The nighthunt was spoiled from the very beginning.
First of all, what the terrified villagers reported as a horde of fierce corpses was either a group of incredibly fast corpses indeed or nothing more than a bunch of hungry wild pigs and because for hours Jin Ling and his disciples failed to catch up with them and determine it, they had to simply follow their prey.
They chased their target all the way to Yunmeng, where they flew right into an incessant drizzle. Light and harmless at first, soon it soaked through their clothes, making them shiver on their swords, angry, cold and wet.
They were flying good distance away from Lotus Pier, still not an hour passed when a group of purple-robed cultivators led by none other than Sandu Shengshou himself caught up with them.
Jin Ling grated his teeth, persistently pretending not to notice them for as long as he could.
It happened time and time again. He was the Sect Leader, for Heaven's sake! True, he was only eighteen years of age, but a Sect Leader nonetheless! Uncle of all people should understand that he can handle his duties on his own, despite his young age. But no, every time he could he either found an excuse to pay Jin Ling a visit or just happened to go nighthunting in the same area as Jin Ling, so he could keep an eye on him. All. The. Time.
What was he, a baby that needed constant supervision? He couldn't even handle a stupid nighthunt on his own?
He heard Uncle calling his name from behind:
He halted his sword abruptly. It would seem even more childish if he tried to run away from Uncle's concern, even though that was all he wanted to do right now.
The rest of the Jin disciples stopped in mid-air together with him, grudgingly watching the group of cultivators from the Jiang Sect, who swept past them in pursuit of their prey.
Jin Ling was cold, angry, dripping wet and very much not in the mood for Uncle's lectures.
“Jin Ling” Jiang Cheng said, flying in front of him. No raindrops reached him; he must have had a rain-repelling talisman tucked somewhere in his robes.
The jealousy at such comfort only added to Jin Ling's foul mood.
“Uncle” he said “What are you doing here?”
Jiang Cheng lifted an eyebrow.
“We are in Yunmeng already, you know” he said “It's my place to be”
“It's my prey to hunt” Jin Ling snapped back “We can handle this”
“How long have you been flying?”
“What do you care?”
“You're soaked to the bone and a solid distance from Koi Tower” Jiang Cheng said “Let my people finish this, you and your men can come to Lotus Pier to dry off and rest”
“We don't need to rest” Jin Ling said; the other disciples momentarily washed off the hopeful expressions that appeared on their faces after Jiang Cheng's offer.
“A-Ling, I know you could keep up the chase until you drop” Jiang Cheng said, moving closer “But have some sense, think of your men. Don't play the hero. All you'll get is a fever”
“Since when you're advocating for not playing the hero?” Jin Ling asked “My hunt, my rules. We don't need your help”
What will it take for Uncle to finally shove off? Did he always have to doubt that Jin Ling can do anything on his own?
“S-Sect Leader, uh... maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a bit of a break in Lotus Pier?” spoke the disciple shivering the most violently and possessing the least common sense.
Jin Ling's head whipped in his direction. Great. Now, it looked like he can't even take care of his own subordinates. Who would have thought! Grown men, scared by a bit of rain and wind!
“Very well” he said sweetly “Let's take a break”
Not waiting for Uncle to take the lead, Jin Ling made a swift turn and glided in the direction of Lotus Pier. He felt his face burning in anger and embarrassment; raindrops were biting him in the face and the wet robes were clinging to his body. He has had enough of this day.
When they landed, he forced himself not to stomp away to his usual room like an angry teenager (which he definitely wasn't!) and patiently waited until Uncle gave orders and his cultivators were shown to where they could rest.
“I've had your room prepared” Jiang Cheng said.
“Thank you, how thoughtful” Jin Ling snarled “What would I do without you?”
“What are you talking about?” Jiang Cheng asked.
“I didn't ask for your aid!” Jin Ling burst “We were doing just fine until you showed up and interfered! Can't you let me do things on my own?”
