“S-so this is the power of a Harbinger…”
Fatui operatives spoke in awe all around Childe, but he couldn’t help but be disappointed.
Two ruin guards, three Abyss mages, and about twenty hilichurls. Of course that wouldn’t be enough to stop him.
What a shame… and I was looking forward to a challenge too.
They’d gotten intel that the Abyss mages here had gotten their hands on some incredibly powerful ancient relic. Naturally, the Fatui had been assigned to get their hands on it before anyone else might catch wind of the intel.
But for how “powerful” this relic was supposed to be, the security for it was certainly underwhelming.
Childe can’t help but wonder if the entire endeavor is a waste of time.
Discarding the thought, he barks out orders to the still gossiping operatives.
“Search the entire area! Leave no stone left unturned!”
The entire squad of about twenty called out in unison before breaking up to search the camp. Childe sighed.
But just as he was about to head off, he turned quickly and fired an arrow over his shoulder.
The hilichurl, who’d apparently been playing dead (showing an intelligence Childe had not been expecting), went flying backwards. However, Childe wasn’t completely able to avoid the arrow it had aimed at him. It nicked him somewhere on his upper left arm.
He clicked his tongue.
“Got a bit careless…”
The injury stung painfully, so Childe looked at it expecting to see a pretty big cut. But it was a very minor injury. Though it had sliced through his clothing, the cut itself was insignificant. It was so small, in fact, that there was hardly any blood present. A simple graze.
Seeing it wasn’t serious, Childe was ready to leave it at just that. But then he noticed the offending arrow, lodged into a tree behind him, half broken.
It was shaped like any other ordinary arrow, except there was a strange bluish colour to it. When Childe walked closer, he realised the colour he’d seen was from strange, intricate patterns that were drawn directly onto it. They looked like they might be some sort of runes, but they weren’t a variety Childe recognised from the Abyss or otherwise.
He wanted to inspect it further, but just then, Ekaterina called out to him from somewhere else in the camp.
“Master Childe! The relic has been located!”
Childe quickly pulled the half-arrow out of the tree, and it stuck into the small satchel on the side of his hip.
A problem for later I guess.
When Childe shivered upon re-entering Liyue Harbour, he hadn’t thought anything was wrong with him despite knowing that it’s far too warm for such a reaction from his body. Nor had he thought anything was wrong when a dizzy spell hit him very suddenly as he was seeing off the ship heading to Snezhnaya with the relic (as well as a package to his family) in tow.
It was only when he was talking to Andrei inside an office in the Northland Bank, discussing matters of “uncollected debts”, that Childe realises something was terribly wrong.
“Knowing all this, Miss. Yao’s debts have been repaid and there is no further need for investigation. On the matter of Mr. Zhao...”
As Childe listened to him speak, he couldn’t help but absentmindedly wonder if maybe there was something wrong with the building’s ventilation. It seemed far too stuffy, as if the air around him was as heavy as a Vishap.
On another note, his head absolutely ached, almost as if someone had slammed it into the side of a building.
It was an all consuming ache, and it seemed to be spreading from his head to the rest of his body, resulting in a bone deep pain that made Childe feel tired and oversensitive. When his hand slightly brushed the wall next to him, the feeling of it spread through his whole body like an uncomfortable sludge.
“Master Childe? Are you alright? You seem a bit pale…”
At the sound of his name, Childe quickly snapped back to attention.
“Ah, yes, apologies.” When he spoke, it sounded… strange. Unreal. Like it hadn’t come out of his own mouth. Like he was merely an observer, watching someone else speak with his own voice and face from far away. The room seemed to only get stuffier.
Why is it so hard to breathe in here?
“You’ll have to excuse me, Andrei. I’ve just remembered I have some… prior business to attend to.”
Childe turned quickly to exit the office.
“But, Master Childe-”
“I’ll return soon. We’ll finish our discussion then.”
Childe could only hope it didn’t look like he was running away as he exited that room and promptly sped out of the building.
Childe almost despaired when he found the outside of the Northland Bank almost as bad as the inside.
That heavy, stuffy feeling had followed him out, weighing him down more and more as he wandered around Liyue Harbour, desperately trying to clear his mind with the fresh air but to no avail. His headache refused to subside, only seeming to grow in intensity as he dragged his feet aimlessly.
He passed some Fatui operatives, and though he remembers vaguely that they may have greeted him, he does not remember what he had said back, if anything at all.
His surroundings seemed to fade and dim around him periodically, as if he was walking through a dreamscape. It should’ve bothered Childe more than it did, but he was already so out of it by this point that it didn’t really matter.
And now, he stops, and tries to really take in where he’s ended up.
That’s when he realises his feet had taken him to the one place in Liyue Harbour he’d been trying to avoid.
Despite his fading grip on lucidity, Childe can’t help but smile bitterly.
Of course I’d end up here, of all places…
Almost on cue, the doors to the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour open, and out walks the source of Childe’s frustration, in all his glory.
