A few days after the Rite of Parting, Zhongli is settling well into his life as an ordinary citizen of Liyue. In between handling paperwork at the funeral parlor and packing away the last of his worries into neat boxes, he makes a list of all the things he wants to do now that he’s no longer overseeing each and every last contract in the city.
By the time he’s done cleaning, the mental checklist is complete. Zhongli leans into his desk, resting his chin on his palm. It’s a list full of mundane things, like finishing a book in one sitting, brewing tea for himself out of flowers he’s handpicked, watching the sun rise from Qingyun peak.
But the first and most important item on his agenda is something that is long overdue.
Zhongli will see to it, now.
“Xiao,” he says softly into thin air. “Come.”
Wind rustles the closed shutters of the room.
When Xiao materializes, his weapon is already on hand, his eyes sharp and alert. Zhongli makes no sudden movements, letting Xiao ascertain there is no danger before he speaks up.
“You’re just in time,” Zhongli says, smiling. “We have an important task to carry out this evening.”
Third-Round Knockout is one of the last places in Teyvat that Xiao would have expected to find himself in, with Rex Lapis, no less. Yet, here they are, and Zhongli looks as comfortable as in his own home as he stirs his toxic-looking drink.
Xiao keeps his eyes trained on the storyteller at the corner of the shop, watching his every move until Zhongli shifts his chair slightly, blocking the man from view. Xiao focuses his attention on Zhongli instead, and finds himself unable to hold his gaze for long.
“How have you been, Xiao? We never got the chance to speak after everything that happened.”
“I’m good,” Xiao says. He looks down at his luminescent green drink, adorned with sliced fruit and mint leaves and all the extravagances he would never have picked for himself. “I didn’t do much during the battle, so I didn’t get hurt.”
“While I am glad to hear that,” Zhongli says. “I recall you saved the traveller’s life during the encounter with Osial. That’s certainly something, isn’t it? You should be proud of your contribution.”
“Nevertheless, if you find that difficult, I can be proud enough for the both of us. You did well, Adeptus Xiao. I'm proud of you.”
Heat floods Xiao’s cheeks and he takes a long sip of his drink. Contrary to what he’d expected when he’d let Zhongli order his drink, the drink is actually tolerable. The cool burn in his throat is nice too.
Zhongli smiles at him from across the table. There’s a shell at the bottom of his glass, and Xiao watches as he inspects it thoughtfully before putting it into his mouth.
For a long moment, they sit in silence, and eventually Zhongli decides that the shell is not for eating. He swallows it anyway.
All the while, Xiao waits to hear the real reason why Zhongli called him out. He keeps his hands wrapped around the cold glass of his drink, fingers gathering condensation. It's not exactly comfortable, but Xiao barely notices. He's busy thinking about the future.
There could be any number of things ahead. Perhaps, there’s a new war coming, a deity that needs to be slain, a hoard of beasts that need to be put into the earth. All around him, the people of Liyue continue their daily lives, unaware of the looming dangers. Their chatter continues up and down the street, happy people, people arguing, children playing.
It makes Xiao’s skin crawl. In the grand scheme of things, none of it matters.
But Zhongli sips peacefully at his drink, calm even in the face of potential calamity.
To Xiao, he simply says, “If you’d like another drink, let me know. The newly imported Dandelion Wine is not something to scoff at either.”
Xiao does not want another drink. It’s been a long time since he’s gotten even the slightest bit tipsy, but if the wine is truly as potent as Zhongli claims it is, he cannot afford to lose himself to it. Fingers now slightly numb from the cold, he takes a longer drink this time, draining half the glass.
Behind them, the storyteller is getting to his feet again, about to begin his next tale. Zhongli glances at Xiao’s unfinished drink, and his gaze lingers on Xiao’s face a little too long, his expression unreadable.
“The entertainment for the night has begun. I shall sit here to listen, but you need not stay. I know Iron Tongue Tian’s stories are not for everyone. Thank you for your company. I shall call for your help with something tomorrow, if that is alright?” Zhongli says.
“Yes, of course,” Xiao murmurs, and returns to Wangshu Inn in a state of confusion.
It’s early afternoon the next day when Zhongli calls for him again.
“I trust you are in good health today? There is a task that I need your assistance with,” Zhongli says.
Xiao schools his features, even as the words send a uneasy chill up his spine. He would have appreciated some warning, not whatever last night had been. He nods anyway. Xiao will fight and will win, if there is another war, but it doesn’t mean that he’s ready for it.
Zhongli is looking at Xiao with that undecipherable expression again when he speaks.
“The wind in the harbor has been very strong as of late. Yesterday, I noticed a few kites caught in the forest beyond Yujing Terrace. Would it be too much trouble to ask you to bring them back to the city and return them to their rightful owners?”
“Do you know who they belong to?” Xiao asks.
