Looking back on that night at the statue, Venti felt as though he had left Xiao a bit too soon for his liking. But it wasn't as though it was that big of a deal. He had three days until his planned date and he was not about to let it go awry by leaving things just a tad vague. Of course, it did mean he had to prepare very quickly.
For his very first errand, it seemed only right to seek Zhongli for advice. Naturally, a trip to Liyue would be in order.
Making his way to the massive bridge that opened up to the harbor, he took a brief moment to breathe in the fresh and salty air. It's so nice to be visiting Liyue again, he thought, as he crossed the bridge into the abundance of stalls.
It wasn’t nearly as bustling as it was a mere few weeks ago during the Lantern Rite. But the business of the harbor was still ever-present. People were filtering in and out through the harbor’s mouth as Venti strode up the steps to the main terrace of Feiyun Slope.
The familiar antique shop was still open for business, and Venti could see Wanwen Bookhouse just by looking upwards from the terrace.
“Oh come on Chongyun! A quick stop to Wanmin couldn’t hurt! Look, I brought money, so I’ll treat you, but just this once, okay?” A blue-haired boy assured, grinning. He was speaking to another boy that looked to be the same age. Unlike his chipper friend, he had a troubled expression on his face.
“Please Xingqiu, spare me just this once… I don’t think I can handle another spicy crystal shrimp…” he quivered, but to no avail as his companion dragged him off anyway.
Venti smiled to himself after seeing the two of them banter and continued on his way to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor.
Heading in the direction of Chihu Rock, Venti found the large and grandiose doors of the funeral parlor he was only faintly accustomed to seeing. The ferry lady typically wasn’t around until later at night, so he took it upon himself to open the funeral parlor doors without asking.
As he slowly opened the door, he peeked up to notice a short girl running the parlor counter, elbows leaning into some papers. On her head, she donned a conductor-like cap with red flowers and was wearing dark attire. She jutted up quickly from her spot upon hearing the door creak.
“Hi! Welcome to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor! I’m Hu Tao,” the girl grinned and flicked her wrist in a wave. “Did you bring a friend? We have coupons!” She greeted slyly as she pulled out and displayed some black slips of paper from underneath her reception desk.
Venti gave her a slight grin back as he shut the large door behind him. “Nope! I’m here to meet with someone, do you perhaps know where I can find Consultant Zhongli?”
“Do you have a reservation? Our consultant seems to be quite popular after all, hehe,” she laughed, glancing down to leaf through some papers beneath her. Venti slowly raised his hand to stop her.
“Ah actually you see..” he started, “Zhongli is an old friend of mine. I was just hoping to briefly chat with him, you could say! Mind letting me off the hook just this once for not reserving?” The bard giggled out, putting his hands together and winking in a plea.
“Oh, but of course then! I’ve only ever seen Zhongli spend time with that ginger from Snezhnaya, but I think I remember him mentioning someone was going to arrive earlier today that fit your description,” she piped up, extending her hand to a hallway down to the left. “Follow me this way,” she beckoned, and Venti did so, quietly following right behind her. He was beginning to enjoy this girl’s cheery attitude.
But, the funeral parlor had some… questionable decorations to say the least. Although they did make good use of the few lamps they had for lighting, the decorative patterns on the walls and the antique vases balanced on subtle stands most definitely seemed like touches suggested by Zhongli. They were fitting yet still… out of place. It was hard for Venti to put the right words on it.
As for the parlor’s general atmosphere, it was almost exactly as one would expect. There was a cold aura emitting from the ceilings, yet somehow the air was mildly stuffy. Any longer than an hour in there and it would make Venti feel like he would have a headache. Hu Tao also wore a very subtly sweet silk flower perfume that followed her around in a haze, off-putting the entire parlor’s gloomy feeling. It would’ve been rude if he commented on it though.
Rounding to the left again, Hu Tao poked her head through a tall doorway. “Yahoo! Mr. Zhongli, you have a visitor!” she beamed as she beckoned Venti to glance through as well. Venti stepped to peep from behind the short girl and wave his hand. Seeing the bard’s bright green clothing in the corner of his vision, Zhongli looked up.
“Long time no see, Zhongli! How have you been?” Venti greeted, smiling widely at the sight of his old companion.
“Ah, Venti,” Zhongli responded, almost indifferent. “Yes, it has been a while. It’s good to see you are doing well for yourself.” He was dodging the question.
“Ehe, well I do try!” It seemed Zhongli was just as serious as ever.
“Is there anything I am able to do for you? I see you’ve already disturbed Director Hu just to get through to me,” he observed, looking over in Hu Tao’s direction and giving her a slight nod.
“Ahah, no worries Mr. Zhongli! I think I may just like to get to know your little friend here a bit better!” she gestured as Venti just stood there awkwardly. “Of course that can wait for later though, I’ll leave you two for now!” Turning and clicking on her heels, she merrily walked out of the room.
Venti gave a slight sigh as she left, somewhat relieved that he could get some time alone to discuss with Zhongli. Placing his hands down to lean into his desk, he asked, “So, I’m sure you already know why I’m here, no?”
