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Ichi go ichi e

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His Lord moves worlds without ever setting his feet in them.

There are the admirers, who get as close as they can to him, though still they can only touch the brink . Xiao likes to think he’s better than the admirers, meaning more than them to Rex Lapis, because after a long battle the Archon will come over and put his hand on Xiao’s head and say, “Good job, Xiao.” One doesn’t hear the Geo Archon praise a lot of people, Bosacius agrees with him (maybe because Rex Lapis praises Bosacius too), though that isn’t exactly because their Archon is as cold as the ones up North. Rather, Rex Lapis simply does things excellently enough himself that it’s quite hard to impress him, or otherwise he would be constantly surprising himself. He certainly understands that similar efforts produce different effects, but it puts him no closer to flattering people regularly.

There are a lot of things in this world that don’t equate with real love but get rather close, like admiration and praise. Going up doesn’t make you any closer to someone else but at least you’re not going down, isn’t that true? So it’s good enough for Xiao… after all no one gets close to Rex Lapis in that way anyway.

Rex Lapis can shape lives while never even once touching them. Old folktales and carefully written scripts alike testify to entire arcs of human growth and fall surrounding the Geo Archon’s presence and legacy, stories in which he is the main character and the heart of the plot, all without him appearing in the tale once. This is how greatly this Archon moves mortals, that even his image can change them.

Xiao will watch his lord from a distance after each decade-long battle, eyes never leaving that impossible man’s firm hands as he lifts crowns off skulls in the ground, the flesh of his opponents burned away by his Yakshas’ unforgiving elemental energy. He will see the dreamy eyed kings and queens who go to Morax and ask for his hand in an alliance, a marriage, anything really. And as he observes, he always thinks, somewhat scornfully, I would never live like them, allowing someone who rewrites my life to stray so far from me.

But just like nearly every other being on Teyvat, Xiao hears the name of this mysterious, unreadable Archon before he ever has the chance to set eyes on him. He hears the name “Morax” laid out in hatred, foaming out the lungs of his crushed enemies, and he hears the name laid out in fear as well, when villagers and their children cry out his name, in hopes he will protect them from Alatus.

He never does, but that’s Alatus’ loss. It’s Alatus’ loss that when he cannot pry the polearm from his own hands, when he cannot take off the mask no matter how much his own skin burns from the force of his elemental bursts, when he cannot say anything as the people before him press their foreheads against the ground, no one will do it for him.

Nobody will step in and dismantle his movements, revealing him to be nothing but a puppet, regardless of how much it is his wish as well. He has tried praying, but the only god he knows is the one enslaving him.

But this is a life that doesn’t stagnate. The battle that one day changes everything takes place where the hills curl up slightly, and the days blur by, quickly but not quick enough. The sun and the moon are rolling in and out from between clouds in the sky when Alatus sees the first hint of another Archon besides his own, rock pillars slamming into the Earth and upheaving dust from a distance.

When he finally comes face to face with this “Morax”, who deep inside he has already started to entertain as both conqueror and liberator, instead of cleaving Alatus into two, Morax surprisingly ignores him. He sidesteps past the Yaksha’s charge, vanishing into light for a moment, then Alatus is struck by some strange, soothing energy pulsating from the earth, paralyzing him.

And in a heartbeat’s notice, the god turns around, facing Alatus again, and grabs Alatus’ polearm. He ignores how the Anemo energy cracks his skin the way drought cracks dirt, and snaps the Yaksha’s weapon clean in half. Alatus stares into this Archon’s ringed, amber eyes as he stumbles to the ground and thinks, he’s an Adeptus too!

Then Morax kicks him aside, walking straight to Alatus’ god--- before ripping them right apart. Helplessly watching on, some vile feeling bubbles up at the back of Alatus’ throat, funnily akin to grief.

Morax may be the second god he has known, yet the first time they touch is a first for them both. Certainly, Morax has never named anybody before, and Alatus has never been touched by anyone besides himself, save for the times his old master squeezed their hands around his throat. Nonetheless, the Archon kneels down beside the stunned Yaksha and sets a palm against Alatus’ forehead, just as his demonic mask dissolves. He tilts his head slightly, frowning.

“They call you Alatus, but you don’t have wings,” Morax observes.

“Get away from me,” the Yaksha growls, though there’s no real energy behind it. He’s hardly even focused on the one in front of him, gaze still pointed at the dead body of his old master, and the unnerving sight of his once greatest obstacle easily shattered into fragments across the floor.

Morax grabs the sides of his face and forces him to look away. He seems to have noticed what Alatus is staring at and sighs. “Forgive me for the mess. I suppose it’s hard for us to have a real conversation right now. But come to my camp. I will treat your wounds and we can talk then.”

It certainly wasn’t the direction Alatus had expected things to take. He had expected this man to break his chains, but take his life in turn. Amazingly, all Morax asks for is his cooperation.

Too shocked to do anything else, he gives in and manages a nod. Morax smiles faintly at that, like this was exactly what he wanted.

“...Oh, but you can say no. You are free now.” The Archon’s voice is soft.

In the fables of another world, the name Xiao is of a dark spirit that encountered great suffering and hardship…. Use this name from now on.*

Morax picks up the wounded Adeptus and brings him into his home. Alatus can feel this god’s hands on the back of his knees as he is carried from under the dark clouds to a clearer opening. He notices how, unlike his old master’s, these hands don’t shake with unsteadiness and uncertainty.

Few have made contact with him before Morax, and none have taken care of him. And surely, with this dream-eater’s deadly reputation and poor attitude, no one ever dared to reach over and press his head down, patting him.

“He does have a fierce reputation,” the Geo Archon tells the man who’s treating Alatus’ injuries, speaking calmly as to reassure him. “But so do wet cats.”

Alatus, or Xiao as he became overnight, glares, smoke rising up from his skin in an unspoken threat. The doctor gulps, but Morax seems unbothered, his gloved hands rubbing at Xiao’s scalp lightly.

This is simply how Rex Lapis treats everyone, Xiao already has come to notice. With a slight fatherly attitude, and cluelessness to how it might be poorly received.

When Xiao’s cuts stop bleeding through the bandages that wrap tightly around his arms and legs, the two of them make their way down a corridor and then into what must have once been a garden, though is now but a rather pretty campsite for some troops, mostly Adepti. Obviously, Rex Lapis is the central figure of this entire camp, though if you were to just observe him alone, unable to pick up on the way all eyes trailed to him, you couldn’t tell. The Archon picks up an umbrella easily, swinging it upwards and opening it.

“How are you feeling?” he asks the Yaksha as they walk past the humble houses that Morax has built for the soldiers with Geo. The ancient sun beats down on the golden paper umbrella that the god holds over their heads, and the image of Rex Lapis walking around with a feared, untrusted figure like Alatus… it certainly drew some looks.