Zhongli shakes his head. “If I’m to warrant a guess, perhaps some of the young ones. You should speak to Granny Shan about it, I’m certain she’ll be able to tell you.”
Retrieving the kites is no issue. Xiao collects all three of them in under a minute, and thinks Zhongli probably would have been able to do it even quicker.
Returning them to their owners is a bit more difficult. Granny Shan describes each of the children with care, pointing out two on the dock, and another who runs around the fountain square.
The children are delighted to see the kites. They’re even more delighted to see Xiao, and swarm him with their small bodies, wanting to play a game with him, while simultaneously asking about his tattoos, his mask, and whether he likes being an adepti.
Two peculiar games of pirates later, Xiao manages to claim an emergency and vanishes before they can make him promise to come back.
“You took a long time,” Zhongli says in concern, when Xiao returns. “Was the task too difficult?”
“Not at all,” Xiao says. He can still feel the warm hug of one of the children as she threw her arms around him and giggled, “I caught you now, you pirate!”
“Well, if you’re not too tired, would you be able to help me with one more matter?” Zhongli asks.
“In times of war, one must occasionally read books on peace to keep optimistic. Does that mean during times of peace, I am to read books on war?” Zhongli lifts a book off the shelf and studies the cover.
“What do you think, Xiao?”
“I don’t know much about books,” Xiao says. There’s an old fairytale novel that one of the visitors had left behind on the balcony of Wangshu Inn. It’s the only book Xiao has read in years. By now, the cover is a bit more tattered than when he’d first found it, and the pages are a little more crinkled, but well, no one has to know.
A cheery voice cuts through the peace.
“Look who it is,” The eleventh Harbinger says, strolling up the stairs to where they’re standing. Xiao’s entire frame immediately tenses, and it’s only Zhongli’s quick hand on his shoulder that keeps him from launching his spear directly into the Harbinger’s throat.
“Childe,” Zhongli says, and Xiao doesn’t miss the way he intentionally puts himself between the both of them. “What a surprise to see you here. I did not know you could read.”
There’s no worry in Zhongli’s tone. The Harbinger tells Zhongli about a book he wants to bring home to his sister, and for a few minutes, they chat about his family and several other inconsequential matters that Xiao finds alarming.
When had Morax gotten this close with the Harbinger who had caused the near-destruction of Liyue? What could Zhongli possibly be planning?
Xiao’s almost vibrating with unspent energy by the time Childe turns to the cashier to ring up his purchase. He’s waiting for the Harbinger to attack any moment, although he’d be a pitiable defense, what with Zhongli physically using his own body as Xiao’s shield. But Childe simply smiles as he bids Zhongli goodbye, and dips his head in greeting at Xiao before leaving.
Not today, then.
The spear in Xiao’s hand dissolves. His hands feel painfully empty without a weapon, and he grasps onto the first book he finds, knuckles gone white.
“I should have bought my books together with his,” Zhongli says regretfully. “But alas, we have not found mine yet.”
He turns back to the shelves and spots the book in Xiao’s hand.
“Oh, this is perfect,” He says, and Xiao doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he’d only picked up the book so he could stop himself from wringing the Fatui Harbinger’s neck.
Zhongli combs the book briefly.
“Excellent choice, Xiao. I knew I could count on you.” He pays for the book and surprise, has enough money for it, even though there’s hardly a coin left in his wallet after he’s done. “Would you like to stay and join me for dinner?”
There’s at least four more hours until sunset.
“If you don’t have any more work for me, I will get going,” Xiao says measuredly. The harbor is exhausting, and constantly waiting for Zhongli to drop the bomb on him is fraying away at his nerves. He wishes Zhongli would just get it over with.
“More duties? No, you’ve done more than enough for today. Thank you.” But if that truly is the case, Xiao can’t help but wonder why Zhongli’s voice sounds so disappointed.
He takes the long road back to the inn, and still doesn’t find an answer.
The following day, Zhongli has again more tasks for him to complete. They’re all so painfully trivial that Xiao doesn’t understand why Zhongli won’t do them himself, but if he says he needs Xiao’s help, then Xiao will take his word for it. It isn’t his place to question whatever grand scheme Zhongli has in mind.
He helps plant glaze lilies around the perimeter of the terrace, makes a quick herb delivery for the pharmacy, purchases two antique vases from a dealer and is even roped into a third game of pirates by the same children as before, who have not seemed to have left their ship.
Just before sundown, he returns to Wangsheng to tell Zhongli that the job is done, but the room is empty. The evening light casts long shadows over the furniture, and there is a stillness in the room that indicates no one has been there for awhile.
For reasons he cannot be sure of, instead of heading back to the inn, Xiao curls up in Zhongli’s chair and waits.
