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the sky looked white and the water like wine

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Childe is undoubtedly easy on the eye, and somehow that is the first thing that comes to Zhongli’s mind when they finally meet in person.

They had been several months into their perfectly businesslike correspondence when Tartaglia, the Eleventh of the Harbingers, enquired if it would be agreeable with the esteemed consultant of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor to accompany him to tea sometime.

Meeting in person wasn’t the subject they had approached even once, so Zhongli found himself surprised to a certain extent. Still, he promptly replied that he would gladly accept the invitation should Lord Harbinger ever grace Liyue Harbor with his presence.

‘That’s good, ’ he read in the return letter that arrived in borderline record time. ‘To be honest, it would’ve been really awkward if you’d said no because, well, I’m actually bound for Liyue Harbor as I write this.

P.S. I hope you don’t mind the change of tone. Do tell me if you do, though.

P.P.S. See you soon.’

Signed Childe.

Due to their correspondence, his own dealings with the Tsaritsa, and vast general knowledge in his possession Zhongli knows enough about the Eleventh Harbinger. What the man does at the Tsaritsa’s service, what his preferred methods are, how much influence he holds among the Fatui—these sorts of things.

None of that, however, could have prepared Zhongli for what he sees when Childe drops by the funeral parlor to make good on his invitation to tea.

Eyes like the deepest sea, hair like Cor Lapis touched by the rays of setting sun, skin like...

If asked, Morax of old would have compared the color of Childe’s skin to that of sea foam lapping at the rocky shoreline. He hardly knew any better back then and to tell the truth, had little interest in what he couldn’t challenge or conquer.

Zhongli, however, is familiar with a lot more things of similar color. Notably, the majority of them have nothing to do with conquest.

Fresh cream and almond tofu, rice water and pearls, the finest paper and Qingxin petals.

These are just a few things that come to Zhongli’s mind as he tries to reconcile the youthful countenance before him with the Eleventh Harbinger from his letters. Something tells him that there are more on the way.

He soon learns that agitation tends to color Childe's fair cheeks pink. And Zhongli would have readily compared it to plum blossoms amidst the snow if not for a metaphor he learned in Snezhnaya centuries ago.

Blood and milk, they call it, or so he was told. How beautiful and how very fitting.

Not to mention his youth and somewhat chaotic liveliness, Childe seems to be very comfortable in his own skin. And not just that—he doesn’t seem to mind showing it off, if the bold cut of his jacket and the rolled-up sleeves are anything to go by. 

It’s due to the latter that Zhongli gets to learn about the scars covering the expanse of both Childe’s forearms.

He can’t decide on what he should compare them to, but that doesn’t stop him from finding their intricate pattern... how should he put it...

Worth appreciating.

(Much, much later, it will be this very moment that he will refer to as the start of their entirely not businesslike relationship.)

***

Childe takes him out for lunch.

By now they have shared quite a few meals together, but those tended to happen in the evening on the pretext of having finished with the work for the day.

Given Childe’s line of work, Zhongli feels safe to conclude that it was indeed no more than pretext. While the clerks at the Northland Bank had their shifts to stick to, Childe had none—perks of being a Harbinger, Zhongli surmised. If one considers irregular working hours a perk, that is.

“It’s not too bad,” Childe replied when Zhongli once asked him that very question. “I mean, it adds to the thrill when you can’t be too sure about your plans, no?”

“Does it now?”

“Well, it’s like a challenge. A small one, yes, but still. Besides, the reward is too good to pass up.”

“And what would you consider a reward?”

“Why, the time I get to spend with xiansheng, of course.”

Coming from Childe, such a blatant admission shouldn’t have come as a surprise—by then Zhongli had already learnt that the other preferred not to beat around the bush if the situation allowed for it.

Still, Zhongli couldn’t help but feel amused and, well, more than a little flattered.

“In this case, I wish you luck with your challenges,” he said then, and Childe beamed at him.

Which is exactly how they end up at the Third-Round Knockout one summer afternoon.

