FIREFLY / SURVIVOR’S GUILT
pairing: xiao x gn! reader (they/them)
tw: spoilers for xiao’s backstory, food, cursing, weapons, yelling, arguing, blood, graphic violence, graphic injuries, burns, reader is called “indarias” a few times bc that’s their yaksha name but otherwise it’s just [name] SPOILERS FOLLOWING: insanity (fictional/fantasy - not reflective of real world conditions) major character death, killing, vague suicidal ideation - not detailed/graphic
playlist + masterlist + taglist [open]
notes: thank u to jupiter for betaing this and listening to me yell about the ending. buckle in, xiao simps.
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alatus is not happy, per se, to be fighting with you side-by-side in the archon war. he is glad to be of use to morax, and he is pleased to have a competent partner in battle to watch his back, but he is not happy. alatus does not do happy.
you are an adeptus, a yaksha, like him, and you will do your duty to morax, prime of the adepti, and alatus will be at your side to complete his duty to morax as well.
the archon war ends. alatus is still bound to defend liyue, the archon and its people, but there are no gods or monsters alive and unrestrained anymore. all that is left are their remnants, powerful and bitter, angry, poisonous to mortals and adepti alike.
morax offers to take care of the miasmas and demons himself - the outraged cries from the crowd of adepti are enough to sway him, but he is reluctant to put the youngest ones in danger.
alatus steps forward with you and three other yakshas. there is an unspoken agreement that you will stop morax from having to make a difficult decision about which adepti should face demonic power.
“we will deal with this, my lord,” you say, spear planted in the ground in front of you, and alatus nods beside you. “you need not concern yourself with such trivial matters. instead, please allow us five to bear this burden, so that you may guide the people of liyue undisturbed.”
morax stares down at the five of you, still as stone. only his eyes give away the softness he has for his yakshas. “very well,” he sighs, “but you must be aware of the karmic debt you will incur in doing so. it is not within my power to heal such things, and i would not force any of my adepti - need i remind you that you are also my people, even if you are not human - into a contract that was not transparent.”
you turn to alatus and the other three. there is a murmur of agreement. you look back up at morax, “we accept the terms, my lord.”
“so it is, indarias. my promise is solid as stone, yours an eternal, unbending flame. you are bound to protect liyue and its inhabitants from the scars of the archon war. may your burdens be light and your will strong.”
alatus does not do happy, but he is… satisfied that he shall remain at your side for the time being.
alatus - xiao, he is xiao now, with his new name, just as you are [name] and not indarias - watches your flaming spear shear a demonic being in half, precise, sharp, and unyielding. flames dance along the entire spear, licking harmlessly up your hand and wrist. this is what he sees in between his anemo-powered swipes at a demon of his own.
the battle is over quickly, and while you are covered in blood and entrails that smoke and steam against your skin, and his clothes stick to him with the rancid scent of demon blood, and the landscape around you is ravaged and deformed from your respective displays of power, xiao is calm. xiao is satisfied with the job you and he have done for the time being, and he is ready to resume patrol with you.
“are you weary, xiao?” you ask, picking a bone shard out from between the fingers of your gloved hand.
“no,” he says simply, but it is not harsh, or at least xiao makes an effort not to be as curt with you as he is with others. he has fought with you forever, and there is no need to snap at you when you already respect his privacy and space. “but i am… unclean. my hands are bloody.”
“that is because you use too much force with your spear. you ought to have chosen a mace instead, that way you could bludgeon your enemies with a weapon meant for brute force.” you kneel to wash your nuo mask in the river, lips curling into a flicker of a smile. xiao has been alive long enough to know that he is being teased.
he washes his hands and the water runs pink over the sands of the riverbed. “i have not used excessive strength, else my spear would have snapped. i am simply ensuring that i am thoroughly dispatching the demons.”
“of all the things to bother you, xiao, it is not that your clothes are drenched in blood, or that it runs into your shoes, or that you must clean your mask so often, it is that your hands are dirty?” you dry your mask with a burst of flame.
xiao looks down at his hands. the river runs cold - it does not bother him; he is an adepti. such mortal things are of no concern to him. “it is because the blood makes it difficult to grip my spear, [name],” he bites back, and scrubs the blood - so fresh it has not had a chance to oxidize - from under his nails. “i am not concerned about my hands being ‘dirty,’ as you put it, but rather that i cannot wield my weapon.”
