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fish among the rapids

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The celebration of one's birthday is a human tradition, a way to mark the passing of the years and celebrate one's transience. To the gods, who are said to have existed since the creation of Teyvat, birthdays are unnecessary indulgences, for there is nothing to celebrate when all their days, though hectic, blur into monotony. They may, however, find birthdays amusing: Cloud Retainer, for one, finds it particularly funny that humans like to blow out candles as part of their celebrations as if their lives weren’t equally fleeting.

Some time ago, when the Lady of Dust discovered the existence of birthdays, she gleefully asked her fellow adepti to take part in this tradition and pick a day to call their own. Cloud Retainer scoffed, Moon Carver was absent, Mountain Shaper simply turned away without so much as a second of consideration. Madame Ping humoured her, but by the time their next skirmish had come and gone she’d long forgotten about it. When the Lady of Dust returned to her abode, she found her partner, the Lord of Geo, waiting for her, and her gossamer sleeves fluttered with excitement once more.

“Rex!” she cried out, scrambling to his side, for she knew that a friend such as he would not dismiss her love for humans and their customs. “Pick a day. Any day!”

Rex Lapis turned from the window to face her, a faint crease between his brows. “Whatever for, Guizhong?”

Guizhong’s smile grew a little strained. “For your birthday, of course!”

The furrow in Rex Lapis' brows grew ever deeper, and he opened his mouth hesitantly upon witnessing Guizhong’s growing despair. "What are birthdays?" he asked, for he was more often than not preoccupied with war, and had little time for the trivial beings that were mortals.

And so Guizhong sat Rex Lapis down, and by the light of the bleeding sun she explained the tradition of celebrating one’s birthday. When she had finished and the stars were luminescent in the night sky, she repeated her earlier request. “So pick a day, Rex!”

Rex Lapis dipped his head in contemplation, and once more Guizhong rushed to assure him that his birthday did not have to be a day of significance. And so Rex Lapis picked that very day, the seventeenth day of the eleventh month, to be his birthday, since it was also the day he first came to know about birthdays.

“Of course,” Zhongli continues, sitting at a table surrounded by his captive audience, “it was not until centuries later that the Mondstadtian calendar came into use, and that the seventeenth day of the eleventh month in the Liyuen calendar became known as the thirty-first of December. Some say that it was Rex Lapis’ incredible foresight that he picked his birthday to signify the turn of eras, but-“ he raises his teacup — “it was nothing so profound.”

Paimon oohs and ahs appreciatively, accompanied by Aether’s light applause, and Zhongli, having concluded his tale, sips at his tea. Across them, Childe glares at Zhongli from where he’s laid his head on the table.

“I can’t believe I never realised you were Rex Lapis,” he sulks. “With the sheer number of tales you’d told me that I could never find in the archives, I should have known. I had so many chances!” Childe scowls, though it is clear that he is merely petulant, not genuinely angry. He sits up and raises a declarative finger, sunlight glinting in his eyes. Aether, all too familiar with this turn of events, buries his head in his hands. “I-“

“-am here to deliver your salt and pepper tofu!” Xiangling announces. “Happy birthday, mister Zhongli! I made it just as you’d suggested, with sea salt extracted from the shallow seas of Guyun Stone Forest,” she adds, placing the tofu dish, along with four bowls of rice, on their table with practiced ease. Zhongli’s companions goggle at her casual statement. “If it’s not to your liking, just say the word!”

The tofu looks just the same as when Zhongli last tried it, but that is to be expected. He bites into it — the batter is crispy but not overly crunchy, the tofu tender but not too silky. The jueyun pepper burns pleasantly, and the salt — Zhongli closes his eyes, and behind red-tinged eyelids he sees himself atop the stone spears he once hurled.

“Perfect,” he murmurs, eyes crinkling in delight. “Thank you, Xiangling.”

Xiangling stares. “Really? I mean- I’m glad you like it! Really! I wasn’t very sure how exactly to extract the salt so I had to try a few different methods, and there were some very persistent slimes too — I mean, thank you so much!” She bows, flustered. “Would you like some plum cakes on the house?”

“It would certainly be my pleasure.” Zhongli looks over to find a trail of tofu leading to Childe’s bowl. “And I suppose we’ll need a fork and spoon for the gentleman, if you don’t mind,” he adds, as Aether finally takes pity on the Snezhnayan.

