There was no denying it. Childe is sporting a full on boner after being beaten up by Zhongli, which, by the way, he’d be more gutted about if he could actually focus on his defeat.
Alas, he cannot. Instead, he’s about to have a mid-life crisis on top of this roof. There is no way he can deny his attraction for Zhongli now, not when there’s physical proof of it in the form of his stupid dick currently defying gravity.
Childe groans and forces himself to sit up, not so subtly throwing an arm over his crotch in a futile attempt to hide it.
“Okay, okay, you win for tonight,” he chokes out, unable to look at Zhongli in the eyes.
So what if he’s hard? He’s always lived for battles and gotten high off the adrenaline. Granted, he’s never actually gotten hard from a battle before, but there’s a first time for everyone…
The fact that it’s Zhongli does not help either. He’s gone and gotten himself attracted to the damn ex-Archon.
But that’s it… It’s only an attraction. That’s fine. Childe can deal with that. Zhongli is very attractive; he’d be surprised if he wasn’t the least bit drawn to him. It shouldn’t be any surprise that being around the consultant so much has led to Childe perhaps wanting to sleep with him.
Get it together, the rational part of his brain speaks up. Why is this such a big deal? There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have sex with someone, and it’s not like there’s anything going on with you and Zhongli…
Right. This is just a physical attraction. Nothing more.
Don’t even go there. Remember the contract.
Ugh. How could he forget? Even if he wanted to, there’s no way Zhongli would ever… No. No, he’s not even going to go there. He can’t entertain that idea.
Childe sighs, finally mustering the courage to turn to the man in question. Zhongli remains where he’s standing, still holding his spear, although he’s no longer pointing it at Childe’s throat.
Gods, Childe hopes Zhongli hasn’t noticed his boner.
Zhongli steps back, tilting his head slightly. “You seem to be physically aroused.”
Childe jolts as if he’s been physically struck. He quickly looks away, scouring through his head for any excuse that could explain why his dick is still hard this very moment.
He comes up with nothing. The only thought going through his head right now is: shit shit shit shit shit shit.
“I-I…” Fuck. Sighing, Childe runs a hand through his hair and shakes his head. There’s no point in lying to someone like Zhongli. “Don’t think too much of it, xiansheng. Let’s just go to sleep—”
“Would you like help in relieving it?”
Childe blinks. He looks up and blinks again, several times, while watching Zhongli’s impassive face. Then, his words sink in.
“What?” Childe says. “What?”
In true Zhongli fashion, his expression doesn’t change at all. He only nods at Childe. “Is that not what is typically done in this situation? If one is aroused, they will pleasure themselves to—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but why are you offering to help?”
That seems to break some emotion onto Zhongli’s face. For a second, his brows furrow into the tiniest frown before it disappears. “This is still within our contract.”
“Our contract states that there are to be no feelings or complications within this fake relationship, and as you stated earlier, experiencing desire does not necessarily involve feelings as well. Therefore, if we continue with that, then it will still work alongside our contract.”
Childe is so lost that he’s pretty sure his boner has already died. He replays what Zhongli said in his head, going through each word as slowly as he can. As expected of Zhongli, he’s discussing something like this so casually as if they’re talking about the weather. Childe shouldn’t be surprised at all, but…
He sits up and scratches his head. “Are you… Are you suggesting that we become friends with benefits?”
“I’m... not familiar with that term.”
Childe sighs again. Why are they even having this conversation? How did they end up talking about this and why why why is Zhongli suggesting it of all things?
Tsaritsa… No, this is definitely something Childe didn’t need to start thinking about.
“No… That’s… This… No. We shouldn’t. I’m not even sure if you know what you’re suggesting, xiansheng.”
Zhongli narrows his eyes slightly. “I’m suggesting that we enter a sexual arrangement in order to relieve mutual desires, under the pretense that we do not let emotions break our contract. You were the one who proposed that desire does not often lead to—”
“I know what I said! But why are you okay with that?” Childe interrupts, surprised by the sudden volume of his own voice. He takes a deep breath and swears under his breath. Shit.
He’s not the only one who’s shocked. Zhongli stares at him with wide eyes. “I… Have I said something to upset you?”
Childe automatically shakes his head, pushing himself up to his feet and staring out towards the view of Liyue’s harbour underneath them. He can feel Zhongli’s eyes on him, waiting for a verbal response.
Fuck, he thinks. He is upset. For some reason, having to listen to Zhongli casually talk about something like this as if it barely matters isn’t sitting well with him.
But does it really matter? It’s not like Childe hasn’t had casual sex before. He’s not beyond the idea of sleeping with someone and disregarding it the next day.
Fuck, he thinks again. There’s only one reason why this bothers him, and he doesn’t want to dwell on it. He can’t.
“No, no. I don’t even know why I’m…” He groans and shakes his head again, still unable to look at Zhongli. “Ugh, it doesn’t matter. Let’s just forget about this, okay?”
“…If that is what you wish.”
Childe doesn’t wait for Zhongli to follow him. He climbs back into his room and throws himself into bed, desperately hoping he can sleep this off and forget all about it in the morning.
Obviously that’s impossible, and to no one’s surprise, Childe’s traitorous brain is conjuring images of Zhongli offering to relieve him instead. At this point, Childe will gladly bash his head against a wall if it’s going to knock him out and put an end to this night.
He hears Zhongli stir next to him.
“I am sorry for assuming that…”
Childe turns to face the consultant. He’s so close that their knees bump and the scent of flowers and incense suffocates Childe. He’s going to be smelling Zhongli on his pillows for the rest of the week, he thinks.
“Xiansheng, it’s fine,” Childe reassures. “You don’t even need to apologise for anything.”
“I have clearly made you upset.”
“I’m not upset.” Much.
Childe pauses. He studies Zhongli’s face for a bit, debating on whether he should say what’s currently on his mind. In the end, he takes the risk and lowers his voice to a whisper.
“I’d be lying if the proposition didn’t intrigue me.”
Zhongli’s eyebrows raise ever so slightly. “Oh.”
There’s an excruciating second where both of them glance down at each other’s lips at the same time. Childe almost leans in then—no, in fact, he does. His head tilts down and he holds his breath, picturing the moment when he finally closes the distance between them and pushes Zhongli against the sheets.
He could. He wants to. He could accept Zhongli’s earlier proposition and see where that leads. The choice is within his grasp and all he has to do is lean in and kiss Zhongli. They can pretend that none of this happened once the sun rises tomorrow.
Childe swallows the lump stuck in his throat. That’s the problem though. He can’t. If anything happened between him and Zhongli, Childe won’t be able to forget about it.
He winces. He pushes himself back until he has space to breathe.
“But it’s best if we don’t go there,” Childe says. “We should get some sleep.”
Slowly, Zhongli nods. “Goodnight, Childe.”
Childe turns to the other side and squeezes his eyes shut, blocking out the voice in his head telling him to go back to Zhongli and fuck him silly.
Stupid horny thoughts. Stupid dick. Stupid contract.
I sincerely hope you’re not wreaking havoc where you are, although considering it’s you… Whatever. Just don’t do anything to embarrass the Tsaritsa any more than you already have.
I’ve heard news that your family is now in Liyue with you. Don’t get distracted with trivial matters. You’re not there on a holiday.
So far, we haven’t received any new leads regarding the other Archons. For now, stay where you are and wait for further instructions when we need you. Keep an eye on Morax in case he does anything suspicious.
Childe rolls his eyes and waves the letter in front of a candle, watching as the corners catch fire. What was even the point of Scaramouche sending him this when Pulcinella already wrote one that literally said the same thing?
