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It takes a Village...or so they say.

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Warm...it was so very warm here, in his arms, tucked against his chest. He ached slightly from lying at an awkward angle but it was worth it. It was so warm here in bed with another, the cramped and bent at an odd angle to accommodate for the other's sprawled limbs; he snuggled closer, groaning softly, pawing down the length of another body. Nuzzling into curled hair that smelled of sweetgrass and the spring breeze; perhaps he could drift off again, sleep late basking in the warmth, forgo his morning ritual just this once in favor of a lazy start.

The bedroom door burst open, causing the young Adeptus to lurch up and meet the irritable eye of Childe who looked particularly frazzled. Xiao had forgotten today was auspicious, no one would be sleeping in or relaxing on a day like today.

"The Adepti of Jueyan Karst are here." He stated plainly, earning a soft groan from Xiao who thwomped back into the pillows and sheets. 

"Tch, I feel ya. I get that Haihai's 100th day is important and all that but…" Childe ran a hand through his hair, bracing his body against the door frame,

"Did we really have to let the Adepti plan it? No offense but they already want me dead…" Xiao rolled his eyes but silently agreed with the Fatui boy. The Adepti, while familiar with Liyue traditions and customs, were the last beings anyone would expect to plan the celebration of Zhongli and Childe's hatchling and let alone they come down from their mountain abode to do so. 

"How quickly do I need to be downstairs…?"

"Well, Zhongli has already let them in the house much to my displeasure. Haihai is refusing to finish breakfast because of the new scents in the house." Childe grumbled, 

"Great…" Xiao croaked tiredly as he propped himself up on his elbows. 

"I'll be down in a few minutes, soon as I can get this one around." Xiao nudged the warm body beside him and Childe waved dismissively,

"Take as long as you need, I certainly would…" the ginger slid from the frame and closed the door behind him, allowing the two Anemo wielders their privacy. 

"Sounds like today's going to be interesting." Venti grumbled from beneath the covers, scooting into Xiao's space and trapping him under lanky limbs. 

"You do not even know the half of it…" Xiao murmured, Venti pressed a chaste kiss to his shoulder with a soft hum,

"I think you're catastrophizing. Today is supposed to be fun like the baby shower."

"Jinhai was still an egg inside Zhongli's womb and the only invited guests were humans and partial Adepti that weren't capable of separating Childe's head from his body." The Anemo Adeptus grumbled sourly. 

"Uh...you're quite capable of doing just that…"

"But I won't! Childe is precious to Zhongli and father of my- our niece. The other Adepti might not look at the situation as critically as I have." Xiao huffed and Venti cooed,

"Aw, if Childe heard you worrying over him, he might faint."

"Please don't tease, that dumbass could be in real danger is his misspeaks even once." 

"I think you need to give your Adepti friends way more credit, they're thousands of years old. Surely they wouldn't have his head for a slight offense."

"...this is Childe we're talking about. Former Harbinger that tried to sink the Harbor by summoning Osial, destroyed Guizhong's Ballistas with his men, and forced the Tianquan's hand into dropping the Jade Palace." He stated bluntly causing Venti to blink slowly before managing an awkward smile,

"Ok. So maybe we keep an eye on him today." 

"Agreed." Xiao kicked back the covers and rolled from the bed earning a loud whine from Venti who burrowed under the sheets again. 

"Cold!" Xiao smirked ever so slightly, delighting in his boyfriend's antics so early in the morning. 

The two finally managed to get downstairs, only after a few stray kisses and Venti insisting they could spare a few more moments in bed, having dragged the Adeptus back under the sheets and covers for a leisurely cuddle. Xiao paused at the last step before entering the foyer, a clear view of the sitting room causing a ball of nervousness to form a lump in his gut.

All three Adepti were whispering amongst themselves in the sitting room, all three adorned with swatches of rich, red fabric for the celebration to come. Zhongli had placed tea out for them and was no doubt in the kitchen trying to coax Jinhai to finish breakfast,

"It reeks of the Abyss, I didn't believe Ganyu when she first told me." 

"It's hardly an appropriate mate, I don't know what Rex Lapis is thinking letting that creature near his young."

"His tastes have certainly changed, it barely has any manners let alone restraint." 

"Good Morning, it is grand to see all of you faring so well." Xiao cut in awkwardly with a bow, they turned to greet him with soft smiles or what could be considered soft smiles when it came to the animal Adepti. 

"Xiao, it is wonderful to see you. You appear to be in better health than the last time we spoke." Cloud Retainer chirped, tilting the boy's head with a gentle feather to assess his face. 

"Your cheeks have a little more color, they even appear to be a bit rounder, Rex Lapis must be feeding you well." 

"He is a benevolent host." Xiao smiled a bit while Venti snorted quietly beside him, the Adepti finally taking note of the other Former God. 

"Lord Barbatos!" Mountain shaper gasped, poking his head in close and eyeing the Anemo Archon excitedly.

"We had no idea you had returned to Liyue so recently, Xiao told us of your initial return and departure." The three Adepti crowded into their space unintentionally,

"We are grateful to you, looking out for Rex Lapis in his time of need. We were unable to fully grasp his situation until Xiao told us but by then his...mate had already returned." Moon Carver explained in a stern tone, as if scolding himself.

"It's good to see all of you too, and no thanks are necessary! I was just doing what I felt was right, Zhongli needed support. Childe did his necessary parts too, ol blockhead finally wound down when Childe got back, thankfully." Venti preened, slinging an arm around Xiao's shoulders. 

"Ah…yes, the Abyssal smelling mortal that Rex Lapis has deigned worthy of siring a generation of hatchlings…" if Moon Carver's lip could curl it certainly would have in this moment, though he did bare a bit of his teeth.

"Um…pardon?" Venti began only for Xiao to nudge him none too gently in his ribs. 

"Rex Lapis' mate. We are...hesitant to accept that our former Lord would choose such a creature as a mate. Tell me, is it a...right fit for our Rex Lapis?" Xiao felt Venti shift beside him, hips cocking in a fashion that made the Anemo Adeptus nervous,

"He's a wonderful father and mate, he loves Jinhai with all his heart and spoils Zhongli rotten at his own expense. I have no troubles concerning their relationship, I trust him." Xiao blurted before Venti launched into anything that could get him into trouble with Liyue's Adepti. Moon Carver hummed lowly, 

"I suppose that it is good to hear that it- he is doing right by our Lord." The deer's head turned slowly, eyes coming to rest on the ginger in question who looked partly startled, blue eyes burning a hole in Xiao's form. So much for keeping that to himself...the Yaksha groaned inwardly as Moon Carver approached the young Fatui, no doubt about to cause a scene.

"... Thank you, for making him happy." Xiao reeled and toppled slightly into Venti who looked equally surprised, two sets of eyes flying wide as the deer Adeptus bowed to Childe respectfully; the young man faltered, clearly not expecting such a turn of events. 

"Uh... I don't-"

"Yes, thank you. I have not seen our former Lord smile unburdened in so long...his grief about his first born I feared would haunt him until the end of time." Cloud Retainer followed the deer Adeptus' lead, Mountain Shaper humming his agreement. 

"It is good to see his smile again after all his suffering." 

"Er...uh….no problem? I was just...caring for someone I love...like a good mate?." Childe offered, Moon Carver rose quickly with a snort.

"Indeed, while I still have my hesitations, we will accept his choice after all, the Guardian Yaksha spoke on your behalf. Certainly, he is a better judge than we." Xiao flushed when Childe's eyes landed on him, Venti grinned mischievously and nudged him good naturedly. 

The moment was broken when Zhongli entered the room with a squirmy hatchling, shifted and dressed in a cute, red dress and matching, puffy pants. Childe must have put their hair up into the pig tails because whenever he did it there would be excess fringe that fluffed cutely. Zhongli was too methodical and if he styled Jinhai's hair it would be neat and gathering info twin buns with utmost precision. 

"Forgive me for the delay, I was making sure our little one was presentable for such an occasion. Moon Carver, Mountain Shaper, Cloud Retainer, this is our hatchling. Jinhai." He held the baby in a manner that let the Adepti crowd around in a chorus of soft oohs. 

"They're beautiful!"

"Truly a tiny wonder."

"They look so delicate, like a precious porcelain doll." The Adepti heaped praise, all taking turns at nuzzling and touching the hatchling affectionately, like a hoard of doting grandparents. Xiao snickered quietly at the image, the Adepti of Jueyun Karst in his mind's eye resembling the elderly of Qingce village as their prideful, stern image gave way to cooing and simple speak as to not confuse the baby before them. 

"Mama, bird!" Jinhai called loudly, pointing at Cloud Retainer though their eyes were already trained on Mountain Shaper. Zhongli chuckled,

"That is Cloud Retainer and Mountain Shaper...can you say that? Cloud Retainer?"

"...Cwoud...Retan…?" Jinhai's brow furrowed cutely, lips pursed in an adorable pout. Cloud Retainer broke into a delightful giggle,

"Oh, they are precious! Should you ever need someone to look after them, do not hesitate to ask! They remind me of Ganyu all those centuries ago…" Cloud Retainer gushed, running her feathers along Jinhai's cheeks. The other Adepti agreed wholeheartedly that Jinhai would always be welcomed in Jueyun Karst. 

"Rex Lapis-"

"Zhongli will do just fine, Old friend." The former God corrected gently, the deer flicked his ears and nodded,

"Zhongli, we should set aside this conversation for another time, Ganyu should arrive shortly with decorations and the like. We should begin preparing for the other guests." Zhongli nodded his agreement. 

True to his word, Ganyu arrived shortly after with a big smile and a crate full of red decorations as well as an array of gifts for Jinhai wrapped neatly in red-gold paper. 

"Forgive me, I couldn't settle on one and wrapping this particular toy was too much hassle. I thought it's bright colors would bring a smile to their face." A Skybracer plush was tentatively held out to the hatchling, golden pupils practically glowed at the sight of the colorful blues and gold.

"Deer!" Jinhai flailed, craning their neck to look at Moon Carver before going back to the plush,

"Blue deer!" Ganyu laughed and Zhongli allowed the little one to crush the plush in their arms, purring softly. 

"She has a small collection of plush toys-"

"Pff, small is an understatement Zhongli." Venti teased with his hands in his hips. Xiao smiled a bit, taking in the moment before a stray touch on his arm had his attention; Childe gestured to the front door with a few streamers in hand.

"Help me hang these?" Xiao frowned inwardly at the request but followed the young ginger outside to the front porch without complaint. Once outside and away from the bustle of the foyer, Childe turned to face him fully.

"Thank you." The Yaksha blinked, confusion painting a light scowl on his face,

"For what?"

"...telling Moon Carver I wasn't completely awful. Had I been in your situation the worst parts of me probably would have had something very colorful to say. You could have set the tone for today by telling them I was scum or didn't deserve Zhongli and Jinhai." Xiao didn't know how to respond to that, he had only prevented Venti from opening his big mouth and saying something stupid. 

"O-oh…"

"I am indebted to you. The Adepti are...family. They are Zhongli's family, your family. It would be like if my parents were skeptical of Zhongli and my brother told them he was a terrible fit for me. They would think of him negatively." Childe explained, trying to find the right words to express what he meant. 

"...it was no trouble. You're an important person to Zhongli, they needed to understand that." The Adeptus took a streamer and tossed it up high, a streak of red adorned the front entryway nicely. 

"...well it's something to me. You clearly didn't like me in the beginning but...thank you for letting me be by his side." Xiao bristled and tsked quietly,

"Stop thanking me, I have no say over his actions." Childe clicked his tongue,

"But he values your knowledge and opinion. You're like...his adopted son, or something." Xiao glared,

"If I were you, I would greatly evaluate my next few words. I may look upon Zhongli with the respect and devotion akin to a father but I am still thousands of years old and will not view you equally."

"Gods no! Gross! I don't think I could even stomach you calling me anything endearing like daddy. You're like...what, 2600? " Childe asked with a slight cringe and soft gag. Xiao flushed and fixed the young ginger with a harsh stare,

"Something like that...yes." 

"Right, definitely older than me. So, since I'm marrying your dad..." Childe gave a half-shrug paired with an awkward, lopsided smile. 

"Where do we stand? I refuse to refer to you as anything endearing, I've outlived you a dozen times over and frankly, I'm still not fond of you." Xiao asked, tossing another streamer and glaring softly as the streak of red tangled with the high branches of a Ginko tree.

"Hmm...how 'bout acquaintances who both love Zhongli, just differently and we want more than anything to keep our family safe and happy?" Childe adorned their mailbox with a red bow and turned to Xiao with the same lopsided smile from before,

"I find that agreeable, Fatui Scum." Xiao teased with a less biting tone than normal, earning a boisterous laugh from the ginger. 

"Perfect." Childe elbowed him playfully before hanging the last streamer together. 

"...you know...it kinda looks….bad." Childe admitted as they examined the house; Xiao nodded, cocking his head to the side to view it at a different angle.

"..."

"..." Xiao snickered, Childe joining in a moment later as the two returned back inside.

 

Chapter Text

The atmosphere of the house was rowdy and jovial, standard for a celebration, Xiao thought grimly as he kept as far away from the cluster of people crowding around Jinhai as possible. 

The protective side told him to get in there and disperse the crowd with a few well placed snarls, Jinhai and Zhongli were no doubt feeling overwhelmed but the elder was too polite and proper to ever voice his discomfort.

The other side vehemently hissed at the idea of nearing people that weren't familiar to his person. Venti had disappeared into the kitchen to refill his glass of rice wine and bring back a drink for Xiao claiming that the Anemo Adeptus would loosen up with a bit of liquor in his system and stop bringing down the 'vibe'. 

Venti returned and placed a glass of liquid in his hands, Xiao sniffed it with a slight wrinkle to his nose. He determined it was rice wine, the same as Venti's drink which the bard was already in the process of downing with amazing gusto. Xiao winced, the burn of liquor on his tongue wasn't bad but it was unfamiliar, it had been a few decades since his last drink, only really having a glass or two when Cloud Retainer cornered him at her gatherings. 

The furniture had been pushed out of the way in favor of opening the floor plan to accommodate more guests, the Tianquan herself had attended, this time with a brash woman in tow as well as the Qixing's Kequing. 

"S'lively in here, like a very early birthday party." Venti remarked quietly as the purple haired woman sized Childe up with a sharp glare so fierce one could feel the Electro crackle in the air. 

"Unfortunately." Xiao took another sip and managed to keep his expression even at the slightly bitter sweet taste of the wine. Moon Carver parted the crowd after a long moment of noise and idle conversation, Zhongli looking partly relieved when the deer declared that Jinhai should open their gifts; though the hatchling looked far more interested in the Skybracer plush still in hand, an antler was being nibbled on, a sign of favor in Jinhai's world. 

Xiao hadn't had the time to make another mobile for the crib upstairs, though it wasn't like another was necessary, the one still worked just fine at helping lull Jinhai to sleep during nap time. Why try to change something that worked? Xiao figured it wouldn't be terribly important given he has tolerated the close quarters and loud noise for longer than a few seconds not once but twice now for Zhongli's sake. 

Ningguang had gifted a generous sum of Mora, wrapped in a red envelope and stamped with a monogram seal, 

"For her future endeavors, whatever they may be." A cold, yet encouraging message. The Tianquan eyed Childe for a moment before her focus was on Jinhai, giving blessings and wishing for their bright future with a soft, bubbly voice. With so many eyes on her, Xiao felt that the woman was restraining herself and that had this been a private affair, Ningguang would fully succumb to baby speak much like the others had done. Her companion, Beidou, didn't have much to add besides another gift of water toys in the shape of ducks and fishes. 

Jinhai would not be without toys for a long while, the hatchling would certainly have more to add to the toy chest upstairs for them to preen about; each new gift would be met with a loud declaration of want to which Zhongli would chuckle and promise there would be playtime later. Their first child together was certainly spoiled and without want or need of anything, there were a few gifts of clothes from more practical friends. 

Madame Ping had sewn a lovely spring colored dress for the little one, the colors pleasing and complementary to their ginger hair and golden eyes. Lumine arrived slightly late but presented a gift from herself and Paimon of what appeared to be a Ruin Guard figurine made of wood. The knowing look she flashed Childe earned an indignant sputter, there was a story between them and Xiao planned to ask about it later. 

Qiqi's gift was especially sweet, the little Zombie girl had come with Baizhu and presented the small hatchling with a book of pressed flowers, homemade by the look of it.

"Qiqi has written in her journal that when you are old enough, we can go flower picking and Qiqi will teach you the names." Xiao smiled at that, Jinhai would most certainly love that. Their already known affinity for colors and sweet smells would blossom most assuredly into a love of flowers.

"Qiqi, this is a wonderful gift, I will only show Jinhai the pages. That way you can teach them, perhaps she'll even retain the information better hearing it from a dear friend." Zhongli took the book carefully and handed it to Childe who placed it delicately out of harm's way. 

"She spent the better part of a week assembling it, very dedicated to her tasks for Haihai." Baizhu praised, placing a hand atop Qiqi's head, the semblance of a smile tugged at the little girl's lips. 

The rest of gifts were unwrapped and sorted, some guests departing shortly after expressing their well wishes for Jinhai and the family while others stuck around and drank wine as the atmosphere became less rowdy and loud and more intimate and subdued. 

Xiao thought perhaps he was tipsy as for once his thoughts weren't rigid like rock and more flowing like water, his stream of consciousness was free and fleeting, he didn't even mind the noise and still crowded atmosphere of the sitting room. He had lost count of his number of drinks a while ago, hunkered into one of the sofas that had been dragged back into place to provide sitting room for those who had chosen to stay longer like the Adepti and Lumine. Venti returned to his spot beside Xiao after fetching another drink, cuddling into his person as he slipped a cup into Xiao's grasp. This time the wine was red and sweet, like grape juice with a hint of spice, the alcohol didn't even burn on the way down.

Jinhai gurgled in Childe's arms having fallen asleep ages ago for an impromptu nap. Xiao studied the little hatchling, wondering how a baby with hair the prettiest shade of black would look, perhaps a few streaks of Venti's summer green curled throughout? It would be easy, Xiao could make it happen with his Adeptal body, a little one for himself and Venti. Would they come from an egg or would he give birth like humans did? Xiao found a hand coming to rest over his stomach, grinning stupidly at the idea of getting pregnant by Venti's embrace-

The Yaksha sobered immediately, drunken fancy vaporizing with a face flushed deep crimson bright enough Lumine could spot it from where she'd say next to Childe; it took considerable effort not to shatter his drinking glass and he opted to set it aside, no more drinks the rest of the evening. 

Xiao quickly filed his thoughts away, those were for later, much, much later, centuries of much later. When he and Venti were actually on an intimate level and not tentatively stopping mid-makeout with lust aching in their bellies. The Anemo Adeptus still needed...time, and a little space before he was ready for that level of commitment to their still developing relationship. Intimacy was hard for him, Venti understood of course, but that didn't change the fact Xiao just wasn't ready, no matter what the alcohol told him.

Xiao squirmed in his seat, ignoring the weird feeling in his gut, the mental image of a giggly baby with Venti's soft hair and his golden eyes wasn't entirely unpleasant and the Adeptus was a little unsettled about how easily his resolve had been shaken just from a few stray thoughts.

Heavens above, he was just as bad as Zhongli wasn't he?

 

Chapter Text

Zhongli prided himself on his composure, he was usually able to remain calm in a variety of situations ranging from war torn battlefields to irate clients at his former place of work. He was a former Warrior God, stoic and proud, steadfast and resilient like a great stone in a riverbed...he was on the verge of a breakdown because Jinhai had attempted to stand on their chubby human legs and had fallen flat on their face elliciting the worst heart palpitations he'd ever experienced. 

"Mamaaaa!" Jinhai had wailed, chilling him to the bone as he scrambled to draw his little one into his bosom and coddle. They had been playing moments ago in the nursery with their new toys from the celebration of their 100th day when Jinhai had suddenly stood, Zhongli praising his darling hatchling with wide, wet eyes and delirious smile. He had held out his hands, prompting Jinhai to take a step that had squarely put them on their face a moment later. 

Venti came scrambling into the room, Zhongli looking like he was about to burst into tears of his own, rocking the wailing babe and hushing them softly.

"What happened!?"

"Haihai fell on her face!" Zhongli cried, feeling ashamed; the bard frowned and hurried to assess the hatchling's reddened cheeks and nose, nothing appeared to be broken but it had no doubt startled the poor thing.

"How did she fall on her face, she sits so low to the ground?" Venti asked once the wailing had subsided to whimpering sniffles of 'mama' and 'hurt' to which Zhongli would pepper kisses and cuddle. 

"She tried to take a step towards me."

"Wait, like walking!?" Venti blurted, slight excitement in his eyes. "This is wonderful news, we can set up the sitting room to help steady her balance-"

"No!" Zhongli curled protectively around Jinhai and Venti frowned. 

"No…?"

"I won't risk her falling again." The elder croaked, Venti sighed softly at his statement and sank down to sit cross-legged across from his dearest friend. 

"Haihai is going to take tumbles while learning to walk. That is the nature of human children and Haihai is very active." Ventu scooted close to peer up at Zhongli, green eyes meeting amber ones. 

"Would you have stopped Jinhai from hatching if you knew it hurt or put strain on their muscles?"

"....no, that is how Exuvia hatch." Zhongli murmured, the elder looked to his young with a frown; the tears had stopped and Jinhai was gnawing the fabric of his casual shirt, seemingly fine when moments ago they had been crying out in pain. 

"..."

"We can set up an area that will help support her weight and I promise I will catch her should she fall." Zhongli worked his jaw, Childe and Xiao were out of the house, his mate was working a shift at the bank while Xiao tended to some of his personal affairs. It would just be the two of them, would that be enough to ensure Jinhai wouldn't get hurt? 

"Come on ya blockhead, trust me! I'm the former God of wind and freedom, I'll make sure you're little one is moving and grooving before the end of the day." Venti affectionately punched the Geo Archon's bicep. Zhongli continued to hesitate, glancing to Jinhai once more who had turned their golden gaze on him curiously; Venti sighed through his nose,

"Imagine the face Childe makes when your little one greets him on their little human feet. Bet he smiles real wide." Zhongli glowered at that, how dare Venti assume the thought of Childe's jubilant expression would be enough to convince him to jeopardize Jinhai's safety. The elder made to tell the Anemo wielder off when he was struck with a vision of his mate's warm smile and vibrant eyes as there little one hobbled into his arms when he returned from work. 

"...you promise you won't let her fall?"

"Cross my heart and hope to die, as her uncle I won't let Haihai fall." Venti smiled warmly and Zhongli finally conceded. What followed was a painstakingly long process of building what appeared to be an obstacle course in the sitting room specifically meant to promote walking in the little hatchling. Zhongli was placed at one end of a long stretch of table, sofa, and cushions while Venti had Jinhai at the other. 

"This looks...unsafe." Zhongli said tersely, eyeing the rounded edge of the table. 

"Nonsense! It's adventurous! It will help Haihai stand on her own two feet, now call for her." 

Zhongli crouched down and held out his hands nervously,

"Haihai, my dear, come to mama." Jinhai perked up in Venti's arms, golden eyes sparkling,

"Mama," they made a grabby hand motion before Venti set them upright on their feet where they stood awkwardly, eyes glued to their toes. They seemed hesitant to take a step, no doubt remembering their previous topple. 

"Haihai...come to me little one." Zhongli called again, Venti gently guided the little one to the obstacle course though Zhongli realized now the edges were more like handrails. 

A step, wobbling and unsteady, Jinhai whined and pursed their lips. 

"Haihai~" Zhongli sing songed, pulling their attention from their toes and drawing a small smile from his hatchling as another wobbly step followed.

The afternoon passed in a blur, Jinhai wobbling their way through the obstacle course to Zhongli's awaiting arms where he would scoop them up and purr loudly, cooing and kissing his praise upon his little one. Xiao returned home just before sunset, haggard expression melting into pleasant surprise when Jinhai approached on fawn-like legs, hands outstretched,

"Xiao!" 

"Hello there, Haihai." Xiao greeted them softly and pulled them up into a tight hug, the Yaksha carding his fingers through ginger curls as he came to cuddle his niece on the sofa. Zhongli felt his excitement grow the closer they came to Childe's return home. The wait was unbearable, minutes stretching on for what felt like hours, Zhongli wishing time to rush onward so he could share in his parental pride with Childe about their little one's achievements. 

The front door opened and much to Zhongli's surprise and delight, Jinhai bolted from her resting spot in Xiao's lap, the little patter of bare feet slapping against hardwood as the little hatchling went to greet their papa like clockwork. Zhongli stayed put, ears straining for the quiet, chest seizing gasp and small choke of surprise; Childe's eyes would widen ever so slightly, breath frozen in his chest as Jinhai approached excitedly. Zhongli smiled at the mental picture, creeping from his spot finally to look for himself as his mate tumbled to his knees to clutch Jinhai into his chest. 

"Papa!" Jinhai squealed, little arms wrapping around Childe's neck as his young mate burrowed their face into curls of ginger hair, 

"Look at you, look at you, my little yabloko walking to papa like a pro." He praised softly, blue gaze meeting Zhongli's with an overflow of love, adoration, and pride. Their little one was growing; what parents wouldn't be proud to see their first child together take their first steps? He placed a kiss upon his mate's lips when the young man stood to greet him, sweet and tender with joy bleeding from his being. He chest ached pleasantly, basking in the warmth of his mate and young, something he had never experienced the wonder of before what with his past nature of being a Exuvia; but this wasn't the past, it was a bright, exciting future.

Zhongli couldn't wait to add more little ones to their family, to see more and more hatchling's take their first steps on pudgy, tiny feet with smiles as wide as their father's. Jinhai let out a loud huff of annoyance drawing both their attentions to their baby sandwiched between them looking nonplussed at their arrangement. Childe snorted into a loud, undignified laugh; Zhongli grinned falling into his own set of giddy laughter.

 

Chapter Text

Childe didn't think himself a patient person, he knew better than that, he was a calculative person by nature and knew when it was best to wait though he would always itch to make a move. He was smart (when Zhongli wasn't involved) and could bide his time until the right moment to strike. Unfortunately, that smart calculative thinking didn't work for the more mundane tasks at hand, nor for planning events like say...his wedding. 

Something he was a bit disappointed in himself for but also gladdened because Liyue had some very intensive and old traditions that he didn't understand the half of. So perhaps it was best Zhongli did the planning and saw to most of what they needed for the ceremony because Childe sure as shit wouldn't know where to go for it. Invitations were due to be sent out at the end of the week printed on a special red paper embossed with elegant gold leaf; of course, they would have gone out sooner had Childe not tripped up on a small (massive) detail.

"What do you mean you haven't thought of a Bride Price to send to your family!?" Zhongli gasped exasperatedly, slamming a planner shut with a little more force than Childe expected. Zhongli had been…tense that past week or so, planning a wedding on short notice for spring in hindsight was probably a big mistake but the elder was insistent it had to be in the spring. There being beauty in new beginnings of nature and their relationship moving to a deeper level; romantic stuff that Childe admittedly wasn't the most attuned with. 

"...uh...because I didn't think one needed to be sent? I thought the chopstick dowry was all we were fussing with…?" Zhongli looked as if Childe had just suggested they drop Jinhai off at some remote location and ditch them. 

"Those were a proposal gift to you! Not your family! While we might have referred to them as dowry, your family isn't actually paying a dowry. I won't accept it as I stand to gain more from our marriage and I have no need of extra property or Mora." Zhongli groused with an irritable huff. 

On top of planning a very in-depth Traditional Liyuen wedding, Zhongli was insistent that a proper gift be sent to his family, a custom Childe was familiar with from the motherland but it usually pertained to women, not men.

"... aren't we both men…?" 

"You're still a bride! We may be husbands but that doesn't mean I'm cheating your family out of a proper exchange for their son." 

"It sounds like you're trying to buy me…" Childe grumbled, letting his irritation show with a sharp furrow of his brow. Zhongli wilted a bit,

"I do not mean to come off like that, forgive me. I am just worried that...that they'll think poor of me for not following customs. My understanding of your culture is that they expect to be gifted livestock or some sort of cattle as recuperation for losing a child through matrimony." 

"Please do not send my mother livestock. She has enough on her plate between everything else going on back home." Childe ground out.

"Ajax…"

"No. That's final. My parents might be sitting pretty thanks to my Harbinger pay but there is no way they could afford upkeep on a herd of animals." Zhongli scowled at him, hands clasping and unclasping in thought. 

"I'm not budging on this." Childe nearly fell from his seat, slapping his hands to his eyes and groaning loudly, a slight rumble in his throat as he did so. 

"Isn't it enough we're covering expenses for them to attend the wedding!?"

"No!" Zhongli flushed angrily, as if Childe was insulting the elder's family rather than his own. Childe growled, wracking his brain for anything his family could need or want that would satisfy Zhongli. His family was well off thanks to his insistent gifts home of Mora and anything between; his Harbinger salary had paid enough to let his family live comfortably and leave excess in Childe's account. 

They had needed a new stove years ago but he had bought one, even getting his mother new pots and pans! He'd paid for a new roof too when Tonia had mentioned a terrible leak in the living room, the ginger hadn't hesitated to pull strings and dump Mora into keeping his family happy and healthy. For Krysnik Noc before he departed for Liyue he'd had his mother's beloved sewing machine refurbished, allowing her to continue her craft without having to smack the damn thing every time the Electro crystal dislodged. Childe sat up, a sudden thought struck him as he met Zhongli's eye, 

"Fabric. Bolts of fabric and thread." Childe blurted, it was useful for the whole family. His mother could indulge her hobbies and the family would get new clothes, a win-win for everyone. Zhongli blinked,

"For a Bride Price…?"

"My mother loves to sew but hardly indulges herself with new fabrics, she only gets what she needs to repair. Bolts of Liyuen silk and cotton would be a wonderful gift that my family could benefit from and I bet they haven't seen half as many of the colors the market place has in stock." Childe continued, watching his mate's expression carefully. Zhongli nodded after a moment,

"I find that an acceptable gift idea. We can go to the Market tomorrow and prepare the order." Childe let out a breathy sigh of relief and smiled finally though strained,

"... Zhongli, why is this so important to you? You're not requesting a dowry and yet feel the need to prepare a bride price, why?" Zhongli flushed and hunched his shoulders, 

"An extravagant gift feels necessary when it comes to you...to show that I understand what a blessing it is that they have allowed me to claim you as mine, to let me wed you. To show that I understand how valuable you truly are."

"…" Childe shifted in his seat awkwardly, not sure what to say at the elder's admission. He still didn't understand all of this nonsense and pressure put on the exchange, his mother was happy enough knowing her troublesome middle child had met a person who tolerated and loved him enough to bestow her with grandchildren. 

Zhongli purred apologetically, fingers lacing with the ginger's, 

"Thank you for being patient with me." Childe huffed fondly and let the issue be, if it helped his mate and eased some of the burden then they'd pick out fabrics for the sake of sanity in their future marriage.

8 bolts of the most luxurious lotus root silk and 8 bolts of the finest cotton were selected the next morning; Jinhai had aided in picking the colors along with them, oohing and awing at the beautiful shades and hues. Thread was chosen to correspond with the fabric and Zhongli had enough hindsight to include a lengthy novel about Silk care and sewing techniques as well as specialized needles so his mother wouldn't accidentally damage the luxurious fabrics. 

A few kites and nonperishable snacks were included for his siblings along with the prepared wedding invitation and enough Mora to cover travel expenses for Childe's family of seven. The young Fatui had also included a letter, keeping it from Zhongli's curious gaze as he knew his mate could be nosy and this letter wasn't meant for him. 

The crate was sealed and stamped with the proper shipping labels and paperwork was filed, they informed the couple that it should arrive in Morepesok in roughly one to two weeks time, the standard for cargo like this; they bid the post office a good afternoon and decided that lunch at Wanmin's was a well deserved treat for their hard efforts. 

Dear Mother,

I hope this letter finds you well and that Zhongli's gift didn't cause you to faint when you saw the contents of the crate. 

He was very insistent about paying a proper bride price and it was comparable to pulling teeth trying to convince him not to send you a herd of cattle or sheep! He's been reading up on our customs and was convinced you were expecting livestock of some sort, it would have been amusing had he not been directing his irritation at me for insinuating you didn't want cows.

I hope this gift is satisfactory, please let it be satisfactory and be sure to tell him when you see him! Zhongli won't ask himself so I need you to do me a big favor and gush about it just a little bit so he doesn't sulk! It comes from a good place! He wants to make a good impression on our family as a future son-in-law but has a funny way of showing it, he's all about well-balanced contracts and exchanges.

I am so excited for you to meet him properly and to meet Jinhai for the first time, you're going to love her mama. 

If you could do one last favor, please be sure to send a letter notifying me of your estimated departure date, that way we can greet you right as you get off the boat.

With love,

Ajax

P.S. Please inform me if father needs more medicine, I'll send another batch when able.

 

Chapter Text

"Uuuuuuuughhhhhh…"

"Hush my love, it's only a fitting."

"But it's the weekend! I wanted to stay in bed and cuddle..." Childe pouted, lower lip jutting with a childish wobble. Zhongli found it endearing but a little frustrating as they waited for their appointment with Mei Rin, a highly sought after seamstress who specialized in wedding attire for brides and grooms. The parlor of the seamstress' business was lavish and decorated with fine luxury goods, tea had been offered but Zhongli had politely declined, partly worried that was going to be added to the expense of the appointment.

It had taken a bit of buttering up and Jinhai's naturally cute smile to arrange this appointment; Zhongli didn't have quite as much sway over businesses like Ningguang did and the Tianquan had so helpfully made the appointment after Zhongli had promised to let the business woman spend the day with Jinhai. He didn't want to add any extra charges and warm Ningguang's ire when he'd barely gotten away with this little trade and was quite certain it was only thanks to Jinhai's struggle with names. Zhongli had never seen 'Auntie Ningning' buckle so quickly at any sort of flattery or pet names. The innocent, doe-like look and puzzled expression of trying to say Ningguang's name however, instant success, though the Tianquan claimed the time would be spent trying to help Jinhai with her words.

Childe had scorned him just a little but letting Ningguang spoil their hatchling in exchange for an appointment at The Crane's Feather, and with Mei Rin no less, was worth it especially when Zhongli pictured how beautiful his Ajax would look in rich crimson and gold. Mora was no object, he wanted Ajax to look as beautiful as Zhongli knew him to be and Mei Rin would do just that, he preened quietly to himself delighting wickedly in the idea of all the young suitors looking forlornly at Childe's spoken for visage. The elder might be slightly ignorant and aloof, but he never failed to miss when a pair of eyes lingered longfully after his mate, a curse of his possessive nature. 

"Can't believe you traded our daughter's time for a fitting…" Childe groused and Zhongli startled slightly from his thoughts with a quiet huff, 

"Not just any fitting, Ms. Mei Rin has been helping couples look and feel like royalty on their wedding day for nearly a decade." Childe would look Heaven sent, he already looked beautiful at every angle, the elder's thoughts were struggling to even picture how Childe's beauty would blossom under Mei Rin's careful hand.

"I don't need to look and feel like anything. We're getting married and that should be enough." The young ginger's tone was almost belligerent, like he was trying to goad Zhongli into a fight, that was odd given he had been easy going this morning. Before Zhongli could question his lover a young women of elegant poise and beauty approached with a radiant smile, 

"Master Zhongli, Master Childe, thank you both for waiting patiently. I know how exciting this must feel." Mei Rin addressed the both of them while Zhongli stood to offer his polite greeting. 

"Please, it's an honor to have an audience with you." They exchanged pleasantries and the seamstress gestured for the two to follow her deeper into the building where she could take measurements and get a feel for their sense of style. Mei Rin brought them to a fitting room where a small group of assistants awaited with warm smiles; sharks the lot of them. No sooner than had the door closed behind the two men did the women pounce and seconds later Zhongli and Childe were placed before each other looking frazzled but beautiful.

"Isn't there some superstition about seeing the bride's dress!?" Childe sputtered cutely while his eyes didn't quite meet Zhongli's, who was unabashedly ogling. They'd put the ginger in a qipao of a gorgeous red shade that had yet to be embroidered, an expansive plain of crimson just waiting for the needlework. Zhongli had been dressed in a simple black Mandarin that would be paired with a red overcoat the same shade as the qipao and Mei Rin was quick to pin and primp where needed before jotting down notes in a small book.

"If you're uncomfortable with the qipao, there is always the hung kwa which is still very popular with our clients." Mei Rin offered when she took note of Childe assessing himself in a mirror with a soft frown. 

"Childe?" Zhongli approached tentatively, worried that perhaps his lover's bad mood was spurred by self doubts; the ginger flexed, muscles bulging slightly as Childe cocked his head in scrutiny. 

"Huh…" the young man took up a combative stance and made a noise of delighted surprise,

"I can really move in this thing!" He kicked a leg up high, acting as if he were striking someone with the heel of his foot. Zhongli relaxed with a heavy, tired sigh; of course Childe wouldn't fall prey to worries others might. His mate, while prideful of his appearance, was not so hung up on the display of flesh or the peeking of scars scattered about his body; the elder felt his stomach bubbling excitedly at Childe's mirth. 

"You look stunning, truly a knockout." Zhongli teased as his lover continued to move and bounce on his feet,

"This is amazing! I thought they were gonna stick me in something stuffy!" Childe grinned ear to ear, turning shy at Zhongli's fond amber gaze,

"You understand this is for our wedding, yes?"

"...I do." Childe flushed, the sleeveless nature of the dress revealing that the heated skin trailed all the way to his shoulders, revealing spatters of freckles he's earned from days spent in the Liyuen sun and heat. 

"So for now, let's focus on getting it to fit properly and prepare it for the ceremony. We can find you more suitable qipao for combat later." Zhongli assured, delighting in the younger mate's wild smile, it seemed Childe's earlier mood came from the assumption he'd be stuck in something uncomfortable. As if Zhongli would allow his young love to feel any sort of unhappiness on their cherished day, the qipao was best suited for Ajax as he was nimble, spry, and liable to kick up a fuss if he was put in anything flashier than his Fatui Uniform that didn't let him move freely. Zhongli turned to speak with Mei Rin but paused when Childe cupped his cheeks and stole a kiss,

"You look pretty great too." The elder flushed a bit at the hushed aws that filled the room; were this a different time or perhaps different company Zhongli might have scolded him gently, however, the elder felt he could let the younger have his way just this once and returned the kiss tenderly. 

Mei Rin huffed softly before her heels clicked along the tiles floor and a veil of sheer red silk was tossed over Childe's head coming to drape over his shoulders. Zhongli gasped quietly while his lover frowned and fussed with the delicate fabric. 

"How does the veil look, compliments his eyes, yes?"

"I'm not sure I am a veil kind of-"

"Yes. It does. Makes them more vibrant than any piece of Noctioulous Jade could ever hope to compare, what do you think, darling?" Zhongli purred into his mate's ear, turning the ginger's head to look into a mirror where they made quite the handsome couple. Childe sighed dramatically, ocean eyes narrowing in irritation and glancing to Zhongli's hopeful amber hues burning bright,

"Fine...we'll go with the veil." Zhongli pecked his cheek sweetly as thanks. 

 

Chapter Text

Venti sighed, loud and long and very, very annoying. 

"This is soooooo boring." The bard groused with a yawn, causing Childe's eyebrow to twitch dangerously, fierce blue glare darting to silence the annoying shrimp. 

"I am amazed Xiao tolerates you. I have only been around you for a few moments and I already want to end you." The young Fatui snarled quietly, just loud enough for Venti to hear but not other citizens milling about the Harbor.

"Well, had you told me this adventure was house hunting I would have stayed home or gone with Lumine." Venti pouted with his brow pinched at the middle,

"I didn't take you for the combative type." Childe sneered,

"A Ruin Hunter is serious business! We all should have gone honestly. Zhongli maybe be able to provide a shield but Ruin Hunters can shred through it like paper…" Venti said worriedly. Childe scoffed quietly, earning a suspicious glare from the shorter man following after him, 

"Come to think of it, you would jump at the chance to fight something like that."

"I most certainly would."

"...but you volunteered to stay home with Haihai...which means…." Venti gasped quietly, incredulous look in his eyes with a cheeky grin spreading across his face,

"There is no Ruin Hunter is there!? You planned this!" Childe chortled,

"Ding ding, we have a winner! It doesn't take much to convince Lumine to help get certain someones out of the way; just wasn't expecting you to not go along. That's my mistake." The young Fatui said with a growl just as the realtor turned to face him with a strained, thin smile.

This was not what she had signed up for, a known Harbinger and his whiny bard companion, his initial request had informed the realtor it would be just him and the baby...but then her face had fallen when she took note of who the client was. Childe had contacted Ms. Fuhua about looking for a home with plenty of room for a growing family, sending his request by mail, they had met up outside the housing office. 

The young ginger was quickly realizing that Liyue Harbor was vast and plentiful but with so many people in once place many available houses were more suited for smaller families; if Childe wanted a larger house, they would need to find something closer to the outskirts of the Harbor...or Yuijing Terrace which was a little pricey considering they would have a brood of hatchlings scrambling about. 

Zhongli already cringed whenever Jinhai's claws skid across the hardwood now, the young ginger couldn't imagine his lover's face if those claws touched upon expensive hardwood floors. The realtor waved a hand in front of his eyes to draw his attention, pulling the young man from his thoughts.

"This is the last house available that meets your criteria before we have to start looking in the Terrace." Childe felt a pit in his stomach form, he wanted to surprise his lover with a big house for their family and planned six hatchlings as a wedding gift; but that was turning out to be a fruitless endeavor. Zhongli's current house was cozy and wonderful and they could make it work but Childe wanted to provide. He wanted to give his young a playroom and space to grow, there was nothing wrong with sharing rooms as he had done it growing up, but he still wanted space for them. 

He knew how his mother stressed raising 6 children in a three bedroom cottage, the youngest siblings still shared a bedroom now to leave space for when Childe made visits home or the eldest children came around. 

"This house was built roughly three decades ago by one of Liyue's finest carpenters. He's recently retired with his wife to Qingce village and the house has been giving him far too much trouble with the upkeep." Ms. Fuhua explained unlocking the gate with a set of keys, the front yard was decently sized with a privacy fence that kept anyone from snooping around; Jinhai gave a lazy hum of interest from around their pacifier.

"He built it for his wife and family but none of the children have claimed a stake for it, so he put it on the market."

"Why don't the kids want it? That's troubling." Venti glanced nervously around the exterior, from the outside it appeared to be a simple, two-story house with standard Liyuen architecture and roofing. 

"As I mentioned, the upkeep is very time consuming. The exterior is very deceiving and the backyard is very large, it's a decent chunk of property." Childe brightened at that, a large backyard was good for playing and expending hatchling energy. A free hand came to rest atop Jinhai's head and comb their hair soothingly, the little one purred affectionately, nuzzling back against their papa sweetly.

The realtor unlocked the front door and let them step inside, the exterior was indeed deceptive, the foyer itself was large and immediately led into a hallway connecting the sitting room, dining room, kitchen, small washroom, and then a grand staircase up to the second floor.

"This house contains a total of six bedrooms including the master bedroom upstairs, and counting one spare room that can be used as one on the ground floor." She explained leading them to the ground floor room, Venti whizzed past right into the room with a gasp as he flitted from one large window to another. Ms. Fuhua guided Childe through the rest of the ground floor, showing off features and fixtures he hadn't even considered when house hunting. 

The second floor was just as nice as the first, the master bedroom having its own bathroom on top of an extra one in the hall connecting all the rooms. No more awkward mornings of letting Xiao or Venti use the tub in his and Zhongli's room. 

"Papa!" Childe startled, looking to his little one curiously, Jinhai squrimed to be let down and he complied after a moment's hesitation. Little shoes padded against the floor as Jinhai darted into another room with large windows and lots of floor space. The walls were colored a pale peach with delicate brush work detailing a bamboo thicket dotted with little animals. 

"I take it this hasn't changed since the original building of the house?" 

"Correct." 

"Mine!" Jinhai declared after assessing the room, face scrunched in thought much like Zhongli when he haggled, though he seldom ended up with a good deal. 

"Oh? You like this one?" Childe came to kneel beside Jinhai who had pressed herself into the wall, a sprawling visage of Rex Lapis had been lovingly depicted emerging from the bamboo thicket.

"Mama…" Jinhai murmured, soft enough that Childe felt his heart combust, he pressed a kiss to their chubby cheek and huffed; Zhongli was going to kill him. He was jumping into the waters without looking, the surprise aspect was supposed to be the offer to move, not buy the house outright. The desire to provide outweighed his rational thoughts, Jinhai was partial to this room and it was large enough for their toys and climbing tree and any additional things the next hatchlings might receive. 

Sharing bedrooms wouldn't be an issue considering how Jinhai still slept in their bed, an instinct, Zhongli had called it. An instinct that might never go away given how Venti and Xiao still regularly joined them in the bed for cuddles and naps.

Childe's brow furrowed in thought, recalling his childhood, bundled in a bed with his older brother, how safe it had felt curled up next to him when his own small bed had felt too cold. A memory of dumping snow down his sister's shirt surfaced when it had just been the three of them, long before the birth of Tonia. 

