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more espresso, less depresso

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Zhongli is trying to rearrange the cups on the entrance shelf into a manner that is feng-shui approved when the bells on the door chime to signal a customer. 

“Welcome.” He says without looking backwards. Perhaps he could line the bone china set along the far shelf and direct the patterns towards the art deco painting, which would in turn lead the viewer’s line of sight towards the window, allowing the—

“Um,” a voice behind him promptly cuts off his train of thought, “sorry, but is anyone on shift?”

Zhongli turns around and meets with an eyeful of fluffy ginger hair and periwinkle irises. A cordially lukewarm smile.

“I am on shift.” He responds. The customer lifts an eyebrow, and scans Zhongli from head to toe.

“Really,” he says with a laugh, the sound smooth to the ears. “But you’re dressed, like, all fancy. You sure you don’t own this place instead of just working here?”

“I do not.” Zhongli replies before walking behind the counter. “How may I serve you?”

The man leans over the counter and tilts his head up at Zhongli. 

Like a fox, Zhongli thinks. Same colour hair, too. He suddenly has the strangest urge to pat this man on the head.

“I haven’t been around these parts before,” he grins upwards, as sweet as candy. There’s a small dimple on his left cheek, which Zhongli files away into his mind for... reasons. “So I’d like some recommendations.”

Zhongli hums, putting a hand to his chin. “Our most popular arabica beans would be typica and bourbon, available as both single origin and blends, however we also hold robusta varieties in stock. Recently there’s been a rise in demand for SL-28 due to its multidimensional flavour profi—”

“Which one do you drink?” The ginger-haired man interjects, and Zhongli takes a moment to unwind his tongue from his next syllable to reply truthfully.

“Tea.”

The other bursts out laughing, bending over the counter and almost facilitating a domino effect on the little cluster of table number signs next to the register. Zhongli frowns in mild confusion. He didn’t intend to jest, so what could possible so humorous? 

“Sorry—” The other snorts mirthfully after the laughter has died down. His eyes wax into crescents, and suddenly, Zhongli is taken back to when he was a child, pointing at the moon and tracing the constellations with his fingertips. 

“It was just so sudden,” the man grins, “Though I should’ve expected that. You definitely don’t look like a coffee type of person.”

Zhongli raises his eyebrows. “I appreciate the… spontaneous evaluation of my tastes.”

Zhongli stands rigid as blue eyes wander across his figure, awkwardly holding a marker in one hand and an order notepad in the other. Truthfully, he’s starting to feel a bit like one of the paintings in the art galleries he always used to visit. 

“Okay, then,” the man’s grin is wide, but Zhongli can sense a sort of fraudulence, a whiff of furtiveness, encapsulated within it. “If you had to pick one.”

“...Arabica espresso. One pump of caramel.”

“I’ll have that then. Regular size to-go.”

“My tastes may not align with yours.” Zhongli points out. It would be a more meaningful piece of advice if he wasn’t already jotting down the order in effortlessly intricate cursive font. 

“I don’t mind,” is the offhanded reply he receives. “It’ll be a good experience.”

“...I see.”

The air between them soon flourishes with the luscious scent of coffee, twinged with rich milk and deep caramel. Zhongli is almost done making the order before the man starts to speak again.

“My name’s Childe.” He starts. Zhongli wipes down the surface of the coffee grinder, somewhat feeling awkward with the pleasantries. Truth to be told, customer service had never been his strong suit.

“A name won’t be necessary,” he replies mildly. “We are not Barbabucks.”

The man, Childe, chuckles. “I know that. I was hoping you’d tell me yours in return.”

Zhongli turns around and opens his mouth, but is immediately interrupted by a shrill ringtone. Upon closer listening, he recognises it as a Russian internet meme that Xiao had once sent him in the middle of a meeting, which he had accidentally played out loud on full volume. But Zhongli would rather keep that memory repressed.

“Oops, that’s mine.” Childe grimaces before digging into his pockets. He sighs deeply before picking up. “What, ‘Nora.”

Zhongli watches, bemused, as Childe slowly descends into an exasperated argument, before he abruptly hangs up in the middle of a sentence. He quietly pushes the cup of coffee towards Childe, who suddenly seems to have aged five years in the span of five minutes.

