Part XXI. Zhongli! Zhongli! Zhongli! Part 2
The way in which Ajax wakes up is not gentle; one moment, he’s drifting in a sea of darkness and the next, his eyes snap open, his mind quickly being dragged from the comforting depths of sleep into the harsh world of consciousness.
Everywhere he looks is shining gold, from the canopy of shimmering fabric above his head to the cool sheets draped over his body. Ajax shifts, slowly freeing an arm from the confines of his cover, and as he does, he catches a glimpse of the bedclothes he’s wearing.
Even his pajamas are gold and satin-like to touch, with delicate embroideries featuring the geo symbol lining the cuffs. Way more luxurious than the usual cotton oversized shirt and pants he prefers.
Next, it’s the smell that hits him – familiar, floral and delicate, mixed with old paper and incense. It covers the room, clinging on to the sheets, its scent warm and comforting.
Where the fuck is he?
He moves to peel off the cover from his body, but the hot aching pain pulsating from his hands stops him in his track. Ow! Owwwww! What the shit?
The door to his room slides open and holy fuck, is that Zhongli? What is Zhongli doing here?
Better yet, what is Zhongli wearing?
The man has his hair down, the long strands tumbling past his shoulders in a waterfall of dark silk that fade into cor lapis amber. He’s in a set of casual dark brown and gold robes made of material that shifts and shimmers with every movement under the candlelight. His robes drape over him, cinched closed with a silk belt, the thin material of his outfit does nothing to hide the broadness of his shoulders or the way his torso tapers into that lovely thin waist.
“I’m glad to see that you are awake, Childe,” Zhongli says by way of greeting. “How are you feeling?”
Zhongli’s tone is gentle despite the wide-eyed look Ajax must be giving him. It takes an embarrassing amount of time for Childe to even register that Zhongli is holding something – a box of medical supplies and a glass of water.
“’m fine,” he chokes out, pulling himself up so that he’s seated upright. It’s slow going and clumsy without the use of his hands. “What happened?”
Zhongli takes a seat at the side of the bed, laying out the supplies and the glass on the table beside him. “I thought it would be best if you spent the night here after the excitement from last night. Would you like some water? Some painkiller?”
As if by magic, the events from the evening come crashing back and Ajax finds himself choking on the onslaught of memories.
Oh god, last night.
Ajax remembers showing up to Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, raving like a goddamned lunatic because –
“Tonia,” he breathes. And then, a second thought hits him, one that’s much more sinister that he hasn’t even fucking considered before, one that has him going pale in fear.
What if this Tonia is a user?
What if the user is his sister?
“I need to go,” he croaks out. “I need to find her. I need – I need to leave and I – Zhongli, let go of me!”
“I will not,” Zhongli says, his tone hard as he keeps his grip firm on Ajax’s arms, stopping any of his flailing movements. “You are injured and distraught and you need to stay put for your own safety.”
“I can’t!” Because Tonia might be here in this world. Tonia might be here and Ajax can’t leave her by herself. He can’t just abandon her like that. He needs to find her.
User Ajax, please remain calm, AR chimes out in his head. Even with his mechanical voice, the worry is obvious.
What if she’s a User? Ajax thinks as he renews his struggling. What if she’s trapped in this world like I am?
User Ajax, there are no other users in this world aside from yourself and User Hu Tao.
Ajax goes still. There are…no other users?
That is correct. You need not worry over Character Tonia.
Tonia is a character in this world.
The relief that bowls into him is palpable. Ajax slumps over, his body going limp like a puppet with its string cut. Oh. Oh, thank god. Thank god his little sister is not –
Thank god Tonia is not going through what he’s going through.
User Ajax should focus before Character Zhongli worries even more .
Just as AR finishes his warning, two soft hands reach over to cradle Ajax’s face, and the unexpected touch draws him back to a visibly worried Zhongli.
“Childe. I’m right here, dear boy. I’m right here. That’s right, focus on me. Focus on my voice.”
Ajax blinks slowly.
Fuck. Zhongli is here. Zhongli is still here and he’s gone off and tried to fight him in his panic.
He’s got no words to placate the adeptus before him, who’s clearly growing more alarmed from how dazed he must seem.
“The pupils are a bit dilated and the heartbeat is elevated.” Zhongli’s hand brushes against his forehead. “Temperature is a bit too warm. A fever? Hmm, maybe it’s from the agitation. What about the abyssal energy level?”
Zhongli pulls back slightly. “Childe? Are you with me?”
Ajax swallows and gives the smallest nod. “I’m here. I’m here. I – sorry. Sorry.”
“Nothing to apologize for,” Zhongli says, though he isn’t completely relaxed. His eyes are still scanning Ajax’s face like Baizhu does whenever he’s diagnosing a patient. “Are you alright? If I said anything to have alarmed you…”
Ajax shakes his head. “No, no, you didn’t. I just, ah…”
What the hell kind of explanation can Ajax give? How can he justify freaking out on Zhongli like that?
“Um, I just came out of a nightmare and I was confused,” he lies. Probably badly. He wants to bury his face in his hands but his hands hurt too much. “I thought – I didn’t manage to get my head on straight ‘til just now. Sorry for making you worried.”
Luckily, Zhongli doesn’t pry further. His shoulders slump with relief. “Understandable. You had an upsetting evening and you woke up to find yourself in a strange environment. Anybody would require a few minutes to adjust. Here, let me get you some water.”
Ajax takes several large gulps of water from the glass Zhongli is holding up for him, trying not to grimace at his own helplessness. Now that his head is a bit less muddled, the rest of his memories from last night are trickling through. He remembers barging into Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, remembers confronting Hu Tao (oh God, there’s another person he owes a million apologies to.) He remembers the anger leaving him when Hu Tao admitted that she had no idea who Tonia was, and then, he remembers slumping against Zhongli’s shoulders, listening to that low, soothing voice while Zhongli and Hu Tao worked on his hands. And then…
“You fell asleep last night,” Zhongli murmurs, predicting Ajax’s question probably from the look of growing confusion on his face. “I woke you up and we decided it was best to retire to my abode for the night, though I suspect you would have little recollection of that,” Zhongli pulls the glass away and places it back on to the table. “It is still very early, so you should sleep some more. But after I take a look at your hands. May I see them?”
The mention of sleep has Ajax feeling tired all of a sudden. Like magic, a blanket of comforting warmth settles over him, making his body relax further into the cozy bed and his mind fuzzy. It’s probably the soothing incense smell or the adrenaline crash.
“Hmm, okay,” Ajax answers with a little nod and a yawn.
Zhongli gently takes a bandaged hand, cradling it in his own, and inspects it with careful eyes. Even in the dim candlelight, Ajax can see the faint splotches of rust-brown staining the bandages, which explains the dull throbbing pain in his hands.
