He almost steps forward.
He sees Wen soldiers sneak up to Wei Wuxian and almost steps forward, just like he did all those years ago. Despite everything Wei Wuxian has done, despite every bit of agony he has caused, Jiang Cheng almost steps forward.
But he hesitates and it is too late. Wei Wuxian glances at him, notices his presence, and spins around. He races in the opposite direction, leading the Wens away.
"Wei Wuxian!" He hisses and stumbles forward, almost following. But he remembers what happened before and curls his fist.
Jiang Cheng can't afford to be reckless.
He watches as Wei Wuxian disappears into the crowd, the Wen soldiers following, and knows he can't stay here. Wei Wuxian is wily, maybe he'll evade capture, maybe he'll avoid losing his Golden Core to Wen Zhuliu, maybe he'll…
Jiang Cheng shakes his head sharply and swallows.
When he decided to travel back in time, he made several promises to himself. He told himself he wouldn't take unnecessary risks and that he wouldn't be reckless. He promised he wouldn't let Wei Wuxian stray, that he would tighten the leash if he has to.
Too many died because of Wei Wuxian's recklessness.
His a-jie died because of it.
Maybe if Wei Wuxian loses his Golden Core, those losses won't happen. It would break his brother but perhaps it was for the best. If Wei Wuxian knew true helplessness, true powerlessness, he wouldn't be in such a hurry to be a hero. Maybe he would be more… tractable.
Jiang Cheng would be able to safely remove him from the Jiang Sect, get him away from the war, and avoid… everything. He'd set Wei Wuxian with a farm and enough money to be comfortable, let him live life away from the Sects and their politics.
Maybe everything that followed was Jiang Cheng's punishment for interfering with Wei Wuxian's fate.
Feeling slightly nauseous, Jiang Cheng steps back. Guilt gnaws at his heart but he knows Wei Wuxian will forgive him.
There is no other way.
Wei Wuxian is in the Unclean Realm when they arrive.
Jiang Cheng pauses to take in the sight of him, standing tall and steady, speaking with Chifeng-zun like nothing is wrong.
Like he wasn't captured by the Wens.
There's no trace of weakness in him. Jiang Cheng can't even find a bruise and for a moment, resentment curls in him.
Had his sacrifice been for nothing ? Would Wei Wuxian have survived the Wens in his previous timeline if Jiang Cheng hadn't interfered?
A-jie cries out his name and Wei Wuxian whirls around, eyes wide and expression hopeful. There's a vitality in him that makes the anger in his chest intensify. He doesn't say anything when Wei Wuxian hurries over to them and checks a-jie, touching her forehead hesitantly to see if she is still sick.
"Shijie! I was so worried!" Wei Wuxian exclaims and Jiang Cheng clenches his fist, shaking.
"A-Xian! Where have you been?" Yanli demands, her hands fluttering over him in concern.
"Here and there!" Wei Wuxian waves his hand dismissively and Jiang Cheng wants to punch that grin, "I know you would've done the smart thing and left. I tried to think of where you'd go but then I heard about Qinghe being reclaimed and headed here."
All this time.
All of his pain.
Everything had been meaningless? Wasn't Wei Wuxian supposed to be missing at this point? What happened? What changed?
Jiang Cheng feels a surge of panic overcome his anger. Had he changed too much? Had he compromised their chances of success? Did a single act of self-preservation change everything?
Jiang Cheng feels numb as he follows his sister and first disciple.
What is happening?
They approach Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen and he can't do anything but bow to the sect leaders, distracted by his panicking thoughts.
"You must be relieved." Lan Xichen greets him with a small, compassionate smile, "Wei-gongzi has been worried but he was at least certain you were safe."
Jiang Cheng nods, eyes flickering over to the eager and energetic Wei Wuxian.
Nie Mingjue huffs and claps Wei Wuxian's shoulder, "They needn't have worried about this boy." Jiang Cheng frowns in question and Nie Mingjue nods in gruff approval, "Brought down Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu by himself. Left their bodies to rot in the Burial Mounds!"
He stares at Wei Wuxian, who meets his gaze with a careless smile and a shrug, "A hidden knife comes in handy sometimes."
It is only later when Wei Wuxian explains how he slit both Wen Zhuliu's and Wen Chao's throats before discarding them into the Mounds. He explains how he held one of the Wen dogs hostage, forcing him to fly Wei Wuxian back out of the Mounds before killing him as well.
He says it carelessly. So easily. Like he didn't remove the threat months before it was supposed to happen.
"You fucking idiot!" Jiang Cheng snaps and punches his shoulder. Wei Wuxian looks confused but he can't explain why he is pissed.
Jiang Cheng feels like he has lost control of everything.
The Sunshot Campaign begins in earnest soon after. Like the last time, they manage to retrieve their swords within a month.
Jiang Cheng watches as Wei Wuxian greets Suibian with a wide, delighted smile, twirling it around with effortless grace. The sword responds by singing to its master, pulsing with electric spiritual energy.
The scene pleases him and baffles him at the same time. Wei Wuxian hanging onto his sword means less trouble for the Jiang Sect in the future but what of the Ghostly Path? What of Wei Wuxian's wicked tricks?
