Zhongli wiped the sweat from his brow with a soft, satisfied sigh; body resting against the hoe he'd been working with, surveying their hard efforts. They had started a garden in the large front yard to celebrate springtime and give the elder and hatchling something to keep them busy and something Ajax could join in on when he had time.
So far they had a few sprouts but nothing major, Ajax had brought home Junyan Chili starts the other day from Qingce village as a surprise present just because he could. Jinhai had squealed excitedly when Zhongli explained that would have fresh, spicy peppers when the plant was fully grown and Ajax had been subjected to a firm, clingy cuddle and a myriad of 'thank you's.
They had just finished adding them to the garden, Jinhai covered in a fine layer of dirt as they had dug the hole with their large taloned paws,
Mama, mama! Watch!
Zhongli smiled as Jinhai carried the watering can to the new plants, awkwardly tipping it while the handle rested in their muzzle.
"You're doing such a good job, papa is going to be so impressed we planted them all." Zhongli praised as Jinhai's scales rippled in the mid-morning sun causing sparkles of light to bounce off the walls of their tall fence.
Thank you mama! Show papa when he home?
"Yes, we will. He needs to see how hard his little yabloko worked today and praise accordingly." Zhongli returned the tools to the storage shed on the property, a slight dampness of sweat had soaked through his clothes from the warm spring weather. Ajax had another early morning and hadn't been able to help with the garden; apparently some big backers of the Bank would arrive from Snezhnaya today to see how the Liyuen branch was doing and it rested upon his husband to make sure they retained support.
Zhongli wondered if it was possible for his mate to retire early, that way they could just stay home and bask in familial glow day in and day out, with the vegetables from their garden they could cut down on grocery costs but, Zhongli knew himself well enough to know he enjoyed shopping. So they would need some sort of income...which meant Ajax stayed on at the Bank till further notice. Perhaps if he got control over his spending habits he could talk Ajax into retiring? Then the two of them would have pensions they could carefully budget and then all their time could be spent at home with little ones.
What a lovely fantasy, Zhongli mused as he tugged at his shirt to aerate his damp skin. It wasn't quite lunchtime yet and his muscles and joints ached faintly from the work paired with the heat,
"How does a bath sound, my dear?" He questioned aloud just in time for Jinhai to shake most of the dirt off in a vigorous motion. Zhongli waited for a response, golden gaze looking at him curiously before the hatchling nodded, no doubt feeling a little sticky with how thick their mane was; though Exuvia didn't sweat so it was most likely dirt stuck to their scales.
Zhongli hummed and picked up his little one, grunting with effort as they weren't exactly small or light anymore but he still loved them all the same. Jinhai would always be his little one, no matter how big.
"Alright my dear, let's take that bath, then we'll do lunch and maybe a nap." He said before a slight twang in his back had him hissing lightly. He might have overdone it today, he kept up his physical training with sets of small exercises and stretches he could do in the mornings but he'd felt off today. He probably shouldn't have tried so hard on the garden today with the odd aches but Jinhai had been excited to plant the chilis.
Jinhai crooned curiously at the sound of his hiss and he smiled,
"Just pulled something, sweetheart, no need to worry." He assured, as they made their way inside and upstairs to the bathroom; they passed Xiao and Venti reclining together on a sofa, both engrossed in reading books together recently, it was a tender display that made the elder smile before he moved on. A hot bath to ease his muscles would be just what he needed right now.
Once in the bathroom he gently tickled his hatchling's nose with the tip of his ponytail, drawing out a quick sneeze that had a very giggly baby in his arms only a moment after.
"Mama, tickles." Jinhai protested and he smirked, "Oh? You think that was tickling?" Jinhai shrilled as he blew a loud raspberry into their exposed tummy, ticking them with his hair and fingers until his sides ached from his own bubbly laughter.
"Mama stop! Haihai give up!" They cried through their giggles while Zhongli continued the assault, slipping in a few playful growls and teasing nips of teeth,
"It's too late! Mama dragon has already found their tasty snack to devour, Haihai!" Zhongli blew another raspberry causing Jinhai to flail with a giggly scream; he relented when a stitch in his side made him grimace, the two resting on the bathroom rug, panting softly with Jinhai curled in the crook of his arm.
