As with most nights, Childe wakes up cold.
It’s early spring in Liyue now, and in the year that Childe’s been assigned here for, he’s always enjoyed its temperate climate, the gentle sun and the warm rains pleasant even in the colder seasons. The temperature had been the first thing he’d noticed when he’d stepped into Liyue Harbor, the sea breeze carding through his locks of hair and brushing against his skin in a touch far kinder than the freezing winds of his homeland.
He wants to stay here forever, he sometimes thinks, if only because the days are always warm.
The nights, though, are always another story--he opens his eyes as soon as he drags himself from the lingering dregs of his nightmares, turning his head to the side to blink steadily at the faint glow of the lantern beside his bed. When he swallows hard, past the uncomfortable tightness of his throat, a helpless shiver crawls its way down his spine, the phantom touch of the Tsaritsa’s icy fingers wrapped so delicately around his neck.
He can’t stop himself from touching at it, from running his fingers over the skin of his pulse, just to make sure her frozen nails haven’t broken through.
Beside him, the faint rustle of sheets makes his already pounding heart jump in his chest, and he hastens to drop his hand, to force himself to relax enough to face Zhongli.
Somehow, no matter how quietly Childe wakes up--and he knows he is quiet--Zhongli can always tell.
“Good morning,” Zhongli says evenly, without a trace of irony in his voice, and Childe flicks his gaze to the window, where the moon still shines softly through the opened shutters.
Childe tries for a laugh, but his voice sounds strained even to his own ears, the shadow of the fingers around his neck still too tight. “Something like that, I guess. Depends on your definition of morning, but...if I were you, I’d go back to sleep.”
Zhongli makes a neutral sort of murmur of assent, but does exactly the opposite of that, sitting up more fully until the blankets pool at his waist. He feels the man’s expectant gaze against the back of his head, and with a quick rearrangement of his own features, Childe tilts his head to properly look at him.
He’ll probably never get over how Zhongli looks like this, with his long strands of hair loose around his bare shoulders, his serious amber gaze slightly confused with sleep.
He looks...normal, like this, more human than he has any right to be, and something about the open vulnerability of it always makes something clench in Childe’s chest.
“Perhaps I am not tired,” Zhongli says simply, reaching behind them to prop some of the pillows up against the bed.
At this point, Childe has really no way of telling if that’s a lie or not--Zhongli’s body doesn’t seem to follow the rules of nature like the rest of them do, an innate talent that often allows the other to completely forget to eat or sleep for days at a time. It certainly gives the man a convenient excuse to hold these midnight parties with Childe, at any rate.
Childe drops his forearm over his eyes, the soft fabric of the sleeve of his nightshirt tickling at his face. “Well, I am. You’ll be kind of lonely if you stay up all by yourself, won’t you?”
They both know that this isn’t possible--Childe never returns to sleep when he wakes up like this, too busy watching the shadows for signs of movement, even with the persistent glow of the lantern. It’s only when the sun comes out, its rays of light peeking over the horizon, that Childe will be able to shut his eyes and safely slip away.
He appreciates the way that Zhongli chooses to withhold comment on this, though, and instead Childe hears the soft sound of scraping wood as Zhongli pulls open the bedside drawer. There’s a soft thump, then the rustle of pages, and Childe is curious enough to lift his arm slightly, enough to see what the other’s doing.
“It’s an interesting tale,” Zhongli clarifies, when he notices Childe’s stare, his long fingers trailing gently over the edges of the book. “Would you like to hear it?”
He very much would, actually, and not in the least because he’s interested in the story. But he likes hearing Zhongli speak, the way the soft richness of his voice always makes his words sound so kind.
Still, Zhongli is effectively offering to read Childe a bedtime story, so at least some token resistance is necessary.
“Trying out a new tactic on me? It’s clever, I have to say--it’s what parents do when they get sick of their brats being awake.”
Or so he thinks, at least. He doesn’t have much personal experience with things like that.
“Then it should certainly be effective now, no?”
The faintest hint of a smile curves at the corner of Zhongli’s mouth, his gaze impossibly soft in that moment, and Childe feels another flash of warmth run through the melting ice in his veins. He averts his gaze away from the sight, blinking steadily at the ceiling and feeling the flutter of his heart in his chest.
“Seems to me like you just like hearing yourself talk. Not that I don’t agree with you there, though, so go for it.”
Zhongli’s soft chuckle feels like a warm blanket around him, a steady weight draping gently over his unanchored form.
“As you command,” he says lowly, amusement coloring his words as he begins to read.
Childe allows his eyes to close, but doesn’t let himself slide back into the dark. Instead, he clings to the sound of Zhongli’s voice, letting the words carry him away as the night creeps towards the dawn.
Many winters ago, a farmer broke the frozen grounds outside of his home with his shovel. In the gap between the ice, he found a viper, its starving frame curled in the cold.
His earliest memory is of hunger.
Before he even knows his name, his age, his place in this world, he knows he is hungry.
It’s raining in Snezhnaya, one of the rare occasions where the weather hasn’t been overtaken by the snow, but it’s cold against Childe’s skin all the same. The freezing liquid tears into the thin fabric of his shirt, seeping into his skin and pooling against the stones beneath him.
His body trembles uncontrollably at the sensation, but Childe’s mind is already far away, his thoughts carefully blank and his empty gaze trained ahead into the distance as a heavy boot shoves its way beneath his ribs. The impact leaves a dark bruise in the soft flesh of his stomach, jerking the air from his lungs as he curls further in on himself, coughing wetly as he struggles to catch his breath.
It’s just a reflexive reaction from his body--he still isn’t here, refuses to be here--and so Childe says nothing, doesn’t move or speak when a hand tangles in his damp hair, yanking his head from the ground and forcing him to meet his attacker’s eyes.
The man he’d stolen from glares down at him, his features twisted into a vicious sneer as he looks over Childe’s form, at the blood dripping slowly from his nose and mouth.
“Brats like you should learn to keep your hands to yourself. You should have thought more carefully before choosing your target, little one.”
He shakes Childe roughly, and the movement jarrs him enough that he feels himself being forcibly dragged back into proper awareness. Unconsciously, his eyes drift downwards, away from the man’s face and over his perfectly-pressed clothes until they come to rest on the insignia embroidered on his chest.
Even someone like him, someone without a name or a family or a right to exist in this world, knows what that mark means.
The man grins when he sees the look of dull recognition in Childe’s eyes, and he releases his grip, allowing Childe’s head to sink back against the hard stones.
“That’s right. Pretty stupid of you, to go stealing from one of the Fatui.”
Of course, Childe hadn’t known that when he’d snuck up behind the man, his gaze focused only on the heavy-looking pouch of coins hanging at his waist. There’d been so many, more in one place than Childe’s ever seen in his lifetime, and he’d be certain that if he only took a handful of them, the man wouldn’t miss them.
While he doesn’t know how many years he’s been on this earth, he knows he’s spent nearly all of them fighting to survive in this way. He’s always had deft fingers and quick reflexes, and with how small he is, most people don’t notice his approach until it’s too late and the fingers behind his back are slipping their possessions into the folds of his clothes.
He should have known his way of life, as precarious as it is, would have to come to an end eventually.
There’s no use in apologizing or attempting to talk his way out of things--Childe isn’t even sure that he could. It’s been so long since he’s last heard his own voice that he’s forgotten what it sounds like, but he supposes that it isn’t an enormous loss, anyways.
“Can’t let a parasite like you just run around--I’m doing the world a favor, really.”
Perhaps he’s right--no one will miss Childe when he’s gone. He’ll be lucky if even one person notices the fact of his absence at all.
His parents would, maybe, if they were still with him, but the memory of their turned backs echoes somewhere distantly in his mind, somewhere between stay here, we’ll come back for you, and the knowledge that they never had.
Not that it was much of a surprise, not with five other mouths to feed and no way of doing so. As the youngest of his siblings, he always was the most expendable.
The man reaches for the knife at his waist, the one lit up by the blue of the Vision next to it, and Childe closes his eyes. There’s no reason to let himself see what comes next.
If he’s being honest with himself, he doesn’t think he minds much.
As deeply as he searches within him, he can’t find a trace of fear--he can’t feel anything under the emptiness that scrapes at the hollow insides of his stomach. He’s always felt this way, but he’s never once gotten used to it, to the bone-deep exhaustion that clouds his judgement and twists his vision and makes him so cold that he thinks even lying down in the snow would be warmer.
At least, if he dies here, the hunger will have to stop.
There’s a pause, where there’s little more than the sound of falling rain around them, drumming out a steady rhythm against the stones. Then, he hears the man sheathe his blade once more, and the surprise is enough to make him dare to look, to see how the man’s expression has shifted to something infinitely more dangerous.
“Or maybe, there’s a better use for you. Maybe you can make back what you stole--that should teach you the value of money.”
At that, the first real spike of cold terror seizes in Childe’s chest. They’ve all heard the stories, the rumors of what those desperate enough for bread on the table have had to do. It’s only with his skill in pickpocketing that Childe’s narrowly avoided having to resort to such a fate, but if this man drags him there by force, to one of those houses with the closed doors and the lights on at night--
Childe is still young, but to some, that’s the appeal.
