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through the fourth and fifth ribs

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through the fourth and fifth ribs

Xiangling liked to think she was a chef, and not a babysitter. But the longer the Eleventh of the Fatui Harbingers sat in her restaurant, slumped despondently over a table, the harder it was to ignore that pitiful sight. She sighed, slapped her empty tray down on the table beside his, and stood before him, arms crossed.

 

“Are you going to order anything, or not?” she asked, to which he only groaned and mumbled something incoherent in reply. A second head poked out from the kitchen, and a pair of mischievous red eyes took in the scene with evident amusement.

 

“Aiya, don’t be like that,'' the other girl said in a playfully chastising tone, and at that Childe finally looked up. “You’re so bad for business this morning! Look, it’s so gloomy here that no one wants to sit near you!”

 

“Why are there two of you…” Childe’s eyes flickered between them questioningly. “Who are you?” This last question was addressed to the red-eyed girl, and at that Xiangling looked slightly embarrassed, while the girl in question frowned.

 

“Ah, this is… Hu Tao, a friend of mine,” Xiangling said hastily. “She’s helping out here for today -”

 

“Wait, how do you not know me?” The girl, Hu Tao, burst out. “Did Zhongli never mention me at all? That’s so mean .” She pouted for a second, but recovered very quickly and winked. “Well, you’ll have to know me eventually if you stay in Liyue long enough. I’m Hu Tao! 77th Director of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. Everyone in Liyue is a treasured customer, and for my treasured customers, I provide nothing but the best.”

 

Childe stared. What kind of introduction was that ? Which funeral parlour director opened a conversation with ‘everyone is my treasured customer’? What the hell? This was Zhongli’s boss? When he asked about her before, he had replied with an expression of pained annoyance that Childe hadn’t even known Zhongli could make.

 

“That child,” he had sighed. “I cannot deal with her.”

 

“Oh? So she’s a rascal, huh?” Childe grinned back. “That explains how you can deal with me.”

 

And then Zhongli had, with a fond, dazzling smile, assured him that he was not at all a rascal, and Childe lost his concentration for the rest of the conversation because he was too busy staring at his lips.

 

“Zhongli might have mentioned you,” he conceded to Hu Tao now. “But,” he mumbled, frowning, “why are you here when he’s at work?”

 

“Because today is my day off!” she replied, grinning. “I’m the one who decides when my days off are, of course.”

 

Xiangling whispered something to Hu Tao then, and from the way her eyes gleamed in response, Childe suspected it was nothing good. 

 

“You got it, I’ll handle lover boy over here,” Hu Tao’s smile was practically sparking with mischief as she patted Xiangling vigorously on the head. “You go do that kitchen magic of yours!”

 

“Who’s… lover boy?” Childe asked dumbly. Hu Tao clucked her tongue and shook her head sadly, like she was speaking to someone already gone. (Given her profession, he feared the comparison was a little too accurate.)

 

“You.” Hu Tao drew out the stool across from him and sat down, grinning all the while. “So, lover boy …” she almost sang, and Childe winced at the nickname. “Why’re you moping here all by yourself? What did Zhongli do this time?”

 

Childe’s face heated up instantly, and Hu Tao’s grin widened. “Well?” she pressed. “What did the blockhead do?”

 

“I - I don’t see how this is any of your business,” he managed to stammer out, unsuccessfully trying to hide his flushed cheeks behind a gloved hand. He was a Fatui Harbinger, damn it. Why was he letting himself be questioned about his love life by some teenager? Why wouldn’t that stupid blush lose itself already -

 

“Oh, this is definitely my business.” Hu Tao leaned closer. “In fact! This is literally my business! You see, I couldn’t help noticing that a certain funeral parlour consultant has been rather, ah, distracted lately. Call this my attempt to help a colleague in need. It’s only my duty, after all,” she finished with a wink.

 

Childe looked up to meet a pair of eerily determined red eyes. If he didn’t cave to her questioning today, he was almost certain Hu Tao would follow him around for at least a week. And if even Zhongli, the most patient person he knew, couldn’t put up with her, then he might end up hurling her off a cliff. Not the best conclusion for the parties involved. So he sighed. Sighed again, even harder. Sighed so hard that he was surprised smoke wasn’t coming out of his nose.

 

“I confessed to him,” he finally mumbled, very quietly. “I told him I liked him.”

