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"Stand down," And it's an order this time, Morax’s eyes flaring bright in warning. They say when the adepti take to the battlefield, the air itself mourns the inevitable devastation and bloodshed as adepti energy overflows beyond what mortals can stand. It's suffocating. It's always been suffocating, supposedly, the aura an adeptus radiates, the threat of death hanging in the space around them, the overwhelming existence of divinity.

Nothing good comes out of being near Alatus, even if he was sworn into existence to protect. His hands can only destroy. He protects by staining the land in so much red none will ever dare to harm those within its borders again.

So. He eliminates threats. He kills. Unerringly, unendingly. In place of all those who have gonepassedsuffereddied before him, and so that there will be no need for more after him.

Alatus may as well be an extension of his spear.

But Xiao--

"No." He says quietly, raising his head . A gentle breeze sighs into existence around him. A tuft of dandelion brushes past his face.

Morax is genuinely taken aback, eyes widening in an almost deceptively human way. How many centuries has it been the last time anyone, anything - let alone him, Xiao, Alatus, loyal obedient adepti last yaksha demon slayer sharp weapon tool who has always let Morax dictate his existence - dared even think of defying him?

"Xiao." A warning this time. Amber eyes narrow as the ground of Dihua itself thrums in anger. The moon is a bowstring stretched taught in the sky. The night is quiet.

"No." Xiao repeats, realization blooming in his heart, a bud of qingxin breathing in its first taste of dawn and light and warmth. When the full weight of his lord's gaze falls on him, Xiao is the most steady and tranquil he's ever been. "I was sworn to protect. And Alatus - Alatus knew nothing but of preserving life by taking those of others. But Xiao--"

The wind lightly dances across Xiao's cheeks in a soothing whisper. The air smells of dandelions. Dandelions in Liyue? A real smile wrangles its way onto Xiao's face. The first one in centuries.

"Xiao. You would dare defy he who bestowed that very name onto you?" Morax asks, but he has never asked before, only taken. And taken and taken until Xiao Alatus Xiao is the only one left, the only remnant of an unending war hidden deep within the darkest crevices of Liyue’s hallowed lands.

Morax has only taken. And this time is no different, the hidden threat as potent as any spear he could throw. I gave you life and purpose. Your right to exist is equally mine to dictate. 

God of war, god of trade and gold and prosperity and diligence who built the mountains carved the rivers shepherded the rivers into the ocean and a bustling town into an empire. He who is just and fair and diligent in the affairs of divinity, of being an immortal, of creating and maintaining and instructing and demanding.

What does Morax know of living? God of war he may be, what does he truly know of death? Of emotions, of plight, of why out of all of them so many of them every single one of them Alatus is the only one left?

"I am bound to serve Rex Lapis in defense of Liyue. Just as Rex Lapis had sworn to." The air around Xiao hums quietly as streams of air gather and swirl and swirl and swirl until his hair is whipping against his face. "Morax. You are neither of these things now. Not my lord nor the archon who methodically built Liyue after her death."

Xiao looks at amber eyes searchingly. The amber graves on Qingyun. There is no life in them. Only a horrible cold. Xiao laughs, and it is as bitter as it is relieving. “And now I find myself uncertain if you ever were that god. If you ever truly understood that which makes immortal ties us eternally to that which is mortal.” The familiar weight of his spear finally feels natural as it points unwaveringly in front of him, an accusation towards Morax's heart.

It is animalistic, the snarl that makes its way against Morax's face. Dragon, qilin, phoenix - of course it is. Morax was and is all those things and more, more than even the most gruesome terrors that plagued the Archon War and the centuries after.

What does Morax know of being human?

The air is heavy with the suffocating weight of anger. "What would she think now, to hear our dear friend blaspheme so?" And yet that voice remains terribly apathetic, devoid of rage, of emotions and life. The air is heavy with anger -- or the closest thing an immortal with the divine right to rule could have - indignance, perhaps. Incredulity at the sheer gall of his servant.

The gale whipping into life around Xiao smells of new life, of the spring, of the sky - of freedom, and it blankets him from the crumbling stone and tainted air around Morax. Dust dances across his face, a familiar brush of hands across his nose, a comforting weight on his shoulder. Today, she stands with him.