“you are in need of gloves,” you hum, and strip yours off to hand to him. “i am not in need of these, they are just a trophy from the archon war. my skin can stand against my own flames, and i do not frequently find myself wrist-deep in my enemy’s rib cage.”
xiao is not a fool - he recognizes a gift, a moment of kindness. he does not understand it, but he recognizes it. “my hands will be clean,” he says in lieu of a thank you.
the gloves are black with gold piping, although the right one is blue-green in places, like the deepest seas of liyue, right where the coast drops off into the bottomless vortex that osial rests in. there are brass reinforcements on each knuckle - he has never seen you in combat without your spear, and thus he has never seen you use them. he imagines they would be brutal in a fight, especially lit on fire.
xiao slips them on and is glad to see they cover most of his forearms. he will not be cleaning blood from the creases of his palms anymore. the palms and fingers of the gloves are textured to provide traction - he can see why your hold is always so steady. he may be a yaksha of the anemo variety, but he hopes to be as steady as you are - after all, pyro is not known for solidity either. he hopes you are both exceptional enough to surpass that.
“come, xiao. we must finish our patrol.”
slaying demons that grow from the rotting revenge fantasies and jealousies of old gods is toxic to the soul. xiao knows this, he knows because morax told all of the yakshas this many, many years ago. that does not change the fact that the pain surprises him.
it is a low, uneven, burning feeling, one that makes it hard to swallow or breathe around the burning in his chest. it starts small, like exerting himself and tasting iron in the back of his mouth and feeling his lungs strain - this is not something that happens often for yakshas, not now that they are fighting only the remnants of gods.
but then the pain grows, like a small star sitting behind his ribs, smoldering and festering, cauterizing and rotting. he gasps after a battle and presses a hand to his chest, trying to use pressure to crush the burn away.
“xiao,” you call, and rush to his side in a flaming blur, a demon dissolving into black dust behind you. the grass is burning, acrid with the scent of ichor and miasma. “are you injured, xiao? do you require a healer?”
he plants his spear in the ground and huffs, “no, [name], i am fine.” your blatant display of concern makes it hard to meet your eyes. his palms feel hot.
you are unconvinced, eyes narrowing as you snatch his spear from his hand and grab his arm. “we will see lord morax. he will know of a way to fix your injury.”
you drag him up the mountain and all the way to jueyun karst in a flash, and alatus doesn’t even get the chance to talk until you are already entering the adeptal grounds.
“he will not know, because this is the price we agreed to pay. morax has already said that he does not have the power to heal it.”
you stop and look at him, hand still around his arm, just above where his gloves end. “i did not say he would be able to cure you entirely, and i do not expect him to. i simply want to ask if there is a way to ease your pain, so that the price is not as steep.”
xiao stares and silence stretches on between the two of you. he is unsure of how to reply. hundreds of years spent mostly with you, and he is unsure of how to reply. “i… i find that to be impractical. treating the symptoms will not remove my debt, or yours, if that is what concerns you.”
“i am aware of this. but i find treating the symptoms to be agreeable, if only to avoid your pain.”
his pain? he is a yaksha, he is made for killing. pain is irrelevant to him, so long as he fulfills his duty. “that still… does not seem of great importance.”
“i would rather you not suffer,” is all you say, and xiao feels something tighten in his chest - he knows it is something unrelated to his purpose and unrelated to his debt. he quietly, ever so quietly, ignoring the inkling of the idea that he is betraying his loyalty to morax, tucks that feeling into a corner of his mind for safe keeping.
“you shall have the remedy as well,” xiao states firmly, or at least tries to - it comes out as more of a quiet acquiescence.
sparks dance along your eyelashes. “if that is what it takes for the contract to be fair, golden-winged king, conqueror of demons.”
“it is,” he pushes back, then adds, feeling an odd sense of amusement bubble in his chest, “vermillion-feathered majesty, enlightened and illuminated gladiator.”
morax’ brow creases at your news of xiao’s karmic debt. “i feared this would happen,” he says, and summons a mortar and pestle. “i have prepared a rather simple remedy, but one i hope will at least alleviate your symptoms.”
you and xiao sit at the stone table and watch morax, your god and archon, grind up qingxin flowers like a common apothecary worker. he insists on doing it himself, no matter how many times you or xiao requests to take over.
“i am your god, it is my responsibility to watch over you. and more than that, i am your friend and comrade. we have fought together for many years. it would be wrong of me to place this burden upon you, not when you have taken a much heavier one from me.”
when the powder is fine enough, he pours it into a steaming teapot, and when it has steeped long enough, he pours a cup for xiao. “you are not experiencing any symptoms yet, are you, [name]?”