“It seems that I am indebted to you,” Xiao says. He digs his nails into his sleeve, attempting to hide how the unfamiliar surroundings unnerve him.

Rex Lapis hums. “Hm, that’s not what I asked you. And that’s not what I told you, either. I may have given you a new name, but what would be the point in me telling you that you’re free, only you to force you into my servitude?”

The Yaksha scoffs, suddenly stopping in his tracks. Rex Lapis frowns and looks back at him. “You must be joking. But if you’re being sincere… you won’t win this war with a heart like that.”

“Ah, Xiao. Let’s keep walking.” Rex Lapis motions him to his side again, like this tired Adeptus he had picked up on the side of the road was as important as an allied general.

“Perhaps you’re right about that,” he continues, when Xiao finally paces after him. “I didn’t say I was never terrible… You saw yourself what I did to your Archon. I just try not to be excessively cruel.”

Without warning, he reaches over once more and sets a hand on Xiao’s shoulder, squeezing it gently. “Sometimes we do things that aren’t optimal anyway. If only to celebrate our choice.”

His choice. And the implication is clear: now it’s Xiao’s turn to make his own decision. The Yaksha’s eyes remain on the light smile Rex Lapis gives him, but his mind trails back to himself, mourning wasted time. He watches the way the Archon composes himself, witnesses the shelters he’s built for others, and wonders: had he experienced freedom for just as long, could he have become just as admirable, just as worth following?

So the former infamous Yaksha with the reputation of a demon becomes a number in the ranks under Lord Rex Lapis. He isn’t used to this communal feeling and he finds it hard to eat with the other soldiers. He sleeps during the day and follows his new master to the field at night, going through the exact same motions as he used to, staining himself in the blood of his enemies.

But Rex Lapis will grab his wrist and stop him if his energy flares out of control, or if he’s about to faint, and the contract that binds him to the Archon promises him an exit, if all else fails.

Xiao eventually proves himself to be one of the strongest recruit in his Lord’s ranks. And Rex Lapis will come to him after every battle, and tells him, sounding pleased, “You’re doing well, Xiao.” This, he is used to; Xiao has always been admired for how well he can kill, and he has always resented it as well. But he will admit, the same melody doesn’t sound half as bad coming out of Rex Lapis’ mouth. I can get used to this, he thinks, always nodding back slightly in response, before turning away and heading towards the baths.

He realizes he has come to care about his new master when, one battle still near the beginning of the war, upon watching a foreign deity steal the upper hand and shove their hand into Rex Lapis’ chest, light sparking as their fist nearly closes around the other’s Gnosis, something more bitter than even his resentment towards his old god flares up within him.

“Stay away from him!” Xiao snarls, practically able to feel the heat rolling off his own skin. He jumps down from above, shockwaves rippling through the ground. To their credit, the other Archon only staggers back, their hand slipping out of Rex Lapis. Xiao tries to knock their feet out next, but they recover quickly, and wrap the Yaksha’s collar in their fist, jerking him off his feet.

“You silly Yaksha---” Xiao shuts his eyes, but no beating comes. Instead the Earth hums, and when he opens his eyes again, Rex Lapis has materialized his signature monolith, the very one he once used on Xiao. Then, after a flash of light and a hum from the earth, he incapacitates the other Archon.

“I’ll take care of the rest. Xiao, run,” he orders. Xiao sees the exhaustion in his Lord’s eyes, sees how his breathing comes a little hard, and takes off as commanded.

He feels like a coward, but when Rex Lapis does come home in one piece with that faint smile on his face and something glowing bright through the flesh of his palm, he has nothing but doting words for the one who aided him. “He saved my life,” he tells the other Adepti, his words permeating through the curtains the dream-eater hides himself behind. A feeling somewhere between anxiety and euphoria twists his stomach, as he listens to the next words loud and clear: “Hm, maybe you’re right. I think Xiao’s my new favorite person now.” His words are punctuated with a soft laugh.

Evidently, he’s being hyperbolical, but he also called Alatus a person, this juxtaposition so foreign to the Adeptus that he almost can’t comprehend it. He balls up the edge of the curtain with one hand and digs his nails through the cloth, all of a sudden hit with new feelings and knowing absolutely no ways to deal with them.

Is this what they call limerence? If so, then how has he passed hundreds of years without experiencing it once, until now? Xiao finds himself a fool, moving from admiration to infatuation rather quickly. Is he being shallow, he wonders? Because maybe it’s the cor lapis hue in his Lord’s eyes, unchanging through the years, or maybe after his old Archon, he was simply so afraid of losing this kinder one. Maybe it’s even just because Xiao really is no different from anyone else.

So many of Rex Lapis’ soldiers, they’re all a little in love with him, the slight madness in their eyes when he approaches, because if it isn’t his beauty, it’s what he stands for that they desire so desperately: permanence in an uncertain era, and privilege compared to the ones cursed with weaker and harsher deities.

The eras pass by, and Xiao is content at Rex Lapis’ side, content to see the world through the directions his master dictates. But though much time lapses and the humans they meet along the way number greatly, Xiao finds himself generally unable to relate to a single aspect of their existence.

“You don’t speak a lot.”

“There’s nothing to say,” Xiao replies, and the young woman in front of him only gives him a mild look. He crosses his arms, exasperated at the way her child tries to grab at his vision, or the amulets dangling off his waist. “Except, instruct your offspring to keep their hands off of me.”

“I’m so sorry,” she beams, pulling her kid back by the collar. “She’s just excited. It’s not everyday that you can meet an immortal. I’ve only met one, though he really liked me, you know.”

It’s not like Xiao even believes her at first, but quickly he recalls the Adepti who aren’t as strict as Rex Lapis and his troops. He vaguely thinks back to his first Archon, who saw everyone as a body and nothing more, and for a moment, he can’t keep the disgust off his face.

She seems to have picked up on his thoughts. “Oh, haha, it’s nothing like that. Don’t worry, Adeptus Xiao. If Adepti fall in love, they never seem to fall in love with humans.”

She and her kid both bow and give their thanks to him, though he understands that what they are truly grateful for is Rex Lapis’ consideration of humans as he lays out his combat tactics, which Xiao habitually never gave a thought to. He knows what humans are and how they live but he will never grasp why, especially for the few who do not believe in worshipping gods.