Everything returns into dust eventually, yes. But remember, it musn’t always be a sorrowful affair, Xiao. The breeze blows towards the future and from the dust something new is born. Her smile had dimmed as the incense from the Rite of Parting coils in the air. Even so. The way the end is brought by, the way it comes to pass -- not all ends are necessary. And those that come premature--

--Are the worst kind of tragedies. Xiao tilts his head, Vision blazing bright as his eyes gleam brighter. "Four thousand years and you're still no closer to understanding her than you were the day she passed." The edges of his smile are sharp. "You are correct, Morax, what would she think?"

Maybe it is only the tiny shreds of humanity that ‘Zhongli’ had painstakingly found that stops Morax from lunging for him there and then. Maybe in another world where time had been kinder and Zhongli truly existed. But in this one--

In this one, Morax’s inaction is the natural born arrogance of one who has never lost or known loss, whose divine words inevitably become the future for all life pledges itself in service to him. Morax is laughing, eyes stained with the madness of an unresolved conflict thousands of years old. "All this for one person, who is not even of Liyue? Oh, Alatus,"

Xiao doesn't glance back at Childe's prone form, curled up in a pool of seeping red. "To protect, Morax. Liyue, and all that makes it our home." The wind hums around him, a hymn of resolve, a promise in song. “That you think it is only for one person, that you still cannot see what is immediately in front of you--” That is all the answer Xiao needs.

The phantom notes of a lyre stir into existence and Morax's divine countenance twists with unrestrained delight and fury in one. "An uninvited guest? And what complaint could you have, old friend?" He muses almost amusedly to himself. "Am I not giving the Tsaritsa's poor puppet and the loyal people of Liyue the freedom you value so dearly?" The howls of the wind distantly sound like faint laughter, bitter with disbelief and sorrow.

Not even the storm of dust whipped into existence by the winds between them can conceal the unwavering gleam of Xiao's eyes, yellow brighter than any amber of Liyue’s mountains. Today, the dust is not here to conceal anyway, to bury problems under the fragile spindles of time. Today, the dust will flurry and rage until stale skies clear and the ground can inhale the fresh air of a future that is three thousand and seven hundred years ago too late.

Xiao’s mask whispers into existence, an ally and friend in this moment. Not a blemish against his being nor a condemnation of all he could never hope to be. No longer a reminder of all that he had lost -- all that was never his to begin with. The mask is a mark of who he is. It is a mark of all that Alatus is. But it is only a part of Xiao. A part of him. And even if Alatus is also Xiao--

(But you are not just Alatus, right, Xiao? Guizhong had said, stepping over entrails and corpses and death as peacefully as if they were merely glaze lilies in the moonlight. Crouching down, she carefully wrapped clean fingers around Alatus's blighted ones.

Xiao is no different because it means mountain ghost? A monster who has been through unimaginable strife and will bring and know nothing but that which it is made of? She sighed then, a kind of bone deep weariness in her as she looks towards Guili. She shakes her head as if to cast away all her worries so that she could look at him with nothing but a smile too genuine and eyes too understanding. Ah, while that is true, remember that in this land, from times of yore long forgotten, the character xiao has and always will mean a spirit who watches and safeguards all in its domain.

Her hand was as gentle as ever as she ruffled his hair. And if you so wish, your xiao could just as easily be that of ‘bamboo flute’, or anything else you would want. It is your name, after all. She had flicked Xiao’s nose then, and Xiao, Xiao, not Alatus, did nothing but sit there, stunned. Not even two minutes with her, and Xiao’s hair already resembled a chick minutes after hatching, tufts of fluff haphazardly sticking out of him.

C'mon, she says, falling back into that effortlessly casual and human and oh so alive way of hers. It’s time to go home now. And they did, traversing the twisting roads and valleys back hand in hand. Almost as if Xiao was a wayward sibling brimming with too much curiosity and life and had a tendency to run off the path for fun, to marvel at the sheer wonders of existing in a world like this.)

"Morax," Xiao's body is strung taut with tension, power ready to explode in an explosive leap at barely a thought. This is what he was made for. This was all he thought he could have been. The wind sings in his ears, the smell of calla lilies and lampshade and cecilias, and his blood sings along with it. "Today will not end in tragedy." Because with these two hands, Xiao's two hands, they will defend and shield for once, knowing that there is finally an end in sight. He will walk towards a future that is just as much his as anyone else’s.

