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On Belay (aka the world didn't need another zhongli simp but here i am)

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The soft glow of sunrise refracted through prisms of early morning mist, painting Liyue’s cityscape with dew-flurried stripes of orange and gold. A dense, rolling fog drifted across the waters to the east, obscuring the far distance and blending colours along the horizon until the sky coalesced with the sea.

The air around you grew thick with the scent of salt and brine as every step down the steep hill brought you closer to the harbor.

A plain satchel hung by your side, hidden beneath your travelling cloak. Every so often, you’d reach inside it, grounding yourself with the reassurance that the wares you brought for trade hadn’t magically vanished into thin air. You felt silly being this anxious, but you were transporting the hard-earned results of two days’ labor--two days’ worth of scouting, slime-dodging, and mountainside exploration. Even now, the hours you’d spent scaling cliffsides left your hands feeling empty whenever they weren’t clinging to stone.

Your fingers flexed unconsciously at the memory. The scattered wounds beneath your bandage-wrapped hands stung as they were stretched taut, and you winced.

Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, you took a small detour, digging into a side pocket of your satchel and placing food scraps on a charity plate set outside for strays. A scruffy dog with fur the colour of toasted marshmallows trotted over to the offering at once; it tilted its head up at you, questioning, until you scritched it behind the ears and encouraged it to help itself to your leftovers.

You offered a polite greeting to the Millelith guards stationed outside the city entrance before crossing the bridge into Liyue Harbor.

The dockside markets hadn’t yet been flooded with their normal tide of customers. The atmosphere was slow and morning-weary, still rousing to life with merchants setting up their stalls and arranging inventory for the day. Along the docks nearby, crews loaded supply crates onto large ships, while fishermen in smaller berths readied their own equipment before setting out to sea.

You were supposed to meet your contact around here for the exchange.

Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to you until now that you had no idea what they looked like.

While your heartbeat sped up with sudden panic, you spent the next few minutes peeking around corners and stealing glances at strangers. You bounced on your toes to peek through gaps left by the shifting masses of laborers, searching for anyone in the area who might’ve looked half as lost as you were.

Your attention was caught by the sight of someone out of place among the crowd.

Near the steps of the Baiju Guesthouse, a towering man with impeccable posture examined a notice pinned to the side of the building. His long, flowing hair was tied behind him in a low ponytail, the ends of it fading from dark brown to a soft ombre of yellow ochre. The tapered overcoat he wore was well-fitted to his frame, dyed and embroidered with a dizzying marvel of intricate geometric patterns that left you feeling thoroughly underdressed.

The gleam of a dormant Vision dangled from a chain at the small of his back--but once you realized how low your gaze had drifted, your eyes shot back up to a more respectful level.

“Er, pardon me.” You took a nervous step forward to approach him from behind, clutching the strap of your satchel a bit tighter to your chest. “You...wouldn’t happen to be Director Hu, would you?”

The man turned from the missing person’s poster to regard you, his golden eyes bright enough to nearly glow within the pale morning mist.

“I’m afraid Director Hu had unexpected business to attend to this morning,” he said. “As senior consultant for the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, I will be seeing to today’s appointments in her stead.”

The resonance of his voice made your pulse thunder beneath your chest.

You felt as if you’d reached the top of a staircase with one less step than you expected; as the ground vanished beneath your feet, for a split-second, you were in freefall.

He continued to stare down at you, the immaculate crimson liner beneath his eyes only further sharpening his gaze. “I...trust there are no issues with this arrangement?”

“N--not at all,” you sputtered. “Boss might be disappointed when I tell him, but other than that...”

“Oh?”

You forced a small laugh to make it clear you were joking. “Mr. Bolai sent this commission my way. He mentioned Director Hu performs some kind of...ritual? When meeting new vendors? He seemed excited to hear all about how it went.”

“Ah.” The man’s eyes fell with an expression of what you were too proud to recognize as pity. “How cruel.”

“...pardon?”

“Another day, perhaps. Thank you for meeting me here, regardless.” He tilted his head to the side, his stern gaze softening with a kindle of curiosity. He reminded you of the toasted-marshmallow dog, somehow. “Did you bring them with you?”

“Oh, right--”

You reached into the satchel at your side. From it, your wounded hands--wrapped in bandages from wrists to fingertips--withdrew a rather unremarkable bundle of pale purple bellflowers, swathed snugly in a special fabric to retain their moisture.

“Nine stalks,” you said, holding them up, “as requested.”

He mirrored your gentleness, accepting the flowers with as much care as you took in offering them. “I must admit, I was surprised to learn an independent merchant had taken our request--and one from Mondstadt, no less.”

“I mostly deal in small-volume local specialties. Liyuean floriculturists prefer more crop-friendly breeds, so the rare commissions I get from Mr. Bolai usually involve tracking down more obscure growths only found in the wild. Still, I can’t say I’ve ever had a request...for...”

You trailed off, realizing you’d lost his interest.

His attention hadn’t left the bouquet since you removed them from your bag. You watched as he cradled one of the flowers with a gloved hand, unsure if his careful examination was of admiration or appraisal.

“It took a while to see this order filled.” His eyes still had not returned to you. “Have the local gardeners run out of supply?”

“Local gardeners...?” The accusation--almost too subtle--caught your attention and straightened your posture. “No, you misunderstand--I picked these myself. I mean, most florists sell Violetgrass, of course, but you’re not going to find anyone carrying Sunrises.”

“Is there a difference?”

