Here lies Noctua, beloved in life and beloved after death. May you rest in peace.
When the week bleeds into months, the dragon does not notice.
Day after day, he fights the regisvine rooted under Liyue’s shallow caves, only armed with a rusted spear, dull and blunt. The handle almost crumbles to dust under his grip as the ground shakes and blisters under the regisvine’s rage.
He has long since left the notion of bringing water to fight, only choosing to stab with a weapon so fragile that it verges on splintering. The dragon thinks as it spits fire: I am older than the soil between your deepest roots. I am older than your sorrow; I am older than your flames.
He will win—what is a plant to a god, after all?—for it is his birthright.
How blasphemous, how sacrilegious to believe otherwise. Yet, a thought passes as the dragon maims and pierces: I cannot win. I never will.
The regisvine slumps to the ground. The dust settles.
By the mouth of the cave, the god of dust will wait. She calls his name, and the wind in her hair carries the scent of her flower fields, a touch so gentle that did not belong in such a hellish place. “Morax.”
The dragon does not move from where he stands. Rather, he kneels.
“Morax,” the god of dust repeats. “He will not come back.”
With filthy hands, the dragon carefully sifts through the ashes. As always, there is a gem of pure scarlet; as brilliant as a pair of blood red irises and as lovely as the sun in ruby hair—a shade of red so vivid in his memories.
He knows this; he will not come back—yet none of this effort will ever be enough to suffice the gaping hole in his spoiled, rotten heart.
The god of dust does not say: how long will you continue to do this?
She has no need to say it out loud.
The dragon stands up, leaving the Agnidus Agate glinting on the ground. The spear in his palms is half-molten; only a piece of scrap metal now. Like the gilded sorrow that falls from his eyes, it runs down his fingertips, heavy and bitter. It does not hurt. It should not hurt. The dragon will not feel how it is to shudder with a pain that consumes you alive and leaves nothing but bones behind, and he never would.
The god of dust does not call after him when he leaves. She watches him as he passes, giving no acknowledgement of her presence aside from an imperceptible nod.
That is why she knows he has heard it after all.
When a mortal dies, there is nothing noteworthy about it all. In death, even the great become nothing more than mere commoners.
They live and they die. Such is the charm of humanity, chortles the celestials. How simple a life they lead. How fragile, too easily broken—how euphemeral. How mortal.
And for once, the dragon does not indulge them.
He does not tell them to leave. Not when his teeth roughly grind together as he bites down on meat that tastes like nothing, not even when the wine in his hand tastes as bitter as sin. Not even when Guizhong and most of his adepti shoot him worried glances. He just happens to leave first.
(It is one of the many times he will have to put up with them.)
Gods do not sleep. Godhood itself is a form of rest, a mortal had claimed. Why would you rest when you burn with the life of a thousand suns?
Rarely does he sleep. But even then in his waking moments, he dreams of vitriol. He dreams of fire. A strand of it curling around a finger as he brings it to his lips to gingerly kiss, and an attempt at a glower, before it falls into something more fond.
He dreams of shadows, of a shade of red so warm that even the dragon’s fingers burned with the bloodstains after he had died. He dreams of the dark side of dawn, and he wishes, with all of his being, to remain wide awake.
No sunrise nor sunset is the same, his beloved had said once, fingers tangling with his. You may not treasure the monotony of it, but it is still rather beautiful. Don’t you think?
Morax, says a phantom, frowning exactly like him. Its brow creases, and its lips pull down. There is an abyss in its blank eyes, the one that calls you upon to sleep within a thousand nights, the one where each and every day after is lit by red giants so close to burning out that it feels beautiful in its final moments.
Morax. Do you not think it’s beautiful?
(The dragon hides from the dawn. He hides from the dusk.)
“Hey, Morax! Didn’t your human favor the greatsword?”
He bites on his tongue. The celestial in question is drunk and slurring, and all his adepti wince away from the table as the celestial waits expectantly for an answer.
The cup under his hand crumples. Guizhong, this time, is not here. The food is sour in his mouth.
A baited silence hovers above the table.
“Favored,” the dragon carefully says, everyone hanging on to that one word, because Noctua did. “He favored the greatsword in combat.”
Without missing a beat, the celestial animatedly nods. “See? For a mortal, that one had fine taste in weaponry,” he jeers at the other celestial he has been arguing with. “Surely even you aren’t as hopeless as that—“
With the way you move nowadays, Guizhong does not say. It is almost as if you haunt the halls. Not the other way around.