“We’re going to need to change these.” Zhongli gives the second hand the same careful look-over before laying both limbs down and reaching for his medicine kit. “This may hurt a little but I will do my best to be gentle.”
Ajax’s unwrapped hands look positively gnarly. His knuckles are swollen to an ugly red purple, and the skin over them is scraped off, leaving behind raw flesh and thick scabs where the blood has broken through. Now that he’s focused on his hand, he can feel twinges of sharp pain from even the slightest movement.
At least Zhongli is working quickly, first wiping the injuries carefully with a clean rag and some sort of medicinal oil, then slathering on a thin layer of lotion that does wonders numbing out the pain. Finally, he wraps the hands with fresh bandages, tying the ends in a neat knot.
“There. All done. Now, some painkiller and after that, sleep.”
Ajax downs the round little pills Zhongli gives him without protests, chasing it with the last few more gulps of water from the glass pressed against his lips. In the next breath, he feels his eyelids droop with exhaustion.
Yes, sleep sounds perfectly divine right now.
“Have a good night, Childe,” he hears Zhongli say as he helps him lay back into the soft, comfortable bed. “I will be right here when you wake up, alright?”
“’M kay,” Ajax sighs, and then, he’s out like a light.
The next time Ajax opens his eyes, it’s to streaks of gray morning light streaming through the windows. His mind is also much clearer; so clear, in fact, that the embarrassing memories of him freaking the fuck out from a few scant hours ago lay in the forefront of his thoughts.
Oh, he thinks, with no small amount of dread as he registers the grand room he’s in and the luxurious silk sheets he’s lying on. Everything that happened last night was real. Oh, god.
He had acted completely deranged in front of Hu Tao. And Zhongli, twice. End his miserable existence now.
Before he can lament too much, the sight of a familiar figure sitting in a nearby chair, a newspaper in hand, catches his attention.
“Zhongli?” he calls out. “Is that you?”
He moves to rub his eyes but hisses at the stinging pain. “Ow.”
The speed in which Zhongli abandons his seat is pretty impressive. “Childe, careful. Your hands are still healing.”
Good morning, User Ajax. Healing Food is available should you wish to use it, AR helpfully suggests.
Yeah, he’s definitely going to be popping one of those the moment he’s left alone to wallow in shame and self-pity. But first, “Zhongli? What are you doing here?” He squints at the familiar attire the man is in. Is he still in his sleeping clothes?
“I said I would be here when you wake up, remember?” Zhongli replies as he helps Ajax up so that he’s sitting up. The answer tells everything Ajax needs to know. Knowing the man, Zhongli must have stayed the entire night to make sure Ajax was doing alright even if it means he’s stuck wearing something more casual than what he would prefer in front of a guest, and yeah, this knowledge does not make Ajax feel better about himself. Zhongli’s done so much for Ajax already. It’s just embarrassing how much Ajax needs to be coddled at this point.
“I – uh – yeah, yeah I remember,” Ajax says, clearing his throat. “Thanks. You didn’t have to do that. You could’ve just left me to it and get some proper rest for yourself.”
Zhongli shakes his head, a frown marring his face. “Never. I made a promise and I will honour it. How are your hands? Are they feeling better? Let me get my kit.”
Ajax tries flexing his fingers a bit and okay, bad idea. Very bad idea. “Better,” he lies through his teeth, trying not to wince. “Almost as good as new all thanks to your healing. I, uh, think I should probably get out of hair. Get back to my…” his eyes go wide. “Oh, crud! My apartment!”
Zhongli, who’s clearly taken to ignoring Ajax’s babbling since he didn’t stop unpacking his medicinal kit, pauses. “Your apartment?”
“I wrecked it and oh, Ekaterina is going to be so mad.” She’s going to be so worried when the news reaches her ears about what he did to his apartment and then she’s going to be livid because she’s in charge of arranging his living accommodations, including fixing everything.
Zhongli’s eyes flit to Ajax’s hands. “I see. So that’s how you were injured. You mentioned you punched the walls and the floor when you were in Wangsheng Funeral Parlour, and to be honest, I thought that was just a turn of phrase.”
“N – no, I was trying to, uh…” What explanation can Ajax even give without making him sound insane? Though that ship may have sailed at this point. “It’s complicated?”
Zhongli nods. “So it would seem.”
Then, he goes back to changing Ajax’s bandage in a disturbingly Zen-like silence.
“A – aren’t you going to ask about what happened?” Ajax asks when it looks like Zhongli won’t talk.
“Do you want to talk about what happened?”
No. Not really. But he feels like he owes it to the man. “Uh, I –”
Zhongli shakes his head. “You can tell me when you are ready.” He ties off the bandages and tucks Ajax’s hands back under the covers. “Are you hungry? I can prepare something to eat unless you would like to rest some more.”
“I – I think I want to lay back down.”
“Alright. Let me make things more comfortable for you first.”
He watches as Zhongli putters around the room some more, taking Ajax’s western-style pillow, fluffing it, before placing it against his back, and it hits Ajax at once how utterly ridiculous everything is. Here he is, sitting in bed, a very luxurious bed in a very luxurious guestroom in the exceedingly gorgeous home that belongs to Zhongli, aka Morax, aka the Geo fucking Archon himself. The same Geo Archon who spent the evening taking care of him, who had held him as he spiralled into panic twice. Who had then hauled his ass home because Ajax had shut down on the man, then fell asleep on him. And now, that Geo Archon is fluffing his pillows and offering to make breakfast and being perfectly lovely while Ajax is laying there, a human mess with a disaster zone of an apartment and with zero explanations for his actions.
Scratch embarrassment. Ajax is so mortified he can practically die. Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ.
“Hmm, and there it is, there’s the panic,” Ajax hears Zhongli mutter through his hitched breathing. “Childe. Stop. Look at me.”
Hands reach out and cup his cheeks, drawing his face up so that he’s staring into a pair of warm amber eyes. The hands feel soft against his skin, and Ajax focuses on the sensation, on the strength hidden in those delicate fingers, to ground him to the present.
“Hmm. Good. Much better,” Zhongli murmurs, tracing the curve of Ajax’s cheek with his thumb. “What you need to focus on right now is to rest and heal. Whatever it is that you need to do can wait once you get better. If there is anything urgent, I can help, including help with your apartment.”
“I don’t think I locked the door properly and my stuff is just there,” Ajax confesses, which is just sheer idiocy because it doesn’t fucking matter. Who cares about his locked door when he’s faced with the pressing need to crawl into the nearest ditch and die? Still, his mouth persists: “And Ekaterina, I need to tell her. She’s going to get so mad.”
“I will go and make sure everything is in order.” Zhongli pushes Ajax down until he’s lying on his back, tucking his covers around him before smoothing the fabric out. “I will also speak with Miss Ekaterina and let her know you are currently resting somewhere safe, so there is no need to worry.”