Scaramouche liked the sound of his own voice too much, and apparently, that translated into writing as well.
Before the letter disintegrates into ashes, Childe catches sight of the last paragraph. For now, stay where you are and wait for further instructions when we need you.
It’s a good reminder to himself that he won’t be in Liyue forever. As much as he’s grown attached to this place, he can’t stay here. He has his loyalties to uphold and his own home to return to.
Nevertheless, he can’t stop himself from thinking about a certain ex-Geo Archon.
Three days. It’s been three days since that happened. When Childe woke up the next day, Zhongli was already gone and he couldn’t help but feel like he’d been thrown aside after a one night stand—except no sex actually happened, and Zhongli probably doesn’t even know what the term ‘one night stand’ means.
Ugh, what a mess.
And so, since he’s determined not to delve further into whatever happened between him and Zhongli, Childe has been busying himself with work. Specifically, he’s been debt collecting and taking his frustrations out on the poor idiots who try to avoid paying their loans. He finds out very quickly that it’s a good stress reliever. Fun, even.
He’s not exactly avoiding Zhongli, but he’s not seeking him out either. Luckily, his family hasn’t insisted on seeing his fake boyfriend for a while. Part of Childe hopes that this means they’ve stopped obsessing over it and they won’t have to do anything else with this fake relationship.
The other part… Well, the other part is stupid because it’s gutted about the fact he won’t need a reason to see Zhongli.
Not that he ever needed a reason to see Zhongli to begin with… Still, he can’t ignore the fact that things are different now. No complications or feelings, my ass, he bitterly thinks. Childe has really dug himself into a hole this time.
Fucking Tsaritsa, he’s started thinking about it again. No, this won’t do. He needs to distract himself. More debt collecting is in order today, or maybe he should find Lumine and see if she needs help beating up anyone…
Lumine is nowhere to be found in Liyue. Childe suspects the strange traveller is either in Mondstadt, or she’s flinging herself down more waterfalls to deliver food to people. Or both. Lumine did tell him once that she sometimes delivers food for a restaurant owner named Sara there. Why her customers are waiting by waterfalls or cliffs, Childe will never know.
Well, since Lumine isn’t around for Childe to pester, it looks like he’ll just collect more debts today.
“How’s my favourite Northland Bank receptionist?” Childe says as soon as he enters the bank.
Ekaterina glances up at him from her desk. “Sir, I am the only Northland Bank receptionist.”
He winks at her. “And that’s why we love you.”
She sighs and resumes flickering through the pile of papers in front of her. Come to think of it, it’s a very large pile of papers and Childe doesn’t think he’s ever seen the receptionist look so stressed before.
He stops by her desk. It's only now that he notices there are a number of Fatui recruits within the bank. All of them seem to be on edge, muttering amongst each other. Usually, they try not to station too many Fatui inside the bank; while Northland Bank is becoming more and more popular with the Liyuens, many of them are still wary of the Fatui.
Fortunately, there are no customers inside the bank at this time, but it’s obvious now that something is amiss.
“What’s wrong?” Childe asks.
“It’s strange. Our records from last month came back… There’s been large withdrawals being made, but no records of who is taking the Mora, or where it’s going.”
Ekaterina slides a sheet to him and Childe takes a brief second to skim through it. As she explained, there are large deductions of Mora from their vaults. Normally, everything is sourced in their records to keep track of where their money is going; it makes it much easier to hunt down customers when they need to.
Childe hums to himself, then pushes the sheet back to Ekaterina. “So, what you’re saying is that someone’s been stealing from the bank.”
“It’s possible but our security is immaculate. I cannot imagine that anyone would be able to breach it.”
True. They have Fatui stationed around the vaults if anyone dared to steal from them. Besides, Childe always thought the rumours surrounding the Northland Bank was enough to scare potential thieves away. He thought wrong.
“When did this start?”
Ekaterina purses her lips as she trails her finger down the records. “It was happening quite frequently last month… but it’s stopped since last week.” She frowns, leaning closer to the sheet as if it would help make more sense of the numbers. “That’s peculiar. It stopped around the same time we changed the codes for the vault.”
Childe scratches his head. “Okay, so whoever is stealing from the bank somehow knew our old codes, and now that we’ve changed them, they’ve been unable to steal from us again?”
“The vaults are very intricate… Not just anyone will be able to unlock them, let alone breach our security.”
Who could possibly have enough balls to steal from the bank, and not just any bank but a bank controlled by the Fatui? Most of the customers they hunt down almost faint on the spot the moment they see the Fatui have come to collect their debts.
Childe thinks back on all the people they’ve had to collect debts from. A lot of them are greedy merchants trying to use their loans to expand their business. Although… there’s also those who go to that place.
“It could be someone from the Pearl Galley again. People there are always using our loans to pay off their visits,” Childe suggests.
It’s one of the funniest things Childe remembers about the bank. When the Tsaritsa first sent him to Liyue, it only took a week for him to notice that a lot of their men were being sent to the Galley to dispose of customers. Once he realised the Pearl Galley actually served as both a brothel and a casino, everything suddenly made sense…
“It’s funny that you should mention that… There are rumours that there have been two deaths related to the Pearl Galley as of recently.” Ekaterina glances around, as if making sure there are no customers to hear them despite the bank currently being empty. “They were not our doing. It was the escorts who were murdered. The first death was… last week. And the most recent one was yesterday.”
That’s… unexpected. “What? You think they're linked?”
The receptionist shrugs. “Maybe… The deaths started occurring around the time money was no longer being stolen from us. And from the looks of it, the culprit stopped stealing because they are now unable to open our vaults. Perhaps they were using the money to enjoy themselves at the Pearl Galley, but resorted to murdering its escorts once they no longer had the funds to afford them?”
“Wow.” Childe whistles. “This is why you're our favourite Northland Bank receptionist.”
Ekaterina’s lips tug up into a rare smile. “I was under the impression it was because I'm the only Northland Bank receptionist.”
She laughs under her breath. In less than a second, all signs of emotion disappear from her face and she’s back to being serious. “Of course, the two incidents could be completely unrelated but it is worth looking at.”
“Okay. Have their bodies been retrieved?”
“They should be in the Wangsheng Funeral Parlour.”
Of course they would be. Childe’s thoughts instantly travel to a certain consultant who should be there right now… Looks like he can’t avoid him forever.
He nods. “Let me look into this then.”
Before he leaves, Ekaterina coughs loudly. Very loudly. “Sir. Please refrain from causing a scene in the Pearl Galley. Discretion is absolutely vital. It is already a miracle you are still able to remain in Liyue after what you did last time.”
Childe waves a hand, already one foot out of the door. “I’m always discreet.”
As soon as Childe steps into the parlour, he’s greeted by the incarnation of evil—according to almost every Liyuen he comes across, anyway. Then again, they probably say the same for him too.
Hu Tao grins at him from where she’s sitting. He waves at her, scanning the room for any sign of Zhongli.
“Hello, lover boy. Come to visit your fiancé?”
“He’s not my… Eh, whatever.” Fiancé, boyfriend, lover… What difference does it make? They’re all fake anyway. “Yes, yes, I have.”
The short girl motions towards one of the rooms to his right. “He’s back there examining a new corpse. Don’t distract him too much, and no funny business! I’ve seen that hickey you put on his neck… How scandalous.”
Childe sincerely hopes he’s not blushing. The shit-eating grin spreading across Hu Tao’s face tells him there’s a possibility that he is.