She pours nectar over the wound in his shoulder, where gold gushes from a cut inflicted by a broad, heavy blade, and presses down with cloth, trying to stop the bleeding. Even when he avoids her gaze, eyes downcast, her firm grip on his shoulder does not loosen.
She says, instead: “Watch your temper, Morax. Fighting Celestials will not bode well for you.”
His funeral is a short affair, his procession hidden away in a cave, made by the dragon as a favor, to keep the grieving group away from the crowd of suspicious, curious men who came to see what was so special about the dragon’s beloved.
It was simple. None of his gifts—none of his offerings left on his family’s doorstep are present at the funeral. Everyone in faded, well-worn black, save for one gem adorning his beloved’s throat, a shade of red so prominent against sunken pale skin and white cloth.
The dragon thinks: if only Noctua had not insisted on secrecy, he would have showered him in riches, covered his sun-kissed skin in gold, wrapped him in the finest clothing—the kind that was only befitting of the dragon’s beloved, of someone so beloved that the sun hailed his beauty even after death.
His mother had mourned him, he dully remembers. The dragon only watched her succumb to her grief, as his brother simply stood and stared. As if Noctua was going to rise from the ground, like a walking ghost—like death could not keep down someone who was so full of life. As if his corpse would not realize that he had already died, and had no right to be alive.
(He remembers knocking on their door once, and his mother did not scream, and his brother did not do anything. They were still and unflinching, even before his visage, even when they refused his gifts, even when they shut the door in his face, unafraid of a god’s ire.
They are like you in so many ways, he tells the stars—the final resting place for people who have bared such noble hearts. I do not think they like me much.
The dragon thinks, sorrow twisting his gut: I do not blame them if they don’t. He is deserving of such ire, after all, and finds that he means it.)
“How long has it been?” Havria politely asks, when he is on the doorstep of her city.
It’s an intervention. If not on behalf of the adepti, on behalf of her people—when the dragon’s feet fall, his steps are the drumming of many heartbeats, the falling feet of a great army, come to slaughter. Sal Terrae’s city cannot do anything but listen in fear for thirty nights—her king calls to take arms, an army to take on the Prime of Adepti, in a time of tension between men and gods, before Havria, benevolent and gentle, whisks him off to a much more private domain.
“Not long enough,” the dragon takes the offered cup of tea. “I apologize for disturbing your city.”
Havria frowns. It is an understatement. The ground echoes your grief, she does not say. With how my land is, and how I am; we will always hear you.
The dragon does not look up. Guilt churns in his gut. It has been thirty nights, after all. A month with the city listening to the footsteps of the dragon chasing after an boy long gone.
She does not mention any of it. Instead, her hand finds his on the table, lingering. She squeezes his hand once, offering him a human sentiment so genuinely—a sentiment that the gods cannot hope to understand, except perhaps for one as kindhearted as her.
“I am sorry for your loss." She murmurs.
And what is there to do?
It takes a while, but Havria understands when he stands up, empty cup set down on the table. Maybe he does not understand the sentiment himself, but he acquiesces, for how far does he have to fall from grace to forget his manners?
The dragon dips his head. At the very least, he’ll trouble this city no longer. “Thank you.”
He avoids the night, and the stars that gaze down on him. He stumbles upon ruins underground, fills it with gold. He moves on to somewhere else. Sometimes, he comes back to crumbling ruins, void of the treasures he’s left, of stone that cannot stand against time. The dragon thinks, how disappointed he will be of me.
It’s a futile attempt. How would one made from starglitter hide from where it has come from?
(When he mourns—Rex Lapis, the fearsome war god of Liyue, the Prime of the Adepti—the world pretends to not notice the grief that shakes the earth, with sorrow—the kind of mortal weakness that has been beaten out of him. There—there should be no room left for weakness to be exploited, for weakness to plunge into his heart and twist like a poisoned knife.)
“Do you think it would have been better?”
”If I had not been selfish with my affections.”
“Rex.” Guizhong twists another glaze lily into a flower crown—flowers from her garden, to be taken and grace a gravestone. “That choice did not belong to only you. Do not deny Noctua of his own choice.”
