People had always asked Ekaterina why she chose her line of work.
After all, she was smart, and pretty, and had a good head on her shoulders. She didn’t really need to get a job in the highly suspicious supposedly-not-Fatui-owned-but-no-one-is-fooled bank far away from home. She could have easily gotten a job in Snezhnaya or barring that, had gotten married to some nice young man and given her poor aging parents grandchildren because “you’re not getting any younger young lady!”, or so her mother had seen fit to remind her with every increasingly threatening letter from home. But the fact was, she liked working for the highly suspicious most-definitely-Fatui-owned-but-they-pretend-not-to-know establishment. The pay was good, the benefits better, and the occasional suspicious blood stains that show up every now and then isn’t something that couldn’t be fixed with a little elbow grease.
And if her job required her to stay in Liyue far away from home, and far away from the mother who had started putting together a catalog of every single eligible bachelor from Snezhnaya to Mondstadt, then it’s all the more better for her.
She would neither confirm nor deny that she had taken one look at the first few pages of the catalog and had promptly packed her bags and never looked back.
So really, she had absolutely no trouble managing herself, even in a foreign country. Sure, she gets lots of suspicious looks from the locals, the mask didn’t help at all in that matter, but Liyue was peaceful and welcoming, of Fatui mora if if not the Fatui people, Shady businesses and the occasional transactions skirting the edges of legality aside, she could have happily spent her days in this city harbor without complaints.
But then the harbingers arrived.
Or more precisely, the harbinger, singular not plural, and even more precisely the 11th. And her life has never been the same after that.
Of course everyone knew, though they pretended not to, that the Northland bank was being managed by the Fatui. And everyone knew that of the Fatui, no one reigned higher, except the Tsaritsa herself, than the 11 Harbingers. And it’s not even that Sir Tartaglia, or Childe as he insists to be known, was a bad boss. Far from it. Sure he was a bit clueless when it comes to the finer art of financials but that was what Ekaterina was for. Childe does his job just fine hanging back and looking appropriately threatening, and every now and again, when people, very stupidly, think that they can run off without paying their debts, well, all that could be said is that they will never look at water the same way ever again. Needless to say the agents stationed around Liyue had been very inspired.
But one normal day, that had all changed.
She should have known something was amiss. Her superior had just stepped out for lunch one day, something that he’s done just fine by himself before. Except he hadn’t come back after lunch break or the hours after that, and sure it was odd and had been completely unlike him but Ekaterina hadn’t really worried, after all, he was a harbinger, but maybe she should have but then again it’s not like she could have done anything to stop it even if she had.
Maybe it was fate. Maybe it had been destiny. Maybe it was some guidance from the adepti themselves. Or maybe it was some sort of ploy from the Qixing to destabilize the Fatui hold over the city by taking out one of their major pieces.
Whatever it had been, her superior had stumbled back, hours after his break was supposed to end. He had slumped bonelessly in front of his desk and before Ekaterina could even ask him what was wrong, he had looked at her with the most stupefied look of wonder in his face and said in breathless awe-
“I think I’m in love.”
And that. That had been the start of all her troubles.
Let it be known that Ekaterina had not asked. She had no intentions of sticking her neck in the love affairs of her boss and if she had her way, she would have been perfectly happy not to have heard anything about the deep shine of amber in his eyes, or how his hair had been as fine as the most exquisitely spun silk. Nope. Handling his finances after he had bought what looked like half of Liyue harbor’s wares was enough.
But the harbinger hadn’t cared about what she wanted. He had taken one look at the pained expression on her face and had decided that she was the perfect person to hear all about his first steps in a blossoming romance.
Privately Ekaterina thought that he was just being conned. That the unknown man, as beautiful and radiant as the sun apparently, was just using the poor young man for his mora and for a while, it had looked like that was the case. With every passing day that Childe comes in with a dopey smile and an empty bag of mora, and each new receipt for some ancient antique or supposedly valuable rock delivered at the doors of the bank.
But it had gone on for days and she refuses to believe that anyone would be foolish enough to not realize who Childe actually was, not when they were liberally using him as a walking wallet, and more so she doesn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to actually con a harbinger and not run for the peaks of Dragonspine the moment they find out his identity.
And yet the man had stayed.
And he wasn’t stupid, or so Childe tells her based on the hour long speeches he had made on how knowledgeable he is, how smart, how wise, this unknown man is.
And yet not smart enough to not forget his own mora, or so she thinks privately. Though she never voices these thoughts out loud, because you know what they say Snezhnaya, a man might be a fool in love but a harbinger’s blades will always be swift and unforgiving.
But frankly, it’s all still very suspicious.
