Childe had absolutely no idea why he’d agreed on accompanying Zhongli to the Lantern Rite festival whatsoever.
While the two of them were…sort of on speaking terms again, the bond they’d shared before had shattered, causing their relationship to be strained and tense. Despite this, Zhongli had asked him to join the festivities of an event usually spent with loved ones. Friends. Family.
As they made their way through the brightly illuminated streets of Liyue, Childe wondered if he hadn’t been a little too easy-going about the whole matter.
This was Zhongli they were talking about. Zhongli. Rex Lapis. Ex-archon of Liyue. God of contracts…and a liar.
In Childe’s eyes, anyway.
He could never tell what the other man was thinking. Even during the time he had considered them close, he turned out to have been dead wrong.
For all he knew Zhongli was just going to use this opportunity to get close to him, then try to kill him for almost destroying his city. Childe had no reason to believe this was a genuine attempt at reconciliation. Not when it came to someone who could smile so charmingly and then stab him in the back a mere second later.
He didn’t want to get his hopes up only for them to be crushed again. He didn’t want to get attached only to be let down later. He already didn’t have much of a heart left after everything that had happened to him in his life; he couldn’t afford to be careless with it.
And yet, the way Zhongli had looked at him, hopeful glint in his eyes and a plea on his lips, how could he say no?
Childe had never been able to deny him anything. The many, many amounts of mora spent on the man were plenty of proof of that.
Despite his own conflicted feelings, this time was no different.
‘Am I boring you?’ Zhongli’s voice interrupted his thoughts, snapping him back to reality.
‘You seemed to be in deep thought.’ Zhongli explained, the light of the lanterns illuminating his face as their gazes met. ‘If my talking bothers you, please do say so.’
Ah, right. The other’s habit of excessive talking about subjects that interested him. He’d probably been reciting facts about one thing or another, and Childe felt a little bad for not paying any attention. Whereas other people could find Zhongli’s stories a bit annoying at times, Chide had always happily listened.
It was just that this time, his mind was a little too preoccupied, which had both nothing and everything to do with Zhongli at the same time.
‘It’s nothing.’ he reassured him. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
Zhongli nodded, and continued walking by his side quietly.
Now Childe really did feel bad. He’d anticipated some awkward silences, but this was on a whole different level. Even though he was still somewhat angry at the other man, he didn’t want…whatever this was.
(In all honesty, if someone asked him what he did want in that moment, Childe didn’t think he’d even be able to answer).
‘So…did you…like, plan on making our own lanterns as well? I heard that’s the whole point of this festival, right?’ Childe tried to start a conversation again.
At this, Zhongli’s eyes lit up. ‘Yes, that’s correct. People do typically make their own lantern for the rite. It’s more…personal that way. Many believe it raises the chances of their wishes coming true.’ he explained. ‘Would you like to try? There are a few crafting places we could go to. I did prepare some materials in advance in case the idea interested you.’
That saved Childe’s wallet this time around, at least.
‘Sure.’ he hummed.
Zhongli gave him a small smile, which didn’t affect Childe’s heartbeat as much as some people might claim it did. It didn’t. Really.
Then, they continued on their way.
‘There’s…a very good spot for watching the lanterns just outside of the city.’ Zhongli said, apparently no longer feeling too strained to try and make conversation again. ‘There’s less light pollution there, so the view is quite impressive. Would you mind accompanying me there after we’ve made our lanterns? It’s a bit of a hike, but definitely worth it. I would…like for you to see it.’
Childe slowed in his step, causing Zhongli to give him a worried look.
‘Is something the matter?’
Less light pollution, huh? In other words, it would likely be extremely dark around them. The lights from the city would be far out of reach, and the hustle and bustle of the people enjoying the festival would be nowhere to be found either.
Childe swallowed thickly, and gave the other man a smile he hoped would not be recognized as fake.
‘Nothing, nothing. Just worried you might use the opportunity to kill me if we’re all alone!’ he hummed teasingly. To further derive attention from his genuine concerns, he placed a hand on his forehead dramatically. ‘What will I do once you strike me down?’
‘Relax, I’m only joking.’ Childe reassured him. He’d forgotten Zhongli had the habit of taking everything too seriously. ‘I didn’t mean it.’
