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Every Day We Face the World: Whumptober 2021

Chapter Text

It was, truthfully, of little surprise that the Kujou Clan estate felt foreign to her now.

Not that it would change anything, of course. Sara proceeded with her duties as she always did—she still woke herself at 5:05AM on the dot, she still took her five laps around the courtyard, still proceeded with personal training and management of the standing army, now enjoying a ceasefire in these days leading up to the official scheduled peace talks with the Sangonomiya, not that it was any reason to let their guard down or turn to slothfulness. Although, for Sara, it was…difficult, in more ways than one. She worked hard to keep her outer appearance unchanged—composed and carrying a stance indicative only of dignity and strength—but underneath her clothes, she still had thick bandages wrapped around her waist that required changing day after day. She was getting to the point where it was not so painful to walk, but doing certain sudden actions would cause a sharp sting that was impossible to ignore, that even ran the risk of impairing her mental fortitude in the act. If she were to go into battle now…no, it still wouldn’t matter, either way she would fight to the best of her ability, even if that ability was lacking. She would do everything she must until her last dying breath, because that was what she had decided years ago to do—not just because it was her duty, but because it was her honor.

Still, she felt the sting of failure knowing that she allowed herself to be put in such a state. It only took one strike from Signora to incapacitate herself, the shard of ice that pierced her chest formed and struck in the span of less than a moment and leaving Sara unconscious and bleeding on the ground. Her last memory was looking up at the Almighty Shogun’s gaze, unshakingly passive…

It was her own fault. She let herself get caught up in the moment, feeling the need to be the one to tell her archon what was happening before another second passed by. It was uncouth of her to do such a thing without first requesting an audience. Although it was the Fatui Harbinger who struck her down, it was of little wonder that the Shogun did not come to her aid. It would have been beneath her to take any action for one rashly-acting mortal.

Sara was still grateful that her life was saved by the Raiden on that one day…the day she received her Vision, when she was but a child without a name, a weakling with torn wings. The Raiden Shogun saved her life once. She had no obligation to do it again.

Sara walked the grounds of the estate with a folder of papers in hand to present to Kujou Kamaji, all the while feeling very conscious of the gazes of her fellow clansmen—although perhaps, not as conscious now. She was…getting used to it, she thinks.

“I’m busy, no thanks to you,” the Vision-wielding healer employed by the clan turned her away coldly several days earlier. “You realize my energy is limited, right?” He was absolutely correct, too. There were…numerous injuries, following that fateful day when Sara confronted her adopted father and everything else happened all at once. Many of them were her own fault. She fought her own clansmen and Tenyrou Commission warriors when confronting her father and when making a path to the Shogun’s chamber. If there wasn’t time for her own injuries to be treated in full, she had only herself to blame.

It was fine. Her pain tolerance was still very high. She would gladly take responsibility for her actions. And…she didn’t regret it, either. But should she?

She saw Kamaji exiting the building she was about to enter to find him, so she ran up to meet him instead. “Acting Commissioner!” she called him by his new title. “Can we speak?”

Kujou Kamaji stopped in his tracks to greet her, but the action seemed sluggish. There were lines under his eyes, the telltale signs of little sleep that Sara unfortunately recognized in herself…but she would not embarrass him by pointing it out.

“My report from the front lines, sir.” She presented the documents to her adopted brother with formality. “We have been watching closely the movements of the Sangonomiya, should the peace talks be a guise for a future attack. We should—”

“I-I’m sorry, can we save this for later?” Kamaji stopped her in the middle of her spiel. “I have another meeting to attend with the Takatsukasa clan…I fear our relations are going to be rather…strained, from here on out. As for the front lines…maybe you’d be better off speaking with my brother? Besides, I doubt the Sangonomiya would be so quick to reopen conflict now that the Vision Hunt Decree is over. They’re not going to be the first of our priorities. But, I trust you to handle it if anything else should happen.”

“Agreed, but—"

And then he was gone. Sara felt that she should discuss, but…she understood. He was busy. He just went through a lot with his father as well.

His father…or theirs? She had been so used to the manner of speaking, she hardly paid attention to the fact that he referred to Masahito as his brother, but…she wasn’t complaining.

She just…always had a part of her that wished their father would look at her as he did to Kamaji.

“Shameful!” Takayuki barked at her coldly, his stern gaze boring into hers. Kujou Sara was eleven years old, and she granted this name two years earlier…but now, she failed the man who gave it to her. Who took her in when she was injured at the bottom of the cliff she fell from. What if he sent her away? What if he took the name away?

The other youth training in the army had invited her to play with them. Since they were done with training for the day, she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong…

Takayuki, however, did not see it that way. He was very disappointed in her, and he punished the other youth as well. “Not following military law and neglecting your training... I did not take you in just to have you do such pointless things.”

He was right…probably. But if he didn’t despise her as a disappointment then, surely he would think that way now.

Maybe the estate was always foreign to her. She never called it “home”…actually, she did once, but not after that day Takayuki caught her playing with other kids.

She wasn’t one of them. She was a tengu…no, that didn’t matter. She wasn’t here for her own gain. She didn’t ask for anything. She would work as long as she needed to work, endure pain as long as she needed to endure pain. This was her honor. This was her duty.

 

She reminded herself this, repeatedly, as she knelt before Sacred Sakura Tree at the Grand Narukami Shrine, still paying her respects, as she always did. She just found herself kneeling longer than usual—five minutes had passed, so she will consent to make it fifteen, or twenty-five—feeling some sort of dread in going back to her home, or whatever it was. Takayuki, the man who adopted her, betrayed the Shogunate. The Kujou Clan was in shambles. She thought he was teaching her to be noble and virtuous all this time…was that a lie? Was everything a lie?

“You can let go, I hope you realize.”

A familiar voice sounded, snapping Sara’s attention her way. She felt herself tense at the sight of Guuji Yae…not that she held any negative feelings towards her, necessarily, but their last conversation was…stressful, to say the least.

The Shrine was mostly empty at the time, Sara the only visitor still kneeling before the tree. She regarded the priestess with a suspicious curiosity as she stood back up to face her eye-to-eye. “Guuji Yae, we meet again.” She bowed her head respectfully. “With all due respect, whatever are you referring to?”

Yae looked at her with a sad smile, as if she were but a child who was lost. “There’s nothing keeping you there—in that clan, I mean. With everything that happened, no one would blame you if you left.”

The last word alone was enough to tear straight into Sara’s heart, startling in its sheer impossibility. Leave? “Why…would you suggest this?” Her eyes went wide with the shock. “I’ll have you know, I have a solemn duty to uphold, to the army,” (which might not need her as much as it did, now that the war might be over), “the Almighty Shogun” (the one who left her bleeding on the floor, as punishment for her foolishness), “as well as Inazuma!” (She promised. She promised she would protect them.)

Yae shook her head with half a shrug, arms crossed. “No reason for your so-called family to treat you like a slave.”

Sara stood dumbfounded, for just a moment. Why would now, of all times, Yae think to speak to Sara on such a…a personal level? Talk to her about her life? (Not that there was anyone else…Sara never spoke to anyone about this, because, there was never anyone to confide in.)

Sara took five deep breaths, and she looked the shrine priestess in the eye. “How dare you,” her words were cold and passionless, “even think to say such a thing?”

 

She walked out soon afterwards, without another word to anyone, Yae least of all. Yae didn’t understand her. She didn’t understand…kindness wasn’t something she was looking for from the Kujou. Freedom…was meaningless, to her.

 

Many years ago, Takayuki took in a small tengu child with broken wings and a new Vision, a promise of her future strength. He saw it as very good fortune, to take in a Vision-holder. Her wings would heal, over time. It was only…in other ways, that they stayed broken. And would keep breaking…day, after day, after day.

Chapter Text

Chongyun’s vision was going black, his head throbbing and pounding like a hammer to an anvil, his skin hot and flushed. He clutched his throat and struggled to breathe. It was swelling…and very, very hot. He coughed violently onto the wooden floor, a spray of liquid splattering onto it as he felt his body start to fail him and his panic quickly rise.

Chongyun’s kneeling position was turned into a flattened one very quickly when Tai Long put a foot to his back and pinned him to the floor. “W-Why…?” Chongyun tried to speak, but his throat let out little more than a hoarse and strangled noise. It was all he could do just to breathe.