“You and your men were tired, you've been flying for hours in the rain. I could spare a few disciples to relieve them” Jiang Cheng said “We're not robbing you of your glory, don't be childish”
“It's every nighthunt!” Jin Ling yelled “All the time. You're always nagging me, following me, sending people to keep an eye on me! Can't you just trust I can do things on my own, like Wei Wuxian? Can't you stop pestering me for a second?!”
That was the moment he allowed himself to stomp away, fleeing Uncle's burning glare.
He knew he was extremely rude and petty and childish; he knew that it wasn't nowhere near an appropriate way to address a Sect Leader or a member of his family. But gods! How long was he supposed to put up with it? He wasn't a baby anymore!
Entering his usual room, he got even more aggravated by the sight of a presciently provided heater and fresh, warm Jin sect robes waiting for him. Of course, Uncle thought of everything! Because Jin Ling clearly couldn't take care of himself on his own!
Just as he finished changing, there was a knock on his door. Jin Ling didn't feel like seeing anyone, especially Uncle, so after a short consideration, he fled through the window.
It was still raining; he couldn't stay outside, lest he wanted to look like a wet chicken again, so he lingered under the overhang for a second, before making up his mind and darting towards the Ancestral Hall, where he knew no one will look for him.
He shut the door and bowed in front of the tablets of his mother and grandparents, before starting to pace through the room, every step an irritated stamp.
“Is it really so hard to believe that I can handle things on my own?!” he vented towards the walls “Must he always be breathing down my neck?”
Jin Ling turned back towards the tablets.
“Why is he such a nag?” he asked “Huh? Why can't he be more like Wei Wuxian – he just points us what to fight and backs away, letting us take care of ourselves. Uncle Jin... Uncle Jin at least always let me do whatever I wanted”
As long as he didn't embarrass the Jin Sect (not that Uncle Jin was really the one to talk) Jin Ling was given liberty to do as he pleased.
Why couldn't Uncle Jiang be more like that?! Jin Ling thought, throwing his sword into the corner of the room to give vent to his emotions.
He paced back and forth, until he felt his irritation slightly decrease.
Of course, he knew it was Uncle's annoying way of showing he cared. But Jin Ling wasn't in the mood to pay mind to that.
He could no longer hear the rain drumming on the roof of the Ancestral Hall. When he opened the door, he saw it had already stopped raining. The sky was sunny, with scarce white clouds, as if the drizzle never happened. There wasn't a single paddle on the ground and the entire courtyard was completely... dry?
Jin Ling frowned. The rain wasn't heavy but for it to dry off as soon as it ended?
He stepped out of the room, only for something small and purple to collide with him, bounce off and dart to the right, disappearing behind the corner of the building.
“Hey!” Jin Ling called out.
The little disciple didn't reappear. Jin Ling decided to follow him. To run into a Sect Leader (literally!) and run off without a single word of apology! Bad luck, Jin Ling wasn't in the mood to forgo an offence.
When Jin Ling walked out from between the buildings, he noticed the small, purple-robed person, crouched on one of the piers. Their shoulders were shaking; the kid was definitely crying.
Jin Ling didn't really want to bully him. But the kid must be taught to show respect, even if for their own sake.
“Hey” he repeated, approaching the kid.
The little disciple sprung to his feet, turning around. His face was wet with tears; his eyes became even redder as he rubbed at them furiously with tiny fists.
They were still clenched into fists when the boy brought his hands in front of himself to salute Jin Ling.
“I am sorry, big brother” he said, his voice still choked “I hope you are unharmed”
“You should watch where you're going”
“Yes, big brother, I will be. I'm sorry”
Jin Ling observed the kid with curiosity. He was certain the boy wasn't here earlier, or at least he didn't see him during his last visit to Lotus Pier. Uncle hasn't mentioned admitting new junior disciples either.
“Why are you crying?” Jin Ling asked.
The boy stared at him as if Jin Ling discovered his deepest secret.
“Don't tell my parents” he whispered “I'm too big to cry. Don't tell them”
It's not like I even know who your parents are. How old are you even? Five, six?
“Don't worry, I won't” Jin Ling replied.
The kid tilted his head, curiosity getting the better of despair for a second.
