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when the bubblegum pops, i want you to smile.

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Childe lifted the ladle to his mouth, smacked his lips together and decided, could use some more salt , and reached for the whale-shaped salt shaker. The set was a gift from his lover, who spotted it at an antique store some months back, and Childe, at the time, found it endearing that he had remembered his offhand comment about liking marine life.  

He sprinkled it over the creamy concoction, dipped the ladle in, and tasted it again, running a tongue across his lips and mulling over the taste for a moment. He then nodded and turned off the stove, humming in rhythm with the peppy song that was playing on the radio as he went to pull off his unoriginal “ kiss the cook ” apron—  

Arms coiled around his waist, pulling him back against a broad chest as a chin settled on his shoulder. Childe blinked— his lover was stolid, professional, and self-possessed— he was rarely affectionate, a fact of which never bothered him as he hardly minded taking the reins, especially with the other’s lack of experience in the realm of romance. So, this uncharacteristic touchy-feeliness can only mean one thing...  

“Alright, Li. What do you want me to buy you?” 

Zhongli looked up at them with those big, irresistible eyes of his— the shade of those topaz jeweleries that he likes to flaunt around on special occasions, courtesy of Childe, naturally. And as usual, he found it exceptionally difficult to deny the man of anything, not when his expression echoed that of a starving puppy begging for scraps.  

“A game. I saw some of the students playing it in between class, and I became intrigued,” he stated, and Childe was instantly taken aback. His boyfriend was... well, old-fashioned , to put it nicely. A thirty-one-year-old with the countenance of a handsome youth but the comprehension of a senile grandfather when it came to the modern world, especially technology.

 For example: prior to meeting Childe, he had the audacity to carry around a Nokia with him, and put up a bitter struggle when Childe offered to splurge on the newest model and the most fortified case he can get his hands on since Zhongli was so terrified about the prospect of it cracking. Or that chunky, vintage computer that runs at a snail’s pace that he somehow managed to get his work done on (he felt nothing but sympathy for his poor students.)  

So... needless to say, the declaration came as a bit of a shock to him. Childe bought Zhongli a console last Christmas as encouragement for him to take some time off and relax for a change after spotting the dark bags under his eyes and what was unmistakably some strands of gray hair, but he had decided to spend the holidays with his nose in a book instead, as usual.  

“A game?” Childe repeated, making his bafflement known. “What kind of game?”  

“I believe it was called... Animal... Cross... Crosswalk? Crossroad... Crossway...”  

“Crossing,” Childe corrected with a chuckle.  

“Yes... that was it. Animal Crossing.”  

“I didn’t think you’d be interested in those sorts of games, Li. Seems a little, ah... juvenile , for your standards. Are you sure?”  

“I’d like to make an effort to connect with my students more. So I believe if I explore what’s popular among the youth these days... perhaps I will be able to earn their affections,” explained his lover, and Childe internally cackled at the mental image of his lover approaching his students clad in a hoodie while holding a skateboard and going, “ how do you do, fellow kids ?”  

“Well, I suppose this is the most “innocent” way that you could connect with today’s youth,” Childe said with a fond shake of his head. “But I’ve gotten you other games, you know. You’ve barely touched them since Christmas.”  

“They are... too violent.”

“Aw, I think somebody’s just mad that I keep whooping his ass in Mortal Kombat,” he snickered.  

Zhongli made a face at that. “That’s not— it is hardly fair to compare your skill level to mine when you have years of practice—” 

“I’m just messing with you, babe,” Childe wiggled around in his arms and brought his hands up to Zhongli’s face, pressing down on his cheeks. He resembled the crotchety, elderly stray that liked to sunbathe out on the driveway from time to time— and hissed and scratched at him whenever he dared to pet it. He was sure that Zhongli would be inclined to do the same if he continued to poke fun at him. “Sure, I’ll get it for you. But on one condition—” 

“I refuse to eat that abominable concoction that you call ‘calla lily soup’.”  

“You wound me, Li. That’s my greatest recipe!”  

Zhongli glared at him. Childe smiled and bent up to kiss the pout on his lips. “Don’t worry, I won’t make you do anything like that. What I had in mind is rather... well...”  

He palmed at Zhongli’s chest; the top buttons were undone, and he gave a shudder as he traced his icy fingers across the naked skin, chortling mischievously into Zhongli’s ear—  

 


 

… And that is how they found themselves on the couch, Childe aggressively mashing at the buttons on his controller and maniacally laughing as his character delivered several powerful punches and kicks to his blatantly struggling opponent. His character then summoned a set of hydraulic blades and proceeded to slice off the head and limbs of his hapless adversary, blood and innards spewing all over the arena while the infamous “FATALITY” text flashed on the screen.  

Childe threw his hands up into the air and howled in triumph, while his beleaguered boyfriend sighed and stroked his temples.  

 


 

One sixty-dollar purchase later, and Childe was nestled in between Zhongli’s legs, wrapped in a cozy blanket on their bed as he booted up the game.  

“These animals can talk,” was Zhongli’s first comment, and somehow Childe was hardly surprised. The littlest things fascinated him, it seemed.  

“Indeed. That’s... sort of the premise of the game.”  

“Ah.”  

Zhongli spent a hilariously long time deciding on the appearance of his character; it, unfortunately, did not have his signature ponytail as an option, so he oscillated between a short, neat-looking hairstyle or one of the more token feminine ones. He eventually decided on the former, and Childe caught himself wondering what his boyfriend would look like if he cut his hair short before quickly banishing the thought because it would be way too discomfiting.  

“This does not seem... safe.”  

“What doesn’t?”  

“Sending a group of people to a deserted island, I mean.”  

“Well, there’s fruit, so it’s not like you’d die of starvation or anything.”  

“But what of the water? How do we know that it is safe to drink?” Zhongli rebutted. “There may be contaminants in it. Has this Tom Nook fellow conducted a thorough inspection to ensure that this island is inhabitable?” 

“Zhongli, it isn’t that serious—”  

“And the native wildlife. Not only could they potentially pose a threat to mortal lives, invading the ecosystem like this will no doubt...” Zhongli trailed off as another thought seemed to come to him, touching his lips in perplexity. “... Are they... sentient? These animals can speak, but what of the fish? The insects? Do they... have a consciousness? How does the food chain work in this universe, exactly?” 

“I adore you,” Childe said instead of answering, turning his head and kissing Zhongli’s cheek. He blinked at the younger man confusedly, but a tiny smile eventually found its way onto his face and his eyes drifted back toward the screen as the plane landed.  

“Ah. Is that cat wearing glasses?” 

Childe’s eyes widened. “No way— did you seriously get Raymond right off the bat?”  

“Raymond?” 