Didn't Wei Wuxian give up his sword around this time? Why is he embracing it now like a well-missed companion?
… can they win this war without that power? Without the Yīn Hǔ Fú?
"Lan Zhan! Look at her! It's like she's happy? Is your Bichen happy too?" Wei Wuxian asks, cheerfully shameless as always. He nearly skips towards the Second Jade with a wide smile.
Lan Wangji nods, glancing down at his own sword before lifting his gaze to look at Wei Wuxian. There's something… softer in his expression that Jiang Cheng doesn't understand.
He ignores it with a scoff and looks down at his sword. It pulses in welcome when he unsheathes it but it feels weaker somehow.
Frowning, he sheathes it and they set about taking the defeated Wens as their prisoners.
Changes keep happening after that and everything seems to slip from Jiang Cheng's grasp like water.
When they're on the battlefield, Jiang Cheng feels muted. He feels slower in some ways. In the previous timeline, fighting had always been a rush. He always felt like he couldn't be defeated, like he was a force to be reckoned with.
But that doesn't happen now.
He's still powerful enough to hold his own. He still meets every Wen blade with his mother's viciousness and his father's skill.
But something feels… off.
Throughout the campaign, he expects things to go one way and they go another. He expects to win some skirmishes but ends up having to retreat. He expects to lose a fight but ends up winning.
He keeps expecting Wei Wuxian to cultivate the Ghostly Path but it never happens. Even as the war drags on longer and becomes harder, Wei Wuxian doesn't seem the least bit inclined to change.
But why would he need to?
Wei Wuxian is a blaze of power and speed on the battlefield. He tears through enemy ranks in a blur, impossible to track. He takes YunmengJiang's sword style to its absolute pinnacle.
And he is still growing.
Impossibly, with every battle, his cultivation seems to grow stronger. Even when he loses, even when some YunmengJiang disciples bring him back bloodied and torn down, he perseveres.
Chifeng-zun is undefeated. Zewu-jun is the hope that saves the helpless. Lan Wangji goes where chaos occurs.
Wei Wuxian is the storm that devastates.
Their names are whispered with hushed awe. Jiang Cheng sees how people straighten when Lan Wangji walks by. He sees how no one is able to meet Chifeng-zun's gaze boldly. He sees how the mere presence of Zewu-jun is enough to soothe anxieties and ease helpless despair.
Wei Wuxian electrifies people. He makes them feel invincible while somehow still managing to curb their recklessness. The new Jiang disciples thrive under their Shixiong's leadership.
They're still in too much awe of Jiang Cheng's status as a Sect Leader but consider Wei Wuxian a comrade, someone on their level. He is the one who sits with them as they gather around open fires. He laughs with them, drinks with them, and pushes them during training.
Jiang Cheng feels the distance but doesn't know how to breach it. Wei Wuxian is in the thick of war and he's a soldier rather than a general. He's not called to strategy meetings like Jiang Cheng is but he somehow seems to always know what's going on. He doesn't offer suggestions but somehow Zewu-jun always has ideas that have a distinct Wei Wuxian flavor to them.
Last time, the war brought Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng together. Jiang Cheng was forced to protect and defend Wei Wuxian while his first disciple became the power that kept enemies at bay. Isolated by everyone else and hounded by the Second Jade, Wei Wuxian sought shelter in his and a-jie's company.
Now, Wei Wuxian doesn't need his protection. Sometimes, Jiang Cheng doesn't even know where the man is .
Lan Wangji knows more about Wei Wuxian's whereabouts than anyone else.
Jiang Cheng is almost tempted to tell Wei Wuxian the truth of the man. He wants to tell him how Lan Wangji's support is conditional. How the man had once relentlessly sought to imprison Wei Wuxian.
Not that he can prove anything to his first disciple. Things have changed too much for him to accurately predict the future now. Wei Wuxian might believe him or he might just laugh him off.
The war progresses and stretches longer than anyone can bear. The morale is dropping and Jiang Cheng finally tries to suggest the Ghostly Path.
"Would it help?" He asks Wei Wuxian one night, "Your idea about using Resentful Energy?" The question is clumsy and suspicious, Jiang Cheng knows. Why would he remember a crazy idea made in class so many years ago?
Jiang Cheng probably deserves the confused and disbelieving look he gets in reply. "Don't look at me like that, idiot!" He snaps, "We're running out of people to fight. I won't object to a few fierce corpses fighting for us."
Wei Wuxian frowns and fortunately gives the idea due consideration.
He struggles not to push his brother as the war continues. It has already been over a year since the day the Sunshot Campaign ended in the previous timeline. Unfortunately, Wei Wuxian is busy with a few skirmishes shortly after their conversation.
Jiang Cheng feels Lan Wangji's frosty glare every time they're in each other's vicinity. He doesn't regret trying to push Wei Wuxian down a condemned path. He'll deal with the consequences when the time comes if he has to.
That idiot probably shared his suggestion with the Second Jade.
Jiang Cheng wishes the man just confronted him instead of glaring at him. He has no qualms about putting Lan Wangji in his place. Jiang Cheng's soul is much older now. He knows how to deal with the likes of the Second Jade.