There is not a single cloud in the sky, and the sun is hanging from the pale azure expanse like a white-hot piece of gold waiting to be turned into Mora.

Zhongli tips his head back a little and feels a low purr building up in his chest at the warmth of sun on his skin. It may not be covered in scales, but that doesn’t make the sensation any less pleasant.

Across the table, Childe makes a borderline pained little noise.

“You know, xiansheng, it never ceases to amaze me how you manage not to boil alive in all these…” the man makes a vague gesture with his hand that is not holding the chopsticks in a rather awkward way, "...layers of yours. I only have my shirt and jacket on, and it’s hell already!”

Zhongli takes a sip of tea and hums as though in thought.

“If we are leaving years worth of exposure to the local climate out of the equation, then let’s just say I’m naturally cold.”

“Oh, like a rock? Or is it a snake?” Childe says, clearly teasing, and it never ceases to amaze Zhongli how the man manages to hit the mark time and again without even realizing it or putting the clues together.

He lets his lips curl in a small smile.

“Something like that, yes.”

“Oh how I envy you,” Childe utters dramatically and adds a heart-rending sigh like a full stop. “Never in my life have I wanted to possess a Cryo Vision so bad.”

Zhongli allows himself a soft chuckle. If he hadn’t already known about Childe’s engagement in theater back in Snezhnaya, he would’ve probably guessed as much right now.

“Undoing a few buttons might help,” he supplies after another sip of tea. “Although I’m not sure if that would be a feasible option considering how, ah, peculiar your jacket is.”

At that, Childe freezes for a moment, and the piece of fish in his chopsticks drops onto his plate with a soft plop.

“Have mercy, xiansheng,” the man pleads once he's regained his composure, which is admirably shortly. “I’m still a diplomat, you know, for all that I find the job incredibly boring. I mean, there’s a reputation to uphold, it wouldn’t do to just…”

He stops short as though having realized something, and Zhoghli manages to catch a weird glint in his eyes before it dies as suddenly as it came into being.

“It would be hard to keep at least some semblance of propriety if I were to do as xiansheng has suggested,” Childe says then, his voice all but sing-song. “But I think I know the second best thing.”

With that, he puts his chopsticks aside and then takes the rings on his little fingers off—first the one on his left hand, then on the right. 

And then the gloves come off.

Everything that Zhongli wanted to say but a moment ago dies on his tongue. 

Objectively speaking, Childe’s hands are far from beautiful, yet Zhongli can’t tear his eyes away from them. There is no pattern to the scars marring the skin—just a pure chaos of jagged lines and blemishes that used to be cuts and burns. 

Battle-hardened hands, warrior’s hands. Well defined knuckles, strong fingers, blunt nails.

It’s easy to imagine such hands gripping a weapon or wringing a neck like it’s nothing. It’s easier still to imagine them finding a different kind of purchase—a fistful of hair, or fabric, or…

“...Xiansheng?”

Zhongli blinks the vision off and clears his throat delicately.

“Pardon me, I must have got distracted for a moment,” he says then and reaches for his chopsticks just to do something. “So you were saying?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really,” Childe replies, an innocent smile playing on his lips. “Please enjoy your meal, the talk can wait.”

He does enjoy the meal, although he has to admit to himself it’s rather difficult to focus on the food with the sight of Childe’s uncovered fingers struggling with the chopsticks right in front of him.

(Later, he will pick a pair of dragon-and-phoenix-patterned chopsticks for a certain Snezhnayan diplomat to practice with. When asked as to why those particular chopsticks, he will not say that it would be a shame to match Childe’s hands with anything lesser.)

***

The fog over the Yaoguang Shoal is so dense they can barely see their surroundings.

“It’s a rather famous occurrence in these parts, the fog rolling in off the sea in such a way,” Zhongli comments as they walk along the shoreline side by side. “I heard of a certain adventurer who was very eager to witness it yet never managed to, no matter how hard she tried.” 

