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the storm, and the stone that breaks it

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Maybe it’s the Jade Parcels warming his belly. Or the plum-hibiscus wine, notes of bittersweet nostalgia and full-throated longing from the oak barrel aging (as Mr. Zhongli describes it) that’s loosening his tongue. But as the chopsticks clatter out of Childe’s hands once more, and Zhongli carefully places them back safely in his fingers, the impulse Childe’s fought to bury under alley scraps and debt collection and strings tugged in shadows refuses to stay drowned.

“Mr. Zhongli,” he blurts, and he knows he should stop talking, but like a frenzied battle, he stands somewhere outside of himself, and can only watch the bloody aftermath. “We’ve been doing this for some time—and while I am grateful for your help—”

Zhongli’s hands go very still on top of his. Childe cannot look away from them, cannot stop thinking of the way they’d feel brushing against his cheek instead, or carding through his hair. It’s all he can think about, some days, until he pounds the training bags in his room so hard that he can’t think of anything at all.

“You are correct,” Zhongli says, in his infuriatingly measured tone. “These business dinners are not strictly necessary to our cause.”

Childe shakes his head, and wrenches his hand away. “Then why do you keep proposing them? Why keep dragging me out? I appreciate the company, don’t get me wrong, I just want to understand—”

Zhongli’s hands flutter and settle in his lap, and he stares down at the remains of his food. Silent, for once. That’s what Childe’s recklessness has done. The man who has an answer, a historiography, a platitude and philosophical teaching for everything looks humiliated and cowed.

“I have taken advantage of your generosity,” Zhongli says slowly. “Forgive me. I did not intend—”

“No. Stop. That isn’t what Î mean.” Childe clenches a fist, the urge to fight his way out of these feelings too strong. “I just have to know if you genuinely like sharing these outings with me, or if I’m just some—” A Snezhnayan swear dances on his tongue, but it’s too late. He might as well barrel on. “If I’m just an easy mark.”

Zhongli blinks, lifting his chin. Bright amber eyes meet Childe’s, and his gaze is so open and unflustered that it’s downright infuriating. Slowly, a smile carves itself across those stoic lips.

“I see,” Zhongli says, and Childe’s certain there’s a hint of amusement, of taunting in his tone. Bastard. “And which would you prefer?”

Childe’s mouth pops open. Is Zhongli trying to goad him into admitting what he feels? He’d just all but said as such. That he longs for this time spent with him; that he could listen to that voice, resounding like granite, for hours on end. That he doesn’t even care how much of Snezhnaya’s money or his own he has to throw away for another glimpse—

“I want you to enjoy this, too.”

Zhongli’s eyes become crescents as he smiles, and shakes with a faint laugh.

“I have exceedingly enjoyed every minute spent with you, Childe. There is this restlessness inside you that always seems to still when we’re together like this. It is . . .” A mischievous twinkle in that soft copper gaze. “Gratifying to know that I am something of a calming presence to you.”

It’s more than just calming. Vexing, sometimes. But that shiver and hum and feral gnawing need inside Childe that he feels most days attenuates in Zhongli’s presence, and he can focus it solely on him. A fish hooked and dragged along, no longer thrashing and fighting.

“I am very pleased with the progress you’ve made, in fact, in the short time we’ve known each other. You’ve acquired a certain level of . . . patience. Of enjoying yourself in the moment, rather than readying yourself always to pounce. I admire it.”

The words ring inside of Childe, inside of that strange hollow in him that he’s forever trying to fill with movement, effort, noise. Most of the time when he’s around Zhongli, it’s like every part of him is in alignment, and he can think clearer, move better, smile more without it being forced. And even when he’s frustrated, when his heart is brimming with too much want and uncertainty, he can rage and rage, and Zhongli is unshaken, the sea battering itself against ancient cliffs.

But he wants, sometimes, for Zhongli to—return it, too. He wants to feel like, for this man, he is more than just a passing storm.

“I don’t want this to end.”

Zhongli’s eyebrows lift, and his mouth softens, those pink lips rounding with faint surprise. An emotion, Childe thinks, victorious, petty. So he can feel emotion, too.

And then Zhongli’s gloved palm is pressed to his cheek, and Childe goes very, very still, not wanting to startle him away.

