It was early morning. Zhongli was walking to work when a voice called out to him. “Hey, you! Hey! Over here, blockhead!”
The voice was familiar, and it was for this very reason that Zhongli kept walking. Unfortunately, Barbatos of Mondstadt was not easily deterred, and he descended from the red rooftops where he’d been lounging to land in front of Zhongli in a whirl of cecilia-scented wind and green-and-white cloth. He put his hands on his hips and huffed. Zhongli, forced to stop, looked at him neutrally.
“Your hearing must be going in your old age,” said Barbatos. Time had not changed him; he was still all cheeky grins and braided hair and fluttering capes. He was also still short. “I called you several times.”
“Apologies,” said Zhongli. “As you did not call me by name, I was unaware who you were referring to.”
“Liar!” Barbatos punched him playfully in the arm. To Rex Lapis, Prime of the Adepti and former Archon of the Earth, it felt like being batted by the paw of a kitten. “Is that any way to greet an old friend?”
Zhongli made a show of looking around. “Are there any old friends here for me to greet?”
“I regret teaching you how to roast people sometimes,” said Barbatos.
“I’ve never roasted anyone in my life. Fire was not one of the punishments I employed in my time as archon.”
Barbatos laughed and waved an airy, dismissive hand. “Forget it; it’s just a saying. Anyway, you’ve probably already figured it out from the fact that I’m here, but it’s been a long time since we hung out together, so I thought I’d come and check up on you! You met the Traveller, right? Lumine came back to Mondstadt and told me what happened before she and Paimon went off to Inazuma, and I figured, hey, why not visit Liyue myself?”
Zhongli sighed and smiled despite himself. “It has been a long time. Fifty-three years, to be precise. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to entertain,” - babysit - “you for some time. I have work.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that! The Traveller told me you’re working at the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, so before I came to find you, I popped in over there and asked your boss if she would give you the day off!”
“You what .” Horror struck Zhongli like a lightning bolt. “Do you mean to say that you spoke with Master Hu Tao?”
“The girl with the red eyes and the hat and the pigtails? Yes, I did! She was funny, said you needed a break and told me to make sure you loosened up for once, you boring senior citizen. I mean, I thought she was kind of young to be running a Funeral Parlor, but eh, who am I to judge?”
Barbatos had met Hu Tao and miracle of all miracles, the city had not burned down. Zhongli pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Come on,” Barbatos wheedled. “I brought wine …”
That was not surprising, though Zhongli could not see where on Barbatos’s person he could be keeping it, unless he’d managed to stuff a bottle into his ridiculous poofy pants. “Fine! Fine. But if you’ve truly gotten me the day off, then we’ll need to stop by the Northland Bank first. Come with me.”
Barbatos struggled to keep up with his stride, stubby as his legs were. “Oh, going to pick up some Mora? Going to treat me to something? How generous! This is why you’re my favourite, you know.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I don’t have any Mora to treat you with.”
Zhongli ignored the pouts that were sent his way. While lesser beings had fallen prey to Barbatos’s puppy-dog eyes before, Zhongli possessed no such weakness. In fact, he was more inclined to become irritated and punt him off the edge of the docks than give into his inclinations when he made that face. Perhaps sensing this, it was only a few minutes before Barbatos scowled and subsided.
The Anemo Archon contented himself with looking around and admiring the city’s architecture as they made their way up the red stairs to the Northland Bank. He tensed a little at the sight of the Fatui but said nothing as Zhongli passed through the doors with a polite nod to Vlad, which he returned.
When they entered the lobby, Barbatos grabbed the back of his coattails. Zhongli paused to say, “If you’re uncomfortable, you can wait for me outside. This will only take a moment.”
He got nervous, high-pitched laughter in response. “Uncomfortable? Who, me? No, no, you’re mistaken.” His voice lowered into a hiss. “Why would I be uncomfortable in a Snezhnayan-run facility swarming with members of the Fatui? Xiao told me to make sure you stay away from them, you know.”