"Mama win again." Jinhai pouted a bit, only for a moment before the hatchling let loose a secret attack, puffing their cheeks and attempting their own raspberry blow to his chest, Zhongli feigned a dramatic wound and betrayal,
"Oh, how my own could strike me down so quickly, I am forsaken…" the little one giggled, pushing at the weight of his torso,
"Bath time mama."
"Mmk little one, if you say so." He sat up with a slight twinge in his gut, the heat had not been agreeable with him today, his exhaustion nearly had him beat with all these sudden pains.
He drew a bath for the two of them, adding bubbles and salts enough that you could smell the earthen scent and there were peaks of fluffy, poppable goodness just how Jinhai liked it. They brought their toys from the basket and he placed the hatchling into the warm water before he stripped and slipped in a moment after, easing into the water and sighing softly as his eyes closed at the immediate relief.
"Quack!" Zhongli cracked open an amber hue when something bumped his navel, a little floating duck sat innocently between the two of them.
"Hmm, let me wash your hair before I get too relaxed." He shifted in the tub and reached for shampoo and conditioner, Jinhai contentedly quacking and playing as their mama busied themselves with cleaning both himself and the little one. Once lathered and rinsed and thoroughly satisfied that the two of them were clean, he leaned back again, soaking in the warmth and the salt of the water. A little hand patted his stomach, drawing his attention,
"My tummy, you've got one right...here!" Zhongli lurched playfully to tickle again, pawing at Jinhai's belly when the little one smacked his hands and shook their head vigorously.
"No no!" He stopped, respecting their space, though confused to what their question was or meant.
"What's that?" Jinhai insisted, patting his stomach again,
"Point to it for me, sweetheart?" Zhongli sat up a big to give them a better angle and Jinhai pointed and poked at his admittedly soft stomach.
"Fat…?" He grumbled awkwardly and Jinhai huffed in frustration,
"No! That!" They pointed again and Zhongli was at a loss. He placed a hand over his stomach, feeling for anything off; maybe breakfast hadn't settled well? Stones in his gut perhaps? What was it that Jinhai was getting at-
A little blurb, barely there and entirely missable, the tiniest, tiniest seed of life. Hidden deep inside, not even big enough to develop a shell... Zhongli gasped loudly, his other hand coming to feel and confirm what it was, senses on high alert to detect and confirm.
He was gestating, Celestia above he was gestating! Zhongli grinned, wide and adorning, hugging his stomach tightly in greeting, silently cheering and reaching out with a soft, hello little one, I'm so happy you're here.
"Mama…?" Zhongli blinked from his thoughts, coming face to face with the light scowl of a scorned child,
"What's that?" They tapped at his arms clasped around the tiny, tiny life inside him and his chest flooded with warmth. Jinhai was going to be an older sibling, Jinhai was going to have siblings, they were having another hatchling!
Water sloshed out of the tub at the sudden appearance of his tail, it thrashed wildly, barely containing the excitement he felt as he drew Jinhai into his arms and pressed them to his chest, placing a kiss upon their brow.
"Mama, horns!" Jinhai gestured a bit before placing their hands on their temples and patting, the place his and their horns emerged from in their other forms.
"Yes, I have horns, like you...like this one." He placed a hand over his upper belly, watching Jinhai's brow pinch cutely.
"An egg...it's an egg inside mama." Zhongli's voice was vibrant and quivering, like he couldn't believe the news when proof was right there within him.
"Like breakfast egg?" He chuckled and kissed them again,
"No my love, a baby egg. You're going to be an older sibling, a big hatchling and this one is going to be a little hatchling."
"Baby egg…?" Jinhai squirmed a bit, angling themselves to be closer to his stomach,
"Hello baby egg in mama's tummy!" They called suddenly before pressing an ear close and waiting. Zhongli watched with a slow blink before Jinhai reeled back with a grin,
"Baby egg says hello!" He purred, eyes crinkling into crescents and body struggling to not burst at the seams with his joy.
"You can hear baby egg?"
"Mmhm! Haihai big hatchling, baby egg need help. Stuck in tummy." Jinhai turned their nose up, looking proud of themselves. Zhongli rubbed the spot fondly, and cuddled his little one tightly,
"Think you can translate for mama, I can't hear baby egg yet." Jinhai pressed their ear to his belly again and frowned,
"Baby egg says it lunch time. Haihai need tasty food!
