Actions

Work Header

Pain Comes in Many Forms (and so does Comfort): Whumptober 2021

Chapter Text

Klee was scared.

Klee has been scared before, but… Other times when she was scared, it would always go away. The scary thing would leave, the problem would be solved, everyone would be okay, and there’ll be someone there to hug her and be with her until she wasn’t scared anymore.

But… it’s been days, now, and she’s still scared. Klee wasn’t sure that she’s ever felt it this long, and now it was settled in her dreams and even in her body. She wasn’t alone, but…

Everybody was scared. Even if the grown-ups tried to pretend like they weren’t, it was starting to be obvious to even Klee. And Klee understood, because… because…

Mondstadt was taken over by bad guys. A lot of them. From what Klee could see, there were a bunch of big, masked men that were coming and going, and Amber said that they were the bad guys, and there were those fluffy monsters in the bubbles nearby too, more than Klee had ever seen before, and…

It had been so long. Nobody let her go back to the city and try to see what was happening, because it was scary and dangerous, but… But nobody came out of the city either. Albedo was in there. And Kaeya. And Jean. And Razor wasn’t, but Klee didn’t know where he was either. They were all super strong, but she’s never seen them take this long before.

Scary thoughts creeped into her head, and she wanted them out. She didn’t want to think about what it could all mean, but she thought about it anyway. Not for the first time, Klee started to cry.

She was in the middle of the camp—“refugee camp,” the grown-ups called it when they weren’t talking to her—when she started, so it didn’t take long for her to be noticed. For the first time, Klee hated it, because she wanted it to be better, not for the same people to try and comfort her.

“Oh, Klee,” Amber sighed, wrapping her arms around Klee readily. The hug was nice, but this time, it wasn’t enough. She felt bad, because Amber had been super nice this whole time, and Klee didn’t want Amber to think that she wasn’t happy that she was here, but Klee just wished that everyone could be here, because then Klee wouldn’t worry about them.

Amber had taken Klee exploring when it all happened, and when Klee had wanted to go see what was happening, she took her further up Stormbearer Mountain instead, meeting up with Miss Eula and her team. Klee had wanted to help, but everyone said that the situation was ‘really big’ and they needed more information first. That had been forever ago. Every time any of the knights left the camp in Stormbearer, they either came back empty handed, or with people from outside the city. Klee didn’t think much of it at first, but she began to be increasingly aware that… it was still too dangerous to go into the city. Klee couldn’t even look through the telescopes that they had, because the grown-ups needed them, and when they weren’t using them, they still said she couldn’t look.

This time, Amber didn’t try to tell her that everything was okay or that it was going to be okay. Klee wasn’t sure if she liked that or not. She did bury herself in the older girl’s arms though, because at least it helped a little. Still…

“I want Mom,” Klee said, the words muddled by her crying. But even if she couldn’t say it clearly, she wanted it all the same. “And Albedo. And Kaeya, and Razor, and even Master Jean.” The more people she thought about, the harder she cried. Still, she really, really wanted her mom. She was probably super far away, but she was always watching over her, right? Surely, she knew what was happening if it was so bad? So why wasn’t she here?

“I know,” Amber hummed, stroking her hair. She sounded a little bit like she was crying too. Klee didn’t want Amber to be sad either but… Klee didn’t really have the energy to cheer anyone up right now.

“I know…”

—o0o—

Eula was exhausted.

It had been nearly four days now, and they still weren’t anywhere close to the manpower they would need to launch a counterattack. They would probably never receive that kind of manpower, even if every refugee was willing and able to fight, because they lacked intelligence, too. Mondstadt had a good defensive position, situated in the middle of the lake, and that was a bad thing for them.

For reasons that Eula still did not know, the Fatui and the Abyss Order worked together to overthrow Mondstadt. The attack was sudden and internal. Somehow, a large number of forces teleported within the city itself. At first, Eula assumed that they used the waypoint that only Aether had been able to use for such means before, but from what little Eula had been able to glean, they weren’t treating the waypoints much differently than other gates and openings. It might have been through something else. Without better intel, there was little Eula could be sure of.

The day it happened, a loud noise erupted from the city proper. Eula’s team had been situated in the Stormbearer Mountains at the time, and when they saw smoke begin to rise from Mond, Eula had had a choice to make. On one hand, the city was clearly under attack, and as a Knight of Favonius, Eula was both willing and sworn to enact vengeance on any who would dare cross her nation. However, on the same hand, she had to ensure the protection of those outside the city too. In the end, she had to split her team to cover Springvale and the area around the winery. The Fatui were more interested in the city, but enemy forces were everywhere. Eula had been able to evacuate the staff of Dawn Winery, but Springvale was harder to reach. In the meantime, Eula had had to trust that the knights within the city would fight valiantly.

She was sure they did, but…it wasn’t enough. By nightfall, the city quieted. Fatui flags rose. Eula felt sick every time she looked at them, but she also knew that if the combined might of those within Mond had not succeeded, then her meager company wouldn’t have made much of a difference. At least by now, they evacuated most of the outer citizens—which was good, because Springvale and Dawn Winery were occupied now. Eula wished that she had been able to reach Springvale better, but as it was—between her knights and the town’s hunters—only a fraction of the city had successfully evacuated. They had been closest to the city, and the next to fall. A fight had started, but in the end, both she and the city’s leader, Draff, knew that retreat was the only way, otherwise, they would all fall.

The refugees gathered at Stormbearer, the one place that they had managed to secure. There were still adventurers and hermits out there, possibly, but most were gathered here by now. They couldn’t do much for the city, but they could rally the rest of Mondstadt to a safe place. Vengeance would have to come later. It would be terrible if there were more people she had to avenge.

Selfishly, she was glad that Amber had been on the outside, too. Eula wasn’t sure how she would have fared without her. She had fared well gathering people, because when people didn’t want to immediately listen to a Lawrence, they would listen to Amber.

Although in a strange way, that had…waned. Eula simply didn’t have the energy to fulfill any of the citizen’s expectations of her, but it seemed that they were in a likewise situation with her. In crisis, the people finally wanted to see her as a Knight of Favonius—likely since they weren’t many of them out here for people to turn to. Not everyone, of course, was willing, but it made it easier. Especially when other people were quick to blame the Lawrences for the fall of Mondstadt. Less, now, when it was clear that half of the clan was among the refugees, with their own wounds. There was still contention, of course—especially since both parties were loathed to share space with one another—but Mack and Vind had been helpful in buffering her from the needless complaints.

She had more important things to deal with.

There was still no word from Harry or Joyce, whom she had sent to Stone Gate in an effort to receive aid from Liyue. It would take a while to get there and back, of course, but she feared that they didn’t even make it that far. That would be the worst transgression they could commit against her at this time.

The more she gathered, from picking information from Fatui scouts to listening in on their encampments, the more she worried. The Harbinger Dottore had led the attack on the city, and even though she could only see the myriad of Abyss mages and their hilichurl entourages from the outside, whispers were that there were larger Abyss creatures inside the city. Ones even the Fatui skirmishers—built past the limitations of common man—were wary of.

There was also the…disincentive that their enemies left for the city and the refugees. Even without the telescopes, Eula could still see it clearly, burned into her mind like a sin, and this, she did swear to dole out due vengeance for, because it would not be forgiven.

The statue of Barbatos had its head and its hands removed. On the wings, objects were chained to the top: Jean’s sword and sword-belt, Kaeya’s cape, Albedo’s coat, Cyrus’s badged uniform, Master Diluc’s black coat… The Holy Lyre der Himmel, and a piece of green clothing underneath that Eula didn’t quite recognize. The message was clear. They had the key leaders of Mondstadt in their possession, and if Dottore’s reputation meant anything…then they certainly weren’t safe.