It’s enough to make him struggle for the first time, jerking himself away from the man’s touch and staggering to his feet. His body aches like his skin is made from bruises, and when he wraps an arm around his abdomen in an attempt to steady himself, the pain is so sharp that his breath comes out in a gasp.
He won’t be fast enough--they both know it, and his attempts to run are so pitiful that the Fatui man tilts his head with something like a laugh, cold amusement glinting in his eyes as he merely watches Childe stumble backwards.
“Don’t make debts you aren’t prepared to pay,” is all he says, before he starts to stride forwards, his shadow so large it cloaks the entirety of Childe’s form.
Childe feels his back hit the wall behind him, the alleyway far too narrow to accommodate any real form of escape, and the impact knocks against his already fragile bones. He slides to the ground again, his legs giving way with how hard they’re trembling, his failing form unable to keep him up right any longer.
There’s no point in trying anymore—not when each movement expends energy that he doesn’t have to give, each breath widening the chasm of hunger within him.
He shuts his eyes again, and, for a moment, the world goes very still.
Then, a heavy hand drops itself onto his shoulder and Childe feels a violent sort of tug in his gut, a force so strong that he chokes on his next breath. He doubles over, his fingers instinctively curling at his chest, his heart beating so quickly against his palm that he thinks it might burst.
“Stay still—“ he hears the man snarl, but the rest of his words are drowned out by the roaring in his ears, the pain clawing its way up his throat and forcing its way out of him in ragged whimpers.
He’s never hurt like this before—it feels like his own blood is trying to crawl out of his skin, like sharp needles are forcing their way through his veins.
There’s a flash of heat, a warmth so strong that it burns him from the inside out, and then the rain around them abruptly comes to a halt, liquid suspended in the air around them. The pain and the heat spike with such intensity that Childe feels his sight go dark, until his world narrows down to the hazy gleam of the man’s Vision, the blue light stretching up into the sky.
He follows the trail of light upwards, just in time to see the drops of rain come together, colliding into one another until they take shape, forming watery shadows of the dagger at the man’s waist.
The man barely has the time to look surprised before they surge forward, piercing his throat clean through in three places. Almost immediately, the pressure in Childe’s chest disappears as soon as it had come, and he meets the man’s shocked gaze with his own wide-eyed, uncomprehending stare.
Then, the sharp knives disperse into harmless splashes, falling like the rain around them as the man collapses on top of Childe, the warmth of his blood dripping into the cloth of his shirt.
Childe doesn’t move, barely knows what’s even happened until the fading glimmer of blue catches his eye. When he looks down, the Vision hanging from the man’s belt slowly goes dark, the blue giving way to an empty gray.
Driven by some sort of bone-deep impulse, a hunger entirely separate from what he’s felt his whole life, Childe reaches out with a shaking hand, his fingers touching uncertainly at the smooth surface of the glass orb.
At the contact, another bolt of warmth arcs up his fingers and into his chest, pooling in his stomach, but it’s a much more pleasant feeling this time, something strangely gentle and almost kind. The orb flickers once more, color slowly flooding back into the Vision, but it’s a different shade of blue this time, one that Childe somehow knows as his own.
A god-granted gift, all for him.
Childe isn’t sure how he’s supposed to feel--he almost wants to laugh. He’s spent what little he’s had of his life taking from others, wishing he’d had even a fraction of what they owned, and here he now has the most coveted possession of all.
He wraps his fingers more securely around it, unhooking the Vision from the man’s waist and pulling it closer to him, but doesn’t move otherwise, doesn’t even shift the weight of the quickly-cooling body off of him.
For a while, the solid sensation of the Vision-- his Vision, the first thing that’s ever been his--is all he knows. He doesn’t know how long he sits there in the rain, only that when he blinks, once, twice, and countless hours later, he’s no longer alone.
There’s a woman in front of him, looking down at his empty gaze with something like interest. She looks out of place here, draped in fine clothes and rich jewelry, and the air around her crackles with an energy so strong that the rain refuses to touch her, each drop crystallizing into icy shards and shattering around her feet.
She’s beautiful, in an ageless way, but her eyes are so cold that Childe thinks he might drown in them if he looks for too long.
She leans down, and before Childe can think to flinch away, she taps lightly at the back of the man on top of him with one of her perfectly painted nails. Frost swallows his unmoving form like clouds rolling across the horizon, so fast that it only takes a single blink for his body to be frozen through.
With another touch, a motion so delicate that it just barely scratches the frozen surface, the body breaks into millions of pieces, each so small that they’re easily carried away by the answering wind.
“Useless. But you... you show promise.”
She extends one of her pale hands to Childe, frost ghosting gently off of her palm in wispy curls of smoke.
“Come with me,” she says, and her voice feels like it freezes him too, her words like cold claws closing around his throat. “And I will make you great.”
He meets Zhongli less than a week into his Liyue assignment.
It’s entirely by accident, really--Childe’s never set foot outside of his homeland before coming here, and Liyue’s port city is an abrupt change from Snezhnayan capital. For one, it’s much busier here, with markets lining the streets and the people running about the streets, children chasing after one another with echoing laughs.
There are a lot of turns, too, and Childe honestly isn’t certain how he’s ended up by the dockside markets. He remembers leaving his inn room, and then he’d taken a left, another left, and after that, his memory is somewhat blurry.
Either way, it’s not as if he really has somewhere to be.
Managing the Northland Bank--the cover he’s operating under--is mostly a hands-off job, with Ekaterina giving him something of a death glare whenever he comes remotely close to attempting to help with her records. The entire operation had already been set up by the time Childe had come into the picture, and the Tsaritsa doesn’t really have any orders for him, aside from staying put and awaiting her command.
Compared to the life he’d had before this, his years of training and killing and fighting to survive, it feels a little strange to have all of this time to himself now, for once unsupervised by his master.
He hasn’t really known how to spend it, but getting lost in Liyue isn’t a bad way to pass the time. It’s nice here, always warm and pleasant, and the coming of spring has grown new leaves on the trees and coaxed animals from their burrows.
He’s never seen either of those things before, really, hasn’t seen much of anything but ice and snow, a manufactured climate by their Archon.
Almost everything about Liyue--on the surface, at least--is preferable to the eternal winter of his homeland. He’s not certain how much time he’ll get to stay here, though, so he figures the best course of action is to absorb as much of it as he can, to memorize the nicer details of it before he inevitably upends their entire way of life and then moves on to his master’s next enemy.
When he walks along the docks and past the markets, watching the people move past him, he almost feels like he has a place here, as artificial as it might be. All the easier to slip into his assigned role, he supposes--the more he seems like he belongs here, the more the people of Liyue trust him.
And it sharper his knife is when the time comes to sever their ties.
“Yes. I would like to order fifteen sticky sweet buns, please.”
Childe stops in his tracks, tilting his head back to glance at the source of what he’s just heard, helplessly curious about it.
He places the owner of the voice immediately, his gaze falling upon the man some ways away from him, the one currently watching the owner of the snack stand with an expectant look in his amber eyes.
Somehow, Childe’s managed to find someone who looks even more out of place than he does--everything about the man, from his finely-pressed clothes to the intricate jewel hanging from his ear emanates a certain kind of class that one can really only be born into. This fact is hardly lost on the passerby around them, all who give the man something of a second glance before continuing on with their daily activities, a faint confusion clouding their gazes at the sight of this lost nobleman purchasing cheap street food.
The owner of the snack stand tilts her head somewhat dubiously, her sharp eyes studying the man’s form. He’s certainly tall, some inches above Childe himself, but he looks nowhere near large enough to consume the amount of food he’s asking for.
While this man appears more than capable of paying for so many buns, it’s clear that the shopkeeper thinks he’s playing some sort of particularly strange trick on her. She purses her lips, folding her arms as a hint of steel enters her gaze.
“For such large purchases, I’m afraid I’ll have to request payment before I start making these.”
The man gives something like a small start of surprise, the blank mask of his expression cracking ever so slightly as he looks down. Reaching slowly for one of the delicately embroidered pockets of his clothing, he hooks one of his long fingers into it, pulling it open and peering curiously into the contents, as if he’s never seen the possessions on his own person before.
“...Ah,” he says, after an entirely too-long moment, and, behind the dull sort of surprise that colors the light of his eyes, there’s an almost lost expression on his face, like he’s not quite sure what to do in the face of this revelation. “The payment. It seems I have forgotten, once again.”
The incredulity that Childe feels in that moment is perfectly mirrored by the disapproving look on the shopkeeper's face, and she shakes her head, turning slightly away from him.
“I’ll have to ask you to leave now.”
The man doesn’t move from his spot, his gaze instead falling somewhat longingly upon the appetizing picture of the sweet buns hanging from the shopkeeper’s stall. There’s a kind of...pathetic quality to his expression, his face so helplessly lost that Childe finds himself unable to look away.
