“Bamboo truly is one of the most versatile plants around,” Zhongli finishes. “Although I don’t suppose much of this has ever mattered to you.”
“It doesn’t,” Xiao says, and immediately internally flinches at the curt tone of his words. If someone besides Venti were to speak to Zhongli this way, Xiao would scold them. Even if they don’t know his true identity, who could look at this man and give him anything but their utmost deference?
Zhongli smirks at nothing. Xiao glances at him out of the side of his eye, baffled. After realizing what kind of look he just gave the god that gave him purpose, he casts his eyes to the ground. Is this disrespect another thing he’s picked up from Venti — a kind of incredulous attitude that’s eroded his sense of respect to dust? Though he knows that Venti would go father than just a look. Venti would laugh and clap Zhongli’s back, maybe. Insult him fondly, grin and giggle when Zhongli insulted him back.
Xiao could never be that open with anyone but Venti, the sheer disrespect of the action aside.
They stand a little ways away from Smiley Yanxiao. He’s engrossed in his cooking, a sheen of sweat coating his skin as he flips food inside a massive wok. Xiao is careful to keep his distance when Smiley Yanxiao turns. Hu Tao is technically human, but any frequent traveler between the planes of existence has no need to fear Xiao’s own corruption. And even if it came for her mind and wormed its way under her skin, she’d laugh and beat her way back to life.
Smiley Yanxiao has no such protection. Xiao is glad to let Zhongli take the lead when he finally turns around and grunts at them. Zhongli recites all of their orders, then adds an order of almond tofu.
“Everything but the tofu will take thirty minutes,” Smiley Yanxiao says.
Zhongli raises an eyebrow. “Will it take longer?”
“Boss has me keep it in stock,” he explains, casting a brief glance at Xiao. “You can take it now, if you want.”
Another pair of eyes fall on Xiao. He resists the urge to turn away and try to shield himself from that gaze. “I’ll take it later,” Xiao says.
Smiley Yanxiao nods and returns back to the stove. He moves around the kitchen with practiced ease, swiping ingredients off the shelves without a single moment of hesitation crowding his limbs. He’s a skilled human.
“Shall we find somewhere to wait?” Zhongli asks.
Xiao dips his head. He leads Zhongli back to the small table where he used to take his meals, in the world before he truly knew Venti. They don’t come down here often. Venti prefers to take his meals outside. If he must eat inside, he prefers the privacy of either of their rooms.
Venti has radically transformed this place. If the loop ever were to break, Xiao could never look at a single wooden frame in the same way. To the people all around them, nothing at all has shifted. To them, a young foreigner stays a single night at this inn. He used to leave, before he started paying for another day to keep his room past noon. Sometimes the adeptus that claims this inn as a space to rest will trail after him like a lingering shadow. They don’t understand the history.
Zhongli doesn’t, either. It wounds Xiao to know this. He used to think Zhongli could solve anything. Rex Lapis could raise forests of stones with a single toss of his spear. A sentence from him could shift the country’s entire direction.
But Rex Lapis is dead. Not gone — his influence will forever influence Liyue, and his soul and mind sits in front of Xiao — but Liyue is a land without a god to guide it.
“You seem tired, Xiao. Are you resting enough?”
“Adepti do not need rest,” Xiao says, quick enough to be a reflex.
“That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t rest,” Zhongli says. “Do you still have the medicine I gave you the last time we met? If not, I can procure more.”
He offers this every time Xiao sees him. It takes three days just to brew. It’s easier to misdirect. “I ration it carefully,” Xiao says. “You do not need to worry.”
Usually, that works. Zhongli will back off, and then he’ll allow Xiao to explain just why Xiao has sought him out. He’ll listen, grave and serious, and try to offer whatever help he can. If Venti is there, sometimes standing close enough that Xiao can feel a ghost of warmth from Venti’s body heat on his bare skin, sometimes with their hands clasped tightly together as if desperate to keep Xiao close, then Zhongli will often blame Venti for harassing Xiao.
Venti could never harass Xiao. He lied, yes, and he left Xiao so broken and hopeless that the screams of dying gods were a welcome distraction from the black stone of his own heart, but Xiao has always been desperate to revolve around him. How could he ever be a bother? Venti is a god. He’s more than that, too. Loving and bright and kind. A comforting breeze on a hot day, a whisper of wind to encourage Xiao to keep moving forward.
