“I’m holding it the way you’re holding it,” Childe’s still insisting, half a table of unceremoniously dropped food later.
Zhongli’s eyes flick to Childe’s commendable attempt at picking up objects with two thin sticks of wood and graciously chooses not to comment on the current state of affairs. There's a sudden clatter of noise. The bite of sauteed fish Childe ideally would’ve delivered to his mouth flops onto the table.
Childe closes his eyes, inhales slowly, and desperately tries to find his inner peace. Be as still and immovable as the trees of Liyue’s stone forest. He thinks he can taste Liyue’s obnoxious sunshine at the back of his throat. “Which glorious and illuminated adepti. Came up with this invention of unparalleled ingenuity.” He duly asks no one in particular.
The resounding laugh is startled and warm. Zhongli tilts his head at him, hair falling in front of his eyes. Childe drops another piece of food. “I daresay the people of Liyue count chopsticks as one of the Geo Archon’s most praiseworthy ideas,”
And Childe doesn’t have to look to know. To know that Zhongli has that smile on his face again. The one that’s indulgent and fond and amused, as if someone just made a terribly funny joke that’s earned them the privilege of seeing the human being behind his stone walls of propriety.
Childe doesn’t have to look to know, but he looks anyway. He looks and he looks and he looks until he’s engraved the image of Zhongli’s happiness into his memory so he can selfishly pretend that he himself did that. After all, Childe has mastered the art of playing pretend. And in this moment, there is no ‘Childe’ or ‘Tartaglia.’ No Fatui sent here to commit deicide, to drag Zhongli’s revered Archon and his legacy down from its golden throne in its heavens in order to stain Liyue in vivid crimson red. He just… is. Here, in front of Zhongli. Coaxing joy and laughter out from those warm (but so distant and closed off) eyes. Bringing happiness to others. A desperate man's imagination knows no boundaries.
He swallows a mouthful of fish, bones and all, before tossing one of his patented grins at Zhongli. Distantly, he thinks can taste blood. But it’s fine, because it doesn’t hurt. Look how carefree he is. How could it be hurting? Even his voice is bright and breezy. “Now that you mention it, I do remember the receptionist at the tea house saying something like not even Rex Lapis himself would be able to help a lost cause such as,” His gestures vaguely to himself with a smile.
Zhongli pauses mid-bite, chopsticks still in his mouth as that steady gaze finds Childe’s face again. It’s almost unnerving, sometimes. How Zhongli’s eyes seem to glow amber with all the intensity of a bird of prey. But this- this is also unnerving. The way Zhongli daintily licks the last grain of rice off his chopsticks. The way his hands set down the chopsticks so carefully, movements graceful and crisp. Perfectly aligned. Childe hates it.
“As the God of Contracts, I imagine he would find a way once the promise is made. He’s obliged to, after all,” Zhongli looks thoughtfully down at his neatly aligned chopsticks as if they hold the answer to all the secrets of the universe. “Not unlike…” He raises his head and smiles at Childe. “Not unlike how the Harbingers do not break their promises lightly.”
The cozy sunlight cascades cheerfully through the windows and sets Zhongli aglow in almost ethereal light. Zhongli’s smile is quiet and harmless. Gentle. Pretty. Not meant for Childe’s eyes. He shakily breathes in the warm afternoon light. The air tastes frigid in his mouth, colder than anything he’s ever experienced. His throat still hurts. He thinks his blood is running even colder.
Distantly, Childe’s relieved to realize he’s still smiling. For all his emotions that he offers the world, the core of Childe is supposed to remain immovable. A deathly still pool of water with murky depths. Freezing to the touch.
Zhongli is not the pebble that’s stirring up ripples in his surface. He is not.
So Childe laughs at him, easy and carefree. “You’re saying come death or destruction, Liyue’s mighty Archon will find a way to force my hands into using two thin wood sticks with an acceptable degree of finesse?” Under the table, he curls his trembling fingers inwards until he feels the sting of nails against his skin.
