He finds him standing at the edge of the pier, red paper parasol in hand. The passers-by stare but none dare approach. Childe walks towards him without hesitation. There are few in Liyue who exude that sort of intimidating, untouchable aura.
In retrospect, this should have been his first sign when they met, on a day like this many months ago, that this man was not for him to pursue, free of consequence.
"Hello, my dear," he says, after he steps up next to the silent figure. Zhongli doesn't move, staring straight ahead at the moon rising over the water. His pifeng jacket is a sheer black, decorated with golden peonies, and the robes underneath an understated ivory and brown, held together by a black yaodai with shimmering gold accents. His hair is held up in a bun with a jade pin that catches the light every time the lanterns sway, as does the blue gem-studded tassel earring glittering on one ear. He is no more overdressed than Skybracer's lantern is ostentatious, fitting in the moment underneath a million lanterns that blaze overhead.
"You're just in time," Zhongli says, looking ahead.
"For the lanterns?" Childe asks.
The shadow of the parasol shifts slightly, before Childe realizes the weight against his shoulder is Zhongli's warmth.
"Perhaps," Zhongli hums. The world around them shifts, the stage being set for Skybracer's launch. A cheer goes up from the children near the docks, rapturous in their delight at the decorated lanterns that someone has decided to animate with Anemo, just before the finale act.. Childe's gaze flits towards them, and then back to Zhongli. His eyes are so warm, almost paternal in their gaze towards the people. It's suffocating.
"You haven't crafted any Xiao Lanterns, then?" Zhongli asks, never once looking his way. He tries to not think much about that. Childe laughs dryly.
"I highly doubt any prayers I have would be welcomed by the adepti of this land." A finger brushes his nose — a nervous habit.
"The adepti listen to every prayer, regardless of whether they come from children or sinners." Zhongli looks towards him, bright cinnabar lined eyes staring into his soul. "Granting them is not always within their power."
Childe wonders, before all this is over, how many times he will be found wanting. "It was my impression that you would need to be worthy of a blessing, to be able to use it."
"A fickle thing, worth," Zhongli muses, looking away towards the sea again. "The market prices drop, and so does the price of life. But one can be measured, and the other cannot."
"You speak in riddles again, xiansheng."
"Objectively, I mean that I do not understand why someone as religious as you are would not believe in the power of prayer, or that the Archons may distribute their gifts charitably."
There is no charity under the rule of the Tsaritsa, only power. There is nothing he may achieve with prayer that he cannot grasp with his own hands. Nothing is real, or everything is, and he can only be sure of his own abilities — but his words fail him. The sizzling fireworks and the chatter of the crowd are white noise around him.
And yet —
"I pray for nothing," he says, heart thundering in his chest with the admission, "that I do not have right here."
He thinks Zhongli hasn't heard him at first. Then the Skybracer lantern launches itself into the sky, the world exploding into color and light. A chorus of voices, the crowd on the bridge surrounds them, gasping and pointing. A child on someone's shoulder jostles the two of them, pulling just so at Childe's hair, but he can only see Zhongli's eyes follow the little family, his own gaze drawn towards the little child, the woman at the man's side. He thinks of a universe where he would be that man, passing by without having ever known —
— without ever having dared —
"Ajax," Zhongli says.
Childe breaks out of his stupor. He doesn't meet Zhongli's eyes. Does not want to think about the scenario he had laid out, or how it makes him unable to breathe, lungs being crushed in his chest.
"I don't know about the adepti granting wishes," he says. "But I haven't denied you anything yet, have I? You can ask me for anything."
There is an urgency to Zhongli's tone, that feels almost out of place. "Look at me, then."
He raises his eyes to Zhongli's face, smiling wryly. "When have I ever looked elsewhere?"
Zhongli's lips part. The crowd surges, and he angles his parasol elegantly to conceal them against the crowd when he pulls Childe towards himself. He feels the cool hand on his cheek, as trustworthy as stone, as constant as the gravel under his feet, before he feels the cool lips underneath his.
"I prayed." Zhongli admits, the tang of him sharp against his mouth. "Selfish of me, perhaps."
Childe chooses to not comment on the perceived selfishness of a god who had looked after his people for millennia. "And?"
Zhongli pulls away, and Childe wishes he could commit the tingle of his lips, the sight of his face lit up by a million lanterns and the moon overhead in this moment to his memory for ever.
"I was answered," he says simply. "Let us go home."
