In his defense—not that he needs one, of course, because he’s done nothing wrong, technically, for the most part, but if he did he’d have this one ready, just in case—Jingyi started it.
“You don’t have an heir?”
The elders’ robes disappear around the corner, ultimatums hanging in the air behind them. Jin Ling scowls, arms folded, and ignores the look Jingyi and Sizhui are sharing.
“It’s ridiculous,” he says, which is probably not how you’re supposed to approach the question of inheritance but whatever, he’s right. If he ends up dead before the tender age of twenty they’ll pick who they want anyway. If they need his opinion right now, well, they have it. He doesn’t see what the fuss is. “I could have an heir if I wanted one.”
“Could you though?”
“Yes.” He frowns in Jingyi’s direction. “I’ve got lots of, y’know. Blood relatives.”
It sits awkwardly for a moment. Jingyi glances back at Sizhui like he can’t decide if he’s horrified or in agreement. “Well,” he says after a moment, mouth twisting, “I guess you’re not wrong?”
Jin Ling settles more comfortably into his sulk. “Of course I’m not. Even Dajiu is technically—” He doesn’t know the right way to say it. It’s so weird. Everything about Wei Wuxian is weird even without the Mo-qianbei part, but that part is especially weird. He tries not to think too hard about it most days. Jin Ling makes a face. “They’re lucky I don’t just tell everyone he’s next in line and let them deal with it.”
Sizhui frowns. “Is that even allowed?”
Jin Ling shrugs. He hasn’t really considered it. He does now with a prickling, morbid sort of curiosity that Wei Wuxian would probably approve of. “It’s not not allowed. Does that count?”
Jingyi looks like he hasn’t really considered it either. “Huh.”
It would be funny, probably. Maybe the elders would stop bothering him so much, if he told them Wei Wuxian was his choice to inherit. Anyway, Wei Wuxian is the sort of ridiculous man who likes loopholes like that, so Jin Ling refuses to feel bad for considering it. He’d probably be entertained by the whole conundrum.
“I suppose,” says Sizhui hesitantly, sounding a little like he regrets the conversation and can’t figure out how to stop it.
Jingyi cocks his head. “I thought he was a member of the Jiang Sect, though. Technically.”
Jin Ling sniffs. That’s a tangle of trouble he’s just about given up any hope of unravelling. “If Jiujiu wants him so bad, Jiujiu can make an effort.”
Both Jingyi and Sizhui go oddly still. It takes Jin Ling another moment to realize why, and when he does, he has a brief, dizzying flash of possibility. There is no one around to tell him this, but in that moment, he looks a great deal like his mother.
“Yes,” breathes Jingyi at the same time Sizhui mutters the Lannest possible, “No.”
“—shit,” he finishes. Maybe he’s not ready to give up that last shred of hope after all.
But first: a night hunt. That’s why Jingyi and Sizhui are here in the first place, newly minted senior disciples who don’t need Hanguang-jun to hand out their assignments. Even if they did, though, the personal invitation of Sect Leader Jin would probably be more than enough to sway him. It’s one of the rare perks of inheriting at what the elders like to call an impressionable age.
Impressionable his ass. They wish he was impressionable.
“He’d have said yes anyway,” Sizhui confides as they leave Carp Tower. “He’s glad we’re friends.” He says it with that particular certainty he always pulls out when it comes to Hanguang-jun, like he can read all those unsettlingly blank expressions. Jin Ling has no idea how he does it, except he can take one look at his jiujiu and know exactly what’s going on behind all the scowling and the thundercloud temper, so maybe it’s not that weird. “And it makes Wei-qianbei happy that we get along.”
Jin Ling gives him a look. It’s not that Sizhui’s all that hard to get along with, really; he’s too easygoing for it. Everything rolls right off him, even Jin Ling, and Jin Ling doesn’t roll off anyone. Maybe Wei Wuxian. That’s a thought, that he might get on best with— Well, anyway. They don’t use the word cousins, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something there. If there’s one thing his family’s good at, it’s not saying what matters.
Which he’s not thinking about, because one catastrophic family relationship is enough for him, and he and Sizhui are pretty okay. Instead he calls Fairy to heel and yells at Jingyi for feeding her too many treats before the hunt. She’ll get slow and lazy if he keeps that up. Honestly, doesn’t he know anything about dogs.
Zizhen is the last to join them. He’s already waiting at the inn, rooms booked and paid for. They linger long enough to drop off their things before setting off, and it’s not until they troop back to town with their robes slightly more gore-speckled than when they left—well, not Sizhui, but the rest of them—that they can sit him down and tell him about Jin Ling’s newest predicament over a late dinner.
(“It’s not my predicament,” he mutters, trying to keep Fairy from licking a questionable stain off his arm.
“It sort of is,” Sizhui returns, apologetic.
“Quit interrupting,” says Zizhen.)
Jingyi does most of the telling. Sizhui pours them all tea and Jin Ling sits with Fairy’s head heavy on his knee and makes all the appropriate faces to show his displeasure at Jingyi’s absolute butchering of both his situation and their plan.
“I want to make sure I have this right,” says Zizhen when Jingyi has finished overcomplicating the issue. “You want to name your uncle Wei-qianbei as your heir, because he’s your uncle Mo Xuanyu by blood, technically, so that you can convince your uncle Sect Leader Jiang to… talk to him again?”
“Yes,” Jingyi nods. Jin Ling kicks his seat.
“No,” he clarifies. “I want to make Jiujiu think I’m naming Dajiu my heir, because he’s sort of my shushu which makes him eligible, in order to get Jiujiu to pull his head out of his ass. And talk to him again, I guess.” And if he can hold the threat over his elders’ heads until they stop pestering him about it, even better.
Zizhen blinks. “Well that’s even worse,” he decides.
“What?” demands Jingyi, outraged, and for once Jin Ling is inclined to agree with him.
“Thank you,” murmurs Sizhui.
“How is that worse?” demands Jin Ling. Fairy, used to all this, flops down on her side so Jin Ling can sit forward in protest. “It’s not like I’d actually make him my heir.”
“What? Why not?”
Sizhui doesn’t sigh but he does the thing Hanguang-jun does sometimes, where he just looks politely disappointed. “Jingyi.”
Jingyi sulks. “I’m just saying, he’d probably be pretty good at it! And Lingling here—”
“Shut up,” Jin Ling says. Zizhen holds out a hand.
“Aren’t you thinking about poor Wei-qianbei at all? I doubt he wants to be stuck in the middle of sect politics again, after— You know.”
“You say that like he’d even notice,” Jingyi huffs, and is roundly ignored.
Jin Ling does know. Jin Ling knows all too well. But see, he’s thought this through, because he’s smart and clever and knows exactly what he’s doing.
“That’s the thing, though,” he says with confidence. “Dajiu doesn’t have to be in the middle of it at all. The only person who has to know anything is Jiujiu, and he’ll do it all himself.”
Sizhui does sigh this time. Zizhen considers him a long moment, and then his mouth makes a round little oh of understanding.
“Right,” he says brightly. “I get it.”
Jin Ling nods. See? He’s got this sect leader thing down.
Jingyi grins warmly and throws an arm over both of them while Sizhui studiously sips his tea.
“This,” he declares, tightening his grip as Jin Ling tries to wriggle away, “is going to be so much fun.”
“Are you sure, though?” asks Sizhui quietly. “It’s not right to lie to them.”
“It’s not lying,” Jingyi points out as Jin Ling finally manages to free himself, swaying unconcernedly when Jin Ling shoves at him. “We won’t be saying anything that isn’t true. If Sect Leader Jiang thinks something else, that’s his own fault.”
“And it’ll make Wei-qianbei happy to spend time with Sect Leader Jiang again,” Zizhen tacks on, because Jingyi and Zizhen are a mildly terrifying combination of conviction and questionable sense. “Which is a good thing, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Sizhui admits, still reticent.
“Look, Sizhui,” says Jingyi, uncommonly gentle. “It’s worth a little trouble for Wei-qianbei’s sake, isn’t it? Do it for him, if not for the young maiden here.”
“That’s Sect Leader Young Maiden to you,” Jin Ling huffs. Jingyi sticks his tongue out.
Sizhui looks them all over for a long moment before his shoulders slump. “Okay,” he says quietly.
“I’m sure it will go well,” Zizhen says with a comforting hand on Sizhui’s shoulder. “Sect Leader Jiang is probably just waiting for the right moment to make his move.”
Jin Ling is pretty sure Jiujiu has never once in his life made a move on anyone or anything, unless you count wielding Zidian, but he keeps that to himself as Sizhui refills their tea and they put their heads together, Fairy sticking her nose in to feel included. They stay up far past the Lan-sanctioned hour of rest, but none of them are willing to turn in. Tomorrow he’ll have to go back to Carp Tower and all the pomp and stifling ceremony of his life as sect leader, but for tonight he can be here with his friends.
And plot a surefire way to get his uncles to stop fucking moping. It’s embarrassing. Grown ups should be smarter than that.
Phase one of their plan lies on Zizhen’s shoulders. He’s in Yunmeng more regularly than the others, and they’ve all agreed that he’s the one most likely to hear news in passing and shuffle it along where a certain sect leader might hear mention of heirs and transmigration and technicalities. Not too much, just enough to soften him up.
(“Are you calling me a gossip?” he asks, scritching under Fairy’s chin, clearly pleased to be cast in such a role.
“He’s calling you a loudmouth,” Jingyi says, like he has any room to talk, and yelps when someone—quite possibly Sizhui, since it’s not Jin Ling—prods him under the table.)
So it’s not entirely surprising when, approximately three weeks later, Jiang Cheng shows up at Carp Tower under the barest pretense of business.
“Train your dog better,” Jiujiu grumbles when he arrives, palm held out so Fairy can greet him enthusiastically. Jin Ling frowns.
“She is trained. Not my fault you spoil her.”
“You—!” declares Jiujiu, effect utterly and completely ruined by the way he scratches Fairy under her chin and allows her to slobber all over his fingers in return. Jin Ling bows the appropriate bow from one sect leader to another. This is part two of the plan—the quiet, subtle suggestion that he’s taking things seriously. And anyway, he is ; he’s working as hard as he can to honor his parents’ memory and the memory of everyone who raised him. Yes, even his xiao-shushu.
It catches Jiujiu’s attention like it’s meant to. His eyebrow twitches as Jin Ling straightens.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” he says. He has to stop himself from snorting, which nearly ruins it, but honestly he can’t help himself. It’s his jiujiu. Jin Ling has seen him at his lowest and least composed, happiest and heartbroken. He respects him and loves him and will spend the rest of his life honoring all he has taught him, but still. It sounds ridiculous.
“Sect Leader Jin,” Jiujiu replies, which is even worse. Given the way his lips twitch, Jiujiu agrees. Jin Ling lets his arms drop.
“I had someone prepare your usual rooms,” he says, falling into step with his uncle. Fairy settles at his heel with a brief, sharp whistle, because she is well trained and a very good girl; he doesn’t care what anyone else says. “I’m busy until dinner, but you can visit the training yard or the library if you want.”