“Guyun Stone Forest, huh?” Aether pipes up, when Xiangling has disappeared back into the kitchen. “I don’t know whether to be more appalled that you requested that of her, or that she actually went through with it.”

Childe laughs heartily. "You say that, and yet we are about to stage our twelfth rematch in four days. Shouldn't you be most appalled at yourself?"

Paimon hums. "You know...he does have a point there..."

Childe gloats as Aether, mollified, returns to his lunch. "So, how about it, consultant? Come to think of it, I've never had the chance to fight you head-on, since you never turned up when I summoned Osial. Care to join our next rematch? Or shall we fight one-on-one?"

Zhongli smiles into his tea. "Someday, when you're not tearing up the harbour or flipping it inside out."

"You said that last week! And the week before!"

***

At some point, Zhongli tunes out of the conversation, slightly unused to such prolonged, exuberant conversation and happy to focus on the scent of violetgrass and honey. Paimon suggests a sugar-frosted slime for Zhongli's birthday cake; Xiangling nearly cries with joy. Aether and Childe discuss Inazuma and how to get in — To Childe's dismay, the Fatui are nowhere near welcome in Inazuma, and when the name of Scaramouche is brought up his face twists into a terrible scowl. Aether hurriedly turns to the topic of Teucer and Snezhnaya, and his face untwists into a fond smile.

"Plum cakes, on the house!" Xiangling reappears, and all conversation about the grandeur of Zapolyarny palace grinds to a halt as Zhongli's companions express their delight over the delicate pastries.

Zhongli brings a pastry to his mouth. "These plum blossoms — they smell familiar." If he recalls the last time Hu Tao ran out in the middle of book-keeping...

Xiangling scratches her head sheepishly. "A friend kept giving me fermented plum blossoms, and they smelt so good that I just couldn't resist! Are the cakes not to your liking?"

Zhongli shakes his head. "The filling is the perfect balance of sweet and tangy, and the pastry is light enough to melt in one's mouth. You have made a masterpiece out of your friend's plum blossoms. If I could make one more suggestion-"

"Yes! Anything! Say the word!"

"In ancient Liyue, there used to be another variety of plum cake — when the people were not as prosperous and plums were not as affordable, plum cakes would be filled with red bean paste. Perhaps you could consider resurrecting this tradition, or creating something new out of it."

Xiangling gasps. "Of course! A fusion of the two...Red bean jelly..." She rushes back to the kitchen, gears whirring as she prepares a new recipe.

Childe pushes a plum cake towards Zhongli, a flaming stick stuck into it. "Make a wish!"

Zhongli stares. "What?"

The flames are snaking down the stick. Childe stares back. "What what? It's your birthday cake! Make a wish!" The stick starts to crumble. "Hurry up!"

Aether blows the candle out.

Childe turns to him, betrayed. "What?" Aether retorts. "It was dropping ash onto the cake!"

"But did you manage to make a wish, mister Zhongli?" Paimon asks, hovering at his side, as Aether and Childe begin to bicker about the pros and cons of a has-been god eating ash-frosted plum cakes. "It'd be a disaster if you didn't! If it were Paimon's birthday, Paimon would wish for a slime feast! Mister Zhongli, what do you think? Wouldn't that be great?"

"Worry not," Zhongli chuckles. "I have made my wish."

Childe points an accusatory finger at him, freed from his squabble. "You don't know what birthday cakes are?"

"Well." Zhongli steeples his fingers. "I do know that humans celebrate birthdays and I am aware of some birthday customs in Liyue, but I am not familiar with this concept of a birthday cake."

"I am appalled." Childe proceeds to launch into a detailed description of the history of birthday cakes and birthday wishes, which Zhongli finds is a tradition originating from Fontaine, and subsequently barrels into a compilation of his siblings' birthdays. By the time he is finished, the teapot of violetgrass tea has dried up, the plum cakes have been digested, Wanmin restaurant has all but emptied. Liyue Harbour glows brilliantly in the late afternoon sun.

"So, I hope you're planning to treat us this round, consultant," Childe jokes, dusting off his pants.

Zhongli fishes out a pouch. "Indeed, I have brought Mora," he answers, to the amazement of his companions. "I believe it is a custom for the host of the celebration to treat their companions to a meal."