Well. At least this might be something interesting for him to do today.
“Allow me,” he says as he steps into the conversation, his full pouch of coins chinking lightly at his waist. “I’ll cover him.”
There’s a pause, then, the customary moment of suspicion that Childe has grown so accustomed to, both from his homeland and this one. The waitress stops, looks first at his blue eyes and pale skin, then at the mask resting casually in the messy locks of his orange hair, and narrows her eyes at him.
It’s obvious that she doesn’t trust him or his intentions, which is quite honestly excellent judgment on her part.
“Sir?” she finally asks, her words more of a question than her tone is. “Do you know him?”
She thinks this is a scam, most likely, that the stranger beside him means to make off with the sweet buns while Childe serves as the distraction. Not a bad tactic—it’s one that’s certainly served him well over the years.
For now, though, his intentions are as good as they’ll ever be, so he simply slides a disarmingly friendly smile onto his features, dipping his head towards her in a way that implies both respect and submission.
“Not at all,” he admits cheerfully, his gaze drifting idly to the placid calm of the stranger before him. “I just happened to be listening in. Happy accidents and all.”
Before she can put up further protest, Childe quickly calculates the required amount of Mora in his head, extracting the same amount--plus some extra, as a tip for putting up with the both of them--from his pouch.
The money is more convincing than he could ever be, as good as he is with words, and it isn’t very long before she accepts the payment, turning to the station behind her to start making the buns.
With the crisis properly resolved, Childe tilts his head towards the man beside him, turning the other’s rather confused attention towards him.
“So. Either you’ve got a big family, or you’re really hungry.”
The man blinks at him slowly, and Childe is strangely drawn to the gentle hue of his eyes, a shade of amber he’s never quite seen before. It feels warm, looks something like the setting sun, and it makes the stern expression on his face somewhat softer for it.
“I have not eaten in a while,” he admits, then tilts his head to look more carefully at Childe, his gaze drifting momentarily to the red mask in his hair. “You are...the Snezhnayan diplomat, I presume--Childe, was it?”
Childe laughs lightly, touching gently at the mask. “Seems like you know me so well already, and here I am, unable to return the favor. Mind telling me a bit about yourself?”
“I am called Zhongli. Of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor.”
It’s a strange way of answering, but Zhongli has a way of making his words sound natural, the smoothness of his voice flowing easily over the stilted sentence.
“Funerals, huh? Doesn’t seem to be a very popular business, if you can’t afford your own snacks.”
Zhongli gives a neutral hum of agreement, dipping his head respectfully in Childe’s direction.
“I simply, ah...forgot about that part. Thank you for your help. It is certainly fortunate that you were here.”
“Yeah, lucky day for both of us, huh? You’re getting free food and I’m getting to try these buns for the first time.”
If Zhongli holds any objection to Childe essentially inviting himself to the meal, he doesn’t raise it, nodding serenely in agreement.
“They are an enjoyable experience, I assure you. Among the best that Liyue has to offer.”
The shopkeeper returns to them, then, cutting their conversation off neatly as she offers them two paper bags. When Childe takes the one offered to him, he can feel the heat of the buns against his fingers, steam curling lightly from the open top of the bag. At a first glance, he counts about four of them in his bag, each one easily big enough to fill his palm.
He’s definitely nothing close to a picky eater, but he doubts he could stomach more than three of these--how Zhongli is planning to plow through the double digits is enough of a mystery that Childe elects to follow him when he starts walking away.
Zhongli glances at him when Childe falls into step with him, forced to walk slightly faster to keep up with the stride of Zhongli’s longer legs. There’s a look of almost-surprise on his face as he dips his head towards him to acknowledge his renewed presence.
“I assumed you had other matters to attend to, but, if not, you are welcome to follow me. I know of a suitable place to rest while we eat.”
Childe certainly doesn’t know where he’s going, at least not well enough to take the lead, so he’s more than happy to trail after Zhongli as the man leads him away from the busier parts of the city and towards one of the quiet stone gardens nearby. It’s exactly the kind of location Childe would have expected someone like Zhongli to prefer, with softly trickling water filtering into a flower-filled pond, loose leaves on the trees drifting onto the arranged stone benches.
It’s more than beautiful, but Childe finds himself unable to focus much on the scenery, abruptly distracted by the sight of Zhongli, who, as soon as they sit down, consumes an entire bun in two bites.
With quite frankly terrifying speed, he goes through another before Childe can even open his own bag, chewing on it with such fervent passion that it makes Childe mildly concerned.
“Um,” he starts, debating on how to best phrase his disbelief into a proper statement. “You might want to slow down. I’ll admit, I have no idea what to do if you start choking.”
Zhongli looks up mid-chew, a puzzled expression crossing his face as he swallows down the first bite of his third bun.
“It is alright. That simply will not happen.”
He speaks with an absolute conviction, like the strength of his belief in this is directly tied to his probability of actually choking, and Childe decides that it maybe isn’t his business if Zhongli is forced to reap the consequences of his actions.
Most likely, no one in Liyue would accuse the Snezhnayan diplomat of attempting to murder one of their own citizens through sweet-bun-consumption.
Reaching into his own bag, he extracts one of the buns, weighing it carefully in his hand. It’s still warm against his palm, and he takes a moment to appreciate the heat of it before taking a much more reasonably-sized bite out of it.
There’s a semi-sweet kind of red filling inside of the dough, and it has a rather fluffy texture to it--as the first dessert he’s ever tried in Liyue, Childe thinks it lives up to its fame. He can maybe understand why Zhongli had been so eager to obtain them, now, but he still takes his time with his, a holdover from the days when he’d had to make every scrap last as long as possible.
“It seems like you approve,” Zhongli says, evidently having paused in his path of destruction to observe Childe’s first taste.
The way that Zhongli looks at him is strange, then, like Childe’s opinion of his favorite snack is something to be genuinely interested in, and something about that makes Childe swallow his next bite a little too quickly.
“Are you choking?” comes the flat question, as Childe coughs into his arm, and were the inquiry from anyone else but this ridiculously good-natured man, Childe would have thought it to be a verbal form of revenge.
With the way he’s twisted away from the other, he doesn’t notice Zhongli reaching out for him until he feels the hand on his shoulder.
He just barely manages to suppress the reflexive tensing of his body, attempting to wave away Zhongli’s concern with a casual hand.
“Just a little,” he reassures the other, subtly shifting away from the touch. “But it was still good, I promise.”
Zhongli returns to his own eating, apparently satisfied by this answer, but Childe can’t quite shake off the lingering warmth of his touch, his shoulder prickling where Zhongli’s hand had been in a way that isn’t exactly unpleasant.
He almost wants to feel it again, as strange as that is--it isn’t like him to voluntarily seek out contact, no matter how verbally friendly he might be. Maybe it’s this that makes him pause with his fourth bun in his hand, lifting his gaze to look at Zhongli, who is looking into his empty bag with that same lost expression.
“Hey. Here,” he says, reaching his hand out to tap the bun against Zhongli’s palm, pressing it into his hand until the other’s fingers curl around it.
They just barely brush against Childe’s with the motion, and a warmth entirely separate from the leftover heat of the snack jumps up Childe’s arm and pools somewhere near his stomach.
“...thank you. I am in your debt.”
Such a solemn vow over such a trivial thing.
“Careful, there,” Childe answers lightly as he draws his hand away after a too-long moment, the slightest edge creeping into his teasing smile. “Don’t make debts you aren’t prepared to pay.”
Zhongli blinks at him, hesitating only for a second before he dips his head at him, and his gaze turns soft, painfully trusting in a way Childe’s never been looked at before.
“I am prepared. Whenever it is that you choose to collect, I am prepared to pay.”
When they part ways, later that day, Childe can’t stop thinking about it--how willingly Zhongli had answered to him. It’s not a thought he really wants to dwell on, but he doesn’t know how to make it go away either, not after he’s formed such a helpless curiosity in the other.
He’ll just have to revisit the matter, then--maybe next time he’ll bring his own sweet buns.
The creature's plight touched the farmer's heart, and, finding himself unable to leave it be, he took it in his hands to carry it home. Through the long winter months, he nursed its wounds and slowly restored it to good health.
When he is fifteen--or something around that, at least--the Tsaritsa introduces him to the Harbingers.
He’s been under her care for close to a decade now, and he barely remembers his life before her. When he tries to reach into it, to look through that foggy veil of his past, it sometimes comes to him in flashes, scattered images of his sister’s face or a dim memory of the inside of his home.
Mostly, he remembers only sitting in the rain, staring at nothing as his first kill bled out onto the stones.
He feels the cold press of his master’s hand against the curve of his spine as she nudges him forwards, into a small room where their company awaits. A quick head count reveals only two other people with them--the rest must be stationed elsewhere.
At his approach, a woman that he only vaguely recognizes leans forwards. He knows of her title, at least--La Signora is infamous, even amongst the harbingers, for her ruthless methods and her stark resemblance to their Archon. She studies him carefully, her eyes glinting with a cold interest as she looks him over.
