Jiang Cheng didn’t understand why people found babies and dogs to be disobedient, he himself had only ever found them to be pleasant and eager to please. Dogs flopped over happily when he cooed at them, tails wagging a mile a minute and eyes drooping with utter bliss. Babies were much the same, and Jiang Cheng took no small amount of pride in the shock he always garnered when a fussy baby calmed right down in his arms with a few gentle words.
Jin Ling was a very fussy baby, spending most of his first few weeks in Yunmeng screaming like his world was ending, and Jiang Cheng felt much the same. His sister’s death was still a wrenching pain in his heart, her face burned into the back of his eyelids and her dying gasps a nightly mantra that woke him up sobbing her name. He understood Jin Ling’s need to scream and cry and break down without care. He wanted to spend his days doing that as well. But he couldn’t. He had a sect to run and a nephew to care for, so he dried his tears and fixed his face and went to calm his wailing nephew before he hurt his throat.
Yanli had always melted when he came to her crying, weak to his quietly trembling voice and taking him into her arms to comfort him, eyes dewey with some unknown emotion as she held her didi close.
“A-Jie loves you so much.” she would smile, “A-Jie would do anything for you.”
Jin Ling was an odd child. He screamed and screamed and flailed his little fists at anyone who came close, incensed that they weren’t his parents, a sentiment Jiang Cheng understood. But the moment Jiang Cheng picked him up out of his crib and tucked him into his arms, murmuring his name as softly as he could manage, he quieted right down, peering up at him with those big brown eyes and curling a chubby fist around a lock of Jiang Cheng’s hair. His nephew always stared up at him with his father’s eyes and his mother’s unyielding stare and a rapt attention all his own, and Jiang Cheng felt warmth in his chest that must be love as he spoke quietly to him to fill the silence, his nephew’s gaze big and dark as he watched him.
Jin Ling had never had a nanny or a nurse for more than a week before the harried thing would bring the screaming child to Jiang Cheng with an air of defeat, watching with resigned envy as just a few soft words calmed the child immediately. They would ask how he did it, and he would snort and say that they were just bad at their job, that Jin Ling calmed easily when spoken softly to, they just didn’t try hard enough. He was often so focused on his nephew that he didn’t notice the incredulous looks that statement got him, and the nannies generally either quit or got fired within months.
Wei Wuxian was desperate for affection, and he would get so happy on the rare occasions Jiang Cheng was soft with him, his brother’s eyes going foggy when Jiang Cheng gave in to fondness and spoke his name with a quiet affection.
“I would do anything for you, A-Cheng.” he once said with a dopey little smile, eyes glazed in a way that made Jiang Cheng wish their parents gave him more love so he wouldn’t react so strongly to simple gentleness from his irritable brother.
Jin Ling eventually grew from a fussy baby to a fussy toddler, imperial and spoiled and loud and demanding. But no matter how he grew or how independent the child thought he was, he still folded like a paper fan when his uncle said his name quietly. He was teased by others his age for being such an uncle’s boy, at least until Jiang Cheng cracked Zidian and sent the offending disciples scattering to get back to training. Jin Ling often complained that he wasn’t fair, that he cheated by using The Voice to get what he wanted. Jiang Cheng retaliated with a grin that he would just have to learn how to withstand it, which Jin Ling wailed was impossible.
Jiang Cheng’s chest always felt weirdly warm whenever he spoke with any kind of softness or gentleness, so he tried not to do so too often. Still, he loved his nephew so much that it was hard to be loud and harsh all the time.
Jiang Cheng worried about Lan Xichen. The man had a strict uncle and a stoic, distant little brother, and probably got little to no affection in his daily life. That was the only explanation Jiang Cheng could think for the way the man’s face went slack when Jiang Cheng murmured a soft thanks for a simple gift, those big brown eyes seeming dazed and out of it as he murmured “Yes, of course, anything”, his impeccable control only returning when Jiang Cheng raised his voice to ask if he was alright
Meetings were a form of torture that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t wish on anyone, full of arrogant leaders and rich assholes so high on themselves they were practically in Chang’e’s lap. Jiang Cheng barely tolerated them, and he made no secret of his opinion that he had better things to be doing than indulging their ridiculous demands and blatant attempts to get in good with the newly rebuilt Jiang Sect and their booming spice and dye industry. The only bright spot in these meetings was Nie Huaisang’s ditzy comments and silly nature, his attempts to lighten the mood that clashed with his strange insistence that Jiang Cheng should yell as much as possible and never ever speak softly.
He respected the people who respected him, and to all the others he was just that scary bitch it was better not to interact with, just like his mother, and he liked it like that. But it didn’t mean he didn’t make mistakes. The one time he’d spoken gently to Sect Leader Yao in a rare moment of ill-advised pity, he’d had to spend the next few weeks fielding a slew of marriage proposals and embarrassing attempts at courting before Jin Ling had visited the man’s house and made it clear that any more attempts for his uncle’s hand would result in broken kneecaps.
