Published Mar 28, 2023
Word Count 3,098


It is easy, too easy, for someone to string Lumine along with these promises, and yet here she is, following along like a rabbit starving for the carrot on a stick.

Chapter 13: It’s A Trap

“Happy birthday, Lumine.”

She laughed, raising her bottle of wine stolen from the liquor store. “And a happy birthday to you, too, Aether.”

They clinked their bottles together and took a swig of their drinks. The wine was decidedly cheap and sour, but it was the first thing Aether could snatch before the owner chased them out. It wasn’t as if they could have bought it over the counter; they had just turned fifteen. But white wine was their parents’ favourites, a yearly tradition on their birthdays, now passed on to the twins as a way of reminiscing them.

“Here’s to another year of us surviving,” Lumine said. “It’s tough, but as long as we’re together, we can manage.”

Aether’s face was blank as he looked off into the distance. The late night breeze was chilly, and soon the nurses in the orphanage would be looking for them, hunting them down for violating the curfew. They had talked about leaving for good, but every time, the night reminded them the world was dark and cold and biting. Even if they only had each other, it would not be enough to survive.

“Lumine, I…” Aether started. “I found a job.”

Lumine narrowed her eyes. “That had better be a decent job. One that doesn’t include stealing cars and selling them for parts.”

Aether cleared his throat. “No, no, it’s not like that. Not this time. This one… I have a feeling about this one.”

Somehow, Lumine had the opposite feeling.

“What is it this time?” she said.

“I can’t say much,” he replied, touching her arm. “But trust me, Lu. If we pull this off, it could set us for life.”

Lumine scowled. “‘If we pull this off’? Who’s ‘we’? And what are you pulling off?”

“Just trust—”

“No, Aeth, I don’t trust it, and I don’t trust the people you’re colluding with. It’s not safe.”

He scoffed. “And you would rather live like this? Sneaking out of the group home, stealing cheap wine bottles for our birthday? This life…” He sighed, clenching his fist. “This life was not our parents would have wanted for us.”

“You don’t know what our parents would have wanted. They’re dead.”

“Because of the war.”

“And?” Lumine said, and she couldn’t help raise her voice at the absurdity of their conversation, on their birthday, no less. “The war wasn’t our fault. It wasn’t theirs. This—” she gestured at their surroundings, a dark alley just a few blocks away from their ‘home,’ “—this is the life we have. It’s all we have, Aether.”

“And you’re content with this?”

Lumine crossed her arms. “What are you even planning to do?”

He was silent, brows furrowed together. She was not going to get an answer.

“I don’t like living like this, Aether,” she said. “But I would rather have this shitty life than have you get hurt, and I know you have always been careful, but with this work you’re doing, it’s only a matter of time before—”

The words caught in her throat. She couldn’t say it. Didn’t want to say it.

“I’m sorry,” Aether said. “I won’t go.”

Lumine sighed in relief. “Thank you. It’s the least you could do. It’s my birthday, you know.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, okay, but I’m still older than you.”

“By five minutes!”

They shared a laugh. It was not the best birthday, but as long as they had each other, it would be a good birthday. And Lumine decided that was good enough.

Morning sun rays intrude from beyond the curtains, waking Lumine from her sleep. Her eyelids are heavy; she hasn’t slept much, and the late night discussion with Yanfei did not help. Her heart feels heavy, too, and when she rubs her eyes awake, she realizes there were dried tears. Had she been crying? She wipes the remnants away, trying to remember her dream. It was something about Aether, she thinks, but the memory of the dream is so foggy, and as she reaches for the tendrils of it, the more it floats away, to be forgotten.

She takes a deep breath, strengthening her resolve to start the morning.

Lumine checks the time on her phone and realizes it is ten in the morning. Too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch. She sighs, pulling the blanket over her head, losing what little resolve she had to move. There is no reason for her to get up—her work sucks, her Boss sucks, everything sucks. She is not sure if she even has her job with the stunt she pulled yesterday. Sure, it was only an illegal recording of an eyewitness, and perhaps Yelan has no way of knowing that she did. And perhaps Yelan won’t find out Ms. Hu Tao had escaped to greener pastures, thanks to Yanfei paying her a visit.

Or at least Lumine hopes the funeral director heeded their advice.

That is all she can do, really. Lumine has no power in this country, virtually no assets she can leverage against Yelan. She wonders why she even agreed to this arrangement. Ah, yes, that false promise of information about her brother. It is easy, too easy, for someone to string her along with these promises, and yet here she is, following along like a rabbit starving for the carrot on a stick.

And still, it has gained her nothing and everything at the same time. Nothing about her brother, and everything telling her to get the fuck out of this place before Yelan finds her.

But today will not be that day. Today, all Lumine wants is to remain buried underneath her soft blankets, feel the heat of the sun and let it radiate around her like a hug. It is too much. All of this is too much. Too many lives at stake. This is not just about her anymore. A king was assassinated right in front of her, and everything she has done since has led to this: a nation’s government in disarray.

