“Codename ‘Childe’, I’ll be in your care from here on forward.”
Their introduction is so simple and casual. Zhongli had heard rumors, of course — and he had been there when field agent Kaeya had dragged the body out of the inky black sea. (“I had my own business with the Abyss Order, you see.”) But Childe didn’t know that. If Zhongli is correct, Childe didn’t know anything outside of the fragments he wears proudly on his sleeve — confidence in his skills, a far too open attitude, apparently a name that when searched brings nothing up (“Ajax”, it seems).
“Zhongli, it’s a pleasure.” Zhongli takes Childe’s offered hand. The redhead has a firm handshake and for someone who’s apparently plague by amnesia there’s no shadow on his face. No tentative sorrow or caution. It seems that Childe’s not burdened by a past he can’t remember, and Zhongli has to be somewhat envious.
Childe’s nightly ritual confuses Zhongli, but not enough to question it. When he had been a field agent, what he had done through the day plagued him in a way he hadn’t understood at the time. It isn’t that he regretted any of the lives he took so much as he regretted that it had been necessary to take lives in the first place. Perhaps, he doesn’t want to know if Childe regrets it or not. Perhaps, he’s somewhat worried that his image of Childe — carefree, unaffected by their work — might break. It’s unfair to Childe, but Zhongli’s all right with pretending a little while longer.
“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.
Childe’s shape is different from Zhongli’s previous lovers. Even Guizhong who had been able to keep up with him on the field had not been whipcord muscle like Childe. While countless fights and battles had littered the bodies of most people Zhongli fell into bed with — the assassin’s trade and the rebel’s trade only begged lovers of a similar make — none were like Childe. Certainly, none bore the same deliberate scarring that Childe did either. The ‘11’ etched into Childe’s skin brings to mind a similar scar he had once seen on a friend. (“I have no love left to give,” she had said when they parted ways.)
The past lingers in everything Zhongli does, even his thoughts while he’s curled up around his lover in bed. At least, it’s easy to temporarily banish them by pressing his lips over Childe’s scarred skin and reveling in the warmth they share.
“Good job, Childe.” Zhongli says.
“You’re so unfair,” Childe laughs as Zhongli pulls him down closer for a kiss.
Contrary to most people’s assumptions, Zhongli dislikes silence. In the past, perhaps, it had been easier to bear but even then those around him had been ready to speak quickly and freely. Childe is loud. Not in a volume sense, necessarily, but there’s a vivaciousness about him that can’t be contained. Even in softer more intimate moments, he’s wild with passion. There had been some adjustment for both of them, Zhongli is someone who appreciates spontaneity but still requires a certain order to things. Childe is still learning his place in the world.
Zhongli wouldn’t call Childe beautiful at this moment. It is undoubtedly a true statement — the mix of cocky grin and flushed cheeks, head tossed back to expose his throat but hands tugging and demanding of Zhongli. Childe’s contradictions are intoxicating. Zhongli would call Childe vibrant.
It’s easy to forget any comparisons he might make of Childe to anyone but Childe himself. Compared to the last time they had laid together, Childe is more demanding, all of his pent up energy from an easy job coming out in how fast his hands move, how fast he’s speaking, how often he laughs high and pleased. There’s no quiet lulls or careful intimacy, instead Childe is energy and frenetic touches, kisses and rough whispers of barely self-censored sweet nothings.
Zhongli could live in moments like this for the rest of his life.
“Beidou — “ Zhongli catches her in the hallway. In his dash he hadn’t dressed in his normal attire but instead hastily thrown on a black turtleneck and casual pants. “— Childe was sent out?” He knows his voice has none of the waver he feels at his core. It’s not unheard of for this kind of thing to happen, but it’s rare for Zhongli. He knows it’s ridiculous but his mind has raced to the worst case scenario too quickly. (“The strongest people feel the most responsibility, that’s why we’re shouldering the burden.” He’d been told once.)
“Yeah. Probably only halfway through if you want to head to the comms room. I told him to leave his earpiece, but signals say he has it.” Beidou measures him with a steady gaze before cracking a bit of a smile. “Should be an easy job, but I can’t blame you.”