“no, my lord. i am free of any pain at the moment.”
xiao takes a sip when you are done speaking. something warm curls in his chest, soothing the ragged edges of the dying star behind his solar plexus. it reminds him of the way your presence makes his movements smoother in a fight, fluid and efficient, not as harsh and angular as he used to be, wasting time and power on sharp movements.
morax sends you both off with a month’s worth of qingxin powder (for xiao) and orders to make sure xiao takes his medicine (for you).
the stars hum softly above you and the firelight glows cor lapis-gold on the leaves of the sandbearer trees. a pot of water heats over the fire. xiao leans against a tree trunk, spear propped up beside him, and you watch the pot over the fire.
the grass ruffles under the touch of the night breeze, cold and clear, high in the mountains, looking down on the lamp-light shimmer of liyue harbor.
xiao watches you pour him a cup of hot water mix the qingxin powder in. he has long stopped offering to do it himself, not with the way you refuse and firmly plant your hands on his shoulders (no one else has touched him so openly and lived) and force him to sit down. no, xiao finds opposing you to be pointless and a waste of energy. now it is simply routine for you to make his medicine, as it has been for hundreds of years - although the dosage has increased as the pain has grown.
you hand him the steaming teacup and shuffle to sit next to him against the sandbearer tree. your eyes glint in the firelight. the cup is warm even though the gloves he’s wearing.
you both sit in silence, xiao sipping his medicine and you drinking hot water purely for the pleasure of a warm drink. it’s a very human action for you - xiao cannot bring himself to scorn it, though.
the qingxin is slightly sweet and a bit earthy and bitter. he has come to find it soothing, regardless of the way it numbs the edges of the pain in his chest - which has now expanded outward, snapping at his collarbones and his lower ribs, ever expanding.
he sets the teacup down in the packed dirt, nestled between the roots of the tree. you lean against him - it surprises him, he nearly knocks the empty teacup over with the way his arm jerks. but the jolt of electricity quickly settles into a pleasant buzz in the back of his throat. you are a yaksha, and you do not need sleep, but he appreciates the way the touch grounds him - you both need it, what with hundreds - now thousands - of years of memories to get lost in.
xiao lays his spear in the dirt next to him and rests one hand on it. he looks down at your hands, curled gently in your lap, and his begin to shake. he grips the spear harder and closes his hand into a fist - he is content with your head on his shoulder, your arm bumping against his. he is the proud and vigilant yaksha, and he will not yield to such silly, human urges. he will allow himself this, and no more - there is no reason to want more.
xiao stays awake the whole night, and in the early hours of the morning, when the only sign of the sun is a dim, watery glow on the horizon of morax’s land, he hears you gasp. it’s a sharp, harsh sound, one of pain and fear. one he has not heard from you since the archon war, since he watched madame ping break and reset your broken wrist so that your adepti healing would not heal it at the wrong angle.
“[name],” he says, at a normal volume and with his usual inflection (even if his first reaction was to readjust his grip on his weapon and look around for an attacker).
you do not respond, but you do start shaking, and that sends ice through his veins. xiao leans you back against the sandbearer tree and shakes your shoulders. “[name], you need to wake up. something is wrong.”
you make a terrible, choked screaming sound from behind your teeth, and xiao panics - if it were anyone else he would have slapped them awake, but he cannot do that, not to you, not when you’ve fought back to back and guarded each other for nigh on eternity.
“[name],” he says instead, putting the force of a summoning behind it.
you are awake immediately, eyes snapping open and a shout of surprise ripped from your heaving chest. you fumble for your weapon and xiao pins you in the dirt before you can grab it. you thrash under him and fight his hold, and with the fight you’re putting up, xiao can say he’s quite glad you were on the same side in the archon war.
“calm yourself, you were having a bad dream-” that’s as far as he gets before you’re screaming and trying to bite him.
“get off of me, demon! i will slay you! unhand me! where is alatus, show me alatus now or i will tear your heart from your chest with my teeth- ALATUS! ALATUS HELP!”
xiao’s chest tightens painfully; it feels as though his lungs are being crushed. you are calling for his help, summoning him, and he is already there.
“i am alatus, xiao,” he tries, but that sends you into a frenzy.
“do not try your tricks on me, demon! if i find alatus hurt or slain i will slaughter you like the vermin you are!” you slam your head into xiao’s, all the while baring your teeth like a feral animal, and when all that does is give him a bloody nose, your entire body goes up in a whoosh of flames.
“fuck!” xiao jerks back and lands on his ass in the dirt, forehead smarting and arms stinging where his burns are already healing.
you stand in front of him, spear in hand, staggering and snarling, body still flaming.
“[name]!” xiao calls, trying to summon you out of this mess, but you charge him with more viciousness than he’s ever seen from you, and it’s all he can do to dodge out of the way - thank morax for his adeptal speed.
you charge him again with a ragged battle cry. “do not mock him!” you scream, almost hysterical, and xiao dodges again.
“[NAME]!” he roars, and you falter in a lunge toward him. “[name],” xiao says, much softer, almost a plea, because he will not lay a finger on you, not when you are sworn to protect each other, not when you have cared for him for all of these years, not when he allows you to sleep beside him. “[name], it’s me. it’s xiao.”
your spear hits the ground with a clatter, and then you’re on your knees, face in your hands. xiao never wants to see you kneel like your spirit has been crushed.
