Zhongli licks at his paw. It’s more a reflex, a primal urge, than the actual need. If anything, he doesn’t particularly like the feeling of fur on his tongue, but it can’t be helped.
“Hu Tao will kill me,” Xiangling breathes. Her gaze darts between Zhongli and the soup she prepared – the one which transformed Zhongli into a feline creature. Xiangling, Xinyan, Xingqiu and him are standing in the kitchen of Wangshu Inn, musing over their failed experiment of recreating an ancient dish Xingqiu has found.
“Oh, come on.” Xinyan pats her shoulder. “I think this is super cool! Food which turns you into a cat! You’ve surpassed yourself here!”
Zhongli points at the bowl of soup, glaring at Xinyan, trying to dare her to take a sip herself if this was so ‘super cool’. Of course she just laughs it off and pretends she doesn’t understand what Zhongli obviously means with his gesture. Instead, she picks him up and-
He starts to purr when her skilled fingers stroke him under his chin.
“See? He seems to enjoy it.” Xinyan offers Xiangling a reassuring smile before she turns to Xingqiu. “For now, Hu Tao doesn’t need to know we turned her colleague into a cat. Let’s figure out how to undo this. That weird recipe book of yours should have some clues.”
Xingqiu nods, skimming through the pages of the ancient cookbook. “Yes, maybe it wears off in a few hours. Let’s have a closer look.”
Their decision is simple. While Zhongli may stroll around as a cat, they will research how to revert these changes. After five hours, they will meet again for dinner and share their results.
“I’m sorry this happened to you.” Xiangling pats his head. He snuggles his head against her palm to accept her apology and even if it’s just a little, the corners of her lips lift up.
If Zhongli is honest, his day doesn’t change too much as a cat. Usually he takes strolls, enjoys flowers and listens to the singsong of birds. As a cat it’s even easier to sniff at flowers. He doesn’t need to bend down very far; most of the flowers are now exactly at the height of his face. Furthermore, it’s exceptionally enjoyable to just lie down in the sun and to stretch his limbs without a worry on his mind.
He wasn’t so sure if he could really leave Xiangling alone. Out of the three of them, she seemed the most… panicked about his situation which is kind of her. But after thousands of years of life experience and changing from one form to another, becoming a cat isn’t so much of an issue – of course she doesn’t know as much. He tried to follow her around for just a little while, but soon enough Xinyan shooed him away to try out his new body.
So here he is, taking walks around Wangshu Inn, staring at guests until they bow down to pat him and stroke his fur. In truth, being a cat isn’t so different from being a god. People seem to love them, revere their agility and enjoy bowing down to treat them well. Some even offer food – some leftovers of the dishes they ordered at the inn.
It really isn’t bad to be a cat.
Another nice aspect is that people don’t care where he goes. He can stroll around anywhere – on trees, in nearby streams to play with reeds, on rooftops. His paws guide him to the rooftop of the inn where he dozes off in the warm afternoon sun.
When he wakes, he isn’t alone. A hand glides through the fur between his ears, carefully scratching him so he starts to purr again. It’s no stranger. The dark boots and the purple pants. Zhongli turns around to see Xiao sitting on the rooftop with him. He likely hasn’t recognized him. The adeptus is usually quite shy around him, thoughtful in his approach and keeping a respectful distance between the two of them. Now he easily bridges the distance and cards his hands through Zhongli’s fur.
“I haven’t seen you here before,” he says. Xiao reaches for Zhongli’s petite body and lifts him into his lap. “Since when are you here?”
Well, since today. Zhongli mewls in response, unsure if Xiao can understand.
“Hmm. You need to be careful. Some cats here fight over leftovers. It can get quite rough.”
Zhongli nods, licks at his hand as a sign of gratitude for his advice. It is nice to listen to him, to listen to the care in his voice. He’s usually so adamant on his position below Zhongli – even after he retired as a god. He insists on his contract and is so very serious in their interactions. Lying here on his lap, Zhongli feels closer to him than he has felt in the past millennia.
Which is sad.
