All of them show up when Zhongli invites them to the peaks of Guyun Stone Forest.
Lumine is there first, punctual as she is. As Zhongli had requested, she leaves Paimon behind at Wangshu Inn-- she doesn’t question why, because the tone of his invitation indicated this would be a solemn affair, and Paimon is not exactly the best at handling anything of that subject matter. “I’m here,” she greets as she climbs up the stones overlooking the vast ocean. “From the way you spoke, it sounded like you invited others as well.”
“They will arrive soon,” Zhongli says with utmost certainty.
Sure enough, they do-- Xiao practically drops out of the sky next to Lumine, and if she wasn’t as stoic as she was, perhaps she would’ve stumbled off the cliffside in shock. She does, however, widen her eyes a little when she notices who he has in tow.
“My lord,” Xiao says humbly, before unceremoniously dumping Venti at Zhongli’s feet. “I brought Barbatos.”
“I could have brought myself,” Venti groans, pulling himself up. In his hands he grips two bottles of Dandelion Wine-- Mondstadt’s finest. “Really, it’s the first time we’ve seen each other in centuries, and you send Xiao to come fetch me? Like a lost pet, Zhongli?”
“I was only worried you would be distracted by Liyue’s splendor,” Zhongli replies, the smile on his face betraying his amusement. “...Thank you for using my current name. It is good to see you again, Venti. And I appreciate how you have arrived sober.”
“Hey, I’m capable of keeping my hands off a drink! At least for long enough to share it with you.” The Anemo Archon thrusts one of the wine bottles into Zhongli’s hand. He takes it, but doesn’t remove the cork instantly. Instead, he places it down on the ground besides them.
“I have missed this beverage... but we shall have time for this later.” Zhongli turns to Lumine, his amber eyes almost shining in the dimming light of the setting sun. “...You seem surprised.”
“I’m only wondering what kind of occasion would call for such a cast of characters,” Lumine answers, and Zhongli laughs. Venti shoots Lumine a smile, and then a shrug. From the way Xiao stares intently at his master, it seems he doesn’t know, either.
Zhongli raises a hand into the air, and that’s when she sees it:
A beautiful catalyst of glowing rock manifests into existence, its compartments turning and twirling like a twinkling star. Xiao straightens up, suddenly, the grip on his spear tightening till his knuckles turn ghost-white. “Master Zhongli,” he breathes, “you do not mean...?”
“It is time,” Zhongli whispers, and it is not said to anyone here. “My oldest friend.”
He turns back to Lumine, and the catalyst suddenly comes to rest in her hands. “Oh,” Lumine blinks. “What is this?”
Zhongli crosses his arms. “When we were last here, we had consigned the remnants of the Salt God to the seas of Guyun. I had told you, then, that it is here where the memory of bygone gods should come to rest.”
Xiao reaches out, almost tentatively, to touch the catalyst in Lumine’s hands. “I do not question your judgment,” Xiao begins, but there is something dangerous in the glint of his eyes. “But do you truly intend to dispose of her like this?”
“You speak as though I am tossing her memory away, like a child with toys they have outgrown,” Zhongli responds, and his voice is gentle, patient. “No, I am not disposing of her, Xiao. Rather... I have realized I cannot honor her without laying all there is of her memory to rest.”
“Oh, it’s Guizhong,” Venti realizes softly, and Lumine looks at him in confusion.
Zhongli nods. “Lumine. What you hold in your hands is the Memory of Dust. It is the last gift of my very first friend... the Goddess of Dust, Guizhong.”
“Guizhong...” Lumine thinks, for a moment, before her eyes go wide. “The same one from Guili Assembly? Paimon and I read the stone tablets there, for a Sumerun scholar.”
“Ah, so there are those who venture into the ruins,” Zhongli hums, and the gentle smile on his face betrays his delight upon learning that the inscriptions have not gone unnoticed. “You are correct. Guizhong and I once protected the people of Liyue within the Guili Assembly. It was... many, many years ago. Barbatos had only just become Anemo Archon, and Xiao had only recently been contracted by me into the duties he still fulfills, two millennia on.”
Xiao exhales deeply at the memory. “We have not unlocked it,” he says quietly, and Zhongli closes his eyes.
“...Xiao is right,” the old archon says, and when he waves his hand around the Memory of Dust, it clicks and twirls, almost responding to him. “Guizhong was a gentle, wise goddess. She taught me the value of humanity... but such kindness is not valuable in a land filled with strife. The Archon War took her life, and in her dying breath, she left me with this gift-- with the hope that one day, I shall be able to unlock it, somehow, to find her wisdom hidden within. Alas, she had no time to begin explaining the riddle that surrounds it. Till this day, it has remained closed.”
He crosses his arms, and when Lumine looks him in the eye, it seems like Zhongli is staring through her and at the vast distances of land she cannot see. “To her, I vowed to forever protect our people. But ‘forever’, it seems, has come and gone. The people of Liyue have proven that they can protect themselves. The time of gods and adepti is over... and as the new dawn rises, it will be the people who carve their own future.”
A pause. “And as Osial was sealed, brought to heel by the power of humanity... I believe I have finally understood, what she meant by her last words.” Zhongli turns around, walking to the very tip of the cliff’s edge, overlooking the blue, blue sea. “Guizhong has passed, so many years ago that the people of Liyue have forgotten her name, save for the adventurers who go delving into dangerous ruins. But her memory lives on: in every contract, in our values, in the catalyst of which you hold in your hands. Her kindness has guided me, and guided Liyue, for hundreds of generations. Now... as my duty ends, so does hers.”
Xiao and Venti guide Lumine up to the cliff’s edge, next to Zhongli. “I had asked you to come, traveler, for I wish for you to record this moment in your mind’s eye-- so it may never be lost to the annals of history.” The catalyst hums quietly as Zhongli reaches out to retrieve it from Lumine’s hands, and somehow, Lumine feels her palms turn inexplicably cold as it leaves. “It... will be difficult. But it must be done. For all humans must learn to let go.”
Zhongli raises the catalyst to the night sky, and for a moment, admires its intricate beauty amongst a backdrop of stars. “Guizhong. Thank you, for living. I have kept you to my side all this time. In my darkest moments, I looked upon your memory in the hopes that you would somehow speak again and give me guidance. But I realize, now, that your wisdom was never inside this dumbbell. It is all around us, in the love of Liyue’s people: the very same love that drives them towards their future.”
Venti reaches out to grab Xiao’s hand. Xiao nearly flinches away, for a moment, before he realizes the Anemo Archon is tearing up. “That’s beautiful,” Venti sniffles. “Block-head Morax, all grown up.”
“I held your Rite of Parting,” Zhongli whispers. “The perfume was just as you would have liked it.”
“The... perfume?” Lumine blinks. “Wait. The Rite of Parting for Rex Lapis, was actually...”
“Liyue is strong, now,” Zhongli declares, and a peaceful smile breaks across his face in resolution. “Our duty is done, Guizhong. You may rest now, in the seas of Guyun where all bygone gods go-- and one day, I shall join you.”
He then lifts the catalyst over his head, but before he tosses it, he hesitates. “My lord,” Xiao whispers almost in shock, squeezing Venti’s hand: “You are shaking.”
“I...” Zhongli takes a deep breath. “At the precipice of enlightenment, even the greatest of men may falter. Perhaps I was always human, after all.” Pause. “Because I do not want to let her go. I loved her.”
Xiao gapes as the Memory of Dust suddenly begins to unravel in Zhongli’s hands. Venti, too, marvels at the sight: its many compartments split open, not unlike the way Glaze Lilies unfurl in the moonlight, petal by petal, blooming beautifully in the darkness. Zhongli, realizing what has just occurred, brings the catalyst back down, staring at the light which emanates from it. ”Guizhong,” he breathes, almost reverent, and he, God of Contracts, God of Commerce, God of War, suddenly seems almost on the verge of tears. “Finally... I--”
“Zhongli, you will not toss me into the fucking ocean!”
