“He passed away last night,” the Tsaritsa tells him.
“I see.” Zhongli looks up from his book and meets her impassive stare. He doesn’t need to ask who she’s talking about.
He and Childe never truly reconnected after the incident at Liyue Harbor. Their future meetings held a tinge of awkwardness, all polite smiles and diplomatic talks. There was a certain charm that was lost, from back when they weren’t Rex Lapis and Tartaglia, but simply two mortals basking in the warm atmosphere of Liyue Harbor.
He doesn’t regret anything that had transpired. Liyue needed to be tested, to demonstrate that it could stand on its own, and to this day he still believes that the actions he took were correct.
But perhaps there was something he could’ve done to preserve that charm.
Havria. Guizhong. Childe. Countless others. He has gone from never losing anyone to losing too many people at once.
The Tsaritsa gives him a look. It resembles something akin to pity, if he still believed her capable of feeling such emotion. “We Archons carry the regrets of many,” she says quietly as she turns to leave. He doesn’t think he’ll see her again for many, many years. “There is no room left for our own regrets.”
And then she’s gone.
The Lantern Festival shines brightly, the sky filled with dreams and wishes of thousands. Liyue looks the same as it did when he was directing the play from behind the scenes.
Now, he is in the audience, with front row seats to see what this nation of people can become.
“Excuse me?” a familiar voice calls. Zhongli’s eyes widen at the sight. “May I join you?”
The glow from the lanterns makes him look so soft, so youthful, so alive.
“Childe?” Zhongli says uncertainly.
Childe blinks at him quizzically. “Sorry, have we met before?”
A reincarnation, then. He looks so much like his Childe, from the way his hands are stuffed in the pockets of his black jacket, red scarf pulled up high on his face, the corners of his mouth tugged up in an easy grin. He looks so much like his Childe, from the way he stands, the confident lean in his stance, the bright blue eyes.
He looks so much like his Childe that Zhongli can’t help but think that this is a second chance.
“No,” Zhongli says, and then he offers a bow. “My apologies. My name is Zhongli, and I would enjoy the pleasure of your company.”
“Childe,” Zhongli frowns. “The man gave you that kamera to take pictures of scenery.”
“Well, you’re more beautiful than any trees,” Childe teases, holding the kamera up once more. “Come on, one more?”
Zhongli sighs. “Only if you will permit me to take a couple of you in return.”
A polearm slams into the hilichurl, splitting it in half.
Childe twirls around his weapon flourishingly and gives him a grin. He had chosen to copy Zhongli’s weapon this time around, the blade glimmering prettily under the sunlight. “I’m pretty good, huh?”
“You are remarkable,” Zhongli replies honestly. Even without the blessing of a vision, Childe’s combat prowess remains unmatched.
Childe laughs delightfully. “Does that mean you’ll spar with me today, Mister Zhongli?”
The name is a familiar sound, a comfortable weight against his heart. Once upon a time, it had been something he created to walk among humans.
Now, it is a name that convinces him to stay. “Very well, if we make it home before sundown.”
Childe lets out a whoop of excitement, and Zhongli watches fondly as he jumps ahead to clear away any monsters in their path.
“That’s quite a lot of bouquets you’ve ordered,” Childe teases, handing him the box of flowers over the counter. “Must be a special someone, huh?”
Zhongli thinks about the rows of gravestones, the many loved ones he’s had to say farewell to over the years. The list of names continues to grow longer, and he wonders if he will one day have the privilege of joining them.
“Yes,” he says, placing a couple of coins on the counter. “They are very special indeed.”
“I, Zhongli, decree with this contract that Childe and I shall never part—”
“Zhongli,” Childe grins, yanking him forward by his tie. “Shut up and marry me.”
“I’m home!” Childe calls, and then a head pops into the kitchen. “Smells good. What are you making?”
“Black-back perch stew.” Zhongli holds the ladle up for him to taste. “It is the food of my homeland.”
Childe gives him a thumbs up. “It’s yummy,” he grins. And then he’s leaning in to steal a kiss, lips warm as they press against Zhongli’s.
He tastes like home.
“Come here, baby girl,” Childe cooes, and then hoists their squealing daughter up onto his shoulders. “There, is that better?”
