Becoming a parent was admittedly not something that Meng Yao had pictured for himself. Eventually, sure! Once he found somebody he loved and had become successful, maybe he would have a kid. Or adopt a dog. Or maybe a turtle.
But then again, his brother dying in a car crash and leaving his 2-years-old nephew orphaned and alone had not been something Meng Yao had pictured either.
“Make sure to finish your breakfast, your jiujiu doesn’t like stopping for food and he lives very far away,” He said to the now 6-years-old, who was pouting into his fruit loops. He was wearing his backpack already, his favorite toys and books packed inside. Near the door was a small suitcase with some of his favorite clothing and other things that went between the two houses. Lil’ Fairy was snoozing on the couch, her carrier ready to go as well.
Another thing that Meng Yao had not pictured — co-parenting with Jiang Cheng. In fact, Jiang Cheng was probably the last person Meng Yao had expected to be allowed around kids, much less someone who Meng Yao had to parent with, but again — no one had expected Jin Ling’s parents to die. Meng Yao was someone who sometimes thought a bit too analytically about the world and the people in it, but he wasn’t heartless, and he wasn’t going to keep Jiang Cheng’s last living relative away from him.
“I know, Bobo,” Jin Ling muttered, shoveling another spoonful into his mouth. He always pouted when they traded off, although Meng Yao knew that Jin Ling adored his other uncle. He ruffled his hair, earning him indignant squawks, then he went to coax Lil’ Fairy into the car carrier. Crate training had gone well, so he was confident that she wouldn’t be bad on the trip, but she had also never been in a car for that long. Jiang Cheng had insisted that he liked dogs, that it was okay, but he couldn’t help but be worried about sending her off, but he also couldn’t imagine separating Jin Ling from his furry companion so soon. He didn’t have many friends, with him spending the school year in Lanling and vacations in Yunmeng, and Meng Yao didn’t want to leave him alone again.
Lil’ Fairy just laid back down in the crate and went back to sleep, so he left her for now. He glanced at his watch — Jiang Cheng should be there any minute. Meng Yao ran through his mental checklist for the third time, knowing he hadn’t forgotten anything but still worried that he had. His memory was perfect, photographic even, but he could still never stop that surge of anxiety.
Instead of focusing on it, he turned and started putting the toys Jin Ling had played with that morning up, where they would stay for the next month. He knew that little eyes were resting on him, more interested in what his uncle was doing than the breakfast he needed. Meng Yao turned over his shoulder and squinted his eyes at Jin Ling. “Eat your fruit.”
“I am, Bobo!” Jin Ling lied, annoyed, then he picked up his apple slices with more annoyance than a 6-years-old should be able to manifest. Meng Yao’s heart beat with a powerful fondness, the love he felt for the small child almost overwhelming. If Jin Ling had been younger, Meng Yao would probably have gone over to him and pressed kisses all over his face, laughing at the angry protests he’d get - but Jin Ling was getting older now, and Meng Yao was trying harder to respect his wishes. Even if that meant he couldn’t lavish his nephew with physical affection anymore.
Jin Ling had - a lot of problems. Ones that Meng Yao couldn’t fix by just being a doting uncle. He was the last remaining heir to a famous and wealthy family (Meng Yao got a stipend, mostly to take care of Jin Ling with, but didn’t count as an heir since he was the result of an affair and Jin Ling’s grandmother hated him), and many of the kids in his social circle knew that. There was never such a thing as “just a six years old” in wealthy families, as Meng Yao had learned. Other kids kept their distance because their families wanted to make sure that they didn’t accidentally offend his family or they bullied him for being special.
And that was before they got into the fact he was an orphan, or the fact his primary guardian was the bastard Meng Yao, or his anger issues.
Jin Ling had therapy every other week, but the anger was not entirely from his own trauma - which was evident by the slam of a car door outside that broke Meng Yao from his musings. With a sigh, he went to Jin Ling and smoothed his hair, pressing a quick kiss to the top of his head before his nephew could stop him.