Jiang Cheng had been so proud.
It couldn’t be easy to deal with Nie Huaisang on a daily basis, but it was probably even harder to be separated in the midst of war, so Jiang Cheng made it a point to check in on Nie Mingjue as the Sunshot Campaign dragged on. He respected and admired the man, so concern for his well being compelled him to pull him aside one day and asked gently if he was holding up alright, if he needed him to check in on his brother, if he needed someone to talk to. Nie Mingjue’s breathing had slowed, his eyes going wide and strangely misty as he stared at him with an odd look he couldn’t decipher, his body actually listing slightly to the side in a way that had Jiang Cheng raising his voice to ask if he was alright, and it was his shout that seemed to break the spell. Mingjue muttered something about doing anything for Huaisang’s friend before bolting.
Jiang Cheng assumed the strange reaction was gratitude for thinking of his brother. Or perhaps just the heat.
The juniors were in so much trouble it wasn’t even funny, and Zidian crackled menacingly as the boys trotted miserably to stand before him, eyes averted and gazes locked firmly on the ground. Jin Ling was cradling a wounded arm, newly casted and freshly cleaned of all blood, and the sight made something ugly rise in him.
“Explain yourselves.” he growled, Zidian cracking as he snapped, “Now!” The juniors cowered, scrambling and talking over each other in their hurry to explain, to escape the wrath of the infamously overprotective Sandu Shengshou.
“It wasn’t my fault-“
“I thought it would be fun-“
“Zizhen was gonna-“
“Jin Ling ran ahead-“
“It was all my fault, Sect Leader-“
“Please don’t kill us and feed our bodies to Fairy-“
“Please place the blame on me, I should have known better-“
“I just wanted to kill a bear, and cut him up-“
“Enough!” Jiang Cheng snapped, and the juniors fell silent, “You’re all old enough to know better, what the hell made you think this was a good idea? What the hell were you thinking!?”
“We… We just wanted to make Jin Ling happy.” Lan Jingyi said with a face twisted in misery, and Jiang Cheng shoved down the pang of understanding by glancing at his nephew’s casted arm.
“And what if Jin Ling had been hurt!?” he growled, “If he had been hurt because of you, what makes you think any force on this earth would protect you from Wei Wuxian? From me?”
“We’re sorry, Sect Leader.” Lan Sizhui said softly, “We were wrong. I ask you to forgive us, but will understand if you cannot.” The juniors looked so miserable, and Jiang Cheng felt the stirrings of pity grow stronger despite his best efforts. Lan Sizhui’s attempts to take the blame reminded him way too much of Wei Wuxian, and Ouyang Zizhen looked on the verge of tears, reminding Jiang Cheng of his strict, unyielding father.
“You are all in so much trouble.” he growled, more to himself than the children, and they drew in in themselves in a way that would make Wei Wuxian drown in vinegar, envious of how children listened to Jiang Cheng over him.
“Please forgive us, Sect Leader.” Lan Jingyi whispered, and Jiang Cheng’s resolve weakened further, “We would never put Jin Ling in harm's way willingly. We just… got carried away.”
“It’s really okay, uncle.” Jin Ling murmured, “It was mostly my fault anyway, I ran ahead. Don’t punish my friends for my foolishness.” God dammit, when had his nephew learned to simper so well? Had he been taking lessons from Nie Huaisang?
“No.” Ouyang Zizhen stepped forward, eyes wet but determined, “Blame me. I could have stopped him but I didn’t. I wanted to see what would happen, and I hoped that killing a bear would impress my father. Blame me.”
“No, blame me.” Lan Sizhui insisted.
“No, me.” Lan Jingyi piped up, mouth trembling.
“No.” Jin Ling sighed, “Blame me.”
“I’m the one at fault.” Zizhen insisted, lifting his head to meet Jiang Cheng’s eyes, “I’m the one that didn’t stop him. Punish me, not them. I’m more used to punishment anyway, so it's convenient.”
And Jiang Cheng… Jiang Cheng was a weak man, in the end.
“Hey.” he made a reluctant effort to soften his voice, “Don’t… Don’t look so sad. You... didn’t do as badly as you could have.”
“I... Really?” Ouyang Zizhen peeked up at him with hopeful eyes, and he reminded Jiang Cheng so much of his nephew that he couldn’t help but reach out to ruffle his hair.
“Yeah.” he murmured with a small smile, “Yeah, you all just need to be more careful, is all. Less stupid.” and Zizhen’s eyes went slightly distant, the expression echoed by the other juniors, who seemed to lean in as if desperate for more praise from him, “You’ll do a hundred laps for your foolishness. Each of you. You too, Jin Ling, you need to learn to curb your impulses.”
“I would do anything for you, uncle.” Jin Ling said with a sweet smile, the sentiment echoed by the other juniors with various degrees of enthusiasm, and Jiang Cheng smiled helplessly but thought nothing of it.
He never did. People were just weird.