“Ugh,” is the only coherent response he can think of. He’s really not well equipped to deal with people teasing him about this fake relationship.
Unfortunately, Hu Tao is ruthless. She sits up on her chair and smirks into her hands. “Go easy on him, okay? Zhongli may look young but I have a feeling he's much older than he lets on…”
Childe narrows his eyes. Surely she doesn’t know that…?
Hu Tao laughs. “Heh. Just kidding!”
Childe is starting to understand why even Zhongli’s immaculate patience cannot handle Hu Tao. He sighs, deciding it’s not worth carrying on this conversation. He came here for Fatui business, not to be teased by a girl half his size.
As Hu Tao mentioned, Zhongli is examining a corpse when Childe walks into the room. Clearly Childe is the last person Zhongli expected today from the way his eyebrows raise up as soon as he sees him.
They stare at each other. Childe was hoping this visit won't be awkward at all, and yet the more seconds that pass between them in silence, the more he realises awkwardness might be futile.
Zhongli takes a step forward. “Childe. Good afternoon.”
Childe forces out a smile. “Hey.”
He was supposed to delve right into his investigation, but one look at Zhongli and suddenly his brain has blanked out. The hickey on Zhongli’s neck has faded by now, as if it had never been there to begin with. Childe is ashamed to admit he first reacts to this with disappointment but he quickly squashes those inappropriate thoughts away.
For once, Zhongli isn’t wearing his coat—most likely because Childe singed it with his delusion during their spar last time. Shit, Childe was going to get a new coat tailored for him. He had completely forgotten about it.
“Sorry,” Childe blurts out. “About your coat.”
Zhongli blinks. “My coat?”
“I burnt it during our spar last time, remember? I was going to get a new one made for you, actually…”
“Oh.” To Childe’s surprise, Zhongli lets out a short laugh. “There is no need for you to do that.”
He turns around and pulls at something draped over a chair. When Childe gets a better look, he sees that it’s Zhongli’s coat, minus the singed ends.
“I have another one just like it,” Zhongli explains. “I had it made by a travelling tailor who was staying in Liyue for a few months. She suggested that it would be best if I owned two versions, should something happen to the other one…”
Maybe she just wanted more money out of you—or the person who was paying for you, Childe thinks. Because he’s the best fake boyfriend ever, he doesn’t say it out loud.
“Therefore, you do not need to get me a new coat,” Zhongli tells him, draping the coat back over his chair. “But the thought is appreciated.”
Childe nods. “Okay. Um.” Back on track. He was supposed to talk to Zhongli about the corpses, not his wardrobe. “Are you busy?”
“Hmm. Did you need anything?”
“This may be an odd question, but have you received corpses from the Pearl Galley recently?”
Zhongli motions towards the body he’d been examining earlier. “This one. Evidently murdered.”
Childe walks closer, frowning at the corpse before them. The first thing he notices is that their throat is slashed; most likely the cause of their death. The second thing he notices is that it’s not just a slashed throat; the cut is so deep he can see bone underneath. Any deeper and this would be a beheaded body.
Considering it’s not beheaded, Childe doubts the killer’s purpose was to cut the throat this deep. Most likely, they weren’t aware of their own strength or they’re used to battles that require more.
“It's just like the other corpse I saw here the other day. That one had their arm cut off. I remember thinking it was impressive since your average citizen can’t do that...” he says. “Whoever is killing these people is experienced in battle.”
Zhongli rubs his chin and stares up, deep in thought. “The other body you are mentioning… That also came from the Pearl Galley.”
“That… makes sense, actually.”
“Is there any reason why you are asking about this?”
Childe contemplates whether he should tell Zhongli or not. Really, he came here to examine the corpses himself, and he is trying to limit his interactions with the consultant until he can shake certain thoughts off his head…
Well, easier said than done. Now that he’s here, staying away from Zhongli is an impossible task to return to. He naturally gravitates towards Zhongli, already thinking of several questions to catch up with him during their time away from each other.
No time for that, he reminds himself. If he’s going to talk with Zhongli, he may as well explain the situation to him…
“Miss Ekaterina’s theory is plausible, however it is only a theory,” Zhongli says once he’s finished summarising Northland Bank’s current predicament. “If you were to investigate the Pearl Galley, it could be that the murderer is not the thief from the Northland Bank.”
Childe leans against the table behind him, taking care not to knock over the large pile of books atop it.
“I know, I know, but it’s the only lead I have,” he says, watching as Zhongli carefully covers the corpse with a sheet. “Besides, an unknown murderer prowling through Liyue… Isn’t that exciting?”
Zhongli glances at him from the corner of his eyes. “That is not the word I would use to describe it,” he mutters, not at all amused. “But if we are to investigate the ship, you will need to be in disguise. Many in the Galley are wary that Fatui are the reason why patrons disappear once they are unable to pay back the rest of their loans. If the thief is indeed within the ship, then your presence may scare them away.”
Huh. He didn’t think of that. Honestly, Childe’s plan so far has been:
- Investigate the corpses.
- Go to the Galley.
- Find the culprit and fight them.
Now that he thinks about it, that’s a very vague plan with a lot of room for error, but he had a similar approach when he was trying to steal Zhongli’s gnosis and that somehow worked out in the end. Childe is never one for elaborate schemes; he likes to dive in head first and fight the people he needs to fight. It works. Usually.
Anyway, surely it can’t be that difficult to find a killer in a brothel?
“Good point,” he says, then frowns. “What do you mean ‘we’?”
Zhongli smiles at him. “I will go with you. I am a frequent visitor of the Galley.”
Childe doesn’t think he heard that properly.
Zhongli… Frequent visitor of the Galley… which is also a brothel...
“Wait, brother, we need to take a picture! Smile for the kamera!”
Childe is attacked by a blazing flash of light before he can even register half of that sentence. While he’s temporarily blind, he hears his siblings giggling amidst the nonstop clicking. Little devils…
After Tonia is finished with her kamera assault, she shows him the pictures; all ten of them with him looking like he’s being attacked by the sun.
“Mother says she wants to send these pictures to Brother Alek!” Tonia says.
Childe frowns. First of all, you can barely see his face with how bright the flash is; and secondly… Alek? Childe hasn’t seen his eldest sibling since… since forever.
“Him? I think the last time I saw him, I was still wearing diapers. Does he even remember me?” he asks, struggling to put a face on his sibling. Alek is ten years older than him; as far as Childe can remember, he was already married with a family of his own when Childe enlisted into the Fatui.
Anthon nods. “He writes to us almost as much as you do, Brother!”
“But he never sends us any toys…” Teucer adds with a small pout.
“He said that if you and Mr. Zhongli ever get married for real, he’ll attend the wedding!” Tonia says. Before Childe can remind them he is not marrying Zhongli, she takes several more pictures.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough pictures for now,” he says, reaching for the kamera. He’s going to lose his eyesight at this rate. “Zhongli’s waiting for me in the lounge.”
Their plan to investigate the Pearl Galley is to be set in motion tonight. As luck would have it, there is an opera viewing later on, which hopefully means more patrons will attend. Since Zhongli is apparently a frequent and highly regarded visitor of the Galley, they don’t need a special invitation.
(Childe is still in shock over that. Coupled with Zhongli’s casual proposal of being friends with benefits, he’s starting to wonder if Zhongli isn’t as… uptight as he seems to be. Tsaritsa. Just thinking about it is enough to drive him insane. No. No, he should stop thinking about it.)
