Jiang Cheng wondered if it was common for a series of firsts to be so difficult and painful for a small child. Jin Ling was just getting comfortable with his routine around the apartment and now it was time for his first day of school.
Fairy sat at his feet, staring up and panting innocently.
Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow as if to ask Well?
Fairy laid down.
“A-Ling, you’re going to miss breakfast! There’s doujiang and youtiao just like you wanted!”
Fairy and Jiang Cheng both perked up.
Nie Huaisang. That’s right. He had promised to make a special breakfast for Jin Ling’s first day.
“And rice congee?” A small voice called out.
“Only if you hurry up.”
Jin Ling darted down the hallway from out of the bathroom closet. His face looked red and tired in the brief second that his uncle beheld it. Then he was out of sight and in the kitchen.
Jiang Cheng had gotten Nie Huaisang and Jin Ling around the same time although that wasn't really the right word for it.
Huaisang had needed a new place to stay since he had decided to take up danmei in addition to being a starving artist with a trust fund in a marginally successful band. It had been too much for his brother to take. His sister had entrusted Jiang Cheng with his nephew if anything should happen… And things had happened.
The events had seemed extremely irritating when they'd occurred. Yes, he cared deeply for his friend, but he didn’t want to live with him. Yes, he loved his nephew but he didn’t want to be a parent.
Now he wasn’t sure how to handle Jin Ling without Huaisang and he didn’t want to go back to living alone. He liked having Jin Ling there.
“What am I going to do if he moves out?” Jiang Cheng asked Fairy.
Fairy huffed and got up, stretching slowly before trotting off to find Jin Ling. He wasn’t going to be very happy about school either.
Shuffling into the kitchen, Jiang Cheng was pleased to find a place for him at the small island table.
Jin Ling’s legs were swinging back and forth as Huaisang showed him his lunchbox and backpack. He’d wanted everything to be Fairy-themed which hadn’t been possible at the store. But apparently it hadn’t taken Huaisang very long to turn Jin Ling’s dream into a reality.
“It looks just like Fairy!”
“When you miss Fairy, you can look at these paintings. I wasn’t sure your uncle would want to be depicted on a lunchbox just yet. So you’ll have to imagine him.”
“I can remember what uncle looks like,” Jin Ling said, rolling his eyes. All the same, he hugged the lunchbox and backpack to his chest “This is great! Once the teachers see how cute Fairy is, they’ll let him come to school!”
“I think we can all walk you to school today, but Fairy wouldn’t do very well in your school. He’d get bad grades and feel like a bad dog all of the time.”
Jin Ling made a face. “Can we go to dog school instead?”
“You can eat your breakfast,” Jiang Cheng said, contributing what he could to the conversation. “Huaisang’s worked hard.”
“Oh, not… not really,” Huaisang replied with a smile. “I’m glad to help. School is a big deal and.. um… a lot of fun. Learning is the best.”
If Jiang Cheng recalled correctly, Huaisang had slept through most of their classes together in college. That he’d gotten good grades and passed each one was a mystery he’d had yet to solve.
Still, if he wanted to be a good role model now, Jiang Cheng wasn’t going to tell Jin Ling about that. Not yet anyway.
Jin Ling gave a small bow to Huaisang and muttered some sort of thanks before digging into his food.
“You can’t practice until I come home,” Jin Ling mumbled as he began to inhale his food. “Wen Ning said he’d teach me how to play the drums.”
“The band has to practice all day today. We’ve got that gig coming up.”
Jin Ling looked concerned. More concerned than a five year old was meant to look. For a minute, he had the stern countenance as his grandmother. “Is it a real one?”
Jiang Cheng sighed inwardly. “They’re all real ones, A-Ling.”
“But a really good one… That pays. Like a real job.”
“Your job right now is to eat breakfast,” Huaisang scolded. “Your job after that is to go to school. Jiang Cheng’s job is to worry and he does enough of it for all of us.”
Jiang Cheng gloomily ate his breakfast. It wasn’t really what Jin Ling thought so much as what Jin Guangyao or Lan Xichen or Nie Mingjue thought. They didn’t stand there telling the kid such things but they doubtlessly talked about it. Lan Xichen less than the others. He seemed more concerned with his brother being happy than gossiping like a pack of old biddies.
It would serve them right if they never got to be around the boy again, but that would only punish Jin Ling who was fond of Jin Guangyao. Someone had to be.
“I like our jobs,” Huaisang said when Jin Ling dashed off to find his socks and shoes.
“Real or imagined?”
“Both, but especially the pretend ones. I did well with my novels this month.”
“I think maybe you could pay less--”
“Don’t be ridiculous. You hardly let me pay for anything besides rent and groceries. Meanwhile the three of us are like a real family. That’s what Jin Ling needs. Even if he thinks a real gig is all that matters in life. Which is entirely Wei Ying’s doing so stop blaming Jin Guangyao.”
Jiang Cheng colored slightly, sipping his tea.
They were like a real family. Jiang Cheng still felt guilty making Huaisang pay anything to put up with him and Jin Ling, but it was true. And Huaisang wasn’t much of a liar. Maybe he really didn’t feel like he was putting up with anything.
But lately the idea of three going back to two was troubling him. He didn’t want to lose Huaisang… He just didn’t know if he wanted to say how important Huaisang was to him. Not when all of his important people seemed to...
“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng murmured after a moment of silence. “For staying. For being here.”
Huaisang considered him carefully and then gave Jiang Cheng a gentle hug. “You’re getting soft in your old age.”
“Having a dog and a kid do that to you.”
“I like it.”
