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Longer Than Numerous Promises and Memories

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Jin Ling has never been so exhausted in his life. Even when Jin Guanyao had held a cord to his neck, even when he had cried on the docks in front of all the Sect leaders. He feels like someone has tied rocks to all his limbs, and then pushed him to the ground.

He isn’t sad, though. The work he’s doing feels good, and the council members are learning to respect him, although some more grudgingly than others. Even if Jin Ling hasn’t slept normally for nearly a month, and even if he skips meals more often than not, he feels good. The people, when he goes into towns and cities, greet him with smiles and little gifts rather than their initial mistrust. Every time he goes into a town and sees the people laughing and happy, he feels good.

The only downside to the whole “clan leader” thing is that he hasn’t seen his friends in ages. Jingyi and Zizhen have been busy training, and Sizhui has been off the map for months. He, Jingyi and Zizhen write letters back and forth occasionally, but none of them have even heard from Sizhui. Jingyi assures them that he isn’t dead, however, because if he was “Hangguan-Jun would know and then all of Cloud Recesses would know and everything would get really, really, bad really fast.”

All of this culminated into a day, three weeks ago, when both Zizhen and Jingyi had written in no uncertain terms that they would be visiting Carp Tower. They expected the Madam Jin to request a day off, and they had sent word through Hangguang-Jun, hoping to reach Sizhui.

Jin Ling had written back, declining their request to visit in language that would’ve made his Uncle blush. In tiny letters at the bottom, he had added “I will set out three extra plates. Do not be late.”
Today, Jin Ling had the day off. Today, he was bouncing impatiently on his toes at the entrance to Carp Tower, his gaze sweeping the skyline for any sign of Lan white or Ouyang blue. The servants that passed gave him fond looks behind his back, clearly pleased that the Young Lord Jin was out of the council rooms.

Jingyi came first, unsurprisingly, from the South. Jin Ling stopped bouncing as his friend screeched to a stop besides him, his hair a wild mess.

“Sect Leader Zewu-Jun and Chief Cultivator Hangguang-Jun send their regards and thank Sect Leader Jin for his hospitality,” Jingyi spits out, dropping into a bow even as his eyes sparkle with mischief. Jin Ling barely keeps the smile off his own face long enough for a reply.

“Sect Leader Jin welcomes you to Carp Tower.”

The two boys stare solemnly at each other for a moment, before Jingyi’s mouth twitches and they fall into fits of stifled laughter. 

“God, thats such bullshit,” Jin Ling gasps, reaching out to pull Jingyi into a hug. “Do you know when Zizhen is coming?”

Jingyi shakes his head, still giggling. “No idea. He has a little more ways to travel, doesn’t he?”

Jin Ling nods in agreement. He already feels lighter with Jingyi here, and as they turn to watch for Zizhen, he curls a hand into Jingyi’s pristine robes.

After a few seconds of silence, Jingyi speaks up. “Hows the life of a Sect Leader treating you? Are there any old men I have to beat up?”

Jin Ling laughs, but hesitates. He doesn’t want to burden Jingyi so early into a perfect day. He is saved by the appearance of Zizhen, his blue robes sticking out in the gray sky. Zizhen is as bright as always as they go through the formal greetings. He pulls Jin Ling into a tight hug as soon as they’re finished, his hair in Jin Ling’s mouth.

“You look skinny,” Zizhen whispers into Jin Ling’s ear. “We’ll make you eat today, Madame Jin.”
Jin Ling pretends to hit him, but the concern is appreciated. Zizhen and Jingyi flawlessly pull off  an elaborate salute, finished with a handstand, which Jingyi does perfectly. Jin Ling watches with amusement, and if Zizhen claims that someone pushed him over in the handstand, well, no one can prove it was him.

Even though things are easier with his friends here, even though they laugh as they always have, there’s a conspicuous hole in their group. When Jin Ling notices Jingyi glance at the horizon for the hundredth time, he asks the question weighing on everyone’s mind.

“You really haven’t heard anything?” 

Jingyi shakes his head, suddenly subdued. “No one has. Hangguang-Jun said he would tell me if he heard anything, but there haven’t been letters in ages. Not even Master Wei received anything. Last I knew, Sizhui was in a town east of Yiling to track down a ghost or something, but that was nearly five months ago.”