 

“Oh?” Curiosity wove its way into Hu Tao’s expression. “And what did he say to that?”

 

The mortified despair on Childe’s face said that he would rather fall into the Abyss again than say it. Okay, maybe falling into the Abyss again was a stretch. Falling into a deep pit, maybe. Maybe he’d take Hu Tao up on her word and hold himself a funeral in advance.

 

“He said, ‘I am glad you treasure me so dearly as a friend’,” Childe almost whispered. “And then he said ‘I feel the same way about you’.”

 

Hu Tao’s mouth fell open. For one long moment they stared at each other in silence. Then the moment passed, and she burst into peals of cackling laughter.

 

“Oh, Archons,” she wheezed. “This is funnier than all the pranks I’ve ever pulled combined . I -” With a choking noise, she was back to being doubled over laughing on her stool. “I can’t believe you two are for real .”

 

“Glad one of us is enjoying this,” Childe said with as much sarcasm as he could muster through the pure humiliation. He slumped back onto the table and groaned. “What am I supposed to do now… Did I just get friendzoned? What the ever-loving fuck ?”

 

“Okay, first of all, you didn’t get friendzoned,” Hu Tao said thoughtfully, now that she wasn’t laughing anymore.

 

“How do you know that?”

 

She wrinkled her nose. “Do I really have to explain that to you? I asked him about you once.”

 

“And?” Childe tried hopefully.

 

And I have never seen Zhongli look so… sappy. Eurgh. It’s a terrible look on him, honestly. I never want to see that face ever again.” Hu Tao frowned. "Even thinking about it makes me want to barf."

 

"Anyone with eyes can see that he's just as gone for you as you are for him," Xiangling added, as she walked over bearing a tray of pastries in assorted shapes. "Here, I made some new recipes. Help me taste-test, won't you?" 

 

The pastries were little round puffs, baked to a delicious-looking golden brown. Childe picked one up and studied it carefully, if only to distract himself from what the two girls had just said. There was no way… no way they were right. And yet a tiny spark of hope had already rekindled in his chest. It wouldn't hurt to just ask Zhongli about it, would it? Everything might just be a misunderstanding, and then his problem would be solved. The thought of bringing up that incident again, though… He took a cautious bite of the pastry. It was filled with something chewy, and distinctly slimy , and he swallowed it with a grimace. 

 

"Xiangling, did you -" 

 

"Ah, those ones?" Xiangling glanced over at the pastry he was holding. "Yup! Fresh slime condensate. I went to gather it just this morning! I also added in some gelatin, to make it a bit more jelly-like, and a bit of Jueyun Chilli for the taste. What do you think? It's quite an unusual combination, but I thought the softness of the filling would go well with the crispy pastry on the outside -"

 

"Xiangling, honey," Hu Tao said, not unkindly, "he looks like he's about to choke."

 

Several fervent apologies from Xiangling and another round of wheezing laughter from Hu Tao later, Childe thankfully no longer felt like his insides were being turned, well, inside-out. And because Hu Tao was one of the most relentless people he had ever met, the conversation topic had once again moved back to his love life, or lack thereof. 

 

"You should talk to him, you know," she said nonchalantly. "I mean, the man has Cor Lapis for brains sometimes, he probably didn’t understand what you meant by ‘like’. Just tell him how you feel. What could go wrong?" 

 

"Now that you've brought it up, I feel like everything could go wrong," came the dry reply. 

 

"Nuh-uh!" Hu Tao giggled. "There’s no way this will go wrong. In fact, I have a brilliant idea."

 

Childe didn't like that distinctly crafty look in her eye. It spelled trouble. "And what idea is that?" he asked, suspicious. 

 

"Okay, riddle me this. What's the quickest way to a man's heart?" 

 

"Through the fourth and fifth ribs," he replied instantly. It must have been the wrong answer, because Hu Tao froze. 

 

"Well -" she began. " Well - " She blinked at Childe, mouth opening and closing like a gaping fish. 

 

"You're not wrong, but…" She huffed in frustration. "I'm the director of the funeral parlour , damn it ! You're not allowed to make more morbid jokes than me! Xiangling , c'mon, back me up here!" 

 

Childe hadn't really been joking, but he thought it wiser not to say that out loud. 

 

"Childe," Xiangling scolded, as she came out of the kitchen again, "the quickest way to a man's heart is food . Haven't you ever heard that saying?" 

