The rain is heavy in Liyue this night.
Zhongli doesn’t remember when the rain started nor does he know when it will end — in his humble opinion, it shall not. There is something peaceful about the rain, the steady sound of drops hitting the soil and the soft smell of rainwater lingering in the air. It’s something so simple and yet so eternal — the rain has always been while the rest around him evolved and changed.
The streets are empty and cold in Liyue this night, the rain and the freezing wind keeping the people in their homes, tucked away behind their fireplaces and spending the time with their loved ones in privacy rather than out on the streets.
It’s the same for Zhongli; he likes to believe himself to experience something mortal this night. The simplicity of it; it crawls under his skin.
The window is cracked open just a bit but there are no noises coming from the outside; there is no turmoil, none of the busy noises that usually go hand and hand with Liyue Harbour, the sound of the crowds and people and work. Tonight, there is just the rain.
Zhongli sits on the bed, a cup of tea on the nightstand next door to him, the book in his hands open but both long forgotten.
His attention lies on Childe and Childe alone — the Fatui Harbinger of danger and wrath, sleeping peacefully next to him, his breath even and his legs tangled with Zhongli’s. He’s relaxed against Zhongli and his body rises and sinks in a slow rhythm. His slender fingers are wrapped around Zhongli’s wrists softly, barely holding on.
The delicate sound of the rain falling outside and Childe’s deep, rhythmic breath creates a melody in Zhongli’s head so full of yearning and love that the Archon almost can’t recognize himself.
Is this mortality?, he wonders, his eyes wandering over Childe’s relaxed features, a faint smile covering his face.
Is this what mortality will be like? Moments so precious like this — in all of his long life Zhongli cannot remember being soft . He’s always been as hard as stone, had to be, even with peace among the land, he has been hardened and formed by centuries of war and slaughters. Softness was never a luxury Rex Lapis could afford — Ah, Zhongli stops himself, a faint smile on his face; but he no longer is Rex Lapis. The burden of his Gnosis, the burden of his name, the burden of the divine; it was all lifted off his heavy shoulders. It finally feels like he’s able to breathe.
And now, with Rex Lapis deceased and bygone, will he, Zhongli , be able to afford the luxury of softness, of vulnerability? Maybe, he thinks to himself and eyes Childe.
“Your tea still warm?” Childe’s sleepy voice rips Zhongli softly out of his thoughts — the Fatui has one eye open, staring at him with sleep still smudged all over his face.
“I’m afraid not”, Zhongli answers, his lips still carved up slightly enough for Childe to recognize his smile.
He yawns and turns around, resting his head on his hands. His eyes are sharper now, more perceiving but his face is still made soft by sleep. “It’s late, Zhongli. You should go to sleep.” - “I find much more rest in watching you”, Zhongli replies and finally closes that book in his lap and puts it away — he’s lost his interest in it as soon as Childe fell asleep.
“It’s a peaceful night”, Zhongli adds, his head making a slight movement towards the open window. The rain hasn’t stopped or decreased and Childe hums in acknowledgement, his everblue eyes throwing a quick glance outside — the orange light of the lanterns is almost magical in the wet night, clashing against the dark, warm and yet cold at once, a paradox that cannot be explained — just like either of them, Zhongli and Childe, in their own ways, and without so much as having to look at each other, they know that they’re both thinking the same thing.
Childe leans upwards, his hands running over Zhongli’s arm like a faint whisper. “I don’t know for how much longer the Tsaritsa will let me stay”, he whispers against the rain. Childe’s voice is tainted.
The night is peaceful until Childe decides that it isn’t.
Zhongli’s eye twitches but the rest of this face remains as neutral as he can manage. It’s the rain, Zhongli thinks, the rain does something to people, especially at night. It has a way of washing away facades and lies and oftentimes brings out confessions between people … — lovers.
Zhongli tilts his head — in all his long, long life he’s never met quite a challenge like Childe — everything about him is surreal ; his decisions impulsive and his emotions reckless in a way that it moves something deep within Zhongli — he can’t quite grasp it, he can’t quite comprehend it. It must be love, Zhongli thinks to himself. It must be the kind of love only a god can give.
“What about you?” Zhongli asks, looming over Childe like a dark shadow, eyes narrowed.