Having thought it over, he adds, “But I imagine that’s not what you hoped for when you suggested that we go to the beach on your day off.”

Next to him, Childe lets out a small laugh.

“I don’t mind, really,” the man says then. “The plan was to get away and we’ve managed it, haven’t we?”

Zhongli doesn’t fail to notice the weight of words unsaid in the space between the two of them. It’s a relatively new thing in their relationship, and definitely not what he would expect from someone as straightforward as Childe.

Still, there can be no denying that the more meals they share and the more places they visit together the less Childe seems to let on, opting for cautiously worded replies such as that one.

Zhongli is not sure what to make of it. At least, not yet.

“I suppose you are right,” he says at length. 

They don’t get to make it far when they hear a low whirr accompanied by the clanking of metal. Childe stills, his eyes trained on the curtain of fog ahead of them; a predator scenting a prey, no less.

The prey in question is not long in coming. Before Zhongli can even say something, a Ruin Hunter emerges from the fog in all its mechanical glory.

Childe makes a short appreciative noise.

“Let me take it down real quick,” he says then, his voice thick with agitation yearning for a way out. “I’ll be back before you know it, promise.”

“By all means,” Zhongli replies benevolently. “Please don’t hold back on my account.”

“You’re the best,” Childe breathes out and rushes into the fight without sparing him another glance.

The fog is thick yet nothing that Zhongli’s eyes can’t deal with. The automaton is of little interest to him, so he focuses on his companion—for all that Childe talks a lot about beating various adversaries, it’s the first time that Zhongli sees him fight up close and personal.

His stance with the bow is downright sloppy, but that doesn’t hinder his pure Hydro arrows from finding their mark time after time. When the Ruin Hunter descends and rapidly closes the distance between them, Childe dashes to the side, switching to a melee stance. His bow morphs into a pair of twin daggers followed by a swallow and then the daggers again, swift and lethal.

The man is just like his Vision, Zhongli can’t help but think. Fluid, fatal, flawless.

At some point he casts a shield—not that Childe needs one, but there is something to the way the golden glow of Geo envelopes his lithe figure. To Zhongli it feels like a stirring of scales underneath his skin, insistent and primordial in their possessiveness. 

It’s weird how easily Childe, of all people, can bring out the god in him. Weird, but not at all unpleasant. He might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

“Thanks for the backup,” Childe says a little bit later as he regards the twisted wreckage of the fallen automaton. His breathing is commendably even, and he would look completely unruffled if not for the dust of pink on his cheeks. “I didn’t even know shields could last for so long!”

Mine can and will, Zhongli thinks. The scales underneath his skin stir as though in agreement.

“It’s only a matter of practice,” he says instead. “But I’m glad I could be of help rather than hindrance.”

“So humble,” Childe comments with a sigh Zhongli can’t quite pin down, and then cracks one of his amiable smiles. A bow to a blade. “Well then, where were we?”

“Discussing the fog, but it seems to me the topic is all but exhausted. Would you care to hear about some other local landmarks?”

“Always!”

By the time they reach the conch lodge on the other side of the shoal, Zhongli has almost finished telling the story of the lady inhabiting it. 

“Having lost her husband to the sea, she dedicated her life to helping the shipwrecked people who ended up drifting near the shore,” Zhongli supplies when they stop a few steps away from the giant conch shell. “It is said that after several decades of doing so she was finally able to hear her husband's voice in the crashing waves.”

“We too have this belief about sea shells, how you can hold one to your ear and hear the sea. Nothing like this, though,” Childe muses, and he sounds unusually pensive.

They drop by the lodge to say hello to Madam Chu, but it’s Zhongli who ends up doing most of the talking while watching Childe out of the corner of his eye. The man keeps quiet and his eyes barely leave the expanse of water visible from the lodge porch.

Is it homesickness getting the better of him or is it something else entirely, Zhongli wonders to himself.

When they finally say their goodbyes and leave the lodge, the young woman who seemed to be meditating near the water when they arrived offers to tell their fortunes. They both decline.

