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Yeah, yeah, a floating palace and a supposed-to-be-dead giant dragon dropped on a seven-headed water god. It’s all the boring, trite old stuff, the stuff that happens before the show starts. Tartaglia casts a look back behind him, to the vault storing a giant dead dragon corpse, to the clearing sky, where a very alive Rex Lapis circles and rises. 

Hoisting up his bow, Tartaglia aims an arrow for Rex Lapis’s eye.

The arrow grazes past his mane, but it’s enough to turn his head. Oh, he looks angry. Tartaglia imagines a feather at a corner of those scales, arrow buried to its shaft, imagines those great horns stabbed through his body and coming out behind him. Both are... He has another arrow in the string and draws it back. 

Rex Lapis screams, flying at him as fast as a dragon could, and in the half second before his death he thinks this’ll drive the arrow in deeper. 

...

The shrieking of wind in Tartaglia’s ears is not lethal, nor was the impact with Rex Lapis and him-- he’s not quite sure his lower body hasn’t been torn off until he looks down and sees he’s held in enormous talons. Hm. He can’t fire his bow from here, one arm trapped to his body in an iron grip. 

Hmm. Can he summon his delusion?

Rex Lapis twirls up into the sky, with him unwillingly along for the ride. Tartaglia wonders if the dragon knows he tried to steal his Gnosis from his corpse. If he did, all he’d need to take his revenge is to drop him. 

… maybe he shouldn’t summon his delusion. 

“God of Contracts!” Tartaglia shouts instead, his voice immediately being lost to the wind. Higher and higher Rex Lapis soars, and he feels the lurch in his gut and screws his eyes shut. “I want to make a deal!”

Rex Lapis screams in his face. He can’t see it but he can feel it, the hot breath straight from the dragon’s maw. It’s loud enough to hurt his ears.

Maybe it’s motion sickness but his head is getting dizzy. Maybe he’ll close his eyes for this terrible roller coaster of a ride. Just a moment, at least.

...

He wakes up very much alive. He groans. He feels like he’s been run over by a horse.

Red-leafed trees surround him. Plateaus, water. Liyue. He hasn’t been here, in these mountains, but he knows what territorial beings live here, protector creatures… the dragon. Where’s Rex Lapis? He needs that Gnosis!

There’s nothing so large and obvious nearby. There’s only a black haired man. Didn’t the adepti hate humans? Oh, it’s Zhongli. That made sense, if he was allowed in. Tartaglia had often wondered why the Fatui had been bidden to help and fund this stranger who wanted to organize a funeral for a dead god. And the god wasn’t even dead! 

He shakes his head. 

“Zhongli,” he greets. “Rex Lapis-- where is he?”

“You are awake,” Zhongli says. His emotionless face is familiar. Zhongli never did emote much when he talked. Tartaglia wonders if he’d make faces for him with an arrow in his arm. He blinks. No time to get lost in his thoughts when he has a dragon to find.

“Yes, yes, I’m awake. He was-- where did you find me? Rex Lapis had me in his talons. Where did he fly off to? I need to find him.”

“Childe.”

“What?”

Too late he will notice the new scar under Zhongli’s eye.  

Zhongli walks up to him, and he just stands there, confused at what he’s doing. The last time someone did this… well, he can handle an old eccentric who can’t handle his own purse. He doesn’t recognize the danger until his hand is around his throat, and he can’t feel bad about it really, the moment when the adrenaline starts but before the pain does. He’s pulled off his feet, and he squawks chokingly, angrily. 

Oh, he’s just about ready to start ripping things up with his delusion. 

“Childe. You have tried to kill me, and worse, you have broken our contract.”

“W-- wha-- ack--”

“Our contract was due to proceed only if the succession succeeded. Since Liyue… the Qixing and the Adepti... could not handle a crisis without my intervention, I must stay its protector, and the provisions of our contract were not fulfilled. Neither my life nor my Gnosis were for you to take. Those who break their contracts shall suffer the Wrath of the Rock.”