“If you know where to look...” you started, your tone growing wary. “Sunrise Violetgrass only grows above a certain altitude, and only on east-facing cliffsides, hence the name. They’re less colourful and not as fragrant as regular Violetgrass, so they’re not very popular, but--here, look--” Raising yourself on your toes to better match his height, you pointed to the bottom of the flower he was examining. “The biggest difference is actually the morphology of the subapical stigma, since the Sunrise’s stamen evolved to withstand stronger updrafts during pollination compared to--”

You only glanced up to make sure he was listening.

You hadn’t expected to meet his eyes and find him looking at you.

(Admiration or appraisal? You still couldn’t tell.)

“...but you, um.” You rested back on your heels, clearing the sudden lump in your throat. “You know all this already, don’t you?”

“Forgive me,” he apologized, smiling softly. “As someone who makes a living from the imparting of obscure knowledge, I find my opportunities to simply listen are few and far between.”

Fancy way of saying you talk too much, you thought, then immediately felt bad about thinking.

Without warning, he narrowed the small distance between you, preparing to show you something about the flowers. You caught his scent as he leaned in: the earthen aroma of old stone, of grass and forest and ozone, of jagged cliffs you were barely strong enough to withstand climbing for a full day.

Your bandaged fingers twitched until they stung.

(Why did he smell of the mountainside?)

“Above all else,” he began, his voice low, “Violetgrass is a flower built for survival. It makes its home in humid, rocky crevices otherwise unsuitable for life, and as such, encounters little competition for resources. Sunrise is a rare strain only further emboldened by these harsh conditions, growing higher and living longer than its counterparts. But,” he added with a smirk, “you know all this already, don’t you?”

You exhaled a laugh. Of course you did.

“What you may not know,” he continued, “is that such traits are what make Sunrise Violetgrass a symbol of fastidiousness in certain circles. They are a vital component in the traditional burial rites of decorated Liyuean cartographers--during the ceremony, one stalk of Sunrise is used to represent each decade of their life.”

“Oh, how cool is that?” You paused, double-checking your math. “So, your cartographer passed away at ninety?”

“Ninety-four,” he nodded. “Though she had long since put her mountaineering days behind her, much of the data from her original surveys are still referenced to this day.”

“Sounds like she was an incredible person.”

“Yes, she was quite the force to be reckoned with.”

The way he said it made it sound like they were rather close. You wondered if you were imagining things.

The bellflowers suddenly seemed heavier in his arms than they’d been in your own. The past few days of scavenging were still fresh in your mind, as were the memories of you carrying yourself across mountainsides one handful of stone at a time, referencing mapwork made possible by the very cartographer you were unwittingly hired to do this for in the first place. It felt strange, having the experience given such retroactive importance.

“Kinda wish I knew what they were for ahead of time,” you admitted, sounding sheepish.

“Is that so?” he asked. “What would you have done differently?”

You took a moment to consider the question. “...would’ve wrapped them with two rolls of fabric instead of one.”

His soft laughter caught your heart off-guard, considering the fact you hadn’t meant to tell a joke.

“Not many are familiar with the old stories,” he said, still smiling in a way you couldn’t bear to look at. “So I tell them whenever I can. Cultural knowledge prescribes meaning to tradition, after all. It allows us to pay respects to those who came before us--to appreciate what we’ve inherited with a reverence that is otherwise too quickly lost to time. If more people knew the story behind Sunrise Violetgrass, for instance, I doubt its reputation would have been so easily sullied.”

“‘Sullied’?” you repeated. Though the word seemed out of place, you knew it must have been deliberate for someone who chose them so carefully.

“Ah...yes.” His expression shifted, realizing he’d said too much. “I...suppose there’s no harm in telling you, now. The fact of the matter is that unfounded rumors regarding the flower’s pharmaceutical efficacy have, shall we say, blossomed overnight--and with it, a market ripe with deliberately altered or mislabelled flora. This is why I wanted to confirm the legitimacy of your wares firsthand.”

“...you’re telling me people are out here selling counterfeit flowers?”

“Certain people, yes. Fraud is nothing new, of course, but there is something to be said of those seeking undue profit from the desperation of the hopeless.”

“By the Seven...” you whispered, threading a hand through your bangs in disbelief. “Well, nothing to worry about here, at least. Wanyou Boutique might’ve sent me the commission, but I picked them on my own. Just me, myself, and I.” You wiggled your bandaged fingers like snugly-wrapped badges of pride.

“Don’t worry, I believe you. Mr. Bolai has a unique...understanding of these situations. Ironically, this makes him an excellent point of contact for sourcing authentic goods.”

Clicking your tongue, you began rummaging through your satchel’s many side pockets. “You know, this is exactly why I work alone. You can’t really trust anything you don’t handle yourself, can you? Leaves too much room to get caught up in other people’s crazy schemes...aha.” You pulled out a small notebook and pencil, wetting a fingertip on your tongue before flicking through the pages to find where you left off. “Your commission post listed them at 27k per stalk, so nine brings the total to 243,000 Mora. Then Mr. Bolai’s going to want his finder’s fee...”

You trailed off into mumbles, your tiny pencil scribbling down even tinier numbers to delegate funds--travelling supplies, equipment repairs, money owed to various Treasure Hunters in exchange for safe passage through their territory--until every last Mora you’d just earned had already been spoken for.

Ultimately, it was the silence that caught your attention.

You looked up from the pages, your pencil in-hand.

For the first time since you met him, the man in front of you looked uncertain--downright uncomfortable, even--as he stared at the flowers in his arms with grave concern.

“...you have not yet been paid.”

“Well...no? Commissions are usually paid on delivery.”

“Hm.” His expression darkened further. “I myself do not have access to the Funeral Parlor’s finances--only the current Director maintains that privilege. Perhaps we can reconvene tomorrow morning upon her return and complete our transaction then.”

