Childe hadn’t always enjoyed using a sniper. For the longest time he had scoffed at the long range weapon, done most of his work up close and personal. But over the years he found a meditative satisfaction in slowing his breath, waiting for the perfect moment and landing the precise shot. (“A single fatal shot is the mark of the best assassin.” His mentor had told him.) And Childe is the best. Out of all of the assassins (the official term is something like ‘termination agent’ or whatever, but literally no one on the field calls them that) Childe probably has the longest portfolio. Some might say it’s a bit fucked up that he started this line of work at fourteen and if anyone asks, Childe laughs it off and cracks a joke. The careful observer will note he never says anything about his early work, however. To be honest, he doesn’t recall a lot of it himself, only a few details here and there.
“Southwest corner, rooftop rendezvous.” Zhongli’s voice is soft and even in Childe’s ear. Technically, Childe didn’t need support. Before Zhongli had come on as an operator, Childe had mostly worked solo. Other operators found Childe difficult to work with and he found most people too slow or hesitant or just plain annoying to work with. Too often people mistook Childe’s easygoing attitude for being cavalier or unfocused. As if he would ever shirk work duties.
But Zhongli is different. His voice stays calm and controlled no matter what is going on and his directions almost preempt Childe’s movements. So far, Zhongli is the only person who can keep up with Childe. During long stakeouts where Childe sits for hours, occasionally stretching into days, huddled under a sniper’s net waiting for his target, Zhongli will keep him company. A slow and steady drone of myths, facts, stories and information. If Childe stays awake for 30 hours waiting for the perfect kill moment, so does Zhongli. And —
“Here.” Childe replies back, under his breath.
“Extraction in two minutes. Good job, Childe.”
— at the end of every mission, Zhongli says ‘good job’.
“It’s really unfair, how do you keep such a good figure when you’re an operator?” Childe teases as they both get ready for bed. Childe’s hair is still slightly damp from the shower but they’ve been casually dating for long enough that Zhongli knows not to worry about wet pillows. While Zhongli prefers to climb into bed earlier and read until lights out, Childe sits on the floor with his back against the bed doing his evening meditations.
“And really, how do you manage to be so thoughtful and focused when you’re a field agent?” Zhongli counters, amused.
Childe shakes his head, settles against the bed and shuts his eyes. Zhongli opens his book to a dogeared page — there are many books that he reads that are not to be treated as such, but something about the worn copy of poetry that had already come into his possession beaten and battered almost asked for him to continue such a fond and rough treatment.
After a few moments of silence, Zhongli shifts in bed so he can gently run his fingers through Childe’s hair. When he had asked if touch would disrupt the other Childe’s answer had been a simple ‘no’. It’s simply a way for him to go through the day’s events, organize his thoughts and give closure to himself. They’re in the profession of murder and despite the ease to which Childe takes lives, he’s hardly a thoughtless killing machine.
By the time Childe is finished meditating his hair is dry, but he waits until Zhongli sets his book on the bedside table before standing. “Perfect timing.” Childe says, as he does almost every night they spend together.
“I must imagine, at times, you’re cheating at the timing.” Zhongli smiles fondly and pulls the covers aside for Childe.
“You of all people should appreciate the orderliness of it.”
“I do, I appreciate you.” Zhongli turns out the light.
“Good night.” Childe says softly in the dark.
He would be lying, if he said that there isn’t a keen sense of anticipation before a kill. Childe’s aware that it sounds terrible to say out loud, but often he won’t hold back from saying it either. Perhaps it’s all of his training, the hours devoted to slowing his breathing and keeping his aim steady that puts his body into almost a drowsy lull. It feels like time dilates, slows down and everything lines up. Childe always knows when he’s got a perfect shot before the bullet even hits.
Then the warm satisfaction uncoils and drains out of him just as Zhongli’s voice sounds in his ear: “Good job, Childe.”
Easy jobs left Childe thrumming with adrenaline and no outlet. His tool kit is easy to stash in his locker, the barely used bag of ropes and carabiners in the bottom. He’d even cleaned his gun on the way out after extraction, carefully set each piece back into the briefcase that housed the sniper. That he keeps in his shared room with Zhongli. Childe is practically bouncing on his heels as he swipes his keycard on their door and throws it open.
Zhongli Isn't there yet, which is a surprise though not entirely unexpected. While the room is littered in knick knacks that Zhongli has collected over time (jewelry, statuettes, paintings and cuckoo clocks) the tiered shelf reserved for Childe’s belongings is always left immaculate. Compared to Zhongli’s hoarding habits, Childe’s belongings are relatively small in comparison but Zhongli treats them with the utmost respect.
Childe squats down and slides the sniper case into its spot on the lowest shelf. As he straightens back up he gets to catalog through the various items he considers most precious to him. His personal history is short, what Childe does remember of his life before working for the organization is hazy and in bits and pieces. He doesn’t dwell on it, instead working to build who he is in the now. There’s a pair of gloves Zhongli got him as a one year work anniversary. They have the organization’s seal stitched into the back. Childe doesn’t wear them often, not wanting to ruin them so they remain on his shelf. There’s a single book of Fontaine poetry that Childe has read cover to cover at least three times, three large blue seashells and a ridiculously ornate knife that Childe cannot even imagine actually using to cut anything — its blade is made out of gold. He’s pretty sure the knife is a gag gift, even though Zhongi had presented it with such a serious expression.
Last, there’s the equally ridiculously ornate chopsticks. Childe’s fond of the infernal things even if he never uses them to eat. They are some kind of exotic dark wood with (again!) gold inlays and delicate dragon and phoenix figures etched into them. They were the most recent gift, just earlier this year over a shared bottle of wine and bag of frozen dumplings. Probably the night that Childe had let himself fantasize most about having a proper relationship with Zhongli instead of their more casual one. It had almost been a perfect evening.
“You returned before I did.” Zhongli’s voice breaks him out of his reminiscing.
“It wasn’t even a warm-up.” Childe smiles fondly, waits for Zhongli to step inside and close the door behind him before striding forward and grabbing the other man by his tie. Like most things that Zhongli wears, the tie is elegant and made of fine silk and Childe’s fingers slide up it, thumbnail lightly digging into the knot. “I feel like I could run a marathon.”
“And yet, I find you in our shared quarters.” Zhongli leans back against the door, crossing his arms, but low enough on his chest Childe can keep a firm hold on his tie. “It seems, you won’t be running any marathons.”
“I’m sure we could find a metaphorical marathon.” Childe laughs softly, hooking one finger into the tie loop, tugging to both loosen the tie and bring Zhongli close to him.
“Is that way of saying you’re not working for a few days?”
“How can you say days off in such an appealing way?” Childe ducks his head under Zhongli’s chin so he can press a kiss on the tiny bit of skin revealed. His lips press over Zhongli’s pulse and also halfway catch the fabric of his shirt collar. He tugs more insistently at the tie, finally working to undo it properly.
Zhongli’s laughter reverberates through Childe’s whole being as he exposes the rest of Zhongli’s neck, undoes the first few buttons and is able to drag a line of quick kisses from Zhongli’s jawline to collarbone.
“Is that what you find appealing these days? Should I continue?” Zhongli clears his throat, “Agent Childe requests several days off in a row to . . . run a marathon.”
Childe snorts a laugh and bites Zhongli. The angle is more than a little awkward, his teeth scrape on skin just barely and won’t even leave a mark like that. Which is why Childe then sucks at Zhongli’s skin, hard enough to leave a mark even without his teeth. “What dirty talk from such a dignified operator.” He teases.
The soft hum Zhongli gives in response is paired with the man’s fingers gliding over the many buckles that hold extra magazines, holsters, tools and other weapons of the trade close against Childe’s body. He undoes the clasp across the straps across Childe’s shoulders but doesn’t otherwise try to remove them. Childe has no such restraint as his fingers eagerly work down Zhongli’s shirt, undoing the buttons as smoothly as he disassembles his gun — and with just as much care.
