At fourteen, Childe’s dream was to seek adventure, something more fantastical and more meaningful than the sleepy life Moresepok could give him. He tried acting on that dream, tried to defy his destiny, by sneaking away from home, only to find out the gods had never planned a restful life for him after all when the Abyss found him. By the time he left the Abyss, that childhood dream of his had long since faded, replaced instead by a love for battle and the turbulent soul that would one day become Tartaglia, the Tsaritsa’s eleventh harbinger.
The Abyss had taken away many things — his dreams, his hesitance, his normalcy — but it had given him strength. This strength is what Childe uses to protect the dreams of others, because he knows all too well just how painfully a dream can shatter.
It’s strange. He remembers his mother tucking him into bed when he was a child and telling him that family meant giving someone a dream and protecting it until the end. His own dream had been crushed in a single slash of Skirk’s sword and his family had been unable to do anything about it.
Snezhnaya tells him to put family first; his father accuses Childe of tearing their family apart, as if it isn’t Childe who tells Teucer the stories his father once told him of brave adventurers and terrifying monsters, as if it isn’t Childe who teaches Anthon how to lace up his skates and carefully glide across a frozen lake, as if it isn’t Childe who writes long letters to Tonia to satisfy her curiosity about all the places he’s seen and people he’s met.
It is Childe who gives his siblings dreams, and it is Childe who defends them. When Childe learns Teucer prefers the Ruin Guards to the adventurers, he stops reading from storybooks and begins to create his own stories. Childe uses his first Fatui paycheck to buy Anthon a new pair of ice skates to replace the pair that was handed down from their oldest brother. Tonia shyly asks him if he can read the story she wrote of a knight from Snezhnaya who travels to all the cities Childe has seen, and he leaves her an excited review.
So what if Childe’s love for the battlefield is tucked into his heart in the space next to his love for his family? If family truly does come first, then are the Fatui agents he sees more often than his blood relatives not his family as well? Is it wrong to respect the Tsaritsa more than he respects his parents after their relationship soured when he was fourteen?
Seven months before Childe is named the Eleventh Harbinger, when Childe is still rapidly climbing the ranks of the Fatui and carving a name for himself and his insatiable appetite for battle, he comes back home to Morepesok.
Childe knows his siblings worry for his safety. His parents and older siblings know better than to extract demands from a Fatui agent, but his younger siblings still believe in family first, still believe that Childe is part of their family. So it isn’t a surprise when Tonia hesitantly clasps her hands over Childe’s and asks for him to promise he’ll always return safely home.
“You know I will,” he says with a laugh. He knows he’s strong enough for this to be a fact rather than unearned confidence. “Do you want to make a pinkie promise?”
Pinkie promises are sacred, and yet Tonia shakes her head. “I want it to be something you can carry with you to remind you of us.”
Childe raises his eyebrows in confusion as he tries to think of something tangible that can take the form of a promise. Of course Tonia was more practical; after all, it was Teucer and occasionally Anthon who loved pinkie promises and the weight they carried.
But a promise still has to be sealed with something. He thinks of how Tonia’s stories always feature princesses with golden bracelets and pearl necklaces and how their mother would scold Childe for hours if he brought home something overly expensive and unreasonable.
The following day, Childe brings Tonia to the small jewelry store in their village.
“A pair of earrings,” Childe explains, “for me to always remember you and our family and Morepesok. So I’ll always return home safely, and so you’ll stay safe as well.”
Tonia beams. They select pairs of studs to wear, and Childe even promises to buy her a fancier pair of earrings once she’s able to transition to heavier earrings. When the store owner pierces his ears, Childe successfully represses the yelp that he desperately wants to shout at the prick of pain in his ear. Tonia sits through the process with more grace, her grip on Childe’s hand tightening for a brief moment before she confesses the process wasn’t bad at all.
Perhaps Childe isn’t the strongest one in their family after all. The thought makes him swell with pride.
Their mother only scolds Childe for half an hour before his sister assures her that she’ll diligently clean her piercings. Their mother sighs and says she’s not worried about Tonia, and instead thinks it’s Childe who’s going to forget to take care of them. After another hour of lecturing, Childe doesn’t think he can ever forget to take care of his piercings properly.
