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grabstein von ouroboros

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And the first time Albedo falls in love--

No, that is too far ahead. To speak of love so quickly is akin to lining a sketch before it is even finished, or painting a portrait of a man you have never met. Not yet, not now, there is so much to consider first, before we can even begin to speak of love at all.

So let us start from the beginning: after all, this is a story about how fates are written in stone even before the first sentence.

The first time Albedo opens his eyes, he sees a boy with a head of cerulean blue. And that boy, with a smile more melancholic than happy, reached out to touch his cheek before saying: “You who are made of chalk, remember me kindly: I am your prince.”

-----

For the longest time, Albedo thought he knew his place within the earth.

Those born of earth are bound by its imperfections, but those born of chalk are free of impurities. He who is made by the most perfect pair of hands in all the universe underneath the true starry sky, Albedo of pure-white-chalk-nothingness, he is without a single flaw. This is the one singular truth of the world, and all which he needed to know of himself: after all, his teacher had always said that, should he fail, should the pieces of pure-white-chalk-nothingness that defines him be somehow tainted by unsightly primordial soil in any way, she who is his beginning and his end and whose life his own stems from will leave him, and then he will truly be nothing at all.

And then she leaves him.

On a future day, Albedo will learn of the romantic Fontainean saying: that when a loved one leaves, through separation or through the veil of death itself, it leaves a hole in the hearts of those left behind. Such a phrase is not nearly enough to describe the terrifying chasm which Rhinedottir creates with her absence. When she disappears from his life, Albedo is left gazing into the future the way one would gaze into the gaping maw of a hungry lion: where do you even think to go when all that you are, your beginning, your end, your master, your creator, your entire world leaves you and in the space they have vacated you realize that you are nothing at all?

When she leaves him, silently in the night with nothing of his world left in the morning, he clutches her letter and, for the first time, feels lost in a mystery which he does not regard in wonder.

So Albedo chooses to climb right into the lion’s maw, and into the hands of the adventurer Alice.

His master had taught him how to adapt to all sorts of situations, like how the mud of the earth molds around one’s feet in the rain. When Rhinedottir’s letter to Alice sends him to a city of pastorals that bloom with all the colors he has never seen, he learns all their names and the faces of every new being; when Alice places her daughter within his care despite knowing him for merely a day, he quickly memorizes her favorite foods, her prescribed naptimes and how to coax away her tears after a nasty fall. All of this in the name of research, to continue embarking on a quest that he knows, deep down in the hole Rhinedottir had left within him, he will never accomplish but must die trying all the same.

The first time he sees Kaeya, he does not even realize who he is: the Grand Master so hastily appoints him as Chief Alchemist, shakes his hand with such fervor, laughs aloud at the undoubtedly countless numbers of social faux pas Albedo is committing as he pretends they were not the first humans he has ever spoken to outside his master. Varka is such a wild man, larger-than-life and in the eyes of others out-of-control, that Albedo does not even realize Kaeya is there till he lays a hand on Albedo’s shoulder.

“Now, please don’t bully the new recruit, Varka.” Though Albedo has observed enough to realize Kaeya’s shoulder pat is a gesture of goodwill, the feeling of fingers upon his jacket is strange to him, still, and he takes great care not to flinch like one would if touched by a Whopperflower’s vines. “He’s just arrived this morning. Surely, we should buy him a drink first before putting him straight to work?”

“Oh, working immediately is fine by me,” Albedo replies, and perhaps in the future he will stand his ground a little more boldly, because he does not yet realize the value of time and how easily it slips through one’s fingers, each second like little grains of sand that scatter into life’s dust. But on this day, when Kaeya first lays a hand upon him, Albedo looks into his single dark lilac eye as it twinkles with amusement and proceeds to feel a very strange emotion, one that flits around the vast emptiness within him like a startled Crystalfly in a bottle. He will learn, later, that it is familiarity.

“No such thing. Trust me, the last thing we Knights need is more workaholics.” And he leads Albedo out the room with the casual gait that did not befit a prince, but is comforting, all the same, in what Albedo will later realize is friendship-- “Come with me, Kreideprinz. From one outsider to another, I’ll show you a real Mondstadtian welcome.”

-----

The first time Albedo feels content, it comes from Sucrose and a thousand blooming Sweet Flowers.

There is no reason not to take up an assistant of his own. Albedo knows enough of his skills to realize his limitations, and even the greatest of alchemists cannot (yet) clone themselves to do double the work. And so he takes in Sucrose, because out of all the ‘interviews’ the Knights arranged for him, she was the only one who could even name the four stages of magnum opus.

He knows she is a woman, just like Rhinedottir, Alice and Klee, but they are all so different, somehow. Alice is the closest thing Albedo has ever seen to chaos, her actions as erratic as the random movement of particles in the air, while Klee is fiery but can be led in a certain direction, like a charged ion on an electric field. And Rhinedottir--

Well, and Sucrose is predictable, like how the same concentration of Shimmering Nectar will always turn brown when mixed with just two ounces of Mist Grass Pollen. She reports to the laboratory promptly at 9 o’ clock and fetches the chemicals he asks of her without a hitch. She numbers her experiments one-by-one and can tell you the vast differences between experiment 634 and 643, which oftentimes only amounts to a decimal point change in the distillation of the limiting reagent. She operates in the realm of numbers and measurements, of trial-and-error between 500ml and 510ml and back to 500ml for repeated results and they are all essential skills, yes, but still hold her back, somehow, from venturing into the field of the abstruse.

That is fine with her, however. She has long made it clear that her heart lies not in seeking the secrets of creation, or the unveiling of what-is-unknown into that-which-we-now-know.

“Mr. Albedo,” Sucrose greets with a nervous tone he has grown familiar towards, “please try these candies!”

He looks up from his notes, and without a moment’s hesitation, takes one of the strange yellow pills in Sucrose’s hands. Sticky to the touch, a faintly sweet smell, yet solid in structure... “I made them from the extracted Sweet Flowers I grew in Project 4, Version 18, Concentration Trials 5.0! The ones that successfully propagated twelve heads! They... weren’t feasible, because the weight of all the extra flower buds caused their stems to snap-- but the few I could rescue had an incredible nectar. I thought, well, you’ve been working so hard, I thought I would give you... ah... sorry, I don’t know if you even like eating candies. They’re--”

“Eating,” Albedo says as he realizes what their purpose is. So he pops it into his mouth, and Sucrose immediately clams up, fingers fidgeting nervously as she anticipates his answer.

He rolls it around his tongue. Interesting, it melts quickly enough to not warrant crunching, yet not so fast that all its flavor is lost. The concentration of sugar immediately wakes him up-- he didn’t even realize he was slowing down before-- and it coats his mouth with a pleasant-feeling numbness.

He turns to Sucrose, remembering to put a smile on his face so she is slightly less terrified of him. “Candies, you called them?”

“Oh-- yes, Mr. Albedo!”

“An excellent concoction of high-energy materials, melted down into one easily-consumed product... yes, this is a great outcome, Sucrose.”

She looks up, and, reserved as she is, the manic glee in her eyes at being praised would be obvious to anyone. “I’m so glad, Mr. Albedo! Here, I made an entire jar for you. I hope you’ll enjoy them all...!”

The sweetness of both the candy and Sucrose’s gesture fills the vast emptiness inside of him like a thousand blooming Sweet Flowers on a field, and suddenly, Albedo feels that his impossible quest is, perhaps, just a little less urgent and a little more bearable; the emotion that washes over him, gentle like a duvet of duck feathers yet not strong enough to make him truly smile, is what he’ll come to realize is content.