 

"Food?" Childe thought about it for a moment. That was definitely an easier answer than he had expected. Then again, this was Xiangling. Of course she would think the quickest way to someone's heart was food. "So you're saying… I just have to cook something for him?" 

 

"Correct!" Hu Tao nodded as Xiangling rushed off to serve another of the restaurant's patrons. "I mean, you still have to talk to him, but it’ll be easier over a meal, right? At least that’s what Xiangling would say.”

 

Now that Childe thought about it, the vast majority of his conversations with Zhongli had taken place with food between them. It was for convenience, really, because neither of them had much free time on their hands besides mealtimes. But over time, as their meetings became more frequent, he’d found himself taking a certain sense of comfort in the food that Zhongli usually ordered for the two of them. Cooking something for him… it was a surprisingly good idea.

 

“Hey, now, don’t go getting all sappy and domestic on me ,” Hu Tao interrupted his thoughts. “What are you going to cook, anyway? You know how picky Zhongli’s taste is…”

 

So, a dish he was good at cooking, then. Something simple that would be difficult to mess up,  that he was good at cooking, and that he had the ingredients for. Something… 

 

“I’ve got it. Calla Lily Seafood Soup. Hu Tao, Xiangling, thanks for your help, but I need to go now,” he announced, very fast, and just as quickly had rounded the corner and disappeared. Hu Tao stared after him, a look of mingled horror and amusement spreading across her features.

 

“Did he just say Calla Lily Seafood Soup?” Xiangling almost screeched from behind her, and she jumped. “Doesn’t he know Mr. Zhongli hates seafood - Oh boy, he doesn’t know.”

 

Xiangling’s eyes were wide. Hu Tao was grinning like she’d just won a million Mora.

 

“This is going to be hilarious .”

 

-

Unaware of his fate, Childe stood in the middle of his apartment’s tidy kitchen, chopping Calla Lilies and muttering to himself about the various ingredients and preparation steps of his dish. He rarely ever attempted to cook with such precision or effort - usually, he’d just boil pasta or something, and if he really felt like it he would make a stew or stir-fry. But this was for Zhongli, who could appraise anything from food to rocks to the stone tiles of Yujing Terrace, and therefore it had to be perfect . That was also why he had started cooking the instant he got back to his apartment - this batch of soup was merely a test run, and the more preparation he had, the better. 

 

“Along with the soup… I’ll cook rice? Or should I make noodles…” 

 

By the time Childe had figured out the menu, making various adjustments to each dish in the hopes that they would improve its taste, the sun had long set, and a half moon casted its faint light over Liyue Harbour. In his rush to hasten the arrival of the next day, he went to bed almost three hours earlier than usual, which simply resulted in him lying awake in bed, staring at the dark ceiling and lost in nervous thought. And every time he tried to close his eyes, or roll over into a more comfortable position, his traitorous brain chose to simply become even more awake instead. He tucked his blanket closer around himself. It didn’t work. He pushed the blanket away. It didn’t work. He lay on his back, then on his side, then finally on his stomach, and eventually lifted his face from his pillow to slam it down again in frustration.

 

And so it became that he shrugged on a black sweater, and armed with only his Vision, decided to solve his problems with murder. 

 

He spent the next thirty minutes wandering around in the vicinity of the Golden House, cutting down any unfortunate slime or hilichurl that crossed his path with a few swift strikes of his water blades. Then, when the monsters in the area had all either been eradicated or ran away at the sight of him, he took to dissolving and reforming his blades into various shapes, then plucked a third blade from the air and juggling all three of them in an attempt to stave off the restlessness in his limbs. He was so focused on this task that he forgot to pay attention to his surroundings and walked right into a tree.

 

Or at least, he thought it was a tree. The ‘tree’ grunted, and moved, and by the time Childe realised what he’d bumped into, a very angry Mitachurl was growling at him and preparing to charge. 

 

Instincts kicked in, and he threw a water blade at its shield before he could think. It splashed uselessly against its shield, the water making a sad ‘plop’ as it fell onto the ground, now shapeless.

 

Fuck ,” he cursed. “I didn’t bring my bow. Or my Delusion.” He wrinkled his nose, and let the other two water blades dissolve through his fingers. “Guess we’re gonna have to do this the old-fashioned way. I hope you’re ready for my fists .” 

