On his way to Liyue Harbor, Venti — in a rough approximation — drinks five bottles of wine, kills a couple dozen slimes, writes three letters to Zhongli, and subsequently throws all of them away. He figures there’s no need to let Zhongli know he’s dropping by for a visit when a: Venti has been swinging by Liyue Harbor regularly for the past six months, so Zhongli should be expecting his presence in general, and b: it’s infinitely more fun to catch dear old Morax off guard by surprising him with a hug from behind.
Usually Venti spends two or three days on the road and another two in Liyue Harbor before heading back to Mondstadt. His budget, because he’s a bard for hire, is… better off not being discussed, and also better off when he’s in Mondstadt, where he can actually, you know. Get hired. But fortunately, also because he’s a bard for hire, and a very cute one at that, he’s had some success charming various inn owners into letting him serenade guests in exchange for free room and board.
Tonight is one of those successes. He’s stopped in a small, red-roofed inn at the base of Mt. Tianheng, perched in a chair next to the stairs and strumming his lyre idly as golden lanterns chase away the long shadows of dusk outside. If the owners are curious about the young-looking, obviously Mondstadtian traveling musician gracing their premises, they don’t ask. The Lantern Rite is coming up soon, after all, and travelers from all over Teyvat are no doubt trickling into Liyue to take part.
Venti’s vague plans for the night were something along the lines of “play music, get drunk”. But whatever he did have planned (debatable, the concept of schedules and Venti were not exactly compatible), he didn’t account for another musician sliding into the chair across from him and effortlessly playing along with their dizi.
“Excuse me,” says Venti, finishing his song with a delicate flourish of strings that would leave any amateur musician weeping. This one just grins cheekily. “I don’t recall asking for a duet?”
“Eh, don’t get so territorial!” The musician says. “I’m passing by and earning my keep by playing for room and board, just like you! Guess the inn owner thought dizi and lyre would sound good together, for some reason.”
They do, and it sparks a half-formed idea in Venti’s head of a musical collaboration with Zhongli because there’s no way a man that good-looking doesn’t play at least three instruments, and he does play like five instruments, he just never agrees to Venti’s duet requests, but. Ahem. Not the point.
“Hm,” says Venti instead, considering. There’s no practical reason not to duet with the musician, and besides, music is best when it’s shared with others. Now that he’s not so startled at being swept into a duet midway through a solo song, he can also acknowledge that the musician’s good. Good enough that if they duet, the owners and guests might enjoy it so much that they give Venti a gift on the house, and that gift might just be wine…
“Let’s duet, then!” Venti continues, entirely more enthusiastic now that there’s a concrete, plausible reward for him in the future. “You can start us off.”
The musician takes them through a light, cheerful northern Liyuen folk song and then a catchy interpretation of what Venti thinks might be an aria from a recent Fontainese opera. In return, Venti enthusiastically plays a sailors’ song from the docks of Liyue Harbor that is barely appropriate for respectable travelers to listen to before segueing into a more traditional festival song to commemorate the Lantern Rite.
As moonlight scatters over the peaks of Mt. Tianheng, Venti breaks away from the playful back-and-forth musical bantering that they’ve settled into and strums out the notes of an ancient lullaby born on the wind, sprung from the cracks in a distant city of stone. He’s long forgotten the lyrics, so instead he hums wordlessly, and wonders if his friend can still hear him.
It’s perhaps a little too melancholic for the festival traveling season, but in all his years, Venti has never had a better song for ending a night. Across from him, the musician puts down her dizi and waits.
“That’s a nice tune,” she says, once Venti has packed away his lyre. “Where’d you learn it from? I haven’t had the pleasure of hearing anything like it during my travels.”
Venti waves his hand casually. “Here and there, ah, you know how it goes. A Mondstadtian taught it to me. Apparently it’s a very old lullaby!” Then, before she can comment on how most traditional Mondstadt melodies have a heavier beat and a more cheerful sound, he says, “That’s a nice dizi. Who taught you to play?”
“Oh!” She twirls the dizi over her fingers and grins as the lacquered charcoal wood catches the flickering lantern light. “It was my dad’s. He’s not dead, he just got a new dizi, and this is literally what he makes me say every time I tell someone where I got my instrument from.”
Venti hums. “Your father sounds like an interesting man.” Only interesting people have pretty instruments, and the flute is, for a lack of better descriptors, a really fucking pretty dizi. Venti can’t help himself! As a musician, he obviously goes nuts over beautiful instruments. It’s like that feeling when he sees Zhongli and thinks I need to climb that man like a tree, except it’s an expertly carved dizi that has clearly been handled with love and care, and if I don’t get one of those for myself I will die.
