A-Yuan screams and Xue Yang moves on instinct.
He already has Suibian in hand, practicing his swings, and he bolts towards the sound, resentful energy gathering at the fingertips of his free hand. A-Yuan is running, little legs pumping, tears streaming down his face and Xue Yang scoops him up and lets him press his snotty little face into his robes. “What?” Xue Yang asks, his body tense, every line every piece of his body filled with a nervous tension, a readiness.
“B-Bad- B-Bad man-“ A-Yuan gasps out, and Xue Yang squeezes him tight and holds his sword ready, ready to fight, because if someone managed to clear the corpses, if someone actually managed to invade the Burial Mounds, he doesn’t think he can run fast enough, Shifu was in town, where is he, or Wen Ning or Wen Qing or-
Shifu is bolting up over the top of the hill and Xue Yang could collapse in relief.
He doesn’t, though – there’s worry written on Shifu’s face, and since Xue Yang doesn’t know what’s going on, what this is about, he stays ready. Prepared.
“A-Yang! A-Yuan!” calls Shifu, even though he’s closing the distance rapidly, and he launches himself in to wrap both of them up in a hug, pressing their faces into his chest. “I’m sorry, we should have tried to warn you.”
Xue Yang doesn’t pull away from the hug because A-Yuan is leaning into it and that means he has to lean into it, too. “Warn us?” he asks instead, confused. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”
Shifu squeezes them for a moment more and then pulls away, which reveals that hey, there were people trundling up the hill after him at a far more sedate pace.
A stern-faced man in purple who didn’t seem surprised by them at first, but did a doubletake when he and Xue Yang made eye contact. A woman, her eyes wide and mouth slightly open in surprise, who was holding a baby. Wen Ning, of course, pulling the cart behind him with the ease of his fierce corpse strength.
And a Jin.
Xue Yang bares his teeth as they make eye contact, holding A-Yuan closer against him. “Shifu, what the fuck!?”
“It’s okay, it’s okay!” Shifu says, and he gets in between them. All the others are still focused on Xue Yang and A-Yuan with a kind of terrifying intensity. “A-Yang, this is my brother, Jiang Cheng, and my sister, Jiang Yanli,” he says, gesturing to the stern man and the woman. “This peacock is Shijie’s husband, Jin Zixuan.”
Honestly, Xue Yang thought that Shifu was like… exiled from the Jiang sect? He hadn’t really heard a ton about that flying through the air before he was kidnapped, but he had heard enough to think that. (Apparently, though, he was wrong – which wasn’t too surprising, given the rumors also said he was raising an army here.)
Shifu turns slightly. “Jiang Cheng, Shijie, peacock, this is A-Yang and A-Yuan.”
“Dad?” says A-Yuan quietly, and when he starts to pull his head away, Shifu gestures frantically at Jin Zixuan and he blinks for a moment and then moves quickly, pulling the sides of his cloak in tight to block out the yellow of his sect uniform. A-Yuan’s eyes are red, puffy from tears, but he’s not crying anymore. “It’s… It’s okay?”
His voice is trembling. Xue Yang’s heart squeezes just. A little. And hates Jins all the more.
Shifu takes him, pulls A-Yuan gently from his arms. “Yeah, I’m sorry, A-Yuan,” he says. “I’ve got some people for you to meet!”
The moment Shifu tries to introduce Xue Yang as his ‘son’, Xue Yang scowls. “Fuck you,” he says. “I’m his disciple,” he tells the others.
The stern one – Sect Leader Jiang – narrows eyes at him. “He’s teaching you demonic cultivation?” he asks.
Xue Yang nods. “Developing a demonic core and everything,” he says, smirking, even though that’s not even slightly how that works.
Shifu rests an arm on his head, using him to prop up his elbow. “It’s why his eyes are red,” he says, flat-out lying as well, and Xue Yang barely resists the urge to look up at him. Can’t give the game away. “It’s permanent, now.”
“Maybe Shifu’s will change, too,” he says, and that’s too much – Shifu giggles, and Sect Leader Jiang realizes they’re fucking with him and rolls his eyes.
Xue Yang isn’t really sure how to address Shifu’s “Shijie”, but A-Yuan immediately jumps to calling her Auntie. That’s not… really correct, but both Shifu and Jiang Yanli seem to like it. “A-Yuan,” she tells him, leaning in. “Meet your cousin. This is Jin Ling.”