The sharp, primal edges of Morax's delight is a familiar friend. A friend from thousands of years ago when Liyue's mountains were nothing but mass graveyards for slaughtered gods; an age where ancient powers fought to claim Liyue as theirs to protect rule 'protect' by destroying the very land and people they wanted to rule.

"Very well." Morax says lowly, amusement and fury tight in every syllable. When he strikes, the ground beneath Xiao itself surging up with serrated edges as a tempest of gravel and debris pelts towards Xiao. Morax himself is a meteor he has called down from the sky, unerring and unrelenting as he pelts towards Xiao with the force of a thousand spears of stone flung from the sky.

But Xiao is the one blessed with Ameno, blessed with the wind of freedom that blows ever towards the future, and his conjured tempest is a real one, a gale of defiance and resolve that shakes everything off. In the eye of the storm, his hands never falter once as he stands his ground against the lost lord of Liyue and looks past him into tomorrow.

 


 

"It's soft," Xiao notes, childish surprise spreading across his face, locks of hair falling from his hand.

If everything didn't hurt so much, Childe would've laughed. But as things are- "Hair is soft. Ideally." Is the most he can manage, voice still hoarse and barely above a whisper. Even the effort of smiling seems to be too much. Xiao tsks as Childe tries and fails to do it anyway.

Stubborn. Xiao tells Childe as much even as he goes back to carding almost reverent fingers through Childe's hair. He has never - Xiao has never been close enough to the living to touch, let alone Alatus.

"You're warm," Childe hums, already half asleep where his head is cushioned on Xiao's lap. Xiao sighs and brushes a gentle hand across Childe's face anyway.

"Go to sleep or your injuries will never heal. Are you daft?” There is no real bite to the annoyance in his words. “You know Cloud Retainer can and will lecture you. Unbearably." Words take flight from Xiao’s thoughts into his throat into the air, even as Xiao knows Childe is already asleep, without needing to see the steady rise and fall of his chest.

This has become something frighteningly close to routine. Xiao talking. He voices complaints to the air, to Childe’s unsettlingly peaceful expressions, to Childe’s startlingly younger and smaller sleeping self as if Xiao’s words could find their way into his dreams and keep him company there. Childe slips into unconsciousness too easily around him now, tension flooding out of his body in a wave of relaxation when Childe - Ajax - has been on guard from the moment he turned fourteen and stumbled out of the Abyss.

Is this a privilege?

(The memory of Guizhong's laughter curls around Xiao. He doesn’t need to think to know where it is from. This is the first time Xiao had woken up - truly woken up - with no recollection of ever letting his eyes to close. You were so disoriented. But you must have been tired - as you should be! You've worked so hard, Xiao. You've done so well, Xiao, and I'm proud of you -- they all are. We all are. Even the Luo siblings are beginning to pester me to make sure you rest more. But that is up to you, Xiao -- though truly, have you considered familiarizing yourself with this nifty concept known as relaxation? It might do you wonders--

Relax - to be at ease... Safety, home? Is this maybe what she had meant when she says to live, to simply let yourself be?

Just because our lives stretch eternal without end does not mean we are excluded from living in the moment. Any moment. You are as much of a person as anyone is, even if your birth is different and there is no death in sight. That does not make you any less valuable, Xiao. Nothing ever could. Ah, hold that crossbow gently now! Do you see how it automatically - wait, not like that, just because you’re immortal doesn’t mean you should- Xiao, wait, Moon Carver will grouch at me again if you-)

The bed is soft and Childe is a steadying weight against his legs. Wangshu Inn has always been a familiar friend, yes, but today, and for weeks now-- It is the quiet breathing in the air - the presence, the proximity of something so close to Xiao - that brings more comfort and warmth than any blanket he had tried to touch.

You’re warm, Childe had said.

Maybe someday, Xiao will let himself think it is because all living beings, all people, radiate heat, so it is only natural that he does as well.

For now, Xiao closes his eyes to the phantom touch of Guizhong's lips against his forehead - they call this a goodnight's kiss - and the unspoken trust of him, in him from the ease and tranquility of Childe's continuously undisturbed slumber.

For the first time in four thousand years, Xiao lets himself rest. His heart thrums alive with something he thinks he will one day learns to name. But that is a matter to consider tomorrow, next week, next month, next year.

For now, Xiao exhales gently and sleeps.