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A Piece of the Puzzle

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1.

When it comes to the Chief Alchemist and Investigation Team Captain of the Knights of Favonius, there are many in Mondstadt who know his name, but few who know his face — and even fewer who know his true nature. 

Even after hearing about him and his incredible intellect from almost everyone, it takes months for Aether to actually meet Albedo face to face. And even then, they do not meet in Mondstadt. Aether wonders why a Knight of Favonius is so unknown by his people, why he would prefer the ruthless biting cold of Dragonspine over the warm winds of the city he supposedly resides in, why even those who have met him often do not know much about him.

“Paimon thinks he’s just busy,” Paimon says when Aether mentions his thoughts to her one day. They’re on their way to the Knights of Favonius Headquarters, to deliver a missive to Jean. Paimon’s cape flutters in the gentle breeze, as she taps her chin thoughtfully. “Or maybe he’s just bad at expressing himself? Like Master Diluc?”

Aether snickers at the mental image of Diluc’s scowl on Albedo’s face. “You think so?”

“Sorta? Like, have you ever seen him happy? Or sad? Or angry? Or, like, anything other than calm?”

Come to think of it…  

“But he’s not all brooding and frowny like Master Diluc,” Paimon continues. “He’s always really nice to everyone, isn’t he? Well, at least, when the topic of conversation interests him…” Her eyes widen. “Not that Master Diluc isn’t civil to everyone! But don’t you think Albedo’s not as…dark?”

That is true…people like Sucrose and Timaeus only ever have good things to say about their superior, and he’s overheard citizens gush about sketches Albedo gifted them. Not to mention those who close to him, like his little sister —

“Mister Honorary Knight! Paimon!”

Ah. Speak of the devil.

Aether and Paimon have barely entered the building when they are greeted by a streak of red, as Klee comes to a stop in front of him, beaming like a miniature sun. 

“Hi, Klee!” Paimon says brightly. “Do you know where Master Jean is?”

“Oh!” Klee bounces on her toes. “Master Jean is talking to someone right now. Something about Fa…Fa? Too? Skir…” 

“Fatui Skirmishers?” Aether supplies.

Klee claps her hands together. “Yes, that’s it!” 

“We can wait until she’s done, then,” Paimon says. “Oh, actually, we were just talking about your brother, Klee. Do you know why — ”

“Oh! Albedo!” Klee’s smile somehow grows even sunnier. “Do you want to see him? I can take you to see him!” And suddenly he’s being tugged forward, as Klee’s tiny hand wraps around his and pulls forward. “C’mon! It’ll be fun!”

“Wh — Klee, wait!” Paimon has to hurry forward, as Aether is forced into a run to avoid falling flat on his face. “At least don’t run!”

Klee, despite her enthusiasm, does at least listen to Paimon, slowing to a cheerful skip instead of a flat out sprint. She continues to chatter as they go down the stairs and through the hallway of — the basement? Aether didn’t even know the Knights of Favonius Headquarters had a basement. It’s as well-lit as the main floor, albeit gloomier in atmosphere— perhaps because of how few people are here. His footsteps contrast against Klee’s, a steady one-two to her pitter-patter, that echo down the empty hallway.

“Albedo’s the best!” she’s saying. “He works so much, but whenever he works here and has some free time he always takes me and Kaeya to lunch! When the weather’s nice we have picnics!”

“How often does Albedo work here?” Paimon asks, when Klee stops to take a mandatory breath. “Paimon never really sees him in Mondstadt…”

“Oh, he’s usually here! Or in the big cold mountains that I’m not allowed to go to yet! But when he’s here he stays in his lab for a really long time, at least until someone makes him take a break. Maybe if you come to this floor more, you’ll get to see him! And you’ll get to see me more, too!”

They come to a stop outside an ornate wooden door. Aether can’t hear anything from within. Albedo must have soundproofed the room somehow. 

“We should kn— ” Paimon begins, only for Klee to barge right in. 