Zhongli hasn’t noticed him yet, and Childe simply stands still and stares at him as he closes the door of the building.
He looks just as ethereal as he had all those months ago, and even through the fog of pain, Childe can’t help but feel frustrated at that.
Childe contemplates his next move, but before he can do anything, Zhongli is already turning and walking towards him.
“Childe?” Embarrassingly, some part of Childe wants to run away from him immediately. “I wasn’t aware you were still in Liyue Harbour.”
Steeling himself, Childe does his best to smile at him as he speaks.
“Ah, Mr. Zhongli. Yes, I had left, but some… urgent business came up, and I have been called back for a short time.”
Zhongli nods, as if he doesn’t care for more explanation than this. This shouldn’t bother Childe, but he feels almost angry that he won’t ask more.
That he doesn’t care anymore than that.
He bites the side of his cheek.
“If you would like, I can treat you to lunch? It has been a while since you and I have had the time to chat.”
And Childe can’t help but laugh at that.
As if I wouldn’t end up paying for it anyway.
“So you will pretend like nothing has happened?” He hopes the bitterness in his voice doesn’t seep out as much as he thinks it does. “Come on, Mr. Zhongli. After that fiasco you tricked me into taking part in, you think we can simply bury the hatchet without a fight? You wound me.”
Zhongli’s impassive face does not change.
“Oh, is that so.” Childe wonders if he imagined the note of hurt in his voice. “That’s a shame.”
Liquid rage fills him at those words, threatening to burst out of his skin. However, the feeling is too much for his aching body and his splitting head spins. He brings a hand up to his forehead, and leans on unsteady legs against the railing.
And he finally sees another expression pass through Zhongli’s face.
“You don’t look well. Is something the matter?”
Childe looks up at Zhongli, who looks at him with eyes full of nothing but concern.
Like he’s weak.
He wills himself to smile.
“It is nothing, Mr. Zhongli.” He rights himself and hopes it doesn’t look like the railing is supporting his entire weight. “Now, that fight I was talking about. Are you up for it?”
Zhongli frowns at him.
“I do not think you are ready to face me. Especially not in this state.”
The words and their implication should irritate him further, but Childe’s mind is too muddled to even properly process them.
In fact, all the rage and frustration he had felt towards Zhongli simply seems to vanish at that moment.
He’s just so tired.
“Is that so…” He lets the sentence trail off. “Haha. Are you… underestimating… me…?”
He trails off, suddenly too tired to even finish the sentence. What was he even talking about? It suddenly doesn’t seem to matter much.
Childe just wants to rest.
His legs buckle and he falls to his knees.
Footsteps approach him quickly.
Childe opens his eyes (When did he close them?) and suddenly Zhongli is right in front of him, both hands on either one of his shoulders. For some reason, the touch is so comforting, Childe can’t help but melt into the grip Zhongli has on him.
“Are you alright? Childe?”
Some part of Childe wants to give a snarky answer, wants to sock the man in front of him right in his pretty face. But it feels like his entire being is suspended in the air and only hanging on by a thread. When he tries to speak, only a small pathetic sound comes out.
He watches with rapidly blurring vision as Zhongli brings his gloved hand to his mouth and bites on to the leather tip of the index finger. He’s entranced as the glove slides off seamlessly, revealing a beautiful unscarred hand underneath.
Childe only has a second to wonder if that hand feels as soft as it looks before he finds out the answer first hand.
He can’t help but whimper when that cool, soft hand touches his overheated forehead.
“You’re burning up.”
And Childe can’t help but think that that’s a bit strange. He uses every last bit of lucid thought he has to sort out why.
Because he hadn’t been sick in the morning. In fact, he’d felt healthier than he’d been in months.
That’s when he remembered.
That strange arrow…
For a tiny nick, it sure hurt like hell.
He’d truly been careless.
There were dark spots in his vision now. He isn’t quite sure how much longer he can hold on to his consciousness, so he leans forward desperately, further into Zhongli’s palm, chasing it’s cool relief.
“Zhongli… i-in my satchel… there’s a broken arrow… from a hilichurl...”
He could barely see Zhongli’s incredulous look.
“A broken arrow…?”
Despite himself, Childe laughed.
“Yes… it looked so strange you know? Had some kind of runes on it. I-I’d never seen anything like it before. So I had to pick it up… maybe get one of the Fatui researchers to look at it…”
Childe felt as if all the strength had suddenly left his body, and he slumped forward, almost like a marionette cut from its strings.
Zhongli put both his hands on his shoulders again. gripping him tight while trying to keep Childe upright. But the world around Childe was rapidly fading.
He had to hurry.
“Zh-Zhongli-” Using whatever strength was left in his body, Childe managed to grab onto the lapels of Zhongli’s coat. “O-on my upper arm. It scratched me.”
Childe’s head swam. An instinct inside him screamed for him to run, to not let Zhongli see him so vulnerable, to not let him near him in such a state.
But another instinct, the one that had leaned into his palm like a starved man, had won over.