“You have something better to do?”
“I have a meeting with the elders.” Here it is, c’mon, jiayou. “Now that things have settled down, they’re concerned about matters of succession.”
His jiujiu grunts.
Ha. Got him.
“It’s dumb,” he adds, because it is. “What does it matter if I don’t have an heir right away anyway? You didn’t have one when—” He catches the sudden shift in posture out of the corner of his eye and cuts himself off. Too close.
They turn a corner in prickling silence, Fairy huffing at his side.
“I did,” Jiujiu says after a moment. Jin Ling startles, and that isn’t for his uncle’s benefit at all.
He grunts again. “I had your dajiu.”
“Oh.” He hadn’t known that. That’s—
That makes this even better. Oh, Jingyi is going to have a field day.
He makes a show of scowling, which is mostly real, actually, though it’s directed more at himself for thinking of Jingyi than it is his uncle. The best lies are the ones that come from something true mixed up a bit and put back together.
“Well,” he says as firmly as he can manage. “They want me to pick my cousin, but I’m not going to do that. He’s an idiot and doesn’t know anything. I think someone older would be a better fit.”
“Do you?” asks Jiujiu dryly, but his attention settles like the charge of a storm, drawing up the hairs on the back of his neck. Jin Ling nods firmly and squares his shoulders. He’s faced worse from his jiujiu. Been in trouble worse too. This, he tells himself sternly, is for his own good.
“Jin Guangshan has lots of descendents to pick from,” he declares, bracing himself. “People with a lot of experience.”
Jiujiu’s voice is flat and dangerous. “I wasn’t aware any more of his bastards were legitimized.”
“Mo Xuanyu was.” And then kicked out, yes, but not disowned. Jin Ling has done his research. It had sucked, kind of, seeing that list of Jin Guangshan’s children, his shenshen and his xiao-shushu and Mo-qianbei all laid out next to each other. How many other forgotten children hadn’t managed to be found, to make themselves heard? One of these days he’ll figure out how to do right by them.
But first, he’s going to do right by the living. He clears his throat. “Anyway, if Wei Wuxian has been a sect heir before, I think that makes him a pretty good choice, don’t you?”
Jiujiu chokes. Actually chokes. “Jin Ling!”
“Here are your quarters,” he carries on, because they’ve arrived, thank the heavens and the earth. He bows, neat and precise, robes sweeping satisfyingly across the floor. “I’ll see you for dinner, Jiujiu.”
He doesn’t stop. He picks up his pace as soon as he’s around the corner, breaking out in a giddy grin that is at least fifty percent adrenaline. Fairy jingles along at his side, excited.
“I think it worked,” he whispers to her while she wags her tail. It’s not such a bad idea anyway; there’s no need for Jiujiu to look so apoplectic about it. It could be nice, just a little bit, if Wei Wuxian was here to stir up a little trouble. Keep him from being bored. Or lonely.
No, no. He’s not thinking about that. This isn’t about him, anyway, it’s about his stupid uncle and his stupid brother and their stupid refusal to talk to each other even though they are always asking after each other all time, like Jin Ling won’t notice. This is for them , and the fact that the need him to help at all is ridiculous and stupid and irritating and that’s it.
He stops in the middle of the hall, frowning, good mood evaporating. To make matters worse, he wasn’t lying—he really does have to go to a meeting with his dusty, dry advisors, who will tell him to do things the way they’ve always been done, like that isn’t what got them in all this trouble in the first place. He’s sick of it. Screw it, he wants to say; screw the old way and screw everyone unwilling to change.
Unfortunately that’s not allowed, even when you’re a sect leader. Especially when you’re a sect leader.
“Dammit,” he mutters, and he stalks off to his meeting.
By the time dinner rolls around, Jiujiu has had some time to calm down. That’s part of the plan too. Not their overarching plan, just Jin Ling’s general How To Deal With Jiujiu plan. He pretty much has it down to an art form.
They take their dinner in one of the lesser receiving halls, barely proper for one sect leader hosting another. But Jin Ling hates eating in the big hall, all that gilt and glitter and the suffocation of ceremony. This is nicer, with Fairy huffing at his heels and most of the servants dismissed or waiting outside the doors. The small cohort of Jiang disciples traveling with his uncle are in the refectory with the Jin disciples. There’s more than enough space for them; their numbers aren’t what they were. Plenty left after Jin Guangyao’s fall, out of shame or for loyalty or both, and Jin Ling has been working on quietly, firmly weeding out those who have grown a little too comfortable with the past corruption of the Jin.
It’s unpleasant work and he has no one to talk to about it except Jiujiu, and even that’s circumspect because as it turns out, politics are a walking, waking nightmare. He’s learning to take the good moments wherever he can find them.
Like here and now, over a Yunmeng-style dinner with his uncle.
Jiujiu asks his usual gruff questions as they eat—if he’s been well, if he’s eating enough, if he’s training properly. He calls him too skinny and too soft in the same breath and demands to know if he’s keeping up with his studies in spite of his leadership role and then declares it’s ridiculous to expect him to handle so much and he needs better scribes and assistants.
“I’m fine, Jiujiu,” Jin Ling insists. “I have a good head disciple.”
He does; Jin Yizheng is resolute and upright and has a quiet, biting sense of humor that he’s mostly learned to read, which makes hours and hours of petitions and meetings and banquets nearly bearable. It’s a little weird, being sect leader over someone who’d helped schedule his studies when he was still a student, but he’s grateful for all she’s done since Jin Guangyao passed. They’re not friends, exactly, but he trusts her, which is more than he can say for plenty of people around Carp Tower.
They’re finishing their meal when Jiujiu says, as though he hasn’t been sitting on it all night, “How was your meeting?”
“Fine,” says Jin Ling. “It was fine.”
Jiujiu snorts. “Did you settle things?”
“Yes,” he says, chin jut out. They have settled it, actually. It’s just that the settling had been to table the debate, for now. Mostly because Jin Ling had pointed out he was still completing the last of his studies as well as leading a sect. Not to mention preparing for LanlingJin’s first discussion conference since the last one ended with the resurrected Yiling Patriarch accusing Lianfang-zun of fratricide, among other things, so maybe they could wait to add something more to the list.
They’d agreed. Eventually.
Jiujiu grunts and drains his cup. He doesn’t drink the way Wei Wuxian does, mostly, not with the same stubborn determination to enjoy it. But sometimes Jin Ling catches similarities in the ways they move, the fluid line of tossing back a cup. It makes him wonder, in the small, careful ways he lets himself wonder, if his mother drank the same way. By all accounts she was a soft, quiet woman, known to be ill and delicate.
Jin Ling, now knowing both Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian, can’t imagine that’s the whole of her, and has no idea of how to ask.
“Don’t act stupid,” says his uncle. Jin Ling huffs and refills his drink.
“They agreed with my decision, though they want me to—” He mimics his chief advisor. “‘Consider things properly before I do something that will adversely impact the wellbeing of the sect.’” Jin Guanghong is a pompous windbag and a distant cousin of Jin Guangshan’s, too far removed from the direct line of inheritance to do much. He makes up for it by being as overbearing as possible. He’d probably qi deviate if Wei Wuxian ever ended up sect leader, which might make the whole thing worth it.
Jin Ling makes a face. “Not that smart.”
Jiujiu raises both eyebrows and looks around the hall. They’re alone at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the servants aren’t waiting just outside with their ears open. Jin Ling flushes but doesn’t retract his statement. He learned stubbornness from the best, after all.
“They’re too caught up in the past,” he declares, but he does pay attention to his volume this time. “There’s nothing wrong with moving forward.”
Jiujiu huffs into his wine.
“On your own head,” he says, which Jin Ling doesn’t take seriously for a moment. As if he wouldn’t be here in a heartbeat if Jin Ling’s neck were truly on the line.
“Why does it matter to you anyway?” he mutters, which isn’t fair at all. He knows, alright, he knows why it matters. But still, it’s not like what happens to the Jin will affect the Jiang all that much. The worst of the fallout has passed. They’ve barely hung onto their position as one of the great sects, but they’ve managed. Politically speaking—
“Don’t ask stupid questions,” Jiujiu says, which is probably the answer he deserves. Not everything is about politics, after all.
“I’m just saying,” he sulks.
“A sect leader should know better.”
“You say rude things all the time.”
“I trust my people.” And Jin Ling should be wary of his, Jiujiu means. He knows that; he’s not an idiot.
“If Wei Wuxian were here I could trust him.”
It’s in the air before he even thinks about it, and Jin Ling is almost surprised to realize it’s true. All the pain and suffering and hurt borne in his name and Jin Ling is still certain he could trust him. The thought slides down his back like ice down his collar. He doesn’t know what to make of it.
Jiujiu apparently doesn’t know what to make of it either. His face has gone strange.
“You meant it,” he says. He says it mostly to himself.
“Why wouldn’t I mean it?” demands Jin Ling, sharper than necessary.
Jiujiu grunts and drinks his wine. His expression stays furrowed, but not an angry sort of furrowed. Pensive, maybe. Jin Ling isn’t entirely sure what to make of it, isn’t entirely sure he likes it. Doubt curls in the pit of his stomach. What if he’s wrong about all this? What if Jiujiu still hates Wei Wuxian for everything? What if Jiujiu hates Wei Wuxian so much that he won’t even want to talk to Jin Ling ever again either? What if—
“Eat your vegetables,” Jiujiu says. Jin Ling relaxes.
“Don’t tell me what to do,” he says. “I’m a sect leader. You can’t boss me around.”
“When you’re thirty I’ll be bossing you around,” scowls Jiujiu, and he adds another serving of greens to Jin Ling’s bowl. Jin Ling scowls at him, but he eats them anyway.
He doesn’t hear anything for ages after that, which is fine because he’s busy with preparations for the conference and running a sect and a hundred other things, and he doesn’t have the time to worry about his uncles’ dysfunctional relationship. Step three is letting it percolate anyway, waiting for step four, which is when Jiujiu caves and does something… good, they guess. Zizhen has drawn up a list of grand gestures they should be on the lookout for. Jin Ling figures they won’t hear about it at all until one of them mentions something offhandedly. Jingyi is certain Wei Wuxian will tell Sizhui first. Sizhui keeps his mouth shut and looks vaguely concerned whenever it comes up.
But in the end, it’s not what Jin Ling hears at all. It’s what he sees.
He’s leading a half dozen Jin juniors on a night hunt near the Qinghe border when the shrill of a dizi cuts through the dark. It catches the attention of a fierce corpse harrying one of the juniors, drawing it stumbling across the northern landscape, and a moment later a figure clad in dark robes coalesces from the shadows. Jin Ling beheads a corpse, blade cutting a gleaming arc through the night, and rolls his eyes.
He’s so dramatic.
With Wei Wuxian playing the piper, the fight is a foregone conclusion. Honestly, Wei Wuxian could handle these low-level corpses with a hand behind his back, so the fact that there’s still a fight to be had at all means he’s giving the juniors a chance to prove themselves. Jin Ling can admit, privately, that it’s kind of a relief to see him. Teaching really isn’t his thing, but Jin Yizheng had pointed out that taking the juniors out himself would foster his relationship with their younger disciples. She’s right of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s good at it or anything.