Within Childe, something seems to crack — his features derail and he looks away, as if ashamed, and suddenly he’s much smaller.
“I wish I could stay”, he whispers so quietly, Zhongli almost mistakes his voice for the rain.
“You can ”, Zhongli replies simply. There is a certain warmth in the Archon’s voice, a certain tone that rings right through Childe and punches a dagger in his heart.
Childe looks up to him, eyes wide open, cheeks flustered and his mouth slightly agape.
“And if you cannot, well… I can follow you to Shneznaya. I am no longer bound to Liyue”, Zhongli stops for a second and smiles again. “Home is wherever I am with you.”
Childe just stares back at him — the Harbinger looks so vulnerable in this moment, so fragile, Zhongli is sure he could break him with less than his fingers. He could swear that Childe’s eyes swill up with tears but the Harbinger blinks away quickly.
“I have nothing to offer you”, Childe suddenly breathes, his fingers wrapping tightly around Zhongli’s wrists.
Zhongli is quiet for a moment, processing what Childe just said before he chuckles low. Really, Childe is one of a kind but Zhongli knows a thing or two about patience.
“I have been worshipped, Ajax”, Zhongli starts and Childe’s eyes open wider as if he’d only now realize who Zhongli is and what power he holds, still, even without his Gnosis.
“I have been worshipped in blood and sacrifices and many more things worse. I have slaughtered and taken. I have led and protected. I built Liyue and watched over it for thousands of years. The people have given me everything over these millennia and there is nothing I want except you.”
His hands slowly cup Childe’s cheeks, his thumbs pressing into the soft skin underneath the Fatui’s eyes.
“You never will have to offer anything to me. Quite on the contrary, I offer myself to you .”
Childe inhales sharply.
“Will you accept the devotion of an old man like me?”, Zhongli doesn't smile but Childe recognizes a faint glow in the Archon’s eyes that gives his amusement away anyway.
“I desire nothing else but the gift of your love”, Zhongli adds, and he leans toward to press a gentle kiss against the corner of Childe’s mouth. He can feel Childe’s heart skip a beat, his breath shuddering in his throat.
Childe groans, his fingers pressing hard into Zhongli’s skin; like he would float away if he didn’t hold on tight enough; or like Zhongli would slip away from him.
“You will be the end of me”, Childe whispers. “You’re killing me.”
Zhongli’s eyes light up on that, like the eyes of Morax, clear and sharp Amber. Yet another reminder for Childe to not forget who Zhongli is — or was.
“Do not think about the Tsaritsa now. Instead, think about me and what I can do — Gnosis or not.” And after six millennia of being a god, there is a command in Zhongli’s voice which is undeniable and, more importantly, not negotiable with. His words have been the law for a very long time and who is Childe to disobey the God of Justice, the God of War?
Childe swallows and all he can do is nod.
Deep within himself, underneath layers and layers of lies and betrayal, Childe knows, he knows , that if Zhongli called, he would answer. His devotion to the Tsaritsa started to thin in the very moment Zhongli gave his Gnosis up — without a fight he handed it to Signora, freely, and he seemed almost relieved to be rid of it. Childe knows this in the very abyss of his soul; and so does Zhongli.
“Will you still require blood and slaughter?”, Childe asks, half joking, half serious. “I can give you both.”
Zhongli snorts which catches Childe so off guard that his jaw drops — he never heard Zhongli making such a sound.
“The times of war and battle have long passed. I am no longer an Archon. I am no longer the god that I needed to be. I may not be as mortal as you are, my love, but mortal enough .” Zhongli turns to look outside, the rain still heavy, still falling.
“In all this time of being alive I never felt so alive.”
His gaze flatters back to Childe but he remains silent then. Childe’s heart pounds so fast and so loud that he’s sure Zhongli can hear it. His blood rushes through his veins like a wildfire and ignites something beyond passion and desire.
Childe closes his eyes and lets his head bump against Zhongli’s shoulder.
“You’re right”, he says then, finally giving in , his lips trailing over Zhongli’s skin. “It’s a peaceful night.”
Zhongli finds himself leaning into the touch, into the warmth, and he hums. He presses a kiss on Childe’s forehead.
“It surely is. And we have many more ahead of us.”