“But – I – ”
Zhongli gives Ajax’s chest a reassuring pat. Before Ajax can stammer some more protests, he leans down, his eyes soft and tender and murmurs, “Have a good rest, Childe. I will wake you when food is ready.”
Then, Zhongli sweeps away, elegant robes swirling behind him as he floats out of the room. The door closes behind him with a soft click and silence settles over the space once again, leaving Ajax alone with nothing but his thoughts.
And with AR, of course.
He sighs. “Great. Just great. How the fuck am I going to get myself out of this one?”
What is he going to do about Tonia?
Because no matter how he slices it, isn’t it too much of a coincidence that OG Tartaglia has siblings, with one of them also named Tonia?
“Perhaps User Ajax should follow Character Zhongli’s advice and rest some more. There is not much to be done in the time being, after all.”
Ajax sighs. AR is right. He can mull over some more after the last of his panicked adrenaline subsides.
There is one last thing to do before he can nod off though.
“AR? Activate Healing Food, Medium Grade.”
Ajax wakes to the faint scent of warm, savoury food and the muffled sound of conversation.
“ – injury….best….stay for a while.”
“….do not mind…inconvenience at all…watch over…”
“…sad…exhausted…shock…not sure –”
“…no idea…noticed…Master Childe…”
At the mention of his name, Ajax peels off his cover, fumbling a little with his still heavily bandaged hands, and hops out of bed.
He shuffles out of his room and follows the sound of the voices as he navigates the hallways richly decorated in silk paintings, precious wall hangings, porcelain vases, and statues. Ajax recognizes some of these as recently purchased during their many shopping excursions (given that he paid for them all; that celadon plate, for example, cost him over three hundred thousand mora).
At least the pieces look well-cared-for with not a speck of dust found ghosting their surfaces.
He makes his way down the stairs. Now that he’s closer, he can recognize one of the voices being Zhongli’s. The other one, female, sounds awfully familiar too.
“…will only be a temporary measure until arrangements can be made for alternative living accommodations for Master Childe.”
“What’s temporary?” Childe cuts in as he shuffles into the sunny foyer. Sure enough, Zhongli (back in his day suit) is standing in front of –
“Master Childe!” she greets, a look of relief crossing her face. “You’re awake. How are you feeling? Mister Zhongli told me about your injury and your apartment.”
The question ‘what happened’ is clearly tacked on to the end of that statement, though unasked.
Ajax winces. Right. He’s not going to have this conversation now. “It’s, ah, complicated. I’m…doing better, thanks. Sorry for troubling you with my mess.”
“It’s fine, no need to apologize,” she answers, though the look she’s giving him suggests that they’re going to have to have this talk sooner rather than later. “I’m glad you’re feeling well enough to be up and about. I was discussing arrangements for your accommodations while you recuperate. Mister Zhongli has kindly offered his home for you to stay in. I think it’s a fantastic idea.”
Wait, next accommodations? Staying over at Zhongli’s? “What’s wrong with my hotel suite? I know I made a mess of things, but not all the rooms are busted. I can just stay in those while people fix up the place.”
He flinches at the matching stern looks from both Zhongli and Ekaterina.
“Master Childe, you need a proper place to rest properly and that means being somewhere away from the mess,” Ekaterina says, “I have also taken the liberty of letting Andrei know you will be away for a week.”
“A week? Isn’t that a bit much? I only hurt my hands!”
He gets the look again, fiercer this time. It reminds him all too much of being scolded by his mother as a child. “Yes. You hurt your hands under complicated circumstances. I am well aware.”
Yikes. They’re going to have that conversation real soon.
“I must agree with Miss Ekaterina on this, Childe,” Zhongli interjects. “Some time off to heal and relax would be beneficial.”
“But – but,” Ajax splutters. “Wouldn’t I be bothering you?”
“No, not at all,” Zhongli answers, shaking his head. “I am delighted to have you in my home. I must also admit that a large part of my offer stems from selfishness since it would put my mind at ease knowing that you are here, recuperating peacefully.”
He can practically hear Hu Tao’s voice in his head, her words from months ago taunting him: “How the hell did you turn my amazing RPG game into a BL dating-sim?”
Yeah, no. He’s not thinking about that impossibility. He’s done a fantastic job not thinking about it for the past few months and he will continue to not think about it.
He’s about to open his mouth to protest some more but the expression on Zhongli’s face stops him in his track.
The man looks worried. Genuinely worried. And…disappointed.
“I understand if my offer may be a tad too bold and you would rather have alternative arrangements,” Zhongli offers instead, “I apologize if the liberty I have taken with my offer is making you uncomfortable –”
“I – no, it’s not that – Zhongli, it’s fine! You’re doing me a favour!” Ajax placates. “It’s just a lot to take in at once is all. I’m happy to take up your offer.” Anything to wipe that sad look off his face.
“Good,” Ekaterina says with a nod of satisfaction as a bright smile blooms across Zhongli’s lips. “We can decide more on what to do about alternative living accommodations after your leave, whether that means moving you to somewhere new or not. Before I make arrangements for repair for your apartment, I’m assuming you’d want to clear the space first to give more room for the contractors and repairmen?”
Which is coded for: please make sure you don’t have any secret documents lying around before the space is opened up to outsiders. Ajax understands that loud and clear. He nods. “I’ll need to do that and, uh, lock everything up. And I’d rather keep my current apartment rather than move to a new one.”
His Traces of Tartaglia quest isn’t over yet, after all. Who knows what else Tartaglia has hidden in the walls that Ajax has yet to find.
“We can plan more in a few days’ time after you’ve rested,” Ekaterina confirms. “Please do not feel like you should prioritize this over your own health. If that is all, I will seal off your apartment until you are ready to visit. I will also have some men send over a few casual outfits from the tailor for the duration of your stay. Do you have any preferences?”
“I – I can just go back to my apartment and pack a few shirts and stuff. Really, there’s no need.”
“He prefers loose-fitted shirts and long pants,” Zhongli offers. “Made with soft fabrics, mostly cotton. Nothing too ostentatious. He prefers blues, grays, and creams as opposed to the more vibrant colours.”
Ajax looks at Zhongli in surprise. How does he –
“This tends to be your preference whenever I visit your home,” Zhongli answers the unasked question with a smile that has no business looking so fond. It’s doing funny things to Ajax’s chest. “My apologies if I were mistaken and you prefer something else.”
“Ah…no, no, that’s not it.”
“That’s easy enough to arrange,” Ekaterina answers, as she turns to go. “If there’s nothing else, I shall take my leave for now. And Master Childe,” she gives him one last pointed look, one filled with extra judgment, “rest. Or Mister Zhongli and I shall be very cross with you.”
