Childe is the lowest ranking of eleven nobles in the Tsaritsa’s court. He knows he isn’t favoured, so he tries to keep to himself and out of everyone’s way, spending most of his time training, or disappearing into the city, dressed as a commoner.
That is how he meets Zhongli, the well-mannered and devastatingly handsome funeral consultant visiting from Liyue. He is helping a friend, the elderly fisherman Alexei, unload the day’s catch from his rickety old ship, when he hears a commotion.
That is how they met.
Zhongli, who was trying to buy pirozhkis and forgot his wallet, receiving an earful of insults from the grumpy shopkeep, and Childe as he always is — alone, drifting among strangers, trying to find someplace to be.
Childe pays for Zhongli’s pirozhkis. The consultant looks taken aback at first, before breaking into a warm smile, thanking Childe politely in a deep, rich voice, his golden eyes radiant in the afternoon sun.
Childe is speechless. His heart is stuttering.
“Don’t worry about it,” he mumbles, face red, shuffling and feeling inadequate in his dirty coveralls. He’s 100% certain his hair is an awful mess.
He runs into Zhongli again the very next day. This time the consultant is waiting at the harbour, a paper bag under one arm.
When he catches sight of Childe, his entire face lights up in a smile.
Childe stares, dumbstruck. The cold sea breeze does nothing for the burning flush in his cheeks.
They share delicious pastries and a hot flask of coffee by the sea, watching the sunrise. Childe learns that
Zhongli is in Snezhnaya to visit a friend, but he arrived early to travel and sightsee. He also asks Childe a hundred questions about himself, which freaks Childe out and makes him feel weirdly, happily shy all the same time — that someone could take interest in him.
He has to lie about some things, of course, like being a noble and having a residence in Zapolyarny Palace, but he speaks from the heart and truthfully about everything else, telling Zhongli about ice fishing, his beloved siblings who live in their ancestral home in Morepesok,
and how he’s never really had friends before — just in case Zhongli finds him awkward and strange. For some reason this only makes Zhongli smile wider, and he reassures Childe that his company is a blessing.
And so begins their friendship. From the very beginning,
it is an easy friendship — simple, comforting, fun. They have a meal together almost everyday, and in between Childe’s duties at the palace and his numerous “jobs” in the city, they make time to visit all the sights, cuisine, music and art that the capital has to offer —
nothing crazy, but Childe doesn’t know a more peaceful or happier time in his life. Zhongli is a model traveller — attentive, respectful, appreciative — even excessively knowledgeable about art and history. He also appreciates good food and a strong drink, much like Childe.
He even seems genuinely fond of Childe’s company — it feels like they have been friends for a long time; never running out of things to say, never needing to awkwardly fill in silence.
Childe tries not to notice the little gentlemanly things Zhongli does for him, too,
like gently steering him closer with a quiet hand on the back when there is a crowd, or when Zhongli is quick to notice if Childe is hungry or tired from the day just by his complexion — how Zhongli always asks what he wants or needs, before attending to his own.
Liyuens are just built different, Childe tells himself, but his heart skips beats whenever Zhongli turns to him with that look of pure adoration he has on often these days — and tries to resist lunging for the consultant’s hand with his sweaty fingers.
Every day he spends with
Zhongli is another perfect memory, but his heart grows a little heavier, too, at the thought of their parting.
“Maybe I could visit Liyue sometime,” he says off-handedly one afternoon when they are drinking tea and having cake at an old, smoky cafe.
Zhongli beams. “I cannot
emphasise enough how welcome you are in Liyue. There is so much I would love to experience with you.”
“I’ll try to take time off,” Childe mumbles.
For a fleeting second, he entertains the thought of leaving it all behind and following Zhongli to Liyue, before pushing it away
into the back of his mind.
And then Zhongli gives him a gift.
“What’s this?” Childe asks, holding the notably Liyuen, gold lacquered box in his hand. “You know you’ve paid me back for those pirozhkis already, right?”
Zhongli, who was looking uncharacteristically anxious,
“No, Childe. I simply wanted you to have this.”
He opens the box, and in it lays a beautiful, solid pair of chopsticks, adorned with an exquisitely patterned dragon and phoenix.
Childe forgets to breathe.
Carefully, slowly, Zhongli places a hand over Childe’s. His eyes are like molten gold.
“I can only hope — pray — that you know how special you are to me. I am so happy to have met you. My dearest Childe.”