He walks into the lounge and instantly spots his fake boyfriend. A smile makes its way onto his face when he sees the gigantic bouquet of flowers Zhongli is holding, exactly like the first time he met Childe’s family.
“Thank you,” Childe says, hefting the bouquet into his arms. Archons, this thing is even heavier than the last one. He leans in to kiss Zhongli on the cheek, lingering longer than necessary until the sensible voice inside his head starts yelling at him to pull back.
“Let me find a vase for that,” Childe’s mother says, popping up in the middle of nowhere to snatch the bouquet from his grasp.
Once she leaves, Childe takes a moment to admire how Zhongli looks—and damn, he looks good. As Zhongli suggested, it would be best if Childe wore different clothes for tonight, in order to avoid the patrons from recognising him as being part of the Fatui. At first, Zhongli wanted him to wear a hanfu and Childe tried on many variations of the robes before deciding it would be too difficult to fight in them should they need to.
In the end, they decided that wearing a changshan would be the best option. It was a traditional Liyuen dress worn by men, resembling a long tunic; not quite as elaborate as hanfu but at least much easier to move around in.
The one Childe is wearing is a rich navy colour, decorated with detailed golden patterns along one side; unlike Zhongli’s, his changshan stops by his waist rather than below his knees, and is paired with black pants. It’s not as comfortable to move around in as his normal attire, but it will do. For obvious reasons, he’s not wearing his Fatui mask tonight. Instead, his hair has been styled by his over-enthusiastic mother and sister, slicked back on one side and his bangs combed away from his eyes for once.
Zhongli told him he would wear something similar, but nothing could have prepared Childe for this. The burgundy changshan he’s wearing fits him like a glove, making it impossible for the Harbinger to ignore how slender his waist is. There are golden patterns adorning the dress in the form of a dragon surrounded by swirling flames, but, really, Childe can barely focus on what the outfit looks like when Zhongli looks amazing in anything.
“You look... “ Childe swallows, scrambling for a suitable description. “Good.”
Zhongli beams at him. “As do you. The clothes suit you very much.”
Just then, Childe’s mother materialises between them again. She dusts off Childe’s shoulders and straightens his jacket.
“He looks very handsome, doesn’t he, Mr. Zhongli?” she says. “Ajax, I love your hair like this… You should style it like this more often; your hair is always such a mess.”
Childe feigns a distraught expression, clutching his chest. “You wound me, Mother.”
His father laughs. “Are you two going on a date?”
Zhongli nods. “Yes, I am taking Ajax to watch an opera with me.”
Among other things, Childe mentally adds. Like hunting down a murderer in a brothel.
“The fact you can actually convince Ajax to watch opera is impressive enough, Mr. Zhongli.”
“Hey, I don’t mind watching opera…” Childe mumbles to his father. “I appreciate the arts too.”
His mother tidies his hair for the hundredth time tonight and kisses him on the cheek. “Have fun, you two. Mr. Zhongli, please keep him out of trouble.”
Ever the gentleman, Zhongli nods and offers his parents the most charming smile known to all of Teyvat. “I will try.”
As soon as they’re out of the house, Childe throws his head back and laughs. “You’re a big liar, consultant; telling my poor parents you’ll keep me out of trouble when you’re taking me out for a night at the brothel.”
Zhongli laughs with him, much quieter but enough to send Childe’s stomach somersaulting in circles. The consultant reaches for his hand, squeezing it, and Childe’s heart joins along with the gymnastics.
“I believe I told them that I would try,” Zhongli says, completely unaware of the effect he has. “You and I both know it is impossible to keep you out of trouble.”
Childe has never been at the Pearl Galley before but he’s heard enough stories to know it’s one of the most extravagant spots in Liyue. Whenever he gazes down at the harbour from his rooftop, he’d see the grandiose ship sailing in the distance, so out of place among Liyue’s calm waters.
Now that he’s here, he’s not at all surprised by how it looks. It is every bit as gaudy as he expected. He can see why so many of their customers easily spend ridiculous amounts of Mora on this place.
“Zhongli!” someone calls. Childe turns around and spots a middle-aged Liyuen man with a goatee, followed by another man whose hairline is receding. He has quite an impressive moustache though.
“It is good to see you here,” the man with the goatee says to Zhongli, then turns to Childe with obvious curiosity in his eyes.
Zhongli smiles at him and politely bows. “Good evening, Hanxue. This is Ajax. He is my… lover.”
The moustached man starts choking. “Lover?!” He coughs, lowering his voice. “Excuse me, I did not mean to yell… I'm just surprised.”
You and everyone else, Childe thinks, resisting the urge to sigh.
“I heard rumours that our dear consultant was engaged to someone a few days ago, but I didn’t know it was actually real…” the man called Hanxue mutters, narrowing his eyes at Childe.
Childe fakes his friendliest smile and grabs Zhongli by the hand. “Yes, Zhongli and I are madly in love and we can’t wait to spend the rest of our lives together. Isn’t that right…” He freezes, thinking back to all the cringey pet names his brother Taras used to call one of his girlfriends. “...Babe?”
Zhongli has the courtesy to look amused. “Very much so.”
“How adorable. It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ajax. I am Hanxue, and this is Yixuan. We are both archeologists; Zhongli often debates with us during our visits here.” Hanxue rubs his chin, still narrowing his eyes at Childe. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Zhongli’s shoulders are tense. “Hmm… Have you been here long, Ajax? I feel as if I have seen you before…”
Childe quickly shakes his head. “Um, I’m afraid I can’t stay in Liyue often… I visit whenever I can to see Zhongli, but work requires me to be in Snezhnaya a lot…”
“Yes, perhaps you mistook Ajax for someone else?” Zhongli adds. “There is a rising number of Snezhnayans staying in Liyue these days.”
Thankfully, Hanxue nods, although Childe can tell he’s still trying to remember where he’s seen him before. “That must be it… Oh, I think the opera is starting. Consultant, we have a table already reserved. You and Ajax must join us.”
“Thank you. We will,” Zhongli says.
Childe breathes a sigh of relief when the two men leave to sit by their table. Maybe he should have done something to change the colour of his hair for a better disguise; there’s not many gingers walking around Liyue these days after all.
He pulls Zhongli close, lowering his voice into a whisper. “I don’t think they believe we’re together.”
“Hmm. I suppose it is difficult to believe when they have never seen me romantically involved with anyone else,” Zhongli muses. “We will have to be more convincing.”
“Right…” Childe looks over his shoulder, quickly scanning their surroundings. “See anyone suspicious yet?”
“It will be easier to spot the potential culprit once the escorts are here… We can gauge their interactions.”
“Alright, when do they come out?”
Zhongli links his arm around Childe’s and smiles at someone walking past them. “In the Pearl Galley, most prefer to enjoy the opera first. Afterwards, we feast, and that is usually when the escorts grace us with their presence.”
“And the escorts… They…”
As if knowing the course of his thoughts, Zhongli’s eyes soften with amusement and he lets out a quiet laugh.
“Pursuing sex with an escort here is rare and frowned upon. They are sought for their intellect rather than their bodies,” he explains. “Here, they mostly dance and sing, or recite poetry. It is usually the escort’s decision if she wishes to bed someone, and that person must also be able to afford such a large price.”
Oh. Huh. Childe never knew that. He nods. “You come here a lot…”
Zhongli’s smile widens. “Not for reasons you think. A few have invited me here in the past. It is more for… socialising events.”
“When you said you were a frequent visitor here, I was under the impression you came to see the escorts.”