Well, perhaps she is giving herself too much credit. Yelan is definitely behind this, though Lumine can’t figure out exactly what her connection is. Or her motive for doing so. Nevertheless, Lumine sped up the process of whatever Yelan’s plan was. The thought of inadvertently helping Yelan makes Lumine ill.

She can’t forget who actually killed Zhongli-slash-Rex Lapis: Tartaglia. It all circles back to him somehow. At this point, he is the only chance she has of finding her brother. It is a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless. A chance she is willing to exhaust, because she sure as hell isn’t giving up now. As much as she does not want to admit it, Tartaglia is her only hope. A cold-blooded killer who has once saved her life. Funny how that works.

Lumine sighs, staring at the phone in her hand. She unlocks it. Checks the messages. None from Tartaglia. No notifications.

She bites her lip. Her finger hovers over the Find My Phone app. She taps to open it quickly, before her mind gives her all the reasons not to. Really, it’s a stupid decision to try to find him, the one person who tried to kill her best friend, and it is such a slim chance that she will be risking Kaeya’s life just to find answers when Tartaglia might not even have any. He said it himself: he does not care to find out the motives of his employers. But Lumine clings on to that foolish, foolish hope that he knows something, anything that will bring her closer to finding the truth.

She wishes she had done so earlier.

Lumine connects to her phone, zooming in on the map to find Tartaglia’s coordinates. Her eyebrows knit together when she sees he is not in Liyue, but in Mondstadt, and—

Is that her apartment?

She zooms in further, fingers pinching outward to make sure she hasn’t gone cross-eyed somehow. No, she saw correctly: the red pin of her phone’s last known location is at her apartment. She taps on it to see the details: he was there two hours ago. No updates since, but he’s definitely there.

“What the fuck?” she whispers.

Lumine snaps upright on her bed, the blankets falling on her lap. She closes her eyes, focusing on the myriad of reasons for him to go back there. Was he trying to find her? Surely, he would think better of her than to stay put when an assassin had ambushed her in her home. She’s not that stupid. But what else could it be? Has one of her friends contacted her through her phone somehow?

“Oh, fuck,” Lumine realizes. “It’s a trap.”

She taps on the details again to see the location history. There’s a path coming from her apartment in Mondstadt to the airport, and from Liyue International Airport to an apartment in the city centre.

“It’s a trap,” she says again to herself. But there’s no use trying to get back to her apartment in Mondstadt; she won’t arrive in time. Even if she had time, she doesn’t have enough funds to buy a plane ticket right now to go home, and she’ll be damned if she asks Yelan for help with this. She could ask Yanfei, but no, she won’t involve her with any further trouble. This is her problem.

Lumine navigates to the messaging app and enters a number she has memorized. She hurriedly sends a message: I’m back from outer space.

“Please answer,” Lumine says. If her theory is right, someone must have put out feelers to find where she is and what she’s up to. And if that certain someone does not receive the reply he expects… well, it is only expected that he would assume she is in danger. Lumine doesn’t blame him; after all, the three of them had set this protocol to find each other. A lesson she had bitterly learned and since forced all her friends to do, ever since Aether went missing.

The phone dings with a text notification: Lu?

Lumine exhales in relief. She was right. Good for Lumine. Bad for Tartaglia.

She replies: I know what you’re doing. Don’t.

He replies: I don’t think that’s wise.

Please, Lumine types, do it for me. I know you’re doing this for Kaeya, but I need him. Alive.

A few minutes pass, then a reply: Fine. For what it’s worth, I think it’s a stupid decision.

Lumine chuckles, despite herself. She replies: Been having a lot of those lately. But I’ll be fine. Don’t worry.

He replies: Just don’t get yourself killed. Stay safe in Funkytown.

She smiles. A wistful pang lingers in her chest. If only she and her friends could go back to how things were, as simple as it were in Mondstadt. No assassins, just inside jokes about 80’s songs. But life does not work that way. Lumine is here now, and all that’s left for her is to move forward. It is her only hope of staying sane.

Lumine navigates back to Find My Phone. She jots down the address and finds directions to Tartaglia’s apartment.

Childe is perched in ambush. It is daylight, which is not ideal for a sting, much less an assassination, but he knows well enough not to give himself away. He is on the rooftop of a building a block away from Lumine’s. The building’s height isn’t much, but it’s enough to give himself leverage and coverage of the area. His sniper rifle balances on the ledge as he looks through the scope for any signs of activity.

This is a long shot, he thinks. Childe runs through all the likely scenarios in his head; half of them end up with him finally firing a bullet through Kaeya’s head, and half of them end up with him tied in a chair being tortured for information about his employers.

To be fair, most of his assignments were a fifty-fifty risk of failing, with a hundred per cent history of success. That’s why the Tsaritsa had favoured him for some of the high-profile missions. It wasn’t until this that Childe finds that he is second-guessing himself.