“This is such a pleasant surprise!” Wei Wuxian declares when the last corpse has fallen, twirling his flute, lingering a good dozen feet away. “Here I am, lone and weary traveler, when who should I happen to come across but my favorite nephew.”
Jin Ling resists pointing out he’s his only nephew and sheathes his sword.
“Fairy isn’t here,” he calls to his wayward uncle, and then sets half the juniors to properly disposing of the corpses and the other half to preparing a camp. Not one of the farming villages they passed within a dozen li of here have an inn, and it’s not worth the trek back to town in the dark, no matter how much he wishes for a real bed.
“Ah, good,” Wei Wuxian says, brightening, and he lopes up to them as the juniors get a fire going. He beams in the flickering light, smile wide. He looks better than he had the last time Jin Ling had seen him, and the last time Jin Ling had seen him he’d looked better than the time before that, like he’s slowly but surely making a home of his new skin. His robes—which aren’t black but a rich, deep blue—fit him properly in the shoulder, and he’s put on weight in a healthy sort of way. There’s a new hairpin in his hair carved with curling clouds, and at his waist the familiar jade token of the Lan has been joined by something new, a clarity bell carved in the shape of a lotus and knotted with purple silk.
Jin Ling recognizes it because it’s a near perfect match to the one he wears, the one his mother left him.
“What are you doing here?” he demands to cover the hot flash of victory. “Where’s Hanguang-jun?”
“Can’t a man travel where the winds take him? Aiyo, don’t make that face. I had business in the Unclean Realm. Lan Zhan is at home, he didn’t turn me out on the street. You don’t need to defend my virtue.”
“What virtue,” Jin Ling retorts, and is promptly distracted by one of his juniors struggling with the tents. By the time he’s dealt with that, dinner is ready, and only when all his shidis and shimeis have a bowl does he get food for himself and Wei Wuxian, sitting at the edge of the firelight.
“What?” he demands when he sees the face Wei Wuxian is making. He really seriously considers just dumping the second bowl out on the ground and resists the urge. Mostly it’s the clarity bell. He’s not telling Wei Wuxian to shove off until he hears about it.
“Nothing. It’s good to see you, A-Ling.”
“Don’t call me that,” he says automatically, and hands Wei Wuxian his bowl. Wei Wuxian grins.
“Look at you, all grown up and leading your very own night hunts.”
“Of course I’m leading. I’m a sect leader, aren’t I? Why shouldn’t I lead?”
“Alright, alright.” Wei Wuxian beams at him, irritatingly indulgent, and tucks into his meal. Jin Ling eats his own dinner, half an eye on his juniors and half an eye on his uncle. The food is simple and good and warm, a nice contrast to the chill of the northern night.
Wei Wuxian, of course, is physically incapable of staying quiet for long, and so as they eat he talks about what he’s been up to in the months since Jin Ling has last seen him: spending time teaching the little Lan juniors—Jin Ling is not jealous—and going on night hunts with Sizhui and Jingyi and the other Lan disciples—Jin Ling is not jealous—and traveling up to visit Qinghe, though he hasn’t made it to Lanling yet, but of course he means to, and Jin Ling is not jealous, and—
“Hang on,” Jin Ling interrupts midway through the recounting of a play Wei Wuxian had seen in the Unclean Realm a week before. “Didn’t you go to Yunmeng?”
Wei Wuxian blinks. “What?”
“Your—” He gestures to the clarity bell at his waist, unsure of how to say it outright. Wei Wuxian’s smile falters.
“Oh, this. Pretty, isn’t it? I used to have one when I—” He trails off, voice going soft and sad, and he rubs the token between thumb and forefinger. “Jiang Cheng sent it a couple weeks ago, I guess, for whenever I was next in Qinghe. Sect Leader Nie passed it along.”
Jin Ling stares at him and considers strangling his uncle—either of them, honestly—with his bare hands.
“You didn’t go to Lotus Pier?”
“Why would I go to Lotus Pier?” asks Wei Wuxian, puzzled. “I wouldn’t impose myself like that. Anyway, Jiang Cheng and I haven’t spoken since— Ah, it’s been a while.”
Jin Ling stares at him and wonders what he did in a past life to have to deal with this in his current one. He’s going to lose his mind. He’s going to stage an altercation. He is going to bash their heads together if that is what it takes to get it through their skulls that they miss each other.
“Whatever,” he mutters. Wei Wuxian looks up and blinks a couple of times and cracks a smile, a little weak, flickering like the firelight. He tugs at the end of Jin Ling’s hair, and Jin Ling can only bat him away half-heartedly.
“Aiyo, A-Ling, it’s alright. It’s just like that sometimes.”
Jin Ling is pretty sure it is not like that sometimes. He’s seen Zizhen with his older sisters and Wen-xiansheng with Sizhui and he’s pretty sure that it’s only his stupid uncles who are like that.
“I don’t care,” Jin Ling says, caring very deeply. “Do whatever you want.”
Wei Wuxian frowns. It makes him look small, and young, and too much like Mo Xuanyu. Jin Ling swallows hard.
“I’m going to check the perimeter,” he says, even though they’ve set wards and watches and if a single thread of resentful energy were within twenty li of them, Wei Wuxian would pick up on it before even the best-trained cultivator.
Wei Wuxian reaches for him. “Jin Ling—”
“I’m fine,” he says, which is definitely the wrong thing to say because it makes Wei Wuxian’s face fold up into concern. He shakes his touch off and stomps away, wondering, silently, sullenly, if his mother ever felt like this.
Probably not. She probably knew how to do this. What to say to fix everything. Probably she would just make them sit down and figure all their shit out, or whatever. He stares out over the flat, scrubby plain of Qinghe and scowls. The moon watches him silently.
Well, she’s not here. She’s not and he is, so they’re just going to have to put up with him instead, aren’t they.
He huffs and swipes a hand over his face and swallows a few choice words. By the time he gets back, Wei Wuxian is entertaining the juniors with tales of past night hunts, their conversation forgotten. The Jiang bell gleams in the firelight.
“We have to go bigger,” he declares the next time they meet up. They’re in Pingyang, because Sect Leader Yao has invited everyone who’s anyone to celebrate the birth of a son. Most of the great sect leaders are conspicuously absent—Jin Ling nearly wishes he’d had the same good sense—but there’s a good showing from the smaller clans in the region who have grown fat on the spoils of Qishan and Lanling’s recent misfortunes. It’s hardly surprising; as Jin Ling understands it, PingyangYao have been trying to fill QishanWen’s shoes for the past twenty years and are hardly going to stop now.
But his friends are in attendance alongside everyone else, so once the banquet is over and Sect Leader Yao has finished boasting of his own self-importance, Jin Ling can sprawl across Zizhen’s floor and sulk in peace.
He is possibly the teensiest, tiniest bit tipsy. There had been a lot of toasting. A lot .
“Bigger?” echoes Sizhui, and Jin Ling nods, unpinning some of the more excessive filigree from his hair where it pulls uncomfortably.
“Jiujiu sent him a whole entire clarity bell but he won’t even step foot in Yunmeng. We definitely have to go bigger.”
“A whole clarity bell?” echoes Jingyi, who is also a teeny tiny bit tipsy, because drinking is not allowed at Cloud Recesses, but they’re not at Cloud Recesses, and Zizhen is frighteningly convincing when he wants to be. “What, like, instead of half of one?”
Zizhen snorts. Sizhui, who is not even the slightest bit tipsy—because he is a good Lan and also because he has professed to quite simply not being a fan of the taste of baijiu—lets out a very tiny sigh. Jingyi grins. Jin Ling throws a comb at him. It bounces harmlessly off the table.
“You’re missing the point,” he says.
“You missed the target,” Jingyi tells him. If Jin Ling felt like getting up off the ground, he’d definitely go fight him.
“That makes you even,” Zizhen interjects quite reasonably. Jin Ling is pretty sure he’s sharing a look with Sizhui over their heads. Whatever.
“I’m saying,” Jin Ling says, feeling very patient and magnanimous about it, “clearly it’s working. Jiujiu sent him a bell, even though he sent it to Qinghe, which was dumb, and he’s wearing it now—”
“He is?” interrupts Zizhen, and both Sizhui and Jingyi nod.
“He gets all flustered when you ask about it though,” Jingyi says.
“It’s rude to pry,” Sizhui points out. It sounds like they’ve had this conversation before.
“Yeah, but come on. It’s Wei-qianbei. We only pry because we love him and we want him to be happy and stuff.”
Sometimes, Jin Ling considers, Jingyi makes good points. Rarely, of course, but still.
“But the point is, he’s wearing it, so look! That’s a step in the right direction. That’s step, like, three and a half.”
Zizhen frowns. “How can it be a step and three and a half steps?”
“Step three and a half of the plan, I believe,” Sizhui clarifies. Jin Ling points at him.
“What do you propose, oh young maiden?”
“Easy,” Jin Ling says, deciding it’s not worth it to be irritated about the nickname when there are other, more important things going on. “I’m gonna invite him to Lanling.”
Zizhen frowns. “He’s been to Lanling.”
“No, like. He’s been through Lanling and sometimes he stops to visit.”
Even Sizhui frowns. “Is there a difference?”
“Yes!” They’re all sons of sect leaders, sort of, mostly. They should get this. “Yes because we’re going to— to woo him.”
Jingyi’s nose wrinkles in disgust. “You’re going to woo Wei-qianbei? Gross.”
Jin Ling throws another piece of jewelry at him, and this one hits. Jingyi yelps.
“Gentlemen,” Zizhen says. Sizhui does an abysmal job of hiding a laugh.
“What did you have in mind?” he asks while Jingyi rubs his forehead. Zizhen picks up the hairstick and sets it safely on the table.
“He’ll be a guest of honor,” Jin Ling decides. “Everyone will have to be nice to him. And polite. And he’ll have all the, I don’t know, the wine or whatever that he wants.”
Jingyi’s still frowning in confusion, or perhaps from being beaned in the head with the hairstick, but Zizhen is nodding along.
“Showing off for him.”
“Exactly. So everyone will know LanlingJin is courting him as an heir.”
“Do you think it’ll work?” asks Sizhui with a frown. Jin Ling gets the sense he’s still not entirely on board with everything.
“Just mentioning to Jiujiu that I was thinking about picking him made him send a whole entire— made him send a clarity bell.” To Qinghe, yes, but the thought was there, somewhere, probably. “If Jiujiu hears he’s been invited to stay, who knows what he’ll do!”
Probably something kind of dumb, given his uncle’s track record with things, especially things that involve, like, admitting to scary and vulnerable feelings. Which, look, Jin Ling gets it, no judgement (maybe a little judgement). But as long as it’s dumb in the right direction, that’s okay. He can work with that.
Jingyi blinks at him. “Your elders are gonna have an aneurism. Like, collectively.”
“Aren’t you worried what they’ll do?” Zizhen asks with a bare edge of trepidation. “They can’t be happy about this.”