Over the course of the day, Albedo makes a fascinating discovery. Though the first dozen or so candies give him a large boost in concentration, the positive effects seem to diminish after seventeen. And, as it turns out, once he hits thirty-five candies, they instead give him a very temporary rush accompanied by a longer negative effect on his focus. Of course, results cannot be confirmed by just a single trial, so he takes fifteen more after that.

After fifty candies within three hours, Albedo sits down at his worktable, politely folds his hands on his lap, and gracefully facedesks onto his lab notes in his first ever sugar coma.

“Didn’t think I would find you like this,” Kaeya greets, and Albedo opens his mouth to speak but, curiously, only manages a groan. “Ahaha, maybe I should take some responsibility for this. I suggested that Sucrose make you candies as a gift, after all. Poor girl’s been staring at you all starry-eyed for weeks, and I just couldn’t sit back in silence for any longer.”

Albedo hears the scraping of a chair across the floor, and realizes Kaeya is taking a seat next to him. “I pegged you for a man with a secret sweet teeth, but I didn’t realize you’d nearly empty the whole jar in one day. I suppose everyone’s got their vices, even the genius Chief Alchemist himself.”

Kaeya pulls out a water canteen, and places it on Albedo’s lap, on top of his hands. “Drink up, you’ll wake right up.”

“...Thank you,” Albedo manages to say, and he pulls himself off his desk. A stray piece of paper remains stuck to his forehead as he does so, and the sight of it elicits a laugh from the Cavalry Captain, airy and light with mirth. The alchemist pulls that paper off, and pops open the canteen, taking a swill--

--before nearly spitting it all over his notes, gagging instead as they burn the insides of his throat. “Hahaha!” Kaeya only laughs harder in response, watching Albedo struggle with the unexpected swig of alcohol. “My, Chief Alchemist, did you really just take a whole mouthful of Death After Noon? Without even checking what I’d put inside the canteen, no less. You are either very trusting of me, or you can hold your drink better than you let on.”

If anything, Kaeya was certainly not lying about it waking him up. Albedo’s eyes are wide open, now, and he makes sure his airways are clear before he chokes out his next few words. “I had thought, from my observations, that people tend to put water inside of a water canteen,” Albedo states, and Kaeya’s one visible eye quirks in amusement. “I see now that it was... an erroneous assumption.”

“Anything can be water if you try hard enough,” Kaeya jests, and Albedo knows that’s technically true from an alchemical standpoint if you reduce and transmute something enough times but-- that’s probably not at all what Kaeya means. “Now, come on. Let’s get Mondstadt’s greatest genius into bed.”

“Genius? I’m not... bed?” Albedo blinks, and that is when his eyes pass over the laboratory window to see the moon hanging low in the false sky. “Did I... fall asleep? ...I never would have guessed these ‘candies’ have such a potent effect...”

Kaeya slings Albedo’s arms around his own shoulders, and this time, Albedo doesn’t need to consciously remind himself to not pull away. “A word of advice, from one chronic over-indulger to another: even the best of things will become a poison when you take too many bites,” Kaeya hums, and then he chuckles. “Though, I’m sure an alchemist like you already knows that.”

And though Albedo is not so out of it that he cannot walk by himself, he lets Kaeya help him all the same, because it seems that humans sometimes prefer to be inefficient if it provides them the illusion that they are useful. Kaeya lugs him up the stairs of their headquarters, up to Albedo’s private chambers, and when he casually flings Albedo onto his bed, he comments on how Albedo’s got a bad habit of never making his bed in the first place-- but Albedo doesn’t hear it, because the moonlight of the false sky provides a backdrop to the little prince’s face, cerulean blue hair and lilac eye, and this is familiarity, Albedo realizes. Because he’s seen this man somewhere before, in another life, when he was pure-white-chalk-nothingness and molded by the most perfect pair of hands in all the universe underneath the true starry sky.

“Kaeya?” Albedo says his name in an odd way, a way he doesn’t quite understand himself, but when he one day visits the Church of Favonius he will realize it is reverence. “Are you my prince?”

“Wow,” Kaeya breathes, and though the edges of his smile curl up in gaiety, there is a certain gravitas in his voice when he says: “Kreideprinz, never call me that in front of anyone else. Is that understood?”

Albedo’s eyes widen at the order, if only because the last person who had dared to give him one left a gaping maw within his very being, and yet he nods, all the same, because who defies an order from their prince? “Understood, Kaeya.”

“I’m very serious,” Kaeya says again, as if Albedo is a child who needs reminding twice. “Should you let anyone in Mondstadt know-- well, I won’t punish you, Albedo. They’ll do it for me.”

“So you are, then,” Albedo responds, and it is familiarity, familiarity, accumulated memory of the earth and of time and of lives-once-lived which floods the vast emptiness inside of him with purpose. “You are my prince.”

“Good night, Kreideprinz.” And Kaeya leaves his bedside, closing the door behind him with an uncharacteristic wordlessness. But in his non-answer and the silence they share, they both come to an unsaid understanding which even a prince built from chalk can understand:

From one outsider to another, they are not alone.

-----

The first time Albedo feels fear, it comes from Klee and an unquenchable fire that burns a thousand Sweet Flowers to ash.

The Knights of Favonius have many names for the young girl. Spark Knight, Mondstadt’s Cutest, Ecological Menace, Women-Want-Her (Grounded) Fish-Fear-Her, Alice’s Demonic Hell-Spawn...

In Albedo’s case, he has no need for such nonsensical titles. He numbers his experiments clearly and names his discoveries plainly. To him, Klee is just that: Klee, his little sister.

“Let’s go, Albedo, let’s go!” Klee jumps ahead of him, before dashing around in circles. “You promised! You promised!”

“I did,” Albedo sighs, and he had known what tiredness was even before he stepped into Mondstadt but never realized there was an even further stage of exasperation beyond it till now. “We shall collect the Ice Shieldwall Mitachurls samples together from Dragonspine Mountain, and then we will immediately head back.”

“Uh-huh,” Klee nods, in that tone which tells him she is definitely not listening to what he just said. And so she hops into Dragonspine’s base camp with the confidence of a child who thinks she owns the place, and, honestly, as Albedo’s charge, perhaps she does. “Brr, it’s getting all chilly-cold suddenly...!”

His eyes fly down to the hem of her fluffy dress. “I did tell you to wear leggings.”

“Don’t need it,” Klee immediately responds with a confidence she will most definitely regret but refuse to rescind. “My treasures will blow all the snow away, so we won’t get cold!”

“That... is not how it works,” Albedo mutters, but the first lesson he learnt about childcare involving Klee is that you have to pick your battles. Arguments with a petulant child are somehow much more stressful than intellectual back-and-forths with even the most respected of Sumerun scholars, of which Mondstadt has begun seeing a surprising number as of late, all showing up at the Anemo nation’s doorstep in pursuit of their rumored legendary alchemist.

And many end up waiting, because Albedo often has his hands full with the small bundle of pyromania which takes up most of his day’s energy. This time, quite literally, as he reaches down to take Klee’s hand in his to lead her around the mountain.

As expected, Klee is shivering within the first minute of snowfall, and Albedo mentally maps out the fastest route to a Hilchurl settlement. “Stay close,” he reminds her, taking care to walk around the many lit torches explorers before them have had the foresight to leave behind. “We should find one... up there, near the frozen lake.”

“On my way!” And just like that, he loses control of Klee yet again as she somehow squirms out of his grasp and directly towards danger. Albedo immediately gives chase, though he’s not too worried about the enemies-- only that Klee may not stay mindful of keeping herself warm in the thick of battle.