(Obviously neither of those are going to happen anytime soon, but hey, a vaguely human-like embodiment of wind and a nation’s wishes can hope!)
She rolls her eyes. “Of course he is! He’s my dad, after all. I’ll pass your compliments on to him, though — he carved it himself.”
Now there’s something you don’t see every day. Perhaps this girl comes from a family of artisan crafters? That would explain her proficiency in music and the stunning quality of the flute.
“What’s your name?” Venti says, leaning forward to admire the jade tassel tied to the end of the dizi. “I’m Venti.”
The musician somehow sweeps an elegant, proper bow while still lounging in her chair. “Lan Fengmei, at your service. Let’s make a deal, hm? You seem pretty interested in my dizi, and you’re probably traveling to Liyue Harbor, am I right? Well, I need a travel companion, so if you accompany me the rest of the way to Liyue Harbor, I’ll let you play one song on the dizi. Even if it’s that frankly terrible sailors’ song.”
Venti grins. “Are you sure you wanna include that in the terms of our little contract? What if I really do play it?”
“Hey! I’m only letting you play my dizi once we reach our destination, which happens to be my dad’s house.” Lan Fengmei pauses and hums, pasting a deceptively innocent look on her face. “I mean, you could play that song, but my father might be passing by. Whatever would I do if he saw me being escorted by a man playing such a questionable song? In my panic, I might snatch the dizi from your hands and accidentally break it!”
...There’s no way a musician of Lan Fengmei’s calibre would ever intentionally break her instrument, but also. Venti hates playing dice with fate, or whatever Celestia wants to call it nowadays.
“Fine,” Venti says, huffing. “You have a deal. But I’ll let you know that I am a very respectable person on my way to Liyue Harbor to visit another respectable person! In fact, he is so respectable that he’s well-known as a model for scholarly learning and noble grace!”
“Ooh, do you think I know him?” Lan Fengmei says.
Venti thinks briefly about the possibility of Lan Fengmei (gremlin, mysterious backstory, actually kind of scary) knowing Zhongli (perfect, handsome, learned, kind, powerful, amazing, adorably stubborn, really fun to tease, a wonderful debater — wait, he’s getting sidetracked) and shudders. He is not letting that happen on his watch.
“Haha, I’m sure he’s not that well-known, I mean, he’s really great! Of course he is! But like, he’s just vibing, kind of just laying low, you probably wouldn’t know him…”
Lan Fengmei squints at him. Thankfully, her scarily perceptive gaze is mitigated by her yawning a second later. “Sounds suspicious,” she says. “I’m going to bed, we have a long day on the road tomorrow. Bet you that by the time we reach the outskirts of Liyue Harbor I’ll figure out your mystery guy’s name! Goodnight!”
“Even if you guess correctly, I’m not gonna tell you that,” Venti mutters, but Lan Fengmei has already swept up the stairs in a swirl of indigo robes. He’s left feeling vaguely like he just got picked up by a tornado and spit out a kilometer away, with sticks in his hair and scratches on his nice silk cape.
…And he has to travel with that for the next day? Well. Venti will just think of it as good life experience for dealing with people who can adequately take the flow of a conversation from his hands. Celestia knows he needs more of that, since he’s always much too happy to let Zhongli devolve their conversations into a lecture about the history of wine, or mora production, or rare Liyuen foods.
Besides, the anticipation of seeing Zhongli will be enough to help him endure anything Lan Fengmei might put him through. Ah, the benefits of being in love with someone who, quite literally, is as dependable as rock.
Lan Fengmei wakes Venti up by slamming open the window right above his bed and yelling, “Good morning! Rise and shine, sleeping beauty! Time to get on the road!!”
Venti buries his face into his pillow in an attempt to get rid of all the light and sound. When that doesn’t work, he throws the pillow at the window and misses by several meters, if Lan Fengmei’s laugh is anything to go by.
“It’s like 7 AM, go away,” Venti grumbles.
“Actually, it’s 9:30, and I have a nice free breakfast with some fresh youtiao and apples the inn owners gave me for 100 mora! Don’t tell me you aren’t enticed…”
Venti has no idea how she figured out his weaknesses to piping-hot bread and juicy apples, but. He can think about that at a later date! Right now, he needs to secure that promise of a delicious breakfast.
