𝐏𝐑𝐎𝐋𝐎𝐆𝐔𝐄 | Up to Fate.
Liyue Harbor is now a steady, breathing city, a prosperous trading hotspot for merchants looking to vend their goods in return for gold and the likes of Liyue's bountiful resources. Ores, kites, recipes... they vary from one range to another, breaking traditions and weaving new ones by the day.
I walk through the streets with Paimon, watching as the lanterns rise high into the sky. Mora production has ceased completely, leaving the Habor to deal with an economic crisis. Even so, the people were quick to salvage what they could. Fast forward, and two months later, Liyue Harbor celebrates its annual Lantern Rite Festival.
Despite the Adepti's reluctance to let go of their responsibilities, they have learned to trust the common folk. Never again have I met them, or visited them for meticulous purposes. I've only ever managed to catch a glimpse of them, once or twice. Then none.
"Hey, so Paimon's been thinking..."
We squeeze through the crowd, heat emanating from our bodies. The weather is unbearably hot, albeit the season's change, with people packed into one street at a time to celebrate. I hold Paimon by her scarf, dragging her towards a stand, to take a breather.
She continues to talk, my tiredness unnoticed by the pixie's shortened attention span. "Paimon was thinking that maybe we should go find Zhongli and play some games with him. Oh, oh! What about, Ganyu, and Keqing, and Ningguang, and the-"
"That's a bad idea," I tell her. "It's really crowded. And hot."
"You're alone on that one. Paimon doesn't feel bad at all!"
"That's because you float above everyone else," I deadpan, pointing at some Chop Sueys, grilled upon blocks of charred coal. "Maybe if you stood on your feet instead, you'd know how it feels." She puts a hand on her chin.
"Paimon doesn't know how to walk."
I revert the subject to something else before she gets to say something illogical. "The Qixing are probably busy." Hilicurls and various other mobs have been spotted closing into the city. "Inazuma's close by."
Paimon drops her smile, "But... but... no goodbyes?"
"Well, we have a few more days for that. Do you have anyone in mind?" We've met Zhongli yesterday, and the Qixing just a few days ago, after a request for my help in hunting some thieves down. I tug Paimon along, and we merge back into the sea of people.
"Hmm... Oh, Paimon knows!" She twirls around. It's her signature move. "Why don't we give Wangshu Inn a visit? We haven't said our goodbyes to the rest of the Adepti yet!"
"You sure you're not just going there for food?" I chip my opinion in. Paimon seemed- or at least, attempted to- think for a short moment. A sheepish grin blooms upon her rosy face, eyes turning away mischievously. "We hurt Mona's pockets the last time we went there."
She pretends, "Uh... no. Paimon doesn't remember!"
"Really? Huh. Okay then, I'll tell Mona that you we-"
"E-Eek..." Paimon hovers over to me and puts both hands forward, halting me. "N-No... Paimon was just kidding, she remembers now... fine! Paimon's not going to order anything! Paimon can starve!"
I choke a laugh back, acting serious, "Are you sure?"
"Yes! There's nothing Paimon can't do!"
"Alright. Go wash the dishes for Smiley Yanxiao once we dine in Wangshu Inn." I tell her, and her mouth drops open, jaw slacking to the floor. "What? You said that you could do everything! Then that includes paying for my food, through hard labor. How's that sound?"
"As a-a-a d-dishwasher?!" Her eyes go wide, "No way!"
I ignore her cries and pleads of desperation, ordering a round of Rice Balls for myself and her. The plate is served, the smoke conjuring into the air and releasing into the chilling night. I wipe the sweat off my brow with the back of my hand and roll the chopsticks in my hand, cracking them open. She keeps on ranting, deafening to my ears.
"Eat up, Paimon. They're not going to hold for long."
"Hmph!" She crosses her arms, "Paimon's not going to!"
I shrug, popping one in, "Alright. More for me, then."
"Well, well, well!" I hear someone's familiar voice behind me and turn. "If it isn't the traveler and their faithful munchkin mascot." The tuft of ginger hair makes him stand out within the horde of people. "Hey, you two! Missed me?"
I greet him back, "Childe."
He gives me a childe-ish, exaggerated wave.
Childe's eyes move towards my hand, "Oh dear. Chopsticks."
"Oh hey, it's the Chopstick Hater™!" Paimon points at Childe, who grins in his usual cheeky endeavor. "What are YOU doing here?" Her eyes narrow into slits, seething with anger. If not for her unbelievably small size, she would've glared daggers at the Harbinger's sudden arrival. "Aren't you supposed to be in Snezhnaya with Sign-?!"
"Hush, Paimon!" Childe interrupts, "Outside of office hours. I didn't come here to talk about what happened before. May I?" He gestures towards an empty spot beside me, and I nod. "Well, fancy seeing you two here too. With my question unanswered, I take that you've both missed me?"
"Wow," I comment dully, poking at the snack, "Who would've guessed? Maybe we did miss the presence of the Fatui who betrayed us." I roll my eyes as he chortles lightly.