Lumine blinks at the sudden, unfamiliar voice. Xiao, on the other hand, positively recoils, falling to his knees-- and bringing Venti with him, the Anemo Archon yelping as he gets dragged to the floor. Zhongli just... stares, his amber eyes as wide as dinner plates, and for a moment it looks like he’s hit himself with his own petrification spell.
“My goodness,” the unfamiliar female voice continues on, and a heavy sigh rings through the air as the Memory of Dust suddenly flies out of Zhongli’s hand and to Lumine’s side. “Marvelous speech, really. I felt my heart swell with pride as you spoke each line. However, I did not appreciate you coming to the conclusion that I wished to be thrown into the sea and left to rot with the bodies of the same beasts that killed me. So, overall...”
It’s almost like a fairy, really. A very... blocky, shiny, Geo-construct-ey fairy. “I’ll give you a 6 out of 10,” she hums. “It’s a pass, but not an A. Room for improvement, I would say.”
“Guizhong,” Xiao gasps, “what the fuck?”
“Wow,” Venti hums. “She rhymed.”
“It’s good to see you too, Xiao,” Guizhong-- it’s Guizhong?-- giggles, and she flits over to Xiao’s side as he gets up. As he reaches out to touch her, clearly amazed, she flies circles around his arm, tickling him. “All grown up! I must apologize, Zhongli has been rather harsh with you over the ages, has he not? So many times I wanted to intervene, but alas, trapped within my own little box I was...”
Zhongli is. Still staring. It looks like he’s either turned into a statue, or is on the verge of a millenia-overdue breakdown.
“Speaking of Zhongli!” Guizhong returns to his side, almost like how an excited child bounds up to their parent to show them the dead rat they found. “Over two thousand years, my dear! Two thousands years just for you to say that you loved me.”
“I... I apologize,” Zhongli says, blinking owlishly at her admonishments. “I took too long--”
“Oh, you misunderstand. It’s not the length of time that bothered me,” Guizhong interrupts. “Us archons do take a longer time to process our feelings. That much is true. I am proud of you for unlocking my Memory of Dust, and would have been just as proud if you took a thousand years more. Now, my darling, the problem isn’t me. But first...”
She then travels over to Lumine’s side. “Hello, my dear traveler!”
“Um...” Lumine bows politely. “Hello. I’m Lumine.”
“Oh, I know who you are,” Guizhong chuckles, flying circles around her in excitement. “A traveler from a distant star-- how exciting! The stories you must have! Oh, but what I mean to say is... thank you for entertaining Zhongli, especially during that dreadful bout where he had no mora on his person. You had no way of perceiving me, but I was mortified the entire time. Practically dying my second death from second-hand embarrassment.”
Zhongli finally looks away from the glowing rocks, if only out of shame. Lumine, however, smiles at her pain finally being acknowledged. “And you, Barbatos! Well, Venti now,” Guizhong greets, rushing over to the bard. “Still wearing your dead friend’s face, I see! That can’t be good for your mental health.”
“Fuck off,” Venti immediately retorts, and the sheer audacity of his curse causes Xiao to reach out and strangle him. ”Bwaah--!”
“Xiao, no strangling!” Guizhong immediately starts to shimmer erratically, like she’s... expressing anger? Xiao lets go upon hearing her words, but glares at Venti all the same. “It is not good to strangle people just for an insult. Even if those they are insulting are your gods.”
“I have done worse,” Xiao immediately says.
“That is. Not a good thing,” Guizhong responds, and though she has no physical form, Lumine can practically hear how she buries her head in her hands. “Well-- back to the point at hand. Zhongli!”
She flies back to the retired archon, resting on his outstretched palms, almost like a tamed bird. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was alive,” she finally says. “There was no time-- the corruption was spreading too fast. I had to seal the shattered pieces of my soul in the dumbbell, and that was when my body returned to the dust.”
“I should have known,” Zhongli self-flagellates. “Even the remains of the old gods here are undying. I should have realized that, tenacious as you were, you had a back-up plan.”
“Hindsight is 20/20, darling-- or so those Fontainean glasses-makers say. But I digress: Zhongli, all this time I have been watching you,” she hums. The very light of the catalyst turns warm with motherly affection. “Over the thousands of years, I have drawn energy from the beautiful surroundings of Liyue, enough to now verbalize my thoughts. And what I think is: what a fine city you’ve made, my dear. You have done so, so well.”
Is he glowing, too? Yes, Zhongli’s practically glowing. For one as old as he, to suddenly light up like a child being praised... it’s quite a sight to behold. “With one issue,” Guizhong says, and his world comes crashing down.
“Speak.” Zhongli’s tone is calm, determined. “I will correct what I have overlooked before leaving my mantle as--”
“Oh, no, no, nothing about being Morax and all,” Guizhong cuts off. “I’m just wondering, Zhongli: when are you going to confess your feelings to that charming Snezhnayan boy?”
Xiao fucking screams.
”What?” Oh man. Suddenly, a rather menacing mask has appeared on the adepti’s face, and he is positively overflowing with a mix of adeptal and Anemo energy. ”Master Zhongli, what spell has that foreigner cast on you?”
“Oh dear,” Guizhong mutters, before she puts herself between Zhongli and Xiao. “Xiao, I think there’s been a bit of a misunderstanding--”
“Just say the word,” Xiao seethes, “and I will cut Childe down.”
“You will not,” Zhongli responds firmly, and the yaksha’s mask disappears in a flash, leaving nothing but a piercing glare in its wake. “He has not cast... any sort of spell. Of which I’m aware of.”
“Of which you are aware of,” Xiao repeats dryly.
“I think he has,” Venti chimes in unhelpfully. “The spell of dizzying, heart-stopping, jaw-dropping romance has been cast upon our lord of topaz!”
“I see,” Xiao responds, completely serious. “Thank you. I’ll go kill Childe now.”
”You will not,” Zhongli repeats. He promptly decides the best course of action is to trap Xiao in stone, encasing the adepti in a cage of rock pulled up from the very stone pillars of Guyun under them. Xiao immediately teleports out and balances on top of it. “Stay your hand.”
Guizhong clears her metaphorical throat very loudly.
Zhongli and Xiao immediately turn to face her. “Boys,” she chides, “please talk it out. With words.”
“No,” Xiao answers. He is an immortal yaksha, Bane of All Evil, Conqueror of Demons, and his tone is utterly petulant.
“Yes,” Guizhong says back, and Xiao’s resolve crumbles.
Venti, on the other hand, decides to pop a cork off one of the wine bottles. “Well, such a momentous occasion calls for a drink!” He sits cross-legged on the floor, and beckons the others to sit with him.
Zhongli, for lack of any other options, gratefully takes Venti’s offer and sits with him. Xiao, still surrounded in a flutter of angry elemental energy, sits down as well. Very tensely.
Lumine awkwardly joins them, and Guizhong flies into the middle of their circle.
“Now, Zhongli,” she hums, “will you do the honors of explaining? Or will I?”
As it turns out, Zhongli is less than thrilled by the prospect of letting Guizhong explain his emotions, so he tries his very best to convey them:
It all started on their first dinner date. Childe had paid for Zhongli’s time (“What the fuck--” “As a consultant, Xiao--”) for his incredible expertise in Liyuen culture. Obviously, being Fatui and all, he wished to hear about Rex Lapis, but something about their conversation made it a little more than just a history lesson over food.