“I think I understand.”

Yes. Yes, Childe thinks, his breath burning in his lungs. He starts to turn his head with the wild idea to press his lips to that palm, and then Zhongli’s exposed wrist, and then those lips that so rarely sport anything but a faintly satisfied smile. He wants to see them shocked, breathless, overcome. Will he taste like expensive plum wine? Like amber and spices and jade?

—But Zhongli pulls his hand away before Childe can act, and reaches into his coat pocket for his tiny notebook.

“I have a request of you,” Zhongli says, jotting something down on a blank page. “Several, actually, but we shall take them one at a time.”

“Excuse me—”

Zhongli tears the piece of paper out neatly, on the seam, and holds it out to Childe between two slender fingers. “There is a tannery north of here, near the Wangshu Inn. They produce exceptionally high-quality goods from their own herd. I will require one yard of their thickest product.”

Childe stares at the paper, fury blurring the script. He tried to tell Zhongli how he felt—nearly an act of treason, really, a betrayal of all that it is to be a Harbinger, forming dangerous attachments to non-Snezhnayans—and the man is sending him on an errand?

“Once you’ve acquired it, then I will give you the name of the leatherworker I wish you to take it to. Let me know at lunch next week how you’ve progressed.”

Zhongli is looking at him with a sturdy amber gaze: those nearly glowing eyes framed neatly in the dark lines of his lashes and a bright chevron of red that is never anything but immaculate. Childe wonders what it would be like to see that makeup smudged, that placid expression contorted. He supposes he will never get the chance.

“Sure.” He shoves the paper into his back pocket. “Whatever you say, Mr. Zhongli.”

A tiny smile curls Zhongli’s lips. “If, by the end of these tasks, you still feel this same way, then perhaps that is something we can discuss.”

The tannery is only the first stop on Childe’s countless chain of errands, but the cost of that purchase alone has him second-guessing himself.

Six hundred thousand mora for what appears to be thick shoe leather. He should’ve known there was no real purpose to any of this; that once again, Mr. Zhongli is simply taking advantage, in his calm and patient way, of the Northland Bank and the Fatui’s determination to glean his knowledge at all costs. Then comes the cost of the leather dyeing. The embroiderer. The blacksmith at some special forge outside of Qingce. Each time, Zhongli provides him with an address, a name, and carefully written instructions to be given to the artisan alone.

“Please understand that this is some matter of discretion,” Zhongli tells Childe over tea one afternoon. “I am sure a man of your station knows how to be discreet.”

Sly insults and faint praise delivered in the same granite tone. Most days it’s enough to send Childe straight to the Fatui compound’s sparring grounds to shoot and slash and punch out his frustrations. “And you’re sure you can’t tell me what it’s for.”

“I will tell you when it is finished,” is all Zhongli says. “If you still wish to know.”

Childe loses himself in his duties. He has much to prepare, and the infuriating funeral consultant is only supposed to be a tiny sliver of his plan. There’s no real reason for him to be taking the man to countless business meals, or accompany him to the Liyue Opera, the boat races in the harbor, the street festivals. There’s no cause for Childe to keep seeing that maddening face when he closes his eyes, or hear that voice in his dreams, patient and never breaking. But as much as it enrages him, it soothes him, too. As he conducts his business forging the Sigils of Permission, he dreads the day it will be gone.

All the more reason not to follow through with these absurd requests.

He’s waiting at yet another workshop, this time for a woodcarver, when he thinks about walking right out and never calling on the maddening Mr. Zhongli again.

He lingers at the door as the woodcarver bumbles around in his cabinets, trying to find the order Childe’s meant to pick up. It’s bound to be another exorbitant expense, just like everything else in this mystery project. Even Childe’s insatiable curiosity is barely enough to sustain him. No matter how much Zhongli’s careful smile might widen to see his project completed…

Childe closes his eyes, too many emotions welling up in his throat. None of this matters. All that matters is recovering the Exuvia for the Tsaritsa, and then he can be away from this place, away from this infuriating man of no importance who’s dragged his claws into Childe’s heart. Whatever game he’s playing at to assemble his little gift doesn’t matter. The gift itself—doesn’t matter. It’s not what Childe came here to do.