When he had been the littlest of the Lenkov children, when his siblings had still doted and looked out for his shy nature...and then he'd fallen...and they stopped doting, stopped touching, no more shared nights cuddled close to Bartok. No more snow fights with Tanya, no more anything. 

No longer allowed to hold his newborn brother, no longer left alone to play with Tonia and Anthon. For a middle child at 14...he'd been lonely. Childe watched as Jinhai discovered marks on the door jam, little ticks with names scrawled next to them, a measurement of time passed and the growth of children. 

"...papa?" Golden eyes met his stormy blue, pulling him out of bittersweet memories. Jinhai would not suffer anything remotely like that, none of his children would, he would make absolutely certain of it.

"We'll take it."

"Oh, uh, well there is another offer on the house right now, you could make a larger bid-" Childe placed a hand on Ms. Fuhua's shoulder causing her to pause. 

"I said, we'll take it." He let the bite of a threat slip through his charming smile, blue eyes flashing dangerously while the realtor soaked up his words. 

"A-ah. I will….I will fetch the appropriate paperwork. What's a good time to go over everything and for me to collect payment on the house?" 

"As soon as you're ready to have me." Childe said, smile just as sharp as the last; Jinhai was gathered in his arms and he strolled down the staircase to fetch Venti, the realtor none too graciously hurrying out of the house to be away from the Fatui agent. Venti was still in the downstairs bedroom lying on the floor, limbs spread out like a cat basking in the sun. 

"What do you think?" Venti questioned,

"I think this place is great, aside from the dated kitchen, but that can be fixed easily." Childe replied with a half shrug.

"What about you?" The ginger asked, having Venti's approval was sort of like having Zhongli's...in a by-proxy sort of way. 

"I like this room, all the windows make it feel super sunny and warm...and there's a door that leads to the outside!" Venti perked up, hurrying to show Childe said door,

"I'm glad, this is your home too, so I want you to like it." Childe said nonchalantly as he tucked Jinhai back into the papoose. Venti stilled, freezing mid-action as he placed his hand over the knob.

"Home…?" The bard turned to give Childe a suspicious glare to which he grinned, 

"Yeah? Zhongli says your family so that means giving you and Xiao a room here. That way…" Childe's face fell just a fraction, a crack in the armor he kept about himself.

"-there's always a place for you to come back to, whenever you finish wandering." The smile turned stiff, taking considerable effort to hold it there, Venti frowned and made to speak when Childe turned on his heel.

"We should go, the realtor is waiting." The bard trailed after sending worried glances the young ginger's way, he didn't like the implications of Childe's words.

Chapter Text

To say he was shocked was an... understatement. Zhongli hadn't expected an early wedding gift, let alone that early wedding gift being a house large enough for their planned brood and extra family members.

"Mama, follow Haihai!" Their hatchling had been dragging him all over the new house, showing him the rooms before bringing him to the playroom last showing visible excitement delight with a few short hops. Meanwhile, Zhongli was still processing the house, it was honestly overwhelming, such a sudden change like this. Zhongli had thought they would at least have another egg in the old house after the wedding before they thought of expanding. 

"Mama! Mama look!" Jinhai bounced animatedly on her feet, pressing themself to a depiction of Rex Lapis and purring, golden eyes dancing giddily with excitement. Zhongli was happy that Jinhai was happy at the very least, the little hatchling seemed to take the coming changes in stride where other children might falter. 

They hadn't moved officially, while Childe had bought the house, he'd presented it like a scolded dog and if his mate had ears to match the behavior they would have surely been pressed back against his head. The proverbial ball was in Zhongli's court now, Childe had bought the house and gifted it to the elder but it was up to Zhongli if they would move. 

The current house was home. It had been Zhongli's abode for several years while he'd cemented his mortal form into the populace, he'd experienced new memories there; perhaps he'd grown sentimental towards the old house. He'd realized his love for Childe there, stolen a chaste kiss on the porch after the young Fatui walked him home one night after dinner. Zhongli had given birth in that house, cocooned in a blanket of safety and scents; moving would mean the next hatchling would be born here, in a house empty of scents and comfort. 

The elder frowned, that wasn't necessarily true, he wasn't gestating yet and it would be some time he felt before they managed to conceive again; that meant there would be plenty of time to scent the house and make it a true home by filling it with their bits and baubles. He could even display his collection of first edition books properly now thanks to all the space the new place provided.

"Mama!" Zhongli blinked and turned his gaze to Jinhai, grinning up at him expectantly, he'd been given a tour of the painted room thrice now, the hatchling was infatuated with the mural and it was adorable to see their little one excited about the animals. It seemed everyone in their family was fond of the new house, already eager to move in and settle. The former God sighed heavily and bent to pick Jinhai up with a low rumbling purr,

"You seem to love it here...it's big for all your toys and you can run all you want outside…" Zhongli commented, gazing out the window at the stretch of land that made up the backyard, a benefit of being slightly outside the Harbor was more space. Space Zhongli couldn't force into their current home even if he wanted to, they would quickly run out of room if they truly wanted five more eggs, six hatchlings in all. 

Zhongli took a deep cleansing breath to center himself and set his thoughts in order. A mental picture of several hatchlings appeared, all rushing towards the house as if having been called in for dinner perhaps; little horns and glittering scales became happy grins and tiny feet coated in a fine layer of earth. They smiled up at him, presenting sweet flowers and mint they found growing in the field; six little ones in all. They would have so much room to grow here... unburdened by the confined space of the harbor.

"What do you think…?" Zhongli gasped softly and turned to meet Childe's hesitant gaze, he had been distant all day, no doubt embarrassed at having acted so quickly without his mate's consultation. Zhongli felt he should be furious, maybe even a little betrayed. Childe had gone so far behind his back and bought a house, though the ginger had frantically explained his original plan was a bid on the house.

A rational mortal would have snapped and snarled about being left out of such a big decision; however, Zhongli didn't really feel any of that, perhaps the wedding plans had taken the wind from his sails, the most he could feel was fond irritation and let out a few hefty sighs. Ajax was an interesting mate after all and they typically both seemed to lose all proper thinking when it came to each other. 

"It's a beautiful house, very spacious, good for a large family." 

"..."

"I had hoped to perhaps give birth once more in our old home and have another little one before looking for a new place but...this is proactive and prevents us from acquiring too many things, Jinhai was certainly spoiled for the 100th day, I can only imagine how the second hatchling would be received." Zhongli snorted through his nose, imagining how cramped the nursery would become with the addition of another little one. 

"It's smart, moving now before I gestate again." Childe brightened a bit, a tight smile turning sheepish.

"So…?"

"While I wish you had stuck with the original plan so I could see the house before purchasing, I do like it. I think it will be a wonderful place to raise-" Zhongli yelped as his mate tackled him in a hug, nearly knocking the three of them to the floor while the ginger assaulted him with kisses and nips of teeth. Zhongli felt warmth bubble up and overflow, carding his fingers through ginger locks and purring sweetly; we're it not for Jinhai tagging along, perhaps they would have broken the new house in right there on the hardwood floors.

Now wasn't that a thought? Slightly exhibitionist in nature but it was their house now after all.

"Papa, hurt mama, no!" Jinhai fussed, pounding little fists at Childe's chest earning a soft giggle from Zhongli. Something wet soaked into the collar of his shirt when his mate settled causing the elder to still, 

"Childe?" 

"S'nothing...just happy I didn't royally piss you off." Zhongli hummed at that, pressing a soft kiss to the other's cheek. 

"I wouldn't have stayed angry, you're building a nest, a home, for all of us." It was decided then, they would move within the week and get settled before the wedding.

Childe snuggled him tight the first night in their new home, bedroom arranged but not fully unpacked; kissing fluttery marks down his neck and shoulders, showering Zhongli in affection and praises, soft 'thank you's and 'I love you's joined the fray not long after. It appeared his young mate needed reassuring that the elder wasn't angry and were it not for Jinhai's long coiling body, he would have made love to him then and there to show Ajax just how he felt.

 

Chapter Text

Venti burst forth from the Waypoint with a giddy, 

"Yahoo~!" Turning on his bouncing heels as the rest of the posse appeared in a swirl of sparkling energy. Lumine had graciously allowed them to tag along with her to return to Mondstadt for the festival season, Ludi Harpastrum, which Venti said he couldn't afford to miss. The bard was excited, dancing on the tips of his toes and channeling the wind to carry his joy skyward to the heavens. Their little posse consistented of the mates, their young, and Xiao who looked just slightly shy of uneasy.

"Paimon is so excited! All the dancing, the flowers, the food-"

"The drinking!" Venti exclaimed loudly, tossing his hands up and going for a high five; Zhongli scowled in disapproval.

"Please try to...restrain yourself. I don't want Haihai picking up unsavory habits." Venti frowned at that and pursed his lips in a pout, what right did Zhongli have over his drinking on his home turf? This was Mondstadt, this was Venti's festival, he'd behaved all of Lantern Rite, didn't he deserve a reward?

"Zhongli...if I may?" Xiao awkwardly shuffled to stand next to Venti,

"Uhm…I don't think you should tell Venti...what he can do...here! That is-" Xiao interlaced their fingers, "this isn't Liyue so...Venti should dictate what he wants." The bard gawked at his boyfriend, Xiao wasn't a drinker by far and seemed to often avoid the consumption of alcohol and yet, here he was vouching for him. Zhongli gave an irritable sigh and looked between the two of them with a steely gaze. 

"Please...just stay out of trouble. I don't plan to spend the festival trying to bail you out of jail for drunk and disorderly behavior." Zhongli grumbled, earning a light chuckle from Childe and Lumine. 

"Ahem, Paimon thought we were getting a sticky honey roast?" The small fairy asked, voice raising an octave in slight panic; they had promised a honey roast in exchange for Lumine's waypoint abilities, though Childe would have to pay but he knew that already. 

"We are! I promise but first I need to swing by Angel's Share and get this celebration started off~" 

"Xiao, if you wouldn't mind going with shrimpy so the rest of us can get the room booked at the inn?" Childe offered, Xiao nodded and squeezed the former Anemo-Archon's hand gently,

"I'll make sure we stay out of trouble." Venti cheered giddily, immediately proceeding to drag the Yaksha with him towards Angel's Share intending to collect a few favors in the form of free wine and booze. 

"You'll love Dandelion wine! It's so sweet and delicious, I bet you won't even taste the burn." Venti chirped, leading his partner down a set of steps and turning a corner to be met with a small crowd of people gathered around the bar.

It seems Venti wasn't the only one ready to start off their celebrations with a good drink, however, these were paying customers and could be handled by the barkeep. Venti needed to go straight to the source for his liquor; Diluc, who owed him a few favors he'd been saving up since Lumine's arrival in Mondstadt. 

The tycoon would most assuredly be in town for the festival and to help with the workload which probably put him either inside the bar or outback handling extra shipments. Xiao squirmed and squeezed the bard's hand tightly, discomforted by the crowd to which Venti smiled affectionately,

"Stay close to me, I won't let go." And Venti didn't, he held tight and led the way to victory, in the form of a slightly frazzled Diluc overseeing barrels and crates of new product being brought to the cellar. 

"Why hello there, Master Diluc~" the former God chimed sweetly, going straight for the buttering up treatment. 

"Venti, good to see you back in town. You've been gone quite awhile." Diluc huffed, helping unload a crate from a wagon. "My bar's as peaceful as it's ever been without you drunkenly occupying a seat." The redhead finished, a soft snort escaped the Yaksha beside him and Venti chuffed. 

"Yeah yeah, so anyway-"

"Who's your friend?" Venti scowled at being interrupted but brushed it off quickly in favor of boasting about his beautiful, wonderful Xiao. 

"Oh? Him? Only the most greatest and loveliest being of all! My boyfriend, Xiao~" Venti gestured to every part of the Yaksha quickly,

"We go waaaay back, just recently rekindled our feelings." The bard explained earning a fond chuckle from the Ravingnar,

"Well that's good to hear."

"Mhmmmm. Now, while I was away, did you resolve your issues with the Cavalry Captain-"

"Shut up." Venti cackled before propping his elbows on a spare crate and cocking his head. 

"Anyway, before you interrupted me, I was saying I'd like to collect my favors! In the form of your finest vintage please~" 

"..."

"I did a tally in my head and I think a whole crate's worth should suffice."

"You'll get a third." 

"What!?" Venti clasped a hand over his heart as if Diluc had just told him the world was ending. 

"How could you! I worked hard for those favors!"

"And I appreciate you putting for the effort and doing those odd jobs around the winery; but I can't have you getting drunk and unruly during Ludi Harpastrum." Diluc crossed his arms over his chest,

"But I can drink six in just a day! What will my friends have?" 

"You'll have to budget that, as I am only giving you two bottles today-"

"You fiend!" Venti bolted upright with an outraged cry. 

"-and I've left instructions to not serve you at Angel's Share." Venti wailed, flopping onto the crates with dramatic flare; Xiao blinked, not quite sure what he was supposed to be doing when Diluc handed the Yaksha two bottles of Dandelion wine with an exasperated sigh.

"Come see me again when you run out, however, I won't give you anymore if you come right back. See me in three days time-"

"Aha! You have to give me all six! We're departing early for a wedding! Can't stay the whole two weeks." 

"...you can get your refill after a full 24 hours has passed. Try to make it last." Diluc scolded cooly before disappearing into the cellar. 

"Victory is ours~" Venti cheered, wasting no time in uncorking one of the bottles and drinking straight from the spout, much to Xiao's disbelief.

"You...you knew you'd only walk away with six?"

"Diluc's a hardass, no way he'd let me have a crate to myself, though I wasn't expecting the bar thing...might be because my tab was unpaid. That doesn't stop me from begging Childe for something to wet my whistle though."

"Have you no shame!?" Venti cast his liquid, sea green eyes on Xiao with a sly grin, 

"It's Childe, Xiao. Like you don't want to spend his money and see him squirm; now, drink up!" The open bottle was thrust into his boyfriend's hand and Xiao flushed awkwardly before stealing a tentative sip. 

"Whatcha think?"

"It's...sweet, I guess?" Venti chuckled and carroled Xiao into his arms before stealing a kiss that tasted of wine and crisp morning air, the Yaksha's own unique flavor made the wine all the better. They returned to the main square where Venti spotted a head of ginger and the rest of their group sat at Good Hunter's. 

"We have returned! With wine." Venti set the unopened bottle on the table, he'd have his fill of it no doubt and could spare a glass or two when it came to Zhongli and Childe. After all, they had a baby, so they couldn't get carried away like he wanted to;

"That took longer than previously thought, Lumine was worried you'd already ended up in a jail cell." Zhongli groused, tucking a pacifier into Jinhai's mouth when they began to chew on Lumine's dress. The young woman smiled appreciatively and continued to dote and coo at the little one while Venti poured a glass for everyone (of drinking age) just in time for the honey roast.

The meal passed in a blur, wine and food devoured in seconds, Xiao even partaking in the sticky roast when his palate was so picky but perhaps some of it steamed from the alcohol slipping past his lips steadily. A pretty pink flush dusted the Yaksha's cheeks as a pleasant burn settled in the pit of Venti's stomach, his own drink making him giggly; Zhongli and Childe faired better, having only a glass for Jinhai's sake while the rest of the bottle was drank by the traveler and two Anemo wielders, Paimon's soft warning about hangovers falling on deaf ears. 

"We should head to the inn, Haihai is about to pass out on my lap." Childe said gently, prompting Zhongli to look at the little dear fondly as their head dropped sleepily;

"I trust you three will stay out of trouble...even with drinks in your systems?" Xiao, who was still the most sober of them all, nodded.

"We'll be fine, I'll keep an eye on Venti." Lumine snorted through her nose and stood too quickly, stumbling on shaky legs. 

"Haha~ looks like someone can't-" he hiccuped, "handle her drink." 

"Issbeen'while. Think'em underage." Lumine slurred; Childe carefully handed off Jinhai to Zhongli and huffed quietly as he lifted the traveler over his shoulder. 

"Do. Not. Get arrested." Childe warned with a sharp glare at the two remaining Anemo users, Zhongli nodded in agreement while flashing his own glare mostly focused on Venti,

"Please. Do try to keep your enjoyment of the night restrained." Venti waved them off with a loud chortle before he turned to Xiao with mischief in his eyes. The bard led them to a special spot with the spare wine in hand, content to spend the evening watching the festival lights and maybe catch a dance or two when Xiao was drunk enough to let down his walls. 

Venti grinned at his boyfriend, meeting his golden eyes that brimmed with affection and bemusement; he summoned the wind to float them gently upward into his statue's outstretched palms and getting comfortable, his person leaning into Xiao's and humming sweetly. The bottle was uncorked again and they drank their fill, the Yaksha's cheeks turning red with each sip and posture loosening like strings falling away from a marionette. 

"This is great," Venti sighed happily, one arm slung over Xiao's shoulders while the other braced them upright. 

"Mmh…" Xiao nuzzled closer, the alcohol making him more touchy feely than normal, Venti found it cute and would stop things if the Yaksha went a little too far. The bard knew about Xiao's…misgivings with intimacy; his partner hadn't started out in the best of places and it was a miracle Xiao even let Venti kiss as they did now without the help of wine to help him relax.

Judging from Xiao's slumped, graceless form, dancing would be a tomorrow activity. His poor Yaksha could barely keep his head up off Venti's shoulder for more than a few seconds before he'd slump right back;

"I guess I let you drink too much, I forgot you don't quite have the tolerance I do." Venti teased lovingly, pressing a kiss to the other's temple that would have garnered a light glare were Xiao sober. He stirred a bit, hazy golden hues cracked open slowly and a dopey smile tugged at his features, gloves fingers cupped Venti's cheek tenderly.

"D'you wanna baby?" Xiao asked with a slight slur of his words; Venti felt as if he'd just been frozen on the spot, eyes flying wide at Xiao's bell-like giggle. Surely, the bard had just misunderstood his words,

"Do I want to what?" Xiao frowned and pushed himself to sit up with sluggish movements,

"No! A baby...y'want one? I can...make'em" a hand slapped over his stomach and rubbed it slowly, 

"Inside'ere..." Xiao slurred, dopey grin wobbling slightly as a dizzy spell hit him, prompting him to settle his head in the bard's lap. Venti was still processing, looking between Xiao and the bottle of wine silently swearing to himself never to get his boyfriend drunk again. He was perhaps a little too open and without restraint, too forthcoming with private information Venti felt he shouldn't know about yet. His only hope was that Xiao was perhaps blackout drunk and that they wouldn't have the awkward 'we need to talk' hangover session.

"Xiao, you're kidding right?" The bard tried, only to get the most raw, open smile he'd ever received from the man resting in his lap. Gloved fingers caressed his cheek softly again,

Xiao shook his head slowly "Nu-uh...I want babies...your babies."

"Babies!?" Plural!? Venti wilted a bit, his pleasant booze buzz was officially dead, thank the stars for that. Thoughts were running a mile a minute, fretting over Xiao's words while the Yaksha continued to touch and caress lovingly,

"They'll look s'cute…all soft'n chubby...hair curly...like you." Xiao purred, rubbing his cheek against Venti's thigh and promptly drifting off faster than any sober person could do. The bard growled softly, cheeks flushing pink as he leaned down to press a kiss to the other's forehead gently,

"Stupid, silly, Yaksha...how can I say no to that?"

Chapter Text

The second day of festivities was not off to the most exciting of starts; for one, Xiao was hungover and confined to the other bed in their room at the inn. The poor Adeptus had been dragged home by the good for nothing bard and a protective streak had coursed through his system violently at the sight of Xiao slung over Venti's shoulders and back.

Irritation took root not long after when Xiao began voiding the contents of his stomach unceremoniously into the bowl of the toilet reeking of wine and stomach acids, his Yaksha had been blubbering soft apologies that both he and Venti had soothed while Childe tended to Jinhai who had been awakened by the commotion, the little Exuvia scratched at the bathroom door worriedly all the while Xiao was ill. 

Blessedly, when the poor boy had nothing left to void and could handle tentative sips of water, he was put to bed with Venti looking over the Adeptus was a strange expression, brow pinched in thought and worry. Something had transpired between them but it was not the former Archon's place to interfere, he had put pressure on Xiao before and a distance so painful had bloomed between them; Zhongli would not let that happen again. The two Anemo Wielders were old enough and (mostly) mature enough to settle the dispute themselves. 

Come morning, Venti had politely requested Zhongli take his family out to explore Mondstadt while he tended to Xiao who would probably take most of the day to recover before he was well enough to enjoy anymore festivities. Zhongli begrudgingly woke his hatchling, his little one was grumpy and hissy, kicking him with talons and baring fangs. 

It took considerable effort but they managed to get Jinhai shifted and dressed with only a few near misses with the inn's pillows getting snagged on their claws. 

"Mama...sleepy…" Jinhai whined with a pout, Zhongli rocked them gently, pressing a kiss to their cheek, before arranging them in the baby carriage he had smartly thought to bring with.

"I know my love, I know. We can take a nice nap today, mmh?" Zhongli questioned sweetly, earning a tired, albeit cute, nod from his little one. At Venti's recommendation they had returned to Good Hunter's to try their pancakes, the bard had described them as tiny, fluffy clouds on a plate and Zhongli was eager to taste for himself. He left Childe with the carriage to place their order at the counter, mulling over options and questioning which tea blends went well with their signature 'Tea Break Pancake'. 

While Sara was helpful, it was partly apparent no one had really asked her that kind of question before, a flustered tone pitched her voice slightly and Zhongli eventually settled on Earl Grey to counterbalance how sweet he assumed the pancakes would be. 

Before he could pay, Zhongli was yanked around and startled suddenly, coming face to face with a very panicked Childe borderlining hysterics- 

"Jinhai's gone!" 

. . .

He was probably going to regret this, giving that drunk of a God six bottles was trouble enough but...it was Ludi Harpastrum and Venti had been doing good work around the Winery when he wasn't galavanting around and singing songs no one had heard of or remembered. He hefted a nearly full crate up higher on his waist, a decent vintage save the two he'd already given to the bard's companion. 

Diluc set it to the side for later in the day away from the rest of the product meant to be sold during the festival, no doubt Venti was sleeping off last night's activities and he would be back before the day was out begging for another offering; he couldn't imagine how his stores would look if Venti had been present for the previous celebrations, the small bodied God could hold his drink far better than any mortal could ever hope to achieve.

Taking in a deep breath, the redhead stepped outside for a bit of fresh air, Angel's Share wouldn't open for a few more hours so be thought to take a walk around and admire the sights and sounds...it had been a long time since he'd attended the festival after all. He only made it a few steps before he felt his hopeful mood sour; Kaeya. 

"Morning, Master Diluc. Don't suppose you know this little lady?" The bluenette hiked up a small, ginger headed child in his arms, face ruddy with tears and snot running freely. 

"Why would I know-"

"Bàba shì hóngsè de!" She wailed suddenly, a snot bubble forming with her sniffling cries; Kaeya tsked quietly with a click of his tongue and fussed with the child's cheeks, running a pale blue handkerchief along her button nose. 

"She's Liyuen, and all I can get from her is that her papa is red. I am hoping that doesn't mean they're hurt and I'm not looking for a body." he murmured somberly, the usual suave tone absent and replaced with something akin to seriousness. 

"How can I help you with that?" Diluc questioned,

"I thought maybe you'd had a few patrons from Liyue that could be looking for her." Kaeya muttered cooly in reply, rocking the little girl in his arms when she began to sob weakly. The bluenette hushed her gently with soft spoken words in Liyuen and she fussed a little more, face going red and a whimper in her throat. 

Kaeya hushed her again to no avail, between the two of them, the bluenette had always been better with children. Klee was attached at his hip when not grounded; however, it was clear that right now, Kaeya was struggling, bitter childhood memories he divulged in their younger days came to mind, before the redhead had so harshly removed himself from Kaeya's life. Diluc reached for her and drew the little thing to his chest, a lullaby Kaeya had taught him once filtered through the air as he attempted to soothe the small ginger in his hold; Kaeya's eye widened in recognition, small smile tugging at his lips as the sobs finally subsided to whimpers. 

"I didn't realize you still remembered it…"

"Well...I don't remember the translation well...something to do with apples, right?" Kaeya chuckled fondly and placed his hands on his hips and cocked them at an angle, slightly teasing but still meaning business. Diluc returned the smile a bit,

"Kae I-"

"Watch out!?" Diluc was shoved suddenly, the Cavalry Captain slamming into his person just as a sound like whip crack filled the air and an arrow lodged itself dangerously along the ground only inches from where Diluc had previously stood. 

"What the fuck-!?" Diluc gasped, cradling the child's head and body gently while Kaeya drew his sword and peered around the darkness with intense scrutiny. Another arrow leased, Kaeya reacting lightening fast before it had a chance to reach the redhead,

"Not so fast!" The arrow was deflected, breaking on impact and scattering against the brick paving. "Show yourself!" He demanded with a snarl- blood bloomed as an arrow grazed his cheek, a burst of hydro soaking the captain to the bone followed after. Diluc clenched his jaw, his hands were tied with the little girl in his arms, he couldn't draw his claymore and leave her at risk, but Kaeya was- Diluc gasped, feeling his heart beat rapidly as the captain narrowly dodged another arrow before a God damned Harbinger descended from a nearby balcony, the young man's expression feral with teeth bared menacingly. 

So this was the 11th Harbinger, Childe; truth be told Diluc had been expecting someone more akin to a schemer like what he'd heard about Signora compared to the wild animal braced before them. The Fatui was poised to attack, blades of Hydro gripped in both hands as he darted from Kaeya to Diluc with extreme prejudice; Childe moved, snapping from a defensive stance to a full blown sprint faster than a crystal fly's wingbeat. 

Kaeya was only a few seconds faster, managing to parry an attack that launched the ginger backward only for Childe to leap into another attack, aiming for Kaeya's solid footing. Diluc wondered why the captain was suddenly so averse to using his Vision, a single blast could probably freeze the young man where he stood or at the very least slow him down and lessen the blows exchanged. 

Oh. He'd soaked Kaeya with his initial attack, one wrong move and the Cryo could block back and freeze the knight rather than the attacking ginger headed man. Diluc's hands itched, longing to draw his own weapon and protect, do something other than stand there like a petrified child. Kaeya grunted, landing off kilter to which the Harbinger sneered with a wicked curl of his lip. Childe was relentless, each blocked blow only seemed to egg him on as he advanced on Kaeya and Diluc; an opening appeared finally, the bluenette lashed out at the other's legs and swept him onto his ass.

"Enough!" A well timed burst of cryo pinned the Fatui's blades to the ground and subsequently pinned Childe to the ground under his own frozen Hydro weapons. A low, blood curling growl emitted from the ginger's throat, blue eyes sharp and steely as they trained on the little one still in Diluc's arms; the Harbinger was...desperate.

"Baba!" Kaeya whirled around, eye going wide as the little girl began to cry again and push against Diluc's chest and flail her legs in vain. That seems to light a fire under the ginger haired man, he jerked, body visibly straining as he wrenched his arms free and managed to twist his body in order to draw forth his bow and take aim, arms trembling from the chill yet he still had Diluc in his sights. The arrow's trajectory no doubt aimed smack dab between Diluc's crimson hues with pinpoint accuracy. 

"I wouldn't do that if I were you." Kaeya hissed, an abyssal ocean turned on the captain, murderous intent oozing from every pore of the young man's body;

"What kind of father would you be if you killed a man in front of your daughter? To have her live with that kind of horror all her life." Eyes widened just a fraction, blue gaze flickered from Kaeya to Diluc and then his daughter.

"Not to mention, if you killed that man right there, Hell, if you killed any man in this town... I doubt your diplomatic immunity would carry you far." Kaeya approached like a wolf stalking prey, sword not quite poised for attack but still at the ready for any sudden movements. 

"Mondstadt may be the city of freedom but that does not mean we are without justice. Believe me. You kill that man, and you won't see your daughter ever again, I will personally see to it." The bluenette's voice was chilling, striking fear in Diluc's own heart, his tone cold enough to even silence the little one. Childe sneered, gaze returning to the redhead with a level of vitriol the Pryo wielder had only seen from Abyss mages; Diluc almost believed he would actually let the arrow loose and kill him.

"..." Childe's shoulders lowered with the weapon, bow relaxing in his grip with a slow creak of metal, submission evident in his posture.

"Captain Kaeya!?" Jean called as she rounded the corner with wide eyed concern and following behind her was a tall, dark haired Liyuen man who zeroed in on the child with the same desperate expression as the Fatui knelt before them. 

"What happened!?" She demanded gently, taking in the puddles and soaked visage of Kaeya who smirked with a slight shrug; Diluc snarled,

"That Harbinger assaulted your captain." 

"Now hold on; he was just an overprotective father, which I can appreciate, it was all a misunderstanding on everyone's part." The redhead fixed Kaeya with a flabbergasted expression as the bluenette chuckled lightly, as if Childe hadn't been attacking them with killing intent. Jean looked skeptical, Diluc silently thanked the Gods for her attention to detail as she assessed the graze on Kaeya's cheek. 

"..."

"We just going to stand here holding on to their kid or are we going to return her as we should?" Kaeya quipped after a moment of tense silence; Diluc noted how the Fatui had made it up onto shaky legs with the help of the newcomer, gently hushing the ginger's protests in soft Liyuen. Jean's brow furrowed as she looked between the pair and Kaeya, she'd obviously been helping search with the dark haired man, looking for the child in his arms while Childe had attempted murder trying to find them.

"...if you say it's a misunderstanding."

The child was returned, Childe snatching her from Diluc's outstretched hands before pressing her tight to his chest and burying his face in her curls. The taller drew them into a warm embrace, hushing and rocking his fiancé and little one gently; the two whispered amongst themselves earnestly prompting Diluc to turn away from such an intimate scene. 

It wouldn't do to associate the face of the enemy with that of a distraught, weeping father.

"...seems our Harbinger feels responsible for their dear girl getting lost." Kaeya murmured quietly, just enough for Jean and Diluc to hear.

"Hmph." The Pryo wielder grunted softly while Jean clasped a hand over her heart sympathetically, 

"I hate to intrude on your family, Zhongli, but I will need a report and statement from your fiancé." the Grand Master soothed when sharpened amber narrowed in on her approach. 

"Of- of course. That is necessary, is it not?" Zhongli replied, voice like mulled cider and honey now that Diluc could hear it clearly. The Fatui in his grasp flushed shamefully, gaze cast low to the ground,

"Forgive me, I acted rashly, I put her in jeopardy because I failed to grasp the whole of the situation." The apology was more directed at his fiancé than Kaeya or himself, further adding fuel to Diluc's anger. If he had the gaul to apologize for the mess he'd made, the least he could do was direct towards the persons he'd attacked.

"Nonsense, you panicked. We just need to give a statement and all will be well. Is my assumption correct?" He turned to Jean who nodded,

"As Captain Kaeya said, this was a misunderstanding, no charges will be pressed." Kaeya beamed, 

"All's well that ends well. Don't let her wander off again, you hear?" Childe sneered at them, the barest his of teeth showing through the cruel look before Zhongli gently led him away.

"Zàijiàn!" The little one waved from where she was tucked into the Harbinger's shoulder, the brightest smile they'd seen on her all morning tugging at her lips as she waved a small pudgy hand.

"Huítóu jiàn," the bluenette called sweetly before a tense silence settled between the two former friends. 

"...I should probably get chang-" Kaeya began, tugging at his soaked tunic when Diluc rounded on him,

"What in the actual fuck, Kaeya!?" The venom in his own voice startled even him. 

"That was a Harbinger, who just assaulted you! He was trying to kill you and you just let him walk away!?"

"My concern was more about you in the heat of the moment, he was clearly going for you more than me, wasn't even giving me his A game." Kaeya scoffed, yelping when the redhead grabbed a fist full of his shirt and yanked him close, butting noses with Diluc. 

"You still got hurt!"

"It was a scrape, Luc. Don't worry about it." A thumb traced over the shallow mark on Kaeya's cheek, the bluenette watching curiously as his oldest friend softened before him.

"He could have killed you had he been faster, had he not been so focused on his daughter."

"Tsk, have a little faith in me, I would have dodged it still...are you ok?" 

"Why are you asking me!?" Diluc groused in exasperation, he hadn't been the one in battle narrowing defending himself against the frantic, sloppy blows of a Fatui Harbinger. 

"You've worried your lip so bad it's raw. You're upset." 

"Of course I am! Kae, you...you moron!" Diluc shook him good and fast, earning a mirthful chuckle. 

"My my, I didn't realize you worried about me so much...I'll try not to get into anymore scraps with the Harbingers...unless I'm fully prepared of course." Diluc glared and shoved him back, feeling his cheeks warm just slightly. 

"...we should really...talk...about-"

"Dinner, my place, tonight." Kaeya interjected with a sauntering step into Diluc's space. 

"I think we should talk too." He said gently, twirling a red stripe of hair between his thumb and forefinger.

 

Chapter Text

Xiao wondered how long he could pretend to be asleep before Venti would notice he was actually awake. He had hoped Venti would just leave him to wallow and go about as his cheerful self but the bard hadn't budged from his spot in the bed, watching the Yaksha 'sleep', no doubt plagued with how best to let him down gently from his drunk confession of desiring children. Heavens above he'd fucked up, they'd only been together a few months and Xiao had already ruined it. 

"...Venti…" he croaked, there was no point in delaying it any further with the headache pounding away in his head and his mouth feeling like it was full of sand. The bard lurched and was quick to bring around a glass of water and salty crackers, easing them past his lips gently and encouraging him to drink the full glass before hurrying to fetch another. 

"How are you feeling? I can fetch some pain killers from the shop?"

"I don't think I will need them...the headache is mild at best." This was a lie but he didn't want Venti to leave just as much as he wanted privacy, two strange and conflicting feelings but his desire for Venti to remain by his side one out, especially if the bard wouldn't remain for long. 

"...just tell me if it gets worse, alright?"

"Mhm." Silence. Tense, unending, damning silence. Xiao was waiting for the final blow, for Venti to rip the bandage off and let the Yaksha bleed pathetically from his jagged heart;

'I don't think this will work.'

'This is a fling, Xiao.'

'I'm not looking to have children.'

'With your Karma, I doubt anything would take.'

Xiao worried his lip quietly, holding back a pitiful sting behind his eyes, refusing to cry about something he didn't deserve. 

"So...you want to have a baby." Venti said, finally taking the initiative, finally ripping the bandage off, setting himself free from Xiao's claws. He nodded, no use in lying, he'd told Venti in a moment of weakness drunk on gold wine and a happiness that had quickly soured when sober again. 

"...ok...Ok...Okay!" Venti slapped his cheeks and shook his head taking on a determined expression. 

"We'll have one." The world stopped, golden eyes widened in shock, words of apologies died in the Adeptus' throat as he choked on the glimmer of hope blooming in his chest.

"You and me will have a baby if, and only if, we're both ready for it." Venti scooted close and pulled Xiao to rest on his shoulder, both sat against the headboard of the bed. 

"A child is a huge commitment and it requires us to be open with each other. It requires intimacy, Xiao. Which is why...as of right now I don't think we're ready just yet." Xiao nodded in agreement at the former God's statements. The Yaksha was shy and hesitant about intimacy, it had been centuries since he'd let anyone touch or hold him like a lover would. 

"I agree...it would be unfair of us to bring a child into a relationship doomed to fail."

"Eh!? Fail? No, I don't think it would fail per say but it would be strained if we didn't talk and I just...knocked you up without any love or care." Venti's touch was soft and soothing like a cool breeze on a summer's night. 

"That wouldn't do anyone any good. You deserve to be loved, have love made to you, treated revenant for carrying something so precious." Xiao flushed and pulled from his boyfriend's touch feeling much too warm in his core, golden gaze looking anywhere but the former Archon seated next to him. Venti chuckled,

"See? You can't even let me shower you with praise without needing space. I can't imagine you'd let me take care of you if I got you pregnant. You'd probably beat me off with your fancy spear!" Venti teased, lightening the sour mood considerably, a special, wonderful talent of his. 

"So we work on our relationship. I…I get used to intimacy with you...would that mean we're ready?"

"Depends. I don't want you to force yourself to enjoy something if you don't like it, Xiao. Communication is big in relationships, take ol' blockhead for example, he was willing to keep things to himself to not burden Childe." The Yaksha frowned, recalling the ginger's teasings about it he had heard offhandedly but not the full, true story.

"That was a lack of communication brought on by doubts and foolhardiness. They're much better about it now but had I not stepped in, we would have had to support Zhongli without Childe." 

"I don't want that to happen to us." Xiao said, earning a warm, soft smile from the bard.

"That's good to hear…" Venti cupped the other's cheek tenderly, stroking his thumb along Xiao's smudged eyeliner. 

"Can you...can you try to tell me about back then? So that way I know why you hesitate?" He asked in a whisper, barely loud enough for the winds to carry it, so quiet and meek...like Venti was an apostle at an altar asking for a God's guidance. Xiao felt his chest tighten, stomach curdling as if he would be sick again; memories of the early days, the better days surfaced from the dregs of his past, memories he'd buried so he could survive. 

"...you promise it won't change how you see me? That you won't lose that idea of me and how you saw me when we first met?" Xiao leaned into the touch, his own hand coming to rest atop Venti's and squeeze gently. 

"I promise, cross my heart." He returned softly, brutally honest and raw. It was reassuring; of those who knew Xiao's past, there were very few. 

Zhongli and the other Adepti were the only true bearers of his past for they had been alive to witness what transpired; the Yaksha gone mad, killing one another, had been the tragic end of bright beginnings. 

"...we Yaksha...the original five of us...we're... involved with one another. Who better to tame us and cleave us open and bare than those who suffered the same as we?" Xiao managed, thinking fondly of halcyon days, the stray touch of his fellow Yaksha on his skin, Bosacius' wild smile. They shared in their burdens together, the five of them. Intimate and platonic bonds shared between them, they could be themselves with one another without fear of judgment. Xiao explained it all carefully to his partner, clasping at the bard's soft hands, trying to convey his feelings. 

"We helped one another, should one of us lose ourselves in the heat of intimacy, the others could bring us back from the brink and little harm would come of it. We all understood the burden we carried...the moments we lost ourselves were few and far between." They had managed centuries that way, seeking refuge amongst themselves as they protected Liyue; then Rex Lapis' first born had arisen, bathed in curses and hatred festered. 

Things had taken a turn then, trust and faith wavered, Bosacius vanished, Indarius was killed; while seeking comfort, Xiao had lost control for the first time in his life and when he returned to himself, he'd left a treasured love wounded. He'd pulled away from the remaining Yaksha to gather distance, thinking it for the best and hoping to spare them grief. Intimacy was a thing of the past between them when they were all teetering on the edge of sanity.

Xiao didn't speak of the rest. He could feel his tethers unbinding when he thought of the blood squelching between his fingers and the panic blooming in his chest, Menogias relieved expression begging for him to stop her. Venti pulled his head to cradle against his breast, soothing him with the soft beat of Venti's heart. 

"Xiao...I had no idea…" 

"I didn't want you to know. When we first met...you were so... beautiful and alluring . I was worried if you knew, then you wouldn't look at me so kindly." He couldn't help the strain of his throat, he sounded so broken. Venti hushed him with a soft kiss to his cheek,

"I would never look at you differently for your past, never ever...we all have our stories and this is yours. Thank you for telling me, for trusting me." He soothed and Xiao clung to him tightly, feeling safe and warm. 

"..." The silence was comfortable and the moment for telling had passed, he'd poured his heart out enough and in due time the bard would do the same. For now, it was enough to just rest, to know he had been honest and open for the first time in centuries about his past with his Yakshas. Xiao sighed, deep and aching, a stray hand came to rest over his belly and Venti hummed thoughtfully,

"With time, I do think we can work our way to having a little one between us...maybe a few." Venti teased intending to be light and clear the air; Xiao kissed him, languid and wanton. 

It was like a dam broke, emotion welling up and flowing out as the former God turned him on his back and pinned him to the bed, pulling back to gasp quickly,

"Tell me when to stop," before the breath was stolen from his lungs again and Xiao felt a familiar hunger build in his belly, an aching need. The kiss became rough, teeth clacking and tongue grazing his fangs as Venti poured himself into Xiao's already overflowing cup. He could feel it between his legs, a fire in his chest, a deep carnal want in his bones for the God to keep filling and filling until Xiao was hollowed out at his very center. 

As if Venti's very being could cleanse his soul of sins ages old and fill him anew, Xiao moaned, a pitiful sound akin to a whimper; Venti groaned, the sound of fabric tearing pulled Xiao from the edge long enough for him to become acutely aware of his talons slicing through the bedsheets as if they were no more than tissue paper. Heavens above- Venti broke the kiss to latch onto his neck, blunt teeth sinking into the meat of his shoulder and drawing out a hollow, breathless whine from the Adeptus beneath him, he could feel from where their hips joined how much Venti wanted him and he was sure the bard could feel his own desire pulsing angrily. 

Xiao's vision began to blot and darken, spots of black dancing in the corner of his eyes as pleasure beckoned like the siren call of the Abyss, teasing him closer and closer to the edge he knew led to the deepest pits of himself. Venti touched him between his legs, causing him to jolt and moan openly, it felt too good, too close to the edge he wouldn't be able to save himself from, not yet.

"Stop!" Xiao yelped and Venti did, pulling away with a loud gasp and hazy smile.

"Sorry! Sorry...hah...ha...got carried away." Xiao shook his head with a shy smile,

"No...it felt good…just... scared about letting go." Venti hummed and pressed a chaste kiss to his temple,

"We can work on that, if I ever start to overwhelm you, just tell me to stop and I will. I'm glad it felt good." Xiao pulled him down for a soft kiss and hugged him tight, breathing in the sweet smell of grass and spring time, feeling confident they could make it work between them. 

They settled down just in time for the inn room door to burst open; Childe dragged himself in with a dozing Jinhai in his arms looking half dead from exhaustion,

"We're taking a nap." He growled before crawling into bed, hatchling still curled in his grasp while Zhongli joined him looking equally as exhausted. 

"What the hell happened to you guys…?"

Chapter Text

Zhongli understood now why Exuvia stayed holed up in mountains during the early stages of a hatchling's life, only descending to feed themselves and the little ones; they were too curious for their own good. Had that kind captain not picked them up on their quest, who knows where they could have ended up. 

Judging by the mushed lamp grass bulbs in hand when Childe had taken them back, the faintly glowing shine had attracted their eye, prompting their escapaid that led to Childe's near murder spree of the captain and his partner while Zhongli had gone to the knight's barely able to breath. 

He'd prayed harder in that 20 minutes than he'd ever prayed before, begging and pleading to Celestia above to not take another child from him, he wouldn't be able to bear that burden of grief again, his heart wouldn't survive the loss of Jinhai. When returned to their arms he'd thanked her, her many names spilling past his lips quietly as his mate and young napped in hazy afternoon sun. If Venti or Xiao had heard his prayer, they didn't mention it, offering him comfort in their touch along his shoulders and cuddling up to his back. 

Childe woke, fresh tears in his eyes, face still pink from the earlier torrent that had flowed forth,

"I'm sorry…" perhaps his mate had mistaken his stern expression as anger, he wasn't, just exhausted and hollowed out. 

"Ssh, my love." He caressed a freckled cheek and pressed a kiss just below the ginger's eyes, tasting bitter salt. 

"You've nothing to apologize for, these things happen...we must be more careful going forward." He shook his head in agreement, blue eyes watering further, nuzzling into the gentle touch,

"I promise...never again." And he knew his mate meant it, Zhongli smiled and pressed their foreheads together, feeling the steady thrum of the hatchling's heart beating between them. Childe sniffled, composing himself before a beautiful, sunshine warm smile lightened his features, blue hues the color of the darkest ocean because rippling waves on a pond.

They cleaned themselves up, Xiao and Venti included who somehow looked more disheveled than two parents who had, had one hell of a day; they stayed in the rest of the night, promising Venti tomorrow they would indulge and go dancing but tonight they would rest and recoup, order room service and listen to Venti recount the current ongoing drama between the fiery redhead, Diluc and his 'totally not ex-boyfriend', Captain Kaeya.

The rest of the festival was spent properly enjoying it compared to their first two days; Venti somehow acquired more wine but limited his intake for Xiao's sake as the Yaksha vehemently refused to have anymore. They participated in the archery contests, Childe and Venti competing for top slots while Zhongli and Xiao watched over Jinhai as their own archery skills were...lacking.

They over indulged in good food, Mondstadt's culinary profile was delicious and rich, granted some of the foods weren't as light or delicate like Liyuen dishes but they were fantastic all the same. Zhongli became especially fond of fried potato shrimp, a heavy dish that packed in the flavor, he would attempt to replicate the recipe when they returned back to Liyue.

Childe took Zhongli shopping, Jinhai was brought along to allow some privacy for the two lovebirds enjoying their own festivities; Lumine found them outside a stall selling clear glass tea pots, they had been standing there for possibly an hour. The elder debated whether or not he'd use the pot for fear it would break with how delicate it looked while Childe insisted they just buy it and move on to the next stall. Somehow they ended up going to gather fresh sweet flower buds for a demonstration, the Tea pots were nicknamed Blossom pots for a reason. The freshly dried sweet flower buds when dropped into hot water bloomed again, steeping the tea to sweet, golden perfection. Mora finally exchanged hands, the elder ooing excitedly along with Jinhai who'd become enamored by the tea pot as well.