What is he talking about...

… is he the dragon?

He’s the dragon, isn’t he. 

Zhongli loosens his grip slightly, and Tartaglia savors the moment he gets to put both feet on the ground again. 

“If you--” he has to stop halfway through his sentence, holding up a hand. Okay. Just one or two more seconds of breathing, first.

“If you’re Rex Lapis… then that means I have to get the Gnosis from you directly!”

He swipes his hand towards his delusion as he slams into Zhongli, the world painting itself in tones of purple and blue as a torrent of new water is synthesized out of nothing, and at its whirlpool center, the grand pearl of darkness--

--that’s gone. He doesn’t have his delusion. Zhongli is getting up from the ground, and Tartaglia checks to find the bottom third of his shirt ripped and his vision and belt with it. 

Zhongli’s face peels back to the sky and he screams , and the change of his hands and mane makes him reconsider.

But not stop. 

“Don’t bother,” he growls, “I’ll take it before you can become a dragon!”

He holds out Zhongli’s shifting arm and reaches in for his Gnosis, and is knocked aside by a huge taloned paw. The paw of a dragon, that transforms back to a human hand. 

He doesn’t have the energy to sustain a dragon form. Tartaglia doesn’t have his vision or his bow, but at least he doesn’t have to fight a dragon. He can do this!

It’s by that confidence that he ends up bruised and beaten to be pinned down instead of just pinned down, Zhongli tells him. Tartaglia curses, wiggles, shouts, and gives up. 

“Accept your punishment,” Zhongli says. 

Tartaglia looks away, face red with exertion. 

“I’m not making that a contract like that,” Tartaglia says. 

“Not a new contract. Only an accepting of the legitimacy of our previous one.” Zhongli’s hands are unshakeable pillars on his chest. He’s not escaping this by force alone. 

He supposes, if Zhongli wanted him dead he had plenty of chances already. 

“Very well. I accept.”

“Then you shall cooperate.” Zhongli catches his eye and snorts. “Or not. That will make the Wrath of the Rock sting more.”

He’s there, but he’s tongue-tied as Zhongli rolls off of him, then hoists a bruised Tartaglia over his back. 

He’s reeling from it, too much to stab him in the back with the palm of his hand where he wished he hid a knife, and in another heartbeat he’s grabbed and moved to a new position, his hands held by the wrists in one of Zhongli’s. Zhongli is quite tall, and he is small and tightly held in his presence. He takes a moment to let his eyes adjust after all that moving around and Zhongli’s hand comes down on him.

The splotch of sound colors the air. 

Tartaglia is more embarrassed than hurt, blood rushing to his cheeks. 

He lost and this is what happens?

Pathetic.

Did he really expect more, considering it was Zhongli ? The man who could barely handle his own money? 

He doesn’t think he’d do this to someone he beat. Probably just kill them, or at the very least leave them with a broken leg if they were there by accident.

If it’s such a juvenile penalty for losing, then there’s no risk in even fighting. No fun at all. 

That’s why this shouldn’t be happening. He wriggles and the next slap is harder. 

He supposes… Zhongli can just… not stop. Would Tartaglia be made to beg for mercy?

He doesn’t know how that makes him feel. 

Tired, should be. Bored. He’s got better things to do with his time. 

And yet he can’t help but flinch at the rock-hard blows. 

“Stop,” he says, and the dregs of pain are enough to make his voice waver despite his bored monotone. 

Zhongli ignores him. 

“How muhhh-- ch longer will this be?” He growls between words. He’s uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough to beg. Zhongli momentarily squeezes his wrists. His face burns. 

“Ah, okay, stop, please,” he says. 

If he wants to see him at his most raw, his weakest, it’s him without his delusion. Less control and less power. It’s an ugly face of his. He can’t believe anyone would want to see him like this, weak and without any redeeming traits. All he can do is wiggle helplessly and beg. 

