It is not uncommon that Jiang Wanyin’s nephew is accompanied by his friends when he goes to Lotus Pier, but seeing them still gives Jiang Cheng the slightest bit of unease. He was not exactly quite sure what it was—at first, he thought it was his initial worry that these boys would bully his nephew like the other young Jin disciples do, but the two Lan boys and Ouyang-zongzhu’s silver-tongued son seem to be pretty decent children. They never cause any trouble when they come to Lotus Pier. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; Lan Jingyi is quite the stickler for those Lan Sect rules even when outside of the Cloud Recesses, and Ouyang Zizhen is more interested in emotional bonding than simply training or playing games.
Lan Sizhui, however…
He is not a bad kid in the slightest. Jiang Cheng can easily admit that. It’s obvious to anyone with or without eyes that Lan Sizhui was raised by that light-bearing idiot, and that he would grow up to be head disciple of the Gusu Lan Sect if not the rightful heir. He had a genuine, kind heart, and he never failed to say “greetings, Jiang-zongzhu” and “this disciple takes his leave, Jiang-zongzhu” every time he visits. Yet, every time Jiang Cheng looks at the boy, something he cannot name pools in his abdomen.
Jiang Cheng can hear the laughter of the teenage boys from his office, and the occasional happy bark from his beloved Fairy. He always makes sure to stay composed when doing paperwork, but with a small sigh, he removes his hairpiece from his head and unties his topknot. Long hair falls down his shoulders and almost spills onto his desk. He takes another deep breath as he puts down his brush.
It has been sixteen years, and yet Jiang Cheng feels like he is nineteen years old again.
Going back and forth in between two cities was no life for an infant. Jiang Cheng knew this well, but all of his worry and concern seemed to fade as soon as he held his nephew in his arms. He wishes he could whisk little A-Ling away to live at Lotus Pier all the time, but Lanling is the boy’s official home. There will come a time when his baby nephew would grow into a young cultivator and Jin Rulan will live in Lanling all the time, so Jiang Cheng remembers to savor his time.
Jiang Wanyin is not yet twenty years old, so he offers this moment to himself—a moment to cry, while he is still a teenager. A moment to cry, while he is locked in his bedroom and no one can see him. A moment to cry, while it’s the middle of the night and there is no one around to hear. He misses his siblings more than anything in the world, and their deaths cut deeper than the sharpest sword. Jiang Cheng would rather see Lotus Pier fall over and over again than see either of his siblings leave him—he knew that when they sent Yanli to Lanling during the Sunshot Campaign, and when Wei Ying went missing for three months. Every separation after that was another stab to the heart.
Jiang Cheng looks at his nephew, only five months old and sound asleep without a worry in the world. The sect leader thinks that this boy deserves all the love in the universe, and he wishes more than anything that his siblings could come back and give it to A-Ling. His heart is not big enough for all of that, Jiang Cheng thinks.
He steps out of the room and walks around Lotus Pier, swaddled baby in his arms, humming the song his sister used to sing to him and his brother as children—to the best of his abilities, anyway. There is still a small sob here and there. He spins around slowly, careful not to wake up the sleeping child, watching as the moonlight dances on the curves of Jin Ling’s face just as it does on the water. The new buds of lotuses are starting to make their presence known. The season is changing from one beautiful scenery to the next, and Jiang Cheng reaffirms his pledge to do anything to make sure his nephew is safe.
However, when A-Ling wakes Jiang Cheng up at some ungodly hour of the morning, Jiang Cheng momentarily wishes his big sister had never gone ahead and done unspeakable things with that stupid peacock, may he rest in peace. Exhausted, he forces himself out of bed and tries to remind himself that he loves his nephew very much. His body is moving automatically as he brings the baby to his chest, shushing him in between yawns he doesn’t bother to stifle. After A-Ling is newly cleaned, Jiang Cheng can easily assess that the boy is not hungry. He’s not usually one to make such a fuss over food. Bitterly, Jiang Cheng wonders if the boy can tell that he’s not in Lanling.
The sleepy sect leader makes it back to his living quarters and closes the door with a loud yawn. He wonders if he’s tired enough to sleep through A-Ling’s cries, or if the sounds will be persistent enough to drive him insane. If there’s one thing Jiang Cheng has learned from sharing a baby back and forth, it’s that little A-Ling likes to be held, and putting him in his bed to cry on his own would only make it worse. Jiang Cheng blinks slowly and realizes he had knocked over his sword while rushing out of bed. Carefully cradling A-Ling with a single arm, he bends down to retrieve his weapon. The bell jingles softly as the sword is moved, and Jin Ling’s crying softens.
Jiang Cheng looks at the baby and moves his sword slowly before A-Ling can begin to cry again. He looks surprisingly pleased at the sound of the bell. Jiang Cheng sighs softly.
“What am I going to do with you?” he mutters. “Only five months old and already demanding your own Jiang Sect bell. You’re just like your father.”
A-Ling is at the age where he’s beginning to squeal, and the boy makes a noise that makes Jiang Cheng think he wants to hear the bell some more. He shakes his sword softly. A small smile appears on the baby’s face, and Jiang Cheng can’t help but mimic the action. Slowly, just barely enough to jostle the bell, he puts down his sword. He walks around his room and opens a small box. Carefully, he picks up the bell so as not to drop it, and A-Ling lets out a soft, delighted sound.