“So this is your pet, Tsaritsa? He’s...cute.”
The way she says it isn’t a compliment, the word dripping with nothing short of a cold venom, and Childe tips his head towards her, easily sliding a smile onto his face. He’s made himself anew in the years between the day the Tsaritsa had found him and now, and the memory of the helpless child he used to be is just that--a memory.
His presence in the Fatui ranks is nothing short of exceptional, with even the youngest members before him at least five or six years his senior. For the most part, the Tsaritsa had kept him away from the rest, preferring to oversee his training personally.
It’s probably better that way--everywhere he goes, Childe can feel the scrutinizing gazes of his would-be allies, the suspicion they hold towards the favored prodigy of their Archon.
“Do you think so?” he asks freely with a light laugh, running his fingers through his tangled curls of hair. “I’m flattered--but we’ve only just met, you know. And I’m a bit young for you, wouldn’t you think?”
La Signora’s smile turns a fraction more deadly at the implication in his words, and Childe feels his master’s nails press into the skin of his back in a warning. He’s gone too far, perhaps--the harbingers demand more respect than the average Fatui soldier, after all.
Suppressing his reflexive shiver, he tries to rein himself in, tilting his head curiously at the Tsaritsa.
“So...you brought me here to meet them?”
“Of course,” the Tsaritsa answers, subtly shifting her gaze above his head, which is all the warning Childe gets before a flurry of glacial daggers erupts from La Signora’s hand.
His body reads the cue before his mind does, twisting him out of the way seconds before he processes what this is--a test, like so many things often are. The heat of his vision burns against his abdomen as it flares up in response, his fingers curling around the watery hilt of his sword.
In a wintry blast, the Tsaritsa vacates their immediate presence, warping herself to a better vantage point, joined shortly by a blast of anemo from the other harbinger in the room. It’s just the two of them, then, Childe against the element he’s most vulnerable to, all of which he knows is by design.
“Slippery rat,” La Signora spits, and Childe makes the mistake of looking at her when she speaks, too late to leap away from the frost that immediately creeps its way up his leg.
It burns against his skin, and he’s forced to jerk his ankle at an awkward angle to break the confines of the ice, most of it remaining in a fine coat around his calf as he dodges the next attack. She’s smarter than any of his usual sparring opponents have been, immediately hindering what she recognizes as his best and only defense.
Childe’s never had the best constitution, and his Hydro allows him little in terms of actual protection. His years of starvation have left him smaller than most of his enemies, and despite his years of training attempting to build him up, his endurance is passable, at best.
His best asset in combat is and always has been the speed at which he moves, the ease with which he slips through his enemies offense until he arrives at their weakest point.
As far as he can tell, that doesn’t exist for La Signora--or rather it does, but he doesn’t yet know how to find it.
He can feel the burn of the Tsaritsa’s merciless gaze against the back of his neck, and he knows that he has no choice but to at least try. Even after all the years she’s personally watched over him for, he knows she holds no real love for him.
If he dies here, the only thing she will mourn is her wasted time.
Not a very encouraging thought, he thinks dryly, putting another pace of distance between him and his opponent.
“Maybe you could pick a nicer animal for me? I don’t know, a cat, maybe? Those are cute.”
La Signora doesn’t seem to share his fondness for running his mouth during battle, if the vicious extent of her next attack is anything to go by. Childe finds himself being rapidly backed into the wall, too cautious of his elemental disadvantage to properly parry any of any of her attacks--he’s badly informed here, has little to no idea of the reach or the actual ability of her Vision, and at a disadvantage in every way.
This isn’t a fight he’s meant to win, though, at least not at this point in time.
At the next wave of ice that comes towards him, he watches for the frost spiraling in a trail across the floor to indicate where he should dodge next. It comes to a stop, then a spike of ice protrudes abruptly upwards, barely missing his abdomen and tearing open the side of his shirt, drawing blood from his hip as it goes.
The ice is still covering his leg, weighing down his movements with a numbness that slowly creeps up his entire left side. He can’t even feel the gash that’s ripped just him open with how much the cold has erased his ability to feel, and the fingers of his left hand tremble so violently that he has to curl them into his palm to get them to stop.
It goes rather downhill from there, mostly because he’s fighting against time and blood loss alongside his actual opponent.
To his credit, he actually manages to get close, once or twice, but his water-shaped weapons are incapable of breaking through her defenses. She reminds him of the Tsaritsa, the way frost gathers on the liquid surface of his blades the instant they come near her, dulling the edges before they shatter apart in his hands, his own element wrested out of his control.
Close-quarters combat is obviously getting him nowhere, which really only leaves him with the alternative. Unfortunately, he’s hardly proficient in long range, having picked up the skill with much more reluctance than his other weapons.
He’s a lot more reluctant to die at the end of a frozen spear, though.
Using one of the remaining ice constructs to his advantage, he flips backwards onto one of them, scaling his way to higher ground and allowing the misty winds of La Signora’s next attack to provide him his cover.
He’s lucky enough to catch her by surprise like this--the Tsaritsa had evidently intended on him taking this route, if she’d kept this particular ability of his a secret--and she doesn’t see it until it’s too late, the way the water of his sword flows into a new shape altogether, a bow solidifying in his hand.
Most of their arrows miss their mark--the initial shower of them is only meant to distract, after all--and La Signora recovers quickly, deflecting them with a scornful swipe of her hand. As she completes the movement, there’s the briefest of seconds where Childe sees what he’s meant to hit, the smallest of chinks in the black metal of her mask.
As he lines up his next arrow, he shifts his aim slightly to the right, errant enough that when her trained reflexes instinctively try to blast it away--and they do--the force of it corrects the arrow’s path. It draws a tiny crack across the material, forming a hairline fracture so small it’s almost unnoticeable, were it not for the way it exposes a hint of the blue of her eye.
That should be enough.
In the next instant, an arctic force slams into his form, instantly bruising the skin of his abdomen and tossing him weightlessly into the wall behind them. He feels his ribs crack upon impact, the sound much like the cracking of frost, and his vision darkens for half a second too long. Before gravity can pull him downwards, another formation of ice crystallizes beneath him and catches his fall, the sharp edge of an icicle digging into the fragile skin of his neck.
The point of it just barely rests against his fluttering pulse, and Childe presses his head back against the wall as it starts to break the skin, deep enough to draw blood.
He swallows hard, his weapons turning to formless water and slipping between his fingers, and the fight ends.
The Tsaritsa steps forwards, and in her presence, the ice in the room immediately dissipates, the element obeying her command even when born outside of her hand. Childe crumples unceremoniously to the floor and La Signora lets out a haughty sort of scoff, but the noise carries enough insult that Childe knows he’s at least won something today.
His master looks him over, the unchanging expression on her face as unreadable as ever.
“Very good,” she says at last, and then in the next blink of his heavy lids, she’s gone.
Later, as he sits alone in his room and wraps clumsy bandages around the shaky stitches in his torso, he thinks back on those words, tries to hold onto them as long as possible, but finds that they mean nothing to him.
He should be proud, maybe, proud of himself, of his ability, of whatever unspoken barrier he’d finally broken through today, but there’s nothing. It feels a little like the emptiness of hunger, but mostly the nothing feels like nothing, like the cold still numbing his side has spread into the hollow parts of his chest.
This isn’t a new sensation, he’s starting to realize--he’s felt this way for a while. In fact, he can’t remember the last time where he’d felt like anything, where he’d felt something close to a pleasant lightness or bitter anger.
Hopefully he still remembers how the emotions had felt, though.
He’d make a terrible pretender if he didn’t at least know how to fake them.
“So, forgive me if I’m missing something, but what business does a funeral parlor worker have here?” Childe asks casually, sometime after Zhongli has shown up to these little skirmishes for the third or fourth time.
He drives his sword into the exposed core of a Ruin Guard’s form, his other hand clinging onto its back for dear life, watching as the water that makes up his blade disperses upon impact. Some of it seeps into the open gash that Childe’s left in the core, steam hissing from the wound as his Hydro makes contact with its inner mechanisms.
Out of the supposed goodness of his heart--and the absolute boredom of his current position--Childe’s been helping out at the Liyue branch of the Adventurer’s Guild for a bit.
There are no shortage of problems that need taking care of, from finding herbs for some grandmother’s medicine and locating lost dogs to retrieving a priceless keepsake from a rogue Ruin Guard who’d murdered some unfortunate soul’s daughter.
He sees it now, actually, the thin chain of a necklace snagged around the metal of its gears, and he forms a more needle-like projection in his hand in order to begin the extraction process. It isn’t exactly easy to do so, considering that he neither wants to break the delicate jewelry or his equally delicate neck, and the Ruin Guard is thrashing particularly hard in an attempt to throw him off.
“Hey, you--” Childe ducks as one of the spinning arms just barely misses the top of his head, the motion fluttering his hair with the force of it. “You think you could keep it still?”
