In the end, the ground is cold. The ground is cold and Zhongli's gaze is even colder, his right foot a light pressure on Childe's ribs, right over his heart. A gentle reminder that his life is beneath Zhongli's. That he's not even worthy of sullying Zhongli's hands. Trust him, Zhongli. He knows. Better than anyone else.
Every gasp of air is a thousand serrated edges tearing into Childe's chest as eyes that glow too bright considers his trembling, broken form on the ground. Zhongli tsks, low and sharp from the back of his throat, irritation and displeasure evident as day. Childe knew this was coming. He knows there is no other end, but he still flinches instinctively from Zhongli's anger and disappointment even if every inch of him protests with the sudden movement. An offering at Rex Lapis' feet, the weight of his gaze threatens to squeeze the last strangled breaths from Childe’s lungs.
Childe is facing divine judgement from above and the deity renouncing him for his sins wears a heartbreakingly familiar face. But it is not the same person — this is not a person at all, this unstained being with his unsettlingly inscrutable face whose tightly controlled rage is only betrayed by his eyes. The arbiter of his fate looks at Childe, looks at what remains of Childe. Childe, painted in Zhongli’s handiwork of lacerations and lesions. Childe, lost in the throes of his Delusion, trapped behind a mask that is not his. Something ugly flashes by Zhongl— Morax’s uncannily calm countenance.
How will it end? His heart pierced? His throat crushed?
Is Rex Lapis known for being merciful? He can't remember. He can’t remember anything. There is nothing in the world but Zhongli. Zhongli…? A man who looks like Zhongli, should be Zhongli, isn’t quite Zhongli, standing high above him, an artist admiring his creation. The aftermath of a god’s wrath.
The raging currents of his Delusion and its tearing pain has scattered his thoughts far and wide. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t know. He doesn't know anything but the feel of gloved hands tracing the fragile curve of his collar bone, the slope of his throat, the curve of his neck.
So this is how it ends. There is a wetness on Childe’s face that stings as his tears run over open cuts. Even after everything, even after how it’s deserved - his heart still weeps in sorrow and all of him weeps with it. His eyes flutter shut as he stills.
If he can’t see— if he can’t see, maybe in his last moments, he will remember the Zhongli that smiles at him with empty pockets, head full of nothing but obscure Liyuen trivia. Let him have this one moment of selfishness before he passes on.
Zhongli's touch stays light and gentle. Appreciative, even, loving strokes that only smear more and more red against pale skin. Zhongli's hands cup Childe's face through his mask before Zhongli's fingers ruthlessly dig into the curve of his neck and his jaw, hard enough that Childe thinks he can hear his bones creak. Under Zhongli's grip, his Delusion shatters into fragments as naturally as birds take to flight. Fresh air dances against his bare face as bright light spills lovingly into Childe's eyes.
And just like that, Zhongli sweeps away the last remaining fragments of the Tsaritsa’s ownership over him as easily as birds take to the sky. Childe’s eyes flutter shut when he feels a thumb swipe gently across his cheek, dying it in pretty swirls of his red. His own red, dragged out of Childe’s body and into the cold air for everyone to see. Marked by Zhongli with Childe's own blood. A soft exhale of relief on his skin. “Finally, as things should be,” Zhongli murmurs.
It's too bright. It's too much. Zhongli's small, private smile is chilling. For the first time in a long while, Childe remembers what it’s like to taste pure dread in the back of his throat. After all, the sheer power required to - when they were fighting, Zhongli hadn't even-
Childe knows Rex Lapis is the first and strongest of the Archons, the ancient god of war. He thought he knew, but-
Instead of dying five times over, Childe is sprawled out in a puddle of his own blood. Zhongli had been careful, had unknowingly led him in a dance that should've been deadly, yet Zhongli stops just shy of handing Childe over into death's expectant arms and draws him back towards life - towards Zhongli - with an unyielding arm. Zhongli had parted his skin and let just enough blood ooze out for nausea to assault through Childe's consciousness with every movement, but not enough for Childe to take his last breath. Zhongli has him carefully balanced at the precipice but never in danger of truly falling over. Every touch from Zhongli only brought a wake of suffering, sinews shifting and bones groaning, but Zhongli. Zhongli had never gripped him hard enough for anything to truly snap.
Childe had wondered how it will end. His heart pierced? His throat crushed?