“Well, well, how the mighty have fallen,” the man started to explain himself anyways, a victorious sneer in his voice. “Remember that Treasure Hoarder camp you tore to pieces a week ago? Ha, of course you don’t, we’re just a dime a dozen to wannabe heroes like you, aren’t we? Well, guess what? Those were my people you messed with. And, unlucky for you, I’m smarter than you think I am and I know your little weakness.” His foot pressed down harder.

Get up. You have to get up. Chongyun was trying. His eyes were watering, and he struggled to think straight. He felt hot and flushed and anxious and he had to go and no, Chongyun! Stay focused! Stay in control! He…he didn’t know what would happen if…

His hand instinctively clutched his Vision at his side; he drew on its power with what little time he had just to cool himself, to ease his body from burning up as hard as it was and just making the swelling go down in his throat so he could breathe. This was…so much different than what usually happened when he just…ate something spicy…

He saw it coming that Tai Long (was that his real name?) wouldn’t lose that much time before he took his Vision away from his grasp and flung it across the room (well, he didn’t foresee the throwing part, but…okay…)

“Sorry boy, can’t rely on your precious power from the gods to save you now! You’re not so special now, are you?”

Chongyun continued to cough onto the floor, weakly trying to hold himself up just so his face wouldn’t be pressed against it. His mind kept racing without actually thinking of anything at all, his darkened blurry vision not doing him any favors either. He made a mistake. All he knew was that he made a mistake. This was just…an average exorcism job for him, something he did all the time: going into people’s homes and taking the time to rid them of the spirits that plagued them. When Tai Long offered him water, he didn’t think anything of it…the cup was opaque and he didn’t look too hard and usually, just the smell of something spicy would affect him very strongly but he didn’t smell anything and it wasn’t until he took one sip that he felt…something solid in there…

“Anyways, just so you know, I used little tablets that dissolve with heat—the heat of your mouth, that is. Clever, wasn’t it? So, what should I do with you now? A ransom would be nice, but oh no, your family are a bunch of aesthetics who don’t believe in money, aren’t they? Well, that’s a shame—hope you have a rich friend, kid! Otherwise, I might just have to kill ya! Or, sell you off as a test subject. That’s always an option, too.”

Tai Long kicked the prostrate Chongyun roughly in the side before opening a drawer, probably to grab something, then returning to knee him in the back and grab his arms to press them together…

No, no he wasn’t that finished yet. Chongyun yanked one arm downwards to throw him off balance, rolling out of the way before his wrists could get tied. He could barely see a thing…he couldn’t speak, either. His throat felt so hot…

“Why, you little—!”

Chongyun grabbed at the blurry shape’s direction and kneed him when he came back for him, before getting just as roughly grabbed by the shirt collar and slammed into the floor. Then picked up and slammed again. His head…he…no, this was…this was fine. Noise. His best bet was to make a lot of noise right now.

He rolled out of the way and grabbed something—it was a book—and threw it, even though it both missed the man entirely and left his hands a lot weaker than he intended. The man got up and responded by kicking him hard in the stomach.

“You…you damn brat!”

Have to do something. Have to—

Chongyun was holding a candlestick above his head. When did he pick it up? And there was…everything still looked blurry, but there was all this stuff on the floor, like books and broken glass and…that all definitely wasn’t there before.

His head hurt really bad.

He went into a coughing fit again and suddenly felt like all his strength that he had summoned from nowhere was about to go right about to the nowhere from which it came. He dropped the candlestick unceremoniously on the floor and instinctively clutched his chest…

“You demon! What kind of madman are you!?”

Tai Long had a wide cut on his hand dripping blood onto the floor. When did that happen? Still, it did nothing to stop him from furiously chucking an electro potion at Chongyun’s face.

Chongyun threw up his hands to shield his face, but the potion hit and his body was still very much wracked with pain anew, coursing through him and making all his limbs feel numb. All at once, his legs refused to support him any longer and he collapsed back onto the floor.

“Bad news for you, my patience is really running—”

He was cut off by the sound of a door getting kicked open, followed by a rush of water.

“Rain outlines your fate!”

“The fu—GAH!”

The altercation sounded very short, followed by a body dropping on the floor.

“Chongyun!”

Chongyun could barely see him, but he knew exactly who that was by the sound of his voice alone. “Xing—” his words were cut off by the hoarseness of his own throat.

“Chongyun, are you okay? Your Vision—”

Chongyun weakly pointed to the general area across the room, though he wasn’t sure it was correct. Still, Xingqiu managed to find it quickly and—oh, that felt…so much better.

Chongyun slowly blinked his eyes to semi-clearness, seeing Tai Long now collapsed motionless on the floor with blood pooling from his chest. “Is…” he choked the words out, “…dead?”

Xingqiu had to look for a bit to check. “Nope.” He shrugged before raising his sword. “But he can be!”

“No!” Chongyun coughed. “M…Mille…" He didn’t want to get his friend in trouble.

“Ah, yes, you’re right, I’ll report this to the Milleleth.” Xingqiu moved instead to using some of his Vision-fueled healing abilities on Chongyun. It did help a little to get the swelling down, even though everything still hurt a lot. “Can you walk, you think?”

Chongyun nodded. It was probably best they didn’t stick around for any of this guy’s friends to show up. Xingqiu then turned to helping him get up and draping his arm around Xingqiu’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s get you to someone who can help. Will…you be okay? What happened?” He sounded very worried.

Chongyun nodded. “…fine.” He would be fine…now. He…it was something far more than just intense relief he felt at Xingqiu being here.

He did realize, however, that he didn’t answer the question. “I…was…”

“Oh, right, it can wait.” Xingqiu shook his head. “Talking’s overrated, anyways. Just know that whatever grievous ailment or poison has befallen you, I am honored to be your deux ex machina for today!”

Chongyun cut his eyes at him.

Xingqiu laughed. “Great to know your spirit is still at strength!”

And with that, Chongyun let Xingqiu lead him out of there and back to the freedom of the outside.

Chapter Text

“I didn’t ask for your help, Bennett! You only make everything worse!”

“I-I’m sorry, I just thought—”

“And now I have a chipped sword! Ugh, what am I going to do? I don’t have the mora or the ore to spare for a new one!”

“Y-yeah, but…”

Bennett wanted to point out to Royce that his sword was tarnished-looking and even had rust on it, so it probably was already in need of repair—this is why his dads always told him to take good care of his weapons!—but he didn’t really feel like he could. Because, it probably was his fault, still. All he wanted was to help, but…

“Oh, that was terrifying!” Pallad shook his head gravely, releasing a long breath. “All those Hilichurl reinforcements kept showing up, and then Bennett showed up, and then the pyro slime barrels all exploded, all at once. B-But not to worry, just another day of epic adventuring for me! Nothing to fear!”

“Yeah.” Royce huffed, his anger still very apparent. “Good thing those slime barrels didn’t kill us all.”

“I…didn’t set them off, though…” Bennett mumbled awkwardly. Pallad was the one who accidentally fired the arrow that hit them, not that Bennett was mad at Pallad or anything. Mistakes like that happened all the time! Plus, mistakes did happen a lot around Bennett specifically…

Bennett sighed heavily. He really only meant to help. He saw Royce and Pallad fighting Hilichurls together, and they looked like they were really struggling and could be in danger, so Bennett came in to help fight and also heal them up a little with his Vision, and they did drive off the Hilichurls, but…not without a few hiccups along the way. Like the barrels and Royce’s sword. And the additional wave of reinforcements. Maybe the Hilichurls just really liked this camp?

“But these things keep happening when you’re around! Why can’t you realize that? We would have been better off without you!”

“But, you looked like you needed help and—!”

“No, Bennett, just…just go, okay?” Royce let out a tense exhale, looking very stressed. He looked that way a lot when Bennett was around. “I’m not mad, I promise. Just…do everyone a favor and keep your adventures solo, okay?”

“O-Okay.” Bennett felt himself flinch, just a little. He…never said it quite like that, before. Maybe it was just that the more encounters they had, the more honest Royce got. Royce, and Heckler, and Jack…

“They’ll be back! They’re just…on leave,” he pleaded to Katheryne once, desperate to not have the face the finality of losing his team’s registration with the guild. He was so excited when he finally got people to agree to being on a team with him—he was so sure that they would all be great friends, and that they would go on many epic adventures together just like his dads did when they were young. Adventuring was his passion, and he couldn’t wait to get started for real! But then…well…it didn’t work out quite like he hoped.