It’s something in the organization only the three of them — used to be four — share. Beidou’s missing eye, Ningguang’s long jagged scar along her leg, the gaping wound on Zhongli’s heart.
It’s ironically terrible timing as Zhongli slides into his usually seat and turns on his headset. The first thing he hears is gunshots. He hears them over the line quite often, from the crack of a rifle to the muffled bang of a silenced handgun but these cut to his core.
“Childe?” He knows he’s panicking and cannot imagine how terrible it is to lose someone and not have a chance to hold them one last time. It’s not something he’s experienced, nor wants to, even if a bloody goodbye has left him feeling stained. “Please respond Childe.”
More shots fired, the sound of a body falling. Zhongli holds his breath, ears straining to catch any sound he can. He’s worked in the field, the logical and rational part of his mind tells him if Childe had been seriously hurt he would hear the change in breathing not simply quicker breaths from exertion.
“— I’m here.” He finally hears Childe’s voice, smug from a job finished. Zhongli’s fingertips go numb from relief.
“— status?” Zhongli’s voice has regained its calm.
“Perfectly fine, checking on mission progress.”
“Finished, extraction route was already prepared, so I’m following that.”
“Good job, Childe.”
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.
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. A good kid? That is somewhat debatable and in truth, Zhongli has few memories of his own childhood — though he knows Childe means ‘kid’ and ‘Little Zhongli’ as simply his younger years. He doesn’t think Childe would be disappointed or even upset if he played his full hand and spoke of his time as ‘Morax’, the assassin. If anything, Childe has the kind of forward motion and almost greedy attachment to life and the challenge of their line of work that the other would find it a bonus.
And in the same way Zhongli wants to keep imagining Childe as someone who isn’t bogged down by the regret of taking lives, he doesn’t want to go through that conversation, either. The complexities of the organization, the juggling of who he is, what he wants, what actions Morax would have taken — Zhongli wants to push it to the side.
Selfish, he knows.
“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.”
Childe isn’t often dour, and Zhongli dislikes seeing it. The shadow that passes over the redhead’s face, the slight doubt that creeps into his tone despite the tease. In some ways, Zhongli cannot imagine what it is like to have no view on who he used to be. There is never any Zhongli without Morax.
Zhongli knows, actually, that Childe should be dead. It is in some ways a miracle that he didn’t die and that’s part of what anchors Zhongli. A miracle that Zhongli hasn’t seen before and one that he wishes to see again. That tenacious miracle that refuses to die.
“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. The evening air starts to get more chill but Zhongli can only tell by how warm Childe feels in contrast.
The stars begin to speckle the sky, pale yellow dots. Childe shifts and settles, easily slipping into a light sleep that Zhongli is envious of. He knows it’s because Childe doesn’t have any worries when he’s with Zhongli. He’s said before, completely guilelessly, that he feels safe around Zhongli. It’s something odd and tender that he treasures.
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.
Zhongli can’t really explain his love of cuckoo clocks. They’re garish and dated and Guizhong had pointed out to him several times that it isn’t even a normal thing to collect. He could collect stamps or postcards, but instead it’s (often very expensive) handmade clocks. Something about the little birds that always appear on time soothes him.
Ever since he found out about the hobby, Childe gifts Zhongli cuckoo clocks whenever he sees one. Which means Zhongli's modest collection which grew exponentially in the span of only a few years.
He almost has too many, but despite how cluttered their room becomes with more and more clocks he can’t tell Childe to stop getting them. In a way it’s because he knows that this is one of the earliest things Childe ever knew about him — “I collect cuckoo clocks,” he had said. And the memory of Childe presenting Zhongli with a cuckoo clock with sapphire birds and a bashful grin is one of his favorites.
“Not that we can detect, no data on if it’s an electric fence, best to avoid direct touch.”
“Childe, I don’t advise — “
He knows what Childe is doing, he can hear what he assumes is a run and then the vault. Zhongli winces, even knowing that Childe is fully capable of not making such an amateur mistake as to get electrocuted by a fence. He’s seen people suffer from electrocution before, agents he knew who had life-changing injuries, violent burns, heart problems.
“Easy.” Childe’s voice rings clear over the headset.
