What? Childe thought. He moved his muscles. Tried to feel his limbs. Nothing. His body felt so light. Almost weightless.
What? Childe thought again. He carefully - and very very slowly - peered down at his body.
Instead of a pair of arms and legs, all Childe saw was a floating blue wispy spherical creature. It took him seconds to realize the floating blue wispy spherical creature was him. Then he heard faint flaps. Childe shook his body only to realize a pair of tiny ears were attached to him.
What. The. Fuck.
Childe stood. Or to be precise, Childe floated, circling the same spot repeatedly until he finally ceased his movement; the motion made him dizzy and unsteady.
His chest hammered and his thoughts muddled. The last thing Childe remembered was going to bed alone and now he woke up looking like this. He had no whatsoever prior memory of what could cause this.
Was he poisoned? Or--... Wait.
Childe looked down at this body again.
A Seelie. He was a light blue-colored Seelie. Childe had seen Seelies more often than not lately, people adopting the little creatures and having them as companions.
Creatures that carried souls of the past; sometimes depicted as bygones remnants that hid precious wisdom.
Though, mostly now they often accompanied treasure hunters, offering naught but little rewards.
Then why am I a Seelie? Childe panicked. He looked at the surroundings. Vast green plain, trees stood tall, glaze lilies dotting the greenery, hills protruding the sky - no, that's impossible.
He was supposed to be in Snezhnaya.
Yet Childe knew where he was. He would know the idyllic landscape of Liyue anywhere even when he’d left Liyue behind seven years ago.
Painful memories tucked away. Things Childe chose to forget but failed miserably as he continued to serve the Tsaritsa.
(Feelings that wouldn't ebb)
Why here? Why as a Seelie?
Childe's little form slumped on the ground slowly. His ears drooped. His tiny shape felt as if it was melting, becoming one with the earth.
Childe pondered: how could he revert to normal? What if all this was just a dream? Childe rolled on the ground, smacked his little body against the hard surface.
Childe hissed. His Seelie form made no sound to acknowledge the pain. That hurt.
This was not a dream. He was stuck in this helpless petite body. The surge of panic overwhelmed him and Childe--
The harbinger felt fingers touching him in mild curiosity. The voice was deep. Smooth. Almost too familiar. Childe quickly turned around, attempting to assess the stranger.
His breaths hitched. Though this tiny body still made no sound.
Childe stared at the man before him. As brilliant and beautiful as he remembered; eyes soft and gentle smile, and hands warm like embers from flame.
Zhongli crouched, trying to make himself appear non-threatening as he continued to smile at Childe. No. At the Seelie.
He wasn't in his formal uniform, opting instead to wear a long brown tunic with a high and round collar and gray trousers. Zhongli braided his long hair.
"Forgive me, I wouldn't have bothered you, little one, but you seemed… distressed." Zhongli touched Childe's Seelie body again with only two fingers. His soft smile did not dim.
Childe could only stare at the man in awe.
His beloved, once upon a time. Until Childe finally realized the ugly truth; used and deceived by this very man.
In retaliation, Childe left without bidding farewell. No more words needed to be exchanged. Childe mended his heart, gripped his hydro arsenals, and life continued.
The former Geo Lord barely crossed his mind until he eventually became nothing but a fleeting breeze. A voice in the wind.
Now, a ghost from Childe's past was before him and all Childe could feel was anger. It coalesced with painful fierce longing.
Childe quickly sped towards Zhongli, wanting to headbutt him if nothing else - just to show his frustration.
But Zhongli easily captured Childe in his palms and stared at the Seelie, bemused.
In truth, Childe knew he was as harmful as a newborn kitten and this form couldn't produce any growls or snarls or hisses. Still, Childe was stubborn and so he struggled in the hold.
"It's all right. Calm down, I won't hurt you," Zhongli promised. He used his thumbs to caress Childe.
(And maybe Childe calmed down a bit but he wouldn't admit it out loud. Not even to himself)
It was ridiculous how Seelies didn't have tiny fangs. Childe would love nothing else but to bite these intrusive fingers.
