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The restaurant bathroom smells of silk flower air freshener. A single toilet sits against the back wall and a plastic potted plant is placed upon the cabinet next to the sink. The area is clean, but Xiao has little desire to be within it.

The sink digs into Xiao’s back as he shifts uncomfortably. His hand remains within the hold of the student council president who dabs hydrogen peroxide onto Xiao’s split knuckles. When he reaches the deeper portion of the wound, a quiet hiss slips from Xiao’s lips.

“Sorry,” Zhongli murmurs, brown hair falling into his face as he remains focused on the task in front of him. Xiao wants to push the lock behind his ear, just to see if it’s as soft as it looks. “I’m almost done.”

“You’re wasting your time, student council president,” Xiao says dully as Zhongli plasters bandages with floral print over his wounds. “It’ll just happen again tomorrow—“

Zhongli’s hands still. Despite Xiao’s smaller hands, he cannot mimic the level of gentleness Zhongli displays. “Why do they target you?”

Because despite Xiao’s ability to defend himself, he cares so little that he’ll part with whatever the assailants want with little protest. “Easy pickings,” Xiao mutters. “Does it matter, Zhongli xuézhǎng?”

Fingers curl around his. Xiao looks up. If anything, Zhongli looks more motivated than ever. “Yes,” Zhongli insists. “Facing such experiences over and over again drains a person. Aren’t you tired of it?”

Xiao tugs his hands away. “You graduate in a few months, you have more pressing matters to worry about.”

A grimace crosses Zhongli’s face and Xiao feels bitter triumph. Then his face clears. “There is nothing more important than caring for someone who needs it. All other matters can wait,” he says firmly. Before Xiao can protest, Zhongli dips a spare towel into a bowl of warm water and wrings it. He looks back at Xiao with an expectant look.

Xiao allows himself a moment of weakness and lets Zhongli clean the blood off his face with gentle swipes. “Cold water is more effective at removing blood stains.”

“Would you prefer I use cold water?”

That’ll just take more time. Xiao twists his hands together and winces when it tugs at his wounds. “No,” he admits.

It earns him a quiet huff of laughter.

Xiao stands as soon as Zhongli turns towards the bowl of water again. “I don’t need any more help.” He takes a shaky step towards the hallway and then pauses, “Thank you.”

“Wait!” Zhongli calls, dunking the towel in the bowl and splattering water across the sink in his haste. Despite his better judgement, Xiao stops. “Wait, just—let me give you my number. Don’t feel pressured to use it, but if you ever need any help, be it college entrance exam preparation or just someone to talk to—it’ll give me some peace of mind.”

Xiao has no intentions on going to college. He doesn’t know why the student council president cares so much for a no-name student two years his junior.

And yet Xiao still pulls his phone out of his pocket and holds it out.

Zhongli’s eyes go wide, irises gleaming amber in the sun. “Ah,” he says, likely having thought he wouldn’t get this far. “Ah, wait, let me wash my hands,” he says and darts back towards the sink.

The rush of water and Zhongli’s rigorous scrubbing reach Xiao’s ears.

Xiao stills his tapping foot.

“Sorry,” Zhongli says when he returns. Xiao saw him dry his hands meticulously and passes over his phone, already open to the new contact screen.

Zhongli quickly fills in his information and returns it. He’s a lot more hesitant in pulling out his own phone.

Xiao silently extends his hand and Zhongli’s uncertainty falls away to a bright smile. Xiao averts his eyes and writes his own information down.

“Here,” he mumbles. “If you ever need anything…” he trails off.

Nonetheless, Zhongli catches his train of thought and his grin softens into something softer as he accepts his phone. “Thank you.”

Xiao nods once, tearing his eyes away from the dimple in Zhongli’s left cheek. He leaves the restroom and then the building. The granny who owns the restaurant calls behind him to take care, you hear me? But Xiao’s fingers still tingle where Zhongli had held them for a few fleeting moments and he forgets to answer.

He puts the encounter in the back of his mind when he’s halfway home. As he had said, Zhongli graduates in four months. The chances they’ll keep in contact near zero.

 

Two weeks later, Xiao sits opposite of Zhongli within a small cafe near their school, lotus flower crisps on a plate between them.

“I’m surprised you agreed,” Zhongli says with a pleased smile. He had tried to order half the menu a few minutes prior only to realize they didn’t have enough money between them. They settled on the crisps and tea. “But I’m glad you did. How have you been?”

Xiao frowns down at his bubble tea. He too doesn’t know why he agreed. “My wounds are healed. Those students don’t bother me as much anymore.” He’s made his martial arts background known with a few of the more daring students. The others know better now unless they want an aching bruise to the chest.

Zhongli’s smile grows proud. Xiao’s foolish heart thuds away in his chest.

 

And again, and again, Xiao finds himself trailing after Zhongli in the stationary shop, in the grocery store, in the nearby park, chasing the twinkle in Zhongli’s eyes.

 

But Xiao’s irrational thoughts rear their ugly heads after each outing: what if Zhongli gets injured in his inane agenda to protect Xiao? Xiao’s assailants aren’t so stupid to attack the student council president, but what if?

So Xiao fabricates excuses to each following request for a week, stomach churning with guilt. After that, he simply doesn’t respond to the texts.

After a month or two of silence, Zhongli apologizes for imposing and the texts stagnate to a picture or two a month of the landscape or birds that Zhongli had seen. Xiao does not respond in kind, but admires the less blurry ones.

When Zhongli graduates, he sends no further texts to Xiao. Good riddance, Xiao tells his stupidly forlorn heart.


In the brief moments Xiao lets himself imagine (undeservingly, delusionally) meeting Zhongli once more, he always conjures an image of a stereotypical high school reunion, in which he stands in an awkward trance while Zhongli makes polite talk, the wall of estrangement between them.

Green tea dripping off the golden-dyed (dyed!) tips of Zhongli’s hair onto his lavender dress shirt seems like something out of a fever dream. Same with the floating mug that bobs between their heads.

“That certainly is a poltergeist,” Zhongli muses from where he sits at one of the coffeeshop’s tables. Xiao has not heard his voice in sixteen years. Despite the tea that paints his shirt like watercolor, it sounds just as calm as it did in the restaurant bathroom. Perhaps a little more relaxed, a little more carefree.

Without a word, Xiao digs a handkerchief out of his pocket and passes it over.