“Oh.” You paled. “Tomorrow’s...tomorrow’s not going to be too late for you?”

“The service is scheduled for the evening,” he said, returning the flowers to you. “We’ll have plenty of time.”

Your eyes growing wide, you leaned away as if he were offering a live grenade. “H--hey, you know what? You can just...hang onto those for now.”

“Considering your late compensation, it would be unfair of me to deprive you of the opportunity to sell them elsewhere, should you need to be reimbursed for your expenses sooner.”

“I won’t be selling them to anyone else, sir--inflated market price or not. Besides, M--Mr. Bolai speaks very highly of Wangsheng. We can just settle the bill next time I’m in town, yeah?”

“...is something the matter?”

You tore your eyes away from the flowers to once again find the man’s expression unreadable. Whatever modicum of warmth he’d spared for you had disappeared from his eyes completely, causing yet another nervous shiver to trickle down your spine under the sudden weight of his gaze.

You were rousing his suspicions, you realized.

“I just--” Your voice cracked. You cleared your throat before leaning in close and dropping your voice to a hurried whisper. “I--I’ve heard...stories, okay? About...what happens in the forests of Liyue. And I’m not--I don’t want to anger the spirit of a decorated explorer who knows the wilderness better than I do just because I got greedy and refused to cough up the flowers needed to put her body to rest!”

“Divine retribution does not fall upon those who adhere to a contract in good faith.”

“...I was actually just hoping you’d tell me ghosts weren’t real.”

“I’ve no reason to lie to you.”

The certainty in his voice turned your blood to ice.

“Interesting...” That soft, kind spark of intrigue reached his eyes again, and he curled a hand to his chin, considering you. “I can’t say I’ve known many adventurers of Mondstadt to be so superstitious.”

“...if being superstitious means NOT disappearing in the mountains without a trace, it’s worked so far.”

“A fair point. Still, it would be remiss to accept your fulfillment of the contract without upholding at least part my own. I will see what I can do before the day’s end. Where are you staying?”

Between his complete nonchalance and his not-so-subtle implication that all the campfire ghost stories you heard during your travels were true, it took more effort than expected to keep your head from spinning long enough to process his question.

“I...set up camp about a half-hour from here.” You gestured behind you, pointing your pencil vaguely northeast. “Near some ruins out by the Statue of the Seven.”

“Vacancies are difficult to come by this time of year,” he nodded in understanding. “I can arrange reservations, should you be looking for a place to stay.”

Already bearing the burden of an empty coin purse, your pride was quick enough to take advantage of another excuse. “I can’t, I’m heading back to Mondstadt tonight. Rumor has it the Knights are shutting down entry to Dragonspine in the new year, so demand for Starsilver just shot through the roof.”

“You deal in ore as well?”

“Local specialties, remember? All types, all kinds. I should be back before the week’s out, though--half my Starsilver orders are coming back here, anyway.”

You tried hard to ignore the subtle tension coiled within his posture, waiting to spring more questions on you; to your relief, he seemed to have convinced himself out of it.

“Very well,” he relented. “I apologize for the inconvenience. According to our contract, this will constitute a late payment. Will factoring the standard daily penalty into the final total suffice?”

Tucking your notebook back into your satchel, you grimaced at the offer. “Could we skip the paperwork on that, actually? The extra taxes alone would put this commission high enough to throw off my reconciling...how about, along with payment, you owe me a bottle of milk next time I see you? Then we’ll call it even.”

“Milk?”

“It’s the eve of a new year for us in Mondstadt,” you explained. “I was going to take it easy and celebrate tonight, but I’ll need to head back quicker than I thought, and...well, milk doesn’t travel very well, before or after drinking.”

“...a strange choice of beverage for celebration. Is this a Mondstadt tradition?”

“Not exactly,” you laughed, returning your bag to your side and shrugging your cloak back in place over your shoulders. “It’s for a drink mix. Just thought I’d try something new.”

You have him a small wave and a short goodbye, the latter of which he returned before you took your leave.

Even though your belongings were accounted for, you couldn’t shake the odd, weightless feeling of having forgotten something important, as if you’d left more than just the flowers behind.

You wondered if his eyes followed you as you crossed the bridge out of the harbour.

You didn’t look back to find out.

-

Throughout the ages, Zhongli learned to identify certain milestones of cultural development unique to humankind. Spoken language, written word, creative expression through art and music--no matter the geographic location or era in history, the tapestry of every society shared a number of common threads that Zhongli had come to understand as fundamental to the human experience.

Celebration was one such phenomenon.

Be it for spontaneous acknowledgements of triumph or anniversaries of momentous events, humans fashioned all sorts of reasons to commemorate special occasions. Each would be observed with their own sets of traditions repeated over generations, each iteration differing slightly from the last, until they were diluted into a series of time-honored gestures, long-removed from their original purpose.

Zhongli found birthdays, especially, to be a curious thing.

Though calendars had always been used in one form or another to keep track of the passage of time, the standardization of dates was a more recent development--and as such, almost entirely arbitrary. He had always been fascinated by the mortal compulsion to attribute significance in the absence of meaning.

As money was fiat to value, the calendar was fiat to time.

Still, over the centuries, knowing one’s birthdate became almost as important to a human as knowing their own name. If he was to live among them, he decided, he would need a birthdate of his own--meaninglessness notwithstanding. It was for this reason that any celebration of his ‘birthday’ felt disingenuous...even if his reservations hadn’t stopped Hu Tao from leaving him gifts, regardless.

This year, he’d returned home to an elegantly-wrapped box suspended in a gigantic sculpture of slime condensate. How she managed to fit it through his doorway was beyond him. The stunt was less messy than the prior year’s prank, though--and for that, he was grateful.

