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What is art?

Childe knows what he sees as art. So far gone is the little boy from Snezhnaya that once did sloppy doodles on endless snow and stared in fascination at the circles Father would cut into the frozen lake’s ice. Now, art is the polished technique as he swings a blade, the stiff perfection of an archer’s posture he still can’t nail down. Art is that hellish dance, the way steel sings as swords clash--

He’s interrupted by the sound of Zhongli calling his name, seated across him on the breakfast table. It’s only then that Childe realizes how long he’s been staring out the window. “Hm?”

“What’s on your mind?”

Childe shakes his head. “Nothing, really.”

That not-answer isn’t quite a lie. For a Fatui Harbinger, such thoughts are naught but fleeting moments of reflection, the image on a still lake in the seconds before the wind blows over and ripples dance and distort it.

A battle’s fleeting stillness in the moments before first blood.

“I wish to walk through the city this morning. Will you accompany me?”

“Yeah, let’s go,” At this point, that answer may well be instinct. What had happened, happened. Plans were drawn and carried out. At the end of the day, what can Childe say for himself? He’d been played like an old erhu, that’s what.

And in spite of all that, there he was, hovering around Zhongli still, not unlike the bird in that painting hovering around the flowering tree. Did that bird, too, fall prey to a scheme that went beneath its notice?

Zhongli stops right when he’s at the doorway, hand halfway through opening the door when he realizes something. “Ah, before we go--”

“Wait, Zhongli,” Childe reaches for the cuff of his coat.

“Yes?”

There’s a small smile on his face as he acts on a whim and offers, “...Let me do it for you, this time.”

“Oh?”

“Your eyeliner. Mind if I?”

Zhongli smiles back. “Very well. Do my eyeliner for me, then.”

Childe’s hand slides down to Zhongli’s, their gloved hands having no force or pressure as they make their way back into the bedroom. Childe pulls the chair back enough for Zhongli to take a seat in front of the mirror, before looking through the drawers for the small brush and the orange henna.

Whatever else there is between them, it’s all feathery touches and a soft grip as Childe holds Zhongli’s face with one hand and lines his eyes, watching his work through the reflection.

Childe knows what he’s seeing is art. For this moment, at least, even the anger of yesterday--from being treated as an unwitting pawn in a backroom deal that has brought upon him the wrath of Liyue--fades into this uncertain but easy silence of a quiet morning. Now, art is the brief, gentle passage of the brush, his quiet contentment at a small job well done. Art is the way the light shines through the windows and frames Zhongli’s face, the complement the eyeliner gives those amber eyes.

“There. Is it good?”

Zhongli holds Childe’s wrist, graces him with that soft smile once again through the reflection. “Thank you. Yes, it is good.”

This is art.