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“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.

Chapter Text

Zhongli pauses, pale hand outstretched in front of Childe, the wonton tucked neatly between his chopsticks. “That is not of Liyue origin, unfortunately,” He says, adding the wonton to the steadily growing pile on Chide’s plate.

“The moon is beautiful tonight?” Childe repeats. 

The moon is, possibly, beautiful tonight. Liyue’s leaves have rusted to warm hues of red-orange-yellow, fluttering as the autumn breeze gently runs her hand across their delicate skin.

The night sky of Liyue Harbor is twinkling, a canopy of paper lanterns painting the city in soft light. They’re swaying as they breathe along with the wind, and Childe wonders yet again how they’re still aloft and whole. They look so brittle, fragile. A touch and the paper crumbles, exposing the heart that glows warm and bright within. 

The moon is probably beautiful tonight. It is the mid-autumn festival, after all.

(“Have you had the chance to taste Liyue’s offerings of yexiao - ah, midnight… snacks? - yet?” Zhongli asks Childe one day over lunch. Zhongli’s fingers entwined around his own chopsticks as gracefully as the carved dragons curve around the pillars in the harbor. A small, feeble part of Childe that he had long buried wants to instinctively lean down and bite the pork off Zhongli’s chopsticks.

Of course not, what’s the point for someone like me, Childe doesn’t say. “No. Is this an invitation to rectify this grievous mistake of mine?” He grins pleasantly at Zhongli. The singular asparagus shoot clenched tightly between his own chopsticks is held in a death grip. His fingers are refusing to let go.

Zhongli’s entire face lights up as he returns the smile easily, too easily. “You would be interested in trying? They are one of a kind and somewhat of a guilty indulgence, occasionally,”

Childe is weak and his voice is agreeing before he realizes. He wants to laugh. Trust him, Zhongli, Childe knows. That they will be one of a kind and another guilty indulgence, just as they always have been, and always will be until-

“Sorry,” Childe says distantly when his stir-fried tofu falls onto the table. It seems he’s lost his grip momentarily.)

So here they are now, underneath the moon, Zhongli piling his favorite delicacies onto Childe’s plate, foolishly handing Childe one piece of himself after another.

The mid-autumn festival. When the moon shines its brightest and the fall harvest is ripe for collection. A time of celebration, of wishes for prosperity, of gathering with family and friends.

There is no tremor, no shake in Zhongli’s hand as he reaches over. The xiaolongbao’s paper thin translucent skin remains unblemished. His arm is so infuriatingly still that he might as well have been made of stone, Childe thinks bitterly. You make it look so easy.

The moon is beautiful tonight.

“That is not of Liyue origin, unfortunately.” Zhongli gently coaxes Childe’s fingers out of its tense hold on his chopsticks. The xiaolongbao Childe picked up is bleeding juice all over the table.

“The moon is beautiful tonight?” Childe repeats again, a broken record.

“The moon is beautiful tonight,” Zhongli confirms. “Inazuman. I want to marry you.” Childe looks at him and sees something too soft, too amused in return. He looks away again.

“That’s very roundabout of them,” Childe tells the remnants of the xiaolongbao’s burst skin on his chopsticks. He doesn’t want to look up.

So of course Childe looks up, eyes gravitating to Zhongli’s as surely as the sun will rise. The lanterns cast Zhongli’s face in a glow that is bitterly warm and another xiaolongbao breaks under Childe’s suddenly tightened grip. “It is a trait that Inazuma’s archon inherited from Liyue’s, supposedly,”

Zhongli’s eyes are crinkling in a way that means he’s on the verge of laughter, and Childe’s face traitorously can't help but smile along with him. “So when I told that merchant during dinner that the moon is beautiful tonight-”

Zhongli casually delivers a xiaolongbao to his mouth, delicate form intact, perfectly poised on his chopsticks. “It was simply what it was.” Zhongli looks at him, smile rising to his face naturally before canting his face upwards. “The moon really is beautiful tonight.”

