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Where petals fall like crimson rain

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Childe was a good liar, but the strain on his body couldn’t always go unnoticed. Though he tried to hide it, he was unable to mask the toll it took, drowning out his lies with the undeniable truth. 

He wasn’t healing.

He was only getting worse. 

Of course Lumine realized something was wrong. It was just before their weekly fight started. He’d been hunched over outside, coughing up blood into a handkerchief trying his best to cough quietly so as not to alert anyone before entering the doors where they sparred. Lumine didn’t say anything when he first walked in, only halting him once they were preparing to fight.  

“Hold on a second,” she paused, her hand stilled on the hilt of her sword. 

 “I hope you’re not planning on backing out now,” Childe jokingly replied as he massaged his shoulder before he pulled the bow from around his back. 

“Hardly,” Lumine rolled her eyes, a scoff escaping her lips, though a small smirk betrayed her. “But there’s something wrong.”

“Yeah, you’re more talkative than usual. I thought you were here to fight? If I wanted to trade mindless conversation I’d talk to Paimon.”

“Hey!” A shrill voice squealed from their spot on the sidelines. 

“Be serious,” she schooled her features into a warning scowl. “When was the last time you used your delusion?”

“Besides the last time I agreed not to? I haven’t touched it.” And that had only been a few weeks after their first initial fight, it had been a long while since they agreed it would be best to fight fair and square, no delusions involved, especially since it had backfired on him numerous times before. 

Her lips quirked downward, like she didn’t believe him. Though for once, he was telling the full truth... 

“What’s wrong, Lumine?” Paimon hesitantly floated over until they hovered just above her shoulder. 

“I’m not sure how to describe it,” the long strands that framed her face swayed as she shook her head. “Whenever your delusion malfunctions I can usually tell. It’s different from that though. Something’s very wrong, like it’s been laying dormant but...” There was a long pause before her eyes scanned her surroundings, like she was coming back to reality. “How long has this been going on?”

Childe wasn’t sure how he was supposed to act at this revelation. He knew she didn’t overhear him hacking away outside, otherwise she would’ve called him out on it already. He was going to try and diminish whatever she thought was wrong, but he couldn’t even figure out how she knew. How could his lies compete with Lumine’s strange, otherworldly instincts? His mind was racing, but for once he couldn’t find anything to say.

“Are you sure? Childe seems fine,” Paimon interjected, floating over toward where he stood, poking and prodding at his face until he batted them away. “Unless it’s not external?”

“Hmm,” Lumine paused for another moment, before securing the barely lifted hilt firmly back into its sheath. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to fight today. Let’s reschedule it for now.”

“Wait-“

“And before you say anything else,” her arms firmly crossed over her chest, “I want you to go to Bubu pharmacy. See if Dr. Baizhu can prescribe you something to help reign in some of that…” She waved her hand in a vague manner, “That negative energy stirring. If you don’t, expect our fight to be postponed indefinitely.” And with one final sweep of her hair, she and Paimon vanished through the golden house’s doors. 


Childe hated Lumine. Hated how she always seemed to know something. Always saw through everything he wanted no one to see. But she was like a sister to him, and just like a sister, he begrudgingly loved her dearly as well. Even when he had to admit she was right. 

He hadn’t been feeling well for while, and like Lumine, he initially thought maybe it was some long postponed side-effect of using his delusion. Though it has been months since he’d last touched it and none of the usual aftermath followed. The only thing that plagued him was a strange, distant scratchy feeling in the hollow of his back. Like a constant faint itch he couldn’t reach. That feeling continued to persist as the weeks went on to months, and while he coughed up a few splotches of blood onto his tissues, and overall didn’t feel the best… it was bearable. He honestly didn’t think much of it, chalking it up to one of the many strains of battle. 

Dr. Baizhu was well versed when it came to dealing with the harbinger’s many issues. After having to witness Lumine drag him to the pharmacy dozens of times after she kicked his ass in their weekly training spars, they had naturally become well acquainted. 

“Ah, Mr. Childe, what brings you here this time?”

Lumine,” he replied miserably, a bitter pout to his lips as he sank into the chair opposite of Baizhu’s desk. 

Dr. Baizhu made a poor attempt at hiding a smile, clearly not surprised. His wretched snake-skinned accessory was less than subtle, hissing out a delighted laugh at Childe’s dejected state, all the while knowing how much he utterly despised visiting the pharmacy. 

“I see, since you seem mostly intact my guess is it’s the delusion again? How are the side effects acting up this time?”

 “No,” He shook his head. “I’ve been good about not using it. I think it’s just a cold or something running its course. Lumine insisted I get checked though, so here I am.” His pout ever still present. 

“Well, that's reassuring at least. Care to list some of the symptoms?”

“Nothing major. Just a scratchy throat… occasional lightheadedness, a little blood here and there.”

“Blood?”

“Yeah, only a little though,” He shrugged. “Every now and again when I cough.”

Baizhu held a brush, swiftly and lightly making notes of what Childe said. 

“You said Lumine suggested you get checked? Did she say anything about what she guessed it may be?”

“She didn’t say much of anything ,” An eye roll followed. “Just essentially that my ‘energy’ felt strange and she wanted me to see you.”

“And how long has this been going on?”

“Um… a few months at the least,” Childe tapped his cheek as he thought. “Three at the most. Not as bad though. It comes in waves. Today was a bad one, enough for Lumine to notice anyway. Some days I cough up blood, other days it's just this dull scratchiness I can’t itch or seem to get rid of.”

“I see,” his brush stilled as he mumbled, which made Childe anxious. Just what did he see exactly, and why couldn’t he just say it outright.

“If it is as I fear I'll need to consult someone to put together anything useful. Though, I could just be jumping to conclusions… I‘ll prescribe a temporary tea for you to try out for now.  See if it helps any of the lasting effects. If symptoms continue or progress... please see me immediately.” He gave Childe enough herbs for a few cups of tea, and a paper for him to retrieve more the next morning. 


 

After explaining the rundown to Lumine, she further refused any battles with him. Which didn’t help matters, as that was his outlet for relieving stress. And he always had an excess of it, much more than he realized. But more than that, it was also something that kept his mind off of him .

Zhongli was a topic everyone knew to avoid bringing up in Childe’s presence. After what happened with Osial, and finding out Zhongli had prepared to give his gnosis willingly the whole time… their relationship never mended. Not that either of them made any effort to try. 

Childe avoided the ex-archon like the plague. And Zhongli… Well, it didn’t matter what he was doing. As long as Childe didn’t have to see him again.

But he wanted to see him. So much. So much it hurt - like someone was plunging the end of their debate club into his chest, twisting and turning the spikes deeper through his bloody, still beating mess of a heart. 

He hated the feeling. So he did the only thing he could do and opted to ignore it until he couldn’t ignore it any longer.

The symptoms only grew worse. Although in a much more unexpected way than Childe could’ve ever predicted. Things seemed to progress so rapidly overnight- it was clear something was indeed very wrong, just as Lumine had ominously predicted.

The morning after he was prescribed his tea from Bubu pharmacy he went to pick up the fresh herbs. He made his way up the stairs that lead to the pharmacy, greeting herbalist Gui with a nod. 

“Mr. Childe, do you have a prescription?”

“Dr. Baizhu told me I’d need the freshest herbs in stock,” he slipped the small paper in the doctor's fine script over the counter. 

“I see, of course,” Gui muttered as he turned around and began rummaging. “You’re in luck, Qiqi just brought some herbs early this morning, surely these should suffice.” 

He presented Childe with a bundle that seemed conveniently wrapped just for him. All native flowers and plants of Liyue’s vast wilderness, most of which he couldn’t name. But he knew someone who could, someone who would certainly talk for hours about the history of each one. 