A-Yuan also leans in from Shifu’s arms, fascinated. “He’s so small and cute!” he says.
That’s not what Xue Yang would have said. He would have said that Jin Ling was an extremely ugly baby, nothing nice looking about him at all, but he’s standing a little bit apart, occasionally glancing with a glare at Jin Zixuan, and so he doesn’t get asked. Not until A-Yuan looks for him.
“Gege!” he says, impatiently. “Come see the baby!”
Xue Yang rolls his eyes and closes the distance between them with an impatient march, squinting down at the baby. It looks even more gremlin than A-Yuan does. He really doesn’t like little kids or babies or whatever. Annoying.
“Auntie,” A-Yuan asks. “Can A-Yuan hold A-Ling?”
She hesitates, looking like she’s trying to let him down gently, and Xue Yang bops A-Yuan on the head. “Stupid,” he tells him, as the brat turns betrayed eyes on him. “You’re too little.”
A-Yuan pouts at him. “Gege is so mean to his didi!” he whines, and Xue Yang feels his face warm, just a little – so far, no one knows he called A-Yuan his didi (exactly one time! Just once!) and he doesn’t trust the kid to not accidentally spill it one of these days. “If I’m too small, then- then you are, too!”
Xue Yang stares at him for a moment and then snorts. “I’m so much bigger than you,” he says, and he smirks. “I can hold A-Ling if I want to.”
It’s a trap. Ah.
Because Jiang Yanli’s eyes sparkle. “A-Yang, you want to hold A-Ling?” she asks, and before he can respond, there’s a baby in his arms.
He’s… a chubby baby, arms fat and cheeks dimpled, and Xue Yang kind of hates him for it. A-Yuan isn’t chubby. Xue Yang wasn’t, either, but this baby is chubby and fat and blinks curious eyes up at him before his face screws up and he starts crying, which, like, good. Fat babies can cry.
“He’s crying,” Xue Yang says, and he scrunches up his face because even if he doesn’t care or feel bad, it’s still really annoying and noisy to hold a crying baby, so he tries to shove it back at Jiang Yanli.
She shakes her head. “Rock him a little,” she says, and she helps him adjust baby A-Ling in his arms so the baby’s head is over his shoulder, instead, peering out behind him, Xue Yang’s hand on his back which he rubs as instructed, jiggling slightly back and forth to try to calm it down. It works – he thinks. The baby stops wailing but he still makes some sniffling burbles and he doesn’t exactly sound happy.
A-Yuan laughs. “A-Ling doesn’t like you, Gege!” he says, cheeky and mean and Xue Yang seriously has no idea why all the adults in the Burial Mounds seem to think he’s some sort of angel. He’s not. Fuck you, didi.
“I don’t like A-Ling, either,” he says, making a face.
Shifu frowns at him. “Be nice to your cousin, A-Yang!” he says.
Xue Yang is soooo done. “He’s not my cousin, Shifu. You’re not my dad.”
Shifu looks honestly hurt and maybe if he didn’t know the man better he would think he actually was, but Xue Yang has spent way too much time around the most ridiculous evil patriarch to ever exist and he knows the man is definitely faking. “A-Yang is so cruel to his dad…”
A-Yuan has also spent way too much time around him as well. “Yeah, Gege is so mean to his didi!” he says, and he sticks out his lower lip and lets it wobble.
“Fuck you,” says Xue Yang.
“Oh, A-Yang,” says Jiang Yanli. “Please don’t swear around your cousin.”
Shifu and A-Yuan wear identical looks of triumph.
They end up wandering through the Burial Mounds, giving their guests an impromptu sort-of tour. Shifu is leading the way, holding A-Yuan and gesturing wildly, brightly – it’s not like Shifu is a sad person, because he’s not, but the only time Xue Yang has seen him this happy, this vibrant, was when Hanguang-jun was around.
He misses them, Xue Yang realizes. Misses his family.
Xue Yang… there isn’t anyone missing him, now that he’s here in the burial mounds. Oh, people will notice he’s gone – he’s definitely made a name for himself, garnered a fun reputation – but no one will be upset he’s here. There isn’t anyone he misses, either, anyone that he wants to see.
Shifu smiles brightly at Jiang Yanli and Sect Leader Jiang and coos over A-Ling and Xue Yang lags back, watches with a frown, with a tilt of his head.