Venti and Xiao dragged them along to go dancing finally, the bard refused to leave town without a proper festival dance and admittedly, Zhongli wanted to go dancing too. It sounded fun and lively, he and Childe hadn't been able to dance for Lantern Rite but he'd like to now, the elder tugged Ajax by the wrist, leading him to the circle of couples as the music began. Venti had helpfully gone first with Xiao, leading the Adeptus through the motions while the mates watched and clapped along. 

The music tempo rose quickly and bodies began to move, Zhongli locking arms with his lover and twirling the two of them as their feet hit the ground rhythmically; they would trade partners after half a rotation to the right, from the outside it look complicated but somehow it came easily when in the heat of the moment. The ginger laughed boisterously with a wild smile, all teeth and pinched cheeks; he'd mentioned offhandedly that in Snezhnaya for a few short weeks of spring it was warm enough for festivals like this, though usually they were spontaneous and popped up out of the blue if planting finished early. Zhongli wondered if the dancing was anything like this, he stole a kiss before the changed hands, grinning slyly at Childe's quiet yelp. 

When they were reunited Zhongli was nearly toppled off his feet by the ferocity of Childe's return kiss, a near miss of teeth and passion that had his cheeks flaring red from the whistles and hoots of the crowd watching the dance. It would have been mortifying had he actually toppled over but Childe kept his firm hold on his waist as they came to stop, panting heavily from the exertion of the dance and soft laughter that escaped them. Zhongli pressed his forehead to Childe's and purred quietly before burying his nose in the young ginger's shoulder and taking a deep lungful of his scent made stronger by sweat and exercise; thank heavens for his slight height advantage.

"Goodness me, that was quite a show." The former God frowned upon return to their seated companions, Kaeya had made an appearance and truth be told, Zhongli hadn't truly thought about the events that had transpired since things had been settled between himself and Childe. They were more vigilant when it came to Jinhai; but the Cavalry Captain hadn't crossed his mind since he'd given his account to Master Jean.

"Thank you, I suppose." Zhongli smiled a bit, feeling Childe tense beside him. 

"Think nothing of it, this little dance session needed a good, passionate couple to liven things up, I give credit where credit is due." Kaeya made a show of bowing before he straightened and addressed Venti; 

"I was just telling our friend here that the next round of drinks at Angel's Share is on me, after all, our little confrontation helped put certain things on the mend for me. I'm grateful." The bluenette beamed, catlike in nature. Venti cheered a bit, having already exhausted his drinking stores for the festival season as it was their last night in Mondstadt before Lumine helped them return home; Xiao on the other hand looked wary. 

"Are you...are you thanking us for our daughter getting lost?" Zhongli asked dryly as a coil of anger festered in his stomach, what a dreadful thing to be thankful for, not to mention how Childe had almost killed him and the other man. Kaeya laughed, tossing his head back in mirths,

"Stars, no! That would be a truly devious thing to be thankful for, had I been able to garner the same result without a little one going missing, I assure you I would have done it." He smirked,

"Plus, it wouldn't do to have the Cavalry Captain going around saying things like that. I am merely thankful for your partner's eagerness in the confrontation, seems the near death feel of it all was just the right kick in pants we both needed." 

"This means you and Diluc are finally going out again?" Venti teased, a light smack to the top of his head from the captain followed and he huffed softly. 

"Don't make assumptions, it was just one dinner...it was nice though, we didn't end up in an argument even once." Venti whistled, Zhongli frowned deeply, mirroring Xiao's own sour expression at Kaeya's lingering presence before another approached the table.

Diluc, Zhongli presumed, wrapped an arm around the bluenette's waist a slight tremor ran through the slender frame as a low snarl erupted from Diluc's throat; he glared at Childe who returned the sentiment just as strong, a sneer tugging at his lip. The redhead jerked, pulling Kaeya off balance for only a second,

"Ah, seems my attendance is needed elsewhere, please enjoy your evening and help yourself to some cider." He called, a slight crack in his voice betraying his surprise. So he hadn't been aware of the redhead's approach nor his downright near possessive aura. 

"..."

"..."

"...well that was…something." Venti snickered, clearing the air with his tinkling giggle.

They ended the night with a drink on Kaeya's bill, Zhongli out of spite chose the most expensive thing on the menu and encouraged the rest to do the same, even going so far as to order a large order of skewers to be added onto the bill. After all, good drink should be paired with good food, everyone knows that.

Chapter Text

They could see the ship just on the cusp of the harbor's waters, the Snezhnayan flag flying high and proud at the top of the mast. Childe rocked on his heels, fidgeting with energy he didn't quite know how to expend while Zhongli bounced Jinhai on his hip.

"Are you excited?" Zhongli questioned, watching his mate fondly as the ginger continued to rock on the balls of his feet; truth be told, Childe wasn't sure what he was feeling, he was excited to see his younger siblings and mother but the prospect of his old man being a stick in the mud muddled the feelings with something unpleasant. 

Suffice to say, Childe was feeling conflicted about the whole arrangement, having agreed to let his family stay in the newly furnished guest room meant a lot of prolonged contact with unsavory individuals who had made it very clear the middle child was not to be trusted. 

"I think I am...it will be great to see them, my little siblings especially. They didn't want me to go when I came back to you initially."

"They sound like they really cherish their older brother...I hope they don't hold any resentment."

"Tch, nonsense hun, they'll take one look at Jinhai and go gaga over her." To prove his point he saddled in close and looped one arm around Zhongli's waist to peck his cheek and then rub his nose against Jinhai's, drawing a chittering giggle from their little one. 

"If you're so certain, I suppose there won't be much to worry about." Zhongli relaxed under his touch, the rigidness of his body softening at Childe's reassurance as he leaned into his chest and rested his chin atop the shorter's head. The young ginger didn't have it in him to spoil the mood with the possibility of his father being a dick about everything. 

The ship docked, he swore he could hear his siblings already, shrill Snezhnayan voices echoed off the boat with billowing excitement which only added to his own giddiness. The walkway descended and a few older men exited first, merchants and scholars coming to Liyue for their own goals and purposes. 

A few more throngs of people disembarked, the ginger craning his next and peering about for any other heads or ginger hair intermixed in the crowds thinking perhaps he'd missed their departure.

"I was sure I read the charter right, mother said they would be arriving on this ship." Childe grumbled worriedly, Zhongli squeezed him gently to soothe him,

"No doubt your siblings are giving her trouble wrangling them together. They sound like a handful." He teased, bringing a soft smile to Childe's lips, before he could voice his agreement, a trio of voices screamed out,

"Big brother!!" A wild grin bubbled up from inside as he turned just in time to catch three little bodies careening straight for him, wrapping them all in a tight, warm hug. 

"Ahaha, there you all are!" He slipped effortlessly into his mother tongue, accepting a myriad of kisses on his cheek and tight whimpering hugs, mumbled 'I missed you's and teary eyed greetings; he hadn't realized how much his little siblings had missed him so. 

"Oh, Princess Tonia...don't cry." He hushed gently, she muffled her sniffles in her sleeve and managed a fierce glare that could give their mother a run for her mora.

"I'm not crying! It's the air, burns my eyes." She protested and Childe nodded,

"Of course, of course. Strange how it's affecting all of you, hm?" He teased adoringly, noting the wet eyes of both Teucer and Anthon. They quickly dried them, lips pursing into cute, wobbly pouts before something new caught their attention, Jinhai and Zhongli. He was chuckling at their antics, a sweet sound like music to Childe's ears while Jinhai gnawed their pacifier idly. 

They had thought it smart to possibly keep them from speaking until they could come up with a semi-decent cover story as to why their 5 month old could walk, talk, and demand snacks from anyone. So a pacifier would have to do for now. There was a collective gasp, 3 children latching onto Zhongli's legs putting him off balance,

"Is that our niece!?"

"Can I hold her!? Please!?"

"Did you really have a baby in your tummy!?" The clamoured for his attention, all of them like little wild beasts vying for food. Childe snickered, pulling himself back onto his feet just as he caught sight of a stout, middle aged woman with graying ginger hair, far more gray in it than he'd seen her last too. 

"Enough, don't make the poor man trip!" She called with a resounding clap of her hands, his siblings and even himself stood at attention sporting sheepish grins as she approached. His mother looked them over as if she were assessing a line of soldiers, scrutinizing carefully in a way unique to mothers;

"What did I say about running ahead?" The sheepish smiles turned apologetic,

"To not to." Tonia answered. 

"We were just excited!" Teucer cut in and Anthon nodded vigorously. 

"We wanted to see big brother, Ajax!" She sighed heavily and gave each of them a rueful look,

"I will excuse this behavior only once today, it's special after all." She turned her gaze to Childe and it softened considerably, "Hello, my son."

"Hello, mama." He smiled, melting slightly when she pulled him into a hug; his mother gave the best hugs in his humble opinion, she was soft and warm, would let you tuck your head into her shoulder. When he was little he'd been tucked into her bosom, feeling safe and content while she read him a bedtime story. She ruffled his hair and rubbed circles in his back, rocking them both in affection. 

"It's so good to see you. It's been ages, you missed Krysnik Noc! Though I understand your reasons." She pulled away, her eyes the color of the cloudless sky narrowed slightly as they trailed over to Zhongli and their hatchling. The elder stiffened, head bowed slightly as if he were being scolded,

"It's wonderful to finally meet-"

"You speak the mother tongue?" Her brow raised in surprise; Zhongli stumbled over his words a bit but nodded,

"I have been learning in preparation for your arrival. Please correct me if I misspeak." He declared, offering a polite smile and outstretched hand in greeting. 

"Hmm, so polite, however did you manage that?" She teased at Childe, hand clasping Zhongli's firmly before yanking him into a firm hug. He'd never heard a yelp quite like that before but Zhongli's flustered expression was priceless though the sudden jostling startled Jinhai who began to fuss and whine, tears boiling over as their pudgy cheeks flushed red. 

"Oh hush! I haven't hurt you." Jinhai stilled, their gaze curious as the ginger haired woman patted her cheek and thumbed her nose when she'd pulled back from his mate to get a good look at her grandchild. Zhongli stared, impressed, Jinhai rarely enjoyed hugs that put them between two persons, only making an exception during cuddle times and sleeping. 

"She's beautiful, definitely a fuss pot like you were in your early months but very cute." She said warmly, calloused hands running through Jinhai's hair, the little thing leaned into the touch, humming through their pacifier. 

"Thank you, Misses…?" Zhongli flushed a bit, preening slightly at his mother's assessment of their hatchling.

"Call me Ana or mama, I won't accept anything formal from my new son-in-law." Zhongli nodded at that,

"Well then, Ana, we should be getting to the house, I prepared lunch if you're feeling peckish?" His siblings who had been ooing and awing at the visible sight whirled around at the mention of lunch,

"Will we get to eat with those stick thingies?" Teucer raised his hand but asked his question anyway, prompting soft laughter from the taller man who nodded.

"Chopsticks, and yes, lunch can be eaten with them." 

"Best gather everyone else up then, don't want it going cold." Childe placed his hands on his hips with a grin,

"The old man and company still with the luggage?" His mother frowned, deep set with a low brow, lips pinched in a thin line.

"Your father and older siblings didn't come." Childe couldn't help but feel a wave of relief wash over him that was quickly followed by a lump of guilt sitting in his gut. He should be furious they hadn't come but all he could think about was how peaceful things were going to be leading up to the wedding thanks to their absence. He managed to put on a sour face for his mother, making a slight show of his disappointment, though out of the corner of his eye, he saw Zhongli watching him closely. 

"What!? After I paid for their tickets and everything...they decide not to come? That's ridiculous mama." 

"Your father said he couldn't leave in the middle of the season, the hauls have been good as of late."

"Oh? So fishing is more important than my wedding? Tch, and what were Tanya's and Bartok's excuses?"

"Tanya has a client close to her due date and Bartok outright refused."

"Hmph, typical Bartok. Oh well, more food for the rest of us." Childe turned his nose up, hoping it was enough to throw his mother off the scent. She was too clever, too aware, she'd raised six children after all, of course she'd know when her middle child was lying even when the Fatui had taught him to do it so flawlessly. Her look was haggard and stern, meaning they would talk later, preferably alone.

Ana had said she packed light which actually meant four trunks' worth of stuff and a crate of Snezhnayan delicacies she'd used the spare ticket money to have shipped over.

"Lots of good, fresh food. I'd love to cook a Snezhnayan meal for the family one night if you'd allow me?" she asked, gesturing to the crate, Zhongli agreed excitedly.

"Any opportunity to expand my palate is a welcome one." Childe cackled inwardly, his mate had no idea that box was undoubtedly full with the freshest bounty of seafood straight from Snezhnaya's frigid waters. The poor man might faint at the size of it too, no doubt there was a massive sturgeon packed on ice in the box with crab and other treats. He had to tell his mother about Zhongli's aversion to octopus...she'd have a field day with that. 

The trunks and crates were carted up to the house, the group opting ride along with in the back of the wagon as to not tucker his aging mother out; his siblings showed no sign of fatigue yet, still bombarding rapid fire question after question, Zhongli looked close to his breaking point as they wouldn't even let him get out one answer. Tonia continued to press him about how he could have a baby if he was a boy, which Zhongli awkwardly fielded around with answers like 'I just can,' or 'These things happen.' 

Which had prompted slight panic from his younger brothers,

"I don't want babies in my tummy!"

"Only to me! These things happen to me and your brother." Zhongli quickly said, cheeks flushed a brilliant shade of red. For a man who wanted six children, three were certainly giving him a run for his money. Childe was honestly surprised that his mother was letting them ask so many but a quick glance at her expression told him that she was enjoying seeing Zhongli squirm for just a moment. 

"Are you going to have more babies with Ajax?" Tonia asked, causing the elder to sputter and flush prettily in the noonday sun.

"...yes," honest and simple, it made his heart flutter like a bird, "we plan on having a few more." His amber eyes landed on Childe, he smiled, nuzzling Jinhai's cheek with his own. Gods above, Childe couldn't wait for the next little one, seeing Zhongli with one of their hatchlings was enough to get his head spinning. Their children, napping and cuddling with mama and papa, he was excited for the day to come even if it would cost them the space in their bed as the cuddle piles grew larger. 

"My my! How many grandchildren should I be expecting, you talk like it's going to be a fair amount." His mother teased to which Zhongli responded honestly, leaving her a little gobsmacked. 

"Six whole children? With Ajax as their father? Do you know what you're getting yourself into, young man?" Zhongli chuckled warmly and nodded,

"I believe I do, yes. He makes me happy, has given me a family we'll continue to grow, if the little ones drive me up the walls, I suppose the only thing I can do is adapt." He said, tone as stubborn as rock, he would not be swayed from his choice in mate and who sired his young. Childe knew that already, given all the reassuring he'd been given the past few weeks. 

"I'm happy to hear that." She mused, drawing out a sheepish smile from her middle child. He knew how his mother had worried about him, overhead her whispers to his father many a night about his lack of connection with others, he liked to think he'd come a decent way since that time. That he'd found the perfect person for him who accepted him, faults and all. 

They offloaded the wagon and get the trunks situated in the guest room before the crate was taken to the kitchen where a veritable feast had been prepared and was awaiting to be taken to the dining room, his mother swatted at Anthon's hand reaching for a lotus crisp, her eyes trained on the two Anemo wielders standing awkwardly in the kitchen; Xiao practically clung to Venti while still giving off the impression he was unphased by the strangers in the house.

"...are they help?" His mother questioned causing Childe to gasp,

"Mama, no!" Judging by Venti's impassive expression and Xiao's curious glare, they scraped by thanks to a lack of understanding Snezhnayan, though Venti said he knew a little thanks to his career. 

"They are family of mine." Zhongli interjected upon entering the kitchen with a pleasant smile, Jinhai chewed her pacifier, the little one was undoubtedly hungry. 

"Oh? Forgive me, I assumed." 

"This is Xiao, my...ward, of sorts, and his partner Venti who happens to be an old friend of mine." He explained, switching to Liyue to introduce Childe's family. Venti grinned and greeted them as best he could while Xiao managed to soften his glare for his mother and flash a small smile at his siblings, softening considerably. Childe hadn't been aware of the Adeptus' soft spot for children but it was, dare he say, cute. The Yaksha even crouched down to Teucer's eye level when he spotted the boy oogling his mask, he let him see but not touch. 

"I'm...a protector of Liyue." Childe translated, Teucer gasping excitedly before trying to ask too many questions and the Adeptus shied back. 

"Hey now, he doesn't speak Snezhnayan and you're going to overwhelm him. You've got two whole weeks with him to ask questions." Xiao waited for Childe to translate before the green haired man nodded, smile returning just slightly. 

"Mhm." A sound even Teucer could understand, the boy cheered excitedly before Ana ushered him to the dining room with his siblings. 

"Thanks for being patient with him."

"...it's fine...he's...endearing." something passed between Venti and the Yaksha, a strange, loving look that had Xiao pulling away with a pink dusting on his cheeks and fists clenched in the fabric of his shirt. 

Oh. 

Oh wow. Childe held his tongue, it wasn't his place to tease or call attention to; Zhongli was becoming contagious, seems they weren't the only ones planning for a new baby if their shared look was anything to go by.

"Ajax, your family is situated and ready to eat but I need to feed Haihai," he fumbled with the icebox for a moment and awkwardly retrieved a plate of fresh cut fowl and meat chunks; they couldn't exactly feed their 5 month old baby raw meat in front of his mother without her being alarmed. In all honesty, his mother was probably under the assumption Jinhai was being breast fed or at the very least still taking bottles.

"If she questions your absence, I'll just tell her you're shy." He teased with a wink, coaxing a small smile from his lover who disappeared upstairs, presumably to their bedroom. Xiao and Venti joined his family in the dining room, Childe following after and grinning broadly as his siblings fussed with the pairs of children's practice chopsticks Zhongli had purchased. 

"What do you think?"

"Why do people eat with sticks here? A spoon works just as fine." Tonia groused, struggling to pick up a lotus crisp before his mother clicked her tongue.

"What have we forgotten?" His siblings quickly fell quiet, folding their hands together and bowing their heads; Ana looked at him sternly,

"You too, Ajax." The middle child wanted to protest, even while in service of the Tsaritsa he didn't see much point in praying nor asking for her blessing of the meal, the Cryo Archon didn't listen anyway. She was wrapped up in her own plots and schemes, he had to wonder what prayers even sounded like to the frigid woman of ice and snow, perhaps like flies buzzing in her ears, the silly requests of mortals. 

"Ajax." A warning tone, he did as instructed, bowing his head and folding his hands as his mother recited grace and asked their grand Tsaritsa to bless the food...made by one former Geo Archon; his mother would have a coronary, Gods above. 

Venti and Xiao gave him a strange look when his mother had finished, though Venti had no room to talk with how religious Mondstadt was and Liyue was certainly no better in their revenance of their former God. Perhaps the strange look pertained more to the fact it was no secret the nation of Snezhnaya did not love their Goddess, same as she did not care for her people. 

Many who migrated elsewhere found their faith in other Gods and Goddesses, or they never found it at all. Childe had faith in the absolute, the absolute of power, which his Tsaritsa possessed; he would put his blade to the throat of her enemies so long as she didn't tread into his territory as his family would always come first. So long as she only asked for his blade and his calculative nature, he would serve till his last breath; his heart, however, belonged to that of Zhongli and their little one, and any future little ones too. 

Childe would do anything to preserve this happiness they'd fallen into, even at the cost of his sanity, ignoring the itch and cravings of the Abyss just to see a smile on his mate's face or hear Jinhai's bubbly laughter. 

"Graa! These are too hard to use!" Anthon grumbled, a big chunk of grilled fish collapsed in his hold, the pieces dropping to his plate. Teucer preened, having grasped it during his surprise visit rather well as he made his way through a bit of noodles. 

"Here, like this." Zhongli appeared just in time to adjust his little brother's hold and guide another piece of fish to his mouth, patting his head in praise.

"Very good." Jinhai lazed in his arms, full and satisfied from their lunch and ready for a nap. Childe was partly surprised that Zhongli was commiting to the assumption of breast-feeding, going so far as to leave the top few buttons of his shirt unbuttoned 'accidentally'. 

"I hope you have found things enjoyable?" He addressed Ana, who nodded with a slight jerk of her head, though her gaze was pensive in regard to chopsticks. 

"Think it would be easier to eat if you used a spoon and fork rather than these, I will say."

"Ahh, my Ajax said something similar when we first met but I find that Liyue's gastronomy cannot be appreciated fully if the right utensils are not utilized." Childe snorted through his nose, hiding it well with a sip of tea as Zhongli's gaze flickered over to him with a dry smile.

The meal finished with a light atmosphere, Zhongli enjoyed his own portion of food while Childe rocked Jinhai in his arms, feeling his mother's eyes on him as he cuddled and nuzzled his little one.

They stepped out onto the back porch, Jinhai still in his arms snuggled into his neck and mumbling softly in their sleep, little chitters and coos that were music to his ears, his little one safe in his arms and protected. 

"She really is beautiful, she's got so much of you in her but her eyes... they're just like his, you can really tell she's both of yours." Ana said after a moment's pause, gesturing to the little one.

"Thank you, mama. Though I hope our next little one has more of Zhongli's looks, his hair is such a pretty color." 

"..."

"..." His mother fidgeted, a rare sight as she never fidgeted, a proud Lenkov woman didn't fidget or go idle, his mother always said once. That had been before he fell, before he heard the whispers of old crones and neighboring mothers,

'It's the work of a Changeling, Anastasia.'

'Sprites, Anastasia, it has to be their doing.'

'He followed a seelie too far, his soul couldn't return.' 

'The Tsaritsa stole his heart, I swear it.'

Any number of superstitions were dropped at his mother's feet to explain her shy, sweet little boy becoming a sudden monster that bit back when challenged. Childe thinks that year might have broken her pride, running off gossipers and snide mothers who knew better than her on how to beat Ajax's violent streak out of him. 

Anastasia had hung her head so low that year, just so no one could see the vile sneer hidden beneath her scarf, it was a wonder his mother hadn't killed anyone with a good thwomp to the head with her wood axe. She'd had to bear so much on her back protecting him and his siblings, and he'd fucked it up by lashing out and nearly beating two men an inch from death, what an ungrateful brat he'd been.

"I'll save the speeches about child rearing, you two seem to have a good grasp on caring for a little one nicely." It was quite the compliment coming from her, 

"I am happy for the both of you, overjoyed honestly but I find myself hesitant to share that joy just yet until I hear it from the horse's mouth."

"What is it mama?" 

"Are you happy?" Her face was grim but gentle, "This isn't some grand farce to put me at ease, you're well and truly happy with this man? With having more children? With this...life?" She gestured to the house and the yard, the sickeningly sweet, peaceful lull of the wind rustled through the grass and trees, the lack of a battlefield or smell of blood tainting the air. 

His mother knew him like only a mother could.

"I am, mama...I am the happiest I've ever been," and he was honest, from the bottom of his heart he was speaking truth. Zhongli and the life they could share, Jinhai, the prospect of growing their family...it made his smile brighter and his heart would thunder giddily with thoughts of their future. Ana melted, a warm, wide smile tugged at her cheeks revealing dimples and crow's feet, eyes watering as she pulled him close for a deep embrace, though careful of Jinhai in his hold.

"Then I will celebrate with my heart full, knowing my son has found his happiness." She whispered, causing his own tears to well up; for his mother to still love him and wish for his happiness after everything...it was something only mothers could do, truly. 

"Mama...I'm so glad you came…" he whispered back, were it only Zhongli's extended, mystical family Childe feared he would feel alone on his wedding day...but his mother had come with his youngest siblings. She would do his makeup and help with his hair, call him handsome and let him be wed to a man who understood him, body and soul and still wanted him, even knowing the ugly mess lurking inside.

Childe was wanted. He couldn't restrain the sob in his throat, letting his mother hush him and chide him teasingly that his tears should only fall on his wedding day and that they should be of joy. Jinhai fussed briefly and he was quick to reign himself in, rocking and rubbing their back soothingly. 

"Fatherhood looks good on you, Ajax." She mused, settling into a wicker chair. He flushed pink and smiled shyly, humming his special song for his little one,

"Thank you, mama." 

Chapter Text

It wasn't his place to watch but he smiled fondly watching Ajax and his mother bond, the tray of tea he'd prepared could go cold if it allowed them to share in the private discussion a little longer. Xiao and Venti had disappeared into their room sensing a lull in activity and while the children napped the elder thought it prudent to bond and 'butter up' his new mother-in-law. 

He'd made a sweet, jellied delicacy to serve with tea but swiftly returned it to the icebox when it looked like their conversation was going to run long and opted to begin tidying up after lunch and get a head start on dinner. The crate of delicacies was taxing on his curiosity, he wanted to peek inside but restrained himself; Ajax's mother would know best on where they needed to be stored, be it the root cellar or icebox. 

It was too late in the afternoon for his special bamboo shoot soup so something with a little less preparation would suffice, he'd made a variety of foods to introduce at lunch but for dinner he thought stir fry with jade parcels or perhaps chop suey and dumplings. He could feel a little burst of excitement in his belly, taking great pleasure in guiding his mate's family into the culinary delights of all Liyue had to offer.

Wanmin's was catering their reception so they would have the opportunity to taste Xiangling's wondrous talent but for now, Zhongli would help them adjust to the spices and flavors, with small, measured steps. Crystal shrimp were delicious and mild in their flavor, paired with a mild chop suey, it would make a great starting point aside from what lunch had offered. 

Ajax slipped inside, their dozing hatchling still curled in his embrace,

"I'm going to settle her in the crib." He whispered, smile adoring and sweet; Zhongli nodded and went back to preparing the dough for the dumplings when Ana entered from the back porch. She gave pause, eyes roamed over his countertops, taking in the rice flour and water mess he was currently wrist deep in. 

He expected her to follow Ajax upstairs...but she surprised him, plopping onto a stool and folding her hands in her lap, patiently watching him work. He would have felt self conscious were he not confident in his own handling of food, but 3700ish years worth of knowledge and refinement gave him a slight edge allowing him to flawless executive paper thin dumpling skins ready for filling. 

"You seem to know your way around a kitchen, I'd almost think you a retired chef rather than a funeral parlor consultant." She said thoughtfully, Zhongli smiled at the praise, nodding his thanks. 

"I take it Ajax informed you of my previous profession?" 

"Oh yes, half his letters home had some mention of you." She chuckled, 

"Perhaps that's how we knew before him," she rested her chin in the palm of her hand, smile impossibly fond, "he talked about you more than the whole of Liyue trip...when he abruptly cut out mention of you we thought he'd experienced his first heartbreak." Zhongli frowned, wiping his hands on his apron.

"...I won't lie, I did hurt him…" he swallowed thickly, thinking to the memory of fractured blue eyes, looking at him as if the world itself had just collapsed in on itself.

"I lied to him about...my past, in order to live the life I wanted I had to keep my silence until after I'd exchanged some of my personal property with his employer's."

"The bank?"

"..." His silence was damning. Ana turned grim, losing the fond smile and lax pose to sit up straight and face him like a foreboding omen. 

"Who exactly are you?" She asked calmly, tone as cold as ice and snow. 

"...I am Zhongli, a retired parlor consultant and mother and that is who I will remain." He answered in a measured tone, letting her come to her own conclusions; Ana was a smart woman, she would surely put two and two together, rather it be now or later. 

She glared, assessing him carefully, face neutral and impassive, the only notion she had reached her conclusion was the slight widening of her eyes and the dangerous flash held within. 

"That explains the little one…" Zhongli felt his stomach twist, heart stilling in his chest, 

"I don't know what you're talking about." He lied, earning a threatening snarl from the aged woman across from him. 

"Lying won't work on me, honey. I saw her teeth, she's got a mouth full of fangs. Too big to be just 5 months old as well," she stood, her presence towering over him with displeasure. 

"Answer me honestly." It wasn't a request, it was a command. 

"I am...not human...not truly." 

"Abyssal?"

"No, more ancient than that...I am at heart...a dragon, therefore Haihai is...part-dragon." she cursed under her breath, running a hand through graying, frizzy hair. She looked him up and down, brows furrowed into a deep scowl; Zhongli felt incredibly small, Ana's assessment of him felt heavier than any critique he'd suffered from his Adeptus or even Guizhong. 

"You're Liyue's God." 

"Former," He corrected swiftly, "I only want for my future husband and family. I am not anyone's God. Not anymore." He took a deep calming breath, struggling to find his center and prevent himself from spiraling.

"I have spoken nothing but the truth when I can. I only tried to keep Jinhai's lineage a secret for her protection. Your son means the world to me, I would gladly sacrifice everything I am to keep him and our brood safe!"

"And if he someday longs to leave?" He startled, eyes flying wide, searching for any sign of trickery in her face. He knew many sonnets and ballads of love, how one should let it go if it was truly love, that keeping them would only hurt them; but he was a dragon at heart. Selfish and cruel in his early days of living, the pain he had suffered, the love he had lost, his first born…it had prompted selfless acts of protection. To give all he was to his people and to be their guide to prosperity.

He could stand to be selfish now, to hoard, clutch, and snarl would be thieves away from his trove...his Ajax. 

"I will make him stay, give him reasons to stay, Ajax is mine." He snarled, gasping shortly just as the growl left his throat; she snorted, cocking her head to the side to take in the scene. 

"Just what every mother wants to hear…"

"Wha-!?"

"Well, perhaps mothers in Snezhnaya...I do believe others wouldn't take kindly to such blatant possessiveness." Zhongli stared, waiting for her to continue.

"Hmph, we Snezhnayans have no time for infidelity or wandering thoughts. Everyday is a struggle, so you must keep what is precious close to heart. Ajax loves you with all that he is." Zhongli nodded slowly, feeling warmth in his chest at Ana's admission. 

"Which means...should you ever hurt him again. I will personally see to it that God or not, you are buried 6 feet under in some nameless plot where none shall remember your name. Are we understood?" She growled, comparable to a charging bear with the way his hair stood on edge and his body produced a cold sweat. 

Osial was nothing compared to her fury, she could level cities with her might. 

"We are understood... I would never hurt him, not intentionally. I do expect disagreements between us but I want him to be happy. Ajax is... precious to me." Ana grinned proudly,

"I knew there was a reason I liked you," she clapped him on the back before pulling him into another firm hug, his spine straining under the pressure. Ana pulled away,

"Plus, six whole grandchildren?" She patted his stomach affectionately, "How could I be upset with someone so willing for a large family of...well, Ajax's children." She looked dazed for a moment and chuckled,

"I hope you know a good sitter and a strong liquor to get you through the rough days." She teased, bumping him over with her hip and picking up a butcher knife,

"How would you like these cut?" Zhongli blinked, realization dawning that this was Ana's way of bonding with him, of letting him know where they stood as in-laws. 

"Strips cut in half, not too thin." She nodded and began to trim and cut the vegetables while he stuffed the crystal shrimp.

"May I ask what you mean by...rough days?"

"The days your children are out to get you, for example, Bartok. He was a troublemaker, would lead Tanya and Ajax around by their noses. He knew just how to hook them in and one day he got a bright idea from a schoolmate." She sighed, eyes rolling skyward as if sending a silent prayer.

"He convinced Ajax to lick a metal pole, said it would taste of peppermint after a big snow. Little Ajax loved peppermints, my mother would spoil him with hard candies, anyway, of course Ajax licks the pole and next you know he's stuck." Zhongli could help the burst of a chortle that escaped him, flushing red at the woman's keen gaze.

"You can laugh, I had me a good fit when we got him off the damned thing, took a whole kettle of hot water and coaxing to get Ajax to stop screaming. Whole neighborhood knows what happened that day and Bartok was grounded for months. Wasn't allowed anywhere but school and the house, not after that stunt." 

"How long was he stuck to the pole?"

"A whole 10 minutes but you would have thought it was hours. Bartok was going to leave him there, trying to get away from the scene of the crime but Tanya ratted on him, she didn't want to get in trouble by association." Zhongli chuckled, 

"Do you have any embarrassing stories about Ajax? He rarely speaks of his childhood." 

"Sadly, no. He was a very reserved child, hardly did anything on his own without prompting. All embarrassing stories typically revolve around Bartok or Tanya because Ajax just clung to his father...hanging off every word." She got a far away look in her eyes, smile falling to a thin lipped grimace. 

"Your daughter is a lot like him when he was small, fussy and temperamental, she might become a little shyer with age or she might be so excitable you struggle to handle her." Zhongli smiled weakly,

"I'll still love her with all my heart, even if the next few are just as fussy, I wouldn't have it any other way." His hand subconsciously went to his stomach, picturing the next little one in his mind's eye. 

"If you say so, do heed my words though, you will need a good sitter." 

"Have you any recommendations?" 

"Tch, it would be absurd to take my recommendation when all of them are old Snezhnayan bitties. Find someone more local with a ton of patience and a love for children." Zhongli nodded sagely, immediately Ganyu came to mind, she had been requesting more time with Jinhai recently so perhaps she wouldn't mind watching her for an evening while Zhongli and Ajax took time for themselves.

He made a mental note to ask her later, when he wasn't playing host to his new family and finishing preparations for their wedding. He finished with the crystal shrimp and placed them in a prepared steamer basket.

"Oh! Before I forget, thank you for your gift. The fabrics and such, I have been thoroughly enjoying myself with all the colors. I even made some sashes for Tonia and the boys to wear to the wedding." Zhongli chittered, an uncontrolled sound escaping as he cheered inwardly, preening under her thanks. 

"It was nothing, really, I wanted to do it."

"No no, the gesture was unnecessary, you didn't request a dowry so we were not expecting such a generous, thoughtful gift. I've been familiarizing myself with the silks and thought to make a family quilt with a few silk patches for you and your little ones." The chitter turned to a purr, loud and rumbling, the umber tips of his hair glowed faintly and the slits of his eyes narrowed. 

Praise from his mate's mother made his heart sing; acceptance, joy, bonding, excitable thoughts rattled around in his head as he bounced on his heels,

"It means the world to me to hear you find the gift enjoyable! I told Ajax you would appreciate it!" She grinned, fond and sweet, a little amused at his antics being that of a rejoicing child who's received a gold star. Zhongli continued to purr through the rest of their meal preparation, delighted that he had provided something Ana had appreciated and made use of for her family.

When Ajax returned to the kitchen, looking a little sleepy himself, he didn't comment on his mate's purr or what they had talked about, simply opting to lean against the elder's back and smile into the nape of his neck. Ana watched the display from the corner of Zhongli's eye, a bittersweet smile tugging at her lips from Ajax's outward display of affection.

Chapter Text

He awoke to the sun's early morning glove in a bed that wasn his own and blearily rubbed the sleep from his eyes before an overflow of joy seized his heart. Zhongli felt like crying out in excitement, burying his face in one of their numerous pillows, wiggling excitedly not unlike his little one when given a treat; they were to be wed today. He was going to marry his mate, his Ajax, his beloved. Venti stirred next to him, groaning softly.

"As excited as I am for you...I feel it's way too early for this…" Xiao grumbled his agreement before the skittering of claws caught the trio's attention as Jinhai leapt into the bed.

"Good morning, my dear." He cooed, uncovering his face to pepper purring kissing over their snout. Per tradition in Liyue, their shared bed upstairs had been made and sorted with red sheets and blankets and adorned with other traditional fair. An honor he'd asked of Ana who had blushed and sputtered when Zhongli had explained the importance of it; in turn the bedroom had become off limits. 

Jinhai wouldn't hesitate to eat any of the fruit of nuts used in the tradition and the bed was supposed to go untouched until tonight so sleeping arrangements had been adjusted, Ajax with his family and Zhongli with his, respectively. Yesterday that had partaken in another Liyuen tradition, a full 24 hours of separation between the bride and groom, though it was believed to be more of a superstition in these modern times, Zhongli politely requested to follow it.

Ana had played along, keeping Ajax from Zhongli's sight with teasing grins, if the young ginger needed to go anywhere in the house, his little siblings would carroll the elder out of the room. Pushing and shoving, teasing all the while, it appeared to be a game to them and even Jinhai had joined in, growling and snarling playfully. It certainly didn't help that Zhongli gave in, bemoaning how he had been forbidden to see his future husband and eliciting laughter from the children and his mate, his quiet giggles from the other room had made the elder's heart flutter excitedly.

The previous week had been spent bonding with family new and old, adjusting to customs on both sides even though Ajax had agreed to a Liyuen wedding; Zhongli still wanted to allow for his own culture's traditions to be mixed in where they could apply. Ajax had gruffed and grumbled but had flushed prettily when his mother brought up the matter of crowning and that had caught Zhongli's attention; however, the act itself was usually performed by a priest of their faith and as far as anyone knew, there were no Snezhnayan priests operating out of Liyue.

Not many who came here came here retaining their faith after all. Ajax had outright refused to be ransomed, though the keeping him away during the day before could almost technically count with how serious Ana behaved, as if a single glance at her son would have everything tumbling down, even going so far as to take his meals upstairs to the guest room where he had been hiding out.

They had arranged for a set of crystal glasses to be broken after their vows were exchanged, Zhongli had particularly felt this tradition suited his ginger mate, he was certain with the young man's arm strength that the glass was splinter into a glittery dust, bring eons of happiness their way. There were other traditions from his homeland but Ajax had stated he would rather focus on Liyue's traditions as he was officially becoming a citizen on his wedding day.

His smile had been so comforting, blue eyes swimming with unfiltered adoration, he was happy he was becoming Zhongli's husband, that he was becoming a part of Liyue and coming to officially call it home. The elder snatched up Jinhai with a chittering roar, excitement bleeding from every pore, it certainly set the mood as the hatchling's response was one of their own excited croons. 

The two Anemo Wielders groaned collectively but Xiao flashed him an understanding smile, happy that the elder was getting to do something he wanted with all his heart. "

"Mama and papa get married today, little one." He cooed, grinning at Jinhai's responding purr; Happy for mama and papa! He pressed another flurry of kisses to their snout and budding horns, feeling the little roots beginning to peak. He wondered idly how they would grow and branch, how regal their first little one would look with their ginger fringe and glowing horns. 

He was pelted in the face by a pillow, glaring fiercely at the bard who had slid from the bed and armed himself with more pillow, grinning mischievously.

"We gonna get you ready for your big day or you going to sit there daydreaming about it?" Venti teased, drawing a playful snort from Xiao still curled up in the bed. Zhongli huffed good naturedly with a fond smile and hurried himself from the bed to get ready.

The day passed by in a blur, hours rushing by too quickly and yet not fast enough. He has not seen his Ajax for a full 24 hours as tradition dictated and he would finally see his mate again at the altar that had been set up for their ceremony on Yujing Terrace. They had already fetched all the proper paperworks from the courthouse, a marriage license, Ajax's citizenship papers. 

They would finish them today in front of their witnesses and it would be all said in done, Ajax would be his husband and a part of Liyue from this day forth. It made Zhongli feel elated and giddy, body too small to contain the amount of sheer joy he felt, his indescribable excitement that threatened to tear his seams and shred his cover. A day like today, were he strong enough, he would take flight to twist and weave about the countryside, roaring his delight.

It would certainly be one way to destroy his cover; but his body was tired and couldn't manage a full shift, only the inklings of his great horns had escaped and scales decorated his body in smatterings. Venti had frantically pointed at them when Zhongli had been blissfully unaware, cradling Jinhai and dressing them for the ceremony while Ajax's siblings as stared, wide-eyed and gobsmacked. 

He had reigned himself in quickly, swearing the three of them to secrecy with the promise of special treats.

"Is that how you could have babies in your tummy?" Tonia whispered and Zhongli begrudgingly nodded, flushed with embarrassment at having lost control of himself and shifting unconsciously. Tonia had gasped and broke out into a wide grin, 

"We won't tell no one! Promise. We don't need any treats, we'll keep it safe so big brother can be happy." Tonia said, her brothers joining in excitedly,

"Yeah! Big brother and you should be happy."

"We will be super secret keepers!" Zhongli had wrapped them all into a tight hug,

"What wonderful little siblings my Ajax has." Jinhai had huffed in jealousy, shooing them off after a moment and clinging to Zhongli's leg,

"My mama!" Though with the language barrier the children could only guess what they'd said. 

Zhongli finished getting their little one ready and sent them upstairs with their auntie and uncles to show Ajax; Zhongli strained his hearing to listen for his mate's reaction to their beautiful hatching dressed in a simple, red and gold hanfu. He'd put all of her hair up into little twin tails with big red bows to match, Jinhai had been particularly fond of the bows. 

Ajax gasped, a sound that made Zhongli's heart flutter and his body struggle to contain itself again. With only a few hours left before the ceremony, it wouldn't do to disappear to run a few laps around the harbor, the elder had to be strong and contain himself, lest Mei Rin get a face full of branching splendor when she got to his beautification. 

Xiao sighed beside him, looking incredulous,

"You're terrible, to think today might be Liyue's second coming of Rex Lapis." The Adeptus chided.

"I cannot control myself...I feel so...so full and brimming. Like my heart is going to burst if I don't find some outlet." The young Yaksha snorted through his nose and rolled his eyes skyward before crossing his arms over his chest, 

"Please do your best not to destroy your cover. I think it would be very difficult to raise Haihai while people are begging for prayer and answers." Zhongli nodded at that, folding his hands together like an admonished child, he just couldn't help it right now; his body felt too small and too tight and he wanted nothing more than to charge upstairs into the guest room to caress and cuddle his mate. 

He worried his lip, finding the hint of fangs and wincing; Xiao was looking at him with an unimpressed frown, brows raised as if to say 'Well? What not now?'

Zhongli tentatively reached up and was greeted with his horns erupting from his head, not the full grand crown of bone and splendor but enough that anyone who caught sight of him could immediately guess his identity. He sighed heavily, smiling sheepishly at his Yaksha as he retracted his horns and fangs just in time for Mei Rin to descend the stairs.

"Ah, Master Zhongli, it's time to get you ready." 

He was dressed quickly, Mei Rin and her assistant checking over his make up and adding her own flare to his usual look with a touch of dark contours just under his cheek bones and gold luster dust along his brow, nose, and upper cheeks to give him a faint sparkling shine. 

Then came his hair to which he gave slight resistance to the idea of changing too drastically with the traditional high bun. It was... hard to explain the feeling of apprehension but Mei Rin was convinced and allowed him to keep the ponytail if she could twist it into a low bun, Zhongli agreed to that, allowing her to pin his hair into a low, looping twist that flared slightly at the tail ends. 

He thought perhaps he was being silly or dramatic but he felt good this way, Ajax could still play with his hair later, run his fingers through his bangs and kiss him tenderly. A high bun would likely bring his mate to tears with laughter having never seen the elder with such an old fashioned updo. While Mei Rin worked on him, the bridal party departed for Yujing Terrace with more of Mei Rin's assistants to put any final touches on Ajax and company. Venti stayed behind with Xiao, though it appeared that Jinhai had gone with his mate; probably to play with Qiqi who would be leading the procession. 

Mei Rin gave a last once over before the coat was procured; an elegant thing of beautiful red and gold with a few embellishments done in sapphire blue. The embroidery work was stunning, he was completely beside himself with awe that Mei Rin and her seamstresses had managed such gorgeous work in only a few short weeks before the wedding. 

His coat depicted the mighty Exuvia, proud and strong as it coiled the length of the coat, massive claws coiling delicately to grasp at it's partner, the phoenix. An equally beautiful depiction of the feathered creature was intertwined with the Exuvia, feathers weaving and grasping at the Exuvia, like they were caught in a wicked dance or epic battle. 

Other symbols important to their culture were stitched meticulously into the coat, playing into the scene and blending nicely with the overall theme of the coat. The elder couldn't be more pleased,

"It's gorgeous, truly a masterpiece."

"Hmm, you have yet to see your bride, I will only accept compliments once you've had a chance to see him." She preened smugly before they went to work putting him in the coat and looking him over for any last minute details. A low whistle drew his attention to Venti who was leaning against Xiao, both dressed in crimson robes tied with gold sashes. 

"You look fancy." Xiao elbowed the bard with a fierce glare, 

"Ouch!"

"He looks beautiful. Truly an attire befitting one of his status." Xiao huffed, earning a slightly embarrassed chortle from the former God. 

"I'm just a retired consultant, no need to place me so high on a pedestal." Zhongli assured, gaze wandering to the clock in the sitting room; his heart leapt into his throat, jaw clenching to keep his delight from escaping.

It was time to go. They only had a few more moments before it was time for the ceremony, before Ajax became his husband and Zhongli became his.

"Heavens above…" he whispered achingly, the two Anemo wielders giggled at his lovestruck gaze before taking an arm, one on each of his sides;

"We best be off then!" Venti cheered. Mei Rin fussed over something trivial before she waved them off, promising to see them after the ceremony. The trip to the terrace passed in a semi-colorful blur that had ended with him placed before the altar as he awaited the bridal procession. A crowd of people had come to attend, all by invitation of course, to witness their union in contract. 

