Zhongli can always tell when the monsoon season is near. It is in the taste of the rain, believe it or not—just like how the wind goes cool and the air gets that smell before it storms, just like how the sky turns yellow before a dust devil appears on the horizon.
He smells it in the—it can’t even be called rain, honestly—the drizzle as he walks down the pier. Around him, people frown, people shield their heads with their arms, people jog for cover. The waves, growing turbulent, crash up against the rocks, forming a white cloud of vapour hanging at the edge of the dock. He tastes salt, and he tastes the rainy season.
“The rain is really coming down hard, huh?” a voice says, source blurred by the tip-tap-tap-ing rain. “Well. You’ve finished your duties, so go ahead and call it a day.”
And, idly, as he stares down at the white waves crashing on blue-grey rocks—he wonders, have I finished my duties,
Her workshop sits atop the highest hill in the Plains of Returning and Departing.
It’s not a high hill—they live in the flattest part of already-flat plains. You could see a vishap hatchling pop up from several kilometres away. So her hill—is, honestly, not much more than a lump in the sweeping yellow grasses of the plains. But nobody dares to tell Guizhong that, and nobody more than Zhongli.
“Guizhong,” he calls, hovering outside the workshop. He’s had his eyebrows singed off one too many times for him to feel safe just entering Guizhong’s abodes. Zhongli is not a vain person, but he’d much rather not be the day’s hot gossip for his crookedly drawn brows.
He’s about to raise his voice and call again—she does get absorbed in those machines of hers, just like how Zhongli gets absorbed in sparring—when, faintly, “Zhongli, is that you? You can come in.”
She sighs exasperatedly. “I promise, I’m not using the Pyro units right now. Here, I’ll even hide it all, to spare your weak heart.” A series of clattering noises follows. “It’s safe now!”
He grumbles, pushing apart the cloth flaps and ducking underneath the doorway—on which he bumps his head anyway, to much annoyance but little-to-no surprise at this point. “You didn’t have to hide the...” he starts weakly, trailing off when Guizhong smiles that terrible smile of hers and all of a sudden the Eyebrow Destroyer IV is on her lap and glowing and—“Ah...um...”
“I’m pulling your leg,” she says, tossing the machine to the side. It lands in a pile of scrap metal and spits embers. There’s a pile of loose parts in front of her, and even as she talks, she sorts them into smaller piles. “What did you need, A-Li?”
He stares. She flings a round metal piece over her shoulder. “I forgot.”
“Aw, did the blowtorch scare you that much?” she laughs, patting the floor next to her. She gets a pot of water boiling and her jars of honey and sweetflower extract out before Zhongli has folded himself onto the packed dirt floor. “Do you have anywhere you need to be?”
Zhongli shakes his head. (Zhongli lies.)
“Ah, good! Keep me company, then. Maybe you will remember what you came here for while you help me sort these spare parts.”
She grins, pats his knee, and Zhongli feels his guilt fade.
It always does, with Guizhong.
Zhongli remembers everything.
Sometimes, it’s a blessing—when he thinks about an old novel that’s long gone out of print. The specific method of stitching of his coat detail. How the now-extinct dragon-fruits tasted, how they had been so juicy it was impossible to eat them cleanly—but Zhongli had tried. Guizhong, on the other hand...
Blood-red juice running down her chin. Zhongli remembers every single thing.
(It’s usually a curse.)
The rain starts as rain normally starts. A cloud passes over the sun, and the sky goes grey, and the wind blows cool—the clouds roll in from the East, and everyone busies themselves with bringing stuff into the houses. Guizhong stands on her hill, staring at the heavy clouds.
Zhongli joins her. He does not see what she sees.
“Something isn’t right,” she says slowly. She summons a spear into her hand, one of her newer ones, with the curved spokes that allow for bursts of elemental energy. She turns to Zhongli, crease between her brows, and repeats, “something is not right, Zhongli.”
(In hindsight, Zhongli can only lament how right she was.)
But, back then—“It’s just rain, Guizhong,” he says.
She shakes her head. “I’m going to take a look. Better safe than sorry, right?”
You never say ‘better safe than sorry’. You scorn that saying—if we don’t take risks, how are we to ever advance, you say.
“Should I come with you?” he calls, summoning his greatsword into his hand. Guizhong is several heights above him already, polearm pulsating with golden Geo energy.
“Don’t worry about it,” she replies, shoving her sleeves up her arms. She turns, grins, and waves. “I’ll be back soon!”
The next time Zhongli sees her, it is in horrified slow-motion, as a monster bigger than Mt. Tianheng impales her with a dozen water spears.
Zhongli remembers everything.
Later, he finds out that Ping-ayi had taken the people of the Plains of Returning and Departing to a shelter at the base of Mt. Tianheng. He finds out that the other Adepti took over fighting the monster before Guizhong’s body even hit the ground.
He remembers none of it.