"Bàba, what's that?" A young voice asked. Childe peeked from Zhongli's hands, noting a child running eagerly towards Zhongli. He finally stood beside Zhongli, glancing at the Seelie in Zhongli's hands.
Bàba. Childe's eyes narrowed. He heard that word around Liyue before. Bàba. Childe mentally repeated the word, again and again, unmindful of the soft exchange between Zhongli and the little boy.
Father, Childe thought.
Childe's heart lurched. Ah. Of course, Zhongli would move on. He would find someone else, would start a family with someone else.
Childe was not hurt by this. He was not. Childe was the eleventh harbinger. One of Tsaritsa's most loyal pawns. That was more than enough.It was enough.
The Seelie still took the opportunity to study Zhongli's son. His petite body turned from side to side, almost flickering in Zhongli's hands. He ignored the former Archon's faint chuckle.
He could see Zhongli in this boy. He had Zhongli's eyes and his nose. His face was small but sharp, his mop orange hair fell all over the crown of his head (was his mother someone not from Liyue?). He wore a little mischievous glint as he talked to Zhongli.
So young. Maybe the boy was only five or six years old.
Just like Zhongli, there was precious stardust living in the boy's eyes. The little boy smiled and Childe realized that the smile was another feature he inherited from Zhongli.
Childe didn't know why he was warmed by that.
He was supposed to be furious. He was supposed to be worried.
"Ying-er, why don't you pat this little one, hmm? Maybe it'll calm down if it's you," Zhongli softly said.
Childe would have blinked if he could. He kept still though. Suddenly curious to see what Zhongli's son would do.
Ying quickly glanced at Childe, poking at the Seelie’s ears. Childe flickered. Again. Was that… was that a normal reaction for a Seelie?
Thoughts swirled for a moment but they ceased when Ying laughed as he gingerly patted Childe.
Childe glanced up at him. Heart ached. Warmth. Tender.
It felt fulfilling to hear the boy laugh.
"Bàba, I think this Seelie is shy!"
"Is it?" Zhongli prodded playfully. He removed one of his hands from Childe and put it on his son's head, leaning closer to kiss the side of Ying's head.
The same ache returned. Childe watched the father and son interact quietly. He was envious of the mother. Of Zhongli's wife. The thought worried him.
"Let's bring this Seelie home with us, bàba. Please? I've always wanted a Seelie as a friend!"
"We can't simply take it with us. Maybe it wishes to stay here." There was a peculiar tone in Zhongli’s voice as his eyes shifted to Childe. Almost unsure.
"Oh," Ying said in a small voice. He looked at Childe and Childe looked back at him. The boy's eyes were downcast. Glum.
The harbinger sighed.
Childe hated seeing children sad.
"--and this is my room!" Ying pushed the door open and nudged Childe into his room. The Seelie floated slowly into the room, scrutinizing the chamber. Hie ears perked up in interest. It was cozy and warm.
Zhongli and his family lived in a small Liyuen cottage overlooking the sea. It stood alone, a little bit far from the bustling noise. Childe could almost hear the sound of the sea resonating from the walls. Serene and welcoming.
The cottage was enough to house perhaps two people. Childe looked around earlier, noticing the absence of Zhongli's wife, and wondered if she was somewhere else.
She would return soon. And Childe would finally see the woman Zhongli had chosen to be by his side.
"You don't like it here?" Ying asked the Seelie. Childe glanced at the boy.
The harbinger hesitated for a moment but eventually, he spun around comically, his ears flapping. Ying laughed endearingly. Childe stopped at the sound and knew he would have let out a pleased smile if he was in his human body.
Ying was watching him happily, sitting on his single bed. There were drawings of Ying and Zhongli on the walls. The kind of arts little kids would produce.
There were no, however, paintings of Ying's mother. Odd.
Childe hovered closer to the drawings. He heard Ying gasp.
"I made those! Bàba helped sometimes! He asked me why I don't draw anyone else but that's because I love bàba the most and I want to be with bàba forever and ever!" Ying excitedly prattled on.