She was alone for the time being, so Eula allowed herself to lose her composure, dumping her head into her hands. If it was just the Fatui, then maybe…maybe their meager force could mount a surprise attack by way of infiltration. However, it was a Harbinger and the Abyss Order, including creatures that they had little to no information about. One report that one of her men had gathered was that of a creature with the stature of a man but twice the height, dressed in ornate robes and floating. They were still so many unknown variables, and Eula couldn’t safely find those unknowns without endangering what little people she had left. She probably already sent Harry and Joyce to die.

Besides, it was only a matter of time before they stormed the refugee camp. Already, Fatui scouts were getting closer, and they could only dispose of so many before their precise location became obvious. It would be safest, perhaps, to go ahead and retreat deeper into the mountains…but if they committed the manpower to that, then the idea of rescuing the rest of Mondstadt would be even farther away.

Eula wished it wasn’t her making these decisions. Anyone else, surely, would be better—more clearheaded and better at rallying the people. They could make cold-hearted decisions and they wouldn’t be blamed for it. They wouldn’t second-guess themselves as much. Eula wanted to be able to do what was best, but no option she could conceive didn’t look like a failure. She probably already failed. She knew that if she walked into the rest of the camp, her uncle wouldn’t hesitate to tell her that very truth.

“Hey, Eula,” a too-quiet voice spoke. She jerked her head upward, worried she let herself slip in front of the people she was supposed to be leading, but it was just Amber.

Amber…she had already slipped in front of Amber, before. The transgression had already been done, so Eula didn’t deem it necessary to compose herself quite so quickly.

“What did you find?” Eula asked.

Judging by the look on Amber’s face, always so perfectly candid, it wasn’t anything helpful or good. “More of the same,” Amber reported. “A couple of scouts were as far as Starfell though. None of them had climbing gear, so that’s at least something. But now they have complete control of the Whispering Woods, too. I couldn’t get far.” Amber twisted her glove. “Klee was crying again, too. I feel so bad that I can’t do anything to help her, and she’s still so young… She’s with Bennett and Diona, now, but… But Klee did get me wondering. Is there any way to contact Alice? I know she’s a loose cannon sometimes, but it would be nice to have a cannon, right about now.”

“If there was, I don’t know it, otherwise, I would have sent for her aid by now,” Eula sighed. “I would accept any help at this point, if it raises our chance for survival at least just a little bit.”

“Captain! Outrider!”

Eula rose to her feet at Bella’s cry, wiping the morose look from her face and settling into something plainer. Bella was in her company, so she deserved to have a proper captain, and not a mess of one.

“What is it?” Eula asked quickly.

There was a wild sort of look on Bella’s face as she panted, but when she looked up, she was smiling. “We have visitors!”

Eula and Amber hurried after her. For a moment, she wondered if Harry and Joyce had made it to get help after all. When she arrived, she quickly saw that it was not the Millelith nor her Knights—but this was easily just as well, if not better.

“Eula! Amber!” Paimon greeted with a cheerful wave. Aether was beside her, much more reserved, and Eula could spot the tiredness in his eyes, as well as the hints of bruises on his body. Wherever the Traveler and his friend had been, there had been recent fighting there, as well. However, he seemed to still be upright, and Eula was beyond grateful.

“Normally, I would consider this intrusion a slight against my abilities, but…” She coughed into her hand, her composition fading back into exhaustion. It was just Aether, anyway. She had plenty of opportunity to scare him away, but it had never worked before. “But we could really use your help.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, because that’s what we’re here for,” Aether said with a warm smile.

As a testament to Eula’s lacking capabilities, it was only when Aether said ‘we’ that she registered the fact that he wasn’t alone. Of course, the mysterious traveler had never been alone for as long as she knew him, since Paimon was always with him, but there was a young man seated on a stone behind him.

Eula was not the reconnaissance captain for nothing. Her memory was pristine, and she kept up to date on all information that could be relevant in future scenarios. Her training as an aristocrat was just precursor to what she compiled as a Knight of Favonius. She knew the names and faces of countless diplomats, aristocrats, and threats from all over Teyvat. So Eula knew, resolutely, that the red-haired man in gray was a Fatui Harbinger.

Her claymore was summoned, cryo tinged, and held to the Harbinger’s throat within the next second, eliciting the surprise of everyone present. She trusted that Aether had not meant harm, but the Harbinger could be using him nonetheless. “I will not overlook your transgressions, Fatui Harbinger,” she growled. Amber gasped beside her. “I know it is your people who committed this, and I will have vengeance for your schemes.”

The Harbinger—he was the Eleventh, she recognized—only raised his hands placatingly, undeterred by her honest threats. She studied him, looking for weaknesses, and she found that he looked as worn as Aether—if not more so. There were also bandages beneath the collar of his shirt.

“I know this looks bad,” Tartaglia started, eyes locked onto hers. “But I wasn’t a part of this.”

Eula scoffed. “Do you take me for a fool?”

“He’s right,” Aether interjected, pushing her sword arm back. “Not all of the Fatui were in on this.”

So Aether knew who Tartaglia was, then. Perhaps he did know exactly what he was doing. This felt wrong, still, but it was also the best opportunity for answers she had received in four days. Eula removed the claymore from his throat and settled it into the ground with a threatening thud. “Fine. But you best have a good explanation for yourself.”

Tartaglia and Aether shared a look, then Tartaglia began. “Everyone knows that the Fatui is Her Majesty’s the Tsaritsa’s personal vanguard, and that was true—for the most part. Many of the ploys that the nations scorned us for were the personal actions of individual Harbingers. Her Majesty allowed us reign so long as we did everything for Snezhnaya.” He shook his head. “But five days ago, the First—Pierro—he… he betrayed the Tsaritsa and implemented a coup. He had some of the other Harbingers on his side, a considerable amount of Fatui forces, and… And the Abyss. All of it. The Tsaritsa is powerful, but not even she stood a chance.”

“I was there when it happened, too,” Aether said softly, eyes distant as well. “It was chaos. The Abyss forces were so strong, it began to corrupt the land. The Tsaritsa was wounded, but she made the call to retreat. I had been there to negotiate with her, so I helped her people when everything went down.”

“Snezhnaya is lost,” Tartaglia reported, expressionless and haunted at the same time. “It was all we could do to get some people out of the country. They’re taking refuge in Natlan. Natlan was attacked as well, but their Archon and ours were able to stave them off and keep a defensive. Fontaine and Sumeru have refugees there as well.”

This was…very surprising, to say the least. “So you mean to tell me that the Fatui are acting independently of Snezhnaya?” Eula questioned.

Tartaglia nodded. “Some of them, at least. Pierro had apparently been in bed with the Abyss for… for centuries.” He scoffed to himself, some bitter thought in his head. “Only those loyal to him alone would be in with it. I would be willing to bet there are many Fatui in Mondstadt that were just as surprised as the rest of you—most try to get stationed in Mondstadt when they don’t really care about the upper politics of it all.”

Eula thought about some of the Fatui that she had been acquainted with, given her position as a knight. (She didn’t know nearly as much as Jean or Kaeya would, because she tried to stay away from the city, but it was something, at least.) There was Viktor, in the church, who always looked sad. There were those two that always stood around the fountain and gossiped. It was hard to believe that they would be a part of a violent and vicious takeover. She found herself believing the words of the Harbinger—if only because Aether vouched for him.

“Every nation in Teyvat has been attacked,” Paimon reported emphatically, and even though Eula was beginning to suspect that, her blood ran cold with the implications. “But the battle in between the borders of Natlan and Snezhnaya is the biggest! And in the Chasm. Sumeru and Liyue are both having to fight a ton of Abyss creatures over there. It’s so bad, even Dain is helping!”