Zhongli sighed, setting down a few sheets of paper. “Yes, I do have a feeling. But I’m not sure how you expect me to help out much—”
Venti cut him off though. “Oh Morax, I only need a tiny favor! Would you help out your good friend, unconditionally, just this once?” he pleaded, hands now clasped together.
It was difficult for anyone to refuse Venti whenever he begged like that.
Sighing for the nth time, Zhongli got up from his desk and gestured to another table. “Please, sit down there while I go brew us some tea. It should only take a moment,” and he carried himself over to a corner of the room, dedicated entirely to making tea. It was very tell-tale by all of the antique cups and tea leaf boxes ordered nicely on a small shelf.
As Venti made his way to the small tea table and pulled up a stool to sit on, he dragged his fingers across the smooth wood top. “Let me take a guess, Childe bought you this table?” Venti teased. “It’s pretty, I’ll give you that.”
“Childe doesn’t buy everything for me,” the consultant retorted, keeping his eyes on the steeping tea. “That table has been here in the parlor for several decades already.” He took two cups and set them on a tray along with the black cast iron teapot he was using.
The aromas from the tea wafted in the air as Zhongli took and placed the tray down onto the tea table. He poured Venti a cup, to which he nodded in thanks to, and watched him blow gently on the steam.
“So tell me what you need my assistance with. I will try my best to be of aid.” Zhongli said in a serious, yet genuine tone. He took a sip of his tea.
“Ahah, I promise you it’s quite the simple favor,” Venti assured. “The Windbloom Festival in Mondstadt is just around the corner, and I managed to convince Xiao to spend the day with me! Although, I need to get him a nice present before then…” he trailed but picked up his pace again quickly enough. “So! I figured, who better to ask than Zhongli about the things that Xiao enjoys?”
“Ah, so you and Xiao are on those terms now,” he uttered in response. “I see.”
The bard let out a giggle. “What, you surprised? I’m sure you already had a feeling your ‘young adeptus’ wasn’t avoiding his duties so he could just sulk somewhere all day!” Venti jested.
“I’m not at all surprised, Barbatos,” he pronounced between another sip of tea. “I would have been surprised if you denied it.”
“Ahahah, classic Morax! You truly know me like the back of your hand, huh?” the bard gestured, pointing to Zhongli with the same hand his cup was in, before taking a sip. It was pretty hot. “So, back to the topic at hand, what exactly does Xiao like?”
Zhongli paused for a moment to think. “Well, he does seem to enjoy the company of cats…”
“Zhongli, I’m allergic,” Venti deadpanned. “Why would I ever get him a cat?”
“Oh,” he remembered. “Well then—”
Suddenly, the floor creaked.
Flicking his head behind him, Venti peeked over his shoulder to see what was at the doorway, and Zhongli’s eyes widened slightly.
Out stumbled Hu Tao.
“Aiya, looks like I’ve been discovered,” she observed, eyes darting between looking at Zhongli and Venti.
“Director Hu,” Zhongli inquired, slightly annoyed. “How long have you been here?”
“Oh, not very long,” she brushed off, waving her hand back and forth. “I genuinely didn’t hear anything, so don’t interrogate me!” and she cutely clapped her hands together. The flowers and tassels on her hat jumped.
So this is what Venti looked like whenever he pleaded. It was quite convincing.
Rather than shooing her away though, to Venti’s surprise, Zhongli spoke up. “Please do have a seat then. I think I may have an idea for you, Venti,” and he got up to retrieve another cup as Hu Tao plopped herself onto one of the free chairs, smiling.
“Oh really now? And what might I be able to do to help?” The director inquired, chin now rested on her hands as Zhongli passed her her cup of hot tea. She still had no idea what they were talking about but was willing to assist.
“No, you’re not going out, you have to stay and manage reception at the parlor,” he said quickly before the mischievous little girl could even ask, and she groaned. A day spent doing nothing was the worst kind of day possible to Hu Tao. But Zhongli continued. “What I need is for you to help us find Qiqi.”
“Qiqi? Zhongli, I don’t know if she’ll…” she trailed off as her grin lowered and faded. Hu Tao sighed, “Well, in any case, it’s worth a shot. I don’t care what it's for, but if it allows me to make another positive impression in Qiqi’s memory, I’ll do it!” And just as quickly as her smile receded it came right back.
“Qiqi? That's such a cute name,” Venti giggled, looking over to Zhongli once more. “So how is all this going to help me pick out a gift, hm?”
“Before I answer, do you mind briefly explaining to Hu Tao what the Windbloom Festival is about? I feel as though a more befitting explanation would come from you,” and Venti nodded to take up his request.
“Ah, but of course! It’s Mondstadt’s festival of flowers and romance! The people of Mond offer Windblooms to the anemo archon, which is just any flower they deem suitable enough as an offering. Of course, the archon does have his particular favorites!” He winked, pointing to the pale cecilia pinned to his beret. “Anyway, are you going to tell me what your brilliant idea is or not? I’m so curious it’s driving me crazy,” he laughed, although in truth he already had a hunch.
