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The Autumn Winds Are Sighing

Chapter Text

I. The Departure

Despite all the drama leading to the near destruction of Liyue Harbour, the aftermath is all rather…anticlimactic.

The people of Liyue go about asserting order with a stiff, uncompromising discipline that would make the military branch of the Fatui green with envy. The streets and roads are cleared of debris, the docks are cleared of any boats run aground, the injured are shepherded to healers in orderly queues, and the dead are brought to Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. Infrastructure is repaired and rebuilt under the watchful eyes of the Millelith and Liyue Qixing at a truly impressive speed.

There is a large part in Childe that is glad that his actions did not break the people’s spirit. It’s nice to see how life carries on even after multiple calamities. Mind you, he’s done more than just watch. Unlike what the Signora claims, Childe is not one to enjoy causing turmoil, not when it leads to the bloodshed of the weak and the defenceless. Where’s the challenge in fighting those who can’t fight back? Where’s the thrill in such a pointless display of power?

So, he takes the limited time he has left in Liyue Harbour to help. Discretely, of course. He’s heard the unflattering rumours that are (rightfully) shifting the blame on to him, and he doubts any of his overt acts of charity would be welcomed. Instead, he donates here and there. An anonymous donation of a million mora to the local orphanage, another million to the school damaged by the storm, tons of shipments of supplies to keep the healers’ morale up, and to keep the builders going just a bit longer. None of which can be traced back to the Fatui or to himself. He’s not an amateur.

His efforts seem to be paying off. In less than a month, the Rite of Parting takes place in a Liyue Harbour that is, once again, shining and whole.

And after that, normalcy resettles itself rather quickly, like a piece of the puzzle that’s been jostled loose slotting seamlessly back into place.

Well, almost everything is back to normal.

It’s been near two months since the storm, and Childe hasn’t seen Zhongli not even once, not since that fateful meeting with the Signora where the truth is finally unveiled.

And what a fun little kick to the gut that is, the realization that not only had he been played by all sides, but he's also being tossed aside like trash now that his use had run its course.

It’s not that he doesn’t get it. He’s a Harbinger. He knows first-hand what it means to do his duty, to put the mission first and his personal feelings far, far away, preferably locked up in a box, where it wouldn’t interfere with his job. He knows what it’s like working with vipers, to scheme and plot and lie in wait for the opportune moment to stab his opponent in the back.

But this time, this time Childe can’t help but feel a little (a lot) gutted.

Stupid. He’s gotten himself stupidly attached.

He’s known Zhongli for almost as long as he’s been in Liyue, and during those two years, the enigmatic man was a constant presence in his life. He doesn’t even remember when he first met Zhongli; it’s as if one day, Childe was minding his own business and the next thing he knew, Zhongli was beside him like he had always been there, waxing on and on about the quality of silk flower perfumes and obscure economic theories, while staring longingly at the steam bun stall because he had, once again, forgotten to bring mora.

Childe had a few running theories on who Zhongli was at the time. An exiled prince? A pampered lord who ran away from home? Surely, he must be of some noble origin to have accumulated such a wide breadth of obscure knowledge about the culture of Liyue while possessing exactly zero life skills.

He never guessed Rex Lapis despite all the obvious signs pointing to that.

But somewhere along the lines, Childe (stupidly) stopped seeing Zhongli as an acquaintance or an enigma and more as a friend. He found himself carving more and more of his evenings out for the other man. They would spend them dining on the best food Liyue has to offer and drinking until the twilight, and during that time, he would listen to Zhongli speak at great lengths about anything and everything – the history of commerce in the Harbour, the evolution of certain traditions and rites to venerate ancestors, the ancient, brutal battles that once left the country soaked in blood.

And Childe found himself utterly enthralled. He was captivated by the colourful images spun from the other man’s words, by the soothing cadence of his low voice and the elegant poise of the man. By the smallest curl to his lips that denoted satisfaction, the slight arch of his brow as a reaction to Childe’s more audacious questions.  

By the sheer blinding beauty that is Zhongli.

Professor, Childe would call him with a teasing smile. Master, Great Teacher, and, whenever he forgets the mora, which is all the time, Oh Wise One.

And Zhongli had borne the brunt of his teasing with good grace. He seemed content, peaceful even, with his audience. With Childe.

Childe can’t remember the last time anybody outside of his family reacted that way towards him.

It looks like he read everything wrong, huh?

Looking at the grand scheme of things, he’s being a right idiot for being upset. He can’t exactly blame Zhongli for approaching him with a motive when Childe’s entire mission was to literally rip the divinity right out of his chest. Besides, compared to everything the great god Rex Lapis has seen and done in his long, six thousand years of existence, his time spent with Childe – a mere two years – must seem laughably insignificant to him, probably as insignificant as a drop of water in the vast ocean.

How can Childe expect to matter to Zhongli compared to the countless friendships and relationships the God of Contract must have had? Especially when the relationship wasn’t even a real one?

He should just be grateful that he’s still alive after this whole fiasco. Even though Rex Lapis finds him insignificant, he at least can now boast about being on friendly terms with Morax for the past two years. For two years, he had shared the finest drink and food, and had traded banters with the oldest Archon in Teyvat, and that Rex Lapis had willingly indulged him with his presence. Not a lot of people alive today can claim such an achievement.

And now that it’s all over, it’s best for him to take a page out of Zhongli’s book and move on.

“Lord Harbinger, all the cargo are secured and we’re ready to set sail on your orders.”

Childe loosens his tight grip on the railing and turns away from the sight of the bustling harbour, grimacing a little at the familiar feeling of pins and needles flooding his right hand. He curls his fingers into a fist, counts to five seconds in his mind, before slowly letting his fingers relax.

The tingling sensation disappears. And The Fatui Agent before him does not bat an eye at his delayed response. Good.

“Let’s go home,” Childe finally says. “We’ve overstayed our welcome.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Childe turns back to what’s possibly his last sight of Liyue in a very long while. Under the brilliant setting sun, the buildings themselves seem to glow gold against the dramatic purple cliffs of Mt Tianheng. How fitting, gold for a city from where all mora flows, gold for the seat for the great God of Commerce himself. It’s doubly fitting that the gold that paints the city matches the colour of his eyes as well.

Childe’s gaze roams over the dock once more and – huh.

For a second there, he could swear that there’s a familiar figure in black, standing tall and still among the hustle and bustle of the merchants and dockworkers around him. But in a blink of an eye, the figure is gone.

Childe shakes his head and turns away to head for the cabin. It’s probably just his imagination.


II. The Polar Palace

The grand, glittering crystal halls of Zapolyarny Palace are designed to simultaneously awe and intimidate its visitors. Every step along the grey marbled floor echoes down the length of the near empty corridors, just like how every whisper, every snicker, and every word is magnified in the oppressive silence. Above all else, the palace is kept dark and freezing with blue frost and ice fanning across ornate walls, creeping along shadowed pillars and statues. Everything about the castle screams cold and uninviting, just like the Empress that calls this place her seat of power.

Once upon a time, Childe had been one of those people staring wide-eyed at the grand sight around him. He jumped at every little sound, no doubt looking more like a scared rabbit than the prodigy fighter that he was. Now, after traversing these halls for close to a decade, as well as owning a set of rooms in the Palace, courtesy of being a Harbinger, he barely gives his surroundings a second glance as he marches straight for the throne room dressed in all his fineries.

With every step, he sheds away his persona as Childe and slips into the familiar face of Tartaglia. Ruthless, cold, ambitious Tartaglia.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he greets, once the court announces his presence. He sweeps back his silver furred cape with his left hand, places his right over his heart and bows low as court dictates. His every movement is executed with crisp perfection. “I have returned from my mission in Liyue. I hope you have been well during my absence.”

He stays perfectly still as the silence stretches on, ignoring the tingle in his right hand as he keeps his face a neutral mask of pleasantry while his gaze locked on the ornate stone by his feet. One does not dare to rise or look at the Tsaritsa without Her permission. One must wait patiently, for Her will is paramount. To challenge it is to seek death.

That was his very first lesson in court etiquette.

After what feels like a small eternity, he hears the command, “Rise. You may take your seat.”

He finds his seat amongst the circle of plush chairs placed in the room, with the throne in the most northern position. From his peripheral vision, he can see a handful of the other Harbingers are already present. Pedrelino, being the first of the Harbingers, has made themself comfortable in their assigned seat to the Tsaritsa’s right, and beside Pedrelino, looking vaguely bored, is the Dottore himself. Signora, in all her obnoxious smugness, is seated one seat over to Tartaglia’s right, an unfortunate location but there’s nothing Tartaglia can do about it. As with everything else in the Palace, the seating arrangement follows a strict protocol set by the Tsaritsa herself and it remains permanent.

He makes himself comfortable and, tucking his right hand in his pocket, curls his fingers into a fist. After counting to five in his head, he slowly lets his fingers relax.

The tingling is gone. Good.

He turns his attention on the Tsaritsa, who is resplendent as usual in her silver satin gown. Even from where he’s seated, Tartaglia can make out the sparkle of thousands of tiny diamonds stitched on to the luxurious fabric to make patterns of swirling snowflakes. No doubt, each of those are painstakingly hand-stitched with care and a healthy dose of fear by a litany of seamstresses. A great cape made from pure white fur drapes over the Tsaritsa’s shoulders, spilling around her deceptively delicate frame, threatening to swallow her whole if not for her billowing gown. Atop her coiffed hair rests a great diadem made entirely of diamonds, pearls and bright sapphires that match the piercing, glowing blue of her unnatural eyes.

Her expression is as cold and emotionless as the marble statues that line her halls.

“We have obtained the Geo Gnosis from the God of Contracts,” the Tsaritsa says, her voice rings out through the hall like bells. The underlying thrum of power behind each word sends an uncomfortable shiver down Tartaglia’s spine that he’s long since learned to ignore. “The God of Contracts deemed the service we provided as satisfactory, and for that, we were able to retrieve the Gnosis with no complications. The efforts exerted to achieve this result are…commendable.”

With a wave of her pale hand, a swirl of white frost materializes on her palm. It dissipates in a shower of sparkling mist, leaving behind a rectangular box made of pure gold.

“For your role in leading the mission. My Eighth, please accept this reward in recognition of your success.”

It takes everything in Tartaglia not to gnash his teeth at the sight of the Signora waltzing her way to the Tsaritsa. Really, her role in leading the mission? What the hell did Signora even do except sit back and watch? That was his mission. Liyue was his territory. He was the one who did all the leg work in getting the Fatui set up there. He’s the one who followed the Tsaritsa’s order to a tee and played at being diplomatic, which he hates. He’s the one who was friendly with the locals to help improve the Fatui’s reputation. He even made friends with Zhongli –

His thoughts come to a screeching halt.

Except, that’s not quite true, now is it?

Made friends with Zhongli implied that the relationship was reciprocated, and well, clearly that’s not the case.

Still, there’s a part of him that wants to know, did he truly mean so little to Zhongli? Did he matter at all?

Stop, he thinks a bit desperately. This is – he’s projecting too much Childe. Now’s not the time. Right now, he needs to be Tartaglia.

And Tartaglia wouldn’t let something as trivial as a fake friendship make him lose focus.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” Signora demurs as she bows low and accepts her gift, probably the only show of humility anybody would witness from her. “For as long as I have breath left in my body, I pledge to serve you with complete devotion.”

The Tsaritsa’s expression remains stony. “Hmm. See that you do,” she drawls out and dismisses her with a casual wave of her hand.

“My Eleventh.”

That has Tartaglia snapping to attention, and his eyes meet the unnatural blue of his Goddess’s piercing gaze.

“You have done well given the circumstances. Without your contributions, the Geo Archon would not have so readily given up his Gnosis.”

A second gold box materializes in her palm in a swirl of glittering frost, identical to the one Signora received. “You too deserve a reward in recognition of your efforts.”

Well, that’s unexpected.

Tartaglia’s lips curl upwards. For the first time since his arrival to the Palace, his smile comes from genuine, unabashed glee. At least he’s getting something out of being an unwitting pawn and getting played by the Signora.

Tartaglia stands and, with the easy grace and self-satisfaction of a cat that got its cream, he moves towards the throne. He bows low before the Goddess.

“Your Imperial Majesty is much too generous. This humble servant thanks Your Imperial Majesty for her benevolence.”

His words are met with an approving, “hmm.” Good. That’s his queue to reach for his reward.

But just as he takes the gift, the familiar prickling sensation surges through his right hand, coupled with what feels like a deep shock. His hand spasms, and, for a split second, his fingers lose all sensation, and the gift goes tumbling to the floor between nerveless fingers.

Then, heat, scorching, terrible, blistering heat. Liquid fire races up his veins from the delicate tips of his fingers to his forearm in a great, unstoppable rush. The fire sets his nerves ablaze, its wild, blinding heat spreading up and up, devouring every agonizing inch of flesh in its path like an uncontrollable forest fire.

He barely bites back a yelp, but a hiss manages to escape through gritted teeth. His left-hand flies to his forearm and tightens its grip on it to stop the spread, to quell the pain, but to no avail. Sweat is starting to bead his brow, and his right hand is trembling, and trembling, completely out of his control.

Just as he thinks things couldn’t get worse, familiar purple sparks start to arc from his hand in little bursts of energy.

Tartaglia’s eyes go wide with horror. I–it almost looks like whenever he casts his electro spells from his Delusion, the way the spells start to build and build in potency before materializing into something much deadlier.

He tries to cut off the flow of power. Nothing happens. He tries again. Same response.

Fuck. Fuck. What is happening to him? What is going on? Why can’t he make this stop?!

A pale hand latches onto his forearm in an iron grip, shutting down the stream of his panicked thoughts. Immediately, a shock of arctic coolness bleeds through his clothes and burrows deep, sinking past his skin, his muscles, all the way to the very marrow of his bones, making him gasp in pain. The ice spreads down his arm and quells the fire and electricity alike, and the sudden shock of heat and cold hitting his limb at once is almost as unpleasant as the fire from before. But the ice surges forward uncaring of his discomfort, chilling everything more and more to the point where it feels like it’s freezing the very blood in his veins, and just as Tartaglia is about to lose all sensation in his limb, just as he’s about to jerk away, the feeling…calms.

A few seconds more and the ice retreats completely along with the pale hand.

Which, Tartaglia just realizes, belongs to the Tsaritsa.

Who is staring at him with icy displeasure.

For the first time in a long, long time, Tartaglia can feel his heart stutter as the first inkling of fear start to churn low in his stomach. Years of court etiquette lessons come crashing through him at once – to disobey is to court death, to breach protocol is to court death, to cause a scene is to court death –

Shit. Shitshitshit.

Keep it together, Tartaglia. Keep it together.

He bows low. Almost in supplication. “My most sincerest apology, Your Imperial Majesty, I – ”

“Tartaglia,” the Tsaritsa’s frosty voice cuts in. “What is this?”

“I do not know, it was beyond my control,” he answers, his head still bowed, but his mind is running through everything he can think of. “If I were to hazard a guess, I would say it’s related to my Delusion. Perhaps a side-effect.”

“Side-effect.” The tone carries a hint of disgust, and Tartaglia feels his stomach drop even further. “What have you done out of the ordinary to have developed this…side-effect?”

What did he do out of the ordinary? After fighting that epic battle with the traveller, he laid low to recuperate and to clean things up. He’d been recovering slowly, far too slowly for his liking, but he had been getting better, this he was certain. Then, his younger brother paid him a visit, and he –

Tartaglia’s eyes widen.

No. Could this be related?

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he begins with dread, “I used my Foul Legacy Transformation a second time before fully recovering from my initial use. I suspect that is to blame.”

Chapter Text

III. The Good Doctor

To say that the Tsaritsa is not impressed is a severe understatement, but Tartaglia thanks his lucky stars that he did not get killed for his embarrassing display of weakness or for breaking all the court etiquettes in front of the Goddess, of all beings.

It’s probably because the Tsaritsa is even more unimpressed by the Dottore that he’s been spared. Apparently, she was under the impression that the Delusions he made for the Harbingers were perfect and fully tested to ensure they were free of all defects. The look she had given the Third Harbinger when he had stuttered his way through an explanation about backlashes was the closest thing to murderous rage Tartaglia has seen her express. He would have enjoyed it a lot more if his life wasn’t the one being affected by the Dottore’s screw-up.

He tries not to think too much about the ramifications of a backlash. Not while he’s Tartaglia.

So, let’s focus on the positives here: he wasn’t killed and he still has his job, both of those things are very good. He did get sent to see the Dottore so that the latter can figure out a cure, and gets put on forced vacation until he makes a full recovery.

Frankly, death would have been preferable to being forced to work with the Dottore.

“Fascinating,” the other man mutters for the umpteenth time that afternoon as he pokes and prods Tartaglia’s arm like one of his specimens. They’ve been sequestered in the Dottore’s lab for over two hours now, with the first hour spent on studying Tartaglia’s Delusion for any signs of abnormality. When the Dottore found that the Delusion was in perfect working order, he shifted his focus on Tartaglia, making him use his Vision, use his Delusion, curl his fingers into a fist, flex his arms, all manners of tests short of using the Foul Legacy Transformation.

And with every subsequent test that showed nothing wrong, the Dottore only grew giddier and giddier.

“Oh, this is a challenge! A challenge indeed! How absolutely fascinating!”

The man is starting to get that insane gleam in his eyes and Tartaglia does not like it one bit. If the man comes near him with a scalpel or a needle, Tartaglia won’t hesitate to plant a knife in his gut.

“I have never seen side-effects like this!” the Dottore continues, “normally, users facing a backlash tend to just go ‘poof’!” He giggles and mimes a bomb going off with his hands.

Which does not help Tartaglia’s mood in any way because that implies that the Dottore had known the severity of the Delusions’ side-effects for quite some time now, but had neglected (or deliberately chosen not to) tell anyone, including the Tsaritsa. It appears the good doctor has loftier ambitions than he was expecting.

“How long did you say you were experiencing this side-effect?”

“Three weeks,” Tartaglia grits out. “It started off mild, just pins and needles in the right hand and those went away quickly at first. They started to occur more frequently, lasted a little longer each time, and spread further up my arm. Today is the worse I’ve experienced. I’ve never had my hand spark like this.”

“Have you been wearing your Delusion during those three weeks?”

“On and off. It doesn’t seem to change anything. I’ve experienced side-effects in both situations.”

“Fascinating.”

Scratch that. If the Dottore says ‘fascinating’ one more time, Tartaglia will stab him right between his eyes. Maybe he can blame it on his faulty, fascinating hand for acting up.

“Oh, there’s no need to give me such a foul look, my dear Tartaglia!” The Dottore chuckles. “You should take it as a promising sign that the symptoms are so mild compared to, well, the alternative.”

“The alternative being death,” Tartaglia says darkly. “Dottore, has anyone told you that your definition of ‘mild symptoms’ needs a rework?”

There’s a reason why nobody likes the Dottore. Sure, he is well respected for being the third Harbinger and for the countless inventions he had brought to Snezhnaya, which certainly bolstered the strength of the nation’s military by multiple folds. His brilliance is lauded and his steadfast dedication to his research is well known. Once the man is focused on a task, like a man possessed, he will neglect everything to satiate his curiosity.

But does anyone like him? No. Not at all. The man has a callous disregard for all things living; to him, everything is a specimen, ready to be tested and just as easily disregarded once they break. He has no love for anything save for whatever topic his mind is temporarily fixated on, and has no real loyalty to anyone except himself. Tartaglia doubts the Dottore even cares to serve the Tsaritsa. She probably only secured his cooperation with equal parts threats to his life and tantalizing promises of freedom to research, build and make whatever he so pleases with unlimited resources backing his projects.

A man that is so utterly untethered to anything save his own twisted obsessions is…dangerous.

And he is approaching Tartaglia with a needle.

“No.” Tartaglia whips out his dagger and points it to the doctor, who freezes in his track. “Get that thing away from me.”

“Come now, there is no need to be so hostile! Aren’t we all colleagues here, comrade?”

“One step closer and this,” Tartaglia waves his dagger, “goes in your head, comrade.”

“Now you’re just being difficult,” the doctor says, but he does not seem at all intimidated. If anything, his grin grows wide, his lips stretching thin as his teeth flash under the blue glow illuminating the laboratory. It makes him look garish and wild, deranged even. “I was simply getting a blood sample! It would be infinitely more difficult to find out what’s wrong and to develop a cure without a little sample.”

The smile Tartaglia flashes at the doctor is all teeth and pure viciousness. “I have nothing but the utmost faith in your abilities, good doctor,” he says carefully, softly.

But his dagger does not move.

That has the Dottore pursing his lips in an almost pout.

Then, he tilts his head and, for the first time ever, looks at Tartaglia, all previous humour wiped clean from his expression.

It’s not the usual dismissive little side-glances he tends to give everybody, or the half-lidded look of boredom he likes to wear. This time, his crimson eyes are wide and clear as his unblinking gaze focuses on Tartaglia like a laser beam. His entire figure goes unnaturally still.

It’s like he’s taking stock of Tartaglia, like he’s really noticing the other as something more than just background noise. He looks like he’s judging, calculating, assessing.

Tartaglia meets his gaze head on even though the look makes him go cold.

It lasts for a few tense seconds.

The Dottore is the first to break away with a snort. “Nobody appreciates the sanctity of science and research in these parts!” But, he puts his needle away, instead, turning back to the lab bench. He opens a drawer and rummages through its content. “Here, since you insist on being difficult, the most I can do at the moment is provide these.”

Tartaglia peers at the objects the doctor is holding out and slowly, very slowly, lowers his dagger. It’s an open, rectangular box, its length no longer than the man’s hand, with what looks like ten little glass vials nestled on a bed of dark velvet. He picks up the box with a careful hand and takes one of the vials out for inspection. The liquid inside is a murky white with just a tad of pearlescence swirling in it.

He gives the doctor a suspicious look. “What is this?”

The Dottore has the audacity to roll his eyes. “For you, medicine,” he drawls out like he’s providing an explanation to a particularly dull child. “Part painkiller, part elemental suppressant, diluted many parts over. These should suppress those side-effects if they decide to flare up again. Each vial contains two doses. Only take them when you experience a serious side-effect like the one you had in the throne room. Take it when you are somewhere safe, obviously, because it will dampen your ability to use your Vision for two hours. It might also make you feel more lethargic.”

The way the doctor had just…whipped those vials out of nowhere is almost as uncomfortable as the idea of deliberately weakening his own strength by taking an elemental suppressant that also makes him sleepy.

“Surely, the good doctor has another type of medicine that would allow their patient be,” less of a sitting duck, “...more functional.”

The doctor shrugs. “This is what I have at the moment until I can develop the first batch of cure. Of course, this process can all go so much faster if you only give me a sample of your blood.”

At Childe’s blank look, the doctor sighs. “Such a shame, but that’s what I thought. In any event, I should have a first batch of experimental cure in about, oh, two weeks’ time. Possibly three. I have a theory I can work off of, no thanks to you. Now, unless there’s anything else, get out of my lab. I have lots of work to do. Lots of work.”

Tartaglia is more than happy to leave. He tucks his dagger back in his holster and heads for the exit. “I’ll have my people pick up that first batch from your lab. I trust that you will coordinate the logistics on your end as well?”

The doctor has already turned his back on him and merely answers, half-distracted and sounding very bored, “Yes, yes. I’ll have someone sort the peons out. Are you done or do you have any more inane questions?”

“…You know, I can still easily kill you from where you stand.”

“Which you won’t because how else will you get your cure? Good day, comrade.”


IV. The Return Home

Tartaglia doesn’t spend a second longer in the Palace than necessary. He takes precisely ten minutes to give instructions to his captains to set up a network between him and the Palace labs and more instructions on where to contact him for weekly updates from his spy network. With that done, he marches off to his rooms to hastily pack and change into more travel-appropriate clothes, ones suited to handle the country’s harsh winters.

The moment he steps out the front entrance of the Palace, a gilded horse-drawn carriage rolls up to him, all lavish gold over polished dark wood with the Fatui logo painted prominently on the door. A flood of servants starts loading his bags onto the coach while the coachman, one of his subordinates who had followed him back from Liyue, hops down from his driver’s seat.

“Lord Harbinger,” he greets with a bow, “where would you like to go today?”

“The Romashka Estate,” Tartaglia answers before stepping into the carriage. The moment the door closes behind him with a click, he breathes out a heavy sigh and sheds off his Tartaglia persona for Childe.

The Romashka Estate, or the Chamomile Estate, is a grand manor home gifted to Childe by the Tsaritsa when he had been knighted a Harbinger. It’s a day’s journey south of the Palace, resting on a sprawling sunny meadow, nestled between two lush forests teaming with wild game. During spring and summer, the fields are dotted with fragrant chamomile, a beloved and treasured flower of Snezhnaya for its delicate beauty and its many uses. During winter, the manor and its lands are blanketed in endless white, like the Palace or any other building in the country.

White and bleak. Stark and harsh. It is everything opposite from the warm gold of the place he had called home for the past two years.

Or the way that Zhongli’s eyes glow when he chuckles at –

Childe roughly shoves away that unfinished thought. Not even ten minutes into this persona and he’s already being this obnoxiously wistful. Honestly, it’s time to move on.

In any event, the Romashka Estate. It is an exceptionally lavish gift from the Tsaritsa, and this opinion is widely shared among the citizens of Snezhnaya. “Do you see the Romashka Estate?” they would whisper on the streets, “Serve her and one will reap rewards and wealth beyond one’s wildest dreams.”

It is also precisely because of that that Childe does not actually live there.

Why would Childe, a Harbinger with many, many enemies, stay in a home that’s known to everyone? That’s just asking for trouble in the most idiotic way possible. No, he much prefers another location to call home, one he goes to great lengths to keep a secret.

So, he uses the Romashka Estate as his headquarters with the rooms occupied by his men and loyal staff who keep the Estate running. The hustle and bustle of activities around the Estate should convince anyone watching that Childe is actually living there, which is exactly what he wants. He also helps maintain this façade by making sure he’s seen travelling from the Palace to the Estate with all his luggage in tow.

This arrangement also has the unexpected use of filtering all of his outside correspondence, ensuring that only the important ones will be forwarded to his real home by way of ravens. Everything else can be tossed or handled at a later date.

The only ravens that can directly reach him regardless of where he is in the country are those carrying the Tsaritsa’s messages. There really is no hiding from the omnipotent gaze of the great Goddess. Tartaglia has long since made peace with this reality to feel terrified.

It’s well into the early morning by the time they roll to a stop in front of the Romashka Estate. Despite the early hours, his men and his servants have gathered themselves in a neat row by the entrance to greet him.

“Welcome home, Lord Harbinger,” his head butler says with a bow the moment Childe steps out of the carriage. “It is good to see you make it back to Snezhnaya safe and sound. Will you be staying with us for the next few days?”

Childe shakes his head but gives the man an easy smile. “Unfortunately not, Vadim,” he says with regret. “I plan to head out after checking up on a few things. But I am glad to see that you are doing well, old friend. How are the others?”

“Doing wonderfully, my lord. Thank you for your concern. I understand that my lord must be busy, but surely, he can at least stay for a meal and some tea? Everyone misses you so.”

How is Childe supposed to say no to that? Besides, Childe was in such a rush to get out of the palace, he hadn’t really had the chance to sit down for a proper meal, instead, relying on his soldiers’ rations to stave off hunger. A home-cooked breakfast sounds positively divine right now.

Childe grins. “That would be lovely. I will have to trouble you and the rest of the kitchen staff so early this morning.”

“It is our honour to serve you, my lord.”

“Sir. I apologize for interrupting, but would you like us to bring your bags inside?”

Childe turns to his subordinate and waves away his apology.

“It’s fine. No need to bring those inside. Have everything loaded onto a separate cart except the red one. That will travel with me. I intend to depart in three hours, so please have my horse ready by then.”

“Do you have a preference, Lord Harbinger?”

Childe pauses. “A common stock. Something sturdy. I will need to be discrete.”

“Yes, sir.”

True to his words, Childe spends exactly three hours at the Estate. The first hour, he spends it enjoying his delicious meal and catching up with his staff, happily chatting about his (heavily redacted) adventures in Liyue and listening to them gossip about all that went on in their lives in the last two years.

The rest of his time is spent in an emergency meeting with his personnel to make sure everything is running smoothly. He also takes the opportunity to announce his vacation to his most trusted captains.

“I will be operating near Outpost 720 as usual,” he says to the two of the six people in all of Snezhnaya who knows where the Eleventh Harbinger actually lives. “Please ensure that my cargo is sent to that outpost. They should already be loaded onto a separate cart, ready for departure.”

“Yes, sir!” his captains salute. “Have an enjoyable vacation, sir! We will keep the Estate safe until your return.”

Satisfied with the knowledge that his men will hold the fort and with a last round of fond farewells to his staff, Childe tugs back on his winter gear, mounts his horse (whose name, he learns, is Aza), pulls the hood of his furred travelling cloak over his head, and sets off on the snowy trail.


If anybody were to describe where Childe lives based solely on his neat, and admittedly posh appearance, they would use words like grand, majestic, and wealthy, words that denote his status. Knowing that he’s a Harbinger only further cements those stereotypes since after all, Harbingers are widely known to be largely made up of members of upper echelon.

Which is another reason why nobody would bat an eye at the assumption that Childe’s home is the Romashka Estate. It is fitting that a grand, luxurious home be the place of abode for a powerful man such as himself.

The reality…is a little different.

Childe guides his horse carefully through the winding country road, avoiding the deep snow and ice. They have been travelling for a better part of the day, stopping to rest and have a snack. In that time, Childe’s right hand had acted up twice, though none as badly as that disastrous meeting with the Tsaritsa. Just the usual pins and needles.

It’s still enough to make him hurry his horse along least they be stuck out in the wilderness.

The sight of the simple log cabin that makes up Outpost 720 is a sight for sore eyes, as with the two Fatui members manning the post: numbers three and four of the six people who know where he lives.

“Lord Harbinger!” the members salute as Childe dismounts, his feet landing lightly on the snow-covered ground. “Welcome back to Snezhnaya! It is good to have you back with us. We trust that your travels went smoothly?”

“Yes, everything is peaceful, thank you,” Childe answers with an amicable smile. He gives the horse a couple of pets on the neck. “Aza here served me well, so please make sure to treat him with something extra special. I’ll leave him in your capable hands.” Where he’s going, the less flashier his entrance, the better.

“Yes, sir!”

After confirming that everything is well and informing his men of his intention to stay nearby for the foreseeable future, he grabs his red pack, slings the strap over his shoulder, and sets off on foot, the snow crunching beneath every step of the way.

Childe’s been lucky so far in his travels with the sky being perfectly clear, and it seems like his luck continues to hold for his last leg of the journey. As he continues trekking down the country road, every exhale forming a puff of fog in front of him, the rugged hills dotted with tall pine trees transform into vast sparkling snowfields of a land well-used. More presence of human life slowly makes its way into his surroundings with every step forward; a worn fence here, an abandoned cart there, and a few paces away lies a wooden stall with the sign “Closed for the Winter Season”.

At the fork of the road, he makes a right turn. Then, at the second fork, he makes a left.

Finally, a familiar farmhouse emerges from the hill in front of him. It’s a sturdy structure, a modest two-story building made of wood and stone with a decorated gable roof from which a stone chimney protrudes. The robin blue paint on the trimmings, windows, and door gives the house a sense of coziness at odds with its cold surroundings. Beside the house sits a smattering of simple wooden structures: a stable, a barn, a shed, and behind all that lies the white expanse of a frozen lake.  

He reaches the fence door, fumbles with the simple latch through his thick gloves, and gives a soft, “Ah ha!” when he succeeds in unlocking the door. It swings open with a rusty creak – he’ll need to oil those hinges – and he passes through, making sure to lock it behind him once more. This close to the house, he can see several sets of little footprints tracking along the path and, he grins, four snowmen of various sizes on the lawn, each sporting eyes and a wobbly smile made of pebbles. The tallest is wearing a red scarf and, on what appears to be where its waist, a large blue marble the exact shade of his Vision.

“Little devils,” Childe chuckles fondly, continues his trek with a spring in his steps.

He stops in front of the door, taking the time to brush the snow off his pants and boots, straighten his clothes, and tugs off his hood. He frowns when the material catches on to the mask he’s still been wearing since leaving the Palace.

Oh, right. He almost forgot.

With deft hands, he removes the symbol of his status as the Eleventh Harbinger and stuffs it into one of the inner pockets of his travelling cloak. Then, he takes a couple of moments to breathe.

And as he exhales, he sheds away Childe.

He knocks on the door with three rapid ‘tap-tap-tap’.

A muffled “Coming!!” sounds out from the other side, coupled with the pitter-pattering of furious footsteps. A few seconds later, the door is yanked open and –

Tonia’s eyes go wide behind her glasses. “BIG BROTHER!” she positively shrieks and latches onto the other’s middle in a fierce hug. “Anthon! Teucer! Come quick! Big Brother is back!”

Ajax laughs in pure, childlike joy. He drops the red bag to wrap his own arms around her with a fierce hug of his own. “Yes, I’m back, Little Sister. It’s very good to see you again. Did you miss me?”

Chapter Text

V. The Reunion

Mere seconds after Tonia’s call, a stampede of footsteps comes rushing towards the door. Twin cries of “BIG BROTHER!” sound out and Ajax finds himself almost bowled over by two more little bodies latching on to him like octopi.  

“Anthon, Teucer!” he grins even as he struggles to stay upright. Since when have they become so big and strong? Teucer especially; he’s only just seen him three weeks ago. He gives both of their heads a gentle pat and they squirm in delight. “And how are you two doing? You’ve been good to Uncle and Auntie, I hope?”

“The best,” Anthon utters with his face still pressed firmly against his ribs, his arms going tighter around his middle. “You have been away for far too long. We missed you! It’s not fair that Teucer got to see you and we didn’t!”

Teucer who’s latched on to his other side, lifts his head up to give Anthon a stink eye. “You could’ve gone on the boat too but you were too much of a scaredy cat! Scaredy cat! Scaredy cat!”

“I’m not! I just…thought it wasn’t such a good idea. You were being dumb and a brat!”

“Am not!”

“You were! Big Sister! Tell him what a brat he was being!”

“Oh no, I am not choosing sides,” Tonia says wisely, releasing her hold on Ajax to push her glasses up with a sniff. Ah, to be so young and so full of disdain already. “Both of you were brats for what you’ve done. Do you know how scared we were? Uncle and Auntie looked like they were having a heart attack.”

Uh oh. This sounds like a story he will need to explore with Uncle and Auntie later, and speaking of which, “Where is Uncle and Auntie? Teucer, Anthon, please let go for a second, I need to close the door – thank you.” Ajax shimmies through the entrance and toes the door shut behind him. There. Much better than standing in the cold.

There’s the sound of a throat being cleared, then, “Master, welcome home.”

Standing quietly by the stairs are “Uncle” and “Auntie”, or more officially, the guardians the Eleventh Harbinger so painstakingly vetted and hired to keep his family safe. Although they may appear as harmless civilians, they are, in fact, two of the most deadly and capable Fatui members under his command.

And that makes numbers five and six of the small handful of people who know where he lives. Good to know that everyone is alive and accounted for.

“We apologize for not greeting you sooner,” Auntie chimes in, “we did not wish to interrupt. I have not seen this much excitement since your last letter and gifts from Liyue. The children miss you an awful lot.”

“I have been away for far too long,” Ajax admits with a rueful shake of his head. He also takes the opportunity to strip off his winter gear and boots now that he’s earned a bit of breathing space from the human octopi. “But the good news is that I will be staying for some time. As of yesterday, I am officially on vacation.”

A round of cheers go up.

“So does that mean you will get to play with us?” Teucer asks. “You won’t have to run off again because of people wanting to buy toys?”

It takes a few seconds for the meaning behind that question to click in Ajax’s mind. Ah, that must have been the little white lie the Traveler thoughtfully told his little brother to explain why he had to leave the research facility so suddenly. He will need to send her a gift basket for her quick thinking. “Ah, no! No. I’m well and truly on vacation. No toy selling for me. I’m all yours. But speaking of toys,” he bends down and grab his red bag, giving it an enthusiastic little shake. “I brought you all a little something. Who wants to see what it is?”


With his younger siblings temporarily appeased and thoroughly distracted, Ajax pulls Uncle and Auntie to the kitchen for a private chat.

In a blink of an eye, he lets Childe slide back to the forefront of his personality. “I would like a full report,” he says, seated at the kitchen table, his cold fingers curling over the warm mug of his tea. His voice has taken on an obvious edge compared to the gentle tone he had used in front of his siblings. “Any suspicious activities around the home? In the village?”

His agents, who are standing before him, salute smartly. “No, sir,” Uncle replies. “Everything is quiet and peaceful. There have been no sightings of any other Fatui members around these parts except those from Outpost 720, and those members stayed well away from this property.”

Good. “And the children? How are they doing truthfully?”

This time, it’s Auntie who steps forward with information. “A bit restless. Young Mistress Tonia and Young Master Anthon have been inquiring about venturing outside of the village more and more often. Young Master Teucer has been badgering about taking sword fighting lessons. All of them are outpacing their lessons at school as well as those by their private tutors.”

Childe feels his lips curl up in a proud smile. “Oh? Any particular subjects they’re interested in?”

“Young Mistress Tonia seems interested in becoming a healer. Young Master Anthon is fascinated with alchemy. As for Young Master Teucer, he recently became fixated on his maths after Young Mistress Tonia told him that knowing how to handle money is crucial to becoming a successful toys’ salesman.”

Childe bites back his laughter. His crafty sister. Way to weaponize his lie to get Teucer to do his homework. Better than having Teucer run around, he supposes, especially after that last escape attempt. He still has no idea how a nine year old managed to successfully stowaway on a ship to Liyue.

It’s a good thing he can finally get his answers from the two people who were supposed to be responsible for his siblings’ safety.

“So,” Childe asks, his voice deceptively mild. “how exactly did Teucer find his way aboard that ship anyway? And what’s this about Anthon being involved?”

At that, both of his agents go pale and bow low. “Our most sincerest apologies for this oversight, Lord Harbinger,” Uncle starts, “this was a complete derelict of our duty and we will accept whatever punishment you deem fit.”

Childe looks coolly at the bowed forms of his subordinates from over the rim of his cup. “Hmm. The full report first.”

“It was during one of our trips to the village, sir. Young Masters Teucer and Anthon worked together to set off a distraction that allowed them to run away.”

Childe almost gives off an unimpressed snort. Is that all it takes to shake off two of his most impressive agents these days? A distraction by an eleven year old and a nine year old? He takes a slow sip of his mug. Maybe, it’s time to reassess the qualifications of his top agents. “What sort of distraction are we talking about?”

How distracting can his two sweet little brothers be?

“Young Master Anthon appeared to have…set off an explosion, sir.”

Childe chokes on his tea. Violently.

Come again?” he rasps out.

“He made a fountain explode in the middle of the town square, sir. In the confusion, Young Master Teucer took the opportunity to yell, “The bad guys went that way!” to distract the local law enforcement and stir up public panic. Both escaped into the panicked crowd and ran for the harbor though only Young Master Teucer jumped aboard the ship.”

Childe stares blankly at his agents for a few seconds. Then, he puts down his cup, and buries his face in his hands.

He doesn’t know whether he should laugh or cry so he settles for a gasping wheeze.

Dear sweet Goddess. In the two years he’s been gone, his darling, sweet, younger brothers have grown into a pyromaniac and a public nuisance. And homegrown terrorists. While outsmarting two of his most capable agents. How did this happen?

Not to mention, Teucer lied to him. What was it that his darling brother had said to him? “I saw a ship with toys and went on it”? That is a massive understatement, Little Brother! Who taught him the art of omission?

Why does he feel proud? Should he be proud of this? Something tells him that’s probably not the right reaction.

“If that is what you mean by a little restless,” Childe groans out, “then I’d hate to see how destructive they are like when they are fully restless. How did Anthon even get his hands on explosives? Wait, no. I got it. Alchemy.”

“Again, we apologize most sincerely – ”

“It’s fine, it’s fine.” Childe waves away the rest of that apology. “I can hardly expect my agents to anticipate an eleven year old to…to blow up a water fountain, dear Goddess. Do the law enforcement know who did it?”

“No, sir.”

“And the fountain?”

“Still in shambles, sir.”

Right. Childe closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Please send an anonymous donation of a million mora from my account to the village counsel to have the fountain replaced. Oh, and an apology wine basket to the local law enforcement office.”


Understandably, Childe interrupts his conversation with his agents there to give his brothers a stern chastising. He manages to get the boys to apologize to Uncle and Auntie and to secure the promise that under no circumstances will they blow anything up without his supervision, or board any miscellaneous ships.

(Something tells him that it would be an impossible ask to get Anthon to stop his pyrotechnics completely so he doesn’t even bother.)


It isn’t until later that night after his siblings are put to bed that Childe’s conversation with his agents resume.

“Master, is it true that you are on vacation?”

“A direct order from Her Imperial Majesty the Tsaritsa. I am to take time off to rest and recover.”

“Rest and recover? Are you hurt, sir?”

A shrug. “I am recovering. I have used the Foul Legacy Transformation twice within a very short amount of time and it seems to be causing some minor issues. The Third Harbinger is working on a cure as we speak, so fret not. Hey, look at the bright side. Now that I am around, I can take over the babysitting duties again.”

“…Are you sure, sir? The young masters and young mistress can be quite the handful, and you are supposed to be resting.”

Childe chuckles warmly. “There’s no need to worry about me. I’m sure I can take care of those little devils. I look forward to spending some quality family time with them.”  


That is how Ajax, alias Tartaglia, alias Childe, finds himself slipping back into his role as the best brother ever. At first, he was worried. Having worn the twin masks of Tartaglia and Childe for so long, will he even remember how to be the gentle older brother that his siblings need him to be?

It takes him three days for his concerns to start dying down. Three days to familiarize himself with the domestic side of taking care of his dear family – cooking, cleaning, waking his brothers and sister up for school, making sure they’re properly groomed and dressed, walking them there and back. Three days spent getting to know them again, spending meal times together talking about their days, sharing his (heavily redacted) stories of some of his more outrageous adventures from Liyue as they huddle together by the warm hearth in the evenings. Three days of rare peace.

(And during that time, his hand acted up thrice more with the sensation of pins and needles that has spread to his forearm. He’s taken to keeping a vial on his person at all times, but he tries to not worry about his health even though he knows that things are starting to escalate again. It’s not like that’s something he can control anyway, so why let it keep him from cherishing his time with his family? Besides, hope is on the horizon in the form of the Dottore’s cure, and despite his many reservations about the man, the Dottore is good at his job.)

“Big Brother,” Tonia calls out one lazy Saturday evening in the middle of their family pelmeni-making session. The kitchen has turned into a war zone and everyone is covered in flour, their aprons having offered very little protection against the capacity for mess of two rowdy boys, but they’re having fun, and that’s what matters the most at the end. “Does Liyue have pelmeni like we do? From your letters, it sounds like they have so many different types of food there.”

Ajax pauses in his attempt to teach Anthon and Teucer how to wrap dumplings to give his sister a sunny smile. “They do! Very similar to pelmeni with different ways to cook them as well. The best ones I’ve had are at a restaurant called the Liuli Pavilion. They’re made with a very thin skin with mushroom, pork and cabbage as the filling. They are fried so they’re a bit crispy on the outside. They’re not served with sour cream – ah, Teucer, not too much filing or the pelmeni won’t close. Like this. You want to use this much only, okay?”

“Liuili Pavilion? I remember you mentioning that restaurant in a couple of your letters.” Tonia hums. “Isn’t that where you would go with your friends, the Nice Lady and the Prince?”

Ajax fights back his rising embarrassment with a weak chuckle. He had forgotten that little nickname he gave Zhongli in his letters. In his defence, the nickname was given when he had first met the other and Ajax was still entertaining the possibility that he was some runaway royalty. “Ah, yes, that’s the one.”

“I met the Nice Lady,” Teucer chimes in, scooping a huge spoonful of pork filling and plopping it on to the dough with a violent squelch. Ajax reaches over and scoops away half for his own wrapper. “She took me to see the toy shop and the wharf. She has this flying toy with her that can talk! She calls it Emergency Food though, which is a pretty dumb name for a toy.”

Ajax doesn’t want to know the meaning behind that name. He hopes it’s an inside joke.

“You didn’t get to meet the Prince?” Anthon makes a disappointed noise. He makes a grabby hand at the bowl of filling, which Ajax takes and hands it to him. “I want to know what the Prince is like!”

“Maybe you would have met him if you weren’t such a scaredy cat!”

“Teucer.” Ajax gives his little brother a warning look. “Anthon was being very good for not going on that ship.” But not so good for blowing up that fountain.

“Wait, is the Prince someone you, ah, work with?” Tonia asks, “As part of the, uh,” she glances at Teucer and bites her lips, “the Toy Research Institute?”

Bless his sweet little Tonia for keeping up with the charade.

“Ah, no, he’s not a Snezhnaya toy salesman. He’s from Liyue originally.” Well, technically, Celestia, but he’s not going to open that can of worms. “He’s…a storyteller! He knows all the best stories about Liyue, the heroes, the adventures, and what it’s like to live there in the past.”

Teucer scrunches his face in confusion. “If he’s a storyteller, how is he a prince?” He plops another large spoonful of filler on his dumpling wrapper and folds the skin over in a lumpy mess.

“Stupid. Just because he’s a prince doesn’t mean he can’t also be a storyteller!” Anthon retorts, his tone makes it sound like it’s the most obvious knowledge in Teyvat. “The better question is, what is a prince doing outside his castle.”

Keeping tabs on Tartaglia, Ajax thinks wryly just as he blurts out, “Having a meal with – ”

He stops himself before he can finish that sentence. His friends. Having a meal with his friends.

No, that’s not quite right either.

“Having a meal,” Ajax says instead, making sure to keep his tone light and airy despite the lump in his throat. “Even princes get hungry after all!”

“Sooooo, what is he like, Big Brother?” Tonia prods with an embarrassed little giggle. “Is he tall? Is he handsome?”

“You are entirely too young to be thinking about boys, young miss,” Ajax teases, even as his stomach twists unpleasantly at the memory of Zhongli, of the soft, wistful smile on his face when they had their last meal together, just mere days before Tartaglia’s disastrous manoeuvre.

“You seem to be in a good mood, Professor,” Childe had observed during that fateful evening between sips of chilled rice wine. They were seated outdoors on the deck, the late autumn wind bringing warmth and the smell of sea salt around them. From their vantage point, they had the most fantastic view of the gentle waves glimmering in the moonlight. “What’s going on? What’s the good news?”

Zhongli had chuckled, and the velvety rich timbre of his voice had washed over Childe, wrapping him in what felt like a warm blanket. “Do I? I suppose I am…eager. Yes. The winds of change are in the air and I am eager to see what they will bring.”

In the glow of the candle light, Zhongli’s normally guarded expression had seemed soft, and uncharacteristically open. The furrow in his brow had smoothed out, as with the harsh intensity of his stare. He had turned to gaze at the waves, his amber eyes half-shut and his lips had curled in a delicate, fragile smile.

Childe had felt his teasing words die in his mouth.  

This was Zhongli like Childe had never seen before, Zhongli in his moment of vulnerability and he was…he was –

“Beautiful. He is beautiful,” Ajax answers with so much raw honesty that it even startles him. He shakes his head and clears his throat. “Uh, he is tall with dark hair and these striking amber eyes, and he carries himself with grace and confidence whether he’s in a fancy restaurant or the backstreets of Liyue. He has an incredible memory for all these stories about Liyue but for some reason, he forgets the most basic things like bringing his mora with him.”

“He sounds silly,” Anthon makes a face of pure judgment.

“He sounds wonderful,” Tonia sighs with a flush on her face.

“I agree with Anthon,” Teucer declares. “He doesn’t sound anywhere as neat as the Nice Lady. Plus, he doesn’t even have a flying toy, even if Nice Lady’s toy has a stupid name.”

Ajax laughs. Ah, if only Zhongli knows that he’s been judged and found wanting by his kid brothers. “I suppose he is all of those things. Now, why don’t we finish –”

There is a knock on the door, a series of raps that Ajax immediately recognizes as belonging to one of his agents. Grabbing a nearby towel, he wipes his hands free of flour and dough.

“Must be your Uncle or Auntie. Be good while I answer the door, okay?”

A chorus of, “Yes, Big Brother,” sounds out, and with a nod of approval, he steps out of the kitchen and heads for the door.

He yanks open the door and greets out, “Uncle, Auntie, just in time for supper, I hope you like pelm –”

His words trail off when he finally registers the sight that greets him.

“Master,” Uncle says with a stiff bow, his expression stern. “I apologize for dropping in so suddenly, but it appears that you have a visitor.”

And behind his agent, dressed entirely in too little clothing for the winter weather of Snezhnaya, stands Zhongli in all his glory.

“Mister Childe,” he says with an elegant dip of his dark head, and dear Goddess, his voice is the same low, smoky timbre that Childe remembers, “It is a pleasure to see you again.”

Chapter Text

VI. The Visitor

A million thoughts come crashing into Ajax, alias Tartaglia, alias Chide, as he stands stock-still with his front door open, gaping at Zhongli.

First of all. Zhongli is here. As in, he’s left Liyue, his home for probably the entirety of his 6000 plus years of existence.

Second of all, Zhongli is here in Snezhnaya and at Ajax’s home, which how the hell did he even find him? Nobody should be able to find him. He puts in a lot of effort to prevent just that, including going to great lengths to set up that Estate as his dummy home.

Third of all, Zhongli is here, staring at Ajax while Ajax is…uh.

He looks down. And he grimaces.

In his haste to get the door, and in making the assumption that he was only going to greet his two agents, Ajax had quite forgotten that he was still wearing his Ajax personality.

That is to say, he’s severely underdressed in a simple, almost ratty, shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, a pair of threadbare grey cotton pants, and a pair of woolen socks under his slippers. Over his clothes is a ridiculous pink apron Tonia had put on him that’s decorated with lots of dainty lace and frills.

Oh, and he’s covered in flour from head to toe, courtesy of his brothers.

The embarrassment that comes flooding through him is as strong as the waves that crashed into Liyue Harbour under Osial’s might. The realization that he’s standing there in front of Rex Lapis Morax, the once God of War, God of Contracts, and God of Commerce, in what’s effectively his loungewear and an apron is not lost on him.

Apparently, it’s not lost on Rex Lapis either. The ex-Geo Archon is wearing a stony expression, but Childe spent two years with Zhongli and he learned to pick up the little clues that give away the other’s true feelings. Childe can see the way Zhongli’s lips are pressed tightly, too tightly, and the way his amber eyes are not looking directly at him, instead, opting to steal the occasional side-glances, and Childe most definitely notices the way Zhongli’s shoulders are trembling.

Zhongli…is trying really hard. To not laugh. At him.

Childe feels his dignity crack like a mirror. Great. Just great. Glad one of them finds this situation hilarious.

But Ajax alias Tartaglia alias Childe didn’t climb that high up the Fatui military ladder by being slow, even if he’s caught off guard. In a blink of an eye, he shoves his Ajax persona to the back of his mind while dragging his Childe persona to the forefront to be used as a metaphorical meat shield.

“Master Zhongli, what an unexpected surprise,” he greets with a plastic smile. “Please, come in. Let’s get the both of you out of this blasted cold.”

Seeing Rex Lapis standing in the foyer of his childhood home does not stop being bizarre, and it makes him want to stop and stare some more. Luckily, at this point, Uncle is taking over the pleasantry of hanging everyone’s coat, putting away aside from the small travel bag that Rex Lapis has on him,  and ushering them to the living room.

He does have the mind to excuse himself to clean up, once Rex Lapis(!!) has taken a seat on the sofa closest to the fireplace.

He ducks into the kitchen and promptly starts dusting the flour off of him in half-panic as his mind runs wild. Shit. Shitshitshit. Just what the hell is that? Why is Rex Lapis here? They haven’t seen each other over two months, closer to three months now, and this is the first impression he makes for himself? He must have looked like a fright judging by the build-up of flour on the floor –

“Big Brother? Who was that at the door?”

Tonia’s quiet question jerks his attention away from his mortification. Ah, that’s right, his brothers and sister are still waiting for him.

He lets Childe melt away in favour of donning his Ajax mask.

“Sorry to keep you all waiting, Tonia, Anthon, Teucer,” Ajax coughs awkwardly into his fist, even as he gives his clothes a few more pats. “We have an unexpected visitor from Liyue who dropped by.”

That announcement garners a round of excited gasps.

“From Liyue?” Tonia’s eyes gleam as she asks in a hush. “Oh, who is it? Do we know them?”

“Are they from the Institute for Toy Research?” Teucer pipes up.

“Is it someone from your letters?” Anthon guesses.

“Yes, it is someone you’ve heard of already from my letters.” Ajax leans forward and whispers as if sharing a secret, “It’s the Prince.”

Even though the boys had just bashed Zhongli not even ten minutes ago, they still let out happy, “ooooh’s” at the reveal.

Tonia looks like she’s ready to jump for joy. There are literal stars shining in her eyes. “Oh, Big Brother! Can we meet him? We must meet him!”

Ajax…hesitates.

There’s a part of him that’s not keen on having the ex-Archon in his house, let alone meeting his darling siblings. Not that he’s afraid his brothers and sister won’t be able to handle him because lets be honest, they’d eat him alive.

It’s more to do with his reluctance to let the man see more of his private life, to see any part of Ajax at all, not after what happened.

But at the same time…

Tonia is looking at him, her eyes huge and pleading behind her glasses.

“Please, Big Brother?” Anthon adds. “We promise to be good!”

“Yeah! Please, Big Brother?” Teucer begs as well, and suddenly, Ajax finds himself surrounded by three pairs of pleading eyes and a cacophony of whining “please” and “Big Brother”.

Ah. How is he supposed to refuse his darling sister and brothers anything?

“Alright, alright, you can all stop! Yes, you can meet him!” Ajax says even though he’s heaving a heavy sigh internally. He did not even last three seconds before capitulating. “It will depend on whether he has the time though. He might have dropped by for an emergency. I can ask him to join us for supper. That will give you all more time to chat with him if he accepts.”

Tonia gives him a bright smile as Teucer and Anthon cheer. “That would be splendid, Big Brother! Oh, thank you!”

“Let me clean up a little first for our guest. I’ll be back once we’re done. In the meantime, Tonia, you’re in charge. Boys, listen to your sister.”

Tonia gives a little salute that dissolves into giggles.

He takes off his apron, dusts himself off some more, and prepares several mugs of tea, which he carries out on a tray with him.

On his way to the living room, he slips his Childe mask back on once again as easy as changing clothes.

“I apologize for the delay. I thought we could all use something warm to drink as well,” he says by way of greeting. When everyone settles back into their seats with their mugs in hand, he gets to business. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure of your visit, Master Zhongli?” And because there is a part of him that is just a smidge (a lot) bitter, he adds almost flippantly, “It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

Zhongli does not react to his jab, to his great disappointment. He merely bows his head once to acknowledge the truth of the statement. “It has,” he says simply. “I hope you have been well during this time.”

“I have been well, thank you for asking,” Childe answers without missing a beat, but just as distantly polite. “I would normally ask about whether your trip here was uneventful, but I find myself a bit of a loss as to how you were able to find me in the first place. I would appreciate if you can indulge my curiosity, Master Zhongli.”

“Ah.” Zhongli takes a careful sip of his tea, every movement elegant and composed. “I was sent here by your Goddess.” He tilts his head, “Have you not received my correspondence?”

Now that is news to Childe. Sent by the Tsaritsa? Here? For what purpose?

In the past few days, he had not received any ravens from the Palace, he’s sure of it. He gives Uncle a confused look and the other man returns it with a small shake of his head.

His agent hasn’t received anything either.

“Apologies, Master Zhongli,” Childe says in his business voice. “I have not received news of your visit. I would appreciate if you can clarify your purpose for sending that letter.”

Zhongli hums in thought and takes another sip of his tea. The only sign of his confusion is the slight frown he’s sporting on his otherwise impassive face. “I had asked the Tsaritsa to delay her directive should she issue one to you so that I may write to you first. I had wished to approach this situation a bit more…delicately.”

“Uncle,” Childe commands, and the agent jumps to attention. “Could you please check the kitchen? Master Zhongli and I require some privacy.”

“Sir,” the man salutes and sees himself out.

“Alright, we can speak more freely,” Child says the moment his agent’s footsteps faded away. He shifts in his seat and leans forward, dropping his voice just in case his words carry. “So, you and the Tsaritsa have been talking. Am I wrong to assume that it’s about the nature of your deal with her?”

Zhongli nods. “Indeed. In exchange for my Gnosis, the deal was for her to aid me in transitioning from being the Geo Archon to someone living a mortal life. I had believed the contract was satisfied after Liyue Harbour had passed the test.”

Why is Childe hearing a silent ‘but’ after that sentence?

Zhongli puts down his cup and sighs. “It seems…” he begins, sounding contrite, “that I have miscalculated. While I am firmly retired as the Geo Archon, it appears that the…second half of the contract still has some work left to be done.”

The…second half of the contract? He means…?

Just like that, everything clicks for Childe.

Rex Lapis, ex-Geo Archon, ex-God of War, Contracts and Commerce, is struggling to live life as a mortal. Under the stipulations of the contract, the Tsaritsa is to help him, and for some reason, she’s decided that the best way to do that is to send Zhongli his way.

While the Tsaritsa could have simply sent a directive to Childe with his mission parameters, Zhongli had requested permission to reach out to Childe first out of professional courtesy.

And the Tsaritsa had respected those wishes. Furthermore, even though she received the Gnosis as payment already, the Tsaritsa is still honouring the contract.

Both of those things speak volumes about his Goddess’ respect for the ex-Geo Archon. It also effectively ties Childe to this mission to help Zhongli despite whatever misgivings he’s had of the man if he doesn’t want to lose any more of the Tsaritsa’s favour.

Great. Just great.

“I see. I believe I understand just about everything,” Childe answers neutrally. “The only point of confusion is about your missing letter. Where did you address your letter to?”

Zhongli’s face takes on a pinched expression. His lips purse and his brow furrows. “What do you mean? I have passed on my letter to your colleague at Northland Bank, who promised to deliver it to you in my stead. She does not seem the type to break her promise.”

Childe refrains from pinching the bridge of his nose. Ah, he can see what happened. Zhongli has no idea where Childe lives and gave his letter to Ekaterina. Ekaterina, like any member of the public, believes that he’s at the Romashka Estate, and dutifully forwarded the letter there. Since the letter is probably not marked as urgent, his men at the Estate did not bother to forward it to his actual home.

Zhongli’s letter is probably sitting in a pile somewhere on his desk back at the Estate.

Meanwhile, the Tsaritsa, who definitely possesses some sort of ability to track all of her Harbingers, sent Zhongli directly where she knows Childe is, which is here. His childhood home.

And if he knows the meticulousness of his Tsaritsa, he should anticipate a missive from her any time…

“Sir,” Uncle salutes from the living room entryway, “a letter from the palace.”

…now.


Childe takes all of one minute to peruse the contents of the letter. He takes another to reread it again.

Then, he rolls it up, tucks it in his pocket, and smiles his polite smile.

“So,” he says to Zhongli, who’s sitting there, patiently sipping his tea, “I take it that means you’re staying for supper as well as the night. I hope you like pelmeni.”

At least his sister and brothers would be delighted.


For a brief second, Childe considers giving Zhongli an advanced warning about his siblings, but then, he remembers that Zhongli could have given him an advanced warning about using him as a pawn, so he figures, fair is fair.

Besides, the way the ex-Archon’s eyes widen when he sees his three adorable siblings sitting around the dining table is worth all the mora in Teyvat.

“Teucer, Anthon, Tonia,” Ajax says (because in front of his siblings, it’s always Ajax), “this is Master Zhongli. He will be staying with us for a little while. Master Zhongli, these are my darling little brothers and sister.”

Zhongli blinks. “I did not know you have siblings.”

Ajax shrugs, not entirely sure how to answer that. “Please have a seat,” he says instead. “I’ll go check on supper.”

Without waiting for a response, he abandons Zhongli to the mercy of his siblings.

“How is everything?” he asks as he dips into the kitchen. Uncle has taken over kitchen duty and sometimes while Childe was chatting with Zhongli, Auntie had returned home as well. She’s currently wiping the kitchen table clean. “Tonia, Teucer, and Anthon did not give you any trouble?”

“No, sir. They were perfectly behaved,” Uncle says as he gives the pot a stir. “Supper should be just about ready. Some of the pelmeni may have exploded in the pot though. Too much filling.”

“That would be Teucer’s work alright,” Ajax laughs. “And you Auntie, any trouble in the village or otherwise?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary except for our unexpected guest,” she answers, giving the table one last good wipe with the kitchen towel before nodding in satisfaction. “Will the guest be staying?”

Ajax nods. “For the time being at least, until we can work out a better arrangement that can better follow the Orders of Her Imperial Majesty the Tsaritsa herself. I am to help him adjust to…civilian life.”

His agents are too well trained to pry any further so they simply nod. “I shall prepare the guest room for him then,” Auntie replies. “Please take a seat, sir. Don’t worry about anything here, we can finish up.”

Ajax returns to the dining table to the sound of his excitable siblings asking a flurry of questions.

“Master Zhongli, is it true that you’re a prince? What’s it like living in a palace? Do you have tons of servants? Have you met any princesses?”

“Master Zhongli, Big Brother said you’re a storyteller. How many stories do you know? What’s your favourite one? Do you know any ones about bad guys getting beaten up? Oh! Or how about ones where monsters get blown up?”

“Master Zhongli, do you have a flying toy like the Nice Lady? I think you should get a Mr. Cyclops instead, and not give it a stupid name like Emergency Food.”

Zhongli, for his part, appears completely zen. His back is perfectly straight, his arms folded elegantly on the table in front of him with his palms resting gently on the surface. His expression is neutral, almost serene.

Then, he turns to Ajax, and ah, there it is, the first trickle of panic in his eyes.

Ajax bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from snickering. The once God of War laid low by inquisitive children. Ajax never thought he’d see the day. Maybe, he should let his siblings continue just a bit longer, have them really wear him down. The panic in Zhongli’s eyes intensifies.

And for the second time that day, Ajax finds himself capitulating.

“Alright, alright, settle down you lot,” Ajax laughs, pulling a chair beside Zhongli. This close, he can see how stiff the ex-Archon’s posture really is. “Be nice to Master Zhongli. He’s come a long way. One question at a time, please. Tonia, you first.”

“Is it true that you’re a prince?”

Hoo boy. His dearest little sister really doesn’t pull back any punches when it comes to embarrassing his older brother, does she? Ajax gives an embarrassed chuckle. “Hey, what do you mean, ‘is it true?’ Are you saying that I’d lie to you?” He shoots Zhongli a quick look. Play along.

At least Zhongli gets the memo because he nods. “I am…retired now,” he answers carefully.

“Can princes even retire?” Teucer wonders out loud.

“They can if they abdicate,” Anthon points out.

“Oh.” Teucer makes a face. “What does abdicate mean?”

“It means they retire, stupid.”

“Anthon, be nice,” Ajax chastises. “Teucer, ‘abdicate’ means a royalty gives up their throne. Now, who’s got the next question?”

Anthon’s hand shoots up. “How many stories of Liyue do you know?”

This one is a lot less perplexing. Ajax sees Zhongli’s shoulders relax a little. “Countless,” he says with just a hint of a smile. “Which ones would you be interested in hearing?”

That sets off a fresh barrage of questions that not even Ajax can control, only temporarily quelled by the arrival of the large pot of pelmeni.

“Master Zhongli, have you ever had pelmeni before? Big Brother says that Liyue has its own version of pelmeni but it’s not served with sour cream. If you don’t eat it with sour cream, what do you eat it with?”

“Ah, soy sauce and vinegar,” Zhongli’s answer comes easier now. Seems like he is slowly getting used to being bombarded by questions. The alarm is fading away from his eyes at least. “Soy sauce is a type of salty, thin sauce almost meaty in flavour. It is made from a type of beans called soybeans that’s been fermented. It is a staple of Liyue cuisine. And no, I do not think I have ever had the pleasure of trying pelmeni before.”

“I hope you like it! We made it ourselves!” Anthon says, puffing out his chest. “The fat ugly ones are Teucer’s and the pretty ones are Big Sister Tonia’s!”

Teucer glares at his older brother. “You’re fat and ugly, Anthon!”

“No, you’re fat and ugly!”

“Nuh uh! I’m not fat and ugly! You’re fat and ugly!”

“Nobody’s fat and ugly in this household and neither are your pelmeni,” Ajax interjects in the middle of scooping a bowl for Zhongli, even if he did make sure to give all the ones Tonia made to his guest. “You’re all Big Brother’s adorable little dumplings.”

He hands Zhongli his bowl and laughs at the disgusted faces Teucer and Anthon make. Even poor Tonia flushes bright pink.

“Big Brother,” she says, embarrassment colouring her voice. She glances at Zhongli and flushes even harder.

“Big Brother is being gross,” Teucer grumbles. He stabs his pelmeni and devours it in a few messy bites, smearing sour cream over his face. This prompts Tonia to reach over to wipe his face for him.

“Really gross,” Anthon agrees. “When did Big Brother start being so lame?”

Ajax clutches his chest in mock pain. “Ouch. Right in the heart. To be so soundly rejected by my beloved family.” He sighs and pretends to wipe tears from his eyes. “I suppose that this lame brother will just have to eat all the ice cream he’s bought for tonight’s dessert all by his lame self.”

The chorus of whining “no’s” and “Big Brother!” is like music to his ears.


“You are very good with children,” comes Zhongli’s observation hours later, when all the excitement is over. The children are put to bed and Childe – he’s Childe in front of Zhongli –  had just finished showing Zhongli the guest room.

It’s a sizeable space with large windows that let in plenty of sun during the day with heavy curtains to keep out of the cold at night. Around the white walls hung tapestries featuring flowering designs popular in Snezhnaya, which, along with the large, four-poster bed near the center of the room, and the stone fireplace lit with a crackling fire, give the room a warm, cozy feel.

Next to the bed, closer to the windows, is a seating space made up of two plush armchairs and a low table in between. On the other side of the bed are empty dressers, though looking at the tiny travel bag Zhongli’s brought with him, something tells Ajax that the dressers will remain mostly empty.

A perfectly serviceable place to host an ex-god, if Childe does say so himself.

“Thank you,” Childe answers, a tinge of pride colouring his voice. “It helps that I’ve been doing this for a while now, I suppose.”

“Oh.” Zhongli seems to be taken a bit aback by that answer. “If I may ask, your parents – ”

Childe’s eyes narrow. “Gone,” he says simply, sounding almost nonchalant.

He does not expect the soft look from Zhongli.

A hot flash of annoyance cuts through Childe’s cool mask of pleasantry, and he barely holds back a scowl. Zhongli is the last person Childe wants to receive this bizarre play at sympathy from, not when Zhongli has made it clear just how little Childe means to him.

No. Zhongli does not get to disappear from his life for three months after two years of perceived friendship – friendly relationship, only to now waltz back into his life and pretend that he cares.

“Mister Childe,” Zhongli starts, his voice low and gentle. It’s the same voice he’s used to soothe grieving widows at Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, and oh wow. Really? He’s going to pull that on Childe? “My deepest condolences, it must have been so hard – ”

Just like that, Childe finds his patience snapping like a twig. “Save it. Just save it,” he snaps.

The room descends into silence so thick, that a knife could cut through it.

Childe regrets his loss of control immediately, and the anger leaves him just as swiftly as it arrived. For fuck’s sake, he’s supposed to be Harbinger, and the number rule to being a Harbinger is that the mission always comes first regardless of personal feelings. The loss of composure is something only an amateur would do and is, frankly, embarrassing.

There’s also the obvious fact that after spending the whole evening watching him take care of his three young siblings, Zhongli would naturally ask about his parents. Anybody would. His youth does him no favour.

He’s fairly sure that the only reason his own agents haven’t said anything is because he’s their boss. They’ve probably already gotten the full picture from his siblings as well.

And after hearing someone say that their parents’ passed away, who wouldn’t respond with “my condolences”? It’s the socially accepted thing to do.

Zhongli is just responding the way anybody would and once again, Childe is reading too much into his actions. He’s prescribing meaning in places where there aren’t any and he really ought to know better by now.

He takes a calming breath and lets the knot of anger-frustration-disappointment wash away from him like water flowing off his body. Professionalism. He needs to be a professional.

“It’s fine,” he says and tries to adopt the same even, pleasant voice from before. “It’s been…a while and I like to think I’m doing just fine. At least I have more than enough mora to keep them clothed, fed, and a roof over their head. Those are things a lot of people would die for.”

Those are things a lot of people would kill for.

The silence stretches on, but Childe holds his ground and keeps still. He’s waiting for a cue, a sign from the other on how to act. Should he…change the subject maybe? Talk about a lighter topic? Or maybe, beat a hasty retreat by turning around and wishing the other a good night?

Funny, he doesn’t remember ever feeling this awkward and this guarded around Zhongli. It’s rather sad how quickly two years of friendship – friendly relationship goes down the drain.

“It seems clear to me that you are providing them with more than just that,” Zhongli says, finally breaking the silence. He doesn’t seem upset. Rather, he sounds…thoughtful. Almost earnest. “You dote on them, and they adore you in return. Your dedication to your family is truly admirable, as well as your ability to take care of them while being at the service of the Tsaritsa. More experienced people have struggled under the weight of the responsibility you carry every day.”

It’s…weird, hearing Zhongli say such kind things to him, and Childe is left a bit flabbergasted. All these praises, but for what purpose? Maybe this is Zhongli’s attempt to offer an olive branch for his previous faux-pas. Try to soothe over ruffled feathers with flattery for poking at a sore topic.

Hmm. If Zhongli is willing to be courteous, then Childe too can accept his gesture of goodwill for the sake of working together harmoniously and all.

“I try, and I have help,” Childe answers. He walks over to the seating area and takes a seat, with Zhongli mirroring his gesture, sinking into his own armchair with the grace of a king seated at his throne. “I tend to spoil them pretty rotten though so what I’m doing is far from perfect. Teucer will probably show you the collection of giant iron toys I get him for his birthday. We tend to keep everything in his clubhouse in the backyard. If you see some that look like miniature Ruin Guards, do not be alarmed. He calls them Mr. Cyclops and he’s very fond of them.”

Zhongli makes a sound of understanding. “So that’s what Mr. Cyclops is. I had been wondering.” He shoots Childe a curious look. “I also can’t help but notice how your siblings think I am royalty.”

“Ah, about that.” Childe huffs out a laugh as he runs a hand through his hair. “I tend to give nicknames to people I know in my letters to home like characters in a fairy tale. My little sister and brothers adore that. Thank you for playing along by the way. I don’t have the heart to tell them that you’re not actually a prince. Childhood dreams are too easily shattered, you know, so…”

Childe shrugs. “I try to protect them as best as I can. For as long as I can.”

He tries to give his siblings the luxury of what he doesn’t have; keep them safe and protected in this home, in their idyllic village before the cold reality of the outside world comes tearing through their bubble. It will happen, such is the inevitability of life and of growing up, but at least let them have fond memories of these halcyon days to look back on, to draw comfort from on days where life becomes just a bit too hard.

If there’s one wish Ajax can have in the whole wide world, let it be that.

Zhongli is watching him, silent, the amber of eyes positively luminous in the warm glow of the crackling fire, like the glow of the Cor Lapis he favours for his jewelry. Childe has seen that look a lot in the two years they’ve known each other.

“Professor,” he had teased the first time he caught Zhongli in the act, “if you stare any harder, you’re bound to give a boy like me the wrong idea.”

And Zhongli had blinked and tilted his head. “Wrong idea? What would be the wrong idea?”  

Childe had not known what compelled him to say what he would say. Perhaps it was the alcohol, or maybe because the evening had been one of the more relaxing ones he’s had in a while, but regardless of the reason, he had laughed and retorted, “Why, that you’re interested in little ol’ me of course!”

Zhongli frowned, looking even more perplexed. “But I do find you interesting. How is that the wrong idea if that’s the truth?”

For a second, Childe was left speechless, his earlier mirth slid away to make way for the incredulous look that must have appeared on his face. This man. The way he had just…said it so matter-of-factly with those devastatingly looks. Zhongli is a natural heartbreaker isn’t he? How could any maiden survive Zhongli?

“Childe? Are you alright? You’re looking a little red.”

Childe blinked. His hand flew to his cheeks and oh.  

“Why Professor,” he laughed again even as his heart gave a funny little lurch. “Now see what you’ve done? You’ve made me blush!”

“Your secret is safe with me.” The sound of Zhongli’s solemn voice draws Childe back to the present from a happier time. “Is there anything else I should keep in mind when I interact with the children?”

“They don’t know I’m the Eleven Harbinger,” Childe confesses. “Tonia and Anthon know I serve the Tsaritsa but they don’t know in what capacity.” His lips twist in a dry smile. “Teucer thinks I’m a toys salesman for the Institute of Toy Research. I – I don’t want my family to have anything to do with Snezhnaya’s darker side.” He just wants his family to live in peace.

Zhongli nods. He adds, his voice quieter, “Shall I keep calling you Mister Childe then?”

Once upon a time, Zhongli had addressed him without the honorifics. He was the only person in Liyue Harbour who could get away with that before the Traveler came crashing into his life. Childe hadn’t mind. He thought it was a fair trade for all the nicknames he gave to his friend Zhongli.

Now though…

“I prefer if you do,” Childe answers, and that’s that.


Childe waits until he closes the door behind him before he slumps forward and deflates, losing the proud posture he’s kept in front of Zhongli. With leaden feet, he drags himself to his perfectly made bed and faceplants on the cover with a thump.

He groans a long, miserable groan into his sheets. What is he even doing? Why did the Tsaritsa give him this mission? He’s supposed to be the Vanguard. Vanguard. His job is supposed to be in the front lines, fighting things, not…whatever the hell sort of bizarre diplomacy slash teaching job he’s been saddled with.

‘The Geo Archon Rex Lapis wishes to live as a mortal,’ the missive says. ‘Teach him the basic skills needed for him to successfully transition to his mortal life. Do so until he is satisfied with your services.’

The memory of the missive makes Childe grimace. Such a vaguely worded order, but with those words, the Tsaritsa effectively hands all the control of his success over to Zhongli. Again. Just like last time, Childe finds himself in the palms of Rex Lapis, the puppet master.

The mission doesn’t even have a concrete deadline either. Just…how long is the Tsaritsa expecting him to be in Zhongli’s servitude?

Well, that won’t do at all. Childe learned his lesson from what happened the last time, his ego is still smarting from the humiliation of being so thoroughly played. He needs to find a way to wrestle some of that control back.

Childe rolls on to his back and crosses his arms, letting his head drop back against the soft cover as his eyes stare up at his ceiling. He turns the words of the missive in his mind again and again, like a curious child taking apart a toy to understand how each component fits together. Hmm, what to do, what to do? Machinations and plotting may not be his forte compared to his battle prowess as the Vanguard of the Harbingers, but that doesn’t mean he’s completely incompetent in those areas. Far from it, in fact. After all, one needs to have a head for strategy in battles in order to become the greatest warrior of all time, and Childe intends to be just that.

What does one do when they find themselves seemingly given an open mission with a vague goal?

Why, he could set his own parameters, break down the large vague goal into bite-sized concrete ones. Set a damned deadline to have all of this done.

In this circumstance, he’s tasked to teach life skills to Zhongli until the latter feels satisfied with his services. What he can do is make a lesson plan of some sort where upon completion of those lessons, Zhongli will have to write to the Tsaritsa informing her that the deal is satisfied.

The more he thinks about it, the more he likes that plan. He pushes himself off the bed and heads for his writing desk. He’s got a couple of ideas already that he wants to jot down. He can start by breaking down survival into broad categories – food, shelter, warmth, rest. And under each of those, more specific skills like how to cook, how to procure food in a fiscally responsible manner, how to layer for warmth especially in Snezhnaya winters, and etc. With luck, he can get everything wrapped up in a handful of months, which is substantively shorter than a lot of his missions, so he’d be coming out on top.

He’ll document everything as well, have everything in black and white to be compiled into a mission report that he can send back to Her Imperial Majesty. If he has proof documenting the tasks he’s completed along with proof that Zhongli had agreed to be satisfied with his lessons, it would make it hard for the ex-God of Contract to claim otherwise.

Just as he reaches for his pen, his fingers twitch as if jolted by electricity.

He hisses, and immediately brings his right hand against his chest in a protective cradle. His left hand flies to his forearm to pre-emptively massage away the cramping muscles with practiced ease.

He tries to force the spasming fingers in his right hand to curl in a fist.

Nothing’s responding. Shit. Not a good sign.

Alright, calm down. He needs a clear head for this. He can try waiting to see if it goes away. It has in the past.

He closes his eyes and starts to count to ten in his head, timing his breaths with his count. His left hand continues its ministration, fingers rubbing circles along the shivering muscles and tendons while he forces himself to keep his breaths even. He can feel the familiar sensation of fire starting to build from the tips of his fingers, making the flesh there feel like it’s being stabbed by tiny hot pokers.

Ten. Nine. Eight.

The fire is creeping up his fingers now. It’s curling into the center of his palm, burning and burning everything in its path. His right hand tremors even harder.

Seven. Six. Five. Four.

Up and up the trail of fire goes, snaking past his wrist, making the joint there throb to the tempo of his racing heartbeat. The fire creeps to his forearm and sets his nerves there ablaze with fresh agony. Childe is grinding his teeth from the pain, his breaths coming out in huffs between clenched teeth.

Three. Two. One.

His eyes fly open.

The pain does not abate.

Cursing, he draws his hydro to quench the fire, and a thin stream of water answers his call. It splashes against his twitching flesh and soaks through the front of his shirt.

The burning doesn’t stop though, If anything, his symptom seems to be worsening now because tiny purple sparks are starting to dance on his skin, and thin arcs of purple light are jumping between his fingers.

Fuck!

He drops his right hand and leaves it to tremor and spark on his side. His left hand gropes at the side of his pants, fumbling through his pocket for the vial of medicine – where the hell did he leave it again? He knows he has it some – ah ha! There! He wastes no time uncorking it and throws back half the vial’s content as instructed.

And promptly tries not to gag.

By the Goddess, that is vile!

Despite the vial feeling warm to the touch, no doubt having absorbed his body heat from being in his pocket all day long, the medicine is ice cold. It also has a bizarre slime texture like slime condensate and tastes horrendously bitter. Childe grimaces at the way it coats his tongue and the back of his mouth, trailing cold unpleasantness down his throat and into his stomach, making his inside feels like it’s been filled with ice. For a second, he’s afraid that his stomach is going to rebel against him and that the medicine is going to come back up, and he has to take a couple of deep breaths through his mouth to fight off the surge of nausea.

It takes a couple more minutes for the cold to fade on its own and for his stomach to settle, and by that time, the tremors and the sparks in his arm have (thankfully) also stopped. He eyes his hand warily, and slowly lifts it up, twisting it around in front of him so that he can inspect it from different angles.

Everything looks normal enough. There are little red pinpricks dotting his pale skin, probably left there by his capillaries bursting from the purple sparks, but those are pretty minor, and they don’t hurt when he pokes at them.

Slowly, tentatively, he tries curling his fingers into a fist.

His hand responds to his command flawlessly, as if all the tremoring and pain hadn’t happened.

Childe closes his eyes and sags in relief. Oh, thank the Goddess. The medicine works, and it works quickly –

A wave of drowsiness sweeps through him all of a sudden, and it’s so potent that it sends his knees buckling. On instinct, his hand flies to his desk and he catches himself before he could drop to the ground in a crumpled heap.

What the – is that supposed to be the side-effect of the medicine? How did the Dottore put it? That it might also make him feel more lethargic?

Childe curses out loud even as he fights through his rapidly clouding thoughts and the spots dotting his vision. More lethargic?! Talk about the understatement of the year! This medicine is a blasted sedative strong enough to take out a Leviathan!

He manages to stumble towards the bed with all the grace of a drunken Hilichurl and flops right on top of his covers, his body bouncing slightly on the mattress from the way he had dropped onto the bed like a bag of rocks. He’s got just enough energy to pull the pillow close so that his head is resting comfortably on it before the last of his consciousness leaves him and he’s out like a light.

Chapter Text

VII. The Agreement

Childe wakes up from his deep sleep with a full-bodied shiver. He groans and draws his legs to his chest, slowly blinking awake in the dark. Cold. He feels cold and his head feels like he’s been hit by a Mitachurl. Where is he? What happened?

He’s lying on something soft, the familiar scent of the laundry detergent instantly relaxing him. His pillow. He’s on his bed. But if that’s the case, why –

It takes a few seconds for his mind to catch up. Ah. He’s lying on top of his covers. He must have fallen asleep almost immediately after hitting the bed.

Slowly, he pushes himself up, making sure to keep his weight off of his right arm just in case. He wriggles his fingers, his toes, slowly twisting his joints around, stretching and moving his limbs to test for any aches, pains, or numbness.

Nothing. Aside from feeling groggy, the rest of him feels…perfectly fine. Even his right hand isn’t giving him any trouble, but perhaps for today, he will leave his right hand to recover and rely more on his non-dominant hand. He could treat it like a form of training.

Now for his summoning abilities.

He draws himself so that he’s seated crossed-leg and closes his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he clears his mind of all thoughts so that it goes still save for the sound of his breaths and the thump of his heartbeats. Slowly, he brings up the picture of his Vision that he still has stashed in his pant pocket, of the bright blue wisps curled inside and spinning slowly. In his mind’s eye, he sees the way those wisps flow gently into a reservoir like a river into a clear lake, its surface as smooth as a mirror.