“Then I’ll be more dignified in speaking with you during our hopefully soon to be sexual encounter.” The laughter in Zhongli’s voice doesn’t eclipse his even tone but his amusement is clear, especially when he adds: “I am glad your work is done, for tomorrow’s dawn will be much brighter after you have laid yourself bare before me.”
There is really no way that Childe can let Zhongli keep speaking like that. He shoves his hand up towards Zhongli’s face, gloved fingers pressing against the man’s mouth while he left another red mark on Zhongli’s neck before finally lifting his head to kiss Zhongli properly. He knows the texture of his gloves chafe as he slides his hand from Zhongli’s lips to cradle his cheek but the tinge to Zhongli’s skin is definitely not because of that friction.
Any other words Zhongli has to say — and Childe can feel what Zhongli is saying into his mouth — he swallows eagerly.
Childe pushes Zhongli back against the door without breaking the kiss, pressing their bodies together. The many angles of his harness and belt he can feel even through the two layers of ‘ballistic resistant’ fabric his shirt and undershirt are made of. There’s no way Zhongli doesn’t feel them even more harshly through his pressed button down, but the other man doesn’t protest at all.
Only when he’s breathless does Childe pull away. He knows his own pupils are wide, the whole world has focused in on Zhongli, the flush to his cheeks, the way his eyes are half-closed, the smallest hint of a satisfied smile that’s still buried under the face of composure.
“Then let's make it as bright as we can.” Childe tugs Zhongli away from the door, pushes him toward the bed and bends to unlace his shoes. In the time it takes to step out of them, and his socks, Zhongli has seated himself on the edge of the bed, shirt and tie discarded.
First, anything that could be explosive or dangerous gets set aside. If it was anyone but Zhongli, Childe suspects they would find this part somewhat irritating, but instead Zhongli’s rapt attention is focused on everything Childe does. Knives, climbing tools, extra bullets and small explosive devices all go onto his shelf in a clutter. He’ll organize them tomorrow, but if he takes the time now he’ll lose his mind.
Childe finishes the work Zhongli did on the buckles and clips, flicking them open one by one but not yet sliding the harness of straps from his body. He has the confidence to not balk at what he’s doing, but there’s no way to stop the blush that he knows has gone all the way up to the tips of his ears. Childe dips his head a little so he can look at Zhongli through his bangs, flashing a cocky grin and finally starting to slide off the straps around his upper arms and with them the extra padding on his elbows.
He hooks a finger under the bottom strap and lifts up, turning as he does so he can look over his shoulder at Zhongli as the rest of the harness gets pulled up over his head. It drops to the floor with a muted clink, the noise getting absorbed by the carpet. He completes the turn, steps close enough to Zhongli that he can raise his right leg and brace his bare foot against the bed edge between Zhongli’s legs.
“Not even halfway there.” Childe laughs softly, leaning so his chest is flush to his knee so he can kiss Zhongli again. “I can’t believe you’re so patient, as always.”
“Some things are worth waiting for.”
Childe catches Zhongli’s hands, guides them to the empty tactical holster on his thigh. Together they undo the clasp and loosen the strap. Childe pulls the belt down but Zhongli’s hand continues up his leg, over the top of his thigh, skimming over the hem of Childe’s trousers, even though his shirt is tucked in the gesture makes him shiver. He lifts his leg just enough to pull the holster’s strap off and then settles his foot just outside of Zhongli’s hip. Shifting his weight to the foot on the bed makes the frame creak slightly — they probably need to get it replaced, while it’s in no danger of collapse he’s certain their neighbors can hear it scrap and groan — but a necessary evil to drag his other leg forward so he can straddle Zhongli’s knee and keep his weight off of the other man’s leg.
“Flattery will only get you so far.” Childe tries to sound admonishing but even to his ears his voice is way too fond.
“Ah yes, you’re a man of actions, not words.” Zhongli agrees. Childe peels off one glove, throwing it behind him and running his bare hand through Zhongli’s hair, undoing the other man’s jeweled hair tie and also throwing that behind him. Neither of them wants to end up playing ‘what sharp object is hidden in the sheets’ later. On the same token he unfastens Zhongli’s earring, but carefully settles it on the bedside table. He dips in for another kiss, lingering just long enough to feel Zhongli’s capable fingers return the favor with his own earring.
It’s funny how these little things have become habit.
Finally, Childe undoes the collar of his jacket, flicking back the clasp to reveal the zipper and sliding it down. He takes his time in shrugging out of it, and lets it fall to the floor behind him. The sleeveless undershirt is just another layer of tightly woven bullet protection for all that it’s flexible enough he can grasp the bottom and pull it over his head in one smooth motion. That done with he presses both hands to Zhongli’s chest and pushes him down onto the bed.
“Good job, Childe.” Zhongli says without a single ounce of mocking and the sincerity rips through Childe faster than any rising desire could.
“You’re so unfair,” Childe laughs as Zhongli pulls him down closer for a kiss.
It’s not unheard of for him to go on a mission without Zhongli, but it’s certainly uncommon. Childe had gotten the request early in the morning after his jog but before breakfast. While the operators work in rotations the field agents have to be a bit more flexible, their line of work is dangerous and sudden substitutes can be needed. He mentally scrolls through the list of agents who could have been sent out recently and comes up empty handed. Someone might have fallen ill then, also unusual but not outside of the realm of possibilities.
It is odd to go without an operator, however. Ever since Childe had begun field work there had always been some kind of operator in his ear. Director Beidou had never given him the full backstory on it, but apparently before his time agents used to work in pairs on the field but something happened and now they work in pairs with one half back at HQ and one half out doing the killing. It suited him fine, working together with people can be difficult, he finds.
But he would never have guessed he would miss Zhongli’s voice during a mission. At least it isn’t a sniper mission or he would absolutely die of boredom. Instead it’s a far more ‘old school’ assignment for him. He wore the earpiece by force of habit, even though the briefing had said he could leave it at HQ. The GPS tracker he normally kept on him — part and parcel so operators have eyes on their agents — however he had remembered to leave behind.
Perhaps he simply found Zhongli’s voice more important than the information he fed back to the organization.
Childe is also glad the target isn’t at home, but rather apparently works long hours at the office. Killing people in apartment complexes is truly the bane of his existence and murdering people in their homes stirs something ugly in his chest he’d rather not think about. But bypassing an overly expensive yet ineffective security system to slip down the hall after hours? Perfect.
It is odd that the building is so empty. All of the security systems are engaged, but it’s only two hours after the theoretical ‘office hours’ and in all of Childe’s time as an assassin he had never known a private company to not have employees that worked obscene amounts of overtime or odd hours. Really, there’s something about corrupt political officials and seedy greedy companies that just makes it hard to predict the work patterns.
He half-wonders if he’s been set up, but he turns another corner, careful to slide right into the blind spot of both the cameras and the corner mirror and can see the lone lit office. No windows, at the heart of a cubicle maze but still with its own ornate mahogany trim and solid looking door. Childe’s glad he never worked an office job, even being in them is stifling. He settles next to the door, drawing his handgun from his shoulder holster, checking the carpet stripes. Three stripes to his left and he would be in the camera’s view.
The office walls must be thick, and while the small gap under the door shows him light from inside it doesn’t allow any sound to escape. If the briefing was right, there should only be his target inside. Fifty-seven, no military background, soft around the edges. No challenge. Low possibility that he had an aide with him, even lower possibility he had a bodyguard. Childe resists rolling his eyes as he recalls the brief’s memo. As if a bodyguard would matter.
When Childe throws the door to the office open, two things happen at once. The target’s bodyguard draws his own handgun, firing immediately, and Childe’s earpiece crackles to life with Zhongli’s voice — in a tone he’d never heard before.