Jin Ling shrugs. They probably won’t be. “What can they do? I don’t have an heir.”
Sizhui closes his eyes with a sigh.
“I think your elders are afraid of me,” Wei Wuxian tells Jin Ling three days into his stay at Carp Tower. They’re eating dinner—Jingyi has provided details about his favorite foods, which appear to be anything, as long as it’s too spicy to actually taste good. Wei Wuxian keeps glancing around the table like he’s expecting a trick of some kind. Jin Ling sweats through a layer of his robes, but he’s spent enough time in Yunmeng to— Well, he’s not enjoying the food, exactly, but he can weather Wei Wuxian’s culinary preferences for a night.
“Of course they’re not,” he returns, stifling a cough. “They’re just like that.”
Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow, which Jin Ling studiously refuses to acknowledge. Anyway, they’re less frightened of him being Wei Wuxian than they are of Jin Ling’s vaguely threatening insistence that he wants Wei Wuxian to feel comfortable here. At home. Since he’s still thinking about who to name as an heir, and all that. He’d been right—it’s fun to watch the jabbering old flock skirt delicately around their complaints. Even Jin Guanghong has been downright simpering while talking circles around the complications of having an heir who might be involved with another sect. No one is willing to insult Wei Wuxian outright with so many powerful cultivators in his corner.
It’s another reason he’d make a good heir, actually. Jin Ling finds himself collecting them like letters from petitioners.
“It’s understandable,” Wei Wuxian carries on as though Jin Ling hasn’t spoken. “I happen to be very frightening.”
Jin Ling snorts. Wei Wuxian gapes in mock affront. Jin Ling thinks it’s mock, anyway; for a man with a reputation so steeped in unclean magics and crafty tricks, he takes a great deal of pride in his notoriety.
“I am!” he insists. “I’m the great and terrible Yiling Patriarch, I’ll have you know. Scourge of the four clans. Unbested by even the strongest cultivators. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid of me.”
“They just think you’re going to eat us out of our storehouses,” Jin Ling retorts. He does not point out the scourge of the four clans has chili sauce staining the cuff of his sleeve and wine dripped down on his collar because he can’t drink like a normal person. “How many bowls have you had?”
“It’s your fault for treating me so well,” he says cheerfully, uncorking a fresh jar of wine. “You don’t have to bribe me to come visit my favorite nephew, you know.”
“I’m not!” he splutters. “Anyway, would you have come otherwise?”
“Of course.” The teasing drips away, hand still wrapped around the neck of the jar. His eyes go wide and a little bit hurt, and Jin Ling feels freshly terrible. “Jin Ling—”
“Whatever,” he insists. “Nobody’s going to say that the Jin sect doesn’t know how to treat a guest.”
“Alright, alright. Aiyo, you’re just like Jiang Cheng.”
Jin Ling flushes. He has heard, more than once, that he is like his uncle. Too much like his uncle, according to the Jin elders, who have never entirely forgiven YunmengJiang for monopolizing their heir, maternal uncle or no. No one has ever said it with so much pride before. Like they know what an honor it is to be a little too much like Jiang Cheng.
His dajiu knows.
Wei Wuxian laughs at the face he makes and toasts him with his jar while Jin Ling shoves food in his mouth so he won’t have to speak. For a moment they’re both silent, Wei Wuxian drinking in that same fluid line as Jiujiu and Jin Ling regretting taking such a big bite of food this spicy. His eyes water.
“Rest assured,” Wei Wuxian says when he sets the jar down on the table. “I’ll tell everyone what good hospitality I received at Carp Tower. No one will dare speak ill of the young leader of the Jin Sect where I can hear them. Your dajiu has your back.”
Jin Ling means to tell him how weird he is, and how obviously no one will speak ill of him, and also how he doesn’t need his uncle to defend him. What comes out instead is, “Good.”
Which is obviously embarrassing as hell, but it makes Wei Wuxian grin like he means it for once, a sort of surprised, pleased look that softens everything about him, so Jin Ling can grit his teeth and bear it. Anyway. It’s not the worst feeling in the world.
Wei Wuxian lingers for a whole week before he starts getting antsy, which is no surprise—Sizhui has assured him in multiple letters that he’s loathe to even stay in Cloud Recesses for too long—but the rumors linger, just as Jin Ling hoped. Jin Guanghong keeps bringing up how improper it would be for someone outside the Jin inner disciples to have a say in clan business, and Jin Yizheng gives him pointed looks across the hall. Visiting cultivators mutter about Wei Wuxian. He even hears whispers when he leaves Carp Tower of how well the Jin Sect has hosted the Yiling Patriarch recently. There’s no word from Lotus Pier, but it’s only a matter of time. Jin Ling is sure of it.
“He was in Yunmeng,” says Zizhen by way of greeting when they meet up for a competition with other various young masters in Ezhou, a little over a month before the discussion conference. They’re warming up, trading off shots at round targets set at the far end of the range. Jin Ling nearly drops his bow.
Zizhen nods and knocks an arrow. “Not for long I don’t think, but we saw him at the inn in Yitang. The innkeeper was particularly accommodating.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jin Ling tests the pull of his string. Zizhen shrugs and sights down his arm.
“You know. Talking about how welcome he was, what an honor it was to serve him, how long was he staying, that sort of thing.” He looses the arrow. It hits dead center. Jin Ling rolls out his neck and steps up to the mark.
“Innkeepers say that all the time.”
“Yeah, but not the innkeepers of Sect Leader Jiang’s favorite inn. Especially not a week after the sect leader visits.”
Jin Ling snaps around to look at him and only just manages to correct his aim in time. His arrow sinks in just next to Zizhen’s. With a face, he looses another two, splitting Zizhen’s and then his own so they sink all the way through the target. Zizhen raises an eyebrow.
Zizhen nods, and they swap places again. The shot hits the center ring, not quite a perfect bullseye. Zizhen makes an expression, like Oh well, what can you do? and swaps places with Jin Ling again. “Aren’t you visiting him?”
“Yeah.” He pins the center target, then the one on the left, just because he can. One of the younger Ezhou disciples makes a face at him, which he ignores. “On the way home.”
“What are you going to say?”
Jin Ling shrugs. “What do I need to say? I’m just taking care of my sect. If Jiujiu cares so bad he’s the one who has to do something.”
Zizhen shakes his head. “I can’t believe it’s working.”
“Of course it’s working.” He’s a genius. It’s foolproof. He slips his bow back over his shoulder. “They’ll both thank me when they figure it out.”
Jin Ling always visits Jiujiu in the spring, a trip so annual it became tradition long before he ever realized it coincided with his mother’s birthday. Jiujiu never mentions it, though, so neither does Jin Ling. Instead he’s a little more patient than normal, and Jiujiu is a little quieter, and neither of them brings it up.
This means that Jin Ling is more cautious than usual when he says, “I heard Wei Wuxian was in Yunmeng.”
Jiujiu sips his tea. They take tea out here on the farthest pavilion when he visits in springtime, with the silks stirring in the breeze and the lake lapping against the pylons and the first of the lotuses in bloom. Jiujiu doesn’t say anything about this either, but Jin Ling is pretty sure the pavilion was important to his mother, once.
“Is it true?” he prods when his uncle remains appallingly serene. It’s unsettling, actually. Jiujiu’s mouth tugs down at the corners.
“You expect me to know?” he grumbles. Better. “I don’t keep track of him. That’s for his Hanguang-jun to worry about. Why should I care where he goes.”
“Don’t you know everything that goes on around here?”
“Tstch. Who taught you manners?”
They both huff and sip their tea. The lake breeze plays through the chimes. It’s nice, actually.
“Wei Wuxian is free to go wherever he wants,” Jiujiu says after a moment. “He doesn’t need my permission.”
Jin Ling bites his tongue around a retort. Don’t you think he might want it? But it’s his mother’s birthday, and he is more patient than usual and his uncle sadder, so he doesn’t press.
“Do you think he’ll come to the discussion conference?”
“He never does.”
That’s not technically true, what with the whole crashing the last Lanling conference and the ensuing fallout. But he hasn’t been to any of the conferences since, even when it had been hosted at Cloud Recesses under Hanguang-jun’s watchful eye. He’d still been traveling. Catching up on lost time, he’d called it with one of his too-rough laughs.
“But if I invited him.”
Jiujiu gives him a look. “Why do you care what I think?”
Jin Ling swallows most of his sigh, which is actually pretty impressive and he should be commended. “You know him best.”
His uncle’s jaw clenches, which is unfair because Jin Ling hadn’t even been aiming for anything. But then, they’re both pretty good at striking when they don’t mean to. He frowns at his tea.
“He’s free to do whatever he wants,” Jiujiu echoes. “And he will, no matter what you want him to do.”
It’s the note of warning that catches Jin Ling’s attention, makes him look up. Jiujiu’s face is stern and scowling and horribly sad beneath, a gut-wound hurt. Jin Ling glances away, finds something interesting to stare at past the edge of the pavilion that isn’t his uncle and his old silt-stirred sorrow. He wishes Fairy had been able to make the trip. She’s a good girl; she’d have made this less… whatever it is.
“I’m not an idiot,” he says, a little wobbly and trying too hard for normal, but he feels better when his uncle makes a rough noise of indignation. “I’m not going to make him do anything. It was just a question. You’re so weird.”
“Are you going to drink your tea or not? Mu-daifu says it’s good for your temperament.”
“I’ll show you my temperament,” Jiujiu threatens, but when Jin Ling chances a look up the awful grief has disappeared, so that’s okay.
The rest of the visit passes in a blur, borne away by the approaching discussion conference, which races towards them with all the grace of a spooked carthorse. He leaves Lotus Pier sooner than usual, his uncle’s brusque advice ringing in his ears.
(“Keep them drunk,” he says early in the morning of Jin Ling’s departure, bruises deep under his eyes and twice as snappish, so things are back to normal more or less.
“But the meetings—”
“They’ll be miserable no matter what. Just let them air their grievance and keep their cups full and let someone else deal with the rest.”
Jin Ling has noticed a particularly notable level of alcohol consumption at previous discussion conferences, Lan obviously excluded. This suddenly makes much more sense.
“What if I mess up, though?”
“It can hardly go worse than the last one,” Jiujiu mutters, which is a terrible thing to say and also quite possibly what Jin Ling has been telling himself for the past few months.
“Thanks,” he scowls, and Jiujiu shrugs.
“It’ll happen one way or another,” he says without an ounce of sympathy, and then they’re off.)
Jiujiu’s right about one thing: Happen it most certainly does.
The one upside of the month of unbridled chaos leading up to the conference is that everyone is far too busy to worry about anything else. Jin Ling doesn’t hear a word about his estranged uncles for weeks, and can’t say if it’s because they’ve reached a stalemate or because he’s busy trying to figure out the logistics of housing what feels like every cultivator in the world. Even the elders leave off their frantic mutterings about heirs and inheritance and the uncertain future of the sect, too caught up in the present of the sect and bracing themselves for the first conference they’ve hosted in years. It would be a relief if he weren’t so fucking busy.