“I rather like Miss Ekaterina,” Zhongli notes lightly at the space she had just occupied. “She is quite the character.”
Lunch is a quiet affair consisting of a warm home-cooked meal of chicken congee, herb pork bone soup, steamed Chinese broccoli, and jasmine tea. As expected of the illustrious Rex Lapis, only the most elegant porcelain is used to serve and prepared to perfection, each bite bursting with flavour.
The meal would’ve been much better received if Zhongli wasn’t actively spoon feeding him every bite.
“Z – Zhongli! I’m fine. My hands are doing much better. I can hold a pair of chopsticks or a spoon!”
Zhongli isn’t having it. “I’m sure you are feeling better,” he placates as he holds another spoonful up for Ajax after blowing on it, no less. “Which is all the more reason for you to rest your hands. We wouldn’t want you to hurt them and undo all the healing that’s been done already. Now, another bite, please.”
“This is embarrassing,” Ajax whines, but caves to Zhongli’s demand when the man looks at him expectantly. Dammit, the congee is delicious. “I’m not a child!”
“Of course not. You are a very capable individual who will no doubt help me if I were in a similar predicament. Please try this soup. It is very nutritious, very fresh.”
They finish their meal one spoonful at a time. Ajax is apparently a lot hungrier than he thought because he ends up devouring everything in front of him to Zhongli’s obvious delight.
“I didn't know you cooked,” Ajax says when the dishes are cleared and Zhongli is changing his bandages. “Everything you’ve prepared is delicious.”
“I dabble. I cannot claim to be a master of the culinary arts and I certainly cannot create anything as exquisite as some of the dishes you’ve prepared for me. Oh, your hands are looking much better. I’m glad to see how much you’ve healed.”
“I heal fast,” Ajax answers with a small shrug. Thank you, OP Healing Food! “I hardly created anything fancy either. It’s just stir-fries and cakes mostly.”
“You made me that delicious ‘mille crêpes’ cake. That is hardly a simple affair. The labour alone to create all those layers must have been extensive, let alone the hours you must have put in to perfect the recipe.”
Ah, leave it to Zhongli to point out and appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the dish. The thought makes Ajax smile. “I’m happy to make you another one as a thank you for letting me stay over.”
The offer is tempting enough for Zhongli to stop and consider it instead of giving his usual polite rebuff. “You need not make it to thank me,” he settles with, “but if you insist on making it, then I must insist that you do so after a bit more rest.”
Ajax chuckles. “Alright, deal. One mille crêpes cake as a…a celebratory cake then.”
The rest of the day is spent in an equally peaceful, if not, surreal manner, especially once Ajax learned that Hu Tao actually gave Zhongli time off which he accepted. With Zhongli at home, fully intent on taking good care of him, it doesn’t leave him much to do except lay in bed, sleep and eat. Basically, it’s as if Ajax is the most spoiled cat on the planet.
At least Zhongli wasn’t lying when he said he didn’t mind, judging by the utterly, utterly random L-points Ajax gets from doing basic mundane things. Leaning over and taking a sip of water from the cup Zhongli is holding up for him garners 2 L-points, grumbling about how he doesn’t need that much TLC gets him 1 L-point, thanking the man for dinner gets another L-point, as with offering to clean up.
Praying to Rex Lapis that evening, because he remembers he needs to keep up that façade at the last minute, also nets him a generous amount of L-points. Those points are way more than his singing deserves, what the heck is Zhongli thinking?
(Ajax remains steadfast in his conviction to Not Think about Hu Tao’s words as the L-points accumulate. He’s going to chalk it up as Zhongli being pleased with his presence and nothing more. Yup, yup.)
This goes on for the next few days. During those days, any guilty attempts made to explain himself are gently turned down, with Zhongli repeating that he will listen only when Ajax is ready to explain. It does nothing to assuage the gnawing guilt from taking advantage of Zhongli’s hospitality and generosity.
Meanwhile, Ajax has made exactly zero progress with his Tonia situation, because any questions about how Tonia the character is here and whether more of Ajax’s family are characters in this world are met with cryptic answers or straight-up denials. At least AR sounds genuinely apologetic for being unable to answer Ajax’s questions and is sympathetic to his plight.
Speaking of being sympathetic, Hu Tao herself waved off Ajax’s apology when she dropped by for a visit, after Zhongli kindly ushered them into a guest room and left them to chat in private.
“I might not know who that person in the letter is, but I’m guessing it’s someone important from the other world. I’d be freaked out too if I run into people I knew, so I get how fucked up it feels,” she says, for once, sounding like the serious adult that she is. “Just…take care of yourself, okay? I’m here if you need someone to chat or vent.”
She also hands the copy of the letter to him, the one with Tonia’s name on it. “By the way, you left this on the table. Don’t worry, I hid it from Zhongli. He also asked if you were looking for me when you showed up at Wangsheng Funeral Parlour but I lied and said I had no idea and that it was more likely for you to look for him than for me since you’re close friends.”
“Thanks,” he says, tucking his letter back into the System’s Inventory. “Tonia is my younger half-sister from, um, from before, as an FYI.”
“Shit, kid. I’m really, really sorry,” Hu Tao says. “No wonder you were pissed. You doing okay?”
“Better. I asked AR if Tonia is a user and he told me that that’s not the case. At least it makes me feel better that this world’s Tonia is just another character. Still pretty fucked up in the grand scheme of things.”
“I’ll say,” Hu Tao nods. “Does AR have an explanation on why there’s a Character Tonia in this world?”
“‘Character Tonia is here because she is needed here.’ That’s the response. When I asked if I’d run into more of my family members in this world, all he has to say is, ‘if the characters are here, it is because they are needed here.’ Any questions elaborating on those answers are denied.”
“Well, that’s decidedly unhelpful. So, what are your next steps? Do you want to reach out to Character Tonia to find out more about her?”
“I don’t know,” Ajax admits. “There’s a part of me that really, really wants to reach out but how am I going to do that? She’s OG Tartaglia’s sister, not mine, and I don’t exactly want to pretend I’m her dead brother especially when at some point, I want to let the family know that OG Tartaglia is gone.”
“That’s really, really ballsy of you.”
Ajax shrugs. “I wasn’t planning on telling them right now. But eventually, once I know it’s safe for me to divulge this info, I’ll do it. It’s the right thing to do after all.”
“Yeah, I suppose it is.” Hu Tao gives him an appraising look. “You’re a good kid, Ajax. Don’t let other people tell you otherwise.”
“I wish I can do more though,” Ajax mutters with a grimace. “I don’t like sitting around with no plan of action.”
“Well, what else have you been doing lately?”
“I was trying to advance the OG Tartaglia questline. I got as far as finding out OG Tartaglia’s hometown and, well, Tonia.” He also summarizes his findings of the military records to Hu Tao, as well as his speculations about something major happening during the six months of missing records.