Zhongli is safe. Let him take care of you.
And if Childe had any more strength, he would laugh at the thought. But all he can do right now is smile up at Zhongli’s increasingly horrified face.
Zhongli will protect you.
It’s the last thing Childe can say.
Zhongli’s grip on him is strong. Usually this discovery would excite Childe, still anticipating their inevitable confrontation in battle.
But all it gives him now is comfort as his body succumbs to the darkness.
Childe wakes up to the sound of voices, speaking much too loudly above him, and the feeling that he’s both too warm and too cold at the same time.
He’s covered in what might be a mountain full of blankets. When he moves slightly to try free himself of it, his whole body feels like a giant bruise of pain.
Almost immediately after, a cool, bare hand touches his overheated face. The relief of it makes him whimper.
“You shouldn’t move too much.”
At the sound of Zhongli’s soothing voice, he manages to open his eyes slightly.
He’s standing next to the bed Childe is lying on, eyes looking down at him with a strange expression. He’s speaking to a woman Childe vaguely recognises as a Fatui doctor. It’s probably Svetlana? Childe can’t quite make her out enough to be sure.
He’s too focused on Zhongli’s cool hand on his face to even try.
“Consultant, I hope you understand this situation requires the utmost confidentiality. We cannot have information about his condition spreading and coming into the hands of… unwanted parties.”
Probably-Svetlana’s voice sounds muffled, and Childe can barely make sense of the words coming out of her mouth. He tries to concentrate, but it only worsens the unending ache of his body, so he gives up.
Zhongli’s eyes look away from him, but the hand at Childe’s face continues to delicately stroke him. Childe almost unconsciously chases its coolness, closing his eyes again.
“I understand.” Zhongli’s voice has that same, soothing timbre as always, and Childe can’t help but relax into its notes. “Please leave the details to me. The Wangsheng Funeral Parlour will deal with this situation.”
Probably-Svetlana’s voice sounds grave. “We are in your debt.”
Childe hears the sound of heels hitting the floor, just before the gentle coolness at his cheek abruptly disappears.
“Allow me to escort you out.”
He hears Zhongli move away from him, and his eyes snap open.
Zhongli hasn’t even reached the door yet when Childe manages to fight his way out of the pile of blankets, leap out of bed, and attach himself onto his retreating back.
For some reason, having Zhongli’s body in his grasp gives Childe such an intense sense of relief, he relaxes boneless into the man.
Zhongli speaks above him.
And Childe simply tightens his hold. Were he lucid enough to think clearly, he’d probably rather destroy the funeral parlour than utter the words he said next.
But he is too far gone in his delirium by now. He barely even thinks when the words that should be buried deep inside of him find their way to his tongue.
And Zhongli freezes in his arms.
Childe pays the reaction no mind as his hold grows impossibly tighter. He buries his face into Zhongli’s back, pressing himself as close to the man as humanly possible.
“Please don’t leave me.”
Someone coughs, and a flustered voice reaches Childe’s ears. He barely pays it any mind.
“I-it’s quite alright. I can find the way out myself. Thank you again for your cooperation, consultant.”
The hurried sound of heels doesn’t even reach Childe’s mind. When Zhongli moves in his hold, Childe desperately tries to cling harder to him.
“Hey, hey, it’s alright Childe.” When Zhongli unwinds his arms around him, some part of Childe is startled at just how easily he does it. As if the death grip Childe had on him actually had no strength in it at all.
As Zhongli turns to face him, Childe’s legs begin to buckle beneath him. Zhongli manages to catch him by his upper arms before he completely collapses, and they both end up sitting on the ground.
Zhongli looks at him with a small smile on his face, and Childe thinks he almost seems fond. He brings a hand up to cup his cheek and Childe desperately leans into it again.
“Come now. Back to bed with you.”
At that, Childe barrels forwards and hugs him.
Zhongli makes a sound as if he’s been winded before quickly reciprocating. One of his hands finds its way into Childe’s hair and starts gently petting through it.
“There there… it’s alright Childe.”
Childe nuzzles into his neck, the cool feel of his skin soothing and the gentle hand in his hair comforting.
Perhaps if he wasn’t delirious, Childe might hit himself for his actions. To act like this, especially around a man who’d “wronged” him, no matter how fond he was of him… it should be humiliating. Childe had not needed anyone in a long time. Childe only needed himself to survive. To protect what’s important. That was what he had been taught down there.
That was what had kept him alive.
But now, in his delirium, he let go of all that. He couldn’t even think of it.
All he could think about was Zhongli’s comforting presence around him. For the first time in a long time, he let down every guard he’d put up since he was fourteen.
As if he was delicate china, Childe shattered at Zhongli’s feet.
But Zhongli caught all the pieces.
As he pet his hair gently, Childe heard him whisper quietly, just above his ear.
“Sleep. I’ll be right here.”
And like his voice was the best lullaby he’d ever heard, the world faded around Childe.
“You want us to help him!?”
Paimon’s shrill voice cries out in disbelief.