Having walked for quite some time, they decide to rest a bit. The fog has long since cleared up, so it doesn’t take them long to find a suitable rock jutting out of the water and land there.

The day is warm yet the water is pleasantly cool, so Zhongli doesn’t put up much resistance when Childe tries to coax him into forfeiting his shoes in favor of dipping his toes in the sea.

The man happily does what he preaches, which is how Zhongli gets to learn about yet another scar on Childe’s body.

This one is nothing like those he’s seen before, and not in a good way. The thick white line of scar tissue runs across Childe’s left foot from where his little toe begins and all the way to the inner side of his ankle.

Zhongli feels his breath catch. He’s not sure what kind of weapon could have done this, but he wishes he could grind it into dust regardless.

“How did you get this one?” he asks before he can stop himself.

“Oh, this?” Childe says, wiggling his left foot in the water. Zhongli nods. “I’d love to tell you it was an epic battle, but sadly nope, it wasn’t. An amateur mistake, really. The one that almost cost me a promotion, can you imagine?”

His tone is nonchalant, like it was just a scratch and not an injury that could have crippled him for life had the things gone worse than they did, and Zhongli doesn’t like it the tiniest bit.

“It could have cost you your health, if not your life,” he says with a frown.

Childe shrugs.

“Well, that kind of comes with the job. We understand the risks when we enroll, and we’re willing to take them.”

“For the greater good, I presume?” Zhongli says and finds himself surprised at how acidic he actually sounds.

“Exactly,” Childe says pointedly, and Zhongli doesn’t miss the metal ringing in his voice.

It doesn’t last, though—before their argument can escalate Childe sighs and spreads his hands disarmingly.

“I don’t wanna fight, xiansheng,” he says then. “Not with you, not for real, but you know where my allegiances lie. That’s not gonna change.”

“I wouldn’t dare to suspect otherwise,” Zhongli replies calmly, but that calm doesn’t come as easy as he expected. “Pardon my overstepping.”

Childe waves him off because of course he does.

“Don’t mention it. Now then, what say we head back and have dinner somewhere nice?”

“I heard that Xiangling might be cooking tonight,” Zhongli says, fully aware that he was offered an escape from an unpleasant talk yet not as happy about it as he should be. “It is said she returned to Liyue Harbor from her culinary trip yesterday."

“Wanmin Restaurant it is, then.”

They put their socks and shoes on and then leave the beach side by side, just like they came here.

Childe doesn’t look back at the sea even once.

(Later, Zhongli will receive an unsigned package wrapped in a square of fine golden silk. Inside he will find a Starconch shell that can often be found at Yaoguang Shoal, accompanied by a note. 

‘I plan for no burial at sea, but maybe you could keep this for me. That would be nice,’ the note will read.

Naturally, he will keep the shell. Neither he nor Childe will talk about it, though.)

***

When everything comes to a close on the stage that is the Northland Bank, he avoids making eye contact with Childe.

Addressing Signora and Traveler, he stands tall and poised—the God of Contracts to the core one last time. Childe rages next to him, his voice raw with hurt, and Zhongli wonders distantly if those present can tell that a bruised ego is far from all there is to it.

Four days ago they went to the Pearl Galley. There was opera, and then there was wine, and then there was Childe almost kissing him behind the painted screen where nobody could see them.

Four days is a long time.

When Zhongli—and it’s truly Zhongli now, nothing more—leaves the Bank and steps into the street, his chest feels hollowed out in ways more than one. The absence of gnosis doesn’t make it hurt any less, though.

Packing for the road doesn’t take him long. It’s not that he’s leaving Liyue for good—he probably never will—but staying here for the time being doesn't seem to be the best option.

He didn’t lie when he said he was satisfied with how everything had played out. And maybe that’s why it hurts—while he wanted to succeed and counted on Childe to make it happen, he let himself get… attached along the way.

It’s probably for the best that Childe didn’t kiss him after all. Because if he had, Zhongli would have kissed him back without a second thought and the aftermath would have hurt a hundred times worse than it does now.