Ajax is expecting Hu Tao to nod along, confirming that he’s on the right track. He isn’t expecting her to look gobsmacked.
“What the hell,” she says, “That’s not – that information shouldn’t be there.”
Ajax does not like the sound of that at all, especially coming from the person who originally created the world. “What do you mean, shouldn’t be there? What shouldn’t be there?”
Hu Tao gets up from her seat and paces. “When I designed the world, I had a million drafts on backstories and lore. Honestly, I’ve written so much, it’s impossible to remember every little detail, but I do remember playing around with the idea of fleshing Tartaglia out. Make him into a more well-rounded character. Give him more of a personality, a backstory. I had all these grand designs for him and tried pitching the idea to the board of directors.”
Hu Tao grimaces. “They hated it. They didn't like the idea of spending so many resources on an Arc 1 villain so I had to scrap everything and start from scratch. I ended up going for a more simplified version of the character with a vague to non-existent backstory and simple motives. I’m not proud of what I had done. It’s definitely one of the long lists of regrets I’ve got with how I handled this project. I would’ve stuck to my guns had I known that the budget cut afterwards would’ve stripped the character down even more into the one-dimensional villain we know and hate.”
“So, what exactly are you saying?” Ajax asks, brows furrowing.
Hu Tao stops and turns to Ajax. “I have a theory about this world. You and I both know that this place is more complex than OG Genshin Impact, but I’m starting to suspect that this world is borrowing things directly from our world to build those complexities. Specifically, things like,” she points to herself, “my unpublished drafts,” and then, she points to Ajax, “and the people you know.
“And if that’s what’s happening here, then clearly, whoever’s in charge has some sort of grand design for you and me. Why else would they be borrowing things so personal to us both?”
Hu Tao’s words continue to haunt Ajax as he lays in bed that night.
This world has grand designs for him and Hu Tao. It sounds preposterous except…didn’t AR say that the users’ purpose in this world is not that of punishment? Didn’t AR say that the character roles bound to the users are “selected carefully and for a purpose”?
And didn’t AR say that Character Tonia is here because she is “needed here”?
Needed in what ways? Is it related to the purpose for Ajax’s presence in this world? What even is the purpose for Ajax to be selected as a user? Come to think of it, why does he have to complete the Main Missions at all? Sure, he understands that he’d be penalized, but why? Why is the world going out of its way to punish him in order to force him to complete the Main Missions?
Ajax feels like he’s one of those conspiracy theorists on YouTube. Where’s a board and a million strings when he needs them?
Sighing for the umpteenth time that evening, Ajax gives up on sleep altogether. He throws back his covers, hops out of bed, and leaves his bedroom, snagging a robe on his way out. What he would pay to have his piano right now, or even his guitar – anything to help him think as he purges this restless energy out of him. Since neither of those things is available, he might as well try for Option B: a nice, warm cup of chamomile tea.
This late at night, the house is completely quiet and peaceful, a far cry from his apartment in Chihu Rock that’s facing one of the busiest streets in Liyue Harbour. Ajax quietly pads to the kitchen, oil lamp in hand to guide his way through the darkness, and puts the kettle on. He’s busy perusing through Zhongli’s endless tea collection in his tea cabinet when he hears soft footsteps behind him.
“Hmm. Too many thoughts in my head,” Ajax replies, turning around to greet Zhongli with a small, sheepish smile. The man is looking noticeably more relaxed with his unbound hair and his set of wispy, silk sleeping robes, though this set of clothing differs slightly from the previous versions Ajax has seen. It features more blacks and creams, peppered with patterns that look like glimmering golden scales along the sleeves. Just as fancy and elegant as the other sleeping attires the man had adorned.
And just as laden with obvious symbolism of him being the Geo Archon. Really, it’s as if Zhongli is not even trying to be subtle in hiding his status as Rex Lapis. How is it that nobody knows about Zhongli’s real identity?
“Ah, sorry,” Ajax shakes his head. “Lost in my own head again. Would you like some chamomile tea? I’m making a cup for myself.”
“Chamomile tea would be nice, thank you.”
They relocate to the living room with a fresh pot of tea and two teacups. As with the rest of Zhongli’s house, the room is decorated to impress in traditional Liyuan-style, hand-carved, redwood furniture, painted silk drapes, and more decorative antiques that are probably older than any Liyuan alive today. Different shades of gold feature prominently throughout the space, embodying the space in a warm, amber glow that reminds Ajax of being inside a treasure trove.
Maybe that analogy is a fitting one. He is sitting in the den of a dragon, after all.
Ajax sinks into the plush cushion on Zhongli’s fancy redwood chair and sighs into his tea, letting the warmth diffuse into his body and wash away the last of his panicked thoughts.
“I hope I didn’t wake you up,” he says after they’ve each had their quiet moment to enjoy their beverages. “Unless you’re having trouble sleeping like I am.”
“No, I was awake,” Zhongli answers, taking a slow sip of his tea. “I was actually finishing up some work and had a craving for tea, so it was excellent timing running into you.”
“Always so hardworking,” Ajax tsked, “you really should take better care of yourself or else you will get sick. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be talking. You can stop looking at me like that now!”
Zhongli, tellingly, doesn’t deny the comment and continues sipping his tea.
“You said you’ve had too many thoughts in your head,” he says instead after a moment of silence. “I’ve been told that sharing them helps lighten the load in your mind. If you care to share them, I am happy to listen. I promise I will keep them strictly confidential between you and me.”
Ajax believes him, especially coming from the mouth of the God of Contracts.
The question is, where can he start? It’s not like he can be completely forthright with his problem either. Maybe, he can talk in hypotheticals?
“Zhongli, do you ever have the feeling that you’re just…trapped by something out of your control?”
“Trapped?” Zhongli goes still. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t mean physically,” well, he does, “more like, where you feel like you’re on a boat and you have no control where it’s steering towards. You’re stuck on it and you’re at the complete mercy of a million and one things out of your control – wind, current, weather – and all you can do is just hang on and hope you don’t fall off.”
Ajax clutches his warm tea closer to his chest. “And the worst part is, you have no idea where it’s even taking you. You have no idea who’s steering the ship and what their intentions are – good or bad. All you can do is hope that things turn out for the best. I – I’m not making any sense, am I?”
“You feel lost and not in control of your own fate,” Zhongli offers, golden eyes focused on Ajax. “Worse still, you feel like you are placed in a situation where you’re being guided to a set of actions that you have no control or say over. If I may ask, does it have something to do with your injuries?”
“I – yeah,” Ajax admits, grimacing. God, he wants so badly to be able to talk candidly and openly to Zhongli, but at the same time, what the hell will he say to explain this clusterfuck? “Please don’t spread this around but I, um, I found out something a – about my family. I didn’t react well.” The chuckle he lets out is full of self-deprecation. “Obviously. I didn’t react well. I must have scared you showing up the way I did, didn’t I?”