Aside from the gelatinous mass holding his gift hostage, the afternoon went much like any other.

He hung up his coat before lighting the kitchen’s wood stove, in preparation for how quick the flame’s warmth would be to fill the room. As he waited for the kettle to boil, he unwrapped the bouquet of Sunrise Violetgrass he’d brought home. He rolled up the sleeves of his dress shirt before setting to work; one by one, he trimmed their stems and lower leaves, placing each manicured stalk in a short vase of cool water, which he would later set by the open window to breathe.

Afterwards, he would tend to the empty birdcages lining the entrance to his balcony. The small collection of enclosures, each varying in style and shape, had been handcrafted from bamboo, their wood panellings adorned with intricate carvings doubling as signatures of their original artisans. The cage doors were kept open, as his birds were free to come and go as they pleased; their continued attraction to his presence was a vestigial magic from his powers of old, one of the few he still let himself take advantage of, if only for the delight of their company.

Typically, he would then spend his afternoon draining his fresh pot of tea one cup at a time, a meditative respite from the day’s cluttered agenda of social engagements. Try as he might to scale back his involvement, he found himself incapable of not keeping a pulse on the city, even if he no longer served as its life support.

Yet, today felt...different, somehow.

He nursed his single serving of tea until the pot ran cold, watching the flowers on his windowsill sway against the backdrop of a darkening sky. Having sensed the change in atmosphere, his birds returned home one by one, the last of them arriving just as the rain began to fall.

He considered continuing with his day as normal, catching up with his pipeline of familiar faces and keeping wary for any news of note. If time allowed, he could even call in a last-minute favour or two--perhaps treat himself to a private dinner at Liuli Pavilion, before attending some long-sold-out evening show of some renowned travelling performer.

The longer his consideration, the less appealing the comfort of his routine became.

A proper birthday celebration was supposed to be out of the ordinary, after all.

He watched as the Sunrises blossomed in the rain.

Perhaps he would try something new, this year.

-

In the eyes of most, the sunshowers seemed to come from out of nowhere; for those few sensitive enough to delicate changes in Liyue's atmosphere, however, the rainfall was all but sudden.

As Zhongli navigated through sunlit sheets of rain, he wondered if he should have been more insistent about you finding lodgings for the night. He’d been hesitant to impose any more than he already had, especially since his late payment had been the reason for your early departure.

Though he knew where you planned to go, actually finding you proved to be more challenging than expected.

Tracking people down was easy when there were traces of elemental signatures to follow, but as you had no Vision of your own, he had to resort to identifying more primitive types of evidence, like trodden foliage and unusual dents in the terrain.

Of course, your trail became much easier to follow once the dirt turned to mud.

Soon enough, he caught the scent of something novel between the rain and dampened earth: the headiness of a campfire, mingled with the sting of something medicinal, yet oddly sweet. The discovery was followed by the sight of a smoke trail in the near distance.

He followed it to its source, and there you were.

You had taken shelter in a shallow cave several minutes off the main road, huddling around a small fire for warmth. By the looks of your still-damp hair, you had gotten caught in the downpour, further evidenced by the sight of your traveling cloak strung up near the fire to dry.

You were in the middle of re-wrapping bandages around one of your wounded hands, weaving the roll around your fingers with the deft ease of practice. The bundle of fabric was heavy with the sweet-medicine scent from earlier, something familiar that he couldn’t quite recognize.

“Pardon me,” he spoke up, ensuring his voice carried over the rain.

You startled, which there was no avoiding.

What he hadn’t expected, however, was the smile of yours that followed.

There was only one reason you would be this happy to see him, he figured. Perhaps it would be better to disappoint you sooner rather than later.

“I could not secure the funds required to compensate you in full,” he said at once.

Your smile faded, and the one that took its place was only half as hearted.

“Right, right--the money,” you chided yourself, half-laughing as you shook your head. “Why else would you be here?”

A rhetorical question that should have been easy enough to ignore, had it not been rendered meaningful by your poorly-concealed disappointment. He found himself at a loss.

Thankfully, so did you. “So, you...came here to tell me you don’t have my money?”

“I came to deliver what I could in time.”

You hadn’t noticed the small bag he was carrying until he held it up in front of himself, causing the delicate sound of glass to clink inside of it.

You didn’t even have to guess.

“No way!” Your face lit up as you scrambled to your feet to meet him at the entrance of the cave. “You walked all this way in the rain to bring me milk?”

“I have made longer journeys in much more inclement weather.”

The response gave you more questions than it did reassurance, but you thought better than to ask.

Having closed the distance between you, you could see him more clearly, his figure illuminated by the dreary glow of the late afternoon storm. What you thought was a trick of the light turned out to be something more: his image was distorted by a translucent layer of blue, a gently glowing corona of shifting water surrounding him in a perfect sphere.

“Are you...making that shield?” you asked.

“Oh. Yes.” He looked around himself, seeming to have forgotten he’d even had it on. “When Geo reacts with an element, a shield of that element is created, guarding the user from its effects. Hydro shields make for a very effective umbrella, among other things.”

“Okay, but...” You hesitated, in fear of sounding rude. You didn’t have a Vision, nor did you spend much time with people who did have Visions, so maybe you were missing something obvious. “Don’t you still get affected by the element you’re making a shield of? Like, you’re...still getting wet in there?”

“Well, yes,” he admitted, “but not as wet as I would be without one.”

Why wouldn’t you just use an umbrella at that point??

“I prefer to keep my hands free.”

“Oh, by the Seven--

You charged out into the rain, rounding him; he offered little resistance as you ushered him and his ridiculous bubble into the shelter of the cave. Without exposure to water, the Hydro shield burst with a small pop. He was damp to the touch.