“No, Ajax. As I said, I only come here to socialise with friends. The escorts here are beautiful and very talented, but I am not interested in such things,” Zhongli says. “Come, let’s not keep them waiting.”
Childe tries, and fails, to ignore the relief that courses through him at those words. Smiling to himself, he pulls Zhongli closer, secretly enjoying the way their bodies slot together.
Ten minutes after the opera begins, Childe realises he may have been lying to his father. He can appreciate the arts… when they’re not about to make him fall asleep. He stifles a yawn behind his hand, wondering if anyone will notice if he takes a small nap on the table. Their seats are near the back; hardly anyone can see them from here…
Apart from one person, anyway. Childe feels Hanxue’s eyes trained on him at all times. Come to think of it, he’s watching Childe more than the opera.
He leans into Zhongli. “That man keeps watching us.”
Zhongli moves his chair closer. “I have noticed.”
“Do you think he’s the culprit?”
“No... I think he is mostly suspicious that we do not seem to be acting like a couple.”
Childe pretends to lean back, watching Hanxue from the corner of his eyes. As expected, the archeologist is staring at them from behind his fan. Everyone else is far too busy watching the opera or enjoying their drinks.
“Well, let’s give him something to convince him then,” he mutters.
He’s not sure what possesses him to do this. In retrospect, he’ll blame the atmosphere of the Galley for his inappropriate actions. Childe pulls Zhongli onto his lap, holding onto his waist to steady him when Zhongli jolts out of shock. Before he can chicken out, he trails his lips along Zhongli’s neck and begins to suck.
Zhongli freezes against him, grabbing his hand.
Childe stops. “No?” he murmurs into his neck. “Too much?”
Silence. Childe is about to pull away and apologise when Zhongli shifts on his lap, pressing himself closer. He squeezes his hand.
“Carry on,” he whispers.
Childe thinks he’s about to combust right there and then.
He closes his eyes and bites Zhongli’s neck, smiling when the ex-Archon shudders against him. As an apology, Childe swirls his tongue over the same spot, round and round, round and round, until Zhongli begins to squirm. He sucks, hard, determined to create a new mark to replace the one that’s faded away.
It’s not long until the sound of the opera is forgotten and all Childe can focus on is the man on his lap. He kisses up and down Zhongli’s neck, peppering him with new marks to remind everyone in Liyue he is taken. Once he’s satisfied, Childe opens his eyes and gazes at his partner. Zhongli’s head dips to the side, eyes closed, lips parted and red. Tempting.
Gods, he's beautiful. He's always thought Zhongli is beautiful, but there's something addicting in seeing him react like this to every touch Childe offers him. It makes him want to see more. Do more.
Childe licks along the shell of his ear, stopping to suck his earlobe, catching it between his teeth. He’s answered by a quiet hiss as Zhongli squeezes his eyes tighter, shuffling back on Childe’s lap.
He wraps his arms around Zhongli’s waist, keeping him in place. The more Zhongli squirms, the more it’s apparent that Childe is hard. And Zhongli isn’t helping by grinding his ass right where his dick is.
This is maddening. Zhongli is warm and pliant against him, and Childe’s hands are already moving by themselves. One of them slides up to cover his mouth, muffling the ex-Archon’s gasps as they get louder and louder by the second. The other trails down, past Zhongli’s stomach, between his thighs, and presses against the evident bulge under his clothes as well.
Zhongli arches against him, panting. Childe shoves a thumb into his mouth and— fuck. His dick hardens even more the second he feels Zhongli sucking his thumb, swirling his tongue around it as if it’s his favourite treat.
What the fuck, Childe thinks. What the fuck.
He groans, unable to stop himself from rutting into Zhongli’s ass. Fuck, this is too much. They should stop. He should stop.
Instead, Childe’s hand strokes Zhongli through his clothes, pleased to find that the ex-Archon is just as hard as he is.
“Fuck—Zhongli,” Childe rasps into his ear. He slides his hand under Zhongli’s changshan and squeezes him through his pants, enjoying the way the ex-Archon whines instantly—
Someone coughs. Loudly.
Zhongli is out of his lap and back on his own stool in the blink of an eye. Childe shrinks back, purposely hiding from the scandalised eyes who have probably witnessed their little… moment. Shit. They took that way too far.
Well. At least everyone in the Galley is convinced they’re a couple now, albeit a very inappropriate and shameless couple, but a couple nonetheless.
Too bad Childe is far too hard and horny to care at the moment. Maybe, when he’s back in the confines of his own bed, he’ll think back on this public indecency and hope for the Abyss to swallow him whole.
For now, he sneaks a glance at Zhongli. The consultant stares back at him, his eyes filled with amusement, and his lips begging to be kissed.
Fuck. Childe presses the heel of his palm against his dick and tries to think of anything to kill his boner. Think of the reason why he’s in the Galley in the first place. Think of dead escorts and murderers, not pretty ex-Archons he wants to ravish. Think of dead escorts and murderers…
The opera is long enough for Childe’s poor boner to eventually die down. This is the second time his dick has been left a victim of blue balls, and both times it’s been Zhongli’s fault. Childe isn’t sure if he can survive at this rate. He’s half tempted to find the nearest bathroom and jerk off, but then he remembers he’s supposed to be looking for a murderer, not letting his fake boyfriend/lover/fiancé turn him into a sex maniac.
Gods, how did he even end up in this predicament?
Think of dead escorts and murderers. Please, for the love of the fucking Tsaritsa, just find the murderer.
Childe wonders how he still has a voice in his head that’s somewhat sensible, and why this voice won’t take action when he needs it to stop him from making dumb decisions.
After the opera is finished, Zhongli disappears to talk to his friends. Childe is left alone to amble around the tables, scrutinising every patron for any sign that will scream MURDERER to him. So far, none, but he does come across someone he does not expect to find.
A Snezhnayan man. His eyes widen as soon as he sees Childe.
“A fellow Snezhnayan! Greetings, friend!” he says, patting the seat next to his own. “Have a drink next to me. I’m Maksim.”
While there are a few Snezhnayans in Liyue, Childe never expected to find one here in the Galley. Then again, considering how popular brothels are back in their home land, he really shouldn’t be surprised. This man has red hair like he does, slicked back, although not quite as bright. He wears a typical Snezhnayan long coat with gloves, completely standing out like a sore thumb within all the other patrons in the Galley.
Childe accepts the drink he kindly offers and sits down next to him, “I'm Ajax. Thanks.”
Maksim grins at him. “The Pearl Galley truly is as wonderful as they say. The men are striking, and the women exquisite…” He lowers his voice, leaning closer to Childe. “I see you were enjoying yourself earlier.”
Childe hides the blush spreading on his face by drinking his wine. “You saw that?”
“Who didn’t?” Maksim laughs and twists in his chair to look at Zhongli from across the ship. He takes a sip of his wine, nodding at Childe. “Is he one of the escorts? He’s beautiful; you must have spent quite a lot on him.”
The wine suddenly tastes unpleasant. Childe is unable to stop the frown tugging on his eyebrows.
“I didn’t pay for him. He’s mine.” He coughs. “I mean, he’s my fiancé. He's… He's not an escort.”
He’s surprised by the possessive anger that grips him out of nowhere. It doesn’t calm down until Maksim finally takes his eyes off Zhongli, turning back to face Childe.
“What brings you to Liyue?” Childe asks, plastering on the fakest smile he can muster. Maksim, thankfully, did not notice his little slip of anger.
“I originally intended to do business here in Liyue, although I must say that I have forgotten all such thoughts already… How about you?”