The layers trip him up every time. Zhongli only looks amused when he struggles with the belt, and makes no move to help him. If he must insist on ravishing a former god, he must follow protocol, he supposes. He wrenches it open finally, as carefully as possible, and the discarded pifeng lying around Zhongli like a decadent chocolate wrapper laughs at his wretched efforts with the inner robes.
"Patience," Zhongli chides him, running a hand through Childe's hair, slowly unclipping the mask from the side. It is such a practiced, natural movement — Childe tries to not think of the implications of how much he wants Zhongli to do that every day. He feels naked without it, without even having taken his clothes off. "There's no hurry."
"Xiansheng is hardly ever as eager as I am, I know," he huffs out, pulling away to compose himself.
Zhongli frowns at this, and Childe finds a hand on his chin, tilting it up to meet Zhongli's eyes. "I know that we are accustomed to a faster pace for every rendezvous, Childe. However —"
"However?" Childe prompts. Zhongli's pause almost stretches on too long, and he sighs. "Kotyk, I can't read your mind — you know I could just head back to the Bank now, right? There's no pressure, I'm sure some of the Snezhnayan clients will be around, despite the rite going on."
"I would not be opposed to you staying the night." Zhongli replies, almost before he can finish.
All the blood that already hasn't rushed to his dick is now swirling in his head. Dizzily, Childe stops to think if Zhongli understands the effects of his words. He must. His next moves are slower, drawn out, and Zhongli leans in obligingly at every touch. The last robe falls open, leaving Zhongli in a simple red baofu, and nothing underneath.
He reaches out to tug at the strings, and Zhongli sedately starts to unbutton the front of his jacket.. This is familiarity — hitting a little too hard at how easy he finds it to not armor himself in front of the one person who has arguably found him at his most vulnerable. He bites his lips, and Zhongli noses along his collarbone as his jacket falls upon. He draws away from the last set of strings, and shrugs out of it, and Zhongli tugs at his sleeves, helping him instead of bothering with how increasingly sloven he looks in the half-tied baofu.
"Your clothes are far more complicated than mine," Zhongli says, a hint of annoyance creeping into his words. Childe would almost call the tone impatient, if not for what he said before. "Must your pants be so tight?"
Childe slips out of them, brushing them to the floor, and leans over him. "Mine hardly matter, considering how xiansheng has better assets to show."
"That's — oh," Zhongli says, following the line of his sight, and finally, finally untying the baofu. It lies across his lap, tantalizing, and Childe leans in to kiss Zhongli, brushing the fabric upwards like the spill of blood, revealing how aroused he is from the extra attention of silk on skin.
Childe doesn't know how he could not have seen it sooner, how Zhongli's veins flow with gold and how his arms twine around his neck like the steep outcrop of cliffs, a sensation obvious even with the protecting cover of his clothes, and far more without. Back then, he had thought nothing of the texture of his hands outside of how deliciously scandalous it was to kiss the funeral consultant's palm in public, with the people watching warily.
Now, a shiver passes through Zhongli when Childe kisses the dip of his elbow, and he takes the gift for what it is. Childe's breath stutters when he finds it soft, a contrast to how it looks as solid as basalt, the skin warm and the veins light up like lanterns strewn against moonless Liyue nights.
"Zhongli-xiansheng," he says, and marvels at how Zhongli doesn't meet his eyes, head-on, lovely, irregular cor lapis fixated on the wall behind him. "Won't you spare me a glance or two? Tell me how you find me?"
"I find you…" Zhongli pauses. "Reckless."
Childe laughs, and presses a kiss to the back of his knee. "Go on."
"Impudent," he breathes, as Childe takes the chance to press his leg back, trail kisses up his shin. "A rake."
"A rake!" Childe's chortle is loud, and his breaths flutter against the warmth of one rapidly darkening basalt leg. "And pray tell, how did you come to this conclusion?"
"The traveler tells me of your escapades frequently. The ones you sweet-talk, the ones overdue on their payments, sometimes both," Zhongli says, barely a hitch in his voice as Childe presses against his entrance with two curious fingers, finding it pliant under the pressure. He slips both in with ease. "You were planning to return to the bank, to repeat the process, were you not? And here you are, locked in combat with me instead."
"Is that what this is?" The traveler is a little snitch, he decides, but it's nothing he hadn't expected.
Zhongli hums, raising one careful, manicured fingernail to Childe's lips, grazing across it. Childe exhales, and catches it in between his teeth, and watches how Zhongli's pupils dilate in his lovely face, flush deepening. He sinks back further against the stark red of the pillows, and Childe looks back at the mane of his hair and has the most urgent desire to pull. A battle of wills, of Zhongli's careful placidity and Childe's passion.