The exact details of what Zhongli does next escape him, but in the next instant, the Ruin Guard is completely impaled by an enormous spike of rock. Zhongli’s Geo crumbles outwards from the point of contact, rapidly spreading over the Ruin Guard’s body until its entire lower half is encased in a thick prison of earth.
“You couldn’t have opened with that?”
Zhongli gives him a perplexed sort of look, a blank confusion Childe’s become so accustomed to seeing on his face.
“But you did not ask.”
Of course. Childe shakes his head, knowing that any further discussion of this is a lost cause to Zhongli’s literal mind. Instead, he frowns down at his current task, gently slipping the fine point of his needle in the cracks beneath the Ruin Guard’s armor. With his water wedged firmly inside, he carefully expands it until the internal pressure pries open the plates of stone and metal completely.
It’s easy enough to rescue their target, then, his long fingers looping the chain around his fingers as he pulls the necklace out.
He vaguely recognizes the pendant as one matching the sigil embroidered on the grieving father’s clothing, and something about the thought gives him pause, the faintest flicker of emotion fluttering in his empty chest.
Shaking his head to dispel the unwelcome sensation, he makes to pocket the necklace for safekeeping on the way back, but Zhongli’s hand suddenly darts forward. He moves like he means to grab hold of Childe’s wrist, but stops short a few inches shy of actually touching him, tilting his head at Childe like he’s looking for permission.
That, of course, does nothing to make the strange pressure in his chest any easier, and he offers Zhongli a crooked smile instead, keeping the necklace in his open palm.
“What? I wasn’t planning on stealing it, you know. I’m a bad guy, but I’m not that bad of a guy, not enough to rob the dead, at least.”
“Of course not. A ridiculous thought,” Zhongli answers, like it truly is inconceivable that Childe’s bloodstained, thieving hands would do such a thing. “I simply wished to observe the pendant--may I?”
Childe offers his hand to Zhongli in silent invitation, and the other moves to take the necklace from him, the warm brush of his fingers against Childe’s palm so fleeting that Childe misses it the instant it’s gone. Luckily, Zhongli is far too absorbed with investigating the pendant to notice the shiver that trails its way down Childe’s spine, making a thoughtful sort of hum as he holds it up to the light.
“A chrysanthemum, most likely. One of the more noble flowers, truly, and the white outline of the shape implies a certain good fortune…ah.”
Zhongli trails off before he can actually devolve into a full-blown ramble about the meaning of the flower, looking at Childe with something close to hesitation.
At this point, Childe’s known Zhongli for about a month now, and he’s grown more than accustomed to the other’s penchant for rather strange facts--Zhongli probably has a library stored in that empty head of his, judging from the sheer randomness and depth of each of the topics he speaks on. Zhongli always has a habit of cutting himself midway through, as soon as he realizes he’s on a tangent, pausing to gauge his audience’s reactions.
While Childe can understand why the sweet-bun vendor hadn’t wanted to hear Zhongli’s thousand-word dissertation on the origin of the azuki bean, he actually quite enjoys hearing what Zhongli has to say. His own inexperience in all worldly matters is painfully obvious with every passing day he spends in Liyue, and having Zhongli handy to keep him informed has saved him from committing quite a few cultural transgressions over the weeks.
“Go on,” he encourages lightly, tipping his head in Zhongli’s direction as he sets off back towards the village. “Not like I can’t listen and walk at the same time.”
Looking somewhat surprised, Zhongli continues on, and Childe is so occupied with listening to him that he completely fails to notice the girl in front of them until he’s actually completely walked through her.
His brain pauses, freezing for one, two seconds as he slowly processes exactly what happened. Twisting around behind him, he sees the translucent form of the spirit he’d just passed through, and a cold chill entirely separate from the weather crawls down his spine.
“...um,” he says, his voice sounding oddly feeble in his throat, and it's perhaps this pitiful quality that gives Zhongli pause, pulling himself away from his speech to look at Childe in concern. “Do you...see that?”
Zhongli follows the direction of Childe’s petrified gaze to look at the spirit before them, and the expression on his face doesn’t change in the slightest as he nods to himself.
“Ah, right. You asked what business I had here. Come—meet Su Yan.”
Childe can immediately think of at least ten other things he’d rather do than touch a little ghost girl’s ethereal hand, but Zhongli is already striding fearlessly forwards, kneeling before the spirit with a gentle look on his face.
“We found this,” he informs her solemnly, holding up the necklace to her face, and her eyes widen at the sight, her pale fingers reaching out to touch the jewel but only passing through. “My friend here intends on returning this to your father. As you wished for, correct?”
She nods, the faintest hint of hope entering her gaze, and Childe thinks he can see her form growing lighter, the colors that make up her spectral body starting to blend into the light. He gets it--or at least he thinks he does. Zhongli is here to help her move on, and Childe is just along for the ride.
“You may come with us. Perhaps you can see your father a final time.”
There’s an impossibly gentle look in Zhongli’s eyes, then, the setting sun highlighting the amber glow of his irises, and the way he looks at this child’s spirit is an emotion that Childe doesn’t quite recognize. He looks ageless like this, like he’s personally overseen what little life this girl had to live, like he knows their family and their name and the land they walk on.
He looks like what Childe knows should be his enemy, in this moment.
Zhongli hands the necklace back to him as he stands up, meeting Childe’s questioning gaze with a quiet nod.
“It should be you who presents it to her father. It is you who worked to retrieve it, after all.”
Childe curls his fingers around the pendant until the metal edges dig into the skin of his palms, swallowing past the sudden tightness in his throat to readjust his smile.
“Yeah, I was thinking that too. But more because I’m the better talker between us, I would say.”
Or so he says, but the moment Su Yan’s father sends him the most genuine look of gratitude he’s ever seen anyone look at him with, he’s almost completely thrown off balance.
“Uh, yeah--no problem, I mean,” he says uneasily, closing his eyes when he laughs so that he doesn’t have to look at the man’s face. He rubs a hand at the back of his neck, his fingers fiddling with the fabric of his scarf in an almost nervous gesture. “Just hold onto your things more tightly next time, yeah?”
A bit of an uncalled for addition, but he has to balance out the weirdness of this situation somehow. At any rate, his attempt at souring the conversation doesn’t even work, because Su Yan’s mother is the next to approach, offering him a small package as means of compensation.
“Here,” he says, turning to Zhongli as soon as he takes the package, shoving it against the other’s chest in an attempt to transfer all the emotion that it holds with it. “I think she’s got a thing for you.”
Even with the layered implication of his words, none of the people in the immediate vicinity stop looking at him like he’s good, not even Su Yan, who offers him a shy wave as her form completely dissipates, after one last long glance at her parents.
“If you insist,” Zhongli answers, lifting a hand to take the package properly from him, which is when Childe finally notices the dark stain blotting the already black fabric of Zhongli’s clothing.
There’s a small tear in his sleeve, and beneath it, a gash in his forearm steadily bleeds out into the cloth. It’s a deep cut too, one that Childe’s missed because Zhongli apparently either feels no pain or simply hadn’t found it worth mentioning.
Zhongli actually has the nerve to look confused when Childe hooks his fingers into the cuff of his sleeve, tugging his arm slightly upwards to inspect his wounds.
“I think we have to go,” he says by way of farewell, shrugging off their present company’s concerns before he starts to haul Zhongli away.
He waves cheerily at the duo behind them as he searches for the sanctuary of the nearest Statue of the Seven. Given his suspicions of what Zhongli might actually be--an adeptus or otherwise--he isn’t so certain that its blessing will actually heal the man, but at least it’ll keep any enemies away while Childe wraps him up.
“Sit here,” he instructs, more or less pushing Zhongli towards the base of the statue, and Zhongli obediently does so, blinking steadily at Childe as he kneels in front of him and peels his sleeve away from his skin.
“There is no cause for concern. It is but a minor cut.”
There’s an unpleasant amount of dirt and gravel and what might possibly be bits of Ruin Guard in the gash, and it’s easily big enough to extend from Zhongli’s wrist to his elbow. Childe would maybe be more surprised that Zhongli hasn’t shown the typical signs of blood loss yet, but he also knows the man has a habit of completely forgetting to eat for four or five days at a time and still manages to function.
His Vision glows at his waist as water comes together in his hands, gently wrapping around Zhongli’s forearm and covering the wound. The tiny current slowly picks the debris from the wound and cleans it out, and he discards the used water off to the side afterwards to dig around in his possessions for a length of bandages.
He always keeps at least one with him, out of habit.
“What, so you usually just wait until you bleed out and someone comes to find your body?”
“No. I simply wait for the injury to leave on its own.”
Childe’s fingers pause in their deft wrapping of Zhongli’s arm, then, because how exactly has Zhongli survived for so long?
“Well,” he says, tying off the edge of the bandage and averting his gaze from the look of honest appreciation on Zhongli’s face. “It sure would look bad if I came back with you in town and you dropped dead, huh? I mean, I could probably get away with it. But it’d be kind of annoying.”
“Yes, of course,” Zhongli answers, sounding entirely too happy in the face of Childe’s self-serving reasoning, touching the bandage on his arm gently. “But I hope you are aware that you did well today.”