It really stung, hearing Royce say it like that. Should he really just do as he said and stop…bothering everyone so much…?

“My ear harkens to the sound of mortal cries! What ill fate hath befallen thee?”

“F-Fischl!” Bennett was very surprised to turn around and see Fischl and Oz coming into view over the top of a hill and down into their camp, the Prinzessin der Verurteilung’s entrance as cool and grand as ever. Walking up to them, there was something about her expression that looked kind of intense, though. Bennett wasn’t really sure why; all of the Hilichurls were gone now, right?

“Oh, Fischl. What are you doing here?” Royce sounded very tired and still kind of annoyed.

“I heard from afar the expressions of woe and stress! Might I add, even the throbbing binds of a dark fury? It is of no mere happenstance that I, the Prinzessin der Verurteilung, should come down upon you at such an hour, that I may ask, why such stress, when the intensity of danger is clearly past, and why do you say words of fury, when whatever physical ailments you have are clearly of little consequence to one of the warrior’s creed?”

Royce sighed in exasperation. “I don’t have time for this…” he mumbled.

“O-Oh! Everything’s fine!” Bennett assured, getting what she was saying…maybe. (Fischl was really smart and also from other world, so she talked in complicated words a lot). “We just…had a little bit of trouble with some Hilichurls, that’s all! And we were…talking about what went wrong!”

“Yes, yes, what he said, there’s nothing going on, the Hilichurls are gone now.” Royce waved her off.

“Is that so? Then pray tell, why, if there is no danger, that distress still binds you so much that you would speak such ill of your comrades!”

“H-Huh?”

“What the Prinzessin means is, your words seem to be unfounded, judging from the…tone of your voice,” Oz translated. “Not to say that we were making any attempts to secretly listen to what was being said, of course.”

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about,” Royce groaned. “Just, please go back to whatever you were—”

“I was on a mission of dire importance, and I require that Bennett be my aide! Come, Bennett, there is a destination we must hasten to!”

“What?” Bennett was confused.

“Oh, why didn’t you say so?” Pallad laughed. “He’s all yours! Come on Royce, let’s head back to the city to turn in this commission!”

Fischl took Bennett by the hand and led him out, and Bennett hurried his step to catch up.

“What’s wrong?” he asked after they were a little ways away and Fischl stopped walking. “Where’s the danger?”

Fischl paused a second, turning back to look at him, as if considering what to say… “Are you hurt?”

Bennett’s eyes widened in a bit of surprise, partially because she said the question in so few words. Was that what this was about? But, he wasn’t even bleeding! “Oh! Uh, no, not really! Just a few knicks and bruises here and there, nothing I can’t handle!”

Fischl shook her head, clearing her throat. “Ahem, no, I do understand that your constitution is not the aspect at risk of failing you; what ailment I was referring to runs greater than bone or marrow, but rather, to the soul itself, the deepest recesses of your mind and heart. This, my fellow seeker of the unknown, is what mine eye hath perceived to be carrying the deepest of wounds.”

Bennett took a second trying to get what she was saying…and then turned to Oz for help.

“What she means—as well as myself—is…Bennett, we overheard some of what your…friend…said, and we wanted to know if you were alright. Because of his words, that is.”

“Oh…OH!” Bennett got it now. But… “I-It’s okay, he didn’t really mean it as bad as it probably sounded, just…um…” He looked away, rubbing the back of his neck. He didn’t want them to get mad at Royce for his sake, or anything. “Y-You know what they say! Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me! Right?”

That was how it went…right?

Bennett was used to pain—of every kind, really. It wasn’t a big deal.

“No!” Fischl was adamant, surprising him even further with the fierceness of her gaze. “I refuse to accept such a…a…a degradation of yourself!” She thrust out her arm to point at his heart, her other hand on her hip. “Your ill fate has nothing to do with yourself! Even if some grievous error was made that was your own folly, it would be no cause for allowing yourself to be cast to the side to descend into the vile throes of darkness!”

For a few long seconds, Bennett was dumbfounded and speechless. He really didn’t know what to say, he…he felt awkward, because he didn’t want anyone to worry about him or feel bad for him, but…it also…felt good, that she cared? “You…really think that?”

Fischl cleared her throat again. “Mm, yes indeed…I…simply cannot allow any member of my retinue to be considered in such a way. You should not…be condemned to be alone for the cause of the curse on you.”

“Ah, i-it’s okay!” Bennett assured with a wide smile. “I’m not alone entirely, even without my team! Not anymore, anyways! Me and Traveler have gone on a few adventures, and, um…I have my dads, and…I have you!”

They were in different sectors of the guild, him and Fischl, what with Fischl being an investigator and all. She was really good at remembering details, and not getting lost. Bennett knew his way around and remembered lots of survival skills, but he wasn’t as smart as she was. He was best at mainly just going in and fighting stuff while exploring. But, they did get to work together sometimes! And those times were always nice.

“Well then, let us embark on this next mission together, as you have been thusly requested.”

“Really?” Bennett asked. “You weren’t just making something up?”

“Never in the death of a thousand suns!” Fischl refuted emphatically. “My pledge is my sacred word, and yes, I believe that your assistance would be much needed indeed!”

Chapter Text

“Well, what a surprise this is, you asking me for help? You must be really desperate, then.”

“Don’t get any ideas. I’m not asking for your help tonight; I’m only asking for this one favor.”

“So, you play hero and I watch from the sidelines? Hmph, you wound me, Diluc.”

Diluc leveled his eyes at Kaeya with complete lack of amusement. He really didn’t have time for this. He pulled his sort-of brother into the stock room at Angel’s Share this morning with the intention of getting him alone with as little fanfare as possible (he wouldn’t be going to the knights for this, that’s for certain) and in as little time as possible. “I’m serious,” he insisted. “I’m only asking you to do this because you’re the only one who can. I need you to convince Vind to leave her post, just for one night. There’s going to be danger, and I need to ensure her safety. Obviously, I can’t do it myself, as this could reveal me as…well, the rumored vigilante.”

“The Darknight Hero, you mean?” Kaeya supplied with a smirk.

“Don’t call me that.”

“Fine, fine.” Kaeya shrugged. “I understand; you wish to keep your secret identity a secret. No worries; I have no intention of letting Vind be prey to some Abyss mages tonight. I’ll make an excuse to get her out.”

“Right…wait!” Diluc’s eyes widened at the realization. “I didn’t tell you—!"

“That the Abyss Order was the ‘danger’ described?” Kaeya appeared far too satisfied with himself. “Don’t be so surprised. I have my sources just like you have yours. It is the reason why Sucrose is on her way right now to tell Vind about those strange weather anomalies in Dragonspine that need her attention right now, as they could be the sign of a great storm that the expertise passed down to her through generations might be useful for. Plus, she has the official knightly request signed by yours truly.”

Diluc sighed. “You…already had a plan.” Of course, he did. A very official-sounding one, actually. “Wait, is there actually…?” If this was a lie, there was no way that Sucrose would go with it.

“No, probably not, it’s just a little stretching of the truth. I asked Albedo to hype up the facts for this purpose. But don’t worry, he doesn’t know any details.”

And…he got Albedo in on his scheme as well. “You would think of everything.” He exhaled while rubbing the bridge of his nose. “Well, fine then, you do that; I’ll handle the rest.”

 

 

It really wasn’t that much of a surprise to him that Kaeya would show up anyways. And, if he was being honest, it wasn’t unwelcome. Especially considering his timing.

Diluc struggled to regain his footing quickly, use the flat side of his claymore as a shield when another barrage of cryo icicles came his way. The cryo still caused a melt reaction on the flaming bush in front of him that made the fire burst in his face and deal yet another painful shot of damage. He inhaled a sharp breath and responded with launching himself at the cryo abyss mage with a flaming sword. He then unleashed his flaming phoenix on the hoard—half of Stormbreaker Point was already on fire, so it really wouldn’t matter if he added more flames to the mix.

A wound on Diluc’s arm was bleeding heavily, and he reached up to touch his face to confirm that there was blood there, too. Before him, a large group of abyss mages and Hilichurls made a blockade stretching across the clifftop and around the watchtower, and behind them, four Ruin Guards stood as support. The grass and trees around them had caught on fire, making a beacon in the pitch-black night sky. Behind Diluc, there was the edge of Stormbreaker Point and the long drop to the ocean. And beside him, there was Kaeya.

