He remembers the first time he felt this warmth. Guizhong had opened her arms and held his shoulders, even though they were cold, smooth and metallic - it couldn't have been comfortable. He was anything but human. He never understood how a deity, revered after the dust that flowed throughout their domain, could be warm. She felt impossibly full of life.
He recalls every single detail of their time together. When he first suffered his first major injury, and half his body was worn away from the blast leaving only his torso and left leg and arm. He felt no pain. His body was stone, and his heart was as well.
She had wrapped her arms around this neck. She was of similar height, and it was only now that he noticed this detail. He remembers her scent - a soft fragrance of silk flowers, glaze lilies and earthy greens. She colored his life those days.
He wanted to be like her.
He crafted a form that would be like hers. She had laughed at Zhongli when she looked at him. They almost looked like twins, if one disregarded the difference in eye color, and it only made Guizhong give a soft smile, as if she were a parent watching a child dress-up. If he could be like her then, he could also give off this feeling he learned. He wanted to give her a sense of warmth too.
She was there for the glory and for the fall. And then one day, the corruption and the war between these lands to-be rulers became too much, and she suffered a blow. She disappeared, leaving only her dumbbell.
He never found out what this dumbbell held within its confines, but like how he held Guizhong, when she fell, he wouldn’t let go. The dust flowed through the tight grip he had, as if in defiance to his despair. Not even the dust was left behind.
When she was shimmering in ephemeral beauty, she said it would give him the answers he was looking for. He knew that the answer he wanted would come from her - not this catalyst.
Then, she died. The dust wouldn’t leave his lungs, and still they choke him.
She had said not to let these unanswered questions linger.
He promised her that he would let go.
He couldn't help but wonder, "I want to know everything about you, and this is all that’s left of you." He still carries around the dumbbell, and if she still lives in his mind, and the dust irritates his eyes, and makes him lose his breath, he’s the only one to know.
In fear of associating her with bloodshed, he couldn't hold this form anymore. He would always remember her as she was: she was colored in easy smiles, scarred hands, long eyelashes, and eyes the color of the sky after a storm had passed - she had said she preferred to liken them to the glaze lilies she was so fond of. His form reminded him of her too much. He wouldn't let anything sully her. She would never let this bloodshed be the only solution to this war. He never took another female form.
He couldn’t keep his promises, but he would uphold his contract to their people. Thus, he donned a mask and slaughtered every foe that blocked his path.
Their people would be safe.
It is what she would have wanted.
Liyue is safe.
The earth-borne mask falls and cracks. It doesn’t ease the phantom ache in his heart.
And, throughout all these changes and the passing of time, it feels like he has not changed.
The city bustles with people carrying around an attachment to one another. He spots a mother and child walking down the market, a young man and their father bickering over the inflated fish prices, and a young couple looking at each other across the street - their eyes are all bright. “Everyone seems to have someone. Someone to call their own. And yet, throughout these lands, I have no one to call my own anymore”, he thought.
The land has become peaceful, after all the sacrifices he and his comrades have made. Those friends he made and loved are now buried and forgotten or sealed away and corrupted. He only has his subordinates left. Will they miss him, himself, when he’s gone? Zhongli knows he’ll mourn for them if - he corrects, when - they leave, even if he’s used to it now.
The adepti are fewer in number after the archon war. However, it is only Madam Ping, Ganyu and Xiao who occasionally report back to him. The meeting with all of the adepti ended years back. The seats have become dusty with disuse. A forgotten relic that would soon be lost to time.
Xiao occasionally visits and reports. It’s more peaceful than it has ever been in his long life. Xiao reports that there are no large anomalies or any divine monsters in need of his archon-scale power. His visits are short. Much too brief.
However, where Xiao's visits are short, Madam Ping's can be lengthy. Over a cup of tea, and some dim sum, Madam Ping likes to talk about the past. And when they are in a more nostalgic mood, he may bring up Guizhong, and those days are long forgotten by the present. Madam Ping always wanted to meet Guizhong, and in the light of Zhongli’s descriptions, she knew this goddess was the making of the current Zhongli. She wants Zhongli to look further, and find something in the present to change him. After all he cannot stay in the past forever.