Sometimes Xiao relives pieces of his past in staggered nightmares, which he supposes is a suitable punishment. Those nights remind him of a time when he was truly nobody, in the purest sense of the world, in a way that overrides accomplishments or even the state of being alive. He remembers looking down on himself and feeling nauseous and revolted, of not comprehending what this body of his is or what it does, even if his first god gave him the reason. He remembers the way he could count his new scars and hate them all, of being younger and squeezing his thighs and arms uncomfortably into bruises, observing flesh and how a knife will bounce off of it if it doesn’t cut, but nonetheless staying utterly incapable of identifying these skin and bones. He was afraid and he didn’t want this body, and at some tipping point he didn’t even desire its freedom back, he just didn’t want it at all. Alatus only wished to be an ephemeral spirit and fly over the world, tied to nothing, not even himself. He knew little of the meaning of “self”.

So he thought he could never understand this human in front of him who has dreams of her own and moves comfortably in her skin and hints to him that love is a decisive action involving that very self, and not just a feeling waning between heaven and earth. He doesn’t think he’ll understand until he enters her house, his gaze flickering over to a simple painting of her late husband, his amber eyes, with her own figure coddled in his arms.

One night, somewhat funnily, he has a dream about a dream he once ate.

There was a very simple story inside. Once a human fell in love with another human and bought them pastries, because they liked to see the reaction. This tale is simple and redundant; however, it stays with him, and embarrassingly enough he finds himself thinking of it more and more each day. Perhaps it’s because he has no idea what people do, if anything, when in love.

Xiao doesn’t really eat most foods, but the sight of a boy holding a sugar painting of a serpent catches his interest. The golden-brown structure reminds Xiao of his Lord in his dragon form… and so he goes over and buys one himself.

“Alatus stands out so much,” Menogias teases. “He looks so silly talking to the humans and buying candy we know he won’t eat.”

He elbows them hard in retaliation. “I’ll flay you if you say anything more.”

Nearby, a long, wooden pavilion weaves its way through a lake of lotus flowers, bugs buzzing quietly over the blooming waters. This month, half because it is close to the current battlefield and half because Rex Lapis really, really likes the view, the Geo Archon will meet with his five most loyal and powerful Adepti, the Yaksha, as well as other Archons like Guizhong here.

That day, after all important is already said, Xiao walks up to Rex Lapis and offers him the dragon sugar painting wrapped in bamboo leaves. As he does so, there’s a slight rush in his veins he can’t really ignore, and though Xiao is used to adrenaline he isn’t used to it quite like this.

The other Yaksha must be watching him with bemused expressions, though he has no idea what the Archons would think of this scene. It doesn’t matter, his skin isn’t thin, and the approval that matters foremost to him is that of his Lord’s.

Rex Lapis takes the present, touching it gingerly. His puzzled expression remains until he’s finished unwrapping the candy, holding it up to the light that slips through the cracks of the old pavilion’s roof. The sun pierces the sugar as Xiao’s hand involuntarily twitches, and Rex Lapis says nothing for a while, like he’s not sure how precisely he should register this moment in the large library that is his head.

He lowers his hand and then blinks at the Yaksha, like he just woke up. “It’s a dragon. This is very cute, Xiao,” he says, and smiles at his liege warmly. “Thank you.”

“It reminded me of you,” Xiao replies in his usual tone of voice, before sitting back down and closing his eyes. But in his head, the Yaksha is still enjoying the look of confusion that had appeared on his Lord’s face, entertaining the idea that for a second this deity had looked so worldly, pulled down from heaven.

As the Archon War reaches its final acts, the corpses and graves of the thousands of defeated Archons melting into the land of Liyue and reshaping the world as it was known, Xiao comes to find that the remaining Archons have to deal more and more with the humans who also wish to rule.

Over this period, the remaining Adepti also grow closer to their Archons, and Xiao is no exception. The five Yaksha who were senior soldiers more than anything at first have evolved into Rex Lapis’... friends, one could say, even if they still honor him as their lord. Their contract with him remains strong: that he will keep them alive, immortality of a sort, given that they swear to serve him and protect his subjects, which become increasingly mortal in number.

Their trials stay difficult, and they wear on even Rex Lapis. If Xiao ever feels resentful of the neverending fighting, he thinks of the way his Archon cradles the bodies of his dead men after unusually heavy battles, unmoving, until one of the Yaksha, usually Xiao, physically jerks him away from the scene, neither of them saying anything even come tomorrow’s dawn.

And though time may pass, Xiao comes to see that he is no further from his past than before. Sometimes he stumbles over the red rivers and pale bones of both his allies and foes, mask glued to his face with dried blood, and he wonders how things have changed since the first time he had ever heard someone utter his name in fear. After all, nowadays, he still hears that same song over and over.

The truth is that Xiao hasn’t changed at all since those days, and he will always be praised to kill. He has accepted that he will sink into hell for his transgressions. Yet at least this time the choice is his; at least this time, he dirties himself so that his master can ascend, instead of meaninglessly spiraling together with his former captor. A tragedy is a better outcome than no story at all.

The palace interior the five Yaksha and their lord walk into shock them with its opulence, though it is not because this room fully garnished in red and gold and fine ceramics is anything different from the hundreds of palaces whose rise and fall were witnessed by Rex Lapis firsthand, rather it’s because this lovely divulgence testifies only to mismanagement, when the country that this massive building sits on cannot even pay soldiers to defend their borders.

Even Bosacius scowls. “They… how do they think they can convince us to side with them, when they waste their own coffers like this?” Xiao’s eyes trail throughout the room, up the walls and to the impossibly tall roof, then to what surrounds his sides. He examines murals made completely of carved jade, chronicling the tales of the most beloved and despised Archons in this land’s history, and he recognizes that the expensive architecture style and furnishings all over date back to a few centuries ago. It wouldn’t be improbable to say that this is a fortress made by a man who wishes to trap himself in the past, and, in the process, sells the present to history. Perhaps those who have not lived in that past are bound to see it as something to be missed.

Rex Lapis’s voice jolts Xiao’s attention back from staring too long at a portrait of Morax and a winged Yaksha fighting side by side, wondering, is that me? “We will see what they have to say, Bosacius. But I think whatever it will be, it won’t be pleasant to hear,” the Archon sighs.

By this point, Xiao has been long familiar with the motions that come with meeting a king: the Yaksha bow to them, then they bow back to Rex Lapis. Then the Yaksha stand behind Rex Lapis as he negotiates with the monarch, his golden eyes glinting. There are no human troubles that the Geo Archon is unfamiliar with, though there are a few he is slow to react to.

However, this king completely throws them all off. He quotes ancient philosophies and fables when confronted with the state of his lands. Worst of all, he claims that all his excess is a shrine for none other than Morax himself, as if what he created was truly something miraculous and more than a generic human greed at best, and a financial burden on the subjects who depended on him at worst.