There it is--Zhongli’s other most unfortunate habit, his way of dropping verbal bombshells with the same casually expressionless tint to his features, like it takes little effort for him to say something like that to someone like Childe.
“Huh?” he feigns his own confusion, adding a sharp edge to the corner of his smile, hoping to disguise the nervous fluttering that erupts in the pit of his stomach at Zhongli’s words. “I was just bored, is all. Getting paid to kill--easy enough, and a lot more fun than getting glared at by my own subordinates for slacking off.”
Zhongli nods like he understands, but Childe can tell he doesn’t, not really--there’s no reason for him to look at Childe like that otherwise.
By the time night falls, he’s dragged Zhongli’s half-conscious form up to his now permanent inn room and deposited him onto his bed, he sinks into the nearby chair, pressing an uncertain hand against his chest.
There’s a strange kind of..warmth there, and every time he looks at the gentle rise and fall of Zhongli’s body, when he thinks of Zhongli’s sleepy declaration that he had, in fact, remembered to eat dinner three nights ago before collapsing on the spot, the pressure within him feels like it tightens.
He reaches over, lighting the lantern before the room can go completely dark, and when he tilts his head back and closes his eyes, he sees flashes of the day, of his unkind hands holding so much undeserved gratitude in them.
But mostly, underneath all of that, he’s thinking of you did well, and of the faintest hint of real pride that flickers within him at the sound of it.
This emotion is unlike the others--it’s quick to come and slow to leave, and doesn’t escape him if he thinks too hard about it.
Still, he files it away somewhere safe, somewhere the Tsaritsa’s painted claws can’t reach to pull it out of him, and commits it to memory.
Then, in the spring, when the last of the snow had melted away, the farmer set out to return the viper to its home. He carried it back to the spot where they had first met, carefully leaning down to set it upon the ground.
“She wants to see you.”
La Signora is sitting idly at the edge of his bed when he walks in, her legs crossed as she examines the sparse interior of his quarters. There isn’t much to look at--aside from his Vision, he’s never really had anything to call his own.
It’s not exactly a surprise to find her here. Out of all the Harbingers, she’s become the closest to him, in a very removed sense of the word. None of them are exactly friends, and all of them would willingly slit another’s throat at the Tsaritsa’s command, but she’s certainly the one who he would most hesitate to kill.
She’s taken something of an interest in him, in the three years since she’d left him bleeding on the training room floor. Her reasons for that aren’t exactly clear--maybe she likes petting his head or perhaps he reminds her of someone she’d left behind, in her life before the Fatui. At any rate, he enjoys hearing her dry, muttered remarks beside him whenever one of the Harbingers she dislikes the most speaks up during meetings. It makes them marginally more bearable to sit through, especially when half of the Harbingers still oppose his inclusion into their ranks.
“This is still my room, you know. You’re nice, but I think we should maybe take it slow,” he says lightly, and the temperature immediately drops by several degrees, frost cracking in the air to remind him of his place.
“I simply came to deliver the message. If you weren’t so abysmally slow in completing your missions, perhaps I wouldn’t have had to find a place to rest.”
“And you say I need to work on my endurance.”
Ice begins creeping up the tips of his fingers, and he presses his left hand slightly behind his back to hide their reflexive tremble, rubbing at his neck with his right.
“I’m going, I’m going. No need to get testy.”
He turns his back on La Signora, privately wondering what it is the Tsaritsa wants from him--he hasn’t seen much of her, these past few years. It’d been an abrupt change, to go from having each of his movements watched to having her hold him at a distance. If anything, it’s even worse like this, if only because he never knows when she actually might be looking in on him.
At the same time, though, a part of him thinks he’s been waiting on her to call him for a while now. He’d come of age some few weeks ago, and there’s been talk of sending him away, of putting him on his first real assignment, something more than hanging around Snezhnaya and picking off the Tsaritsa’s irritating flies.
Despite the mystery of it all, little more than a vague interest stirs within him, most of him really only wanting to get whatever this was over with. It’s easy enough to keep his expression neutral when he steps into the Tsaritsa’s quarters, taking his place before her feet as he kneels on the icy polish of the marble floor.
“You summoned me, my Lady?” he asks, keeping his gaze trained respectfully towards the floor, even as his words carry little real weight to them.
She’s used to his way of talking by now, though--she’s the one who manufactured it in him--and she merely hums in response, the heels of her shoes clicking lightly against the ground as she steps closer to him.
“Do you remember the day I found you?”
A strange question. The Tsaritsa is hardly one to reminiscence on old memories, no matter how fond they might be.
It’s his cue to look up, though, carefully avoiding her direct gaze as he smiles crookedly in her direction.
“Sure. I know I’m unreliable, but I wouldn’t ever forget something like that.”
It was, after all, the beginning of his life--the first day even worth remembering amongst those years in the freezing dark. The Tsaritsa is the only life he’s ever known, the only authority he’s ever answered to, and if he forgets the day they met, he forgets who he is entirely.
He’s not entirely sure that he likes where this is going, and he tracks her movements across the room as she paces before him, eventually coming to a stop to look curiously down at him. Under her gaze, he suddenly feels years younger, feels like he’s watching her through a curtain of freezing rain as she’d handed him an offer he couldn’t--and wouldn’t--refuse.
Looking into her eyes is dangerous--if he looks for too long, he might drown--but he does it anyways, unsure of what he’s even hoping to find. A hint of what’s to come next, maybe, or maybe even an honest glimpse of how she sees him, if he’s finally become of any worth to her, after all these years in the making.
“I said I would make you great.” She lays one of her delicate hands against her breast, the sharp tips of her painted nails digging into the fragile skin beneath them, and when Childe blinks, he swears he sees the faintest flash of light under her fingers. “Have I?”
Now that makes something stick uncomfortably in Childe’s throat, his stomach tightening in a sensation so distant it’s almost foreign. He’s not sure how to answer that, how she wants him to answer that, so instead he swallows hard, dipping his head respectfully once more.
“I’d hope so.”
“Hm,” she says, and then, for a moment, the world goes very still.
In a motion that Childe doesn’t see, she reaches down, wraps her cold fingers around the back of his neck to jerk his head upwards, and then plunges her closed fist into his chest. Before her hand disappears into the cavity within him, he sees the faintest hint of light shining from out from the cracks between her fingers, and then he feels it, the power of her Gnosis resting dangerously close to the beat of his heart.
Childe chokes on his next breath, his heart giving a last, desperate seize before frost creeps over its surface and stalls it in his chest. He’s still on dry land, but it feels like he’s drowning, his throat spasming around nothing as he tries to draw breath. The motion feels like it constricts him around the pressure building within him, and it’s so immediately painful that his vision goes red, then white, then dark.
He’s not sure what happens next--the next part is mostly a haze of pain and pressure and a cold so deep he drowns in it. Her power creeps into his veins like liquid ice and presses at his skin from the inside, as if it’s fighting to escape, and he very suddenly, for the first time, finds himself afraid of she might be making him into.
When she finally pulls her hand away and allows him to crumple to the floor, his entire body trembling as a foreign, uneasy power bristles beneath his skin, her Gnosis is still in her hand. Through his blurry vision, he thinks it looks the slightest bit dimmer than before, like she’s left a piece of herself behind inside of him.
Everything about that feels wrong--everything about him feels wrong, like the body he’s spent eighteen years in no longer belongs to him alone, like he’s sharing his space with something fighting to escape.
He thinks he would escape himself, if he could, but none of his muscles will answer his commands. Even breathing is an effort he’s forced to concentrate on, his heart fluttering unsteadily against his ribs and his lungs spasming in his chest as they remember how to function.
“It should take you no more than a few weeks to learn how to use your new gifts,” the Tsaritsa tells him, and her voice sounds like it comes from beneath several layers of snow, warped and distant and cold. “Then you will show me what it is I have worked for in you all these years.”
She walks away, and then he sees the slow approach of one of the rank-and-file soldiers towards his prone form. He feels himself being dragged from her throne room, and somewhere in between the eternity it takes for him to next awaken and the weeks of relearning to exist in his own skin that follow, he learns that he’s going to Liyue.
The Tsaritsa will need the Geo Archon laid low at some point, and until then, his job is to lay in wait, to find the most opportune point of attack and then strike on her command.
In the weeks that pass as he prepares for his assignment, he can’t stop feeling the grip of her fingers around his neck, the ghost of her painted nails marking crescent moons over his pulse, and the burning cold of her freezing touch stealing the breath from his lungs and the words from his throat.
He hears Liyue is nicer than here, that the sun is gentle and the rains are warm.
But even still, on the day he’s meant to leave his homeland behind, he buys himself a scarf.
Two weeks into his endeavor of actively avoiding Zhongli, the man himself comes to his door.
“I am dying,” Zhongli announces by way of greeting, as soon as Childe opens his door, and Childe’s first reaction is to feel panic, and then a twisted sort of relief --because maybe he won’t have to do it, to obey the order he’s finally been given, ten months into his assignment--and then panic again.