“Sorry, I have to go,” Childe says apologetically, “I’ll see you next time.”

Zhongli, once again, doesn’t get the opportunity to say a response before Childe is out the door with his takeaway coffee, leaving the tinkling of bells and the spectre of a smile in his wake.




“How was it?” Ningguang asks him at the end of the day as they’re preparing to close the shop. “Anything eventful?”

Zhongli pauses, then replies perhaps a beat too late, “no.”

Ningguang doesn’t comment on the hesitance, but the subtle smirk on her face does not reassure Zhongli in the slightest. 

“Well, if everything is to your liking so far, I guess it means we don’t have any issues here.” She tells him while inspecting her nails. 

“You are the manager of the shop,” Zhongli points out evenly, “shouldn’t it be sufficient for you to carry out the practical evaluations?

Ningguang smiles sickly sweetly. “And you are the owner of the franchise. You’re lucky us managers are capable enough to run ourselves, otherwise the Wangsheng brand would have collapsed as soon as you had opened your first store because of your tendency to spontaneously become MIA in all business proceedings.”

Zhongli raises his hands and gives a sheepish smile. “I apologise.”

“Which is why,” Ningguang pointedly ignores him, “you shall be working here, in this very shop, every weekend starting next week.”

Zhongli opens his mouth to protest, “I am your boss—”

“And if you do not,” Ningguang raises her voice to engulf his words whole, “then I will fire myself and gleefully watch as you struggle in vain to find another employee that can match up to my capabilities and wit.”

The brunette can barely get another consonant out of his mouth before Ningguang cackles and says, “And I’ll tell Xiao you’ve been slacking off again. I’ll be looking forward to seeing where he dumps your body.”

Zhongli knows he’s been beat. He also wonders why everyone is insistent on cutting him off today.

 


 

6:29pm

hey, i saw some posters yesterday. seems like there’s gonna be a touring theatre group in town next month.

wanna go watch?

 

10:47pm

I apologise, Xiao. I’ve been assigned to some…duties. My weekends will no longer be free from next week onwards.

 

10:49pm

sorry but it’s about time you got your ass kicked for being so irresponsible.

they’ll have performances on weekdays. we’ll just go then.

 

10:54pm

PLEASE BRING MORA.

 


 

Zhongli arrives earlier than he’s supposed to, on the following Saturday. He stands around awkwardly in front of the store after realising that he accidentally gave his set of keys to Ningguang last time and forgot to ask for them back, when he suddenly feels a tap on his shoulder. He turns around to see a boy, maybe fresh out of high school, with hair and eyes in the shades of an arctic landscape.

“Are you alright?” The boy asks. He’s holding a neatly folded barista’s apron draped over one arm and a set of keys in his hands with a popsicle keychain attached to it.

Zhongli nods. “You must be the part-timer that works on weekends.”

“I am,” he replies casually, fiddling with his keys. “Are you a customer?”

“No. I’m… a temporary. I’ll be working with you for the coming weekends.”

The boy pushes open the door and yanks the key out with some effort, before turning back to scrutinise Zhongli. “I see. Ningguang did mention that I’ll be getting a pair of helping hands for my next few shifts. My name’s Chongyun,” he extends a hand and smiles. “What’s yours?”

“Zhongli,” he replies and takes Chongyun’s handshake. His skin feels strangely cool to the touch. “A pleasure to be working with you.”

 

 

 

“Hey Zhongli,” Chongyun pokes his head into the storage room where the taller man is currently doing a stocktake for their beans, “there’s a guy asking for you. He keeps going on about someone with ‘pretty amber eyes’ and ‘a scary amount of coffee bean knowledge’, and I really don’t think he’s talking about our other part-timer Xiangling.”

Zhongli looks at his coworker while grasping a bag of beans in each hand. 

“I’ll be out in a moment,” he says, almost banging his forehead on the low hanging light as he shoves both bags into the shelf directly above him, only to have them fall back on his head.

 

 

 

Childe recognises Zhongli before Zhongli recognises him. 