He leaves Morepesok with thrice the amount of disinfectant he needs. His latest post is a solitary one, and Childe’s cicins flit around his face while he tries to clean his piercings, accidentally knocking a full bottle of disinfectant out of his hands in their attempt to help him. As Childe sweeps up the remains of his glass stopper, he makes a note to himself to thank his mother for the extra cleaning fluid after all.
The next time Childe returns to Morepesok, he wears the mantle of his new title from Her Majesty the Tsaritsa and bears the news of being sent to Liyue Harbor indefinitely for his first mission as a Harbinger.
“Big Brother is so strong if you’re being sent to the other side of Teyvat,” Anthon marvels.
Childe ruffles his brother’s hair and decides to not tell him he’s fairly certain he got the Liyue post because the other Harbingers want him as far away as possible.
There are other reasons too of course. Childe believes his strength can bring him almost anywhere, and Liyue’s Archon is the eldest of them all with six thousand years of experience in battle to his name. It would be an honor to have the chance to fight him. The red mask the Tsaritsa gifted him was a reminder of the dragon he slayed before Ajax truly became Tartaglia, and it burns a hole in his pocket as he anticipates the next dragon he’s been asked to slaughter.
But most of all, she said she chose him because he values promises, and a promise fulfilled is a contract fulfilled. And in a land of contracts, where residents sought out loopholes and placed Mora above all else, the Tsaritsa wants to see what Childe — bold, rash Childe — will do.
“Morax has always appreciated someone who can keep their word,” the Tsaritsa had told him, her cold eyes glinting from where she sat atop her throne. “My dear Tartaglia, I have faith that you’ll carry out your part.”
He knows his parents are secretly glad he won’t be causing anymore trouble in Snezhnaya for the foreseeable future. His older siblings are openly glad he won’t be causing anymore trouble in Snezhnaya for the foreseeable future, but all Childe needs to do to quiet them is wave his latest bank statement in the air and remind them of who paid off their house’s mortgage.
He just wishes he didn’t have to bid farewell to his younger siblings. Tonia will no doubt continue writing letters to him, but there are only so many things that can be written on a sheet of paper. Childe knows Tonia made the promise with him because she still remembers when Ajax disappeared for three days and Tartaglia returned without any light shining in his eyes. Anthon and Teucer were too young to understand that Childe wasn’t the same as when he left, but they’ve learned enough from their family to demand pinkie promises from Childe so he’ll come back home as soon as he’s finished his mission.
After all, if Childe has fallen into the Abyss at the edges of Morepesok, then what terrors would a land like Liyue hold for him? What would they do to him there?
(He doesn’t tell them the real question to ask is what he’ll do to Liyue in his quest to kill a god. There are dreams he needs to protect and he wouldn’t help anyone by sharing his truths.)
Childe’s much stronger now than he was at fourteen. He presses a jewelry box into his sister’s palms and watches her face light up at the sight of the sapphire earrings he bought her to complete part of their promise. He hooks one pinkie with Anthon’s and the other with Teucer’s, the three of them chanting the terms of their pinkie promise into existence. Childe even smiles and tells Teucer that the Liyue Institute of Toy Research will soon be very busy, and he ignores the voice of his traitorous heart that says a liar can’t defend anyone’s dreams but his own.
“We’ll look after our family,” Tonia says, “so take care of yourself.”
“I’ll come back to our family safely,” Childe promises, and then he’s off to Zapolyarny Palace to finish his final preparations for his post in Liyue.
His siblings wave him goodbye, their arms flapping wildly as they holler their goodbyes. It is this scene Childe carves into his heart as he pictures his farewell to Snezhnaya, and as Childe leans over the railing of his boat to Liyue with this image in mind, his lips curve into a wide smile at the warmth of being loved.
Liyue is filled with sunshine. It is an exaggeration to say that Snezhnaya only has frigid winters without a sliver of light, but Liyue is warm in all the ways Snezhnaya is not. It rains more often than it snows, and the skies are clear more often than they’re clouded. Here, Childe’s seasonal enemy is humidity instead of ice.
It is not just the sun that greets him with a sunny disposition; shopkeepers flash wide smiles at him and wave him over to display their wares. The people of Teyvat have long learned to regard the Fatui with suspicion and distrust, but Childe spends his first week in Liyue loitering around the Harbor and pretending to be a tourist fleeing from the harsh winters of Snezhnaya. His mask remains tucked away in his pocket, and no one is none the wiser.