Childe drinks the rest of his wine and watches Zhongli talking to his friends from the other side of the Galley. His gaze roams down his figure, fixating too long on the slender curve of his waist. Even in a ship filled with beautifully dressed escorts, Zhongli still stands out the most amongst them.
“I just came here to visit my fiancé,” he mutters, tearing his gaze away from the consultant. “I, uh, I’m mostly in Snezhnaya but I find time to visit him whenever I can.”
“I see… You’re a very lucky man.” Maksim downs the rest of his drink and sits back on his chair. His eyes remains on Childe for far too long; long enough for Childe to feel uncomfortable. “You know, I can’t shake off the feeling I’ve seen you before.”
Childe laughs humourlessly. “Are you sure you’re not just missing home?”
Maksim laughs it off as well and goes back to drinking some more. They engage in further small talk, mostly started by the tipsy Snezhnayan while Childe comes up with fake answers to appease him.
Why would Maksim think he’d seen Childe before? Childe may be infamous around Liyue for his past crimes, but only a handful had ever seen his face in person. Most recognise him by his Fatui mask…
Liyuens aside, Childe is used to people recognising him for other reasons. His name is well known across the Fatui, especially among new recruits who think stories of his battles are something to be greatly admired. Sometimes, he’s required to talk to these new groups in order to boost their morale and introduce them to the rules and regulations within the organization.
Childe eyes the empty wine cup in front of him. He spares one final glance at Maksim before stretching his arms, intentionally knocking the cup over.
Maksim’s hand darts to catch it before it hits the floor. Childe didn’t even see him move.
He bites back the smile threatening to spread on his face. Gotcha, he thinks. This guy is definitely Fatui.
“Woah, you moved faster than lightning,” he says, feigning shock.
Maksim chuckles and slides the cup back onto the table. “You break that and you’ll have to pay for it, my friend. Who knows how expensive those things are?”
“Thanks,” Childe says. He rises to his feet, pretending to yawn. “I should get back to my fiancé.”
“See you around. It was nice talking to you.”
Childe nods and smiles at the man for the last time. “You too.”
As he walks away, he tries to piece together all of the clues flying about his head. Generally, Fatui aren’t able to leave without direct permission from the Tsaritsa, and most do not dare disappoint her. If Maksim recognised him, then that could only mean he saw him from one of those introductory speeches Harbingers are required to give.
But why would he be in the Galley, avoiding his duties as Fatui? Clearly, he’s not here on duty either, by the looks of him drinking away at his table and conversing with several escorts at his side.
“Ajax, is something the matter?”
Childe looks up, faced with evident concern flickering through Zhongli’s eyes. He grabs Zhongli by the elbow and pulls him to a corner, away from everyone else.
“I think that guy’s Fatui…” Childe mutters, nodding towards Maksim’s direction. “He recognised me.”
Zhongli steps closer. To others, it may look as if they’re about to have yet another show of public indecency, but luckily for them, most of the patrons are now too drunk to care. Childe rubs a hand up and down Zhongli’s spine, pulling him in to rest his head along his shoulder.
He breathes him in. Zhongli’s scent has been haunting his room ever since he stayed there, burying its way into his blanket, his pillows, everywhere.
“I saw what you did with the cup,” Zhongli says, his breath tickling Childe’s neck. “Very smart.”
Childe chuckles. “See? I’m not so stupid after all.”
He stiffens when he feels Zhongli’s lips press into his neck. Soft, cautious. Then, his mouth parts, tongue darting out to draw circles along Childe’s skin.
“You are not stupid,” Zhongli tells him. Childe has completely forgotten what the hell they were talking about to begin with.
Zhongli presses closer to him until there’s no space between their bodies. He runs his fingers through Childe’s hair, combing the strands back. All the while, his lips continue to trail down Childe’s neck, alternating between gentle kisses to sucking at the skin until Childe’s fingers dig into his waist. It takes all of his mental strength to remain in place when all he can think of is pinning Zhongli against the nearest wall and ravaging him.
“But... I believe if that man is truly Fatui, then he could be a potential culprit…” Zhongli pulls back slightly. His nose bumps against Childe’s chin as he looks up. “Fatui would be able to breach Northland Bank’s security, no?”
Childe can hardly focus on their conversation. He licks his dry lips and swallows. Hard. “You think he could be the one?”
It’s a miracle he can formulate words at this point. His brain turns to mush as Zhongli snakes his arms around his neck, pulling his head down. Murderer? What murderer? The only danger in this ship is apparently the man currently draped all over him.
“Hmm.” Zhongli’s lips brush Childe’s ear. “I spoke with a few people too; many of them said that man has become a regular here at the Galley.”
It must be a cruel joke that Childe is this pent up and Zhongli’s here talking about another man in his ear. Whoever, or whatever is up in Celestia must be laughing at him right now. He closes his eyes and holds onto Zhongli’s waist, unsure as to whether this is torture or heaven.
“According to them, the first escort that was murdered was quite a popular one… She was one of the few who would allow others to bed her, for a hefty price. In fact, she was often the reason why patrons here would borrow loans they cannot afford to pay back. Some of the patrons called her Xi Shi.”
Most of that went straight through Childe’s head.
“Xi Shi?” he says. It’s the only piece of information he managed to hold onto.
Zhongli hums. He leans back and presses his lips on Childe’s chin; fleeting, butterfly kisses that follow the path of his jaw. With every kiss he gives, Childe’s heart clenches to the point where he’s convinced he’s going to go into cardiac arrest any second now.
“Yes. In traditional Liyuen stories, it is the name of a woman whose beauty was so great that, upon seeing her, fish forgot how to swim and sank below the surface. Likewise, it seems the men here have associated the escort’s overwhelming beauty and charm to be as dangerous.”
Childe can think of a certain someone who fits that description very well.
He opens his eyes. Zhongli is now so close their noses almost touch. All of the extravagant lights and lanterns in the Galley make it look as if his hair is glowing and his eyes are other-worldly.
“Wow,” Childe says with his last remaining brain cell.
Zhongli nods. “Exactly. Furthermore, the second victim was a maid, not another escort.”
He’s decided; this is torture. This is definitely torture. Damn it, he needs to focus on the conversation before he ends up having another boner in public because of Zhongli.
“A maid?” Childe asks.
“Yes,” Zhongli says. He reaches up and sweeps back a strand of hair that was falling over Childe’s eyes. “I was told she was the one who found Xi Shi’s corpse.”
Childe is both disappointed and relieved that Zhongli has stopped kissing him. Regardless, he’s not quite ready to let him go just yet. He keeps his arms wrapped around Zhongli’s waist, secretly pleased when the consultant holds onto his shoulders once again.
He could get used to this. Logically, Childe tells himself they’re only doing this to convince everyone in the Galley they’re a couple… but honestly it’s barely a priority to him and more an added bonus.
“So she was killed because she found something that could have revealed the killer?” Childe suggests.
“Perhaps. In any case… we only have our suspicions, and we do not even know if the thief and the murderer are the same person… It will be difficult to prove if he’s the culprit or not.”
Catching the culprit is literally the last thing on Childe’s mind. At least solving this case will convince the other Harbingers he’s not just lounging here in Liyue as many of them seem to think he is.
He sighs, searching the Galley for the suspicious Snezhnayan man.
There. Childe frowns, watching Maksim talk to the two guards outside the Galley’s entrance into the ship’s rooms. There’s a woman holding onto his arm, dressed in fine silks and her face painted with makeup.
Another escort, Childe concludes, and by the looks of it, they’re about to go inside.