”You did not make him do anything,” she firmly says. “You know that more than anybody else. He had a choice. You gave him that choice, and even then, he chose you.”
She says, he chose you, instead of the other way around. A god, suddenly only a man, asking for a mortal’s hand, and the mortal, flesh and blood, giving it so willingly.
“He did,” the dragon says. “He told me this. But—he could’ve been safer if it were not for me.” He could still be alive if I had left him alone.
Such is the curse of godhood. There is no rest for the wicked, no rest from that which runs away from a curse. He should not have dragged Noctua into a fool’s quest—the divine trying to be human.
“Rex,” Guizhong repeats. Somber. Quiet. She presses the flower crown into his hands. “His death is not your fault.”
(The first time they had met: Noctua had snarled at him, with all the righteous fury of a man so dishonored by the gods, so dangerously lovely in his wrath: for someone like yourself, you’ve been nothing but a fucking coward.)
When his body gives in to sleep, there is none of the gore branded inside of his eyelids like he’s expected. There is no blood on his hands, no dead corpse to come and haunt his dreams. He is dreamless, only floating, hovering over the mountaintops, feet skimming the clouds—weightless and free.
Let me go, the phantom whispers in his ear, more tired than angry. If he keeps his eyes closed, it will almost be like holding him close, to his chest, as they rest above the clear skies. Let me rest.
This, he notices first, once everybody has left the funeral: there are very few words whittled on his gravestone.
Noctua. Beloved in life, and beloved after death.
It’s a simple stone stele for someone so striking, so absolute in their being.
The dragon reaches for the engraving set into stone, and places Guizhong’s flower crown down. He can see it in his head: a steady hand carving these words with such care and attention to detail that could have been only because of respect. Out of a sense of love.
He removes his hand soon after. With respect to their traditions, he will not touch this gravestone.
How beloved you are. He tries to tell the gravestone, but like a prodded fresh wound, his eyes only bleed with ichor and stardust. The stars are not out yet, but he thinks that Noctua would appreciate the charm of the dusk settling in the horizon. They love so deeply. So relentlessly, even after your passing. They find grace in such grief. I do not understand how, but I wish I do.
It’s the first dusk he’s seen in a while.
The sun dips. The dragon rises.
Here lies Noctua, beloved in life and beloved after death. May you rest in peace.
May Celestia call you to rest upon the stars.
May you live on forevermore.
Rawblood—not on his hands.
(“…I do hope you’re aware, Morax—of how pure the ichor that runs through your veins, of how raw the gilded sorrow that falls from your eyes is. Of how different it is for one like me.”
“Ah.” Gold falls in droplets on a glove. “That is one certain difference between us, yes.”
Another glove, another hand. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand you. Why taint it with mortal sin?” The hand presses harder, yet it feels like nothing at all. “Why spoil it with my rage? Why curse yourself with my grief?”
“My beloved.” It is said so softly, so tenderly. It is like he has yelled it for the world to hear. The dragon’s beloved—a declaration in its own right. Two gold-stained gloves cradle a heavy hand, weighted down by bones and blood. “Would it be easier,” he says, instead of better, “if I told you I do not know either?”
“No. I wouldn’t believe you.” A laugh, slightly off-tone. “Are you telling the truth?”
“I would not lie to you.” I have no reason to, he doesn’t add.
“Perhaps I find it hard to believe that the Prime of the Adepti has been uncertain of someone, much less someone so uninteresting, so—” He spits the rest of the words out. “So ordinary. Someone so human.”
“Do not talk about yourself in such a way,” he softly chides. “On the contrary, I have loved getting to know you. The pleasure of meeting such an intriguing individual has always been mine.” The grip of his clasp does not change. “Still, even when I have found myself uncertain of why, I have come to cherish you wholeheartedly. If you would allow me to, I would like to stay by your side.”
“I— you—what?” Incredulous. “Do you hear yourself? To chain such a god to my side? Morax—“
“Zhongli.” He insists. “Noctua. Please.”
Lips purse. “You’re a god, Zhongli. To love is a death sentence—to yourself, to the divine. Especially to choose it for one so fragile.” The cradled hand tenses, but makes no move to go. The words are heavy and bitter. “I will bleed and I will die. You will not. Why bother?”