“xiao, xiao i’m so sorry, i thought you were a demon, i-”
he kneels in front of you. with shaking, gloved fingers, he pries your hands away from your face. “[name]. you are aware now, yes?”
you nod, squeeze your eyes shut, swallow, lock eyes with him. “yes. i am… present.”
“you did not intentionally attack me,” xiao says, and it’s a statement, but you take it as a question.
“of course not! i would never harm you, i have neither cause nor desire to do so!” you protest desperately, gripping his wrists.
he breathes out. “i know. but that means that you were awake, but not connected with the world.”
every bit of fight goes out of your body. he’s never seen you look so weak. resigned. “the debt. it is beginning to take its toll.”
xiao is on his feet in an instant, spear in one hand and his other on your shoulder while you remain kneeling in the dirt and rocks. “we must find morax. he will know what to do.”
xiao has lived most, if not the entirety of his life, in a repetitive, cyclical existence. everything is familiar, he can navigate every mountain and valley of liyue flawlessly, he knows each and every plant and animal and spirit and being, and he knows the dance of battle and how to fit by your side, visions flashing in the sunlight. familiarity is something xiao welcomes, he finds stability in its constancy and finds that it makes his burden easier to bear.
but this familiarity, the distorted reflection of the day you took him to morax for qingxin tea for the first time - this familiarity twists his gut and claws at his heart and lungs, shreds him to ribbons. the familiar statements from morax - that he can only alleviate symptoms, not treat the source, makes the feeling all the more insidious.
morax is immovable as stone, eternal and unyielding, but xiao sees, as only someone who has known morax long enough can, the way his expression softens, just slightly, into something vulnerable, exhausted, and desperately, desperately sad.
you and xiao spend the night at mount aocang, watching fish swim under the lily pads. you drink qingxin tea and confess to headaches and nightmares - you had thought that was just the way your debt was manifesting. apparently it is a much more serious manifestation than that.
“xiao,” you whisper, fingers tracing the circular patterns in the stone. “i do not think that my debt is something i will be able to bear for eternity, not like yours. someday i will be a danger to what we are bound to protect; i will need to be stopped.”
this time, his hands do not shake when he reaches for you. xiao slips his fingers between yours and holds fast, determined to be as solid and steady as his archon. “i will not let it come to that.”
you squeeze his hand. it feels like a consolation prize. “that is not within your power. i agreed to serve morax and to bear the karmic burden of slaying the remnants of the old gods. i knew something like this would happen, we all did.”
“no,” he insists, “no. i will not sit by while you… you become some kind of husk. i refuse to.”
“xiao-” you start, and he grips your hand harder and looks down at the koi pond. he cannot look at you, not now, not when he can barely swallow, barely breathe, eyes stinging until the whole world blurs.
“no. i will find a way. there is a way, [name], indarias. there is a way, and i will find it.”
your sigh tells him that you are resigned, but to what, he cannot say. “very well. but just in case, i need you to promise me something.”
xiao looks up. your face ripples in a whirl of tears and moonlight. “of course.” anything.
your gaze pierces his heart, burning, unforgiving. he adores it.
“kill me the instant i become a threat to either you, morax, the other adepti, or liyue. do not hesitate. do not chance it, xiao. you must end me when the time comes.”
“no,” xiao hisses, standing. “never. i will never strike you down. you are…! you have…!” he flounders as you stand. he wants to dive into the pond and sleep eternally in the rocks that line the bottom, he wants to run to the nearest cliff and fly away on a wind current, xiao wants to run and xiao wants to hide, wants to do anything but face this. “you are my partner. you have never abandoned me. i refuse to abandon you to fate.”
“xiao,” you sigh, and trace the palm of his hand. “you don’t have a choice. i am a yaksha, and i am duty-bound to purge this land of demons. so long as i fulfill my duty, i will be further weighed down by my debt. with each strike of my spear with which i protect liyue, i damn myself. and i accept that. i could not be a yaksha without that.”
he sputters like a dying flame, and his tears burn like acid as they slip down his cheeks (for the first time since his liberation, xiao cries). “then stop being a yaksha!” he bursts out, choking on his own heart. “let me take over your duties. retire. kill not another soul, and let yourself deteriorate no further.”
xiao hates himself for saying that, for trying to strip you of your purpose and your loyalty, hates himself for betraying morax in favor of you, hates that he is so willing to throw his values to the side and twist himself into something unrecognizable, all to preserve you. at the same time, he does not care what he becomes, so long as you remain.
you grab his wrists as he unconsciously tries to twist away from your soft, almost reverent touches to his palm. your fingers lock around his wrists like iron, shackled to a destiny that he cannot escape.
“i cannot allow you to do that. if you took over my duties, you would never rest, and you would suffer a fate worse than mine with that much poison in your soul.”
you step closer to him, and you’re so close, closer than anyone else has ever been, and xiao’s heart is in his throat and in his wrists and he can’t see you very well through the veil of water over the world, but it feels like time has stopped for an instance, waiting in the moonlight.
