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the places we used to walk

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taken after three months: a dagger, dull and bloodied

 

Zhongli would deem it sublime—the utmost ferocity of his eyes, his hair. It burns ablaze, stronger each time they meet. It’s a wonder to look at, really, and Diluc glares at him from his hiding spot before finally relaxing. The prey that thought itself cornered and ready to fight no longer feeling a threat.

“Stop showing up like this.” Diluc relaxes, leans back again on the pillar before pushing back his hair. It messes it up further, flames growing wilder. All of him is a mess. Zhongli sees the cause, the recent skirmish against the Fatui some distance away. The dried blood that soaked the floor of Dunyu ruins pales in comparison to the red in front of him.

“I thought you would have recognized my presence by now.” Three months, after all, of this strange circumstance, has made Zhongli assume Diluc would feel less surprised. The latter sighs.

“Not when you move around like a ghost.” It’s not an issue for Zhongli to see how difficult it is for Diluc to get comfortable. Fighting more of the Fatui since they’ve last met has taken a lot out on him. Recklessness, he thinks as he watches Diluc glare back up at him. “Now give that back.”

It’s the red, he’s sure of it. The red makes Diluc all the more dangerous—hostile. Even flames seem to pale in comparison at the marvel that is his presence. Zhongli recognizes beauty when he sees it. He recognizes it in the dagger too, the one Diluc had thrown at him when he didn’t realize Zhongli had arrived.

He still thinks it strange that Diluc is unused to their circumstance given how many times he's tended to the other's injuries. Each meeting, each respite. Most of it occurring after another reckless ambush. But for now, he looks down at the dagger he'd caught with ease.

The dagger is intricate and is clearly treasured. Yet Diluc carries it with a kind of intensity that lets it crack little by little. It’s seen in its slowly dulling edges—a work already happening years before they met no doubt—and Zhongli wonders how long will he keep using it until it finally turns on him.

“No,” he answers, taking out a cloth to wipe the blood off before tucking the blade in his coat. He ignores the expression Diluc is throwing at him. “I will hand you a new one instead. The blade is close to breaking and you will be left with no weapon once it does.”

“I’m left with no weapon now that you’ve taken it.”

“You won’t.” It’s no problem to kneel in front of Diluc now without causing him to flinch. While he won’t admit it, Zhongli can discern how easily this man trusts others despite whatever hostility he first presents. Anger burning bright. The color of his eyes shows so much more of himself than he realizes.

And somehow—somehow this was enough. Despite the hardened casing, it was enough for Zhongli to have the chance to help.

“I will accompany you for a few days as I always do, and I will provide a new dagger for you once I’m needed elsewhere.” He hears Diluc scoff.

“You look needed everywhere.” Because how else is Zhongli able to know where he is almost all the time. “I won’t let you fight for me while you’re wandering like this.”

“I won’t,” Zhongli clarifies. “While together, I thought it would be good to teach you another weapon. It’s good to have an arsenal of weapons you can use.”

A strange arrangement is what this is—having to meet Diluc at random times whenever Zhongli feels his presence in Liyue. But it makes for an interesting time too, enough for him to offer this kind of service. Diluc reminds him of the humans back in the battlefields of his memories. They fight with a kind of desperation only reserved for those not knowing if they’ll have a tomorrow. But there’s also the brash demeanor, the kind that feels far more dangerous than what Zhongli’s used to.

So Zhongli watches as Diluc sighs, finally moving his arm to allow Zhongli to inspect him. A sort of trust evident that Zhongli appreciates. He sees more wounds present on Diluc than before.

“Just don’t throw that away,” Zhongli hears, and he knows Diluc is watching him inspect the wounds of his injured arm. “That dagger was a gift.”

He knows. The hilt bearing the Ragnvindr symbol says more than enough.

Zhongli teaches Diluc how to use a polearm while he stays with him, but he still hands Diluc a new dagger once they part.

 

 


 

 

given after nine months: salve, an archaic kind of medicine

 

Diluc clicks his tongue in annoyance, irritation mingling with anger as he thinks through the recent events.

He knows—of course he knew—that the Fatui were after him and were tailing him for some time now. He knew that, perfectly did, and had made sure they wouldn’t be able to track him while he made his way north. Yet they found him. They did so anyway. It was an ambush that was so carefully planned, Diluc only had a split second to be surprised before he started fighting back.

He grits his teeth at what happened, and the irritation keeps bubbling up inside him. They were able to read his movements. The agent too. They looked like they were waiting for him, knives well sharpened as they forced Diluc into a corner. The cliffside of Wuwang hill was wracked with hilichurls and empty passages, yet somehow they were still able to find Diluc walking by the hidden waterfall in an attempt to hide his footsteps.