"You got all that from a little egg?" Zhongli questioned happily, Jinhai nodded and crossed her arms,
"Baby egg hungry too. Want almond tofu."
"Really now? Seems baby egg is awfully picky, we can't have dessert before lunch, I was going to make a special Zhongyaun chop suey...with a little spice too." Jinhai blinked and looked up at him quickly,
"Baby egg wants that too!" Zhongli snorted and raised his brow in surprise,
"Baby egg sounds an awful lot like Haihai…" he commented thoughtfully, tapping his chin as he did so and Jinhai shook their head,
"No, baby egg sounds like baby egg."
"And what does baby egg sound like?" Jinhai pursed their lips, not having expected the question.
"Like this." Jinhai made their voice tiny and squeaky and Zhongli could help but burst out into a deep, rumbling laugh.
"My my, baby egg sounds so tiny."
"Baby egg is tiny." Zhongli settled and hummed,
"Can you see them, Jinhai?" The hatchling frowned at the use of their name and nodded cautiously,
"Little light in mama's tummy. Baby egg." Jinhai could sense their sibling better than he could, he suspected it had to do with energies, after all, Jinhai and this little one were conceived of the same parents and energies. Jinhai could possibly sense it better than he because Jinhai was on a similar wavelength as the developing egg; he combed his fingers through ginger curls and cooed gently.
"That's amazing little one...think you can keep baby egg a secret so we can surprise papa?"
"Yes!" Jinhai gasped with a little clap of their hands.
"Well to do that, we gotta keep it a secret from uncle Venti and Xiao, just for today. Think you can do it?"
Jinhai clapped again and nodded, "Baby egg secret surprise!" Zhongli nodded and pulled them both from the tub, moving carefully now that he knew he was gestating, much like when he'd found out about Jinhai. His movements were careful, delicate, conscious of the life inside him that was so precious.
He wondered how Ajax would react; he'd been subdued when Venti had forced the news out of the former Geo-Archon; but now they were trying. Ajax and he wanted a full brood, six wonderful little ones and this was one step closer to a house full of chittering and cooing, cuddles and kisses and hearts full.
"Yes baby?" Zhongli hummed, pulling out comfy lounge clothes and a light dress for Jinhai.
"...mama still love Haihai…?" Zhongli stilled, turning to the bed where Jinhai was bundled in towels, face set in a sad frown.
"Oh, my dear…" Zhongli hurried to their side and curled up with them on the bed,
"Haihai, my little, precious one. Of course I love you, nothing will ever stop me loving you. Mama loves you so very much and this egg in my tummy won't change that."
"...mama love baby egg too?"
"Mhmm. Want to know a secret?" Zhongli smiled softly, rubbing their back gently.
"Mama's and papa's have really, really big hearts. Which means that you'll always be loved no matter what."
"Papa too, he loves you so, so much. You will always be his little yabloko but we want to have other hatchlings, your siblings, so you will have company, hatchlings to play with." Zhongli explained carefully and they nodded a bit, lips pursed in thought.
"Haihai big hatchling...teach baby egg how to play!?" They sat up excitedly and Zhongli chuckled,
"When they come out of my tummy and hatch, yes. You can teach them."
"When will they come out!?" Jinhai bounced and pressed up to his robed stomach,
"Baby egg says today!" Zhongli snickered and cupped their head gently.
"Sadly, you'll have to wait a while longer, baby egg has to grow in my tummy like you did." Jinhai balked at that, eyes going wide in awe,
"Haihai was baby egg?"
"Don't you remember? You hatched from an egg last November." The hatchling blinked and look up to the ceiling to ponder before nodding exuberantly,
"Papa sang! Mama cuddled me and papa sang cause Haihai was scared…" Zhongli nodded and kissed their forehead, what a clever little hatchling they had. He wondered how long they would retain their memory of hatch day, perhaps it would always be a part of them because it had been a good day. Zhongli couldn't remember his hatch day, nor the day he was kicked from the nest...he couldn't remember much of his mother but he remembered their purring croon when they told Zhongli about the moon. His mother had loved the sight of the moon…
Zhongli kissed his little one again, enjoying their long cuddle for a moment longer before his stomach growled and Jinhai giggled,
"Baby egg wants chop suey!" and Zhongli could only agree and help them get dressed for the remainder of the day. They had lunch with Venti and Xiao, Jinhai sharing a wicked smile with him as they ate, their secret staying between them until just the right moment. He didn’t think his oldest friend and young ward caught on, the two still seemed to be in their own world sharing looks and making quiet conversation as they ate. He wondered what they were getting up to that led to such interest in books and for that matter, what were they reading about hours on end? They wouldn’t let him get a good look when he went about chores and other daily tasks, trying to peek over their shoulders and catch sight of a few words. He managed to figure out that books originated from Mondstadt’s library, which meant most of the books were in Venti’s native language and that Xiao’s book had to either be from the shop or that Mondstadt’s library had a foreign section; and as far as he knew, they didn’t.