And it is. Probably, possibly, maybe. Childe isn’t looking very closely. All he knows is that the moon hangs heavy and round tonight; it glows so luminescent, as if it’s trying to wrap the entire world’s shadows in a comforting embrace.

The night is bright. It’s so bright it hurts. Childe’s eyes flutter shut.

 


 

Childe is supposed to be the one that’s perpetually amused as he watches the world fumble around him. Case in point:

You, you suspicious Fatui-Lumine’s floating mascot is armed with a terrifyingly harmless scowl as she brandishes a finger at him.

He blinks at her slowly and looks around, just in case Paimon was exploding at Another Suspicious Fatui and not Childe, the Definitely Trustworthy Fatui. “Me?” He points at himself, the perfect portrait of polite confusion.

Paimon’s entire form vibrates with sheer fury. You! Yes, you!” Her scowl is quite impressive. “You wreathe yourself in all that carefreeness! As, as if wearing an easygoing air like a cloak suddenly makes your happy cheery ‘tee hee I’m a good guy nothing bothers me!’ facade thing real!” Her admirable attempt at appearing menacing is slowly falling apart as her voice stumbles higher into hysteria. “As if a few smiles would just cancel out the, the sheer amount of Fatui you exude!

Which is fair, so Childe leans forward slightly and gives her an indulgent smile. A go on, of sorts. His patented I hear you but I don’t at the same time. Even if he does. Even if he’s the first one that mocks himself at every opportunity for the hypocrisy at thinking he could ever deserve anything again, as if he was a person.

Paimon explodes in a glittery burst of constellations and high pitched shrieking. Lumine bodily drags Paimon away while tossing apologies over her shoulder at Childe.

And this, this is how the universe is meant to be. Childe, both feet on firm ground as the cosmos spirals out of control to a rhythm of his choice. A symphony written and conducted by his own hands, performed by the unwitting hands of others. This makes sense. This is familiar.

What doesn't make sense is the ever present smile that’s been on Zhongli’s face lately whenever he looks at Childe, as if he actually sees something worth looking at. Something that sparks joy.

He hears Zhongli’s laugh before he sees Zhongli. It rings brighter than any of Liyue’s ancient and revered important bells of importance and-

And Zhongli rounds the corner and - oh. Childe vaguely thinks. He looks at the quiet smile on Zhongli’s face and greedily lets himself wonder for a second: Did I do that? 

Yes, his mind doesn’t even have to whisper back. Yes you did. You and your false appearances and the layers and layers of nice agreeable words and smiles you wear to desperately pretend that there’s still something inside. As if it’s not all empty now. As if there’s isn’t only dust and ash and the burnt cinders of something that was once alive. It’s not a matter of not being able to ever be a good person, because, oh, Tartaglia, there isn’t a person left. Just a mockery of a soul woven from lies made of too much blood and death. 

“Mister Zhongli,” Childe greets, beaming. Another lie. Is he happy when he sees Zhongli? Can he be happy? Is he allowed to be happy? “And what business do you have with this very trustworthy Fatui today?” The words are as bitter as they are light and easy to say. It comes out of his mouth too practiced.

Zhongli raises an eyebrow at him. “I believe I have an appointment with one Childe for lunch?” His eyes are still warm with laughter.

“Are you sure you have the right person?” Jovial, teasing, light. This is familiar. This, Childe can do. How can you ever get hurt if everything and anything is just one extended cosmic joke made at his expense? Take everything lightly and hold everything at arms-length. It’s better for everyone this way.

Zhongli peers at him curiously, as if he were the clear waters of Yaoguang Shoal. As if there’s something to see in him. As if he wasn’t a murky swirl of mud and dead vegetation doing its best to desperately hide its empty depths. “As far as I can tell, this does not seem to be a counterfeit replica .” Zhongli responds seriously. “My instincts tell me this is the genuine original.” The sparkle in his eyes give his mirth away.

It wrests a startled sound of joy (joy?) from Childe despite himself. Zhongli. Making a quip. Jesting. “I could be a very convincing fake,” He warns Zhongli faux-seriously, eyebrows drawing together into a comical frown. 

Oh, if only you knew, Zhongli.