In Zhongli’s defense, his head was still preoccupied with quantity figures and break-even calculations and whether or not he should advise Ningguang to swap to a first-in-first-out inventory management system instead, until he finally registers Childe’s face as the eccentric guy he served on the prior Saturday.

“Oh.” He says blankly, “it’s you.”

Childe smiles like a kid on Christmas Day. “So you remember me.”

“There’s not many foreigners around these parts that share your appearance.”

“Well, I guess I’m flattered,” Childe laughs, and Zhongli realises that he’s missed the sound. “Anyways, you seem to be dressed accordingly today.”

Zhongli glances down at his black dress shirt and (borrowed) work apron. Right before the shift started, Chongyun had taken just one look at him before he instructed the taller man to take off his suit jacket, handed him a spare apron from the storage, and muttered something along the lines of ‘work health and safety regulations’.

“...I suppose so.”

“Anyways,” Childe tears his eyes away from ogling at Zhongli’s undone collar and exposed neck, “I believe I didn’t catch your name last time, since there was… an interruption.”

“I don’t see why you would need my name.” 

From his peripheral, he can vaguely see Chongyun squinting at them. Or maybe he’s squinting at Zhongli in particular. It’s a bit hard to tell.

Childe’s smile is all teeth. “Indulge me.”

“My name is Zhongli,” he responds with a sigh, “now will I be taking your order?”

Childe’s laughter is like the tittering of morning bird songs, light and airy and restrained. “I’ll have the same as last week. What was it again?”

“Caramel shot espresso.”

“Yeah,” Childe waves his hands dismissively, his eyes never straying from Zhongli’s, “that one.”

 

 

 

“I’ll see you, Zhongli.” Zhongli can’t help but notice how smoothly, how perfectly his name meshes together with Childe’s vocal timbre.

He lets a small, soft smile slide onto his lips. “Thank you for your patronage.”

Childe freezes for a moment, his wide blue eyes burning into Zhongli’s face as if he could engrave the sight into his retinas and preserve it forever, before he blinks, laughs and exits the shop with his espresso in hand.

A beat of silence.

“...Who in the world drinks espressos with flavour shots?” Chongyun asks in disbelief.

“Me,” Zhongli replies promptly, but his eyes don’t stray from Childe’s retreating figure in the distance. “And him.”

Chongyun gives him the strangest side-eyed look before he returns to sweeping the floor.

 


 

Over the next few weeks, Childe seems to have developed a habit of bringing gifts along every time he visits the shop. Despite Zhongli’s initial hesitancy and refusals, he quickly learns that ‘no’ does not seem to exist in Childe’s personal dictionary.

The first time was a bouquet of lush flowers - a delicate composition of snow white lilies and roses, intense crimson tulips, accented by rich amber pansies. Zhongli had used it to test how well he retained his knowledge of flower language, before dismissing the holistic implication of the bouquet to retail marketing practices.

The second was an earring, with a glimmering golden tassel, red aureate patternings and an embedded black pearl.

 

(“What kind of person wears a single earring?” Chongyun had commented while peering around Zhongli’s tall frame to look at Childe’s latest gift.

Then he looked upwards at Zhongli, and said, “nevermind.”)

 

Zhongli had worn it while spending a day off together with Xiao, which prompted a long series of strange looks from his childhood friend. 

In the end, Xiao had questioned him about it with unrestrained suspicion and Zhongli truthfully answered that it was a gift from a customer, because both of them know that although Zhongli has refined tastes, he would never go out of his way to purchase something for himself that looked so distinct, so eye-catchingly bold. So much like a mark of ownership.

 

...Which is why Xiao parks himself in the corner of the shop on the following Saturday during Zhongli’s shift with two venti sized frappuccinos, glaring at each new customer that comes in through the door with the intensity of a spiky, hissy, green mother hen.

“My friend,” Zhongli sighs as he approaches the smaller man during a momentary afternoon lull. Chongyun is out sick today, so Zhongli has had his hands so full that he didn’t get the chance to tell Xiao off until now. “Please refrain from intimidating everyone that comes in. You’re giving the shop a bad image.”

“I will,” Xiao responds moodily, his eyebrows knotting together. “After you tell me what—”

The bells on the door ring through his words, and Zhongli, in an unsettling moment of deja vu, turns around to catch an eyeful of wind-mussed red hair and playfully secretive eyes.