It means he’s next to the Jin, though, next to Jin Zixuan, who has been very quiet. Eyes wide, especially since they’ve started walking through, seeing people – though he’s careful to keep his robes tucked close, careful to keep his gold covered. Good.
Jin Zixuan notices him, and he glances at him. “Is this everyone?” he asks quietly, and Xue Yang looks him, lifts his eyebrows.
Ah. So that’s what it is. He smirks. “What?” he asks. “Were you expecting an army?” By the way that he glances away, he does, and Xue Yang laughs quietly – he’s only quiet because he doesn’t want A-Yuan to hear, or Shifu to but in. “Just kids and old people. Some farmers and shit. Only cultivators are Shifu, me, Wen Qing and Wen Ning, and I didn’t know how til Shifu started teaching me. There’s no army. You Jins are just…”
He shakes his head, and leaves it open for Jin Zixuan to fill in the blank. The man is pale. A little… distraught, and Xue Yang can’t help but feel glad for it. Fuck him. The Jins are the reason that everyone is here, that A-Yuan will never be as chubby as little Jin Ling. He’d like to blame them for the Yueyang Changs, as well, but he unfortunately hasn’t figured out a logical way to blame them for it. (He will, though – just wait. Just fucking wait.)
“The camps, that Wei Wuxian took you from,” Jin Zixuan begins quietly, and Xue Yang has a moment of confusion before realizing that wait, wait, Shifu never introduced him as Xue Yang, did he, just A-Yang, “They… were…?”
Xue Yang laughs, and when Shifu glances back at them, eyebrow lifting, he waves a hand and though his teacher frowns, glancing between the two of them, he leaves them be. It’s not like Shifu seems to like him. Maybe he’s cool with Xue Yang messing with him. “Bad?” he asks, smirk slashed across his face, condescension dripping from every breath of his voice. “Why do you think me and A-Yuan don’t have any parents?” he asks, though he’s honestly pretty positive his parents took one look at his red eyes, screamed, and ditched him. (How did he survive as an infant? God knows. It’s not like he remembers anyone, ever.)
“I’m sor-“ Jin Zixuan starts to say, but Xue Yang’s not done.
“Fuck you,” he says, and his voice is light, cheery, not going to raise any warning flags in Shifu and A-Yuan and the two Jiangs ahead, who are bowing to Granny, meeting her with kind words and a gruff face. “There’s only fifty Wens left, and Shifu’s the only reason all of us are alive.” He’ll never let himself be anything but Xue Yang, since he seized that and grabbed that and took it for himself, but whatever, he counts as a Wen even with a different name. So does Shifu.
Maybe Shifu isn’t the reason why Xue Yang is alive – because he was living before, and he could’ve kept on living without him – but that doesn’t mean that Xue Yang isn’t. Glad that he was picked up, glad that he’s here, glad that he’s learning demonic cultivation and has Shifu and A-Yuan and all of the others.
(And that’s getting a little too close to sappy so he shuts that part down firmly.)
“You… Jins are the reason why A-Yuan won’t ever be as fat as your ugly little baby,” he says, and the man frowns. “We give him extra food and shit but he won’t ever be fat even though he’s like two and he’s supposed to be fat. Who told you there’s an army here? Sect Leader Jin?”
Literally the only reason he’s calling him that and not by his name because fuck respect is that, uh, Xue Yang doesn’t actually know Sect Leader Jin’s name.
“Yes,” says Jin Zixuan, and he says it quietly – he’s frowning, looking away from Xue Yang. The others are moving and maybe they should catch up, but Xue Yang’s not moving until he does. “He is… my father. I am to be the next leader of Lanling Jin, and I will not…” He shakes his head. “This isn’t acceptable.”
Huh. The next leader, huh?
Xue Yang smiiiles, and takes a small step forward. Jin Zixuan looks a little unnerved, but he doesn’t step back. “Have you heard of Chang Cian?” he asks, and watches as Jin Zixuan’s face pales. “An aaaaawful man. Dead, now. Isn’t that fortunate?”
He makes his red eyes go wide, innocent – completely unbelievable, of course. “I think that anyone who’s gonna be a sect leader should remember that. It’s a good lesson!”
Jin Zixuan takes a step back. Xue Yang grins in triumph.