The war finally ends with all sects on the brink of collapse. Unexpectedly, it is Wen Qing who brings it all down, working with Meng Yao of all people.
Jiang Cheng doesn't know how that happened and he's tempted to question Wei Wuxian about it but his brother hasn't mentioned the Wens once.
Wen Qing's aid gives her and her harmless little clan protection. When Lan Wangji himself speaks up on their behalf and Wei Wuxian supports him, no Sect leader is willing to challenge it.
The Jins make a few noises but they can't accept the newly named Jin Guangyao into their clan without acknowledging Wen Qing's contribution.
Even if anyone wanted to kill the remaining Wens, they didn't have much strength to do so. Unlike the last time, even the Jins have suffered major losses. There is no Sect more powerful than the other now.
He can already see Jin Guangshan twitching to consolidate his power.
Again, unlike the last time, there is no common enemy to unite against. Wei Wuxian is an unquestioned hero of the war, not some Demonic Cultivator. Wen Qing helped end the war.
The Sects still get the Wen gold and land.
With all of the Sects on a more equal footing, there isn't much Jin Guangshan can do. Jiang Cheng watches warily for his sister's sake and supports some of the Jin Sect's proposals but there's a unity between the Nies and Lans that they can't touch.
Things take another turn when Nie Mingjue claps Wei Wuxian on his shoulder and offers sworn brotherhood.
He almost protests. He almost asks why he isn't offered the same but he already knows his answer.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are friends. Great friends. As a consequence, Zewu-jun likes Wei Wuxian. Chifeng-zun is inclined to like anyone Zewu-jun likes but he is particularly fond of Wei Wuxian too.
And Wei Wuxian has proven his merit in war.
Jiang Cheng has earned his title. He is again Sandu Shengshou but Wei Wuxian has earned a few of his own. Wens once called him the Red River for the amount of Wen blood he has spilled. Jiangs call him the Storm of Yunmeng. To the ordinary people, he's just the smiling one. Jins may call him Jiang Wanyin's dagger, but Lans have named him Chuílián.
Well, Lan Wangji has named him Chuilian unironically. To hand down mercy of all things.
Jiang Cheng scoffs when a-jie tells him that with a giggle. He has seen Wei Wuxian at his worst and there's nothing merciful about him.
Naturally, no one denies the Second Jade anything. Wei Wuxian dismisses all titles with a wave of his hand but that one sticks because Lan Wangji gave it and Zewu-jun uses it with an amused spark in his eye.
If he didn't know better, he'd say Lan Wangji is planning something.
It is almost disgusting to see how close they are now. He hadn't seen any signs of this in his previous timeline. It's not just Wei Wuxian seeking the Second Jade out these days. Lan Wangji voluntarily joins his brother for meals and drinks.
They even walk together like some sort of courting couple. It's unseemly and whenever Jiang Cheng tries to deter Wei Wuxian, his brother just laughs it off.
The swearing in happens not long after that and it is odd to see Wei Wuxian standing in place of Jin Guangyao for some reason. While Meng Yao did spy and eventually help win the war, Wen Qing was the one to actually end Wen Ruohan this time around.
Sometimes Jiang Cheng wonders about all of these changes. How was him letting the Wens take Wei Wuxian so significant that it changed everything?
And how have the fates turned so remarkably in Wei Wuxian's favor just because of that one decision?
He doesn't understand it but he's not entirely displeased. In the end, Wei Wuxian is his Head Disciple and he's the Sect Leader. Whatever credit his brother earns will only benefit the Jiang Sect.
It still rankles but Jiang Cheng is man enough to ignore it.
The days following the war are almost easier this time around. Without the stress of having to defend Wei Wuxian and his heretical path, Jiang Cheng can focus entirely on his Sect. He puts Wei Wuxian to work almost immediately, assigning a group of students to keep him busy.
While his brother is out corralling young disciples and leading Nighthunts, Jiang Cheng focuses on politicking. It's just as frustrating to deal with Jin Guangshan and his cunning bastard son as it had been before. The man tries to intimidate Jiang Cheng and hold the possibility of a-jie's engagement with Jin Zuxian over his head.
Jiang Cheng is grateful for his experience. He had found that time travel array four years after Wei Wuxian's death. Majority of those years were spent trying to keep other Sects from taking advantage of the Jiangs.
Jiang Cheng is no longer an untried boy. His brother's connection to Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun comes in handy. He finds no shame in using that connection to present a united front against the Jins.
Jiang Cheng has no interest in being the top dog of Cultivation Society but he has vested interest in ensuring no one takes Wen Ruohan's place.
The tentative balance holds. Jiang Cheng spends the next two years slowly building the Jiang Sect and recruiting disciples. He plans a-jie's wedding, keeps a distant eye on Wei Wuxian, and interacts with other Sects only when absolutely necessary.
A-jie's wedding goes smoothly and Jin Ling is born exactly when he was supposed to, much to his relief. This time, Wei Wuxian attends the Hundred Days celebration without incident.
Jin Zixuan lives.
The day of Jiang Yanli's death passes and his sister lives.
Jiang Cheng finally breathes a sigh of relief.