Soon, Childe was taking Zhongli out for more and more dinners, and their conversations evolved from Rex Lapis to all manners of things: the beauty of Liyue’s seas, its cuisine, the very mountains that decorated the landscape... suddenly, Zhongli found himself meeting with Childe in his own personal capacity, outside of work hours (“That’s a date, my dear Zhongli--” “Yes, a work date--”). Soon, they found themselves talking about nothing at all: their conversations had nothing of substance and yet were filled with a particular brand of delight Zhongli had not found in many, many years.
Zhongli eventually came to the slow, thundering realization that he enjoyed spending time with the Snezhnayan boy. He enjoyed their talks over food and conversations about nothing, the way Childe would entertain Zhongli even as he rambled about the most mundane of historical facts, and the way Zhongli found himself not needing to hide anything-- the way he could be genuine with the foreigner. With Liyuens, there is a stipulation that something given will one day be something returned; that when others come to Zhongli bearing gifts, they seek to make a contract where they will receive something back. But there is no such thing with Childe, for he empties Snezhnaya’s coffers for their expensive dinner dates without any such contract, not even the unwritten ones of which Zhongli found distasteful-- the unsaid rules of social conduct were worth as much as the paper they were written on (“Which is to say, not at all--” “Heheh, you just say that because you’re a block-head, Zhongli-- waah, Xiao, don’t blow me off--”). Childe simply wanted Zhongli’s company for nothing in return, and Zhongli found their relationship, unburdened by the transactional nature of Liyue... well, he found it liberating. It made him happy.
This all came to a head when Zhongli tried to buy Childe marriage chopsticks.
“When I realized your plan, Zhongli, I wanted to die. Again,” Guizhong declares flatly, and Zhongli, the great Rex Lapis himself, withers a little under her gaze (if floating fairy Geo Constructs could gaze). “Not only did you try to show your affection through symbolic Liyuen gestures he wouldn’t understand, and not only was it a massive skip ahead without even asking him out first-- Zhongli, you made him pay for it!”
“He was happy to,” Zhongli answers calmly, but something in his eyes makes him look a little less like Liyue’s former god and a little more like a blundering schoolboy. “He even offered--”
“Zhongli, you do not make someone pay for their own gift, much less one you intend to propose an intent to marry with.” Guizhong rips into him scathingly. It’s savage. There are no survivors. “Anyway, again, you should have asked him out first. Small steps, my dear, small steps! Mortals do not jump from friendship to marriage the same way we gods raise grand cities from the very rock and dust itself. Such grandiose gestures of courtship are not their style. In fact, you’ll very well scare him off!”
Throughout the whole thing, Xiao looks like he’s going to have an aneurysm. “My lord,” he breathes in exasperation, “why do you have such terrible taste?”
“Oh, Xiao, don’t be sour just because you were too shy to confess to Zhongli a thousand years ago,” Guizhong snipes, and it’s a fucking bullseye. Venti looks at Xiao with the biggest, shit-eating grin, while Xiao buries his head in his hands and screams into his palm. Even Lumine’s mouth twitches up into a smile at Xiao’s expense. “Your time has come and gone, my boy! ...Such a dynamic between master and servant would’ve never made for a healthy relationship, anyway...”
“Guizhong,” Zhongli asks, completely ignoring the bombshell she just dropped about Xiao’s thousand-year-old crush. “I loathe to ask for your help again, especially after I had already resolved myself to move on without looking over my shoulder at the memory of you. But...”
Guizhong glows warmly. “Zhongli, you should never be ashamed to ask for help.”
He lets out an unbidden smile at her sweetness. “Thank you. I do not know... how to begin with confessing to him.”
“Just go up and say it,” Venti contributes, swilling another gulp of Dandelion Wine down his throat. “What’s the worst he can do? Turn you down?”
“Yes,” Zhongli flattens.
“Shh, Venti,” Guizhong whispers, flitting next to the bard’s ear. “He’s not used to hearing ‘no’. It’ll break his heart.”
“I can hear you,” Zhongli mutters.
“You should challenge him to a fight to the death,” Xiao decides to chip in. Everyone turns to him with an incredulous look. “I’ve heard him speak about combat. Even now, he comes to you shamelessly, as if he did not nearly drown the entirety of Liyue, and each time, he asks you for a duel. Your fists shall convey your feelings.”
“Oh my archons, no,” Guizhong wheezes. “Xiao, you are literally the last person to be giving advice on this topic. Also, the goal is to confess, not kill the poor Snezhnayan!”
“Nothing ‘poor’ about him,” Xiao mumbles darkly.
Guizhong flies over to the traveler next, and though she doesn’t have eyes, Lumine can somehow tell the goddess is looking right at her. “What about you, Lumine? Surely, someone as well-traveled as you will be a fresh set of eyes on this situation!”
“I think...” Lumine hums. “I think a love letter will do.”
“Simple. Bold. Genius,” Guizhong says, and she flickers her light at Zhongli. “So? What do you think?”
“...Love letters,” he begins, thinking to himself. “A way to perfect what you mean to say through use of quill and ink, rather than face the challenge of fumbling through one’s speech. A fine notion. However...”
“Hmm, yes,” Guizhong notes. “It doesn’t seem like your style, does it, Zhongli?”
He shakes his head. “I... would like to do it in person.”
“Good! Making decisions,” Guizhong chirps encouragingly, and she rises up a little to look at the moon. “But it’s late. All of you should get some sleep, myself included. We’ll take a crack at this first thing in the morning!”
Venti points at himself. “What, me too?”
Xiao narrows his eyes. “You can sleep?”
Lumine just accepts her fate of constantly being dragged into things. It is destiny.
As it turns out, Guizhong does sleep, and not in a very interesting way. She literally plops her catalyst-self next to Zhongli’s pillow and emits a softer, more calming glow, as well as a faint hint of snoring. Though most would find such a noise annoying, Zhongli sleeps better than he ever has in eons.
Xiao, who objected to sleeping in Liyue Harbor, returned to Wangshu Inn for the night, while Venti, ever the connoisseur for merrymaking, opted to give sleep the middle finger and fucked off to enjoy Liyue’s nightlife. Lumine, herself, mostly stared at the ceiling contemplating how she got dragged into this mess before eventually dozing off.
It is almost afternoon when Lumine awakens to the shimmer of lights. “Hey,” Guizhong whispers, “wake up.”
Lumine cracks one eye open, and nearly reaches for her sword before remembering that this isn’t a mini-Geo Hypostasis coming to avenge its fallen kin. Just Zhongli’s dear, disembodied friend. “Zhongli is asleep,” she says in hushed tones, clearly not aware that she’s actually still quite loud. Zhongli, however, continues snoozing peacefully. “Shall we go find Xiao and Venti first? Rambunctious as they may be, they have known Zhongli for over two millennia. They will help him with his confession, I’m sure of it.”
Xiao is relatively easy to find: he is always at Wangshu Inn, lingering upon its balcony. Lumine greets Paimon along the way (“Lumine! What’s the floating light next to you?” “Your replacement.” “Ehhhhh--?!” ...and Lumine pays for another grand meal to leave her food coma’d for another day, because there is enough chaos without Paimon to join in), and afterwards, ascends the newly-fixed staircase to find the yaksha at his usual spot.
What both Lumine and Guizhong don’t expect is to find Venti there, too.
Especially not Venti laying passed-out drunk and snoring in Xiao’s lap while the yaksha absentmindedly pets him on the head, fingers running through Venti’s hair as he stares over the horizon.
“Huh,” Lumine whispers at first, not knowing if she should interrupt the moment.
”Oh my archons,” Guizhong gasps, and now Xiao hears them. “That’s adorable! I knew you had some gentleness in you, Xiao!”
Xiao immediately grabs Venti by the head and tosses him off the balcony. Venti’s eyes flicker open, and he screams.