“It’s not safe for you to hold, so I’ll just attach it to your dad’s sword,” Jiang Cheng tells the infant. “Your xiaoshu would kill me if you got your grubby little hands on this thing. So don’t go messing this up for us, you hear?”
“I’m glad we’re in agreement.”
Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian each had their own exceptional skills, but one thing they were equally bad at was being emotional.
Well, that was not entirely true. They certainly felt emotions. They laughed when they were happy and they cried when they were upset. But they were not good at being tender. They expected each other and their sister to just know that they loved them instead of ever saying it out loud. While some may say Wei Ying took after Jiang Fengmian and Jiang Cheng after Yu Ziyuan, they both seemed to learn this specific trait from their maternal figure. Jiang Cheng thinks that it is probably the reason why his stupid brother made jokes instead of confronting his own feelings for Lan Wangji as a teenager. Jiang Cheng definitely knows that it is the reason why he was so harsh to Jin Ling as the boy grew up.
The truth is, at nineteen years old, Jiang Cheng was not ready to be an uncle, much less become a parent. But that’s not an excuse, is it? Jin Ling deserved better than that—deserves better than that. It might not mean much now that his nephew is sixteen years old, but there is certainly no harm in trying to become a better person.
Jiang Cheng is invited to the Cloud Recesses to pick up his nephew after a night hunt. That sappy, quick-witted friend of his was coming along, too, as Baling was under the Jiang Sect’s jurisdiction. From the entrances, however, Jiang Cheng could see Ouyang Zizhen chatting happily with the two Lan boys. There were numerous disciples and seniors throughout Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng thinks he sees Lan Wangji and Wen Qionglin on one of the walkways, probably discussing the night hunt since the undead was the juniors’ primary guardian on this trip. Jiang Cheng scans the crowd some more, telling himself that he just wants to take in all there is, but he stops as soon as he realizes that Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be found.
Jin Ling walks towards the entrance of the Cloud Recesses, where his uncle has picked him up countless of times before. Briefly, he thinks of Jin Guangyao and his frequent trips to see Lan Xichen—did he bring along A-Ling at times, and did he keep the boy in Zewu-jun’s office? He wonders if Jin Ling would have met his friends earlier under those circumstances. Jiang Cheng lets out a deep sigh before his nephew is close enough to hear. His brother did say not to dwell on the past, after all.
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling calls when he sees him, beginning to run before stopping himself. The corner of Jiang Cheng’s mouth perks up as he remembers his youth and his studies here—and how adamant he was to follow the rules, at least outside of closed doors. He remembers running after his brother as soon as they said their goodbyes to Lan Qiren. How many times has Jin Ling gotten himself in trouble for those things? It’s endearing to think about.
As the ground changes from the white of the rocks to the green and brown of the mountain path, his nephew approaches him with a content look on his face as he slows to a stop. A successful night hunt, then.
“A-Ling,” he greets, patting the boy’s arm. Then he remembers he has some changes that he needs to make. He did not intend to do this here, but Jiang Cheng can feel it—the way he’s overcome with a sudden wave of emotion and love, and he supposes that now is as good a time as any. “A-Ling,” he says again, softly this time. Carefully, Jiang Cheng brings his hand to the boy’s face and cradles his cheek. Jin Ling’s expression changes from a happy one to something more confused, but he lets it happen. “In a person’s life, they must learn to say three sentences.”
“‘Thank you’ and ‘I’m sorry,’” Jin Ling interrupts, eyebrows furrowed. So he’s had this conversation with Wei Ying before. Jiang Cheng can’t quite tell if his nephew is just confused or if he’s worried by his uncle’s strange behavior. “What’s… what’s the third one?”
“I love you,” Jiang Cheng whispers. Jin Ling’s eyes widen. “I love you,” Jiang Cheng says louder, “and I’m sorry.”
“You’re scaring me, Jiujiu,” Jin Ling admits quietly. And that’s the worst part, isn’t it: the fact that this kind of behavior is unusual to the child? Jiang Cheng inhales deeply through his nose and sighs, not once taking his eyes off the boy in front of him. He thinks briefly about his own desire that his own parents would tell him that—tell his siblings that, too. I love you, and I’m sorry. But Jiang Cheng never got to hear his parents say that before they were killed, and Jin Ling never got to hear that from Jin Guangyao before his demise. Wei Ying might not love this boy as much as Jiang Cheng does (not yet, anyway), so it’s up to him to fix this once and for all.
“I did not give you the best childhood,” Jiang Cheng says quietly. “I am to blame. I only hope that, if I cannot redeem what I have done in the past, I can at least do you some good from here on out.” He cups Jin Ling’s face with both his hands now, Zidian restless on his wrist. “I love you, my boy. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you always remember that.”
Jin Ling’s eyes gloss over with tears, and his ears burn a ferocious pink. “Whatever,” he dismisses. He tried to be nonchalant but his voice noticeably cracked. “I love you, too, I guess,” he mumbles.
Being affectionate is a new concept to Jiang Cheng, but he has plenty of time to learn.
When Jiang Cheng removes his hands from his nephew’s face, he notices Jin Ling’s friends standing nearby. They look slightly embarrassed, like they were interrupting something. As soon as he makes eye contact, the three boys immediately raise their arms in a bow.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” they say in unison.
Jiang Cheng nods at them as they resume their previous stances. “Are you ready to go, Zizhen?” he asks.
Ouyang Zizhen looks at the sect leader with wider eyes than usual, almost like he’s in awe of something. Jiang Cheng thought that there was a starstruck quality to the boy, but his brother says that the kid is just very romantic. He must be surprised to see Jiang Cheng without a scowl or furrowed brow. The fact that it’s also noticeable to his nephew’s friends breaks his heart just a little bit more.