As a god he mustn’t play favorites but as a human Zhongli sure has hoped Xiao would forget about their past ranks. He knows that thousands of years are not easy to gloss over but seeing Xiao still keeping his distance not only to him but to all the people who sincerely love him pains him.
He snuggles closer to the adeptus, closing his eyes to enjoy the new-found closeness.
They spend a while together just like this. Zhongli sitting on Xiao’s lap, purring so much that he wonders if this new organ of his can suffer from overuse. The rhythm of Xiao’s strokes is slow and languid. As if he has all the time in the world to caress a cat. He deserves as much.
It’s when the sun stands low, throwing long shadows behind them, that Zhongli decides he needs to head back to Xiangling and the others. He nudges Xiao’s stomach one last time before he strides away, every step as silent as the flap of a butterfly.
“I found nothing,” Xiangling whines. “The effects of slime secretions and energy nectar aren’t able to neutralize the soup.” She rakes her hand over her face.
“I’ve read the book more carefully.” Xiangling throws Xingqiu a hopeful glance at which he turns to Xinyan. “The way I understand it, the effects of the soup aren’t reversible by taking in an antidote. There is no antidote to speak of.”
“You mean he’s stuck in this cat body forever?” Xinyan crosses her arms in front of her chest, glancing over to Zhongli.
Zhongli treads over the table. If he still had his gnosis this would be easy, but even so there is no such thing as an irreversible spell. Surely, Madame Ping can help in this situation. Her knowledge should encompass such a trivial matter like turning into a cat. However, how can he communicate this to the three of them. And how can he help Xiangling to not lose her head?
Said girl walks up and down in the kitchen, groaning so loud that Yanxiao, the chef, walks into the kitchen to check on them. He chides them for letting a cat walk on the table but leaves once everyone affirms that there’s nothing wrong.
“We need to let Hu Tao know,” Xiangling finally says with slouched shoulders. “She’ll wonder where her employee is.”
“You’re right…” Xingqiu leans against the table. “Let’s head to Liyue Harbor tomorrow morning.”
Zhongli nods. Once they’re in Liyue Harbor, it should be easy to approach Madame Ping. He can even go to her by himself.
The three of them feed him some chicken before they decide to get some rest
It’s late in the night when Zhongli wakes up, hearing panting somewhere in the darkness. It sounds like someone is in pain based on the heavy breaths and whines. He… has a guess at who it is.
He follows the sound, leaving Xingqiu’s room to sneak through the hallways of the inn.
The hallway is empty except for him. Everyone is already in their room, sleeping deep and sound. His paws lead him to the balcony where Xiao holds onto the railing, buries his face in his palm as he writhes, fighting to keep his ghosts at bay.
It’s been long since he saw Xiao like this. The yaksha never liked Zhongli to see this side of him, always enduring more than he should. It was never part of their contract for him to shoulder this on his own. With quick steps, Zhongli sprints towards Xiao, circling his legs before he jumps onto the railing and then onto his shoulder to nudge his head against Xiao’s cheek.
Xiao’s fingers claw into his fur, so different from the gentle strokes in the warm afternoon sun. His shoulders still shake; his breath is ragged and too, too fast. Zhongli mewls to pull him out of the thoughts consuming him but still Xiao gasps and his grip tightens, so Zhongli can feel the pain, share it. And this much he can endure.
He mewls again, jumping off his shoulder. If he’s not mistaken, he still has some Qingxin flowers and a bit of medicine to calm his mind in his bag. He nudges Xiao one last time before he runs off to Xingqiu’s room.
There’s no time to lose. His sprint echoes through the hallway; an annoyed grunt rings from a room. He knows, it’s rude of him to disturb the silence of the night but Xiao comes first.
He runs back with the flowers and medicine, halts in his step when he enters the balcony.
Xiao sits on the ground now, knees drawn close to his chest. His breathing is even – still shaky but even. It’s not the only thing which has changed. A… tune floats through the air, so very thin that it feels like it will evaporate any moment. It’s the sound of a flute. Nothing too special if Zhongli is honest, though it seems to calm Xiao’s heart. Zhongli tilts his head as he approaches Xiao. If he had known music would ease his mind, he would have played guzheng to Xiao.