“Oh, well, he’s pretty popular amongst the fanbase... You wouldn’t believe how much people have spent just to have him on their island... Maybe once he decides to move out, you could put him up for auction?” Childe nudged his boyfriend with a grin and dollar signs in his eyes— he had a stable career and some inheritance from his somewhat affluent family, but Zhongli's passions (and his readiness to please him) left quite the dent in his wallet. Bartering the life of one of his villagers for a quick buck might not be such a bad idea...  

However— 

“If these animals are supposed to represent human society, then selling him would be morally wrong,” Zhongli stated, and Childe was not sure whether to laugh or cry at the sheer predictability of his response. He ultimately settled for a fond sigh and watched his character run around on the screen.  

“What is the main objective?” Zhongli asked. 

“Uh, well... in the older games, you were essentially Tom Nook’s slave. He’d send you out on errands so you can pay off your mortgage... but I dunno besides that, these kinds of games aren’t really my thing,” he shrugged his shoulders; Childe much preferred the energetic hack-and-slashes, bloody shooters and, of course, games where he just can brutally beat the shit out of people. “I guess just do... whatever.”  

“... I think I will explore, then.”  

Childe soon came to regret his vague answer, as Zhongli then proceeded to spend the next hour running around aimlessly, investigating every nook and cranny in the desolate island and conversing with the villagers at least a hundred times over as though he was determined to unlock some secret piece of dialogue. At some point, Childe had begun to doze off due to the peaceful soundtrack combined with the warmth of his lover’s body, teetering in and out of reality and dream as he listened to the villagers’ incomprehensible warbling and Zhongli’s quiet breath against his ear. Childe sat up slightly when he heard his boyfriend abruptly gasp, blinking tiredly.  

“Hm?”  

“I caught a fish,” he declared with all the proudness of an athlete winning a medal.  

“Congratulations,” Childe lightly applauded before snuggling closer to him, tucking his head under Zhongli’s chin.  

“Are you tired, Ajax?”  

“Little bit,” he said with a perfectly timed yawn.  

“Rest, then.” 

“Alright... feel free to wake me if you’re confused about anything.” 

Zhongli chuckled softly. “Of course. Sleep well, my love.”  

Purchasing this game for Zhongli, he eventually came to realize, might have been the biggest mistake he has ever made in his twenty-five years of living.  

 


 

As he was preoccupied with his classes, Zhongli typically visited Childe on the weekends— he had the key to the apartment, so he would show up completely unannounced more often than not. They were well-passed the honeymoon stage in their relationship and operated on a level that was more akin to a longtime married couple; Zhongli graded papers and scripted tests in silence while Childe, who would never trust Zhongli in his kitchen, prepared meals, or in other cases, shot down enemies while his irascible teammate Scaramouche shouted profanities in his ears. They have only known each other for a year, and have dated for even less, but Childe felt strangely comfortable in his presence, as though they met some lifetimes ago.  

“I’m home,” Childe called out knowingly, drenched in sweat with his thin tank top sticking to his skin, highlighting his well-defined muscles. He worked as a personal trainer at the neighborhood gym and spent his days instructing desperate fitness freaks on how to exercise correctly without puking their guts out. It provided the ever-temerarious youth with enough stimulation and thrill to keep his overanxious mind at bay, at least.  

Childe blinked at the lack of a response. He had caught sight of Zhongli’s fancy little loafers by the doormat, after all. He kicked off his own and left his backpack by the door before maneuvering down the short hall to the living room, poking his head out from behind the corner, eyes wide and confused.  

His boyfriend was indeed present; however, instead of finding him with his nose stuck in one of his thick novels, it was laying sadly on the adjacent coffee table, bookmark jutting out and forgotten. While Zhongli tapped away at the console, which was emitting the unmistakable garbled chattering of the villagers. It has been around a week since Zhongli was introduced to the colorful world of Animal Crossing, and Childe honestly presumed that he would play it for a day or two and switch over to a different fleeting passion as per usual, but...  

“... Li?” He questioned, stepping over to the couch. Silence. Childe waved a hand in front of his eyes; Zhongli, however, still failed to notice his presence— it was as though he was under a trance... a trance laid upon him by that dastardly Tom Nook.  

Childe wondered if this is how his parents felt when he was a young boy obsessed with video games; he never thought he would sympathize with them, and thoroughly regretted his tantrums when they ripped him away from his beloved consoles to take care of chores. He, therefore, plucked the console out of Zhongli’s hands and placed it on the coffee table. 

Zhongli blinked thricely, and Childe could see the process in which he disembarked from the spaceship and returned to earth, his nose wrinkling in disgust as he finally came to recognize Childe’s muck sweat. “Ajax? I apologize, I did not hear you come in.”  

“Yeah, I can tell,” Childe teased. “You seem to be pretty fixated on that game.” 

“It is quite enjoyable— more so than I would have thought at first glance. It is surprisingly complex, despite its relatively simple premise. I am... admittedly having a hard time putting it down,” Zhongli stated with a touch of sheepishness, like a child being scolded. Though Zhongli could commit mass murder and Childe would not find it in him to be disappointed, or even the slightest bit angry. With a smile, he patted the top of the other man’s head.  

“Don’t worry about it— I’m glad you’re having fun! But,” Childe spread out his arms as an enormous grin blossomed across his face. “I haven’t seen you all week, lyubimaya ! C’mere and give me some sugar,” he swooped down to catch his lover’s lips in a kiss, but Zhongli pushed his face back.  

“Take a shower, first.”  

“Come with meeeee,” he urged, making grabby hands at him; but Zhongli was astonishingly strong, desk job notwithstanding, and kept Childe pinned in place with a single hand.  

“No.”  

“You’re so mean to me, Li,” Childe moaned dramatically, years of dueling villainous uncles and rescuing princesses from towers resurfacing for a brief moment. “Whatever have I done to deserve your cruelty, dearest Zhongli? I, Tartaglia, have given you my heart, my life, my everything— and yet you look upon me with such a cold gaze—”  

Zhongli leaned up and planted a brief kiss on his mouth. Childe grinned victoriously.  

“You are insufferable at times,” said his lover, caressing his sweaty cheek. Leaning into the touch like an affection-starved cat, he hummed in agreement.  

 


 

“Blathers,” Zhongli began out of nowhere while they were cuddling post-shower on the bed, Childe playing with the long, dampened strands of hair as he lazily watched Zhongli’s character run around, seemingly on the hunt for fossils to donate to the newly established museum.  

“Hm? What about him?”  

“I was not expecting this children’s game to have such a knowledgeable character. I enjoy speaking with him.” 

“Well, I guess he does sort of remind me of you,” Childe said thoughtlessly.  

His lover blinked, somehow perplexed by his statement. “Of me? Are there similarities?”  

“Sure. He blathers on and on and on like you do whenever you find something you’re interested in, and has no idea when to stop,” he snickered at the faint blush that settled over Zhongli’s face. “I’m saying that as something I love about you though, Li. No need to get all embarrassed.”  

“Most would consider that a flaw, though,” he pouted.