“Qiqi is an expert at tracking down herbs and flora, thanks to Dr. Baizhu,” Zhongli explained. “If the festival revolves around gifting flowers to the anemo archon, wouldn’t it be a kind gesture to, well… repay the favor?”
“Ooh, that’s sweet Zhongli! It’s quite hm… how do you say it… it’s symbolic!” She exclaimed, setting down her cup of tea with a light thunk. She didn't seem to take the hint that Venti was the anemo archon though. That, or she just didn't see him any differently as such. “But do remind me, who is this for?” and she looked in Venti’s direction to see him smile softly, staring into his tea.
“It’s for someone very dear to me,” he said, as the wind gently swayed the curtains by the room’s window. “The dearest to me in all of Teyvat!” and Venti let out a soft, breezy laugh at the thought. Hu Tao and Zhongli both found themselves warmed by the bard’s happiness.
Hu Tao pushed back her chair as she abruptly stood up from the tea-table. “Okay, if it means that much to you, let’s get moving!” she huffed, and her signature grin reappeared on her face.
“It’s settled,” Zhongli smiled, pushing back his chair right after Hu Tao, teacups clinking on the table. Venti let out an airy laugh and followed right behind them as the three made their way out of the parlor.
The breeze that blew in when Hu Tao flung open the large parlor doors felt amazing after having been in such a stuffy room for so long. Venti breathed in the crisp air of Liyue and could smell the sweet aroma of the silk flowers from Yujing Terrace. Well, that or it was Hu Tao’s faint perfume again.
As Zhongli followed behind the two of them, Hu Tao let out a loud and sudden groan in exasperation. Venti jumped a bit.
“She’s right there,” Hu Tao pointed to the end of the wooden bridge heading into Chihu Rock, giving off an exaggerated sigh. She was pointing to a very small girl with a long braid observing some potted flowers. “And here I thought I was going to get to do something more fun! Aiya, this truly is the worst…I don’t want to have to spend the rest of the afternoon doing paperwork at the parlor’s reception desk…” she trailed off as her head dropped down in defeat.
Zhongli sighed, giving Hu Tao a single pat over her cap. “You can still stay here while Venti and I talk to Ganyu,” and, oh, Venti had just realized that Ganyu was standing there with the little girl, who was presumably Qiqi.
“Well if you're just going to make me stand here that's not much better,” she quipped right back at Zhongli, sticking out her tongue. She hummed and started heading over to where Qiqi and Ganyu were. “Yahoo, Qiqi!”
Hu Tao’s voice caught Ganyu’s attention more than it did Qiqi. She turned her head around to see Venti and Zhongli following right behind her.
“Ah, Hu Tao…it’s nice to see you again,” Ganyu greeted, nodding her head. “I’m watching over Qiqi for Dr. Baizhu today. Did you perhaps have a prescription you ordered?”
Hu Tao shook her head. “Ah, actually nope! Zhongli here has a friend who, well, has an order for her in a sense?” and she gestured towards Venti, who flicked his hand in a greeting.
“Hey, Ganyu! Remember me?” he grinned.
“Ah, somewhat…” she trailed off, bringing her hand to her chin in thought. She spent a moment in deep thought before her face lit up. “Oh, I remember now. You’re the boy that crashed my adeptus training that one time.”
“Haha, yeah that was probably me,” he giggled. But Ganyu didn’t seem to be finished talking.
“Just appeared out of thin air, jumped on Xiao and wouldn’t stop kis—“
“Ahem, anyway!” Venti interrupted, a bit embarrassed that she remembered that occurrence, and boldly brought it up. Zhongli let out a slight chuckle from behind him, and Hu Tao snorted. “I’m Venti, I remember you as well,” he said, hitting Zhongli in the stomach with his elbow right afterward.
“Right, yes,” Zhongli said, struggling to keep his composure. “Venti here needs someone who can help him find some of Liyue’s flowers for a bouquet,” and he held out a small sheet of paper from the pocket of his coat. Venti took a glance at it and saw it had a list of Liyuen specialties.
“When did you even have time to make a list?” Venti asked.
“It’s not important,” Zhongli brushed off. “Anyway, we were hoping to get help from Qiqi.”
“Right. Okay,” and Ganyu caught Qiqi’s attention to turn away from the flowers she was observing. The small girl stood up, and, well, you could say she was so small that she didn’t look any taller than before.
“Ah, hello. I am Qiqi,” she greeted. Her voice was soft and somewhat hard to hear. She looked up at Zhongli’s tall figure. “You are…the man that works at the funeral parlor. Dr. Baizhu knows you,” and Zhongli gave her a nod in response. She looked over to Venti next. “I don’t know you,” she mumbled. Venti didn’t seem to mind very much.
“That’s alright,” he smiled. Qiqi gave him a nod, then glanced over at Hu Tao.
“Hu Tao. I don’t like you,” she deadpanned and looked back to Ganyu to tug at the red tassels on her hip. “What are they here for?” Hu Tao slumped in defeat yet again.
