It was raining, torrents pouring from the skies, as if Celestia itself was crying. Zhongli held an umbrella to shield the bouquet in his hand from the weather.
He walked for a short while, following the winding stone paths to a forest that would’ve been considered beautiful in the past, but now was deathly still, with only the pitter-patter of raindrop falling heavily onto the umbrella to accompany it.
Camellias, pink and red, were among the flowers dotting the bouquet. Red carnations, purple hyacinths, primroses and zinnias, colored magenta and yellow, joined their fellow blooms in the collection of flowers. They were beautiful flowers, there was no doubt, but staring at them, in all their shimmering glory, only twisted that sharp knife of grief in Zhongli’s heart.
He stopped at a marble grave in the center of the grove, Ajax’s grave. It was old and weathered, but still clean, with no greenery growing on it. There was a wet bouquet of flowers, still alive but soaked from the torrent of water, by the tomb.Clearly, someone had been here recently. He knelt, setting the bouquet in front of the white slab gently, and placing the umbrella on the ground sideways to catch the relentless rain. The drops gained a new target, drenching Zhongli, but he ignored it, gazing at Childe’s grave.
It should’ve been a normal day. Zhongli and Childe were strolling along the Yaoguang Shoal, looking for the best starconches.
“Zhongli-xiansheng, look!” Childe waved a starconch with seven light blue swirls, a rare find, considering a typically conch had only six swirls. “I found one,” he grinned playfully.
“Indeed, it is a fine specimen. This starconch has seven swirls, it’s certainly an aberration from the norm…it is so unique that I would not hesitate to classify it as a news subspecies or, more likely, a genetic variation of the common starconch.” Realizing that he had been rambling for the past dozen minutes, Zhongli coughed, embarrassed, “My apologies, Childe. I did not mean to blather on so much.”
Childe merely chuckled, “No need to apologize xiansheng, you’re very informative.” Zhongli was sure his friend was only being polite but remained silent. “In fact, if you like this starconch so much, I’ll give it to you.”
“I couldn’t possibly,” Zhongli shook his head, “It’s your find, after all, it is only fair that you keep it—“ This time, Childe laughed, bright and loud, his eyes shining with merriment. The same blue as the starconch. “I’m not a collector—this is something you would appreciate for its beauty. I, on the other hand, would probably just use it as a paperweight. You take it xiansheng, or else I really will just throw it away.”
Zhongli protested some more but after a few minutes, he had given in and accepted the red-head’s gift. “They’re the same color as your eyes, “ he blurted out, stiffening immediately as the words had left his mouth.
Childe’s eyes turned as big as dishes, “Xiansheng…” He opened his mouth to continue but stumbled forward instead, mouth opening wide to speak soundless words. A drill-like hand had stabbed through Childe’s chest, the wound started weeping blood. The hand retreated, the assault over for now as the machinery backed off a little.
Zhongli stared in horror, before snapping out of it and summoning his polearm to face the group of ruin hunters. “I will have order!” he shouted, summoning a meteor to destroy the machines. It slammed into the cohort of enemies, thoroughly wrecking them but Zhongli could hardly care less as he hurried to help his fallen friend.
“Childe!” he held the former harbinger in his arms, trying to stem the blood flow. He knew it was likely futile, Morax had seen many mortals die of such grievous wounds, but he had to try. The foolish boy—he really was only a boy of 24–coughed, blood dripping down his chin, staining his grey coat and painting a path all the way to his loose crimson scarf.
“Xiansheng…take care of yourself, all right?” Childe said weakly. The light in his eyes was fading, getting dimmer each second without help. He was breathing shallowly, and looked to be in extreme pain.
“No, Childe,” Zhongli raised his voice firmly, as if commanding the higher powers to heal the man’s wounds, “You’re not going to die. Just keep yourself awake, for a little longer. I need to get a healer!”
“It’s of no use…we’re too far away. We both know I’m going to die.” The statement had a note of finality to it and Childe seemed resigned. “Keep the conch…as a souvenir…tell my family that I love them, alright?” Zhongli could only nod as his world continued to fall apart. “And, hah, I… I want to tell you that I love you Zhongli. I always have, ever since I got to know you. Even before I knew who you truly were…” Childe spat out another glob of blood. It would not be long before he died, the cold clinical part of Zhongli observed.
“Save your breath Childe. We can still get you help,” Zhongli trembled, his entire body shaking. The only other time this had happened was with Guizhong. A dark part of his brain wondered if he was cursed to watch everyone he ever loved die in his arms.
Childe seemed to read his mind, “It’s not your fault. You could never expect ruin guards to attack us. Hah, I’m just somewhat disappointed that this is how I’ll die.” Zhongli stroked Childe’s hair, brushing it out of his eyes, and murmured comforting words to him in his final moments. “I love you too,” he said, kissing Childe’s forehead. The red head smiled one last time, before closing his eyes one last time. Moments later, he stopped breathing, with a content smile on his face.
The late harbinger seemed so peaceful, like he was only asleep, and his body was still warm. If one ignored the unnatural stillness that Childe had, he could be taken as just sleeping. Zhongli stood there for hours, still as stone, before Xiao had come, concerned about his well-being, and discovered them.
Zhongli put his hand in one of his suit pockets, taking out a starconch with seven swirls. The last gift Childe had ever given him. He placed it down, right next to the fresh bouquet he had brought today.
“It has been decades since you died, “ he said aloud to the tombstone. “The other Adepti begged me to let go of you, but I cannot. You were an essential part of me…but I realized that too late.” He stared morosely at the grave, “I hope you are well, in the afterlife, if there indeed is one. Perhaps one day, I can join you. Or maybe, we shall meet in another life. If so, then I won’t be foolish again. I’ll treat you right… Your family is well, and you are an uncle. Your nephews and nieces know you through stories, and they love you…I still love you Ajax, I always will.” He talks for hours upon hours to the unmoving slab, of all sorts of things, until the rain had stopped and the sun was setting.
He finally got up from his kneeling position and stated solemnly, “I am starting to forget some of the moments we’ve shared. I fear in a few more centuries, I shall forget how you even looked like.” He turned, walking away from the tombstone, the sun bathing him in the orange-gold hues of sunset. He never looked back.