“Oh,” Zhongli blinks. “I am very sorry to hear that and I am doubly sorry that your family is making you feel like you are trapped. Please do not apologize for the way you appeared that evening. I was more worried about your well-being than anything else. I would prefer this a million times over you deciding to struggle alone.”
“Thank you,” Ajax answers. Technically, Zhongli’s wrong in his assumption; it’s not Ajax’s family that’s making him feel trapped but, ah, it’s fine. It’s easier to let Zhongli run with that thought.
“What do you intend to do next? Do you need to travel home to resolve the matter?”
“No idea on what my next steps are,” Ajax admits. “I won’t be leaving Liyue any time soon though.” Although going to OG Tartaglia’s hometown would be one way to uncover more secrets about him. But for that plan to work, it will involve him having to pretend he’s OG Tartaglia which Ajax remains against. He’s also not sure how he will react if he does see his family members as characters there.
He’s not sure how he will react if he sees Tonia. Maybe his other little siblings too.
Just the idea of running into, what is effectively, a group of strangers with all hauntingly familiar faces makes his heart hurt.
He’ll want to get his family back even in his heart of hearts, he knows that they’re not his family. And if they act differently from how he remembers his own family behaves, it will undoubtedly send him spiralling because he’ll be constantly reminded of what he’s lost.
There are just too many risks. Too many opportunities for things to go terribly wrong.
“Childe, about your analogy, is there no way for you to get off the ship?”
Ajax shakes his head. “I wish. A course has been set and I’m stuck on board.”
“And there is no way for you to go back?”
“Hmm.” Zhongli nods to himself. “In that case, if there is no path available, then one might as well go forward and see what lies ahead. However, that is not to suggest that you should accept it with open arms, or that you should go without preparing as best as you can for what’s to come. Perhaps in your preparation, you can gain back the sense of control to help ease your worry.”
All very reasonable advice, especially since it aligns with AR’s not-so-subtle hint of mitigating damages and acting in secrecy to complete his Main Missions.
And now that Ajax knows what the world is capable of, that it can have a version of his loved ones from his old life, he won’t be as caught off guard if he goes through something similar in the future.
“Further,” Zhongli adds, “please know that you are not alone.”
His expression grows soft and warm, made all the warmer still in the amber light from the oil lamp against the gold of their surroundings. “Should you need any help, know that you have people around you who are willing to support you, myself included. My door will always be open to you should you need a place to seek shelter or even a place to call home. You will always have somewhere safe with me.”
Zhongli delivers the answer like it’s the most natural thing in the world – of course, he will be happy to help Ajax. Of course, he will be happy to offer him a house and home, and safety. There is no hesitation in there, no expectation for something in return. Just an offer freely made with sincerity and warmth and compassion.
He offers it without knowing what it means to Ajax.
Nobody’s offered a home to Ajax before.
Nobody’s asked Ajax to stay.
Nobody’s wanted Ajax to stay.
Not even his own family had wanted him to stay. He was too messy, and chaotic, and angry.
“Zhongli, you shouldn’t make such an offer so lightly, especially to someone like me.” Even in his own ears Ajax sounds quiet and more than a little raw. He swallows the lump in his throat and continues, “You shouldn’t want someone like me around. I’m only going to bring trouble to your doorstep.”
Zhongli’s expression hardens, settling into unyielding stubbornness. It brings a surge of fondness flooding through Ajax’s chest. When did this sight become so familiar to Ajax? When did it start bringing him so much comfort?
“You use the term ‘someone like me’ to imply something negative and yet, I cannot disagree more,” Zhongli says with a tinge of growl to his voice. “I see a young man who cares deeply for his men, colleagues, friends, and family. I see someone with a generous heart who goes above and beyond to make sure those he cherishes are well-taken care of. I see a hardworking individual who strives to do his best no matter how difficult the task is to the point of neglecting his own diet and health despite the efforts of those wiser than him to get him to eat –”
“Ah, Zhongli, isn’t – isn’t this a bit much? I’m not that good.” Ajax is still a Harbinger, after all, tasked to stir up trouble for Liyue Harbour. Zhongli knows this.
Still, Zhongli persists. “I see someone who has faced misfortune at an early age and struggles with its consequences to this very day, and yet, he persists to rise above the bad hand he’s been dealt. And, as I have told you before many months ago, I see a person who indulges my whims and encourages me to enjoy all the pleasures Liyue Harbour has to offer, who teaches me to live and relish the moment. Not only does this remain true to this day, but this person has also grown into my dearest friend, who listens to my concerns and worries while trusting me enough to share those parts back.
“So, tell me, why wouldn’t I welcome someone like that into my home? Why wouldn’t I welcome someone so near and dear to my heart?”
Ajax takes a big sip of tea to hide the way how red he must look from how hot his cheeks feel.
Zhongli called him his dear friend.
Sure, he knows Zhongli likes him – the L-points don’t lie – but there’s just something that hits different hearing him say it so plainly that – that he thinks so highly of Ajax.
To the point of letting him into his house and home. Fuck.
Oh, goddamned Zhongli! Damn him and his stupidly sweet soliloquies. How the fuck is Ajax supposed to warn Zhongli against the dangers of associating with him now?
(How the fuck is Ajax supposed to keep himself away? How the fuck is Ajax supposed to resist?)
“I – I think you’re being too generous with your praises, Zhongli,” he ends up mumbling. “I don’t think I’m doing anything out of the ordinary at all.”
His heart is rattling like a drum and he feels warm all over now. There’s a glowing heat that pulses from his chest and spreads throughout his body as if he’s submerging himself in a nice, warm bath. It’s the strangest combination of feelings – bashfulness, nervousness, fondness, all mixed with sheer, unadulterated delight – that Ajax has never experienced before. He’s not entirely sure what to make of them at all.
“The fact that you think so proves my point further,” Zhongli counters, and oh, he’s crossing his arms now and that frown deepens even more. Zhongli is serious. Is it wrong for Ajax to find that equal parts exasperating and adorable? “In any event, you may perceive yourself in a negative light, but I am happy to prove you wrong. I have made up my mind about you and about my offer. I will not be changing either of those.”
“O – okay, Zhongli,” Ajax answers. He’s losing his battle against the smile he’s trying to fight down and he knows it. He can feel the way the corner of his lips are curling up, and judging by how Zhongli is relaxing from his defensive position, so does Zhongli. “Whatever you say.”
“Indeed, and I am seldom wrong about these sorts of things.” If Zhongli is any less restrained, Ajax suspects he would have sniffed in a gesture of pure haughtiness. The mental image warms him up even more.
