“Mama, what are those?” A young Ajax asks. His mother follows where her son is pointing and her eyes land on the words on her arm. She smiles, albeit sadly.
“These are your papa’s words, Ajax.”
Ajax hums and grabs his mother’s arm, trying to rub the words off her arm but to no avail. He puffs up his chest and crosses his arms. “I can’t take them off! Did papa use permanent markers when he wrote them?”
His mother shakes her head and crouches down. She pulls Ajax into a hug, winding her arms around her son’s small body. “...Yes, he did. These are your father’s last words, Ajax.”
“Ow ow ow!! Kuh, that really hurts…”
A young Ajax rubs his butt and looks at his fallen bike. He had tried to learn how to bike so he could help his mother do chores, but so far he had been failing. He had no one to teach him and he had no one to supervise him since his mother is busy making ends meet.
Ajax borrowed a run-down bike from their kind neighbors in Morepesok while watching the other kids cycle so he could copy their movements. So far, no luck yet.
Instead of getting from one point to another, his butt has been constantly meeting the dirt ground.
Ajax was going to stand up and try again until a searing pain on his arm stops him from moving. He screams, clutching his burning arm and grabbing a few handfuls of snow to stop the burning heat on his arms. No use.
He falls down to the floor, kneeling. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts —
Then his eyes look at his arm. Is there a burn?
Are you okay?
Ajax whispers. There are words on his arm. Black words that are simple to understand, not too complex like the words he saw from the women in the fish market. Who wrote these words?
Then he remembers his mother’s words. Apparently, your soulmate can feel your pain and communicate with you through writings.
So… this is my soulmate? Ajax thinks. He’s feeling a bit giddy, so runs inside his house to grab a pen from a clear jar that held various knick-knacks. The young child goes back beside his bike and plops down on the dirt floor, pen ready. Should he write with ink? But then he would need to wash his arms…
Therefore young Ajax decides to just write on his arm without using the pen’s ink.
I’m fine! Who are you?
In a few minutes, he gets a response. This time the hot pain on his arm hurts less, but still enough to make him wince.
I’m Zhongli. And you must be my soulmate I suppose…?
Yeah! My name is Ajax! Nice to meet you, soulmate!
Zhongli is a fun person to talk to, Ajax learns.
Ever since his soulmate asked him if he was okay, they began communicating with each other using their arms. Ajax would tell him about his day and how tiring it was to go back and forth from the market and to their house, especially after coming home from school.
In return, Zhongli would tell him bits and pieces of his life. First was that he lived in another country named Liyue. The second is that he has a very overprotective younger cousin named Xiao who would glare at him whenever he writes back to Ajax. Young Ajax giggled at that.
Have you watched the Adventures of The Seven Gods?
Yes. The stories are accurate, to say the least.
Are you a fan of the stories of the Seven? Mama would always tell me bedtime stories about them!
A fan… Perhaps so. My mother used to tell me their stories whenever it’s my bedtime as well, but I have done more research into their stories.
I find the stories very intriguing. How about you, Ajax?
Ajax grumbles, tapping his temples. In...tri...gwing?
He loves talking with Zhongli, but sometimes he gets frustrated with the words he’s using. Too iffy and uptight. It’s like he’s talking to an adult. Too complex for young Ajax. He’s only learning easy and simpler words in school right now!
He tries to pronounce the word, forgetting to reply to his soulmate. “In...twi...gooing… intri… ging?” Ajax ruffles his hair, frustration seeping through his body. He’ll have to ask his teacher about this word. For now, he’ll just write it down on a piece of paper.
“Ajax? Come help me with dinner!” his mother shouts from the kitchen. Ajax puts down his pen and runs to the stairs. “Coming mama!” he replies back. Oh well, he’ll answer Zhongli later—
A toy from his younger siblings gets in his way and causes him to trip. Ajax tumbles down the stairs, arms protecting his head. Each bump of the stairs hits his body, and he could feel a bruise forming as he continues to fall down their wooden stairs.
When he hits the floor, Ajax lets the darkness consume him. How is he going to reply to Zhongli this way…?
The next time Ajax opens his eyes, he’s surrounded by white.
He groans and blinks. Where is he…?
“Oh Ajax…! You’ve worried me!” his mother appears in his vision. She cries, holding his small hand. Ajax blinks again, this time looking to his right. There on a couch are his siblings, Anthon and Tonia rubbing their eyes. His mother’s cries must’ve woken them up.
“M-Mama…?” he manages to whisper. His mother nods, eyes teary. “Yes, yes oh dear it’s your mama… you’ve made mama worry so much, Ajax,” she says. Ajax notices the dark circles under her eyes; he feels guilty now. He should’ve been more observant of his surroundings…
His two siblings jump on him, crying. Tonia hits him hard, saying that she thought he was dead and Anthon continued to hug him, refusing to let go of him. Ajax chuckles, patting their heads. “No, I’m not dead Tonia and I still have to breathe, Anthon come on.”