He couldn’t help but think about how much he’d enjoy that. To hear that low baritone talk on and on, like it was only them that mattered in the whole universe. Just them, and the history of an otherwise simple plant. 

An ache formed in his chest, swift and piercing like he’d been speared through by a polearm.  It was so unexpected he outwardly winced, trying to quell the harsh cough forming in his throat with a few softer coughs into his gloved hand. But it didn’t quite subdue the strange feeling in his lungs as he took in a shaky breath to steady himself. He took the herbs, a little too hastily, and with a slight bow thanked herbalist Gui.

 He hadn’t yet left the pharmacy when a small purple figure blocked his exit. It was Qiqi. She stood there as her blank eyes bore into his soul, yet she wasn't looking at him at the same time. She said nothing for a long while, and Childe could only stand in silence as well, knowing if he spoke it would only come out as a pained rasp. 

“Cold… You’re cold.”

At first, Childe thought she meant it as an insult. His reputation among Liyue’s citizens was never grand to begin with, but certainly not after the stunt he pulled with Osial. Him still being stationed there provoked a tsunami of hatred targeted toward him… And well, rightfully so. The only reason he predicted he hadn’t been publicly banished was because the merchants in Liyue would certainly take a hard blow if they no longer had him as a loyal customer. And though he initially thought it to be an insult, it was sort of endearing hearing the small girl call him cold. After all, there were far worse things he’s heard. 

“Freezing. Like a… snowflake.” And he might’ve imagined it, but it seemed like the little zombie shuttered, the closest thing he’d seen to an emotion expressed by her. 

 Once he realized what she meant, he also realized she was right. Growing up in Snezhnaya he’d become practically immune to harsh winter weather, the cold was something he’d grown used to. But Liyue was the stark opposite, with its sun constantly high and blazing harshly against his pale skin, he couldn’t recall a time he so much as shivered during his stay. And though the sun was brightly shining down on him that very moment, there was an undeniable deeply rooted coldness to him.

“For you,” she stuck her arm out in front of her, in her small hand was a single flower. Petals tightly closed, unwilling to open, was a glaze lily. 

Seeing it sent the cough Childe had been holding back erupting into a choking fit. A cold chill racked his body, washing over him like an avalanche. He hunched forward trying to steady himself, fingers tightly wrapped at the base of his neck, as he willed himself to stop. His lungs felt worse than the day prior, so very itchy, so scratchy. Like they’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper before being ignited. Like thorns were making their way through the organs, inch by painful inch. 

Blood splattered dark against his already dark gloves, making them wet and shiny. The pavement outside the pavilion was stained with deep speckles of red. 

A few bystanders stood frozen, watching in shock as the horrible harbinger was brought to his knees, seemingly from an innocent girl holding a flower. 

Herbalist Gui came rushing out of the pharmacy, but by that time Childe had already gained enough strength back to shove him away. He picked himself up, wiped his mouth, and gently plucked the small flower from the still startlingly emotionless girl's hands. 

The first thing he did once he arrived at his small apartment above the northland bank, was put the flower in a cup of water as carefully as possible. Then, he practically collapsed to the floor, heaving the coughs he’d been holding in on his way back. He didn’t want to bring anymore attention to himself than he already did, nor did he want to worry any of those currently on guard outside the bank. The last thing he needed was his higher ups finding out he was so sick. Though, he made a mental note that he should inform them of at least a downplay of his illness, to take a few days rest and not have the stress of work on top of everything else. 

Once he regained most of his composure, he set to making his tea. He wasn’t accustomed to the traditional way tea was made in Liyue, but he also didn’t have the person who would fuss over it around him anymore either, so he simply threw the ingredients together in his best attempt to steep something drinkable. 

It was horrendous. He wasn’t sure if he’d just done it so completely wrong, or if the herbs themselves were to blame, but he pinched his nose and downed the disgusting tea in three gulps. The slight prickling in his lungs seemed to momentarily subside, which he took to mean the herbs were doing their job. But the chill in his bones remained. Even still, his shoulders relaxed a little, and he set to taking off his stained gloves to quickly wash the blood out. 

His gloves weren’t strangers to bloodshed, but when it was his own, it was different. He didn’t want to be weak or vulnerable, but coughing blood on his knees outside Bubu pharmacy was the direct opposite of those wishes. So he scrubbed the reminder out of the black leather like his cursed life depended on it. 


The next morning he woke to feeling worse than he had ever before. Worse than any of the side effects his delusion had ever inflicted. Worse than any hard won battle had badly scarred him. He practically tumbled out of bed, hacking and wheezing, something blocking his airways, yet stubbornly refusing to budge. Qiqi’s monotone voice rang through his ears as he shivered and shook, body freezing like he had not an ounce of warm blood left. He continued to choke, clutching at his throat, thinking he was going to genuinely suffocate at one point, until, like nothing happened… a small bloodstained petal floated out of his mouth, and into his hands.

“…”

He could do nothing but stare in absolute disbelief. Had he not steeped the herbs right? Maybe somehow in his haste to make the tea he’d managed to inhale part of it?

But wiping the blood off the pale blue petal… he couldn’t recognize it from his pile of herbs. Instead he recognized it in the flower Qiqi gave him. 

He scrambled to his feet and into his small kitchen where the flower stood, one petal partially opened while the rest remained closed. The resemblance was uncanny.

He swallowed hard. 

What the hell was happening to him? 


 

He made his trip to the pharmacy short and with as little words as possible. Asking this time for extra herbs, and even more when he didn’t think his extra rations would be enough to make it through the day. Herbalist Gui seemed understandably worried, but provided him with some more plants, albeit hesitantly.

He was hoping to see Qiqi, to ask her if she’d known about the flower or if she could somehow inform him how he was regurgitating petals from it, but the zombie was nowhere to be found. 

His days continued like that, a routine of the same events over and over again-freeze and wheeze then cough up blood, steep and down tea, have relief for a brief moment, repeat. He counted himself lucky that no more mysterious petals found their way up, and made peace with that knowledge as he slept. 

Only that morning decided he’d had enough of this almost peaceful routine. It wasn’t just one petal, but two, and the flower in the kitchen matched them, opening two more petals of its own.

Each breath he took tasted like iron. His nose began to produce a steady trickle of blood as well. He wedged a rolled up piece of gauze into his nostril to stop it, reluctant to do what he knew he needed to. He knew if he showed up to Dr. Baizhu’s like this… he wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon. His lips were blue as the circulation in his body refused to cooperate, blood seemingly only flowing out of him through his coughing fits and nose instead of through his body to keep him warm. 

He was content to stay locked away in his apartment until his ghostly appearance passed. That was until a knock was made on his door around noon that Childe panicked. 

“Childe! We brought food!” It was Paimon’s irritable voice. 

“I’m not interested in eating floating external organs,” He dumbly tried to think up a reasonable excuse not to see the traveler and her sticky companion, but could think of nothing convincing on the spot. 

“Hey!” Paimon shrieked. And Lumine laughed as she tried the locked handle. Her laughter abruptly stopped, and worry inflicted her tone, “Childe?”

“Coming, coming,” he internally groaned, shoving a new piece of gauze far into his nose so it wasn’t visible, and quickly taking a large gulp of his tea to hopefully hide his coughs, though the almost scalding liquid did little to raise his temperature. 

“I was worried for a moment,” Lumine gave a small smile as Childe opened the door to let his unwelcome visitors in. Though she said nothing else, she gave him a few assessing looks that made Childe shiver. 

It wasn’t unusual for them to show up with food. Childe usually would go out to eat his meals with Zhongli, and… Well, since that stopped, Lumine would bring food over and keep him company whenever she could. Though it wasn’t often, given her many duties to all of Teyvat, he was grateful to have someone other than the fatui to keep him company… and to distract him. 

“We brought Paimon’s favorite!” 

“You say that about everything,” Lumine scowled. 