Zizhen sighs, pulling a worn paintbrush out of his sleeve and idly using it to attempt to tame Jingyi’s hair. “I hope he’s okay. The Ghost General is with him, should something have happened…”

Jin Ling still feels himself tense when the Ghost General is mentioned, but he manages not to start shouting.

“Worrying here won’t do us any good,” he says instead. “Come inside, I can have some tea sent up and you can tell me all about whatever boring training you’ve been doing.”
Jingyi protests this injustice loudly, his voice echoing across the stone of Carp Tower as Jin Ling leads them to Lotus Pavillion. On the way, he catches a servant by the sleeve and makes a request for tea. He also tells them that if Lan Sizhui shows up, he should be shown to Lotus Pavillion with no questions asked.

“Jin Ling,” Zizhen asks as soon as they’re settled, “what have you been up too? Surely your stories are much more interesting than ours. Are there ladies falling at your feet, Sect Leader Jin? Do you have them waiting on you hand and foot?”
Jin Ling splutters, his face flushing a deep red as Jingyi roars with laughter. 

Ladies? ” He manages to choke out, hitting Jingyi’s knee to get him to shut up. Jingyi hits him back, but Zizhen is already talking.

“Oh, of course it’d be all right if it was men, too. You understand, you’re such a tragic hero, Jin Ling. An orphan, raised by your Uncle and thrust into leadership at such a young age… it practically writes itself. Maybe there’s a lady, or better, a servant who catches your eye and who brings you food at midnight. Your illicit meetings-”
“There’s nothing of the sort!” Jin Ling  cries, reaching across the low table to slap a hand over Zizhen’s mouth. “Honestly, where do you get these ideas? Does your father know you read this kind of stuff?”

“Darling, my father supplies it.”

 

 Jingyi makes a weird noise, half a snort and half a cough, from under the table where he’s shaking with silent laughter. Tears roll down his face, and Jin Ling buries his head in his hands.

“I don’t know why I like you so much,” he murmurs sullenly. “You’re worse than some of the old men. I could have you thrown down the steps, you know.”

“Who’s getting thrown down the steps?”

Jin Ling’s head snaps up so fast it makes him dizzy. Jingyi slams his head on the underside of the table, and slides out from under it muttering curses.

“Sizhui!” Zizhen gasps, eyes wide in shock. Jin Ling is speechless. 

Sizhui stands in the doorway, nearly a head taller than he was the last time Jin Ling saw him. His eyes are dark and serious, but the same gentle smile plays on his lips. His shoulders are slumped with exhaustion, but he seems to buzz with an energy that he had never had. His hair is still tied back neatly, but it’s shorter, and rough at the edges. 

“Sizhui, your clothes… ” Jingyi murmurs, his voice awed.

“Ah,” Sizhui says, glancing down at his deep red robes. “Is it too much? I’m still not sure-”

“You look incredible,” Jin Ling interrupts, his voice suspiciously hoarse. “I mean…”

Thankfully, no one bullies him about his slip-up. They all seem as awestruck as he feels. Sizhui laughs awkwardly, scuffing one foot in the doorway.

Zizhen is the first to move, throwing himself up and at Sizhui, engulfing him in a hug. Jingyi follows him, and Jin Ling wraps all of them in his arms as best he can. He feels good right now, easy and centered, like standing on solid ground for the first time. Someone in the pile sniffles, and then there’s shouting as Jingyi reaches back to hit Sizhui on the arm, elbowing Jin Ling in the face as he does.

“Jingyi!” Zizhen admonishes, cradling Sizhui like the treasure he is. “Don’t break the Sect Leader!”

Jingyi just rubs at his face with his sleeve, sniffling again. Sizhui worms out of Zizhen’s embrace, moving to grasp Jingyi’s hands.

“Jingyi, don’t cry, please? It’s okay.” Sizhui is as gentle as always while wiping Jingyi’s tears. Jin Ling has missed him so much.

“No, you could have messaged us!” Jingyi hiccups. His hitching breaths do nothing to strengthen his argument. “Do you know how worried Hanguang-Jun was? Even Zewu-Jun was anxious, and you didn’t write any of us.”

Sizhui shuts his eyes briefly, tilting his head back. Jin Ling can just read the whispered apology on his lips.

“I know,” Sizhui murmurs. “I’m so sorry, Jingyi. Zizhen and Rulan, you too. It’s been…”
Sizhui trails off, and the room is filled with Jingyi’s sniffles. Jin Ling sinks to the floor, too tired to remain standing. Everyone else follows his lead, and they all end up in a pile on the floor of Lotus Pavillion.