Though in spirit they were already considered one whole, Zhongli could still taste the excitement on his tongue, the joy in his belly; this was it, it was finally happening. It took most of his concentration to remain calm, breath even, his body was wracked with tremors as his gaze trained to the archway Ajax would appear from with Qiqi leading the way.

He didn't have to wait long before music began and he could see the little zombie peeking her head out from behind the decor, soft pink hues darting around the terrace curiously; he catches her eye and smiles warm and open, Qiqi returns it sweetly before Baizhu appears behind her with a patient grin. 

They vanished behind the arch again and a moment passed, feeling like it lasted an eternity with his breath frozen in his chest, waiting for the approach of his mate. Qiqi emerged fully, hands clasped tightly in front of her as she managed a small smile while leading the procession. His excitement was barely contained, Ningguang cleared her throat beside him, glancing to his feet where the beginnings of his tail were visible. 

"Forgive me." He whispered and she snorted exasperatedly. He tried his best to reign himself in but when Ajax appeared he was ever so thankful for the sunsets glow hiding the glow of his hair and the spark in his eyes; his mate was a true vision of wonder and beauty. 

The qipao mirrored his own coat though the depiction was reversed to make the phoenix the larger creature sprawling the length of the dress, coming to cradle the Exuvia just above Ajax's breast. Whether trapped in ferocious battle or intimate dance, it would be left to them to decide much like everything in their lives. The sheer silken veil was ethereal, the color obscuring his mate's just slightly bit the flash of blue hidden within crimson sparked a roaring desire in his heart to see the splendor behind the veil. 

Mei Rin had outdone herself, the qipao was elegant and snug, letting some of the young ginger's musculature bleed through, his Ajax was a warrior after all and even in slight wedges he strode toward the altar with a knowing air of grace and warrior pride.

Zhongli felt his heart flutter wildly; Ajax rather than carry the bouquet carried their little one who held the bouquet in his stead, grinning happily up at their papa before turning their shimmering eyes on their mama. So what if the roles had been a little muddled and mixed, what did it matter for Ajax to be the bride? The young ginger was stunning, more beautiful than any maiden could hope to compare in the near future. 

Ana took Jinhai and the bouquet from her son when he came to stand within an arm's length of Zhongli where his young mate opted to take the elder's hands in his own; a faint sparkle of their wedding bands catching the former God's eye. Ajax squeezed him gently, grinning sweetly from under the veil, it took everything Zhongli had not to kiss him now and interrupt Ningguang's speech. 

The elder knew the importance of listening but he just couldn't bring himself to focus on anything but the young man who had agreed to stay by his side, help raise a family, to let Zhongli cherish him like he deserved. After the Tianquan finished her speech of unions and contracts, the meaning of love and overcoming the differences between the people before her, she stepped back and gestured for Zhongli to recite his vows though he'd almost missed his queue still trying to drown in Ajax's eyes. 

The veil was pulled back, though it should have been saved for their first kiss as husband's, he wanted to fully see his mate when he promised him forever. 

"Ajax…" whispered quietly just for the younger to hear and possibly a few Adepti and former God's. Ocean eyes had been accented with the same crimson eyeliner the elder himself was so fond of, drawing out the subtle darker times of his eyes and making the blue brighter by comparison. His freckles had been left alone, little starlike dots gracing his cheeks and reminding Zhongli of the various constellations that blessed the night's sky. Ajax was shining, the faint indication of golden luster dust evident near his nose and lips that had been glossed a sweet, rosy pink. The ginger fringe that usually hung in a wild mess of curls had been pinned back and away from his eyes to let the elder lose himself in them fully, hardly able to keep his hand from cupping the other's cheek when he blushed so cutely.

"I think perhaps I was born to love you, as strange as that may sound coming from someone like me." Zhongli said, loud enough for the witnesses to hear finally. 

"All my life I have denied myself so much happiness in the pursuit of better for those around me. With my retirement having been on the horizon for so long...I often wondered what I would do with myself afterwards once I stepped away from that life." He spoke vaguely, enough that those who were not a part of their inner circle would assume his work at Wangsheng but for Ajax and those who knew the truth it would be easy to understand. 

"I couldn't have imagined the day we met would lead to this, I did not think I could love someone as much as I have loved you. I have experienced so much loss in my life and I was sure that...I would lose you as well, Childe." Zhongli smiled bitterly, tracing his thumb just under Ajax's eye, ocean hues became watery, the younger's smile cracked just a fraction. 

"...perhaps that is why you're perfect for me, though we fought and our differences were clear, the both of us are entirely too stubborn for our own good and I will be eternally grateful we dug in our heels and came together, that we spoke of our feelings and that we were honest. You've given me so much...I fear someday I will never be able to repay you." Ajax blurred, the elder's own tears obscuring his field of vision. 

"I promise that it will be forever. I will love you as long as I breath and even beyond that. I may have not known of love near the beginning of my life but I am so blessed to understand it now...to be able to love you with all of my heart and mean it truly. I love you...now and forever, I promise you happiness and joy...whatever I can to make you smile, even if you'd request the impossible of me. I would do it, just for you." He managed to keep his voice from breaking, the joy and euphoria in his belly threatening to burst forth is a torrent of coiling fire when he hadn't breathed flames in centuries. Ajax sniffled, lacing his hand with Zhongli's still perched on his cheek.

"You idiot blockhead-" he hiccuped into a gleaming smile, words bleeding affection from the bottom of his heart causing the elder to smile.

"You've nothing to repay...you've given me so much that I feel as if I'm the one in debt...yet it seems the both of us are foolish enough to think of this relationship as anything but equivalent exchange when it always has been." He chuckled delightedly, eyes turning to pleased crescents though the act caused a torrent of tears to run down his cheeks. 

"I had always assumed I could only ever have love for my family as they were all that mattered to me. My homeland is unforgiving to the weak and though our Archon may be that of love, it never crossed my mind that, that was something for me. That anyone would...love me for everything that I am." He sniffled,

"You don't look at me like you're afraid...like I'm something terrible even knowing…" blue eyes flickered to his family, his mother sobbing softly as Ekaterina translated for her. 

"Even knowing all of my darkest secrets, you still touch me like I deserve to be treated gently, that I'm...worth it to you. You make me the happiest I've ever felt in a long time. My life has been full of choices and actions, things I might not be proud of…" he trailed off wetly and clasped his hand tighter with a loving smile. 

"I would make them all again, without complaint. If I was ever given the opportunity to relive my life I wouldn't change a damn thing because I know that you're waiting for me and I don't want to keep you waiting any longer! I promise with my whole heart that I will love you until my very last breath and even then...I'll still love you." There was a pause, both teary eyes and tender; Ningguang spoke gently, moved by their declarations. Zhongli once again didn't hear her, too taken by the exhilaration captured in his mate's expression as Ajax leapt into his arms and kissed him deeply. 

Like a cork bursting from the pressure, Zhongli purred, a sound so loud if it weren't for the claps and cheers from the witnesses they would have heard it and assumed it was thunder. He hiked his mate onto his hip, tongue sliding into the cavity of Ajax's mouth and rumbling happily. The ginger hummed softly, fingers carding through dark hair and breaking away for a deep, giggly breath.

Zhongli moved for another only for Ajax to stop him with a gentle finger,

"Easy there, let's try to keep things appropriate for the day, mmk?" He teased, drawing a frown from the elder who begrudgingly agreed with a chaste one to the cheek in compensation. Two crystalline goblets were brought forth, one handed to each of them and Ajax grinned wickedly. 

"Bet I shatter mine into dust."

"Tch, a wagner on the day of our wedding, really?" 

"Hey, I gotta do something to guarantee our eternity of happiness, you in?" Zhongli huffed before a wry smirk tugged at his lips.

"Of course my love." Ajax wound up his arm, unburdened by sleeves and threw the goblet with all his might against the floor as tradition dictated in Snezhnaya; the fragments would supposedly represent how many years of happiness would be granted. The goblet shattered prettily, his mother cheered excitedly along with his family and coworkers from the bank; Ajax preened eyeing the elder expectantly. 

Zhongli smirked, and let the cup drop after infusing it just a bit with Geo energies, let it plot gracefully into a neat pile of sand crystalline sand atop the shattered remains of his mate's goblet. Ajax cackled, leaving into another kiss and grinning ear to ear when they pulled apart,

"No way in hell am I counting every grain! Guess that means infinite happiness right?" Zhongli hummed his approval, mirroring the younger's own joyful grin before stealing another kiss, something raw and whole, something perfect. 

. . .

It was perfect, the kiss he'd found himself in was soft, warm, filling; like soup on a winter's day. He broke off with a gleeful pant and met his mate's amber gaze jovially, the young Fatui had barely been able to contain his joy and excitement all day. He'd nearly tried to sneak out and take on an entire Ruin's worth of guards and hunters in his wedding attire just to stop himself from fidgeting. 

Though the soft reminder that blood, his or someone else's, would ruin the embroidery and probably the ceremony if he showed up disheveled and bloodied. So he kept those feelings to himself and set them aside to deal with later, preferably after they'd enjoyed the reception and Zhongli had taken him to the marriage bed.  

They'd hired a photographer from Fontaine to make use of a Kamera to capture the moment, that pair having all but forgotten their arrangement until he came forward with a wide grin and requested the wedding party stay behind just for a moment before heading to the reception nearby; Ningguang having graciously allowed the use of one of her event halls. 

His mother stayed behind with his siblings, along with Shrimpy, Xiao, and Ganyu; Childe even went so far as to snag Ekaterina and the Funeral Parlor director for their photos, claiming it was necessary as they had helped in numerous ways. Baizhu was permitted with Qiqi, of course, and by the time everyone was settled into position they were stiff and perhaps a little irritated. Childe blew a loud raspberry into Jinhai's cheek, causing a chorus of giggling to erupt from the serious smiles of the wedding party, loosening them up for the photos and districting the bride from the distinct lack of his father and older siblings.

The next few moments were lively and filled with congratulations from people Childe had never even met before, many of them shop keeps that knew Zhongli through their many, many transactions. The rest were people he did recognize, like Kequing of Qixing and Ningguang's many assistants; all of them voicing their congratulatory statements while glaring skeptically at the young ginger tucked against Zhongli's chest. 

He was a citizen now and had rights like any other Liyuen resident. Zhongli hummed quietly, the vibrations soothing the ginger like a lullaby while Jinhai babbled in his arms. A sudden shove to his back had him stumbling briefly, turning with intent to kill he stilled at the sight of his mother with a bottle of Firewater in hand and a few shot glasses, eyes gleaming wickedly. 

"Mama…?" 

"Gorko!" She cried, drawing a wide smile from her son as a few other Snezhnayans in attendance cheered, including his own siblings; as commanded he stole a kiss from his mate quickly, startling the other man at the suddenness of it all. Shots were distributed quickly and once again, Ana led the charge with a loud shout,

"Gorko!" Childe kissed him again as the shots were knocked back, giggling madly at Zhongli's repeated, dumbfounded look. 

"Wha…?"

"It's a tradition, our kiss is supposed to make the shots sweeter." He teased adoringly, flashing his mother a fierce, playful smile as she poured yet another shot, apparently intent to get the party roaring as quickly as possible.

Venti appeared as if summoned, eyes wide and sparkling as Ana offered him a glass, seeming well aware of why he had gravitated this way. Another shot followed with a chorus of cheers when it was Zhongli who stole this kiss this time, catching the ginger by surprise.

"I think I can learn to appreciate this kind of tradition, though I worry for the sobriety of the guests." Zhongli snickered as Ana cackled boisterously, clapping Venti on the back when the Firewater shot caused the bard to wheeze. The ginger man huffed fondly and turned to give his mate a tender look,

"What can I say? We Snezhnayans do love our drinks, keep the chill from our bones." Zhongli growled softly, a rumbling sound that was more intimate than threatening.

"You're both now, a child of the frigid tundra and my mate, a child of Liyue's bounty…" Zhongli murmured into the column of his throat, forgetting himself momentarily to nip at exposed flesh. 

"Hmm, I know medovyy, I won't forget," and how could he? He'd waited for this day with a thundering heart and butterflies in his stomach, he was both a citizen of Liyue and his motherland. When he was younger, the idea of such an occurrence would have never crossed his mind, even a year or so ago he wouldn't have thought this would be a solution to the feelings he'd harbored towards one Funeral Consultant. 

Another flurry of congratulations followed the drinks, as the couple sat at the head table for dinner, a variety of delicious, rich foods were served from Springvale Boar to fresh crab legs and lobster. Speeches were given at this time, some a little more meaningful than others as the guests were well on their way to tipsy thanks to his mother taking the lead with Gorko.

It appeared it was hard to resist the cheer and fun of joining in the demand for newlyweds to kiss, as even Ekaterina seemed to wobble on her feet when the dancing began, the bank's receptionist completely taken by the ferrylady on her arm. Vlad and Nadia were equally tipsy, the two had grown increasingly loud as the evening wore on and liquor flowed freely with the delicious meal. 

Ganyu took Jinhai from Zhongli's lap and motioned for them to amble up to the dance floor, puffing her cheeks threateningly when the elder tried to take the hatchling back.

"No! I barely get to see my little Haihai, you can spare her for a few dances." The half-Adeptus had groused, Ana joined in the encouragement, pushing both the bride and groom from their seats to the floor when many couples were swaying.

Childe snickered, "What kind of husband doesn't want to dance at his own wedding?" Zhongli flushed a pretty pink,

"I worry I will forget myself, forget this is a public event with eyes on us. I might take a bite of you which would be entirely inappropriate." The elder chittered softly, pressing a chaste kiss to demonstrate his point. Childe laughed, falling into his mate and turning them to the rhythm of gentle music, hands wrapped around his shoulder while Zhongli's were placed firmly on the younger's hips. 

The moment lasted all of a few seconds before the music shifted abruptly and Zhongli's head shot up as if he'd just caught the scent of blood on the wind, eyes narrowing dangerously at the bard seated primly at the head table.

"Two lovers, forbidden from one another-"

"You have got to be kidding me…" Zhongli hissed, expression pinched as his eyes rolled skyward.

"War divides their people and the mountains sat between them…"

"What is it?" Childe snickered at his mate's seemingly offended reaction to the beginning.of the song.

"It's a highly inaccurate ballad about Liyue and a system of-"

"SECRET TUNNELS!" His mate grumbled something under his breath, something akin to asking the heavens for patience while the young Fatui cackled and took lead, spinning them gently around the dance floor as the party of musician's belted out some nonsense about tunnels and badger moles. Zhongli's irritation only worsened when Xinyan joined in, increasing the volume and fervor of the song. 

"THROUGH THE MOUNTAINS! SECRET, SECRET TUNNELS!" Zhongli looked ready to strangle the green clad bard by the end of the dance, citing it to be an entirely inappropriate song for a newlyweds first dance together.

"I cannot believe you went and found them...just for this." Zhongli hissed, Venti sniggered from his lack position in Xiao's lap, the poor Yaksha looked on the verge of overheating with how red his face was.

"It's my wedding present to you! I know how much you loooved their music."

"Quite the opposite actually." Zhongli snorted, Childe snickered beside him and nudged his side,

"I think he was being sarcastic." The elder flushed to the tips of his ears with embarrassment. That only egged shrimpy on, his laugh tinged with hiccups of drunken delight; before Zhongli had a chance to knocked Venti into orbit, Childe dragged him back to the dance floor for another round, this time his siblings trailed after and demanded they show Zhongli how to dance the Hopak, a folk dance from the motherland. 

Childe thought it was a wonderful idea until the heels of his new shoes knocked him on his ass, drawing the attention of many who chuckled with him, the wine from dinner making him giggly and carefree. His shoes were kicked off with the next round of dancing, joining Tonia's ballet flats in a mismashed pile as the dances became more lively and heels became improper. 

It was somewhere towards the late, late evening when Zhongli pulled him from his breathless dancing, panting and sweaty, pressed up against his newlywed husband and mate the younger felt his stomach knot like the first time they had been intimate. 

Zhongli was looking at him like he'd hung the moon and kissed the stars into existence, it made his head spin and the elder had to hoist him up into his arms. They bid farewell to the guests still enjoying the party, Ana following after with Teucer in her arms while Ganyu tended to Jinhai, their posse returned home; Zhongli carrying his mate to the prepared bed while Childe clung to his mate and snuggled into the crook of his neck.

"Make love to me?" 

"Ajax, love, you're barely conscious." Zhongli admonished, earning a soft whine from the young ginger in his arms.

"It's our wedding night, with a marriage bed and everything...I want you to make love to me…" Childe mumbled, flopping back against red silk sheets. The elder blinked, eyes glowing in the low light as his gaze trailed over the limber frame of his husband. 

"I know we should be trying for an egg soon but it's been ages since you-" Zhongli fell atop him, kissing and nipping at soft, peachy lips. 

"That shouldn't be the only reason to indulge, I want little ones, yes; but that doesn't come at the cost of neglecting you, my love." He rumbled, scenting Childe's neck and threaded his fingers along the seam of his mate's qipao. Childe gasped, arching upwards clamping a hand over his mouth, knowing damn well his family was just a few rooms over. Zhongli chuckled, pulling back to reveal a creature Childe had yet to have seen before, a man caught somewhere between human and Exuvia. 

A taloned hand tilted his chin up for a kiss, amber gaze burning gold, full of desire and passion; Childe returned it happily, meeting his mate halfway with a soft whimper. They would make love as husbands, as mates, that thought alone was enough to have his head spinning again as Zhongli stripped him down gently and left a trail of gentle bites down the expanse of pale, creamy skin. The former God's clothes joined his mate's in a strewn mess about the room, an otherworldly glow clung to his visage though Childe could place exactly why. The horns atop his head were like a glorious crown of bone and amber, the majesty of it all had his own blue eyes watering with the question of how he'd ended up with one so breathtaking.

"Zhongli-!?" He yelped, the elder having latched on to a sensitive bud and sucking gently without a trace of patience to be found in his half-formed body. A quiet moan escaped him only to break off in a gasp when the bed groaned and the wood creaked as if it were going to bow. Zhongli had grown, in every sense of the word, bigger.

Childe stared, eyes wide as Zhongli came in close, massive body wrapping fully around him, 

"I haven't tried shifting my whole person in so long...today however, my joy was so full, so rich and filling that I felt I could do it, my body wanted to do it. I felt that if I had felt even a speck more I'd take flight…" Zhongli's voice was richer than any ore vein, a rich timber that made him shudder involuntarily. 

"...you're...big." Childe wheezed, it was all he could manage given his steady stream of thoughts had dried up the instance he saw, ahem, Zhongli's...assets. He chuckled, a sound that would haunt Childe's wildest fantasies for the rest of his mortal life. 

They kissed, tongues melding and sliding against one another, the ginger's thoughts coherent just enough to realize his mate's had become long and forked as it wrapped around his own and greedily explored the expanse of his mouth. They pressed together in a rocking motion, a soft yelp was swallowed whole by the former God above him; the elder was practically stealing the breath from his lungs as his vision swam and thoughts became nothing more than a hazy, blissful fog. 

It didn't take much preparation before they were joined, Childe crying weakly in his pleasure while Zhongli made love to him like he asked, a gentle, passionate love that made the ginger's tears worse. He sniveled and mewled, sobbing through every movement that had him seeing stars, a mantra of 'I love you's filled the empty air between them while his love kissed at the falling tears, returning the sentiment in hushed, hallowed whispers.

"You're perfect, Ajax. You make me feel complete, whole...I love you, so, so much."

"Ah!" He sobbed again, an aching sound that felt more broken than whole, his husband patched him up, filled the empty chasm between his ribs, kissed the cracks in his flesh away and thumbed over scars like sacred tapestry. 

"You're beautiful...in every sense of the word, Ajax. Nothing compares to you and the way you make me feel...how loved you make me feel." He hated how he blubbered weakly, fucked out and raw while Zhongli was so composed above him, amber eyes swimming with deep affection and wonder. Ajax didn't cry during sex, that statement felt like fact and yet...and yet…Ajax wept, reaching for his husband like a life line when he climaxed, screaming silently into the other's chest and heaving breaths into his lungs like he'd been drowning moments before. 

He didn't stop crying until Zhongli had finished inside him, tremors running through his tiny frame in comparison to the creature laid beside him. 

"...I love you too…" be uttered finally, his mind recovered enough to form full sentences not punctuated by a keening moan. Zhongli smiled, pulling him close to his chest, letting his size dwarf the small ginger in his hold and erupting into a contented purr. The moment was sweet and private, something only the two of them could share...until the bed buckled beneath them and Childe let out a howl of contented laughter that was swiftly accompanied by Zhongli's own beautiful chuckle.

 

Chapter Text

Rex Lapis' most faithful and trustworthy Yaksha, could not look the man his god had become in the eye, not when he'd seen the state of the bedroom and the shattered bed frame paired with the bashful looks of Childe and Zhongli who had the audacity to retain his half-dragon from when Xiao had come to check on them. 

"You're truly incorrigible." The Anemo Adeptus chided as Zhongli went about making breakfast, as if they wouldn't have to go out shopping for a new bedframe and mattress. 

"I never said I wasn't." Zhongli huffed, sampling some of his congee before adding a few more herbs to it with a small smile. He looked the picture of innocence, you wouldn't have guessed the night before he'd destroyed a bed with the sheer weight of his body; though Childe betrayed their antics, his face had been flushed all morning as he helped prepare breakfast. Blue eyes glancing to Zhongli everyone one in a while and if the elder happened to meet his gaze, the two would melt just a fraction, they were sickeningly sweet in the marital bliss.

"I think it worked for the best, we needed a new bed anyway, especially if more eggs are on the way." Zhongli mused happily, nudging Childe with his hip and eliciting a fond, albeit embarrassed, smile. 

"Now that you bring it up, that would solve the cramped bed issue, especially when two extra participants get involved." He eyed Xiao and Venti playfully, good natured in his teasing which prompted a fresh berry to be tossed at him from the fruit bowl. 

"You love the cuddle piles, don't lie!" Venti jeered sweetly, Xiao nodded his head in agreement,

"If memory serves correctly, you've invited us to the bedroom a handful of occasions...one might question your motives if you don't like the cuddle piles." The Yaksha smirked at Childe's unamused frown. 

*Hardy har har, make fun of me for enjoying cuddle time," The ginger gruffed as he turned to look up at Zhongli, "which somehow reminds me, we should probably give the cradle back to my mother. If we're not going to use it for anymore our young she should keep it in case one of my older siblings settle down and have a baby." Zhongli hummed thoughtfully, 

"They didn't come to our wedding, I know your mother mentioned it upon first arrival but if they wanted to make a good first impression on their new family, they did a poor job of it." His tone was almost scolding, Xiao watched the elder curiously watching the dark gleam in his eye as he awaited Childe's answer. 

"They probably don't care, if I am being honest. They're more concerned about the cradle and baby clothes I think because they're surprised I suddenly took interest in child rearing. More than likely, they think I tricked you...I know my old man thinks that." The ginger said with an offhanded shrug, as if this information wasn't hurtful.

"Tricked me? Into what, marrying you!?" Zhongli growled, stirring the congee with more vigor than necessary. Another shrug, 

"I'm used to it. They're not subtle in their dislike of me; pretty sure he got mad I took the cradle too because he was hoping Bartok or Tanya would have children before me." 

"What a petty thing to argue about, I rescind my statement about your dad Childe, he's not a cool guy." Venti huffed with a frown causing the ginger to sputter out a laugh. 

"It's just family troubles." 

"Ajax…" Zhongli murmured tenderly, wrapping an arm around his waist and cooing something soft under his breath. Xiao tuned out, as that wasn't for him it was just for the two of them, instead he came to sit next to Venti and twine their fingers together, leaning into his boyfriend gently. 

Childe shook his head, Xiao caught sight of a weak smile meant to reassure but Zhongli must have seen through it, tilting the shorter male's head up to kiss him. 

A pale, calloused hand was coaxed to rest atop Zhongli's chest, right above where his heart lay beating; whatever the elder had said was enough to make the ginger's eyes water though he quickly brushed them away and flashed a more genuine smile, leaning into Zhongli's touch and humming softly. 

Ana and her children entered the kitchen a moment later, Childe slipped into his native tongue and the conversation was lost to Xiao; it felt partly alienating to not know what the graying woman was saying, who she spoke of or what she thought of the lot of them. 

Her blue eyes would often drift to Venti or himself before snapping back to Childe when he spoke again; it was unnerving, Xiao would be glad when they departed, though he would miss the little ones. 

Teucer, Anthon, and Tonia proved to be eager when it came to learning of Liyue, after all, it was the country that had stolen away their big brother. 

"Xiao! Adventure in market, truth?" The youngest has asked him, eyes brimming with excitement as he tugged on Xiao's pant leg. 

"Mmm, shopping." He nodded and Teucer cheered, hurriedly speaking in Snezhnayan to his siblings while Chidle ushered them to the dining room for breakfast. Venti squeezed his hand encouragingly, green gaze as soft as budding grass and ever so adoring; he could see the effort Xiao was putting in with children, knowing that the Adeptus was always wary around them, especially those of mortal descent. 

Xiao smiled a bit, squeezing back, if they were to have a baby he couldn't be nervous when handling them, well...he could, technically. Any first time parent is nervous when handling a newborn; but he couldn't shut down or lose control when emotions ran high. Childe's siblings proved to be a decent testing ground when it came to normal children, not little hatchlings that could tackle him to the floor at 5 months; granted, any children he and Venti had would be far from normal given he was an Adeptus and Venti was a former-Archon. 

A quick peck on his cheek broke him from his thoughts; Venti grinned up at him, cheeks a subtle pink and eyes brimming with feeling. 

"You have got it worse than ol' blockhead, I swear." The bard teased, fingers threaded through Xiao's hand gently, the teasing came from a loving place; it made Xiao's chest seize and body melt. 

"Tch. I do not."

"Uh-huh...and I totally didn't just burst your daydreamy bubble that was probably full of lil babies with ample pudge and kissable cheeks?" Xiao sputtered, quickly waving the mental imagery away with a dismissive swipe of his hand. 

"Bah! Of course not." Pudgy cheeks greeted his mind's eye, a tiny thing swaddled in soft yellows and greens; impossibly small hands and fingers grasping for him with wide beautiful eyes. Celestia save him, he really wanted that and judging by Venti's knowing smirk, the bard knew he wanted it too. 

Zhongli returned from the dining room, having served his congee with steamed bamboo shoots and herbs this morning, 

"What are you two up to in here? It better not be another slime." He warned, eyeing the icebox warily.

"No no, nothing like that. Xiao was just wondering if anywhere is going to have a bed big enough to meet your particular demands...and how it should maybe sit on the floor," Venti grinned wickedly, "seeing as you like to throw your weight around now." 

Zhongli bristled and knocked Venti on his ass with the sudden eruption of a pillar under foot;

"Hmph, learn to take a joke!" Venti pouted rubbing over his buttock gingerly from landing on it unceremoniously. 

"I will learn to take a joke when you come up with something actually entertaining and funny."

"It was funny! You just don't like when it's funny at your expense." Venti grumbled as Xiao helped him back onto his feet. 

"What's at Zhongli's expense?" Childe asked upon entering the scene to which Venti repeated himself, earning a series of giggles from the ginger who held up his hands in defense when the elder rounded on him with a dark scowl. 

"Hey, easy medovyy, it's all in good fun." Childe placated, saddling up close to the fuming lord of Geo and running a hand down his chest to tug at the edges of his robe.

"'sides...I like this new 'throwing your weight around' feels really good, who would have guess I like being pinned down-"

"OK! I have heard enough!" Venti shrilled followed by a potent gag from the Anemo Adeptus beside him. Childe laughed wickedly, Zhongli softening slightly in the younger's hold,

"Don't start shit you're not willing to finish! I will always win, I've had plenty of practice with siblings after all." The Fatui mused confidently; as if on cue, his siblings rushed in with their dirtied dishes and a chorus of Snezhnayan babbling, drawing his attention to them just as Ganyu appeared looking sleepy but content. 

"Mama! Papa!" Jinhai wailed, arms outstretched and waving for either to take them; Ganyu only looked slightly disheartened when Zhongli pulled the hatchling into his arms. 

"Thank you for watching over her last night, did she give you any trouble?"

"Not at all Re- ah! Z-zhongli. She fell right asleep but this morning she was fussy, seems my cuddles don't quite compare to that of their mama's." The half-Qinlin admitted sheepishly only for Zhongli to smile and gesture towards the stove.

"If you don't have to be anywhere soon, join us for breakfast? We're planning to go shopping for a new bed today as well, you could come along and spend more time with Haihai if desired?" Ganyu nodded excited,

"I would love to! Though, why are you looking for a new bed?" Xiao could feel Venti tense next to him, the bard took a deep breath, eyes gleaming with mischief. 

"Say one word and it's your tongue." Zhongli snarled, cheeks a silk flower pink.

 

Chapter Text

"We should be back in a week or so's time." Zhongli stated firmly, looking from Xiao and Ganyu to Venti who grinned wickedly. The former Geo-Archon winced slightly glancing at Jinhai bundled in the bard's arms. 

"We will be fine, o'mighty Zhongli." Venti huffed softly, rocking the little one in his arms gently and flashing Zhongli a knowing look.

"Haihai has the three of us looking after her, go enjoy your honeymoon! You've earned a break from looking after this little one and you might not get another chance like this once you have more." He advised with a slight nod in the direction of the ginger headed boy trying to carroll his siblings; the boat for Snezhnaya left today, along with their own boat to Fontaine. A generous gift from one of Childe's former coworkers, Signora; Venti had to withhold his involuntary shudder.

"It is not that I don't trust you it's just...leaving Haihai for so long-"

"It will be fine." Xiao huffed, crossing his arms over his chest, "We are not so incompetent as to jeopardize the health and safety of your child. We care for them just as much." The Adeptus grunted causing Ganyu to nod affirmatively,

"Haihai will be well taken care of while you're away! Do try to take plenty of photos while in Fontaine!" Venti wriggled his brow playfully,

"See? Between the three of us, nothing can go wrong! Haihai is covered." Zhongli relaxed at that, a grateful smile dawned and he nodded,

"Thank you. Your encouragement has put me at ease about this whole trip." He turned and called out something in Snezhnayan to draw the attention of his mate's family; Venti bracing for the rushed flurry of goodbyes and kisses tossed around. Ana became weepy, babbling in her mother tongue to Childe who consoled her and hugged her tight, rocking her gently where they stood and whispering softly. 

Zhongli quickly swiped at his eyes, hugging the stout woman tightly before doing the same to the three children who were now sobbing into her skirts. Venti felt his heart ache, goodbyes were always rough, especially when family was involved and the bard himself had experienced his fair share of goodbyes and farewells. 

He stole a glance at his boyfriend who was trying to console Teucer, the young boy has grown oddly attached to the Adeptus despite their language difference and communication troubles.

"We'll meet again-"

"Not want leave! No! Teucer Stay with Xiao, Ajax... Haihai." He sobbed as Childe came to gently pry the little boy from Xiao's leg and hoist him into a big hug.

More words Xiao didn't understand, Venti could see it in his eyes how the Yaksha longed to know what was said. Teucer wailed while the eldest of the Lenkov children rocked him, the 9 year old kicking up an awful fuss to which Ana began to scold. 

"Xiao." Childe said, the Adeptus lifted his head, greeted by the sight of a small outstretched pinky that belonged to the sniveling boy in his arms,

"He would like to make a pinky promise that he will see you again, maybe for Lantern Rite." Venti smiled a bit, watching with obvious pride as Xiao intertwined his pinky with Teucer's. The other children were quick to join in, all twining around Xiao's with sniffly whimpers; Childe sang a little song in his mother tongue causing the children to giggle faintly, still waterlogged with tears. 

Final goodbyes were had, more kisses and hugs, Ana blubbered again as she pressed a kiss to Jinhai's cheek and the group boarded the ship, their luggage having been loaded ages ago. They waved goodbye until the family was no more than colorful specks of red hair on the horizon; Childe lingered a moment more, tears boiling over while Zhongli comforted him,

"You'll see them again for Krysnik Noc, we promised after all," Zhongli assured with a smile, "and you never break your promises." Childe brightened at that, giving a strong nod of affirmation. 

"Mama, naptime...sleepy." Jinhai called from Venti's arms, reaching for the taller male who complied gently. 

"Naptime is going to be with Auntie Ganyu and your uncle's my love." He soothed as the group began to meander to another dock where a quick journey to Fontaine awaited them; thanks to connecting waterways and a huge manufactured canal, the mates would be there by early afternoon if winds favored them. 

Jinhai tilted their head curiously when they didn't begin the journey home, 

"Naptime...papa and mama…?" Childe cozied up quickly to their hatching, peppering kisses along their cheeks and nose. 

"No yabloko, you get to have one big sleepover with Xiao and Venti, Ganyu too! Won't that be fun?" If Jinhai's look was anything to go by the three of them remaining were in for it. 

"No, Haihai not think fun." Childe sputtered, a little taken aback by their hatchling's declaration. 

"Oh come now! You get to play with us all day, eat snacks and run around! It will be great." Venti cheered, turning to Xiao and Ganyu.

"I can tell you stories and braid your hair, we can go shopping for dinner tonight and take big cuddly naps! We can even visit Auntie Ningning'!" Ganyu exclaimed with an excited clap, both offers only furthered to sour Jinhai's expression. 

"Haihai want do that with mama and papa!" Were it not for the little one being trapped in Zhongli's hold they would no doubt be stomping their feet, completely unphased by the fun to be had. Venti and Ganyu looked to Xiao who had a very fox caught in the Mitachurl's sights look about him;

"Uh...we...could uh...visit Qiqi for a playdate?" He looked at Zhongli questioningly. Jinhai's scowl lessened a fraction but the moment was short lived when their lip began to wobble and tears welled up,

"Mama and papa stay!" They cried, the two mates exchanged a look.

"I mean, Signora did spring it on us at the last second. We don't have to go." 

"It wouldn't hurt to postpone." Zhongli nodded; Venti glowered and felt his irritation spike, honestly these two were hopeless.

"Nuh-uh. You're going." The bard declared loudly, finality bleeding into his tone. Zhongli and Childe blinked in surprise, sharing another look. 

"Ugh, you want another baby right? Well you won't get one if you give in to the demands of the one you have! Plus I don't want to hear what all you get up to make more eggs!" Venti chided, taking the little one into his arms, ignoring their simpering protests. 

"You will get on that boat, enjoy your week in Fontaine, and give me another niece or nephew to fawn over so my attention is always filled with cute babies!" He continued, jabbing a finger at the boat they were set to depart on. 

"..."

"..."

"I agree with Venti." Ganyu nodded firmly and Xiao stepped forward to ease the hatchling into his hold, his grasp being the strongest against flailing feet and tiny, pounding fists.

"NO! Want Mama! Want Papa!" Jinhai wailed, Venti could see the tears welling up in Zhongli's eyes, his heart no doubt longing for the little one.

"Go! Enjoy yourselves, Haihai will be fine." The two mates kissed Jinhai's cheeks and whispered apologies while the little thing snarled and gnashed, yanking Xiao's hair angrily as a gust of wind shoved the two newlyweds up the board onto the boat. 

They waved, watching the ship depart until Xiao let out a soft yelp; Jinhai had bit him, fat tears running down their cheeks as their face turned ruddy with anger. Ganyu gasped, reaching for her fellow Adeptus,

"Jinhai!" Venti was shocked, never had Jinhai bitten someone before. Both himself and Ganyu made to intervene as Jinhai's fangs sank into the flesh of Xiao's arm, the Yaksha winced,

"Don't!" It was command that had the both of them stilling in their tracks; Venti whimpered in the back of his throat as Jinhai finally broke skin and blood welded up under the pressure. Xiao ran a hand through their hair, hushing their soft sniffles and growls,

"I get it, you're angry. I get angry too and I act out…" the Yaksha murmured quietly; Jinhai's clenched jaw softened, their dark expression relaxed a fraction as the young man spoke softly. 

"There's no need to act like this, but I understand it. You feel bad and don't know what to do, you're scared because mama and papa are gone." Jinhai whimpered, the tears increased and they released his arm fully with a sob,

"Mama and papa...leave Haihai...wa-...waaaaah!" They wailed loudly with body shaking hiccup, Xiao pulling them up to tuck against his neck and chest,

"They will be back, I promise, you have my word as a Yaksha." Surprisingly, they quieted in his hold, nuzzling into his hair and blubbering weakly. Ganyu frowned, taking his injured arm in her hands, the bite was already starting to heal but Jinhai's fangs had been sharp and dug deep. 

"We should treat this back at the house." Venti agreed, noting Xiao's stubborn expression.

"I know that. I wasn't just going to walk around bleeding everywhere but our priority is Haihai." Xiao countered, tucking his injured arm away from sight of other persons and proceeded towards the house, Venti and Ganyu trailing after worriedly. 

By the time they had arrived back, that hatchling had tired themself out; Ganyu took Jinhai upstairs while Venti tended to his boyfriend's injury in the washroom, holding the other man's arm gently in his grasp. 

"I have never seen her bite before-"

"Jinhai is a Exuvia at heart, it is instinct."

"...will our babies have any instinct to bite like that?" Venti paled a bit, the image of Xiao covered in angry nursing bites and purpling bruises. 

"No, I don't think...though we may have to worry about wings."

"Wings!?" Venti gawked, the gauze he'd been fussing with unraveled slightly. Xiao chuckled, the sound sweeter than any melody;

"Why do you sound so surprised? You had wings centuries ago; not to mention my own connections to a mystical bird of legend." He chuckled again and Venti was left stunned for a moment.

"Wha- What!? I lost my wings ages ago, I haven't tried bringing them back- wait, bird!? I thought- should I be eggspecting rather than expecting?" Venti laughed jovially, bringing a wide smile to his Yaksha's face and shook his head. 

"No, it's expecting, but that doesn't mean the baby can't still have wings." 

"Hmm, I suppose but this is the first I'm hearing about your connection to a bird. I thought you were born this way?" Venti gestured to the other's slender frame and he nodded.

"I was...but Rex Lapis, er, Zhongli once said that I reminded him of a bird...he said it was fitting because the day I was freed, the day Zhongli saved me...he said I could have taken flight I was so happy." Venti smiled and cupped his cheek, 

" That sounds like a tender moment…still a little uncertain how that translates to a winged baby? Given how neither of us have wings anymore." Xiao burst out in a full blown laugh, snickering under his breath when he'd reigned himself in.

"I think it might be too hard for me to explain right now...maybe later when I think of the words." Venti stole a kiss, humming into the other softly-

"What winged baby?" The two jolted apart coming to see a wide eyed Ganyu standing in the entryway of the washroom. The blue haired woman looked curiously between them before her eyes widened in a gasp,

"Congratulations!" She clapped excitedly, bouncing on her feet.

"Wait, Ganyu, I'm not-"

"We have to tell Cloud Retainer! Oh she will be so excited you're having a baby!" 

"Ganyu-!?" The half-Qilin vanished in a trail of frost, her speed fueled with excitement.

"..."

"...so...how do you think they'll take the news?" Venti questioned with a weak smile at Xiao's defeated groan. 

Chapter Text

Well, that was almost a disaster.

"So...you're not pregnant?" Magenta hues glanced to the flat of Xiao's stomach before snapping back to his fierce yet clearly embarassed expression. 

"No. I am not." Xiao hissed, voice cracking slightly as his cheeks pinkened further. Venti chuckled beside him, Ganyu could see the love that had bloomed in his green eyes, he was shameless in his oogling of the Yaksha who was too preoccupied in his scolding of Ganyu to notice.

"But you want to have one, you're planning to have one?"

"Ah well...um...yes." he growled softly, golden eyes darting from Ganyu to Venti. 

"So can't we tell Cloud Retainer? She would be overjoyed to hear you're going to have a baby!"

"Eventually! Not any time soon!" Xiao shrieked, bringing a delighted giggle from the half-Adeptus sat on her knees across from him. When he'd finally caught up to her on the edge of Juehan Karst, Xiao had been agast, shrilling loudly how the half-Qilin couldn't just go around telling everyone what she heard. He'd promptly dragged her back to Zhongli and Childe's abode where Venti awaited with a bewildered grin.

Xiao had made Ganyu sit on the hardwood, knees to the ground much like he'd done when she was a child and had disobeyed the Adepti or Rex Lapis' instructions. It was frighteningly familiar and yet it wasn't; Ganyu clearly remembered his demeanor back then being akin to cold, harsh indifference. He had made it well known not to get close or even think of him fondly, he would snap and snarl until Ganyu would run crying to Cloud Retainer who would tear into the Yaksha for being too harsh. 

When questioned, Cloud Retainer said that Xiao had suffered much and his heart had hardened from all the hurt and pain he had endured; for Xiao to be standing before her, tone barely holding any bite to it, it was a clear sign things had changed. 

"I understand; but surely, we could tell Zhongli!" Ganyu pressed and Xiao turned bright red, flushed all the way to his ears and shoulders.

"Absolutely. Not." Venti snickered a bit which caused the Anemo Adeptus to glare petulantly at him.

"Shut up." 

"I didn't say anything, Xiao." The bard mused, twirling a braid between his fingers. 

"I bet he would be overjoyed to hear you're trying-"

"You will not tell a single soul until I am ready!" Xiao barked and it was no longer amusing, he looked upset and flustered. His exterior had softened considerably from the time she was considered little, Xiao was expressing his emotions, face flushed a peachy pink, his face was fuller actually now that she was scrutinizing. Living with Zhongli and his family must have instilled a regular pattern for meals and nutrients, though it was unneeded; however, with Xiao's strenuous activities the extra nutrition wouldn't hurt. He was terribly thin to begin with. 

"I won't tell a soul. Not until you're ready." She promised with a warm smile, noting his shoulders relaxing just a fraction. While excited, she would contain herself for now; with Zhongli's gestations, she never got to feel the egg inside with how busy she was. With Xiao, she would have every opportunity to feel his rounding tummy, nine months worth! He would look adorable, his tiny frame would show all too easily, oh! She had to start getting robes together, his tight shirt would be unbearable in the later months. Xiao would look so cute all plump and comfortable; Venti had better be prepared to spoil and dote on him, otherwise Ganyu would happily do it. 

"Thank you. It's not that I don't want them to know... it's just... I don't think I am ready." Xiao explained in a much more even tone, giving a half shrug as if that would appease the half-Qilin. Ganyu blinked and cocked her head to the side, a small smile playing at her lips,

"I understand. You have my word Xiao." He relaxed fully, rewarding her with a tentative smile of his own.

"Though if you'll hear my advice, you should see a doctor before trying to conceive. I hear it's important to ensure your body's health before taking on such an exhausting journey. You do carry the little thing for nine months!" Ganyu chirped happily, noting Barbato- Venti's suddenly shy demeanor. Both sheepishly met each other's gaze before looking anywhere but their partner; so that had talked about having children but not seeing a doctor. It was incredibly irresponsible but with her advice they would probably get around to see Baizhu soon. Zhongli had admitted his own reservations about speaking with the Dendro wielder but from what Ganyu understood it was worth it.

Zhongli looked happier than ever talking about their future with a full brood. Perhaps Xiao would also wish for a big family or perhaps he would like to keep his brood small, keeping to one or two little ones. Xiao sighed heavily, crossing his arms over his chest,

"I suppose that's enough scolding...please remember our agreement until I am ready. You cannot even allude to it, I don't want Cloud Retainer catching any wind of this until I am actually pregnant. I do not need her fussing." He warned and Ganyu stood with a nod,

"Of course!" The woman stole a glance at the clock hanging in the sitting room; it was about time to wake Jinhai from their nap. 

"Would you two mind preparing dinner while I get Haihai up?" It was Venti who replied first, hoping from his seat,

"No problem, we can handle that, any requests?"

"No, make whatever you are most comfortable with." Ganyu called as she climbed the steps to the second story. She had put Jinhai down in the master bed rather than the nursery in hopes the scents of their parents would help them stay asleep. The half-Adeptus froze upon entering the room as quiet sniffles reached her ears, the sound soft and muffled. 

"Haihai?" She questioned worriedly, hurrying to the bedside to find the little one weeping into a black stuffed bunny, their little face buried in the plush; at some point during their nap they had stripped down and shifted, a long, curled body buried in plushies and blankets. Ganyu could tell that Jinhai had been crying for quite some time, the plush and pillows were slightly damp with their tears.

"Oh, won't you tell auntie Ganyu what's wrong?" She soothed, pulling the plush gently to reveal the little Exuvia's scrunched up expression, golden eyes rimmed red, ears presses back against their head. They sniffled softly,

Haihai hurt uncle Xiao. Haihai feels bad… Ganyu combed through their ginger curls gently, letting the tension bleed from her little hatchling's frame.

"Do you want to make things better?" Jinhai nodded,

"Then you should go apologize to him. I bet with a big hug you'll both feel better." Ganyu said sweetly. Jinhai shook their head, claws kneading the rabbit gently,

Xiao mad. Haihai bite hard.

"He won't be angry, little one. Xiao loves you very much and he understands you were frustrated. I bet a big hug would set everything right, what do you say?" Jinhai squirmed, little clicks escaping their maw as they thought about Ganyu's suggestion. 

Promise Xiao not mad?