“Fine! We brought the traveler's specialty! Chicken- mushroom skewers and satisfying salad!”

“Anything’s better than the mess I would’ve made,” Childe let a goofy grin form on his face, as he helped Lumine set the neatly packed dishes on the table. 

“Even Paimon doesn’t like Childe’s dishes,” Paimon shuttered, clearly thinking about the time he’d made ‘A prize catch’, his best meal in his opinion. 

There was another person, who hated that meal, but he was too polite at first to decline… Instead he’d forced himself to eat bite after bite, turning green in the face, and ungracefully passing out at the table.

The ache in his chest resurfaced. Anytime he thought about the ex-geo archon his symptoms seemed to flare up exponentially. He quickly tried to cover his cough, but found his efforts futile.

 He bolted to the washroom. The clatter of plates being dropped and his name being called followed him before the noises were swiftly shut out as he closed the door behind him. He hunched over continuing the process of hacking up a lung. 

After some time, Lumine’s soft footsteps could be heard approaching the door, and with a small whisper she spoke. “You’re not getting any better, are you?”

Childe let out a blood coated laugh, “No. I’m afraid I’m only getting worse.”

“Have you told Dr. Baizhu?”

Childe wiped his mouth with a small towel, the coughing having mostly subsided. He opened the door, and Lumine was staring at the floor. 

“Don’t look like that,” he nudged her with an elbow. “I promise I’ll see him tomorrow.”

 “Good,” she nodded, expression still off even though she did her best to hide it with a smile. “Paimon’s probably eating the whole meal as we speak, let’s go.”

And though it was clear she wanted to, Childe was relieved she mentioned nothing more.

They ate with pleasant small talk of the travelers' most recent expeditions. Childe’s outburst was not brought up once, even Paimon held their big mouth and didn’t comment on it. Childe continued to drink his tea to keep any possible symptoms at bay. All was well until the two guests were cleaning up to leave. 

“Paimon saw Master Zhongli a few days ago.”

“Paimon!” Lumine twirled around to slap a hand over the talking disaster's mouth, but they flew out of reach before she could. 

“He was walking toward Bubu’s pharmacy. Are you sure you haven't seen him lately?”

“No, I haven’t,” Childe’s voice was clipped and hoarse, trying to hold back another threatening rasp.

“Oh I see.”

“Paimon why would you even bring that up?” Lumine accused. 

“Because Paimon was wondering how Childe got Zhongli’s flower,” they pointed to the small glass sitting on the windowsill, holding the partially opened glaze lily. 

He felt a shaky breath catch in his throat momentarily, “…Zhongli’s flower?” 

It was no secret Zhongli adored the glaze lilies of Liyue. Childe himself had sat through hours of the man's ramblings of its history and significance. But the way Paimon phrased it was odd. 

“Mhm! He was carrying one exactly like that when he was walking to the pharmacy! He stopped to talk with Qiqi for a little while. I assumed you ran into him and he gifted it to you?”

The faint warm hope that filtered through Childe turned to immediate ice in his veins. Qiqi had given it to him because he was sick and she could tell. The fact she received it from Zhongli first was nothing more than a coincidence. 

A mocking smile twitched on Childe’s lips, pain like no other erupted throughout his core as he admitted out loud what he had known for a while. “Why would Zhongli,” he practically hissed out the name like it personally offended him, and he convinced himself it did. “Gift me a flower? The friendship we once had was built on lies and was used for our own selfish benefit. I am nothing to him anymore, now that he’s fulfilled his contract.” 

Paimon and Lumine only stood there, expressions scrunched with worry. Like they were afraid of saying the wrong thing again. Childe felt blood stream down his nose, the gauze no longer acting as a blockage. 

He reigned in his anguish, and as blood ran into the cheerful smile he was so used to faking said, “If that’s all, I thank you for the meal, and hope to see you both again soon.”


 

That night was worse than all the hours before. The stupid image of Rex lapis, in all his golden glory, was searing into Childe’s mind. He couldn’t do anything but think about him. Reminiscing in all the memories they’d had, in the short amount of time they’d known each other… Childe became the closest to him out of anyone else in his life. Even closer than he’d been with his own family after his tumble into the abyss. To say it hurt him was an understatement. Childe hated him. But not as much as he loved him.

He was hunched over a bucket he’d had at the side of his bed, coughing and hacking away, petal after petal falling at the realization.

Childe loved Zhongli. Loved him as a friend, and loved him as more, in all his entirety.  

Tears streamed down his face, as he uncharacteristically allowed himself just once to cry. He didn’t cry because of the pain, that was something he was used to, if anything the pain grounded him in a way. No, he wasn’t crying because of anything physical, he was crying at the death of their friendship, and was mourning the chance he could’ve had to finally be happy. 

It was pitiful, but in a mix of blood, petals, and tears, he finally slept, where even in his dreams he was haunted by a ghost with amber eyes. 


 

The next morning Childe’s chest ached with each breath, gut pained from coughing relentlessly. He could barely manage to sit up and get out of bed. Unsurprisingly the damn glaze lily was fully opened, petals gleaming sky blue in the sunlight. Mocking him.

He wiped the sleep from his eyes, and did his best to look… Well, not as bad as he felt. Masking everything behind a small smile, he left for Bubu pharmacy. 

Herbalist Gui greeted him, used to his daily visits by now. 

“Mr. Childe! Right on time! Dr. Baizhu has prepared you a new set of herbs to try out.” He was preparing to hand them over when Childe stopped him. 

“Ah, speaking of, is he busy? I need to talk with him as soon as possible.”

“He’s currently seeing… a consultant. I can let him know first thing tomorrow morning though?”

“It’s sorta urgent,” Childe was reluctant to admit his health was declining at such a stupidly rapid pace, but he couldn’t lie. Not about this. Not when he wasn’t sure how serious it really was. 

“I’ll double your herbs to get you through the day. Dr. Baizhu told me if you came by that it may be a while so-“ Gui was being awfully insistent on Childe leaving. Which was odd. But it also made Childe want to stay even more, just what was he trying to do?

“I have time. I’m on work leave due to my illness,” his voice was flat now, unamused. 

 “It may not be good for your condition to stand outside in the elements.”

“We’re sheltered,” Childe pointed to the roof over their heads. “The temperature out here is fine, I’m already freezing anyways. And I’m not above sitting on the ground if I get tired.”

“A-alright,” the man said, shoulders slumping slightly, like he’d been thoroughly defeated. “I’ll steep you some tea while you wait. I’m afraid you’ll need it.”

Childe wasn’t entirely sure what he’d meant, but was grateful for the offer anyway. He sat on the ground and drank his freshly steeped brew. It tasted much better than his other mixture, and his condition seemed to have improved already from the night prior after just a few sips. 

What he’d thought had healed was entirely shattered when he’d made direct eye contact with the person that left Dr. Baizhu’s office. 

Like the sun meeting the ocean. Even all the waters of Teyvat couldn’t extinguish just how bright they glowed, framed by sharp and piercing sword-like eyebrows that cut their image deep into Childe’s memory.  He couldn’t look away. He thickly swallowed as a dry heave wormed its way up his throat, but he hunched over anyway, bracing himself against the ground with one arm, blood spattering out like vibrant crimson confetti on the pavement. 

He could hear nothing over the ringing in his ears, cough after cough over taking him. His vision was growing dark, presumably with lack of oxygen intake and loss of blood, but he swore before he’d blacked out that in his blood-soaked hands, lay a full glaze lily, as brilliant and blue as the one that taunted him from his windowsill. 


 

He jolted up quickly, on alert. The confusion settled as he rubbed the exhaustion from his eyes and took in the familiar medicinal smelling room that was Baizhu’s office.  

“Relax,” it was Baizhu’s snake. Baizhu himself was in the process of shoving Childe back down onto the cot, “Changsheng’s right. You need to calm down.”