“Oh,” his voice wavers a little. “Welcome back.”

Childe does that little crescent eye-smile that makes Zhongli’s heart staccato. It’s unreasonably nostalgic, even though they’ve just seen each other less than a week ago. “Hey.”

Zhongli tries his best to ignore Xiao’s seething aura of rage from below as he turns around to fully face the other man. He glances downwards to see Childe holding… a... holy crap...

“Is that,” he says slowly, “for me…?”

Childe laughs, sharp and crisp, and it is the sound of waves crashing against the shore, notes of affection under the layers of charm and confidence. “Of course, who else?”

“Oh.” Zhongli coughs into his hand. The room feels strangely warm. He makes a mental note to check if the air-con requires maintenance later. “I suppose I‘ll have to repay you. Again. With coffee.”

Childe moves over to place his gifts on the counter, seemingly blissfully unaware of Xiao’s menacing presence spreading through the room like a thick, fierce miasma. 

Or maybe he’s a good actor, Zhongli thinks offhandedly as he starts grinding the beans, feeling the machine tremble and shake beneath his fingers. Even from this distance, the feeling of Xiao’s golden eyes burning right through Childe’s head and into the back of Zhongli’s is very, very palpable. 

“You know,” the ginger-haired man pipes up from across the counter, “With everything I’ve gotten for you, don’t you think I deserve something a little more? ...For instance, maybe something like a ki—”

“Ahem.” Xiao coughs harshly from his little corner, and Zhongli turns around to see Childe slink back down like a startled puppy.

Childe shoots a glare towards the smaller male and sticks his tongue out before realising that Zhongli is looking at him. His expression morphs into one of sheepish bashfulness in the blink of an eye. “Nevermind.”

 

 

 

The silence suspended in the shop after Childe leaves is so tense that Zhongli thinks he could probably blend it in the grinder and serve it in a cup. The taste, though... would be questionable at best. He hesitantly turns to look towards Xiao’s direction, not quite sure what to expect.

Xiao’s eyes are as wide as the bone china saucers along the wall as he stares fiercely at Childe’s back through the window, before whipping his head around and slapping himself with his own hair.

“Zhongli,” he hisses, a scandalised look skimming across his face, “you have a sugar daddy.”

Zhongli frowns, trying to make sense of the phrase with his meagre knowledge of non-trivia related things. “A… ‘sugar daddy?’ But to my knowledge Childe is not a father nor is he composed of glucose—”

Xiao slaps a hand to his forehead so hard that Zhongli pays his respects to the considerable number of brain cells that may have just perished. The sound he makes vaguely resembles a dying animal. “I don’t know how you do it.”

Zhongli crosses his arms, feeling strangely defensive. “Do what?”

“Get everyone around you to bend to your whims. Get everyone to suck up to you.” Xiao gestures vaguely around the coffee shop. “Your entire business— your entire life is, just. Luck.”

“Ningguang does not ‘suck up to me.’”

“Ningguang has the biggest metaphorical dick in town,” Xiao retorts easily. “Yet she still works for you. But I digress, Zhongli. How long have you known that little ginger asshole?”

Zhongli bites his lip. “...Perhaps three weeks, give or take.”

“So basically, he’s been courting you for a month, and you still haven’t noticed? What the fuck?”

The brunette frowns. “‘Courting’ would be inaccurate. I think ‘networking’ is a more appropriate term for this situation.”

Xiao’s face is catatonic. “He literally ogled your ass when you turned around.” 

Zhongli blinks rapidly. “Perhaps you were misinterpreting things.”

The shorter man runs both hands through his hair and lets out a yell of hopeless frustration. Zhongli winces, before he goes back to shut off all the machines and lights and commences the usual closing procedures.

 

 

 

“Zhongli, let me rephrase.” Xiao says tiredly while gnawing at the straw of what looks like his third Barbabucks drink (when did he buy that?), eyeing at the unbelievably extravagant bouquet and the giant dragon plush toy that Zhongli is juggling while simultaneously trying to lock up the shop. “That ginger guy likes you.”