Each blow is like ripping the top layer of his skin off and putting it back on. He wriggles, half intentionally, half instinct trying to get himself away from the pain. 

Zhongli’s hand comes down extra hard, and his hold on his wrists relaxes, Tartaglia’s tautly-stretched arms freed with a sharp yank. He breaks away at once, throwing himself off of Zhongli’s lap. He doesn’t hesitate, circling around the still-sitting Zhongli and grabbing for his Gnosis. 

Zhongli flinches at his touch and Tartaglia punches him in the neck. He feels it shimmer in his hand. 

He feels the ground lift underneath him. He looks down to regain his footing; the slab of stone slams sideways into his head. 

“You dare,” says Zhongli.

“You already had your Wrath. You have no more reason to stop me,” Tartaglia says. 

“It is not yours to take.”

Zhongli sighs, suddenly looking tired.

“I must return to Liyue. It has growing to do still, and I must remain a god to protect it until that point. Do not make this more difficult than it already is, Childe.”

But he doesn’t leave. Maybe he doesn’t want to head back just yet.

Tartaglia, lying on the ground, waits. Zhongli sits on the rocks with his legs folded up.  

He slowly gets up. He has to, but he knows if he goes too fast he might fall again. One hand is held to his head where the blood is.  

Tartaglia staggers up to an unmoving Zhongli. If he’s a threat, he’s the slowest moving one in existence. He can’t beat Zhongli but he can’t stop trying. 

He reaches a hand out. It touches Zhongli’s front, and he senses the Gnosis, thrumming louder and harder than any human heart. All he has to do is sink his hand in and take it. 

He sinks in, but his hand won’t go any deeper. Zhongli’s fingers are around his wrist, not even tightly, but preventing his hand from dipping any deeper. 

But it’s not like he can let go.

But Zhongli doesn’t do anything more, just holds him by the wrist and doesn’t move. 

He’s sore and aching all over his body, he’s a single handful away from his goal, and he’s too weak to do anything to the Zhongli between him and his Gnosis. 

In fact, that’s what’s keeping him up, Zhongli’s holding on to his wrist. He’s like a rock to hold on to. 

Yeah, a rock. 

He’s not surprised...

Even as he closes his eyes to quiet the seeping pain, it doesn’t surprise him when Zhongli doesn’t let him fall and hit his head again. It’s just him, to pull him and tilt him down and let him close his eyes.

...

When he wakes, he hasn’t moved, and Tartaglia knows because his neck is sore from his head resting on Zhongli’s leg, a deep soreness that comes from lying in the wrong position, and the rest of his body feels no better.

… he really can’t win this one. 

Tartaglia gets up. 

He’ll have to… get back to the Fatui… get back home… 

“Where are you going?”

He doesn’t stop walking. There’s no point in talking.

“Childe… is this what you want?”

That sound of pulling magic out of flesh. He turns, he looks, and there is his Gnosis in his hands.

Of course that’s what he damn wants!

Now what, is he going to play with it right in front of him?

“It’s yours,” Zhongli says, “for a new contract.”

Tartaglia inclines his head.

“I am bound to serve Liyue as the god of contracts. I will not forsake it for it is my duty. If I did not have it, there is nothing I could do without the ability to serve as a god, and I cannot derelict my duty. I am so very tired.”

The Gnosis… 

“The thing I ask for from you… protect Liyue. Take my place as its guardian. Protect it with the same fervor you used to summon Osial. In return for your guardianship Rex Lapis’s Gnosis is yours, and my duty shall end.”

It’s not like he won it in battle or as a prize… how shameful.

He couldn’t take it by force, so he gets saddled with defending it instead.

“No.”

No. He’ll find another way. But it won’t be given to him after the combat and the fighting, as if none of it mattered, as if he could take the easy way out now. He is his opponent. 

Tartaglia will come back stronger and wrench it out of Zhongli’s body.

As he walks, Zhongli doesn’t try to stop him again.