The God of Contracts was tired--no, exhausted.
For years he had protected the city of Liyue.
For years he has been watching over the lands.
But to what end?
For him, the passage of time was illusory, his senses having dulled after the first couple millennia.
Time was an apparition, a still mirage of past, present and future.
For such a monotonous life, it shouldn't be bizarre to have wavering thoughts.
But like a monolith, the Prime of the Adepti stood tall. He had a responsibility, he had a contract to fulfill.
Until that contract began to shift closer to its end.
The slight cracks from his previous wavering thoughts begin to erode his mind as the words he heard spoken at the harbor was the spark that ignited it all.
Zhongli knew his decision would not be looked up upon, he knew that many wouldn't understand why he did what he did.
I mean, who would gladly hear that their supposed guardian crafting a cunning plot to test them? And in exchange for something as precious as the gnosis, the proof of their status as an elemental archon.
He hears the word of the streets of Liyue, people mourning for the death of their guardian. He watches with the same stoic look on his face as his people grieve for Rex Lapis' death.
Yet the people stood still, unwavering just as before.
It didn't pain him to see his city like this, if anything it only fueled him with more joy. His city has learned to move on and the story of Liyue will continue without him.
The burden finally being lifted from the Geo Archon as time began to surge in within him. Like the burst of colors when looking through a kaleidoscope, time began to move once more.
He was no longer the eternal Rex Lapis, Morax, the Geo Archon, the god of contracts--He was Zhongli, a mortal who lives peacefully in the city of Liyue.
After many years, he can finally reap the rewards of protecting this land, he can finally take a step back and breathe in the air of the city around him.
The narrative has ended and the long-awaited epilogue of liberation awaits him...and yet something was off.
A constant ache at his chest brought an almost nauseating feeling to his throat. It wasn't until his talk with the traveler did he figure out what that was.
"Guilt." The words slipped out of the traveler's lips with confidence. "You're feeling guilty." They spoke again, almost as if they were confirming their answer.
Zhongli stared blankly at the traveler, a hint of confusion lurking in his eyes.
"Guilt." He speaks with an awkwardness as if trying out a new word.
The traveler shrugs, continuing the meal that Zhongli had promised them not too long ago. "I wouldn't know. That's something only you can figure out."
Zhongli ponders to himself, setting down his chopsticks. He began to think logically, perhaps the reason can be found once he figures out when this feeling had started.
Closing his eyes, he immerses himself deeper into his thoughts as he searches for the memory of when it all began.
He finds his answer, his eyes shooting open at the revelation.
"Apologies. I have some important business to attend to."
The traveler gives him a look as they watch the previous God leave in a hurry. Turning to the direction of their floating companion, they both shrug at each other before continuing their meal, the thought of Zhongli leaving before he paid for their meal not crossing their mind till much later.
It was strange how human he felt in this body. The anxiety in his chest was sickening and he wonders why anyone would want to be mortal. And yet here he was, standing before the door that would lead him to the source of his guilt.
Slowly, Zhongli tapped his gloved fingers against the wooden door, his ear listening carefully to hear the eventual creaks of footsteps.
"Didn't I say I wouldn't take anymore requ--" a voice on the other side froze at the sight of Zhongli. There stood Tartaglia, the eleventh harbinger of the fatui, his previous confidant and his previous pawn in the script he had created.
"Its been a while, Childe." Zhongli refers to him with the name he prefers.
"...what brings you here? Up to some more shenanigans?" Childe leans against the door frame, his arms crossed as he keeps his eyes on the man.
At the sight of the harbinger's burning eyes, Zhongli can feel the tightening in his chest, his palms beginning to sweat. He avoids his eyes just for a moment, just to take a break from the man's intensity, calming his nerves.
"...Might I speak with you?" he finds the courage to speak up once more.
Childe narrows his eyes slightly at him, furrowing his brows at the thought before moving aside, an unspoken invitation which Zhongli graciously took.
Before him was a small modest room, surprising for a man of his stature as Zhongli would've thought he would be living in a more extravagant quarters. The room was obviously cleaned, the bed was made, the books and files were neatly stacked upon the desk and his bow was hung up neatly against the wall.
Childe closed the door behind them before walking over to the desk to take a seat on his chair. He waves his hand to motion Zhongli to take the seat in front of him which he obliges.