“Big brother, what is your name?” he asked.
This kid... did not know who he was? Come on, he's been a Sect Leader for a few years now and it's not as though the Jin Sect's robes are the most inconspicious.
“My name is Jin Ru-...Cheng” Jin Ling changed his mind at the last moment. The boy has just stopped crying; if he knew he disrespected the Jin Sect Leader, a new wave of tears was bound to flow. Uncle's name was the first that came to his mind.
The kid's face brightened.
“My name is Cheng too!” he exclaimed.
“Really? What are the chances?” Jin Ling asked, sitting cross-legged in front of the boy “So, A-Cheng, what happened? Why are you upset?”
A-Cheng pouted, his expression now somehow familiar, but the next second his lips started trembling again and tears welled up in his eyes.
This time he managed to utter:
“F-Father made me give away Princess, Jasmine and Love”
Jin Ling raised his eyebrows.
“They are my dogs” A-Cheng explained.
“Of course they are” Jin Ling said “I have a dog too, you know? Her name's Fairy”
A-Cheng's eyes widened and he shook his head frantically.
“He's going to make you give Fairy away too” he said “He says they cannot stay here because A-Xian is scared of them”
“A-Xian?” Jin Ling repeated “Wei... Wuxian?”
“Father is bringing him here today”
Jin Ling's frown deepened. Why would someone bring Wei Wuxian to Lotus Pier? Was he injured? Or was he detained for some reason, not that it wasn't unthinkable? Uncle didn't say anything about this though.
“Well, I'm sure the Sect Leader will let you have your dogs back when Wei Wuxian leaves” he said.
The very idea of Uncle removing any dogs from Lotus Pier for the sake of Wei Wuxian seemed ridiculous. Jin Ling knew Uncle would rather have the Yilling Patriarch sleep outside in a tent, than get rid of the dogs, which incidentally were also a handy argument ending all squabbles with his ex-brother.
But A-Cheng shook his head once more.
“I asked that. He's staying forever” he said “Father says he will be my new brother”
Okay, now Jin Ling was confused. Just who was the kid's father? Did Uncle know about this? Did he allow it?
A slight commotion could be heard from the courtyard.
“Guess they're back” A-Cheng sniffled.
Letting him know that he will return in a moment, Jin Ling got up and walked over to have a look. He would very much like to have a few words with the boy's father as well.
A few disciples ran over to greet a man in exquisite purple robes. Jin Ling couldn't remember anyone in the Jiang Sect dressing like that, except maybe Uncle sometimes. The audacity! One might think the man was the Sect Leader himself!
In his arms, he was carrying a dirty, scrawny child, around A-Cheng's age.
Jin Ling couldn't hear the words spoken, but the man was clearly giving out orders to the disciples, before loudly calling out:
“Yanli, come here, please!”
A teenage girl appeared immediately; her face brightened by a smile.
But that wasn't right. There certainly wasn't any disciple named Yanli. Plus, who would dare...
“A-Li, take A-Xian and give him something to eat” the man said, placing the kid on the ground next to the girl.
A-Xian? What the Hell?
No, it can't be. It's too preposterous. He can't possibly... be looking at the childhood of his mom and uncles?
But... there was no other explanation. How? Something... something happened in the Ancestral Hall, didn't it?
The girl took the little boy – Wei Wuxian?! - away, the older man disappeared in one of the buildings as well and soon the courtyard was empty again.
Does that mean..?
Jin Ling turned back to look at the small, lonesome figure, once more crouching on the pier. He approached the boy slowly.
“Jiang Cheng?” he asked.
The boy looked up at him.
“Jiang Wanyin?” Jin Ling added.
It was surreal. But right now, he could already see the hints of familiar features in the boy's face. Uncle... Uncle was tiny.
Jin Ling sat next to him.
Shit. Should he say things? What if he messes something up in the future? Or maybe anything he could influence had already been influenced at his time?
But the boy... he was looking miserable. Jin Ling can't leave Uncle like that.