He had wondered how it will end, but- Even as Childe's vision blurs from pain, Zhongli's eyes still burn amber bright, as clear as day, blazing through Childe in a rush of pure, genuine dread. Dread…? Shame. Humiliation. For disappointing, for disappointing- No, fear- Fear of this unfamiliar Zhongli-
Childe had wondered how it will end, when the real question should've been when will it end, if it'll ever end.
Zhongli laugh is rich and amused as it tears into the air. "You thought I would have the heart kill you?" The fondness laced in every word should be a comforting blanket that gently wraps around Childe, a comforting weight that presses reassuringly on him. Should've been, but instead --
The rough texture of Zhongli's gloves carefully brush a kiss against the pulse fluttering weakly on Childe's neck. "Zhongli, I-" Childe gasps between painful breaths.
A butterfly kiss against the underside of his jaw. "How could I ever bear to let you go?” Zhongli breathes against Childe's skin, voice laced with so much reverence that he thinks he's drowning, that he's already drowned, that he's gasping for air in a hallucination he conjured to torment him until he finally breathes his last.
Zhongli’s honey sweet words wind themselves around and around Childe until he can't breathe and his ribs threaten to shatter from the force of Zhongli’s affection. Affection? Every gasp of air Childe takes is a thousand serrated edges tearing into his chest, every look from Zhongli a thousand needles sinking deeper and deeper into his heart, every touch a thousand shards of something splintered and broken lovingly encroaching under Childe's skin.
And then Zhongli's suddenly standing back, hands leaving Childe, but Childe breathes no easier for it. There's an unexpected hint of distress in Zhongli's eyes. "Why?" Zhongli's voice is soft when it cuts into the air, something almost sorrowful in his tone. He leans down, a finger tracing the cuts and scrapes that daintily decorate Childe’s neck. Why?
Distantly, through the haze of splitting pain and lightheadedness and dread, some part of Childe tells him this is where he usually laughs and quips back. Why? The question should be, mister Zhongli, why are you asking as if you're surprised? But how could he have the ability to think, when even something as simple as the act of drawing breath demands all his concentration - and it's so, so excruciating.
Childe shakily inhales, huffing out broken puffs of air wet with blood. Something tells him he has to answer. Before it's too late. “No… cho, ice,” Each breath is broken, Childe's chest shuddering with the agony of every reminder Zhongli left on his body. It hurts. Everything hurts. Everything hurts, but nothing hurts more than the brief anger that flares in Zhongli's eyes. At what? Childe faintly wonders, and suddenly the fear strangling his throat reveals its origin. It's Zhongli. It's the unfamiliarity of this Zhongli, the way Childe doesn't have answers for every minute expression he makes, the way Childe had known him too well to the point where now-
Where now, Childe isn't sure if he's still speaking to Zhongli.
"Why?" Zhongli asks him again, voice still as soft. Patient, undemanding. Undemanding? It slices through sharper than any of the Tsaritsa's requests ever did and the unfamiliar knot of pure fear he's never, never associated with Zhongli - never thought would ever associate with Zhongli - rips his next broken gasp from his lungs in a choked whimper. Frigid fingers scrape down Childe's spine as he painstakingly forces himself to look up at the stranger he knew, once.
The sea at midnight. It’s the sea at midnight. Zhongli is the ocean cast in darkness, glowing ethereal and otherworldly with the light of the moon. Except the waves are so still, so unnaturally, eerily still, and there is no moon. There is only darkness. The calm before a devastating storm.
Zhongli tilts his head at Childe, hair falling harmlessly in front of his eyes. A mockery of his usual endearing habit that used to remind Childe of why he'd come every time Zhongli called. "Childe, why?" It doesn't bring warmth anymore. The air grazing against Childe's face is suddenly bitingly cold.
What does Zhongli want to hear? Childe's eyelids flutter as the chill seeps all the way down to his bone marrows. “If, she, asks, if... My Archon-" Childe breaks off into a choked gasp. Zhongli hisses a low sound of displeasure as his arm makes a sudden and swift motion, spear materializing as it ruthlessly rips through Childe's right hand as easily as water parting around stone. It shatters muscle and bone until the spear's point finally cracks the stone tile underneath. A knee-jerk reaction. Zhongli had acted on instinct.
There's a ringing in Childe's ears as black dots swarm his vision. Agony. Another layer of agony floods in from his hand, sweeping across his already broken being with no regard to his suffering. Zhongli's eyes are the most alive he's ever seen as he looks down at Childe's prone form, bright with something vicious that burns cold, colder than Snezhnaya's, than the Tsaritsa's harshest winters. Childe can't- Childe can't breathe. It hurts. It's so cold and it hurts so much.