 

Honestly, that wasn’t even the most stupid idea he’d ever had. He was moderately confident he could out-punch a Mitachurl and emerge mostly intact. And if it came down to it he supposed he was still faster than the bulky monster. Still, he was aware that anyone watching them now would probably think he was completely off his rocker, and took a split second to be grateful for the secluded area they were in before he rammed his whole body at the Mitachurl, yelling all the while.

 

There was a very loud ‘thunk’ that was distinctly not the sound of a human body hitting a wooden shield, and Childe stopped, surprised. He had expected it to hurt more, but he didn’t feel anything at all. Also, the world around him looked slightly golden, like the honey colour of Zhongli’s eyes… His brain caught up with him soon enough for him to realise he was standing in the middle of a shield. Or, to be more precise, the jade shield that Zhongli had once demonstrated for him. And just when he’d figured that out, something that glowed gold whizzed past him at godly speed and landed in the centre of the Mitachurl’s shield. Or at least, it landed where the shield was a second ago, and where there now was a pile of ash. From the way the ground shook under his feet Childe was certain he would have been thrown back if not for the shield protecting him. 

 

The weapon - a polearm - flew back to its wielder, and as the jade shield dissipated Childe turned around to see Zhongli walking towards him. His mouth was turned down in an admonishing frown, but all Childe could focus on was the fact that his usual brown coat hung folded from one of his arms, exposing the dress shirt of white silk he wore underneath. Standing like this, polearm held in one hand, he looked every bit the part of Morax , Prime of the Adepti.

 

“Childe, should I ask you what you were attempting to do to that Mitachurl?”

 

“That was,” Childe breathed, “ so cool . I could totally have taken that Mitachurl on my own, but my point stands. Is being cool another of your bullshit adepti abilities? Zhongli, Zhongli, you have to fight me.”

 

Zhongli smiled at him so brilliantly that even the sun, he was sure, was shaking in its boots. “No.”

 

“But - why not?” Childe pleaded, something like a whine in his tone. “You can’t just go around obliterating monsters like that and not let me fight you!”

 

“Actually, I can,” Zhongli pointed out with an amused smirk, and Childe felt his face heat up. “I did not expect to run into you here at this time, though.”

 

“Ah, I couldn’t sleep,” he replied with what he hoped was an easy grin, because he now remembered in full force the reason why he couldn’t sleep, and he was sure that his face was completely red now. “But - uh - why are you here?” he spluttered in an effort to change the topic.

 

“Adepti do not need sleep.”

 

“What?! That’s so unfair. How many more of these bullshit adepti abilities do you have, anyway?”

 

Zhongli considered this, going silent for a while, eyebrows slightly scrunched together in an unfairly adorable thinking expression. Then his expression brightened. “I have just counted. I believe the number adds up to seventy-seven.” 

 

Outwardly, Childe said, “I didn’t think you’d actually count,” and laughed. Inwardly, he was screaming. It really wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t. How could someone be so powerful, so hot , and so cute at the same time? It just wasn’t fair, the way Zhongli’s smile could make his heart do flips.

 

“If you can’t sleep, Childe, then why not join me tonight?” Zhongli suggested. “I plan to take a short walk before returning to the harbour, and perhaps clear a couple of monster camps along the way. Though,” he looked around at the deserted path near them, “I suspect you have already taken care of those in this area.”

 

“Sure did!” Childe grinned. “I completely overpowered them, the rest have all run away in fear.”

 

And at that Zhongli chuckled, and if Childe was a weaker man the low, ringing tones of his laugh would have been enough to make him swoon. “Then I look forward to seeing you in action.”

 

-

They parted a little ways from Yujing Terrace, so late that the sky was already beginning to lighten. Childe, however, had never felt more rejuvenated.

 

“I will see you at lunch later, at the usual place, I hope,” Zhongli smiled. Childe’s face heated up.

 

“Yes! I mean, no -”

 

“Will you not join me?” Zhongli asked, and he looked so disappointed that his expression was nearly a pout. Childe resisted the urge to cup his cheeks in his hands.

 

“Ah, that’s not what I mean, I meant - Zhongli, I want to cook for you. Lunch, I mean,” he managed to get out. “Would you like to have lunch at my place?”

 

“Oh.” Was it a trick of the light, or were Zhongli’s cheeks dusted slightly pink? “I would love to.”