He pulls away from Zhongli and grabs his hand. “Come on, let’s go inside as well.”
Zhongli frowns at him, then turns to see Maksim before he disappears into the ship’s interior. “Childe, I am aware that you prefer more… direct methods in gaining results, but we cannot—”
“Come on, xiansheng, trust me, okay?” Childe urges. He squeezes his hand and tries his best to look as serious as possible.
Zhongli responds with a sigh of defeat. “Do not make me regret this.”
Childe keeps his eyes on the escort in front of him, watching the dangling ornaments in her hair sway like a pendulum. Her hanfu is so long that Childe has to be careful to avoid stepping on it. She leads them deeper into the ship, unaware that with each step she takes, the couple behind her stalls further and further.
Once she rounds a corner, Childe pulls Zhongli with him to the opposite corridor, losing the escort. Fortunately, there seems to be no one else inside; everyone is behind closed doors, enjoying the company of other escorts. Considering there’s been two murders within this ship, Childe thought there would at least be guards here.
Getting into the brothel took a huge chunk of his Mora. No wonder the patrons here are always getting into trouble with the bank. Fortunately for Childe, he’s never short on money.
They’re progressing with his plan fairly well; they’ve managed to get into the brothel without arousing any suspicion. Now, all they need to do is find Maksim. Somehow.
He only went in a few minutes before they did; surely he can’t have gone far?
“This place is bigger than I expected. How are we supposed to know where he went?” Childe says.
Zhongli presses a finger to his lips. “Ssshh.”
Childe freezes, and then—footsteps. To their right.
He exchanges looks with Zhongli for a brief second before both of them rush to hide behind a nearby pillar.
Once the footsteps recede, Childe peaks out, instantly spotting a tuft of ginger hair in the distance. Maksim. He glances over his shoulder to nod at Zhongli, then trails after the Snezhnayan man, making sure to keep his steps as quiet as possible. Stealth has never been his area of expertise; the other Harbingers are better at it. Besides, he’d much rather charge in and fight people.
Sadly, these corridors are far too cramped to fight in, and he promised Zhongli he’ll try to avoid trouble as much as he can; try being the keyword.
Maksim leads them down another corridor, too engrossed in talking to the escort he’s with to notice who’s following him. It’ll be so easy to just sneak in and kill him from here, but they’re still not sure if he’s actually the—
Childe’s foot catches on a rug. He stumbles, grabbing onto the wall to steady himself. While he avoids falling face first into the floor, the noise alerts the two in front of them. From the corner of his eyes, he sees Maksim turning around.
Childe’s back hits a wall. He jolts, defences instantly raised up, wondering who pushed him—
And then Zhongli’s lips are suddenly pressing into his, quickly, desperately, that Childe can’t fathom what the fuck is happening—only that Zhongli is still kissing him, prying his mouth open.
Childe groans into the kiss and closes his eyes, greedily sucking Zhongli’s tongue. In the distance, he hears hushed voices, drowned out by the eager sounds of Zhongli gasping into his mouth.
“Who are they? Should we call the guards?”
“Don’t worry, it’s just a lovesick couple. Let’s leave them alone.”
More footsteps; this time, fading away from them.
Childe doesn’t care. He grabs Zhongli’s waist and flips them over. Their kiss is broken apart for the shortest of seconds as Zhongli’s back collides with the wall. His lips are red, swollen, and that’s all the temptation it takes for Childe to dive back in.
“W-Wait… Wait, Childe…” Zhongli’s voice trails away as Childe sucks at his bottom lip, coaxing his mouth open. He moans, and conversation is lost as their tongues find each other. It’s a mess of a kiss, with their noses bumping, teeth clashing, and Childe trying to devour as much of Zhongli as he can. He can’t decide what’s more addicting; Zhongli’s taste or the little sounds escaping him.
Zhongli gasps. He angles his head away, breaking the kiss. Childe fixates on the string of saliva that hovers between them. “The… The man. We will lose him.”
Childe couldn’t give a damn about that at this point. All he wants to do is lose himself in Zhongli.
“Fuck,” is all he can say.
By some sort of miracle, he rips himself away from Zhongli. He doesn’t know how, and he doesn’t know why. For all he cares, Maksim can be the killer and he can steal more money from the bank. Sorry, Ekaterina.
He coughs, straightening himself up. He makes a show of being too busy fixing his collar, when in reality he’s watching Zhongli’s every move. Once he’s sure he no longer has the urge to shove Zhongli back against the wall, he nods at him and resumes the task at hand.
Before they got… preoccupied with their kiss, Childe heard Maksim walking off. The only way in front of them is forward, therefore he follows the path and hopes he and Zhongli didn’t spend too long making out with each other to lose Maksim. Not that he regrets it. He definitely does not regret it.
Luckily, they hear voices from one of the doors. Childe stops, pressing his ear against it.
As soon as he confirms it’s Maksim’s voice, he throws open the door and barges inside.
He didn’t really think about what would greet him the moment he went inside. He was dreading that Maksim would be having sex with the escort and he’d have to walk into that, but thankfully, there are no naked bodies in sight. Good.
A high pitched scream follows shortly after. Clutching her chest, the escort throws herself against the wall.
Maksim freezes. He takes one look at Childe before he lunges.
Oh. Childe was expecting some verbal confrontation and denial on Maksim’s part, but he can’t say he’s complaining about this development. He happily summons his hydro blades and blocks the man’s onslaught. From her corner, the escort screams some more and Childe notices that Zhongli has kindly surrounded her with his Jade shield. Ever the gentleman.
“Childe!” he hears Zhongli calling. Within seconds, he’s surrounded by the familiar, golden glow of Zhongli’s shields, blocking out Maksim’s next attacks.
Clearly irritated, Maksim disappears into thin air. It would make any opponent panic, to have their enemy suddenly turn invisible, but Childe knows the Fatui’s fighting styles like the back of his hand. He doesn’t even bat an eyelid when Maksim dives at him from behind, surrounded by fire and a cyclone of blades.
It’s disappointingly boring fighting Maksim. After all this work in hunting him down, Childe’s body automatically moves to block his every attack, having memorised each and every one of the agent’s battle techniques. Maksim is beaten within a minute. Maybe even less.
Childe kicks him onto the floor, keeping him down with his foot on his chest.
“You stole the money and killed those two women, didn't you?” he goads, digging his foot harder. “No need to confess, I'll just beat the truth out of you if you don't.”
Maksim glares up at him. “How did you know?”
Actually, I wasn’t sure, Childe mentally says. But thanks for confirming it.
Before he’s given a chance to celebrate this victory, the door bursts open. Several millelith guards come flooding in, pointing their spears at Childe.
“It's him! That Fatui Harbinger!” one of them screams at the top of his lungs. “He must be the killer!”
“I told you to be discreet,” Ekaterina says. Even through her mask, Childe can picture the stern disappointment in her eyes, almost akin to a mother who just found out her son was causing trouble behind her back—only Ekaterina is about the same age as him.
Even so, it’s difficult not to feel like a kid in trouble when you’re being dragged back to the Northland Bank by several millelith guards. Definitely not one of Childe’s finest moments, he’ll have to admit.
Childe grimaces. “I was—”
Ekaterina folds her arms, shutting him up. “Sir, had it not been for Mr. Zhongli, you would have been apprehended by the millelith and blamed for the murders.”
Zhongli steps forward, nodding once at the receptionist. “Ningguang still wishes to speak with him tomorrow, but I shall accompany him for that too.”
Ekaterina sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“Hey, I caught the culprit though, didn't I?” Childe offers, throwing his arms up.