“Hereditary monarchy has insane creations,” Bonanus whispers under their breath, too low for mortal ears to pick up on. Xiao snorts, not even attempting to hide his disdain. Unfortunately, this the king does pick up on.

“You speak kind words, Rex Lapis.” He sounds almost wounded. “But your men have something else in mind.”

The Archon tilts his head slightly. “This conversation is between the two of us, Your Majesty.” Maybe it really isn’t, but Rex Lapis does like to keep things simple, and he is a great believer of principles.

“No, no. Your Yaksha are very important to this discussion,” says the king, and there’s something that unsettles Xiao in his eyes. “After all, they are the primary example of how, despite our disagreements, you and I are the same, Morax.”

Rex Lapis pauses for a second. How dare he, Xiao thinks angrily, though his fury is mixed with regret that it was him who steered the conversation this way. His hands curl into fists at his sides--- he’s ready to leave, and he knows the other Yaksha feel the same. But Rex Lapis never runs.

“We are both absolutists who understand sacrifice,” the man continues quietly, after he realizes that Rex Lapis is in no hurry to say anything, “And who understand that it’s okay if others must die for our dreams to come true. No matter how selfish the outcome.”

All of the Yaksha bristle at that, because of course they, the most steadfast believers in their lord’s ambition, would, and Bosacius especially cannot keep their mouth shut upon hearing such a thing.

“You insolent human,” the Adeptus retorts, “Unlike you, our Lord shelters all of his subjects, and not just himself.”

Yet the king only shakes his head. “What are good intentions if your actions are just as… cold? For example—” and suddenly, he points a finger straight at Xiao.

Rex Lapis blinks slowly. If he has readied himself for the time-old accusations of despotism, then he has not prepared himself in the case that his eldest Yaksha would be dragged into it.

“I’ve studied the legends of how you recruited Alatus, my Lord. They always depict it as a romantic story, how you freed this demon and purified him, but under you, didn’t he just trade his old chains for golden ones?”

Xiao stops noticing how the other Yaksha react. He can only taste the dryness in his mouth, and see the slight startle in his Lord’s expression. He wants to open his mouth, but his body won’t obey him.

“I see,” the Archon murmurs, and he holds a hand up, signaling to his Yaksha not to move, even as the energy in this room unbalances wildly, to the point where the ceramics begin to shake.

Rex Lapis sounds nearly sad, and this is finally enough to move Xiao at last, especially knowing that the other Adepti will not speak in his place.

“You’re wrong,” Xiao says, only able to get out the first words on his mind. “You…Get your head out of those books.”

One of the gorgeous vases tip over. Fragments shatter across the floor; this king must not value his life. “Which part is wrong then?” he muses. “Is it the part where a God requests a former slave to work for him for another millenium, not even a year after he was released? Before he could even see the world and what it had to offer? Before this God made his proposal, was he aware that the slave had never known anything else?”

Xiao’s polearm materializes into his hand at lightning speed, and the air crackles with Anemo energy. He steps forward, slamming his spear against the king’s neck, harshly denting the chair he rests in. The human chokes, and maybe Xiao hit a little too hard, maybe Xiao went so far as to break his contract and kill a human, but he can’t bring himself to care at this moment. “Don’t call me that,” he replies, venomously. “I’m not a slave. If my old master suppressed my free will, he didn’t erase it. It’s not as if I never knew what freedom was, so don’t you dare use my suffering like that!”

His hands shake as he shouts, though it’s all for nothing. The human has passed out minutes ago. The room goes quiet. And he feels a hand on his arm, knowing it to belong to his Archon.

When Xiao turns around, Rex Lapis hugs him, his arms wrapping around and squeezing the Yaksha’s shoulders. He blinks.

“I’m sorry, Xiao,” Rex Lapis says.

Xiao thinks of how he and his lord only ever touch like this when one is in pain. Like the day the Archon had picked up Alatus from off the battlefield, his breathing heavy enough that the Yaksha could feel it as they moved together, or whenever Rex Lapis loses one more friend, and Xiao’s so afraid that the god will calcify if nobody moves him that he does it himself.

It could mean that they are always there for each other, or that they are never there until one of them is ready to fall off the edge.

His old god had told him that when people said love is a need, they were wrong, because clearly both they and Xiao were still alive, weren’t they?

Yet his Lord’s arms against the back of his neck nearly feel like something he doesn’t want to live without. For the first time in his life, Xiao feels heat rise up to his face, coloring it a warm hue.

But he never thought that blood would feel good. And for once, having a body does too.

Five years later, which is enough time for Rex Lapis to meet much better rulers and sufficiently lay more mountains down, and as the Archons continue to dwindle in number, Xiao and the other Yaksha experience the strange thing that is human worship.

He has seen parades before, but not many parades as intense as this one. The city Rex Lapis shows them is painted red and green and gold, there’s enough hot food to go around that it’s being sold, and the families in the street are smiling: grandeur created out of prosperity, not greed.

They also installed a giant statue of Morax near one of their main roads, and to be sincere, Xiao thought it looked pretty stupid at first. For example, in the hands of that statue, he sees the meteorite that Rex Lapis rains down onto the earth to ruin his opponents being held like a piece of fruit.

There are no statues for the Yaksha, but the people bow deep when, in rare instances, they appear. Xiao finds himself with arms crossed constantly, rubbing his pale sleeve, unsure of what stance to take on all these adoring, fragile humans. They call him things he’s never been called before, like “short” or “pretty”. But the one that sticks with him is “hero”.

The first thing Rex Lapis does right before the celebration is giving each of the Yaksha a big bag of coins. “These were given to us as offerings. It would be disrespectful to refuse their thanks,” he tells them, before Xiao can even process that this is money.

“But My Lord,” Indarias mutters. “What are we supposed to do with this?”

Rex Lapis’ mouth flicks up into a smile. It’s like he was waiting for us to ask him this, Xiao thinks somewhat dryly, this Archon. “I’ll show you what I spent my portion on, if you wish.”

So he opens his bag and shows his Yaksha five necklaces of precious rock, all of them individual but seemingly of the same creator. He shakes the bag and they hit against each other lightly, the clear sound of real jade ringing in Xiao’s ears.

“They’re beautiful,” Xiao admires.

Rex Lapis beams at him. “Then, come here, Xiao.” The Yaksha obeys, then blinks as Rex Lapis pulls it over his head.

“I’ll admit, I was thinking of you five when I bought them, but you don’t have to wear it, of course. I think my neck is long enough for five, either way.”

Menogias laughs. “Oh no, please don’t do that. We’ll take them… Thank you, my Lord.” Xiao touches the stone; the weight on his chest feeling oddly comfortable.