“We just wanted to say goodbye to A-Ling,” Lan Sizhui says with a polite smile on his face. The expression is very reminiscent of Zewu-jun. Briefly, Jiang Cheng wonders how Lan Wangji was able to raise a child that did not end up so emotionally stunted. Hanguang-jun is only a year older than himself, so Jiang Cheng can’t use his youth as an excuse. But Lan Wangji had help, didn’t he—from his brother and uncle? That’s not an excuse, either, Jiang Cheng realizes after a second, because he could have easily asked for help in raising Jin Ling had he not been so stubborn. Suffering in silence has never done him any good.
Jiang Cheng looks towards Jin Ling. “Were you really going to leave your friends without saying goodbye?” he attempts to tease. He might not be getting it across in the way he meant it. “I raised you better than this, A-Ling.”
Despite their heartfelt moment earlier, Jin Ling is still a teenager, and he has extremely thick skin thanks to both of the uncles that raised him. “Why don’t you say goodbye to your brother-in-law, then?” he retorts, a smirk curling his lips. Jiang Cheng is relieved that the boy knew he wasn’t being serious.
Jiang Cheng’s smile just barely grows. It’s quite endearing that his nephew thinks he won. “I don’t have one. My brother is not yet married.”
Jin Ling’s eyebrows raise slightly, and Jiang Cheng knows that his nephew knows that he lost. There is no loophole Jin Ling can use to refute the one that his uncle found. The boy huffs, lips pursed into a sneer that reminds Jiang Cheng vaguely of Lan Jingyi.
“Biaoge,” Jin Ling all but whines, “tell your dad to come back from wherever the hell he is so he and Hanguang-jun can finally get married!”
A blush appears on Lan Sizhui’s cheeks, and from then on, it’s chaos. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure what starts it first: Lan Sizhui’s shyness, Lan Jingyi’s teasing, Ouyang Zizhen’s excitement, or Jin Ling’s insistence. Before they know it, the boys are all talking over each other, as teenagers do, and Jiang Cheng removes himself from the conversation.
Since he has nothing better to do, he scans the crowd again. Wen Qionglin seems to have dismissed himself to his living quarters. There are less disciples out than there were before, probably attending their daily duties. Lan Wangji stands in front of the library pavilion with no obvious intent to enter. Waiting for his son, perhaps. (Wei Ying, too, maybe, like Lan Wangji is hopeful that one of these days that bastard will just walk into the Cloud Recesses like nothing.) Jiang Cheng’s eyes soon fall on Hanguang-jun’s son, and the feeling in his stomach returns.
Just when did those boys start calling each other that? They were not raised together due to both Jiang Wanyin and Lan Wangji’s stubbornness and pettiness. Jiang Cheng knows that they have no one to blame but each other, but at least the boys are old enough to decide with whom they want to accompany themselves. Lan Sizhui and Jin Rulan were not raised together, but it’s never too late for family.
Jiang Cheng closes his eyes briefly. It’s never too late for family.
When he opens his eyes again, the teenagers seemed to have calmed down. Granted, their bickering was greatly subdued due to where they were located, but mirth pours out of their eyes like waterfalls, and their smiles bear more light than the Chief Cultivator himself.
“Ah,” Lan Jingyi says, fixing his posture and lowering his head slightly. “We do not mean to take up Jiang-zongzhu’s time. We shall take our leave.”
Jingyi and Sizhui raise their arms in a bow, but Jiang Cheng stops them both. He nods slightly, trying to smile at the boys. It’s a foreign action, one he has not done since he was just slightly above their age, not yet a sect leader but still an heir. There is no obvious reaction on either of the boys’ faces, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t quite know if it’s because his expression was okay or if it was because they’re trying to save his face. Or save their own by staying quiet.
“Jingyi,” Jiang Cheng says. A slight pause. “Sizhui,” he says with a lot more weight. “You are both welcome at Lotus Pier anytime.” He turns and tries his best to not look amused at Ouyang Zizhen and Jin Ling’s surprised expressions, although it’s very hard to do so. “Of course, you as well, Zizhen.”
“Of course,” Ouyang Zizhen repeats, wide-eyed, dumbfounded, and with a complete loss for words.
“Thank you, Jiang-zongzhu!” Lan Sizhui says, a huge smile plastered on his face—teeth and all. He looks so much like Wei Ying it breaks Jiang Cheng’s heart.
Final goodbyes are said, and when the two Lan boys turn to leave, Jiang Cheng catches Lan Wangji’s eye.
They did not get along as teenagers. He never admitted it, not to either of his siblings, but Jiang Cheng was always just a little bit jealous that his big brother found a new best friend, and Lan Wangji apparently did not like to share. But they have been able to see eye-to-eye before. Once, when Wei Ying went missing, and another, when the cultivation world decided the Yiling Patriarch was a threat—only Jiang Cheng did not react in any way that helped. He understands if Lan Wangji holds some resentment against him for that. He holds some resentment against himself.
Without breaking eye contact, Jiang Cheng nods in acknowledgement and hopes they can reach that kind of relationship again—not just for Wei Ying, but for their children, too.
Lan Wangji nods in return. It’s no more than the slightest dip of his chin, but it’s enough.