Childe turns back to the counter, and the shopkeep is holding out a heavy wooden box to him. The stained wood gleams like fresh blood, carved with intricate scenes on all faces—a Liyuean dragon darting through choppy seas. Jagged stone pillars jut from the waves, somehow at once both violent and steadying.

“That’ll be six hundred forty-three thousand mora, sir,” the shopkeep says.

“Bill it to the Northland Bank,” Childe mutters, and tucks the box under his arm to hurry away.

For a few days, the box taunts him, wedged on a shelf in his elegant but sparse rented townhome. He wonders what might be inside that was so dreadfully important to Mr. Zhongli. Or if it’s really so important, after all.

Then Childe shoves it to the bottom of his clothing trunk, so he doesn’t have to stare at it any longer. His work in Liyue is nearly done. If Zhongli cares so much about his damned box, then he can come get it himself from Childe.

Childe cannot worry about some strange man from the funeral parlor any longer. Not when the Tsaritsa’s prize is in reach.

And then the Golden House, and the Traveler’s cruel tricks, and La Signora’s and Mr. Zhongli’s—Rex Lapis’s—tricks—crueler still.

Childe tears through his townhome in a rage. The paper fans from the opera he attended with Zhongli—mangled and burned. A peacock-patterned silk scarf Zhongli said complemented his eyes—torn to shreds. Tea leaves dumped into the gardens, a pressed glaze lily crumbled, a pair of chopsticks snapped in half.

Did Zhongli truly think so little of him? Was he nothing but a passing amusement for the gods to be led about by the nose? The dark thing in Childe’s heart dreamed of pinning down that infuriatingly calm smile and shredding it with his claws, of ripping his heart out as he should have done with the man’s gnosis, if only he’d known. The dark thing laughed and laughed at Childe’s misery. Still the foolish child who barely escaped from us, if you think yourself worthy of being loved.

Childe reaches the cursed box, and wants to smash it against the stone floor. All that work for nothing. Dancing on the Geo Archon’s strings, again and again. The man used to be able to create his own mora, and still he’d played his stupid game.

The dragon stares at Childe from the box’s lid, so serene even as the waves drink it in.

His mouth tasting like ash, Childe slips out into the night.

Zhongli—or Morax, or whoever he really is—answers the door as calmly as ever, not looking the least bit surprised to see Childe once more. “An unexpected pleasure,” he muses, and steps back to allow Childe inside.

Childe wriggles out of his boots—already a habit in his short time in Liyue—and storms past him. Zhongli’s home is modest, and yet brimming all over with trinkets, vases and books and clothing and training weaponry all jumbled up, crammed in every corner. Far more disorderly than Childe would have expected, for someone so fastidious. But then, he supposes anyone is bound to gather a few keepsakes over the course of a few millennia. He recognizes the same paper fan from the opera that he’d destroyed just hours ago, displayed prominently on a side table, and looks away with a heated face.

“You seemed quite distraught at the bank earlier today.” Zhongli appears behind him, and Childe twitches, fighter’s instincts always on guard. “Is there something troubling you?”

“You lied.” He whirls around to face him. “You lied, and you let me think you were someone else, and I almost destroyed your precious city—that is, threaten it, at least—and still you act like everything’s the same—”

The sudden flash of hot white in those warm amber eyes chills whatever more Childe planned to say.

“I never said things would be the same.”

Childe’s jaw clenches as he tries to gather his thoughts. It was so much easier when he thought Zhongli was no one. If he was just no one, there wouldn’t be reason to hate him so much right now. He could be laughing off his adventures with him over a glass of plum wine at the pavilion, or stargazing on Yujing Terrace.

Or Childe could be dead, pinned beneath one of those stone spears by a Rex Lapis who thought nothing of a mortal such as he.

“Childe.” Zhongli holds out one hand. “What are you holding?”

Childe shoves the box at him, his face burning, his eyes stinging. “Your stupid project.” He blinks furiously, backing away. He needs to get out of here. Far away from Liyue and its cruel, unsentimental archon. “Thought you might want it back before I go.”

“Childe, wait.”

Childe turns, woolen socks slipping on the bamboo flooring. He catches himself in the doorway, and reaches down for his boots. He can put them on once he’s back on the streets, out from under that gleaming gaze.


