Jin Ling roamed around the corridors of Koi Tower, distant memories of his childhood flashing before his eyes. These were the corridors where the maids assigned to Jin Ling used to run behind him when he had been just a child. He walked through another corridor where Qin Su had sat him on her lap and told him that she was pregnant, that her and Xiao-shushu were expecting a baby. This had meant that Jin Ling would become a big brother, she had told him.
A third corridor had been where Xiao-shushu had told Jin Ling about the importance of diplomacy in politics. He had been older, then. The event had been more recent, about three years ago. It had almost been as though his xiao-shushu had sensed that he would not be in the world for much longer and had decided to impart a bit of his knowledge and wisdom onto Jin Ling.
Tears slowly began to fall from his eyes. Was it wrong of him to miss the man who had betrayed everyone, including Jin Ling. To wish that the man who had been the true reason behind his parents’ death, wasn’t dead? He hoped that his parents wouldn’t hate him for it.
As Jin Ling entered his room, he looked at all of the items kept there. The gifts he had received from people he hadn’t even known for his birthdays, the bracelet from Qin Su, he really missed her sometimes, his father’s sword, his mother’s protective charm that he tied to his waistband whenever he went out on night hunts, and Wei Wuxian’s talisman that he had given to Jin Ling to use whenever the need for it arose. Jin Ling snorted to himself, as if he would ever need to use that.
Overwhelmed by emotions of all that he had lost and found in the span of just a few months, or maybe his whole sixteen years of life. He sat down on his bed and squeezed his eyes shut, letting tears stream out faster. His eyes opened though when he heard the familiar sounds of his clarity bell.
It was tied around the waist of his Jin robes, and it had rung out loud when Jin Ling had heavily sat down. Jin Ling always had it on him. He kept it closest to him, wherever he could reach it first. Sometimes, Jin Ling even held in tightly clenched in his fist when he fell asleep. It drove his nightmares away. Jin Ling had begun sleeping with it more often, almost every night, since the Guanyin Temple incident.
Swallowing the bile rising up his throat, Jin Ling wiped his tears roughly with the sleeves of his robes. Breathing unevenly, he untied the clarity bell from his waist and held it in his hands. Inscribed on the bell in beautiful calligraphy that he knew to be his jiujiu’s writing, were the words: To the one I love most, my nephew, my son, Jin Ling. Never forget that there is always someone who loves you unconditionally and is always there for you. From, your Jiujiu.
His jiujiu had gifted it to him during what was supposed to have been Jin Ling’s one-month ceremony. It took a long time to make clarity bells and even longer to have them custom made, but Jiujiu had been planning for that particular gift since he had found out Jin Ling’s mother had been pregnant.
At first, the bell had only contained the inscription of his name, but after Jin Ling had lost both of his parents, Jiujiu had inscribed the rest of the words onto the bell. He had changed them slowly as the years had passed, adding more words to it, and as a result, more meaning into the importance of the clarity bell for Jin Ling.
Jin Ling remembered Jiujiu telling him the story of how Jiang Yanli had been carrying Jin Ling in her arms when Jiujiu had gently kept the edge of the bell in Jin Ling’s tiny hands. Jin Ling had immediately grasped the bell with both of his hands and hadn’t let go. Just like he held it in both of his hands right now and refused to let go.
When he woke up from his nightmares, with his heart pounding and the shadows cast in the darkness of his room scaring him, during those times, he clutched tightly onto his clarity bell, wishing for his Jiujiu to be present so he could hold onto him as his fear of the nightmares slowly passed.
He wished to hear soft and familiar reassurances from his jiujiu, and words to songs Jin Ling had been listening to from his childhood. He wanted those strong adult arms to hold him, those soft and long fingers to caress his hair. He wanted to feel safe and secure and at home. But instead all around him, he felt the presence of strangers and an indescribable unfamiliarity.
