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Everything changes, even stone

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Jiang Cheng has always liked playing board games.

They were a major part of his formative years. As a noble young master, his tutors encouraged him to make good use of his time, and therefore—even his leisure-time was structured around learning. Thus, he mastered the part of qínqíshūhuà[1] with great ease, much to his mother’s delight.

The simple fact is that: he’s bloody good at playing the game. In fact, some might even say he’s a master at strategy… he might say that too, if there was anyone around he could brag to. It’s been a long time since he had someone willing to play with him.

Unfortunately, his only companion (other than his disciples and servants) is his nephew, and boys his age very much like to win-win-win.

Haha, well that’s too bad.

Jin Ling will have to figure out how to win by himself; there’s no way Jiang Cheng will go easy on him just because he’s a baby.

The board has been set, a fresh pot of tea and fruits placed beside it. Jiang Cheng tosses a white stone up and down on his palm. They’re small enough that Jin Ling should be able to hold them. He’s still quite small, but he’s not as tiny as he used to be. Surely he’s old enough to learn this by now?

Jiang Cheng can still remember the first time he sat down at a board—well, okay. Maybe he can’t quite remember it fully, but that just confirms in his mind that this skill should be taught from a young age. There’s no time like the present.

“What’s taking so long?” he mutters. “Where is Granny?”

The disciple standing next to him straightens up. “Does Sect Leader want this disciple to go fetch them?”

It’s only been fifteen minutes, but time is precious, and knowing Jin Ling, it’s most likely he’s woken up in a foul mood. Granny is good at waking him from his nap, but sometimes he’s just fussy. Those times, the only person with enough patience for him is his poor jiùjiu.

“No need,” Jiang Cheng sighs, rising to his feet. “I’ll go by myself. Watch the tea and cakes for flies.”

Whilst he grumbles to himself, stomping all the way to Jin Ling’s room, the stone remains clenched in his palm. Following the winding walkways, the dazzling sight of the lotuses in full bloom calms him down, but then he hears Jin Ling wailing and quickens his pace.

The servant stood outside the room immediately slides open the door, so he doesn’t even break his stride—

“A-Ling!” he growls, marching through the room. “Stop screaming! I’m here!”

This granny is used to his dramatic entrances, and is therefore completely unruffled by this. She holds the squalling toddler out for him, but Jiang Cheng stays scowling at Jin Ling for a moment. They’re like mirror images of each other. Jin Ling’s bottom lip wobbles, his watery eyes bulging—

“Okay, okay, I’ve got you.” Jiang Cheng scoops him up, bouncing him on his arm. Jin Ling hugs his throat, lifting himself higher to complain directly into his earhole. Rolling his eyes, “Shut up, brat!”

“Sect Leader, he’s too full of energy,” Granny complains. “Your afternoon plans might not be good right now. He probably needs to run around—”

“He runs around all the time. The weather is good. I want to try this whilst I’m not working.” It’s not often that Jiang Cheng manages to have a whole afternoon to spend with his nephew. “We have snacks. It’s going to be fine.”

Granny raises her brows. “If you say so, sir.”

Such lack of faith! Jiang Cheng shoots her a haughty look before leaving. After a few steps, Jin Ling pushes away and puffs out his cheeks. He can’t resist poking one pillowy cheek with his finger. “Why is A-Ling in such a bad mood?”

“No!” the boy cries, tugging at his collar, “Jiùjiu, want fly!”

“You want to fly?” Jiang Cheng asks in bafflement. The last time he took Jin Ling flying, they both ended up covered in vomit. “No, no, let’s not repeat that experience. We’ll do that when you’re older. And bigger. Jiùjiu has a game prepared for you, doesn’t that sound fun?”

Jin Ling’s scowl deepens, “No!”

“…well, great.”

There’s not a cloud in the sky, not a whisper of a breeze. Jiang Cheng points out the blooming lotuses, greets the disciples they come across, swings his gait to put in a bounce in his steps. None of this soothes the child, who eventually manages to convey what it is he wants.

“This is not ‘kite-flying weather’,” he tries to explain, licking his finger and holding it up. “See? No wind. Here,” he licks Jin Ling’s finger, causing him to squeal loudly. “Hold it up and—hey, stop squirming! I don’t want to drop you!”

A disciple laughs, passing by with a suggestion: “Drop him in the lake, Sect Leader!”

Jiang Cheng swerves around without missing a beat, swinging Jin Ling over the water, causing his delighted shrieks to rise in pitch. “You’re so loud,” he mutters, finally settling his baby nephew close to his body. A few more giggles, and then he quietens. Good. Hopefully that helped with his mood and tired him out—

“Want play!”

That’s the spirit! “Good, because jiùjiu also wants to play with A-Ling—”

“Kite!”