The servants bring the tea while Jingyi is still crying, and it’s only when Zizhen starts squirming that Jin Ling thinks about moving.

“Sizhui, your bag is stabbing me,” Zizhen complains, sitting up. “What’s in there, anyway?”

Sizhui straightens, pulling Jingyi up with him. Jingyi has stopped crying, but he clings to Sizhui’s hand with a pout. 

“It’s a long story,” Sizhui says, his face grim. “I see that Sect Leader Jin has provided us tea. It would be a waste to let it get cold.”

“Rule number 36,” Jingyi says quietly. 

“Do not be wasteful,” Sizhui finishes, smiling warmly at Jingyi. The two share a look, with more understanding and love in it than Jin Ling can bear to watch. He turns away, fussing over the tea. Zizhen follows him, settling down at the table and arranging his robes neatly. Jin Ling doesn’t miss the fact that Zizhen has sat directly next to him, leaving two seats next to each other for Sizhui and Jingyi. The two Lan’s (or, well, Sizhui is a Wen, kind of,) sit nicely, Jingyi’s hand gripping Sizhui’s.

“I am truly sorry,” Sizhui starts, “that I couldn’t contact you. Uncle Ning and I were travelling so far each day that we’d usually fall asleep as soon as we stopped, and then once we reached Nightless city, there was much to be done. It was…”

Sizhui pauses, fiddling with his teacup. He suddenly reaches behind himself, pulling his black bag out from seemingly nowhere. With a straight face, he upends it over the floor.

At least ten leather-bound books fall out, all stained black and all embossed with a golden sun. JIn Ling’s breath catches.

“The Qishan Wens were wiped out,” Sizhui says. “But there were smaller groups of Wens scattered around. Some were deserters who hadn’t agreed with Wen Ruhao’s ideas, and some were outcasted. Either way, there were still copies of their medical texts and private journals. Of course, many of these Wens were still found and taken to the labor camps, but some managed to hide their books before the soldiers came. Uncle Ning and I had a lot of trouble finding these.”

“Have you read them?” Zizhen asks, reaching to grab one of the books. The pages are so brittle Jin Ling fears they’ll break in his hand.

“Yes, all except one.” Sizhui says. He suddenly looks shy, reaching into his robe and pulling out another journal. It looks the same as the others, but there’s a stain on the pages that looks horrifically close to blood. “This was a journal kept by the people of the labor camps. Uncle Ning said his sister kept it, and gave it to Master Wei when she… when she died. Master Wei gave it Hanguang-Jun. I haven’t read it, because I wanted to read it with all of you.”

Jin Ling’s stomach swims. He only knows about the labor camps through stories, and those were enough to make him sick. He has a sudden, dawning realization.

“Sizhui,” He manages to choke out, “were you in ..?”

Jingyi gasps, his face paling. They’ve all heard the stories of the labor camps, more since Jin Guanyao’s death and the return of the Yiling Patriarch, but the stories are so terrible they’re almost unbelievable.

“I don’t know,” Sizhui answers. “That’s why I wanted to read it with you here. I couldn’t with Uncle Ning. He didn’t want to read it, he said he already knew enough. But I don’t know anything, and so…” 

Jin Ling bows his head, shame sweeping through his body. Even if he had only been a child when the labor camps were in use, the burden of them falls solely on the Jin clan. 

“Read it.” 

Sizhui looks surprised at his harsh tone, but turns towards the book. He traces the edges of the sun carefully, almost reverently. With a deep breath, he opens the journal and begins reading.

There’s been rumors of bad Wens in town. I don’t know about it, but thats what sister says. We have to hide all the time now. Uncle Four is keeping us safe for now, along with Granny and Yanmei and sister. Yanmei is scared of the soldiers. Sister keeps her asleep a lot, because she keeps saying she’d rather die than bring a child into the world. I don’t think it’s that bad. A baby might be fun.

 

  • Wen Ning

 

Nobody speaks, not even Jingyi. Sizhui looks shell-shocked, his eyes wide and his hands shaking. Jin Ling pushes his teacup away, his stomach twisting hard enough to make him faint.

Sizhui flips the page, and his brow furrows in confusion.

“This is from years later,” he says, his voice low. “And it’s a different person.

“Maybe it was passed around?” Zizhen says, sounding completely unsure. “And from the sounds of it, they didn’t have a lot of time to write.”

