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the art of ascension

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I.

Xiao didn’t like being touched.

She discovered that by accident one day, when she was walking down the stairs at Wangshu Inn just as he was heading up – when she glanced up to smile at him, her foot slipped, and the next thing she knew she was tumbling down the stairs, dragging Xiao along with her.

Lumine ended up on her back, groaning as pain radiated through her body. The floor felt oddly comfortable – at least, it wasn’t as hard as she imagined it would be – and she shifted, trying to pick herself off the ground. Then she heard a quiet grunt.

She turned her head and blinked, her eyes going wide as she saw Xiao right beneath her, his brow furrowed. “Are you all right?” he asked, and she almost fell off him in shock – trying to hold herself together, she scrambled away from him, brushing dust off her dress as she rose.

“I’m – I’m fine!” she managed to squeak, finding it difficult to maintain eye contact. Archons, she had just fallen down the stairs, right in front of Verr Goldet, and on top of that, she had taken Xiao with her. Verr Goldet was staring at them from behind the counter, and at that moment she desperately wished she could somehow turn invisible.

“Well. Be careful next time.” Xiao was as aloof as ever, and she nodded, secretly glad that he didn’t kick up a fuss. Not that he seemed like the type to care. Xiao always felt so distant, so unresponsive – she had no idea what it would take to incite a reaction from him.

“Are you okay?” she called, reaching out to touch his arm. At once he stiffened, whipping away from her, and she blinked, startled by the sudden defensiveness in his eyes.

“I’m fine,” he said, taking one step up the stairs, away from her. “You don’t need to concern yourself with my welfare, mortal.”

“Oh. Uh. Of course,” she forced out, and he gave her a curt nod before he started climbing once more. She stayed where she was, watching him until he disappeared to the next floor, then she shook her head and sighed, wondering what all that was about.


II.

“Do you remember that time you saved me from falling at the Jade Chamber?”

Xiao glanced at her, his arms folded across his chest. He was accompanying her today in place of Zhongli, who claimed he had some business to settle at the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. She felt awkward around him, but Xiao didn’t try to make small talk, and she quickly realised that so long as she didn’t expect him to respond, Xiao was perfectly happy to listen to her ramble.

“What of it?” he asked. His voice was calm. It lacked the same profound serenity of Zhongli’s voice, but there was something soothing about it all the same – his voice reminded her of the soft breeze that came after a gentle spring rain.

“Why did you save me?” She looked up, meeting his amber gaze, swinging her legs freely as they dangled over the edge of the cliff. The fragrance of qingxin lingered in the air.

“It was the right thing to do,” he answered. “Even you might have died if you fell from such a height. And at that point, we needed all the help we could get.”

She couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed, but she pushed that aside. It wasn’t like she had expected any other response. “Why didn’t you save one of the Millelith instead?”

His gaze sharpened, almost piercing right through her, and she wondered if she had pushed too far. “Mortals shouldn’t ask so many questions.”

She wasn’t really a mortal, but she decided to hold her tongue. There was a ring of finality in his voice, and she had no idea how he might respond if she overstepped his boundaries. So she turned her gaze back over the mountaintops, staring at the grey peaks reaching towards the cloudless blue sky.

“Liyue is pretty,” she said, feeling the wind pick up, ruffling her hair, a welcome reprieve from the harsh glare of the sun. “It’s not as homely as Mondstadt, but there’s a beauty to it that is difficult to describe.”

Xiao didn’t answer for a while. When he did, his voice was quiet, soft enough that she could barely hear him. “Beauty means little. It is neither practical nor functional. I don’t understand why anyone would care for such trifles.”

“Well, it gives you something to look forward to,” she reasoned. “I like looking at pretty things. It calms me down.” She glanced over her shoulder, smiling at him. “Don’t you feel the same?”

He returned her stare, his gaze penetrating, and suddenly she found it strangely difficult to breathe. “Perhaps.”


III.

She realised that Xiao never really seemed to sleep.

They had taken to sparring with each other recently, and she was pleased to find that while Xiao wasn’t a particularly forgiving opponent, she was no pushover either, and more often than not their matches ended in a draw.