“i could never condemn you like that,” you whisper, and he sees your lips tremble, and xiao surges forward with the power of a fatal blow and crushes his lips against yours.
he’s fairly sure he’s sobbing, what with the way his chest is heaving and his whole body is shaking. the kiss tastes like salt, and he can feel hot tears - yours or his, he is not sure - slipping to the corners of his mouth.
xiao pulls away, struggling to breathe around the kiss and the awful feeling in his chest. you are still holding his wrists, his hands hover uselessly in your grip. he tugs and you let go of him easily, hands sliding up to cup his face.
“i could never, will never condemn you like that,” you repeat; you’re hoarse and your voice pitches as you cry.
xiao rests his hands on your waist. “you are scared, [name], and i cannot have you scared.” his voice breaks.
your grip on his face tightens, fingertips digging in. he hopes you are imprinted on his skin forever, that you stay forever.
“i am not scared of what will happen to me, xiao. i am scared of what i will become, what i will do when that happens, and what will happen to you.”
i love you, he wants to say, gritting his teeth against the horrible tide of grief that rises in his throat, bitter on the back of his tongue. i love you, he thinks, bitterly. i have always loved you, and that is my real curse, my real burden. to love someone who is impermanent, who will burn themselves alive just to light the way.
“i will be fine,” xiao says instead. “but you will not.”
“no, i won’t. but we’ve known that since the end of the archon war.” you caress his jaw - you can probably feel the tension in it from the way his teeth are grinding against each other. he has to physically stop himself from pushing into the touch (he still does, just not as pathetically as he otherwise might have).
you take a deep breath, “you must-”
“no!” xiao shouts, and it rings against the stone of the mountain. he cannot bring himself to care about whether or not he has disturbed the home of cloud retainer. “no,” he says again, a whimper. “i cannot promise such a thing. i cannot.”
he shakes his head, but your grip is as strong as ever - not that he can bring himself to fight you in the first place.
you kiss him again. xiao is drowning, and he’s not sure it gets better when you stop kissing him.
“you have done many impossible things, my vigilant yaksha. this is simply another task that you will overcome.” your hands rest on his chest. they burn like brands.
“no, no, never,” is all he can manage, barely audible even in the holy silence of mount aocang.
“it is my dying wish that i shall perish at your hand.”
xiao, the mighty adeptus, golden-winged king, conqueror of demons, sinks to his knees. “do not ask this of me,” he begs.
“would you rather kill me now, before i have lost my mind entirely? i would go quieter, if that would make it easier.”
xiao fights back nausea. he bows and his forehead hits the cool stones of the poolside path. “i cannot do either of these things. i will not raise a hand against you.”
you sit down next to him. “stop bowing and scraping, please. it will not change my mind, and it pains me to see you stoop so low.”
he reverts to kneeling, although now that you’re sitting, he supposes it does not show much of his plea for mercy any more.
“if you would prefer it,” you dip your feet in the pool. you’re still wearing shoes. “i will ask one of the other foremost yakshas to dispatch me, and if they will not, i ensure you that morax will, so long as i form a contract with him.”
xiao shivers and feels his stomach turn. “no, no. i…” there’s something terrible about leaving the task to someone else. he is your most trusted, he has guarded you and fought with you and lived with you and has never been without you. the other yakshas, and even morax, have never been as close to you as xiao has. it would be a violation of trust to force you to go to someone else for this. (it would also be dangerous; xiao does not desire to test his loyalty in such a way).
“i can…” he trails off, not sure what he can do. “i promise. i have slept by your side, lived by your side, bled by your side, killed by your side, and… you will die by my side. i will not abandon you to a lonely death.” this is worse than anything he can imagine, but there are things he cannot will himself to think of, and those things are much, much worse.
“i will rest easy with the knowledge that the world will come to no harm at my hands.”
xiao is glad you do not thank him. he could not take being thanked for such a horrible task, one that harmed you.
he thumbs your cheekbone and guides your face to his, kisses you again, trying to find some way to breathe around the terrible emptiness in his bones. he is crying again. he is terrified.
“the world will come to no harm at my hands.”
but i already have, i am burning with you, and it is not even your fault. i am trying to love a dying star.
you leave jueyun karst the next morning with twice the amount of qingxin powder. a sense of finality hangs in the air, heavy and damp, gravedirt and tombstones ground to a dust in xiao’s lungs.
you usually sleep in the open, occasionally stopping at the wangshuu inn to rest after long patrols or hard battles. xiao goes there instantly this time, travels on the wind with you holding his hand.
the potted plants of the inn’s uppermost balcony greet you, leaves swaying in the air current xiao has created in his rush to get there. he stands as still as stone, paralyzed. for the first time in his thousands of years of living, xiao is lost.
everything drags around him, like he’s wading through the mud of dihua marsh in a torrential downpour, half-frozen, half-dead. you kiss the brass knuckles of his gloves - your gloves - and xiao wonders if someday, that will be all that’s left of you.