He stumbles out of the inn and into the blinding sunlight five minutes later. If he used a touch of Anemo to help sweep all his scattered travel supplies into his bag, nobody needs to know, and the delicious youtiao that he’s biting into now can be the reward for his hard work. The apples aren’t half bad, either — they have a satisfying bite to them that gives way to a mild, refreshingly sweet flesh. All in all, Venti supposes that Lan Fengmei can be forgiven for her early-morning-shouting crimes.
That is, until she starts pestering him with endless questions and offers for debates and spontaneous commentary on the scenery and the weather, complete with quotations of what might actually be ancient Liyuen poetry. By the time Lan Fengmei’s stomach starts rumbling and they settle in a shaded meadow for lunch, Venti has been dragged into four separate arguments about the economic fallout from Morax’s ‘death’, what ingredients are in Springvale’s special ratatouille, the forces behind the perpetual storms of Inazuma, and whether he thinks Lan Fengmei could pull off the Tianquan’s signature makeup look.
(“Your face is too round for that sharp makeup! You would be better suited to something more youthful and softer,” Venti says.
“And how do you know so much about makeup?”
“I had a brief stint with Mondstadt’s premier theater company. Don’t underestimate my qualifications, Meimei!”
Lan Fengmei grimaces. “Your sense of humor is so weird, who are you calling meimei? Don’t make puns with my name! I’m probably older than you, anyway. You’re the one who has the youthful face, Wen-didi.”
“Okay, that pun does not work as well as you think it does! Now you’re just misusing the Liyuen transliteration of my name!”
“And? That’s the benefits of linguistics!” Lan Fengmei is shameless enough to wink at him and do finger-guns.
Venti stares at the peak of Mt. Tianheng and wishes for salvation from this trip.)
Lan Fengmei is quickly entering the top 5 list for both the most interesting and most annoying conversation partners that Venti has had. There’s no way she’ll ever replace number 1 for most interesting (Zhongli is, as always, number 1 insofar as Venti’s heart is concerned) but as for most annoying…
Well. If she keeps offering Venti nice food and then subtly flinging out the names of famous, well-mannered Liyuen men who could be Venti’s mysterious friend in an attempt to trip him up, she’ll most definitely solidify her own number 1 position.
“I already told you it isn’t Song Yu!” Venti grumbles. The patch of meadow where they’ve stopped is right near a clearwater stream and a grove of loquat trees. He resists the urge to throw one of their fresh-picked loquats at Lan Fengmei. Besides, she’d probably just snatch it before it could hit her.
“Maybe you were lying! How am I supposed to know?”
“You’re not,” Venti says, imbuing as much finality as he can into his voice.
Lan Fengmei either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. “Here, have some more roast duck,” she says, pushing another skewer into Venti’s hand. “You shot it down, after all. Reap the rewards! So, what about… Fei Xingxia?”
“What, the oldest son of the Fei family? No way! How would a simple Mondstadtian bard know someone like him?”
“Mm, this duck is really good! It would be better with more seasoning… Next time I travel I should bring more chili sauce with me, I ran out last week. Otherwise I’d have shared some with you!” Lan Fengmei tilts her head innocently. “Is it Jiang Yusong?”
“Not a chance in Celestia.”
“Why are there so many famous guys known for being well-mannered in Liyue?” Venti says, popping loquats three at a time into his mouth just to make Lan Fengmei wince. “Also, no.”
Lan Fengmei polishes off a duck wing and shrugs. “It’s a big city! Hey, could it be Wang Lingjie?”
“Isn’t that guy notorious for being an asshole??”
“I’ve heard he’s changed for the better now! He does like, volunteering and stuff, even I’ve heard about it.” Lan Fengmei says, clearly bullshitting her way through her explanation. “Plus, maybe you might think he’s respectable and polite? Who am I to judge other people’s taste?”
Venti snatches the rest of the duck for himself before Lan Fengmei can finish it off. Someone so insufferable doesn’t get the fruit of his labor! “My friend is genuinely respectable and polite! He’s well-read and wise and helpful, and he may be the most stubborn man I’ve ever met but his actions are always kind and gentle and thoughtful and — he’s an honorable person, okay? Don’t insinuate he’s on the same level as Wang Lingjie!”
“Wow, you’re really touchy about this guy, huh?” Lan Fengmei observes, instead of apologizing for besmirching Zhongli’s name like any normal person would do. “What, is this some kind of his-honor-is-my-honor thing? Talk about cutsleeve behavior!”
“What — hey!” Venti sputters. “He’s perfectly capable of defending his honor himself, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m just saying he doesn’t deserve to be compared to Wang Lingjie. No decent person does!”