“Childe?!” In retrospect, Childe will be able to tell it’s a barely-concealed panic, but in the moment he ignores the call, tunes it out in the same way he can ignore his heartbeat and breathing when it comes to taking the perfect shot. The bodyguard’s bullet indents into his jacket, over his ribs, and he can already feel a bruise forming. “Please respond, Childe.” Zhongli’s voice is a little quieter now, but Childe can still hear it over the second gunshot from the bodyguard. The second shot misses as he rolls, keeping his focus on the target, not the bodyguard.
It’s only after Childe squeezes the trigger, that he lets his gaze flick to the bodyguard, then back to his target. The red that blooms across the chest of the man’s suit tells him the shot hit and also that his target somehow had a bodyguard but hadn’t bothered to invest in his own personal protection. Typical, really. Childe hooks his left foot under the leg of the office chair, jerking it into the bodyguard and firing his second shot. Perfect hit, again, he is a professional after all.
“I’m here.” He says under his breath into his mic, taking the time to start his 180 second countdown.
“— status?” Zhongli’s voice has regained its calm.
“Perfectly fine, checking on mission progress.”
At his three minute mark Childe checks for breath and pulse of both victims. With both gone he can comm back to Zhongli: “Finished, extraction route was already prepared, so I’m following that.”
There’s a hesitation and Childe swears he can almost hear Zhongli’s relief in the silence, even if the voice that replies to him is as steady as ever: “Good job, Childe.”
“You know, somehow, we never run out of people to kill.” Director Beidou laughs a bit as she says it, taking a drag on her cigarette. It’s rare for her to smoke but some days just called for extra stress relief.
“There is a finite number of people in the world,” Childe replies.
“Tch, don’t let the lady hear you say that, despite her appearances she has a really sensitive heart, you know?” Beidou shakes her head. ‘The lady’ refers to Ningguang, their ‘above the board’ boss, so to speak. Beidou directs the organizations darker activity and Ningguang is the benevolent face of the company. Well, as benevolent as a CEO could be.
“Oh is that so.” Childe sounds amused. He could have guessed, no one heads up a super secret assassination group unless they’re trying to achieve some kind of goal, and to have a goal that strong they have to have a sensitive heart somewhere. Well, that’s his opinion. He’s not sure where it comes from, but the idea of someone hardening their heart to fight the world with violence feels nostalgic.
“Don’t sound so nonchalant,” Beidou grinds her cigarette out in the ashtray and stretches, “No one kills like you unless they also have a sensitive heart.”
“Ouch! Can’t you say instead I’m your best assassin?”
“Hmmm? Someone’s better?”
Beidou gives him a look, and she’s seeing past him. “Yeah. He doesn’t work as an assassin anymore, but no one’s topped his skill.”
“Hah, giving me something to work towards then.” Childe hums. “Well, keep your eye on me, Director. I’ll become the best in no time.”
She laughs, full bodied and loud, and waves a hand at him. “Don’t push yourself just to claim that title, it doesn’t mean anything in our line of work. Results. And reminding the guys up above they’re not without reproach. Divine punishment or whatever.”
“Sounds like you’re quoting someone there, Director.”
“Maybe I am, it happens when you have close business associates.”
Childe kind of regrets he never got to do field work with Beidou. By the time he came on board she was already the Director. Apparently she used to be an agent before she lost her eye. He can’t imagine her without the eyepatch as it gives her a kind of rugged look to go with her height and build. She won’t even spar with him, something about how it’d be bad for morale.
Odd she hadn’t named the agent that used to be the best, however.
Childe doesn’t drink much these days. His schedule doesn’t allow for much time to nurse hangovers and in the past few years his alcohol tolerance has taken a bit of a nosedive. However, he also can never say no to wine from Zhongli’s stash and a rooftop sunset. The concrete and tar roof isn’t exactly high class, but years of having it be one of ‘their’ meetup spots make it feel comfortable in a way a bar or lounge would not.
“Oh, you brought a blanket, really splurging.” Childe laughs and sits down next to Zhongli. Despite the soft — probably expensive — blanket Zhongli had spread on the dirty roof in the dying rays of the sun, there were no glasses, only three bottles of wine. “And you brought choices.”
“Yes, I recently acquired these and wished to share them with you.” Zhongli lifts the first bottle. “This is a R & A ‘Vergiss Night’ from Mondstadt. A sweeter wine brewed with berries, sweet flower, acidic zing from the sun-dried peels of sunsiettas and steeped with lamp grass for an earthy undertone. Only a few casks are made a year, this is one of Teyvet’s most highly regarded dessert wines.” The bottle has a stylized firebird soaring across a watercolor violet sky. Childe takes the bottle from Zhongli, inhaling the almost candy-like scent and tries it.
“Dessert wine.” He echoes Zhongli. “The best juice I’ve ever had.”
Zhongli laughs softly. “I think the vintner would be offended to hear that. Try this one — Xuxian Yun — is one of the only luxury wines produced locally within Liyue. This particular bottle comes from a small vineyard nestled in the foothills north of Qingce. Spice, tea and violet grass on the palate and a long elegant finish.”
“This one is more to my taste,” Childe approves after a sip.
“I thought so, now this last one is truly special. A rare red blend made from krasnostop zolotovsky grapes.” At Zhongli’s words, Childe’s eyebrows shoot up in surprise, “Impressive and lush, with a constantly developing bouquet of pepper and cherries. Robust palate, medium body and a lingering flavor of strawberries and damp leaves. I believe the seller mentioned that it tastes like ‘warm autumn in Snezhnaya.’”
“You’re kidding.” Childe laughs, cradling the third offered bottle and shutting his eyes when he takes a delicate whiff from the open neck. “. . .ahh, you know, I don’t really remember Snezhnaya much, just that I’m probably from there. But this feels like it brings back memories.” The drink he takes from this wine is much bigger than the other two and he savors the taste. It’s both sharper and deeper than the other two wines and as Zhongli said, carries somehow the taste of nostalgia in it.
“Your favorite of the three, I assume?” Zhongli smiles and helps himself to the Xuxian Yun.
“You really know the way to my heart.” Childe nods in agreement. They drink together, trading simple stories. Zhongli tells Childe of an oddly convoluted saga involving Lisa, the organization’s resident archivist, delivering a stack of reports to the director. Somehow it had involved a stray cat and half the staff looking for the misplaced data drive the other half looking for the cat. Childe tells Zhongli about the people he observed in the park on his last rooftop stakeout. While Zhongli can speak to him over the earpiece during missions, Childe stays relatively quiet, the radio waves are the operator’s realm of expertise after all.
The sun sets slowly, yellow bleeding into red, almost entirely skipping orange before it bruises the horizon into a purple twilight. By the time the sun disappears, Childe has given up his pretenses of sobriety and let himself lean on Zhongli’s shoulder. Somehow the other man has the alcohol tolerance of a dragon or some other mythical beast. Which is good for him, since the stairs up to the rooftop can be treacherous.
Zhongli moves into speaking of the past — a habit he has. He speaks about learning calligraphy, a dear friend who defeated him soundly in every strategy game they ever played, and the old farming terraces in Liyue. Apparently, modern agriculture had rendered them mostly obsolete and large farms paved over them with synthetic grass and heavily chemical soaked soil.
“. . . I always feel bad I’ve got nothing to trade you for stories about little Zhongli.” Childe laughs into Zhongli’s shoulder. “You sound like you were a good kid.”
“In some ways, the past can be its own weight.” Zhongli replies, his tone reassuring.
“Don’t think it’s weird all I’ve got is Snezhnaya and assassination?”
“Is that all you have?”
“Hahahaha. . . don’t say it like that. You’re right. There’s a lot in the present right now, the past probably pales in comparison.” Childe yawns through his words. They had finished a bottle of wine each and started in on the Mondstadt wine, though neither of them really registered its flavor by now. “I don’t like having regrets. By tomorrow I won’t have any.”
“Don’t regret your lack of memory.” Zhongli soothes.