“I don’t,” Childe pressed his lips to one of his rosy cheeks. “I mean, it’s what made me fall for you originally… That and your voluptuous tooshie—”  

A hand snaked around to pat said voluptuous tooshie, but Zhongli, ever-accustomed to his shamelessness, instinctively caught his wrist and shot daggers at him. “Ajax.” 

“Zhongli~”  

“You are a child,” he sighed, releasing him.  

“That’s my nickname for a reason!”  

Zhongli replied with a mere eye-roll and went back to his game, while Childe smiled, nestled his face in the crook of his neck, and mindlessly swirled a rutilant strand around his finger.  

At the time, the domesticity was nice. Endearing, even... but he should have seen the signs of obsession sooner, and stopped it before it completely and utterly consumed their daily life....  

 


 

A month went by and spring rolled in; Zhongli was commenting about how the trees changed color, but he wasn’t referring to the ones outside their window, as they sat at the dining table, Childe shoving spoonful after spoonful of sugary cereal into his mouth while Zhongli’s eggs and bacon went uneaten on his plate.  

“Uh, babe. Your food’s getting cold,” he stated. Zhongli did not respond, still tapping away at the buttons. Childe leaned over the table and snapped his fingers in front of his face, and Zhongli blinked, then lowered his head abashedly. 

“Forgive me,” he simply said, reaching for his fork.  

 


 

“Li?” 

Zhongli was sprawled out on the couch, the colorful console in hand and eyes glued to the screen. A stack of homework, evidently ungraded, laid untouched on the coffee table. He grabbed the papers and waggled them in front of his lover’s face, who miraculously noticed and rested the console face down on his chest. 

“Don’t these need to be graded?”  

“Ah,” Zhongli simply uttered, going red in the cheeks. “I suppose they do.”  

 


 

Freshly bathed, Childe sashayed into their bedroom completely bare down to the loosely wrapped towel around his waist, metaphorical rose in his mouth as he pressed his elbow against the doorframe, spurred to action by the brief, teasing touches they shared over supper. “Oh, Zhongliiiiiiii—”  

Zhongli was tucked under a mountain of blankets, pajamas and all— the room illumined by the bright light of the console, his expression innocent and rapt— and Childe tripped over himself.  

Alright— this was definitely starting to become a problem. 

 


 

“I think my boyfriend has an Animal Crossing obsession," declared Childe after firing an arrow into his opponent’s chest— the fifth kill he has gotten so far, definitely nowhere near his usual. Though he blamed that on the perpetual raincloud that has been drizzling over his head since that accursed game fell into his partner’s hands.  

Ah, I see he has fallen victim to Tom Nook’s evil machinations ,” came Lumine’s mellow voice as she shielded Childe with her blade. Lumine’s character, clad in her diaphanous white garbs, dashed forward and pierced through the horde of monsters with all the swiftness and grace of the wind.  

“Listen, I’m glad that he’s found something that he’s so passionate about—” Childe pulled back the bowstring, sniping an enemy that had been ogling him from the upper balcony, then hastily took cover behind the adjacent wall. "But this is really starting to worry me! I mean, I’ve always considered him a conscientious guy, but he’s been forgetting to do his work and has apparently been missing class altogether! And that’s not all— you know how much he despises seafood, right? Because of some bad past relationship or whatever... anyway—” 

Got you ,” while he was busy prattling, Lumine took care of yet another enemy that had snuck up behind him, slicing its head clean off while Childe blinked and sheepishly murmured his thanks before continuing. 

“Well, I decided to test something out, so I slipped some fish onto his plate last night... and do you know what happened?”  

After a moment of suspense, his teammate monotonously questioned. “ ... What ?  

“He ate it! He ate the fish, Lumine! It was terrifying! I feel like— feel like my precious Zhongli has been replaced with some— some fake!” Childe annunciated his wailing with fake sobbing as he rammed his bow into a ghoulish face. He could practically hear Lumine’s eye-rolling; her silence spoke volumes.  

“There hasn’t been some weird conspiracy going on about Animal Crossing brainwashing its player base, right?” He asked in a frantic voice. “Has... has my dearest Zhongli been lost to me forever?”  

Every copy of Animal Crossing is personalized. ”  

“Lumine, I’m being serious!”  

I think you’re mainly just upset that he won’t pay attention to you .” 

“Is that so wrong— to crave the embrace of the man who holds your heart?”  

And there are children starving somewhere ,” Scaramouche hissed, popping up from behind him as he waved his staff around, raining down powerful blasts of thunder unto the demonical horde. “ So shut the fuck up already .”  

“You’re just jealous that I get more dick than you on a daily basis than you have in a lifetime!”  

Oh? Well, sounds to me like you haven’t been getting any dick at all as of late! ”  

Boys, boys, please— you’re both pretty ,” Lumine grunted, sending sharp currents of wind toward the monstrous throng of enemies with swashes of her sword. “ This is why we never win— you two don’t understand the concept of teamwork !”  

Are you sure it isn’t just because Tartaglia isn’t an incompetent twat ?”  

“Bold words for someone who can barely reach the top shelf.”  

Childe’s character was then struck by a fierce flash of lighting and burnt to a crisp. Scaramouche snickered mischievously while Lumine sighed and proceeded to carry their team for the rest of the game.  

 


 

“This is blatantly fraudulent—”  

Childe was nodding off when his partner voiced his disrelish, looking adorably offended as he inspected the counterfeits a certain conniving fox had on display in his seafaring market. The infamous Jolly Redd finally visited his island, it seemed. He shuffled closer to Zhongli, nuzzling against the prickly stubble— distracted, the man had forgotten to shave, of course; but he had grown oddly attached to his beard, as ill-suiting as it was.  

“Well, yeah. That’s Redd’s thing. You gotta distinguish the reals from the fakes... either you can make an educated guess or just look it up online.”  

“Should we... report him to Resident Services?”  

And Childe, very tired and very in love, decided to play along with his absurd fantasy. “Zhongli, this man is a dangerous, unscrupulous criminal— I don’t even want to imagine what he would do to poor Isabelle if she tried to play the hero and put a stop to his nefarious deeds!”  

“Isabelle is capable of self-defense, however. You showed me as such in that one game.”  

The mental image of gentle-hearted Isabelle beating that mischievous fox to a bloody pulp was hilarious, he will admit. “Well, I suppose you aren’t wrong. But you are not one for such violence, right?” 

“Yes... I suppose you are right. For the time being, I will attempt to cooperate with this... charlatan.”  

So cute , he thought in spite of his past reservations; even if Zhongli has become a full-on video game junkie, Childe still found his naivety extremely precious.  

“Ah... I believe this is the genuine copy,” Zhongli stated, pausing in front of a dismal painting that looked humorously similar to that of the Mona Lisa. Of course, Childe should have anticipated that a historian like himself, who has trotted across the globe several times over, would be able to unravel the truth without relying on the Internet. “Do I purchase it?” 