"I promise, Haihai." She opened her arms a bit to accept the hug from the little Exuvia, picking them up into her arms a moment later to bring them down for afternoon play before dinner. 

There was a box of toys that stayed in the sitting room for keeping the little one entertained; they drew out some blocks and other various toys to play with while the two Anemo wielders took care of meal prep and cooking. The hatchling played lacking a little luster, clawed paws would stack blocks lazily before toppling them and starting again, golden gaze flickering to the kitchen forlornly. 

"...would you like to apologize to Xiao, now?" She asked softly catching the Exuvia's attention, Jinhai nodded quickly, coming to rest on their hind legs and wait for Ganyu to take lead.

"Alright, alright. Let's go see Xiao." Jinhai took off in a scamper, claws clicking against hardwood while Ganyu followed after. The clatter of claws drew the other's attention, the hatchling freezing in place when Xiao's gaze landed on them. 

"It's not time to eat is it?" Venti gasped, looking around for a clock; Ganyu chuckled and shook her head,

"Haihai has something they want to say." Xiao continued to watch Jinhai, the Exuvia approached tentatively with a soft croon, bumping their head against his shin gently before he knelt to scoop them up with a grunt. 

Jinhai chittered, nosing their maw again the gauze wrapped injury carefully before tilting their head upward to look into his eyes, their whole posture was tense and poised to dart away should something go wrong. Xiao smiled and cupped Jinhai's lower jaw before placing a little kiss over their middle horn bud. 

"You're forgiven little one." Jinhai squealed, rushing to claw at his shirt and nip affectionately at his cheeks, drawing giggle from the three adults. 

"Hmm, would you like to help make dinner?" A reverberating purr filled the room and Ganyu fell into step washing her hands to help as well. Jinhai perched on Xiao's shoulders, chirping happily when he'd ask what they thought of the cuts he was making to their dinner. 

Venti smiled from his place at the stove, tending to a cream sauce so it wouldn't burn.

"He'll be a lovely mother, hm?" Ganyu probed, taking up a knife to begin dicing vegatables; the bard sighed adoringly,

"Yeah…" the half-Qilin preened, containing her giddiness as best she could. 

Chapter Text

The week had flown by faster than expected, there was an old saying Venti had whispered to him one night while snuggled around Jinhai that time always seemed to move quicker when there was fun to be had. His boyfriend had been right of course, it was already Saturday and Zhongli and his mate were set to arrive back late tonight or early tomorrow morning. 

Their time spent with Jinhai had been… wonderful. They played together, cuddled together, ate together; family things. Just the four of them, Ganyu was surprisingly adept when it came to tending to children. If neither Xiao nor Venti could figure out the reason for Jinhai's tears and frustration, Ganyu could step in and identify the problem. The Anemo Wielders took silent notes, making mental marks of what Ganyu did and how she corrected bad behaviors or resolved issues. She was a natural when it came to the maternal, she was even able to get the hatchling to eat when they were particularly grumpy about Zhongli and Childe still not having returned. 

Even after all of that, even after the slight tantrums, messy eating, and bone soaking bathes; their time spent with Jinhai had been the final nail in the proverbial coffin. Xiao wanted a baby; a happy, bouncing little ball of wonder that was both a part of Venti and a part of him. He wanted to coddle and coo at a tiny being, to love unconditionally much like he loved his hatchling Jinhai.

He wanted a baby, wanted to feel them grow in his belly and greet them when they took their first breath as a doting, loving mother. It wasn't just idle fancy anymore, he wanted it to be a reality, which meant that Ganyu's advice wasn't to be taken lightly. Which meant seeing Baizhu before the elder man arrived back home and questioned why Xiao was suddenly interested in his health when the young Adeptus had never put forth the effort before; he certainly didn't want Zhongli finding out the nature of his visit either. 

So under the guise of taking Jinhai to visit Qiqi, Xiao made his way to Bubu Pharmacy with the little hatchling in his arms, proudly carrying their bag of treasures to play with the zombie girl. The combined anxiety of requesting a bodily exam and seeing the little girl made a hard knot form in his belly. He didn't want to see her but...part of healing would be to face her even if she had no memory of his involvement with her past.

Even if she didn't remember...he did, and he would never, ever forget that day, that moment, the fear that had gripped him when he realized what he had done in his rage...who he had hurt. 

"Xiao! Xiao!" Jinhai yanked his hair harshly, drawing his attention quickly with a sharp gasp; Jinhai pointed to an outcrop of rock, a group of Violet grass had taken root, dotting the rock with a gentle shade of color. The Anemo Adeptus smiled a bit before reaching out to pluck one of the flowers from the outcrop and handing it to Jinhai who squealed.

"Present for Qiqi, pretty!" They cheered, leaning into Xiao's shoulder and humming happily. He continued on his way, the hatchling tucked gently in his arms, his thoughts drifted for a moment as he pictured a different little one in his arms. A little chubbier and smaller, hair black as night with soft streaks of green braided like their papa's; what kind of baby would they have? Happy, fussy, docile? 

Jinhai was a happy child but also very much like their parents, stubborn and headstrong, Xiao liked that about Jinhai. The little one could dig in their heels when needed as seen with their first day without Zhongli and Childe; 

"Haihai!" The little one jerked up, eyes alert and focused on the small, periwinkle figure at the top of the steps. 

"Qiqi! Present! Present for Qiqi!" Jinhai squirmed in his hold until they reached the top set and he set them on their feet, Jinhai held out the violet grass proudly with a toothy grin as the zombie girl accepted the gift with her everlasting neutral expression. Though at the sight of the flower a small smile tugged at her lips,

"Thank you, Qiqi thinks it's very pretty." Jinhai preened, digging through their bag of treasures for toys to play with while pink hues settled on Xiao, pinning him in place where he stood.

A nightmarish memory clawed to the surface, a tiny body crushed, a terrible wail of a child's cry- Oh Archons he couldn't do this- 

"Qiqi is pleased to meet you." it hurt to draw in his own breath, he felt his vision beginning to blur as fear dug it's talons into his heart the longer he stood before the little girl who to him represented all of his wrongdoings. Who was he to think he deserves happiness? To think he deserved mercy and kindness? To think he had earned the love he was given? To even think he was worthy of bringing life into this world?

If only she knew, if only she remembered, she could lash out and snarl at him like he deserved for cutting her life so short, for robbing her of the experiences he had been gifted. 

"Baizhu says it's ok to be afraid. Baizhu says people don't understand Qiqi, so Qiqi must show them Qiqi means well." Xiao choked, expression sour and fractured,

"I'm sorry." He croaked softly. Qiqi blinked, lips turning downward to a curious frown,

"Ah...Qiqi must not remember what happened. Qiqi is not sure why you are sorry." Xiao worried his lip, biting hard enough to taste blood. Zhongli had told Xiao before of Qiqi's struggles with remembering anything past 3 or 4 days if it was not written in her book or a constant in her day to day life. There was no way for her to remember something that happened centuries ago, the details of that day were certainly lost to her. 

 

"Qiqi forgives you." Xiao stilled, brow furrowed in deep confusion,

"Surely, you can't forgive me when you don't even know what I have done?" He asked in disbelief; Qiqi smiled a bit,

"Qiqi may not remember but you said you are sorry. So Qiqi will forgive anyway." The Yaksha gasped quietly, bewilderment causing his brow to rise skyward as the little girl's attention turned back to Jinhai who had drawn several toys from their bag to play with.

"Girls, play in the lobby please." Dr. Baizhu called with a gentle clap of his hands, the two children hurried to do as they were told; Xiao still stuck in place watching with wide eyes. 

The forgiveness felt... undeserved and yet, it made his chest flutter with strange relief. He knew it shouldn't be this easy, he should have to grovel and beg, drag his body through thousands of punishments to atone and yet- little hands tugged at his pants pulling him into the lobby; Jinhai's strength was deceptive. He was pulled in, both children looking up at him with warm expressions, not a single spark of malice or hatred adorned the little zombie girl's face. Perhaps her lack of memory was a strange blessing in disguise, though thinking like that made him feel wrong inside. 

"Xiao should play with Qiqi and Haihai." The little zombie girl instructed to which the hatchling agreed with an excited nod of their head. Qiqi nodded as well, setting her flower to the side carefully before sitting on her knees with a pile of blocks and stuffed toys strewn about the floor.

"While I am sure he would like nothing more, a little bird told me that Xiao has business with me, I need to borrow him for just a moment." Baizhu said sweetly causing the Anemo Adeptus to frown and eye the pharmacist warily as he hadn't warned the man prior. A hand came to rest atop her head, the little zombie frowned before nodding again,

"Alright, but just for a moment, Qiqi wants to play." 

"And you can play with Ms. Jinhai until we're done, I will be quick." Baizhu assured, Changsheng curling along his shoulder affirmatively,

"We shall return him to you both shortly." The pharmacist straightened up and gestured for the Yaksha to follow. 

"Ganyu told me you would be stopping by before the week was out. Though she didn't tell me much more than that." Xiao grumbled under his breath, of course it would be her involvement and of course she would tell Baizhu as a backup in case Xiao decided to forgo asking the doctor for the exam. 

"I see, how thoughtful of her." He huffed quietly before he straightened, arms crossed over his chest defensively. Baizhu chuckled and idly ran a knuckle under Changsheng's chin,

"So, what can I do to help with Liyue's own Vigilant Yaksha? Are your sleeping pills not effective anymore, I can up the dosage?"

"No, nothing like that...it's well…" he pursed his lips, looking anywhere but the pharmacist and his companion.

"I'm...my partner and I are going to try for a child. I am equipped with the proper parts and am in need of an exam to make sure I am... healthy." He didn't like the way Baizhu and Changsheng seemed equally taken aback, eyes wide as they glanced over the young man's frame. 

"I see, well, I admit I am surprised by the request, I will happily comply. If you would follow me?" He pulled back a curtain to reveal a small hallway leading to the back of the pharmacy; Xiao swallowed down his anxieties and followed after, stomach churning the whole way.

The exam itself was easy, Baizhu poked his way down his abdomen asking if he felt any pain or discomfort; the doctor examined his groin and marveled at the ease with which female reproductive organs had been incorporated into his system. Everything was in order and healthy, Baizhu predicted that if he were to fall pregnant he would carry fully to term and only to worry about minor, standard issues with delivery.

"Honestly, for something you grew on a whim not a single thing appears out of place." Baizhu said encouragingly as he ran a hand down his stomach again, this time using his vision to detect anything that human senses couldn't. While it was more common for Hydro to be used in such practices, Dendro could have the same application with the right ingredients, like slime, currently slathered over his stomach to give the Dendro element more resonance with his internal structure. 

"You appear perfectly healthy, whether you're fertile or not is left to be determined but once you begin having intercourse and if you do get pregnant I advise coming to see me. We should put you on some vitamins, to help the development of the baby and keep you nourished." Xiao was wiped down and dressed again, sitting upright with a hand over his stomach;

"So...come see you again when I...when I get pregnant?" 

"Yes, we can arrange visits to check the health of the fetus when the time comes, and bring your partner with you. They should understand some of these processes to help you through it." Baizhu jotted down a few notes and frowned,

"We'll have to take you off your sleep aids if and when you get pregnant. Two of the ingredients in the sleeping pills react negatively with my vitamin formula." Xiao blinked in surprise, frowning deeply at the notion. 

"So be it." Xiao murmured as he slid to his feet; he wanted a child, he could forgo a few months of being unable to sleep if it meant a healthy baby; he pressed against his stomach firmly, picturing how it will feel to be able to sense the life growing inside him before thanking Baizhu for his time and assistance. 

He was returned to the lobby where the two little ones awaited, settling to join in their play briefly before he had to take Jinhai home.

Chapter Text

It was late evening when the ship docked back in Liyue, Zhongli tasted the air with a gentle inhale, it was good to be back in the Harbor and back on Liyue ground. Fontaine had been wonderful but he would always have a special attachment to the country he raised, much like Ajax's attachment to the country of his birth. 

"I can't wait to see our little yabloko…" his mate mumbled beside him, as they waited for their baggage to be unloaded. Zhongli rumbled softly and nuzzled into his ginger mate, nipping at the exposed skin of his neck, 

"I share the sentiment, it's been a week without them, I didn't expect to miss them so dearly."

"Hm? Why is that? Any parent would feel a sense of longing their first time away from a child."

"Well, with my nature as a Exuvia...I was expecting some part of me to detach...much like I did with my first born. I was expecting latent instincts to kick in or a sense of distance to settle in our bond." Ajax blinked owlishly,

"That's...kind of upsetting."

"It is but I am happy to say that, that didn't happen. Even lost in the depths of you and your passion, a little part of me still longed to be home with the baby." Ajax pecked his cheek adoringly,

"Me too. I missed the cuddle piles and the tiny squeaks she makes, like snoring but less annoying." Zhongli chuckled in agreement, leaning into his husband and sighing deeply; a hand was placed high on his abdomen, caressing the spot where the egg would develop should their lovemaking take. 

"I know I said we didn't have to rush, but there is something exhilarating about trying to get you gestating again." Ajax murmured under his breath, low enough for just Zhongli to hear and cause the elder to shudder. 

"Mhmm, Ajax-" the younger's other hand cupped at his ass drawing a gasp from the former God,

"Ajax! We're in public!" Zhongli scolded with a slight chuckle, "Insatiable as ever." To which Ajax responded with a chuckle of his own, continuing to paw at Zhongli's backside. The elder gently pinched at his mate's cheek, smirking sweetly,

"Perhaps I spoiled you too much if this behavior is going to persist even at home."

"Sorry medovyy, I will reign it in, promise." Zhongli tutted softly, 

"Only in public and in front of our family and little ones." Ajax smiled fondly, nuzzling into his neck, 

"Do you know if you're already…?"

"Unfortunately, no. I won't know for some time but I plan to keep track so I know if I do begin developing an egg." He mused gently just as their bags were hefted to the ground by a dock worker. 

"Thank you!" Ajax called with a wave, hoisting the bags over his shoulders with a small grunt of effort. 

"Maybe we should have gotten less souvenirs." He puffed, Zhongli shaking his head fiercely, 

"We absolutely needed them! I have never seen such marvels here in Liyue and those basalt bathing salts were a dream...if only we could figure out how to make our own hot springs at home." Zhongli lamented, their hotel had contained a man made hot spring with a special blend of salts and minerals. Heated by a plethora of Pyro crystals hooked into an Electro circuit. He had fussed over it for hours, fascinated by the results and how the water bubbled thanks to specialized tubes and jets.

It had been heavenly, Zhongli had been tempted to soak for far longer than recommended, and his dragon scales were soft and smooth from the special salt blend soaking the rough surface. Truly a luxury fit for royalty; but he would settle now for using the salt blend when only extremely necessary...like molts should he ever have to suffer through those again, he wasn't sure honestly, it has been sometime since he's come this close to shifting to his true form. 

Ajax caressed his lower back tenderly as they walked, humming a soft tune under his breath as they made their way homeward bound. The closer they came the more Zhongli's heart would beat wildly in excitement, he was ready to see his little one and cuddle and hold and kiss their little cheeks and horns. Ajax appeared to feel the same, his pace increasing slightly as the house came fully into view, the only light on was in their bedroom giving away that they were probably settling in for bed. 

Perfect timing in Zhongli's opinion, they could settle in for the night and sleep off their travel aches. Jinhai would probably be so happy to see them too, the very thought had the elder rushing ahead, dragging his husband behind him slightly as he set a pace near sprinting. 

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!?" Ajax yelped, stumbling over his own two feet trying to keep up with his mate. Zhongli laughed, slowing just slightly as to not drag Ajax behind him, feeling partly childish at the skip-like walk they had found themselves in, Ajax swung their intertwined hands high back and forth in time with their steps. The ginger giggled impishly, grinning ear to ear at Zhongli, nudging the elder playfully with his hip as they came to a stop in front of their gate. Ajax kissed him, hands clasping around the back of his neck to tangle in long tresses of rich brown. 

"I love you." Zhongli purred softly, a deep rumble that shook the both of them,

"I love you too." They lingered for a moment before Ajax gasped, suddenly hauled up into the elder's arms in a bridal carry. 

"The thought occurs that while I may have carried you to our bed that night, I did not carry you across the threshold, you're far too prideful to let your mother see, hm?" Zhongli smirked, a cross between playful and vicious,

"Yet not too prideful as to moan openly underneath me, I hate to think your family heard." 

"Tch, you're such an ass, Zhongli!" Ajax sniped, no venom in his tone and clearly playful as he swatted at the elder who merely snickered and pressed a kiss to the crown of Ajax's head. 

"I don't hear you truly complaining, nor did you complain during the honeymoon." The former God mused, carefully opening their front door and slipping inside, careful of the ginger in his arms with their bags. Shoes came off and bass were set aside in favor of climbing the stairs quietly, both men exchanging loving glances and excited smiles as they drew in close to their bedroom, carefully peering inside to take in the scene before them. 

Ganyu, Xiao, and Venti were all fast asleep looking like they were suffering from varying degrees of exhaustion; Ganyu was snuggled around the large narwhal plush using it as a pillow, soft blue hair strewn about in a wild mess. 

Venti was curled around Xiao, legs and arms clinging to the Adeptus and caging him in, partly forcing the other into an awkward position no mortal could find comfortable and yet, Xiao was sound asleep. No doubt thanks to his sleep aids; a free arm was wrapped protectively around a bundle of blankets and plush toys currently acting as a little nest for one very awake little one currently through a picture book Zhongli didn't recognize. Perhaps a gift from Auntie Ningning had they visited the young business savant. 

His hatchling handled the delicate pages with care, careful not to snag their claws as they turned the page, Ganyu must have been reading the story before she dozed off. Zhongli inwardly cheered, pleased that his little one was showing interest in literature, maybe they could begin looking over letters and numbers, begin teaching Jinhai to read and instill a love of it early. 

The little Exuvia cooed at an image, the sound made his chest squeeze and heart flutter, longing to rush to the bed and curl around his baby. Ajax shifted on his feet causing a floorboard to creak, prompting keen golden eyes to look away from the book and widen in surprise. Jinhai squealed, a sound that would have woken the whole neighborhood had they been in the old house. Zhongli grinned, opening his arms as the hatchling bolted from their bed, sending toys and blankets flying with the sheer force of their movement. 

The action also stirred the three still snoozing, Xiao jerked upright blearily while Ganyu stretched much like a cat would,

"Oh, welcome back you two." She murmured softly just as a solid coil of muscle and scale slammed into his center mass and knocked him off his feet. 

"Ack-!?" Zhongli was assaulted with a barrage of slobbery tongue kisses and harsh bites of teeth, Jinhai crooning and whimpering in his arms; their horns grazed his cheeks briefly as they peppered kisses and scented him, confirming that mama had indeed returned and that Jinhai was re-claiming and re-establishing their bond as mother and hatchling. Ajax chuckled beside him, coming to rest in a crouch on the balls of his feet; the young mate had no idea he was in for it too. 

Jinhai once satisfied that Zhongli smelled adequate would turn the flurry of kisses and bites on Ajax, making sure he smelled like papa so everyone would know who they belonged to and that Jinhai was their precious little one. It was only another minute of Jinhai's nuzzling and jubilant rumbling before Ajax was tackled to the floor, subjected to the same treatment to which their papa responded with a loud chortle and cooing praises. 

He pressed kisses along Jinhai's scaly brow and cheeks gently, "Papa and mama missed their little yabloko so very much," followed by a tight hug, "no more vacations without you for at least a year." 

Zhongli snorted through his nose and gave him an incredulous look, slightly skeptical of the statement given how much the two had enjoyed uninterrupted private time. 

"Hmph, mama doesn't believe me but we'll show him." Ajax grumbled, grinning teasingly as the rest of the group made their way over with sluggish, sleepy movements.

"Suppose you want your bed back, mm?" Venti yawned, leaning into Xiao who looked partly dead on his feet. 

"What? You don't want in on the cuddles about to go down? We got a whole week's worth to make up." Ganyu beamed at that, swaying a bit where she stood.

"That does sound better than me going home now at such a late hour…" 

"Mmmmh." Venti mumbled, already half way back to dreamland. 

"That's an agreeable arrangement." Xiao grunted; Zhongli chuckled to himself, taking note of their tiredness compared to Jinhai who still seemed to have just enough energy left to outlast them until they had returned home. Their week had most assuredly been hectic, caring for a rambunctious, growing hatchling without the parents present undoubtedly had leg to some interesting days. 

Jinhai finished scenting Ajax, bopping his nose with their maw gently before hoping from his arms and scrambling back to the bed to clear out the books and a few toys and plumping some of the pillows to a comfortable nest feel. 

"Haihai prepared the bed today, we weren't allowed to help." Ganyu mused, sweeping a few blocks that had been missed from the plush surface. 

"It is a most wonderful nest, my dear." Zhongli praised, cupping the bottom of their snout to thumb the jaw bone soothingly and scratch just under the ear. Jinhai grinned, all teeth and fang, bouncing on their little feet with tail thumping wildly. 

"You're a regular nest builder, papa is proud." Ajax flopped into the oversized bed fit for several people...or rather large someone and his family. Jinhai purred, golden eyes gleaming, 

Thank you mama…thank you papa.

They settled, not bothering with sleep clothes, just craving to be near their little one and provide the safety of a nest as they should; Jinhai was placed between them much like they had done when first adjusting to life with their hatchling, followed by the rest of their family piling in. 

Ganyu pressed up against Ajax, still snuggling the narwhal plush as a pillow while Zhongli was trapped on all sides by two clingy Anemo Wielders, Xiao at his back and Venti at his legs. The elder purred softly, snuggling and taking in a deep breath of seabreeze and lillies, soothed by the scent of his young and the faint ocean salt of his mate, the warmth of his family and the closeness of their person's; Zhongli felt content and whole, warm and safe, loved being the shadow of a doubt. 

He felt the rest of them shared in the sentiment too.

Chapter Text

It didn't take much to fall back into a routine what with Zhongli's return to the house, it was like a whole different hatchling had taken Jinhai's place. Venti grumbled his way through breakfast, eyeing the hatchling taking their diced fowl and slightly undercooked eggs without issue whereas a week or so again the mixture had ended up in the bard's hair. 

"You're eating so well, like a big and proper Exuvia, I bet we can start incorporating other foods in your diet by now." Zhongli praised happily, talking to no one but himself really as Jinhai was too busy accepting large spoonfuls of runny eggs and raw meat. Childe plopped a few strips of bacon onto Venti's plate before serving on for himself and Zhongli, 

"We could go to Wanmin's as a big group, let her try some of Xiangling's cooking?" The ginger suggested as he settled next to his husband and tucked into his own congee. Zhongli nodded at that, smiling broadly,

"That's a wonderful idea, it is quite the milestone in a hatchling's life to move on to bigger foods." Venti snorted inwardly, bemused at the notion, out in the wild this milestone would signify the beginning of a hatchling's hunting prowess. D'Valin's kind at this age would start with small game like squirrel or rabbit and the same should typically hold true for Exuvia. It was funny that in this instance it meant more solid and cooked foods and less reliance on raw protein and fatty milk. 

"We can plan for it in the coming weeks." Childe said, spooning another heaping mouthful of porridge and polishing off his bacon rather quickly.

"You're in a rush today, something happening?"

"Promised Lumine I'd lend a hand clearing out some camps before my shift starts, nothing major."

"Hilichurls?"

"Nah, Fatui. They're encroaching on some ruins she wanted to explore with some friends from Mondstadt." He explained with a loud swallow of tea. 

"Wait, aren't the Fatui your allies?" Venti perked up in confusion, eyeing the ginger suspiciously;

"Yep." He popped the 'p' in a playful manner that made the bard's stomach turn.

"They're subordinates that answer to you and you're going to clear out their camps? Isn't that counter intuitive?"

"Hmm, perhaps but I trained most of the men and women still occupied in Liyue, while they don't take orders from me with the loss of my title. I still trained them. If they can't survive when I don't hold back then they didn't take anything I had to teach them to heart." Childe declared with a slight flourish of his hand. 

"If they can't handle me, then they've got no right to be doing the Tsaritsa's will. They're clearly not strong enough if they can't handle a surprise attack." Zhongli huffed quietly and continued to feed Jinhai,

"Just be careful and try not to bring any of the mess home." 

"You got it, medovyy~" The ginger purred, pressing a chaste kiss to the elder's lips before moving to Jinhai to press one to their snout.

"Be good for mama, little yabloko." and he was out the door in a rush of red from his scarf prompting a sigh from Zhongli.

"I have the feeling I will be attempting to get blood out of the carpet this evening."

"You know...I often forget his job has unsavory business attached to it." Venti said idly. The elder hummed, scraping the last of Jinhai's breakfast together;

"I seldom forget, when he's out debt collecting or aiding Lumine's efforts I worry for him. He doesn't know when to hold back and I very well can't be there to remind him and provide protection until Jinhai is older." Venti gaped at that,

"You would let Jinhai know the nature of his work?" 

"She undoubtedly already knows the nature of his work; just hasn't made the connections yet because the concepts are foreign to her. The smell of blood is strong when he returns from what is deemed unsavory. Most likely she thinks he's been hunting and in a sense, that's not wrong." Zhongli set the bowl aside and wiped at the hatchling's maw to get stray bits of food.

"Childe just hunts a different sort of prey, those who wish to escape their contracts and obligations made to the Northland Bank."

"So you condone his actions? Even when it targets the people of Liyue?" 

"...the people of Liyue must understand a contract is a contract, even with those of foreign lands. The punishments that Northland Bank places upon debtors and breakers of contracts is no different than facing the Wrath of Rock." Venti watched his oldest friend carefully, looking for any discrepancies in his words and expressions.

"So, even though Childe hurts people, it doesn't bother you?"

"I won't lie and say it doesn't bother me. I find often that I long for him to withdraw from that line of work but that would be unfair of me. He enjoys the thrill of battle and it is a part of him I won't ask him to change. I too, used to enjoy battling and the scent of destruction laid before me; but that time has passed." Zhongli smiled a bit,

"Neither of us is exactly free of sin, we've both claimed lives, Barbatos." The bard frowned and looked to the side,

"You have a point, I can't very well expect any of us to truly be on the straight and narrow, Xiao has lived through and done things I don't even think I will ever come to understand." 

"Exactly." The elder mused, rising from his seat and gathering Jinhai up onto his shoulders. He set the dirtied dishes in the sink and hovered for a moment before shuffling out of the kitchen as if he'd just remembered something; the bard's curiosity was intrigued, a little worm of his Intuition telling him to follow after. 

Breakfast forgotten, Venti gave chase, following Zhongli to the hallway connected to the foyer where a small desk had been placed with various amenities used for sending messages and keeping addresses filed; on the wall next to the desk was a new calendar Venti knew hadn't been there until recently. Somebody had been marking it with circles and x's and certain days but the bard had yet to figure out the pattern and resided himself to just not knowing. 

Jinhai held a marker in their talons, marking through today's date with wobbly lines while Zhongli praised them quietly for helping. 

"Been meaning to ask what the calendar is for, having trouble keeping track of your days while retired old man?" Venti snickered, wincing playfully at the sour look Zhongli shot him. 

"It is none of your business what the calendar is for, it is a tool to help me and no one else." Zhongli capped the marker and returned it to a cup on the desk. The bard ignored him in favor of staring at the offending date keeper, noting nearly a week's worth of circles around the time Zhongli and Childe were out of the house on their honeymoon followed by consecutive x's. 

He glanced at Jinhai, wondering if it had to do with introducing the little hatchling to solid foods but they were still eating mostly raw proteins with sparing little things here and there that would count as out of the ordinary for Jinhai. Those days weren't marked either as yesterday Childe had allowed the little one to have a small bite of cooked carrot they had with dinner. His brow furrowed, a scowl tugging at his features as he mulled over the calendar while Zhongli eyed him worriedly.

"Is it bothering you that much?" 

"A little. You're meticulous but I've never seen you keep to a calendared schedule so I am just curious as to what this signifies for you."

"Erm...well...it's just to keep track of things."

"What things?"

"Things! Nothing that concerns you right now." Zhongli gruffed, a slight movement near his stomach caught the former Anemo-Archon's eye and everything clicked. 

"You're trying to figure out if you're going to gestate!" The elder's hands tightened around his middle pensively before he sagged with a long sigh,

"Yes. I am trying to pinpoint the beginning of the next gestation to more accurately predict the drop." Zhongli caressed his stomach longingly;

"I'm not sure I've taken...millenia ago I knew in a matter of days when my body was producing my first egg. I was so tired and lethargic after mating, my body felt too tight around the middle." The elder frowned, 

"With Jinhai it took you detecting my scent was off…" Venti rolled his eyes skyward at the attempt of subtle probing. The bard leaned in and took a deep sniff of the elder, smelling fresh earth and salt, his natural scent (atleast to Venti). 

"You smell the same as ever. When you were gestating you smelled sweeter, almost musky, like you were trying to ward off other men." 

"Hmm, a natural defense to keep other Exuvia from mating one already gestating. Though that's not really the issue at hand; I'm really not gestating?" He asked, sounding a little heart broken, enough to make the bard's heart ache in sympathy. He couldn't imagine the disappointment Zhongli was feeling nor what it would be like to experience it when he and Xiao began trying for a baby and undoubtedly had a few tries fail.

"Not every time can mean an egg, Zhongli."

"I know...I know...I was just really hopeful because of our coupling during the honeymoon." Venti pursed his lips, about to scold the other about what would be considered 'Too Much Information' when the bard noted the sadness in the other's amber gaze. He really had been hoping there would be an egg on the way by now. 

"Hey, maybe you're still checking too early, I mean...you were really smelly at about, what? A month give or take? It's only been a week and some mora since your honeymoon finished." Venti nudged the elder at the hip and took his hands away from his stomach,

"Worrying about it is going to make you feel unhappy. The excitement will be ruined if you brood over it," Jinhai chittered in the elder's ear, snuggling into their mother's neck gently. 

"...You are very wise when I least expect it." Zhongli huffed with a kind, small smile. 

"Makes my advice more impactful, I know." Venti glanced to the calendar again,

"You can still track your days but maybe you should ease up on the rigidness of trying to gestate. Let it come naturally, like the first time?" He grinned and gestured at Jinhai who licked Zhongli's nose affectionately, probably sensing the conversation was about them and yet not. The former-Archon's smile deepened, a soft, tender affection bled into his eyes as he nuzzled his hatchling,

"You are again, wise beyond your years, old friend." Venti nodded,

"Happy to help, old friend." Zhongli took a deep breath, centering himself before settling, figure relaxing and the edges smoothing just slightly.

"Got any plans for the day I can tag along with? Xiao out doing his Yaksha stuff and I wasn't allowed to sit in."

"Ah, I was wondering why he didn't come to breakfast, no matter then." Zhongli murmured before looking up in thought, tapping his chin with his knuckle.

"I was going to venture down to the bookshop for reading and writing materials for Haihai, if that sounds like something?" The elder offered to which Venti grinned,

"That sounds perfect." Zhongli smiled and proceeded upstairs to put on proper clothes and dress Jinhai while Venti went to his own room to dress before they reconvened in the foyer.

"By the way...I have been meaning to ask, what would happen if Xiao stopped doing his Yaksha duties for say...9 months to a year or so?" The bard questioned as he slipped on his shoes and buttoned his cloak. The question made the elder pause in the buttoning of his overcoat, eyeing Venti with an unreadable expression;

"Well...I do not think there has ever been a time that Xiao hasn't been handling the affairs and negative energies here in Liyue. We're he to stop or take a break for an extended period, we would probably need to enlist exorcists of some sort to help keep the taint from spreading in his absence." Zhongli knelt to help Jinhai put on a pair of soft, red shoes that matched their cute hanfu of pink, red, and yellow. 

"Why do you ask?" He continued with a sort grunt,

"Just wondering."

"Hm, well if you wish to take him out of the country for a time, please allow for the proper arrangements to be made."

"Of course, of course! We'll give ample notice." The bard said happily, hoping his cheery tone didn't come off too fake or that Zhongli had noticed his odd behavior. Venti saw from the corner of his eye the troubled scowl adorning the former God's face and inwardly, Venti groaned; life was never easy was it?

Chapter Text

"Well, well, well, look who finally came back for a visit!" Xiangling shrilled excitedly, their tea tray almost meeting a terrible fate when she tossed it on the table, dashing into Childe's space to cup baby cheeks and rub noses drawing a delighted giggle from Jinhai around their pacifier. 

"You look so big! I think you've grown since the last I saw you at the wedding." The young woman praised earnestly, looking between Childe and Zhongli for confirmation,

"A whole 3 inches." Childe said proudly, bouncing Jinhai on his knee while Zhongli nodded in agreement, 

"She was so small what only feels like days ago, she's shot up much like spring shoots, I can hardly recognize her when she crawls into bed without any help." He lamented fondly; Xiangling chuckled at his theatrics.

"Guess that's part of parenting is having to watch the babies grow...and speaking of babies," the chef donned a sly smirk, leaning into Zhongli's shoulder and glancing to his gut. 

"Any news I should be hearing about?" She asked curiously; Childe stilled, eyes flying wide and staring at Zhongli like he'd grown a second head,

"Are you-!?"

"No! No I am not!" He yelped, face flaring red with embarrassment, "There will be no such announcements this evening, I am not expecting." 

"Eggspecting." Venti corrected with a smug grin, Zhongli glared, a slight tremor shook the bard's seat and disheveled his hat. Xiao sighed heavily beside him, rolling golden eyes so hard Childe thought they might fall out of his head. 

"That's funny...I swear Lumine mentioned something the other day…something Ganyu told her." Xiangling frowned, deep in thought while the two Anemo wielders paled white as fresh linens. Childe cackled inwardly, continuing to fuss with Jinhai who began to whine around their soothing device; it was a little past dinner time and they were undoubtedly hungry. 

"Let's go ahead and order before little one here tries to down any of my coat buttons." The Fatui warned cheerfully; Xiangling broke from her thoughts with a grin,

"Yes! I made a special batch of jade parcels in preparation of your reservation! Very mild and perfectly suitable for Haihai's introduction into my culinary arts!" She declared with a proud smile. Zhongli returned it, eyes crinkling with fondness, 

"That sounds wonderful, Xiangling. I'll have my usual as well as a regular order of jade parcels for the table." Childe couldn't help but stare at his mate while the elder ordered, watching him unabashedly even when Venti and Xiao groaned at the sappiness he was conveying. 

"I'll have the Springvale Boar this time around." Childe said when the girl's amber gaze fell upon him, thankfully she made no comment about his lovestruck daze. 

"Ahh! Sorry I'm late!" A gentle voice heralding the arrival of Ganyu who appeared have sprinted the whole way here judging by her disheveled and slightly sweaty appearance.

"No need to apologize, we were just beginning to order so technically, you're right on time!" Venti cheered and Zhongli nodded in agreement,

"No harm done in a late arrival," he gestured to the open seat left at the round table and Ganyu took it with a sheepish smile. 

"Thank you, Zhongli, for inviting me." 

"We're happy to have you Ganyu, you're family after all and this is an important milestone for Haihai, we'd want you to be here." The half-Adeptus flushed and nodded shyly,

"It means a lot to me to hear you say that." Zhongli's smile deepened before he gestured to Xiangling waiting patiently for the rest of the order,

"Get whatever you'd like, the expense will be ours tonight."

"I think you mean mine? I don't remember seeing you grab your wallet, medovyy" Childe snickered prompting the elder to search his pockets quickly and sink into a grim expression. 

"You are, unfortunately, correct, my love." The snicker turned into a cackle, the ginger falling back in his chair in amused glee. Zhongli scoffed with a quick eye roll, though his smile remained fond.

"I know you so well, though I do wonder what the point of getting you a special wallet was if you're still going to forget it."

"You make it hard to think, as I have stated before, you occupy my thoughts when we come together like this." Zhongli reasoned, causing a devilish smirk to worm it's way to his face.

"I'd like to come together more often in other ways." There were a set of audible gags that echoed from across the table, Xiao and Venti sharing in a cringed expression while Ganyu fawned with a coy smile. 

"I think it's sweet they flirt like this."

"I think they should get a room." Venti deadpanned and Xiao seconded the thought. 

"Tch, if we stayed in our room all day, who would pay for your groceries and expensively imported Mondstadt treats? Not to mention we'd probably be on baby number four by now if I had Zhongli all to myself constantly." He teased which was followed by more gagging. 

"Alright, enough of that. You're going to make Haihai think it's bad we love each other." Zhongli scolded without any bite to his tone;

"Ha! As if, by the time Haihai's an adult she'll be so embarrassed of our old asses because will still be making lovey dovey eyes at each other and everyone will definitely know how we came to have six kids." Childe grinned and Zhongli returned it with a bright one of his own. 

"I like the sound of that…" Ganyu awed quietly when they met in the middle for a chaste kiss, they were in public after all...not that it matters to Childe but Zhongli still had his hang-ups on occasion. PDA was more readily accepted except in one place, restaurants, especially ones they frequented. It didn't really make much sense to Childe given how their honeymoon had played out on the first day but it was an absolute rule that PDA in frequented eateries be limited to kisses and touches in non-explicit places. 

Things Childe could definitely stick to if it meant later they could make up for it, especially if Jinhai was out of the bedroom for the evening. 

"I think it sounds nice too, and I am sure Haihai won't mind if you two are overly affectionate, it's important to show little ones a strong bond between parents!"

"Speak for yourself…" Xiao grumbled and Childe huffed,

"Just because some of us are stuck in the angsty teen phase of not wanting to hang out with parents doesn't mean everyone is like that." Xiao glared and flicked the air, effectively thwacking the ginger across the table with a little burst of Anemo. 

"Ouch!" 

"Behave, all of you, I really don't want to un-teach bad table manners in a child that is extremely susceptible to picking up on them." Zhongli warned lowly and for good measure he gestured to Haihai currently giggling at their papa's mussed hair and red face. Xiao huffed but nodded, resting his chin in his palm and flashed a wry smile Zhongli's way which the elder returned in exasperation. 

Venti snorted and the elder's gaze narrowed,

"You aren't exactly the most well behaved either, Venti." The former-Archon warned just as Xiangling appeared with their food, an excited smile and gleam in her eyes as she began placing their meals before them.

"The special parcels I'm putting closest to Haihai so there won't be any risk of her getting something a little too spicy for her first big girl dinner!" Big girl dinner was one way to explain it, for a little one of 6 months, they should be starting on soft, mashed vegetables and fruits but with Jinhai (who had a mouth full of teeth for tearing raw meat) they could skip that phase and go straight to more complex foods. 

"It all looks fantastic!" Venti cheered, tucking in right away with a mouthful of fried noodles. Xiangling smiled appreciatively, though her real motive laid with Jinhai who had begun to drool once the pacifier was out.

"Ready to try something yummy?" Childe cooed, pecking a chubby cheek,

"Mmhm!" Jinhai nodded cutely as Zhongli blew gently on a jade parcel to feed them with his own excited gleam in his eye.

"My dear, I have no doubts that you won't love this, I'm very partial to the dish myself." Zhongli crooned, using a gentle, encouraging tone as golden eyes trained on the outstretched offering of cabbage stuffed with ham and other tasty ingredients. 

Obediently, Jinhai's mouth popped open like a hinge, a mouth of razor sharp teeth reminding everyone present their little one was far from just a normal human, a privileged secret that Xiangling was allowed in on. Ganyu hummed, a soft furrow in her brow, cheeks stuffed in a cute manner with a bite of parcel as well, though the flavor was wrong; it was too mild. 

"Zhongli wait-!?" Jinhai's mouth snapped shut, not unlike a bear trap hidden in the leaves during Autumn back in Snezhnaya, the little one damn near took the chopsticks with them when they squealed, hands cupping their rounded cheeks in surprise. 

"Zhongli, I think that was a regular parcel." Ganyu clipped worriedly, Xiangling paled as all eyes landed on Jinhai, the little thing chewing slowly with a deep scowl that rivaled his fiercest looks when dealing with belligerent clients. 

"...mmn…" Jinhai whined a bit, Zhongli reaching for something for the hatchling to spit into,

"Haihai, spit it out." Childe urged when an offered napkin was placed in front of them; another whine followed by an audible swallow. The entire table stared, Xiangling looked close to fainting, she didn't make mistakes like this and with Jinhai only being 6 months old, it was anyone's guess to see how the hatchling would handle a dish that even Childe still struggled with. 

"..." 

"..."

"Yummy!" Jinhai's mouth popped open expectantly, catching Zhongli by surprise who was still grasping the napkin in preparation for the mess. 

"You...you want more?" Childe ventured and Jinhai nodded,

"Please mama! Haihai want more!" Zhongli blinked, quite possibly stunned. 

"Uh...of course, little one." Zhongli cooled another with a few gentle breaths and popped into their mouth, napkin on stand by, the elder no doubt sharing the same train of thought that perhaps the reaction was delayed somehow?

Jinhai squealed and whined again, hands once again patting their cheeks,

"Haihai, sweetheart, you don't have to eat it if you don't like it!" Zhongli protested, offering the napkin again when Jinhai's eyes began to water and nose became sniffly.

"Haihai like it!" They cried through a mouthful, 

"My love, you can have something else." Childe couldn't help the distressed laughter that bubbled up, between Jinhai's adamant chewing and Zhongli's flustered expression, he couldn't help but giggle weakly. It was funny in a weird sort of way,

"Try this one instead," Ganyu held out a mild one, Zhongli taking it and offering it up to the hatchling who took it with little complaint. The chewing was slower this time, a disappointed look settling on their face, 

"Mm...not same!" Their lip wobbled and Zhongli was once again without words. 

"Well…seems she's your daughter alright, I don't think any normal child would enjoy chili peppers." Venti murmured in shock, Xiao and Ganyu nodded in agreement, watching the hatchling accept another regularly prepared parcel with a whine of what they now understood to be satisfaction.   

Xiangling bowed, having come down from her shock, "I am so sorry! I didn't mean to mix up the dishes! This is a grave mistake-"

"Ms. Xiangling." The chef eeped softly, meeting the elder's gaze hesitantly;

"While unexpected, i can honestly say this is a no harm, no foul, sort of situation as it appeared that Haihai likes the original recipe more." Zhongli smiled with a touch of pride,

"You have another loyal customer." Xiangling sighed heavy with relief, a small grin spreading across her face as she approached the hatchling,

"You like my spicy dishes, hm?" 

"Spicee?"

"Spicy." Xiangling confirmed and Jinhai grinned, teeth slightly tinged with bits of cabbage and pepper.

"Spicy yummy!" Jinhai cheered and patted their tummy happily, the cute display drawing soft coos and awes from the rest of the table. 

"How's this taste, sweetheart?" Zhongli offered up a tender piece of black perch, it was gobbled up quickly with a happy purr. Mouthfuls of boar, noodles, and stir fry soon followed; Jinhai sampled from all of their meals but nearly polished off five whole parcels before a loud burp escaped and a bite of food was refused. 

"Tummy full." Jinhai yawned, no doubt full and overly satisfied, ready to crawl into bed and sleep off the meal; Childe peppered kissing along her brow as he finished up his own meal, savoring the succulent boar coated in rich sauce. In the end, they found that Jinhai absolutely, without a doubt, loved Jueyan chilies. 

"Next time you visit I swear, I will make you something so yummy and spicy it'll knock your pigtails off!" Xiangling swore, though from the look of it, Jinhai had no idea what the chef was talking about as they were nearly dozing in Zhongli's arms as he rubbed their back. 

Childe leaned into his mate and rested his chin on the other's shoulders, smiling with such a tenderness so raw the other three could feel it bleeding off him. 

He caught them staring from the corner of his eye; Ganyu was watching with a soft, pleased look that always seemed to be directed at Zhongli but for once it was directed at the both of them. Xiao and Venti on the other hand were subtly trying to appear uninterested but judging by their body language and not so subtle cuddling, they were happy too. Childe hummed softly, letting his eyes slide shut for a brief moment, perfectly content to use his husband as a firm, rock solid pillow.

Chapter Text

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,

"What's that?" 

"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.

"What one?" 

"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.  

"Mama…"

"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. 

"What…?"

"Mama's and papa's have really, really big hearts. Which means that you'll always be loved no matter what."

"Papa too?" 

"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. 

Chapter Text

This was not how he imagined tonight going, not at all. His former boss trailing after his husband to find out their new address? For heaven’s sake, hadn’t Hu Tao gotten the invitations and come to the wedding? What on Teyvat was she thinking? Zhongli fumed silently, plating up an extra portion for the unexpected pest- er, guest. Had it been any other time he wouldn’t have been so perturbed but tonight was supposed to be special, it was supposed to be celebratory and high on good spirits. He was gestating and couldn’t say a damn thing with the young Master seated in his dining room looking about the decor with a critical eye, as if she had any better aesthetics. 

Jinhai’s mood was equally soured, the elder having told them to keep quiet for just a bit longer, making the hatchling especially difficult and unruly. 

“Zhongli, are you ok? I’m sorry I didn’t notice her on my way home, she’s...surprisingly good at hiding her presence.” his young mate wrapped their arms around his middle, causing a stutter in his chest and making the elder whimper quietly. 

“It’s fine, Hu Tao is gifted in many ways and unfortunately that appears to be one of them...that, or your senses aren’t as keen as you so claim.” he managed to tease which earned him a barrage of kisses onto his exposed neck.