Zhongli’s chair is stiff and uncomfortable, probably exactly the way Zhongli likes it. It takes awhile to find a comfortable spot, but gradually Xiao finds himself relaxing all the same. While a funeral parlor might cause apprehension to some, Xiao’s always liked them. It helps, of course, that Rex Lapis works at one, but Xiao appreciates the way funeral parlors treat the dead. It’s a kindness and respect so rarely afforded during life.
With his knees folded to his chest, Xiao lets his gaze trail across Zhongli's many antiques on the wooden shelf, eventually finding himself looking at a faded painting of the ancient Guili Plains. He stares at it for a long, long time, and doesn't look away even when the evening turns too dark to make out the image.
He stirs out of his stupor much later, when the door opens and Zhongli walks in. He looks mildly surprised to see Xiao there, and Xiao attempts to get out of Zhongli’s chair, but his limbs are so tired, he’s almost fused himself into the wood.
“Stay,” Zhongli orders, and Xiao melts back into the chair. He doesn’t understand how lethargic he feels. He’s fought decade-long battles with barely a day of rest in between, and somehow after a few days of doing— what? Zhongli’s simple errands, he’s suddenly worn out?
“How was your day? Did you manage to finish the tasks I gave you?”
Xiao’s offended by the sheer thought, but the irritation fades as soon as Zhongli smiles at him. A touch of warmth sparks in his weary frame. “What a silly question, of course you did. And I saw the lilies when I passed the terrace on my way back. You did a wonderful job.”
There are flowers outside the front door too, Zhongli must have seen them. Xiao had planted all but a handful of them in the terrace, thought, what the hell, and gone back to the small plot of earth beside Wangsheng Funeral Parlor to plant the rest.
As Zhongli walks past Xiao towards the sink at the back of the room, Xiao notices that there’s blood on his spear.
“You went out to fight without me,” Xiao says. The accusing tone in his voice surprises even himself. But if he can’t even fight for Zhongli, he’s nothing.
“I had a small matter to attend to. It took but a minute.” He cleans the blood off the spear as Xiao watches, turning his head to rest against the hard back of the chair.
When the blade is cleaned and stored away safely, Zhongli says, “I would be grateful if you could grant me one more day of your time tomorrow, Xiao.”
“Of course,” Xiao says automatically.
The last day. It’s the day he’s been waiting for. The impending fight.
He clenches his fingers into fists against the arm of Zhongli’s chair, and almost jumps out of his skin when a hand rests against his back.
“Would it ease your mind if I told you that we won’t have to do battle?” Zhongli asks.
“No,” Xiao says honestly. “Fighting is what I’m good at.”
Zhongli looks at him with that strange expression again, and Xiao finally puts his finger on it. It looks like sorrow. Humans are full of sorrow. But why… what could possibly be bothering Morax so?
“That you are,” Zhongli says. “Have a good night, Xiao. I’ll see you again tomorrow.”
He meets with Zhongli right before lunch. The harbor is bustling with its usual activity, and to Xiao's surprise, Zhongli doesn't lead him out of the city right away.
Instead, he stops by Wanmin restaurant and exchanges a few words with the owner before emerging with a basket. There’s a embroidered silk cloth laid over it, and Xiao stares at it hard, willing the cloth to burst into flames and reveal the contents of the basket.
“Can I carry that?” Xiao offers.
The corners of Zhongli’s mouth lift into a soft look. “It’s quite alright, Xiao. I’ll handle it.”
Xiao wants to ask, but decides to hold his tongue. It must be something important in that basket, for Zhongli to be carrying it so carefully. He wonders if it’s dangerous.
Under the glowing afternoon sun, they finally leave the harbor and scale the side of Mt. Tianheng, passing by the forest where Xiao had gone to retrieve the kites a few days ago. Wherever they’re going, Xiao could be there in the blink of an eye, but Zhongli makes no move to hurry, so Xiao finds himself trailing behind uncertainly, following Zhongli’s meandering lead.
Eventually, they’re far enough from the city that Xiao no longer hears the overlapping voices of the harbor. He looks around curiously; he’s never had cause to be up here before. It’s too far from the harbor but not far enough at the same time, straddling some midway position between civilization and wilderness.
“Here we are.”
Zhongli approaches a large tree at the end of the plains, looking it up and down. It’s an enormous, sturdy tree, perhaps even older than Xiao himself. The soil is rich around its overgrown roots, and various brightly-colored flowers sprout from the earth, tangled up in the wild grass. A fox sees them coming and flees for the hills in the opposite direction.
Xiao looks up at the tree again. He will uproot it, if that’s what Zhongli wants.
He draws his spear and awaits Zhongli’s order.
The silence drags on for what seems like forever. Instead of giving instructions, Zhongli places the basket down on the grass, lifts the cloth off and pulls out a muted yellow blanket. He unfolds it over the ground where the tree roots end, slim hands smoothing out the fabric. He's careful not to crush any of the flowers.