“Yeah, and if your intuition proves to be true, then you can add it to the museum.”  

“Blathers did mention that he had opened an art exhibit... Alright, I shall purchase it.”  

Zhongli motioned at the painting and Redd happily trotted over and rambled on for a bit before sticking a rather hefty price tag to it. However, when Zhongli went to purchase it...  

“Ah. It would appear that I am out of bells.”  

Childe mentally facepalmed.  

Zhongli was notoriously poor at handling his finances in real life, but he could not even manage himself in the digital world? This man would probably be begging for spare change on the side of the street if Childe had not serendipitously crossed paths with him.  

“What did you spend it all on?” 

“Renovations,” he said. “I am trying to construct a neighborhood right now.”  

“Have you tried taking advantage of the stock market?”  

Zhongli tilted his head like a confused dog. “Stock market?”  

“Yeah, you buy turnips from that one NPC and resell them to the little raccoons that run the general store.”  

“Ah, I have done that. But I received less than what I paid for them.”  

“You’re supposed to— agh, never mind,” Childe ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “Alright-- have you tried time-traveling? That's a good way to pile up cash pretty fast in this game, apparently.”  

“Time... traveling? I was not aware that you could purchase a time machine in this game. Or is that a DIY recipe I can acquire at some point?”  

“No, no— you change the internal clock on the console and jump ahead so you don’t have to wait through each and every day to reap your rewards.”  

“That sounds... like cheating.”  

“And?” 

Zhongli made a moue of repugnance as though he had just been served a five-course seafood buffet. “Cheating is wrong.”  

“Quite the upstanding citizen you are, Mister Zhongli.” 

“Well, I suppose I will purchase an art piece next time he decides to dock here,” Zhongli decided, though he could catch his disappointment, hidden behind the wall of stone that was his never-changing, adamantine expression. And that insatiable urge to spoil his lover rotten took hold of his heart— or rather, his hapless wallet, as he carefully wiggled himself out of Zhongli’s grasp while his unwavering gaze stayed fixed on the screen. Zhongli murmured to himself triumphantly when he snagged a snail off an anemone bush, while Childe, credit card in hand, slipped into the other room to make yet another egregious purchase.  

He supposed that this was an inevitability, though. Childe just hoped that he would not end up adding more fuel to Zhongli’s burgeoning addiction by doing this...  

At this point, however, he was desperate for even a sliver of attention, and he was going to use this foolish game as his pawn.  

 


 

“Ajax?”  

Childe reentered their chambers later that night, cradling his own, sticker-emblazoned console as that telltale lively score played lowly from the speakers, with a bag of chips tucked underneath his armpit. He threw himself unceremoniously onto the mattress, potato chips spilling out of the bag and dusting their sheets in crumbs while Zhongli regarded him with a scolding glare that could put his mother to shame. Childe grinned and gorged himself on a handful of crisps while Zhongli’s eyes drifted between him and the console on his chest.  

“Ajax, what is—”  

“Thought I’d see what all the fuss was about,” he hummed, pushing aside the chip bag and scooting up on the pillows, holding the console up for Zhongli to see. “Can’t say that this is my sort of game, but...”  

“You are playing as well?” Zhongli gasped, stars of innocent delight bursting in his eyes, and Childe tripped and fell for him all over again.

“Ye... Yeah. I, well...” 

“Oh,” Zhongli’s enthusiasm fell away once he caught sight of Childe’s frankly barren island, considering that he had only just started playing earlier that evening. “Your island is atrocious.” 

“Now, that’s hardly fair—”  

“Merely jesting,” Zhongli smiled, placing a kiss upon Childe’s cheek. “I will assist you, if you wish.”  

Please do enlighten me, Professor Zhongli,” he teased in return, kissing Zhongli lightly on his lips. “But anyways, open your gates. I’ve got a surprise for you.” 

“A surprise?”  

“Indeed. Open ‘em up, babe.”  

Once his island gates had been opened (Zhongli’s island was known as Liyue , a pretty name that rolled off the tongue nicely. Whereas Childe decided to call his island the Abyss .) Childe boarded the next plane out and arrived at his destination in a matter of minutes. He occasionally glanced over at his lover, glimmers of happiness peeking through the chinks in his calm façade, desperately trying to bite down an eager smile as Childe emerged from the airport. Zhongli’s character waved at him enthusiastically before gesturing him down the flower-laden path— he was astonished that this practical grandfather knew how to use QR codes.  

Zhongli decided to take him on a brief tour, introducing him to the fluffy citizenry (it seemed that Zhongli had stricken lucky not just with that bespeckled cat, but a handful of other fan-favorites as well), showed him his current projects and went out of his way to catch a fish for him despite his disfavor toward aquatic life, how sweet. Though incomplete, the set-up he had for his island was actually quite professional— definitely not as jaw-dropping as some of the ones he’s seen on the Internet, but impressive for a first-time player.  

“Alright, alright. I’ve got something for you—”  

Zhongli looked at him with all the anticipation of a child on Christmas morning. Childe flashed him a grin, opened his inventory, and proceeded to drop copious amounts of bells onto the ground.  

It’s called: Childe quickly came to master the stock market and bent the internal clock to his whims to pile up enough money that his dearest Zhongli will never have to know the hardships of impoverishment ever again. Simply put, his partner’s slack-jawed expression greatly resembled that of the famous “Surprised Pikachu” meme. 

“How were—”  

“A magician never reveals his secrets,” Childe said smoothly as he emptied his pockets down to the last bell. “Now, I do believe you had some art pieces that you wished to acquire from a certain disreputable fox, right?”  

“But I... I cannot possibly exploit you like this, Ajax. What about your own affairs?” Zhongli asked, genuinely concerned as if this was a matter of life-and-death and not over a bunch of anthropomorphic cats and dogs with mortgages.  

“Zhongli, I’m probably going to play this game for five minutes at a time once every two weeks or so. I don’t mind,” he laughed. “And besides, if it’s to make you happy, there’s not a thing in this world I would do. Even if it meant killing a man. Or several.”  

“I... appreciate it, Ajax,” Zhongli murmured, pointedly disregarding his murderous promise and bending his head so it rested in the crook of his neck. He gave the skin a light kiss— an otherwise chaste action that should not have excited him the way that it did, but Childe was admittedly quite touch-starved after that malevolent raccoon enslaved and brainwashed his lover. “Thank you. I love you very much, you know that?”  

Butterflies fluttering in his chest, Childe shifted and grabbed his lover by his face, bringing him into a gentle kiss. “I love you too, Zhongli,” he whispered, brushing their noses together.  

“I think I could take a break,” his lover decided, setting the console aside and straddling Childe’s hips instead. “Allow me to recompense you.”  

“... In that case, you owe me a rather hefty fine,” he grinned, hands settling on Zhongli’s lissome waist.  

Zhongli smiled coyly and bent down, his breath ghosting Childe’s lips. “That is not a problem at all.”  