“Yes.” Zhongli stares impassively at the strange pair. “The arrow was imbued with ancient magic I haven’t witnessed in about a millennia. It was created back then specifically to severely incapacitate Vision holders. Other than just impairing their ability to use Visions, however, it also attacks the body in a way similar to the flu. Thankfully, I do happen to know the antidote to counteract it, and I simply require you to retrieve the necessary materials for it.”
He stands outside of the funeral parlour, speaking to Aether and his strange companion after having commissioned them through the Adventurer’s Guild.
“To be quite frank, these should have all long been destroyed, and the method of creating them, lost to the ages. But it would appear the Abyss Order has gotten their hands on some, which is quite troubling…” Zhongli trails off before shaking his head. “But this is not the current concern. For now, Childe’s recovery is the priority.”
Paimon looks at him in disbelief.
“Paimon just doesn’t understand why you’d want to help that slimy Fatui after all he’s done. He tried to destroy Liyue harbour!”
“It’s been said before, no? All of this had been my design. That rascal was instrumental in my retirement plan. Why would I hold ill will over something I orchestrated?”
Paimon makes a frustrated sound, looking like she wanted to argue, but Aether, after having seemingly been consumed by his thoughts for the past few minutes, finally speaks up.
“Why not ask the Fatui agents to bring the materials? Why just thrust this request onto us?”
Zhongli contemplates how to answer, before deciding if he’s going to rope the traveller into this, he may as well be upfront.
“The higher-ups of the Fatui currently in Liyue Harbour have all come to the agreement that his condition should be kept as private as possible, lest this causes a disturbance among the ranks of the Fatui, or invites hostile parties to pressure them due to the temporary absence of a harbinger.” Zhongli looks Aether straight in the eyes. “I happen to have a lot of trust in you due to our prior engagements, traveller. So it’s only natural that when considering the best person for this particular job, I’d thought of you.”
Aether makes a thoughtful expression before questioning Zhongli again.
“But, why not go retrieve the materials yourself? Why go through a third party if you know exactly where these materials are yourself?”
“Well… that is…”
As if on cue, the door to the funeral parlour abruptly opens behind Zhongli.
The Ferrylady’s frantic voice calls out just before an extremely warm weight attaches itself to Zhongli’s back.
Zhongli looks around, and when he’s sure no one in the general public noticed the bizarre display, he can’t help but sigh.
“Childe, you are in no condition to be moving around.”
Childe’s arms tighten around him as the man tries to seemingly bring himself as close to Zhongli as humanly possible.
The Ferrylady’s apologetic voice comes from behind him.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Zhongli! I couldn’t stop him!”
“It is quite alright, I didn’t expect him to wake up so soon. It is my fault for taking too long.” Zhongli runs his hand over Childe’s arm wrapped around his stomach.
The pair in front of him look on in disbelief. Paimon, as usual, speaks up first.
“I-is that really Childe?”
Zhongli can’t help but sigh again.
“As you can see, though I had planned on dealing with this little problem on my own as a favour from the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour to the Fatui, Childe has… become quite attached to me in his delirium.”
Childe’s face presses into his shoulder, and Zhongli raises his other hand to pet his unruly hair.
“As a result, I am currently unable to leave the funeral parlour. If he awakens and is unable to locate me, he becomes distressed and is set on locating me no matter what the consequences on his body are. If I wander off too far, there is a high chance he might compromise his own safety in this state. So it’s best that I remain here and keep an eye on him.”
They stare at Childe in what Zhongli can only describe as shock. He turns his head slightly when he feels Childe nuzzle into his shoulder, and Paimon uses the opportunity to whisper into Aether’s ear.
(“Childe is… surprisingly cute when he’s helpless???”
“Paimon! Don’t be rude!”
“What!? Paimon knows you’re thinking it too!”
“It’s just… surprising I guess. I never imagined Childe could act like this...”
The pair continue whispering until a loud groan from Childe interrupts them.
“Childe?” Zhongli pushes up Childe’s hair, trying to get a better look at his face. “What is the matter?”
Childe is quiet for a moment, merely tightening his hold around Zhongli’s middle.
But when he finally speaks behind him, his voice sounds so small.
“Zhongli… it hurts…”
And Zhongli’s chest tightens at the sound.
He unwinds Childe’s arms from around his waist and turns to him.
The man is still in the sleeping robes Zhongli had put him in, barefoot, with a severe bedhead. His face is flushed a dangerous red and his murky eyes are unseeing, even as he looks directly at Zhongli. He looks like absolute agony.
Zhongli steps forward and wraps an arm around his back.
Childe relaxes into his hold as Zhongli gets his other arm underneath his knees, and picks the man up. Childe almost immediately burrows into his neck, and breathes in deeply.
“Shh… we’ll get you back to bed now, alright?”
Zhongli turns to face Paimon and Aether again, and the two stare at the bundle in his arms with concern. Paimon floats a bit closer to get a better look and whispers in concern.