Stunned, Childe waves a haphazard hand. "Wait, I didn't mean- You actually brought Mora? For once?"

Zhongli frowns. "You have been paying on my behalf, and I thought it was only prudent to return the favour. Are you not satisfied with this arrangement?"

"No- well-" Childe clears his throat, his eyes darting back and forth. "I was actually planning to pay for the meal, since it's your birthday after all."

Zhongli's face softens. "I would never reject such a generous gift. Thank you, Childe. And chef-" he turns to Xiangling, now holding Childe's Mora in her hands, "before we leave: Could I trouble you once more to prepare a serving of almond tofu to go?"

***

Aether disappears to run a commission for the Adventurers' Guild, and Childe parts ways with Zhongli at Dihua Marsh once he brings up Wangshu Inn.

"Are you insane?" he'd hissed. "If Ningguang's people don't kill me first, your yaksha definitely will."

"Perhaps you should have thought twice before releasing Osial," Zhongli replies, distracted by Aether's gift.

"Are you-" Childe sighs. "Zhongli, it's literally a worm on a string, would you please stop looking at it like it's your child? Have some concern for my well-being?"

It looks just like the Exuvia, and wraps snugly around his finger. Zhongli loves it.

Childe throws up his hands. "Nevermind, I'm going off. The next time I see you, we shall have our fight!"

***

Zhongli finds Xiao on the roof of Wangshu Inn.

"What are you doing up here," Xiao chokes out, incredulous, as Zhongli clambers onto the tiles.

"Well," Zhongli answers, "you appeared to be enjoying yourself up here. If you have changed hideouts, I would not begrudge you. The exercise does me well, after all, and the view from up here is rather spectacular."

Xiao stomps off the rooftop. "Absolutely not," he calls from the balcony. "I will not have you sitting cross-legged beside me. I will find us a table."

The tables, as it turns out, have all been taken up by the inn's patrons, so Xiao settles for sitting on his balcony alongside Zhongli once he has been pacified by almond tofu. "It tastes different — not as bitter," he comments. "You didn't get this from Chef Yanxiao, did you?"

"Is it good?" Zhongli replies. "It's from Wanmin Restaurant's Xiangling. I believe you have met her on several occasions."

Xiao clicks his tongue. "She never knows when she's in danger," he grumbles. "There has been many a time where she has forgotten her limits in favour of finding ingredients."

Zhongli chuckles. "Then I am glad that you were there to save her. And speaking of which-" — he rummages in his pockets — "Aether told me that you have been neglecting your medicine, which is why I have taken the liberty of bringing you some crushed Qingxin."

"Another human who does not know his boundaries," Xiao retorts, taking the sachet and emptying it into his tea. "He keeps demanding that I accompany him on his journey throughout Teyvat."

"What was your response?"

"Are you-" Xiao stares at Zhongli as if he were senile. "My liege, you know that I cannot!"

Zhongli merely smiles against the rim of his teacup. "I am no longer your liege. It's just Zhongli now."

Xiao casts a dubious glance. "Zhongli." He rolls the word around in his mouth and grimaces at how foreign it is. "Zhongli."

"There we go. Is it not better for us to talk like friends?"

"Fine." Xiao crosses his arms. "Zhongli. Are you senile."

Zhongli cannot help but laugh. "Stop laughing!" Xiao snaps. "What if I lose control and kill them all?"

"Xiao." Zhongli sets his teacup down and takes Xiao's clenched fists in his hands. "You have been lonely for so long. I may not have done right by the five of you back then, but now that I have the chance, I wish only for your happiness. The war is over, and so is the age of Rex Lapis. For millenia you have kept watch over Liyue, but there is no more need for you to do so. There is a world out there for you to see, Alatus, if only you would open your wings once more." He pats Xiao's hands before letting go. "Give it some time — Aether has yet to finalise his plans for Inazuma, and will not leave Liyue until April, at the very earliest."

Xiao glares at him as he drinks his tea. "Perhaps."

"By the way," Zhongli adds, "The Qingxin was obtained from Bubu Pharmacy. The little Qiqi sends her well-wishes."

Xiao looks down at his tea and gives it a little swirl. "Send her my thanks."

"Perhaps you should visit her sometime and send them yourself." Zhongli gazes out at the sweeping plains, the mountains beyond, the sun that hastes to dip below the horizon. "It grows late. Would you like to join me for dinner?"