“Take the other end, please,” Zhongli says, and Xiao vanishes his spear so he can pick up both corners. He’s never seen a summoning ritual quite like this before, and the blanket feels way too soft, like it should be swaddling a child instead of netting a demon.
Once the blanket is laid out, Zhongli removes his shoes and steps onto it, crossing his legs delicately beneath him. He pats the space beside him.
“Come sit. The birds sing so prettily here, don’t they?”
“Yes,” Xiao says, without listening to them. He sits beside Zhongli and the mysterious basket, looking back at the tree again. He can’t sense anything beneath the earth, neither slumbering god nor buried undead.
“Zhongli,” he begins, and stops abruptly.
Zhongli is unpacking the rest of the basket, and in it are countless plates of carefully-wrapped food. He lays them out around them, placing two steaming dishes beside Xiao’s bent knees.
“Morax,” Xiao says, anxiety simmering throughout his body, “Please tell me what we’re doing so I can be prepared.”
Zhongli looks at him for a long moment.
“Oh, Xiao,” Zhongli says gently, “We’re having a picnic.”
Zhongli gestures to all the food laid out around them. “I have your favourite, and I’ve also ordered some of Xiangling’s best dishes. We shall have a good feast today. Did you not believe me when I said we weren’t going into battle?”
“What,” Xiao repeats, feeling horribly wrong-footed.
“Please, relax and sit here with me.” Zhongli pushes a bowl into Xiao’s hands, and Xiao looks down at it.
Of course Zhongli remembers his favourite food.
Under Zhongli’s watchful gaze, he dips his spoon into the tofu and takes a small bite. The sweet flavor bursts over his tongue, and the bowl is still perfectly cool, like Zhongli hadn’t been carrying it around in a basket all afternoon under the sun.
Satisfied, Zhongli continues laying out the rest of the dishes. Xiao eats half the bowl in one go, and stops himself. He needs to save some for later.
Balancing the bowl on his knees, Xiao watches as Zhongli uncovers the last of the food. There’s way too much of it: a clear fish stew of some kind, egg soup with lotus heads sprinkled over the top, vegetable meat rolls, golden fried balls on a skewer and an entire bamboo tray of glistening dumplings. And two more bowls of almond tofu.
“Zhongli,” He says hesitantly, “Are we really here just to eat?”
“Of course,” Zhongli says without missing a beat. “Now, which would you like to start with?”
There's a light breeze in the air, and despite the sun being high in the sky, the shady spot Zhongli had chosen for the picnic is a good one. Against his will, the warm afternoon sun and the food in his stomach make him feel sleepy. He hasn’t been sleeping well since Rex Lapis’ supposed death, and even in the aftermath, he’s too worried something else will happen, like the previous week’s incidents have started a chain of explosions that are still going off in slow-motion.
He blinks insistently as his eyes threaten to shut once more, forcing them open again. To his side, Zhongli is polishing off the remainder of the stew, and Xiao doesn’t know how he’s kept going.
“I will watch our backs, if that’s what is worrying you. You should close your eyes for a few minutes, Xiao.”
“Is that an order?”
“Not at all,” Zhongli says. His metal spoon clangs against the finally empty bowl, and he stretches idly, putting the bowl down with the others. “I simply find it enjoyable to sit in nature with my eyes closed. My senses become much sharper.”
With a suspicious look at Zhongli, Xiao crosses his legs beneath him and rests his hands in his lap, closing his eyes. He meditates on the roof of Wangshu Inn often enough, listening for danger, ever-present around him on the marshes.
From his perch on the balcony of Wangshu, there's always the sound of chatter, however far off, and the ebb and flow of visitors never does fade into silence, no matter the hour. And given its strategic location in the marsh, the dangers surround the inn on all sides. That, too, never stops.
However, the sounds are completely different here. Xiao knows that they're far enough from the city that he can only faintly sense the crowd, but he doesn't detect any monsters either. He hears the rustle of leaves, the blades of grass waving in the wind, the soft chirping of birds and the small paws of a squirrel scurrying up a rocky face. He can hear Morax’s steady breathing, and the sound of flowing water in the far distance.
He continues to scan the surroundings with his senses, waiting to hear the clash of swords, waiting to hear the thundering pound of approaching footsteps, waiting to hear someone call his name and say, “demon slayer, your time has come.”
But somehow, here on a cliff in the middle of nowhere Mt. Tianheng, there is not a single threat to be found. Zhongli knows this, having carefully cleared out the thirty-mile radius the day before while Xiao ran errands.
And so, while waiting for a threat that never came, the bone-weary adeptus finally slips into his first peaceful sleep in years.
“That’s right,” Zhongli says softly, and before Xiao drifts off, he thinks he can feel fingers carding through his hair. The hand is so warm, so gentle. “You did well today too, Xiao.”