A close fight, Diluc knew he would have died then if he didn’t move fast enough. Liyue might not be the kind of terrain he’s familiar with, but it’s much easier compared to the complicated mountains and jagged rocks of Mondstadt. It was a battle won with multiple consequences. The blood in his mouth was dripping down, joining the rest of the blood coming out from his arms, his shoulders, his legs.

He couldn’t move. The agent couldn’t either. But Diluc knew they were both still alive.

It would have been a battle of wills, of who can muster enough energy to stand back up and finish the fight. It would have stayed that way if it weren’t for Zhongli arriving at the scene right when Diluc was about to force himself into standing.

Even now, hours later, Diluc still thinks he’s never seen that kind of expression on Zhongli’s normally passive face.

And as if making sure to remind him of what other strange thing Zhongli has just done, Diluc feels his left arm being lifted. The sprain on his shoulder aches as it does.

“I apologize,” Zhongli tells him, both hands lightly touching the black and blue skin. “I will try to finish quickly to prevent more discomfort.” Diluc remains still while Zhongli busies himself with the injuries.

He’s close, isn’t he? Unbearably so.

Rather than discomfort, the close proximity makes Diluc feel more aware of his current situation. The abandoned tent Zhongli brought him to is still quite close to where he fought. And despite his protests, Zhongli assured him that it’s safe. There was no room to argue when Diluc was immediately subjected to all kinds of medicine and bandages. No choice but to watch Zhongli go through each wound. The roar of the waterfall nearby is louder than it should, maybe due to the night bringing nothing but silence between them.

To distract himself further from the way Zhongli shifts spots to start checking his other arm, Diluc tries to consider his circumstances. Again.

They knew where he was and which way he had been going. And while Zhongli frowns at each injury, Diluc recalls the millions of thoughts that ran through him at that moment.

It was perfect—Zhongli arriving at that moment was perfect. The question of whether Zhongli led the Fatui to him rang in his mind, and it rang together with another mocking thought. Again. Again, was he a fool for placing his trust? Again—again did he allow himself for things to repeat? It rang within him at that moment, almost eternally in the split second he saw Zhongli appear.

But Zhongli—somehow Zhongli, in his own particular way, proved it false.

It was his expression, his immediate action. It was in how the earth came alive, swallowing the unconscious agent towards the ground. Diluc saw the lackluster vision on Zhongli’s back, not at all glowing as bright as the tips of his hair. Terrifying. Deadly. His features were the fiercest Diluc had seen it, and he kept it until he brought Diluc to the tent to treat him.

Diluc may not have known him for too long, but he’s seen enough of Zhongli to know that the man rarely expressed any sort of shock—that the expression he gave upon seeing Diluc bleeding out was something Zhongli never freely put upon his face.

What a strange man.

“You’re smiling.” The comment is given right when a bandage is wrapped tightly on his wrist. Diluc looks to see Zhongli staring at him, still close. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yes,” is the quick answer, ignoring the initial comment. Zhongli moves away from him now that he’s done, and it gives Diluc enough space to try and stretch. It’s a chore to do so, but it looks as if the many bruises littering his arms, his torso, his back, seem far less painful than they were initially. “It doesn’t hurt as much.”

“They’re still healing, and your bruises may take longer to recover so please refrain from moving them for now.” Diluc watches as Zhongli hands him the container of salve. “You can keep this in case of emergencies. It’s quite strong so it’s best to only use it in moderation.” He raises his brow but takes the small jar anyway.

“How am I supposed to use this when you put most of it on my back?”

“I’ll tend to those while I help you recover.” There’s a ghost of a smile as Zhongli says so. “But you may keep it for smaller bruises as well once we part.”

“Right.” Diluc inspects the jar for a second longer before putting it beside him where the rest of his items are. “When we part.”

 

 


 

 

gifted after fourteen months: a book, new and quickly read

 

“Are you returning home?”

Zhongli watches Diluc pause at his question, the cup of tea in his hands held still near his lips. A peculiar sight indeed, just as much as the rest of him.

“No, I’m not.” He’s still watching when Diluc takes a small sip before putting the cup back down. It’s barely a movement, but Zhongli sees him look towards the scenery, towards the other side of the stone gate, towards Mondstadt. “I’m just in the area—a job.”

A job. Zhongli supposes it’s from the network Diluc had managed to get a hold of when he went north. He doesn’t say anything else, only that an organization had provided him the means to gather further intel. Zhongli has heard of them and he’s seen them act around Liyue. He thought their goals had no means of harming the nation, so he simply let them be. Diluc doesn’t tell him anything else apart from that, not even how he had managed to get ahold of their resources. Even trust haphazardly given between them seems to pale in comparison to the oath of a group. Zhongli doesn’t mind the thought. A contract—an oath, after all, is valid enough to bind anyone into silence.