After one of those sessions, she had collapsed underneath a tree, too tired to continue, and when she woke up from her nap she saw Xiao sitting beside her, arms folded. His eyes were shut, his chest rising and falling gently as he breathed, and she sat up, mesmerised by how peaceful he looked.

He hardly ever looked so at ease. For as long as she’d known him, he was watchful and tense, his sharp gaze never missing a single thing. Once in a while, he would accompany her on her commissions – usually at Zhongli’s request – and she had to admire just how swift and precise he was, finding critical weak points and slaughtering enemies while barely batting an eyelid.

But now, with his eyes closed, his brow smooth, she noticed how young he looked. There was a gentleness to his features that she never could have imagined, and she leant in, wondering if he truly was asleep –

Then his eyes flicked open, his amber gaze piercing right through her. She froze. “What are you doing?”

“I was just. Um.” How could she explain this away without sounding like a stalker? She pulled back, withdrawing into her own space, and Xiao glanced at her, one eyebrow raised.

“You were?” he prompted, and she wanted to sigh. He was being strangely inquisitive; most days, he didn’t bother to push, simply letting things go if she didn’t immediately provide an answer.

“I just wanted to know if you were sleeping,” she admitted. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you asleep before.”

“Oh.” He paused, and silence fell between them. She fidgeted, her hands folded in her lap, feeling awkward – Xiao didn’t quite seem to know what to say, and who could blame him? Suddenly, he exhaled. “I don’t really…sleep.”

She blinked, turning towards him, unsure if she was more startled by the sudden revelation or by the fact that he bothered to continue the conversation. “You don’t sleep?” she echoed.

“Not much. Not as often as you humans do, anyway.” He sighed, one hand reaching up to touch the beads hanging around his neck. “Adepti do not require rest. Sleep is a luxury reserved for those unfamiliar with the constant drum of war.”

“But everyone needs rest,” she said. “Everyone needs to dream sometimes.”

“I’d rather not,” he answered, and he left it at that. She didn’t push either, sensing that this was not a topic he wished to discuss. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder.


IV.

Sometimes, she saw Xiao jumping from roof to roof in Liyue Harbour, a silent guardian who kept watch from afar, distant from the ones he was sworn to protect.

Was he lonely? That was a question which often crossed her mind, but she never really dared to open her mouth and ask.

Lately, he seemed to be softening around her, but sometimes Xiao still felt a little…prickly. As though he’d rather be anywhere but here, answering her silly questions.

She sighed, turning her gaze away from the roof, from where she could have sworn Xiao was standing just a moment ago, his gaze fixed on a little girl down at the harbour. She didn’t know the girl’s name, but she was jumping around excitedly, cradling a doll in her arms, and Lumine had a sneaking suspicion about who exactly had returned the toy to its owner.

When dusk fell, she dropped by Wangshu Inn, wondering if Xiao was around. She hadn’t really seen him today – she wasn’t including that one glimpse she had of him in Liyue Harbour – and that felt…odd. She was somewhat used to his company by now, no matter how reticent he might be.

“Traveller!” It was Verr Goldet, and she wandered over to the counter, greeting her with a smile. “Good to see you. It’s about time to send food up to Xiao’s room, but since you’re here, do you want to bring it to him instead?”

She blinked. “Me?”

“Yes, you! I’d do it myself, but I have a lot of accounts to look through today, and every minute counts.” Verr Goldet waved a hand at the array of books spread across her desk. “If we don’t deliver food to Xiao, he won’t come out to eat, and I don’t want him to starve to death.”

She wondered if adepti could starve, but decided that was a question best saved for another day. “Sure, I’ll do it. I wanted to visit him, anyway.”

“Good!” Verr Goldet’s eyes twinkled. “Drop by the kitchen to get a plate of almond tofu, and then you can be on your way. I’ll give you a treat for your trouble,” she added with a wink.

“It’s fine, you don’t have to.” After some back and forth and a long bout of grumbling from Smiley Yanxiao, Lumine finally headed up the stairs, cradling a plate of almond tofu in her hands. When she arrived outside his room, she raised her arm, fist poised to knock – and then she hesitated.