“Albedo!”

Paimon sighs, exchanging a look with Aether. It’s almost insane how different the two siblings are. Where does Klee get her energy from? 

Albedo’s lab is incredibly spacious, its walls lined with endless shelves of books and glass vials and other miscellany he can’t even begin to identify. Compared to his camp in Dragonspine, it’s a lot fresher and cleaner in feel, most likely because of the lights hanging overhead that are far brighter than the lanterns and campfire combined. There are two worktables, one covered with papers and drawings and sketches, and another smaller one with only a notebook and two bottles of what look to be a part of some kind of experiment. 

At the center is a crafting bench, glowing with a soft blue light. Klee is there, head bowed in slight sheepishness, in front of…wait. What? 

“Now Klee, what did Albedo tell you about entering rooms unannounced?”

Isn’t that…?

“To knock and wait for an answer…” Klee’s pouting now. “I’m sorry. I was excited.”

“I understand, but next time — ” Kaeya looks up as Aether walks further in. “Oh, why if it isn’t our Honorary Knight and his companion! Did Klee bring you two here?”

“Yeah, uh — ” Aether scratches the back of his neck. What’s Kaeya doing here? Is it rude to ask? “Sorry, I was going to knock, but she kinda just ran off…”

“No need to apologize.” This time it’s Albedo who speaks, as he looks up from his work. “It’s good to see you all. Did you need something from me?”

Klee eagerly sets off in a retelling of the events leading up to now, while Albedo listens intently. Albedo looks…different, today. His face is as impassive as usual, but there’s something else — a warmth that lies beneath his expression like fire under clay, that softens his edges and brings hints of life to the forefront of his aura like a breath of fresh air. Is it because Klee is here? Or…maybe something else, too?

“A missive to Jean?” Kaeya turns away from Klee and Albedo’s exchange to face Aether and Paimon, fondness still lingering in his eye. “I’m headed to see her myself soon. She should be finished with her meeting by the time we get to her office, if we leave now.”

Albedo glances up at Kaeya. “Are you leaving?” 

“I’m afraid so. It’s around lunchtime, anyway. Why not head out with us?”

He hums, looking back down at the bench. “I suppose I could. Let me finish up here first. Aether, could you hand me that jar of Starsilver there on your right?”

“I can get it!” Klee bounds in Aether’s direction, standing on her toes to reach for the jar. “It’s this one, right?”

“W-wait, Klee, don’t! It’s too heavy for — ”

Klee yelps as the jar slips from her grasp, and all of them watch in silent horror as it breaks, shards of glass and Starsilver scattering all across the laboratory floor. 

There’s a moment of silence.

Albedo closes his eyes, taking in a long breath and exhaling slowly through his nose. Aether watches him closely, watching for any breaks in his calmness, but when Albedo speaks, his voice is quiet and steady. “Kaeya?”

“Come here, Klee.” Kaeya moves swiftly, immediately, scooping Klee up in his arms, nimbly avoiding stepping on any glass with his light footsteps. “Let’s get out of here, hm?”

“I-Is Albedo angry?” Klee’s lip quivers, looking near tears as she looks at the damage she caused. “I — I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break it, please don’t be mad…”

“I’m not mad.” Albedo opens his eyes, taking careful steps forward to pat Klee’s head. “You’re not in trouble. Just remember to be more careful next time, okay?”

“O-Okay.” Klee sniffs. “I won’t do it again.”

“I know.” Albedo smiles, then, a kind reassuring smile, one that Aether has never seen on him that must be specifically reserved for Klee, as he wipes her tears away with his thumb. “Why don’t you wait for us at Good Hunter? Kaeya and I will be right with you after we clean up, okay?”

“Everything will be alright, little Spark Knight.” Kaeya maneuvers his way towards the door. “Aether, Paimon, follow me. Careful not to step on the glass.”