And then one morning he wakes up to a hall dressed all in gold, guest quarters all aired out and readied, kitchens bustling and a frankly outrageous amount of wine brought up from the cellars, and it’s time.
“I’m going to throw up,” he says to Jin Yizheng, waiting at the top of the steps for the first of their guests to arrive.
“Don’t,” she advises. She’s helpful like that.
It isn’t all that bad after the first few. Sect Leader Nie stutters through his greeting in a way they both know he doesn’t mean, but Jin Ling can’t even decide if he’s irritated by it or grateful to have someone to be even more of a mess than he is, because the next sect is already coming up the stairs. He spends the day sweltering under the high summer sun and sharing polite greetings to sect leader after sect leader as Jin Yizheng whispers names to him when his mind blanks under the endless monotony of the same pleasantries again and again. It’s a relief, honestly, when he spies the blot of Yunmeng purple cresting the stairs.
“I hope you had a pleasant journey.”
“It was the same as ever.” Cut the crap, says Jiujiu’s face. Jin Ling lets his shoulders slump.
“I don’t know if we have enough wine.”
“I’m sure you’ll manage.”
Of course , Jin Ling means to say, because he can’t just snort and roll his eyes no matter how much he wants to—he’d like to wait a full twenty-four hours before chancing any sort of diplomatic incident—but before he can do more than open his mouth, a laugh drifts up the steps and Jiujiu—
Here’s the thing, okay. Jin Ling knows they’re both going to be here. Obviously. That’s, like, part of the plan. Step five, or maybe seven; he’s lost count. He’s not, y'know, surprised or anything.
Turns out, though, there’s really nothing to prepare him for the all-over, ice-doused stillness that seeps into his jiujiu when he hears Wei Wuian’s laugh. Nothing has readied him for the reality of standing in the uppermost courtyard and watching a small flock of cultivators in white climb the stairs, carrying a rich spot of midnight blue and charcoal grey like Sun Wukong upon his cloud. They stop short when they find the Jiang delegation already at the gate.
Jin Ling wonders, briefly and idly and feeling oddly disconnected from his body in the sudden, curtain-stirring quiet, if this wasn’t a terrible mistake.
“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, strangled. He pulls on one of his smiles, wincing and uncertain around the eyes. Jiujiu’s hand tightens around the hilt of Sandu, knuckles white.
“Wei Wuxian,” he returns, stiffly. He takes a long look over Wei Wuxian—and Jin Ling is absolutely certain his eyes catch on the clarity bell, because Wei Wuxian laughs, sort of, airless and awkward, hand halfway fluttering to his waist—and inclines his head. “You look well.”
“Ah,” says Wei Wuxian, eyes halfway sliding to Jin Ling before they snap back to Jiujiu. His eyes are wide. “Uh. Thank you. You, um, you too.”
Jiujiu stares at him, forever and an instant, then turns and bows shallowly. “Excellency.”
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Hanguang-jun replies. There’s not an ounce of emotion in it. He inclines his head, disciples bowing behind him. Jiang Cheng raises his chin, jaw so tight Jin Ling almost worries he’ll crack something, and his robes snap around his ankles as he turns and stalks into the hall.
The disciples rise. Jingyi does a terrible job of hiding a wince as he straightens. Sizhui looks— If Jin Ling didn’t know better, he might say contemplative.
“Well,” says Wei Wuxian, brightness in his voice at odds with the grey of his face. “He hasn’t changed a bit.”
Jin Ling is going to throttle him.
“Wei Ying,” says Hanguang-jun, but Wei Wuxian just shakes his head and sets a hand on Hanguang-jun’s arm. Hanguang-jun holds out a moment longer and then nods once, expression softening enough that even Jin Ling can’t miss it. Gross. His friends are no better; Sizhui is looking at Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun, his face doing something all warm and gentle, and Jingyi is looking at Sizhui all warm and gentle and it’s a mess, just a mess. He has to do everything himself.
“Hanguang-jun,” he bows. “Dajiu.”
Wei Wuxian quits making eyes at Hanguang-jun to beam at him instead. Appalling. He clears his throat.
“Welcome to Carp Tower.”
“Thank you, Sect Leader Jin,” says Hanguang-jun in a way that sounds almost approving, which is shocking. He can be sure he didn’t imagine it, because Jingyi and Sizhui both give him the same wide-eyed look over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
“If you’ll, uh,” Jin Ling fumbles. “This way.”
He gestures the delegation forward with a sweep of his arm that manages to be mostly elegant, and decisive if nothing else, and once they pass into the hall Jin Ling may or may not take a breath to sag in on himself before he has to draw himself upright for the next wave of guests.
So. See? It wasn’t that bad. Step whatever, completed. A success, even; there’s been no bloodshed, no threats of violence, no diplomatic incident. Not even any yelling. He’s actually got a good feeling about this.
It’s the optimism that gets him, of course. Positive thinking never helped anybody. He’ll remember that for next time.
The opening banquet is a tedious affair that begins, as such things do, with a general milling about. It’s all about showing off who’s talking to whom, what offers are being put on the table. Jin Ling has about as much patience for it as his jiujiu, but he grits his teeth and makes pleasant with the head of the Wu Sect over a discussion about tin mining and has an almost nice conversation with a pair of cultivators from a sect down near Chaoshan about coastal cultivation traditions.
He’s accosted almost as soon as they part ways, but Jin Ling begs out with an excuse about seeking the Lan sect heir, and then makes good on the excuse by looking for Sizhui and Jingyi, who are—well, somewhere, definitely, but the hall is a shifting throng of flowing robes and Jin Ling can’t see his friends anywhere. He inches his way around the edge of the hall to the Lan delegation’s seats, assuming they’ll be seated already, as is their tendency.
He’s halfway behind a pillar, hand outstretched to sweep aside one of the heavy golden drapes framing the edges of the hall, when he hears his jiujiu.
“So eager to get rid of me?”
Jin Ling freezes.
The cloth shifts as though someone has bumped against it, nearly brushing his fingertips. In the gap where the curtain barely touches the floor, he can make out the shadows of two pairs of shuffling feet, and Wei Wuxian speaks again.
Jin Ling slowly pulls his hand back and swallows. He shouldn't eavesdrop. He definitely shouldn't eavesdrop.
He shuffles closer.
“A-Ling,” Jiujiu says eventually, and Jin Ling freezes up entirely. His heart is a rattle drum in his chest. Then Wei Wuxian makes a faint sound of understanding, and Jin Ling lets out a slow, silent sigh. He hasn’t been caught. They’re just talking about him.
Oh, shit. They’re talking about him.
“A little late to warn me to stay away, don’t you think?”
“He’s not an idiot,” Jiujiu says, sounding prickly. “He can make his own choices.”
Jin Ling grins.
“Don’t make him regret this one.”
Jin Ling stops grinning.
“Jiang Cheng,” says Wei Wuxian, and it sounds careless and petulant as ever but there’s an edge underneath. “Look at me! What is there possibly to regret?”
“Fuck off. Can’t you take one thing seriously?”
It’s quiet for a moment, and Jin Ling wishes more than anything he could see what faces they’re making at each other. Then Wei Wuxian says, quiet, “Yeah. Sorry. Of course.”
Jiujiu makes a noise, faint and vague. A sigh, maybe, or a snort; Jin Ling can’t be sure with the crowd buzzing just beyond them. He iches a little closer and misses something as a guest strides by, talking about crop rotations, for the love of—
“—to change your mind?” Jiujiu is demanding when Jin Ling can hear again.
“Of course not.” The affront is clear in his voice, so quintessentially Wei Wuxian that Jin Ling snorts, then claps a hand over his mouth.
“He’s counting on you,” Jiujiu says while Jin Ling’s heart hammers away. He doesn't seem to have heard Jin Ling's slip. “If you do anything to betray his trust—”
“What? You’ll kill me?”
Jin Ling presses his fingers harder over his mouth. For a moment he forgets how to breathe, ground dropping out from under his feet. All of him lurches, aimless, airless. Utter silence rings from the other side of the curtain. They all hang there a moment, caught in freefall.
And then Jiujiu makes a grating, sawing noise that Jin Ling belatedly realizes is laughter.
“You asshole,” he says, but he's laughing. Crooked and brittle and too sharp around the edges, but laughter nevertheless. “You fucking asshole.”
“Hey,” Wei Wuxian protests, but he sounds more amused than offended, and he's also— They’re laughing about it.
What the fuck. What the fuck? Jin Ling is a good person. He doesn’t deserve this. Can’t they be normal about anything?
It goes on for too long, and then they both go quiet. Jin Ling quietly lowers his hand from his mouth and digs his nails into his palm instead, listening.
“It hasn’t been easy for him,” Jiujiu says. Wei Wuxian sighs, big and gusty.
“I— Yes. I know.”
“He wouldn’t even tell me himself. You know who I heard from? That boy of yours. Lan Sizhui.”
Jin Ling frowns. Sizhui was talking to Jiujiu? About what?
“That boy of— Oh." Wei Wuxian's voice is thick with confusion. "Wait, what did you hear from Sizhui?”
“You don’t have to pretend,” Jiujiu says, gruff in the sort of way that means it takes effort just to say it. “I know already. It’s fine. I knew you wouldn’t come back.”
No! No, that’s wrong! Jin Ling nearly groans out loud and settles for very, very, very quietly resting his head against the pillar in front of him in despair. Idiots! Fools! They’re going to ruin all his hard work.
Wei Wuxian’s voice is heavy with confusion. “I wouldn’t—? Am I going somewhere?”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Jiujiu says, slipping into impatience with practiced ease. Jin Ling can practically see his face. He presses his forehead harder against the pillar and screws his eyes shut. It had been going so well! Morbid as hell, sure, but well!
“I’m not,” Wei Wuxian protests, and then he laughs. “I mean, okay, I guess my record isn’t exactly the best, but I’m really—”
“Are you serious,” Jiujiu interrupts. “You’re laughing about this? Now?”
“Do you know what they’ve been saying? About what you’ve done to him? Do you have any idea what he’s put on the line for you?”
“You know I don’t listen to— What I’ve done to him? What exactly have I done to him? He’s doing fine, he’s thriving, he’s—”
Jiang Cheng’s voice is low and flat and cutting. “I can’t believe you.”
Jin Ling shivers. It’s going wrong. He can feel it going wrong, a slippery and sick certainty like silk sliding through his fingers. He clenches his fists tight, like he could hold on somehow, like if he just focuses hard enough he can will everything to go right.
“Of course you wouldn’t take it seriously. Everything’s a joke to you, isn’t it.”
Wei Wuxian’s voice goes brittle. “Is that really what you think?”
Jiujiu snorts, cold and contemptuous. “What does it matter to you? Since when do you care what I have to say? Aren’t you always doing whatever you feel like? Wei Wuxian does what he wants and damn the consequences. There’s always somebody else to take the blow.”
There’s a small sound, lost in rustling cloth. Jin Ling swallows thickly.
“Well,” says Wei Wuxian lightly and not light at all. “I guess Yu-furen was right.”
“I guess she was.”