A hand falls on Childe’s shoulder, far firmer than Childe would have expected. He’s received countless friendly clasps of the shoulder from “Mr. Zhongli,” and they were all too tantalizingly light and brief. This has weight. Heft.

“Childe, please.

And it’s that fracture spreading through Zhongli’s voice that makes the first tear spill down Childe’s face. The first true crack in unshakable calm. Childe scrubs at his face, but he can’t stop the tide of emotion sweeping over him. He can no longer pretend he’s anything but hurt.

“What do you want,” he sighs, and drops his boots.

“Please. Come. Sit.” Zhongli holds his shoulder a few moments longer before clearing his throat and backing away. “There’s something I’d like to say to you.”

Childe lets himself be led to the sitting room. Crowded, like the rest of the space, though not overwhelmingly so. Zhongli sits in a padded armchair, jade silk embroidered with a pattern of cranes and stars, and motions for Childe to take the seat opposite him. The way Zhongli sits, it's as if he could make any seat into a throne, radiant in amber and ochre and twisting a terrible ache in Childe’s heart.

  “Did you open this?” Zhongli asks, lacing his fingers together and peering at Childe over them.

Childe shakes his head. Not for lack of curiosity, but Zhongli had said . . . And he’d actually listened to him. To the deceitful traitor. “No.”

Zhongli takes the box from his lap, and holds it out to Childe. “Then it is yours,” he says, “to open now.” Only a faint tremble of the wood betrays him. “If you still wish to.”

“I don’t know,” Childe says honestly. His instinct is still to lash out. He wants to splinter that perfect, expensive wood. Anything if it’ll provoke some kind of response from the statue before him.

Zhongli exhales softly, gaze lowering. “Let me ask again, then. You asked me, once, if . . . if you meant something to me.” Another flicker of emotion in his tone draws Childe’s head up. “I could not answer you honestly then. Not without you knowing the truth. But I’d hoped that by the time you completed this project, I might find in me the courage to confess to you.” His lips twist with a sardonic smile. “I’m afraid you beat me to it, though, and learned for yourself before I had the chance.”

Childe clenches the box tight until the sharp corners bite into his flesh through his gloves. “And what’s that have to do with this box?”

Zhongli faces him head-on now, gold gaze regal and piercing. It’s a sunrise and a warning flare. “You told me that my presence brought . . . order to your sense of self. In much the way your presence brought an exhilarating challenge to mine.” He softens, leaning back in his chair. “The box was my way of asking you to be mine.”


Childe runs a gloved finger over the images. The dragon in harmony with the sea. The foam churning and battering at the cliffs. Balanced. The storm, and the stone that breaks it.

“Go ahead,” Zhongli says, his voice thick. “Open it, if you wish.”

Childe pries open the lid.

Soft black velvet lines the interior of the box, swallowing up its contents in a cushion of night. Childe pushes the velvet aside. The leather he’d purchased, had dyed, had tooled—the metal fixtures, the careful sculpting. It’s all here.

He lifts up a collar in deep red leather with richly illustrated panels of pressed leather and embroidery. Soft fur lines its interior, and a buckle of immaculate gold holds it closed. And connected to it is an even more elegant golden chain—delicate but sturdy.

“Mr. Zhongli . . .” Childe runs his thumb over the collar, his mouth dry, his chest effervescent with something he can’t name. The chaos and anger and whispers feel as if they’ve shrank down into only a single thin thread in his mind, no longer carrying him off on their tides. Something about this—whatever this is—it makes him feel—calm. Whole, in the way he’s only ever felt around Zhongli.

In control of all his broken parts, even with the thought of surrendering just that.

“Ah.” Is that a blush rising on Zhongli’s cheeks? Can ancient archons even feel embarrassment still? “Allow me to explain further. The concept is that you would wear the collar when you wish for me to—be in charge of you. And you would obey me. If you wished it.”

A manic laugh escapes Childe. “Like a pet.”

“Like a partner.”

Childe sucks in his breath as all the impossible yearnings he’s felt throughout his time in Liyue are suddenly, startlingly near.