It’s not often that he’s lost for words, but he can’t even summon the energy for something close to a forced laugh, not with how punched-out he suddenly feels.
“Yes. I suspect I have been poisoned by some sort of elemental taint...I am plagued by an unshakeable chill, even by the warmth of the fire, and my muscles are surely beginning to atrophy, if the sudden weakness in them is any indication.”
Childe blinks, flicking his gaze over Zhongli’s form which, upon closer inspection, looks perfectly fine. He lifts a hand, tilting his head up to make up for the few inches the man has over him, and Zhongli doesn’t shy away as Childe lays a hand on his forehead, his fingers brushing aside the other’s soft bangs to feel the heat of his skin.
At his touch, Zhongli’s clouded gaze flutters shut and he leans into Childe’s palm fully, far too trusting considering Childe’s spent half of the month privately struggling with how to best rip the Gnosis from his chest.
“...I think most people call this the flu.”
Zhongli cracks open an eye at that, a distant confusion flickering across his face as his brow knits in concentration.
“That should not be possible,” he muses aloud, and something about the fact that the oldest Archon of the Seven has never had a sick day in his life is so strangely endearing that a truly unfortunate feeling clenches in Childe’s chest.
He pulls his hand away from the other’s head, trying not to see the way that Zhongli unconsciously almost chases after his touch, and instead rests it against the doorframe, debating on his next move.
Given his current situation, keeping Zhongli here is probably the worst thing he could possibly do.
But Zhongli looks admittedly pitiful like this, and despite Childe’s best attempts to convince himself otherwise, these past two weeks of relative solitude have felt empty, almost.
He’s been here for nearly a full year, and he can’t think of a single week he’s spent without running into Zhongli at least once. Their accidental meetings had slowly evolved into increasingly deliberate reunions at the sweet bun snack stand, at the bar where he’d managed to successfully lie his way into a drink, at the inn room--not his own--that Zhongli had dragged him to after he’d completely blacked out from a single glass of Liyue’s specialty.
Somewhere in between all of this and the time spent just existing next to Zhongli, Childe thinks he’s somehow changed into someone else.
The months he’s spent in Liyue feel like another life entirely, one that he doesn’t deserve to have, and Zhongli is so absolutely entangled in every part of it that Childe feels a little like he’ll be killing a part of himself when he completes his mission.
“You should...um, probably do something about that,” he says instead, waving his free hand vaguely in Zhongli’s direction.
He’s running away, he knows, deflecting the responsibility of leaving onto Zhongli, in hopes that the other will make the decision for him. The longer he stays away from Childe, the more Childe can allow himself to delay, to tell himself that the Tsaritsa’s dirty work simply isn’t achievable given their current distance, their current circumstances, their anything and everything that could even begin to serve as an excuse.
Zhongli nods solemnly, the light of realization entering his eyes.
“Of course. I will leave immediately to purify myself in the freezing waters of Mount Hulao.”
He’s hopeless. They both are.
“I’ve got another idea,” he says easily, wrapping his fingers around Zhongli’s wrist to tug him inside, the feverish warmth of the other’s skin seeping through the layers of fabric between them.
Zhongli obediently allows Childe to push him towards the bed, shedding his boots and some of his outer layers at further prompting so that Childe can freely deposit a layer of blankets over his shivering form.
“You’re kind of useless, huh?”
The way he says it, casually sharp behind his teasing grin, is much more of an insult than he knows he really means it to be. It’s a testament to either how bad of a liar he’s become or how well Zhongli knows him that the man doesn’t look even remotely offended, instead looking at him through slow, sleepy blinks.
“Perhaps. But that is why you are here, is it not?”
Childe takes that as his cue to vacate the premises as quickly as possible, extracting himself from the situation before he can say something stupid like, Yeah, or, Always, or, I’m supposed to take your Gnosis and leave you for dead and so you should get out of here.
The vendor at the markets looks at him strangely when he shows up asking for a take-out container of chicken-mushroom soup, and there’s a split second where his gaze drifts expectantly to the empty space at Childe’s side.
“Everything alright?” he asks as he hands over the requested purchase, and Childe deliberately softens the edges of his smile, polite enough to avoid offense as the carefully crafted worry he slips into his tone defuses any further questions.
“He has a cold,” Childe explains, and he’s startled by how normal things feel, for a second, how natural this persona of his has become that little actions like these have become characteristic of him, expected of him.
Ten months ago, no one in Liyue would have looked at him like this, would have so easily done business with the Fatui diplomat of Snezhnaya--no one would have thought him capable of such a small and simple action, of buying soup for his sick--
His what, exactly?
“Ah, I see. No need to worry, sir. My oldest daughter--I’m sure you remember her--was the same a few days ago, but it’s nothing serious. It will pass.”
The problem is, Childe does remember her, the kind-eyed girl who sometimes worked at the stall for spare change, as he does with nearly all of the regulars he’s run into. Somehow, he’s gotten hopelessly entangled in their affairs, has started seeing them all as real people with real lives, and it’s something of an incredible predicament.
Back in Snezhnaya, when everyone had known the kind of person he was and what he was capable of, no one had dared to even look him in the eye, much less hold conversation with him.
But here in Liyue, people treat him like he’s normal, like he’s...one of their own, almost--and that’s maybe the worst thing any one of them could have done.
By the time he removes himself from the conversation and returns to his room, Zhongli has miraculously fallen asleep, his face buried so completely in Childe’s pillow that Childe thinks the other has perhaps suffocated himself.
“Hey--wake up, or I’ll start eating your soup.”
As if the soup hadn’t been meant for Zhongli in the first place.
Zhongli’s brief nap seems to have done little more than confuse him, and it takes an unreasonable amount of effort to get him to sit up and hold the offered bowl in his hands. More trouble than it’s worth, really, and when Zhongli finally blinks himself into something resembling being awake, his hair hanging loosely around his shoulders, he looks so human that Childe almost forgets what he’s meant to do.
For a moment, he dares to imagine what this would be between them, were Zhongli a simple funeral worker and Childe anything other than what he’s been made into. There isn’t much to think of--he’s never had a normal life, and so he can’t even begin to imagine what one would entail, but he thinks it feels warm.
It’s a selfish thought, one that achieves nothing by even existing, but Childe thinks he’ll keep it with him anyways--a selfish memory to take with him when he’s long left this land behind to rot.
As Zhongli takes small, dignified sips of his soup, apparently too sick to commence his usual eating strategies, Childe sits himself on the edge of the bed, twisting himself until he’s halfway facing the other.
With Zhongli so close to him, with his reflexes dulled by pain and fever and his eyes so innocently confused with sleep, it would be so easy. Childe doubts he’d even have to draw his weapons--if he plucks the Gnosis from the other’s chest fast enough, the physical shock of it should be enough to cover his escape.
He eyes Zhongli’s unprotected chest, only a thin layer of cloth protecting him from Childe’s treacherous hands.
Surely he can wait until Zhongli finishes his next bite of soup.
Surely he can wait until the rest of the bowl is clean.
Surely he can wait until Zhongli sets the bowl on the table, until he returns to sleep, until one, two, all the days Childe will ever need pass them by.
His Tsaritsa’s icy claws curve their way around the back of his neck--Childe is out of time.
“Hey,” he says, and his own voice sounds like a stranger to him, so quiet and so empty and devoid of all the things he’s pretended to be.
The other looks up, his hands folded neatly in his lap, his finished bowl of soup resting off to the side.
His own hand trembles as he reaches out, the tips of his fingers resting against Zhongli’s chest, and he can feel the warmth of the other’s skin, the gentle power of his Gnosis resting against the steady beat of his heart.
It would be so easy.
Zhongli tilts his head in open invitation towards Childe, and his eyes look like the setting sun, flickering in the dim light of the room’s lantern.
It hadn’t been lit when Childe had left--Zhongli must have done that. Somehow, he’s noticed that Childe doesn’t like to sleep in the dark.
Somehow, he’s noticed that, he’s noticed that Childe likes starconches and doesn’t eat seafood as a rule and always wakes early to watch the sun come up over the horizon, but even with all that, he still doesn’t see that Childe intends to ruin him.
Intends to, but can’t.
He drops his gaze, then his hand, starting to pull away when Zhongli suddenly catches his wrist. His fingers are warm against Childe’s pulse, and when Childe looks up, Zhongli has his own palm over his heart, the faintest hint of amber light shining from beneath his clothes.
Then, in a gentle, fluid motion, he turns Childe’s palm neatly upwards and presses his Gnosis into his hand.
Childe immediately tries to jerk away from his touch, something like a quiet terror erupting his chest at everything that this one action means, but Zhongli’s grip is strong in its kindness. With his now free hand, he touches at the back of Childe’s own, slowly curling Childe’s fingers over the Gnosis until his hand swallows its light.
A god-granted gift, all for him.
