Every house had its own language, and it was only by living in it that one could ever hope to learn its tongue.
So it was that Rodion heard the house whine in the night, creaking fearfully under the unknown footsteps that carefully tread across its smooth, worn floorboards. Perhaps one of the children have gotten up for water, he thought as he turned under the blankets, his old spine cracking as he did so. The mass beside him, his slumbering beloved, did not move. Instead, she remained fast asleep, exhausted from a day of child wrangling and wedding planning. What a tall task it was to create not one ceremony but two, fashioned after the rich traditions that each of the young grooms had been born into.
Seconds passed, and Rodion did not hear the telltale clomping of a sleepy child returning to bed. Instead, the creaking continued, slowly, cautiously, until it finally stopped. Rodion held his breath as he waited for it to resume, but it never did. Someone was out there, downstairs, wandering about the house, someone that wasn’t supposed to be there at all.
Rodion reached over to the nightstand and grabbed an unlit candle as he rolled himself out of bed. He bit his lip as something in his back popped, silencing his groans before they could wake his wife. Then, his hand dove into the drawer, emerging with a match.
He took the candle and match into the doorway before he lit it, shielding the light with his cupped hand as he closed the door behind him. Soon, the rest of the house came into focus. There were the children’s rooms, doors shut tight like mollusk shells at low tide. There was the entrance, dark as it waited for the sun’s rays to guide new guests to its threshold. There was the kitchen with its big, wide window, the window that he loved staring out of as he reminisced about old adventures and even older friends.
There was the strange silhouette blocking his view of the ghostly moonlit snow, a shadow at once human and beast, a shape that he had only seen once in a book, long, long ago.
He raised his candle, and a familiar face took shape.
His future son-in-law stared with wide, amber eyes, stunned by the radiant candlelight piercing through the thick, velvet darkness. Atop his head grew two golden horns, glinting like gilded branches as they reached up in vain in search of the nourishing sun. His porcelain cheeks had become speckled with dark brown scales, and his hands were thoroughly covered in the exact same stuff. From the tips of his fingers erupted small, hooked claws of the same substance and hue as the horns that reigned above.
Rodion nearly dropped the candle.
“You’re –“ he started before the frightened words absconded from his throat.
Zhongli said nothing as his trembling fingertips fluttered up to one of the horns, touching it lightly.
“Are you an adeptus?” Rodion finally asked, forcing the words out on the single breath he managed to draw.
“The prime,” Zhongli said. The fragile whisper felt as if it were dust, dust that would disintegrate at the slightest touch.
Rodion sat down at the kitchen table before the shock took away his legs.
For some moments, they remained like this, both breathing heavily as they stared at things that didn’t quite exist. Zhongli’s fingers didn’t leave his glimmering horn, and Rodion’s hand stayed firmly clasped around the candle, as if that were his one and only anchor to the world.
“You’re really Rex Lapis?” Rodion finally asked, rubbing his faded ginger beard with his free hand.
Zhongli only nodded.
“Everyone says you’ve passed on,” Rodion said, suddenly wanting a glass of water with which to wet his parched throat. But he couldn’t rise, not here with a god standing before him, commanding his full attention.
“I faked my death,” Zhongli said simply, turning his gaze toward the floor. His hand finally came down from his horn and found the countertop behind him. “My people no longer had any need for their god, but it took his unplanned departure for them to realize their strength.”
The revelation hung heavy in the air, and it suddenly became nigh-impossible to draw breath. Rodion coughed once, then again, upon its weight.
Zhongli’s empty gaze finally focused, and he moved swiftly toward the water pitcher sitting atop the counter.
“No – “ Rodion tried to complain, motioning for Zhongli to put the pitcher down. “A god shouldn’t – “
A cup filled to the brim with cool, crisp water clicked upon the tabletop.
Rodion hesitantly took the cup and brought it to his lips. Zhongli watched him carefully, taking the seat opposite from him as he drank.
“Never in all my days had I thought I would have a god under my roof,” Rodion said after he had downed the water, wiping the left-over droplets from his beard with the back of his hand. “Even the Tsaritsa…she doesn’t bestow her presence upon the families of her chosen.”
Zhongli said nothing, but a shadow dimmed his gleaming eyes.
“And – “ Rodion said as a smile broke out across his weathered face. “You’re marrying my son! Ah, I wish I was still with the Guild. We’d swap stories all the time. They’d never believe me if I told them that a god was going to be my son-in-law!”
Zhongli suddenly turned his face away and withdrew his clasped hands into his lap.
“Oh – your highness,” Rodion said, the smile transforming into wide-eyed embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be taking you so lightly.”