“Yes,” Zhongli’s eyes are warm and his smile is warmer. No more, Zhongli, please. Childe’s veins are freezing over as they threaten to shatter into tiny fractals of blood. Anymore and Childe'll foolishly think he's the one who drew out the warmth. “Though it may not be the same as having Rex Lapis himself-” Zhongli’s mouth twists in bitterness for a second. “I could try to instruct you instead. If you’re content with having just Zhongli,” He even has the audacity to look slightly uncertain. Uneasy. Of what? Childe’s response?
The yes slips out of his mouth too easily, because Childe is helplessly weak and selfish and greedy. He wants to devour every inch of Zhongli until Zhongli, too, is tainted beyond saving. This Zhongli in front of him- is this taking advantage? Something this happy, this good- Childe will never deserve.
Content with having just Zhongli? Oh Zhongli, he thinks. If only you knew. How horrified would you be, I wonder?
Oh, Zhongli. If only you knew.
Anyway. Needless to say, somewhere down the line, Childe wakes up to find himself a man with so many masks that he’s wearing one even when he’s not. It only barely registers as a thought several years into wiping rusted red off sharp blades. Why waste energy thinking about a foregone conclusion? It’s only natural. It doesn’t matter, nor is it a terribly big revelation in any way. Childe laughs all the easier for it.
Until it abruptly starts mattering, in a harbor city nestled in a kingdom of mountains. This is where Childe starts losing. Not that what he was doing was winning, exactly.
After all, all he does is smile. He dribbles nectar-sweet honey all over his words and gently coaxes the inquisitive bee to its downfall.
Regardless if it’s the bee or the butterfly or the bunny or the boar- whoever Snezhnaya needs him to hunt today - well. What does it matter, in the end? They all follow eagerly and lets him unravel them as he pleases, before he builds them up again and rewinds their threads around his fingers. He waves his hands, and they dance for him.
His hands. “Maybe my hands just weren’t made to hold chopsticks,” Childe complains one rainy afternoon. They take easier to sharp things with fine edges made to rip and tear, he thinks. This - idle chatter and quiet companionship - these are things too foreign. Too simple. Too quiet.
Zhongli leans forward. “Are your hands not the same as anyone else’s?” He has an unfair habit of tilting his head slightly when he’s bemused, bangs shifting until they fall harmlessly in front of his eyes. It should be illegal, how such a small thing floods Childe’s heart with so much emotion until he fears he’ll shatter into pieces from the sheer effort of containing explosion of feeling. Cute, his traitorous brain is beginning to think. He kills the thought before it fully forms.
Instead, Childe slowly takes off his gloves and stretches his hands in front of him. Callouses. A paper cut from bank documents. A scrape from almost falling in the funeral parlor. Slightly chapped skin from this week’s windy weather. A fading scar from an encounter with a ruin guard. Phantom traces of blood that’ll stain him forever. Marks from trying to hold onto those gods-forsaken chopsticks made for a world that was never meant to be his.
Could his hands ever be like everyone else’s? He pretends he doesn’t know.
The feeling of fingers around his snaps his thoughts in two as if they were brittle ice, even if the touch is through two layers of gloves.“Of course they’re not the same,” Zhongli tells him. Childe fights the instinctive flinch that runs through him. His fingers are trembling. Does Zhongli know? That this is a futile endeavor? Because his hands-
“They’ll never be like everyone else's.” Zhongli repeats again, more firmly. The rain is loud and unrelenting against the window but his voice is steadier. “You are the only Childe I know of in this world. These are yours,” He looks down at Childe’s hands the way Liyue merchants scrutinize precious stones. Careful. Deliberate. Appreciative. “These are yours, and that’s why they will learn. Just like anyone else’s,” Zhongli tells him seriously. The promise cuts through Childe sharper than any knife he’s ever let fly even as a surprised laugh bubbles up in him.
Sometimes, Childe still can’t quite believe Zhongli is real. That this solemn, earnest airhead of a person has survived until now. Zhongli is serious. He means it. Childe closes his eyes. He thinks the rain is laughing as the heavens cry. “If you’re this certain about it, Mister Zhongli, who am I to say no?”