As expected, the moment Klee begins throwing out bombs, the entire mountainside shakes with their explosive power. Albedo quickly puts down a Solar Isotoma by the entrance of the camp, and as the Hilchurls are rudely awakened by Klee’s numerous bombings, the converge onto her as well.

“Klee, onto the Solar Istoma.” She’s played enough times with Albedo to realize that the fancy name refers to the Geo blossom he places at his feet, and she obediently does as she’s told, hopping onto the rock flower and giggling as it raises up from the ground. A Mitachurl, wielding the very ice shieldwall they hope to collect, charges for the girl and only connects with thin air as the Solar Istoma goes liftoff, and Albedo makes us of its confusion to send a few quick slashes of his blade into its back.

Klee makes quick work of the smaller Hilchurls, her various la-la-las interspersed with their terrified screams. Albedo, in the meantime, deals with the Mitachurl on his lonesome-- adeptly dodging its frenzied claws, ducking under a throw of its shield, slowly whittling it down with his bladework...

Elemental energy gathers at his fingertips, and right when he’s about to finish the beast off with several Fatal Blossoms, Klee calls out: “Blazing Delight!”

“Wait, Klee, not at the--” Albedo gasps, but by the time the words leave his mouth, he already sees a massive Dodoco headed right towards his target-- and, by extension, himself. “Not at the Mitachurl--”

Albedo ducks for cover, and just like that, the massive blast swiftly defeats the Mitachurl... as well as melts the shield they aimed to collect.

As Klee hops off the raised platform, she regards Albedo-- who is currently buried waist-deep in freshly-exploded snow, the entire left side of his face freezing up as he smashed it into the ground in haste-- with utter glee. “Look, big bro Albedo! We blasted them all to bits.”

“Klee.”

He gets up, and suddenly, Klee knows she’s in trouble. Albedo’s using that tone of voice he’s picked up from Jean, right before the Acting Grand Master sends her into time-out. Klee’s elven ears prick up in alarm, and, just to make the point clear, he copies another of Jean’s statements, word-for-word. “Klee, what did we talk about beforehand?”

Klee looks down at the snow, shuffling her feet. “Um... we would come out here, to collect the Ice Shieldwall samples...?”

“Yes,” Albedo sighs. “And where is the Ice Shieldwall?”

“...Melted,” she mumbles quietly.

It is only then that Albedo notices the frost collecting on her own reddened cheeks, and, with haste, he takes her hand before bringing her close to one of the Hilchurl camp’s torches. “Have Dodoco light that up,” he says, and Klee pipes up in excitement-- “Just one, Klee.”

The torch flares to life, and Klee gratefully warms her fingertips and frozen face by the fire, seemingly not aware she was freezing at all in the first place. “Let’s head back,” Albedo declares, and Klee looks up in surprise. “Dragonspine Mountain is no place for a little girl. We shouldn’t spend much longer here.”

“But your samples!” Klee gasps. “We haven’t collected them yet, Albedo!”

“I can finish the job myself--”

“No, no!” Klee stomps her feet in protest. “I melted the shield, and I’ll help you get another one. I’ll boom-boom-destroy everything in our way and make up for my mistake!”

“No, Klee--” And, just like that, she’s off again, like the random motion of particles in the seemingly still air, whizzing about without anyone’s influence. Albedo lets another deep sigh before rushing after the girl, down the valley of snow she’s picked to prance upon. She hops past a faded wooden sign, and even Albedo does not spare it a glance in his pursuit. “Klee, that way is very dangerous. Klee, come back to me--”

She suddenly stops short, halfway down a slope to a clearing even Albedo hasn’t been to before. “Wow,” she breathes, and she points to her left at something which is obscured from Albedo’s line of sight by Dragonspine’s rocks. “Albedo, what’s that?”

The Frostarm Lawachurl’s roar indicates that, even if Albedo hasn’t yet seen it, it’s certainly seen her.

“Klee, behind me!” Albedo smashes another Solar Istoma to the ground, rushing forward and yanking Klee by the collar, just barely pulling her out of the Lawachurl’s surprisingly quick charge. He plops her on the Geo blossom, before unsheathing his sword and facing the massive beast, the very rock of the mountain shaking as it misses Klee and slams head-first into the stones of the snow valley.

It lets out a terrifying howl of pain and anger, all mixed in one, and Albedo’s sword does nothing to its thickened ice-hide. “Your bombs, Klee,” Albedo quickly calls out, and he barely dodges the Lawachurl’s arms as it swings down onto the snow he was just standing on mere moments before.

“But--” Klee hesitates, even as she holds one of them in her hands. “Won’t it melt?”

“We want this one to melt, Klee,” Albedo clarifies, and perhaps he is a little too calm for such a life-threatening situation, but even at a time like this he has the beast under control. It swings at him again, slams its arms into the ground and summons spikes of ice, and Albedo twists out of the way every time. The motion of these beasts, frenzied as they may be, follow a certain pattern-- indicative of a hunting style which has been passed down for generations.

Soon enough, Klee’s bombs start flying, making quick work on the frost shield covering the Lawachurl. But that draws its attention off Albedo and onto the floating girl, and, unlike the Mitachurl, it isn’t helpless against high platforms.

The Lawachurl jumps into the air with a mighty leap, and Albedo quickly surges with elemental energy. “Klee, off the Solar Istoma, now!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoaaaa--!” She stumbles off with quickness as the Lawachurl smashes directly into the floating platform, and right where Albedo wants it: within the Solar Istoma’s elemental range. He swings his arm, and the Geo energy flows through his very body before bursting forth from the crumbling Geo Blossom.

“Witness my grand undertaking,” Albedo declares. “Moment of birth!”

Seven Fatal Blossoms burst into life around and inside the Lawachurl’s body, beautiful in their grace and deadly in their function. The sharpened Geo edges dig into its very organs, and with one last roar, it lands on its knees. The snow forms a fog in the air as the Lawachurl crumbles to the floor, dying in a spectacular show of golden-brown flowers which live for only a moment and the body of a beast whose life they manage to take, all the same.

The mountain is still.

Klee hops on her toes, laughing as she brushes the snow off her knees. “Wow, that was super cool, Albe--”

The mountain collapses.

Albedo rarely makes any mistakes in his calculations. He perfectly predicts the trajectory of enemy movements, expertly dodges their blows and dispatches them with the ease of one befitting the title of Knight. But if there is one fatal flaw of his which even Sucrose sometimes voices in exasperation, it is his one-track-mindedness, how he can focus so singularly on a goal that he loses sight of everything else.

And so it goes:

The snow, the snow, the snow is unsettled by their ferocious battle, from the Lawachurl’s dying screams and Albedo’s transient blossoms. And the snow fights back, with a massive sheet of it coming down towards Klee from the mountaintop, roaring with a low grumble that is more terrifying than any beast Albedo has ever faced. The layered memories from years of snowstorms have collected upon the Dragonspine’s very rocks and now they threaten to swallow her whole, and as she looks up at the sound, it is already--

Albedo knows he will not be quick enough to pull her out of the way. So he comes to her instead, pulling Klee into the tightest hug he’s ever given before desperately covering the both of them in a shield of Cryo-Geo crystallization. He just barely has the time to turn her away and bear the brunt of the impact himself as the snow swallows them whole.

No, this is not when he feels fear. He understands what an avalanche is, and prepares for the worst of it: the twisting and tumbling snow, the bashing of his legs against hardened stone, the unsettling dizziness when it all finally comes to rest and they are both buried so deep that Albedo doesn’t know which is way is up and which way will dig them further into the cold’s embrace.