“Where is he?” It was the only thing Childe could think of, even as his coughing resurfaced at the thought. 

“Zhongli? I sent him home. He’s no use here, not right now at least.” A cloth was pressed to Childe’s mouth, and he gratefully accepted it to wipe away the blood.

“Did he say anything? About me?” Childe was hesitant to know, but too curious not to ask. 

Baizhu sighed, but a small, knowing smile tugged and pulled away at his previous frown.  

“He expressed his concerns of course. He carried you in here for me. He doesn’t not care about you if that’s what you’re implying.”

Something panged in his chest, but he couldn’t allow himself to hope for anything any longer. The disappointment was too much to bear. 

“Did he… did he see it?” A new wave of panic shot through him, if anyone could guess what was wrong with him it would be Zhongli… and out of everyone he really didn’t want him to know. 

To his relief, Baizhu shook his head. “I got to you first, I tucked it away…” he turned to grab something wrapped in a small cloth. “If he hasn’t guessed it already just based on the blood alone, it’s not my place to let him know.”

“You speak like you know what’s wrong with me..” Childe finally said after a long while of silence. 

Baizhu sighed, and passed the wrapped object into his hands. Childe unwrapped it slowly, already guessing what lay beneath the slightly stained cloth. The full glaze lily bright and open, like it just sprouted in the freshest of spring grass.

“I have an idea, yes.” 

There was another pause, as Changsheng climbed back around her master's neck, and Baizhu gave her a soft pat before he continued. “Thanks to the traveler I was able to communicate with physicians in Inazuma a lot quicker than usual. I’d heard of this particular ailment before, though never once have I witnessed it personally. It’s rare anymore, but originated in the land that’s now Inazuma long before the Archon war. It’s known as Hanahaki Disease.”

“Oh great,” His tone rang flat. “It’s a disease !”

“It is fairly serious,” Baizhu’s frown returned. “There are two ways to cure it. Though both, I’m afraid, can have disastrous consequences.”

“But how did I get it? It makes no sense. I haven’t been to Inazuma, I haven’t left Liyue in so long!” He was on the verge of panicking. He couldn’t afford to die. He had to work his way through the ranks of the Fatui, bring the Tsaritsa to victory- to see his family again. 

The thought of his siblings finally getting to see him for the first time in years - laying stone cold in a casket…He couldn’t allow himself to think like that. 

“It isn’t spread like the common cold,” Baizhu shook his head. “It’s caused by strong feelings of affection being rejected. Or when that person feels they’ve been rejected.”

“What does that even mean?”

“You’re in love, Childe. Though I’m sure you’ve realized it yourself already considering how drastically you're deteriorating. You feel as though this love is one-sided. Your feelings not returned, thus have contracted this illness as a result.”

He closed his eyes, and gulped. Admitting it in his head was one thing, hearing someone else pick up on it and say it out loud was entirely different. Knowing he loved Zhongli didn’t give him the butterflies he’d expected, instead it was as if the man had reached his hand inside his guts and tug by tug tied his intestines into a gory little bow. 

“How do I get rid of it? You said there were two options.”

“The first is an extremely risky surgery, one I am not qualified to perform. But seeing as you’ve already begun coughing up full flower buds… it’s unlikely to be successful. And if it is a success, you’ll lose all feelings of affection entirely… and it’s possible to also lose memories with said person, any that made you love them.”

The surgery was one thing, but forgetting his time with Zhongli? He couldn’t do it. Even if it hurt him to remember. He also didn’t want to lose this feeling… not even if it wasn’t returned in his next life either. 

“What’s the second option?”

“You confess your feelings.”

That sounded easy enough. But Childe knew he’d only be rejected, it would only further tarnish his already ruined image of himself in Zhongli’s eyes, but what did that matter anymore?

 “That’s it?”

“Not exactly. If you’re rejected… your condition will only continue to worsen faster- until you eventually pass from asphyxiation. Though this route is quick, and halfs the time of suffering.” 

“So I’m a dead man walking.”

“If you were to ask me, I’d recommend the second option. If you haven’t already been outright denied… there’s still a chance.”


Childe was in no condition at that moment to run to Zhongli and spill his now neatly tied guts in the form of sickly sweet poetry. Not that he’d ever planned to let the ex-archon know at all if it weren’t the only chance he had at survival. He was quite literally putting his life in his hands. 

But the time between their meeting seemed somehow worse. He had hours— that turned to days — to overthink the entire interaction in full detail, all ending the same. Eventually he came to the same conclusion over and over again— If he was just going to be rejected anyway, was there even a point?

If confessing only sped up the process further, then maybe he was better off milking what remaining days he could by trying to hold on. 

He never realized how truly tired he was, until the severity of his illness set in. Not just because he was sick, but because while he was human— he was essentially one of the Tsaritsa’s personal killing machines. He loved a good battle, it fueled him, pumping adrenaline in his veins like a drug, but thinking on it now... did he truly enjoy it? He was tired of everything when he thought about it, and was ready to let it all go. But after a week of thinking over Baizhu’s ultimatum, Childe had deteriorated so quickly he was really ready to give up. 

He laid unmoving on the floor of his small apartment, the front of his shirt covered in blood, full flowers littered around him, surrounding him as though the hardwood were instead a garden. His breathing shallow, the sickly sweet scent of blood and glaze lilies stayed heavy in the air. 

Lumine and Paimon knocked for a long while, though Childe slept through it, they all but kicked the door down. While it still remained attached on its hinges, it would no longer close properly without extensive repairs. 

Lumine crouched in front of the man she’d never seen so badly beaten before— made like this not from an enemy, but from his own emotional attachment to another man he wouldn’t even face properly. 

“I never thought I’d see the day you’d back down from a fight, Comrade.” Her words but a breathy whisper as she held back tears. 

Childe stirred slightly, sensing the presence of someone looming over him, but his eyes remained closed.

“But I predicted you’d continue to be stubborn,” she gave a small laugh as she wiped her nose on the back of her glove. “I took it upon myself to find Zhongli,” she shook Childe’s shoulders until he squinted at her. 

“Do me a favor? Read this for me? I haven’t opened it yet. But before that you need to drink, you need to get cleaned up.” Lumine looked toward the floating spector that had been unusually silent the whole time, they provided her with an envelope, which she quickly handed to Childe. 

“Paimon, get some water and clean towels.”

“What is this?” Childe’s voice a ragged croak, words barely leaving his mouth as he was attacked by one horrid wet cough after another. Fresh blood joined the dry blood on his shirt, another full lily joined the garden. 

“Shh, drink this you idiot,” she shoved a goblet full of the tea he hadn’t drank in days. He didn’t bother with it, not when he didn’t see the point after he found out it wouldn’t cure him. 

Her words were firm, but her tone was a gentle nudge as she opened the goblet and helped him sit upright to drink. 

He gulped down the medicinal liquid quickly so he wouldn’t risk coughing it up and rendering Lumine’s efforts worthless. He appreciated her concern more than anything, it hurt him knowing he’d have to leave her behind. 

Paimon returned in a flurry, handing over a wet cloth to Lumine, worry laced even across the emergency food's face. 

“Should Paimon get him a change of clothes?”

“That’s a good idea,” Lumine nodded, and Paimon set off again.

“I have plenty more tea, I brewed lots in advance, we need to keep you coherent, at least enough to read this.'' She presented goblet after goblet, before taking the rag Paimon handed over and wiping Childe’s face off like he was, well… a child. 

“Lumine,” He choked down what felt like another flower trying to escape. 

“Open this,” she dropped the bloodied rag to the ground carelessly, nudging Childe’s hands that held the envelope. “Let’s read it together.”

Hands shaky from blood loss and sickness, Childe stumbled not to tear the beautiful envelope to shreds. The unmistakable golden wax insignia of a geo sigil made his breath hitch, leading him to bend forward in another wave of red stained petals. 