He leans over and gives the surface a poke, and it ripples outwards like a pebble tossed into the lake. Bit by bit, he sees tendrils of blue starting to rise up from the surface, almost as if it’s an animal perking up from its sleep. They flow upwards, slithering up his body and across his left arm, settling right above Childe’s open palm, hovering a few inches from his skin.

Materialize, he commands.

The energy responds instantly. It folds itself into a sphere, tendrils wrapping and curling around each other like threads in a ball of yarn. Childe opens his eyes in time to see a perfect bubble of water materialize into existence, its surface wobbling lightly every time he exhales.

Childe feels whatever tension he’s got in his shoulders being released. Thank the Goddess, his Hydro is responding perfectly as well.

He dispels the energy with a wave of his hand and lets it fade back into the aether in a sparkle of blue light. By this point, his eyes have adjusted fully to the darkness of his room and he can make out the faint streaks of grey light flooding between the cracks of his drawn curtains. It must be really early still, but he doesn’t think he can go back to sleep.

Rubbing idly at his right wrist, Childe yawns and crawls out of bed to re-light his fireplace. He’s up already so he might as well use this time to get his blood pumping with some exercise. He can also get started on that life lesson plan.

He feels significantly better hours later, and by the time the sky is light out, he thinks he’s got a pretty solid draft of the plan. He’s modelled it through the lens of teaching his siblings what he thinks they need to know to become self-sufficient. The way he sees it, if children can successfully live on their own after going through the lessons laid out in his battle plan, then Zhongli, a near-immortal ex-deity possessing infinitely more common sense than his little brothers, definitely could as well.

Not for the first time in the last 12 hours, Childe has to question his Tsaritsa’s decision to assign him to this particular mission. Surely, there has to be someone else who is much more equipped to handle this than Childe. Even if the Tsaritsa wants to ensure that one of her Harbingers is personally overseeing the mission, someone else has to be better at this than Childe, right?

Which ones though? Childe’s hear a little voice say in his head, All of them will prioritize plotting and scheming for more power over actually teaching Zhongli, or alternatively, delegate this mission to someone else and wash their hands of it entirely. And that’s if Zhongli is lucky. Heaven forbid if he gets someone twisted like Scaramouche or Dottore.

The unfortunate reality is, nobody will want to perform this mission with the intention to help Zhongli. Nobody except Childe.

Childe rises from his seat and stretches his back with his arms raised in the air, sighing a little at the way his joints pop. Regardless of the Tsaritsa’s reason for giving Childe this mission, there’s nothing he can do now except try his best, which he’s doing with getting this first draft out of the way.

But, it’s getting late and for now, he’s got to don on his Best Brother mask and get some food started for the little goblins.

Maybe, he thinks as he leaves his bedroom, closing the door behind him and rubbing the tiredness from his eyes, he can get a whole spread going. It’s Sunday, so he can make breakfast a little bit more special. Something sweet for Teucer and Anthon, like some oladyi with jam, plus eggs and some sausages that he could fry up, some porridge as well for Tonia, and of course, tons of fruits because they need a properly balanced diet, plus lots and lots of coffee for himself –

“Good morning, Mister Childe.”

Childe manages to bite off a yelp as he spins around.

Zhongli blinks back at him. He’s perfectly put together with his hair neatly groomed and perfectly styled. He’s even dressed impeccably in his usual tailored suit, the same one he came in, in fact, but by some miracle, there’s not a wrinkle in sight. A small part of Childe is beginning to wonder whether the man has another set of clothes. Another small part of Childe wonders if looking flawless is some sort of bullshit adepti ability, even for one such as Zhongli whose power is greatly reduced.

“My apologies for startling you,” Zhongli says with the slightest frown on his face.

Childe plasters on his business smile even if all he wants to do at the moment is turn back to his room and crawl into bed. “Ah, no, no. It should be I apologizing for not noticing you there. Good morning, Master Zhongli. How was your sleep last night? Was the guest room comfortable?”

The little frown lets up just a little. “Yes. Thank you. And you?”

“My evening went well, thank you, and I’m glad to hear that your night was pleasant,” comes Childe’s breezy response.

“Hm.”

They stand there for a few more seconds, staring at each other in silence awkwardly. Idly, Childe reaches for his right arm and rubs at the muscles there.

Zhongli’s eyes zero in on his movement. He looks like he wants to say something; he opens his mouth, but then closes it. After doing that for a few times, Childe takes pity on the man.

“I am about to make breakfast,” Childe offers. “You’re more than welcome to join me if you wish.”

“I…would like that.”

They head towards the kitchen together, keeping their footsteps light. Stifling a yawn, Childe gestures to Zhongli to grab a seat nearby as he fetches some kindling, logs and matches to start the fire in the oven, taking care to let his left hand do most of the heavy lifting.

“What are you making?”

“Hmm, a variety of items,” Childe answers, half-distracted. With the fire lit, the kitchen is noticeably warmer and he nods in satisfaction. “I’m thinking of making more of a spread of items today: fried eggs, fried sausages, some oladyi – sorry, Snezhnayan pancakes that are usually served with sour cream, but I’ll also serve it with some fruit jam – oh and porridge. What?” He pauses at the raised brow on Zhongli’s face. “Is something the matter?”

Zhongli shakes his head. “I…didn’t know you were such an accomplished cook.”

That comment catches Childe off guard and he finds himself chuckling. It’s not like any of those things he’s making is hard. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. I can hold my own in the kitchen, but I’m no great chef from Wanmin Restaurant! Oh, I forgot to ask,” he adds, looking up from the icebox he’s rummaging through, “Is there something you’d prefer? Since I’m already using the stove, I can prepare something for you as well.”

“I’m happy to have anything you’re making,” comes Zhongli’s very predictable response. “Is there anything I can help you with? Although a fair warning, I suppose. I am…unpracticed in cooking.”

Hmm. This sounds like an opportunity for Childe to try out one of his lessons in his draft…

“I wouldn’t say no to help. Have you ever made porridge before?” he asks. He places the ingredients on the table next to his pots and pans. “It’s not the rice porridge from Liyue. Instead, I was planning on making one out of milk and semolina.”

Zhongli moves closer, his head tilting in contemplation. “I cannot say I have.”

“Well,” Childe gestures to the table, “would you like to learn? This porridge shouldn’t be too much of a challenge. Consider this your very first lesson on how to live like a mortal: learning the cooking basics.”

Ten minutes later, Childe finds himself eating his words as he chokes on the dark smoke that fills the kitchen while Zhongli stands over one ruined pot, looking appropriately distressed.

Shouldn’t be too much of a challenge, he says. Pah! What naïve words!

“Get the door open too!” Childe gasps. He grabs the pot from Zhongli’s hand, races towards the windows, throws them open, and unceremoniously tosses the smouldering pot into the snow. The rush of arctic air flooding the house feels like sweet, sweet relief to his lungs.

Just to be sure, he also grabs a nearby kitchen towel and fans the smoke out.

“So,” he manages to say when Zhongli comes back with his head bowed, “things could have gone better.”

And Zhongli looks even more contrite. “Mister Childe, I apologize. I will replace the pot and the ingredients.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine, it’s not like I don’t have the mora, and you did warn me.”

Surprisingly, Childe doesn’t find himself annoyed at all. Really, he should have known better. Even without Zhongli’s warning, wasn’t he the one who had made the observation about Zhongli possessing a range of knowledge as wide as the ocean, but it’s backed by zero practical skill? It’s still funny to think that the ex-Archon knows over a hundred different ways to incorporate glaze lily into dishes, but he can’t boil milk without causing a minor catastrophe.

It does beg the question: “Master Zhongli, out of curiosity, how did you manage your daily meals after giving up your Gnosis?”

Zhongli for his part actually shifts a little on his feet and clears his throat. “…I bought my meals.”

With what mora? Childe wants to ask but holds his tongue for the sake of being polite.

As if reading his mind, Zhongli follows up with, “I was using my salary from Wangsheng to pay for my meals, but had not…appropriately accounted for the cost of those meals on top of other necessities.”

Childe mentally bumps up his planned lesson for ‘budgeting’ all the way to the top of things to teach Zhongli.

“So, I improvised with procuring my food, and I relied on my skills of old. I hunted and fished, and I would roast my kills over the open flames as I had learned during the Archon War. I also gathered wild nuts and berries.”

Alright. Now Childe just feels a great well of pity for him. It must have been massively difficult for a great ex-Archon as cultured and pampered as Rex Lapis to adjust to his new life where he was forced to fall back on his archaic skills simply to survive. It’s as if a prince, who has grown up used to the finest dishes the country has to offer having to…roast his own fish over an open fire in the wild to stave off starvation.

The fish was probably not even seasoned or cleaned properly either. And Childe had witnessed Zhongli give a five-minute spiel about the different types of salt used to season tofu to give it different depths of flavour, so he knows the ex-Archon is very passionate about his seasoning.

But, this does provide some valuable information for Childe to gauge what skills Zhongli does have in his repertoire. He can hunt and gather food, and he can roast things over high temperatures. He just needs guidance when it comes to cooking at a lower temperature. Or cooking things that require more attention if this Milk Incident is anything to go by.

“I see. Thank you for answering my question. We can certainly build on the knowledge you already have. Now,” Childe takes out a new pot and a fresh jug of milk, trying not to grin at the despair he sees in Zhongli’s eyes, “why don’t we try this again?”

There is something terribly refreshing watching Zhongli look completely out of his element. Probably because he always comes off as being unflappable throughout the two years Childe has known him. Even when he was confronted by Childe in the…aftermath, and when he had given up his Gnosis to the Signora, he had been calm, collected, and utterly in control.

Seeing Zhongli in the kitchen now, in an apron, with his sleeves rolled up and his bangs plastered to his forehead from his sweat is…probably the closest thing to seeing him frazzled and dishevelled that anyone has ever witnessed. That anyone will ever witness. Childe is willing to bet good money on it.

It is glorious. Childe is going to sear this image into his brain.

“Master Zhongli, please mind the pot,” Childe looks up from the perfect pancakes he’s making to say in a sunny, sunny voice. “When you see it bubbling like this, it’s time to take it off the heat least it burns!”

“Very good! Now, here’s the semolina. Please add it slowly while stirring constantly to prevent clumping. Ah, slow, you want to add this in slowly. That is much too quick, Master Zhongli –”

“Don’t forget to stir, Master Zhongli! See how some of it is starting to clump up? That means you haven’t stirred it enough so please make sure to keep stirring. Oh, mind the heat again!”

“You are enjoying this,” Zhongli mutters under his breath with the barest hint of a scowl. “How is this not too much of a challenge? Mister Childe, I am beginning to think that you’ve tricked me.”

“I promise you that I have not,” Childe laughs at the disgruntled face the other is making. “Believe it or not, you’re almost done. After you’re done mixing, you can leave it to boil in its own residual heat. And then,” the smile he gives to Zhongli is downright mischievous, “you can help me with the eggs and sausages.”


“Woah!” Anthon exclaims when he, Teucer, and Tonia come rushing down the stairs to the dining table like a pack of wild boars. He rubs his eyes a few times and beams when the mountain of food does not disappear. “Big Brother, did you make all this?”

“No, not entirely!” Ajax reaches over to ruffle his brother’s hair. He flashes Zhongli an amused grin. “Master Zhongli was a great help in the kitchen, so make sure to say a big thank you to him too.”

Zhongli, on his part, merely responds with a small nod, though mostly, he just looks relieved to be freed from Childe’s tyranny.

But Ajax wasn’t lying, nor was he exaggerating.

Zhongli is a fast learner. His attention just tends to wander quite often, and Ajax has, on more than once, caught the ex-Archon staring at the simmering pot, looking like he was a million miles away.

He had looked like that often when they were back in Liyue as well.

“One of these day, Oh Wise One, you’re going to walk right off a cliff with the way your head is always in the clouds!” Childe had teased Zhongli on one of their walks outside the city. “What do you even think about?”

“This and that,” Zhongli had answered with a chuckle. “Mostly, just stories from the past. For example, did you know…”  

He would regale Childe with the most random tidbits about the folklores surrounding the region, or tales of peoples from civilizations that have long crumbled to dust. He would tell specific stories like a shop that had once stood there a thousand years ago, selling the most exquisite silk cloths made by man, or a stall that invented the very first crystal shrimp from hundreds of years ago. He would tell of these little details like he himself had once walked those streets.

Nobody alive would know these stories save for Zhongli, and for some reason, Childe had never once questioned their veracity. Not when Zhongli had looked so alive, so animated recounting those tales, vibrant in a way the stoic and composed man would normally not allow himself to show.

The man lived and breathed his stories.

So, Childe decided to leave Zhongli be. Let him have his fantasy. Let him continue to live with his head in the clouds, let him continue to dream.

If reality tried to knock on Zhongli’s door and cause trouble, Childe will step in to handle it.

“Thank you, Master Zhongli!” his siblings chime out like the polite children that they are, and Ajax brushes away the memory. Of course, this proves to be nothing but a ruse because a second later, they dive into the food like ravenous wolves.

“Teucer! Stop hogging all the jam and pass some over here!”

“Anthon, can you grab that for me – thank you! Oh, and some eggs too!”

“Sister Tonia! More porridge please!”

“You haven’t even finished your first bowl. I will give you some more later, and you have to have some fruit with it.”

“Awww.”

“Watching the way they eat, you would think I was starving them,” Ajax utters with a shake of his head. “But I suppose this is our cue to start eating as well or else there won’t be anything left. Tonia,” he raises his voice and calls to his darling sister across the table, “would you mind passing a bowl of the porridge here? Thank you.”

“And here you go,” he says, holding the warm bowl out to Zhongli with an encouraging smile. “You should taste the fruit of your labour, you worked hard for it.”

Zhongli stares at the bowl and takes it slowly, gently from Ajax’s hand. “Thank you.”

He dips a spoon into it with the same care Ajax has seen him sample a bowl of Adeptus Temptation, blowing against the spoonful softy before taking a small, graceful bite.

He blinks. “It’s good,” he says, wonder colouring his voice, and he takes another bite, bigger and with more enthusiasm this time.

Ajax’s grin widens. “The effort doesn’t feel so bad now, does it Master Zhongli?” he says, inexplicably fond.


They end up having a more serious chat about the mission in Childe’s office after breakfast once Childe sent his siblings out to play in the snow with his two trusty agents guarding them.

The office is one of the simpler rooms in the house, having once been a small, unused guest bedroom tucked away in the corner on the first floor. It was transformed to meet Childe’s basic needs for a quiet workspace to fill out his reports, which means that the room is pretty bare save for a simple fireplace, a large working desk, some comfortable chairs, a couple of bookshelves, and a large, dark woolly rug. It had served Childe’s needs well enough in the past, but in light of his extended vacation at home, perhaps he should consider sprucing the space up to make it look a bit homier.

“Master Zhongli,” Childe starts, “I understand that you have requested the Fatui’s aid to help you transition to a mortal’s life but this goal as it stands is rather vague, and without more defined parameters, is rather unhelpful for either of us. So, I took the initiative to provide some suggestions on what we can do to remedy this situation.”

He hands Zhongli a clean version of his drafts and continues, “What you see here is a draft lesson plan designed to teach you different sets of skills I deemed are important. I have broken the lessons down by main categories for ease of planning, but I invite you to add anything to the plan as well. This is, after all, your education, and having lived three months as a mortal, I would imagine that you have a few ideas of your own.”

“Master Childe is efficient and meticulous as expected,” Zhongli says after going through the papers, “I thank you for your speedy response.”

“I also expect that this plan would change and evolve as we progress,” Childe adds, “there may be lessons in there that you may deem unnecessary or ones you would like to spend more time on. To accommodate for any flexibility, I propose that we revisit this plan at least once a week so that we can discuss any tweaks that need to be made. Would that be amendable, Master Zhongli?”

“I am agreeable to this arrangement,” Zhongli says, his eyes scanning the documents, “Would there be some sort of metric with which I can gauge how well I have learned these lessons?”

Childe chuckles. Leave it to Zhongli’s scholarly side to request for tests and exams. “We can certainly arrange challenges for you along the way, and you will have input on whether these challenges are fair.”

“Then I have no further concerns at the moment about this plan,” Zhongli concludes, “not without reviewing this in greater detail.”

Childe nods. “Of course, please take your time. I do have another topic to discuss. Do you have any preference for your lodging?”

Zhongli frowns. “Preference? What do you mean? I’ve agreed to come to Snezhnaya, or wherever you are located, if that is your question.”

Huh, so Zhongli had input on who he wanted to receive his help from. Childe isn’t too sure what to make of this information, so he’s tucking it aside for now.

“That certainly helps clarifies things,” Childe acquiesces, “it saves me from having to break the bad news that you’re going to be stuck here, at least in this village, until this agreement is fulfilled. I am, ah, shall we say, on forced leave.”

“Forced leave?” The frown deepens. “For what purpose? You have fulfilled your end of the contract in Liyue and I have told the Tsaritsa as much. You should not be penalized.”

“I’m not,” Childe says slowly, and he doesn’t think he’s doing a good job hiding his surprise either. Zhongli had spoken to the Tsaritsa and had praised his performance? Why would he do that? “I got a commendation and everything.”

Wait, was that also due to Zhongli putting in a good word for him? Just how often does Zhongli talk to the Tsaritsa?

“Good,” Zhongli nods and relaxes like a great injustice has been corrected.

By the Goddess, will the wonder never cease? “So no, I’m not being punished,” Childe shakes his head as he tucks all those information away to be picked apart later, “I’m on forced leave because I’m recovering.”

Zhongli tenses right up. “You are injured.”

“Ah, in a manner of speaking?” Childe clears his throat and breaks his eye contact with the ex-Archon, who’s taken to staring at him with that level of intensity as he had last night, or during many, many of their meetings in the past, except this time, it’s mixed with…anger? Frustration? Alarm? Childe isn’t sure anymore because none of that makes any sense.

He reaches for his right arm and massages the muscles there, more out of the need to stop himself from fidgeting than to alleviate any pain or numbness. For some reason, Zhongli’s brow only furrows even harder.

“Look, it’s nothing too serious,” Childe straight up lies, “there is a cure in the works so – ”

“You are ill,” Zhongli interrupts uncharacteristically.

“I am recovering,” Childe corrects. “Out of an abundance of caution, I have been asked to take a vacation.” When the pinched look on Zhongli’s face does not ease up, his expression gentles and he adds softly, “Honestly, Professor, it’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be fine. Compared to some of the injuries I’ve had in scuffles, this is relatively minor, and I was able to bounce back from those with no issues. This too shall pass and I will be back to my trouble-making ways.”

His words appear to work at least because the thunder leaves Zhongli’s face, leaving Childe to breathe a huge mental sigh of relief. In any event, they’ve massively side-tracked from the initial point of this conversation, which is, “I wanted to ask if you prefer staying somewhere else. You couldn’t have imagined staying in a household with three rowdy children. If you want, I can arrange for a hotel suite in the village. It will be fully paid for of course along with living expenses provided.” He’ll just bill it all back to the Fatui and its seemingly endless funds reserved for Harbinger missions anyway.

Surprisingly, Zhongli shakes his head. “I am not bothered. I am merely concerned that I will be an inconvenience. This is, after all, your home.”

Will Zhongli be an inconvenience? Probably. Childe is not going to make any excuses for the man, especially with the Milk Incident fresh in his memories. At the same time though, wouldn’t it be faster and easier to complete the mission with Zhongli under his roof? There’s also the added bonus of gaining an extra person to guard and entertain his three siblings.

Especially with the way his arm is going. It will be nice to shore up a stronger defence in case he becomes out of commission.

There’s another consideration – is he comfortable with having Zhongli living with him? Will he be alright with the constant reminder of the aftermath in Liyue, of the three months of avoidance?

But he spoke to the Tsaritsa about you, the familiar voice in Childe’s mind reasons, and it seems like he chose you specifically for this mission.

Something is going on. Maybe it’s worthwhile to have a frank conversation with Zhongli in the future to get to the bottom of everything. But for now, they’ve done enough and Childe isn’t sure if he wants to open that can of worms. He’d rather end things on a high note.

“You can remain here if you wish. I just thought I’d be fair with offering you a different place to stay,” Childe answers. “If everything is settled, then,” he extends his hand out towards Zhongli, “I look forward to working with you, Master Zhongli.”

The hand gripping his back feels warm and delicate, but there is strength hidden in the muscles beneath that pale skin, and Childe feels it from the force of Zhongli’s grip. A fitting metaphor for the man in front of him.

“Likewise, Mister Childe,” Zhongli answers. “I look forward to working with you as well.”

Chapter Text

VIII. The Village

“Teucer! Please don’t forget your bag! It’s by the kitchen table.”

“Got it, Big Brother!”

“Big Brother! I can’t find my alchemy kit!”

“I placed it in your bag. I also have some snacks left out for you. Please don’t only take the cookies, grab the healthy snack as well.”

“Awww.”

“Tonia! Are you almost ready? We need to leave soon.”

“Just five more minutes!”

“Dearest little sister, you said that ten minutes ago. What’s keeping you?”

“I can’t get this stupid braid right!”

“Come on out of there, let me see.”

“Is everything alright? Do you need any assistance?” A familiar, low voice cuts through the chaos. Ajax looks up from the braid to see Zhongli climbing down the stairs. He’s still sporting that same outfit he’s worn since he got here and his hair remains impeccable.

Ajax flashes him an apologetic smile. “Ah, sorry for waking you, Master Zhongli. Monday mornings are a bit hectic, but if you want some breakfast, help yourself to whatever’s on the kitchen table. And there you go, Miss Tonia,” he says to his giggling sister, tying the ribbon into a perfect bow, “your braid is done, my lady! Now, everybody get your coats and boots. Auntie is waiting outside for you!”

“Can’t you come with us?” Anthon asks even as he is being ushered to the lobby where his boots are. “Walking to school without you is boring!”

“I’m sorry Anthon, not today. I have some things I need to attend to, but I will see you after school alright?” Ajax reaches over and pat his brother on the head. “Now be good to your teachers and don’t blow up anything without supervision.”

“I remember, Big Brother,” he grouches, but he perks right up with Tonia and Teucer when they step outside, waving Ajax goodbye.

“Bye,” Ajax returns the enthusiastic “bye’s” of his siblings, “have fun at school today!”

With the door closing behind him, he drops his doting big brother act and switch to Childe.

“With that, we have earned ourselves six hours of quiet,” Childe huffs out a laugh once he trudges back to the kitchen where Zhongli is enjoying a pastry and a cup of tea. “Are you sure you still want to stay here, Master Zhongli? There’s going to be plenty more of this in the foreseeable future.”

Zhongli shakes his head and returns his own smile. “My decision remains unchanged. It is nice to wake up to such liveliness in the morning. It reminds me of the hustle and bustle of Liyue Harbour.”

Childe doesn’t know what he’s more amused by, the fact that Zhongli basically equated the noise his three siblings made to that of an entire harbour of shouting people, or the fact that Zhongli actually doesn’t mind the experience. He appears to be entirely unbothered, seated at table with his shoulders relaxed, his expression serene as he polishes off the last few bites of his pastry with small, almost dainty bites. He picks up his mug with both hands, cradling it in his palms and takes a long, slow sip of it with a low hum of approval.

Much like an old man enjoying breakfast, which he very much is, Childe supposes.

“You mentioned that you had a few things to attend to this morning?”

“Hmm? Yes. I was planning to head into town to pick up some things.” Childe snags his own breakfast pastry and a large cup of coffee, “I couldn’t help but notice that you were travelling relatively light. Are you in need of any supplies? A warmer set of clothes, maybe? You can come along if you wish. Oh, and don’t worry about the expenses, it will be covered by the Fatui.”

“I suppose a warmer set of clothes would suit me well,” Zhongli says after a bit of pondering. “As an adeptus, even one as weak as I currently am, my current clothes are sufficient to withstand the Snezhnayan cold although in hindsight, it is not the best outfit to avoid drawing attention to myself.”

Childe looks at Zhongli skeptically. Whatever material his outfit is made from, it looks thin and delicate. He has zero doubt that his clothes have the insulation of rice paper against the gruelling winter. Maybe it is sufficient for Zhongli to withstand the cold due to his hardier nature as an adeptus, but sufficient does not mean he was comfortably warm.

“We should probably get more than just one set of warmer clothes,” Childe suggests. “How about your other supplies? Socks? Undergarments? Sleeping clothes? Toiletries?”

Zhongli nods. “I could probably purchase more of those.” He pauses, “Maybe some local art and literature as well.”

Oh no. Zhongli is wearing that wistful expression again, and knowing him, they’re going to end up purchasing things from half the market square at least. Childe has seen it happen in Liyue Harbour too often. Hell, he’d been the one instigating those purchases by allowing Zhongli to bill them back to the Northland Bank in the first place.

Maybe…he can take this opportunity to teach Zhongli how to haggle?

Childe sighs. “I’ll get Uncle to get the big sleigh ready.”

The ‘big sleigh’ is a wooden, horse-drawn sleigh that Childe typically uses whenever he has to transport large quantities of packages from Outpost 720 to home, including the giant iron toys for Teucer’s birthdays. It has two sections to it, one at the front comprising of a bench for the driver and another passenger, while an open space in the back, also with a bench, to hold parcels or more passengers. To make the ride more pleasant for the riders, luscious furs are draped over the seats, which can be used as great big blankets to huddle in.

This is exactly how Childe finds himself half an hour later: seated at the driver’s seat while pressed up beside Zhongli as the two of them huddle in their shared fur blankets. He’s taken the liberty to lend Zhongli some of his clothes, including some boots, gloves, a furred cap, and a long dark coat with fur trimming along the lapels and the cuffs of the sleeves, and a row of brass buttons running down the chest.

(When Zhongli had stepped out of his room, dressed in his new regalia, Childe couldn’t help but stop and stare. The outfit brings out the gold of his eyes and it serves to make Zhongli look sharp, more severe like a warrior ready for war, but at the same time, noble, elegant and striking and so ridiculously handsome that Childe could feel his mouth go a bit dry. It also hits Childe just why all this looks so eerily familiar. He’s seen this on the stone statues dotting the countryside of Liyue – the aura Zhongli is exuding now is the same from that stone figure lounging in his throne, secured in his power and dominion over his land and honestly, how the hell did Childe miss all the signs that pointed Zhongli as Rex Lapis? They’ve been in front of him the entire time!)

A gentle gust of wind caresses Childe’s face as their old draft horse – a loan from a neighbour – trots happily along the snowy trail without a care in the world. Childe grips on the reigns a little tighter and breathes in, enjoying the crisp fresh air of Snezhnaya’s outdoor. Beside him, Zhongli shifts, and Childe can see the way the ex-Archon’s eyes are darting around him as if to memorize the sight of the endless sea of sparkling, untouched snow surrounding them.

“Are you enjoying the ride?” Childe asks, “I hope it’s not too cold. I have to say, we are lucky today. This is the perfect weather for our outdoor trek.”

Zhongli nods. “I have never ridden in one of these contraptions before,” he says with curiosity. “Riding it is truly a novel experience particularly well suited to enjoy the sceneries of Snezhnaya. I can imagine that this experience can further be enhanced with a cup of hot Jueyun Chili tea. The warm fragrance and spicy aroma would certainly serve as a nice contrast to the crisp, cold outdoors. Maybe with a side of freshly roasted chestnuts as well, or a local Snezhnayan snack? Something warm with a delightful blend of spice.”

Childe, long used to Zhongli’s soliloquy on food, chuckles. He doesn’t have the heart to tell him that Snezhnayans would much prefer to dine in the comforts of their warm homes, or at least, somewhere indoors especially during the winter months. “Wouldn’t it be far too cold to eat outside?” he says instead. “Your fingers would freeze before you can enjoy your snack. But, if you’re interested in some local cuisine, we can get some pirozhki – they’re these stuffed buns and Uncle Igor sells them in the bakery near the market center. We can take some home with us.”

A pleased smile stretches across Zhongli’s lips. “Yes, that would be delightful.”

By the time they arrive to the village, the streets are bustling with shoppers and merchants carrying on about their day. Childe had dropped off the sleigh and his horse at a stable by the inn near the edge of the village, tipping the stable hand a fine sum in advance for his services. From there, he and Zhongli walked a short distance on foot, trudging carefully through the winding, snow-covered paths to get to the village center.

Morepesok is a sleepy seaside village nestled in a bay along the western coastline of Snezhnaya, giving its inhabitants a natural shelter from the turbulent, icy currents of the Winter Sea. Like most of the seaside villages by the western coastline, it possesses a sizeable dock to accommodate the flow of merchant ships either going to Liyue, Fontaine, and less frequently these days, Sumeru, or those returning from those locations. With the dock being very much the heart of the village, the surrounding businesses flourished by providing goods and services for traveling merchants so that they may rest and stock up on their next leg of the journey.

For Childe, growing up in such a location had been unbearably stifling.

Once upon a time, long before he had learned to don on his many masks, he had visited the village square once a week, without fail, with either his mother or his father. Like many of the village boys, he would linger around the docks and hear tales of adventure and exotic locales from the merchants arriving to shore, of the different cities they’ve come across, monsters they have encountered, and the heroes that have slain them.

With his father’s stories from his adventuring days added to the mix, Ajax’s imagination had run wild with the possibility of traversing the world as a great hero as grand as the character his father had named him after. One day, he too would like the freedom to explore every corner Teyvat has to offer, going on adventure after adventure to defeat evil and defend the innocent and the weak.

Then, his father had left for an adventure and never came back, and that firmly killed off all of his silly childhood dreams.

Coming back as an adult and viewing the world through the lens of a battle-hardened warrior, Childe could appreciate the charm of the quiet sleepy village. At least here, things are safe and insulated from the cruelty of the outside world, from the dark side of Snezhnaya and of the Fatui, and from the turbulent storm brewing on the horizon.

But Goddess help him, he does not miss the busybody villagers.

“Ajax!” Auntie Vera exclaims from her work table the moment he and Zhongli step foot into her shop. She jumps up from her stool, sticks her sewing needle in a nearby pin cushion, and rushes over to crush him in a hug, followed by quick kisses on both cheeks.

“It has been far too long since I’ve last seen you!” she says, drawing back with an enthusiastic smile. “Look at you! Look how much you have grown! Oh, you are so handsome now, just like your father but your eyes and your nose, those belong to your mother, bless her soul! YELENA!” she cranes her neck and hollers towards the backroom, her voice ringing in the small store like a great church bell, “Come out! Look who’s here, it’s Ajax, Leonid and Natasha’s son! And oh,” she blinks, clearly registering Zhongli for the first time. “You have a guest with you!”

“It’s very good to see you again, Auntie Vera,” Childe says, taking a step back and trying to return a smile of his own that’s not too stiff. Zhongli is watching him with way too much amused interest for his liking and he can practically see the way the other man is biting the inside of his cheeks. “This here is my business partner, Master Zhongli. He hails from Liyue and is staying with me as a guest.”

“Liyue!” Auntie Vera says with admiration, “I have come across quite a few merchants from there and have heard many great things about the country. A beautiful location filled with breathtaking mountains and a large diversity of cuisine. Welcome, welcome to my humble shop!”

Zhongli takes off his cap, cradling the furred hat against his chest as he gives a graceful bow. “Thank you, kind madam,” he says, his damnably smooth voice instantly making Auntie Vera bursts into tittering giggles.

“Oh, so polite, and so handsome!” She gives Ajax a knowing glance and a cheeky wink. “Business partner, you say?”

Childe clears his throat and ignores the flush on his cheeks. “Auntie Vera, if it’s not too much trouble, we are hoping to get some clothes made for Master Zhongli. He would need a coat, five sets of thick tunics and pants, five sets of ones made with lighter material, and undergarments for them all. I have prepared a list for you if you don’t mind.”

“Bring it here, bring it here.” She waves them to her work table. “Let’s see what Auntie Vera can do for you – YELENA!” she yells again, her voice more sonorous than before, “We have customers!! Come out here!!”

She goes back to skimming the list with a shake of her head as if nothing had happened. “I swear to the Goddess,” she tsked, her voice pleasant and soft and a complete contrast to her shouting, “this daughter of mine can be as stubborn as a mule sometimes…”

A disgruntled girl on the cusp of adulthood comes stumbling out of the backroom, her dress a wrinkled mess and her hair slipping out of her braids in wisps. “I’m here, I’m here already! Quit your hollering.” She sees Childe and she gives him a look of boredom. “Oh, I see you are back. Welcome back, I guess.” Her brow arches at the sight of Zhongli beside him. “And who’s that?”

“It is very nice to see you again, Miss Yelena,” Childe answers with a sparkling smile. “This is Zhongli, my business partner from Liyue.”

She gives him a look that somehow is the mirror image of the one her mother gave him mere seconds ago. “Business partner, huh?”

“Don’t tease, Yelena,” Auntie Vera scolds before Childe can splutter out and answer, though the irony of Auntie Vera chastising her daughter for doing the exact thing she just did is not lost on him. “We need to help Master Zhongli with making him clothes, so please get him to the back and take his measurements first. I will go get a sample of the fabrics.”

“Auntie Vera is an excellent seamstress who basically makes all the clothes for everyone in town plus the merchants passing by,” Childe takes the time to explain to Zhongli as they follow Yelena to the back of the store. “Her whole family has been in the business for generations so rest assured, you’re in very good hands. Once Yelena takes your measurements, you’d have the opportunity to pick the fabric you want for your outfits and customize it’s design, choice for closures, or other decorative elements.”

That gets Zhongli’s eyes to light up like a bonfire, and Childe immediately has a bad feeling, so he adds quickly, “The cost of your clothing can drastically vary depending on what you pick here, so keep in mind your budget when you get your clothes made in the future. Always choose function and practicality over aesthetic, and always, always ask for the cost of every element you pick before you commit to anything.”

Zhongli nods, then proceeds to do exactly none of that.

“I would like the silk velvet,” comes his immediate response, upon seeing the samples available. “The softness and luxurious feel of the fabric speaks of the mastery of the textile maker’s skills along with the hundreds of hours spent to weave the cloth. A coat made with such fine fabric will undoubtedly be a true celebration of the textile maker’s artistry, further enhanced by gold buttons and fur trimmings from the finest mink fur. After all, to pair such fine velvet with something subpar will only serve as an insult to the artist’s great work, very much like pairing the fragrant mooncake with sub-par tea is an insult to the chef’s efforts spent on crafting such delicacy. Don’t you agree, Mister Childe?”

Mister Childe is busy trying not to feel betrayed while rushing to do the mental math for the cost of the coat, which comes out to –

“That would be 325,000 mora, Sir,” Auntie Vera says with a bright chirp, “Please give us up to two weeks to complete your order and Yelena here will deliver it to your address. And I must say, that is very well said! It is so nice to see a man of knowledge and of refined taste in our humble village. Now, how would you be paying today? We accept cash or banknotes.”

Zhongli looks immediately sheepish. “Ah. Right. Mora. I had forgotten.”

He shifts around a little. Then, he turns and looks at Childe with pleading eyes.

It takes all of Childe’s control not to close his eyes and pinch the bridge of his nose.

“Just,” he makes a vague, defeated hand wave of surrender, “add it to my tab.”

From the workbench, Yelena mutters audibly, “Totally normal business partners behaviour, Ajax.”


If Childe can summarize, in one word, how this whole endeavor in town is going, it would be ‘terribly’.

He knows this is going to happen. He thought he’s mentally prepared himself for it, but for some reason, seeing Zhongli flit from shop to shop, charming shop owners, merchants and shoppers alike with his elegance and knowledge, and genuinely being so appreciative of the artistry and make of the goods sold at each location, Childe finds himself…unable to stop paying for the man’s extravagant purchases.

What lesson in bargaining? What lesson in budgeting? Never mind all of that, this is exactly like Liyue all over again.

“Ajax! Anytime you and your business partner want to come back, you’re always welcomed!” Uncle Igor claps Childe’s shoulder after Childe essentially bought his body’s weight worth of baked goods from the bakery because Zhongli simply couldn’t choose. “It is good to see you again. Leonid would be happy to see how you have grown, boy, the Goddess rest his soul!”

“Ay, grown-up but far too skinny,” Auntie Anna clucks from the store’s counter. “Whatever fancy place you work for, do they not feed you, boy? All skin and bones, you are! Ah, Master Zhongli, is it?” she calls out and all Childe can do is stare at Zhongli in mortification as she continues, “you make sure to keep an eye on Ajax for us!”

Zhongli, for his part, looks confused. “Keep an eye out for what?”

Auntie Anna scowls, indignant. “Why, anything and everything! He’s been out here by himself for so long, Goddess knows Leonid and Natasha departed all too soon, and he’s left with no one to take care of him, and we worry! Ajax is a sweet boy. A bit of a trouble magnet sometimes, but a sweet boy and a hard worker. He needs someone to make sure he’s safe!”

To Childe’s growing horror, Zhongli nods with all the solemnity of…well…the God of Contracts agreeing to a contract.

Shit. Did he just – Zhongli is actually going to –

Right. That’s Childe’s cue to leave.

“Would you look at the time! It’s already so late?” Childe says with the subtlety of a charging wild boar. He gives off an awkward little chuckle, grabs his purchases with one hand and with the other, latches onto Zhongli’s arm to drag him towards the door. “Very nice to see you again, Uncle and Auntie. I will see you later. Take care!”

The walk back to the sleigh is silent, and it remains this way even after they’ve loaded up their purchase, settled in the front seat, and started their journey home. Childe, for his part, couldn’t even look at Zhongli without feeling the well of embarrassment rising from him.

Those busybody villagers. Have they always been this bad? He does not remember them to be this intrusive! Maybe, in the future, he can leave Zhongli out of these excursions to the village – no, that wouldn’t work. Not when he hasn’t actually taught Zhongli skills like haggling and budgeting, and using today as an example, he’s going to need many, many more excursions before any lesson begins to stick.

“Ajax.”

Childe snaps to attention. “I – yes?”

Zhongli tilts his head as if watching him like a curious cat. “Your name,” he clarifies after a beat of silence. “Ajax.”

There’s that stare again, the one that never ceases to make Childe feel uncomfortably flushed. “Y – yes. Before I became Tartaglia and Childe, I went by Ajax. Uh, listen about before, with Auntie Anna. Thank you for agreeing to make her happy, but I can take care of myself just fine, so you don’t need to, uh, do what you said you would.”

“Of course you can take care of yourself,” Zhongli answers with as much certainty as saying the sky is blue, or the grass is green, and hearing that level of confidence in Childe makes his face even warmer. “You are a Harbinger. It goes without saying.”

“Good,” Childe huffs out a sigh.

“But that does not mean you cannot use a second set of eyes.” The look turns sly, teasing. “Especially when poor Madam Anna believes that you are out gallivanting while staving off starvation, being the sweet young man that you are. A thought that, from my observation, is widely shared amongst all the villagers we’ve come across today. However, have you managed to garner that wholesome reputation, Harbinger’s Vanguard?”

Childe is not surprised that Zhongli’s caught wind of that particular title as well, and he snorts. “I suppose I follow the same set of rules as you do, Rex Lapis. When I’m off the clock and when I am back home, there is no reason for me to keep my mantle of duty on. What’s the point of stirring up trouble here, with my family so nearby and when there’s hardly any worthy challenger in the village?”

Zhongli looks even more amused. “I am simultaneously surprised and not surprised by that answer. I am surprised to see you act so docile, and willingly at that, but I am not surprised to hear that the reason behind that is the lack of a good fight.”

Childe makes an affronted noise. “I’ll have you know I was on my best behaviour while I was in Liyue and there were plenty of challengers there!” The little altercation in the Golden House notwithstanding, but that goes without being said. “I was on my best behaviour around you, Wangsheng’s Premier Consultant, even when I was itching for a good fight.”

“Oh? And what gave you the impression that I would be a good challenger?”

“Your geo vision,” Childe points out bluntly, “followed by little cues you leave behind. You never truly stop watching your surroundings, even during all those dinners we’ve shared, or when you are waxing poetic about the different strains of silk flowers. You also tend to be very calm and collected, fearless, including in instances when we have to venture outside Liyue Harbour’s safe boundaries into the wilderness. Most non-combatants would have been slightly jittery at the very least.”

Childe laughs low. “For all that you act like a professor, your body and your instinct are that of a warrior, though I suppose it makes sense, God of War.”

“Impressive.” Childe grins even harder at how begrudging Zhongli sounds. “So, why haven’t you acted on your desire to challenge me to a fight?”

“The opportunity never presented itself, and you seemed perfectly content in your peaceful day-to-day life.” His eyes flash towards Zhongli. “Why? Are you offering now?”

Zhongli meets his challenging gaze head-on with only a raised brow, and Childe laughs. Of course, Rex Lapis wouldn’t be rattled by something so insignificant as a human posturing before him.

“Come now, Master Zhongli,” Childe wheedles, “don’t you want to test out the limits of your new form now that you don’t have your Gnosis? Refamiliarize with what you can and can’t do? What’s a better way to do that than with a friendly spar against the Vanguard himself?”

“I see what Madam Anna said about you being a trouble magnet,” Zhongli huffs out, but there’s laughter in his voice. “I suppose there is logic to what you are saying. Fine, I agree with this arrangement. Consider this my thank you for that beautiful coat you generously bought me.”


IX. The Fight

Although Childe tries to keep his work life separate from his home life, he’s also well aware of his tendency to go a bit stir crazy after long stretches of domesticity. Even from a young age, as Ajax, he’s been filled with boundless energy, this constant thrum of current running under his skin that sets him constantly in motion.

Naturally, one of the first things Childe does when his childhood home falls into his control, with the passing of his mother, is to renovate the old barn in their field into a training arena. It’ll provide a space for him to work off his excess energy without him having to leave his property. A compromise between having to stay at home from his new role as his siblings’ guardian and his constant itch for a good fight.

“Will this be sufficient for our spar?” Childe gestures to the open ground stretched out before him and Zhongli as they enter the barn. The space is large, about the size of the Northland Bank’s reception area if one were to measure from the door to the receptionist’s desk. Lining across the four walls are great metal racks filled with all manners of weaponry, from swords, and daggers to maces, pole-arms, and his most hated, bows and arrows. Each of them is carefully maintained, evident by the way they are all polished and gleaming, and they have all been used by Childe for his training. The collection is Childe’s pride and joy, second only to his siblings of course.

“A fine collection,” Zhongli praises with a nod, his fingers brushing against the handle of a two-handed broadsword. “I have heard rumours that the Eleventh Vanguard is a master of all weapons, and I can see how this reputation came to be.”

“You’re more than welcome to borrow one for this match,” Childe offers, “though something tells me that you’ve got your own weapon that you’d rather use.”

“You’d be correct.” A golden light erupts from the ground, rising in a golden pillar of light and with it, the shaft of a spear made with dark onyx and tipped in gold, seemingly drawn from the very earth itself. Zhongli twirls the spear in his hand with an easy flick of his wrists, and he brandishes it towards a starry-eyed Childe.

“Oh, now you’re just showing off,” Childe laughs. This is going to be fun. “I suppose I should also take this seriously. It’s not every day one gets to fight an ex-Archon.”

With those words, he launches himself towards Zhongli, twin water blades materializing in his hands in a flash.

“Impulsive,” Zhongli tsked, dodging the first couple of swipes by Childe’s daggers and parrying the third with a lazy bat of his spear. “We have not even established the rules of the spar yet.”

Childe ducks under a slash of the spear and takes the opportunity to break away to give them some distance. “Why the rules are simple,” he says, adjusting his stance and letting his feet guide him as he circles his opponent, each step light and slow in anticipation. Across from him, Zhongli is mirroring his moves. “We fight until one yields.”

Zhongli smirks. “I am agreeable to those terms.”

And the two fly towards each other, weapons slashing in a flurry.

It is, simply put, poetry in motion. Every move Zhongli executes is with perfect control and efficiency, with no superfluous gestures and no opening for Childe to take advantage of. His form – the way he wields the spear like a natural extension of himself, the way he bends out of the way of Childe’s attacks, leaving an inch of space between his blades and the delicate skin of his neck, the way he immediately counterattacks with a sweep of his legs that had Childe flip out of the way, it is –

“Perfection,” Childe sighs as he lands on deft feet. “Professor, now I am just sad that we’ve never done this before. I would have loved to fight you when you had your Gnosis. What a tragedy that I’ve missed that golden opportunity.”

“You haven’t finished this fight and already, you’re dreaming of another one.” Zhongli shakes his head with an amused huff. “I suppose this means I am not keeping you busy enough.”

Childe only laughs as he counters the rapid quick-fire lunges of Zhongli’s spears.

While Zhongli moves with the grace of a dancer, Childe, in comparison is chaos in human form. He’s constantly moving, twisting and spinning and turning and zig-zagging, making him hard to track with the unpredictability of his attacks. It’s serving him well against an opponent as skilled as Zhongli.

Not only skilled, but he’s fast too, Childe thinks a little wildly, twisting on the balls of his feet to turn and bring his two blades above his head. Just in time to catch the blow that would’ve come down on his head. The strength of the blow is still enough to make him bite back a wince.

By the Goddess, he’s strong!

He breaks out of the lock and rolls out of the way of the kick aimed at his ribs, no doubt had it connect, it would have shattered a few of his ribs. Childe ignores the way the floor scrapes the skin of his forearm, and pushes himself up with one hand, springing back to his feet, just in time to parry the next spear thrust aimed for his head. It’s by chance that he catches the way Zhongli’s eyes appear to light up in a flash of gold before a great pillar of stone comes rushing up towards him from the ground.

He moves before he registers what’s going on and manages to dodge before his sternum is crushed by the upward blow. The realization only makes his laugh even brighter.

“My, my, you’re just full of surprises!” Childe’s grin turns mischievous. His lungs are screaming at him and he could feel his heart pounding a million miles a minute. He’s never felt more alive. “I certainly hope that it’s not just the one pillar you can summon. I would be disappointed otherwise.”

Zhongli shakes his head, but the glow of his eyes only grows stronger. “Trouble magnet,” he says in a tone that sounds exceedingly fond. It has Childe blinking back in surprise.

He has no time to think because a literal forest of stone pillars comes rising from the ground, and he’s too busy jumping out of the way lest he be killed. But as neat as Zhongli’s trick is to look at, it is also very effective in stopping Childe in his tracks; with every step he takes, a fresh pillar rises in front of him, and he’d have to jump back to find a new path forward, only to be blocked again.

Well, if he can’t rush towards the Professor head-on, then he’ll just have to find another way forward instead.

Grinning, Childe runs towards one of the pillars freshly rising from the ground and jumps. He uses the momentum of the rising pillar like a springboard to leap onto the next pillar and the next and the next, his legs burning with every seemingly impossible jump he has to make. Ahead, he sees the first pillar Zhongli has summoned, towering above the rest with Zhongli standing beside it, his hands out with his palms touching, almost as if he’s in prayer. His eyes are as bright as twin suns.

He aims for it and leaps, and by some small miracle, he manages to land on top, and suddenly, he’s right there, right above a still clueless Zhongli.

He flips in the air just as Zhongli looks up, and he brings his water blades together with a clap.

Materialize, he practically snarls in his head and feels the shape of his blades give way, dissolving into a cascade of water before twisting and reforming into a bow in a split second.

Childe takes a second to relish the way Zhongli’s eyes widen in surprise. Then, he draws his bow and rains down a storm of arrows on the ex-Archon from above.

Perfection.

The landing leaves him winded; he barely manages to catch himself in a roll to save himself from breaking his bones from the shock of the impact, but he gets up on his wobbly feet, staggering a few times along the way. The arrows he had let loose had dug fist sized holes all over the ground, and a part of him laments at the clean-up work he’d have to do after the spar.

As for Zhongli…

Childe gawks.

The man is down on one knee with his spear held horizontally above his head. Around him, though, is a translucent dome of shimmering gold, reminiscent of the barrier found around Jueyun Karst.

He looks completely untouched, not even a single hair is out of place.

“Really?” Childe exclaims, “you can make a shield too? Oh, this is just unfair! How many abilities do you have?”

Zhongli disperses the shield around him with a flick of his wrists, and he rises to his feet, using his spear to push himself up.

“You have certainly surprised me with that last trick as well,” he says, and he’s gazing at Childe with newfound appreciation. “How many weapons can you make with your water ability?”

Childe shrugs. “All of them.”

This time, it’s Zhongli’s turn to gawk.

Childe lets the water flow to his palms and in a flash, solidifies it into a sword. Almost immediately, he lets the watery form give way and transforms it into a mace, then a war hammer, a dagger, a polearm, and finally, his go-to weapon of choice, the swallow.

“I mean, I need to have seen and interacted and trained with them first,” Childe says, twirling his swallow with ease. “I need to know how they feel in my hands, their weight, their shape, and how best to handle them in order for me to recreate them out of water. My water is a blank slate, almost like clay that allows me to mold it into any shape I see fit, so I need to have a clear idea of what I want to do with it. A blueprint of sort.”

“Which explains your collection.” Zhongli nods and steps up to Childe, letting his spear dissolve back into a shower of light. His eyes linger on the water weapon, and after a while, he looks up and holds his hands out. “May I?”

“Sure.” Childe brings his swallow before him and lays it out across Zhongli’s hands.

“Fascinating. How fascinating.” Zhongli’s fingers curl around the shaft and he tosses the weapon a little in his palms before trying out a few, tentative slashes. “There is weight to this. It feels like I’m holding a weapon made of wood and metal. It must require exceptional control of your hydro ability to manifest something so life-like, and to continue to hold the weapon’s form after it has left your hand.”

He hands the weapon back to Childe as carefully as he had received it, and the smile he gives to Childe is full of warmth. “To have such a mastery over your abilities and have exceptional combat skills at such a young age. It is no wonder the Tsaritsa promoted you to be one of her Harbingers.”

Childe flushes. It’s not lost on him that the God of War himself is the one doing the praising. “Ah, Professor, there you go teasing me again. We haven’t even finished our battle yet.”

“Whether we finish the battle does not change what I said.” Zhongli’s lips twist into a teasing smirk, and the sight of it does something funny to Childe’s stomach. “But if you are itching to lose that badly,” he drawls out, and his voice dips low and smoky in a clear promise, “I am happy to grant you your wish, Trouble Magnet Ajax.”

The sound of his real name coming out of Zhongli, and in that voice, is enough to make his thoughts come crashing to a halt, but Trouble Magnet Ajax? For some reason, the funny feeling in Childe’s stomach magnifies, almost like it’s filled with hundreds of fluttering butterflies, at the teasing nickname. This is the strangest sensation ever. Childe hasn’t felt like this since he was a child, and it was out of nervousness, but that can’t be right. Since when does he feel nervous around Zhongli?

Zhongli, on the other hand, merely smirks even harder. “Oh? Did I leave you embarrassed? You are rather pink, and growing pinker by the second.”

“I am not,” Childe denies. Badly. He lets his water disperse and crosses his arms over his chest so that he wouldn’t be tempted to touch his face to feel just how warm it is. “I’m merely thinking how unfair that nickname is! I’ll have you know that trouble comes looking for me more so than the other way around.”

Zhongli makes a disbelieving little scoff. “Somehow, I highly doubt that. I have seen the way you goad me just now. ‘I would be disappointed if you can only summon one pillar.’ It is no small wonder the villagers are so worried for your safety if this is what they’ve witnessed while you were growing up.”

“I should have never let you meet them, Professor. I was not expecting to gain another person who would chastise me,” Childe grouses. His scowl gives way to confusion when he’s met with only more amused chuckling. “What? What’s so funny now?”

Zhongli shakes his head. “I am glad.”

“For what?”

“Professor.” Zhongli’s eyes are bright, as bright as they were during their last dinner in Liyue Harbour, and his expression is just as wistful. “I had missed the nickname.”

It takes a few seconds for Zhongli’s words to sink in, but when they do, Childe feels his good humour dissipate like smoke in the air.

What is he doing? What the hell is all this?

Just now with everything, the way he had teased and goaded Zhongli during the fight, hell, even the shopping trip with the way he had doted on the other man, Childe was behaving like he was the same harmless diplomat in Liyue enjoying a day of adventure with his good friend Zhongli.

It was alarmingly easy to slip back into the old rhythm of things with Zhongli like he had for the last two years. Zhongli didn’t even have to do anything and Childe is already bending over backward for him just to keep him happy.

Childe manages to hold back his sigh of frustration. He’s such an idiot. For fuck’s sake, why hasn’t he learned his lesson about Zhongli?

But he had spoken to the Tsaritsa in his favour. He had chosen to seek Childe out to learn from. Don’t these things mean something?

Childe is the one who’s ascribing meaning to those acts as proof that Zhongli views him as more than just a pawn, and well, who knows if any of his assumptions are even true. What Childe does know is that Zhongli had used him and then proceeded to ignore his existence for three months until Childe becomes useful again. That is an indisputable fact, and that alone should be a firm reminder on why his relationship with Zhongli should remain strictly professional.

Zhongli must have seen something on his expression because his smile dims. “Ah, it looks like I have misspoken. I apologize, Childe.”

Childe slides on the wooden smile as easily as he does his Tartaglia mask. “No, no, it’s fine Master Zhongli, I should be the one who apologizes. That was…improper of me. In any event, thank you for indulging my curiosity with this battle.”

Zhongli frowns. “Childe – ”

“If it’s alright with you, why don’t we call it here for today? It’s getting late and I should get some snacks ready before Tonia, Anthon, and Teucer come home.”

He doesn’t bother waiting before turning away, but he couldn’t have gotten a few steps in before a hand on his arm stops him.

“Childe,” and Zhongli sounds frustrated, “please wait. That wasn’t what I meant at all. I do not think you were being improper. I simply did not wish to do something that upsets you, which I clearly have.” Childe feels the hand on his arm loosens his grip, and hears a heavy sigh. “Can we talk? I realize that we have not parted on the greatest terms in Liyue.”

Childe spins around, his jaws clenched. “I’m aware of how things in Liyue have ended. You got what you want, and the Tsaritsa got what she wants, so everybody wins. It doesn’t seem like there’s anything else to add.”

Zhongli presses his lips into a thin line, displeased. “Yet, you remain angry with me. I recognize that I had forced you into the role of the villain, and for that, I am sorry.”

Childe makes a frustrated sound. “That’s not – I don’t care about that!”

Because what Zhongli brought up isn’t the point. Childe may be frustrated about being duped, upset even, but he also recognizes that him playing the villain had been for the sake of the mission’s success. He does not like it, but he can make peace with it.

What he’s upset about is the way Zhongli pretends to be his friend.

Zhongli, for his part, looks perplexed. “Then, why are you upset?”

Why is Childe upset? Is that man serious? Does he have absolutely no awareness of how he had treated Childe?

“Exactly how much of what happened in Liyue was an act?” Childe demands. How much of their friendly relationship was made belief? Was Zhongli only acting the way he did with Childe simply to make it easier to keep tabs on him? Does he even matter to Zhongli at all?

Zhongli shakes his head, looking even more confused. “I apologize, Childe. I do not think I understand.”

Childe throws his hands in the air. Right. He is done. He needs to get out of Zhongli’s presence before he truly loses his temper.

Or at least, he wants to if not for the spike of blistering heat cutting into his right hand.

His eyes go wide and he gasps, the suddenness of the pain knocks the breath right out of his lungs. His left hand flies to his right as he tucks his injured hand against his chest, doubling over on shaking knees and tries to catch his breath.

The second spike of heat that hits him is worse than before, and he bites back a groan even as it sends his muscles trembling uncontrollably. The fire is snaking up his forearm much faster than all the times he’s had his episodes, his muscles and skin feel almost hot to the touch, and getting hotter still. In the meanwhile, he thinks he can hear his voice being called, but everything sounds muffled like his ears have been stuffed with cotton. He can’t concentrate, not with the way his hand feels like it’s constantly being stabbed by a red hot poker.

Pain, pain, pain, nothing but redhotfierypain. Make it stop, make it stop, makeitstopmakeitstop –

Suddenly, warm, soft hands are cradling his face and he has to blink a couple of times before Zhongli’s face comes into focus. Zhongli’s staring at him, his amber eyes wide with concern. “Childe?” he repeats slowly, “What’s the matter, are you injured?”

He opens his mouth to speak, but a fresh wave of pain crashes through him, and this time, he couldn’t bite down his cry fast enough. Goddess above, the fire feels like it’s scorching his bones and it’s creeping to his elbows. As if things couldn’t get any worst, familiar purple sparks begin to form in small bursts across his skin at the tips of his fingers.

Childe hears a gasp. “What in Celestia – ?”

No. Nononono. Not now. Fuck. Not. Now.

But whatever that’s happening to him doesn’t heed his internal panic; the purple sparks grow, and just like before, they travel in bright purple arcs, first between his fingers, then across his skin over the back of his hand. They jump past his wrist, and every time they touch his skin, they cause pinpricks of bright pain like a needle being wedged into his flesh. They creep up his forearm, up and up and up until his whole hand is sparking purple.

The air is filled with the distinct smell of ozone. Childe can also feel the familiar pressure of a spell building up in his blood.

“Fuck!” he hisses. He lets go of his right arm and with his shaking left hand, tries to fumble for his medicine in the pouch strapped to his belt.

“Childe – Childe, what do you need?”

“Medicine!” he rasps out, groaning out in agony. “Pocket!”

He feels fingers brush his hand aside and deftly works the button keeping the flap closed. They dig into the pouch and out comes the vial, half-filled with the silvery, pearlescence medicine. There’s cursing, and if Childe is in the right state of mind as opposed to being in terrible, horrible pain, he would have made a joke about the prim and proper Zhongli, cursing, but all he can focus on is the immense relief at the sensation of the vial’s cool glass touching his lips, and the hand on his neck that’s making him tilt his head up.

As the medicine is poured into his mouth, he gulps it down with the desperation of a man dying of thirst. The cooling sensation of the liquid trickling down his throat is a much-welcomed distraction from the pain, no matter how vile the medicine tastes.

He can feel the glass vial gently removed from his lips once the last drop is done, and he closes his eyes and let his head drop. There’s a hand carding through his hair with careful strokes, and a voice murmuring soft and low in his ears, “it’s alright, it’s alright.”

He feels like he’s being shifted, and all of a sudden, he finds himself pressed up against something warm. There’s the softness of fur against his left cheek and the feel of a strong arm wrapped around his waist, holding him up. He takes in a shaky breath, and the delicate scent of silk flowers and incense tickle his nose.

He stays there, leaning against the soft warmth and breathing in the unique scent of Liyue. The hand in his hair continues to pet him in slow, languid strokes and it makes him want to sink into the sensation all the more. The pain in his arm is receding as are the purple sparks that had been building under his skin. In a couple of heartbeats, they disappear entirely.

It takes a couple more seconds for Childe to come out of his pain-infused daze, and he sags against the warmth. Fuck. Fuck, that took a lot more out of him then the last attack, and already, he can feel the effects of the medicine hitting him hard. Still, he tries to push himself up so that he’s standing with a bit more dignity, but the arm around his waist doesn’t budge, and his limbs feel too much like wet noodles for him to put up a good fight.

The hand stops carding through his hair.

“Childe,” the voice – Zhongli – says, and ah, that’s right. Childe is leaning against Zhongli. He’s got his head against his shoulder and the length of his body pressed up against the other man. If Childe isn’t so busy trying to keep himself from nodding off, he’d be mortified.

“Childe,” Zhongli repeats. “Was that what you are here for? To recover from that?”

“Hmm.” Childe nods. “Wasn’t so bad before. This one’s the worst.”

The arm around his waist tightens its hold on him. “You’ve been having these attacks. What’s causing them?”

“Delusion gone wrong,” he mumbles. Maybe, he can just rest his eyes a little. Surely, Zhongli wouldn’t mind if he takes a tiny nap, right? “Backlash. Supposed to have gone ‘poof’ but I didn’t. Dottore’s working on a cure, the slimy bastard.”  

He chuckles and nuzzles against the fur some more, “’hope I can live to see the cure though. That’d be nice.”

He can hear rumbling; it sounds like the voice of someone protesting, but honestly, he’s doesn’t have the mental capacity to pay attention. He can feel the fog of sleep rapidly filling his mind, and his eyelids are drooping shut.

“’m sorry Professor,” he thinks he slurs out but who knows. Certainly not Childe. “Side-effect, ‘m gonna go to – ”

He’s out before he finishes that sentence.

Chapter Text

X. The Rest

Childe’s return to consciousness comes in stages. At first, he thinks he hears whispers, little snatches of conversation here and there:

“ – Brother…feeling well?”

“…ill…a bit…sorry he couldn’t walk you back.”

“When will…still sleeping?”

“….medicine….side-effect. I don’t know when…”

Then, comes the different sensations. There’s a feeling of softness pressing against his body from where he’s laid down, and the warmth of something wet brushing against his forehead, wiping his skin in soothing strokes. At some point, he can feel the space around him dip, almost as if to accommodate the weights of multiple little bodies settling beside him.

He could swear that he feels what could only be fingers combing through his hair as well. He tries to lean into the touch and catches the scent of silk flowers, patchouli, and a hint of sandalwood.

It’s nice. Comforting. And very familiar.

He doesn’t know how long he’s left floating in his mind, but eventually, he remembers to open his tired eyes even if his eyelids feel as heavy as lead. It takes a few more seconds for him to blink away the last remnants of sleep.

He’s in his own bedroom, lying in his bed on his back. The room is lit by a merry fire in his fireplace, keeping the space toasty warm. Judging from the lack of sunlight shining through the gap between his curtains, he’s willing to bet that it’s currently late at night.

He tries to shift but finds himself…trapped.

What?

He glances down.

Tucked against him are his siblings, all of them fast asleep on top of his duvet but someone had thoughtfully brought various smaller blankets to cover them up. Teucer and Anthon have managed to curl up so that they’re resting on his left side, with Teucer’s head tucked into the crook of his neck and one arm out to cling on to his chest, while Anthon managed to wedge himself so that he’s leaning against Childe’s stomach. Beside Teucer is Tonia, who’s managed to throw her arms around both Teucer and him while her head rests on the edge of the pillow Childe is on. She still has her glasses on, although how she’s managed to fall asleep wearing those is a mystery. They cannot be comfortable, not with the way the frame is digging into her skin.

A well of fondness rises through him. Those little devils. It’s been a while since they’ve all shared a bed like that, the last time being when their mother…

Never mind that.

Childe brushes the thought away and slowly wriggles himself free, taking care to roll his siblings off of him. He breathes a sigh of relief when his right hand poses no issue. With careful fingers, he plucks Tonia’s glasses off and reaches for the bedside table to his right to put them in a safer place.

His gaze catches the sight of his armchair pulled up beside the bed and –

Oh.

Well, that’s new.

Zhongli is there, slumped into the chair also clearly fast asleep. He’s switched to a more casual set of clothes, a midnight black silk robe tied over a shirt and long pants, all of which contain beautiful gold embroideries of Liyue’s dramatic mountain peaks. His head is leaned back, resting fully on the back of the chair, exposing the pale smoothness of his long neck. Splayed on top of his stomach is a book, half-opened with one of his hands still on the page.

Had he been reading something to the children before they all fell asleep? The idea sends a renewed surge of warmth through Childe.

Unfortunately, the warm feeling doesn’t last long. As if aware of someone watching him, Zhongli’s eyes snap open.

“Childe.” Zhongli’s voice is rough and low. It takes a few more seconds for him to catch on, but when he does, he gets up from his seat. “Childe. You’re awake.”

Childe nods. “Just woke up,” he rasps and cringes at the state of his voice. Slowly, he pushes himself up so that he’s seated. He gracefully accepts the cup of water thrusted in front of him that Zhongli must have prepared in advance and takes a few deep, grateful gulps.

“How long was I out for?” he asks, his voice low. He hands the empty cup to Zhongli, who puts it and the book on the bedside table.

“Half a day.” The answer has Childe wincing, and he didn’t register Zhongli moving closer until he feels fingers brushing against his forehead. “Hmm, your temperature feels normal. How are you feeling?”

How is he feeling? Childe moves the fingers from each hand, then his toes. Everything is responding just fine and his right arm feels normal. He’s got a minor headache throbbing at his temple, and he feels wrung out like a wet dishcloth, but he’s been through worse. It’s probably dehydration.

He lifts his right hand up and gives Zhongli a little wave. “Hand’s working fine. No pain from before. Other than that? A bit foggy, but not too bad.” He shrugs, eager to move on, “So, um, what happened after the effects of the medicine kicked in? Shit, I didn’t get to walk Anthon, Teucer, and Tonia back from school.”

“Your agent and I went in your stead and we explained to your siblings that you weren’t feeling well. They were very understanding, but rightfully worried, as you may have guessed.” Although Zhongli sounds calm, pleasant even, something tells Childe that he is not at all pleased. “As for what happened after you’ve had your medicine, I took you back and got you out of your winter gear. Your agents and I helped clean the scrapes you got from our spar and got you into something more comfortable. We kept an eye on you to see how you were doing.”

There are many conflicting feelings Childe is being hit with from that mountain of information. There’s the obvious shame and embarrassment from having to be carried by Zhongli to his bedroom. By the Archons, that must have been some sight. Did Zhongli carry him tenderly in his arms in a bridal carry? Maybe, he slung Childe’s limp body over one shoulder like a bag of flour. Childe is not sure which mental image is more emasculating.  

There’s also the fact that Zhongli and his agents had stripped the clothes off his unconscious body so that they can treat his injuries. Who knows how much of Childe everyone got an eyeful of. Although he’s hardly shy, and he likes to think he’s not wholly repulsive to look at, he draws the line at being forcefully made nude (or near-nude) when he’s unconscious.

Especially in front of Zhongli.

(Just in case…he discretely peeks down and breathes a sigh of relief. ‘Lo and behold, he’s wearing his undershirt. He hopes he’s wearing pants. He can’t check at the moment, not with the way he’s wrapped so tightly around his blankets but surely, his agents wouldn’t dare to leave him in such a state, not if they value their lives.)

There’s also the deep-seated regret at breaking his promise to his siblings to walk them back from school, even if it’s due to something beyond his control. Childe can count on one hand the number of times he wasn’t able to keep his promise to his siblings, no matter how ludicrous those promises may be. He went out to sea and defeated a Leviathan just because he had promised Teucer to bring home the biggest fish he’d ever see in his life. To break his promise over something so easy and trivial like walking his kid siblings home from school…deeply, deeply irks Childe.

At least Zhongli and his agent were there for his brothers and sister. Although Tonia, Teucer, and Anthon adore Zhongli, the ex-Archon is still trying to find his footing around those three. For him to voluntarily interact with them is a big step outside of his comfort zone, which Childe is deeply thankful for.

Then, there’s dread. Dread at having to explain the severity of his flare-ups to Uncle and Auntie, who are probably as unimpressed as Zhongli for the way he downplayed his symptoms. Dread at having to explain to his siblings, who are clearly very worried given the way they’re latched on to him even in sleep. And dread at having to deal with Zhongli because he just knows that the ex-Archon is never going to let this go. History has shown that Rex Lapis has a long memory and when he gets up in arms about something, he’s as stubborn as, well, a rock.

Is it too late to brush the entire situation under the rug? It probably is, but that doesn’t mean Childe still won’t try.

“Thank you for walking my brothers and sister back from school, for taking care of them while I was indisposed, and for watching over me,” Childe says gratefully. “But as you can see, I’m feeling alright now. Fine even. So there’s no need to – ”

“You and I have a very different definition of fine,” Zhongli says, crossing his arms and narrowing his eyes. Childe winces. Welp, that gambit did not work and yes, Zhongli is most definitely not pleased. “Because you seem to describe your injury as nothing serious when it is the complete opposite of that.”

“It wasn’t!” Childe denies, keeping his tone low so that he wouldn’t wake his sleeping kid siblings. “That time was the worst flare-up I’ve had.”

“Which implies you’ve already had multiple flare-ups in the past. You also said you were getting better despite knowing that you were not.” Zhongli points out flatly. “What boggles my mind is how despite you knew you were injured, you still asked me to spar with you. That was reckless, Childe! What if you had gotten seriously hurt? What if I had hurt you?”

When Childe stares back at him in mulish silence, Zhongli breathes out a long sigh as if trying to collect his composure. It’s strange, Childe doesn’t think he’s ever seen Zhongli be this visibly agitated. Childe would appreciate the novel experience a lot more if he isn’t the cause of it.

“How did you get this injury?” Zhongli asks, “I do not recall you were this hurt back in Liyue so it must have been a relatively recent event.”

Childe does not like where this line of inquiry is going. The last thing he wants Zhongli to find out is the use of his Foul Legacy Transformation. “Can we not do this now?” he says instead. “It’s late and I’d rather not have this conversation in front of my brothers and sister.”

Zhongli’s eyes flicker to the three sleeping children and to Childe still in bed. Childe guesses that he must paint a pretty pathetic picture because Zhongli’s shoulders drop and the furrow of his brow smooths out. “Fine,” he says with an air of grudging acceptance, “but this discussion is not over. We will resume tomorrow.”

He turns around and, to Childe’s surprise, sinks back into the armchair.

“Wait, what are you doing?”

“Staying here.” Zhongli calmly reaches for his book. “Everybody agreed that someone should stay here to make sure you’ll be fine this evening. I volunteered to be that person.”

What? Why? Also, no, Childe does not need a babysitter. “You don’t have to do that, I’m – ”

The glare Zhongli gives him is so filled with judgment that the words die a swift death on Childe’s lips. So, Childe switches to another tactic.

“Surely, you’re more comfortable in your own bed than in that chair? With your bedroom so close by, you’d hear it if anything does happen.”

Zhongli merely flips through the book and shrugs. “I am an adeptus. I have slept on the cold ground more nights than I can count during the Archon Wars. My body can withstand a night spent on a plush armchair in a warm bedroom just fine.”

“But don’t you still need sleep?” Childe tries again. “Just because your body can withstand the discomfort doesn’t mean you don’t feel it entirely.”

Zhongli pauses and tilts his head to one side as if considering his words. “Are you this bothered by me spending the night in your armchair?”

Finally! He’s getting through to him. “Yes,” Childe nods. “I am. Very much so, in fact.”

“You will not be able to rest properly if I stay here, in this armchair?”

Again, Childe nods.

Zhongli closes his book and tucks it under his arm. “Alright then.”

He rises from the armchair, and, to Childe’s growing shock, walks towards the bed and clambers into it.

“There,” Zhongli says with just a hint of smug amusement. He’s snuggling into Childe’s bed, tucking himself perfectly into the empty space to Childe’s right mere inches from where Childe is. “Now you have nothing to worry about. I have found myself a perfectly good, cozy spot. No need for further concerns about my discomfort.”

Childe is left gaping at Zhongli. In the two years he’s known Zhongli, he’s never seen the other man push back like this. Master Zhongli had always treated him with gentleness and calm (and, to be honest, a lot of patience to his blunderings of Liyue table manners.)

But never with teeth. Never with chastising, or straight-up sass.

Whatever this is, it is new.

Zhongli is also so close that Childe can feel the heat emanating from his body, or smell the soothing scent of silk flower and incense that is uniquely Zhongli. Childe can see just how relaxed his sleepwear is, with his hair unbound and falling loose over his shoulders, tumbling artfully in a wave of glossy dark silk. In the fire light, the shine of his satin-silk dressing gown seems to glow a warm lustre, the low light accentuates all the dips and shadows of the way the gown clings to his body, and Childe is suddenly struck by the vivid image of those Rex Lapis statues. The ones with him sitting bare-chested while the delicate cloth of his robe drapes over his head, shoulders, and his leg, caressing his skin and barely hiding the curves of his muscles or the broadness of his frame.

That. He looks exactly like that. Except this is real life and he’s in Childe’s bed.

How did he miss all those signs that point to Zhongli being Rex Lapis? Childe thinks a bit frantically even with the way his face heats up like a torch.

Also, just what the fuck is Childe going to do with his observations? Yes, thank you, for realizing that Zhongli is stupidly handsome, but how are those thoughts going to help him here when Zhongli’s in Childe’s bed? The man is sitting up with his back leaning against the backboard and he’s reaching for his book again, just casually flipping to the page where he’s left off like everything is normal, and it all screams of dangerous, frightful domesticity.

Like he belongs there. Beside Childe.

Nope. Childe is not thinking about this. He is going to sleep off the madness and hopes it will go away on its own.

With an awkward little nod to Zhongli and what must sound like a strangled, warbled, ‘good night’, Childe promptly burrows himself back in his covers and rolls over so that he’s resting on his side with his back towards Zhongli. He throws an arm over his siblings to draw them closer and shuts his eyes.

Not thinking about this.


The next time he wakes up is nowhere near as disorienting. There’s something smooth and soft against his cheek, wonderfully warm too like the hot water bottles he likes to put by the feet of his siblings’ mattresses for added warmth during the harsher winter days. He sighs and snuggles closer.

A series of giggles makes him lazily crack one eye open.

Teucer, Anthon, and Tonia are staring down at him with wide eyes. Tonia has her hands clapped over her mouth as she gives off another small giggle.

“Morning Big Brother!” Tonia chimes. “Are you feeling better?”

Ajax smiles. “Much better, Tonia. And good morning to all of you.”

He yawns, and moves to stretch his arms, but startles when his hand hits against something, and a breathless little “oof” sounds out.

He stills. And he cranes his head up.

Zhongli is glancing down at him, his eyes glittering with amusement even as one of his hands is rubbing against his stomach where Ajax had smacked him.

“Good morning, Childe,” Zhongli greets with a smile, borderline a smirk, “I trust that you slept well?”

It hits Ajax just what, or more specifically, who, he’s resting on. A quick, furtive glance down confirms it – ah yes, the soft warmth he’d been happily nuzzling against is none other than Zhongli’s lap.

Clearly, the madness did not go away on its own. The madness got worse.

Salvaging the shredded remains of his dignity, Ajax slowly pushes himself up and pats Zhongli on the leg. “Ah, sorry,” he laughs while trying to hide the fact that he’s dying from mortification, “it seems like I was really out of it, huh?”

Zhongli clearly does not buy into his act because his smirk grows. “Indeed, although please do not get up on my account. It is good that you are getting your much-needed rest.”

Ajax gives the ex-Archon a dirty look despite the rising flush on his face. “I think I’ve had enough rest to last me a long while.” And enough humiliation to last a lifetime.

His uncharitable thoughts fly out the window at the weight of three little bodies flinging themselves at him for a hug. He barely has the time to brace himself from toppling over and landing on Zhongli.

“Big Brother! We were worried!” Anthon whines into his stomach. “Master Zhongli and Auntie said you weren’t feeling well and that you took some medicine that made you sleepy.”

“We couldn’t wake you up at all!” Teucer cries, tightening his hold around Ajax. “Sister Tonia tried to get you to wake up for dinner but you kept on sleeping!”

“What’s wrong, why weren’t you feeling well?” Tonia asks. “Is it a cold? I can make some lemon tea or some hot milk with butter and honey.”

“I am feeling better. I’m sorry for worrying you and for not walking you home from school.” Ajax gives his three siblings a pat on the head, thankful for the thoughtful white lie that was told to his siblings the day before. “You’re right, I was just a bit under the weather. I suppose I’ve been away from Snezhnaya for so long that it’s going to take some time for me to get used to the cold again.”

A thought occurs to Ajax then and he frowns. “Tonia, Teucer, Anthon, don’t you have to get ready for school?”

“We’re not going. We want to stay here with Big Brother,” Tonia explains with a pout. Teucer and Anthon are nodding along as well, each sporting a grave expression. “If we don’t stay and keep watch, Big Brother is never going to rest. He’s going to leave the bed to do something stupid like chores and never get better!”

“Now when did you three learn to become so fierce?” Ajax shakes his head in wonder. At the sound of Zhongli’s coughs that do nothing to disguise his chuckles, he throws the ex-Archon a suspicious look. “Did you put them up to this? What bad habits have you been teaching my little brothers and sister?”

“I wouldn’t dare,” Zhongli answers, and Ajax would’ve believed him if not for the smallest upturn of his lips. “I was merely telling your siblings about an old Liyue saying, which goes something like this: ‘a person who wishes to recover fully should rest for longer than just one measly evening, especially when that person is stubborn, refuses to recognize his limits, and is prone to lying about the severity of his injury.’”

Ajax scowls. “That is not an old Liyue saying! I’ve never heard of such saying before. That is your biased criticism thinly disguised as words of wisdom!”

“It is a very old Liyue saying,” Zhongli counters calmly. “What do you think, Miss Tonia and Misters Anthon and Teucer? Do you think the saying is true?”

Tonia turns her sad doe eyes to Ajax. “Master Zhongli is right, Big Brother. You should stay in bed. At least for today. Please?”

On cue, both Anthon and Teucer turn big watery eyes on him as well. “Please, Big Brother?” they beg. “We promise we’ll be good today!”

And Ajax is left surrounded by the sounds of his pleading siblings while Zhongli continues to sit beside him, practically radiating smugness.

‘He wouldn’t dare’, he says. What a blatant lie! In the manner of hours, that man manages to weaponize his brothers and sister against him. Ajax should have never invited Zhongli into his home that fateful evening from what feels like a lifetime ago; he should’ve slammed the door on the ex-Archon’s stupid, handsome face, his mission be damned!


Childe capitulates and agrees to stay in bed, although not with any good graces. He’s seated up with his arms crossed over his chest, scowling at the unfairness of his situation.

Nobody pays him any mind. Not even his agents, who come in to check on him and to express their displeasure at being kept in the dark about his condition.

“It is a good thing that Master Zhongli is here,” he hears Uncle whisper to Auntie on their way out of the bedroom, “at least we have someone dependable who can keep an eye out on Lord Harbinger. Goddess forbid, we need someone who can match our Lord’s stubbornness!”

Left with nothing to do in his forced solitude except for feeling the bite of stinging betrayal from his own agents, Childe begrudgingly naps.

It is more restful than he cares to admit.

He wakes up some indeterminable amount of time later to soft clinking from something being deposited on his bedside table. The mouth-watering scent of homemade soup comes wafting towards him seconds later.

“Hmrph?” He lifts his groggy head from his pillow in time to see Zhongli leaning towards him.

“Good evening,” he says, “I brought you some dinner. Are you up for a light meal?”

“You know, I really am feeling just fine,” Childe grouses, taking the tray of food to his lap. Ah, it appears the family made ukha today. Perfect. “The last time I had a flare-up, I was able to function perfectly fine after sleeping off the effects of the medicine. This bed rest is completely superfluous and unnecessary.”

Zhongli sinks into the armchair beside his bed with his usual grace and elegance. “Be that as it may, it certainly makes everyone feel better knowing that you are taking the day to rest up.”

Childe harumphs. “An entire day wasted, you mean.”

Zhongli gives Childe a look. “Childe, you said so yourself that you were on leave. What could you possibly have on your plate that can’t wait a day or two?”

He takes an angry spoonful of the delicious fish soup, chewing on the soft vegetables and flaky meat as he thinks of a retort. “I could’ve spent it teaching you some more,” Childe points out. “How to make soup, for example.”

To Childe’s surprise, Zhongli chuckles, soft and low. “There is no need to feel like you’ve wasted an opportunity. Your agents have graciously shown me how to make this soup, including how to cut and prepare the ingredients, and how to let everything simmer for added depth of flavour. So? How is it?”

Childe stares down at the soup in his lap. Zhongli helped make that? But he didn’t get woken up to any panicked cries about the kitchen going up in flames.

As if reading his thoughts Zhongli adds, dryly, “Yee of little faith. The kitchen is perfectly fine. I’ll have you know I learned my lesson from the porridge-making session to not leave the pot unattended.”

“Oh, so you do listen when you want to. I was beginning to doubt that from our lesson on being fiscally responsible.” Childe takes another bite of his soup, watching Zhongli squirm a little in guilt. “This is delicious by the way. Well done.”

Zhongli inclines his head in a little nod. “Thank you. Speaking of lessons, I would like to revisit the draft plans you gave me to review. I would like to make a few revisions if that is agreeable.”

Childe shrugs. “Sure, what is it?”

“I would like to add a couple of additional lessons, particularly on healing and on how to dress wounds the mortal way. Although I have some experience on that front, a lot of my knowledge is applicable to superficial wounds such as cuts and scrapes. When it comes to treating more grievous injuries, my knowledge may be outdated. A lesson on modern medical techniques would be useful to learn.”

“Reasonable,” Childe says even when he knows just what exactly inspired Zhongli to brush up on his medical skills. He ignores the pang of guilt and continues, “Is there anything else?”

“Yes, I would like to add a condition.”

“Condition? What condition?”

Zhongli leans forward with his elbows on his knees, his fingers steepled. The gold is shining bright in his eyes. “I would like to stay here until you have made a full recovery from your illness regardless of my progress of these lessons.”

Childe lowers the spoon in his hand slowly.

Logically, this arrangement is exactly what he was hoping for: keep Zhongli around so that he’d have an additional bodyguard for his siblings until the Dottore sends over a cure. To hear Zhongli agreeing to what he’s been secretly hoping for should make him feel relieved.

So why isn’t he jumping at the opportunity? Why is he hesitating? More importantly, “Zhongli, why are you doing this? If this is your attempt to apologize for the mission in Liyue, then don’t.”

Childe can withstand a lot of humiliation, but he doesn’t think he can deal with Zhongli choosing to be here only because of some bizarre misplaced sense of guilt.

“You said you were not upset because of what I made you do for the mission,” Zhongli answers softly with a confused frown. “While that may be true, the fact remains you are still upset with me. But that is unrelated to the reason why I am choosing to stay.”

Zhongli takes a deep breath as if trying to gather his thoughts. “I choose to stay,” he begins slowly, patiently, “because for as long as I have existed, I don’t remember feeling as alive as I do during the moments spent with you. I have long gotten used to being the observer as countless mortals drift around me, living their day-to-day lives, surrounded by the familiar sights and sounds of Liyue Harbour.