Still, it’s been months and Zhongli watches Diluc take another sip of his tea. He finds himself at a slight loss. Because there’s something—something different here yet he can’t quite figure it out.

“You seem different,” he ends up admitting as honest as he can. As if to contribute to his thoughts, Diluc looks about ready to smile.

“Different?”

“Yes. You seem calmer.” Most of their previous meetings had been with Diluc on the brink of death. The red of his hair and his eyes always exuded recklessness then. Now it still looks ablaze, the quiet crackle of a campfire that soothes any weary traveler.

Pretty, as it always is. Charming.

Diluc lifts his cup and takes a while to stare at its contents. The tea is feasible for someone merely passing by, but Zhongli declined for a drink himself.

“I realize that it’s better to acknowledge what I lack rather than wallowing in my shortcomings.” He finishes the rest of the tea, and Zhongli tilts his head at the words. “Or else I’ll only keep endangering myself.”

Zhongli wonders if the slight limp on his left leg is related to that realization, if the healing wound on his wrist is related to him joining the network he’s now part of. He doesn’t ask.

“It is good to improve when you realize you find yourself lacking. I take it you won’t be getting into skirmishes during your stay in Liyue?”

There’s not much passing through the stone gate, especially at this hour. It’d be sometime later in the afternoon that merchants would pass as they made their way south. Still, Zhongli thought it best to not say aloud Diluc’s activities.

“Not while I’m here.” Diluc rummages through the bag he’s brought with him. “I already finished what I came for, so I should return soon.”

Zhongli would have said that it’s too soon, but he knows enough how relentless Diluc can be with accomplishing his goals. This tenacity is such a rare thing to see among humans, and he thought it already overflowing when they first met. Still, it is a shame they cannot spend more time together, especially since it’s been almost four months since they’ve last seen each other.

He doesn’t get the chance to comment. Diluc easily changes the subject by pulling out a package—a rectangular sort that’s wrapped in parchment paper. He hands it to Zhongli once he sees it’s not dented, and the other takes it without a word. Stares at the package far longer than he should too.

“I wanted to hand this to you before I left,” Diluc explains. “The network has one location filled with books with multiple copies. I thought this one would suit you.”

Strange. While Zhongli does feel appreciative of the gesture, he thought that his particular tastes in books were not something Diluc had garnered from their brief travels together. He nods in thanks before carefully removing the wrapped paper. When the book is finally freed from its packaging, Zhongli hears Diluc ask for another cup of tea. Neither of them speaks until after he gets a new cup.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” Diluc asks him before sipping. “As someone from Liyue, I’m sure you find it interesting too. Your Geo archon is quite talented to walk among people without being noticed.”

The brush strokes are pretty, elegant—the title Rex Incognito looks neatly labeled. The scribe tasked with working on this must have put a lot of care into doing so. It’s another beat before he reacts and Zhongli hears the sound of a tea cup placed on the table as he smiles.

“Yes, the tales told about Rex Lapis are interesting indeed.” Zhongli keeps looking at the cover, making no move to see Diluc’s expression—making no move to hide his own. “Did you enjoy reading it?”

Zhongli still doesn’t look. Only the sound of Diluc’s quick chuckle makes him aware of the man still watching him.

“I did.” Such a small, serene smile. Zhongli keeps doing it as Diluc speaks. “I enjoyed it.”

 

 


 

 

plucked after nineteen months: a flower, rare and translucent

 

It’s an ordinary day—perfectly ordinary as most days are. The sun shines its usual amount. The wind blows its gentle breeze. The day can almost be called mundane with its utmost simplicity, and it’s now that Diluc allows himself to recall Kaeya—his words, more specifically.

With their childhood so intertwined, there’s a lot of his past that has Kaeya in it. He supposes it’s why, in this perfectly mundane time of day, does he recall a time when both were studying. When Kaeya jokingly commented on a character from a book he’s reading and when he turned to Diluc with a glint in his eye and a smile on his face. Diluc recalls that day rather well.

He recalls the storybook, the one depicting a hero with a heart too big. Diluc doesn’t remember the story in detail anymore—he recalls Kaeya’s words instead.

They have their heart on their sleeve, he said, laughing even as he pointed at Diluc. Like you.

Diluc had narrowed his eyes at him when they were little, but it stuck—more than he thought it would. He remembers it clear as day, and he remembers more of what Kaeya said after. Diluc recalls it all as he walks through the plains, the sound of Kaeya’s younger voice in the back of his mind as he listens to Zhongli speak.

They don’t take the road manned by the Millelith. Instead, Zhongli takes him through broken stone steps and overturned pillars. Littering the roadside are multitudes, all bits and pieces of what was once an interconnected home for hundreds. It’s not quite like the ones Diluc’s been to—hidden and fought in to be more precise. The ruins southwest of Liyue are all in disrepair, but there’s the untouched feeling of it that preserved most of the structures. The movement of human civilization seemed to have affected more of the plains they pass compared to those. Zhongli tells him each story.