Eula did not know who ‘Dain’ was, but he seemed to be important. Still, it confirmed that Liyue was just as bad. She hoped Harry and Joyce at least made it there safely, even if there wasn’t hope of coming back anytime soon.

“We just came from Liyue,” Aether explained. “They’re holding out well, even though humans still can’t get near the Chasm. They’re at least able to flank the Abyss on both sides, and Zh— Rex Lapis and Azhdaha have been wreaking havoc inside the mountain. They’re in a good spot, but we heard from Harry and Joyce that Mondstadt wasn’t. We would have needed to come here anyway, so we rushed as fast as we could.”

Harry and Joyce were okay. She could have sagged in relief at that alone, though she was glad that their neighbor was faring well. Mondstadt was still her biggest concern, but it was her job to be biased.

“I’m sorry,” Amber interjected. “But did you just say ‘Rex Lapis’? As in, the Archon that died?!”

Oh. Eula nearly missed that detail. (She needed to get a hold of her exhaustion, so she would not keep making that mistake.)

“Ohhhh yeah right, you guys wouldn’t know. Yeah, he’s alive,” Paimon confirmed, unbothered.

“He just retired,” Aether added. “He’s not as strong as before, but he’s in a better place than some of the other Archons.” He frowned to himself, grappling with something. Evidently, he decided to share. “They’re all weakened, actually. The Fatui had started gathering something they needed for the Archon seat a long time ago. Their power without it varies, but it has aided them in their invasion.”

“I…see.” Eula didn’t quite understand it all, but she understood the gist. She thought of the headless statue and the chained lyre, and now, she couldn’t help but to wonder if that meant more than a mere slight against the people of Mondstadt.

There was still much to consider, but for now, Eula needed to focus on action. With a practiced, invisible breath, she steadied herself. If she was to assume her role as strategist and commander, then it was of the upmost importance that she keep her composure in line. “It’s true, our forces aren’t in the best position, but with you here, we may be able to find a suitable plan.”

It was not befitting of her show desperation, but all the same, Eula desperately hoped that she was right.

—o0o—

Eula was right when she said that they didn’t have much to work with. If they had gotten as big of an army inside Mondstadt walls as Eula and Amber hypothesized, then they were certain to have several powerful Abyss Heralds on their side. Aether had already assumed that Mondstadt would be the second focus of the Abyss’ efforts—most of the Fatui being with Pierro in Snezhnaya—but this just confirmed it.

Their intelligence only goes as far as Springvale, and only as far as the Whispering Woods as of late, so they don’t have much on Wolvendom and Stormterror’s Lair. Aether, Paimon, and Ajax shared what they knew, because as they had suspected, it was crawling with the Abyss. Whatever they were doing was probably keeping Andrius and Dvalin at bay, and for any plan of theirs to be successful, they would need to be freed. Aether had regained a substantial amount of his original power—plus more, with seven elements at his control—but even he wasn’t foolish enough to believe that he would be that instrumental in taking back the city alone.

Truthfully, taking back the city had nothing to do with what he and Ajax needed to do in Mondstadt. When they were in Liyue, Dain had made it clear that if this was to be stopped, the fight would have to go to the Abyss itself. The only entrance suitable for entry through normal (safe) means was the one at Musk Reef.

Aether didn’t doubt that Musk Reef was guarded to the teeth, if the Abyss Order knew what was good for them. Disarming them at Mond would weaken them there by proxy, if they send reinforcements. It could also mean that the Abyss would abandon the city and guard it even more.

Regardless…Aether wanted to deal with Mondstadt first, and not just because he was stalling. (He could still see his sister next to Pierro. He still didn’t want to think about how she was waiting for him down there.) They’re in bad shape, and he hated it that they were getting hurt over this. Making so many friends along the way in his journey through Teyvat meant that he was currently out of his mind with worry, knowing that everyone everywhere was getting attacked, but it was worse here. Mondstadt had less to work with and… and Mondstadt had a special place in his heart. He would still go back to them even in the midst of his journey, because they were his first friends, and still, they didn’t treat him like some savior—just ‘honorary knight,’ and they said the title with the same fondness they did for anybody else in Mondstadt. Aether absolutely hated to think about how they were faring now. What was worst was that Dottore was the one keeping the city. Aether had met that man once, and once was enough.

“Are you sure this will work?” Amber asked uncertainly.

No, no he wasn’t.

“Of course!” Paimon responded. Aether smiled, because she had always been optimistic enough for the both of them. Stars knew that he needed that.

“I don’t know…” Ajax drawled. “I can’t help but notice that this plan of yours sidelines me as soon as we lift the gas suppressing Dvalin and go to the city. I can fight Dottore and those Heralds just as well as you can, comrade.”

Aether leveled his best deadpan at him. “Says the guy who’s been stabbed.”

Recovering from being stabbed,” he said easily. “That was days ago. This is now.”

“You need to save your strength for the next part of the plan,” Aether insisted, already tired just from thinking about it. “Besides, if there are a bunch of Heralds and Lectors in there, you’ll be useless.”

Ajax clutched his chest. “You wound me!”

“He’s right,” Eula cut in. “If what you two say about these creatures is true, then hydro wouldn’t fare well against either.”

Aether didn’t add the fact that Ajax still had his Delusion, though Aether wished he didn’t. What he said was true though—Ajax needed to save his strength. Honestly, he still wasn’t sure why Ajax offered to come into the Abyss with him in the first place. Aether didn’t deny that a guide would be instrumental, but it was obvious that Ajax had some misgivings about it. Having spent the last few weeks with him and his family in Snezhnaya, Aether could read him better. That bloodthirsty hunger that Childe had was still there, sometimes, but Ajax feared the darkness too. All those close calls with his family, being there when Pierro attacked the Tsaritsa… Aether knew that Ajax was still shaken by that. All that talk about desiring to go back into the Abyss seemed hollow.

They needed all hands on deck to hold back the Abyss while they freed Dvalin from the gas keeping him asleep, so that couldn’t be helped. Aether was confident that Dvalin could be in fighting condition soon—and willing. Andrius was a different story, though it would be great if he could cover Springvale. Still, with Dvalin, Aether could take some allogenes and mount an attack inside the city to draw everyone’s attention, while the rest of the company frees the prisoners. From there, taking back the city should be fully possible. He hoped that Ajax would take the backseat role, but then again, that was probably hoping for too much.

“Klee’s coming too!”

Everyone present snapped their heads to the side, where Klee burst into the tent. They tried to keep the initial planning under wraps for reasons just like her, so they could work through the unpleasant details before filling in the masses.

Bennett ran in after her. “Sorry! Sorry. I tried to keep her occupied, just like you said Captain Eula, but I tripped and when I got up, she was gone!”

Aether’s heart snapped a little when he looked down at Klee, tear-stained with deadly confidence in her eyes. “I’m going to help too. I have to. My bombs will help.”

“Klee,” Amber admonished. “I already told you, you’re going to have to leave the fighting to the big kids, okay? You’ll have the super important job of staying here and watching over the camp.”

Klee’s lip wobbled dangerously. Aether didn’t blame her. Aside from Alice, her whole family was in there—probably in a terrible position, knowing Dottore. And Alice was in the thick of it with Skirk, maybe even in the Abyss. There was no way that Klee knew the worst of it, and if she was already this upset, then Aether didn’t want her to know anymore. However…she was strong. Not for fighting people, but maybe, for the Abyss.

No. He couldn’t think like that. He remembered when she cried after killing an Abyss mage. She may be worried, but Aether knew that nobody here wanted Klee to gain any of their trauma.