“You, however, force me to become present. You draw my attention to you, first as a perceived threat, and then with your genuine enthusiasm to learn everything about Liyue – its people, its culture, its history. You indulge in my need for frivolous purchases and best cuisine, you amuse me with your inability to use chopsticks despite my multiple attempts to teach you –”

“Hey! It’s not like I don’t try!” Childe protests with an embarrassed flush. “I try harder than your attempts to bring mora on shopping trips!”

“ – you challenge and tease me where nobody else in the past thousand years has dared,” Zhongli adds with a pointed stare, “you speak to me with a level of candidness and openness I haven’t experienced with no expectation of receiving anything in return, and recently, you infuriate me with your stubbornness and your inability to stay out of trouble.” Another pointed stare that Childe refuses to acknowledge, his growing flush be damned. “For all the things you have done for me, not as Rex Lapis, but as Zhongli, why wouldn’t I choose to stay to ensure you will recover? It is the very least I could do.”

Zhongli leans back into his chair and throws Childe a wry smile. “Perhaps the most important reason is that above all, I…simply want to be here. It is a very selfish desire and lacks rationality, so I ask that you indulge me just one more time.”

The silence that fills the room is thick, or it feels like it to Childe, who’s trying not to choke on the flood of embarrassment. What in Teyvat was that? What is that speech?

But, he’d be lying to himself if there isn’t a small (big, humongous, in fact) part of him that isn’t feeling absolutely tickled and oh so very, very pleased, almost like the giddy elation of when he was first handed his Harbinger mask so long ago, except softer, fuzzier, and warmer. Because if he understands everything clearly, and he was listening very closely, then it almost sounds like Zhongli is…

Fond of him. Very much so.

“You know,” Childe coughs, “You could’ve just said that you considered me your friend instead of giving that embarrassing spiel. Really, Professor, this has to be the longest speech I’ve heard you deliver since meeting you. It’s even longer than your dissertation on Liyue operas.” At the lingering silence, he chuckles awkwardly. “What? Are you not going to say that I am mean to you when nobody else would dare?”

“I’m afraid that isn’t quite true,” Zhongli finally speaks, and his eyes are soft. Everything about him is softer. It’s as if a great weight has been lifted from his shoulders and he’s finally able to relax. “Alatus is quite fond of critiquing my life choices, though you are probably the first non-Liyue mortal with that honour.”

“Pah, I don’t need that consolation prize. It’s first place or nothing for me.”

Zhongli’s smile turns wicked. “You are the first mortal to have fallen asleep on me in mid-conversation. Does that count?”

“I was under the influence of medicine!” Childe squawks. “For the record, the Dottore told me that the medicine might make me feel lethargic, so I’ve been lied to as well.”

At the mention of the Dottore, Zhongli’s lips purse, and his previous good humour fades away. “You mentioned that the Dottore is working on a cure. Does he know what caused the backlash?”

Childe shrugs. “Using the Delusion has a chance of it backlashing.” Especially if it’s pushed to the limit as Childe did with his double Foul Legacy Transformations. “This has been an ongoing problem but the Dottore never disclosed it. I suppose I got unlucky, though not that unlucky. Apparently, I should have died.”

Zhongli reaches over and grabs Childe’s hand, cupping it between his two palms. The move is so sudden and tender that Childe is left at a bit of a loss on how to respond.

“Let us do everything we can to make sure you remain alive,” Zhongli says with grim determination, and oh no. It sounds like a promise.

“Please do not do anything rash,” Childe half-pleads. “But I appreciate the sentiment, nonetheless. I am not very fond of dying.”

“On that, we both can agree.”

This time, when silence rolls around and blankets the room, it’s…comfortable. The fire is slowly dying in the fireplace, occasionally throwing off sparks of bright ember as it eats up the last bit of larch wood, but the space remains perfectly cozy. Not even the now-lukewarm soup that Childe finishes eating is enough to ruin this newfound serenity, not when Zhongli hasn’t let go of his hand.

(For some reason, he doesn’t have the heart to tell Zhongli to let go either.)

There is one last thing that lingers in his mind though. One last thing that he would like to put to rest.

“Say, Zhongli,” Childe starts, his voice quiet, “what happened after the mission in Liyue? I didn’t hear from you for two months. Were you avoiding me?”

“Ah,” Zhongli tightens his hold on his hands and sighs. “I was doing just that.”

Oh, hearing Zhongli confirm his suspicion hurts, and Childe has to playback Zhongli’s speech in his mind to stop him from lashing out. “Why though?”

“I knew you were angry with me, and I suppose I thought it would be more merciful if I let you be. After all, why would anyone want to keep in contact with someone who lied to them and brought them pain?” Zhongli furrows his brow. “Did I…do something wrong?”

Childe wants to facepalm himself this very instance.

By the Archons, was that the reason? Could it be a stupid, stupid misunderstanding as simple as that?

From Zhongli’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense. The ex-Archon must have felt guilty and didn’t want to burden Childe with his presence. He probably saw himself as having lost the privilege of having a friendly relationship with Childe, so of course, he was not going to reach out to Childe for fear of offending him even further, even if that meant he had to struggle alone during his transition from godhood to living a mortal life full time.

Meanwhile, Childe was getting angrier and more hurt because Zhongli hadn’t reached out to him to explain himself.

To imagine, had Zhongli not broken first and reached out to the Tsaritsa, they would have stayed at this impasse and Childe would have been none the wiser. Truly, he is such an idiot.

“Childe?”

Childe shakes his head. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. I had assumed – bah, I was an idiot,” he hisses with feeling. “I was mighty annoyed with you for the trick you played on me. But like I said before, I understand that all this is for the success of the mission, so it’s not like I can stay mad.”

“Why were you mad then?” Zhongli’s frown deepens. “Yesterday, you asked me a question I did not understand. You said, ‘exactly how much of what happened in Liyue was an act?’ Could it be – oh. Oh.” Childe can spot the exact moment when Zhongli put the dots together because the ex-Archon goes from wide-eyed to stone-faced in a split second.

Only his voice betrays the depths of his hurt. “Oh, Childe, I wouldn’t,” he says in a hush.

“I know that now!” Childe exclaims and great. Just great. Now he feels like a true villain for making Zhongli slump forward like that. The ex-Archon pulls away his hands to rub at his temple and he’s not making eye contact with Childe, which makes everything so much worse. If Liyue knows that he single-handedly made their beloved Rex Lapis give off this wounded, kicked puppy aura, all the people in the nation plus the adepti would come marching to his home with pitchforks and torches.

“But you had believed it,” Zhongli points out, still sounding wretched. “Of course you would. If I had tricked you for the mission, who’s to say I hadn’t tricked you for anything else? It is logical to assume as much. Your assumption is probably compounded by my silence.”

“Professor, it’s a stupid misunderstanding and we both know better now, so no harm, no foul, alright?” Childe placates. He leans over and pats Zhongli’s shoulder, anything to make the man stop exuding so much guilt and misery. “How about we just wipe the slate clean and start afresh? I’m willing to move past this if you are.”

“That is hardly fair to you.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Childe gives a dry chuckle. “I did release an ancient god from its prison to rain havoc and devastation on the helpless populace of Liyue Harbour. The damage alone is pretty astronomical.”

But Zhongli, in his stubborn glory, merely gives a rough head shake.

“Alright, alright, how about this?” What to do. What to do. Ah, Childe’s got it. “How about…you fight me? As compensation for – for whatever it is that you think you need to compensate me for. We can spar three times a week?”

At least that suggestion has Zhongli glancing up at him again. Childe doesn’t appreciate the dirty look though.

“You are currently in bed, resting. For your injury,” Zhongli points out, his voice flat and sounding utterly unimpressed. “I am fairly sure we just discussed how it is a terrible idea for you to put yourself into physical danger in your current condition, and yet, your answer is to spar more?”

“Twice a week?” Childe counters weakly, and Zhongli rolls his eyes at him. “Alright, once a week! Once a week is hardly anything! Come on, work with me here, Professor! You cannot expect me to refrain from wanting to spar with Rex Lapis again. That is cruel!”

“Do you think of nothing else?” Zhongli mutters but gives a resigned sigh. “Fine, I agree to the terms of once a week if you remain healthy. But the moment I sense even a hint of discomfort from a flare-up during the spar, we end things immediately. In addition, should there be any future flare-ups, you are to stay in bed for at least one full day after you have taken your medication.” He cuts in before Childe can protest, “If you do not agree to these terms, then there shall be no spar, so do we have a deal?”

Childe grins and sticks his hand out. “Deal. And we get to let bygones be bygones.”

Zhongli shakes his head. Childe thinks he can hear the other mutter something about ‘trouble magnet’ but chooses to ignore it for the sake of moving forward. At least Zhongli ends up taking Childe’s hand and shaking it, though with less enthusiasm. “Yes, let this contract be bound by stone, even if I think it is a stupid one.”

Ajax lets out a bark of laughter. “That’s the spirit, Professor!”

Chapter Text

XI. The Request

Given all the excitement in the past few days, the following two weeks are a lot more peaceful in comparison. Not that Ajax is complaining. There is a Liyue saying that goes, “‘May you live in interesting times’ is a curse and not a blessing”, and Ajax is quickly learning the truth of that statement. Interesting times mean dramatic fights and flare-ups and kitchens being set on fire. Ajax would much prefer boring, day-to-day living over any of that.

(He’s had a handful of flare-ups but none of them were as excruciatingly painful, nor had they produced any sparks, thank the archons. They went away on their own after around a minute of intense, burning pain and muscle tremors, which Ajax is taking as a solid victory even if they sent him curling up in a ball of misery. Zhongli, on the other hand, remains worried, judging by the perpetual frown on his face and the way he would hover over Ajax hours after his hand recovers. At least he didn’t force Ajax to have his bedrest nor did he cancel their spars, though that was a very close call.)

In the meantime, life goes on with Ajax firmly pushing forward Zhongli’s lesson plans, daily chores, quality time with the family, and other day-to-day tasks needed to keep the property running. Ajax finds himself falling into a routine readily enough, and it serves as a nice way to keep his mind off of his worsening symptoms.

To be honest, he’s fully expecting things to get boring but with Zhongli around, even the more mundane tasks seem much more bearable. If Ajax is to hazard a guess, it’s probably because the ex-Archon possesses a wealth of knowledge, which means he’s never short of interesting topics to talk about.

And it seems like ever since they’ve settled their differences, the flood gates that have once been closed shut come bursting open, and Zhongli goes back to being as chatty as he once was.

“Professor, I’ve been meaning to ask. Does anyone know you’re out here in Snezhnaya from Liyue? Oh, can you measure out –”

“The salt? I have it right here as well as the vinegar and sugar. I’m just waiting on your peppers. As for whether I told anyone, I have informed the Liyue Qixing and the adepti at Jueyun Karst of my travels. I told Alatus as well. He was…less than pleased.”

“Thanks. Here, pass me those blackcurrant leaves and horseradish leaves as well. Wait, Alatus? The same one who often critiques your life choices?”

Zhongli chuckles and does as he’s told. He also hands the garlic over. “Yes, the very same one. For as long as I remember, Alatus tends to be fiercely protective and a bit of a recluse. The concept of adventure is foreign and offensive to him, especially if it means leaving the shores of Liyue.”

Ajax wordlessly mixes the salt into the brine mixture. “Alatus, Alatus…why does that name sound so familiar?”

Zhongli’s smile turns wistful. “One of my oldest and closest friends. I have originally summoned him as part of an elite team of guardians to protect Liyue’s people and to exterminate the Demons that have infested the lands in the aftermath of the Archon Wars. Those were fierce times where battles and bloodshed were common, and the only way the common people could survive was by living in great walled fortresses surrounded by ballistae. Thousands I have summoned, yet despite this army of adepti, only one remains to this day – the strongest and fiercest of them all, and that is Alatus.”

Meanwhile, Ajax throws the various vegetables, garlic, peppers, and leaves into the jar. He fills the mixture with brine, pops on the lid, and applies the wax seal around it. There, one jar of pickled vegetables down, many more to go. “You know,” he says after storing the jar on a nearby shelf, “I find it hard to reconcile with the God of War from the Great Scholar Zhongli I see in front of me, but it sounds like you must have fought in many great battles with him.”

“Countless,” Zhongli agrees. He hands another empty jar to Ajax. “Not all of them are glamorous, and many of them brought us closer to death than we would have wished, but Alatus remains steadfast and strong, and always ready to defend Liyue.”

Ajax packs the jar with more vegetables and brine. “So what you’re saying,” he says, with careful deliberation, “is that I absolutely have to challenge him to a proper duel.”

The wide-eyed look of alarm from Zhongli is definitely unwarranted. “Childe, no.”

Ajax laughs in pure unbridled joy. “Childe, yes,” he corrects. At the sight of Zhongli crossing his arms and pursing his lips, Ajax adds with a whine, “Oh come on, Professor! You can’t just tell me about this great warrior adepti, who’s apparently one of the strongest in Liyue, and not expect me to challenge him to a fight! That’s as cruel as deliberately drinking a tall glass of water in front of a man dying of thirst!”

Zhongli rolls his eyes. “I was hoping you would appreciate the rich history of Liyue told to you by none other than the ex-Archon himself, but I suppose that’s too much to ask for.”

“But I am enjoying the rich history of Liyue!” Ajax grins a shit-eating grin. “I enjoy your stories very much, especially the battles and the warriors who fought with you. In fact, why don’t you tell me more about those fighters, specifically their names and where I can find them in Liyue? Oh, and how you would rank them in terms of battle prowess. That would be very helpful too.”

The stony silence that greets him only fuels Ajax’s need for mischief. “What about Moon Carver?” he wheedles, “Is he a good fighter? I haven’t fought a mythical reindeer before. Should be entertaining!”

Now that’s got Zhongli looking appalled on many levels. “He is not a – you will most definitely not fight Moon Carver or any of my disciples! I am not giving you a list of my brother in arms and protectors of Liyue just for you to satiate your reckless desire to fight everything that moves.” After a beat of silence, he adds in a much more agreeable tone, “Can we also add some jueyun chilis to this batch? I find the taste of pickled jueyun chili to be most agreeable.”

Ajax casually slices up a good batch of the pepper and throws it in the jar, seed and all, knowing full well how Zhongli can take his spice. “Alright, so no brother in arms. I can understand your wish to repay their loyalty.” A pause, then, “What about Osial? Would he be up for a third round?”

“Clearly, the greatest threat to Liyue is you.” Zhongli’s tone is as dry as the desert, and he refuses to continue his stories about ancient battles no matter how much Ajax pries.

Instead, Zhongli opts to talk about everything else, especially topics his siblings are interested in. For instance –

“Master Zhongli,” Tonia asks one evening while they are enjoying supper, “I heard that in Liyue, they stick a lot of tiny needles in a person’s body to cure that person. Is that true?”

Zhongli strokes his chin. “Ah, you must be thinking about acupuncture. Yes, that is one of the traditional methods that doctors in Liyue use to treat pain and other ailments. It involves inserting thin needles into key parts of the body to help rebalance the energy flow in the body, thereby treating the disease.”

Anthon scrunches his face. “That sounds like it would hurt a lot.”

“If people are sticking needles everywhere,” Teucer asks, “wouldn’t there be blood gushing out, like,” he makes a little gesture mimicking an explosion going off with his hands.

“Ewww,” Anthon cries, “Why would blood explode out of a person like that? Shouldn’t it be more like, ‘whoooosh’?” he wriggles his fingers as he moves his hand down, miming the rush of a waterfall.

“Anthon, Teucer, stop that!” Tonia chastises even as Ajax laughs in the background. “We’re eating. It’s rude.”

“You may bleed a little,” Zhongli admits with a soft chuckle, “but because the needles are so thin, you wouldn’t get the effect Misters Teucer and Anthon are describing. Likewise, the pain should be minimal and should only feel like small pinpricks.”

“Oh,” Teucer and Anthon say at once, clearly disappointed.

“How do you know where to stick those tiny needles?” Ajax wonders as he pours another cup of tea for Zhongli, who’s seated beside him. “I would assume that there are specific, targeted spots you would need to hit to get the desired effect.”

Zhongli nods his thanks. “Indeed. Practitioners of acupuncture and Liyue medicine have long since mapped out all of these crucial points in the human body. Familiarity with this map is crucial to a practitioner since different points trigger different effects. For example, ah, may I?”

He gestures to Ajax’s left arm. Ajax shrugs and lays his forearm on the table.

Zhongli leans close and asks, his voice low and rumbly, “Would you mind if I roll up your sleeve?”

Ajax doesn’t know why his mouth goes dry all of a sudden. “Ah, no – no, that’s fine.”

“Thank you.” Ajax ignores the way careful, delicate hands roll up his sleeve, exposing his scarred, golden skin. Soft fingertips dance across the expanse of his exposed flesh, trailing warmth wherever they’ve touched, and all of a sudden, Ajax has to try very, very hard not to shiver.

“There is a spot here, located on the outer surface of the forearm and three fingers breadth below the elbow crease,” Zhongli begins, and he traces the spot with his index finger as if drawing a tiny circle. “The arm will need to be placed so that the hand is to the chest with the thumb pointing up. The spot is a depression between the muscles.”

Zhongli manoeuvres the arm as he describes it with the same care as before. He brushes his thumb against that spot again and presses into it, massaging it in small, soothing circles. It doesn’t hurt, only feels a bit ticklish.

“Is this pressure alright?”

“Hm,” Ajax nods a little dumbly, even though it’s not like Zhongli’s watching him. His amber eyes are locked on to what he’s doing, which is all for the best because he doesn’t get to see how intensely Ajax is watching him in return.

This close, Ajax can make out the dramatic strokes of the red marks framing Zhongli’s amber eyes, how perfectly they are placed and how they never seem to smudge. He can also make out the way his long dark lashes fan across pale porcelain skin, or the way the apple of his cheeks are naturally dusted with a soft pink and how he seems to bite his lips when he’s concentrating, making them plump and almost kiss swollen.

Ajax swallows hard. Looking gorgeous has to be a bullshit adepti ability.

“Applying pressure or a needle to this spot has several benefits,” he manages to tune in just in time to hear Zhongli say. “Some of the benefits include treating abdominal pain, or pain in the shoulder and back. Normally, practitioners would also apply pressure to other spots at the same time to enhance healing. In this case, to further treat stomach problems or problems with dizziness and fatigue, practitioners would press against a spot on the leg, a little under the knee in addition to the spot on the arm.”

He releases his pressure on Ajax’s arm and brushes over the spot with his thumb as if to soothe away any lingering pain. Then he straightens Ajax’s arm and rolls down his sleeves, all the while continuing to speak, “I am by no means an expert, and it’s been a very long time since I’ve last studied acupuncture, but I hope this simple demonstration is informative.”

Ajax clears his throat and nods. He didn’t retain a single word Zhongli said, his mind is still hyper-focused on the lingering warmth on his arm. “Very. Thank you for sharing.”

“Big Brother!” Tonia’s voice cuts through the haze in Ajax’s mind like a splash of cold water. “Do you think I can learn acupuncture as well?”

“One thing at a time, Little Sister. Let’s have you master your sciences and biology first. Then you can study something else. Jack of all trades is a master of none, after all.”

“Master Zhongli, Master Zhongli!” Anthon leans over the table in excitement. “If Liyue has its own medicine and type of healing, does it have its own special type of alchemy too? Do they have new ways to make things explode?”

“Well, Liyue did invent something called gunpowder –”

“Which you will never learn how to make while living under this roof, and certainly not before you’re twenty years old,” Ajax cuts in with a pleasant smile.

All in all, things are going pretty great, minus the instances where Ajax finds himself stupidly distracted by Zhongli, but maybe that’s a side effect of living in such close proximity to the other man. Zhongli is naturally very magnetic, and now that Ajax is being subjected to the full force of it, how could anyone not be caught in the ex-Archon’s charm once in a while? It’s probably nothing to worry about.

That little quirk aside, Ajax finds himself rather enjoying his time at home.

Huh. Maybe, he is cut out for domesticity.

Which is why when a letter from the Palace arrives one sunny afternoon, handed to him by Auntie while they are outside playing in the snow, Ajax hears it shattering his quiet peace as acutely as a stone crashing into a glasshouse.

“Can you please watch the children for a little bit?” he leans over and whispers to Zhongli, who’s in the middle of packing more snow onto the base of what is looking to be an impressive snow fort. “I just need to dip inside really quickly.”

Zhongli’s gaze flashes to the envelope in his hands and nods. “Take as much time as you need. Everybody is preoccupied with constructing the west wing so it will take them a while anyway.”

“The west wing? Just how big is this fort going to be?”

“Big enough to fit a healer’s bay, an alchemy lab, and a toy factory,” comes Zhongli’s amused response.

“Lots of work ahead of them still,” Ajax grins. “Alright, shout if you need anything. Or get one of the boys to do it. You know how much they like being rowdy.”

Ajax jogs up the snowy pathway to the front door, brushing the snow off of his coat and his boots thoroughly before stepping inside and stripping off his winter gear. On his way to his office, he breaks the seal and fishes out the letter from the envelop.

He frowns at the signature at the end. It’s…from the Dottore?  

Just in case, he upends the envelope into his hand to see if there are any contents in there. Three miniature glass vials come rolling out onto his open palm.

They are all completely empty.

Odd. How very odd. Now, what possible reason could the Dottore have for sending him those?

He closes his office door behind him and sinks into his chair behind his desk. He begins to read.

My dearest Tartaglia, he makes a face of disgust at that. As you know, I have been instructed to research a cure – blah blah blah – had the opportunity to research your symptoms further – blah blah, where’s the important part?

Ah, there it is: As I have mentioned in our previous conversation, I have a few leads with which I can research. However, and as much as it pains me to admit, your symptoms reflect a novel and complex situation which requires a re-working of those theories. I will require more time from the initially estimated deadline I have provided you to thoroughly test those new theories in order to develop a working cure.

Ajax – no, it’s Tartaglia now – glares at the letter. Re-working of theories? More time to develop a cure? Pah. Every word of that letter reeks of lies and false politeness. Tartaglia has seen enough of the way the Dottore works to come to that conclusion with no doubt in his mind.

The Dottore is up to something,  

He continues reading, and his expression grows stormier.

Of course, it would be of great help should you provide me with some samples on which I can conduct some experiments to expedite this process. Examples of samples include, but are not limited, to any of the following…

Tartaglia skims over the extensive list of requests from strands of his hair to finger nails to, no surprises there, blood. When he gets to sweat, tears, and semen, he crumples the letter, barely stopping himself from tossing the stupid thing into the fire.

What is this bizarre game that the Dottore wants to play now? Is he seriously going to hold the cure hostage until Tartaglia gives him what he wants because that’s what the letter appears to be saying. The man is petty enough to do it too.

The question is why. Why is he so insistent on getting samples from him?

Tartaglia leans on his desk and steeples his fingers.

It’s probably his ego. It did take quite the beating when Tartaglia threatened him at dagger point during their last meeting. Given how Tartaglia had so thoroughly refused his request to provide a blood sample then, the Dottore could be stepping up his demands just to make a point, a friendly reminder that Tartaglia should know his place as the youngest and newest Harbinger.

Tartaglia leans back into his chair and drums his fingers over his desk. He supposes that makes sense. Like all the Harbingers, the good doctor likes to play games, and it’s been a while since he’s played one with Tartaglia. So now, what can Tartaglia do to counter this?

He can write to the Tsaritsa directly, but that in itself is a dangerous move. His letter to the Tsaritsa would reflect just as poorly on him as it does on the Dottore since he’s expected to handle the matter personally rather than go running to her like a child to his mother. Besides, he’s already on shaky grounds with her and the last thing he wants right now is to draw more negative attention to himself.

He picks up the letter and smooths out the wrinkles.

Wait a minute. Here’s a thought: just like how Tartaglia has to provide mission reports to the Tsaritsa, so does the Dottore. This means that the Dottore can only hold his cure hostage for so long before the Tsaritsa notices his lack of progress, and when she does, she will be livid.

This means that sooner or later, the Dottore will have to give him the cure anyway. Tartaglia simply has to bide his time.  

But at the same time, the Dottore could also write in his report that the lack of progress is due to Tartaglia’s lack of cooperation. That means Tartaglia can’t completely ignore the Dottore’s request unless he wants to be used as the Dottore’s convenient scapegoat.

Perhaps, the better solution is for him to pretend to cooperate by doing the bare minimum. That will remove any arsenal the Dottore may use against him to justify his tardiness in providing Tartaglia the cure.

Fight fire with fire, and pettiness with more pettiness.

Tartaglia smirks. He likes that idea a lot more.

He grabs a blank sheet of parchment and his fountain pen and writes out a few quick, perfunctory sentences containing none of the flowery language the Dottore had graced him with. He signs it with a barely legible scribble.

Then, he reaches for his hair and pulls out exactly one strand from his head.

He holds it in the light and squints at it. No, he can do better.

He takes a nearby pair of scissors and cuts out a tiny piece from that strand, one that’s about half an inch long. Taking that segment, he drops it carefully into one of the blank vials, shakes it so that it falls all the way to the bottom, and holds the vial up.

Even in the brightly lit room, the small wisp of Tartaglia’s orange-brown hair is barely visible.

Tartaglia smirks and seals the vial. Perfect.

Now, he can use the excuse of being cooperative because technically, he did what was asked. Should the Dottore raise a fuss about the size of the sample in front of the Tsaritsa, Tartaglia can always say that the Dottore had never specified just how much he needed. After all, Tartaglia is not the expert scientist; he’s merely the brainless Vanguard following orders.

He places the vial and the letter in an envelope and seals it.

“Send this to the Palace, but make sure it’s sent from the Romashka Estate,” he instructs Auntie on his way back outside, handing her the envelope. “In addition, instruct the men stationed at the Estate to tighten security in case the Dottore and his men try anything funny. I also want a report from the men at the Palace about the Dottore’s activities. I want to know exactly what the good doctor has been up to in his laboratories and who he’s been talking to. I expect weekly updates.”

“Lord Harbinger,” his trusted agent salutes, “your will shall be done.”

“Good.” And with that, Tartaglia lets his severe mask slide in favour of the more playful Childe. “If you need me, I will be outside. I want to see if my siblings made any progress on that west wing.”


“Is everything alright today?” Zhongli asks later that evening when the children have gone to bed. Only the two of them remain seated in the living room to do some light reading while soaking up the warmth from the hearth. Both him and Zhongli have changed into more casual wear. Ajax is in a simple cotton shirt and pants and Zhongli is in a long silk tunic and pants with fine golden embroidered in Rex Lapis’ geometric symbol along the neck and cuffs. Not as extravagant as the robe he had worn to Ajax’s bed, but definitely much more regal than anything Ajax owns in this house.

Ajax puts down his book on Liyue battles that he borrowed (begged) from Zhongli and sighs. “It’s just a minor problem that has cropped up. There may be a bit of a setback on that cure because – ah, let’s just call it inner politics.”

Predictability, Zhongli does not like that answer at all. “Inner politics,” he enunciates slowly and with obvious distaste.

“Hmm. Politics between the Dottore and I.” Ajax chuckles dryly. “He is using this as an opportunity to satiate his ego by getting me to acquiesce to some of his demands. I have responded accordingly.”

Zhongli’s eyes flash. “The Dottore would risk putting your health in jeopardy just because of something as trivial as that,” he practically growls.

Ajax’s expression goes soft and he reaches over to pat Zhongli on the knee with his right hand. He tries to fight of a fond smile when Zhongli places a protective hand over his. “I appreciate your concern, Professor, but, well, it’s the Harbingers. My comrades have a reputation for scheming and plotting, and it’s a reputation well earned. It’s to be expected, I’m afraid. The good news is that he can only delay sending me the cure for so long before he draws the ire of the Tsaritsa herself. Until then, we wait.”

Zhongli’s frown does not let up. “In the meantime, what happens if you have more flare-ups. Do you have enough medicine? How is your hand doing today?”

He’s turning Ajax’s hand in his before he even finishes the sentence, lifting it up carefully so that he can inspect for anything wrong. At least, he bothers to look sheepish when he catches on to what he’s doing.

“My apologies, I’ve –”

“No, no,” Ajax laughs even if his heart does a little flip. “Go right ahead. I’m feeling fine and I’ve got enough medicine, by the way, but if you want to – uh –”

He’s not sure how to continue that sentence because he’s not sure what Zhongli’s planning to do. Luckily Zhongli shows him some mercy by giving him a tiny nod before resuming his inspection. He’s holding the back of Ajax’s hand so that its palm is facing up, and he traces each finger, pressing gently on the soft pad of the fingertip and working towards the mounds of the palm in soft, continuous strokes, from pinky to the thumb.

And Ajax is mesmerized. He’s absolutely captivated by how slow, and careful, and sensual the touch is, and he secretly thanks the dimness of the room for hiding the obvious, embarrassing flush he can feel heating his cheeks.

“Any pain? Soreness? Numbness?”

Ajax blinks out of his reverie and shakes his head. “No,” he rasps out. “It’s, uh, fine.”

“Hmm.”

Zhongli’s hand move towards the wrist. He curls his fingers around the bony joint in a soft caress, and rubs his thumb in small circles over the delicate patch of skin, right above his pulse.

His pulse that Zhongli can probably feel racing.

“I – uh – it’s fine,” Ajax answers pre-emptively at Zhongli’s confused expression. “I’m just a bit warm. Please go on.”

Fingers carefully roll up his sleeves, and the thumb makes its way up Ajax’s forearm again in agonizing slowness, massaging lightly at the tendon and corded muscle. It brushes against a scar, a raised, jagged line of silvery-pink flesh that runs diagonally on the arm. It looks almost like a lightning bolt wrapped around his limb.

“What happened here?” Zhongli murmurs and brushes his thumb over the hurt flesh again. “This must have been painful when you got it.”

“Ah, that,” Ajax rubs the back of his neck with his free hand. “That’s an old injury I got as a stupid kid. Got it from falling off a tree, of all things. I would’ve bashed my head open on the ground if I didn’t manage to grab hold of a branch last minute. I was bleeding pretty heavily too. Mother looked like she was going to have a fit when I went back home, drenched in blood.”

“Trouble magnet,” Zhongli teases, shaking his head. “Your poor mother must have had her hands full. What were you doing up that tree?”

Ajax flushes further. “I was pretending to be a warrior scaling up a set of cliffs, probably on my way to fight a war or something. I know, I know,” he huffs at the soft laughter from Zhongli, “I was ten years old at the time and not the brightest. I just wanted to be the warrior I was named after.”

Zhongli makes a confused sound. “I had meant to ask. Ajax is not a traditional Snezhnayan name, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. But neither is Teucer. They come from a story. A favourite of my father’s.”

“Oh?” Zhongli perks up. “I have never heard of stories featuring such characters. Would you mind telling it to me?”

“Piqued your interest, have I?” Ajax chuckles. He settles more comfortably in his chair and begins as Zhongli continues his massage. “Ajax the Great is a hero renowned for his great strength and courage. He fought in an ancient war and would wield his magnificent shield and lance to battle, fearlessly defending his allies against hordes of enemies, no matter the odds. He never lost a battle, and without his strength, many of his allies would have perished.

“Teucer is Ajax’s stepbrother. Loyal, brave, and extremely talented with the bow, he fought alongside Ajax, firing arrows upon arrows from behind Ajax’s giant shield, and felling enemies left, right and center. When his bow was broken by a god, he took up the spear and continued to fight just as bravely.”

“How does the story end?” Zhongli asks in the beat of silence save for the fire crackling in the background. “Did they win the war?”

Ajax nods. “They did, but Ajax met a tragic end. One of their companions, a great half-god warrior, perished in battle. Ajax and his brother in arms each wanted the half-god’s magical armor as recognition for their heroic deeds.

“There was a competition to see who would get the armour, and although Ajax argued that he was deserving of it due to his strength and his fighting prowess, he lost to an opponent who won due to his eloquence and who received the aid of a god. In his anger, Ajax struck out to kill those whom he deemed have offended him, but the same god intervened and clouded his mind and vision. Ajax goes, well, insane and ended up slaughtering a flock of sheep thinking they were his enemies. When he came to, he was so ashamed that he chose to kill himself.”

“To this day, I still have no idea why my father likes this story or this warrior so much,” Ajax admits softly in the quietness of the living room. “Ajax the Great may have been powerful in the war but he died a rather sad death. All that power, all that strength, taken out by trickery and his own rage. Maybe he wanted me to remember this tale as a cautionary one. Father never had the chance to clarify and I never had the chance to ask.”

Although come to think of it, Ajax supposes that he can relate with Ajax the Great to a certain extent. He too had been tricked by a god to do something dishonourable. He supposes the difference between him and the warrior is that at least the very god who tricked him is currently sitting beside him, keeping him company and massaging his hand with as much delicate care as he does holding a priceless vase.

That, and Zhongli had actually apologized for his trickery even though Ajax maintains that he really didn’t have to. He also swore to stay by his side to protect him and his family until he’s back to full health.

It’s rather hard to feel an ounce of shame if Ajax’s actions lead to all this, to be honest.

“Thank you for sharing that story with me.” Zhongli’s voice is hushed, almost as if he’s afraid to break the delicate quiet that has settled over the room, but it does not diminish the sincerity of his words. “For what it is worth, I think you are living up to all the positive aspects of your namesake. Strength and courage are attributes you possess in spade, but I would also add that like Ajax the Great, you are loyal to those you love, a fierce defender in your own right. ”

Zhongli’s eyes are shining gold in the firelight. They are as mesmerizing as the first time Ajax had caught sight of them when they first met in Liyue Harbour, or their last dinner in Liyue, soaked in the pale moonlight. “Your father named you well, Ajax.”

Ajax feels his heart give a lurch.

Ajax.

“Professor,” he manages to choke past the sudden lump in his throat. Ajax. “I – ”

But Zhongli merely shakes his head and continues to work in silence, letting the quiet blanket the room once again.

Later, Ajax finds himself lying on his back tucked in bed, eyes tracing the grooves and markings in the wooden ceiling beams over his head. His mind only hears one thing on repeat, a name uttered with such tenderness that he hadn’t heard in a long time: Ajax Ajax Ajax.

His mind goes to the man who had said his name that way, the very same man sleeping across the hall from him. An elegant, sophisticated man of unparallel wisdom and strength, who had seen him don on many masks, had seen his darkness, his ugliness, and still looked at him with such softness and called him –

Brave, courageous, loyal, fierce, a defender –

Ajax.

His heart gives another uncomfortable lurch.

Ajax…thinks he might be in trouble.

Chapter Text

XII. The Calm Before the Storm

This is a complete and utter disaster, probably on the same scale as Osial being unleashed on Liyue, And just like that disaster, this one is also of his own making because apparently, Auntie Anna was right. He is a trouble magnet.

It’s just - how did this even happen? How did Ajax let things get this out of control? When did he – why would he –

Alright, the why is easy enough to answer. Zhongli tends to turn heads wherever he goes, Childe has seen it with his own two eyes one too many times in Liyue. It’s rather undeniable that the ex-Archon’s mortal form is easy on the eyes, and coupled with his aura of scholarly elegance and grace, well, at this point that’s just overkill.

So, Ajax has fallen for the Professor’s charm. At least he’s not the only one to have done so. He’s not sure if that thought makes him feel more relieved, or angry from jealousy, or just plain sad.

As for when that happened, Ajax…has no idea? He always thinks Zhongli is incredibly attractive, objectively speaking. It’s an opinion he’s held the first time running into him in Liyue Harbor and it hasn’t changed two-plus years later. He got to know the man better as time went on and formed other opinions about him like how he is intelligent with an exceptional memory, very cultured, a bit (a lot) of a scattered brain sometimes, and surprisingly, rather funny with that dry, almost dead pan sense of humour. He’s passionate about all things Liyue, just loves the people, the culture, and the land with all of his being, and he’s so genuinely kind despite the stony expression that even Childe finds himself melting just a little (a lot) for the man.

The most important part – he likes Childe, likes spending time with him. Nobody outside of his family or under his employ likes to spend time with him. It makes Zhongli all the more special in Childe’s eyes because the ex-Archon chose him, and he stuck around for two whole years. Who does that? How can Ajax not like him?

…Dear Goddess, after revisiting his thoughts, does this mean he’s always had feelings for Zhongli?

This is terrible. How did he miss all the signs? Is he truly that oblivious? No wonder he didn’t put together the fact that Zhongli and Rex Lapis are one and the same if he couldn’t even recognize the raging crush he’s apparently had on Zhongli for two years.

But it’s a bit too late to lament about it now. Unless Ajax can find himself magically falling out of l – infatuation with the Professor, that ship has well and truly sailed and the only thing he can do is move forward and figure out his next steps.

This should be simple enough. Because at the end of the day, no matter how friendly they are with each other, Zhongli is still Childe’s…client? Guest? Someone with whom he has to retain some sort of professional working relationship because this is a mission from the Tsaritsa, no less.

But if he’s meant to teach Zhongli how to live a life as a mortal, a small, treacherous voice in his mind pipes up, doesn’t that technically include experiences like, oh, I don’t know, falling in love? Preferably with Ajax?

Ajax decides to ignore that voice because it is spouting nonsense.

Does Zhongli even like him that way? He’s been a lot warmer after the whole, er, incident and is a lot more open with showing his concerns or his displeasure whenever he thinks Ajax is being ridiculous (which, admittedly, is often). Ajax rather enjoys the attention and is soaking it up like a cat lying in a sun beam, soaking up the warmth.

But love? That’s a bit of a reach. Do adepti love like mortals love? Or are they above such worldly desires? Ajax isn’t sure if he wants to test that theory only for him to be soundly rejected. He just recovered from feeling rejected by Zhongli and is not that eager to revisit that feeling.

Right, that settles it. Maintain his current friendly and professional working relationship with Zhongli and for the love of all things holy, do not, under any circumstance, act on his attraction.

It takes all of fifteen minutes for Ajax to sit up on his bed, his hands running through his hair, as he lets out a long groan of pure frustration. Sleep appears to be a lost cause, not with the way his thoughts are still running around in circles. He might as well do something productive to work off his nervous energy.

He finds himself changing into some casual warm clothes before trudging out of the house with his winter gear hastily thrown on. The biting night air cuts his cheeks and his exposed hands, but Ajax doesn't find himself minding the sensation. It grounds him to his surroundings along with the chill of his lungs with every breath he takes. The world around him is barely illuminated by the glow of moonlight and starlight, casting the pristine, snow-blanketed land a haze of soft blue. Ajax takes a few seconds to enjoy the sights on his slow trek towards the barn.

The training grounds look surprisingly pristine and show none of the pockmarks left from the sparring session he’s had with Zhongli earlier that week. Ajax smirks from under his scarf. If he recalls correctly, he’s managed to get Zhongli to summon up to fifteen stone pillars at a time. He’s had to dodge that last one since it was clearly aiming for his face, and had barely succeeded with an awkward twist of his body. He may have avoided getting his nose smashed in, but he was swiftly knocked on to his back, and just like that, the battle had ended with a spear pointing towards his throat.

The loss only made him feel more invigorated to beat Zhongli the next time they spar. And also to maybe try out some of the moves he’s seen Zhongli use because that last one he used to pin Ajax down was spectacular. Ajax was sure that no mortal could possibly possess the reflexes to execute what Zhongli had done.

But that doesn’t mean Ajax can’t try!

Ajax sheds his winter gear so that he’s down to his sweater, pants, and his boots. He makes his way to the center of the field, takes a deep breath, and closes his eyes.

Materialize.

Tendrils of water snake up his arm and settle into his palms. They stretch out and out like dough being pulled from each end, quickly taking the shape of a long, thin staff. The pointed, triangular tip of the spear seems to almost bloom from one end while the weighted pommel appears on the other.

The polearm he’s generated is simple, almost homely in comparison to the beautiful ornate weapon Zhongli uses. Although completely devoid of any carvings or decorative features, the weight and feel of it in Ajax’s hands is comforting, and he’s hit with the memory of the first time he’s been given the original copy of this spear by his father.

“I know it doesn’t look like much, son, but train well with this. When I come back, I want to see what you can do.”

He twirls the staff around and gives it a few practice swings, coupled with some lunging thrusts. Hm, it’s a perfect recreation of his father’s gift. How appropriate that he’s using this spear today for learning and training purposes as well.

With a last, reverent glance at the spear, he tucks his memories away and he gets to work.

How did Zhongli position himself? Ah yes, standing still, right foot slightly in front with the left foot back as a counterbalance, the spear held behind him loosely in his right hand so that it’s pointing up with the base on the ground right behind the right foot. Simple enough.

Ajax lets his body guide him into the stance he pictures in his mind.

Zhongli would then kick back, hitting the bottom of the spear up. The spearhead would swing down, pointing directly towards the opponent, which sets him up perfectly for a quick lunge forward, spear aimed towards the opponent’s neck in a powerful jab. He would follow that up with a vicious slash, the spear whipping through the air in an audible whoosh.

Ajax grins as he mimics those moves. There’s a certain flow to them that he finds extremely agreeable, almost as if he’s dancing with the swing of the weapon and the movement of limbs all acting in perfect concert.

There are a couple of other moves that he wants to perfect from Zhongli as well. There’s one where Zhongli would lunge, thrust, lunge, then draw the spear back to deliver a kick to the stomach, before sinking low. He would thrust the spear again, this time aiming for the shins, then pull back and spin his spear, deflecting the blows aimed at him. It’s a set of moves that had been used on Ajax on multiple occasions to his great frustration because not only were they fast and aggressive, the length of the spear would force Ajax to keep his distance, making his attacks with his twin blades useless.

There’s also this thing where Zhongli would draw back and sink low to the ground in an impressive move of athleticism and flexibility, his legs apart with his right leg bent and his left leg fully extended in front of him, and hm, how did he position his waist? Is it twisted towards the left leg? His back is supposed to be straight right, or is it more leaning forward? The spear is also pointed towards the left as well. He would move from this stance to standing in a blink of an eye, with his left leg bent in front of him and bracing his weight and then, a thrust of his spear, always aiming for the neck. The speed at which Zhongli had transitioned from the low stance to a high stance had definitely left Ajax scrambling for a defence and more often than not, with scratches on his shins from being too slow to jump away.

Ajax tries both sets of movements with mixed results. There’s clearly something he hasn’t quite grasp yet because his actions come off clunky and awkward. He also couldn’t quite master the quick transition between dropping his weight down and then lunging up without losing his balance and falling on his ass a few times.

Ajax snarls and wipes the sweat off his brow as he scrambles back up. Again. He’s going to keep at this until he’s perfected it.

He loses himself in the rigorous practice, feeling the way his body moves with every swing and thrust of the spear, every pivot, and dip, perfecting them as best as he can so that these moves blend together in one fluid, graceful dance. His muscles are burning and his heart is pounding but with every second spent on self-correcting his poses, he can see how his motions are getting smoother, better, stronger. The lunges are getting easier to execute, the high and low attacks as well. He’s far from perfect, but what he’s got are serviceable on the battlefield, and they would certainly surprise his enemies.

He swings the spear over his head and practices another quick lunge, then draws the spears back, sinks down, and brings the spear down so that the tip whips through the air in a sharp whooshing sound.

“Hmm, your reverse bow stance is a little wobbly and the back could be straighter, but given that this is, I’m assuming, entirely self-taught, your progress is quite good.”

Ajax startles. He barely manages to keep himself from toppling over even with the way his heart stutters and his cheeks flush warm at the sound of the familiar voice.

Shit. He just managed to get his mind off of the…uncomfortable discovery and out pops Zhongli in all of his handsome glory. At least the ex-Archon has the sense to dress warmly, though it does nothing to help Ajax’s situation. The dark silk velvet coat they had commissioned fits the man like a glove, and it does wonders flattering the spread of his shoulders, the trimness of his waist, and the length of his long, toned legs while bringing out the gold in his eyes. The stupid coat that cost Childe a king’s ransom is making Zhongli look as regal as, well, a king, and it is doing terrible, terrible things to Ajax’s imagination.

Just, be friendly and professional, Ajax. Act natural.

He rises with as much grace as he can on aching, trembling muscles and dispels his spear with a shake of his hands. “Professor!” he says, pasting on a smile, “Fancy seeing you here this…early?” he cocks his head and frowns. “Actually, what time is it anyway?”

Zhongli huffs out what sounds like a cross between laughter and a sigh. “Much too early for you to be up training. The sun won’t be up in a few hours.”

“I couldn’t sleep.” Childe gives a sheepish shrug and rubs the back of his neck. “I figured I’d work off the excess energy with some of the moves I’ve seen you use. You’re also up early though, so you can’t chastise me. What’s keeping you out of your bed?”

“An adeptus, even one weakened such as myself, does not require much sleep,” Zhongli answers simply.

Oh. Ajax had no idea. It would also explain the large amounts of books Zhongli had purchased in their last excursion to the village. “I hope you haven’t been too terribly bored at night then. Let me know if there’s something I can do for you.”

Zhongli inclines his head in a graceful nod. “Thank you. I will be sure to keep that in mind. Now, if you don’t mind, can you repeat what you just did?”

“Uh, Professor?”

Zhongli stops a few paces away from Ajax and gestures for him to continue. “The reverse bow stance. I would like to see it again, if I may.”

The reverse bow stance? Is that what it’s called? “Oh, you mean this one?”

Ajax forms the water spear in his hand and sinks into the same position he’d been in when Zhongli first came in. His legs do not like him at the moment, his right leg especially with the way it is bent and supporting most of his weight.

Zhongli circles around him. “Hm. Your upper body is leaning towards the front. Your back should be less hunched over.” A delicate hand presses against his spine, and Ajax bites the inside of his cheeks to keep from visibly reacting.

“Straight, Childe. Keep this,” Zhongli’s voice is warm even as he gives his back a soft tap, “straight. And drop your shoulders.” Another gentle brush, this time pushing Ajax’s shoulder back, and Ajax is definitely grasping onto his focus least he embarrasses himself by blushing like a schoolgirl.

“Good,” Zhongli says. He makes another slow circle, his golden eyes assessing. “Do you feel how much more stable and grounded you are now? You should also feel less strain on your shoulders and arms.”

Actually…

He nods. He really, really does. The corrected posture has the added benefit of providing him with a lot more arm strength to thrust the spear forward too. Oh, so that’s how Zhongli manages to get so much reach in this position.

It takes a few seconds for Ajax to register that thought.

It takes a few more seconds for Ajax to realize that Zhongli is…teaching him his martial art stances.

As in Rex Lapis, the God of War, the once Archon of Liyue, the oldest amongst the adepti, is mentoring Ajax. On fighting. More specifically, on a style that Rex Lapis himself probably developed over his countless years of experience on the battlefield, and something tells Ajax that this is the style from which all modern Liyuan spear-wielding styles originated. And having fought the Millelith, those modern styles in comparison are severely lacking, like they contain only a drop of the power and grace Zhongli exhibits in their spars.

It also occurs to Ajax that any Liyuan fighter would probably kill to be his position right now, because who can say they’ve been trained by Rex fucking Lapis in modern history?

Now that realization sends a different thrill down his spine, one of pure, unabashed delight. Ajax would be stupid not to latch on to the opportunity like a starving man set loose on an open buffet.

“Wait, wait, but how do you go from this, uh, reverse bow stance to that move where you lunge forward and then transition into the little spinning move?” Ajax blurts out as he lets go of the stance and pulls himself up to standing normally. He must look like Teucer in a toy factory right now with the excited gleam in his eyes. Hell, he feels like Teucer in a toy factory. “You also did this series of moves where you lunged and then pulled back, followed by a kick? Something like this?”

Zhongli shakes his head. “At the rate things are going, you will never get to sleep,” he mutters wryly, which Ajax thinks is a pretty ridiculous statement. Who needs sleep when there’s fighting to be had?

His thoughts must be projecting loudly onto his expression because Zhongli casts him a knowing glance. “I see that look and I know your terrifying one-track mind, but need I remind you that you are currently supposed to be recovering from your injury.”

“I will sleep after you’ve shown me that spinning move transition,” Ajax haggles. “C’mon, Great Master Zhongli,” he teases when he sees Zhongli rolling his eyes at him, “teach me your ways, greatly venerated elder!”

“Absolutely incorrigible. I do not know why I even bother.” But despite his grumbling, Zhongli is taking off his coat and carefully placing it to the side on the bench beside Ajax’s own discarded coat and scarf. Ajax tries not to pump his fist in victory. “I will show you that one set of moves you have requested. Just the one. After that, you are going to sleep.”

“Fine, fine, I promise, or I shall suffer the Wrath of the Rock and all that if I don’t.”

Seeing Zhongli demonstrate his stance reminds Ajax that the ex-Archon truly is the epitome of grace and power. Every swing and slash of his spear, coupled with every twist and turn of his body is controlled and beautifully executed with no movements wasted and no openings in his defence. The speed at which he can cover all angles of attacks, whether it is coming at him from above or below the knees, is truly frightening, and Ajax could feel his chest heaving for breath as he tries (and fails) to mimic Zhongli’s range of movements perfectly. Ajax tends to aim for the kill – the head, the neck, and the chest – slashing and stabbing his way to victory, so this level of mobility is presenting Ajax with an interesting challenge.

He couldn’t imagine that he had been brazen enough to think he had mastered the spear. Pah! He never felt so much like an inexperienced trainee as he does now. Although he tries his best to copy the stance the ex-Archon takes, he’s still getting (gently) corrected at every turn.

With that said, this has got to be the most fun he’s had outside of sparring with Zhongli.

Now if only he would stop noticing how handsome Zhongli is, that would be spectacular.

“Concentrate, Childe,” comes Zhongli’s amused voice floating somewhere close behind him, so close that he could feel the other’s breath brushing against the back of his neck. A pair of hands are lifting Ajax’s arm a little higher, holding the arm in position before flitting away to tap at the knee, silently nudging Ajax to move his leg a little to the right. “Good,” the voice rumbles, pleased. Ajax has to take a deep, controlled breath and exhale slowly to calm his racing heart. “Now, try that lunging thrust again.”

Ajax also really, really wishes Zhongli would stop saying the word thrust in that voice.

It takes a bit more time before Zhongli gives a satisfying nod and suggests that they wrap things up. “How is your hand?” he asks, casting a worried glance at the appendage. It’s a habit he’s picked up on, one that would resurface whenever he sees Ajax do anything strenuous. “Are you feeling any pain? Numbness?”

Truthfully? It started to tingle halfway into their session, but the pain was manageable, and short of the sparks returning or the pain has him on the ground, writhing in agony, Ajax wasn’t going to interrupt his training with Zhongli.

“It’s fine, everything works,” Ajax replies, light and breezy even as his fingers start to feel a little bit numb. He ignores the sensation and shrugs on his coat. “Oh, before I forget.”

He bends forward and brings his hands together in a bow he’s seen the Millelith give to high ranking members of the Liyue Qixing, with one hand clenched in a fist pressing against the open palm of the other. “Thank you for your tutelage, Wise Master.” He flashes a grin filled with glorious, glorious mischief. “Maybe, the next time we fight, I can get you to summon more than just a few spindly pillars to stop me.”

He thinks he hears Zhongli mutter something like, “For Celestia’s sake,” which is to be expected. What he isn’t expecting is for the other to stalk over and lift his arms up so that he’s no longer bend at the waist.

“If you must bow to your superior, do so properly,” Zhongli leans over and says. His voice is low and smooth, and dripping with superiority. He is also gazing at Ajax like he is nothing but a mere insect, but the smile teasing at the corners of his lips gives him away. The combination of haughtiness and teasing mirth never looks better than on Zhongli’s refined features. “Perhaps when you can perform all the stances I’ve shown you without wobbling like a newborn calf, then you can consider challenging me, Ajax.”

Not for the first time that night, Ajax feels his mouth go completely dry like the deserts of Sumeru, and he is suddenly struck by the vivid image of Zhongli, decked out in the full splendour of his battle regalia as he stares down at his quivering enemies with the same proud, challenging look.

Is – is that what the God of War truly is like, because fuuuccck. Ajax suddenly understands why the ex-Archon had such a large, devout following, and why his followers felt the need to pepper Liyue’s countryside with statues of him shirtless.

“Until then,” Zhongli draws away, and once again, he is the prim and proper man Ajax is familiar with, “I believe it is time for you to head off to bed like you promised. You wouldn’t want to face the Wrath of the Rock now, would you?”

Ajax is left quietly following Zhongli, wondering if this whole evening somehow made his feelings for the man a million times worse.


(It does.)


He pays the price for his training session the next morning when he wakes up sore, miserable, and sleep-deprived.

His day does not get any better when Uncle comes knocking at his door to his office later that morning with a letter in hand.

“From the Palace, my Lord.” Uncle hands the letter over with a bow and departs, closing the door behind him.

Oh, what now?

The envelop feels bulky. Childe rips it open, pulls out the letter, and dumps the contents out on his table. More empty vials come clattering onto the wooden surface, and already, he feels irritation rising within him.

Of course. The fucking doctor.

And just like that, off comes his Childe mask, and on comes Tartaglia, ready for action.

My dearest Tartaglia, the letter begins. Urgh. Thank you for your cooperation and your generous donation in response to my last letter. Now that has Tartaglia smirking. It has come to my attention that perhaps, I have not been the clearest with my request, and I would like to rectify this oversight.

Tartaglia scans the rest of the letter. More flowery writing, a whole paragraph of empty platitudes, several paragraphs explaining the importance of the Dottore’s research, most of which are filled with self-congratulatory bragging about his past achievements, like they mean anything to Tartaglia and, wow, there it is, a detailed list of “requests”, as the good doctor likes to put it.

Tartaglia’s brow rises. Correction: a very detailed list of requests. Minimum five (5) cc of blood, sweat, saliva, urine, and/or semen, Childe makes a face. Again with the semen. Five (5) strands of hair, ten (10) slivers of nail clippings

On and on the list goes, systematically breaking down all the parts of his body from which samples can be obtained as if he’s one of the Dottore’s labs specimens. The thoroughness of the list and the way his body parts are identified in such a clinical manner as if he is nothing more than a sum of meat, bones, and blood leaves a sour taste in his mouth.

I politely ask for your cooperation once again to ensure that the research can be completed in a quick and efficient manner, the letter continues. I trust that you can understand how your cooperation benefits you as well. After all, I hypothesize that the longer this takes, the more severe your symptoms will become, and, well, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?

Tartaglia glares at that parting shot. Not the most subtle threat from the Dottore, but perhaps the doctor has finally decided to give up on being subtle. A wise decision, possibly the wisest one he’s made so far.

But there is a kernel of truth to his statement. Cooperating with the Dottore can help make this research go faster.

Tartaglia’s concern is that he’s just not sure what other secret experiments his samples may be used towards. He wouldn’t put it past the opportunistic doctor. He’s heard of the rumors and read his spies’ reports on the doctor’s fascination of making monsters out of people, a skill he had apparently developed from his years of research into the Abyss.

Tartaglia likes to think that he’s too high up in the Fatui ranking and much too close to the Tsaritsa for the Dottore to try anything with him, but he’d rather not test that theory. It’s always better to be safe than sorry around the mad man.

Tartaglia leans into his chair and stares at the empty vials sitting on his table. A sharp tingle shoots up his hand, almost as if in warning, but the sensation dies off a few seconds later. He ignores it and doesn’t visibly react to the pain.

What can he do to best protect himself then?

He can…call the Dottore out on his need for that many samples, and then proceed to give him the bare minimum of what he wants again. Give the good doctor a not subtle warning that he’s got his eyes on him and that he does not take kindly to being his lab rat. That should help cull this behaviour of trying to blatantly harvest from Tartaglia.

After all, history has taught Tartaglia and the Dottore responds beautifully to death threats, that cowardly, snivelling little cretin.

Tartaglia brings his fingers to his temples and rubs them in small, soothing circles. Still, he absolutely hates having to acquiesce to the doctor. Is there truly nothing else he can do? No other creative solutions he could implement?

He should probably sit on this while he’s more awake. In the meantime, he can keep himself busy with something marginally less painful, but 1000% more hilarious like –

“Your lesson for today, Zhongli,” Ajax says with a flourish as he and the ex-Archon stand before the newly reconstructed water fountain in the middle of the town square, hours later, “is that you are going to learn how to haggle!”


Ajax can relate all too well to the glance of quiet dubiousness Zhongli gives him, but, one of them has to be optimistic, and clearly, that person wasn’t going to be Zhongli.

“How am I to achieve this objective exactly?” Zhongli asks. One of the villagers passing by recognizes them and gives them a jaunty wave, which they mirror with their own sunny smiles, but the moment the villager disappears around the corner, the look of skepticism reappears on Zhongli’s face with a vengeance. “I am sure you are more than familiar with my…track record.”

Oh, as Zhongli’s personal walking, talking bank account, Ajax is very familiar. He still musters the optimism to answer, “Simple.”

Ajax fishes out a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket and hands it to Zhongli, along with a bag of mora. “I have given you a shopping list of items we will need for tonight’s dinner and just enough money to cover everything at market price. However, if you can get your items for cheaper, you get to keep any extra mora in the bag, which you can save towards buying that seven-part volume of local Snezhnayan folklore tales you have been eyeing since you set foot in the village. How’s that for incentive?”

Zhongli actually perks up at that, and Ajax laughs. “I thought that would catch your interest. Now, the rules of haggling. First, most things are negotiable, bar certain items because it’s culturally considered rude to ask for a discount. In this case, haggling for the items on your list is an accepted norm, so you do not have to worry about that, but in the future, a little bit of research goes a long way.”

Zhongli hums in understanding. “This makes sense. We have similar customs in Liyue as well.”

Ajax nods. “Second, get the smaller items thrown in as part of the deal, so for example, if someone offers you a bag of apples for six mora, you can either counteroffer with a lower number like four mora, or you can say six mora for the apples and some potatoes or even seven mora for the apples plus that turnip. You want to be lumping much cheaper items with the main item you want to purchase while offering a deal that still allows for a discount.”

“How would you know which number is a fair counteroffer?” Zhongli asks with a quizzical frown.

Ajax rubs his chin. “Well, generally, you would rely on experience to know what the going rates for these items are, so research is always your best friend. For the purpose of this exercise, I would say that a fair first counteroffer is around 30% of the initial offer. Whether you are able to stick close to that number when you finalize your deal is up to you and your skills, Professor.”

Ajax continues when it doesn’t seem like Zhongli has any further questions. “Third, do not settle for the first place you see. The items on the list are being sold at multiple locations, so ask around for the prices of these items and compare the cost. Fourth, if the seller is being stubborn or unreasonable, be willing to walk away. I can tell you that Auntie Olga is notoriously cantankerous and suspicious of outsiders, so do not be alarmed if you end up butting heads with her. Now, do you have any more questions?”

Zhongli shakes his head. “I believe I understand your instructions. I am eager to see how successful I will be in this endeavour.”

“Good.” Ajax strolls to the fountain and sits down on a nearby stone bench. “If that’s the case, then off you go then. I will be waiting right here, so come find me when you are done your grocery shopping.”

“You are not coming with me?” Zhongli asks, and although he looks calm and collected, Ajax can make out just a hint of worry from the slight downturn of his lips.

“You will do just fine, Professor.” Ajax leans over and pats Zhongli on the arm. “I have every faith that you will be successful.”

Ajax regrets his decision to stay behind the moment he loses sight of the other man, even though he knows that it is crucial for him to not get involved for the purpose of the exercise. Boredom sets in almost immediately, and he’s left twiddling his thumbs, watching the light snow slowly drift onto the ground in lazy swirls.

His right hand tingles a little and on reflex, his left hand flies to his forearm to give it a gentle massage. When the sensation fades, he relaxes back into his seat, going back to quietly watching the town folks around him.

He…hopes Zhongli is alright. The ex-Archon has the tendency to get lost in his head sometimes, probably from the thousands of years’ worth of memories clouding his thoughts. The first time Ajax met him as Childe, Zhongli had that habit of gazing off the moment their conversation comes to a lull, his amber eyes glazing over like his mind was a million miles away. In hindsight, that observation wasn’t entirely wrong.

He’s getting better though, has gotten better in the span of the two years Childe had spent with him. At least whenever he was with Childe, he would spend less and less time staring out into the horizon and more time focusing on what’s in front of him, whether it’s the meal they’re enjoying or various one-sided debates (rants) Zhongli has about art and culture. Childe still remembers one of the more inadvertently hilarious stories he had shared about inviting an up and coming avant-garde musician to perform at Wangsheng Funeral Parlour because, according to Zhongli, “her talents were being wrongly shunned by the rigid bourgeoisie” and he had “wanted to help her get the exposure she deserves.”

“What sort of music did she perform?” Childe had asked, taking a bite out of a piece of crystal shrimp.

“Something that originated from Fontaine,” answered Zhongli with a pause between enjoying his black-back perch stew. “I believe she called it Rock n Roll.”

Needless to say, Zhongli had to call their waitress for water since Childe was too busy choking.

Back on the stone bench, Ajax sighs and idly massages his tingling arm again. He’s going to miss Zhongli terribly once the mission is over, he just knows it. Zhongli has really come out of his reserved shell, and it seems like with each day spent in Snezhnaya, he’s adapting beautifully by becoming more lively and…present. Like he’s stopped being a mere observer of the world around him and started to embrace his new role as one of its actors. It’s a nice change, and with every new facet Ajax is getting to learn about Zhongli, the more he finds himself hopelessly attached, never mind his burgeoning crush on the man.

“Ajax?” Auntie Vera’s familiar voice calls out, and Ajax happily embraces the distraction. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?” She looks around the town center. “Where’s your beau? The handsome Liyuan?”

“Zhongli? He’s my business partner, Auntie,” Ajax corrects with a wheezing cough. Beau? Where did that come from? “He’s currently out and about getting some groceries for tonight’s dinner. Thank you for your work on those clothes, by the way. Zhongli loves that coat.”

“My finest work yet,” Auntie Vera says with a proud nod. “But what do you mean, he’s out getting some groceries? Why have you not joined him?”

“I’m trying to let him learn how to haggle on his own per his request,” Ajax admits. “I’m afraid if I join him, he wouldn’t have as good of an opportunity to learn.”

“Because you will simply buy everything just to make him happy,” Auntie Vera answers wisely. She cackles at the flush of embarrassment on Ajax’s face. “Oh, I have seen the way you are spending money on that beau of yours. It’s hardly a secret! You two are the talk of the town! Rumor has it you paid over thirty thousand mora for a whole collection of wooden carvings because your partner could not choose the one he likes best. Or that you almost bought out half of the bakery’s stock so that your partner could try a little bit of everything. At this rate, the ladies and the lads of the village are going to die of jealousy for missing you as their catch.”

“Auntie Vera,” Ajax cries, his mortification rising.

“Not like they can compete for Mr. Zhongli’s spot. His looks alone have them beat by a long mile. Oh, and speak of the devil, here he comes!”

As if summoned, Zhongli appears from behind a row of shops, trudging sedately towards them on the snow-covered cobblestone path. His arms are filled with multiple bags but he does not appear even slightly bothered by their weight.

“Childe, I have finished with the groceries,” Zhongli says by way of greeting. He turns to Auntie Vera and gives her a polite smile. “Mrs. Vera, I hope you are doing well today.”

Auntie Vera practically gushes at the attention. “I’m doing well, dear. Very well. Thank you for asking, and oh my, you sure look stunning in that coat, if I do say so myself!”

Wait. Hasn’t it only been an hour? Ajax is expecting Zhongli to take at least two.

“How are you done so early?” Ajax blurts out. Come to think of it, isn’t Zhongli carrying a little too much for the groceries he’s supposed to get? “What are all these other bags? How much mora do you have left?”

“Ah, it’s a bit of an interesting story,” Zhongli starts as he begins to deposit the bags on the bench beside where Ajax is sitting. “I was attempting to make counteroffers for the items on the list but the shop owners insist that I take these for free as thanks for our generosity from our last purchases. I was given other items as well in exchange for a promise that I would visit their shops with you in the near future. I tried to refuse but they do not want to hear a word of it. The people of Morespoke possess a truly generous nature.”

The wheezing cough comes back violently. Generous nature? More like predatory! Obviously, everyone’s figured out that all they need to do is to please Zhongli in order to get to Ajax’s wallet! The coat that Zhongli is wearing probably serves as a large, flashing reminder for the seemingly bottomless pit that is his wealth.

But never mind that. If Ajax is understanding the situation correctly, then, “You haven’t spent a single mora on this excursion, have you?”

The look of guilt on Zhongli’s face is answer enough, and Ajax reaches for his temples.

His hand doesn’t get far; in that instance, the tingling he feels in his arm flares up, and a familiar jolt of electric pain courses through his arm, making him suck in a pained hiss.

“Childe!” Zhongli drops the rest of his bags to the ground and rushes over. He pushes up the sleeve of his jacket and sweater and wraps his hands over the tremoring muscles in Ajax’s forearms. He immediately starts press into the newly exposed flesh, alternating between rubbing soothing circles and applying pressure to certain spots on the arm. “Where does it hurt the most? Does this help?”

The pain continues to flood Ajax’s nerves in steady waves, but Zhongli’s touch helps to keep it from mounting too quickly. He manages a quick nod between controlled breaths even as he feels sweat starting to bead his brow. In the background, he hears Auntie Vera saying something in concern, but he’s too busy trying to regulate his breathing and to block out the pain to register.

In and out. In and out. Focus on Zhongli’s touch, on the cold of the snow brushing against his cheeks, and on the puffs of air with every exhale. In and out.  

“ – not feeling well, I’m afraid. I apologize for cutting this conversation short.”

“No, no, I completely understand, dear. Don’t mind me. Oh, Ajax, I hope you feel better. I will get Lena to drop by with some soup later tonight, alright? Take care of yourself!”

“Can you walk?” Zhongli’s low voice seeps through against the backdrop of footsteps moving away from them. He does not stop his soothing touch.

“Ye – yeah,” Ajax manages to breathe out. “I can hold on. Just need to concentrate.”

Somehow, the two of them manage to make it to the stable where they left their sleigh, with all their goods in tow, though the journey there is interjected with lots of pauses just so that Ajax can wrestle his breathing under control. The sight of the sleigh never looks better, and Ajax all but slumps into the passenger side of the front seat, still counting his breaths as he tries to replicate the massaging technique Zhongli used on his arm. A spike of heat lances up his nerves, and it feels like a hot knife scoring a deep cut through the length of his forearm from wrist to the crook of his elbow. The pain makes him curl over his tremoring arm, choking on air.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.. Please don’t let this get worse. Not here. Not in the village.

A warm blanket is tucked around his shoulder. Ajax cracks open a teary eye.

“We’re ready to go,” Zhongli murmurs and tugs the blanket to better secure it over Ajax’s trembling body. “I can drive us back. Where did you keep your medicine? Is it in the pouch on your belt?”

At Ajax’s shaky nod, Zhongli reaches under the blanket, and around Ajax’s waist without another word. A few seconds later, he draws back with the vial in hand.

“Just in case,” Ajax hears Zhongli mutter as he gives the rein a little shake to get the horse moving. “Half a dose, is it?”

“Yesss,” Ajax hisses out. Another stab of pain flares up, past the elbows this time and crawling up his bicep. He blinks back the fresh wave of pained tears in his eyes. “Fuck,” he gasps. When he manages to catch his breath, he stutters out, “I – I’m sorry for ruining this outing, Professor. Y – you wanted to get those books.”

“It’s alright, we can always get them next time.” Zhongli’s voice is low and reassuring. “Your health is infinitely more important to me. How’s the pain level?”

Another wave of scorching heat flares up and it eats into the muscles of his arm, making everything feel like it’s being burned from inside out. The pain – it’s definitely crawling up his arm, no longer confined to just below his elbow. Ajax can feel it all the way up to his mid-bicep now, and he doesn’t manage to hold back the pained whimper from escaping his gritted teeth.

“Bad,” he wheezes out and clenches his eyes shut again.

The pain also doesn't look like it’s going to stop anytime soon. Shit.

Not even a few seconds after his thought crosses his mind, the telltale tingle of electricity starts to build up on his fingers. Sure enough, purple arcs rise from his wrist, travelling up and up his forearm to his elbow, spreading out like a web to cover every inch of skin and leaving fresh pockets of agony.

Shit, shit, shit. Not good.

“Me – medicine – ”

He feels the sleigh immediately coming to a stop. Fingers brush against his jaw and settle on his chin, tilting his head up with gentle care. There’s the sensation of cool glass pressed against his lips and he wordlessly parts them, swallowing the disgusting medicine poured into his mouth.

The thick, slimy medicine sinks to the bottom of his churning stomach, coating everything with unnatural chill, and Ajax shivers violently. His eyes are still clenched shut and he’s wrestling his control back on his breathing so that he can calm his racing heartbeat. It’s perhaps he’s so distracted by all that plus the lingering sensation of pain in his arm that he doesn’t quite register, until much later, the way his body is slumped over and leaning against something firm. As the last of the pain finally dies, other sensations begin to bleed into his body, like how the world around them is still and quiet save for the sound of his harsh breathing, how there’s a feeling of solid strength wrapped around his shoulder, keeping him secured, how his sweaty face is pressed against the cool softness of a luxuriously plush material, and with every breath, how the familiar, comforting scent of silkflowers soothes the chaos in his mind.

A beat later, he registers the voice, low and deep and utterly hypnotic: “You’re doing alright, Ajax. You’re doing alright. That’s right, just breathe slowly. I’ve got you.”

If he isn’t feeling so miserable, he’d be over the moon at the way he’s clearly being tucked against Zhongli’s side. As it stands, all he manages is to slur out with his eyes still shut, “Zhongli, ‘m goin’ to ruin your good coat ‘n fall asleep on you.”

Zhongli chuckles, relief clear in his voice. “I see you’re feeling better already. Is the pain gone?”

Ajax nods against the silk velvet. “Hmm. Gone. Tired though.”

“Good.” There’s an exhale of breath, and the shoulder Ajax is leaning on relaxes. “That’s very good.”

The arm around his shoulders pulls him closer, and Ajax has enough mind to protest, “Your coat –”

“Nevermind the coat. Go to sleep, Ajax. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

Right here when he wakes up. Nobody’s ever promised that before.

It sounds…rather nice, actually.

“’mkay.” Ajax lets his body fully relax against Zhongli. “Don’t sleep in the armchair though. ‘s not comfortable and will hurt your back.”

He lets Zhongli’s answering quiet chuckles carry him to sleep.

Chapter Text

XIII. The Promise

It takes Ajax a lot less time for his mind to put two and two together when he floats back to consciousness. He feels himself laying on something soft with a warm weight tucked around his body, keeping him wonderfully cozy. The world around him is completely quiet save for the occasional crackle of fire from a nearby fireplace, and for a second, he feels himself almost drifting off again at the cracks and pops in the background.

There’s a soothing, almost delicate scent that hits him, wafting into the spaces between each slow breaths, and it screams of aching familiarity. Ajax focuses on that scent and combs through his memory for it. It’s definitely floral, but it’s also tinged with a hint of spicy warmth, coupled with a lingering, woodsy base. It almost smells like the perfume is made of…

Ah, it’s silkflowers. That’s what that is.

Zhongli.

Come to think of it, his right arm also feels warm and heavy, like something is pinning it down.

Curiosity gets the better of him and he forces away his sleepiness from his foggy mind. He blinks his bleary eyes open, it takes a couple of tries for his sight to focus, and the first thing he sees is the wooden beams of his bedroom ceiling above him.

He turns his head to look at his trapped limb and his breath hitches.

A pair of familiar pale hands are gripping onto his forearm, its long, delicate fingers are curled around him in a gesture of protectiveness. Ajax doesn’t mind at all. The selfish part of him is incredibly pleased with the sight of those hands holding him as if they are trying to keep him tethered to the waking world.

As for the man doing the holding…

Dark hair tipped in amber spill across his bedcover in a fan of fine silk. It also frames Zhongli’s handsome face, slack in sleep, his rosy pink lips parted to let quiet snores through. He appears to have fallen asleep kneeling beside him with his head resting on top of one of his folded arms on the bed, using it as a makeshift cushion. There’s something about seeing the man so utterly unguarded that makes him look younger, vulnerable, and utterly captivating.

Ajax swallows hard and wiggles closer for a better look. It looks like Zhongli was busy keeping an eye out on Ajax but had, at some point, nodded off, and be still his beating heart. The idea of a literal god on his knees tending to Ajax is doing terrible, terrible things to his chest and his imagination.

As much as he enjoys the sight of Zhongli’s peaceful sleeping face, that position cannot possibly be comfortable.

“Zhongli,” Ajax rasps out and shakes the other’s arm a little. “Hey, what are you doin’ down there? You’re going to hurt yourself if you stay scrunched up like that.”

The light touch is enough to startle Zhongli awake. He jerks up and blinks bright doe eyes at him. “Childe?”

Despite being deep asleep mere seconds ago, he looks miraculously put together. His hair, though unbound, falls perfectly over his shoulders without a stray curl out of place. His silk sleeping outfit, the dark one with the majestic Liyuen mountains embroideries, remains completely wrinkled free and pristine as always. Even his cheek is smooth and unmarred from awkward sleep lines.

Bullshit adepti ability. Ajax is certain of it. Had the roles been reversed with Ajax the one falling asleep in that position, he would’ve looked like a wretched, drooling mess.

“Childe.” The feel of Zhongli’s hand on his arm pulls Ajax out of his internal grumbling. “You’re awake,” the ex-Archon says, relief evident in his voice. “How are you feeling? Do you feel any pain at all?”

On cue, the aches in Ajax’s body hit him all at once like a striking Lawachurl and he bites down his grimace. By the archons, he feels like misery personified. This is noticeably worse than last time; there’s a bit of fog and ringing in is head as if he’s been knocked about a few times, leaving him mildly nauseous, and his muscles feel strained and bruised like he had overexerted himself in battle. The unpleasantness of how he feels reminds him of the handful of times he’s been poisoned either by being careless in fights or from failed assassination attempts.

Above all else, he feels tired, so utterly tired, like every bit of energy is drained from him until he’s left a husk of a human being. Everything feels heavier, his arms, his legs, his head, even his thoughts feel like they’ve been weighed down by a ton of iron. If not for Zhongli, Ajax would have given in to his desire to burrow back under his blanket and groan pitifully, but as it stands, he has an image to maintain least the other man hovers over him even more like an overprotective mother hen.

“Childe?”

“Sorry. I must have zoned out for a second.” Ajax pushes himself up to a seated position despite the pain, giving Zhongli his warm thanks when the other rises to help him settle more comfortably. Distantly, he notices that he’s stripped down to the cotton shirt he wears under his sweater, and he fights off the familiar surge of mortification at the implication that once again, Zhongli and his agents have had to remove the clothes from his unconscious body in their attempt to make him more comfortable.

But now’s not the time to dwell on that awkward thought. (If he can help it, he’s going to push that thought far, far back into the recesses of his mind so that he won’t have to deal with it ever.) Now’s the time to focus on how bad the damage is.

He starts off small and tries wiggling his toes and fingers. Luckily, everything responds perfectly and he breathes a quick sigh of relief before carrying on. He works his way up his limbs, going through what’s becoming his standard flexing and stretching tests to check whether his mobility is affected at all by his flare-up, except this time, he’s paying close attention to his right shoulder and his right bicep.

“Everything moves the way it’s supposed to,” Ajax answers when he’s done. “The arm seems like it’s doing fine as well.” Not perfect, not with the lingering twinges of pain running under his skin, but it’s getting there. It’s certainly perfectly functioning as it stands even in a brawl so Ajax is not too concerned.

Zhongli, however, does not appear to share his enthusiasm. His expression becomes pinched. “But what about the pain? It seems like this flare-up is worse than the other ones you’ve had before.” He gestures to Ajax’s arm. “May I?”

Ajax knows better than to fight, not when Zhongli’s already moved closer to the bed with the clear intention of reaching for Ajax. “Go right ahead, Professor. Do your magic.”

Zhongli’s touch on his arm will never stop feeling strange. There’s something novel and utterly mesmerizing about the strength of those hands tempered to gentleness as they press in the dips between muscles to massage skin and soft tissue. Those hands can easily break bones and shed blood, have probably done so for thousands of years towards beings infinitely stronger than Ajax, and yet, on Ajax, their touch remains nothing but soft, almost reverent in their carefulness.

Soft. Zhongli, Rex Lapis Morax, the once God of War, is soft towards Ajax. He frets and worries and frowns disapprovingly at Ajax, and a part of Ajax almost wishes the other would stop because how the hell is he supposed to put up a fight against that?

“Your muscles are tense,” Ajax hears Zhongli murmur, “all the way up to the bicep this time.”

Ajax hears the unspoken question Zhongli is asking and sighs. “Yes. It’s spreading. It’s been slowly creeping up the arm for some time now.”

The hand on his arm tightens. “Have you heard of any news about your cure?”

Ajax scoffs. “The Dottore continues to be difficult with his unreasonable requests. I’m considering my next steps.”

Zhongli makes a little hum of understanding as he turns the arm around to rubs along the tendons in the wrist. “I understand that the Dottore can only delay for so long. Do you still believe that to be true?”

“I do, but I won’t be able to ignore him or completely refuse him. To do so would only provide him with the excuse to extend the deadline for the cure,” Ajax admits with a grimace. “It’ll be a matter of figuring out how much I need to concede to the Dottore’s requests and what sort of safety measures I can put in place.”

This is one of the aspects he hates the most being a Harbinger: all this plotting and scheming. He would rather just fight the Dottore and be done with it in a sort of winner takes out type of brawl. But knowing the other man, he would cheat and weasel his way to victory somehow.

A pensive look crosses Zhongli’s face. “Safety measures. Hm.”

Red flags immediately appear in Ajax’s mind and he sputters out, “Ah, you don’t have to worry about me, Professor. I will be fine. I’ve been dealing with this colleague of mine for a while now so with a bit of careful maneuvering, I should be able to resolve this situation.”

More importantly, the last thing Ajax wants is for Zhongli to be dragged into this mess. He’s not sure how many of the Harbingers know of Zhongli’s real identity as the ex-geo Archon, but his gut tells him that they’re all better off keeping this a secret, and that would mean minimizing Zhongli’s exposure to his co-workers.

Besides, “I can take care of myself, you know. I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

“You will have to excuse me in saying that that statement does not bring me any measure of comfort,” comes Zhongli’s dry, unimpressed response. As if to further highlight his worrying, he releases Ajax’s arm, giving it a few comforting pats, and reaches for the glass of water on the bedside table. He hands it to Ajax in a wordless request to drink. “If it’s all the same to you, I think I would rather keep close just in case.”

“Stubborn,” Ajax chastises, but his tone is gentle and he does finish his glass of water obediently. “In the future, could you at least make sure you’re hovering a bit more comfortably? I saw how you were asleep. That must have been hell on your knees.”

Zhongli…actually shifts a little and looks away, almost as if he’s embarrassed. It’s such an odd gesture that Ajax finds himself perking up so that he can pay better attention. “You didn’t want me to fall asleep in the armchair,” comes the quiet, stilted explanation.

Ajax blinks up at Zhongli, a bit lost and confused. Wait, since when did he say something to that eff – oh. Oh.

A flush of warmth hits Ajax, filling his chest with a soft, fuzzy feeling like he is wrapped in the most luxurious down blanket. He has to look away and fake a cough least his expression gives him and his heart away.

“Really, Professor,” he says weakly and shit, he can feel his face going hot. With his pale complexion, he tends to go blotchy red, making him look absolutely ridiculous like some sort of patchy tomato. But, the idea that Zhongli had gone to such lengths just to honor the ramblings of a man on the verge of falling asleep is too much. “The whole point of that statement is so that you wouldn’t have to wait around in that uncomfortable armchair. It’s not so that you can find an even more uncomfortable position to hole up in. I mean, ideally, I would have preferred if you didn’t sit around and wait at all, but I see that stubborn frown on your face so clearly, that’s not a feasible option.”

“Correct.” Zhongli takes the empty glass from Ajax’s slack hands, places it carefully back on the table, and crosses his arms, a stubborn frown firmly plastered on. “If your request is for me to wait in my room, then it is one I will not accept.”

“Stubborn,” Ajax repeats weakly as the warmth in his chest grows just a bit more. “Not that I’m not grateful for your companionship, but I do have agents to watch over me, you know.” Agents to whom he pays a hefty salary plus a bonus that allow them to live like minor nobles, fancy estates, and all.

“You have agents to watch over your siblings,” Zhongli corrects, but he does pull up a nearby armchair closer to the bed and sinks into it. “And while you may wish to convince me that your agents will be adequate caretakers, I suspect you will pull rank just to get out of bed rest, or anything you do not like for that matter.”

“I will not!” Ajax squawks, more out of principle because clearly, he’s lying through his teeth. Apparently, Zhongli knows it too from the silent disbelieving look he fires back. “I listen to good advice!” Sometimes. Maybe.

Zhongli has the audacity to roll his eyes at Ajax. “Something tells me that your definition of good advice differs greatly from mine. But now that we’ve established that I will continue to ‘hover’ as you put it, and that nothing you say will stop me, would you be interested in some dinner? Mrs. Vera dropped off some delicious rassolnik tonight.”

Ajax shakes his head. “Maybe later, thanks. How long was I out for? What happened after my…er…sleep?”

“The trip home from the market was uneventful after you took your medicine,” Zhongli recounts. “I helped you to bed while your agents took care of everything else and ensured that the household continues to run smoothly. As for how long you slept, you rested for the entire evening. It’s currently past midnight.”

Ajax winces. He passed out for nine hours straight. This is the longest he’s been asleep after one of these attacks.

“How are Tonia, Teucer and Anthon?”