"Are you joking?" Jiang Cheng demands as he stares at Zewu-jun. Lan-zongzhu just arches a brow calmly, his expression still pleasant, "Zewu-jun, this is highly unorthodox!"
Lan Xichen just smiles softly in reply, "I'm aware, Jiang-zongzhu. But I also care about Wangji and Wuxian's happiness."
Jiang Cheng stands and paces, ire and disgust curling in his gut, "A cutsleeve marriage?! How can you even suggest it?" He whirls around, "You think Wei Wuxian wants this? He has always liked girls, he has always flirted with maidens. Your brother knows it!"
Zewu-jun looks faintly puzzled, "Wuxian likes both men and women." He says it like Jiang Cheng is already supposed to know this fact, "And… surely you have noticed he has loved no one but Wangji?"
"I noticed no such thing!" He barely holds back a snap, unwilling to anger the Lan Sect, "He has been obsessed with Lan Wangji since the beginning but it has never-" He waves his hand sharply, "Whatever you meant to imply. And your brother hated him!"
Lan Xichen's expression is starting to look a little less amiable at Jiang Cheng's tone.
He doesn't care.
"Wangji never hated Wuxian. I would refrain from ever saying that in my brother's hearing." Lan Xichen warns and Jiang Cheng resists the urge to scoff. He's not afraid of the esteemed Hanguang-jun, "But that's not a concern. Jiang-zongzhu, are you refusing to acknowledge their relationship?"
Jiang Cheng rubs his forehead, " What relationship? Are you saying they're cutsleeve lovers?"
Zewu-jun takes a slow sip of his tea, his eyes piercing as they look at Jiang Cheng. There's a glint in that gaze, an expression he hasn't ever seen in the First Jade's face. "Not lovers, no. Wangji would never dishonor Wuxian. They do love each other. Wangji wouldn't have asked me to start talks if they hadn't discussed something."
Jiang Cheng grits his teeth, inwardly cursing Wei Wuxian for not speaking with him in private on the matter. Now he has no way to clearly convey his displeasure. He asks a servant to bring his brother and paces.
Wei Wuxian arrives as quickly as one can expect and greets Lan Xichen with a bow, "Er-ge! What a pleasant surprise!" He grins like nothing's wrong.
"Wei Wuxian!" He snaps, "When were you going to tell me about your relationship with Lan Wangji?" Zidian is sparking in response to his ire and Jiang Cheng is sorely tempted to use it.
Wei Wuxian just looks confused, "I… already have?" He asks, glancing at Lan Xichen in concern before looking at him, "You know I meet with Lan Zhan as often as I can. You were there when I brought him a gift too! I asked you if it was romantic enough!"
Jiang Cheng holds back a snarl because he doesn't want to offend Lan Xichen. "Was I supposed to take that seriously? You buy a gift for some man and I'm supposed to immediately think you're courting?"
Of all the stupid things Wei Wuxian could've done! What is he supposed to do now? Things are finally settling down and going well for the Jiangs. Why does Wei Wuxian always have to make trouble?
Wei Wuxian studies him, head tilted to the side, "Jiang Cheng, when have I ever bought anyone anything?"
Jiang Cheng sneers in disgust briefly before concealing it but Wei Wuxian knows him well. His expression stills for a moment before a wide smile crosses his features. He scowls immediately. That's Wei Wuxian's most obnoxious smile, reserved only for people that have well and truly pissed him off.
"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian leans back against the wall casually with his arms crossed, "Remember that I am Wei Wuxian."
Wei Wuxian. Son of Wei Changze, who left his Sect behind for love.
Not Jiang Wuxian. Not the son of Jiang Fengmian, who allowed himself to be trapped in a political marriage.
Wei Wuxian speaks a lot. He blabbers on and on about the most ridiculous things. But when he speaks in short, brief sentences that need no additional explanation, he is absolutely, terrifyingly serious.
And Jiang Cheng has learned to never ignore his brother when he goes quiet like this.
"You want to marry a man. Marry Lan Wangji, of all people."
Jiang Cheng clenches his fist, "Marry into the Lan Clan."
Wei Wuxian doesn't even blink, "Yes." The shameless audacity of that admission takes his breath away.
"You… is this how you repay us? After everything?" After all of the death- after Jiang Cheng spared his life. He had been so tempted to strangle him when he returned to this timeline. So tempted to just end the menace that was Wei Wuxian before he had time to do any significant damage.
There's something in Wei Wuxian's gaze that Jiang Cheng doesn't like. Suddenly, it feels like a stranger is standing before him.
"I paid my debt in full." He says and Jiang Cheng feels the words like a punch to his chest.
Wei Wuxian doesn't elaborate but there's an uncomfortable amount of knowledge in his brother's eyes. Somewhere, deep in his heart, he feels a twinge of shame.
Jiang Cheng can't use debt as an anchor to keep Wei Wuxian tethered. Hasn't he already learned that lesson once?
He turns to Zewu-jun and nods curtly.
Whatever. Let Wei Wuxian be someone else's problem.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji marry in a beautiful, dignified ceremony. It doesn't hold a candle to the sheer majesty of a-jie's wedding but there's something special about it.