The boy was sitting with his knees brought under his chin, his hands wrapped around his legs. His eyes were already dry and now were simply fixed in the distance, staring sadly.
“Hey, Un-... A-Cheng” Jin Ling began carefully “You know what? When you're the Sect Leader, you can bring here as many dogs as you like”
Jiang Cheng looked at him oddly.
“Why would I be Sect Leader?” he asked “Father's the Sect Leader”
“Well, you know, when you...”
...get orphaned as a teenager, undertake the task of rebuilding your home while simultaneously fighting a war and making a name for yourself and the resurrected Jiang Sect in the world...
“I want my dogs now” Jiang Cheng pouted.
Poor kid. If he was as bad at making friends as the Uncle Jin Ling knew, he probably doesn't have a lot of them – dogs must have been his only companions. Jin Ling felt a wave of anger at the thought that the grandfather he never knew took away something so dear to Uncle, all for the sake of Wei Wuxian.
“You know, A-Cheng...” Jin Ling began once more “I'm new here and I don't know a lot of people... we could... hang out, if you want?”
“Hang out?” Jiang Cheng frowned “You mean like... friends?”
Jin Ling felt his throat clench at the boy's hopeful tone.
“Yeah, like friends” he said.
Jiang Cheng kneeled next to him, his eyes glimmering with joy and Jin Ling thought he might just cry, seeing Uncle like this.
“I can... I can show you the beach where we go to fly kites” Jiang Cheng said “Then I have to go back for supper, but we can hang out tomorrow too”
“Uh. Ah...” Jin Ling said “Well, I don't know how long I can stay here... but we will meet again, surely”
“Okay, come on” Uncle – Jiang Cheng (it was odd to think 'Uncle' of someone who only reached Jin Ling's hips) – stood up, impatiently shuffling his feet, waiting for Jin Ling to get up as well.
He showed him the beach and the stream and the forest, all the places Jin Ling knew so well because Jiang Cheng would take him there two decades from now.
They lingered at the beach until the sun began to set, Jiang Cheng showing Jin Ling the best spot to skip stones and helping him to find the pebbles which were best fit for that purpose.
At the ringing of the evening bell, they returned to the courtyard.
“Will you eat with us, brother Jin?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Jin Ling shook his head. He wasn't sure whether he already hasn't meddled with the past too much.
“I have to go” he said “But, I'll see you again... A-Cheng”
“Oh, okay” the boy's shoulders drooped slightly.
Jin Ling kneeled before him, placing one hand on Jiang Cheng's shoulder.
“I've... I... um. Take care, A-Cheng” he said.
What was he supposed to say? Stay strong? Be brave? He couldn't possibly tell him what the future had in store for him.
“You too, big brother. Say hi to Fairy” Jiang Cheng replied, before saluting and running off to his family.
Jin Ling got up.
Uncle... Uncle wasn't a mean child. He didn't seem half as spoiled as Jin Ling, quite the opposite. He clearly longed for company, maybe he just didn't know how to find it.
Something told Jin Ling he should to go back to the Ancestral Hall.
Before he walked inside, he took a good look at the room. Just as he expected, the three familiar tablets that stood at the front for as long as he could remember, weren't there yet.
Jin Ling entered the Ancestral Hall and closed the door, taking a last look at the old Lotus Pier.
When he turned around, two new tablets have appeared.
The room has already changed as well. It was clear that it was remade to resemble the old one, but it wasn't exactly the same.
Jin Ling didn't manage to open the door, before he saw a silhouette of a person walking by the wall of the Ancestral Hall on the outside. He jumped behind a screen set by one of the walls and, hiding in the shadows, he observed the entrance through the slit in the panels.
A person wearing purple robes of the Jiang Sect walked inside. It was a boy, about Jin Ling's age and as he entered the dim circle of light, Jin Ling could clearly recognise Jiang Cheng, his face grey from tiredness and much more resembling the Uncle Jin Ling knew, rather than A-Cheng he's just met.
The boy kneeled – more like, collapsed to his knees – in front of the two tablets and bowed before them.