On other days, Ganyu reports the current state of Liyue. The city is prosperous; they're using mora as a countrywide currency, and even if the mora is depleted, they may end up making another form of currency that is easier to carry. They have contemplated the utility and portability of paper-based or ore-based currencies in addition to the usage of mora. Ganyu relays his wishes to Ningguang, and she has been perfect in realizing his orders.
The Qixing have been managing most of Liyue’s manner for the last few decades, and it’s fascinating watching this country learn and grow. He knew Guizhong would’ve loved to have seen Liyue and lived with its people. He thinks, "I'm certain Guizhong would have loved to have met the bright minds of today."
She was always tinkering with a new invention or another. Always making connections not just in machinery, but also with the people.
He knew that it was not just Guizhong, but also his comrades in-arms, that were looking forward to a better future for this land. When he looks at the current state of Liyue, he can't help but think this.
He wishes they could’ve lived in a better time where the corruption didn’t eat away their minds and the war didn’t force them to concede their lives. He misses them all.
However, the act of caring for Liyue has kept his feelings of the past at bay. There is purpose in his and their sacrifices.
One day, when the sun has long since set in the horizon, the rain pitter-patters onto the cobblestone pathway. Zhongli walks by the harbor front, and its familiar sea breeze is tinged with a dampness characteristic of light rain.
A select few of the Qixing have formed a faction that holds disdain for the traditional approach, Liyue has operated on, since its founding. As he looks for inspiration for a solution for the growing distance from his role and the growth of Liyue, deep in thought, he hears the end of a conversation between a merchant telling one of his workers, "You've finished with your duties, go ahead and call it a day." The merchant sends off the worker with a smile.
How long did he stand amidst the milling crowd? The workers having all finished the work, left, leaving the harbor empty. The soft fall of the rain, soaked his robes, and he couldn't help but feel lost.
"Have I... already finished my duties?"
He hasn’t contemplated that he’d leave his post. The days have been merging together during this peaceful era. Would Liyue be able to function without its archon?
"Am I no longer needed anymore?", he wonders. If he isn’t needed anymore than what should he do?
The years of work were a welcome distraction, and it is only now, when his role is over, that he feels numb.
He's tired, but there is no time and nowhere for him to rest.
The sun rises and sets without fail. He watches the birds fly away - beautiful cranes that symbolize eternity, his mind helpfully supplies. When the last of the cranes disappear, the world is back to its pale shades. And he knows that like the passing seasons, they all will disappear. He wonders what people (what Guizhong) saw in making these fleeting attachments. His bonds with his long-gone friends have left a void of color in his life - leaving him to bask in the emptiness of their memories.
Then, another day, Childe enters Zhongli’s life in a splash of color.
Spring has just arrived and the trees have just begun to blossom. Their flowers were littered throughout the streets, and flew across the entire city. He remembers the sound of the water flowing by, while he watched the koi fish nibble on the water lily pads and roots, when a dazzling streak of orange entered his vision.
The young man greeted over the sunny reflection from the pond water, “Hello, mister -“, Zhongli turned around to make eye contact, and the young man blinks for a beat, and his wide smile becomes smaller, a bit more soft and genuine, then, “Zhongli-xiansheng, my name’s Childe”. He smiled, and made a gesture of handshake, in which Zhongli reciprocated, and noted that, “We’ll be working together for the foreseeable future”.
A flower passed by in the breeze, and he couldn’t recall its species or genus, for his gaze was focused on this drop of color in his life. The flower drifted and fell into the watery depths of the garden pond.
This was the person he was looking for. His plan would go into action soon.
Apparently, Hutao had already met him, and Childe had gone out of his way to find him. It seems that it was a good idea to wear his uniform even on break, since this was how he was found.
“Let’s get lunch together”, suggested Childe. Childe was smiling, a smile he always had when he was with Zhongli, and it was the start of many days, weeks and months of get-togethers.
Although the intentions of the invitations were laced with the connotations of deceit, he felt that in the end it was all genuine. He knew that there was no need for meetings to occur daily, nor for the meetings to always be paid for. He knew that the information Childe gathered from himself would be insufficient, and the majority of their meetings ended without probing for the geo archon or any related facts. These long walks on the beach, the shopping district and even the outskirts of the city, were all done in intimacy.