“Daddy, I want to go on the fast ride again,” Gui Lu giggles. “It was so fun!”
“That’s my girl,” Childe grins wickedly. And then he turns, offering Zhongli a soft smile. “You coming?”
There are children huddled in the alley, homeless orphans with scraps of food to share amongst themselves.
One of the younger boys latches onto Zhongli’s sleeve. He is much too skinny, bones peering out from his skin. “Please,” he cries, pointing at someone collapsed in the middle of the alley. “Please help my brother.”
The body is already cold, and Zhongli gently turns it over and closes Childe’s eyes.
“You’re pretty good,” Childe says.
Zhongli looks up from where he’s cleaning his violin. It’s a hobby he’s picked up over the years at Barbatos’ insistence. The two of them play together for an hour every Friday night, a duet to prevent either of them from drifting too far away.
It is much too easy to wander, after all, if there’s no one waiting at home.
“Thank you,” he says politely. And then he thinks about Liyue, two companions, history lectures over dinner. “Would you like to learn?”
Childe’s eyes sparkle. “You’d teach me?”
“What can I get for you?” Childe grins from behind the counter, a cute pink apron tied around his waist.
Zhongli smiles back. “I’ll get whatever you recommend. I trust you.”
Childe stares at him. “Uh.”
Barbatos elbows him in the side. “You’re coming on too strong, Morax,” he whispers loudly.
“Oh.” Zhongli changes tactics. “I will take one of everything then.”
Childe’s face contorts a bit. “All the toppings?” he asks faintly.
Barbatos facepalms next to him as Childe starts to work. “You’re the enemy of public service workers everywhere.”
The redhead stares at him. “Who are you?”
“My name is Zhongli. I am here to visit Childe,” Zhongli says, glancing around the room. There are posters lining the wall, shirts scattered everywhere. So this must be the rumored university dorm room that Barbatos is always speaking about. “Is he here?”
“Sorry I’m late.” The door to the bathroom bangs open and Childe hops out, jacket half hanging off. “Diluc, I’ll be out till later, so don’t wait up.”
“Bye,” Diluc says, and Childe drags Zhongli out of the room before he can say farewell.
There is a pat on his shoulders, light and soothing. Barbatos, then.
“Are you sure you don’t want to talk to him?” he asks gently.
Across the train tracks, Childe laughs, the sound unfiltered and free. The man next to him grins and says something else, and Childe laughs even harder.
Matching wedding bands adorn their hands.
“No, it is alright,” Zhongli says. Barbatos gives him a look of sympathy, but doesn’t say anything else.
After all, he too understands well this curse of immortality.
When the train flies by and Zhongli looks back up, Childe is gone.
“Hey guys, thanks for tuning in!” comes Childe’s tinny voice from the screen. He’s wearing an easy smile and a pink cat hoodie, and Zhongli wonders if the fabric is as soft as he imagines.
However, this Childe doesn’t know him. And so Zhongli sits patiently, separated by a screen and thousands of miles, and watches him.
“I’ll start off with some donations today,” Childe says. The chat updates rapidly, thousands of viewers present just to listen to Childe talk.
Zhongli had been special before, one of the seven Archons who survived the brutal Archon War.
Now, he is insignificant, a singular statistic to add to Childe’s already large fanbase.
However, he finds that he doesn’t quite mind this change.
“Donation from Zhongli,” the Childe on the screen says, and just seeing his mouth utter the syllables of his name is enough for Zhongli. “Thank you for supporting me!”
“What was I like?” Childe asks, tracing idle patterns into Zhongli’s chest.
Zhongli ponders for a bit. And then he tells Childe about a boy long ago, of a boy who bathed in the bloodshed of his enemies and the love from his family. Of a boy who had unquestionable loyalty and sense of duty, who loved his Tsaritsa and siblings equally.
Of a boy who Zhongli spent years with.
“You always said that there were two things most important to you,” Zhongli recalls fondly. “Family and fighting.”
Childe tilts his head, turning the words over in his mind. And then he smiles. “Three things,” he says. “Family, fighting, and you.”
Xiao ambushes him outside the hall. “You know I never liked him.”
His face looks more youthful, the hard edges fading away over time as Teyvat shifted away from fighting and bloodshed. Not for the first time, Zhongli thinks that it is a good look on him.