“Thank you, Xiao xiānshēng.” Zhongli pats the tea off his face. The cloth stains green. “I’ll buy you another handkerchief,” Zhongli promises. He does not sweat the details of his marred shirt nor does he blame anyone for the accident.

Good, Xiao thinks. Compassionate, patient, lovely, Zhongli. A longing buried sixteen years ago unfurls once more in his chest.

“There’s no need,” Xiao deflects. “I have plenty more.” Chongyun’s return saves him from commenting on how the tea has also stained the tassel of Zhongli’s earring (earring! Sixteen year old Xiao would have lost his mind) or how a tiny bit of the drink clings to the junction between his jaw and neck.

“I’m very sorry,” Chongyun says, eyes wide as he passes Zhongli a towel. He has likely connected Zhongli the exorcist to Zhongli the most famous lawyer in Liyue.

Zhongli accepts the towel with a gracious smile.

Xiao doesn’t quite forgive Chongyun for deciding the strange energy between Xiao and Zhongli is above his payroll and for promptly deserting them. But he supposes it’s fair. If Xiao could flee from this situation, he would have done so three days ago when he accepted the case.

“Don’t worry about it—Chongyun, was it? These events are to be expected when dealing with a poltergeist,” Zhongli appeases as he dries his hair with the towel.

“Do you have a spare shirt, Zhongli xiānshēng? We have some in the back if you need one,” Chongyun offers, worrying at his lip.

Zhongli’s smile widens. Chongyun’s shoulders relax. Xiao knows that feeling very well. “Thank you, but I have spares in my room. I’ll go change quickly and we can continue the investigation.”

Chongyun whirls around to face Xiao. “Zhongli xiānshēng, please take Xiao xiānshēng back to your room with you.”

Xiao frowns on behalf of Zhongli and sits back down in his chair. “There’s no reason for that.”

“The poltergeist has never targeted a single person like that,” Chongyun insists, turning his pleading eyes towards Xiao. Do exorcists have some sort of weakness to Zhongli? Xiao certainly thinks so. “Even if Zhongli xiānshēng can take care of himself, I’d feel a lot better if you accompanied him. What do you think, Zhongli xiānshēng?”

Even before Zhongli opens his mouth, Xiao knows exactly what he’ll say, considering the amused set of his lips.

“I’ll also feel safer with Xiao xiānshēng, if he does not mind accompanying me?” Zhongli agrees. His eyes ask Xiao to play along.

With a sigh he does not mean, Xiao stands. “Let’s go, then.”

 

And so Xiao finds himself sitting at the edge of the desk chair in Zhongli’s Inn room, witness reports and timeline of events in hand.

The sound of the shower halts and after some shuffling, Zhongli exits the restroom donning a dark t-shirt and slacks. It’s the first time Xiao’s seen him in casual clothing. In Xiao’s objective opinion, there’s likely few styles Zhongli can’t pull off.

“Thank you for accompanying me,” Zhongli says again as he takes a seat on the bed, “I am sure it is awkward to see an old acquaintance after so long.”

“We have a task to complete,” Xiao refutes. “You’re the exorcist Verr Goldet hired from Liyue Harbor?”

“Yes,” Zhongli says.

“If my presence makes you uncomfortable—“

“Not at all,” Zhongli interjects with a frown. “I remember your tendency toward independence in high school. It is clear I am imposing here.”

Xiao stares. Sixteen years have passed. Why does Zhongli remember such inconsequential information?

“You are competent,” Xiao says quietly. “I don’t mind working with you.” A dubious look. “Really,” Xiao insists. Perhaps ghosting him for years is not the best evidence for such a statement. “Should I fill you in with what I know so far?”

Though displeased with the change in topic, Zhongli still nods. Xiao hands him the files and Zhongli flips through them. “The poltergeist appeared within the coffeeshop two months prior though at sporadic moments, so the employees thought they were imagining floating objects and slamming doors. From what I heard, the spirit was likely unearthed during the construction around the Inn a few months ago.”

Xiao hears a sharp inhale and looks towards Zhongli. “They think it’s the spirit of the Conquerer of Demons?” He asks based on the notes he read, far more amused than the bewilderment Xiao felt at the news. “Within a coffeeshop? In the midst of the busy winter season?”

“That’s what I also said,” Xiao says. “But the employees are adamant.”
“Just because the poltergeist wields anemo energy?” Zhongli asks, looking like he’s trying his best not to laugh.

“Yes.”

The laughter finally breaks free. “This case certainly won’t be boring, then. And it dons the form of a cat? Fascinating. Adepti can shapeshift at will. Perhaps that carries over into the afterlife?”

“The entire case sounds like impious fan fiction,” Xiao mutters but feels a smile growing on his lips.

“Even if a theory is not correct in its entirely, there is still wisdom—and amusement—to derive from it,” Zhongli philosophizes. “And these pictures, they’re of the damage the poltergeist caused?” He spreads the photos on the bed and Xiao stands to explain.

He points at the photo at the far left of a door pulled off its hinges, leaving behind splintered wood. “A month and three weeks ago, the first unexplained event: a door was broken at two in the morning. The Boss went to investigate and found blood-like stains on the floor,” Xiao points where it’s depicted to the next photo. “After that, the poltergeist took a permanent post within the coffeeshop, though some guests claim they’ve seen it on the topmost balcony.”

“All the other photos are damaged attributed to the poltergeist,” Xiao confirms. That includes shattered mugs, spilled coffee beans, an ancient spear embedded in the wall, and a frankly impressive ten centimeter dent into the metal of the checkout counter from a dropped espresso machine.

 

With the case’s background out of the way, they return to the coffeeshop to review each sign of the poltergeist’s previous actions to make sure nothing has changed. Chongyun confirms there’s no new information that hasn’t been logged within the pictures. So they move on to set up motion and temperature sensors to collect data when the temperature drops a considerable amount within the coffeeshop, indicative of a paranormal presence. At noon, they double check the equipment and deem it good to return the next day.

Zhongli pauses near the door to the veranda and turns to Xiao.

Xiao stops in response.

“May I have your phone number?” Zhongli asks with a strained smile. No doubt he’s remembering the last time he asked for it and the outcome. “To communicate regarding this case.”