“Actually, if I may ask,” Menogias then continues, when they notice that besides the jewelry, Rex Lapis’ bag is totally empty. “If you spent all your offerings already, then what else did you buy? Surely five necklaces, even jade, can’t be that expensive.”

Their Archon rubs his mouth thoughtfully. “Oh, Menogias. Yes the necklaces weren’t even half of what I had… But I gave the rest to the vendor anyway, since I had such respect for their sincere and remarkable craftsmanship.”

He then begins to launch into a lecture about exactly why the craftsmanship was so excellent, but Xiao interrupts him, gawking. “What…? You gave that all away, my Lord?”

He gets a grave look in return. “Do you remember what I said when we first met, Xiao? Sometimes we do things that are not optimal, simply to exercise our own values and freedoms.”

Bonanus snickers quietly, and Xiao brings his heel down on the other’s foot when Rex Lapis looks away, distracted for a moment.

That day, Rex Lapis also informs the Yaksha that in the evening, they will all be attending a banquet that the human governors of this city have arranged in their honor. Convening with mortals is never at the top of Xiao’s preferred activities, though he’s at more ease this time, with the knowledge that the rulers here have a good track record.

Xiao watches as Rex Lapis ascends the palace steps before the rest of them do, the lanterns close to him illuminating his figure. He walks side by side with Guizhong, who is also a guest of honor.

The Yaksha finds himself fixated on the way the golden light bounces off Morax’s shoulders. Centuries ago, Xiao and the other Yaksha swore to live, fight, and die all under their Lord’s shadow, and centuries later, nothing has changed or, for a matter of fact, can change. He knows that this time, Rex Lapis can invite him and his comrades up the stairway of this ephemeral castle, but when judgement day comes, no matter how Rex Lapis calls for Xiao, he won’t be able to follow.

That’s fine though, because if Rex Lapis calls his name, tells him to come even when he cannot, it means that he died for a purpose, a fate reserved for what must be the luckiest of humans. He loves everything about this man: how great he is, what a kind heart he possesses, the way he laughs at stupid things but ceaselessly takes care of his friends and, most of all--- how he also gave Xiao a reason to love even himself.

“We would never forgive ourselves if you came to believe that we only saw you as performers,” one of the governors tells them earnestly, “but we would love to see a demonstration or two of the Yaksha’s combat capacities tonight.”

Bonanus is up for it, of course. And certainly, with appreciation of the kind welcome given to the five, the Yaksha don’t quite take offense to the request. Xiao is aware of the fact that their Celestia-endowed powers are fascinating to humans, and their apparent immortality even more so.

“Thank you so much, Adeptus Bonanus,” the governor says with a bow. But then he turns to Xiao and smiles at him lightly. “Forgive my boldness, though I actually also had you in mind, Adeptus Xiao. I heard that you can defy gravity, and that would be a once in a lifetime sight.”

The thought of jumping around for humans embarrasses Xiao, but he supposes he can go through it once, if only because without these human sponsors, Rex Lapis wouldn’t have had the chance to buy the necklaces for the Yaksha.

“All right,” Xiao allows. Bosacius nudges him, a little surprised, and the governor bows again in gratitude.

This means he and Bonanus don’t join the others when they sit down to eat, much to Rex Lapis’ surprise, whose eyes keep searching for them even as he’s told to wait for their arrival.

There is a decently sized stage affixed to the dining area through a hollow, red partition carved with squares and flowers. Xiao watches the servants serve food and the court orchestra prepare their instruments; the latter will give him his cue to jump from where he’s hidden behind a pillar fixture. As he ascends there, he can no longer keep his eye on Rex Lapis. Bonanus, who performs second, is still in his sight though, and he grins up at Xiao.

When the zithers at last begin to play. Xiao throws his polearm out, allowing it to cartwheel through the air. And then, the audience gasps as he jumps.

Here, now, he quickly reminds himself, he is supposed to manifest in his elemental form, fighting the pull of the earth. Yet for reasons he can’t fully explain to himself, he never does, and his vision, normally flaring, remains dull. Instead, Xiao simply allows himself to fall… without falling, as wings rip from his back and then carry him easily to the ground.

“Alatus, the Golden-Winged King!” a voice cheers. He now remembers a time when that had been his name. Indeed, feathers of gold spin around him, glowing like pieces of the Milky Way.

The first thing Bonanus does after the dinner is get drunk off the alcohol the young attendees offer him, spellbound by Adeptus' supernatural abilities. Xiao, on the other hand, escapes to the pavilion with his Lord, who watches Bonanus with equal parts fondness and amusement from this distance.

“Ah,” he says, suddenly. “If you want to go drink with Bonanus and the others, I won’t be hurt. I don’t have anything too important to say to you anyway.”

“It’s fine.” He raises an eyebrow as a young man, likewise intoxicated, tries to convince Bonanus to take him as a trainee. “I’d rather not engage with that scene.”

Rex Lapis snorts. “You’re always so distant with humans. I worry you might get a little lonely someday.”

Xiao shakes his head. “If I want company, I’ll seek it. For example, if what you wanted to say isn’t very important, I’d still like to hear it.”

“Hm, all I was going to say was that it was an excellent performance. You surprised even me, and I thought I knew more about you than anyone else, Alatus.”

I didn’t know that about myself either, Morax, he humors replying, but he only says, “Thank you.”

They don’t say anything for a while. The wood boards under them creak slightly as other attendees traverse this long, roofed maze as well, the humidity of summer air succeeding in deterring no one.

“I know it was five years ago,” Rex Lapis begins out of nowhere, keeping his voice purposely low. “But I’ve thought about it a lot, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” Xiao frowns, looking up to see his Archon closing his eyes.

Then a pair of friends walk past them, getting a little too close, so Rex Lapis lowers his head a little as to speak directly into Xiao’s ear. The Yaksha accordingly leans upward to meet him halfway.

And when Rex Lapis begins to speak, it’s as if all the details of this awful, beautiful world suddenly make themselves known to the Adeptus. He can see every firefly in the far distance, he is too aware of the way the stuttering wooden planks push against his heeled boots, every breath feeling cool as it leaves his mouth, and he simply is stupefied by the fact that at this moment he is living, existing, prevailing. When Rex Lapis’ voice reaches his ear, he can’t erase the image of flowers and vines blooming from in between them, twisting and trapping them in an immortal scenery.

“I wonder now and then, if that human was right,” Rex Lapis whispers. “If I really just put you right back into a prison, regardless if you agreed or not.”

“Don’t worry about something like that, my Lord. All Yaksha serve in the end, and I never wanted any master besides you.” Xiao squeezes his own arms lightly.