He steps closer, pawing at his knee. When Xiao finally looks up, he places the Qingxin in front of his feet.
“It’s you.” His voice is breathy. A far cry from the strong yaksha who has conquered the evils of this land. “Is this for me?” He picks up the Qingxin, twirling the flower by its stem between his fingers. “Thank you…”
A smile blooms on his face. So faint, it might be as translucent as the petals of the flower in his hand. He lowers his knees and pats it, so Zhongli can jump back on his lap.
“Did I scare you?” He cards his fingers through Zhongli’s fur.
Zhongli shakes his head even if it isn’t quite the truth. He’s always known that the corruption which has infiltrated him is violent, but to see it with his own eyes and to see how little he can help… His negligence is inexcusable.
“I am sometimes scared.” He lifts Zhongli’s torso up to look him in the eye. It’s been so long since he saw these golden orbs, capturing the distant light of the stars above them. Though, his beautiful eyes are tainted by the shadows of his worries as his face is pulled into a frown. Zhongli paws at his face. If only he could tell him that he doesn’t need to be scared. But Xiao’s eyes grow dim. “I have hurt too many. Their hatred lives in my heart.” He raises the Qingxin, placing It behind Zhongli’s ear. “You might have only hurt a few mice.”
“But I carry the wrath of beings you might have never seen and will hopefully never face.”
Zhongli doesn’t know how to react other than staring at Xiao.
“I like this kind of flower.” He points at the Qingxin then pokes Zhongli’s nose.
It’s no wonder. Zhongli averts his gaze. For someone whose heart is as troubled as Xiao’s, the properties of Qingxin are a tiny contribution to ease one’s mind.
Qing – clear; like the waters before Liyue harbor, like the air high up in the sky.
Xin – heart; the beating of a loving and caring heart, no matter human, adeptus or god.
These heart-clearing flowers are indeed precious, only growing where barely any human sets their foot. In altitudes which allows for adepti and god to search for reprieve from the human world.
They sit there in companionable silence. The moon isn’t full but shines bright, nonetheless. There is still the sound of the flute in the distance and Xiao hums along, not quite hitting every note but beautiful in its own right.
“What do you think of this music?”
Zhongli mewls as non-committal as possible.
Xiao snickers. A sound Zhongli rarely ever hears. “I… know a person who doesn’t enjoy this music either.” His voice is low, calm, something… melancholic seems to swing in it. “I wished he liked it. I… would love to dance to the sound of this flute.”
Zhongli tilts his head. There is nothing holding him back from dancing right here, right now.
“I want to dance with him.”
“You” – Hu Tao huffs – “turned my employee into a cat?”
They’re back in Liyue harbor, Zhongli sitting in Xiangling’s arms, glaring daggers at Hu Tao who has subpar empathetic skills even compared to himself who still has a long way to go when it comes to deciphering emotions.
While Hu Tao tries to bribe the recipe out of Xiangling, Zhongli’s mind travels back to the prior night. To Xiao who sincerely wishes to dance with another person to this music which apparently the drunken bard conjures when the amount of alcohol hasn’t knocked out his senses. Who is this person Xiao wants to dance with anyway? How come Zhongli never knew?
Zhongli shakes his head. Too much distance has separated them. He needs to return to his human form and talk to Xiao.
With ease he hops out of Xiangling’s arms and dashes off to search for Madame Ping, ignoring the shouts of protest, to find her in the corner of a square, fanning some air into her face while watching the people sauntering over the plaza.
As soon as he approaches her, she lifts her gaze, gifting him her warm smile. “Hello, old friend.”
It’s no surprise she recognizes him, too long has been their history, longer than with any of the adepti. He greets her with a mewl, allowing her to rake her fingers through his fur like so many before her.
“Since when do you adorn this form, my friend? It suits you well.”