To that, Zhongli sighs. “Your agents managed to convince them to go to bed, but there was a lot of reluctance, Childe.” Ajax shrinks a little at the use of his name in Zhongli’s serious tone. “I understand that it is not my business to intrude upon your family’s affair, and I apologize in advance, but truth be told, your brothers and sister are getting more and more concerned. I have heard your younger brothers conspiring to find out what’s wrong with your health. Your sister is holding them back from their destructive tendencies because she trusts that you will tell them the truth when you can.”

“I know, I know,” Ajax groans and lets himself slump against the headboard. He rubs his tired eyes and sends a quiet thank you to his sweet Tonia for being the voice of reason.

He knows he’s been dragging his feet with telling his brothers and sister about his health. He also knows that they’re not stupid and have caught him wincing whenever his arm is giving him trouble. Tonia has certainly given him more than a few concerned side-eyes when she thought he wasn’t looking.

It’s just that Ajax is well aware of the role he plays in his family. He’s the big brother, the protector, the provider. He’s the only parental figure who’s managed to stay alive and present in his siblings’ lives, the one pillar of strength remaining when disease and ill fortune took his mother and father from them far too soon. Even if he was thrusted into his position suddenly, he happily took on the mantle of parenthood, doing his damned best to keep his dwindling family afloat, to shield his younger brothers and sister from the cruel realities of the world so that they could live out their childhood just a little longer, safe and sound.

He doesn’t, he can’t, take that away from them. He can’t make his siblings go through the terrifying experience of watching Mother slowly waste away as her health declined.

(If there’s a part of him who wonders whether or not he himself is ready to accept the encroaching reality of death, well, Ajax continues to happily ignore it in favour of the more pressing, more important things in his life such as putting in place contingency plans for his siblings.)

“I’m – I’m working on it,” Ajax settles on, his voice quiet and solemn as the hold on his cover tightens. “I’m just trying to figure out how to break it to them. I don’t like having to be the bearer of bad news to my family, and…and they’re children, Zhongli. They should be out there playing in the snow and complaining about homework and causing mischief, not – not worrying about whether or not their big brother is going to – whether or not I’ll…”

And just like that, he finds himself unable to finish his sentence, his throat going dry and his body going cold. Because to finish that sentence means that he’s finally acknowledging the possibility that he will – that things are going to go so bad that he will end.

He can’t start believing that. He can’t allow that doubt to enter his mind. He’s the Vanguard of the Harbingers and he’s meant for greater things than wasting away in bed from a stupid, stupid injury stemmed from his own stupid recklessness.

A pale, delicate hand covers his in a blanket of warmth, the suddenness of the touch silences his spiralling chaotic, angry thoughts in one fell swoop. Somewhere along his stuttering explanation, Ajax’s grip on his cover had tightened to the point where his knuckles turned bone-white. Ajax watches, almost hypnotized, as the thumb rubs circles in the back of his hand as if to soothe away the tension, one stroke at a time.

Miraculously, he feels it working and his grip slowly loosens its hold on the cover.

Then, Zhongli speaks.

“I will not let this injury take you. We will find a way to move forward. This, you can tell your siblings.”

Although Zhongli’s voice is quiet, the certainty and truth behind his words carry as much weight as the mountains of Jueyun Karst themselves. The power behind them makes the air between them charged and heavy, and the words settle deeply over Ajax’s bones. Ajax shivers, recognizing them for what they truly are: an oath made by the oldest God of Teyvat.

“Zhongli,” Ajax says in a hush, but his shaky voice sounds oddly loud in the quiet stillness of the room, “you of all people should know how dangerous it is to make promises like these.” To make promises that he can’t possibly know he’d be able to fulfill is foolish.

Zhongli’s eyes seem to gleam bright gold in the flickering light cast by the fireplace. It’s a look similar to the one he had given Ajax when he had professed that he found Ajax interesting a lifetime ago in Liyue. The difference lies in the way it’s filled with less curiosity bleeding into realization and more…intent.

It holds promise and fierce protectiveness like Ajax is someone worth protecting.

Ajax finds his heart giving a funny little lurch in his too-tight chest.

Zhongli is a natural heartbreaker, he remembers himself thinking back in Liyue. How true those words ring in the present. How could any maiden survive Zhongli?

“I wouldn’t make my promise if I knew I couldn’t keep it,” Zhongli says as he tightens his hold on Ajax’s hand. “Childe, please let me help you.”

Ah, looks like Ajax would have to make a slight correction to that last thought. Never mind the maidens, how could Ajax survive Zhongli?

“I think we’ve gone past the stage where you have to call me Childe, Professor,” Ajax murmurs instead. He casts his eyes down on to his hand, the one Zhongli still hasn’t let go and feels his ears go hot. “You – you can call me Ajax.”

Zhongli takes this as the permission that it is. The relieved satisfaction rolling off of him is palpable as Ajax’s racing heartbeat.


His talk with his siblings the next morning goes simultaneously better and worse than he thought it would. It goes better in the sense that his brothers and sister do not look surprised at all by the news of his injury, and he gets to give his full explanation in one go without interruption. It goes worse because he has to see the glum look of resignation settle on their faces when he’s finally done.

Things take a horrible downward turn when Teucer sniffles, then Anthon, and then Tonia. It takes a few seconds for Ajax to realize that all three of his siblings look a bit teary-eyed. They’d just been doing their damndest to keep their emotions in check.

He feels his heartbreak.

“Oh, oh, no, no, come here.” Ajax drops to his knees and swoops the three in a tight, desperate hug, which they return with fervor. “Shhh. Shhh. I’ll be fine. Big Brother’s going to get better, just wait and see. Master Zhongli offered to help and you all know how smart he is, so if nothing else, trust that Master Zhongli will do his best. We just need to be a bit patient, alright?”

“Good,” comes Tonia’s watery response. She’s tucked to his left, her hand is clutching to his shirt and her glasses are digging into the crook of his neck, but Ajax endures the pain. “I am going to ask him for help to make all the potions and teas, and Big Brother has to drink all of them without complaining.”

“Big Brother is not allowed to do any hard work in the meantime!” Teucer declares, his voice wobbly even muffled against his right shoulder. “Big Brother has to promise that he’s going to go to bed early and wake up late!”

“I’m going to help Big Sister Tonia too,” Anthon pipes up from his spot in the middle with his arms wrapped around Ajax’s ribs. “And I promise not to set any more things on fire until you get better.”

Ajax chokes out a laugh. “I would prefer if you don’t set any more things on fire ever, Anthon, but thank you. All three of you.”

Little devils, all of them.

The household descends into a flurry of activities afterwards. The air itself seems charged with chaotic energy, making the space in their once peaceful home thick with anticipation. Ajax can feel it from the many times he’s walked in on his family in the kitchen, books and scrolls and papers scattered amongst pots and jars filled with various bubbling concoctions. Zhongli and Tonia would be pouring over the recipes, sharing ideas and tips on making medicinal teas and soups while Anthon and Teucer work in the background, pouring, weighing and stirring to ensure nothing boils over. Even the agents are pulled into this assembly line with them serving the vital role of ingredient and supply shopping.

(Ajax doesn’t have the heart to stop their quest in finding a cure or a treatment for his symptoms even if he himself is not sure whether there is such a cure for an injury that is clearly man-made outside of the one the Dottore has promised him. But, he’d be lying if the sight of his family banding together like this for Ajax doesn’t bring a lump in his throat.)

In between the around-the-clock experiments in the kitchen, Zhongli would write letter after letter, lengthy ones that when rolled up into a scroll, would require the strongest raven to carry. Ajax doesn’t have long to ponder the contents of those letters when the answer appears a handful of days later. Mountains of wrapped parcels arrive by the window, carried by great winged beasts that look like a bizarre mix of a lizard and a lion with the addition of antlers and wings. Ajax is almost certain they exist in the myths of Liyue.

Ajax would also be more concerned about the lack of discretion if not for the fact that despite their size, these creatures are eerily quiet even as they clamber through the windows, their claws scratching up the sill and the walls on their way in. They only seem to appear in the dead of the night as well when it is pitch black outside and everyone is deep asleep. The only reason Ajax even manages to spot them is because Zhongli had given him advance warning of their arrival, and he’d been actively looking for them.

“Books and traditional ingredients found in Liyue,” Zhongli offers by way of explanation when yet another of those winged beast squeezes through the window. Zhongli whispers something low in Liyuan to the creature, too quiet for Ajax to catch, and it bows in answer before scampering outside with a beat of its wings. Zhongli turns his attention back to Ajax, “I needed my collection on Liyuan medicine and the Pixius kindly agreed to retrieve and deliver them to me. Though I am no expert in the healing arts, I have amassed a wealth of knowledge in this area that can be used in our research to alleviate the symptoms, if nothing else.”

Ajax’s brow rises. He’s definitely read about Pixius and he’s fairly certain that they are far too noble to be carrier pigeons. He’s chalking this up as one of the perks of being Rex Lapis.

(Still, to avoid potentially offending these powerful creatures and inviting misfortune to his family home, he asks his agents to leave bowls filled with mora as an offering outside every night.)

In the meantime, Ajax finds himself forced into following a strict schedule of leisure, relaxation and lots of bed rest set by his overbearing siblings. Unlike Zhongli, who, Ajax recently discovers, will actually cave into his wheedling with a long-suffering sigh if he shamelessly whines enough, his siblings are made of sterner stuff and therefore, are significantly more stubborn and unaccepting of compromises.

“Big Brother, try this!” Tonia shoves a steaming mug of…something dark green in his hands as he’s forced into bed rest when Anthon caught him wincing in pain from a minor arm spasm. It smells overwhelmingly like grass with a hint of chamomile and luckily, nowhere near as offensive as the bitter tar Zhongli made him drink last night. “You have to drink all of it this time instead of pouring it out the window!”

“Teucer and I prepared some compresses for you!” Anthon adds as he and Teucer hobble into the room carrying a great big pail between them. “We soaked the bandages extra-long in warm fire-water this time!”

Ajax sighs internally and braces himself for yet another evening of experimental cures and treatments.


“I am grateful for all the effort spent researching and preparing this…concoction but with all due respect, Professor, I am not drinking that!”

An exasperated sigh, but the bowl is still being pushed firmly towards Ajax. “You won’t be drinking it, you will be eating it. This is called Guilinggao. It is a jelly made from a variety of herbs…among other things. It is highly prized in Liyue for its medicinal value, particularly its blood cooling properties. I have also added honey to make it more palatable. Please consume it while it’s hot.”

“Well, at least that explains the jiggling, but it doesn’t explain the colour. Why does it have to be pitch black, as black as the Abyss itself?” A pause, then suspicion. “Also, what do you mean ‘among other things’? What are the other things used to make this?”

“…”

“…”

“I will tell you after you have consumed the bowl.”

“Or, you can tell me now so that I can decide whether or not I want to consume the bowl.”

“…”

“…”

“I will tell you after you have consumed the bowl and I promise to teach you the spear form I designed for Alatus once you recover.”

“…Fine. But I just want you to know that I am not happy about this blatant manipulation.”


“Powdered turtle shells.”

A gasp of pure disgust and betrayal. “Professor! How could you!


Despite the bizarre and awful cures and treatments he’s being subjected to, things are, surprisingly, turning up. His muscle spasms aren’t coming in as strong as before, his energy level is increasing, and his mood is improving. To think, he could’ve saved himself all this grief with his flare-ups and associated symptoms if he had only been more willing to wear fire-water-soaked plasters over his arm, sometimes smeared with smetana, and endure all the concoctions Zhongli and his siblings whip up.

There’s also the fact that his siblings, his agents, and Zhongli have really banded together in their quest to make Ajax healthy again. He’s never seen his siblings this dedicated before, and it brings about a deep sense of relief for Ajax. After all, their newfound focus also brings about hope, and that is certainly a sight better than seeing fear and sadness and hopelessness fester like the way they did for him during the last few days of Mother’s life.

If it means he has to drink a few more foul concoctions just to keep his siblings happy, then it’s a small price to pay in his books.

He’d prefer it if he doesn’t have to eat that turtle jelly thing ever again though.

Things are improving, or at the very least, not worsening with the combined efforts of everyone. This is why it’s that much more jarring when one evening, Ajax finds the air knocked out of his lungs as the familiar sensation of fire races up his arm and creeps to his bicep, ready to sear the flesh off of his bones from within. The agony strikes him as sudden as a hammer’s blow, and it spreads outwards like a ripple in a pond until the entire surface is disrupted.

He thinks he might have cried out, he’s not sure; he can’t concentrate behind the roaring in his ear. But whatever sound he made must have been concerning from the way Zhongli practically barrels into his bedroom with wide panicked eyes.

At least this time, I’m already in bed, he thinks with a tinge of hysteria. Zhongli is pouring the cold medicine down his throat while crooning soft words to encourage him to take slow and even breaths.

“It’s alright, Ajax. It’s alright,” Zhongli repeats what’s rapidly becoming his mantra. He lowers Ajax down so that his head rests comfortably on his pillow. “Go ahead and sleep, I will be right here.”


“Ajax.” Zhongli’s cool hand feels heavenly brushing over his warm, aching arm. That hand disappears for a second, only to reappear with a cool cloth wiping over his sweaty forehead. “How are you feeling?”

Ajax cracks open one tired eye and chuckle weakly. Like death warmed over, to be honest.

“I’ve felt better,” he croaks out diplomatically instead. Not diplomatically enough, apparently; Zhongli doesn’t even bother to hide the downturn of his lips. “How much time did I –”

“The entire night. It’s late morning,” Zhongli answers. He takes the towel away and Ajax hears the sound of water being wrung out before fresh coolness returns to his hot forehead. “If you’re feeling a little better, Tonia and I made some tea to help remove any lingering pain and excess heat in your arm. Miss Yelena dropped by with a fresh batch of soup last night. Mrs. Vera made borscht this time around.”

The idea of food makes Ajax’s stomach turn unpleasantly even if it’s Auntie Vera’s delicious cooking. “No soup. Not right now.” He gives a wavering smile. “Maybe in a bit?”

Zhongli nods. “Later then. In the meantime, please let me change the cooling plasters on your arm. I have made a new batch with mint and crushed mistflower corolla infusion. Please let me know if they are effective.”

“Of course, Professor,” Ajax answers dutifully even if in his heart of hearts, he doesn’t think that the new plasters would do anything.


Later that evening, alone in his office, Tartaglia grips at his prickling arm and stares glumly at the Dottore’s letter.

He eyes the empty vials that lay scattered on his desk, the sole mess on the otherwise pristine surface.

He thinks back on his siblings, on the way they refused to let go of him that day when he told them the truth. Zhongli had walked in on the scene of the four of them huddled together on the floor. He had taken one look before strolling over to Ajax and placed a comforting, supportive hand on his shoulder in an unspoken promise of aid, one that echoed his vow made by his bedside earlier.

He’s been honouring this promise. Even now, Ajax can make out the distant clinging and clanging from the kitchen as Zhongli, his siblings, and his agents prepare a new batch of medicine based on Zhongli’s meticulous research. Nobody’s giving up.

Nobody is giving up. Everyone is still fighting. For Ajax.

He…can’t let his family down. He can’t let Zhongli down. They’re trying so hard to fight for him. He can’t turn around and spit in the face of their efforts by deliberately being difficult to the Dottore even if tactically speaking, that might be the wiser option to take.

It’s no secret that Tartaglia’s weakness has always laid in his family, in his sentiment and his attachments.

And now, in Zhongli as well.

Tartaglia sighs. Then, he grabs his scissors and reaches for his hair.


My Dearest Tartaglia,

Thank you for your letter and generous donation of samples though I am surprised (but inordinately pleased) to see an honest attempt at cooperation from your previous response. In light of your efforts and as a show of good faith, I am reciprocating my efforts to honour my promise to you and Her Imperial Majesty, the Tsaritsa.

Please find enclosed with this letter my first attempt at the cure to your little problem. This product is still very much a work in progress, so should you experience any side effects, please notify me immediately.  

Yours very truly,

The Well Born, Baron Il Dottore

Third Harbinger of the Eleven

Chapter Text

XIV. The Cure

“It looks surprisingly underwhelming, but this is it. This is what the good doctor sent.”

Ajax swirls the vial, holding it up into the light. The liquid inside is dark and shimmering with the same pearlescence that coats his medicine, but the texture is much more watery. It also leaves behind a murky streak of dust-gray as it runs down the glass before settling with the rest of the liquid. Hm. Appetizing. “Can you sense anything odd about it? Ominous maybe?”

He hands the vial to Zhongli, who cups it carefully in his palms. After a beat of silence, the ex-Archon shakes his head.

“I cannot sense anything from this vial, certainly no demonic energy. It seems to emit a strong elemental energy though of what nature, I cannot tell.” He fingers the vial stopper. “Do you mind if I –”

“No, go right ahead. Do what you need to do. I put my health in your capable hands, Professor.”

The cork is removed and Zhongli brings the vial closer, wafting the scent towards himself in a gentle wave of his hand.

“Hm, from the scent alone, I can detect mist flowers, crushed iron ores, and chamomiles. There are other things in the mixture that smell metallic. I do not sense anything poisonous.”

Ajax takes the vial from Zhongli with a grateful nod. “I figured if he’s going to outright poison me, he’d put it in the medicine. I guess there’s nothing to it. Bottom’s up, I suppose.”

He lifts the vial in cheers and downs it like a shot.


Later, he calls his agents into his office for a meeting, and upon their arrival, sheds out of his sunny Ajax persona for cold, meticulous, ruthless Tartaglia.

“Are there any reports on the Dottore’s activities?” He glances up from his leather chair behind his desk, his gaze sweeping across his two best and brightest subordinates. “I would like a summary of all the things he’s been up to, especially with what he’s done with the initial sample I sent him.”

“Lord Harbinger,” Uncle salutes, steps forward, and hands forward a small stack of papers, neatly bound together. “I have finished decoding the report the agents at Zapolyarny Palace sent us. It appears that upon receiving the initial sample, he had, and I quote, ‘flown into a fit of rage’. However, he had used the sample in an experiment meant to counter the effects of electro surges.”

Tartaglia quirks a brow. The Dottore had actually used that wisp of hair he gave him towards developing the cure. Colour him surprise, although it does make an awful lot of sense. The Dottore did produce that cure rather quickly after Tartaglia had surrendered his samples, suspiciously so. “What happened afterwards?”

“The Dottore had given orders for his men to collect more samples on things that are naturally resistant to electro powers. Apparently, some of the samples he collected include those from powerful electro-vision holders.”

That has Tartaglia’s full attention. Powerful electro-vision holders? That’s an interesting qualifier. The Dottore has a high standard for what he considers as powerful. The only ones he’d probably deem powerful are legendary figures such as Varka, the titan of the Knights of Favonius, for example, or the adepti of Liyue.

Alternatively, there are the harbingers themselves.

There is one harbinger that immediately comes to mind for being a powerful electro user amongst his comrades, and that’s dear Scaramouche.

Tartaglia’s mouth stretches wide into a wicked smirk. Oh, but surely, the Dottore wouldn’t dare –

“My Lord?”

“Have the men investigate whether or not the good doctor has inquired about the Sixth Harbinger and whether he had sent any men on missions to Inazuma,” Tartaglia purrs, his smile twists into a bloodthirsty facsimile of the mischievous smirk he likes to don on as Childe. “As for the second batch of samples I have recently provided to the Doctor, have the men continue to track the experiments in which they are being used.”

“What happens if those samples are being used for other experiments unrelated to electro-surges.”

Hmm. As much as Tartaglia likes the idea of having his men destroy all of his samples and the Dottore’s experimental results from those sort of irrelevant experiments, that would completely give away the fact that Tartaglia is involved and has spies amongst the Dottore’s men. No, those samples are as good as gone and he had accepted that possible outcome the moment he had sent them off. Touching them at this point would be too much of a tactical risk.

“Find out what experiments those are being used for. Something tells me that the Tsaritsa would not enjoy the Dottore overstepping his bounds like that.”

Tartaglia may not enjoy scheming, but that doesn’t mean he’s not capable of it.


With his matters regarding the Dottore settled for the time being, Tartaglia happily chucks his mask aside and lets himself melt back into Ajax, Teyvat’s best big brother extraordinaire.

He and Zhongli also spend the next couple of days walking on eggshells with him sticking to his bedrest while continuing to accept, grudgingly, compresses and herbal teas, and Zhongli continuing to ply him with more of Liyue’s best remedies (though thankfully, no more turtle jellies). Ajax supposes that the both of them are waiting with baited breath to see if the other shoe will drop after consuming the Dottore’s vial of cure.

But by the third day of absolutely nothing happening, he lets himself relax to the point of being bored out of his mind. He must look absolutely miserable because Zhongli takes one good look at him, sighs, and proposes they go for a light sparring session later in the afternoon.

“Ah, freedom! Sweet blessed freedom! It’s so good to be out of the house for once!” Ajax takes a deep breath of the crisp winter air and launches himself down the snowy path in sheer child-like joy. Even the crunch of the snow under his boots sound particularly satisfying.

“You make it sound like you have been in confinement for years,” Zhongli huffs out. He’s moving at a much more sedated pace behind him with his usual grace and elegance, his striking silk velvet coat catching the sunlight, making him glow against the snowy white expanse around him. “Do be careful not to overexert yourself. I promised you a light spar, with the key word being light.”

Ajax waves away the other’s concern. “It’s going to take a lot more for me to become over-exerted, now come along! Daylight’s wasting!”

The familiar sight of the training ground in its pristine glory nearly brings tears to Ajax’s eyes along with his rows of gleaming weapons, probably kept clean by his agents while he was temporarily incapacitated. He spends a few (well-needed) minutes running his hands through the smooth handles of his familiar pole-axes, his beloved swords, and well-loved knives.

“I will never abandon you again, my loves,” he whispers to them, to which Zhongli, who’s been calmly removing his coat and his nice sweater nearby, snorts. “Ignore him,” Ajax whispers louder, “he will never understand our love.”

“There are a lot of things that I will never understand about you, Ajax,” Zhongli says, his tone as dry as the kindling he uses to light his fireplace. He doesn’t bother looking up, too busy brushing out the wrinkles of his dark undershirt. Even for clothing that he wears under his sweater, it’s still made of some luxurious, shimmery material with fine gold embroidery along the neckline and sleeves. Once a god, always a god, Ajax supposes.

Eventually, Ajax finds himself facing Zhongli in the middle of the arena, stripped out of his coat and scarf so that he’s in his casual cotton shirt and loose fitting pants. With a quick ‘materialize’ that he whispers in his mind, tendrils of water flow out of his vision, curling around each other and stretching until his favourite spear takes its shape in his open hands. He gives the weapon a couple of familiar spins and thrusts, then grins a cocky grin at the ex-Archon, who’s similarly drawn his golden weapon.

“Ready when you are, Professor!”

Zhongli wasn’t kidding when he said he promised Ajax a light spar and he refuses to be goaded into a more ferocious fight. No matter how many aggressive stabs and slices Ajax tries to execute, anything to trip up the other and get him to counterattack, the ex-Archon retains complete control, skillfully blocking his swings with deft strokes of his own spear. It’s not the first time that Ajax has thought about this, but fighting Zhongli feels like he’s fighting an immovable brick wall. With the ex-Archon’s impenetrable defence, all Ajax can do is increase the speed of his slashes, swings and stabs, hoping that something would hit.

Ajax twirls his spear and sinks low, his left leg extended out before him while his right leg bent, allowing most of his weight to rest on the latter – his not-so-wobbly attempt at the reverse bow stance – and thrusts forward, letting his spear stab towards the shins before springing up and stabbing towards the neck. Zhongli merely looks amused as he blocks the shin stab with the end of his spear and arcing away to avoid getting hit in the neck.

“Back straight, Ajax,” he chastises with a smirk. He doesn’t even sound winded. “You lose power if your back is not straight.”

“I know, I know!” Ajax groans and ducks a swing for his throat. “I’m out of practice!”

“You also lose some of your extension. For example –”

Zhongli proceeds to mimic the moves he just did with far greater precision, power and reach than Ajax anticipates. It’s by sheer instinct that Ajax is able to jump away in time to avoid his shins from being turned into a bloody mess.

By the Archons, his form is beautiful, he thinks with something akin to awe and an embarrassing amount of hero-worship. He’s so caught up by Zhongli’s intense golden stare on his stunning face, the glistening sweat running down his brow, and – that beautiful, beautiful twirl of the staff and oh wow, that stance and that slice, the power behind that – that he barely registers the swipe to his side. With a yelp, his attention slams back into him and he twists away at the last second, his body contorting awkwardly.

Ajax feels the tip of the spear catch his cotton shirt, followed by a tearing sensation. He stumbles backward, barely catching himself and keeping upright.

“Ajax!” Zhongli is letting his spear dematerialize and is rushing towards him. “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?”

Ajax looks down and huh, that shirt’s a goner. There’s a large gash that extends from under his right pec down across the ribs, ending at the belt line above his right hip, exposing part of his chest and his side. Ajax parts the ripped cloth and feels the skin for any injury or bleeding. No cuts. He managed to escape otherwise unscathed.

“Everything’s fine, Professor. No harm no foul.”

But Zhongli isn’t satisfied with that answer. His lips purse and he crosses his arms. “You were distracted.”

Ajax coughs awkwardly into his fist. “I was overthinking about the stances. It – it’s nothing. I suppose I’ll need more time to master them.”

“We can end the spar for now and spend some time practicing stances if you prefer.”

Ajax nods and lets his water spear dissolve. “That sounds good. Let’s have a small break first.”

Stupid. That was so, so stupid, he thinks furiously to himself as he and Zhongli stroll towards the bench where their winter gears and water skins are held. He can’t believe he got so caught up with Zhongli’s beauty that he stopped paying attention in the middle of a spar of all things.

He unscrews the cap to his water and drinks deeply before pouring some over his head to cool himself off. He takes the bottom of his ripped shirt and tugs it up towards his face so that he can use it to dry himself off. He ignores the cool air brushing against his suddenly exposed abdomen.

It’s a good thing that Zhongli didn’t pry further because how was he supposed to explain that mortifying behaviour? Oh sorry, Professor, I was lost in your eyes and then became mesmerized by the way you move. Did you know that you fight like you’re dancing – all beautiful lines and extensions and graceful turns? I have no doubt you’d make some professional dancers weep. Yes, clearly that will go over so well –

A choked little noise interrupts his barrage of thoughts. He pauses mid-wipe, his hand is still lifting the bottom of the shirt up, and he looks towards the source of the sound.

Zhongli is…looking at him with the most peculiar expression, like he’s equal parts confused, ashamed and transfixed? Ajax isn’t entirely sure. He seems to be frozen in place, the pupils of his eyes dark and round, like a predator hyper-focused on its target, and there’s the faintest flush of pink brushing against his porcelain cheeks.

“What is it, Professor?” Ajax asks a bit alarmed. He ignores the water droplets running down the side of his face and neck, opting to look down at himself as he brings a hand to feel the warm skin that lie taut over his belly. Did he miss a spot where he’s injured? He lifts his shirt higher and twists around, trying to spot any signs of blood but he doesn’t see anything out of the ordinary. “I’m not seeing anything wrong –”

That seems to snap Zhongli out of his daze. “It’s nothing,” he answers with a soft clearing of his throat. “Please do not concern yourself with it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Ah, yes. It is…nothing,” Zhongli insists. His voice sounds stronger at least. Whatever it is that the ex-Archon experienced, it must have passed. “Are you ready for some light training?”

With a shrug, Ajax turns his mind to the proper arm and leg placement for the stances Zhongli taught him, but he can’t help but wonder if he missed something with how quiet and dazed-looking the ex-Archon becomes for the rest of their time in the training arena.


After one full week of experiencing no symptoms, not even the slightest numbing of his hand, Ajax allows the first tendrils of hope to creep into his heart. He announces the good news to the household, and after a round of delighted hugs (from his siblings), happy shouts (mostly from his brothers), and a round of respectable nods (to everyone else), they all agree to put a temporary pause on the folk remedies.

“Not that I am not thankful for all of your wonderful effort, but I am a bit sick of chamomile tea,” Ajax admits with a chuckle. “I’m also sick of smelling fire-water on my skin.”

“Fine, we will stop but the moment that you start feeling your arm hurt, you have to tell us!” Tonia demands with her hands on her hips. Behind her, Anthon and Teucer nod with twin severe expressions. His agents and Zhongli don’t bother to stop his siblings, which speaks volumes of their support for the children.

“Ah, but what happens if it’s a small bit of numbing? Surely, something that minor – ”

Tonia crosses her hands over her chest and glares. For a second, Ajax is taken back to his childhood days when his mother would give him the exact same look whenever he acts up. The similarity is uncanny and terrifying.

“You have to tell us no matter how little you think your hand hurts, or how minor you think the problem is!” Tonia repeats and holds her pinkie finger out. “Pinkie promise me, Big Brother.”

Ajax stares at the finger with dread. Oh no, not the pinkie promise.

Big Brother!

One of these days, Ajax will be able to resist his sister’s bullying. Today is not that day. “Alright, alright, Princess Tonia! You win. I hear you loud and clear.”

He hooks his pinkie finger with hers and utters with great exasperation, “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.”

“…Are all Snezhnayan nursery rhymes like this?” Ajax hears Zhongli ask in the background. “I apologize if my comment comes off as ignorant, but does it seem a bit extreme?”

“It is the tamest rhyme we have, Master Zhongli,” Auntie answers completely stoned-face. “You should hear some of the bedtime stories we tell our children, especially about Baba Yaga.” A pause. “It is about a witch who cooks and eats children.”

“…Ah. I see.”

Promise secured, Tonia is content to let her big brother off to enjoy his newfound freedom. Ajax takes the opportunity to touch base with Zhongli about their greatly derailed life lesson plans.

Things are not as grim as Ajax had originally anticipated. There are certain skills that Zhongli naturally had a lot of opportunities to practice in (medical is a big one, courtesy of his agents and Tonia, as well as cleaning, which is required after each experiment), and there are certain lessons (resource and mora management) that’s been grounded to a halt.

He is surprised to learn, however, that sometime between Ajax being bedridden and the painful weeks of recovery afterwards, Zhongli’s gotten his fair share of cooking experience.

“Wait, wait. When did you learn how to bake? Or make bread?”

“Misters Anthon and Teucer had wanted some homemade piroshki and I’ve been meaning to learn,” Zhongli says with a shrug. “So, I helped your agents prepare some. I rather enjoy the process, I find it oddly soothing. I also look forward to adapting this to make baos.”

That…does sound amazing. If there’s one thing that Ajax misses terribly from Liyue, it’s their cuisine.

“I guess this means we can cross cooking off, if you’re comfortable with that,” Ajax says, “although there is one last thing I want to show you.”


XV. The Halcyon Days

Ice fishing remains one of Ajax’s passion carried over from his childhood days in Morepesok. It was taught to him by his father, back when their little family had comprised of just his parents and Ajax. By that time, his father had scaled back his full-fledged adventuring ways so that he would only be travelling during summer and fall, when Snezhnaya is at its most hospitable.

However, whenever the first snowfall drifted from the gloomy gray skies, painting the countryside of Morepesok in white and officially heralding the start of winter, Ajax would become ecstatic because that was a sign that his father would be coming home shortly.

Ajax doesn’t remember with clarity the very first time his father took him out for ice fishing. He retains vague impressions of being bundled up in layers and layers of wools and fur, of toddling carefully on the ice with his watchful father right behind him, and of the long hours of just waiting, first for his father to finish drilling a hole through the ice, then for the fish to bite.

During those long stretches of time, his father would delight him with tales of his recent travels. He would describe the recent ruins he had explored in some hidden corners of Teyvat, the monsters he had encountered and slain, the mysterious customs and people of the towns and villages he passed by. As the hours of the day trickled by, he would fill Ajax’s heart and mind with extraordinary visions of colourful, exotic places far more fantastical than sleepy Morepesok.

After his father had disappeared, Ajax had taken it upon himself to keep the tradition alive by taking his siblings out for ice fishing. The original tales of adventures would be ones he remembered from his father. Those stories would slowly be replaced with stories about his own adventures when he had advanced far enough up the ranks of the Fatui to be deployed outside of Snezhnaya.

Somewhere along the lines of trying to keep this family tradition alive, Ajax unexpectedly found himself enjoying the difficult task of drilling holes on the frozen lake and of the long stretches of quiet from ice fishing. There was peace in both of those things, a serenity afforded from being solely focused on an arduous but simple task and of waiting, surrounded by nothing but the wide expanse of ice, biting cold and utter, utter silence. Those moments offer Ajax the rare opportunities to reflect, truly reflect with no distraction, about his life, his goals, his past battles and more and more recently, his own happiness.

And now, Ajax supposes that he’s sharing this tradition with Zhongli. He can’t explain it, just the feeling that it feels like the right thing to do.

“Have you ever been ice fishing, Professor?” Ajax asks after they’ve left the house with a large bag of supplies. They are ambling towards the lakeshore behind the fenced backyard and the only instructions Ajax gave Zhongli was to dress very warmly. “It is an essential part of winter for many Snezhnayans, especially for folks who grew up by the shorelines. Snezhnayan winters are long and gruelling, but we have learned to embrace the snow and ice by making the most out of them through our winter activities.”

“I cannot say I have had the pleasure,” Zhongli replies. “Liyue’s winters are much too mild for the lakes to freeze completely over.”

Ajax grins. “Then you are in for a treat. But to make life a little more comfortable, please help me move the ice shack out on the lake.”

The “ice shack” is a tad more glamourous than its name describes it to be. It is a tiny, rustic rectangular structure constructed out of pine wood and painted a happy shade of blue on the outside. It is also extremely lightweight, possessing a door, a red roof that slopes at an angle, and a single tiny window to let light in. What’s noticeable about it is that it is slightly suspended on top of a pair of skis, which allows it to be pushed out onto the ice with greater ease.

“What is this for?” Zhongli asks as he and Ajax slowly manoeuvre the structure over the ice on the lake.

“It gives us somewhere warm to sit and wait for fish,” Ajax explains. “After drilling a hole over the ice, we put the shack over it. Inside the shack, there’s a flap on the floor that, when lifted, will give us access to the ice below and the newly made hole. We can then sit inside and fish in the comforts of somewhere a lot warmer than outside.”

“Ingenious,” Zhongli nods with appreciation. “And a pragmatic solution to battling the cold over long stretches of time.”

“The ice shack is not something that most locals use,” Ajax confesses. “I myself also tend to go for the more traditional method of fishing, which is to simply dress very warmly, get a chair and a thermos of fire-water, then brave the great outdoors while waiting for the fish to bite. I got the shack made for Tonia, Anthon and Teucer so that they can be more comfortable out on the ice."

“I am not surprised to hear that. You have demonstrated yourself to be very mindful of the comforts of your younger siblings, but you need not trouble yourself to get the shack on my behalf.”

Ajax flashes Zhongli a grin. “I figured your first ice fishing experience should be special and done in relative comfort. I also promised Tonia that I wouldn’t push my health with too much exposure to the cold, so the shack works for the both of us.”

They walk a solid fifteen minutes with Ajax guiding the way. “This is a good spot,” he says finally. “The ice and snow are thick here, and this is where the bottom of the lake starts to drop off into deeper water. This next part might take a while so please make yourself comfortable, Professor.”

He pulls out a long pick, a saw, and an ice auger from his pack and gets to work, first clearing the surface of as much snow as possible before slowly chiselling a small circle in the ice, digging in deeper and deeper while Zhongli watches in the background.

“Fascinating,” he muses and peers closer. “I had not realized that such a thick layer of ice can be formed over the lake. Chipping a hole must be back-breaking work, and yet you mentioned how this is an essential winter activity for Snezhnayans.”

“It can take multiple hours just to get a hole in the ice,” Ajax admits, pausing to remove some more snow and ice in the slowly deepening hole before going back to chiselling. “But just like the cold and the ice that we’ve accepted as part of our lives, so too is this task and the challenges associated with it. Personally, I’ve come to appreciate this task. It has become oddly soothing.”

“Oh? What were you like beforehand?”

“I was an impatient brat,” Ajax laughs, switching out the pick for the ice auger. “I watched my father slave away and would refuse to sit still. He learned to keep me entertained by telling me stories of his travels.” Ajax pauses and hums in thought. “Come to think of it, I think it’s on one of these excursions that he told me about the legend of Ajax the Great.”

At Zhongli’s questioning look, Ajax adds, “My father was an adventurer, so he had plenty of tales. For the longest time, I’ve dreamed of following in his footsteps and set out for parts unknown, but,” he shrugs, “life did not work out like that.”

Life has a tendency of throwing curve balls at Ajax.

They continue to make light conversation and in what feels like no time has passed, the hole is drilled, revealing the calm dark water under the ice. They push the shack over the newly opened spot and hurry inside.

The shack has a cozy interior compared to the cool blue that adorns the outside. The walls are painted with images of foaming, crashing waves over vibrant blue water filled with schools of colourful fish, courtesy of his siblings’ effort one afternoon. Wooden benches line the walls perpendicular to the door with soft blankets and cushions piled over them to add extra comfort. Built into the wall directly across from the door are rows of empty shelves and hooks for supply storage. Ajax rifles through his pack and lays out on the shelves the fishing supplies, bait, a heat lamp, and a large thermos with two shot glasses.

Zhongli glances at the thermos with interest. “Oh? What did you bring for this excursion?”

“It wouldn’t be ice fishing without some fire-water,” Ajax answers with a wink as he pours out two shots and hands one to Zhongli. “It’s tradition!”

Zhongli gracefully takes it and does not bat an eye at the pungent smell of alcohol. Good man. “Well then. I am hardly the one to stand in the way of tradition.”

“And as part of Snezhnayan tradition, a toast.” Ajax lifts his shot towards Zhongli, “Today, we are drinking to celebrate Master Zhongli’s first ice fishing experience. May Celestia smile upon us and grant us the luck to catch plenty before the alcohol runs out.” Even if the latter is unlikely considering Ajax had packed another two thermoses full of fire-water, just in case.

Gan bei,” Zhongli responds with an amused huff.

Ajax downs his shot with practice. To his surprise, Zhongli follows suit with the calm aplomb of an experienced fire-water drinker, which is with a great more dignity than Ajax had before he had gotten used to the taste. He had spluttered and coughed violently amongst the laughter of his peers.

With the baits prepared and the lines cast into the ice hole, there’s not much left to do except wait and snack on the roasted sunflower seeds Ajax packed for them.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had the opportunity to ask, and it’s definitely a belated question at this point, but how are you enjoying your time here in Morepesok and in Snezhnaya, Professor?” Ajax pours himself and Zhongli another shot of fire-water. “Unfortunately, this sleepy seaside town is quiet so there isn’t much to do here. It’s certainly much quieter than the hustle and bustle of Liyue. If you are interested and are feeling a bit restless, I’d be happy to escort you anywhere you’d like to visit.”

“No need. I am enjoying my time here, thank you. You and your family have been wonderful hosts.” Zhongli’s tone is so genuine that Ajax feels himself flushing a little. “I do not mind the quiet. It might be a departure from Liyue, but I’ve enjoyed the peace. It is…a nice way to truly begin my retirement and shed away any lingering habit from my days as an Archon. Living with your family too has been a novel experience. I do not think I’ve ever had the opportunity to live amongst the mortals in such an intimate manner.”

“Ha! You mean you’ve never actively chosen to live in a house with three loud, energetic, destructive children?” Ajax teases. “What a surprise!”

“Oh, they are hardly destructive,” Zhongli says mildly, sipping at his fire-water. “Mister Anthon only managed to accidentally set fire to his alchemy homework a small handful of times, and Mister Teucer only accidentally broke a couple of vases from playing tag indoors.”

Ajax chokes on his fire-water. “What? When? I’ve never heard of these incidents before!”

“Miss Tonia tends to step in in the nick of time and have Misters Anthon and Teucer clean up the mess. The threat of ‘telling Big Brother and he’d be so disappointed’ remains a powerful tool to keep the order in the house.”

“She’s always been the voice of reason amongst us,” Ajax says with pride. “It’s a shame that despite my best efforts, she had to grow up so quickly. My greatest wish is for her and my brothers to remain carefree and happy for as long as they can, to live out a normal childhood.”

Zhongli puts his glass down beside him with a soft clink. “Ajax, can I ask what happened with your parents?”

It’s not lost on Ajax that a month and a half ago, this question would have been met with a cold, resounding ‘no’ from him, and yet, in that short span of time, he and Zhongli seemed to have become much closer than they ever were back in Liyue. Now, sitting in the cozy ice shack surrounded by his siblings' paintings, his belly warm from the fire-water and his heart warm from the soft way the other had asked his question, Ajax can’t imagine himself refusing Zhongli’s request.

It still doesn’t mean it’s an easy topic to dive into, so he pours himself a fresh glass of fire-water, downs it, and braces himself.

“Before I was born,” he begins. “Morepesok was a tiny hamlet as opposed to the growing port village that it is today. The only way one can make a living is by fishing. Unfortunately, according to my father, he was a rather terrible fisherman. He was too impatient and too restless to be doing it as his full time occupation, so he opted to do something else to earn income. He became an adventurer instead.

“He loved everything about it – the freedom, the excitement, the opportunity to scale to heights previously unattained or to test his might in epic fights. He did well for himself too. It was through one of his adventures that he met Mother, and the two of them decided to settle down in Morepesok”

Ajax helps himself to more fire-water. He lifted the thermos towards Zhongli in a wordless offer to top-up, which the other refused just as quietly with a shake of his head.

He continues, “Mother had a weak constitution and was prone to sickness. It was why they had decided to live in Morepesok. The fresh sea air would do her some good, and sea water baths would improve her health.

“Father had wanted to quit adventuring to spend more time with his wife, but with, well, me on the way, he decided to start adventuring again to earn income to support the family, at least temporarily until finances were better. He scaled his adventuring down to only take place during summer and fall.

“But as the family slowly grew and Mother’s health declining, he never had that option to stop, so year after year, he would leave Snezhnaya and go on new adventures once again.

“Then, one year, he never came back.”

Zhongli’s breath hitches. Ajax shakes his head. “It - it’s a long time ago, Professor. I’ve made…peace with it.” As much peace as one can in a situation such as his.

“Anyway,” he clears his throat. “We were – Mother was – Mother did not take it well and her health plummeted. Without Father, we were also quickly spiralling into destitution so, uh, I made a decision.”

“You joined the Fatui,” Zhongli surmises quietly, his lips curling down. “How old were you?”

Ajax barks out a laugh. “Far too young! Younger than their minimum age requirement, that’s for sure. Please don’t tell anyone.” He fires Zhongli a wry grin. “Between watching my family starve, and joining the military, which will pay me and keep me clothed and fed, joining the Fatui was a great idea. I figured that if I climbed the ladder quickly, I would be able to earn enough for the family, maybe even retire early if I make it big. I don’t know, I was an angry kid with a massive chip on my shoulder so the early days of being in the Fatui are a bit of a blur, including the plans I’ve made then. All that anger probably helped with my fighting though. Made me fearless and, apparently, a bit feral according to my superior officers.”

He was a cadet from a poor sea-port hamlet with anger issues a mile wide. He stuck out like a sore thumb in all the worst ways, especially amongst the wealthy boys who had wanted to join the Fatui with the belief that nepotism would carry them through. Ajax still wonders how he managed to make it through training without getting murdered especially with how many noses he had broken that first month. But he was willing to work harder than anyone, he was hungry for it, in fact, because more work equalled more recognition, equalled to a faster promotion. He very quickly established a reputation for himself for being ruthless in addition to being highly combative.

Apparently, those are the cornerstones of success in the Fatui.

“Things simultaneously worked and didn’t. I had earned enough income to support the family, but no amount of money was enough to keep Mother’s health up. Eventually, her illness became too much and she passed.”

Ajax lets his head drop on the wall behind him. He lifts his cool shot glass and presses it against his warm forehead and closes his eyes, relishing in the cold, in anything aside from the overwhelming sadness that threatens to spill out.

His mother had been peaceful in her final moments, happy even. After all, she was going to rejoin the love of her life, had whispered so much with her last breath, and died with a smile on her face.

But, there’s a part of him that can’t help but be hurt and resentful and bitter over that, even if he knows he’s being stupidly, stupidly childish.

Because it was clear to Ajax then and there that she had chosen a dead man over him. Had chosen to leave him, and was happy to be leaving.

It seemed like no matter what Ajax did, he simply was not enough to make her want to stay.

Familiar, delicate fingers lace his, and Ajax slowly opens his eyes. Zhongli had reached out from his bench and he’s leaning in, tightening his grip on the hand. He looks…he looks…

Sad. So very sad. His shoulders are slumped, his eyes are downcast and soft and there’s the smallest downturn of his lips, twisting them into a delicate frown.

“I…” Zhongli hesitates, “I am so very sorry, Ajax.”

About two months ago, Ajax had snapped at Zhongli for giving him the same, generic, emotionless spiel he would give to grieving people at Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. Zhongli had struck the perfect balance of poise, seriousness, with just a hint of sadness and it had felt laughably hollow.

Today, before him, Zhongli is a bit of a mess compared to that previous version. It’s obvious that he’s a loss for words even if he’s scrambling to relay his sentiments.

Ajax much prefers what he sees before him.

He squeezes the hand in return and forces out a chuckle as he wrestles to put his heart back together. “Thank you, Professor. It’s alright. Things didn’t turn out too shabby at the end. We’re not living in destitute anymore and I ended up meeting you. Those are all good things.”

Zhongli nods. He also squeezes Ajax’s hand back one last time before letting go. Ajax appreciates the gesture.


When he feels like the wound in his chest is stitched up properly, he pastes on a smile and says, “Enough about me and my tales of woe. Why don’t we speak of happier times, Professor? Tell me an adventure from your days as an Archon that no historian knows.”

“An adventure that nobody knows.” Zhongli rubs his chin in contemplation. “I suppose…there is the incident involving demons from the sea. This was long before I became the Geo Archon, but I have already established my title as the God of Contract amongst the populace of Liyue…”

Ajax listens with rapt attention as Zhongli describes what is truly a gruelling campaign not against legendary monsters with the strength that could raze cities or cunning, scheming foes from the Abyss. No, the campaign was against tiny, squirming, stinking sea creatures. Millions upon millions of them.

“Wait, wait,” Ajax blurts out with underlying laughter, “you mean to tell me that your most difficult battle is not the one involving the gods you sealed, but instead, it’s this…pest extermination mission?”

Zhongli is hunched over in misery. It’s his turn to cradle the glass of fire-water. He downs it in one gulp and Ajax reaches for the thermos to quietly refill it.

“No spear blow could hit them, they were too fast,” Zhongli says with a grimaced shiver and a haunted look of the truly traumatized. “I had to travel from house to house and cage them in stone. There were so many of them, and they had so many cursed, wriggling tentacles that would latch on to anything, and dear Celestia, the infernal smell they would excrete! I had to burn so many sets of battle armour because they were completely unsalvageable. And a set of fine silk golden pyjamas because one had escaped its prison and tried to attack me in my sleep.”

“Is this why you tend to avoid the seafood market?” Ajax presses on with glee. “And how you recoiled when I made my seafood soup that one time?”

Zhongli’s silence is answer enough and Ajax cackles. He’s so amused by the mental imagery of Morax as Zhongli, hair mussed with sleep and grumpily staring at a bonfire of his burned silks that it takes a few seconds for him to register the fact that, “Wait. If you’re so afraid of seafood, why in Teyvat did you agree to go ice fishing with me?

“I don’t mind fish as much,” Zhongli mumbles. “So long as they don’t wiggle a lot or smell and if they are cooked firmly chopped up, they are perfectly acceptable. Besides, you said this is an important tradition. I have no desire to miss what is important to you.”

The urge to face palm is real, even if Zhongli is being adorably endearing. Ajax settles for flushing like an infatuated school girl instead. “Next time, please tell me if you have any triggers so that we can avoid exacerbating existing traumas.”

Oddly enough, that garners a wistful smile from Zhongli.

“Just then, you sound like Guizhong. She too would scold me like that.”

Now that is a name that Ajax has heard of during his stay in Liyue. It’s hard not to, not when this Goddess of Dust seems so beloved even thousands of years after her death.

Her name also comes up a lot in the early legends of Rex Lapis.

“Tell me about her,” Ajax says, handing some conciliatory roasted sunflower seeds to Zhongli. “What was she like?”

“She was,” Zhongli looks up in thought and huffs out a gentle laugh. For some reason, this sends a little pang to Ajax’s chest. “She was kind. And wise. She deeply sympathized with the humans and understood that despite their fragility, they have the means to rise above their weaknesses using their intelligence. She saw herself in humans since she was not the strongest Goddess and relied heavily on strategy and wisdom to survive.”

“The history texts described the two of you as partners,” Ajax says softly. “The two of you apparently ruled over Guili Plains together.”

Zhongli hums in agreement. “Indeed, we were partners up until her death. She had named Guili by combining our names together. I went by Zhongli at the time of meeting her. ‘Guizhong and Zhongli make Guili,’ she had said. ‘It’s a cute name, is it not?’ I thought she was mad.”

Ajax chuckles along even through the second little pang. He’s starting to regret asking Zhongli to talk about Guizhong.

Zhongli drains his glass and shakes his head, his smile a gentle, fragile thing. “Despite her sometimes questionable comments, of the two of us there was no doubt that she was clearly the brains and I the brawns. But she taught me valuable knowledge and skills that guided my ability to protect the people of Liyue. In so doing, she became my greatest ally and over time, my dearest friend as well. Of all the deities that have left Liyue over the last 6000 years, she remains the one I miss the most.”

That statement shouldn’t hurt as much as it does, because logically, it makes sense. All texts point to Morax’s great and epic friendship with the Goddess of Dust and clearly, she was a pivotal figure in his early days as a god, and yet, the sharp ache comes back with a vengeance.

His dearest friend.

Childe hides his grimace behind the act of drinking more fire-water.

“I can see how important she was to you. I'm sorry she passed.”

“Such is the way of the Archon War,” Zhongli sighs, and at that moment, he looks weary, bent over the way he is, staring blankly at the empty glass in his hand. It looks like the weight of 6000 years of history is resting on his back. “Times were not kind back then, not to the gods and certainly not to the humans trying to survive. She was infuriatingly optimistic though. She…had even worn a smile up until the very end, and had said to me, ‘It seems that our journey together has come to an end.’

“I have always wondered how she could have smiled the way she did. Perhaps, I will finally have the chance to ask her once this mortal life is finished. And when it is my time to go, I too wish to greet death with a smile, comforted by the knowledge that I will reunite with her shortly.”

Ajax abruptly stands up before he registers what he’s doing. His shot glass tumbles to the ground and rolls under the bench, but he ignores it. “Sorry. I – uh, I need to get some fresh air. I’ll be right back.”

The rush of cold air against his face makes his eyes and his skin prick uncomfortably, but he forces himself to take deep calming breaths of it nonetheless.

That…had hit too close to home. The image of Zhongli’s passing with Guizhong in his thoughts and her name on his lips had juxtaposed with his mother’s last moments as she called out for his father.

His dearest friend.

Ajax can’t help but feel a renewed surge of pure unadulterated rage as red and hot as fire, wrapped tightly around a flood of hurt and pain.

Stupid. He’s being so, so irrationally stupid. He has no reason – Zhongli is not his to begin with and from the way the ex-Archon had looked recounting his past with Guizhong, Ajax doubts Zhongli would ever be. But when he heard Zhongli utter those words with that wistful gleam in his eyes, all Ajax could think of was, all he could hear in his thoughts were the words:

‘Ah, here’s another person who wouldn’t ever choose me.’

Ajax fights back the lump rising in his throat with savage anger. When that doesn’t work, he presses his palms into his eyes and wills himself to calm down.

Fuck. Just because he has these…terrible, all-encompassing feelings towards the man doesn’t mean Zhongli has to reciprocate them. Zhongli literally does not owe him anything outside of a base-level courtesy, certainly not his attention, his affection, his love –

Ajax freezes and the world goes eerily still and quiet around him.

Love?

Since when did love factor into the equation?

It feels like he’s been sucker-punched in the gut. There’s no way that he’s – that Ajax is – oh, no. No, no, no, no!

Ajax lets himself sink to the ground with a groan. He draws his knees up, wraps his hands around his legs, and buries his head into his knees. He’s trying to keep his breath steady over the rapid thrumming of his heart. He doesn’t think he’s doing a very good job from how ragged his breaths are coming in.

This is a terrible idea. Beyond a terrible idea. A crush he can handle because who doesn’t have a crush on Zhongli, but love? He can’t fall in love with Zhongli. The man is only supposed to be here for a little bit and once he’s done, he’s going to leave.

He’s going to leave. He’s going to leave Ajax because he wouldn’t ever choose him.

Ajax knows Zhongli’s not going to choose him. Because to choose him means Zhongli would also have to choose Childe and Tartaglia as well, and nobody’s ever done that. Nobody’s ever embraced Ajax, all of Ajax, including his ugly, jagged facets.

The pang of hurt comes back and Ajax almost laughs. Fitting. It’s serving to rub salt to the wound.

“Ajax.”

The voice is right behind him. That almost sends him into another round of hysterical laughter because of fucking course, just his luck, Zhongli has to be present just as he’s in the middle of an emotional breakdown.

“Ajax. What’s wrong?”

He can feel a familiar hand on his back, right between his shoulder blades. There’s the sound of clothes rustling, and suddenly, Zhongli’s voice is coming right next to his ear.

“…I have made you upset, didn’t I?”

Worse, Mister Zhongli. You have broken my heart, one that I did not even know I had given to you.

“I’m being stupid,” Ajax grits out instead from the safety of his curled position. He refuses to look up. “I just need a moment. Please go back inside. It’s cold out here.”

“And abandon you out here? Never.”

The pang of pain comes back, but Ajax manages to laugh. He thinks he might have sounded a bit hysterical rather than teasing. “You – you shouldn’t say things like that, Professor!” he chokes out. “What is a boy like me supposed to think?”

Whatever response Zhongli is about to give, Ajax never finds out because at that moment, the sharp pang of pain he’s been feeling before flares brightly.

Except this time, instead of from his chest, the pain is originating from his right hand.

Ajax’s eyes fly open wide – no, this is impossible. He’s supposed to be –

All at once, the nerves in his arm light up, bright and sharp and oh so familiar in the ferocious way they burn, and he cries out in agony, bringing his arm to his chest, huddling over.

“Ajax?!”

Waves of stabbing, cutting pain crash into him, coupled with the growing sensation of the flesh in his arm being burned to a crisp. Ajax smells ozone, and following that, feels the tell-tale sign of dancing pin-needles prickling across his skin, starting from the tips of his fingers. They zip up, up and up, past his wrist, his forearm, his elbow, his bicep.

He’s supposed to be cured! He’s supposed to feel better!

Hands roll him to his back; he must have toppled over at some point, curled in a foetal position on the ice as he clutches his arm, screaming. Hands are prying open his lips and the lip of glass vial clicks painfully against his teeth.

“ – medicine. You need to swallow. Please, Ajax.”

He manages to gulp down the medicine being poured into his mouth, focusing on the unnatural cool sliminess of the liquid as it slides all the way down the back of his throat to his stomach. It takes a few more minutes for it to kick in and almost immediately, Ajax feels the pain in his arm recede.

But not the pain from the crushing feeling of disappointment and hopelessness.

“No, no, no, no, no,” he sobs out even as he feels himself being lifted up into the safety of Zhongli’s arm. His head is rapidly filling up with fog, and he’s halfway to unconsciousness, his words slurring fast, “I’m supposed to be cured. I’m supposed to be better. Why didn’t the cure work? Why aren’t I better?

“I do not know,” comes Zhongli’s low response. He sounds angry. “But, I intend to find out.”

It’s the last thing Ajax hears before sinking to sleep.

Chapter Text

XVI. The Rabbit Hole

Fire and ice. The world around him burns and freezes him at the same time, and it throws Ajax’s senses in a loop as he wrestles between obeying his instincts to spread out so his sweating skin can get some sweet respite of fresh, cold air, or to curl up in a miserable, shivering ball in some futile attempt to preserve heat. The air around him is heavy and damp, and it presses against his chest like an iron weight. He gasps, trying to suck in a lungful of much-needed air, but finds himself choking and coughing painful, wet coughs that make his lungs ache. In the meantime, all he can do is shake and shake and shake.

His mind feels muffled like he’s viewing everything through a haze of white smoke. Not like there’s much to see at the moment; everything around him is simply a dusty blue for as far as the eye can see, spreading out and out in an infinity of nothingness. Sometimes, he thinks he’d be able to catch a glimpse of a shadow, a dark, moving whisp from his peripheral vision, but whenever he turns his head to it, all he sees is more blue.

“ – jax…not good…burning up –”

“Fever…dehydrated…need to cool down.”

He thinks he feels something cool pass through his lips.

“…drink. Please drink this.”

He ignores it in favour of looking at the blue.

Something…feels off about all this. Wasn’t he in the middle of something? Or maybe, he’s got plans to do more things, important things. He can’t remember at the moment, not at the sight of never-ending blue stretching out before him, its yawning nothingness beckoning him to gaze deeper.

He reaches out.

The world ripples around him like a stone being thrown into a pond, and that endless blue falls away like a curtain dropping from the ceiling. Suddenly, his surroundings change; trees sprout from the ground, growing tall and tall in the manner of seconds while the grass beneath his feet grows and expands outwards in a carpet of verdant green. The air smells fresh and crisp like spring and in the distance, he thinks he can hear the sound of waves, lapping against the shoreline.

This place…he knows this place. He’s seen it before.

“There you are, son.”

Ajax freezes. He knows that voice.

He turns around.

Standing before him is a tall man with russet hair, a shade darker than Ajax’s own. He’s got a broad frame made strong from the constant travelling, climbing, and fighting he has to do, and he has eyes the same vibrant blue as his own. He smiles, and it feels like home.

“Father,” Ajax chokes out. His voice is softer and high-pitched – far younger than what he should sound like as an adult. “Father, do you have to go? Can’t you stay for another week?”

His father – Leonid – walks up to Ajax and bends down to one knee, putting a hand on his shoulder. Huh, since when did Ajax become so small again?

“My son,” he says, his gaze soft and sad, “I would love nothing more than to stay, but if I don’t leave now, I won’t be able to meet my commission deadlines. How will I keep you and your poor little sister and brothers from going hungry? Or help your mother to feel better?”

When Ajax doesn’t answer, he sighs. “For their sake and mine, I will need you to be strong, alright little man?”

Leonid smiles at Ajax’s begrudging nod. “Good. Good. I know you can do it, my son. But do not look so glum, I have a present for you.”

He draws a plain wooden spear out seemingly out of nowhere and with two hands, he gently deposited it onto Ajax’s open palms.

“Remember our little practice spars? Well, I thought it is high time that you finally get your own spear instead of using the training ones.”

Leonid chuckles and continues, “I know it doesn’t look like much, son, but train well with this. When I come back, I want to see what you can do.”

But Ajax knows better. Ajax knows because he’s been through this before. Ajax knows and can’t forget the fact that –

“But you don’t come back,” he whispers, his voice once again his adult one. The world around him falls apart anew, this time in a shower of dust.


“How is he doing? Did he wake up?”

“No, not yet. Still asleep, but at least he’s stopped thrashing around and is resting more peacefully. Whatever it is that Master Zhongli gave him seems to be helping.”

“Good. Keep an eye on Master Zhongli as well. That man is our only hope with keeping Lord Tartaglia on the mend. We can’t afford if he falls ill as well.”


Just like with the memory of his father, the world around him rebuilds itself piece by piece and before Ajax knows it, he’s standing once again in a field of grass. This time, however, it’s accompanied by the soft sound of mournful cries.

He looks down in his hand and, oh. He’s clutching onto a fistful of dirt.

Before him is a hole, a great, yawning rectangular hole, and in there lays –

“I am so sorry for your loss, Ajax.”

“My deepest condolences.”

“Your mother was a kind, gentle woman.”

Ah, Ajax thinks, so that’s who this burial is for.

He remembers vaguely her funeral. He had scraped up whatever funds he could spare to make sure she had a respectable service, something more than what they could provide for Father. The day had been warm, beautiful, and calm when she was buried, the sky a bright blue with not a hint of cloud. A rarity for autumns in Snezhnaya, which are traditionally gloomy affairs.

He remembers feeling nothing but cold numbness.

He had felt numb throughout the funeral service.

He had felt numb watching his mother’s casket brought to the cemetery, then lowered into the ground.

And now…

He walks up to the open grave, at the wooden casket sitting at the bottom where she will remain for eternity.

He lets go of his fistful of dirt, watching it fall over the casket, and feels nothing.


“…made soup for Big Brother…make sure he eats it, Master Zhongli?”

“ – promise. His temperature is getting back to normal. Just a bit more medicine would do.”

“I hope you feel better soon, Big Brother.”


It was afterwards, in the safety of his room, after making sure his siblings were being taken care of by their neighbours, that he had allowed himself to break.

As if the world around him is listening to his thoughts, it deconstructs, splintering around him like glass, but it reconstructs itself just as quickly, this time to the image of his old bedroom.

Ajax glances around. Everything is as he remembers – his rickety wooden bed, his multiple blankets, patched on multiple spots to cover holes and tears, the tapestries that hang from his otherwise barren walls except for the one wooden spear propped up against it near the corner.

He doesn’t know what’s compelling him to do this, but just like he had all those years ago, he finds himself taking slow steps to his once childhood bed, and sinking onto it in a slump. He buries his face in his hands.

Old worries come flooding back in a rush like waves crashing against the shoreline and he finds himself drowning, drowning, drowning.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. What is Ajax going to do now? He’s got his kid siblings to look after and his position in the military and on top of that, there’s so much to do at home. He’s just one person. He’s not even legally an adult yet. He can’t possibly – he doesn’t know how to take care of everything. He doesn’t know if he can manage it. And it’s not fair that everyone’s left, that she chose to leave when she should have fought harder for them. Are they not her children? Are they not worth her effort?

Why didn’t she try? Why didn’t she want to stay? Why is everything left to him?

But if not him, then who else?

Outside, the sun continues to shine and it casts a cheery warm beam on the floor through the gap between his curtains. Ajax wipes his eyes with the back of his hands.

There isn’t anyone left to look after his siblings, not his father and certainly not his mother. It’s just Ajax now.

It’s just Ajax.

And Ajax, as he is, isn’t enough, not if it’s just him facing the world alone. He – he needs to do better. He needs to be stronger. He needs to climb so high up the ladder that the fear of trivial things like hunger is nothing more than a faded nightmare for him and what’s left of his family. He needs to become so powerful that nothing would dare to hurt what’s his ever again.

More importantly, he needs to become so strong that his family won’t have to fight for their survival.

He needs more power.

But what he had wanted then, what he had wanted above everything else as he sat there in the quiet of his old bedroom, the beginnings of his Childe and Tartaglia masks starting to manifest in the back of his mind, what he had wanted was –

“Ajax, just another sip alright? This is some medicinal tea I have brewed using a blend of herbs that include glaze lilies and shimmering nectar from cryo whopperflower. It is sweet and light. There, not so bad, is it?” The sound of a light chuckle. “No turtles were hurt in the making of this tea, I promise.” 

“Hm, your temperature is going back to normal. This is good. You had me scared there for a while, but I knew you wouldn’t just give up without a fight. You wouldn’t be Trouble Magnet Ajax otherwise.”

" There. Fresh compresses on your arm. I am sorry to say that we are reverting back to the blend of fire-water and my mixture of herbs even though you do not enjoy the smell of fire-water on your skin.”

“I should let you rest, but I worry so. I worry that if I leave, things might turn for the worse. But mostly, I do not wish to leave you alone for my own selfish reasons. What do you think? Do you wish me to stay or go?”

All Ajax had ever wanted was for someone to –

“Stay.”

The world dissolves into a shower of dust once more except instead of reconstructing itself anew, his surroundings become a blurred mess of colours. It takes a few seconds for him to realize that his eyes are open and that everything hurts with an all-encompassing soreness he hasn’t felt since his early days of Fatui training. Even his eyelashes hurt.

“Ajax?”

There’s a dark blur moving towards him. It reaches a formless limb out and brushes a cool hand against his forehead. The gesture is so tender and familiar that it makes Ajax want to weep.

Silkflowers. It smells like silkflowers.

Zhongli.

His hand is reaching out before he knows it. He’s shaking and shaking and shaking, but his fingers manage to curl around the other’s pale wrist in a weak grip.

“Stay,” he rasps out despite the pain in his throat. “Please don’t leave. Please don’t go.”

The dark blur lowers itself to Ajax’s eye level and the brightest pair of amber eyes swim into vision. Something in Ajax cries with relief, it’s Zhongli. It’s Zhongli.

Another cool hand brushes against his face except this time, it trails down to cup one of his cheeks. The sensation feels so nice that Ajax practically melts into the touch.

“Of course,” Zhongli murmurs. “How can I possibly refuse?”

The words ground his floating mind to the present like nothing else, and something tight and anxious finally unravels in Ajax’s chest. He sighs, relaxed at last, and feels his eyelids droop back shut.

This time, when he falls back asleep, it’s to a comfortable, warm presence beside him and to a world of warm amber instead of cold, desolate blue.


In between floating in his dream-like state and waking up in a groggy, miserable mess, he’d catch snippets of the world around him.

Like whispered chatters of his siblings accompanied by the sound of clinking cutleries against dishes, and inevitably, the taste of warm, briny soup poured into his mouth bit by bit. There’s also the sensation of something warm and wet wrapped around his arm, and the feeling of cold cloth wiping his heated face and neck, and the soft, comfortable weight of his cover draping over him with care.

There’s always, always, the scent of silkflowers lingering in the air.

But sometimes, he’d catch things he couldn’t quite parse out, bits and pieces of conversations like scattered pieces of a puzzle. The oddest he’s heard are from Zhongli, his deep voice reverberating even as his words remain curt. Angry.

Zhongli? Angry? What a novel experience.

“…message to the Cryo Archon…will not tolerate harm to Tartaglia by the Third Harbinger...”

“…patient for now but not for long…”

“…if he is not going to fall in line, then I will find him and make him… a promise from Morax.”

Ajax feels like he should be more alarmed, and he probably would be if he’s more coherent. He’s not really registering the meaning of those words, just the way Zhongli’s voice is descending into low growls like a threatened mother bear.

Or a livid dragon.

With a small sound of distress, Ajax snuggles closer to the warmth that has not left his side. His face brushes up against something soft and satin, and he curls up around it with a sigh, throwing a lazy arm around it for good measure.

The growling stops.

A familiar hand brushes up against his forehead and runs its fingers through his hair in slow repetitive strokes. Ajax lets out a soft ‘hmm’ of content bliss.

It’s with a greater of semblance of control that Zhongli finally says, just as Ajax is on the cusp of dozing off again, “I trust that the Cryo Archon understands the severity of this circumstance and the extent in which I, Morax, will ensure the contract is being honoured.”


Eventually, the grogginess in his mind die down, like great waves gently receding from the sandy shores, and peace reasserts itself in Ajax’s being. He blinks awake to the sight of the wooden beams of his bedroom ceiling, for once, not feeling completely like death incarnate. Only most of his muscles are sore and aching, not all. Ajax chalks that up as a victory.

He…is beginning to get real sick and tired of feeling so sick and tired all the time.

At least laying still as he is, he’s comfortable. A glance down shows that he’s been buried under a small mound of blankets and furs, which explains a lot. There’s also the soft heat source beside him that’s keeping his side nice and toasty, and his aching muscles loose. He closes his eyes and sighs a happy sigh.

A low chuckle stops him in his tracks. His eyes snap back open. That sounds like it’s coming from right beside him, not to mention, horribly, horribly familiar. What in Teyvat?

His gaze lands on the dark figure beside him at his heat source.

Zhongli is looking at him with a delighted smile on his face.

Ajax blinks.

Zhongli is seated up in Ajax’s bed. He is wearing his silk robes and his hair is loose. His legs are under the covers, though he’s spared from the mound of blankets on top of Ajax. Over his lap are multiple books and scrolls, opened and haphazardly splayed out with parchments filled with Zhongli’s meticulous writing next to them.

Zhongli himself also looks marginally dishevelled, which only makes Ajax stare even longer. For once, his robes are wrinkled, and his hair is fluffed out and mussed. He’s also beaming at Ajax with the relief of a man seeing, for the first time, the sun appearing through parted clouds after a week of torrential rain.

Ajax would have enjoyed the view a little longer if it isn’t for the fact that at this exact moment, the memories from that fateful ice fishing trip comes crashing in like water bursting through a dam. It’s accompanied by the fleeting images and sensations from his convoluted dreams, mixed with an abundance of mortification that can be piled as high as Mount Dragonspine.

Zhongli tilts his head. “Ajax?” he asks, softly, the light of the room makes his eyes glow warm and beautiful. Everything about the man is warm and beautiful, and he is sitting in Ajax’s bed.

Even though this isn’t the first time he’s had Zhongli in his bed (and what a sad, sad statement that is because he means that quite figuratively), the sheer domesticity of it all never gets old, and Ajax feels his heart stutters and yearns.

Ajax makes a pathetic little sound and promptly buries himself back into his cocoon of blankets so that not even his head is showing.

He can’t believe he broke down like that, and in front of Zhongli too. What was supposed to be a wonderful ice fishing excursion was ruined because of him and his issues and triggers and his realization that he’s deeply, deeply in love with the terrible man in his bed who’s not going to want him back, and fuck, that thought makes his heart hurt all over again. 

“Ajax?”

How is he supposed to salvage this situation? How is he supposed to salvage his dignity? Well, there’s not much of that left so that’s clearly a lost cause. Better question: how is he supposed to move forward with his relationship with Zhongli? Can he even pretend that everything is alright?

Can he hide just how far gone he is for the ex-archon?

The comforting darkness in his cocoon disappears, leaving Ajax to blink owlishly at the sudden brightness assaulting his vision.

“There you are,” Zhongli says, the corner of his lips curling up into a teasing smile. He’s also holding the blanket up, clearly having peeled back the cocoon. Ajax has to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself from making another pathetic, yearning sound.

Zhongli takes the opportunity to slowly reach over and press a hand against Ajax’s forehead, like he is handling a particularly skittish cat. “Normal,” he says after a few seconds, drawing away with an audible sigh of relief. “That is good. You had me worried, Ajax. You were fevering for the past few days but it seems like the fever is gone completely.”

A fresh string of colourful ‘fucks’ explodes in his mind like fireworks going off in the night sky in Liyue Harbour. Fevering? A few days? From the way Zhongli is speaking, and from his highly unusual state of dishevelment, it also looks like the ex-Archon had been acting as his caretaker once again, except this time, things must have been bad to the point where his bullshit adepti ability to look perfect can’t keep up.

On a tangential but related note, why is Zhongli in his bed again?

A wisp of memory appears before his mind’s eye, of convoluted dreams and of him, reaching a weak hand to grab at the dark figure in front of him.

He had pleaded for it to stay.

The figure had bright amber eyes.

Oh, Tsaritsa’s frozen tits!

In his delirium, he had begged Zhongli to stay like a needy child, had practically forced him to his bed, and for some bizarre reason, Zhongli had indulged him.

Of course, he would, his mind whispers. Didn’t he honour your words when you told him not to fall asleep in the armchair? What makes you think he’ll react differently when you ask him to stay?

“Is something the matter?” Zhongli asks, frowning. Probably because Ajax hasn’t said anything since waking up. “Are you in pain? Is it your arm?”

“I’m…just processing,” Ajax mumbles for the lack of a better answer, his voice hoarse. “It’s a lot. I’m...fine.”

He’s lying. He’s not fine. He wants nothing more than for the world to just miraculously open up and swallow him whole so that he’s spared from having to deal with all these problems and feelings, but his words make Zhongli visibly relax as he predicts they would. That’s one positive coming out of this mess.

He still has no idea what to do with his feelings. He’s not sure he even has the energy to formulate a coherent plan at the moment. He should probably tackle this when he’s in a better shape to think clearly. For now, he can continue to do what he’s done best, and that’s to shove everything to the side and stubbornly plough on.

“How,” Ajax winces at the way he croaks and clears his throat, “how are the children?”

“They are perfectly fine,” Zhongli answers gently. He drops the blanket back down, making sure to tuck it so that it rests comfortably under Ajax’s chin. “They are at school at the moment but they would be ecstatic when they come back later to see that you are up. Here, let me get you some water. Can you sit up or do you need help?”

There are only so many blows to his pride Ajax can take. He waves off Zhongli’s concern and slowly, awkwardly pushes himself up. It’s embarrassing. Even such a simple act has his arms shaking and him feeling winded.

It makes the cool glass of water that Zhongli pours out from the jug sitting on the bedside table an absolute sight for sore eyes.

“Slowly, drink slowly,” Zhongli chides at the way Ajax is gulping down his glass. “There’s plenty more if you want another glass.”

“Thank you,” Ajax murmurs the moment he’s drunk his fill. Zhongli calmly takes his glass, refills it once more, and presses it back into his hand.

“I suppose you are curious to know what happened?” Zhongli asks. At Ajax’s answering nod, he elaborates, “You were sick for two and a half days.” Ajax tightens his grip on his glass. “I brought you back home after you took the medicine and your temperature immediately started rising. Luckily, we were able to wrestle it back under control with medicinal teas and the occasional cooling compresses.

“Oh, the fishing shack and gear have been brought back and stored safely by your agents,” Zhongli adds even before Ajax can ask. “Please do not be concerned.”

Ajax nods and utters another quiet ‘thanks’ before bringing the glass to his lips. Once again, his capable agents swoop in to save the day. He really ought to increase their bonuses this year. They did not sign up to clean up after Ajax and are going above and beyond their usual assigned duties.

“So, uh, what’s all this?” Ajax asks, nodding to the books and scrolls.

Zhongli’s expression turns sheepish. “I, uh, apologize for the mess. I wanted to continue my research on potential cures but I did not want to leave you. I thought this was a good compromise.”

“Have you rested at all during these past few days?” Ajax blurts out.

That garners a small, soft smile from the ex-Archon. “I have rested some, but do not worry about me. I possess a different structure from normal people. If you wish to worry, please worry more about yourself. You’re still recovering.”

Just the reminder of his illness makes him feel groggy anew, and he winces at the lingering aches clinging to his muscles. Goddess, when was the last time he had a fever? Not since he was a child. He’s normally pretty healthy, rarely getting anything more serious than minor sniffles for a cold. The only instances where he’s confined to his bed are due to his injuries from glorious battle or acts of profound stupidity.

Ajax shifts his weight and bites down the grimace at the way his back twinges in warning. Being ill is just awful. Not to mention, he feels disgusting, probably because he’s been marinating in his own sweat for the past two days. How Zhongli can stand sharing a bed with him is beyond Ajax.

The more he thinks about it, the better the idea of a bath sounds.

Of course, that would mean he’d have to get out of bed first, which is proving to be more of a daunting challenge with every passing second.

Steeling himself, he slowly pushes the mound of blanket off of him so that he could wiggle to the side of the bed towards freedom. He doesn’t get very far; his shaking muscles manage to get him a couple of inches before a supportive hand rests on his shoulders, stabilizing him before he can keel to the side.

“Ajax, do you need something?”

“Washroom,” Ajax grimaces. “And a bath. I feel disgusting.”

 Zhongli lets out a soft hum. “Here, let me.”

Before Ajax can protest, Zhongli pushes the books and scrolls off of himself, gets up and practically jogs around the bed to get to Ajax’s side. Deceptively strong arms scoop him up into a bridal carry like Ajax weighs nothing, making him yelp at the unexpected gesture.

“Professor!” he squeaks, his face glowing as red as a flaming flower. He’s also desperately trying not to pay attention to the (deliciously) hard plane of muscles he’s pressed up against, or the way Zhongli had picked him up with an ease that screams of experience. “I can – this is wholly unnecessary!”

But Zhongli is unfazed. “Nonsense. You want to get to the washroom quickly and I would rather you get there without falling over. This arrangement gets us both what we want.”

“I can walk just fine!” Ajax protests even if he has serious doubts about that statement. “I’ve been through worse –”

“Yes, yes, you’ve had worse injuries in your line of duty as a Harbinger.” Zhongli has the audacity to roll his eyes. “Oh, look, and here we are. How delightfully quick and easy that was.”

At least Zhongli leaves him alone to use the washroom and to stew in his bath of mortification in peace. Thank Celestia for that because the ex-Archon does not witness how Ajax almost falls flat on his face a few times or the clumsy way he unwinds the bandage around his arm, recoiling at the pungent scent of fire-water, Liyuan medicine, and sweat wafting up at him. But the sight of those bandages is a stark reminder of his ongoing problem with the Dottore.

The cure had not worked. In fact, it seemed to have made him feel worse by triggering a high fever.

Ajax sinks into his steaming bath water, his mind whirring away even as his muscles relax in the soothing warmth.

Just what the hell is the Doctor playing at?

Dottore did say that the cure is still a work in progress, although there’s a possibility he’s merely saying that as a cover-up for the cure being a dud. Personally, Ajax is not sold that the Dottore would send him a complete dud. Ever the scientist, the Dottore prioritizes his research above all else and abhors wasting his time and resources on things that would not advance his projects.

This means that either this cure was a genuine attempt by the man that had unfortunately failed, or…

Ajax freezes.

Or that this cure serves a secondary purpose, possibly for testing something else.

Ajax grabs the washcloth and rose-scented soap and starts the slow task of scrubbing the filth off every inch of his skin. His mind continues to wander.

But what could this secondary experiment be? What is the Dottore looking for? More specifically, what is he testing Tartaglia for?

Ajax continues his bath, draining the tub once and refilling it with fresh water so that he can do a second scrub. In the meanwhile, theories on what the Dottore could be plotting run through his mind, but he’s no closer to guessing the Third Harbinger’s real intention than before. He gives up as he finishes washing his hair, giving it a final rinse in the now tepid water. He’s still missing too much information to even properly craft a working theory.

He dries himself off fully and pulls on a change of clothing, courtesy of one of his agents discretely leaving a set shortly before he started running his bath. Perhaps it’s time to check up on Uncle and Auntie to see if they have any updates for him.

Then, he can don on his Tartaglia mask and plan his counterattack.

Or at least, he was on his way to do that, with one hand on the wall to hold him upright as he tries to shuffle his way out of the bathroom to his office on unsteady legs. That is until he opens the bathroom door and runs straight into Zhongli.

Zhongli purses his lips and crosses his arms over his chest. “I hope you weren’t planning on going anywhere except back to bed.” When Ajax merely continues to gape at him, his gaze narrows. “Right. That’s what I thought.”

Ajax’s eyes widen. “Wait, Zhongli, there is no need – Zhongli!

For a second time that day, Ajax finds himself bodily lifted up into a bridal carry by an unmovable, stubborn ex-Archon despite his protests and his (admittedly weak) flailing. Just like the first time, Zhongli completely ignores his complaints, merely tightening his hold on Ajax to stop him from wriggling around so much. Despite his iron grip on Ajax, the way he deposits him back on to the bed (with fresh sheets and no books in sight) is slow and gentle, as with the way he tucks him in, drawing the mountain of covers so that they rest right below Ajax’s scowling face.

Then, he climbs into the bed with him.

Ajax doesn’t even have the energy to be surprised anymore. “Professor,” he says, with the weariness of a war veteran who has seen it all. “What are you doing now?”

“Resting,” comes Zhongli simple answer. He fluffs his pillow, gives an approving nod, then lies down so that they are facing each other. Ajax is suddenly struck by the realization that it’s been years since he’s last shared a bed with a lover, not since he’s met Zhongli back in Liyue. “As should you until you fully recover. I will wake you up in a few hours when your siblings arrive home. For now, please try to get some sleep.”

With those words delivered, Zhongli closes his eyes without further ado.

All is quiet. The fire continues to crackle away merrily in the background, and Zhongli is lying in bed, not even an arm’s length away.

Ajax watches the other man, watches the way his face is perfectly serene, the furrowed lines of between his brow smoothing out, making him look ageless and ethereal. The pretty red marks that sweep from the corner of his eyes to his lower lashes remain perfectly pristine and unsmudged, and Ajax is almost certain that they are not makeup.

If he wants, he can reach over and touch them to confirm his hypothesis. In fact, he’s so close, he only needs to lean over, tilt his head, brush his lips against that smooth skin, against those rose petal lips and…

Ajax lets go of that ridiculous urge. Zhongli’s breaths are coming in slow and even, and it’s rather ridiculous how relaxed the man is around Ajax, to the point where he’s seemingly able to fall asleep instantaneously. Ajax is rather envious of his ability to just nod off like that.

Ajax doesn’t know how long he spends watching Zhongli, but after a while when absolutely nothing else happens, he sighs and closes his own eyes for a much needed nap. As much as he hates to admit it, his little trip to the washroom and his bath have tired him.

If he sinks into sleep a lot easier than normal, comforted by the familiar warm presence beside him, that’s nobody else’s business but his.


“I’m so sorry for worrying you all. I promise you I had not known my arm would act up.” Ajax reaches out to his sniffling younger sister and pats her head. “I wouldn’t lie to you, Little Sister. Especially not after I made that pinky promise.”

As Zhongli predicted, the moment news of Ajax’s awakening reaches his siblings’ ears, they rush for his room like a stampede of wild boar and launch themselves on the bed where he’s still resting. Ajax gladly returns their hugs and relishes the way his little brothers and sister make him feel so obviously loved.

The waterworks that follow are inevitable. His brothers and sister had thought him cured and had celebrated with him, only to have their joy violently dashed at the sight of him unconscious and burning from a high fever. They are rightly terrified.

Knowing that his siblings’ heartbreak is largely caused by the Dottore and his machinations, well…

It makes Ajax’s blood boil even more. For that alone, Tartaglia will find a way to pay the Dottore back dearly.

“I know, Big Brother.” Tonia lifts up her glasses to wipe her wet eyes. “You don’t break your promises, ever.”

