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the most dangerous game

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Xichen does not tell anyone he is leaving, but Wangji is still waiting by the gap in the wall anyways. To anyone else, he would appear emotionless as ever, but Xichen sees the slight furrow in his brother’s brow, the downturn of the corners of his mouth, and his eyes, broadcasting their twin concern and disapproval.

“I have to go,” is all Xichen says, because it’s all he can say. Other words rise to his lips--cruel words, bitter words, Why did Wei Wuxian get to live and not Jiang Cheng, You wouldn’t understand, your love is still alive --but he knows it’s not fair to Wangji to speak them aloud, so instead he swallows them. They burn all the way down. 

“It won’t help,” Wangji responds gravely. 

Xichen’s grip on Shuoyue tightens, the pommel creaking under the pressure. He knows this won’t bring Jiang Cheng back, knows it goes against everything his clan teaches, knows that it won’t help heal the painful wounds left behind--but he has to go. If there’s anything left of his beloved, he has to have it, protect it--doesn’t Wangji understand? It’s a rare moment when Xichen looks into his brother’s eyes and can’t instantly know what he is saying, but for once Xichen has the painful realization that at this instant, it’s Wangji who doesn’t know him. There is discordance in the air between them, the complete understanding between the two Twin Jades slipping out of place. 

Helpless, Xichen looks at his brother and wordlessly begs him to step aside. He does not want to fight his brother, but he will if he has to. Wangji’s eyes soften, and he shifts minutely, no longer blocking Xichen’s way. Xichen lets out a silent sigh of relief, starting to move forward, before Wangji’s hand shoots out, grabbing him by the elbow. Xichen tenses, turning to face him.

“Be careful,” is all Wangji tells him, squeezing him tightly, and Xichen feels tears start to well up. He knows this is as close to a hug as they’ll get, no matter how much Xichen wants to throw his sword to the ground and bundle his little brother into his arms. Not trusting himself to speak without choking on the lump in his throat, he nods instead. Wangji smiles, a gentle quirk of his lips, and steps back to allow Xichen to mount his sword. 

As the Cloud Recesses disappears and the air gets colder, Xichen concentrates on channeling warmth into his extremities and the wind whipping around his face, instead of the bloodlust howling beneath his skin, raging to be let loose, or the gaping black hole in the pit of his stomach, thrumming with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. 

It is not difficult to pick up Wen Chao’s trail. He crashes through the forest with the same level of stealth and grace as a hopping corpse. It is almost like he dares anyone to come after him, even after Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli had tracked down Wen Zhuliu and mercilessly slaughtered him. Xichen, of course, is happy to oblige. He traces a meandering path that circles his home, plows through Caiyi, and leads out into the outskirts of Gusu territory. 

Just because their home was razed to the ground and the clan was scattered, leaderless, for a few months does not mean that they are powerless. How presumptuous to think Xichen would not defend his home when provoked, not when it holds all he has left. 

“I love it here,” Jiang Cheng says, rolling off of Xichen. There’s a light in his eyes that hadn’t been there when he first arrived, the hint of a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth. Stretching out his arms, Jiang Cheng looks more relaxed. Usually, his brows seem to knit together of their own volition and his upper body is tense and stiff, not allowing for a moment of softness. 

It’s one of the things he treasures most about Jiang Cheng that he’ll never tell him, one of the things he takes and tucks closely to his chest to marvel at late at night when he can’t sleep. That this seemingly prickly and rigid boy is capable of such sweetness and softness. 

“You do?” Xichen asks, smiling in response. “More than Lotus Pier?”

Turning onto his side and propping his head up on one of his hands, Jiang Cheng snorts, but the glimpse of white, straight teeth and crinkled eyes lets Xichen know he’s not annoyed. “Don’t be daft, Huan-ge. There’s no place as lovely or as precious to me as Lotus Pier. I’m just saying maybe Cloud Recesses isn’t too shabby.” Xichen hears the words underneath--I love Lotus Pier, but it’s crushing me. With you, I get to be myself--but he pretends not to for the sake of Jiang Cheng’s pride. 

“Cloud Recesses, the Palace of Eternal Mists, That Place Which Descended From the Immortal Realm, not too shabby? This sect heir must defend his home’s honor. Mark your words!” With that, Xichen pounces, and Jiang Cheng slips away, as fluid as water, laughter unwillingly ripped from his chest.

And for a beautiful, shining moment, they’re not two sect heirs struggling to prepare for the day when the weight of their worlds will collapse onto their shoulders, but instead two unruly disciples skipping class, enjoying the sunlight on their faces and the wind in their hair.