“. . . most of the time I don’t. It’s pretty romantic to say my life began with you, right?” Childe teases. “But even you have to wonder if I should be dead.”
Drinking rarely makes him feel morose but there are times when the past Childe cannot remember tries to rear its head. It is by the talents of the organization’s medics and the director’s decision that he’s alive to this day. All memories before whatever happened are hazy and fragmented. Whoever he was before whatever fall he took that broke his bones and left his memory in shambles has been lost.
“Of course you shouldn’t be, who else would be here with me if you were?”
“Certainly not someone who would make you sit on dirty concrete all evening.” Childe laughs.
“Then they would be far more boring for it and I would be a much more sedentary person.” Zhongli carefully sets the wine bottles to the side and pulls Childe more into his lap. They’ll stay to watch the stars burn into existence, until Childe dozes off from the wine and long days of work and Zhongli has to nudge him awake so they can head back downstairs for proper rest.
Childe studies the two pages of the catalog in front of him. He had torn them out and left the rest of the catalog in the kitchenette the operators used for break time. It’s unlikely that Zhongli would notice, as the man rarely went to the kitchenette and even if he did Childe had taken the only two pages that pertained to cuckoo clocks in the entire catalog.
What a ridiculous collection hobby Zhongli has.
“Hmmm. . .” Childe holds them up side by side. In honesty, he knows absolutely nothing about cuckoo clocks, or traditional Mondstadt carpentry styles or anything. Luckily for him he spots Ganyu over the edge of the frayed pages. “Ganyu — can I have a moment of your time?”
She looks around, as if he had addressed someone else before walking over. Out of all of the analysts and intelligence organizers, Ganyu has the most seniority. When she’s on the clock and on duty she’s the most competent person around when it comes to finding the right CCTV tape or contact information. However, when she’s off the clock she’s forgetful and honestly hardly seems fit for the job.
“Yes. . .?”
“Which clock is better, do you think?” He turns the pages around to show her.
“. . . is this a proposal gift for your boyfriend?” She asks.
Childe stares for a long moment. “A proposal gift?”
“Ah — since you’re an atypical couple I assumed perhaps. . .” She trails off and blushes a little. “I think I’ve misunderstood.”
“Oh, no, we’re not going to get engaged.” Childe laughs. “I wouldn’t even really say we’re ‘boyfriends’, I think it’s more like. . . work partners with benefits?” And he winks. Ganyu looks at him in silence for a moment and he can tell she’s a little confused. He can’t blame her too much, from the outside it probably seems like they’re more. Childe spends most of his free time with Zhongli and they do sleep together, but being able to say something like ‘my fiancee’ or ‘my boyfriend’ just seems so outside the realm of possibility. What they have is comfortable, fitting into the rhythm of work.
Because Childe’s memories mostly start with when he joined the organization he’s also accepted who he is now only lasts as long as his employment. That doesn’t mean he won’t live his life to the fullest, of course, but even approaching a relationship so normally. . . he’s not sure he can even conceptualize it.
“I see. . . in that case, I think, this one.” She points to the cuckoo clock with gold dipped real feathers and diamond inlaid numbers. It certainly is more gaudy than the other one carved from ivory with emeralds.
“You know, I think you’re right.” Childe nods, “Thanks.”
Do they really think holing up inside of some safehouse is going to protect them? Childe doesn’t say it, but he thinks it. While the strategy isn’t entirely unsound, this particular group of corrupt politicians had been on the list for quite some time. Childe himself has eliminated three of them, and he knows of two others that have also been assassinated. As if he can read his thoughts, Zhongli’s voice comes across the communication line.
“Odd strategy, be careful.”
Childe hums in agreement. Honestly it is tempting to have taken the demolition strategy. The safe house itself is far outside of the city boundaries, the closest village would barely even hear any explosion. It’s highly likely within the safehouse is a door down to an underground bunker or panic room. The window of opportunity — when the target had been moved to the safe house — somehow had slipped past them. People are combing through tapes and data logs to try and figure out how that happened, but that doesn’t matter to Childe. A target is a target, whether they’re in the transport convoy or under lock and key deep within the earth. He never misses and he never lets his mark go.
“Cameras are clear, patrol of four guards to the north, best route of approach near the east fence.”
“Sensors?” Childe asks, swiftly making his way around behind the treeline so he can approach the east fence under the shadow of the slope.
“Not that we can detect, no data on if it’s an electric fence, best to avoid direct touch.”
There’s no trees by the fence or anything else to get height on it. Not being too high Childe estimates he can vault it with enough momentum. He checks his pant leg, tightening any belts and tucking any stray edges so they won’t get caught on the fence or even brush its barbed top.
“Childe, I don’t advise — “
Childe tunes out Zhongli’s advice taking his pace backwards while running an estimation of how far he’d have to run for it. After he gets the right distance he draws ones of his combat knives, ceramic with a rubber handle. A few measured breaths and he dashes forward — Childe uses the handle of the knife as the contact point as he leverages and vaults over the fence, feet easily clearing it.
“Easy.” He tells Zhongli after he’s dropped to the packed earth on the other side of the fence and as he moves to walk along the building wall. The sound of boots alerts him to another patrol and Zhonglis voice confirms it.
“Two guards, sweeping up from the South. Just started their shift.” That gave Childe a four hour window, and he decided to take advantage of it. In the briefs nd his own personal timing the assassination should take two hours tops. “Equal threat level.”
An inset door is just down the wall from him and he wedges his body into the doorframe, knowing the cover of dark gives him the edge. With both of the guards being deemed the same level by Zhongli, Childe knows he doesn’t have to account for it. They pass by him and he strikes the guard closest to him first. He stomps down on the back of their calf, reaching across the quickly tilting plane of their back to grasp the other guard by the neck. So many people wear body armor and never anything to protect their neck from being snapped. It’s easy to use his bodyweight to break one guard’s neck and in turn use both their combined weights to break the other guard’s leg. Any yell the guard would have let out is easily muffled as Childe drops his elbow into the back of the guard’s head, driving them down into the ground face first before he also snaps their neck.
“Clear.” Childe murmurs to Zhongli over his headset, knowing his operator could hear the scuffle but since he’s out of camera range wouldn’t have been able to see the action. “Moving inside.” He drags the bodies closer to the wall and leaves them there, given the shift rotations he should be long gone before they’re found.
“Second route is clear.” Zhongli reports. Childe traces the path in his mental map before moving forward again. Idiots have used keypad locks for all of the outer doors and while there are different codes for each, they are static and he passes through the outermost circuit of the safehouse and then to the heart of it easily.
“Elevator sent down and locked.” Zhongli’s voice is his companion as he uses a small jack to pry open the elevator shaft that leads down to the underground bunker and slips through the gap.
“Long climb down.” Childe comments, looping a leg around the cable and starting his slow descent. At each floor marking he pauses, listening for any sign that the car far below him will start moving. While it’s likely Zhongli will be able to warn him in time, Childe can’t break the habit of double checking everything.
Zhongli pauses for a moment and then starts to tell Childe about the history of Liyue’s kites. It’s just soft noise to fill the silence. Childe always appreciates it, even if there are times when there’s no way he’d be able to remember what Zhongli spoke of. Just having the man’s calm droning kept his heartbeat steady.
“Stance change.” Childe interrupts Zhongli when his feet touch the elevator car top. He stretches, lets the muscles in his arms and legs take a quick breather before sliding back the top panel and dropping inside. The elevator being locked means the cameras are off as well and he once again applies the jack to the door. Zhongli is silent and all of Childe’s senses are oriented towards listening for any movement.
Given the armed guards above ground it only makes sense some would be in the bunker as well. The elevator door opens to a short hall and another door, and beyond that, another door. Childe bypasses each one with the stolen codes, and at what should be the final door he pauses to draw his gun.
The door swings open and he steps inside, gun drawn and level to where he estimates his target’s chest would be. As soon as he enters the lights go out. Before they flick off he sees figures lining the back and drops into a roll, firing off several bullets as he does so. Childe scrambles back towards the door only to find it locked behind him.