This will inevitably change when Childe begins reporting to work at Northland Bank and when he begins to proudly display his mask in his hair. Childe has seen how fast someone’s attitude changes when his ties to the Fatui are revealed; he’s seen smiles grow brittle at the edges when shopkeepers notice the Fatui insignia on his uniform. Liyue Harbor may be the city of commerce with a prominent bank run by the Fatui, but no one in Teyvat likes the Fatui, whether they bring good business or not.
That is a problem for the future. Right now, Childe strides over to where Wanmin Restaurant has opened for breakfast. The sun is peeking out from the silhouette of Guyun Stone Forest, casting sparkles across the water while Liyue Harbor slowly swells to life.
The man in front of him receives his order with a smile before reaching into the pocket of his coat to retrieve his wallet. His smile quickly morphs into a frown as he frantically slips his hands into the pocket on the other side of his coat and then the pockets of his pants. Each time, his gloved hands return with no Mora.
“I sincerely apologize Chef Mao, but it seems I have forgotten my wallet,” the man says with a sigh.
Childe has to cover his lips with his hand to attempt to stifle the laughter that threatens to bubble out of his throat. How could someone only realize they forgot their Mora after they had placed their order?
The man’s eyes are filled with longing as he stares at what could have been his breakfast. He tears his eyes away, nodding at Childe so he can step forward and place his order for breakfast. And Childe knows he’s strong, knows that he could have only survived the Abyss and become the Eleventh Harbinger if he had strength, but looking into the man’s golden eyes sends his heart aflutter and makes him feel so incredibly weak.
“If you don’t mind,” Childe cuts in, “I’ll pay for his order along with a bowl of congee.”
He offers Chef Mao enough Mora to cover both of their orders and insists on leaving a tip as per Snezhanya’s customs. The stranger rewards Childe’s kindness with a smile, and he gratefully picks up their tray of food before gesturing for Childe to follow him to the empty table at the back of the restaurant. All Childe can do is trail after him and pretend the glow of his smile wasn’t enough to knock him off his feet.
“Thank you,” the man says, his lips still curved in that beautiful smile. “I am sorry to have inconvenienced you by forgetting my Mora, but if you follow me to Wangsheng Funeral Parlor after we finish eating, I can pay you back.”
Childe waves him off. “There’s no need to pay me back! I bought you breakfast and now you’re here enjoying it with me, and that’s payment enough.”
“That is an uneven deal skewed in my favor,” he insists. His brows are furrowed as he pouts, and the sight makes Childe want to turn around and flee back to Snezhnaya because his heart can’t take this. He is one of the Tsaritsa’s Harbingers who feels most at home with two hydro blades in his hands as he dances across a battlefield, and yet here he is, reduced to a blushing mess because he bought a stranger breakfast.
“Then you can tell me your name,” Childe suggests. He hopes he isn’t being too obvious.
The man tilts his head in thought. “I would like to know yours as well,” he admits. “But then that is still unequal. A name is not a fair exchange for a meal.”
Childe laughs. “It’s only courtesy to share my name after you’ve given yours. That’s a kind of contract too, isn’t it? And there’s no need to worry about repaying me at all. This is something I wanted to do.”
“Fair enough,” he relents. His golden eyes pierce through Childe’s heart as he readies his answer. “My name is Zhongli.”
“Nice to meet you Zhongli-xiansheng,” Childe says with a crooked grin. “I’m Childe.”
Childe shares a brief description of this encounter with Tonia in his next letter. His sister is generous enough to pretend Childe didn’t spend eight paragraphs gushing about the rich amber of Zhongli’s eyes and the soothing lull of his deep voice.
Our family hopes that you’re enjoying your time in Liyue Harbor, Tonia’s letter starts. Childe chuckles at her greeting; she knows just as well as he does that half of their family couldn’t care less. He forges on.
Staying out of danger may be hard for the “Greatest Toy Salesman in Snezhnaya,” so Anthon and Teucer asked if they could make our promise between all four of us instead. Anthon says more is always better, so another promise means you’ll definitely come home safely. We got you a new pair of earrings to seal the deal and everything. We were saving for a while, but we couldn’t make it in time before you left home.
The letter had arrived with a small box the size of Childe’s fist. Childe cracks the lacquered jewelry box open, and his breath catches in his throat at the sight of two golden beads and a blood-red ruby in the shape of a teardrop dangling on each earring.