(Childe wondered if the boy knew what his father was)
Ying lazily hopped on the bed. Tiny legs jumped up and down on the mattress but those amber eyes followed Childe's every movement. Ying smiled. His gaze wandered to the drawings.
"I wanted to draw my other fùqīn but I don't know what he looks like. I asked bàba about him before but he just looked sad. I don't like it when bàba is sad so I don't ask again," Ying explained solemnly.
His hopping stopped. He threw his weight on the bed, lying down with his head on the pillow.
Childe pondered. What. Fùqīn? Father. What other father?
Ying waved at Childe, smiling. He patted at his chest, signaling for Childe to rest there. The Fatui acquiesced. He hesitantly perched on the boy's chest, rolling once, twice, until his body became almost a formless blob.
He eased his heart. He could worry later. Now, he was tired.
"What's your name, mister Seelie?" Ying asked. Childe couldn’t answer. He doubted the boy was waiting for an answer, as well.
Ying hummed. Childe heard the continuous rustling from the kitchen. Zhongli was there.
"Maybe I'll name you Lán. Is that okay?"
Blue. Childe wanted to smile. What a silly boy.
Ying continued talking. Tales of his life growing up. He told tales of Zhongli gardening, cooking, and reading. How Zhongli was in love with the simplicity of his life.
The child was brilliantly intelligent. Young. But sharp. He had his father's nature.
Ying spoke of many things but never of his mother.
Childe wondered if Zhongli was a single parent.
Zhongli was definitely a single parent.
Childe ignored the bubbly joy resonating inside him.
"Bàba! Teach me how to write Lán!" Ying sat down on the floor. He held the Xuān brush tightly, the white scroll unfolded on the desk before the boy. A bottle of black ink was placed neatly next to the scroll.
Childe sank on the desk next to Ying. He had been in this form for two days and still, he couldn't find a solution to cure himself.
Zhongli smiled at his son as he put his teacup properly on the low table. He moved towards his son and sat next to him.
"First, hold your brush properly. Yes. Like that, very good."
Ying beamed at his father. Proud of the little achievement. Childe watched the interaction. His heart swelled. It felt full.
He didn't know why.
"Lán has thirteen strokes," Zhongli began. He held his son's hand in his and carefully guided the boy. He dipped the brush into the bottle and carefully hovered it above the paper.
"We'll begin with héng, then - slowly - shù, shù, shù and--"
"Shù again!" Ying drew a short vertical line.
"Well done," Zhongli praised his son again. "What is next?"
"Piě, héng, and then diǎn…" Ying murmured.
The soft pitter-patter outside against the roof was calming. Childe watched the father and son. He imagined himself there in the middle, between them.
His arms, broad and tender around Zhongli's shoulder and Ying's back, keeping them safe and protected, enjoying the oozing warmth spilling like the sun's ichor. Searing but never burning.
It was too good to be true. This wasn't his place. Zhongli was a memory of a bygone adoration.
Childe entered the wrong chamber and caught Zhongli changing his clothes.
Childe almost choked from shame.
But he did note that Zhongli's waist was as slender as before.
Childe felt shame enveloped him again. The Seelie flew away, almost like a scolded child. His ears drooped.
On the fourth day, nothing changed.
Childe was still a Seelie. He didn't know where to begin to look for help. It was unnerving. In this shape, he was too exposed and vulnerable.
It wasn't as if Childe could just talk to anyone.
He felt a poke. Childe stole a glance at Zhongli. The other was watching him. His eyes were kind.
Zhongli had changed. He wore his heart so easily now.
Childe flickered. He floated close to Zhongli as the man passed the markets. Not much had changed in Liyue.
Childe would admit he was more than surprised when Zhongli merely looked instead of buying everything in bulks like he usually did in the past.
He has a son now, Childe told himself. Zhongli couldn't afford to be mindless with his purchases anymore. He only bought what he needed even though he still kept his job as a consultant.
Zhongli did, though, buy a skewer of fried radish balls, taking a slow bite occasionally. When he was finished, Zhongli split the skewer in half, wrapped it in a napkin, and put it in his back pocket.