“Suuure,” Lan Fengmei says.
“Also, what in the world do you mean, cutsleeve behavior?” Venti asks.
Lan Fengmei blinks. “What do you mean? You know, cutsleeve, like how my dads are always acting so cute and in love even after they’ve been married for, like, 13 years? Wait, uh. You don’t know what it means?”
“Archons, I guess it’s really a Liyue-only thing. Okay, I’m about to explain some juicy historical lore to you, so listen up!”
Venti winces. “Please don’t call literal historical events lore.”
“Aish, it’s basically lore, don’t be so picky about it, it’s not like the people from back then are around to mind it anyway!” Lan Fengmei says, packing up their lunch supplies in cheerful ignorance of how there is someone from ‘back then’ helping her prep for the last leg of their journey, only three feet away from her and most definitely minding it. He would pass away if the Mondstadt kids started calling Vennessa’s Rebellion lore.
Then, because Venti likes to be a little shit anyway, he says, “So what’s the backstory behind this special Liyue-only thing?”
“You know Morax, right?” Lan Fengmei says, suddenly. Venti startles, but before he can even try to figure out how Lan Fengmei discovered his real identity, she continues, “I’m sure you do! Everybody knows who Morax is. But what a lot of people don’t know was that… during Liyue’s golden era of peace and prosperity two thousand years ago, he took a male lover clad in the finest green silks, with a laugh like wind tinkling through chimes!”
Venti trips over his feet and has to pretend like there was a protruding root in the paved stone path when Lan Fengmei looks back at him. “I’m okay! Um, aha, please continue, this is all very interesting, haha, Morax and a male lover? Who knew!”
This archon right here, that’s who didn’t know!!! Since when did Morax take lovers, in general?? He always told Venti he was ‘too busy’ to do anything related to love, ever, even when Venti had visited Liyue 2000 years ago and pestered Morax about his horrifying lack of a dating life for a week straight! Morax, he’d said, your nation is literally thriving, all your enemies have been subdued, you have no reason not to fuck around and fall in love. In response, Zhongli had been all Barbatos, get out of my sight and I am not in need of a partner and even if Liyue is peaceful, I must watch over my people, your concern is appreciated but unnecessary.
...Hey, wait a minute. 2000 years ago? Golden era of Liyue? Wait a goddamn minute.
“Well, now you know!” Says Lan Fengmei, thankfully still oblivious to the Realizations crashing over Venti like a stained-glass window caving in on itself. “Anyway, Morax’s lover was as beautiful as the blooming windwheel aster from his homeland, and had a voice that once made Morax shed a tear from joy. One day, Morax had several duties to attend to, but when he tried to get up he realized his lover was sleeping on the edge of his sleeve. Morax was unwilling to wake his lover up, so instead he cut his sleeve to avoid disturbing his lover as he left! And that’s where cutsleeve comes from. Romantic, isn’t it?”
Yeah. Sure. Sure! Haha! Venti’s sure it would be romantic, you know, if he wasn’t literally the quote-unquote male lover that this apparently nationally fucking famous story is talking about!! God. And did Lan Fengmei have to keep calling him Zhongli’s lover? It wasn’t like that at all!!
Like. Okay. Yeah. Okay! So Venti may have swung by Liyue Harbor 2000 years ago, and he may have sung several renditions of Liyuen folk songs that brought tears to Zhongli’s eyes… and he may have crept into Zhongli’s chambers through the window and pestered him until the sleep deprivation caught up with Venti and he fell asleep… and he most definitely woke up with a scrap of a soft, glimmering golden robe beneath him… and he remembers questioning Zhongli about why his sleeve was torn the next day… ah.
Venti realizes what this sounds like. But it is not what it sounds like, not at all! That time — that day, they weren’t lovers! They were never lovers!! Zhongli probably just did it because Venti would have pestered him even more had he been woken up halfway through his nap, not because they were — sleeping together, or whatever ridiculous things Liyuens are coming up with nowadays, and it most definitely was not the sweet, romantic show of devotion that this flowery story is making it out to be.
“Wen-didi? What’s wrong? You look like you ate some moldy Sweet Flowers.” Venti blinks. Oh. His facial expressions are changing without his permission? That… probably isn’t good?
Venti doesn’t even have the mental capacity to complain about the stupid, linguistically inaccurate nickname. “I’m fine!!” He says. Maybe if he says that enough times, Celestia will manifest actual sanity for him. “Totally fine. Just peachy. I was just, ah, surprised? It’s a very… very nice story.”
