This is not the first time Childe follows Zhongli blindly into the depths of Liyue, but it’s the first time Zhongli is mostly silent.
He is not gloomy or anything, it’s just that neither the weird amber formations nor the suspiciously perfect circle of rocks nor the tempting clear water of a small cave waterfall prompt him to start yet another tale about the land. It doesn’t really worry Childe, not with how Zhongli gives him a smile from time to time, looking over his shoulder to check on him… But it’s strange.
Childe sneaks a glance at the Wangshu Inn left behind far away, shining brightly against the darkening sky, trying to evaluate the distance. They’ve been walking for quite some time now, close to the shore, and with how close Mountain Aozang is getting, Childe wonders whether Zhongli is finally taking him there. For all his passion to show Childe all the Liyue, the mountain is almost never brought up, making it so much more interesting to Childe.
Zhongli’s silence sometimes tells more than his tales.
But it seems that the mountain is not their destination: they keep walking on the barely-trodden path, towards the large rock formations, overgrown with bushy yellow trees. They walk by an empty hilichurl camp, and then by two abandoned treasure hoarders’ posts in a row… Okay, hang on a second…
“I heard this place is usually overrun by treasure hoarders,” Childe says, as they venture forward. A giant tree with a cloud of warm-yellow leaves, very similar to the one atop the Wangshu Inn, is just on the hill not far from them.
“Oh, is it?” Zhongli says, gently brushing his palm against the branch of a little wine-red tree. “Must be their day off.”
“Ri-ight,” Childe drawls out, lips quirking in a smile. As Zhongli leads them through the tricky turns of the path, more and more abandoned campsites are there, equipment carelessly left behind. Zhongli catches his gaze and smiles back, eyes full of mirth.
Childe doesn’t know what surprise can be better than a good opportunity to fight an interesting opponent (and treasure hoarders are hardly ever interesting, so Zhongli has his thanks for dealing with them so thoroughly), but he is sure that out of all the people he knows, Zhongli is the one that can pull such a feat off.
Another turn, and they arrive at the center of this small rocky labyrinth. The thick roots of a tree hug the rock it sits upon, even reaching far enough to hang over the path. It’s getting dark enough to see the fireflies floating slowly here and there, and with the occasional leaf falling from up above, gold seems to spark all around them. No matter where they’re going, the journey is already worth it, Childe decides, catching a leaf between his fingers.
“Over here,” Zhongli calls to him, taking a right turn. Mirroring Zhongli, Childe slows his steps, walking close by his side.
One more shallow turn, and they enter the empty space at the heart of the rock, red bushes all around and thick green vines covering the walls, a little hollow temple to the side. O.. kay?
Childe looks around in confusion. There’s nothing in here. Why did they come here? He puts hands on his hips, turning to look at Zhongli, eyebrows raised in a silent question.
Zhongli… smiles at him with so much warmth. And he says:
Childe does just so and—
“Do you like crystalflies, Childe?” Zhongli asks right over his shoulder, and Childe’s hand jerks too suddenly, making the crystalfly he was slowly reaching for rush away.
Childe watches it disappear over the cliff. “Yeah, I do. Don’t you?” He notices another crystalfly and hops over a small stream to get closer to it.
Zhongli hums thoughtfully, stepping over the stream too. “Just as we are alive, the whole of Liyue is alive, and it is said that in the times long past, the very earth from which Liyue was built, from the smallest rock to the highest mountain, could dream just like you and I do.” The crystalfly hovers above their heads, shimmering brightly even under the strong sun. “And the crystalflies are believed to hold the memories of dreams those mountains had.”
“Oh,” Childe says. “Kinda makes me feel like an ass for wanting to catch them now.”
Zhongli smiles. “Mountains rise, fall, and rise again. And who knows, maybe the next time you catch a crystalfly, you will be able to hear the echo of their dreams.”
Childe glances at the crystalfly once more — and turns around, walking away with hands in his pockets.
“I think I’d rather just watch them, xiansheng. Shame they never really fly in huge groups... I’d love to see that.”
Zhongli doesn’t answer anything, and when Childe sneaks a glance at him, Zhongli looks completely lost in his thoughts, contemplative look on his face.
There’s dozens and dozens of them, idly floating at the entrance above them, bright warm gold against the dark blue of the sky and the pale leaves of the giant tree. There’s so, so many of them, their wings almost brushing against each other.
Childe’s lips part as he stares above, and in an instant, without him even understanding how, he feels so… light, with no more tiredness in his limbs, with no more heaviness in his heart.
There’s a warm weight at the small of his back. Without tearing his gaze away, Childe lets Zhongli lead him and help him sit down. And as they both take their place on a big tree root, the crystalflies descend too, lower and lower and lower, until they’re hovering just no more than an arm’s length away above their heads.
Whenever Childe comes home to his family, he tells them about the places he visited in his journeys. But he doesn’t think he will be able to describe this. He… he doesn’t think he wants to share this. He just wants to sear this moment into his memory forever. Him, here, the countless amber glows above, and—
And Zhongli by his side.
Childe finds it in himself to look at the man.