Sizhui continues to read.

The Qishan Wen sect has fallen. Wen Ning says it’s a good thing, but he doesn’t understand whats happening. I received a letter from someone who said that they’re rounding up the remaining Wen’s and taking them somewhere. I’m trying to keep us both safe, but I fear we’re too late. Grandmother was gone when we went to check, and Uncle Four’s house was burnt to the ground. There’s been no sign of Yanmei or her child. The best hope I have is Lotus Pier. Jiang Cheng owes us a debt.

 

  • Wen Qing

 

Sizhui turns the page, and his face pales. Without a word, he turns the book to face everyone. 

Jin Ling flinches. The page is filled with large, ungraceful handwriting. The ink isn’t black, but a rusty red. It looks like…

“Is that blood?” Jingyi asks faintly.

Sizhui turns the book around and reads.

This is hell. What have we done, that we’re stuck here? Wen Ning keeps saying that his sister will find us, but what can she do? The Jin’s have an iron grip on this place. The men go to work every day. I’ve thought-

Sizhui’s voice breaks, and he drops the book with a sob. Jingyi is instantly fluttering over him, brushing his hair back, and muttering soothing words.

“I can’t,” Sizhui whispers. “I can’t, Jingyi, please read it. I can’t do it.”

Jingyi hushes him, picking up the book with only mild disgust. He scans over the words, and Jin Ling watches his face fall.

“I’ve thought about killing myself too many times to count,” Jingyi reads, tears running down his face. “But I can’t leave my- my A-Yuan alone in this dreadful place. Wen Yanmei.”

Sizhui makes a horrible sound, something between a groan and a cry, and collapses in on himself. Jin Ling watches in horror, because despite all the things they’ve been through, he’s never seen Sizhui as undone as this. Shame floods his body as he realizes that this was his fault, the fault of Jin Guanyao and Jin Guangsheng, people he called family. People who held him and gave him candy at every meal. Jin Ling digs his fingers into his legs so hard he breaks skin. Never again, he vows. Not ever again.

“Sizhui, should I keep going?” Jingyi asks quietly, running one hand through his friend’s hair. Sizhui nods, still shaking with tears.

“This one is months later.” 

Yanmei is gone. Wen Ning is as well. I’m taking care of the child as best I can, but it’s too cold and damp, and I am far too old. The child seems half-dead anyway. Part of me wonders if it would be better. The little thing barely has a name. His mother gave him one, but she refused to give a courtesy name. It’s just as well. He won’t survive long enough to need it.

Jin Ling doesn’t know how Jingyi keeps his voice steady, especially when Sizhui crawls into his lap, tears wetting his robes. Jingyi reaches into Sizhui’s sleeve with a sad smile, pulling out a battered little butterfly toy made of grass, and presses it into Sizhui’s hand. Sizhui holds it to his chest like a lifeline.

“There’s not that much more. This one is by Master Wei, Sizhui.”

  The Wens are adjusting nicely to the Burial Mounds. Jiang Cheng agreed to bring us some good food, so that they can heal up better. A-Yuan is starting to walk, finally. It’s a little late, but Yanli says it’s good that he’s even learning. Wen Ning is different, and I feel bad that he’s so pale in comparison to when he was alive, but Wen Qing is grateful. A-Yuan is talking, too. Just barely, but he can already say my name! Grandmother says it’s just babble, but I’m his gege, so I know best. We all dote on him, but he deserves it. He’s the cutest baby I’ve ever seen. I wish I could get him more toys, but Wen Qing made him a little doll out of some rags and stuffed it with leaves. He loves that thing. He takes it everywhere, and tugs on our clothes to introduce it to us. He won’t leave until we say hello. It’s adorable.

 “There, Sizhui. You were always desperate for attention, thats nothing new.” Jingyi’s voice is light, and Sizhui laughs wetly.

Jin Ling’s chest decompresses at the sound, and at his right, Zizhen breathes a sigh of relief.

“Alright, the next one is by Madam Wen again. Come on, sit up a bit Sizhui, my lungs are being crushed. There, thats better. Alright, here we go.”

We’re leaving. Me and A-Ning and the rest. Master Wei can’t live like this, being hunted forever and ever because of us. It’s over. They’ve won. A-Yuan is… we’re hoping Master Wei reads this. A-Yuan is hidden in the tree by the lotus fields. He’s our only hope now. Our A-Yuan, know that Granny and Auntie and Uncle didn’t want to go. We just want to keep you safe.