Childe would smile, a smile that would reach the eyes and relax his shoulders, and sometimes even lean over to touch Zhongli's shoulder and hands. By the end, Childe told him his real name, and these feelings could not be falsified. After all, he was the god of contracts, and many more titles, he would know. He has seen them all, but only now, does it feel like it truly matters - he knows this feeling to be genuine. Is this what Guizhong was trying to teach him?
"You know I write about you to Tonia, and now she's way too invested in meeting you", Ajax remarks. He has a smile on his lips, and although Zhongli isn't looking at Ajax, he knows his eyes are smiling too.
Ajax pauses, almost self-consciously, and continues, "Why don't you come visit Snezhnaya when you have time away from your work?"
He remembers promising that he would, if he was still available. Zhongli didn't ask if after everything was revealed and had reached its climax, if he would still want him.
He was told that his family would love to meet him, and that he was his family away from home. Ajax said he reminded him of his father, and, in-jest, that Zhongli was heart-warming enough that he could melt even Snezhnaya.
Ajax's eyes were as endless as the deep blue of the twilight sky, and the hand holding his gloved hands gave him a warmth akin to one he had long forgotten. Hands that were capable of ruthless bloodshed, held his hands with a gentle grasp that felt the same as a similar gesture lifetimes ago. An unfamiliar flush of warmth and color spread from his face. Although he couldn’t tell what expression he had, he was sure it was similar to Ajax's, since Ajax held on tighter when their gaze finally met.
The second time he feels warm, after all those cold years alone, is unexpected and gradual. For the first time in a long time, Zhongli wanted another being to call his own.
He wished that a moment like this would last just a bit longer. He felt alive.
Years passed, and his wish was not meant to be.
He had - he still does - want to start anew and live for and with Childe, but Childe died in the war against Celestia. No one had seen where he had gone. There was only a bloodied scarf to remember him by. He only wishes he was there for him when he passed - he wishes he wasn’t busy fighting then.
Childe died alone. He doesn't dare remember him by name.
The dust blew across Liyue and the sand storm reached the mountain tops of the harbor, and before it breached the city, it dissipated in an amber light. He still tries to better this city, but he can't help, but wonder if he is still needed. He asks this again and again. Wondering if there is a reason for his existence, in the vast expanse of life and death.
"Is it worth it to love, when it can only end in losses?", Zhongli asks his faithful dumbbell. He never gets an answer.
A hundred years pass since the Celestial war, and Zhongli gathers up all the adepti, and those he’s known. He tells the travelers (both, Aether and Lumine), and the adepti that he’ll be traveling now that his duty is over. He notes that their duty would be over too. They don’t seem surprised, and it only seems like they’ve been expecting something more. He doesn't know what they're searching for.
Zhongli looks at all those that remain, and he remembers all that have left. He wishes he could bring a sense of peace to all of the adepti, but again, it comes late.
He tells them he’ll go traveling. He suspects they don’t believe him, but he doubts they’ll look for an explanation for his evasion.
He thought, at the time, that their faces would be imprinted in his mind - never to be forgotten. He would always remember Xiao’s confused face, since it was reminiscent of the time when Xiao had found out about his hobbies. Were his hobbies that outlandish? Was it a look of surprise, confusion or was he just disillusioned about him?
In contrast, the travelers didn’t look that surprised, and neither did the other adepti. Maybe he was too predictable? Zhongli felt an amused smile appear on his face. It was nice to see his acquaintances after these long years.
They’re all busy in their own lives and he does not interact with them much outside of his duties. They surely have better things to do with their lives, now that the shackles that bound them to Liyue were relinquished. The times had changed. They can finally leave Liyue, and find something more to this world. He leaves with the thought, "Would anyone still need Rex Lapis, the God of Commerce, the God of Contracts, the God of History, and the Warrior God? Would anyone look for Zhongli?" No one stops him from leaving.
He doesn’t travel far. He finds Childe’s resting place. Or at least that’s where they reportedly last saw him standing.
He had a passing thought, of himself donning a skin in imitation of the one he had lost. He had done so for Guizhong, when he had been more naive and wanted to be like her - to be closer to her.
He could still remember Childe's bright smile, his eyes were a bottomless well of emotion, even without the common light an average civilian had. Childe was anything, but average though. He couldn't help, but smile, when he thought of him. He could remember him in a crystal-clear clarity. He didn't want to imitate or be Childe. He wanted him back.
He stopped, and in place of a grave, there was a ley line flower blooming in this spot. Almost as if it were a marker of his loss.