Xiao is just a weapon. One whose wielder put his weapon down and sought out a life of peace and quiet.
“Hu Tao told me about this loop you and Venti are trapped in. I apologize for not being aware of it sooner. The god of time tended to avoid Liyue. I barely knew her. I wish I knew her better. Maybe then I could assist you.”
Zhongli has killed him before, not that Zhongli remembers. Not that it did anything. Xiao has never told Venti as much, but he suspects Venti must know. Maybe that’s why he would cling just a little closer whenever they went to find him afterwards.
Zhongli has never found pleasure in doing it. But he understands what kinds of sacrifices must often be made. He summoned the yakshas himself, even if he didn’t fully foresee the ending all but one would eventually meet.
Zhongli once called Xiao’s end inevitable. If Venti heard that, just how would he react?
Xiao shakes his head. “There is nothing to apologize for. I believe Venti and I are trapped here by her grudge. She felt betrayed by Venti, and with my karmic debt, I was susceptible to her magic.”
Zhongli hums. Xiao doesn’t know how to decipher the sound. His fists clench involuntarily; he shoves them under the table before Zhongli can see.
“Hu Tao had mentioned something similar, though she reached a slightly different conclusion.”
“Oh?” Xiao asks, though he doesn’t see how theorizing could help anything. They’ve gone this long without finding anything. For as confident and as happy as Hu Tao may be, they’ve been stuck here for so long. He had let himself hope things might be different in the first couple loops after they arrived.
That was a long time ago. Now, there is only this. No life left to greet them. No death to give him peace. It’s a comfort that Xiao gets to remain by Venti’s side.
But he’s never felt this worn down before.
“She said you seemed tired. Hopeless. I disagreed with her initially, but after seeing you now, I understand.”
Xiao bristles. “I’m sorry, my lord,” he says, refusing to meet Zhongli’s steady gaze. He fears what kind of disapproval might be there. He’d cut himself to pieces in penance just to avoid that.
“I am no longer your lord,” Zhongli says, as gently as a god who once tore apart immortals with his bare hands can be. “You are failing no one, Xiao. To persevere as long as you have is impressive enough.”
If it wasn’t for Venti, he would have given in long ago. Death comes for everyone eventually, whether gods or immortals. He has long since accepted this. Every day he’s lived past the first time his debt tried to claim him has been a gift he didn’t deserve, one he refused to waste.
He shouldn’t be here in the first place. He shouldn’t be here now. His karmic debt has always kept ties close to his limbs, threatening to cut him to pieces should he struggle too much. That was where his comrades fell. They let these grudges worm into their hearts. They took on divine hatred as their own. And when it poisoned their minds, they could no longer fight back.
Xiao is so tired of fighting. He’s never had any other choice. To put down his spear is to put down everything he lives for now. It would turn his back on his country, on his contract, on the gods that gave so much to save him when he was nothing.
“It isn’t enough,” Xiao says.
“On the contrary, it’s more than could ever be expected of anyone.” Zhongli says. He looks down at the table. Xiao knows that look. He gets to his feet, but Zhongli’s hand on his wrist stills him. “I am not in need of tea, Xiao. We can wait until our meal.”
Xiao sits back down.
“There is no such thing as eternity, Xiao. Not for humans. Not for adepti or gods. Anyone who believes otherwise deludes themselves. All things come to an end. Including your battle. You may be stronger than most, but even your strength is not endless.”
Xiao shakes his head. Some part of him shies away in fear of what this may mean. The life he lived before his old master captured him is unfathomable now. He has a dream, tucked away deep in his heart. One that Venti has teased out of him one conversation at a time.
He thinks it might be nice, to put down his spear and dance. To know that he wouldn’t have to pick it back up. It would be lovely for the screams to fade. To feel nothing but breath swirling in his lungs, shared by a precious person. To rest in Venti’s music, in his arms, in whatever connection outside of sheer convenience Xiao sometimes deludes himself into thinking exists between them.
But what would he do after? What value can he add to the world, if not for the evil he can take down with his spear?
Venti speaks of leaving Liyue often. If this loop ever breaks, Xiao isn’t sure if Venti would ever willingly return to Liyue again. The god of time, whatever she may have once felt towards the Anemo Archon, is nothing but immeasurably cruel for trapping the god of freedom within a cage.