Childe stays with his cheerful, playful side. "Don't say that, (Y/N)! That's mean of you. We're friends, aren't we? Well, except for that little tussle we had in the end, I'd say that we're well-versed together. Perhaps, something more?"
"Uninterested!" I decline his offer. "I'll stay single."
"Oh, my poor poor heart... shattered into smithereens!" He gasps dramatically, clenching his hand roughly on his chest, "(Y/N)! You're so cold! And here I thought, our feelings are mutual!"
He's so dramatic. "You're embarassing me here."
Childe slips into the seat next to me, still taller than I am by two Paimons. I scoot away a little. There's something suspicious about him. "I'm not embarassing. Consider us as close friends. I'm actually sent back here, while that distasteful woman has gone ahead."
"So, what do you plan to do in Liyue now?"
"Well, I was initially planning to come and visit you both, along with the oldie." Childe smiles, whimsically, "Liyue's a beautiful city, don't you think? Alas! I must depart from here, very very soon. I'll miss this dear country."
There's more to his words. "What do you mean?"
"Liyue's coming to an end, my friend." The gingerhead clicks his tongue, taking one of Paimon's uneaten glutton balls and sticking it into his mouth. "Frank-leh spea-kinh, I'm a fan of Liyue itself. Too bad that doomsday is near."
Paimon looks at me, quizically, and back at him with furrowed eyebrows. "Paimon thinks you're acting really suspicious right now! What're you hiding?!"
He rubs the nape of his neck, swallowing. He ignores the chopsticks by the side of the plate, "Is that so? Why harbor suspicion?" He chuckles, trying to enlighten the situation. I give him a knowing glance, and he stops his two-faced act.
"Not here." He frowns, "Let's meet somewhere.. away, from the crowd. Come," He pats my shoulder, pointing towards the Northland Bank. "Don't worry. I'll drop my weapons."
"No." I grab the edge of his coat. "Here."
Our eye contact stays intact. His ocean blue eyes glimmer with malice, for a moment, before that expression disappears, evaporating into thin air. I let go of my grip on him, and he turns towards us, "Well then, there's really nothing I can hide from the both of you."
My gut feeling was right after all.
"All I can tell you is that Liyue's being targeted."
"T-Targeted?!" Paimon yells, attracting attention.
"Shut up, Paimon." I aggressively whisper. "I don't get it. Didn't Rex Lapis sign a contract to end all contracts, and to give up his Gnosis to the Tsaritsa? Why are you Fatui abandoning your end of the promise- what's going on, Childe?"
"I can't disclose you any more information." His face distorts into a serious expression. "As much as you're a friend of mines, the Tsaritsa has no plans of keeping you intact." He glowers, "You're just troublesome, in Her Majesty's eyes."
All signs of friendliness dissipates into the tense atmosphere. I seal my lips shut. There's no use in forcing Childe into opening up more about the situation, as it would only lead to more harm than good.
Paimon, on the other hand, obviously has her own stand on the approach. Before I could stop her, she's already yapping away. "You're telling us that the contrac-"
"Shh, not so loud!" He puts a finger on her lips.
I can't say anything, being a middle ground.
"I'm getting the picture. Going back soon?"
Childe gets up from his seat, smiling again as if what we discussed before was merely a joke to him. As if everything was alright, as the storm brews behind the scenes. "The same goes to that question! I can't answer that."
"Then.. what's going to happen next?"
He shrugs, "That I don't know. Let's leave that to fate. But I might just be there to fight you fair and square again." He chuckles curtly, "So you better be ready for the future, traveler! I'm looking forward to our battle together."
I eye him, "Consider it a win for me."
"Oh~ scary! Best of luck to you, then. Just don't set unrealistic expectations." Childe looks between us repeatedly, with an unsettling, growing smile. "I've got to go now. Don't miss me! Keep me in your dreams."
"In your dreams!" Paimon punches the air.
"Very well, I'll remember you dear, Paimon!" He teases the fuming pixie and ducks underneath a weak blow from her. "Woah. With more accuracy, you would've hit me!"
"Y-You're such a meanie!" She exclaims. "Fatui rat!"
Childe bows, customary like a Fatui. "And you're both very welcomed to be graced by my wonderful presence today. Farewell! Let us meet again, far into the future." He turns on his heels and walks away, scarf fluttering gently within the warm breeze.
"Hmm.. why do you think he gave us all that intel?"
"Wait," I run up. Childe turns to me, unblinking. "Why are you telling us all this information? You're a Fatui Harbinger... wouldn't that risk your position and devotion to your nation?"
There's a glint in his eye. He doesn't answer.
"Good luck with that. You're asking a little too much, don't you think?" He replies, rather nonchalantly, the soft fabric slipping away from my fingers as he strides forward. "I'd suggest you move somewhere far, far away from the fateful Liyue."
We watch, as his back disappears, blending into the mass, the lanterns shining bright above. I can't possibly let this matter go unattended. I pay for the food, grab my bag, and share a look with Paimon, who nods and leads the way.
Without a word, we dash back into the heart of Liyue Harbor.
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