The assembly is the one most perfectly preserved, and Zhongli walks him through the steles, those commandments he had rewritten for a god—for a friend long gone. Diluc simply listens, interested both in the history and in the way Zhongli’s face looks more fond than he’s ever seen it. Each retelling a time Diluc can’t even comprehend brings forth kinder eyes, softer smiles. He listens to each tale, watches each smile.

A time of war, Zhongli tells him, with small pockets of peace—barely mentioned now in the long history of violence. Yet Zhongli remembers each one, and while the sun sets slowly over the horizon, Diluc tucks each story in the back of his mind along with the expression Zhongli had as he told them.

For now, they have all the time to do so. Diluc has all the time to do so. His increasing reputation within the network has granted him this privilege, no one asking him back at their headquarters when he said he’ll be finishing a few days longer. He doesn’t tell Zhongli this, only watches, listens. He listens to each tale, walks along the same path. It’s aimless walking, really, no destination except to circle Guili plains, only a time for him to hear Zhongli speak.

And with each tale, each expression, Diluc recalls Kaeya’s voice, the laugh and the jeer—the teasing tone.

Like you, Kaeya said back then. Like you with your feelings—too obvious.

Diluc would deny it, claim himself as someone incapable of openly showing what he feels especially with all that’s happened. But Zhongli? Zhongli walks him through the riverside, tells him of Luhua pool on one side and the folklore attached to it. Zhongli shares with him things that were not simply hearsay, but a genuine part of his past. He does so the more they walk, the more Diluc allows himself to be told this. He watches Zhongli kneel by the river. The sun had set, and Diluc watches, gaze not faltering, as Zhongli hums an unfamiliar tune to a flower he had never seen before.

And Diluc? He remembers Kaeya—his words and his teasing. Their childish moment of when Kaeya had compared him to a book character. He’s like that, he said, like the boy with too big of a heart on their sleeve. And Diluc lets himself recall, crystal clear, how Kaeya added something else.

Because Zhongli’s humming, humming a tune long forgotten in the thousands of years in Liyue’s past. Diluc watches him do so to a lily he had only read about in books, and with the humming and the soft gaze Diluc recalls himself being labeled as someone with their heart on their sleeve.

But not just that, Kaeya added back then. It’s—it’s the placement. You have it there for so long that—you know? You let people touch it so easily.

And he’s not—he thinks of himself as someone who’s not like that anymore. But Zhongli finishes the humming, and he plucks one flower off the ground. Diluc feels incapable of moving even when Zhongli brings the flower to his ear, tucks it there to fully contrast the red of his hair.

“It suits you,” Diluc hears him say, pitch black as it is. It’s all he’s able to grasp in the darkness. “With your hair down, the wind blows it beautifully around the lily.”

Kaeya’s words ring loudly within him, and Diluc’s traitorous thoughts bring back one more memory: Of a meeting between him and this unlikely stranger, of this archon seeing him bleeding in ruins that used to be his home, of this god tending to a mortal for the sake of him living.

He thinks even then, close to two years ago, Kaeya’s words rung in his mind as he looked at Zhongli’s face.

Incapable of anything else, of comprehending whatever it is in the space between them, Diluc finds himself leaning forward. The last thing he sees is Zhongli’s eyes widening by a fraction before his lips touch the other.

 

 


 

 

left after nineteen months: a crystal, pure in its becoming

 

Zhongli has a miles long list of certainties, and it’s only piled up the longer he has spent existing.

He’s certain of the changing tides, of the switching of human hands—human conquerors. He is certain of changing ideals and of the eventuality of death. It's come for many, and it's come to those he has held close and dear. Zhongli is certain about a myriad of things, and he is certain, even more so, of words long spoken to him—reverberates within his consciousness as the changing tides affect much of Liyue.

There will be things that even we will feel uncertain of, a bygone god once told him at a time when neither had personal experience not existing. And her words until now remind Zhongli of change—of that same change even affecting someone who’s lived as long as him. He attests to that. So long as a being lives without solitude, where influence touches things beyond their own existence, then they are always susceptible to feeling unsure of anything.

Zhongli thinks this to be true, knows it to be true the more he interacts with others—the more he interacts with Diluc.

There’s a kind of uncertainty Zhongli knows had bloomed when he first met the other, bleeding profusely in one of the ruins of Tianqiu valley, looking at him all startled reminiscent of a cornered prey. He knows it’s the red of his eyes. The shine of it depicting first anger, next an overall desire to live for something—a prey cornered but not yet ready to yield. And it bloomed—it bloomed just as much as it does with humans. Zhongli is aware of why he wanted to help, to prevent another death, but with that came a bewildering result that is Diluc’s presence.