The Archon notices his movement, and he sets his hand on his liege’s shoulder. “That makes me happy to hear. Thank you, Xiao. But for the things you did undergo for my sake… I wish there was an easy way to make it up to you.”

“You’re forgiven. You made sacrifices too, didn’t you? That was what our agreement was.”

“Right, the contract,” Rex Lapis murmurs, sounding slightly distant. Though, along with that, Xiao thinks he can hear what might even be a vulnerability in his Lord’s voice. Perhaps a lowering of his guard, and an invitation of a sort.

There is nothing else Xiao wants more on Teyvat in this already fading flutter of time than to turn to Rex Lapis and just see how he looks, to know just what kind of expression he wears when he sounds the farthest from Celestia that he’s ever sounded to Xiao. All it takes is a turn of the head, but then---

A large explosion sounds in the distance. Xiao’s eyes widen, and he quickly summons his weapon. “The enemies must have somehow followed us here,” he growls.

“I see.” Rex Lapis turns away. “Then I will---”

“I’ll take care of it, my Lord. It can’t be more than a battalion or two.” They both know one Yaksha is more than enough for that, yet the Geo Archon still seems uncertain. When he finally looks at Xiao though, he blinks, surprised to find the Yaksha smiling lightly at him.

Xiao then waves his hand over his face, mask materializing, obscuring the rare expression. “Enjoy the night without me,” he says. “We can speak later.”

Maybe Xiao takes off so willingly because that’s simply animal nature, when confronted with unfamiliar situations. But more likely, he simply had something to protect, and was reminded of it once more tonight.

Back then though, there were so many things he hadn’t realized. He just didn’t know, couldn’t have known, that it had been one of those moments that would never recur, even if they did speak later, because sometimes fate has no chorus.

The Yaksha and his Lord would never have such a night again. Perhaps the problem with living a few thousand years became that one may forget how an immense quantity of time does not erase the transience that permeates within every vein of this world. So Alatus took for granted that this was the closest they had ever gotten, not realizing it was the closest they would ever get.

And he will never be able to forget that it was at least in part the victory’s fault. A hundred years later, Rex Lapis stands triumphant over the land he helped mould, becoming the Geo Archon of Liyue, a god and ruler alike. Then the Yaksha go with him to hell, to fight ghosts for a thousand years. But it is nothing like the battles that they know.

Because first Bonanus died, though even that isn’t the end. The Yaksha lose quite literally everything: their friends, their family, and after time, their lives. Well, Alatus and Bosacius remain, but then they lose their bodies too, as the malevolent energy of the demons literally rewrites their composition. And maybe Xiao is used to having a disgusting body, but he hadn’t quite had someone open up his soul and stain it likewise. The feeling is intolerable, and he just can’t describe it, even as Rex Lapis holds the sides of his head and asks him what exactly is wrong, and if something can be done.

Nothing can. He simply doesn’t see the world the same way anymore. Though to the rest of the world Xiao changed, to him, it was as if the entire world altered itself irreparably, draped with constant cruelty and misery, darkening his heart. The things that used to bother him little now aggravate him endlessly: fickle humans and their ignorance for one, and, even more so, the unbreachable, growing distance between his Archon, now the Archon, and himself, nothing but a deity forgotten.

The latter situation is only exacerbated by the fact that now only he and Bosacius are left, because even Rex Lapis, now a semi-monarch, has his work cut out for him as he builds a new country. Even the bitterest side of Xiao doesn’t desire his Lord to slack on his new duties just to be better company for his old soldiers. If Liyue fails, then what did they all fight for? What did they lose everything for?

It makes Xiao feel like some outdated machine, however, as the Adepti slowly become more and more useless.

And one night, as his now habitual bitterness gets the better of him, he breaks his routine of waiting for Rex Lapis while the Archon meets with the humans who help him rule at Liyue Harbor, his new right hand men much better suited for politics than a spirit who has only ever known how to fight. Xiao skirts past modest restaurants, night lanterns, and the scaffolding of new developments. He paces past the citizens of Liyue Harbor who know him and know what he lost for them, but don’t know how to repay the debt, and will one day forget anyway.

He finds a tree just beyond the edges of the city and leans his back against it. Before he realizes it, he’s falling asleep, his head rolling down onto his shoulder, eyes slowly closing.

But some soft hand catches his shoulder. And a young woman with jet black hair and warm eyes smiles at him and says:

“You look tired, Adeptus Xiao. Come take a break at my house.”

He agrees to it because for a while he thought he just wanted somebody.

They come back to his residence and go through a few bottles of alcohol together. She grabs the Adeptus’ forearm and grips it hard, and Xiao can tell from the way her nails begin to turn purple that his poisoned soul is hurting her. Yet he has lost his ability to care.

It’s pitiful of him honestly, that Alatus, who has always retreated from the presence of humans, who has spent dozens of eras all alone and been fine with only himself, misses being looked at so much that he’ll try it from a mortal, somebody he doesn’t even know. It’s as if once he learned what affection was, once he allowed Menogias to throw their arm over his shoulder and Indarias to cradle his head in their arms as he laid wounded, something inside of him snapped and told him that this silly thing he had never cared for before and dismissed for all his life was now as necessary as his very heartbeat.

She leans over him, and it’s when she begins to run her hands through Xiao’s hair that Xiao flinches, nausea coming up from within him. As she stops, he suddenly notices something, eyes widening at a tattoo that she has on her upper arm.

“Your tattoo,” he says roughly, grabbing the other’s wrists to stop her motions. “It’s the symbol of Rex Lapis.”

She laughs lightly. “Please don’t mind that. It was from a more foolish time.”

“Foolish?” he repeats, because he finds it ironic coming out of the mouth of someone who might insult his Lord directly to him, even if their relationship had changed. Or it must be the alcohol.

She hums. “Yes. Of course we all are grateful for the peace… but one day I realized that nothing separates Rex Lapis from the thousands of Archons he killed except for the fact that he came out on top.”

“And I heard,” She continues, trailing a finger along his collar, “That the Yaksha do all the dirty work for him. You suffer and die but he doesn’t lift a finger.”

The temperature drops a few degrees around them, and she frowns. Xiao shoves her off his lap and scowls. “I don’t need you to take my side,” he says coldly, though even in the moment he knows he’s being unfair; it’s likely that she was just being honest about her own perceptions. But he hates it so much, his own darkest thoughts mirrored back at him through her tongue--- a reminder of how his anger over the fact that all of this was supposed to be considered a victory was building up in him and blurring the once sacred image he held of his Archon.