Jiang Cheng sighs, dropping down to kneel with Jin Ling perched on his lap. The little boy climbs up his chest, leaning backwards to look him in the eye. Small hands grab at his face, gripping like little pincers. “Gentle,” he admonishes. “Ow!”

“No!”

“Ouch, you’re hurting jiùjiu.”

Jin Ling pauses, then sloppily kisses his cheek.

“Why don’t we have some tea?” he offers, lifting a cup that already has a spoon of honey in it. If his stomach is full of warm tea, Jin Ling is far more likely to behave, sitting down and listening to him properly. “Slowly—”

Gulping down his tea, he smacks his lips. “Mm.”

“We have snacks,” Jiang Cheng continues, plucking off a couple of grapes, “Look—ah, ah! No, we don’t throw things!” Who the fuck throws teacups?! At least he drank it first! “Put it down. Carefully.” Maybe it’s his lack of motor control?

Whilst fruit doesn’t win him as many points as cakes would have, but for the few minutes Jiang Cheng focuses on feeding him, he’s surprised at how compliant he’s being. At this age, believe it or not, but Jin Ling is not as fussy as he used to be, with food and other things. Mostly, he’s just curious.

It’s rather nice sitting on the deck, with Jin Ling’s curled up against him letting out little contented noises every now and again. He’s so cuddly. Lucky for him, Jiang Cheng doesn’t mind when he pulls his hand over and starts playing with his fingers.

Eventually, he sits up and shifts Jin Ling over to a pillow beside him. The look he’s given is wide-eyed and utterly betrayed. Adorable. Jiang Cheng glances away, pulling the wéiqí board closer. Jin Ling lets out a whine. “A-Ling, look at this.”

“No!”

Jiang Cheng frowns. No? Is all he’s going to say ‘no’ every time? Well, if Emperor Yao managed to enlighten his unruly son, Danzhu, you can bet Jiang Cheng is going to enlighten this rascal, or die trying!![2]

“This is a wéiqí board, used to play a really fun game.” (It’s good for developing the mind, he adds mentally, and ought to help with learning mathematics too—) “Yes, a really fun game,” he insists when Jin Ling starts to gnaw at his sleeve. “I’ll play for you first. Watch closely.”

Jiang Cheng plucks up a black stone and places it in the upper-right corner for him. Then he sits back for a moment, and thinks, ‘ah fuck, but how do I teach him the rules?’

Meanwhile, Jin Ling leans over to poke the stone. He pulls him away. In retaliation, the boy flops backwards, arching his back in an attempt to buck his way free. Jiang Cheng sighs again, picking up his own white stone to place nearby. “Look.”

Jin Ling looks.

…then he sees the bowl of stones. At least he understands (or seems to) that his pieces are the black ones, but then he sticks his hand in the bowl and hums happily. “Pick one up,” Jiang Cheng prompts, but Jin Ling stirs his hand around instead. “Pick. One. Up.”

In his defence, he doesn’t know what is considered good or bad etiquette yet, but he knows to listen to his uncle, and yet, he doesn’t—

“Ahhh,” Jin Ling exclaims in delight, dipping his sticky hands into the bowl. It must feel nice. The sound of them clacking together is also quite pleasant, but it’s considered bad manners. Jiang Cheng opens his mouth to scold him… but then gives him a couple more seconds, seeing him grinning so widely.

Otherwise, he reckons he’ll throw a fit.

“Enough,” he finally says, taking Jin Ling’s hand and squeezing until he lets go. “Can you pick it up like this?” He demonstrates, gripping a stone between his index and middle fingers. “This is how you do it.”

Jin Ling stares for a moment, then tries, and tries again… and again.

“Oh, your hands are too small—”

“No!” Jin Ling pouts, trying to no avail. His fingers are really too small. He’ll need to hold it with his whole fist. Jiang Cheng takes his hand and spreads it out. It doesn’t even cover half of his palm. “Jiùjiu, nooo…”

Jiang Cheng can’t help sniggering, “Look at that, so small!”

Jin Ling howls in rage, but even his nails are too soft to really hurt him. When he realises this, he kicks at his uncle’s knees in frustration. With his cheeks puffed out and lips quivering, he is so goddamn precious. Jiang Cheng drops a peck on the top of his head, unable to resist, and reasons that it would’ve been cruel to deprive him of that affection. 

“Sect Leader,” someone calls from the water. It’s another disciple! Is no one training today?! The boy props his elbows on the edge of the deck, smiling, “The young master is just a baby, isn’t he? Wouldn’t it be better to teach him board games when he’s older?”

‘A baby’?

Those words fan the flames of Jin Ling’s epic tantrum.