Wen Ning rests a cold, corpse hand on his shoulder, coming out of nowhere. “Are you alright?” he asks, looking between the two of them before his gaze rests on Xue Yang.
He turns his grin on him. “Yeah,” he says, cheerful. “We were just about to catch up to Shifu.”
A-Yuan does end up getting to hold Jin Ling, in the end. He forces Xue Yang to sit down with him and help him hold the ugly chubby little baby, who grabs and tugs at their hair and tries to stick it in his ugly baby mouth and babbles at them. He seems to like A-Yuan well enough, but Xue Yang wrinkles up his nose and glances at Jiang Yanli, who is standing by them, watching with a careful eye. “Can he talk yet?” he asks.
Jiang Yanli nods. “Yes,” she says, smiling at him, which he doesn’t… like. “Just a few words, he doesn’t really understand anything yet. He can stand and walk if he’s leaning on something, too!”
She sounds so proud, so happy and pleased, and Xue Yang almost wants to ask to see it but then he realizes that the Burial Mounds really, really aren’t a good place for a baby to work on walking. Or to like. Be sat down anywhere at all, even if they can sit, so no wonder they’re just passing Jin Ling around from person to person.
Instead, he just sort of nods and watches A-Yuan and Jin Ling, who babble at each other – A-Yuan is using a high-pitched baby voice and Jin Ling is a baby, possibly making some words passable as ‘Mama’ if you’re the kind of person that squints at babble like that to try to find meaning. A-Yuan is… is happy, so there’s. That. At least. Xue Yang frowns.
He glances over at Jiang Yanli again, and her gaze is focused on the two kids.
Xue Yang coughs – she doesn’t look at him.
“Hey,” he says – she doesn’t look at him.
Fuck, what was the formal title here? Um… “Madam… Jin?” he tries, and she doesn’t look at him.
“Jiang Yanli,” he says, even if that feels a bit weird, and she still doesn’t look at him, but her smile is growing bigger, creeping up her face, and fuck, she’s Shifu’s sister, isn’t she? God. Fuck this.
“…Auntie,” he spits out, begrudgingly, and she turns to him, smile lighting up her whole face.
Fuck, what was he even going to ask? Uh. Shit. Oh! “Uh, your… husband,” he says, because he’s not calling that man Uncle, fuck that, “said that he’s the next sect leader. Does that mean Jin Ling will be after him?”
She looks a little puzzled by the question, but nods. “Yes, he will.” Jiang Yanli- or… Auntie, ugh, is clearly waiting for an answer, for a reason, but he doesn’t give her one.
“I just wasn’t sure, I never met any cultivators before Shifu before,” he says, going for wide-eyed and innocent and lying through his teeth, but she just looks amused and reaches over to pat his head.
“Okay, if you say so.”
He doesn’t resist the urge to give her a glare at that, which just makes her laugh, and he pointedly looks away from her to focus on A-Yuan and the ugly baby Jin Ling.
If he’s gonna be sect leader someday, and he’s young and like… impressionable and shit, maybe Xue Yang can like… have an in.
Or he could just kill him early if it looks like he’s gonna follow in the Jin sect footsteps.
They stay for dinner, for Jiang- Auntie, because she’s refused to acknowledge him until he’s called her such like, three times by now, to help make dinner – she has a special soup recipe she came very prepared to make, and it makes Shifu literally cry.
It’s. Not the kind of crying he can make fun of so he just kind of awkwardly shuffles away. It is really good, though, when he tries it, so that’s… something, at least.
“You need to thank her for the soup,” Shifu insists, so Xue Yang draaags his feet, A-Yuan at his side, when dinner is done.
She’s talking to her brother, to Sect Leader Jiang, while Jin Zixuan walks by them to go apparently corner Shifu for some kind of discussion. “Thank you!” A-Yuan chirps, a big grin on his face. “It was really good! Was even better this time!”
This time? Xue Yang eyes his little brother, not sure when he had this soup before, but like, whatever. “Yeah, thank you,” he says, glancing at her but not looking at her head on.
She smiles at them, but something in her gaze is sparkling – the kind of sparkle Shifu has, sometimes, and it makes him very wary. “Thank you, what?” she asks.
A-Yuan beams up at her. “Thank you, Auntie!”
Auntie turns expectant eyes on Xue Yang, and he frowns, scuffing his foot in the dirt. “Thank you, Auntie,” he grinds out, and she takes their bowls.