(Admittedly, not as damp as he would have been without it.)

“You really needn’t worry.” His tone was reassuring but playful, like he was trying not to laugh. “I’ll be fine.”

You clicked your tongue. “Don’t be ridiculous--Vision-holders catch colds, too. How did you even find me all the way out here, anyway?”

“With how quickly the weather turned, I figured you couldn’t have made it very far. If memory serves, I...did offer to find you lodgings for the night.”

“Look, I couldn’t afford to stay in the city,” you grumbled. “Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“...I would have billed the Funeral Parlor for your stay as compensation for the inconvenience. I thought that much was implied.”

“Oh.” You paled. “Hang on...not only did I turn down free room and board, but I also made you feel guilty enough to hand-deliver milk an hour out of town to make up for it?”

“It wasn’t as much trouble as you might imagine. There’s a Waypoint nearby.”

“...and?”

Your response, and subsequent look of confusion, gave him pause. He’d spent so much time traversing Liyue with the Traveller recently, it had slipped his mind that the true function of Waypoints was unbeknownst to most within the realm.

“...I seem to have forgotten the point I was making.”

“...please take better care of yourself.”

“Your concern is appreciated,” he reassured. “Should it ease your worry, I admit my intentions aren’t entirely selfless. I don’t know of any celebratory alcoholic beverages that use milk as an ingredient. I’m quite curious to see what you’ll do.”

“It’s not alcoholic, it’s...” You trailed off, looking unsure of yourself. “How about I just make you some? It’s the least I can do.”

“May I trouble you?”

“Only if it gets you to stay until the rain clears up.”

“Ah, so you do understand what ‘leverage’ means.”

Your face turned red as you took the shopping bag from him. “Just--go hang your coat by the fire.”

Determined not to make a fool of yourself any more than you already had, you focused on preparing the drinks without any complications. You poured the contents of each milk bottle into a small camping kettle, then knelt by the fire and nestled the pot within the heated woodpile, adjacent to the open flame.

You looked up just in time to watch him slide his coat down his shoulders, his movements careful to not let the ends of the garment make contact with the ground. A tailored waistcoat hugged his torso, holding his tie in place, while sleeve garters kept his stark-white dress shirt snug against the hidden sculpt of his arms. As his still-gloved hands relieved himself of the dampened cloak, he breathed a quiet sigh. The sound was uniquely devastating.

He looked at you, noticing your sudden stillness. Droplets of rainwater clung to the ends of his bangs and the dangle of his earring, glinting in the firelight like molten gold.

“Something the matter?”

His question carried no hint of artifice or ridicule. The timbre of his voice, resonant and soothing, served no purpose other than to strike you into a daze.

He was beautiful.

He seemed oblivious to the effect he was having on you--a small mercy, all things considered.

As always, you were quick on your feet.

“That coat has some of the most gorgeous embroidery I have ever seen.”

“You flatter me.” He hung his coat up on the line beside your own. He then folded back the cuffs of his dress shirt, baring the bulk of his forearms.

You felt dizzy.

“I sourced the dyes and fabrics locally,” he continued. “It took me over a year to complete.”

“Wait, wait--you made it?”

“Most of it, yes. A skill I acquired during my travels.”

You watched him round the campfire. “Do you travel lots?”

“I used to. Those days are behind me.” He seated himself across from you, on the opposite side of the fire. “What about yourself? Have you seen much of Teyvat?”

“Not much outside of Mondstadt and Liyue, no. I was planning a trip to Inazuma next year, but...well. No one really knows what’s going on over there right now. Best to play it safe until it all blows over.”

“I’m glad business has been steady enough to sustain you,” he said. “I imagine you face a lot of competition.”

“I did, at first,” you admitted. “Then I narrowed my market down from the general public. I’m mostly working with rural and apprenticing craftsmen, now. It’s hard for them to get access to certain goods without paying a heavy markup or some kind of commission fee…”

“Starsilver is quite the luxury item, regardless of locality. If the Knights of Favonius are considering a revocation of public access, one can only assume expeditions to Dragonspine are growing more treacherous.”

“Only for the unprepared,” you muttered.

“I see.”

You grabbed a dead branch from the floor of the cave and prodded at the kettle in the fire. On one hand, you were surprised he remembered the details of your throwaway comment from earlier; on the other hand, you wondered if he was just trying to interrogate you, again. From the weight of his silence, you sensed he was pressuring you into more of an explanation. His entire being radiated an aura of class and professional certainty, making anything you had to say at this point feel idiotic to admit out loud.

Still, coming clean would save the both of you some time.

“The truth is,” you began, sounding pained, “my regular clients don’t exactly...have a lot of money. I only charge them what they can afford, then I sell my extra stock elsewhere. Once in a while, I need to take commissions or move some big-ticket resources to get out of the red. It’s a lot of number-juggling, trying to break even.”

Just like that, the tension of his unspoken suspicions eased once more. The cycle was starting to put you on edge. You wondered what he thought you had to hide.

“A good samaritan makes for a poor merchant,” he said evenly.

“I said I did this for a living, I never said I was any good at it.” You buried your face behind your folded knees, trying to ignore the heat flooding to your cheeks. “How am I supposed to say no to people I know I can help?”

You gave a particularly discouraged poke of your stick into the embers and glanced over at him in defiance.

To your surprise, he was smiling at you.

“Generosity is a precious virtue,” he started. “I understand your desire to help others, but jeopardizing your well-being will limit your capabilities of doing so. One’s aid is best provided from a place of stability, compared to a place of self-compromise.”