“we still have time.” your voice is quiet on the stillness of the balcony, wangshuu’s guests not yet awake. mist rolls across the water. “i am still here, xiao. it is not over yet.”
xiao has to lean against the balcony railing to stay upright; he will not kneel again, not after you told him it pained you to see him do so. “but it will be over, and for us, hundreds of years pass in the blink of an eye. it will be over all too soon.”
you have no answer to that, only a sorrowful stare.
“i need to make your medicine.” he’s in the kitchen in a flash, he just needs a second away from you to compose himself, a second to remind himself to be strong. you know this, have always known him better than anyone else, so he hears you coming down the wooden staircase, rather than feeling you appear at his side.
you start the stove’s fire with a wave of your hand. xiao puts on a pot of water to boil. his bones feel like lead as he sits next to you at the counter.
“we will have to enjoy the time we have,” you say.
xiao is greedy. he wants more time.
you are asleep in bed, curled up under the quilt. you do not need sleep, but xiao needs time to think, and you give it to him.
he sends a dream to the other yakshas, pleading that they take care of any demons with utmost haste, just so you can avoid killing more demons than those that cross your path.
xiao sits by your bedside. your still form might have reminded others of your fate, of your unavoidable death, but xiao knows that you will not look this peaceful and quiet. you will go kicking and screaming, flaming like a funeral pyre, maddened and raging, put down like a wild animal. he is your executioner, and he can’t even give you the dignity of a noble death.
he does everything in his power to keep you safe. he carries a flask of the qingxin infusion with him, just in case administering it will guard against nightmares and haunting illusions. he kills faster, pushes himself to the limit of force and efficiency to get through as many demons as possible, just trying to keep you from killing even one more than necessary. he stays awake with you and talks to you all night, even if he struggles with words - you need to be present at all times, engaged, or your mind might slip away.
it slips away anyways.
he doesn’t even notice when it happens.
you’re in the middle of a battle. the air is filled with the stench of burning demons, and ash swirls in the wind. xiao tears through body after body, his shoes are soaked in demonic blood and the only thing keeping it from getting into his eyes is his mask. he is tireless, a weapon of war, spear swinging and slicing through bone and tendons and muscle like a hot knife through butter.
he beheads the last demon and watches it twist and crumple, nerves cut off. he impales it on his spear just to make sure that it’s fully dead.
xiao turns to check on you - he’s just in time to see you rushing him, spear held out like you’re going to gut him and leave him to bleed out on the dusty ground - which you are, because to you, he is a demon.
he barely has time to bring his own weapon up in a block, metal against metal, both hands gripping his spear and forcing yours up so that it narrowly misses him.
“[name], you’re having an episode. i am not a demon. i am a yaksha, xiao,” he soothes, in between blocking and shoving you back with the shaft of his spear. anger and instability have made you weaker, less coordinated.
you hiss at him and swipe at his stomach - xiao barely avoids being eviscerated. only an adeptus or a god could permanently harm him, and while you are far from in your top form in this stage, he still can’t let his guard down.
“[name]!” he calls, louder, trying to get through to you. you respond by lunging at him.
xiao darts around you and tackles you from behind. you twist under him, snap at him, all teeth. “please calm down, [name], please, do not make me harm you!”
your only answer is an unintelligible growl and an attempt to hit his face with the back of your head - he stops that with the palm of his hand, and unwilling to use his spear, he slams your head down onto the stony ground. you go limp. xiao wonders if he’ll be sick to his stomach.
he can feel you breathing under him, he knows that you’re still alive, that all he’s done is knock you out. his heart is still bearing far too quickly, panicked and battering against his rib cage like a trapped, frantic bird.
xiao tips some of the qingxin infusion into your mouth, and he can only hope that when you come to, you are back to your usual self.
the episodes are more frequent, clustering together, and they last longer, xiao grows nervous that one day you’ll snap and he won’t be able to stop you or get you back. (he knows that day is coming, can feel it in the way his bones shake with leaden emptiness).
he hasn’t been able to bring you out of that state, not like the first time. the only thing that seems to work is knocking you out, and it makes his stomach churn every time.
after each fight (he never thought he’d be fighting you outside of a sparring ring) he carries you back to the wangshuu inn and tucks you into bed, enjoys how peaceful you look as he prepares your medicine. he does not want to leave your side for more than a second, but he is loathe to let someone else care for you, so he mixes the qingxin himself.
xiao sits next to you and breaks apart almond tofu in his mouth, crushes it against his palette. the texture reminds him of the dreams he used to eat, and helps him prepare for what it will be like without you, who he was without you, who he is sure to return to being the moment you disappear.