“Why didn’t the cure work?” Teucer asks, his voice muffled against Ajax’s sleeping shirt from how closely he’s pressed himself to Ajax’s side.

“I don’t know,” he answers truthfully, “the Doctor who sent me the cure said that it’s a work in progress so it looks like it needs more work.”

“Does that mean you’re going to get some more cures in the future?” This time, it’s Anthon who’s chiming up. “And those cures might not work as well?”

Ajax nods. “Unfortunately, that’s correct. Those cures might or might not work, but the Doctor is going to keep looking until one does.” He has to, it’s a direct order from the Tsaritsa, so Ajax feels safe enough with giving that answer to his kid siblings. “Until then, I will have to trouble you three to help make me more plasters and teas, alright?”

There are three very enthusiastic nods.

“Big Brother can count on us!” Anthon says, puffing his chest a little. “We are going to keep making more things that can help. Teucer has a great idea on the next batch of plasters that we can try out, right Teucer?”

Teucer perks right up. “We can add mint!” he says. “And slime!”

“Don’t worry, Big Brother, Master Zhongli and I will make sure he doesn’t go overboard,” Tonia whispers, and he pats her head for that. His sweet, precious Tonia.

His meeting with his agents afterwards is decidedly more professional, even if he is still in bed, buried under a small mountain of blankets. He had wanted to move to his office, but was firmly vetoed by pretty much everyone in the household.

“Thank you for taking care of matters these past couple of days,” Childe says, trying not to feel too ridiculous while having this meeting in his sleeping wear while cradling a fresh mug of medicinal tea Zhongli had pushed into his hand before leaving the room. “I hope my siblings haven’t caused too much trouble.”

Seated in the armchairs by the side of the bed, Auntie shakes her head with a small smile. “Nothing of the sort, Master Childe. The children were perfectly behaved.”

“Master Zhongli was of great help.” Uncle nods approvingly. “It was through his hard work and research that we were able to have the medicine ready for you so quickly to treat your fever. We are lucky to have such a knowledgeable man in the house.”

Childe is not surprised that Zhongli manages to charm his agents just as readily as he does the merchants of Liyue. Between his elegance, his impeccable manners, his wide breadth of knowledge, and, frankly, his stunningly gorgeous features, it’s always a manner of time for anyone to lower their guard around him. Only Childe is privy to his more manipulative, judgmental, and stubborn side, but even then, it only serves to fuel Childe’s feelings for the man.

It’s also not lost on Childe that there’s another layer to Uncle’s comment about Zhongli.

At face value, Uncle’s comment can be read as nothing more than simple praise for Master Zhongli, but Childe knows his agents well. He can see the curiosity brimming in his agents’ eyes as well as the unasked questions about just who Master Zhongli is. Frankly, he’s a bit surprised that his agents were able to suppress their curiosity for this long.

Childe supposes that he can be generous and grant them some answers.

“I know you have questions about our guest. Ask and I shall answer where I can,” he offers. “But please hold whatever answer I give you in the strictest of confidence.”

Auntie is the first to blurt out, “Master Childe, is it true what the children said? That Master Zhongli is a prince who abdicated his throne?”

That…that is not where he thought this conversation would go, but okay then.

“Liyue doesn’t have any princes,” Uncle rebuts with the weary sigh of a man who’s heard this argument many, many times before. “They’re governed by a coalition of seven business leaders called the Qixing.”

“But that doesn’t mean one of those business leaders couldn’t come from royalty or a noble house, like the Ragnvindr family of Mondstadt and their wine business,” Auntie challenges. “Besides, Master Zhongli has the bearing of a noble son. He definitely possesses an important role in Liyue. Why else would the Tsaritsa herself assign Master Childe to personally aid him in his transition to…ah, what was it that you said, my Lord? Transition to civilian life?”

“Ah,” Childe clears his throat. How to answer this without outing Zhongli’s real identity? “Technically, Zhongli is a well-respected member of Liyue society for his encyclopedic knowledge on Liyuan culture. He is a consultant working for the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. He’s charged with aiding in the performance of sacred ceremonies for Liyue’s departing gods.”

“He’s the equivalent of a high priest,” Uncle rubs his chin. “That explains his wealth of knowledge and noble upbringing.”

Auntie isn’t as easily satisfied. “A consultant working for a funeral parlour…someone occupying that position normally wouldn’t capture Her Imperial Majesty’s interest. There has to be something else extraordinary about him.” Auntie presses on, “Master Childe also prefaced his answer with ‘technically’. Am I correct in assuming that this is the answer you are allowed to give?”

This is why he’s hired these two agents. Childe lets his lips curl into a satisfied smirk in answer and quietly takes a sip out of his tea.

Still, cleverness deserves a reward. “I think there is a text you should read. It’s in my office. It’s called ‘Rex Incognito’.”

Recognizing that that’s as much Childe can say, his agents drop that line of question for now.

“If that is all, let’s move on to the next topic for discussion.” Childe lets go of his persona, and in the next breath, Tartaglia slides into place, ready to play. “As you know, the cure the Dottore sent me has failed. I have some theories on why that is, but it will require some context. It has come to my attention that I had not told either of you the full story behind this injury, or about my dealings with the Doctor. It is time I rectify that.”


“That is beyond unreasonable,” Uncle practically snarls when Tartaglia finishes recounting the Dottore’s letters as well as his sample requests. “Just what games is he playing at?”

“Perhaps he sees this as an opportunity to further some of his other experiments,” Auntie muses darkly.

“I suspect as much,” Tartaglia agrees. “It is also why I have given those orders to investigate the Dottore’s research. I wanted to see what he is doing with the samples I have provided him and what other things he’s been planning on the side. Are there any updates?”

Uncle shakes his head. “Nothing substantive. There are agents dispatched to investigate whether the Dottore sent agents to Inazuma and I anticipate we should hear back on that front in a few days. We are waiting on the report regarding experiments performed on your new samples. The Romashka Estate is aware that all reports coming from our agents from the Palace should be forwarded to Outpost 720 using the fastest delivery method possible. Anything else, sir?”

Tartaglia takes a slow sip of his tea. “How is the Romashka Estate doing?”

“No irregular activities reported. Everything is business as usual. The staff misses you dearly and looks forward to your next visit.”

Tartaglia chuckles. “Good.” Things are quiet. It doesn’t look like the Dottore suspected that he’s made his moves. “If that is everything, then we will reconvene once those reports hit my desk. In the meantime, I will have to write a little letter to the good doctor explaining how this cure doesn’t work. Let us see how he will respond.”


It’s not until after dinner, and several cups of kogel mogel for his sore throat, that Tartaglia has some more quiet time to whip out a quick letter to the Dottore. He makes sure to provide as little details as possible, merely stating that the cure does not work since the flare-up is back and this time, it’s accompanied by a fever. He ends the letter requesting the Dottore to provide an estimated time on when he anticipates the next cure to be ready, then signing off with a sloppy scrawl of a signature.

Is it arrogant? Absolutely.

Does he care? Not really.

He just sealed off his envelope when Zhongli appears with a tray of more medicinal tea and fresh bandages, and he promptly sheds away his Tartaglia persona in favour of becoming Ajax.

The ex-Archon is, once again, dressed in his sleeping wear made of dark shimmering silk pyjamas with a long rob overtop, tied close. This time, the embroideries decorating his sleeves are the square patterns he wears on the back of his coat – a clear indication of his status as the once Geo Archon for anyone more knowledgeable on gods and their associated symbols.

This man…isn’t even trying to be discrete. With every new realization, Ajax doubts his own ability to make simple observations more and more for failing to realize Zhongli is Rex Lapis. It would be triply embarrassing if his agents catch on to the hint he provided right away. Knowing Ajax’s luck, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

Seeing Zhongli looking so relaxed and bringing him medicine is also flooding Ajax with a fresh wave of mortification-yearning-pain, so much so that the smile he attempts to give to Zhongli feels stiffer than usual.

“Good evening, Professor,” he says. “You know, I’m well enough that I can move around a bit. You don’t have to wait on me hand and foot like that, especially when you’re supposed to be a guest here.”

“I do not mind helping,” Zhongli says, depositing his tray on the side table. “Especially if it means you would remain in bed for just a bit longer. You just woke up this afternoon. Here,” he hands a mug of bubbling dark liquid that smells faintly of flowers, for some unfathomable reason. “This should help.”

“There are no turtles in this, are there? Or any reptiles?” Ajax still takes a careful sip of it. It’s sweet and mild-tasting despite its bold colour. Huh. “This is not bad, actually.”

Zhongli looks like he wants to roll his eyes. “There are no reptiles in there,” he says dryly. He takes one of the strips of bandages and slathers some sort of green paste on them. “I have only mashed the carcass of a frog or two in your beverage – I am jesting,” he adds, his lips curling up into a smirk when Ajax jerks away from the mug and gives him a filthy glare. “Rest assured that if I do put amphibians in your medicine, I will only use the finest quality. Nothing but the freshest golden frog for you.”

“I’m surprised none of the historians ever mentioned how Rex Lapis is so mean,” Ajax grumbles. He does continue to drink his tea, though. “You even managed to dupe my agents. They adore you. Uncle is practically singing you praises in our meeting today about how you’re such a knowledgeable man. Wait until I tell him that all you’ve been using as your miraculous medicine are frogs and reptiles. He’d be heartbroken.”

“Or he would be amazed at how I have transformed these seemingly unorthodox ingredients into medicine.” Zhongli gestures for Ajax to roll up his sleeves, and starts wrapping the exposed arm, starting from the bicep. “Luckily for you, the medicine in these bandages are entirely plant-based. It’s mint, mistflower corolla, windwheel aster, and calla lily. I figured a more floral scent would help offset the smell of fire-water.”

“How thoughtful, Professor.” Ajax keeps his tone light and playful even with the way his heart does a little flip. Zhongli remembers his distastes about the smell of fire-water on his skin. “I hope this incident wouldn’t put me off fire-water forever. That would be a real shame.”

“You seem to be doing just fine. I recall how you were happily throwing back cup after cup in the ice shack, so you have nothing to fear.”

Right, the ice shack. Ajax winces. That terrible mess. In addition, as terrible the experience was for him, he had promised Zhongli a Snezhnayan cultural experience and he had definitely not delivered that. An apology was warranted. “I’m sorry the ice fishing ended the way it did, by the way. I had promised to show you a good time and it was, well,” he shakes his head with a grimace. “To think, we didn’t even get a chance to catch anything…”

“There is no need for an apology.” Zhongli finishes the first layer of bandages, tying it off neatly. He reaches for a roll of dry bandages. “What happened was hardly your fault. I highly doubt you would wish it upon yourself to fall ill. Besides, there is always next time, once you recover.”

Once you recover. There is no doubt in Zhongli’s voice when he said that too. It makes Ajax chuckle, albeit faintly. “The faith you have in me is flattering.”

“I am being entirely realistic. Notwithstanding the promise I made you, you are too stubborn to let this injury defeat you and are too petty to let the Dottore get away with it. I will start worrying about the state of your health if I catch wind of the untimely death of the Third Harbinger, caused by extreme bludgeoning from a water mallet.”

Ajax grins. “You give such sweet and heartfelt compliments. You really ought not to say things like that, Professor! What is a boy like me supposed to think?”

For some reason, that gives Zhongli pause. He tilts his head, a quizzical frown on his face. “You said that the last time too.”

“…I’m not following, Professor.”

“At the ice shack,” Zhongli clarifies, and Ajax feels his stomach drop as icy dread comes creeping in. “You were upset when I said I would not abandon you outside. You told me that I shouldn’t say that because ‘what were you supposed to think from my statement?’ What did you mean by that?”

The dread is firmly settling in his chest, growing and spreading to the point where Ajax feels like he’s choking from how tightly they are squeezing the air out of his lungs. Fuck. He had hoped Zhongli would’ve forgotten about the way he had acted that day.

He should have known better. Rex Lapis and his perfect memory.

“Ah, that. It’s, er, it’s nothing,” Ajax babbles, trying not to look guilty but probably failing horribly. There is no way in hell that he is wading through the muck that is his messy feelings though. No way in hell.

Zhongli frowns. “It’s not nothing. Clearly, I have upset you.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Ajax quickly rebuts. “I was caught off guard by some bad memories, and was not reacting well to them.”

The frown deepens. “But –”

“Zhongli,” and Ajax’s tone is soft, tinged with desperation, “Please, just leave it, alright? Please?”

Zhongli looks like he wants to do anything else, but at the last minute, appears to change his mind. It’s with great reluctance that he sighs and says, “If you insist. But if I do or say something that upset you in the future, please tell me.”

There is no way Ajax can honestly make a promise like that, so he answers with the next best thing he can offer: “I will do my best to try.”


The truth of the matter is, Ajax has no fucking idea what to do with his feelings for Zhongli.

He’s never loved someone in the romantic sense, let alone love someone who’s a fundamental part of his mission, and he’s fairly sure that’s against some sort of military protocol, right? Thou shalt not fall in love with your contractor because it’s a breach of whatever scant rules of ethics that exist amongst the Harbingers?

It’s a bit too late for Ajax to do anything though. It’s not like he can just…turn off his heart like a switch.

To be honest, nor does he want to.

If Ajax isn’t feeling so helplessly frustrated, he would laugh. Figures that the person he’d fall in love with is – was – a literal God with over six millennia’s worth of baggage, including at least one past love. He sure knows how to pick them!

Perhaps, it’s best if he just continues to operate like it’s business as usual, or put a pin on this problem so that he can revisit it later. He has more pressing things to worry about, and that’s what to do to shore up his defence against the Third Harbinger. Because if he’s reading the situation right, he suspects that things between him and the good doctor are going to become nasty, and he’d rather not be caught with his pants down when that happens.

Until then, all he has to do is keep his shit together around Zhongli. He can do that. He thinks. He hopes.


Tartaglia receives his response from the Dottore a few days later. The letter is filled with its usual flowery writing, a whole paragraph laying out how he’s so shocked to hear his cure had failed, followed by four paragraphs of questions, asking Tartaglia for every minute detail about the symptoms he had experienced after consuming the cure.

The letter waved off his question regarding the deadline for the next cure, instead, providing a vague response that amounts to, “whenever the research pans out”, which means absolutely nothing at all.

But, if Tartaglia can provide some blood samples this time, it would certainly help expedite the process.

From the envelope, out comes three glass vials, rolling on the desk and clinking against each other as they come to a stop.

Tartaglia sees red.

Chapter Text

XVII. The War Room

Tartaglia glares at the glass tubes on his desk.

Three vials. The Dottore had sent three empty vials, along with a letter requesting more samples after Tartaglia had acquiesced already.

He is requesting more samples after Tartaglia had swallowed his pride and uncharacteristically yielded to the Doctor, all for the sake of his family. Adding insult to injury, Tartaglia had yielded for a supposed cure that only made him more sick. He yielded for a cure that had left him incapacitated for two whole days, shivering with fever as every part of him ached while his family could do nothing but watch, horrified and panicked.

The Dottore had played him.

How dare he.

Tartaglia folds the letter carefully and leans back into his chair, the anger thrumming and singing in his veins.

Well then. It looks like the gloves are coming off. Time for Tartaglia to get to work.


“The Dottore wishes to continue to play this game. Let us make him regret this poor life choice.”

Tartaglia passes the letter to his two agents, who are seated across from his desk in the office. All is quiet save for the crackle and pop of the roaring fireplace, but despite the warm amber glow that bathes the peaceful room, there is an oppressive sense of anger that chokes out any sense of lightheartedness or good cheer. At the center of it all is Tartaglia, seated in his high-backed chair with his back perfectly straight and his hands on top of his desk with his fingers laced.

He is completely still, every inch of him exuding Lord Harbinger No.11, the youngest member to have climbed the Fatui ladder through grit, ruthlessness, and bloodshed, the Harbinger’s Vanguard, and the Tsaritsa’s Weapon of War.

His eyes are blazing with the promise of murder.

“What are your updates?” he asks in a pleasant tone that belies the look on his face.

His agents react accordingly.

“Lord Harbinger,” Auntie salutes smartly, “we have received a report from our agents regarding orders the Dottore sent out. Approximately a month ago, the Third Harbinger gave orders to two of his agents to track down Lord Scaramouche. Those two agents subsequently came back carrying a small box, which was then promptly delivered to the doctor’s lab.”

“What was in the box?”

“Unknown for now, the agents are investigating. Apparently, the box is spelled with some sort of cryo preservation spell.”

Tartaglia chuckles darkly. “Interesting.”

It appears that Tartaglia’s working theory that the Dottore had sought to collect samples from Scaramouche might hold some water. To think that the Third Harbinger had the guts to go through with that and potentially make an enemy out of someone as unhinged as Scaramouche. Tartaglia would be impressed in any other circumstance.

But his theory is not completely water-tight. Although his gut is telling him that the Dottore is operating under the table, he needs to find out more information and concrete proof. In addition to finding out what’s inside that box, he needs to know whether the Dottore is really working by himself in secret.

“Send agents to find out whether or not Scaramouche is working with the Dottore on this. Alternatively, find out whether Scaramouche and his men are even aware of the Dottore’s men’s presence in Inazuma. I want to know the extent of their interaction if it does exist.”

Because if Scaramouche has absolutely no idea that the Dottore collected from him and if he were to find out…

Tartaglia’s smile stretches into a toothy grin. Well, the Doctor is a smart man. He probably does not want that knowledge to leak out. It would make for excellent blackmail material.

Alternatively, Tartaglia can let that information slip anonymously and lean back and watch the show. There are lots of ways to play this card.

“Any other orders, my Lord?”

Tartaglia taps his fingers on the table as he thinks. Knowing the Doctor, it is unlikely he’d simply stop with Scaramouche. The man is unapologetically ambitious and morally corrupt.

“I want more eyes on the Doctor,” he finally drawls out. “Comb through all the orders he has given in the past three months. I want to know just what sort of unsavoury experiments he’s been conducting when he should have been solely focused on developing my cure. Leave no stone unturned. Let’s see what other skeletons he’s got hiding in his closet.”


It’s been close to a full week since the fever and Ajax is finally starting to feel more like himself. The past week was rough; even though he had insisted on leaving the bed two days after he had woken up, he had only managed to stumble out of bed through pure stubbornness. His muscles had continued to ache, the lingering pain seeming to have settled so deep inside his body that the mere act of breathing had hurt, but he had pushed himself forward while slapping on a happy mask.

He…did not want his siblings to look at him with worry anymore. The sooner he could pretend that everything was back to normal, the better.

And it had worked. Tonia, Anthon, and Teucer stopped their frantic need to make more salves and medicinal teas, and had calmed their urge to drop by every half-hour just to check up on him. With him appearing to be fully mobile, normalcy slowly reasserted into their daily lives, and their day-to-day more or less reverted back to the pre-fever schedule of school, general upkeep of the house, bonding time spent as a family, and continued research on cures and treatments for Ajax’s arm.

(Only Tartaglia and the Agents have a new item added to their agenda, and that’s conducting a full-fledged investigation on the Dottore from the shadows. Tartaglia welcomes the change with open arms and dark hunger. He dreams of the day when he can finally dig up some dirt on that slimy bastard.)

Now, Ajax sits in the living room, medicinal tea in hand, enjoying the rare peace that’s settled around him. He watches his siblings happily build a family of snowmen from the window, waving out at them whenever they glance up to check on him. His sunny mood is enough to appease his siblings to go back to their playing.

“I’m honestly surprised you didn’t insist on going out there.”

Ajax chuckles at the familiar voice and looks away from the window in time to see Zhongli approaching him with a book in hand. “I am tempted, Professor, but under Tonia’s order, I am to remain indoors for just a bit longer to avoid the winter chill. She forced another pinky promise on me.”

Zhongli nods with approval. “A wise decision.” He makes himself comfortable on the seat beside Ajax. “How are you feeling? Is the arm doing alright?”

Ajax rotates his bandaged arm, demonstrating the range of his movement. “A bit tingly at the fingertips,” he admits with a slight shrug, “but it’s not painful and it's not preventing me from being able to move my arm. I can’t complain.”

Zhongli frowns and takes Ajax’s arm by the wrist, pressing two fingers into the pulse. “I would have preferred if you did not feel that tingling sensation at all. That was the purpose of adding a fragment of cleansing heart to the poultice. It appears that I will need to revisit that recipe.”

Ajax watches Zhongli with tender eyes as the other begins his usual arm massage while monologuing about the potential different ingredients he can use. Zhongli is starting to develop a habit of using Ajax as a sounding board for his medical thoughts, and even though Ajax can understand maybe half of his musing at most, just seeing the Professor being his usual scholarly self brings an endearing smile to Ajax’s face.

(He remains a lovesick fool for Zhongli. It is the height of idiocy, but he’s starting to suspect that his pathetic pining isn’t going to die down as long as Zhongli is anywhere within his vicinity.)

“With all the studying and research you’re doing, it’s only a matter of time before you can start calling yourself a doctor,” Ajax teases. “Have you considered collecting the formulations you’ve developed and publishing it? A lot of people can benefit from your wisdom.”

For some reason, that comment has Zhongli huffing out a laugh. “If Barbatos can hear you say that, he would be flabbergasted. Once upon a time, I have the reputation of being, as he called it, ‘a brutish blundering buffoon’ and a ‘blockhead’. How the times have changed.”

“If you are a brutish blundering buffoon, then there is no hope for the rest of us,” Ajax says with a scoff, mildly affronted on behalf of Zhongli. “Also, what does Barbatos know? An archon as flighty and forgetful as him does not have the right to call anyone else blundering.”

(Somewhere, in a tavern in Mondstadt, a certain bard sneezes into his wine, spilling his precious drink all over himself.)

“It has been a long time since I was that person. The years have certainly helped me to grow past that persona of old and accumulate wisdom.” Zhongli’s lips curl up into what Ajax is recognizing as his version of a shit-eating grin, “Though I cannot say the same for Barbatos.”

(Somewhere, in a tavern in Mondstadt, a certain bard, who’s frantically trying to wipe wine off his outfit, sneezes again.)

“Speaking of trouble makers,” Zhongli continues, rubbing one last circle on Ajax’s wrist before gently letting go of his arm, “have you heard from the Third Harbinger about what happened with the last cure?”

Ajax’s face darkens. Just the mere mention of that monster is enough to sour his mood. “The Doctor is very intrigued with the side-effects of the cure and continues to be difficult with his demands.”

Predictably, Zhongli’s expression hardens from that response, his good humour similarly dissipating like smoke. “I see. It is awfully brave of him to continue to do something so foolhardy. May I ask what sort of demands he is asking from you?”

It occurs to Ajax that he’s never really talked in detail about the contents of the Dottore’s letters to Zhongli. He’s become so used to glossing over details when it comes to talking about Fatui matters to non-Fatui members, that it’s become second nature to him.

He’s…a bit reluctant to divulge into the specifics of the correspondence between him and the Doctor. Despite his (terrible, terrible) feelings for Zhongli, he’s not blind to the different roles they play. He’s still the Eleventh Harbinger who swore an oath of loyalty to the Tsaritsa while Zhongli is an ex-Archon from a rival nation.

(There’s also a deep-seated fear in the back of his mind that if he drags Zhongli into this mess, then he could become the next target for the Third Harbinger, and no. That’s not going to happen. Ajax is not going to let that happen. Ajax is not going to willingly drag Zhongli into harm’s way, not when he’s perfectly safe and sound, tucked away in sleepy Morepesok, out of sight and out of mind.)

On the other hand, how is disclosing the fact that the Dottore is seeking samples from him going to hurt the Fatui, the Tsaritsa or Zhongli? It’s an innocuous piece of information that merely serves to give context to the games the Dottore is playing. It’s not like Zhongli doesn’t already know that the Doctor is being difficult. Not only has Ajax said so, but Zhongli has also seen the way that last cure backfired.

Zhongli is also his greatest ally in this whole endeavor. He’s been working relentlessly with curing or treating Ajax. Day in day out, he’s been brewing teas and medicine, and researching more recipes for fresh salves and poultices, all for the sake of Ajax’s health. To omit such a piece of inconsequential information when Zhongli has been nothing but helpful leaves a bad taste in Ajax’s mouth.

Right. Telling Zhongli it is then.

“The Doctor’s been asking for samples – hair, skin, blood, nails, you name it,” Ajax confesses in the silence of the room. “He’s been rather relentless with his demands ever since I refused to provide some of my blood in our very first meeting. He only gave me that first cure after I’ve…acquiesced to some of his demands. I should have known that he is not so easily satisfied.”

“Yet, he continues to ask for more,” Zhongli concludes with a scowl, his voice low.

Ajax nods. “This time, he’s back to asking for blood, which I never provided him. I’m thinking about how to answer his letter but in the meantime, I’m putting together a plan, something that can incentivize him to work a little harder without having to give him anything else.”

Zhongli lips twist in distaste. “I dislike how he is in control when it comes to developing the cure. Is there no one else among the Fatui who can step up and do what he does?”

Ajax has to stop himself before he blurts out the truth – the fact of the matter is, the Dottore is the best at what he does in Snezhnaya, and he’s also considered one of the most brilliant minds in Teyvat. In recognition of his brilliance, the Tsaritsa continues to give him leeway to recruit the best scientists to work for him from across Teyvat. Between his reputation and the near-unlimited funding, courtesy of the Tsaritsa, the Dottore’s laboratory division has truly amassed a terrifying force of scientists to be reckoned with, covering a broad scope of research from elemental magic to mechanical engineering.

In comparison, Tartaglia’s strike force makes up a fraction of Dottore’s number with a fraction of his funding, even if Tartaglia’s force comprises of some of the best fighters the country has to offer.

There’s a reason why the Dottore’s ego is so inflated to the point where he’s confident enough to go after the Harbingers for samples.

Not like Ajax can actually say any of that. That would be divulging too much, so he merely answers with, “Unfortunately, working with the Dottore is still the fastest way to a cure,” which is true enough.

Zhongli harumphs. “If he is wise, he’d endeavour to be more cooperative in the near future. In the meantime, we will continue our own efforts so that you may be free from that man’s tyranny and harassment.”

Ajax lifts his tea mug in a silent toast to that statement, his heart warm at Zhongli’s protective tone. “Here’s to hoping that we won’t have to deal with the Doctor for long.”


Tartaglia’s response to the Dottore’s letter is as curt as ever and can be boiled down into two points: (1) why does the Doctor need blood from him, and (2) what happened to the other samples he had given the Doctor weeks ago.

The Dottore’s reply is significantly more flowery, containing two pages of fluff and self-flattery. Buried in the text are half-baked excuses about needing more samples. Apparently, because Tartaglia was such a special case, the Doctor had to run a lot of experiments, which meant using up most of the samples provided. A blood sample would be preferable for the next set of experiments due to its natural potency.

The letter then contained yet another paragraph reminding Tartaglia that he should be cooperative for the sake of his own health, including providing a detailed response to the survey of questions from the Dottore’s previous letter. After all, the Tsaritsa expects them to work together, and this childish game with Tartaglia resisting at every turn only slows down progress.

I am doing my utmost to bide by Her Imperial Majesty’s wish to have her Vanguard healthy and hale once more, the letter ends on, who are we humble servants to stand in the way of her glorious vision? Comrade, let us work together hand in hand so that we can get through these trying times. If not for Snezhnaya, then let us work together for the sake of your loved ones, who no doubt wish to see you well again.


It takes everything in Tartaglia not to toss that letter into the fire.


“Are there any updates?” he barely stops himself from snarling at his agents. His arm is also starting to act up again, and he brings his left hand, pressing into the palm of his right hand to hopefully massage away the numbness.

“Unfortunately nothing substantive, but we do have a compilation of orders the Dottore has issued three months ago, plus analysis on ones that may be of interest to you. This report is not complete yet and work is ongoing.”

Not fast enough. “I want to see what we have for the report immediately. Provide me with a rolling update as it is being generated.”

“Sir!”


In hindsight, Tartaglia may have been overzealous with his order. The report as is merely contains a compilation of the Dottore’s orders with barely any analysis on them. This would have been fine if not for the fact that they are riddled with scientific jargon, so much so that Tartaglia’s meager knowledge of science cannot possibly keep up, and he finds himself having to hit the books on elemental resistance.

He’s been buried under a mountain of books and scrolls on this very topic for three straight days, spending every moment he could spare reading, researching, and decoding what the Dottore is talking about.

Truly, this is what hell is like.

He rubs his arms through the layers of plasters, massaging away what feels like the beginning of numbness once again spreading from his fingertips. What he would give to be healthy right now so that he could travel to his headquarters. As much as he loves spending time with his siblings at home, his base of operations remains in Romashka Estate, where the bulk of his resources lay and where it’s easier for him to keep a finger on the pulse of the activities in the Palace.

“Fuck,” he mutters, frustrated. His back is starting to ache something fierce, and it has nothing to do with the flare-up but everything to do with his sub-par office chair. Speaking of another annoyance: his office in his Morepesok home is simply not set up to handle long hours of work. If he is transforming this space into a temporary base of operations, he would need to properly outfit his office with a better chair, better lighting, more shelves and storage options that can be properly secured under lock and key, and while he’s at it, a bigger desk…

There is a knock on the door just as he’s finishing up a particularly convoluted paragraph on the study of immunities.

It’s probably Uncle and Auntie. “Come in. Just leave it on the desk, I’ll read it later tonight.”

“Or, you can go to bed and resume your work tomorrow.”

Tartaglia looks up to find Zhongli before him with a wry smile, holding a tray with fresh medicinal tea and bandages. In a blink of an eye, he stuffs away his Tartaglia mask, leaving Ajax to take over.

“Oh, it’s you, Professor. Sorry, I thought you were – never mind.” He gives the other a sheepish smile and puts away his pen. “What time is it?”

“Late.” Zhongli deposits the tray on some empty corner of the desk and hands Ajax the mug of medicinal tea. “It’s well past bedtime and the usual time to change your bandages.”

“Wow, already? That explains why my back is starting to hurt. I’ve been at this longer than I thought.” Ajax gives his tea a tentative sip. Hmm, it’s got a light, woodsy-grassy taste that he can’t pinpoint, slightly sweetened with honey. A significant improvement from the tar-like substances Zhongli had given him on occasion.

“Chrysanthemum tea,” Zhongli answers Ajax’s unspoken question. “Known for its exceptional blood cooling properties. I also added some violet grass for extra cooling effect.”

“It’s good, thank you!” Ajax takes a larger swing of it this time. He gestures for Zhongli to grab a seat, which the other does with his usual grace. “I hope I wasn’t keeping you up by making you wait for me.”

Zhongli shakes his head. “Not at all. I have been consumed in my own reading. And yourself? You have been busy as of late. What is keeping you up?”

“Just doing some homework.” Ajax pops a bookmark in the book he was reading and hands the text to Zhongli. Luckily, it’s one of the rare books he has in his collection that’s written in the common language so Zhongli should have no issues with reading it. “I figured I should hop on this research train everybody is on. I was looking into elemental effects and ways to remove them.”

He is no scientist, so this knowledge gathering has been a painful uphill climb. Ah, to have access to his more learned men back in the Estate, who could provide quick tutoring sessions on this topic…

Wait a minute.

His attention snaps to the present. Zhongli is sitting before him, calmly flipping through the text with interest.

Who could possibly be more learned about the elements than the oldest God of Teyvat himself, the ex-Geo Archon?

“Zhongli,” Ajax starts, “would you be able to help me with a few of these concepts covered in the text? I’m having some trouble wrapping my mind around them.”

Zhongli, predictably, lights up with interest.


“Simply put, element resistance exists most commonly where an element is used against a user who possesses the same elemental affinity, or where an element is used against geo users. Alternatively, a way to counteract an element is to overpower it with elements that are naturally strong against it.”

“Right. When it comes to resistance against electro, we’re looking at those who are electro and geo users. Cryo and pyro users would have an advantage against electro.” A pause. “Wait, is that why you have been plying me with blood cooling medicines and salves? You were trying to overpower the effects of my injury?”

Zhongli nods. “Indeed. It also serves the secondary purpose of removing the heat from your arm and acting as a soothing agent for your muscles. It is for that reason I prefer it over blood-heating ingredients for you.”

Huh. “But what about total immunity? Have you considered looking for something that would grant complete immunity against an element?”

“Humans do not possess them,” Zhongli answers simply. “The closest to that form of immunity is through the use of shields, and those dissipate over time. Total immunity only exists in some monsters, including those from the Abyss, and, of course, the Adepti.”

Looks like that’s a bust. “Are there any other ways to remove the elemental status effect from someone then?”

Zhongli pauses. “Time. You wait for it to wear out, though sometimes, that is not possible when the status is too strong.”

Ajax drinks a large sip from his mug, his mood plummeting. He has seen his fair share of monsters in their death throes as their bodies twitch and smoke from the remnants of the elemental effect they were struck with. Here’s hoping that Ajax does not become one of them.

Here’s hoping that the cure would arrive before he ends up like one of those creatures.

“Ajax.”

Zhongli’s solemn tone draws his attention away from his dark thoughts back to the man in front of him. Zhongli had leaned closer, his eyes molten and his lips pressed into terse, thin lines. Even with how severe he looks, he remains unspeakably beautiful, and Ajax feels his heart give out a pang of pain that’s becoming a familiar sensation along with the prickling in his hand.

“I had promised you that this injury would not take you and I had meant it,” Zhongli says, “I will honour that promise.”

“I know Professor,” Ajax returns softly, a small smile creeping up his face. “I trust you.”

“Good.” Zhongli carefully lays the book back on the desk and gets up. “Now please come to bed. Proper recovery cannot occur if you are not well-rested. You can always continue your work in the morning.”


Tartaglia sends another curt letter probing about the contents of the first cure and the reason for the nasty side-effect it gave him. The letter provides the most perfunctory answers to some of the questions, most of which are monosyllabic ‘yes’, ‘no’, or the ever-useful words, ‘maybe’ and ‘it depends’. The letter also rejects Dottore’s accusation of Tartaglia being difficult. Indeed, had the Dottore done his work properly with making the Delusion free of flaws in the first place, then all of this complication would not have existed. Further, the progress for the cure research would occur faster if the Dottore wasn’t so eager to implement his unethical delay tactics.

The Dottore answers with an equally useless letter written in his usual flair, spanning three pages this time. Included with the letter is an appendix, an actual appendix, of follow-up questions, broken down into subsections and subsubsections. He justifies the need for the specificity of his questions so that he could find out the exact reason why the cure gave Tartaglia a fever, and that “it would be in Tartaglia’s best interest to answer the questions should he wish to have the answers he seeks.” The letter ends with more useless praises for the glory of Snezhnaya, pleas for cooperation between the parties, and another nudge at Tartaglia to give some blood samples.


“I hate him so much,” Childe declares to his agents, rubbing his temples. He’s being Childe at the moment because he is too tired and feeling too petty to keep up his serious Tartaglia mask. “I am starting to suspect that killing him would be the easier way out, even if it does mean I will not see that cure.”

Surely, a slow, agonizing death is preferable to this poisonous letter-writing campaign.

“Sir,” Auntie starts as she deposits a fresh stack of paper on his desk, an update of the Doctor’s recent activities, no doubt. “Have you considered recruiting some help?”

“By that, we mean Master Zhongli,” Uncle grumbles from his corner of Tartaglia’s office, similarly buried in paperwork under his makeshift desk. “Which, for the record, we would have appreciated if you told us was Morax, oldest of Archons, in the flesh himself, rather than telling us to read this very obvious and telling book. What even was the purpose of pretending to hide that fact when you are going to drop such an obvious clue?”

(Childe ducks behind his stack of paperwork just so that he could wince at his agent’s cutting comment out of sight.)

Meanwhile, Auntie navigates back to the sunny spot by the windows which she claimed as her own mini office space. “I am infinitely glad that I gave him the good towels,” she mutters. “I was tempted to give him the subpar towels but something told me that that was a bad idea. It is good that I listened.”

“Why is he in Snezhnaya, Master Childe?” Uncle continues to lament. “More specifically, why did Her Imperial Majesty ask you to teach him to live life as a mortal? Notwithstanding why an Archon would want to live like a mortal, but why give us this mission? We are the strike team division and you the Vanguard.”

“Does this have something to do with your mission in Liyue?” Auntie asks. “Were you aiding Morax?”

“I was providing help in a manner of speaking.” Childe picks up the first paper on the pile Auntie dropped off and grimaces after skimming the first couple of lines. Urgh. More science jargon. “I went there to steal his Gnosis and when I couldn’t find him, I unleashed a rival god he had once sealed beneath the ocean so that it may wreak havoc on Liyue Harbour to draw him out.” At his agents' wide-eyed expressions of horror, he scoffs. “There weren’t that many people who died. Morax himself was the one who had orchestrated this whole ordeal because he wanted to retire. You can stop looking at me like that now.”

Uncle shakes his head. “But how in Teyvat did you two become so friendly with each other?”

He thinks he sees Auntie rolling her eyes while mouthing the word ‘friendly’ from his peripheral vision, but he isn’t entirely sure why she’s doing that. “He kept me company during my stay in Liyue and was my cultural guide! I think at first, it was to keep an eye on me but it eventually became routine outings. Between the two of us, we managed to try every single dish at all the restaurants in Liyue in the past two years. We also saw all the operas as well, but only the good ones because Zhongli is very particular about which singer he likes and the staging and costumes – what? Why are you looking at me like that now?”

“Master Childe,” Auntie asks with a delicate cough, “how often were these outings exactly?”

Childe shrugs. “Frequent enough. At minimum a few times a week but near the end, we were having lunch or dinner almost every day. Why?”

More silence. Then, “…Have you considered how Morax views this relationship?”

That’s an easy question to answer. “I know Zhongli cherishes our friendship. He wouldn’t be helping me with a cure if he doesn't. He likes that I treat him not as some great deity but as a person. Apparently, this is a novel experience and he’s enjoying it a lot. He also thinks I’m aggravating, but I’m fairly sure that just makes him more amused than annoyed.”

Auntie stares at him some more. When Childe continues to look at her expectedly, she shakes her head and stalks out of the room.

Childe turns to Uncle who is giving him a look mixed between deep-seated amusement and pity. “What? Did I miss something?”

Uncle merely sighs. “It – it’s fine. Give her some time to process. But given your friendly relationship with the Geo Archon, have you considered requesting his aid against the Third Harbinger? Surely, with his large breadth of knowledge and wisdom, he would be able to provide valuable advice on strategy.”

Most definitely not. No way, no how.

“It would be best to minimize his involvement with matters directly involving the Third Harbinger,” Childe answers, his tone leaving no room for argument. “Now, let’s get started with these updates, shall we? Before Auntie comes back with even more stacks of paper.”

Luckily, four hours into their work and Uncle hits jackpot.

“Sir, a follow-up to your inquiries about the orders involving Lord Scaramouche. It appears that the agents were expressly told to keep their presence hidden from the Sixth Harbinger. Further, those agents were told to collect any biological samples from the Sixth Harbinger they could find – hair, skin, nails, blood, by way of example.”

At that, Childe – no, it’s Tartaglia now – laughs long and loud and utterly, utterly vindicated. “This is most excellent news Uncle. Most excellent news indeed!”

“Sir?”

“You see, I have a theory,” Tartaglia explains at the confused expressions on his agents’ faces. “I believe the Good Doctor went after the Sixth Harbinger for samples without obtaining his consent, probably because he knows he won’t get any.

“The Doctor wanted to conduct electro-resistance testing. While this test is in line with developing the cure against the electro-surges caused by my Delusion, I doubt the Tsaritsa would be pleased to learn about this level of liberty he has taken. Scaramouche certainly wouldn’t.”

Tartaglia leans back into his chair, relaxing against the leather. “I also suspect that the Dottore is using my samples to conduct other side experiments that are unrelated to finding the cure, but that is more of a hunch and I have no idea what those side experiments are. If we can find evidence to that, then we would have yet another card to play against the Doctor and a second example showing how the Doctor had disobeyed Her Imperial Majesty’s will not once but twice.” Tartaglia lets out a dark chuckle. “Not even being one of the Tsaritsa’s favoured Harbingers would save him from that fall from grace.”


Two days later, a curious package is sent out. Nobody knows where the package comes from; it has no return address and no information about the sender. The only information on it is an address, the Sixth Harbinger’s estate to be specific, and the words ‘For the Harbinger’s Eyes Only’ emblazoned across the surface in bold red lettering, underlined twice.

Upon opening the package, the recipient would find one cover letter with a brief sentence written in neat block letters, which states: “A birdy stumbled upon this. I trust that this will be of interest to you. Signed, A Friend.”

Attached with the cover letter is a report from the Third Harbinger’s lab, detailing experiments conducted using certain samples of interest, and the results from these experiments. Further, included in the package is a helpful memo explaining what those samples are, when they were acquired, and, more specifically, who they came from.


Childe gets to hear all about the aftermath from his gleeful agents and the fallout is as spectacular as Childe imagined it to be. Apparently, a miscellaneous parcel made its way to Scaramouche’s hand very quickly, who took his sweet time checking for traps, curses, and any signs of tampering before opening it.

Upon reviewing its contents, the honourable Sixth Harbinger, the great Balladeer, went into a colossal, meteoric rage.

What transpired afterwards can better be described as the mother of all shit storms hitting the fan. The Sixth Harbinger and his veritable army had stormed into the Third’s lab in the Palace just as the Dottore had temporarily stepped away. The Sixth proceeded to threaten to burn everything down and murder everyone within it, but not before confirming from multiple scientists via interrogations (using his fists) that yes, the Sixth’s samples were indeed taken without his consent and used in several experiments.

The reason why the Sixth had not been able to destroy the premise as promised was because the Third had caught wind of this attack and had rushed back. However, the mere sight of the Third was apparently enough to trigger a massive battle royale between the two harbingers and their men.

It is said that the marbled floor of the glorious Palace ran red with blood that day. And yellow from the rivers of piss from the terrified scientists huddling under their lab benches.

The battle was only interrupted by the Tsaritsa herself, who had heard the ruckus all the way from the Throne Room and had wandered into the war zone, wondering just what was going on. With each step closer to the carnage, the hem of her beautiful snow-white gown stained a deeper and deeper shade of red.

Childe wishes he was a fly on the wall in the emergency meeting that took place immediately afterwards. Scaramouche and the Dottore, dirtied and bloodied, were both dragged to the Throne Room like unruly children. Before the cold, silent fury of Her Imperial Majesty and her ruined gown, the entire sordid story came tumbling out of Scaramouche’s mouth.

As predicted, the Tsaritsa had not been pleased. At all.

“What’s even more interesting is that Her Imperial Majesty had already been annoyed with the Third Harbinger,” Auntie adds, not even hiding her amused smirk. “Apparently, she had been reviewing the Third Harbinger’s progress for developing the cure and found it lacking. This second infraction added fuel to the fire of her anger.”

In the privacy of the office, Childe leans forward from where he’s seated at his desk, enraptured. “Wait, she was already investigating the Dottore?” Childe lets out a bright peel of laughter. “I’m certainly not looking that gift horse in the mouth, but what luck! I’m glad she felt the need to take a closer look at the Doctor. So what happened next?”

“As punishment, the Third is being audited. Moving forward, he is required to submit proposals before he is being granted funding for his experiments rather than simply having automatic access to near unlimited funds. Further, he is ordered to focus on the cure experiments, but this time, the Sixth Harbinger will be present to act as his supervisor.”

Childe is positively guffawing at this point. “Oh, that is rich! The Dottore’s ego will not stand to be supervised by his inferior and Scaramouche hates working with the Doctor. Although in this circumstance, dear Scaramouche just might enjoy the experience.” He’s going to take every opportunity to be stiflingly controlling and completely insufferable. Childe just knows it.

“That arrangement was technically supposed to be punishment for the both of them, but anyone can see just which party has the shorter end of the stick,” Auntie agrees. “Either way, it should be interesting to see how things will progress moving forward.”


Tartaglia receives two letters shortly after the Great Palace Battle, as this incident is being dubbed. The first letter is from the Dottore. What’s noticeable is that this time, the letter is considerably shorter than the previous ones, almost curt in tone. It gets straight to the point with a request for blood samples, though one vial is sufficient, and a reminder for Tartaglia to answer the questions that were attached to the last letter.

The second letter is from Scaramouche, and it simply reads as follows:

“Just give him the damn blood and answer the stupid questions.”


Tartaglia gives the Dottore the damned blood and answers the stupid questions, and he does so while whistling a jaunty little tune.


XVIII. The Escape

“Now that things are calming down, you should consider celebrating, Sir,” Auntie suggests out of the blue when they are wrapping up their work for the day. “Maybe take a trip into town with Master Zhongli. You’ve been cooped up indoors for far too long and it would be nice to show Morax more of Morepesok, preferably the good side.”

“Me and Zhongli celebrating, huh?” Childe mulls it over. “That’s not a bad idea. I’ve been meaning to take him to this restaurant in town. But what about you two and the kids?”

“Ah, no, don’t worry about us!” Uncle chimes in quickly. “We can watch over your siblings for the evening. I’m sure they don’t mind spending a night of activities with their Uncle and Auntie.”

Childe frowns. “Are you sure? We can all go together –”

“No!”

“Most definitely not.”

“I am unfortunately too tired to venture into town,” Auntie adds. “Spending a quiet evening sounds perfect for me.”

Uncle nods. “Same, same. These old bones can use a peaceful evening at home. You and Master Zhongli should take the opportunity and relax! Please do not worry about us. We will be perfectly fine!”

The next he knows, Childe is being shooed out of his own office and into the living room where Zhongli is seated with his books.

Childe takes one last look back at his agents before he shrugs, giving up. Both of them are acting so strange, but their suggestion has merit. He’s feeling healthy enough to go out, and it’s been a while since he’s had the opportunity to leave his own property.

“Professor!” he says, swapping out for his Ajax persona. He slides into the seat beside Zhongli, who’s returning his good cheer with a questioning soft, ‘hm?’ “What say you about joining me for a trip into town for dinner tonight? We can try that restaurant we saw last time, the place right by the shoreline with the pretty view of the ocean.”

“You’re in a wonderful mood today,” Zhongli observes, putting his book away, but the growing smile on his face gives a pretty strong indication of what answer he will give.

“We just wrapped up an aggravating project.” Ajax lets his back slump against the sofa and sighs at the softness against his aching muscles. He may be paying the price for being hunched over his desk for the past two weeks but it is all worth it. Just the memory of Auntie’s report on the Great Palace Battle is enough to keep him bright and cheerful for at least a whole year. “Starting right now, I get to experience freedom, glorious freedom. Who wouldn’t be in a celebratory mood after that? So, what say you?” He gives Zhongli a teasing smirk and wiggles his brow, making the other chuckle. “Dinner? Restaurant? Amazing food and even more amazing company? Yes, yes?”

“Yes, I would love to go to dinner with you, Ajax,” Zhongli says full of warmth. “So long as you remain feeling well before we leave, and you wear fresh plasters on your arm.”

Ajax makes a face. “Not ones soaked in fire-water. Anything but those.”


Once upon a time, Morepesok is a quiet little hamlet with a small handful of shops, which includes the grocery, a bakery, the tailor and shoe repair shop, and a store selling fishing supplies. With the expansion of the port and the growing amount of trade between Snezhnaya and other nations, Morepesok has grown into a village of budding potential for new businesses, among which are restaurants.

One of the new restaurants that is rapidly becoming the talk of the town is Narval. Situated on an isolated rocky outcrop, the restaurant offers an intimate setting where diners can enjoy a near panoramic view of the water around them through its large windows. The restaurant also boasts a cozy interior with heavy drapes framing the windows, warm oak paneling and gilded sconces lining the walls, and a stone fireplace near the back of the dining area. On its menu is an extensive selection of traditional and high-end Snezhnayan fare, lovingly crafted and made with only the best local ingredients available. The obvious care spent into preparing each dish has earned the establishment high praises from visitors.

In other words, for someone like Zhongli who has exacting standards when it comes to food, the suggestion to go to that restaurant is instantly met with interest.

It probably also helps that he knows Ajax will spare no expenses by only ordering the best.

“We’ll start with the beluga caviar with gravlax, the Olivier salad, and the traditional sorrel soup. For the mains, we’d like the beef stroganoff, the chicken kiev, and hmm. Professor, how do you feel about the pheasant with pistachio nuts or would you like the quail with truffles? Both? Yes, I couldn’t decide either. Let’s get both. Oh, and please pair each course with the finest wine or spirit in your establishment. We’ll leave that to the discretion of the chef.”

The waiter looks a bit faint. He’s probably had the chance to realize just how much this meal would cost. “Will that be all, sirs?”

“Anything else that catches your eye, Professor?”

“Hmm. Maybe the sweet dishes, but I understand that it is Snezhnayan custom to order those at the end?”

Ajax flashes the Professor a bright smile. “That is correct, but we can certainly decide now if you prefer.”

“The medovik is our most popular dessert,” the waiter chimes in, having recovered from his initial shock rather beautifully. He seems to have also figured out who the real decision-maker at this table is because he proceeds to smile beatifically at Zhongli. “It is a layered cake featuring twelve layers of honey cake with generous amounts of sour cream filling in between, topped with a layer of finely chopped nuts and cake crumbs. Would you be interested, sir?”

“We’ll get that as well,” Ajax adds. As if he can say no after seeing the way Zhongli’s face brightens with interest.

The waiter beams. “Of course, sirs. We will have your appetizers out immediately.”

Naturally, the food that comes out does not disappoint; not only is it artfully plated, every bite also tastes divine and perfectly balanced with the fire-water that the chef had chosen. The experience is further boosted by the exquisite service. Both the head chef and the restaurant manager personally stopped by their table to shake their hands.

“Now doesn’t this feel familiar?” Childe laughs after the manager and the chef left. “Professor, you just have this natural ability to attract conversation wherever you go, especially from those in the restaurant industry! And here I thought this ability of yours is only limited to Liyue. Could this be one of the many natural skills the Adepti possess?”

Zhongli chuckles. “It is only natural that kindred spirits are attracted to one another. But I’m afraid that unlike I, most of the other Adepti do not enjoy the company of other mortals, Cloud Retainer and Alatus being prime examples.”

Meanwhile, Ajax scoops a small spoonful of the caviar on top of the small mound of gravlax and sour cream on his blini. He pops the entire thing in his mouth. Hmm, delicious. A perfect mix of smokiness and brine made lighter with the fresh-tasting sour cream.

“Cloud Retainer…Cloud Retainer…” he muses out loud once he’s done his snack. “Is that the grumpy bird? The blue and white one that looks like it wants to peck and eat people’s eyes out?”

Zhongli pauses in the middle of tasting his soup to give him a disapproving look. “Such impudence,” he sniffs, but his eyes are sparkling with mirth. “If you wish to keep your eyes, I advise against repeating what you just said in front of her.”

“Or, I can say it louder in front of her so that she’d fight me.” Ajax practically cackles at the way Zhongli rolls his eyes. “Oh come on, Professor. You of all people should know how I get! I’ve also never fought a giant angry bird before and it should be a most interesting experience! I wonder how effective I will be against an aerial opponent without relying on my bow. Maybe if I use a javelin instead…”

“If your ability to throw your javelin is on par with your archery skills, then the answer is ‘terribly’,” Zhongli replies, all matter-of-fact, and it’s said so casually that it takes Ajax a few seconds to register the sheer audacity of that unwarranted attack.

Ajax gasps and clutches at his heart. “Mean! Rex Lapis is so mean! One day, I’m going to write a tell-all autobiography and I will describe in vivid detail what other historians have failed to document – that Rex Lapis Morax’s veneer of politeness is nothing but an elaborate ruse to disguise his inner grouch.”

Zhongli clearly does not care. He takes a sip of his fire-water undisturbed. “Only because you deserve to be humbled,” he says after sufficiently sampling his drink. Then, his lips curl into a slow smirk. “But go ahead and write that autobiography. I look forward to the day where you will supply me with more arsenal with which I can use against you.” His eyes flash molten gold under long, dark lashes, and he adds, his voice low and teasing, “Trouble Magnet Ajax.”

That gets Ajax’s mouth to snap shut with an audible click of his teeth. His face heats up in an unattractive shade of puce, and he has to clear his throat before he can choke out, “Mean. So mean.”

The rest of the dinner is spent in easy conversation, and it occurs to Ajax that this is the most relaxed he’s felt since Liyue. For once in a long, long while, it’s just him and Zhongli, spending time together and enjoying each other’s company without any worries hanging over their heads.

No, Ajax thinks, watching Zhongli recount his story about meeting Barbatos for the very first time, watching the exasperation play across his beautiful features, this is infinitely better than Liyue.

Because here, in a cozy restaurant in the sleepy seaside village of Morepesok, it’s a gathering between Ajax and Rex Lapis as Zhongli. It’s the both of them, in spite of discarding their masks, in spite of their misunderstanding, still willing to get together to enjoy each other’s company.

It’s them coming together with Ajax knowing that Zhongli thinks he’s infuriating and stubborn and insolent, and yet, Zhongli likes him, cherishes their friendship to the point where Zhongli’s willing to spend every moment trying to research and make a cure for him.

It’s them coming together with Ajax knowing that Zhongli had agreed to stay when he was at his weakest.

Not for the first time since the fishing shack, Ajax finds himself watching Zhongli while his heart beats in time with the whispers in his mind that go, I love him, I love him, I love him –  

Ajax shakes himself out of his pining.

They finish their meal, including the truly spectacular dessert. Ajax remembers dropping a large bag of mora plus a generous tip for the waiter, who had taken one look at the amount in his hand and thanked them profusely. But beyond that, Ajax isn’t really paying attention.

The winter chill feels refreshing against his skin, and it does wonders drawing his mind away from the sleepiness of having consumed a satisfying meal and delicious drinks. Ajax is not sure how long they’ve been at the restaurant, but by the time they got out of the restaurant, it started snowing outside and the village is utterly quiet, leaving their walk through the village square perfectly peaceful save for the soft crunching of fresh snow under their feet. There were a few lamps guiding their way, but for the most part, their walk is lit by the vast canopy of silvery twinkling starlight over their head.

“I haven’t seen you look this happy in a very long time,” Zhongli murmurs, “I’m glad to see it.”

Ajax laughs, utterly charmed. “Of course I’m happy. I did say that this is a celebration, didn’t I?”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what exactly is the celebration for?”

“Remember how I told you I was working on an incentive to get the Doctor to work faster?” At Zhongli’s nod, he continues with a grin. “I found the incentive and it worked. Long story short, it drew the Tsaritsa’s attention to the Doctor’s lack of progress on his research and that’s being rectified. But the funny thing is apparently, she’s already been keeping an eye on him so this just served as the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak.” Ajax shakes his head. “I guess I got lucky!”

“Ah.”

Ajax catches the oddity of Zhongli’s answer and he turns towards his companion. Zhongli is wearing a strange expression on his face, one that seems like a mix of relief and happiness, but also, for some reason, embarrassment and…and…

Guilt?

“Zhongli? What’s going on?”

The look of guilt intensifies and, “Zhongli,” Ajax repeats, stopping in his track. He eyes the ex-Archon with more suspicion.

Meanwhile, Zhongli is positively exuding all the nervous, uneasy energy that Teucer does whenever he’s caught with his hand in the cookie jar before dinner. “I’m afraid I have something to confess,” he starts. “In hindsight, I may have acted rashly, and I realize I should have discussed this with you first, but I had been furious at the time.”

Oh, Celestia. “Zhongli, what did you do?”

Zhongli clears his throat. “You see, while you were recovering, I may…have issued an ultimatum.”

“An ultimatum.”

“Correct.”

“What kind? And to whom?”

“I asked the Pixius to pass a message for me. In my message, I…expressed my displeasure with the way your health was declining and shared my suspicion that the Third Harbinger is interfering with your recovery.”

There’s a pregnant pause and a delicate cough. “I brought up the point that you were supposed to help me with becoming accustomed to living as a mortal and if your health deteriorates, then this objective would become compromised, which would result in a breach of contract. So…I issued a warning that if the Third Harbinger is not reigned in, I will seek him out and do it myself.”

Ajax’s eyes have gone wide.

Zhongli couldn’t possibly be implying that – Zhongli did not just do what Ajax thinks he’s done.

“Zhongli,” he breathes. “Zhongli, you didn’t.”

Zhongli gives a small nod. “I asked the Pixius to deliver the message to the Cryo Archon. And although she never responded, I suppose she had listened.”

What. Just…what in the holy fuck!

“What in the holy fuck,” Ajax blurts out, his heart hammering away in his chest as the beginning of something threatens to bubble to the surface, Zhongli – Zhongli just fucking – “Zhongli! Are you telling me that you threatened the Tsaritsa! With the Wrath of the Rock?

Zhongli winces. “Ah, I had not seen it like that. I had merely wanted the Third Harbinger to stop hurting you, and I couldn’t continue to sit by the sideline doing nothing while you’re in pain.”

It feels like all the air is leaving Ajax’s lungs at once, and Ajax finds himself gasping for breath, but in his heart, his heart that’s still pound, pound, pounding away in his chest, he’s feeling – he’s –

“Ajax?”

He feels so stupidly, unbelievably happy.

He’s so stupidly happy, that his feelings feel like they’re about to come spilling out of him, that he’s just going to burst open and all this pent-up giddiness is just going to bubble up and out of him in a cloud of effervescence. And in the next second, Ajax finds himself doubling over, bursting into peals of laughter, bright and clear like bells as they ring across the town square while his heart glows and glows and glows.

“I – I can’t believe you did that!” he says, gasping for breath. His cheeks are hurting from grinning so much. “Zhongli! Zhongli, that’s brilliant!”

Zhongli, on his part, looks relieved. “You’re not mad. I’m glad.”

“Mad? How can I be mad?” This man. What is Ajax going to do with him? “Zhongli, nobody’s done anything close to what you’ve done for me! Nobody’s just – ” Ajax makes a vague gesture, not like he knows what he’s gesturing because he’s still trying to contain his happiness. “You threatened the Tsaritsa. The Tsaritsa! Zhongli, you can’t just do things like that! What is a boy like me supposed to think?”

“Well, what kind of boy are you?”

The sudden question helps ground Ajax to the here and now, and he finds himself wiping the tears from the corner of eyes as his mind tries to process the question again. “Sorry, Professor. Could you repeat that?”

Zhongli is gazing at Ajax with a mix of exasperation and warm fondness. “You keep saying ‘what is a boy like me supposed to think.’ You’ve mentioned it a few times already, so my question is, ‘what kind of boy are you?’”

This time, it’s Ajax who’s left scrambling for a reply as the mirth from before evaporates. “Ah.”

He has a million and one responses to that question: a boy who’s very fond of Master Zhongli of Wangsheng Parlour, a boy who’s helplessly attracted to the ex-Achon in front of him, beyond just the physical, a boy who yearns for something more than just the friendship between them, wants it so badly that it hurts.

A boy who’s fallen in love with Zhongli despite what a stupid, stupid idea that is, and he has no idea what to do with himself afterwards.

Ajax swallows hard, his face flushing red. “That is to say…it’s just, um…”

An elegant, familiar hand cups his cheek, and his clumsy words stop in their track. “Zhongli?”

Zhongli’s attention seems completely riveted to him, staring at Ajax with the same intensity as he does during their spars, his pupils blown wide, leaving a shining ring of gold around them. But even with the weight of the ex-Archon’s gaze, Ajax does not feel afraid. How could he when Zhongli is making such a tender expression at him?

“I have given that sentence some thought,” Zhongli admits. He’s tracing a thumb over the apple of Ajax’s glowing cheek, slow, almost reverent, and Ajax feels his mouth go as dry as the desert. “‘What is a boy like you supposed to think.’ What a funny saying. And then, I thought back on all the times you’ve said it, and the context surrounding those moments.

“Do you know what I think, Ajax?”

Ajax manages a wide-eyed shake of his head.

Zhongli chuckles low. Ajax is realizing a little belatedly that somehow, Zhongli’s gotten close to him, so close that he can make out the way Zhongli’s lashes are clumped together from the melting snow, the perfect evenness of those red strokes framing his eyes, and the way the soft scent of silkflower lingers in the air between them.

“I think,” and Zhongli’s voice has gone quiet like he’s sharing a secret, “the kind of boy you are is the one who shares my feelings.”

...Ah?

What?

But Ajax doesn’t have any more time to process Zhongli’s words. Fingers trail to the back of his neck, guiding him forward and the next thing he feels is the soft press of warm lips against his.

Chapter Text

XIX. The Interlude

Ajax can count the number of times he’s been kissed romantically on one hand. They were drunken, sloppy things, devoid of any grace and meaning, fueled by the desperate heat coursing through the veins. Empty, shallow gestures meant for the express purpose of chasing after release, accompanied by frantic hands ripping, scratching and clawing at clothes to satiate the need for skin-on-skin contact.

Kissing Zhongli is nothing like that, nothing so debase and fleeting.

He startles at first as he registers the warm touch against his lips, and all of his thoughts come crashing to a halt. But with the scent of silkflowers filling his lungs and the sensation of warmth bleeding into him from the fingers carding through his hair, he finds himself relaxing, slowly, steadily. He lets his eyes flutter shut and he leans into the kiss, angling slightly to better slot those shapely lips against his.

And there, in the quiet peace that blankets his thoughts as he stands under the slow, drifting snowfall, is a small fragile voice that sighs, Finally.

Zhongli makes a sound, almost like a surprised chirp, but it settles quickly into a low, pleased rumble that Ajax feels reverberating throughout his body like thunder. It sparks a sense of yearning, of hunger, and when he feels warm wetness flicking over his bottom lips asking for permission, he opens his mouth, sighing at the feel of hotness sliding inside.

Zhongli is thorough and patient; each languid stroke and caress of the tongue seeks to explore and to savour, like Ajax is the finest dish he’s ever tasted, and Ajax is helpless against it all, helpless against his own desire to feel more of the man in front of him. He presses closer against Zhongli, his hands raising to cup the other’s jaw and trailing fingers down silk smooth skin.

It’s as if his touch breaks some sort of spell, because suddenly, a hand grabs his waist, pressing five pinpricks of delicious pressure into his flesh that’s felt even through the layers of clothing. The next thing Ajax knows, he’s being devoured by the greedy mouth against his. He hears himself give off a shaky moan, and it’s a sound that would send him spiralling into shame, but his head is spinning and spinning at the way that hot velvet mouth is moving against his, at the way he’s being kissed, deep and sensual and with so much hunger. It steals the breath right out of his lungs and it makes his toes curl in his boots.

And by the Archons, he wants more – more of Zhongli’s warmth, more of his addictive taste, more of his affection, more of Zhongli. Anything and everything the man will give him, he wants it.

He doesn’t know how long they spend kissing out in the open in the empty village square with the snow lazily falling around them, under the dark expanse of the starlit sky. He only knows that when Zhongli pulls away, the sudden loss of warmth is almost unbearable, and he makes a sound of protest, his hands trailing down to clutch at the front of Zhongli’s luxurious coat, anything to get the man to stay. His lungs are screaming for much-needed air, his lips feel hot and bruised, and his mind is a mess, but still, he leans in to chase after those lips.

The huff of laughter brushing against his skin makes him blink open his eyes in surprise.

“Wha –What are you laughing at?” And dear Celestia, Ajax’s voice sounds hoarse and positively wrecked. But, at the sight of Zhongli, looking, for once, dishevelled and flushed with his pupils blown wide, it makes the embarrassment much more palatable. After all, if even the prime Adepti is this affected, then how can Ajax, a mere mortal, remain unflappable?

“Nothing,” Zhongli answers with a shake of his head. The corners of his lips are curling up into a sweet, tender smile, and his voice is low and husky and doing terrible, terrible things to Ajax. “I just had the realization that I had wanted to do this for quite some time.”

Ajax feels his face glowing red hot, but he can’t help but tease, “Oh, and just how long have you been wanting to do this exactly?”

There are fingers playing with his hair at the back of his head. Ajax is trying really hard to refocus so that he can actually hear Zhongli’s answer. “Oh, for a while now,” Zhongli admits easily, which, be still his beating heart. Will this evening never ceases to surprise him? “I suppose I first became curious back when we were in Liyue after the countless evenings we’ve spent in each other’s presence. There were moments when it was just you and I, watching the waves lapping at the shores, and I had wondered how you would respond if I were to lean in and…”

Zhongli presses a kiss on Ajax’s hot cheek, letting out an amused purr at the strangled sound that escapes Ajax’s throat.

“But I suppose,” Zhongli continues, “that I truly realized the strength of my desire when I first saw you in Snezhnaya.”

 “Snezhnaya?” Ajax repeats, his voice squeaking a little, “here?”

“Hm.” Those lips are trailing down to nip at Ajax’s jaw. “I hadn’t seen you in two months, and all of a sudden, there you were, standing at the door to your home, a complete and utter mess. You were covered from head to toe in flour, clothes absolutely dishevelled, and wearing the most ridiculous apron I have ever seen.

“But you were positively glowing with joy, joy I have never witnessed from you back in Liyue.” Another kiss, this time a soft, teasing thing at the corner of the lips, and all Ajax can do is stand there, enraptured as his heart continues to thrum like the wings of a hummingbird.

“I saw you in that moment, I saw you happy and carefree and completely, utterly radiant.” Zhongli voice dips to a hush, and his breath is ghosting Ajax’s lips, sending tingles down his body, “and in the 6000 plus years I have been alive, I have never wanted anyone more.

“Zhongli,” Ajax practically whines.

Helpless. He’s stupidly, stupidly helpless against that man, and Archons help him, he wants to be.

This time, it’s Ajax who presses himself eagerly against Zhongli for another round of enthusiastic kissing. Unsurprisingly, Zhongli does not seem to mind.


Later, much later, when they are able to pull themselves back together into some semblance of control, they stumble back onto the sled and start their journey home, holding hands under their shared blanket.

“Um,” Ajax begins, casting a side-glance at the ex-Archon, trying not to feel too giddy, “not that I am not pleased with this development, but I have to say, I was not expecting our evening to turn out this way.”

Zhongli nods and squeezes the hand, and ah, the giddiness comes bubbling forth again. Ajax is rather proud at how he’s able to maintain his composure. Just barely though. “Hm. Likewise. A most unexpected development though very much welcomed.”

“So, I suppose what's the next step?” Ajax asks, nervous all of a sudden. “I have to admit, this is all rather new territory for me. Between my work as the Harbinger and my responsibilities with the family, it doesn’t leave much room for romance.”

“We have that in common,” Zhongli admits calmly. He gives Ajax a reassuring smile. “I suppose we can find out together and take it day by day. We are in no rush, after all.”

“Wait, wait.” Ajax turns fully towards Zhongli, confused. “What do you mean ‘we have that in common’? I thought you’ve had companions before. What about Guizhong?”

“Guizhong?” Now, it’s Zhongli’s turn to furrow his brow. “She was a dear friend but we were never lovers. For one, she was much more attracted to the other goddesses. Her and Havria,” Zhongli shakes his head. “It doesn’t matter. That is an old story for another time.

“As for myself, I have had lovers, but none with which I wish to pursue a deeper relationship.” Zhongli’s gaze grows warm, as with the tone of his voice. “There is truly none like you, Ajax.”

“None like me, huh?” Ajax can’t help the grin of pure delight that is spreading across his face. Not even the sour pang of hearing Zhongli having had lovers could keep his mood from soaring. “Good. I am honoured to hold the title of being your first ever boyfriend.”

Zhongli chuckles, lifting their clasped hands from beneath the cover to press a kiss against the back of Ajax’s. “And I share the sentiment.”

They enjoy the peaceful ride home for a few more minutes, content by their shared silence. Then, “I can’t believe that out of all things, it’s the apron that did it for you, Professor.”


The house is quiet by the time they let themselves back in, a clear sign to Ajax that his kid siblings are in bed. Emboldened by that realization, he tugs Zhongli inside, quietly pushes the door shut behind them, locks it, and pulls the other man into a slow lingering kiss right then and there in the hallway.

“Thank you for having dinner with me. That was probably one the best evenings I’ve had in a long while,” Ajax confesses, his teasing smile growing at the way Zhongli is tightening his hold on him. “Shall we make this into our new tradition? A weekly soiree into town with just the two of us?”

“I do want to try the lamb and more of the beverages,” Zhongli muses. “I also want to see if there is a new shipment of books that have arrived. I have been promised more books about the local folklores as well as a few plays.”

Ajax chuckles. Of course, Zhongli’s mind would automatically go back to his culinary adventures and art. The Professor wouldn’t be the Professor otherwise. “You know,” he starts, throwing his arms around Zhongli’s neck, “Snezhnaya has a lot of great art to offer. It’s just that Morepesok is a bit quiet. If you want, we can venture into the city proper one of these days, maybe make it into a weeklong trip. I can show you our grand operas, famous ballets, museums, oh, we have a grand garden famous for being the most romantic and beautiful place in the entire city.”

Ajax can just about picture it. They can rent a nice upscale hotel suite for the week (and avoid the Palace where the Dottore is located at all costs), and spend every day touring the city, basking in all of the splendours it has to offer both on land and on the river by boat. Zhongli will probably want to see multiple shows, so those would make up the bulk of their evenings. They can dine at the most fashionable restaurants available, ones that normally have a waiting list of a year or two. But as a Harbinger, he would have no problems reserving a spot for him and Zhongli the day of. Oh, he should also reserve a grand carriage because Zhongli would want to buy just about everything. He can recruit his staff from the Estate to help with logistics and transportation…

“I can already see the cogs turning in your mind.” Zhongli chuckles and presses a kiss to Ajax’s temple to his great delight. “All of this sounds lovely and I would be very interested to go, but only after you are better.”

“My arm hardly bothers me anymore! I haven’t even felt so much as a tingle to – alright, alright. You can stop looking at me with that look of disapproval. I will wait.”

“Only after you are better,” Zhongli insists, his gaze narrowing. And because he probably knows Ajax a little too well now, he adds, “Promise me.”

Ajax makes a face. Urgh. “Fine. I promise. What was it that you once said? ‘Let this contract be bound by stone, even if I think it’s a stupid one.’”

Zhongli lets out a pleased rumble very much like a satisfied cat. “Good,” he says, leaning in for another kiss, which Ajax is more than happy to reciprocate.

Not like they were able to get very far this time around; a delicate cough shatters their peace like a stone being thrown through a glass pane. With an embarrassing strangled sound from Ajax, the two of them jump apart in alarm.

The sight of Auntie and Uncle standing there in the hallway in front of them, both of them obviously dressed down for the evening and holding a lamp, only makes the mortification grow.

Auntie arcs a brow at them. “Finally,” she says as dry as the desert by way of greeting.

At least Uncle is kind enough to avert his gaze so that he is staring slightly to the right. “Welcome back, Master Childe, Master Zhongli,” he greets politely, “I am pleased that your evening went well. Are the horse and sled secured, or do you need my help with those?”

“N – no, it’s fine. They’re secured,” Ajax manages to stammer out. “Wait, what do you mean ‘finally’?”

Auntie actually rolls her eyes at that question. “If there is nothing else you need of us, have a good night. Master Childe, a reminder that you have cleared tomorrow’s schedule to spend time with Miss Tonia, and Young Masters Anthon, and Teucer. Rest is highly recommended in order to keep up with the children.”

The look of pure, unabashed judgment she fires at him then at Zhongli, and the silent, damning implication it carries, is enough to get him to flush bright red. Even Zhongli clears his throat and shifts a little in place, appropriately shamed, and wow, his agent manages to shame Rex Lapis Morax, God of War, Commerce, Trade, Contracts and etc. That’s one for the history books.

Auntie does not seem to care about her achievements. With a last awkward round of ‘good night’, she and Uncle depart, leaving Ajax and Zhongli alone in the hallway once again, the embarrassment still thick in the air and mood thoroughly, thoroughly ruined.

Ajax and Zhongli exchange a look with each other. Then, they burst into laughter.


The next week is probably the most peaceful week Ajax has had since his time in Liyue. He wasn’t lying when he told Zhongli that his arm is feeling better, and with his health on the mend, however temporary, he is taking full advantage of this window of opportunity to catch up with his siblings.

It’s one of these opportunities that he finds himself in the living room, sitting crossed-legged on the colourful rug with his kid brothers and sister around him. Anthon and Teucer are busy trying to build their toy models of Mr. Cyclops, occasionally bickering over which parts to use, while Tonia is happily seated on the sofa behind him, fingers braiding his hair as she uses him as a model to test out some new hairstyles.

With everything so quiet and calm, Ajax figures that now’s the time to come clean about his new relationship with Zhongli.

To be honest, he’s not entirely sure what to expect – would they be uncomfortable about this change? Sad? Giddy to have their Master Zhongli be pulled further into their tight-knit family? He’s been mulling this over his head and has probably come up with a million and one different scenarios, both positive and negative ones.

What he isn’t expecting is the total nonchalance from his brothers and sister.

“Oh,” says Anthon after Ajax lets them know the good news. “Okay, Big Brother.” Teucer and Tonia merely nod and quietly go back to what they’re doing.

“Wait, that’s it?” Ajax prods. “You don’t have any questions? None at all? Surely, you must be curious about some things.”

“Master Zhongli won’t stop telling us stories now that he’s your boyfriend, right?” Teucer asks.

“No, no. That’s not going to change.” Knowing Zhongli, he only needs the barest of prompts to launch into one of his many tales, so it’s going to take him being physically out of the house for him to stop telling stories.

“Will Master Zhongli still be staying with us and help us with cooking and chores and homework and stuff?” This time, it’s Anthon who’s asking the question.

“He’ll still be staying here and doing all those things.” Are those the only things the children find value in Zhongli?

“He’ll still help us build snow forts? He makes the best forts.”

“That’s because he cheats,” Teucer tattles ruthlessly. “He uses rocks at the bottom! I saw him do it that one time! He was using magic and he was trying to hide the rocks by covering snow on top, but he’s terrible at it since the rocks were glowing.”

Ajax laments over the state of his front yard once all the snow melts, but that’s neither here nor there. “He’ll still be here to help. Whatever he’s been helping you all with won’t change.”

Anthon frowns. “So if nothing changes, then what’s the difference between having Master Zhongli as Big Brother’s boyfriend than what we had before?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing,” Tonia answers wisely, and maybe with a hint of exasperation. Ajax is not entirely sure how to process this because what does that reaction even mean? “Nothing is going to change now that Master Zhongli is Big Brother’s boyfriend except maybe more kissing between him and Big Brother. In fact, I was wondering why it took so long. I thought Big Brother would have started dating Master Zhongli a long time ago! Big Brother sure moves slowly!”

“Tonia!” Ajax squawks, mortified. First, he was shamed by his agents. Now, he is shamed by his own baby sister. He gets no respect around here.

“Ew.” Anthon scrunches his face, probably at the mental picture of his big brother kissing anybody. “Wait, but if Big Brother marries Master Zhongli, does that make Big Brother a princess?”

Ajax chokes. Tonia has enough pity in her heart to give him a few haphazard pats on the back, but not enough pity to stop snickering.

“But Master Zhongli ad – abdi – he quit,” Teucer points out. “Does that still work?”

“Just because Master Zhongli decided he didn’t want to become a king, doesn’t mean he stopped being a prince,” Anthon counters.

“Hey, wait a minute! Why is it that I am the princess?” Ajax interjects between wheezing breaths. “I’m a boy! I should be a prince as well!” Also, technically, Ajax is a baron what with his Harbinger title. Why couldn’t Zhongli be a baroness?

But nobody pays his protests any serious mind. “Everybody knows that a prince always marries a princess, Big Brother,” Anthon scoffs. “That’s the rules!”

Tonia giggles. “I wonder if Big Brother becomes a princess, would that make us princes and princess as well?”

“The appropriate title your big brother would have is prince consort,” comes the response from a familiar, silky smooth voice. A second later Zhongli steps into the living room, holding a tray of snacks and a fresh cup of medicinal tea. He looks every inch the royalty the children are claiming him to be in his beautifully tailored dark silk outfit decorated with gold buttons and gold embroidery.

“Mint tea,” Zhongli says, handing the mug over to Ajax after placing the tray on the coffee table for the children. He also leans in for a quick peck on the cheek, which has Anthon and Teucer gagging and Tonia squealing in delight. “Well, mostly mint tea. I added some lamp grass, glaze lily, and a touch of honey. Please let me know how this tastes.”

“Thank you,” Ajax answers with a grin, happily snuggling up against Zhongli’s side once the other makes himself comfortable beside him. “And prince consort? My, my, how fancy!”

“Master Zhongli!” Anthon gives him a disapproving look. “Is it true that you cheat at building snow forts?”

And just like that, the conversation moves on. All things considered, Ajax supposes that things could be a lot worse.


“You know, had I retained my seat as the Geo Archon and sought dominion over Liyue, technically you would become Empress if we were to marry.”

“Not you too, Professor! Why does everyone feel the need to tease me?”


Tonia isn’t wrong with her assessment. Despite the relationship between him and Zhongli changing, their lives at home stay the same. Zhongli and Ajax still go through their days with Ajax trying to teach Zhongli more life lessons according to their (greatly derailed) lesson plans. They also both continue to ignore any attempts to learn about budgeting and resource management. In return, Zhongli continues to make more medicinal teas and plasters with the help of his siblings and agents. Once a week, they would go sparring where more often than not, Zhongli proceeds to wipe the floor with him. And during their evenings, they would curl up together for some peace and quiet next to a cozy fireplace, reading, chatting, and just enjoying each other’s company.

The biggest change is, of course, the shameless level of affection Ajax now gets to display out in the open: quick good morning kisses to the cheek, soft kisses to the lips whenever he feels like it, a hand placed at the small of Zhongli’s back or waist, all of them easily reciprocated by Zhongli, though the other prefers to do most of that when they’re alone. Ajax is fairly sure he’s heard Auntie mutter rather mutinously, this one time, “Dear Tsarista, give me strength. Things are worse than before.” He takes that as the greatest of compliments.

They still sleep in separate rooms, though living under the same house makes the temptation for Ajax to just go over and crawl into the ex-Archon’s bed that much harder. But they had agreed to take this relationship slowly, and Zhongli seems pretty content with the pace at which they are moving, so Ajax decides it’s best if he follows Zhongli’s lead for now. Ajax can be patient.

He thinks.

He hopes.

So, things are normal inside their home. Outside of their home, however…

“Ajax, my boy! I heard you had a lovely evening with your beau! Would you care to buy some brooches and pins? They’re beautifully handcrafted and make a perfect gift!”

“Ajax, I heard that you enjoyed a fine selection of fire-water from Naval during your dinner with your companion. Our store just so happens to have restocked with the finest grade of spirits. Care to peruse our collection?”

“Master Zhongli! We have carefully curated a collection of the finest caviar available on the west coast of Snezhnaya! If you enjoyed the Beluga caviar from your dinner at Naval, you are sure to enjoy our golden caviar!”

“Master Zhongli, nothing says more about your affections towards your partner than gifts! We have fine jewelled boxes, beautiful porcelain, perfume, you name it, we have it!”

“Ajax!”

“Master Zhongli!”

The sight of Auntie Vera hunched over her work desk the moment Ajax flees into the tailor shop, dragging Zhongli behind, is definitely one for sore eyes.

“Ajax, Master Zhongli!” her face lights up. She quickly hops down from her stool and moves towards them, giving each a quick kiss on both cheeks. “I am so, so glad to see you once again, my dear Ajax. I have been so worried about your health. Oh, look at you, huffing and puffing for breath!” She cranes her head towards the back room and hollers, “LENA! Get out here! Look who’s come to visit?”

“Auntie, it is nice to see you again, I am doing well. Thank you for all the soup you’ve sent over while I was unwell.” Ajax returns the greeting with his own embrace. “I apologize for dropping by in such an unsightly state. We were in a hurry to escape from the pecking vultures.”

Auntie Vera gives them a knowing look. “Ah, the vultures. It seems that once again, the both of you are the talk of the village! The locals were worried about your disappearance but are beyond rejoiced that you and Master Zhongli are finally seen once again, this time, dining so lavishly.” She leans in, her voice lowered to a hush as if she is sharing a conspiracy, “Rumor has it that your meal had cost approximately 50,000 mora. Whatever tip you gave to young Pietr made him burst into happy tears, and he refused to divulge the amount he received or anything about the dinner to the locals. Had it not been the bragging of the restaurant manager, nobody would have known about the details!”

Ajax sighs. He supposes that old habits are hard to break; in Liyue, a 50,000 mora meal is pretty standard whenever he and Zhongli decide to dine at Liuli Pavilion, and nobody bats an eye at the price. He supposes that for a small location like Morepesok, such amounts are unheard of for a meal.

No wonder the villagers are so excited to see the two of them again.

It’s also not lost on Ajax how the news of him and Zhongli being together is thoroughly, thoroughly out of the bag, no thanks to Naval’s manager. But perhaps what’s irking him the most is the continued lack of shock on that front. It’s as if everyone under the sun and their mother had already known about this and had long gotten over this fact. They were much more excited about the prospect of selling him and Zhongli more caviar and trinkets than of them being an item, for Celestia’s sake.

Had – had their feelings for each other been that obvious?

On second thought, Ajax does not want the answer to that question.

“Oh, don’t look so dour, Ajax dear,” Auntie Vera cackles. “The villagers are harmless! They’re just excited! It’s not every day that we see one of our own reaching the heights of success as you have, even though no one actually knows what you do beyond being a part of the Fatui.”

“I’m afraid it’s not safe for me to divulge any more than that,” Ajax says apologetically, “you know how the Fatui is with secrecy.”

Auntie Vera crosses her arms and harrumphs. “I suppose.” She casts a pitying look at Zhongli, “I hope Ajax is more transparent towards you, my dear. A solid relationship must not rest on a bed of lies!”

