It’s soft; the way Xiao's fingers move gently through the long flowing blonde of Aether's hair. He looks up, to see for himself the expression his beloved Adeptus wears in that moment: Xiao's eyes are closed, his face relaxed, mouth set in the barest hints of a smile. Aether exhales quietly and gazes in wonder. It is rare indeed to see the other boy so content and peaceful, his features exuding a weightlessness that is near nonexistent when it comes to him. Aether revels in the feeling of Xiao's hand in his hair, in the knowledge that such a simple action borne of fondness (a fondness that the Adeptus would surely deny) could wash away the ever present war raging within his heart, if only for a moment. It is at this moment, Aether realizes, that Xiao has let down his guard. The Adeptus's breaths are soft, and he opens his eyes to meet Aether's own. Xiao blinks slowly and steadily, much like the way a cat does when you know that they trust you. Aether smiles, despite himself. He cannot help it.
Xiao frowns immediately, though his fingers do not still in their ministrations, and he still exudes an aura of calm surety, a certainess that remains steady despite its inherently precarious nature. "What ?" he murmurs, confusion as clear as the night sky in his voice. Aether thinks silently to himself that Xiao's bewilderment at someone simply enjoying his beauty and presence will always be a bit funny, if also a bit saddening to see.
And Xiao really is beautiful; the piercing amber of his gaze reminds Aether of the lanterns that glow softly against the night in Liyue Harbor, their light an unassuming yet consistent presence. His complexion pretty and pale, framed nicely by the jagged yet fitting locks of his dark jade hair, make for an interesting combination of aesthetics, brought together by the juxtaposition of his sharp features with the gentle curve of his lips when he finds something amusing.
A fine thing to fight, forged in hell and back, though Aether wonders if blades can feel soft when you touch them carefully.
Xiao is breathtaking in every sense of the word, as Aether recalls quite literally gasping the first time Liyue's Guardian Yaksha had appeared at his side at the Wangshu Inn. Aether has not stopped looking to him since.
"I like to look at you" is Aether's honest reply, smile widening at the imperceptible reddening of Xiao's cheeks. He makes a low sound, tugging gently at Aether's hair reproachfully before continuing to comb through it softly. Aether lets a huff of a laugh escape him, hands reaching to take Xiao's free one in his own. "I like you, Xiao,” he says in a near-whisper, the word for love sitting in his mouth and remaining there. Maybe one day, but not yet, he thinks, would Xiao be quite ready to hear it.
Xiao stares at him, in that way he does that speaks of first meetings, as if he's never seen Aether before this moment. It seems as if he's always surprised by the sentiment, that it might be so impossible for another to find his company welcome. Aether remembers then how Xiao would like to think himself more spear than human, more weapon than immortal with a mortal heart. One would not hold their sword to them softly and tell it that they would like it to stay.
The words leave Aether's mouth before he can stop himself: "If your hands were only made to protect, to fight, to kill, why do they feel this nice?"
That does it. Xiao freezes, fingers resting gently on his scalp, and he gives Aether a hard stare.
Aether rolls closer, meeting his eyes head on, and holds the Adeptus's hand close to his chest. "Why do you make me feel safe, if you are but a weapon?" He knows he is rocking the boat, that Xiao could bolt at any moment, but he presses on, fearless in his adoration for the godkiller he is lying on. The boy that favors sweet things, and Qingxin flowers from the peaks of Juyeun Karst.
"You're a fool, Aether. You will die one day" Xiao says, eyes still locked on Aether's own, unblinking. "Even if sheathed, a blade is still a blade. There is no softness in death."
"Everything returns to dust eventually," Aether replies quietly. He lifts Xiao's hand to his lips, pressing a gentle kiss to the back of it. "Maybe I want to keep looking at you until I do." Xiao stiffens at the touch, at his words, but still does not pull away. Relief courses through Aether at the realization.
Yet then, Aether feels a quiet sadness at the disappearance of Xiao's peaceful countenance. In its place is a familiar expression, yet one that is still incredibly rare: fear. it's the way he looks as though he is preparing for a battle he cannot win; Xiao, the Guardian Yaksha of Liyue. In this moment Aether remembers that Xiao is a boy turned murderer, a machine of war, designed to take life in the name of another, before Morax found him. He is a boy more familiar with the screams of innocents than innocence itself. One does not teach a sword how to love.
Xiao is painfully unfamiliar with matters of the heart, feelings and other dangerous things kept tightly in a box Guizhong likely forged herself, taking form in the slightly unsteady beat of his heart. Unfamiliar, yet not unknowing.
After a lengthy lapse of still silence, Xiao continues to move his fingers through Aether's hair. The crisp night air feels nice on the Aether's skin, and a gentle breeze rustles the mess of dark hair atop the Adeptus's head, reminding Aether that it looks as soft as he knows it feels. Xiao closes his eyes again. "You treat me as if I am human."
Aether hums, holding Xiao's other hand in his. "Would you rather I worship you, Conqueror of Demons?"
Xiao huffs softly then, the beginnings of a laugh escaping his lips. His expression is resigned, and he is quiet for several seconds. "It has been a long time since anyone has done either of those things."
Aether thinks of the way Xiao thanklessly protects the people of Liyue. The way that his face lights up at the sight of almond tofu. The soft expression he wears upon seeing the children of the Wangshu Inn excitedly point out constellations in the night sky. The quiet awe in his eyes when Liyue is blessed with snow. The gentle content he wears when he happens upon Barbatos and his lyre on restless nights, singing softly to anything that will listen.
