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Take As Long As You Need

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When Tartaglia stumbles back into Liyue Harbour, he does not head for his own townhouse.


He knows where this will end. He lies, motionless, in bed for days- If he forgets to grab food and water before he collapses, he will simply not ingest any. He knows he will survive it, but it is a slow and painful recovery.


The last time he did that, his absence upset Zhongli. He made Tartaglia promise to go to him next time, so he could be sure he would be safe. (He’s too worn out tonight to appreciate the novelty of someone caring for him, but he knows it is there.)


The weight of the foul legacy transformation sits heavy in his body, like lead woven between the fibres of his muscles. He feels bruises forming, tender flesh twisting under his skin where it’s been battered to mush. His heartbeat swings wildly between pulsing deafeningly in his ears, and weakening to the point of breathlessness. 


But Zhongli’s townhouse is just around the corner.


He sticks to the shadows in the streets, and whispers it under his breath like a mantra, “Zhongli, Zhongli, Zhongli.” He’s just around the corner.


When he knocks on the door with his least bloodied hand, it opens quicker than it should. The man’s been waiting for him. The relief in amber eyes is quickly overwritten by concern, as Tartaglia takes another step towards him and feels his knees buckle.

He’s caught, of course. 

The firm folds of Zhongli’s thick coat dig into his armpit and sides as he’s pulled to stand against the doorframe. When Zhongli talks, it’s hushed; Private. The arms don’t move away from him. Zhongli’s chest is firm where he leans his head against it.


“Ajax, Ajax. My boy, you are so late, where have you been?”


The redhead finds his tongue too heavy to answer, but Zhongli is half-carrying him inside before he can attempt it anyway, so it must have been rhetorical. He’s not sure if the spots in his vision congregate at the edges, or if his eyes are slowly slipping shut, but either way he watches the elder through the gap in the middle. Concerned eyes glance at him from time to time. Warm breath ghosts over his neck and collarbone. Leather-bound, too-warm hands pass over his body.


Cold air hits him, when Zhongli peels the blood-sodden fabric from his skin. It’s not so bad in itself, but his body jerks at the shock, and it jostles sore bones and bumps. Feather-soft lips brush over his least injured shoulder in apology, before he’s brought to a bath, lowered inside. He thinks he should be falling faster into it- Feels like his heavy, limp body should cause more of a splash when he lands. Like a dead weight, he sinks to the bottom, covered from the chin down.


The water is warm, not hot. Not a great enough temperature difference to make him feel feverish or frail- Not enough to make his skin itch with chilblains. It sits on top of him, all around him, like a weighted blanket that makes him feel weightless. The heat in the water slowly unravels the heaviness in his muscle. It aches, letting go of it all, but it feels good.


(Zhongli is nearby while he settles into the bath. Never too close, never too far; Just dancing on his periphery right now. Hands busy with… something or other. Tartaglia doesn’t look too closely. He’s too busy becoming Tartaglia soup to care.)


Steadily, inch by inch, lemon-scented candles draw his mind out of it’s pain-delirium-fog. It’s not unlike how ruin guards wake up one limb at a time; First, he’s aware of the candles, then the scratchiness of his throat. He feels the gnaw of hunger in his abdomen, and the calmed beating of his heart, and slowly reconnects with each of his arms, followed by his legs. The bath’s gotten considerably colder since he got in. Zhongli hasn’t left. 


Zhongli hands him some sort of drink, and his eyes struggle to focus on the mug like a bad kamera. It’s tea, but he’s bad at discerning what kind, and it’s packed with lemon syrup and honey. It’s got a low, herbal tone to it too, so there’s probably something in there for his aches.


He’s not sure how to express how grateful he is. He sips on the drink instead. 


He watches over the rim of the mug as Zhongli continues busying about. Folding laundry, putting away towels, dumping his bloodied clothes into a bucket to soak. He watches as deft fingers, still gloved, flick the light switch. The room lights up. He hadn’t noticed the sun set.  Zhongli hadn’t noticed him coming back to awareness, so when their eyes lock, the eldest is moderately startled. Still, peace and silence hover over them like glass, so Zhongli doesn’t speak. Just smiles a little brighter at him. It feels easy to return it.


Zhongli waves in the direction of a folded towel on the counter and Childe’s eyes follow, before he steps out. His eyes don’t feel so glued to the man anymore; He still feels whole still, existing by himself, without Zhongli as a stabilizing presence.


He still aches, that’s for sure, but it’s like he’s feeling it from the other side of the room. Like the pain isn't quite in his skin, but hovering around outside his body. Whatever it is, it’s tolerable, and he lets himself drift on automatic as he stands and dries himself. He thinks of… not much. His ears are ringing.


Zhongli is waiting for him, when he pads through from the bathroom to the bedroom. Well, reading, but it’s the novel he uses to waste time. He’s out of his usual attire, and dressed down in silk pajamas. Childe likes the way they feel against his skin, and he’s not sure he could get his limbs to cooperate enough to dress anyway, so he leaves himself bare and nestles up next to Zhongli in bed. The older man wraps his arms around him, accepts him home without question. He’s warm to the touch, just slightly more-so than a normal human should be, and it’s a comforting beacon against his damp skin. 


“....Thank you.” It’s the most he can manage.


Zhongli understands anyway, and kisses the top of his head in acceptance. A few more minutes pass before he reaches the end of the page, and sets the book down on the nightstand.


For the first time since sunset, he speaks to him. He feels the rumble pass from the elder’s chest through his own. “Do you need me to wake you in the morning? It’s the 20th tomorrow, you are booked in for a full shift at Northland Bank.”


Zhongli considers that for a moment. “Well. Tartaglia is booked in for a full shift.” Childe gets what he means.


When he’s stirring up trouble or “collecting debt”, yes, his name is Tartaglia. But… Tartaglia is not here. He shed Tartaglia at the door. He untangled the threads of Tartaglia in the bath, wiped off the last of his face-paint with the towel. Dripped the last of his disguise on the walk into the bedroom.

In Zhongli’s arms, lies Ajax. The twenty-something from Snezhnaya, who grew up in a little fishing village with his family. Ajax who likes to go ice-fishing with his father, and buys little toys for his siblings. He cooks borsch the way his mother taught him, and picks the best mushrooms because his sisters showed him how. He writes a lot of letters home, and some of them include Zhongli. Sometimes, he lets Zhongli read the ones he gets back. 


Ajax shuffles closer to Zhongli, settles a little more securely against his chest. “Those are problems for Tartaglia. I’ll deal with them when he’s back.”


”When I’m more ready to face the world,” are the words he doesn’t say. ”When I’m strong enough to handle it again.”


"Take as long as you need,” echos Zhongli’s silent reply.