It would have been nicer had it actually meant everything that Lan Fengmei’s rendition makes it out mean, but, well. Between him and Zhongli, it’s surprisingly Venti who has the better memory (which often leads to Zhongli worrying about erosion, but it’s really just because there’s so much random information about economics and history and politics and diplomacy in that brain of his that he has no more room to fit 3000 years’ worth of memories,) and his memories aren’t wrong.
Zhongli never — Zhongli never felt that way. Anyway, Venti’s not going to let one inaccurate myth bother him. He won’t. He won’t.
Lan Fengmei’s eyes glitter with golden flecks of mischief and malevolence. “So romantic, ah, Morax truly has a large and kind heart!” She says, pretending to swoon. “Even now, as we move forward as a nation without a god, his legacy still touches all corners of Liyue. Isn’t it lovely?”
“Sure, yes, yep, very lovely.”
“Actually, you kind of remind me of the description of Morax’s lover,” Lan Fengmei notes casually. Venti doesn’t trip over his feet this time — he trips over a stray pebble. “You’re Mondstadtian, and also — no offense, but you’re, like… really green. And your voice is definitely beautiful, though I don’t know about making Morax shed a tear?”
“If only you knew,” Venti mutters.
“Nothing, carry on explaining why you think I’m just like Morax’s now-dead lover!”
“I’m only saying that there are some similarities! Besides, it’s such an old tale, who knows if it’s accurate or not? But it really is so romantic. One day, I want a wife who would cut her sleeve for me too!”
Venti sighs. “You know what? I’ll drink to that.” And he will, once he gets to Zhongli’s place later tonight and immediately drowns his woes in the secret stash of dandelion wine that he found in the guest room two months ago so that he doesn’t have to face Zhongli while he’s still emotionally vulnerable.
“Soooo?” Lan Fengmei says, twirling around so she can peer into Venti’s face. Venti will admit her persistence is legendary, as is her capacity to raise Venti’s stress levels by double digits. “Are you cutsleeves with your mystery man?”
Mondstadt City’s library is big, but there’s no guidebook on How To Tell Someone You Met 15 Hours Ago That You Are The Original Cutsleeves (But Not In A Romantic Way), not even in Lisa’s private reading room. Nor is there a guidebook on How To Convince Someone That You Aren’t In Love With Your Friend When You Really, Truly, Unfortunately Are. Venti sighs and resigns himself to being pestered for another three hours.
It only takes two hours and a handful of minutes to reach Lan Fengmei’s home, since she lives in the northwestern outskirts of the city, a rustic semi-agricultural area dotted with wooden houses that have chickens running over the cabbages growing in the front yard. Lan Fengmei stops just outside her home under a blooming magnolia tree and gives Venti her dizi. “Thanks for traveling with me! As agreed, you can play any song you want with this!” She says.
The weight of the dizi is comfortable, almost familiar in Venti’s hands. Even if he didn’t know how to play, he probably could figure it out after a few rounds of trial and error, but this is actually one of two Liyuen instruments that he does know how to play, courtesy of Zhongli’s instruction.
(And yet Zhongli still won’t duet with him!! Tch.)
Venti lifts the dizi to his mouth and lets his fingers flutter over its sleek length. He plays the first song that comes to mind, a song whose roots have grown deep into the ground and woven themselves around the soil that gives, nurtured by the warm spring winds. It’s a soft, lilting melody but it makes Venti’s chest ache with a muted melancholy.
The phrasing is Liyuen, but the trills and the transitions are undeniably Mondstadtian in how easy they are to embellish and improvise, the notes freely dancing off the end of his dizi. The base of the song is steady, gentle, an unchanging cadence that rests like bedrock under the melody. Venti plays it, and thinks of Zhongli. Venti plays it, and if he lets his mind slip away, he can almost remember a similar day, when he had dozed off in someone’s lap humming this song, and dreamed of that person singing it back to him as their hand caressed his hair.
Oh, Zhongli. Of course it always circles back to him. Now that he thinks about it, Venti really did compose this piece with the two of them in mind. He’d been scribbling the sheet music in the margins of his brain and whistling scraps of the song as he rode favorable winds to Liyue Harbor, thinking of how nice it would be if Zhongli liked it, because then it meant Zhongli liked the concept of the two of them together in sonic harmony. Or at least it did in his delusional little musician’s brain.
Even back then, Venti… ah, it had always been Zhongli. Only him. How could there be anyone else?