His two siblings sniff, their tears dry on their cheeks.
“Oh, and you also have a certain person worried as well Ajax,” his mother informs him, wiping her tears. She points at his arm, and Ajax hears his heart drop. Oh no, oh no…
Ajax? Are you alright?
Did something happen?
Please tell me you’re alright. The pain I felt… it was as if your bones broke.
Please tell me you’re okay…
Ajax hears his heartbreaking. He tries to sit up to write back but an electrifying sensation in his arm causes him to fall back on the bed, crying.
The doctor comes in as Ajax’s cries of pain become louder and explain the situation as calmly as he can. Apparently, he had broken the bone in his left arm during his fall. It isn’t a serious fracture, but it was concerning nonetheless so the doctor recommends he gets a cast for the arm.
His mother gladly takes the choice, and Ajax feels sorry. They’re not a well-off family, and hospital fees have been higher lately. He quietly swears to do more work to help the family.
And he’ll have to reply back to Zhongli as soon as he can.
Turns out an angry and worried Zhongli is not to be trifled with.
When Ajax finally gets the chance to write to his soulmate after the whole incident, Zhongli immediately chastises him. Well, he’s pretty sure he’s being scolded even if his soulmate is writing in Liyuen, judging by his excessive use of exclamation marks.
All Ajax could do was to apologize for worrying him (and to promise that he would be more observant with his surroundings) and luckily Zhongli accepted his promise. Even called it a contract, to his confusion.
Contract? Isn’t that like… for business stuff?
Well, yes but if you remember the story of Rex Lapis, the Geo God of Liyue, he used that word as a sign of a promise.
A promise that I shouldn’t break?
Yes. If you do, then I’ll personally go to Snezhnaya and hit you with the Wrath of the Rock.
Aw, maybe I should break my promise. I would be seeing you if it means breaking the promise :P
No. Don’t think that way, Ajax. I’ll be seeing you soon anyway, so you don’t have to break more bones to see me.
See him? Suddenly Ajax is excited at the prospect of seeing Zhongli. But why would Zhongli visit Snezhnaya?
OH, THAT’S COOL! Why are you visiting Snezhnaya? I know it’s not festival time yet…
A family friend is having a birthday. She’s my childhood friend that lives in the Capital.
So do I get to meet you?
I have to convince my parents if we can drop by your village if that’s the case.
Oh boy, Childe is definitely excited.
Then I have to show you around Morepesok! I’m sure the kind Aunties will love you!
Haha, I’ll hold you on that Ajax.
On the supposed day of Zhongli’s arrival to Snezhnaya, Ajax is vibrating with excitement that he can’t contain it so he’s just pacing around their living area. His cast is still on and his arm underneath it is itchy, but he promised the doctor that he won’t take it off so he’s currently resisting the urge to take it off.
In the living area adjacent to the dining area, his mother is busy whistling to a tune while cooking breakfast. Zhongli had informed him a night before that they would be stopping by Morepesok for the night once they set in their hotel and Ajax’s mother couldn’t be more than happy to be the host for her son’s soulmate and his family.
“Big brother, you’re too excited! Sit down and stop making me want to bonk you on your head!” Tonia yells, taking off her earbuds. She has been doing homework while listening to a famous rock singer from Liyue. Ajax pauses and sits down on an armchair, his leg bouncing.
“I-I can’t help it! Also, I’m older than you, bleh!” Ajax cheekily replies back, sticking his tongue out at his younger sibling. She harrumphs and goes back to doing her homework, plugging in her earbud. Ajax makes a noise of triumph.
At that exact moment, Ajax feels a small heat from his left arm. Zhongli!
I can’t wait to finally meet you, Ajax.
He grabs his pen to begin writing a reply back but their mother comes out from the kitchen and places a large plate of blinis and their favorite jam along with condensed milk. Ajax smells the delicious aroma of food and rushes to the dining table, eyes wide. “Blinis! Zhongli would love these, Mama!”
Their mother chuckles and goes back into the kitchen to grab plates. “Of course he will, dear. Now be a good boy and turn on the television okay?” she asks, and Ajax gives her a salute and runs back into the living area. He grabs the remote from the center table and presses the power-on button. “Mama, what channel?”
“The news, dear!”
Ajax switches the channel from the cartoon channel, fashion channel, music channel, and finally to the news channel. He is supposed to turn around to place the remote back but he’s frozen.
His heart drops.
Breaking news: An airplane from the country of Liyue bound for the Capital crashed. More news to follow.
Ajax refuses to leave the front of the television after hearing the news.
He also refuses to believe that Zhongli is dead.
The young Snezhnayan looks at his cast-less arm and cries.
Is this Zhongli’s last words for him, just like his papa’s last words on his mother’s arm?
The entire mood of the house falls. No one speaks. Tonia and Anthon are deathly quiet, staring into respective walls and their mother sits by the dining table, hands clasped together so tight that they’re becoming white.