Diluc did not expect the fight to be as intense as it was. He knew that the Order was planning some raid because they got it in their heads that the tower at Stormbreaker Point must have something vitally important in it, and that Vind was some kind of powerful, mystical protector of it. Hilichurls hung around the tower a lot, so maybe they…communicated, somehow? Either way, Diluc planned to put a stop to it. However, he wasn’t planning on this much resistance…maybe they learned of his involvement?

Or maybe, that one Abyss mage in the middle, the cackling pyro one, was just a cut smarter than the rest. It made a point to sneer at the “Darknight Hero” upon Diluc’s arrival, and when Kaeya came in from nowhere to bowl through the line and take his place by Diluc’s side, it sneered at him, too.

“Well, if it isn’t the great cavalry captain of the Knights of Favonius? Such a…wonderfully unique star in your eye, isn’t it?”

Diluc felt Kaeya tense by his side.

“Hehehe, what’s the matter? Worried about your precious Darknight Hero? Or your precious secrets?”

Kaeya didn’t respond to the taunt. He kept his stance steady, his sword angled towards the hoard. His one visible eye didn’t lose sight of the sword’s target. “They’re coming,” Kaeya spoke in a whisper that only Diluc could hear. “Our reinforcements.”

So Kaeya knew, coming here, that the battle was bad enough that they would need help.

“What’s that, oh great knightly captain?”

Most of the mages didn’t talk that much. Diluc wasn’t sure they even knew much, or if they remembered things. They ran on their one-track goal against humanity, and they plotted and schemed to meet that goal. It was enough of a reason to destroy every one of their ilk Diluc saw.

(He tried not to think much about what Kaeya told him that day, about the truth. He didn’t know what to do with that truth. He couldn’t protect Mondstadt if he doubted what he should do about it, so he didn’t. Whatever those mages used to be, they were only monsters now.)

Kaeya unleashed a blast of cryo in front of him, and Diluc followed by running into the fray of fighting renewed, taking out every creature he saw. In his distraction, he almost missed that he had been targeted by a Ruin Guard’s missile, and he stumbled to the ground in a desperate last-minute attempt to dodge. A Mitachurl tried to capitalize on that moment of weakness and bring down its giant flaming axe on him, but Kaeya in that moment dove in and struck the monster deep in the side. He then grabbed Diluc and they dodged backwards.

They were going back too far. Little by little, they were losing ground, to the point that their feet neared the edge of the precipice. Still, they fought. It hadn’t been so long for them that Diluc’s fighting by Kaeya’s side felt unnatural…although it was odd. Because, they were older now. Kaeya had a Cryo vision now. Everything was…different, but every now and again, they’d still end up doing something together anyways.

Diluc breathed heavily, his hands around his claymore sweating underneath the gloves. He pushed whatever pain he felt from his injuries somewhere deep, deep in the back of his mind. He needed—they needed to push through the line. He wasn’t confident in the state of his glider after getting himself roughed up and singed so much or in their ability to avoid further attacks during their descent.

“Kaeya, we need to—”

“Diluc, do you trust me?”

Diluc’s eyes darted over to him, taken aback by the gravity in Kaeya’s softly-spoken question. “What kind of question is that?”

“Well, do you?”

As if he could answer that in one sentence or less. He trusted him…in some ways, he guessed. He trusted him in battle. He trusted him…with Mondstadt, yes. Just…well…that was all very besides the point and this was really not the time. “Yes, sure,” he huffed.

“Excellent.” Kaeya smiled.

What was he—?

Then, Kaeya laughed, loudly and triumphantly, a wild look in his eye and he reached out for Diluc’s collar and grabbed it tight. His soft voice had turned into a shouting, mocking one. “Hahaha, end of the line, Darknight Hero! The Knights have no need of meddlers like you!”

What the fu—

He pushed him. Before Diluc knew what was happening, he felt his body succumbing to gravity, his feet losing their hold on the stone of Stormbreaker Point’s edge and following the rest of his body into the open air, suddenly void of every handhold or foothold within reach.

Kaeya fucking pushed him.

Diluc had to open his glider—fast. It wasn’t working. The hell was Kaeya thinking he couldn’t open it in time he was going to—

And then, he landed on something with a thud, much sooner than he should have. The surface uneven and scaly and distinctly familiar, it didn’t take him long to realize that it was a someone. Was that—?

Dvalin arced into the sky with a powerful beat of his wings, looping back around to the space underneath the cliff, coming in close at the moment Kaeya jumped off the edge as well. Diluc repositioned himself on Dvalin’s back to a place of more stability astride his spine and watched Kaeya make a much more graceful (much better prepared, that is) landing than he did.

Diluc’s first thought was that he was relieved to see Kaeya in one piece. His second was that it was time to demand an explanation. “What was that about?”

“Clever, wasn’t it?”

“You could have told me something!”

“But would it have believable to the mages if I did? You’re not that great of an actor, Diluc.”

“Your theatrics are utterly pointless,” Diluc huffed. “And now that we’re both gone, who’s going to stop them?”

“Well, look down,” Kaeya directed.

Dvalin had flown back up into the sky, well above the surface of the cliff but low enough that one could see exactly what was going on. Diluc looked down and saw, sure enough, some familiar forms attacking the small army on the cliff, now at the perfect position to pin them against the edge. He saw Jean herself, along with Amber, the Traveler, Eula, and a number of other knights as backup. Diluc had almost forgotten that Kaeya did tell him about the reinforcements. Looking again, he noticed even Venti hanging in the back, acting as if he were there for mild support and not the actual anemo archon. Dvalin’s presence was probably his doing. Wait, Kaeya didn’t know about Venti, did he…?

“Since we had discovered during our Golden Apple Archipelago adventure that our very curious bard friend is a good friend of our resident dragon, I thought I’d ask him for his assistance. Sure, there’s other ways we could have gone about this, but sometimes, striking fear into the hearts of your enemy is very much a job for ‘theatrics,’ as you called them.”

Well, it did make some sense, Diluc guessed. He was just relieved to see that the reinforcements in question were having little trouble that hoard which had given him such a difficult time solo. Still, the relief didn’t quite keep all the lingering irritation from his voice. “You really called in the knights.”

“Well, this may come as a surprise, but that is their job.”

“Hmph,” Diluc grunted. “You say that like it would have been easy to get the bureaucracy to trust an anonymous source about the attack happening in the first place. They’re consistently useless on matters like this.”

“So you still don’t trust them.”

“No.” He’s established this already.

All of them?”

“I trust Jean,” Diluc clarified.

Although, he supposed she might not be the only one on the list. There were…some knights who knew what they were doing, mostly. And, he had respect for the Honorary Knight, not that they really counted as a “knight” in an institutional sense.

“Well, that’s a start.” Kaeya shook his head with a smile. “I’d be worried if you threw even her under the bus for doing nothing wrong at all.”

“It’s not like that.”

“Is it, now?”

“Kaeya, what are you even talking about?”

“Well, maybe I could bring to your recollection that because of your insistence on working alone, you walked into a rather significant ambush today, facing a threat to Mondstadt without bothering to communicate to the people of Mondstadt, and also sending poor Vind all the way to Dragonspine because you couldn’t be forthright on the potential danger to her life.”

“You know that last part was specifically your plan, right?”

“But you were the one who wanted me to make up an excuse.”

“You literally already had your plan in motion while I was talking to you this morning!”

“Are you two quite finished?” Dvalin’s booming voice rattled through their ribs, his point made quite loud and clear.

“Right, understood,” Kaeya agreed. “So, Diluc, ready to head back and get someone to look at that arm of yours?”

“I can still fight, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“I do not think that would be necessary. They’ll be fine, and besides, I can always return to provide backup.”

“No,” Diluc refused. “If I’m seeing a healer, so are you.”

“So you’re fine with that, then?”

Dvalin was already ending his circling to start heading towards the city of Mondstadt, but Diluc could still look back and see the clashing forces on the cliff, now with two Ruin Guards down and many more mages extinguished or thrown off the edge. It was clear to see who the winning side was, now.

“It’s fine,” Diluc finally conceded with a steady exhale. “I trust them.”

Chapter Text

“I met with Azhdaha again yesterday.”

Zhongli started his story while seated on an old stone platform in Guili Plains, a low crumbling stone wall behind him, an ancient tablet the only company by his side. “Virtue grows tall like a tree, though there be shade it will flourish forever,” the dome-shaped tablet read. At times like these, he often wondered at what all the author of those words had in mind when she wrote that.

