He isn’t sure why he’s drawn to the Wangshu Inn.
Xiao isn’t bound to it by contract, nor does he have any obligation to be there. It isn’t the company, either, for Verr Goldet is the only mortal that knows of his presence, and she doesn’t speak to him often.
(Perhaps it’s because he has no other place to go.)
Despite being a resting place for guests, not many stay overnight. Most are travelers that come and go, but rarely do they stop for an extended duration of time.
Tonight is different, however.
There’s a man with a distinguished air about him, with eyes that have seen much of the world and have grown weary with knowledge. Yet he laughs freely, wholeheartedly, and Xiao’s chest aches at the familiarity of it.
He pretends not to feel curious when he ‘accidentally’ overhears that the man—a consultant from the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor by the name of Zhongli—is booking a room for several nights.
Xiao stifles a snort when Zhongli blanches at the prospect of Mora (foolish mortal), and the consultant smiles sheepishly. “It appears I don’t have any on my person…”
What human forgets to bring Mora?
Zhongli is strange, and yet, similar to the Wangshu Inn, Xiao finds himself drawn to him.
He has more productive things to do, such as rid Liyue of demons and the like.
So why is he watching Zhongli pick flowers? That...he’s working on the answer. Clearly, the consultant is well versed with horticulture—he knows to sing a melody to the Glaze Lilies for them to blossom.
And birds flit about near him, unafraid and fully trusting. What is it about this mortal that differs from the rest, that even the most fearful creatures enjoy his presence?
Zhongli peers up, and for a frightening moment, Xiao believes that he’s been spotted. But then he hears the whoosh of wind, and he turns to see the Traveler gliding downwards.
They seem to be friends. He wonders briefly why the Traveler would be acquainted with a consultant from a funeral parlor, but then again, the Traveler has met a myriad of different people in their journeys.
Xiao lingers for a bit, before he vanishes into the air.
He never planned on meeting Zhongli face-to-face.
At least, not this soon.
Perhaps he became too complacent with the notion that only Verr Goldet knew of him. Either way, he is standing (yes, standing) on the railing when a deep, rich voice calls to him.
“Will you join me for some tea?”
Xiao glances over his shoulder, only to see Zhongli at the doorway with a polite smile. He’s not in his usual attire—a nightshirt, he presumes—and the...domesticity of it all makes Xiao strangely agitated.
“No. Adepti don’t require food,” Xiao snaps, harsh even to his own ears. Curiously enough, Zhongli doesn’t seem deterred at all; in fact, it’s almost as if he’s used to it. “And I don’t indulge myself in mortal rituals.”
He barrels on before the consultant can get a word in edgewise. “I’d also advise you to avoid coming into contact with me. Mortals can’t withstand this level of adeptal energy.”
Instead of quaking in fear, or apologizing like any regular human would, Zhongli merely nods. “I see. Then I will leave a cup for you here. You’re most welcome to consume it, should you desire to.”
Was Zhongli not listening at all? Xiao gives the cup the consultant placed beside him a sour look. “I have no desire to.”
Zhongli hums noncommittally, and Xiao feels a hot flash of irritation at the mortal’s gall to assume indifference when he should be scared out of his wits. He lifts the warm cup and takes a ginger sip—
Suddenly, Xiao is at Mt. Aozang, seated at a stone table with fellow Adepti. Most importantly, he is by Rex Lapis’ side. Though he declines, his lord gently insists that he eat, or have some tea at the very least. He complies with the latter request, and it tastes distinctly of honey and Qingxins ...
His fingers tighten around the handle, and he almost slams the cup down. “Where did you get this?”
“From an old friend.” Zhongli seems pleased, even with the far away look in his eyes. “Do you enjoy it?”
“I don’t.” Xiao pushes the cup away from him (and hopefully, the memories will leave along with it). “No human should be able to scale Cloud Retainer’s domain. How did you…?”
“It’s a mystery to me as well. The Traveler has their ways,” Zhongli says with a thoughtful nod. He picks up the abandoned cup and smiles when he sees that it’s empty. “Have a good night.”
Xiao finds himself longing for Zhongli to stay, but he stamps down the yearning and watches him descend the stairs.
He isn’t sure if the tea unlocked suppressed memories, or what, but the next night, he succumbs to a nightmare.
All he can see and feel is pain. The aftermath of his carnage, bodies strewn everywhere, darkness devouring his vision. His ears are ringing with a deafening screech, and he howls against the turmoil plaguing his mind—
A voice, both soft yet firm enough to cut through his suffering. His agonized snarls slowly cease, and he blearily lifts his head from his hands to look at the speaker.
