“I hate losing.”
Childe says this in a way that isn’t all that different from the kids playing pirates by the port. There’s a hint of childishness in his tone, and it’s in moments like this when Lumine thinks that his namesake (although nothing but a placeholder) fits him a little too well.
“Then you shouldn’t have let Shitou talk you into making a gamble like that,” she points out through a bubble of laughter. “You bet five hundred thousand mora? Really?”
“It should’ve been simple!” the Harbinger argues. “Zhongli-sensei managed to bet on the right jade like it was as easy as breathing.”
“Gee, I wonder why.”
Being an envoy of the Fatui and all, five hundred thousand barely made a dent in his inexhaustible bank account. Childe still has it in him to scarf down several orders of jade parcels and chop suey all while offering to treat Lumine to dinner as well. But the price for his kindness is that she has to sit here and listen to him talk.
And he does, a lot.
He tells her that gambling should be banned in a nation that upholds the value of mora more than any land like Liyue; emphasizes how no one should have half a million swindled from under their noses because of a single bet.
Lumine nods along - listening intently as if Childe isn’t committing the exact same crime for pretending to be her friend like this. If Paimon were here, she would have given him some ridiculous nickname like Hypocritical Harbinger, but Lumine doesn’t take the opportunity to make a jab at him like she normally would. Because wouldn’t it make her a hypocrite to willingly spend time with Childe despite knowing his ulterior motives, too?
“If you hate losing, then…stop making risky choices,” she suggests when they’re out in the streets again - walking back to the Inn she’s lodging with for the night.
Childe hums a little tune she doesn’t recognize, and Lumine pauses to watch how the lanterns shimmer across his autumn orange hair. Then, his mouth twitches into half a smile that reminds her of a fox’s.
“Where’s the fun in that, girlie?”
To her utmost glee, Childe has made it a habit to pester her even in the middle of doing commissions.
It’s not like Lumine can even reprimand him for it though. The Adventurer’s Guild is particularly fond of getting a few extra hands on-board. So who is she to turn him away when Childe tells Branch Leader Lan that he wants to help around a little?
“Wow. You’re absolutely terrible at dealing with slimes.”
Screw that. She should have left him in the gods-damned harbor.
“Yeah? How about you try disgorging a geo meteorite from a beach?” Lumine huffs, pulling her boots off to let the sand trickle out of her soles. “Not everyone has a flexible Vision, you know?”
“Is that a compliment I hear?” The Harbinger laughs, settling himself right next to her by the rocks in Yaoguang Shoal. “Dual wielding my weapons bolstered up my rank pretty quickly, but this is nothing compared to being blessed with two Visions.”
“How long do you plan on bothering me for anyway?” She clicks her tongue as she stretches her legs across the sand. “Even Paimon is more helpful than you are.”
Brows arching with amusement, he grins at her. “I believe I’ve helped you plenty, pretty girl. But speaking of your floating fairy chaperone, where is she?”
Lumine’s cheeks flush at the new nickname, and the sleazy smile plastered on Childe’s face grows twofold. She bites the inside of her cheek with fraying patience.
“Helping Xiangling forage some ingredients she can’t reach in the wild,” she says. “There’s still lots of time before the Rite of Parting after all.”
“Haha! Does that mean I have you all to myself?”
She chooses to ignore his quip - not trusting herself to speak. Instead, Lumine brings her knees up to her chest and rests her chin on top. The day burned past the horizon quicker than anticipated, and the next thing she knows, the sun is starting to set behind them.
“You picked a pretty terrible spot for sightseeing,” Lumine comments - staring at the mist blanketing the vast Sea of Clouds before them.
Childe shrugs before resting both palms across the rocks. She watches him from the corners of her eyes, and notices how his hair curled slightly at the tips. Hm. Were his eyes always this blue up clo -
“A fortune teller told me something pretty interesting once,” he suddenly speaks again, and Lumine barely has enough time to collect herself. “You see that house over there? The one shaped like a conch shell?”
She squints at where Childe is pointing, but the fog is too thick for her eyes to parse through. Lumine shakes her head.
“Well, that’s the infamous conch lodge of Liyue. Legend has it, if you can hear the sounds of the sea in a starconch, then the same thing happens with the conch lodge. But you won’t hear the ocean from inside. Instead, the Sea of Souls will start to whisper in your ear…”
One second passes. Then two. But Lumine waits until the tenth until she snorts out a laugh. Childe whirls around to face her - a frown replacing his signature smirk. Could he blame her though? That sounded like some poorly thought-out ghost story!