Zhongli looks so… soft, the ambient light making his hair look shades warmer, making his amber eyes shine brighter. And his smile…
Wordlessly, Zhongli extends his hand — and as if waiting for the invitation, a single crystalfly hovers down, closer and closer… Childe is too fascinated to protest, ready to see it thaw into a crystal core—
Instead, the crystalfly sits down carefully to nest into Zhongli’s open palm.
It just… stays there, weightless wings brushing against Zhongli’s fingers. With how close they sit, bodies angled towards each other, Childe can see every little pattern on the wings, see the barely-there glowing pulsation in its core, almost like there’s a heart made of elemental power beating inside of it.
Childe meets Zhongli’s eyes again, the amber of his irises glowing like never before.
Out of the corner of his eye Childe can see Zhongli’s fingers stroke the fluttering wings before he lets the crystalfly go. It flies away, just shy of touching Childe’s hair with the tip of its wing.
Chaos of thoughts explodes in Childe’s head.
People can’t touch the crystalflies without destroying their energy. Childe has seen others of all kind, humans and not, try to catch one. It doesn’t matter if you have a Vision, it doesn’t matter if you have a corresponding type of Vision, it doesn’t even matter if your elemental powers stem from God directly instead, it doesn’t matter if you’re an adeptus, no one can touch it without destroying, so—
So the only thing Zhongli can be is—
Warm hands wrap around his. Strong thigh presses against him. Gentle gaze doesn’t waver.
... Zhongli is the person he is in love with.
Zhongli is Rex Lapis.
What is he supposed to do with that?
It’s been a week since he last saw Zhongli.
It’s an infuriating maddening experience, for so many reasons, on so many levels.
Childe barely remembers how they parted. He remembers needing to get away, trying to hide the haste of his actions, attempting to keep the smile on his face. How much did Zhongli actually see? Childe used to think him completely clueless about most of the things concerning human interactions. But now? Now he has no idea if Zhongli has ever been clueless about anything.
Childe is torn apart, both about things that have happened — and about things that will happen.
He just can’t decide what to do.
So he avoids Zhongli. He cancels their lunches and dinners and walks, masquerading his complete lack of desire to meet with a made-up tight schedule. He can’t do it indefinitely, he knows that. He just needs more time.
It follows that Zhongli doesn’t give that time to him.
When Zhongli strides in as his 12 o’clock loan appointment, Childe can only blame himself.
They silently stare at each other, neither offering a greeting, before Zhongli finally sighs.
“Do we need to continue to pretend your schedule is actually full? This was getting ridiculous, Childe.”
Childe can only grind his teeth at that. He is ridiculous. Ridiculously blind, since he ended up needing such an eye-opening proof of Zhongli’s godhood after knowing the man for months and not picking up any clues.
Zhongli sighs once again, his shoulders sagging. “Childe, what is happening? Did I offend you in any manner at our outing?” He strolls forward, now standing at the other side of the working desk. “I...” Zhongli pauses, squints at him, gaze roaming over his face. “You haven’t been sleeping enough.”
“Yeah?” Childe can’t help but bite. “What gave it away? Save it,” he immediately adds, seeing the man open his mouth. “Yes, I’m not busy with official business. No, it doesn’t mean I’m not busy at all. And no, my sleeping schedule is not your concern.”
Childe has never talked to Zhongli like that. It’s eerie, it’s almost like watching himself from the sidelines, saying all these spiteful things. And he still doesn’t—
“I dared to hope it was.”
And just like anger is foreign to Childe’s voice, the quiet uncertainty the words are spoken with are foreign to Zhongli’s.
“What?” Childe says, looking at him.
Zhongli has his arms crossed over his chest, but not his usual tight grip. It’s more like he is… holding himself.
“With the way our relationship progressed, I…” Zhongli trails off, uncertainty still in his voice. “I have come to care for you greatly. To worry about when you are hurt, whether it be an injury or a case of sleep deprivation. And I hoped that… my care and concern for you is something you accept. Was I wrong?”
… Damn it. Damn it all to the very heart of the Abyss.
“… Xiansheng…” Childe says, standing up and turning his back towards the man. “You have… no idea how much harder you’re making this.”
Wood creaks under a step. “What do you mean?”
Childe hides his face in his hands, inhaling sharply. He doesn’t know what to say. So he says the truth. “Because I have a choice to make, and I’m running myself into the ground trying to figure out what to do.” Pain builds up in his temples. Fuck. Fuck. He exhales just as sharply and turns to look at Zhongli, letting a bitter smile play on his lips. “I never thought I would have my loyalty to Tsaritsa tested,” he gives a humorless chuckle, “but here we are.”
Zhongli squints at him — and then a look of understanding paints his face.
“Oh, Childe… is this about my Gnosis?”
It feels like a punch to his gut.
“You… you knew?” Anger bubbles anew in him. “Are you… are you fucking serious? You—” Childe takes a deep breath, trying not to break into screaming. “How can you be so idiotic?” Zhongli’s eyes slightly widen at that. “You know I’m here running in circles, searching for Rex Lapis to steal his gnosis, and then you go and just,” Childe makes a wide hand gesture, “show me some freaky geo powers that leave no doubt about your identity. Is there anything in that head of yours?”