“They’re here for an errand they need from you. Zhongli, please pass me the list you had,” and he did so immediately. Ganyu handed it to Qiqi for her to glaze over. “Your memory is poor so keep it in your notebook. I’ll be heading with you and this nice little boy to help him gather these flowers,” she explained, and Qiqi nodded once more, placing the slip of paper into a notebook she had on her hip. “It’s fine if I go with them right? I can’t abandon Qiqi when I promised Dr. Baizhu I’d look after her.”
“Well first off, I’m not a little boy,” Venti humphed. “But I don’t mind at all having more company! It would’ve been awkward if you'd just left me with Qiqi after all…”
Qiqi had other things troubling her though. “I’m not going with her,” she pointed to Hu Tao, and the little red girl groaned, but resisted the urge to stick her tongue out at the rude zombie. She so badly wanted to retort.
Before Hu Tao could say anything though, Zhongli interrupted, raising his arm. “Not to worry, she won’t be going. Hu Tao will be staying at the parlor with me.”
“Argh Zhongli! You’re the worst! And on the one day that I wasn't getting to run any errands!” Hu Tao pouted, half-laughing though. “We’ll see you three when you get back,” she smiled.
Ganyu only nodded in acknowledgment and Qiqi followed behind her. As Qiqi pulled out her paper and the two of them immediately started to chart where to head, Venti looked back to Zhongli and Hu Tao.
“Thank you!” he grinned and turned on his heels to follow the two girls ahead of him.
“Have a safe journey.”
The first location the trio headed to was still within Liyue Harbor, at Yujing Terrace.
Upon passing by Bubu Pharmacy and heading up the stone steps to the terrace, the fragrances from glaze lilies and silk flowers filled the air. It was only midday and the entire place already carried an ethereal feel. Venti could only begin to imagine how gorgeous the place was at night.
“I tend to come here frequently to admire the glaze lilies,” Ganyu spoke from behind Venti, as Qiqi went on ahead of them to observe the flowers. The little zombie squatted down by the lilies, picking and placing them into a basket. “Sometimes I wish that the Qixing would let me plant qingxins here, but it's likely for the best that they don’t…” she drifted off mid-thought.
“Oh? And why is that?” Venti implored, leaning in.
“Huh? Ah, nothing! Forget that I said anything…” she brushed off with a smile, waving her hands back and forth. “We should be helping Qiqi out instead of idling here,” and Ganyu headed over to the bush of silk flowers as her heels clicked on the stone.
Qiqi had only gathered a few glaze lilies into her basket as Ganyu handed her a few silk flowers. “Oh,” she murmured. “Silk flowers are so sweet. But Hu Tao smells like silk flowers, so I don't like them.”
“You sure have a lot of things you don't like about Hu Tao, huh?” Venti asked, crouching down beside her as she looked up at him. Her eyes were...empty. But she was quite the curious zombie, despite having such a poor memory.
The little zombie just blinked back at the bard without a change in expression. “Huh?”
“Ah, nevermind then,” he smiled.
“We should hurry up with these flowers before any of the guards start to think we’re suspicious. I may be a part of the Qixing but I still don’t want to get involved with any of the Milelith…” Ganyu piped up, and Venti darted his head back and forth before taking the rest of the flowers from her arms and placing them in Qiqi’s basket. Ganyu was a bit startled by the sudden action.
“Okay!” he affirmed, dusting his hands off and setting his hands onto his knees. He peeked over at Qiqi’s list. “We really killed two birds with one stone here. All that’s left is to collect some violetgrass and qingxins! Where can we find those?” Venti asked, glancing at Ganyu.
“Um well, qingxins can be found just about anywhere. We’ll likely find some of them in the mountains. I’m sure Qiqi can help lead the way,” she explained, as the three of them got up to dust themselves off. They looked...quite suspicious to say the least, but who wouldn’t look off picking flowers at a public terrace? Ganyu was letting the awkwardness of the situation get to her, and it was showing on her face. “But first, let’s get out of here,” she decided as she grabbed both Qiqi and Venti by their hands and dragged them all the way out of the terrace.
The three of them made their way down to Feiyun Slope despite Ganyu’s embarrassment. Speed walking through the bustling area, Qiqi struggled to pull out the list from her notebook.
“Ah, wait,” Qiqi suddenly uttered, pulling at the red cords on Ganyu’s side again, bringing her to a halt. “Violetgrass is next. Wuwang Hill is far away.”
“We’re heading all the way to Wuwang Hill? That’s bordering Mondstadt...is there nowhere closer we can go?” Ganyu questioned, sounding a bit worried.
But the little zombie responded completely indifferent. “It’s good for my legs. Otherwise, I might start to stiffen again,” she said, shaking her head. “There are qingxin that grow there too,” and she looked over to Venti.
“It’s fine with me,” he shrugged. “Ah, but how much mora will this trip end up running me, I nearly forgot to ask…” the bard smiled nervously.
“Huh? Dr. Baizhu never gives me anything for my errands. But if you can get me coconut milk…” Qiqi started. “I’ll take it,” and her eyes seemed to shimmer a little at the thought of it. Venti found it adorable.