The smile Zhongli returns to Auntie Vera is full of fondness. He also laces his fingers with Ajax’s. “Thank you for your kind words of wisdom, Miss Vera. On that front, you do not need to worry.”

“Professor,” Ajax mumbles, the tell-tale heat on his cheeks comes roaring back to the sound of Auntie Vera cooing in the background.

Luckily, he’s spared from further embarrassment because Yelena chooses this moment to come skulking out of the backroom.

“Oh, it’s you,” she greets Ajax in her usual deadpanned manner. Her eyes flit to Zhongli, then down at the way they’re still holding their hands. She snorts. “Glad to see you finally admitted to dating. Took you long enough.”

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

At least Zhongli does not seem at all bothered by any of it. His mood remains perfectly sunny for the duration of their stay in the village and on their ride back home.

The same cannot be said of Ajax.

“I just – I just don’t understand!” Ajax laments, tugging a little on the reigns to urge the horse to slow down a bit. He can hear some of the packages rattling rather alarmingly in the back seat of their sled, and he’d rather their – mostly Zhongli’s – purchases survive the trip unscathed. “Why is everyone acting like this is old news already? I haven’t come across a single person who was remotely surprised that we are dating. Not a single ‘congratulations!’”

“Perhaps our affection for each other is more apparent that we had originally thought,” Zhongli sensibly points out. “Or, perhaps they had assumed we were courting from the get go. In any event, it is all pretty harmless. Why is it bothering you so much?”

Ajax lets out a deep-seated sigh. “I am more concerned about the fact that apparently, I am a lot less observant than I had originally thought. Did you know that my agents figured out you were Rex Lapis right away from reading Rex Incognito? I had absolutely clue who you were until you revealed yourself and I had spent two whole years with you!”

“Did they?” Zhongli taps his chin in thought. “Interesting. I wonder what gave me away.”

Ajax stares at him.

Says the man who sports bright amber eyes, possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of Liyue culture and history even about the most obscure details, who summoned the pixius to help move his things from Liyue, and who regularly wears silk pyjamas with the Geo Archon’s symbol shamelessly plastered all over them.

At least Ajax can be comforted in knowing that he and Zhongli are apparently on the same shameful wavelength of obliviousness.

They pull up to the farmhouse and started unloading their packages with the help of Uncle and Auntie, who had joined them the moment they arrived. When Zhongli is appropriately distracted in admiring his purchases, Uncle takes the opportunity to lean close to Ajax’s ear.

“Master Childe, I have received a letter for you forwarded from the Estate. The letter is originally from Liyue. I left it in your office.”

Ajax blinks. From Liyue? Who in Liyue would want to contact him?

Sure enough, Ajax finds the letter sitting on his desk as promised, the wax seal still intact with the standard insignia of the Fatui. Turning the envelope over, he skims over the sender’s information – Northland Bank. Huh.

He grabs a nearby letter knife and breaks the wax seal open before tugging the letter out.

He begins to read.

And his eyes go wide with alarm.

“Master Childe,” Uncle pokes his head through the cracked opened door after giving it a few raps. “We have successfully moved all of the – is everything alright, sir?”

“No.” Childe’s voice is hard. He skims the letter again, then a third time to make sure he didn’t misread. “It looks like there’s been some trouble brewing abroad. Apparently, Fatui members were spotted asking questions about my activities in Liyue, including people I have associated with.”

There’s a sharp inhale. “People you have associated with. That means – ”

The look Childe gives his agent is a grim one. “Zhongli. They’ve been asking about Zhongli.”

Chapter Text

Hi, this is not a chapter update. It's come to my attention that my comment section is getting a bit incendiary so I figured I'd take the opportunity to post the following rules of engagement: 

(1) If you're going to post something that can be construed as a hot take/inflammatory/an unpopular opinion, either post it under your account name or don't post it at all.  All anonymous comments seen as inflammatory by me will be deleted.

(2) Further to Rule 1 above, those planning to leave comments that can be construed as a hot take/inflammatory/an unpopular opinion, be prepared to defend your position. If you're not ready to debate your point (and do so politely), then don't comment.

(3) Rules 1 and 2 are not a blanket permission for commenters to be dicks. All ad hominem attacks will be deleted.

(4) I retain the final decision to shut down a convo thread and delete comments, anonymous or not, for any reason, including if (1) things get out of hand, and (2) the response is made to a thread that's effectively "dead". What constitutes as dead is subjective (based on what I'm feeling that particular moment. This is not a democracy; I am running this ship with the iron fist of a dictator. :P)

I'm tolerant of discussions and discourse up to a certain point. But, at the end of the day, the comment section is for this fic. If y'all have things to say that's off-topic, take it to Reddit or something.

LOL. I never thought I'd see the day where I'd have to post a PSA for the comment section of a Zhongli/Childe fic. Love all of you and your enthusiasm! ❤️❤️❤️

Chapter Text

XX. The Pursuit

“I do not understand,” Auntie scowls. “Who could have possibly sent their men to gather information on you, my Lord? And for what purpose?”

Tartaglia has absolutely no idea, this whole news is blindsiding him completely, which only fuels the adrenaline and anger rushing through his veins.

He looks at the letter at hand again. Ekaterina’s neat writing stares back at him, reporting that she had seen an increased presence of the Fatui in Liyue Harbour – he glances at the date of the letter and winces – now three weeks ago. It was through serendipity that she managed to overhear one of those new Fatui members poking around the bank, at first, making small talk with one of the guards about the Harbingers in Liyue. But when the conversation turns to Tartaglia, there was a noticeable peak in interest, followed by more questions, probing ones about his presence at the Northland Bank.

Most interestingly, the letter reads:

After speaking with Andrei, Nadia and Vlad, it appears that they too have spotted a pattern of behaviour in the new members who have just arrived. They claim to be sent here as researchers of ruins and ancient artefacts, but so far, I have seen them more interested in asking questions about you, Lord Tartaglia. They were particularly interested in your day-to-day schedule, where you went, what you did, and with whom you were accompanied. I do not know what sort of information they are trying to find out, but it is evident that they are digging for something.

Lord Tartaglia, I fear that in these Fatui members’ investigation efforts, they have begun to uncover your relationship with certain business partners and allies, and since the Gentleman is a prominent ally, there is no doubt in my mind that he has already been identified as a person important to you by multiple people. The one saving grace is that nobody seems to have seen the Gentleman for a good long while now. Wherever he is, I hope he keeps himself safe and far away from trouble.

I hope this letter will find you swiftly. Please take care of yourself.

Tartaglia folds the letter calmly. “Do you know if there are more letters from Liyue that are sitting in my office back at the Estate?” At his agents’ head shakes, he orders, “Send an order for all letters from Liyue to be forwarded here immediately if there are any. Have all future letters from Liyue forwarded here as well.”

It’s times like these that his carefully constructed secrecy surrounding his actual home’s location is coming back to bite him in the ass. If his men hadn’t decided to forward the pile of mail sitting on his desk when they did, who knows how long this letter would remain unread back in the Romashka Estate. After all, it had not been marked as urgent.

“This letter is dated from three weeks ago,” Tartaglia continues, “which means the order for my investigation was given before then, possibly a month ago. Logically, the only ones who are brave enough to order the soldiers to investigate a Harbinger are Her Imperial Majesty herself or…”

“Another Harbinger,” Auntie answers grimly. “I think we all know which Harbinger is the most suspicious of the bunch.”

It’s no surprise that he and his agents immediately jump to the conclusion that it’s the Dottore who’s behind this. The obvious question is what is the Doctor plotting.

“My Lord,” Uncle starts, “if you don’t mind me asking, was there anything that had occurred a month ago that was out of the ordinary with regards to your interaction with the Third Harbinger?”

“A month ago. Hm.” Tartaglia leans back into his chair and crosses his arms over his chest. “I had not received the cure just yet. However, it was roughly around that time that I gave the Dottore my samples for the cure research. Why?” he drawls out, casting a narrowed eye at the agent. “What are you suspecting?”

“It could be that he was seeking something with which he can use as leverage against you so that he could force your hands in providing more samples for him. He had been pretty pushy with samples.”

Just like how they were digging into the Dottore’s orders so that they could find dirt on the man. It is a classic Harbinger move, so Uncle’s theory is plausible.

“But since the investigation in Liyue occurred before the Sixth Harbinger was placed in charge,” Uncle continues, “maybe this investigation effort is now moot. It’s not like the Third can willy nilly pressure you for more samples now, not under the watchful eyes of the Sixth.”

Auntie crosses her arms over her chest. “Something does not seem right about this theory though. When we were conducting our investigation on the Third Harbinger, we used every precaution to ensure that the number of people we sent remained small in order to retain our secrecy. One person for one task, no more than two. This,” she gestures to the letter, “does not suggest that. It suggests that multiple people were sent, possibly a whole team. The lack of discretion seems strange.”

“We do not know the number of men who were sent to Liyue on this mission,” Tartaglia counters. “But I do agree that it is worth finding out just how many people were sent there. Add that to the list of orders to be issued to my men.”

Auntie salutes. “Sir. Second, if the Third Harbinger was behind this investigation for the reasons Uncle suggested, then the question we need to answer is why? Why would the Third go to such lengths to force your hand in giving him those samples? Even if his efforts are now moot, it is still worthwhile to find out the Third’s motivation so that we are not caught unaware of any potential danger.”

“He has been rather pushy since the very beginning of his cure research project,” Uncle agrees. “While there is no doubt that his behaviour is partly stemmed from pure pettiness, something tells me that there is something more to it.”

The obvious reason immediately jumps to mind. “His lust for experimentations,” Tartaglia says, dripping with disgust as he drums his fingers on his table, his mind whirring through other possibilities. “It is well known that the Doctor has one passion in life and that’s to satiate his own curiosity no matter what it takes. Perhaps my resistance has greatly frustrated him to the point where he believes I am impeding the research he could conduct in finding that cure. Or…”

It hits him then the second theory he had about the Doctor, the one he had abandoned after his strategy of using Scaramouche against the Dottore had worked so effectively.

“Or,” Tartaglia continues, “this Liyue investigation ties into my earlier theory that the Doctor is using my samples to conduct other types of experiments. Either way, we need to decide what needs to be done to uncover the Dottore’s actions and motivations.”

It takes a bit of time for the three of them to come up with a list of action items they need to execute, ordered based on what takes priority first. Just as Tartaglia is about to wrap up their meeting, Uncle clears his throat.

“Sir,” he says, his tone taking on a hint of hesitancy. “Have you considered telling Master Zhongli about this new development? Master Zhongli may be affected by the investigation in Liyue.”

Tartaglia wastes no time in vetoing the idea. “You know my stance on getting Zhongli involved in Fatui matters, Uncle.”

“I understand that you want to keep Master Zhongli away because you did not want him to get in the crosshair, but this situation is different. Master Zhongli may already be involved whether we like it or not. Telling him the truth may be more helpful since it will arm him with knowledge.”

“Master Zhongli is Morax,” Auntie points out. “He’s been living longer than all of us combined and had fought against threats far greater than what we could probably imagine. He doesn’t need protection, he can handle himself just fine. But it will certainly make his life easier if we tell him what to expect in case he does need to raise his guard.”

Both of those reasons are logically sound. Tartaglia can recognize that. As Uncle had pointed out, Tartaglia – no Childe’s greatest fear has always been that his Fatui side would get Zhongli into some sort of trouble. Now that Zhongli and him are dating, that target on Zhongli’s back grows even brighter.

(And speaking of the ramifications of them dating, they’ve never actually discussed the potential dangers stemming from this arrangement, whether it’s from enemies seeking to exploit Childe’s weaknesses, like what the Dottore could be doing now, or what Her Imperial Majesty – fuck, fuck, fuck – would do if she finds out. However, that worry is for another day.)

As Uncle and Auntie point out, keeping Zhongli out of the loop is futile if the investigation already dug up information about Zhongli, and he’s being further targeted. But, why does the idea of telling Zhongli still fills him with so much dread?

Is Childe – and it’s Childe now because Tartaglia does not feel like this – hesitant because he’s weary of sharing too much information on the inner workings of the Fatui to a non-Fatui member?

Hmm. To an extent. He’s never been comfortable with sharing the fine details of his Fatui activities with Zhongli. Vague descriptions, broad summaries, those were alright to speak about. But this? This would involve getting Zhongli fully on board because the moment he warns Zhongli, there is no doubt in his mind that Zhongli would want all the nitty-gritty details as he should. And if Zhongli learns that Childe is in danger, there is nothing going to stop the ex-Archon from being involved.

But there’s a second reason for all this, isn’t it? Childe presses his lips into thin lines of displeasure as realization dawns on him.

If he pulls Zhongli in, it means potentially exposing Zhongli to the way Childe’s team works.

It means exposing Zhongli to the way Tartaglia works.

Childe can feel himself break into a cold sweat.

Cold, ruthless, calculating Tartaglia whom Ajax and Childe have taken great pains to hide outside of Zapolyarny Palace, the exception being if it’s just him and his agents, or in fights against powerful opponents. Bloody Tartaglia who had relished in the bloodlust and the fear he could smell on his opponents as they lay there on the ground, defeated, drenched in blood, limbs broken, and entrails practically spilling out of their slit open bellies, begging for mercy, begging to be spared.

Monstrous Tartaglia who had never granted mercy to those unfortunate souls for he is the Vanguard and Her Imperial Majesty’s weapon of war, and weapons of wars destroy. And he is so very good at his job. He’s rather proud of it, in fact.

So far, Zhongli’s ever met Childe, a mask carefully crafted to exude friendliness and warmth, and Ajax, the ever doting big brother. Hell, Zhongli had first become attracted to him because of Childe, and it’s Ajax that helped sealed the deal.

Zhongli’s never met Tartaglia. Zhongli’s never had to deal with this twisted, dark side of him. He may have heard of Tartaglia’s reputation because obviously, but he’s never come face to face with the monster itself.

But he’s Rex Lapis, the voice in his head counters. He fought through the Archon War, has defeated countless monsters. He’s also witnessed the way Tartaglia had unleashed Osial on Liyue Harbour, had relied on Tartaglia to do something so destructive and drastic for his plan to work. Surely, Zhongli must know what he’s getting himself into.

It’s one thing to know monsters but it’s another to realize that the person you’re dating is one. And like he had pointed out, the monsters Zhongli knows are the ones he’s defeated. That’s hardly the precedent for loving one.

It’s also one thing to be familiar with Tartaglia’s ruthless and bloody reputation and to witness Tartaglia’s destructive tendencies like a spectator than to see it up close and personal just what that is like, never mind accepting the depths of Tartaglia’s cruelty and viciousness.

It’s best if Zhongli never meets Tartaglia. Who’s to say what Zhongli will think if they end up meeting. Will he be disappointed? Disgusted?

Will he leave?

The thought of Zhongli leaving hits him like getting splashed by a bucketful of ice water. That…is his absolute worst nightmare, the fact that Zhongli would reject him, would find him wanting.

Zhongli would leave him all by himself once again, and Childe, no, Ajax doesn’t know how he can recover from that.

But if Ajax doesn’t tell Zhongli, wouldn’t that be putting him into danger? All for his own selfish reasons no less?

There…is absolutely no way that he would let Zhongli get hurt, no way. That’s just simply unacceptable on all levels. He would sacrifice his own heart first.

Fuck. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, he thinks, his frustration warring with the icy fear gripping his heart.

“Sir? Are you alright?”

Uncle’s gentle worry drags him back to the present, and in a blink of an eye, he wrangles his emotions back behind the blank canvass of professionalism and slams his Childe mask back on.

(His Tartaglia mask still can’t handle the tumultuous emotions that lay tangled in his chest.)

“I’m alright,” he manages to answer with an even voice, “just thinking.”

“Maybe Master Zhongli does not need to be notified immediately.”

Childe looks at Auntie in surprise. “Wait, why do you say that?”

Auntie shrugs. “Well, it seems like we are still not completely sure what the investigation in Liyue is fully about. While it is inevitable that the friendship between you and Master Zhongli would be brought to light, who’s to say whether those Fatui members will even use this information? Until we know for sure what their angle is, we can wait and see for just a moment longer.”

The relief that comes sweeping through him from Auntie’s suggestion tastes sweet like the purest sweetflower extract, and he can feel himself relax into his chair. Yes, maybe telling Zhongli now is premature. Maybe, he won’t even be a part of the investigation, who even knows! And if that’s the case, then Childe can happily carry on with his affairs, secured in the knowledge that Zhongli is both safe and far, far away from ever having to meet Tartaglia.

The perfect outcome.

“I agree. Telling him now might be premature,” Childe finally answers with a satisfied nod. “We should find out more about the Liyue investigation first. There is a chance that Zhongli is not the target of the investigation at all. If he is…then we can reconsider our next steps.”

Uncle and Auntie nod. “As you order, Sir.”


Despite the time he buys for himself, the worry about the going-ons in Liyue lingers, and it clings to him like nettle. It’s probably obvious to his family that something is bothering him from the way he’s quieter than usual at dinner or how he seems to zone out of the conversations around him.

So, it’s no real surprise to see Zhongli drop by Ajax’s bedroom later that evening as the latter is getting ready to tuck himself in.

“Ajax?” Zhongli peers through the opened door after giving a few knocks on the door jam. He’s also carrying a large mug of medicinal tea, a curl of white steam can be seen slowly rising from the cup. “May I come in?”

Ajax, who’s just settled under the covers, startles. “Hm? Oh, Professor! Sure, sure. Let me just –”

“No, no, stay in bed. You’ve already made yourself comfortable. Please do not get up on my account.”

“Thank you, Professor.” Ajax flashes Zhongli a smile, taking the tea that Zhongli hands him, soaking up the pleasant warmth in his palms. This time, the blend Zhongli used gives the drink an attractive, rich orange-brown hue, and it smells more earthy and mossy than the floral concoctions Zhongli had been favouring for the last few batches. It’s a rather pleasant scent, and Ajax finds himself breathing in the steam from the mug. “What’s in here today? Smells nice.”

“A blend of pu-erh, chamomile, mint, and ginseng,” Zhongli answers as he pulls what’s essentially become his seat close to the bed before sitting down. “The pu-erh gives the drink its distinct, darker hue but the taste is full-bodied without being bitter. The mint and ginseng serve as a nice balance, giving the tea a pleasant tingling, cooling sensation.”

“My, my. That sounds delightful although I have to ask, what’s pu-erh?” Ajax wrinkles his nose. “Is…that a plant? Or something...?”

The deadpan, unimpressed look Zhongli fires back makes Ajax’s grin grows. “It’s fermented tea leaves.” He shakes his head in disapproval and mutters, “You use one turtle shell and five lizards, and you get suspected for the rest of your life. I see how it is with you, Ajax.”

Ajax goes still and jerks the mug away from his lips. “Wait, lizards? What lizards? You never mentioned any lizards before – oh, hahah, Professor.” This time, it’s Zhongli who’s sporting an expression of extreme self-satisfaction. “So clever. Rex Lapis is developing a real nice sense of humour. Maybe if you stopped making jokes about putting reptiles and amphibians in my tea, I would stop suspecting you!”

“And potentially deprive you of my elite sense of humour? I would never,” comes Zhongli’s flippant reply. He tilts his head towards Ajax’s arm. “How are you feeling? Have you experienced any symptoms?”

Ajax blows the steam off the mug and takes a sip. Mmm, Zhongli is right. This is good. “The numbness is coming back. It hasn’t spread past the fingertips but judging by the pattern we’ve been seeing…”

“In a week, there’s likely to be a flare-up,” Zhongli finishes the sentence with a worried frown. Ajax finds himself reaching over to give Zhongli a pat on the knees, only to have his hand caught in the other’s tender hold and have little comforting kisses pressed against the knuckles. “Have you heard anything about the cure?”

“I just received a letter from dear Scaramouche. It doesn’t say anything useful beyond the fact that they’re still working on the cure.”

More specifically, Scaramouche, in all of his irritating glory, sent a letter containing exactly four sentences:

Research on the cure is still ongoing. What the fuck did you do to yourself and how are you still alive? The Dottore wouldn’t shut up about your case being fascinating. I want to stab him.

“Do you believe that the Sixth Harbinger would pull through with getting the cure research done?”

“I have more faith in him than the Doctor,” Ajax answers with a grimace and another sip of the tea. The mere mention of the Third Harbinger is enough for him to pull a face. “Scaramouche is a loud, unlikeable, two-faced little brat with an ego the size of Teyvat and a destructive streak a mile wide, but he’s less likely to test the limits of Her Imperial Majesty’s orders like the Doctor would. In this circumstance, with his ego and reputation on the line, I don’t think he will play any games.”

“He sounds energetic,” Zhongli muses, humor colouring his voice. “Why does he remind me of someone I know?”

Ajax gasps and tries to pull his hand away. “I beg your pardon! I am nowhere near as bad as Scaramouche! How dare you, Professor!”

But Zhongli merely chuckles and tightens his grip on Ajax’s hand, rubbing his thumb across the back of the hand in soothing circles. “It is good to know that these mind games are definitely stopping and that genuine research for the cure is ongoing. With hope, things will be smooth sailing from now on.”

Ajax nods. “Y – yeah. Smooth sailing.”

It will be smooth sailing once they figure what is going on in Liyue and how to defend against it.

He hopes he can get more information from the Estate soon; this wait is making him feel antsy. His frustration is further compounded by the knowledge that any letters from Liyue will be delayed due to the convoluted system he’s set up for himself.

Is there a better, faster way that he can set up a system to ease communication between him and the Northland Bank? There’s not much he can do about the leg of the journey where the letter needs to cross the sea by boat, but once it hits Snezhnayan soil, surely, there has to be a way that he can shortcut the delivery.

Maybe he should assign some of his men solely on letter delivery duty, and he would need to do so while making sure that the location of Outpost 720 remains a secret. That means realistically, he would have to pick a person amongst the six individuals who know where he lives for this task.

No, scratch that. There’s no way he could send Auntie and Uncle out. He needs them here with him to help run his operations and defend the children, so he’s down to just four people he can choose from: his two most trusted captains back in the Estate, and his two men manning Outpost 720. Either way, choosing from any of these four comes with its own set of disadvantages.

Hm. This is quickly becoming a logistical nightmare.

“Ajax?” A gentle hand brushing against his face guides his mind back to the present. “You’re awfully quiet. You’ve been quiet this entire evening. Is there something the matter?”

“I – uh,” Ajax shakes head a little and drains the rest of his tea, leaning over to place the empty mug on the nightstand. “Just dealing with some Fatui matters that have cropped up recently. It’s giving me a bit of a headache.”

He regrets saying that almost immediately, because now, Zhongli looks worried.

“Recent Fatui matters? It’s not related to the cure, is it? Are there any more complications?”

“To be honest, I’m not completely sure,” Ajax finds himself admitting. He doesn’t want to lie to Zhongli. “It’s still too early to tell at the moment. Hopefully, it’s something completely unrelated but we’re looking into things just to be sure.”

“Is there something I can do to help?”

With the investigation? Over Ajax’s dead body. But with something else…? Now here’s an idea.

“Yes.” Ajax pats the empty spot beside his bed. “Come here.”

Zhongli merely quirks an amused smile at him before silently crawling into the spot beside him, all wonderfully docile and beautifully elegant. The moment he’s settled comfortably under the covers, Ajax wastes no time snuggling up to him with a contented sigh. He throws a greedy arm over Zhongli’s middle and tucks his head under the other’s chin so that it rests again against Zhongli’s chest, taking a bit of time to nuzzle his cheek against the smooth silk of Zhongli’s sleeping robe before settling down. The sound of the other’s heartbeat makes for soothing background noise against the slow crackling of the fire in the fireplace, as with the familiar calming scent of silkflowers, and he feels himself sinking into the warmth, feeling utterly and perfectly content.

There’s a low chuckle, and an arm wrapped around his shoulders, tightening his hold on Ajax. Then, fingers run through his hair in gentle strokes, pausing whenever they reach the sensitive skin at the back of his neck before trailing back up.

“Comfortable?”

“Hmm,” he answers, pulling away just to press a kiss over Zhongli’s heart through the layer of fine silk then resettling himself. The way Zhongli’s heartbeat quickened makes him smile in satisfaction. “You make the perfect pillow, Rex Lapis Morax. Has anyone told you that?”

“I cannot say I’ve ever had that honour. Most beings I have met would never show this lack of reverence or this level of shameless insolence. They are too busy cowering.”

“Yes, yes, Rex Lapis Morax is powerful and all should tremble before his might. It’s a good thing I possess all this shameless insolence. Besides, the perks of snuggling are part of my rights as your boyfriend, along with all the kisses. It’s the law, I’m not making it up.”

There’s a rumble of approval that sounds oddly like a happy purr, but deeper, but before Ajax can tease Zhongli about it, he finds himself flipped on to his back and a pair of warm lips slotted against his in a slow, languid kiss. He wastes no time flinging his arms around Zhongli, hands gripping fistfuls of the warm silk, and pulling the other closer against him.

Kissing Zhongli will never stop being a wonderfully novel sensation. The ex-archon has a way of exuding want and greed and patience (terrible, terrible patience) from the slow sweeps of his tongue, exploring, tasting, consuming and savouring Ajax like he is a particularly fine dish, leaving Ajax’s mind swimming and his body hot. A wicked, teasing hand is caressing the side of his face, then his neck, his shoulder, his chest, before trailing down the length of his torso, fingers splayed out as if to capture as much of the hard planes of Ajax’s muscles under his touch. The hand rests over his hip, giving the flesh a squeeze in a gesture of pure possessiveness, and it sends Ajax shuddering and moaning into the kiss.

That seems to please Zhongli; he makes that content purr again, before pressing his body fully against Ajax’s and makes every attempt to kiss the daylight out of him.

By the time they pull back, Ajax feels like he’s practically melted into the mattress, and he has to blink hard to focus on the pleased smirk on Zhongli’s face.

“Wha – what was that for?” he asks, wincing a little at how out of it he sounds.

“I am merely exercising my perks of being your boyfriend,” Zhongli answers, and he demonstrates just that by pressing another nipping kiss under Ajax’s jaw, chuckling at the whine he receives in return. “I’ve been told that it’s the law.”

Ajax scowls. “You have no leg to stand on by calling me shameless from now on, because this? This is the epitome of shamelessness.”

Zhongli does not at all seem to mind. In fact, he seems perfectly content settling down beside Ajax before wrapping his arms around the other, drawing him into the warm embrace. And Ajax, for all his grumbling, happily goes along, letting Zhongli do as he pleases.

But, he supposes he can’t complain, Ajax thinks as his lids droop shut and his body grows lax, surrounded in the comfort and safety that is Zhongli. Zhongli does have his moments of brilliance.


“We’ve dug through more of the orders the Third Harbinger gave last month,” Uncle summarizes, standing perfectly straight next to Auntie before Tartaglia’s desk, moving only to hand the report over. “We can confirm that the Third Harbinger indeed gave orders to his men to travel to Liyue. However, we were unable to find out exactly what they were ordered to do, at least not yet. Our men are continuing to investigate this matter.”

Of course, it was the Dottore. That’s probably the least surprising thing Tartaglia has heard this week. “Do you know how many people were sent to Liyue?”

“Yes. It appears that the Third Harbinger had sent a team of eight: five agents and three skirmishers. The five agents are likely scientists and their aids.”

Three skirmishers plus five researchers. That looks more like an expedition team typically sent out to conduct field experiments and gather research information. He’s seen his fair share of that configuration of Fatui members whenever he travels near any of the ruins the Dottore is researching.

“Strange,” Tartaglia utters. “Why would the Dottore send out an expedition team? I thought he was trying to conduct some espionage on me.”

But why would an expedition team be asking so many questions about his activities in Liyue? What information were they looking for exactly?

“Were you able to obtain more letters from Liyue?” Tartaglia asks. Hopefully, there is some more information available to help shed more light on this mystery.

“I have, sir.” Auntie hands the envelope to Tartaglia. With a quick slash of his letter opener, he opens the envelope, pulls out the paper inside, and quickly skims over the message.

“Hm. Strange,” Tartaglia repeats again, his frown growing.

“Sir?”

Tartaglia hands the letter to Auntie. “According to our friends at the Northland Bank, that expedition team is still stationed in Liyue as of last week. They seem to be asking questions about a myriad of topics – from the formation of the mountains in the region to the flow of natural energies into Liyue Harbour and its interplay with elemental reactions.”

(At least there are no mentions of investigations on Zhongli. Childe can breathe a small sigh of relief.)

“Alright, so it appears the expedition team is not tasked with spying on your activities,” Auntie mutters, her brow also raised as she skims the letter. “Or, they are deliberately trying to throw us off their scent.”

“Or they could be asked to do multiple things,” Uncle points out. “A team of that size can handle a couple of projects at the same time.”

“I don’t like this,” Tartaglia utters with a shake of his head and a growing scowl. It doesn’t help that he can feel the beginnings of numbness starting to creep up his fingers again. “I don’t like how we can’t see what they’re doing at all and how none of this seems to make sense. What are we missing?”

“Sir, it might be too early to tell until we can gather more information,” Uncle offers. “In the meantime, we have already instructed the agents at Northland Bank to continue to act as our eyes and ears. We have also sent two spies to Liyue to uncover the orders given to the Dottore’s expedition team. All reports are to be forwarded to Romashka Estate, who will then be forwarded here on an expedited basis.”

Tartaglia shakes his head. “No, set up a courier who will directly travel from Liyue to Outpost 720. Send one of the captains from the Estate to do it.” The Estate is the most fortified and secured location where most of his men are located; losing one person from there won’t impact the security or disrupt operations nearly as much as sending one of the men stationed at the Outpost. “In the meantime, let’s set up a list of facts we have gathered as the information rolls in, and organize them under our ongoing theories.”

The current working theories are thus:

Theory 1: The Doctor had sent his team to find out any incriminating evidence on Tartaglia. This incriminating information is used to force more samples out of him for whatever reason, whether it’s out of spite or to conduct unauthorized side experiments. Even under the watchful eyes of the Sixth, the Doctor persists in his efforts. Any other questions the Doctor’s expedition team is asking is a diversion tactic. However, what weakens this theory is that the team the Doctor sent consists of eight people, which is much too large and too attention-grabbing for such clandestine operations.

Theory 2: The Doctor sent his team to find information on Tartaglia for the cure research. This would at least explain the size of the team the Doctor had sent. It would also explain why the team remains in Liyue since the cure research is ongoing. However, if that is the case, then why is the team asking about other seemingly unrelated topics like the formation of mountains and natural energy flow in Liyue? Unless those topics also happen to be related to the cure research somehow? Further, why is the team asking for information about Childe’s acquaintances? How does that have anything to do with the cure?

Theory 3: All of this – the oddly invasive personal questions about Tartaglia, the research into seemingly random topics – are all related to whatever side experiments the Dottore is conducting. Of all the theories, Theory 3 is the one that worries Tartaglia the most.

The three of them stare at the list, digesting the information within.

“But, if Theory 3 is true,” Uncle says, “then wouldn’t the Third’s action be in contravention of the Tsaritsa’s orders, which is for the Third to focus on cure experiments?”

“Wouldn’t the Sixth have caught on and put a stop to things?” Auntie adds. “Does the Sixth even know about this?”

“I don’t see how he wouldn’t,” Tartaglia mutters. He reaches for his right arm and massages the forearm through the bandages, working away the tingling that is starting to spread past his wrist. “A big expedition team like this is hard to miss. It is a good point though, we can put that under Theory 3 as a point against its validity.”

There is one thing clear amongst all of this mess, and it’s that Tartaglia and his agents have their work cut out for them.

So long as it doesn’t involve Zhongli, I can handle this, Tartaglia – no, Childe, thinks to himself. Please don’t let this involve Zhongli.


With the two agents in Liyue and his captain acting to expedite letter delivery, information seems to pour into Outpost 720 like water bursting out of a dam. Tartaglia suddenly finds himself rather inundated with every detail concerning the expedition team.

“Sir, it appears that Dottore’s men are investigating into the hotel the Fatui are staying. They have been asking the soldiers there about the symptoms they may have experienced, especially those relating to elemental reactions.”

“Hm. Interesting. That would be a point towards Theory 2 and 3.”

“Some of the Dottore’s men are spotted by Wanmin Restaurant. They seem to have spent quite some time discussing with Master Chef Xianling about the natural properties of certain food items and their impact on elemental reaction susceptibility.”

“…Is this genuine research or just small talk coming from scientists? I honestly can’t tell.”

“Sir,” Uncle salutes and presents yet another report to Tartaglia, who takes it with a quick thanks while being mindful of the towering stacks of paperwork around him. “We have a profile on the five researchers in the expedition. It appears that the team is made of two senior officers, one from the Alchemical Research Division and the other from the Biology and Anatomy Division. The three other researchers work directly under either of those scientists.”

“Nobody from Medical?” Auntie asks from the desk by the window. “That’s odd, unless the scientist working for the Biology and Anatomy Division also researches in medicine and healing.”

“Your guess is as good as any.” Tartaglia pauses in flipping through the report to dig his thumb in the spot by the crook of his elbow that Zhongli had shown him in their many acupressure sessions. The tingling in his hand dies down slowly and steadily. “The Dottore has a million research divisions, each of them kept deliberately vague from outsiders. I suspect not even the Tsaritsa is aware of all the research that goes on in each of those divisions.”

With everyone in the room equally clueless, Uncle continues, “Further, it appears, the expedition team had been seen loitering about the Northland Bank, the Hotel, and Wanmin Restaurant.”

“What were they looking for exactly?”

“Sources that grant elemental immunity.”

“Granting immunity? On people?” The memory of Zhongli’s lesson on elemental reactions swims to the forefront of Tartaglia’s memories. “Don’t shields do just that? Otherwise, total immunity is only possible for some Abyss monsters and the gods, not in people.”

But more importantly, why would they be looking at those specific locations?

“In any event, the team soon moved on to other locations: Liuli Pavilion, Yujing Terrace, the Tea House, the Opera, the Pharmacy –”

Uncle pauses. “And Wangsheng Funeral Parlour.”

That has Tartaglia sitting up ramrod straight and his heart goes cold. “…I see.”

“Indeed.” Uncle gives him a grim look. “You noticed the pattern.”

Tartaglia does. It’s suddenly rather clear that all of those locations scouted were places he visited, and frequently at that. He should have seen that coming. He was warned in the first letter from Ekaterina.

There is also a second conclusion to be made from this information, one that sounds ludicrous in Tartaglia’s mind, but he has to say it out loud to get confirmation that his logic is sound.

“Uncle,” Tartaglia starts, “Judging by what you just told me, do you think the Dottore thinks I possess elemental immunity?”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Auntie balks. “Clearly you do not or else your injury wouldn’t be an issue.”

“I do not understand either,” Uncle admits. “But at any rate, from this information, I’m starting to think Theory 3 is holding more and more water.”

Tartaglia hates that he agrees with that statement, but he has another concern he has to address first. “Were there further investigations on Wangsheng Funeral Parlour or anything related to Zhongli?”

Uncle shakes his head. “No, Sir. The team moved on rather quickly after, I am assuming, an unfruitful session. There is no mention of investigation on Master Zhongli either.”

“Good.”

“However,” Uncle adds, “I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the decision about when we should inform Master Zhongli.”

No, it really is not worthwhile to have that discussion. “It is still too early to tell Zhongli,” is what Tartaglia says instead. “The investigations have so far been centered around locations. Zhongli might not be involved at all.”

“I respectfully disagree, Sir. I believe the investigations are related to more than just that. Recall the very first letter we received from Liyue, how the expedition team had asked about ‘where you went, what you did and with whom you were accompanied.’ Where you went just happened to be one of those items. Eventually, they would start doing a more thorough search on your associates unless they find what they are looking for before they get there.”

Tartaglia narrows his gaze, his patience evaporating. “And until we have more proof that they will get there, we remain silent.”

“…Yes, my Lord.”


Between the investigation going nowhere and his arm feeling progressively worse, Tartaglia finds himself falling more and more into a foul mood. His series of correspondence with Scaramouche certainly does not help either.

 

We need more blood from you. Use the vials I gave you.

-S

 

Why? I thought the Dottore needed only one.

-Tartaglia

 

Testing results came out weird. Need more samples for redos. Seriously, what the fuck did you do to yourself?

-S

 

Ask the Dottore. The Delusion is his invention.

-Tartaglia

 

Yeah, and according to the Dottore, you should’ve been dead six ways from Sunday. So, I ask again: What. The fuck. Did you do? If you’re deliberately hiding information from us, I will bring it up to the Tsaritsa, don’t fuck with me.

-S

 

The response to that letter took a few re-writes before Tartaglia can churn out something polite.

I already told everything I know to the Dottore. Why would I sabotage my own recovery by hiding information?

-Tartaglia

 

Never mind the fact that that’s exactly what Tartaglia had done by being purposely difficult to the Dottore, but at least that response seems convincing enough to Scaramouche because he doesn’t send any angry letters back.

But that string of letters does bring up a possibility that he hasn’t considered before – the Dottore doesn’t know what’s wrong with him. He tells his agents as much.

“Wait, if that’s the case, does that mean all the research that’s been going in Liyue is actually related to the cure?” Uncle asks. He sounds as shocked as Tartaglia feels. “All this time, he’s been trying to understand what happened to you?”

“He could be lying,” Auntie rebuts. “The Third is not exactly known to be the shining paragon of honesty and integrity.”

From his desk, Tartaglia reviews the notes in front of him detailing the latest activities in Liyue. None of those make sense, and he feels his frustration mounting. It’s further enflamed by the realization that all this time, all this time with the way the Dottore was dangling the prospect of a cure in front of him like a carrot on a stick, it had been nothing but lies.

If the man doesn’t even know what Tartaglia’s problem is, then how the fuck can he begin to develop a cure?

“We keep monitoring,” he grits out, “and we continue to keep track of the activities that fit into the different –”

He bites back a cry as his hand gives a violent spasm, the sharp agony of fire licking his nerves cuts through his thoughts like rice paper. Thankfully, his muscle memory kicks in. His left hand flies to the pouch on his belt and with shaking, clumsy fingers, he grabs the vial of medicine out, uncorking it with a flick of his thumb.

And he waits for those damn purple sparks to appear, slowly counting in his head to regulate his breath.

One, two, three, four –

The pain intensifies, crawling and slicing down his palm and his wrist. Distantly, he hears voices, panicked voices, and in the next breath, he feels the vial lifted from his trembling hand.

Five, six, seven –

The fire is moving steadily up his forearm now, crawling up inch by miserable inch towards his elbow, burning skin and flesh and bones, and it’s taking everything for Tartaglia to not scream, to not scare his kid siblings in the living room or Zhongli in the kitchen.

Eight, nine

It’s past the elbow, up the bicep, up and – Tartaglia feels a fresh wave of panic hit him – his shoulder. It has – the pain has never gotten this high up before – !

Ten.

Bright purple sparks appear at his fingertips, dancing across from one digit to another until thin arcs of electro power are formed, linking his fingers together. Tartaglia almost sobs with relief, probably would have if he still has the breath left in his body, because at the first sign of those sparks, he feels hands tilting his head back and pouring the blessedly cool medicine down his throat.

Slowly, the pain pulls back like a receding tide, withdrawing down his arm bit by bit, shoulder to bicep to forearm to wrist, then palm and finally fingers before dissipating like smoke in the air. He slumps against his chair, his eyes shut – he must have clenched it shut without even realizing – and voices swim into his consciousness.

“Lord Tartaglia, are you alright?”

“Lord Tartaglia, please answer us!”

“Get Master Zhongli – we have to – is this normal? Is this what the medicine does to him?”

“I don’t know! Master Zhongli’s the only one who’s seen the effects immediately after administering the dose!”

There’s a sound of a door opening, then, a familiar voice rings out, “Is everything alright? I heard a lot of commotion –” There’s the sound of a hitched breath. “Ajax?”

Steps, hurried frantic ones, sound against the hardwood floor, getting louder and louder. Familiar hands cradle his face, the touch a welcome reprieve along with the soothing scent of silkflowers.

Zhongli. Zhongli is here.

“Saw that comin’,” Ajax slurs out, his tongue feels heavy. Everything feels heavy. He’s fading fast. “Said the flare-up will show up. Fuck.

“Hm, that we did.” There’s a press of gentle lips against his forehead, then he feels himself being lifted out of the chair, an arm supporting his back and an arm under his knees. Carried. He’s being carried. “It’s alright, Ajax. You can go to sleep. I will take it from here.”

Of course, he will. On this, Ajax has no doubts.

Chapter Text

XXI. The Rising Tide

Ajax knows that he’s hit a new personal low when upon waking up in his soft bed and the familiar sight of the wooden beams of his ceiling swims into view, his first instinct is not to panic or to rage, but to curl up in a ball of self-pity and misery.

Not like he can actually do that. He can’t really move anything, in fact, save for the slow blinking of his eyes and twitching of his fingertips, and even those activities are draining the nonexistent reservoir of his energy dry.

Of course, that’s when the second wave of sensations hits his body like a hammer to his stomach, and he gives off a painful wheezing, choking gasp at what feels like a rush of air being forced out of his lungs.

By the Archons and everything holy, he hurts.

There’s a persistent ache thrumming in his veins, and it spreads through his limbs, strangling and squeezing every inch of skin and flesh and bone as if he’s wrapped in barb wire. His body feels hot, unnaturally hot, and there’s a persistent ringing sound in his head coupled with the low thuds of his pulse beating in his skull like a drum.

Fuck. Fever. Low grade, probably, because he’s still coherent enough to register that he has a fever. It’s still a terrible sign given that it’s twice in a row that his body has succumbed to this state after an attack.

He needs water.

There should be a glass on his bedside table. Zhongli or his agents always keep a glass for him there, making sure that it is within easy reach.

Well, easy reach in normal circumstances. Not so much now.

He closes his eyes and tries to move a hand. He’s able to lift it a few inches until it flops back onto the bed like a puppet with its strings cut. He tries a few more times, but after his limb refuses to budge past the occasional twitch of his tired, deadened fingers, he gives up entirely.

This is truly, truly pathetic. To think, the Harbinger’s Vanguard is reduced to this sad creature, so weak that he couldn’t even reach for the water an arm’s length away.

…It’s just going to get worse, isn’t it? Every time he experiences a backlash, his recovery is going to take longer and longer, as he feels weaker and weaker.

The pain – the sensation of fire licking up his arm accompanied by the hot burning pinpricks from the electro reaction – they’re getting more intense as well. And not just that, they’re travelling up his arm faster now and higher than before.

There’s no sign that this is going to stop anytime soon.

Once it devours his arm, where will it go next? Will it go up, towards his neck, his head, frying his eyes, his ears, his mind? Or would it move across his chest, seizing both his lungs and his heart in one fell swoop?

Ajax’s wrestles his breathing under control from the ragged, uneven gasps that they’ve become. This is not helping – he doesn’t also need to be choking on air at the realization that he’s literally going to di – that the next couple of backlashes, he’d be d –

His heart sinks to the bottom of his stomach.

No. Nononono –

He’s always known that a rate of fatality comes with his line of work, but he had fully anticipated to beat the odds and survive to a ripe old age. It’s one of the reasons he’s adamant to get stronger every day, to be the best fighter in all of Teyvat. At the very least, he had expected to go out in a blaze of glory in battle later in his life when his instincts have dulled and his strength had waned due to age and old injuries.

He had not expected to go out like this. Not in his prime. Not bound to his bed, weakened from injury and disease, when he still has so much to prove, so much to do.

“Ajax?”

What about his family? What about Tonia? And Anthon and Teucer? What will happen to them? He can’t just leave them, not when they’re still so young.

What about his agents – those who have sworn their loyalties to him, those who have demonstrated this through blood and tears and pain. Any advancement in the Fatui ranks will come to an abrupt end for them with him gone since none of the other Harbingers would trust them enough to take them under their own wings.

“Ajax!”

What about Zhongli?

Hands are lifting him up so that he’s seated up on an incline, his back propped up by a mountain of pillows hurriedly shoved under him for his comfort.

“It’s alright, it’s alright.” Those hands are back, this time cradling his face with gentle care, their weight and feel achingly familiar. After all, who else would hold him like this but for Zhongli? Who else would Ajax let into his heart and life like this? “Breathe with me, breathe with me. Slow and easy.”

“Zh – Zhongli,” Ajax rasps out. He shudders at the sensation of Zhongli’s cooler forehead pressed against his, at the scent of silkflower filling his lungs. He latches on to that like a drowning man to a raft as he forces himself to concentrate on following the rhythm of Zhongli’s breaths.

In and out. In and out.

“There you go, very good. Very good.” When Ajax’s breaths finally return to some semblance of normal, Zhongli asks, “Would you like some water?”

At Ajax’s nods, the pressure on his forehead disappears. A moment later the feel of a cool glass is pressed against his chapped lips. “Slowly does it.”

The cool water against his parched throat feels heavenly, and when he’s finished drinking his fill, Ajax feels, well, not better but more grounded to the present. The strange combination of lingering chill and heat is still present in his body, as with the ache, but at least he feels slightly more alive than before. He slumps back against the mound of pillows and peels his eyes open. “Thanks, Professor,” he mumbles. “Sorry for scaring you.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Zhongli answers. He brushes a careful hand against Ajax’s forehead and frowns. “Hmm. Still much too warm,” he murmurs. “Were you having a nightmare just now? You may be experiencing some fever dreams. I’ll bring some cooling tea up, that should help.”

“No – not a nightmare,” Ajax grimaces at the way his voice sounds hoarse and scratchy, but he pushes through. This is important. “Had a realization. It’s gotten worse, the flare-up. Gone up to my shoulder now. I don’t know – what happens if it doesn’t stop, Zhongli?”

Zhongli’s expression turns grave and Ajax knows that the ex-Archon put two and two together. Still, when he asks his question, his tone remains perfectly calm and even, which Ajax appreciates. “May I look at your arm?”

The brusque way he begins to roll up Ajax’s sleeve is the only thing that gives away his nervousness. Inch by inch, the bandaged limb is uncovered, freshly treated, judging by how clean everything is and how pungent the salve still smells. Zhongli pushes the sleeve further up past where the bandages end at the bicep, one hand keeping the cloth in place while the other hand carefully brushes against Ajax’s shoulder.

“Do you feel my touch? Please let me know if anything feels out of the ordinary.”

“Hm, I can sense your touch. It’s fine.” But that’s not exactly indicative of anything. His arm has always recovered immediately after the flare-ups.

“How do you feel in general? Aside from the fever?”

“Sore,” Ajax grimaces. If he could pinch the bridge of his nose, he would. “Tired. I feel weak like everything is being weighed down by lead.” Like that time he had spent three days out in the ocean to catch the biggest fish he can for Teucer right after coming back from a month-long, grueling mission in Natlan. He had carried the fish home, handed it off to Uncle and Auntie, and then promptly crawled back to his bedroom and collapsed, his jacket and scarf still on his body.

Zhongli’s frown deepens, but he says nothing to that. He merely rolls down Ajax’s sleeve, tucks his arm back under the cover, and leans in to press a kiss on his forehead. “I am sorry you are feeling so unwell, Ajax. You should get some more rest.”

Rest? That’s the last thing he wants to do, and he fights against the heaviness of his body so that he could sit up properly. “I can’t rest, Zhongli,” he rasps out, pushing himself up on shaky arms. “I have to – I have so much to do. The kids –” Ajax needs to make sure his contingency plans are still in place so that Tonia, Anthon and Teucer will be taken care of. He needs to make sure his agents’ severance packages are going to keep them wealthy so that they won’t have to work anymore. And Zhongli – what is he going to do with making sure Zhongli would be alright?

But Zhongli does not seem to share his concerns. “Rest,” he repeats, placing a hand over Ajax’s chest to stop him in his track. Ajax can feel just how little strength it takes Zhongli to immobilize him, and it’s infuriating. “The children are at school and they are just fine. We can tackle any future problems and concerns once you’re in better health.”

“I don’t have time to rest!”

“And if you do not rest, the things you wish to do will only take longer and more likely to contain mistakes,” Zhongli reasons. “One day. Rest for one day. If there is anything you need in the meantime, your agents and I can help.”

“Zhongli –”

“Ajax.” The hand cupping his face is back, the touch as gentle as before, but underneath that is warmth and strength that match those in Zhongli’s amber eyes. Warmth and strength swirling with conviction and the surety of a once God who has lived through millennia’s worth of turmoil only to make it through to the other side. Steady and sturdy as the stone which makes up the bones of Liyue.

“Ajax, I will not let this disease take you,” Zhongli repeats. “I have given you my oath and I have every intention of honoring it.”

“I never know how you can be so sure, Zhongli.” Ajax shakes his head. “How can you make a promise like that when you can’t possibly know that…know…” Ajax trails off as an idea, no, a realization, surfaces. “You have a plan.”

It suddenly makes so much more sense as to why Zhongli is so calm, so sure. He’s always had a plan. Of course, he does.

And Zhongli confirms his suspicions with a nod. “I do. It is something I will enact when all other options have been used up. It is…” he winces, “risky. Dangerous. And not without its set of consequences if successful.”

No, scratch that. What Zhongli has is a terrible, terrible idea.

“All other options have been used up? Risky? Dangerous? Consequences?” Ajax struggles even harder against his pillows. “What the hell kind of a drastic plan is that? And risky for who? For you?” The silence he gets in response is damning. “No,” Ajax bites out and glares, even if the act of glaring is straining his eyes and worsening his headache. “I refuse. Whatever plan this is, you can take it back! Consider the oath annulled.”

Zhongli’s expression darkens. “Ajax. I refuse to take it back and I am not annulling the oath. The decision for me to follow through with this plan is not one I made lightly and I have decided that whatever the risk it will bring, it is worth it for me. You are worth it for me.”

“I’m most certainly –”

“If you say you are not worth it,” Zhongli cuts in with a glower, his tone uncharacteristically hard. “I will feed you nothing but turtle jelly for the next week, and I will start putting in worm grass in all your dishes – trust me, you do not want to know what that is.”

The threat is both so odd and so specific that Ajax finds his anger and panic sputtering out, like a fire doused by a sudden bucketful of water. “Won’t you tell me what the plan is at least?” he asks.

Zhongli shakes his head. “Please do not ask me to divulge any more information. I do not wish to keep you in the dark, but it is important for its success.” He brushes a thumb against Ajax’s cheek in apology, and his tone has gentled back to his usual soothing timbre. “However, as soon as I am able, I will tell you everything. I promise.”

Ajax wants to press the issue because like hell Zhongli can give him that answer and clam up immediately afterwards. But, the sight of Zhongli’s pleading expression stops his protests in their track.

Zhongli…wouldn’t lie to him about this, nor would he overexaggerate. When Zhongli says he has a plan but it requires secrecy, he means it.

Besides, what right does Ajax have in demanding anything from Zhongli when he himself is doing the exact same thing to Zhongli by keeping secret about the Liyue investigation? He has no leg to stand on in being pushy, not when his own motivation for what he’s doing to Zhongli is far less noble and infinitely more selfish.

He can respect Zhongli’s need for secrecy, even if he hates it.

“Okay,” Ajax nods, slumping back against the pillows, “as soon as you’re able.”

(He also has no intention of letting the situation get so bad that Zhongli has to play that card, so if things go his way, whether or not Zhongli decides to keep the plan a secret would become irrelevant anyway.)

Zhongli leans in and presses another kiss. “Thank you,” he says. “Now, please rest. I will bring you some more cooling tea in a little while, and if you’re up for it, I can have Miss Tonia and Misters Anthon and Teucer come up for a visit when they’re back from school.”


Ajax does as he promised; he stays in bedrest for exactly one day before the frantic need to check up on his agents becomes too much, and he drags himself back into his office, donning on his Tartaglia mask. He can’t say he’s fully recovered; he’s still too warm, his whole body feels like one giant knot, and his head is pounding a little, but he can grip his pen, he can write a letter, and he can concentrate well enough to read. Those are the only skills he needs for the moment.

(He ignores the occasionally worried side-glances from Uncle and Auntie, but does thank them for the seemingly endless supply of tea they leave on his desk.)

In any event, he puts those very skills to use by penning a letter to Scaramouche, updating on his health, and not so kindly asking just what the hell the Dottore is doing.

“Send this off to the Palace,” he orders Uncle after sealing the envelope. “I would also like an update on Liyue. What have the Doctor’s men been up to?”

“Sir,” Uncle takes the letter and salutes. “The expedition team was seen spending some time at the pharmacy, but they did not linger there for long before moving on to the bookstore.”

“What were they looking for in both of those locations?”

“In the pharmacy, the men were asking for medicine that increase the body’s resistance to the elements as well as those that can grant immunity. When the shop owner informed them that no such immunity-granting plants exist in Liyue, they left, but not before purchasing a variety of medicinal herbs found only in Liyue.”

“Again with the elemental immunity research.” Tartaglia scowls. “What about the bookstore? Anything different there?”

Uncle shakes his head. “They emptied the store of any books regarding elemental reactions. They also purchased books on the local ruins and legends, but I suspect that that has more to do with them trying to maintain their cover as researchers of Liyue ruins to throw Qixing off of their track.”

A flimsy cover at best. Tartaglia has no doubt that the Qixing already saw through their ruse the moment the expedition team started lurking around Liyue Harbour. He’s surprised the Qixing hasn’t stepped in to stop them, but then again, if they were keeping an eye on the team, they would have probably found out that the team was more interested in asking about Tartaglia himself. There’s hardly any incentive for Qixing to act when the Fatui is stirring up trouble against other Fatui, now is there?

“Is there anything else to report?”

“Not for now, no. The expedition team has gone a bit quiet after purchasing all their books. How would you like to proceed?”

“For now, have the men continue to tail the expedition team, and have our men at the Palace increase scrutiny on the Dottore’s lab. Speaking of which, are there any updates from the Palace?”

“Rumour has it that Her Imperial Majesty is getting a bit testy with the Third Harbinger,” Auntie reports. “The Sixth is rather…meticulous in his report about the progress being made on the cure research. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess just how unflattering those reports are.”

Tartaglia chuckles. Leave it to old Scaramouche to be petty and gossipy in the pretence of doing a meticulous job of writing his (probably very, very detailed and extremely damning) report. At least the Sixth is having a field day, even if it’s piggy-backing off of the unfortunate circumstance of Tartaglia’s declining health. Tartaglia supposes that fair’s fair. After all, he did use Scaramouche as the metaphorical sword to strike against the Doctor.

“Good. The letter that I will be sending to the Sixth won’t help the Third either, seeing that it is a stark reminder that the Third has a deadline to operate under. I’m happy to continue applying pressure on the Doctor if it means it will keep him busy and focusing on the cure research, and on nothing else.”

Like keeping the Dottore’s attention far, far away from Zhongli, as far away as possible.


Scaramouche’s letter arrives a handful of days later, written with the same signature mix of curtness and seething rage.

What the fuck!? How the fuck did things get this bad for you? Don’t you fucking dare think of dying. I refuse to have your death ruin my perfect success record.

The Dottore sent you some more medicine to try. They’re stronger suppressors for your symptoms. Instructions are included. Read them. Follow them. Take the damned medicine.

If you die, I will bring you back just to kill you myself.  

-S

 

The letter comes with a packet of dried crystalline powder the size of his hand. It gives off the same pearlescent sheen as the medicine Ajax is taking as well as the faint scent of mint. Attached to it is a note with spidery writing, clearly written in the Dottore’s hand.

 

My dearest Tartaglia –  Tartaglia cringes.

Mix a half a teaspoon in a glass of water or tea. Drink once a day, preferably nighttime since this may make you feel just a tad sleepy. Another potential side effect is that this medicine will dampen your ability to use your Vision, but since you are supposed to be resting, I take it that this shouldn’t be an issue.

If you experience any further symptoms, please inform me as soon as possible.

Yours very truly,

The Well Born, Baron Il Dottore

Third Harbinger of the Eleven

 

Tartaglia sends another letter back to Scaramouche, matching curtness with curtness:

While I appreciate medicine that can treat the symptoms, I prefer not to take something that would, in essence, leave me helpless like a sitting duck. I was also hoping to have received a cure at this point because I too would like to not die. Any updates on the Dottore’s research? I certainly hope that he isn’t currently being distracted by other irrelevant projects as he tends to do.

  -Tartaglia

 

Is Tartaglia being a tad suspicious with that last sentence? Maybe. But if it has the potential of getting Scaramouche to scrutinize the Doctor’s research projects even further for anything off-side, then Tartaglia’s all for it. Maybe Scaramouche would find the Liyue Investigation to be one such irrelevancy, assuming that he did not approve of it in the first place, who even knows? Tartaglia is willing to try anything at this point.


“So…looks like we’re doing this again. Is this poison, Professor?”

Zhongli plucks the packet with deft hands, peering at it with a healthy dose of suspicion. For a second, his amber eyes glow golden, and the air around becomes charged with something that makes the hair on Ajax’s arm stand and the space around them smell of ozone. The sensation dissipates quickly though, and in the next second, it fades away entirely, disappearing like a wisp of smoke in the air.

“I sense a strong source of cryo elemental energy from this compound, the same as the medicine you are taking. Beyond that, there doesn’t appear to be anything else or out of the ordinary.”

“At least I can rest easy knowing the Dottore doesn’t want to kill me.” Not yet at least. One never knows with the Third Harbinger. “He just wants to leave me incapacitated since this apparently is going to hinder my ability to use my Vision.”

Just the memory of the Doctor’s glib tone in the letter, and the way he had dismissed the very problematic side effect with his Vision use is enough to make Ajax seethe in anger once again.

“I have also been told that this may make me feel a tad sleepy. But given how the other medicine has the tendency of putting me to sleep for hours and the Doctor described that as making me feel ‘lethargic’, I suspect that the effects for this are going to be quite strong.”

Zhongli nods. “Given the other medicine he has provided, I think it is best if we err on the side of caution. With your permission, I would prefer to stay the night to monitor the effects of this new medicine, just in case.”

“‘With your permission.’ So formal, Professor.” Ajax can’t help but melt a little, and he gives Zhongli a quick peck on the lips. His smile gentles when the worried furrow of Zhongli’s brow lessens but does not fully fade, though the other has wrapped his arms around Ajax’s middle in a tight hold. “Hm. I know this new medicine is suspicious as hell. I’m not happy with this arrangement either.”

“I was hoping that the Third Harbinger had sent you a more permanent cure, rather than what amounts to be painkillers and a sleeping aid, although…” Zhongli tightens his hold on Ajax, “a sleeping aid is not a bad idea. You have been working entirely too hard on too little rest.”

This is not the first time Zhongli voiced this particular complaint to Ajax. Since the last flare-up, Ajax has spent many long nights in his office, chasing any leads about the Dottore’s activity from Liyue or from the Palace. In addition, he’s been going over all the necessary paperwork to ensure that his siblings, his men, and even Zhongli would be well-funded if anything happens to him. Providing financial security is the least he could do if his untimely departure becomes a reality.

(Though his health may be sinking, Ajax still refuses to go down without a fight. He’s lived his entire life fighting and clawing his way up, he’s going to die in a similar fashion as well.)

But his increased workload hasn’t gone unnoticed by Zhongli. It’s rather hard for Zhongli to be oblivious when he has, on a few occasions, found Ajax asleep on his desk, still clutching on to his fountain pen with ink steadily bleeding into the page from the tip of the pen. He had also commented on the growing dark circles around Ajax’s eyes and the pallor of his skin while plying him with more and more medicinal teas.

It’s obvious that Zhongli is worried.

And like clockwork, Ajax repeats the same placating words he had used the previous times Zhongli expressed his concerns. “I’m fine, Zhongli. Hopefully, things will be taken care of soon.”

But unlike the other times, Zhongli doesn’t let this conversation go, probably because he’s heard this line one too many times already, and is reaching his boiling point.

“Is there nothing I can do to help?” he insists. “I understand your hesitancy in involving me in Fatui matters – it’s hardly a secret, Ajax. No need to look so guilty. And I do not blame you either. I understand your duty. But perhaps if I were to form a contract with you, one where I promise to keep everything I learn in strict confidence?”

Ajax can feel his heart sink. Fuck. Zhongli is unexpectedly providing a perfect offer for him, one that he can’t logically turn down if keeping Fatui matters a secret is his only concern.

The problem is that it’s not. The problem is that he’s trying to keep Tartaglia a secret.

But how long do you think this charade can last? A chastising voice that sounds suspiciously like Uncle whispers in his head. Tartaglia is a fundamental part of who you are. Zhongli’s going to find out eventually. Wouldn’t you rather he finds out from your own lips?

But what the hell is he even going to say? By the way, you know my reputation for being barbaric on the battlefield and for having a near insatiable battle lust? All those things are true and then some. I have a chip on my shoulder and I like to fight. Is that any better than letting Zhongli find out on his own?

You can’t just ignore this problem and hope that it will resolve itself. This time, the voice sounds like a disapproving Auntie. Taking control of the situation is always tactically wiser than leaving it up to chance. It is unlike you to be so cowardly.

Cowardly. Now here’s a word he wouldn’t normally use to describe himself, but there’s no denying that that’s exactly what he’s being.

Perhaps he is being irrational in thinking that Zhongli doesn’t already know what he’s truly like. The Fatui Harbingers are hardly ones whose reputations are squeaky clean, let alone the Vanguard’s. Zhongli is also well aware of his mastery of weapons, and one does not hone these skills without experiencing battles, lots of them. Ajax knows all of this logically and yet…

“Did I overstep?” Zhongli’s hesitant question cuts through the silence of the room and the noise crowding Ajax’s mind. His worried frown is back, and he’s moving to pull away, probably to give Ajax some space, and Ajax hates everything about this. He hates how he’s made Zhongli feel like he has to pull away to make him feel comfortable because of course Zhongli would sense that he’s keeping something from him. “I apologize if that is the case. I did not intend to insult – ”

“Hey, hey, no, that’s not it.” Ajax draws Zhongli back and presses an apologetic kiss to the corner of his lips. “I’m just…thinking is all. I appreciate your offer, I really do. I have a couple of things I need to work out first.”

(It’s times like these that he wishes he has someone he can turn to for relationship advice. For all the growing up he’s had to do, all the skills he’s had to pick up on the go, how to be in a romantic relationship is not one he’s had the pleasure of learning, and he’s never felt the repercussions from this lack of experience as he does now. A parental figure would have been nice to have.)

But they have all left. And Zhongli is at risk of being the next important person in his life to leave.

Ajax closes his eyes and lets his head rest against Zhongli’s collar. “Can I have a bit of time to consider?” he asks, his voice muffled against the fine silk of Zhongli’s clothes.

“Of course.” There’s a warm purr to Zhongli’s voice, a tell-tale sign of him being pleased by Ajax’s presence. Ajax hopes that Zhongli would still feel the same after he finds out about Tartaglia. “Would you still like me to stay over tonight?”

Ajax burrows himself closer. “Yes. Stay.” Stay for more than just the night. Stay for a lifetime.

“Alright,” Zhongli says simply, “I will stay.”

They follow the instructions in preparing the medicine, mixing exactly half a teaspoon in the tea Zhongli prepares for Ajax. Afterwards, their nighttime ritual remains mostly the same with Ajax in bed, the warm mug cradled in hand while Zhongli helps him with changing the bandages on his arm. The only difference is that after the task is done, Zhongli tucks himself right beside Ajax in the spot that is quickly becoming his side of the bed.

“Here goes nothing,” Ajax mutters before lifting the mug and taking a deep gulp out of it, shuddering at the odd chill spreading down his throat. He makes a face but continues drinking until the mug is empty.

“How do you feel?” Zhongli asks after Ajax puts away the mug and resettles himself under the cover. Zhongli’s dark hair is loose and spilling a river over his silk-clad shoulder and onto the pillow, tipped in amber that glows the same molten gold as his eyes. In the firelight, he looks positively ethereal, otherworldly, so beautiful that it hurts Ajax’s heart. “Any discomfort or pain?”

Ajax shakes his head. “No. Feels normal.” And because he’s always been weak against Zhongli, he shuffles close and tucks himself against the other. Tucks himself close so that if Zhongli leaves, he can feel it.

“Good,” comes Zhongli pleased rumble. And he shifts a little to wrap his arm around Ajax. “Feeling sleepy?”

“Hm.” And Ajax does, he can feel his body relaxing and the unnatural fog clouding his mind, making everything feel muffled and heavy. “‘s strong,” he mumbles out, and his speech sounds slurred even to his own ears. “Imma be out like a light.”

“Get some rest. I’ll be right here in the morning.”


Ajax finds himself waking up slowly. One by one, his sensation returns to him – the feeling of delicious warmth pressed along the length of his body from head to toe, the feeling of something soft and firm pressed against his cheek and his chest, the rhythmic sound of a beating heart in his ear, and the very welcoming scent of silkflower lingering in the air around him. He can also hear the muffled sound of pots and pan clanging and the pitter-patter of footsteps rushing about.

It’s morning. People are up and about, probably his agents trying to shepherd his siblings to school.

He yawns and stretches a little, but finds a weight around his shoulder restricting his movement. He blinks open his eyes in surprise and oh, it’s Zhongli.

Zhongli is asleep.

Zhongli is asleep and he spent the night holding Ajax.

Zhongli had stayed.

Something gnarled and tangled unravels in Ajax’s chest, and he feels…a little lighter, like he can breathe a little easier. Zhongli had stayed.

Carefully, Ajax settles back into place, but not before leaning in to press a kiss against Zhongli’s heart.

Maybe it’s the calm of the morning, or maybe it’s the first night of truly restful sleep he’s had in a while, but here, snuggled up next to Zhongli – because the man had promised to stay and he had kept his promise –  Ajax finds himself thinking a little bit more clearly. He finds himself weighing all the options before him, all the pros and cons and what-ifs. He thinks back on all the instances where he had asked Zhongli to stay, and the man had. He thinks back on all the times Zhongli could have chosen to keep his distance, but didn’t.

Then, he remembers Zhongli’s plan, the one he will only use as a last resort, and how it’s risky and has consequences, the one he had sworn an oath to Ajax about.

If Zhongli is willing to do something drastic for Ajax, then he has the right to know just exactly who he’s taking the risk for. Zhongli has the right to know whether or not Ajax, Childe and Tartaglia are worth the risk, because whether Ajax likes it or not, these three personas are a packaged deal.

He closes his eyes and sighs, the conclusion settling heavily in his heart.

He needs to tell Zhongli about the Liyue Investigation. And he needs to give Zhongli the benefit of the doubt that he won’t leave despite what his fears want him to believe.

(But if Zhongli does end up finding Ajax wanting afterwards, he will likely think twice about enacting the plan. Ajax can at least find solace in that.)


While Ajax continues to feel trepidation about his decision, and this feeling bleeds into Childe and Tartaglia, his agents, on the other hand, take the news of letting Zhongli know about the investigation in Liyue with relief and approval.

“We won’t be able to tell him all the ins and outs of our spy network. Some things should remain strictly in the Fatui’s knowledge only,” Auntie says, “but we can give Master Zhongli a summary of what we know.”

“Most importantly, we should warn Master Zhongli that he is potentially in the crossfire,” Uncle adds. “He can contribute to our discussions for next steps if the investigation does turn its eye on him. Are these things amenable, Sir?”

“It’s…fine,” Childe says with a weary wave of a hand. Let’s just get this over with. “Zhongli offered to help and agreed to keep the information he learns confidential, so let’s have that set down as clauses in an official contract first. I don’t anticipate he will disagree to those terms.”

As predicted, Zhongli doesn’t object. Seated calmly at the desk across from Childe, Zhongli takes a few minutes to carefully go over the contents of the contract and nods once he is done, and places it back on the desk. Then, with a graceful wave, what appears to be a palm-sized block of polished jade materializes in his hand in a shower of gold. The block is ornately decorated; perched on top is a miniature carving of a surprisingly life-like Rex Lapis in his dragon form, its four claws clutching to the surface as its head rears back, ready to strike.

“With this seal, I vow to honor the contract, my promise is solid as stone,” Zhongli swears, the timber in his voice reverberates across the small office and the air around them becomes charged with power. No sooner did he utter those words does the seal come flying towards the table in a straight line, pressing down on the contract with a solid ‘thud’ that makes the inkpot rattle, and everybody, minus Zhongli, jump back a little. When the seal floats back up in the air a second later, a golden, glimmering square symbol is revealed on the spot where the seal had been – the same geo symbol seen etched on all of Rex Lapis’ statues as well as the back of Zhongli’s day coat and the cuffs of his silk robes.

The agents and Childe stare at the now signed contract in silence. The Geo Archon’s symbol continues to glimmer on the page, spitting out specks of golden light across the paper.

Childe coughs. “You know, Professor, as impressive as that was, you could have simply signed it with a pen.”

“...”

“Also, if my agents haven’t already figured out that you’re the Rex Lapis Morax, that last little trick would have given you away just now.”

“…Ah.”


If there is one thing Childe appreciates from his two agents, it’s their ability to be succinct in their explanations for even the most complex matters. They demonstrate this ability now by recapping the events of the Liyue Investigation to Zhongli, minus the details about Childe’s spy network and the elaborate mailing network between Liyue, Romashka Estate, and Morepesok.

“I see,” Zhongli says once the cards are laid out on the table. He was quiet during the explanation, his expression perfectly neutral. Childe would’ve been convinced by how calm he appeared if not for the way his fingers were tapping against this knees ever so slightly when his agents were telling him about all the trouble the Dottore is causing – a clear sign of his annoyance. “You suspect that the Third Harbinger’s men will be taking a different angle in their investigation.”

“It’s highly probable,” Childe answers. “The Dottore’s men have been fixated on finding out everything about my stay in Liyue – the places I’ve visited and the things I’ve done, including the meals I’ve eaten and the medicine I’ve taken. They’ve been looking at anything and everything about what could cause elemental reaction dampening, seemingly going on a wild goose chase with unsuccessful results. It’s a matter of time before they start asking more in detail about the people I’ve met, and, well…”

“You are afraid that my presence would be revealed.”

“I am afraid that the Dottore is going to find out about you and find you a fascinating test subject,” Childe corrects with a grimace. “It’s one thing for him to dig up information on me, but the last thing I want is for you to catch the attention of that madman.”

“It is not alright for him to be digging up information on you either,” Zhongli retorts. The finger tapping is back. “From what you are saying, it’s almost as if he has no idea what’s causing those flare-ups to begin with. How could he have done any meaningful research on the cure if all this time, he had no idea what was causing your attacks in the first place?”

Nailed it right on the head. “That’s what I think too,” Childe admits, and suddenly, the neutral expression on Zhongli’s face is not so neutral anymore, not with the way his eyes are narrowing into a glare. “There’s also the possibility that all of this is a side project for him. The Dottore does not like research opportunities to go to waste.”

“So the madman is using you as the test subject.” Zhongli points out flatly, looking less and less impressed. “Just what exactly was he researching in Liyue?”

Auntie pulls out a small booklet and with a nod of permission from Childe, begins to read from it.

“…Natural flow of energy and its impact on elemental reactions, natural formation of the land and its impact on elemental reactions, elemental reaction dampening minerals, elemental reaction dampening plants, elemental reaction dampening ingredients, elemental reaction dampening food, elemental immunity on all of the above…”

“Elemental immunity?” Confusion colours Zhongli’s voice. “Why immunity?”

Childe shrugs. “Your guess is as good as ours. I thought people can’t become immune.”

“Normally, they cannot,” Zhongli agrees. “Immunity is a characteristic reserved for the gods and some abyssal monsters. Even amongst the gods, not all of them have immunity.”

“So, in what abnormal situation can people become immune then?”

Zhongli hesitates. That is enough for Childe to sit up straight and pay closer attention.

Why…does it seem like Zhongli is giving off an air of reluctance?

“Zhongli?” Childe asks, “Is…something the matter?”

“It’s nothing.” Zhongli clears his throat. “A human can become immune through the blessings of specific gods, those strong enough to grant such skills while possessing said skills themselves.”

Childe has an inkling of where this is going. “Do you have this ability as Rex Lapis?”

The pause is back, longer than before. “I – I did, when I possessed my Gnosis, although such abilities are beyond my capabilities now. At the time when I had my Gnosis, I did not grant you that blessing if that is what you are wondering.”

"And to confirm, the Tsaritsa does not have that ability to grant blessings?"

"She does not." Which makes sense. Had she the ability to grant such boons, she would already have done so to all of her Harbingers.

Childe props his elbows on his desk and laces his fingers together. He leans forward, keeping his gaze steady on Zhongli, ignoring his agents’ surprised whispers of, “Wait, Master Zhongli doesn’t have his Gnosis?” There's something about Zhongli's answer and that lingering guilt are bothering Childe. Is Zhongli feeling guilty because he missed the opportunity to give Childe that blessing? No, that’s not quite right. Zhongli would have followed up with an apology for his oversight if that’s the case. So why the hesitation?

Why does it feel like he was trying to hide that answer from Childe?

Hm. Blessings…only with a Gnosis…

Zhongli is incapable of it now because of the lack of his Gnosis.

But what happens if he no longer lacks the Gnosis?

Doesn’t it mean that he’ll have this ability? If he gets his Gnosis…back…

Childe’s eyes widen with horror. “Zhongli!” he exclaims, “Please do not tell me that your drastic plan involves getting your Gnosis back.”

The way Zhongli’s back remains ramrod straight while keeping his lips pursed are answer enough, and Childe spits out a string of truly filthy Snezhnayan curses.

“Uncle, Auntie,” he barks, “Zhongli and I need some privacy. There are some things we need to discuss.”

Uncle and Auntie are much too professional to react. They simply salute smartly with a quick, “Sir,” and make for the exit.

The moment the door closes behind them, Childe – Ajax – turns on Zhongli. “No, you are not – just no!”

Zhongli merely crosses his arms across his chest and juts his chin out in stubborn determination. “I can and I will. If I obtain my old powers back, I could grant the blessing and the problem would be resolved.”

“And just exactly how are you going to get your Gnosis back?” Ajax hisses. “You gave your Gnosis to the Tsaritsa – wait, is that why you said the plan was risky and has consequences? No, I take back what I said. I do not want the answer to that question! Do not tell me any more details!”

Not if he wants to claim plausible deniability, dear sweet Celestia. Ajax is going to cry – when Zhongli said the plan was risky and has consequences, he wasn’t expecting Zhongli to start an Archon War on Snezhnayan soil! But also, “What happened to your contract with the Tsaritsa? Wouldn’t you be breaking it by going against your word?”

“She would have breached the contract first had your health deteriorated to the point where I had to take back my Gnosis.” Zhongli has no right sounding so affronted and righteous, not when what he’s actually proposing is –

Professor,” Ajax chokes out, “you can’t keep threatening the Wrath of the Rock as your solution to all the problems!

Also, please stop threatening the Wrath of the Rock on the Tsaritsa. One of these days, Ajax is going to get arrested for treason for failing to reign Zhongli in.

“I knew you would oppose the plan.” Zhongli grouses, a fierce scowl spreading on his face. “It’s one of the reasons I had wished to keep it a secret.”

Ajax’s brow rises. “One of the reasons?” What are the other reasons?

As if answering his unspoken question, Zhongli gives him a flat stare. “I did not wish to make you choose between your health and your loyalty to the Tsaritsa,” he spits out. And, wow. Alright, that answer is…rather, very sweet of Zhongli even if it is tinged with dark jealousy (and what a novel concept that is: the idea that Zhongli would be jealous of the Tsaritsa because of Ajax). Hell, come to think of it, the whole plan of starting a literal war just to save Ajax’s life is incredibly sweet.

But Zhongli’s answer is also missing a crucial aspect to it that Ajax has to address, and Ajax feels his own temper simmer down to nothing.

It’s with a much more gentle tone that he says, “I may have to weigh the importance of my health against my loyalty to Her Imperial Majesty, but those won’t be the only things I would need to consider.”

Ajax pushes himself out of his chair and moves around his desk so that he’s standing right in front of where Zhongli remains seated. The man is not looking at Ajax, instead, choosing to stare at the fire, his jaw clenched tight. It’s rather unfair how despite he’s clearly annoyed and upset, Zhongli remains breathtakingly stunning.

How can Ajax stay angry at a sight like that, and at the face of such fierce loyalty?

With a soft sigh, Ajax plants himself on top of Zhongli’s lap in his usual bold fashion and brushes an apologetic kiss on Zhongli’s cheek. When Zhongli grudgingly looks back at him, Ajax says, “I would have also considered what this plan would do to you, Professor. Ever since you told me that you’ve had a plan in place and that it is risky and has consequences, the fact that you are risking yourself is the only thing I can think of.”

“I may have lost my Gnosis, but I am hardly helpless,” Zhongli snorts, but he does wrap his arms around Ajax, so Ajax is considering this a victory. “The fight may be difficult but I will win.”

“Lets…not test that theory,” Ajax winces. “In the meantime, can we think of a secondary plan? One that involves less…potential war and harm to you?”

It takes a few more seconds before Zhongli gives up entirely, and he sighs. “I will need to know more about the cause of the flare-ups beyond just the symptoms you’re experiencing,” he admits. “Since the Third Harbinger himself is having trouble understanding what is happening with you, this might prove to be tricky.”

Figuring out a new plan together would undoubtedly rope Zhongli into his Fatui side more and more as well, and while Ajax’s doubts about exposing Tartaglia to Zhongli remain festering in the background, he did promise himself to try not to hide that side of him away. He has to try even more now that he knows Zhongli was willing to fight the Tsaritsa for him, for fuck’s sake.

So, it’s with this new vow in mind that Ajax says, “Alright. Let’s work together on this.” And he leans in to seal his words with a sweet, lingering kiss.

Then another, and another, and a third, all of which Zhongli enthusiastically reciprocates.

Before Zhongli and he can abandon all pretenses of propriety, three sharp knocks sound at the door.

“Sir? We have a letter from the Palace.”

“What is it?” Childe asks, once again back at his desk with his mask firmly on by the time Uncle and Auntie walk in. He takes the letter handed to him with a quick thanks, cracks the seal to the envelope, and pulls out the neatly folded parchment paper.

And whatever warmth he’s gained from that brief tender moment with Zhongli quickly disappears as his mind registers just exactly what he’s reading.

Oh, fuck.

“Sir?”

“The Doctor is requesting a house visit,” Childe announces to the silent office. “Apparently, he would like to check up on me in person.”

Chapter Text

XXII. The Great Play

The silence in the office does not remain long after Childe makes his announcement. His agents immediately break into protests.

“We couldn’t possibly accept the Third’s invite –”

“Bringing that sort of calamity to Morepesok is a terrible idea.”

“ – Right? Especially with the children around!”

“Under no circumstance must we let any of the Harbingers know about this home.”

Childe holds up a hand and the room goes quiet once again.

“I have no intention of giving away this address to the Doctor.” Especially since Childe went to such great lengths to keep his home a secret. He believes in a firm separation between his job and his home life, especially when his job involves unsavoury characters like il Dottore. “But refusing his invitation will not be viewed favourably either. I do not need to be the target of both the Tsaritsa and Scaramouche’s wrath for being uncooperative.”

“What if you accept the invitation but instead, meet with the Doctor at the Palace?” Uncle proposes. “With the Tsaritsa so close, the Third Harbinger would not dare to try anything suspicious.”

It’s not a bad suggestion, except, “Childe should stay as close to home as possible, or at the very least, travel should be minimized.” Zhongli’s suggestion has Uncle and Auntie turning to him in surprise, probably because they were not expecting him to comment. “The medicine you are taking has the unfortunate side-effect of dampening your ability to use your Vision. Travelling a great distance in this circumstance would invite trouble. How far is the Palace from here?”

“Two full days of travel if I rush.” Childe winces. Judging by the frown on his agents’ and Zhongli’s faces, they are all thinking that this trip is much too far. “The Romashka Estate is in between though. I use that as a resting point whenever I head towards the Palace.”

Zhongli tilts his head to one side, considering. “The Romashka Estate?”

“My official place of residence,” Childe clarifies and gives the other a shrug and a small smile. “Technically, I live there. It’s why I was so surprised to see you at my doorstep when you first arrived all those months ago, Professor. Nobody is supposed to know where this place is.”

“The Romashka Estate will have to do.” Auntie sighs. “One full day of travel without rest, two if you factor in a longer resting time and a proper night of sleep. One major advantage is that the Estate is secured and properly staffed. You are safer there than you would be in the Palace.”

“It’s the travel that remains risky,” Uncle points out, no doubt saying what’s on everybody’s mind. “Sir, I think it is best if you take at least one of us with you.”

“I will go,” Zhongli offers almost immediately.

“No, you will not,” Childe rebuts just as quickly with a scowl. “The last thing we want is for you to draw the Dottore’s attention!”

“I have no issue with confronting the Harbinger if need be,” Zhongli retorts, the arrogance of an old god bleeding through. Childe would find this incredibly attractive if it isn’t so infuriating.

“Professor, he is a monster!” Childe stresses. “Once he’s set his sight on something, he becomes fixated and nothing can escape his grasp until his curiosity is satisfied! That normally entails taking the object of his fixation apart piece by piece!”

“All the more reason for me to go. He is already becoming dangerously fixated on you,” and that last word is said with a frustrated growl. A rare break in Zhongli’s carefully cultivated composure. “Let him be distracted by someone else who will have no qualms on crushing him into dust.”

“He is supposed to be fixated on me. I’m the patient!” But Childe knows that his argument is a futile one from the pure unimpressed frown Zhongli fires at him, and Childe is expecting a particularly dry response to pair with that expression like fine fire-water with caviar.

Zhongli doesn’t do that. Instead, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and exhales slowly. And he gets out of his chair.

“Zhongli?” Childe blinks. “Where are you…?”

His voice trails off as he watches Zhongli step around the desk to stand next to him, and Childe has to turn around so that he’s gazing back at the other man.