“I…assumed this would happen, one day. Elemental spirits are nigh immortal beings, and it would be foolishness to assume that a sealed spirit won’t some day find their way out.” Zhongli paused for a moment, his words feeling heavy on his tongue, as if someone really were here that he had to explain this too. “He…left, of his own accord,” he finally said. “His spirit is once again sealed in the mountain. Although, we may very well meet again. I simply might dare to hope that next time, it would be under better circumstances.”

“My life is nigh on eternal. I will go on with the infinite flow of time. And you, Morax... You too will live for many a day to come.”

But Azhdaha would never again be free. This…this was their contract.

Zhongli looked down at his hands and at the ground, the events of many centuries earlier being all too clear in his mind. The events of yesterday were but a brief addendum to what already happened. Azhdaha’s roar of rage and pain, his accusations of treachery, the underlying grim reality of knowing that all of Liyue could be in danger if he didn’t end this here and now…all of that happened, already. Yesterday, Azhdaha was divided, his rage and his benevolence split into two beings. The first time they fought, the benevolent and wise Azhdaha that he once knew was nowhere to be found.

“I never thought I’d be able to speak with him again, like he was. Well, it wasn’t his form necessarily: his consciousness had possessed a random human, but still, once his memories were regained, the words and the voice were most certainly his.” Zhongli smiled weakly. “I must admit, that despite the inherent peril of the situation leading up to this meeting, I was glad. To see him, that is. It…was as if he were still alive.”

 

“Rex Lapis, we are at your command,” Moon Carver assured him with great gravity, he and Mountain Shaper and the other watching the approach of the rampaging earth dragon with a steeled gaze, ready to fight.

Rex Lapis hesitated only for a moment. Only for a moment did he allow his heart to twist in pain, did he allow his eyes to lose their vivacity as he looked down from the sky at the dragon who cursed his name through his own unfathomable anguish. There was no solution, he knew. Erosion was something that could not be reversed. But he didn’t want to believe it. Not for Azhdaha. He didn’t want to lose him, too.

“We will lure him into the cave underneath the mountain. Follow my lead.”

 

Zhongli found Azhdaha as a spirit sealed deep in the earth, a simple but unique rock without sight or motion. His stirrings had been the cause of many earthquakes and tremblings, so Zhongli thought it fit to draw the spirit of stone up from the earth and grant his wish, to give him a chance to be free in the world outside. They made a contract, then. Zhongli always made a contract, with those he invited to join him. There was only one for him for which such an agreement was delayed…only because at first, he did not know what their partnership was even to be called. It was one of many ways that Guizhong confused him.

But for the great stone dragon, their agreement was clear. If Azhdaha ever endangered Liyue and brought ruin to order, he would once again be sealed in the dark.

Zhongli always kept true to his contracts.

 

“Come, I wish to show you something,” Morax beckoned him with a slight smile, bringing his friend up to a ledge overlooking the waters, the sun setting over the mountains in the distance and washing the sky with color.

“What is this?” Azhdaha asked in a deep and booming voice, although its powerful aura was perhaps mitigated by the way he spoke with the curiosity of a child. “I have seen this water before; now it is different?”

Morax chuckled softly. “Take a moment and have a look.”

Azhdaha came up over the ledge with thundering steps. “Your sun looks different. The color has changed. Is it nearing death?”

“No, no, not at all,” Morax explained with a slight touch of amusement. “This is a sunset. The sun will soon disappear over the mountains. You asked last night why the light leaves the sky in such a way. So, I thought I’d bring you here to watch. Of course, the motion of the sun can be observed anywhere, but it carries a different effect, in some locations. The sun will change its color now, but after it disappears, it will come back the next day just as it was before.”

Azhdaha hummed in acknowledgement, then plopping down onto the grass with a shaking of the earth. “So now, we sit and watch?”

“Yes, I say we shall.”

 

“Morax, how do I look? Unimposing? Like a true human?”

“You look very well,” Morax agreed with a smile. It was in an elemental spirit’s nature to be able to change shape and form, but this was Azhdaha’s first time doing it on his own. His human form wasn’t exactly all that ‘unimposing,’ being that of a man quite large and broad-shouldered, but he looked enough like a human, at least.

“Mm, that is acceptable.” Azhdaha put his newfound fists on his hips and looked down at the Guili Assembly plaza down below. “It is time to interweave myself with humankind. I wish to first try the foods that people keep telling me about. I do not see the appeal of this ‘Grilled Ticker Fish’ that Pervases speaks of, as it is merely a single fish, but I wish to obtain this first, so that I may give him my full opinion!”

“Sounds like a suitable plan,” Morax agreed with a nod. “Then, let’s not keep our human and adepti friends waiting.”

 

Zhongli remembered his form then, strong with a youthful wonder that wizened into ancient wisdom over the passage of time. It was so startingly unlike the form half of him took yesterday, of a child with a bitter glare in her eyes.

“So here lies the wisdom of the gods? Destroy all deemed redundant, enlist tyrants to ravage the wilderness!” Jiu mocked in her (his) fury.

Zhongli had a contract to keep. He had to seal Azhdaha away. There was no choice.

“Is once not enough!? You would forsake me again!?”

It wasn’t what he wanted. But was there…really nothing he could have done? If he had stopped the humans from mining in the Chasm, if he had noticed the change in Azhdaha, if he had just taken the time out of his duties to pay him a visit, then maybe…

“Erosion ground Azhdaha’s consciousness into oblivion. Slowly, he forgot the face of his old friend, and his memories of defending Liyue Harbor disintegrated,” Azhdaha in Kun Jun’s vessel recounted his own story with a faint smile of regret.

Zhongli couldn’t stop erosion.

And yet…he mourned what came to pass.

Zhongli had known, for a very long time, that he would never again be able to mourn as a mortal would. Azhdaha was far from the only one he has lost to time and conflict. The name he called him, “Morax,” was a stark reminder of this, that name which he had walked away from a long time ago but never truly shed. Morax was a god of war, a slayer of thousands. Morax had for a long, long time grown used to the bloodshed that was Liyue’s reality, as god fought against god in the Archon War and sacrificed hoards of soldiers as pawns. Morax felt no disgust or horror when he walked through a battlefield after the fight was over, stepping over bodies and walking through pools of blood and entrails as he coldly assessed the damage done.

In some ways, Rex Lapis was no different. For that matter, neither was Zhongli. Although his thoughts on war had changed—he would avoid it through the employment of contracts and words, if at all possible—he could never feel the same revulsion towards death and bloodshed as a human would.

Rex Lapis saw many scores of yaksha and other adepti swear fealty to him over the millennia. They would give him their loyalty, and he would make a contract with them, and he would know, because of how many times it had happened already, that they might give their lives in his service. They might fall to the evil that plagues the land in battle, or they may be consumed by the very filth they faithfully eradicated. Rex Lapis did not consider their deaths to be meaningless, nor did he ever wish to sacrifice his subjects as a pawn of war, but…he might have accepted, at some point long ago, that such deaths were inevitable and necessary.

He could not mourn as a human would—or rather, as a human without authority might. A war god had to know, lest he be blind, that he was sending his people to possible death.

He bore that weight, and he accepted that responsibility.

But in that responsibility…what did that mean for Azhdaha? Whose soul was crushed not by the many battles they fought together, but by the erosion of the earth itself?

He was sealed forever by Zhongli’s own hands. That was their contract. That was justice.

He always kept his contracts. No matter the price, no matter what he had to do…even if it was a pact paid in blood with Celestia, he did what he must for the sake of Liyue…

But was it true? Did Zhongli, in that near-final meeting, betray Azhdaha?

“I did what I must,” he spoke again to the stone tablet, cold and motionless despite the warm words inscribed upon it. “Virtue grows tall like a tree, though there be shade it will flourish forever.” But how did one define what “virtue” meant? How much of this “shade” was acceptable? This increasing debt, made in blood…

“His anger, however, does seem justified, in a certain way.”

“Guizhong?” He looked up, a small drop forming in his near-human eyes. “Did I do the right thing?”

Chapter Text

Whenever Eula walked down the streets of Mondstadt, there were still always some that kept their distance.

It was a fact that hardly bothered her in any significant way, largely because she had been used to it since birth. She was always set apart from everyone else; she was always condemned to be the recipient of a cold shoulder or sharp glare.

“No one knows respect anymore!” her uncle Schubert declared to her one day when she was a child and already well-acquainted with his rants. “They cannot hope to fathom how fortunate they are to simply have our tolerance of their mediocre presence!”