Zhongli looks down at the man in his arms. He looks so small and fragile like this, his breathing laboured, desperately leaning into him for comfort. It’s so unusual from the way the man usually acts, you’d almost think he’s a different person.
It stirs something in Zhongli’s chest. Something he can’t really put a name to.
“The magic will continue to persist until his immune system is completely compromised. And at that point well… there really won’t be anything we can do for him anymore.” He looks up at Aether gravely. “Please traveller, I am counting on you.”
And Aether looks back with steely determination in his eyes.
It should have been an odd thing for Zhongli to look after Childe. He’d never had to look after a mortal so intimately before, but in his worry, he cast all knowledge he had gained over the past few millenia to at least try and relieve the pain so clearly visible in Childe’s expression.
“Nooo… it’s so bitter…”
“Yes, I know. But you have to take this medicine.”
Childe pouted in such a childish way, Zhongli could only find it endearing.
“I don’t want to… I hate it.”
“But don’t you want it to stop hurting? This medicine made you feel better before, right? I just don’t want you to be in pain, Childe.”
Childe continued to pout where he sat on the bed, leaning against several pillows, staring at the spoon like it’s his worst enemy. Zhongli sighed.
“What would you like in return?”
Childe looked at him in hazy surprise. “Huh...?”
Zhongli lowered the spoon and stared directly at him.
“Let’s make a contract. You’ll take this medicine, and you can ask for anything from me in return. Does that sound good?”
Zhongli hadn’t actually thought it would work, but he noticed Childe looking down in concentration, apparently thinking on this deal.
Belatedly, Zhongli wonders if he’d made a mistake. That maybe Childe will ask of him information that he would never disclose. Information that the Fatui may use against the entire world.
(Ask him about his agreement with Tsaritsa. Something he can’t know. No matter what.)
But the second he sees Childe’s happy, delirious smile when he’d apparently come to a decision, all his racing thoughts settle in an instant.
“I want you to give me a hug!”
And Zhongli couldn’t help but laugh in surprise. He smiles fondly at the man in front of him, and brings up the hand not currently holding a spoon to stroke Childe’s cheek. His heart soars when Childe leans into it, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
How can he be this cute?
“Sounds like we have a contract on our hands.” He brings up the spoon again. “Now, open wide.”
Childe still looks at the spoon apprehensively, and Zhongli smooths his thumb just below his eye in a calming gesture.
“Come now. A contract implies you’ve made a promise to me, no? Will you truly break it?”
At those words, Childe’s eyes widened, and he quickly surges forward to swallow down the medicine.
He swallows a bit too quickly, however, and chokes on it, coughing painfully around his probably already sore throat. Zhongli quickly reaches for the cup of water on his bedside, and smooths one hand gently along Childe’s back, waiting for the coughing to subside.
“There there… drink.”
He helps Childe drink slowly, worried he might choke again, while continuing to stroke his back. Once the cup has been emptied, Zhongli puts it to the side and wraps his arms around the man, his breathing still laboured, his eyes growing more and more murky by the second.
“You did well, Childe.”
And Childe shivers in his arms. He speaks, but his voice is so hoarse, Zhongli has to concentrate hard to hear and understand it.
“Zhongli… you feel so nice. Don’t leave me.”
And Zhongli can’t help but press a kiss to his temple.
And so, Zhongli’s life, for several days, came to revolve around looking after a certain Fatui harbinger of all people.
Childe was kept in one of the rooms in the funeral parlour, where prying eyes were unlikely to find him. Fatui doctors would come by several times a day to check on him and attempt to use their own medicines to try alleviate his symptoms. But it seemed even they agreed that the medicine of the Bubu Pharmacy seemed to be helping him more than anything they could do.
So for the most part, Zhongli had ended up taking care of Childe on his own. He fed Childe, bathed Childe, gave Childe medicine, comforted Childe when the symptoms were too much for him to bear...
He even had a futon for himself set up in the room, worried the man might decide to wander out and look for him in the middle of the night otherwise. As a result, he has been woken up more than once to find that Childe had moved from his own bed in the middle of the night to his futon, limbs tangled in Zhongli’s, his overheated body trying to find relief in his.
(He treasures Childe’s expression then, so unguarded and relieved. He wonders how many others may have seen such a serene expression on the harbinger’s face. He wonders if it’s selfish to hope this is an expression reserved only for his eyes.
If he holds Childe closer to himself in those moments, no one would ever know.)
A terrible part of Zhongli… came to love this routine. He loved how much Childe had come to rely on him, how much he sought out comfort in Zhongli’s arms. How when Zhongli would feed him the only broth he seemed capable of swallowing down, he’d open his mouth pliantly without a thought.
Like he trusted Zhongli unconditionally.
Zhongli almost wished… he’d stay like this. For just a little longer.
But Zhongli’s daydreams were always meant to be shattered. He should have been the least surprised at just how terrible Childe’s condition would get.
After all, he’d witnessed it all for himself, hadn’t he? Merely a millenia ago, when that terrible magic had wrecked the land.