Ah, Xiao. His concern was appreciated, though unnecessary.
“The Fatui are close business associates of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor,” said Zhongli, half-turning to attempt to pry Venti’s fingers from his coat. The exercise quickly proved futile; though he could probably force him to let go if he wanted to, the coat would likely rip and he had no desire to get into a scuffle with Barbatos in the middle of the bank. Several of the Fatui agents inside were already carefully not sending them strange looks, likely out of respect for their Harbinger’s respected associate, but the curiosity in the air was palpable. “I have had many dealings with them in the past, so I am used to them. Additionally, the Traveller must have already informed you that I no longer possess anything they might desire from me, so there is no risk.”
“Oh yes, the Traveller told me everything ,” said Barbatos, his tone taking on a touch of mocking, though he kept his voice low. “How fortuitous that the great Morax was able to resolve things peacefully with Her Majesty. Not all of us are so lucky, you know.”
Zhongli patted him on the head - or hat, rather - to appease him (to shut him up). It was a gesture that Guizhong had often done to Xiao (and to him) and which Zhongli had gradually found himself adopting after her passing. Barbatos scowled at him again but fell silent, so he decided that it had been effective.
Feeling a little tired already, Zhongli made his way over to the front desk with the Anemo Archon absentmindedly running his tailcoats through his hands. Ekaterina smiled at him and said, “Greetings, Mr. Zhongli. What can we do for you today? If you’re looking for the Lord Harbinger, I’m afraid he’s out at the moment,” as though she hadn’t just seen him have a whispered argument with a funnily dressed foreigner in the middle of the lobby.
Her professionality was admirable, though Zhongli found himself clearing his throat self-consciously anyways. Not helping was the way Barbatos’s eyes were suddenly boring into the side of his head. “Good morning, Miss Ekaterina. I was wondering if you could pass a message along to Childe for me. I’m afraid something came up, and I won’t be able to make it to dinner tonight after all.”
Ekaterina did not speak for two whole seconds. Zhongli could not fault her surprise; in all the time he’d known Childe, he’d never cancelled on him. It couldn’t be helped, however. Zhongli preferred to keep the mortal and divine aspects of his life separate whenever possible, and besides which had little desire to force Barbatos into a confrontation with a member of the organization which had, he’d heard from Lumine, unfortunately hurt him. Furthermore, it wasn’t as though Childe hadn’t cancelled on him before due to working overtime or for other reasons, so Zhongli figured he wouldn’t be too upset at being blown off once.
“I see,” said Ekaterina slowly. For a moment she looked like she wanted to ask why, but in the end she only said, “Will that be all, Mr. Zhongli?”
“That will be all. Thank you, and tell him I’ll make it up to him,” Zhongli promised.
Barbatos let go of him by the time they exited the bank. “You know, I’d heard you were going by Zhongli again,” he said thoughtfully, “but it’s still a bit strange hearing it used by humans.”
“It has indeed been a long time,” he agreed. He’d set aside Zhongli when he’d set aside the Guili Assembly, and these days none but Barbatos and the adepti could remember what name Rex Lapis had merged with Guizhong’s during their partnership. “I think I like it, though. I’d prefer it if you addressed me as such in public as well, as my other names would draw unwanted attention from the citizens.”
“Okay, but you have to call me Venti in return! That’s what I’m going by these days.” His eyes sparkled. “It sort of feels like a fresh start for us, don’t you think? The two oldest archons, walking the mortal world incognito without their gnoses for the first time in an age. I’m not thrilled that the Tsaritsa sent her hideous Harbinger to mug me instead of just asking nicely, you know, but I don’t hate setting aside the responsibilities of godhood.”
“You speak as though you attended to your responsibilities of godhood at all,” said Zhongli, and Venti laughed, the sound bubbling and bell-like.