It is when all comes to an end and he realizes, suddenly, that Klee’s cheeks are frosted over in the most terrible cold. “Klee,” he wants to call, but even if he doesn’t need to breathe, the snow which traps them will choke away his voice all the same. He rapidly stretches out his fingers, and from the gaps in between he sprouts vines of Geo to snake through the snow and find fresh air. It takes only a few seconds, but it feels like hours, and for one who has often lamented about Klee’s destructive power he wishes she would just blow them out of the snow right now.

When he finds the true way out, he removes the snow with another surge of Geo, blossoming a Solar Istoma right above his own body to lift the ice off the two of them. On another day, he would wonder at how such a soft powder can become so frighteningly heavy when densely-packed from years of unending snowfall-- but now is not that day, because as Albedo emerges and pulls himself out of the ice, he gives Klee a mighty shake and is filled with the utter terror of ten thousand souls when she does not open her eyes, lids frozen over by a thin layer of frost.

Albedo tries to rise to his feet, and only then does he realize the avalanche had broken his right leg, but he still has three good limbs and an alchemist doesn’t give in when their first experiment ends in failure, do they? He forces himself off the ground, carrying Klee in one arm and grasping at the rocks of Dragonspine with the other. He ignores the way his right leg twists in ways it shouldn’t as he drags broken bone against solid snow, trudging forward despite it all anyway, and when a torch comes into view, he is filled with a special kind of despair upon realizing that the avalanche’s blast has extinguished every single one nearby.

When he collapses onto the ground near the unlit torch, he holds Klee as tightly as he possibly can, as if his own freezing body can somehow save her from the cold of the mountain. He tries to create flintstone out of Geo, but his hands are frozen over and he realizes that, in the end, he was the one who forgot about keeping himself warm in the thick of battle, isn’t that ironic? Isn’t that--

The vast emptiness inside him, once filled with a thousand blooming Sweet Flowers, is suddenly consumed by an unquenchable fire that burns it all to ash. He stares into his icy fingers and realizes this is death, he is looking upon death and though he has never feared the unknown he fears failing the girl he is holding to his chest and dragging her down a path of no return with him. But he is not just chalk, he is fire, he is fire in the laboratory when the burner roars to life and fire in his eyes when he brings what-is-unknown into that-which-we-now-know and they will not die here.

He draws the fire from the deeps of that vast emptiness within him, tapping into the last vestigial trace of warmth on this mountain: his burning blood. And when he stares down the lion’s maw of death, he brings to life the fire of a false human’s soul, stretching his arm out in defiance towards the fates written within the false sky.

The Geo which bursts from his veins is haphazard, golden-brown but tinged in crimson, and he supposes that he was never pure-white-chalk-nothingness if the foreign heart within his chest has been thrumming with red blood all this time. The constructs curls around the torch, and even such an incredible sight can only create the smallest spark as its energy concentrates into a singular burst of scattered dust, but it is enough, Albedo is enough and the tinder catches fire as Albedo’s tattered arm falls to the ground, the open wound of bursted blood quickly freezing over in the snow while the rest of his body is gently warmed by the now-blazing fire.

“...Mmffph,” Klee mumbles, and when the ice melts off her face, she almost looks like she’s waking up from her many prescribed naptimes. “Albedo...? Where are we?”

“Safe,” Albedo whispers, and the fire within him dims but blazes on all the same, and in the steam of melted snow he supposes this must be what humans call relief. “We are safe, Klee.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say that,” Kaeya hums, and Albedo lifts his head to see the man walking up to them with a torch of his own. “My, I know alchemists love exploring the unknown, but that snow valley was cordoned off for a reason. When I caught wind of an unplanned avalanche on Dragonspine while on patrol, I knew it must’ve been set off by a few rogue adventurers ignoring the warning signs. Little did I know it would be you two.”

Klee wriggles out of Albedo’s grasp, hopping to her feet as though she had not been near death with him mere moments ago. “Big bro Kaeya, we got caught in that avalanche! The snow went, pchooow and Albedo hugged me super tight! And then, I opened my eyes, and we were here!”

“I see, I see,” Kaeya says, ruffling the hair atop Klee’s head. “You’ve had quite the adventure today, haven’t you two? Let’s get you all home, now.” He noticeably puts himself between Klee and Albedo, because anyone with a good set of eyes (or one) would notice the way Albedo’s right leg twists in the wrong direction, and the strange crimson marks in the frozen snow that have been left behind by Albedo’s burst vein-- but Klee doesn’t seem to notice it, not yet, and perhaps it’s better if she doesn’t notice at all.

As Kaeya kneels down onto the snow to put the torch down, he grabs Albedo’s shoulders. “Sorry. This might hurt,” he warns, and Kaeya is absolutely right, because now that the fear has vacated him, the vast emptiness within Albedo is now free to be filled with nothing but an excruciating pain as his broken bone is shifted about by Kaeya pulling Albedo up onto a piggyback. But the alchemist grits his teeth, because it’s not as if he’s never broken a bone before in combat, and it’ll be a quick fix once they see Barbara in Mondstadt... and when Kaeya wraps Albedo’s arms around his own shoulders to carry him, he takes great care with Albedo’s busted arm, perhaps not recognizing the exact nature of the strange wound but knowing enough not to say a word.

Klee dances around Kaeya’s legs. “But what about the samples for Albedo?”

“Oh, while you were off in that avalanche, I collected them already,” Kaeya lies smoothly.

Klee narrows her eyes. “Reeeeally?”

“Yes, yes, really,” Kaeya laughs, and he picks up the torch to keep them all warm with his one free hand, the other pinning Albedo’s own arms in place so he doesn’t fall off Kaeya’s back.

“Okay,” Klee nods, seemingly satisfied by that terrible line of reasoning. “Then, can I get a piggyback too once Albedo is done?”

“Of course,” Kaeya promises, and in the long walk back to Mondstadt, the gentle fire inside Albedo simmers down to the heat of a stovetop.

Barbara heals the worst of Albedo’s broken bones with a gentle hum of Hydro, but, as expected, cannot so easily return the blood he’s lost and so orders him into bedrest for the next few days. Kaeya promises to take care of Klee while he recovers, which Albedo knows is hardly a comfort at all, but the good thing about being ‘in recovery’ is that no one tells you about what disasters occur during the day: all Albedo knows is that Klee hops into his chambers every night with a new crayon drawing of him. Sucrose visits the next day with the most worried expression he’s ever seen on her, and though the bio-potion she brews isn’t as sweet as her candies, it is revitalizing all the same, in both its concoction and the adorable cursive handwriting upon its label which reads ‘get well soon’.

And, just like Sucrose, he finds resting utterly restless. When no one is in the room to chide him for using his just-injured arm, he draws. He pulls out a sketchpad and creates his own depiction of Klee’s crayon art, crystallizing her smile into the memory of a single page as well as immortalizing Kaeya’s own smirk whenever Klee draws him in. But whenever she draws Albedo,

he redraws the tuft of his blonde hair, the outline of his jacket, and then he leaves his face blank.

-----

The first time Albedo feels anger, it comes with Rosaria knocking on his door, accompanied with the terror of ten thousand upon her heels.

“Come in.” It is the last day of his supposed recovery, and when the door swings upon, he puts away the sketchpad quickly enough that he would not be reprimanded for drawing, again. But it is not Sucrose with her desserts of Sweet Flowers nor Klee with another happy memory drawn into crayon colors: it is a complete stranger, dulled grey skin and piercing rose-colored eyes, donning a headdress that seems more suited to a necromancer than a nun.

