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memories of dust

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Sometimes, Zhongli brings Childe to the Dihua Marsh. They sit at the edge of the shore, feet dipping into clear blue, and talk until the sky fades from a vivid orange to a deep blue. It is nighttime now, and the speckles of stars in the sky reflect faintly against the waters marsh. He thinks here of the soft melodies that used to fill the air when he’d been there all those thousands of years ago.

He thinks he would like to hear it again.

“Childe, do you know how to sing?”

“I can hold a tune,” Childe laughs. “I sang to my siblings before to help them sleep. It helped them with their nightmares.”

He smiles at the image of that, bundles of orange hair and freckles resting against him as he sang. “I imagine it would. The flowers too like it when you sing to them,” he tells him.

Zhongli is speaking Childe, but he is not looking at him. He is looking at the expanse of the plains, and he is looking at the moonlight rippling against the water. He is looking at a memory from thousands of years ago.

“Did she like to sing to them?” Childe asks him.

“The glaze lilies here were her favorite,” Zhongli tells him. “She would bring me here and sing to them, back when these marshes were still abundant with flowers. Whenever she sang to them, the scent of them would fill the marsh.”

“But there are none left here,” Childe tells him.

Zhongli smiles at him, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “No, not anymore. Not since the war.”

The heavens took many things away from Zhongli that day—he is a god, and he transcends the cycle of life, and he knows some things are bound not to stay. He forgives and he forgets. Zhongli is a god, but there are things burned into his memory that he simply cannot let go of.

 

 

-

 

 

 

“Did you love her?”

Childe asks him this as they walk home from the marsh, bundles of flowers in their hands. They found them sitting prettily on the heads of wild whopperflowers, and put up quite a fight to get them. They laughed with each other as they picked the icy petals off of their heads. They take their time trekking the muddy paths, making their way back to the harbor city.

“I only wish then I knew what love was. I would’ve done more for her.”

“You’re guilty,” Childe tells him gently. It is not an accusation, but a reminder. You are guilty, and it is holding onto you like chains at your feet.

“When you are a god,” he says, “You think that you are exempted from the mortal ways of life. You live lifetimes to extents that humans could never dream of. She was a god as well, and I too exempted her from the idea of the cycle of life.”

“But she wasn’t an exception,” Childe says.

He shakes his head. “None of us are, Childe. We will all return to the earth one day, even I.” He pauses. He inhales, and he speaks again. “Still, I did not expect to lose her that day.”

 

 

-

 

 

It is a rainy day when she dies. Her body rests on his lap, skin and bone crumbling to fine dust.

“It’s a shame,” she tells him. “With your brawn and my brains, this city would have done well for sure.”

He thinks of her musings of the people. He thinks of the way she tells him how fragile they are, how impermanent they are in this world. He thinks of the way she looks at them when they fight still to leave their marks despite all the odds.

“Still, I trust you to take care of it. I know you will do well, Morax. My journey ends here, but you’ve still a life ahead of you.”

There is a heavy feeling in his heart, but he does not know what it is called. There is water dripping from his eyes, but he does not know why they fall, or where they come from.

When he loses her that day, the memory of her too turns to dust, and it settles in the crevices of his heart. She is in the aroma of silk flower perfume. She is in the glint of the lilies along the city streets. She is in the melodies sung by traveling poets, voices passing through the mountains and bamboo groves. She is the memory of rainy days in a field of stone pillars, a lonely smile on her face as she makes her departure. She is a little stone dumbbell left behind in their palace in the skies, challenging him to learn. Find my secrets, it is telling him. Find them, and you will find me.

 

 

 

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground—it is from dust we are born, and it is to dust we shall return.

 

 

 

They visit the Stone Forest another day. It is Zhongli’s first time here ever since he saw her fade to dust in this same place. They sit on a stone peak overlooking the little islands, watching the waves of the oceans mingle with the sand. The moonlight peeks out over them through a crack in the sky.

He sets a jar of incense out, letting the scent of wild lilies fill the air.

“Guizhong loved Liyue. She loved it in ways I could never understand or grasp,” he tells Childe. “It was worse after her passing. The whole city—it felt like a relic of war. A monument built in her memory.”

“She loved Liyue so much that she died fighting for it—so much that whenever I looked at it, I could only remember her.”

“Is that why you’d stay in the skies so often?”

“It was difficult to be surrounded by it,” Zhongli tells him. “Still, I did my best still to love the city like she did, but there were so many things about it I could not grasp. I wanted to understand what she saw in it,” Childe places his hand on his, rubbing circles comfortingly into the palm of his hand.

“I tried to visit it as much as I could still, and I tried to walk among them the way she did. All of us adepti—we all had our own ways of honoring her memory, and that was mine.”

“Did you learn from it?” he asks. He is asking Zhongli the question, but it is something he already knows the answer to. He sees it in the way Zhongli walks in the city streets, and sees it in the way he mingles with the people. He sees it in the way Zhongli humors the little wanderer, and sees it in the way he looks at him under these night skies.

“It took a long time. A few thousand years, even,” he says. “But it was not in vain, to say the least.”

 

 

-

 

 

On that lake in the mountains, the Cloud Retainer dines at a table under the shade of amber trees. They adorn it with silk flowers and lilies in memory of that day, and only hope the scent of it she loved so much reaches the celestia.

Up on that inn settled on the trees, Xiao gazes out to the forests of stone. He remembers her spirit in the monument of war where she is laid to rest. He plants Qingxin on mountain peaks to watch over her with him.

In that little corner of the plaza, Madame Ping invites curious wanderers and excited little children to share a cup of tea with her. When she pours the brew into the little tea cups, she never fails to pour out an additional one for her.