For a second, he swears he sees Rex Lapis.
Then he blinks, his yaksha mask shatters, and Zhongli’s face looms into focus. The mortal is kneeling beside him, concern knitting his eyebrows together and mouth pulled into a frown.
It’s difficult to focus when the hand on his face is gentle, cradling his cheek as though he were a fragile thing.
“Xiao, are you alright?” Zhongli asks when he doesn’t speak, his frown deepening. Xiao finds that his throat is too dry, and he swallows to gather his voice again.
“I…” Xiao reluctantly withdraws from Zhongli’s touch. Immediately, he misses the warmth of his hand. “How do you know of my name?”
“Ah, I asked the boss lady for it.” Zhongli has the decency to appear embarrassed, even though Xiao is the one who took more extreme measures to discover things about him. “I hope you don’t mind.”
He’s...oddly delighted to know that Zhongli is as curious as he is about him. He tells himself it’s only because not everyone has the opportunity to see an Adeptus.
And then the very next moment, he says something pretty un-Adeptus-like. “As long as you give me yours.”
As long as you—what in Celestia’s name? He opens his mouth to add a witty remark, but the consultant simply nods and smiles warmly. Everything about him is irritatingly warm. “My name is Zhongli.”
The mortal slowly rises to his feet and offers Xiao a hand. The Adeptus in question stares dumbfoundedly at the appendage. “You can confide in me, should this happen again.”
No, he doesn’t want Zhongli to see him in such a vulnerable state. What comes out instead is a sharp, “I don’t intend on getting close with you.”
“My offer still stands, regardless of whether we’re close or not.” Zhongli looks...exasperatedly fond, for some odd reason. Xiao decides not to think too much about it. “Well, you know where to find me. Goodnight, Xiao.”
He closes his eyes and listens to Zhongli’s footsteps retreat.
He contemplates disappearing forever.
Or, at least, for a while, if Zhongli keeps this up. Xiao pinches the bridge of his nose and sighs heavily. “What is this.”
The consultant is still holding out the container to him, albeit with less enthusiasm than before at his unfavorable reaction. “Painkillers.”
“I understand what it is.” Xiao lowers his hand to glare at Zhongli directly in the eyes. If looks could kill, this mortal would be done for. “But for what reason?”
“For you. I know that you suffer, and I wish to help alleviate your pain, if only a little,” Zhongli says, and he shakes the container for more emphasis. What is he, a dog?
“The audacity—” Xiao cuts himself off with another long sigh. He knows Zhongli has good intentions, but this is just preposterous. “Human medications don’t work on Adepti.”
Unfortunately, Zhongli is as stubborn as a rock. He shakes the container, again, with more vigor. “Try it.”
“Fine,” Xiao concedes (mostly to get the consultant to stop pestering him). He seizes the container from Zhongli, ignoring the human’s self-satisfied smile, and swallows a pill. When he doesn’t feel any notable difference, he informs him, pointedly, “It didn’t work.”
“The effects aren’t immediate, Xiao,” Zhongli says, and his mouth twitches with the painfully obvious effort that he’s trying to hold back a laugh.
Xiao feels his ears burn with an unfamiliar feeling. He blames it on the medication. “Don’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not,” Zhongli insists.
“You are,” Xiao growls.
“I’m not,” Zhongli insists, again.
“You—fine.” Xiao (purposefully, mind you) admits defeat and huffs indignantly down at the container in his hand. “If it doesn’t work, then you’ve wasted my time.”
“Fair enough. Trust me, I know they work,” Zhongli says, almost conspiratorially, before he undoes his tie and starts to unclasp his coat.
It takes a while for Xiao’s mind to catch up, and when it does, he asks with an edge of desperation, “...what’re you doing?”
“Undressing,” Zhongli responds, perfectly poised as if he were talking about the weather. He shoulders off his coat and bends to roll his pants up to a reasonable height.
“I’m fully aware. Why?” Xiao asks when he remembers not to stare, and averts his gaze out of politeness.
“I plan to go fishing.” Zhongli straightens up and dusts invisible grime off the remainder of his clothes. “You may join me, if you wish.”
“Without a fishing rod? Or a net?”
Xiao stares at him. He stares back. Wordlessly, he follows the consultant to the ponds at Yujing Terrace, and continues to stare as Zhongli wads into the water.
Xiao stands at the edge, close enough for the water to lap at his shoes. He’s in disbelief at this mortal, at his thoughts and behavior. “Zhongli.”