How characteristic of Diluc, he thought, to possess such fire and let it shine true upon first glance. His blazing hair and sharp eyes first sublime then deadly.

He feels it grow within him even now, even when Diluc pressed his lips towards his and Zhongli had only a split second of hesitation before he pressed back. Zhongli felt that uncertainty take an ever deeper root as it did, surprisingly confused at how he is unable to determine exactly what this is.

Because Diluc slowly, eventually, pulls away. His piercing gaze muddled as he contemplates. Zhongli lets him stare, as he always does, but he doesn’t let Diluc move farther away than necessary. He holds onto his waist as Diluc keeps staring, ruminating over things Zhongli is not entirely certain of.

How lovely—the distinct red hair tousled by the evening wind. It makes him want to reach out, makes him actually reach out, to prevent the glaze lily from being blown away when it did so.

Diluc doesn’t say anything else, but Zhongli knows a chill will come upon him soon. They walk together to Wangshu Inn in silence. He hears Diluc bid him good night before the other retires to his room. Zhongli doesn’t go after him.

And when morning comes, Diluc is gone. In his place is a stone, carefully carved into a circle. The boss of the inn hands its container to Zhongli after explaining how his companion had left. The glow of it is recognizable. Cor lapis of this kind must have been collected at higher altitudes.

As thanks, the note attached says.

Zhongli fashions it to add to his ear ornament. A thought passes him—hoping Diluc will notice it once they meet.

 

 


 

 

gifted after twenty four months: a stone, red as the eyes of the recipient

 

It never gets a name, whatever it is between them. Not when their proximities became strange, not when their meetings increased with every stay he has in Liyue. Not even at that one time, when Zhongli kissed a lock of Diluc’s hair, watched as red eyes slowly opened to wake beside him. Diluc never calls it anything, and Kaeya’s words taunt him because of that.

More so when he knows, he stupidly knows, that he cannot stay far from Mondstadt forever. He’s traveled through most of Teyvat, has gathered more information and resources than he has before he left. Diluc knows he can’t continue hiding away when there’s trouble brewing even back in his homeland.

He knows that this—this innate desire to see his home even during his years away has led him to places nearby. He knows it’s why he frequented Liyue, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge that it could have been how he chanced upon Zhongli.

Because nothing else must be acknowledged with regards to that man—that god. Because Diluc doesn’t name what it is at the spaces between their fingers, and he never tries to get the chance to.

The network knows he should return too, and they send him off as how they usually did with anyone. He’ll be a valuable asset if he went back after all. The winery tycoon will have far more connections when he doesn’t hide.

He sees Zhongli at the stone gate. An impressive feat given that he did not tell him anything. Then again, archons always seem to be aware of things occurring within their nation. Isn’t that how they’ve met in the first place?

They don’t have tea like last time, but he lingers at the wooden steps. Looking towards the side he knew he’d see again someday. He doesn’t look back to whatever expression Zhongli must have on his face—strait-laced probably.

“If you are able, you are welcome to come and visit.” There’s no hint of anything in Zhongli’s voice, but it’s far softer. Diluc recalls his voice back in Guili plains. “Though I suppose someone of your importance will be far too occupied with other matters.”

Figures Zhongli knew about his social status. Then again, Diluc didn’t really care too much when he lived off days fighting and surviving. The sentiment almost makes him laugh—an archon would have more responsibilities than he ever would after all. But he doesn’t and with a short intake of breath he walks till the end of the stone gate's wooden stairs. The waterfall up ahead roars with life and he knows Mondstadt will be there soon once he crosses the bridge.

Leaving his years of solitude is easy. Diluc knows this. Zhongli not taking a step closer, choosing to stay at the wooden steps, makes this annoyingly difficult. There’s not much distance between them, but the whole ordeal feels highly sentimental. Aggravating. He turns around.

“Thank you,” Diluc starts, sees the slight raise of Zhongli’s eyebrows. “I appreciate the help during my time in Liyue.”

Zhongli still has his eyebrows raised as he blinks—once, twice. Diluc looks directly at the bright amber. He thinks it’s a shame it’ll be a while before he’ll see something of that shine. Diluc knows, despite the short distance, that Mondstadt’s troubles outweigh any other thoughts of coming back. Diluc watches Zhongli lift his lips to a smile.

“It’s no trouble.” It’s calm. Zhongli’s tone is calm as he says it. “However, I did have one thing for you, if you don’t mind?”

Zhongli tells him to lift his hand while he takes something from his pocket, and Diluc watches as he places a gem onto his palm.

“It’s similar to your eyes,” Zhongli explains, both hands holding onto the one Diluc has outstretched. “I thought it would be a suitable parting gift.”