he insists that you rest after you wake up, even though you appear normal and healthy. you don’t need rest, you don’t need healing, but he insists, because one day in bed will be one day where you are not slaying demons. maybe it’s selfish, maybe he should care more about both of your duties as yakshas than he does about keeping you sane. but xiao can’t bring himself to care - the world can burn for the time being; he has more important things to do.
xiao sits on the edge of your bed, slips his - your - gloves off, and holds your hand. your vision glints where it rests around your neck, red and burning, a dying ember in the afterglow of a forest fire. you are destroying everything in your path, including him, and he’s well on his way to letting you.
you’re patrolling near qingce village in the dead of night, the moon glowing overhead, lighting the terraces of orange and yellow flowers. glaze lilies sprout among them, pale blue and glistening with the rain that’s recently fallen. the air smells sweet and fresh with rain and lilies, cool, soothing, the embrace of nighttime.
the fields of flowers rustle and part around you as you walk through them, the image of serenity. xiao is beside you, slightly behind, admiring the way the moonlight glances off the blade of your spear and dances across your skin and clothes.
you stop. xiao walks calmly to your side. you inhale deeply, a smile flickering across your face. “i often wish i was a dendro user,” you confess. “just so i could grow lilies from the palms of my hands, or bring life to deadened lands. destruction tires me so, xiao.”
he steps in front of you. his hand drifts to your waist, and yours rest on his chest. “you are not destructive. without you, without us, liyue could not prosper. you may not bring life, but you protect it. this peace, here,” he gestures to the endless, rippling fields of goldenrod and ochre, “this is because of you.”
“but it doesn’t touch you,” you whisper, and your head is on his chest. xiao sways with the flowers, always a spirit in the wind, and you follow, leaning against him.
“no, but that is something both of us must accept. i am not mortal, and thus mortal peace cannot touch me.” he pulls you closer, takes one of your hands and laces your fingers together, a poor semblance of a human waltz, and with no music to dance to but the sighing of the flowers and the trees in the wind.
you are silent for a while, just holding each other under the moonlight.
“i love you,” you say, soft, almost hesitant.
emotion wells up in the back of xiao’s mouth; he almost chokes on it. “i love you too, more than you know.”
“i’m sorry,” you whisper, and xiao doesn’t know what you’re apologizing for - for the fact that you’re going to have to die, for the fact that he has to be the one to execute you, for loving him, for him loving you. xiao doesn’t know what you’re apologizing for, and he doesn’t care.
“all is forgiven. you are always forgiven.”
you’re standing atop mount tianheng, looking down on liyue harbor. it has prospered for thousands of years. the ocean mists blanket it, the peaks and valleys cradle it, the sandbearer trees stand tall and guard it.
your spear rests loosely in your hand. xiao looks down on the city next to you. the air tastes salt-sharp as he breathes it in. there is not a demon in sight.
the familiar sound of flame bursting to life snaps his attention toward you, he expects you to be facing him, he prepares himself for another battle, another sickening smack of your head against the ground.
but you’re not looking at him.
you’re looking down at liyue harbor.
“demons, all of them,” you hiss, and you leap and you’re plunging down the side of the mountain in a blaze of fury, burning a glowing, deadly path through the mist, a lethal firefly.
xiao dives after you, pushing his adeptal speed to its limits, and he’s always been faster then you. even as he gives chase he prays that you will outpace him, that he will not catch up. indirectly, he prays that liyue harbor will burn. it is selfish and it is wrong, it is a moment of profound weakness, it is sacrilegious, and xiao is a sinner and he does. not. care.
but he cares about keeping his promise to you, if no one else.
he wills himself faster and crashes into you on a rocky outcropping. you roar and thrash as he pins you, feral and snarling, a rabid animal.
“why are you stopping me, alatus?! there are demons down there, a whole city of demons, sleeping right under our noses!” your eyes shine madly in the light of your flaming spear, which lays on the rock beside you, knocked out of reach.
the mist closes in around you, and nothing exists except the two of you.
“those are not demons, [name]. those are the people we are sworn to protect.”
you bare your teeth and your voice thunders against the mountainside as you scream at him, “they have fooled you, alatus! they will kill us all if we do not strike now!”
xiao swallows down the nausea that coils in his throat and prepares to let go of one of your hands and slam your head down on the rocks, but just as he’s about to, you breathe fire. the only thing that saves him is his mask.
the flash of heat and light disorients him, the element of surprise loosens his hold on you, and you manage to get a hand free. xiao panics as you reach for your weapon, and in the split second that he’s forced to choose between you and all of liyue, he wrenches his spear from where it’s strapped to his back and plunges it through your chest.
he drives the polearm into you with such force that you’re staked to the rock beneath you, struggling weakly, like a butterfly pinned in a display case.
xiao rips his mask off and he sees clarity come back into your eyes, weak and horrified. blood leaks from the corner of your mouth. you make a gut-wrenching choking, gurgling noise. xiao resists the urge to throw up.
his hands have slid down the shaft of the spear to where yours are. blood is soaking the area around the blade, it slicks your hands scarlet, messy and slipping where they grab at his. he’s still wearing your gloves. you’re gasping, struggling to breathe. the blood that pools under you is dripping down the side of the rock ledge you’re lying on.
your hands scrabble for his, “i’m scared, xiao. i’m so scared!”
xiao can’t fucking breathe, his hands are slipping in your blood as he tries to cradle yours around the spear, his spear, piercing your chest, and he’s shaking all over, he’s breaking apart and you’re scared. you’re scared, all this time you’ve been scared and you’ve been comforting him when he wasn’t even the one who was going to die.