“A flower blossom known as "Revelation" grows from the Ley Lines in response to someone's desire for battle. A Ley Line can replicate an instance of a moment of peril into reality. Perhaps the treasures within it can help one recall the perils that they have experienced once before…”, he mutters to himself. Zhongli could recall the exact passage from the widespread Adventurer’s Handbook .
He opens his mouth, about to comment on the ley lines and the historical value of these plains, when he remembers. In the silence, he realizes that no one is listening anymore. He keeps his thoughts to himself.
He shakes off the realization, with a soft shake of his head. He remembers his encounters with the ley lines, and wonders, “Would it be possible to find Childe?”
He gently places a hand on the glowing ball of energy, and forces the ley line open. Every time the energy shimmers and refreshes. The opponents are easy and fall without a struggle. The flower sinks into the earth and blossoms again, and again, and again. Only to feel that with each blossom his hope can only bloom again as well.
He only thinks this for the first hundred or two years before his heart becomes numb.
Then there’s a Fatui soldier. He’s just like any other Fatui recruit. Except, this one is younger than he remembers their recruits usually are. The uniform this recruit wears is too big, as if they were wearing their parent’s uniform in a childish act of play-pretend. Zhongli is not surprised that in war, there may be child soldiers. He's seen enough to last several lifetimes.
The recruit is adept with the blade and their use of the vision is sleek and fluid. This recruit’s blade is sharpened with a strange dark red and bright blue fluid, but his hold is resolute, but inexperienced. The fight is easy and with Zhongli’s years on the battlefield, he knows this battle stance is unfamiliar. He knows this one, too, cannot be Childe. Zhongli aims his spear. This recruit does not block; this recruit only attacks. Zhongli doesn’t catch the recruit's pause in fascination in that very moment before his spear makes contact. The recruit’s mask falls, and before Zhongli can see his face, the recruit disappears into bright flickering energy fragments and returns to the leys to rest.
This continues for the next three hundred years.
They seem to remember everything. Yet, it might as well be nothing at all, for it is all meaningless. The ley lines only remember unremarkable life forms - only those that are easy to replicate in power and appearance, it seems.
It's tiring to find his efforts are not fruitful. He leaves and wanders around Liyue to see if anything has changed. The city he has nourished, Liyue, has grown in size. The harbor still has the lingering scent of the sea. He has missed it. Alone, he builds his own marker for a forgotten, his beloved, warrior. It's quiet and he builds it in a place that he had once called home. He does not leave Liyue.
He still thinks of Guizhong, of his beloved companions, and of his recent subordinates, and wonders if there is no point to trying anymore. Without anywhere to go, his feet lead him back to Guizhong. Her resting place is quiet and the breeze sways the glaze lilies. He hopes she’s resting peacefully or in a better place now. He doesn’t know if there is an afterlife, but he sincerely hopes that if there is one, that it is kind to his parted companions.
His feet lead him through the field. A bed of yellow flowers, he recognizes, have lasted from before the archon war, surround the clearing. There are at least a dozen crystalflies in the meadow - he takes a quick glance and notes twenty-three of them. The wind blows with a force that sways the flowers, and they hit his robes in a delicate brush. They are scentless, but their radiance is not diminished. However, although the breeze moves the flowers to-and-fro, it does not disturb the geo crystalflies that have noticed his presence.
He sees a few crystalflies fly toward him, and he can’t help but lift his finger as a perch. The crystalfly glimmers in a characteristic yellow, from geo energy, and the energy is soft and warm. The crystalfly's wings pulsate in a rhythm he can't parse, and the one on his finger seems to want to stick to him. Just as he thinks this, the crystalfly softly flaps its wings and flies off, only to tap the tip of his nose.
He feels that the geo crystalflies are adorable, since they try to speak to him through their energy waves. He lets out a smile, and his face feels stiff from the attempt. Regardless of the movement, this particular crystalfly stays, adamant, in its attempts to stay on his person. It has moved from his nose to perch on his head. Zhongli can’t find it in him to dislodge the crystalfly, and besides, he knows it means no harm.
He stands there a little longer, and as if Guizhong were there, he remarks, “The times have changed and Liyue has grown to become something more than what we envisioned all those millennia ago”, a pause, and he continues, with only the single crystalfly left as his audience.