The thought of visiting Xiao’s room made her strangely nervous. She couldn’t place a finger on why, but her stomach was churning and she felt distinctly uncomfortable.

But the longer she waited, the warmer the almond tofu would become, and she didn’t want to make Xiao eat something unpleasant. Almond tofu was best served chilled, after all.

She raised her arm again, determined to knock this time, but before she could rap against the door it swung open and there he stood, his amber eyes widening as he took her in. “What are you doing here?”

She could hear the hint of surprise in his voice. “Verr Goldet asked me to give this to you. She said you’d just starve in your room, otherwise,” she explained. Xiao took the plate from her, his gaze flitting between her and the dish – she swallowed, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, and he took a step back, retreating into his room.

“Do you want to come in?” he asked, and for a second she wondered if she had misheard.

“Ah, sure?” She was so startled that it came out sounding more like a question than a statement.

He nodded, beckoning to her to come in, and she closed the door behind her, studying his living space – it was the first time she had visited his room, and now she noticed just how empty it was. Save for his spear, Xiao didn’t seem to keep any personal belongings.

“Why are you here?” he asked, already picking up the spoon. She watched as he dug into his dinner, and a part of her wanted to ask if that was really sufficient – but he seemed pleased with his dessert, so she decided against bringing it up.

“I haven’t seen you today, so I just wondered if you were okay.” This was the truth, but hearing it out loud embarrassed her a little. Did he even want her concern?

Xiao paused, the metal spoon clinking against the plate as he set it down. “Why do you care?” he asked, sounding genuinely confused.

“I just do. We’re friends, aren’t we?” she asked, half-afraid but hopeful all the same. After all this time, she’d like to believe they were more than casual acquaintances, though she also knew he was likely to reject the notion that he was friends with anyone, let alone a human.

He didn’t answer for a while, though she saw him swallow. The silence stretched on, and she could hear her heart beating in her chest, its rhythm steady as she waited for him to respond.

Then he exhaled. “We aren’t friends, but if you wish to concern yourself with my well-being then there isn’t anything I can say to change your mind.”

She knew that was the closest he’d come to admitting to any sort of relationship with her, so she smiled and nodded, satisfied with this outcome. “Do you like your almond tofu?”

He met her gaze, and his eyes softened. For a moment she thought of the Xiao she had seen resting underneath a tree, carefree and peaceful. “It tastes like dreams.”


V.

Watching Xiao fight was one of her guilty pleasures.

He was so fluid. Like water, like the air itself – every movement brimming with energy, precise and controlled. She wished she could fight the way he did, though once in a while she caught him staring down at his hands, his spear cast aside, his expression unreadable.

One day, she asked him to teach her. They still had their sparring sessions, and on most days they still came to a draw, but she wanted to know how to better channel her anemo powers.

He made use of his energy in a way that was almost enviable. No matter how many enemies they faced, his strikes remained devastating, his spear carving out a path amidst the storm. She thought about Venti, back in Mondstadt. Together, the two of them might be unstoppable. 

“You shouldn’t wish to fight like me,” he said, jabbing his spear into the earth. His chest was heaving, his amber eyes bright with residual energy – she could see his knuckles turning white around his weapon. “It comes with a price.”

“Are you talking about your obligations?” she asked, hesitant. Xiao did not often bring up his duties, preferring to turn her attention to other matters.

He glanced at her, his expression impassive; she wondered if she had imagined the flicker in his eyes. “I am sworn to protect,” he murmured. Standing there, he looked…lonely, and she felt a little twinge in her chest. “The power I wield is meant to serve that purpose, and nothing more.”

“If you had a choice now,” she said, stepping closer to him – he looked up at her, surprise on his face, and she swallowed, hoping she wouldn’t be rebuffed – “would you continue to fight this thankless war? Or would you set down your burdens and take the rest you deserve?”

He hesitated, his gaze searching hers. For once, he looked…present. Almost touchable, a far cry from his usual self. “I don’t know,” he finally admitted. “I don’t know.”