He’s wearing black as well, the color of mourning.
“I am aware of your distaste for him, yes,” Zhongli says pacifingly.
Xiao shuffles from feet to feet awkwardly. “Sorry for your loss,” he mutters, looking back into the hall where the casket with Childe resides.
“It is alright,” Zhongli says again, as he’s said many times before, a mantra for him to repeat in order to convince himself. “He will be back again. There is no rush.”
Xiao nods. He understands.
After all, for two aimless souls that live in a world that has moved on without them, time is all they have.
The streets of Teyvat have turned into concrete over the years, cars and public transportation replacing gliders and waypoints. It is hard to look at this industrial country and see the similarities to the Liyue from all those years ago.
But a nation is not defined by its scenery, but by its people. He watches a small girl help an old woman cross the street, watches a young couple embrace each other, watches as the people continue to struggle and move forward.
All around, he can see the touches of Guizhong’s dreams, hopes, and love.
Perhaps it isn’t so different from Liyue after all.
A young boy bumps into him, and it’s by instinct that his arm shoots out. “Please return my wallet,” Zhongli says evenly.
The boy looks shocked. “What?”
“There’s no need to do that.” Zhongli retrieves his wallet from the boy’s pockets despite his protests. “I will treat you to whatever you’d like to eat.”
The boy’s eyes instantly narrow under his cap. “You’re going to turn me in.”
“Of course not,” Zhongli says. “Would you like to try the Wilton Buffet? I’ve heard that their food is exquisite.”
The boy continues to stare at him suspiciously. When Zhongli does nothing but smile, he says “And my siblings? You’d pay for them too?”
“Yes.” Zhongli lets go of his wrist, and the boy instantly retreats a couple steps back. “If you do not believe me, you are free to leave. However, I would hate to see you go hungry.”
On cue, the boy’s stomach gives a loud growl and he flushes. “I don’t get it,” he says, pulling the cap down to hide his eyes. “Why would you offer to pay for me?”
Zhongli smiles. “I am repaying a debt.”
The blood is warm underneath his fingertips.
This is different from Guizhong, who smiled in the face of death, who spent her last breaths consoling him before the breeze carried the dust into the wind.
This is different.
And yet, somehow, it feels all the same.
Zhongli doesn’t know how long he sits there, the rain staining crimson. Childe’s body is cold under his fingers, his eyes open and unseeing. He doesn’t understand why Childe had pushed him out of the way of the wayward car, why he had sacrificed himself to save someone he knew was immortal.
No, that is not right.
He does understand.
Because if the situation had been reversed, if he had been the mortal instead, he would’ve done the same thing.
Barbatos sits down next to him, his smile sad. “It’s strange, isn’t he?” he says softly, eyes staring at something unknown in the distance. He doesn’t look like he’s even speaking to Zhongli. “We have so many powers as Archons. And yet, we can never save anyone.”
He holds up his fake vision up to the sky, the stone a dull green. Around them, the sirens wail and the people scream, but neither of them pay it any attention. “I wonder if this was meant to be a blessing or a curse.”
He doesn’t seek out Childe in this lifetime.
He has seen many people perish over the ages. Fragile humans, untouchable gods, death comes to everyone equally. As an immortal who survived through countless bloodshed, horrid wars, perhaps it would be truthful to say that he has seen more corpses than living beings over the span of his very long life.
He should be used to it by now.
And yet it never gets easier.
“Sorry,” Childe says, looking away. “I guess I read you wrong.”
His fingers feel cold wrapped around Zhongli’s wrist. He’s smiling but it looks off, the corners of his lips tugged up too high and his eyes too wide, almost like a scared animal getting ready to bolt.
“You didn’t,” Zhongli admits.
“Then why?” Childe crosses his arms. “Why won’t you give us a try?”
I’m tired, he wants to say, tired of the unbreakable loop of watching his loved ones pass on, tired of getting attached only for the connection to be violently ripped away from him. He wonders if the real victors during the Archon War were those who perished, who died long before their godhood turned into a curse that chained them to the land that they were fighting for.
But that is not a problem for Childe to worry about. That is Zhongli’s burden to bear, delivered to him in a pretty package years ago in the form of a gnosis.