He is sitting upright on his mattress, pretending to read a book he has already finished dozens of times, and Rosaria doesn’t even introduce herself before walking up to the foot of his bed with a commanding glare. “So you’re Albedo,” she says instead, crossing her arms. “Yet another outsider within the Knights of Favonius.”

“That I am,” Albedo confirms with a smile, and Rosaria’s expression does not change. “Have we met?”

“No, which is a mistake on my part.” She leers at him, and, for the first time by someone outside of the yet-unconvinced Sumerun scholar, Albedo realizes he is being scrutinized. “They have many names for you, genius alchemist. And yet, what kind of genius gets caught in an avalanche in Dragonspine Mountain’s snow valleys?”

Albedo shakes his head. “That... was my mistake. I should not have brought Klee along.”

“What a convenient excuse,” Rosaria accuses, and Albedo’s eyes widen in curiosity at her statement. “To blame the child for running off.”

She places her hands on the bedframe, and for a moment, she looks a little like a hungry lion, ready to pounce. “Dragonspine Mountain... a place barely explored by even the Mondstadtians themselves, covered in snowfall that buries the body of a dragon which once sought to bring us doom.” She glints at him. “A place like that... may be filled with untold dangers to Mondstadt. Foul curses and demons which the unassuming adventurer could bring back home... or, perhaps, the all-knowing outsider will lead them to Mondstadt on purpose.”

Albedo tilts his head. “You think quite highly of my knowledge. I know as much about Dragonspine Mountain as anyone else here.”

“You mistake my tone if you conclude that I am praising you,” Rosaria warns. “Albedo, no one else in this city will say it, but you and I both know that your origins are a mystery to us. Where did you come from? Who did you learn all this from? How did you develop these skill at such a young age? You appeared out of the blue, on that... Alice’s... recommendation, and seduced by awe of your grandeur, no one has bothered to run you through a background check.”

He leans forward. “Is that what you’re here for, then?”

“Yes,” Rosaria confirms. “Let’s begin. Albedo, or Kreideprinz, whatever you title yourself: where do you hail from?”

Hm. “I hail from Khaenri--”

“--ahn studies of the Sumerun Association of Alchemy,” Kaeya finishes for him, walking into the room unannounced. “Isn’t that right, Albedo? Ah, how those scholars love their long-winded names.”

Rosaria turns her head, and, to her credit, doesn’t waver when being stared down by the Cavalry Captain of the Ordo Favonius. “You followed me,” she points out.

“I did,” Kaeya admits without an iota of shame. “After all, Albedo is not only our beloved Chief Alchemist, but also a dear friend of mine. Is it not expected that I would follow someone who intrudes upon his quarters?”

“I knocked,” Rosaria justifies, and Albedo feels like, somehow, this argument playing out in front of his eyes has origins which stem from a history before him. “And do you mean to say you do not trust me, Kaeya?”

“I think we are both the type to cast off false pretences, Sister Rosaria.” Which is the most straightforward answer Kaeya can give to say ‘yes’. “Besides, perhaps you do not place enough faith within the Knights of Favonius yourself. Of course we conduct background checks on those we bring into our ranks! My, the way you look down on us, it almost reminds me of a certain someone I shan’t name...”

Rosaria regards Kaeya with a steely gaze, and then puts her arms to her hips. “Very well. If you wish for me to leave, then I will.” Her glance falls over Albedo, and, for a moment, she looks right through him, as though his skin was glass refracting all the sun’s rays into the vast emptiness laid plain within him. “I will not, however, apologize for the intrusion. I am simply doing my job.”

“I understand,” Albedo replies calmly, and his gentle smile seems to annoy her more than anything else. No, he’s not annoyed at her at all. “I won’t hold the protection of Mondstadt against you. In fact, a part of me is glad that there are still skeptics in this city of lovers.”

“That there are--” She cuts herself off with a sigh, one not unlike those he spares for Klee. She looks into Albedo’s eyes again, just for a moment, and perhaps he was just imagining it, after all, when he thought she could see right into the depths of his false human soul. Finally, she turns on her heels and leaves Albedo’s chambers, closing the doors behind her.

Kaeya whistles. “What a turn of phrase. ‘Skeptics in this city of lovers’... you’re quite adaptable, aren’t you? Even picking up our Mondstadtian charm for romantics.”

“Ah, I... simply overheard it from someone else,” Albedo confesses. As with all things that he is: bits and pieces of other people, molded together like melted gold in the cauldron, mixed into a cohesive product.

Kaeya nods. “And, ah... she might still be listening in, so give me a moment.” He turns around, walking towards the door, and then freezes over all the gaps within it, including a large block of ice for the doorknob. “There. Now, no one will overhear, and no one will be able to intrude.”

Albedo, who is not at all alarmed by this turn of events, simply nods as Kaeya takes the necessary precautions. “Do you wish to speak with me, my prince?”

“Yes, I do,” Kaeya says, and he turns to Albedo with a strained smile. “Albedo, what the fuck was that?”

Albedo blinks. “What the... fuck was...?”

“You cannot simply go around telling people you are from Khaenri’ah,” Kaeya wheezes, and the dots connect in Albedo’s head. “Even if they lack the knowledge to process what that truly means for us, and for them. It is not a line of questioning you wish to go down, my dear Albedo. My goodness! I hope you have not told anyone else!”

“I haven’t,” Albedo confirms with a shake of his head. “No one has asked.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. That is good fortune indeed,” Kaeya says, his smile becoming a little more relaxed. “I was steeling myself for the worst. Such a shame that would have been, to silence a sweet little lady like Sucrose.”

And then--

“You would not,” Albedo says, and he doesn’t know what compels him to do so but he says it anyway, because the thought of Kaeya’s sword impaled within Sucrose’s chest and scattering a thousand blooming Sweet Flowers with her blood is making the unquenchable fire within Albedo’s false human soul roar with a terror of ten thousand. “You will never lay a hand on her.”

“Lay a hand on her?” Kaeya’s smile doesn’t waver. “I didn’t mean I would kill her, you know. Just send her away somewhere, or bribe her.”

“That--” Albedo stops himself, pressing a hand to his chest, and what exactly is this blaze within him? “...I made an erroneous assumption from your statement. My apologies.”

Kaeya shrugs. “It’s fine. I actually wanted you to think that,” he confesses, and Albedo’s eyes brim with confusion at his prince’s deception. “I’m very, very relieved to see how angry you got at the thought of me killing Sucrose.”

Anger, then. That’s what it was: that uncontrollable inferno, that roar of his false human soul, ricocheting in the chambers of the vast emptiness that lays within him. It is actually still there, because a fire does not die out so quickly, and the image of Sucrose’s blood upon her flowers lingers on within his mind for an uncomfortably long time. “Relieved?” Albedo swallows it all, however, because, in the end, he is still speaking with his prince. “What makes you say that?”

“It means you care for her,” Kaeya explains in plain words, and Albedo still fails to see how such a thing would be a concern for Kaeya. “And, well, dear Albedo... if, even after all this time, you’ve still not come to care for the people of Mondstadt, I would’ve killed you right here and now myself.”

Albedo blinks. The setting sun illuminates Kaeya’s cerulean blue hair in a way that Albedo has never seen before, and, somehow, the self-same man who had been the his source of familiarity in this city of pastorals is now something else entirely. “But, Albedo, I never doubted you for a moment,” Kaeya says, and then his forms shifts into one more befitting of Albedo’s memories, casual gait and friendly smile. “Especially not after your heroic rescue of cute little Klee.”