She moved before she could even think, wrapping her arms around him. He stiffened at her touch, but unlike in the past, this time he didn’t pull away. Together, they basked in the warmth of the sun, and eventually, she felt his hand reach for hers.


VI.

“You’re so careless,” he muttered, his grip tight on her thighs, and she laughed apologetically, leaning her cheek against his shoulder.

“I’m sorry. Are you mad?” she asked, contrite. Perhaps it had not been one of her better ideas to charge headfirst into that circle of ruin guards, but she wanted the treasure chest they had been protecting.

She was fortunate that Xiao was in the vicinity, and that he came when he did. She wasn’t hurt, not badly at least, but it was nice to have him fussing over her. It was rare to see him so emotional, after all.

When she said she was perfectly capable of walking back by herself, he looked at her as though she had just besmirched Rex Lapis’ name. Don’t be stubborn, he said. You’re not getting anywhere with those injuries.

They were just cuts. Shallow, superficial little cuts, and perhaps a burn or two. She had faced far worse before. But Xiao lifted her onto his back, careful and obstinate, as though she was something fragile he wanted to protect, and she couldn’t bring herself to turn him down.

“I’m not mad,” he answered, not looking at her as he spoke. He was warm, and on his back, she felt safe. Treasured, even. She tucked the feeling away, letting it nestle in her chest. “But you need to be more careful. There won’t always be someone around to save you.”

“You told me that should I ever require your help, I need only call your name,” she pointed out, giggling as he glanced over his shoulder, his eyes narrowed.

“That is no excuse to throw yourself into danger.” He sounded faintly reprimanding. “What if you – forget it. Just don’t do that again. You have friends who would worry about you.”

She hummed in agreement, and for a moment neither of them spoke. She could hear the soft crackle of leaves underfoot, and she tightened her arms around his neck, drawing a breath.

He smelled like qingxin, like the sharp, cold wind that whistled off Liyue’s highest mountains. She glanced at his neck, encircled by beads, and pursed her lips. “Xiao?”

“What?” He sounded brusque, but she knew what he was like and undeterred, she leant in, her lips almost grazing his ear.

“If you’re not mad, then I want a kiss,” she told him, and he stopped in his tracks, his body going stiff with shock. She laughed, enjoying his response. One wouldn’t expect it, but Xiao could be surprisingly fun to tease.

“A kiss?” he repeated. He still wasn’t looking at her.

“Yes! A kiss.” She rested her chin on his shoulder, trying to peek at his face.

“You have no respect for the adepti,” he grumbled, whatever trance he had been placed under now broken. She cocked her head, listening once more to the quiet rustle of dried leaves, and wondered how he would react if she ever kissed him first.


VII.

“Take this. It’s an adepti amulet, and it staves off evil.”

She carefully took the gift, turning it over in her palm. “It’s a butterfly made from leaves.”

“It’s an amulet,” he repeated, scowling at her now. “If you carry it on you, it’ll bring you good luck.” He paused, suddenly looking unsure. “You don’t have to keep it if you don’t want to…”

“No, no! I want to keep it,” she protested, curling her fingers protectively over the charm. For a second, Xiao looked almost relieved, but then he coughed, schooling his expression back into something closer to neutrality.

“Don’t take it out in front of Zhongli, by the way,” he added. “He’d likely ask who gave it to you, and I want to avoid any trouble if possible.”

“Oh, all right. Sure.” She nodded, though she wondered about his request. It was very specific, especially coming from Xiao – and hiding something from Zhongli? That had to be a first. Xiao was nothing if not respectful to Rex Lapis, even after he gave away his gnosis. “What kind of trouble are you talking about, though?”

For another second, he looked flustered. “It’s nothing. You don’t have to think so much about it. Just adepti traditions, you mortals wouldn’t understand.”

“Xiao, we’ve established by now that I’m not human, so there’s a chance I might understand.” She reached out, placing her hand on his arm – he stiffened but didn’t withdraw, and she took that to be a good sign. “I want to know if you’re facing any difficulties.”

“You’re thinking too much.” He huffed, and she blinked at him, letting her hand fall back to her side. “Such adepti amulets are rare, and I’d rather not have others questioning why I gave one to you. That’s all there is to it.”