His very first contract.
“I’m afraid to try again,” Zhongli says finally, with a tint of honesty. “I don’t want to say farewell anymore.”
Blue eyes blink at him. “Yeah, it sucks,” Childe agrees. “I can’t promise that we’ll stay together forever. Sometimes, people just drift apart. It really sucks when it happens.”
“Then why?” Zhongli asks, and he can’t help the desperation sneaking into his voice. Years ago, when Guizhong first showed him the kindness of humanity, she did not mention how painful it would be, how she could share all her love with her people despite knowing that they would move on without her. “Why even try at all?”
Childe tilts his head, pondering the question. And then he shrugs. “That’s what makes us human, isn’t it?”
He thinks back to simpler days, when all he needed to worry about was the feeling of the soil underneath him, the spear in his hand and the enemies in front of him. Back then, he had no fears and no doubts. But there hadn’t been anything else either, no feelings of joy, excitement, anger, love. “Being human sounds extraordinarily painful.”
“Yeah,” Childe grins crookedly, and it looks more natural this time. When he slips his hand into Zhongli’s again, Zhongli does not pull away. “But it’s worth it.”
“You guys are the worst,” Childe complains, flopping onto his back.
Zhongli frowns down at his controller. “Sorry, I’m not quite used to—”
“You’re fine.” Childe waves him off, and then glares over his shoulder where Barbatos has fallen over laughing. “I’m talking about those two over there.”
Xiao rolls his eyes. “You’re not a very difficult opponent.”
Childe sits up so fast he almost knocks over the bowl of popcorn. “You better watch your back,” he grins. “Zhongli and I are going to wreck you.”
“Is it lonely?” Childe asks.
“Extraordinarily so,” Zhongli responds honestly. “But I am getting better at dealing with it.”
Childe’s smile is sad. “I’m sorry,” he says, resting his forehead gently against Zhongli’s. “I never mean to leave you.”
“I know,” Zhongli says. There are many things he doubts in this life, but that is not one of them.
“I’ll find my way back to you,” Childe says confidently. “So please, keep waiting for me.”
“Who are you?”
Zhongli places a glass of water on the bed stand. “My name is Zhongli,” he says, gently taking Childe’s hands between his. Their rings glitter proudly together, but a vow of eternal love means decades of loneliness for someone who doesn’t grow old. “I’m your husband.”
Childe blinks at him, eyes glassy and without recognition. His face is marred with wrinkles, hair a dusty grey, the signs of someone preparing to say farewell yet again. “I have a husband?”
“Yes,” Zhongli says, squeezing the hands that don’t squeeze him back. “I love you very much.”
“I miss you,” Childe whines over the hologram. “Stupid business trip. Stupid boss. Stupid work.”
Zhongli smiles. “I look forward to seeing you again, Childe.”
“Me too!” Childe perks right back up. The little hologram spins around in its seat. “Is there anything you want from here?”
“You,” Zhongli says, and Childe laughs.
“Your hair,” Childe murmurs, letting the thin grey whisps flow through his fingers. “Did you change it?”
“Yes.” Zhongli closes his eyes, leaning into the touch. “Just this once, I wanted to grow old with you.”
Childe laughs softly, and then firm hands trace over Zhongli’s cheeks. “It’s not fair that you still look so handsome with wrinkles,” he whispers. “Save some of that for the rest of us, yeah?”
Childe’s body has once again begun to show the signs of aging, yet those blue eyes remain bright and clear. “My beauty pales in comparison to yours,” Zhongli says.
Childe blushes with his entire body, cheeks pinkening against his pale skin. “Well,” he coughs, looking pleased. “I’m going to miss those locks of yours.”
Zhongli frowns and runs a hand through his grey hair. “I can change it back if you prefer,” he offers.
“Nah, you wanted to do this, so let’s see this through.” Childe grins. “Welcome to the human world, Zhongli. I hope you enjoy back pain.”
“Sooo,” Childe drawls, a look of mischief in his eyes. He’s sprawled out on Zhongli’s lap, trying to distract him from his book. “You mentioned that you still retain some of your Archon powers, right? Even after all this time?”
“Yes.” Zhongli gives him a look. “I will not do anything illegal for you.”