 


 

The following morning, Childe was brushing his teeth while staring at his disheveled reflection in the mirror. Half-asleep, he jolted when he felt a pair of arms wrap around him from behind, but calmed when he caught sight of messy, brown locks. 

“Childe, I am having a dilemma,” Zhongli began; his voice husky with sleep.

“Hm?”  

“Raymond wishes to leave my island.”  

"Mhm.”  

“But I do not wish for him to leave.”  

“Then tell him not to leave,” Childe was pretty sure that was an option, anyway.

“But I do not want to seem like some controlling dictator that decides who can leave and who cannot.”  

Childe spat into the sink, turned around, and cradled his face.  

“Zhongli,” he began, staring determinedly into his topaz eyes.  

Zhongli blinked perplexedly. Childe broke out into a huge grin and kissed him deeply, which he was swift to return notwithstanding the minty aftertaste, hands sliding down to cup Childe’s waist.  

“You are such a dork,” he breathed afterward, caressing his cheek with a thumb. “And I am very, very in love with you.”  

Zhongli’s expression softened at the remark, and he raised one of Childe’s hands, planting his lips to the back of it. “And I, you.”  

 


 

Childe found himself playing the game more often than he presumed he would initially. He was nowhere near as obsessed with it as his boyfriend, of course, but it was surprisingly... enjoyable, despite it being poles apart from the usual, gory, savage games that he used to vent out his frustrations. He reveled in the relaxing atmosphere and the amount of freedom it gave the player— hell, he even found a villager or two that he actually liked. And it turned out that a few of his friends were into it as well.  

He decided to let Hu Tao and Venti come to his island, and they predictably ran amok, bullying his villagers, chopping down trees, and chasing him with their axes like a duo of serial murderers— and though he personally saw no harm in their behavior, when Zhongli invited them all to Liyue it was, well...

“Hu Tao, stop it this instant!” His boyfriend shrieked; it was rare for Zhongli to lose his composure, so it was admittedly comical watching as his character chased Hu Tao away from his neatly arranged forest of trees when she approached with her ax. While he was distracted, however, Venti swooped in and started swatting one of Zhongli’s villagers— poor, sweet Rosie— with his net. Childe thought that his boyfriend was about to burst a blood vessel.  

“These... unruly rascals,” he grunted. 

“Just kick them out, Li. It gives you the option,” Childe said as he proceeded to brandish his ax in Raymond’s direction. That earned him a bonk on the head in real-life from his exasperated partner. “Owieeeeee....”  

“You are no better than them,” he huffed. “Very well, then. You shall be banned. I will have order.”  

“You are so cute,” Childe cooed as he was promptly booted from Liyue.  

“Hush, you will not compliment your way out of this, Ajax.”  

“But you areeeeee—”  

His lover silenced him with a hand over his mouth, which Childe, as the child he was, gave a lick. Zhongli ripped his hand away and glowered at him while he giggled impishly. He decided to gather up the other troublemakers on his island for a game of “ Who can piss off Limberg first ”, brandishing nets and shouting declarations of war at the poor, ugly mouse.  

 


 

“Ajax.”  

Childe temporarily removed his headset when he heard his lover enter the room. He expected that Zhongli was about to deliver his latest piece of news regarding the development of his island— but much to his bewilderment, the man was console-less. Zhongli, dressed in a light pink apron, dipped down and caught his agape mouth in a brisk kiss.  

“Forgive me for not assisting you with the chores as of late, but I took care of the laundry. I’ve started dinner as well.”  

Childe blinked out of his stupor and stammered out. “Ah, you didn’t have to do all that, Li!”  

“You were fixated on your game, so I did not wish to disturb you. Please, go back to what you were doing; I will handle it,” he said, pressing his lips to Childe’s forehead and offering him a quick smile before turning and heading back into the kitchenette.  

Childe redonned his headset and slumped back against the cushion as a long sigh fell from his lips and his eyes went hazy with love.  

Jesus Christ, would you two get married already ?”  

Scaramouche’s comment felt like a punch to his gut, and he choked on his spit. Childe hacked harshly and pounded a fist against his chest while his teammate guffawed hysterically, pumping their adversaries full of lead.  

“Scaramouche, I’m going to kill you one of these days, I swear to fucking God,” Childe rasped, hands trembling around his controller as he led his character over to a safe spot while he recuperated. “Why the hell are you concerned with my love life, anyway?” 

Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Scaramouche retorted. “I don’t care at all. It’s just you and that Zhongli guy are so fucking in love that I feel my brain cells physically dying off every time he’s mentioned. And fucking I’m sick of it .”  

“Not everyone has a black, shriveled-up heart like you do, Scaramouche.”  

Will you just stop tiptoeing around each other’s feelings and pop the damn question already before I throw myself off a bridge, please ?” 

“If not proposing is what will encourage you to die, then I’ll withhold for now!” 

Fucking smartass —” 

“And besides, we’ve only been dating for a year. Seems a bit too soon, doesn’t it?”  

If I recall ,” Lumine finally decided to tune in as she tossed a grenade into a group of armored soldiers. “ Zhongli once proposed to you with a set of chopsticks, did he not ?”  

Childe felt his cheeks burn at the memory. It was a month after they started dating, and Zhongli presented him with an ornate box, and inside were an exquisite pair of mahogany chopsticks. Though purchased with Childe’s own money of course, so he hardly considered it a “gift”. Nevertheless, he presumed that Zhongli was planning to tutor him in the art of chopstick-wielding, but his friends were quick to point out that they can be used as a stand-in for a wedding ring, supposedly...  

“... I sincerely doubt he had those intentions in mind,” Childe rebutted, shaking his head. “You think Zhongli is that smooth? He walked straight into a telephone pole on our first date. And forgot to bring his wallet. And asked me if lobsters were mermaids to scorpions.” 

You two are so perfect for each other it’s nauseating ,” Scaramouche moaned.  

I must say that I agree. Of course, you shouldn’t rush into marriage unless you are one-hundred percent prepared for it, but when the time comes, know that you have our full support ,” Lumine stated, and Childe wiped a metaphorical tear from his eye at her words, thankful that he has been blessed with such a good friend. 

“... Right, Scaramouche ?” 

I frankly do not give a fuck, either way, I just want him to shut up about his boyfriend for once .”  

“That’s just because you don’t believe in true love,” Childe sighed dramatically as he reloaded his gun. “What a sad, misguided soul you are, Scaramouche, doomed to forever be alone—” 

The sky is fake and so are all of you. Now make yourself useful and get your ass over here, Tartaglia .”  

 


 

  Marriage, huh...  

