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52 Card Pick Up

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Zhongli’s back hurts. The combination of carrying Childe and then not sleeping and sitting in the infirmary chair for countless hours — and, probably, stress — sends small twinges of ache through him every time he shifts. He long abandoned coffee, not wanting the caffeine to make him more jittery than he already is. Childe’s breathing has evened out, which brings him some relief — but the medic’s expression had been grim when she had explained the wear and tear that probably now lived in Childe’s heart and nervous system. Electrocution is nasty.

The smallest change in Childe’s breathing snaps Zhongli’s gaze to his face. It’s a small hitch, followed by Childe’s hands twitching. He must be in pain, but there’s only so much medication he can be given. They’re worried about his heart.

“Childe?” Zhongli asks, softly, “You’re awake.” He tries to will it into existence, affirm it in his own mind. Childe’s eyes are open but unfocused, not surprising given how many times he had most likely been hit in the head — the ugly bruising across his skin showing through gaps in the bandages.

Childe says something — Zhongli isn’t sure what. It’s a horrible sound, strained and rough. It must have sounded awful to Childe too because his face contorts and he clears his throat. It sounds like something is caught in there. “Zhongli.” Childe says, and Zhongli can barely recognize the sound of his own name.

For some reason, it makes him want to cry. He’s not sure if it’s because Childe sounds so wrecked or because he’s so happy to hear his name.

“Hey.” Childe says.

Zhongli feels like if he breathes too loudly it will break the moment, like the fabric of reality will shred and he’ll be back in a bloody hallway with a cooling body. No, that never happened with Childe. Childe’s here. Zhongli moves so he can kneel by the bedside, in easy view of Childe.

“— Childe.” What does he even say? So many possibilities, but which of them can convey the meaning he wants — needs — to share with Childe?

“Speechless?” Childe mutters, raising a hand — “Can tell me later.”

“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. “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. . .”

“I don’t want to lose you.” Zhongli doesn’t want to be left behind again. He won’t say it, especially not to Childe’s face, especially not now, but he’s certain he’ll be torn apart if he loses someone like that again.

“Here. I’m here.” Childe says. “Tired, but here.”

Zhongli nods, several times, finally holding Childe’s hand more tightly.

“See you soon.” He realizes that Childe is trying to reassure him. He’s glad that Childe seems to have slipped back unconscious immediately, because that realization is the last straw on the proverbial camel’s back. An ugly drowning feeling rises in his chest before the tears start to fall.

Zhongli bows his head as he cries through clenched teeth, not wiping the tears away as then he would have to release Childe’s hand to do so. He knows he’s crying because of his own crumbling feelings — he’s crying for Guizhong, again, he’s crying because the stress he’s carried for several days now is leeching out of his body, he’s crying because just looking at the state of Childe makes his heart ache. And he cries because he’s afraid that everything is going to change, possibly for the worse.

Zhongli has never been good with an unpredictable future — and as he looks back on his past, perhaps that’s why he thought he needed to take destiny into his own hands.

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.

“No black suit?” Childe asks.

“Ha! Didn’t you know? I’m becoming a respectable woman. Red’s a good color for that, right?” Beidou replies with a laugh.

“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. Zhongli watches carefully anyway, ready to reach out to help in any way. He knows Childe can find it stifling and neither of them wants to broach the serious topic of recovery or lingering, very possibly permanent, damage.

“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. Childe tends to be more focused on necessities, essentials, important items to keep stock of. Zhongli must admit that he keeps careful catalog and supply of things that are unique to those in his life. Coffee for Beidou — and there is a stove top espresso pot stashed away from Ningguang — Snezhnayan liquor and ginger candy for Childe, lavender tea for Lisa. It’s much easier for him to anchor himself in the details of others, these days.

“I knew that the director was coming and that she prefers coffee.” Zhongli simply says.

“I appreciate it.” Beidou says. “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.”

Zhongli mentally thanks Beidou. He knows that Childe would hate to be someone who had to leave work due to injury and he already is restless.

“Please, if I had to sit behind a desk I might go insane.” Childe gives 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.”

It’s only knowing that Childe would be offended that keeps Zhongli from laughing. It’s hard to imagine Childe working behind a desk, much less in accounting. Not that Childe is bad with figures but he’s a person rooted in the practicality of things, not the abstract calculations.

“The letter is mostly for our own records.” She taps the short and simple letter of resignation. “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 gestures to see it and Zhongli tilts the folder so the other man can look for himself.

“Really?” Childe 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 an entire life for Childe, packaged up in a neat collection of official paperwork, including a new name: Ajax Zhong. Zhongli feels his heart flutter, stomach twisting in both a fond excitement and deep worry. He had never asked Childe to define their relationship and Childe had never voluntarily done so either. Zhongli doesn’t wish to make such a proclamation without the other’s consent — but it also warms him in a way he didn’t know was possible.

“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.” Beidou replies. “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. Zhongli had known that Childe remembered the name ‘Ajax’ (“Probably mine, I guess?”) but Zhongli had also known that Childe was ready to divorce from a past he doesn’t remember at any time. It’s a kind of reckless abandon to the past that Zhongli envies and worries about.

“Well, I’ll leave you two.” Beidou stands, slings back the rest of her coffee in one go. “You have my private line and I’m sure we’ll be in touch.”

They both bid her farewell.

“Is this. . . fine?” Childe asks Zhongli when he returns.

“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. Even though he knows Childe is joking in a way, Zhongli dearly wishes he could have eliminated every last one of them. 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. “My present self is going to face down my past, isn’t that exciting?” Zhongli hadn’t wanted to share the intel he had. As soon as they had spoken of it, Childe proposed a manhunt in a way that Zhongli knew if he disagreed Childe would simply go alone.

He wonders if Childe knows how much that had felt like blackmail.

“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.