“Guizhong,” he whispers, clutching her hand. Her fingers are cold—she’s—she’s not supposed to be cold. She’s never cold. Zhongli is the one with the cold hands—she always clicks her tongue at him and then holds his hand until it becomes warm. She loves Pyro almost as much as she loves Geo, loves her machines humming smoothly, radiating heat. She loves summer, and put a window in the roof of her workshop so she could work under the sun.
He puts his hand on her chest, and squeezes himself of qi. The chilling cold of Death has sunk its hands too deep into her for his feeble warmth to do anything but prolong her most certain passing. “Guizhong,” he repeats, as if his desperation could revitalise her, close up the gaping wounds in her abdomen.
Gods know death better than anyone, for they see more of it than any human ever will. Conversely, gods know nothing about death—for they don’t live with it with one hand on their shoulder.
Blood drips from her mouth, runs down her chin. She coughs—everything shifts, and fresh blood spurts over Zhongli’s hands again. “I want to see the lilies.”
“Guizhong,” he says, for the nth time, “I...”
“A-Li just... take me to see them,” she says. Her golden eyes are already clouding over. “Please.”
What could he do?
So he picks Guizhong up, and departs from the Plains of Returning and Departing.
When he steps foot in Dihua Marsh, the Glaze Lilies wilt. He leaves a path of drooping flowers as he carries Guizhong toward the rock where they met, where, a thousand years prior, she sat, wide sleeves laying over her lap, an erhu in her delicate hands, a silver paper umbrella beside her. And she had sung.
It had been night time then, silver moon and silver blue lilies. She has been wearing white, and she seemed to glow in the half-dark.
“Guizhong,” he says. She does not open her eyes, and her breath is so, so shallow. “Guizhong,” he says, again, pressing his hand against the side of her neck and pouring the remains of his life energy into her. “Guizhong, we’re here, please—”
“Put me down,” she says, eyes still shut. “Being carried by you is embarrassing.”
He almost laughs.
He doesn’t, of course—his coat is wet with Guizhong’s blood. The Glaze Lilies she loves so much are dying around his feet. How could he laugh?
He puts her down.
“Sing for me,” she requests, hands raising just a little, as if she’s holding that erhu of hers.
“Zhongli,” she sighs, when he does not sing, trailing a hand over a Glaze Lily blossom, “people are as small and fragile as dust.” In the blue light of the lilies, Guizhong almost looks... normal. “Because they are so small, they know not when they will lose their lives. To disaster, or to strife, and so they are afraid.”
“Guizhong...” he says helplessly. Don’t talk this much. Just. Please.
“And because they are afraid, they try so hard to become more intelligent. This I understand. And—there’s a yawning chasm between us in strength, so I thought I should use technique and wisdom instead. The Plains of Returning and Departing—it would surely become a great city, with your brawn and my brains.”
Zhongli’s vision blurs. Grief rushes up within him like a tidal wave. He reaches for Guizhong’s hand—
To his horror, there is no hand to hold. Zhongli can only watch, helpless, as Guizhong dissolves into dust. Time slows to a halt—she is dust, suspended in the shape of a human, of his love.
Guizhong smiles. Her eyes are liquid gold. Her final words are a whisper in the wind.
“Our journey together has come to an end, Zhongli,” she murmurs. “This stone dumbbell is a mark of our pledge, and my final challenge to you. All my knowledge is hidden within this stone dumbbell. If you can unlock it, then—”
Before she can finish, though—she crumbles, and whatever she might’ve said, like only the dust that remains of her, is swept away by the wind.
He doesn’t say a word for the next two thousand years.
In the middle of a War, nobody quite feels like saying anything. In between subduing the monsters that rise from the sea, Zhongli rebuilds the city. The stone dumbbell sits on his table, picking open scabs before they have the chance to heal.
He rebuilds Guizhong’s workshop on the highest mountain in Liyue. Zhongli remembers everything, so he places everything exactly how it had been, from the angle of the exploded diagram to the spare parts scattered around the floor. A crooked gingko tree’s branches hover over the ceiling window.
The residents of the new Liyue, then Liyue Harbor, forget him.
Zhongli is lost in four, maybe five generations of humans. Guizhong is lost in one.
Fresh guilt washes over him for this, for not keeping even her memory alive, and he wonders—could one drown, in 2000 years of guilt? Was this his divine punishment, to carry for the rest of his godly life, for indulging so much, allowing himself so much when Guizhong was alive?
“I named the plains,” Ping-ayi says one day, pouring him a cup of tea. “Calling such a lovely place ‘the plains’ was simply wearing on my psyche, you know?”
What did you name it?
The old woman looks up, sparkle in her eye. “Guili Plains.”
Hu Tao stands there. She gazes at him from underneath the edge of a diamond-patterned umbrella. Copper eyes pierce through him—for a moment, he feels as though the 77th master of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor knows all his secrets, even ones he has not confronted in 3700 years.
But the feeling passes.
The rain passes.
“Ah, the rain’s stopping,” she says, lowering the umbrella, and gazing up at the grey sky. “We should return to the parlor.” She turns her copper gaze back onto Zhongli, and smiles that mysterious smile of hers. “Mortals catch colds if they stay in wet clothes for too long, you know.”