“I am... honored to know I have passed your test,” Albedo decides to say, because, in the end, he is used to being constantly tested for things he was never informed about. His master would do it, too, find new holes in his methodologies he had never even considered, stretch Albedo’s understanding of the world beyond what he had once thought possible-- and, well, maybe one master to another isn’t so different after all. “Please excuse my indulgence, but I am curious. How does my... care for Mondstadt... aid you in your quest, my prince?”

“Oh, it doesn’t aid me at all,” Kaeya says with a shrug, and Albedo’s eyes widen in the most flawless spheres of confusion. “Don’t worry about it.”

“It doesn’t?” Albedo keeps his lips parted, trying to find the words to enunciate the mysteries in his mind. “Then... what will, Kaeya? I have told you already, that I am here to fulfill my master’s final assignment. But should you need anything of me, then, the Kreideprinz shall always serve you.”

Kaeya’s smile only widens. “Albedo, I’m flattered to hear that. But, frankly, when I think about the restoration of Khaenri’ah, you are the absolute last person on my mind.”

“I am--” Albedo claws away at the questions within his mind, but Kaeya’s words just entangle him in more and more and more. “Why is that? Have I upset you in some way?”

“Not at all, Albedo, not at all,” Kaeya laughs, airy and light with mirth. “Rather, you have exceeded my every expectations, my fellow prince. And, well, I would love to sit here and chat, but explaining everything just like that would be too boring, wouldn’t it?”

And then that lilac eye of his twinkles in amusement, telling Albedo that, in the end, this mountain of questions shall be his own to scale. “Figure it out, Albedo,” Kaeya challenges, but, to his ears, it’s a command. “Figure me out, then figure yourself out, and finally, figure out why we were sent to Mondstadt in the first place. I’m sure you’ll pull it off-- you’re a genius, after all.”

“As you wish,” Albedo accepts. And as the terror of ten thousand quietens to a whisper within the vast emptiness within him, Kaeya’s three orders settle into the very depths of his false human soul, just like how Kaeya’s smile is imprinted upon Albedo’s mind in three quick strokes.

-----

The first time Albedo feels sadness, it comes hand-in-hand with the first time he falls in love.

When Albedo is finally freed from the confines of bedrest, he reports to the lab at the crack of dawn, only to find everyone else lying in wait for him the moment he creaks open the door. He isn’t exactly surprised, because he didn’t see Lisa at the library nor spot Jean at her office as he walked down the hallways, so he knew they must have been somewhere, but as his eyes dash around the laboratory and all the people within in, Sucrose breaks the silence, first:

“Mr. Albedo, please try this cake!”

“Ah, Sucrose,” Lisa sighs, though her exasperation is also laced with amusement. Jean can’t help but let out a smile of her own as she watches Sucrose hold out the cake, not even daring to make eye contact with her mentor as she does so, while Kaeya watches it all go down in the background. “You should ask him how he’s feeling first, isn’t that right?”

“O-oh, yeah! Like we rehearsed!” Sucrose straightens back up, and in her trembling hands Albedo reads the words ‘welcome back’ written in white icing upon golden cream. “Ahem, um... good morning, Mr. Albedo. How are you feeling?”

Albedo glances across all the faces in the room, and when he reminds himself to put on a smile, he realizes that the sides of his lips are already curled upwards. “Much better, especially with such a thoughtful gift from you,” he says, and Sucrose makes some kind of strange noise before nearly dropping the cake. Lisa swoops in to save it, grabbing the plate it's on, while Jean brings her hand to her mouth in a vain attempt to stifle her laughs. “How did you know I’ve grown to love the desserts of Mondstadt?”

“I told her,” Kaeya says, and Albedo looks up to see his prince, leaning against the wall and flipping a coin in his hand, looking less like a lion king and more like a lazy cat. “After your first fiasco with those candies, you’ve taken to ordering Good Hunter’s signature Tea Break Pancakes every morning, haven’t you? Only once a day, though. All in moderation, as they would say.”

“What Kaeya means to say,” Jean interrupts, stepping in front of everyone-- “is that everyone is glad you have recovered, Albedo. We’ve baked a cake for you, each layer infused with nectar from Sucrose’s own Sweet Flower variants.”

“And, and my newly-discovered berry strain which remains fresh for three times as long as wildly-picked ones,” Sucrose adds on, and, indeed, Albedo does see the berry bits scattered across the top of the cake now, embellishing the icing.

Jean nods. “It is unfortunate that Klee had to be put in time-out just this morning... not that I would have let her into the laboratory at all... but she wanted me to give you a present as well.”

She pulls out a sheet of paper, carefully placed within a cloth file to avoid any damage, and when Albedo’s eyes fall upon the crayon marking he realizes that she had drawn him embracing her to his chest in the tightest hug he’s ever given. “She also asks that you hug her more often,” Lisa adds on, and Albedo blinks. “And preferably not within the confines of life-threatening situations, I may be so bold to add! Truly, even the most charming of men make the same old mistakes...”

Hug? Life-threatening? Charming? All the words swirl around Albedo’s head, but Kaeya brings him back around with a clap of his hand and the sound of metal unsheathing. “Well, if all the gifts have been given, let’s not wait a second longer before digging in.”

Jean narrows her eyes. “Kaeya, with all due respect, please do not cut the cake with your sword.”

“No, do go on ahead,” Lisa eggs on, placing it on the laboratory table. “I would love to see how you would manage it.”

“Ahhh, no!” Sucrose panics. “I-I-I spent so long on the icing!”

And the first time Albedo falls in love--

It is all at once, with all the faces in the room, with all of Mondstadt and all the people in it. We have finished the sketch of a man who we have now met, filled the vast emptiness within him with thousand of blooming flowers, an unquenchable roaring fire, a terror of ten thousand and a love so strong that, for a moment, even Albedo does not know what to do with himself.

He stares upon the spectre of a happy human life playing out in front of him, taunting him with the false idea that he could ever be normal, and suddenly, the love fills all the gaps within his hollow organs with a most pervasive form of sadness.

“--And that is how you cut a cake,” Kaeya declares, and though the Aquila Favonia was never made for such a purpose, it manages to slice out a rather neat piece all the same. Jean carefully plates it, before handing it to Sucrose, and she finally turns to Albedo with a shaky yet genuine smile.

“It’s not a potion, but baking is an alchemy of its own,” she says, and in the time Albedo has been forced to cook his own meals to maintain the illusion that he needs to eat as much as every other human, he knows this to be true. “Mr. Albedo, thank you for teaching me so much! You’ve helped me, and the people of Mondstadt! I... I...”

He motions to take the plate, but realizes she still has something she wants to say. “I... we all love you very much,” Sucrose stutters, and Lisa shakes her head in disappointment while Jean closes her eyes in a mixture of embarrassment and amusement. It is testament, perhaps, to how much Albedo has learnt, because he realizes what Sucrose has left unsaid and also knows enough to not point it out until she is ready to say it herself.

“Thank you.” Albedo takes the cake, and with a fork, brings a mouthful of it to his mouth. Each fluffy layer is sweetened, the berries add an incredible layer, the icing is light yet tasty, and, all around, it is a lovely dessert.

He thinks on whether to say it back, to vocalize the love that has now replaced the vast emptiness within him with hollow detachment of another kind, but he thinks, perhaps, that is too much, right now. He looks up, meeting everyone’s gaze as they wait for him to comment on the cake, and he realizes that perhaps they already know.

Sweet Flowers burn to ash in unquenchable flame, and the dust is collected by the accumulated memories of ten thousand, before the love molds it all together like clay in the kiln,

like chalk by the most perfect pair of hands in all the universe underneath the true starry sky.