“Oh.” She frowned – that sounded like a lot of fuss over nothing. The Xiao she knew wouldn’t care about such mundane matters. She couldn’t shake off the feeling that there was more to this than met the eye, but he seemed reluctant to say more and she didn’t want to force him into a corner. “Thank you, Xiao. I appreciate it.”

He simply grunted, averting his face, but she was sure she saw a tinge of pink in his cheeks.


VIII.

The first time she made almond tofu, Smiley Yanxiao spat it out, declaring that he’d rather throw the dish away than serve something so atrocious to a paying customer.

She had to admit that stung. She didn’t even think it was that bad, but when she compared her attempt to the almond tofu Smiley Yanxiao made, she couldn’t deny that they were worlds apart. No wonder Xiao enjoyed Wangshu Inn’s speciality dish so much.

But she wanted to master this dish. Xiao had mentioned that he couldn’t stomach mortal food – that literally the only thing he was able to eat was almond tofu. This was her main motivation, the only reason she continued to stay in the kitchen and put up with Smiley Yanxiao’s gripes.

Whenever she had time, she dropped by Second Life, picked up some almonds and tried to recreate Xiao’s favourite dish to varying degrees of success. She would grind the almonds, mix them into her milk and sugar concoction, then let the tofu chill before she gave it to Smiley Yanxiao to try.

He was rarely ever satisfied, usually complaining that her ratio of ingredients was off, though he was never able to give her any concrete feedback. It’s just wrong, he said, and it was beginning to test even her patience. She liked to think of herself as particularly tenacious, but there was a limit to how much she could put up with, and today’s almond tofu practice was the final straw.

“I can’t believe it,” she moaned, throwing her hands up, giving her mortar and pestle a baleful glare. “How hard can it be to make a dessert? It only needs three ingredients!”

“What are you doing all this for, anyway?” The sudden voice made her jump, and she whipped around, her heart roaring in her ears – there Xiao stood, staring at her with one eyebrow raised, his gaze roaming across the mess she had made in the kitchen. “Do you require assistance?”

“You don’t even cook, Xiao.” She shook her head, putting the almond tofu aside. Besides, she was trying to prepare this dish for him – it wouldn’t make sense if he helped her out.

“Are you cooking for someone?” he asked, coming closer, and she blinked at the sudden disappointment in his voice – he seemed almost upset, though she couldn’t imagine why.

“Yes,” she answered. “But it’s really tough. I wanted to surprise him, but at this rate…I think I should just give up.” She sighed, dusting almond powder off her hands.

“Him?” Xiao’s frown deepened, and she sensed that she had touched a nerve. “Who are you trying to cook for? I’m sure he’d appreciate your efforts, no matter how it turns out. And if he doesn’t…” His words trailed off, and he cleared his throat. “Well, don’t push yourself too hard. I’ve seen how much almond tofu you’re making, and it’s a shame to waste it all.”

“You saw?” she exclaimed, whirling around to eye the pile of almonds she had left in a corner of the kitchen. Smiley Yanxiao had wandered out a while ago, claiming he was sick of eating her failures, and she had the kitchen entirely to herself.

Surely she would have noticed someone staring at her, right? Or perhaps she was losing her touch. “You’re rather noisy in the kitchen. It’s difficult to miss.”

“Oh.” She exhaled. “Then I might as well come out and say it. I was trying to make almond tofu for you, Xiao. But I just can’t seem to get the taste right.”

Xiao blinked. “You’re trying to cook for…me?”

She nodded. “I wanted it to be a surprise. Since you always say you can’t stand mortal food, I thought I’d try to make your favourite dish. It’s fun to cook for people you care about.”

“You care about me?” He didn’t seem to have noticed anything else she mentioned, his amber gaze filled with disbelief. She nodded again, warmth rushing up to her face at her admission.

“Is that surprising?” she questioned, wondering what he was so shocked about. He didn’t answer immediately, his gaze slanting away from her.

After a moment, he cleared his throat. “You don’t have to waste all this food. I’d eat it regardless.”

