“This will never work.”
It had to work.
“You can’t pull the wool over their eyes forever. You’re going to get your head cut off!”
What a shame, Lumine quite liked having a head. She’d look funny without it on her shoulders. “I don’t need to disguise myself forever, it just has to be long enough to find information about Aether.”
Paimon huffed, “And how long will that take?”
Unfortunately, that was a race without a visible finish line. Lumine watched her reflection in the mirror, noting the nonconscious flash of uncertainty over her face. She, nor Paimon, nor any of their allies, had any idea how long it would take to find her brother.
Yet, with Inazuma closed and absolutely no leads and nothing to do, Lumine was grateful for what help she could get. Yet, it felt as if she had to fix everybody else’s problems before tackling her own. She didn’t mind saving Liyue Harbor from a very slimy snake-God thing, she was in the area anyway, but it did nothing to bring her closer to Aether. Several months had passed since the Jade Chamber was dropped on Osial, and it was rumored that Ningguang was allowing the Fatui back into the city.
When asked why, all Ningguang had to offer was, “Snezhnayan technology advances the economic growth of Liyue. Plus, they’re in massive amounts of debt for the floor repairs at the Golden House.”
Lumine was just happy they weren’t making her help pay that back. She did contribute to the interior destruction of the Golden House a bit, though if Tartaglia had not dropped a whale on her, perhaps she wouldn’t have broken that very large column in retaliation. It was all his fault in the end.
With Ningguang allowing the Fatui to return to the Harbor - albeit on a short leash - Lumine knew this was her golden opportunity.
Keqing stepped back and tapped her lips in thought. Their eyes met in the reflection of the mirror, yet Paimon was the one to break the uncertain silence. “Lumi, you look…”
Like a Snezhnayan. A Fatuu.
“The jacket’s a bit big on you,” Keqing murmured, “but it’ll work. How’s the uniform feel?”
Like betrayal - though the material felt nice, no matter how tightly the purple skirt clung to her hips. Lumine rarely wore anything this form-fitting, she imagined that it was difficult to fight in.
Not that she would be fighting in the first place. This was espionage, not a declaration of war.
She ran her hands along the fuzzy lining of her stolen coat and caught another glance at herself in the mirror. Anxiety settled itself further in her chest as she frowned, “It’s all fine, hopefully I won’t have to wear this for very long.”
“Paimon still doesn’t think this will work!” She buzzed around her head with a huff, “What if someone recognizes you?”
Keqing rolled her eyes, “Oh, shush. These hair extensions really change her look.”
The extensions. It had been hundreds of years since Lumine’s hair was long like this. Keqing had somehow managed to find hair inserts that matched her exact color, they blended in as if they were real. Aside from the hair, there were the colored contacts shipped from Snezhnaya in her eyes, the hood of her coat to cover her hair, and the Fatui mask to cover half her face. Once in her full disguise, nobody would be able to recognize her.
“Nobody’s going to care about some random recruit,” Lumine shot Paimon a reassuring smile, “I’ll just blend into the background for a while.”
It was impossible to not blend in where it concerned the Fatui. She would be just another masked face in the crowd of outsiders, underestimated, and unconcerned. Whatever Harbinger she ended up working under would hardly pay her mind; Lumine could already see how this mission would go.
Perhaps one or two weeks undercover at the Fatui, some rumors, some lines cast, and the information about her brother would flow in like gold. She knew the Fatui had something to do with him, they had their dirty fingers dipped in everything. She simply had to be among their ranks to learn what she needed.
Lumine stood in front of the mirror, taking in the sight of long golden hair and fake blue contacts. While she had yet to put the mask on over her eyes, she truly did look different. Keqing and Paimon picked and prodded at her costume with the utmost attention to detail, “Remember, if you can fake a Snezhnayan accent, you should.”
She couldn’t. She just sounded stupid if she did. Paimon interrupted with a gasp, “And if you can drink that nasty fire water all the time too, that would be great!”
“I can’t just be a stereotype, they’d see right through me!”
Keqing ignored her, “How’s your plyaska?”
At the back of the room, Ganyu leaned silently over a desk. She glanced up to send her a smile, “Your dancing. Didn’t I give you a book on Snezhnayan culture last week?”
