Zhongli’s plan consisted of borrowing a wagon from Madame Ping, cutting out the cube of earth Venti was surrounded in and placing it in the wagon, draping a large bedsheet over the whole thing, and wheeling him out of the city.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” said Zhongli.
Childe said, “I’m trying to figure out how you managed to chessmaster everyone in Liyue Harbor when your genius plan for this is That.”
Venti said, “Maybe leave the strategizing to other people, Morax.”
Zhongli hated that he sounded like Guizhong. In any case. “Sometimes the simplest plans are the most effective. Additionally, I have not come up with this idea without precedent. I saw Keqing do something of this like for a Rex Lapis statue before, and no one bothered her.”
“Keqing,” said Childe, incredulous delight spreading across his features. “As in, the Lady Yuheng of the Qixing? That famous workaholic archon-loathing skeptic?”
“Yes.” Taking it home to spit upon and throw tomatoes at, no doubt. Ah, Keqing. Amongst Liyue’s leadership, there were few he held in higher regard than she.
“Interesting,” said Childe.
“I’ve heard of her,” said Venti. “I think she came by to negotiate some business stuff with the Knights of Favonius before. Jean offered to let me listen in on the proceedings but I refused because I didn’t really care, and also on account of my allergies.”
“Your allergies,” repeated Zhongli flatly. “Your allergies … to cats?”
“But Lady Keqing is not … oh, never mind.” It didn’t matter. “The point is that if it worked for her, it will work for us.”
And it did.
Zhongli pulled the sheet off Venti when they reached the Statue of the Seven just north of the Harbor. The Anemo Archon made a big show of gasping for breath, huffing and puffing as though the sheet had been tied into a noose around his throat instead of draped over him lightly.
“Sky and earth and grass and freedom!” he shouted. He wiggled, or as much as one could wiggle when they were encased in dirt from the neck down. “Please let me out. I think there’s a centipede crawling up my leg.”
Zhongli rolled his eyes, but the earth fell apart onto the grass. Venti burst free in a flash of green and white and brown, shaking his limbs out and testing his regained mobility with happy cartwheels.
Childe lifted his hand to shield his face from the dirt that flew into the air. “I’m surprised the Millileth bought your vague comments about funeral parlor business and unconventional burial practices. I suppose someone as clever as Mr. Zhongli has also accounted for if they ask your boss about it?”
Zhongli smiled and shook his head. “The Millileth refrain from interacting with Master Hu as much as possible. They find her behaviour erratic and difficult to understand.” Justifiably so. If only Zhongli could afford to similarly avoid her. “And even if they do, the chances are high that Master Hu will corroborate my story without question for her own amusement.”
“What would you have done if it didn’t work?” Venti soared up on a gust of wind and landed in the lap of the Morax statue, propping a leg up over his arm. Childe summoned a bow into his hands, smiling. “Though obviously I wasn’t about to go against my own interests by sabotaging you, I am curious to know how the esteemed Zhongli would have reacted to getting caught smuggling a criminal out of the city?”
Childe released a few lazy arrows in Venti’s direction. The wind god batted them away with a few shots of anemo energy and exclaimed, eyes crinkling with mirth, “Hey now, it doesn’t matter how ugly you think Morax is, you shouldn’t take it out on this poor statue!”
The Harbinger’s bow vanished, and two long knives made of rippling Hydro appeared in its place. “You run your mouth too much. Come down here so I can fix that for you,” he purred.
Venti got to his feet and climbed higher onto the statue, balancing on the blocky back of Morax’s seat. “I’m good, thanks.”
“You give yourself too much credit with the word criminal, Venti. You are little more than a petty thief,” said Zhongli. “At any rate, your concern for my reputation is appreciated but unfounded. If Zhongli is caught committing a crime by the Millileth then I will simply fake his death and change form. The funeral consultant’s tragic passing will draw his estranged twin sister to the city from the outskirts of Liyue, and after some internal conflict she will decide to move permanently to the Harbor out of curiosity for the life her brother lived without her, taking over his house as well as job if Master Hu feels it might be interesting, which she will. So nothing fundamental about my life will change, really. But I am confident that this course of action will not be necessary, as I have full faith in the plan I have currently proposed to you; and just as well, for I have grown fond of my current body.”