"No littering," Zhongli playfully mentioned to the Seelie.
Childe wanted to grin so bad.
"Ying-er loves seafood soup. Truthfully, the boy adores anything seafood-related and I blame his father for that. It can be harrowing, especially when I have an aversion to seafood." Zhongli chuckled.
Childe's heart fluttered. He flew closer and closer until he was finally nestled on Zhongli's head. His tiny ears perked up. Zhongli gave him a soft pat. Childe slumped, relaxed. He flickered.
Zhongli seemed to find that endearing.
I blame his father for that.
"Perhaps I should prepare Adeptus' Temptation tonight. Unfortunately, it'll never be as remarkable as Xiangling's but one should be proud of their final product regardless, don't you think?"
Zhongli patted him again.
Of course, Childe wanted to say. He moved from Zhongli's head and draped on Zhongli's shoulder. The other didn't seem surprised to see him moving about.
Zhongli welcomed it. He talked about tonight's recipes. His voice was soothing. A stable tempo. One thing that didn't change at all. Zhongli always spoke firmly.
Childe wavered. He gazed at Zhongli. The other didn't return the look. He merely sauntered without stopping.
"Lán," Zhongli said again. His eyes were downcast now. Childe's heart thundered. Zhongli was… melancholic.
No. Childe refused to allow that. Zhongli should never wear such a solemn look. Zhongli was happy now. He had a son. A home. A life that he constructed with his two hands.
A joy that was dear to his heart. He had everything that Childe didn't have. Childe refused to allow Zhongli to be sorrowful.
The Seelie fluttered close to Zhongli's face and nuzzled himself against Zhongli's cheek in a feeble attempt to lighten up Zhongli's mood.
It worked miraculously.
Zhongli was chuckling. His misery was forgotten.
"Whatever that was for, little one?" Zhongli patted him. "Though I can never hope to fathom Seelies truly, I appreciate your companionship nonetheless, Lán. However, I must admit, you are different." A melodious hum passed Zhongli's lips. "You've always been different."
Childe hid the clinging fondness.
They picked Ying up from Madame Ping's place.
The woman was frail and old but her gaze was indescribable and steadfast when she stared at Childe.
Ying was hurting.
Ying was hurting and Childe felt a disastrous pain in his heart. He hovered in a circle over Zhongli's head as the former Archon tended to the wound on his son's knee. Concern gripped the Seelie, his ears flapping about.
"Bàba…" Ying hiccuped.
"Hush, Ying-er. It is a small wound. Your fear is unnecessary. I am here. You are safe. Whatever pain it is, I will make it disappear. I promise," Zhongli calmed his weeping child. He wiped the boy's tears gently.
Zhongli put the bandage gingerly on the wound after he cleaned it. The scratch was small. No cause for concern. Children fell all the time. But Childe worried still.
He never wanted to see Ying hurt. However small or big the pain was, Childe would never allow it to touch Ying.
Childe flew towards the boy.
Zhongli's eyes shifted to Childe sometimes. But Childe couldn't pay attention to him.
"Yinghuochong," Zhongli said.
Ying looked up at his father.
"Do not cry, Ying-er. It's all right. I'm here."
Ying hiccuped some more. Then he leaped into his father's arms and Zhongli held his son so fiercely, so tenderly; kissing his son's temple and letting the boy seek comfort from him.
Childe hesitated at first. But he gradually placed himself on Ying's shaky shoulder, nuzzling the boy's neck. A careful affectionate gesture.
When Childe peered at Zhongli, the former Archon was smiling at him.
They watched the fireflies scattered in the dark. Ying eagerly pointed at the little lights. His joy was vast.
Childe fluttered on top of Zhongli's head. He remembered bringing Zhongli here for the very first time.
Zhongli had laughed and his eyes were brighter than all the golden clouds of dust in the universe. Zhongli was so enamored of the fireflies he didn't notice how Childe couldn't look away from him.
