Sometimes, Zhongli wonders if it’s alright that he looks in the face of a killer and sees instead, a boy.
The price of immortality is high, accompanied by millennia of knowing and loving and losing, an inescapable cycle. The price of knowledge is also high, for ignorance can easily be equated to bliss when you are a god of war. To forget, to discard away the gaping sorrow that follows bloodshed is a blessing, but when you are immortal and see things not for what they are, but what they have been, what they have become, and what they will go on to be, knowledge is the burden you have to bear.
Zhongli does not complain, nor does he ever intend to. He is a god, and gods are not supposed to perceive things the way humans are. And with this knowledge so comes responsibility, yet another thing that he’s learned over the years, that most things that happen in the world are often so tightly interconnected to each other, to take away one would mean the incompleteness of the other.
He should not look in the face of the eleventh of Harbingers and see Tartaglia without seeing Childe, or Ajax, or the unfathomable darkness that lurks within, but whenever it comes to Childe, all of the rules, all of the ‘ should be’ s and ‘should not be’s merge into a category of its own, dissolving into what simply is .
But then again, Childe has never been one to live life by rules not his own. This is another thing Zhongli has always known.
Here in the dead of the night, Childe emerges at the door of the Wangsheng Funeral parlour, giving Zhongli a wordless, tired smile. This is not a sight foreign to Zhongli; the scars that shine against the very limited revealed skin, clothes covered in layers of grime and blood. But tonight in particular, under the glowing moonlight, Zhongli can’t help but think that he looks more ethereal than ever.
“Come inside,” he tells Childe, sweeping the door open. Although both of them know he would never shut his door on Childe no matter what state he finds himself in, he’s still surprised to see a slight slack in Childe’s shoulders when he implicitly confirms that yes, I may not know what you just did, nor how you managed to get yourself in this state, but you still have a place at the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour if you would like to come.
There is a flash of something in Childe’s eyes. It looks like relief, but Zhongli wonders if he has mistaken it for fondness.
Childe takes a step forward, murmuring something that sounds like “thanks”, but he staggers before he manages to cross the threshold and only manages to stand upright because of Zhongli’s quick reflexes. He lets out a low chuckle, but it’s one of the most despairing and hollow kind of laugh Zhongli has ever heard, which says a lot, considering Zhongli’s extended lifespan.
Slinging one of Childe’s arm over his shoulder, Zhongli knows that the blood that has stained and seeped deep into the seams of Childe’s shirt is now also smeared over his, but he doesn’t have to ask to know that tonight, unlike other nights, it belongs to Childe.
After a bath, Childe looks just as battered, but he’s visibly not as peaky. With the blood gone, it’s easier to see how jarring the scars look against his skin, a sight unusual for someone who’s used to walking away from fights in victory. When they talk over the slow-cooked bamboo shoot soup Zhongli prepared as Childe cleaned up, he pretends not to notice how he winces every time he has to bow down for the soup spoon to reach his lips.
“Don’t ask, Zhongli,” Childe says, because Zhongli notices anyway and when that happens, Childe notices him noticing. But this has happened enough times for a routine to grow, curling between them, where the moon has changed its shape countless times, where 'Mr Zhongli' is now simply 'Zhongli'.
“You know I would never prompt you to say anything you didn’t want to,” comes the response.
“Thank you,” he smiles, then winces again, and that is the last they speak of it.
There is a first time for everything, but many more have to follow for it to truly be called a first, the earliest to happen.
Zhongli is never surprised whenever it happens, regardless of whether Childe vanishes for three months at a time and turns up battered, or if he’s simply found at his doorstep every other day for a consecutive week. Every time, Zhongli doesn’t ask why, and Childe seems to take that as an acceptance for the lack of an answer on his behalf. Every time, all they do is talk. Sometimes about the traveller, sometimes about Zhongli’s old alcoholic friend from Mondstadt, sometimes about the Fatui, or sometimes just nothing of particular significance at all.
“I saw a very pretty cor lapis on my adventures today and thought of you,” Childe singsongs, though the mist that fogs his cerulean eyes doesn’t clear. “I took it with me along the way today for good luck! Here, you can have it.”
Childe holds the golden mineral out to Zhongli, who accepts it in his widespread palm. Under the lanterns that illuminate the parlour, it glows, a small kind of warmth that spreads from his fingertips to his heart.
Zhongli wonders if he’s imagining things in his old age. Or maybe he’s just going soft.
“Oh?” he asks softly, studying it carefully under Childe’s watchful eye. “Would it not make more sense for you to keep something so valuable by your side, then? Why would you give it to me?”
“I found two of them, actually.” Producing another one, Childe continues. “If we keep one each, that means we can share whatever luck this crystal has, right?”
“Perhaps. I’ve never known of crystals like such to bear any sort of luck personally, but if you say it’s lucky then I suppose it must be true,” Zhongli muses.
Childe stands up, laughing. “Of course it is, Zhongli. It brought me to you today, didn’t it?”
They hold each other’s gaze for an amount of time far too long to be unintentional, but the discomfort never settles in. Zhongli looks calmly at Childe, who looks at him with an emotion even a deity who has lived longer than the mountains that streaks Liyue cannot decipher.
“Can I kiss you?”
Zhongli is a god after all. He’s not supposed to feel emotions the way humans are, with the same magnitude of desperation and sorrow of looking at something so short-lived, with the kind of feverish intensity that is privy to humans. It wouldn’t be sustainable for an immortal to feel so deeply as humans do, and then to bear the sorrow along for years, then decades, then centuries and millennia to come.