On the fourth day, the little broth Zhongli had managed to coax Childe into eating had all been regurgitated back out into the bucket. Zhongli pet a hand through his hair in an effort to comfort him as he began to wretch out nothing, as if he was trying to vomit his lungs out.
The only thing falling into the bucket now was Childe’s painful tears.
“Shh… you’re alright, Childe. You’re alright.”
He continued to dry heave for several more, long moments. Zhongli wished so desperately to just take away all his pain and make it his own. But he couldn’t do anything.
Childe could barely eat, and his fever had skyrocketed. Zhongli had moved out of the room once the entire day, and when he’d returned, he’d found that Childe, as usual, had tried to leave the room and find him. However, he had not even been able to make it to the door, and was on the floor, trying to pull himself forwards on arms that had refused to cooperate.
(“Zhongli… my legs… why can’t they-”
“You’re just very tired. You need to rest. You’re going to be alright.”)
You’re going to be alright.
How many times has Zhongli said this while growing less and less sure of whether it’s actually true?
The symptoms should have not gotten this bad for another week or so, but they seem to have worsened exponentially over night. Zhongli doesn’t expect Aether to be back for at least another two days, but it’s starting to look like that’s not enough time.
A tightness has all but consumed Zhongli’s chest at that knowledge, but he still refuses to give that feeling a name.
Childe finally seems to have stopped dry heaving, and Zhongli pulls the bucket away. He helps Childe lie back down onto the bed before moving away to grab a towel to wipe his face down with. Rolling up his sleeves, he wets the towel in a basin of clean water before turning back to Childe.
He can’t help but be startled when he turns to find the man sitting up, staring blankly at him behind his dangerously flushed countenance.
Zhongli takes a deep breath, hangs the towel on the side of the basin, and walks to the bed to try lay Childe down again.
“Childe, lie down.”
But Childe’s eyes are unseeing. When Zhongli kneels near him, he turns his eyes to look at him, and yet not truly look at him at the same time.
In fact, it seems like Childe’s looking way past him, to somewhere Zhongli could not imagine.
“Have to get going. Can’t stay still. Too dangerous.”
Zhongli tightens his hold on Childe as he tries to sit up again.
“Keep going where? What’s dangerous?”
Childe doesn’t answer at first, still looking at Zhongli with a blank face, and murky, unseeing eyes.
Then suddenly, he smiles.
Zhongli is used to Childe’s smiles. The usual simple ones that Childe carries on his face on a daily basis. The manic ones he shows when he’s enjoying a particularly brutal battle. The ones that are almost pure joy that Zhongli sees when he goes to help clean up the “debt” those who cross the Fatui had to pay.
But there’s something more unsettling in this smile.
Something so empty and devoid of life.
Rex Lapis had always had little reason to know true fear. It’s not that he’d never felt such an emotion, but it had been a long time since he truly had.
But at this point, Zhongli has no choice but to acknowledge what the feeling in his chest is.
“I’ll never be strong enough… will I?”
Because he’s afraid. He’s so very afraid.
Childe’s voice in that moment sounds so fragile, Zhongli can barely believe it came out of him.It threatens to tear his heart to pieces.
So he wraps his arms around Childe, and treasures every breath he feels vibrate through his chest. It’s all he can really do now.
“You are strong. And you will grow even stronger.” He tangles one of his hands into Childe’s hair. “You are strong, and one day you will be strong enough to overcome that which you fear the most. You will conquer that which lies in those depths you left behind. I promise this in my name as the God of Contracts, Rex Lapis.”
He tightens his hold on Childe.
“But for now, just let me take care of you. You don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Childe stays still in his hold for a while after that.
He stays so still, Zhongli almost thinks he might have fallen asleep sitting up.
But then, he laughs. He laughs and he laughs and the sound is so heartbreaking it makes Zhongli’s chest tighten in something close to anguish.
He cannot do anything about what Childe has seen. For whatever nightmare of the past he seems to be trapped in.
But at least he can be here for him. Right now.
He tightens his hold on Childe as the laughs intensify, feeling the almost overwhelming heat radiating off him.
It’s only when Childe wraps his arms around Zhongli in return and presses his face into the crook of his neck that Zhongli realises he’s crying again.
The laughing doesn’t stop, even as it gets muffled into Zhongli’s skin.
They stay like that for a long time. Childe’s laughter does slowly die down, though the heat radiating of his body does not subside.
When the laughs finally almost completely pitter off, Childe lifts his head slightly whispers quietly in Zhongli’s ear, in a voice equal parts empty and jovial.
“Do you truly promise, Mr. Zhongli?”
Zhongli does not even hesitate to answer.
Childe slowly pulls away from him to stare at Zhongli proper.
He looks dishevelled, the bags under his eyes especially prominent against the tears still staining his face. His eyes are still delirious and unseeing, but the small smile on his face seems more real now.
He holds a hand out to Zhongli, pinkie raised.