By the edge of the marsh, Ganyu plants flowers and sings to them in her place. They do not quite bloom the way they did when she sang to them, but they are grateful for the familiar melody all the same.

We all had our own ways of honoring her memory, he says again.

 

 

-

 

 

And so he dreams.

In his dreams, Childe is not with him. He sits on the edge of the riverbank, blades of grass and flower petals brushing against his skin. This is not the barren marsh he frequented with Childe—these are the days it was of dry land and fertile soil. She approaches him then, and takes a seat beside him. The water of the river splashes against their feet. “It’s been a long time, has it not?”

He smiles at her. “It has, truly.”

“You look happier these days, Morax.”

“Am I, now?”

“When you’re with him,” she says, “The air around you is lighter.”

“It’s indeed pleasant when I’m with him,” he tells her. There is a fondness in his eyes she knows he had never seen before.

In his dreams, it is not raining. Instead, the sun glows softly in the clear blue of the sky. Crystal river waters flow at their feet instead of bloodstained oceans. Pale blue flowers bloom around them instead of gray pillars of stone. She is the remnants of dust from that fateful day, and she is smiling at him, and unlike that day, it is not so lonely anymore.

“I’m sorry,” she tells him. “It’s been hard, hasn’t it?”

He does not answer her question. “I loved you,” he tells her instead. She smiles at him, prompting him to continue. “I did not know then, but now, I do. I tried to love Liyue the way you did too, and I tried to walk among them the way you did.”

She plucks a flower from the ground and places it in his hair. “And what did you learn from it, Morax?”

“I saw your wisdom in it,” he tells her.

Her gaze softens at the look in his eyes, and it’s then she knows—this is not the god she knew years ago, cold and unfeeling. This is not the god that looked at her in confusion when she gazed upon the people. This is not the god she gave that stone dumbbell to, and this is not the god she challenged to unlock its secrets.

That god is gone, because he went and unlocked that little stone dumbbell. He opened it, and found that it was empty inside. My wisdom is not in here, it told him. Look around you. Look at the people. Look at the mountains. Look at the oceans. Look at this city. Everything you needed has always been right here. That god is gone, because he did as the little stone dumbbell told him, and emerged thousands of years after as a human instead.

She pulls him into an embrace. “You’ve done so well, Zhongli. You’ve raised Liyue so well.”

For the first time since her passing, he allows himself to cry.

She pulls away from the embrace, and places a hand on his chest. There is a fond look in her eyes. “It’s from the dust of the earth we are born,” she tells him.

“And it is to the dust of the earth we return,” he finishes. She smiles at him knowingly. She knows the pieces of her that he has kept locked in his heart.

“It’s time to let go.” It’s time to let me go, she is saying.

“Make a contract with me then,” he tells her. It is not said with threat or conviction. There’s a tilt of joy to it, and it’s playful and teasing. She knows too he is not asking for a contract now—he is only looking for a simple indulgence on his part. After all, he is no longer the God of Contracts—he is just Zhongli.

“What would you like in exchange then, Zhongli?”

He looks away to the river, and pretends to ponder—he already knows what he is looking for. He turns his head back to her and smiles. “I’d like to hear you sing again.”

She obliges.

And so she sings.

He is with her again on stony peaks, picking Qingxin to bring home for Xiao. He is with her again, dining with the Cloud Retainer under the shade of those amber leaves. He is with her again, and he is walking through Liyue. He is with her walking through the cobblestone roads, her eyes filled with unimaginable warmth as she mingles with the people. He is with her in a field of glaze lilies in abundant bloom, and she is singing to the flowers, and she is singing to him. She runs through the flowers and steps into the river. She crosses over, and she waves him goodbye. He wishes her well, and he lets her go.

When he awakes from his dream, the song carries on. It is not Guizhong’s voice, but Childe’s instead. He stops when he sees Zhongli rouse.

“You were crying in your sleep,” he tells him. Zhongli does not give him a reply, but he sits up and leans his head onto shoulder. Childe lets him.

“I’d never seen you cry before,” Childe says.

“I’d never cried until today,” Zhongli says simply.

Childe laughs at that. “That’s alright, there’s a first for everything,” he tells him. It’s alright to cry, because it tells you that you feel, and it tells you that you are alive.

“I dreamt of her,” he says. Childe hums in response. “She told me I was happier these days.”

“Are you?”

“I wonder,” Zhonglli tells him while pulling Childe closer to him. He rests his head in the crook of his neck, and smiles against it.

 

 

 

 

He is not the pale blue flowers lining the streets of Liyue and settled into the terraces of Qingce. He is not the matured scent of silk flower perfume. He is not the stories of war and dust spoken of by traveling poets.

He is not her, and that is alright. She taught you what love is, and you know love is not supposed to be like that. It is not something that is meant to be replicated. You love him for who he is, and not for who you want him to be.

He is the starconches he collects to send back to his little sister at Snezhnaya. He is the scent of the ocean that comes in from the window of his office at the Northland bank. He is the sound of ringing laughter when you tell him of cocogoats and legendary adepti beasts.

He does not teach you how to let go—that was something you had to learn on your own, after all. He teaches you, however, that it is okay to. It is okay to let go of her, and it is okay to let go of Liyue. The people have each other, and now you, him.

You don’t know if you’re happier now—after all, you barely even knew what happiness was before. You are a god of thousands of years, yet you are a human of barely one. You are still learning the names of all these feelings, and grasping at the tangle of emotions that fill your chest.

Yet, you know at least above all things, you are happy now—and that is enough.