Growing up, she heard it over and over again: how noble the Lawrence clan was, how much they had been betrayed and slighted by the people, how she, for that reason, should always hate the knights and everyone associated. The Gunnhildrs and Ragnvindrs were the enemy. The very people of Mondstadt were the enemy. They didn’t respect the Lawrences, didn’t give them what was due. So, she shouldn’t associate with them. Not that they would have wanted to keep company with a Lawrence, anyways. When she was young and watched the people keep their distance as she walked the street, she knew that her family was right.

Not that she had a lot of time to even attempt to intermingle with the people of Mondstadt, anyways. Nearly every day of her childhood years was spent on a strict educational regiment, with many hours spent with a cycle of tutors teaching her academics and the arts. It didn’t leave much time for anything else, really. Or anyone else, either. It wasn’t as if her family could waste time actually being with her, or anything. She had to be trained up to be a proud member of the Lawrence clan, in hopes they would come back to power again one day.

Now, Eula was proud to be the Lawrence clan’s greatest fool.

She walked through the Mondstadt square with natural poise and spent no time paying anyone any mind on her way to the Knights Headquarters. In truth, though, she was just exhausted. Her mission that she had been on for the two weeks proved to be a particularly grueling one, and she made great effort to ignore the pain in her feet and limbs (not that it took any great effort; pain like this was something she was used to ignoring).

“Eula!”

She heard Amber’s voice greet her from afar and looked to where she was coming from to pay her a greeting back—until Amber did the unthinkable and snatched from Eula whatever proper words she was planning to say.

Amber just ran up to her, and she hugged Eula around the waist without a single moment of hesitation at all.

“A-Amber!” Eula squawked with a sound of mild indignation. “What is the meaning of this!?”

“Oh,” Amber sounded with just a touch of embarrassment and confusion and let go of her quickly, “Is something wrong? Oh, a-are you hurt? You look a little—”

“No, I’m fine,” Eula assured with a sharp exhale. “My injuries are mild; I am only slightly weary from the mission. Nothing to be concerned about.”

“Yeah, I know!” Amber nodded vigorously. “You’ve been gone for a while; that’s why I was so excited to see you!”

“Yes, yes, it is good to see you too. Now on to the matter at hand,” Eula spoke while placing her hands on her hips. “What was that?”

“Huh?” Amber tilted her head sideways. “You mean…the hug? Have I never hugged you before?”

“No, I don’t believe so.”

“And so…uhh…that was bad?”

Eula drew in a deep breath. Perhaps she wouldn’t call it ‘bad,’ necessarily. It was…well… “It was…unexpected, that’s all.”

Physical touch…that wasn’t exactly something she was familiar with. Her family always kept their distance, and they expected their staff to do the same. Eula remembers…this one time, when she was very little, that her nanny would invite her to sit on her lap, and she would play with her. Madeline was her name…she would hug her sometimes, too, and hold her hand. But then, her mother found out, and she yelled at Madeline in front of her for getting too familiar and not treating Eula with respect. Madeline was fired…so, no one else would dare to do the same.

“Okay, soooo…if it’s not bad, does that mean you’re okay with a good ol’ Mondstadt-style welcome hug, for real?” Amber opened her arms wide and beamed at her with that too-pure smile of hers.

Eula blew out a breath with a shake of her head. “I will have my vengeance for this,” she reminded her friend before slowly opening her arms as well, assuming that was how this was done.

Amber dove in and squeezed her time, somehow surprising Eula yet again despite the fact that she was expecting it this time. Amber released her quickly and smiled up at her with fists on her hips. “Alrighty then, let’s go into headquarters so you can do your thing!”

Chapter Text

Somehow, the moment Kazuha heard the news, he already knew he would be too late.

He was on the north side of Inazuma City when he found out. He was just buying a bit of food from a roadside stand, doing what he had been doing for over a month now—laying low. Keeping out of sight as much as possible, hiding his Vision. Wondering if this decree would ever come to an end; making no plans on what to do in response to it. He knew that against the will of his archon, he was helpless. Useless. Yet, he delayed the inevitable. He wouldn’t give his Vision up willingly. He knew what happened to people who lost it by force as so many now have. It was as if they lost a part of their soul…and Kazuha’s soul was in this world the only truly precious possession he had.

Then, as he was walking with his head down, he heard the murmurings, like a disquiet spread among the people of the city, rippling from its heights to its base.

“Are you serious? Someone’s challenging the general to a duel before the throne? Why?”

“He’s challenging the Vision Hunt Decree! Like an absolute madman, he is!”

“Oh, hold up, I need to see this…”

“What? The general Kujou Sara? Is that even allowed?”

“Yeah, it was this cocky blond guy with an Electro Vision, a sword-wielder…”

It could have been anyone. Kazuha knew it could have been anyone, but somehow, in that instant, there was exactly one person who came to mind. One person whom he hadn’t seen in months now, and for whom he worried, because of the Decree and the fact that he too was a Vision-wielder. But he hadn’t the slightest idea where he was…his friend was a wanderer, just like himself. He could be anywhere. So, Kazuha just hoped that one day, fate would smile on them, and they would meet again…

He promised that they would meet again.

“Tell me, what did he look like!?” he desperately asked the random passerby who had mentioned part of the mystery challenger’s description, the man appearing nervous at his sudden inquiry and taking a small step back.

“W-What? I don’t know, he…had this purple scarf, and there was a scar on his nose.”

“A…thin scar, across the bridge?”

“Yeah, what, is he some friend of yours or…?”

Kazuha took off running past him, attracting far too many yelps and stares from the city residents as he bolted down the street as if it were his own life that was at stake. Whatever anonymity he had was completely gone now, but he didn’t care. He had to get there, to the Tenshukaku. He had to get there before it was too late.

Still his heart gripped with cold dread, the realization hitting him like the slow entry of a knife in his chest. He had no doubt that it was Tomo they were talking about. It wasn’t just his appearance matching, or the fact that he was an Electro allogene, or the fact that the sword was his weapon of choice. If anyone would dare challenge the Decree like this, it would be him.

“There must be one who can withstand it,” Tomo spoke with a confident smile, gazing at something far away from the hill on which they rested, little Miko peeking out from underneath the folds of his robe. Tomo then turned back to Kazuha and laughed. “After all, there will always be those who dare to brave the lightning’s glow.”

Kazuha smiled with a shake of his head. “Well, just so long as you aren’t hasty in trying it for yourself. I must take this moment to remind you that no mortal has ever faced the Musou no Hitachi and survived to tell the tale. I’m assuming you are in fact a mortal, correct?” he teased with mock gravity.

“Ha! How did you ever guess my secret? I’m actually a bake-tanuki; I’ve been tricking you this whole time! I’ve been luring you to a false sense of security with my expert cooking, just so it could turn to mud in your mouth at just the right moment!”

“Mm, your cooking’s alright, I guess.”

“K-Kazuha, you wound me!”

 If anyone would try, it would be him. Tomo feared nothing. He faced every challenge with a smile, plunged into every fight with vigor whether it was a battle he could feasibly win or not. That day, when they talked about the Musou no Hitachi, Kazuha didn’t take him all that seriously. As reckless as he was, even he wouldn’t be such a fool as to challenge the Shogun herself for no reason at all.

But now, there was a reason.

Kazuha ran up the steps in front of the palace, now having to push past a growing crowd of people to do so. His desperation outweighed his usual courtesy and caution by far. He kept going past the gate and ignored the shouts at him in the background, focused only on that place up the steps where the crowd kept their distance. Still, he tried to tell himself it wasn’t too late. He reminded himself that Tomo was a strong fighter, on top of being an allogene. He wouldn’t lose that easily.

But this was the general of the Tenyrou Commission, Kujou Sara, he was fighting.

She was an Electro wielder. Kazuha had to assume that the Raiden would make her exempt from the decree. They wielded the same element, so they would both be resistant to it. It would come down to their prowess with the sword alone. And the general…

Her skills would be unmatched…

No! It wouldn’t be that easy. She couldn’t…

She won.

It was over. Kazuha made it up the steps with heavy breath, only in time to see Tomo’s sword drop to the ground in shattered pieces, his Vision cast alongside them. He never got to see Tomo’s face, only his backside, knees on the ground, his robe stained in blood, his hands outstretched as if inviting judgment to come. The Raiden, passionlessly, got up from her throne and started walking towards him.