“it’s okay,” he lies, tears streaming down his face, voice weak and cracking around the ache of sorrow. “it’s okay. i’m here.”
“xiao, xiao take the spear out, please, i can’t heal!” you’re desperate, terrified, pleading, and he’s never denied you anything but this is something he cannot give you, no matter how much you beg.
“i love you,” he says instead, and thumbs your bottom lip. he kisses you. your blood smears against his mouth. he tastes iron and smells copper. “i have always loved you, and i will not stop loving you.”
his tears drip onto your face, pink and watery with the splatters of blood on your skin. he searches your eyes frantically, cupping your face with one hand, the other still gripping the spear. his grip leaves a bloody handprint on your cheek and jaw.
“i love you,” xiao tries again. he needs to hear it before you go, just one more time. please.
you cough. blood splatters your lips. you are breathing shallowly, wheezing. “i love you, too, xiao.” your hand is sticky and red where it touches the purple mark on his forehead. “please stay safe, for me,” you rasp, “thank you.” the irony is terrible and cruel and it burns going down.
xiao doesn’t blink at all in the last few seconds of your life, watches the breath and blood and fight drain out of you, until you’re nothing but a limp husk, pinned to the rock of mount tianheng, bathed in liyue’s early morning mists.
he sits back, kneeling, still straddling you from pinning you down. the whole mountain hears him sobbing and screaming until his throat is raw, begging and pleading with the heavens, cursing everything under the sun.
he carries your body back to jueyun karst, stumbling the whole way, unable to see through his tears. you are still warm in his arms. his spear is strapped to his back, yours next to it, flame long gone out.
xiao staggers into the holy ground and collapses at the entrance. morax and the other adepti are there, and they rush toward him.
xiao sees nothing, hears nothing, through the entire burial. he thinks morax makes a grave under a sandbearer tree, buries you with your spear and vision, and seals you away. xiao sits there, next to you, and doesn’t leave for days. he isn’t sure how much time passes, just that he is kneeling in the dirt of your grave, grasping at soil and dust and rocks.
he is not sure whether he is dead or alive. you have burnt out, and maybe he has too.
the pain in his chest - either from your death or from his karmic debt - is unbearable, a bone-deep ache that consumes him and renders him lifeless, boneless, weak and despairing in the dirt.
xiao finds himself wandering in the terraces near qingce village one night.
it is the first time he has left jueyun karst in a very long time. he hopes morax and the others - who have all been tending to him, offering him cups of qingxin tea to ease the pain, taking over his duties - will not be worried. he has been refusing the qingxin tea, though. he does not deserve to have his pain dulled.
the flowers rustle in the wind, glaze lilies glinting with dew, pearls among sand. xiao stands as still as possible, breathes in the sweet petrichor of the air, pictures you in his mind, dancing with him in the field.
but he is alone, and the pain in his chest twists and grows until he’s on his knees, swallowed by the sea of flowers, burning marigold and apricot like your flaming spear. he is going to be consumed by his debt, here and now, and he knows it.
inky blackness seeps through his blood, and xiao lays down in the field of flowers, exhausted and shivering, lungs fluttering weakly.
a soft melody fills the air, the ancient tune of a flute played on a cormorant boat on the longest river in liyue, and the demonic poison retreats.
xiao sits up.
he hurts less, physically, but the wound of your loss is still raw and bleeding. he wants nothing more than to lie down again and sleep beneath the earth, but he stands.
he is a yaksha, he reminds himself. he has a contract. he will not fail morax, and he will not fail you.
a small figure in elaborate green clothes is playing a flute and sitting on a rock wall in between the flower terraces. xiao approaches.
“barbatos,” he sighs. “are you in liyue for a reason?”
“nothing in particular,” the archon chirps, kicking his legs like a child. “just here to make sure my second favorite yaksha didn’t kick the bucket along with the first.”
xiao hops onto the rock wall next to barbatos and looks out over the flowers. he dreams of dancing with you in them one day. maybe barbatos can be there, too, since you’d always liked the sound of a bamboo flute.
“thank you,” xiao says.
“don’t worry about it. just watch the moon. it’s nice tonight.”
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