“I see, I see.” She huffs out a laugh before she lifts him up to inspect him closer. Her eyes might be old but haven’t lost their cleverness. She cards through his fur, looks at his paws, even tugs out a whisker at which Zhongli grits his teeth to not hiss.
“Oh, dear friend, there is no remedy for this but one.” She puts on a grimace, looking earnestly troubled which sends a shiver down Zhongli’s spine. As long as there is a remedy, he’ll be fine. Though, her expression isn’t reassuring at all.
“Love is the only cure for this.”
Love? He meows. There isn’t much that can compare to his love for Liyue, even less that can compare to Liyue’s love for their god Rex Lapis. If it is only this, he will return to his prior form in no time, won’t he?
“You are but a fool.” Madame Ping shakes her head. “While you still try to understand those around you, their feelings evade your grasp. Maybe this is a lesson. By whom I don’t know.”
There is always a time for riddles and codes, however, right now is surely not the right moment for such. He paws at her arm to coax more information out of her. He might have given up godhood but who would dare to teach him a lesson? But Madame Ping turns around, shies away from answering. His attempts are to no avail even when he tries to purr and snuggle against her; her heart has closed off, ignoring his attempts at deception.
He still needs to train his feline allure. It is not an easy skill to learn.
“There you are!” Suddenly two hands grab his torso, pulling him up. When he whips his head around, Xinyan glares at him. “Gee, you can’t just run away! We’re worried about you, you clown.”
So much for his prior godhood. In the eyes of humans, he is nothing more than an artist for delightful entertainment. It’s a compliment, is it not?
Xinyan apologizes to Madame Ping for the disturbance, claiming Zhongli was her lost cat before she drags him back to the others. Once they reach the funeral parlor, he’s served some catnips accompanied by more glares.
“We decided, you will go back to Wangshu Inn with me,” Xinyan explains. “Liyue harbor is too big and like you just demonstrated who knows where to find you once you’re lost.”
Xingqiu massages his temple. “Before we know it, a carriage runs over you.”
Zhongli tries not to snort at this. It would make for an interesting story: Several thousand-year-old god who emerged victorious during the archon war, knocked down by a cart full of cabbages.
How strong is his feline body actually? Maybe he should…
“Don’t do anything reckless before we find a solution,” Xiangling pleads, clasping her hands together. “My image as a master chef is ruined if you don’t come back alive.”
Of course. He hasn’t thought this far yet. The mere fact that her dish brought him into such a state could be quite a predicament for her. After all, it’s not the first time she tends to be experimental with her dishes. It isn’t rare for her to face guests with extraordinary food which is eyed with suspicion. So far, nobody suffered at her hands per se. Zhongli might be the first to find himself in such an… unconventional situation.
In the end he decides to nod at her. Who is Zhongli to ruin the promising future of one of Liyue’s citizens?
“You’re back.” Xiao bows down to him as he peers around the corner with a plate full of almond tofu in his mouth. He places it in his hands before he jumps onto his free arm.
Three weeks have passed and Xingqiu, Xiangling and Xinyan have taken turns to look after him at Wangshu Inn. Though, if he is honest, he spends most of his time with Xiao; this rare chance to be near him is one of the things which are worth the hassle of being a cat.
In truth there isn’t much of a hassle to be a cat. He has liberties to do things which humans have not. For instance, he can easily acquire food without Mora. Just looking at the ever-smiling Yanxiao with his big cat eyes which he has practiced to perfection during the course of the past weeks, earns him enough food to sustain himself. Receiving some almond tofu is a nice extra which he, of course, all too willingly shares with Xiao.
If there is something he wishes to part with, it would be the inconvenient fact of vomiting hairballs. Once he spat such a pesky thing in front of Xiao’s feet. The next moment he couldn’t help but curl up into a ball and hide his eyes. He didn’t mean to insult Xiao, but luckily, he didn’t take it to heart and patted his head, asking him if he felt fine.