Zhongli kneels, a startlingly gentle hand - warm even through his gloves - cupping Childe's cheek, the other one capturing the wrist of his uninjured hand. "Oh, Tartaglia. Loyal until the end," He sighs, disappointment heavy in his eyes, anguish - anguish - weighing every word down. His fingers dig unforgivingly into Childe's jaw when he forces Childe to turn so he can press a soft, chaste kiss to his lips. An aftertaste of salt and iron.
What did Childe do? What did he do wrong? "Zho...ng, li-" Every breath tears through Childe mercilessly. "I'm, sor-" A shudder cuts his words off. Zhongli carefully brushes his sweaty fringe out of the way, lips brushing his forehead in a reassuring kiss.
"Shhh," Zhongli whispers, soft against Childe's cracked lips. “That straightforwardness of yours. Never backing down from any opportunity to become stronger in order to protect. All of it is part of why I find it so hard to look away from you, Tartaglia of Snezhnaya-" a chaste press against Childe's mouth that dirties it in brilliant red. "-even when that loyalty and drive is misguided and misplaced." His last words are frosty and bitter even as his tone remains unsettlingly placid and even.
What did Childe do? No, he knows, he thinks he knows but- No, not when it's this Zhongli. What did Childe do? “..m sor," he gasps against Zhongli's mouth, excruciating numbness is radiating out from his right hand. "f, for-" every word makes his ribs scream in pain. "Be, tray-" his hoarse voice breaks. "...ng, y-you..." the world runs blurry with his tears - from what? The pain? The humiliation? The primal and instinctual dread that flares in him now from Zhongli's very presence?
He can't see Zhongli's expression. “I'm, sor...ry-" it takes a monumental effort, but despite how his thoughts are muted, he knows he needs to apologize. Has to apologize. Wants to apologize. (Wants to apologize?)
Even through all the terror and pain, at least the one fact Childe is sure of is this: That even at the end, somehow, in some form, he's still disappointing someone. He still didn't do enough.
Fingers dig into Childe's jaw, right over the bruises already blossoming on his skin and Childe's vision explodes into blinding white. "Oh, Childe. This?" Zhongli's voice is terribly fond, terribly amused, the gentle exasperation when facing a loved one. He grasps Childe's uninjured hand and raises it to his chest, above his heart. Not Zhongli’s heart. Morax’s. "You thought that this would matter? That your betrayal was about this? You know you need only ask and I would give you everything," he murmurs.
Zhongli's heartbeat is unhurried and steady. Childe's dirtied fingers unconsciously twist themselves into Zhongli's still-pristine shirt, as if trying to anchor itself on that slow rhythm. Childe's only anchor amidst the chaos and uncertainty swirling around him. When Zhongli chuckles, it rumbles from deep within his chest and runs up Childe's arm to soak his body in tremors.
Zhongli's gloves are rough against his face as they tenderly wipe his tears dry. "I would do anything for you," Childe's shuddering breath is swallowed by a kiss. It’s bruising this time, leaving Childe’s lips shiny with slick. Zhongli sinks his teeth into Childe’s already bleeding lips, tongue swiping against his closed mouth as if to taste Childe. A string of saliva hangs precariously in the air between them when he reluctantly parts.
“And yet-" he sighs wetly against him, delicate eyelashes fluttering against Childe’s tear-streaked cheeks. “Yet you still choose to fight. To die. Because of her. For her." His fingers tighten, vice-like, shackles tying Childe down to the ground. "And you fought so valiantly.” The fervent admiration in his eyes is smeared with traces of cold fury. “Without any regard to yourself."
There’s a rustle of fabric as Zhongli shifts and Childe is hit with whiplash as a rush of hot then cold springs into existence where Zhongli’s hands were last. Bruises are already blooming on Childe's skin, a garden of flowers in spring. "To think you would go so far for someone else," His last two words are frostier than any bitter chill the Cryo Archon could ever hope to conjure.
A hand gently cups Childe's cheek, tilting his head until he's looking right at Zhongli. There's a brief second where the incandesce glow from amber eyes intensifies, bright enough to blind, and Childe’s mind relaxes on command, consciousness falling down, down, down into an abyss of gold. The last thing he knows is Zhongli cradling his head in his lap, Zhongli's breaths steady and slow.
“It’s alright.” Zhongli murmurs soothingly, voice dripping with affection. “No one can - no one will - ever hurt you again.” His eyes are bright with something too fervent. "I promise."