He recovered quickly, righting his breathing as well as he could manage as Lumine passed him another goblet. He sipped as she helped him wiggle the neatly folded letter free. 

Dearest Tartaglia, 

  Lumine has informed me your previous ailment has continued to worsen. While she spoke to me, I hope you won’t hold it against her. Keep your grudges between us, though, contrary to what you might believe, I still care deeply for you, and am concerned it is more serious than either of you have led on. 

I’d like confirmation myself, to see how you’re doing, perhaps I can be of aid. I will be out for dinner tomorrow at seven. Feel free to join me at any time, if Wanmin restaurant is still to your liking, of course. Please don’t worry yourself with payments, it’s due time I treat you instead. 

Patiently awaiting your arrival,                         

Zhongli

The writing alone shot tingles of something indescribable through him. Like a ripple effect of angelic medicine was purging the demons from his blood. The weight in his chest lifted a little, and he might’ve been woozy… but he swore he could breath just a little clearer. 

“That’s good, that’s good!” Lumine seemed to be talking more to herself than to Childe. And Childe could do nothing besides reread the letter in perfect cursive, eyes skimming over and over “…I still care deeply for you”. Surely he was reading too much into it, but it ignited something in him that felt brighter than all the pyro visions in Teyvat. Made him feel warmer than using warming bottles after a day adventuring in Dragonspine. 

But the “Dearest Tartaglia” part made him shiver again. Imagining Zhongli addressing him as such felt wrong. Childe didn’t want to be known as Tartaglia to him. 

Who even was Tartaglia to Zhongli? Tartaglia, the asshole Snezhnayan who took advantage of a lonely Liyuen god just for the sake of stabbing him in the back and stealing the root of his godly power? Sure, that was fair. But, he had to remind himself that Zhongli knew that at first that’s what it had been. Zhongli had let him continue the friendly act until he didn’t want it to be one anymore. Zhongli… did he truly even know him? After everything… did he even know the man he loved, the god he sat on the floor dying over? But even with the war going on in his head, after letting Zhongli know his most vulnerable side… it hurt for him to be reverted back to his harbinger name. Even in writing.

Paimon returned with new clothes of his, he changed, guzzling more tea down. Initially he’d felt relief once he read the letter… but the longer he sat over analyzing every word he sunk further into a tar pit of self pity, not able to wriggle himself out. 

Lumine was rereading the contents, oblivious to Childe’s chaotic mind. “He gave this to me yesterday, but I was so busy helping Little Lulu get some perfume from Ying’er I didn’t have time to deliver it. You need to get ready. Look presentable! We’re going to be late if you sit around much longer.” 

“…”


 

“Childe!” Lumine and Paimon sounded at the same time, both on either side of him. They were holding his shoulders up as he flung forward, the suppressed coughs catching up to him. 

“I’m fine, thank you,” he righted himself again, brushing off the worried looks he received. Paimon handed him a small cloth for him to wipe his mouth on, which he graciously accepted. 

It had been a while since he’d left his apartment to do anything, and before that he’d only left to get his herbs from the pharmacy and immediately headed back. It was nice to be in town again, outside Wanmin restaurant smelling the savory liyuen delicacies that permeated the air around it. 

His heart ached at the memories the place filled him with. The nostalgia pooled in his lungs adding to his misery, but he bit down whatever might try to make its way up. He was going to get through the meeting. 

Lumine and Paimon didn’t enter, instead staying outside in case they were needed. Childe couldn’t determine if he was happy or scared of being completely alone with Zhongli after so long. He steadied his shaky breaths, anxiously aware of how loud it suddenly was, and firmly gripped his gloved hands into fists. 

He relaxed a little when he noticed their table was empty. Their table. Childe had practically owned that spot. He paid to sit at the private table nearly every night. Accompanied by a sturdy, calming voice that threatened to put him to sleep. He could never bring himself to, wanting to keep listening instead. 

He gulped back his nerves and sat down, taking an uneasy sip of his tea he’d brought along with. Still uncertain if it was even worth it, he sat there contemplating confessing or not. 

He didn’t want to be a coward, but he also didn’t like dealing with things he couldn’t solve with a simple battle. This wasn’t something he could punch, or stab, or kill. His feelings welled stronger than life itself, an immortal force that refused to die. 

Oh how easy it would be if he actually wanted to end his feelings. That was the other option, wasn’t it? To get the risky surgery done, to rip the love right from his bloody, beating heart? But though he himself was dying, he loved knowing it was because he was capable of love. An emotion he’d only ever held for his family before…but this was very different. 

After what he’d gone through in the abyss, he never thought it was possible to fall in love with someone. He so desperately wanted to latch onto this thing that bloomed out of unlikely origins and would surely never return the moment it dissipated. 

Zhongli had awoken his dormant heart like a song did the glaze lilies. And he deserved to know. Even if it killed Childe then and there. 


“Childe.”

The voice startled him from his thoughts that had taken him into many hazy uncertain paths of the future, or if there even was one. Though he was so zoned out, he hallucinated the voice nearly sounding concerned. It wasn’t the greeting he’d been hoping for, but it felt better than the “Tartaglia” from the letter.

“Xiansheng,” tumbled out before he could stop himself. 

To his surprise, the usually stoic face of his company folded into a soft smile. Childe had to gulp back the sheer warmth that spiraled up his chest. The ice in his veins that had lingered immediately defrosted and all he had to do was glance at the man in front of him. He was a moth drawn to a flame. Like Icarus, he was all too willing to draw too close to the sun. How could he ever think it was possible not to love him?

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting long,” Zhongli sat down across from him, almost as naturally as if they hadn’t missed the last three months of their nightly dinners. 

Childe wanted to revert back to their usual banter, it was what felt natural, what he was used to. But he couldn’t just forget everything that led up to this point. Why they hadn’t seen each other in so long in the first place. 

But where did he even begin? He didn’t want to interrogate him. And he was in the wrong just as much as Zhongli was. Did he even have a right to be so upset? He did try to destroy Liyue— but then he reminded himself, the man had known about those plans and still let it all happen. 

“Not at all,” he let a forced smile take over, his eyes pinching too tight for comfort. “Has your day been well?”

“Better now that I can see you seem to be recovering fine,” Zhongli hummed. “The traveler was rather shaken when she recalled your illness to me."

“It comes and goes in waves,” Childe brushed it off for as long as he could. He needed to stall, at least to get some of his questions answered if in the end his wax wings were doomed to melt and he drowned in the ocean of bloody petals. 

“Baizhu has been reluctant to give me any information on what he believes to be wrong,” a crease formed between his brows. “I wanted to see if I could be of any help, I know remedies even the oldest books don’t have on record.”

“Dr. Baizhu doesn’t know. He can’t identify it,” he lied. But he didn’t want to lie to him anymore,  immediately adding, “I mean, he’s not certain it’s what he thinks it might be.” It was still a lie, but it felt less like one. 

“What were his theories?”

He gulped. It was all too sudden. He needed to evade. He needed answers, dammit. 

“Some foreign name I can’t pronounce. Ask him yourself Xiansheng , then you can teach me how to properly say it,” and he winked, distracting Zhongli momentarily. But it was enough, because at that moment Xiangling neared them, placing courses Childe didn’t order in front of him. 

“I took it upon myself to order in advance. I hope you don’t mind.”

“You ordered my favorite, but you weren’t certain I’d even show up.”

“I was,” he hummed. 

Childe wanted to tell him ‘fuck you’ and leave. He was so smug when he didn’t even understand the half of it. Frustration bubbled into an easy laugh. It sounded sad even to him, he hoped Zhongli didn’t notice. 

“You’re right. How could I pass up the opportunity to have my meal paid for by the god of mora himself?”