The chance to be near Xiao, for sure, is one of the greatest gifts. His smile is as precious as cor lapis, rarer than the sight of violetgrass at the steep slopes of Liyue’s chasms. Whenever he finds the time, he searches for Qingxin flowers to gift him. Once he even tries to play guzheng for him, but his claws threatened to snap the strings and he pushed this task off into the future. With human hands he will be able to elicit far more soothing tunes out of the instrument.
It is fine like this. Xiao always carries this small smile on his lips when he pats him, and Zhongli always makes sure to snuggle his head against the adeptus.
As time passes Xiao begins to tell him more about himself, about his thoughts, even about his feelings. He shares insights with him which he didn’t know before. Tiny bits and pieces which Zhongli never knew.
There is no pride in knowing someone for thousand years and not knowing that they prefer winters out of all seasons, enjoy how snow covers earth in a white blanket, calming the world around them. He never dared to ask him about his memories of eating dreams, too cautious to not awake urges which might be difficult to stifle.
Dreams are like clouds if warm and nurturing. Almond tofu melts on his tongue in a similar way.
“I once ate a dream…” Xiao gazes into the distance, focusing on nothing. “It wasn’t sweet.”
Zhongli looks up at him. Xiao always seemed to let his mind wander far away when he started to share unpleasant memories.
“It was the last dream I ate.” His fingers ruffle between Zhongli’s ears. “Morax saved me during the Archon War… He saved me, but he also lost a dear friend.”
Zhongli stirs in his position. Her name doesn’t need to fall; he’ll still feel the pain of the loss. Though, Xiao was not at fault for her downfall. It shouldn’t be named in one breath with his release.
“Morax is strong. Stronger than any creature I’ve ever faced.” A thin smile tugs at his lips. “Though, his heart might be weaker than mine. After he lost his friend, he was plagued by nightmares. They plagued him for centuries, savage and brutal. Experiencing this kind of pain once was more than enough. Experiencing it again and again and again… He tried to flee south. Guili Plains were lost to him.” His gaze falls to the tiles of the roof on which they sit.
Zhongli barely remembers these nightmares, long forgotten when his memory is always so violently clear. He can still recall the moment her eyelids fell shut; the moment her hand slipped out of his grasp. But those dreams are hazy and only now he knows why.
All of this, he never knew before.
Ignorance is cruel.
Xiao’s words linger in Zhongli’s mind. He ate his nightmare and fought as his yaksha. So many have succumbed to the darkness. How Xiao is able to withstand…
Zhongli has failed him.
He has done so much more than their contract ever demanded of him. Never was he supposed to carry such burdens. Never was he supposed to be so lonely because of him.
It is this loneliness in Xiao’s eyes which Zhongli hates to see, which causes his heart to clench and his body to bend into himself.
He forsook godhood to learn what a god could never know. He gave up on incomprehensible power to learn about the divinity of those who persevere when everything is at their odds.
He wanted to know of the things Guizhong saw in their people. Of these emotions which are so brittle and fleeting, so difficult to grasp.
Does Xiao share these feelings?
Zhongli once again sits on the rooftop of Wangshu Inn, listening to the distant tune of a flute. Autumn has crept into Liyue, turning leaves as golden as Xiao’s eyes. Once night falls, the air is cool but refreshing. He stretches his limbs. Occasionally his ear twitches when a sound disturbs the song.
Like an owl hooting far, far away. Another cat chasing a mouse. The scratch of feet against grass.
The last one doesn’t fit. Zhongli peers over the edge of the roof, gazing down to find the source of this sound.
A lithe figure dances over the meadow, like a feather, soft and graceful. The movements are swift, precise, piercing in their clarity.
Of course it is him, though he dances alone instead of with the person he wants to dance with. Zhongli ducks his head. He still doesn’t know who it is Xiao wants to dance with. Maybe one of the adepti… Or someone who is no longer…
No. He mustn’t let such thoughts cross his mind. Zhongli shakes his head. He jumps down the rooftop onto the balcony and sprints down the stairs of the inn.
When he approaches Xiao, he is still dancing. Like a fairy in his dreams, like Qingxin on the summit of a mountain. He treads around him matching his steps, not half as skilled as how Xiao controls his body but trying so, so hard to meet him where he is alone.