“Nevermind,” Guizhong mutters, and Lumine looks over the balcony in shock. Thankfully, being the Anemo Archon and all, Venti quickly summons a gust of wind from under him to blow him back up to the balcony. “You shouldn’t get so flustered, Xiao! It’s alright to show affection.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Xiao lies as Venti climbs back onto solid ground with a grimace. “I found Barbatos within Liyue Harbor, passed out drunk from drinking straight Liyuen liquor from the bottle. I brought him here to keep him safe. My duty extends to my lord’s foreign guests as well, not just those in Liyue.”
Venti rubs his eyes, and a cheeky smile slips across his lips. “Ahhh, is that what happened? Heheh, thank you for watching over me, Xiao! ...Though I would’ve appreciated a gentler awakening...”
“It is nothing,” Xiao responds, so quickly that it must definitely be something. “I hear the cries of help from all in Liyue. When you were about to get mugged, I appeared to save you. That is all.”
Guizhong chuckles, the light of her catalyst-body humming. “But Xiao, don’t you only hear the cries of native Liyuens? To have arrived so punctually for Venti, you must have been actively tracking him!”
“Goodbye,” Xiao says, and he promptly disappears.
Venti reaches out to grab him, but his fingers only brush through thin air. “Xiaooo, wow! You’re so rude now! I remember when you were so young and cute, smiling as you showed me how you learnt to play the flute...”
Guizhong zooms over to Venti’s side. “I didn’t know he could play the flute! He never played it in front of Zhongli!”
“Really?” A conspiratorial smirk passes across Venti’s face. “I see! So it was a private performance only for me! Did you also know he can also sing? It’s been over a thousand years since I’ve heard his voice, pleasant as a bell’s ring...”
Something in the wind bristles. Angrily. Lumine’s eyes dart around in worry. “Venti, you simply must tell me more,” Guizhong encourages. “I didn’t realize he had such musical talent!”
“All who are granted a Vision of Anemo by yours truly will possess some skills in lyricism,” Venti says with a bow. “Ah, but Guizhong, I do not wish to give up all my secrets of Xiao through sheer altruism! How about we propose a trade-- a contract, if you may, of which can be made?”
Venti winks. Guizhong has no eyes, but her light blinks, so that’s probably a wink back. “Oh, where shall I start, Venti? Hmm, perhaps that time two-thousand, six-hundred and eighty-four years ago, after the Cloud Retainer and I had formalized an official calendar system. Zhongli picked his birthday to be the very end of the year-- being as old as he is, he was born before the world of men knew how to track the passage of days through the constellations of stars, and thus had no real birthday, so to speak. That didn’t stop Xiao, though!”
Okay, yeah, the wind blows very strongly now. Lumine actually needs to put a hand on her skirt and plant her feet to the ground to not get blown off. “You see, Venti, when Xiao used to consume the dreams of others, he learnt of humanity’s customs as well. Of which included birthday parties! Oh, the way he tugged on my sleeve so shyly that morning, his big, round amber eyes looking up to me as he asked... Guizhong, can you teach me how to make nian gao for Rex Lapis’ birthday?”
“Stop,” Xiao finally says, and he has re-appeared in front of them in a flash of Anemo and fluttering energy that looks like glowing green feathers. “Please.”
“Ah, but Xiao! Venti and I have made a contract,” Guizhong hums.
Xiao’s eye twitches. “A verbal contract is worth as much as--”
“Oh, that’s just for the formalization of business, Xiao, don’t be such a tightass,” Guizhong replies, and Lumine chokes at the sheer power of her calling one of Liyue’s most powerful adepti a tightass. She flies back to Venti’s side, continuing her story. “And so, we set off to find the ingredients together! Ah, but not all was well. When he was preparing the glutinous rice, he smashed the bowl so hard it shattered under the force of his blows! And when I asked him, do hold back on the sugar, my archons, Venti, he tipped in the whole sack! He’s always such a sweet tooth, dear Xiao...”
“Enough,” Xiao tries to command, but though his voice is harsh, it may as well be a whimper from a wounded animal. “Guizhong. Please.”
“But the funniest part, my dear, was when Xiao decided to prepare egg tarts as well,” Guizhong says, and it looks like a blood vessel is about to pop in the yaksha’s neck. “Being trained as a weapon of war, Zhongli never taught the poor boy anything about the trades of the hand and land. ‘Eggs come from chicken, but how?’ Well, I explained, when a papa and mama chicken love each other very much...”
“...and Xiao, he followed me into the chicken coop, only to find no eggs! ‘Well, we should ask the farmers’, I suggested, but then, with his innocent understanding of love, he grabbed one of the hens by the neck and placed a kiss upon its be--”
”I will do anything,” Xiao gasps, and he falls to his knees. “Just stop. Please. Enough.”
Venti finally laughs as Xiao quite literally kowtows in front of Guizhong. Lumine had never thought she would see the almighty yaksha reduced to such a state, but here he is, banging his forehead on the wooden floorboards of Wangshu Inn’s balcony. Guizhong giggles a little before flying down to where Xiao is, glowing softly to beckon him to rise. “Well, your plea is so earnest I simply can’t ignore it,” she hums. “Very well, I will keep your adorable fumblings with the mortal world a secret! On one condition, as you have offered to do anything...”
Xiao groans. “I shall help with my lord’s... confession.”
“You read my mind,” Guizhong says with amusement, before flying back to Lumine’s side. “Well, that’s settled! How about you, Venti? Are you still on board?”
“Of course!” Venti gives them a thumbs-up. “I would love nothing more than to see that old block-head Zhongli be happy with another. It’ll make him a little less scary, too.”
The way Venti says ‘scary’ and ‘Zhongli’ in one statement does not quite compute in Lumine’s mind, but perhaps some things are better left to the annals of history. “Perfect,” Guizhong says, and there’s a hint of excitement in the ends of her voice. Excitement of the most dangerous kind. “Come, then, let us draft some plans together! After which, we can present them all to Zhongli for approval!”
“No,” Zhongli says flatly.
Guizhong flickers. “To which plan?”
“To all,” he declares. “But especially to this one.”
Lumine frowns. “I thought that, if you wanted a more personal confession rather than a love letter, having Venti write you a love song to sing to Childe would be a wonderful idea.”
“Oh, that one,” Guizhong interrupts. “Yes, sorry, I missed that. Zhongli can’t hold a tune.”
Venti throws his head back in a laugh. “No, no, I knew that! That’s why I wrote down that Zhongli will lip-sync to the sound, and Xiao will do the actual singing in the background!” Xiao’s scowl deepens as he sulks in the corner of the room.
“Absolutely not,” Zhongli sternly states, and his amber eyes glow brightly as he stares down the chuckling bard. “Everyone, I... I appreciate the efforts you all put in. But these plans...”
He points at the scribbled line of ‘play sexy jazz when Zhongli enters the room’. “They are not... ‘my style’, as Guizhong had said it.”
Guizhong lets out a long-suffering sigh. “I know, Zhongli, I know. They’re all a little too... bombastic, yes. But we only wish to help you.”
She flies down to the table, her light shining across the many rejected plans scattered through the papers. “As I said, I have been watching over you all this time,” she begins. “I have seen you love like this before, Zhongli. I knew you always loved me, too, of course, but in a different way-- the way our hearts grow fond of one another as family. But to Childe, it is...”
Guizhong spreads out the compartments of her catalyst-body, emitting a brighter light. “It is a fire, burning within your breast; the very light of divinity from within your amber eyes!”
Venti leans on the table and props his chin up on his palm. “So you’re saying he wants to fuck Childe?”
Xiao makes a strangled noise. Zhongli’s shoulders tense. Lumine puts a hand on her mouth to stop herself from laughing.