“I wonder if I am doing the right thing? You and all our brethren have passed with time, and it is only I, who still recalls them in their former glory”, he speaks out into the field. The sun is setting, casting a gradient of oranges. The setting sun’s warmth touches his face, reminiscent of the warm touch of another he remembers. The crystalfly opens and closes its wings once, then twice in response to the silence.
He notices a glaze lily, and, eyes closed, he opens with a breath, “I hope and wish you may not reproach me for devoting my time outside of this duty we pledged to." He hasn't come to these plains since her passing.
He wants to remember her as she was, Guizhong wasn’t only kind. She was selfish but that was what he loved about her too. She wanted Zhongli to be like herself - feeling. What was he supposed to do with these feelings though?
Childe was similar to Guizhong in different ways. The smile was the same, and the way they seemed to be amused and cared for him was the same. The true difference only lay in their enjoyment of a battle - Childe had loved the battlefield and entered it with an excitement that energized a fight, while, Guizhong only saw the battle as a means to an end. He could recount the multitude of both similarities and differences. Each characteristic made him love them more and more. And although their differences were greater than their similarities, the overall feeling was warm - it was what kept him there. He had loved them both, in the present, even though it hurts to remember their ends, in the past, happily, when they were both there alive and well, and in the future, where he'll never let their memory dull and they will shine forevermore, even when the world has truly forgotten them.
He only remarks now that they were both full of life, and it still feels out of reach.
“I wonder if life will always be like this? Always missing you and always looking for you.”
Hundreds of years have passed by from Childe’s passing, and Zhongli retries the ley lines, one more time. One time becomes hundreds of times. A ruin hunter, ruin guard, treasure hunters, Fatui warriors, hilichurals and other elemental lifeforms, and each time he scrutinizes them and wonders, “Where is Childe? Is he even here, anywhere, anymore?”
He doesn’t see Childe ever again throughout these eight hundred long years.
It’s been so long. Is there simply no one who will stay by his side? Every bond he’s made, they’ve all blown away, like the dust in his hands, with the passing of time. He remembers every love he’s had, even if they’ve never been equal to one another: he remembers blue hair and an ocean breeze, he remembers a dragon burdened and similar to himself, he remembers an intellect to rival the greatest scholar and the scent of flowers, and, in the end, he remembers them all - he’s the only one who does.
If he just lies down and takes a rest he won’t feel so tired anymore. Zhongli lies down and looks up at the darkening sky. His hair glows with his residual energy, and it lightens up his cheeks, with a light he doesn’t see. He feels cold. A crystalfly flies over the overhang, and with that last sight, he sinks down far into the soil, and solidifies a barrier. He creates a rock tomb and, with one last glance of the night sky, seals the top. It becomes dark.
He feels the earth change. The ground becomes wet, moist, and changes again and again. It keeps changing back to dry, and again and again it goes back to how it was before. Even with all these changes, the rock will stay unchanged underground. And even with all these changes, he is at ease - nothing really changes.
Since no one needs him anymore, he’ll just simply disappear. It is peaceful. He rests for years.
The shimmer of marigold-colored hair brushes past his vision. There's an endless depth in the blue. It disappears just as quickly, and he can’t catch a glance at its owner. He blinks.
It is silent. Not a sound emerges, even though he strains his hearing. However, what catches his attention first, is that it is hard to breathe. It is suffocating. It hurts to take in a breath. His chest burns with the strain. It hurts.
He closes his eyes again. He stops trying. It is silent again.
Time passes again without his presence.
He feels the rock tomb crumble. The vibrations of rainfall penetrate the earth - just barely. He wants to continue dreaming of fiery hair, clashing watery eyes, and a smile that rivaled the rising sun. A pause, and then he reinforces the casket. He falls into a deeper sleep.
The earth feels hard and cold, and he continues to rest. It is dark and he cannot find the strength to open his eyes. It’s tiring.
"I want to die and see if we’ll be reunited - if there is an afterlife or not." He hesitates. "Yet, I do not want to leave this world without an answer to any calamity... What if they need me one day?"
Zhongli continues to rest for another thousand years. And like that, years pass and there is no need for him to awaken.
The soil shifts, and a hand brushes the dry rock and dirt away. A bright light shines, and there’s a murmur. He can not discern what or if the sounds mean anything.