“I… I didn’t read it…”
Keqing, Ganyu, and Paimon all groaned. Lumine had simply been incredibly busy with the Lantern Rite, she had no time to read books about the ins and outs of Snezhnaya. All she needed to know was snow, soup, and Fatui. She would make up the rest as she went along.
Lumine watched Ganyu straighten the pile of forged documents Kaeya had obtained just for this mission. Her heart dropped once more, “Are those my papers?”
“Yes,” Ganyu spoke as she wrote something down, “they are. Captain Kaeya is really quite... thorough.”
Keqing lifted her chin, “You shouldn’t have to refer back to your papers, though. You should have memorized who you are by now.”
“I did!” She straightened to attention, “My name is Ying, I’m from Sortavala in Snezhnaya, and the Motherland sent me here to replace the employee who died in that incredibly mysterious rock-slide last week!”
“...P-Perhaps leave out the rock-slide part. It’s incredibly mysterious for a reason, Lumine.”
“Right,” she corrected herself with a sigh, “I’ll just keep it short and sweet. Do you know which Harbinger I’m serving under?”
Liyue had been free of Harbingers for a lovely several months. It was just last week that one of them returned and set themselves up in the bank. Yet, considering the general view from the people of Liyue, it was best for them to lay low for a bit. The Fatui had been uncharacteristically quiet since Tartaglia destroyed the Golden House and summoned Osial.
“I’m not sure,” Keqing pursed her lips, “Lady Ningguang is biding her time on diplomatic meetings with whoever it is. I doubt it’s Childe, though, they’d be insane to send him back here.”
“You’re right, it’ll probably be someone I’ve never met.” She smiled at her reflection, “There’s 11 of them, what’s the chance of me meeting one I already know?”
Paimon gripped her arm with a worried frown, “It could be Mr. More Mora Than Sense! What if he recognizes you?”
“Even if it is Tartaglia, it’s not like we were friends or anything.” She huffed, “Plus, it’s been months since then, enough time has passed.”
Besides, if Keqing was sure that the Fatui would not send him back to Liyue, as was Lumine. Behind them, Ganyu gripped her bundle of papers close to her chest and rounded the corner of the desk, approaching with a spring in her step. “Okay, it’s all here. Your travel papers, your background information, Captain Kaeya even managed to forge a birth certificate for you.”
She obviously admired how endearingly detailed Kaeya was. Lumine wasn’t sure if she should break it to Ganyu that he most likely bribed some backwoods criminal to make these. She took the papers and flipped through each one, “Ying, age 20… Uh, Ganyu?”
She blinked widely at the paper. With a sudden smile and nod, she folded her hands in front of her, “That’s your occupation.”
“My occupation in the Fatui?”
The position she was filling for the employee who died in an incredibly mysterious landslide. Kaeya had covered all the bases, even intercepting the letter to Zapolyarny asking for a replacement, and sending a forged letter of his own. The bank was aware that they were getting a new girl today, but the new girl was entirely unaware of what job she was stepping into.
“I thought…” Lumine’s mouth felt dry, her heart skipping a beat at the words on the page, “I thought I was just going to be a receptionist, or a lackey or something?”
“Oh, no,” Ganyu closed her eyes and shook her head somberly, “You’re the Harbinger’s new secretary.”
A beat of pregnant silence.
“How could I possibly blend in and stay out of the Harbinger’s sight if I’m their lapdog?”
A blank stare, and a processed thought. Exactly three seconds passed before she gasped in harsh realization. Putting a hand to her chest, her cheeks reddened as Keqing and Paimon stifled a shared laugh. “I-I’m sorry! I thought that perhaps you would gain more information this way…”
Besides, the Qixing assassin couldn’t exactly control the direction of an incredibly mysterious landslide.
“It’s fine,” Keqing laid an awkward hand on the secretary’s shoulder, “Lumine’s smart, she’ll manage. And like I said, it’s probably someone you’ve never met.”
Her confidence was reassuring, no matter how misguided it was placed. She had avoided researching Snezhnayan culture because she thought she wouldn’t need it, she wouldn’t even be in the Harbinger’s general vicinity. Lumine could only sigh, “Well, at least my disguise is good.”
It was Keqing’s hair styling and uniform-stealing that had made it so. Once Lumine put on the mask, she would be indistinguishable from any other Fatuu. And perhaps being the Harbinger’s secretary would bring her closer to any important information - Kaeya had forged her papers well enough to convince the officials that she was rather high ranking in the Fatui.