Jiang Wanyin was an austere sect leader. He had to be, if anyone were to take him seriously. He had become a sect leader at the tender age of eighteen, inheriting the throne after his parents’ deaths. He was born to be sect leader, and not just in the nepotist sense. Jiang Wanyin was a reserved boy, never speaking unless he was asked to, maintaining his composure as well as his brother’s. He was a strong cultivator, taking well after his mother, and his sharp voice kept people in line. Others thought he was very mature for a boy of eighteen years, respectfully but proudly bearing his title, but the truth is that Jiang Wanyin was forced to grow up at a very young age.
With a loud, dramatic groan, Fairy decides to start stretching. This, of course, pushes Jiang Cheng up against the wall.
Sleeping with Fairy is a blessing and a curse. She’s the best dog in the world, and Jiang Cheng can easily say that he loves Fairy more than anyone else. Fairy is the best pillow there is to offer—Jin Ling has known this since he was a toddler, and Jiang Cheng learned this as soon as he gave into his nephew’s pleading eyes (though allowing Fairy to sleep in his bed was supposed to be a one-time thing). Fairy is always there to offer warmth on cold nights, when the winds are especially strong and the rain is harsh. There have been plenty of instances where Jiang Cheng has found his nephew and dog huddled together in A-Ling’s room covered in heaps of blankets. The best part of all? She’s a heavy sleeper, and she and Jiang Cheng both sleep like the dead.
The worst part of all? Fairy is, without a doubt, an absolute bed hog.
Fairy’s legs dig into Jiang Cheng’s side as the man lets out a tired moan. He knows very well to let Fairy finish stretching so he doesn’t hurt himself in the process; he’s learned the hard way, too many times before—the collision between his head and the wall is a familiar feeling, as is the way Fairy’s claws seep into his skin. Fairy inhales and lets out another loud groan when she’s done. Slowly, she jumps off the bed.
“Nooo,” Jiang Cheng whines drowsily. “Fairy, come back…”
His pleas are not enough. Fairy, still trying to shake the sleep off her body, slowly makes her way across the room. That’s when Jiang Cheng hears the knock on his door. Fairy probably heard a knock earlier that caused him to wake up, and Jiang Cheng huffs. It feels way too early to be waking up yet.
But then Fairy starts scratching at the door so she can be let out, and now Jiang Cheng has no choice. Damn dog. If she’s so smart, why doesn’t she just break the door open?
As Jiang Cheng rolls himself across the bed, he hears whispers from the other side of the door. Fairy begins to wag her tail at sound of recognizable voices—recognizable only to her, at least. Jiang Cheng is too tired to even comprehend what they’re saying, much less identify the speakers. But if Fairy knows who they are, and she’s happy to see them, then Jiang Cheng is safe to assume that they didn’t wake him up just to kill him.
He knows for sure that his guests are not there to kill him as soon as he opens the doors, but Jiang Cheng can’t say for sure that he won’t kill them.
“Jiang-zongzhu,” Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi say in unison, bowing identically. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if the Lan Sect’s exceptional manners and discipline lessons make up for the blatant crime these two are committing. He’s almost certain that Lan Wangji has used this tenacious politeness to his advantage.
“Sizhui, Jingyi,” Jiang Cheng greets gruffly, voice tinged with sleep. The hallway is dark, and Jiang Cheng recognizes a few of the night patrols on duty. The sun has not yet risen. And yet, he asks, “What time is it, exactly?”
“It’s mao hour,” Sizhui replies.
“What,” Jiang Cheng scoffs tiredly, “did you travel all night to get here?”
“Yes,” the boys say seriously. Jiang Cheng is genuinely so in awe of this new generation of Lan Sect juniors. It almost makes him miss Lan Wangji’s stupid teen crush on Wei Ying and Lan Wangji’s stupid methods for going about showing it.
Jiang Cheng sighs. He wants nothing more than to go back to sleep, with or without Fairy. She has already betrayed him once. If she favors the boys over him, then so be it. Once she’s just a little bit older, she’ll realize that Jiang Cheng is much better company than some rowdy teenagers.
“Now, when I said you were both always welcome at Lotus Pier, I really did mean it. But why would you wake me up at this undivine hour?”
Lan Jingyi pulls out his qiankun bag with a toothy grin. “We have treats for Fairy!” he chirps.
Maybe if Jiang Cheng closes his eyes, this will prove to be nothing but a dream. “And you couldn’t wait to give Fairy treats?”
Lan Sizhui kneels to the ground, where Fairy is more than ready to give and receive affection. “Why would we make Fairy wait?” he asks.
Jiang Cheng understands, suddenly, and he understands very well. It sounded like an answer his brother would give if he wasn’t deathly scared of dogs. Jiang Cheng likes Lan Sizhui. The boy is polite and soft-spoken like one father, cheerful and blithe like the other, courageous and headstrong like the both of them. He’s easily composed of the best parts of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji—but that’s what it means to be a parent, isn’t it? Jiang Cheng likes Sizhui, and yet he cannot explain the feeling in his chest that only comes whenever he looks at the boy.
If he was being completely honest with himself, it felt a little bit like—
Jiang Cheng felt sick to his stomach going to this place. He maintained a semblance of calmness for his men, letting them wait for him at the foot of the mountain because he wanted them to think it was okay. In reality, he wanted nothing more than to scream until he lost his voice. But he continued to walk and not once did he look back. His brother was at the end of his road, and knowing that gave Jiang Cheng a small sense of peace.