Venti lowers the dizi from his mouth in a daze and barely acknowledges Lan Fengmei’s dramatic (but appreciative) applause. Perhaps the cutsleeve legend affected him more than he’s inclined to acknowledge. Now he’s thinking of wild, impossible things, like Zhongli feeling the same way, like the depth of Zhongli’s love being so great that he would cut his robe for Venti’s sake, like —
Zhongli’s soft, travel-weary voice calling his name in a pleasant shade of surprise, the sound trickling down Venti’s spine like molten fool’s gold. “Venti? Is that you?”
Just like that.
Venti turns, and the wind blows a gust of magnolia petals with him. At the bend in the road up ahead, Zhongli stands, accompanied by Lumine and Yanfei and an elegant-looking, blue-haired young man.
“Oh,” Zhongli says, mirroring Venti’s thoughts. He reaches out one hand to catch a sunrise pink petal, the edges fading into a pure white that glimmers bright against the black silk of his glove. “It is you.”
Venti’s heart skips two beats. The first is because Zhongli tends to have that sort of arrhythmic effect on Venti’s physiology, and the second is because Lan Fengmei’s head shoots up like she’s some kind of twisted alarm system before she says, “Oh my archons, is that Zhongli-xiansheng?!”
Zhongli stills. “...Lan-guniang,” he says, doing a funny, stiff little bow in her general direction.
Oh, wow. That’s his I-do-not-want-to-be-seeing-this-person-right-now bow. If Venti weren’t so busy having an aneurysm because apparently Lan Fengmei and Zhongli know each other, he would be cracking up. Two of the people who seem to annoy Zhongli the most, meeting each other by chance! What are the oods, huh?
“Zhongli-xiansheng!!” Lan Fengmei says again. Her face undergoes several… interesting changes before it settles on something that instills a primal fear into Venti’s very being. “Oh my archons,” she gasps, loudly. “Venti!! I can’t believe you didn’t tell me Zhongli-xiansheng is the guy you’re cutsleeves with!!”
Venti stares at Zhongli. Zhongli’s jaw slackens. He blinks a few times before affixing his gaze somewhere close to Celestia as if he can’t bear to look at Venti. Lumine tilts her head and nods like she’s thinking, yeah, that checks out. Yanfei claps her hands and exclaims, “Congrats on the boyfriend, xiansheng!” The young man hides his smile behind his sleeve, but gives a subtle thumbs up to Venti anyway.
Lan Fengmei, obviously relishing in the chaos she has unleashed, just beams. “Aww, you should have just told me! Out of all the, hmm, what was it that you said your friend was? Well-read, wise, helpful, kind, gentle, thoughtful, and honorable gentlemen in Liyue, Zhongli-xiansheng is definitely the best. Nice going, Venti!”
Venti whirls around. “Lan Fengmei,” he says slowly, cursing her existence to any merciful deity who is looking over Venti right now. “I am going to break your dizi in half.”
“Hey, hey, wait a second, Venti, don’t do that, I’m sorry — “ Lan Fengmei lunges for the flute, but Venti sidesteps her attempt, his eyes never leaving Zhongli.
For a moment, it seems as though Zhongli’s figure is as raw and fragile as cor lapis shards in the shell of their ore, cut in shimmering stillness against the sharp noon sun.
Then the fabric of the world twists and Zhongli is gone, leaving only a whirl of dust in his footsteps.
That stupid man — I swear to the archons! Wait, Venti is an archon. Either way, he cannot believe Zhongli teleported away just like that. Teleporting away from problems is supposed to be Venti’s thing! How bold of Zhongli to steal Venti’s techniques like that!
“What — where did Zhongli go?” Lan Fengmei sputters. Lumine shrugs and teleports away too, evidently having decided that whatever’s going on isn’t worth her time. Yanfei makes an apologetic wince as if to say, sorry, Zhongli isn’t usually like that, before she takes her leave with the young man in tow. “Hey, where’s everyone going??”
Well, at least now Venti has a proper excuse to confront Zhongli over the whole cutsleeve debacle. He should probably thank Lan Fengmei for that. Without this, he would have stuck to his original plan of faking selective amnesia to that one specific part of Liyuen mythology and never bringing it up with Zhongli, ever.
Venti presses the dizi into Lan Fengmei’s hands and mentally shakes himself down, gathering his fleeing emotional courage for a proper talk with Zhongli. “Here, take this. I have to go deal with…” he waves his hand at where Zhongli was standing 30 seconds ago. “All of that.”
“Hmph, fine, but you have to come back later and explain just what’s going on to me. You can’t leave me hanging like this!”