Guizhong, on the other hand, elects to ignore Venti’s words and continues with her monologue. “Ahem. Zhongli, all these years, I have seen you fall for different mortals. Love came to you in many forms; once, a woman dressed in all white, singing atop the peaks of tranquil Qingce... once a man wearing a wizened smile and a strong righteousness within his heart... and once, someone who did not fit either binary but you loved strongly all the same, for their shining red eyes and gentle soul spoke to you in the darkest of nights.”
Her voice grows solemn, heavy, and the memory of past loves seem to make Zhongli’s shoulders soften in reminiscence. “I have seen you love them all, in that overpowering, burning way, and I have seen them all die like the flickering flames of a candle before you said a word to any of them.”
Zhongli looks down at the papers on his desk. “There is never enough time,” he says, closing his eyes.
“There never will be, Zhongli,” Guizhong breathes, in the comforting way mothers speak with their heartbroken children after losing a first love. “Even for the gods.”
Though she has no hands to speak of, when she floats into Zhongli’s open palm, her soothing light seems to reach out and take his in hers. “But as you have said yourself, on the peaks of Guyun,” she whispers, and it is so, so gentle, “all humans must learn to let go.”
Zhongli’s eyes open, and there is something within them that is almost sad. “Let him into your heart, Zhongli,” Guizhong soothes. “One day, you may lose him, as you had lost me. But that is alright. For the greatest gift is to have met at all.”
Venti sniffles. Lumine has to admit, it’s quite a beautiful speech.
“So,” Guizhong says, proceeding to utterly ruin it: “Yes to the sexy jazz?”
Zhongli face falls. “No.”
“Drat.” Guizhong clicks her nonexistent tongue as she flies back to Lumine. “Sorry, traveler, but it looks like it’s back to the drawing board!”
Zhongli looks outside the window, and his thousands of years have told him exactly how to tell the time by the passage of the setting sun. “It is getting late,” he says, standing up. “I have an appointment to attend to.”
“Aww, an appointment?” Venti crosses his hands behind his head and leans back. “What kind of work appointment do you have on a weekend night?”
“People die at any time,” Xiao explains crassly. “There are no work hours for a job dealing with death.”
Guizhong, however, is a little more perceptive than the men in the room. “Zhongli,” she asks boldly, “are you going on a date with Childe?”
“I have to leave,” Zhongli answers without answering at all, but that, in itself, is the only answer Guizhong needs.
Unfortunately for her, when Zhongli says he’s leaving, he really means he’s leaving. That is to say, he rushes out the door and slams it behind him, before casting a Geo spell to seal it shut as Guizhong’s catalyst-body smashes into it. “Oh, Zhongli!” She mutters a few ancient Liyuen curses under her breath, as well as some recent ones, before turning back to three others in the room. “Well, we’re not going to just sit here and let him go on a date without doing anything, are we?”
Venti’s eyebrows dance in approval. “I’m always up for an impromptu performance! By the end of the night, we’ll have the two men locked in a lover’s dance!”
“Well... I suppose someone needs to keep you all in check,” Lumine mumbles, which means to say she’s definitely up for some dinner date shenanigans.
“I do not wish to intrude upon my lord’s private affairs,” Xiao says, trying desperately to weasel his way out of this.
“Xiao, it is, frankly, far too late for that,” Guizhong deadpans. “Now, be a dear and teleport us all out of this room.”
When Xiao doesn’t respond, she shimmers rather threateningly. “Or, shall I continue my story about you preparing the egg tart shells for Rex Lapis’ birthda--”
All of them are immediately sent out of the room, so suddenly that Venti yelps and falls flat on his arse as he is teleported from a chair to a not-a-chair. “Oww!”
Xiao, ever the loyal servant, knows exactly how to track his master’s movements. As expected, Zhongli has rushed into Liuli Pavilion, where Lumine had first met him through Childe’s introduction.
“Just a question,” Venti huffs as he summons another wind to carry him up, “why are we taking the rooftop route?”
“Because we are stalking Zhongli,” Guizhong answers frankly, floating weightlessly ahead of them all as Lumine struggles to keep up with two Anemo immortals and a talking sphere. “He would not approve of our interference, so it must be done covertly.”
As if there is anything covert about any of them. Lumine gasps as she finally scales the resting hill rooftops of Liuli Pavilion. “This is it,” Xiao points out. “What would you have us do, Guizhong?”
“Hmmm...” she floats around the top of the building, intrigued. “Zhongli never climbs up to places like these... such fascinating building techniques! My, humanity is truly capable of the utmost ingenuity!”
Lumine tries to get the goddess’ attention back on topic. “Guizhong, I think we’re on a tight schedule...”
“Ah, yes,” she hums. “Well, this is a restaurant, yes? It must have a kitchen. And any kitchen must have an exit for smoke!”
She scans the area, before flying up to the carefully-concealed chimney. “There it is!”
“You mean to say we should climb down the chimney,” Xiao deadpans. “Guizhong, I respect your wisdom, but that is--”
“Yahoo!” Venti immediately pulls the lid off and drops in. “--Aaah, fire at the bottom--!”
Xiao immediately teleports away, and as Lumine peers over the edge of the chimney, she hears the flurried sounds of shocked chefs and Xiao’s hurried footsteps before Venti shouts back up, “I’m okay!”
Lumine buries her head in her hands. “Guizhong.”
Guizhong turns to her. “Yes?”
“I hate men,” she admits, and Guizhong snorts through her disembodied spirit-nose before glowing brightly in agreement.
When Lumine climbs the chimney in a sane, controlled manner, she drops in on quite a scene indeed. The kitchen workers, very reasonably flustered by how Venti just dropped in through the rooftop and immediately landed in a coal fire, are even more distressed by the addition of Xiao, who is now holding Venti over his shoulders with one hand and pointing his spear at them all with the other. “You will say nothing,” Xiao threatens. “Continue as if we were not here.”
“Please do not threaten the poor bystanders with bodily harm,” Guizhong chides as she floats down into the kitchen. Upon hearing a floating rock speak, one of the staff faints onto the floor. “Oh, dear.”
Lumine clears her throat, realizing that she, once again, has to do damage control. “Excuse me,” she says as politely as possible, gently reaching out to push Xiao’s spear away from the faces of the trembling kitchen staff, “may we know which room Childe and Zhongli are having dinner?” Pause.
“We’re not assassinating them,” Venti adds on. “I promise.”
“T-to the right, up the stairs to the top floor,” one of them squeak. Lumine gives them a quick thanks before the lot of them get out of the kitchen and into the hallways.
Liuli Pavilion is a very, very high-class restaurant. Which makes the fact that Childe can easily reserve a seat at any moment a mad flex. Not to mention that he likes to choose the grandest private room at the top floor, too, where the morning rays of Liyue filter in so beautifully and where the night’s stars shimmer upon the decorative backdrop. The four of them creep up the stairs, and sure enough, as they reach the door to the private room, Childe’s laugh reverberates into the stairwell, bouncing off the high ceilings.
“Really, Zhongli? Are you sure you did nothing the last few days?” The joy in his voice is sharp and crisp, slicing through everything that he should be as a Fatui Harbinger. “Whenever I ask to catch up, you spend ages talking about an interesting rock formation you found on Mount Tianheng, or a pretty bird you observed flying over Dihua Marsh. Which you only spotted for two seconds.”
The sound of pouring tea fills the room. If Guizhong had ears, she would so obviously be pressing them to the door right now. “I see that you know me too well,” Zhongli replies, and Guizhong squees as quietly as she can. “Indeed, my last few days have been more... eventful than usual.”
Through the shadow of the screen door, they can see Childe standing up, before leaning forward to be closer to Zhongli. Xiao scowls. “Eventful, you say?” Childe laughs, and he is close enough to touch Zhongli now. “Well, well! Do tell me more, mister Zhongli. I’m deathly curious.”