It’s only after Kaeya leaves Klee in the hall to return to the lab, and Klee walks away significantly more somber than before, that Aether begins to wonder if Albedo is even physically capable of being angry. 



2.

“Huh? What’s all this?”

Aether can’t help but share Paimon’s confusion. They’ve walked this road to the Dragonspine Base Camp so many times, yet never has there been this much commotion present. Why are there so many Knights here? 

“Aether! Paimon!”

He catches sight of a familiar face running over to them, dressed warmer than usual, snowflakes still sticking in her hair. “Amber?”

“Dragonspine is closed until further notice.” She sounds slightly winded. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you two enter. I’ve been trying to escort people off ever since this morning, but the mountain’s so big, and it’s so much colder than I was expecting and I haven’t been able to take a break yet because we have to get everything done before the storm hits — ”

“Whoa, whoa, take a breath, Amber!” Paimon waits for her to catch her breath, before asking, “What storm?”

“Right, sorry!” She takes another deep breath. “There’s an incoming storm headed this way. We’re not sure how it arrived so quickly, but until it passes, we’re closing Dragonspine off for safety purposes.”

A storm? Aether glances past Amber, south of the mountain, and sees a mass of roiling black clouds and powerful gusting winds kicking up dust and turning the sky a terrifying grey. He lets out a low whistle. That’s one hell of a storm, all right. He can only imagine how much worse it will get in Dragonspine, where the weather is already abysmal. No wonder Amber and all the other Knights look so frantic. 

“We understand,” Paimon says, after she and Aether share a nod. “We’ll keep away.”

Amber exhales in relief, bending over and resting her hands on her knees. “Thank you. That makes my job so much easier.”

“What do you mean?” Paimon’s voice rises slightly in incredulity. “Are there people who’d want to go to the mountains during a storm?”

“Well, you’d be surprised…” 

Amber’s voice trails off, as her eyes flick not-so-subtly to her right. Aether follows her gaze, past the bustle of other Knights and adventurers, and spots two more familiar faces.

“Isn’t that Master Jean?” Paimon whispers to Aether, out of Amber’s earshot. “And…Albedo? Are they arguing?”

As Amber takes the valuable opportunity to rest and steady her breathing while she can, Aether and Paimon catch traces of the conversation. 

“...all due respect, this is ridiculous,” Albedo is saying. Aether can’t get a very good view of his face from this angle, but he can make out the hard set of his jaw and the indignation lining his tense shoulders. “I have time-sensitive experiments in my camp. I can’t afford to leave them for who knows how long.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t make any exceptions.” Jean sounds a bit tired, and the Knights surrounding her are very pointedly avoiding them. How long have they been at this? Aether begins to suspect that Jean may have been called as some kind of last resort. “It’s far too dangerous, even for a captain like yourself.”

“Surely I could visit for a quick second?” he hedges. “Just to collect the data? It will only take a moment — ”

“No exceptions,” she repeats firmly. “I cannot risk you getting caught in the storm, especially since it may come at any minute — ”

“But that research is incredibly important — ”

“Captain Albedo.”  

Albedo falls silent at the clear command in her tone. He crosses his arms, and for a long tense moment the two have their gazes locked, crystalline teal clashing with stormy blue grey. 

“Albedo.” This time, her tone is gentler. “There are people who care about you. Who would get worried sick if you get hurt. Think about them.”

Aether waits for a reaction — a snap, a fissure, an explosion from heat simmering below the surface…but, to his surprise, rather than continuing to fight, Albedo just sighs, his shoulders slumping in defeat.

“I understand.” Even his voice shows no trace of the anger Aether had expected. “I…I apologize for the trouble.”

Jean shakes her head. “If anything, I should apologize. I know how important your work is. But please know that I wouldn’t ask this of you if I had any other choice.”

A nod. “If you’ll excuse me…I should head back to Mondstadt.”