He finished his chores, albeit a bit slower to keep careful and not overdo himself again. Jinhai was a big help all of a sudden, putting aside playtime to help hang the laundry to dry as best as the little one could in their human form. Though it wasn’t all work, Zhongli did succumb to a few cute bouts of hide’n’seek, Jinhai having hidden away in the basket of fresh linens but their ginger hair gave them away immediately. Zhongli spent a few minutes pretending not to see, frowning to himself and humming and hawing loudly as he searched in unrealistic places while Jinhai giggled from within the basket.
They napped after chores, dozing contentedly upstairs in the afternoon sun, Jinhai tucked against his stomach with a protective hold over baby egg; insisting it made baby egg feel better to have both mama and big hatchling Haihai. It was heartwarming, giving Zhongli a fluttery feeling in his stomach as he watched the little one drift off, Jinhai’s cheek pressed against his torso with hazy golden eyes sparkling gently. It was good to see his hatchling excited, it was wonderful given the history of Exuvia and their solitary lifestyles. It was rare for one Exuvia to take on more than one young at a time unless circumstances dictated so. He frowned, hand coming to rest over Jinhai’s tiny one resting over the little one within; no Exuvia of sound mind would dare try and raise more than one hatchling at a time unless they birthed more than one egg.
He’d heard rumors back then, when Exuvias carved mountains and dug the rivers out, of a prime creature that had mated all that it faced. The creature had never lost and most notably, it’s mates would lay clutches of eggs...not just one; though as he came to understand it, that particular Exuvia had died millenia ago when his kind had fled during the war. He didn’t think them cowards for leaving, no, but he did miss their golden beauty streaking across the sky at sunset. It made him wonder what would become of his brood after he and Ajax were gone...he feared they would be lonely, isolated from their species and yet not. He sighed softly, pushing the thoughts away and allowing himself to calm and drift off with the pleasant warmth of Jinhai at his side.
When they awoke, they got to work, Zhongli having planned to reveal the news at dinner. He set Jinhai propped up on a stool to help make a big batch of Universal Peace with fluffy rice and lovely fresh berries. His little one washed the berries for him while he got to work prepping lotus roots and carrots, falling into a soothing trance as he made his way through the ingredients with methodical precision. He loved cooking like this and he loved making it for his family more, imagine that, the former Archon and God of Liyue enjoying the role of homemaker.
The table was set about the time Ajax would arrive home from his shift at the bank, Zhongli sharing an excited knowing smile with his hatchling and this time, the two Anemo wielders took notice. Xiao and Venti exchanged a worried look, the bard taking initiative and asking him what was going on.
“Everything ok? You’re looking at Haihai like you’re planning a murder...has Childe done something?” he asked awkwardly and Zhongli chuckled, showing fang.
“Hmm, no he hasn’t done anything wrong I should say.”
“So he’s done something?” Xiao perked up, eyes flashing dangerously and hair bristling.
“Yes and no, no need to be worked up Xiao.” he mused and placed a reassuring hand on the Adeptus’ shoulder. Jinhai turned, eyes wide and excited,
“Papa’s home!” the door clicked open just as their little body leapt from the stool and scrambled on unsteady feet to the foyer with Zhongli trailing behind with a warm smile.
“Welcome hom-” he froze just as Jinhai scurried to hide behind him, golden gaze glaring up at an unannounced guest.
“Hello, medovyy.” Ajax murmured awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot as Zhongli’s amber hues trailed over to the Director of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, his former boss, Hu Tao.
“...Hello Master Hu Tao.” Zhongli managed with a polite smile, though inwardly he was fuming, hands subconsciously resting over his stomach with the news that would go unshared this evening.