The answer he gets sounds innocent. “Yes?”
Zhongli hums in acknowledgement and ventures deeper into the pond. The guards don’t try to stop him—this clearly isn’t the first time he’s done this. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”
He scoops up a fish with surprising ease, similar to a cat. Everything he does is effortless, graceful, and Xiao is awed that such a human like Zhongli exists.
“Will you join me? Or continue watching?” Zhongli asks teasingly. It effectively snaps Xiao out of his thoughts, and he huffs, hunkers down into a crouch, and purposefully yanks a fish out to splash the consultant in the process.
Zhongli ducks away from the spray of water with a light laugh, using a hand to shield his face. His attempts are futile, though. Xiao notes with pride that a few droplets managed to land in his hair.
And he is...beautiful. Inhumanly so. Xiao thinks he understands the phrase ‘breathtaking,’ now, with how his breath stutters in his chest and how difficult it suddenly is to breathe.
“You’ve only caught one.” When he blinks out of his daze, he sees that Zhongli has an absurd number of fish in his arms. His eyes are twinkling...mischievously. “Is this the power of an Adeptus?”
Oh, it’s on. Xiao rolls up his sleeves and sneers. “I’ve only just begun, mortal.”
His glares usually don’t work on Zhongli, but this time, the consultant shrinks under the intensity of his gaze.
“Xiao, what a splendid surprise,” Zhongli greets in a croaky voice. He looks so frail, with his nose dusted with red and his eyes tired but, despite everything, still smiling. “I, ah, overlooked this…”
“If I knew you would fall ill this easily,” Xiao began, each word slowly enunciated for more emphasis, “I wouldn’t have allowed you to catch fish.”
Zhongli nods in total agreement, then rubs at his chin in a rather sheepish manner. “Well, I didn’t know, either.”
“How could you not...forget it.” Xiao shakes his head (at this point, he should be used to the human’s shenanigans) and seats himself near Zhongli on the bed. “What’s done is done.”
“Indeed. Hm, I just remembered that I have some tea leaves and a portable cooker in my inventory,” the consultant says with a small, innocuous tilt of his head in the general direction of his bag.
Xiao sighs at the tacit request and moves to prepare Zhongli some tea. As he works, he asks to fill in the silence, “Do you have any medication?”
Xiao pauses briefly in his ministrations. He throws a glance over his shoulder to give the mortal a deadpan look. “Truly incomprehensible…”
Zhongli pretends not to hear him and offers him a weak but genuine smile. “Thank you, Xiao, you’re quite kind.”
“Thank me by not getting sick again,” Xiao grumbles, vanishing with a swirl of Anemo energy.
When he returns from the Bubu Pharmacy, Zhongli is sound asleep.
He looks...troubled, as if he were experiencing a nightmare. Xiao brushes a hand over the consultant’s hot forehead, and the human sighs at his touch.
Xiao leans down, pressing a kiss to the center of his forehead. When he draws away, he scrunches his nose at the bitter taste of the dream.
Instantly, Zhongli’s countenance relaxes. Xiao places the medication on the nightstand and sits on the edge of the bed, keeping vigil.
If he were to have more nightmares, Xiao would be there to take them away.
He’s growing fond of this human, and he tightly shut his eyes at the revelation.
He perches on the railing, one arm resting on his knee.
Xiao doesn’t need to look to know who joins him. He smothers the urge to link their fingers together and gazes up at the illuminated sky.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sneaks a side glance at Zhongli.
The mortal is...ethereal, soft gold beneath the lanterns. His earring flutters in the gentle breeze, and he hears the consultant sigh contentedly. “A fine night, don’t you think?”
“Hm. It’ll do,” Xiao says, even though he thinks Zhongli is more beautiful than the night itself.
The consultant laughs, tipping over to his side slightly. Their shoulders brush—neither pretends to notice. “Why do you deny yourself pleasure? It doesn’t hurt to admit you’re enjoying something every once in a while.”
“...I’m not sure,” Xiao says, honestly, and he turns to properly face Zhongli.
“I see,” Zhongli murmurs, and his eyes seem to glow from the lanterns. Cor Lapis couldn’t begin to compare. “Tell me. What do you want, Xiao?”
You, he doesn’t say. Instead, Xiao merely shakes his head. “I only want to fulfill my responsibilities.”
“Xiao,” Zhongli says, and at this proximity, his deep timbre practically rumbles throughout Xiao’s body. “It isn’t selfish at times to do things simply for your own benefit.”
“Then...allow me to do this.”