“Alright!” Amber straightens up, just as Albedo turns around and leaves. “I’m ready to get back to work! Time to — ” She pauses, catching Aether and Paimon’s quizzical expressions. “Is everything alright?”

“Uh — yes!” Paimon scratches her head. “Just…a puzzle we're having trouble with.”



3.

It’s rare to see Albedo in public during the day, so Aether is reasonably surprised when he runs into the alchemist in the plaza square just before noon. 

“Ah, hello, you two.” Albedo’s eyes only land on them briefly, before they return to sweeping his surroundings. “I don’t suppose you two have seen my sketchbook recently, have you?”

“No?” Paimon tilts her head, then gasps. “Is it missing? Did a hilichurl steal it again?”

“I…don’t believe that’s the case this time.” He crouches by the fountain for a moment, scanning the ground, before standing back up. “I had it with me this morning, when I was visiting Timaeus’s stall. I set it down and took my eyes off it for only a brief moment, but when I turned back, it had vanished.”

Albedo’s sketchbook? Aether’s heart twinges with sympathy. He’s said before that losing his sketchbook wouldn’t be something he’d fly into a rage over, but it must still mean something to him, if he’s putting this much effort into looking for it. And losing something he dedicated so much work and time to must be at least a little upsetting…right?  

“We can help you look for it,” Aether offers, with Paimon nodding emphatically. 

Albedo purses his lips. “Are you sure? I was told you have an important meeting with the Knights over the matter regarding the increased Fatui Skirmisher activity near Mondstadt.” 

“We still have a few hours before then, don’t worry!” Paimon chirps. “We want to help!”

“Then…if you’re certain. I would greatly appreciate it.” 

It takes them a long time, long enough for the sun to reach the apex of its trajectory in the sky. Aether and Paimon traverse rooftops and search bushes and question citizens on their knowledge of the book’s whereabouts until their throats run dry. It’s only after they reach Good Hunter in the hopes of getting a drink of water do they finally find what they’re looking for.

“Look over there!” Paimon points at the oven next to the Good Hunter stall. “Hey! What are you doing?!”

The boy crouching next to the stall jumps at her voice. Clutched tightly in one fist is a balled-up piece of paper. What looks to be the remnants of several other similarly crumpled papers burn in the oven, flames licking at their corners and edges. And in the boy’s other hand…is a smooth leather-bound book. 

“Excuse me.” Albedo steps forward. “That’s my sketchbook. May I ask why you’re destroying it in such a manner?”

“Frank!” 

They look up to see Sara running out from behind the stall. “When I asked you to find more kindling for the fire, I didn’t mean Captain Albedo’s belongings!”

“I-I’m sorry!” The boy drops the book and paper immediately, bowing his head. “It didn’t look important, so I…I just took it…I’m sorry! Please don’t hurt me!” 

He runs off before Albedo can even reply. Sara huffs. 

“I’m sorry as well, Captain Albedo,” she says, wringing her hands. “If I had known it was your book he was using, I would’ve stopped him sooner. I’ll make it up to you. Your next meal here will be on the house.”

“Ah — you don’t have to — ”

“I insist.” Sara clasps her hands together. “I have to get back to my other customers, but…if there’s anything else I can do, please let me know.”

Albedo is oddly silent, as Sara leaves. He picks up the sketchbook from off the ground, leafing through its pages, then looks at the oven, as the last of the sheets of paper burns to ash. 

“I’m sorry, Albedo…” Paimon says sadly. “If only we’d found it sooner.”

“It’s…alright.” For a second Aether thinks he catches a glimpse of a familiar figure on the sketchbook page Albedo has open, but the book closes before he can look again, as Albedo tucks it under his arm. “Like I’ve told you before, I don’t mind redrawing sketches I’ve lost.”

Aether looks back at where the boy had been crouching. It must sting to see your own art being ripped out and burnt to a crisp, much less hear someone call it “unimportant.” Granted it was just a child who probably didn’t know any better, but…is Albedo really not upset by that at all? 

