“I’m Rex Lapis,” Zhongli says, during dinner.
“I knew it,” Childe says, leaning back in his chair with a knowing smirk.
“Oh,” Aether says, spearing a piece of meat with his fork.
The silence that follows is deafening.
Childe manages to stifle his laughter at the barely-perceptible disappointment on Zhongli’s face, but when Aether’s face transforms comically quickly from his usual blank-faced boredom to shock and realization, he can’t help himself.
“Wait—” Aether finally says, the clang of his fork dropping to the table lost in the peals of Childe’s laughter, “the dead guy?”
Aether asks him how he’d known, after that.
“Known what?” Childe feigns confusion. But the traveler shoots him a withering look, and Childe laughs. Of course he’d known; it had been so obvious, he’s sure everyone in Liyue must have rocks for brains. The absurd quality of the clothes he wore, the dragon motif, his knowledge of things from years long lost, the symbol embroidered on his back, take your pick. The evidence is overwhelming.
“You’re right,” Aether muses quietly. “About all that. But it’s still—it’s circumstantial, you know. Coincidence. The Qixing’s clothes are just as flashy. Maybe he just has an eye for fashion and reads a lot of old history books. Why leap to he’s a god?”
“Intuition,” Childe replies with a wink. Aether scoffs, but drops the subject.
What Childe doesn’t tell Aether is that in the end, on the day he’d walked into Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, paying respects to the dead Rex Lapis under the guise of Snezhnayan diplomacy, and met the enigmatic, stoic consultant behind the counter, it had been just one thing—Zhongli’s eyes.
Zhongli asks him the same question the next day, when Childe sits down to lunch with him. Aether is off doing adventurer things, helping Xiangling with her new recipes, cleaning up hilichurl camps.
“You’re not exactly subtle,” Childe says, and laughs at the petulant look on Zhongli’s face. “But it’s fine. Everyone still thinks you’re dead, right?”
Zhongli purses his lips. “Yes. Most of the Qixing does, which is the important thing.”
“You’re worried about the Qixing? ” Childe asks, feigning disinterest as he stirs his soup. The daily special, featuring slime jus. A Xiangling creation, no doubt.
“They’re fractured,” Zhongli frowns. “But no matter. This is not something to discuss over lunch.”
“Do you mean that,” Childe asks lightly, “Or do you mean it’s not something to discuss with me?”
Zhongli looks at him across the table, face betraying absolutely no sense of surprise. Gods, those eyes. Childe wishes he could bottle them up and stare at them all day, but in a non-serial-killer way.
And then Zhongli’s face softens.
"Please, Childe,” he says, voice lilting, the closest he comes to teasing, to fondness, and Childe's traitorous heart skips a beat. Several beats. "I trust you."
“I don’t trust you,” Aether says. They’re sitting on the rooftop of the Northland Bank, a surprising display of climbing prowess on Aether’s part. “Just so you know.”
Childe makes a noncommittal noise.
“You’re Fatui. You work with Signora. She took—she did something very terrible to Venti. You’re Fatui, and you are very, very close to Zhongli.”
“Jealous?” Childe asks lightly, wiggling his eyebrows for good measure. Aether makes a sound of disgust.
“Can you be serious for once in your life?” he asks, voice turning harsh.
Childe holds up his hands, surprised by his vehemence. “Okay, okay, I get it,” he says, as seriously as he can muster. “I wouldn’t do anything to hurt him.”
“You promise?” Aether grumbles, swinging a leg to and fro. It’s easy to forget, but—in moments like these, he seems so… young . So innocent.
Childe doesn’t keep track of all the promises he breaks—there are too many to remember—but this has to be a record.
Less than three hours after he has the conversation on the roof, the three of them are in Jueyun Karst, Aether collapsed on the ground, Zhongli weaponless and bleeding, palms stabbed through with Childe’s hydro blades.
It’s much easier than he expects, the actual moment. The taking.
He reaches a hydro-gloved hand towards—and then straight through—Zhongli’s chest. There’s a minute sensation of pressure, the moment he breaks through, but beyond that, there is nothing, a blank void, and then he has it. The gnosis.
Zhongli falls to one knee, mouth twisted into a grimace. Aether struggles to his feet, cut and bleeding, but Childe shoots him in the leg, twice for good measure, and he goes back down easily.
He holds up the gnosis to the light. He wasn’t sure what he expected it to be; he hasn’t met up with Signora since she fulfilled her mission, and the Tsarita hadn’t told them what it looked like, just how to get it. It’s hollow, clear as glass, seamless, the same size and shape as a chess piece. Liquid sloshes around inside like water, glowing golden and sunlit. It looks—
Like those damn eyes.
He looks down at Zhongli. It’s unfair. Even battered and broken, drained of power, he is radiant. He has an aura, firm, grounded, unshakeable. Zhongli lifts his head to meet Childe’s gaze and the sunlight catches on his eyes. They’re not… angry. They’re blank. Crystallized, unreadable, and Childe resists the urge to throw the gnosis on the ground, watch it shatter into a million little pieces, because maybe then Zhongli will do something.
Childe has thought about this exact day already, many times, turned over the scene in his mind. In some Zhongli curses him, in others he magically regains his powers and smites him with the might of meteors. He even thought Xiao might be lying in wait behind a boulder, springing up as he left to slit his neck. He’d thought about how he would taunt Zhongli for being a fool, for trusting. He would gloat. Revel in the feeling of a god reduced to nothing beneath his human hands.
But in reality, it goes something like this: Zhongli says nothing at all, and Childe leaves without looking back.
He barely makes it half a day in the Tsarita’s palace before it begins to suffocate him. He spends the afternoon and evening at a celebratory party with the other Fatui; both he and Signora returned recently, gnoses in hand. He plasters on a grin for the party, accepts the Tsarita’s toast, the other Fatui’s praises.
As soon as he’s able, he locks himself in his room, runs the water, and paces the length of his room, muttering under his breath. He’ll—he doesn’t know what he’ll do. Aether won’t forgive him, but Zhongli might, if Xiao or another adeptus doesn’t kill him on sight as soon as he takes a single step into Liyue.
But Zhongli might, and that’s enough.
He knocks on Signora’s door, just next door. She opens it, face covered in one of her nightly sheet masks. Childe had screamed the first time he’d seen her wearing one, but he’s older now. Wiser.
He holds out his palm. The gnosis rests there, taunting him. Even under the purple dimness of the palace’s electro lamps, it still glows golden, like summer, like sunlight. “I don’t want to see it ever again,” he says, and is surprised to find that he means it. “I did my part. The job is done, the debt is paid. I’m—”
Signora snatches it from his palm, lightning fast, and puts a finger to his mouth.
“Tartaglia, dear,” she says, voice sickeningly sweet and cloying. Meant to be terrifying, perhaps, but Childe is not afraid of her. “Don’t do anything you’ll regret.”
Childe almost laughs. That’s the one thing he has done already.
“And if you do decide to do something stupid,” she continues, her voice turning lethal, sharp as a knife, “don’t tell me. It’s better for both of us that way.”
Childe is not stupid, and neither is Signora. He does not fear her, but he respects her, and she respects him as well. But the message is clear—she will not protect him. No one will.
Childe leaves the palace that night, the only way he knows how, now—silent, and quiet, and alone.