All Zhongli does is look at him, amusement bright in his eyes. “Then I’ll gladly be deceived,” He tells Childe simply. The earnestness crumples the lie Childe’s wearing on his face and suddenly he’s off-balance once again, world sliding out from under his feet.

Zhongli’s already turning and tugging at his sleeve, a wordless expectation and invitation in one. “Zhongli, are you sure you’re of Liyue?” Childe asks despite himself, something too close to appreciative wonder in his voice. “Liyue, the heart of Teyvat’s commerce built on cutthroat transactions and ever-changing market trends? Liyue, with its unending performance of deadly intricate song and dance, all in the name of business - politics - your position in life?”

And there it is again, when Zhongli turns around. That smile brimming with amusement, yes, but more than that - something unfamiliar, something Childe can’t and won’t name. “Liyue is whatever you want it to be, Childe. Just as a person is ever-changing, even the land carved of ancient stone has been eroded and reshaped over the centuries.”

Childe looks at Zhongli’s unyieldingly straight back as he leads Childe down streets warm with liveliness. Just as a person is ever-changing. But Zhongli, Childe has already failed the pre-requisites. To change, there has to be something (a person) to morph, to shift and change and grow.

Around them, Liyue looks ever forwards to the future, knowing that there will be another day, another week, another month, another year, even though there is no before or after for Childe. There is only all that he does from one moment to another for the sake of the only people he's ever known - family, his siblings  - so that they can have their happily ever afters in place of his.  

 


 

The day dawns bright, almost unbearably perfect. Childe stands on an outcrop of rock, a sea of clouds above him. 

A soft breeze coaxing sighs from the grass. Sunbeams dancing with the wind. The murmuring of a waterfall.

The day is almost unbearably perfect. And then there is Childe.

What do they say about Lunar New Year in Liyue again? That it's a time to wash yourself of old mistakes, shedding your woes to walk untainted into the future? A clean break from the past? A chance to start over?

"Cleansing," Zhongli says. "You rid yourself of all your impurities - on your own being, in your own household, in the city so you may step into the future unburdened by the ghosts of your past."

Or, in the words of a normal person, like the impossibly bright chef at Wanmin restaurant - "You leave all your bad luck behind in the past by literally washing it off you!"

Childe looks down. The delicate stalks grass around his feet are trampled and bruised. Far below, the sky itself seems to have poured its cerulean into the waters of Luhua Pool. The waterfall is a soothing rumble to the left of him.

Washing off?

There is something to be said about waterfalls. Beneath the thundering roar of rushing water meeting stone, something - something is supposed to be found as you stand there, drowning on firm ground. Enlightenment? Resilience? Spiritual attunement? Peace of mind?

Chide's not of Inazuma or Liyue, of worlds that blooms lively and bright. Cleansing, Zhongli had said.

One careful step, and then another.

Childe walks into the air and lets himself fall towards brilliant blue. The whispering winds swallow up the ear-splitting splash.

And then the world is still again. It is an unbearably perfect day.

 


 

The winter water was, rightfully, freezing. Childe does not catch a cold. Compared to the bitter chill he has known all his life, what is a bit more discomfort?

Zhongli frowns at him, one foot over the threshold. "Pardon?" Childe freezes from where he's trying to bandage his wounds. Zhongli's gaze is intense, raking over every scrape and bruise decorating Childe’s fingers, hands, skin, body. As if Zhongli was taking inventory. Of Childe.

"I-" Childe has no more pretty words left to give, no more empty facades to hide behind. Perfect timing, Zhongli. He wonders what expression he's making. "I was. Washing off misfortune. That is to say. Cleansing myself before the new year dawns?"

Zhongli only makes a soft noise at the back of his throat, expression unreadable. The door quietly clicks shut behind him. "Most people choose to take a bath, or, if more superstitious - they ask the rivers to carry their misfortunes away into the ocean. By dipping themselves in the water."

When his eyes meet Childe's, there's the faintest hint of something terribly distant and bitterly cold in them. Imperceptible to anyone else. So of course, Childe can see it. Childe sees and sees and sees. He sees too much.