“Forgive me. It sounds somewhat crude when I say it out loud.” Zhongli shakes his head with an embarrassed smile. “It is been quite some time since I had a lover, but it seemed to reflect that which you cherished most in our relationship, and I thought . . .”

Zhongli trails off as Childe tugs at the buckle on the collar and opens it. It’s sturdy, but lightweight—truly a testament to the many artisans’ hands that shaped it. Exacting and immaculate, just like Rex Lapis, and the mere thought that Zhongli would have selected all these elements with Childe in mind—that it was all meant to be some grand gesture, before Childe had to—well, be Childe, and ruin it all—

Childe slides from his chair and crashes to his hands and knees. “I’m sorry.” He shakes his head as the gnawing shame that chases him after the high of battle works its way into his veins. “I’m sorry, Mr. Zhongli. For everything I’ve done to you, your city—you have to understand, it was for the Tsaritsa—”

And then he feels that reassuring hand atop his head.

“I understand.” Zhongli’s gloved hand glides down Childe’s cheek, catching on a drop of moisture, and then cups beneath his chin to lift it. “I gave over my gnosis freely because I understand. I know why she must do what she’s doing, and I don’t mean to stand in her way.”

“But I still threatened your city—your people—you—” So much blood on Childe’s hands and poison in his marrow as the Abyss stakes its claim—

Zhongli smiles once more. “Now that is another matter. But one perhaps I can deal with in a minute.”

Childe sits back onto his heels, staring up at the man—archon—before him. He fell in love with him when he was no one. So Childe keeps telling himself. But Mr. Zhongli of the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor became everyone to Childe, and Rex Lapis—despite knowing just who and what Childe is—wants him all the same.

“I want to wear it,” Childe says, a little surprised by the steadiness in his voice. He lifts the collar to his throat and holds it out like a garotte wire.

Zhongli lets out a surprised little huff of breath, and it’s the sweetest sound Childe thinks he’s ever heard. “I’m glad.” And—is that what a true smile looks like from the Geo Archon? None of the statues could do it justice. “Please.” Zhongli leans forward, gloved hands brushing over Childe’s to take the collar. “Allow me.”

He fastens it around Childe’s neck, fingers working deftly, and lets it settle against his collarbone. A perfect weight and heft. Childe stays perfectly still, and for once, it’s a stillness not borne of a predator biding his time to strike. He wants to inhabit this moment forever. He is Zhongli’s—unquestionably. And it is what they both want more than anything.

“There we are.” Zhongli hooks one finger through the collar and tugs, enough to pull Childe off-balance. Snagging his attention, and he whimpers, surprised. When he looks back up at Zhongli, though, the man is still beaming with pride. “And then the leash.”

It clips easily to the collar, the gold links like glittering stardust as they cascade from Zhongli’s hand.

Slowly, Zhongli wraps the chain around his hand and curls it in a fist. Gives it an experimental tug. Childe leans into the pull, letting himself be led, until he’s leaning his cheek up against Zhongli’s knee. This close to him, he smells subtly of glaze lilies and oolong tea, and Childe can’t believe he ever thought to flee from Liyue without smelling that comforting scent again.

“Perfect,” Zhongli murmurs, carding his fingers through Childe’s hair and tracing his thumb around the shell of his ear. “It suits you as perfectly as I hoped it would.”

Childe is not a stranger to being on other’s leashes. The Tsaritsa’s, of course, though he claimed that, too, willingly. His own impulses and selfish needs. The Abyss’s—always jerking him back when he thinks he might be close to breaking free, reminding him that its hooks are always lodged inside. But with Zhongli tugging back, anchoring him to this world, he wonders if even the Abyss can stand a chance.

“But,” Zhongli says, tone hardening, “there is the matter of you threatening my city.”

Childe’s gaze shoots up, and the shame he’d felt before has now solidified, a weight dragging him down. “Um.” He works his mouth, but can’t find words. “I’m—I’m sorry—”

“Shh.” Zhongli sweeps his thumb against Childe’s lower lip, and the skin catches against the smooth leather of his glove, fluttering warmth deep in Childe’s belly. “I am not going to punish you.”

Childe lifts his head, confusion creasing his features.

“But I do want you to prove that from now on, you’re willing to obey.”

Childe nods eagerly. “Please. Anything.”