If he was being completely honest with himself, he did not completely process Wei Ying’s power until then. Jiang Cheng could only think of the war, and the lives they had already lost, and the lives they had to protect, and the battles they had to win. He initially thought they were doing it for the good of all nations, but it was not until that moment that Jiang Cheng realized that there will always be a power-hungry tyrant.
The wasteland reminds Jiang Cheng of the night he found his brother again, after he’d gone missing for three months. The same, eery air blows through the barren branches, and the crunch of dry grass underneath his shoes sings sorrowful songs. He knew that Wei Ying had lived here, but what did he do? When was he first exposed to his adopted method? What was it that kept him alive? Why didn’t Wei Ying come ho—
Wei Wuxian kept many things from people. He did it with the intention to protect, but Jiang Cheng always found it patronizing to have information hidden from him. Yes, he was the youngest of his siblings, but he had not been a baby for a very long time. It made Jiang Cheng want to rip his hair out, sometimes, the way Wei Ying was just like his father. Jiang Fengmian kept things to himself and he took everything to his grave. Jiang Cheng would have done anything to make sure that his brother would not go down the same path.
(Jiang Cheng would never learn what happened during that three-month period before his brother died. What ate at him for the next sixteen years was the fact that he would not have the slightest idea of how he could have prevented everything.)
A child appeared at his feet.
Jiang Cheng saw himself in the boy’s eyes: someone far too young to be able to comprehend the situation they’re in, but does so anyway; someone who cannot understand why their family is unhappy; someone who will either be shaped by their trauma or someone who will repress it entirely.
“Hello,” Jiang Cheng said lamely. He had no idea how to act around children. Real children, anyway. His brother was a completely different story.
The child did not avert his gaze. He held onto Jiang Cheng’s leg, and it was more than enough to make the man uncomfortable. He had so many questions and so little ability to voice them out, much less put them together. Jiang Cheng was almost certain that his questions would not be answered, anyway. But he looked at the boy, who continued to look back at him. Oh, to be a child who only lived in ignorance and bliss. But this child was not ignorant, and all the bliss around him was inorganic.
But perhaps Jiang Cheng was just projecting.
Jiang Cheng would recognize that voice anywhere. His brother came rushing along the mountain path, obviously frazzled and out of breath. The boy, A-Yuan, looked at the disoriented mess of a man before looking back up at Jiang Cheng again.
Another thing Jiang Cheng saw reflected in the boy’s eyes: love for Wei Wuxian.
“Whose child is this?” Jiang Cheng asked. He tried not to make it sound like a statement. This child could not be more than two years old. His brother had not been gone that long, has he? The more Jiang Cheng thinks of it, he realized that the boy’s age coincides with the period of Wei Ying’s absence. He did not want to think of that possibility—if this was his brother’s child, then it was Jiang Cheng’s responsibility to love this boy as his nephew; it was another thing to think of Wei Ying bringing a child into this world in the middle of a war.
“Mine,” Wei Ying said, confirming his brother’s fears.
Jiang Cheng continued to look at the child, who was still holding onto the man’s leg. So this was his nephew, and it would not be fair of him to take his emotions out on the boy. But then his brother laughed, and Jiang Cheng found it especially hard to hide his anger. His head snapped towards Wei Ying, brows furrowed and jaw clenched. His stupid brother was so emotionally constipated (and so was he, but that was a different story). Jiang Cheng could not even think of a reason why his brother would be laughing, and it made him upset.
“A-Yuan,” Wei Ying said softly, a ghost of a smile still on his lips, “you can’t just attach yourself to the leg of every person you meet. Maybe you should leave Jiang-zongzhu alone?” he prodded.
Oh. So he was just Jiang-zongzhu now.
“Don’t give me that look,” Wei Ying scoffed. His brother had always been able to read Jiang Cheng like a book. Wei Ying kneeled to the ground and opened his arms, causing A-Yuan to let go of Jiang Cheng’s legs and run right into them. The toddler laughed as Wei Ying scooped him up, and Jiang Cheng thought for a moment that, that was the first huge, genuine smile that his brother had in a very long time.
Jiang Cheng didn’t like to think about what that might have implied.
“Why don’t you go play with Popo?” Wei Ying suggested. A-Yuan nodded once, and Wei Ying took that opportunity to put the boy back down on the ground, but maintained his crouching position. “Say bye-bye to Jiang-zongzhu?”
A-Yuan waved his little hand. “Bye-bye, Jiang…”
“Zongzhu,” Wei Ying said slowly.
Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. He took a few steps forward and crouches in front of A-Yuan, looking him in the eye. He pointed at himself. “Cheng-shushu.”
“Shushu,” A-Yuan repeated. Jiang Cheng then realized how easy it was to smile when this boy existed.
“Jiujiu!” A-Ling squeals.
He runs, but his little legs can only move so quickly. His shoes are just a little bit too big on him, like shoes Wei Ying got when he was first adopted, and they’re falling off as the boy runs across the courtyard. Jiang Cheng turns at the sound, but he still manages to catch the smile on his general’s face—competent and vicious as she was, she had the biggest soft spot for children. Jiang Cheng excuses himself from their conversation before turning his body to face A-Ling’s oncoming figure.
A-Ling tries to jump into his uncle’s arms, but he can only go so high, so Jiang Cheng does most of the work. The boy laughs as his uncle catches him, and Jiang Cheng spins him around with a smile—like Wei Ying does, like Jin Zixuan does.