Jin Ling demanded to be carried all the way to school. Jiang Cheng decided not to argue against it and didn’t comment on the wet, sticky tears pressed against his shirt collar. They had been spending so much time together that he hadn’t really considered how hard being apart might be.
Fairy pranced along, thrilled to be out and about so early with his people. Huaisang patted his head as he told him to sit.
Huaisang patted Jin Ling’s head too, ruffling his hair. “We can come pick you up, okay?”
Jin Ling whimpered, clutching at his backpack and his uncle. “I don’t want to go.”
“I bet it’ll be a good day and you’ll be home soon,” Jiang Cheng promised. Jin Ling looked up, sniffling. A stray tear trickled down his cheek. Perhaps more incentives were needed. He had a feeling Huaisang would have bribed the kid with mochi or ice cream. But Jiang Cheng wanted to be a bit more practical. “At least for today I won’t practice without you.”
Jin Ling sniffed again. “I’ll walk in then,” he decided. Once he was set down he clung to Jiang Cheng’s hand. But, with a familiar and stubborn expression, he tugged his uncle into the building.
The classroom was bright and colorful. Full of shapes and words and colors and animals. Their teacher was an older woman who seemed amused by Jiang Cheng and enamored by his nephew.
She patiently explained when school would end before giving Jiang Cheng a calendar, a schedule, and some forms that would need to be brought back at the end of the day.
Jin Ling gave his uncle a tearful hug before joining the other children who were playing with a pile of soft bright dress up clothes and toys. Other families were still trickling in, but they’d showed up on time.
With more backward glances than he would ever admit, Jiang Cheng made his way back outside to Huaisang and Fairy.
“I think so. I didn’t realize I’d get homework too.”
Huaisang grinned. “The joys of being a good uncle.”
“Thanks for doing this, by the way. I know you usually sleep in.”
“Don’t compliment me too highly. You’ll make me feel bad when I go back to bed.”
“It’s just… You know…”
“I do,” Huaisang agreed rather solemnly. They walked along for a bit at a brisk pace. Fairy continued to be thrilled about his early morning walk even if he whimpered at bit at the idea of leaving Jin Ling behind. “It makes me appreciate Mingjue more. Almost enough to tell him so, but I won’t tell him just yet.”
Jiang Cheng smiled. “I’m sure I have more help than he did.”
“Selfishly, I’d like to avoid the apartment burning down. You can’t even manage a bag of popcorn."
“Well, yes, but what I mean is… I’m not sure how I’d do this without you.”
Huaisang tilted his head slightly. “Am I going somewhere?”
“I suppose not…”
Huaisang moved Fairy’s leash to another hand so he could take one of Jiang Cheng’s. His fingers were warm despite the fall chill. “You’re stuck with me, A-Cheng. Because I want to be with you. You’re not a burden and neither is Jin Ling.”
Jiang Cheng considered this in anxious silence as they finished the trip home. Stuck how? As a roommate? As more? He couldn’t help feeling that they’d done so much backwards. Here they were taking a child to school and holding hands but they’d never really acknowledged what lay between them. Not exactly.
Huaisang cleared his throat as they headed inside and to the elevator.
Jiang Cheng looked at him. Oh. “You’re not a burden either.”
“Were you weighing the pros and cons?” Huaisang asked as they entered their apartment.
Jiang Cheng knelt down to take the leash off Fairy. As he rose, he decided it was high time he took some of those steps they seemed to have glossed over. “No, I was… I was thinking… We should go out together. I’ve never felt stuck with you but I don’t think I’ve given you enough to express how much…” He hesitated, looking down for a minute before meeting Huaisang’s optimistic gaze. “How much you matter. I care about you.”
Huaisang colored slightly, still looking very pleased. Jiang Cheng felt some of the tightness in his chest loosen. “Out like on a date?”
Jiang Cheng nodded.
Huaisang beamed and pulled Jiang Cheng into a hug. “Finally! I was beginning to think we’d end up married before you asked for anything.”
Jiang Cheng turned beet red as Huaisang fussed over him. “It’s your fault for knowing me so well. I hardly need to say anything at all.”
“Perhaps. But in that case it’s also your fault for thinking I’m going to run away when I realize I already know you.”
Jiang Cheng sighed. “Well. I come with a kid and a dog and a really annoying brother.”
“When we met, you didn’t have most of those things. I’ve liked you since then and I like you now.”
“But it should be a really good date.”
Jiang Cheng work consisted of remote tech support and he set his own hours so he spent most of the day handing one cranky customer after another. He found himself staring at the clock as he waited until it was time to pick up his nephew.
After a few more hours of sleep, Huaisang wandered out in a robe to make them both lunch. He filled up a giant mug with coffee before disappearing into his room. He was at the point in his novel writing where he actually had deadlines.
Fairy wandered from room to room, confused and then agitated and then bored. He carried around his favorite stuffed toy that was shaped like a sword and made sad eyes. Eventually he curled up in his dog bed to brood. Being a dog, he managed this for about half a second before falling asleep.
Jin Ling was all hugs and smiles as he ran out of his classroom. He made a beeline for Fairy and clung to him for several minutes before even glancing at anyone else.
“Sooo many kids cried!” he announced with a little too much pride and far too much volume. Jiang Cheng nodded an apology to the parents who glanced in their direction. “But I didn’t. I didn’t cry all day. And I got to help the teacher. I got a prize for listening!”
For all his bravery, Jin Ling still demanded to be carried home. He wolfed down the remnants of his lunch as the adults walked. He’d been too busy making friends to eat more than half of it.
“Tomorrow is art,” he whispered to Huaisang clearly under the impression that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t care about such things.
“Will you make something for me or for your uncle?”