“What?” Childe pouts. “I was trying to give you alternative leads. You’re searching for your brother, aren’t you?”
Suddenly, Lumine stops giggling.
“Are you insinuating that my brother is dead?”
“Girlie, it’s a whole world out there. He could be anywhere.”
But anywhere doesn’t have to mean over there, where she can’t even hope to reach Aether no matter how badly she wants to. Not after everything they’ve lost. Lumine openly grimaces at the Harbinger. She’d let Childe kid about anything - anything but that.
The minutes pass by in deafening silence as the sky turns over to a darker shade of night. Dense fog rolls further into the shoreline until the skin of her legs starts to prickle with goosebumps, but Lumine refuses to put her boots back on. Though, when a shiver runs across her small frame, Childe is keen to notice right away.
“You want to see who can collect the most starconches between the two of us?”
She shoots him a glare from where her face is smothered between her knees, still feeling a bit impish over his crude attempt at a joke from earlier.
“Aren’t you supposed to ask if I’m cold before offering me your coat?”
The Harbinger blinks at her for a moment before his ocean blue eyes crinkle with yet another one of those sardonic grins.
“Sorry, force of habit,” he explains. “Everyone is cold back in Snezhnaya. But hey, I’ll let you win our little contest if it means putting a smile on your face.”
For some reason, she decides on his offer right away.
“I’ll take you up on that, then,” Lumine declares, hoisting her boots back on before getting up to offer him a hand. “I want five million mora transferred to my name as a reward.”
“You drive a pretty hard bargain, Traveler. But consider it done.”
Despite calling it a contest, Childe stays by her side to tell her that starconches are his favorite souvenir once they start navigating the Shoal. His gloved hand never leaves hers, and for a fleeting moment Lumine lets herself wonder,
Why does someone from the realm of the Cryo Archon have such warm hands?
“You’re not actually underage, are you?”
Childe asks her this in the middle of another free dinner that Lumine managed to trick him into giving her. She nearly chokes on her tea.
“It depends who’s asking,” Lumine manages to say as she wipes her mouth with a napkin. “Why? Are you going to be a creep about it?”
When he laughs into the night, the sound is like a fine-tuned melody wafting to her ears. She isn’t sure she likes that.
“I was wondering if you’ll indulge me for a few drinks after dinner,” Childe tells her, lacing his fingers together almost diabolically. “To see who gets plastered first.”
The proposition makes her snort. “What is with all these contests? The other day, you challenged me into a cook-off to see whose Adeptus’ Temptation tastes better.”
“Not my fault I cook better than you do.”
“Archons, are you obsessed with me or something?”
He arches an eyebrow. “Isn’t that how you’re normally supposed to treat your rivals?”
Lumine absolutely, positively gapes at him.
“So I’m your rival now?”
“It’s always been you and me from the start, girlie.” Childe nods, still experimenting with the fine art of chopstick-holding as he speaks. “Well? Are you going to let me have another victory or not?”
Her room smells like the sea.
Well, in retrospect, every nook and cranny in Liyue Harbor carries a hint of saltwater in the air. But it’s even more overwhelming when her head is pressed against Childe’s chest as the Harbinger gently lays her down on the bed.
Is it really the room that smells of ocean blue or is it the man with eyes like gleaming lazurites that harbors the scent?
“Maybe you are underage,” Childe sighs, chuckling to himself as Lumine feels the mattress dip under his weight. “That’s only been...what? Four glasses? And you’re already this wasted?”
“‘m not - hic! Drunk,” Lumine mumbles sleepily, curling against his arm.
She swears she’s not. Or maybe she is. Or maybe - oh, Archons.
It’s the alcohol in Liyue, she decides with what little coherence she can muster. Something about the potency in each round Childe poured her earlier whisked her off like an anemo tornado at full speed. Not even Diluc’s most notorious drinks incapacitated her quite like this. Normally, Lumine never would have let herself become this vulnerable - in the presence of the Fatui’s Eleventh Harbinger, no less. And just when Paimon is yet to return from her chef’s pilgrimage all across the country, too.
If Lumine does end up with a hydro blade in her chest tonight, she slurs a silent apology to Aether for being so unbelievably gullible. Maybe Childe’s Sea of Souls theory is right. If she dies, will she finally meet the brother she’s been missing for oh-so long? Then all she needs to do is lie still while Childe goes in for the kill, right?