But this is Childe, who shatters presumptions wherever he goes, who turns rules and laws and nature into none, only what that is. If there is one person who does not care for the nature of the universe, only what he wants, it would be Childe.
And right now, with the wants of this killer who looks like a boy before him, Childe threatens to strip away Zhongli’s denial of whatever this is, and leave him something so devastatingly beautiful because it’s everything he will never be.
Childe wants Zhongli to feel human. Maybe Zhongli wants to let him.
He takes a deep breath, then “Yes,” he simply says, gaze unwavering.
Childe’s eyes widen in shock for a split moment, then he quickly composes himself. There is a conflicted knot between his brows as he approaches Zhongli from the other end of the table that no longer separates them, and Zhongli only stares on, unblinkingly.
Zhongli is immortal, after all, and time has always been a luxury made privy to the likes of him. But time stills here, or at least it slows down, as he watches the oceans that swirl in Childe’s eyes carry far more pain and sorrow than a young man of his age should.
It’s insane, he knows, but right now Zhongli doesn’t quite remember ever wanting something as much as he now wants to do something to banish whatever it was that was troubling Childe.
Childe's hand reaches for his as he edges nearer, but they're colder than Zhongli expects them to be. They are a meter away, then fifty centimetres, then ten, then five, and when Zhongli finally dares to dream of what is to come, Childe pulls away before their lips meet.
All that he leaves behind is the sound of his rueful chuckle echoing off the walls, and Zhongli, whose gaze hasn’t wavered, expression unchanged.
“Someday, Zhongli,” he tells him, a small smile. Now, torn away from Zhongli, Childe looks far, far smaller than Zhongli remembers him to be.
Zhongli isn’t disappointed, not in the way people far younger than he would have been, but there is a pang in his heart still as he watches Childe inch away. Inside, it feels like he’s watching Childe drift, and every time Zhongli tries to tell him ‘no, don’t go to a place where I can’t follow’ , his voice is drowned out by the cacophony.
“Will you tell me what’s troubling you, Childe?”
Childe seems taken aback by this and Zhongli doesn’t blame him. He recoils instinctively, but untenses soon. Shaking his head, he lets out a sigh. “No, I don’t think so. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Then what can I do for you, Childe?” he presses.
Only by looking at Childe’s surprise does Zhongli realise he’s raised his voice, something he hasn’t done in far too long. But this frustration has been boiling and simmering without him realising, and here, in front of a broken boy, it is the first time Zhongli wonders what the point of being a god is if you can only stand aside and watch it happen.
Zhongli could ask Childe, he supposes, but he lets it go. Repeating, much more gently but with the same desperation, he asks, “What can I do for you?”
“You can wait for me, here.”
“I have already been doing that.”
“And that is more than enough, Zhongli. It is more solace than anything to know if I stand up and fight, I’m closer to coming home to you. This is something only you can ever do for me. I’ll be safe,” he muses, waving the cor lapis in front of him.
Some time down the line, they both know they’ve already crossed boundaries that seem far too daunting to even think about, but in front of Zhongli, Childe breathes lifestrength and truth into them by attaching words, putting a name to it. He calls this, whatever that’s going on between him and Zhongli, a home to return to instead of Snezhnaya and the Tsaritsa where his loyalty lies.
“What if I want to do more?”
In a matter of seconds, Childe’s expression returns to the carefree and mischievous one Zhongli knows. “Then you can think about that kiss you promised me.”
If he’s already dared to come so far, who is Zhongli to demand more of him?
When he disappears into the wind, Zhongli murmurs a little prayer to all those who may be able to hear him. May the stars keep the warrior of Teyvat safe.
Zhongli may know many things, like the feel of winds running through the valleys, cold against his skin; like glaze lilies blooming when the children of Liyue sing; like the history of Liyue’s every nook and cranny. But he also knows this — that knowing a truth is not the same as feeling something in your bones with faith so absolute and unwavering that they simply feel like nature itself, a rhythm in which the universe functions. Indisputable.
And here, he knows this — that if Childe says he’ll come back home to Zhongli, he doesn’t leave any room for doubt when he dares to declare something in the kind of cocky but oddly endearing manner that has always been so distinctly Childe.
If Childe dares to stride in broad daylight while making such loud and audacious demands of the world as he breezes past, Zhongli thinks maybe, just maybe, he can discard a bit of the rules and the sense that he has held the world to. This is the same person who can rush headfirst into fights that no sane person who cared about his well being would ever dream of encouraging and come out alive, albeit barely, and then live to tell the tale laughing.
If keeping up with him meant blurring some of the lines of what “should be” and what “shouldn’t be” until they simply are what there is to become, Zhongli thinks that doesn’t sound too hard. Under the ever-changing moon, Zhongli lets himself yearn for someone who isn't here to watch it change with him. He lets himself wait, because he's a god of contracts, and therefore promises. He has seen the promises of many others come to bloom, and now, Zhongli waits for his.
It shouldn't surprise Zhongli that it is yet another full moon when Childe appears after moons of silence and absence. This is Childe, after all, who takes nothing less than a grand entrance. Staring into his blue eyes, Zhongli's heart sinks in relief, and this time he doesn’t force himself to pretend otherwise.
“You came home.”
“I keep all promises I make to the ones I love, Zhongli,” Childe says, a sparkle in his eyes. “Now, is it time for you to keep your end of the promise?”
Zhongli doesn’t need him to ask twice.