Jin Ling made a face. He didn’t like being asked to choose between people all that much. “Maybe it’ll be for the kitchen.”
They stopped at the dog park so that Jin Ling got to chase Fairy around and play fetch for a bit. Then they dropped off his belongings and headed off to practice.
As usual, Wei Ying hadn’t bothered to show up yet. Wen Ning was there, tidying up their studio space. Generally they kept it clean, but Wei Wuxian had a way of trashing the place or at least leaving piles of clothes or food behind. It was sort of his signature move, but it always looked less like a person had made a mess and more like rabid raccoons had built a nest in the middle of their studio.
The studio wasn’t large by any means but it fit their equipment, two couches, a small kitchen area, and a small side room. They’d recently installed sound-proofing… Which could mean some other things as far as his brother was concerned. Jiang Cheng made a point not to think too hard about such things.
Unsurprisingly, Lan Yuan was there as well. He was sweeping the floor. Nearby was his backpack and a pale blue workbook open to pages of completed math problems. He had just started first grade or was it second? It was hard to keep track of all Lan children.
Really, he should have done a better job keeping track of Lan Yuan seeing as the boy was also sort of his nephew. Jiang Cheng settled for a wave as Jin Ling ran over to help with the dustpan.
“Wen Ning, you should leave this to the rest of us,” Huaisang scolded lightly.
“We work best without these distractions though. Hello, Jin Ling,” Wen Ning said cheerfully. He finished up with the last of the trash scattered about the room.
The boys offered to take the bag out to the dumpster behind the building. They struggled at first but managed with the sot of excitement that only children could muster up for such a mundane chore.
Jiang Cheng followed them just to make sure everything went well, but he was careful not to be detected.
Fifteen minutes later, Wei Wuxian sauntered in dressed like he was on his way to a goth concert. He was followed by Lan Wangji who was still dressed as if he was on his way to a business meeting.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Wei Wuxian said, directing the words to Jiang Cheng. “You changed the time and things come up.”
Wen Ning cleared his throat. When he spoke it was without pause and staring at the floor ahead of him. “Wen Qing gets off her shift around 8. I wanted to surprise her with dinner which I need to go home and make so… let’s get started?”
Huaisang patted Wen Ning’s shoulder. “Let’s.”
Jiang Cheng decided not to argue. Or point out that all of them would need dinner and the children would need proper bedtimes.
Jin Ling’s interest lasted for half a minute. Then the boys worked on coloring in pictures of dinosaurs while Lan Wangji looked over Lan Yuan’s homework.
They practiced their older numbers and some of the newer songs that Huaisang and Wen Ning had worked on. The set list for Saturday seemed perfect.
“Hey, Huaisang… Why are they all love ballads?” Wei Wuxian asked when they took a short break.
“They’re not all love ballads.”
Wei Wuxian grinned. He took a swig from his water bottle and shook his head. “Lately they are. And I know that’s not Wen Ning’s idea.”
“Love is important and people like love songs.”
Wei Wuxian looked over at Jiang Cheng then back at his friend. “I just think you might want to try a new strategy.”
Jiang Cheng frowned, confused by the notion that any of the songs had been for or about him. They were maybe a little softer in terms of lyrics but they still suited the band. He’d liked them quite a bit.
Even with that matter left unresolved, he also felt himself feeling protective of Nie Husaiang. If those songs were about real feelings that were being ignored, something needed to change. And it had.
“He doesn’t have to because I asked him out,” he found himself saying. Jiang Cheng instantly regretted admitting as much. Not just to Wei Wuxian but to everyone present.
The boys were oblivious, but even Lan Wangji looked up from the blue book in his hands to blink twice.
Wen Ning simply beamed in Huaisang’s direction. He’d likely known about the whole situation. He was the quiet, kind sort of person that most people would find it easy to confide in.
Jiang Cheng turned red in the silence, only growing redder when Huaisang slipped his hand into his. He stared at his brother waiting for him to laugh or do something to sour the mood.
Strangely, none of that came to pass. Wei Wuxian rocked back on his heels, looking more pleased than he had any right to. “It’s about dam—”
Lan Wangji cleared his throat, glancing meaningfully towards the children.
Jiang Cheng decided not to point out that Wei Wuxian had basically said the word already and neither of the boys had melted.
“It’s about time,” Wei Wuxian exclaimed. “Pick a very nice place. Something we can tell the kids about when they’re old enough to care.” He leaned in, patting Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Because I’m pretty sure Jin Ling thinks you’re married already. You sort of are.”
“You of all people have no room to judge.”
“Oh cheer up,” Wei Wuxian said with a laugh. “I’m not judging you. I’m happy for you. And pleased to see how much we have in common.” Jiang Cheng ducked his head as Wei Wuxian patted his shoulder again. “Be happy for yourself and don’t worry about what I think, okay?”
“Really does think you’re married and cares for Huaisang. Sister would be so relieved to see that her son is so well cared for. You know that.”
It felt good to hear it though. Jiang Cheng nodded, feeling relieved himself.
“The best news is he already likes you so you can be yourself,” Wei Wuxian continued with a smirk. He nudged Jiang Cheng’s shoulder playfully until Jiang Cheng scowled. “And if you need suggestions for good restaurants, Wen Ning can help.”
Nie Mingjue was waiting outside for them, leaning against Jiang Cheng’s car. He looked rather imposing standing there even as he clearly was making an effort to appear casual. He was smoking too but he tossed the cigarette to the ground when Jin Ling moved in his direction.
Huaisang bit his lip, looking nervous. “Da ge?”
Jiang Cheng stood next to him, quiet but ready to interrupt if it was needed.