Numbing fingers immediately rake their way up Childe's spine. Winter frost, Childe repeats to himself. He is used to this. What more is a little bit of cold? "That is what I did, yes. Take a bath." He's not trembling. He's fine. This is fine. His voice is not shaking.

Zhongli takes Childe's hands in his own. Just a light pressure, a reminder that they're there. Not truly holding. "You refer to the bath you took after your jump from one of Liyue's many cliffs into freezing water?"

Childe doesn't dare to glance up, not when his facial muscles seem to have frozen over and he can't even hide behind a smile. "...cleansing. A new beginning. The lunar new year," He mumbles at their entwined hands. His voice is not shaking.

"Childe," Zhongli says, and despite everything, Childe still will instinctively answer whenever and whatever Zhongli asks. "It is when we cast past shadows off to walk into the light of a different tomorrow, yes. But this is still done with the same two legs from the days of yesterday. The same person makes this journey." His expression rapidly melts, spring after winter, and as if this was some cosmic joke, warmth creeps back into Childe with it.

Childe sighs. Zhongli's gaze remains gentle and searching, as if he could find answers to the hows and whys of Childe if he persisted. As if there were anything in Childe's eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul, Childe thinks, and refuses the urge to laugh hysterically. The window to what soul?

"The lunar new year," Zhongli wraps the gauze around his fingers slowly and carefully, butterfly touch leaving spots of warmth. "Is a time of gathering with family and friends. A reminder of all that you have, and all that you will continue to have." Childe's hands are perfectly still as long fingers wreathe his hands in streaks of pure, unblemished white.

Zhongli's silences are always inviting. Childe’s mouth is opening before he can stop himself. "And then you have fireworks to scare the off demons, red on everything to ward against evil, and of course, auspicious crimson envelopes of mora as gifts." His lips are cracking from the earlier chill when he bites them. "Four thousand years of tradition and every year you all seem to come up with a new idea," and Zhongli chuckles at that, rich and low. It flows into the air and seeps all the way into the darkest corners of his soul.

Childe obediently lets Zhongli turn him around. Fingertips dance lightly across the back of his neck, the pleasant chill of cool ointment following their footsteps. "Four thousand years, and every year, the same person makes the journey. A journey of change, Childe. It is not just their mistakes that they leave behind," Childe can't see him, but he can hear the smile in the lilt of Zhongli's words. "Their doubts and their guilts and their regrets too. And with the people who bring you warmth in your life, together you cross over into an unwritten tale."

Childe's already tilting his head back at Zhongli's lightest touch on his jaw. Zhongli is smiling, he realizes. He hadn't imagined it. Not this time. "So, more than anything, it's a new entry in an ongoing series.” Bandages are plastered over Childe's face until he's a patchwork of fluffy cotton and skin.

"A happier one." Zhongli's fingers are deft. He applies balm like he's painting, except the canvas is Childe's chapped lips. It's such an absurd thought that Childe almost starts laughing. Zhongli is too careful. Too solemn and thorough, even with something like this. Someone like this.

Childe looks down at himself, dotted here and there with proof of Zhongli's care. "You didn't have to treat every single one, y'know. These injuries from," jumping off a cliff, Childe doesn't say at the slight frown on Zhongli's face, "Are nothing when compared to the usu-“

"I know. But I wanted to.” Zhongli says simply. The winter afternoon is warm.

 


 

In the end, despite laughing at the idea, Childe finds himself lost at a different festival. Under the moon’s watchful eyes, the lunar new year festival sprawls across almost all of Liyue's districts. Around him, a sea of people bustles with warmth and noise. Childe is an isolated island, huffs of breath evaporating into the night as if he was never there.

Festivals. So many festivals. Liyue and its celebrations, celebrations of just existing. The new year. A continuation of the past. A step into the future. So many celebrations.

Against all odds, Zhongli finds him. Of course Zhongli finds him. What an idiot. "There really are only so many places you could be," He responds seriously when asked, head slightly tilted in that horribly earnest way. Their breaths are mixing in the air into one giant puff of white.