Albedo looks up, and he is already smiling. “I love it.”

The three women seem delighted by his answer, but when Albedo raises his head, his eyes search for only one man’s gaze. He looks at Kaeya and realizes, for a moment, that his prince has stopped smiling. In the silence they share, they both come to an unsaid understanding which even a prince built from chalk can understand:

From one chronic over-indulger to another, even the best of things will become a poison when he takes too many bites. Even the love of a nation will become an unbearable weight upon his foreign heart when, one day, the abyss they are born from will call them home.

-----

The first time Albedo tries to die, it comes with the additional realization that it will not be so easy.

Albedo concludes, from all the research in his notes and all the love filling his hollow organs, that the greatest kindness he can afford Mondstadt is to die. He knows this is a rather alarming conclusion for the normal human, and so, he tells no one. But if they had asked him, he would have explained it to them, the same way he explains how one can use Aerosiderite most effectively for minimum wastage, and how life can be breathed back into dead leylines with the flick of a wrist.

There are many old tomes within Mondstadt’s library, and Lisa is the most excellent librarian. Her skills are suited for much more than just the company of books, but that is her wish, in the end, and it is her duty to provide Albedo with every tome of Durin she can find.

The history recorded within Mondstadt’s pages can be embellished, but, as with all stories, they all stem from a grain of tragic truth. He skims through Mondstadt’s many ballads in Breeze Amidst the Forest to find mentions of Durin’s death, how the dragon bled gold after the Khaenri’ahn alchemist’s namesake. He reads the tales of brave men and women who stood against the encroaching corruption and were dragged down into the abyss as the Blacksun Dynasty fell underneath their feet. He realizes that they all died for Mondstadt because the love of a nation drove them to do so, and, perhaps, now, it is his turn.

For the longest time, Albedo thought he knew his place within the earth. And now, he finally, truly does:

“The universe is the dark essence of the true starry sky, and the earth is the accumulated memories of time and lives.” Rhinedottir said this to him, once upon a time, in another life. “The chalk: that is you. The earth is where alchemy gets its name, and is the basis of all life. And this...”

She spread her arms wide, and the life form within the culture tank burst forth in such a spectacular show of shattered fragments--

“...Is new birth.”

But in the end, all must pay the toll.

Albedo decides that, for the love of a nation, he must die and die tonight. He formulates a plan to give his body back to the resin which runs within the earth, revitalizing the dead branches of petrified trees. He ponders on the pros-and-cons of disappearing without a trace or leaving a note behind, and if he would leave a note, should he tell a half-truth or a bold-faced lie? To better weigh his options, he borrows a book which, for the first time has nothing to do with alchemy: the Liyuen Book of Living and Dying, and when Lisa regards him with a curious look he only returns a smile. It is longer, and far more interesting than he expected; but as the hours tick down, he realizes he may not have the time to analyze it as thoroughly as it deserves. What an odd feeling.

When night falls, he bids farewell to Sucrose and locks up the lab as he always does. He leaves the book on his workdesk, where Lisa will easily find it when he is gone. He hopes that the title will be explanation enough.

He leaves Mondstadt through the front gates, under the moonlight of the false sky. He walks purposefully to the basecamp of Dragonspine Mountain, and greets the adventurers who are still working till late to discover its secrets. He ascends the snowy steps without a torch, and no one moves to stop him, because the genius alchemist of Mondstadt always knows what he is doing.

He walks into a cordoned-off area where he knows no one will find him, and then, as he patiently waits, the frost catches onto his pale skin, crystallizing the tears within the sides of his eyes. When he looks into his icy fingers, he realizes that he has never feared the unknown, and yet--

--flowers, fire, ten thousand souls, the love of a nation--

Albedo freezes.

-----

And the first time Albedo looked upon his own face--

It was not within water’s reflection, nor a mirror upon a wall. He first saw himself, striking cyan eyes and platinum-blonde hair, from within the glass walls of a culture tank.

“And this...” Rhinedottir breathed, and Albedo pressed his fingers to the mark on his throat as he realized a little late that he never once needed to breathe himself-- “...is new life.”

-----

“--Come on, come back to me. You wouldn’t disappoint us like this, would you, Albedo?”

The chalk prince opens his eyes, and Kaeya’s cerulean blue is lit up by the backdrop of the moonlight.

Kaeya, the prince, his prince-- he has always been a grandiose man, one who reveals a little too much yet nothing at all. Perhaps they are both similar, in that respect: far too honest while constantly suffocating under the heavy burden of lies. “There you are,” Kaeya breathes, and the condensation of his warm breath against Dragonspine’s cold embrace graces the thawing skin of Albedo’s face. “Now, Albedo, please tell me what drove you to take such a drastic measure.”

“How did you find me?” Albedo breathes, as well, even though he doesn’t need to, never has, but Kaeya’s fingers are pressed to the mark against Albedo’s throat and the alchemist realizes that his false breathing comforts the man with the illusion that Albedo was ever alive at all.

“Who do you take me for, Albedo? I’m an upstanding Knight of the Ordo Favonius, and that means I’ve got to know what’s going on inside my city.” Kaeya brushes the snow off Albedo’s face, trying his best to feign a lack of concern. “Which means to say, I have eyes everywhere, including one tracking you. When you trodded off into yet another forbidden area, however... well, they turned back, and I started looking instead.”

Albedo raises his head off Kaeya’s lap, feeling the warmth of the torch melt away the icicles within his very blood. “I see,” Albedo mumbles, and when he exhales, his cold breath does not form a condensation of mist. “Then, I suppose there is no hiding from you after all, my prince.”

He tries to rise to his feet, but his burning blood is still ice-cold, and Kaeya’s firm grip on his wrist keeps him seated. “You were practically a popsicle when I pulled you from the snow,” Kaeya scolds, in the way one scolds a child for not doing their homework and not a man who had just ventured up a mountain to die. “Absolutely frozen stiff! If I’d been a little later, that snowstorm would’ve buried you whole, and you would’ve truly been immortalized as yet another body on this mountain’s very rock.”

Albedo tries opening and closing his hand. It seems that his body is, as expected, much more robust than a normal human’s, and his freezing will not lend itself to any long-term effects. “And you haven’t answered my question,” Kaeya continues, drilling Albedo further. “What possessed you to die alone up here, Albedo?”

The alchemist tilts his head. “What possesses you to stay your hand in killing me, Kaeya?”

“Oh, and you’ve learnt to talk back too?” Kaeya laughs, and there is a heaviness inside it, yet it still remains lofty, like a blanket of gentle snow. “I’m the one asking the questions here, Albedo.”

“They are related lines of inquiry.” Albedo’s striking cyan eyes flash with a light of their own, and, suddenly, Kaeya understands. “After all, I am your nation’s destruction, reborn into chalk.”

“How delightfully dramatic,” Kaeya hums, and something about his smile seems a little more obviously strained, now. “Go on, then. And don’t spare me the lyricism; I do love it when storytellers add their own flair.”

Albedo’s eyes look right through Kaeya, instead tracing the countless stars shing brightly in the false sky, and he wonders, somewhat hysterically, if they are as burdened in their lies as these two men of the abyss are. “I was conceived by the alchemist Gold, then brought to life by my master Rhinedottir. The art of creation, of Khemia, is the very same alchemy written within her notes and inscribed upon my blood. It is also the very same alchemy that brought the downfall of the Blacksun Dynasty, leading to Khaenri’ah’s ruin. And in the cataclysm that followed, men of Mondstadt were swallowed while a gold-blooded dragon died upon this very mountain.”