Now, she just had to act the part.
Paimon snuggled closer to her arm, glaring at her clothes as if she could save her from their innate evil, “If Lumi starts eating really good food without Paimon…”
“I’ll come back to the hotel room every night,” she yanked at the pixie’s hair, “stay out of sight and I’ll bring you food.”
Ganyu and Keqing sent her reassuring smiles. Lumine gripped the papers closer to her chest and heaved a great sigh, attempting to ready herself for the mission that might possibly mean her demise.
“Ready?” Keqing held up the black mask.
She was simply ready to get this over with.
Lumine was not ready.
“Hey, what squadron were you before?”
Nadia was kind, she always had been. She was the perfect counterpart to the offstandish and melancholy Vlad, who guarded the doors to the Northland bank during the daytime. Lumine half wished that she’d gotten there earlier in order to avoid the amiable questioning.
What squadron was she? She wasn’t even sure how many squadrons there were in the Fatui, or what a squadron even was. Lumine faked a smile and laughed, “Oh well, uh… the first one?”
“Wow!” Nadia clasped her gloved hands together, “That’s so cool! I’ve heard Lord Pedrelino is very admirable.”
Lumine nodded along as if she knew who Lord Pedrelino was. “Yep, he’s super admirable. A great guy, really, bought me a present every holiday.”
“Oh, you’re so lucky!”
Lumine needed a moment to praise herself for her cunning. Pedrelino could’ve been the nastiest man in existence, yet Nadia seemed to believe her. Seeing the genuine smile on the door guard’s face was enough to calm her shaken nerves, “I should probably get inside. It’s getting late in the evening. That boat ride took forever...”
“Of course, you must be exhausted,” she stepped aside and bowed her head politely, “We’ve all been a bit stir crazy lately from having to lay low, but don’t worry, someone with your experience will do great.”
Stir crazy. Whatever that meant. And ‘ with her experience’. Lumine wondered just what these Fatui were expecting from the new secretary. Nadia had returned her anxiety in a half second’s time, gift wrapped with a pretty bow on top and all.
Lumine opened up the doors to reveal the gold and red bank lobby shining with the light of torches and lanterns. Lumine’s heart dropped into her stomach as she realized just how real this was becoming. It was only a month ago that she’d even had this idea. Ningguang had accepted it immediately, though Lumine only felt the sheer impact of this decision once fidgeting under the eyes of her new workmates.
Everybody stared. The bank was quiet with the peace of closing time. Receptionists looked up at her entrance, guards glanced over, and pens were stopped mid-paperwork.
Lumine locked her feet in place. “H-Hello.”
One word, and the chaos began.
A hidden door opened so harshly that it banged against the wall. Lumine jumped at the sudden noise, though she had no time to react before her eyes were drawn to the frantic descent of a field agent. He stumbled his way down the staircase at the head of the room, until he tripped over himself on the very last step. The receptionists and guards all flinched once his face hit the ground.
And behind him, came Tartaglia. Slow, predatory, and staring down at the agent as if he pitied his very existence.
“I don’t know why you’re stalling,” he spoke cooly, looking down at the fallen agent, “don’t you have a job to correct?”
Lumine’s heart stopped. Her legs ached to run away. Her fingers began to shake as she held her papers close. It was not fear, nor was it cowardice, but anger.
Out of all the Harbingers to come to Liyue, it had to be him.
It was too late to turn around. Everybody had seen her enter, heard her greeting. She had the proper documents in hand and her disguise in place. She could not let Tartaglia’s presence mess this mission up, it was far too important.
If only he didn’t piss her off at first sight.
The agent stuttered as he pushed himself up, “Y-Yes sir! I apologize for my mistakes!”
“Get up, hurry. Those debts won’t wait forever.”
The agent looked terrified. Despite the anger, Lumine felt a flicker of pity for the poor soldier. It looked as if Childe had literally kicked him out of his office and down the stairs. Every eye in the room was on the scene.
The Harbinger lifted his face to scan the bank lobby curiously, “What’re you all looking at? Don’t you have overtime work to do?”
Overtime work. The very phrase made Lumine scowl. Each person flinched while the agent shuffled towards the exit, and Lumine was left standing in the middle of the lobby. She hadn’t realized just how angry she still was over the whole Osial thing.