Zhongli nodded, and relaxed a bit. ‘Good, I would not wish you to think I’d want any harm to befall you.’
Childe looked at the ground then, not quite sure what to do with that information. It still felt weird for Zhongli to be so…caring after everything that had happened.
(If his words were true, anyway. One could never be too sure.)
‘Though…you haven’t answered my question yet.’ Zhongli asked, a little softer this time, as if he was actually afraid Childe might say no. ‘Will you join me to watch the lanterns?’
Childe bit the inside of his cheek, mulling the question over.
If he wanted any clarity on where they stood, and would come to stand as time went on, the only logical option was to come with. To go with him, share a private moment together as they watched the lanterns, and perhaps retrieve a piece of what they’d both considered lost.
The less rational part of his brain was screaming at him not to do it. It was going to be dark. Pitch-black. Not a streetlight to be found.
Childe dearly wished that stupid part of his brain would shut up. He was with Zhongli, someone he…once trusted, and was on decent enough terms with. Not to mention they’d have a pair of lanterns to illuminate the area around them.
He’d be fine.
‘Of course.’ he said, grinning at the other as if nothing was amiss. ‘I’ll come with you.’
The smile Zhongli gave him was enough proof Childe had made the right decision, and they continued on their way to the crafting table without a single care in the world.
(At least that’s what Childe liked to believe, anyway).
The lantern he was holding flickered dangerously as they made their way up the mountain, Childe noted.
“Bit of a hike” his ass. This was half a journey across Teyvat.
…okay, perhaps that may have been a bit of an overstatement, but the decorative festival lights had significantly lessened in number as they went, and the complete lack of light sources in the area they were currently in had him somewhat worried.
It caused Childe’s gaze to focus on the small light source in his own hands, trying with all his might to keep a good lookout for potential danger while not letting the comforting light he was holding out of sight.
‘Are you alright?’ Zhongli asked him when it had apparently taken him just a little too long to climb over some bigger rocks.
‘Just wondering why Mr Geo archon himself isn’t just making our path a little easier.’ Childe hummed, trying to sound casual. ‘Climbing is not a problem for me, but I wasn’t expecting this kind of physical exercise during a festival, of all things.’
He hoped the explanation sounded believable, and gave Zhongli one of his usual smiles to make it more convincing.
‘I…see.’ the other man replied. ‘I do apologize for making you walk this far. I assure you we’re almost there.’
Childe shrugged, and came to stand next to him. The presence of another person, mixed with the pair of lanterns in their hands, made for just enough comfort to act like nothing was amiss.
‘Stop apologizing so much. I willingly agreed to come to the festival with you, I don’t blame you if things aren’t perfect.’
‘I’m glad about that.’ Zhongli hummed, turning around to lead them to his intended viewing spot. ‘Though I can’t help but worry sometimes…’
Childe would have followed suit, if it wasn’t for the lantern in his hands giving one last pathetic flicker before going out entirely.
The area around him was no longer illuminated, shrouding Childe in darkness.
He briefly wondered how Zhongli had moved so fast, because next he knew he felt a familiar hand on his shoulder, and the light of a lantern was shining next to him once more.
His own unlit lantern was on the ground, his arms still outstretched as if holding it, and his gaze focussed on it like it might get a life of its own and walk away if he didn’t pay attention.
‘Childe?’ he heard Zhongli ask, though it sounded a little distant.
‘Ah, I don’t know what happened.’ Childe hummed in reply, though he could tell his voice sounded a little more high-pitched than usual.
If Zhongli noticed, he didn’t say so.
‘It’s a pity, though. I really was looking forward to making a wish.’
Zhongli seemed to contemplate this, before handing Childe his own lantern. ‘You can have mine. This is your first lantern rite festival, so you should get the full experience. I’ve made plenty of wishes over the years…’
He sounded a little solemn as he said this, though Childe was in no state of mind to argue. He gladly took the lantern Zhongli offered him, and stared at its flickering light intently. Perhaps he could simply write down both their wishes, and hope for the best.
‘Do you want to continue?’ Zhongli asked, and he nodded in response.
With the new lantern in hand, they continued.
It turned out Zhongli really had spoken the truth about being close, because not five minutes later they arrived at what seemed to be a very convenient rock formation, located in such a spot that it gave a perfect overview of both Liyue and the sea.