Jiang Cheng stands with his sister after everything is done. Not far away, Lan Wangji is guiding Wei Wuxian towards Zewu-jun and Chifeng-zun for a conversion. They look good, dressed in wedding red, both tall, strong, and handsome. For once, the Hanguang-jun doesn't look like a living personification of jade. He has an air of quiet contentment around him as he watches Wei Wuxian speak with his sworn brothers.
Wei Wuxian looks incandescently, infuriatingly happy.
Suddenly, he's an outsider looking in. Somewhere along the line, Wei Wuxian had left the protection of YunmengJiang. He chose, instead, to trust three of the most powerful men to exist today.
He swallows at the knowledge, feeling a sting of betrayal.
There's flash of gold catches his eye and he meets Hanguang-jun's glass-like gaze. The man studies him before turning away. But just before he does, Jiang Cheng spots a faint but vicious, victorious smile curling at the corner of his lips.
His breath catches.
Wangji rushes towards Yunmeng as quickly as he can, Nie Huaisang's words ringing in his mind.
" He's going to do it, Wangji-xiong. Render this timeline defunct and go back."
"I don't know what he'll do to Wei-xiong."
"You're the only one that can stop him."
But he still doesn't make it in time to stop Jiang Wanyin. He's already in a trance, channeling all of his energy into an active, pulsing array.
It is a moment of madness that makes him shoot forward. He steps into the array just as it flashes and feels the power crash through him. The pain is breathtaking and Wangji has never felt so close to death.
His body shatters and his soul is pulled backwards in time sharply.
It takes Wangji a few days to settle and understand the situation. He's in Qinghe, working with Chifeng-zun to reclaim Cloud Recesses. He focuses on the task instead of rushing off to find Wei Ying because he has no other choice. He can't afford to change anything and jeopardize their chances of reclaiming Cloud Recesses.
He briefly notes that the attack on Lotus Pier has already happened. Jiang Wanyin didn't manage to pull them back far enough to prevent it.
Days pass in a strangely familiar blur as Wangji prepares himself to deal with war once again. It has been four years since Wei Ying's death and he's unwilling to live through all of that again.
This time, Wangji will support Wei Ying instead of trying to stop him.
He's preparing for it, coming up with arguments that would help. Wangji is ready to communicate clearly, to show Wei Ying that he just wants to help.
But it all proves to be unnecessary. Wei Ying arrives at Qinghe just a few days after Wangji returns to it. He is hale and hearty, pulsing with restless energy, as vivid as the Wei Ying of his adolescence.
Wangji is astonished. Wei Ying is supposed to be missing but he's walking up to Unclean Realm, clearly uninjured. He brings a couple of Wen soldiers along with him and tosses them at Nie Mingjue's feet with a reckless grin, "Will that pay for my room and board?"
"Wei Ying," He breathes, half hopeful, half reprimanding.
Chifeng-zun doesn't seem to mind. He just huffs in laughter and nods, "Come along. Tell me what happened."
The story is fairly straightforward but it sends alarm bells ringing in Wangji's ear.
"I had to think quickly!" Wei Ying says animatedly, a confident grin on his face, "But I managed to scare Wen Chao enough that he didn't kill me. And I was so close to losing my Golden Core to Wen Zhuliu! Fortunately, they were distracted by my threats and it didn't occur to Wen Chao again . When they tried to toss me into the Burial Mounds, they were distracted once more, this time by the Resentful Energy. I took my chance and quickly cut Wen Zhuliu's throat." He shows them a dagger and sends an apologetic look at Wangji and Xichen, "I know concealed weapons are against the rules but really! What could I do without a sword?"
Wangji feels a combination of pained humor, disbelief, and despair. All of the fragmented pieces are now starting to come together. In the past timeline, Wei Ying had dismissed the rumors of him being thrown into the Burial Mounds. But clearly it had happened.
Nothing about Wei Ying's turn towards the heretical path had made sense then, but… but if Wen Zhuliu had taken his core and thrown him into the Mounds…
Cultivating Resentful Energy was probably the only way for him to survive.
"Wei-gongzi, please don't apologize for being sensible." Xichen says reassuringly, his voice compassionate and respectful.
"Yes," Nie Mingjue adds, "It is smart to arm yourself, especially against someone like Wen Zhuliu."
Silver eyes glance at him and Wangji feels his breath still. How can Wei Ying think he would resent anything that ensured his survival? "Wei Ying lives." And that's all that matters to him.
Wei Ying smiles and turns his attention back to Chifeng-zun but Wangji's thoughts are spiraling.
If Wei Ying had cultivated the Ghostly Path out of necessity and only used it righteously until he was pushed into a corner, Wangji can't hold him responsible.
Wei Ying had always said he was in control and he had been. He clearly had been until one torment after another had been inflicted on him. Was it Resentful Energy or incomprehensible mental strain that caused his outburst at the Nightless City?
Wangji would never know but his heart feels lighter with this knowledge. He had been willing to bear the consequences of protecting Wei Ying but something in him eases to know that his trust hadn't been misplaced.
Wei Ying is good. He is righteous . This time, he will make sure everyone understands.