“I like him too,” A stray petal smacks Zhongli in the face. It’s the size of his forehead. “He’s a loyal customer.”

Xiao hurls his half finished drink across the road.

 


 

The following week, he starts brewing as soon as he catches sight of Childe’s ginger-root hair from all the way down the street.

“Zhongli!” Childe exclaims as soon as he has one foot across the doorway, “I have something for you.”

Zhongli can’t help the small, warm smile that worms its way onto his face. Childe’s eyes linger for a second too long, too intensely, on Zhongli’s lips, before he reaches into his hoodie pockets to bring out two small rectangles of paper.

“I have a good feeling that you’ll like this,” he winks, placing it on the counter and sliding it across towards the, admittedly, very curious barista. Zhongli glances down at the gift. Combined with Childe’s eager expression, it somehow feels more like an offering instead. 

“Oh,” he says, his lips curving in pleasant surprise. “Tickets. The travelling theatre?”

Childe grins, unabashed and radiant. “Yep. I thought you and your tiny angry buddy would appreciate a little historical comedy in your lives.”

“Thank you. I do have a rather eager interest in the arts.” Zhongli turns back to grab a lid for Childe’s stalwart order before a thought crosses his mind.

“You never seem to stay in-house to consume your order,” he notes. Childe starts from where he had his chin resting on his palm, leaning on the counter to watch Zhongli at work. 

“Oh, uh, I’m pretty busy every day, actually,” he laughs. “I’m part of a… project, here in Liyue, and they need me to be a part of the preparations all the time. So I can never stay too long, unfortunately.”

Zhongli raises his eyebrows. “I see.”

 

Chongyun comes back from his lunch break right as Childe leaves. The blue-haired boy glances at Childe, sniffs from behind his surgical mask, and asks Zhongli, “your boyfriend visiting again?”

Zhongli stows the tickets into his apron pocket, being careful not to crease them. “Yes. He’s a very good friend indeed.”

 


 

7:01pm

Do you recall last month that we made plans to see the troupe’s performance?

I have obtained tickets for both of us.

 

7:02pm

no fuckin way.

they haven’t even started selling seats yet.

how did you get them?

wait. don’t answer that. i can already see myself punching his stupid smug face in.

 

7:02pm

Childe seems like the type of person to know the right people. Perhaps he obtained the tickets through a favour.

Anyways, please don’t commit rash acts of violence.

 

7:03pm

[Image attachment]

 

11:58pm

Your extensive collection of Kermit memes really does contain an appropriate image to fit every conceivable emotion.

 

12:05am

Why are you so displeased with the notion of Childe interacting with me?

 

12:05am

i’m not

 

12:08am

okay maybe i am.

i don’t know. it’s like that feeling where you send your kid to college.

except the kid is actually your pet rock you’ve had since childhood and is also infinitely more successful in life than you.

btw if u cant tell. the rock is you.

 

1:01am

...I can look after myself quite aptly. Please remember that I am older than you.

 

6:35am

yet you still have the emotional intelligence of a pebble. i don't trust you.

 


 

In the end, Xiao (begrudgingly) agrees to see the play using Childe’s tickets. Zhongli counts it as a small miracle.

 

The venue is a vast, open space underneath the kaleidoscope of evening stars. There are seats lined up in pedantically neat stretches, each row labelled with seat numbers in curvy, ornate font. The lights are mellow, the moon is full. 

Zhongli had insisted that they arrive earlier to avoid the masses of people who would likely pile in near the starting time, so the place is mostly empty at the moment, save for a few other audience members and some stressed-looking backstage workers running to and fro.

“Looks better than I expected,” Xiao remarks, his voice muffled slightly by the giant oversized scarf draped around his neck. 

Zhongli nods in agreement, pulling his turtleneck upwards and watching his fogged breath ascend into the sky. The air is uncharacteristically chilly tonight, he thinks; a harbinger for an early winter.

“What seats are we at?” Xiao asks.

Zhongli looks at his ticket. Upon closer inspection, he’s surprised to find out that the seat numbers listed place him and Xiao near the front, intimately close to the stage, but still situated at the end of the row to allow for convenience of movement. 