“I’ll cook for you any time I can,” she promises, but if she was going to say more, she doesn’t get to finish – her brother moves and is in their faces.
“Wait a moment,” says Sect Leader Jiang, and he’s scowling at them. He directs his gaze at Xue Yang – A-Yuan is busy hiding behind the teen, hands curling in his robes. “If she’s Auntie, then what am I?”
Xue Yang blinks at him. Is this a trick question? “Sect Leader Jiang,” he says, because, what, does the man expect him to call him by his actual name? That feels really fucking weird.
The stern man turns his eyes on A-Yuan. “Who am I?” he asks.
A-Yuan looks uncertain, but after a glance up at Xue Yang, mimics. “Um, Sect Leader Jiang,” he says.
Sect Leader Jiang’s face does this weird kind of thing that almost makes it look like he’s upset, and he turns to Auntie. “Why are you Auntie, and I’m Sect Leader Jiang?” he asks, and she laughs.
Wait – did the man want to be Uncle?
Fat load of THAT happening.
Xue Yang and A-Yuan end up joining the group to see them off – well, A-Yuan wants to go, and Xue Yang is dragged along because This Is His Life Now. Wen Qing and Wen Ning come, too. It’s funny, watching Jin Zixuan and Sect Leader Jiang act awkward around them – they don’t seem to know how to act, which really summarized their interactions with every single Wen today. It was pretty entertaining.
Auntie is nice and smiley the whole way, occasionally checking in on the sleeping Jin Ling that Shifu is holding on the way down, and Xue Yang wonders if her face hurts from smiling that much. Does she have to do like, exercises in the morning?
Fortunately, good-byes center more on them saying goodbye to A-Yuan and Shifu. Yes, they say good-bye to Wen Ning and Wen Qing as well, and Auntie even gives them hugs (Wen Qing turns a little pink and oh, Xue Yang is going to remember that). Xue Yang is giving Sect Leader Jiang and Jin Zixuan a quick bow to hopefully stop any conversation right in its tracks when Auntie swoops in and gives him a hug.
She hugs him, pulling him in and squeezing him tight. “It was very nice to meet you, A-Yang,” she tells him, warm and genuine.
He thinks. His face is hot. He hopes he’s not that red. “Um. You, too,” he says. She doesn’t let go. “…Auntie,” he finishes, and she releases him to beam at him and then scoops up A-Yuan next to press kisses all over his face while he giggles in delight.
Xue Yang slides next to Shifu for some… vague sort of maybe hiding, and squints at the baby in his arms. “Bye, ugly baby,” he says.
Shifu frowns at him. “Don’t call your cousin that,” he says, ignoring the fact that said ugly baby has a piece of Shifu’s hair in his mouth and is attempting to chew it rapidly before they go.
“Not my cousin,” he tells him. “Fine. Bye, gross baby.”
Jin Ling pulls the hair out of his mouth for long enough to blow a spit bubble – when it pops, drool gets all over his face, and he looks comically surprised. Xue Yang can’t help it, and laughs.
The four are gone, lifting off on their swords – the other five are trucking back up the hill, or, well, four of them are walking and A-Yuan has firmly planted himself in Xue Yang’s arms which sucks because he’s kind of heavy – when Shifu turns to Xue Yang. “Hey,” he says, and his eyes are searching. “What did you say to the peacock?”
Is he going to get into trouble for threatening him? Seriously? Xue Yang scowls. “Nothing that wasn’t true,” he says, which is a lie.
Shifu considers him for a moment, letting him sweat, and then reaches over and ruffles his hair with a grin. “Thanks, A-Yang,” he says. “He’s got a few ideas that might help us.”
Xue Yang stops. A little startled. Only starts moving when A-Yuan kicks him with a “Gege, go!” which means Xue Yang scowls at him and leans over to lick his cheek and that makes A-Yuan shriek and try to wiggle out of his arms but ohhh nooo that’s such a long drop are you suuuuuure-
“Dad, help me!” cries A-Yuan, and that’s how they end up playing a game of keepaway up the hill which ends when Shifu licks a giant stripe across Xue Yang’s hair and he recoils in disgust and Shifu snatches A-Yuan right out of his arms.
“We win!” says Shifu.
“We win!” says A-Yuan.
“Fuck you,” says Xue Yang, trying to get spit out of his hair.