Ajax hardly considered himself a romanticist. These mawkish, “happily-ever-after" scenarios have never truly appealed to him. He remembers the way that Tonia’s eyes lit up whenever he read her favorite fairy tales, like when the prince duels the vicious dragon and rescues the princess from the tower, then they ride off into the sunset on a horse of white. His sister always waxed lyrical about how she will grow up and find her own “Prince Charming” who will fit the glass slipper on her foot and live in a grand castle… and while Ajax supported her outrageous fantasies, as she was but a wide-eyed young girl at the time— he thought that the concept of love was, well... let’s just say that he was just as cynical as a certain dwarfish teammate of his.  

… Until he stumbled upon a man who was both seraphically beautiful and dorkily charming. Ajax has messed around with plenty of people, especially during his humdrum college years— but Zhongli was and will forever be the only person who can make his heart do that cheesy little dance every time he looks his way. And of course, this was not the first time the idea of “marriage” has crossed his brain. 

Beforehand, they were but fleeting “what-ifs” that the temerarious youth never spent too much time mulling about... However, as of late— and he can certainly pin his friends’ incessant nagging as the trigger for this shift in cognition— it has become an all-encompassing desire that has gnaws at his every waking moment.  

He found himself wondering what it would be like to wake up to Zhongli every single morning. What it would be like to cook breakfast for him and share fugacious touches before obligation beckoned him away. To greet him whenever he returned home with a pot of his favorite stew and suffocating hugs. Even mundane tasks like folding laundry, tending to their plants, putting a new coat of paint on their walls, and going grocery shopping together were comparable to exploring great jungles and ancient ruins to someone whom adventure and thrill was previously his entire existence. His family used to scold him about his recklessness and recalcitrance, so he could only imagine their reaction if he were to admit how deeply he longed for this domesticity, this simplicity. It was strange, yet simultaneously titillating.  

If anything... Ajax just wanted to be with him.  

“Ajax.”  

Woken from his reverie by a familiar baritone, Childe blinked his eyes a few times and yawned, shifting so his head rested against his lover’s shoulder. “Hm?” 

“I have finished my café,” he announced, holding the console up for Childe to see.  

“Oh, it’s cute! I like how you put it outside the museum,” he chirped. Zhongli had a surprising knack for design; it was uncomplex, yet elegant, and he had an inkling that the man, steadfastly adhering to the nonexistent rulebook that discouraged any form of cheating, likely had not looked up any guides for beautifying his island. So for an original concept, it was astonishingly eye-catching. “You’re pretty good at this, huh?”  

Zhongli flushed, his smile tiny and proud, like a child being praised. “Thank you, Ajax. Hopefully, the townspeople will enjoy it as well— there is a severe lack of dining establishments, after all.”  

“Looks like a nice place for a date.” 

“I shall take you here next time you visit Liyue, then.”  

"Just don’t ask me to pay,” Childe joked, and his boyfriend huffed amusedly.  

“Of course not. I have been managing my finances; you need not worry.”  

“Why am I having a hard time believing that?”  

“You have no faith in me.”  

“Because every time I take a certain somebody out on a night in the town, he forgets his wallet.”  

Petulantly averting his eyes, the older man mumbled. “It is not... intentional.”  

“I’m just teasing you, Li.”  

“You seem to have a penchant for that.”  

“It’s ‘cuz you’re so cute, I can’t help myself,” he grinned, and Zhongli responded with an expected eye-roll and simply went back to his gaming. moreover, began to gaze ruminatively at the ceiling as he fiddled with a strand of Zhongli’s partially damp hair.  

“... Say, Li?”  

“Yes, Ajax?”  

“... What are... your thoughts on... getting married?” 

Childe wanted to beat his brain with a stick— what on earth would he gain by asking something like that? If the chopsticks were merely just that, then he doubted that Zhongli had any intention to get down on one knee after dating him for only a little over a year— as knowledgeable as the man was, he was amusingly ignorant when it came to the affairs of the heart. 

Well, Zhongli was notoriously scatterbrained; he probably did not catch his slip-up, too preoccupied with... well, fishing or bug-catching or retriggering the same banal conversations with his residents for the hundredth or so time that day. At least, that is what he had prayed for— 

However, judging by the way that his round-faced character came to an abrupt halt and his hands went rigid. Well, it seemed like Childe wouldn’t be getting out of this situation so easily. The effervescent background music was like nails against a chalkboard; Childe thought briefly about hurling himself out the window, but his apartment was on the first floor, so that would amount to nothing. Stomach cartwheeling, he tried to repress his bubbling nausea and formulate an excuse, like— haha, April Fools...! Except that it was summertime. 

Childe has never craved the sweet embrace of death more in his life.  

“... Marriage,” his boyfriend finally muttered, though Zhongli kept his eyes fixed on the luminous screen, tracking a villager as they innocently waltzed past. 

“I... uh... I just wondered if you had any... specific feelings about... it?”  

“I... do not,” Zhongli answered; ordinarily, when asking for his opinion on basically any topic, he would babble ceaselessly for the next several eons. However, his answer this time was... uncharacteristically short, perhaps even a bit meek. Childe caught the way that his cheeks seemed to darken, caught the shy little glances and the slight tremble to his fingers. 

“However, I...”  

“Hm?”  

“... In a purely hypothetical sense, I do not think that I would... be opposed to it,” he finished in a quieter voice, going red to the tips of his ears. It took Childe a moment to process the information, like an ancient seer had just dropped some earth-shattering revelation about the fate of the human race; however, once he was able to fully take in that soft-spoken admission, his heart began to accelerate.  

“Ah...”  

Childe was a philanderer, a smooth-talker, and a borderline egotist. Even when he professed his feelings to the other man under that starlit night, he still carried himself with utmost aplomb. However, now...  

“I think... I’m going to go do some push-ups.”  

Zhongli blinked at his sudden declaration, his eyes trailing after his flustered boyfriend as he wrestled himself out of the cozy sheets and stumbled over to the door. “It is almost ten o’clock at night though, Ajax...”  

“Never too late to stay fit, my— my lovely Zhongli,” he laughed hysterically, gripped the doorknob, and promptly exited the room before Zhongli could protest any further. Childe then proceeded to press his back up against the door, bury his face in his hands, and scream silently.  

 


 

The conversation of marriage (thankfully) did not arise again in the following weeks; he assumed that Zhongli had forgotten about it altogether, what with his current fixations keeping his mind distracted. Childe could not help but think, “God  I wish that were me ,” as lifting weights and pummeling punching bags until your arms became floppy noodles, unfortunately, did not quell his anxieties.  

Even more thankfully, his friends stopped harassing him about proposing so, at the very least, he can brutally mutilate his enemies without Scaramouche’s insufferable yammering... only his extremely eloquent threats about how he will sever Childe’s limbs and impale him on a stake if he failed to cover him. 

Even with the niggling thoughts of matrimony, for a time, life had gone back to normal. He would see his beloved on the weekends, snuggle and watch him catch fish for hours on end, occasionally encourage him to binge-watch gory horror films with him despite his vocal detestation of violence, make breakfast for him and play with his hair while he hurried to grade papers, rinse and repeat.  