“Can I ask you something?”

Albedo meets Aether’s eyes readily, the way he always does when faced with a question. “Of course.”

“How are you always so calm?” 

“You never seem upset or angry about anything,” Paimon adds, curious. “How is that possible?”

“Is that so?” 

Albedo looks up thoughtfully, the sky reflecting off his teal irises. Yet even when fully illuminated by the light of the sun, completely out in the open with no shadows to hide behind, all Aether sees is a mystery. A figure shrouded in questions, a puzzle that remains unsolvable…a glimmer hidden behind thick walls of blank chalk. 

“There’s not much that is worth angering over,” is what he says finally. “Not when almost everything can be worked out rationally and with reason.” 

When he smiles, it’s wry and crooked, as jagged as the ripped out page edges of his sketchbook. 

“I imagine that if you are to ever witness my anger, it will be when I explicitly choose not to use reason.”

He chuckles at Aether, who can only imagine what his face must look like right now. “Relax. Why would I ever do that?”

But Aether can’t help it. The image of Albedo, one of the most level headed people Aether knows, throwing all reason out the window by choice …it sends a chill down his spine. 

Aether decides then and there that he never wants to see Albedo angry. 



+1

 

It all goes so wrong so, so quickly.

One second, Aether is out on his last commission of the day, accompanied by Bennett, Fischl, and Kaeya, to clear out a small hilichurl camp. It’s a warm sunny day, and the journey to the camp is nice, the air filled with birdsong and friendly chatter (mostly between Bennett and Fischl) and the occasional tease from Kaeya at Paimon. The grass is tall here, and Aether can feel the tips of it brush against his fingers. 

It’s an easy commission. Easy enough for it to be feasibly accomplished alone, but Aether enjoys their company, and they were more than willing to assist him, so who is he to make things harder than they have to be? Their help just makes the commission even easier.

One second, everything is fine. 

The next second, Kaeya is yelling out a warning, and they turn around as twenty Fatui Skirmishers descend upon them with weapons blazing. 

Perhaps they could’ve won if they’d been prepared, or if they’d had a warning, or even the slightest of the battle that awaited them. But all Aether can remember is the near-petrifying shock of the overwhelming number of enemies, and the desperation behind every swing and parry, and the horrible sinking realization in his gut, as he catches sight of his teammates all barely fending for their lives, that they may not make it out of this alive.

One of the Bracers unleashes a wave of Geo, and Aether cries out as sharp rock slices into his sword arm. He staggers, grimacing, his arm so numb he can do nothing to prevent his sword from slipping through his fingers. But oddly enough, it’s through the haze of pain that clarity strikes him, as he realizes three things.

First, as he clutches his shoulder: the Bracer had not aimed to kill him. He could have aimed for his shot to be fatal, but instead went for Aether’s arm.

Second, as the Bracer turns away from him: the Skirmishers aren’t looking for a mindless fight. They’re here for something. Something that makes killing Aether and Bennett and Fischl a low priority in their minds.

Third, as he looks to where the Bracer aims his next shot: Kaeya, as he fends off several attacks at once, has come to the same realizations.

And, judging by the grim determination in his eye, he, unlike Aether, seems to know exactly what the Skirmishers are here for.

A bolt of panic shoots through Aether, and he surges forward, only to stop just short of the wall of Cryo that burst into existence between them in a flurry of snowflakes and frost. 

“Get out of here!” Kaeya shouts, more serious than Aether has ever heard him. “Go back to Mondstadt and get the Knights! The other captains!”

“But — Kaeya!” Aether looks over to see Bennett on the same side of the ice as him. Fischl is there, too, both of them paler than he’s ever seen them, although it could be due to the blood they’re losing from their injuries. Beyond them, the ice continues to stretch, as if intending to completely block off the entire field. “We can’t leave you!”

