The Fatui are a scheming, violent bunch- as likely to pay you off as they are to kill you and be done with it. People say that diplomacy must mean something different in Snezhnaya, that the cold freezes their hearts and their brains and their liver, where all emotion, blood, and water flows from.
The Fatui have a reputation, in Teyvat.
The Harbingers have a different one.
Powerful, talented, beautiful- blessed by their goddess to be more, to be beyond the average mortal's comprehension.
Eleven of them, council or cohort or catastrophe waiting to happen. A court of cold-hearted killers. A hendacagon of power, surrounding Her Majesty, each a point of potential, of strength, of potent force.
The eleventh harbinger- young and dangerous and shockingly, shockingly beautiful.
The woman at the bank stammers when he offers her a smile, the millelith at the corner swallows at the bared slice of hip, smooth skin over sharp bone. He's a weapon of the highest caliber, uses his pretty mouth and his long legs and his slim waist like they're material for war.
They are, of course. But no one figures that out till it's too late.
There is a tall man who walks the harbor almost absent minded, hands clasped behind his back. He follows the beautiful boy like he's humouring a favored nephew, listens as the boy talks with his hands and favors the tall man with more smiles than any one else is privy to.
He's a consultant at the Wangsheng Funeral Parlor, knows Liyue and her people- his people? How to gender a country as old as the ocean, and a few years older than their mountains?- like the back of his ever-gloved hand. Must be why this Snezhnazyan, this little princeling, the Tsaritisa's favored youngest son, is following him around like a puppy. That's the only reason they can think of, at least.
Childe buys Zhongli little trinkets that catch his wide blue eyes, watches him pontificate and sip tea and watch Childe right back. Childe almost vibrates with a sort of glee that simmers beneath the surface, a fascination with the fact that no one else in Liyue seems to realize he's right there.
Childe gets Zhongli alone in a private room in the Li pavilion, plies him with baijiu and watches the fast-setting sun light the room in flaming golds and reds. They spark in Childe's hair, leave him haloed like some otherworldly angel.
He tilts his head, leans in, smiles. Lets his pretty blue eyes go half lidded. Slides his long gloved fingers around the cuff of Zhongli's perpetual coat, brushes bare skin he cannot see. His mouth goes sweet and almost sly, and he is too beautiful to be real.
Zhongli smiles, amused.
"Now," he says, removes Childe's hand with a deft movement. "Whose face are you wearing?"
Childe sits back with a start. "Wha-"
"You think I can't tell?" Zhongli says, eyes curving a little. The smooth sweep of his red liner curves with it.
"My own," Childe says, sits back with a pout that would make a lesser man apologize.
Zhongli is not a lesser man. Indeed, he's not a man at all.
Zhongli's face does not lose his patronizing smile, but his face is calm, a stone-carved Buddha. “Do not use that with me," is all he says.
Childe's eyes widen, not in surprise but in something like feral fury, and something crackles under his skin for a brief moment.
Zhongli tilts his head, and waits.
And all that glamour slides off Childe’s face, leaves him scowling and sullen and petulant and still good looking- but his nose is a little longer, face a little thinner, more angular, the curve of his mouth crueler. The perfection of the other, gone like oil sloughing off water. The underneath. The true face.
His freckles are not so delicate, like this. He has a scar at the corner of his mouth that twists his lips, and another, thin and white, that looks like it nearly took his eye out, bisecting his eyebrow. The shadows under his eyes are so deep that they swallow the light in his eyes- if it was ever there at all.
Looks less like an angel and more like a man and Childe is such a brat, Zhongli thinks fondly. Can see in his eyes that he wants to bite at Zhongli’s fingers when Zhongli tilts up his chin, says, "That’s better."
This overpowered child- Childe- who wants to throw himself again and again against the ever-patient mountain that is- was- will no longer be- the Geo Archon till he exhausts himself, tear streaked and exhausted.
Zhongli is looking forward to the moment when he breaks, sobbing and furious and ruined.
When Zhongli grips his jaw between hard fingers, there’s a crackle of electricity under Childe’s skin, and- something else.
The Tsaritsa loves her Harbingers, of course, they say. Why else would they have both Vision and Delusion, why else would they be close to Archons themselves?
Do they not see how she keeps them closer, closest, too close? Their choke chains are tightening around their throat, and they never stop.
Childe is a fighting dog who has stopped heeling so well, running himself against his collar again and again and again, a snappy little thing obsessively trying to bite at six thousand years of history.
Zhongli slides a hand into Childe's burnt sienna hair- no longer the perfect shade of fall leaves, coarse and split and dragging against his gloves, and yanks Childe's head back. Just to see the way his already fluttering eyes go wide again, a hair nearer madness, hear that nervous little cackle that he can't seem to hide even when he looks like one of the old master's angels.
The delicate skin on the nape of the neck, red-orange hairs turned gold like the trees at the top of Mt Qingxin, damp with sweat. Blunt nails digging into skin, harder, harder, harder, till anyone else would be left with bloody gasping crescents. Childe's more likely to rip his nails out against the bedrock of Zhongli.
"Beautiful boy," Zhongli says, says it like it's true, says it like he's making fun of him, a little, like he believes it, like a prayer, but who do the gods pray to?
Childe was given a vision by one archon, raging twisted power by another, and has a third in his bed. What does that say about him? This twitching feral boy? This changeling who has more bloodlust than sense?
The glamour that lays on his skin has sunk into his bones, and he doesn't recognize his true reflection anymore.