 

“Hm? ” Xiao makes a noise of surprise while Zhongli sits down. “Is that…”

“What’s wrong?”

The younger male’s face goes sour like he just swallowed a lemon. Zhongli follows his line of sight to catch a figure retreat behind the stage curtains.

“...Nothing.” Xiao grumbles, sliding down his seat and stuffing his hands into his pockets.

 

 

 

Zhongli recognises Childe the instant the latter steps onto the stage, adorned in an ornate tailor-fit costume and a mask perched on his hair, standing tall and regal in the spotlight like he was made to be up there, addressing the world with grand flourishes and romantic dialogue. 

Oh, he realises belatedly. His ‘project’.

Childe appears on stage sporadically, but whenever he does, Zhongli finds himself unable to tear his eyes away. 

It’s an ironic reciprocal from their previous dynamic, where Childe would stare at Zhongli so insistently, so intensely that he would feel a gaze on his nape while he worked. And after he leaves, Zhongli would bring a hand to the back of his neck to rub at the pale flesh, warm as if touched by the sun.

“Flaminia!” Childe proclaims with his body angled intimately towards his female co-star, yet his eyes scour the audience adamantly, “When I took you away from your family, your home, everything you knew and loved—”

"Everything I knew,” Zhongli whispers under his breath, in sync with the actress’ response. He knows this play off by heart; a nostalgic resonance from years past, from when he used to immerse himself into the literary and academic works of all things humanist and renaissance. “But not everything I loved.”

Even whilst playing a comical caricature of a troupey lover, Childe has a preciseness, a sort of empirical grace to his every action that cues into his familiarity with the art form itself. It’s like watching a falcon catch its prey; it lives and breathes the craft of its hunt. 

Zhongli is so mesmerised that he doesn’t quite register Childe descending from the stage and into the walkway between the rows of the audience. He stops right next to Zhongli’s seat.

Childe’s grin is victorious as he looks down directly into Zhongli’s eyes, his head framed by a halo of stagelight. "My beautiful blushing lover beside me, what more could I desire?”

Zhongli inhales sharply as he feels himself being pulled upwards, then he loses his balance, toppling clumsily into Childe’s waiting arms, and Childe simply laughs, leans down, and plants a chaste kiss onto Zhongli’s open lips as if they weren’t currently under the shocked stares of about a hundred and fifty people.

Zhongli’s limbs are stone as Childe straightens both of them back up, fluidly waltzing the taller man back into his seat and utterly disregarding the Flaminia actress’ horrified stuttering, before continuing his lines as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

“...”

Zhongli closes his mouth and slowly turns to look beside him. Xiao looks like he’s about to have an aneurysm.

 

 

 

The two of them stay rooted to their seats long after the rest of the audience have filtered out of the venue at the conclusion of the play. The fact that a few people stared and grinned at Zhongli on their way out doesn’t exactly help the awkward lingering confusion in the air.

“Oh, you two are still here.” Childe calls out as he emerges from behind the thick velvet curtain. “How did you find the show?”

“It was fascinating,” Zhongli quickly says before Xiao can open his mouth, “we enjoyed it very much. Your rendition of Flavio stayed true to the essence of his character while adding your unique interpretation to him.”

Childe smiles much too innocently for the mischief he holds in his eyes. “I’m glad to hear that, though I’m not surprised that you seem to be familiar with the original Scarlet Heart transcript.” He laughs. “Anyways, how did you like my little impromptu?”

“You,” Zhongli finds himself struggling to pull the words from his throat as he says blankly, “were courting me.”

Childe snorts goodnaturedly. “Yeah, for the past month or so, but thanks for noticing.”

“I apologise, I didn’t intend to—”

“It’s alright,” Childe chuckles before taking Zhongli’s chin into his hand, tilting his face upwards. Zhongli stares blankly in response, but his entire body is rigid. “I do enjoy a challenge sometimes.” 

He dips his head down, close enough that Zhongli can feel his breath graze against his skin, and his heart skips like a stone across water while his lungs are filled with dust—

Childe!!! ” A woman’s voice pierces through the air and into his eardrums, and he vaguely recognises it belonging to the same woman that played Childe’s lover. “What the fuck were you thinking!?”