“Hide!” A-Ling insists, tapping his hand excitedly against his uncle’s shoulder. He pauses suddenly, like something clicked in his little brain. “Hide,” he whispers, putting a chubby finger to his lips as he shushes his uncle.
“Hide where?” Jiang Cheng whispers back.
A-Ling only points. Jiang Cheng can’t make anything specific out of the general directions he was given, so he just decides to go to his office. He jumps over the three steps from the courtyard to the main hall, dashes around the pillars, and swiftly turns every corner. His nephew laughs as Jiang Cheng runs across Lotus Pier, and onlookers know to not say anything about what’s going on.
Jiang Cheng swiftly opens the door to his office with a single hand. He steps inside and shushes A-Ling softly, just so they make sure not to compromise themselves. Slowly, a lot more gingerly, Jiang Cheng shuts the door. Slowly, he takes a step back, and the toddler tries his very hardest not to giggle too loudly. Jiang Cheng sighs. They’re safe. They can relax for a moment.
Then there’s a scream.
Jiang Wanyin is the Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader. He might be young, but he’s powerful. He’s a strong cultivator with elegant swordsmanship and a powerful spiritual weapon. He did not cry out in fear, and he did not almost drop A-Ling for it.
Behind his desk, Jiang Yanli is on the floor in a fit of laughter, clutching her sides as her body rolls from side to side. There’s a snort here and there, undeniably endearing, and Jiang Cheng suspects for a second his sister might be laughing so hard she’s crying. Her laughing fit is over soon enough. She sits up, trying to catch her breath, and she picks up her nephew with a satisfied sigh.
“We got you good,” she says with a blinding smile. In this sense, Wei Ying takes after her. She looks to the boy in her arms, her smile decreasing in size but not dimming. “Didn’t we, A-Yuan?”
A-Yuan laughs, holding onto Jiang Yanli’s neck. He’s just turned four-years-old, and anyone would think that he was getting too heavy to carry, but Jiang Yanli’s arm strength is almost unparalleled. She spins around the room, eliciting more laughter from the child, and she stops right in front of her youngest brother.
A-Ling doesn’t seem to want to be in the arms of a sore loser, and he gestures for his mother to pick him up.
“A-Ling,” Jiang Cheng says with a frown, “I don’t think your mama can carry you right now.”
Jiang Yanli shakes her head with a soft smile. She jostles A-Yuan slightly, repositioning him slightly so she’s holding him with only one arm, and she extends her other arm for her son. Jiang Cheng gives A-Ling to her, and she carries both children with ease. “There’s enough room and love for both of my boys,” Jiang Yanli sings.
A-Yuan still has his arms around Jiang Yanli’s neck, and he presses his cheek against her own. “I love you, guma,” he says softly.
Jiang Yanli coos, rubbing their cheeks closer together. “Yanli-guma loves A-Yuan,” she says. A-Yuan closes his eyes and smiles, content. He’s already taking after her, too. This is no surprise to Jiang Cheng. His sister is the best person there is.
A-Ling, however, frowns. He also grabs at his mother’s neck, trying to push himself up so he can mimic the action between his mother and cousin. “A-Ling loves Mama!” he declares stubbornly.
Jiang Yanli laughs again before pressing a kiss to her son’s head. “Mama loves A-Ling,” she replies softly.
“I love Ling-tangdi, too!” A-Yuan declares with a wide smile.
“A-Ling loves Yuan-biaoge!” A-Ling squeals. Both boys begin to giggle, and Jiang Yanli looks completely blissful. Purple had always been Jiang Cheng’s favorite color, but seeing his sister and nephews clad in it brings a new feeling to his heart. He smiles, letting the warmth of familial love surround him.
“What about me?” Jiang Cheng teases. He knows that his nephews love him plenty, even if they’ll never love him more than he loves them.
A-Yuan detaches his face from the crook of Jiang Yanli’s neck. He’s no longer smiling. The child looks straight at Jiang Cheng with a fire in his eyes that was not there before. Jiang Cheng isn’t sure if it’s the sunlight seeping into the room or not, but he swears that A-Yuan’s eyes are glowing red.
“Why did you let my clan be imprisoned and tortured?” A-Yuan asks. “Everything that is left of my biological family is gone. They killed my Ning-shu, my Qing-gu, my Popo, everyone. You almost let them kill my die. Were you really so afraid to go against the other sects? Do you not truly care about justice? About doing what is right? My baba almost died doing the right thing, and my guma did die doing the right thing, but where were you? Your family is torn apart, now, Jiang Wanyin. Try as you might to blame everything on Wei Wuxian like a petulant child, but you could have done something, and you are also to blame.”
A-Ling begins to cry—a harsh, ear-splitting sound. Jiang Cheng’s first instinct is to cover his ears, but they’re already ringing with the sound of A-Yuan’s words. He could have done something. He should have done something. Jiang Cheng should not have worried so much about rebuilding Lotus Pier as quickly as possible. He should have focused on his family, on the refugees of the war, on his brother’s weakened state. If Jin Guangyao was right about one thing, it’s that Jiang Cheng was heavily responsible for what happened to his brother.
“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli asks, eyebrows furrowed with an older sibling’s worry, “what’s wrong?”
When Jiang Cheng looks at his sister, there are tear stains on her cheeks and blood dribbling down her chin. Her chest is completely bloodied, some of it seeping into A-Ling and A-Yuan’s clothes. There’s a large gash right above her breast, a wound so deep it might go completely through her body. A-Ling continues to cry loudly, desperately calling for his dead parents, and A-Yuan’s eyes flare red like the Yiling Patriarch’s.