“You...can’t,” is what Childe says, when he finally finds his voice, his heart pounding uncontrollably against his ribs, every vein in his body lit up in a gentle warmth. “Your power--”
“Is unnecessary,” Zhongli supplies, and the kindest of sleepy-fever smiles curves at his lips then, like he’s sharing some private joke between the two of them. “I have no enemies here.”
He pulls away then, but the warmth of his fingers still lingers against Childe’s skin, the soft heat of the Gnosis pulsing against his closed fist.
Childe expects him to continue--because this shouldn’t be it, this shouldn’t be how it ends--but Zhongli merely lets out a soft sigh, settling back into his pillows, a sleepy shadow falling over his expression once more. He doesn’t stop Zhongli from returning to sleep, instead spending an uncountable amount of time watching the steady rise and fall of his chest, the faint flush on his cheeks from the fever.
He’s supposed to leave now, he thinks.
In the morning, when the sun rises, Childe reaches over and presses the Gnosis back into Zhongli’s chest, watching as it ripples with a faint energy for the briefest of seconds before dissolving cleanly beneath his skin.
The loss of it sends a sharp chill down his spine, his skin burning like he can feel the Tsaritsa’s cold eyes staring into his back, the weight of her inevitable, distant fury so strong that it stops his heart in his chest for an imagined instant.
Sorry, he thinks to himself, to her, but mostly to the person he thinks he might be becoming, because he’s already run out of time. But it’s too late to fix that, so he curls up on the free side of the bed, his gaze trained on the safety of the flickering lantern beside him, and pretends to sleep.
After that night, he starts waking up cold.
As soon as the viper left his hand, it twisted its body in a sudden motion, striking at the farmer's open palm with a lethal bite. The farmer clutched at his wound, but there was nothing he could do to stop the venom's slow course through his veins.
"Why did you do that?" he found himself asking the creature, whom he had given so much to.
He knows he’s too late when he finds the doors of the Golden House crusted with frost.
An arctic wind greets him when he slips through the entrance, and in an instant, he takes in the picture before him--the Traveler and her strange companion crouched near Zhongli’s prone form, making a feeble attempt to shield him from La Signora’s cold gaze.
Between her perfect nails, she holds a familiar light, holding the Gnosis up to her face as she inspects it.
“How dull. For the eldest of the Archons, I expected something...more.”
She looks up when she hears Childe’s approach, and he can hear Paimon’s muted gasp as she and Traveler recognize him, register his presence here and what it most likely means. Somehow, the sound hurts him, stings at the same place in his chest that twists whenever his gaze drifts to Zhongli’s unmoving body crumpled on the floor, and he realizes that he’s unknowingly let the two of them past his ever-crumbling defenses as well.
Why are they surprised?
They should have always known from the start, how this would end--why does the betrayal of someone already so treacherous matter to them?
“You’re late,” La Signora says, her icy voice pulling his attention away from them. “Not unusual for you, but the Tsaritsa was actually beginning to wonder. As were all of us, really.”
“It sure does look like I missed a party. I didn’t think she’d send you to cover me, though.”
La Signora looks at him, and she seems like a stranger then, with the foreign, barely-there ghost of softness in her eyes. “She didn’t. But I’ve waited on you long enough.”
She tucks the Gnosis into her folds of clothing, the fabric at her waist swallowing its light.
“Finish them off,” she tilts her head towards the duo still some ways away from them. “And perhaps I’ll allow you to have some of the credit.”
Enough of it to spare him from certain death, at least. He will certainly be punished for his primary failures, but the Tsaritsa will let him live.
He has an out.
“Sure, I got it.”
Childe steps away from La Signora, putting one, two paces of distance between them as a thin sword takes shape in his hand with a casual motion of his fingers. He turns to the Traveler, the edges of his crooked smile sharper than his blade. She watches him through wide eyes, the depth of her emotions much more obvious than the kind he’s used to from Zhongli, and there’s a real fear in her expression.
Even still, she tightens her grip on Zhongli’s arm defensively, like that will somehow stop him from cutting through them both.
“Sorry about this,” he says lightly, and the words have never sounded more insincere.
He steps forwards, swallowing down the tightness in his chest, and his blade--
“Why did you do that?’ he found himself asking the creature, whom he had given so much to.”
Childe keeps his eyes shut--he knows what story this is by now. While he’s never had anyone to read it to him, this tale is an old one, and it only ever ends the same way.
Don’t, he almost wants to say, because there’s no point in hearing the ending, like it will change anything of what he already knows. But Zhongli’s voice is measured and calm, like gentle waves lapping at the rocky shore, and perhaps Childe wants to let himself have this, in the few weeks, days, hours he has left.
"Are you surprised?’ the viper returned, with a curious tilt of its head. ‘You knew what I was from the beginning."
There’s a pause, then the gentle flutter of pages as Zhongli closes the book, and Childe tilts his face towards the light of the lantern before he next speaks.
“Kind of depressing for a bedtime story, isn’t it?”
“Do you truly think so?”
Childe makes a dismissive sort of half shrug, feeling Zhongli’s gaze against his back. “That’s just how the story goes, right? Kindness is wasted upon the evil, and all that.”
He wants to say more, but then Zhongli reaches over, laying a gentle hand on his forehead, his fingers carding through the messy locks of his hair. There’s a kind warmth in his touch, enough to erase the chill that had woken him up in the first place.
“Perhaps it is,” the man says, after a pause, a thoughtful hum lacing his words. “But it was not wrong of him, I think, to believe that the outcome could be different.”
His blade draws a sharp arc across the waist of La Signora’s coat, his deft fingers extracting the Gnosis from the gap as he moves past her.
He’s faster now than he was at fifteen, knows to flip away before her ice can reach his leg, knows to throw up a shallow deflection against the furious hailstorm she sends his way, a pulsing wave of rushing water slicing her projectiles cleanly in half.
When he jumps back, he’s close enough to the Traveler to easily toss the Gnosis into her startled hands, then darts away just as another attack shatters one of the concrete structures by his head.
“Better get out of here, little wanderer,” he advises her cheerily, and he’s surprised to hear his own voice with how natural it sounds. “She gets kind of scary when she’s mad.”
At his advice, La Signora turns her seething attention to the Traveler, to the amber light still cupped in her hands.
Well. Can’t have that--Childe likes having the spotlight to himself.
In the next instant, the entire floor ripples in a blue wave, the Vision at his waist burning heat into his skin as he draws on its power. The space between the Traveler and La Signora erupts in an enormous splash of water, easily enough to reach the ceiling, and when it meets La Signora’s freezing wind, it crystallizes to solid ice in an instant, forming a temporary sort of barrier.
The Traveler seems to realize how fleeting the window of opportunity is, as she’s already starting to pull Zhongli’s upper half from the ground in a surprisingly strong grip. Between the commotion and the movement, Zhongli is already starting to stir, his eyes cloudy and confused as he struggles to process the situation.
“Childe--” he mumbles, and with how dazed he sounds when he says it, how distant his gaze is when he looks at him, Childe isn’t even sure that Zhongli is really seeing him--perhaps he’d called for him out of habit.
Even now, Childe finds that he can’t quite meet his gaze. It feels too final to do that, somehow, and he’s still not quite ready to start untangling the web of what they are yet.
Maybe later, if there is one.
Instead, he smiles at the Traveler, unable to stop the fondness in his chest from showing on his face.
“He’s useless, as you know. Look after him, would you?”
A sharp impact cuts off whatever the Traveler is about to say in response, and the room trembles as La Signora’s attack slams into the icy wall. Cracks begin to form in its surface, and Childe knows they’re out of time.
“Childe, wait,” he hears Zhongli say, sounding more lucid by the second, but Childe is already scaling up the wall.
At the last second, he lets himself look, lets himself see the slow realization in Zhongli’s eyes, the helpless knowledge of how this story ends.
Zhongli’s gaze widens, his hand moving like he means to reach out for Childe, and for a moment, Childe sees the ghost of a warm spring day, of his fingers brushing against a warm palm, the taste of sugar still in his mouth.
If he kissed Zhongli, would he taste like that memory?
He doesn’t know--probably he’ll never know, so he simply lifts his hand and offers the other a casual wave, something in his smile turning impossibly soft.
Then he drops over the wall, landing neatly in front of La Signora, who stops in her vicious attack to study him.
“Perhaps I can’t retrieve the Gnosis,” she admits, because they now know that Childe will either stop her here or die trying--either way, by the time the battle is over, the Traveler will have already alerted every authority in Liyue, will have maybe assembled the Adeptus and hidden their Archon away.
There are no second chances after this.
“But retrieving the traitor’s head should be enough.”
His odds aren’t looking good here, he knows. He hasn’t won a fight against her since the day they’d met--first because she’d so vastly outstripped him, then because he’d been properly initiated into the Harbinger ranks and their sparring matches had become a little too destructive to continue.
But he’s always liked a challenge.
He grins, slipping his mask over his face for a final time, electricity crackling around his form as he taps into the power of his Delusion, of his Tsaritsa’s final gift.
“Guess we’ll just have to see for sure, right?”
The last of his power finally coalesces, darting across his fingers in a surge of light, and the fight begins.