“...I guess I never thought of it that way, before. I’ve spent so much time trying to--” You sat up a bit, looking worried. “H--hang on, is this a consultation? You’re not sending me a bill for this, are you?”

“Free of charge,” he laughed dryly.

“Is this just something you do on the side, then? Pose as a handsome stranger and visit cave-squatting merchants to give them unsolicited business advice?”

He blinked. “You consider me a stranger?”

The fact that was the part he chose to fixate on turned you an even deeper shade of red than before.

“Well...” you began, thinking of ways to get to know him better. “You’re a Funeral Consultant, right? How did you get into that line of work?”

“Wangsheng is not my only client. Many commercial markets and academic disciplines benefit from consultations with a source well-versed in the history of Liyue and her culture.”

“Oooh. So you’re more like a...freelance historian, then?”

“I suppose you could say that, yes.”

“I should’ve figured you were a scholar. I can’t imagine the amount of information you’ve got stored up there...”

“Let’s just say I...have a very good memory.”

“What’s being a Funeral Consultant like, anyway? From what you told me about Violetgrass, I’m guessing you’re in charge of organizing all the specifics?”

“That entails most of it, yes. However, it is more than a possession of knowledge that qualifies one for the position. Being the final point of contact before the deceased is laid to final rest...there is a profound honour in the responsibility that must be embraced in ways not many are readily equipped to handle.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” you said quietly. “Most people don’t even like talking about death, let alone handling all the arrangements...does it ever still bother you? The way it does normal people, I mean.”

“Death and I are...well-acquainted. I have witnessed it as an end to many things.” He studied the fire between you as he spoke. “Regardless of one’s status in life, in death, we are all of us the same--there is comfort in that certainty. Part of my service means not only maintaining a certain composure around death, but also an aptitude in understanding how it affects people in different ways, and utilizing that knowledge to best put the minds and hearts of the greiving at peace. Barring certain rites, funerals are for the living, after all. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Yet another perspective you hadn’t considered. He seemed to have a great number of those.

“Do you think...” You scrunched up your face in thought, trying to find the right words. “Do you think people are more afraid of death itself, or not knowing what comes after?”

“An interesting question.” Folding his arms, he took a moment to gather his thoughts. “Regardless of personal or religious belief, the fact remains that death involves a transition away from the only state of existence we have ever known. As such, people cannot fully understand it…and people will always be afraid of what they cannot understand.” As further thoughts poised at the edge of his breath, he paused again, debating whether to set them forth. “...an old friend once suggested that humankind seeks knowledge in fear of death. She believed that because our days are numbered, we strive to learn what we can about the world around us before our time is over...and that all we do in pursuit of knowledge is driven by this fear of the unknown.”

“...she sounds wise.”

“She was.”

His tone shifted on those words, laden with the same gentle solemnity from earlier that morning.

You realized he had known the cartographer. You realized this ‘old friend’ he now spoke of was another who had passed.

He watched the flames in silence as you watched the firelight dance within his eyes.

How many times had he bore witness to the deaths of those he knew?

“May I ask something personal?” Your voice was carried on bated breath, as if hesitant to reveal a secret that wasn’t yours to share.

You shared a quiet glance and a moment’s uncertainty before he nodded in reply, a tacit understanding that his response wasn’t guaranteed.

Considering the nature of your conversation so far, he suspected he would have a difficult time answering whatever followed. Perhaps you had more questions about these people he once knew. Perhaps you were curious about what he believed happened after death, or maybe if--in spite of all his studies and knowledge and lifelong philosophies--he, too, was afraid of dying.

“If you’re a Funeral Consultant, does that mean you get to plan your own funeral?”

The ice-breaker earned you a soft breath of laughter, as you hoped it would.

(You notice he does not answer the question.)

A sudden bubbling-over of milk startled you into action. Cursing, you wrapped a cloth around the handle of the forgotten pot and removed it from the fire, careful while pouring its steaming contents into a pair of porcelain mugs you’d set out prior. Once that was taken care of, you went digging into your bags.

“My contact from Fontaine traded this to me,” you called over your shoulder. “It’s a new dessert--refined from a plant imported from Natlan, apparently? Real fancy stuff.”

Tucked away inside one of many hidden inner pockets, you found the small drawstring pouch you were searching for. You pulled out a couple of hollow, dark brown orbs from inside of it, each one nearly the size of your palm.

“He called it Kokoe,” you said, holding them up for show. “Have you heard of it?”

“...I have not.”

“That makes two of us, then! This’ll be a treat.”

He recognized your smile from when he first called for your attention over the rain--unconditional and sincere, if only for the delight of his company.

Over the years, he’d treated the connections he made as another form of barter, every relationship built upon a balance of owed favours and potential services rendered; he networked with those worth knowing by first making himself a very useful person to know. He had grown so used to measuring one’s character by their ulterior motives that he failed to realize trying to deduce any of yours was futile. You wanted nothing in return.

It was him you were happy to see.

The realization stirred some long-dormant feeling from within him--something familiar that he couldn’t quite recognize, painful and stinging-sweet.

You dropped a Kokoe orb into each steaming mug of milk before returning to your place by the fire, exaggerating a bow while handing him his serving. “Your drink, my Lord.”

“I am hardly royalty,” he said, accepting your offering.

“Could’ve fooled me. You carry yourself with more certainty than I’ve ever had about anything in my entire life.”

“You simply require more practice.”

As you reseated yourself on the floor of the cave, the hollow orb bobbed around the surface of your drink, melting into nothingness and staining the heated milk a deep brown. The rising fragrance was rich and sweet and wholly unlike anything you’d ever experienced before. You took a sip--

--and burned your tongue.