The next part of the mission goes on as routine, at least. Zhongli has always enjoyed being ‘Zhongli, the operator’. It isn’t something he thought he would enjoy as much, but knowing that his intel helps any agent on the field especially when he can hear a scuffle and then Childe’s clearly pleased ‘clear’ come across the radiowaves. It makes him feel like he’s doing something worthwhile that doesn’t involve taking lives.
It’s always a contradictory thought — he knows that lives have to be lost and he knows that so many of those that are killed are the rotten core of the world. But he’s glad he’s not the one pulling the trigger anymore. Zhongli has always believed in direct action and that balancing the scales is needed.
Living in the world is a tacit agreement to try and make a better future, after all.
The panel in front of Zhongli tells him the elevator shaft is ready for Childe’s descent. It’s the best option given how the safehouse is constructed. “Long climb down.” Childe muses as he begins. Zhongli can’t help but to smile a little.
“Kites were invented by two philosophers, initially for the purpose of carrying military messages and measuring distance.” Zhongli begins. He’d read an interesting book on war kites a few months ago. He likes reading nonfiction and while Childe almost never reads nonfiction, they end up with an understanding about the same things — Zhongli always fills mission silence with information. “Much like today’s kites, they were made of light wood and cloth.”
He goes on to talk about calculating wind strength with them and how it was easier to communicate about terrain conditions especially since a kite was faster than a horse and rider. There are even stories that kites had been used to scare the enemy, with whistles attached to their tail strings and pulled through the dead of night.
“Stance change.” Childe’s code phrase for moving into the real part of his work. Zhongli falls silent then. It sounds normal, almost nonexistent footfalls, the sound of doors sliding open.
What Zhongli thinks might be Childe’s hands on the floor, if it’s carpeted.
There’s no returning shots, which is probably good but Childe hasn’t responded yet either.
Zhongli feels his heart in his throat but he keeps his voice even. “Childe?”
“Set up.” Childe hisses back under his breath. Zhongli feels all the calm he has evaporate and seep into his voice.
“I’ll alert — “
“Quiet.” Childe interrupts. “Don’t. Think we got played too good, any team that comes in will get slaughtered.” His voice rises in volume. Zhongli tries not to read too much into Childe’s tone or volume but his mind keeps supplying thoughts — that Childe is going to die, that Childe is confident he’ll escape that Childe is speaking louder because someone else is in the room with him. He knows most of those aren’t likely, the more rational part of his mind tries to formulate a plan, he knows that Childe’s not entirely incorrect. Someone who corrupted their information chain this well won’t be so easy to counter.
“There’s no way we’re not going to try extraction.” Zhongli almost pleads.
“Pretty strong stuff they’re using, I should be flattered. Bet they’ll try to backtrace my communicator and tracker.” As Childe talks, his signal disappears from the panel in front of Zhongli.
“Don’t — “
“Not going to spend anymore breath arguing with you, Zhongli. Instead I need to ask you a favor.” Childe’s voice sounds muffled and far away. Zhongli focuses on each and every word, burning it into his memory. He’s always had a good memory, and if anything he remembers every tragedy just as sharp as the present moment. “Since this mission’s over. . .say the thing you say at the end of every mission?”
Good job, Childe. It sits on Zhongli’s tongue. He could say it and give Childe the peace of mind he wants. He panics. If he says it will Childe give up? If he doesn’t say it will Childe’s final moments be without resolution? Zhongli tries to grasp at the logic behind a decision, to try and figure out what he should do. He’s frozen in indecision.
Something cold rises in his chest. It settles in his veins and clears his mind. It’s been a long time since he’s felt this way. Zhongli slows his breathing, lets his heart calm in his ribcage. This isn’t a problem that operator Zhongli can solve, but it might be one that the assassin Morax can.
“. . . I can’t. I won't say it until you come home safe.” Zhongli finally replies.
He doesn’t move until he hears the receiver crackle and go dead. Childe — or someone else — has destroyed the earpiece.
It’s muscle memory, the way to Beidou’s office, the stop by the armory, the code and twist of the key into his old locker. He hasn’t been on the field in years, but it feels like he can just pull on who he had been the same way he pulls on his coat, his gloves, the holsters and guns.
“Beidou.” He doesn’t call her by her title.