Jiang Cheng wakes up in tears.
Jiang Wanyin became a sect leader at the tender age of eighteen, inheriting the throne after his parents’ murder. He was born to be sect leader, and that put too much weight on his shoulders as a child. Jiang Wanyin was a reserved boy, used to being silenced by a mother who only knew how to argue and a father who simply ignored him; he learned to not speak unless he was asked to. He had been asked to maintain an unrealistically pristine composure since he was a small boy, and he tried his best to keep his brother in line—not because it was expected of them as children of a gentry family, but because he didn’t want either of them to be punished by their parents. He was a strong cultivator, because he had no other option than to be great. He takes well after his mother in his visage and his voice and he hates himself for it sometimes, a lot of the time, as much as he loves her. Jiang Wanyin had an unhealthy, traumatic childhood, and that caused him to grow up way too quickly.
The only reason Jiang Cheng ever goes to Lanling is because Jin Ling cannot go to Yunmeng all the time. His nephew is a sect leader, after all—a sect leader with many advisors and a right-hand man who might as well be acting as interim sect leader, but a sect leader nonetheless. Also, it was good to pay respects to his brother-in-law sometimes. He will never be used to the ostentatiousness of Koi Tower, but he makes sure to give respect where respect is due.
He runs into his nephew the moment he arrives.
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling exclaims. He’s obviously surprised, but he looks like he’s trying very hard not to. Jiang Cheng narrows his eyes. It might have been only half the time, but he raised this boy since he was only a month old, and Jiang Cheng knows him like the back of his own hand.
“Where were you running off to?” Jiang Cheng asks calmly. It sounds too much like a statement.
Jin Ling blinks. “Yunmeng,” he says a little too quickly. He inherited that from his mother. Jiang Yanli had always been a bad liar.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t respond.
“Okay, fine,” Jin Ling relents. He crosses his arms and sighs. “I was going to Baling.”
Jiang Cheng raises a brow.
“Then we were going to go to Gusu,” Jin Ling whispers.
“Why doesn’t Zizhen simply meet you at Gusu?” Jiang Cheng asks. Teenagers are so foolish sometimes.
Jin Ling resolutely looks at the ground and avoids any eye contact with his uncle. His arms are still crossed, but it’s a tighter hold of himself now. There’s a blush on his cheeks that makes him resemble his father.
Jiang Cheng sighs. “Well, that explains why Zizhen is always at Lotus Pier more than the other two,” he mutters to himself. He really was a fool. They were always attached to the hip during night hunts. Fairy seemed to have taken a huge liking to Zizhen, almost preferring him over anyone else. He’d always known that Zizhen quickly grew to be A-Ling’s best friend, but he’s almost upset with himself for not noticing sooner that it was something much greater than that. Was his brother aware of this already? Was that why he had given Jiang Cheng his approval of Ouyang Zizhen?
Jiang Cheng ponders on it some more, and then remembers that Wei Ying is stupid. That probably wasn’t the case, then.
Jin Ling groans. “Please stop,” he begs.
Jiang Cheng allows himself a moment to smile. “When were you going to tell me this, huh? I’m not particularly fond of Old Man Ouyang, but I suppose this will do. If anything, this will reinforce the relationship between Lanling and Yunmeng, and on a larger scale this time…” He doesn’t really care about politics. Definitely not as much as he used to, anyway. The cultivation world is in shambles. Hanguang-jun is trying to right the law’s wrongs. Jiang Cheng could not give less of a shit about sect relations—if his nephew was happy with the Ouyang boy, then Jiang Cheng was happy, too.
“Jiujiu, please, I’m begging you.”
“Fine,” Jiang Cheng aquieses. “I have business to attend in Gusu, anyway. Make your little detour quick. I’ll meet you there.”
Jin Ling’s sword is unsheathed before Jiang Cheng can even blink.
Jiang Cheng waits outside the gates of the Cloud Recesses. He breathes in the thin air as he takes in his surroundings. He remembers being a teenager and camping alongside the mountain, making sure that his sister kept warm in the cold. Lan Wangji had let them into the Cloud Recesses then. Jiang Cheng doesn’t think he will be the one to let him in now.
But Hanguang-jun is full of surprises.
“Zewu-jun was not expecting you,” Lan Wangji says as he takes Jiang Cheng up the mountain. “Sect business?”
Jiang Cheng hums in disagreement. Lan Xichen has just come out of seclusion, but Jiang Cheng is not here to bother him with cultivation world business. Perhaps he should come here more often as a friend. Unfortunately, that’s not on the top of his list of his concerns right now.
Lan Wangji does not say anything, so Jiang Cheng admits, “I’m here to see your son.”
Lan Wangji stops in front of the courtyard of the Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng can see a seventeen-year-old Wei Wuxian kneeling on the rocks as he picked at an anthill, even if it was supposed to be a punishment. Lan Wangji just barely moves his head, giving Jiang Cheng his attention.
“Is something the matter?” he asks.
“Yes,” Jiang Cheng replies too quickly. He soon realizes that the message he’s trying to get across can easily be misconstrued. “It’s not something bad,” he tries. He sounds too much like himself when he was younger, when he and his brother were too busy causing a ruckus long after curfew, and he was too busy to explain the situation to a teenage Lan Wangji because the gods know Wei Ying was too intoxicated.