They decide to head back to bed after a few more minutes of quiet chatter, and as Ajax lays back down into his soft sheets, he finds himself still smiling at the echoes of Zhongli’s words and the ferocity in which he delivered them. At least for tonight, his previous worries go quiet and still.
At least for tonight, Ajax can sleep soundly.
Part XXII. The Way The Wind Blows
Ekaterina drops by with fresh clothes as promised.
Or more accurately, Ekaterina shows up at Zhongli’s home one sunny morning, and trailing behind her is a fleet of people rolling in with racks upon racks of brand new clothing.
A fleet of very familiar-looking people.
“Oh, hello!” Ajax greets the Madame and her assistants who made his Rite outfit. “It’s very nice to see you again.”
He excuses himself, leaving Zhongli to chat with the Madame as he pulls Ekaterina to the side. “Isn’t this too much?” he hisses, “I’m only staying here for a couple of days longer! I hardly need a brand new closet of clothes!”
“Actually, I was just about to discuss that,” she says. “Renovations are going to take a little longer than anticipated. We’re looking for at least one month. More realistically, two. Apparently, the hotel owner is using this renovation as an opportunity to make several upgrades to your unit.”
All on Fatui’s dime, no doubt. Ajax can’t blame the enterprising hotel owner.
“This means that you will not have access to your home for the duration of that time, so I thought it would be prudent to have some clothes ready, just in case.”
“B – but, I can always go back to the apartment and pack my clothing…”
“Of course you can. I anticipate that you will be making a trip back to pack up all the belongings you want to take to your temporary lodgings, whether it’s with Mister Zhongli or somewhere else. I just took the initiative to have more clothes made.”
Ajax balks at the answer. “Took the initiative? Why?”
The look Ekaterina gives him is full of judgment. “Because the only outfit I have ever seen you in is your Fatui uniform. The fact that you even have loungewear is news to me, and something tells me you only have a few changes of those clothes if that.”
She’s not wrong.
“Further, as much as the team and I appreciate your ongoing effort to better yourself after seeing the errors of your old ways, need I remind you, sir, that you are still a Harbinger. As a Harbinger, there are certain luxuries afforded to your position, including possessing more than just a handful of shirts and pants.”
“I own more than just a handful of shirts and pants,” Ajax mumbles. “Also, who says anything about staying with Zhongli?”
It’s a meaningless protest and they both know it, which is why Ekaterina’s response is merely lifting a brow.
“Anyway,” she carries on, “now you have even more clothes. Do thank Mister Zhongli. He has been a great help with recommending a tailor and with selecting what you would like to wear. If there’s nothing else, sir, please go try out your new clothes. We can talk more later.”
The tailors and seamstresses are just as excited to see him as they did the last time. They descend on him in a swarm, pulling sweaters and T-shirts and pants off the racks to showcase their work all the while chattering a million miles a minute.
“We have so many clothes prepared, Young Master! And in all the shades of blues, greens, and creams, made with softest cottons, linens, silks, and a few wool items in case you get cold. We heard you like looser fits so we hope these will satisfy your taste!”
“They all look amazing, thank you for your hard work,” Ajax answers with a grateful smile. “Um, not to sound rude or anything, but is there a reason why they’re all cut with a v-neck?” And a low one at that?
From the corner of his eyes, he sees Zhongli shift a little in place, almost like he’s uncomfortable with something, but the man settles back into his usual poised stillness shortly afterwards so he decides to ignore it. It’s probably nothing.
Madame’s eyes are glittering with amusement. “We think it’s particularly flattering on your frame, Young Master. But if you want more variety, we are happy to make more shirts with different neck styles for you.”
“No, no, it’s alright, thank you. I’m happy with this collection!”
He didn’t lie, either. The moment the tailors leave, he dips into his room and changes into his new oversized, sage green sweater and soft, cream, linen pants. As the clothes settle over his frame, he finds himself breathing a sigh of relief. It’s stupid, but the familiarity of these clothes makes him feel more grounded. Relaxed. Definitely more like himself for the first time during his stay with Zhongli.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” he says, walking back to the parlour where Zhongli and Ekaterina are milling around. He holds his arms out to showcase his new outfit. “How do I look?”
“Huh,” Ekaterina says simply before flashing Zhongli a look that Ajax has no idea how to interpret. Whatever it is, it’s got Zhongli looking away while clearing his throat a little.
“What?” Ajax asks, “Is something wrong?”
“No, no, there’s nothing wrong. You look very nice,” Zhongli answers. He strolls towards Ajax and gently fixes the sweater, tugging the collar up so that it sits more evenly on him. “There. You look much more like yourself.”
“Thanks, Zhongli. And for picking out my wardrobe as well. You didn’t have to do that.”
“Nonsense. I’ve been told that there is a possibility you won’t have access to your apartment and I want to make sure you at least have comfortable things to wear.”
“Ekaterina told you, huh?” Ajax gives the man a sheepish smile. “Looks like the apartment is going to be out of commission for a month at least. Um, would you be okay if I stay here a little longer?”
“Say no more. My offer still stands: my home is open to you for as long as you wish to remain.”
“Thanks, Zhongli,” Ajax answers, the gentle warmth from that night filling his heart once more. “I am going to make you so many mille crêpes cakes.”
“I look forward to it.”
“How are you doing?” Ekaterina asks once Zhongli leaves to give them some privacy. “How are your hands?”
Ajax holds out his bandaged hands. “They’re fine, but Zhongli insists that I keep them wrapped up just in case. I’m itching to do something to chase off the boredom at this point. Anything. Even paperwork!”
Ekaterina does not show an inkling of sympathy for his plight. “Boss, you’re still on sick leave, which you should be using to rest your hands. I don’t want to see your face anywhere near the office ‘til next week. I even posted a couple of guards outside to keep a lookout for you in case you decide to do something stupid like climb the walls again. And no, that pouting face is not going to change my mind so you might as well quit it.”
“Can’t I at least go back to my apartment and pack some stuff? Like my guitar? Some books?”
“You should be resting your hands,” Ekaterina reiterates, placing her hands on her hips. “But I suppose if your hands do feel well enough, you can drop by your apartment and lock everything up. I will have some men on standby to help pack and carry whatever you need.”
With logistics arranged, Ekaterina doesn’t waste any time getting to question she’s no doubt been dying to ask: “So, what happened? How did you come about injuring yourself and damaging your apartment?”
Ajax, who’s had the last few days to think of a brilliant excuse, can only offer a flimsy, half-baked lie: “Uh, I, had a nightmare and I think I was sleepwalking. I didn’t really snap out of it until I got to Wangsheng Funeral Parlour. The next thing I know, Zhongli was there trying to calm me down.”
To Ajax’s surprise, Ekaterina doesn’t outright dismiss his lie, but her growing look of concern doesn’t make him feel any better. “A nightmare that made you hurt yourself to such an extent. This is serious, Master Childe. Do you know what caused you to have this nightmare, to begin with?”