“Childe?” Zhongli prompts softly.
“Set up.” Childe hisses back under his breath, his eyes slowly adjusting to the dimness. There’s no sound other than his own breathing and even the figures that lined the back of the room aren’t moving. Mannequins, he guesses.
“I’ll alert — “
“Quiet.” Childe interrupts. He holds his breath and listens, a faint hiss can be heard and his next inhale burns. “Don’t. Think we got played too good, any team that comes in will get slaughtered.” He speaks louder, now confident he’s alone in the room.
“There’s no way we’re not going to try extraction.” Zhongli counters.
Childe narrows his eyes, it’s still dim but he’s pretty sure the darkness at the corners of his vision isn’t simply because there are no lights on. His next inhale makes him cough and wheeze. “Pretty strong stuff they’re using, I should be flattered. Bet they’ll try to backtrace my communicator and tracker.” He pries the GPS tracker off his jacket and crushes it between his fingers.
“Don’t — “
“Not going to spend anymore breath arguing with you, Zhongli. Instead I need to ask you a favor.” Childe sets his gun down and yanks his holsters, weapons and other straps off so he can pull his jacket off and cover his face with it in hopes of staving off whatever gas that’s being pumped into the room. “Since this mission’s over. . .say the thing you say at the end of every mission?” He really should have started searching the room instead of shooting first, his legs feel like jelly, and while he mentally tries to sort through a list of poisonous gas he can’t quickly come up with anything that might match the creeping paralysis and pain in his chest caused by this one.
Zhongli’s quiet on the other side. Childe thinks he can hear the other man’s rapid breathing which seems silly. Is that panic? It’s really unfortunate that this is probably either the end — if he were trapping an assassin Childe would definitely use deadly poison — or soon to be the end if they think they can get any information out of him.
“C’mon Zhongli.” He tries to enunciate carefully but instead he wheezes around the words, his mouth refusing to properly say it so his words come out slurred.
“. . . I can’t. I won't say it until you come home safe.” Zhongli finally replies.
Childe would laugh if he had the breath to, instead he fumbles with the earpiece. He doesn’t have the energy to reply or even say a goodbye as every last drop of energy and willpower he has he channels into breaking it. No way to use the signal to trace back to HQ, at least, then.
As everything goes dark, he wonders if Zhongli will tell stories about him to the next agent he’s paired with.
There is interrogation and torture in this chapter. Electrocution, hand/foot trauma, skinning.
Childe wakes all at once with a violent shock. It takes a moment for his brain to catch up to the shudder of his body and the realization it hadn’t been a shock that woke him, but ice cold water poured over him. The ice cubes slide down his back and are caught between him and the metal chair he is tied to. His chest feels like someone’s kicked him in the ribs about eighty times and for a moment his vision stubbornly stays blurry. A quick inventory of his situation snaps everything into focus. He lets his head hang, groaning and trying to keep up pretenses of being groggy as his mind races.
It’s a bad sign that his wrists are tied to the arms of the chair instead of behind it, just as it’s a bad sign that he’s barefoot and shirtless. It’s honestly a bad sign that he’s not dead, Childe muses, because it also means this isn’t simply a trap to protect, but a plot to try and get at the organization. He has two options, to look for escape or hasten his own termination at the hands of his captors. Escape would only be an option after what he assumes will be interrogation.
Well, at least he’s the kind of person who heads straight for the future without hesitance.
“I have to say . . . your welcoming committee needs a bit of work.” Childe says, lifting his head with a smile. He’s pleased that his breath doesn’t rasp and his words come clear. He hopes traces of whatever they used lingers in his bloodstream so later one of the doctors at the organization can tell him what it is.
It is a quadruply bad sign that his captors are all wearing masks. Childe bites back a deep sigh, unable to even see their mouths or eyes. So he wouldn’t be getting any information on his side either.
His reputation must proceed him, as for his words he gets a punch to his right cheekbone, hard enough to snap his head to the side. “We’ll be making the demands.” Even the voice is controlled, probably just pitched lower rather than using a modifier, Childe guesses.
“Sorry, but since you’ve gone through all the trouble to — “ Another blow, on the other cheek but a little higher, and he’s glad the other person isn’t wearing a ring or he’s certain it would have clipped his eye.
“We’re quite lucky, two birds with one stone.” His captors are all wearing identical black suits and identical featureless white masks. It’s almost funny. “Now, I suspect you know half of what we want. The location of your HQ, if you will.”
“What HQ? I was just going to the store to buy some bread and ended up lost.” Childe beams and makes sure to preemptively shut his eyes at the punches that come his way. He’d really prefer to try and mitigate damage to his eyes if possible. It’s not just one hit this time, but one to split his lip and two to the side of his head that make his stomach churn.
“Location.” It’s asked again. He shakes his head a little, even know it exacerbates the blooming bruises and rattling in his skull.
“Did I say bread? I meant pizza.”
There isn’t another punch, instead he can hear his assailant sigh. He watches as the one who’s been hitting him holds out a hand and is handed a hammer. And nails.
“We don’t plan to coddle you too much, Agent Tartaglia.”
“Hm? You have the wrong person.” Childe’s voice is just as full of bravado before, and he hopes his face hasn’t changed. He has no idea what they’re talking about. He had assumed HQ to be the organization, but being addressed as ‘Agent Tartaglia’ — which is not his name or his codename even — throws a wrench in that.
“No, we very much do not. But I see. Please, give us the location of your headquarters. What does your organization call itself? Crux of the United Teyvet?”
Childe thinks, wryly, that no one called it ‘Crux of the United Teyvet’, everyone within the organization calls it CUT except sometimes the Director uses far more profane language with the explanation that it scandalizes the suits.
“Who?” Childe asks.
The tip of a nail rests against the back of his hand. He can feel his interrogator feel around — gloved fingers, of course — pressing down to find the best place to hammer it in, he supposes. It’s nice to know that they’re probably looking for it to hurt rather than maim him for life, but that does nothing to actually diminish the pain when the hammer swings down.
The nail presses through his skin and into his hand shallowly, and then deeper and then deeper with each hammer strike. The vibrations rip through his hand and it takes five hits for the nail to sink deep enough that the flat head is flush with his skin. After the first hit he had started laughing, the unhinged giggles tearing from his throat taking place of whatever gasps of pain he would have made instead.
“Location.” The interrogator asks again.
“Up yours.” Childe replies. Two more nails into his right hand, five strikes each. He can’t stop his fingers from twitching or his hand from trying to lift from the chair arm it’s been nailed to. The fresh pain from the movement coupled with the dull ache clears his mind. He’s sure his hand has seen worse, he’s seen the scars on his fingers himself even if he can’t recall what they’re from.
“They had said you would be quite difficult to crack, possibly not even worth it.” Childe is told. “But you have to understand, no matter what happens, I still have victory here. Catching you is both personal and professional. And if we can catch you, well, the rest of the agents of your organization will be easy to subdue.”
“Ah? Didn’t you hear? I’m the weakest of all of them.” Childe says, proudly. Instead of another nail he gets a blow from the hammer — the backside, as the two claws leave twin gashes above his left eye that immediately spews blood.
“The longer you draw it out, the worse for you. Surely you must know that? I’ve heard you once performed quite the interrogation yourself.”
That doesn’t sound right at all, Childe unwillingly searches his memory. Gloved hands grab him by the hair and drag him forward, harshly straining his neck and he’s unable to ignore how vulnerable and exposed his back and shoulders feel.
He can’t recall ever interrogating anyone. It sounds, frankly, boring. He can see himself assassinating someone rather brutally, but he can’t recall anything that might resemble an interrogation. Childe isn’t sure why he’s trying to figure out what his assailant is talking about, there isn’t any point to it. The gaps in his own memories only serve to taunt him, even now.