"A blade can be forged and remade into something else." Aether murmurs, fingers brushing the petals of the Qingxin flowers waving quietly in the wind beside them. "Freedom is the choice to be something you decide rather than what was decided for you." He runs a hand over the Anemo vision resting at Xiao's side. "You don't want to kill, Xiao. You don't want to be a weapon."
"It does not wash my hands of the blood on them," Xiao says solemnly, and Aether knows he has remembered every dream he has ever devoured on the battlefield. “And for Morax’s sake, they will continue to go unclean.”
At the mention of the Geo Archon, Aether is quiet. He thinks of the many times Zhongli has sent him back to Xiao, painkillers in hand, to aid him in his silent suffering. The man that gave Xiao his name, his purpose, and his freedom. A freedom that Xiao uses to repay the debt owed for as long as he can still stand. Aether knows that, should it ever come down to it, Xiao would put his spear through his body if Zhongli asked. Xiao’s undying loyalty to those that he allows himself to love might be the scariest thing about him, as much as it is admirable. Aether thinks that he will always be thankful to the Geo Archon for releasing Xiao from the shackles of senseless murder that he once wore. The night Xiao tells him how he came to be a guardian of Liyue, Aether finds himself in tears for the first time since losing his sister. He thinks he does not need to remind Xiao that Morax only ever wishes for his peace and prosperity, a conversation he is sure the two have had many a time.
Aether kisses his hand again. "A blade is still a blade. But your hands are still soft, and were made to do what you wish to."
Xiao wears a complicated expression on his face; one torn between anger, the other exasperatedly fond. His hand trails from Aether's hair to rest on his face instead, thumb brushing his cheek in a way that feels foreign yet familiar all the same. "You are a fool," the Adeptus says again. Aether recognizes this as an attempt, as an acceptance. Somewhere over the course of their relationship, Xiao had stepped away from his spear, and chosen to stand by Aether's side instead. Somewhere along the way, Xiao had slowly been returning to the parts of himself that he likely assumed died when Guizhong, and then his god, did. The parts of himself he probably assumed to have cut away when he was handed his weapon and told to slaughter all in his way. Somewhere between thousands of years and now, Xiao has started to look at the world like it is something to behold, and not a land of bodies simply breathing and dying. Xiao is a boy standing on the edge of a fall he never recovered from, and once again, Aether wonders why most have never tried to love their swords.
He grins, feeling his heart swell at the sight of the Adeptus peering down at him. "I must be, to like a boy who is more of a cat, than a weapon-"
At that, Xiao scowls at him, tugging at his hair again and making a discontented noise that makes Aether laugh hard, rolling over until he lies in the junction of Xiao's hip and abdomen, still holding the Adeptus's hand close to his chest. "Do not fucking call me a cat, what the fuck Aether-"
He continues to laugh, giggles wracking his entire frame until he's moving all over, surely bothering the adeptus pinching his sides and glaring like he could bore holes into Aether's mind with his eyes alone. When he looks at him like this, Aether is reminded of an angry kitten, and he feels hopelessly endeared.
Eventually, Aether's laughter subsides, many deep breaths and wiped tears later, and when he opens his eyes, he finds Xiao watching him, his face unbearably fond. Aether feels heat rise to his cheeks in embarrassment, but smiles softly nonetheless. "If you were made just to destroy, why do you make me so happy?"
Xiao doesn't react this time, and simply lets Aether's gentle words wash over him like spring rain. And then, Xiao does one of the things Aether knows he is more familiar with than most forms of affection: he leans down and kisses him.
Aether remembers the first time they kissed; at the lantern rite festival, alone on the hill under a night sky alight with gold. Xiao had been utterly unprepared, but his lips had been soft, his voice trusting, his hands resting at his sides in an adorable display of confusion and vulnerability.
Since then, Aether has come to realize that Xiao's kisses serve as his means of expressing himself when the words don't come. Though Aether finds that he understands Xiao's unspoken sentiments quite well, his hand coming to rest over the one Xiao lets linger on Aether’s cheek.
When the Adeptus pulls back, he remains close, resting his forehead against Aether's and letting his fingers slide down to play with the loose strands at the ends of Aether's hair. The latter stares back at him, then promptly opens his mouth to yawn in his face.
Xiao rolls his eyes and gives him a blank look. “So I assume that you're sleepy now?"
The lazy smile Aether returns with is confirmation enough, and now that Xiao has said it, Aether does feel the tendrils of sleep pulling at his subconscious, and rendering his eyelids heavier than normal. "A bit?" He isn’t sure if he slurs his words or not, all he knows is that he feels absurdly happy, here under the moonlight with his head in Xiao’s lap. Endlessly safe.
Xiao is still looking at him with that fond expression as he leans up to press a lingering kiss to Aether's forehead. "Sleep, traveler of worlds," he whispers, and just like that, it's like all of the exhaustion of the day hits Aether at once. He feels his eyes fall shut, and is only partially aware of the hand returning to his head to stroke his hair. "I will be here when you wake."
Aether finds himself smiling in content at the words, and he sighs a soft "goodnight, Xiao" against the adeptus's hand, still clutched in his own, as he feels himself begin to nod off into the realm of sleep.
He knows that night, when he dreams only of Lumine and happy memories, that Xiao provided a safe and steady watch over him while he slept, chasing the bad dreams away and keeping his mind free of nightmares.
He also knows that night that he will have to say goodbye to his beloved Yaksha very soon, as even though Xiao is here, his sister is not.
but for now, he dreams, and Xiao is there.
(and Xiao thinks, maybe swords don't have to be taught what love is after all.)