His face is unreadable in the soft glow of the bedside lamp, and Lumine hears nothing but the distant song of the waves lapping at the shoreline. Childe’s Vision hisses from the orb on his belt and two daggers - the same color as his eyes - shimmer to life in his hands. They’re even more beautiful than the first time she’s seen them. The time he saved her from the Millelith guards that tried to snuff her out.
It’s only fair to die by the hands of her savior, isn’t it?
But instead of feeling those razor sharp daggers slicing into her flesh, Lumine receives something else entirely.
Her liquor-addled mind barely registers it when Childe brushes his lips over hers - hesitating in a way that’s very unlike the man that’s been a thorn on her side for the past few weeks. He does it like he’s unsure - like he’s afraid, but what does someone like him have to fear when he literally works for the god that only wants to see the world burn?
Childe, however, notices that Lumine is still very much awake.
“It’s a pity we met like this.”
She squints at him, not quite catching the words. “...What’d you say?”
His mouth curls into a lopsided smile that makes her heart do an odd flip, but Lumine can’t afford to pay it much mind once Childe plants a featherlight kiss on her temple.
“I said,” he whispers. “I win.”
Childe leaves half an hour later even if he knows Lumine is yet to drift into slumber. The memory of his lips on hers - no matter how brief - smolders across her skin, and she can’t help but miss the sapphires in his eyes the moment they disappear behind the sliding doors.
It’s the height of summer yet her room feels too cold for the season. Lumine curls in on herself - trying her best to simulate the warmth that Childe gave her as she soaks up what’s left of his scent on the sheets.
But after a few moments of restlessness, her eyes catch on a couple of starconches sitting on the nightstand.
Out of the dozens she managed to collect with Childe that night, only two were declared worth keeping by the aficionado himself. Chipped starconches are as good as broken dreams, he said. But as the fatigue finally weighs down her eyelids, Lumine can’t help but pretend that the iridescent blue shells are the same, lazurite eyes that haunt her even when she’s fast asleep.
This is how things are supposed to be, right? She’s saved the world in Mondstadt once, and she’ll do it again in Liyue if it meant finding her brother. But as the tip of her blade digs further into Childe’s - Tartaglia’s - throat, Lumine’s grip begins to tremble at the hilt.
Childe beams at her with blood-caked teeth, the Delusion he abused starting to take its toll his body. It’s stealing the color from his face and the vibrance of his eyes, and nothing hurts her more than seeing an ocean slowly lose the life it once sustained.
In the distance, she can faintly hear Paimon yelling at her to finish that scheming traitor off but...
“Didn’t you tell me you hated losing?”
Lumine knows she’s just stalling at this point. The Jade Chamber is about to plummet from the sky at any moment, but she’s purposely delaying everyone the results they wanted.
All because she can’t kill someone that was never even her ally in the first place.
Both the Qixing and her friends know that the man she just defeated is a Harbinger first before anything else. Lumine knows this, too, but every time she looks at him, she does not see Tartaglia - the most seasoned liar of all the Harbingers.
To her, he is simply Childe. The benefactor that treats her to dinner every other night. The nuisance that thinks he’s making a point when he bests her in the most trivial things.
And the man who unknowingly taught her how to love the sea.
But here, thousands of feet above, the lull of the ocean can’t even hope to reach her desperate ears.
“Heh. That’s the thing, pretty girl.” Childe laughs, out of breath and out of time. And when he reaches up to caress the flowers in her hair, Lumine feels her heart break into a thousand, unsalvageable pieces.
“When you love someone…you lose.”
They never find his body.
Following the events that took place in the revered Jade Chamber, apprehending all the criminals involved is on the Liyue Qixing’s top priorities. Lumine stays in the harbor for a month at most, helping the others recover the remains of the fallen Fatui delegates.
But she never hears about Childe’s - not even once.
Did she drive her sword through his heart that day like she should have? No. The enhanced pyro slime bombs they planted had detonated Ningguang’s abode before Lumine can even make a sound decision. And the last that she saw of Childe’s handsome face is that sickeningly sweet smile of his.
One that she’s a bit too sure she’ll never forget.
When the tension between the Qixing and the citizens begins to settle, though, Zhongli gives her a proposal.
The consultant nods earnestly. “If you wish to continue searching for your brother, I’m certain the Immortal Shogun could know a thing or two about it. The way of life in Inazuma is...vastly different from that of Mondstadt and Liyue both. I’ll hire a ship so you may cross the sea to reach it.”