Zhongli chuckles in that rich quartz tone of his. “So ready. It pleases me.” He uncrosses his legs, Childe’s cheek resting against the outside of one thigh. “Childe. Do you . . . want me?” He exhales. “Sexually.”

Childe stifles the urge to laugh. “I thought I—made that apparent—”

“Not enough.” Zhongli smiles down at him. “I need to hear you say yes.”

He’s thought of little else in the dark hours before dawn when the thing inside him refuses to let him sleep. If he couldn’t head to the sparring ring and punch out his frustration, he’d touch himself, face buried into a pillow to muffle his cries as he envisioned the perfectly buttoned-up Mr. Zhongli disheveled, sullied, wrecked. Tearing those finely tailored silks off of him and yanking his silky long hair. He yearned for those steady hands to snap across his cheek, tear him open, pin him down. He wanted to see this no-one man’s fangs and claws, and lose himself to them again and again.

Yes,” Childe breathes, rubbing his cheek against Zhongli’s knee. “Yes, please, yes.”

Zhongli’s fingers curl around Childe’s messy locks and tugs his head back so he can stare right at him. His other hand pulls taut, the gold chain sparkling, and Childe feels the wonderful sensation of his throat being constricted by that sweet leathery embrace. Amber eyes bore down on him, seeing every lie he’s told, every scheme he’s hatched, every madness he’s indulged, and then Zhongli shifts his thighs so Childe is between them.

“Show me,” Zhongli growls.

Childe wastes no time shuffling closer, mouthing at the inside of Zhongli’s thigh. The luxurious taste of finely woven suiting, scented with lavender soap, fills his mouth. He brings his hands up to seek out the fastenings of Zhongli’s trousers, but his gloves, light and thin though they are, make it a more arduous task than he intended, and it’s a painstaking process to unbutton and pry apart his waistband—

The chain jerks, sharp, with another low grunt from Zhongli. “Quit stalling.”

Childe moans, his heated breath gusting down, the tug to his throat more erotic than he could possibly have imagined. He kisses the exposed muscle of Zhongli’s abdomen, just below his navel, and it’s so firm, so inviting that part of him wants to linger on it forever. But the soft trail of dark hair begs to be followed, so he does so, until at last he’s easing Zhongli’s cock from its confines like some precious gem.

“Good boy,” Zhongli breathes, shifting back further to grant Childe better access. And for all Zhongli is in control here, that raggedness in his tone only makes Childe want to see all the more how much it can fray.

He curls his tongue around the base of Zhongli’s shaft, so thick and heavy, and makes a long, slow lap all the way to the tip. He’s uncut, and crystalline drops of precome on the head dissolve like sugar on Childe’s lips. Childe rounds his mouth and begins to slide his way down with his gaze fixed on Zhongli’s. Watching for every twitch and curl to his lip and flutter to his dark eyelashes. Every sign of Zhongli’s pleasure only adds to Childe’s own.

Finally his lips sink to the hilt, and he groans, wondering if he can stay like this forever, how long he can make this last.

Zhongli must sense some of what he’s thinking, though, because there’s another jerk to the chain. “I did not ask you to tease me, Childe.”

Childe laughs around his cock, the sound surely rippling through Zhongli, and flicks his gaze up with a smirk. He pauses just a moment too long before finally he begins to bob his lips.

Throat working, clutching and swallowing, tongue rubbing and cheeks hollowing. Zhongli tastes of warmth and comfort, like sinking his toes into the sand of the beach on a rare summer’s day. That salty tang at the back of his throat drives him on, as do the sighs sneaking past Zhongli’s elegant lips. More than once Childe risks a glance up at him through his copper lashes to find Zhongli watching him, eyes bright but soft, mouth parted as if in wonder.

“More,” Zhongli orders him, and Childe has never been good at obedience but this man, this man, he wants to obey.

He pushes Zhongli’s thighs wider so he can curl one palm beneath the heft of his balls, and the fingers in his hair pull harder, approving. Knowing Zhongli wants it—wants him—feels like a match struck inside Childe, and his own erection is trapped and aching and yet he can’t imagine anything feeling more pleasurable than making use of his mouth for this man. Like he’s been breathed to life just so he can milk Zhongli’s cock with his lips and his tongue, and he wants to do so for as long as he can.