Childe zooms the scope in, honing in on a silver sedan that had stopped in front of the building. A lone person with shoulder-length blond hair steps out of the car. He zooms in further; it’s not Lumine, though the shade of blond looked almost close to hers.

He follows the man through the scope as he walks to the front door. Before he opens the door, he looks around, surveying his surroundings. Could this man be Albedo? Lumine’s phone had no photos of him, but it is precisely 10 AM and no one else is in the area.

The man pushes open the door and before he steps inside, he looks up. A jolt runs down Childe’s spine when he realizes the man is looking in his direction. No, looking directly at him. The man smiles.

Shit. It’s a trap.

A knee meets his face no sooner than he looks away from his sniper. He falls back to the ground and sees two tall figures before him. His vision is blurry and the bright sun does not help with his sight.

Childe scrambles away, trying to get on his feet, when a foot hits him on his side. He clutches at his ribs, wheezing.

“So, you’re the one sent to kill me, huh?”

He does not recognize the voice, but he knows who it is. The man of the hour, Kaeya Alberich.

Hands grab at him, forcing him to his feet. One of them restrains Childe’s arms behind his back. He tries tugging away, but the grip on him is strong. The sun still partly obscures his vision, but he recognizes the telltale blue hair colour. He cranes his neck behind him and sees his brother, the red one.

“You got me,” Childe says, feigning surrender in his voice. “I’m surprised you survived that headshot.”

Kaeya chuckles. “Can’t say it wasn’t an excellent shot. You took out my eye, after all. It’s a shame you still missed the part that keeps me alive.”

Childe scans his immediate vicinity for an exit. Diluc is a formidable opponent, and a two-versus-one is not in his favour. He can fight, yes, but he needs to find an escape first.

“I have to say,” Childe begins, hoping to stall for time, “that eyepatch looks good on you. Now you don’t have to think of a Halloween costume.”

The muzzle end of a pistol hits his head.

“Try again,” Diluc says.

The pain disorients him, but it is his opening. With only one hand to restrain him, Childe pulls his arms away and turns around so the two of them are now in front of him, with the only exit behind him.

In half a second, Childe assesses his options. His sniper still rests on the ledge, and getting to it will mean coming in between the two. His duffel bag is closer to the door, but it has little in the way of weapons. Clearly, the exit is his better option for survival, but Childe is here for one reason: finishing what he started.

And in that millisecond, he makes his decision.

Childe runs towards Kaeya and tackles him to the ground. His thumb presses on his eyepatch. Kaeya screams and writhes in pain. Childe reaches for the dagger strapped around his ankle when a shot is fired, ringing in his ears. The bullet grazes his shoulder. He reflexively glances back at Diluc. A mistake. Kaeya’s fist meets his nose, breaking the cartilage holding it together. He staggers backward. Kaeya pushes him off to the ground.

“Enough games,” Childe says, spitting on the ground. The dagger is in his hand. Kaeya is still close, so Childe stabs the knife into Kaeya’s leg, bringing him to his knees. Another shot fires, and this time Diluc doesn’t miss. The bullet goes through him. Childe sees the exit wound on his torso but doesn’t feel the pain, not with the pump of adrenaline rushing through his veins.

Still, he soldiers on. Childe crawls and reaches for the knife, taking it out of Kaeya’s leg as he screams in pain. Childe braces for another shot but doesn’t hear it. Instead, rough, sturdy hands grab him, dragging him away from his target. Diluc throws him to the ground, and this time Childe feels the pain a thousandfold. The gunshot wound in his torso. The grazed wound on his shoulder. The throbbing pain in his head.

Two tall figures stand before him, or as much as one can stand with a stab wound in his leg.

Did I fail again?

The lone thought echoes in his head. He fights to stay awake, but he is losing blood too much, too fast. Childe re-assesses his options again and finds that he is closer to the exit. A few steps away, if he can get to his feet.

A phone rings. Diluc answers the call.

“Are you sure?” he says. “He’s right here. No, no, Kaeya isn’t hurt… much.”

A few seconds. Childe strains his ear to listen, but only hears a garbled voice. He re-focuses, trying to move his heavy legs to stand.

“It’s not right,” Diluc continues. “He needs to pay.”

Childe brings himself up to his knees. Kaeya pushes him back to the ground.

“Nice try, darling,” he says.

Diluc sighs in resignation, still on the call. “Fine. I trust her,” he says, then drops the call. He walks over to Kaeya and whispers something Childe can’t hear.

They get into an argument with restrained voices. Childe wants to know what could be worth arguing about when an assassin hired to kill one of them is literally right there. He decides it is now or never.

Childe makes a break for it, grabbing his duffel bag on the way. The pain in his abdomen sears through him, but he endures, opening the door and stumbling down the stairs. He doesn’t look back up when the door opens again, but he hears Diluc’s voice ring through the stairway, yelling, “You better thank Lumine for saving your life.”

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