Sometimes Xiao wonders what it would be like to leave with him. He’s seen Mondstadt now, but he’s never been any farther than that. Venti’s told him stories of Fontaine’s rivers and the ice crystals of Snezhaya hanging off dormant trees. There’s a sense of wonder in all of Venti’s words. It makes him want to see it himself.
But he’s scared. If tomorrow ever comes, it will take Venti to a place Xiao cannot follow. It will leave him in a hopeless battle.
A thought forms at the edge of his mind. He’s thought it before, even before the loop officially started. To speak it in front of Zhongli feels like a betrayal.
“There’s something on your mind, Xiao. What is it?” Zhongli asks.
Xiao bristles. He could never lie to his lord. Deception would be an even greater crime than the one he’s about to commit.
“I don’t want to keep fighting,” Xiao says. “I’m… tired.”
“Tired enough to give up?”
“No,” Xiao bites out, defensive even to his own ears. “I could never betray you like that.”
He didn’t mean to lie. He’s just… so, so tired.
“And yet I need to repeat myself. Xiao, you are not betraying your contract if you rest. You are not the only adeptus in this country. You’ve seen just what kind of might humans can wield when they conquered Osial, did you not?”
Xiao fights the urge to scramble away. There’s a torrent of emotions wrestling in his chest. He doesn’t know how to deal with any of them. There’s a fear that Liyue has left him behind. A fear that he’s outlived his usefulness. He wants to sleep, even if he’s never particularly liked the sensation. He wants to lay his head down and close his eyes and never have to deal with the agony of them opening ever again.
But he wants more than that. He wants to dance to Venti’s music. He wants Venti’s smile. He wants to be useful to someone again. He wants to see the lands outside Liyue, see the love that has left Venti to travel every part of the world. He wants tomorrow. He wants it to never come.
“I am... scared. In a way that I’ve never been scared before.”
Zhongli hums. The sound is sympathetic, comforting. “In autumn rain, the grasses rot and die,” he says, his voice lilting in a cadence that tells Xiao he’s reciting some kind of poem. Venti has mentioned a few times that Xiao has an interesting rhythm to some of his sentences, but he’s never cared for mortal poetry. Everything he knows, he knows from others: the yakshas of old, the few poems the adepti themselves wrote and were willing to share, or Rex Lapis himself.
“Below the steps, the jueming’s color is fresh. Full green stems cover the leaves like feathers, and countless flowers bloom like golden coins.”
“I… do not understand,” Xiao says.
“The cold wind, moaning, blows against you fiercely. I fear that soon you’ll find it hard to stand. Upstairs the scholar lets down his white hair. He faces the wind, breathes its fragrance, and weeps.”
His words make no more sense than before. If anything, they’re all the more confusing the more he says. “Why do you tell me this?” he asks.
“Hey there! Your food’s just about ready!” Smiley Yanxiao calls. “I’m packing it up now.”
Zhongli gets to his feet. “The magic of gods does not always work in straightforward ways,” Zhongli says. “Regardless of their own grudges, fallen gods are not the ones that walk these lands. We are.”
“...Yes,” Xiao says slowly, still not understanding what Zhongli wants him to know.
The man who looks down at him is not Zhongli as Liyue Harbor knows him. The man who works for a funeral parlor, who lets himself be bossed around by a couple of humans who have barely existed for two decades. A scholar that presumptuous fools dare to speak over, knowing that he would do nothing to correct them.
The being that looks down at him is his god, his once savior, who has long since grown past his need for Xiao but looks at him with something almost mistaken for warmth all the same. The being Xiao was eager to swear the rest of his nearly endless life to. “I know that the winds are bitter, Xiao. I hope that you will find a reason to face them regardless.”
Rex Lapis leaves. Zhongli returns. “Now, shall we gather the meal for our companions?”
Xiao follows after him, heavy with a realization just on the edge of dawning.
For so long, he’s suffered alone. No one else can fulfill his duty, or whatever part of it may remain. If Zhongli himself has said so, maybe… maybe it would be okay to follow Venti for a little longer. Maybe it would be okay to indulge in his dream, if Venti would be kind enough to help him.
He just doesn’t know how to ask.
At least he can understand what Zhongli meant about the god of time’s magic. Maybe this isn’t about her, not anymore. Maybe it’s about him.
Maybe it isn’t tied to his death. Maybe it’s tied to something far more terrifying than the blank space of the end.