“Then make me a pinkie promise, God of Contracts. Swear that someday, I will be strong enough. Swear that someday I can defeat that thing. That I will one day have enough power to conquer the world.”
It should be a foolish thing. The God of Contracts, agreeing to a contract that makes such a preposterous claim? Anyone else would expect Zhongli to laugh it off, to admit that all the words he’d said were platitudes to make the distressed man feel better, with no real weight behind them.
But only Zhongli truly knows that the claims he’d made were not preposterous. He’s lived for far too long after all. The things he knows are equal parts fascinating.
And equal parts tragic.
So he raises his hand, and links his pinkie with Childe’s. The heat radiating off him only seems to get hotter.
“You will become stronger. You will be strong enough. I swear on it, Ajax.”
Childe smiles at their linked pinkies, tear tracks still staining his face, and recites nursery rhyme Zhongli is amazed continues to circulate in Snezhnaya, even to this day.
“You make a pinkie promise, you keep it all your life. You break a pinkie promise, I throw you on the ice. The cold will kill the pinkie that once betrayed your friend, the frost will freeze your tongue off so you never lie again.”
And with that Childe unlinks their fingers.
“There.” He laughs innocently as he sways slightly. “All done.”
Zhongli grabs onto him before he falls sideways.
“O-oh… that’s strange… haha… everything’s kind of… blurry...”
Zhongli places his head gently back down onto the pillow.
Childe calls out to Zhongli in what he recognises as Snezhnaya’s local language as he pulls the blankets over him.
“What is it, Childe?”
Childe’s hand comes out from under the covers, and begins reaching out towards Zhongli almost desperately.
“Ne ukhodi… ne ukhodi...”
Zhongli doesn’t know what he’s saying, but understands anyway. He doesn’t hesitate to grab that hand, looking smaller than he’d ever seen it.
Childe manages to drink down the antidote despite the terrible expression on his face.
“There you go…” Zhongli carefully places his head back down onto the pillow, putting the medicine cup to the side before running gentle fingers through his hair. “You did well, Childe. Rest, now.”
Childe barely has any strength left, and though Zhongli sees him fighting against the sleep, his eyes close and his breathing evens out almost too quickly.
Maybe it’s only wishful thinking on Zhongli’s part, but even though he’d only just taken the antidote, his expression already looks so much more peaceful than it had in the five days he’s been incapacitated.
Zhongli can’t help the fond smile that fills his face as he runs his fingers through Childe’s locks.
Ah, I almost forgot.
There are two other occupants in the room.
“Paimon! Why did you say “cough” out loud!”
“What!? He’d obviously forgotten about us! Isn’t this what you’re supposed to do to get someone’s attention!?”
“What!? No! You’re supposed to actually cough!”
Zhongli rises from Childe’s side.
“My apologies, you two. I seem to have gotten… carried away.”
Paimon crossed her arms and looked at Zhongli with puffed up cheeks.
“That’s one way to put it! Ignoring Paimon like that-”
Aether cut her off.
“Will Childe be alright now?”
Zhongli looked down momentarily at the peacefully sleeping figure on the bed. Feeling his face involuntarily relax, he looks back at the pair again.
When Aether and Paimon had arrived at the funeral parlour, Zhongli had felt dizzy with relief. He hadn’t been sure they’d be able to make it back before the worst had hit Childe, but thankfully his fears were alleviated.
Somehow, the traveller had a knack for completing tasks much quicker than would be expected of an ordinary mortal, but perhaps this is simply natural for a being that is not of this world.
“Yes. I believe Childe will weather through the ends of his fever without much more problem.” He bowed to them. “I truly thank you for your assistance.”
When he lifted his head, he found Aether blushing slightly and looking away, while Paimon had a triumphant sort of expression. She spoke.
“It was our pleasure, Mr. Zhongli.” Then, she floated closer to Zhongli, and spoke in a lower voice. “Now, I hope you haven’t forgotten about our payment…”
Aether spoke with a hand to his forehead behind her.
“What? We finished the job! Obviously, we need to be paid!”
“Yes of course.” Zhongli moved away and grabbed from the corner a satchel. He reached inside, took out a very hefty bag filled to the brim with mora, and handed it to Aether. “Thank you for your services.”
Paimon’s eyes basically sparkled as she looked at the bag, while Aether looked on incredulously.
“This is… Childe’s money?”
Zhongli looked at him quizzically.
“Yes? Is something wrong with it?”
Aether looked like he was about to say something else, but then thought against it, shaking his head and putting the bag away.
At the same time, Childe had shifted in his bed, and called something out.
“Moi lyubimiy… gde ti?”
When Zhongli looks over he sees that Childe has opened his eyes, and is looking around dazedly from where he lies on the bed.
Paimon speaks. “What is he saying?”
“He’s speaking Snezhnayan. Unfortunately, I know very little of it conversationally, so I am not one hundred percent sure what he’s saying.” Zhongli walks over to his bedside, before leaning down near him. He brings a hand to his cheek. “How are you feeling, Childe?”