‘So…’ Childe hummed as he sat down and got comfortable.
Well, as comfortable as he could get, with his heart beating inside of his chest like a madman, anyway.
‘Did you make your own little VIP spot for the rite, or was this a coincidence?’
He was holding on to the lantern in his hand a little too tightly, and tried to loosen his hold as to not raise suspicion.
Zhongli gave a small chuckle, and shook his head as he sat down next to him. ‘I was just lucky to find this place. An old friend of mine showed me it once, and I’ve made a habit of coming here ever since.’
Childe couldn’t help but look at the other from the corners of his eyes. He seemed to be in deep thought, though it was unclear what exactly those thoughts were.
He wondered about what kind of friend had introduced this place to him, and if they’d often come here together.
(And why they didn’t do so anymore, his brain unhelpfully added).
‘It should start soon.’ Zhongli’s voice pulled him from his thoughts.
That had happened a lot this evening, Childe pondered. He wasn’t usually this easily distracted.
‘That’s good.’ he replied. If only because then the dark night sky would be illuminated, and perhaps his heartbeat would return to normal.
‘Have you put in your wish yet?’ Zhongli asked him, curiously looking at the lantern in his hands.
Oh. Of course.
He was supposed to release this lantern soon.
Childe let out a nervous laugh, and looked up at the night sky. How the hell was he going to convince Zhongli he wanted to keep it? If he told him something cliché like how he already had everything he could wish for, he’d both be lying and the other would question him as to why he didn’t just let him keep the lantern in the first place.
But if he didn’t, they’d be left in the dark.
Archons damn it he really should have thought about this beforehand.
‘I, uhm…’ he stammered. ‘Just thinking of what I should wish for…maybe we should release it later? Once we’re back in the city? Just so I have some more time to think about it, you know.’
As if on cue, the bright light of the Skybracer lantern being let up appeared in the air, indicating he’d run out of time to come up with a proper excuse.
‘I don’t want to mess this up.’ he babbled. ‘It’s hard, thinking of just one good wish. If I could just have a few more minutes-…’
His nervous laughter returned, upon which Zhongli gave him a concerned look. ‘Childe.’
‘Please tell me what’s going on.’
Instead of answering, he gave the other a bright smile. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You’ve been acting…strange.’ Zhongli said. ‘If it’s because my presence makes you uncomfortable-…’
‘No!’ Childe exclaimed, perhaps a little too loudly. ‘No, it’s not that. Nothing’s wrong.’
To prove his point, he finally let go of his lantern, sending it into the night sky together with the other lanterns now floating around. ‘See?’
How long had they been talking exactly?
Zhongli had been right when he’d said the view from here was perfect, though Childe wished his heart would calm down so he could actually enjoy it. He couldn’t tell if his vision getting blurry was because of the dark, or because of something else.
‘Something is most definitely wrong.’ Zhongli stated, getting closer to him.
‘What gives you that idea?’ Childe loudly brought out. Despite attempting to smile, the muscles in his face refused to move. ‘I let up the lantern, it’s fine.’
He’d let go of the lantern.
Their only source of light was gone.
‘And did you include your wish in said lantern?’ Zhongli asked him knowingly.
Childe’s face fell.
‘I-…’ he brought out. ‘I forgot…?’
‘I’m fine.’ he reassured the other man. ‘I don’t understand why you’re worrying so much.’
Zhongli sighed, and took this opportunity to stand up once more. ‘If that’s true, then you have no problems with me taking a small stroll, I presume? Of course, you’ll be fine on your own…’
Zhongli took a few broad steps backwards, and Childe practically threw himself at his legs.
‘Don’t go!’ he yelped, holding on to the man for dear life.
He didn’t think he’d ever felt this ashamed before, but if Zhongli really did leave him alone in that moment, he thought he might die. His heart was practically leaping outside of his chest, and his whole body shook like a leaf. His lungs felt like they were on fire and something uncomfortable prickled in his eyes.
‘You can’t go.’ Childe managed to bring out. Archons, he really hated how weak he sounded. Zhongli must have found the mere sight of him pathetic, considering he was acting like a child.