“Off we go then! The sooner we get back, the sooner I can buy you some coconut milk!” and Venti grabbed Qiqi by the hand, weaving through the crowds and stalls out of the harbor, leaving Ganyu behind.
“Wait for me!” she yelled out with a laugh.
The three of them traveled over the entire distance from Liyue Harbor to Wuwang Hill on foot, passing through Guili Plains, Wangshu Inn, Dihua Marsh, and the Stone Gate on the way.
At Guili Plains, Venti already felt drained.
“Ahh, I’m not used to all this walking,” he mumbled and conjured his winds together so he could float beside Ganyu and Qiqi. The two of them just stared back at him in awe as he smiled. “Much better!”
Ganyu let out a sigh, but Venti continued to float around despite her staring. Qiqi eventually got distracted passing through Wangshu Inn, looking at all of the silk flowers and parasols until Venti and Ganyu dragged her back to the main road.
The rest of the journey to Wuwang consisted of the occasional gust of wind blowing sticks and leaves into Ganyu’s hair, and Qiqi looking back at her notebook every few minutes to remember what she was doing until they finally reached the ruins below the hill.
“I’ve been here a lot. I remember the way, so please follow me,” Qiqi led as the other two followed behind her. She seemed confident with every step that she took through the ruins, splashing her feet in the nearby puddles as she walked.
“Qiqi, don’t you have a poor memory?” Venti asked her. It was a genuine question, and he wondered how she was so good at finding herbs despite her goldfish recollection.
She took some time to ponder his question before answering. “If I see or do something enough times, it will go into my long-term memory. Dr. Baizhu is always in need of herbs, so I know where to find all of them,” she explained, nodding and leading Venti and Ganyu to a small cliffside.
“Wait, before you climb,” Venti started. “Allow me to help!” and summoning the winds from his vision again, he let off his skyward sonnet, lifting the three of them to the top of the rocks. Qiqi awed at the sight of her feet floating off the ground and stumbled up onto the grass above. Ganyu fumbled a bit more than Qiqi though.
“Thank you,” the little zombie nodded, trodding over the grass to a tree by more rocks. By it was a small glowing statue of some ancient creature that Venti couldn't seem to make out the likeness of, and orange crystals were jutting out of the trunk.
After Ganyu finally managed to pull herself up from the rocks, she dusted herself off and nodded to the bard in thanks, then attempted to climb up the large rock Qiqi had been eyeing.
Venti giggled at the sight as he rushed over to let off another updraft for them. “You know, despite being the client here, I don't want to just sit around doing nothing,” he smiled, floating up effortlessly and reaching over to pick the violetgrasses sprouting out of the rock. “So just let me help out, okay?” and he drifted slowly back down to the ground, handing the flowers to Qiqi.
“Ah, wait,” Ganyu blurted as she ran past Venti, using his wind current to scramble to the top of the rocks, before vanishing over them.
“Huh? Didn't I get them all?” Venti turned around, only to see that she had already disappeared. Qiqi was too preoccupied with the flowers to care though.
“Got one!” Ganyu yelled from the rocks, holding up a single qingxin blossom. She held the stem in her mouth, smiling as she wafted down to the others, and landed with a sigh. “I…I can keep this one right?” she asked, gazing at the flower, then glancing over to Venti.
“Wow I had no idea you loved those flowers that much,” Venti laughed. “You know, sometimes you remind me of Xiao, in a way.”
“Oh, really?” and as the two of them chatted, they all continued past the ruins and deeper into the forested area of the hill.
Ganyu continued talking. “I suppose that one thing we do have in common,” she started. “Is that we both love qingxin flowers. Although, I love to eat them…and Xiao likes the scent,” she smiled, placing the flower into her hair.
“Ah I see now,” Venti observed. “So that’s what you meant before at Yujing Terrace! About how it’s for the best that they don't grow there, right?” the bard grinned at her. A spot-on guess for sure.
“Oh um, yes…” she admitted. “They’re just so delicious that I can’t help myself. It's almost as tantalizing as Xiangling’s cooking...” she drifted off, getting swept up just by the thought of it.
“The aura here is spooky. This place reminds me of Hu Tao,” Qiqi interrupted in a toneless manner. Despite her face rarely changing, Venti could sense the distaste that came from her voice as they continued along the path.
Up ahead of them there was another wall of rocks blocking the way, and a questionably flimsy ladder propped upon them. Venti’s eyes gave a little sparkle at the sight of it. “Don’t worry, I can help again!” he assured, letting off another windy sigh to conjure his skyward sonnet with a “yahoo!”
Qiqi floated up effortlessly and Ganyu followed right behind to gather the flowers from the rocks this time. From above, Venti glanced down and gave each of them a hand up the rock face.
“So Ganyu,” Venti started, pulling her up and noticing some qingxins in the grass. “What else do you know about Xiao?”
“To be truthful, not that much,” she confessed. “I cannot recall anything about him from the archon war, but from what Morax has told me before, he was one of five yakshas, correct?”