Contrary to his expectations, traveling alone brings him no solace.

The way to Mondstadt is long, and it only takes him a couple of days to realize just how accustomed he’s become to having Childe by his side. The ship he’s managed to get aboard is full of people to talk to—merchants, adventurers and the like—but it’s not the same. The fact that he remembers Childe’s eyes every time he looks at the sea doesn’t make it any better.

He’s not at all surprised when the first person to greet him at the city gates turns out to be Barbatos. Liyue is no Mare Jivari, after all, and the wind knows everything there is to know.

“So how have you been?” Barbatos (“It’s Venti the bard!”) asks him still as he drags Zhongli towards the tavern because where else, really.

“I’ve seen better times,” Zhongli replies with a shrug, and his friend shoots him an all too innocent smile.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Venti sing-songs then. “And gnosiswise?”

He says nothing.

At the tavern Zhongli witnesses a short and rather one-sided argument between Venti and a handsome yet solemn redhead behind the bar. The man is none too subtle about certain bard’s debts that are not going to pay themselves, but cedes him two bottles of Dandelion Wine nonetheless, much to Zhongli’s surprise.

“That gentleman doesn’t seem very forthcoming for a bartender,” Zhongli points out when they leave the tavern, and Venti giggles.

“Master Diluc is just very young and tragically in love,” he says and makes a flourish with his hand. “Must be something in the air.”

Once again, Zhongli remains silent.

They don’t stay in the city to drink the wine. 

Instead, Venti takes him to the ruins far in the Brightcrown Mountains. As far as Zhongli can tell, the remains of the architecture imply a city that used to stand tall and proud centuries if not millennia ago.

“The capital of Old Mondstadt,” Venti confirms, uncharacteristically wistful, when Zhongli voices his assumptions to him. “But it’s been long since known as Stormterror’s Lair.”

“How crude,” Zhongli comments, his eyes fixed on the dilapidated yet still beautiful tower supporting the sky. “Such a name seems like a great injustice, if you ask me.”

“Well, that’s freedom for you,” Venti replies and then points at the tower’s dome. “Our destination. Do you think your old bones can survive the climb?”

“Let’s find out,” Zhongli says plainly and hops the nearby wall before the last syllable can die down.

Behind him, Venti laughs; a silver wind chime of a sound.

When they settle down on the arch remnants that resemble a pier—if some architect were to build one reaching out right in the air—the sun is already setting behind the mountains. They watch the sky change colors, drinking the wine straight from their bottles and keeping each their own silence. The wine is more bitter than the one Zhongli is used to, but given the circumstances such a taste is rather fitting.

(Later, he will come to the ruins alone and with no wine to accompany him. The wind will play with his hair and earring tassel, and he won’t be able to help but think about a different wind and a different earring and a different crystal casting blood-red flecks on the milky skin. 

He will also think about unseen scars he has left Childe with, but somehow it will hurt a little less. And for the time being, that will be enough.)

***

The day he returns to Liyue Harbor is just like any other day in a port city of such a caliber.

There are people flocking at the waterfront—merchants, Millelith, ordinary citizens—and the air smells like sea salt and various food cooking. He inhales a lungful of the scent and lets it course all through him, familiar and soothing.

Who’d have thought he would miss Liyue this much after such a short absence.

Engrossed in the feeling of his homecoming, he fails to pay attention to his much closer surroundings and thus only returns to reality when it literally collides with him.

“Pardon me,” he says, his arms shooting out to catch the person he’s rammed into by their shoulders. “Are you al—”

The rest of the sentence dies on his tongue once he regains focus and sees exactly who he’s holding in his arms.

“Xiansheng?” Childe says, and he sounds as dazed as Zhongli himself feels.

“Childe,” he breathes out, not quite able to tear his eyes away from the other’s face.

The man looks… frail, if one can even imagine that as far as Childe is concerned. It’s not so bad as to be in stark contrast to what Zhongli remembers, but his eyes are duller now and his cheekbones are definitely more prominent than the last time they saw each other.