But then Zhongli tugs on the chain, and fists at his hair, and warns him, in a breathy sob that is the most delirious lack of composure yet, “Close,” and Childe swallows until he feels the crown of Zhongli’s cock inside his throat and then he’s choking and gagging on a rush of liquid heat that burns straight through him.

Zhongli lets go of his hair, and the leash goes slack as he falls back into his chair, chest heaving with silent gasps. White seed spills from around Childe’s lips, even as he tries to swallow it all down, and he slowly slides his lips off of Zhongli’s softening shaft without taking his eyes from the man.

Zhongli laughs softly, and tries to straighten Childe’s ever-unruly hair. “Well done, pet. Well done.” He leans forward, and mashes his lips to Childe’s, desperate and frenzied in his kiss. Childe moans into it as Zhongli’s tongue scours his mouth, eager, it seems, to taste himself there. Childe pushes back into him, but offers himself up for Zhongli, an eager sacrifice for whatever ruthlessness in him had been dormant for too long.

When he does pull back, leaving Childe breathless, Zhongli’s thumb dabs at the corner of Childe’s lips. “Although . . . it would seem you’ve made a bit of a mess.” He lifts one eyebrow at Childe. “You had better clean it up.”

Childe swallows, then looks around to find he’d dribbled some of Zhongli’s spend onto the immaculate bamboo flooring. “Um.” Panic squeezes him for a moment. “Y-yes. Of course.” Then he darts out his tongue, hesitant at first, tapping it against the drops of come. As Zhongli nods approvingly, Childe relaxes, and laps it up in slow, easy strokes, though he fears it’s impossible to get all of it from the crevices of the fine weave.

“Much better.” The chain tinkles as Zhongli adjusts his grip on it. “Now, then. I want you on your elbows and knees. Jacket off and pants down, please.”

For all the politeness in his tone, there is still that brusque bedrock beneath it, and Childe’s pulse races with an unmatched need to obey him. “Yes, Mr. Zhongli.” He undoes the fastenings on his jacket first and peels it off—starts to toss it aside, until a warning glance from Zhongli makes him reconsider, folding it up carefully and setting it beside him instead. Then he unbuttons the front of his trousers, his erection bobbing heavy as it’s freed, and shoves them down to his knees.

Almost as soon as he stretches out to place his elbows before him, Zhongli’s gloved hands run over the curve of his ass, caressing and tugging until a soft cry escapes Childe. “As magnificent as I’d hoped,” Zhongli appraises, with the sort of fervor he typically reserves for rare gems. Childe barely has time for a blush to spread across his face when those gloved hands part his cheeks, and hot breath gusts over his hole. He clenches instinctively, until one of the hands withdraws, and then strikes his ass with a fierce crack.

“Ungh!” Childe lurches forward, face brushing against the floor where he’d dribbled some of Zhongli’s come. Heat radiates from the slap, burning deep through his muscle almost to the bone, even as Zhongli then softens his palm to rub the strike back and forth in a gentle caress.

“Relax,” Zhongli chides him. “It won’t do you any good to tense up.” Childe swallows, and tries to unfurl his muscles until he hears Zhongli hum in approval. “That’s much better.”

Something wet and firm drags up Childe’s crack, and he inhales sharply, though manages to keep his body loose. With a soft growl, Zhongli’s tongue presses at the tight ring of his hole. As he nudges Childe open, his teeth nip at the tender skin around his entrance, and within moments, he’s pushing his tongue into Childe in a slow rhythm of biting and sucking and writhing, until tears are burning in Childe’s eyes and a long, silky strand of precome drools from his untouched cock.

“Please, Mr. Zhongli. Please!” Childe balls his hands into fists, the tantalizing closeness of that tongue to his core too much to bear. “Just—please, I want—”

Zhongli stretches one hand out over the roiling muscles of Childe’s back, and drags it slowly down his spine, as if stilling a frenzied horse. “Tell me what you want,” he says coolly. “Be precise, pet.”

“I want—” Childe’s face is burning, now. “I want you inside of me.” He gulps, a tendril of drool leaking from his mouth.

“Ah. You would like for me to fuck you.” Zhongli chuckles as if he’s just won some bet with himself. “Then I think I can accommodate.”

