “Easy for you two to say,” he retorted. “You’re not the ones who would be risking broken legs to interrogate Sect Leader Jiang about his-- his sect-leading practices.”

Lan Jingyi snickered, offering, “Well, you could ask the Young Mistress. But you’d still be risking broken legs.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s (well thought-out and very savage) response was drowned by the whoop that Lan Jingyi let out when Lan Sizhui lifted the net with a small, wiggling fish on top of it.

Sect Leader Jiang offered them an unsmiling “Congratulations” that actually sounded pretty sincere to Ouyang Zizhen’s ear. He looked at the fish and then at Lan Sizhui’s bashful smile, and his face softened. 

“It’s always the patient ones who get the job done,” he said, and Lan Sizhui ducked his head as if Sect Leader Jiang had just showered him with profuse praise.

“Jin Ling might not want to carry a fish all the way back to Carp Tower,” he worried, biting his lip, but Sect Leader Jiang shrugged.

“Then you can put it in the water anywhere in Lotus Pier. It’s not the fish that matters, anyway. Jin Ling will still be happy that you brought him something.” He rolled his eyes. “Heaven knows he brought me enough bugs and fish when he was a child, and I had to coo and pat him on the head every time.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s brain ticked to a stop at the image of the dour Sect Leader Jiang cooing over anything. Beside him, Lan Jingyi seemed to be going through a similar emotional journey.

Lan Sizhui said, very faintly, “Ah, is that so…?”

Sect Leader Jiang sighed. “I don’t know how my sister did it with two of us bringing her the stupidest shit. Worms, eels, one time we brought her a baby bird and she climbed a tree to put it back in the nest. And then she made soup to thank us for our hard work.”

Ouyang Zizhen wondered if Jin Ling had heard this story about his mother, and felt vaguely guilty to be hearing it without him.

Then Sect Leader Jiang said, “And when Jin Ling heard that story, he wanted me to make him soup every time he brought me something. Demanding little brat.”

“That sounds very much like him,” Lan Jingyi snickered.

Sect Leader Jiang turned his head sharply and looked at Lan Jingyi for a long moment before exhaling with an exasperation that Ouyang Zizhen could feel in his bones. “He may not seem like it sometimes, but he’s matured a lot since then.”

“Sect Leader Jin has grown into a fine young man,” Lan Sizhui agreed, smiling peaceably. “Clearly he’s learned a lot from Sect Leader Jiang.”

Sect Leader Jiang flushed and lifted his chin. “He’s not done growing yet,” he growled. Then, turning around and starting to walk off, he added, “I guess he could have worse friends to take as examples.”

Ouyang Zizhen felt like he could float right off the street, with how empty his head was and how light his heart was. To top it off, that was when Sect Leader Jiang handed them each a stick of tanghulu.

“Nice of you to remember I exist,” Jin Ling said sourly as they piled into his room, smelling of sweat and smoke and sugar.

“Don’t be like that, Young Mistress!” Lan Jingyi chided, tumbling onto the edge of Jin Ling’s bed. “Look, we brought something back for you!”

Lan Sizhui bashfully presented the fish to the bed-bound sect leader, who puffed out his cheeks at the sight of it.

“That-- what-- What am I supposed to do with a fish?” Jin Ling demanded, but he reached out to take the little container anyways. 

Lan Jingyi nudged Jin Ling’s shoulder. “Don’t be rude.”

Jin Ling brought the fish to eye level in an effort to avoid having to make eye contact with any of them. “It’s kind of pretty. It’s gold, so it’s appropriate, at least.” His cheeks heated up. “Thanks. I guess.” Then, after a moment: “Can I eat it? The only thing I’ve had all day is congee and more congee.”

Ouyang Zizhen groaned good-naturedly, producing a stick of tanghulu from his sleeves. “I knew you’d complain about that. Here. When Sect Leader Jiang breaks my legs, I command you to avenge me.”

Jin Ling took the candy with wide eyes, shoving it into his mouth as if convinced that someone would take it away from him if he didn’t eat it fast enough.

“Slow down,” Lan Sizhui interjected, wincing as the hard sugar clacked against Jin Ling’s teeth. “It’s all yours, we had plenty while we were out.”

Lan Jingyi groaned, throwing himself backwards against Jin Ling’s torso. Jin Ling let out an oomph, nearly choking on his candy. 

“Did you really have to give your uncle such a long list of food stalls we had to visit? It was all sooo good but I’m about to burst out of my robes!”

Ouyang Zizhen scoffed. “Don’t listen to him, Jin-xiong. That’s because he insisted on eating his share and then finishing what the rest of us couldn’t eat.”

“It was all very good, though,” Lan Sizhui added. “I’m glad you invited us here.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lan Jingyi nodded vigorously. “Your uncle is actually pretty cool, you know.”

“Only ‘pretty cool’?” Jin Ling demanded, sitting upright. “You shut up, my jiujiu is the coolest.”

Lan Jingyi flopped over to eye Jin Ling skeptically. “Isn’t your other uncle the Yiling Patriarch?”

Jin Ling scowled. “I said what I said!”

Lan Jingyi gave this some thought and then nodded slowly. “Well, Wei-qianbei is also pretty cool, and he did save our lives and all, but… Sect Leader Jiang didn’t play a single prank on us this whole day. Can you imagine Sandu Shengshou pulling pranks?”

Ouyang Zizhen waited. “...And?”

“And what?”

“Clearly there’s something else you want to say,” Lan Sizhui agreed. “What is it, Jingyi?”

Lan Jingyi sank back into Jin Ling’s sheets with a pained expression. “Well,” he mumbled, “I slept so well last night. And I’ll probably sleep really well again tonight! Because no one is having-- having-- No one is being loud at night. And forgetting to use silencing talismans.”

The four of them considered this, cheeks red from various memories of sleepless nights in the Cloud Recesses.

“Ha, so there,” Jin Ling said, but he looked like he regretted winning the argument.