Patience, he thinks. He is allowed to take his time.
"You know best, Tartaglia," Zhongli replies. He does not make any effort to retrieve his finger. Childe bends, and bites another one, uncertain. He lets the other leg fall across his thigh, and grabs Zhongli's wrist with his unoccupied hand. Zhongli still does not protest when he twines his fingers with his own, and pushes the fair hand down on the bed, pinning it between his palm and the crimson sheets. Sacrilegious, he thinks, to hold down a god who is a god no more.
Sacrilegious, to want to suffocate him with the color so stark against his skin.
"In Fontaine, they associated red with adultery for a time," Zhongli says, following his vision. The slow half lidded way he stares at their entwined hands, and glances back at him, the red under his eyes as prominent and perfect as ever. "Those who were accused were made to wear the color in public."
Childe sucks on his fingers once more, before pulling away. "What happened to them?"
"Execution. Public humiliation. The days were dark before the courts of Fontaine came into existence, and with them, came the flawless ideals of the Archon who bestowed you your Vision." There's a metaphor here that Childe doesn't care to examine, choosing to watch the way Zhongli undulates under him, instead, his now free hand clutching the sheets too. "In the days before, the punishment doled out to adulterers were the same as murderers. Now… the creatures are defanged, and the color considered blameless."
"In Fontaine, perhaps. In Snezhnaya, colors are the root of sin, and the lack of it breeds discipline. Beauty is in the beholder's eyes, and yet -" The Tsaritsa, snow white and blue, a frozen wasteland of a person who glitters like her element. Zhongli, bathed in gold and laid down on red. So much red. Childe kisses his wrist, and then flicks out his tongue to feel the pulse of a god. "- In Snezhnaya, we would call you krasivyy."
Childe would call him that now, to his face, if he dared.
He hums, pushing his fingers inside further, making Zhongli squirm with every single push and pull. Zhongli is at once rigid and soft, mother of pearl and oyster flesh. His dark limbs phase in and out, almost prehensile in the way they throb. Childe muses if he can dig into those visible veins with his fingers, pull them apart with his hands and put pieces of himself in every crack.
"An derivative of red, which used to be written — identically," Zhongli notes, like he's not writhing down on two fingers. "I may be wrong, since I have not had the pleasure of knowing a Snezhnayan in a while." A beat passes, and two turns to three, now that Childe savagely pushes another in. Zhongli's expression barely changes, his breaths still utterly under control. "Did I overstep?"
Childe laughs again, the sourness spreading in his mouth bordering on unpleasant. "I should hope not. You say the most awful things with that mouth, meelyi moy. Eyes on me."
"Petulant," his paramour says, and the hypocrisy of it all makes Childe muffle his snickers into his thigh again, this time letting go of the hand with great reluctance to lift up both of Zhongli's legs, pulling his fingers away. Zhongli doesn't protest at that either, but the corners of his lips turn down, red like an open wound that shouldn't be there.
Childe wants him so much that he feels the desire ringing in his teeth. "Is that all?"
Zhongli shakes his head, the movement tipping up his chin further, showcasing the lovely line of bites down his throat. "I didn't sleep with him, if that's what you were insinuating."
"It isn't my business what you were doing with a Snezhnayan three centuries ago." Childe says, tone flat. Zhongli tilts his head on the pillow, assessing him with blazing golden eyes, slowly pulls his leg towards himself, dragging Childe further in, the front seam of his underwear brushing against Zhongli's cock.
"He wasn't into much but beautiful women," Zhongli murmurs, raising his hand to run his fingers down the seam, and it takes Childe all his carefully cultivated patience to hold back from thrusting into the movement.
"One of Rex Lapis' myriad forms."
Zhongli's eyes are half-lidded in amusement. "Just so, and yet I found that any unwanted seduction on a man's side tends to fail when faced with the Wrath of the Rock."
"I'm delighted to know that my countrymen have had questionable scruples for years before I was born." Childe eases himself out of his boxers, and Zhongli drags his hand away, carefully watching the awkward shuffle before his cock is out. "A pity that he could not appreciate the gift for what it was."
"No more than any other country's men."
"You share your gifts too freely, xiansheng." He pulls at his hydro energy, lathering himself in it. "Someone's going to misunderstand."
"He could've been your great, great grandfather, if I so desired," Zhongli replies mildly, "but alas, he didn't have your glorious nose."