"Would I be able to say no?" Xiao sighs, but peeks over the railing nonetheless. "The tables have emptied, but the winds grow harsh and the skies dark." He glances at Zhongli, who is underdressed for the weather.

Zhongli stands, grunting at the sensation of sore and stiff knees. "Worry not, Xiao. The cold is nothing a warm, homemade meal cannot remedy."

***

As they await their food, Zhongli tells Xiao about birthday traditions and the custom of giving gifts. He produces Aether's toy Exuvia with a little laugh, and Xiao scrunches up his face but hastens to touch it when Zhongli extends it to him. He mentions Childe's generosity, and Xiao grumbles something unintelligible.

"My knowledge of birthday presents is limited," Xiao admits, returning the toy Exuvia, "so I asked Verr Goldet about them this morning. I was at a loss for what to give you, so-" — he nods at the pot of Slow-Cooked Bamboo Soup Huai-an sets on their table — "I asked Chef Yanxiao for a favour. He was all too willing to learn a new recipe until he realised how long the preparations would take." Carefully, Xiao ladles a bowl of soup for Zhongli. "I hope it's to your liking."

"It certainly smells exquisite," Zhongli replies, and it is true. Already, he can feel its warmth chase the bone-deep cold away. "Thank you, Xiao — for the meal, and for your company." The bamboo shoots are lighter than he remembers and the pork belly isn't as fresh, but it is clear that Yanxiao had cooked it with diligence. "Delicious," he murmurs.

"It has been some time since I last ate this dish," Xiao says. "Chef Yanxiao did a good job."

"How are the other adepti faring?" Zhongli asks. "I have not heard from them, save Madame Ping, since I told them I was still alive."

Xiao makes a face. "You know my interactions with them are few and far between. Cloud Retainer's screeches travelled the distance between Mount Aozang and Wangshu Inn, but I have not spoken to Moon Carver or Mountain Shaper since the defeat of Osial."

"I see. Would you like to accompany me to make a peace offering?"

"No. It’s late and you need to get back to Liyue Harbour.”

Zhongli sets his bowl down and thinks. “Shall we visit someone else on the way back, then?”

***

Nothing marks the place where Guizhong died, and it is Zhongli’s mind alone that remembers. It is near one of the tablets detailing the story of Guili Plains — Guizhong would have had a good laugh over the coincidence.

"Your talents on the xiao remain unparalleled," Zhongli comments, as Xiao plays an idle tune. He twirls the bunch of glaze lilies, admiring their iridescent shine. "I have but one question: The song you played to the lilies— it appears to hail from neither of the Liyue schools; Rather, it appears to follow the sea shanties that the sailors of Mondstadt favour." Xiao freezes. "Have you been making friends with the bard, then?" Zhongli asks, glancing at him.

Xiao coughs. "I don't know which bard you're talking about — I heard it one afternoon from a passing traveller, and it has stuck in my head ever since."

"Is that so," Zhongli murmurs with a smile. "At any rate, the glaze lilies seem to have taken a liking to it."

The twin braziers are lit, the weeds plucked clean, the layers of sand and dust on the tablet wiped away. Zhongli lays the glaze lilies down a distance away; his thumb skitters over the delicate petals. Xiao, unwilling to intrude, lingers behind.

"It's funny," Zhongli continues, his voice carrying on the brisk wind. "After all this time, I still have not managed to decipher Guizhong's last gift to me." He draws it out now, the construct hovering before them. "For a long time after she died, I was so obsessed with trying to solve its puzzle, so afraid to lose my memories of her, and at the same time I longed to curse her for her love for mortals, which made her weak in an age that called for heartlessness. It took me a while," he says, "but I am starting to understand why she loved them so."

"And why is that?"

Zhongli looks up, glowing with wonder — for a moment, Xiao almost mistakes him for Guizhong. "Have you thought about it, Xiao? We adepti need neither sleep nor sustenance; we can only die at the hands of war or at our own. We pass the time watching over mortals and calculating our next move, but hectic as it is, it is hardly the best way of life. Humans are fragile and transient, like fish darting among the rapids, and despite this they wake up every day and choose to live. Some of them climb the highest peaks and scour the deepest seas, some of them challenge the gods and live to tell the tale. Some of them breathe and eat and sleep, which suffices — but nevertheless, their timeless strength amazes me." He chuckles. "Sometimes I think they are stronger than us adepti."