Xiao’s thudding heart slows. Of course. “It’s the same as before,” he says stupidly. Heat crawls onto his cheeks. Surely Zhongli has deleted his number since Xiao never texted him. For all the numbers Zhongli likely had in his phone within those sixteen years, Xiao’s would be a wasted space, a useless memory of the past—

You’re falling down the same rabbit holes as before, he reminds himself. Calm down.

“Ah,” Zhongli says and digs out his phone. “One moment.”

Xiao watches as Zhongli’s fingers move across the screen, slowly like many of the elderly folks Xiao aids. Zhongli is not nearly as old, but it’s endearing to see him act in such a manner.

Xiao’s phone dings a second later.

From: Unknown

9:21 AM

Hello :^) this is Zhongli

 

“I had to change my number a few times over the years,” Zhongli explains when he senses Xiao’s bafflement. Xiao’s more confused at why Zhongli kept his number, but dares not say it.

“Ah.” Xiao quickly adds the number to his contacts list and places the phone back into his pocket. Then he shifts, unsure what else to say. “Have a good evening.”

“You too, Xiao xiānshēng,” Zhongli returns with a soft smile. His left cheek dimples. He bows his head and sets off towards his room within the Inn with light steps. He does not seem too bothered by their estrangement within high school.

Xiao descends the steps with a feeling of burgeoning hope. If nothing else, at least Xiao will be able to apologize for his past actions.

 

The next day finds them trapped in one of the Inn’s room.

“My apologies,” Zhongli says as Xiao tries to pick the lock. He looks a little flushed despite the windows they opened within the room. “Why the poltergeist thought to chase us with a metal bar...“

“I think this poltergeist is targeting you,” Xiao says with complete seriousness. Between the tea and now a metal bar, “You may not be safe here.”

Zhongli frowns. If there was one thing Xiao remembers above all else about Zhongli, it’s that Zhongli hates going back on his word.

As such, Zhongli glances up at Xiao from under his eyelashes. “Xiao xiānshēng will protect me, right?”

But Xiao has been in this industry long enough to spy the wariness in Zhongli’s eyes. They do not trust each other enough for such statements.

He forces down the heat in his cheeks from the brunt of the otherwise coy expression. “Not from a two meter long metal beam,” he says. “I have an amulet or two that will protect against malicious intent, if you’d like them, but they’re not a catch-all.”

“Yes, please. I’d rather not get chased away from my first case.”

Xiao blinks. The lock refuses to open and he steps away, frustrated. “You’ve truly turned to exorcisms as a day job?”

“Actually, I work as the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor’s consultant. This apparently falls within the job description.”

“You work for Hu Tao now?” Xiao asks, confusion not at all cleared. Zhongli, who could deal with any type of person but notoriously could not handle Hu Tao? That Hu Tao?

Zhongli laughs. “It seemed like a good fit, as Master Hu needed the legal consultation at first and for some reason refuses to speak to Yanfei. At first I mostly had night shifts and could avoid crowds of people. Now that the news of my resignation has died down, I can take exorcism cases. Though I must admit, running into you was not something I expected.” Xiao shrinks back. “It was a pleasant surprise,” Zhongli assures. “Truly.”

Xiao bites down his grimace. “…Let’s see if we can conjure the spirits form from here,” he says.

Zhongli doesn’t protest the change in topic. “The dream trawler ability, correct?” He pauses. “You are going to pull eight lamps, a censer, incense, and a fan from your bag, aren’t you?” He asks incredulously. Xiao allows himself a smirk as he does so. “Such is the preparation of a renowned exorcist,” Zhongli mutters, impressed.

“Evoking the yakshas’s names will be a challenge from inside the room, but we can try,” Xiao deflects. He sets the lamps into a circle onto the wooden floor and passes Zhongli the matchbox. As Zhongli lights them, Xiao places small replicas of the yaksha statues in the middle of the lamps.

He hands Zhongli a stick of incense to place in the censer and does the same himself, asking Rex Lapis for guidance.

Then Xiao shuts his eyes and calls in a steady voice, “Devayaksha, call forth sin!”

He waits a moment and opens his eyes:

Nothing. No cat spirit which somehow wields anemo energy nor the Guardian Yaksha himself appears.

Instead, something heavy bangs against the door, causing both Xiao and Zhongli to jolt.

“Stay on that side of the room for a few minutes,” Xiao advises as he tugs some binding talismans from his bag and tapes them to the door. The next time the poltergeist approaches the area, it’ll be temporarily stunned for enough time for someone to unblock the door.

“Alright. Be careful,” Zhongli says, though he is in more danger than Xiao.

Nonetheless, Xiao nods and sticks the final talisman onto the wood, completing the trap.

Then they wait.

 

Ten minutes later, the talismans stiffen, indicating they’ve caught something. Xiao hears rustling and indignant shrill cries.

To: Chongyun Junior Exorcist

11:32 AM

The door with the bird stuck on it

From: Chongyun Junior Exorcist

11:33 AM

One second, I’ll text the Boss

 

Two minutes later, they hear the sound of metal against metal and the door shakes, likely from the irritated spirit.

“It’s unblocked!” says Verr Goldet, voice muffled. “Should I head back to the desk?”

“Yes,” Xiao calls back, appreciative she’s following his conditions not to linger around his working area. When he hears her footsteps walking away and after making sure Zhongli remains sat on the desk chair far away from the trap, Xiao unlocks the door and slowly opens it.

The poltergeist slams the door in the wall and nearly crushes Xiao’s arm. Xiao stumbles backwards with a curse. Instead of a cat, a ghastly eagle stares back at them, crying a mournful tune. Zhongli steadies him and Xiao clutches at Zhongli’s wrist, spying the lamp rise from the nightstand. His hand slips into Zhongli’s own and he tugs, pulling them both behind the bed. Zhongli’s side presses against his own and they wait with rapid breaths.

Then—silence.

Xiao peers over the bed and finds the lamp descending slowly back onto the nightstand.

When poltergeist can’t see them, it seems to calm down.

Xiao releases Zhongli’s hand.

The lamp crashes onto the nightstand and shatters. The picture frame on the wall begins to shake, making a horrid thudding noice.

Quickly, Xiao reintertwines their fingers. Zhongli makes a startled noise, but as Xiao predicts, the picture frame stills.

Zhongli quickly connects two and two. “It wants us to hold hands?” He asks, sounding far more intrigued than Xiao expects. The poltergeist does not respond. When the talismans fall undone, the eagle disappears in rivulets of black and teal smoke.