Earrings like these would cost at least three months worth of allowance from all three of them, and that’s already factoring in the hefty sum of money he sends back to his family every month. He’s struck with a bout of homesickness, and not for the first time, Childe wonders if it would be so awful to stop fighting and to act like the big brother they deserve.
The conclusion to that train of thought is always the same: yes, it would be, because the Abyss has taken so much and given him things he didn’t ask for, and now all Childe can do as their big brother is to fight for the might of Snezhnaya and for Her Majesty.
Childe replaces the stud on his left ear with one of the ruby earrings. He may be strong, but there’s a tear in his scarf from a battle against a camp of treasure hoarders, and he only bought the scarf two weeks ago. Childe is too headstrong and reckless, and it shows in the number of times he’s needed to mend his uniform and polish the blood off his mask
This gift from Anthon, Teucer, and Tonia is too important to risk. He resolves to wear one earring and to keep his original stud in his other ear. His reflection in the mirror doesn’t look bad, and he silently pats himself on the back for being able to pull off the asymmetrical look.
This time in his letter to Tonia, he spends a whole sheet of paper thanking them all profusely for their gift and assuring Anthon and Teucer he’ll send them gifts with the same significance as Tonia’s earrings so Childe upholds their promise. He’d been wanting a nicer pair of earrings for a while now and hadn’t had an opportunity to look for a new pair, and now Childe has a beautiful pair filled with more meaning than any set he could have purchased in all of Teyvat.
Childe has promised to return home safely, and family means keeping the promises you’ve made. The dreams of his siblings hang from his ear and remind him he has a family to return home too.
But family also means Childe is allowed to embarrass his younger siblings. He tacks on a short story of how he ran into Zhongli again at another restaurant, this time for lunch, before they were formally acquainted through work. Isn’t it wonderful that he can now see Zhongli even more?
Childe is Teyvat’s Best Big Brother. He doesn’t want his siblings to worry over a question they may not know how to answer. He magnanimously answers yes, it’s truly amazing to eat lunch with Zhongli.
The next letter Tonia sends him features no words at all. Instead, Childe is given a drawing of a crudely drawn figure with orange hair and hearts for eyes. Childe compliments her artistry before telling her Zhongli took him to watch a traditional Liyuean opera performance.
Childe’s problem is this:
Zhongli always forgets his wallet, and the look of shock on his face is too damn adorable that Childe always caves in and pays for his purchases even though he swears each one will be the last. Childe has booked three reservations a week at Liuli Pavilion for the next three months, and they’re all because the first time they managed to secure a table there, Zhongli had swooned over the first bite of their Tianshu Meat. The numbers of glares he gets from the people have even lessened because the whole Harbor views him as Zhongli’s wallet on legs.
Childe’s problem is this:
Each time Childe offers to pay for something Zhongli was eyeing, Zhongli’s face lights up with that beautiful, beautiful smile, and Childe can’t find a single shred of regret over funding his purchase. When Childe treats Zhongli to lunch, he’s repaid with a fascinating story on the history of Liyue, the careful inflection in his voice sucking Childe into the story until he’s at the edge of his seat while listening to the origin of chopsticks. Zhongli invites him on walks throughout Liyue Harbor, and with every accidental brush of their fingertips, Childe’s heart soars.
Childe has never fallen in love with someone before, but when he’s with Zhongli, he thinks he knows just what love is.
Childe’s problem is also this:
The Tsaritsa sent him to Liyue Harbor to take Morax’s gnosis. This is the first mission entrusted to Tartaglia, the Eleventh Harbinger, and it is one he cannot afford to fail. Childe learns everything he can about Rex Lapis and carefully forges Sigil of Permission after Sigil of Permission until he has enough to release Osial if his first plan fails. He reworks his plan to account for Rex Lapis’s supposed death and secures enough Mora to fund the entire Rite of Parting for the chance to get closer to the Golden House.
Childe’s problem is that Lumine defeats him even after he uses his Foul Legacy transformation. Childe’s problem is that the people of Liyue work together with the adepti to defeat Osial. Childe’s problem is that Signora is in Liyue’s borders and she demands that he follow her to Northland Bank so they can meet Rex Lapis.
Childe’s problem is that Rex Lapis is Zhongli.