Childe remembered falling in love there and then. He remembered kissing Zhongli, tucking those long dark strands behind his ear. It was the closest thing Childe ever got to hold the universe in his hands.
He wondered if Zhongli remembered that precious moment.
Childe’s gaze drifted to Zhongli only to catch the other throwing him a brief look before Zhongli looked away.
"Lán, do you see that?" Ying peered at someone through the window.
Childe floated to Ying's side, flopping down on the boy's head. He tried to see what was it that caught the child's attention but all he spotted was Zhongli in his small flower garden, tending to the budding seeds. His straw hat shielding him from the glaring sun.
Childe’s gaze became fond.
"You see it, right?" Ying asked again.
"Bàba is happy. He smiles a lot!"
Childe would have raised his eyebrows if he had any.
Zhongli was always happy. He was always smiling. Childe didn't see anything different.
He only noted that Zhongli looked quite beautiful--
Childe refused to go there.
"Bàba smiles a lot lately and I think it's because of you, Lán!" Ying spun around to grin at the Seelie.
"Thank you," Ying said kindly. His orange hair was messy. "You're weird for a Seelie but I've always wanted a Seelie as a friend so I'm happy, too, that you're here."
Childe's chest softened at that. He prayed that Ying would remain innocent and kind throughout his whole life.
Ying was nothing like Childe and that was a blessing enough.
On the seventh day, it was night when Zhongli entered Ying's room quietly. Childe woke up from his slumber.
He peeked at the former Archon whilst he crept into his son's room.
Ying was fast asleep and Zhongli took the opportunity to brush his hand against his son's forehead.
Zhongli smiled at his sleeping son. Childe kept watching, burrowing deeper into Ying's pillow.
Ever so slowly, Zhongli turned to look at Childe. His smile disappeared.
"Childe," Zhongli whispered.
Childe went still.
"Come," he whispered again, beckoning for Childe to follow him. The Seelie carefully but hastily woke up and flew towards Zhongli.
Zhongli guided him to the living room. He sat on the floor. His hands clasped on the low table. He waited for Childe to settle down on the table until the Seelie was facing the former Archon. He was quiet for a moment.
Zhongli knew who he was.
Zhongli probably knew all this time.
Childe couldn't do anything to show his bitterness. It felt like he was being used again; reined in by Zhongli's machinations.
"I'm sorry," Zhongli eventually said. He sounded regretful. "I didn't… even without my gnosis…"
Zhongli took a deep breath. Childe never saw him like this. So unlike the Zhongli he once knew: composed. Resolute. Undeterred.
This Zhongli was so human. He didn’t notice that before. Only when Childe truly looked at Zhongli did he finally notice the change.
"Sometimes when an Archon truly wishes for something, the stars hear their wish, and the Celestia grants the desired boon. I assumed… Childe, for a long time, I wished to see you again. I am no longer an Archon and yet my wish was heard. I am sorry,” Zhongli said.
Childe's tiny shape sank on the table. Confused.
Zhongli chuckled lowly. "I didn’t foresee the Celestia to send you to me like this. Perhaps this was an insult against me for my--... Or perhaps it was solely because Ying-er wanted a Seelie a companion for so long. Perhaps our wishes were merged as one. I will never truly know. You are here and yet you are not. Close but far. It's been seven years. I… I missed you, Childe," Zhongli murmured.
Let it be true, Childe wished silently.
Zhongli breathed slowly. "Fret not, the contract is fulfilled. Today shall be the last day you'll be in this miniature form. I apologize. I've put you in such a dreadful situation yet again. It was never my intention, I swear this."
Childe hastily threw a glance at Zhongli. What contract? He floated closer to Zhongli, bumping his nose. What did Zhongli do?
Zhongli only smiled at him. "I've reached the Tsaritsa's dream. It took me quite some time as I am bereft of my gnosis to aid me this time. She will return your spirit to your mortal flesh. Your family has been worried about you. You've slept for far too long."
Childe didn't know if Zhongli could sense his concern but perhaps he did for Zhongli brushed his thumb against Childe's body tenderly.