Jin Ling wished to go back to Yunmeng, but he knew that was impossible to do now. He was a sect leader and the Jin sect was in the midst of an inevitable collapse. Jin Ling had to act like an adult and be responsible and mature, like the adults in his life had taught him to be.
He didn’t move from his bed, still clutching onto his clarity bell, the inscription blurred in his vision due to the tears welling up in his eyes.
“I wish you were here right now, Jiujiu. I need you so much.” Tears rolled down his cheeks again. He felt ashamed of how weak he was. How could he possibly hope to become a strong sect leader like this?
The door to his room opened, with a quick knock beforehand. Jin Ling shot up from his bed, startled. He was about to wipe his tears again, but he didn’t need to. Inside his room stepped his jiujiu, looking around with mild interest.
“So, this is your room now, Jin Ling? It isn’t too bad, for a Sect Leader’s. Still, I think you might prefer the one you have back in Yunmeng. I hope you don’t mind me barging into your room. One of the disciples told me you were here, and I was just around the area for…work reasons. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to check up on you.” Jiujiu stopped speaking as he finally took a look at Jin Ling’s face.
Jin Ling trembled where he stood. “A-Ling? What—” Jiujiu seemed alarmed as he glanced at him.
“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling ran, throwing himself at his jiujiu, with his arms around his jiujiu’s neck.
“A-Ling— oomph!” Jiujiu staggered back a little as he was hit by the full weight of his nephew. He hugged his nephew back and lowly whispered in Jin Ling’s ear, “Who hurt you?”
Jin Ling hugged his jiujiu closer to himself and cried harder. “I missed you.”
“Jin Ling,” Jiujiu’s voice cracked dangerously as he spoke. “Tell me who did this to you. Who—”
“Nobody,” Jin Ling tried to convince him. He didn’t know how Jiujiu did it, how he knew and just appeared whenever Jin Ling needed him, even for the smallest of things. But Jiujiu did. He always had Jin Ling’s back, and Jin Ling hoped his jiujiu knew that Jin Ling would always have his back too.
Jiujiu pulled away slightly and wiped away Jin Ling’s tears with his thumbs as he snorted, similar to the way Jin Ling had earlier. “Clearly.”
Jin Ling looked down, reflexively holding onto Jiujiu’s sleeves as he stopped wiping Jin Ling’s tears and cupped his cheeks. “I need names, A-Ling,” Jiujiu said with fire alight in his eyes.
“I just missed them,” Jin Ling responded quietly, and he felt his jiujiu tensing up. “Qin Su and Xiao-shushu and my parents.”
“Oh, A-Ling,” Jiujiu said, holding Jin Ling close to his chest. Jin Ling let go of his jiujiu’s sleeves and gripped onto the back of his robes instead. He still held his clarity bell in one hand. “I miss them too, you know.”
“You do?” Jin Ling asked, blinking into Jiujiu’s chest. The purple robes were a soothing sight for his sore eyes, and the familiar smell of Jiujiu helped to slowly relax him to his core.
“Of course, I do. I miss your mother every single moment of every single day.” Jin Ling let out a breath at that. “What are you holding in your hand?” Jiujiu suddenly asked, and Jin Ling froze. Jiujiu sat them on the bed and loosened his arm around Jin Ling as he used it to bring Jin Ling’s hand in between them.
The one Jin Ling was holding his clarity bell in. “It’s my clarity bell,” Jin Ling said, softly. Jin Ling watched as his jiujiu stared at the inscription on the bell.
Jiujiu took the clarity bell from him and slowly rubbed a thumb over the inscription. “I meant every word,” he said, “and I still do.”
Jin Ling knew that. Just like Jin Ling knew that no matter where he was, how old he turned, or who he became, his jiujiu would always be there for him whenever he needed him. And if for some reason he couldn’t be there, then Jin Ling would always have the clarity bell his jiujiu had given him, and the words written on it to reassure him and remind him of his jiujiu.
After all, his jiujiu was like his dad to him, too, and he trusted him and loved him unconditionally, too. That was something that would never change.