“Mother, Father” he said “It's me again. Of course it is... Um. I wanted to tell you that we almost finished fixing the main pavilion. I'm thinking of having it completely rebuilt though”
Jiang Cheng's voice was hoarse and tired. Jin Ling was almost sure the boy has fallen asleep after he finished talking, as he sat motionless, head hanging low.
It was only thanks to absolute silence inside and outside the Ancestral Hall that Jin Ling managed to hear the next words, spoken in a barely audible whisper:
“I still have found no trace of Wei Ying” Jiang Cheng said “I know he's alive, he... he must be alive. Please, help me find him. He might need me and I need him. I don't... I don't know if I can do this on my own”
Yes, you can! You can and you will do everything on your own! Jin Ling wanted to scream.
To hear his Uncle talk about Wei Wuxian with such concern and plainly admitting that he needed him... Jin Ling knew Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian used to be inseparable. The Twin Heroes of Yunmeng. He knew that Uncle hasn't completely gotten rid of the sentiment, but to see it with his own eyes...
“I will avenge you, you can trust me. I just need a little more time” Jiang Cheng said, even more quietly “Mother, Father, I will give you a reason to be proud of me. Just... just wait”
At first, Jin Ling thought Jiang Cheng was bowing again, but then he heard a quiet thud as the boy finally collapsed from exhaustion. A frail figure, crushed under the weight of grief, fatigue and responsibility, was now lying on his side in front of the two tablets.
Jin Ling walked out of his hiding spot and approached the boy. Uncle's face was pale, there were dark circles under his eyes. Even asleep, his eyebrows were slightly furrowed in concern.
Jin Ling wished he had something to cover the boy with. Instead he just kneeled by his side, careful not to disturb him.
“Everything will be alright, Uncle” he said, well aware that he was lying “I believe in you”
Jiang Cheng was breathing deeply and Jin Ling wondered for how long had he been denying himself rest.
He felt an urgent need to see Uncle. Not the past Uncle, the present Uncle. See him, hear some snappy remark and a comforting threat. To see that the boy has prevailed after all.
Quietly, avoiding the floorboards he knew would creak, Jin Ling walked to the door, taking one last look at the Ancestral Hall. He went outside, sliding the door close after him.
He didn't want to look at the stage of Lotus Pier. It must have been the middle of the Sunshot Campaign and the place was largely devastated
Jin Ling took a deep breath and opened the door once more.
He expected what he was going to see, but still something clenched painfully in his chest at the sight of the new tablet, standing next to those of Yu Ziyuan and Jiang Fengmian.
There was no time to bow before his mother's tablet, as loud footsteps sounded outside and Jin Ling hurried back to his hiding spot behind the screen.
What now? Was he back or..?
This time, the person who walked in slammed the door behind himself, resting his forehead on the wooden frame, as if gathering courage, before turning around to face Madame Yu, Jiang Fengmian and Jiang Yanli.
The Jiang Cheng who kneeled in front of them seemed only a little bit older, yet just as tired as the previous one.
But the Campaign was now surely over, if Mother's tablet is already here...
“Mother, Father... A-Jie” Jiang Cheng said and his voice sounded as though it was uttered through a clenched throat “It's... it's over”
Wait. Does he mean..?
“Wei Ying is gone” Jiang Cheng whispered “I wish you could tell me... It was the right thing to do. I think he knew it too. He wouldn't... He's hurt so many people, he was too far gone”
Jin Ling's eyes widened. So Wei Wuxian has already been killed.
“A-Jie...” Jiang Cheng continued “I know you would want me to forgive him, you always did. But I cannot do that on behalf of all the people who suffered loss because of him. Because of Wei Wuxian... your little one will grow up without his parents”
The knot in Jin Ling's chest tightened at those words. Except...
Except that was not true! He did grow up with a mother, and a father, and an uncle, all in the person of the man sitting a few steps away from Jin Ling.
“Either way... it's all over now”
Jiang Cheng got up and turned to leave and, in an attempt to keep him in his sight, Jin Ling carelessly stepped on a creaky panel.