The braziers flicker and flare. Zhongli's gaze is inscrutable, but a rueful smile adorns his face. "The ability to care for mortals and love as they do," he murmurs. "Perhaps that was her true gift to me."

The wind howls through the Guili ruins. "Xiao," Zhongli suddenly calls out. "The joss sticks — they slipped my mind. I was not expecting to visit Guizhong today." His shoulders slump, just barely, and Xiao finds himself materialising the sticks of incense with a shake of his head. He passes a set to Zhongli and dips his own in the brazier — The air begins to fill with the scent of sandalwood and spices.

Zhongli sets the joss sticks in the ground beside the glaze lilies and lingers, breathing in the incense. "If only she could see the Liyue of today," he muses. "Do you think she would have liked it?"

The skies are cloudless tonight, and the stars keep vigilant watch over the plains and peaks of Liyue. The incense meanders and rises, spiriting their prayers to the constellations above.

"Of course." Xiao's response leaves no room for doubt. "She would love it. She’d be proud of you, Zhongli.”

***

Despite Xiao's ability to hasten the journey back by, the two find Liyue Harbour dim and quiet, and even Wangsheng Parlour has closed its doors for the night. Zhongli bids Xiao goodnight at his doorstep and huffs, shutting his doors against the cold and relieving himself of his jacket and tie with lethargic fingers.

A gust slams the doors open. A disembodied voice booms. Zhongli sighs. "How fares Rex Lapis on this starry night?"

Zhongli turns to the shadowed rafters. "Barbatos," he calls. "Get down before I resort to unsavoury actions."

The bard hops down and lands on light feet, strumming a familiar shanty on his lute. "Oh, Morax," he titters, spiralling into the air when Zhongli reaches for the scruff of his neck. "Always all bark and no bite."

Zhongli crosses his arms. The earth trembles.

"Okay, okay!" Barbatos yelps, skittering past Zhongli and seating himself at the dining table. "I know you're not furious, so there's no need to make our banter this serious." A decanter is produced from the folds of his cloak, and he shakes it invitingly. "I brought you some of Mondstadt's finest wine," he coaxes, "if only you would deign to share your time..."

Resigned, Zhongli presses a pair of ceramic cups into Barbatos' waiting hands. "From one poet to another, stop rhyming."

"Boo, old man," he retorts, passing a cup to Zhongli and emptying his own with a satisfied sigh. The scent of dandelion wine rarely drifts Liyue's way, and Zhongli finds himself savouring its earthy, citrusy notes — it reminds him of how long he hasn't stepped foot in Mondstadt, and he tells his drinking partner as much.

"Much has changed since you last came by," Barbatos hums. "It would be a shame if you did not witness how Mondstadt's people have since soared high."

Zhongli nods absently. "Are you here to ask a favour of me, Barbatos?"

A click of the tongue. "You will not call me Barbatos, or my departure from this conversation shall be your loss."

Zhongli sighs. "Are you here to ask a favour of me, Venti?"

"How dare you think of me that way!" Venti brandishes his empty cup indignantly. "I merely wanted to wish you a happy first birthday." Zhongli holds out his own cup, and it is eagerly filled with a second serving of dandelion wine.

"My first birthday," Zhongli repeats, staring at the distorted reflection in his cup. "Thank you, Venti."

The sensation of a dainty finger upon his nose startles him. "Did you not go out with friends?" Venti asks. "Or do you still reckon everyone thinks you a means to their ends?"

"Of course not," Zhongli replies. "In fact, Aether and several other...friends celebrated my birthday earlier." He recalls a gentler time, a bigger table with seven goblets of golden basalt. "With all the festivities, I'm afraid you might have slipped my mind."

Venti sticks out his tongue. "So rude," he mutters, but his gaze is warm as he empties his cup once more. "I'm glad you found some friends of your own, old man," he says, flashing a rueful grin.

Zhongli finds himself responding with a small smile of his own. "And I am glad to call you one of my first," he replies, lifting his cup.

"So," Venti claps his hands, pouring more wine for the both of them. "What did you guys do today?"

And Zhongli, chest filled with a warmth he cannot explain, begins to tell Venti about his first birthday.