So he listens to Wei Ying's recount and absently notes that Jiang Wanyin hasn't been captured by the Wens this time. Wei Ying says something about going to Meishan but Xichen is quick to dissuade him. "You have just killed Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu, Wei-gongzi. Wen Ruohan is sure to ask for your head."
Wei Ying hesitates but fortunately recognizes the need to stay hidden for some time. He nods and the conversation lightens after that.
He doesn't know what Jiang Wanyin did but he is grateful for it. Wangji doesn't understand his intentions and he isn't going to let his guard down but he appreciates the results.
The death of Wen Zhuliu bolsters morale and draws more people to their side. Wangji keeps a keen eye on things, using his perfect memory to note down all changes.
Wei Ying attends several meetings with Xichen and Nie Mingjue, discussing details revealed by the captive Wen soldiers. He notes the growing camaraderie between Chifeng-zun and Wei Ying with amusement and relief. They seem to have bonded over drinks and stories.
"They're particularly pleased about being the ones to kill Wen Ruohan's heirs." Xichen says one evening, "I dare say Mingjue is charmed by your Wei Wuxian, Wangji."
Wangji has lived through too much pain and loss to be flustered by the implication. He just nods, "Wei Ying is charming."
Wangji encourages the friendship quietly and Xichen, always eager to support his brother, takes time to get to know Wei Ying as well. He is certain that Xichen will quickly understand Wei Ying's true character.
The Jiang siblings arrive shortly after and Wangji isn't present when they do but Xichen is. "Jiang-zongzhu seemed rather peturbed than happy to see Wei-gongzi." He admits later, concerned.
It takes only a few days of observation to understand that Jiang Wanyin didn't intend to change things in such a way. Wei Ying's survival was an unintended consequence.
Jiang Wanyin had been captured last time. Wei Ying had been the one to rescue him and then get captured later.
… Jiang Wanyin had let Wei Ying take his place and hadn't intended to rescue him.
Ice settles in Wangji's stomach at such callous disregard for Wei Ying's life. Did he think Wei Ying's survival was assured even if he was captured early? Was he so willing to let his own brother suffer? Couldn't he have found a way to keep both of them safe?
Wangji knows for certain that they can't rely on YunmengJiang to protect Wei Ying anymore.
"Lan Zhan! Do you want to join us?" Wei Ying asks one evening, waving at him eagerly. Wangji looks at the number of drunken soldiers around his beloved and feels his stomach twist in discomfort.
He shakes his head and continues walking, only to slow down when hurried footsteps follow. "Then I'll join you!" Wei Ying says cheerfully, "Where are we going?"
Wangji feels a pulse of warmth and curls his fingers to keep them from reaching out. "I seek a quiet place." He says softly. The camp is noisy and he feels drained because of it, "Wei Ying may accompany me."
Wei Ying's smile brightens with pleasure, "Well, I know just the place!" He leads Wangji to a secluded little stream among a dense pocket of trees, "See! Not a soul in sight. All the silence that my Lan Zhan needs."
Wangji sits down on a large, flat rock by the stream, feeling warm and cherished. Wei Ying settles down by him, lying on his back with his arms crossed under his head. He doesn't speak and Wangji closes his eyes, sinking into meditation.
They spend several evenings like this, with Wei Ying seeking out a quiet place for Wangji to relax and making a concentrated effort to not disturb him.
He falls deeper and deeper in love.
Somehow, they end up fighting battles together, moving around each other with unexpected ease. Wei Ying is fast and precise, Wangji is steady and powerful.
They're nigh on impossible to defeat.
Nie-zongzhu sends Wangji and Wei Ying out together often because of their success in battle. The Second Jade is grateful for it. He doesn't trust Wei Ying in the hands of the Jiang Sect, even if the new disciples appear to love him.
He doesn't see Jiang Wanyin often and Wei Ying is rarely in the Sect Leader's company.
The distance between the two martial brothers is so apparent that even Nie Mingjue comments on it.
Wangji hesitates but it is in Wei Ying's best interest for Nie Mingjue to know the truth. "Wei Ying drew Wen Chao's ire in trying to save us." He explains over tea, "Jiang-zongzhu holds him responsible for the attack on Lotus Pier."
Xichen frowns while Nie-zongzhu huffs in irritation, "But surely the Wens would've attacked regardless. They wanted to set up a supervisory office there, didn't they?"
Nie Mingjue shakes his head and sips his tea, "Naive. Keeping his own Head Disciple at arm's length only weakens the Jiang Sect."
Xichen hums in agreement and Wangji doesn't add anything else. Gossiping isn't in his nature and it wasn't his place to reveal everything that is wrong between Jiang Waynin and his head disciple.
But Nie Mingjue has more to say, "It could be envy. Jiang Wanyin is skilled but Wei Wuxian is exceptional."
Wangji ponders over that for a moment. Jiang Wanyin had been a considerable force on the battlefield last time. He possessed skill complemented by a stunningly powerful Golden Core.
He doesn't understand the time travel ritual enough to know how it affects travelers. When he returned, his core retained the power he had cultivated in the future. Jiang Wanyin, however, seems weaker.