“What,” said Childe. He whirled around, hydro knives evaporating. “You would - excuse me?”
Venti nodded thoughtfully. “That’s … a pretty smart plan, actually.”
“What!” said Childe again, crossing the space between them in three long strides and grabbing Zhongli by the arm. “No it isn’t! Zhongli. Zhongli. You can’t be serious. Is faking your death your solution to everything?”
“Of course not. There are plenty of situations in which it would be inappropriate. However, its usefulness as a tactical move in many scenarios cannot be denied.”
He frowned at him. “Well, for testing the capacity of humans to live without their archon and for escaping the reach of the law. I thought that was clear.”
Childe stared open-mouthed.
He said, “How many times have you faked your death?”
“You’re upset with me,” Zhongli observed.
“Answer the question.”
“As … as Rex Lapis, only once.”
“And as not Rex Lapis?”
“I have taken many forms over the past four thousand years,” said Zhongli, “mostly molded after the human shape. It was necessary to walk among my people to better understand their needs or to pull strings from the shadows. I tried to avoid it as much as I could. Vanishing into thin air was typically as good of a method of cutting ties as any, though more often than not it caused the people I left behind to suspect my true identity.” He cleared his throat, turning his gaze away. “But there were a few times where pretending to be dead was inescapable … and sometimes the most straightforward way to bring justice to those who covered up their crimes so carefully involved creating a public victim. As I had little desire to arrange for murder one of my own citizens, the responsibility of sacrifice was left to me.” He paused and said, “Thirty-seven.”
Childe inhaled. Exhaled.
“The experiences were rarely traumatic,” Zhongli offered. “If it helps, many of them were in fact extremely entertaining, both to set up and to execute. In … my admittedly biased personal opinion.”
“I’ve only faked my death a few times,” said Venti thoughtfully, “mostly to get out of paying for bar tabs.”
“You are a menace to society.”
“Okay,” said Childe. “Okay.”
“Okay?” Zhongli echoed tentatively.
The Harbinger smiled at him, his eyes curving into merry crescents. “Why don’t we make a contract, consultant? You like that sort of thing, right?” It was true. He did love contracts. Ah, Childe knew him so well. “Promise me that for as long as I’m alive, you won’t fake your death again. In exchange, I won’t hunt you down and kill you for real.”
“A fair contract must be beneficial for both parties,” Zhongli reminded him, patting his hand. “I’m sorry Childe, but saying ‘do it or else I’ll kill you’ is just a threat.”
“Fine. I’ll … buy you that vase you were looking at the other day.”
“It’s a deal,” said Zhongli immediately.
“And you can’t kill me, indirectly or otherwise, just so you can pull off another fake-your-death plan,” added Childe as they shook on it. “I have to die of natural causes. Or, well, Zhongli-did-not-intend-for-my-death-to-happen-just-so-he-could-fake-his-death causes.”
“There was no risk of that,” the god of contracts answered drily, “but I will nonetheless formally honor this addendum. Thus is the contract sealed, and my word is as solid as stone. Betray the agreement between us, and you taint my blood. May the threat of my Wrath be your guide.”
He would put the vase in his kitchen, he decided, and fill it with windwheel asters.
Zhongli made to withdraw, but Childe’s grip tightened. He lifted his hand to his face and the sleeve of Zhongli’s jacket shifted to reveal the flesh of his wrist. Childe pressed a reverent and unsmiling kiss there, the burning blue of his gaze punching an abrupt hole into Zhongli’s chest.
“I’ll hold you to it,” Childe murmured.
Though other nations sometimes used hand kissing as a formal gesture of reverence or politeness, he had never fostered any such custom in Liyue, nor heard of anyone using it to seal a contract. He would know, as the former god of contracts. Furthermore, such kisses tended to be reserved to the back of the hand, not the arm, and not anywhere so intimate as the wrist. He opened his mouth to inform Childe of this interesting piece of trivia, and yet curiously enough, no sound came out.
His silence still earned him a pleased grin. Zhongli’s stomach flipped. He was not infrequently encouraged to talk less, but no one had quite managed to sweep away his voice so completely as Childe had now. The unfamiliarity of it made mortification and something else unidentifiable simmer warmly under his skin. Zhongli curled his fingers into a weak fist as he tugged himself away, his knuckles brushing against Childe’s jaw as he let him go.