“No way. Sounds pretty boring.” Childe hisses out, the grip on his hair becoming more painful.
He can feel a gloved finger press down at the base of his neck, drawing in one vertical line then the next. Childe has a set of scars there, just two lines that he’s always assumed came from a scratch or even two entirely unrelated cuts.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is, when he feels the sharp edge of a knife cut into his skin around the scars and then angle under them. His laughter is taking on a hysterical edge, and it sounds like he’s listening to someone else laugh and struggle even if the searing pain across his back is definitely his own. He’s pretty sure he’s never been skinned before and it has the similar tacky feeling of a bandaid being ripped off, only also accompanied by a stomach dropping twisted pain. The blood that wells up and drips down his back feels cold against his skin and the exposed flesh under the patch of skin that had just been torn off both burns and freezes in the air.
At least, he didn’t scream, Childe thinks, even though he knows part of that is because his jaw is locked, tongue pressed to the roof of his mouth so he doesn’t bite it.
It’s funny, his interrogator stops being an interrogator shortly after that. No more questions are asked and either the assumption is he’ll break and talk or everyone knows it’s a waste of time outside of whatever ‘personal’ interest there is in Childe’s torture.
He doesn’t scream when nails are driven through his foot, or when another broad strip of skin is peeled off of his back. Any blows that come after that are honestly barely felt. A punch is nothing compared to how somehow he can feel every breath he takes in his hands and feet, the nails pulsing painfully in time with his heartbeat which he knows must be some kind of pain addled crossed wiring in his brain. He doesn’t even scream when the knife sinks into his shoulder, where he would normally balance the butt of his sniper rifle — even if the sharp blade pins his breath in his chest.
But after the livewire with its crackling he can somehow hear over the blood rushing in his ears touches the blade and electricity — and after his vision clears from black and white, after the shocks left every muscle in his body burning, that’s when he start screaming and doesn’t stop until he passes out.
It’s an odd thing to wake to the sound of his own pathetic wheezing. Childe’s mind is too scattered to do an inventory of his injuries, instead focusing on trying to calm his breathing. Somehow his lungs feel like they’re constantly cramping, every inhale is shaky and his syncopated heartbeat makes him wonder if he’s going to die an embarrassing death from the aftereffects of electrocution instead of a proper fight.
What a strange thing to think about.
Childe forces himself to sit up, his muscles don’t want to work to pull him from head bowed to something more upright, but some stupid part of his brain is convinced it will be easier to breathe if he can do so. The knife is unfortunately still in his shoulder and as he lifts his head the searing pain bites through him, like sharp teeth across every nerve in his torso. Childe bites his lip and lets himself fall against the chair, raw wounds screaming in protest even if the cold metal feels almost soothing against them.
He would really like to be able to clear his vision, unsure if he should bank on the off-kilter view of the world on being hit on the head too many times or any actual damage to his eye. Both options aren’t ideal, really. He can only make out one guard, probably, there might be one behind him but what would be the point of that. Even if he could slip his bindings the fact that both his hands are nailed to the chair arms really would make escape difficult.
They’re giving him a ‘rest’ which makes his stomach turn. Childe isn’t sure if he’s afraid or not, it’s not a feeling he identifies well within himself. Some detached part of his mind has already decided what kind of situation this is and tries to arrange a list of ways he could antagonize his captors, hopefully push them into doing or saying something off script. But this was also very clearly planned, set up and executed against both the organization and whoever ‘Tartaglia’ is. Childe grimaces, and even his lips ache from the movement.
At least his sense of humor is intact as when a sudden knock comes at the door — the whole situation goes from feeling dangerous and hopeless to ridiculous in a matter of seconds — Childe finds himself slumped over forwards again in the chair, squinting towards the door to see who in the heck would bother knocking. The guard seems equally confused, shown by the slow hesitance as in their movement to open the door.
Childe may have died and gone to heaven as framed by the hallway light like a divine halo is Zhongli looking like a wrathful god. The guard’s neck is twisted sharply with a motion Childe is sure is as graceful as anything not that he can really make out details between the nausea and black spots dancing in his vision. He laughs, two short ‘ha’s before the sounds make his chest cramp and twist.
“Childe — “ Zhongli’s voice sounds weird to his ears, too brittle and sharp. Childe wonders if he can blame it on how many times he’s been knocked around.
He wants to say, ‘You look different in field gear,’ since Zhongli’s crisp button down is nowhere to be seen. Probably it isn’t just the change in clothes but also the stormy expression Zhongli wears that makes him look different.
He also wants to say, ‘You shouldn’t be here.’ Childe is sure that this feeling, at least, is fear. His brain bounces between the thoughts that operators never go into the field, that Zhongli just broke a man’s neck, that if Childe was set up was this just another part of the plot, how he’s pretty sure he’s going to pass out again soon and the traitorous relief and joy he has at seeing Zhongli again.
Zhongli says something, it sounds angry or upset but Childe’s beyond keeping track of the words. Even if the tone is all wrong, he appreciates the sound of Zhongli’s voice anyway. He wants to stay awake just to continue to listen to Zhongli, but when the first nail is pulled from his hand — he thinks Zhongli might be giving a hurried apology — he can feel unconsciousness blacken his sight again.
Childe dreams he hears the director and Zhongli talking.
“— can’t blame you.”
“Believe it or not I came to check up on you two.”
“This was unexpected and unprecedented. While I understand the duty I have agreed to, this —”
“Yeah, yeah. We’re lucky to have had you for so long. If anything. . . this is the kind of incident that makes us rethink stuff too.”
“And what conclusion did you come to?”
“Supporting things from the shadows isn’t bad, and there’s always dirty work to be done, but we might need to do it differently. Head on, in the light.”
“An option you’ve supported for some time, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Yeah. She wants to too, just imagine it as being difficult to break from tradition, you know?”
“I give you my blessing but I do not think I can join you on your journey forward. It is time for all aspects of my duty to be finished — “
Childe doesn’t wake up so much as he’s forcefully dragged into consciousness by pain. Everything hurts: breathing in, breathing out, opening his eyes, swallowing. The telltale sign of painkillers flowing through his veins are there, despite the ache — he feels disconnected from his body, as if his left hand is across the room, his head rolling under the bed, his kneecaps left behind in that room.
“Childe?” Even his hearing feels disconnected, but he knows that voice and turns his head to the side. His cheek (sore, scabbed) finds soft support in the pillow and while he’s unwilling to take an inventory of his entire body he does at least register that he’s in bed, not in an infirmary or anything. Bandages, IV, stitches. Safe enough, it seems.
“You’re awake.” Zhongli’s voice. But Zhongli isn’t in his field of vision and he wonders if he’s dreaming still. “Childe.” Insistent.
“Zhongli.” Childe finally croaks out in reply. Or, that’s the name his mouth means to make, instead it sounds like a garbled mess. He clears his throat, a terrible idea, and pushes out the name with stubborn insistence over his sore throat and bruised face.
Zhongli’s hands move into view, hovering, fingers opening and closing like he doesn’t know what to do with them. Childe wonders if he looks so fragile. He doesn’t feel fragile, he feels six feet under. Then, finally, Zhongli’s face and if moving his head didn’t make him want to vomit Childe would probably double take.
Zhongli looks upset.
It would be nice if Childe were stupider and he could pretend he didn’t know exactly why Zhongli is upset, but he can’t. It’s weird seeing Zhongli look so distraught. It’s a look that doesn’t suit the man’s face at all. The corners of Zhongli’s mouth are tilted down, his cheeks are puffy like he’s trying to hold back tears. Normally, Zhongli’s gaze is intense but soft, however right now Childe finds the keen scrutiny almost painful to look back into.
“Hey.” Childe tries to break the awkward silence that’s mostly filled with his strained breathing. If anything, Zhongli seems to be trying to not make any noise at all. The tension in the air builds until Zhongli shifts so he can kneel by the bedside, finally grasp the very edge of the sheets with his hands.