“I’ll show you keen!” the ginger growled playfully, kissing and nuzzling the former-Archon tenderly. “...I am sorry though, I get the feeling I’ve somehow committed an egregious crime.”

“Well...you did bring home a woman that made my life a little bit of a living hell for quite some time, so in a way, yes. You have committed a heinous crime against me and I expect compensation.” 

“Anything, my love.” Ajax promised earnestly,

“Hmm, I will have to think of something appropriate. Let me think on it.”

“Uuuugh, Zhongliiiiii.” he whined childishly, the elder chuckled at his antics and leaned into his mate with a resigned sigh.

"Forgive me if I turn cross, I had something to tell you this evening but with Hu Tao present…"

"She's not present now." Ajax suggested soothingly and Zhongli snorted. 

"That may be true but I swore Haihai to secrecy all day and she was dying to tell you as well." He could feel Ajax's confusion, a soft caress of skin as his younger mate pressed a kiss to the column of his throat. 

"You could tell me after she's gone?" 

"I suppose we will." Zhongli murmured as he finished plating their dinner and handed a few to Ajax to bring into the dining room. Jinhai looked adorable all things considered, their pout was truly a memory to keep with him for all his days. They looked like a tiny version of Ajax down to the little quirk of their lips and furrowed scowl. If he had a Kamera at the ready this would definitely have been photo worthy, just a shame that it was in part caused by their papa who hadn't been able to detect his little tail. 

"Here you are Master Hu." Zhongli placed the food down in front of her and the young woman smiled gratefully,

"Er...thanks. You know you didn't have to do this right? I only came to ask a favor, you don't have to keep me for dinner."

"Nonsense, it would be rude to turn my former boss away so close to dinner time." Even though all of his being was screaming they should have done just that to spare him the hassle. 

"Mmm, it's really good." Hu Tao said through a mouthful and Zhongli smiled politely in response as he tucked into his own meal.

"What is the favor you came to ask of me?"

"Oh um…" she fidgeted, poking at her food now while the rest of the table ate quietly, pretending not to be invested in the exchange. Ajax was the best at being subtle, disguised his wayward glances with sips of tea and offering bites of food to their still grumpy hatchling. 

The least subtle would be Venti who was damn near oogling the Funeral Director and former Archon with thinly veiled nosiness. Zhongli huffed, eyeing the young woman still fidgeting in place and frowning in concentration;

"Would you...be willing to give me extra lessons? From your courses and lectures about funeral traditions? I would pay of course." Hu Tao managed, catching him by surprise as he felt his eyes widening at the request. 

"Isn't my replacement teaching you? I left most of my materials for him to look over and use." 

"He is but...he's not doing it like you did it. Stuff came easier when you taught it."

"Master Hu, while I'm flattered, you really need to be able to adapt to his style of teaching." He encouraged gently. Her frown deepened,

"I've been trying and I have mentioned my struggle with his methods but the rest of the staff find his lectures and methods easier to grasp than I do. So he's unwilling to accommodate." Hu Tao squirmed,

"He says that it's because I'm not taking the work seriously...but I am! I take my duties to the parlor very seriously and I'm trying to understand his teachings but it's getting confusing and he talks too fast." She protested with a loud grunt. Zhongli's lips pursed in thought, watching the young master work through her feelings with a contemplative scowl. 

He had always noticed that Hu Tao had responded better in his lectures when the information was broken up into sections and that if he gave a corresponding example, the young woman would come to grasps with it faster. Though it had been at the cost of everyone else's learning experience, they thought most of his lectures were too long or boring and that the examples didn't help as they were equally long and boring. Not everyone enjoyed his long, detailed tangents but Hu Tao had. 

"...how long has this been going on?"

"..." She looked at her food glumly, picking at it again, "a few weeks after you left. Things started piling up...I haven't turned in a summary for awhile now." 

"Hu Tao!?" He gasped and she cringed awkwardly, 

"I just don't understand any of it." He wanted to scold her and tell her to hop to and get the summaries done but judging by the look on her face she had already been scolded about the lack of them. He pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling several pairs of eyes on him, he didn't want to see the young Master fail but he also didn't want to go back to the parlor. 

He had little ones to think about, eggs and hatchlings he wanted to tend to and baby; he didn't want to stop being a mother and homemaker just because Hu Tao was struggling with a new teaching style. He groaned inwardly and leaned back in his chair with an undignified, heavy sigh,

"Wednesdays. You will be here promptly at 5 in the evening, sharp. You will not pull pranks or stray from your books until we have covered the material from Tuesday's lectures and prepared for Thursday's. I will feed you and teach you in exchange for your best behavior and effort, am I understood?" He gruffed, stern amber eyes boring a hole into the girl's smaller being. She gasped, bounding up from her seat to hug him suddenly,

"Thank you, thank you, thank you! Thank you, Mr. Zhongli! I promise! Best behavior and effort, you'll have all 100 and 10 percent of me!" She crushed him in the hug, gagging him slightly. 

"It's- it's a contract-ack!" Hu Tao nodded,

"Of course, of course! Wrath of Rock and all that if I break it!" She pulled away with a wide grin and a sparkle to her eye that he hadn't noticed was missing until now, it warmed him slightly to see it. 

"Oh believe me, should you break our contract the punishment will be according." He teased lightly, only half meaning it as he was certain if she did misbehave, she'd learn right quick from writing out a long apology to not do it again, she wasn't his boss anymore after all. 

She went home not long after dinner, thanking him profusely as he nudged her out the door and Jinhai cries reached his ears. 

"Zhongli, I don't understand what's up with Haihai, she's so fussy all of a sudden." Ajax fretted, "Do you think she's sick?"

Jinhai growled and squirmed in his hold, glaring up at him and Zhongli who chuckled softly. 

"She's not sick, just frustrated having kept a secret for me." Zhongli said casually and in the process catching Ajax's full attention, 

"You mean the thing you wanted to tell me?" 

"Yes, I had Haihai help me keep the secret from the rest of our little family." Ajax scoffed quietly and rocked Jinhai gently;

"Am I allowed to know this secret now or do I have to force this little lady to wait a moment more?" He asked teasingly and Zhongli nodded, feeling giddy as their hatchling brightened excitedly. 

"Mama has baby egg." Jinhai declared proudly, two startled 'What!?'s echoed from the kitchen and Ajax blinked, eyes going wide and sparkling. 

"Baby egg…?"

"In mama's tummy." Jinhai confirmed and Zhongli yelped when he was swept off his feet into Ajax's strong arms, a delighted cry of joy filling the house as he swung Zhongli around with Jinhai giggling on his back. 

"I'm not misunderstanding right? You're gestating, right!?" Zhongli nodded and captured his mate in a kiss, swallowing Ajax's wild scream of delight.

"I'M GONNA BE A DAD!" He paused, "AGAIN!" he laughed aloud and Zhongli cupped his cheek, soaking in the beautiful smile of his mate who looked like Zhongli had just given him the world. 

"Papa, baby egg says you're making Haihai and baby egg dizzy!" Ajax blinked and craned his neck to look at the hatchling latched onto his back like a baby opossum. 

"Baby egg said what?"

"Haihai speaks for baby egg, though they sound an awful lot like Haihai." 

"Nuh-uh! Baby egg sounds like this!" The squeaky voice returned and Ajax cackled, wiping a tear from his eye before both hands settled over Zhongli's stomach. 

"Well, I can say I'm very excited to meet baby egg." Zhongli kissed him again, ignoring the bewildered looked of the two Anemo wielders popping out of the kitchen.

Chapter Text

There were many opportunities that arose from Zhongli's second gestation; Childe being able to help with morning sickness was the biggest one. The ginger would fly from the bed seconds after his mate would lurch, gagging in his throat, and they would be at the toilet basin in mere moments, his lover's hair held in one hand and the other hand rubbing soothing circles into his back.

Zhongli retched, "...ugh…" he spit after a brief moment and whimpered. Childe offered him a glass of water which he took gratefully to wash his mouth out before actually taking a sip.

"Was it this bad the first time?"

"Partly…" he panted breathlessly, a hand rested over the slight swell of his stomach and he grimaced, a burp followed and he lurched again; Childe stiffened and prepared for another round of vomiting but Zhongli relaxed, face a little flushed yet pallid. 

"I can say that Jinhai didn't make my stomach churn quite so much but it was still a gruesome ordeal when I was ill." Childe nodded and continued to rub his back. 

"I'm sorry I wasn't there for you."

"You're here for me now, that's what matters." Zhongli murmured softly, pulling himself up from the basin to flush and brush his teeth in order to rid himself of the acrid taste. Childe wrapped his arms loosely around his mate, feeling the subtle bump of the egg growing steadily inside his beloved. Only a few weeks along and the egg was already making itself known, it would drop in another month or so and then it would really set in that they were having another. Well, it had already set in but it hit harder when Zhongli looked pregnant, all cute and round and entirely too snugglable. 

The elder's hands came to rest over his mate's, thumbing across the ginger's knuckles adoringly,

"It brings me great joy that you're here, that you get to feel them grow inside me." Childe smiled at the sentiment and nuzzled into the back of Zhongli's neck.

"And I'll be here for the many more to come, feeling you all full and glowing, I could get used to that." 

"Hmm, careful, one might think you find me more attractive gestating."

"Tch! You're drop dead gorgeous gestating or not. My beautiful, handsome, mama dragon." Childe purred, peppering kisses along his neck and tickling him with his unshaven face. 

"Pff, Ajax, that-snrk!" He snorted into a giggle that had flutterly feelings twist in Childe's belly. Gods above, he loved this man. He squeezed the other in a tight hug again, feeling the swell of the egg and kissing his husband's neck again,

"It's the truth, you're the most beautiful creature I've ever laid eyes on. No one compares…" 

"Hmm, I beg to differ, a beautiful ginger man comes to mind when I think of the most beautiful creature." 

"Awww, medovyy~"

"Though he does drive me mad with his flagrant disregard for his own safety." He teased, earning a guffawed noise from his young mate; unfortunately the moment didn't last, Zhongli waivered suddenly, Childe quick to support him as the elder groaned softly. 

"You need me to hold your hair again?" 

"No, no. I think I just need to rest and have some tea." 

"I'll make some! You go lay down, I bet Haihai is worried sick if she's not passed out." Zhongli hummed softly and braced himself on the counter and hissed,

"Hey, hey, hey!?" Childe panicked and held him tightly, 

"It's too early for the egg to drop, yeah?" 

"Mmh. Just a cramp, womb expanding to make room for the egg still growing." Childe whimpered a bit,

"It's hard seeing you in pain…" his mate huffed softly and turned his head to look at Childe properly,

"It's hard for me too, do you have any idea how much I worry when you go off to work?" 

"Zhongli, this is about you. My work is entirely different than you carrying our hatchlings. Your health is far more important-"

"And if you die, who will help me raise them?" The younger started and deflated a bit, nodding at that. 

"Point taken. I promise I am easing up on the debt collections. Paperwork and bureaucracy's the life for me, heh." Zhongli shook his head,

"I don't want to change you so drastically just to feel at ease. It's enough that you promise to be safe and come home to me and the little ones." He rubbed his belly affectionately. Childe nodded and kissed the slightly shorter man's temple

"It's a promise, and you know I keep those." Zhongli chuckled and let the younger male help him back into the bedroom with his stomach cramping and churning; Childe was careful not to disturb Jinhai before he hurried downstairs to make some ginger tea with a little honey, not wasting a moment as he hurried to prepare and brew the beverage for his ailing mate.

To his surprise, he found Xiao sitting in the dark, nursing a cup of tea that smelled heavily of ginger. 

"Good morning, I don't suppose you sensed Zhongli's distress?" Childe wondered, eyeing the other carefully, tossing subtle glances at the Adeptus' middle. He knew that they were...trying, in their own way, for a baby but as far as he knew the two barely even kissed more than a few chaste ones during their cuddling on the sofa.

"I heard him retching…haven't been sleeping well so I was already up. Figured this would help." 

"Xiao…"

"I'm fine...just...tired." he sounded exhausted, though his face didn't show it. Zhongli has mentioned once that Adepti don't need sleep but it was good for their mental health. 

"Does Venti know? That you're not sleeping well?"

"Partly…I don't want him to know the severity and you will keep it that way." Xiao warned softly. Childe nodded as he prepared a tray and poured a cup of tea for his mate with a little bit of honey just how his mate liked it. 

"You should tell Venti how this is affecting you. He's your partner and he should be supporting you now and learning what needs to be done before a little one is on the way." Xiao glared a bit but nodded contemplatively,

"Being here for Zhongli, for our second egg, while it's rough to be up so early holding his hair and keeping him hydrated...it feels good to support him." The Yaksha hummed thoughtfully and slid from the stool,

"Get back to your mate before he starts wondering what you're up to." Childe sighed again, watching the smaller's retreating back for a moment before finishing the tea.

Tray in hand, he returned upstairs to their bedroom, yet hesitated on the threshold to watch his lover gently stroke down the length of their egg tucked inside him, humming as he did so, the softest of smiles adorning his face. Zhongli no doubt lost in thought and idle musings... probably wondering what this little hatchling would look like and who they would take after more. Jinhai was curled and resting against his mate's belly, little claws kneading the fabric of their mama's sleep clothes. 

Childe finally approached after committing his beloved's expression to memory, placing his own hand over the bump gently as Zhongli sipped at the stomach settling tea slowly. Childe felt he had been more touchy as of late, thinking it was due to the fact he hadn't been here for these fairly early months.

Zhongli had already been a month along when they'd found out with Jinhai's egg, but this little one he was here for. He could feel it growing little by little each day, from a barely noticeable lump to a sizable mass that he could cradle in the palm of his hand. A kumquat to a grapefruit he liked to joke and Zhongli would huff and roll his eyes fondly and remind Childe that they still had more to go. So kumquat to a grapefruit, to a cantaloupe or melon; Zhongli had said that was more accurate in comparison given how heavy he felt already.

"We'll need a new crib and possibly a proper bed for Jinhai soon." Zhongli murmured sleepily, he was drifting again and Childe snickered,

"You speak as if they won't be in our bed until the end of time." His lover huffed in amusement and raised the cup to his lips again, taking another small sip before setting it aside and resting both hands atop Childe's one. 

"They'll eventually have to sleep in their own bed, how will we give them siblings if they continue to inhabit our love nest." Childe sputtered at his mate's drowsy brazenness;

"We managed to conceive this one with no trouble."

"I am quite certain we were honeymooning when this one was conceived, my love." Childe pressed a kiss to the back of his lover's knuckles and hummed, sliding back into bed and snuggling close. 

"Then we'll vacation again, I'll give you lots of babies, so many eggs, the other Adepti will think us mad." Zhongli chuckled,

"Six is still a decent brood...you can convince me of more after the initial six." He yawned and Childe felt his mate's body fall limp, a soft snore escaping his handsome husband now that his tummy wasn't churning relentlessly from the cocktail of hormones stirring inside. Childe wanted to squeeze him so tight that Zhongli would know even in his dreams how much Childe loved him and their family. 

The young ginger didn't think it possible to love anyone this much; after his fall he'd been so full of malice and resentment he didn't even spare a thought to normal things like crushes and courting. No sane person his age back home would have dared to even touch him with a broomstick, they were terrified of him, a 14 year old with a bad attitude and not so repressed traumas. Childe scooted to rest his head over the slight bump on his lover's belly, pressing fluttery kisses there and whispering softly,

"Papa is already so excited for you. Even if you can't quite hear me yet, I want to tell you I love you so much already. I didn't know that was possible but knowing you're here and that only a few months sit between us until we finally meet, I can hardly wait." Childe pressed another kiss to his mate's stomach and combed his fingers through Jinhai's mane, smiling at the soft purring the little hatchling emitted from his touch.

Gods, he was a dad, twice over now (counting the one on the way). His chest was tight and warm, love and mirth bubbled around making him feel light yet still grounded as he gazed at his family. 

He remembered the day Teucer had been born, how his mama had cradled the newborn and let him sit beside her to see his baby brother. Little Ajax had still been innocent and a little cowardly but in that moment he'd promised himself to be a good big brother like he had with Tonia and Anthon before, because much like them he'd loved little Teucer at first sight.

He thought fatherhood was similar, because he'd been terrified out of his mind at first, the boat ride to Snezhnaya had been agony as he paced back and forth below deck and above deck he tried his hand at fishing with the crew to ease his nerves. He'd been so scared, a part of him thinking he wasn't fit to be anyone's father, and the other too excited for words. 

When he'd returned to Liyue, to Zhongli, to his home; he'd realized then that even if he was scared, he'd brave it for them and be a family.

Chapter Text

He'd put out a commission a day or so ago for Slime Concentrate, an easy commission for seasoned adventurers and himself alike, but with the egg nearing completion of the gestational period and almost ready to drop it was much safer to let another do the work. 

Zhongli's hands trembled slightly upon popping open the jar, cringing when the blobs quivered and oozing around inside the container; he couldn't believe what he was about to do for the sake of a craving. With Jinhai he'd longed for nothing, his appetite non-existent until Ajax had returned from Snezhnaya and by then the egg had finished growing. 

The elder winced, swallowing thickly as his mouth watered at the slimy blobs, dumping two into an awaiting bowl and shuddering at the squelch they made on impact. He quickly sealed the jar to prevent too much exposure to the potential elements, his stomach turning at the miserable sight yet growling hungrily. His own body betrayed him all for the egg; Zhongli sighed, rubbing over his stomach feeling the sizable egg that made his skin stretch tightly and poke out in a subtle curve. It would drop soon and hopefully the cravings would go with it, as of now though he was still driven by strange hungers that would strike randomly without reason. 

Presently, he wanted slime, sweet slime specifically as he recalled Lumine's tale of gifting Ningguang a sugar frosted slime. It sounded revolting enough to already have him gagging; but he wanted it, badly. I hope you're happy little one, he thought bitterly as he dusted a thin coating of sugar over the concentrate. It twitched and he reeled backwards swallowing bile and disgust; Heavens above, why did he crave slime of all things? Why not Cor Lapis or Qingxin or anything else that didn't bring back horrid memories. 

He calmed himself, setting aside the sugar and breathing deep, glaring down into the bowl as he mentally prepared himself. He patted his belly firmly, reminding himself this was for his little one, cravings were a way of the body getting what it needed for the developing embryo in mortals and he supposed the same could be said about gestation. 

Though he'd never, ever craved slime when carrying Jinhai and they had turned out just fine. He used his fingers as the concentrate was far too slimy for dignified cutlery, the reaction was immediate, his body lurched to rid him of the slimy morsel in his mouth before the rest of him caught up. 

It tasted exquisite. He hated it. Attempting to chew only worsened the tight heaving of his gut so he swallowed, hand clamped firmly over his mouth to prevent any upheaval of the snack he craved. This was going to be an ordeal no matter what he coated the damn things in, be it sugar or chili flake. He shuddered at the sensation as it slid down his throat, cringing hard enough to cramp as he eyed the second sugar dusted blob. 

If he was quick enough, he thought with a huff, he could trick his body into thinking it was something else like a dumpling or chewy candy...that one had to swallow whole to enjoy the taste without the visceral reaction. He took a deep breath and hurriedly shoved the blob into his mouth and internally screeched when the concentrate nicked a fang and began to ooze profusely, a bit dribbled down his chin to remind him just what he was eating. 

He lurched and held fast, willing himself not to spit it out and swallow. Just swallow and be done with it. He could consider it a success as long as he didn't spit the blob out and it made it to his stomach.

"Mmmmph." He whined, managing to swallow with only a slight gag forward, his stomach was in knots but strangely satisfied with soft flutterings as the slime was digested. He sighed in relief, resting on the countertop in his self satisfaction until his mouth watered again and his eyes shot open in confusion.

He wanted more, the salty sweet taste of the slime was delicious and two was not enough to sate him even though he wished it was. He pinched the bridge of his nose with one hand while the other braced his stomach. He liked to think that this little one was demanding, forcing him to eat such treats; the jar popped open again and he dumped out one, then two, then three, hating the way he was salivating at the prospective snacks. 

Another generous smattering of sugar and he scrunched his nose and closed his eyes tight, popping the concentrate onto his tongue with a whimper of delight and remorse. If not for the texture he was certain this would be a pleasant experience for the both of them, as of right now his abdominal muscles were clenching and spasming as if he were about to dry heave and putting pressure on the egg. 

He swallowed the first and started on second, refusing to be wasteful of his purchase that he'd impulsively made all because Paimon and Lumine's detailed recollection of their dish. 

"Mama…?" Zhongli started and his eyes shot open, turning to his sleepy hatchling tugging on his robes,

"What's that?" He glanced to the blob in hand, his concentration and willpower broken from his need and want to satisfy bodily needs at the visual reminder of what he was ingesting. It was slime, plain and simple with a thin dusting of sugar to add a sweetness factor. His stomach turned and he returned it to the bowl;

"Just a snack I was trying to eat, would you like some?" The little one normally had a small snack after their nap, just something to tide them over for dinner. Jinhai's mouth popped open expectantly, golden eyes peering up curiously as he fetched the bowl and crouched to feed his hatchling. That had been a poor move to make as the very next moment a cramp not unlike a contraction hit and he gasped, bracing against the kitchen island as the bowl dropped the short ways to the floor. 

He could feel the shift of his organs, the egg dropped out and rolled down to sit heavy in his lower belly, it was uncomfortable but the relief that followed was immense. 

"What's wrong mama?" Zhongli huffed out a breath, smiling gently at his little hatchling who was watching him with wide, worried eyes. 

"Nothing sweetheart, baby egg just decided to move is all."

"Baby egg can move!?" Jinhai shrieked loudly, a faint ringing in Zhongli's ears afterward. 

"Mmhm. It means baby egg will be here soon. Would you like to feel?" He pulled himself up with a grunt of effort and let the egg settle fully in his body; his stomach was rounded and stretched outward, revealing the size of the egg fully giving him a pregnant look like before. 

Jinhai had already gathered up the fallen bowl and slimes while he stood, offering it back to Zhongli who set it aside in favor of hoisting Jinhai up onto his hip the best he could with his belly in the way. Small hands rubbed the expanse over his robes, golden eyes widening in awe.

"Mama's tummy big!"

"It is, that's baby egg. In a few weeks baby egg will be ready to see you and me, and come out."

"Baby egg see papa too?"

"Of course!" He preened and Jinhai cuddled into his shoulder,

"Haihai be good big hatchling! Take good care of baby egg." Zhongli kissed their cheek and purred, 

"I know you will...how about we surprise papa with a visit at work, show him baby egg moved?" 

"Yes! Show papa, show papa!" Jinhai bounced in his arms eliciting a hiss when their weight shifted the egg against his organs, a part of him was honestly surprised he hadn't been sick because of the sudden roll against his stomach. 

"Ah, you need to be gentle with mama right now, my tummy is too full because of baby egg." The hatchling nodded dutifully before snuggling him tight again, the afternoon snack forgotten. 

They readied themselves for the walk to the bank, Jinhai helping him retrieve his shoes and attempted to put theirs on by themself before Zhongli intervened with a gentle hand. He spotted Xiao out in the front yard training with his polearm while Venti watched leisurely from a shady spot under a tree. 

"Oh? And where do you two think you're getting to?" The bard jeered good naturedly when he noted Jinhai's excited bouncing.

"Surprise papa! Show baby egg!" The two Anemo wielders shared a look with one another before looking to Zhongli who smiled,

"The egg dropped so I thought to inform Childe now rather than later this evening." He explained as Jinhai took lead with marching steps and stern, puffed cheeks. Zhongli chuckled and placed one hand under the weight of the egg and followed after.

It took longer to reach the bank than expected thanks to his hatchling's natural curiousity and enjoyment of the world around them; they were stopped every few steps or so while Jinhai smelled flowers, got distracted by a butterflies, peered under rocks at insects and worms only to remember what they were doing and quickly resume their journey. 

Rather than go inside and have to climb all those stairs, Zhongli let Vlad know they were waiting nearby by calling up to him. The guard nodded and disappeared inside Northland, leaving the two to find a comfortable bench to rest while Jinhai cuddled his belly and chattered adamently about what the two of them would do once baby egg was born. 

"Mama, can baby egg hear Haihai?" 

"Hmm, it's possible. Your papa sang to you before you hatched and you recognized his voice." Haihai grinned and rubbed their pudgy cheek against his belly,

"Baby egg recognize Haihai! Play games and climb tree together! Haihai show baby egg how." They promised to his stomach cutely and he combed their bangs from golden eyes with a soft smile. 

"Zhongli!?" He perked up at the approach of hurried steps, Ajax was in a near sprint as he drew near, expression pinched in unabashed concern. 

"What happened? Vlad told me you didn't look well-" he panted, cupping Zhongli's cheek and feeling his forehead for temperature. While it was warm and slightly humid, and their extended walk probably had made appear a little out of sorts, Zhongli was quick to reassure he was fine. 

"We just came to see you and tell you the good news." He chuckled sweetly, his mate still checking him worriedly, blue eyes glimmering in the afternoon sun as the ginger fidgeted worriedly.

"Good news…?" Zhongli stood with a slight hiss, he'd dressed down today, not having expected to go anywhere and the hanfu he'd chosen did little to hide the shape of the egg now settled in his lower abdomen. Ajax relaxed, tense anxiety bleeding into soft excitment, 

"Well look at you…" he purred, "Couldn't wait for me to get home and fondle you there so you came to me?" Ajax leapt in close and wrapped him into a tight embrace, both hands cradling his stomach carefully. Zhongli snorted in amusement but pressed a kiss to his mate's cheek, so what if he wanted the attention early? Ajax always lit up at these developments like it was first time all over again and it never ceases to make the elder feel warm and loved.

"Papa no! Mama said be careful of tummy!" Jinhai chided at their feet and yanked on Ajax's coat tails earning a chuckle from the young ginger. 

"I'm being careful little yabloko, see?" He made a show of feather light touches over the swell of the egg and Jinhai huffed with a stern expression. 

"Okay…" Ajax grinned and knelt to pepper kisses upon their hatchling, scooping them up into his hold not a moment later before rounding on Zhongli.

"How about some shaved ice? I saw a stand being set up this morning." Jinhai tilted their head curiously,

"Shave...ick?" Zhongli giggled and saddled up to his husband, looping their arms together gently,

"I think that sounds like a fine idea, won't the bank miss you though?"

"Nah, Ekaterina knows that when it comes to you my attendance is as good as absent." Ajax assured with a kiss. 

Chapter Text

The anniversary of his 'death' had crept upon him like a snake hidden in the underbrush. It had felt like February only yesterday, Ajax captured in the glow of thousands of lanterns looking beautiful and radiant, promising a brood of little ones and smiling brighter than the sun. Now it was June, oppressive heat nearing the worst of it's peak, Zhongli could only step outside for a few hours in the early morning before he worried heatstroke would strike him down at noon when working in the garden with Jinhai.

Today there were storm clouds on the horizon, a dreary forecast for the forgone Rite of Parting, now a memorial left in its wake. He could feel it, his labor was fast approaching, he could feel the subtle shift of muscle under his skin and the softening of internal structures to prepare for the act of pushing the egg free. Though his mind was elsewhere, thoughts scattered and frayed as he thought about the memorial service for Liyue's dearly departed Archon. He'd asked his mate to stay home this week, sensing the changes in his body preparing for birth, but he hadn't stopped there.

The bank would be closed today for the safety of the employees. Zhongli did not think ill of his people but he knew human emotions would be elevated today, tensions high. Zhongli didn't want a stray citizen's ire or fury misdirected onto the remaining Fatui, most importantly, his husband who had been accused of assassinating Rex Lapis. 

"Me~do~vyy~" Ajax soothed, pulling him from his darker thoughts to look up at the ginger with a weak smile. 

"You're starting to worry me, you've been sitting out here for a long while and those storm clouds look ominous." He knelt and placed a hand protectively over the swell of the egg, rubbing soothing circles along his belly. 

"Forgive me, Ajax. There's just a lot on my mind with the memorial today." The elder cupped his mate's cheek delicately, thumbing along the crest of cheekbone. 

"Mora for your thoughts?" Ajax mused, kissing Zhongli's open palm.

"I'm just...so...anxious I think. I can feel my due date will be any day now and I should be excited but with the memorial being today, I fear the rest of the week your employees may suffer from residual feelings of malice or resentment." He vented softly, earning another kiss pressed into his palm. 

"Don't you worry about them, I trained them personally. They'll be safe and I will be right here by your side when the egg comes." The former Archon smiled and pulled his husband up into a gentle kiss, feeling the burden lessen on his shoulders. 

"Thank you for listening." Ajax hummed and tucked a lock behind his ear, smile turning mischievous as he drew forth a mora stuck between his index and middle finger. 

"As promised, payment for your thoughts." Zhongli chuckled, smacking him gently on the chest, 

"Ajax…" he admonished fondly, letting a smile pull at the corners of his lips while his mate chuckled in amusement. 

"What? Just fulfilling our contract as stated beforehand," he kissed his cheek, "I would like you to come inside before the storm hits though. It looks bad." Zhongli looked back to the looming storm clouds just past Mount Tiang and reluctantly pulled himself up with Ajax's gentle hands supporting his back and belly. They were inside only a moment later, Zhongli heaving out a quiet sigh while massaging the weight sat heavy in his gut, he hoped to give birth soon and have the little egg situated before his next lesson with Hu Tao though the awkward conversation that would undoubtedly follow would be exhausting.

He could feel Ajax's eyes on him, his young mate kneading his knuckles perfectly into the aches of his lower back, 

"Hmm, you're awfully tense love, how's about...you take a nice warm bath while Jinhai and I make lunch?" He offered, moving his knuckles higher to massage a knot out from between his shoulder blades. 

"I can make lunch, Ajax, I'm not incapable." 

"I never said you weren't but you're awfully tense and I really think you should be relaxing and nesting right now instead of worrying. You're due any day and last time we spent nearly a week lazing about and you still struggled." Zhongli tsked and leaned into his husband,

"Last time we didn't have an already hatched little one. We've been busy."

"True, but you've been putting unnecessary extras on your plate. Worrying about me at work and the people of the Harbor, the memorial. You should be prioritizing you and that little one inside you, I want you to have a safe delivery." Ajax hugged him tight, kissing his cheek for good measure. 

"...I suppose a bath would help me relax and get my mind off things." 

"I'll get it nice and hot with your fancy salts." He promised hurrying upstairs while Zhongli came to rest upon the door frame into the sitting room where two Anemo wielders were hard at work building a block castle with Jinhai. 

"Aren't the two of you meeting Chongyun at Wangshu later?" He questioned, glancing to the window where the clouds were clearly visible. 

"Childe asked us to wait a beat longer until he could convince you to come inside." Xiao stated honestly, Venti chimed in a moment later,

"He didn't want to leave Haihai alone so he asked us to keep them busy for a minute, though if we're to beat the storm we should leave soon." Zhongli nodded in agreement,

"You can go now, I'll sit with Haihai."

"Mama look it! Tower!" Jinhai grinned proudly at their tall tower of blocks; the two were careful not to disturb as they hurried to gather up their things and an overnight bag. 

"Very impressive Haihai, think mama can stack higher?" Zhongli shuffled to sit on the sofa in a comfortable position that didn't put pressure on his insides too much.

"We'll be back tomorrow afternoon." Xiao declared and Zhongli waved in response with a smile.

"Safe travels, if the storm hits try to take shelter!" He called after them as they opened the front door and a gust of wind ruffled their hair and blew back Venti's cloak. He had half a mind to tell them to cancel this sudden meeting with Chongyun but thought better of it, Xiao had a look in his eye that burned fierce and determined. The Yaksha had a goal in mind and Zhongli would not get in his way even if it worried him; he turned back to his budding block tower, Jinhai quickly trying to outstack him.

With the weather looking grim, he wondered if the memorial would be postponed? With it being so important he didn't doubt they would move it to later tomorrow or perhaps even begin early as to keep it on the sacred day. Ningguang was overseeing the procession with Hu Tao's insight which he had helped her plan just last week, her academics were taking great strides with his extra tutoring. 

"Bath's ready my beloved!" Ajax chimed descending the stairs with loud hopping steps, rushing into the sitting room and scooping Jinhai up into his arms with a loud squeal. 

"Papa! My tower!" They protested with a giggle and Ajax placed a kiss on their cheek,

"We'll rebuild it after lunch, want to help me make something tasty for mama?"

"Mmhm! Spicy something!"

"Mmm, maybe not, don't want to upset Mama's tummy." Ajax mused with a kiss placed upon Zhongli's temple. 

"It's scalding hot and ready for you." Zhongli thanked him and proceeded upstairs at a leisurely pace in order to allow his husband and young ample time to prepare lunch. Now that Jinhai was helping in the kitchen more and with their garden beginning to yield, the little hatchling could spend long minutes deciding which tomatoes or other vegetables looked good enough…more often than not they were under ripe but neither he nor Ajax had the heart to say anything.

The tub was filled and smelled of mint and lemon grass; Zhongli stripped down and pulled his hair up into a bun intending to only soak and relax as his husband had suggested he do. He caught a glance of his stomach in the mirror and couldn't help the smile that came forth, soon they would have another little scrape of claws joining the first in play and scurrying quickly for bedtime cuddles and soft kisses on their brows. 

"I do hope you have your papa's eyes, little one. They're as beautiful as raw Noctoilous jade or precious cut gems honed from the ocean itself." He slipped into the awaiting tub carefully with a contented sigh, praising to Celestia on high his Ajax's name. Sometimes his mate could be a little dense and impulsive but he more often than not knew just what Zhongli needed and this bath was one of those times.

He leaned back to rest his head on the lip of the tub up to his shoulders in hot, salted water. He shivered, shifting easily to let his scales soak up the mineral and churned the water with his tail to make sure the salts were well mixed and for the bubbles to froth and form peaks. His head rested perfectly on the lip and the weight of his horns was grounding, he'd maybe dunk his head under towards the end to let the mineral water cleanse the bone and amber protrusions.

He soaked for a good while, purring softly while cradling the eased weight of the egg in his middle, thinking idle things. He didn't think about the memorial or his fears about Ajax getting hurt, pushing those thoughts far away so he could relax and enjoy this rare moment alone. Not that he minded being surrounded by others, he quite enjoyed the company but it was harder to meditate and sort out his thoughts when at the crack of dawn one's hatchling was already in his face demanding blini and congee, and all manner of breakfast foods. 

"I wonder what kind of little one you'll turn out to be. Your older sibling is so energetic and full of life. I wonder if you'll be more reserved or if she'll teach you to be like her." Zhongli mused, lulling his head to the side and sighing happily. His eyes had slipped closed ages ago, basking in warmth and sweet scents that made him feel clean and rested. 

"I hope you'll come soon, I'm eager to meet you, though I will struggle to remain patient until your hatch day." The elder continued gently, he wasn't quite sure if his words would reach but he thought perhaps they might just because Jinhai believed they might. 

A slight twinge in his lower back was the sign he had been possibly sitting on his tail and buttock too long in the porcelain tub, alas, his soothing 'me' time had to come to an end just in time for lunch. Through the various scents of soap and salt he could detect something hearty from the kitchen downstairs, Ajax must have cooked something up from his motherland. 

The elder stood slowly, the twinge turning to a sharp cramp that gave him pause, surely it couldn't be a- he gasped, grip tightening on the tub's rim as it felt like the breath was being squeezed from his lungs as the cramp intensified into a full body ripple. 

It was a contraction, just as painful as the last time he'd felt them awoken in a cold sweat with muscles seizing. The egg moved within him, attempting to descend lower while his muscles worked to help it along. 

"Aj-hnn!" He wheezed, choking on his own breath and pulling himself from the tub to sit quickly on his knees with ragged pants, waiting for it to stop fully before he tried moving any further from the tub he was braced against. 

"Ajax…" Zhongli whimpered, his mate wouldn't be able to hear him if he couldn't raise his voice any louder. He pressed a hand to his stomach, feeling the egg shift barely an inch as the contraction waned. They were to be in for a long afternoon if the pace didn't pick up but he didn't get to decide that, his body would set the pace and he would have to endure it. He hissed softly just as a crash sounded downstairs followed by rapid footsteps, the scramble of claws reached his ears as Jinhai barreled into the master bathroom with a yelping cry. 

Their outfit was partly tattered from their shifting, Zhongli wondered what could have brought it on so suddenly when Jinhai began to scent him and warble; they'd sensed his distress and shifted in their panic to reach him. Ajax stumbled in not a moment later, wide eyed and frantic.

"Zhongli!?"

"Ajax!" He simpered and gasped when he was suddenly drawn up in his mate's arms and carried swiftly to their nest-bed; it was already a rumpled and soft mess of comforting scents, dirty laundry and towels along with fresher linens and Jinhai's plush toys. 

"How quick are they coming?"

"Not terribly fast." He managed through clenched teeth and hid his face on the crook of his arm, "Jinhai needs to be put somewhere." 

The little one was at his side cooing and whimpering, nosing at his cheek and licked stripes along his scales.

"I don't think I can do that-"

"She shouldn't see me like this!" Zhongli hissed, cringing as another wave hit and he curled in on himself; Jinhai was still too young for this, they shouldn't have to see this at only 8 months. 

"Well I can't lock her in the nursery! She'll tear through the damn door down to get to you!" Ajax snapped, it was then that Zhongli noticed a series of fresh scratches littering the young ginger's arms where Jinhai had struggled to get out of his hold to make it upstairs. Zhongli's scent of distress had been that strong? 

He whimpered, feelings of shame and embarrassment set in as he pushed himself up onto their mound of pillows and spread his legs open. Jinhai cuddled close near his shoulders, rubbing their snout against his cheek while Ajax arranged towels and fetched water;

"I'm climbing into the nest, ok?" He warned not to upset his mate who growled softly in response. Ajax stilled, waiting for Zhongli's approval which came soon after in the form of an outstretched hand that the ginger threaded his fingers with and quickly assumed a similar position to the one he'd taken when he'd supported Zhongli through the birth of Jinhai's egg. His tail wrapped around his mate's leg tightly to keep it out of the way, scales cutting into the fabric and probably nicking the younger's skin. 

He didn't even have a moment to apologize, a kiss placed gently to his lips and a reassuring squeeze to his hand,

"Whatever you need to do, do it. Just like last time, just focus on you, I'll bear all of it." Ajax was so good to him, so perfect, even when he was hurting him unintentionally Ajax grin through it just so Zhongli could focus on giving birth. Zhongli wailed softly, his abdominal muscles squeezed around the mass of the egg that stubbornly refused to budge from their comfortable spot inside him. Then why even decide today was the day? Zhongli thought bitterly. He sat up with a snarl, pushing with all his might hoping the added strain would yield something for his efforts.

"Easy does it, medovyy." Ajax crooned, kissing his feverish temple and helping Zhongli up to rest fully against the broad plain of his chest and tentatively place a hand over his belly, the elder growled in warning but Ajax merely rubbed a soothing circle across the expanse of his skin stretched tight around their egg. 

"Don't force yourself." He encouraged and kissed Zhongli's cheek before the elder tucked his face against Ajax's neck and took a deep inhale of the scent of the sea. 

"Hngh…" he panted meekly, wincing when the egg dropped a bit, any progress was good progress even if it was slow going, they would be here for hours so it was better to conserve his energy for when his body was ready to push, though it didn't make the journey any less agonizing. 

He took sips of water when he could between contractions, the egg was slow moving, much slower than Jinhai's which had slipped into place only after a few long, painful contractions, the majority of his labor spent actually pushing the egg out rather than waiting for when he could start. This was grueling, the long stretch of time just stuck waiting as pain stabbed through his lower belly before ebbing away with small movements following after; he was thankful he'd kept his organic structure from the previous birth, he couldn't imagine trying to rearrange his internal channel with an egg lodged in it refusing to move. 

"Aghhn!?" It dropped the rest of the way finally, Zhongli gasped in relief and allowed himself a brief moment of respite while Ajax showered him in affection and praises for his hard efforts. 

"It's almost here…" Zhongli managed a weak but warm smile, eyes a little watery at the thought of holding their next egg and welcoming it to the world. Ajax nodded firmly and kissed the back of the hand currently crushing his, 

"It's almost here, Jinhai's little sibling is almost here. Our brood is getting bigger and it's all thanks to you medovyy." Ajax's voice cracked with emotion as the younger pressed against him and held him tight. Jinhai rumbled beside him, joining their papa in the cuddling motion giving him comfort while he gathered his strength and waited for the next wave of contractions to set in. 

His insides fluttered briefly before a wave of pain gripped him so tight, it was like being stabbed with a hot knife, a scream escaped him and he was quick to silence it at Jinhai's worrying cries. 

"Hush little yabloko, it's ok, mama is ok." Ajax soothed when Jinhai began to thrash and tear at the nest. It was less than ideal, he would have preferred Jinhai stay with someone while he was indisposed but things were too short notice. He would give words of comfort if he could find his voice, currently mangled in his throat as his body screamed at him to bear down and push. 

"Shit-!" He choked, collapsing back onto his husband and cringing in the aftershocks, he could feel the shell with the tips of his fingers. Heavens above they were so close yet still just out of his reach. They were coming upon the final push, they'd have their egg he was sure of it, just a little more and it would be over. 

"Almost-hrk-there!" Another set hit and he cried out, tail constricting hard around his mate's leg while he crushed the ginger's hand as he pushed against the egg, feeling it give and edge it's way free of his body at a brutalizing slow pace. 

"You're almost done!" Ajax praised with a yelp, squeezing back and holding steadfast as Zhongli whimpered his way through the spasm of muscles and burning split of the egg coming into the world, he grunted through his teeth feeling the last inch approaching. 

Zhongli writhed, face scrunched unpleasantly with effort and sweat pouring off him and soaking their bedding, just a bit more, just a little more. He gasped, vision swimming and muscles going lax like a snapped bowstring as the egg popped free and rolled to brush against his thigh, 

"...ugh…" he panted softly, a full body shiver setting in as Ajax untangled his leg from his tail and flew from their bed to tend to him with Jinhai fast on his heels.

He sunk into the pillows and covers breathlessly, blinking the spots from his field of view just in time for a beautiful, seashore blue egg to be offered into his awaiting arms. His throat constricted, sore from his cries and now strained from emotion, they had done it. Another egg, it was here, finally in his arms, safe and sound in their nest. A symbol of their love and devotion to one another, a hatchling to be welcomed into the brood upon their hatch day.

"Oh Ajax…" he hiccuped on a sob, curling protectively around the soft shell with a low rumbling purr, a robe was wrapped around him and the ruined towels were cleared away, Ajax tentatively lifting one of his legs to check for tearing. 

"Looks like were in the clear, medovyy." He whispered and kissed his balmy brow, tender love and affection swirling deep in his ocean hues. Jinhai curled on his pillow, careful not to shift the bed too much while staring intensely at the blue egg with narrowed slits just like their mama. Zhongli chittered, pulling Jinhai's attention from the egg to him so he could nuzzle their snout and place a kiss atop their nose.

"Baby egg is here…" he whispered and Jinhai bounced a bit, body wiggling excitedly before nosing at the egg and crooning. Ajax clambered into the nest carefully, coming to rest opposite Zhongli so they could cradle the new egg just as they'd done for Jinhai and all the others that would follow. He felt safe, warm, loved; he could see his mate's arm beginning to bruise and he knew he leg would need tending soon but when he voiced those thoughts Ajax merely smiled sweetly,

"Hush, my love, you and the egg are more important." Jinhai purred softly, crawling over the ginger to snuggle in the crook that had formed between their bodies; the egg was jostled but quickly secured by the coil of Jinhai's own body, the little one cooing against the shell softly no doubt voicing their excitement to meet the being inside. 

He drifted, exhaustion creeping up on him suddenly from the exertion and strain of giving birth. Ajax cupped his cheek, thumb grazing across a patch of scales near his now pointed ear,

"Rest easy medovyy, we'll be here when you wake, all three of us." His love promised earnestly and Zhongli settled fully, letting the warm dark of sleep pull him under.

Chapter Text

"Ajax, please."

"No." The ginger gruffed, holding out a spoonful of congee with a stubborn scowl. 

"I can feed myself, love." Zhongli huffed, sinking back into the bed away from the spoon looking frumpled.

"Can I not pamper my husband after he brings another egg into the world containing our child?" Childe scoffed, delighting in the beautiful flush of color staining Zhongli's cheeks. 

"Pampering is fine but not when you treat me like I can't do anything." He glared from his pillow backrest, arms crossed and brow set in a cute furrow. 

"I just want to make sure you're resting, medovyy! You gave-"

"Yes, I know Ajax, I gave birth! That was two days ago and you're acting like I can't even lift a spoon!" He snapped and Childe wilted slightly, feeling awkward. 

"I just…don't know what else I can do to make up for what you do. You literally bring them into the world and I just sort of...sit there." He admitted tersely. 

"Ajax...you do more than enough, we talked about this, remember? It's an equal exchange between us, there are no debts to be paid." 

"Yeah, yeah, yeah...I know that but that doesn't make me feel any different! What can I do when you're in pain? I know how to inflict it and I can kiss Jinhai's boo-boos away but when you're in labor all I can do is watch." Zhongli sat up to pull Childe into his embrace, cradling the ginger's head to his breast. 