But she would have been glad to keep her hands off of it, Childe was old enough, and strong enough, to take care of himself. And if things do go south, or if it turns out to be an elaborate con as Ekaterina still privately thinks, then he can handle himself just fine. She’s not completely sure that blood won’t be spilled but she’s certain that the harbinger can handle and it’s not like the bank staff doesn’t have extensive experience in cleaning out bloodstains in hard to reach places
But then he pulls her aside, looking as young as he probably actually is, and looks at her with such clear desperation that despite not wanting anything to do with any of it, Ekaterina couldn’t help herself.
“I don’t know how to make him like me.” he whispers with all of the insecurity of a young man who had gone through life happily beating up all the people who ‘ didn’t like him ’ and hadn’t given a shit.
“You can’t make anyone like you Sir.” she says as kindly as she could, “You just have to be yourself and hope they like what they see.”
“Be myself?” he asks, voice unsure. He fidgets a little in his place, materializes a threatening looking bow that he plays around in his hands for a while before looking hopefully at her, eyes wide and wordlessly asking for permission.
“Never mind.” She quickly says, fighting the urge to swat the weapon from his hands, and feeling an upcoming headache start to form at the back of her head.
The unknown man might be conning her boss, and she might be sick of hearing all about him but she didn’t actually want him dead.
“Oh.” her boss says, looking more than a little disappointed as he, thankfully, dematerialized his weapon, “So what do I do?”
He looks at her, eyes big and hopeful, looking so much like a puppy awaiting a treat and archons, Ekaterina had always been a dog person. So she just sighs, pushes down all her misgivings and makes reservations at Liuli pavilion.
Tsaritsa help her, but she’s going to help her boss sweep this man off his feet.
But first, “No, trying to fight him.” she tells him sternly.
It’s not something that she felt should have been said any other time but considering who she’s talking to, it might be a necessity.
And with the way Childe had looked almost disappointed it had been the right call, “Not even if I promise to hold back?”
“No.” she repeats, not unlike telling off a misbehaving puppy.
And though her so-called boss had sulked, he had also not pushed the issue so she’s counting that as a win.
So dinner plans were made, exorbitant gifts were bought and she had spent her afternoon dubiously listening to a merchant extol the virtues of his wares because “ this cup had actually touched Rex Lapis’ lips! No self-respecting citizen of Liyue would be able to reject such a handsome young man especially if they bring this as a courting gift” . Which, she thinks, was a load of bullshit but her boss had happily lapped it all up. There’s also the pretty piece of over prized rock which was, supposedly, not as good as the other piece of similar looking but even more over prized rock and she walks out of these encounters wondering what Liyue’s fascination is with all of these rocks but with a bag full of said rocks to show for it.
“Xiansheng would have been able to explain the difference.” Childe tells her, holding the more expensive piece of cor lapis in one hand and looking far too happy for a man that had just gotten scammed off of a few million mora, “He’s very knowledgeable about everything.”
At which, she’ll just take his word for it because she doesn’t think she even wants to understand.
But he leaves for this date with a skip on his step and a bright smile on his face and it feels like Ekaterina is seeing off the annoying little brother she never had, and definitely never wanted, but somehow she’s a little happy for him.
After all, they might be stationed in Liyue for suspect reasons but who’s to say they can’t find love along the way.
Ekaterina herself, at least, would be cheering them on.
“It worked!” Childe had smiled the next day, bouncing happily like a child given his present early, “He said he wanted to go out with me again! It’s too bad you said I can’t fight him though, that would have been fun too.”
And she was happy for them, really. Especially if it would mean that she never has to meddle in her boss’s dates ever again.
“I’m going to ask him to marry me!”
Or maybe not.
“No.” she turns back slamming her hands against his desk, sternly staring him down as if trying to instill the concept of normal human behavior with the force of her stare alone.
What exactly had she gotten herself into? And was it too late to get herself out of it?
She does eventually, after a lot of effort, manage to convince him that no, it wasn’t a good idea to marry someone even before the third date. Marrying on the fourth date on the other hand, well, that was a problem for the future Ekaterina.
She does eventually get to meet her boss’s mysterious “xiansheng”. Liyue hadn’t really been that big and he had, apparently, been working just a few buildings away.
“It’s fate.” the terrifying 11th Harbinger had sighed, staring dreamily at the wall in the vague direction of Wansheng Funeral Parlor.
But despite hearing enough about the man’s numerous virtues, and the general close proximity of their workplaces, she never had the dubious honor of seeing said man face to face before.
It had been her day off too.