Also, there is a barely healed gash near Childe’s jawline on the right side of his face. And of all things, it’s this red scabbed line that undoes Zhongli.

“Have you been eating well,” he hears himself say, his voice dripping with worry, and it’s not nearly a question. “You don’t look like you have, if you will forgive my bluntness.”

Childe blinks—once, twice, as though he’s not sure if he’s heard it right. Then, something shifts in his face, like a carefully constructed façade giving a crack—the tiniest, slightest one, yes, but it’s there and it’s enough.

“Tell the truth, I don’t think I have,” Childe says then, and he looks positively torn up. “It’s just… not the same, you know.”

There are swaths of things unsaid filling the space between the two of them, their weight all but palpable, but Zhongli thinks he knows where he should start.

“In this case, would you care to accompany me to dinner?” he says, and this time it is a question, hesitant and hopeful. “My treat, no catch, no ‘I forgot my purse of Mora again’ sort of surprises. You have my word.”

He’s barely finished with his speech when Childe starts laughing, sudden and borderline hysterical.  

“Oh archons,” the man wheezes once his laughing fit has passed—or almost passed. “I look away for a moment and someone teaches you how to properly manage your finances, I can’t believe it.”

“Is it a no?” Zhongli asks evenly, and Childe smiles at him, weary but undoubtedly fond.

“It’s a yes, xiansheng. I just have to see this newly acquired skill of yours with my own eyes.”

“It is settled, then,” Zhongli says, allowing himself to smile back. “Where would you like to go?”

“Third-Round Knockout,” Childe says right away and Zhongli nods, the implications not at all lost on him.

“Third-Round Knockout it is, then.”

The port is all hustle and bustle around the two of them, and if the eclectic crowd fails to notice a small miracle taking place amidst all the trading and deal-striking—well, that’s on them.

(Later, Childe will walk him home and wonder aloud how it never occurred to him that Zhongli didn’t actually live in the same building as the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. Zhongli will invite him to pay a visit for tea sometime and Childe will say yes, but not before asking him out for breakfast the next morning.

And just like that the wait and longing will be over, and his homecoming will be well and truly complete.)

***

The rain catches them unprepared.

One moment they’re strolling along the waterfront after their visit to the Pearl Galley, Childe ripping tonight’s opera to shreds and Zhongli listening with genuine interest, and the next the water is falling from the sky, heavy and merciless.

Then, things start moving very quickly, and Zhongli only manages to catch the glimpses of what is transpiring.

The bright, shimmering blue of Childe’s eyes. Childe’s fingers on his wrist, tugging him forward and forward still through the curtain of rain. Both of them all but tripping on the slippery upward stairs.

It’s not until he finds himself in front of a nondescript door and hears Childe fumbling with the keys that he realizes exactly where they are and oh, he didn’t see this coming.

Not that he’s against it, though.

Having defeated the lock and opened the door, Childe steps out of his shoes and makes a dash inside.

“Just slam the door shut, it will lock by itself,” Zhongli hears him say from the dark of the apartment. “Now, where is the firestone when I need it…”

Zhongli does as requested and takes his shoes off, leaving them on the doormat next to Childe’s haphazardly discarded ones.

Once the lamps are lit, he gets to have a closer look at the residence of the notorious Eleventh of the Harbingers. The residence turns out to be a rather small flat with a kitchen serving as a living room—if a bamboo couch and a matching low table are any indication—just across the doorway and a bedroom further to the left.

The latter is the conclusion he arrives at when Childe emerges from the said room and walks up to him with a neat stack of folded clothes and a towel in his hands.

“If my eye estimation is correct, we should be about the same size,” the man says then, somewhat bashful. “These are nothing fancy, I admit, but at least they are dry.”

“Thank you,” he replies with a slight incline of his head as he takes the offered items from Childe. “Where should I put mine?”