“Why indeed.” The dragon muses. “Is this not what you humans call love? Is this not what keeps you human—is it not love that spares you in your rage,” a tighter clasp, if only for a infinitesimal bit of a second, “that persists through your grief? My dearest—“
“What a dangerous way of thinking. Such recklessness is uncharacteristic for one like you. Especially when you have loved before.”
“Not like this.”
“Not this irrationally? Not this impulsively? For God’s sake, Zhongli—“ his hair flashes, flaring like scarlet flames, so dangerously mesmerizing. “What makes me so different from everybody else?”
How the dragon wishes to hold more of him, instead of just his gloved hands. How he wishes to hold him closer. “There is nothing impulsive about it. I love you endlessly—relentlessly, and even if I am not certain of why, then this sentiment, at the very least, I am sure of.” He pauses. “Tell me, my love: is it really hard to believe that there is none like you?”
No words follow, except for another gloved hand. It gingerly lingers on top of gold-stained gloves.
“You are such a dangerous man.” Said so mournfully, said so quietly. So lowly, as if he is ashamed to ask. “Why must you be so dangerously gentle?”
“Because I would like to be someone who treats you well, my love.” His thumb traces over Noctua’s gloved palm. “Who cherishes you the way you deserve to be held—if you would let me.”
“You always have.” Barely above a whisper. “Already have been. I wish I could return your affections just as gently.”
The dragon breathes out an affectionate sigh in their ear, sinking to the ground. “You do just as much.” He tells him, hands still clasped, as the stars above them glint through the shade of the tree that towers above. “Do not fret, my love. We will have enough time.”)
But rawblood in his grieving heart.
Day after day, the dragon mourns, but—it’s not his first thought anymore. It takes a while to get him out of his grief, but by then: Noctua is his second, then his third, then his fourth thought in his waking hours. When he looks over the sea, gazes at Liyue’s shoreline, at the sun that peeks over the horizon and spills into the sea—Noctua is still there. But not the first. Not the foremost.
Come with. A phantom laugh, teasing. My god, where is your famed eternal youth?
In a moment. May I ask why?
The sunrise has been exceptionally beautiful today. Would it be too forward of me to assume the sundown must be just as lovely tonight?
There are dawns and there are dusks that greet him when he seeks the world outside his domains. The festivals are held. Lanterns rise. The faces of the people of Liyue turn towards the drowning sun, like sunflowers seeking out light.
You’re right. The dragon sits on a lone rock, overlooking the cliff. The waters are still. The sea peacefully hums.
I am. Almost smug. Proud.
The sunset is beautiful tonight.
A god walks into a bar.
(There is no punchline, but it’s the start of a sick joke.)
Beside him, Venti has passed out, surrounded by empty pints of wine. Even his legendary tolerance has given up.
The bartender clicks his tongue, and moves to gather the dirty glasses. Zhongli is no stranger to Venti’s habits, and it appears that the bartender—Diluc—is no stranger to it, either.
Still, it’s rude to let him be there, especially when they happen to visit on a busy night and they’ve drank on a growing tab they almost certainly cannot pay.
”I’m sorry to overstay our welcome,” he regretfully tells Diluc, cutting their conversation short, moving to hoist Venti to wherever they could stay. “It was pleasant talking with you, but my familiar and I should be on our way. It seems like a busy night today.”
(He could have just as well ignored Zhongli, bid them on their merry way. He didn’t have to care, almost certain that Diluc had known something.)
(He could have told them to leave. He could have meant no.)
”No need,” he sighs. “I’m familiar with your familiar.” His eyes slightly crinkle to show wry amusement at Zhongli’s reluctance to call Venti a friend. “Usually, he just crashes in one of the spare rooms on the second floor, but if you do have a place to go, then don’t let me stop you.”
“Ah.” How considerate. Zhongli moves to sit down. Maybe not now, then. “Thank you.”
Diluc simply nods, red eyes flickering over him to survey the next group of people who walked in. “Enjoy yourself tonight.”
(Every now and then, Zhongli looks up to find a glass in front of him. It’s always a new concoction. Some are alcoholic, but most of it aren’t, but even then, his drinks are certainly tasteful, his mixes masterful. Befitting of the praise sang everywhere of the drinks so admired across Teyvat.
(For someone who owns Mondstadt’s wine industry, Venti had remarked, when Diluc’s sighs find new depths while he tries to accommodate Venti’s famed alcoholic tolerance. He really doesn’t like alcohol all that much.)