 

Chongyun grimaces when he hears about the details. “This poltergeist sounds like my college acquaintances.”

“How so?” Zhongli asks, far less shaken about being chased with a metal beam than he should be. He sips delicately at his Tianheng bohea. It does little to diminish Xiao’s realization that Zhongli is very, very reckless.

“They insist on asking me to accompanying them to clubs and try to matchmake me when I’ve already told them I’m not interested,” Chongyun says. At their concerned expression, he adds, “I’ve handled it, but a matchmaking poltergeist is one of the stranger entities I’ve encountered.”

“A matchmaking poltergeist?” Zhongli hums, curious. “But why us?” He asks, casting an indecipherable look at Xiao.

Xiao averts his gaze. “We don’t have evidence of that claim.”

“You’re right, Xiao xiānshēng,” Zhongli agrees. Xiao thinks he sounds the slightest bit disappointed, but there’s a higher probability Xiao is simply projecting.

 

“Shall we get dinner?” Zhongli asks a few hours later. “We don’t have to go far, but perhaps outside the Inn?”

Xiao’s fingers pause over his laptop’s trackpad, cursor hovering over the sensor data (beyond the times they were in the shop, the poltergeist had not made an appearance, as indicated by the stagnant temperature graph. Which is good, but they still need to figure out why it lingers and why it’s now focused on them.) “What are you thinking?”

“Does Granny Mao still run the hotpot restaurant near the laundromat?” Zhongli asks. “I have not returned to the Guili Plains in a long time.”

Xiao too has not stepped foot in said restaurant since the incident in high school. “We can check,” he says.

Zhongli beams. “I’ll track down their hours while you finish up with that.”

 

The restaurant is in fact still open for business, but it is not the granny who greets them at the door, but rather a younger man who shows them to their seats and hands them their menus.

It casts a somber overtone on their conversation. A portable stove sits in the middle of the table with a steel pot over it, read for use.

“It’s changed quite a bit since the last time I visited,” Zhongli muses. Modern prints of the Harbor replaced the traditional artwork that hung on the walls years prior. “Though it does not surprise me that the Harbor drags all the smaller cities along with it.”

“Worry not, I haven’t gotten rid of it,” a dry voice says. “Lest customers like you complain.”

Xiao whips his head around to face the aisle.

“Granny Mao,” Zhongli dips his head in deference, a delighted smile forming on his face. “It’s been quite some time, but you look as well as ever.”

“Oh, please,” she says, unimpressed. “You two are finally gracing my restaurant after so many years. Come, stand.”

Confused, they follow her instruction and are ushered to one of the backrooms, which, as Granny Mao indicated, have the tradition art and vases they saw years prior.

“This isn’t necessary,” Zhongli protests but Granny Mao ignores him.

“Would you rather be bothered by nosy customers who want to shake your hand?” She asks as she pulls out a notepad. “Somehow that grandson of mine didn’t recognize you.”

“No,” Zhongli acquiesces and sits. He gives Xiao a sheepish smile.

“And you,” Granny Mao says, turning to Xiao. “I don’t bite. Do you need him with you every time you visit?”

Xiao flushes as Zhongli blinks, realizing Xiao has not visited since the time in high school they had gone together. “No,” Xiao admits.

“Then drop by to say hello more often, even if you just need to use the restroom like last time. All I see these days are tourists,” Granny Mao sighs. “What would you like to order, boys?”

They order the cured pork dry hotpot and Granny Mao leaves, shutting the door behind her.

Xiao shifts, nerves getting the best of him now he’s alone with Zhongli. “Have you really not visited since high school?”

“The restaurant?”

“Guili Plains,” Xiao clarifies.

A resigned look passes over Zhongli’s face. “As much that I could do for the people of Liyue as a lawyer, it was just as much a burden,” he explains quietly. “In the rare moments I had a break, I did not think I deserved to return when the Harbor still had so many issues to resolve.”

“What changed?”

“I took a stroll along the Harbor one night and overheard a boss telling her employee who wished to resign to consider what he wanted most, given that all his other needs were met.” Zhongli sets his hands onto the table. “My younger coworkers have taken to the helm very well and know what Liyue needs to grow better than I do. I love Liyue and I know I can help it in other ways, so I considered what I wanted to do as a child, but was discouraged from.” Here a fond smile curls Zhongli’s lip. “I had always liked artifacts and history and stories of the adepti. It seemed like a logical choice.”

“Congratulations on your retirement,” Xiao says genuinely. Would it be tactless to once again offer— “If you ever need any help,” Xiao begins, carefully watching Zhongli’s expression. It brightens. There are smile creases at the corner of his eyes, a confident set to his jaw. Sixteen years later and Xiao still wants to kiss him. “Please don’t hesitate to ask me.”

“Thank you, Xiao xiānshēng. Likewise, if you ever need anything from me, please ask.”

“You don’t need to use xiānshēng with me,” Xiao says immediately.

A curious light settles in Zhongli’s eyes. “Only if you drop it as well.”

 

“The poltergeist,” Xiao starts. Zhongli looks up photos he’s taking of the bubbling hotpot broth brimming with ham and mushrooms. The heat curls around them and settles on their skin. Xiao can practically taste the spice from the smell alone. “I still can’t piece together why it lingers, but,” Xiao frowns, “intertwining our fingers seemed to appease it.”

“Should we hold hands from now on?” Zhongli asks with all due seriousness, but cannot suppress his amused smile.

Xiao sighs. “This is on the matter of your safety.”

“Yes, yes, of course. It is of little surprise to me that the poltergeist has detected that I am safer around you.”

This man, Xiao thinks, exasperated. “And holding hands will not bother you?”

“Not at all,” Zhongli says, eyebrows raised and expression open. Xiao feels like he’s missing something, but does not push further. “On the matter of why it lingers: usually with ghosts who focus on romantic relationships, they felt scorned or betrayed within their own relationships prior to death.”

Xiao had considered that, but usually those poltergeist target established couples instead of whatever strange acquaintanceship Xiao and Zhongli possess (but even that description seems lacking when Xiao finds Zhongli glancing at him during off-times at work). And he found no information on the Guardian Yaksha’s lovers or spouses or anything of that nature. Perhaps he was bitter that he had not found a meaningful romantic relationship within his life?