At least, until Wangji finds them and fixes them both with a thoroughly disapproving stare, pointedly looking at the grass stains on Xichen’s white robes as Xichen unrepentantly giggles, mouth hidden behind his sleeve. 

Shaking his head, Xichen ignores the wind that playfully whirls around him, bringing with it echoes of his lover’s voice. A whiff of smoke catches his attention, brought by the same unruly breeze, drawing his attention to an abandoned manor in the distance. 

As he draws closer, he can make out lights and banners emblazoned with the flaming sun. He descends about a mile from the camp, alighting gently onto the ground. He checks his guqin, making sure it’s still in tune and that the strings are razor sharp. Liebing is on one hip, as customary, with Shuoyue on the other. Taking a deep breath, he glances up at the moon, radiating silver light onto the scene before him, and strides forward. 

It’s not hard to get rid of the guards. Xichen is technically perfect, trained by the book under shufu’s rigid, discerning gaze, but that doesn’t make him any less deadly. The Wens are taken completely by surprise, helped by the fear the unearthly paleness of Xichen’s robes and face inspires. What a figure I must make, he thinks wryly as he dispassionately cuts through the chest of yet another Wen cultivator. 

Xichen knows shufu had looked at him with a wary eye during sparring, perturbed by the thrill that would run up Xichen’s spine every time he parried a blow or landed a strike on his opponent. Xichen doesn’t know how to tell him that, before he met Jiang Cheng, the most alive he ever felt was on the relative freedom of the training grounds. Now, Xichen is the paragon of virtue, one half of the Twin Jades, the cultivation world’s pride and joy, highly skilled and always ready with a kind word or good advice and possessing a calm, unflappable disposition. But people don’t know how hard it is to maintain that appearance, how Xichen had to practice pasting a placid smile on his face until it became natural, how he had to bury his emotions underneath three thousand rules even though it felt like he was drowning, screaming as he forced himself to fit into a pre-made mold, into the perfect brother, son, nephew, cultivator, sect leader--whatever they wanted him to be. Even now, behind the sturdy gates he’s locked his true self in, wailing and scraping at the walls, there’s excitement singing through his blood at each body he leaves behind.

He hopes Wen Chao can hear the chaos grow closer and know that retribution has come. Crawling ever closer, outpaced but never outrun, inescapable in its finality. 

He smashes through the door with a simple kick, finding Wen Chao already sniveling in a corner. Sword waveringly pointed at Xichen, he opens his mouth, no doubt to screech something about how Gusu Lan will face the consequences for his action, but Xichen doesn’t care. The world swims about as if in a fog as he unceremoniously disarms Wen Chao, sending his blade skittering across the floor. Xichen grabs his wrist, twists, and applies pressure to the elbow until he hears a snap and Wen Chao squeals like a stuck pig. It’s not hard to slam him into the floor so hard that his nose cracks and the breath is crushed from his lungs. Xichen watches himself kick Wen Chao, hard enough that he skids backwards and slams into the wall opposite them. Only then does he unsheathe Shuoyue, casually swinging it at his side with the grace and lightness he is known for. 

“Please don’t hurt me!” Wen Chao wails, throwing himself forward and grasping for the hem of Xichen’s robe. Lip curling in disgust, Xichen takes a step back and yanks it out of his grubby hands. 

“As much as you deserve it, don’t worry. I won’t,” Xichen tells him dispassionately, and Wen Chao looks upwards as if Xichen is Guanyin herself, before trying again to kiss Xichen’s robe. “You are not worth the effort,” Xichen says as he hefts his sword, adjusting his grip, before swinging Shuoyue in a blinding arc of silver light. 

Wen Chao slumps to the ground, his head rolling forward only to be stopped by the tip of Xichen’s boot. Face wrinkling in disgust at the blood seeping onto his sole, Xichen resigns himself to burning the pair as soon as he returns home. 

They are dangerously near to the sunrise, and Xichen does not have time to hesitate. He frantically begins to search the place, unearthing all manner of treasures. There’s a jade bracelet that looks typical of a Gusu Lan noblewoman carelessly thrown on a table, a pendant that looked like it had once hung on the neck of Madame Yu crumpled next to it, and a hair pin made of silver, complete with an amethyst carved into the shape of a lotus that Xichen is sure Sect Leader Jiang wore every day. Xichen does not have time to treat the objects with the respect they deserve, and he silently asks for forgiveness as he discards them. About to lose hope, Xichen finally turns back to Wen Chao. Hoping he did not desecrate the item and the memory of its bearer by wearing it, he nudges the corpse, pushing it over. With a gentle clink, Wanyin’s bell falls out, and Xichen breathes a sigh of relief. Sullied, but not despoiled. 