The hands enclosing his feel far too warm in contrast to the ruby that’s now on his palm. Diluc wonders if Zhongli can feel him twitch, a response expressed at the sound of his voice. He nods in thanks.

Maybe it was whatever face he was making or maybe it was how stiff he nodded, but Diluc hears Zhongli chuckle, and before he could ask, Zhongli’s already leaning.

One brief, traitorous thought was that he would kiss him, but Zhongli leans down towards Diluc’s hand instead. It’s elegant—it’s elegant how he leans to kiss the ruby on Diluc’s palm before moving higher to do the same to Diluc’s wrist. He reasons Zhongli to be the geo archon—an embodiment of earth if one were to think about it—as to how he felt such warmth despite his covered hands, despite his covered wrist.

“I hope we see each other again soon.” It’s the last thing Zhongli tells him before Diluc turns away.

The early morning sun makes his path back to Mondstadt clear, and he doesn’t use the same light to look back and see if Zhongli’s still watching.

 

 


 

 

returned after thirty months: a dagger, now polished and bright

 

The tea they serve him is just as he likes it, and the waitress that hands it to him is one Zhongli recognizes. He can tell she recognizes him too. She smiles at him politely and knows that Zhongli sometimes frequents their tea house. The private room he situates himself in is one separated from the rest with a divider, but it’s also the same spot he takes whenever he visits. Zhongli is well aware that it’s due to this that the waitress recognizes him, that Heyu Tea House is familiar with how he prefers his tea. It’s different from how he recognizes them. when years back another owned the tea house, when years back Zhongli had seen this same waitress playing with other children of the same age. He thanks her, polite and formal, and she leaves him alone with his thoughts.

The rain pours steadily outside, and Zhongli is in full view of how it soaks the harbor. An awkward hour as it is, there’s no sound of other customers beyond the divider to drown out the pitter-patter of rain. Instead, Zhongli watches it fall, hears the clear trickle, and he sips his tea.

The solitude of such a space is rare given the hustle and bustle of the city, and this—the quiet of this small space gives Zhongli some moment of peace.

The warmth of the tea as he sips it washes away the cold. And while he takes his time savoring the taste, he thinks this situation to be strange. How strange it is, Zhongli thinks, for him to feel lost.

Words he merely overheard ring true in his mind. Rings and rings without a pause, and Zhongli—he simply drinks his tea. The nightlife of the harbor is clear despite the rain. Liyue as he sees it has grown from the cracks of war-torn homes and circumstances. Even the rain cannot hide the vibrancy of life within it. A far cry from the violence he remembers—clear as day he still remembers.

He knows this prosperity is one all of his friends had envisioned. From Guizhong and their assembly to the original archons and their seven seats—humanity guided towards long-lasting peace is what they had hoped for. Zhongli sips more of his tea, wondering now about the duties he must uphold. The rain and its steady pour bring a sort of calm to such tumultuous thoughts.

Yet he knows, very much so. Progress occurs through change, and even archons are part of such a vicious cycle. Zhongli has seen many lost in such violence, in the need for change to develop. So he looks out the window and watches the rain. The waitress from earlier approaches and asks if he’d like more tea. Polite and calm, he thanks her as he says yes. A short while later, his cup is given more tea, replacing that which he’s already finished.

Strange. The tea is just as he prefers it, yet it feels smoother to drink than the others.

 

 

Once he's finished, Zhongli walks, keeps walking and walking, giving himself time to realize more of what he feels must come to be.

After all, gods such as he had long come to pass, and the time of man has already occurred. Those of his era, especially those who have filled the same seats, have led the people to their utmost ability. Perhaps his duties have also been completed over time. Perhaps his era as the God of Geo is at its end.

He feels himself smile, small and serene. His mind adds a question to the sentiment, on whether or not this means it’s time for him to be human.

But he keeps walking, the idea of relinquishing his duties being thrown about in his mind along with countless other questions. Are the people ready? How will Liyue act? How will the adepti? Zhongli knows the irregularity of human thought, also knows the duty of the adepti and their loyalty towards him. He cannot ascertain one end result given such countless factors.

Along with this, he knows, is the idea that once he follows through with everything, all loose ends must be tied.

It’s how he walks towards Guili plains despite the night’s chill, heading towards the shoreline despite the dark. He glances around the ruins, places he once thought of as home—to him, to countless others. The river on one side leading to Luhua pool is still as steady a stream as it has been when it was first carved out of the earth. Zhongli stares at it for a moment longer, thinks of the dagger he’s kept in his coat and its weight feeling heavier than usual.