“My, my, what a brave girl!” Ajax said, and suddenly, he was crouching next to Klee. Eula and Amber alike tensed, and even Paimon frowned, but Aether saw the merit in this. A week ago, he would be worried, but Aether knew that Ajax wouldn’t do anything reckless with Klee now. Not after Tonya almost died. “You know, I hear you’re quite the warrior.”

Klee nodded fiercely.

“Warriors are needed everywhere, and the best warriors always protect the castle. It’s because you’re an amazing warrior that you get to stay here and watch over your people.”

Klee nodded again, more slowly. “Klee…thinks she understands. I have to protect the re-fu-jeez from the bad guys, right?”

Ajax nodded sagely. “Atta girl.” He looked over his shoulder, partially at Aether, but more at Eula. “The Fatui will try to regain leverage by coming here, when we storm the city. I’ll be here with her, then.”

It was clear that Eula still didn’t have the best opinion of Ajax, because she frowned, before looking over to Aether. He inclined his head. If there was anyone here who could protect Klee, it was him. It also meant he wouldn’t be in the thick of battle, and honestly, Aether was relieved. It would be the best for both of them.

“Very well,” Eula acquiesced.

With that settled, they continued ironing out the plan. After that, they rested.

Come dusk, it would begin.

—o0o—

“I doubt pacing a hole in the floor is an adequate means of escape,” Lisa drawled. “The building is old, sure, but give it a little credit.”

Diluc scowled at her—one of those character defining scowls that was so intense, it nearly made Lisa giddy with excitement. (Though perhaps that was the delirium. Who knew?)

“I’m just thinking,” he snapped at her. “Unlike you, I’m trying to be productive.”

“Think quieter, please,” Jean whispered. Diluc deflated almost instantly, and Lisa frowned.

She pulled herself off of the floor and carefully sat next to her. Jean was laid out on the one cot that the cell had, because she was undeniably the worst off. The concussion that she sustained worried Lisa the most, but there was so little that they could do to help. The best Lisa managed was to gently rub her temples, using her palms like compresses. It absolutely didn’t help that the gash on her leg was infected, too. The fever was doing her no favors, other than the fact that maybe, just for once in her life, Jean was startlingly honest.

The invasion was past. Nobody saw it coming, and half of the Abyss just…appeared in the middle of the city. They flooded in with Fatui alike, and it was amazing that they lasted even a few hours.

All of the problematic people were incapacitated and rounded up. Mondstadt didn’t really have a large prison, so they were fairly squished in. It was mostly knights, rowdy adventurers, and absolutely anyone with a Vision.

almost everyone with a Vision. Of those who were certainly inside city walls, she knew at least Kaeya and Albedo were missing. Lisa was never one to pry, but she also knew her history well, as well as her science. The correlation was disturbing. She knew Diluc and Jean felt it too, and there was no use thinking about it when they couldn’t do anything, but…

Well, there wasn’t much else to do. They were stripped of their weapons and Visions, and even half of their clothes. They were locked in a cell, wrists still manacled in front of them like holding their hands more than a foot apart was a threat to those outside, and any sign of resistance was met with force. Diluc had certainly tried to, at force, but the deal became obvious: they behaved like good little children, or the Fatui were no longer interested in providing them with food or what meager medical supplies they were willing to provide for Jean.

They had to behave, or they wouldn’t all make it.

She, Jean, and Diluc all shared a cell. One of the more spacious ones, towards the front—where the prison was more closely guarded, of course. Lisa was honored that they thought her important enough to be kept with the other important city figures, though she would have preferred if they underestimated her instead. Alas, it was a problem that Lisa was all too used to.

“There’s going to have to be a turnover,” Lisa mused aloud. “If they intend to use us as sacrifices.”

Diluc snapped his head towards her so fast, she thought the bruise on his cheek was going to fly at her. “What did you just say?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” she pressed. Lisa was sure it wasn’t—not to him, or even to Jean for that matter—but teasing him was all she had. She didn’t much like the idea of dying while she wasn’t her usual self, so she had to hold onto whatever she could. “Why else would they keep us alive?”

“As a method of keeping the people in line,” Diluc answered easily. “We’ll be used as examples if they buck the Fatui’s control.”

“But what about the Abyss?” It was just like lecturing students—you couldn’t give the answers outright. They had to figure it out while you guided them, so it would sink in better. Her knowledge was a terrible thing to internalize, and that was why Lisa simply never shared. What she gave now was courtesy, because despite her lack of show, Lisa very much did not want to die. Her ambitions might have faded, but she still had plenty to live for—even if that was merely the joys of life itself. “They have no interest in ruling cities, yet they’re here. And they even showed interest in us. Don’t you find that odd?”

Diluc frowned, mulling over her words. Jean shuddered slightly beneath her. Lisa stroked her hair gently, doing her best to pull her back to sleep instead of her trying to listen. She was so hot, and the stress would only make her fever worse. It was a testament to her condition that Lisa’s attempt was successful.

Yes, it was quite difficult to forget their ‘visitor’ the other day. If it wasn’t under such dire circumstances, Lisa would have relished the opportunity to study it in action, for it was a creature of the Abyss never before seen by those in daylight. They had purple robes and a surplus of electro energy, mangling their form and even their voice. Though her Vision was no longer by her side, Lisa could withstand their peering presence far better than the other occupants of the hall could.

They had rambled to themself all the while, obviously pleased with the ‘specimens.’ They had made note of the Vision holders, too, and mentioned keeping them alive.

“It’s true that the Abyss never seemed interested in anything but destruction before,” Diluc admitted. He was getting there. “But they could care simply for their partnership with the Fatui. Although, that partnership doesn’t make sense. I thought even the Fatui were better than that.”

“Ah, but they have one goal in common, don’t they?” Lisa pointed upwards. “The gods. The Fatui have spent the past year weakening the Archons, and the Abyss has always made their hatred of Celestia known.”

“So what? They’re just pissed that we received their favor? Are we their public example then?”

“Perhaps.” Lisa shrugged, doing the best to keep the weight of it off of her shoulders. “But ask yourself this—what kind of power do you think it will take to kill the gods of the gods?”

—o0o—

In a moment of pure indulgence, Kaeya spit at him.

Dottore slapped him, of course, but a wild and vindictive part of his brain was overjoyed that at least one of the red stains on Dottore’s stupid white coat was inflicted without his approval.

“Watch yourself, Khaenri’ahn dog,” the man hissed irritably. “You’re only useful if you amuse me.”

“Ah, ah,” Kaeya tutted. “I watch it…with the… with the slurs, if I were you. What—what would your boss think?”

That one earned Kaeya a yank by the chain around his neck, the metal choking him into a coughing fit. That was…that was fair. It was a sore spot, he was sure. To think that the First Harbinger had been a Khaenri’ahn plant this whole time? Kaeya never even guessed. It took hearing Pierro’s birth name from some Herald to put the pieces together; he had been the same man that his father had practically worshipped. It was probably a recent discovery for dear Dottore, too, but the man was crazy enough to even work with the Abyss for power and opportunity, it seemed.

Dottore went ahead and hooked him back to his post while he was hacking, and what a pitiful little spot it was. Chained by the neck to the wall, and by the wrists to the floor. The one solace was that he could at least sit comfortably, with his legs free even if he couldn’t stand, but the position rigged in the corner of Sucrose’s lab made him feel even more pathetic than he already did. He did his absolute upmost not to let Dottore know that, but it wore on him all the same.

Kaeya had known that the Abyss Order was up to something. They were moving around and moving back towards the gorge. He had been investigating it, and still, he was blindsided by the attack. He hadn’t even known some Lectors could show up in daylight, never mind that they and an army of Heralds and miscellaneous mages would come with Fatui forces.

Though the Fatui were obviously split. When it happened, the raw shock on the faces of the Fatui stationed in Mond were enough to clue Kaeya in on that, even in the midst of all the chaos. The lack of available information on that front made more sense, but it still pained him that he hadn’t been able to pick up any sliver of a clue that this was going to happen before it did.