“Oh, anywhere you like, really. I’ll hang them to dry once you’re, ah, done changing.”

“You should change as well,” he says, nodding at the wet footprints leading from the bedroom. “I understand that you’re better accustomed to the cold than me, but I doubt it’s comfortable.”

Childe quickly nods several times, sending the tiny droplets on the ends of his hair flying.

“I will, in a moment,” he says then and heads for the bedroom as if to prove that. Once there, he adds a little louder: “I won’t be closing the door completely, so just call me if you need anything, alright?”

“Of course. And thank you again.”

To that Childe says nothing but Zhongli easily imagines him waving his hand in dismissal.

“It has just occurred to me that we could have used a shield or any other means to the same end,” he muses later as he nestles on the couch while Childe is hanging their wet clothes on the drying rack as promised. “I may not be blessed by the Archon of Hydro, but some of us, on the other hand…”

Childe stops instantly and looks at him in befuddlement as though such a simple and logical idea didn’t even cross his mind. Like that he looks younger than he is, and it’s so endearing that Zhongli can’t help but tease him a little:

“Was it an elaborate plan of yours to get me to your lodgings?” 

Childe almost drops the shirt he’s been holding, but he’s quick to recover. The shirt lands safely on the rack.

“Ah, it could be?” the man parries then and Zhongli hums in appreciation.

“Absolutely. Was it, though?”

“If you must know, I was more preoccupied with getting us somewhere dry at the time,” Childe says as he turns to him fully and looks him dead in the eye. “So no, it wasn’t. But I like the sound of it.”

So do I, he thinks as he watches Childe switch to making tea. It’s obvious where all this is going and he’s more than sure that Childe knows it too, yet he’d rather wait and let the man make the move on his own terms. Like that, it would be only fair.

There is just one question left that bothers him somewhat, but it’s not until they are both seated on the couch with their cups in their hands that he decides to voice it.

“If you don’t mind me asking, did you go back to Snezhnaya or…?”

If Childe is surprised by the question, he doesn’t let it show.

“I did,” the man says plainly. “Left almost right after you, got a scolding slash commendation, then got sent back. What?”

“You know when I left?” Zhongli says, incredulous, and Childe lets out a huff.

“Oh come now. You didn’t expect me not to ask after you, now did you?”

“I was under the impression that you were mad with me.”

“You bet I was. Didn’t stop me from asking around, though. You know how it can be sometimes.”

In theory, Zhongli does know, but that doesn’t reduce his awe in the slightest. It bubbles in his chest like Mondstadt wine and spreads from his heart throughout his body. It makes him a little light-headed too, so the words spill from his lips before he can stop himself:

“What an impossible, impossible man you are.”

Childe coughs and sets his cup aside. His fingers tremble almost imperceptibly, Zhongli notices.

“Careful, xiansheng,” the man says then. “You say it again like that and I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“Mhm, as you should.”

Childe lets out a sigh and fixes him with a heavy look, all sugar and smoke. Almost there, Zhongli thinks.

“You realize it’s a matter of honor for me to kiss you breathless for that, right?” Childe says after a short while, his voice low. “Because that’s exactly what I’m gonna do right about now.”

“Your warning is much appreciated,” Zhongli says as he places his cup on the table as far from the edge as he can. “Now then, would you—”

Childe makes a short punched-out noise and surges forward.

Like a crashing tide, Zhongli manages to think before his eyes flutter shut and their lips lock.

It’s definitely a good thing that they didn’t kiss back then, he realizes some time later, because this is the only way it could ever be.

Childe is wonderfully thorough, just on the right side of hungry, and Zhongli responds in kind without reservation. It’s before long that their kiss gets messy and wet and chaotic, and it’s all the better for it.

“It will probably sound ridiculous, but I’m gonna ask you anyway,” Childe breathes out when they finally part for air. “So um, exactly how far are you willing to take this? I mean, it’s okay if you just wanna kiss and cuddle, but I was thinking I’d—”

“I’m not opposed to physical intimacy,” Zhongli replies, not even bothering to hide the mirth from his voice, and then presses closer so that Childe could feel just how not opposed he is. “Quite the contrary, as you may notice.”