“I’m not letting you get hurt!” There’s a pained grunt, and through the ice Aether can make out the silhouette of Kaeya stumbling backwards. “Not when they aren’t here for you!”

“We — we cannot leave the good knight behind!” Fischl turns to them, her eye wide and pleading. “Is there nothing we can do?”

“I-I can try to melt the shields, but…” Bennett hesitates. “They look pretty strong…”

“It’s worth a try.” Aether knows this is a bad idea, and that they’re not really in any shape to continue fighting, but he refuses — refuses — to run away. Never again. “We’ll help. C’mon!”

Bennett slashes forward with his Pyro-imbued sword at the same time Aether summons a gust of wind to push it forwards. Kaeya’s Cryo is incredibly strong, but with their collective efforts, the wall begins to give way. Aether keeps going, ignoring the burning of his shoulder, praying to the Seven that they’ll make it in time…

But they’re too late.

The ice breaks, at the same time a Vanguard slams his hammer down. Kaeya tries to dodge, but his movements are sluggish after fighting for so long, and electricity arcs up his body and seizes around him. Another swing from a Bracer’s staff, and Kaeya falls. 

“No!” Aether yells. 

“We got him!” someone shouts, as two Skirmishers hoist Kaeya’s limp body up. “Let’s go!”

The three of them try to run forward, but the Skirmishers are faster. One throws down a smoke bomb, and by the time Aether’s sight clears, they’re already gone. Leaving nothing behind but smoke and Cryo and, courtesy of Kaeya, several incapacitated Skirmishers on the ground. 

Too late. It's too late. You weren't enough. 

Just like with her.

A bitter taste blooms in Aether’s mouth. The bitterness of knowing he has failed, once more, to prevent someone he cared about from getting taken away. 

 

---

 

“Thank you all for gathering on such short notice.”

Jean had summoned a meeting with the other Knights of Favonius Captains to discuss their next steps, only a few hours after the three adventurers had returned to Mondstadt. The only reason the meeting wasn’t immediate was due to the time needed to heal the three of them enough to be able to explain the situation coherently.

While Fischl and Bennett continue to rest, Aether is here at the meeting, seated with the other captains at the round table to fulfill his role as the Honorary Knight, listening intently as Jean explains the situation.

There’s a deathly silence, as the horrible news sinks in. Then — 

“They took Kaeya?”

When Aether glances over, Albedo’s expression is thunderous

Even Jean is taken by surprise at his change in demeanor. “Captain Albedo?”

Albedo stands, and the shadow he casts falls over the entire room. His teal eyes are rock hard, bright with fury, sparking like two flintstones being struck together. He almost seems to be glowing, as amber light glints off him and Geo energy curls around his fists, as if his elemental energy could no longer be contained. Or, perhaps, as if he had chosen for it to not be contained. 

“You said they were heading north, correct?” His normally smooth voice has gone as cold and dangerous as a steel dagger. “Before they used the smoke bomb?”

“What are you — ” Jean frowns. “Captain Albedo, you can’t — we need to exercise caution — ”

“It will be them who must exercise caution,” Albedo says as he turns around. “If they wish to survive what I’m going to do to them.”

The door slams shut behind him with finality. 

A murmur breaks out, as the other Knights whisper amongst each other. Every single person at the table is mirroring the same worry and confusion as each other. Because Aether is certain that, just as this is a first for him, it is also a first for them. 

Witnessing Albedo’s anger. 

“We should go after him,” Jean mutters, eyebrows pinched. “I’ll go. Honorary Knight, I hate to ask this of you when you’ve only just returned, but may I request your assistance?”

 

---

 

By the time they reach the Fatui base, after having tracked the Skirmishers’ route from the site of battle, the place is an absolute wreck. 

Defeated Fatui agents of all elements and ranks line the hallway, some still groaning as they bleed from deep gashes, some lying completely still. Solar Isotomas and Geo crystals are everywhere, on walls and floors and ceilings, pulsing with energy and casting golden light that tints the pools of blood with an unsettling hue. Every few seconds, as Jean and Aether continue through the facility, a stray Blossom goes off in an explosion of sparks and Geo, so powerfully Aether can feel it shake the ground he stands on. 