He tries to ignore how ridiculous it must look, a cat jumping around in the grass while Xiao dances so peerlessly.
At some point Xiao lifts him up, raises him by his torso, swirls him around so dizzyingly fast that the world around them seems to merge into a whirlwind while Xiao and he are at its center.
Xiao deserves happiness more than anyone in this world. He shall dance with-
A heaviness overcomes him. Xiao whelps beneath him, suddenly pressed against the grass, gazing up at him with eyes torn so wide Zhongli sees himself in them.
He sees his human face.
Zhongli scurries away to look down at himself, at his arms, at his legs, curling his fingers and stretching them next. He coughs, hacks, turns away to spit out hair in his mouth.
He whips his head around to gaze at Xiao whose eyes are still so, so wide. A certain redness creeps into his cheeks as he tries to avert his eyes but darts back at him as if to confirm that it’s really him who appeared. Xiao rushes to his feet, taking steps backward.
There it is. This distance…
It doesn’t have to be like this.
“Xiao,” he says, unsure where to begin. With Xiao or with himself, with his dreams, their dreams, or this dance. “I’m sorry it’s just me who offers you this dance.” He rises to his feet, too. It wasn’t part of his plan to transform back to his human form… He hasn’t planned too much at all. “If you-” He bites his lip, casting his eyes to the ground. Would Xiao want to dance with him if he’s at the very center of all of his grief?
A gentle breeze rustles the crisp autumn leaves, nearly rendering Xiao’s steps silent as his feet guide him away. One step after another, each step away from Zhongli.
The wind stops and no sound is to be heard. When Zhongli looks up again, Xiao is still there, eyes turned towards the stars above them.
“Do you remember everything I said?” Xiao doesn’t look at him, doesn’t move at all.
His gaze glides to the ground, over the meadow, but Zhongli can’t see the expression on his face. “I’m sorry I ate your dream… I promised to… I broke our contract.”
Is this what he worries about? Zhongli draws his brows together. “No, I should be grateful; you helped me.”
“I…” Xiao takes a few more steps away, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “I always wanted to dance with you.”
“With me?” Zhongli stares at the back of Xiao’s head. Something feels heavy in his heart. Why did he never tell him?
“With you.” Xiao turns around to face him. “Just once.”
The night grows colder. Another breeze wanders over the meadow. Xiao’s eyes fixate on the ground. He looked so much happier when he talked to him as a cat. But his wish is so simple, so easy to grant. Isn’t Zhongli missing something? If it is only a dance…
Zhongli reaches out his hand. “Will you dance with me again?”
Xiao’s gaze shoots up, surprise written on his face.
All Zhongli can offer is a silent nod.
Xiao stares at his hand as if it is a trap. It takes a while for him before he comes closer and lets his hand glide into his palm.
Zhongli allows him to guide them over the meadow, steps suddenly slow and careful, unsure of how to handle Zhongli in his human form when he approaches his feline form with so much ease. How come there is this distance between them? Why didn’t he look for Xiao sooner?
He pulls Xiao closer, catches the surprise in his eyes. Their dance is faster now, slower than when Xiao danced alone. Their steps fall into a rhythm, their fingers curl around each other. Xiao is light on his feet, easily swirling in his arms. Why didn’t he ask earlier? Their dance is a gift, one which Zhongli so readily would have given him centuries ago.
How much else is kept hidden beneath the yaksha’s mask? He gazes down at Xiao, at the crown of his hair, sees his lashes kissing his cheeks as he closes his eyes. Xiao presses his cheek against his chest, trusts Zhongli to lead the way.
They can be close. There is no gap they cannot bridge.
“We can dance every night.” The words escape his lips before he thought them, but they are meant to be said, meant to be shared. Xiao nods against his chest, pressing tighter, closer as if to destroy the distance of past centuries.
Their dance ends in an embrace. It’s been too long since the last time.
Xiao peers up at him, a languid smile on his lips.
Zhongli smiles back. “Let’s adopt a cat together.”