“Now you’ve done it,” Jiang Cheng mutters, pinning the child with one arm. There’s no option but to wait him out. Scolding is best done when he’s not screaming. Over time, he’s learnt that the best thing is to stay calm. “Why aren’t you training, ah? Why no one I’ve met today training? My afternoon off isn’t invitation for all of you to become spectators, you know?!”

The disciple sputters, diving back into the water to make a quick getaway. Marvellous.

“J-Jiùjiu.” The hiccups are so pitiful, he has to bite his lip not to laugh. Jin Ling has crawled back into his lap and seems intent on staying there. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t perch his chin on his head. “Not baby.”

“That’s right, you’re not a baby,” he soothes in a low voice. “Which is why you’re going to be a big boy and listen, right? You’re going to pay attention to jiùjiu whilst he teaches you this game.”

“Yes,” Jin Ling nods, reminding him why he shouldn’t perch his chin on his head. “Listen to jiùjiu.”

“Good.”

Slowly, clumsily, and somewhat… metaphorically, Jiang Cheng finds himself explaining the basic concepts of wéiqí to his nephew. There’s no response, which is rather disheartening. Not a peep out of him. Glancing down, Jin Ling is still awake, just watching very intently.

(Good!)

For this first game, Jiang Cheng decides to play both sides for the sake of showing Jin Ling what a fully populated board looks like. The moves, the reasons for them, the common ways to capture stones… he covers most of this, narrating everything following his own internal commentary.

“…does that make sense?”

Jin Ling hums, leaning over his arm, and Jiang Cheng decides to let him poke at the board this time. Maybe he needs to mull things over. Often it takes a bit of time to wrap one’s head around new information. Let it sink in. Watching him, he can imagine the cogs turning in his mind as he goes to move pieces on the board.

What is he doing? Jiang Cheng cocks his head to observe, intrigued by his choices… but what would that move accomplish? Maybe he’s seen something there. Huh. Fascinating. “Why is that move good? A-Ling?”

No answer comes other than a quiet hum, the boy otherwise enraptured in… whatever it is he’s doing. After a few minutes, it seems that he’s trying to capture many pieces all at once. None of that is technically correct, but Jiang Cheng can certainly appreciate his spirit.

As Jin Ling continues moving the stones, he begins to wonder… could this be something else?

“A-Ling?” he prompts again, grabbing his wrist. “Wait, explain to me what you’re doing.”

The little boy turns with a bright smile, gestures at his creation and yells, “Kite!”

“…”

Now that he mentions it, that does look like a kite. The diamond shape, the cross at the bridle. It’s quite distinct.

Perhaps he’s taken a bit too long to react.

Jin Ling slaps him, frowning, “Good?”

What can he say?! It’s not as if he’s wrong (that is a kite!), but he’s certainly not playing the game right! He wants to be encouraging, but… but! Jiang Cheng huffs, wondering what he can do to salvage this. “Uh…”

“Okay, fix it!” Jin Ling chirps, reaching out to touch one of his carefully laid stones. Ah, he’ll have to destroy his art. “This?”

“That wouldn’t do much.”

“This?”

“Uhhh, no.”

“…this?”

“Well, you can certainly do that… if you want to lose.”

Maybe he should have seen this coming.

Firstly, Jin Ling throws the traitorous stone that would have lost him his (already-lost) game far away, over the water, landing with a splash. Jiang Cheng tries to cup his hands over the rest of them, but Jin Ling manages to grab and toss away at least six more stones. Then the board goes flying when he slams both hands into the side with a grunt.

The stones scatter into the water with only a few landing and rolling around the deck. Jiang Cheng’s jaw drops. This… was his favourite set. The black yún zi[3] were formed from sintered stones, the white ones carved from jade. Picking up one fallen stone, it’s been chipped, another one cracked—

Jiang Cheng inhales sharply.

This is the first wave of anger he’s felt all afternoon. His hands are shaking. Why would… why would Jin Ling do this? He’s just a baby, he reminds himself, breathing slowly in-and-out. He didn’t mean to do this. It was an accident.

(Maybe this was a mistake.)

“Jiùjiu?” Jin Ling’s voice is so small. “Sorry, A-Ling sorry. Jiùjiu, is sad. A-Ling sorry…”

This was his favourite set, given to him by his mother.

“You…” How did it survive the fire? How did it not burn? He remembers when he found it intact and undamaged by some miracle, and how it left him speechless realising that, other than Zidian, it was the last thing she ever gave to him. “It’s okay.”

“No,” the boy sobs, turning to press his face to Jiang Cheng’s chest. “Not okay. Sorry, sorry…”

It’s really fine. Why is he so upset? It’s not even as if he… as if he even plays that often.

(There’s no one around to play with.)