“Can we talk and then I’ll take you home? Or drop you off nearby. I still don’t know where you live, A-Sang.”
“We could all stay for a talk,” Jiang Cheng offered.
“Jin Ling has school tomorrow,” Huaisang murmured.
“Huaisang, it’s nothing… It’s nothing bad, I promise you,” Mingjue said gently. He looked a bit awkward as he rubbed the back of his neck. The effort to make peace was his own but most likely he’d been helped along the way by Lan Xichen and Jin Guangyao. “I’ve missed you and… I’m sorry.”
“No, you didn’t do anything,” Mingjue firmly insisted. “I’m sorry because…” He trailed off, frowning at his audience. Clearly he was hoping for a smaller crowd. “Well, let’s go talk, okay?”
Huaisang breathed out a small sigh. “All right.” He hugged Jiang Cheng and then Jin Ling, smiling reassuringly. “I’ll be home soon then. Don’t worry, I’ll make Mingjue visit us later on.”
“Can’t Uncle visit us now?” Jin Ling asked. “He hasn’t met Fairy.”
Uncle? Jiang Cheng frowned, confused by this development.
“Not if you have school tomorrow,” Mingjue explained.
“It’s just the second day,” Jin Ling pointed out, clearly disappointed. Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure why seeing as Jin Ling hardly knew Mingjue.
“Second days are important too.”
Jin Ling puffed out his chest and said: “I didn’t cry at all my first day!”
Mingjue nodded respectfully. “That’s very good. Still, allow yourself to be sad and trust the teacher to help. Sometimes it isn’t possible to avoid becoming sad or distressed.”
“Were you sad at school?”
“No, but Huaisang had a difficult--”
Huaisang gasped and grabbed his brother’s arm. “No, Huaisang did not. And we’re going but I’ll see you both at home.”
Jiang Cheng watched them go with a mixture of amusement and concern. He was glad to see their rift might ultimately be mended, but he was going to harbor quite a grudge if Huaisang was stolen away from him. They still had a date to go on and a child and a dog and a future together. Maybe. Possibly. If he trusted his own instincts and Wei Ying’s opinions, anyway.
Jiang Cheng was careful not to let this absence or their possible conversation topics preoccupy him as he prepared dinner. Or as they walked Fairy one last time. Or as he helped Jin Ling get ready for bed.
Once he was alone in his room, however, Jiang Cheng was quite preoccupied. He stared at the clock on his bedside table and then up at the ceiling imagining all sorts of scenarios. His phone stayed silent, of course. No texts or calls. All the same, he came up with a few false emergencies in case Huaisang needed help extricating himself from the situation.
Eventually he heard the front door open and shortly after that he heard a light knock on his bedroom door.
Jiang Cheng got up to answer it, blinking as he was handed a steaming mug of tea.
“It was a good conversation,” Nie Huaisang said quietly. He looked calm and content over all.
Still, Jiang Cheng searched his eyes for guilt or a trace of anxiety, but not message of impending doom seemed to be forthcoming. “Um. Should we go sit in--”
“Your room will work. If you don’t mind.”
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat, moving out of the doorway. “Come on in then.”
Huaisang smiled. He entered, sitting down on the end of Jiang Cheng’s bed and smoothing out his purple comforter.
“Did you get dinner?” Jiang Cheng asked, sitting down beside him.
Huaisang nodded. “It was fancy. I brought half of it home.”
“He listened to you?”
“Yes. I told him what I’ve been up to, although he knew quite a bit already. Lan Xichen and Wangji tell each other everything. And Jin Guangyao isn’t much of a stranger either. He doesn’t quite understand all of it, but he wasn’t unhappy with me. It was… Good. I hope he hasn’t been brainwashed.”
Jiang Cheng frowned even as Huaisang grinned. “So he meant it then. He’s done making you feel bad?”
“It seems so. I… I think initially Mingjue assumed I’d back down, you know? I don’t like fighting with him. Or disappointing him. Instead I would let him be right. Let him believe he knew what was best for me.”
Huaisang sipped his tea delicately. “But that’s not fair to me. It’s not even fair to him. So I’m glad things have changed, I’m proud that I had to make more choices for myself, and I’m lucky that I ended up here. I have you and Jin Ling.” He paused to have more tea. “And Fairy but that’s mostly because he wants to eat my leftovers.”
Jiang Cheng sipped his tea, hesitating for a moment. Then he decided that if he wanted more than just one date to be teased about, he needed to be honest. “I think you should stay with us.”
“Oh.” Huaisang chuckled quietly. He looked a bit shy but pleased. “That’s good. I think I should too.”
Jiang Cheng breathed out a sigh of relief. He sipped his tea, wincing at the hot temperature. He blew gently over his mug.
“He’d like to talk to you soon. If you wouldn’t mind.”
Jiang Cheng blinked. “Who would?”
“Mingjue? My brother?” As if somehow Jiang Cheng had forgotten who he was, but then again Jiang Cheng had started them off on this series of foolish questions. “Um. About your intentions?” To his credit, Huaisang turned a faint pink as he delivered this strange news.
“He’s getting nosy in his old age.”
“Is he? Or is one of the other old biddies trying to pry into our business?”
Huaisang giggled, looking sheepish. “Can't it be both?”
“It’s probably both,” Jiang Cheng groused.
“You don’t have to do it if it would make you uncomfortable. I didn’t tell him too much because I didn’t want it to ruin anything.”
“You couldn’t ruin this,” Jiang Cheng promised in a stern tone. “Never mind me and my ridiculous need for privacy, A-Sang. You are welcome to tell your brother anything you’d like whenever you would like.”