It’s an awful thing to say. Jin Ling doesn’t understand why but he knows it is; he can tell by the way Jiujiu says it, like twisting a blade. Wei Wuxian makes a brief, sharp noise, a hissing laugh.
“She must be so proud of you. Finally getting everything right.”
Jin Ling breathes silently through his mouth and feels sick. Silence churns around him.
“Fuck,” Wei Wuxian mumbles. “Jiang Cheng, that’s not— I didn’t—”
“Of course you did,” Jiujiu says. Jin Ling has never heard him sound like that, so empty, and he hates it, he hates it. For a moment, he hates Wei Wuxian too.
“You know what, just— fuck off, Wei Wuxian. Fuck off and this time do it right and don’t bother to come back. We did fine without you. Jin Ling has managed fine. You’re not needed here.”
JIujiu’s voice snaps like a whip, sharp enough to startle, to cut. “I said get lost.”
Jin Ling doesn’t hear what comes after that. He flees.
He bolts without a destination in mind, no idea where he’s going except away, and by the time he remembers himself he’s left the main hall entirely. He comes to a stop staring at a tapestry, the one that hangs in the western receiving room, flight a blur behind him. He tries to catch his breath and chokes on it. He has to go back. He can’t leave the banquet like this. He has to go back in the hall, has to act like a real sect leader, like a grown up.
He doesn’t feel like a grown up. He feels small, compacted. His chest has gone all funny, bands locked around his ribcage so tight he’s dizzy. His knees fold under him, unwilling to keep upright. He drops down on his haunches, buries his face in his hands, and tries to remember how to breathe right while his lungs try to collapse in on themselves.
He’s fucked it up. He’s fucked it all up.
He takes another wheezing breath and it comes out like a laugh, or maybe a sob. He’s fucked it all up and his dajiu is going to leave forever and his jiujiu is going to be angry forever. It’s just always, always going to be like this and it’s not fair, it’s not fair that Jin Ling can’t fix anything and that they hate each other and that he’s always going to be suck in between them, all tied up in it and not enough to make it right and—
For a single, boundless minute, he misses his xiao-shushu so badly it could bury him. At least he’d know what to say. He always knew what to say.
“There you are.”
He scrambles to his feet. Jin Yizheng stands in the doorway, skirts swaying with the afterthought of motion. Concern darts across her face.
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” he says, dashing tears away with the back of his hand and sticking out his chin. “Of course it is.”
She approaches slowly, eyes searching. He scowls, daring her to comment. She doesn’t. She doesn’t say anything at all, actually, only reaches up to fix his hair with an easy brusqueness that threatens to make him cry again. He crosses his arm and scowls harder, forcing back tears.
“It will be fine,” she tells him, straightening his hairpiece. “You’ve done the sect proud. We’re all honored to stand behind you.”
Jin Ling flushes and stares at the ground. He doesn’t feel particularly proud or honorable. He feels pretty fucking awful, actually. Miserable and rotten.
“There’s nothing wrong with being nervous,” she continues, hands and voice so steady it settles the panic looping around him even though his nerves about the conference are pretty much the last thing on his mind at the moment. “But you’re not alone in there. We’ve handled much worse than a few too many drunk cultivators.”
He coughs a little, and remembers, nonsensical— “We should bring up more wine.”
She laughs. “Okay. We will.”
He nods. She gives him a look and begins straightening his collars, layers upon layers of pale golden silk askew from his flight. “Is there something else on your mind, Sect Leader Jin?”
“No,” he says quickly. And then, entirely without his permission, his mouth carries on, “Have you ever tried to fix something and only made it worse?”
She pauses, hands hovering a moment before she lowers them. He can’t meet her eyes.
“Yang’er and I once tried to rescue a stray. It got out of our rooms and ate the dormitory master’s books. But I don’t think that’s what you mean.”
Jin Ling snorts weakly. “No, I mean— I mean hurting people, by accident, when you’re trying to help.”
“Ah.” She returns to straightening his robes. It’s a nice sort of fussing. She doesn’t tell him off the way the nursemaids did when he was young and his tutors did when he was older, just helps set himself back in order while he breathes. It’s hard to hold onto his panic when she’s being so calm about everything. “People are a little more difficult to fix than books.”
He’s sort of figured that one out, yeah. His jaw works but he doesn’t say anything.
She gives him one last brush down and takes a step back, nodding to herself. “You want my advice?”
He swallows. “Yeah.”
“Maybe you could talk to whoever you’re trying to help,” she says, “instead of encouraging rumors in the hopes that will fix things.”
Jin Ling flushes all the way up to his ears.
“I wasn’t,” he protests weakly.
“I spoke with the elders,” she continues, giving him a look that makes him feel all of about twelve again, “about honoring whatever appointment you make. They’ll support you, if that’s what you want. But maybe it’s worth asking first, don’t you think?”
It draws him up short, the acceptance in place of what he half expects to be a lecture. He frowns at her. “You talked to Jin-xiansheng? Why?”
“It’s your decision,” she says, as though it’s obvious. “And Wei-gongzi is a credit to whatever sect would have him. Some people just need to be reminded of his merits.”
“Oh.” He blinks at her, trying to find the right thing to say. In the end, he settles on, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She looks like she means to continue, but at that moment Jingyi skids to a stop in the doorway in a billow of white cloth.
“I found him!” he bellows over his shoulder, and seconds later Zizhen and Sizhui pile in next to him, all squeezed in the doorway. Jin Yizheng doesn’t bother to hide her smile.
“I’ll leave you to talk,” she decides. “You’ll do fine. Don’t take too long.”
“Yes, shijie,” he mumbles. She gives him one last look and then turns to the trio in the door.
“Lan-gongzi, Lan-gongzi. Ouyang-gongzi.”
“Jin-guniang.” They all bow properly, shuffling out of the way as she exits. Then it’s only the four of them, three sets of worried eyes pinned on Jin Ling. Zizhen manages to wedge himself through the door first.
“Is everything okay?” he asks, face painted with worry. Jingyi and Sizhui bleed concern just behind him. “We saw you leave—”
“We have to stop,” Jin Ling interrupts. “The plan, I mean.”
“What?” says Zizhen at the same time Jingyi demands, “Why?”
“We just do, okay?”
“But it’s working,” protests Jingyi. “Sect Leader Jiang was polite and everything! It’s going great!”
“No, it isn’t, they—” Jin Ling begins to fold his arms and then stops before he can crease his robes again. He settles for pacing. “Look, it’s not working and it’s never going to work and it was pointless to try and we should stop right now before it goes even worse.”
Sizhui takes a step forward. “Did something happen?” His face is wide open, guileless.
“No.” He turns on his heel. “Yes. What does it matter?”
“You have to tell us,” Jingyi says. “We’re all in this together so you have to tell us.”
“I don’t have to do anything!”
“We just want to help,” says Zizhen quietly, and Jin Ling stops pacing. His friends stare at him, worried. Jin Ling sighs.
“I overheard them talking,” he says. It comes out smaller than he’d like it to. “I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop but they were just there, and they were talking about—” About him. They were fighting about him, because this is his fault, because— He shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. But it was bad, okay? It was worse than the temple.”
Sizhui blanches. Jingyi and Zizhen look at each other, suddenly wary. They hadn’t been there, but they’ve heard the stories. Mostly meandering and switchback after too many drinks, but still. They understand what he means, or understand well enough. Jin Ling shakes his head.
“Jiujiu told him to—” he starts, and then pauses, because Jiujiu told him to leave, fuck, and he’s probably doing it right now, smiling and making his excuses and walking righ out of Carp Tower and Jin Ling’s life, like he was never there in the first place. Panic stirs in him again. “Is he still there? Dajiu, is he—”
They look at each other. Sizhui finally answers, “I— I don’t know. We came to find you.”
“You just left him alone out there? Fuck, we have to go back, I have to explain everything, tell him the truth, I have to—”
“Have to what?” asks a voice from the doorway. Jin Ling spins around so fast he nearly loses his balance.
Sect Leader Jiang watches them, eyes hard. Jin Ling’s stomach lands somewhere near the bottom of Carp Tower.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui begins, but he falls silent as soon as Jiujiu looks at him. Jingyi twitches forward and then freezes when Jiujiu’s gaze turns on him instead. Zizhen audibly gulps.
Jiujiu's eyes flick over all of them. “Out,” he says.
There’s no arguing. Jin Ling watches his friends bow and take their leave. Sizhui lingers in the doorway just long enough to catch his eye and nod, mouth set, and Jin Ling doesn’t know what that means, but that doesn’t matter because he can’t think of anything except the distant roaring in his ears and roiling nausea in his gut. Then he’s alone with Jiujiu wearing a face like a Yunmeng storm.
“Explain,” says Jiujiu. “Now.”
And what else is there to do? Piece by grating piece, Jin Ling explains everything.
After, it’s quiet for a long minute.
“I didn’t,” he protests immediately and quails under Jiujiu’s gaze. He’s not even angry, not really; anger would be preferable to whatever this is, something endless and crooked and awful. “I just— suggested some stuff and let you assume the rest. It wasn’t supposed to get so— y’know.”
Jiujiu raises his eyebrows.
“This!” Jin Ling bursts out. “Big, wrong, I don’t know!”
“What the hell was it supposed to do, then?”
Jiujiu scoffs. “Of all the stupid—”
“Stop calling me stupid!”
“What else would you call this?”
Jin Ling clenches his fists. “This is your fault!”
His eyebrows climb. “My fault? How is this my fault?”
“I wouldn’t have to do this if you would just talk to your brother—”
“It’s none of your business what I do with my—”
He stops himself short, like even saying it is beyond him, and Jin Ling carries right on over him without pause.
“You’re not the only one who got your family back! Some of us didn’t have that much to choose from to begin with!”
He’s aware, suddenly, that he’s toe to toe with his uncle, and nearly of a height. It means he can see every minute shift in his face as his eyes widen. Jin Ling makes his fists unfurl. He hadn’t realized he clenched them.
“I just,” he says. “I really thought it would help. I wasn’t trying to make it worse.”
Jiujiu only stares at him.
“I heard you arguing,” he says, and Jiujiu doesn’t even flinch. He knew, then. Maybe he caught Jin Ling leaving; maybe he overheard everything. It hardly matters. “I heard you arguing about me and that’s not fair, Jiujiu. It isn’t. It’s like you said. I get to choose if I want him to be my dajiu, not you. You can’t be mad at him for that, for not knowing stuff. You can be mad at him for a lot of other things but not that. If you’re going to be mad, you have to be mad at me.”
“Enough,” says Jiujiu. But the fight has gone out of him. He sighs, and pinches the bridge of his nose. “That’s enough, A-Ling.”
Jin Ling has never been particularly good at doing what he’s told. “I just thought it would change things. If you had to fight for him, or whatever.”
Jiujiu lowers his hand. “Why?”
He shrugs, scuffs a foot across the floor. He’s freshly aware of how loud they’ve been, how far noise travels in Carp Tower. How quick the gossip spreads. Well, it can hardly get any worse, at least, than this expression on his uncle’s face.
“Jin Ling,” Jiujiu insists.