He was the strong, undefeatable eleventh Fatui Harbinger. He wasn’t afraid of anything. Why did something small like this bother him?
‘It’s normal to be afraid of things, you know.’ Zhongli spoke, kneeling down so he was at eyelevel with him.
Childe shook his head, and released the other from his death grip. ‘I know! I know. But I’m not scared. Of course not. I don’t know why I’m behaving like this. It’s stupid. Forget it. Why would I be scared?’
He swallowed thickly when he noticed most lanterns were now too far away to genuinely make for a good source of light. The area around them seemed even darker than before, and it made him feel sick to the stomach.
‘It’s not…that strange.’ Zhongli told him, putting a comforting hand on his shoulder to test the waters. When Childe didn’t flinch upon being touched, he put the other hand down as well.
‘With your time spent in the Abyss—’
‘We agreed to never speak of that.’ Childe hissed. He’d revealed mere snippets of his past to the other man when they had still been close (when he’d still trusted him), and Zhongli had easily put two and two together. Despite Childe’s refusal to let him in on any of the details, this meant he at least knew some bits and pieces.
‘And agreeing on that has clearly been a mistake.’ Zhongli sighed. ‘You’re afraid. I simply wish to help-…’
‘I’m not afraid!’ Childe yelled, a little more angrily this time. ‘Why the fuck would I be afraid? I have a shitty past, so what? I’m strong. I have a vision. I’m fine. Being afraid is for people who don’t have the power to defend themselves. I have nothing to be afraid of.’
At this, Zhongli gave him a stern look. ‘Everyone is afraid of something.’ he corrected him.
‘Even you?’ Childe brought out bitterly.
At that, his anger changed to confusion instead.
‘But you’re an archon! Why would you be afraid of anything?’
Zhongli let out another sigh, and slowly let go of him to look out over the water. ‘It’s precisely because I’m an archon that I have much to fear.’ he admitted. ‘I’m afraid of losing the people I care about. I’m afraid to let down those who’ve put their faith in me, and I’m afraid to forget. Not to mention be forgotten, in return.’
Childe opened his mouth to say something, but Zhongli didn’t give him the opportunity to interrupt. ‘The friend I told you about before…I don’t even recall what her face looks like. Over time, that image has blurred. I fear many things, and they occupy my mind on a daily basis, but that does not make me weak. I can still fight monsters in battle, I can still tear down entire mountains if I so wish it. It’s just…a feeling. A feeling which every single living being has to deal with, on occasion.’
‘You-…you’re really making a mistake in telling me all this.’ Childe murmured. ‘What if I’ll use it against you?’
At that, Zhongli chuckled, as if the thought alone was somehow amusing to him. ‘You wouldn’t do that.’
Wouldn’t he? Childe wasn’t so sure. Zhongli thought far too highly of him.
‘Either way, my point is…there’s nothing wrong with being afraid, and admitting you are.’
Childe sucked in a breath, and Zhongli gave him a look so warm and comforting he was surprised he didn’t just melt on the spot.
So much for still being angry. That plan had been thrown out of the window, it seemed. Zhongli had all the keys to his heart, even though he’d been so careful placing new locks on it after what had happened.
‘So tell me…’ Zhongli whispered. ‘Tell me what you’re afraid of.’
Not afraid, he wanted to say, but after what Zhongli had told him, the words didn’t want to come out of his mouth anymore.
‘Fine, it’s-…it’s the dark, okay?’ he brought out. ‘I’m afraid in the dark. It’s okay, you can laugh. I know it’s pathetic. All these dangerous creatures in the world, and I choose to be scared of something that can’t even physically harm me? I’m a fool.’
‘No you’re not.’ Zhongli reassured him, taking off his gloves in the process.
Childe gave him a confused look. What was he planning to do, strangle the darkness with his bare hands?
(To be fair, if that was something he could do, he wouldn’t even mind at this point).
‘You’re not a fool for fearing something that has caused you distress before. I’m not surprised you’d associate darkness with something negative, after all you’ve had to endure.’
‘No, not “still”. You have a right to be afraid, and to be taken seriously for it.’
It sounded so logical when Zhongli said it. So much that Childe was almost inclined to believe it.
At least he would have, if the man wasn’t basically stripping right in front of him.
‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Childe yelped, scrambling back a few paces so he would be out of reach in case Zhongli tried anything. Was he going to be struck down after all? Were those comforting words simply meant to soothe him only so that killing or torturing him would be more fun after?
‘I’m…trying to take some of your fears away.’ he explained, rolling up the sleeves of his undershirt. His coat lay discarded a little further away.
‘And…how were you planning to—’
His gaze fell upon Zhongli’s tattoos, and his eyes went wide.
‘You have tattoos.’ he stated plainly. ‘Why didn’t I know you have tattoos?’
Zhongli gave him a mischievous little smile. ‘That’s not the only thing you don’t know about me.’
Childe’s eyes narrowed.
‘What, more secrets?’ he huffed, a little more bitter than intended. ‘Haven’t we had enough of those?’
‘No more secrets.’ Zhongli assured him, kneeling down so he could get closer. ‘Just…surprises.’
Childe was about to ask him what he meant by that, when the tattoos on the other’s arms started glowing.
What the fuck.
‘How did you-…what’s-…’
‘It’s completely harmless.’ Zhongli assured him, reaching out a careful hand. Only now that he looked closer did Childe realize the tips of his hair were glowing too.
‘Right. So. Uhm…?’
I thought it might…ease your fear a bit.’ Zhongli admitted. He sounded surprisingly vulnerable for someone who looked like a human glow stick.
Still, Childe couldn’t help but be at least a little curious. He carefully took hold of the hand reaching out to him, which pulled him into a soft embrace he could easily get himself out of if he somehow felt the need to.
Not that that was the case, but it was rather thoughtful of him.
The hug reminded him a little of the hugs he gave (and received) from his siblings sometimes. Like the ones given to him just before leaving home. It felt comforting in a way, and oh.
With the way Zhongli had wrapped his arms around him, there was light everywhere. Like a halo that had wrapped itself around his body, glowing hair falling over him like a curtain to block out the remaining darkness.
This was a million times better than some silly lanterns.
‘Can I keep you?’ he breathed out, finally feeling like he could breathe again.
Zhongli let out a low chuckle, giving him a small smile.
‘Would you let me stay, then?’
‘Mhh.’ Childe hummed, opting to press himself against Zhongli to return the embrace. ‘I’m considering it.’
Zhongli sucked in a breath.
‘I’m still mad at you.’ Childe murmured into the other’s chest. ‘For lying to me, and all that.’
‘But I suppose you must be mad at me as well, for you know, trying to destroy your city.’
When Zhongli didn’t answer, Childe looked up to meet his gaze. ‘I just…I’m still mad at you, but I miss what we had. I truly liked spending time with you. I felt like-…like I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else around you, which, I guess, is why it hurt so much when that feeling didn’t turn out to be mutual.’
Zhongli slowly moved his hand up to cradle his cheek, and Childe found he didn’t particularly mind the touch. The glowing of the other’s skin illuminated his face in a way that made Zhongli look even prettier than usual.
‘I’ve never pretended to be someone else around you, Childe.’ the later spoke softly. ‘I may have gone by a different name than you might have liked, but everything we talked about, the memories we’ve made, the emotions we shared…those were genuine. I had hoped that by inviting you here, I could recover a part of what was lost…and see if you had any interest in that as well. Though it seems in the end, all I’ve done is cause you even more distress. Please, forgive me.’
If his cheeks turned slightly red from those particular words, Childe would have blamed it on the heat of Zhongli’s glowing arms. Totally not because he was embarrassed. At all.
‘Well-…’ he murmured. ‘Perhaps if you start glowing for me more often, and saying those kind of things, I might actually end up forgiving you.’
Zhongli’s eyes lit up, and a small, hopeful smile played around his lips. ‘Really?’
‘Mhh, and maybe a duel or two, just so I can kick your ass to feel better.’
At that, the man rolled his eyes. ‘Ah, I should have seen that one coming.’
‘You should have.’ Childe chuckled.
The two of them were no longer the same as they once had been, tiptoeing that thin line between friendship and romantic feelings, but Childe found he didn’t mind so much.
As Zhongli pulled him closer again, surrounding him with his comforting light once more, he was certain they’d figure it out eventually.
For the first time in the history of the lantern rite, Zhongli felt like his wish for that year had come true.