“Truly and I’ll talk to your ancient chaperone but… Let’s figure out my intentions together before I do that,” Jiang Cheng offered, cheered slightly by Huaisang’s fond chuckling. He wanted their expectations and hopes to be clear and approved of by Huaisang long before he had to awkwardly share a summary with his older brother. “What we have is between you and me, after all.”
Huaisang gently took Jiang Cheng’s free hand in his. “Thank you for always understanding.”
Jiang Cheng felt a bit confused by Huaisang’s gratitude. Nie Huaisang had never seemed particularly hard to understand before or after learning of his hidden depths. They’d been friends for a long time now. Besides, he’d felt a desire to become closer ever since Huaisang had moved in. You couldn’t make progress with someone if you wouldn’t make the effort to get to know them. Or make them happy.
Then again, Jiang Cheng wasn’t extremely altruistic. Nor was he a bright ray of sunshine. No, he was what could kindly be termed as a hopeless case. He had always fared poorly with the few dating suggestions Wei Wuxian had made. He had actually been sent emails blacklisting him from several dating sites and applications. A situation that just about everyone still felt was hilarious including the usually reserved Wen Ning. The only one who had been at all sympathetic had been Huaisang).
If he was honest, Jiang Cheng had stopped making efforts after his sister… After what had happened. Now he was miserly with his support. He guarded Jin Ling like a hawk and felt increasingly more and more possessive of his oldest friend.
“Thank you for supporting me,” he said, realizing it had been awhile since he’d spoken. During that time, Huaisang had finished his tea and lit some incense. The room was starting to smell like lavender and jasmine.
Huaisang sat back down beside him and kissed Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “Get some rest. School starts early for all of us.”
Jiang Cheng nodded, biting back a yawn. “What’s for breakfast?”
Huaisang made a scolding sound and tapped Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Whatever you make for yourself. But this weekend there can be pancakes if everyone behaves.”
Jiang Cheng set his mug of tea down and brushed a finger over Huaisang’s cheek. “We’ll have our date on Friday. So it doesn’t interfere with the gig.”
Huaisang nodded. “One of many such outings, I hope.”
“Without a doubt.” Jiang Cheng pulled Huaisang closer and smiled. He kissed his lips gently, relishing the way Huaisang was fondly regarding him once it ended. “Good night.”
Huaisang moved closer and into a warm embrace. They stayed that way until the incense burned out.
Then Huaisang got up from the bed with a bright, dazzling smile. He shut off the light and turned around as he opened the door. In the darkness, Jiang Cheng couldn’t see his expression but Huaisang’s tone made it easy to tell he was pleased and content. “Good night, Jiang Wanyin.”
The next morning, Jiang Cheng was on his second cup of coffee before he noticed Jin Ling. His nephew seemed despondent and sad with Fairy drooping down at his ankle. He seemed to be doing his best not to cry into his cereal.
“Is everything all right?” Jiang Cheng asked gently.
Jin Ling wiped at his face. “It’s just I didn’t…” He lowered his voice, looking ashamed. “I didn’t think I’d have to go again. I had a dream that school was cancelled… And it’s not.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Does school have to happen every day?”
“Monday through Friday, A-Ling.”
Jin Ling bit his lip. “Forever?”
“For quite awhile but it’s a good thing. Every year will be a little bit different though, and you won’t always go to the same school. When you’re older, you can go to the Cloud Recesses.”
Jin Ling gasped. “...Is it recess all day there?”
Jiang Cheng rubbed his neck. “No, but it’s an excellent academy. We’ve discussed it, remember? Wei Ying and your mother and your father and I went there.”
Huaisang cleared his throat, setting down Jin Ling’s lunchbox on the counter. “So did I,” he said, looking amused when Jiang Cheng turned apologetic. He focused his attention on the boy though. “That’s where I learned so much about art.”
Huaisang nodded. “You learn many, many things at school. And there will be days off and breaks. We should plan an exciting vacation. Something to look forward to.”
“Oh, well, you don’t need to go on vacation for that,” Huaisang said with a chuckle. “We could go there on a weekend. If you’re really good on Friday and Saturday, I would happily take you on Sunday.”
“Would you go, Uncle?”
Jiang Cheng sipped his coffee. “Yes,” he said placidly. “But you have to be very considerate on Friday. And you still have to go to bed at a decent hour on Saturday.”
Jin Ling became suspicious and made a face. “Is Uncle Wuxian watching me on Friday?”
Jiang Cheng nodded solemnly.
Jin Ling groaned. “With Wangji?”
Jiang Cheng nodded again.
Jin Ling groaned again and the sound was merciless in its disappointment. Jiang Cheng sincerely hoped Jin Ling rarely felt this way about him.“But… But they can’t cook and they pick the worst movies! It’s either scary stuff or nature stuff and I never get to choose. And Wangji makes me brush my teeth after dinner and before bed.”
“I can make dinner for everyone earlier that day,” Huaisang offered. “And I will have a word with your uncle about what you’re watching. No scary stuff.”
“No nature stuff.”
“What would you like to watch?”
“Dinosaurs and sharks and dogs.”
“Noted,” Huaisang promised.
“What about the teeth brushing?”
Huaisang sighed, looking sad. “An unfortunate fact of life. My brother did the same thing to me. And Lan Wangji is a very determined sort of person. Between you and me, Lan Wangji scares me when he’s cross.”
Jin Ling patted Huaisang’s arm in sympathy.
“We’ll ask them to bring A-Yuan and Jingyi for a fun sleepover. That’ll make things better.”
Jin Ling’s face lit up and he gave Huaisang a hug. “You have to live here for always. Uncle Mingjue gave you up so he can’t have you back. Finders keepers.”