Zhongli blinks at him, owlish. All his prior intensity is lost in a heartbeat. “Yes, I am certain. I promised I’d teach you, didn’t I?” Childe’s fingers are pliant as Zhongli rearranges them around the chopsticks. “It would be unfortunate if a Snezheyan diplomat starved to death on account of the cutlery,” Zhongli adds absent-mindedly. Childe’s laughter rings out bright as the storm outside weathers on. For now, this is fine.
Childe's hands are... pretty, he's heard. From Zhongli, once, late at night. The memory is etched into his soul in stone lest he ever forgets.
The sky is lonely that night. The moon is quiet. Its borrowed light from the sun is dim, barely enough to cast their surroundings in a ghostly, sickly glow. They’re standing in some ruin or the other, an obscure piece of history pointing to an ancient treasure coveted as a political pawn. The details don’t really matter, Childe thinks, even as he remembers every single one of them.
It’s the first time he sees Zhongli fight. Red staining his face. Dust falling off his gloves. His eyes flash amber in the night. There’s something different, something unrelenting and cold hiding in the edges of his gaze. When Zhongli turns to face Childe, pulling his spear out from the last ruin hunter’s core, the instinctual creeping dread Childe feels unsettles him. Straight through the heart, his mind whispers to him.
A ridiculous, slightly hysterical part of him thinks Zhongli wields his spear the way he does chopsticks. Fluid, graceful. Precise. His movements are chillingly casual, as if it’s nothing more than delivering carefully balanced rice to his mouth to ease hunger. A mundane action. And his weapon? Is only there for convenience, the way you technically don’t need cutlery to eat. Childe can’t shake the notion that Zhongli would’ve killed just as easily - easier - with his bare hands. To think Childe was dreading Zhongli seeing him fight, of proving once and for all how Childe only takes to sharp things and arrows like a fish does to water.
Zhongli’s face is cast in darkness under the weak moonlight. He takes a step towards Childe, shadow seeping into the night around him until Childe can’t tell where nature ends and man begins. When Zhongli’s hand reaches out towards him he has to physically wrestle down the urge to flinch.
A touch lighter than a butterfly lands briefly on Childe’s arm. “Are you alright?” Zhongli inquires. Childe’s breath hitches. Suddenly, all that is left is the Zhongli that sits across from him in restaurants and foolishly makes promises to help him. There’s worry tinting the edges of Zhongli’s eyes as he looks at Childe searchingly, as if he’s trying to look through him and all his lies.
“Yes,” Childe says, throwing in an easy smile as extra evidence. Zhongli frowns. It’s petulant. For Zhongli, this might as well be a pout. A breath catches in Childe’s throat as his fingers twitch. He wants to… He wants to- He wants to? What? What are you going to break this time, Childe?
Zhongli’s expression is incredulous, frown deepening. A laugh bursts out from Childe’s traitorous throat despite himself. “You were on fire.” Zhongli states dryly. His fingers brush beside a shallow cut on Childe’s exposed chest. “We are standing in charred pieces of your clothing.” Zhongli’s eyes flicker intently over Childe, and Childe, one of the strongest Harbingers of the merciless Fatui, is not trembling from the sudden attention.
“Astute observation-” The rest of Childe’s words die in his mouth at the feeling of Zhongli’s bare hands against his equally bare hands. Zhongli’s fingers dance lightly across his skin, brushing ashes and the away the remaining scraps of Childe’s gloves. The moon’s sickly light casts Zhongli even paler, as if he was a carefully crafted statue to worship. But even so, his hands are warm. He’s right, Childe thinks, about being on fire. Childe is burning from every touch.
“Your hands are pretty,” Zhongli tells him and Childe startles. “So. It’s good that you are unharmed.” His gaze is fixed downwards on their entwined hands.
Childe splutters, entire body threatening to combust. “Zhongli-”
“Your Hydro vision. It was like a performance,” Zhongli raises his head and cuts him off cleanly.
Childe stiffens and tries to draw his hand away. Your hands are pretty, Childe’s been told. For an assassin. “Killing is an art in Snezhnaya, after all.” His voice is flat. Undisturbed. A still pool of ice cold water with murky depths.
Zhongli’s grip is surprisingly firm even as it remains gentle. His fingers tighten briefly around Childe’s as he shakes his head. “ The Liyue you know now only came to be through the death dealt by the adepti.” His gaze flickers to Qingyun peak standing proud in the distance. “All of the adepti.” Even the Prime of Adepti himself, the revered Geo Archon.