This was the invasion that he had feared since he was a child, and Kaeya had been able to do so little against it. That thought alone made him feel more worthless than anything Dottore did to him. He had suspected that the Khaenri’ahn remnant had started working with the Abyss Order based on intel he had gathered over the years, even though when he was a kid, any Khaenri’ahn turned monster was disposed of. They weren’t always killed outright though, even when it would have been easier, so that was perhaps the first clue.

Still, a part of Kaeya had hoped that when the day for the invasion approached, he would be contacted. Sure, his blatant disregard for the Abyss Order was a factor, but he was also a knight: it was his job to fight them. Besides, he had never been explicitly told of the connection, so he couldn’t be blamed. Alas, one way or another, they must have correctly guessed that Kaeya had no intention of helping them—the opposite, rather. He was almost touched that his loyalty to Mondstadt was so obvious, but it only meant that he hadn’t been able to warn them. So it was to Mondstadt’s detriment, he supposed.

“Lick your wounds, dog,” Dottore sneered when he stopped coughing, all too pleased with himself. “I’ll be back for you later.”

All Kaeya managed to do was glare. He regretted not doing more, because for every moment Dottore delighted himself in making Kaeya miserable, it was time he wasn’t spending poking at Albedo. Or Venti for that matter. (Barbatos, his mind supplied, almost deliriously.) Though it was painfully obvious that Albedo was the mad scientist’s favorite toy. Kaeya was almost glad that he couldn’t see whatever was happening, but since the noise stopped, Kaeya couldn’t reassure himself that Albedo was even alive.

After the siege, the Fatui took over the Knights of Favonius’s headquarters. He was fairly sure the Abyss Order took residence in the Church, and he didn’t doubt that it was tainted with Abyss poison beyond belief by now. Dottore, the ever-illustrious Harbinger, didn’t even bother to set up base in something obvious, like the Grandmaster’s office. It was evident that his interest in this invasion wasn’t political power, like having his own nation to rule, but rather, his sick twisted sense of science. He set up residence in the basement, down in the alchemy labs, rearranging their offices and adding his own machinations and remodeling.

Kaeya hoped, in the event that this nightmare ever ended, that Sucrose would forgive him if he never entered her lab ever, ever again. Dottore had dragged her desk to the center of the room and turned it to his own desk and table. He came equipped with his own instruments of ‘science’ (torture, more like) and modified the room to his liking. Kaeya’s lovely new living arrangements were courtesy of this, of course, because Sucrose’s lab had been normal before, if not filled with copious amounts of protein bar wrappers.

He also drained her tank—the one that she had been using to cultivate her crystal fly solution, that they used to craft a sturdier form of glass. Kaeya had never thought of how large the tank was until Dottore pumped it with something else…and then left Venti in there. Tubes were inserted into his body—and…into his wings—and a mask was strapped to his face, but he remained unconscious in the liquid all the same. Sometimes, Dottore would put something else in there, and he might even twitch or groan, but other than that, he was just left there.

Kaeya had had his suspicions, of course, but it was odd to think that he was cellmates with Barbatos. (It was also weird to think that he and Barbatos had been drinking buddies, once.) It only made his position all the more bizarre.

And he was pretty sure his ‘position’ was simply amusement for Dottore. Kaeya would have been certain that the Abyss Order would have delighted in some public execution for him, traitor that he was, but evidently, they knew that tossing him to Dottore was a worse fate. It might have also been to appease the mad doctor as payment for helping them. Kaeya knew that all three of them were juicy specimens for someone obsessed with pushing human limits, though Kaeya also had the feeling that his ‘tests’ on him, as well as all of the insults, was just extra payback for all the times that Kaeya antagonized him, back when Dottore had been an ambassador to Mondstadt. The Harbinger certainly knew that Kaeya and Diluc had pulled one over on him, but he seemed more upset with Kaeya, because Diluc wasn’t here. He took it as a small mercy, though Kaeya wasn’t completely sure what it meant.

Dottore left through the adjoining door, the one that led to Albedo’s lab. Albedo was being kept in there, in what Kaeya was sure was even worse irony than what Kaeya was subjected to. Albedo’s lab was bigger, and better equipped; Kaeya didn’t like to consider all the ways Dottore used that to his advantage. And with Albedo being…whatever it was that he was (hey, Kaeya might have been Khaenri’ahn, but he was no expert in Khemia, even if Albedo’s off-ness was obvious to him ever since he knew the guy) would have only encouraged Dottore more.

As per the usual, Kaeya took the moment alone to test the restraints. They were hastily applied to the floor and wall, so they weren’t the most stable. He had been making progress on the floor one, being the hub that Kaeya could reach better. Not that he was in much a condition to do anything, should he break them. Dottore, unfortunately, had not been kidding when he told him to ‘lick his wounds.’ Kaeya’s arms still felt like they were on fire. They had been, of course. Dottore wanted to test the ‘susceptibility of flames on those affected by cryo long-term.’ Kaeya could have told him that yes, pyro was definitely worse on him, but it wasn’t like the Doctor would take his word for it.

Kaeya would have preferred if he went back to zapping him with Abyss poison, watching as his stupid eye blocked everything but the pain. The fire experiments were…much worse. Kaeya knew that he should take the salve Dottore threw at him yesterday and fix it, but that meant thinking about it, and Kaeya…wasn’t quite ready to do that. Kaeya had enough experience tending to burns for a lifetime, and he wasn’t keen on overextending that quota. No matter how hard he tried to psyche himself out of it, the burning of flesh always took his mind back to that surety he was going to die—and sometimes, even the acceptance of it. He hated it, because Kaeya should have moved on from that, especially since he and Diluc were on better terms nowadays, but his emotions weren’t as finely reigned as he would have liked.

After his routine jiggling of his bonds, Kaeya took the moment to lean his head against the walls and close his eyes, trying to simply…not exist, for a while. Scheming various ways of getting out was a delightful pastime too, but he was tired. Kaeya knew, resolutely even without evidence of Albedo’s state, that he was the most functioning ‘test subject’ down here. He needed to keep his strength up, even if that meant succumbing to Dottore’s games.

(Diluc probably would have starved himself by now. It was another reason why Kaeya was glad that it was him down here, and not his brother.)

He wasn’t sure how long he stayed like that, but he had dozed partially, because the shaking of the walls woke him in a heartbeat.

The headquarters was an incredibly stable building, and whatever just happened shook the foundation itself. It was similar to how it felt when the Abyss came down days ago, but there was no way that they would do that again.

Even through the wall, he could hear the swearing of Dottore from the other room, and the slamming of the door. Kaeya smiled viciously to himself. Whatever was happening, it scared the Harbinger. Good.

Kaeya had thought through countless plans, and even though they all were shaky at best with very low success rates, he was ready. This was probably the one opportunity he had to make anything count. Kaeya took the chain connected to the floor in both hands, leveraged himself against the wall with his foot against the base of the chain, and he pushed.

The sound of metal cracking open was possibly one of the most satisfying sounds he had heard in a long time.

—o0o—

Even through the thick walls of the prison, Sucrose could hear the sounds of battle. Timaeus heard it too, which was a testament to the decibel levels created by the clashes, because Sucrose’s hearing has always been better then most. She…sort of wished that it wasn’t, because it wasn’t good enough to distinguish friend from foe; all she could hear was the tell-tales sounds of screaming and battle cries. Sucrose pressed her ears against her skull unbidden, terrified that the battle wasn’t a good thing. She desperately wanted it to be a good thing, but… but it was a hard thing to quantify. The majority of Mondstadt’s strength was already imprisoned, so she couldn’t count on their rescuers to fare any better than they did.