Because he knows it’s not true. He knows that even if his Lord didn’t fight pestilence for as long as the Adepti did, he was fighting other monstrosities, many far worse. Like when Rex Lapis stood beside his best friend, Guizhong, as the sea monster attacked Liyue, calling upon the heavens to purge it, only to hold Guizhong as she lay dying in his arms a few years later. The Geo Archon has waded through the cadavers of his enemies, certainly, but he has also waded through his own corpses and graves, his used forms discarded after disfiguration. And Xiao will never forget the night his Lord let a city of starving humans eat him form after form, so desperate things became after a siege, and none of the Adepti could bear to see it back then, covering their eyes with their sleeves...

Xiao slams the door and leaves, drunk and confused and upset with his confusion. All the while, the back of his mind tells him he’s no better than he was before the day Morax saved him, when he could never trust his own actions and defended so vigorously the honor of a great God to whom he was little more than a tool.

The woman wakes up with no memory of the event, and as for the Yaksha, he doesn’t set foot in Liyue Harbor for another few hundred years.

The paddies of Qingce Village and the way the sky will match the crops in bursts of orange and yellow every evening bring Xiao back to a time when fire and smoke, not fertile growth, painted the landscape in such a manner. And when the sun is extraordinarily golden and at the right angle come dawn, light flashes off the water and makes the fields shine like glass. The reflection of farmers will catch the Yaksha’s eyes, their carrying poles slanted across their shoulders, returning to their large houses shielding their large families from the sticky heat.

Yes, this country that Morax has created, it’s something extraordinarily beautiful. Almost half a century has flown by since the last war on Liyueen land, and if hilicurls or the like come too close to the settlements filled with humans that Rex Lapis has come to love, then the guardian Yaksha will put on his mask again, and kill for those who are still pure.

One day, after burning through a hilicurl camp that stationed itself at an uncomfortable proximity to Qingce Village, Xiao finds among the ashes a beat up doll, its red clothes stained brown by the mud. The Adeptus squeezes the old toy lightly, about to throw it aside when he realizes that elemental traces from one of the samacurls lingers on it. He follows the faint trail and finds himself closer and closer to human settlements. It ends right at a bridge which connects a farm to a stone shrine littered with the remnants of red firecrackers, a sign of ancestor worship.

A little girl stands at the edge, looking down towards the slowly shifting river. She turns to Xiao when he approaches, though he doesn’t set foot on the bridge she’s on. He has long decided to never again cross the boundary and lose himself in the world of mortals, even if Lord “Zhongli” entertains himself so. But against his expectations, she grins and runs towards him, the wind pushing her choppy brown bangs aside. Xiao steps back reflexively and drops the doll on the floor, hoping she will stop there and not pursue him.

She picks up the doll and brushes its hair lovingly. “Oh, you brought her back. She’s so dirty, but thank you,” she says.

Xiao doesn’t reply. The girl watches him for a while, before firmly sticking her arm out, inviting him to… perhaps take her hand.

“I’ll tell everyone an Adeptus brought her back. But they won’t believe me if you don’t come with me.”

The Yaksha crosses his arms. “I can’t come with you, human. Go home now.” She seems upset at that, but she doesn’t give up.

“Can I see your necklace?” she suddenly asks. “It’s beautiful.”

He sighs. “No.” And normally he would leave it at that, then leave, but something compels him to tell her: “It’s important to me.”

“Oh, I understand. Then if you lose your necklace, I’ll find it for you, because you found my things for me.”

He dissipates while watching her continue to fumble with her doll, her fingers entangled in its hair, trying to straighten out the knots that can no longer be straightened.

As Xiao walks past the shrines honoring the past fathers and mothers of the farmers, he thinks about his own Lord, the one who made him likewise. The truth is, over the past centuries, he hasn’t spoken with Zhongli at all. At first, Zhongli is so busy with the Qixing that Xiao doesn’t dare to bother the other, yet even as the workload lightens slightly when the Qixing get on their own feet, the Archon never seeks him out. And maybe it’s a form of self punishment, that Xiao won’t allow himself to contact his Lord first.

Then, Bosacius disappears, and he and Zhongli still don’t talk. Zhongli travels Teyvat with humans, he gets to know the mortal side of Liyue like the back of his hand, all while Xiao keeps away, knowing that his body is so saturated with the remnants of the demons he’s absorbed into himself that if he reaches out and takes Little Luo’s hand, he could very well end her life.

So he finds himself envious of the torn up doll lying in her palm. And he realizes painfully in this moment that it’s true: that he had never owned his own body, so he has never known how to own his own body. And even when Rex Lapis offered him freedom millenia ago, all he ever let himself be was a tool, a puppet, and a doll, never knowing how to think, what do I want, but now he is loved even less than one. At least people come back for their playthings, but no one will come back for these miserable Yaksha, who lost their present to their past.

He likes to think that it’s both their faults, that he let Zhongli slip out of his fingers and that Zhongli let Xiao do the same. It’s so clear to him now; though Alatus claimed long ago to be better than those admirers who stand at the edges of his Lord’s world, vowing that he wouldn’t allow someone who was so close to him leave his grasp, the truth was that he never really got any close to his Lord than they did, and their pathetic state was equal parts his.

So what was the point of it all? That the day Alatus was saved, his hopes and expectations changed, but the nature of the world never did, and at the end of the day, neither did he? It wasn’t even a story worth telling.

Verr Goldet leans over the counter and tilts her head at him, smiling faintly. Wangshu Inn has been rather quiet since the stairs broke, and the low traffic is unfortunate for business, but it means that the ones who stay nonetheless get a sight of the Yaksha now and then. “This isn’t the first ghost you’ve brought here, Adeptus Xiao,” she says.

“Take care of her.”

“Mm, okay. Make yourself at home too.”

Next to him, Dusky Ming looks around the room curiously. Verr Goldet comes out from behind the reception and kneels down besides her, much to the child’s delight. He watches the woman humor Dusky Ming in a way he never could, simply because his coldness is hardly a front, rather an honest expression of who he has become. Unfeeling, removed, but no longer suffering as much as he used to either.

He is simply here.

“Have you spoken with Rex Lapis lately?” Verr Goldet asks out of the blue, looking up at him and, ah, how he regrets more each passing day that night he got wasted and rambled to her about how much he missed his Archon.

“Don’t dream of it,” he says, and in a shocking display of indifference to his status perhaps only someone from outside of Liyue, who didn’t grow up with stories about the fearsome Yaksha and the worlds they raised and fell, would dare, she rolls her eyes at him.

“So you’re simply not ever going to talk to him? I thought it was clear that if he hasn’t in half a century,” she murmurs, “then he’s not going to change anytime soon and make the first move.”

Xiao huffs at that. “That means he doesn’t wish to talk to me. Let’s speak of this no longer.”