"You let me hold your hand and let me squeeze so hard I could break your bones. You ground me, Ajax. I couldn't do what I do without you there, I need you." 

"Hrmmm." He pouted, not quite satisfied by the answer because he felt that wasn't enough. Just because Zhongli felt it was, didn't make it so. 

"Plus you support our family with your generous paychecks." Zhongli teased and the Fatui shot up to chuff loudly,

"So I'm just some money bag you married? How cruel of you to say!" Childe bemoaned dramatically all the while Zhongli laughed, looking much better than he had two days ago.

"Oh such a handsome mora purse~" he purred and Childe silenced him with a kiss,

"Hush you!" 

He bumped their egg with his hand by accident, gaze darting to it to make sure it wasn't jostled from the small nest keeping it secure in the big bed. Zhongli combed his hair, nails trailing gently over Childe's scalp,

"It's beautiful isn't it?" Zhongli kissed his cheek, "We made that, you and me…" Jinhai squeaked, leaping between the two with a low growl.

"And you too! We made you too my little one." Zhongli chuckled, peppering kisses upon their very cuddly hatchling. Childe sat back and watched the exchange with a warm, impossibly fond smile. His husband looked so happy, so bright and warm, he'd do anything for this man, all Zhongli had to do was ask. The younger mate voiced his thoughts aloud, thinking the words would spur Zhongli to let him pamper and spoil, to enjoy the attention Childe showered upon him. Zhongli could ask the most outrageous of tasks; fresh Qingxin for tea? Done. Juicy berries from Mondstadt's lush fields? Child's play, anything Zhongli wanted he would oblige. 

"Hmm, I think I'd like to get out of the house today." Childe frowned, 

"Ehhh?" That wasn't what he had meant. 

"We've been cooped up inside and I think I'd like to go enjoy some fresh air, good tea, and sweets with my husband, just the two of us."

"W-wha- but Jinhai! The egg! Who will look after them, hmm? Venti and Xiao are running late from their visit with Chongyun, they were supposed to be back yesterday but shrimpy is probably being a lazy, no good layabout!" Childe sputtered,

"We can ask Ganyu." Zhongli said smoothly, amber eyes flashing playfully, Childe scowled,

"And what if I disagree?"

Ganyu was more than happy to take Jinhai and the egg for the day. The half-Qilin was practically bouncing in place when they turned up at her apartment door with Jinhai dressed in casual play clothes and the egg tucked safely in a knapsack with plenty of padding. It made his skin crawl to think it wouldn't be in the safety of their house but Zhongli was stubborn and knew how to use honeyed words to sway Childe to his side about the impromptu date.

"We're going to have so much fun, Haihai! We can make sweet buns and I bought new toys to play with! Auntie Ningning even bought you some new books!" Ganyu whispered the last part as if it were a secret, possibly Liyue's worst kept secret now. 

"What about baby egg?" Jinhai whispered back and Ganyu grinned excitedly,

"We can read them a story, together, how does that sound?" Jinhai smiled in a surprisingly reserved fashion, though they did yank Ganyu's soft blue hair inadvertently trying to peer into the apartment for the promised entertainment. The half-Adeptus merely continued to smile and giggle merrily; Zhongli handed off the knapsack with the egg, the young woman took it with something akin to reverence and Childe's lip curled. He wasn't a fan of leaving eggs at home but it was almost preferable to leaving them with strangers. Though Ganyu wasn't a stranger by far.

"We should be back early in the evening, I need to make sure my husband is thoroughly decompressed." Zhongli smiled and Ganyu nodded exuberantly,

"Take as long as you need! Have fun you two!" Her apartment door slid shut and they were left alone.

"Tell me again why she has the egg?" Childe grunted, shying away from his husband's offered touch. 

"Because I plan to work in an afternoon nap before we pick them up and I don't want you worrying." Zhongli answered honestly and it touched a nerve with his young mate, 

"That's our egg! Our baby! I can be as worried as I want."

"You refuse to rest just like you did with Jinhai. If it helps we can go through the scent markings again but between myself and Xiao the house is well protected." 

"Tch."

"Ajax, please? For me? We haven't had time alone since our honeymoon and a big part of a healthy marriage is we still make time for each other." Childe groaned inwardly, he hated that Zhongli was right and would have rather they stayed home with their little ones but what's done is done as they say.

"Fine, fine...but just the tea shop and then the nap-"

"Lunch too." Childe balked, you give an inch they take a mile. Zhongli pouted, lip wobbling slightly at the ginger's deep set frown. 

"Gods Zhongli, fine! Tea, lunch, and a nap! Sounds good?" 

"Perfect." Zhongli linked their arms together and kissed his cheek leading the way to his favorite establishment, Heyu tea house.

Zhongli had been a regular before life had gotten hectic and his visits had trickled down to rare occasions because while Zhongli appreciated Liu Su's stories, Jinhai had trouble sitting still.

"I should have guessed you would want to come here."

"Hmm, you know me well." Zhongli replied easily, taking a seat with Childe situated right beside him; Liu Su was already in the middle of a tale enthralling other guests as their waitress appeared to quietly take their order before departing quiet as a mouse. Childe placed a hand on his husband's thigh, watching the older man be sucked into Liu Su's way with words, amber eyes aglow with interest. 

He was never one for listening to long-winded, flowery retellings of legends or myths but he knew that if Zhongli were the one telling it he too would be lost to the other's words. After all, Zhongli's voice was smooth and rich like honey but as crisp and ethereal as smoke; he was definitely a little Zhongli-centric in his attraction.

"Mr. Zhongli!" So much for peace and quiet, he hadn't realized Lumine and Paimon were back in town, then again they came and went as they pleased.

"Hello there Lumine, Paimon. Are you sitting in for one of Liu Su's performances?" The fairy shook her head quickly and twirled a bit in their air while she and Lumine explained that Zhongli was just the man they were looking for.

"A…rock expert?" Zhongli frowned pensively though lips turned up partly in flattery. Childe glared, eyeing the two girls critically, 

"What do you need a rock expert for?" He asked in a sharp tone. They were quick to try and hide their true intentions, something about proving Zhongli was a better appraiser, though they were quick to assert it was for a commission of some sort. 

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt to weigh in." 

"Hmph, aren't we supposed to be enjoying each other's company?" He probed bitterly and Zhongli smoothed a hand down the ginger's thigh.

"Just a quick visit, we'll be back to finish up before Liu Su can move on to the next tale." Zhongli assured though Childe had his doubts which were quickly proved to be correct when the foreman began telling them about missing miners and the arrival of Kun Jun thrown into the mix. He could see the spark in his mate's eyes, his interest piqued in a way that wouldn't abide unless saited;

"Absolutely not, we can't go to the Chasm so soon after you-" he bit his tongue in a low snarl, glaring at Kun Jun and the foreman as they were outsiders to their circle. Lumine was at least aware of what he alluded to but she proved to be no help when she encouraged Zhongli. 

"You can come along too." The elder said with a poignant look thrown in the direction of the foreman who made to speak. It did little to assage his worries and fear building in his gut, he didn't like this at all. When people when missing back home you, mourned and moved on; you didn't search lest you contribute to the body count or find something you shouldn't. 

He'd grown up on scary stories and myths about changelings or people led away by malevolent spirits only for their bodies to be snatched by daemons, his Gran had always spoken of them in a whisper. Like she feared them to be true and only by keeping her voice low were they safe...and then when he fell and the town's superstitions began to drive his mother up the wall. Wasn't there a saying about if enough people believe it, it had to come from some sort of truth?

Childe hated the idea of Zhongli being so far away from the Harbor where if anything went wrong, Baizhu would be there in a matter of moments. Out in the boonies there was nothing but his small first aid kit with some medical gel from Snezhnaya and some gauze. His stomach twisted into knots the further they got from home.

Kun Jun was a weird fellow, Childe had decided instantly that he didn't like the 'Rock expert' for a number of reasons...all of them being how Zhongli and he interacted. Maybe it was just a rock nerd thing and they had some connection or bond that could only come from the enjoyment of dirt and rocks but it didn't sit well when the young man looked at his mate so fondly...like he knew him somehow. 

Ugh. Childe was almost being as petty and possessive as an ex-lover with his sour mood and snide comments thrown Kun Jun's way which had only served as a quick way to get scolded by Zhongli. 

As the investigation continued, the twisting knots in his stomach became; it was troubling, for he'd only felt this way while traversing the Abyss and narrowly making it day by day by the skin of his blood-stained teeth. 

The miners being led away by a strange child? Alarm bells went off in his head, all of them, something wasn't right but he knew the stubbornness of his mate and he could see the flicker of something in Zhongli's eyes which was a sure fire sign he wouldn't go home now, not when lives might be at stake. Though if one were to ask Childe he would say that Zhongli's life and well-being mattered more than a few miners. If he ever spoke the thought aloud his mate would probably throw him on his ass and dress him down so badly his pride would never recover. 

They found one and the rest soon appeared when they discovered the dug through passageway, the hairs on his arms and neck stood attentive, nerves twitched with anticipation. He wanted to grab Zhongli and run, put him somewhere safe and out of harm's way but was helpless when the elder led the charge with a determined set in his brow.

Childe didn't know where the cowardly streak of fear had come from but it stemmed from not knowing what to expect. His bow was stayed when the miner's began to attack, Zhongli's shield erupted between them keeping them safe but for how long could he keep it so soon after bringing an egg into the world. His mate seemed to deem the miner's lives important and his urgency to dispose of them was a slight wound to his ego when Zhongli turned his disapproval upon him.

That didn't matter, his ego was nothing, Zhongli was something. His husband, mate, mother of their hatchlings. That weighed more in Childe's heart than any of the possessed miner's; if they collapsed from exhaustion and died he would feel nothing because his only concerns were for Zhongli and if the shield was putting strain on his body. 

Perhaps he was thinking selfishly. Anyone in their right mind would probably think him cruel or demented with the value he put upon his husband because didn't all life have value? Shouldn't the miners be allowed to live? Debatable if they so much as touched a hair on his beloved's head.

He turned just as a strange child cast them into the cavernous place beyond the seal, their entire party tossed into damp, darkness that reeked of decaying earth and rot. For a brief moment he thought they had been dumped into the Abyss until his eyes adjusted and he could make out a massive beast imprisoned by Zhongli's own stone steles. Childe caught himself on his feet, bow already in hand with a wicked sneer adorning his lips, a beast this massive would most definitely get his blood boiling with the blows they could exchange. 

"Morax...we finish this...Now!" The ginger stiffened, blue eyes trailing to the figure of his mate frozen in place as the massive creature tore through it's cage like it was little more than tissue paper. Zhongli was unmoving, expression twisted into one of pain and confusion, amber eyes gazing at the beast with a lost look behind the softened hues. 

"Shit!" His legs moved of their own accord, bow dismissed and a pulse for the hydro particles in the air to gather within his grasp and harden, as fast as he could make them. His blades would not be finished in time and from the corner of his eye he could see the wind up, a massive tail like a gnarled tree moving to strike at his mate still standing there like a dazed idiot. 

Lumine was moving too, also having noticed Zhongli's dazed reaction but the petite woman would not make it in time; Kun Jun was missing completely and Childe ignored the snarl in his throat, pushing through his bodily response of flight or fight as the tail snapped suddenly and the beast shifted its whole mass to swing at Zhongli. 

He would fight, he would always fight, Childe was never one to back down whether it was a bar brawl or a life or death, tooth and nail struggle to keep his lover safe; Childe slammed into Zhongli and knocked out of the predicted path of the tail, barely formed tendrils in hand that didn't even resemble his usual weapons of choice. 

He would take most of the impact and that was fine so long as it wasn't Zhongli. 

Chapter Text

The sound of bone breaking and sinew shredding was sickening, a sound unlike any other that would haunt his dreams for years to come; his heart dropped out of his chest, ginger hair filled his vision for only a moment before it was sent careening against the walls of the cavernous tomb, a spray of blood spattering the ancient stone and staining it crimson as the body crumpled only seconds later. 

"Ajax!?" He choked-

"Focus, Morax!" He tore himself from the scene, body trembling as he pulled himself up in time to dodge another attack, Azhdaha's tail cracking dangerously like a whip where Lumine had just been holding her ground. He needed to subdue the dragon before he could tend to his mate, pushing the image of Ajax's battered form from mind to focus, fight, succeed. He could tend to Ajax as soon as Azhdaha was calm once more, he betrayed his resolve only briefly to glance again and bite back his agony. 

Ajax had not moved, still crumbled against the ground.

He leapt forward, purpose in his step as he advanced on his once trusted companion, recalling the previous age old battle that had left tremors in their wake. The voice from before knew him, he suspected who it could have belonged to but even that thought was pushed away as he summoned another stele followed by his shield of jade. He couldn't lose focus, he needed this battle to finish swiftly, the sooner the better for the sake of his mate. 

"Morax!" Azhdaha snarled, millenia of hatred and resentment billowing forth from the beast's maw, a shrill roar reverberating off the hallowed walls as he continued his advance; piercing and cutting at the toughened hide. Lumine was at his side, a gust of wind narrowly pushing them out of the way of the dragon's deadly tail crashing into the ground. 

He grunted, landing wrong and feeling his insides strain; it was foolish of him to think he was in top shape so soon after birthing another egg, it was a price he'd pay later when Ajax was revive- healed. When Ajax was healed; a blow like that wouldn't take him out so easily. 

"Zhongli!" Lumine shrieked, pulling him from his thoughts just as Azhdaha slammed into him, knocking him back several feet and tumbling limply onto his side. 

"Agh?!" He wheezed, feeling something crack on impact. 

"You've lowered yourself to that of insects…" the dragon sneered, massive, looming steps moving heaven and earth as the cavern shook under the beast's foot falls. Zhongli cringed, finding his body couldn't move as quickly as he needed; it was trying to heal his internal structure as well as the external and with his mortal limitations the healing was far slower than it had been back then during their original battle. 

"Zhongli, hold on!" Lumine was sprinting towards him just as Azhdaha's tail came down again, knocking the young traveler away with it's impact as the dragon drew in close, heat of his breath brushing across Zhongli's face;

"Morax…" he growled, the crimson glow of his eyes staining the area around them faintly in a similar hue. Amber met ruby, a deep aching sadness consumed by burning rage and fury, Azhdaha believed he had been wronged...his erosion...stripped of all the wonderful memories of the upper world and the people they met. Zhongli felt a sob building in his chest; Ajax was still, not even a heartbeat could be felt through the earth, his mate was too quiet, too cold and lifeless for the man he loved. 

"Enough!" He cried, pulling himself to his feet and glaring down the creature he still held dear to his heart, 

"If you think me an insect, so be it." Zhongli hissed; Azhdaha roared and dove forward only to slam into Zhongli's reformed shield. He centered himself and sought connections within, ties with his birthright and history, old veins of power that bound him to the earth in blood and spirit.

When he'd given away his Gnosis, he'd severed them, stepping down as the Archon and a God in his efforts to render himself mortal. To live his life with the one he loved until the end of his days; he had not anticipated Azhdaha, and for that he would suffer as he always did. Thus was his erosion. 

He found them quickly, breathing deep and filling his lungs, stepping forward and splitting the ground with his heel in a charge to knock the dragon off his feet. 

He was the Prime Adeptus, Gnosis or not. He had been the Prime long before he'd become an Archon and there was a reason he had won out during that wretched war and suffered as he had. Enduring the loss of Guizhong and his first born, watched his Yakshas kill each other in grief and madness, condemned his Azhdaha to this fate down here in a pit. 

He would endure thousands of years more if he could just get to Ajax's side, just to hear him breathing and living. Mortality was not meant for him, but he thought in a melancholic sort of fashion that it had been nice while it lasted, even if it meant nothing had changed in the end. It had only been a short game of pretend in the grander scheme of the world. 

Their battle continued, Lumine giving aid where she could but with the sheer might of the former God restored and a powerful dragon it was nigh impossible to step in and truly help with hindering him. Their carnage however disturbed the cavern floor making it impossible to cross to where the other had fallen, otherwise he'd have barked out an order to help his mate.

The dragon faltered, a joint buckling as another stele erupted forth and knocked the creature off balance. Zhongli was quick in his steps, nicking his way down the beast's underbelly and drawing out a screech of rage, the large tail slamming Zhongli into a wall when he'd stilled at the spot where Azhdaha's heart lay beating under armor and flesh. 

"You hesitate, Morax…" Azhdaha hissed; he would always hesitate, he could not kill Azhdaha for the sake of the land and for himself. Losing Azhdaha would be more than his old heart could take...but losing Ajax would kill him body and soul. He could not bear to lose either but a choice needed to be made and the battle needed to end.

"Do not mistake me!" Zhongli barked, summoning down a meteorite to at least stun the dragon long enough for him to get in close in a full sprint. The power coursing through him was old and ancient, but his, it was power that had shaped the mountains and dug the rivers, it had given rise to life and sent others to their deaths. It would see Azhdaha sealed time and time again if that was to be his fate; he would not let Azhdaha hurt another soul as long as he lived and breathed, for the dragon's sake; if erosion could ever be waved away he knew that it would break the beast's stone heart to know he had killed the people he loved and had cherished beside him, when he stood as Morax. This creature was not one for hatred, he had been kind, gentle, loving. Morax had known him better than any for he had carved Azhdaha with his own hands, given life to stone and found companionship after centuries of loneliness. 

Azhdaha loved the sky and the lilies; loved music and good food, watched lazily through harvests and festivals with pleased aloofness, sang softly when he believed nobody would hear. Azhdaha had been a creature of Liyue's people and culture but time spared no one and a creature born of earth and stone was no exception. Memories stolen and gone, a creature left to fester in a hatred that didn't suit him. The Adeptus leapt high and swung his spear with enough force to crack mountains, the blow landing atop Azhdaha's head and knocking the poor beast asunder. 

"...Mo...rax…" he cursed softly, the massive body vanishing into a black vapor as the seals reignited and Zhongli restored the pillars that had been destroyed in his rampage. 

"Morax…" the voice from before, Kun Jun approached, an ethereal glow about him that Zhongli realized was a fragment of Azhdaha; suddenly the man's unique abilities to read stones made more sense for he didn't think mortals capable of such a thing. 

"I am sure you have much to say to me, but please...I need to go to him quickly." He apologized hurriedly and turned to search for the spot Ajax had been thrown and felt his throat constrict at the sight. He smoothed the grounds and tossed aside rubble, setting the chamber right before darting in the direction of his injured mate.

"He's...your mate. I would have never thought..." Azhdaha murmured, following quickly behind the elder.

"Ajax!?" He reached the ginger finally, assessing damage and finding his vision clouding with tears. This was no simple case of a knock out or incapacitation, no fried egg or special dish was going to wake him. 

Ajax was dead. Eyes frozen open and color so dull it reminded Zhongli of the murk within the Abyss. 

"No...nononono! He can't- his body should be-" Zhongli reached and pulled the limp, bloodied figure to his chest, breaths coming out too short. Ajax was stronger than any mortal then former God had come to know through his reliance on the Abyss. The young ginger should have been able to tough it out through the attack but he hadn't, for whatever reason, Azhdaha had been stronger and Ajax must have believed differently.

"His Abyssal strength should've- he can't die! He can't leave me here! He can't leave the little ones like this!" Zhongli shrieked, a heinous sound that was barely human. His thoughts were fractured, frantic; he could save him, restore him, resurrect but then the image of Qiqi came crashing to the forefront of his mind. Ajax wouldn't be Ajax if he did that, a zombie with no memories...the anguish he'd put the little ones through. Jinhai wailing for their special song...the new hatchling baying for a father that was just right out of reach...his power was not enough to restore the life of his mate.

He sobbed, wailing into soft ginger fringe that smelled of the sea now tainted, he'd lost him. Lost the love of his life, his Ajax, his mate. He wouldn't see the depths of the ocean trapped within twin pools of blue ever again, Ajax would rot within a coffin generously donated by Hu Tao and he would raise two little ones alone in their house meant for their growing brood. 

"Ajax...Ajax please! You promised me!" He begged, as if that would bring him back. Curse his mate, curse Ajax for taking the blow, curse himself for standing there stupidfied as Azhdaha broke free.

"Zhongli…" Paimon sniffled, burying her face in Lumine's chest, the traveler fighting back her own tears for the young man. 

"Morax…" Zhongli hiccuped, holding his mate tighter to his chest,

"Forgive me, Azhdaha...but I can't. I can't look at you…" he sobbed and felt the other's presence warm his side, a gentle hand on his back. 

"If you help me, we can save him." He jerked, coming eye to eye with Kun Jun's possesed body. 

"You brought me to life, giving my heart of stone a body of flesh and blood. If you help me, we can bring him back from death. Please, let me help you." He crooned, Zhongli's eyes widened, a quiet sound escaping him.

"His memories-"

"Will remain intact, he will be as you know him... just... different." 

"Different how?" Zhongli growled, he knew time was short, Ajax's body was nearly cool to the touch. 

"He will be an Adeptus...meaning like those of Juehan Karst, he will be an immortal." Zhongli swallowed thickly, recalling their domestic dreams of growing old and sharing tea at sunset. He would lose that dream no matter the choice, it came down to life with or without his mate and he knew he couldn't last without. 

"Help me save him, please Azhdaha." He set the body down gently, brushing Ajax's bangs tenderly with a slight wince at the drawing blood on his face. Azhdaha knelt across from him and breathed deep,

"I'm going to give you a fragment of myself, the raw power still courses through me from another time, use it to heal him and bring him back." Zhongli frowned,

"If you do that your erosion will worsen! The leylines-"

"I know what I am doing, Morax. This man's life means much to you and if means you will be happy...even if I am not there to see your smile it's enough for me." Zhongli wiped a fresh well of tears from his eyes and nodded, with Azhdaha's help, the small fragment of life giving essence would be enough to restore his mate, it was Primal and old, a power that had flourished forth from the Gnosis in the prime of his Archon youth and when leylines had been plentiful. It would be enough, it had to be. 

Bones mended, tissues reconnected, blood vessels healed; Ajax looked well and whole again but the essence began to subside before the young man had even taken a breathe,

"He's not waking up, he's not back-" panic seized him, a fresh tears appeared only for another tendril to slip into his fingers; the figure behind him growled softly, 

"You're pathetic in your grief, Morax...losing yourself over some insect…but it still pains me to see you like this." He turned, catching sight of the blue haired girl, glaring ferociously at his back. 

"Guizhong...your child...all lost to you...even I am lost to you." Zhongli made to protest but the child shook their head, 

"Don't deny me." Kun Jun placed a hand on his shoulder, explaining the situation they had found themselves in and the sudden recollection of his memory. His subconscious desire for Dragonfell all in an effort to reunite with Morax again to warn him of the darker fragment's awakening. 

"You will always be Morax to me." Kun Jun smiled just as Ajax gasped to life, body spasming in agony and pain from the freshly healed wounds. 

"Hrk!?" He choked and sputtered, retching on the ground while Zhongli held him steadfast and weepy. 

"Ajax...Ajax I'm so, so sorry…" he sobbed and sniveled, his lover and mate was alive and breathing but at the cost of their dream. 

Ajax would have to watch his family die...even the youngest of them would fall away with time, he had forced that burden on to his mate because of his own selfish heart. A hand on his cheek, pulling from his despair, Ajax was looking at him with a weak smile. His eyes were just as beautiful as he knew them to be; but now, there was a faint glowing halo of amber framing his pupil, a symbol that Ajax was no longer just a human and that his body was now tainted by Zhongli's influence... permanently. 

Nothing Zhongli could do would ever atone for this sin. His theft of their idle fantasies thinking of the future, how long would they last before years built to resentment and disgust? Before his erosion took Ajax from him again and Zhongli was forced to live on alone and forsaken?

"Hey…" his husband's voice was barely a whispering croak, sluggish and soft, "...I'm here…" he continued and Zhongli wailed, nuzzling into the hand like a lifeline. 

Ajax would grow to hate him, he was certain, Zhongli had ruined this one blissful wish of rest between them, taken it because he was too selfish to let go of his mate now rather than decades down the line and several children left in their wake. Ajax's eyes watered to soft sheen of glass, tears spilling over with shallow hiccuping sobs, 

"I thought I'd lost you…" Zhongli sucked in a breath and pressed their foreheads together, letting his tears plip softly against Ajax's skin. 

"I've done something awful…" Ajax shook his head, thumb tracing Zhongli's cheekbone, 

"It's ok, medovyy…it's ok." Ajax drifted, falling into an exhausted slumber while Zhongli stood to face Azhdaha once more, amber eyes falling on the child still watching him grimly. It wasn't long before the visage began to fade and Azhdaha was at his side, 

"Shall we get going, you and I?" The Adeptus asked with his voice a fond timbre; Ajax was tucked gently in his arms and Kun Jun's body nodded, a sad smile tugging at the corner of his lips. They spoke softly, exchanging pleasantries and heartache; Azhdaha was one of the few beings who perhaps understood him better than himself, willing to give a little of himself away just to see the former Archon happy. 

"You grieve terribly, Morax." Azhdaha trailed a knuckle over Ajax's tear streaked face before cupping Zhongli's cheek, an aching fondness settled between them. 

"You...have little ones. I would have so loved to meet them." Zhongli cupped the other's hand with his own and leaned into the touch, 

"Azhdaha...thank you. I don't think there is a way for me to express the gratitude I feel for you, what you've given me is priceless." The other smiled and chuckled. 

"Just...try to be here the next time I stir, maybe bring your little ones for me to see? Maybe a few young hatchlings will placate my old heart and I can remember better days..." It settled like a brick in his stomach, the memories of his first born's death. Azhdaha had not been there to witness the tragedy of that day, but it had left terrible pain in its wake. 

"Of course...they need to meet you and learn what you mean to me." He murmured, nuzzling into the touch of his old, beloved partner, the familiarity bleeding away with their goodbyes just as Kun Jun collapsed. He drew Ajax tight to his chest, cradling the younger's head gently and looking over the star freckled cheeks of his mate. He won't let that happen again, he won't lose this one who made him feel so whole and complete. Ajax was like water, soothing old aches and filling cracks in his heart, tending to haggard wounds and letting life blossom forth, Ajax nurtured what many would consider a wasteland; he filled in the spaces where Zhongli was broken but never replaced what was lost. He let him grieve and feel what he needed without ever taking and he had almost lost that, lost his love again. 

"Lumine, if you wouldn't mind heading back on your own-"

"I have questions for you." And so he answered to the best of his abilities, his throat straining at the mention of his contract of silence. Lumine was angry but understanding, leaving him standing before the stone Moon Carver had erected, condemning Azhdaha's legacy to that of a monster gone mad. 

Zhongli drew in a breath and set Ajax on a patch of soft grass and took a few steps back, drawing upon his true nature and gasping softly when it came on swiftly and suddenly. His body was a tapestry of scales and fur, stretching long and magnificent from within Zhongli's core and sprawling outward, claws dug into the soil of the earth and Zhongli let out a soft rumble. 

It had been so, so long...colors were brighter, scents were stronger; feelings and sensations were more intense, the grass underfoot crunching from his weight and the roughness of his scales. He coiled around his mate, nuzzling the younger's cheek and scenting him properly for the first time, removing the cloying smell of blood and death from his person; his body rippled, tears welling up as he looked over his mate again, a talon gently brushing his bang from his eyes. Ajax snuggled closer, rubbing up against Zhongli's soft underbelly and breathing deeply; he ran his tongue over the younger's cheek, a gentle kiss, or as close as he could get in this form.

"Nn... Zhongli…" Ajax whimpered and the elder crooned, pulling away and reaching out with large talons to gently scoop his tiny, delicate, fragile mate up into his arms, holding him tightly against his underbelly. 

A cool breeze lapped at his muzzle and tickled his nose; it was a perfect day for flying, clouds blotted out the sun and he could vanish within them so those who shouldn't see him, wouldn't. It was foolish but he hadn't realized how much he missed seeing Liyue from above until he was already in the air, coiling and twisting gracefully, like he had never lost the ability to do so in the first place. 

He would take Ajax to see Liyue this way when he was recovered and ready, for now it would have to wait.

Childe is injured while Zhongli Comforts him

Chapter Text

A little bed of pillows and blankets was arranged as a comfy, temporary nest perfect for cuddles, naps, and cozy reading sessions that would make up the remainder of their day now that the sweet buns were steaming. Jinhai had already settled in with the egg tucked against their little body, small hands ran down the smooth surface of cool blues mottled together to form a beautiful pattern. 

"I bet baby egg will love cuddle time with big sister Haihai when they hatch, you're already so gentle and warm." Ganyu praised as she snuggled in tight and the little one hummed absently. The half-Qilin frowned at that, the little one's mood had been deteriorating since their arrival at her apartment and had become overly clingly with the egg as well.

"Hey little one, is everything alright? Auntie Ganyu is getting a little worried, by now you would have decided what game we would play or a book to read."

"..." She slid her hands around to tickle Jinhai's tummy and ellicit a reaction but it did little to stir up the small pout into a smile. 

"Haihai been thinking." Ganyu cocked her head curiously,

"About what?"

"Baby egg in mama's tummy." The half-Adeptus flushed a bit, hoping that it wasn't going to the one question all parents feared when it came to the addition of siblings and babies. 

"What about baby egg?" She asked smoothly, a silent prayer sent heavenward. 

"How come mama wants baby egg if baby egg hurts? Why does mama want Haihai if Haihai hurt?" Her brow furrowed, watching the hatchling pet the shell of the egg again carefully. 

"Hurt mama how?" She questioned and Jinhai sighed heavily with a slight eye roll that reminded her of Mondstadt's former Archon.

"When egg come out! Haihai thinks it hurts...mama looked hurt." Ganyu's frown deepened, 

"That must have been scary." Jinhai nodded quickly.

"Mama was crying and made sounds and tummy was moving! Haihai didn't see baby egg come out...Haihai had to close eyes…" Ganyu sat up and bundled the hatchling in her arms with a soft kiss pressed to their head,

"That's alright, you don't have to look at the scary parts. It's not an easy thing to do and you're just a little hatchling. I don't think your mama or papa wanted you to see that but baby egg was ready and they didn't have a choice." Jinhai nodded at that,

"Mama wanted Haihai out of the room...but Haihai could smell mama was in trouble so Haihai wanted to stay." Ganyu rocked the small being gently, watching Jinhai's eyes droop sleepily. 

"What a brave big girl you'll grow up to be, hopefully next time they can prepare and you can come stay with me or uncle Xiao and Venti so you don't have to be so scared and just be happy about little siblings." 

"Does mama love baby egg and Haihai if mama hurt when we come out?"

"Bunches and bunches. They love you so, so much. Even when you were still in your shell, your papa was so protective he once growled at me!" Ganyu teased, drawing a delighted gasp from the sleepy hatchling who was beginning to settle again. 

"When your papa and mama get back, we can ask them about it and I know for sure, they'll say that they love you and baby egg so, so much! Even if you hurt a little when you came out of his tummy." Jinhai giggled a bit and turned to wrap around the egg tightly. 

"Haihai love baby egg too, even if baby egg scared Haihai for hurting mama." Ganyu smiled and kissed a pudgy cheek,

"You're going to be a great big sister." She assured before slipping from the nest to check on the steaming buns. It was a little early for a nap but a little shaking up or routines wasn't a bad thing, if anything the half-Qilin believed she could keep Jinhai up and playful until Zhongli and Childe returned so they would fall right asleep upon returning home.

They had veggie stir fry for lunch with plenty of chilies much to Jinhai's delight, their vibrancy restored and glowing. They played games and watered the flowers on Ganyu's balcony while Jinhai babbled on about the garden back home and how they couldn't wait for their spicy chilies to grow so they could eat them whenever they wanted. They split a steamed sweet bun when they had cooled, Jinhai spilled custard down their shirt and were quick to lick it off with a pleased hum. 

By early evening they were lounging and reading a classic, local children's book about a boy who helped a turtle escape captivity when there was a knock. Ganyu grinned as set the book aside,

"I bet that's mama and papa." Jinhai returned the grin with one of their own and pulled up onto their feet to follow after the half-Qilin. 

She answered the door with a light skip in her step, Jinhai just behind her when she realized it was Xiao standing outside her door looking pale and grim. Dread, heavy like raw iron, formed in the pit of her stomach as magenta hues traced over his pinched expression.

"Something's happened to Childe, I came to pick up Jinhai and the egg." He stated bluntly and the half-Qilin frowned;

"Give me a minute to get things together, we'll be right out."

"You don't have to-"

"I'm coming." She snapped tersely before corralling Jinhai into putting on her shoes and slipped the egg back into the protected bag. They were out not a moment later with Jinhai a little fussy at the sudden rushing around,

"Where's mama and papa?" 

"We're going to see them right now, Xiao just came to get us." She replied evenly, the answer placating the little one though Xiao shot her a worried look.

"Zhongli is...a bit out of sorts right now. He crashed in the backyard of the house an hour ago with Childe in hand."

"Crashed? How?" Xiao's golden gaze hardened a fraction, 

"He's regained his Prime Adeptus status...but he won't say how. Childe is unconscious and Zhongli is too engrossed in making sure he's alright to explain." The Yaksha worked his jaw, gaze narrowing to a sharp glare,

"He only said Azhdaha's name when I pressured him." Ganyu's steps faltered briefly before she regained composure. 

"Azhdaha is somehow involved...how could that happen?"

"I don't know and Zhongli probably won't say anything until his mate regains consciousness." Ganyu nodded solemnly at that as they traversed the Harbor and followed the road to the elder's house. Venti stood outside the gate and leapt up when they approached with a relieved lilt to his voice,

"He's awake!" Their group hurried inside, nearly knocking Madame Ping over with their entry. 

"Oh ho, careful now, we don't need anyone else getting injured today." The older Adeptus teased gently before stepping aside, Ganyu had to wonder why Madame Ping had been called and not Baizhu to the scene, the older Adeptus' healing and knowledge was not as effective with humans. The sitting room where Zhongli had buried himself in the ginger's shoulder felt somber like a funeral chamber, the soft shudder of the elder's shoulders betrayed what he was feeling. 

"It's alright medovyy...I'm not as upset as you think me to be." Childe whispered; the young Fatui looked worse for wear, dried blood had matted his hair and his signature mask was missing. Ganyu studied him carefully with a deep set frown until her eyes caught sight of a faint glimmer in the younger man's eyes; a thin ring of glowing amber twinkled from around his pupil in a sea of ocean blue and when she scented the air discreetly and the cloying scent of the Abyss was muddled by something fresher. 

"Heavens above…" she gasped quietly, taking a bewildered step back from the sofa where he sat. Xiao made a noise beside her, voicing his agreement with a grunt, 

Just under his breath he said, "He's not human anymore." And Ganyu tightened her hold on the little one who had begun to squirm. Zhongli pulled away and dried his eyes, composing himself before turning to address the curious stares.

"Childe suffered a mortal wound protecting me and...in an effort to save him, Azhdaha and I resurrected him as an Adeptus...." 

"But how did he-!? Wouldn't that make him a zombie like Qiqi?" Xiao questioned in disbelief. Zhongli shook his head,

"The power Azhdaha and I used was more concentrated, the leylines and energies flowing around us have weakened in potency which resulted in Qiqi's afflictions paired with her Adeptus nature…" Zhongli explained with a somber scowl.

"So...he's just an Adeptus now? Like he was born that way or?" Venti questioned and Zhongli shook his head,

"No, like many of the original Adepti we...ascended, to this state of being much like how Archons ascend. With enough power or energy gained Adepti can come to be from everyday creatures on Teyvat." He glanced to Xiao, 

"Xiao and the other Yakshas were unique in that they were born from what one would think was thin air but in reality it was a combination of several factors. Childe's case is similar to Qiqi's but the combined energy of several Adepti cannot ever hope to equal the raw energy I poured into Azhdaha when I created him." His attention turned back to Childe,

"I would have never agreed to venture out of the Harbor had I known what awaited today."

"Zhongli-"

"I've gotten you killed and then forced you into this role we agreed wasn't for us." The elder continued tensely with gritted teeth,

"I've condemned you to suffer so much loss-" 

"Zhongli!" Childe's shout startled the room as a rough hand yanked the elder's face to look at the ginger fully. 

"You haven't condemned me to anything." The elder's face twisted into an expression of hurt. 

"If I even believed that for a second I'd have kicked you on your ass as soon as I woke up." Ganyu looked between the two carefully, waiting for Childe to continue. 

"Childe...your family…" Zhongli murmured,

"I won't lie...it will be hard to adjust to that idea when the time comes but...in 500 years, in 1000 years…until the end of time...I'll have you and our brood, won't I? I'll get to see thousands of sunsets with you drinking tea and I'll still cherish them all the same." His voice warbled with emotion and Zhongli tugged him into a tight embrace, muffling their voices. Ganyu was quick to hurry the two Anemo Wielders from the room leaving the mates to their privacy. 

"..."

"..."

"...I didn't expect something like this could happen…" Venti breathed as he broke the heavy silence between them and ran a hand through his hair. Xiao grunted,

"Is it wrong of me to feel...relieved?" Ganyu shook her head,

"As guilty as I might feel later...knowing Zhongli will still be here watching over Liyue has made a weight in my chest fall away. I know he wanted his journey to end with Childe but…"

"It's hard to think of a world without Zhongli." Venti voiced quietly. Jinhai squirmed, seemingly confused about everything going on and looking to the entryway of the sitting room,

"Haihai want mama and papa…" Ganyu hushed them softly.

Chapter Text

Things were tense, to say the least. Not because anyone was angry but Zhongli's guilt was heavy in the air dampening spirits and causing distance between the mates...Venti was sick of it. The elder Adeptus was acting as if Celestia was upon them once more or that the sky was falling from above; he was having trouble understanding why Zhongli was so upset with himself. He still had his mate, he hadn't suffered a damning loss that day and Venti would have given anything back then to have revived those he lost. 

It was vexing and frustrating. Perhaps if Childe had taken the news poorly the guilt would be understandable but the newly-made Adeptus was taking the news...well, surprisingly well but the bard had to think that it stemmed from his own resolve and temperament. The man had survived an extended stay in the Abyss and Snezhnaya's harsh military regimen after all. He was all smiles and warmth, spending ample time with Jinhai and the egg, the young hatchling was adapting to their papa's new scent well and quite possibly hadn't noticed the change at all. 

Still, Childe had experienced something harrowing and was either truly well past the event or hiding the burden. He had died, briefly, but it was no less traumatic just because he had returned to the realm of the living.

Venti had half a mind to try speaking with him soon about how he was feeling, given his love for his family, the former-Archon worried that a breakdown was on the horizon because losing loved ones and family was never easy, mortal or not. However, he found himself hesitant to do so as they weren't exactly close; acquaintances maybe, but not entirely comfortable shooting the breeze and delving deep into their past like old friends did. Venti had his fair share of things about himself that he still needed to get off his chest to Xiao, they're intimate lives had progressed suddenly and he had yet to lay out his own traumas like he promised months ago. Pushing it off on several occasions from self-doubt and fear. 

They'd get there eventually but that had been set aside after this development with the two mates and their distancing relationship. Zhongli was withdrawn and had thrown himself into house work and showed cold indifference towards his mate who had taken time off to acclimate to his bodily changes. The heightened senses gave him slight headaches throughout the day having not been born with them, he would nap around mid-afternoon to try and dispel the ailment as advised by Madame Ping.

His Vision had given him trouble in the first few days, their connection had been severed but restored with a few exercises thanks to Madame Ping's guidance and the Hydro user had taken to his restored Vision like a duck to water. Too bad fixing the growing rift between Zhongli and Childe wouldn't be as simple as that...or maybe it was.

The bard was careful when he stepped outside, spotting the two mates and their young tending to the garden and picking ripened tomatoes; Zhongli and Childe were eerily quiet, the two engrossed in Jinhai who babbled and tittered about the vines of tomatoes, rows of bidding chili plants, and other foliage that was near ready to yield crops. It was like watching a slow moving catastrophe in the making; their pained expressions and forced smiles for their little one none the wiser to the whirlwind of emotions bleeding off their parents. 

It was the perfect conditions for a horrible, drawn out storm that ended with both of them hurt, it only took a spark to ignite such things...he had seen it many a time in those of the past and present. A certain wine tycoon and calvary captain came to mind when he thought of raging disasters that left nothing behind in their wake. He thought he saw such a spark now, with the faintest brush of fingers to the back of Zhongli's hand the elder jerked away, a dark void of an expression swallowing his features into a fractured, wounded snarl. 

Childe would lash out at the rejection and they would spiral; Venti moved to hurry to their side and prevent the retaliation when to his surprise the young ginger persisted in his affection rather than sour at Zhongli's rejection. He pressed onward, trailing dirt laden fingers across the elder's hand and palm, threading their fingers together and squeezing tightly, refusing to let go. 

"I love you…" Venti stumbled briefly, hurrying to hide behind a tree and not ruin the moment as he overheard whispers carried on the breeze to reach his ears. 

"Ajax so much has chan-"

"What happened changes nothing. Not how I feel towards you, not how I feel towards Jinhai or the egg...I still want this. I want us. I want my husband and my mate…" Childe said gently and Venti watched the way Zhongli melted, subconsciously moving to close the gap between himself and his lover.

"I feel so guilty, like I've ruined you."

"You've done nothing of the sort, I'm still me."

"What will we tell your family? Ajax, you'll lose them..." 

"We'll cross that bridge another time, I'll figure it out when I'm ready." The newly-made Adeptus murmured reassuringly; Zhongli smiled genuinely for the first time in days, though bittersweet and sad. 

"I love you so much...I couldn't bear the thought of losing you…of the little ones growing up without you...of our home feeling empty…" Zhongli whimpered and Childe swept him up into his embrace with a low rumble,

"I can't imagine what you were feeling but I know I would have done the same had I faced such thoughts. My world without you would have felt so dark...it's why I did what I did. I didn't think I would die and I just wanted you to be safe!" Zhongli's face scrunched into a wobbly grimace, tears flooded down as he clung tighter to the ginger.

"...I would have done the same, protected you at my own expense."

"So we're both guilty of being self-sacrificing for the ones we love." Venti smiled a bit, watching the mates reconcile with a tender kiss that was interrupted by a huffy hatchling trying to show them a caterpillar they'd found. Apparently, the blockhead was learning how to open up emotionally and speak truthfully without Venti's prodding. Good on him... though he couldn't be shown up by his own pupil which meant he'd have to rip the bandage off so to speak with his own love life.

He silently made his way back into the house to find his own lover and see what the Anemo Adeptus was up to; he found Xiao in their room napping which came as a pleasant surprise to the bard given Xiao's usual nature. He slipped into their bed leaving his shoes behind and wrapped around Xiao protectively, trailing a hand down to rest over the younger's stomach. They had been intimate finally, though it had been sudden and maybe they hadn't been ready; Xiao had clung to him so tenderly, begging Venti to touch him in places he hadn't before. That he had felt safe enough to try now, that he was ready for whatever would come of their coupling.

Venti wasn't sure if he himself was ready. 

"Xiao?" He questioned softly and the Yaksha stirred, turning into his embrace and placing a hand over Venti's with a soft sigh,

"Hnm?" Xiao mumbled sleepily causing a flutter in the bard's stomach, warmth and delight making up butterflies as he took in Xiao at his most vulnerable. 

"How are you feeling? You don't normally take naps." He questioned softly and Xiao smirked a bit, golden eyes molten and tender.

"Tired I think. I don't normally laze about in the afternoons, by now I would be clearing out Abyssal nests or tracking beasts." Venti huffed out a laugh, 

"Does it feel good at least?" 

"Mmh." Xiao nuzzled in close and hummed nonchalantly. Venti kissed his temple and combed through evergreen locks,

"...have I ever told you that I learned what love is from a bard?" Xiao scoffed quietly but smiled in such a way that Venti understood meant as for him to continue; 

"It's true, before I gained this form I was very naive and didn't understand emotions well enough to parse out what they meant until it was too late." The bard's smile became melancholic. 

"One moment they were leading a revolution, inspiring me, and then the next they were gone." Venti felt his throat beginning to constrict, "They died for the revolution, a martyr that pushed the revolution forward and freed Mondstadt...which led to me claiming the Gnosis and ascending to godhood." Xiao watched him carefully, waiting.

"Becoming an Archon allowed me to bestow Visions and guide my people, to meeting Zhongli and you when I heard that the wars still raged on in Liyue...along the way I realized there was still an ache within left behind by the bard I had spent my days following after and basking in their music…" he pulled Xiao in closer and pressed their foreheads together.

"I took their face, Xiao…I stole it because I couldn't bear the thought of losing them forever...of forgetting them." tears began to well up which were quickly brushed away by his Yaksha looking up at him with concern. 

"Did you think that would push me away?" 

"It's weird, don't you think? That I chose to look like this? Like them?" Xiao's brow furrowed slightly in response,

"I don't understand, why would it be weird?" Venti chortled softly and eyed his lover for any sort of deception or teasing glint. When he found none, the bard was stumped briefly on how Xiao could not think him strange for taking on the look of another being, for stealing the face of a person he'd once loved. 

"Because I chose to look like them! I loved them Xiao...a part of me still loves them..."