Jiang Cheng fiddles with the cracked stone, trying to put the pieces back together. There are too many missing fragments, smaller than the eye can see—

“Sect Leader!!”

What? His head whips around, and—

“JIN LING!!”

The disciple lurches through the water and manages to snag the toddler by the ankle just as Jiang Cheng grabs the railing, his heart almost bursting from his chest. For a couple of seconds the disciple juggles Jin Ling until his short arms are wrapped around his throat, clinging onto him for dear life—

How could he be so out-of-it that he didn’t notice this?!

Jin Ling must have waddled over to the water at some point, and from his incoherent sobbing it seems that he wanted to dive in to retrieve the stones. The disciple (bless him) is murmuring to him, despite wheezing for breath. A few other disciples bob out of the water, and some come running over with towels in their arms.

Well, he can’t complain that his disciples aren’t vigilant.

“—ah, Ling’er, is it stones that you lost? Don’t cry, don’t cry!” one cries out, doing the strange galloping leap you tend to do when wading through water. (Why don’t they just swim?!) “We can find them for you! Don’t worry!”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “No point. They’re all lost.”

Jin Ling lets out a loud sob, snot dripping onto the disciple’s forehead. “Jiùjiu!”

The moment he’s returned to his arms, Jiang Cheng instantly feels ten times better… which allows him to pinch Jin Ling’s arm and lecture him about not jumping into deep water. The disciples flutter around them, but he waves them off irritably. What can they do now to fix this?

If he doesn’t think of something, Jin Ling will end up vomiting from crying so much. What a little drama king. There has to be a punishment, but at the same time… hmm. Jiang Cheng tuts, clicking his tongue as he walks away, rocking his nephew with each step he takes—

“Sect Leader, where are you going?”

“Can we come too?”

“Do you need help?”

“No, go clean up the dishes and the game board,” he instructs them, walking away. “Leave the stones. We’ve got that handled.”

With Jin Ling perched on his hip, they walk a distance away to a place on the lakeside. Maybe the swing of his stride is soothing, because he eventually stops crying. The shallows and currents here are very child-friendly. Jiang Cheng puts Jin Ling down and wordlessly turns to the pebbles scattered on the shore.

“…ah?”

“We’re looking for stones, come help jiùjiu,” he says, holding out a hand. Two of his fingers are clasped in a tight grip. “I don’t know how many we need, but let’s get ones of the same size, okay?”

Jin Ling goes quiet for a few seconds, but then joins him eagerly. “Like this?”

Jiang Cheng checks. (Absolutely not.) He nods. “Yep.”

The number of times he’s asked ‘like this?’ should have worn at his patience, but Jiang Cheng finds himself helpless against Jin Ling’s bright eyes, just like his mother’s, and his father’s grin, so bold and pure. It’s quite astounding how much patience he has for Jin Ling, even when he’s still a bit raw from losing a precious belonging.

“Enough?” Jin Ling finally asks, drooping with exhaustion. The sun has pinked his cheeks, and he’s leaning heavily against Jiang Cheng’s knee.

Jiang Cheng hums, scooping him up again. “Good job.”

There’s a lot of yawning on the way back home. Rubbing his eyes with tiny fists, he’s ready for another nap, but Jiang Cheng wants to keep him awake for some dinner first. On the walk back, he points out more things to Jin Ling, trying to hold his interest.

When they make it to his office, he sets him down on his desk and goes to grind some ink. Jin Ling perks up a bit, seeing this. “We draw?”

“No, we paint,” Jiang Cheng pours out the stones, roughly dividing them in half. “We’ll paint one side first.”

There’s nothing much Jin Ling can actually do, but he babbles happily and manages to get his hands stained completely black anyway. Jiang Cheng counts the stones with him, laying them out to dry in straight lines (that end up being shoved around into flower patterns). Eventually, he wipes his hands and sits back.

“We collected fifty-six in total.”

There should be three-hundred and sixty-one altogether, but who knows how many of the original set remain? They’re going to be so mismatched… if he were going to dig for a lesson in all of this, he would tell his nephew: ‘this goes to show that we make the most of what we have’.

(Though, then he’d have to acknowledge the detestable irony of his failure in teaching Jin Ling a strategy game…)

…as it is, he can’t summon the energy to preach any more lessons.

“Are you sleeping, A-Ling?”

There’s no answer except for a smack of lips and Jin Ling tugging his arm to lay further over him. Jiang Cheng gazes down at his doughy cheeks, drooling mouth, and fluttering eyelashes. Maybe he is too young to be learning wéiqí. The poor kid is completely knocked out, and he doesn’t have the heart to wake him…

Maybe he was too hasty in wanting to show him this.

That might be true.

(But he doesn’t regret it at all.)