He finds his constellation, Princeps Cretaceus, and traces the image of a child born within a bottle. “I am... an abomination,” Albedo declares, because it’s all simple science, isn’t it? “The road to my birth is a path paved in destruction. The truth and meaning of this world which my master asked me to seek: the answer is that I do not have the right to know. Life, death, rebirth... it is a sacred cycle, a serpent biting its own tail to encircle the soul of this world. But I was born without death, nor with life, and the power which flows within me to revitalize what should remain still images on the canvas, or long-dead ash of burnt flowers... my existence transcends this cycle, defies the will of ouroboros, and it is no longer alchemy, Kaeya; it is godhood. And the gods...”

Albedo stares up at the idea of Celestia. “I would wager they do not like that,” he whispers, and then, Kaeya laughs.

He laughs, and laughs, and laughs, till Albedo is no longer staring into Celestia but into Kaeya’s lilac eye. “Ahaha! Bravo, bravo-- Albedo, your words have absolutely bedazzled me. I couldn’t put together a better iliad if I tried.”

“I... was speaking the truth,” Albedo says simply, mistaking Kaeya’s laughter for disbelief.

But when he finally catches his breath and looks back into Albedo’s cyan gaze, Kaeya shakes his head. “Oh, I know you are. And with our absent archon, Albedo, I reckon you are the closest thing to godhood all of Mondstadt has ever seen. It’s no wonder everyone fell head-over-heels for you.”

Kaeya helps Albedo sit up all the way, and now they’re both cross-legged on the snow, basking in the fragile graces of a single torch. “But of all the thing you’ve learnt about people, Albedo-- and for a man born of chalk, you have learnt quite a lot indeed-- you’ve still missed one of humanity’s core tenets.” Kaeye points to Albedo’s chest, towards the foreign heart in his chest. “So what if you died, Albedo? What then?”

“Then...” Albedo closes his eyes. “Then the cycle will be restored.”

“Wrong answer,” Kaeya chuckles. “Try again.”

Albedo thinks, a little harder, this time, and raises his head back up. “If I died, then... someone would make another of me.”

“Exactly,” Kaeya confirms, and Albedo feels the terror of ten thousand souls broiling within his hollow organs. He looks at Kaeya, his prince, boy of cerulean blue hair and is the memory of their first meeting truly his or another Albedo’s? “Frankly, Albedo, I’m not one for doomsayer prophecies and all that. The only cycle of the world I know about is the cycle of humanity: indeed, we live, we die, and our hopes are reborn once more in the people that come after and from those who came before. In Mondstadt alone, freedom has come and gone and been wrested back several times in history. One day, though, hopefully not in my lifetime, Mondstadt’s freedom will fall again-- and then, from the hands of tyranny it will be stolen away once more, before being spread back into the wind.”

Kaeya stretches out his arms. “If you die, Albedo, then they will send another to take your place. Humanity is determined, and we will set our chalk prince in the pursuit of gold every single time.”

“Then...” Albedo grips the cloth of his coat. “It is hopeless.”

“Not at all,” Kaeya says with another shake of his head. “You and I are in a very unique position, Albedo. All the prophecies in the stars foretell how we will both walk the path of destruction... that one day, the mistakes of bygone days will catch up with us, that we cannot run from our past forever. But, Albedo, as the only two people in the whole wide world walking this lonely road, we are the only two who can spit in its face as well.”

He brings a hand to Albedo’s face. “Chin up,” Kaeya reassures, before quite literally lifting Albedo’s chin up to face Kaeya and not the snow upon his shoes. “And, even if we are doomed, I’d rather be doomed with another than doomed all alone. I have been enjoying your company, and would hate to see you gone.”

Albedo blinks. “But if they would just make another of me...”

“Another thing, Albedo-- they can never make another of you,” Kaeya declares. “Yes, they will make another man of chalk with your striking cyan eyes and platinum-blonde locks. But it will not be Albedo, Chief Alchemist of the Knights of Favonius, the man who wears his hair in the most unattractive bun yet has every man and woman in Mondstadt falling to their knees for him. It will not be Klee’s big brother, Sucrose’s mentor, or my dear friend. Do you understand?”

The earth is the accumulated memories of time and lives, but even the most resilient of rock will wear away with the erosion of rain.

“...How do I defy it, then?” Albedo finally stands up, but his legs are still shaky, and Kaeya follows suit to catch him if he falls. “What should I do, my prince?”

“Hmm, I don’t know,” Kaeya says all too casually, and he slings Albedo’s arm around his shoulder when the alchemist nearly stumbles on the sifting snow. “But, I’ll let you in on a secret: I don’t actually think about it. And things have worked out just fine so far.”

Albedo gapes at him. “But will our fates not...?”

“Albedo, you love Mondstadt,” Kaeya points out, and his words drag out the pervasiveness sadness that suffocates the now too-full insides of Albedo’s false human soul. “You wouldn’t be distraught enough to freeze yourself to death if you didn’t. So why not continue loving our nation? Live your life as you always have here: help our people, unintentionally cause half the city to swoon over you, perhaps even live long enough to one day hear Sucrose’s confession, who knows? The world is full of possibilities!”

Albedo looks at Kaeya. “Is love enough?”

“No, love is not enough,” Kaeya answers, and something in the sadness of his smile tells Albedo that he speaks from experience. “But, well... what can I say? I’m a sucker for a tragic love story.”

Even with an arm around Kaeya’s shoulder, Albedo struggles to keep up with his pace. For one who is terrified, terrified with the terror of ten thousand at the very idea of himself, he doesn’t exactly feel very strong right now. Definitely not a being that defies the very laws of Celestia above.

Still, Albedo knows that materials cannot be defined only by their one state in a singular given circumstance. “If I lose control,” he whispers to his prince, “if the sacred cycle finally punishes me for my defiance... will you stop me, then?”

“I have no idea,” Kaeya answers, and Albedo nearly chokes in disbelief. “Again, you’re the closest thing to godhood Mondstadt has ever seen. You could probably destroy us all in a flash. But, even if I can’t... perhaps you can find someone else who will.”

Kaeya flashes Albedo another easy smile. “After all, you’re a genius, aren’t you? I’m sure you’ll figure out a solution. Though... next time, if that solution rounds up to ‘freeze to death on a mountain’, please come talk to me instead.”

“I will, my prince,” Albedo promises, and the vast emptiness inside him is suddenly filled with all manner of things, like a cauldron brimming with a truly novel concoction. It is haphazard, flowers that burn to ash with ten thousand souls sharing a loving embrace all at once, but it is him, it is Albedo, and though he still cannot draw his own face, self-same cyan eyes and platinum hair as the life form he saw through the culture tank, perhaps one day he will; because his face may not be his, but the fullness within him is.

And as the two of them continue leaving footprints on the freezing snow, Albedo realizes that Kaeya is right: love is never enough. But it is something, it is love, and Albedo, well,

Albedo is enough.

-----

The first time Albedo feels happiness, it is when a traveler with blonde hair wields a cursed sword of Festering Desire, before reaching out to Albedo and daring to ask the alchemist himself to accompany them on their journey.

“Citrinitas is the final stage of the alchemical transmutation process. The meaning of the object being transmuted has finally been brought to light, becoming gold and revealing its true value...” The edges of Albedo’s lips curl up in a genuine smile, because in transmuting Albedo’s very power to such incredible heights, the traveler has proven that, in the end, there does exist one who can stop him, after all.

But such thoughts are for another day. Because now, Albedo is enough, the traveler is enough, and the swirling alchemy within Albedo’s hollow organs fill him with a wonderful warmth that he will one day realize is happiness. “I too have found my own meaning.”