"My best trait," Childe agrees. "Oh, to be desired by Rex Lapis for your glorious nose." He presses the aforementioned nose against Zhongli's, bending down to brush a kiss against those tempting lips. One hand rests against the side of Zhongli's head and the other holds up his thigh, as Childe presses his cock inside.
"Retired," Zhongli reminds him, but accepts it all anyway, in his boundless mercy. Childe is the one who partakes, he is reminded constantly. Takes, and can never give back. Zhongli's inner walls clamp down on him, and his tongue is in Zhongli's mouth. There is a singular moment of stillness, where all he can hear again is white noise, the fireworks outside, the laughter of people assembled in Yujing Terrace, before he's brought down to earth by the languid pace of their intimacy shifting to something fiercer.
Zhongli is kissing him back with a ferocity he didn't expect, like he's the one who delights in Childe's blasphemy. His head rises off the pillow, dark hair sticking to the back of his neck. It's the change of seasons, the sharp chill of winter still in the air, and yet it is sweltering in here, windows shut, air still. A closed box against the world outside. Childe's knees graze harshly against the wood of the bed, through the thin mattress again as he thrusts in, more confident in the movement, and Zhongli's hold on him tightens. There is a faint vibration under his skin, which he realizes is Zhongli shaking all over.
Zhongli's almost catlike pupils are blown wide when Childe looks up, a thin ring of gold surrounding black, an eclipse in human form. The soft hair framing his face glows with Geo elemental energy, floating with it.
I caused this, Childe thinks, delirious and drunk on power, gentled only by the sheer depth of emotion in him that threatens to burst through and ruin everything in this moment. He shuts his eyes tight and tucks his head against the crook of Zhongli's neck, leaning forward until his back almost aches with the stretch, still buried deep in him, rocking in slightly. Childe doesn't know how to come back down from this high, from desperately wondering how long he gets to keep this.
"Ajax?" Zhongli asks softly, voice raw. "Still with me?"
"I'm here, kotyk." He lifts his head to look at him again, and deliberately kisses the inside of Zhongli's palm. "How could I leave?"
"I've spoiled you," Zhongli gasps, laughter in his tone as Childe thrusts back in again, "You answer questions with questions."
"But you know the answers, moë zoloto." The bed shifts with the movement, the creak obvious every time he slams in. Zhongli claws and tears at the sheets, his skin glowing brighter with every step, gold against black pulsing and crackling in rhythmic beats with Childe's erratic heart. The most vibrant of golds suffuses his face, and Childe wonders if this too, is part of the Geo power he has cultivated for millennia.
"You're staring," Zhongli notes. He lets Childe maul his neck and his chest, tugging at his nipples with his teeth, almost fond in stroking his hair despite every little gasp he lets out. "Perhaps I should have kept the glamour. It tends to startle."
"The glamour," Childe starts, and it clicks. The way his skin feels when he thumbs over it with one free hand. "The gold is…"
"Dragon ichor tends to look different, as you can see," Zhongli explains. His eyes are steady still, heavy with arousal and yet serious. Ready to pull away, if Childe reacted even remotely negatively.
Like Childe would let him. Zhongli's body seizes up with the next motion, an actual scream tearing from him as Childe calls upon his Riptide mark again, as he recalls everything he can to give the draconic entity under him what it wants. In this moment they are almost mortal, chasing the simplest of pleasures. The easiest connection between hearts and bodies.
"I enjoy it," Childe confesses, and something in Zhongli's face goes relaxed, content in a way that he has never seen, that makes his heart throb and sing. His noises go up a notch, and Childe makes sure to graze the angle he knows feels best, aiming downwards. Zhongli claws at his back, leaving deep indents, drawing blood like a sacrificial animal on the altar of a foreign god.
The old fogies in Fontaine were right. Everything about this moment feels stolen, illicit. Something he will always be unworthy of. Except that every shared breath feels like Zhongli wants him there, like he has chosen him, like it was never just about what he could do for him.
"I enjoy you," Zhongli whispers, like a secret that no one will ever know but him, not in this land he is meant to tear apart one day, and for a while he pretends it can stay this way. That he can kiss and pledge himself away to anything other than his duty, that he will one day not be the eye of the storm and find the most fulfillment in battle, that this feral dance and choke of limbs and sweat is all he will ever need.
He hisses out his pleasure into the sheets, and Zhongli flips him over with a smooth motion, bearing down on him, the golden glow of him blinding him. Zhongli's eyelashes brush his cheeks as he leans down to kiss Childe, grinding down against him as Childe's nerve endings burn with oversensitivity, spent and still wanting everything, all of him he can get his hands on.