One evening, Zhongli triumphantly burst into the kitchen while he was getting ready to work on dinner to announce that his island was officially rated at five stars— and in commemoration of this mind-blowing achievement, Childe prepared his favorite dish for him.  

… Though a part of him longed to spend each and every day like this— for Zhongli’s sake, he pushed down those desires and feigned contentedness. After all, he was simply thankful to have Zhongli in his life; he shouldn't be selfish and ask for more than that, right? 

However, around a week after their impromptu chat about the future, Zhongli began to act... strange.  

Not outwardly; no, he was still dignified, fair-spoken, and stony-faced, and gazed at Childe with the eyes of a man who was indubitably besotted. However, Zhongli began to spout... flagrant lies, and spent less and less time with him.  

Initially, Childe did not think too much of it; he was not privy to every little detail of his boyfriend’s life, so he was in no position to bombard him with questions. And of course, he would never in a million years assume that someone as inherently good-natured as Zhongli would be unfaithful— a meteor would sooner strike the planet, probably.  

However, he could not help but wonder what he has found that is so important that he would put aside his precious Animal Crossing for it. Hell— the man even left his console at his apartment last time he came by!  

They still messaged each other, of course— he sent him a dozen heart emojis every night before Zhongli’s intransigent bedtime and rhapsodized about his love for him at least fifty times a day, and Zhongli seemed perfectly normal when they conversed... yet Childe began to experience genuine yearning when he woke up to an empty bed. His visitations have become few and far in between, and he has only spent the night once or twice... 

He’s cheating on you ,” Scaramouche claimed whenever Childe stupidly decided to bring up his dilemma while they mowed down a horde of spear-wielding goblins. “ He found a sexy, buff man with a great smile and an actual tolerable personality and he’s moving to Alaska— far, far away from you .”  

“Zhongli doesn’t like the cold,” Childe deadpanned.  

He must really hate your guts now, then .”  

Don’t listen to him ,” bless Lumine and her unwavering kindness, he thought at the time. “ I’m sure Zhongli is just preoccupied with other things. He’ll come around soon, I’m sure .”  

And as though on cue, shortly after they wrapped up their session, Childe received a text from his darling, proving that he did not move to Alaska with some mysterious bodybuilder and still loved him very, very much. Fuck you, Scaramouche. 

 

 

Li 🐉️ 8:23 PM 

Ajax.  

Do you know what your measurements are?

  

 

Childe blinked at the inquiry... what kind of measurements was he referring to, exactly? Before he could ask for a specification, however, Zhongli sent him another message— 

 

 

Li 🐉 8:24 PM

Ah.

Forget I asked that.

 

 

Me 8:24 PM 

oh ok!  

if you need anything tho please don’t hesitate to ask 😊 

 

 

Li 🐉 8:25 PM 

All right. Thank you, Ajax. 

I love you. 😘 

 

 

Me 8:25 PM  

i love you more!!! 🥰🥰🥰 

 

I wonder what that was about, though, Childe, ultimately, decided to not give it much thought and grabbed the remote, flopped back on his sofa, and resumed the historical documentary that he would have slept through otherwise if it wasn’t for the fact that Zhongli had recommended it to him with that precious twinkle in his eyes.  

 


 

“Zhongli!”  

He appeared unexpectedly at his doorstep one Saturday evening, dressed in a pinstriped button-down that looked a touch uncomfortable with the brutal summer rays beating down on them, but he could never envision him in anything short-sleeved. His glasses somewhat askew, Childe reached up and adjusted them with a smile before planting a kiss to the tip of his nose.  

“Where’ve you been, old man? I was starting to think you finally kicked the bucket,” he teased, elbowing his arm. Zhongli normally rebuked him for poking fun at his age, but he instead replied with a bow of apology. 

“Forgive me, Ajax... I... have been busy as of late,” he muttered with a dubiousness to his tone that made Childe wondered if Zhongli himself believed in his excuse, but he decided to not question it. He was just happy that Zhongli hadn’t gone to Alaska, after all.  

“No worries! But you owe me,” Childe said airily, taking his face into his hands and pressing a formal kiss to his lips. Zhongli curled a hand around his nape and tilted his head, deepening it. And Childe had forgotten, in the few weeks or so since he last shared in his lover’s warmth, how unjustifiably good he was at kissing, despite his inexperience. Legs turning to goo, Childe grappled at the other man’s back and subconsciously pressed closer to him, moaning quietly as a tongue prodded insistently at his mouth— 

Though as much as he detested his obnoxious neighbors, perhaps they shouldn’t make out in front of the opened door. He giggled breathlessly when Zhongli chased after his lips, pouting like a lectured puppy when Childe placed a hand in between them and shook his head.  

“Did you... already have dinner?” Zhongli asked instead, and Childe greatly appreciated the touch of hoarseness to his normally unruffled voice.  

“Yeah, I just heated up some takeout—” 

“Allow me to prepare you something nutritious, then.”  

“Ah, but I’m not really hungry—” 

Zhongli was already embarking for the kitchen, however. The man was as stubborn as a rock, so Childe knew it was pointless to argue with him. He shut the door, grabbed Zhongli’s forsaken luggage, and headed after him as he hummed mirthfully.  

 


 

“How’s Animal Crossing?”  

The noodle Zhongli was cradling delicately between his chopsticks promptly slipped back into the bowl. He blinked several times, as though Childe had spoken some alien language to him, then cleared his throat and reached for a napkin to dab at his lips.  

“I... have not been playing it as much as of late.” 

“Wow, really? I thought you were addicted,” Childe said, sticking a piece of cabbage into his mouth. He no longer fumbled with the chopsticks, thanks to Zhongli’s coaching.  

“Addicted... really?” 

“Don’t worry, Zhongli. I found it endearing... for the most part. But I’m glad that you’ve finally returned to reality.”  

“I’d ought to— to apologize, though... I never...  intended to take it that far,” Zhongli lowered his head shamefacedly. “I must have neglected you greatly...” 

“No, no! Like I said, I thought it was cute... Just remember to do things in moderation, okay?”  

“Right...”  

“Anyway, I haven’t played for a bit, sooooo...”

Zhongli perked up at the unspoken suggestion; Childe grinned at his enthusiasm and scooped up some noodles. “Later.”  

 


 

“Oh, Bunnie is new!”  

“Er, yes... she has become... one of my favorites.”  

“Really? How come?”  

Zhongli did not answer his question immediately, eyes drifting elsewhere as he led his character away from the peppy rabbit. However, Childe thought he noticed his ears redden somewhat. “... For no... particular reason.”  

It was currently the Fishing Tourney, so Childe was determined to show off his expert fishing skills that he inherited from his father and his father before him and... so on. Zhongli, however, seemed... a bit distracted, and more so than usual. He had yet to reel in any fish, kept bumping into things and even got chased down by an angered storm of bees— it was as though the man was half-awake, and those trademark bags under his eyes, Childe had noticed earlier, had returned. He hoped that the college hasn’t been pushing too much work onto him; it would definitely explain his recent absence, but... 