In the end, Childe fails his mission. Signora reveals a contract between the Tsaritsa and Rex Lapis, a contract that states Childe should never know about its existence until it was fulfilled, and then receives Zhongli’s gnosis. Lumine is there yet again, but there is nothing she nor Childe can do when Zhongli discards his godhood with a wistful smile.
Perhaps Childe doesn’t know what love is after all, because he doesn’t want love to feel like someone tore his heart out of his chest when Zhongli doesn’t spare him a single glance.
As Childe runs out of Northland Bank, all he can focus on is the weight of his earring and the realization he can fulfill his promise to his family and return to Snezhnaya.
Signora’s ship leaves before the Rite of Parting even ends. But Childe has loose ends to tie up, debts to collect, and meetings with the Qixing to attend. He’s set to go back to Snezhnaya eight weeks after Signora; Childe eats lunch alone in his office to escape the rumors of a Harbinger who murdered a god and bitterly thinks he’s been given too much time.
It’d be a lie to say he won’t miss Liyue. Childe has forgotten what a Snezhnayan winter feels like after Liyue’s sunshine has spoiled him. Liyue’s food is delicious, and the evidence lies in how much Mora Childe has given to every restaurant in the Harbor. The employees at Northland Bank have become a family away from home, and they must feel something towards Childe in return if Ekaterina quietly spends her lunch break with Childe so he’s not alone, if Vlad ushers Childe inside the bank and to his office and away from the harsh glares he receives, if Nadia slips Snezhnayan pastries she must have baked herself onto Childe’s desk when he’s away.
It stings to admit it, but Childe will miss Zhongli too. The heartache stings, but not even a sudden betrayal is enough to stave off all the love his heart holds for him. The romance books his older sister reads speak of how the heart needs time to recover, and as Childe glances out of his window to see a familiar figure walking through the streets below, he reminds himself he’ll soon have more than enough time to get over someone who never loved him when he’s back home.
Childe has a family and a nation filled with people who do not hate him for something he failed to do waiting for him. The Tsaritsa may even one day send him back to Liyue Harbor to look after Northland Bank, but until then, Childe can’t stay in Liyue even if he wants to.
One week after the Rite of Parting, Ekaterina eases the door to his office open and guides his guest inside. Childe’s stony gaze only makes Zhongli avert his eyes as he settles into the chair across from his desk, thick tension clouding the distance between them.
“I have not seen you in a long time,” Zhongli says to break the silence.
“I wasn’t aware you wanted to see me, Zhongli-xiansheng,” Childe says bluntly. Honesty is all he has left to give now that he’s aware Zhongli has always known why a Harbinger was in Liyue. “I was going to keep my distance until I went back home.”
Zhongli’s eyes darken. “When are you leaving Liyue?”
“In seven weeks from now. I wish it was sooner, but there’s a meeting with the Qixing that the bank’s staff want me to attend then.”
The heavy silence returns. There’s a frown on Zhongli’s face, and Childe has to wrestle down the ridiculous urge to do everything in his power to wipe that frown away. The sunlight streaming in through his window catches on the cor lapis bead on Zhongli’s earring, and he watches the white feather sway softly while Zhongli shifts in his seat. Childe had bought the earring for him months ago in an unspoken promise parallel to the one he made with his siblings: he’d keep Zhongli, and as many people in his beloved Liyue Harbor, safe in his plan to fight Rex Lapis.
Seeing it again now only reminds him of his naivety and ignorance, and it leaves an unpleasant taste in his mouth. If he couldn’t protect one person, how was he supposed to protect his family? How was he supposed to keep himself safe?
“I missed you,” Zhongli says.
Childe snorts. “You missed my Mora.”
Zhongli’s frown only deepens. “No. I missed your company and your laughter and your warmth. I missed you, Childe. I do not have any right to ask you to spend more time with me when I betrayed your trust, and yet I find that all I want to do is continue to see you every day. I did not have the chance to apologize to you back then, and right now is hardly a suitable time either when you do not wish to see me, but now there are only seven weeks left before you leave.”
Ekaterina had left a tray of tea for Zhongli before she left. Zhongli grips his teacup with so much force that his knuckles are white and Childe worries he might break the cup to pieces.
“I do not know what I will do when you are gone, and I fear that I may lose you if you leave,” Zhongli says, and he may be a god, but the sorrow in his eyes and the waver in his voice are painfully human.