Childe laughs. “You have such little faith in me.” His lips curl up. “Does that mean every time I get buried in the dirt, you can feel me? Hundreds of Childes wiggling around inside you?”
“Childe,” Zhongli frowns disapprovingly, and Childe falls off his lap snickering.
The rock is small and unassuming. There was no body to bury, after all, so Zhongli had placed a memorial in a patch of glaze lilies far from civilization, one of the few places in the country left untouched.
There are trinkets scattered around the stone when they arrive. A small teacup. A flute. Xiao and Barbatos, perhaps.
“Guizhong, I have returned,” Zhongli says. “It has been another year.”
He has never seen Guizhong again after she disappeared in his arms. Perhaps gods did not reincarnate as humans did. Perhaps an immortal demonstrating their morality was against the laws of this world.
Whatever it was, he has not seen Osial, or Havria, or any of the others who had perished during the war either. They remain nothing but a memory and a burden for those who remain to carry.
Childe kneels down next to him, clasping his hands together in respect. “Hello, I’m Childe,” he introduces. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“He’s my boyfriend,” Zhongli says, not for the first time. He wonders if Guizhong gets tired of him bringing the same boy to her grave every lifetime.
No, she is probably enjoying it.
“He’s a handful, but I love him.” Childe gives him a cheeky grin. “He’s told me a lot about you. Thank you for taking care of him. He’s really useless without someone there for him, isn’t he?”
Zhongli frowns. “I am not that terrible, am I?”
These days, Zhongli doesn’t remember what Guizhong sounds like anymore. Despite his extraordinarily good memory, the Archon War is a distant past now, a faint speck buried under all the new memories he’s made. He tells stories to preserve her memory, to keep her legacy alive, but there are some things that mere words cannot convey.
Guizhong’s smile, her personality, her kindness, he clings desperately to what remains as the dust drifts further away from him.
And yet, when the wind blows by, the glaze lilies fluttering in the breeze, he thinks he can hear her laughter.
“I hate being old,” Childe complains, pulling the covers up to his face. “It’s cold all the time. And I can’t do more than two pushups without the hospital staff yelling at me. And Xiao doesn’t threaten to throw me out a window anymore even when I kiss you in front of him.”
Zhongli smiles. “It is nice to have some peace and quiet now.”
Childe makes a face. “Xiao is more fun when he’s actively trying to kill me,” he says. “Now all he does is bake me cookies and stare at me from across the room.”
“You were the one who taught him how to bake,” Zhongli says, remembering fondly as he watched what was once the eleventh harbinger and the last remaining yaksha stand side by side in the kitchen, each holding a baking pan.
Childe perks up. “Really? That’s cool. It’s kind of like a family recipe passed down.” He pauses. “Well, in this case, I guess it’s just a Childe recipe.”
“Xiao will make sure that the recipe will continue on,” Zhongli promises. “He enjoys the pastries too much to let it disappear.”
“Yeah? Tell him I said thank you.” Childe closes his eyes. “I would tell him myself, but I’m getting kind of tired. I’m going to take a nap, okay?”
“Of course.” Zhongli watches as his breathing evens out, the chest rising and falling until it comes to a stop. The heart monitor flattens to a straight line and the familiar tendrils of grief grab at him once more like an old friend.
He doesn’t know if he’ll ever get used to this, the fleeting happiness followed by the loneliness, hand in hand. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be strong enough to be human, doesn’t know if he’ll ever be free from this burden, doesn’t know if he’ll spend all of eternity carrying the memories of those who passed before him.
But he finally understands what Guizhong meant years ago. He cannot remember her face anymore, but her words ring clear in his mind.
When they live, let us celebrate them.
When they depart, let us mourn for them.
So come, Zhongli! Let us walk among them.
For one day, we will learn what it means to be human.
“Rest, my love,” Zhongli soothes, pressing a kiss to Childe’s forehead. “I will find you again.”
“Hello,” the man grins. He’s wearing Snezhnayan clothing, an easy grin on his face as he stalks into the funeral parlor without a care in the world. One of the Fatui Harbingers, perhaps. “Mister Zhongli, I presume? My name is Childe. We’ll probably be seeing a lot of each other from now on.”