“Hey! You there!”

Kazuha heard the voices of guards behind him.

“Stop! In the name of the Raiden Shogun!”

The Raiden was going to kill him.

He heard their footsteps running closer.

The Shogun kept walking steadily closer. She unsheathed her sword and it crackled with the lightning’s glow.

Kazuha could do nothing. He couldn’t stop this.

“Halt!”

He ran ahead.

Kazuha’s legs moved before he could think, one solitary target in his sight: Tomo’s Vision. The Vision that was to be inlaid in the Statue of the Omnipresent God as soon as its user was dead and gone. This Vision, which represented his aspirations, his hopes and dreams, his very soul.

Kazuha would die himself before he let them have it.

He snatched the Vision from the ground and ran. Guards blockaded his path, but he used a burst of anemo to gain height over them, declaring to all that he too was one of the Vision-wielders, one of the hunted. He ran away from them with the speed that came natural to one of his kind, using another upwards anemo burst to jump onto the roof of the courtyard wall, startling his pursuers.

He heard the sound of a thousand lightning strikes behind him, and at that same moment that he felt the warmth and spark of Tomo’s Vision fade. The latent energy that was so distinctive of Visions slowly vanished into nothing, leaving only a cold and empty shell behind.

“Stop, you ronin!”

He jumped from the roof, ran for the cliff, and jumped off of that, landing quickly on the beach below. His only goal now was to get as far away as he possibly could.

 

Narukami Island he left behind; the Kujou encampment he bypassed as best he could for the island of Tataragami. He abandoned his boat on the rocks and kept running until the day turned to dusk.

He disappeared into a small canyon outside the abandoned toxic mine at the island’s center and finally sat down, his body exhausted, his heart still pounding and clenched in stress. Although a part of him violently resisted the act, he couldn’t help but to bring out Tomo’s Vision into his gaze and stare into its depth.

There was no light. Not even the slightest, faintest spark. He…he was dead.

“There must be one who can withstand it,” he once said. But that someone was not him.

Kazuha let this happen.

His mind went through a thousand alternate possibilities, right then, like a myriad of fantasies. The thought that he could have grabbed Tomo himself and ran, and not just his Vision. The thought that he could have looked for him harder, found him sooner. Convinced him not to do it, to never initiate that fatal duel before the throne. He could have made sure the two of them never parted in the first place, if only he had thought to ask to go wherever Tomo was going. He wondered…if he too could have made a stand, right then and there at the palace courtyard. If he could have spoke up, and did something, maybe made his own challenge before the throne, then…maybe something could have changed, or maybe, the Raiden would have killed him too…

But Kazuha wasn’t that strong. He wasn’t that brave. He…was helpless, to change anything, to do anything…

He thought he would see him again. He thought that one day, their paths would once again cross. But he didn’t even know where he was going. In truth, there was much he didn’t know about Tomo; the two of them met by chance, both of them wanderers and nothing more, and they traveled together, for a time. A long time, actually. Still, they rarely spoke of where they came from—Kazuha himself felt little attachment to his old home, although he would never do his ancestors the dishonor of abandoning the Kaedehara family name. So, he understood. But now, he wondered. Did Tomo have any family, that he has now left behind for good? Was there anyone else he was close to, whether now living or dead? Or was he…really just as alone as Kazuha?

He should have been the one who lived. He was…he shouldn’t have…

“I’m sorry,” Kazuha choked out the words, tears finally escaping from his eyes as he drew his knees closer to himself and buried his head in them. Alone in the twilight, his knees grew wet, and his shoulders convulsed with sobs. “I-I’m so, so sorry.”

Chapter Text

This was…rather unexpected, actually.

Albedo stopped to take notes on the outcome, lifting up a now-wet handkerchief with admittedly shaky hands and studying the liquid smeared onto it: dark-red blood laced with threads of silky green, a fine dusting of chalk coated over it all. He can’t say that he knew what the green part was. It could be a sort of bile, perhaps something created from a reaction of the solution with his stomach acids? Although, honestly, this matter really was beyond the scope of his knowledge. He didn’t know how his internal organs worked, or what his internal fluids should look like. He could only assume that they were similar to a human’s, but that was the problem—he couldn’t assume. He knew he was different. He knew he could take nothing about how he should function for granted. But how could he know anything with certainty, when his own body was his only available sample? It wasn’t as if he could dissect himself. Not without difficulty, that is.

Perhaps, this accident of his could be a blessing in disguise…

He proceeded to make a sketch of the liquid beside his notes, but the process was difficult. He couldn’t keep his hand steady. His vision refused to focus as it normally would, and the throbbing in his frontal lobe made keeping focus harder still. He felt himself slip into another coughing fit, and he fumbled to grab another cloth to cover his mouth before he got mucus or blood on his clothes or workstation.

It was unfortunate timing, then, that the door to the lab would open when he was wholly unable to look up at who was coming, greet them, or more preferably, tell them to leave him be before they noticed…

“M-Mr. Albedo!” Sucrose’s voice was undeniable, as was her intense shock and worry. “What happened!? Are—are you…?”

“Sorry…I’m fine.” Albedo’s voice came out much hoarser than he expected, but still, he tried to look up at Sucrose with some measure of assurance, his coughing relieved for the moment. “Just…a little under the weather, that’s all.”

“Oh no…you look really pale…” She looked him over with studious worry, her ears drooping low. She shook her head. “I’m sorry, it’s just…you seemed just fine this morning. When did it start? Do you know what it is?

What it was, exactly? Nothing specifically definable, he was sure. “It’s something roughly equivalent to a common cold, most likely.”

“Oh, okay…wait! Is that…o-oh no, did you cough up blood!? Mr. Albedo!”

Albedo looked down at the cloth he was holding and its admittedly obvious implications. “Yes,” he conceded.

“And what is mixed with it…? Is that chalk dust?”

“It’s nothing!” He pulled away his hand with the handkerchief that she was inspecting a little more roughly than he anticipated. Which…was probably very suspicious, actually. Albedo sighed heavily, his brain feeling throbs of pain still that made everything difficult. He couldn’t seem to think of the right thing to do fast enough, he was just…so tired…tired and miserable enough to hardly even care…

“There was chalk in the solution I drank,” he lied with a voice that seemed to scratch his throat as he used it, although the part about the solution being the thing at issue was truth. “I was doing an experiment, and…well…its effects on my body proved more…negative, than I would have anticipated.”

“Oh…Oh no, this isn’t good, I’ll get someone for you, Mr. Albedo!” Sucrose’s despair morphed into determination. “Someone…like Barbara! She could help, I’m sure!”

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary…” He…still wanted to finish his notes. Maybe run some experiments, while the liquid he coughed up was still fresh. He…could finally figure out what’s inside himself…

“N-No! Mr. Albedo, you have to rest! I-I…I mean, you also tell me to rest, when I’m not feeling well! I had a sore throat four months ago, remember? You told me to leave and stay at home, even though I didn’t want to! And this…Albedo, this is much worse!”

Well…that was really hard to argue with, wasn’t it?

+++

Albedo was lying in a bed now, stuck staring blankly at the ceiling for lack of any better use of his time. His limbs were as heavy as lead, his stomach tense, his throat dry, his hair plastered to his forehead with sweat, despite one of the sisters having just shown up a minute ago to dry his forehead with a towel and also give him water. There had been a revolving circle of panicked people in his company for the past two hours, more than he would have expected—he didn’t realize how bad he really looked until then. Word spread quickly through the knights; Master Jean showed up almost immediately and used her own healing abilities to numb his pain until some people from the church could show up…they told him he needed to go to the infirmary at the church itself, and it was at that moment he realized that he couldn’t stand the thought of taking one more step from where he was. Even being carried felt like more than he could take. So he stayed at the headquarters. In that time, Kaeya and Lisa showed up to help, and Timaeus, and Huffman, and Hertha, and…others he paid little attention to…and also…

“Okay!” Klee came bounding back into his room, climbing into a chair beside him, leaning over to him with a bundle in her arms and eyes both worried and hopeful. “I got everything you need to get to feel better again! Look, here!” She held up some papers with one hand and crayons with the other. “I have coloring! Coloring always makes Klee feel better when I am sick. That’s because it makes you not think about the bad feelings anymore. It’s just like what you do, Albedo! But you can’t use any pencils or paints or anything like that. It has to be crayons. Otherwise, it would be too much work. Kaeya said so! Also, Kaeya’s coming to give you soup in just a little bit so you have to eat it to feel better, okay? And, I have a fuzzy blanket!” She lifted up the greater part of her bundle’s volume with flourish before dropping it onto Albedo, then diligently going about straightening it. “It’s really really soft, so it’ll be good to snuggle with if you get cold!”