She had only wanted to go out and get her mail expecting her mother’s monthly novella of a letter filled with dramatic crying about growing old and dying without ever getting to see her grandchildren. Her stack had recently gained new additions in the form of the harbinger’s older sister sending her letters and trinkets, thanking her for taking care of her little brother because “ Ajax is stupid but his heart is in the right place. Please keep looking after him. ” and while she is touched that the harbinger had seen fit to mention her in his numerous letters to his family, it had also been awkward when said family had taken to sending various gifts to her home as thanks for looking after their troublesome middle child.
Her mother had naturally taken it the wrong way.
She had already reached half-way through the next letter before her brain managed to absorb all of the liberal innuendo about her hooking up with one of the Tsaritsa’s chosen and “ it’s not a partner a parent would wish for their child but is he at least rich ?” before she burns the entire hundred pages of letter and buries the ashes under the geo statue under the light of the full moon just to be sure it never sees the light of day again.
She hadn’t really wanted to meet with them on her day off. No offence to Childe, but she still can’t help but flinch in horror whenever he sees him after she receives another one of her mother’s mildly traumatizing letters. That and no one really wants to see their boss on their off days, she’s had enough of it during work hours.
But the harbinger doesn’t share any of her sentiments and waves at her happily across the street, dragging over a tall well-dressed gentleman behind him.
The man was objectively good looking, though not what she would have expected to be the harbinger’s type. He was clean cut, with impeccable posture and manners and, alright, she can admit it, not the kind of person who looks like they would scam a young man his mora.
“You must be Ekaterina.” he had smiled, and if she had been a lesser person and more importantly, have not been born and raised in Snezhnaya where the first thing they teach their children is not to piss of harbingers, her heart might have even skipped a beat, “I’ve heard so much about you. My name is Zhongli and I believe that I have you to thank for several of Childe and I’s excursions.”
There’s something about him. Loathe she is to admit, but there’s something about Zhongli that had made her want to impress him. Maybe it’s the tone of voice, the kind look in his eyes, but there’s something completely welcoming about his aura and seeing it first hand, she can’t quite blame her boss for falling so hard, so fast.
“She helped me look for that cup,” Childe pipes up, “You know, the one that you had really liked.”
At which Ekaterina just looks at them both in confusion. Because of course she remembers the cup, you can’t just forget about something that had cost what was equivalent to a year of her wages plus bonuses. She’s sure it was nothing but pocket change for the harbinger but Zhongli actually liked it? Such a common little thing?
“Oh, the cup,” Zhongli nods in understanding, an amused smile on his lips, “yes, it was featured pretty prominently in one of the volumes of Rex Incognito. It was said that Rex Lapis, in one of his forays in the mortal realm, had grown thirsty and-”
He rambles on.
And though Ekaterina has no doubt that whatever he is saying is completely riveting , if the engrossed look in Childe’s face is anything to go by, she also can’t get over the fact that the complete and utter bullshit the shopkeeper had spewed at them actually had some merit. That and the fact that the cup’s recipient had actually been aware about it’s apparently divine history.
She’s not sure which was more disturbing. The fact that the shopkeeper had been right or the fact that Liyue was so obsessed with their archon that they had actually dedicated an entire volume of what sounds like an entire series of books on the one time Rex Lapis had been wandering among them and had wanted a drink.
But then again, she probably shouldn’t have been surprised at the depth of the devotion that Liyue offers it’s patron. She should have already expected it with all of the half-naked statues of the archon scattered across the country. After all, someone must have lovingly sculpted the geo archon’s abs and when you look at it that way, the book series about Rex Lapis drinking tea isn’t really that surprising. She probably should have just been grateful that it wasn’t R18.
The lecture draws to an end and Childe reminds the older man about their reservations, Ekaterina knows, after all, she was the one who had called the restaurant.
And her boss asks her if she wants to join them before she can excuse herself.
He hadn’t even looked like he was offering it out of politeness, looking like he would have honestly been thrilled if she had decided to join them, despite her getting in the way of their date and Zhongli, as well, hadn’t looked put out at the possibility of having unexpected company. He had looked at her with that unreadable mysterious gaze, and yet hadn’t made her feel uncomfortable, nor unwanted.
But still, she shakes her head and rejects the invitation.
They had both looked disappointed but had gone on their way. And when she looks back, she catches a glimpse of Zhongli’s smile, fond and indulgent, as he looks at Childe, completely hidden in Childe’s view.
She thinks, those two weren’t such a bad match after all. And despite the harbinger’s general weirdness and Zhonglis suspiciousness, they looked good together. Like two completely different pieces who you would have never thought would fit together until they’re placed side by side.
She’s happy for them.