“Ah, yes he was…”
“All the people he’s ever agreed to team up with are no longer with us, so I suppose that…” she paused for a moment to ponder, but shook her head to brush off the thought. “Someday, I’d hope for Xiao to be able to see me as someone who is still there for him. Someone that he can put his trust into. I’d want him to know I'm still here too.”
Despite her sincerity, Venti still turned and gave her a cheeky little smile. Ganyu panicked. Qiqi didn’t seem to be listening as she picked up another violetgrass on the rocks below her feet and sauntered over to the qingxins.
“Oh I, um, not in that way of course!” she blurted, face turning a light shade of pink as she waved her hands back and forth. “I just want to be a reliable friend…” she trailed off, but she sounded completely genuine.
“That’s sweet of you Ganyu,” Venti said, and he meant it. “I’m sure that…Xiao will warm up to you eventually!”
“I do hope so,” she sighed, picking the qingxins in the clearing and handing them to Qiqi. “All of that karmic debt that weighs on his shoulders, the residues, and the hatred of archons long deceased, compared to the workload I carry as a member of the Liyue Qixing, my struggles are simply nothing. I owe far too much to Adeptus Xiao, so I couldn't possibly begin to compare myself though.
“I feel that…” she added. “What he needs now is someone whom he owes nothing to, and someone who owes him nothing in return.”
The wind sighed gently, and the scent from the qingxins reached and embraced Venti.
Ganyu picked up and twirled a qingxin flower in between her fingers, before plucking at the petals and dropping them in her mouth.
Venti laughed at her. “Ganyu, you’re eating my bouquet! And also, aren't those really bitter?”
“Huh? Isn't that… what they're supposed to taste like?”
Arriving back to a large group flocking in front of Wangsheng was one of the last things that Venti would have expected to see after the long and exhausting journey back to Liyue Harbor.
“Ah, Venti, Ganyu, Qiqi, it’s good to see you three came back safely,” Zhongli greeted. There were a bunch of other people behind him.
“It’s great to see you too Zhongli but, who are these people?” Venti hoped that he didn’t hire those random people for some crazy expensive price. It happened more frequently than one would think.
“Yahoo! It’s Hu Tao again!” the parlor director grinned, peeking from behind Zhongli. “Blockhead and I had a little idea while you three were out! Oh, and these are my friends!” she introduced, gesturing to the trio behind her. Zhongli twitched slightly at the rude nickname.
Hu Tao’s friends glanced over. “Hi! I’m Xiangling, these two are Chongyun and Xingqiu,” the girl waved, and the boys behind her did as well. They looked familiar… perhaps the two from Wanwen bookhouse? “Oh, Ganyu! I have a new vegetarian dish I’d love to have you try, are you interested?” the navy-haired girl beamed just at the thought, and the bell she wore jingled as she grabbed Ganyu by her hands.
“Careful with Xiangling’s dishes,” the boy in light blue attire advised. This one was…Chongyun. The cautious boy. “She has a habit of making them way too hot.”
“Well, that may only be an issue that you have, Chongyun,” the dark blue boy said. This one was Xingqiu. “Usually the dishes Xiangling gives you are fine. Let’s just say that I like to… spice them up a little sometimes,” he snickered, giving Chongyun a naughty grin.
“Xingqiu!” he gawked. “That’s so—ugh, nevermind…” he drifted off, giving up on the argument before he got too hot-headed.
Venti laughed at all of the banterings, and Qiqi was still clinging to Ganyu as all the commotion continued around her. “I think Ganyu talked about you while we were at Wuwang. She said your cooking was really good!” the bard grinned, looking over to Xiangling.
“Ganyu mentioned me? Aww, I’m touched! So this means you’ll try my dish right?” her eyes were starry as Ganyu struggled to fumble out a response.
“Ahem,” Zhongli stepped in, clearing his throat. “Hu Tao’s idea was to make almond tofu. I told her that I could help on my own but…she insisted on inviting her friends,” he sighed.
Hu Tao giggled. “It was Zhongli’s idea, and he’s okay at cooking I suppose. But, why choose him over a renowned chef of Liyue!” and the consultant gave her an annoyed look. She just smirked back. “Anyway, Xiangling here is a culinary master!” the director proclaimed, pulling her over by the shoulders.
“Uh, yup! I guess you could call me that! I’ll make just about anything you need me to do since Zhongli here was already generous enough with his payment,” she smiled, pointing her thumb over in his direction.
Venti glanced over to the taller man. “Zhongli, did you take Childe’s money again?” he asked, arms crossing to imitate him.
But Zhongli chose not to dignify him with a response. “Let’s all head over to Wanmin Restaurant where we’ll prepare the almond tofu,” he announced, clapping his hands. Despite his true nature, Zhongli could give off a “high and mighty” aura whenever he so chose to. It annoyed Venti sometimes, but he simply laughed it off.
The group followed behind Zhongli and Xiangling as they led them to Wanmin Restaurant, which wasn’t very far away from the parlor.