"I thought you told me to be patient," he breathes, stuttering with laughter as Zhongli rides him, snapping his hips up like the ocean meeting the shore. Crashing against placid rocks, torn by the current.
"That was on your part, not mine," Zhongli states, leaning back to let the shock of the Riptide mark wash over him, shuddering through one orgasm and into another, clutching him tight.
The waves crash on and on.
Childe wakes up to the scent of food wafting into the room, his mouth watering. He stretches slowly, turning over in bed and pushing back the covers. The room is neat, his old clothes nowhere to be seen, but a new change of clothes are laid out on the bedside table. They are not his — when he raises them to his nose, they smell faintly of a silkflower variant that is all too familiar to him. His heart swells.
"Xiansheng, are you making breakfast?" he yells out the open door, and hears the shifting of chairs.
"I have," Zhongli says evenly, voice somehow carrying into the room. "Are you dressed?"
Childe eyes the clothes again, the smile on his face doubling in size. "Getting on that now!"
Zhongli is sitting sedately on one of the vintage set of chairs that Childe remembers buying several months ago, his hair tied back and wearing nothing but a white nightrobe that feels almost incongruous with the dated elegance of the dining table. Childe had barely checked the house when he had come in last night, desperate to get every single scrap of fabric off Zhongli, but now he catalogs all the scents in this room. The smell of laundry, just a room away. The bedroom he had left, soaked in their combined sweat, even after Zhongli had evidently changed the sheets. The food on the table, piping hot. It's as if Zhongli had known when he would wake, and had laid out the array of jianbing guozi next to a bowl of clear soup with white dumplings in it. Childe's eyebrows reach his hairline.
"I didn't know you could make these at home," he says, washing his hands at the sink and then pulling out a chair, leaning forward to sniff the pancakes. They smell heavenly, and his stomach rumbles in response. "We've only ever had these at the stalls."
"...I surmised that they were a favorite of yours," Zhongli says stiffly. Childe looks up from inserting the jianbing into his mouth. There is a moment of silence, while he tries to decipher what Zhongli can possibly mean by not meeting his eyes, and then he sees the golden crackling glow in his cheeks, the shifting black basalt underneath.
Childe's observations start to come together — the table set for two, complete with cutlery, the matching mugs on the counter, all the little ways he had inserted himself into this house over the course of a year. He looks at the yuanxiao dumplings, then at Zhongli, and fights back a smile.
"I'm surprised you think I count as family," he says casually.
"We may not have formalized it, but yes," is the reply, and Childe sees him, all of him — the ancient, fragile once-god at the breakfast table, waiting on an answer from a mayfly love to a question he doesn't know how to ask.
His eyes are bright and terrible in their hope. Childe's heart lurches and swells again. "There is but one kind of contract that pledges mortal loyalty to each other, Zhongli-xiansheng."
"There is no rule in Liyue that decrees that foreigners cannot marry in," Zhongli states, meeting his eyes this time, voice low. Childe considers this, and nods.
"Aren't you going to ask?"
"Would you answer with a question?"
"Does it matter?" Childe postulates. He picks up a dumpling, and pops it into his mouth, chewing thoughtfully, as his heart does somersaults. "You know the nature of my job. You know what god I have pledged my abilities to. And you know what my answer should be."
Zhongli doesn't say anything. For a while, Childe wonders if he had finally pushed too far. It can't get anywhere. They both know this, and yet —
"I cannot measure the breadth of human emotions," Zhongli begins, voice unsteady. A hand folds over Childe's own, across the table. "I cannot read your mind. I do not understand individual desire the same way you do. Perhaps I never will."
"Are you trying to make me reconsider the breadth of your feelings, or humanity's?" Childe clasps his hand playfully. "Regardless of my past pledges, you would take the risk?"
"As Rex Lapis, I would need to consider the implications on the political landscape of Liyue. As Zhongli," an intake of breath — "I want you to come home to me at the end of the day, regardless of the consequences."
Childe can't help it. He laughs.
What a pair of selfish, selfish bastards they are.
"You already know my answer, Zhongli," he replies.
"For clarity's sake," Zhongli insists, leaning over the table. "Ajax?"
Childe has never looked away. "I told you that you could ask me for anything." He meets him halfway. "My xiansheng."
The dumplings are sweeter with the aftertaste of Zhongli's mouth, pressing gratitude and the word neither of them dare name against his.