Xiao first notices it at one of his and Zhongli’s regular lunch meetings.
“Is that a limited edition copy of The Abyss?”
Sipping his coffee, Zhongli glances down at the book in question. It sits in the middle of their table, perched between his plate of artisan sandwiches and Xiao’s double-stacked bacon burger. The intricate carvings on the cover look out of place on the diner’s old, wooden tables.
“Ah, yes, it is,” Zhongli replies simply, as if no further explanation is needed.
Xiao thinks otherwise.
“Zhongli,” he continues, voice serious, “that book is ridiculously expensive.”
Again, Zhongli nods. The price should come as no surprise to Zhongli given how he’s talked Xiao’s ear off for the last three months about it. His favorite author, K. Alberich, had released several limited editions of his works as a way to commemorate his ten years of publication. And like any dedicated fan, Zhongli wanted nothing more than to get his hands on a copy of his own.
Of course, however, with limited amounts being printed, the prices were way above what Zhongli’s graduate student salary could afford. So, Xiao had thought he had simply given up on his ambitions.
“Yes, K. Alberich has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, so the demand for his books has gone up significantly. To have one of my own feels surreal.”
Yeah, no kidding, thinks Xiao. He’s just wondering how Zhongli managed to pay for it.
He voices his confusion, then, and of all the ways he expects Zhongli to react, he hadn’t quite predicted this.
Because Zhongli is blushing.
Xiao is baffled.
Zhongli reaches for the book and places it firmly on his lap. His hands run along the ribs of its spine as he responds to his lunchmate. “It was a gift from a friend.”
The answer does nothing to quell Xiao’s curiosity. First of all, what friend? Other than he and Guizhong, Xiao doesn’t know of anyone else Zhongli is particularly close with. Secondly, what kind of person buys their ‘friend’ a 100,000 Mora book? Xiao has known Zhongli for years and he can’t even fathom spending that much on a gift. The holidays weren’t even around the corner!
“What friend?” Xiao asks because he has to get to the bottom of this.
Zhongli slips the book back into his bag. It’s getting close to their next class time. “His name is Ajax. He is a junior of mine.”
Xiao pauses. Did Zhongli just say Ajax? As in the multipurpose powder cleaner? As in the bottle Xiao has sitting under his bathroom vanity?
“Hold on a second, Zhongli—” Xiao tries again, ready to fire off more questions about this ‘Ajax’ person. Zhongli apparently has other ideas.
“Oh, no,” Zhongli exclaims, looking down at his watch, a gift he and Guizhong had got him several years ago. The old thing was in need of replacement soon. Zhongli gathers his coat in his hands and drops a handful of Mora on the table, stepping away from Xiao’s probing interrogation. Xiao watches on, mouth still open. “I’ve forgotten I promised a professor I would come in early to help him set up for our thesis presentations,” Zhongli urgently laments. “Do forgive me for leaving so suddenly.”
Xiao only nods. “No,” he finds his voice again, “it’s okay, go ahead.”
Smiling down at his longtime friend, Zhongli waves his goodbye and is quickly out the door.
Left alone, Xiao has nothing but his thoughts to entertain him.
He can’t get over the name since he’s never heard of it being used for a person before. Especially in Liyue, of all places.
Xiao’s eyes widen as he comes to a startling realization.
Could it be that Zhongli was making this Ajax person up? Was he using them as an alibi to cover up his exorbitant purchases?
Oh, my God. Did Zhongli have a shopping problem?
This could not be good.
The next time he sees Zhongli is at another one of their weekly lunch meetings. With both of them being in their last year of graduate school, finding time to hang out with one another is few and far between. That’s why they cherish what little time they can spend together.
It’s also the reason why Xiao hasn’t brought up Ajax again.
After surfing the web and compiling research on how to stage an intervention, Xiao has decided on gathering more evidence. After all, maybe the book was just a one-time occurrence? He doesn’t want to ruin what little time they have to catch up by accusing Zhongli of being a shopaholic.