Scooping it up as gently as possible, Xichen cradles it to his chest as he remounts his sword. There’s traces of the energy of Jiang Cheng’s core on it, his unmistakable qi pulsing gently at Xichen’s touch. “Hello again, my love,” Xichen whispers, and the bell seems to light up, emitting a faint warmth onto the palm of his hand.

“If you don’t mind me asking, what is the significance of your bell?” Xichen had asked one day as they lay on his bed, Xichen curling his larger body towards Jiang Cheng’s slighter frame.  Wanyin pauses for a moment, expression inscrutable, and Xichen backpedals. “Please forgive me if I caused any offence, I meant none.”

Letting out a sigh, Jiang Cheng nods. There’s a sort of smile on his face, but it’s not a happy one. “Officially, they’re supposed to promote clarity of mind. Whenever the wearer is upset, it chimes to help ground them. As you might imagine, mine never stops making noise.” His lips draw back in a sneer. “Fat lot of good it does me.”

“Unofficially?” Xichen prompts. 

Jiang Cheng sighs again, mouth twisting. “They’re rather like your forehead ribbons, I suppose. Meant only to be exchanged at weddings with your loved one. Pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

Noticing the flush creeping up Jiang Cheng’s neck and splotching his cheeks, Xichen can’t help but smirk. “Is Jiang Wanyin a romantic?”

Jiang Cheng scrambles back in a knee jerk reaction. “What? Fuck no!” Seeing Xichen’s raised eyebrow, he slumps. “Yes,” he confesses quietly, more softly than Xichen’s ever heard him. “Is that so bad?” 

“No,” Xichen promises, taking Jiang Cheng’s hands into his own. “Never. I think that’s beautiful, Wanyin. Everything about you is.”

Jiang Cheng turns so red he’s almost purple, looking so close to an aneurysm that Xichen has to avert his eyes to allow Wanyin to recollect himself, but he can’t help the delighted smile that threatens to bloom across his face.

Xichen lands behind the walls of Cloud Recesses just as the sun begins to paint the clouds a stunning, fiery array of oranges and reds. Wangji is waiting, tension written across his face. Seeing the blood splattered on Xichen’s robes, his expression grows thunderous, until Xichen assures him, “Don’t worry. It’s not mine.”

At his words, Wangji releases the tension in his shoulders, but concern does not leave his eyes. Stepping forwards, Xichen smiles gently at his brother and lays a hand on his shoulder. “I am alright. I am at...some sort of peace now.” The bell chimes, as if in agreement. When Xichen removes his hands from Wangji’s robes, there is a smear of blood, and Xichen feels his smile grow strained. His brother should not be marked by Xichen’s failure, his lack of control. 

“I am afraid I will not be able to join you for breakfast. Please give Uncle my apologies.”

As if summoned by the sound of his own name, there is a roar in the distance. “Lan Huan!”

Xichen looks at his brother, who has the nerve to look apologetic. “I...became worried,” Wangji admits, bowing his head, and Xichen softens. Patting his didi again, Xichen straightens his shoulders and tries to push his hair and robes back into a semblance of order. It doesn’t seem to help much, if his uncle’s red face and quivering beard are anything to go by. 

Placid smile on his face, Xichen greets his uncle with a bow. “Good morning, shufu.”

“Good morning?” Lan Qiren repeats back incredulously. 

“Yes. Wouldn’t you agree?” Xichen allows shufu to splutter for a few seconds, before continuing, “I’m afraid I’m not feeling very well, but I will see you in the afternoon and take responsibility for my actions.” He then sweeps by, thumb rubbing over the ridges and grooves of the carvings on the silver in his hand.

Just as he promised, Lan Xichen meets his uncle, lists off the rules he has broken, and calmly prepares for the consequences, kneeling on the wooden floor of the pavilion. Whatever pain that comes will be well worth it.

“Always so brave, so upright, so noble,” Jiang Cheng whispers in his ear, the edges curdling with bitterness. Out of the corner of his eye, Lan Huan can see the purple of his robes, nearly black in some parts where his blood soaked through, cuts too deep to ever heal. Xichen shakes his head minutely, aware that this is just a figment of his imagination, a crutch for him to lean on. Still, as the paddle raises, Xichen feels the weight of his eyes, and refuses to be weak. Not when his beloved no longer even has the opportunity.

He does not cry out as he is punished, but instead takes the blows of the paddle silently, jaw set and bell clenched in his hand, the edge cutting into his palm until it is slick with blood.