 

  • Wen Qing

 

“I remember this part,” Sizhui says suddenly, his voice airy and almost gone. “The tree… I remember. And Auntie Red…”

“There’s one last entry,” Jingyi says, flipping through the book. “It’s by Master Wei.”

A-Yuan. I’m sorry. I couldn’t protect you. Any of you. Wen Qing is right that its over, but its over on my terms. No one else’s. I failed, but I’ll make sure someone remembers us. It ends tonight.

“That’s the date of the Nightless City bloodbath,” Zizhen remarks, leaning over to look at the page. “I’m guessing Master Wei didn’t read Madame Qing’s notes. Sizhui, how long were you in that tree?”

Sizhui shrugs. He’s still crying, but at least the heaving sobs from before have stopped. “I don’t know. Hanguang-jun… he didn’t tell me a lot of things, but he didn’t know that. His best guess was four days, because…”

“Because you lived.” Jin Ling interrupts. There’s something coursing through his veins, lighting him up like Zidian and make him ache to move, or do something. “Because at age four, you were put in a tree to either be saved or die of dehydration, because my sect was targeting innocent people. I am-” Jin Ling breaks off, the lightening rising to his chest and cutting off his voice. He brushes a hand over his face angrily, and it comes away wet.

“No, no, Rulan, I would never blame you, you didn’t- you didn’t do anything, you were as young as I was.” Sizhui scrambles to his knees, lunging across the floor to grab Jin Ling’s hands. “It’s not your fault. It couldn’t be.”

“It is,” Jin Ling gasps. “It is. We cannot ignore massacres because no one is alive to answer to them anymore. Lanling Jin takes full responsibility for the massacre of the Yiling Wens, and I will atone.”

Everyone is silent, save Jin Ling’s shaky breaths as he cries. He jumps as Sizhui’s arms encircle him, at first hesitantly, because as much as Sizhui loves holding people’s hands, he is still a Lan, and a Lan raised by Hanguang-Jun.

“Rulan,” Sizhui whispers, his voice a soothing croon. “I think it’s been a long couple months for both of us, hm? Have you been eating and sleeping, cousin?”

“Have you?” Jin Ling retorts pathetically. “You feel like a skeleton.” He sniffles, probably dragging snot all over Sizhui’s nice robes, and straightens.

“You both need to eat,” Zizhen interjects. “Take better care of yourselves or I’ll call both your respective parents here.”
“You could just call Sandu Shengshou and get two uncles for the price of one,” Jingyi mutters. “Your family tree is like a ball of yarn.”

Sizhui giggles suddenly, his eyes crinkling in his sweet smile. The sight of it is like sunshine after rain, and Jin Ling smiles back automatically.

 “Oh, Rulan! Can you imagine-” he breaks into laughter again, gasping for breath to finish his sentence. “Could you picture Sect Leader Jiang’s face if I called him Uncle ?”

Jin Ling goes through a very complicated bit of mental gymnastics, and then he finally understands. “Oh, yes . Sizhui, please, please, I’ll pay you money. I have money, please do it. Oh my god, do it in front of him and Master Wei. Uncle would go crazy.”

“Sizhui is a proper Lan,” Jingyi butts in. “He wouldn’t do something like that unless we got him drunk.”

Zizhen gasps, making eye contact with Jin Ling. His eyes sparkle. “Jin Ling, Sect Leader Jin, can we please get the Lans drunk? I will take full responsibility if we get caught, but it would be so fun.”

Sizhui hesitates, while Jingyi cheers. “Oh, bring it on. You better have some of the good stuff here, Jin Ling, because once you’ve had Emperor’s Smile-” Jingyi pauses, and looks at Sizhui, whose cheeks are pink with shock. 

“I mean,” Jingyi coughs. “I couldn’t possibly, Zizhen. That’s against the first rule of the Lan Sect of Gusu.”

“Let’s do it,” Sizhui blurts. 

Jin Ling is certain the world is ending. Sizhui is the most innocent of all of them, the one who follows the rules the most and is always concerned about impressing his elders. Jingyi makes a choked noise, which Jin Ling takes to mean he’s just as shocked.

“I just found out my mom would have rather died than had me, and that my entire family sacrificed themselves so I would live.” Sizhui deadpans in response to their amazed silence. “I think I deserve this. Besides, we’re not in Cloud Recesses, and I’m a Wen.”