Childe stares back, unblinking. His heart is swelling, his eyes feel hot.
He tries hard not to burst into tears. It is the first time anyone has said such words to him —
and he’s not sure he deserves them.
After a while, he finally pulls himself together enough to whisper, “So am I.”
They promise to meet again three days later, to take a trip up to Childe’s hometown. Three days later, because Zhongli’s appointment with his friend — the reason for his being in Snezhnaya on the first place, is due at last.
Childe himself has been summoned to Zapolyarny Palace by the Tsaritsa. Rarely does she require the presence of all eleven of her nobles, unless it is a matter of great importance — or there is a guest she wants to intimidate.
He lets the only subordinate he trusts, Ekaterina,
help him dress in his regalia — a black Fatui uniform and white winter coat, trying to ignore his nerves, trying to convince himself that Snezhnaya is fine, and he won’t be sent away on some mission to the far ends of Teyvat.
Everything will be okay. Get through this,
and he will be free for some time — fishing and building snowmen with Zhongli and his siblings in a few days.
The thought alone is enough to cheer him up a little.
Heart lighter, he thanks Ekaterina and makes his way to the throne room.
On the way, he runs into the fifth, Pulcinella, with whom he exchanged cordial small talk. Luckily, Pulcinella has information that pushes Childe’s anxiety to the back of his mind — the Tsaritsa summoned them to receive the Emperor of Liyue, Morax.
“His Majesty is here to
discuss a long-standing contract,” Pulcinella explains. “It should not take too much time.”
In the throne room, Childe takes his place at the end of the line of nobles, head bowed in the presence of his ice queen.
Here, he has always felt out of place, inadequate.
His existence has always felt like a bad accident, a defective machine. But for the first time since perhaps he was a child, he is calm, grounded. He doesn’t hate himself so much anymore.
Because Zhongli — liked him — just the way he was.
It might give the consultant a bit of a shock, but Childe vows to tell him everything in Morepesok. His position as the eleventh noble, his insecurities — how important Zhongli is to him too. Childe is almost certain that even then Zhongli would treat him just the same.
The guard calls, “His Majesty, the Geo Archon, Rex Lapis, Eternal Ruler of Liyue, Emperor Morax.”
All but the Tsaritsa rise to their feet in one fluid motion.
Then, Childe sneaks a look at one of Teyvat’s most powerful rulers — and all colour and sound vanishes from his world.
His Majesty Morax is tall, dressed in resplendent robes of black and god, dark hair cascading over one shoulder. His posture is grace itself, his face is pale, bony, and devastatingly handsome.
A pair of familiar, iridescent golden eyes meet him, and time stutters to a stop.
Zhongli is Morax.
Zhongli is — the Emperor of Liyue.
All this time — how —
and then, a small voice goes in his head,
𝘐 𝘬𝘯𝘦𝘸 𝘪𝘵 𝘸𝘢𝘴 𝘵𝘰𝘰 𝘨𝘰𝘰𝘥 𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘵𝘳𝘶𝘦.
The mask is slipping off his face, but there is nothing he can do about it. He doesn’t care either.
He breaks away from Zhongli — Morax’s vaguely shocked gaze, turning instead to look to his queen.
Zhongli, too, seems to recover enough to continue towards the throne.
“Welcome to the land of ice and snow, old friend,” the Tsaritsa begins in her hollow but musical tone, “I understand you arrived a month early. I hope you been enjoying our beloved nation.”
“Snezhnaya is a treasure,” Emperor Morax says,
“and its people are the most resilient and beautiful souls I have ever had the honour of meeting.”
The Tsaritsa’s lips quirk in pleasure. “I am relieved to hear such high praise. I am also ecstatic that is finally time to discuss the final phase of our contract, Lord Morax.”
When Zhongli does not say anything, the Tsaritsa rises from her glacial throne and steps forward.
“My harbingers, my most loyal subjects. Hear now; today we are blessed with the exalted presence of Rex Lapis, His Majesty Emperor Morax of Liyue. And rejoice
— for the Lord of Commerce, History, Wealth and Contracts, will soon be betrothed to my precious seventh, my sweet Sandrone.”
That is all and everything Childe can take, and he does the unthinkable —
He leaves his queen, his duty, his livelihood and his 𝘭𝘪𝘧𝘦, the only reason he is allowed continued existence — and the emperor he was stupid enough to fall miserably in love with.