But that seems far too mundane for the final yaksha, who was plagued with karmic debts and was incessantly loyal to his oath to Rex Lapis.

Xiao taps his finger on the table as Zhongli continues to add food to the hotpot.

They’re missing a major piece of the puzzle and have few leads to uncover it.

 

Even when holding hands, Zhongli is buried in a deluge of uprooted qingxin flowers, dirt and all, the next time the poltergeist appears, even when his and Xiao’s hands are firmly clasped. Back to square one, Xiao concludes.

From: Zhongli xiānshēng (Wangsheng Funeral Parlor Consultant)

6:25 AM

Good morning, Xiao. If you’re free, are you able to meet me at the park near the northeast coast of Guili Plains? The one we visited during high school, if that helps.

 

Xiao’s stomach twists. It’s an invitation like all those in high school.

But he feels better about himself, about where he stands. There are no bullies targeting Xiao’s weaknesses any longer.

To: Zhongli xiānshēng (Wangsheng Funeral Parlor Consultant)

6:30 AM

I’ll be there in thirty minutes.

 

Zhongli eyes his motorcycle when Xiao arrives with both great allure and logical wariness.

“They are quite dangerous,” he tells Xiao, though his gaze remains transfixed on the gleaming leather and metal. “I was given strict orders never to get on one as a child.”

“…Would you like to ride it?” Xiao asks.

Zhongli finally brings his eyes up to meet Xiao’s. “If it does not impede you,” he admits.

Xiao bites back a fond smile.

 

They order Mondstadt-style tea pancakes at the bustling stall and move towards one of the benches in the park, away from the crowds of people.

“Is everything alright?” Xiao asks. His food lays untouched in its container.

“Yes, of course,” Zhongli clarifies quickly, fork halfway to his lips. “I believe I have obtained a lead of sorts in our case.”

He could have simply told Xiao of it when they are to meet at the Inn thirty minutes later, but Xiao can’t bring himself to mind this detour. “Did the poltergeist harm you?” He asks, worried. Zhongli looks no worse for wear, but his clothes are form-fitting and cover almost all of his skin.

“I’m fine, Xiao, truly,” Zhongli reassures, setting his fork back down on his plate. “I believe I received a memory of some sort of the poltergeist? If it truly is our Guardian Yaksha.”

Xiao stills. Dream sharing was an ability of the adepti, but no mortals have claimed to receive one in centuries. Rex Lapis had also granted some within his former retinue the ability to view memories held by stones and rocks, but again, it was an ability not witnessed in many, many years. If the poltergeist had managed to retain its adeptal abilities in death and managed to share them with Zhongli—it is far stronger than Xiao had initially thought. And the coffeeshop’s workers’ insistence that the poltergeist is the Conquerer of Demons now carries some weight. “Was it in the poltergeist’s perspective?”

Here Zhongli frowns, confused. “Yes, but it was strange—as though I was bound to his actions and felt his emotions as my own. From what I’ve read on adeptal dream sharing, that is not the norm. But if nothing else, I can guarantee it was someone’s memories of Rex Lapis,” Zhongli explains, gaze growing unfocused. “Someone in agonizing pain, a flash of an arrow, and the freedom of a weight lifted. Rex Lapis leaned over me in the dream and granted me a new name: In the fables of another world, the name Xiao is that of a spirit who encountered great suffering and hardship. He endured much suffering, as you have. Use this name from now on.”

“Adeptus Xiao,” Xiao says, lifting his knuckles to his chin as he thinks. “No mentions of the other yakshas?”

“Not that I can remember,” Zhongli confirms.

“Other than Rex Lapis, the yakshas, and the Traveler, no other beings are mentioned in the literature regarding Adeptus Xiao,” Xiao muses. “But Rex Lapis has died centuries ago, why is it so fixated on you?”

“Have I accidentally angered Rex Lapis’s spirit?” Zhongli jokes. “But locating his spirit may give us further insight. Gods do not truly die. His spirit likely still lingers within Liyue. Just where?”

 

Xiao pulls a second helmet out of the seat compartment and passes it to Zhongli, who accepts it with a shaking hand.

“We can take your car instead,” Xiao offers as he shuts the compartment, waiting patiently.

“No,” Zhongli insists, determinination knitting his brows. “I doubt I’ll trust anyone else with this.”

Xiao flushes up to his roots. He quickly slides on his own helmet and swings a leg over the seat, making sure both feet are planted on the ground so the motorcycle doesn’t tip while Zhongil gets on. “Climb on from the left and swing your leg over like I did. Place your feet on the footpegs and hold on to the grab handles on the side,” Xiao explains. Zhongli nods and puts on his helmet, settling on the motorcycle behind Xiao. His knees brush Xiao’s thighs and Xiao’s stomach lurches. “Good?” Xiao asks, grip tightening around the handlebars.

“Yes,” Zhongli says, a confident set to his voice. “Let’s go.”

So Xiao starts the motorcycle and backs out of the parking spot. When the motorcycle tips right on the turn onto the freeway towards Yaoguang Shoal, Xiao feels fingers clutch at his jacket over his shoulders.

“Sorry,” Zhongli says, but his grasp does not loosen.

“You can hold onto me,” Xiao reassures, heart beating at a furious pace as his jacket is pressed against his back as Zhongli shifts closer. He changes lanes and feels Zhongli’s hands move to his waist, holding onto his jacket for dear life.

 

They leave the motorcycle on the parking lot near the small strip of sand and trek the path up the mountain towards the statue of the Seven.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright on the ride back?”

Zhongli turns to him, looking rejuvenated, bright eyed and bushy tailed. “The drive over was fine,” he says as though he did not clutch at Xiao the entire time. “The wind in your hair, dawn breaking over the horizon—yes, I quite understand the appeal,” he muses with a twinkle in his eye. Xiao hopes he doesn’t spontaneously decide to buy a motorcycle after they split paths today.

Rex Lapis’s statue sits with his back facing the ocean, the stone of his hood and headrest long eroded by the wind and rain. Zhongli snaps a picture of the statue backlit by the morning sun.

Beneath his cowl, bangs fall against Rex Lapis’s skin in a manner not unlike Zhongli’s own hair. The statue and body shape. The lattice shapes all over Zhongli’s match those on Rex Lapis’s robes within old paintings.

“You look like him,” Xiao says.