Then, Zhongli reaches for his hand and cradles it between his palms, holding it like it’s something delicate, something precious. Childe – no, it’s Ajax because Zhongli has firmly dislodged his mask with that one gesture of pure tenderness – swallows hard when Zhongli brings the hand up to his soft lips and brushes a kiss against scarred knuckles.

“Ajax,” he murmurs, the warmth of his breath brushing against Ajax’s skin, but he sounds so sad and soft that Ajax’s heart gives a painful lurch. “I understand that you are concerned for my safety but please do not ask me to stay behind. I cannot bear to be away from you when I know you are in danger.”

Ajax, predictably, is flushed bright red. “This is not fair, Professor,” he bites out, and he probably sounds more like a petulant child than the Harbinger he’s supposed to be. He certainly feels like one. “You are playing dirty.”

Zhongli doesn’t let up his devastatingly sad eyes, and Ajax runs a hand down his face, feeling his will starting to crumble like wet paper. The sensation feels familiar, embarrassingly so, like all those instances when Zhongli sports a wistful, yearning expression at the items he wanted to buy, and before Ajax could register what happened, he had already handed over an obscene amount of mora to the overjoyed seller.

Except this time, the outcome is not something as trifling as the loss of a few hundred thousand mora, so he dredges up the last of his stubbornness and fires a (pleading) look at his agents.

“That is not a bad idea,” Auntie says, thoroughly betraying his trust. She does not look phased at all by the display of affection in front of her, instead, exuding the wariness of a hardened warrior who has seen it all. “With Master Zhongli accompanying you, Sir, that leaves Uncle and I here to watch the children and run our current operations on the Dottore.”

Uncle nods, though he does appear apologetic for the betrayal. “I agree. The operations really do require an all-hands-on-deck approach. Further, with the Third out of the lab, this is the best time to escalate certain activities.”

Read: with the Dottore out of the lab, Uncle can assign more men to thoroughly comb through the Dottore’s lab to find out what sort of unsavoury research he’s got planned for Childe.

Childe’s agents are very good at their jobs and for the first time ever, Childe resents their competency.

“Ajax?” Childe – Ajax, reluctantly turns back to Zhongli. The man has not let go of his hand and there’s fresh determination brimming within him, making his eyes light up. “If I were to go with you, I can also use the opportunity to learn what the Third knows about your condition. We could use that knowledge for developing the cure together.”

That’s right. Ajax had promised Zhongli that they would be working on a cure together as a compromise for vetoing Zhongli’s drastic plan. Fuck.

He’s thoroughly, thoroughly trapped, isn’t he?

Well, let it be known that Ajax knows when he’s beat, even if he doesn’t like it one bit.

“Fine. Fine!” he grouses. The way Zhongli’s lips are curled in a satisfied grin does not help. “Zhongli is coming with me to the Estate. Uncle and Auntie, both of you stay here to man the fort, but I want to be updated as soon as you hear anything involving Master Zhongli from the Liyue Investigation. Zhongli, we need to figure out a way to disguise you, just in case the Dottore’s team starts digging information on you. The harder it is to link you back to Zhongli from Liyue, the better.”

Uncle’s eyes light up. “I have read that the gods of Liyue can freely switch between forms. If that is true, Master Zhongli’s disguise would be taken care of.”

“I have the ability to switch forms, that is true,” Zhongli confirms. “However, with the loss of my Gnosis, the process of reconstructing a new form would take considerably more time – approximately three weeks in total from start to finish. Would timing be an issue?”

Damn, three weeks is too long. “The Doctor wants an appointment as soon as possible,” Childe grimaces. “At most, I can delay by a week. Anything more and it would seem suspicious on my end, especially since I am supposed to be resting at the Estate and doing nothing else.”

“We will need to think of another disguise then,” Auntie concludes. “Something that can blend in with the background, preferably. Something that the Dottore wouldn’t bat an eye at if he sees Master Zhongli close by.”

“Oh.” A lightbulb goes off in Childe’s head. “I know just the thing.”


“The Dottore is notoriously snooty. He wouldn't spare anyone he deems lesser than him another glance, which makes this outfit perfect. Here, try this.” Ajax digs through a large wooden chest he dragged from under his bed and pulls out a familiar long black jacket with dark firm trims lining the collar. “My old agent outfit. I hadn’t worn this in a few years, but I haven’t changed much in size since then. It was also a bit big on me then, so hopefully, it should fit you just fine.”

“A hydro agent.” Zhongli takes the coat and holds it out, observing the cut of the fabric and the blue hydro accents with the critical eye of a tailor. “I don’t believe I have encountered one in Liyue.”

Ajax grins. “We’re a bit of a rare breed.” Normally, Hydro Vision holders tend to occupy healer positions in the army. Alternatively, they work as mages or gunners, those who can cast the hydro effect on enemies from afar to provide support to other cryo and electro mages, or the more popular pyro agents. Ajax is too much of a brawler, and his ability to make any weapon out of water is far too valuable of an asset to relegate him to the backline.

It’s also one of the reasons why he was propelled to Harbinger status so quickly. He is a novelty and the Tsaritsa likes those who are interesting.

“Indeed,” Zhongli notes, amused, taking the pants, the shirt, boots, and mask that Ajax is handing him. “If there is one word I would use to describe you, it would be unique.”

Ajax chuckles. “Flatterer. Now shoo. Go change. I have a few extra agent outfits which you’ll need to bring with you for the week. We’ll need to head into town right away if we need all those articles altered for as soon as possible.”

While he’s waiting for Zhongli, Ajax starts thinking about what he needs to do to ensure Zhongli blends in seamlessly with the rest of the men in his estate, and he sinks heavily into a nearby seat, rubbing his chin. There is no way that Zhongli will be sent to sleep with the rest of the men there, so Ajax will need to let his men at the Romashka Estate know that Zhongli possesses an elevated status, something that justifies preferential treatment, including taking up a bedroom in his personal wing and dining with him.

Alternatively, he can tell his people about Zhongli…

Ajax shakes his head and dismisses that option. No, he can’t risk it. It only takes one gossiping person to accidentally let the secret slip and for the whole ruse to be revealed. It’s best to keep this information under wraps except for his captain, the one who knows about Morepesok.

He’s just going to have to promote Zhongli to something lofty, something like – oh. Childe jumps from his seat and goes back to his chest, rummaging through its content anew.

He digs out a velvet box, the colour of rust-red like the scarf he wears for his uniform and pops it open. A gleaming bronze badge sits nestled within the plush fabric with the insignia of the Eleventh Harbinger exquisitely carved.

It’s also a badge one would wear to denote themselves as the personal guard of the Eleventh Harbinger.

A personal guard to the Harbinger is one of the highest honours one can earn in the Fatui, and it’s normally a post earned either through nepotism or pure talent. Out of all the agents working for him, Ajax can only count Uncle and Auntie as those amongst that rank. This, in on itself, is an oddity amongst the Harbingers, since they would normally have a small fleet of personal guards working for them. The Dottore himself, if Ajax remembers correctly, have at least twelve.

As a personal guard to Tartaglia, Zhongli would only need to answer to Tartaglia himself, and nobody else.

While this would mean his men would naturally be curious about Zhongli, Ajax can curb that by keeping Zhongli right by his side and by reminding Zhongli to retain a stony, silent façade, the colder, the better. People should steer clear of Zhongli, respecting his privacy and his lofty position.

There is a knock on the door. “Ajax? Can I come in?”

“Sure, Professor.” Ajax stands up, velvet box in hand, and brushes the dust off of his pants. “How do you find the fit? Is it any – ” His voice dies in his throat the moment he looks up.

Um.

Oh wow.

Zhongli normally looks beautifully put together in his dark and gold suits, neat and sharp, with the cut of his clothes accentuating his strong, slender form. He is the picture-perfect intellectual, his mild manners and his eloquence matching his outward appearance perfectly. A gentle professor through and through.

Zhongli in the Fatui agent outfit is something else entirely, and Ajax finds himself drawing helplessly closer like a moth to the flame, captivated by the sight before him. In his dark overcoat with its severe, Snezhnayan steel trimmings, his dark hood pulled over the cold metal mask adorning his pale face, Zhongli practically exudes mystery and danger, like a monster hidden in the shadows, silent and deadly and ready to strike. The blockiness of the jacket also adds more bulk to his shoulders and chest, as intended, contrasted by those tight pants hugging his waist and tall boots that accentuate his sinfully long legs and shapely calves.

Ajax swallows hard.

Scratch that. Zhongli looks like mystery and danger and sex on legs, and he’s wearing Tartaglia’s clothes.

There’s a part of his mind that really, really likes that. A lot, actually.

“The coat fits well,” Zhongli’s voice is a bit muffled under the mask, but the amusement in his amber eyes shines through. No doubt, Zhongli’s noticed the effect he has on Ajax, but Ajax is too busy drinking in the image before him to feel embarrassed. “The shirt is a bit tight and the pants are a touch short, but hidden as they are by the coat and tucked in the boots, they should do just fine.”

“I can give you another shirt, not much I can do about the pants, I’m afraid,” Ajax replies. He takes a step closer and brushes a hand against Zhongli’s chest, sweeping away a bit of dust on the fabric and appreciating the firmness under his touch. Hmm, this is very nice and all, but it could be made nicer.

“Here.” Ajax pops open the velvet box and pulls out the badge. With careful hands, he pins it over Zhongli’s heart, one of the places that’s fast becoming his favourite spot to press little, reverent kisses whenever they snuggle in bed. Now, it’s proudly sporting a gleaming badge, proclaiming to the world that the man wearing it is one of Tartaglia’s most trusted.

That the man belongs to Tartaglia and no one else.

“Better,” Ajax practically purrs out in satisfaction, fingers playing with the badge, watching the way the light catches against shining metal as his mind screams out, mine, mine, mine. “Much, much better.”

Zhongli catches one of his hands and lifts it to press a kiss against the fingertips. “I cannot help but notice how you look very much like a cat that got its cream. What exactly does that badge mean?”

“Hm?” Ajax shakes himself out of his revery. “Oh, it means you're my personal guard. My third, after Uncle and Auntie. You answer to no one but me. I figured this would give you immunity from my nosy agents’ hassling once we get to the Estate.” Ajax chuckles, low and breathless. “You know, it almost feels blasphemous having a god as my personal guard.”

“Nobody would dare to be so bold,” Zhongli agrees, letting go of Ajax’s hand to wrap his arms around his waist, one warm hand pressed against the small of his back and the other resting just above the curve of his ass. “Does the idea satisfy you?” Zhongli asks, his voice husky. Through the holes of the mask, Ajax can see Zhongli’s amber eyes go dark. “Does the idea that only you have the privilege of laying your claim on me in such a way make you happy?”

Fuck. “Very,” a hushed confession is forced out of Ajax's lips even as his hands are moving to push Zhongli’s mask aside to reveal his handsome, noble face. “This was a fantastic idea and I need to put you in all of my clothes from now on.”

Ajax laughs at the little growl Zhongli gives out right before surging forward to capture Zhongli’s lips in a kiss. It turns hungry in an instance, the hot wet slide of tongues seeking to taste and devour each other as Ajax’s arms wrap around Zhongli, his greedy hands wandering the expanse of the other’s strong back with a satisfied, needy groan. Dimly, he registers that he’s being moved backward, one little shuffling step at a time between devastating, breathtaking kisses, but he’s still caught by surprise when the back of his knees bumps into something. With a yelp, he falls back and lands on a cloud of softness – his bed.

He lays there, sprawled out in a daze on his white sheets, his lips feel hot and just a touch sore, no doubt chaffed to a cherry red, and all he can do is stare up and up and up at the tall, dark figure of Zhongli, looming over him, pupils blown wide and expression starving. The badge on his chest is gleaming gold in the firelight and Ajax swallows hard.

Mine, mine, mine.

He watches at the way Zhongli crawls towards him, all slow and sinuous grace, the dark fabric of his agent outfit rustling with each move forward. He can do nothing but watch even as Zhongli traps him under his body, his legs between Zhongli’s powerful thighs and his shoulders pushed down by strong hands, keeping him firmly still. Then, Zhongli’s lips descend onto his once again, claiming and possessive, and Ajax moans a breathless little thing, gladly losing himself to the feeling of satiating a god’s appetite.

Later, much later, sore and sweaty but thoroughly satisfied, Ajax drowsily lets himself be spooned into Zhongli’s arms under tussled, dirtied sheets. He shivers when Zhongli presses an apologetic kiss against one of the bite marks on his shoulder.

“After you are healthy and hale,” Zhongli murmurs against sensitive skin, “I will bring you back to Liyue to my home near Jueyun Karst. I will have you draped in nothing but my silks and pearls, the finest in all of Teyvat, and there, in my nest, I will have you again and again for as long as I need to sear the sight of your pleasure into my memory.”

Oh, sweet Archons. “Zhongli…” Ajax whines and buries his glowing face in the pillow. Despite their recent activity being their first time with each other, Zhongli’s clearly gotten over any hesitancy he may have had at being intimate with him. “And you call me the shameless one!”

There’s a familiar rumble of laughter. “Oh, I don’t know,” Zhongli says, all teasing mirth. If he has a tail, Ajax imagines it would be swishing lazily in delight right now. “You were mighty shameless when you tore my clothes right off –”

“Alright, alright!” The whine returns, louder this time. “I do not need a play-by-play on what I did just now.” Most of it is him, making embarrassing needy noises anyway.

Then, he groans. “Oh, my clothes. My poor clothes. I hope they aren’t ruined!”

Luckily, the clothes are in perfectly fine shape save for a few buttons torn from the lapel, as Ajax discovers when he gets around to washing them a few hours later. The fabric miraculous holds even with the furious way he’s scrubbing it with a bar of soap to get some of the unfortunate stains out.

Still, despite the relatively little damage done, he finds himself unable to meet Auntie in the eyes when she walks in on him quietly laundering his outfit, her gaze flickering immediately to those missing buttons and the suspicious stains on the pants.

Her judging silence says it all.


The plan is a simple one – Zhongli and he are to journey to the Estate where Zhongli is introduced to his men and staff as his personal guard. The only person to know Zhongli’s identity as Childe’s esteemed and learned guest is the one captain who knows where he lives. They will have two days to get ready for the Dottore’s visit, including for Childe to remind his men and staff to pretend that Childe had been living at the Estate all this time, but had secluded himself to his private wing. Meanwhile, Childe can use the rest of the time to give Zhongli a tour of the place so that he would become familiar with its layout and its inhabitants.

The Dottore will visit the following day. Hopefully, he won’t stay for long, although he is likely to stay overnight, judging by the lengthy journey between the Estate and the Palace.

Only after the Dottore is well and truly gone can he and Zhongli depart.

With luck, this whole endeavour should last just under a week, starting from their departure from Morepesok and ending in their return.

While Zhongli is at the Estate, he is to keep up a stony silence. He is to keep his mask on at all times and under no circumstance can he use his geo elemental magic, since the outfit he’s wearing is that of a hydro agent. In addition, he is to stay close to Ajax at all times under the pretence of doing his duty.

“Is that it?” Zhongli tilts his head in question. “I would have imagined that members of the Fatui have a more in-depth protocol of behaviours they need to follow.”

Ajax laughs. “Typically they do, but as my personal guard, you have a lot of leeway. It also helps that I’m not exactly a stickler for useless things like protocols so I tend to waive those for my agents. Now, if you were working for the Signora…”

He lets his words trail off ominously. Signora is notoriously difficult, always demanding her agents to stand a few paces behind her and to never look her in the eyes. A true diva through and through.

With that sort out, it’s time to move on to the next topic of discussion, which is, “But what should Zhongli call himself while in disguise?”

“It will have to be a Snezhnayan name, obviously,” Auntie answers. “Master Zhongli, I hope you do not mind.”

“I do not. I understand the need to blend in.”

“We can find a name that resembles the one he has already,” Uncle starts. “Something that is the equivalent of Zhongli? Or maybe Rex Lapis? Geo Lord? Morax is going to be trickier…”

“My title Rex Lapis technically translates to the King of Stone. Maybe that would be of help.”

“Vasily!” Childe suggests and flashes Zhongli a happy grin. “Rex means king. The name Vasily means kingly. It’s a common enough name that nobody would bat an eye at it either.”

For the lack of a better suggestion, Vasily wins as the default choice.

“We have a raven ready that will deliver notes between Morepesok and the Estate,” Uncle recaps as he helps Childe and Zhongli pack. “The moment I hear about any updates whether it’s from the investigations on the Third Harbinger or from the Liyue Investigation, I will send you a note.”

Childe nods. “Perfect. Let’s hope that everything goes as painlessly as possible.”

No sooner does he say those words, he ends up eating them because he forgot to factor in how his siblings would react to his departure.

“No, Big Brother! Don’t leave!” Teucer latches on to Ajax’s left leg, fat crocodile tears sliding down his cheeks. Latched on to his right leg is Anthon, who is similarly bawling his eyes out.

“You haven’t recovered yet, Big Brother,” comes Tonia’s quiet, worried observations. She isn’t glued to his side, but she is standing a few paces away, trying to look composed but her wide eyes are shining behind her glasses. This is infinitely worse. “What happens if your health deteriorates? Do you absolutely have to leave now?”

“Who’s going to make you bandages and tea without us?” Anthon demands. Ajax tries not to cringe at the tears and snot he’s wiping on the fabric of his pants. “This is not fair, you shouldn’t have to work when you’re not well. Take us with you! We can help!”

Childe sighs and bends down, drawing his brothers in for a hug. He gestures for his sister as well, who does not hesitate in rushing over and wrapping her skinny arms around his neck.

“I’m sorry, it’s –” no, do not use the word dangerous, that’s only going to set them off, “not the best place for children, so I can’t take you with me. It’s only going to be a week though, and I will try my best to come back as soon as possible.”

It takes a few more hours of convincing before the children let up, but not before Ajax is plied with a month’s worth of salves to take with him.

“This one has more mint in it, and that one,” Tonia shoves another little wooden container into his hands, “has some chamomile and mistflower extracts.” She turns to Zhongli, who’s been helping Ajax with collecting all the salves to be packed away with their travel bags. “Master Zhongli, you’re going to take good care of Big Brother for us, right?”

“Your brother is in safe hands, Miss Tonia.”

Tonia puts her hands on her hips and glowers at Zhongli, which is both adorable and terrifying because she’s somehow managed to copy Auntie’s disapproving glare to perfection. After a few seconds, she nods, apparently satisfied with what she sees, and turns to Ajax, who’s desperately trying to hold in his laughter. His brave younger sister, taking on an ex-Archon. She has a warrior’s blood in her, clearly! “Big Brother, you’re going to take care of Master Zhongli too! Make sure he eats properly instead of spending all his time reading his books.”

Ajax has to bite the inside of his cheeks to keep himself contained. “Of course, Little Sister.  I will take very good of Master Zhongli.” He flashes Zhongli a knowing look, coupled with a suggestive little eyebrow waggle when Tonia turns away and is met with an exasperated eye roll.


They set out first thing in the morning before the sun rises, their path lit by the fading starlight in the greying sky. Although their walk is chilly, the journey to Outpost 720 is a relatively short one even made on foot and carrying their bags over their shoulders. Zhongli is sporting a dark travel cloak, another loan from Ajax, lined with dark grey fur and adorned with steel clasps holding it closed. The severe look and make of the coat serves as a stark contrast against the delicate snow blanketing the fields in which they’re trudging through. Meanwhile, Ajax has opted for a discrete dove grey travel cloak lined with light brown fur trimmings along the hood and the cuffs. His Tartaglia mask is firmly back on his head, hidden beneath his hood, its weight feeling a tad foreign after so many months without it.

“We will be travelling from the Outpost to Romashka Estate by horseback,” Ajax says, his voice deliberately kept quiet in the early morning, “I have already requested two horses for us so we should be able to head out quickly. From there, it’s a day’s travel to the Estate, factoring in rest in between. I like to use some of the smaller towns as pit stops during my trips to the Estate.”

Zhongli nods. “When should I change into the agent outfit?”

“At one of the rest stops once we get close to the Estate, where the sight of Fatui agents is much more common. This far out from the Capital, we’re bound to draw a bit more attention if we are in anything but travel clothes.” Ajax hesitates, unsure how he should approach the next thing subject. “Um, Professor?”

“Yes?”

“Once I’m in front of the other Harbingers, I, uh, will be comporting myself a bit differently.”

Zhongli quirks a questioning brow at Ajax. “Different? You mean how you are like in front of your men? I understand that you would not be acting anywhere near as casual as you are with your family or with me.”

Ajax would prefer if he never has to have this conversation but Zhongli should at least be aware of his Tartaglia persona. He’s supposed to be Tartaglia’s personal guard, after all. It would be disastrous if he’s caught completely by surprise when he does finally meet him. But first, he needs to explain things clearly and in a way that wouldn’t alarm the other man. Hopefully.

“Ah, not quite,” he begins. “I suppose what you have seen of me so far has been me on my best behaviour. Before the other Harbingers, I am…” bloodthirsty, merciless, “colder.” Cruel, terrifying, “More serious. Different. So, er, don’t be alarmed?”

Ajax winces at the almost pleading way that sounds. He wishes he could have been more eloquent in the way he had phrased that, but the words he wanted to use, the ones in his thoughts, got caught up in his throat and what came out was...that garbled mess.

At least Zhongli does not appear confused or bothered. “I understand that we all have our roles to play, with different aspects of it shifting based on what the circumstance dictates. You need not be afraid that I will judge you based on how you choose to handle the Harbingers.”

Ajax supposes that that is the best response he can get, but he will have to see it to believe it. Nonetheless, he gives Zhongli a small smile. “Thanks, Professor.”


It seems like in no time at all, the familiar sight of the simple wooden cabin that makes up Outpost 720 appears at a distance, peering through the forest of spindly dark pines that pepper the countryside. The cabin remains as innocuous as ever, its outside unadorned with not even a drop of paint to liven its appearance. The clearing around it is quiet and utterly still, and if not for the little signs of human activity splashed throughout the landscape – an ax propped against a tree trunk for harvesting firewood, two sets of footprints leading to the entrance – any passerby would have believed the building to be closed for the winter.

Ajax, however, knows better. He strolls up to the front door and raps on the heavy wood with his knuckles in four sharp knocks.

The door opens at once.

“Sir!” His agent salutes, “it is good to see that you have made it safe and sound.”

Childe nods. “Is everything well at the outpost?”

“Nothing out of the ordinary aside from the increasing influx of mails as of late, but I am sure you are aware of that already.”

“There is an investigation going on at the moment, several actually, with more on the way,” Childe explains. “Brace yourselves for even more mail in the near future.” He peers around a bit. “Where’s the other agent?”

“Out in the back, sir, with the horses. We just finished making sure that everything is ready for your departure. Oh,” the agent blinks, spotting Zhongli standing a few paces away, but most noticeably, the lack of Fatui attire on him, “you have a…travelling companion with you. We were wondering what the second horse is for.”

His surprise is understandable. Childe has never brought an outsider to the outpost before. He’s always ventured to and from it alone, draped in the most humble of traveling cloaks, riding a discrete, common stock horse. Every action screams of secrecy.

This is a departure from the norm.

“The both of us will be heading towards the Estate for a week. We should be back in six days or so.”

“I won’t be keeping you then, right this way, sir.”

They are guided to the back of the property where a small stable stands. Two grey horses are gathered there, already saddled up and ready to go, with the second agent flitting about, checking the straps one last time. He salutes smartly when he catches sight of Childe.

“Sir!” Like the other agent, his eyes widen at the sight of Zhongli, but wisely doesn’t say anything.

Childe waves off the formality. “At ease, at ease. Are the horses ready to go?”

“They are. If you can hand me your bags and your…companion’s as well, I can load those on for you.”

“Thank you. I also brought a little something for the both of you. Consider this my thanks for your hard work as of late.” Childe swings his bag forward and fishes through the opening. With a soft, ‘Ah ha!’ he pulls out two bottles of fire-water and two large boxes of confectionaries. “A little something to make the job less monotonous, I wasn’t sure what either of you preferred so I got a mix of smokva, pastilles, caramels, and chocolates. My only request is that you enjoy the fire-water after work hours.”

The agents definitely perk right up at the gifts, the matching grins on their faces a sight more welcoming than the sombre professionalism from before. “Thank you, sir! Safe travels for you and your companion!”

“That was very generous of you,” Zhongli remarks once they’ve set off on their new horses out on the country road, the outpost slowly disappearing behind them.

Ajax waves away the compliment with a chuckle. “It’s just a small token of appreciation. Working at the outpost can be isolating, and these two have been at this post for a while now. They’ve also been doing good work despite how busy things are getting, so I figured a little pick me up serves as a nice morale boost.”

“It might seem like a small gesture to you but somehow, I doubt the other Harbingers would have thought to do this for their subordinates.”

“I still remember what it’s like climbing up the Fatui ladder,” Ajax huffs out a laugh. He’s not denying it though because Zhongli’s not wrong. “I think the other Harbingers have long gotten used to their lofty positions so it’s harder for them to empathise.”

There’s also the fact that a lot of the Harbingers were able to slide into the Fatui at a higher rank early on in their careers due to their family connections, so it’s not like they would even begin to understand the struggles of the common people. The Signora certainly is one example. Pantalone as well, coming from nobility with strong ties to the banks. Nobody would dare order Pantalone to guard an outpost in the middle of nowhere without facing severe consequences.

Hell, some of the Harbingers seemed to have avoided the ladder altogether. The Dottore was poached directly from some well-renown university, and was promoted into some sort of director position before being brought in as a Harbinger. Scaramouche had straight-up defected from some high position in Inazuma, and promptly secured his spot as a Harbinger from his deadly reputation and for his vast intelligence network.

Ajax is probably the odd one out having started all the way from the bottom with zero connection to rely on, climbing the ladder rung by bloody rung, quickly establishing his reputation as a battle prodigy.

“And you, Professor?” Ajax asks, shaking away the memory. “Surely, as Rex Lapis, you have a few tricks up your sleeves on how to lead people. All of Liyue sings you praises!”

Zhongli hums in thought. “To be honest, for the past two thousand years or so, I have mostly left people to their own devices, with the exception of guiding them in economic matters,” he confesses. “In the early days, before Liyue became Liyue, I was more hands on when it came to governance. I helped establish the means by which the people could trade and prosper, and I established the law of fairness and contracts. Then, I spent the majority of my time fighting against those that threatened the safety of the common people.”

Huh. “But what about your disciples and the other adepti? How did you get them to stay so loyal to you?”

“In the early days, it was trial by combat. The victor is the one who got to lead. With the newer adepti, I suppose their loyalty stemmed from an admiration for my dedication to my role as Prime Adepti, whether that means honoring the creed of fairness or acting as a defender of the lands.” Zhongli shrugs. “I cannot say I treat them any differently than I do the common people. I leave them be to lead their lives however they so wish so long as they do not breach their contracts.”

“So, your secret to good governance is to be a strong fighter, perpetually demonstrate said strong fighting skills, and threaten people with the Wrath of the Rock?” Ajax jokes, shaking his head. “Suddenly, it makes a lot more sense why your default response is the Wrath of the Rock.”

“I do not always threaten people with the Wrath of the Rock,” Zhongli snorts. “Only those who dared breach their contract. To abide by a contract and act in accordance with guidelines set out within means simply to respect the concept of fairness. I do not understand how people cannot grasp this simple concept.”

“Ah, but by your argument, wouldn’t you fall under the category as those people?” Ajax’s comment is met with a pure, unamused look. It’s adorable. Ajax wishes he can kiss it off Zhongli’s face. “After all, you were gearing to steal your Gnosis back from the Tsaritsa.”

“As I had explained,” Zhongli drawls out, “had the situation gotten so bad that I have to enact this plan, then she would have breached the contract already. How does she expect me to transition into living a mortal life if my teacher is in no state to be teaching me?”

“Right. Because clearly, I’m the only teacher who could help you learn how to live like a mortal, right?” That little quip has Zhongli looking away, flushing, and Ajax’s grin grows. “You know, I was thinking about your plan the other day. What I don’t understand is why you couldn’t ask the Tsaritsa to borrow the Gnosis to grant me the blessing.” Ajax likes to think that the Tsaritsa does not dislike him so much that she would willingly watch him die, not when she already expended so much energy monitoring the Dottore.

But Zhongli shakes his head. “Unfortunately, the blessing needs to be maintained, which means I need my Gnosis back permanently to sustain its effects.”

Ah, well, that’s just bad luck on Ajax’s part then.

Their journey continues rather uneventfully as they follow the snowy trail through the pine forest, making a good headway from the excellent weather and the flat terrain. They make a few rest stops in nearby towns, both to give their horses a break and to grab quick meals at the local taverns. The food served there are mostly simple and rustic soups, but incredibly warming and fragrant – a bowl of shchi or solyanka with some bread and butter. Perfect for travellers who have to brace the Snezhnayan cold.

They make another pit stop at the hamlet an hour ride away from the Estate, entering as two travellers and leaving as two members of the Fatui, dressed in their uniforms under their travelling cloaks.

“Are you ready?” Ajax asks the moment the Estate comes into view, perched on top of rolling hills draped in white. The evening has just rolled in, but the land around them is almost pitch black with the early sunsets during Snezhnayan winters. It makes the warm glow of the electric lights shining through the Estate’s grand windows appear like a warm, welcoming beacon.

“Yes, sir,” comes Zhongli’s teasing tone from under his hood and mask, and it really should be criminal how attractive he sounds with the way the word ‘sir’ rolls off his tongue, all low and velvet smooth. Ajax brushes aside the simmering heat in his stomach in favour of gathering his Harbinger persona around him like one would a cloak to fend off the outdoor chill.

“Alright,” Childe says with renewed determination. He reaches for his hair and adjusts his signature mask. “I suppose it’s showtime.”


Even before their horses can trot up to the front gate, a flurry of servants have descended onto the long gravel driveway, some hastily pulling the iron-wrought gate open while the rest are lined up along the side of the pathway.

A chorus of greetings soon follows:

“Master Childe! Welcome back!”

“Master Childe, it is so good to see you again!”

“Master Childe! I hope the journey went well!”

Childe gives them a nod and a cheerful wave before nudging his horse forward with Zhongli wordlessly following behind.

After spending so many months in quiet Morepesok amongst the humble wooden cabins and peaceful villagers, the Estate, in contrast, appears ostentatiously grand and almost stifling with human activity. More servants are gathering by the front of the Estate along with what appears like most of his men stationed here, all standing to attention and neatly lined up. At the sight of Zhongli, a few of the newer servants turn to each other, whispering excitedly, only to be shushed by the more experienced staff members.

Childe can’t help but find his lips curling up in a proud smirk. Good, he likes seeing the loyalty and discretion amongst his people.

“Lord Harbinger, welcome home!” Vadim, his head butler greets with warmth and a bow as Childe swings out of his saddle with practiced ease. “How was your travel, sir?”

“Perfectly uneventful,” Childe grins and gives the man a friendly clap on the shoulder. “It is good to see you again, all of you.” The last bit was said louder to address all those in attendance. “It is also good to have you all gathered here since I can make the introductions now. This,” he gestures to Zhongli, who’s quietly gotten off his horse and is gathered behind Childe like a protective shadow, “is my new personal guard, Vasily. Please treat him kindly.”

That announcement has everyone breaking into excited chatter that not even the older staff can shut down.

“New personal guard?”

“Lord Harbinger never takes on a personal guard! This individual must be an exceptional talent!”

“He’s a hydro agent! No wonder the lord has taken a shining to him!”

Vadim for his part looks completely unfazed. “Welcome to the Romashka Estate, Agent Vasily,” he greets easily. “Please do not hesitate to let the staff know if there is anything you need during your stay here.”

“Vasily will need a room,” Childe muses. “Please place him in the one next to mine.”

“Of course, sir, we will have the room prepared right away,” Vadim nods. “Is there anything else you need? Have you eaten?”

“Dinner would be perfect.” It’s been a long journey, after all, and Childe is sure both he and Zhongli would appreciate something a bit more substantial than soup. “Afterwards, please assemble all the staff and personnel for a meeting at the Grand Hall.”


It’s not until a few more hours later that Childe can finally call it a night. The moment his meetings are over, first with his men, then a private one with his captain, he promptly drags Zhongli to his room and closes the gilded door shut behind them.

“Finally, the day’s over,” he groans, throwing away his Childe persona and staggering to the large four-poster bed. He flops on top of the luxurious silk sheets on his front, letting his limbs spread out like a starfish. The softness beneath his tired body feels absolutely divine. “Oh, sweet blessed bed. I never want to leave you.”

“At the very least, change out of your travel clothes first. Lying in that cannot be comfortable,” comes Zhongli’s amused observations, but he does find a spot to sit on the bed and make himself comfortable next to Ajax’s sprawled body. “How is your hand feeling? Any tingling sensations at all or pain?”

“Hm, normal.” Ajax lifts up his right hand and wriggles his fingers, chuckling a little when Zhongli catches the hand to press soft kisses against his skin. “How are you finding everything so far? Are you hungry? Thirsty?”

“I’m feeling perfectly fine. The meal we had was plentiful and delicious.” Which, fair enough. Ajax’s staff had went all out and had served what was basically a feast for just the two of them. Zhongli had come this close to breaking character just so he could wax poetic about some of the dishes.

“If that’s the case, would you like a quick tour of this wing?” Ajax rolls around and props himself up on his elbows. “The servants know to stay away from this wing when I’m here, so you can move around without your disguise. You should also see the baths. I transformed the space into a private pool large enough to fit your Exuvia. More importantly,” he pushes himself up to sitting and leans close to Zhongli’s ear, dropping his voice to a low, teasing murmur, “it will just be you and me in there, so we can be as loud as we want.”

The way Zhongli’s eyes go dark with interest is enough of an answer for Ajax.


If they weren’t exhausted from the travel before, they certainly are after their visit to the baths that night.


The day the Dottore is set to visit arrives at a blink of an eye. That morning, Ajax wakes up to jittery nerves and with a worried frown on his face. Not even Zhongli’s soothing presence could lift his spirit.

“Be on your guard around the Dottore,” Ajax mutters darkly as he rummages through his wardrobe for one of his finer jackets and vests, ones that he likes to wear to remind his guest exactly who is the master of this domain. He pulls out a set made of cream-coloured silks, decorated with heavy gold embroideries and delicate mother-of-pearl buttons. It’s the perfect outfit for posturing, especially compared to the Dottore, who would be in his much humbler travel clothes. “The man is a wily snake, constantly plotting and scheming and he possesses zero moral fibre. If he asks you for any samples, do not give him anything.”

“Of course, Ajax.”

Ajax throws on the vest and jacket over his shirt before fishing out the matching trousers and pulling those on. “Oh, if he asks you for anything, don’t elaborate and don’t engage in further conversation. Monosyllabic answers are perfectly acceptable.”

“Yes, Ajax.”

“Also, he can’t order you around.” Ajax straightens his clothes, tugging at the collar to adjust it. Satisfied, he grabs the pure white cravat and wraps it around his neck, tying it in a neat bow and tucking the loose ends under the vest. Urgh. He can’t believe he’s willingly wearing a cravat outside the Imperial Court. “As my personal guard, only I can issue you orders. If he dares to throw his weight around, you are within your position to ignore him, or better yet, remind him just who you’re working for.”

“Ajax.”

“And if he dares to rebuke you because he’s a Harbinger –”

Hands grab him by the shoulders and turn him around gently so that he’s facing Zhongli, dressed in his agent outfit, but without his mask. Pinned to his chest is Tartaglia’s badge, still gleaming, still perfect. The sight of it stops Ajax’s nervous string of words.

“Ajax,” Zhongli repeats, his amber eyes are gentle. “Things will turn out fine. I will be fine. I have not lived this long without encountering a fair share of unscrupulous individuals.”

Ajax sighs. He wants to run a hand through his hair but he just managed to fix it the way he likes it. He’s also just gotten his Tartaglia’s mask on at the perfect angle too. “Last chance to back out of this terrible endeavour,” he offers instead. It doesn’t help his nerves any that he hasn’t received any updates from Uncle either, so he’s going into this meeting with the Dottore a bit blind.

“Never.” Ajax can’t say he’s surprised by that answer at all, or the conviction behind it. What he is caught off guard by is the kiss he’s pulled into, one that turns from chaste and sweet to something much more lingering with just a hint of hunger behind it.

“What’s that for?” he asks when they pull apart, a touch breathless.

Zhongli chuckles and brushes a hand on his cheek. “Has anyone ever told you that you look ravishing in that colour? It brings out the colour of your eyes and your hair.”

Ajax flushes bright red. “I’m supposed to look regal and imposing, Zhongli!”

“Yes, yes. Very regal. Very imposing.”

“I don’t need your pandering – would you stop looking at me like that!”

At least that bit of teasing temporarily got his mind off of the feeling of impending doom and gloom from the Dottore’s arrival to the point where he could stomach a light breakfast in the breakfast room with Zhongli. He’s on his third cup of coffee when Vadim approaches him to whisper in his ear that the Dottore’s carriage has arrived.

“Bring him here, and have the kitchen prepare a fresh pot of tea and some light tea cakes.”

And with that, he packs away his Ajax and Childe masks in favour of slipping on Tartaglia.

Just in time too, because no sooner did Tartaglia’s cold calm settle comfortably in his bones does he hear a loud, obnoxious exclamation from the entrance of the breakfast room, “My dearest Tartaglia! It’s been far too long!”

He ignores the way Zhongli goes still, instead, rising from his chair, a rehearsed greeting on his lips, but the sight before him makes him blink in surprise. “Dottore, I see that you brought the Sixth with you.”

Scaramouche, predictably, scowls violently from his spot beside the Dottore. “He brought me? You have some nerve, Eleven! I’m his supervisor! If anything, I brought him here!”

Without waiting for an invitation or removing his hat, Scaramouche stomps over to the breakfast table and plants himself in a seat directly across from Tartaglia. He reaches for his cup of tea, freshly poured by a nearby servant, and downs it without waiting for it to cool.

“Another!” he gestures to his empty cup, even though the teapot is right in front of him. “And some food as well!”

Tartaglia nods to the servant, who had looked to him for permission. “The kitchen is preparing some tea cakes for you, but perhaps you would prefer some breakfast instead?” Tartaglia gestures for the Dottore to take a seat before sitting back down himself. As unethical as the man is when it comes to experimentation, he is a stickler for court etiquette, oddly enough. The man even bowed a little before taking his seat in a much more graceful manner than his travel companion.

“We have been travelling for a day and a half, and we had to stay overnight in some shack in a backwater town, which means I have not eaten well for a full day. Why the hell do you have to live so far from the Capital?” The second tea is drunk with less gusto, but now that Scaramouche’s thirst is quenched, his eyes narrow to Zhongli, who’s also sitting back down a beat after Tartaglia’s made himself comfortable. “Who’s that?”

“My personal guard,” There’s a hint of steel to Tartaglia’s voice. “He goes where I go.”

Scaramouche merely scoffs. “You spoil your personal guard,” he mutters but turns his attention to the food that’s just arrived. Likewise, and as predicted, the Dottore’s eyes glaze over Zhongli’s presence in clear dismissal. Good.

“Dear Scaramouche is exaggerating,” the Dottore chuckles into his coffee once they’ve had a few bites to eat. “I find the journey to be most refreshing! It has been quite some time since I left the Capital. A change of scenery is very much welcomed.” He sighs, almost dreamily, but the grin on his face stretches to the point of almost being grotesque. “So many hidden little towns dot the landscape. So many potential volunteers for my experiments. Dear Tartaglia, would you so mind if I were to, ah, borrow a few of the locals around here?”

Tartaglia takes a calm sip of his coffee. “For any person I discover missing from any villages, towns or hamlets between here and the Capital, I will kill one of your scientists and hang their twisted, broken corpse before the West Gates.” Right where the Palace labs are situated, in fact.

The Doctor lets out a peel of laughter. “So fierce, and so cold for someone so young! Scaramouche, are you not going to come to my defence? Surely, as my supervisor, you do not want to see me being bullied by the Vanguard!”

“I’m your supervisor for your current mission only, not for whatever twisted experiments you have lined up in the future.” Scaramouche slathers on a thick layer of jam on his toast and takes a vicious bite out of it. “Leave me out of your bizarre dick measuring contest.”

Oddly enough, the rest of the meal is rather harmonious, probably now that the initial posturing is out of the way and, in Scaramouche’s case, hunger-induced temper tantrum has simmered down to nothing. They move to Tartaglia’s private offices afterwards, plus two of the Dottore’s assistants and Zhongli, who’s always a step behind Tartaglia like a protective shadow.

“As I have expressed in my letter,” the Dottore begins once the Harbingers have seated around a grand oak desk, the Dottore’s assistants fluttering behind him in their effort to set up a makeshift medical station, “the purpose of this visit is to check the current state of your health. I understand that the first cure I have sent you did not last beyond a week and that since then, your symptoms have worsened.”

“That is correct.”

“How are the new medications? Are they working?”

“So far, they have been. I have not experienced any symptoms since taking them, but that is a temporary measure.” Tartaglia levels a cool look at the Dottore. “Where are you in your cure research?”

The Dottore answers with a grin. “On going,” he says dismissively. A bit too dismissively, judging by the way Zhongli shifts his weight from where he’s standing behind Tartaglia. Zhongli must have also been gripping the back of Tartaglia’s seat rather tightly because he can hear the wood creaking ever so slightly. “I must confess, your case does not make my job easy! Do you know that of all the instances that the Delusion has backfired, 95% of those instances result in the Delusion user dying instantly? Another 4% die from their injury less than a week later. And yet, here you are dear Tartaglia, having long survived your backlash with relatively minor symptoms, well, considering all of that. You are an anomaly to the statistics! How fascinating!”

The wood in the back of Tartaglia’s seat creaks some more. Tartaglia hopes that Zhongli wouldn’t accidentally destroy the chair. He rather likes it. “Indeed,” he drawls out, “And what exactly is the purpose of you telling me this?”

“So that you would have a greater appreciation of the scientific miracle you are experiencing, of course!” The Dottore claps in delight. “Do you know what a backlash is? It is when the power contained within the Delusion escapes and runs out of control. The power in a Delusion is a wild, parasitic thing, barely contained by the glass casing. And when it escapes, it seeks a new host in which it can burrow itself, and once it’s made itself comfortable, it can feast and feast until it devours the host entirely.”

The Dottore sounds positively gleeful now, and it’s taking everything in Tartaglia to maintain his cold composure as the words parasite and devour echo in his head. The creaking of the wood sounds louder; Zhongli is also struggling to keep his calm in check.

The Dottore leans forward, his eyes shining with excitement. “But for some reason, it hasn’t devoured you yet. At least, not right away. Something is stopping it in its track, or at least slowing it down until recently! How is that not fascinating? I have spent countless hours trying to answer that question and trying to test the effects of elemental reactions just to get a better sense of understanding of –”

“Just get to the point already.” Scaramouche cuts in, his arms crossed over his chest. “I don’t have all day to listen to your useless rambling.”

“No respect for the sciences.” But the Dottore does move on, thankfully. “In any event, my current theory is that something is acting as a shield, some sort of immunity that you possess, that is slowing things down. This is good news for us. It buys us time to figure out a way to destroy the parasite, so to speak.”

But Tartaglia’s expression has gone dark throughout the explanation, and the next words he utters are chilling and loaded with the promise of death: “If you know all of this since the beginning, why is the cure taking so long to make?”

The Dottore’s assistants noticeably flinch in the background at the tone of Tartaglia’s voice. Even the Dottore goes still for a split second before his lips curl back up in a facsimile of an amiable smile. “Why, that’s what the first cure was supposed to do! It’s partly meant to, ah, put the parasite to sleep, like what your medicine is doing, but with the added effect of purging it of its power. Unfortunately, I underestimated how strong the parasite is, which brings us to this visit. I will need to run through a series of quick tests to gauge its strength.”

He waves his assistant over, who’s holding a tray of instruments in her hands, and he plucks a large, brass needle from it.

“But first, I will need a blood sample,” the Dottore says, still smiling, “I hope you do not mind.”

“No.”

Several pairs of eyes turn to the speaker. Even Tartaglia, because the one who had spoken out is –

“No, he will not give you that sample,” Zhongli repeats, his voice hard. “Not without an explanation on exactly what it is used for.”

The Dottore’s expression turns ugly. “You dare challenge the authority of a Harbinger?” he roars, “You? A lowly Agent? I will have you hanged for this insolence, after cutting you up and –”

There’s a quick flurry of movement, a flash of white and a rustle of fine silk, then a whooshing sound as something metallic flies through the air, only to embed itself in the wall across the room with a solid ‘thunk’ exactly an inch away from where one of the Dottore’s assistant’s head is. The assistant yelps at the sight of a dagger sticking out of the wall so close to lobbing off the tip of his nose, and he jumps back, knocking into the chair behind him and tumbling to the ground in a sprawl of panicked limbs. The second assistant stands there, frozen, eyes wide with terror.

Scaramouche, who had thrown himself to the ground at the first sign of movement, bursts into wild, raucous laughter as he climbs back to his seat. “Mean, Tartaglia,” he grins with approval. “I’m starting to see why the Tsaritsa gave you the code name Childe! You have the temper of a spoiled young master, throwing things around just because you are unhappy!”

Tartaglia lowers his hand and doesn’t respond, not like he needs to. The message is loud and clear: ‘Carry on with the threat to the assistants’ peril.’ Knowing the Dottore, it is unlikely that he brought any low-ranking member with him either, which means the death of these assistants would actually hurt his work.

He does offer up a semblance of an olive branch so that the Dottore’s pride is not completely ripped to shreds in front of his own men. “My personal guard is protective and speaks out of turn. You will have to excuse him. But his concern is not invalid. What exactly are you using the blood sample for?”

“Learn to put a muzzle on that guard dog of yours,” the Dottore spits out. He hasn’t moved from his seat during this whole debacle, probably because he was just as caught off guard as his assistants, but he does recover from his shock quickly. “This blood sample will be divvied up into multiple experiments, all of which will be used to test your blood’s susceptibility to a few concoctions I have prepared. The results will be used to form the base of your new cure. There, satisfied?” he snaps.

Tartaglia glances over his shoulder at Zhongli. At the small nod, he turns back to the Dottore and begins rolling up the sleeve to his left arm. “Let us proceed then.”


It takes well into the evening before the first round of tests is complete. Unfortunately, this means that the Dottore and Scaramouche would be staying for a half day longer before they depart. Dinner, at least, is delicious with Tartaglia’s staff once again preparing a veritable feast worthy of royalty. It seems like the good food and good drink is doing wonders keeping the atmosphere, well, not friendly, per se, but more collegial than what happened in the morning. Scaramouche sounds almost pleasant for once with the perpetual sneer on his face lessening up.

Even with his supposedly improved moods, Tartaglia is still caught off by surprise when Scaramouche catches up to him and Zhongli on their way to the private wing and pulls him aside.

“Oh, stop giving me that look, guard dog. I’m not here to hurt your master. I come here with a warning. Keep an eye on the Dottore. There is something he’s currently planning with this trip that he’s taken great pains to hide from me. You should be on your guard while he’s here.”

“Why are you warning us?” Tartaglia asks, rightfully suspicious. “What’s in it for you?”

Scaramouche rolls his eyes. “Consider it thanks for the entertainment from this morning. I haven’t laughed this hard in a long while. There's also the fact that I hate you less than the Dottore. But most importantly,” the sneer is back with a vengeance, “I hate being in anyone’s debt, so consider this my debt repaid.”

And with those cryptic words, he strolls off, but not before throwing a rude gesture over his shoulder at Tartaglia.

Tartaglia – Ajax now – shakes his head. “What do you think he means by debt repaid, Professor?”


There is a message waiting for them when they get back to the bedroom. It is rolled up in a neat little scroll, sealed closed with Tartaglia’s own insignia embedded in the wax. Besides the wax seal is a little mark, a drawing of a wave, and three pine trees. The scroll sits in a vase on the mantle of the fireplace, hidden from view, no doubt left there by Ajax’s captain.

It’s a message from Uncle from back in Morepesok.

Ajax breaks open the seal and unrolls the message. Then, he curses.

“What is it,” Zhongli pauses in changing out of the Fatui uniform to look at Ajax in alarm. “Is something the matter?”

“Bad news,” Ajax bites out. “The expedition team in Liyue has gone around and collected information on you, Professor.”

Chapter Text

XXIII. The Leap of Faith

Ajax is not surprised by the news, not when he can see it happening a mile away after his two agents had warned him extensively about its possibility, but seeing the equivalent of his nightmare coming true in black and white has his heart sinking to the bottom of his stomach like an anchor dropping to the ocean floor.

Zhongli, on the other hand, does not appear at all affected; he makes a little noise of understanding and goes back to changing his clothes in favour of his sleepwear, folding the agent outfit into a neat little pile to be stashed away later. “I see. What information have the expedition team gathered about me?”

What information haven’t they collected? “Your appearance, your occupation, your relationship with the Fatui, your relationship with me, your day-to-day schedule, the locations you’ve been to, the types of knowledge you possess, where you are right now – though the answer to that last question remains a mystery.” Intrusive, detailed questions about Zhongli as if they’re trying to build a comprehensive profile on him. “Apparently, they’ve started collecting this information a couple of days ago, but they were keeping this extremely secretive to avoid the Qixing’s notice. Even with our agents’ eyes on the expedition team, it’s by chance that they caught wind of this development.”

The Qixing could tolerate the Fatui investigating into Childe, but they would not allow this blatant intrusion into the private lives of its citizens, especially one as reputable as Zhongli, the consultant of Wangsheng Funeral Parlour.

Speaking of the Qixing, “Uncle ordered our agent to give an anonymous tip about this investigation to the Qixing. I suspect that the expedition team would find its invitation to Liyue Harbour revoked shortly. But…”

“It’s a bit too late,” Zhongli finishes the sentence for him. “The information is gathered already and has probably reached the Dottore’s ear at this point. We should assume that the Dottore knows about me.”

Ajax lets out a sound of frustration. He trudges to his bed and sinks down into the soft sheets, running a tired hand down his face. “I still don’t know how information about you is of use to them, except maybe that they think you have something to do with my supposed immunity.” His head jerks up, a look of alarm crossing his face. “Do you think they pieced together that you were the Archon?”

Fuck. The Dottore knows about Tartaglia’s mission in Liyue and that Morax is still alive. All the Harbingers do. Hell, the Dottore himself was there when the Signora and Tartaglia received their rewards from the Tsaritsa for their successful completion of the Liyue mission.

The only thing the Harbingers don’t know, minus himself and the Signora, is Morax’s human identity, not like that’s any comfort because Zhongli hasn’t exactly been subtle with his disguise.

How does the text Rex Incognito describe Morax’s human appearance again? Ah, yes: a wealthy young man in long black robes, dark and solemn with eyes the colour of amber. And, obviously, very, very knowledgeable about the history and the culture of the land.

Ajax lets out a long-suffering groan. That’s…that’s Zhongli to a tee, and if that’s not enough of a giveaway, there’s also the giant geo symbol stitched to the back of his coat, the symbol identical to the one on all of Morax’s statues dotted across the land.

Not for the first time, Ajax finds himself revisiting his old fears. What happens if the Dottore uses this information to track Zhongli down? It’s a good thing that nobody knows where Zhongli is at the moment, but the Dottore is a patient man when he needs to be. He can lie in wait, lurking in some hidden parts of Liyue and setting up the perfect trap for when Zhongli eventually makes his way back to Liyue Harbour. Heaven knows the Dottore has plenty of experience snatching ‘volunteers’ off the street for his experiments. He suggested as much during breakfast.

The mattress beside him dips and a hand snakes to his tense shoulder, giving it a reassuring squeeze. Ajax finds himself drawn to the warmth of the touch. He lets his head drop to Zhongli’s shoulder, breathing in that scent of silkflower he’s come to associate with safety and home.

“I understand your fears for my safety, Ajax, but I am not concerned that the Dottore knows my human identity. Trust me in saying that he and his men are no match for me,” Zhongli brushes a reassuring kiss on the top of Ajax’s head. “What I find problematic is his fixation on you and your supposed immunity and the way he clearly views you as some sort of fascinating test subject. Seeing him talk about you this morning, the way he referred you to a statistical anomaly like that…and in light of the Sixth Harbinger’s cryptic warning, it is taking everything I possess right now not to strike him down from where he stands.”

“I’m equal parts concerned and impressed how you can sound so calm while uttering the loveliest threats. At the same time, I am incredibly relieved you are making the effort to keep a low profile. Thank you.”

“He still has his uses,” Zhongli admits grudgingly. “It would also be worthwhile to obtain a better understanding of why he thinks you possess some form of immunity. We may potentially want to exploit this knowledge.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard. The Dottore loves talking about his achievements and research. It’s getting him to shut up afterwards that’s going to be problematic.”

That earns a chuckle from the both of them.

“I am also curious about this parasitic power from your Delusion, and how it is lying dormant in your body,” Zhongli adds. “While the Dottore’s suggestion is to quash its power, I wonder if there are other solutions available? But I suppose we can explore that theory once we are back in the safety of our home.”

Even with the grim situation looming ahead of him, hearing Zhongli say our home so naturally brings a surge of fluttery warmth to Ajax’s chest. He burrows his head in the crook of Zhongli’s neck some more.

“What do you think we should do about Scaramouche’s warning? I’m going to need to let my captain know about this development so that he can keep an eye out on things.”

Zhongli sighs. “There is not much else we can do except to maintain our constant vigilance. We should, however, operate on the assumption that we may need to fight.”

“So, no medicine tonight?”

Zhongli tightens his hold on Ajax. “I…do not like it, but I think it’s best if you go without your dose for tonight. You can resume your dose the night after the Dottore is long gone.”

Ajax nods. “I still have a vial of the original medicine in my pocket. I can administer that in case of emergencies.”

“Good.” Zhongli tilts Ajax’s head up for a peck on the lips. “Let’s go talk to your captain. The sooner that’s done, the sooner we can get to bed. It’s going to be a long day tomorrow.”

Sleep does not come easy that night for Ajax, even with the comfortable weight of Zhongli’s arm slung across his stomach and the knowledge that he’s got more guards patrolling the perimeter than usual. As he stares at the canopy above his head, wishing instead for the familiar sight of those wooden beams in his bedroom back in Morepesok, he can’t help but hope against all hope that Scaramouche has read the situation completely wrong.


Interacting with the Harbingers always feels like playing an elaborate, exhausting chess game. Every action has to be thought out carefully to avoid potential disastrous retaliations. Every response has to be crafted to serve its purpose perfectly, whether it is to defend, to instigate, or to deflect. It is a game that Tartaglia is still learning, and before those much more experienced like the Dottore, the Signora, or, as much as he loathes to admit, Scaramouche, Tartaglia knows he’s operating at a disadvantage.

Pulcinella had seen the way he had struggled in the early days as a Harbinger, and had offered some rare and genuine advice.

First, it is critical to maintaining clarity of thought. The game is lost the moment one loses their calm.

Ajax wakes up slowly, stretching his muscles and luxuriating in the coziness of Zhongli’s warmth. He takes a few seconds to breathe, to enjoy the steady thrum of his lover’s heartbeat in his ears, pushing away whatever nervous energy he can feel trying to build up in his mind.

Calm. He must remain calm.

He leans over, presses a kiss over the other’s heart, because at this point, it’s becoming a bit of a tradition, and who is he to break tradition? With a last little kiss, he extracts himself from the other’s hold to get ready.

Second, dress the part. The game is one that requires manipulation, theatrics, and deception. Appear strong when you are weak and appear weak when you are strong.

He ends up choosing a royal navy velvet coat with silver and gold decorations, a cream vest under that, and matching blue trousers. There is something about the way the coat is cut that flatters his chest and waist while flaring out slightly at the hips, a fine blend of sophistication and aristocracy but with design elements that remind him of the military. He forgoes the cravat today in favour of comfort (in case he needs to fight).

He also gets a very enthusiastic seal of approval from Zhongli in the form of another smouldering kiss, and a muttered comment about getting blue silks, whatever that means.

By the time they get to the breakfast room, (and passing by three sets of his patrolling agents), Tartaglia is firmly cemented into his mask of being cool, calm, collected, and most definitely in control.

Third, talk less. Keep silent unless you absolutely have to say something. Until you have mastered the art of lying, the fewer words you use, the fewer holes others can poke through your defence.

His greeting to the Dottore and Scaramouche, when they arrive, is short and simple, nothing more than a “Good morning, I hope you slept well.” Long enough to be polite, but definitely not meant to be an invitation for chatter.

Scaramouche responds with a grunt and beelines for the table, once again, in complete disregard of dining etiquettes and while still wearing that ridiculous hat of his. Wordlessly, he reaches for his fresh cup of tea and downs it before helping himself to another cup. At least he didn’t stomp, nor did he shout at anybody, so Tartaglia takes that to mean the Sixth Harbinger is in a decent mood.

The Dottore’s demeanor is the complete opposite of his grumpy travelling companion.

“A very good morning to you as well,” the Dottore replies, oddly bright and cheery, taking his seat at the table. He does stop a little at the sight of Zhongli and turns his nose up with a dismissive little “hmph”. “I must say, dear Tartaglia, I was at first surprised that you would choose to live away so far from the hustle and bustle of the city. I would have thought that someone as young as yourself would appreciate the excitement the Capital has to offer, but I can see why you would prefer the suburbs. It is so quiet and peaceful here, free from unnecessary distraction and noise. It also brings a certain clarity of thought that I must say, I rather appreciate, especially in my line of very important work.”

Ah, the Dottore’s usual spiel of useless information, probably meant to distract and to lower his guard. So the game has begun.

Tartaglia takes a quiet sip out of his cup and considers the Dottore’s words a little longer. Is there some sort of hidden message behind those? One can never be too careful with the Third. “The Tsaritsa granted me the Estate,” he finally decides to reply with. “It would be a waste not to make use of it. But speaking of clarity of thought, I have certainly given some thoughts over your theory last night.”

“Hm?” that has the Dottore peeking up from his eggs in interest. “Which theory would that be?”

“The one where you think I have some sort of immunity against the effects of the Delusion. What makes you come to that conclusion? I have never heard of a human capable of immunity before. Only resistance is possible.”

The Dottore’s grin widens. “You are correct. Scientifically speaking, immunity occurs when a human suffers absolutely no damage from an elemental reaction, which is generally considered to be impossible, except with the use of a shield, but that does not apply to your case. Resistance, on the other hand, occurs when the amount of damage sustained from an elemental reaction is reduced by a certain percentage. Now that is much easier to achieve. A lot of the equipment my lab has created for our soldiers tend to do just that – add resistance such that our men are only affected by, say, 50% of elemental damages.”

The Dottore picks up a piece of bread and dips it into the runny yolks. “I have spent years trying to develop a way that will allow humans to possess immunity, or at the very least, raise the level of resistance so that our soldiers can withstand 99% of the damage sustained but to no avail. It is quite the conundrum! At most, I can raise resistance to block out around 85% of the damage sustained, but no higher than that. What is stopping me is the sheer instability of the magic I use to create resistance. The more I try to raise resistance, the more the magic tends to have the unfortunate effect of exploding.”

He takes an enthusiastic bite out of his toasts, but there’s a certain thrum of manic energy behind his movements, a level of jerkiness that wasn’t there before. His grin is also stretching wider and wider. “I have had so many test subjects that went poof! So, so many! I had thought to diversify them as well to see if that makes a difference – the poor, the rich, the young, the old, Snezhnayans, non-Snezhnayans – but nope! No changes! Every one of them still ended up dead. What a pity.”

From his side of the table, Tartaglia continues to watch the Dottore silently. Though his hand is steady in holding his cup of coffee, his other hand that’s hidden under the table, resting on his lap, is curled up into a fist so tight that he can feel his nails digging painfully into the flesh of his palm.

The young and the old, dear Celestia. The Dottore probably spared no one, not even the children. What unimaginable horror would this madman be capable of if he is let loose in the unsuspecting villages of Snezhnaya? What would happen if he gets his hands on Morepesok?

Tartaglia roughly shoves away the feeling of cold horror creeping through his veins. He needs to be calm. He needs to think.

“You haven’t answered my question,” Tartaglia says, his voice hard. “Why do you think I have immunity? Further, if I do have this immunity, then why would I be experiencing these flare-ups?”

The Dottore does not appear to mind Tartaglia’s tone; he’s much too giddy discussing his work, as predicted. “The reason why I believe you are immune is simple. Recall how I told you that 95% of Delusion users die of their backlash right away? Statistically speaking, you should have experienced your backlash the moment you made the idiotic decision to use your Delusion twice in a row back in Liyue.”

From the corner of Tartaglia’s eyes, he sees the way Zhongli goes still. Ah, shit. Tartaglia has never told Zhongli the details beyond his Delusion acting up. He uncurls his fist to put a hand on the ex-Archon’s knee, hoping that this simple gesture would be enough to convey his apology for now.

“In addition, given the considerable strength of your backlash, not even a high level of resistance would have saved you from death. Certainly, nothing I create in my lab could have saved you, not even my equipment with the 85% threshold, which leads me to my theory: you possess some sort of immunity.”

The Dottore cleans off the last of his toast before continuing. “As for why you are experiencing these flare-ups, I believe whatever immunity you possess is slowly fading away. The moment that whatever is protecting you drops below a certain threshold, then…”

The sentence trails off, but it doesn’t take a genius for Tartaglia to put two and two together. If the immunity fades or weakens to a certain point, then Tartaglia dies.

He tightens his grip on Zhongli’s knee, feeling a bit comforted when he feels a hand clasping over his, giving it a reassuring squeeze.

“Yeesh, do you people normally have such depressing and boring conversations over breakfast?” Scaramouche’s aggravating muttering cut through the tension like hot knife through butter. Tartaglia barely keeps the cup he’s holding steady. Between the Dottore’s rambling and Zhongli’s calming presence, he’s actually forgotten that the Sixth Harbinger is still at the table. “Death and science. It’s as if you both only have a one-track mind or something.”

“Death and science are my line of work, dear Scaramouche.” The grin the Dottore flashes at the Sixth Harbinger is all teeth. “One must take pride in what they do, especially in the service of Her Imperial Majesty. And speaking of service, I hope you don’t mind if I ask you some questions about your trip to Liyue, dearest Tartaglia.”

Tartaglia puts down his cup and pins the Dottore down with a cool stare. He should have expected this move. The Dottore is hardly one to give up information without wanting something back in return, and he is clearly taking the opportunity to get answers that the expedition team in Liyue could not find. Still, he hates the looming, ominous feeling that the Dottore’s words bring, but the warmth of Zhongli’s hand over his grounds him to the present.

“Oh? What would you like to know?” he says, trying to inject as much bored casualness as he can. “I must warn you that the mission itself is rather disappointing as a whole. I did not even get the chance to fight as many worthy opponents as I would have liked.”

“Didn’t you get your ass kicked by that strange Traveller to the point where you had to use your Delusion?” Scaramouche points out with his usual signature meanness. He plucks out a breakfast roll from the bread basket and rips it in half, slathering on a generous amount of butter and jam. “Even after that, you’re still looking for more? I didn’t take you as a masochist, or that stupid.”

“As the Vanguard, it is my job to constantly challenge myself so that I can become stronger and serve her Imperial Majesty better,” Tartaglia answers with a shrug. “Not all of us have the luxury of being able to cower behind subordinates like a little weasel.”

Now that has Scaramouche gnashing his teeth. Tartaglia bites the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from smiling. He can’t help it; wheedling Scaramouche is just too easy. Pulcinella will probably be disappointed in him though.

“I know you weren’t referring to me with that little quip,” Scaramouche hisses, very much like an affronted cat, “because I know you do not have a death wish.”

“I was talking about the Signora,” Tartaglia shrugs again. “But if you happen to see yourself as fitting in those shoes…”

“In any case, I would like to ask some questions,” the Dottore cuts in. “I am curious to know if there is anything you have done out of the ordinary during your mission.” At Tartaglia’s blank stare, the Dottore probes, “Have you gone to any special locations? Ones that may be deemed mythical by the locals? Or maybe, have you handled any interesting artefacts or objects?”

The feeling of cold dread grows stronger. Where is the Dottore going with this? He chances a glance at Zhongli beside him. The man remains silent, facing forward as still as a statue.

But there’s a small squeeze of his hand – a gesture of encouragement.

Tartaglia focuses back on the Dottore. It appears Zhongli is interested in the Dottore’s line of questions. Alright, he will bite.

“I spent some time in the outskirts of Jueyun Karst, which is the home of Liyue’s gods. I have also spent considerable amounts of time at Guyun Stone Forest, which serves as a graveyard and a prison for the gods Morax has defeated. As for mythical artefacts, I have handled a talisman created by Morax himself.”

The Dottore leans back into his chair, his fingers drumming on the surface of the table. “Interesting,” he purrs out. “How often would you say you’ve visited those locations? Further, how frequently have you handled that talisman?”

“I have visited those locations frequently, I suppose. Once a week, some time’s twice.” Tartaglia was often restless and sought to wander Liyue for a good fight when the mundane paperwork got to be too much for him. “I have kept the talisman close to my sleeping quarters for approximately two weeks before handing it off to another agent.”

“And what about acquaintances? Have you met any of the Gods, or those blessed by them?”

This time, he can’t help but react despite another one of Zhongli’s encouraging squeeze of his hand. “Why? What is the purpose of this train of inquiry?”

The Dottore raises both his hands, showing his palms in a gesture of lack of intent. “I am merely exploring all avenues to explain how you have obtained your immunity, fleeting though it may be, including exploring the possibility that this immunity comes from a divine source of power.”

“A divine source of power?” Tartaglia is rather proud at how he manages to sound incredulous despite the way his heartbeat hitched all the way up. “I hope you are not implying that I have betrayed her Imperial Majesty and have sought the blessings of another god.”

“I wouldn’t dare to accuse you of treason, dearest Tartaglia.” The Dottore actually sounds contrite, but Tartaglia is not buying the act. “But perhaps one of their gods sought to give you some sort of a blessing without your knowledge?”

Tartaglia lets out a bark of condescending laughter. “Why would Liyue’s deities want to help me, a Snezhnayan out, let alone a high-ranking member of the Fatui?”

The Dottore’s smile stretches across his face like a Cheshire cat. “Maybe they’ve taken a shine to you. You have a reputation, you know, of possessing a different side of you, one that’s warm and kind to your subordinates and, no doubt, the locals of Liyue. Between that and your youth, your charm, and your looks, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these locals took a liking to you.”

Tartaglia is trying very, very hard not to look at the ex-Archon beside him right now. Even without looking, he can sense just how tense Zhongli’s gotten.

Son of a bitch. The Dottore definitely knows about Zhongli.

Also, did the Dottore compliment his looks? He – he’s not quite sure what the make of that.

Keep calm. He needs to keep calm. He does not need distractions.

“Or maybe,” the Dottore drawls out, “you’ve gained this ability after so much exposure to divine energy, either from spending time with your helpful friend or from the locations and the talisman. You never know when it comes to energy from the gods and their effects on mortals, some can be positive, some can be negative. In your case, you got extremely lucky. Either way, how fascinating.”

Energy exposure? That can’t be – the only person he’s spent so much time with is –

The grip on his hand goes tight, so tight that the snide words die in his throat from the suddenness of the gesture. He casts a quick little side glance.

From the holes in the bone-white Fatui mask, Tartaglia can see that Zhongli’s eyes have gone wide, so wide that his amber pupils seem to have shrunken. There’s also something from the tension in his shoulders to the straightness of his spine that screams of surprise. Of realization.

Zhongli?

Did Zhongli do this?

Like a shark that has scented blood in the water, the Dottore continues to press, “So, tell me, have you met any such friends? Anyone with interesting characteristics that you can pinpoint?”

Keep calm, keep calm. Tartaglia needs to put an end to this conversation before the myriad of questions in his head thoroughly overwhelms him.

“I am not going to direct your attention to some poor Liyuan just because they may or may not have ‘interesting characteristics’,” he retorts with a snort. “As amusing as your theory is, Doctor, need I remind you that the assignment the Tsaritsa personally handed to you is to develop a cure, not to chase down some obscure hypothesis about deictic powers? If the Tsaritsa was to catch wind of your disobedience, I can’t imagine how this will bode well for you.”

The Dottore’s good humour dissipates and his eyes flash. “Are you threatening me, Vanguard?”

“Oh, put a sock in it,” comes Scaramouche’s snarky interference. “He doesn’t need to do anything, not when I am doing all the reporting. Tartaglia’s not wrong though; the Tsaritsa’s patience is wearing thin enough as it is, so if you want to keep your head, you should just get this stupid cure made. Afterwards, you can pursue whatever creepy experiments you want without me being there to supervise.”

Scaramouche, the voice of reason. Tartaglia never thought he would see the day.

“I suppose this project can wait,” the Dottore acquiesces. It’s rather unsettling how quickly the man can go from pleasant to furious and back to being pleasant in a blink of an eye. “It’s not like the deities of Liyue are going anywhere.”

Good. And with that, Tartaglia is making his strategic retreat.

“If that is all, gentlemen, I will take my leave first. I have a few quick matters I need to attend.” Tartaglia slips his hand from under Zhongli’s and stands up. “We shall reconvene at my office in an hour’s time to finish off the work the Dottore is here to do. Please enjoy the rest of your breakfast.”


The moment Tartaglia closes the bedroom door behind them, he sheds off his icy persona and lets the warmth and worry float back to the surface. “Zhongli?” Ajax goes up to Zhongli, who’s still standing by the door, and brushes a gentle hand against his face. “Hey, are you alright?”

The touch seems to jerk Zhongli back to the present and he tugs his mask off along with his hood. “I am fine, Ajax,” Zhongli murmurs. “I am trying to wrap my head around certain revelations.”

“I’ll say, you startled me!” Satisfied that the other is fine, Ajax takes Zhongli by the hand and tugs him towards the bed so that he can sit down. At the silence that continues to stretch on, Ajax clears his throat. “So, uh, the Dottore sure gave us a few things to think about. Especially about the immunity theory. Did…you…?”

“Indeed.” Zhongli sighs. “I believe the Dottore is correct in his assumption. Although I have not given you my blessing, spending so much time with me while I had my gnosis may have inadvertently exposed you to my energy. I apologize for not realizing this sooner.”

Huh. So that’s why.

“There’s no need for an apology. Something tells me that you’ve never spent this much time around a mortal before so I can see how this can be overlooked.” Ajax gives Zhongli a friendly nudge with his shoulders. “I can’t say I regret this development though. If it hadn’t been for you, I would have died, so I got really lucky especially since the effect of adeptal energy on humans is apparently unpredictable.”

“Yes and no,” Zhongli corrects. “Whether the adeptal energy will have a positive or negative effect is largely dependent on the adeptus’ intent and the nature of the relationship between the adeptus and the human host. If the human and adeptus share a friendly relationship, the effects of the energy will be a positive one. The unpredictability comes from the specific boons in which the adeptal energy manifests into, though the strength of the boon reflects the strength of the adeptus’ feeling.”

“Oh? So the fact that the energy manifested into such a positive effect means that you liked me even back then, huh Professor?” Ajax grins and throws his arms around Zhongli, rather shamelessly at that. He chuckles at the long-suffering look Zhongli gives him. “Admit it, Professor, you were attracted to me! Was it because of my youth, my charm or was it my stunning good looks that caught the attention of the great Rex Lapis? The Dottore certainly thinks those are my best traits!”

“It certainly wasn’t your humble nature.” The grumpy way Zhongli says that draws a fresh peal of laughter from Ajax. “I would also ask that you refrain from mentioning that horrible man admiring your traits in my presence. The fact that he does makes my blood boil. I do not understand why the Tsaritsa would employ such a detestable character.”

“He has his uses,” Ajax says with a dismissive little wave. “But enough about him. I want to talk about me. You did not answer my question!”

Zhongli’s answering eye roll does nothing to quell Ajax’s shit-eating grin. “If you must know, clearly, the way my energy manifested into immunity shows the true extent of my feelings, even if I had not realized until just now.”

That explains why Zhongli had seemed a bit off at the table. He had not realized just how much he liked Ajax even back then. Still, Ajax wants to hear the man say it. He deserves some good news after these terrible past couple of days. “And just what is the extent of that feeling?” Ajax wheedles. “Oh come on, Professor, don’t be shy.”

He is not disappointed. The smile he gets in return is equal parts fond and helpless. “Ajax,” Zhongli huffs out, “I adore you. And this immunity only shows that I’ve adored you for a very, very long time, so much so that every part of me had wished for your safety.”

A flood of warm tenderness wells up in Ajax’s chest and his smile turns soft. Adore. He’s adored by Rex Lapis, by Morax, by Zhongli, even when he was in Liyue, back when Zhongli and the Signora had revealed the true plan at play all along, and he had burned with anger, with jealousy at the sight of the Signora’s smug smile.

Well, the Signora is not the one being adored by Zhongli now is she? He is. Him.

“You are looking entirely too smug for my comfort,” comes Zhongli’s amused chuckles. “Does the knowledge of me adoring you satisfy you to such an extent?”

“Yes,” Ajax shamelessly responds. “And you’re lucky I just so happen to also adore you plenty as well, Professor.” A thought occurs to him though, and it sobers him up quickly, “Wait, but the immunity is fading. I hope that isn’t a reflection of your current feelings for me.”

Zhongli pulls him into his lap as greedy hands snake around his middle, pressing him close to the ex-Archon. On instinct, Ajax tucks his head against the crook of Zhongli’s neck, his hand flying to the bronze badge pinned proudly to Zhongli’s chest, his thumb brushing against its smooth, shining surface.

“Of course not,” Zhongli rumbles. “If anything, my affections for you have only increased since then. The fading immunity is strictly from the loss of my gnosis, a problem that would be resolved if I can steal my gnosis back, which you have firmly vetoed despite my protests.”

Ajax feels a bit silly but he can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief at Zhongli’s open affection, not so much his stubborn persistence to execute his backup plan. “Please do not start a second Archon War. I do not want to be labelled a traitor.”

Speaking of traitors, now that Ajax has the chance to think about it, it’s probably the best that the immunity he got from Zhongli is an inadvertent effect. If Zhongli had purposely granted him a blessing, he can’t imagine the Tsaritsa viewing that transgression lightly.

As for their relationship now, he hopes that with Zhongli no longer an archon, the Tsaritsa won’t view this as an act of treason. He should probably talk with Zhongli after all this is done.

But first, they need to resolve their more immediate problem.

Zhongli is apparently on the same page as he is.

“As much as I would like to continue this, we should discuss the next steps.” Zhongli’s words are at complete odds with the way he’s tightening his hold on Ajax. It’s adorable. “From this morning, I think we can be pretty confident that the Dottore knows about our…liaisons in Liyue.”

Ajax nods. “We managed to buy some time for now but the Dottore will most likely search for you the moment the cure is administered and proven to work.”

“No matter. I simply need to shed my current disguise in favour of another mortal shell when I return to Liyue. It is troublesome and would require an inventive excuse for me to retrieve all of my belongings, but it is a solution that would work in a pinch.”

Return to Liyue, as in Zhongli is going to leave him. Even the mere suggestion of that makes Ajax want to flinch away as the old fear comes surging back. But, unlike in the past, something stops that train of thought before he can spiral further; an angry whisper, like all of his recent angry whispers, that sounds an awful lot like Auntie when she’s extremely disgruntled.

For fuck’s sake, haven’t you been through this song and dance already? The man just said he adores you. Just ask him to stay already. He’s going to say yes. He’s always stayed whenever you asked.

He’s always stayed when Ajax asked, without protest, without hesitation. Every single time. Even this weekend, when he’s seeing Tartaglia in action for the first time, Zhongli remains unflinchingly by his side. The man is more bothered by the Dottore’s obsession and flattery of Tartaglia than of Tartaglia himself. He almost broke Tartaglia’s chair with his bare hands over the Dottore’s unsavoury comment.

It’s well past the time that Ajax starts giving Zhongli the benefit of doubt. It’s well past the time for Ajax to stop being such a coward.

“You know, Professor, you can continue to stay here. With me. In Morepesok.” Ajax clears his throat in the pregnant silence that fills the room. He doesn’t dare crane his head up to make out Zhongli’s expression, choosing to keep his face hidden instead. “I – I know that it’s a bit quiet and that it’s nowhere near as exciting as Liyue Harbour, and it’s perpetually cold here, and the villagers are super, super nosy, especially Auntie Vera, or those vegetable sellers, but, um, the children have clearly grown so fond of you. Uncle and Auntie as well, and Auntie hardly likes anybody. They would miss you terribly if you leave.”

“What about you?” Zhongli interrupts gently. “Would you miss me terribly if I go?”

What a ridiculous question and the answer comes tumbling out of Ajax like water rushing off a cliff. “Of course I would, that goes without asking. Weren’t you paying attention? I love you, Professor. I’ve loved you since Liyue and I haven’t stopped since. Nobody’s even come close to knowing so much about me outside of the masks I put on for work.” He takes a deep breath. “So…would you like to stay?”

Fingers brush under his chin, tilting his face up, and oh. Zhongli’s eyes are bright with emotion, the bridge of his nose and his cheeks splashed with the beginnings of a faint blush, an attractive soft pink against flawless, pale skin. Then, his soft lips curl up in the sweetest most tender smile and his expression practically glows with happiness, and Ajax finds himself helplessly, hopelessly falling in love all over again.

“I had hoped,” Zhongli breathes out, “but I did not want to presume and I did not want to pressure you –“

“Please stay,” Ajax repeats, much more confident this time around, “for as long as you want. For as long as you like.”

Zhongli chuckles, breathless. And if Ajax had thought Zhongli looked beautiful on a regular basis, it’s nothing compared to how he looks now being so utterly happy. “For as long as I like, hmm? Mark your words, baobei. You will find it hard-pressed to be rid of me.”

And like all promises between them as of late, they sealed this one with a kiss.


“You are late,” comes Scaramouche’s testy comment when Tartaglia and Zhongli arrive to the office fifteen minutes past their meeting time. He and the Dottore are already taken their seats by the desk, with the equipment set up on a nearby trolly. Dottore’s two assistants are hovering in the back, brimming with their usual nervous energy.

“What happened to meeting in one hour?” the Dottore chimes in with his own brand of disdain.

Tartaglia dips his head slightly. “My apologies, there was an urgent matter I had to take care of.” An urgent matter in the form of kissing the breath out of Zhongli, followed by some much-needed time to cool down and refocus. “I hope you were not waiting for too long. Shall we get started?”

Tartaglia does not anticipate that there is a lot of work left to do given the Dottore had already spent one whole day asking myriads of health-related questions and examining him from head to toe. Sure enough, the remainder of the work involves more check-ups focused on his right arm and whatever nerve damage he may have sustained from the flare-ups.

“Clench this as tightly as you can,” the Dottore orders as he hands over what appears to be a spring clamp. “Do not release until I say so or until your muscles fatigue.”

He is asked to repeat this exercise at least five more times before moving on to other equally mundane tasks such as picking up objects of various sizes and weights, catching a ball thrown at him, and pushing against certain heavy objects, all of them timed. The activities are so repetitive and dry that by the hour and a half mark, Scaramouche had pulled out a novel from somewhere on his body and blatantly tuned out.

“You are lucky, Tartaglia,” the Dottore reports with bright cheer, looking over the data his assistants are dutifully recording. “It appears that despite the severity of the backlashes, the damages to your arm are not too extensive. Whatever exercise routine you are using, do keep it up.”

As the mundane exercises carry on, Tartaglia can’t help but grow uneasy. Everything feels normal, too normal, especially when Scaramouche had warned him that the Dottore is planning something. But so far, Tartaglia can’t make out what that plan is. It’s absolutely aggravating.

“Please hold this object. Keep your arm stretched outward as straight as you can. The timer starts now.”

Tartaglia does as he’s told, but his eyes are darting around the room, trying to spot if something is wrong. He scans the door and the windows – all of those are closed, which is good and bad because nobody can go in but he can’t make a quick escape. Next are the walls and the paintings hanging there, nothing looks like they’ve been tampered with. The vase, the clock, and other trinkets on the fireplace mantle are all as they should be. Likewise, his desk, which is kept pristine with all of his most important documents secured behind a hidden safe.

Everything looks untouched. He does not feel relieved by that knowledge.

He glances at Zhongli, who’s standing guard behind him. The other man gives him a small inquisitive tilt of his head. Hm, looks like he hasn’t spotted anything suspicious.

Tartaglia keeps his guard up as he runs through the exercises and before he knows it, the Dottore is ordering him to stop.

“We are done! Thank you for your cooperation, you have provided a lot of useful data.” The Dottore gestures to his assistants to collect the notes and equipment. “I am happy to report that aside from some minor burns, you are remarkably healthy for someone who’s experienced multiple flare-ups. I will have my team prepare some more of that medicine for you to suppress your symptoms as well as a quick healing salve. Otherwise, your condition appears to be stable so long as you do not do anything foolish like use your Delusion again. That will set off the backlash.”

“Finally!” Scaramouche tucks his book away and stands up, stretching his arms above his head. How he doesn’t manage to knock against the wide brim of his ridiculous hat is a mystery. “If that’s all, let’s get out of here. The sooner we leave, the sooner I can get back to civilization, urgh.”

Tartaglia, with Zhongli following, escorts his guests outside where the carriage is being loaded, all the while making sure that the two Harbingers and the assistants haven’t had the chance to touch anything on their way out. A quick glance around his surroundings is also not showing anything suspicious, and Tartaglia finds himself relaxing just a bit. Maybe the Dottore aborted his plans when he saw the increased security at the Estate, or maybe, Scaramouche’s intel is off. Either way, Tartaglia is pleased that the Harbingers are going to be off his property real soon.

“Oh, just one more quick point before I forget,” the Dottore adds, just as he’s about to clamber into the carriage after Scaramouche. He strolls back towards Tartaglia and leans in close, so close that not even Zhongli can overhear him.