Jiang Cheng spun around, unsheathing Sandu and pointing it at where Jin Ling stood in one swift motion; Zidian was already sizzling in its coils.
“Show yourself!” he called and Jin Ling felt somewhat relieved, since that sounded exactly like the Uncle he knew.
He took a deep breath and stepped from behind his cover. Wouldn't it be awkward if he got sliced in half by Uncle in the past? What would happen? Would his body stay here or return to the present?
When he dared to look at Uncle's face, there was no anger on it, only complete shock; Jiang Cheng was looking at him with widened eyes.
“Zixuan?” he uttered “Why..?”
Now it was Jin Ling's turn to stare.
Why would Uncle think..?
He stepped forward, closer to the light, raising his hands in an 'I mean no harm, please don't kill me' gesture. Good thing he'd left his sword back in the future; seeing Jin Zixuan's weapon carried by Jin Ling would only worsen the confusion.
Shock was giving way to suspicion as Jiang Cheng examined Jin Ling's face. His eyes wandered to the silver bell, hanging from Jin Ling's waist and now the familiar frown has already made its return to Jiang Cheng's face.
“Who are you?” he asked sharply “How dare you come in here?”
Oh, this wasn't good. How will he explain coming back with fresh marks from Zidian on his body?
“Answer my questions” Jiang Cheng demanded “I don't remember any Jin Sect disciples paying us a visit. Or does Lianfang-Zun want to have his eyes in Lotus Pier as well?”
“No, no, that's not it” Jin Ling hurriedly said.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was around, uh... nighthunting”
“I mean, what are you doing here?” Jiang Cheng said coldly “In this room. You shouldn't be here”
“I came here to... pay my respects?”
Jiang Cheng narrowed his eyes.
“Pay them then and leave” he said.
He must be really tired, Jin Ling thought. If he wasn't, I wouldn't get away that easily.
Maintaining a safe distance, he bowed before the tablets of his mother and grandparents, all while feeling Jiang Cheng's suspicious glare on his back.
Jiang Cheng stood to the side, not so subtly pointing him the way to the door.
Jin Ling was about to leave, when he turned back, sudden urge taking over him.
“Sect Leader, I just... I wanted to say that... what you did is really impressive” he said.
“You've... you've always been inspiring me” Jin Ling spoke quickly, hoping he will manage to make it to the door before Zidian slices him in half for the impertinence “You're the strongest, most persistent person I know and I hope one day I can be even half as good a leader as you”
Jiang Cheng's frown deepened and Jin Ling got ready to bolt.
“Flattery won't get you anywhere” the man said dryly “I should have you whipped for sneaking into my Ancestral Hall, and...”
A loud baby's cry tore through the quiet outside.
Jiang Cheng's head turned to the side so fast he should have gotten whiplash and he ran out the door, forgetting Jin Ling's presence in a second.
Unwittingly, Jin Ling followed him (still at a safe distance). They arrived at the Sect Leader's quarters (Jiang Cheng arrived; Jin Ling lurked in the doorway) where a panicked disciple was frantically trying to soothe the crying baby.
One look from Jiang Cheng and the disciple obediently handed the baby to him, before bowing and fleeing the scene.
Jiang Cheng started rocking the baby in his arms, speaking quietly in a voice so soft, Jin Ling felt something tug at his heart. His throat clenched when he managed to hear Uncle say:
“It's alright, A-Ling, it's okay, there's no need to cry. I'm here, Uncle's here. I will always be here”
Jin Ling's fingers dug into the wooden frame of the door and he felt something sting beneath his eyelids.
And he knew that has always been the case. No matter what, Uncle was there, either by his side or only a letter away and a single word from Jin Ling could have him flying across the land to find him.
Through the tears and the anger and the tantrums, through good and bad, the man who had no tolerance or patience for anybody's weaknesses, including his own, had an unfailing supply of it for Jin Ling. He had all right not to find the power to love anything in his heart anymore, yet he always had an abundance of love for Jin Ling, expressed through crooked smiles, unasked for advice and the constant, persistent care.