Wangji supposes it is a natural consequence of the ritual. A sacrifice necessary to travel back in time. Jiang Wanyin is no fool so he must have accepted the loss to accomplish his goals.
He will never disrespect Jiang Wanyin's power or mock his abilities, not when the sacrifice inadvertently lets Wangji save his Wei Ying.
Just for that, he'll support the Jiang Sect and endeavour to protect them after the war.
Unfortunately, the war is worse than before and it drags on longer than Wangji remembers from his previous timeline. Wei Ying's unorthodox cultivation had certainly done a lot to improve their chances of success.
Nevertheless, Wangji doesn't believe it is essential for victory. Surely they can find an alternative that is safe for everyone?
An idea comes to him during one of their evening conversations.
"Is there a way to contact someone discreetly over a long distance?" He asks Wei Ying. The man stops polishing Suibian and looks at him in question. Wangji doesn't explain further and Wei Ying frowns in thought.
"Not that I recall." He says.
Wangji looks at Wei Ying, "Can you develop a method?"
Wei Ying arches his brows in surprise, "What's with people thinking I can come up with a magical solution for everything?" He asks playfully, "Jiang Cheng just asked me if I could find a way to use Resentful Energy. And control fierce corpses of all things!"
Wangji goes cold, struggling to keep his composure.
How dare he…
His fingers itch to unsheath Bichen and go after Jiang Wanyin immediately. The man knows how cultivating the Ghostly Path had hurt Wei Ying. He knows how much happiness Wei Ying had to sacrifice and he still dares-
Wei Ying waves his hand before tapping his chin, "I could come up with a way but I don't know how much time it would take."
Wangji has been steadily building a true relationship with Wei Ying ever since he returned. They share meals, train together, and sometimes even fight back to back. Wangji invites Wei Ying to walk with him some evenings and Wei Ying often drags him off to some secluded place to watch the night sky together.
They are closer than they have ever been before. This time, this beloved knows it is a concerned friend cautioning him, "You have done more than enough to help." He says, "Do not place yourself at risk by experimenting with Resentful Energy. Please. "
Wei Ying softens and nudges his shoulder gently, "Ah, Lan Zhan! Don't worry, I don't intend to." He assures, "I was talking about a method of communication, honestly."
Wangji nods, relieved but he still keeps an eye on things. Wei Ying shows no signs of being interested in Resentful Energy even as the war worsens and they keep losing people.
Fortunately, he does manage to come up with a communication solution. It is similar to Wei Ying's Paper Metamorphosis technique from the future but the application is entirely different. "We can affix a memory into this paper and then fold it into a bird." Wei Ying eagerly brandishes a slip of talisman paper with intricate calligraphy on it, "The downside is that the memory can become corrupted and fade in a couple of days. We need to make sure the bird reaches its target quickly."
Wangji stares at Wei Ying.
The solution is perfect.
He carefully selects a series of memories and feeds them into the talisman. That night, he mounts Bichen and goes to the very edge of their reclaimed lands. Hopefully, Wen Qing is close enough to get the message before it fades.
It is a big gamble and Wangji is certain no one would approve of it, not even Wei Ying. This Wei Ying doesn't know Wen Qing. He hasn't bonded with her or saved her brother's life. He has no reason to trust a Wen.
His gamble pays off and Wangji finds himself organising a rebellion with Wen Qing without anyone's knowledge.
It rankles to keep things from Wei Ying but he doesn't want to risk Jiang Wanyin knowing about this. The Sect Leader may want to kill or punish Wen Ning for his future self's actions. Wangji cannot permit it.
It takes a few months and they lose a few more worthy cultivators before Wen Qing manages to come through.
Wen Ruohan dies and all Wen soldiers drop arms in surrender.
It is a relief. Wangji allows himself to relax his shoulders when the news reaches him. Wei Ying is by his side and he sees the man glance at him with sparkling, amused silver eyes.
"So sneaky, Lan Zhan!" He laughs later, "You've been conspiring with Lady Wen all this time! I'm honestly jealous," He nudges Wangji with a pout, "You made mischief with someone else! Your Wei Ying is very sad."
Wangji can clearly see he is joking but he doesn't want any misunderstanding. He wants to nip the idea of there being anything between him and Wen Qing in the bud.
He gathers his courage and gently plucks Wei Ying's hand off his lap. He meets curious silver eyes and hesitates before bringing those slender fingers to his lips.
Wei Ying stills, his eyes widening in surprise. Wangji keeps his grasp loose and eyes open. Let Wei Ying see, let him pull away if he wishes to.
"Oh…" Wei Ying whispers and Wangji sees his lips tremble, his fingers twitching in surprise, "I…"
"Can Wei Ying truly be mine?" He asks, running a thumb along the racing pulse on a surprisingly dainty wrist.
Wei Ying is silent for a long time, staring at him in shock. Wangji doesn't rush him even though his heart feels like it is going to beat out of his chest.
Wei Ying raises his other hand and it shakes as he places it on Wangji's cheek, gentle and curious. "In some ways, I am already yours." Wei Ying says softly, "For I love you with all my heart."