“You’re lucky the restaurant isn’t that busy today,” Xiangling sighed, letting everyone through the curtains and into the kitchen. “Chef Mao, I mean my dad, hasn’t let anyone know that I’m back yet, so there’s no reason to worry about rampant customers!” she smiled, already gathering ingredients from the kitchen shelves. “Oh Chongyun, can you pass me those apricot kernels? And Xingqiu, I’m going to need the agar from that shelf and some water please.”
“On it,” they both affirmed with a nod, heading over to the array of shelves.
“Hu Tao, you can start the fire! I’d ask Guoba for help but he's napping over there,” and she pointed over to a corner where a gold panda was snoring softly.
“Alright!” she clapped, blowing a butterfly kiss into the firewood and watching it spark up. The small flame quickly became a large fire in the pit.
Qiqi recoiled away from the heat though. “Ah, it's warmer in here. I can't handle high temperatures. Excuse me,” and she started to make her way out of the kitchen when Chongyun stopped her momentarily.
Crouching down beside her, he asked, “Do you want a popsicle? I can make you one,” Chongyun offered the little zombie, pulling a wooden stick from his pocket, about to muster up the cryo from his vision.
“Is it cocomilk flavor?” she asked him, eyes wide.
“It’s…it’s just water,” he responded, his stick now drooping a bit. Qiqi gave him a small “oh” before she quickly escorted herself to wait at a table outside, taking the flower basket with her.
“I’ll go with her,” Ganyu opted. “Please let me know when to come back and chill the almond tofu,” and she gave a slight bow before following Qiqi out of the kitchen.
“Well that’s four hands gone.. but it’s alright! We can handle the rest of this together!” Xiangling assured, patting Chongyun on the back as his head fell.
He sighed a bit. “Here are the apricot kernels, by the way,” and he passed them to her as he stood up.
Xingqiu piped up from the shelves. “I’ve got the agar and water here!”
“Thanks! Okay Zhongli, your turn!” she winked, pointing towards him. “You’re going to help me mix up and strain these kernels and water. I’m going to boil the agar over here…” and she handed him the ingredients along with a mortar and pestle. “Here you go!”
Venti gave the mortar and pestle a glance as Zhongli started crushing the kernels. “That looks like it’s going to take forever…” he muttered under his breath, but Xiangling could hear.
“Not to worry, I’ve seen Zhongli work with that tool before. I bet you he’ll be done with it soon,” and, wow, Xiangling was right. Zhongli was making incredibly fast progress.
“Voila,” he said, setting down the already liquified kernels.
“Wow. Hey, isn’t that a Fontenian word?” Venti asked, still staring at the kernel mix.
“Yes. Childe says it sometimes,” Zhongli responded as he began to strain the mixture into a container.
“Haha, Childe? Isn’t he Snezhnayan?” the bard laughed.
“He is,” and Zhongli finished up with the task in just about two minutes.
“Good work, Zhongli!” Xiangling congratulated him as she started pouring things into her cooking pot. “Oh, one thing I forgot. Venti, mind passing me the milk and that tiny red vial over there? It should be enough!” and he did so without much thought.
Chongyun felt iffy about the vial though. “Hey Xiangling, what exactly is in there?” he asked her, a bit hesitant to find out the answer.
“Oh, nothing much haha… just some uh… lizard blood,” and before anyone could show any surprise she dropped a bit into the simmering liquid.
“Xiangling!?” Chongyun gawked at the sight of her putting something so disgusting into the mixture so confidently. Xingqiu and Hu Tao snorted from the shelves. Zhongli… didn’t seem to notice that anything was wrong.
“Whaaat it’s to bring out the flavor!” she assured him. Venti couldn’t do much but stare at what she had done to the dessert. “Just trust me, it’ll taste good okay? I promise you, it’s all in the chef’s secrets!” she winked and hummed as she stirred the contents of the pot.
Venti slowly smiled, then giggled a little, then laughed, and soon enough the rest of them in the kitchen were all smiling and laughing with him, even Zhongli. Surrounded by all of these people, those he knew well and those that he’d just met, it felt so comforting.
For the first time in a while, Venti felt like he was genuinely enjoying himself.
“Ah, sorry,” he said in between giggles, rubbing at his eye. “You all seem so close together and it’s… it’s heartwarming. The atmosphere you have, I enjoy it,” and he looked to them and beamed. “Can’t believe blockhead over here has so many friends!” he said, patting Zhongli on his shoulder. For once, he didn’t take any offense to the nickname and gave a warm smile in return.
“Oh right! We’re about to chill the dessert so you can call Ganyu over,” Xiangling piped up as she poured her recipe into a rectangular container. Xingqiu was about to head out through the curtains.
“There’s no need, I’m here,” Ganyu said from the doorway, brushing the curtains to the side. “I left Qiqi with an ice lotus to mess with. She should be fine,” and she quickly summoned another onto the wooden counter in the kitchen. “You can let the mixture cool here,” she gestured.
Everyone had backed off a bit after she summoned the lotus though. “Ganyu… aren’t those supposed to explode?” Hu Tao asked from behind Xiangling, who was still trying to hold the tray steady.
“Huh? No, it shouldn’t… Qiqi has been playing with hers since I sat down with her. I just have to focus and it will stay put,” she explained, completely serious.