The scent of earth and cecilia flowers spun around them as Venti landed beside him in the grass. “Morax,” was all he said.
The pitying judgement in his voice was enough to jolt Zhongli back into verbality. “It was a very nice vase,” he said hotly, putting his hands behind his back where Childe couldn’t get to them. He was aware that he was blushing, and wished he wasn’t. Looking at Venti proved to be a solid reprieve from looking at Childe, even though the wind god’s unimpressed expression usually would have infuriated him. Was still sort of infuriating him with every passing second. Guizhong was definitely laughing at him in the afterlife. “It is a seven hundred year old antique molded of clay dug up from a mine outside of Qingce Village that no longer exists, and the craftsmanship is superb. The original glaze has still held even up until now, which indicates that it was well-cared for and perhaps spent time as a family heirloom before it came to the seller. I’ve been dying to get my hands on it to try and trace its history. Shut up, Venti.”
Venti’s eyes widened as he danced a few steps back. “Ah, but I didn’t even say anything!”
“You were thinking too loudly!”
He cackled. “I have the freedom to think whatever I want at whatever musical volume I desire. Cover your ears if you don’t want to hear it.” Zhongli summoned a spear into his hand. Venti backed up further. “Alright, alright, I don’t want to over-impose on your hospitality. Come by Mondstadt whenever you’re ready. If you call my name in front of the Statue of the Seven under the tree in Windrise, I’ll come find you.”
“It was a pleasure to have you,” said Zhongli against his will, because courtesy demanded it of him.
“Maybe don’t bring your boyfriend, though. No offense but he seems like the kind of person who would start an international incident, and tensions with the Fatui in Mondstadt are bad enough as it is. I don’t want to cause any trouble for the Knights. Well,” he amended, “not any more trouble.”
“That’s fair,” said Childe.
Venti smiled. “Morax, even though our time together this time was short, I’m glad I got to make new memories with you.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Zhongli sighed, “especially as you did not drop any property into the ocean this time.”
“I’ll make it up for it next time,” said Venti, and dodged Zhongli’s attempt to stab him with the reflexes of one who’d known the blow was coming. “I’ll tell Xiao you said hello on the way out.”
“... Thank you.”
As the two oldest archons, they had watched the rest of the world move on without them together. The other divine seats of Teyvat had all changed gods. How many times had Morax wondered whether this meeting with Barbatos would be the last? Would he still be around the next time the wind god came to Liyue, or would another Geo Archon have taken his place? Or would Morax one day head over to Mondstadt to find out that he had faded without him even knowing? Goodbyes between the two of them had been loaded for a long time.
But this wasn’t like any of those times. Their mantles of godhood had been set aside. And he’d lost a bet - not a contract, but merely an agreement of trust between friends.
“Goodbye, Barbatos,” said Zhongli. “I’ll see you soon.”
His expression softened. “Goodbye, Morax. I look forward to it.”
They knew each other’s minds. There was no preamble to be had. Venti set off down the road, humming a wistful song. He didn’t look back, as Zhongli had known he wouldn’t.
Zhongli turned away, towards home and Liyue Harbor. Childe said, “I’ll walk you to work.”
He inclined his head, trying to ignore the memory of his kiss sparking along his arm. “If you want. Should I be flattered that an esteemed diplomat such as yourself is taking the time out of his doubtlessly busy schedule simply to escort me?”
“Am I an esteemed diplomat? That’s news to me. Although I suppose it’s a fair trade to give up being respected by the Qixing if it means being esteemed in Mr. Zhongli’s eyes.”
“I can still hear you guys, you know!” came Venti’s voice on the wind. “You couldn’t have waited until I was at least out of earshot?”
The return to the Harbor went unremarkably. At one point Zhongli pointed at the silhouette of a pale bird soaring through the bright sky and said, “Childe, did you know that there are fifteen different species of crane? They are found in nearly every region in Teyvat, but in Liyue they have particular cultural meaning as symbols of immortality. The origins of such an association arose, I believe, from the fact that many of the adepti appear as such creatures.”