Perhaps it was some sort of human selfishness that made him keep it for so long. The concept is a foreign thing for him. Yet Zhongli supposes he should return it. Diluc may have made no mention of asking it back but he knows the sentimentality of this weapon is far too great for Zhongli to keep holding onto it. Given the circumstances, of what he must do in the coming days—months, Zhongli thinks it best to return it.

At the shoreline, with thoughts of what’s to come and what’s happen, Zhongli takes out the dagger he’s always kept with him. And he looks down at it for far longer than he should.

Zhongli’s first thought is the box he will use to deliver it should be red, the shade of it the same as the recipient’s hair.

 

 


 

 

offered after thirty eight months: a familiar flower, hearing an unfamiliar tune

 

It’s not the same. The spot where he finally finds a glaze lily is not the same one Zhongli showed him.

Diluc kneels at the lone flower, watches it bloom as the sun finally sets.

It’s not the same. The song he hums towards the glaze lily is not the same one Zhongli sang in front of him so long ago.

Yet Diluc cannot offer it anything else, cannot even recall the tune of a song Zhongli must have known by heart. He knows nothing of the songs of Liyue, especially those archaic yet treasured by the geo archon.

He snaps the flower off its stem a little stronger than he should. Thoughts of the geo archon are not doing him any good.

Diluc doesn’t say anything when he takes the lone flower back to the statue, but he stares. He stares and stares—up at the statue’s face he keeps staring. He feels himself frowning, feels his fists clenching. But he doesn’t say anything.

He had sung, he had offered, and he had stared. Diluc clenches his teeth for one more moment at the statue’s permanent fixture, incomparable to the being that he’s known.

He leaves the same way he came—the night blanketing him and the wind leading him towards home. One he’s returned to. The gem given to him that day weighs heavier on his chest, far more than when he wears it on other days. Diluc doesn't look back.

The glaze lily left at the foot of the statue doesn’t blow away.

 

 


 

 

brought after forty months: a bottle, filled with one’s favorite

 

Zhongli understands. He understands why Lumine looks at him as if he had shed his new form, brought forth an entirely different shape and being. It’s clear to him the reason for her surprise, for Paimon to look doubly so. Given their last conversation, it’s easy to see why she looks shocked at this turn of events.

After all, when she questioned his plans for the future, she certainly didn’t consider this.

The stranger previously engrossed in conversation with her simply looks amused. It’s clear in his face just as it is clear how equally surprised he is. Their visible navy eye stares right at Zhongli, and he knows a myriad of things are passing through their mind. Zhongli feels it strange that they’re trying to hide it despite how easy it is to take note of.

Beside them, the third person previously part of their conversation gives the same amount of shock. But Zhongli also sees it. He sees hurt. Strangely enough.

Before the other two could say a word, Diluc’s already grabbed the bottle from Zhongli’s hand—juice, something he knew Diluc would like. He watches Diluc hand it to the bartender before pulling Zhongli towards the exit beside the bar. The last thing he sees is Lumine and the stranger’s eyes following their movement before Diluc shuts the door behind them.

“What are you doing here?” Diluc looks ready to hit him despite how he forces himself to look casual, to lean back on the door. Perhaps worried someone would try to open it whilst they’re here. The sound of laughter not too far from their spot is heard, just as the sound of clinking glass.

“To visit you,” Zhongli answers. “I brought something for you as well.”

“I can see that.” He wants to stop Diluc from brushing back his hair, but Zhongli merely watches as the other messes up his low ponytail. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?”

Trust a talented man of impeccable resources to find that out. The anger, however, sounds harsher than Zhongli remembers it. He nods. “The archon has passed, yes.”

“So why are you here?”

“To visit you, as I said.” Zhongli didn’t intend, but Diluc simply looks angrier at the answer. He tilts his head while continuing. “I have fulfilled my duties, so I thought to see you now with the time I have.”

He wonders why the answer still displeases Diluc, and Zhongli feels himself wanting to reach out to Diluc’s crossed arms. For now, he doesn’t. He keeps speaking.

“The traveler asked me recently what I’ll be doing now that I’m no longer upholding my duties.” It was first impassive, neutral, but now Diluc frowns at the mention of Lumine. “She wondered if I had a plan given that I staged such an event.” Zhongli doesn’t know why this just makes Diluc frown harder.

“I admitted that I was mildly uncertain about what I planned to do next,” he keeps explaining, only to try and soothe the anger, bright and red. “Yet when I pondered over the possibilities, I thought of you.”

“What?” Diluc looks ready to hit him again. Zhongli is honestly uncertain about what he’s failing at.

“Given how things had occurred prior to your return to Mondstadt, I thought that we had left a few things unsettled.” He doesn’t mention the flower tucked behind Diluc’s hair one moment long ago, one that Zhongli remembers just as much as all his other memories, yet thinks about more often. Diluc looks as if he remembers it too, the glare no longer vile but hardened.

“And how exactly will you settle it?”