“Jiujiu is here,” He said, and Jin Ling’s expression brightened. He didn’t like travelling, but like Meng Yao had said, he adored his uncle. Meng Yao double checked his mental list one last time, and then went to open the front door. Jiang Cheng stood there, fist raised and prepared to knock. For just a moment his usual scowl left his face, replaced with surprise. But it was a quick moment, and by the time his fist fell back to his side, the usual thunderous expression had reappeared.
“Meng Yao,” he said, in the bark of his voice that said he was having a perfectly pleasant day. He glanced over the shorter man’s head, catching sight of Jin Ling, who was now shovelling his cereal into his face at breakneck speed. Meng Yao followed his gaze and then frowned, shaking his head slightly.
“Slow down, Jin Ling,” He called, and the expression on the kid’s face was a good facsimile of his uncle’s scowl. Which reminded Meng Yao - he pushed Jiang Cheng back onto the porch slightly and went to close the door behind him, shooting one last look at his nephew to make sure that he had actually slowed down. “We’ll be just outside, I need to talk to your Jiujiu.”
“About what?” Jiang Cheng asked, the second the door shut behind Meng Yao. He was thankful that he had waited that long.
“Jin Ling’s therapist is worried about him,” He said and then thought, so am I. “She says he’s too angry, and that it’ll affect his social development.”
“I don’t care what that hack says,” Jiang Cheng started, and Meng Yao stifled the sigh that already threatened to pass his lips. Jin Ling’s therapist was the foremost in child development counselling, the best Jin money could buy, but whatever . “Jin Ling is just fine.”
“He isn’t,” Meng Yao insisted, although a part of him wanted to agree. Jin Ling wasn’t fine, of course, but he was Meng Yao’s beloved nephew and he thought he was perfect. But he was just a 6-years-old, with a lot of trauma. “He doesn’t have any friends.”
“So? I didn’t have any at that age either,” Jiang Cheng scoffed, and Meng Yao had to stop himself from blurting out the first two thoughts in his mind: I’m not surprised and You had siblings . He knew - from experience - that insults and reminding Jiang Cheng of his tragedy did not make for productive conversation.
“He got into a fight last week,” Meng Yao urged, and Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes.
“I got into fights all the time as a kid!” He didn’t hide his disdain for this conversation well, but Meng Yao could tell that it wasn’t just his normal dislike for emotional moments like this. Underneath the bluster, there was an uncertain undercurrent, the worry and fear that he - that they - weren’t enough for Jin Ling. Meng Yao fixed his expression to hide his annoyance, and pushed his empathy forward.
“His therapist thinks that we should show Jin Ling more productive ways of channeling his anger,” Meng Yao said, gently. This hadn’t just been advice for Jiang Cheng; Meng Yao’s way of dealing with anger was to carefully plot the death of everyone who wronged him, which he at least kept to his head, but Jin Ling needed his guardians to visibly deal with their anger in a healthy way. However, Jiang Cheng flinched, and Meng Yao knew he had taken it personally.
“I deal with my anger just fine, ” Jiang Cheng said, his voice already rising.
Meng Yao couldn’t bite back his response this time, “You really don’t.”
“Excuse you?” Jiang Cheng barked, his voice pitched low. Meng Yao put his hands up in a placating gesture, both to make physical space between them and to hopefully calm the other man down.
“The advice wasn’t just aimed at you, I have to start being better myself. But we can’t be so angry around Jin Ling,” He said, giving his best and most mollifying customer service smile. Jiang Cheng shot him an unimpressed look.
“Aren’t you angry? We shouldn’t be the kids’ guardians, his parents should be here,” Jiang Cheng said.
“No.” Meng Yao shook his head, because he wasn’t - he never really had been. He had grieved, of course, and sometimes Jin Ling looks so much like his father that it hurt, but he had never been angry. Jiang Cheng looked chagrined for a brief second, but the anger came roaring back before it could settle, defensive now.