Hot hot hot hot--”

Granting you the courtesy of pretending not to notice your blunder, he followed suit and took a tentative sip of his own; somehow, it didn’t surprise you that he had a much higher tolerance for the temperature. He looked concerned when he lowered his mug, the knit of his brows drawn together in serious contemplation.

“...quite sweet.”

“Yeah,” you nodded, “but also kind of bitter?”

“True...”

Weird, right?”

You both stared at the cups in your hands before simultaneously raising them to drink more.

You winced as you immediately burned your tongue again.

The two of you sat in companionable silence for a while, listening to the crackle of the laughing fire and the steady pattering of rain. By the time you reached the bottom of your cup, the light of late afternoon had faded into a darkened palette of dusk. A part of you worried about the time you were losing. A part of you never really wanted to leave.

“Sorry for keeping you hostage,” you apologized, the first words spoken between you in a while. “Someone must be worried sick about you by now.”

“I live alone,” he said simply.

“Oh, no--that’s not--” You ran a hand over your mouth to forcibly shut yourself up, but the thought of him being single had already taken root and would not be so easily forgotten. “N--not a partner, necessarily, just...you know, someone who cares about you! Someone who misses you when you’re gone.”

He offered you a gentle smile. “Do you have loved ones of your own back in Mondstadt?”

“Who, me?” You shook your head. “Nah. It’d take ages for anyone to notice if I disappeared. That’s why I can’t let the forest ghosts get me.”

“I see,” he chuckled. “As for myself...well. Suffice it to say I have not seen them in-person for some time.”

You thought back to his friends who had passed, but also got the sense he was speaking of different people, this time. “How come?”

“I hesitate to let them see how far I’ve fallen.”

“Oh,” you whispered. You weren’t sure what kind of answer you were expecting, but that wasn’t one of them. “Do you...think they’d be more disappointed about where you are now than happy to hear about where you’ve been?”

“That is hard to say with certainty.”

You nodded. You didn’t presume to know the complexities of the situation, and you certainly didn’t want to pry, but...

“I hope you get to see them again one day,” you smiled. “I’m sure they miss you, too.”

Though the storm outside was easing, the rapid loss of sunlight and dip in evening temperatures would prevent you from travelling again until the following morning. As exhaustion began to claw at the edges of your consciousness, you tried to remember the last time you stopped doing anything long enough to sleep.

You realized you were not sure when that was.

Getting to your feet, you made your way over to the clothing line you’d strung up by the fire. While you reached to lift your cloak, you glanced at his cloak hung beside it, a picture of formality and exquisite taste contrasting your own plain functionality. Once again, your eyes were drawn to the Vision dangling from its chain, its elemental emblem glowing dimly in the firelight.

“You may hold it if you like,” he said.

You whipped around as if caught red-handed. “N--no, I was just looking.”

“It’s alright,” he beamed. “I insist.”

You looked back towards the Vision. As much as your better judgement urged you to decline, this was the closest you’d ever been to one of these--you’d be lying to yourself if you said you weren’t curious. “Are you sure...?”

“Please. Even if you were to attempt something untoward, you wouldn’t make it very far.”

You shrugged on your travelling cloak, determined it was the cool air and not the veiled threat that sent a gentle thrill down your spine.

Carefully, you took the Vision into your hands and unlatched the chain from his cloak. You found your caution to be misplaced; it was heavier and sturdier than it looked, more reminiscent of a chunk of steel than the jeweled adornment it assumed the guise of.

Transfixed, you sat right where you stood, keeping your back to the cave wall as you slid to sit down near the fire. You ran your thumb over the soft, smooth glass, its near-silken surface unmarred and flawless. You could almost feel the energy radiating from it, both familiar and foreign--it was an aura you felt bare traces of in the world around you every day, condensed into its purest form.

He expected you to ask the story of how he’d gotten it, or what a ‘freelance historian’ like himself would even use such a thing for.

“...do you like it?”

“Pardon?”

“Your Vision,” you clarified. “Do you like it?”

“...I’ve never been asked that before.”

You gave a sheepish little laugh. “Sorry, stupid question.”

“Not stupid, merely unexpected," he said. "It’s akin to asking if I enjoy breathing.”

“It’s...a part of you?”

“For as long as I can remember, yes.”

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard it described that way,” you said, tracing your fingers over its borders of plated gold. “People with Visions usually talk about them like something separate from themselves, l--like a tool, or some kind of conduit. When I was a kid, everyone always had this fantasy of what they’d get, based on their personality. I even know a couple of people who were disappointed with the element they ended up with, can you imagine?”

“Which would you want?” he asked.

Once again, the answer you had for him felt nothing short of inadequate.

“I...I don’t know if I’d want one at all, really,” you confessed. “It would be heresy to reject such a blessing from the gods, but if I had a choice...I don’t know. I feel like it would give my life a new meaning, one I didn’t think it had before. I’ve wasted enough time with that line of thinking.”

“How so?”

“I wanted one growing up, just like anyone else. Holding onto the hope that one day it would appear and whisk me off on my own magical adventure. Enough years pass, you figure out it’s not happening for you. And you learn that if you really want adventure, you need to go looking for it.”

“Is that what drew you to your line of work?”

You opened your mouth to speak, but closed it again with a quiet sigh.

“You know those weird meteorites that showed up last month?” you asked. “The ones that put people to sleep?”

He nodded. “Did you succumb?”

“No, no--I’m superstitious, remember? Rule one is not messing with things I don’t understand. In the end, some other members of the Adventurers’ Guild were the ones who cleaned everything up. Do you know what the fragments ended up being from?”

He remained quiet, which you interpreted as a no.