“— Childe.” Zhongli says for the second time. It’s like he’s forgotten how to say almost anything else. Childe is pretty sure the smile he gives looks pretty bad, given how he can feel the swelling around his eye and jaw, but it’s the thought that counts.
“Speechless?” Childe mutters, concentrating on raising a hand — he tried the right first, but the bulk of bandages reminded him there had been nails in his hand so he went with the left — to awkwardly reach for one of Zhongli’s hands. “Can tell me later.” He adds, feeling the heavy weight of sleep battling the pain again. He really doesn’t want to fall back asleep even if unconsciousness seems like it would be blissful.
He wants to hear Zhongli’s voice.
“I . . . didn’t know if I had made it in time.” Zhongli slowly starts speaking. He very gently holds Childe’s hand with both of his, as if he grips too tight Childe will crumble like ash. “You — I know you’re not so easily subdued. I knew you wouldn’t betray the organization, and so. There’s a limited number of options. ” Zhongli starts and stops several times.
“Zhongli, you really. . .” Childe has a lot to say. That Zhongli shouldn’t have been there, that (with some false bravado) he would never have died after being captured, but mostly that he really wishes Zhongli would stop looking like that.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
Childe realizes, in that moment, that of course he hadn’t thought about that. He wouldn’t have been ever losing Zhongli, he would have been the one leaving.
“Here. I’m here.” Childe makes sure he says, trying to project his voice despite the pain in his chest. His heart skips a beat, in a way he’s certain isn’t romantic. “Tired, but here.”
Zhongli nods, several times, finally holding Childe’s hand more tightly.
“See you soon.” Childe mumbles. He doesn’t slip into sleep easily but he shuts his eyes again and tries to drift.
They avoid talking about it for several days. Childe stubbornly insists on not being bedridden once he can stand without toppling over and Zhongli brews more tea than Childe has ever seen in his life. More humiliating than the constant dizziness and shortness of break (the pounding uneven pulse in his ears he tries to ignore) is the state of his hands. Not entirely ruined but unable to manage fine motor control, temporarily. At least, he hopes. His right hand is worse than his left, he can’t see it under the layers of bandages but the alternating points of pain and numbness tells him even more nails must have been driven in at some point and time.
Honestly, is he that much of a threat?
It takes several days to convince Zhongli that he’s really not that injured and really a hug or holding hands isn’t going to hurt more than anything else.
“So.” Childe says, the first day talking doesn’t make his throat feel like its bleeding and when he can hold the tea cup Zhongli provides for him without spilling. It’s still a task to curl his fingers around it, but if he cups it with both hands it works and Childe would rather be tortured again than be unable to drink or feed himself. He’s allowed Zhongli to pressure him into continued bedrest, not in small part to how awful he feels but also because any time he’s up and about Zhongli hovers and it drives him up the wall. “You. . .”
Where does he start? First, by taking a sip of tea while he wants to Zhongli to respond.
“You have questions about. . . me.” Zhongli pauses in brewing yet another pot of tea, spoon heaped full of leaves hovering above the open mouth of the most likely handcrafted clay teapot.
“If I hadn’t been so out of it I would have had a heart attack.” Childe refutes. “I’m not confused, I’m concerned.”
“. . . I have been keeping some things from you.” Zhongli puts the tea aside and strides over so he can gingerly settle himself next to Childe in the bed. The first time he had convinced Zhongli to sit next to him since his interrogation the other man had immediately gotten back up out of bed when Childe scooted over. Since then, Childe always made sure to leave a spot for Zhongli to sit, much preferring to lean against Zhongli than against the pillows anyway.
“If it’s that you’re actually a super spy or soldier I will be quite happy to know that.” Childe can’t help but laugh a bit at Zhongli’s wide eyed response to his statement. “Please, Mr. Zhongli, can you imagine if you thought I was just a desk operator and showed up on a mission?”
The thought had probably not occurred to Zhongli, given how confused the man looks.
“My past. . . it’s not something I wanted to live with.” Zhongli finally says. “I do not wish to discard who I was either, but I did not want to step on the field again. However, I was also foolish to think simply being an operator could protect what is dear to me.”
“Sounds like you want to take responsibility for everything.” Childe grins a bit, the motion still pulls on the bruise around his eye and cuts on his face. “What, do you want to take responsibility for the organization as a whole too?”
“. . . Years ago, I had a hand in the birth of the organization. At the time, something like brute force as a way of protection and changing the destiny of our nation had been at the forefront of my mind. Utilizing every method available to us, even if it was information gotten through deception or assassination.”
“I was just joking, but it seems like I know you too well.”
“But this — “
“Wait! It’s you.” Childe interrupts, and he can’t point at Zhongli but he can gesture towards him with the cup cradled in his hands. “You’re the ‘best agent’ the director talked about! Augh, how unfair.”
“The director spoke of me as the ‘best agent’?” Zhongli blinks owlishly and takes the cup from Childe. That allows Childe to jab him in the chest.
“She said I was second best. Ahhh, there’s no way I can beat you now, is there?”
“I know. . . that’s the problem.”
“Is that really what you want to speak of. . .” Childe’s glad to hear some amusement tinge Zhongli’s voice. It feels like a lifetime since he’s heard the other man sound more lighthearted.
“Sorry, you can keep going.” Childe laughs. “I’m glad I finally know who my rival is though.”
Zhongli shakes his head, but Childe knows the look on his face — exasperated fondness. It’s the look he imagines Zhongli has when Childe does things like vault electric fences.
“I didn’t mean to keep it from you, but it never seemed relevant either. It was not until. . . because it was a difficult situation, I decided to go myself. No one else except the director can be trusted, at this moment.”
“Can’t be a mole.” Childe muses, “They didn’t know where HQ is.”
“Corrupt information chain then.” Zhongli sets the cup of tea to the side so he can put his arm around Childe. His grip is still gentle, but Childe gets the impression Zhongli’s still worried that he’ll just disappear.
“Even though you said you didn’t want to live with your past, seems like it bothers you.” Childe carefully works through his words. “I’m the opposite, you know. They even seemed to know something about it but. . . I don’t remember it, so really what’s the point of thinking about whoever I was? So don’t end up being afraid of what’s going on now because of something in the past.”
He sounds more confrontational than he wants to be. Childe frowns a little at his own tone, he doesn’t feel bitter but he knows his words come out as cutting. Zhongli’s brows draw together as well, his mouth pressing into a hard line. For a moment they’re both silent.
Childe breaks the silence by shifting enough that it makes his sides ache and presses his lips to Zhongli’s neck. “Help me here for a second.” He mutters, not wanting to ask for help but it’s going to be easier this way. Childe may be restless to be up and about but he’s not stupid enough to try and put his bodyweight on his hands. With a minimal amount of fuss he ends up where he wants, sprawled out across Zhongli, face tucked into the crook of the other man’s neck.
“You’re not wrong. I figured my options were self-termination or trying to escape and the second wasn’t going to happen after they messed up my feet. But you know, I didn’t even really think about it as leaving you behind, kind of selfish, right? Even if it feels like my whole life started with being ‘Childe’ in this organization and with you as my operator I hadn’t really thought of it like that.”
Zhongli’s hands settle on Childe’s back. At first Zhongli’s fingers are tense, but soon loosen to ghost across Childe’s back in steady soothing patterns.
“Childe.” Zhongli interrupts. “My new life as ‘Zhongli’ didn’t begin until I started working with you. While it may seem that I am mired in the past it is more accurate to say that I . . . I am afraid of losing the future. As you say you’re selfish then I must be the same.”
“Ha, you, selfish?” Childe snickers.
“Perhaps, ‘greedy’,” Zhongli teases back.
“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have both, I think.” Childe closes his eyes. “Well, why don’t you tell me about your past? All of it. Then we can both have it.”