“In due time,” Zhongli dismisses, and Childe sits back down. Guizhong huffs in indignation.
“You say that every time,” Childe bats back. “In the past, I thought you were just slow-moving. But now that you know you’re Rex Lapis, God of War himself--”
“I am only Zhongli now--”
“You get what I mean,” Childe continues. “Your ‘due time’ might be after my expiry date, sir!”
Guizhong flies over to the three of them. “This is going nowhere,” she whispers. “We have to intervene.”
Venti pipes up, transforming his fake Vision into a lyre. “I’ll play a romantic tune,” he suggests. “One so thrilling that even the Harbinger won’t be immune!”
“Good thinking, Venti,” Guizhong says. As Venti turns the corner to play out his song somewhere higher up, she turns to Xiao. “Alright, Xiao. While Venti busies his fingers with his song, I want you to use your Anemo skills to cause trouble. Nothing damaging, mind you! Just a slight gust here and there to spill some tea. Force them into a situation where they have to touch.”
“...Fine,” Xiao mutters, and he teleports away. Lumine decides not to ask where he’s gone.
“Now...” Guizhong turns to Lumine. “We shall be here on standby, as potential damage control, while we let the boys do all the work.”
Lumine sighs. “Is that really a good idea?”
“I trust them,” Guizhong hums cheerily. “They have their moments, but in their hearts, they both want the same thing as I: to see Zhongli happy.”
With that, she flickers reassuringly. Which makes no sense, how can a light flicker reassuringly-- but Lumine is reassured, nonetheless, by Guizhong’s genuine conviction. And so, the two women wait, in baited breath, for Xiao and Venti to act.
And then it comes all at once.
As expected, Venti is the one who moves first, the strum of his lyre filling the room with a beautiful song. “Oh?” They can see Childe’s head turning around in curiosity, while Zhongli’s shoulders stiffen, clearly recognizing Venti’s signature sound. “What’s this? Did you commission a performer for tonight, Zhongli?”
“I did not,” he clarifies, and he rises from his seat. “Excuse me--”
At that moment, Xiao strikes, sending a gust of wind sweeping through the room. Unfortunately, he does not know the meaning of ‘holding back’, so what he likely thinks is a gentle breeze actually blows nearly everything off the dinner table, as well slams open the doors which Guizhong and Lumine were ducking behind. “Whoa--!” Childe holds his arms up, shielding his face. “What’s going on? A typhoon?”
Zhongli turns to his right. Lumine and Guizhong stare back sheepishly.
He has no time, however, to admonish the two of them. For Xiao, who is actually just hanging out on one of the ceiling beams, makes a symbol with his hands before blowing into it summoning another burst of Anemo. This time, it’s angled at the wall, sending a heavy shelf full of expensive-looking displays tipping over, right on top of Childe’s head--
In an instant, Zhongli is by Childe’s side, pulling the Snezhnayan to his chest and out of harm’s way. The shelf crashes loudly onto the floor, shattering all the precious artifacts upon it, but to Zhongli, the most precious thing in the room is, thankfully, unharmed.
“Fuck,” Xiao mutters. “Almost had it.”
“Childe, are you hurt?” Zhongli has a lot of things to attend to at the moment, but firstly, he traces the skin of Childe’s arm, making sure none of the shelf had hit him. It is at that moment that Venti decides to up the volume, his lyre strings singing out in a crescendo of a slow, moving love song.
It’s a beautiful song, really, in the way that something can be so beautiful is becomes obnoxious.
“Alright,” Childe breathes, just barely cognizant of the fact that Zhongli is cradling him to his chest. “Zhongli. What the hell is going on?”
”Kiss him,” Guizhong whispers harshly.
“I apologize,” Zhongli says, and he helps Childe stand back up on his own two feet, pulling the man away from his chest. Guizhong sighs as he does so. “It appears we have a few uninvited guests.”
Normally, Childe would reflexively reach for his bow at that phrase. But instead, his eyes flit around the room, only widening as they land upon Lumine and a certain floating rock. “Oh, hello, princess! And, what was your name again...?”
“Guizhong,” she greets, fluttering happily. Childe nearly falls onto the ground in shock.
“I did not mean to greet-- you,” Childe sputters, his finger pointing at the adepti above him instead. “I just... wait, Guizhong?”
Zhongli fixes Lumine with an intense gaze, his eyes literally glowing like the hum of purest Cor Lapis. “Guizhong,” Lumine whispers, “is Zhongli mad at us?”
“Yes,” Zhongli answers for them, and everyone in the room gulps. “I did not give any of you the permission to intrude upon my private events--”
“Wait, wait,” Childe interrupts, holding a hand up. With one simple action, he stops Zhongli’s earthern wrath in its tracks. The retired archon’s eyes go from a dangerous glint to a curious expression. “Sorry. Just so I get this right: the same Guizhong from over two thousand years ago?”
Zhongli tilts his head, looking at Childe. “Yes. Why do you ask?”
“Just checking,” Childe says, and then he looks around again, looking shell-shocked.
“Zhongli has told you about me,” Guizhong hums. “Oh, but I knew, of course! I’ve been watching over him!”
“How... interesting!” Childe says, an easy smile finding its way back onto his face. “Well, this is certainly a turn of events, isn’t it? I had thought you were deader than dead, Guizhong.”
Guizhong flies over to Childe. “Everyone did. But archons never really die, do they? Of course, their consciousness can be turned into nothing... but some part of their power, their memory, it will always remain.”
“I see,” Childe hums, and he doesn’t even flinch when Xiao hops from the ceiling and lands on the floor besides him, fixing Childe with the gnarliest of death glares. “I... well, excuse me, I need a moment.”
Zhongli blinks. “Childe--?”
“Talk to you later, princess,” Childe mutters as he makes the quickest exit Lumine has ever seen. Even faster than when he summoned an ancient ocean god and fucked off into the ceiling of the Golden House. He doesn’t even ask Zhongli for a duel or anything, just... leaves. It’s unusual, and even for those who don’t know Childe, his sudden absence consigns them to a very awkward silence: standing in the middle of a ruined banquet room, shattered porcelain and spilled tea all over their feet.
A window opens, and Venti climbs in. “Was my song too on-the-nose?”
Zhongli does not say anything to any of them for a full twenty hours after the incident. It is terrifying.
Xiao, ever the prime example of ‘I will solve my problems by running away from them’, immediately retreated to Wangshu Inn after the disastrous dinner date. Venti tried, tentatively, to sing Zhongli out of his sulking state while worried the retired archon would turn around and smash him into smithereens once he reached the end of his rope. Thankfully, Zhongli is not the wrathful being he used to be thousands of years ago-- nevertheless, his silence is deafening, and Venti eventually excuses himself to fetch more Dandelion Wine in an attempt to make amends.
Which leaves the two women behind to fix the mess. Of course.
“Zhongli,” Guizhong pesters. She’s annoyed, at first-- not communicating is a sign of emotional immaturity, something something, don’t go running away back to the mountains the moment you mess up something something. But after Zhongli refuses to speak the whole day, even after they sleep in the same bed (with Lumine awkwardly hanging out on the couch outside), Guizhong slowly realizes that, well, perhaps she’s gone a little too far.
There’s nothing threatening about Zhongli, really. Even after Lumine learnt of his real identity, he had shed (haha because dragon) so much of Rex Lapis that it’s somewhat impossible to connect him to the terrifying tales of olde. The very Statues of the Seven which depict him atop his Geo throne don’t look anything like him: well, they look physically similar, but they lack his very soul. Still, when he says nothing for almost an entire day... prepares breakfast for Lumine and himself wordlessly (it tastes really good, to his credit)... stoicly continues on with his day, reading books and admiring flowers as if Guizhong was not constantly swirling around him, trying to get his attention...