Summoning up a bout of courage, Xiao leans close, allowing Zhongli time to pull away. When he doesn’t, only peers at him almost shyly underneath his lashes, Xiao cups his cheek and kisses him.
Zhongli makes a soft noise, practically melting into his touch, and Xiao hates the effect this mortal has on him.
He wants to tell him how he’s the only mortal that’s truly impressed him, that’s made him fall in love, that’s loved him despite him being a broken shell of a being...but he can’t find the words.
Xiao tightens his grip and pours every ounce of his feelings into the kiss.
And Zhongli seems to understand. He feels the consultant smile against his lips, and the human sifts a soothing hand through his hair.
Xiao falls impossibly more in love.
He tells him on an unassuming day.
They’re having tea together in Zhongli’s room, enjoying each other’s company. Nothing is amiss—there was no way he would know.
“My dear Xiao, there’s something I have to tell you,” Zhongli says, and he sets his cup down almost in trepidation.
Xiao swallows his bite of Almond Tofu and places his spoon on the table. He doesn’t know what to expect. “What is it?”
“I’m not sure how to go about it,” Zhongli admits, and for the first time, he doesn’t meet Xiao’s gaze. He’s never seen the consultant so hesitant before, and it unnerves him.
“You aren’t pregnant. Just say it,” Xiao says in an attempt to ease the tension. He can’t handle Zhongli like this—he’s usually so open and welcoming.
Zhongli laughs nervously, and it only serves to make Xiao’s concern grow even further. “Imagine that. Well, it’s more difficult than you think…”
“Zhongli,” Xiao says, more sternly than he means to. He lightly grasps his lover’s chin to force him to look at him. “Nothing you say will stop me from loving you.”
“In that case…” Zhongli clears his throat and gingerly brushes his knuckles over Xiao’s, featherlight and affectionate as always. “I’m Rex Lapis.”
Alright. Maybe one thing.
Xiao snatches his hand away, as if he’d been burned, and bolts up incredulously. There’s no—he can’t—Xiao is furious. “Is this your idea of a joke? To pretend to be my deceased god?”
Zhongli smiles sadly, unshaken by his outburst. Though the consultant remains sitting, he somehow seems to loom over him. “I’m afraid not.”
Silence settles between them, thick and suffocating.
Xiao’s eyes widen in realization. The tea, how he knew his name, his inhuman beauty, his grace, his patience for dealing with him—
Xiao scrambles to fall to one knee and bows his head low in deference. “My lord—forgive my insolence. I apologize—”
“Stand, Xiao. I’m not offended,” Rex Lapis interrupts with a chuckle, and he hates that it fills him with warmth. “Ah, I was afraid you would treat me this way had I told you the truth…”
Xiao knits his eyebrows together in confusion, and he lifts his head to gaze up at Rex Lapis. “What do you mean by that?”
“You treat Zhongli differently,” Rex Lapis says softly. “As your equal. Someone to banter with, without fear of judgment or retribution. And...you are unafraid of being yourself.”
“I didn’t realize…” Xiao’s words die on his tongue. He’s overwhelmed by the sudden reveal, by his feelings for Zhongli (Rex Lapis?), by the fact that his lord is alive—
“Oh, my dear Xiao,” Rex Lapis murmurs, and he feels thumbs wipe gently at the corners of his eyes. “Please don’t cry. If my presence brings you too much pain, then…”
“No,” Xiao immediately snaps, gripping Rex Lapis’ wrist. His lover—lord—blinks in surprise, but doesn’t pull away. “Don’t you dare leave. As I said, I won’t stop loving you. Nothing will be able to change that.”
He gazes at him for a long, long moment, before Zhongli smiles in relief and looks as gorgeous as he did when they shared their first kiss. “Xiao, your words hold more meaning to me than you realize.”
“Good. I mean every word. I swear on my blade that I’ll continue to treat you as I have,” Xiao vows with a note of finality, and he finally rises to his feet to close the distance between them.
“I wouldn’t do this…” Xiao takes Zhongli’s hand and turns it to kiss his palm. He revels in the quiet inhale he receives. “Or this…”
He turns Zhongli’s hand in the opposite direction to brush his lips over the knuckles. “For Rex Lapis. Only for you, Zhongli.”
It makes Zhongli flush a pretty color, and it amuses Xiao that he’s bashful. “I’m…I’m honored.”
“You should be.” Xiao internally recoils at the tease, but when Zhongli only laughs heartily and draws him close to rest their foreheads together, Xiao smiles.
He smiles, even as his face aches.