Zhongli eyes Rex Lapis’s exposed abdomen. Then he smirks. “What a compliment.”

Xiao rolls his eyes. “That’s likely why the poltergeist targets you. According to lore, The Conquerer of Demons was under another’s thumb when he met Rex Lapis, as shown by your dream. It makes sense that the poltergeist targeted you at first sight, as the Conquerer of Demons also likely did. As the poltergeist’s memory returns, he’s now showering you in…flowers?”

“I wish it were as nice as you make it sound. I’m still finding dirt stains on my clothes,” Zhongli complains. “As the Conquerer of Demons served Rex Lapis far millennia, hopefully he did not feel bitter obligation the entire time. Do you think our ghost is warming up to me as he did to Rex Lapis?”

“I’m not sure. In terms of a plan, we should first split the poltergeist’s mental association between you and Rex Lapis and figure out what the poltergeist wants. We can try find Rex Lapis’s spirit along the way.”

“Sounds good to me,” Zhongli agrees. “Shall we start here?”

 

Xiao tries to invoke Rex Lapis’s spirit using the Dream Trawler ritual, but has little faith it will yield any results. He’s correct in that it brings forth no spirits, but rather a single glaze lily, petals tightly shut under the morning sun as it seemingly floats down from the heavens.

It lands in his hand and Xiao peers up at the statue. Nothing has changed in its visage.

“May I see?” Zhongli asks. Xiao passes him the flower and Zhongli holds it up towards the sun. “A glaze lily could not have traveled here from the Harbor or Qingce Village without wilting. Given the pristine quality, I believe this is our sign from the ritual.”

“So Rex Lapis’s spirit rests where the glaze lilies bloom,” Xiao says. “Perhaps.”

Zhongli twists the flower this way and that between slender fingers. “Ah.”

“Yes?”

“There’s a lone glaze lily atop one of the mountains that overlook the Harbor. Out of place, perhaps, as the rest of them are planted within the Harbor itself. I cannot guarantee anything, but it seems uncanny enough to check.”

With its proximity to both the Guili Plains and the Harbor, that area has a better chance of being Rex Lapis’s resting place rather than Qingce Village.

Xiao nods. “We can check after we sever the poltergeist’s fixation on you.”

Zhongli rolls his eyes, amused. “As you wish, head exorcist Xiao.”

 

They finally meet the cat poltergeist. Much like the animal itself, it does not care to hear Xiao’s explanations.

Xiao once again binds the spirit to the nearest surface when a heaping plate of almond tofu nears Zhongli’s head.

“That is not Rex Lapis,” he tells the poltergeist, who stills against the bounds for a moment, clawed paws reaching towards the sky. Zhongli’s hand curls around his own, pressing the amulet between their palms. “He is a mortal with no relation to Rex Lapis. Your Lord, assuming you are, in fact, the Conquerer of Demons, has passed on millennia ago. Is he whom you search for?”

A rough gust of wind sweeps into the shop through the shop despite the locked windows. In the whirlwind of items, the poltergeist once again disappears in a puff of smoke. Xiao kneels to pick up the scattered talismans and napkins.

“Our spirit has a penchant for mixed signals,” Zhongli follows to help straighten the coffeeshop.

 

But the signals grow starkly bitter the next few days, when the poltergeist follows them to the the balcony in a breadth of animal and adeptal forms, not paying any mind to the other people within the Inn. Again and again, qingxin flowers and dirt litter the balcony, almond tofu splatters onto the wood, and strong gusts of wind push Zhongli around and into Xiao’s arms.

Zhongli runs loads of laundry like a man possessed to rid expensive fabric of dirt and syrup stains. Curiously, Xiao escapes from the poltergeist’s antics unscathed.

“Is this the power of an experienced exorcist?” Zhongli asks, at wit’s end.

“Almond tofu, qingxin flowers, wind, and Zhongli xiānshēng…” Chongyun contemplates. “Aren’t you fond of all of those?” He asks Xiao.

The conversation lulls.

Xiao very pointedly does not look at Zhongli. He had connected the dots a day or two ago but thought it farfetched. The Inn is known for their almond tofu, which was a favorite of the Conquerer of Demons himself. Verr Goldet sells qingxin flowers whenever they’re in season. Zhongli, well, they already established the poltergeist enjoys picking on him.

Chongyun shifts awkwardly. Xiao knows he’ll make himself scarce in three, two, one—

“I’ll refill your drinks,” Chongyun stands and grabs their cups. To his credit, he doesn’t full out sprint to the kitchen.

The silence stretches between them for a few painstaking seconds. Xiao stares at the table. But anxiety does not grow in his stomach as he waits. He’s grown within a decade and a half. He can handle this.

“All the items the poltergeist wielded are things you liked,” Zhongli says slowly. He twists the ring on his middle finger. “And when the poltergeist moved me—“

When Xiao finally looks up, he sees confusion in Zhongli’s eyes. And worry. A great deal of worry in the furrow of his brows, in the downwards curl of his lip. Xiao will not run this time. “I liked you in high school.”

“You did?”

Xiao stares. “I wasn’t very subtle about it.”

Zhongli stares back at him, bewildered. “I couldn’t tell at all. I thought you grew to despise me. Why else would you ignore me?”

He wants to laughs in disbelief. “I was worried my presence would burden you,“ Xiao explains as best he can. “I thought I didn’t deserve your friendship, much less anything beyond that.”

“And now?”

Xiao jolts. “Now?”

“Unless the poltergeist saw something that wasn’t there?” Zhongli asks hesitantly, “Which is fine, of course—“

“You like me?” Xiao asks, confused.

“I invited you to get food multiple times,” Zhongli says, though he sounds very unsure of himself. “And the motorcycle ride, I would not agree to that with someone I do not trust. There aren’t many people who would agree to have such a liability with them during their work, but you still protected me.”

Ah, Xiao thinks.

“Even within in high school,” Zhongli rubs the back of his neck. A blush settles on his cheeks. “I would have helped even if I did not find you handsome but it would be a lie to say that did not play a part in it. Looking back, I should apologize for my insistent behavior. But I was too focused on my obligations at that point. Perhaps waiting until now is for the best. Even if you do not wish to pursue a romantic relationship, I hope we can be friends.”

“Of course,” Xiao says, because if nothing else their joint attempt to exorcise the poltergeist has furthered their friendship far beyond what existed in high school. “…I’ll let you know about anything beyond friendship after this case."