Ajax continues to stare at the screen, news continuously being reported. There aren’t enough details, but his mind is currently telling him that it was enough.
There aren't a lot of airplanes coming from Liyue. You asked the Auntie next door that because she was once a stewardess.
Ajax curls into himself, hugging his legs together and dipping his head into it. He couldn't… Zhongli couldn't be dead…
He was supposed to tour him around Morepesok and show him off in front of the other kids… he was going to introduce him to his mother and his siblings, eat blinis and tell scary stories in the dark.
Tears begin to fall from his eyes, quiet sobs escaping his mouth. His small frame trembled, the hole in his heart gnawing and slowly spreading throughout his body.
It was a black hole that he couldn't get out of.
Why couldn't the fates be kinder? Is he destined to live out the rest of his life soulmate-less, bouncing from a person to another person with no love?
Ajax chuckles bitterly. He may be young, but if that's the fate that he will live then maybe it wouldn't be so bad after all.
The crashed plane from Liyue, the year 2020 became shrouded in mystery. Flight logs had suggested that the plane had crashed in a nearby forest but when authorities checked, no sign of debris was there. Not even a speck of dust.
From that day onward, Ajax became solemn. He became withdrawn but in his later years, became a charming but silver-tongued teenager who gets into trouble with the law.
He became a trouble-maker, often snatching purses from unsuspecting middle-aged ladies and vandalizing public property along with his friends. They had formed a gang named Harbingers, those that brought destruction and chaos.
It was perfect. Perfect for a man whose love was taken away from him at a young age. Heh, he could've just studied to be part of the team that handled mysteries like the Bermuda Triangle but that was no fun.
Wrecking havoc was much more fun. Especially since their leader always had small bounties for them to achieve that would always give them a good payroll: trash the government official's house, wreck a crooked mayor's car, vandalize the subway walls. All of these were bounties.
From who? Ajax, or rather Childe, didn't care. As long as he can feed his family, he'll do whatever it takes.
As well as to fill the hole that Zhongli left him. His words are still inked on his left arm, unable to be removed. Scaramouche, a fellow gang member, scoffed at the words before, saying that it was "sappy".
The Harbingers was also a gang of people who were soulmate-less. The Tsaritsa, their leader and who they have never personally seen without her mask, lost her soulmate to a car crash. Scaramouche had lost him to an electricity-related accident. Signora's soulmate died because of hypothermia.
Were they waging war against a nation filled with soulmates? Perhaps so. But Childe doesn't care. All he cares about is for the destruction to fill the hole in his heart.
And to help him forget the words on his arms.
Zhongli's death had impacted him way more than his father's death. Maybe it's because he had bonded over his soulmate more so than his father but nevertheless, it left a gaping hole in his heart.
There wouldn't be one moment every day that he wouldn't remember Zhongli. Whenever he would pass by the market, he would be reminded of the memories when he would do chores for the kind Aunties so that he could save up enough money to buy another bike when Zhongli comes by.
Whenever his mother would make blinis (which was a rare thing because it reminded them all of a tragic loss), he would remember his daydreams of him and Zhongli just eating blinis happily.
Heh, if his younger self could see him now then he would be in such a shock.
Right now, he's wobbling to a park bench after a night of partying. The Tsaritsa had thrown them a party in her own condominium after a successful bounty related to a well-known figure. They would be shown on television again, this time notorious than ever.
Childe had drunk too much vodka that he's tipsy and lightheaded while he walked to the bus station. He decided to pass through the snowy park and catch a breather on a bench, taking in the icy wind to make himself slightly sober.
He wasn't sure when he had passed out, but when he woke up, there was a strange man in front of him. He wore a long black decorated overcoat, the tips of his hair dyed in amber, and his gold eyes staring into his soul. It was uncomfortable, to say the least.
So he sits up and groans, rubbing his head and blinking his sleepiness away. "U-Ugh… remind me not to party too hard again."
The strange man chuckles. "Sadly, I am not your personal alarm clock."
Childe rolls his eyes. "No shit. Anyway, you should scram. Associating with people like me will get you into trouble, stranger."
The man hums and sits down beside Childe, eyes never leaving him. "Perhaps I want to be associated with you."
The former scoffs. "Do what you will. Don't blame me if the cops start chasing you."
"... What's your name?"
Childe sends him a glare. "If you're trying to get information out of me, then you're outta luck," he says, but the man shakes his head. There's an aura of genuine curiosity surrounding him.
"A name isn't a lot."
"A name will get me into jail."
"Then… perhaps a nickname would do?" the man offers, smiling. Childe huffs.
"Fine, I'll humor you. I go by the name Childe. Childe of the Eleven Harbingers."
The man leans in closer. "Matches your personality," he comments. Childe rolls his eyes and frowns. "Haha very funny. You know it's rude to ask a name and never provide one in return."
The man lifts his lips, gold eyes snaring Childe's loveless soul.
"You may call me Zhongli. Zhongli, Ajax's long-lost love."