In all of the time Childe has known Zhongli, he’s never seen this much raw emotion written across his face. There are still words Zhongli wants to say, but there are words Childe must say first.
“I think I loved you,” Childe confesses. Childe is strong, but that means he must know when to discard his strength to embrace vulnerability. “I think I might still love you.”
This time, the silence between them isn’t strained. It’s simply silence, an absence of noise, as they look each other in the eyes and prepare to fix whatever their relationship has become.
Zhongli’s frown finally disappears, a small smile left behind in its place. “Childe, would you like to have dinner together tonight?”
“Yes. I look forward to it.”
This admission is not a lie.
It starts with having dinner together again. This time, Zhongli offers to pay, and when he actually has his wallet on him, Childe nearly cries out of pride for how he’s grown. They arrange to meet up for lunch in two day’s time, and once that has been completed too, more dates are set.
The first time they spar in Mt. Tianheng, Zhongli knocks Childe onto his back with his spear in a matter of minutes, and Childe laughs gleefully before tugging him onto the dirt with him. Apologies are exchanged atop an island of Plaustrite in Jueyun Karst, and as the sun sets, Zhongli leans his head against Childe’s shoulder. They go for a walk along Yaoguang Shoal, and during their fourth week together, Zhongli invites Childe to visit a domain in Guyun Stone Forest.
It’s here, standing in a small cavern and leaping up to catch crystalflies as Zhongli laughs over how Childe had taken the ruin hunter down with ease before struggling to fight an abyss mage, that Childe falls in love with him once more.
He tells Tonia how everything felt right in that moment in his next letter.
If he takes you out on a date where you get to fight monsters, please ask him out already, Tonia writes back. Ask him out before you come home so I don’t have to watch you mope over a chance you never took with Zhongli. I don’t care if you’re my knight, I will throw you all the way back to Liyue with my own hands if I have to.
Childe doesn't doubt Tonia's ability to make this threat a reality.
When there are only two weeks left, Teucer stumbles into Liyue. By the time Lumine sends him on a ship heading back to Morepesok, Childe has been sentenced to bed rest by Zhongli to let his injuries heal.
“You are too reckless,” Zhongli chides without any real heat to his words. “I wish you would look after yourself more.”
And perhaps it’s because Childe was just reminded of his family with Teucer’s arrival, or because Childe has spent the past four weeks falling deeper and deeper in love with Zhongli, or because the pain of releasing his Foul Legacy transformation brought him to the edge of death for the first time since he was fourteen, but Childe’s lips open and the story spills out.
“I promised my siblings that I would return home safely,” Childe tells him. “Before I was a Harbinger, I got my ears pierced along with my sister Tonia because she wanted a promise that was more tangible than a pinkie promise. When I was in Liyue, Anthon and Teucer joined the promise and the three of them sent me the red earrings that I wear now.”
His shoulders sag. “Maybe I’ve broken the promise already if Teucer came all the way to Liyue to find me. I said I’d go back home as soon as possible, and yet I’m still here helping Ekaterina with paperwork because the manager is too afraid of the Tianquan to attend meetings alone.”
Zhongli reaches his hand out, gently pushing Childe’s bangs out of his face and then resting his hand reassuringly on the back of Childe’s. “These are all still things that you have needed to do. It is selfish of me to want you to stay. You have told me before you defend the dreams of children and you protect every promise you have made. Childe, you have to go back home to your family.”
“But it’s not just that,” Childe says, and he should be thinking of how much he misses his family, but all he can think of is how Zhongli is holding his hand. “I want to see them again, but I don’t want to leave Liyue because I don’t want to leave you, Zhongli.”
Childe laces their hands together and squeezes Zhongli’s palm as he prepares to take a chance. “I promised to come home safely to my family, but xiansheng, what if I want to come home to you too?”
Zhongli’s jaw drops for a second before he regains his composure. His laughter drifts through the room, and Childe savors the sound of something so beautiful and light. “Is that a proposal?”
“I think I skipped a few steps,” Childe admits. “I was supposed to ask you out first and send you letters while I was back home, and then I’d come back to Liyue as soon as I could to ask you to—”
“I’d ask you to marry me when I was back and — what?” It’s Childe’s turn to be surprised. “You’re saying yes?”
Zhongli squeezes Childe’s hand. “Yes, I want to marry you. I wanted to ask you before with the dragon and phoenix chopsticks, but that was before we reconnected after the Rite of Parting. You are offering the same opportunity now; how could I say no? So yes, Childe, yes.”