Zhongli’s eyes twinkle. “Let’s get our poltergeist home first.”

 

Xiao stands on a mountain overlooking a marsh. A sandbearer tree grows into the sky in the distance, curled around a building that stands on a rock pillar.

It looks exactly like the ancient paintings of the Wangshu Inn, Xiao realizes. Water spreads in all directions, littered with rocks. Mountains extend as far as Xiao can see.

“Xiao,” someone calls and he turns, confused. It is not the correct pronunciation for his name, but rather that of elf, of demon. It is the name given to the Conquerer of Demons.

Rex Lapis stands in front of him, head covered in a stainless white cowl. Golden tattoos run up his obsidian arms and he wears a frown, countenance as though carved from jade. Yet he looks at Xiao with gentle amber eyes.

He’s beautiful, even if he calls Xiao a demon.

“Come, Xiao, there is no use in lingering here,” the man says. His voice is low, pleasant, but firm. It settles Xiao’s nerves. “The spirit has moved on.”

Xiao feels a deep-settled disappointment that is not his own. Something possesses him to stare down at his feet and he cannot raise his head—

A warm hand settles on his hair. “Worry not, Xiao, we will prevent mortal injuries if the Chi has fled to Mount Qingce. Though time is of the essence. I will teleport to the north and you to the south. Does this sound agreeable?”

“Yes.” The sound comes from his mouth, but it is not his voice. Rather it is low, a little strained, but endlessly reverent.

Rex Lapis moves his hand, thumb accidentally brushing Xiao’s cheekbone. A heart thuds in his ears—but it is not Xiao’s.

 

Xiao thinks they teleport, as the man had said, but instead of Mount Qingce, Xiao finds himself on Mount Tianheng, looking over an ancient Liyue Harbor.

He hears footsteps behind him and turns.

It is Rex Lapis. The Geo Archon dons different clothes, a different face in his mortal disguise. His eyes no longer shine with inhuman energy and his face is a little more approachable. But Xiao feels the same helpless longing in this body’s stomach.

“Are you resting, Xiao?” The man asks. He sounds pleased.

He feels the gut instinct to say no. The body he occupies hesitates.

The man takes it into stride. “If you have some time to spare, would you like to accompany me on a stroll?”

Xiao feels his head nod.

In this era, Liyue Harbor has no skyscrapers nor the sheer number of people. Late at night, most have returned to their homes. The man and Xiao stroll near the water, stand along the pier and watch the moonlight ripple on the ocean. Rex Lapis’s empty hand, inches away from his own, taunts him.

“What shall I do now you have ushered in the time of humans?” Xiao hears himself ask.

Rex Lapis turns to him. “Whatever you would like to do, Xiao.”

“Please….” allow me to remain by your side into the foreseeable future.

Rex Lapis turns to him. “Yes?”

“Nothing, my Lord.”

Rex Lapis smiles patiently. “I no longer bear that title. Within this form, I am called—“

 

A burn crawls up Xiao’s throat. Footsteps shake the ground. A roar splits his ears. Xiao’s grip falters and his spear clatters to the ground, exacerbating the shrill ringing in his ears.

“Xiao!” A voice bellows behind him. The ground darkens before Xiao’s eyes and something whistles in the sky.

An impact. The ground shakes and engulfs Xiao into its grasp.

 

Of course your Zhongli is not the one I search for, a distant, detached voice murmurs in the sudden inkiness of Xiao’s mind. It sounds like the Conquerer of Demons, the same voice as within the dreams he granted Xiao. I have recovered knowledge of my intentions through your work and for that I must thank you. Mortal abilities have surpassed my expectations time and time again. And in this instance, too, you know what the final step is.

 

Xiao wakes with a racing heart. Yet he is beyond pleased with his decision to book a room within the Inn for the night, just to see if the poltergeist would share its memories with him as well.

He reconvenes with Zhongli within the shop and tells him of the dream. Minds made up, they head towards to the balcony, where the poltergeist awaits them. It stands near the rail, looking out at the what remains of the Dihua Marsh. As though commuting it to memory for a final goodbye.

For once, it does not materialize into a recognizable form, standing about a meter and a half in length and completely shrouded in fog.

“We may know where Rex Lapis’s spirit rests,” Xiao tells it. The poltergeist turns. “Will you join us?” It moves forward towards them. Xiao takes that as a yes.

“The poltergeist will follow?” Zhongli asks when they reach his car, looking very happy the spirit no longer torments him. Xiao slides into the passenger seat.

“Yes,” Xiao confirms. Though he cannot see it, he senses the poltergeist outside the car, following. “Within the dream, it said it gained recollection of its intentions so it’s no longer bound to the Inn.”

They discuss odds and ends during the drive: Zhongli’s work as a consultant, Xiao’s most difficult exorcism case to date, what restaurants Zhongli still wants to visit when he’s in Guili Plains for the time being. Xiao finds himself tapping his fingers on his thigh in anticipation.

“When are you heading back?” Xiao asks, remembering this is not a long-term partnership.

“I should head back after we’ve exorcised the poltergeist and alerted the Inn about it,” Zhongli says, though there’s a reluctant undertone to his voice Xiao can’t decipher. “Well, we can focus on that later. Is our poltergeist still with us?”

He parks the car onto one of the grassy meadows off the path of the winding road and exits the car.

When Xiao opens the door and steps out, he feels the spirit right behind him. “Yes, right here. Where’s that glaze lily?”

“Follow me,” Zhongli says and leads them down a less-traveled path towards the south. The buildings within the Harbor stretch into the reddening horizon as they move closer to the mountain’s edge, the city bustle audible even within this isolated area. “Here.”

As Zhongli had described, the glaze lily blooms with perfect view of the Harbor, though as it is under the sun, it has not yet unfurled.

The poltergeist lingers behind them, now hesitant to approach an area crowded with people.

Once more, Xiao assembles the lamps and the censer, lights the incense, and lowers the surrounding temperature using a mist flower corolla.

Together, he and Zhongli call forth the spirit of Rex Lapis.

And for the first time, a figure emerges from the plant, expanding until he stands taller than both Zhongli and Xiao. A gentle, knowing smile lingers on his lips. Like a ghost, his body has no clear borders and Xiao can see the Harbor through his form. He dons simple black robes, golden-brown horns curling along the curve of his skull. Xiao still stands by the assessment that Zhongli looks uncannily like their former Archon.