Yes, it’s a little terrifying. As if there is something old and ancient, just barely being held back within him, hidden behind his shining amber eyes.
After the entire morning is spent in quietude, Lumine finally beckons to Guizhong, and suggests: “Maybe we should apologize.”
“Oh, but traveler, I only mean to help him!”
At that moment, Lumine realizes that even the most revered of goddesses, one who Zhongli holds so close to his heart and guides the very foundations of Liyue’s morality-- even Guizhong is not above a few human flaws. And one of them, it seems, is an utter, rock-solid stubbornness, not unlike how dust is so difficult to remove from one’s clothes when blown over you in battle. Venti had mused, once, about Zhongli’s stubbornness-- perhaps he got it from someone.
And when immovable rock meets persistent dust, Lumine is left just throwing sand into a statue’s eyes. Zhongli refuses to open his mouth.
Finally, at 4pm sharp as Zhongli is brewing tea, he says: “Every journey has its final day.” And then, as he tips out the piping hot tea, he stops the traveler from nearly burning her lips upon it out of shock at hearing him finally speak. Grabbing Lumine’s wrist, he lowers the cup back onto the table, beckoning at her to let it cool. “I do not wish to rush.”
“Zhongli...” Guizhong sighs. “Time waits for no one.”
“It does not,” Zhongli admits. “But is it not you, Guizhong, who once told me: 赶人生, 赶人死?”
Lumine blinks at the unfamiliar language. “我也跟你说,” Guizhong replies calmly, “赶前不赶后。”
Zhongli laughs, a smile finally making its way back onto his face. “赶就是赶。璃月的岩王帝君赶尽杀绝了全世的魔神; 连自己都留不下。” He turns back to Guizhong, and, though she cannot drink, pours out a cup for her. “I do not intend to repeat Morax’s mistakes. So please, do not rush me towards an conclusion before I am ready.”
Guizhong flies down to the cup, her catalyst-body enjoying its warmth in spite of her lack of tastebuds. “...I’m sorry,” Guizhong finally says. “I had simply-- after not being able to say anything for so long, seeing you love and lose-- no, there is no excuse. I apologize. Please, forgive me.”
Lumine, if only relieved they’ve returned to speaking actually Teyvatian and not some ancient Liyuen tongue, lets out a sigh before finally sipping from the teacup. “Of course I forgive you,” Zhongli hums, and there is something serene about his voice when he continues: “I believe I have begun to understand, now. I had once thought the way you fretted about the people of Liyue, all their little worries and impermanent, fleeting emotions... I found it all unnecessary. Trivial.”
He takes a tentative sip of his own tea. “I have spent centuries, walking amongst the dockyards of our safe harbor, speaking to the people within it. I wondered: what did you see, in all of them?” As he tastes the tea, he smiles. “Their fears, their cowardice... their joys, their bravery. Their love for the land, for their family, for themselves. All these things, I knew of, but in the way a historian knows of their expertise whilst still separated from those events by thousands of years.”
It’s a good tea, Lumine has to admit. A part of her had expected Zhongli to whip up some kind of bitter, ancient herbal concoction.
“I will not pretend I understand everything just yet. In fact, such a thing may not be possible,” he notes. “But I do believe I can try. And even if--” He pauses, the edges of his smile becoming slightly strained, but he smiles on anyway. “Even if a mortal’s life is nothing more than a quiet breath against the eternity that sprawls before us, there is beauty in a bloom that lives for only one night.”
He looks at Guizhong. “After all, if I did not want anything more than what I already had, I would not have been so furious when all of you attempted to... ‘intervene’.”
“Oh, you were actually really mad, huh...” Lumine sips away at her tea. It’s a good thing Zhongli’s learnt some anger management, even if it comes in the form of just Not Saying Anything for nearly an entire day.
Guizhong glows softly, rising up to Zhongli’s eye level. “I’ll give you an 8.5/10,” she says, and Zhongli can only laugh at her response. “It would’ve been better if you’d told me that twenty hours ago, or, perhaps, before any of us did anything at all.”
“Us archons take a longer time to process our feelings,” Zhongli hums, using her words against her. “But I shall not be using that an excuse any longer. I am only Zhongli now. Besides...”
He raises his teacup to her in a toast. “You would have stubbornly intervened regardless of what I told you.”
“You are right,” Guizhong admits, and she laughs as well, airy and light.
Just then, a messenger pigeon clatters against Zhongli’s window.
He looks up in surprise, and Guizhong flies over to help open it, pushing against the lever. The pigeon, white as the driven snow, lands on the table, and Zhongli takes the letter off its chuffed chest before it flies away. “There is only one who sends letters to me with a Snezhnayan bird,” he says, and he opens its contents. Guizhong and Lumine, though desperately curious, both hold back, letting the man have his privacy.
Soon, he rises to his feet. “I must go,” he says, and because he already knows what’s coming-- “No intervening.”
“Yes, yes,” Guizhong agrees. “Sally forth, Zhongli. May you go at your own pace!”
And then, once Zhongli closes the door behind him, Guizhong turns to Lumine: “Alright. I’m going to stalk him.”
“I’m not going to do anything,” Guizhong clarifies. “I just... I have to watch. I can’t stand just being here and not knowing.”
Why does she always get caught up in these situations.
“I’ll come with you,” Lumine says, and Guizhong flies around her happily. “Just to make sure you don’t do anything.”
“Oh, how scathing,” she moans in faux-agony. “Well, let us go, then!”
Guizhong and Lumine tail Zhongli all the way to the peak of Mount Tianheng.
Lumine wonders why Childe would want to meet with Zhongli in a place like this, but once she scales up the mountain to the north of the Teleport Waypoint, she has time to finally admire a view she had ignored in her rush to save Liyue from the Fatui’s machinations. The scenery of Liyue’s magnificent harbor lays beneath them, a burst of color amongst the rocky mountainside, and it is gorgeous.
“There you are,” Childe greets nonchalantly as Zhongli walks up to him. Guizhong and Lumine hide nearly, within a thick bunch of bushes. “You know, this would be a perfect spot for the duel I’ve been asking you for.”
Zhongli looks around. “It would,” he notes calmly. “It is far from civilization, leaving us with little chance of hurting innocent bystanders-- unless one of us is tossed far enough to land on the roofs below.”
“Haha! Well, that one certainly won’t be me,” Childe laughs, and Lumine grips her sword, for a moment, expecting Childe to pull out a bow. But he doesn’t, and Zhongli doesn’t think so either, because, truth be told, both of them know each other too well, their genuine selves worn for too long upon their sleeves during their talks about nothing.
He turns back to look at Liyue. “What an amazing city,” Childe mutters, suddenly solemn. “You know, I can’t even remember how the snows of Snezhnaya feel anymore.”
And then he smiles at Zhongli, in an expression Lumine has never once seen Childe wear. “But I’ll learn it again, soon, for I’m going home,” he says, and, oh, it’s sadness.
“Oh no,” Guizhong gasps, her worst fears come to life. “He’s too late.”
“...Going home?” Zhongli does not let his surprise melt through his features. “Has the Tsaritsa called upon you for new duties?”
“No,” Childe answers honestly. “I’m leaving because the reason why I was still lingering here no longer exists. That, and, well, I miss my family! I’ve been writing letters back and forth, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them face-to-face.”
Zhongli gives Childe a slow nod of understanding. “I see.” And then, “I wish you well on your journey home, Childe.”
“Noooo,” Guizhong whispers in actual agony. “Take his hand! Beg him to stay!”
As Guizhong vibrates in despair, Childe puts his hands in his pockets. “Wow...” Then, takes a deep breath, before letting a loud, yet hollow laugh ring out from his lungs. “You really don’t get it, do you?”