“I was heading to see you.” She makes a face. “You know I can’t approve of it officially — “
“This is just courtesy.” To let her know.
“Hey easy there. But I understand. I’ll have evac waiting for you, even if it’s off the books. I’d do the same thing, so I get it.” Her expression is stormy and softens just a little. “Just make sure to come back.”
“Only if he’s with me.” Zhongli says it like a promise.
It had not been so long since he had taken the field that Zhongli forgot the numbness that came with it. Not all agents became numb and quiet things like he did, but death is a solemn matter and when he took lives he could only do so somberly. His own silence strangles him. It takes him over an hour to reach where Childe’s signal had last been. That is an hour past last contact and easily gives the enemy an opportunity to move, torture and-or kill Childe. Zhongli’s mind runs scenarios, probabilities, and provides the worst-case scenario he doesn’t want to think of.
It doesn’t seem like they have left the safe house, which means Childe is still most likely inside. Alternatively, they have disposed of him and see no reason to move, far more unlikely but he can’t discount the possibility entirely. He does not take the same path Childe had, but rather goes straight to the vehicles, puts charges under them and sets the timers. He’s through the back entrance and deep within the hallways of the complex before the first charge goes off.
Zhongli hadn’t lost his muscle memory, but the rappelling rope feels strange even through the gloves he wears. He hasn’t gripped a rope, a gun or a weapon in some time. While his body remembers, he wishes he were talking Childe through this, not doing it himself. Descending the elevator shaft is easy, he throws caution to the wind knowing the next three charges will go off soon as well. It’s a ruckus and it will be chaos. That’s fine, he hasn’t come to sneak in and out, it doesn’t matter if they know he’s there or not.
The hall that Childe had gone down is empty, and Zhongli checks several more doors and halls — methodically combing through the underground bunker area. The corridors are strangely empty for most of his searching. Disorganized or hedonistic, then. He only passes an entourage once — a group of guards and people in masks. It’s tempting to kill them. Even in a group of six and just him, Zhongli is more than confident, it’s a simple fact of his abilities. There’s still several explosive charges weighing his pockets, there’s the guns, knives and collapsed stun stick.
But he only has one goal and it isn’t punishment.
It’s a simple trick to remove a ceiling panel and pull himself up into the air duct while the group passes. Through the crack of the panels he can watch them. There’s no real detail to commit to memory of them, the only remarkable thing being their uniform and mask. Even the mask was relatively featureless, simply white with black holes for the eyes. Regardless, he won’t forget them. Particularly not the height or build of the one who is clearly the leader, blood splashed across his outfit.
The thing about him, when he had been Morax, is that he had spent years practicing how to calm his heart and ensure that he was the most efficient assassin he could be. It’s the same technique he uses now, pushing any thoughts of rage away in favor of necessity and desperate rationale. He doesn’t know if the blood is Childe’s, he doesn’t know where Childe is, he cannot afford to engage in a fight against a group until he knows for certain he’ll be able to escape with Childe.
When he can no longer hear footsteps in the hall Zhongli drops down again, quickly heading towards the direction they had come from. He’s rewarded by coming to a doorway next to a large tinted window, one way mirror glass or hidden window he assumes. No external guards, drawn away either by the vehicles exploding or simply they’re confident enough to leave the room unguarded.
The world comes to a halt, freezing and shattering around him when he peers through the glass.
His heart jumps, first with happiness — he’s found Childe, he can see him breathing so he’s alive. And then his heart plummets, through his chest and all the way to the center of Zhongli’s world. The tinted glass obscures some of the details, but beyond Childe’s shuddering breath he can see open wounds. Zhongli can’t see a guard in his immediate view. While he isn’t sure of their intention entirely, it’s likely that just bursting through the door would give the enemy the opportunity to eliminate Childe or use him against Zhongli.
He knocks. Inhales. Exhales.
The door slowly opens and in the moments it takes to fully open Zhongli surveyed the room. Standard interrogation room, empty outside of Childe and the very confused guard. It smells like blood and burned things and a clean ozone. Zhongli feels sick, but even as his stomach rolls he’s already reaching for the guard to break their neck. It’s easy to do it in one motion, let his feet continue to carry him over to where Childe is tied to a chair.