She perked up. “Really? I thought you only liked the almond tofu from Wangshu Inn.” She frowned. “It doesn’t really taste anything like what Smiley Yanxiao makes…”

“That doesn’t matter.” Xiao walked up beside her, and she inhaled at his sudden closeness – the smell of qingxin lingered in the air, faint and sweet. “I want to try your cooking.”

He reached for the nearest plate, ignoring her protests, and scooped up a spoonful of the silken pudding. “How is it?” she asked, nervous, watching as he swallowed.

For a while, he didn’t say anything, and she felt her stomach flip. “Do you not like it?”

“It’s delicious.” He smiled, and she paused, her eyes widening. His smile made her think of the sun breaking over the horizon – she had to turn away, dazzled by how radiant he looked.

“I’m glad it tastes good!” she squeaked, tugging awkwardly on her dress, trying to keep her hands occupied. Xiao put the plate down and leant over, reaching for her – she froze, her breath catching as he swiped his fingers across her cheek.

“You had almond powder on your face,” he said, and her heart thudded.

“I…I have to go,” she said, stepping away from the kitchen table. Xiao blinked, looking like he wanted to say something, but before he could she fled the room, feeling strangely warm.


IX.

She hadn’t expected much when she told him about her nightmares. It was a casual mention – he asked why she looked so tired one morning, and she told him that she didn’t sleep well.

Aether haunted her dreams, and that made it difficult to get a good night’s rest. She was used to it by now, though once in a while her nightmares still startled her awake, leaving her gasping for air, her fingers twisted in her blanket.

Xiao listened, quiet and thoughtful, and when she was done describing her bad dream to him, he asked if she wanted him to take those nightmares away. If she wanted him to devour them and leave her with nothing but peaceful slumber.

At first, she had said no. She didn’t want to trouble him – she knew that him being able to eat dreams was a result of his ordeal during the Archon War. It would be selfish to remind him of his past; she didn’t want to make him relive his experiences.

But he was quietly persistent. He visited her room every night, watching over her as she slept, and knowing that he was right there, no matter how unobtrusive his presence was, left her too flustered to sleep.

Why do you keep coming? Doesn’t it bore you? She finally dared to ask, sitting up in bed, meeting his gaze. It had been a long day, but she couldn’t close her eyes – Xiao was sitting beside her, and she was unable to relax, not with him staring at her so intently.

I can sense nightmares, he answered, his voice quiet. In the darkness of the room, he looked almost gentle. I never knew what you were dreaming of, but I knew you were restless. And now that you have confided in me, I wish to help you.

It was difficult to turn down such an earnest offer, so she drew the blanket up to her chin and nodded, staring up at him. Xiao leant over, his hand passing over her eyes. “Breathe,” he murmured. “Focus your thoughts on something else.”

Her mind immediately went to him. Xiao holding his polearm, glancing over his shoulder at her as she offered him a few qingxin flowers she had picked. Xiao standing on the balcony of the inn, staring up at the moon. Xiao in the kitchen, a smile on his face as he wiped almond powder off her cheek.

It was as though a dam had broken, and exhaustion swept through her, an unstoppable tide. Her eyes were already closing, and he drew nearer, his breath fluttering across her skin.

“I hope you have sweet dreams.” And then she felt something brush gently against her forehead.


X.

“I want a kiss,” she said, settling on her bed, holding her breath. He stared at her, amber eyes unreadable, and she blinked at him, hopeful.

This wasn’t like the time he carried her on his back and she said the same thing, trying to get a rise out of him. Xiao reached out, his fingers touching her chin. “A kiss?” he asked.

“Yes.” It was too late to back out now, so she tried not to fidget, tried not to read too much into the thoughtful look on his face.

“Are you sure, Lumine?” She jolted, startled by the sound of her name in his voice. Xiao rarely called her Lumine. In fact, he usually didn’t call her anything at all.

She nodded, her tongue running over her bottom lip, anticipating. He hesitated, eyes turned black in the dim light before he exhaled, his thumb sweeping across her cheek. “You’re greedy for a human,” he said, but there was no reprimand in his voice.

Then he leant in, and she closed her eyes.