He and Zhongli bow their heads and kneel. “Rex Lapis,” Xiao says, voice shaking with reverence. “My apologies for disturbing your rest.”

Rex Lapis laughs, full-bodied and warm. “There is no need for that, please, rise.” He sounds exactly as he did in the Conquerer of Demons’s memories. They follow his instructions. “You both are performing your work for the betterment of Liyue. For that I am ever grateful. And furthermore, you return a dear friend to me.” His gaze moves beyond them, towards the poltergeist.

The spirit moves closer, slowly. “My Lord,” the wind breathes.

Rex Lapis extends a hand to the poltergeist. “This is the first time I’ve seen you don another form.”

The shroud falls away from the poltergeist in slow trails of smoke, revealing a half cracked mask over of the Conquerer of Demons’s face, clothing ridden with rips and dirt and grass, scratches over pale skin, and a pursed set to his lips. Otherworldly in beauty and in how he holds himself. “Your humans did not need to witness this sight,” the Conquerer of Demons rasps, voice low. “I am sorry it has taken this long to return to you.”

A sigh. “Oh, dearest Xiao,” Rex Lapis says, pressing gentle fingers to the Conquerer of Demons’s jaw. The Conquerer of Demons leans into it. “For you to be buried within the earth and still I could not find you? I have greatly failed you.”

The Conquerer of Demons looks back at him with tired, lidded eyes with no lack of adoration.

Xiao shifts awkwardly. “Should we leave?” He murmurs to Zhongli.

“Wait,” the Conquerer of Demons says, turning to Zhongli. “For all the trials you endured when attempting to exorcise my spirit, I apologize. I have little to offer you, but if you ever find yourself in trouble’s way, speak my name and I shall help as best I can.”

Zhongli stares, star-struck. “I do not need anything, Conquerer of Demons. I was simply completing my job.”

The Conquerer of Demons hums in approval and turns to Xiao. “You as well. Call my name and the winds will help you. Now, if there are no further issues, Rex Lapis will return me to the earth.”

Rex Lapis stills. “Pardon?”

His yaksha turns to him expectantly. “Even the Rite of Parting could not keep my spirit from reanimating as a poltergeist. It is best to permanently seal it away from the mortal realm.”

Conflict is stark on Rex Lapis’s face. “Perhaps we can discuss other options before taking such actions.” He turns to Zhongli and Xiao. “Thank you both for your service to Liyue and to us. As Adeptus Xiao said, if you face any issues, you may call upon us and we will do our best to help. For now, though, I believe it is time we part ways.”

Xiao nods and bows his head. Zhongli follows suit.

A gale flows from the north and dissipates the spirits, leaving behind the glaze lily in its wake. A qingxin flower blooms beside it before their eyes, far from its natural inhabitance of tall, isolated mountains.

It takes them a few seconds to snap out of their trance.

“Well, I suppose we know where to find them now,” Xiao says as the flowers dance in the breeze.

“A job well done,” Zhongli agrees, looking down at the Harbor.

The sun hangs heavy over the horizon. Xiao pulls his phone out and quietly takes a picture of the flowers painted red under the sunset.

“Can I interest you in dinner?” Zhongli asks, turning towards Xiao once more and extending a hand just as Rex Lapis did for his yaksha. “My apartment is only twenty minutes or so from here.”

Xiao takes it and intertwines their fingers. “It’s an hour away if we grab your car.”

“That does not sound like rejection,” Zhongli says as they turn back towards the path down the mountain.

 

When Zhongli leaves to put the kettle on to accompany the food they ordered from Wanmin Restaurant, Xiao texts him the picture of the flowers. A phone chime rings within the kitchen and he hears feet shuffling. A click indicates Zhongli has unlocked his phone.

“Oh,” Xiao hears Zhongli say, painted in surprise. “Oh,” again, quieter, more pensive.

Xiao twists his clammy hands together and waits within Zhongli’s quiet dining room.

After a few minutes, Zhongli returns with a wooden tray, two empty teacups and a steaming teapot on top of it. His expression is open, hopeful as he pours the tea and passes one of the cups to Xiao.

“Thank you,” Xiao says quietly, holding it gingerly in his hands.

“Of course,” Zhongli says. Then a pause. “The photo you sent...”

“I may be overstepping, but I never responded to the photos of clouds and cats and birds and whatnot you sent to me in high school,” Xiao explains, bowing his head. “I felt bad about it, but that cannot possibly make up for how you felt being ignored. There is no reason for you to grant me another chance, but if you have not yet changed your mind, I’d like to pursue a relationship with you.”

For a moment Zhongli only stares and Xiao feels his face grow warmer and warmer. Then, like sunlight breaking through the clouds, Zhongli beams. “High school is a difficult time. There are many unforgivable actions that may occur within that period of one’s life. Though I was sadden by your actions at the time, they are not so severe that I cannot trust you again,” he says. His smile grows sheepish as he reaches for Xiao’s hands once more. “Perhaps we are speaking too much. I do not believe you have a reason to cling to the past in terms of your actions towards me. I only ask that you communicate with me this time around rather than…ghosting me, if I am using that term correctly. And of course I have not changed my mind in such a short period of time.”

“You talk just as much as you did in high school,” Xiao remarks fondly.

“Yes,” Zhongli laughs. “I hope you are alright with that.”

“I am sure I know a method or two to quiet even the most profuse orators.”

Zhongli raises an eyebrow, coy. “And you would like to enlighten your rival on such methods? Surely they are the most coveted of exorcist techniques.”

Xiao laughs and sets his teacup down. “Rival? Please, you’ve just entered the field. Come back to me when ghosts stop picking on you.” He reaches over the table and presses his lips to Zhongli’s. Warm fingers curl behind his ear and Zhongli tilts his head, leans into it with a quiet breath.

 

Zhongli sighs a few minutes later, “The tea has gone cold.”

“For some reason you do not sound too displeased.”

A hum. “I wonder why. But back to the topic at hand—you’re far better at taking photos than I am. Is that why you did not text me back? To spare my feelings?” He jokes.

“I’ve had sixteen years of practice,” Xiao admits. He had only gotten into photography when he could not understand why Zhongli seemed to like it to such an extent. Then he never quite stopped.

His words earn him another kiss.