No, not just tied. At first he thinks there are holes in Childe’s hands, but as he gets closer he realizes the darkened spots covered with blood aren’t holes, they’re nails. Childe laughs, but it’s short and pained and Zhongli wants to gently cup his face and tell him everything will be all right. Instead he says “Childe — “ and starts to untie him.
“This is going to hurt, I’m sorry.” He murmurs, another ‘I’m sorry’ slipping out of his lips before he can stop it. Childe’s barely conscious, his eyes aren’t even focused on Zhongli. The chair is meta and wood, the cheap kind with screws holding the wood to the metal frame. Zhongli is thankful for that as he can pull out a multitool and start to pry the wood off of the frame. He can’t be too gentle, speed is of the essence, but it seems Childe has passed out again.
It’s comforting to have Childe leaning against him as he works, he can feel every breath the other takes, but it also gives Zhongli a view of the mess made of Childe’s back. They had skinned him. And then just left the open wounds. The rage he feels is distant, muted by his need to keep working — stay focused, he can’t waste time drowning in his own feelings. But Zhongli can hear his own heartbeat louder and louder, eclipsing Childe’s and his hands tremble when he realizes, even after working the wooden arms of the chair off, they had also nailed one of Childe’s feet to the floor. There are only a few nails there, and with the floor being lacquered large wooden boards rather than planks it would take too long to leverage one up.
Another apology. Another burst of anger he pushes deep down into his gut, flicking the knife out of the tool and setting the blunt edge against the first nail head to leverage it up and out of Childe’s flesh. As soon as more of the nail is revealed he grabs it with his fingers and pulls it out. Blood wells up, but there’s only three nails and Zhongli moves quickly. He doesn’t know what the field treatment would be for this. Judging from Childe’s haggard breathing, the nails may be the least of their worries. Zhongli prays to anyone who will listen that there is little or no internal bleeding.
“I’m sorry, please don’t die on me.” He hears himself beg, the voice strained and foreign to his own ears. Another nail, another apology. The last nail and he doesn’t apologize, but instead pulls Childe’s arm up over his shoulders and lifts him quickly. He would like to take the time to tend to Childe’s injuries, any of them, but he didn’t have a first aid kit and the long winding halls were between them and safety.
Luck is on his side. Even if Zhongli can move quickly with Childe in the fireman’s hold, there’s no way to pull them both into the ceiling. He’s both thankful Childe hasn’t woken again and also worried. Adrenaline and a spike of what he knows is icy fear drives him forward, sliding corner to corner and only stopping to check the old school pager tucked into his inner pocket — coordinates for the extraction Beidou sent in code displayed on the screen.
“We’re going home.” He says softly, hopes part of his words reach Childe in some way.
“You know I can’t blame you.” Beidou watches him sharply, but he can read her expression — she’s worried. For him.
“Then?” Since the medics have seen to Childe, Zhongli’s hands haven’t stopped shaking.
“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.” She frowns and gives him a bit of a rueful smile.
“And what conclusion did you come to?” He doesn’t mean for his tone to be so sharp, but despite the control he had over himself earlier, it feels as though any amount of policing his tone would be too much effort. He both wants to sleep and never sleep, afraid the moment he closes his eyes Childe will stop breathing.
“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.” Beidou and Ninnguang have argued over it in the past. He’s been witness to it, watched but never weighing in. Neither of them have ever asked him to either, allowing him to step back from leader and field agent to operator.
“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 and this time I will retire entirely. “ Zhongli bows his head.
“Have you ever thought. . .” He finds himself trailing off.
“That we deserve a better future, along with the world?” Beidou finishes for him. “Yeah, every time I think about asking her to marry me. But it’s not time for us yet, she’s a workaholic and I guess I am too.”
“Thank you, Beidou.”
“No, thank you for your service, Zhongli.”
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.
Aha! And now we're done with the Zhongli extras! I hope they helped provide a bit more context since 52-hertz was all Childe all the time ♥
It will probably be a while before re-visiting this universe again as several other plots have ambushed me, but that you guys again for encouragement and appreciation for this series! It's meant a lot to me ♥ ♥ ♥