Zhongli stays silent for a moment, studying him. Childe must be giving him quite a show, fuming like that, completely having lost his composure…
“What exactly is troubling you about this situation?” Zhongli finally says, and. That’s it. This man is impossible.
“What exactly… are you serious?” Childe fumes. “You flaunt your identity in front of me and you still don’t understand what the problem is? What did you expect me to do? What do you expect me to do?” Childe gestures at the space between them. “Do you expect me to jump over this table right now and rip your gnosis out?”
Once again, this is like a punch, like a direct physical hit.
Their gazes are locked, and where Zhongli’s eyes are unreadable, Childe’s are… He is sure he’s not able to hide anything now. He is angry, he is exhausted, and he is…
He sighs, a short exhale of his anger dissipating.
“No,” he says, quietly. “I won’t. That is the problem.”
Serving Tsaritsa has been freeing. Her will is absolute, and as Tartaglia, he has never had any doubts, he never wavered, never was tempted by anyone or anything to go against her. But now? Now he has to think on his own, to choose between loyalty and… And love. He can’t deny it. It’s love. The very thing his Archon represents can now become the downfall of the mission she entrusted him to fulfill.
Zhongli is silent in his steps, appearing in Childe’s personal space in just a heartbeat. He takes Childe’s palms into his own, grip sure and strong.
“I, indeed, knew of your mission. I was very well aware of who exactly are you from the start,” Zhongli says, making Childe scoff. Right. Of course. No secrets from the god of the land. “But make no mistake: my knowledge does not come from you accidentally revealing yourself in any manner. The truth is,” Zhongli’s grip becomes tighter, his mouth a thin line, “the truth is… I was warned about your arrival by your Tsaritsa.”
Childe stills completely. He dares not breathe. It’s… not happening. No. Not his Tsaritsa. Never her. Why would she..?
Zhongli continues, seemingly as composed as ever. But his grip on Childe’s hands becomes so strong it’s almost bone-crushing.
“There’s a contract in place. Tsaritsa is supposed to help me test Liyue’s strength and unity to see if my people are able to protect themselves without my involvement. And if they prove themselves capable… I will give up my Gnosis to her hands.” Suddenly, Zhongli brings Childe’s hands higher and— leaves a kiss against the knuckles— what— “Do you see now?” Zhongli looks at him, amber eyes bright and honest. “You do not have to choose.”
“Xiansheng…” Childe’s head is spinning, too many thoughts, too many conflicting emotions. He tries to take his hands away but Zhongli doesn’t let him, instead bringing them closer once again and leaving another kiss, lips pressing tight against the fingers. The gesture feels like an act of reverence, and Childe’s throat tightens. “But what if your people fail? The things I have planned, they— I’ve been preparing to go against a god. Do you really think—”
“The people of Liyue have been putting their trust in me for centuries. And now I’m ready to put my trust in them, have them protect the things I cherish the most.” Zhongli lets go of his hands and, before Childe can miss the reassuring warmth, — cups Childe’s face in his palms. “So fulfill your Archon’s mission, Childe, and after all is done, we will meet each other on even ground.”
Childe is not sure who leans in first, he only knows that before now, no one has kissed him as softly as Zhongli does. Why… why does it feel like they’re sealing a contract of their own right now? And why does the thought of being bound to him bring nothing but relief?
They part, Zhongli leaning back, not far, just enough for him to look at Childe and smile at him like he is the thing he cherishes most in his life — and then he leans forward, once more capturing Childe’s lips in a kiss.
Ah. That’s right.
Once again, the answer is love.
“Wo-o-ow,” Paimon sighs, as she and Traveler leave the Northland Bank. “That sure was something, right?”
Lumine only hums in response. La Signora should be glad Lumine is still a bit exhausted after her fight with Childe, otherwise she wouldn’t hesitate to beat the nasty woman into the ground for what she’s done to Venti.
“And you!” Paimon exclaims at Zhongli, accusation clear in her high-pitched voice. “Not very nice of you to hide such big things from us!”
Zhongli nods, surprisingly silent. Actually, he doesn’t pay them any attention at all, instead searching for something in the distance. His eyes zero on something. Lumine traces the line of his gaze and… Huh. So Childe is still in Liyue. From how he wasn’t present for the Gnosis exchange, she assumed he'd already gone to his homeland.
“If you’ll excuse me…” Zhongli says, rather offhandedly, and strides towards Childe, who is leaning against the railing of the bridge, looking at the distance. Lumine watches him go in concern. Is Zhongli looking for a fight? He had a contract with Tsaritsa, sure, but Childe really went overboard with his attempts to destroy the harbor…
Zhongli approaches Childe and—
Oh, Lumine thinks. Oh.
Despite how long she’s lived, she still doesn’t know much about love. But as she watches Zhongli and Childe kiss and hold each other in a tight embrace, she thinks… she thinks that this is how she wants to be kissed when she, someday, somehow, finds a person she can call her home.
And as she walks away, a smile playing on her lips, she finally understands why Zhongli was brave enough to leave his old life behind.
He simply had someone waiting for him in his new one.