“You always fight,” he mutters. “You’re so loud. I thought it would help if he could hear it.”
“He never hears,” Jiujiu mutters, and sighs. “This has gone on long enough. Let it go. And put your elders out of their misery, for heaven’s sake.”
Jin Ling sticks out his chin and knows he’s being petty and mulish and doesn’t bother to stop himself. “They deserve it.”
“Probably,” Jiujiu agrees. “But plenty of people don’t get what they deserve.”
He’s halfway to the door before Jin Ling finds his tongue again. “He misses you.”
Jiujiu pauses. He doesn’t look back, but he stills, and Jin Ling swallows hard.
“And I know you miss him too. You can’t tell me you really never want to see him again. He’s your brother, isn’t he?”
“Stupid boy,” Jiujiu says, all the edges sanded down, gentle almost. And then, almost too quiet to hear, “You’re just like her sometimes.”
Jin Ling breathes carefully around the feeling in his chest, big and tender and scalding to the touch.
“Does that mean you’ll talk to him?”
“Go host your banquet,” Jiujiu says gruffly, which isn’t an answer at all, and he’s gone.
In something of a daze, Jin Ling returns to the hall. Jin Yizheng gives him a concerned look as he seats himself, but he waves it away, eyes scanning the crowd as it begins to settle, looking for, praying for—
He’s still there. Relief sluices over him. He’s still there, sitting next to Hanguang-jun, frowning down at his meal, paying no attention to what's going on around him. Jiujiu watches from across the hall, mouth a tight frown and gaze almost, almost thoughtful. Jin Ling swallows.
Sitting a few seats away from the Jiang delegation, Zizhen catches his eye and raises an eyebrow. Jin Ling shakes his head. Later, he means. It’s hardly as though they can speak about it now.
The hall quiets, eyes falling to him at the top of the steps to begin the toasts—and there will be so many of them, and then the meal, and then more mingling, and he expects the night to drag on approximately forever—but Sect Leader Yao rises to his feet first.
So it’ll take forever twice over. That’s fine. He can muddle through the pettiness and the politics. He can manage whatever he has to, so long as he has the chance to explain—
“If you’ll permit me to begin,” Sect Leader Yao says, barely waiting for acknowledgement, which is actually incredibly rude, but honestly Jin Ling is almost grateful not to have to talk. He’s not sure what would come out if he tried. “I believe I speak for everyone when I say what an honor it is to be at Carp Tower once again. The Jin Sect is to be congratulated…”
And so it goes. Minor sect leaders nod along, peppering the speech with affirmations and agreement as he drones on, something about the vitality of the Jin and what a model they are to overcome such scandal and their commitment to doing right, et cetera. It’s the usual mix of self-aggrandizement and sycophantic simpering and Jin Ling barely pays attention, staring over the hall from what feels like miles above it. He hasn’t appreciated what a view this seat grants him, how he can see people and priorities shifting like playing pieces, the whole world one giant weiqi board before him. No wonder his predecessors toyed so easily with people’s lives. He feels like he can see everything.
Jiujiu watches Wei Wuxian. He does it with an odd expression on his face, like he’s arrived at a familiar location along an unfamiliar path and is trying to make sense of something nearly but not quite strange. Behind his father, who is nodding approvingly at Sect Leader Yao as he prattles about the gentry coming together and the success of his Excellency, Zizhen frowns at Jin Ling, an uncomplicated concern. Jin Ling manages a fleeting smile and turns his attention to the other side of the hall, where his dajiu sits.
Wei Wuxian is paying as much attention to Sect Leader Yao as Jin Ling is, which is to say none at all by this point. He’s stopped frowning down at his meal, though. Now he leans over to place a hand on Hanguang-jun’s arm. Hanguang-jun doesn’t look away from Sect Leader Yao, but his head tilts in Wei Wuxian’s direction, listening intently. After a moment, he nods. Wei Wuxian rises to his feet and steps carefully between the rows of Lan cultivators. Sizhui makes a brief, startled motion, like he means to do something, but Wei Wuxian catches his eye. After a moment, Sizhui slumps and nods. Jingyi reaches over to place a hand on his arm, glancing up at Wei Wuxian a moment longer before he turns his attention back to Sizhui. Wei Wuxian slips towards the back of the hall.
Nobody else is paying him any mind. He could well be a ghost for how easily he takes his leave, barely attended. Jiujiu makes a face, thick and sour, and turns away, and Sect Leader Nie vanishes behind his fan, and so it is only Jin Ling who watches him pause at the very back of the hall. The open doors frame him against the sunset, sky a blazing orange behind him, the setting sun catching against the underside of his jaw. He wears a smile, one of the sad ones that reads like apology, and bows, deep and proper. A farewell.
“Actually,” Jin Ling says, cutting through Sect Leader Yao’s toast. He’s on his feet without making the decision to stand. At the back of the hall, Wei Wuxian pauses, startled. Good. “Actually, I have an announcement to make.”
Eyes turn to him, cups half raised in toast. Sect Leader Yao shakes out his sleeve with a frown. At the foot of the dais, Jin Guanghong makes puffing, irritated noises, like a teapot left to boil too long. He ignores it, staring right at Wei Wuxian, heart hammering.
It’s funny, after everything, to realize he means it. Wei Wuxian is a credit to any sect who would have him, and Jin Ling wants him to stay. Not because it will scare the elders, or because he’s that petty, or to make a point. He wants him to stay just to have him stay. Even if that doesn’t fix anything, even if his dajiu and his jiujiu are always bitter and hurting and broken apart, even if it makes everyone angry. He’ll take it if it means he doesn’t have to watch Wei Wuxian walk out the door again thinking he’s unwanted. He’s done with losing family he shouldn’t have to lose.
“There have been a lot of rumors lately,” he says, palms sweating, “about some internal business of the Jin Sect. I want to announce that they’re all true. I’ve named Wei Wuxian my heir, and heir to LanlingJin.”
For a heartbeat, nobody says a word. Across the hall, surprise crashes across Wei Wuxian’s face, followed almost immediately by understanding and then a wry, knowing expression that would make Jin Ling flush if he weren’t too full of adrenaline to feel embarrassed.
“Ridiculous!” blusters Sect Leader Yao, still standing. At least three separate wine cups are slammed down, liquor spilling. Sect Leader Rong stands up at the end of the hall, shouting something about the Yiling Patriarch that gets overridden by Sect Leader Fu next to him declaring he knew that Wei Wuxian had—
“—poisoned the mind of the young sect leader! Surely that’s the only reason—”
“—completely unqualified!” interjects Sect Leader Ouyang. Zizhen makes a face behind him, like he’s embarrassed on his father’s behalf. “He’s not even a Jin!”
“It’s preposterous that he’s here at all,” declares Sect Leader Zhou, who has no standing whatsoever. Jin Ling sets his jaw and restrains himself from snapping about how it’s preposterous that Sect Leader Zhou is here, actually.
“Exactly!” Sect Leader Yao booms. “We all know what Wei Wuxian has done in the past.” At the back of the hall, Wei Wuxian has gone carefully still, face a pleasant and empty mask. Jin Ling clenches his fists. “Now this boy wants to name him heir to LanlingJin? Impossible! Who knows what Wei Wuxian has done to him? He has no right to be here!”
So much for twenty-four hours without a diplomatic incident.
“Excuse me —” Jin Ling cuts in hotly before he can even decide if he’s more affronted on his own behalf or Wei Wuxian’s, but it’s Sizhui of all people who speaks over him.
“Pardon me, Sect Leader Yao,” he interrupts in his perfect, politest, Lannest voice. It cuts through the chaos clear as a plucked note, and the hall quiets for him. Jin Ling stares at him, mouth still open, as Sizhui salutes the assembled gentries. “Forgive me, but isn’t this a discussion for the Jin Sect?”
Sect Leader Yao opens and closes his mouth, which makes him look not unlike a fish. Sizhui continues pleasantly, voice not rising or falling in the slightest. “In any case, Wei-qianbei has already accepted the honor of serving as sect heir. I’m afraid there’s nothing more to be said on the matter.”
Wei Wuxian blinks for a moment and stares at Sizhui in open confusion. “I have?”
Jin Ling does the exact same thing at the other end of the hall. He had?
Sizhui ducks his head, embarrassed, and raises it again. “At a night hunt last year, Wei-qianbei promised to fulfill all duties required of him by Sect Leader Jin. The sect leader has simply called upon that oath.”
Oh. Oh, that. Wei Wuxian had indulged in a jar or two too many after the hunt had finished and, in full view of all the other juniors and rest of the winehouse, clasped Jin Ling by the shoulders and apologized profusely for missing so many important years, and swearing always to be present in whatever capacity Jin Ling needed him.
Which maybe, maybe, if you stretched the truth as far as it could go and ignored all the ways it tore in the tugging, could apply to this situation.
Jin Ling doesn’t dare look at Hanguang-jun. He frowns at Jiujiu instead, clenched jaw and clenched fists and an expression like he’s bracing himself for a blow.
“But he’s not even related!” says Sect Leader Rong down at the end of the hall, and heads nod, including—briefly, before he catches himself—Jin Guanghong. Jin Yizheng gives him a stern look.
“I mean, by blood he is, isn’t he?” shrugs Jingyi with all the tact and subtlety of a brick through a window, scrambling upright to join Sizhui. Jin Ling’s pretty sure he catches Hanguang-jun closing his eyes, just for a moment. Wei Wuxian looks at Jingyi, mouth agape, and then cocks his head.
“You know,” he considers, scratching at Mo Xuanyu’s chin with Mo Xuanyu’s hand and speaking with Mo Xuanyu’s mouth, “technically they’re not wrong. Though it does bring up some pretty confusing questions about inheritance laws—”
“You would joke at a time like this!” demands Sect Leader Zhou. Wei Wuxian shrugs.
“Ah, what can I say? Everything’s a joke to me.”
“Shut up,” interrupts Jiujiu, sharp enough that half the hall flinches. He stands abruptly, Sandu in one fist and Zidian flickering ominously around the other. Wei Wuxian shuts up, eyes wide.
“Enough of this squabbling,” he says into the sudden silence, like they’re a bunch of unruly children and not a collection of the world’s most accomplished cultivators. “Whatever promises he’s made, Wei Wuxian cannot be claimed by the Jin Sect.”
Jin Ling gapes at him. It’s Jingyi who speaks.
“Why not?” he demands, and immediately ducks his head when both Sizhui and Hanguang-jun frown at him. Jiujiu grits his teeth and juts out his chin. He looks exactly how Jin Ling feels before doing the right thing, something slippery squirming in his stomach.
“He’s still heir to the Jiang Sect.”
There’s not even silence following that; it’s just noise.
Jin Ling finds Sizhui across the hall and is surprised to see smug satisfaction written across his face, followed immediately by glancing worry in Wei Wuxian’s direction. Jingyi is whispering furiously next to him—or maybe speaking outright; it’s impossible to tell in the cacophony. Zizhen is staring at everything wide-eyed and thrilled; he beams when Jin Ling glances in his direction. Jiujiu stands in the center of it all, the eye of the storm, gaze fixed on Wei Wuxian, who is staring back with a broken-open sort of hopefulness.