Yes,” Zizhen whispers, his face conveying pure elation. “A drinking party, then! Jin Ling, bring out your finest liquor and lets get the lightweights wasted!”

The lightweights, as it turn out, last a surprisingly long time. JIngyi manages two cups of liquor, and Sizhui lasts a cup and a half. Sizhui is an adorable drunk, all cuddly and giggly and smiles. Jin Ling ends up with him sprawled across his lap, Sizhui absently waving his little grass butterfly in the air. He watches as the candlelight traces patterns on the wings of the toy, and Sizhui gasps in amazed shock when Jin Ling points out the shadow on the ceiling.

“Rulan,” Sizhui whines, tugging at his robes. “Rulan, I want to see the rabbits. Let’s go to the rabbits.”

Jingyi, who is clumsily wrestling Zizhen, looks up. “Yes! Sizhui, lets go!”

Zizhen rolls over Jingyi, pinning him to the floor. Jingyi does not seem at all bothered by this, and he goes limp under Zizhen’s weight. Zizhen looks at Jin Ling with exasperation. Jin Ling just lifts an eyebrow, but he’s secretly pleased that Jingyi was forced onto Zizhen and he gets Sizhui.

Sweet, sweet Sizhui. Sizhui who is now rolling up Jin Ling’s sleeve and fishing out bits of paper.

“What are you doing?” Jin Ling demands, grabbing at the paper. Sizhui rolls out of the way, flopping onto the floor. 

“‘M writing a letter,” Sizhui explains. “To Dad and Father. Jingyi made me.”

Jingyi clearly did not make him, as he has Zizhen’s sleeve in his mouth. Zizhen is pulling to try to get it out, but Jingyi just growls and bites down harder. Either way, Jin Ling is not an idiot, and he knows that if he lets Sizhui send a drunk letter to his parents, the Lanling Jin Sect will have a startling amount of prestigious guests. 

“Let’s write later Sizhui, okay?” Jin Ling says. “Do you want to play with Fairy?”

Sizhui lets go of the papers, albeit reluctantly. “No. Dad doesn’t like Fairy.”

“Do you like Fairy?” Jin Ling asks. He tries not to feel offended on his dogs behalf, but Fairy is a good dog. She’s never done anything to anyone in her life ever.

“I like Fairy!” Jingyi says, spitting out Zizhen’s sleeve. “One time, she let me pet her and it was so soft. Like softer than the bunnies.”

“I got buried in bunnies once,” Sizhui murmurs. His eyes fill with tears. “I miss the bunnies.”

Jin Ling panics, and shoots Zizhen a look. Zizhen shrugs very helpfully and returns to poking Jingyi. Jingyi has apparently had enough, and is tracing patterns on the floor, singing quietly to himself.

“Rulan,” Sizhui cries, tugging on the hem of his robes. “Rulan, I’m hungry. Let’s get something to eat. Carrots!”

Jin Ling stifles a sigh. “No one likes carrots except for you, Sizhui. Do you want bread?”

Sizhui turns to face him, and the grin on his face is bright enough to light all of Carp Tower. Jin Ling flushes.

“No, I-” 

Perhaps luckily, or not, the Lan sleep cycle kicks in, and both he and Jingyi fall asleep instantly. Sizhui curls up on Jin Ling’s leg and starts snoring. 

“I thought we were going to have to tie them down,” Zizhen mutters. He has another cup of alcohol in his hand, which he offers to Jin Ling. Jin Ling carefully places Sizhui’s head on the floor and stands, accepting the cup.

“I haven’t had that much fun in a while, though,” Jin Ling murmurs. The alcohol tastes grainy, and he suppresses a grimace.

“I understand,” Zizhen says. Jin Ling looks up sharply.

“Your father?”

“We do not expect him to outlast the year.” 

Zizhen meets Jin Ling’s eyes, and for a moment they share in the burden of a hundred lives. Jin Ling remembers clearly the days after Jin Guanyao’s death, when people had sworn at him, called him a child, and threatened him. Uncle had been constantly angry then, Zidian’s purple sparks always in Jin Ling’s sight. He had been scared, but Uncle had been behind him and Zewu-Jun had assisted him as well.

“When it’s time,” Jin Ling says, “I will help, in whatever way I can. Do not be afraid to call me.”

Zizhen nods, and then downs the entire cup of alcohol in one gulp. Jin Ling grins into the bottom of his own cup and follows suit.