Childe raises an eyebrow at him. "Even in all of Liyue Harbor, where everyone are but ‘tiny grains of sand’?” Childe’s face is sore from forcing down the traitorous smile that threatens to bloom on his face. Don't be a fool, Childe. So desperate for kindness that you'll interpret everything as selfishly as you can.

"As long as you persevere, I’ve learned that you will find that which you’ve been seeking," Zhongli’s shoulders move in a minuscule shrug. It’s such a surprisingly casual movement that Childe's protests wither in his throat from sheer shock.

When Zhongli twines his fingers around Childe, it’s slow and deliberate and with so much care. Too much care. As if Childe is an ancient funeral rite with intricate customs whose deeper meaning have been lost to all but Zhongli. Childe hates it. He hates it so much.

“If you’re still bested by the crowds like this, I’m afraid even the Geo Archon would have trouble fulfilling my promise of showing you a Liyuen festival,” Zhongli’s face is only half turned towards him, but Childe knows he's smiling. The small, quiet, and slightly indulgent one. The one Childe would like to pretend is because Zhonglis is looking at something that makes his heart grow incomparably fond, and he can’t help but let the happiness overflow into his eyes and mouth and face.

Around them, the crowd surges and recedes with the force of waves whipped into restlessness by storm. Zhongli’s hand around Childe is warm and firm, fingers fitting snugly into the gaps between his.

Please stop, Childe thinks distantly as fireworks scatter above him. Anymore and he’ll really start foolishly believing that Zhongli doesn’t want to let go. Doesn’t want to let him go.

Childe stops and Zhongli footsteps halt with him, as natural as anything. The murmurs of the crowd swell in anticipation as the fireworks crescendo in the form of a luminescent dragon. Childe tips his face upwards towards loud explosions of color. Every step the dragon takes across the heavens trails ethereal glimmers of light that dim as they approach the earth.

Zhongli’s hand around his is still warm and firm.

When the time comes. What will he think? Has he ever even thought-? That these two ineffective hands - bruised, taped, wrapped in warmth, gently held like precious treasure-

That these two hands will be the ones that'll drag his beloved archon of his beloved Liyue down from an ancient throne in the skies? That these two hands are the ones that will cleave his country in half and his happiness with it?

Someone is gently tugging at Childe’s sleeve. “Childe,” He hears. The world thunders back into focus in a jumble of noise. Zhongli’s head is slightly tilted down towards his, bangs close enough for Childe to touch.

“Are you all right?” Zhongli asks softly. Earnestly. His eyes snap to Zhongli’s, tracing the concern etched into Zhongli’s gaze with a sense of urgency that scares himself. He has to engrave it into his memory now. Before it’s too late. Before he buries his right to Zhongli’s emotions forever. “The fireworks have ended.” Zhongli continues. His voice is still soft. Infinitely patient. Their hands are still entwined.

Childe feels himself nod. “It was just. Unexpected. Surreal, in a way.” They’re walking again, weaving around booths and chattering families. Despite the crowd, the air is suddenly chilly against his skin. “I enjoyed it.” he adds quietly. I enjoyed it too much.

Zhongli smiles, almost as if he’s relieved. “It genuinely makes me happy to hear that. The fireworks are a Liyue tradition that I’m particularly fond of. It… means a lot to me.” There’s a faint tone of satisfaction curled around pride in his voice. His eyes are slightly distant and this- oh, this, Childe also knows. He knows from months of seeing the same look under the same yellow moon, like something’s horribly funny and Zhongli can’t get enough of it.

Childe knows all of Zhongli, even as he doesn’t (want to) know the hows and whys of the origin of Zhongli’s happiness. (Which aren’t him, will never be him.) Childe knows and knows and knows Zhongli, even as he has absolutely no right to.

“I enjoyed it a lot,” Childe tells the ground, voice slightly louder. Zhongli’s hand squeezes his briefly. A butterfly’s touch, briefer than a heartbeat. Of course it lasts an eternity in Childe’s mind.

For the rest of the night, Zhongli leads and Childe mindlessly follows, like a shadow who knows it’ll cease to exist come daylight.