“Uh, it was, uh –” Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck. “It was a memory, I think. I saw something that reminded me of something unpleasant that I had forgotten. The reminder didn’t sit right with me and I guess it triggered something.”
Please stop asking questions, Ekaterina! Ajax begs in his mind. Please stop prying!
The gods must be merciful that day because Ekaterina actually stops. “…I see,” she says, “I am infinitely more glad that Mister Zhongli is here. I hope you will have a chance to make a trip to Bubu Pharmacy once you are feeling better. In the meantime, please rest. I mean it.”
They wrap up the conversation pretty quickly and relatively painlessly. Ajax even manages to net a few friendship points from Ekaterina after thanking her profusely for her help and offering to treat her to a nice meal.
Moving into Zhongli’s place also ends up a relatively low-key affair given all the drama that had occurred to cause it. Ajax shows up to his apartment (wincing at the utter chaos he has left behind) and dutifully arranges his things in neat boxes to either be stored away or to be sent to Zhongli’s. There’s really not much of his own items for him to worry about. Anything of importance to him, he’s got stored in the System’s Inventory already (except for items that are too bulky like his instruments). So really, the bulk of the stuff he’s packing belongs to OG Tartaglia like his ugly furniture and overly gaudy knick-knacks.
There’s a part of him that’s concerned that the construction to his apartment might end up revealing some of OG Tartaglia’s hidden items, but there’s not much he can do at this point except for appointing a handful of his people with particularly high friendship points to supervise the entire construction process.
“Please make sure those renovating the place don’t try to do anything funny with the apartment, including removing anything from it,” Ajax instructs the row of agents standing to attention before him. “Stop them if they do, and report any suspicious activities back to me.”
“Sir, what would you like us to do with the piano?”
“Bring it to Mister Zhongli’s home as well.” Zhongli had been adamant that Ajax brings over every single piece of his instruments, especially the piano. He’s so eager that he even cleared out one of the spare rooms to make space for Ajax’s things. Who is Ajax to argue in the face of such excitement, especially from the man who’s housing him and keeping his Abyssal Effect at bay?
(Who is he to deny the happiness of the only person who’s ever wanted him to stay?)
And so, Ajax finds himself officially bunking with Zhongli and things are going…surprisingly well. Maybe it’s the fact that they hang out on a regular basis, but Ajax finds his schedule with Zhongli to be oddly in sync. They wake up (Zhongli being as much of an early bird as Ajax), they go their separate ways for an hour (training for Ajax and reading and writing for Zhongli), they gather to have some morning breakfast (both of them cooking), and then, they head off to work. They would meet up for lunch and would meet up once work is over, walking together back to Zhongli’s home. The evening is spent first with some alone time to handle personal matters (for Ajax, it means more training whereas for Zhongli, even more reading and writing). Then, they would head off to have dinner and enjoy each other’s company, finally capping things off with a musical performance of some sort by Ajax before heading to bed.
It’s nice having someone at home to spend time with. It’s nice to have someone there to share meals with. It’s doubly nice to know that someone is waiting for him, whether in the mornings to start breakfast, in the afternoons for lunch, or in the evenings when work is done.
It’s nice living with Zhongli.
(And Zhongli apparently thinks so too. The L-points are just flowing steadily at this point, the sight of which makes Ajax feel warm all over. It’s starting to become a familiar feeling. Ajax finds that he doesn’t mind.)
“A mora for your thoughts?” Zhongli asks, one evening approximately one month into their living arrangement. They have retired to Ajax’s music room and are about to start their nightly concert. They would’ve started earlier had Ajax not been busy daydreaming in front of the piano.
“Sorry, sorry, I was just lost in my thoughts. You know how I get sometimes.” Ajax laughs and shakes his head. “Now, where was I? Ah, yes! We were going to choose our song for this evening. What are you in the mood for? Something slow and relaxing? Something upbeat?”
He teases the beginning notes of The Entertainer, fingers flying over the keys, the notes crisp and clear and full of joy.
“That is a lovely tune,” Zhongli says, leaning closer and resembling like a cat that had caught sight of something curious. “I would love to hear the rest of it.”
Ajax grins and stretches his hands.
He barely gets through the first half when a series of loud knocks resonate throughout the house.
“What in Teyvat?” Zhongli rouses from his seat, perplexed frown firmly in place. “Who would dare cause such a ruckus this late at night?”
The knocks sound out again, louder still.
“My apologies, Childe, I believe there’s someone at the door.”
“Oh, no it’s alright, we can just restart afterwards,” Ajax answers, getting up from his seat. “Let’s go see who our mysterious visitor is.”
Could it be one of his men? No, that’s unlikely. Ajax keeps a pretty careful eye on the happenings in Liyue. He hasn’t sent anyone out on missions except for the usual debt collection shenanigans, and those have been handled smoothly. The research to recreate a Sigil of Permission is still chugging along with the Dottore promising to have the first prototype ready in a week.
Maybe it’s one of Zhongli’s acquaintances, then?
The pounding gets more aggressive, and this time, it’s accompanied by a human voice.
“Open up, this is the Millelith!”
Zhongli and Ajax exchange a look of confusion. The Millelith? The fuck do they want?
“Good evening,” Zhongli greets upon opening the redwood door. Sure enough, two officers are waiting rather impatiently outside, one of them with an arm raised, ready to resume his banging. “How may I help you, officers?”
The officer looks at Zhongli from top to bottom, and, probably registering his poise, elegance and aura of someone possessing great wealth and power, backs down and clears his throat. “We are looking for one Mister Childe, diplomat of Snezhnaya. We have been informed that he lives here?”
“Uh, hello?” Ajax pops up from behind Zhongli and waves. “That’s me. How can I help you?”
“Mister Childe?” At Ajax’s nod, the Millelith move forward as one. “Under the authority granted by the Qixing, you are to be brought before the Tianquan for questioning.”
Before the Millelith can get closer, Zhongli steps forward and blocks their path, pushing Ajax behind him.
“Since when does the Tianquan have the authority to drag innocent civilians out of their homes for questioning, let alone a diplomat from an allied nation?”
Ajax doesn’t need to see Zhongli’s face to know just how angry the man is; the tightness in his voice and the hint of a growl say it all.
But credit to the officers, they don’t intimidate easily. “The Tianquan has the authority under section 246 of the national security provisions to invite any and all individuals visiting or residing in Liyue for questions.”
“And what’s the triggering event for the Tianquan to be enacting this emergency power?” Zhongli challenges.
The officers exchange uneasy looks for a split second. Then, the officer who’s done the most talking replies.
“The attack on Barbatos of Mondstadt by the Fatui, notably by Harbinger La Signora.”