To be honest, Childe had no idea that the chopsticks Zhongli made Childe pay for were meant to be an engagement gift. But that’s something to discuss another day. Childe brushes the thought aside, leans forward, and presses his forehead against Zhongli’s.
“I love you,” he says, and a weight is finally lifted off his shoulders now that he’s said what he’s wanted to say for so long. “I love you so much.”
“I love you even more.”
“That’s not a fight you want to have, oh mighty Rex Lapis. I’ve been told I’m quite strong.”
“I am sure you are, but I have been told the same thing.”
Later, Childe will retrieve a small lacquer box from his nightstand and give Zhongli the other half of his ruby earrings. They’re proof of Childe’s promise to return home to his family, and now Childe has someone in Liyue he needs to come back to as well.
Later, Zhongli will give him the earring that came in a set with the cor lapis one he currently wears in exchange, and Childe will confess that it once held a promise from him too. Zhongli will laugh, and they’ll agree that it’ll be a symbol of their engagement until they meet once more and can exchange rings.
Later, Zhongli will see Childe off at the docks. Childe will cradle Zhongli’s face in his hands until the captain of the ship pulls Childe away, and they’ll share one last embrace and promise to return to one another before the distance between them swells to include whole nations and oceans.
But for now, they seal their new contract with a kiss.
His siblings are a menace. Anthon and Teucer jump on him as soon as Childe steps through the door to their house, and Tonia is only a beat behind. His promise with them is fulfilled at last, and Childe swings them around in his arms while they eagerly point out how Childe’s wearing the earring they bought him.
“Why aren’t you wearing the other earring it came with?” Anthon asks, out of curiosity rather than malice.
Childe bends down, gathering his siblings together in a huddle with a conspiratorial grin. Anthon and Teucer eagerly crowd in to hear the news he has to share while Tonia joins with a drawn out sigh.
“The earring was a reminder to come back home to you. The other earring is in Liyue with someone just as important to me that I also need to go back to.”
“Does that mean you’re leaving us again?” Teucer asks, his eyes widening in fear.
Tonia speaks up before Childe can. “Teucer, our brother has to leave home sometimes for work. It’s like how our two three eldest siblings live with their own families and only come home when they have time. Ajax has family in Liyue now that he needs to be with.”
“Our promise isn’t over just yet,” Childe adds, “I’ll come home however many times you need me to. You’ll always be my family, and I will always love you even if I love someone else too. You didn’t get to meet Zhongli while you were in Liyue, so one day I’ll bring him to Morepesok so you can meet him in person. Maybe I’ll even take all of you to Liyue!”
Anthon nods wisely. “They still need to have a wedding, so then we’ll able to see him! And weddings have a lot of food, so we’ll be able to eat a lot of the Liyuean food you wrote about!”
“It might be too soon to talk about a formal wedding. And why focus on the food and not meeting Zhongli?”
“You talked so much about him in your letters that it feels like we already know him,” Tonia says. She only partially sounds like she’s joking.
Teucer’s worries have been solved, and he bounces back at the thought of going to Liyue once more. “Liyue’s food was good! It’d be nice to eat it again! But the best part of Liyue was getting to meet Mr. Cyclops!”
Childe never wants to go to Lingju Pass again. He’ll settle for not going near a Ruin Guard for the next three months at least. “Speaking of Liyue, would you like to hear some stories about Zhongli?”
“No,” Tonia says with a grimace.
It’s not Childe’s fault at all when their mother enters the living room and finds Childe aggressively ruffling their hair and reciting facts about Zhongli.
Childe loves Morepesok, but when he stays for too long, he always remembers why he wanted to leave. There are no fights to be found in a small seaside village, and there are only so many times Childe wants to go ice fishing before he drops his fishing pole and spends his time forming small aquatic animals out of hydro as a form of training and to keep him company.
Only two years ago when he would visit home, he indulged in domesticity in the day and dreamt of donning his Fatui uniform at night. Now, his duties as a Harbinger and a member of the Fatui only cross his mind when he prays that the Tsaritsa will send him back to Liyue after his requested vacation in Morepesok comes to an end. All Childe can think about is Zhongli, Zhongli, Zhongli.