Granted, he was almost arrested for it instead of the bastard. Fortunately, Zhongli is the best fake boyfriend ever, and also very respected among the millelith. He was able to quickly calm the situation down and explain everything to the guards. Childe almost kissed him on the spot.
Ekaterina relaxes into a small smile. “Yes, we have identified him as a former Fatui member who suddenly left without alerting anyone. It is an oversight on our part; we should have noticed the disappearance sooner… It’s a good coincidence that we decided to change the vault's codes or else he would have continued to steal from us.”
It was as they predicted. Maksim was stealing money from under their noses to indulge himself in the Galley; once they changed the codes, he resorted to other methods. Xi Shi had been the Galley’s most popular escort at the time, but she was also known to immediately tell the guards if a patron failed to pay the full amount. In the past, many wanted to bed her. Many tried, and later disappeared off the face of the world when they failed to pay up.
Maksim avoided that same fate by killing her on the spot. He had managed to tamper with the records to make it seem as if he had never seen Xi Shi, but Childe suspects her maid was unlucky enough to see him leave the ship when she came to clean their room.
When questioned about why he had murdered the maid as well, Maksim revealed that she had stupidly tried to confront him about his involvement in Xi Shi’s death. The poor girl had only been trying to help, but her eagerness in solving the case made her a victim as well.
Childe shakes his head. To think this all happened because one man wanted to have sex that much. Damn. “Can’t believe he’d do all that just to stay in the Galley.”
Zhongli slowly nods. “The Pearl Galley has a tendency to ruin people. I have seen far too many lose themselves to that place.”
Childe smirks. “You go there.”
“Only when it is necessary.” Zhongli folds his arms, meeting his smirk with a smile of his own. “Besides, I would much rather spend my time with you.”
Knowing full well his cheeks are reddening this very second, Childe immediately looks away. “Flatterer.”
He hears Ekaterina let out one of her rare laughs. When he looks up, she’s beaming at both of them. “Sir, by the way… I have not yet congratulated you on your engagement.”
Ah, shit. “W-Where did you hear that from…?”
Ekaterina giggles. “Oh, you must be aware by now that Fatui recruits gossip quite a lot.”
Now that she mentions it, Childe is suddenly aware of all the Fatui eyes trained on them around the bank. He sees a few recruits muttering to each other, staring between him and Zhongli. In the distance, he hears a wolf whistle that immediately dies away the second his head snaps in their direction.
What started out as a small plan to convince his parents that he and Zhongli were together has now somehow ended convincing everyone. Not only that, even he’s starting to get too attached to the idea of being with the consultant.
Childe groans. He doesn’t know how else to respond to the joy clearly written all over Ekaterina’s face so all he does is fake one of his usual smiles before leaving the bank.
After all of the events from tonight, Childe is drained out. The walk back to the funeral parlour is quiet. He’s lost track of the time, though the empty streets and dead silence in the air tells him it must be past midnight. The shops are long closed by now and the only people left in the streets are him and Zhongli.
So much happened tonight that Childe simply ran along with it and didn’t stop to think. Not that he’s known for doing that often, but…
Now that he does have time to stop and think, all he can remember is Zhongli. He’s looping every memory back in his head, trying to remember what Zhongli felt pressed against him, what he sounded like, how he tasted.
Childe doubts he can ever forget any of it. He’s gone too far this time. Even as he tries to remind himself about the damn contract, he finds that it doesn’t matter, at least not now. He’ll worry about the contract when these two weeks are over but right now, all he can think about is wanting to kiss Zhongli again.
“That was quite an eventful night.”
Zhongli’s voice drags him away from his thoughts. Childe glances up, only noticing that they have finally reached the funeral parlour. Zhongli stands outside the door, staring at him as moonlight illuminates the golden tips of his hair.
“Yeah… Thanks for, uh, coming with me,” Childe says. “And also for all the help. And for stopping the millelith from arresting me.”
Zhongli smiles. “A pleasure.”
Silence falls between them. Childe recognises this as the moment he should probably bid goodnight and make his way back to his own apartment. Maybe, if he’s determined enough, he can forget what happened tonight and earn back his sanity by tomorrow. Zhongli will understand they only did all of those things to convince everyone in the Galley they’re together. Childe should do the same.
He should say goodbye and leave. He should try to gain back as much control as he can to survive this stupid contract.
Childe stays where he is. He looks at Zhongli, searching the amber depths of his eyes for anything.
Oh, screw it.
Childe surges forward. The moment Zhongli’s back hits the door, their lips are on each other and everything else no longer matters. He wastes no time in pushing his tongue into Zhongli’s mouth, eager and greedy to taste him again. The cold bite of the midnight breeze rushes past them, but Childe barely feels it over the heat spreading through his entire body.
He crushes Zhongli into the door and swallows the gasp that comes out of him. He wants more. This isn’t enough. This is nowhere near enough. He’s a flame in a forest, frenzied and uncontrollable, desperate to devour everything Zhongli has. He wants him. He has never wanted anything more in his life.
“Childe…” Zhongli pants, wrapping his arms around his neck.
They pull away for a second and Childe drinks in the sight of Zhongli’s swollen lips, the haziness of his amber eyes. He doesn’t want to assume anything but he knows lust when he sees it. He can’t be the only one feeling this.
Childe bumps his nose against Zhongli’s cheek, struggling to catch his breath.
“Zhongli… Does your offer still stand?”
“Offer…? What offer?”
Unable to help himself, Childe captures Zhongli’s lips again. The kiss is slower, gentler; Childe savours each slide and caress, committing it to memory.
“What you said on that rooftop,” he says, licking Zhongli’s top lip before pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. “Your... sexual arrangement.”
“Oh. Friends with benefits?”
Childe grins. “You remembered.”
He ducks down and latches on Zhongli’s neck, sucking at the mark he’d created earlier.
“Yes...” Zhongli cranes his neck, burying his fingers through Childe’s hair. “You… You wish to change your mind?”
Childe bites him, hard, and is quickly rewarded by a surprised moan from the god. He presses an apologetic kiss onto the red mark, swirling his tongue over it until Zhongli trembles against him.
“Yes. If you want,” Childe says. “If the offer still stands.”
“I know, I know, but—fuck.” Childe sighs. He rests his forehead against Zhongli’s own, closing his eyes. “I want you, Zhongli, I want you so much. You're driving me insane.”
When Childe doesn’t get an immediate response, he leans back and opens his eyes to find Zhongli frowning down.
“This is fine, isn’t it?” Childe asks. “After all this is finished, we’ll just... go back to how we used to be.”
Zhongli’s lips press together. “No feelings or complications.”
Childe nods. “Yes. I won’t break your contract. I promise.”
He wants to reassure Zhongli that no matter what, he’ll stick to their contract. Although he’s no longer the God of Contracts, Childe knows how important these things are for Zhongli. It might destroy him to keep his end of the bargain, but he never breaks a promise. Once Childe is dedicated to something, he sees it through until the end— even if he’s starting to hate himself more and more for getting himself into this mess.
Zhongli is still not looking at him. His jaw is clenched and his arms have loosened around Childe’s neck. There’s something in his eyes that Childe can’t quite make out. Maybe he’s starting to regret his offer at the rooftop. If so, this is the third time Childe’s going to have a sad, unsatisfied boner, but he won't force Zhongli to do anything he doesn’t want to do.
“You don’t have to—”
He’s silenced with a kiss.
“The offer still stands,” Zhongli says against his lips. “Let’s go inside.”