Lumine accepts the offer in a heartbeat because that’s the reason why she’s combing every corner of Teyvat in the first place, right? To find Aether?
So, she packs what little material possessions she has in a knapsack that is miraculously still in one piece. Although she can feel Paimon’s stare linger on her longer when Lumine stuffs two starconches inside, she decides not to bring it up. This time, Paimon knows better than to pry.
They’re all set. All that’s left to do is board that ship and-
“Traveler? Are you in here?”
She startles a little from the sound of Keqing’s voice from the halls of the Inn. But Lumine welcomes the diligent noble into her temporary home regardless.
“Thank Archons I caught you before you left.” She sighs. “I got saddled with the job of overseeing the Northland Bank’s transactions for the time being, and turns out the previous handler left a cheque for you.”
A frown settles on Lumine’s face. “A cheque?”
Keqing scrutinizes her for only a moment, but Lumine feels as if those eyes like silk flowers managed to glean everything there is to know about her all in a single look.
“The Eleventh Harbinger, Tartaglia left a total sum of five million mora under your name,” she tells her before handing over a sealed white envelope. “You can present this letter to the branch in Inazuma, and you’ll be able to - whoa. Are you - ?”
Paimon floats to Lumine’s side the moment her knees buckled and she’s kneeling on the floor. She feels a bit guilty for keeping secrets from Paimon, but it’s not like they’ll be splitting up any time soon. Lumine has all the time in the world to tell her companion. Keqing, on the other hand, stares at her wide-eyed, but doesn’t comment and for once, she’s grateful for the silence.
Childe didn’t just leave her with a broken heart. He left her with an entire Archons-damned trust fund.
“Lady Keqing, can you deliver a message to Zhongli-sensei for me?” Lumine pleads, shakily getting back to her feet.
The Yuheng blinks in confusion, but decides that it isn't her business to intrude on. “Alright. What do I tell him?”
“There’s just...one more detour I’d like to make.”
“Oh? A visitor?”
The woman sitting by the docks greets Lumine once she arrives at the Liyue conch lodge. She has that same look on her face that Mona used to make all the time when the astrologer knew something that Lumine didn’t.
“Are you looking for someone or are you here because of the legend?” she asks her, standing up to lead her inside.
“A little bit of both, actually.”
This surprises her for only moment before a gentle smile rests on her face.
“Take all the time you need.”
And Lumine does exactly that.
She takes her sweet time, alternating between thinking how utterly ridiculous it was for her to even consider this and keeping herself determined. Childe told her one could hear the Sea of Souls from within the conch lodge’s walls, though Lumine is starting to believe that maybe that’s all just a gimmick to lure tourists into this part of the shore.
But then, the elderly woman inside the lodge notices her distress far quicker than Lumine herself does.
“Don’t you think the reason you can’t hear his voice is because he hasn’t passed on yet?”
Lumine’s eyes nearly bug out of their sockets when she tells her this, and - No, that can’t be right. Vision-bearer or not, nobody can survive a fall from the Jade Chamber. Moreover...
“How did you know?” she asks the old lady, considerably spooked.
She laughs a hearty little laugh that unsettles her just a tad. “Oh, sweet girl. I know a widowed woman when I see one. Was he a sailor?”
Widowed what now?
Her cheeks flush red. “I-It’s nothing like that. I was just trying to make sure...”
“Ah, regardless of your goings-on, my husband here is telling me you’ll cross paths again soon,” she laughs again, tilting her head up as if to nod at a person who isn’t even there. “Isn’t that right, dear?”
Alright, Lumine thinks dryly. That’s enough ghost stories for a day.
“Where have you been?! Paimon’s gotten hungry waiting for you to get back, you know.”
Hoisting herself up on the deck, Lumine spares her companion an apologetic look. “Sorry. I’ll fill you in on everything before we arrive.”
“You better!” The fairy simpers, gliding to the edge of the ship with a pout. “I’ve been giving you and that Hypocritical Harbinger some alone time for a reason.”
“Yeah, yeah. I hear you.”
As the ship speeds out of the harbor, Lumine finds herself gazing at the open sea stretching for miles all around. It’s a rather beautiful day, too. Sunlight glimmers across the surface - reflecting the vast sky that hangs cloudless from above. And in the deep ocean blue, she can’t help but search for a mischievous smile mirroring back from the water.
Suddenly, her brother isn’t the only one she’s searching for anymore.