“No, no.” She shakes her head vigorously. “You don’t understand, Adeptus Xiao. Some people… simply can’t take a hint. Maybe he’s not talking to you because you also haven’t said a word to him in half a century, and you’re both idiots.”

“He is my superior. He calls on me.”

“That’s a poor excuse,” she insists, and when she sees that he’s ignoring her, goes up to him and ruffles his hair.

If it had been anyone else he would have vanished on the spot, but he allows her to, simply glaring and shoving her arm away a moment later. “As I said, I don’t want to discuss this anymore. And I no longer care for Rex Lapis as much as I used to.”

After all, Rex Lapis is only one Archon, one golden light amongst several, and Zhongli is just a human.

“You--- fine. That’s fair enough, Xiao, but take this into consideration at least.” Verr Goldet turns to him and looks him straight in the eye with the determined look of a mother.

“Immortals like you have a lot of time. But as far as I can tell, the biggest problem with immortality might just be forgetting how much time you don’t have.”

“Enough,” says Xiao, annoyed.

Intoxicated, Xiao stumbles through the landscape of Liyue acutely aware of just how little he cares about the time he doesn’t have.

Well, Xiao doesn’t hurt anymore. He doesn’t consider himself, who fought to his bone for thousands of years, weak enough for that. He doesn’t care about being forgotten, he doesn’t care about his past, he’s too dignified to be brought down by a broken heart, he doesn’t feel anything anymore, and he doesn’t even care if he’s alive.

He finds himself in a clearing lined by pines, and a great waterfall towers nearby, its crescendo drowning out the bugs that buzz at night, and in his muddled dizziness, he lets out his great wings and jumps into the pool of water, briefly sinking before he comes afloat.

Two thoughts spin in his head. It’s amazing how strong you’ve become, that you don’t care about anybody or anything else anymore. It’s the freedom he has always longed for. But he also thinks, This is so sad, Alatus, this isn’t what life is about.

No, life isn’t about not getting hurt. But then what is it about? Is it about flying for a brief time, living a short respite, before reverting back into the person who can’t escape, the fate you were born into? Is it about hoping you would be one of the lucky ones, when the conditions you entered the world into already sealed you from that fate?

He floats a little too close to the waterfall, and it crashes down onto his face. Xiao sputters and wipes his face with his drenched gloves, kicking at the fish who swim between his legs.

Oh if he were Verr Goldet, he would tell himself to stop this stupidity now, and that he has to care. And that if it hurts, it will hurt, and that this ruined soul is his and his alone, even if it shouldn’t be, even if someone should have to share this awful burden of his. That it’s okay if this is all he will ever be: a protagonist who couldn’t break free even at the end of the story, who at night shuts down motionless on the beds of Wangshu Inn, because he’s not even someone who misses who he used to be, he was never anybody.

Though how is Alatus supposed to feel again, if he wants to? He doesn’t know. And if he does feel again, won’t he just be as miserable as before, as that night in Liyue Harbor, willing to pretend some unknown figure was someone he missed?

But he really did love his Lord, and under these cold waves that bite his feathers he can’t pretend that he never did, or that it was just a childish misunderstanding. He had let Zhongli rewrite his name even when he was nothing and that had become something worth living for. And perhaps he was never a person, but when his Archon held him and told him that he was admired, Alatus had felt closer than he had ever gotten.

He just has to remember those nights, those feelings.

Because even if he can no longer rely on an unrequited love, he has to let himself rely on someone.

Things have to change, Xiao finally admits to himself, burying his face in his hands until the messenger pigeon he summons reaches him. Like that, he sends a message to Rex Lapis, asking him to come.

His master meets Alatus at the peaks that tower over Liyue’s travertine springs, and they stand by each other’s side somewhat awkwardly, per anticipated. Xiao has never seen this form of his master before, though it’s nothing he wouldn’t have expected either.

Zhongli looks at Xiao for a long time, feels the way the demonic energy still claws up from under the Yaksha’s skin, and closes his eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s been a while. I had begun to think you were wanting to be free from my company, after so long.”

“If I did, I would have left the way Bosacius did,” he replies. It’s a cruel and unjust implication, and Zhongli winces, but the Yaksha doesn’t take it back.

“Do you blame me, Alatus?”

Xiao shakes his head. It can’t be Rex Lapis’ fault when this is simply how they were always like: never there for each other in such a personal way, give the day one of them is about to die. Maybe even now, it’s no different.

Though for a second, Zhongli looks sincerely uncertain. He rubs his own jaw, some kind of shyness on his countenance, and it’s such a rare side of someone as composed, if ridiculous at times, as the Geo Archon, that it endears Xiao.

“I see. I ask for your forgiveness anyway. You are my oldest friend, and I…” He doesn’t finish his sentence.

“Look at me, my Lord.” And when he does, Xiao smiles at him faintly, in the honest way that reaches his eyes.

Zhongli exhales quietly, sounding relieved. This small gesture is enough to let Xiao know that as it turns out, his Archon did and still does care, that he does want Xiao’s approval, no matter how obsolete the Adepti have become. Xiao takes the information in calmly, pretending like this memory isn’t special, and won’t leave a brand.

But it will, and it’ll keep him alive for another hundred years, at least.

Over a thousand years ago, while he watched drunk Bonanus lift up young nobles in their arms, accidentally wrinkling the expensive clothes with their hands, Rex Lapis stood alone with his oldest friend and his first Yaksha, Alatus. And the god couldn't quite hide his disappointment after his companion insisted on volunteering himself to be the one to clear the intrusion, parting from the celebration early. As he watched Xiao leave, his shoulders drooping slightly, Bosacius walked over and pat their Lord’s back.

“You look almost miserable to be spending the night with us instead of him,” Bosacius teased quietly, but of course the implications weren't fully understood by Morax.

“Nothing of that sort,” the Archon replied, though as he saw Xiao run towards the invaders with his sleeve whipped up by the wind, sailing like his wings, Morax thought of freedom, and hoped that Alatus had at last found some form of it here.

Freedom, however, is intangible by nature. It even occured somewhat offhandedly to Morax that were he truly free himself, in the most innocent, purest sense of the word, he would take off and run with Alatus, to wherever he and the rest of the Yaksha would like to go. Forget the war and the routes they must take and the hardships they cannot refuse… what about the human things they all want, like peace, and a home?

But Morax was not a human. He was a god who understood that as people die for him, his visions became no longer his own but theirs as well, and that he had no choice but to hold on his shoulders all their hopes, forfeiting selfish, absolute liberty in pursuit of the world he wished to create. He understood that all he could ever do to make it up to them, those who he allowed to sacrifice themselves, was to win the war and, tired as he may become, continue on carrying those dreams.

For one day, when he is gone, Morax will carry with him Xiao’s dreams as well.