“The constellation of a man named Leonard, an adventurer who lived three thousand years ago. He designed the first wing gliders trying to reach the summit of some mountain that doesn’t even exist, anymore. I don’t know much about how constellations work, but I hadn’t realized even stories of the Visionless could be written in the stars.”

“Visions acknowledge those the gods deem worthy of wielding their power,” he explained. “Visions themselves do not grant merit. One’s stars are written on their own.”

“But most scholars nowadays have reached the limits of what they can research without access to a Vision,” you continued, exasperated. “Visions are being used to advance technology and production--even battles are being fought more and more differently as time goes on. That mountain Leonard spent his whole life trying to conquer? Someone with a Vision today could’ve scaled it in five minutes, free-climbing.”

“And yet they would still require his glider to reach the ground.”

“True,” you laughed, sounding hollow.. “I guess you only live as long as someone remembers you.”

“History tends to be selective in what it lets survive.” He tilted his head, his gaze on you growing intent. “Are you afraid of being forgotten?”

“...I’m afraid of not being anyone worth remembering.”

“A water droplet cannot see the river it carves into the mountainside. Every life, past and present, shapes the world as we know it. Those whose names are lost to time will live on through their influence. The river may lose sight of its history, but eroded stone will remain irrevocably changed.”

“But am I doing enough?”

“Living is enough.”

The words tore a fracture through your resolve.

You caught sight of his movements in your peripheral vision. He made his way around the campfire until he was in place to kneel in front of you; even then, you didn’t look up from his pendant in your hands, your heart swelling beneath your chest with something like regret.

How cruel of a curse it was to be born in a world full of magic that was not meant for you.

“Is it wrong to want to be remembered?” you asked.

“No,” he said, softly. “It’s human nature.”

He cupped his gloved hands beneath yours, pooling the dangling chain of his Vision in his palms before resting his hands against the back of yours.

His touch made you forget how to breathe.

You didn’t dare meet his eyes, you couldn’t--not while you could feel the intensity of his gaze bearing down from above you, not while he held you so gently with hands so much bigger than your own.

Without warning, the Vision gleamed with a small burst of power, summoning fragments of golden light that coalesced above itself. He plucked the glowing solid from mid-air; taking his Vision back from you, he replaced it with the small Geo construct he created, resting the shard in your still-cupped palms.

“Consider this a gift for your hospitality,” he said. “Should the time come, it will protect you.”

Where the Vision once rested within your hands was now a jagged sliver of some strange mineral you’d never seen before. The fragment radiated its own light, its uneven surface faceted with contrasts of burning yellow against shades of gold so deep they were nearly black. In any other situation, you would have marvelled at not being able to recognize the material, but any questions you thought to ask died within your throat; you felt as if you were being trusted with something secret and precious, something unique that was meant for you and you alone.

This is such a cool rock,” you gaped, the absolute beacon of eloquence you were. “A--are you sure I can have this? You didn’t have to--you don’t have to--”

“Thank you.”

You tore your focus away from the fragment to meet his gaze. “For what?”

He closed his eyes and smiled. “For celebrating with me.”

Though the weight of his words were lost on you, his warmth made your heart leap into your throat.

A kind, genuine confusion made its way across your face, as did a delicate shade of pink. “I--I didn’t do much...”

He rose to his feet and let you go, leaving your hands feeling empty in spite of the talisman now kept between them. Your senses were still flooded with his presence, long after he pulled away; you sheepishly hid your face behind the collar of your travelling cloak, only to realize it must have been hung beside his long enough to catch the ghost of his scent.

With every blink, you found it more and more difficult to open your eyes back up again.

As he reattached his Vision to his still-hanging coat, you thought he may have been preparing to leave--the rain had eased to a trickle, barely enough to spark a Hydro shield should he have chosen to use one. Instead, he left his coat strung up by the fire and sat on the ground beside you, as if placing himself between you and whatever lingered outside in the darkness.

“In Liyue,” he began, “we herald the arrival of our new year in a couple of months, during the Lantern Festival.”

“Oh, that’s right!” you whispered in excitement. “I can’t believe it’s almost that time again...I hope I can make it this year, I haven’t been since I was little. Mostly depends on the jobs I could get, see if I could afford the trip...”

“What if I just so happened to be in need of your services at the time?”

“...are you saying I should be expecting another senior cartographer to die just before the Festival?”

He paused for a moment, touching a hand to his chin and looking thoughtful.

I wasn’t suggesting you consider it!

“I’m sure I can think of something,” he laughed. The sound was music to your ears. “You shared the turn of your new year with me. It would be a privilege to return the favour, if you’ll have me.”

Hidden beneath your cloak, your grasp around the talisman tightened; you clutched it to your chest within the palm of your hand, visualizing the colour of its glow as reminiscent of his eyes from behind the early morning mist.

“As you wish, my Lord.”

“Careful,” he teased. “The more you call me by that title, the more accustomed I may become to hearing it.”

Between the warmth of the fire and the chill in the air, you found yourself already slipping away.

Past experiences taught you that getting your hopes up was a fool’s errand, that expectations were best set low so as not to leave room for disappointment. He was just being polite. You were sure of it. He would vanish into the evening and you would never see him again.

But maybe, for a moment, you could let yourself pretend.

“Sir,” you whispered, fighting away the dredges of your weariness with your last bit of strength. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

He stilled at the dim realization that he hadn’t introduced himself in all this time, that you made the effort to know him before even knowing his name.

“Zhongli,” he finally replied, with no small measure of bewilderment.

“Ah, Lord Zhongli.” You nestled further into the collar of your cloak, burying yourself in the scent of the mountainside. “Promise you won’t forget me, okay?”

“You needn’t worry,” he smiled, watching you drift off to sleep. “I have a very good memory.”