Yet, that did not excuse the sudden break of character. “So, you’re still an absolute asshole I see.”
Every soul in the room froze. This was exactly why Lumine always had Paimon speak for her, she couldn’t help but speak her mind.
She didn’t think that her heart could drop even lower into her chest, yet it felt like it was settling into her stomach in the worst way. Childe’s eyes landed on her, dim and unamused. Gasps resounded, the air temperature seemed to drop. She’d just opened her big mouth and called a Harbinger an asshole.
Lumine took a deep breath and forced herself to smile, “T-That’s what Lord Pedrelino said, at least.” A fake laugh and her nervous fidgeting, “T-That you’re an asshole, but I think you seem very nice!”
She’d failed this mission in only two minutes, it was a new record.
Until, of course, Childe turned the tables entirely.
He started laughing, covering his mouth and stifling his giggles as if Lumine’s badly disguised insult was hilarious - almost as hilarious as the cocogoat occurence. Yet, his tone still held that lacing of poison, that venom that ran a shiver down her spine. The other Fatui in the room only tensed more as he walked down the stairs and approached Lumine.
“Well,” he opened his eyes and let out another chuckle, “that was surprising. I could have you discharged for that, you know.”
Or beheaded. Or put on a pike. Or hung from the ceiling. Whatever he was in the mood for. Lumine was glad the mask covered half her face as he drew closer. With a flicker of panic, she tightened the hood covering her hair and sent him a nervous smile, “If you discharge me, then you’d have to find someone else to do all your paperwork, sir!”
He took yet another step forward, smiling all the while, “I can find anyone to do that.”
She was like a rabbit cornered by a wolf. The receptionists looked on in silent pity, she bet they’d never seen anyone fired this quickly before. Lumine sent him another smile, “But I was sent here by the Tsaritsa herself,” she pulled an envelope off the top of her stack of now crinkled paperwork, “She assigned me personally to you.”
Hopefully, he wouldn’t notice how the letter could apply to literally any of the Harbingers. Kaeya had a talented forger, yet the Fatui had been laying so low in Liyue that he wasn’t sure who the current Harbinger even was. If Lumine had known it would be Childe, she wouldn’t have even bothered. It was far too risky.
Yet, here she was, watching him rip open the letter and scan over it’s contents. Before he could even finish, she spoke up, trying her best to sound confident, “I sailed a whole week to get here, so if you’re going to discharge me, at least give me time to get a boat back.”
She thought she did a good impression of a Snezhnayan - rude and flippant. Most of them would insult everybody to their face, at least in Lumine’s experience. Besides, she had a feeling Childe could smell fear.
He glanced up from the letter, “Why’d she send you specifically?”
Good question. She straightened to attention, “B-Because I’m good at what I do.”
“And what is it that you do? Make coffee?”
He was just a bully. Another flame lit in her chest at the sound of his mocking laugh, copied by several of the nervous guards and receptionists in the room. They were like puppets pulled by his strings, a sight that instantly made Lumine tense.
She never did like Childe. When he saved her from the Millelith with that fake smile and those dim eyes and his stupid nicknames, she instantly distrusted him. He couldn’t even lie about being a bad guy without backtracking on his own words. She didn’t have much time to warm up to him either, before it was obvious what he wanted from her.
The fight at the Golden House only put her dislike in concrete terms. The day she kicked his smug little ass was the day she felt true satisfaction.
Lumine didn’t like bullies. And right now, Childe was being a bully. She knew she was going out on a limb with this, yet she needed something better than a fake letter and the promise of good paperwork.
“I’m not sure if Her Majesty wants me to tell you this…” Lumine acted coy, putting a hand on her cheek in fake anxiety, “But I’m here for a reason…”
He stiffened. It was glorious, how his eyes widened for half a second before he recovered himself and pulled back. “Oh really?”
“Really,” she rocked back and forth on her heels, “but it’s kind of embarrassing for you.”
Not as if Tartaglia had ever cared what others thought of him, though Lumine was correct to assume that he’d not want to show weakness in front of the bank staff. Childe put his hands in his pockets and jerked his head towards the staircase, “Let’s talk up here, okay?”
She glanced at the curious eyes of her new workmates. To them, she was yet another nameless mask, one that was about to be thrown out a window for calling the Harbinger an asshole, “Fine, if you insist, My Lord.”