Childe smiles at him. It’s warm and beautiful.
“Zhongli… moi lyubimiy…”
And Zhongli smiles back at him.
“Okay! Paimon thinks we should go!”
“I agree! Have a good day, Mr. Zhongli!”
They’re out of the room before Zhongli can apologise for being unable to escort them out.
Sunlight hitting his face rouses Childe from his sleep.
There’s a dull ache in his head and his mouth feels like it’s stuffed full of cotton. His limbs feel like rusty cogs in a clock, barely able to move. So in general, he feels like absolute garbage.
Still, he manages to pull himself into a sitting position, and gets a good look around the room.
There isn’t much furniture, save for a bed to one side, and a wardrobe and low-table covered in documents on the other. For some reason, Childe himself is on a futon in the middle of the room, covered in a thick layer of blankets.
He tries to piece together what had happened, but his mind feels groggy, almost like there’s a fog obscuring the events of the past few days (weeks?) or so. But he doesn’t feel like he’s in danger, which feels like it should be the correct response.
Instead, all he really wants is to go back to sleep.
Just then, the door into the room opens.
“Oh? You’re awake.”
Zhongli, the ethereal bastard, calmly walks into the room, a tray of food in one hand.
“M-Mr. Zhongli… Good morning.”
Zhongli nods at him and walks around the futon to place the tray down onto the low-table. After, he comes to kneel down beside Childe, almost too close for comfort, staring at him intently.
“Umm… Mr. Zhongli?”
Zhongli places one hand on his forehead, and Childe freezes.
Zhongli stays still for a moment, intently looking at his forehead, before a relieved-sounding sigh escapes him, and he smiles.
“It’s gone down. That’s good.”
It’s in that moment that the memories hit Childe all at once.
“Please don’t leave me.”
“Zhongli… it hurts…”
“Zhongli… you feel so nice. Don’t leave me.”
“I want you to give me a hug!”
And then, worst of all.
“Zhongli… moi lyubimiy…”
His face heats up. Childe wants to disintegrate right then and there.
Zhongli, the bastard, just stares at him in concern.
“Your face is heating up again. Are you alright?”
Childe backs away and stands quickly.
“Y-yes! I’m fine! I’m just-”
This turned out to be a bad idea, as his legs promptly buckle beneath him.
Zhongli manages to catch him before he hits the ground like a drunkard. Vaguely, Childe acknowledges in his mind that this is not the first, or even the second time this has happened in the past week. His whole body feels hot in embarrassment, and he covers his face behind his arms.
“S-sorry… I guess I’m not as alright as I thought.”
To make matters worse, he feels Zhongli pick him up delicately off the floor before depositing him on the actual bed in the room, and pulling the blanket on it over his body. Childe feels like he’s going to explode.
He expects Zhongli to do or say something that will embarrass him even further, but he hears the man move away. When he removes his arms, he finds he has gone to pick up the tray of food off the table and is moving back to his side.
“I’m sorry for flustering you. I can’t imagine it’s good for your current constitution.”
So he knows what he’s done, the bastard.
Zhongli places the tray on the bedside table, before placing one hand on Childe’s shoulder.
“Sit up. You haven’t eaten much in two days.”
Almost on cue, Childe’s stomach rumbles, and he sulkily makes his way up into a sitting position.
I’m gonna die.
Zhongli places the tray gently into his lap.
“Are you alright to eat by yourself? Or would you like me to feed you?”
Childe’s brain all but implodes.
I’m really going to die!
“I-it’s fine! I can eat myself! Th-thank you, Mr. Zhongli!”
Childe quickly grabs the spoon, dipping it into the broth of the soup and bringing it to his mouth. A mistake on his part, as the soup was surprisingly still very warm and may have burned his tongue.
He doesn’t let it show on his face and simply swallows it down.
Zhongli smiles at that, as if he’s seen through Childe’ facade. When he speaks, it’s with such fondness, Childe truthfully can’t believe that it’s directed towards him.
“I see. I’m glad.”
The words fill Childe with warmth.
Zhongli moves away from him while he eats to sit at the low-table, filling out paperwork and looking over old-looking documents.
Later, Childe would leave Liyue Harbour, and continue Tsaritsa’s mission.
Later, Zhongli would come into an empty room, on the bed nothing but a bag of mora and a hastily scribbled note.
Later, there would be promises, both fulfilled and unfulfilled, deciding their future, and maybe even the whole world’s.
But for now, there is only Childe, in the gentle morning sunlight, staring at Zhongli’s back, and remembering the strange promise he’d been made.
You will become stronger. You will be strong enough. I swear on it, Ajax.
Zhongli turns his head. Childe can’t quite meet his eyes, so he stares down at his broth before mumbling softly.
Though he can’t see it, he can hear the smile in Zhongli’s response.
“It was my pleasure.”
The sound of documents being stamped fills the room shortly after as Zhongli goes back to work.
And Childe smiles as he indulges in the strange and comforting domesticity of a morning by Zhongli’s side.