Zhongli opens his eyes, and it's harder than he thought it'd be, and with a blink, there is a hand touching his face. It’s warm and calloused. It is nostalgic. The light is blinding and what he notices first is a flying object fluttering toward the sun, and his reprieve from the light is in the outline of a familiar form. Zhongli looks up at the hand’s owner, and with a surprisingly loud inhale, he notes that he’s found him - or rather Ajax has found him.
He can finally breathe.
There’s a crunch of the dry leaves, and the dry soil moves with the soft breeze. The multitude of crystalflies is a wonder on its own, but it only briefly occupies his thoughts.
Childe recalls his last moments from a long forgotten time.
The feeling of blood dripping off his chin makes it itch. His wounds throb in a sharp and burning pain. The pain makes his limbs feel lethargic. Swaying forward slowly.
“I just want to see you one more time”, he thinks. The thought passes with the visage of golden eyes, and the memory of his family. He can barely see where he is, but he knows he’s moved far, far away from the battlefield.
He falls to the ground. He barely had a cognizant thought that he wishes he could have held those warm hands again.
He died here.
Childe can feel his eyes burn, and he rushes forward. He brushes aside the crystalfly on the floor, and digs. The shovel that they've brought out is put to good use. He can barely hear and register the concerned voices of his companions.
He pushes aside the dirt and digs and digs. Until the shovel hits something with a loud clunk. Childe throws the shovel away and gets down to his knees and brushes aside the dirt and sand. A tattooed arm and hand comes to kneel beside him, helping to dig out the rest of the chamber.
The field is barely recognizable with the piles of dirt and the holes throughout the area. Aether and Lumine are holding their shovels and digging out the bottom half of the tomb. They finally dig out the remainder of the tomb, when the sun has reached its peak.
Childe carefully slides open the tomb with expectation. His eyes burn with unshed tears.
He's missed him so much.
However, just as quickly, he realized that there is no movement from Zhongli. Is he even breathing? What if he’s dead? All of this would be for nothing if he’s gone too - why would he even come back if he’s gone? A hand goes to feel for any pulse and there is none.
With shaky hands he holds the side of his face and feels for any warmth. He holds his breath. Zhongli feels like a corpse, cold and bloodless, but his face is the same from his memories and he’s still as beautiful as he was when he first met him under those apple blossom trees. He’s about to check for a pulse again, when he sees Zhongli's eyes (a pair of sunset eyes) flutter open.
Finally, he can let out a breath.
“Good morning”, he says, with a watery smile, knowing this will be the start of many mornings yet to come.
He woke up a millennia, and then some, after his death. He had taken a trip to see his family’s grave first. There were five tombstones all lined up neatly and cared for. He felt an emptiness with the knowledge that he wasn’t there for his family - for his mother, father, and his siblings. His family was gone.
He had even found his grave. After questioning the adepti and traveler, who were at the final battle, he was able to find his grave. It was remarkably enshrined in a small yard in Guili Plains. It was weird that it was so far away from his family, which were resting in Snezhnaya. They never said why it was in Guili Plains.
No one told him about Zhongli. It was like he disappeared off the face of the planet. When he asked they seemed reluctant to answer. He wanted to find a home to fill-in this emptiness in his heart. He missed his consultant.
By chance, he met the pair of travelers.
The traveler let him know.
He was angry. Angry at the adepti for not being forthcoming about Zhongli's disappearance. It seemed the adepti were suspicious still, and tight-lipped. He thought they had become friends.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect your inquiries to be from the heart”, Xiao relented. Xiao seemed more tired, than Childe remembered him being.
“We’re still looking for him right now. Liyue has sent out its remaining millelith to help find him, but it’s been years”, Ganyu adds. She seems to have been busy handling the political and administrative duties for Liyue, even after all those years.
“I’ll look for him”, Childe says, with a confidence he doesn’t feel.
He remembers a time when he had been angry enough to want to leave Liyue and its archon, but had found his eyes always searching for and finding that familiar earthy form of his. Zhongli was always there.
Childe hadn’t wanted to leave Zhongli behind.
He’ll scour the ends of the earth to find him - he was his only home now. Childe had once wanted to add him into the family. He thought he had time. He continues, “We always seem to find each other, even when we don’t want to, so this time should be no different.” He hopes.
Crystalflies flutter around the center of this barren patch of land.