“I agree. I have no idea what we’d do without Huaisang,” Jiang Cheng said as he started to get Jin Ling’s school supplies together.
Jin Ling looked between the two adults so hopefully that Fairy started to do the same. The dog paced back and forth, less interested in the conversation and more curious about the possibility of snacks. “Marry Uncle and then we won’t find out.”
Jiang Cheng coughed loudly as if something was trapped in his throat and choking him to death. Fairy went over to him and whimpered until Jiang Cheng patted his head a few times.
Huaisang laughed. “First things first, Jin Ling. We’re having dinner on Friday, but I promise to not move out any time soon.”
Jiang Cheng shook his head to try and clear it as he took in the scene in front of him. He decided he mostly felt relieved that this was something Jin Ling accepted-- maybe even wanted in his life. He took a moment to be silently grateful for the pair of them and then looked down as something wet and cold pressed against his hand.
Fairy wiggled gleefully beside him. He was panting lightly and looking thrilled just to be there. Fairy was like Jin Ling in that way. He was happy most often than not. Eager to be loved and accepted.
He wouldn’t make a fuss about how sweet the moment between Huaisang and Jin Ling was. He wouldn’t take a discrete picture of it with his phone although he planned on kissing Huaisang at some point when Jin Ling wasn’t looking. No, Jiang Cheng would try to learn something from his nephew and his dog. He’d be happy with getting what he wanted.
So Jiang Cheng patted Fairy’s head again before giving him far too many treats. Everyone deserved to feel appreciated, after all, dogs included.
Wei Wuxian had been remarkably irritating with knowing looks and muttered remarks so Jiang Cheng quickly made his exit. He lingered long enough to kiss Jin Ling’s forehead before dashing out the door.
On the way to the restaurant, he found himself feeling at ease. With other dates - what few he’d managed to have - he would worry about what to expect. Half of the time the person wouldn’t show up or cancelled just as he entered the building. Otherwise it was an awkward affair with him becoming crosser by the moment as every one of his well-meaning questions was treated like a torturous interrogation.
With Huaisang, he already had a decent idea of where he stood. They felt comfortable around each other. Huaisang made him feel better not worse. Huaisang listened and understood what he was trying to do even when Jiang Cheng didn’t succeed.
Most importantly, Huisang was waiting for him at the entrance with a warm smile. They embraced before going into check on their reservation.
Jiang Cheng quickly discovered that the downside to a candlelit dinner was the fact that everything was lit by candles. It was hard to make out Nie Huaisang’s exact expression as they ate together. He would have liked more lighting even if it diminished the mood.
Still, the meal went well enough.
“I felt nervous on the way here,” Huaisang admitted with a smile. “Which was strange. You don’t usually make me nervous.”
“No. Sometimes I wish I could cheer you up when you seem overly contemplative, but you don’t trouble me. Or worry me.”
“You do cheer me up. You make me feel like the way I am is...acceptable.”
Huaisang reached out to set his hand on Jiang Cheng. “I hope you don’t feel as if I only tolerate you. Because I care about you a great deal. I like you as you are.”
“I’m not sure how I--”
“I’m sure you can manage to do anything. You have always been dedicated to the tasks set in front of you. You’re a dedicated uncle, but it’s also clear that you love Jin Ling. With or without me, you would provide him with a good home. And look at how he is around you. He adores you.”
“To me it feels like my apartment is only a home because both of you are there. Because I adore both of you.”
Huaisang ducked his head slightly, looking pleased. When they finished their meal, he moved over sliding into the booth next to Jiang Cheng.
“This way it’ll be easier to share dessert,” he said. Then he regarded Jiang Cheng expectantly. “So. Your intentions.”
“To keep my home. To be happy. To make you happy. To admit that I want to build a life with you. To stop waiting for things to happen and make them happen. I know how I feel about you.”
Huaisang kissed Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “I think our intentions are identical. I’d say there is no rush, but I think we’ve already been fairly slow. And yet hasty in other respects. Poor Jin Ling would be so confused if we didn’t work out… However, I think we already have.”
“Hm. What if your brother hates me?”
Huaisang laughed. “Mingjue would need more of a motivation than petty concerns. If he hates someone, he really hates them. I don’t think you could build up a proper grudge during whatever conversation you have with him.”
“You’re not concerned that this won’t work out?”
Huaisang shook his head. “No, because I know you are. Don’t worry, Jiang Cheng, I adore you too.”
They spent the rest of the night wandering around an art museum with Huaisang happily chatting away and Jiang Cheng listening.
Huaisang was right. He did worry and he expected that the path forward would consist of smooth travel intermingled with bumpy roads. They had an understanding that could help them through it.
He disliked the idea of too much turmoil between them. Truthfully, he resented the arrival of strife to any degree. It reminded him too much of his parents, but Huaisang was nothing like his mother. Huaisang could look after himself but he wasn’t one for prolonged arguments. He’d always tried to solve them when they were children. Besides, no couple seemed to be without their differences and ways of coming together in spite of them.
And really if Wei Wuxian could have Lan Wangji and an adopted son, Jiang Cheng could have the same.
“Do you think the children are asleep yet?” Huaisang asked.
Jiang Cheng snorted. “I’m sure they are. Wangji is a stickler for rules. Everyone is behaving. And their teeth have been brushed and flossed multiple times.”
“Then I guess we all get pancakes tomorrow.”
“What if we kicked them out first?”
“That is not the way a good host behaves. They were kind enough to watch Jin Ling.”
“Wei Ying should be watching his nephew more often.”
Huaisang giggled. “As if you’d let him,” he pointed out gently. “He does his best so he also gets pancakes.”