Hanguang-jun does not say anything for a while. He looks down at the courtyard, as if he’s also reminiscing about the image of a teenage Wei Ying. Then, slowly, he says, “Stubborn as I am to admit it, Sizhui is a grown boy now.” Even if I still do not like you, he does not say, but Jiang Cheng knows that, regardless, he has Lan Wangji’s permission to see Lan Sizhui. “If I’m correct, he’s out feeding the rabbits right now.”
Jiang Cheng turns to fully face Lan Wangji, and he raises his arms in a bow. “Thank you, Hanguang-jun,” he says.
Lan Wangji returns the bow. “Mn.”
“And I’m sorry,” Jiang Cheng adds.
Lan Wangji’s expression does not give him away, but Jiang Cheng notices the way his arms tense up. This is a conversation they can table for another time. Right now, Jiang Cheng has a more pressing matter. He has the rest of his life to reconcile with his future brother-in-law, but right now, he needs to make amends with someone he abandoned.
Jiang Wanyin is the Yunmeng Jiang Sect Leader. He knows very well of the Wall of Disciplines inside the Cloud Recesses and of the laws enforced. He knows that running is not permitted, so the most he can manage is a very brisk walk until he arrives on the edge of the mountain.
At first glance, Lan Sizhui is nowhere to be seen. Jiang Cheng only sees the grass, golden underneath the glow of the setting sun, and an abundance of rabbits. They are definitely not the same rabbits that Jiang Cheng once knew, but there’s something about them that reminds him of when he was a teenager. He can almost picture his sister holding a bunny close, can almost feel the way the rabbit fell into his hands after his brother had tossed it. These are most likely those rabbit’s descendants, and yet it feels like those memories linger in the air around him.
Jiang Cheng finds Lan Sizhui lying on his back on the grass, surrounded by rabbits. His eyes are closed as the last remains of sunlight wash over him, his hair sprawled in a disarray that reminds Jiang Cheng of his brother. He isn’t sure whether Sizhui is almost completely submerged in the grass or the rabbits.
Jiang Cheng laughs very softly. “Is this how you feed them?” he asks. “Do you just cover yourself in food and let them have a go at it all?”
Lan Sizhui’s eyes open rapidly, and he’s sitting up in the blink of an eye. “Jiang-zongzhu!” he all but shouts. He stands up just as quickly as he sat up, and he’s about to start bowing, but Jiang Cheng raises his hand to signal a stop. If anything, he would say that Sizhui looks almost dizzy. The boy wipes the grass off his robes (which, amazingly, have no green stains) and haphazardly brushes his fingers through his hair before facing Jiang Cheng properly.
According to his brother, Lan Sizhui has only just regained his memory of life at the Burial Mounds. At long last, he remembers playing with Wen Qionglin and Wen Qing. He remembers cold nights in Wei Ying’s cave, his dad’s warmth and robe the only thing keeping him warm while he slept. He remembers “farming” with his popo and sishu. He remembers all the toys his baba had gotten him long before he recognized Gusu as his home.
“Sizhui,” Jiang Cheng starts, voice soft in a way that Sizhui has never heard before, “has your die ever given you a lecture about sentences?”
Lan Sizhui frowns. He remembers no such conversation from when he was a toddler, and he’s almost certain that Wei Wuxian has said no such thing during this lifetime together. He shakes his head.
“Very well,” Jiang Cheng says. “In a person’s life, they must learn to say three sentences: ‘Thank you,’ ‘I’m sorry,’ and ‘I love you.’” Lan Sizhui takes after his father in the sense that his expression does not give away his emotions. “Sizhui,” Jiang Cheng continues. “Thank you, for giving my brother a family when I was not able to. I’m sorry for the things I have done, for the things I did not do, that have caused your family and your fathers pain; for not taking you in as my own family when I should have; for not protecting you. I love you, as my brother’s son, my nephew, as the little boy who clung to my leg all those years ago and would not let go for the life of him.”
Lan Sizhui only blinks.
Jiang Cheng brings forth the hand that he had behind his back, and he reaches into his robe. He pulls out a small, sea-blue tassel. The charm is made of a fine jade, carved into the shape of a lotus flower. Attached to it is a small bell that chimes as Jiang Cheng moves it, the sound soft and pleasant like the water crashing against a pier, like low whistles in an empty cave, like a guqin playing a lullaby. With both hands presents it to his nephew, inclining his head slightly.
“This is yours,” Jiang Cheng states. “Your father, Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying, is a member of the Yunmeng Jiang Clan, and so are you. This charm is for you, so you know that I am your family, so others know that you are family.” Jiang Cheng feels the charm slipping from his palms. When he looks up, Lan Sizhui is holding it with careful hands, lips parted in awe. “You were of Yunmeng Jiang before you were of Gusu Lan, boy,” Jiang Cheng teases. “You’ve been attempting the impossible since you were born.”
Lan Sizhui looks up at Jiang Cheng, his shushu, and a smile appears on his face. It’s a little bit small, a little bit lopsided, but it’s the last bit of sun left in the sky. The rabbits disappear into the moonlight, and Sizhui’s lotus charm shines. In a swift movement, Lan Sizhui throws his arms around Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, clutching his neck like he might have done to his guma, and he laughs.
“Thank you, Cheng-shushu,” Sizhui giggles.
Jiang Cheng holds Sizhui tight, and he makes a mental note to give Jin Ling a bone-cracking hug whenever he arrives. But for the moment, he holds A-Yuan in his arms—the last standing sun, a boy shaped by moonlight, and Jiang Cheng feels at peace.
It’s never too late for family.