Zhongli’s previously easy expression settled back into the stone smoothness the Childe of three months ago rarely ever saw once he broke through it. 

“We have many things we need to discuss,” he looked down to his plate. 

And although Childe was glad he’d finally managed to steer the conversation in the right direction, he was still reluctant for their time together to end so quickly. 

“Let’s eat first,” and he grabbed the chopsticks he still couldn’t handle properly. 


 

To his surprise Zhongli didn’t comment once on his inability to eat with Liyuen utensils, but he did catch him giving a few judge-mental glances. They were barely twitches, but Childe could read him well enough to tell it was amusement. 

Although being in the presence of Zhongli soothed the ache of his illness to some extent, it was undeniably still present. He felt rude bringing his own drinks to dinner, but figured it would be easier to explain his drink away than him dying in a flowery pool of red without it. 

Besides, Zhongli already knew he was sick. What was the worst that could happen? He saves him some mora? Considering the man never seemed to have any on him before, Childe decided it would be a good service to help the man save where he could. 

He was glad he decided on that outcome, because the irritating scratchiness of thorns grazing up his trachea was making itself known. He opened one of the few remaining goblets Lumine had made for him. They were small, and he’d only thought to bring three with. He’d finished one before he even stepped foot in the restaurant. 

Zhongli, of course, eyed him like a hawk. Watched his every desperate gulp of herbal tea, willing the petals to peacefully slumber until he was away from that intense gaze. 

“Perhaps you’re not quite as well as a first glance would tell,” He spoke after watching Childe try very hard not to spill the tea all over himself, cursing his nerves repeatedly in his head. 

“What gives that away?” 

“The medicinal scent is strong. Violetgrass, chamomile… and a heavy dosage of Osha root. Usually only brewed together if the ailment is already deeply rooted. A preventative, not a cure. It’s stalling something deeper.” 

Fuck, he might as well just diagnose him himself. Who’d know the man was a bloodhound as well? 

“Guilty,” and although the news of him dying was a shock before, so wrong in his mind he absolutely wouldn’t allow it, he was almost coming to terms with it now. He smiled, playing with the remnants of food on his plate with one chopstick, poking it. 

“It doesn’t look so good for me,” It came out softer than he expected, accepting. He knew his failed fate had finally reached its conclusion, his time running thin. 

A frown, and an uncertain in meaning “Mn… ” left his Xiansheng’s mouth. 

“Can I ask you something? I’ll give you some answers in return. Whatever you want to know.”

“Anything?”

“Yeah,” he put his chopstick down, to rub at the back of his head, suddenly growing nervous. “As long as you tell me the truth. Think of it like… one of your contracts? Truth for truth? Only the truth.”

“These terms seem acceptable,” Zhongli hummed in patient agreement. 

“It’s just, a few things have been eating away at me. I mean- besides my illness,” nervous, awkward laughter that wasn’t returned turned the air stale around him. He was about to dig his heart out with a rusty pickaxe and lay it bare and bleeding for Zhongli to sneer at. 

“The whole mess with your gnosis…You wouldn’t be sitting across from me,” or even acknowledging my existence , he wanted to add, but bit it back. “If- if it weren’t for the contract, right?” 

“In regard to you being stationed in Liyue- that was for the purpose of the gnosis mission. I knew that. Of course we were fated to cross paths at one point.”

“That’s not what I mean.”

Zhongli frowned, but tried again. Voice calm and unflinching. “I suppose the gnosis was the sole reason we met, so in simplicity the answer would be yes.” 

Childe still felt like he wasn’t getting what he wanted. The answers were more like Zhongli was restating the question instead of adding anything more to it. Why was it so hard to understand how he felt about everything? Couldn’t he add in personal feelings to his answer? He’d always been so vocal any other time, when he was discussing something he was passionate about. But of course, why would he be passionate over a topic concerning Childe?

Besides that the answers themselves made his chest ache again, quickly countering the tea he drank and rendering it useless. It wasn’t what he was looking for at all. 

He opened his last goblet, taking small sips, willing it to last him. Last him at least long enough to get the questions out. 

“Xiansheng,” it would’ve been a chide if it weren’t so uncharacteristically quiet. “I mean to ask if it meant anything to you besides that.”

Zhongli was quiet. A long, uncomfortable silence ran his blood to ice as he waited. 

And waited. 

“Is this why you’ve been avoiding me in these past months?”

Childe was looking at the table. “Yes. And no.”

“We decided on the truth, was that not part of our arrangement?”

“It was part of the reason. Why would I continue to seek something that was essentially a business transaction when that transaction has been fulfilled?”

“What was the other part?”

“I grew sick.” It was only a half lie- he avoided him because he couldn’t understand his feelings on the matter. Well, besides that he was unreasonably angry. Where had that anger stemmed from? Was it justified? But the first question was swiftly answered along with the crude realization of his feelings when he actually did grow sick because of it. 

Grew sick and dying. 

 “I was fulfilling a contract, I wanted to be mortal, or as mortal as a previous gods body could allow,” Zhongli folded his hands neatly on the table. “But not everything is just a business transaction. Was that how it felt to you?”

“Of course it was a business transaction, my duty is to the Tsaritsa, I had to see my mission through. But that’s not what I mean!” He wanted to peel the skin off his face with the bluntest object he could find. 

“Did it mean anything to you at all? All that time- that we spent together. Was it too bold of me to assume that even if the lies between us divided us- that at one point we could’ve been considered friends?”

The lies between us ,” he seemed to repeat. “I understand how it would appear on the outside, but was it a lie if I was unable to tell you? Held bound by my contract? I had every intention to inform you once my end was fulfilled, even if I could not do so myself. Was it truly a lie if I was aware of your motive- yet still approached you first? We had the same interests at heart, wanting the same conclusion.” 

“Avoiding my questions with more questions doesn’t seem like the fairest or most truthful way to answer me.” Childe had expected a clean cut answer of “No, it meant nothing to me”, not to be interrogated right back. 

“That’s fair.”

 Childe dared a glance at him, he was looking right at him.  

“Yes, I would’ve considered us friends.”

Past tense. Something in Childe broke, joining the other shards in the pit of his stomach. Of course it was past tense. He should feel lucky he thought they were friends at all at one point. At least then that meant not everything that happened between them was meaningless. 

Though now those things that did, held even more meaning. And that meaning was currently fueling the fire that was burning through Childe’s lungs. 

“But you are doing well at avoiding my questions also. Tell me, Osha root is used to treat lung disease. Just what does Baizhu believe he’s trying to prevent?”

Before he could come up with an answer his body betrayed him. He hastily reached for his bottle, his pathetic, nearly empty, last bottle. He gulped down the final drops but it wasn’t enough. He threw an arm to his mouth and wheezed, and hacked, and croaked as he felt like no breath could enter or escape him. 

Pass from asphyxiation. Those words rang through his head. That was the way those in a similar predicament to his died. He knew it. He just wasn’t ready. 

“Childe!” The voice was worried, something rare in his usually steady tone. But he paid it no mind, currently attempting to right his airway. Just a little longer, he willed. 

He hunched over himself, clutching his arm to his face as he forcibly coughed rough to release the wretched thing lodged in his throat. Hands were gently placed on either side of him, Zhongli crouched before him, his amber gaze visibly uncertain. 

Childe tried to shake him away, but it was no use, he finally managed to turn enough out of his grasp that when he choked up the fully bloomed flower, stem and all attached, in all its gory glory, only a few stray droplets fell on Zhongli’s sleeve cuff. 

He continued to slowly hack up smaller petals, regaining his breath back, the air hurting his raw lungs as he greedily took it in. The soft wheeze in every inhale, a deep guttural rasp that brought more blood up in every exhale. 

He stayed like that, clearing his backed up airway. He'd gone too long suppressing it this time, and only made it worse. He’d tried so hard to prevent Zhongli from seeing him in this state. Reduced to a shaking, pathetic shadow of his former self. 