She wasn’t much of a fighter herself. She knew that. Sucrose had learned her way around a catalyst mostly for her experiments, and when it came to field work, she just barely passed the benchmark that the Knights of Favonius’s supporting forces needed to reach. The only time she found herself in combat situations was when collecting ingredients, because occasionally, there would be trouble.

Silently, Sucrose swore to herself that if the impossible was achieved, and this nightmare ended, she would change that. She would train more. She just…never wanted to feel that useless again.

(She never wanted to have to watch Albedo struck down protecting her, ever again.)

“Hey, I’m sure they’re coming for us,” Timaeus said, not for the first time. He could hear less of the chaos, and he was still hopeful.

Sucrose wouldn’t begrudge him this, especially when she wanted to believe the same thing, so she nodded.

When the door at the end of the hallway imploded, Sucrose was certain everyone heard it clearly. Timaeus positioned himself in front of her, and she hated it, even as she cowered there. If one more person was hurt because of her… No, Sucrose didn’t think she could bear it.

The cell doors, attached to an emergency release mechanism, swung open simultaneously.

“Rescue has arrived!” the loud voice of Amber declared, echoing down the hall. Sucrose had never been more relieved to hear a voice in her life.

There was a jangle of keys, and a voice that Sucrose didn’t recognize called, “Unlock yourselves quickly, and bring the injured to me.”

Amber continued. “We have everyone’s Visions and weapons secured. Those fighting fit, come with me.”

Those imprisoned, for the most part, were efficient in the ways of duress. Noelle and Barbara hurried to the front to help who Sucrose later recognized to be Diona, and everyone made way for them and the injured. They had their Visions returned to first, and they got to work.

The prison was not large, but it was large enough to establish working order. Diona had temporarily frozen them in, in case they were pursued, so everyone would have the chance to catch their bearings before going into the fray. Sucrose was not confident that she would be helpful in any capacity, but she was willing to do whatever was needed.

Master Diluc had assumed charge alongside Amber. Acting Grandmaster Jean was critically injured, and Sucrose hadn’t realized it—being situated in the back of the prison—but Captain Kaeya was still missing. Albedo was as well, but she knew that all too well. Diluc may not be a knight, but he was decisive and easy to follow.

Timaeus helped her unlock her shackles and she aided him in turn. Diluc appeared down at their end of the hall, doing his rounds.

“Mona,” he said, addressing the hydro Vision wielder that had been nearby. “Can you scry the locations of our missing men? As well as that damn Harbinger, if you could.”

The mage frowned, a look of tired concentration adorning her face. “I can try, but these things can’t be rushed.”

While Mona swirled intricate hydro circles in front of her, Diluc turned to Sucrose and Timaeus. “You two. Amber told us that in order for their counter-siege to work, there was going to be a lot of inclement air conditions. What are the chances that you can produce temperature shields for the citizens? Especially one for the guild’s headquarters. As well as anything to keep the buildings structurally sound, really.”

It made sense that people would be sheltered there. It would be large, but not actively occupied. It was…long and moderately high. Sucrose ran the numbers in her head.

“Heat or cold?” Timaeus asked, startled.

“Both.”

“It’s p-possible,” Sucrose confirmed, her brain struggling to stay in an alchemical mindset. Yet, it was more comforting than any other mindset. “But I’ll need the lab.”

“Then you’re in luck,” Mona said, though she sounded morose for such an optimistic statement. The woman wiped a sheen of sweat from her forehead. “That’s where three Vision wielders are. As for that Delusion-headed phony, he’s in the middle of the plaza.” Mona cracked a smile, and it was terribly vindicative. Sucrose might have been worried about the expression under any other circumstance. “He left the headquarters and ended up there, but he’s not much of a threat, presently.”

Three… Surely, that included Captain Kaeya and Captain Albedo, but who was the third? Still… they were in…the lab? Sucrose couldn’t think of many benign reasons why the Fatui or the Abyss Order would want them down there.

Diluc went rigid too.

Perhaps Sucrose was foolish, still guilty over her shortcomings, but she found herself speaking before thinking it through.

“I’ll go.”

She needed the lab for the potions. She also, desperately, needed to make sure that Albedo was alright. The others too.

Timaeus startled beside her. “H-hey, just because the Harbinger left, doesn’t mean it’s still not guarded, or something. It could be dangerous!”

She clutched her Vision, feeling the catalyst behind it and her heart in her chest. “I-I know.”

“I’m going with you,” Diluc said, red eyes hard. Sucrose didn’t know Diluc well, but she was immensely grateful all the same.

Diluc thanked Mona and rushed back to the front. Sucrose hurried after him.

“They’re in the lab,” Diluc reported to Amber. “Sucrose and I are retrieving them. I trust you can handle this, Outrider?”

Diluc said everything so matter-of-factly. Idly, Sucrose wondered if he had thought through all of the complications that their mission could undergo, but his confidence was nearly infectious all the same.

Amber took in the news with wide eyes. “Y-yeah,” she replied, a little uncertainly. Sucrose couldn’t begin to understand the pressure that the Outrider was under. She was overwhelmed with her part, and it was much smaller. (So Sucrose told herself.) “I got it.”

Lisa looked up to them with the most serious expression Sucrose believed she had ever seen the librarian wear. “I’ll help her. You two hurry.”

They did. Diluc melted a way out of the room, and she could hear someone refreezing it behind them. The prison had already been cleared out of guards, and Sucrose tried not to look at any remnants too carefully.

For the first time in days, Sucrose was outside, hot on the heels of the Tavern Master, wielding a claymore expertly and ready for the battle. The battle outside was not their directive, but it was distracting all the same. Unbidden, her eyes carried her to the plaza, and she knew without looking that it caught Diluc’s attention as well.

Stormterror—or rather, Dvalin—hovered above the city angrily, a torrent of wind settled over it like a shield and a cage. Abyssal creatures that Sucrose could only begin to comprehend were fighting him, tooth and nail. Alongside Dvalin, in the sky and carried on what she could only assume were crystalline wings, was the Traveler. A myriad of elements swirled around him and his sword, and if they weren’t in the middle of a crisis, she would give anything to figure out how he did that.

Diluc blinked out of the shock faster, and he grabbed her by the wrist and urged her forward to the Favonius headquarters next door.

There were a few Fatui guards in the HQ, though Sucrose imagined based on their expressions that they were only there because they didn’t want to be outside. Diluc made short work of them. (She wondered if they were still alive, but she pressed on anyway.)

The bottom levels of the headquarters were labyrinthine by design. It made the alchemy lab more secure, both from the outside and to the remainder of the building. Diluc followed her now, and even though the hallways were the same, her body recalling the path with ease, the pit of her stomach labeled them foreign.

Her lab was the closest, but the door was locked. Sucrose didn’t have her keys, and for a moment she panicked, but Diluc kicked the door down with strength that rivaled even Varka’s.

Something sharp whizzed past them, and Sucrose ducked with a short cry.

“Diluc?!”

That was Kaeya’s voice. She had to hold herself together. Sucrose looked up right as Diluc yelled “Kaeya!” and…she wished she hadn’t.

It felt like an intrusion to look. She also felt violently ill. Broken chains hung from his wrists and neck, and his exposed torso and arms were… Horrendous didn’t even begin to cover it. Sucrose would have liked to attribute it to injury, but it was much too methodical. She swallowed down bile and looked to his face instead. It wasn’t much better. His hair was loose and unkempt and… And his eyepatch was gone.

She had always wondered what had happened to his eye, but she knew it would be rude to ask. Or, rather, he would spout a nonsense story whenever someone did ask. Perhaps… That was why. His eye was almost completely black, and in the stead of his pupil were bits of white like stars.