Jin Ling took one last look at Uncle, cradling the little Jin Ling in his arms and allowing one chubby fist to close around a strand of his hair, and stepped away, into the shadows, wiping his face with the sleeve of his robe.
Almost staggering, he walked back to the Ancestral Hall.
“Take me home” he said, closing the door behind him.
His nostrils were filled with the fresh smell of rain and wet pavement and he knew he was back.
Having slid the door open, he faced the courtyard, wet from the drizzle. The rain has passed; the only signs of it happening were the paddles on the ground and the quiet tapping of water, dripping from the roofs.
Jin Ling almost forgot his sword, which he threw into the corner of the room in a fit of anger, what seemed like ages ago.
He walked to Jiang Cheng's study and knocked loudly on the door, before his courage ran out.
“What” came a voice from the inside and it was anything but inviting.
“It's me” Jin Ling said “Can I come in?”
“Have I ever said no?” Uncle's voice was still grumpy, but that was the best incentive Jin Ling could hope for now.
He opened the door. Uncle was sitting by his desk, reading through some letters, a big pile of 'to do' papers on his left and a significantly smaller 'done' stack on his right.
At first, Jin Ling kneeled on the other side of Uncle's desk, but then he reconsidered and walked around it, sitting cross-legged next to Jiang Cheng.
“What is it?” Jiang Cheng asked.
Jin Ling put his hands on the man's forearm, forcing Uncle to lower his hand with the letter. That finally got Jiang Cheng to look at him.
“I don't really think you're nagging me” Jin Ling said “Or pestering. Or maybe I do, sometimes, but I know you do it all because you care”
Jiang Cheng said nothing, but his eyes softened. There it was again! Jin Ling got into a row with him in front of everyone and all it took was a few words from him – not even an apology! – for Uncle to forgo the offence.
“You have always been there for me, running the Sect and raising me and it must have been so difficult and I never said 'thank you'” he continued.
“You know you don't need to”
“But I should! You've always helped and protected me, even if I didn't ask and got angry and now I understand that you couldn't do it any other way, because you lost so many people and didn't want to lose another one, since I'm your sister's son” Jin Ling said quickly “I'm all that's left of your family, am I not?”
But Jiang Cheng was already shaking his head.
“I didn't do all these things because you're some souvenir from my deceased family” he said “I loved you the moment I saw you and you grew up into an extraordinary, kind, brave man that I am proud of and always have been. I'm not nagging you because I doubt your capability. I just...”
“I know” Jin Ling said, scooting closer “And I know I can always come to you for help. And you've always been the person I looked up to and I really wish I can one day be half as great as you”
Uncle gave him one of those smiles of his – where he pressed his lips tightly together as if trying to keep them from smiling too widely. Jin Ling loved that smile.
Jiang Cheng swept him into a hug, wrapping his arms around Jin Ling's back and holding him tightly. Jin Ling found himself enveloped in the comforting smell of Uncle's robes – it was mostly the smell of entire Lotus Pier, but there was also a note in there that was only his and since forever it's been a guarantee of safety and protection for Jin Ling.
“And Uncle?” Jin Ling murmured.
“I love you. And I'm proud of you”
Jin Ling felt Uncle's body vibrate with silent laughter.
“I love you too, A-Ling” the man said “And I promise I will stop pestering you and following you on nighthunts...”
“... in ten years' time, maybe”
“Perhaps seven, when you're old enough”
“I am old enough!” Jin Ling said, bumping his forehead against Jiang Cheng's chest “Although, you know what? Fine. If I had to choose one person to go on nighthunts with forever, I'd choose you, anyway”
Jin Ling heard a quiet sniff above his head and he knew he wasn't allowed to look up, because if he did, he might see Uncle crying and anyone who saw Uncle crying had to die.
So he just hugged him tighter.
Uncle has been through so much and Jin Ling probably didn't even know a quarter of hardships he'd had to go through in his life. He couldn't undo the pain Uncle had to endure or bring back all the things he's lost, but he hoped he could at least help the man face the demons of the present and future.
“It's okay” Jin Ling said “I'm here. I will always be here”