“Sure, sure, right, I will! By the way, tell your dad his dizi is great, 10/10 experience, would play it again no questions asked, thanks for the experience.” Venti barely manages to do an acceptable bow towards Lan Fengmei before he takes off down the dirt road. “Okay, gotta go, bye!!”
“If you don’t come tell me, I’m going to go to you guys and pester Zhongli-xiansheng until he fesses up about everything! Just remember that!” Lan Fengmei yells at his back.
Venti sends her a thumbs up and waits until he’s sure he’s passed beyond Lan Fengmei’s line of sight before he teleports to the southern commerce district of Liyue Harbor. Despite that whole faking-death-out-of-nowhere occasion, Zhongli is still largely predictable, at least to Venti. There are only so many places that Zhongli will go when he feels shaken. Even if they’re scattered all over Liyue, Venti isn’t about to let a little thing like over-teleportation nausea stop him from setting the record straight with Zhongli.
Venti finds Zhongli at Yujing Terrace, tucked away in a secluded pavilion. There’s a scroll in his lap, but Zhongli is staring at the rustling leaves of grass outside the window, his posture stiff and muted.
It brings back the spectre of that day 2000 years ago. Venti wonders if Zhongli came here because of that, to sit where the legend originated and surround himself in the past.
Venti knocks on the frame of the open window and slips through it once Zhongli looks up. He means to make it lithe and graceful, but he wobbles on the landing and groans. That over-teleportation nausea really does hit him at the worst of times.
Zhongli’s lips thin. “Barbatos,” he says. “Are you drunk right now?”
“No,” Venti responds, skirting the soft edges of sunlight on the floor. Right now, with this pale shadow of who Zhongli normally is, honesty is the best policy. “I just teleported a few too many times trying to find you.”
“Ah.” Zhongli rolls up his scroll and pauses. “You shouldn’t have strained yourself like that. It’s dangerous.”
Venti can’t help but laugh softly. Even when he’s obviously shaken and withdrawn, Zhongli is still scolding him, just like a mother hen. “Hey, I couldn’t let you steal my thing. Or are you the one who runs away now, and I the one who comes to find you?” He means it to tease, mostly, to lighten the heavy, emotionally-charged air, but —
“If you’re here to make fun of me, I…” Zhongli glances down. His eyelashes cast gentle shadows on the slope of his cheeks. Venti’s fingers twitch with the urge to reach out and touch. “Please stop. I’m not in the mood for your antics right now.”
Venti sputters. “What — what makes you think I’m here to laugh at you?? I’m just here to talk, I swear.”
Zhongli gives him a strange look, but he doesn’t object when Venti slides onto the bench next to him.
“Lan Fengmei told me about the origins of the, ah. The cutsleeve legend. It’s, um. A nice legend. Really.”
“What do you want, Venti?” Zhongli sighs. At least he isn’t calling him ‘Barbatos’ anymore.
“I told you, I want to talk. About the legend.” Venti leans towards Zhongli. Zhongli’s fingers curl around the edge of the bench. “Did you — did you know people were using it as some kind of flowery ancient slang for being gay??”
Zhongli looks away, but he can’t lie to Venti. “...Yes. And you, as well. Did you know people in Mondstadt use ‘to share dandelion wine with’ as a descriptor with the same purpose as ‘cutsleeve’?”
“What the fuck,” Venti blurts out. Well! There goes the last dregs of his sanity. He’ll miss the good times he had while sleeping for 100 years straight and getting drunk off his ass on the rooftop of Dawn Winery. “Hey, okay, I — who even told you that??”
“We had a Mondstadtian customer just a few days ago. His father was from Liyue, so he came to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor for his father’s burial rites. His other father came with him, and we wound up discussing regional slang.” Zhongli visibly restrains himself from launching into a mini-lecture on interesting regional divergences in Teyvatian slang and murmurs, “You, ah… perhaps you should not have shared that dandelion wine with me after all.”
What the fuck. It isn’t enough that Zhongli knows that stupid legend that puts Venti’s… feelings on display for everyone to use at their own pleasure? Now Zhongli is — Zhongli is saying he shouldn’t have done it, shouldn’t have shown his feelings like that, shouldn’t have fallen in love with him —
“What do you mean?” Venti rasps.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t want that to be your legacy. A legend giving rise to a descriptor based on a love within the legend that you never truly felt?” Zhongli gives a rueful laugh, as if he hasn’t just torn down the building blocks of Venti’s world with one sentence. All his assumptions of Zhongli being this wise, intelligent, perceptive man — gone. No! Zhongli is so dumb. A love that Venti never truly felt?? He has no fucking idea how much Venti truly feels for him!!