"I'll ask once again, what brings you here?" Childe begins, his eyes never leaving the god's form.
Childe cocks a brow at the sudden statement. "'Issues'?"
"Yes, human issues."
Childe stayed silent for a moment, his eyes narrowing on the man in front of him.
"...for?" he asks carefully.
"For hurting you."
"..." Childe's furrows his brows and presses his lips together. He peels his eyes away from Zhongli to stare down at the desk that separated the two. He didn't want to admit it but what the archon was saying was true. The night he found out that he was simply a pawn to this game of chess--it angered him. Sure, for being used, one would get hurt but it wasn't just that. It was who played him that hurt the most. Childe lets out a shaky breath, closing his eyes momentarily before bringing them back up to face Zhongli again with a wry smile on his face. "And what about it?"
Zhongli's eyes widen at the sight of Childe's expression, the aching in his chest only growing. "I...I wanted to apologize-"
"Apologize?" Childe repeats before letting out a dry laugh. "You want me to forgive you for what you've done? Do you think an apology would do it?"
"...I didn't mean to lie to you. It was simply a part of the script that I have created and I was just following my duties in the contract--"
Zhongli is interrupted by Childe who slams his palms against his desk, his bangs covering his eyes from the god's sights. "I don't care about that stuff. I'll gladly be used for the sake of Snezhnaya and her majesty Tsaritsa! The thing that hurt me the most was that out of anyone who could've used me in this way, it was you who I--!"
Childe clamps his mouth shut, quickly bringing his hand over his lips as if he were stopping himself from saying something. Quickly he stood up from his chair, turning his back towards the archon as if to hide himself from his gaze. "Just leave."
Zhongli sat stunned by the harbinger's sudden outburst and the light tremble in Childe's voice did not go unnoticed. He had hoped confronting Childe would've alleviated the feeling weighing in his chest but it only seemed to make it worse. Yet despite the ever-growing pain in his chest, Zhongli stood up, making his way towards the harbinger and stopping only a few paces behind him.
"...I do not understand the feelings of humans nor have I ever found the need to." Zhongli begins. "Years and years have passed and human existence was as fleeting as the seasons for me. I could not feel the passage of time as those around me and eventually time began to stand still." He takes a moment to take a step closer to the still harbinger. "Life continued around me and I was a simple spectator. I've watched the people of Liyue live, I've watched them die. None of this mattered to as that is how mortal life goes. There was no time to stop and think about each individual and how they felt." Zhongli stops, pressing his lips together as he brings his hand up to grasp at his own chest. "Yet somehow, with all my indifference towards the mortal beings of this realm, why is it that you make me waver like this?"
This time, Childe turned around, shocked by the words.
"What are you--"
"I don't understand this feeling but when I think about you--it aches." he hangs his head down in shame, refusing to face Childe. "When I think about how I tricked you, how you must've felt--" Zhongli's breath hitches, tightening his grasp at his chest. "I'm sorry."
Without another moment to lose, a pair of arms wrapped around the god, surprising him as he found himself being embraced by Childe. The arms around him tightened and Zhongli felt the slight tremble in the hold. It took a moment before Zhongli brought his own arms up to wrap around the other.
It was a deafening silence, no words were exchanged but the two just knew what it meant.
Words were muttered by the harbinger, words only Zhongli could hear. With a smile, Zhongli repeated the same words back to him, the pain in both their hearts slowly fading away as it bloomed into a new type of warmth.
The passage of time was illusory,
The singing of the birds awoke the old archon of geo. He was never one for sleeping in as it was a strange thing for an immortal being such as himself.
his senses having dulled after the first couple millennia.
Shifting his form, he pulls himself up to look around the room. The sunlight was peaking through the windows, the sound of the harbor bustling alive filling the room.
Time was an apparition,
His gaze moved to the sleeping form besides him, the peaceful look on the harbinger's face was a sight to marvel at.
a still mirage of past, present and future.
He gently brings his hand to his face, caressing his cheek with a tenderness filled with his affection towards the man. His chest no longer felt the previous burden that plagued him, instead it was filled with a fondness he had never felt before. With a soft sigh of bliss, the once God of Contracts leaned over and brought his lips towards the sleeping mortal besides him.
How ironic it is now that he wishes for time to stay still a bit longer.