“No smiles on his.”
“Very well. No smiles on his.”
Wen Ning might have been the quietest member of the group, but he was also the most diligent, patient, and relentless when it came to planning rehearsals. It felt to Jiang Cheng like all that extra practice paid off as they finished their last set and soaked up their applause.
Jin Ling and Fairy were both at the Wens’ apartment with Wen Qing. She watched them to a degree but left a lot of the work to Xue Yang and Xiao Qing.
Jiang Cheng was never quite sure what to make of the two tweens adopted into the Xiao-Song household. A-Qing was friendly and feisty as well as extremely intelligent. A-Yang was quiet and good-natured, but not very bright. It was an unkind thing to think, but that was how Jiang Cheng saw him. Xue Yang was also shy and had been afraid of Fairy at first. Maybe that was the problem. Even now Jiang Cheng had a hard time being sympathetic to children who were afraid of dogs.
Like his uncle, however, Jin Ling was fiercely protective of those he liked so Jiang Cheng had learned not to say much. Well, not to say much to Jin Ling.
“My brother is here,” Huaisang had groaned during the halfway mark. But he’d done just fine in spite of Nie Mingjue’s arrival. Jiang Cheng had decided not to point out that Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen had followed him in. He had smiled when Huaisang finally saw them, patting his friend’s… boyfriend’s shoulder when Huaisang cursed under his breath.
For all his fretting and anxiety, however, Huaisang was very predictable when it came to his Da Ge and Mingjue’s inner circle. As the gig ended and they began to mill about, Huaisang made a beeline for the trio.
Jiang Cheng rubbed his neck as he set down his guitar. He looked to Wen Ning who was still sitting behind his drums. “We should put you in charge,” he said stiffly. “My brother may think he gets us motivated but… Your dedication is slowly rubbing off on the rest of us. That’s the best we’ve ever done, Wen Ning.”
“Thank you, but I like things as they are,” Wen Ning said, bowing his head. He looked up soon enough though, smiling reassuringly. “Outside of the changes between you and A-Sang. But those have been a long time coming.”
Jiang Cheng cleared his throat and hurried away.
Lan Xichen was talking to several people about the band including some local journalist, which Jiang Cheng found mildly irritating and flattering. Everything was complimentary and engaging. That was the sort of person and brother that Xichen was.
Lan Wangji joined his brother, miserably allowing for photos as Wei Wuxian tackled him from behind.
Mingjue sat in his seat, still drinking. He wasn’t a very social person and he was blessed with an unapproachable aura that Jiang Cheng envied.
Huaisang and Jin Guangyao were hunched over a phone at the bar. Huaisang was smiling and talking animatedly as his fingers swiped over the screen.
Jin Guangyao smiled, but it was crafty grin of a fox. He ordered them both drinks before nodding at whatever Nie Huaisang was saying.
Why didn’t Jiang Cheng like Jin Guangyao? Was it Fairy? Jiang Cheng loved Fairy but he remembered when and where the dog had come from. Was it how much Jin Ling liked this other uncle? No, loved his other uncle. Jiang Cheng made a face at the thought.
Was it that he had once been Meng Yao, an artist with a message, instead of Jin Guangyao a high-powered attorney with a fiancee for show despite the very obvious fact that Lan Xichen was in love with him? No, that was Wei Wuxian’s issue with him.
Jiang Cheng thought it was probably all of those reasons and yet none of them. He was like his mother in that respect. He didn’t need a very good reason to loathe someone… But they certainly helped.
Regardless, he approached the pair of them and felt keenly guilty as he finally caught sight of what they were looking at: a sea of photos of him and Jin Ling. And occasionally Fairy.
Jin Guangyao sipped his drink when it arrived, raising it slightly as he smiled at Jiang Cheng.
“We’re going to the zoo tomorrow,” Huaisang said cheerfully, unaware.
“I can see he has everything well in hand. I’d still like to help, Jiang Cheng. When and if you need it. And I hope you don’t mind my glimpse into your daily life. It’s just I asked about my nephew. I haven’t seen Jin Ling in a month.”
Huaisang colored and looked over at Jiang Cheng. “Um. Well, you have to know I take a lot of pictures… And that some of them were bound to be of you.”
“I do,” Jiang Cheng admitted.
“We were laughing at how sweet the pictures were,” Huaisang added.
“Of Jin Ling,” Jin Guangyao agreed with a smirk that suggested this wasn’t entirely the case. “And Fairy. You look as manly and suave as always Jiang Cheng.”
Jiang Cheng wanted to be annoyed, but he just felt pleased to be acting as a buffer between the two men even when he wasn’t around. Because of this, he found it in himself to be magnanimous. “Come over then, Guangyao. Pick a time next week. Or we can meet you somewhere if that’s better. Jin Ling misses you too.”
Jin Guangyao blinked slightly and then nodded. He looked relieved. “Can I buy you a drink?”
Jiang Cheng sat down next to Huaisang, slinging a hand around his shoulders. Huaisang seemed to preen from the attention. Jin Guangyao’s expression was curious but carefully neutral. He decided he could put up with it for a little while. For his little family’s sake. “I suppose you can.”
After their drinks, Huaisang went to find Wen Ning. At that point, Jiang Cheng realized he’d never spoken to Mingjue, but he reasoned there would be other moments. The man in question was putting on his coat and going over to collect Lan Xichen anyway.
Jin Guangyao set his drink down, the glass clinking against the wooden grain of the counter. “Jiang Cheng,” he said softly.
“You make him happy. I’m glad you’d decided to do something about it,” Jin Guangyao said, inspecting the rings other drinks had left behind. “Happiness is all one can wish for.”