The anger has diminished but the stare persists. Zhongli would be almost amused at how expressive Diluc’s become after so long that they’ve been apart.

“I thought it would be best to see if it can grow.” He tilts his head at Diluc’s confusion, just a brief flash on a pretty face. “Or to see where it goes if we let it continue.”

“Continue?” Zhongli nods at the question.

“Yes, if you’ll allow it to continue—if you’ll have me.”

It takes a while. It takes a while for Diluc to do anything besides look. Zhongli lets him observe, understanding that the man is looking for any signs that say otherwise. It takes a long while. The sound of the clinking glasses and laughter fill up the spaces, making them louder than they should.

Eventually, Diluc turns around, back to the door he had been leaning on moments prior.

“If you’re going to visit don’t show up without a word.” Zhongli can’t see whatever expression is on Diluc’s face, but he finds his voice far softer than earlier, calmer than earlier. “At the very least, warn me if you’ll suddenly appear in Mondstadt or inform me if you plan to do something stupid again.”

There’s no clear answer—no form of acceptance at what Zhongli intends to do, but Diluc opens the door to the tavern again and he lets Zhongli enter first before heading inside.

Zhongli smiles at the gesture—ignores the ruckus of their return.

 

 


 

 

exchanged after forty two months: a kiss, one after the other

 

There’s a rare expression of surprise upon Zhongli’s face. Diluc’s never seen his eyes go that wide.

Was it the fire? It’s always troublesome whenever his vision blankets a grassy field. The sudden ambush of that abyss mage was irritating, but it was an easy thing to fight off—more so when a former archon joins in to support you.

The sight of massive polearms hurtling towards the mage before Diluc finished it off was something to behold.

Zhongli looked startled right as the battle ended, and while he was as quiet as ever on their way to the oak tree, Diluc can clearly tell he was thinking about something. It’s easy enough to spot, especially when Zhongli doesn’t bother looking at the statue of Barbatos. There’s no trace of the frown he normally makes, as if exasperated at the sight of the Anemo archon poised pure and holy.

“What is it?” He’d rather have Zhongli be out with it soon. Whatever business they have here should be dealt with quickly given his other responsibilities.

“I had wondered what it is—why it is that I have grown fond of you.” He looks far too casual as he drops a bomb like that. Diluc raises a brow. “While I am learning to be human, the intricacies of human rationality are still rather strange—nonsensical, so I had been wondering for some time now.”

Diluc isn’t fond of the idea of Zhongli saying this in front of the archon statue, but he doesn’t stop him from continuing.

“I suppose seeing you use your vision enlightened me on some things.”

“Some?”

“Yes, a potential reason,” Zhongli confirms. “Are you familiar with Liyue’s beliefs on phoenixes and dragons?”

Tied. Bound. That’s how Diluc understood their beliefs of those two together. Pretty tales of happy marriages and soulmates that begin with the idea that someone is destined for another. That a phoenix is destined to be with a dragon. He frowns.

“About what? Fate?” Diluc watches Zhongli nod.

“In a sense, yes. That is one common belief in Liyue concerning the two. I suppose that can be one potential reason, however—”

He grabs it again. Just as he did when they parted back in the stone gate, Zhongli takes hold of Diluc’s hand.

“Tales of divine beings seem inappropriate given that you are human and I—I am in the process of becoming something as such.” Diluc’s palm is facing down this time, and he watches Zhongli staring at their hands, Diluc’s hand lifted carefully by his own.

“So I believe it is one reason, but also possible that I have merely become attached to you for curiosity’s sake. You were quite intriguing, even now.”

“And what exactly is that supposed to mean?” It’s awkward. That Zhongli is holding his hand and staring at it as if contemplating something is awkward. That this is all in front of the archon statue is awkward.

But Diluc doesn’t pull away, and he doesn’t look away as Zhongli slowly begins a smile, captivating and charming, before leaning down to kiss the back of Diluc’s hand.

“Contrary to my past work, I believe no divine intervention was needed for me to be drawn to you.” He still has his gloves, but the warmth on Diluc’s hand is unmistakable. He’s stock still. He doesn’t move away. Zhongli straightens up again for him to stare, for Diluc to stare back.

“Although I am uncertain if this is something within the concept of human love, I feel this might be close—perhaps leaning towards that.”

Zhongli’s smiling, an uncharacteristic smile. It’s wider than all the small smiles Diluc still keeps in his memories.

“I do hope you allow me to understand more of it.”

There’s no yes or no, none of that again, just as when he saw Zhongli enter the tavern with a bottle of expensive juice and Diluc felt relief crashing down on him in waves.

It was him drowning in such an intensity he never thought he’d feel again, and he drowns again as Zhongli shows that smile to him. Diluc thinks he has no choice but to pull them together.