“I need to use the restroom,” Zhongli suddenly announced, rising from the bed, still clutching his console. “I will return shortly.”  

“Oh... alright.” 

“Shortly” turned to ten, twenty, and then thirty minutes— with Childe staring aimlessly at the ceiling for the majority of it, an arm draped over his forehead as he reflected back on his earlier actions and debated if he had said something that managed to piss off his otherwise even-tempered partner. He could deliberate until the day that he died, but he would never know the truth, as Zhongli was a master at suppressing his emotions. Most likely, he was just overthinking it... however, he felt inclined to put his detective cap on after all of these... peculiarities over the past month.  

Before he could arrive at some groundbreaking deduction, however, he noticed that a notification had flashed on the screen. Ajax had left his character by the beach while he wrangled with his brain, and Zhongli had suddenly appeared beside him, flowers blooming around him as he said, “ I love you .”  

He has heard it a thousand times at this point, but his heart still gave a little flutter, and he couldn’t stop a smile from coming to his face as he typed his reply.

I love you too !”  

Zhongli’s character made a proud pose, then a flustered one where he blushed and rubbed the back of his neck. Ajax laughed softly— for all of his stoicism, he was quite childish at times.  

Another message popped up: “ You mean more to me than you know, Ajax.”  

Ajax’s cheeks pinkened. His lover was not typically so... forward like this, so it admittedly caught him a bit off guard. However, he hastily smacked his confident face back on and responded.  

You mean a lot to me too, Li !”  

I am thankful to have met you ,” the strangely affectionate string of messages continued, and Ajax’s grin grew wider and wider. “ Every moment I spend with you is precious .”  

He was prepared to go hunting for his lover and give him the biggest, most crushing hug the world has ever seen; however, before Ajax could spring up from the bed, another message appeared.  

There is something that I wish to ask you ,” Zhongli gave him little time to answer before another followed instantaneously in its wake. “ Will you look up ?”  

Ajax had not even realized that his partner had reentered the bedroom and dropped his console in alarm. Zhongli was shuffling his feet awkwardly and his arms were wound around his back, avoiding direct eye contact. He opened his mouth, then promptly reclosed it, mulling visibly over his words. Ajax has never seen his composed, well-spoken boyfriend look so— well, out of sorts, like a schoolgirl trying to confess to her longtime crush.  

“Zhongli?” He questioned, moving to the edge of the bed, his blue eyes large with concern. “Is... everything alright?”  

“Ajax, I...”  

“What is it? Are you pregnant, or something?” Ajax japed in an attempt to lighten the situation, though his laughter was as uncertain as Zhongli’s expression.  

“There is... something that I wish to ask of you,” he continued, taking a tentative step forward. 

“Yeah, you said as such... what is it?”  

Zhongli swallowed thickly, eyes darting down to the floor. “I...” 

“Zhongli,” Notwithstanding his own apprehension, Ajax reached out and cupped his face. “Whatever it is, you can tell me, alright? You know that I would never judge you for anything. I mean, that'd make me a pretty big hypocrite considering how much you tolerate me ,” he emphasized with a little laugh, running his thumb along the flushed skin. His lover let out a desperate breath and pressed into his palm.  

“Forgive me, I... I was not nearly this flustered when I rehearsed.”  

Ajax blinked. “Re... what?”  

“Rehearsed. I spent the entirety of the last month repeating these words in front of the mirror, and I did so with utmost confidence, but now that I am here before you... well, it is a lot more difficult than I expected.”  

“Zhongli, this... this uh, makes it sound like you’re proposing, or something...”  

“I am.”  

“... Eh?”  

“Ajax,” Zhongli pulled away from his clutch, and much to Ajax’s bemusement began to lower himself down onto that notorious single knee. “Ajax. Childe. Tartaglia. The time that I have spent with you has been... irreplaceable. I do not believe I knew what true happiness was until you came into my life.”  

“Zhon... Zhongli... this...”  

“When you made that comment the other night, I... I brushed it off at first, thinking it was simply one of your elaborate jokes... but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how profound my feelings were for you. That... if I could spend the rest of my days by your side... relishing in your laughter, basking in the light of your smiles, and waking up with you at each dawn, I... I don’t think I could ask for anything else. So, would you...”  

Zhongli unveiled a small, velvet box and pulled up the lid, and within it laid a silver ring embedded with a radiant blue gemstone. Ajax felt himself ascend to outer space.  

“... please do me the honor of becoming my husband?”  

Ajax stared at his lover for several eternities, mouth agape and the floodgates starting to crumble. 

“I love you, Ajax,” he repeated, and this time, with a smile so bright that it could outshine the sun. “Marry me.”  

“Dammit,” he choked out. “You did not just propose to me in Animal Crossing.”  

Zhongli caught him as he fell into his arms, cackling and blubbering pathetically, ever true to his namesake. The other man awkwardly patted his vibrant mop of hair while Ajax sobbed into his pristine dress shirt, nails digging into his back. 

“I, well... I suppose I did... partially. I researched, but there is no wedding ring DIY. However, I did procure a matching pair of tuxedos. I may hold the event privately for us and our villagers since I loathe to think what would occur if I allowed those little rapscallions onto my island again...”  

“Zhongli,” he began in a weak voice, salt streaming into his mouth “We aren’t getting married in Animal Crossing.” 

Zhongli frowned as though the accusation had affronted him. “Of course, I intend to marry you in real-life first and foremost.”  

“Dummy,” he snickered, fruitlessly wiping at his unending tears as he pulled away from his arms. “How did you— how did you even afford a ring?” Ajax sniffled, glancing down at the beautiful yet no doubt exorbitant band.  

“I took on some odd jobs, as my paycheck... well, it would not cover it. That is why I have been so absent as of late. I apologize, though, if I had worried you at all...” 

“Scaramouche accused you of finding some sexy hunk who you decided to move to Alaska with.” 

“I dislike the cold,” Zhongli grunted. “... And I think it would be impossible to find anyone more beautiful than you, Ajax,” he added, his eyes flickering away bashfully, despite his long-winded, schmaltzy proposal.

“No need for flattery,” he chortled as he gave Zhongli’s cheek a gentle caress. “I already agreed to marry you, didn’t I?”  

His boyfriend— fiancé smiled, carefully removed the ring, and raised Ajax’s hand, sliding it effortlessly onto his finger. “... Yes, I suppose you are right.”  

 


 

Later that night, Ajax awoke to his fiancé scrambling for his console on the nightstand, the harsh light illuminating their near pitch-black room. He squinted his eyes and groaned in complaint. 

“What are you doin’, Li?”

“I should construct a wedding venue,” he declared, and Ajax smashed his face into the pillow to muffle his giddy laughs. 

 What a strange man he was marrying.