The Fatui called him that, right? She surely hoped so, otherwise she’d have thrown up a little in her mouth for no reason.
Even if her mission might end immediately, she would still take in as much information about the bank as she could. Lumine attempted to avoid their pitying looks as she followed Childe up the staircase and to his office. As he opened the door and stepped aside to let her come by, she eyed the papers and documents littering his desk.
He closed the doors behind him. She resisted the urge to flinch at the sound of a lock turning - Childe could smell fear, and while this was unconfirmed, she had faith in her instincts. Lumine kept her gaze at the wall ahead while listening to him sigh.
Nadia had said they were all going a bit stir crazy. And Ningguang had mentioned that the Harbinger was laying low, Childe was most likely holding back a bad case of cabin fever. It would explain the dark circles under his eyes, and the lack of his amiable smile.
He walked around her like a vulture circling a corpse. Lumine refused to look at him as he leaned on his desk, “So, the Tsaritsa doesn’t want you to tell me something. And why should I believe that?”
Of course, he was smart enough to know that she might be covering her ass with this excuse. Lumine watched him fold his arms over his chest and cross his ankles leisurely, as if speaking to an old friend. A beat of silence passed while she processed every possible branch to hang from, before finally taking a deep breath, “Well, she told me what happened with the traveler at the Golden House.”
Abruptly, he tensed.
Bingo. She would have laughed at how shockingly easy this was if she could. It wouldn’t take a genius to realize that a normal recruit had no idea what truly happened with the traveler.
“My name is Ying,” she went on, now confident, “the Tsaritsa has sent me to keep an eye on you. She doesn’t want to get even more in debt to Liyue, now. Don’t you know how much that golden flooring costs?”
The very floor he broke into pieces with his Foul Legacy. Lumine watched with glee as he tensed again. “So… She thinks I need a babysitter?”
“No…” She didn’t want him to despise Ying’s presence, that would move her further from the information she needed, “Just an assistant, really. Someone to clean up the messes.”
The inevitable messes. Why the Tsaritsa had even sent the most destructive Harbinger back to Liyue was a mystery in the first place. Lumine received her answer as he ran an exasperated hand through his hair and murmured, “So this is part of my punishment…”
The fact that Childe was getting punished for what he’d done made Lumine all warm and fuzzy inside.
And she would not apologize for calling him an asshole.
“Alright,” Childe deadpanned, obviously irritated, “work starts tomorrow. Hand me your paperwork.”
He accepted it rather easily. She had a feeling using the Tsaritsa’s name would exert the right amount of power over him. Feeling the slightest bit smug, Lumine handed him the stack of papers, to which he immediately tossed onto his desk.
She watched as they slid and fell, bringing an entire other stack of papers and folders down with it. Everything landed with a series of sharp slaps on the ground that made her flinch.
All Childe did was tilt his head, “Pick it up.”
Pick it up. A tight smile, dim eyes. He was pissed, it was obvious by the anger coming off his body in waves.
She stared at him. Their gazes refused to break. Lumine took a deep breath, and reminded herself what she was here for - she could not let him get to her within the first five minutes. She had to last as long as she possibly could. Besides, he was challenging her, an outburst was exactly what he wanted.
Huffing, she walked around to the side of the desk and knelt down to begin gathering papers. After several seconds, yet another stack slapped down beside her.
“Whoops!” Childe laughed, “My hand slipped. Pick those up too, won’t you?”
Asshole. This complete asshole, this pimple on the butt of the world. Lumine slammed a messy stack of papers down onto his desk, before glaring and leaning down to pick up the rest.
And like a very rude cat, he only smiled, and knocked down yet another. The flurry of papers around her head was like snow itself, now covering half of his office floor.
Lumine stood up straight to glare at him. His smile continued, innocent and tense as ever. Slowly, without an ounce of hesitation, he grabbed the cup holding different types of pens, lifted it, and turned it upside down.
They clattered at her feet.
Patience. She had to have patience. Despite her internal monologue about how desperately she wanted to punch him, Lumine reminded herself why she was doing this.
Yet, it did not stop her tongue from it’s immediate wagging, “This might be the worst job I’ve ever had.”
Childe had the audacity to wink at her and laugh, “I’ll make sure of that! And if you don’t quit by the end of the month, then I’ll admit I’ve failed.”
This mission was going to be a mistake, she just knew it.