"You did it to preserve their memory, I don't find that strange, many mortals wish to preserve memories of that which they love and cherish so they paint or take photos with the Kamera, some even write in great detail the accounts they have experienced." Xiao said plainly with just a hint of irritation. Venti blinked owlishly, waiting for the rug to be tugged out from under him; the Yaksha watched him curiously, fidgeting under the former-Archon's unnerving gaze. 

"...it really doesn't bother you to know that when you look at me, you're looking at another's face?"

"...I've only ever known you, so I don't see this other person you speak of," Xiao pushed himself up to his elbows to kiss Venti sweetly, 

"When I look at you, I just see you, my lover and…future father of our children" he flushed, mumbling the last part low enough Venti almost missed it. 

"..." He gaped, the Adeptus looked away, cheeks and ears a pleasant pink.

"So if you ever doubt yourself... remember that I see you and only you, not someone else I've never met." Venti breath caught in his throat as he tumbled into the Yaksha with a shower of kisses and near bruising embrace. 

"Ack! Venti stop-!" He sputtered with a soft giggle. 

"No can do, I feel all light and bubbly! Gotta get it out or I might burst!" Venti cheered happily; Xiao smiled at that, cupping his cheek carefully,

"Were you really worried I would leave you over that?"

"...a little." He admitted sheepishly, "I've been alive for a long time. I fell in love with him and then suddenly I couldn't be with them any longer...I have experienced so much loss... when I would interact with my people I would become attached and then it felt like just a blink of an eye...they'd be gone." Venti's smile wobbled and he leaned down to hide his face in the crook of Xiao's shoulder. 

"I often felt that it should of been me instead of him-"

"Silence!" Xiao snapped and lurched upward, shaking the bard's shoulders roughly,

"Don't you dare believe that! You lost someone you love…but that doesn't- tsk!" Xiao growled dangerously, face scrunching up in a dark snarl.

"...Xiao…"

"Don't say it should have been you that died. Don't you ever say that to me. I know it hurts to live with that pain, of living while others died and questioning why not you but don't you ever say such things again..." Venti sniffled and nodded, taking Xiao's hands from his shoulders into his own and squeezed soothingly. 

"I'm sorry...I didn't mean to upset you."

"...you saved me once...had you not been here in this world...I would have befallen the same fate of my fellow Yakshas…" the bard's eyes widened in surprise. 

"I don't think you realized it at the time...but I heard you playing the flute and it brought me back from the edge. I was so close to just tumbling into the darkness and suddenly you were there...I'm glad that you survived. That you lived to see this day with me even if we hurt each other in the past." Xiao warbled quietly. 

"I'm glad that you're here...with me...holding me and making me feel better than I have in centuries. That we might have a child someday together...I'm glad that you love me... I hope that I make you feel the same-" Venti hiccuped and yanked the Adeptus close into a hug that was near crushing. 

"You do, I swear you do. Stars above Xiao, you make me feel-" Venti sucked in a breath, "free." The Yaksha stiffened and relaxed in his hold, 

"I love you." Xiao murmured. His heart beat wildly in his chest, words bubbling up so quickly they threatened to spill outward and overwhelm not just himself but his lover too. He could write poems and sonnets enough to fill a book with his feelings for Xiao though he knew one short sentence was enough to both confirm and reassure the Adeptus of his own spoken words. A simple set of words and syllables enough to encompass his worries and joys when it came to loving Xiao and their prospective future; the thoughts of waking up beside him everyday, a baby between them, those molten gold eyes and a smile just for him. 

Xiao made him feel loved, for the first time in his vast existence after so many losses and heartbreak, it was impossible not to return the love the Yaksha blessed upon him so freely.

"I love you too."

 

Chapter Text

Stars and Heavens above did he miss this, this intimacy, his resolve to withdraw and pull away was so weak and flimsy when faced with the heavenly visage of his mate spread beneath him. They hadn't been physical in such a way for nearly a month, hesitancy born from the changes they had experienced and his guilt which Ajax would chuff and growl about Zhongli having done nothing wrong. While it still sat like a rock in his gut even weeks after the incident, it was eased thanks to the love and care of his mate...and a new development. 

Zhongli's natural Geo energies could imprint upon Ajax and linger. At first, he only saw the practicality of the effect, a stray sigil here or there could tell Zhongli when Ajax was in danger, the young Fatui hadn't learned much from his near death encounter and was back at his wild ways of seeking battle during his Debt Collections or free time not spent with family. If he sensed injury or danger he could will his shield to appear not around him but his mate instead. 

Though that had given away that Zhongli was leaving sigils rather quickly much to his young mate's ire and besides, it wasn't his favorite use of the sigils in their new and budding world of being Adepti together.

"Gods Zhongli-" he gasped, whatever thought he'd been about to voice clipped off with a sudden jolt; a pulse of energy spreading through his body from where Zhongli had placed his hand so delicately over his navel. No, Zhongli's favorite use of the sigils now we're fashioned after a nasty trick his beloved was ever so fond of employing with his strange riptide mark to bring about pleasure when in the bedroom rather than pain in the battlefield. 

Zhongli had found ecstasy and seen stars many a time when the dastardly mark flared and pulsed through his internal structure, most notably his womb, bringing about intense moments of delightful pleasure and indulgence borderlining overstimulation.

The Geo sigil glowed brilliantly in the low light of morning, Ajax's lithe form and lack of dress made the sight even better, pulling a low, pleased, coiling, rumble from the elder Adeptus. Perhaps, in a few decades and with a bit of practice, Ajax could possess the parts most affected by the pulses of energy and properly feel the experience for himself; not to mention it would be a perfect spot for Zhongli to put an egg, to give his precious mate a taste of motherhood. He growled softly, his possessive nature rearing its head at the thought of claiming Ajax in such a way that no one else could. Of filling Ajax and creating something of their union; Oh, the hatchlings to be had when sired by himself and planted in his beautiful mate. 

What color would they be? Would they look more like their mother than father? It was hard to predict dominate genetics with only one little one to go off of and the other still unhatched. With both of them now Adepti in nature, what traits would appear? He growled again, rocking forward and boxing the younger in with a searing kiss to his mate's slightly chapped lips before he pulled back again to relish the splendor of flesh.

He tugged Ajax flush with his groin, the low rumble reverberating with the smaller male much like a Geo resonance vibration. Ajax whimpered as the stimulation and sudden shift in Zhongli's stature and the appearance of his crown like mantle of horns and coiling tail. Ajax looked good enough to devour whole, though he'd look much better with a round stomach carrying more of their brood, Zhongli thought eagerly when another pulse had the ginger arching off the bed and clenching-

The door slammed open, "Wakey wakey! We made pancakes birthday boy~!" Venti shrilled like a deranged bird thoroughly ruining the mood and sultry air about their room. Ajax flushed a brilliant shade and slapped his hands to his face to hide his embarassment while Zhongli did a good job of hiding everything else with his bulk. 

"Haihai helped! Haihai put yummy berries in pancakes for papa!" Ajax sunk deeoer into the bed, tips of his ears crimson as Jinhai bounced excitedly beside the annoying bard looking all too proud of himself given his smirk.

So much for that little morning escapade; upon dismissal the bard returned downstairs with Jinhai in his arms as he sang a Mondstaton ballad about birthdays while Zhongli nuzzled his mate and kissed his cheek,

"Better get around... birthday boy~" he teased gently which earned a light slap from his mate to his side. 

"You'd better take responsibility later." Zhongli purred in amusement,

"But of course my love, who would I be to deny such a request on my mate's day of birth." 

"Technically, now that I'm an Adeptus, shouldn't my birthday be on the date of my rebirth?"

"No. That day is a painful memory and it's hard even now for me to think about it. I know you feel differently but I...I would rather we celebrate the day you came into the world rather than departed it." Zhongli murmured, slumping to press all of his weight upon his mate who wheezed softly. 

"Ok! Ok! Regular birthday date it is!" Ajax hissed petulantly and continued to swat at his husband until Zhongli relented and shifted back to his usual state with a chuckle. 

"...it seems like...that's gotten easier for you? It feels...smooth, when I can feel you do it." The elder nodded, 

"Yes. With the restoration of my Prime Adeptus nature there isn't a limitation to what I can do. I could shift to my natural form in a heartbeat, even call upon older versions of myself I thought I lost with my Gnosis." Ajax perked at that,

"Oh? Could I possibly see the alluring beauty of Rex Lapis in the flesh for myself?" He teased earning a playful chuff from the elder. 

"You've already seen it, my love, many times actually, though I suppose it's harder to gaze upon when I pleasure you so thoroughly." He preened, with a wicked smirk that had the younger flushing madly in response.

"I-I mean the human sized one, jackass!" Zhongli snorted through his nose and rolled his eyes affectionately before letting parts of his skin erupt out in hardened scales and glowing ore veins of golden light. The faint, otherworldly glow settled in his hair and his eyes, his legs shared a similar fate as his arms did and he sprawled just a bit for his husband to gawk. He found himself purring inwardly at the reaction the change drew out of his mate, displays of grandeur were a common concept in the animal kingdom and while Exuvia were solitary, that didn't exclude them from those behaviors.

Glistening scales after a dip in the river splayed out on display while pretending to nap in the warmth of the afternoon sun were quite popular and had been a common tactic among his species. After all, the impending battle dictated the sire and the carrier; Zhongli much preferred this...equality he felt when it came to his present mate. He had no qualms being the mother and carrying the eggs but he could easily see in the future that Ajax would be agreeable to carrying and feeling for himself what it meant to house an egg. A pillow to the face broke him of his idle fantasies, the beautiful imagery of Ajax disturbed by fine feather stuffed silk. 

They were downstairs dressed and proper only a few moments later with a messy stack of pancakes doused in syrup and other various toppings with an extremely proud hatchling sat beside the stack of syrup sodden cakes giving away just who it was who had prepared the plate. 

"Oh my little yabloko, look how pretty my breakfast is!" Ajax cheered excitedly, earning a wonderful giggle from their precious little one. The moment was tender and sugary sweet...until he found a Junyan chili halfway through the stack of cakes...his birthday present from Jinhai was the first ripened chili from their garden. A gift Zhongli was sure had been coaxed upon their little one by scheming bards but it was still absurdly cute and amusing to watch his mate force the pepper down at Jinhai's puppy dog eyes and slightly trembling lip when he tried to refuse.

All in all it wasn't a terrible birthday celebration, more laid back and personal given all they'd been through; Ajax had requested something simple so they could just enjoy their time together. Zhongli still had a little something planned for them towards the evening, an enjoyable sit on the back porch to watch the sunset together, the first of many to come now that his mate was an Adeptus. He'd also made a proper birthday cake to be had after dinner as he rarely got the chance to bake confectionery of such caliber, he just hoped the strange trend Venti had set for his own birthday did not repeat itself.

However, plans change as around mid-afternoon, having just cleaned up Jinhai's lesson books and put away the ink and brushes preparing for their usual naptime; Hu Tao came bursting in the front door with tears in her eyes. It triggered something not just within himself but Ajax too, the young man had siblings after all and Tonia was close in age to the young master of the parlor. 

"Hey, hey, hey, what's the matter little lady?" Ajax knelt to her level with Jinhai tucked behind staring bewilderly at Hu Tao who was always so bright and vibrant when she came for tutoring. 

"Is M-Mr. Zhongli h-home?" She sniveled and he approached quickly from the dining room into the foyer where she had been intercepted; Venti and Xiao were quick to give the group privacy though Ajax looked ready to protest when the elder dismissed him too. 

"Haihai needs to be put down for her nap, please tend to that?" The ginger worked his jaw as if to protest but complied when Zhongli gave a slight shake of his head, gathering up the still gawking hatchling he shot one last look of concern Hu Tao's way before disappearing upstairs. 

"...can I get you anything, Master Hu?" 

"...no."

"...well, I fancy a nice pot of chamomile, so let's talk in the kitchen." He led her with a firm hand on her back, gentle but strong; in all his years of consulting for Wangsheng he'd only ever seen the young master cry once and that was at her parent's funeral nearly a decade ago. Since then, she was jubilant and mischievous, a trouble maker and prankster; but also a dedicated young woman to her family's parlor and duty to the people of Liyue. Hi Tao frayed his nerves like no other (besides Venti) but that didn't mean he enjoyed seeing her upset in such a manner.

He let her sit upon a stool at the counter and went about preparing tea while she composed herself, drying tears and blowing her nose in an offered handkerchief. 

"It's still early in the day so I am to believe you are not here because of a lecture involving funeral traditions nor their intricacies?"

"Mhm."

"Enlighten me then, I am not all knowing and need help understanding." He pressed carefully;

"I overheard the consultant talking about me." Zhongli hummed, urging her to continue. 

"Which is fine, whatever, I don't really care." but she obviously did, given the tear tracks and flushed face, Zhongli withheld his comment and set the water to boil. 

"I didn't care when you would bad mouth me so why should I care now?" She sniffled; he turned with a soft frown,

"Hu Tao...forgive me if I truly said anything hurtful-"

"You would bad mouth me about pranks and behavior, but never behind my back either. It was always to my face and more scolding than anything. I didn't mind that because you obviously cared for my well being, you're just a hardass." She blurted before he could finish his apology.

"...so what is different between myself and the new consultant?"

"He bad mouths my dedication, my work ethic...calls me lazy and ungrateful. That any undertaker at the parlor could do a better job than me…" Zhongli bristled, apparently the man he'd thought to be a good replacement was a bit of an asshole when certain folks weren't looking. 

"I haven't even done anything to him! It's no fun pranking regular people...you always had the best reactions to my jokes." 

"Hu Tao, please, let's stay on track. What else has he said about you? Has he done anything physical?" She shook her head and a wave of relief washed over him. 

"I just overheard him today...saying those things to the other undertakers... I think they agree with him because of how I acted in the past...but I swear I have been on my best behavior since you left and I don't know what else to do!" The brunette sobbed loudly and the elder came to her side and hugged her loosely. 

"I believe you, I'm sure you've done well in my absence. This new consultant seems to be the issue here, we were both a poor judge of his character and I think what's best now is you put your foot down and remind him, who the Master of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor is and that you commanded respect. I know you can do it, you earned my respect after all." Zhongli encouraged gently, causing a shocked look of awe from the young lady in his arms.

"...I did?"

"Mmhm. I learned to respect you the day we officially met as Parlor Master and Consultant. I will admit that at first I believed you wouldn't know a thing, that you would roll over when adults tried to speak over you and sway you one way or another; but you put your foot down, you preserved Liyue traditions and still comforted the client even after they had insulted you." Zhongli smiled much like a proud parent would, 

"You may be childish and immature at times but you are a strong, wonderful young lady who upholds a core foundation of Liyue. Without undertakers and people like you who do not shy away from death, how could we prosper as we live? It takes a very special kind of person to do what you do and still smile at the end of it all and if he does not see that, then he is blind." 

"Zhong- Zhongli!" She cried, toppling from the stool to hug him tightly with a loud wail.

"Ah!? Have I said something wrong!?"

"That's the nicest thing you've ever said to meeee!" She continued to wail and be flushed awkwardly as that was probably true.

"Ah. I see...well, er...forgive me for not being kinder to you."

"No no! I was a little shit to you and that was disrespectful, I just couldn't resist the temptation to keep pranking you, it goes to your head really fast when you get away with pranking your Archon continually." 

"Well you had your reasons." 

Wait.

What?

He blinked owlishly, dumbfounded and quiet, 

"You weren't exactly subtle. I watched you spend quite a bit of mora over budget once and it sort of clicked when we didn't go waaaay into the red that month. I figured you weren't human before that but the mora thing just," she waved her hand about in a vague gesture but he understood with a firm nod. 

"I did my best to curb my spending habits but alas, there were a few times I couldn't resist adding some of my own to the pot to ensure it was purchased." Hu Tao snickered softly and wiped at her eyes again,

"I miss you at the parlor."

"Hu Tao-"

"I know you're not coming back, I know. You have a family to take care of but that doesn't change how I feel." 

"...Thank you for understanding my wishes, even if you pay the price most…" he frowned in frustration, surely there was something he could do to help? More than just tutoring, there had to be something only he could do.

"I could talk with him if you'd like me to, give him the proper scolding he so deserves?"

"...no, you were right before, I need to command his respect otherwise he'll just keep at what he does now." He wilted slightly but nudged her gently to get her to look up at him.

"Be that as it may, if he doesn't change his ways I will happily have a word with him and remind him as gently as I can muster, that you are his boss and that you pay his salary." She grinned at that,

"...thank you." 

"Now, the tea should be ready if you'd be so kind as to join me for a cup or two?" 

"Hmm...I think that does sound nice actually."

"Afterwards I can properly introduce you to the family, I think you've become trustworthy enough to learn a little bit more about your ex-Archon, though this all stays between us, you understand?" 

Hu Tao nodded with a wild, excited grin, an expression he saw often when he'd still been employed by her and it drew a warm feeling from his chest as he offered the cup of chamomile.

"Then we have a contract, my dear."

Chapter Text

"This is dumb." Childe gruffed irritably, Zhongli snorted through his nose and cast his gaze back at the ginger with a sympathetic smile. 

"I thought you would enjoy the exercise?"

"Well yeah, I would like it, but we're out here hiking up mountains and shit to meet the other Adepti which doesn't make me feel too good about it."

"Ajax they've already accepted you-"

"As a human, not as an Adeptus." Zhongli rolled his eyes,

"There isn't much of a difference you know, you're still very much yourself as you like to remind me constantly." Childe scoffed and dug in his heels, pushing himself up the steep incline with a growl. Thankfully it wasn't terribly hot, the Mid-September heat was mild though recent storms had made the air terribly humid.

"It's still weird. I'm on their level now, they can't look down on me as some human and I think they only accepted me out of respect for you.

"Ajax, please, it will be fine. We're just meeting for a gathering and simple meal between friends."

"And if they ask you to take back some of your responsibilities?" Childe snapped because that was the real issue here. He didn't care if they didn't like him or never saw him as an equal having not come into the power on his own; but if they asked his mate to resume his duties as the Prime Adeptus…

"They won't, my love. They know better." Zhongli caught up to him, having fallen behind briefly, to press a kiss to his temple with a gentle smile. Childe huffed and returned it with a smile of his own,

"I just don't want you to lose your retirement. You're... happy, right?"

"Very much so, the happiest I have been in a long time. Being able to enjoy my time and just take moments to relish our days together, our young, to sit back for a moment longer than just a second and truly experience life's joys. I am more than happy, I'm overjoyed." Zhongli nuzzled in close and breathed deep, scenting the ginger while he was at it.

"My scent can't be that good, Ganyu still says I reek." 

"Oh but it is, you smell delectable. Like a sunriped peach ready to eat, nurtured by sea breeze and favorable winds." Zhongli teased, nipping his ear playfully. Childe flushed and waved him off,

"We're in Juehan Karst!? I do not want them overhearing, Gods forbid!" Zhongli laughed, nudging him with his hip,

"I promise to behave, just needed to remind you that while Ganyu and the others may find your scent unappealing, I find it soothing and welcoming." He paused, humming in thought, "In fact, recently I can't seem to get enough of it. Your change to an Adeptus has altered it slightly, it's quite appealing in more ways than one." Childe wrinkled his nose and pursed his lips. He was loath to admit it but since his heightened senses had begun to even out, Zhongli had smelled better than ever too, not that he would ever give his husband the notion he felt that way.

Before Zhongli had smelled of rich earth and burnt aromatic wood which had been one of his favorite smells. He could curl up in his lover's arms and feel warm and content; the smell was intense now, like a rich forest teaming with life. Zhongli smelled of life itself, of earth that grew crops and gave bountiful harvests. Earth that saw the birth of man and creature alike, that gave them shelter and safety. He had to wonder if it was because Zhongli was the Prime Adeptus that he smelled like that, like fertile earth crushed between his toes and rich woodlands that never froze. 

If Zhongli said he smelt of peaches and seabreeze, what did that mean? Surely he'd smell more dangerous, like the ocean deep or the Abyss; if felt weird to be compared.to something so...tame. 

They reached the peak and he gasped softly at the view, a few feet away sat Cloud Retainer and the others around a stone table, all chatting in a friendly manner before they took note of the couple's arrival and stood to greet them.

Mountain Shaper bowed graciously as did Moon Carver, Cloud Retainer did not as she rushed to greet the two of them in a feathery hug. 

"It's been too long my lor- Zhongli." The taller chuckled and smiled warmly,

"Now, now, no formalities, from any of you. We're friends and colleagues, our old roles are in the past." He said. 

"Indeed." The stag Adeptus mused before his head jerked, ears twitching as Xiao and Ganyu appeared from where they had just come. 

"Ahh, I see everyone is here." Mountain Shaper continued before the group moved to the table, Zhongli tugged him along too when his feet stayed rooted to the spot. 

A spread had been prepared comparable to a feast; Adeptus Temptation, baskets of Full Moon dumplings, a generous portion of noodle stir fry, and another of mint salad accompanied by a few more odds and ends dishes like meat rolls. Cloud Retainer preened when Zhongli complimented the size of the meal and delicacies she'd prepared. 

"It's been so long since we sat to have a meal together, not since Guizhong was still alive." She chirped only to quickly snap her beak shut with wide eyes trained in his mate. 

"It has been sometime since that day, it is alright to speak of her, we all cared for her dearly." Zhongli took a seat and Childe followed suit, feeling like an outsider even more than he already did when it came to the elder Adeptus' extended family. 

"Hmm, how fitting you should sit there, young Adeptus." Moon Carver hummed, pouring tea that smelled of spices and honey. Childe blinked, realizing he was being spoken too,

"Er- Why is that?" He questioned and Zhongli cut in with a gentle smile,

"Because Guizhong used to sit there, that was her seat at this table." Childe fidgeted awkwardly, not sure how to feel about that knowledge. 

"I see." 

Xiao took a seat next to him, surprising everyone given how the two didn't exactly get along, though Childe flashed him an appreciative smile. They had their moments, a mutual understanding of each other and Zhongli helped keep their bonds strong. Xiao didn't mind him as much as he had when they first met and vice versa; Xiao was his little yabloko's uncle and Zhongli had told him of the Yaksha's promise to protect their brood. 

He could respect that. 

"So, I hear from Ganyu that Haihai has taken an interest in reading." The small talk was pleasant and focused mostly on their hatchling and egg, how close it was to hatching and how Jinhai was handling the idea of being a big sibling. 

Childe would chime in about the little one's antics from time to time, recalling his birthday breakfast surprise and how they have to consider putting up a fence around the pepper plants lest the small dragon get sick from overeating. They loved Junyan Chili, spicy food was now a regular in their home and oftentimes Childe could feel his stomach cramping from the sheer amount consumed. He was eager for winter to kill off the plants and anything they pickled to become a once in a while treat. 

"My, she sounds positively insatiable, much like a certain someone at this table." Cloud Retainer teased, earning a cry of protest from Ganyu who had been making her way through a second helping of noodles and dumplings. 

"Exuvia hatchlings have increased appetites when they near a growth spurt, perhaps you're coming upon another one?" Moon Carver offered with a slight curve of a smile. 

"That is possible, though her rate of growth has yet to be determined fully. Most Exuvia don't reach full maturity until about 500 years." Zhongli commented, catching Childe's worried stare he quickly assured that Jinhai would grow like normal children and that it would just slow considerably around their late 20s-30s. 

"At a certain point Exuvia just…don't age much. We are nearly timeless but not, we can still die from outside factors like disease and starvation, war..." he trailed off with a somber smile. Childe squeezed his knee under the table, thinking of his mate's first born and doing his best to be reassuring. 

He cleared his throat of emotion after a moment, "I never knew of a Exuvia that died from old age. We grow constantly and shed skin when it becomes too tight. I suppose the only reason we don't see many of my kind is because they avoid mortals and are solitary beings by nature." 

"Hmm, guess that means I get to keep you forever by the sound of it." Childe teased and Zhongli's smile brightened.

"It does indeed." 

"Speaking of that, well, more so the matter of coupling, how are things going for you, Xiao?" Mountain Shaper queried, drawing the table's attention to the Anemo Adeptus poking away at his almond tofu. 

"Hmph, what about it?" 

"Oh, don't be like that, they're just curious about your relationship with the former Anemo Archon. What the future might hold for the two of you." Ganyu admonished; Xiao glared at her and she flushed slightly. Childe frowned curiously, wondering what had transpired between the two of them. The Anemo Adeptus and Cryo Adeptus had been strangely at odds about something but he couldn't pinpoint what that was. 

He eyed Xiao, noting the untouched food and irritable scowl notched into his brow, his mouth formed words before he could stop himself, 

"Are you pregnant?" 

Had music been playing it would have stopped, abruptly with a few sour notes and a scandalized gasp. Childe felt his cheeks burn just slightly at the murderous intent contained in twin pools of gold, Xiao was going to kill him and while normally the prospect of a battle with him was thrilling...he didn't want to fight someone who was maybe, possibly pregnant. 

"Pfft haha! That's a preposterous notion, Childe!" Moon Carver laughed in amusement, a scowl settled in his features.

"Oh? And why is that?"

"It just is! Xiao has never shown any interest in children, let alone raising some of his own." Ganyu squirmed beside the crane, working her jaw and gnawing her lower lip raw. Childe hummed inwardly, the half-Adeptus knew something, she probably just couldn't say anything; he turned his gaze back to Xiao where piercing gold glared at the rest of the table, almost contemplative and a little defiant.

"I'm pregnant." 

A full moon dumpling splattered onto an awaiting plate, the Adepti of Juehan Karst stunned into a shocked silence. That hadn't been what they were expecting.

"...well...Madame Ping certainly chose the wrong time for a raincheck…" Ganyu chuckled weakly, trying to break the tension that had settled in the air. Zhongli snorted through his nose, a giggle bubbling up that evolved into a full blown laugh that trembled in his chest; a flash of hurt crossed through Xiao's eyes, possibly assuming the worst. 

"Oh Heavens, it was so obvious," Zhongli chortled with a fond shake of his head, "Venti's questions were so…specific I failed to see what he was asking." Xiao flushed a pale pink and growled softly,

"That's all you have to say?" He snapped and Zhongli blinked in surprise before melting into a warm smile.

"Well, I do believe congratulations are in order from all of us, and perhaps an apology from Moon Carver for believing you were not interested in such things before and it was tasteless to joke about." The crane nodded quickly,

"Apologies, Xiao. I found the notion amusing knowing our previous conversations and the numerous times you would shrug off little Ganyu, Childe's statement was amusing but I rescind that idea. This is clearly important to you." The Yaksha's blush darkened slightly and his lips pursed into an odd quirk; like he wasn't used to this kind of attention, Childe thought.

"You're forgiven…" 

"Congratulations, Xiao!" Cloud Retainer bellowed suddenly followed by a chorus from the rest of the table voicing their support of the Yaksha's pregnancy. Zhongli stood and approached the younger Adeptus, pulling him into a gentle hug,

"This is most joyous news to hear, it makes my heart thunder to know you'll experience the same joys and wonder that comes with having a little one of your own." Zhongli's smile could have thawed winter to spring with how bright it was, Childe couldn't help but smile like that too for it was infectious and this was a momentous, happy occasion that had thankfully kept the questions off himself. 

"I am honestly surprised Venti has been able to keep this a secret, by now I would have thought that lazy bard would have composed some melody to brag about you falling pregnant." Zhongli teased much to the amusement of the rest of the table. That certainly sounded like something Venti would do and they were probably picturing it in their mind's eye, all except for Ganyu and Childe who honestly knew better from the look on Xiao's face.

"He uh... doesn't know...yet." 

Childe snickered, "Following in Zhongli's footsteps, ey?" Which prompted a light scowl from his mate thrown his way. Dinner soon became an idea session on how best to break the news to Venti who would probably: A. Take flight and scream aloud in his excitement and probably let all of Teyvat know, or B. Drink Zhongli and Childe out of house and home partying it up. 

Xiao didn't think either of those scenarios possible but Zhongli begged to differ with a slight frown tugging at his lips and a furrowed brow, he probably spoke from experience. 

When dinner had concluded, Cloud Retainer pulled forth a measuring tape and quickly took the Yaksha's measurements and clicked her tongue when he growled in warning.

"My dear boy, unless you plan on being uncomfortable in the last few months of your pregnancy you will silence yourself and let me take your measurements!" She groused and continued to note his size; only fawning a little bit when she discovered his stomach wasn't as flat as it had been in the last few centuries.

"A maturity hanfu will do you wonders! Especially for your comfort, I'll make several just in case." She vanished in a flurry of feathers into her domain, promising rich colors and soft fabrics. It appeared all of the Adepti were in good spirits, promising to help with the malice infestations should the young Exorcist struggle to handle them himself and give Xiao any aid should he need it while he was indisposed.

"You take all the time you need, your body must rest so the baby can stay healthy, don't strain yourself!" Mountain Shaper ordered, Ganyu nodding in agreement with her arms folded over her chest.

"I'll see to it that he's relaxing while away from the realm. He tends to overdo it even in Zhongli's abode." The half-Qilin chided and Xiao grumbled something under his breath along the lines of meddlesome Adepti and their opinions. 

Zhongli stopped him briefly on the way home, a stern look of worry etched on to his features,

"Is this something you want, Xiao?" The Vigilant Yaksha's smile was bright enough one could have mistaken it for the sun.

"Yes, it is." Childe smiled to himself, hanging back to take in the scene happily. It reminded him of the times his mother would announce she was expecting again, his family would get into an uproar of excitement, neighbors joining in even though they lived miles away. They'd come by with congratulations and meals made that were supposedly good for expectant mothers. 

When Zhongli came to walk beside him again, he took the ginger's hand into his and kissed him breathless. The elder's excitement was palpable, wrapping Childe up into it enough that a giggle bubbled up in his chest. While Xiao may be expecting as mortals did, they were still expecting in their own way too for their second little one had yet to hatch, but that way was soon and they could both sense it this time around.

Chapter Text

Mama was upset. 

Haihai couldn't figure out why though because nothing seemed wrong. Papa had gone to work because they said something about trouble and then a big storm hit and papa always said that storms were good for the plants in the garden and stuff.

Haihai sat amongst their blankets and toys, carefully looking through one of their favorite picture books from Auntie Ningning while mama paced, glancing every so often out the window to try and make something out through all the rain.

"He'll be back soon, stop worrying so much." Uncle Venti patted mama on the back but mama only frowned in response.

"He should have been back by now, he's going to miss the hatching!"

"You know your husband better than I do and if he didn't go help his underlings he'd have been upset about it for months." Uncle Venti said with a scolding tone like he'd use on Haihai if they stole his sweets. Mama huffed and nodded,

"You're right...I just don't want him to miss this." A roll of loud noise, mama called it thunder, crashed through and shook the house causing the lights to flicker. Haihai whimpered and uncle Xiao was at their side only a second later,

"Hush now, we're safe here." Haihai relaxed against him, hunkering down further when a flash of bright light outside, papa called it lightning, blinded them momentarily. Mama had stilled, head cocked in a weird manner; a faint ringing like a bell could he heard through the drum of rain and he scrambled from the sitting room and his scent changed to something super sour,

"The dam burst!" Mama cried, a shrillness to his voice that made Haihai's ears hurt. 

"Shit!" Venti cursed, following after mama quickly while Xiao held Haihai close to his chest, a little too tight but he smelled upset like mama did so Haihai let him if it helped Uncle Xiao feel better. 

"What's happening?" 

"Don't worry, little one. It's just a bad storm." Uncle Xiao murmured with a quick kiss to their cheek. 

The front door slammed causing the hatchling to jump, clinging to their blankets tightly as Uncle Venti sloshed into the room soaked to the bone, hair clinging to his skin messily. 

"Where's Zhongli?" 

"Tsk. Blockhead charged ahead before I could slap any sense into him. He's going to get Childe, come hell or high water…" Uncle Venti grumbled, causing Uncle Xiao to tense slightly before slipping from the sofa.

"Let's get you dried off, Zhongli will have your head if you track water all over his expensive carpets." It sounded like he was supposed to be teasing Uncle Venti but his smile felt wrong, it didn't sit on his face properly like mama's had when papa had been hurt and stuck in bed. 

Uncle Xiao flashed Haihai a reassuring look, asking Haihai to wait on the sofa while he dried off Uncle Venti; the hatchling settled back into their makeshift nest to watch fat drops splatter against the window when another crash of thunder and lightning made the lights flicker again. 

Haihai's tummy twisted nervously, they didn't like being left alone during the storm even if papa said there was nothing to be afraid of, it still made their tummy feel weird. Haihai wondered if baby egg's tummy felt weird too, they had been left upstairs in the commotion when papa had rushed off suddenly and they'd all had to leave the nest in the baby room.

Haihai wanted to go back to cuddling in the nest, it had been so warm and cozy and it had smelled so nice. Mama said that was baby egg getting ready to hatch, telling them loudly in their own way they were ready to come out! But nobody was upstairs with baby egg. How would they know to still come out if scary sounds were shaking the house and making the lights flicker? 

Haihai puffed their cheeks and patted them like they saw Uncle Venti do a lot, he said he did it to feel brave. It didn't make Haihai feel any more brave but they clambered down from the sofa and turned to go upstairs when papa's whale tumbled after them. 

"Haihai scared too, but you gotta stay with family." The hatchling warned as they tucked the whale back into the nest with their dragon mate and little fox baby, along with their two bunny friends and funny looking deer. They gave a quick peck to the whale's head for good measure and upon consideration, took the funny looking deer into their arms. Auntie Ganyu said once that the funny looking deer had protected a lot of people, so maybe they could protect Haihai and baby egg from the storm until mama and papa got back.

Once satisfied with the safety of their plush nest, Haihai quickly pitter pattered from the sitting room to the foyer where the stairs sat leading upwards. Haihai could hear the hushed voices of their uncles in the washroom; they were quick to climb the stars on all fours, it would certainly be easier if they had their paws but mama had already put Haihai in their pajamas and Haihai didn't want to get dressed again if they changed. 

The baby room was just across from the bedroom. It had been easy to move the nest because it was so close by and it has been really fun to do; but right now it was super dark in the baby room, it was hard to make anything out and all the shapes were scary. Haihai knew they were toys and bedding from the nest but it was still unsettling. They hugged their plush friend tight to their chest and crept into the room with the reminder that baby egg was probably just as scared and maybe needed Haihai's company. 

The hatchling hurried to the crib, crawling up the side and tumbling gently into the bedding below where the pretty blue egg lay wrapped in a warm blanket and braced with pillows and a plush bird that was round like a ball almost. 

Papa had bought it for baby egg with Haihai's help as a gift for their hatch day, a welcome present papa had called it; another rumble of thunder had Haihai scooting in closer to baby egg and arranging themselves to brace the egg against their nervous tummy, the egg was trembling. 

"Ah! Baby egg is frightened too?" Haihai whispered against the shell, they moved to rest on their side, tucking the bird and deer around the blanket to form a secure nest. 

"Haihai will keep safe until mama and papa get back." They promised, squeezing the shell gently as to not break it just like mama had shown them. The trembling stopped, Haihai cheered silently until a loud crackling crash startled them with a slight yelp; baby egg jerked and leapt about in their hold, a crack forming in their shell.

Haihai gasped and quickly attempted to corral the egg in their arms,

"No! No mama and papa are not home! You can't hatch yet!" They blubbered softly, fat tears welling up quickly. Mama and papa had been so excited for baby egg to hatch and for them not to see…they would be so sad! Haihai remembered their hatch day vaguely, how bright their smiles had been to see Haihai. Baby egg needed to see that too! Baby egg needed to see how much mama and papa loved them so they knew just like Haihai. 

"Please baby egg, please calm down…" Haihai sniffled and rubbed their cheek against the shell that was normally cool to the touch. It was warm now, almost hot, maybe it was because baby egg was trying to hatch into a baby dragon like mama and papa said they would. Haihai scrunched their nose in thought, holding tight to the still squirming egg in their arms;

"Would papa's special song help…?" They asked softly, feeling the crack widen and a flutter of fright made their tummy hurt again.

Without much else to do, Haihai tried singing their special song from papa, "The apple floated in the sky, the apple dropped to the ground uhm…" Haihai sniffled and thought of the next part, they normally fell asleep quickly if papa sang it for them so it was kind of hard. 

"The stars are born, and the songs are born," baby egg stopped trembling and the shell cooled slightly, "the Lulu Amelu smiled for eternity. The stars kiss the songs to sleep…" The hatchling sagged with relief when the cracking seemed to stop, nuzzling their soon to be sibling and pecking the shell with a light kiss.

"Thank you baby egg, mama and papa will be here soon." The egg jerked as if in protest, "Ah, Haihai finish singing, Haihai promise." There was a commotion downstairs that the little hatchling couldn't hear over the splatter of rain on the nearby window, too caught up in keeping baby egg safe and content to notice the panicked voices. 

 "Where will they call home, where will they call ho-"

"Jinhai!?" The room light clicked on and a very wet looking mama stood in the doorway, eyes wide and shimmering. 

"Mama!" Haihai gasped happily, hurrying to sit up and greet not only mama but papa too who followed after, equally as wet as mama. 

"There you are!" He cheered in relief, Uncle Venti and Uncle Xiao stood just behind mama and papa, drenched and smelling upset.

"Thank the stars, we didn't think to check upstairs in our panic-" Uncle Venti began and mama turned to reassure him it was alright now.

"She's found, that's all that matters." Mama said, reaching a hand to ruffle Haihai's hair before he touched the shell of baby egg.

"What on earth were you doing up here?" 

"Haihai thought baby egg might be scared of the storm, so Haihai came to protect baby egg!" Papa smiled at the hatchling, warm and soft. 

"That's so brave of you, little yabloko. You make papa and mama proud." He said, pulling Haihai from the crib to cuddle close. 

"Ack! Papa's all wet, gross!" Haihai pushed at his chest and he chuckled loudly, rubbing his wet cheek against theirs teasingly. 

"Not gross, it's just rain! You play in that all the time!" Haihai squealed, kicking their feet in a playful flail of limbs when a soft crack cut through the room. Mama bristled, eyes going wide and pupils narrowing as they turned from papa and Haihai to look at baby egg; within the crib, a pair of bright, blue eyes peered out from the crack in the pretty blue shell.

….

It felt like his heart was in his throat, his chest was squeezed too tight and his body was tensed like a bowstring. The crack had been soft yet piercing, he could feel instincts welling up, begging him to shift into his true form in preparation for the little one to escape their shell. With the return of his primal nature it was quite prevalent compared to Jinhai's hatching where instincts had been a minor twist in his belly. 

He only held back for the sake of the room and the other occupants, a sudden shift could cause injury to his mate or loved ones or even startle the newborn. Which was less than ideal on all accounts.

Little blue eyes were peering up out of the shell, a little snout crept from the safety of the shell to scent the air only for a roll of thunder to have them scrambling backward and the shell tumbled on to its side, Zhongli chuckled softly and reached for the shell to sit it upright; uncaring of how his wet clothes clung to his skin. He was much too lost in the moment to care about catching a cold or the clammy feel of the air in the room, he only had eyes for this new little one.

Their second born in this brood, a soft mane of chocolate fur, brown scales mottled with iridescent blues, and eyes the most beautiful shade. They had their papa's eyes and Zhongli couldn't help the flutter that arose in his chest, feeling like a wish had been granted all because this little one gazed up at him with their father's eyes. 

"They're beautiful…" Ajax said beside him, Jinhai still bundled in his arms and looking all too proud of herself,

"Haihai kept baby egg from hatching before you were home!" Zhongli blinked owlishly, turning to look at their little Haihai, their first of many in their brood, they would be a wonderful big sibling and he felt pride fill his chest at the thought of them looking out for their siblings.

"That's incredible sweetheart," he praised sweetly, pulling Ajax close to press a kiss to Jinhai's brow. The littler dragon crooned from within the crib, a curious gaze casting about to take in the sight of Venti and Xiao who had stayed to watch the hatching. At the sound of Jinhai's voice their attention snapped back to the eldest hatchling, they wriggled a bit, smearing embryonic material on the blankets used for the nest but those could be washed.

It took everything to not scoop them into his arms and lave his tongue over them for a proper cleaning but he feared the integrity of the house wouldn't hold should his full weight be impressed upon it so suddenly. Ajax hummed pleasantly, letting Jinhai cling to his back as he took the already soiled blanket and cleaned the hatchling with a steady, tender hand. 

"Is it just me, or does this little one look a little chonkier?" Zhongli reared back as if he had just been struck, leveling Venti was a dangerous look. 

"Venti!" He hissed,

"What!? I'm just being honest, compared to Haihai this one looks a little more chubby." He protested; Zhongli scoffed softly and reached for the newborn, opting to ignore the Bard's callous words. True, this little one's egg had been smaller, rounder; and their body was a little more stout than Jinhai's had been but they would grow into it.

Not all hatchlings were the same after all. 

"Nonsense." He cooed softly, purring loudly as the littler hatchling was arranged in his arms, the baby was crooning and chirping softly, teeth digging into the fabric of his shirt seeking milk just like little Jinhai had and it brought a fond chuckle bubbling up out of his chest. 

"Papa, what's baby doing?" 

"They're hungry, little yabloko, just like you were." He said adoringly, calloused fingers caressing over the cheek of their youngest hatchling; Zhongli leaned in to steal a loving kiss, careful of the little one in his arms.

"We did it…" he murmured when they broke apart, his words a little watery but full of so much love for his family, for his mate. 

"Yeah, we did…" Ajax purred, actually purred which caught the room off guard, all eyes flying to rest upon the ginger who looked just as surprised. 

"..."

Zhongli beamed, grin so wide his cheeks ached, "Seems your new Adeptus nature is manifesting in the strangest of ways...I remember you asking me if you could ever make such a sound when Jinhai hatched." He mused adoringly which only served to increase the intensity of Ajax's purring. 

He drew in close and pressed their foreheads together, his smile just as soft and caring. The little one between them continued to attempt nursing only this time seeking milk from the young ginger and was met with a similarly disappointing result. Jinhai yawned loudly from where they were curled upon Ajax's back and Zhongli chuckled fondly,

"It's getting late, we should get this one fed and then get some rest...it's been a long night for all of us." Zhongli said, turning to the two Anemo Wielders who looked a little worse for wear. 

They had mistakenly thought Jinhai had gone outside to search for himself and Ajax when they couldn't find them and had braved the storm to search, they'd only returned to the house after Zhongli had ordered them to. He was grateful for their efforts but concern had taken root in his belly with Xiao being pregnant and Venti still being unawares. Something could have happened to the Yaksha and Venti would have been none the wiser to his partner's distress. It was troubling but not his place to dictate how Xiao wanted to handle his pregnancy.

They ushered everyone downstairs where Ajax went about making a bottle with practiced ease and Zhongli prepared a quick pot of tea that would warm everyone from the inside out and hopefully soothe their nerves to help them get some much needed rest. Once Venti and Xiao were warmed with tea and Zhongli had deemed them dry enough he allowed them to retreat to their room for the night.

He quickly downed his cup as even he needed something to help his nerves before taking the bottle for the little one from his mate to feed. It had been nerve-wracking to traverse the partly flooded streets of the Harbor to get to the bank. A million thoughts racing in his head about his Ajax, about his safety and if he had been at the sight of the burst sandbag dam. With each step he'd pounded the foundations of the Harbor, willing earth to move and shift as subtly as he could, raising earth and rock alike from the crashing waves and pouring rain by a mere few inches.

If anyone noticed in the coming weeks the slight change in elevation he doubted anyone would believe them and if they did, who was to say it hadn't been the benevolent Adepti of Juehan Karst still looking out for the Harbor?

The little one crooned, pulling his attention from his thoughts to focus on the precious being that had just come into their world. It suckled on the nipple of the bottle vivaciously and shuddered with a pleased rumble, little contented purrs and chirps filled the quiet that had settled over the kitchen. Jinhai had watched with rapt attention before sleep had finally claimed them all curled up in Ajax's arms, little soft squeaks escaping their lips set in a slight gape. Their brave little dragon, traversing the dark of the upstairs to keep their little sibling safe and keep them from hatching without himself and Ajax present. 

Their littler dragon was beginning to drift too, the suckling turned sleepy, little blue eyes sliding shut in contentment pressed up against Zhongli's breast. He smiled warmly, humming soft and low under his breath to further lull the newborn to sleep, their hatching must have taken so much out of them compared to Jinhai who had been so energetic their first day on Teyvat.

This little one was so gentle, so easy going one would think them more akin to a lazy cat than a baby hatchling ready to see the world. He kissed their brow, feeling the little buds where horns would soon sprout as they grew; the bottle was released, the hatchling fully gone off to the realm of dreaming. Zhongli wished them sweet dreams silently, nudging his dozing husband who jerked atop his seat before a languid smile graced his features.

The both of them had their arms full of their love for one another given life; two beautiful, wonderful hatchlings that would grow up into fine young Exuvias under their care and adoration. Their brood was coming together, two little ones filled their nest and more would soon come with time; for now Zhongli would simply bask and share in the joy he felt at the hatching of another precious little one to cherish. Ajax shared the sentiment as they climbed the steps to their nest-bed still in disarray from sleeping in the nursery but that hardly mattered when they cuddled close together, their hatchlings curled between them in a loose snuggle.