“You are Barbatos,” Zhongli continues. “You’ve done so much for Mondstadt, and though you never wish to take credit for your actions, I still believe your people should remember you for what you have done, instead of what you have never felt for me.”
Venti takes a breath and steels himself. This is going to be either the most stupid or most courageous thing that he’s ever done, but… in Mondstadt, the saying goes: you can only fly when you believe the wind will catch you if you jump. Venti has to believe. It just so happens that he is the wind in question, but, ah. Details. Self-reliance is the new rage right now, anyway!
“Why do you think the feelings in that legend aren’t real?” Venti says.
“You are Barbatos,” Zhongli says again, like that explains anything. “You are free, and lively, and raucous, and dazzling. The wind is fleeting, and the storms are heavy. I am Morax. I… I cannot let myself believe. I cannot be shaken.”
“No, you’re not. I’m Venti, and you’re Zhongli.” Venti’s hands are shaking, but he inches closer to Zhongli and lets their pinkies brush. Zhongli’s breath hitches. His earlobes flush pink. He… doesn’t move away. Hmmm, Venti thinks, idly wondering if internal combustion is biologically possible for gods. “And don’t you know? The wind brings storms that nourish the earth every spring. It may be unpredictable, but… it won’t ever leave your side.”
For a self-professed bard, Venti’s command of metaphors right now is laughably shoddy. Even Six-Fingered Jose would shake his head at it. But it gets Zhongli to look right at him, adorably wide-eyed and surprised, and Venti is too in love to care about the artistic merit of his words anymore.
“Your cutsleeve legend… I’m in no place to tell you awhat your feelings are. But as for me — isn’t it obvious just from listening to that legend, what my feelings are?” Venti twines his fingers with Zhongli’s hand and squeezes, once, enough to let Zhongli know that he’s here and he means it, that he will love Zhongli with every drop of his stolen heart if Zhongli allows him to. “In this world, there is nobody else I would want to share dandelion wine with. No one but you.”
Incredibly, impossibly, Zhongli squeezes back. His shaky exhale flutters against Venti’s cheek. In the shadow of the pavilion’s eaves, his smile is devastatingly soft. There are shooting stars playing in his eyes, golden specks of pollen dusting the crinkles of his smile.
“Then, is it not also obvious what my feelings are? You listened to my side of the legend. Venti, my love, who else would I willingly ruin my robes for, if not you? No one but you,” Zhongli echoes, bringing Venti’s hand up and kissing the knuckles reverently. That — that is — what the hell!! Who allowed Zhongli to be so romantic and embarrassing and, and… Zhongli’s lips brush the inside of Venti’s wrist. “I promise. My heart is yours.”
Venti makes an incomprehensible screeching noise and lets his head fall forward onto Zhongli’s shoulder. “I’m here trying to figure out whether you loved me or if people were just exaggerating those legends, and trying to explain away that stupid dandelion wine myth, and you just — you just say these sweet words! Unbelievable! Zhongliii, baobei, you ruin me!”
Zhongli frowns. “They are sincere,” he says. “Why shouldn’t I say them?”
“That is so not the point,” Venti says.
“What is your point?” Zhongli responds.
Zhongli is stroking his back absentmindedly and letting Venti invade his personal space with a satisfied noise. Venti very quickly decides that explaining the vague and amorphous point to Zhongli isn’t worth the effort. Besides, he’d rather sit here in Zhongli’s embrace and acclimate himself to the fact that Zhongli wants him, that Zhongli loves him, that he can have this now. That it’s been his for two thousand years.
Venti grins to himself and says, “I just want something appropriately romantic and swoon-worthy to say! Like, something that sounds like it could come out of a Fontainese opera! You know, ‘you can have me for eternity’, or ‘one smile from you is enough for me’, or — ooh, what about ‘with you, I’ll have no more worries left in my life’ — “
“Hmm,” Zhongli hums, catching one of his braids in his hands and kissing the tip. He looks up at Venti with something very close to mischief in his eyes. Ah, Venti may really be a bad influence on Zhongli, but when Zhongli is looking at him like that… he’s helpless to do anything but smile. “What about, would you like to share some dandelion wine with me?”
Venti throws his head back and laughs, free and unbridled. Zhongli watches him with fondness brimming in the curves of his smile.
“I would love to,” Venti says, curling his hands in Zhongli’s hair and tugging him close. “So, would you like to cut your sleeve for me, darling?”
Zhongli leans in and kisses him, letting Venti’s giggles weave between them like the formation of a new legend.