The other five of them hesitated, before nodding to trust Ganyu. “Please Ganyu, I’m begging you not to lose focus on that lotus,” Xiangling quivered as she gently set down the tray onto the lotus to cool. When nothing happened, she let out a sigh of relief.
“And now we wait, right?” Xingqiu asked.
“Yup! Oh, I know! I can make you all a snack while we wait! Hold still, hold still, it should only take a minute!” Xiangling babbled as she began to hurriedly gather a bunch of ingredients from the kitchen shelves. Hu Tao laughed a bit.
“She’s a riot, isn’t she?” Hu Tao giggled as she nudged Venti with her elbow. “She’s crazy about cooking, but I have to admit that I can’t resist it either. Her steamed fish and dumplings really are something else you know!”
“You two are close, huh?” Venti asked. It seemed like everyone was distracted by something at the moment. “Wait, Hu Tao, before you answer that, I need a quick favor,” Venti recalled. “Can you maybe get me some coconut milk? I owe it to Qiqi, but I’m not sure where to buy any. Ah, and, here’s some mora, sorry for the inconvenience,” he pleaded, taking a few gold coins out of his hat.
“Oh, of course! You can keep the mora though, I’ll be right back,” she winked at him as she dashed out of the kitchen.
“Thanks!” he waved, smiling and joining back in with the others. Xingqiu and Chongyun were chatting by the shelves, Xiangling was going nuts with her cooking, and Zhongli and Ganyu were both keeping an eye on the chilling dessert.
Ah, right. Qiqi was still outside. Venti thought it might be a good idea to check on her.
Outside the restaurant sitting at an empty table, the little zombie was swinging her feet and observing a small ice lotus. The fact that Ganyu was still focusing on both the one inside the kitchen and the one keeping Qiqi occupied surprised Venti. He pulled up a seat and sat next to her.
Qiqi was holding the flower basket from their trip in her lap and had her notebook set on the table when she noticed Venti in front of her. “Oh, hello,” she greeted softly.
Venti nodded to her in return. In the morning silence, the wind rustling the leaves was like music to his ears. He knew that eventually, the peacefulness would fade, and with afternoon it would bring the hustle and bustle of rush hour, but savoring things as they were here now, in the moment, was relaxing.
Although, Hu Tao came to interrupt that silence.
“Yahoo, Qiqi! I have something for you!” she cheered as she strode up to the table and winked over at Venti, who winked back. Qiqi didn’t seem to be very impressed by her entrance. You could almost imagine the frown that would have shown on her face if she was even capable of properly making one.
“I don’t want to talk with you,” Qiqi deadpanned.
But Hu Tao persisted, and from behind her back, she pulled out a hollowed coconut filled with milk, decorated with berries and violetgrass along the edges. “Don’t even ask me where I got it! Just this once please, take something from me okay?” she begged.
Qiqi’s expression had completely changed from seriousness to awe. She gently took the coconut from Hu Tao’s hands and sipped on it. And the absolute happiness that radiated from her after recalling the flavor of her favorite drink made Venti and Hu Tao’s hearts melt. She hummed a song off tune and swayed her feet and it truly made Hu Tao happy as well, that she finally managed to make a good impression on Qiqi.
Some clamor from the kitchen ruined the moment though. But at least Qiqi didn’t seem to be bothered as she kept drinking without a care in the world.
“Um, I may need a little help here!” Xiangling exclaimed from inside the restaurant, and pretty loudly at that. Hu Tao and Venti turned around to see what was going on and noticed people were beginning to flock to the restaurant.
“Isn’t that Chef Mao’s daughter, Xiangling?”
“You mean the famous Liyuen chef? She’s rarely ever seen cooking at the restaurant right?”
“This might be a good chance to see her in action!”
“Uh oh. Xiangling, you might want to finish up there. And quickly,” Xingqiu warned as Xiangling was frantically cutting the almond tofu and setting it into a deep plate. Hu Tao and Venti rushed into the kitchen.
“Just a sec! It’s almost ready so don’t panic,” she sputtered as she hurried to package the almond tofu nicely. “Ah and take this osmanthus syrup with it too. Be careful not to shake anything up too much here okay?” and wrapping up the contents of the dessert, she handed it to Venti with a smile.
“Ah, thank you so much Xiangling! Thanks… to all of you,” Venti said with a breezy laugh. “Are you going to be alright here with the commotion? Oh, how should I repay you…” he trailed, but Xiangling hurriedly brushed it off.
“No, it’s okay! I have plenty of help with these six in the kitchen. Now hurry up and go before you suffocate!” Xiangling grinned, shoving him out through the Wanmin Restaurant curtains. The bustling sounds just got louder and louder behind him. “Oh, and don’t forget the flowers!” she yelled as Qiqi brought them over, coconut still in hand.
“Thank you for the cocomilk,” she mumbled.
“And thank you so much for your help,” he nodded, patting her on the head as he took the basket, placing the almond tofu inside as well.
Giving one last smile to the crowded restaurant, he bolted out of Liyue Harbor.