"She requires nothing from me except for my permission to briefly visit Liyue. Once. She wishes to see Yinghuochong just as much as she wishes for her harbinger to be well again. Hence, the contract is fulfilled,” Zhongli assured.
Childe could only stare.
"Childe, listen." Zhongli opened his palms. Childe landed on Zhongli's hands without hesitation.
Childe’s dimmed light flickered weakly. He could do nothing else to convey his feelings. Words were living inside him. Like untamed waves. Childe wanted to spill them.
"I am sorry, Childe. For everything. I always wanted you to know this at least if nothing else: I am sorry." Zhongli apologized again. His eyes fell on his son's room.
Childe's heart fell. Ying. He would be leaving Ying behind.
"Ying-er. He's an unruly boy. Every little bit like you, I know not if you realize it. I see you in him. He has your nose. Your little laugh. The precious color of your hair. He loves too much. A true heart, just like you. He has my eyes, but that's the only thing he inherited from me," Zhongli stated kindly.
Childe felt something within him grow cold.
Then Zhongli added, "He misses you. He doesn't know who you are, where you are. Why you're not here with us. I… am unsure what to tell the boy. Still, he misses you. I suppose he inherited that longing from me as well. I never wanted you to know at first. You'd have come running if you had known. You'd have agreed to be part of our lives even if you didn't wish to be here. You are kind, Childe. Even when you think otherwise. I didn't want to enforce such a decision on you then. I was wrong. It was never my place to make your choice for you."
Zhongli's voice echoed in the dark.
"However, now I wish you to know. Childe, Yinghuochong is your son. Our son," Zhongli finally confessed quietly.
Childe's little body trembled. He quickly flew towards Zhongli, bumping the man’s forehead this time. The anger was molten lava. His heart throbbed.
Zhongli lost his gnosis but he didn't lose his gift to carry children.
And Zhongli was carrying their child alone. Raising their son without him. Childe wasn't there for Zhongli and Ying. He didn't get to touch Zhongli's growing belly. Didn't get to marvel at the sight of Zhongli being pregnant.
He must have been beautiful.
Childe was furious. Zhongli was right. He should have never made that decision. It was Childe's choice to make.
Childe wanted to be here. With Zhongli. With little Ying. He wanted this. Morning gleams with his son. Exchanged secretive smiles with Zhongli. The laughter echoing in their home.
Childe wanted the privilege to love them.
He craved for battles. Would probably seek the adrenaline of good fights forever. A torn loyalty between the Tsaritsa and his former beloved.
But if Zhongli had asked, Childe knew he would have burned the entire world just to have even a fleeting moment with Zhongli again.
Childe left only because he truly believed he was thrown away.
Zhongli grabbed the blue Seelie carefully and kissed him. Childe trembled under the tender kiss.
His body flickered. And flickered again. He felt light. Dazed. Childe peered down at the small spherical form.
He was disappearing.
"I love you," Zhongli whispered. His gaze was tender. "No one else but you, Childe. I swear to you this even after all this time. If you ever wish to return to us, allow me to welcome you home properly, yes?"
Zhongli nudged his nose on Childe's tiny body. He kissed the Seelie again.
Childe loved him. It only occurred to him that he never stopped loving Zhongli.
Childe loved Zhongli and his adoration poured from him endlessly until he could no longer hide it.
Childe drifted and--
Childe woke up.
His mother's surprised cry was the first thing he heard.
What would Ajax do?
Not Childe. Not Tartaglia.
What would Ajax do?
"Your grace, forgive me, but I must leave," Childe firmly informed the Tsaritsa. He expected-- well, he wasn't sure what he was expecting. Death, maybe? Torture? Imminent pain? Childe still took the gamble.
None of those happened. The Tsaritsa merely laughed lightly from her throne. "Oh, foolish boy. Then go. I have no use for an inefficacious pawn. You are nothing but a pitiful weapon. Begone," she said kindly. A rare smile on her lips.
Childe ripped the red metalwork from the side of his head, threw it at one of the guards, and ran.
He had a son to embrace and a man to kiss.