“Yeah, well, I guess it’s different when you were raised with the killer,” Jiang Cheng sneered, and Meng Yao sighed.
“It was an accident.”
“Bullshit!” It came out more like a snarl, but there was a deep hurt underneath that anger. “The idiot was probably fucking around, and he got them all killed for it!”
“Your brother didn’t make someone run a red light,” Meng Yao pointed out, but Jiang Cheng had flinched again and Meng Yao knew he hadn’t heard anything he said after the word brother.
“Wei Ying is - was - not my fucking brother,” Jiang Cheng tried to growl, but it broke on the end. His eyes looked suspiciously shiny, and Meng Yao felt very tired.
“Do you really want Jin Ling to hate him?” Meng Yao asked, eyes dropping from the other man’s face. “He’s already dead.”
“Jin Ling should hate him,” Jiang Cheng said, and someone less familiar with him might have thought he meant it. “He killed his mother.”
Jiang Cheng’s voice was wet, smaller than it had been, all the bluster draining from him. Meng Yao kept his eyes away, looking towards the peonies in his garden. He gave the man time to compose himself. It was summer, the day was warm, but when the wind blew it felt cold. The sky was overcast, and Meng Yao wondered if it was going to rain.
“Have you considered going to therapy?” He asked. He went to therapy, once a month. He had gone even before the accident, but had started going twice a week in the months following. He wondered if he would have been as angry as Jiang Cheng if he hadn’t gone, but then, again, he had never really been angry. It had been an accident, after all.
He eventually turned back towards Jiang Cheng. He hadn’t really been expecting a response, but the way he furrowed his brows and glared at Meng Yao’s porch told him that he was taking the suggestion more seriously than he had assumed. Jiang Cheng's eyes darted back up, and he just looked tired.
“How is your boyfriend?” He asked, his nose wrinkling.
“You can’t hate the Lans just because of Lan Zhan,” Meng Yao said, and Jiang Cheng sneered at the name. Lan Zhan had been Wei Ying’s - something. They had danced around each other since they were teenagers, from what Lan Huan had told him, but no one knew if they had actually become more than just friends before Wei Ying’s death. Lan Zhan had never forgiven Jiang Cheng for blaming Wei Ying, and Jiang Cheng had never forgiven him for reminding him of Wei Ying.
“Watch me,” Jiang Cheng muttered petulantly. Meng Yao rolled his eyes.
“Lan Huan is just fine, Jin Ling likes him,” He said, and then lowered his voice. “Likes Lan Sizhui, too.”
“You let them meet?” Jiang Cheng asked, his fists clenching at his side, genuine anger surging back in his eyes. Meng Yao folded his arms together and flattened his expression.
“Just once. We didn't tell them that they were related, and they didn’t remember,” Meng Yao said, and Jiang Cheng’s jaw clenched.
“They’re not related.” He said the words like they were something bitter.
“He was Wei Ying’s son,” He said. Wei Ying’s once, Lan Zhan’s now. Lan Huan had to watch him last minute, and Meng Yao hadn’t thought to keep Jin Ling away from him. “He was Jin Ling’s cousin, that shouldn’t change.”
Jiang Cheng opened his mouth, probably to shout again, but the words suddenly died in his throat, his eyes fixed behind Meng Yao. He turned, and found Jin Ling standing in the doorway, his expression small.
“Bobo? Jiujiu?” He asked, in the way only a small child could. Meng Yao immediately dropped to his knees and offered his arms out, feeling a surge of love when Jin Ling immediately ran into them. He held the small child tightly, letting this simple affection calm the small storm that had built over the last few minutes.
“Why are you fighting?” Jin Ling asked, and Meng Yao could hear the small is it me?
“We’re not fighting, Baobei,” Meng Yao assured him, pulling away and smoothing the hair on the side of Jin Ling’s face. He smiled at him, hoping to reassure him. He could hear Jiang Cheng scrap his boot against the porch.