“I can’t help but notice how…empty your Estate is,” the Dottore whispers. “Positively devoid of any family, which is funny since word on the street is that you have an adorable little brother who paid you a visit in Liyue. What is his name again? Teucer was it?”

Tartaglia feels himself go cold.

The Dottore pulls away and smirks. “Please tell him that the good doctor will be visiting with friends real soon, as promised.”

With a perfectly executed bow, the Third Harbinger clambers into the carriage and swings the door close behind him.

By the time Zhongli manages to shake Tartaglia out of his shock, the carriage has gone past the gates, disappearing down the dusty road.


XXIV. Rex Lapis Ex Machina

“Ajax? Ajax!” Zhongli pulls Tartaglia close and hisses. “What’s the matter? What did that man say to you?”

“Zhongli,” Tarta – Ajax’s eyes are wide with fear. His heart is racing a million miles a minute and panic is flooding through him like water rushing through a burst dam. “He – he knows. He knows about Teucer and Morepesok. I don’t know how he knows, I’ve kept everything under lock. I was so careful. He shouldn’t know, he shouldn’t – ”

Was this what Scaramouche meant when he said the Dottore was planning something? Fuck, fuckfuckfuck. It makes sense; the Dottore had deliberately invited them to the Estate leaving Morepesok vulnerable for an attack. This has been nothing but an elaborate ruse and Tartaglia had fallen for it like a complete amateur.

His heart stutters. He only has Uncle and Auntie there. Against a fleet of the Dottore’s men, they don’t stand a chance.

“We need to get back right now!” he snarls, causing the men around him to jump. “I want horses readied immediately. Fast ones. We’re riding out right now! I also want ten men with me – all agents. I need stealth and speed! Have another twenty to follow once they are geared up. Also, send an emergency message to Outpost 720 about a potential attack heading their way.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Are you sure, Ajax?” Zhongli asks, his voice kept deliberately low, “you would be disclosing your home’s location to all those people.”

“I don’t know what the Dottore has planned, only that he is launching an attack on Morepesok,” Tartaglia hisses back. “I would rather more people know where I live than seeing Morepesok fall.”

Meanwhile, the scene around them is pandemonium.

“Have supplies prepared, anything you can gather from the kitchen for eight people. Food, water, and medicine.”

“Sir, your luggage, as well as your personal guard’s bags, will be packed and sent to Outpost 720, rest assured.”

“Which ones are the fastest horses in the stables? We need to get twelve ready and saddled up! Hurry up, this is an emergency!”

“Loading gears and supplies!”

“Someone check the straps on the saddles and gears!”

“Sir!” Tartaglia’s captain jogs towards them and salutes. “What are your orders for the Estate?”

“Operate on high alert. Increase patrol around the perimeters and turn anybody away from the Estate.” The last thing he needs is for the Estate to be compromised as well. “Also, once the other team is ready to depart, give them the coordinates to Outpost 720 with the instructions to ride with haste.”

“Yes, sir!”

It takes just enough time for Tartaglia to make sure his Vision and Delusion are clipped on, change into his riding boots, and throw on his winter gear and travel cloak for the horses and men to be prepared for departure. The next thing he knows, he and his team are flying down the road and out past the gate in a storm of thundering hooves, with him in the lead and Zhongli right beside him.

“If we can get to the first pitstop in an hour, we would be making good speed,” Tartaglia says to Zhongli over the sound of the cavalry. “We’re going to have to cut out some of the places we would normally stop by, but that ought to shave off a handful of hours.”

“Are there any shortcuts we can take?”

“There’s one up ahead, left at the fork of the road, but it’s not without taking considerable risks. These shortcuts are just miles and miles of country backroads through dangerous woods and bushland. We’re not equipped to handle them, and our horses would be too exhausted travelling on those by the time we reach Morepesok.”

He hates it. He hates how helpless he feels. He wants nothing more than to take the shortcut and push his horse to travel the fastest it can so that he can make it back home in record speed, but Tartaglia’s cool logic manages to squash down his need for reckless action.

“Take the shortcut.”

Tartaglia whips his head towards Zhongli. “What?”

“Take the shortcut,” he repeats and his eyes glow bright gold beneath the Fatui mask as the earth around them trembles, causing the trees to sway violently and sending a cascade of snow falling from their branches. Behind them, his men cry out in alarm.

They take the shortcut.

The road they are on is miraculously free of debris, snow and ice; it almost looks newly paved with each side neatly lined with a row of amber stones that pulsate yellow light the same hue as the cor lapis in Zhongli’s earring. The stones scatter beams of light around the forest, exposing every hidden nook and cranny amongst the thick blanket of pine trees. No dark creature or dangerous animal can stay hidden, not with the way the forest appears illuminated by all these miniature suns.

“This is a miracle,” one of Tartaglia’s men whispers in awe. “I have never seen anything like this before.”

“A divine intervention,” Tartaglia mutters. He raises his voice a touch louder so that his partner can hear. “Zhongli, as impressive as this is, the moment you need to rest, you must tell me. I need you to be in fighting form when we reach Morepesok.”

Although the Fatui mask hides away most of Zhongli’s face, Tartaglia just knows the man is smirking with the way arrogance is dripping from his answer: “I may not have my gnosis but I am hardly winded from this paltry parlour trick. Rest assured, I can illuminate the rest of the way to Morepesok and still have plenty of fight left in me.”

At some point, Tartaglia really needs to talk to Zhongli about toning his geo magic down a bit to avoid scaring the lowly mortals, but for now, he’s simply relieved that Zhongli’s power remains this strong sans-gnosis. Once the Prime Adeptus, always the Prime Adeptus.

“We will need to go back on to the main road at the next junction to get to our pitstop,” Tartaglia announces after a couple of solid hours of riding.

“How are we doing for time?”

“We have reduced our travel time by half for this leg of the journey.” Tartaglia allows a bit of relief to bleed into his voice. “If we continue to take the shortcut for the rest of the trip back, we should be able to make it to town before midnight.”

“Junction up ahead!” someone from the back yells. “Which direction?”

“The right!”

No sooner does his cavalry set foot on the main road, walls of blue light come shooting from the ground, rising high above them, as tall as the tree line. Tartaglia and Zhongli have just enough time to escape being hit, their horses sprinting deftly past the threshold at the last possible second before the walls snap up.

The rest of the cavalry does not have such luck. The man behind Tartaglia finds himself smashing against the wall, which ripples ominously before shooting out an arc of energy that sends horse and man ricocheting back towards the rest of the panicked group. More walls fly up one after another, forming a tight circle around the group, and in less than a minute, Tartaglia’s men are trapped.

“Sir!”

“We can’t break out of this –”

“Physical damage does nothing!”

“Neither does pyro!”

“You idiot, stop that! It’s absorbing the energy of our blows and attacks!”

Tartaglia can’t pay them any more attention, not when he finds agents materializing from the shadows all around them, one after another, waves upon waves until all he sees are a sea of Fatui.

He grits his teeth and hops down from his horse.

“H – halt!” One of the closest enemy agents shouts at him, a pyro user going from the bright red motif on his jacket. “B – by the Order of the Third Harbinger, we are to – to capture the Eleventh Harbinger and eliminate the rest. R – resistance is –”

He doesn’t get to finish. Tartaglia dashes forward, calling out his twin hydro blades in his hands, and with a deft slice of his blades, the agent’s head comes toppling towards the ground with a wet-sounding thud, mask intact and mouth still agape. Tartaglia neatly sidesteps the spray of blood that comes gushing out of the neck stump, his expression completely blank. He watches as the way the headless body wavers like a puppet with its strings cut, its arms dangling limply by its side, before crashing forward like a falling tree, sending more blood pooling on the road to stain the pristine snow red.

The area goes quiet.

“Free them,” Tartaglia says. His voice is perfectly calm, almost pleasant sounding, but in the stillness, every word is being perfectly heard. “Free them, or you will die like your companion here.”

None of the enemy agents react.

“He wasn’t supposed to be able to use his Vision!” one of the enemies panic whispers. “Why can he use his hydro powers?

“We're going to die!”

“Y – you fools!” someone cries out, “so what if he can use his Vision? There are only two of them and plenty of us! We can take him, Vanguard or no!”

“Yeah!” another voice shouts. “Think of the promotion we will get! Think of the glory!”

“Idiots,” Tartaglia mutters in disgust, partly to himself and partly to Zhongli, who had moved to his side during that kerfuffle.

Zhongli makes a noise of agreement. “It appears that they are ready to die for their greed.” He pulls down his hood and takes off the mask, tossing it to the side, revealing his brightly glowing eyes and a dark smile. “Who are we to stand in their way of such foolhardy endeavor?”

“Charge!” the enemy shouts. “Get them!”

“That’s our cue,” Tartaglia sighs as Zhongli draws his spear. He flashes a grin at the ex-Archon, a wild thing filled with teeth. “Try to leave me some scraps to play with, Professor.”

Zhongli rolls his eyes. “As if I will take away your fun.”

And without further ado, they rush towards the heart of chaos as one.

Tartaglia’s blood positively sings amidst the frenzy of strikes and blows that enemy agents try to rain upon them. He brings his blade up just in time to deflect the sloppy slash aimed for his shoulder, and with his other blade, he slashes low, his water blade sinking into clothes and armour like butter, disembowelling the agent in one vicious movement. He doesn’t wait for the man to crumble to the ground before leaping towards his next target, twin blades stabbing through the chest of the enemy stupid enough to leave his front completely unguarded. The blades sink in and through the body, puncturing both lungs, until the tips protrude out of the back of the body like a twisted pair of wings. Tartaglia ignores the wet gurgle his foe lets out; he raises a leg and kicks, dislodging his weapons from the meat sack before him.

That’s ten down, many more to go.

From the corner of his eyes, he can see Zhongli a few paces away. He’s cleared a circle around him, no doubt from the enemies not being able to get close within the radius of his spear swing. He lunges forward, all beautiful lines and gorgeous, brutal movement, sending his spear through a man’s heart before the other can even raise his own daggers to defend himself. In the same breath, Zhongli yanks his spear back, slamming the butt of it into the abdomen of an agent trying to sneak up behind him, then twirls the spear, slashing a wide arc in front of him and sending bodies flying.

Beautiful. Fucking beautiful, and so brilliantly, brutally efficient.

“Gunners in position! Aim, and fire!”

Tartaglia manages to grab a nearby enemy just as the fire bullets find their mark into his chest. Instead, they slam into the makeshift meat shield in front of him, causing the man to twitch and scream from the impact. With a scowl, Tartaglia brings a blade up and slashes the man’s throat before tossing the body at another charging agent, knocking the enemy to the ground in a mess of sprawled limbs.

“They have artillery!” he shouts to Zhongli. “Be careful!”

“ – aim and fire!”

Cursing, Tartaglia dodges at the volley of bullets aimed at him, throwing himself to the ground in a roll. He springs back upright and lets his momentum send him barrelling forward, blades flashing and sending arcs of blood in the air. He’s about to draw back when something slams into the back of his shoulder, its force sending him stumbling to the ground with a breathless little grunt. He manages to recover at the last minute and lands on one knee, hissing out as bright pain bursts from his joint from making an impact with the cold, hard ground.

He reaches behind him and curses some more when he feels something thin and feathery protruding from his flesh.

Really? An arrow? Of all the fucking things that could get him! Talk about an amateur mistake.

“Tartaglia!”

Zhongli comes rushing towards him, or at least he tries to but more agents are swarming in to deliberately block his path. The ex-Archon snarls, his face twisted into an expression of fury Tartaglia has never seen before. His eyes glow brighter and brighter with unholy light, so bright that Tartaglia cannot make out the white of his eyes through the twin flames that have engulfed everything.

“I WILL HAVE ORDER!”

The phrase, no the command, is roared out with so much primeval force, that it sends the land shaking and a swath of men falling to the ground. But, that’s nothing compared to the quickly growing speck of light hurling towards them from the sky.

“Is that a – ?”

“Sweet Tsaritsa, what the fuck is that?”

“Duck! Duck, you morons!!”

Tartaglia’s jaw drops, because in that instant, a fucking meteor of all things comes slamming down in a cacophony of noise and a shockwave of flying stone shrapnel. The ground trembles before the might of the Prime Adeptus, and all Tartaglia can do is throw his arms over his head and lay low so that he too wouldn’t be flung violently off balance from the earthquake. He braces himself until the tremors and the noise die, expecting to be pelted by random debris here and there, but when he opens his eyes – when did he close them? – he finds himself miraculously dust-free. A shimmer of gold in the air around him answers his question: Zhongli’s jade shield had protected him.

Around him are all the enemies, lying motionless on the ground, either dead or having fainted from that last devastating attack. Only Zhongli remains standing, and he looks as pristine as ever, minus the slight wrinkling of his outfit.

Bullshit adepti ability, he thinks with just a tinge of hysteria. Zhongli looks perfect even after having summoned a meteor. A fucking meteor. From the goddamned sky!

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

“Tartaglia! Are you alright?”

Tartaglia – Ajax takes one more look at Zhongli, then at the wreckage around him, and bursts into loud, delighted laughter. “That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen, holy shit!”

He lets Zhongli help move him so that he’s sitting up, wincing a little from the way his wound is being pulled, but it’s nowhere near enough to shake him out of his sense of wonder because Zhongli had summoned a meteor! A meteor! “Professor! I did not know you can do that! Can all adepti do something like that? Why haven’t you used this in our spars yet? I want to fight you and the meteor!

“I’m glad to see that your injury has not affected you in any way,” Zhongli’s response, though relieved, is also as dry as the desert. “The wound appears to be shallow, I should be able to pull the arrow out.”

Ajax makes a dismissive little gesture. “Sure, do what you want. What I want to know is whether you can summon more giant celestial bodies from the sky like that. A comet? A fleet of comets?” He gasps. “The moon?”

“Technically, I summoned a meteoroid. A comet is made entirely of ice and dust, which is technically not – no, that is not important right now.”

Ajax yelps when Zhongli pulls the arrow out without so much as a warning. He throws a vicious glare over his shoulder. “Ow! The hell!”

“My apologies, Ajax. If I warned you, you would have tensed up.” Zhongli presses his hand gently against the wound and leans over to kiss Ajax’s lips once, then another one for good measure. “I am beyond relieved that you are alright. Do we have anything that can be used to dress this up?”

“You should have some medical supplies packed with your horses, sir!”

Both of them freeze. Then, they turn to the source of that voice.

From the still intact energy cage, Tartaglia’s men are watching the both of them with rapt attention. They’re also sporting an expression of utter, utter glee like Krsnik Noc has come early.

Ajax scrambles to throw his Childe mask back on, even though there’s not much he can do to hide away the shattered remains of his dignity spilled all over the floor. He coughs lightly. “Thank you, Agent.”

“You’re welcome, Boss,” comes the cheeky response. “Though if you really want to thank us, you should introduce Mister Vasily to us properly!”

“That’s right, Boss! You brought your boyfriend to the Estate and you did not even tell us! What would Vadim think? He would be so upset that you have kept such a secret from him!”

“Wait until I tell the Captain about this.”

“Pfft, he would never believe you!”

“I don’t understand, Boss,” a younger agent pipes up, “why did you go to such lengths to disguise Mister Vasily? Why the hydro agent suit when clearly he is a geo user, and a powerful one at that?”

That is because Mister Vasily isn’t who he is at all, let alone a Fatui member,” a new voice, terribly, horribly familiar, rings out from the clearing. “Isn’t that right, my dearest Tartaglia?”

Tartaglia and Zhongli scramble up as the Dottore emerges from the woods. They watch him take slow, easy steps, almost as if he is taking a casual stroll through the park, towards them, only stopping when he comes across a body slumped to the ground.

He nudges it with his foot and gives a low whistle. “You have done a number on these men! An absolute number! I have to say, you always provide such exquisite entertainment. But ah, where are my manners?” He looks up with a wide grin and bows low as dictated from a lower ranking noble to a higher-ranked one. “Please allow me to offer my warmest welcome to our beautiful homeland, Morax. I hope you have enjoyed your stay here so far.”

“Morax?! Wait, doesn’t that mean he’s –”

“Mister Vasily is – no way!”

“How’s that so hard to believe? We just saw him summon a meteor!”

Tartaglia tunes out the fervent whisperings of his men. “I’m surprised myself, Dottore. I thought you would have simply sent your peons here and flee the moment you realize you’ve lost. Actually showing up here is uncharacteristically bold of you.” He tilts his head, trying to peer in the trees behind the Dottore. “How did you manage to shake off Scaramouche?”

“You would be surprised at what a little sleeping draught can achieve, especially a concentrated concoction jabbed right into the jugular,” the Dottore answers with a dismissive tone. “As for why I am here, why, I cannot possibly miss the opportunity to greet you in person had my men actually done their job properly, but I suppose I shall forgive them since no one could have predicted your partnership with Morax.”

In other words, the Dottore had wanted to gloat but had underestimated Tartaglia. Of course, he did and of course, he would.

“No matter.” Dottore shakes his head. “Having a chance to meet Morax in the flesh is an unexpected gift. It certainly answers my questions on just how you obtained your immunity in the first place and now,” he grins, “I get to have two test subjects instead of one! What luck!”

The low growl Zhongli lets escape is not even close to being human, and Tartaglia can feel goosebumps running down his arms. “You have overstepped your bounds, mortal. Your research is supposed to be on the cure for Tartaglia as ordered by your Archon.”

The Dottore does not seem phased at all. “Oh, I understand Her Imperial Majesty’s orders perfectly well, and I will be delivering the cure eventually,” he says evenly with his ever-present smile. “However, I…disagree with Her Imperial Majesty’s decision to make this research a priority, not if this means the loss of an opportunity for something greater.”

He spreads his arms out and gestures to the bodies around them. “Do you see these men? These men are all so weak and pitiful. With one blow from your hydro blades, they go down without so much as a fight, their lives as easily snuffed out like a candle. A complete and utter waste of potential and state resources used to train them up.

“But what if they can become better? Studier? Harder to kill? What if I can improve them beyond the limits of mere mortals? I can build Snezhnaya a new army, one that is the most powerful in the entire world, strong enough to even oppose the might of Celestia herself!”

“Your solution is to grant them immunity,” Tartaglia finishes his train of thoughts. “This entire time, your focus had been on immunity research because you were more interested in building your toy soldiers.” Of fucking course. It’s Theory 3 all along. Wait until Uncle and Auntie hear about this. “You’re so adamant in your success that you are even willing to risk the ire of the Tsaritsa. Have you gone completely mad?”

At least the Dottore does not bother to deny his words. “Elemental immunity is supposed to be an impossibility but my success in recreating that would be a triumph of Snezhnaya, of mankind!” His face twists into a sneer. “What is the sacrifice of a measly guard dog and some foreign god in the grand scheme of things, when the end result means glorious, unprecedented progress? I am confident that once Her Imperial Majesty sees the result of my work, she will come around.”

Right. Enough of this lunacy. “So, is that why you’re here? To give us this useless spiel and to make threats? Because if you haven’t noticed.” Twin hydro blades appear in Tartaglia’s hand in a flash of blue. Beside him, a golden and onyx spear materializes into Zhongli’s hands. “There are two of us, and one of you.”

The Dottore laughs. “Fighting words! If only that observation is correct.”

Before anyone can react, the Dottore pulls out a bottle of something from the inside of his coat and throws it to the ground. The bottle shatters on impact, sending a spray of glass flying. Something dark and violent comes bursting out in a mess of smoky tendrils, and in seconds, this dark mass has spread across the floor in a blanket of black fog, eating up ground and the scattered bodies alike.

There is silence at first, then, a sickening, wet, crunching sound. And another, and another.

“Tartaglia,” Zhongli utters. “To your right.”

Tartaglia turns his attention to where Zhongli is pointing at. There, wrapped by dark, smoky tendrils, is the body of the agent he had decapitated, except instead of laying perfectly still, the limbs are flailing about in jerking motions. As suddenly as the movement begins, it stops, and the limbs drop to the ground once again.

Then, the body transforms.

The body seems to triple in size, swelling up like a grotesque balloon, ripping the clothes it adorns to shreds as it grows and grows and grows. Arms and legs begin to jerk except this time, they are being twisted and bent into unnatural angles, not stopping as bones crack and joints pop. They also elongate like someone is stretching it like a rubber band, and mass begins to pile on the limbs, wrapping around and around the gangly member, morphing into corded, bulging muscles. The hands and feet also grow, the skin on the fingertips going black, stretching out and curving into dark, wicked claws. Great, thick, spiky spines erupt from the back, one after another, spewing dark gore out onto the ground from the freshly made wounds. Then, the skin seems to bubble and –

“Holy fuck, did it grow eyes everywhere?” Tartaglia’s voice is hushed with horror.

In the span of a minute, the body that had once been human had become a twisted abomination of horror. Its unblinking eyes zero in on Tartaglia and Zhongli, and the monster teeters upright, stumbling a little at first but quickly gaining its balance and its full height, towering over Zhongli and Tartaglia. Rather impressive given that it remains headless; the neck stump continues to drip blood and gore.

“More are coming,” Zhongli whispers.

Sure enough, more of those monsters are rising from the depths of the dark fog, popping up one by one. Tartaglia can see that even the heads have been transformed; eyes are growing out of their cheeks, their foreheads, their chins, and their mouths are stretched wide as if a knife has slit open the corners of the mouths, exposing raw shiny flesh and jagged teeth underneath. They stand there, swaying a little in perfect eerie silence. A forest of bodies, of aberrations of nature, just waiting.

“Rip them to shreds but leave them alive,” the Dottore orders. “I don’t need them intact.”

With that order, the monsters lunge.

Chapter Text

XXV. The Reckoning

The jade shield comes slamming up just in time to deflect a vicious swipe of wicked claws, but the impact of the blow has Zhongli stumbling a half step back.

“Be careful, Tartaglia,” the adeptus grits out, bringing his spear forward for his own counter-attack, “they’re a lot stronger than the men we’ve previously fought.”

“You do not have to tell me twice!” Tartaglia shouts back. He ducks low just in time to avoid the swing that could have decapitated him if he was any slower. He leaps back and brings his blades before him in a defensive position. “Say, Zhongli? Can you summon another meteor again?”

“I do not want to risk dipping further into my reserves, not when I am maintaining the shields for all of us.” Zhongli thrusts his spear forward and stabs it right through the belly of a nearby monster. The creature rears back from the blow, but it regains its footing quickly and lunges forward, slashing wildly. Zhongli leaps to the side and swings his weapon, catching the abomination in the knee and knocking it off balance.

Tartaglia dips down and brings a large swing at the leg of the monster in front of him. He ignores the slight give of the thick skin and, pushing against the handle of his short sword, drags his blade through muscles, tendons, and bones until the blade comes out the other side in a spray of black blood. The monster topples to the ground in a loud thud sending up a billow of rocks and snow on impact. The severed limb remains standing for a bit before flopping to the ground on its side. 

But the rest of the monster does not appear affected by the loss of its limb; it rolls on to its belly, a bit clumsily, and in doing so, it smears more of its dark blood all over the ground, but once it's on its front, it proceeds to crawl over to Tartaglia, slow and steady. Tartaglia dashes towards the downed, crawling creature, and with a downward stroke, he buries his swords right through its skull.

The creature he had just stabbed stills for a brief second. Then, it continues to crawl towards him.

What the fuck.

“Stabbing it through the head does nothing!” Tartaglia yells. Then, having just registered Zhongli’s words, he asks, “Wait, what do you mean maintaining the shields for all of - oh.”

In his periphery vision, he sees the identical shimmer of gold surrounding his men still trapped within the energy walls. Monsters have gathered around the group and are clawing at the shield in crazed fury, their blows deflecting against it in loud clinks like metal striking against glass. Meanwhile, his men stand on guard, their expressions grim and their weapons drawn.

Tartaglia has no idea whether the energy walls trapping his men would hold off the monsters, but he’s not counting on it, which means the jade shield is probably the only thing keeping those creatures at bay. And the moment that the jade shield goes down, there’s no doubt in Tartaglia’s mind that it would be a complete and utter massacre. There are simply too many monsters for his men to handle.

Three shields being kept up in perpetuity plus the meteor Zhongli had just summoned and the miles of roads he had built. The fact that Zhongli can do all of those things without his Gnosis is already amazing, but Zhongli must be starting to feel the energy exertion. A quick glance at Zhongli confirms his suspicion. There's sweat beading the ex-Archon's forehead and his face is starting to look a little grey.

Apparently, the Dottore thinks so too. “Seeing the ex-Geo Archon in action is certainly a treat, especially when he is without his gnosis,” Tartaglia hears him cackle with glee some distance in front of him. He can’t pinpoint the Doctor’s exact location from the wall of enemies in front of him, shielding his vision. “But one must wonder just how long he can keep this up! Shall we do a test?”

Tartaglia has a bad feeling about this.

“Minions!” the Dottore shouts, “focus all of your attention on breaching the barrier around those men in the back! Once you get through, slaughter them all!”

Oh, for fuck’s sake!

The monsters turn towards the new target as one. Cursing again, Tartaglia rushes towards Zhongli, who had positioned himself to block the monster’s path.

“Solidify!” he growls out, his eyes once again flashing bright gold. No sooner did his command ring out across the battleground, Zhongli’s signature geo pillars rise from the ground in flashes of gold, forming a series of barricades to interrupt the flow of creatures from being able to bowl straight through.

“Any luck with figuring out how to permanently put them down?” Tartaglia says as he reaches the ex-Archon. “How are you doing?”

“I am holding on,” Zhongli says, his voice unwavering, but there's a pained furrow to his brow. “I have tried striking the monsters in their abdomens, limbs and the chest but they remain alive. There has to be a weakness to them.”

“Slicing and dicing the arms or the legs would stop them but it takes time,” Tartaglia says, taking the opportunity to demonstrate just that. He dashes forward and plunges his blade into the knee of a monster that has gotten close to them. He twists his blade, feeling a sick, grim satisfaction at the way the kneecap shatters and the ligaments tear, before viciously pulling it out with a wet ‘schlick’ sound.

At least the barricades seem to be working. For all that the Dottore’s abominations are stronger, faster, and seemingly impossible to kill, they do not possess much intellect. When faced with the walls of geo pillars in front of them, the creatures react by attacking rather than hopping over them, or steering away. This gives Tartaglia and Zhongli some breathing room to slice off a few more limbs, felling them one by one like trees being cut down.

But this is a slow endeavour, and there are still so many left. At this rate, Zhongli is going to run out of energy and the monsters would be able to brute force their way through the barricades. 

“Attack faster, you fools!” the Dottore screeches. “I don’t have all day!”

Tartaglia feels a fresh wave of raw hatred sweep through him. Dear Tsaritsa, if he could just shut that man up then things would be so much better!

Wait.

Tartaglia’s eyes light up. Shut that man up.

“Zhongli!” he cries. “I think I have a solution! The Dottore! He’s the one who’s –”

“Controlling the monsters,” Zhongli finishes the sentence for Tartaglia with a tight nod. “Yes, this just occurred to me as well. We should –”

The grin Tartaglia is made of pure malice. “Strike the fucker down from where he stands!”

With a flick of his wrists, he brings his twin swords together, twisting the water into his preferred swallow. He gives the weapon a few practice twirls. “Professor, do you remember our spar? The very first one we’ve had? Do you have enough energy to give me a boost?”

Zhongli snorts, but his lips are curled up into an amused smirk. “How can I forget? I have the energy to help you, and just this once, I will support your reckless action.”

Satisfied with receiving a literal blessing from a god, Tartaglia gives a little salute and sets off towards where the Dottore is still yelling. One of the creatures swings its claws at him but he dives and rolls under the arm, springing back to his feet without breaking his stride. He sidesteps another monster, then another, and leaps up towards one of the barricades, landing on top for a split second before he has to dance away from a few swipes aimed at his shins. He leaps blindly into the air.

And lands on a stone pillar that appears under his feet just in time.

Tartaglia grins and he leaps again and again. Stone pillar after stone pillar appears under him, each getting taller and taller, forming an impromptu staircase for him to climb. Tartaglia can feel his heart pounding in his chest, his breaths becoming more and more ragged, and that stupid arrow wound is throbbing like a bitch with every jostle, but he refuses to slow down, not when he’s this close –

There!

He catches the glimpse of the blue of Dottore’s hair. With one last leap of faith, he lands on a pillar that gives him a direct shot at the Doctor. The man is so busy frothing in his rage to look up.

Big mistake.

Tartaglia rips the hydro power from his Vision with greedy hands. The torrential rush of familiar cool energy slams through him, wild and uncontrolled like a waterfall after a night of heavy rain, but he wrestles it down, forces it to bend to his whim, to mold into the shape that he wants. All the while, he lets the pressure of his power build and build and build until he is surrounded by nothing but the blue ripples of his power under his feet, and hydro tendrils are swirling rapidly in his hands like a whirlpool, ready to go off in a moment’s notice.

The Dottore finally looks up and he chokes on his words. His eyes go wide.

“Not bad,” Tartaglia snarls, lifting the vortex above his head, “but this is going to cost you!

And with that, he slams it down, bringing all the force of his hydro powers crashing onto the Dottore in the form of a twenty-foot narwhal.


XXVI. The Last Stance

The power hits the Dottore and its surrounding in a deafening crash. A wall of water surges upwards from the impact site, drenching Tartaglia's shoes. It drops down with another massive crash and tall waves immediately rush outwards. They crush everything in their paths; monsters upon monsters are knocked off balance by the sheer volume of water and turbulent current, forcing them to go under in a flail of limbs as their bodies are swept up and carried away.

It takes a few moments before the waves die down, and the clearing descends into silence.

Then, loud raucous cheering, hoots, and hollers fill the air.

“Holy shit, Boss! What the fuck was that?!”

“Eat shit, Dottore!”

“Can normal people summon whales? Is that a thing that Vision users can just do or is that a Tartaglia thing?”

“I’m so glad he never used that on us during training.”

“I need to tell the Captain about this!”

“First, the Morax thing, and now this? He’s definitely going to call bullshit on you.”

Tartaglia clambers down from his podium with careful movements. That attack has taken a lot out of him, and he can feel himself going a bit woozy. He tightens his grip on the pillar to keep himself from swaying.

Urgh. Looks like it might take some time before he can unleash an attack using that much hydro power again, which is just pathetic. When he fought the Traveller, he had blasted them with at least a handful of whale summons plus countless water arrows and water slashes. The moment he recovers from this injury, he is going back to training to rebuild his strength.

The land around him has been transformed into a flooded plain. The water from his attack melted all the snow in the surrounding area, forming a series of miniature ponds and large puddles that litter the site. Tartaglia takes a ginger step forward and makes a face at the way his soaked boots are squelching in the mud.

Most of the monsters are caught in the attack and are half-buried in water and mud. Their eyes are closed as if in rest, but something tells Tartaglia that they are still alive, merely inactive. The rest that has not been swept by the waves have all stopped moving, their gangly arms – or at least, those who still have those – are swaying quietly in the wind.

Did...it work? Did they beat them?

It's too early to tell. He's not going to celebrate until he finds the Dottore's body.

Tartaglia moves closer to the epicenter. A great big murky pond lies where his attack had impacted the earth, and within it is a sea of floating monsters’ bodies mixed with black blood and entrails. The bodies are noticeably flattened thin like a squashed, rotten tomato. Guts, viscera, eyeballs, and anything remotely delicate are spilled out of the bodies, most of which are also split open, no doubt, caused by the terrifying crushing force of all that water.

Tartaglia purses his lips, confused.

Curious. The eyes, or more accurately, the shattered remains of those eyes, are hazed over in a mist of white.

Tartaglia pokes at one of the flattened bodies with the tip of his swallow. No response at all. These monsters are…dead, actually dead. Unlike its other brethren.

But how? And why?

“Tartaglia,” Zhongli cries out. “Is everything alright?”

“I’m fine, Professor,” he calls back. “I’m looking for traces of the Dottore but I can’t find him. He might be buried somewhere.” With how dark the pond water is getting, there’s no way he would be able to see if the Dottore is in there, although if he is, he’s probably drowned at this point. “There’s not much we can do until –”

“Sir!” one of his men call out, “Watch out, the monsters are moving again!”

The creatures that have been standing still suddenly start spasming, their gestures getting more and more violent as their arms start to swing around them wildly. Then, in perfect synchronization, their eyes snap open. The pupils flicker about madly as if the monsters are desperately searching for something. Zhongli growls and casts a fresh shield on all of them.

Which proves to be a mistake because those eyes immediately zero in on him.

As if imbued with renewed strength, the abominations rush towards their new target in a stampede. Tartaglia is already sprinting, swinging his blade to hack off a few enemies in his path, made harder by the way he’s slipping and sliding against the now muddied ground. “Professor! Behind you!”

But his warning comes a bit too late. One of the monsters charges towards Zhongli’s back. It winds its arm back and swings with a mighty blow just as Zhongli turns around. The claw catches Zhongli’s shield and, with a deafening clang, it shatters in a burst of broken golden shards. Tartaglia watches in horror as the impact sends Zhongli flying. His body lands harshly on the muddy ground, and he rolls once, twice, before he manages to get his bearing and flips himself back onto his two feet. He stands up, covered from head to toe in muck, his complexion even paler than before. With a pained grunt, his hand flies towards his ribs, grimacing as a trail of bright red blood trickles from the corner of his mouth.

“Zhongli!” Tartaglia makes his way towards the other man. He positions himself in the front, brandishing his weapon where more monsters are starting to head their way. “Are you alright? How badly are you hurt?”

“Cracked ribs,” Zhongli wheezes, “and a bruised chest. It is…not ideal, but I can manage.”

Like hell he can. Tartaglia does not like how haggard Zhongli is starting to look. Adeptus or not, he’s clearly used up a good chunk of his energy already. Tartaglia may not know exactly what happens when an adeptus overexerts themselves in that manner, but it cannot possibly be good.

“We need to find another way to put these things down for good. Killing the Dottore seems to only make them go into an uncontrolled frenzy.”

“Indeed.” Zhongli straightens himself out and, still clutching onto his side, materializes his spear into his hand. “Do you have any ideas?”

“The monsters near the Dottore are dead,” Tartaglia shares. He pauses briefly to slice off the arms of a monster that got too close, then stabbing it in the knee before kicking it firmly in the chest. It topples over backward and takes a few of its brethren down with it. “The eyes have gone all white and hazy.”

“Curious. What else have you noticed about the bodies?”

“They’re flattened like pancakes. Anything delicate in them is probably ruptured to hell. Basically, I’d be surprised if there are any parts of the body that work.”

Zhongli utters something harsh and guttural sounding in Liyuan. He also stabs a nearby creature in the knee, withdrawing in time for Tartaglia to kick it down with a flying kick. There. That's the last of them before more arrives. “It appears that the only way to put these monsters down is the complete destruction of their bodies. Damn the Doctor.”

If the situation isn’t so dire, Tartaglia would marvel at the fact that the Professor had just swore.

“We can try incapacitating them? Take out their eyes?”

“We would need to take out all of its eyes for all of these monsters,” comes Zhongli’s grim observations. “Do you have enough energy reserve to summon another narwhal?”

"Not right now." He does not have enough hydro power to pull this off without a break, and he’s not going to get one with the way things are going. Already, the golden shields around them are starting to fade and some of the barricades have crumbled back into the ground. There are still at least forty or so of those monsters coming after them.

Tartaglia’s fingers brush against the purple gem of his Delusion on his belt.

He does not have enough hydro power to cause the level of destruction needed, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of options.

Zhongli, who caught that movement, immediately shakes his head. “No, Ajax, you are not using that thing!”

“We don’t have a lot of choices left here, Professor,” Tartaglia quips back, trying to sound reasonable to hide away his rising panic. “There are forty of those monsters and the field is covered in water. I just need one good electro strike and I can cook all of these monsters from the inside out. It shouldn’t take me longer than ten seconds.”

But Zhongli shakes his head once more. “No!" his face is twisted into a snarl, and his voice is guttural. "This is entirely too risky!" His eyes seem to glow brighter from his anger and for a second, Tartaglia can see where all those legends about the ferocious nature of Morax, the God of War, come from. “We will think of something else, anything else! There has to be another way!”

“There is no other option and we’re out of time.”

I will not lose you!

“Zhongli.” And for a second, he’s Ajax again, just Ajax, the idiot who had first opened the door to Zhongli, covered in flour and wearing the most ridiculous apron known to man. The man-child who spent countless hours badgering Zhongli for a fight, or for stories about his Adepti friends whom he can fight against. The hapless idiot who couldn’t teach Zhongli how to budget, not when he keeps enabling his terrible spending habits by buying him everything under the sun.

He’s Ajax and he leans in to give Zhongli a sweet kiss on the lips. Even bloodied and filthy and terrifyingly livid, his Zhongli still looks so beautiful. He just wishes he can wipe away the fear in Zhongli’s eyes.

“Zhongli,” he repeats, “Morax, Rex Lapis, Professor, I love you. I love you and you’re not going to get rid of me that easily.” That is an oath that he makes with very fibre of his being. Zhongli can probably sense the strength of his words because his anger breaks and he lets out a keen of pure heartbreak.

“Hey, hey, none of that alright?” Ajax cups Zhongli’s face with his hands in a gentle caress. “This going to be a gamble, but it’ll be worth it when the both of us get out of this alive. You have the medicine on you, remember?” At Zhongli’s brisk nod, he continues, “Good. Then the moment things get out of hand, you have a way to put a stop to things. See? We’ll be alright.”

“Such recklessness. I should expect nothing else,” Zhongli rumbles, but at least the anger is gone, replaced instead with tired resignation. “When we get out of this, you are resting for an entire month. Promise me.

Ajax grins. “I promise. Nothing but rest and relaxation for me. Now, shield up. Things are going to get messy.” And with one last kiss for good luck, he pulls away from the man he loves, slips back into his Tartaglia persona, and gets to work.

He stalks towards the crowd of advancing monsters, eyes sweeping across the clearing. Forty monsters are so with the most of them clustered together and heading this way. There are a few stragglers in the back and two a bit further ahead of the pack. They are all wading in puddles, some of them, soaked from the waves caused by Tartaglia’s earlier attack. For good measure, Tartaglia draws up his hydro power and lobs a couple of water attacks at his foes, soaking them even further and pushing those front runners back so that they’re more tightly clustered with the rest of the group.

Perfect.

He takes a deep breath and pulls down his red Tartaglia mask over his face.

He had said it would take him ten seconds to cook those monsters. He will deliver on that promise.

He activates his Delusion.

The surge of electro power that flows through his veins feels simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. Tartaglia had used his Delusion on multiple occasions in the past, and the rush of heat and cackling power is always welcomed for someone who seeks to be stronger and stronger such as himself. However, the electro power has always clashed with his hydro in its wild, dominating nature. Coupled with the surge of power from within him that must be from the parasite awakening, it’s harder than usual to wrestle the arcs of electro under his control.

But he’s not the youngest Harbinger, the Vanguard for nothing; with pure stubborn grit, he reaches for one of the flickering electro bolts shooting from his Delusion and wrenches it back.

Submit, he orders through gritted teeth. Submit!

The electro power yields begrudgingly. He twists it into the form of a swallow, the weapon crackling with arcs of purple lightning through its body.

Not enough. He needs more power.

Closing his eyes, he focuses on the thrum of electro power and follows the current back to the Delusion. In his mind’s eye, he can see a small opening from which elemental energy flows, and drawing his arm back, he thrusts into the hole, breaking it open even further.

Electro comes pouring out as with the heat and the rising, agonizing feeling of being cooked alive. He bites back the cry of pain, grabs the flow of power and forces it to submit to his will, forces it to feed into his weapon so that it glows brighter and brighter until it's pure, shining white.

He snaps open his eyes and he leaps. He brings the weapon above his head.

And with all of his might, he brings the swallow down, stabbing it deep into the flooded ground.

Ten, nine, eight –

An explosion of lightning bolts comes shooting out from the site of impact, spreading outwards in a web of miniature electro arcs. The web connects with the monster within seconds; instantly, they tense up, shaking and spasming in their spots as the purple current wraps around their bodies.

Seven, six –

The creatures’ bodies start to swell up like a balloon and their skin develops a blackened, charred look. The smell of cooked meat grows stronger.

Five, four  –

Faint popping sound follows, and, urgh. The eyes. The eyes are starting to explode like firecrackers.

Good, Childe thinks viciously. Let them cook, let them fry, let them stay dead this time.

Let them never have the chance to hurt Zhongli ever again.

Three –

The electro power is starting to slip out of his swallow in chaotic bolts of purple light. Childe desperately clings on to control.

Two –

 More and more of the electro is slipping away. The white glow from the weapon begins to dim. Meanwhile, the monsters’ skin – the bits that are not charred – are starting to split open into jagged, crooked lines across the abdomen and the chest. Guts come spewing out of the opening in chunks along with gusts of white, billowing steam.

One!

With a cry, he releases his strong hold over his electro power.

The lightning bolts scatter immediately, zipping away in a network of purple sparks across the surface of the water, dissipating into parts unknown. His swallow vanishes in a burst of blue light and without it propping him upright, Tartaglia falls, his nerveless legs unable to support his weight any longer.

Familiar arms wrap around his middle – Zhongli, of course, it’s Zhongli – and the next thing he knows, he’s being dragged somewhere else, and he’s being placed on a dry, stone surface.

God, everything hurts. Everything feels like it’s burning and his vision is focusing in and out, going fuzzier and fuzzier by the second. His fingers are twitching non-stop, purple arcs dancing across the digits, and they creep up his palm, his wrist, his forearm, burning and slicing their way into his skin and flesh. He thinks he’s crying out, but he’s not entirely sure.

“…Ajax…Ajax…on…medicine…no, no, no, no –”

He forces himself to focus on the sound of Zhongli’s voice. “Zh – Zhongli…”

Zhongli’s distraught face swims into view.

“…medicine…vial broken…fuck…more in the pack – no time!”

He’s not entirely registering what Zhongli is saying, to be honest, so consumed he is by the fire licking up past his elbow at this point. But his heart twists at how terrified Zhongli looks and he tries to lift an arm to comfort him.

A spark of electro jumps from his skin towards Zhongli. Before it can hit him, it connects with the shimmering gold shield in a violent clash of power. In that instance –

A burst of fresh agony cuts through whatever coherent thought Ajax has left in his brain and this time, he knows for a fact he had screamed out loud. He can hear his ragged cry echoing in his ears as with the rapid pounding of his heartbeat. He thinks he’s thrashing around, and he feels something soft slipping under his head to keep him from bashing his skull against the surface he’s laying on.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, make it stop – make it stop –

But just as quickly as the pain arrived, it dissipated. Ajax takes a few heaving breaths and manages to scrape enough energy to crack an eye open.

Floating next to him and Zhongli is a bright, glowing purple crystal. More importantly though, Zhongli is staring at it with wonder, with realization.

Good, anything but that horrible look from before, Ajax thinks a little hysterically. The terrible burning from before is back, and it’s creeping up his bicep.

“…crystal…reaction…crystallize! …idiot for not thinking about that!”

“…Zhongli…”

Zhongli’s beautiful eyes are ablaze with gold. “…can save you…draw the parasite out…weaken it with crystallize…over and over again.” Then, “I’m sorry, Ajax…will hurt terribly.”

Ajax gasps out a laugh. He doesn’t have the capacity anymore to grasp what’s going on but there’s one thing he knows like the back of his hand, and that’s the fact that he trusts Zhongli with everything, including his life. “Do…it,” he forces out through breathless lungs.

Zhongli nods. “…will need to bite down…here…”

There is something pressed insistently against his lips. He opens his mouth and obediently lets the item slip over his tongue and between his teeth. Tough, leathery. A belt?

Then pain, pain like he’s never experienced before. It strikes him in the chest and spreads outwards, stabbing and slicing its way through his nerves, his muscles, his veins towards his arms and his legs. The pain engulfs him in its entirety and it feels like everything is being cut open while his raw insides are being set on fire, and all he can hear, all he can register, is the sound of his own hoarse screaming.

He fades in and out of consciousness after that.

Sometimes, he’s floating in a sea of black with the occasional muffled crack of electro reactions, and a string of low, soothing murmurs filling his background.

Sometimes, he would see colours, an expanse of pale grey and white sky with an overlaying sheen of shimmering gold, and a face peering down on him – dark hair tipped in amber, pale porcelain skin, and stunning golden eyes that glow like fire. This would be followed by a warm sensation against his face, the gesture so familiar and so comforting, that he can almost weep.

Even rarer still, he could make out the distinct words of what is being murmured.

“Almost there, just a little more.”

“You’re doing so well, Ajax. So well.”

“I know it hurts. I know it’s agony, please bear with me just a bit longer, baobei.”

Whatever the experience is, it’s always accompanied by pure agony, and he’d inevitably slip back into that sea of black to begin the cycle anew.

He's not sure how many cycles of conscious and unconsciousness it has been, but he's starting to notice that something is…changing. The face peering down at him, for one. Specks of gold start to appear under those striking eyes, almost like scales, and a pair of great big something, gold and branch-like – horns, they look like curling horns – are growing out of the crown of his head.

He makes a questioning sound.

“…not enough energy…fully sustain my mortal form…do not be afraid…”

The words are spoken slowly and they sound sad and apologetic, which won’t do. This won’t do at all. Also, who says anything about being afraid?

“’m not afraid,” Ajax slurs out. He thinks he slurs those words out. It’s hard to tell between how heavy his tongue feels in his mouth and the leather something between his teeth. “They’re pretty. You’re pretty. Very, very pretty.”

The sound of helpless, relieved laughter makes Ajax’s lips curl up into a smug smile, even though everything still hurts.

A dark claw-tipped hand with veins of gold running across the skin brushes his hair back. “Pearls and silks, baobei,” Zhongli breathes out. “Nothing but pearls and silks. Now, just a little bit more and we’re almost done. Are you ready?”

“Hmm,” Ajax nods, and although the pain that slams into him makes him scream, at least this time, when he’s drifting off again, it’s accompanied by the warm, sunny feeling of being so very loved.


XXVII. Those That Bind Us

At some point, the cycle of consciousness and unconsciousness stops, and Ajax finds himself floating, this time, in a sea of dusty blue that stretches out as far as the eye can see.

“Tartaglia,” a voice calls out, soft but with strength behind the command. “Childe. My Eleventh.”

Arctic blue bleeds into his surroundings. They creep along the floor, then the walls in shimmering fractals of ice. Details begin to solidify; floral designs on the walls sculpted in plaster and gilded in platinum bloom into existence, as with the intricate patterns of cold, swirling marbles on the floor. Beautiful crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, adding to the sense of grandeur to the room.

Sometime between his name being called and his environment being transformed, Ajax finds himself standing upright. He looks down at himself, blinking in surprise at the gold and white outfit he had worn for…for…

His eyes widen. The Dottore! Fuck! The mad man is out there causing chaos and…Zhongli! He needs to – he needs – !

“Be calm, my Eleventh,” the voice repeats. Now that Ajax is paying attention, he can make out that the voice belongs to a female. “All is well. Morax is resting peacefully by your side, no doubt recuperating from the adventurous day you’ve both had.”

The relief those words bring come crashing into him, but they’re only temporary because it suddenly dawns on him the identity of the speaker.

“Your Imperial Majesty,” he gasps out.

He gets on one knee and bows as Palace etiquette dictates, keeping his gaze locked firmly on the ground. He does not move even when the sound of footsteps clacking against marbled floor grows louder and louder until they stop in front of him. He keeps his position even as the bottom of a stunning white ball gown made of intricate lace and shining silks and decorated with sparkling diamonds appear into his view.

Cold fingers brush under his chin and lift his face up. Ajax – no, Tartaglia – allows his Tsaritsa to direct his gaze towards her exquisite, expressionless face.

“Hmm, you have experienced a lot of hardships, my Eleventh,” she tilts her head as if examining something interesting before her. The movement makes the diadem in her hair sparkle. “A lot of unnecessary hardships due to the machinations of my treacherous Third. But you are hardly one to take such insults without retaliating, are you? And you are not without allies either.”

Tartaglia keeps still. Until he’s given permission to speak, he knows better than to say anything, lest he offends the Goddess. But even he can’t help the way his heart had skipped a beat at the mention of allies.

Zhongli.

She withdraws her hand. “Hmm. You may rise and take a seat. You may speak.”

“Thank you, your Imperial Majesty,” he answers with a dip of his head and gets up. He’s not surprised to see a chair, beautifully carved and similarly gilded with platinum with the seat padded in a thick cushion, having appeared right behind him.

He sinks into it just as the Tsaritsa does the same on her throne.

“Your Imperial Majesty, if I may ask, where are we exactly?”

“We are in your dreams,” the Tsaritsa answers, “you are currently unconscious in bed back in the Estate I have gifted you.”

He’s…back at the Romashka Estate? How did he even get there?

Then, he remembers. His men, or more specifically, his second cavalry. They’re supposed to be following him and his main team. They must have reached him eventually and helped transport him and Zhongli back.

That’s one question to which he thinks he knows the answer. Onto his second question: “If this humble servant may ask, to what do I owe the honour of your visit?”

This garners the slightest uptick of her ruby red lips. “I had wished to see how you are doing after all that excitement. I had sensed a powerful source of geo energy and had sent my men to investigate. Imagine my surprise when my men sent me a report in a hurry about how they came across a battlefield littered with the corpses of abominations, and two groups of my Vanguard’s men trying to calm a raging dragon god curled over the unconscious form of the Vanguard himself.”

Even dreaming, Tartaglia feels his mouth go dry.

She gives him a knowing look, and with a lazy wave of her hand, a table appears between them, laden with snacks some porcelain plates, matching teacups and a grand samovar at the center. She reaches for a cup, miraculously full of course, and takes a delicate sip out of it. “Quite protective, that Morax,” she adds. “He fought tooth and nail to keep anybody from laying a finger on you. It took a personal visit from yours truly to break through his berserker rage.”

Tartaglia goes still.

Oh, the Tsaritsa had seen his unconscious form laying there. She had seen Zhongli, apparently lashing out against everybody to protect him. She had spoken to Zhongli to get him to quiet down.

Dear Celestia, not only was the Tsaritsa greatly inconvenienced by this whole mess, but she also knows about him and Zhongli.

“Ah…my most sincerest apology, your Imperial Majesty for the unsightly view this humble servant must have made in my moment of weakness and for Zhon – Morax. Morax only means well, especially after what just happened with the Dottore and all…and, uh.” He bites his lips, trying to calm his nervous babbling. “Although this humble servant is unworthy to ask of such things from you, I beg you to take your anger out on me instead of Morax. Morax is only acting in my best interest.”

Her icy blue eyes narrow. “Oh? And what about this blossoming relationship between yourself and the ex-Geo Archon? Are you willing to shoulder the burden of my wrath as well?”

Her wrath. Fuck. Fuck. He’s going to die. Still, Tartaglia nods and closes his eyes. “I take full responsibility,” he utters, and he’d be lying to himself if he doesn’t admit that he’s terrified. But he doesn’t regret this, not even a tiny bit. “Just…please spare Morax and please let me be the only one to take up the blame for this.”

He waits. He’s not sure what to expect. An ice shard spearing him through the head? A slap across the face? Hot tea poured onto his head?

What he isn’t expecting is the soft snort of an incredulous laugh.

He opens his eyes. Tentatively. “Your Imperial Majesty?”

For once, the icy demeanor that the Tsaritsa seems to sport in perpetuity thaws ever so slightly. Her eyes are a hint warmer, and her expression a touch softer. And she’s still barely smiling. Miracle of all miracles, she’s not mad?

The Tsaritsa takes another sip of tea. “You know, Morax had said the exact same thing when he came back to his senses. The two of you are much more alike than even I had anticipated. He told me that he was to blame for everything that had happened, including the complications you suffered from the backlash since without his goal of retirement, you would not have been sent to Liyue, and subsequently, would not have had to use your Delusion twice.

“He also swore that he was the one who pursued you since he was the one who showed up at your doorstep and that he was the one who seduced you. ‘Spare him,’ he said, no, begged, me. In all my years of knowing Morax and of all the tales I know about him, I do not think I have ever experienced or heard of Morax begging, let alone for the life of a single mortal.”

Tartaglia’s heart hurts for Zhongli. The other didn’t need to do that for him, didn’t need to discard his pride for Ajax. He shouldn’t have to. Besides, “He’s wrong,” Tartaglia adds. “Morax could not have anticipated that I would be reckless enough to use the Delusion twice in a row, nor could he have predicted that a backlash would have occurred. Also, relationships don’t just work with one person seducing the other. I have to reciprocate his feelings, which I do.”

“Hm, I will give you that. He is wrong.” She levels another look at him. “But so are you.”

The confusion on Tartaglia’s face must be obvious because she huffs out a soft laugh. “I must confess, I have a part in all of this, and I mean beyond ordering you to go on that mission or striking that deal with Morax.”

With a flick of her wrist, the tea in her cup magically replenishes itself, and she takes a careful sip of it. “Morax has a reputation. Fierce and protective, rigid in his principles, stubborn, he is the embodiment of his element – sturdy, dependable, unfeeling. These were the rumours I had learned when I first took the seat as an Archon. When I met him that very same year, he largely met my expectations. He was as people said he was. Except, unfeeling he was not.

“I am a Goddess of Love despite how much I abhor the title.” She purses her lips in distaste. “However, that title was granted to me for a reason. Simply put, I have the ability to see love matches between mortals and immortals alike. They appear as strings that link one heart to another. I only need to touch the string to see those that are connected by it.

“So, when I came across Morax, I knew that the rumours about him being unfeeling are greatly exaggerated. After all, how can someone be unfeeling if he possessed such a thread himself? A being cannot be unfeeling if he is capable of love.

“What was interesting was the state of his thread. It was flickering in and out of existence, one second solid, the other second, it had dissipated into smoke. I had understood what that meant when I saw it. It meant simply that the person fated for Morax has not come to existence yet. And so, I waited and kept an eye out, perhaps out of curiosity to see which being, immortal or otherwise, would be able to match the lofty Morax.

“And then, you came along. A young man, the youngest of all my Harbingers. Bold, fiery, hungry for battle and hungry for the opportunity to prove himself. I suppose I really ought not to be surprised that the one to be able to match Morax himself is someone who can match him in some ways and yet be the complete opposite of him in others.”

“Are…are you suggesting that you sent me to Liyue on purpose?” Tartaglia finally manages to find his voice to ask. “And that purpose is so that Morax will meet me as his love match?”

Suddenly, a lot of things are starting to make sense, like why the Tsaritsa had decided to honour Zhongli’s request for receiving extra aid in transitioning into his life as a mortal, and why she had lead Zhongli directly to his Morepesok home so many months ago.

“I am not suggesting that. I am saying it,” the Tsaritsa answers bluntly. “I hope that answer will help ease your previous worries. I do not intend to unleash my wrath on either of you. There is no wrath to unleash, not when the reason your relationship came to be is in no small part due to my machinations as well.”

The answer helps make Tartaglia worry less, but it doesn’t dissipate his concerns completely. “But…why? Why even bother?” The Tsaritsa admits that she hates her Goddess of Love title, so why would she act on it?

The Tsaritsa tilts her head in consideration. “For many reasons,” she says after a beat of silence. “I thought it would be tactically advantageous if I presented Morax’s future mate neatly wrapped in a bow to him. It serves as a nice reminder of the perks one can have living for themselves as opposed to being shackled to the throne of Godhood. I also thought it would be amusing to see Morax’s stony façade crack, and over something as mundane as love. Maybe, there is a part of me who doesn’t mind Morax and would like to see him truly happy. Of the seven Archons, I find him to be the least annoying, certainly a lot less annoying than Mondstadt’s little wind rat. If time permits it, I can see us almost becoming friends.

“I suppose a fourth reason is because I was curious to know whether this – the act of loving someone so unconditionally – was worth it.”

Tartaglia suspects that the last reason is the real one, that his Goddess is trying to seek meaning into being the Goddess of Love for whatever reason. He’s not stupid enough to say that out loud though.

The Tsaritsa finishes her tea and places her cup back on the saucer on the table. “Now, I suppose I should leave you to sleep a proper sleep. Do you have any last questions for me?”

“Yes!” Tartaglia blurts out. “Do you know what happened to the Dottore? I couldn’t find him on the battlefield. He threatened to go after my family in Morepesok.”

“Ah, yes. The Third Harbinger.” The Tsaritsa looks and sounds disgusted at the mere mention of him. “We were able to recover him. He is alive but barely. How he managed to survive remains a mystery but perhaps, it is a blessing in disguise since we now have the opportunity to extract his knowledge before finding a suitable candidate to replace him. The Sixth Harbinger has agreed rather enthusiastically to be a part of that process.”

Tartaglia is not surprised. Scaramouche is the definition of petty and he believes in returning whatever perceived slight by tenfold. The Dottore is going to regret his decision to drug Scaramouche for the rest of his probably very short life.

“As for the Dottore’s plan of attack, my men did run into the Dottore’s people. Apparently, the Dottore had planted different groups of his people on all the main roads outside of your Estate with the clear intention of ambushing your party. This suggests to me that the Third Harbinger was much more focused on catching you off guard as you were leaving, but was unsure which direction you were truly heading. I hope this knowledge brings you some measure of comfort.”

If he wasn’t before the Tsaritsa, Tartaglia would have slumped into his seat in relief. A bluff. The Dottore had bluffed and Tartaglia, in his panic, had fallen for it, hook, line, and sinker. He will need a confirmation that Morepesok remains safe and untouched when he wakes up, but the Tsaritsa’s words will do for now.

Tartaglia gets up from his seat and bows low towards his Goddess. “Thank you, your Imperial Majesty, for indulging my questions. I do not wish to take up any more of your precious time. I humbly beg for my leave.”

“Go, go.” The Tsaritsa dismisses him with a little wave of her hand as if to make a shooing motion. “You are also off any mission roster for the next month so that you may rest and recover. Afterwards, you are to get yourself checked by a medical professional. Only after receiving a clean bill of health may you be assigned to any mission.”

“Understood, your Imperial Highness. Thank you.” With that, Tartaglia bows low. He keeps his eyes trained to the ground until the pattern of the marbles fades away completely, and he finds himself surrounded once again in the dusty blue landscape from before. And then, with a blink of an eye, he knows no more.


Ajax drifts awake surrounded by softness and the feeling of warmth draped along the length of his body. Everything feels a bit fuzzy and a bit numb, but he doesn’t mind, not with the way his muscles feel loose and relaxed. When was the last time he’s felt that? Certainly not since Liyue…

Liyue.

Zhongli!

His eyes snap open. It takes a few seconds for him to register the ornate canopy above him as one from his bed back in the Estate, and with that realization comes the crystal clear memory of his Tsaritsa’s words: “you are currently unconscious in bed back in the Estate I have gifted you.”

Before that: “Morax is resting peacefully by your side.”

He looks down. There’s a shapely arm wrapped around his middle, chorded with muscles that speak of strength and years of training. It is dipped in onyx with golden, glowing lines running through it from bicep down to the wrist, forming an intricate design featuring sharp, angular peaks and diamond shapes, playing off the geo symbol Zhongli likes to wear proudly on his back. The arm ends in a set of wicked claws on a hand sporting the same colour of gold as the tattoos.

Ajax looks to his side.

Zhongli’s sweet sleeping face greets him, with a few added twists. There are gold flecks peppering the apples of his cheeks. Upon closer look, Ajax can see that they are triangular in shape and they overlap each other like scales. Against the striking red marks at the corner of his eyes and that pale skin, the gold is particularly alluring, and Ajax’s fingers itch to touch them.

Zhongli’s hair also appears to be longer and more…for the lack of a better word, fluffier? The hair is unbound and the silk strands run down his back with some draping over his shoulder and coiling on the pillow. They look more like the thick mane on Zhongli’s Exuvia, streaked with the same glowing gold as the tattoos in his arms.

But perhaps the most dramatic change Ajax can see is the set of stunning glowing horns peaking from under that mane of hair from the crown of his head. There are four horns in total, all of them majestic and perfectly smooth like polished cor lapis, and curling at the tip.

Ajax feels his self-control shatter. He wriggles a careful hand from under the covers and brushes his fingers over the horn.

Huh, they feel warm.

Feeling braver, he runs his fingers from the base of the horns up and up, as far as up as he can reach, stroking the horn and familiarizing with the odd sensation under his fingertips. He trails his hand back down towards the base of the horn, giving that spot a good scritch.

Zhongli gives off a low rumble very much like a purr, and Ajax finds himself grinning. There’s also the sound a slow, rhythmic thump from somewhere behind Zhongli, like something hitting against the floor. What – what even is making that sound? Ajax leans ever so slightly over to see and, oh. Oh.

There’s a tail peeking out from under the blankets and running down the bed. It is covered in glossy, dark brown scales with a light trail of golden fur running down the length of the tail. A tuft of more golden fur sprouts from the tip, like the flames of a blazing torch, and it’s that very same tip of the tail that’s lazily hitting against the floor, beating against it like a drum.

Ajax gives the base of the horn another good scratch. The purring sound increases and two more thumps sound out.

Cute. His Zhongli is adorable even in his dragon form.

“What sort of trouble are you up to now?” comes a rough, groggy voice, and Ajax has to bite the inside of his cheeks to stop himself from laughing. “Here I am, trying to get some rest, and I find myself molested by some young ruffian.”

So dramatic. “Molested? Why I would never!”

Ajax startles. Wow, he sounds completely wrecked. His voice is strangely hoarse like he’s spent hours...screaming…

Ah. Right.

Ajax clears his throat and carries, on, although whispering this time, “I like the additions by the way. They’re very handsome. I am simply admiring them.”

Zhongli peaks open a lazy golden eye and snorts. “So I have noticed.” He shifts his arm, the one wrapped around Ajax, so that he could press a gentle hand against Ajax’s forehead. “How are you feeling? Your temperature feels normal. Are you in any pain? I can get people to bring you more painkillers.”

That explains the numb fuzzy feeling. “Aside from being tired? I feel fine. Nothing like more sleep couldn’t fix.” Ajax draws Zhongli’s hand and brings it to his lips so that he can press little kisses against each knuckle. His gesture draws another little purr from Zhongli, which has him smiling even wider. “What about yourself? How are your ribs and your chest?”

“Those are healed, do not be concerned about me. Us adepti are hardy beings. I just need some more time for my energy reserves to be refilled, then I will be right as rain.” Zhongli shifts closer and drapes himself over Ajax, his head resting on Ajax’s chest like a pillow. He’s careful about it too, making sure that his horns aren’t knocking against Ajax’s face. Ajax automatically runs his fingers through those gorgeous, silky locks.

“Do you know if my siblings are doing alright?” Ajax asks. Now that he’s comfortable, the familiar panic comes trickling back and he knows he’s won’t be able to rest until he finds out.

Zhongli nods. “Uncle and Auntie have sent a message back to your captain here. They have not experienced any attacks but are keeping a vigilant eye out as a precaution. All is well in Morepesok, you need not worry.”

Ajax closes his eyes and breathes out a long sigh. Oh, thank the Archons. The Tsaritsa’s observations were right after all. The Dottore had only uttered that threat to make Ajax an easier target for ambushing. It’s classic manipulation tactics, and it looks like Ajax still has a lot to learn as a Harbinger so that he won't fall for something so simple again.

“Now, if that is everything,” Zhongli pauses to yawn and nuzzle into the chest some more, “I could use more sleep, and so can you. You promised me you'd rest for a month.”

Ajax chuckles. “I did, didn’t I? Whatever you did to help me, thank you. Is the parasite out once and for all?”

Zhongli nods. “Hm. I weakened the parasite over and over again with crystallize. It was slow going but it worked. I…may have gone a bit feral in front of your men near the end there.” There’s the sound of a breath hitching, and Ajax feels Zhongli tightening his hold on him. “You were in so much pain. It was terrible. And then you stopped waking up and your men tried to take you away. Take you away from me. That was simply unacceptable.”

“It’s alright. It’s alright. I’m fine and I’m here, and it’s all thanks to you,” Ajax runs a soothing hand through Zhongli’s hair, keeping his touch gentle and even until he feels Zhongli’s muscles relax again. There is still a lot that he wants to discuss but that can wait. “Go to sleep. I’m still going to be here when you wake up. We can talk some more when we’re both feeling better.”

There’s a rumble of acknowledgement from Zhongli, and then silence save for the sound of even breathing. Draped in warmth and surrounded by the calming, familiar scent of silkflowers, it doesn’t take long for Ajax to follow his lover into slumber.


The next time Ajax wakes up, he feels significantly better and more alert. A beam of bright sunlight is streaming through the delicate silk drapes over his window, casting the room in a cheerful, orange glow. He yawns and stretches his arms out, but immediately stops at the dull ache throbbing at the back of his left shoulder.

Oh, right. The arrow wound. Urgh.

He slowly tests out his limbs, wriggling and moving each digit, rotating the joints, checking if any movement feels particularly painful outside of the lingering muscle aches. His limbs also feel weak, but that’s probably due to overexertion. At least his right arm is responding.

He takes a quick glance around him.

Empty. His room is devoid of Zhongli. Now, where could the other have gone?

He’s pushing himself up when the door creaks open and in steps the person he’s looking for, carrying a tray of what looks like soup and hot beverages. He looks mostly human now, his tail and his claws are gone, but the horns remain as with the patch of scales on his face. He’s also dressed in some of Ajax’s borrowed clothes; a dark long-sleeved shirt and a pair of dark, slim-fitting trousers tucked into a pair of casual boots. Even dressed down, the man continues to exude majesty.

There’s a part of Ajax that briefly panics at the idea of Zhongli wandering in his estate, looking unashamedly like Morax, ex-Geo Archon of Liyue. But then, he remembers that a good chunk of his men had witnessed the fight and had seen Zhongli in his dragon state already, nevermind the aftermath, where Zhongli had arrived back to the Estate looking like his adeptus form so….Ajax supposes that the secret is well and truly out at this point.

Whelp, enough of that. He might as well focus on the positive.

“Zhongli!” Ajax perks up. His voice also sounds a little better this time around. Still a bit hoarse and raspy, but better. He’s chalking this up as another win regardless. “What did you bring me? That smells delicious!”

“The kitchen very kindly made some chicken soup and some tea. There’s also another dose of painkillers.” Zhongli places the tray on a nearby table and heads over to the bed to help Ajax sit up. “If you’re feeling a bit better after your meal, and after you had the opportunity to wash up, you have a few visitors waiting to see you.”

Probably his soldiers. Ajax is not surprised that they’d have plenty of questions to ask him, especially after what they have all witnessed. “I should be fine. Sitting around answering a few questions is hardly taxing.”

The food is delicious as expected, and it helps with restoring some of his strength, as with his long bath. Unfortunately, his legs still feel like jelly even when he’s walking the short distance from his bedroom door to his wardrobe. In the end, Zhongli had to plop him down on a chair as he himself went through the selection of clothes for Ajax.

“Something casual please,” Ajax requests. “I think I’ve had my fill of fancy outfits for at least an entire month.”

What Zhongli chooses is a striking emerald green tunic made of silk, which Ajax didn’t even know he owns, plus some dark trousers made of light cotton. Over all of that, Zhongli suggests that he should wear –

“Zhongli, really?” The look Ajax gives him is deeply amused but extremely judgmental. “Your silk robe?”

“The black and the gold pair nicely with the green,” Zhongli counters, holding the robe out, as if this is not some transparent attempt to get Ajax into his clothes.

The worst part is that Zhongli’s comment is not wrong. Ajax can see how Zhongli’s over-the-top fancy robe will go well with his clothes. It certainly lends a more casual air with its loose-fitting cut, yet the detailed gold embroideries scream of luxury appropriate for someone of his station. Relaxed without being too sloppy.

Still, Ajax can’t possibly let Zhongli get away with this level of shamelessness without teasing him a little. “Right, it’s only about how well the colours go together. It certainly has nothing to do with the way your geo symbol is embroidered everywhere on this robe, right?”

“Absolutely not,” Zhongli lies straight to his face. “I just find the colour and cut of this robe to be the most flattering is all.”

“Alright, so maybe I should pick out another long, black and gold jacket from my wardrobe then. I’m sure I have a few in the back somewhere. Oh, I’m just teasing, Professor. Stop looking so distraught!” Laughing, he takes the robe from Zhongli’s hand. “Help put this on, will you?”

The long robe drapes over him in a river of shimmery silk, the hem brushing delicately against his ankles. It feels impossibly light and soft to the touch, clearly made from the finest quality silk in existence, knowing Zhongli. The wide sleeves, though extravagant with the sheer amount of gold embroideries on the cuff, are perfectly breezy. They allow a full range of motion, which Ajax appreciates, even if they make his wrists look tiny and delicate. The robe is held closed by a wide golden belt cinched at the waist, with a bow tied neatly at the front.

“Hmm, almost perfect,” Zhongli says after running a critical eye up and down the length of his body. He tugs at the neckline, widening it so that more of his emerald green shirt would be visible. Then, he leans in and presses a long, lingering kiss against his lips.

Ajax melts into the sensation with a soft sigh; at the persistent swipe of a tongue, he opens his mouth and draws Zhongli in deeper, shivering at the heat and the scent that seems to envelop him, making him dizzy with want. He can feel the way Zhongli’s hands are snaking around his waist, before trailing lower so that they skim the curve of his ass. In retaliation, he nips a little on the other’s lips and draws away.

“We – we shouldn’t keep the visitors waiting.” He bites down a gasp at the trail of nipping kisses Zhongli is now leaving from his jaw all the way down to his neck. “Zhongli – !”

A dissatisfied rumble sounds out, but the man pulls away. “I see why you reacted the way you did when I first wore your agent outfit,” he mumbles, a touch contrite. “Seeing you in that robe is dangerous.”

Ajax grins and loops his arms around the other’s neck. “If you’re good and help me get through these visits seamlessly,” he says in a sing-song voice, “after we’re done, you can help me strip everything off piece by piece.”

“Deal accepted,” Zhongli says quickly, and Ajax laughs. “Let my words be as strong as stone.”


When Ajax gets to the breakfast nook, he’s expecting to see a gathering of his soldiers giving him wolf-whistles over the shameless way he’s wrapped up in Zhongli’s robe while leaning into Zhongli as the man helps him move around. He isn’t expecting to see the familiar scowling face of the goddamned Sixth Harbinger seated at the table, casually stuffing his face on toast and jam.

“Took you long enough, just what the hell kept –” Scaramouche’s eyes go wide and promptly chokes.

Aj – Childe, because he can’t be bothered to be Tartaglia at the moment, watches Scaramouche try to dislodge whatever it is that’s stuck in his throat. After a solid minute of wet hacking, he rolls his eyes and hobbles to his seat. “What the hell are you doing here?” he asks bluntly. “Aren’t you supposed to be back in the Capital recovering from your tranquilizer?”

“Your men brought me here!” Scaramouche manages through his violent coughs. He grabs his tea, downs it, and takes a few deep breaths. He resumes his rant the moment he can, his vitriol not diminishing in the slightest. “Apparently, the fucking Doctor just left me in some woods nearby! I was just left there in an abandoned carriage like some sort of – of garbage! Me! Garbage! I am going to enjoy bleeding him dry once I get back to the Palace, mark my words!”

And because Scaramouche can never leave things alone, he throws out, “And just what the fuck do you think you’re doing, parading your shamelessness in front of me like that!” He turns to Zhongli. “You! Aren’t you supposed to be a god? You allow him to see people looking and sounding like this? Just because news of you two being together are everywhere doesn’t mean I need to witness your debauchery first hand!”

First off, Childe is not sure if he should be alarmed that the news of him dating Zhongli (or more specifically, Morax) have already made their way through the grapevines. Second, shamelessness? Looking and sounding like this? Debauchery? Did Childe miss a memo?

Childe looks down at his clothing. Sure, the robe is a bit much, but it’s not that scandalous. He is covered from head to toe, so he’s dressed pretty conservatively. Also, his voice is blown from him screaming in agony, not from…not from…

Wait.

Wait.

It’s just occurring to Childe how the, um, optics of the situation may appear from an outsider. Between his hoarse voice, Zhongli’s robes, the way Zhongli is propping him up for support because clearly, he has trouble walking and – he touches his lips and pulls away with a wince – the way his lips are probably red and bruised…yeah. Childe can see exactly what sort of conclusions Scaramouche has drawn.

For a brief moment, he considers apologizing, but at the last minute, he remembers: this is Scaramouche. Who the fuck cares what that angry gremlin thinks?

Childe laces his fingers with Zhongli’s. Then, he brings their clasped hands up onto the table where everyone can see. He doesn’t think it’s possible, but Scaramouche looks simultaneously more outraged and disgusted. Brilliant.

“You’re the one who’s come barging in here,” Childe points out. “You’re just going to have to deal with how I like to spend my downtime. If you don’t like it, the door is down the hall and to your right. Isn’t that right, Professor?”

Zhongli, who’s in the process of pouring a cup of tea for Childe and for himself with his free hand hums in agreement. “Sugar and milk, baobei?”

“Yes, please!”

Scaramouche, who apparently understands just what that Liyuan term of endearment means, grimaces even harder. “Oh, you don’t have to tell me twice. The moment I’ve eaten my fill I am getting the fuck out of here. How the fuck did this,” he gestures vaguely between Zhongli and Childe, “even happen anyway? Didn’t you try to steal his Gnosis and failed?”

Childe shrugs. “I got something far more valuable out of that little adventure.”

Scaramouche turns a bit green, and he pushes his half-eaten breakfast plate away. “Stop! Just stop. Forget I asked. I do not need to hear about your sex life.”

“I meant his heart, not his dick,” Childe says flatly. “Although,” his tone turns pensive, “I suppose that’s not wrong either…”

That garners a mild look of reproach from Zhongli. “Childe.”

“Nope!” Scaramouche gets up and brushes the crumbs from his clothes. “That’s enough of that. This mission is officially the worst one I’ve been on in my life. I hate this, I hate you, and I am stealing your carriage to get back to the Capital.”

With those parting words, Scaramouche marches straight for the exit, throwing a rude gesture over his shoulder for good measure.

“At least that’s one visitor down,” Childe remarks, his grin completely unrepentant. “On to the next ones!”


They end up staying at the Estate for another week before departing for Morepesok. During that time, Ajax has received a flood of letters, most of them seeking clarification about the rumors of his supposed courtship with a dead Archon (which he answers by straight up denying). Others in the know-how (read: the other Harbingers) are surprisingly congratulatory, and he answers those letters with a polite, but curt, thank you.

There are a few exceptions. Scaramouche, for one, felt the need to pen a poisonous letter to him filled with his usual brand of scathing rage, but in there is also begrudging acceptance and, more importantly, pure mockery of the Signora, who apparently took the news worse than Scaramouche did.

She threw a massive fit, Scaramouche writes, his glee dripping from every word. She couldn’t believe that despite failing your mission so very spectacularly, you managed to come out on top by snagging yourself a “gorgeous, well-read, polite, actual god of a man”, especially when she also had dealings with him and was “clearly the better candidate than that ginger brat”. She is both livid and incredibly jealous. It is hilarious.

Another exception is a letter from Keqing, Yuheng of Liyue Qixing. The letter opens with stiff politeness, then questions about whether it’s true that Morax is alive. It quickly spirals into a mix of threats against Ajax and how he should be so lucky to obtain the adoration of Morax, and then, oddly specific questions about Morax himself. These questions include the meaning of Morax’s supposed smile that he gave her during the Rite of Descension, what he likes to eat, what are his views on certain topics, what is his favourite colour, and etc. In the end, Ajax dismissed the letter as the ravings of a fangirl and moved on.

(He did instruct his men that should they ever come across Miss Keqing, they should keep her far, far away from Zhongli, just in case.)

Most noticeable of all the exceptions is the scroll, distinctly a Liyuan make, that appeared on his desk overnight. How it got there, nobody knows. Zhongli offered to read it in his stead and Ajax gladly allowed him to do so.

Upon unravelling the scroll, Zhongli’s only reaction was to shake his head and say, with exasperated fondness, “Oh, Alatus. Still so protective, I see.”

Ajax did not ask Zhongli to summarize the contents of that scroll, and most tellingly, Zhongli did not offer, so Ajax is pretty sure the scroll is filled with nothing but explicit death threats.

All too soon, their stay at the Estate comes to an end, and with a promise to visit again, they set off on their journey home.

“You know, time certainly flew by,” Ajax comments as they stop for a quick break. Although snow continues to blanket the countryside, the air as of late feels less harsh, less cutting against his skin and lungs. The sky too is becoming sunnier and sunnier as daylight begins to stretch for longer and longer each passing day. “It looks like spring will set in soon.”

“Spring?” Zhongli pulls to Ajax’s side and laces their fingers together. Ajax luxuriates in the shared warmth between them. “I thought Snezhnaya is a land of perpetual ice and snow,” he teases.

“I’ll have you know that our springtimes are gorgeous,” Ajax says in mock offence. “There’s nothing quite like it anywhere else in Teyvat. The land transforms into lush fields of green, and the trees across the land bloom into all manners of colourful blossoms. The field out in the Romashka Estate, in particular, gets covered in chamomile flowers. Everything feels vibrant and alive.”

“I look forward to enjoying my first spring here,” Zhongli answers with a gentle smile. “With the warmer weather, we can make a trip to the Capital. I believe I was promised a weeklong romantic getaway featuring operas, ballets, and museums?"

“The most romantic of getaways,” Ajax presses a quick kiss on Zhongli’s cheek. “And after that? I believe I was promised a trip to Liyue, where, ah, what was it again? You would have me in your nest, draped in nothing but silks and pearls so that you can have your wicked, wicked way with me?”

Zhongli’s eyes go dark with interest. “The finest of silks and pearls,” he promises, and he draws in close, so close that his breath ghosts against Ajax’s lips, “and the most wicked way with you. So, what say you, Ajax? Does that sound like a good deal?”

“The best deal,” Ajax agrees with a breathless little laugh.

And like all good promises, they sealed this one with a kiss as well.

 

THE END


Extra: All’s Well That Ends Well

“Big Brother! I can’t find my bag!”

“It’s by the kitchen table. I put it there along with some snacks. Be sure to eat the healthy snacks plus the unhealthy ones, or else I will ask Uncle and Auntie to stop making the unhealthy ones.”

“Aww!”

“Big Brother, can you help me with my coat?”

“In a minute – ah, Professor, do you mind?”

“Not at all. Here you go, Mister Anthon. And don’t forget your scarf.”

“How are we doing for time?”

“We have five minutes before we need to be out the door, Master Childe. Uncle is already outside. He will be walking the children to school today.”

“Perfect, thank you Auntie. Tonia! Did you hear that? You have five more minutes!”

“I can’t find my favourite hair tie, Big Brother!”

“The pink one with the flower? It’s on your table!”

“No! My other favourite one! The red one!”

“I’ll go help her. She’s probably dropped it somewhere.”

Thank you, Auntie – Teucer, take those cookies out of your bag. I saw that! You can only have one, not one dozen. Is everyone all set? One minute warning!”

“Ready!”

“Ready!”

“Tonia?”

The sound of thundering footsteps down the stairs, then, “Ready!”

“Alright, out you go. Have a good day at school! Be good!”

“Will Big Brother and Master Zhongli walk us home from school?”

“Yes. We will see you all in a few hours.”

There’s more ruckus, more hugs and kisses, then the door closes and silence fills the house once more.

Ajax slides into a chair by the kitchen table with a sigh. “Never a dull moment in this household,” he chuckles. “Are you ready to head into town, Professor? There are a few more things we should get for that Liyue trip.”

This is not their first supply run. They’ve spent the last couple of weeks dipping into town, carefully selecting the items they would need to last a couple of weeks in what essentially is the wilderness.

Because Ajax will not be wasting a single minute shopping once they arrive to Liyue Harbour. The moment they dock, he is going to march straight to Jueyun Karst, dragging Zhongli along so he won’t get distracted by merchants. Once there, he will cash in on Zhongli’s pearl and silks promise. He has zero intention of leaving Zhongli’s nest for a week, maybe two if they can manage it. But to do that, they would need all the gear and food with them, because something tells Ajax that Zhongli’s nest is ill-equipped for human living.

“I probably should buy more caloric-dense food,” Ajax mutters to himself. “Possibly more lubricant.”

“The meticulous care you are putting into planning this is both impressive and terrifying,” Zhongli says, dropping a kiss on Ajax’s head before wandering off to the kitchen. “You know, if we do run out of supplies, I can just ask one of the adepti to retrieve it for us. There is no need to fret.”

“Zhongli, you just talked Alatus out of killing me in my sleep. Let’s not give him a reason to change his mind.”

Their shopping trip goes as well as it does. Despite the distractions and the twenty volumes of books he ends up purchasing for Zhongli’s burgeoning collection, they manage to get everything they need.

(Including the nice set of matching gold rings he had commissioned earlier that are currently burning a hole in his pant pocket.)

“Are you all set?” Zhongli asks, looking as handsome as ever in that fine velvet coat of his. “I hope you don’t mind, I also picked up some ingredients. I am thinking that for tonight’s dinner, we can make some pelmeni again.”

Ajax grins and loops his hand around Zhongli’s arm. “Pelmeni sounds perfect. And I’ve got just the perfect apron to get the job done.”

(Ajax gets to wear that apron for less than one minute before it gets tugged off of him, and he gets dragged to the bedroom. Auntie ends up having to make dinner that night, and the look of pure judgment she gives them is enough to guilt them into sending her a basket of apology wine.)

Chapter Text

I thought I’d compile a list of all the amazing fanarts for this fic so that we can stare at the pretty easier, ahahah! Many, many thanks to everyone for making and sharing such lovely art!

If you have any art you wish to share, please do let me know so that I can add your links to this page! :)

Chapter 3

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 18

Chapter 20