Jiang Cheng nodded one time.
“I trust it goes without saying that if you hurt Nie Huaisang, you will swiftly come to regret it.”
“Are you waiting for me to fail? To get your chance with him?”
Jin Guangyao arched an eyebrow. Then he chuckled. “Hardly, but I prefer for success to be guaranteed and the consequences for falling short of it to be dire. Mingjue and Xichen are my family. Huaisang is also my family. Don’t disappoint us. Don’t disappoint him.”
Jiang Cheng stood there, frozen, until Jin Guangyao left. Then he snorted. “As if I would,” he muttered darkly.
He walked away to find his bandmates, determined to add some sweet, sappy photos to his own phone in the near future.
The zoo provided Jiang Cheng with endless opportunities to add to the photos on his phone. Some of them would end up in albums and many of them he grudgingly sent onto Wei Wuxian. It was at times like these that he wished his parents had been able to meet Jin Ling. Jiang Cheng was sure his father would have doted on the boy and his mother would have been as concerned with her grandson’s upbringing as she had been her own son’s.
But then he had many wishes along similar lines. And if his parents were here then his sister and her husband would have been there too.
Jin Ling, thankfully, wasn’t burdened by these thoughts. Not yet. He hurt from the loss of his mother and father because of course he did, but he still felt he had the best uncle ever and he adored everyone in his life. The older he got, the more Jin Ling would have to confront the differences between his makeshift family and the one he’d been denied. He might be sad longer or even angry… That was all right as long as he was happy more often than not.
In terms of their trip, Jiang Cheng had been placed in charge of snacks, drinks, and other similar supplies. Nie Huaisang had brought along his sketchbook, a matching one for Jin Ling, markers, crayons, and colored pencils.
Jin Ling took many liberties with his pictures. Blue tigers and purple monkeys and green otters. Of a sort. He was young enough that he was sometimes hard to tell what he had intended the shapes and spirals to be until Jin Ling was kind enough to explain his process. Huaisang praised each one and Jiang Cheng reluctantly did the same.
“Are you all right?” Huaisang asked as they paused in a garden full of peacocks. Jin Ling had pulled out his sketchbook and immediately picked up a red marker. “You seem distressed.”
“His color palette… For the tigers and bears and giraffes...”
“It’s just... what if he’s color-blind,” he asked in a low tone.
Huaisang laughed. “And yet you’re the best uncle,” he said once he was able to contain himself.” Oh, Jiang Wanyin,” he continued, kissing Jiang Cheng’s cheek. “I sincerely hope you don’t reprimand him when he colors outside the lines.”
“I wince very discreetly.”
“Art is all about expression and passion and creativity. The end result is less important than what Jin Ling gets out of it. And he’s so happy.”
“I think ideally he’s meant to become a doctor or a lawyer. Otherwise my mother is coming back to haunt me.”
Huaisang chuckled, nudging Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “He’s five. Yesterday he told me he wanted to be a cowboy and today he wants to work here as a janitor. I haven’t had the heart to explain to him what that job entails because, with any luck, tomorrow he’ll want to be an astronaut.”
“Or a ballerina,” Jiang Cheng said rather grimly before allowing himself a smile. “What a fun week. Jin Guangyao really had to bend over backwards to pretend to be okay with that.”
Jin Ling closed his sketchbook and hurried over to them after packing the markers away in his backpack. “Hey! You promised me that if I looked at other animals, we could visit the wolves again.” And if Jin Ling had had his way, they’d have spent the whole afternoon staring at the wolves.
Huaisang ruffled his hair gently. “Ah, but you promised you’d go with me to the Panda House first.”
Jin Ling made a face. “They just sit there and eat leaves.”
Jiang Cheng shrugged. “It’s something to look at. Then the wolves.”
Jin Ling considered this and tucked his sketchbook under one arm. “Acceptable,” he said, sounding and looking very much like his uncle. Then he grinned hopefully. “What about the gift shop?”
“Oh? Are you getting me something?”
Jin Ling pouted.
Jiang Cheng relented and smiled. “Then the gift shop. Where you can get exactly one gift.”
“And something for Fairy?”
“One gift for yourself. Fairy has had a very good weekend and doesn’t need a present.”
Jin Ling bit his lip and then nodded. “All right.” He grabbed Huaisang’s arm and began walking in a random direction. “To the Panda House.”
Huaisang turned the boy around before following his lead. He smiled over his shoulder at Jiang Cheng, looking content. No, looking thrilled and excited to be there with them even after several hours had gone by. “Are you coming?”
“In a minute,” Jiang Cheng said. He watched them walk a small distance away, snapping a few pictures before sprinting to keep up.
Fall leaves were still falling from the trees although the temperature was quite moderate. That would change soon. Eventually winter would be there and then spring. And so on and so forth. He found himself already looking forward to each season and what it would bring for the three of them.
He took a moment to be thankful for what he had now and what he’d lost. When he caught up with his nephew and boyfriend, he gave them both hugs that he hoped would feel fairly casual even if they were anything but. He was glad for the week they’d shared and glad he’d opened himself up to the possibility of more. But then if there were any two people he could be vulnerable with without the fear of possible rejection, it was Jin Ling and Nie Huaisang.
“Ready?” Huaisang asked even as he leaned into Jiang Cheng’s embrace.
Jin Ling looked pleased even as he wriggled away. He stood close by, smiling and clutching his sketchbook. Anything he chose to do would be something Jiang Cheng would support. Any profession or past time he picked would be the right one. Jin Ling was already perfect.
“Ready,” Jiang Cheng said. Then he took Huaisang’s hand in his as they continued on to the pandas.