The one normal eye was expressive enough, and compared to his usual composure, she almost found that worse than everything else. Kaeya looked from Diluc to Sucrose, and when his eyes landed on her, there was clear sorrow. She hated to consider what that meant. However, his eyes snapped away to the tank beside him and…

“Help me get him out,” Kaeya commanded, desperate.

This time, Sucrose did get sick. She barely made it to the waste basket she kept by her door. There was nothing but water and prison porridge in her system, but she purged it anyway.

There’s a person in her crystalarium tank.

She could hear Diluc and Kaeya mess with it, muddled curses under their breath, and with shaking hands, she turned and fumbled through the proper controls to drain the tank. Kaeya and Diluc manage to pop the lid off, and Diluc climbed up the ladder and started to pull the… the occupant out. If the living nightmare wasn’t nightmarish enough, it wasn’t until the form was removed that Sucrose truly focused on who it was. Teal marks on the skin, twin braids, long white wings attached to the shoulder blades…

Barbatos. Barbatos was in her crystalarium tank.

She must have swayed, perhaps even losing consciousness momentarily as her brain attempted to process the surplus of negative information, because the next thing she knew, Kaeya was gripping her by the shoulders, steadying her. Sucrose felt a flash of shame. She was the uninjured one. She was supposed to stay strong. She had promised herself she would do better.

“Where’s Albedo?” she questioned, voice strained. She fully intended to make the reagent that the resistance has requested, but she also came to ensure her superior’s safety.

Kaeya didn’t immediately respond, and that alone worried her.

“He’s not decent right now,” was all Kaeya said, voice equally strained.

No, she should be strong. They shouldn’t need to shelter her. “Is he alive?” Sucrose questioned further, ready to demand information.

“He’s alive,” Kaeya responded readily enough. “But…he can’t be moved anytime soon. He told me he could fix it, if I focused on getting out Venti, but…”

The silver-tongued Calvary Captain was at a loss for words, and that was enough to inform her that Albedo’s condition was dire. However, if he was alive, and alive enough to be conscious… then Sucrose took solace in that.

She wanted to go to Albedo anyway, make up for her failings all those days ago, but Sucrose also knew that she was the only one who could start the alchemical process. “I’m going to make the shields now,” she said, forcing herself to enter work mode. It had never been a struggle before this event, but once she managed to set her mind on nothing but numbers and reactions, it’s…easier. Easier to breathe.

“Okay,” Diluc said, somewhere behind her.

Her lab is rearranged—tainted—but Sucrose ignored it. Because she had to. There were people that needed her, and she would not fail anyone again.

—o0o—

Diluc knew of Dottore’s reputation, and he had braced himself for the worst…but nothing could truly stop the anger that flared in his chest when he laid eyes on his brother.

Kaeya should never look that shaken. It was just wrong. And…and his injuries. Diluc had a good idea of what Dottore did to him, and he hated it. If Dottore wasn’t as indisposed as Mona made him out to be, then Diluc was going to kill him himself. Violently.

Diluc had to shove those feelings aside, however, and focus on the matter at hand. The overwhelming relief that Kaeya was alive was enough. Venti was also alive. Not finding a heartbeat immediately had been disconcerting, but he was also a god—and breathing. That much was clear. Unconscious, but breathing. (Diluc knew full well who he was, but it was his first time seeing Venti look like a god. He also looked terribly small and fragile.)

Sucrose was spacing out, removing herself from the emotions of it all as she focused on the potions. He almost felt bad letting her do that, but it was easier than letting her process that much trauma at once, and…they did need those potions fast, because the battle that Aether and Dvalin were waging against the Abyssal forces was already doing a number on the city. The lives of Mondstadt’s citizens were most important, but they owed something to the city as well.

He fought down the urge to scream when he looked back at Kaeya, because the rage had no outlet here. Besides, if Kaeya had been burned that much… He knew, absolutely, that he was not the best person to be here. The last thing Diluc wanted to do was to scare Kaeya more.

“I have Albedo’s Vision, too,” Diluc said softly, though he could see Sucrose’s ear twitch. “Would that help?”

Kaeya squeezed his own Vision, the temperature in the room dropping minutely. He nodded. “It wouldn’t hurt, at least. I’ll…see if he’s ready.”

Kaeya was keeping the extent of his condition from Diluc, too—at least as of now. Sucrose he understood, but…what had Dottore done to him?

His brother knocked softly on a cracked open door. Diluc could see that the lock had been broken off at some point. “Albedo?”

Sucrose dug into her work with a gasp that sounded eerily like a muffled sob. Diluc had no idea how to comfort her.

“Come in.”

The reply was almost inaudible, and Diluc only heard it because he was listening for it.

Carefully, Kaeya pushed open the door, and Diluc braced himself, keeping a schooled expression. Kaeya was obviously trying to shelter Albedo, but he had mentioned that Albedo wouldn’t be moving on his own, and Kaeya was in no condition to lift anything more than his own weight. Diluc would not leave anyone down here, so he prepared himself to carry Albedo out. Whatever was necessary.

He took in the scene with practiced apathy, but it wasn’t quite enough.

Albedo was on the floor, sitting against a table that was covered in blood. There was a decent amount of it on Albedo, as well, but it was mostly dried. He only had torn pants on, like Kaeya, but there was a different kind of injury on him than what his brother suffered. Incisions. Mostly closed incisions, some stitched close with thread and wire, and some that looked like they were barely glued together with magic scarring.

One such wound was on his abdomen—a large one. Perfectly Y-shaped.

Diluc had seen his share of shit in his life. Especially during his…travels. He had seen investigations. Morgues, even.

He knew exactly what had happened, and the fury returned. It took great effort to hold it back, and judging by the wariness in Kaeya’s eyes, he wasn’t doing a good job at it. Not that Albedo noticed. His eyes were set far in the distance, blankly. (There were tear tracks on his cheek. He didn’t know Albedo well, but he pegged him as more stubborn than Kaeya when it came to those things. He, too, looked way too young.) He was trembling, too.

“Are there any spare clothes in here?” Diluc asked thickly. “We should get all of you to the base at the guild for medical help as soon as possible.” By now, everyone would have moved out of the prison to there—or to fight. It was better to only have to secure a single building while the battle waged. However, he didn’t particularly want to expose what Albedo underwent so easily. Nor Kaeya, but somehow, even the methodical burns were easier to stomach.

“I—I think Albedo keeps some spare clothes over here,” Kaeya said when Albedo didn’t respond. Diluc didn’t blame him.

They found the closet, where spare sets of coats were neatly kept and gratefully untouched, but Diluc removed his shirt as well.

“What are you—?”

Kaeya didn’t get to finish, because Diluc already thrust his shirt at him. If he still had his own coat, this would have been easier, but it was still a simple decision. “You’re burned. One of us is going to have to carry Albedo, and the other is going to have to carry Venti. All I have are bruises.”

It was a testament to how bad off Kaeya was that he didn’t argue. Albedo’s coats would have been way too small, and though Diluc is wider than his brother, that was exactly what he needed—something not to rub against the wounds.

The transfer made, they silently wrapped Albedo in one of his own coats like it was a blanket, and Diluc hoisted him as gently as he could. Albedo didn’t have the strength to walk, unlike Kaeya, even though his brother looked ready to topple over as well. He didn’t like the idea that Kaeya would have to share in the work because of that, but it was necessary. Sucrose was small, and she would be carrying the potions out. Luckily, he knew that Venti was impossibly light, so it was doable. (Albedo, while also lighter than Diluc expected, needed to be handled far more carefully.)

Sucrose was nearly done when they emerged, true to her word that it would be quick. Devastation and relief crossed through her face all at once when she saw Albedo.

“Let’s go.”

—o0o—

Jean woke up when the battle was over.