But he knew it was inevitable. 

Zhongli still sat crouched in front of him, hands firmly gripping his shoulders as he nudged him back upright. The blood on his sleeve disregarded, as he moved to grab a cloth napkin from his pocket and helped wipe Childe’s face. 

It stunned him, but he caught his wrist, halting him. 

“Don’t.” Weak, pathetic, useless. He wasn’t even able to get through everything he’d wanted to discuss. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Ajax,” it was a sigh. He couldn’t quite read the emotion in it, but hearing his given name aloud from him made something flutter in his gut. He let go, and ceded. 

When Zhongli had finished wiping him down, from his face, to the front of his shirt, to his arm and hands, the blood still stained, but it was no longer wet and dripping. The silence was tense. So many words hung in the air but were never spoken. 

But Zhongli was still holding him, one hand grasping his shoulder, hard. The other hand tightly clenching the soiled napkin. Childe brought his own hand up to steady that one. 

Zhongli’s stare was firmly on the flower that laid on the ground at their feet. Fully bloomed and beautifully blue despite the red lingering on it. 

“How long has this been going on?”

A sharp inhale. “Three months.”

“Then why-“ he cut him off.

“–It wasn’t bad at first. Just a scratchy throat. I thought it was only a cold. By the time it progressed it did so rapidly that it was already too late for treatment.” Which wasn’t a lie, but he also never planned to go through with the treatment anyway, not if it had a chance of causing the things Baizhu had listed. 

Zhongli frowned, clenching his teeth and hand tighter. “You know what this is?”

Childe nodded, even though the man was still not looking at him. 

“So do you.” He could tell just by the way Zhongli was glaring at the mess on the ground. 

“Who is it?”

Too sudden . Everything felt too sudden. 

“Can we pretend you don’t already know?” He tried. He knew Zhongli wasn’t stupid. He could piece things together by Childe’s behavior all night, that coupled with the flowers being glaze lilies- it wasn’t exactly a secret. Baizhu sure figured it out quickly, Lumine and Paimon following soon after. 

“You can’t be serious?” He finally turned to look at him. 

Childe felt his own hands shaking now. Forcing the quivering of his mouth into a small smile. “I can’t help it.” He released Zhongli’s wrist, setting his hands in his lap. 

“Baizhu told me if I went through with telling you, it would make me… make it pass quicker. Make it easier . But this isn’t easy at all.”

Silence. 

“I’ve fought so many battles, fallen so many foes. And yet I sit dying by no one but my own stupidity. It’s well deserved, really. How dumb could I be? We aren’t even friends, you said so yourself.”

“But let’s just forget this? I’ve already received my answer, it’s alright now,” he moved to take Zhongli’s hand off his shoulder. 

Nothing. Nothing at all. Somehow it was worse than he thought. He’d rehearsed in his head countless times the many ways this could’ve ended, the many things Zhongli would say to tear him down… that he’d almost accepted it already. But the silent, fervent gaze of something Childe couldn’t read, but knew wasn’t good, made him want to die right then and there. 

“Thank you for dinner,” He went to stand up, but that seemed to snap Zhongli back to the present. 

“Where are you going?”

“My apartment.” Probably to wallow in self pity before he croaked, but he wasn’t going to admit that. 

“Just what answer have you received?”

Xiansheng,” it came out desperate. Drop it, just drop it.  

Zhongli grabbed him by his shoulders again, pulling him closer, but not too close. “What answer do you think you’ve received?”

“Can we not do this? Why do we have to drag it out longer,” Childe’s voice was shaky, whether it was from nerves or still having trouble catching his breath from his coughing fit- he wasn’t sure.

“I’m afraid you’ve gravely misunderstood me.”

“What is there to misunderstand? You answered quite clearly. Let me go,” he couldn’t stop the bitterness that was beginning to leak through. But he was too weak to push himself out of Zhongli’s firm grasp. And too broken to have any room for hope.

The next thing he registered was warmth. Warmth invading his all too cold veins, pushing through and conquering. Forcibly entering every corner of his body, beginning and ending with the lips that connected to his. 

Zhongli was kissing him. He felt his legs go weak at the realization. He’d died. He’d died. He had to be dead. Because Zhongli was kissing him. 

He was held close to his body now, not the standoffish hold from before. Arms tightly wrapped and clung to Childe’s waist. Holding him upright, because he surely would’ve collided with the ground otherwise. 

His lips were hot and heavy, and left him wanting. But how dare he want for more, when he seemed to have everything right in front of him. Zhongli didn’t let up, and once Childe overcame his shock and melded into the kiss, he seemed to only take that as encouragement to deepen it. 

Wet and invading, Zhongli’s tongue slipped into his mouth without having to ask for approval. Childe willingly gave it. Bending into him, letting him control and take and have whatever he wanted, as long as this dream could continue. It probed and explored, then eventually withdrew, and finally they broke for air. 

Air that filled his lungs, air that was so refreshing it felt like Childe had taken his first breath of life all over again. It was so clear and came so easily he almost couldn’t believe it. He wouldn’t have believed it if it weren’t for the fact that they both were panting, faces still only centimeters apart. Gasping and grasping, holding each other like it was a lifeline. And for Childe, Zhongli really was. 

“You’ve mistaken,” Zhongli said once his breath evened out. He leaned in to give Childe’s still wet and now very red lips a soft, coquettish peck. “Gravely mistaken.”

“But you said-“ Childe was still unable to process everything. His brain refusing and downright rejecting the idea that Zhongli held feelings for him in any capacity anymore. 

“We were friends at one point, but I thought we’d grown far past that. Ajax… did you forget the night I gave you those chopsticks?”

“Chopsticks?” 

He’d completely forgotten. 

It was right before the whole shit show went down. One of the last nights they’d comfortably spent together. Zhongli knew things would get bad- but he and Childe had been practically glued to the waist the days leading up to it. They went out every evening. Were so close it hurt him to remember in his sick ridden days, that he did everything in his power not to. 


 

That night they’d gotten dinner. Childe drank a little more than necessary, indulging in the finest osmanthus wine, eager to try Zhongli’s favorite drink. Even more eager to show him he liked it. 

He was tipsy, but still coherently so. He could walk, but was slightly dizzy. Zhongli held him steady, and close, so close. He was warm, and he loved it. Basking in the attention the man gave him, he played up how drunk he actually was, nuzzling his head slightly into his shoulder as they walked. 

They went to Zhongli’s apartment near the Wangsheng funeral parlor he worked at. It wasn’t the first time Childe had been in his home. Wasn’t the first time he’d stayed over. Zhongli led him to the bed and firmly tucked him in, leaving to heat some tea he’d brewed previously to help him be less hungover in the morning. It was always like this. Never anything more. 

When Zhongli returned, he kneeled to the side of the bed. A small mirthful smile on his face. 

“I told you, you couldn’t handle that much wine.”

“I wanted- ta impresh you,” his words slurred in his drunken haze, no longer having to pretend as more of the wine caught up to him. He turned to peer at the man before him. Who was still bright- eyed and clearly not affected in the slightest by his intake of alcohol. Which had been far more than Childe drank. 

“You never cease to,” he whispered close to Childe’s face, the words vibrating into his skin. Before he pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. “Is your tea finished?”

Xiansheng,” Childe beamed. “I like it- I liked it…when you did that.”

A chuckle. A deep rumble in the chest so close to him. “Your tea?”

“Finished!” He proudly waved the cup around, which wasn’t entirely empty, and he spilled the remaining contents down the front of his shirt. 

“Oops.”

Zhongli sighed, but the smile didn’t waver. He took the cup from Childe’s hands, setting it down on the stand by the bed. He tugged a handkerchief from his suit pocket and gently soaked up what he could from the front of Childe’s shirt. 