Childe flinches before he pulls away. 

“Sorry.” He says apologetically, before turning towards the platinum blonde woman stomping angrily on the stage, and yells, “Signora, can you not screech in that shitty banshee voice of yours?”

“Get your fucking little ginger ass here.” Signora gestures angrily at the floor of the stage. Zhongli thinks that her heels could probably puncture someone’s skull. “Right now.”

Childe shoots one last apologetic smile at Zhongli before he’s gone, leaving him with the adrenaline of a thousand straight espresso shots running through his veins.

 

“I was this close to committing a war crime.” Xiao mutters from beside him, fists clenched so tight that they’ve gone pale from blood loss.

 


 

The next time Childe visits the shop, he wordlessly reaches over the counter, cups Zhongli’s face, and kisses him right there in front of a small line of customers. 

Zhongli is so shocked that he drops the (thankfully empty) coffee cup he’s holding. Childe laughs breathily against teeth. Zhongli opens his mouth to protest, which instead gives the other’s tongue the perfect opportunity to slip in past his unsuspecting lips.

Ch— nngh…!”

And Childe is so confident, so domineering, that Zhongli has no choice but to shrink back while Childe takes his time mapping out each bend and curve of Zhongli’s mouth. Even though he’s the slightly taller one between the two, he feels strangely… small, in that moment, where everything else seems suddenly petrified in time all except for the warm puffs of air and wet saliva between them.

Childe pushes his tongue against the roof of Zhongli’s mouth and Zhongli can’t help but think that Childe has this uncanny ability to make it seem as though he can pry every secret, every confession from whichever soul he desires, including him.

Silently, Chongyun’s icy aura makes itself known before Zhongli feels himself be violently jerked backwards by his hair, yelping as he loses his balance and almost toppling into the coffee machine before Chongyun steadies him.

“No inappropriate acts are allowed on premises,” the blue-haired boy says irritably. “Please leave your bedroom behaviours to after-work hours.”

Childe laughs awkwardly. “Sorry, sorry.”

 


 

When Ningguang visits, in that same week, the shop is closed at the end of the day and Childe has Zhongli pinned against one of the walls, busy making tender marks along the faultless marble column of the other man’s neck. 

Zhongli shudders as Childe sucks particularly hard at one spot, before he finally catches Ninggang’s porcelain hair and knowing smirk from the corner of his eyes. 

He freezes, but Ningguang simply smiles and makes a gesture of sticking one finger into the ‘o’ shape she’s making with her other hand before quietly leaving the scene. Zhongli is going to have to ask Xiao what that means later.

 


 

“I’ve decided to leave the theatre group.” Childe says one day as he’s sitting at a table watching Zhongli close shop.

Zhongli pauses from where he is pulling the blinds down, and blinks at Childe. “Why?”

“Oh, it was kind of inevitable. I don’t really get along with a few of them and I’ve never liked all that travelling around that we have to do. Always been looking for a reason to settle down,” he says nonchalantly, before shooting a tender smile. “And you gave me that reason.”

“...Oh.”

“So how about it?” Childe spreads his arms wide as if he were still on a stage, in the midst of a blinding spotlight. “I’ll settle down here in Liyue Harbour, find myself some work, and come see you every day. How does that sound?”

It… does sound nice, Zhongli thinks. Then he mulls over Childe’s last few words, and comes to a startling realisation.

“...Are we…” He pauses, picking out his words, “...in a romantic relationship?”

Childe laughs, full-bodied and rich like coffee cream, and if Zhongli listens closely enough he can hear the bygone applause of an invisible audience beneath it. Childe's eyes glitter like the moonlit ocean while Zhongli looks onwards from the mountains.

“Yes,” Childe grins, unrestrained and wholeheartedly, “yes we are.”

 


 

“I have a confession to make,” Childe says one day, uncharacteristically nervous.

“I am listening.”

Childe scratches at his neck. “I. Um. I actually don’t like coffee.” 

Zhongli stares at his boyfriend (what a strange word, he thinks), before he sighs and tosses the half-made coffee into the bin. “Perhaps I should talk to my shareholders about rebranding into a tea shop.”

“Your… wait, what?”