There were rumors from the locals that the area was inaccessible to those without ‘supernatural’ powers, and that the area was shielded by a spirit. Whether it was evil or benevolent was unclear, but the townsfolk were afraid of the unknown. There were further rumors from those who dared venture further, daring adventurers, that said that there simply was nothing there. However, with the help of some exorcists, they’ve confirmed that, although there was a special power in place, it wasn’t malevolent.
Childe marched up the hillside, and entered a dense forest of flowering trees. He couldn't tell what flowers were blooming, and he didn't want to disrupt the conversation, that Lumine, Aether and Xiao were having, to ask. He was left to his own thoughts.
“Baizhu and Dottore was working on bringing back a couple more people. He thought it would be a good experiment or something", Aether explains. Without Aether needing to continue, Childe huffs a sound similar to a laugh and a sob. Childe had already heard it all from Dottore, before Aether came in.
“I was one of the first brought back from the war, though I’m not unscathed. Seems like I can’t access my foul legacy form anymore, but I still have these”, he gestures to his lightless eyes. Although disheartened at first of the news, he realizes that it’s good enough to be alive.
Now where is Zhongli? He asks Aether.
“No one has seen him for a millennia. It might be even longer since any sighting. A couple of the adepti have been looking for him, but it’s likely he has hidden deeply looking to be at peace, or he's..."
Almost as if he doesn't want to finish off the sentence, Aether leaves it hanging. Aether looks uncomfortable.
He can't help but be surprised. How much did the world change? How could Zhongli leave? Didn’t he love Liyue? This city was his creation, and one true connection to the past and present. Where could he have gone? There’s no way he would leave this city without his protection, unless he was incapacitated or worse off.
He didn’t want to ponder over how he might be back among the living without Zhongli. After all, he was almost sure that his family had already passed, since it’s been so long, but surely, he thought, Zhongli, an immortal, would still be here.
He couldn't be gone.
His steps do not falter, and they finally arrive at their destination.
As if the vegetation did not dare to encroach on the clearing, the patch of land was dusty and dry. The sun shone through the clearing, and spotlighted the crystalflies that glimmered in the natural lighting.
With the arrival of the four, the crystalflies shimmered in an abundance of incandescent geo energy, which shone brighter with their presence. They made a path for them, as if to urge them forward. It felt like being welcomed home.
Tattooed arms clench onto white robes. Xiao’s body trembles slightly and there is a hint of tears that fall, leaving darker patches on the white clothing. With a trembling angry tone, he finally speaks, “How could you leave us like that? You know we care about you.”
Childe can see how Zhongli startles, probably one part from surprise and two parts confusion, since he’s just vacated his own encasement.
The travelers have left the area to update the remaining adepti and Venti on their findings. It is only the three that remain in the clearing.
Zhongli responds, with something that feels so much like Zhongli, that he’s glad he hasn’t changed, “I was only planning on sleeping for a bit. I didn’t plan on this much time passing.”
He sounds tired, and continues on, “I wasn’t expecting anyone to look for me, after all, your duty is finished and your ties with me, likewise, released.” Zhongli speaks as though he is a burden that has imprisoned them to his side. Childe can't help the frown that wants to form on his face.
There is a stifling silence.
Xiao's face scrunches up and he opens his mouth as if to respond in anger, but before he can respond, Zhongli speaks first.
“I was only tired, and planning to sleep”, he tries again, with a small smile.
Xiao's face turns uglier, if it could even do so. Childe is not surprised, and he wants to interject, but knows it’s not the right time.
Xiao's voice is trembling and forced, “If you ever want to sleep, just stay with me. I’ll guard your sleep.”
“I’ll join you Xiao. We’ll keep him company”, Childe chimes in. They refuse to let him disappear like that again.
Xiao’s glare is unsurprising, and Childe takes it in stride. They were on unfriendly terms, to put it lightly, initially, but after working together for years, their relationship is a bit more complicated. He'd say they were like step-siblings, or step-friends, if that was a thing.
Zhongli nods, and promises, “I won’t leave again, I have you all now.”
Zhongli’s smile is small, but genuine. It reminds him of their meetings back in Liyue Harbor, before things had changed. Childe vows to make that smile more true, and more frequent in the future.
He wants him to smile more.
He’s finally found his home, and they have all the time in the world now.