Besides, from across the table at the crêperie they’ve decided to set up shop in, Zhongli doesn’t look like he’s made any more ridiculous purchases.
Xiao remains cautious anyway.
It’s one of those days where neither of them really talk, most of their time being taken up by whatever assignments they have due soon. The life of a graduate student is truly just work, eat, sleep, and repeat. However, they find working in each other’s presence to be a nice change of pace.
They stay like this for awhile and Xiao doesn’t realize how much time has passed until he reaches for the last bite of his banana-nut crêpe. He glances at Zhongli’s plate and finds that the other has also finished his meal.
“Hey, Zhongli, can you tell me what time it is? My phone died and I have class at two this afternoon.”
Zhongli looks up from where he’d been transcribing one of his lectures and nods. “Of course, Xiao. Rest assured, I would not let you miss class.”
Unlike most people of the twenty-first century, Zhongli does not reach for his phone to check the time. Instead, he rolls up the sleeve of his cashmere sweater and checks the time on his brand-new, silver Rolex watch.
Yep. Just Zhongli things.
Xiao promptly chokes.
“Xiao?!” Zhongli turns to his friend, eyes wide with worry. “Are you okay? Do you need water?”
What Xiao needs is an explanation. When he manages to catch his breath again, the first thing to leave his mouth is a question. “Zhongli, is that a Rolex watch?”
Zhongli, still preoccupied with his friend’s safety, glances down at his wrist. “Rolex? I am unfamiliar with the brand.”
Of course he is.
“It is a stunning watch, nonetheless,” Zhongli adds, fingers trailing the watch-face.
Yeah, because it costs a semester’s worth of tuition, Xiao internally screams.
“What happened to the watch Guizhong and I gave you?” Xiao asks, smile forced onto pursed lips. He’s not angry at the idea of the watch being replaced — that was bound to happen. What he is a little miffed about is just how expensive its replacement is.
Zhongli holds his arms up defensively, waving them back and forth in negation. “Do not worry, Xiao. The watch is safe back at my apartment. However, since this one was also a gift, I thought I could alternate between the two, don’t you think?”
Ah, there it is. That word again—
“Gift?” Xiao repeats.
Zhongli nods. “Yes, I received it from—”
“Let me guess,” Xiao cuts him off. At being interrupted, Zhongli tilts his head in confusion. “You got it from Ajax?”
At the mention of the name, Zhongli positively beams. He probably thinks he has Xiao so fooled, doesn’t he?
“Yes, how did you know?”
Xiao huffs out a sarcastic laugh. “Just a guess.”
That night, he decides to make a phone call.
“Thank you for calling Northland Bank, how may I help you this evening?”
“Hello, my name is Zhongli and I would like a list of my purchases in the past three months.”
The operator hums in response. “Certainly, sir. May I have your account number?”
Xiao gulps. He hadn’t thought this far. “Uh, I do not have it on me at the moment,” he supplies lamely, hoping that would be enough to convince the Northland Bank representative.
The operator is less than amused. “Sir, without an account number I cannot help you.”
“Please call back when you have the appropriate documentation. Thank you and have a nice night.”
The resulting beep is loud in the dark of his room.
Xiao could handle the book. It was something Zhongli had wanted for months, so maybe he had been saving up for it.
He could also handle the Rolex, as crazy as that sounds. Rolexes are often cheaper if you buy them used, and, heck, maybe it wasn’t even a real Rolex to begin with. Xiao is deeply aware of the market for brand-name dupes, just ask the ‘designer’ Fischl shoes he’s currently sporting.
What he can’t handle is the brand new Sunsettia laptop Zhongli is pulling out of his bag, clumsy as ever with any form of new technology.
Xiao stares at the scene in front of him in shock. Noticing his stares, Zhongli lets out a sheepish chuckle. “This will take some getting used to,” the older man jokes.
Zhongli fires up the laptop and struggles with the touchbar at the top of the keyboard. When inputting his password, Zhongli manages to erase it twice, accidentally inputting it in all-caps a third time.