There was something terrible and shameful about sleeping through the fight for Mondstadt, because she was the Acting Grandmaster, and it was her duty to protect Mondstadt, and to fight for it. However, she woke up to victory, so the guilt was mitigated.

The Fatui were driven out or arrested, and the Abyss within the walls was purged. They won. Mondstadt was once again free.

Barbara was still fretting over her, and Lisa was too—which, while Jean would never admit it to her sister, was more indicative of whatever condition she had been in.

It was still a mess out there. Thanks to Sucrose, half of the buildings were still standing, but the rest of the city was torched in the process. The Abyssal force had been greater that she anticipated, based on the reports. All the people were safe, however, kept in secure buildings—buildings made secure, by the counterattack—like the Adventurer’s Guild and the Knights of Favonius’ headquarters, once it was cleaned of Fatui.

There were countless injuries, but miraculously, very few deaths. They had been kept alive for reasons that Jean could not fathom—nor did she want to—but she was grateful for it all the same.

Her lack of contribution aside, Jean was incredibly proud of her people—knights and citizens alike. She should have figured that they would rise up so quickly, bred on songs of freedom since birth. She even heard that those locked in Springvale had fought alongside wolves—and the spirit of Boreas himself—to drive off the occupying Fatui; if that wasn’t a testament to their priorities, she didn’t know what else could be.

Eula and Amber especially pulled their own weight and so much more. Jean didn’t know if she could ever find enough honors in the books to represent what they’ve done. Aether, too. Mondstadt’s beloved Honorary Knight had done more than anyone expected him; from what Eula had told her, he was the reason that the counterattack could be launched at all, having worked to free Dvalin and Boreas, as well as fight in the thick of battle while they could work on securing the city.

As she and Hertha discussed their next step of action, she watched as Dvalin lowered the refugees from Stormbearer into the city, before the dragon curled beside the city wall for well-deserved rest. Her view was limited from the guild’s terrace, but there weren’t many of them. Mostly adventurers and travelers from what she could see; she supposed most of the knights were needed in the city, but she hoped that they had at least been well protected too.

“You should rest more,” Hertha said softly.

Jean blinked. She must have stared for too long. She shook her head. “No, there’s more to discuss. We have to be ready in case there’s a follow up.”

“If there is, then you being feverish won’t help, Grandmaster,” Hertha asserted. For a second, it registered to her that Hertha was using the same tone with her as she would her ten-year-old son. “I can practically see it.”

Jean wanted to protest more, but she remembered Barbara’s crying when she woke up, and the deep worry in Lisa’s eyes. Her leg still hurt, but it was manageable; the Abyss poison that had infected her was more of a concern.

Hertha was right. She was in no condition to think straight, much less lead. She hated to keep shouldering it on Eula, but she at least had Hertha and Huffman, now. Hertha’s arm was wrapped in a sling, but the woman looked far more alert than Jean felt.

“Okay. A short rest,” Jean relented.

Jean could make it to the working infirmary and rest area by herself. In truth, she did not head straight for the rolls on the floor, but rather, she ventured into the next room on a detour. She had been told by Diluc that they were alive, but she had yet to see them with her own eyes.

She entered quietly, just to lay eyes on them. She didn’t expect Kaeya to be awake, but perhaps she should have. His entire torso and upper arms were wrapped in bandages, and there was a medical eyepatch replacing his usual one, but he was remarkably alive. Jean teared at the sight of it.

“Jean,” Kaeya greeted with an exhausted smile.

When they were caught in the siege by that electro abyss…creature, and Jean had lost consciousness, she feared the worst for him. In the few moments of clarity she had in that prison cell, when Lisa and Diluc had been unable to answer about his whereabouts… She had been so sure. He couldn’t have escaped, and if he wasn’t imprisoned, then she thought the only other option had been death.

Held captive personally by Dottore was not a fate she wished on him—on any of them—but she was glad that he was here. “Can I…?” she asked, inching closer in a weak moment of delirious relief.

He nodded.

As gently as she possibly could, she hugged him. Jean blamed the fever, but it wasn’t until then that she convinced herself that he was alive, and that he would make it. His arms must have been hurting him, but Kaeya squeezed her with more strength than she even had.

Steadied by her best friend’s presence, she dared to look over the other two.

Albedo and Venti were both unconscious. Numbly, she wondered which nurse had their world rocked by having to tend to Barbatos. He was lying stomach down on a cot, wings limp beside him. Albedo was laid out normally, similarly swathed by bandages; he looked pained even in his sleep.

“Albedo’s been awake,” Kaeya informed her softly. “Venti almost was, whenever that big anemo burst happened outside, but Dottore pumped him with enough sedatives to keep, well, a god asleep.”

Jean nodded numbly.

“Is everyone…?” Kaeya began to ask.

“Yes. Aside from what happened in the initial attack, everyone is okay. Eula, her squad, and Amber gathered everyone outside the city.”

He heaved a shaking sigh of relief.

There was a noise approaching the room. It didn’t take long to make out the primary voice.

“No! Klee needs to see them!”

“H-hey, they’re resting, you shouldn’t—”

Jean’s heart cracked, hearing Klee in tears. She was already moving towards the door.

“But Ajax— Master Jean!”

As soon as Jean stepped out of the room, Klee collided with her, sobbing. She was aware enough to realize that a man she didn’t recognize was with her, but she knew the name from Eula. Aether had had a friend with him who helped fight. Jean would properly thank the stranger later, but she focused on Klee.

Jean cared for Klee because it was her responsibility, but it was also impossible not to love Klee’s kind innocence—even if she was a handful. Jean didn’t think that Klee was as close to her, though, as she was the one with the duty to keep Klee in line. The stern one. But she was glad that she could offer Klee comfort, nonetheless.

Silent footsteps padded behind her, accompanied by the creak of a shutting door. “Hey there, kiddo,” Kaeya said with a smile.

Klee looked up, hiccupping. “Kaeya!”

She wiggled out of Jean’s arms just to run into Kaeya, who kneeled down to greet. Jean didn’t have the heart to remind her to be gentle.

“You—Y-you’re h-hurt,” she sobbed. “Klee couldn’t help you.”

“Oh kiddo, that wasn’t your job,” Kaeya whispered, sounding as heartbroken as Jean felt. “Older siblings protect younger ones. Those are the rules.”

Klee gasped. “Al— Alb-bedo, i-is he okay?”

The child was still pressed into Kaeya’s chest, so she didn’t see the dark look that flashed across Kaeya’s features. His voice was as smooth as he wanted it to be, however. “Albedo is fine. He’s sleeping though, and—” Kaeya lowered his voice conspiratorially. “There’s a sick, naked man in the room. I’m simply afraid you can’t go inside now. But we will come get you as soon as Albedo is awake, okay?”

She seemed somewhat content with the answer, still crying. “O-okay…”

Venti was not naked, of course, but Jean tiredly admired Kaeya’s effort to keep Klee out of the room all the same. Though she had the feeling it was more for Albedo’s sake than Venti’s.

She did not know what they went through, Diluc’s report curt and angry, but she already swore to herself that she would keep them all safe in their recovery. Personally.

She noticed that the man—Ajax—had disappeared. He probably hadn’t wanted to intrude, but Jean knew she would have to find him eventually; it would be bad form if she didn’t thank him personally. Perhaps he would be with Aether.

There were even more things to do, of course, but she promised Hertha she would rest. Being here, assured that everyone was alive… That was rest enough.

It might take a while, but they would make it out of this. They would tend to their wounds, soothe their scars, and rebuild. Mondstadt was built on songs of freedom, and it was the wind of those songs that ran in their veins. Jean had faith that they would be okay. Maybe not immediately, but they will be.

Mondstadt would always rise again.