He takes the offered gifts, but only after a bit of prodding, because he certainly cannot afford it. Diluc always checks on him for a brief moment, waves his concerns off by remarking how he owned said bar, and notes dryly about the prices he’s waived for Venti—as long as the bard held up the part of his own bargain.
Zhongli does not pry into that. A contract between them is not of his business, after all—but they work out their own improvised bargain, and he gratefully takes the drinks. He makes sure to pass his compliments when the bar owner checks on him from time to time.)
The night passes by.
“Athene noctua,” Diluc muses, out of nowhere. It’s not that out of place in their current discussion, where Diluc indulges him in random, mundane talk, once the bar’s activity has slowed down. That’s the one part of their bargain he’s free to break off once he doesn’t want to drink anymore—but Diluc is interesting to talk to, no matter how curt or short some his responses may be. The bar owner still looks put together, if not a bit withdrawn and tired—and he can’t say the same for the rest of Mondstadt’s citizens once they’ve left Angel’s Share. “The little owl.”
“And what of it?” Zhongli asks, staring at him. Too late before he realizes he’s been staring for longer than he should have, and takes a sip of something the bartender had made him. Something much more milder than the drinks he’s drunk earlier, yet still pleasant.
”Not much.” The bar owner shakes his head, as if to clear the thought. As if it was unimportant. “I rather like them. Owls, in general.”
Distantly, Zhongli thinks: Diluc’s eyes are unfairly captivating. His scarlet curls are striking, and they frame his pale aristocratic features rather well. With how the dim light in the bar haloes the man, who moves so certain, so definite in his measured actions: he looks like a man made god. A sitting flame beckoning, a well-made blade waiting patiently in its sheath. Like one to rise above—fitting for the uncrowned king of Mondstadt himself.
“Hm,” he considers. With how light his limbs feel, maybe he has had enough to drink. The feeling of floating should be enough to make him reconsider other things, but before he can excuse himself, the words happen to spill from his lips. “Ah, yes. That reminds me of something. Have you heard of Noctua?”
“I presume you don’t mean the owl. Or the lost constellation, either.” He tilts his head. “The dragon’s beloved?”
”So you have,” Zhongli murmurs. “I didn’t know he was known outside of Liyue.” If you’re neither a scholar or historian.
“I travel around,” he shrugs. “Most don’t talk, out of respect for Rex Lapis, if not for the dead, but those that would mention him in passing always have held him in high regard.”
“Ah.” Talking about the newly deceased dragon and his beloved is considered taboo, after all. “Do you think he once existed, if ever at all?” The consultant absentmindedly ponders, even after his previous thought. “Flesh and blood. A legend made life.”
“You are from Liyue, right?” Diluc peers at him, eyes slightly narrowed. “I hardly think that’s a question fit to ask of the dead.”
“But of course. Still, this isn’t a trick question,” Zhongli clarifies. “Even Sumeru’s scholars have argued over the legitimacy of that piece of history as well. Regardless of who is right, I still would like to hear what you think about it.”
The consultant almost sees the next words to come out of the bar owner’s mouth: Diluc, remarking about how a man with his stature and knowledge, talks so lightly about his nation’s history. As if it meant nothing more than a tale to him. As if it wasn’t about one of the most beloved, to be exalted forever to have charmed such a god. Of how a strange man Zhongli is.
(Of how he slipped, and how suspicious that slip had seemed.)
To Zhongli’s pleasant surprise, he doesn’t pry, doesn’t comment. Instead, Diluc sighs. What a pair of odd men they make indeed. “Very well.”
(Zhongli—Zhongli remembers him, all the lines of him, broad and tempered in the candlelight, a growing hunger in his gut that makes him crane his head from his seat and want to reach for the man when he so much makes to move away. It is akin to the feeling of rising from the dust—and Diluc is there, right there: eyes on him, indulging him. Zhongli listens; he knows—he burns with the intensity of knowing.
Diluc is saying: as you’ve said: Sumeru has argued over how and why Liyue’s god would choose a mortal out of everyone else. That is why they question it. Maybe we will never know why, but perhaps that is how history remembers: because such things do not happen often—)
(—but when it happens, Diluc had continued, and once upon a time; in another place, in another time somewhere—the same man had lived once and lived again, a phantom quiet and patient, his features obscured by the night—when a god falls for a mortal, history is always quick to call it a fabled memory.)