“Ekaterina,” Childe sits in front of her, weeks after, eyes solemn. The same look that had never bode well for her whenever it’s directed in her direction.
For some reason, the look gives her a foreboding feeling.
“How do you have sex with another man?”
Ekaterina could proudly boast that she was one of the few people who managed to land a hit on a harbinger himself. The slap mark he carries on his face the rest of the day was entirely well deserved.
She doesn’t actually find out if he manages to have sex, thankfully.
But only because she threatened to quit if he ever utters a word of his sex life in her general vicinity.
But whatever it is that they do, or don’t do, in between the sheets. It doesn’t change the fact that their little love affair is going strong. Ekaterina finds herself booking various scenic spots in the city from fancy restaurants, to little hole-in-the-wall food stalls, to extravagant cruises off the harbor.
She would have been a lot more annoyed at being asked to do such things when it was clearly not in the scope of her job but she had, against her will, grown rather invested in their relationship.
And loath she is to admit it, it was actually really sweet.
And in the middle of booking various locations and trying out the local cuisine and commiserating over the recent absurd prices of cor lapis with various locals in the city, Liyue starts feeling a little less like a far away land that they may or may not have dangerous designs on and a little more like somewhere she could one day call home.
Of course the Tsaritsa’s plot might put a wrench in the blossoming romance but if everything goes according to plan, she’s sure that they, and the city, and the sickening sweet first love she finds herself witnessing, would be able to pull through it without a scratch.
At least, she could only hope.
But then the entire fiasco with Osial had come to pass and though things had gone exactly according to plan, it’s also a completely different one than the plan that she, and even the harbinger had known. And though she knew she shouldn’t be taking sides, that as a citizen of Snezhnaya she should think of nothing but serving her Tsaritsa and Signora had only been doing what their archon had asked her to do. But though she knew all of that, knew that there were no sides to begin with, all of them working towards the same goal. But if there ever was a side, Ekaterina would have taken her superior’s, no, Childe’s side in a heartbeat.
She can’t exactly hate Signora, not in good conscience, not when the other harbinger had only been working towards the good of their archon.
But that doesn’t mean she had to be happy about it. Luckily she was free to hate the geo, or was it former, geo archon all she wants without conflicting loyalties. Especially when confronted with the harbinger’s, her harbinger’s, hunched form after that spectacular play.
“Sir?” she asks tentatively, Childe’s face still covered in shadows making her unable to see his face.
“Zhongli was Rex Lapis.” he says in an odd tone of voice, “He had been Rex Lapis the entire time.”
His words just bring about a fresh wave of spite. Archon or not, Childe had been nothing but pure in his feelings for the other man. He hadn’t deserved to be used in such a way, not when she had seen first hand how smitten, how deep his feelings for him had gone.
And Ekaterina had helped. She had helped in her superior’s pursuit of this treacherous man setting him up to get even more hurt in the process.
Ekaterina might only be a receptionist in a tiny branch of a dubiously funded bank, just an insignificant speck in the eyes of the archons, but she could still try and claw out a certain archon’s eyes if he ever has the nerve to show his face around these parts again.
“Sir,” she starts, keeping her anger at bay, “I know it must have been a shock and I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now but-”
“That’s actually really, really hot now that I think about it.” Childe cuts her off and throwing all her concern out of the window, when he looks at her for the first time that night, his eyes instead of the hurt and betrayal she had assumed was instead burning brightly with poorly hidden excitement, “Do you think he’ll agree to have a spar with me if I ask? Can you believe it? I could have been fighting with Rex Lapis himself all this time! How amazing would that have been? There shouldn’t be a problem with me fighting him now that we know he’s Rex Lapis, right?”
She had completely forgotten.
You can’t really apply normal human logic on a harbinger. And this particular one, well, she really should have expected this. After all, what could have been better to her love struck battle-sexual superior than finding out that the man he had been high-key drooling over was actually the god of war himself.
She’s a fool for even worrying about him.
She’s honestly surprised that he hadn’t already run off to make out with the other man once he realized it.
Rex Lapis himself. The people of Liyue would be crying tears of blood if they ever find out.
Oh archons, she really doesn’t want to think about it. Or hear about it.
Luckily, she had more than enough practice on tuning her superior out before Childe rushes out to fuck or to fight, she had aboslutely no desire to find out especially when she’s not sure if there’s any difference between the two for the harbinger.
Mentally, she starts trying to figure out a way to file for an extended leave.
She's had more than enough practice during the ill-advised courtship to know what this would mean for her and having in depth knowledge of a harbinger's love life was bad enough, but she draws the line now that she knows his partner was an actual archon.
Because she might love her job but this is definitely not in the job description.