He looks at his younger siblings and tilts his head, frowns, tweaks and twists till he looks more like they do, smoothing out his raw bones, his wind chapped edges. Childe looked like his father, once. He’s not sure who that was, now. Is not sure who he looks like, now, other than the thing he has built himself into.
Maybe he looks more like himself than he ever has before.
"You have the abyss, under your skin," Zhongli says, drags ever-gloved fingertips down Childe's freckled forearms. Without the glamour, without the mask, they're sturdy and singed red, freckles interrupted by thick pink scars, fine hair turning and whorled in strange patterns around frost damage.
Childe snarls at him. Zhongli smiles. "And in your eyes," he says, implacable.
"And my mouth?" Childe says, bares teeth that he would keep bloody forever, if he could.
"That is mine," Zhongli says, and he smiles with a dragon's mouth, his canines sharper than Childe's will ever be, and Childe hates it, he hates it, he loves it.
Childe shows a friendly grin to the people of Liyue, his pretty blue eyes creasing up in crescents. Ruffles his brother's hair, smiles rueful and apologetic at the traveller, winks at his floating companion. Teases Signora and Scaramouche and dodges their blows with a bright laugh, boy-child no longer but still so lovely.
That's all true.
What's also true is the way those blue eyes finally light up at the massacre, the way he laughs with that pretty mouth wide open at the fight, the way his muscles twitch and jerk while delusion unleashed crackles electric power through them, nerve damage done and undone by blessed hydro, pain and the joy of war keeping him at a knife's edge of purity-
And all the while the abyss in him, under him, around him, soft murmurs that grow in volume as his blades drip pink, tainted water.
Somewhere in another world they tell tales of Ajax, of the great defensive bulwark of Athens, of the deadliest man on the battlefield with his shield of hide and bronze.
In this world, twisted and upside down, corrupted by the abyss, he is a reversed card in a tarot spread: the High Priestess, her skirts draping round her face, crown askew, just like his oh so beloved Tsaritsa.
(Is she? Beloved? Is it better to stand at the side of the woman who would unmake the world for some offense that no one remembers? Is that the cause? Is there something there, deeper than the abyss that Childe grew from, some other reason?
Childe does not know, and Childe does not care. At some point, the only thing that matters is blood, and it doesn't matter if it's blood he's spilling or that which flows in his sibling's veins.
It is the most beautiful thing in the world, to Childe, and it looks even better on Her Majesty's white snow.)
Still deadly, still protective, but in this world the best defense is a good offense. And oh, is Childe's offense good.
Teyvat has its own laws.
Childe does not care for them, except for when he does.
Childe takes, and takes, and takes- with bloody broken fingers and no light in his eyes, he gathers everything he can in his arms, picking out the best bits for himself, building himself up with chips of bone and dark purple bruises.
It is not shocking that he has a vision, not when the strength of his ambition is enough to move archons. Plural. The gods themselves tilt their heads and look at him, and wonder.
There is an intensity of emotion there that is- too much. Unnerving. Frightening. One would have to be made of stone to withstand the full weight of it.
It is a good thing that, in some ways, Zhongli is.
"Tell me again," Zhongli says, conversational, runs blunt-tipped fingers down the sweat damp hollow of Childe's spine. "Tell me."
Childe arches under it, spits like a cat, rubs his bony wrists raw against the stone keeping his arms outstretched. Zhongli's fingers are hard and hot even on his feverish skin, and though Childe cannot see it, he knows that they're dark, almost black, like obsidian, glassy and shot through with glowing veins of elemental power.
Childe hisses, twists. The harsh turn goes slick and smooth, suddenly, and Childe’s blood feels almost cool on the skin of his skin as he begins to bleed. He doesn't know what Zhongli is looking for, couldn't tell him even if he wanted to.
"Submit," Zhongli suggests, and Childe's back jack-knifes like it'll snap in half, and Zhongli's stone hands creak.
It is not a word in Childe's vocabulary. There is no submission, no retreat, just the constant push and struggle and strife until even his Vision cannot keep him alive, and instead lets him slide into watery unconsciousness, till he wakes up and can barely move, till he's healing all his broken bones and burst blood vessels with shaking hands.
Purity in pain, always. Childe does not know loss in the way that others do. There is always something to take.
"Hmm," Zhongli hums. "Then break," he says, and his hold tightens.
Childe laughs, high and wild and strains upward to kiss him, bites at his mouth till he tastes blood, till there's ichor staining both their teeth and Zhongli's pupils have blown wide in the dim light.
Childe broke a long time ago.
It's not necessarily a bad thing.
Zhongli, in times other than this, when he is properly buttoned up and in the clean light of day, his hands gentle around porcelain, ring heavy on his thumb, will tell him of kintsugi, of the veins of gold that thread through something to make it stronger, more precious.
How to say that Childe does not have gold in his veins, like Zhongli does? How to say that it is not water, not electricity, but blood like any other than propels him forward, winds him together with chicken wire and some feeling they call ambition, that Childe can no longer ascribe any true meaning to?
Childe breaks, and breaks again, and breaks gladly. Throws himself off the high cliffs onto the sharp points of Zhongli's teeth, squirms in his hold and pants into his mouth and gives up and breaks. Breaks as many times as they ask him too, gods and immortals and beloved brothers both.
But he puts himself back together after, and that is the true power of the eleventh, the clasp in the Tsaritsa’s tennis bracelet, why they watch him in poorly hidden fascination, why he pops up like a bad penny, hair bright copper and easy smile on his face, no spark in those pretty blue eyes.
Childe just can't seem to die, and at some point, he stopped wanting to.