“Sleep.”

Childe slipped down onto the bed in a lying position at that command. But failed to be quiet. 

“I did better today?”

“How so?”

“With my chopsticks!”

Another small rumble of laughter. “Yes. I believe so. Yet you still have much to practice.”

Childe frowned. And Zhongli swiped his thumb along his cheek, so tenderly if Childe were sober his heart would’ve been long since pulverized from how intensely it beat against his ribs. 

“I have something for you. Take it as encouragement. Faith for the future.”

“Xiansheng got me something?”

“Nothing major,” he let his hand drop, producing something hidden in his sleeve. “But nothing minor. All I ask is that you don’t lose these. Can you do that for me?”

“Mhm!” Childe muttered, unable to figure out how to open the box in his drunken state. Zhongli sighed and took the box from his fumbling hands, setting it on the dresser next to his empty cup. 

“They will be here in the morning. For now you need to rest. Goodnight, Ajax.”

The following morning, Childe had a headache thanks to spilling half his anti-hangover tea all over himself. He stretched, smelling something sweet as he heard Zhongli cooking a few rooms over. 

He glanced at the box on the nightstand, and vague memories flashed from the night prior. He winced at how he’d acted. Glad he couldn’t remember it all. 

He opened the box, it was finely decorated and looked expensive. And vaguely familiar. 

He opened it, revealing a pair of dragon and phoenix chopsticks. So finely carved and painted, they had to be expensive. And they were- because Childe had bought them, per Zhongli’s request. 

Had Zhongli asked for them with every intention to gift them to Childe? Was that why he seemed so adamant that day?

He decided then that even if that wasn’t the case, they were still too precious to use, especially when he still failed to properly hold them anyway. He would cherish them and keep them nicely presented like they deserved to be.

Zhongli was cooking breakfast, like he usually did when Childe stayed over. Childe never saw where Zhongli slept when he was there, but he was always curious. 

“Good morning, did you sleep well?”

“Ah, I guess so. Though… the bed was cold alone,” Childe teased. 

Zhongli promptly ignored him, as usual. “How’s your head?”

“Delightful,” he took a seat. 

Zhongli placed a freshly brewed cup of tea in front of him, like he had expected as much. He resented the half smile on the man’s face almost as much as the sight made him smile in return.

“The chopsticks, did you make me buy those for myself?” He asked when the food was served and the man was sitting next to him at the small table. 

At least he had the sense to blush slightly at that, “I saw them when we were out. I hadn’t planned on buying anything, I had no mora on me.”

Funny, because Childe remembered buying more things that day for Zhongli than things for himself.

They sheepishly smiled at each other, as Childe took a bite of fresh pancakes. 

“Still, why’d your gift have to be something so... elegant? How could I ever use them? I’m afraid I’d only ruin them, so your thoughtfulness has been wasted on me.”

“They hold great significance.”

“Something about the future, right? I remember a little bit. I’ll cherish them until they come up again, how about that?”

“Mn.”


 

“Oh, the chopsticks. Why do those matter right now?”

“They are quite important to Liyue's culture,” Zhongli sighed, “I suppose I cannot blame you for tuning out my ramblings.” 

Oh. Shit . Had Childe missed something super important? Some greater meaning that completely flew over his head because he’d been too busy staring at Zhongli and not actually paying any mind to his words? He’d done that a lot, but of course the one time he needed to he wasn’t paying attention. 

“The Dragon and Phoenix, the Emperor and Empress. Symbolic of harmony and happiness and are often used as wedding dowry,” Zhongli grasped both of Childe’s hands in his. 

Childe stood stock-still, frozen, and barely babbling, “W-wedding-“

“Fear not. It was not meant to be taken as a marriage proposal. But I had wanted it to show how I wished for our relationship to progress past just friendship. How much I wanted us to continue to be blissful and happy, but from a more intimate stance. Even possibly, one day, far into the future… it would be used for the wedding dowry purpose. I had assumed when you kept them without further questions that you understood. It’s clear now my intentions have gone unnoticed.” 

His breath was bated. No longer obstructed by blood or petals or whole ass flowers. But by the words sinking deep into his chest. Had Zhongli loved him before he’d even realized his feelings himself? 

“I-'' he was what? He was more than just sorry. He was absolutely grieving for what they could have already had, had he not been an absolute moron! 

“I’m so stupid,” he finally settled on, making Zhongli frown. 

“We both misunderstood.” 

“No,” he took his hands out of Zhongli’s, and buried his face in them. “No I’m really stupid. I thought you hated me. And I hated you back! I thought you used me, that it was all fake… I was killing myself because I thought my feelings wouldn’t ever be returned.”

“And you didn’t plan on telling me either,” Zhongli sighed. “Baizhu requested I visit him a few times. He needed help… or consultation if you will, because of a mysterious illness he’d never seen before. Though he never outright said it was you, I suspected. The tea confirmed it. I came up with that concoction myself. Had Lumine not asked me to check on you… had I not asked you to dine with me tonight, would you ever have come to me yourself?”

“No.”

A pause.

“And I didn’t even tell you. Not really. Not outright. I still hadn’t decided if it was for the best or not- but then I ruined the secrecy by producing a damn glaze lily from my lungs.” 

“Your illness wasn’t really subtle,” Zhongli agreed, wearing a small, nearly sad smile. He stepped closer and tentatively reached his arms to either side of Childe’s waist, pulling him back into his chest. “It wasn’t hard to figure out.”

Childe thought the only way he’d ever have Zhongli showing this much affection toward him was when he was drunk. He was practically glowing with the newfound knowledge that he didn’t have to become a full-fledged Snezhnayan stereotypical alcoholic to be held in his cozy embrace. 

He inhaled deeply, reveling in the scent of sandalwood and something so specifically Zhongli he couldn’t quite name. 

Before Childe could utter whatever regrettable sappy shit he’d planned to say, Xiangling entered the room, uncharacteristically quietly cleaning away their dinner plates, replacing them with dessert. 

Zhongli still held Childe tight, and it was clear the poor girl was doing her best to avert her gaze and give them their privacy. Her face was redder than a jueyun chili pepper, and she made fast work of the table, before bowing and quickly leaving. 

Childe sighed, but this time it was less contempt in nature, and more fear for the future. “She’s going to spread rumors.”

“Are they rumors if they’re true?'' Zhongli's deep voice was muffled in Childe’s hair, his firm arm shifting so his hand could roam his back. 

“You’re right,” Childe immediately agreed, having rethought what that could behold.  “Let them spread. Let everyone know that you, Liyue’s most eligible bachelor, is from now on until forever- unavailable.”

“I wasn’t ever available.”

Oh no, Childe thought, internally cringing for the inevitable cheesy line incoming, but he was too curious to do anything but play along. “Never?”

“Not for anyone except you.”

Xiansheng,” Childe groaned, though his face in the moment could rival Xiangling’s as he buried it in the man's chest. 


 

Xiangling did in fact spread rumors. Rumors that spread through the streets of Liyue faster than a tsunami would’ve.

 She must’ve been standing there for quite some time, waiting for the least awkward opportunity to do her job, so really they had no one to blame but themselves. She definitely heard bits and pieces of the chopstick conversation, or opted for just telling the parts she wanted to, because everywhere they went together they were being congratulated on their engagement. 

Some shop owners even stole Childe away from Zhongli while he was distracted, trying to get him to buy something for “his new husband”, implying they’d already been married. 

But those weren’t even the worst ones, especially since neither of them made any attempt to combat the marriage rumors, deeming them overall harmless. But the last and most embarrassing rumor of all was that Childe was screaming “Xiansheng" over and over from the very room of the restaurant! The newly wed couple could barely contain their lustful woes! Dessert wasn’t the only thing making a mess of the table! 

But that was simply untrue. 

Childe wasn’t the only one screaming for mercy that night.