Hanguang-jun, off to the side, looks very, very, very faintly amused. Jin Ling looks away, and in doing so catches Jin Yizheng’s eye.
She raises one eyebrow. Oh, right. It’s still his conference.
“Alright, okay,” he shouts, lost in the din. “Hey!”
Zidian snaps through the air, and everyone shuts up. Jin Ling clenches his jaw and nods at his uncle.
“This is a private affair of the Jiang Sect,” he declares stiffly, as though that will keep anyone from gossiping about it. At the back of the hall, Wei Wuxian shakes his head like he’s said something funny. Jiujiu rolls his eyes. “It should be worked out between Sect Leader Jiang and his, uh, heir.”
Jiujiu nods at him, Zidian still crackling quietly. “Thank you, Sect Leader Jin,” he intones, and turns on his heel and strides from the hall, passing Wei Wuxian without a word. Wei Wuxian hesitates a moment, then salutes Jin Ling briefly before running out after him.
“Well,” says Sect Leader Ouyang. He opens his mouth again, closes it, shrugs, and downs his cup.
The banquet is pretty boring, after that.
“So I have you to thank,” says Wei Wuxian much later, appearing out of the dark. Jin Ling doesn’t bother to ask what he’s doing in the private garden. Wei Wuxian will go where he’ll go, and there’s no use wishing otherwise.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he replies, twisting around from his perch on the railing to frown at his uncle.
There’s a redness around his eyes that Jin Ling decides not to think about, but he looks fine. Nobody has stabbed him, at least, so Jin Ling guesses whatever talk he and Jiujiu had didn’t go too badly. In the hall, the banquet has reached the hazy part of the night when everyone drifts around wine-heavy and full of gossip. Jin Ling is probably being a bad host by not staying to oversee it, but the fresh air is a relief. The summer night is warm and the breeze is cool and the garden smells like lotus blooms.
“You don’t have to pretend. Jingyi can’t keep a secret.”
“I said he was a loudmouth,” Jin Ling sulks, folding at once. Wei Wuxian laughs and boosts himself up next to him.
“Guilty liars, the Lan. Well, most of them. Sizhui apparently lied straight to Jiang Cheng’s face.” He sounds proud.
Jin Ling stares at him out of the corner of one eye. “You’re not mad?”
“Aiyo, A-Ling. I’ve missed too much to waste time being mad.”
His leg swings down, skirts swishing gently. The sound is lost in the soft lapping of the lotus pond, the buzz of the summer night. Jin Ling sits quietly for a moment, chewing on that, chewing on Jiujiu’s anger, chewing on the red of Wei Wuxian’s eyes and the summer night and the lotus scent of the garden.
“My dad made this, you know,” he says, chin jut out over the pond. He doesn’t know why. It’s stupid. There’s no reason to talk about it. “For my mom.”
Wei Wuxian is looking at him. He can feel it, a steady pressure.
“He did,” he agrees, all caution. Jin Ling folds his arms.
“Nobody ever tells me about them.”
When he glances up, Wei Wuxian looks— Oh, it doesn’t matter. “Nobody?”
He relents. “Nothing important. Nothing—” He’s not sure what the right word for it is. “Real.”
“Real,” echoes Wei Wuxian. Jin Ling folds his arms tighter across his chest.
“Well, your father had a real stick up his ass when we were kids,” Wei Wuxian says, which is the last thing he expects. “We called him the peacock. Me and Jiang Cheng. He was never good enough for Shi— for your mom.”
“Oh.” He’s— He doesn’t know how he feels about that. Wei Wuxian laughs, a huff of air.
“He tried, though. Right up until the end, he tried. He’d have given her the world.” He pauses, considering. “I guess lotuses were close enough.”
There’s something thick and terrible in his voice and Jin Ling suddenly regrets, almost, asking, and can’t bring himself to stop.
“What was she like?”
“Oh,” says Wei Wuxian. He’s smiling in the moonlight, and maybe crying too. It’s hard to tell. Jin Ling looks away. There’s too much honesty there; he doesn’t want to see it. “Oh, she was the very best of us. The strongest and the very best.”
“Everyone says she was sick.”
“Sometimes. That didn’t stop her from being strong. And stubborn. And always forgiving. She never stopped, no matter— Ah, it’s sad stuff.”
“I know,” he grumbles, wiping his eyes. He knows it’s sad, obviously he knows it’s sad. It’s his own fucking life. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to know.” And then, “Jiujiu said I was like her.”
“You are,” he says, and then he’s quiet for a long minute.
“I don’t know if I can tell you right now,” he says finally, apologetic. There’s none of that usual mirth in his voice. He sounds very old, for once, and tired. “But I will. I promise.”
Jin Ling is inclined to believe him. It sits in the air for a bit, until the breeze clears it away.
“Would you have said yes? If I asked you to be my heir? Properly and everything?”
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Probably not, no.“
It stings. It doesn’t sting as much as he thought it might. He sort of knew that already. “Okay.”
“It’s nothing personal—”
“No, I get it.” He hesitates. “Sizhui didn’t want to do it. He thought you shouldn’t be put in the middle of everything. Again.”
“He’s a good boy,” Wei Wuxian says fondly. “You both are.”
“Whatever,” mumbles Jin Ling. It isn’t fair that he feels a little like he’s glowing on the inside. Wei Wuxian laughs at him. It’s comfortable.
Jin Ling looks at him out of the corner of one eye. “Will you help Jiujiu, at least?”
Wei Wuxian’s laughter fades away. “I’m— I don’t know if he’d like that very much.”
“Dajiu,” Jin Ling says, exasperated. “You’re really stupid sometimes, you know that.”
Wei Wuxian splutters.
“Jiujiu hates a scene,” he carries on, unsympathetic to his uncle floundering next to him. “He says it’s for people who don’t know how to keep their nose out of other people’s business.” Jin Ling has, ever since Wei Wuxian walked back into their lives, been pretty sure that criticism has always been directed specifically at the man in question. “You should just ask him. And he should just tell you.”
Wei Wuxian flounders. “It isn’t— I mean we aren’t— We’ve never been all that good at just talking. Shijie—”
He cuts himself off, but Jin Ling decides he’s out of patience for the evening. He’s definitely done more than enough for them. He can be forgiven a little rudeness.
“Maybe you should try,” he says, blunt as anything. Wei Wuxian stares at him, a pair of gleaming eyes in the dark.
And then he bursts into laughter.
“Aiyo,” he breathes. “You really are just like them. Alright, alright. I’ll try. There, Lingling, are you happy?”
“No,” he mutters. “Don’t call me that.”
“I called you that before you were even born,” Wei Wuxian replies, and he— doesn’t know how he feels about that, really. It doesn’t matter, though, because Wei Wuxian immediately ruins it by adding, “A-Ling, xiao Ling, Ling’er—”
Jin Ling shoves at him, ineffectual. “Cut it out!”
“Your dajiu is so proud of you, you know. What a plot! All of you, meddling together. My influence, no doubt.”
“You’re so weird,” Jin Ling tells him, but only wriggles a little when Wei Wuxian wraps an arm over his shoulders. It’s… sort of nice. Wei Wuxian gives him a brief squeeze.
“I’ve been called worse,” he says. “Your mother would be proud of you.”
Jin Ling shoves him off and flushes furiously with an aimless, aching sort of gratitude. Somewhere nearby, not in the garden but close, Jingyi calls his name. Wei Wuxian looks up.
“It sounds like you’re needed,” he says, tugging at the end of Jin Ling’s hair, teasing and familiar. “Off you go.”
Jin Ling hops off the railing and pauses.
“Is it— Are you going to be alright?”
Wei Wuxian smiles at him, a far softer thing than usual.
“Of course. I’m always alright. You don’t need to worry about me.” He holds up a hand before Jin Ling can get a word in. “We’ll be okay, A-Ling.”
“You’d better,” he says, scrunching up his stinging nose. “Or I’ll break your legs.”
Wei Wuxian gives him a light shove. “Aiyo, get out of here. Rascal. Threatening your dajiu like that, what would your mother say.”
“She’d agree with me,” he says, and ducks away before Wei Wuxian can swat at him again, catching his friends at the garden gate. Zizhen is a little pink in the cheeks, and Jingyi looks far too pleased with himself. Sizhui is smiling one of his small, careful little smiles, like he’s got happiness caught somewhere inside him and doesn’t know how to let it out. It’s a good look on him.
“There you are,” declares Jingyi. “What are you always running off for?”
Jin Ling folds his arms. “I’m not running off. It’s my home. What are you running around for?”
“Yizheng-jie sent us,” says Zizhen. “She says if she has to suffer through Jin-xiansheng being drunk then you do too.”
Always with the work. Sect leadership definitely isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Jin Ling sighs. “Fine.”
Sizhui peers at him, and then at Wei Wuxian behind him, still perched up on the railing. His smile slips away. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah,” says Jin Ling, giving him a look. Sizhui flushes a little but meets his eyes steadily, daring him to comment. Jin Ling snorts. All that hesitancy and he’s made just as much trouble as Jin Ling has. Jin Ling is almost proud. He’s definitely grateful. “Yeah, I think it will be.”
“Good,” Sizhui says. He doesn’t say anything more, but he doesn’t need to.
“Well, come on,” interjects Jingyi, looking between them. “Before all the food is gone.”
“How can you still be hungry?” asks Sizhui, skittering away with a laugh when Jingyi waves one wide sleeve threateningly. Zizhen imposes himself valiantly between them pleading for peace. Jingyi hits him instead, and Zizhen laughs and dashes for the hall, Jingyi on his tail, shouting after him with an utter lack of Lan decorum. Sizhui pauses when Jin Ling doesn’t follow.
“Aren’t you coming?”
“Yeah,” he says. “I’ll be there in just a minute, I promise.”
Sizhui looks at him for a long moment, then nods. “I’ll let them know.”
“Thank you,” says Jin Ling, and he means for more than just passing along the message. Sizhui smiles at him, then turns and follows the sounds of laughter up the path.
Jin Ling lingers under the arch of the moon gate, looking back towards the garden. A figure emerges from the dark to join Wei Wuxian on the bridge, and words are exchanged too distant to hear. Wei Wuxian wraps an arm around Jiang Cheng’s shoulder and laughs when Jiang Cheng elbows him. Jiang Cheng shakes his head, but doesn't step away.
For the briefest moment, in the glow of the lanterns and under the full summer moon, Jin Ling could almost swear there's third figure on the bridge, a woman in lavender. The smell of lotus lies thick on the air. The water of the pond laps at its banks, and somewhere a bell rings, crystal clear.
Then the breeze stirs the lanterns and she’s gone, nothing more than a trick of the light.
Jin Ling takes a deep breath, and another. Briefly, his fingers brush the clarity bell at his waist, the one that belonged to his mother. It clinks quietly, lost in the rustle of the wind, the murmuring voices from the bridge. Then he squares his shoulders and turns towards the golden hall where his friends wait for him, perfect silhouettes in the open doors, and leaves his uncles alone in his mother’s garden.