Childe chokes on a hysterical laugh. “Rex Lapis felled the sea serpent and so mountains sprang from where its spines fell. He fought terrible battles and bled for the land, and so rivers and valleys were formed.” The legends come to him easily, bitterness entangled in every syllable. “But I, with my hands-” Childe’s fingers are trembling in Zhongli’s warmth.
“Danced alongside the moonlight. Childe, listen.” Zhongli’s eyes gleam amber as he slowly sets each word free into the night. “The land of Liyue only lives and breathes because of the water running through its veins. Liyue is the domain of the Geo Archon, yes, but know that its heart wouldn’t beat without the water carrying the very rhythm of its soul.”
A shaky breath. “Even all the water in the world could never-,” Childe’s eyes flutter shut. “Could never hope to wash my hands clean,” He says lowly. He looks at his fingers under the waning Liyue moon. Pretty? His fingers? Zhongli could snap them in half without a thought. Should snap them in half. Childe's fingers are unremarkable. Pale. Bony. The only thing special is their relentless grip that will wring out the last vestiges of dignity in any being.
Even if that being is Rex Lapis. If his Tsaritsa wants Childe to haul him down from the heavens and carve out his divinity from his chest until his name as the almighty Liyue is tarnished - it's not even a question of whether or not his hands will do it.
Of course he will. It's an easier choice to make than breathing, right? These hands will strip away everything that made Liyue into the land Zhongli loves. Zhongli- Zhongli, you and your fondness for obscure traditions and knowledge- Your quiet appreciation of Liyue’s thousands of years of history- Your misplaced ease as you navigate Liyue Harbor’s markets and merchants-
Zhongli, will my fingers still be pretty then?
“Childe,” He hears again, soft and steady. There’s something different about this Zhongli, something foreign and different hovering in the shadows of his face. His eyes aren't unkind, not exactly, but there’s something unreadable lurking in the edges. Unparalleled self-assurance, an absolute confidence that every word uttered will become reality. is overwhelming. Childe faintly feels like he’s back in the Snezheyan throne room, kneeling on the ground.
Zhongli’s smile is muted under the moonlight as he properly entwines their fingers. “The rain in the forest. The waterfall as dawn surges to meet day. It-” A brief second of conflict flashes across his face. “It was breathtaking.” He tilts his head back to look at the distant shape of Celestia amongst the horizon. “Your Archon-” He says and Childe flinches. A flash of something darts past Zhongli's eyes as he pauses.
His voice is quiet and firm when he starts again. “Even the scent of mist grass will eventually be washed away by the rain.” Too much. There is too much kindness laced into the sentence. Childe shakily breathes in the peace of the night and tries not to think. Mist grass. Delusions. He is tainted with power. Zhongli’s eyes still haven’t left his face. Childe thinks he’s going to drown in amber, an exposed rabbit’s last moments before a hawk swiftly ends its suffering. There is too much conviction in Zhongli’s gaze. Too firm of a belief in Childe. Just too much.
“That,” Childe begins. His voice is not shaking. “Zhongli, I’m not-” Even as he desperately slips from one mask into the other, the words that have always came easily are still nowhere to be found.
Zhongli blinks at him. “Childe. The Hydro Archon is the god of justice, no?” It's curious and inquisitive, absurdly matter-of-fact and stupidly earnest in the most Zhongli way possible. And again, for the second time in one night, he's back to being just Zhongli. Zhongli, who never has any mora in his pockets, Zhongli, who wastes too much time trying to teach Childe something he will never learn. For a terrifying moment, he feels wetness prickle at the edge of his eyes as his nose wrinkles. A sudden surge of warmth and relief is thundering through him. This is the moment that is carefully folded and tucked away in his heart.
Childe breathes. “Yes,” He says, closing his eyes. “Yes she is.”
Zhongli leads the way back to Liyue and Childe follows, distantly wondering how Zhongli makes it seem as if all roads lead back to Liyue. To home.
The world is just them and the lonesome moon standing guard, their Visions the only stars twinkling bright in the night.