“We’re fine, Jin Ling,” He said, low. Meng Yao could still hear the pinpricks of anger and pain underneath the enforced placidity, but he appreciated Jiang Cheng at least trying. Jin Ling still looked uncertain, so Meng Yao leaned forward and kissed his forehead. This distracted the boy enough, squawking at Meng Yao’s audacity to show him affection.
“Are you ready to go?” Jiang Cheng asked, his voice returning to his usual bluster. Meng Yao shot him a look over his shoulder. The darkness seemed to have faded, his fondness for Jin Ling taking its place.
“I finished breakfast!” Jin Ling said proudly, putting his hands on his hip, and Meng Yao wanted to squish him. He had never been much of a kid person, but Jin Ling was too adorable to not love. He stood up, taking Jin Ling’s hand and opening the door.
“Let’s go brush your teeth while Jiujiu packs the car, ok?” He asked, and Jin Ling nodded happily. It didn’t seem like he had overheard any of their argument, had probably just felt the tension in the air. We need to do better, he thought, as Jin Ling started telling him about what he was excited to see back in Yunmeng as they walked to the bathroom.
Jin Ling barely stopped talking to brush his teeth, taking his tooth brush out of his mouth every few seconds to add to his last thought, Meng Yao nodding gamely as he wiped the spit and toothpaste foam that bubbled over onto his chin. These were some of his favorite moments, where Jin Ling was just such a kid, so uncaring of things like getting toothpaste on his shirt or stopping long enough to brush his teeth, making everything take three times as long.
Jiang Cheng was waiting for them when they left the bathroom, Jin Ling’s face freshly washed so it wouldn’t get sticky later. His eyes softened again when he saw Jin Ling, and when he bent over with his arms out, Jin Ling ran into them easily. He straightened back up, the boy apparently delighted to be carried by his uncle.
“You never let me carry you!” Meng Yao couldn’t help but blurt out. Jiang Cheng smirked and Jin Ling laid his head on his uncle’s shoulder.
“Jiujiu is taller!” Jin Ling shouted, and Jiang Cheng nodded sagely.
“He likes to be tall,” He said, and Jin Ling nodded. Meng Yao pouted.
“That’s unfair,” He muttered, and Jiang Cheng shrugged. Then he adjusted Jin Ling’s weight on his hip and turned towards him, his expression the softest Meng Yao had ever seen it.
“Ready to go, kiddo?” He asked, and Jin Ling nodded. Before Jiang Cheng could turn to leave though, he reached out for Meng Yao. He readily took the child in his arms, and Jin Ling wrapped his arms around him in a hug. He squeezed back, hard.
“I’ll miss you,” Meng Yao muttered, and Jin Ling wiggled.
“I’ll miss you, Bobo,” He said, and then he pressed a clumsy kiss to Meng Yao’s cheek, which made a grin sprout across his face. “I love you.”
“Love you too, Baobei,” he said, and then he put Jin Ling on the ground. Jin Ling grabbed Jiang Cheng’s hand, and they turned to leave. Meng Yao followed behind him, his chest tightening painfully.
"Consider what I said," He said, before Jiang Cheng stepped off the porch. He looked back at Meng Yao, giving him a long assessing look.
"I will," he said eventually, before turning away. Meng Yao took a step towards him, words on his lips but nothing spilling forward.
“Make sure he calls me, Jiang Cheng!” He managed, and Jiang Cheng held a hand out in acknowledgement. Meng Yao watched as he buckled Jin Ling into his car seat, the boy brightening when he saw Lil’ Fairy’s carrier beside him. He stuck his fingers through the bars and the puppy raised her head and licked at them. Jin Ling’s giggle carried to the porch, and Meng Yao’s heart melted.
The house was a little too empty when he went back inside and cleared the dining table, like it always was when Jin Ling was gone. He was already counting down the days until he returned. Not because he thought Jin Ling wouldn’t have a good time in Yunmeng, but because he already missed him.
He had never really pictured himself as a parent, but he loved that he was one so dearly.