Was he remembering his wallet when he went out to restaurants or decided to go shopping? Was he making sure he wasn’t overworking himself? Was he taking care of himself properly?
Did Zhongli ever meet the other adepti like he wanted to? Did he meet with Xiao and convince him to not skewer Childe on his spear? Did he go to Mondstadt to visit his old friend Barbatos after the Anemo Archon sent him a letter asking for his presence?
Childe misses him. They’ve exchanged a handful of letters, but it’s not the same as talking to him. Tonia has started to write to him as well, and Anthon and Teucer submitted a few pages too, and part of him regrets having told them about Zhongli if he has to share him with his siblings.
As an adeptus, Zhongli has the power to send people dreams, but he told Childe it was unfair to abuse this art back when he was still in Liyue. The only dream he’s gotten from an adepti was from Xiao, who visited Childe in his dream so he could challenge him to defend Rex Lapis’s honor. It was the best fight Childe had since he left, and yet Xiao had only growled when Childe asked if they could fight again when he’s back in Liyue.
He carries the jewelry box that holds Zhongli’s earring on him, but cracking the box open for a glance of cor lapis only makes his heart ache. Childe misses him so much. His family says nothing when he cooks Liyuean dishes and teaches his mother a more efficient way of folding laundry that he learned from Zhongli. Xiao visits his dream again, and he must look awful when his hope that it’s Zhongli gets crushed because they only spend half of the dream fighting before exchanging stories of Zhongli.
“He misses you too,” Xiao tells him, his face twisted as if it physically pains him to admit this. Knowing him, it probably does.
The next morning, Childe removes the silver stud from his right ear and carefully puts the cor lapis earring in. A drop of red dangles from one ear and gold paired with a feather swings from the other, and he laughs at how ridiculous his reflection looks. There is a promise hanging from each ear, and for the first time, Childe thinks it’s a weight he can bear.
“You look funny, and not in a good way,” Anthon tells him.
“I know,” Childe beams.
After two weeks in Zapolyarny Palace, the Tsaritsa decides to send Childe back to Liyue.
“The Northland Bank branch there is growing along with Liyue, although the Qixing are stricter than before,” she says, her eyes never leaving his cor lapis earring. “You are the best debt collector they have had, and many employees have requested your return.”
Zhongli isn’t the only family Childe has in Liyue Harbor. Excitement sparks through his heart at the thought of seeing Ekaterina, Vlad, Nadia, and the rest of Northland Bank again.
“Fight for the glory of Snezhnaya, and fight for your own happiness too. Give Morax my best wishes.”
There are rumors swirling throughout Teyvat of a Goddess of Love who has no love for her people and is unloved by her people in return. Childe watches her cold eyes soften as she continues staring at his mismatched earrings and wonders how those rumors ever came to be.
The boat ride to Liyue is longer than he remembered. Xiao gives him one last dream, this time one where he pulls Childe down by his collar and makes him promise to treat Zhongli. If any crew member sees Childe obsessively snap a small box open and close with a glittering silver ring tucked between folds of satin inside, no one says anything.
Liyue greets him with its trademark sunshine and a small welcoming committee waiting for his ship to dock. Ekaterina isn’t wearing her mask as she waves to Childe. Hu Tao is frantically pulling her ghost companion away from a frightened Guoba, and Lumine and Paimon are helping Xiangling with calming her pet down. A man wearing a green cloak with a flower tucked in his cap is trying to teach Xiao how to make his frown less obvious.
Standing at the edge of the dock is a man with shining eyes and a big smile, his arms stretched open. The edges of his hair glimmer in the sunlight and the ends of his coat are billowing in the wind, but all Childe notices is the twinkling laughter that’s carried across the waves.
Childe is reckless and rash and bold. He leaps off the ship before it can properly dock, propelling himself through the air so he can land in Zhongli’s arms. The sailors give a cry of alarm and the onlookers shout in surprise, but Zhongli catches Childe with a small spin.
“I’m home, safe and sound,” Childe says breathlessly, looping his arms around Zhongli’s neck. The cor lapis earring still hangs from Zhongli’s left ear, but Childe’s ruby earring now adorns his right ear. They both look absurd with their mismatched earrings, but they’re a set when added together, and Childe presses a kiss to Zhongli’s forehead to show their promise has been fulfilled.
“You’re home,” Zhongli agrees, and as Childe looks into his golden eyes, he thinks he never left at all.