Walking into the final room, with the way his hairs immediately stand on end and the way the overwhelming darkness of the room settles over his skin, feels like entering a cemetery.

“You were after me this whole time, weren’t you?”

Albedo circles the last person in the room — a Pyro Agent, who had probably been their strongest fighter, now reduced to one knee — slowly, somehow still managing to look poised and elegant as he walks with one hand holding his sword and the other behind his back, despite the blood that stains his clothes and the murderous intent in his eyes. 

“All the increased Fatui activity we kept getting reports of around Mondstadt, and now this…” Albedo gestures around him. “Your intent from the very start was to get me, no? To kill me, perhaps? Or to take me as your prisoner?” 

“Albedo…” Jean whispers.

If he notices them, he does not acknowledge them. He keeps his focus on the Agent, as intense Geo power emanates from him.

“Well?” His eyes darken at the same time his voice does. He sounds almost mocking. “I'm here now, aren’t I? Isn’t this what you wanted?” 

The Agent growls, lunging for Albedo in what is too obviously a last-ditch attempt. Quickly, Albedo thrusts his hand out, and a surge of Geo crystals blasts the Agent backwards, sending him flying until there’s a resounding crack as his skull hits the wall behind him. 

He groans as Albedo approaches him, struggling yet seemingly unable to move. “You…will not get away with this,” he spits out, his voice rough and strained. “The Fatui — will — ”

“The Fatui ,” Albedo interrupts, stabbing his sword directly into the Agent’s heart, “will know to never come for my loved ones again.”

He rips his sword out, and the Agent keels over with a weak gurgle.

Aether, still reeling from everything that’s happened today, for some reason gets stuck on a particular phrase. 

Loved ones?

Love...

A weak cough from the other end of the room catches all their attention, as a severely wounded man, still in shackles, begins to stir. 

“Kaeya?” 

They all rush over, but Albedo gets there fastest, slicing through his shackles and gathering him in his arms before Jean even summons her healing magic. A warm breeze that smells of dandelions wraps around Kaeya, smoothing over his scorch marks and closing the worst of his lacerations. Which there are far more of than Aether remembered. Did they…torture Kaeya for information? The thought makes Aether feel slightly sick to his stomach.

Kaeya coughs again, opening his eyes as the last of the breeze dies down. Still injured, still too weak to do anything more than reach a shaking hand upwards that Albedo clasps in both of his immediately, still pale and bloodied…but alive. Albedo looks like he could sob.

“You’re safe now,” he promises, voice quivering with what can only be relief. “They’ll never come for you again. I won’t let them.”

That pulls a smile onto Kaeya’s face, as he gazes up into Albedo’s eyes, and they look at each other like they’re the only two people in the world. “I…don’t doubt it.”

Albedo’s eyes, once hardened and murderous, warm over like fire-heated clay, as he presses his lips to the back of Kaeya’s hand, and it’s only then that Aether finally puts it all together.

The reason Kaeya was in Albedo’s lab, more comfortable than Aether’s ever seen him, as if it were a second home…the reminder Jean raised of those closest to Albedo’s heart, that pulled Albedo back to Earth, that stopped him from throwing himself into the middle of the storm…the page in Albedo’s sketchbook, that Aether knows for certain now had actually been a sketch of Kaeya…the reason Kaeya had shouted at them to specifically get the other Knights of Favonius captains .

Aether’s not sure if he will ever fully understand Albedo. Not sure if he will ever uncloak all his mysteries or find answers to all his questions or see the true glimmer past the blank walls of chalk.

But as he watches the tender moment unfold, one of love and trust and the pure joy of being given the chance to see each other once more, Aether thinks a piece of the puzzle has finally clicked into place.