The chain rustles, and pulls snug at Childe’s throat once more. Childe waits, heart hammering in his ears, straining to hear the faint rustle of Zhongli’s clothing behind him, and his ass feels cold, left untouched and exposed in the air. He can smell his own sweat, and wishes he could bury himself in Zhongli’s scent all over again.

But finally Zhongli grabs hold of him by one hip, and there’s a firmness pressing against Childe’s hole. Slicked with oil, but even so, it feels as if it takes forever for Zhongli to ease into him, nudging the head of his cock just barely within him and holding there before sighing and sinking in further. Childe chokes back a wail as he’s overcome with a sense of fullness, of heat, and when Zhongli pushes against that node deep inside of him, it’s all he can do not to lose himself entirely right then.

“You are tighter than I would have expected,” Zhongli muses, “for such an eager whore.”

Childe drags his fingers uselessly against the flooring as his tears cascade onto it. “I’m not—I don’t really—”

“Do you not pleasure yourself, thinking of me?” Zhongli pulls the leash hard, the gold chains crinkling, and the collar constricts around Childe’s throat.

“I do! I just didn’t—” He swallows. “You’re, um. Bigger than I thought . . .”

Zhongli laughs, and digs his fingers into Childe’s hips with bruising strength. “I can be as big as I wish to be.” He lets Childe sit with that thought for only a moment, though. “But perhaps another time.”

And then he begins to pump his hips into Childe, and Childe can barely think of anything at all.

Zhongli is a torrent of movement, each thrust driving straight to Childe’s core, pushing and pushing him until all his thoughts and impulses and furies are driven out and there’s room for nothing else. Not even the whispers of the Abyss can find him, deep in the place of obedience. He belongs to no one but Zhongli in this moment.

Zhongli shoves one hand against the back of Childe’s head, grinding his face into that flooring he ruined so, while the other keeps the chain tugged tight. The slide of the oil only adds further friction along with the measured, refined grunts that seep out of Zhongli, each one like a secret gift for Childe to cherish all his own.

At last Zhongli brings his hand down, and coils the delicate chain around Childe’s cock as he takes it in his palm. “I want you to come for me when I command it, pet. Do you understand?”

“Y-yes,” Childe whimpers, silently pleading for it to be soon.

“Good.” Zhongli falls quiet for too long, though his pace quickens, the firmness of his abdomen like a slap against Childe’s ass with each pump. Finally—“Now.”

Childe cries out, and it’s as if his whole body is drifting on the tide that pulls him between the world and the Abyss, control and chaos, himself and the self that he keeps hidden until the time is right. He claws at the floor to try to anchor him as Zhongli’s fist pumps his climax out of him, come pouring down his shaft and coating Zhongli’s fist and the gold chain. And the surge of heat inside of him stretches and pushes at all of his confines as Zhongli slams into him and holds firm, refusing to let Childe shy away from him even one inch as he comes once more.

“My pet.” Zhongli gasps out the words as he slowly unclenches his hand from Childe’s hair and rocks back, still partly inside him. “You are . . . everything I hoped.”

Childe can’t help the rush of pride swelling inside him. Wouldn’t want to if he could.

Zhongli wraps his arms around Childe to steady him and gently pulls him upright and into his lap. Clothed arms wrap around Childe to brace him as he kisses and bites at his shoulder and the back of his neck, still, it seems, brimming with all those emotions he never dared show in all the months that came before. And Childe drinks it all in, unable to move, unable to want anything but this moment for the rest of his life.

“Are you all right, Childe?” Zhongli asks, nose tracing down his neck.

“I’m perfect,” Childe breathes, then finally turns his head to gaze at those warm eyes, now topaz with adoration. “You’re perfect.”

And Zhongli actually blushes, lowering his gaze with a laugh, before kissing Childe’s lips, and holds him there for a long moment until Childe could swear he feels the pounding of both their hearts.

“Although . . .” Zhongli glances down at the floor around them. “I’m afraid you did make another mess.”

Childe turns in his arms to face him, only for Zhongli to laugh.

“I tease, pet. Come.” Zhongli scoops Childe up in his arms. “Let’s get you cleaned up first.”