It hurts Xiao to watch.
He can’t stay quiet any longer.
“Listen, Zhongli, before you tell me this is another gift from Ajax, I need you to—”
“Zhongli?” A new voice calls from somewhere behind Xiao, cutting him off mid-speech. Annoyed by the beginning stages of Zhongli’s intervention being interrupted, Xiao whirls around to find the source of the voice.
At the door stands a man taller than Xiao — easily most people — and Zhongli, orange hair swept in a messy but stylish hairstyle. His eyes take on the shape of crescents as he smiles at something behind Xiao, and when he opens them, Xiao notices they are an unfamiliar shade of blue.
Well, that’s none of his business, Xiao thinks as he turns to face Zhongli again. He’s trying to remember where exactly he left off in his interrogation when he notices that Zhongli is no longer paying attention to him.
Instead, his eyes are focused on the door, where the strange redhead is standing. Not only that, but Zhongli appears to be glowing with joy.
“Ajax,” he says through a soft smile.
Confused, Xiao watches as the man at the door approaches their table, quickly taking up the seat next to Zhongli. Xiao is about to protest the rude entrance when he is left speechless by the man planting a long kiss on the surface of Zhongli’s lips.
His friend shyly reciprocates the kiss, and when he moves to pull back, Zhongli is donning the most crimson blush Xiao has ever seen.
“Ajax, at least give me some warning first,” Zhongli berates.
The man — Ajax, apparently — chuckles. “I’m sorry, Zhongli. You just looked so cute.”
Ah. So, Ajax does exist.
Released from whatever trance this Ajax person had placed him under, Zhongli notices Xiao’s stunned silence. The crimson of his cheeks only grows brighter.
“Oh, Xiao! I’m sorry you had to see that,” Zhongli apologizes profusely, Ajax looking the least bit guilty. In fact, Xiao can see the beginnings of a smirk on his face. “I believe I mentioned Ajax at one of our previous meetings? Though I may have only introduced him as a friend, he is my boyfriend now...” Zhongli trails off, sheepish.
The man beside Zhongli offers out his hand. “Ajax. Nice to meet you, Xiao, Zhongli has told me lots about you.”
Xiao takes the offered hand and shakes it weakly, still processing. “Likewise,” he says.
Well, at least Zhongli wasn’t actually a shopaholic, right?
“And, so, that’s what happened,” Xiao recounts over the phone.
The person on the other end of the line lets out a breathy laugh, and although it may be aimed at him, Xiao does not find himself bothered by it. The laugh reminds him of wind chimes on a breezy, summer day.
“I can’t believe you thought Zhongli made a person up,” Venti says through his giggles. “Zhongli is smart, but he’s not that smart.”
“Yeah, well, maybe if you were here instead of Mondstadt, you could have told me that,” Xiao rebuts petulantly.
Venti coos. “Aw, is this your way of asking me to move in with you, Xiao?”
It’s a joke, Xiao knows it is, but for some reason he finds himself thinking seriously about it. So much so, he must have remained silent on the line for longer than normal.
“Xiao...?” Venti sing-songs. He knows Xiao wouldn’t actually hang up on him without at least saying goodbye first.
Finally, Xiao responds. “Yes,” he says.
“Yes, what?” Venti replies, confused.
“Yes, I am asking you to move in with me.”
Xiao swears he can hear Venti squeal all the way from Mondstadt.
“Babe,” Ajax calls out to Zhongli from the living room, Xiao’s phone in his hands.
“Yes, Ajax?” Zhongli replies as he finishes brewing himself a cup of tea.
“Why does Xiao have me saved as ‘Bathroom Cleaner’ on his phone?”
Approaching the other on the couch, Zhongli squints as Ajax shows him the screen of his friend’s phone. Lo and behold, his boyfriend is saved as something other than his name.
“That is odd,” Zhongli muses. “I have already told Xiao you were the heir to Northland Bank, so I do not know why he would think you are a bathroom cleaner. How clumsy of him.”