"We have fought and bled together. You steady me, complete me like no one has before." Wei Ying leans forward, his head falling on Wangji's shoulder, "I think of you often, I want to always be with you. You draw me in, Lan Zhan, the pull is almost irresistible."
Lan Zhan turns his head a little, breathing in the soft fragrance of Wei Ying's hair, "But?"
Wei Ying huffs a laugh, "I never thought of you as a lover." He says and Wangji resists the urge to stiffen, feeling his ears burn in embarrassment.
Will he have to face rejection again?
"I'm such a child." Wei Ying says shakily, "So stupid, it never occurred to me, not until just now. I don't know what to do when you look at me like that."
Wangji steadies his heart and forces himself to listen . "Don't know?" He asks gently, raising his hand to place it on his beloved's head.
Wei Ying's face is warm against his shoulder, "Lan Zhan ," He whines, "My heart just about ran away from me when you kissed me. How did you know? How could you know before me?"
Wangji feels a rush of amusement, "Isn't Wei Ying fond of flirting and unsuitable books?" He asks and pulls him closer. He understands . Wei Ying reciprocates but he didn't think about physical attraction until Wangji initiated it.
"I know ." Wei Ying moans and a smile tugs at his lips. "I'm such an idiot."
"You aren't." Wangji says firmly, ridiculously charmed, "May I kiss you?"
Wei Ying whines, "Don't ask like that! My poor heart can't take it, Lan Zhan!" Despite his protests, he raises his head and leans forward, puckering his lips adorably in anticipation of a kiss.
Wangji huffs and tucks his fingers under Wei Ying's chin, drawing him close. Wei Ying relaxes at the gentle brush of lips, silver eyes curious and interested.
He feels his hair stand on end at the tentative touch, his skin forming goosebumps as he tastes celebratory wine on his beloved's lips.
Wangji feels warm and content as he pulls Wei Ying closer, wrapping an arm around a lean waist to guide the strong in body onto his lap.
Wei Ying comes easily, leans into the kiss freely, already finding the confidence to return his touches. Strong fingers cup the back of his neck, combing through his hair and Wangji wants more.
He presses closer. He tilts his head to the side, licks the seam of Wei Ying's lips, and gently pushes forward.
Wei Ying unravels for him without hesitation.
It is an exercise in patience to keep the kiss soft and exploratory. It takes every bit of his restraint to not tighten his arms and just take.
That time will come. Now he just wants to coerce those lips open and taste his Wei Ying.
His love shivers and gasps, eyelids fluttering and fingers tightening on Wangji's nape.
When he pulls away, Wei Ying is enchantingly flushed, his eyes wet and lips red. Wangji can't help but lean forward to nuzzle a blushing cheek, "Wei Ying is pleased." He observes, just a little smug.
"And you call me shameless," Wei Ying complains, "You should be kinder to your Wei Ying, especially after heartstopping kisses like these."
"Mn." Wangji leans back with a warm weight on his lap, finding quiet pleasure in holding Wei Ying close.
They sit like that for a quarter shichen before Wei Ying speaks up, "How did you know Wen Qing would help?"
Wangji hesitates and then replies with the truth.
Wei Ying is remarkably resilient. He listens to the stories from a timeline long erased without any comment. He is patient, accepting, and thoughtful.
But Wei Ying is also sharp. Sometimes he seems to understand more from Wangji's retellings. Things that even ellude Wangji himself.
There's a grim sort of smile on his beloved's lips as Wangji finishes his story. "Things make sense now." He huffs and presses a reassuring kiss on Wangji's cheek, "Don't worry, Lan Zhan and thank you for telling me."
Things change in many subtle ways after that. Wei Ying doesn't protest when Wangji introduces the idea of sworn brotherhood with Xichen and Nie Mingjue. He doesn't say much when the distance between him and his martial brother grows wider and deeper.
Again, Wangji wonders what he missed and what Wei Ying understood.
"Chuílián?" Wei Ying asks one day, amused. Wangji had just said that word once during a Nighthunt. A few drunken civilians had good-naturedly started to recite the various names Wei Ying had accumulated during the war, praising him and seeking his favor. He had dismissed all distasteful ones with a single word.
"You have always been merciful." Wangji says, "Even to people who least deserve it."
Years pass by and Wangji sees his careful interventions bear fruit. Wei Ying is a respected, honoured cultivator. He has the protection of both Chifeng-zun and Zewu-jun, the love of the common folk, and his own powerful Golden Core.
With Wen Qing on their side, Chifeng-zun manages to avoid qi-deviation entirely. Wen Yuan has a family and family legacy to carry forward as the heir of the Wens.
The balance of power prevents Jin Guangshan from ever rising above others.
He marries Wei Ying.
He marries Wei Ying with all honors, with the grudging approval of his elders, with his Uncle's fond and exasperated consent, with Jiang Yanli's happy encouragement.
When he sees Jiang Wanyin watching them after the ceremony, looking a little lost but also a little accepting, he turns away with a smile.
Jiang Wanyin will never hurt his Wei Ying again.
He wishes the man well and is happy to see him succeed as a Sect Leader. Wangji has no room for resentment in his heart, not when it is so full of Wei Ying.
That's all that matters.