“Fascinating,” said Childe. His hand dropped back to his side from where it had been extending. “Not you, though?”
“I have taken the forms of birds before but only briefly. It is not a shape that is natural to me, nor one I can wear convincingly. Oh, but did you know there is a well-known martial arts form based on the movements of the crane? It is called Bai He Quan and was invented by quite the remarkable woman … I recall she was one of the few humans that the Adeptus Cloud Retainer could tolerate, though even then the two of them got off to a bad start …”
Zhongli continued talking as they returned to the bustling noises of the city, of merchants announcing their wares and workers making their way through the day. As the original style of Bai He Quan had branched off into five other styles in the time since its establishment, there was much to say on the topic, and he was not halfway through everything he wanted to convey before they arrived at the patterned wooden doors of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor.
“This is where we part ways, then,” he said, turning to Childe with a sheepish smile. “I will have to finish telling you about it some other time. Additionally … it is occurring to me now that there is much I have to thank you for. Walking me here, of course, but also for the tea. And your general patience during the past twenty-four hours.”
“You don’t have to thank me,” Childe replied, looking wistfully back. “I’m not doing it for your gratitude, and I don’t want you to feel indebted to me. Kindness between friends isn’t something to be weighed on a scale.”
“Strange words for a debt collector to say to a creature of contracts,” Zhongli teased. He sighed. “But I understand the sentiment of offering one’s gifts freely. I accept, and hope you will accept mine in turn.”
He touched Childe’s wrist and stepped forward to place a hesitant kiss on the space beneath the curve of his cheek, over his jaw. He hoped that he’d read him correctly; he hoped that he had not overstepped if he hadn’t. Childe was quiet and carefully still under his touch.
Zhongli withdrew, clearing his throat. There was a dim gold swirling pattern on Childe’s scarf not dissimilar from the colour of his hair, curling around the crimson fabric like a beckoning tendril. How pretty. Considering the time they spent with one another, he was surprised he’d never noticed it before. “So, um,” he said with unusual unsteadiness, “I’d best not keep Master Hu waiting. I’ll see you later, then.”
“Zhongli,” said Childe. “Your aim sucks.”
His archery competition with Venti was still fresh in his mind. Zhongli’s brow furrowed. They were rich words coming from someone who could barely shoot a sitting pigeon at twenty paces. “Have you ever even seen me use a b - ”
Childe grabbed him by the lapels of his suit jacket and tugged him forward, catching his words against his mouth. He was warm - he could still taste the faintest echoes of the tea - Zhongli’s pulse thundered in his ears. He tilted his head to catch a better angle and inhaled once, sharp and shaky. Childe took this for the invitation that it was and pressed forward with a sudden hunger that, quite frankly, explained a not inconsiderable amount of behaviour that Zhongli had previously dismissed - and then he made a quiet noise, something half a groan and half a sigh and all pleading, and he was forced to stop thinking.
By the time Childe pulled away, Zhongli’s face was burning. “Ah,” he rasped, running his tentative tongue over his tingling lips. “I see your point.”
“Mr. Zhongli,” said Childe. His breath was warm over Zhongli’s mouth and his eyes were half-lidded. “I don’t think I can wait until next week to have dinner with you after all. Can I pick you up tonight?”
Zhongli swallowed. “Alright.”
“Alright.” Childe’s fist uncurled from his jacket, though his fingers lingered for a moment, smoothing out the rumples they’d left in the fabric with caressing care. “See you then.”
Childe walked away with all the relaxed and self-assured confidence one might expect from the Fatui’s capricious Eleventh Harbinger. The illusion promptly broke when he tripped on the last step of the stairs between Wangsheng and the main street.
Behind him, the doors to the parlor creaked open, and forward floated the faint scent of cinnamon and silk flowers. Zhongli could not hold back his grimace but managed to smooth it away by the time Hu Tao came bouncing up to his side, eyes bright and teeth flashing. Wangsheng’s 77th Director looked at him as if someone had died. That was to say, she was thrilled.
“I saw everything,” she said.
This horrible child. She tested his patience more than Venti did sometimes. Zhongli gave in to the impulse to yank her hat down over her eyes. As Hu Tao squawked and flailed and started to laugh her lungs out, he swept past her into the dark, mercifully cool interior of the parlor.