Zhongli looks at Childe, finally letting some surprise show on his face. “...Do you want to have your duel with me before you leave?”
“I-- well, yes,” Childe sputters. “But the... no, nevermind.”
“It’s me,” Zhongli realizes, and all at once it’s like a meteor comes crashing down on the both of them. “I am the reason why you stayed.”
A gentle wind blows across the mountaintop, and Childe’s scarf flutters serenely in the breeze. “You normally enjoy our talks about nothing,” Childe says, and he fixes his eyes on the view of Liyue rather than on the man besides him. “But yesterday, you wouldn’t say a thing. Your lips were sealed. You were hiding something from me, I realized-- and even when you were hiding your very identity as Liyue’s god, you weren’t like that.”
He crosses his arms, letting out a loud sigh. “And then, all your comrades started messing up the place! It’s a good thing someone as magnanimous as me was footing the bill. Do you realize how much those smashed antiques cost, Zhongli? It’s--” Childe catches himself, and shakes his head. “If you wanted me gone, you could’ve done it without making me empty more of Snezhnaya’s coffers.”
“You misunderstand,” Zhongli quickly says.
“Which part? Everyone ruining dinner, or how Guizhong came back?” And now, Childe’s blue, blue eyes suddenly seem to light up with a fire Lumine has never seen before. “Zhongli, you may not understand human feelings, but trust me, I do. And I have heard how you speak about her. Even if she’s-- well, a Geo Construct now, or whatever. I don’t wish to get in the way.”
Guizhong flickers. “Get... in the... oh, no.”
As she rushes forward, Lumine grabs her, pulling her back into the bushes. “Lumine, I have to-- no--!”
“You promised Zhongli. No intervention,” Lumine reminds, and though Guizhong still glows brightly in protest, she knows Lumine is right.
There’s silence, for a moment. Zhongli, unaware of the struggle between the two women hiding behind them, focuses all his attention on Childe instead. He moves slowly, raising his hand, first, before bolding placing it upon Childe’s shoulder.
“As I said. You misunderstand.” Miraculously, Childe does not move to shove his hand off, instead turning to meet Zhongli’s piercing gaze, glowing amber meeting impenetrable ocean blue.
Childe waits, and waits, and after another painful beat of no words exchanged, finally opens his mouth. “So?” He breathes. “Make me understand, o mighty Rex Lapis.”
“I am not Rex Lapis,” Zhongli declares. “I am only Zhongli.”
And then he leans forward, placing a bold kiss onto Childe’s lips. Lumine promptly hugs Guizhong to her chest to muffle her scream of excitement.
Again, the world stills to nothing, but this time, Childe is the one left staring at Zhongli, like a deer in the headlights. “Oh,” he says simply, before his lips twitch up into a smile. ”...Oh.”
And then he practically lunges for Zhongli’s throat.
Lumine realizes she’s probably eavesdropping on a very, very intimate moment they should not at all be intruding upon, but Guizhong is vibrating very, very excitedly within her grasp, and she’s afraid that if she breaks out of this curled-up position, Guizhong will give away their location. So instead, she stays, unintentionally listening in on every word exchanged between the two.
“I regret-- that I did not tell you earlier,” Zhongli says in between Childe’s kisses, gasped out in the breaths he can spare. “All that wasted time--”
“Oh, do you consider all the time you’ve spent with me to be wasted? How cruel,” Childe laughs, running his hands through Zhongli’s hair, hungrily, greedily. “Besides, what’s time to an immortal like you?”
“It is not--” Zhongli exhales sharply when Childe moves onto his neck, placing rough kisses on the thin skin above his jugular. “It is not I who--”
“I know, I’m just teasing,” Childe breathes against Zhongli’s spotless skin. “I was thinking about it, too, when I realized who you are. Who you really are.”
And though Zhongli has long believed the unsaid contracts of social conduct to be worth little compared to those carved in stone, the one Childe implicitly agrees to is precious beyond definition. “Actually, no,” Childe chuckles. “You’re just Zhongli. And I’m just Childe, or Tartaglia, or whatever you’d like to call me-- but you’re here, I’m here, and that’s all that matters.”
When glowing amber meets the impenetrable tide of the blue, blue sea, Zhongli realizes that Childe realizes he will always be a shooting star that streaks across the boundless, undying constellations, burning out before he can crash into the earth. But that’s fine; because right now, they’re both here, and all the things that get in the way-- the boat trip Childe had already agreed to go on, the political ramifications of their tryst, his family waiting at home, everything, everything--
“Also,” Childe rasps and he wrestles Zhongli to the ground, “you guys can come out of hiding now.”
Lumine raises her head out of the bushes, tentatively studying the two men. None of them seem surprised. “I... thought you did not notice them,” Zhongli breathes. “I did not want to...”
“What can I say? I’m a little bit of an exhibitionist,” Childe states, and Guizhong rattles in Lumine’s arms at the revelation. “What? Don’t give me that look. I’m sure you old gods have done some strange things before. Won’t judge if you’ve pegged him or something--”
”I HAVE NOT!” Guizhong finally bolts out of Lumine’s grasp, and Childe literally loses his shit laughing at her indignant screech. It is possible for a Geo Construct to blush? Somehow, Lumine feels like Guizhong will find a way.
“Well, feel free to stay,” Childe laughs. And then he pulls out a knife made of Hydro. “After all, we’ve still got a duel to go through.”
“You traitor,” Xiao growls, and, wait, when did Xiao get here-- a burst of Anemo flings Childe off Zhongli and nearly off the very mountain itself, before the Harbinger manages to regain his composure and plant his feet firmly onto the ground. “I will have your head!”
“Xiao,” Zhongli snaps, “you will not--”
One interrupted duel and many admonishments by Guizhong later, Xiao grumbles as he sits cross-legged on the ground, nursing a headache from the meteor his very own master sent barreling into his skull. “You know, the Millelith will probably climb up here soon,” Childe says casually, as if his clothes have not be torn asunder by Xiao’s spear. Actually, he’s probably leaning back to show more of his chest on purpose. “Your meteor was pretty noticeable, Zhongli. Did you open a portal and pull it out from the very depths of the abyss itself?”
“Perhaps,” he replies cryptically. Childe huffs at the non-answer. “In any case. Though our conversation was interrupted, I hope we have cleared the air.”
“Very much so,” Lumine mutters. “I’ve heard too much. I need to clean my ears.”
“Yes...” Guizhong flickers, flying weakly around Lumine’s shoulders. “Childe’s declarations while Xiao was trying to kill him and Zhongli was trying to save him... they were...”
“Don’t be a prude,” Childe snaps. “What’s wrong with cheering on your boyfriend and his rock-hard meteor?”
Xiao buries his head in his hands, desperately wishing Zhongli’s meteor had just killed him instead. Just so he wouldn’t have to suffer the innuendos any longer.
“Boyfriend,” Zhongli repeats, and the word tastes rather sweet on his tongue. “I... yes, I suppose we are partners now.”
“You suppose?” Childe tilts his head. “I really got to write it out on paper for you? I, o Childe AKA Tartaglia AKA insert real name here, pledge my very body and soul to be Zhongli’s--”
“Enough,” Guizhong interrupts, if only because anything sordid Childe might say next will actually cause her to die a second death. “Though, I am so, so proud of you, Zhongli. Giving a kiss before even confessing your feelings is a bold move, but fitting when he had already confessed to you in every way except directly! I give you a 9.5/10. A+.”
Zhongli blinks owlishly. “What will it take to get 10/10?”
“Hmm,” Guizhong thinks aloud. “Perhaps if we can get Xiao and Venti to finally talk their feelings out.”
“Goodbye,” Xiao says, and he promptly disappears.