And so, Zhongli does. He talks about his time as the feared assassin ‘Morax’ and his partner. When the organization first started all field agents worked in pairs, with the operator essentially being the eyes and ears with the assassin being the executing hands. They were truly unstoppable, and the future that they — Zhongli, his partner Guizhong, director Beidou and the lady Ningguang — dreamed of could move closer to reality.
It had been necessary and Zhongli doesn’t have any regrets about the actions he took. He has no regrets of the corruption they ended or the structure they had begun building. But what does weigh on him is the mission that led to Guizhong’s death. Her strategy and planning had been perfect, but he lacked the strength to get them both out. She had bled out in his arms asking him to see their dream furthered.
He had never been good at refusing her, much less her death wish, but there’s no way he could operate on the field without her either. So he had discarded ‘Morax’ and become ‘Zhongli’ and chose to lead agents over the radio waves as an operator. After he and Childe had become partners, however, he found that his idea of the future was beginning to slip and fade through his fingers.
There is the past, Guizhong’s smile, her laugh, her warm blood cooling on his hands.
And there is the present, Childe over the headset, the current fight for a better world.
“If I wasn’t dreaming of the future, then what was I doing?” Zhongli muses. “I realized. . . perhaps I had lost sight of why we had been dreaming in the first place.”
“Well, what do you want for the future?” Childe asks, lifting his head so he can look directly into Zhongli’s eyes.
“I must admit. . . I don’t know, now. I have never planned, only approached it as an unattainable ‘perhaps’. The possibility of the world. . .”
“I don’t know either.” Childe admits. “So, may as well get a new dream.”
“You make it sound so simple.”
“Isn’t it? You said you don’t want to lose me and I’ve decided I don’t want to leave you behind. So we go from there.”
“‘The human heart is as fragile as dust, and just as easily blown away by the winds of change. Because it is so delicate, we don’t know when we will lose who we love and we are afraid. But surely, something as strong as ‘love’ can also become a great future.’”
“A memory I haven’t spoken of in some time.”
Childe laughs. “Well, now it’s my memory too.”
“And so it is.” Zhongli agrees.
Beidou brings the paperwork herself. She’s not wearing her normal outfit, instead of the subdued black suit of the director she’s wearing a vibrant red one. When he points it out she laughs and says something about becoming a more respectable woman.
“Zhongli asked for it, and I assume you two talked.” She settles the stack of papers and files on the table. Childe’s grip strength hasn’t entirely returned yet but he’s moved on to holding coffee cups with one hand and definitely being able to sign documents.
“Somewhat.” Childe says. “It hadn’t been my intention to leave you shorthanded.”
“We’re doing some reorganization anyway.” Beidou nods a thanks to Zhongli who has provided her with a cup of coffee.
“I didn’t know we even had coffee.” Childe blurts. Zhongli coughs delicately.
“I knew that the director was coming and that she prefers coffee.” Zhongli simply says.
“I appreciate it.” Beidou leans forward, both her elbows on the tabletop between them. “I want you to know, if you wanted to, we’d keep a spot open for you. Regardless of health, you’re still an important agent to us.”
Childe appreciates it. He hates being incapacitated in any regard and the discreet doctor Zhongli had brought had only brought a diagnosis that burned at his pride and his soul in a way.
“Please, if I had to sit behind a desk I might go insane.” Childe offers a lopsided smile. “And. . . we have some other matters to attend to.”
“I’m always someone who thinks moving forward is the better option.” Beidou leans back in the chair. “But we’re not forcing you out. As Zhongli can tell you, retirement is always voluntary. Even if you don’t become a field agent or operator, there’s plenty that can be done. I hear we might have an opening for a real over the table accountant coming up too.”
Childe gives her a horrified look. Beidou cackles. Even Zhongli looks amused.
“The letter is mostly for our own records.” She taps the short and simple letter of resignation where Childe and Zhongli both state their intent to leave the organization. “The rest of these are a little favor from a certain lady.”
Zhongli picks up the folder to flip through it and even his calm demeanor can’t hide his surprise. Childe crooks a finger so Zhongli will show him and his reaction is much more visible.
“Really?” He asks, incredulous.
“We wouldn’t be where we are without Zhongli, and you’ve been an exemplary agent as well.” Beidou cracks her knuckles. “We’re trying to do things differently, remember? So we may as well start dabbling in this too.”
It’s identification papers. Passport. License. Bank accounts. All for Childe. Written out is his name — Ajax Zhong — and everything.
“Isn’t this. . .”
“Ah, yeah. Well. We gave you Zhongli’s last name, since he’s already established it’s less weird to add a ‘new’ identity to the system if it’s because you’re married.” She replies with a straight face somehow ignoring the indignant noises both Zhongli and Childe make. “All of your back pay is in that account, by the way. It’s been pointed out. . . er, well, since most of us chose to do it, that you didn’t really. Just got mixed up with us. Not that I mind.”
Childe thumbs the laminated ID card paperclipped to the inside of the folder. Funny. He hadn’t really thought of it like that, but he hadn’t really considered getting an identity either. He may as well have been his job and that had been good enough for him.
“Well, I’ll leave you two.” Beidou stands, slings back the rest of her coffee — even though Childe is certain that it must still be piping hot — in one go. “You have my private line and I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”
They both bid her farewell, though Childe finds himself rooted to the spot as Zhongli walks Beidou out.
“Is this. . . fine?” Childe asks Zhongli when he returns, waves the paperwork over his shoulder when he hears the other man’s footsteps behind him. Fine isn’t the word he wants to use but it’s the most succinct one for all of the thoughts flying around in his head. For once, he is certain the arrhythmia isn’t a lingering effect of the bouts of electrocution he had endured.
“I can ask them to change the name.” Zhongli swiftly replies.
Childe rolls his eyes. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then, yes. It’s ‘fine’.” Zhongli leans down over Childe’s shoulder, loosely wrapping an arm around him. Zhongli’s thumb skims across Childe’s heart before settling over his collarbone where Childe tilts his head into the touch, affectionately nuzzling.
“Did you tell her?”
“Yes. Our business does not directly coincide with the organizations anymore, but we may intersect again in the near future. And she has been asking after you, so it only seemed fair. Now, I have to ask, are you certain you want to do this?”
“Hey, they hunted me down first, I’m just returning the favor. Didn’t you say some of the cowards got away?” Childe laughs.
“My hands were full, I didn’t have the time to chase them.” Zhongli replies dryly. Childe shakes his head.
“All right, all right, I can’t blame you for it, but I’m not someone to leave things hanging, you know?” By the end of the week, they planned to be on the road. Zhongli had reluctantly shared what intel he had gathered on the people who had interrogated Childe and while it is ridiculously scarce, there’s enough to act on. It doesn’t quite feel right, seeking out a past he’s not sure he wants to own anymore, but neither he nor Zhongli wants to leave those threads hanging either. “My present self is going to face down my past, isn’t that exciting?”
“And I’ll be going with you.” Zhongli’s voice is soft, first pressing a gentle kiss to Childe’s temple, where an ugly scab still showed itself and then just behind his jaw. Childe turns in the chair, enough that he can meet Zhongli’s lips easily and eagerly.
The future is uncertain, but they’ll be facing it together.
Notes from AJ:
+ Shout out to Allstarall for nailing the Zhongli backstory!
+ Since this was all Childe’s POV, there will be some Zhongli POV extras coming as another part of the series.
+ Possibly also a ‘Childe and Zhongli’s wild roadtrip for romance and Childe’s past’ but I have so many WIP projects on the list it might take a while.
+ Thank you guys for the response, it’s been a wild ride ♥
Notes from Fim:
+ Thank you for reading! This all started from an offhanded "Childe would look hot as an assassin" and spiraled from there. I've enjoyed working with the writing so much, as always with AJ's work.
+ As for the outfits... thank you AJ for being the one who actually had to make sense of and write out what's going on with Childe's techwear, because I just slapped things on that looked cool.
+ Since we will be revisiting these two in the future I hope everyone looks forward to it!