“No. I’m the one that should be sorry,” Zhongli said, one horn glowing dimly in the candlelight as the other one sank into darkness.
Rodion’s bushy eyebrows shot up, and he opened his mouth to protest.
“What for? You’ve done so much for this land.”
“I – “ Zhongli said, briefly turning his face back toward Rodion. It twisted into a grimace, a grimace within which the rawest pain resided. “I can’t marry Ajax.”
Rodion deflated in his seat, suddenly becoming ten years older as he hunched above his half-empty cup.
“I understand. A god cannot be expected to imprison himself among mortals.”
“No,” Zhongli said, his voice acquiring a forcefulness that until now it had lacked. “That’s not it at all.”
“You don’t need to spare my feelings. I heard all about the gods on my adventures. The way you experience the world is so different compared to how we do. It’s only natural.”
Zhongli placed his elbows upon the table and leaned forward, bringing his clasped hands to his forehead. Below, a sharp draconic canine shined, hinting at a larger snarl hidden behind his forearm.
“I want to marry your son,” Zhongli said, squeezing his eyes shut as each syllable became like a taught rubber band, ready to snap. “I want to marry him, but I can’t.”
“Why not?” Rodion asked, instinctively reaching a comforting hand toward Zhongli’s shoulder before pulling away.
“I have promised Ajax a mortal heart,” Zhongli said, speaking each word slowly. “A heart that flames with passionate love because it knows not how much time it has left to burn. A heart capable of creating the most sacred bond, the strongest bond, with its chosen.”
“Don’t…don’t you have one of those bonds with Ajax, though?” Rodion asked.
“I thought I did.”
A silence hung in the air.
“But now I’m not so certain.”
“Why not?” Rodion asked.
“I felt - I thought I had attained humanity after I departed from my station. Whenever I walked anonymously at the harbor, whenever I was surrounded by your family’s warmth, whenever Ajax kissed me, I thought my heart had finally turned mortal. But when I think about it, when I try to grasp that humanity and turn it over in my fingers, it begins to crumble. Papier-mache disintegrates when it touches water. My humanity falls apart when it meets the truth.”
“I…” Rodion said as Zhongli’s hands fell down to the table, revealing eyes glimmering with unshed tears. “I could never tell the difference between you and any other men I’ve met. And I’ve met a lot in my time.”
“But look at me,” Zhongli countered as he stared down at his lithe, clawed fingers. “I cannot even present myself to you as a man. What hope do I have of becoming one for my wedding day? And what of all the days after that? What shall I do three years from now when Ajax still expects a human husband, and I cannot provide?”
A few more scales rose to the surface of Zhongli’s cheeks.
Rodion took a deep breath and stared down at his reflection in his cup. There had to be something to say, some timely anecdote, some useful advice from his adventuring days. Finally, a thought came to him.
“I don’t claim to be an expert on these things,” he said as Zhongli’s bleary eyes turned hesitantly toward him. “But I think I’ve picked up my fair share of wisdom over the years. And I think I have a good enough idea of what makes up a human.”
“I know this too,” Zhongli said. “A human body, a human mind, a human soul. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“I shouldn’t be telling a god he’s wrong,” Rodion said. “But I’ve found that’s not it at all. I know a man with all three of those things, and he can become the worst monster you can imagine. Nothing short of horror can bring him back to his senses.”
“Then what makes a man?” Zhongli asked.
“Love. And the way he shows it.”
“But my love – “
“Is just as good as any other man’s. I’ve seen you with Ajax. You love him more than I’ve seen any partner of his love him, and he knows it. The way you love him helps him be himself, which is something he’s had an awful hard time doing lately. Your love makes you more of a man than most.”
“You flatter me,” Zhongli said. “But I just can’t believe that.”
“But you should,” Rodion said. “I’d never lie to a fellow man.”
The scales on Zhongli’s face began to melt away as a small, hesitant smile formed on his face. He blinked, and a single tear spilled forth from his eye, crawling slowly down his right cheek.
“You know, svjokor,” Zhongli said. “If you speak a monster’s true name, he will be called back to his humanity.”
“Is that so?” Rodion asked.
“Yes,” Zhongli said. “If you cast aside your fear and say it with all the love in your heart, he will return.”
Rodion sat back in his seat, nodding slowly with unspoken understanding.
“I will say his name, every day if I must, just as my vows instruct,” Zhongli said. “For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, I will be there to call him back.”
“Thank you, Zhongli,” Rodion said, smiling as his eyes also began to well with tears. “I could not wish for anything more.”