It doesn’t escape Zhongli’s attention how Childe’s eyes go dark at that; a stormy sea that only wants to devour, no less.

“I’m not the gentlest of lovers, mind you,” the man utters then, his hands sliding to Zhongli’s waist but not venturing any lower, not yet.

There are a number of answers Zhongli could provide to that, like ‘There is hardly anything I cannot withstand’ or ‘It is very thoughtful of you to try and disguise a line of retreat as a warning.’ He doesn’t say any of that, though.

He doesn’t because in truth there is only one thing he wants to tell Childe.

“The gentlest or not, let me be the judge of that.”

By way of answering, Childe nods and kisses him again.

It helps no small amount that they are both wearing Childe’s homely clothes with no intricate fastenings or ties on them. So once they make it to the bedroom, it takes Childe no time at all to rid Zhongli of his tunic and pants and then do the same to himself.

The latter provides Zhongli with a view he instantly wishes to commit to memory and study for an eternity or two at the same time.

There are scars running all over Childe’s skin—his shoulders, his chest, his thighs—some old and some new, thin white lines and pinkish blemishes. The proof of Childe’s strength and resilience in their own right.

“See something you like?” the man asks as he catches Zhongli’s gaze. There is a smug grin playing on his lips but it’s betrayed by the way he stutters a little at the end of the phrase, and Zhongli can’t help but find it very sweet.

“Very much so,” he confirms then, earning himself a sight of Childe’s flushed cheeks and yet another surging, breathtaking kiss.

It’s not that the man isn’t gentle per se, Zhongli thinks a little bit later, slowly but steadily unraveling under Childe’s callused hands and his oh so clever mouth. It’s rather that he sees Zhongli’s body as a challenge to stand up to—or a new weapon to master, if the way he’s familiarizing himself with its every curve and every edge is anything to go by.

In all the years Zhongli has been alive, it’s arguably the first time that someone treats him like that. The way Childe holds his gaze and calls out his name and repositions him to gain more leverage and reach deeper—there is no awe or reverence to be found in it. But instead, there is rapt attention and an overwhelming desire to bend but not break, and it feels incredible.

Truly, they call Childe the master of weaponry for a reason.

It’s not until later into the night that Zhongli is coherent enough to share his observations with Childe. The result is… curious, to say the least.

“You can’t just say things like that,” Childe all but whines and shoots Zhongli an accusing look from where he’s resting amidst the mess they’ve made of the bedsheets in all his naked glory. “I mean, I’m a very simple man. You tell me something like that and I will want to do something terrible to you.”

“And what would that be?” Zhongli says, amused and not so secretly delighted with the effect his words have caused. He should’ve probably expected as much, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling or promising.

Instead of answering right away, Childe lets out a long-suffering groan and scoops him up in one fluid motion.

“You’re a menace, you know that?” the man says then, just a breath away from Zhongli’s tingling, kiss-swollen lips. “A total, absolute menace. I have no idea how I’m gonna survive you.”

“I was under the impression that you yearned for a worthy opponent,” Zhongli replies and doesn’t fail to notice the shiver that works through Childe’s body as soon as the words fall from his lips. “What happened to that?”

“You. You happened,” Childe says, and adds in a suddenly quiet voice brimming with something Zhongli can’t quite place: “I’m glad you did.”

So am I, Zhongli thinks as he closes whatever distance there is left between them and captures Childe’s lips with his own, soft and gentle.

Outside, the rain has long since stopped, and the wind is sweeping the last of the clouds from the sky. Sadly, nobody notices that, but the wind is too understanding to actually be offended.

(Later, Zhongli will wake up first and watch the rays of the rising sun caress Childe’s sleeping form, dressing him in pink and gold. It will remind him of Silkflowers and jade and all the treasures of Liyue, but it will be even better than that.

So, so much better.)