Albedo was admittedly the opposite of cold at the moment, although that was likely to change…he probably had a fever now, or something like that. His sensation of temperature had been fluctuating rapidly. Still… “Thank you, Klee.” Albedo smiled weakly in appreciation of the gesture, never mind that he hardly felt like he could do anything right now, even coloring. And there was so much he needed to figure out…he…desperately needed to do something, about this.

It was his own fault, he realized. He gave himself a solution to drink, and it made him very violently sick, as if he poisoned himself somehow. He didn’t know why this happened, but admittedly, the very fact that he tried such a thing in the first place did create some revulsion in the other knights. But he always did this; this was his policy. He never gave any potion to anyone else that he didn’t first try himself. But even so, he acted on the assumption that he knew he couldn’t hold onto—the assumption that he was similar enough to any other human.

Admittedly, having people look after him in a medical manner was nerve-wracking, even if it was hard to summon the energy to be as panicked about it as he would be otherwise. He wondered what they would find out, what they would think if they realized there was something unnatural about what he was coughing up. Although perhaps, he shouldn’t worry so hard…pure humans were far from the only patients they were accustomed to. Though not as plenteous as other regions, Mondstadt had its population of demi-humans—Sucrose was one of them, for instance. He could…pretend he was something of that sort, somehow. But, Sucrose noticed the chalk dust. Others would notice, too. Could he really hide this?

That, perhaps, was his more selfish reason for not wanting people to worry about him. He also just…felt guilty to send people into a panic over something entirely self-inflicted.

(And he couldn’t help but fear, as well. It was illogical, but with his body weakened, would this be the day corruption would start to settle in…?)

“You’re welcome!” Klee chirped, her smile bright and pure. “And I got one more gift for you, too! This one is the most special one of all, so promise to take good care of him!”

Him?

“Ta-da!” She stretched out cupped hands and then opened them, revealing none other than her favorite stuffed animal backpack charm, Dodoco.

Even with his bleary mind, the realization hit Albedo quickly. “Klee…are you sure?” He looked up to her with a bit of solemnity. “Dodoco…”

“Is my very best best friend,” Klee nodded resolutely, still holding Dodoco tight while looking down at him and the bed. “And, because Dodoco is my friend, he was really worried about you too, because…b-because…” Klee sounded like she was sobbing, a little… “Because, everyone was really worried!” She looked up quickly again, her eyes now shimmering with a hint of tears. “And Sucrose said there was blood and that that was a really serious thing, and they didn’t know I was listening but I was listening and then when I asked Sucrose and Timaeus about what was happening they wouldn’t tell me anything and they said that you would be fine but they just said you weren’t fine and…and—!”

“Klee…” Albedo felt his heart twist, and not because of the unknown sickness. “I’m sorry…I really am. But, you don’t have to worry, okay? Jean and Barbara have very special healing magic, remember? And it worked, right? I’m not coughing anymore.” For now, anyways. “You can trust them. I’ll recover.”

Klee nodded, a forced brave smile finding its way into her expression. “Okay. I trust them. So you have to promise you’ll get better okay? And Dodoco’s going to help you!” She placed him on Albedo’s chest on top of the blanket with resolution. “And I’ll stay with you too! All night long! So, do you promise?”

Albedo nodded, releasing a long exhale with a soft smile. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

“What are you saying, exactly?” Ningguang felt every muscle inside her tense, her body raising from her seat without making any conscious decision to do so. Everything on her desk that she had been working on vanished from both sight and mind, as did all the room’s furnishings and all the Milleleth and officials who had been accompanying her before their visitors came. In this moment, there was only the few distressed visitors before her, and the ever-present sound of the storm raging outside.

“W-We mean that there’s a chance…we’re just reporting that the Alcor is nowhere to be found.” There was an intense stress in the boatswain’s eyes; this must be serious, if these pirates would think it fit to seek an audience with the Qixing. Not that Ningguang hadn’t talked with them so many times before…but not on an official capacity. Even now some of the Milleleth seemed to have uncertainty in their eyes, but she frankly did not care.

“The rest of the Crux docked safely six days ago, but the Alcor has yet to return, and the storm has not stopped since then,” the Crux sailor spokesman repeated. “And…now we’ve found wreckage at Guyun Stone Forest. The Alcor could be lost at sea—”

“Not wreckage,” Ningguang corrected, her gaze intense and focused, “you told me there was a broken mast on the shore. That is not the whole ship. Just as this is not the whole story. Tell me, without any further delays, exactly why your ship returned to Liyue Harbor without the Alcor six days ago.”

“The Alcor was…damaged,” the boatswain relented. “We had a skirmish with the Blackstar Fleet beforehand. Captain Beidou ordered the other ships to go ahead in anticipation of the upcoming storm. We just…could never have imagined…”

“That’s enough,” Ningguang spoke amidst the sound of anxious whispers rippling through her company, and amidst the sound of her own beating heart that she refused to let get the better of her.

“Lady Tianqi—”

“I’m coming there myself.”

 

The Milleleth nearly had a collective heart attack at her decision, but Ningguang ignored them. She set out straight to the streets with just a few of her personal guard as backup, making little effort to protect herself against the pouring rain. The storm had raged for six days straight, as what was sometimes typical of this time of year. Even so, the streets seemed to buzz with activity. People watched her movements from the shelter of the overhangs and bridges, anxious whispers accompanying them.

“Lady Tianqian!” Someone shouted. “Is it true? Is Captain Beidou dead?”

Nonsense. Utter nonsense. That burlish captain would never go down so easily. She was too stubborn for that. She would never allow her crew to fall, either. According to reports, only the wounded from their battle left for Liyue Harbor on the fleet’s other ships; the rest of the Alcor’s crew stayed. Ningguang wondered what Beidou was thinking. Surely, they could have made repairs and followed them. But somehow, Ningguang doubted that reports of these pirates they were facing were inconsequential to the full story.

Pirates…such a joke, to attempt to make a delineation. Beidou and her fleet have straddled the line of legality for a long time. The only reason Ningguang put up with her was because of her favorable public opinion, really. Even though she was a so-called “pirate queen.” Such trouble, she was…this recent Inazuma mess was one prime example—smuggling contraband under the guise of legal trade complying with the Sakoku Decree, aiding rebels who were fool enough to fight the will of their archon, fighting with those rebels, taking in a fugitive…

With how synonymous her name is with Liyue, it’s a wonder Liyue’s relations with Inazuma haven’t become more strained than they already were because of her.

She was a pirate queen who was officially an enemy of the Qixing for her blatant disregard of the rules…and yet, there was a need to make a delineation. Because Ningguang knew very well that the Crux Fleet had little in common with the Blackstar (who hadn’t been heard from around Liyue in years…why were they even here?). Beidou would never steal from innocents, would never kill to incite terror. She wasn’t a “pirate” in that sense of the word…no, not in the slightest…

Ningguang had shut down the Harbor four days ago because of the storm. Officially, no one was to leave it, only return. But now, she was going to leave it.

She was going to Guyun personally. On her ship, with her people, and a few of the Crux’s. But not many—she didn’t want to throw into certain danger anyone other than the most elite, the most experienced.

 

She saw the mast, like they said. Amidst the raging waters, it stuck out among the rocks with a few tattered strips of red still clinging on. But nowhere was the Alcor itself.

She ordered them to stop here, leaving most of the people behind to focus their effort into keeping the ship afloat. She came to shore with three of her guard, some sixth sense telling her that if she searched, there would be something to find.

It didn’t take long. It was just a short ways down the beach that the skull-adorned flag came into view, the strong winds threatening to tear it from the tree they tied it too. Below it, there were people, a whole throng of them looking like they had a mind to build a fort right then and there—one could probably have heard them from a mile off were it not for the rain. But that was not the part that made Ningguang’s blood run cold.

She stared at the tree with feet sinking into the wet sand, her hair plastered to her face, her guards’ anxiety palpable. There was more in that tree besides the flag. There was a scarf. A single scarf, tied to the branch like a trophy, colored red and dark brown.

It belonged to that kid. Kazuha, the one Beidou took in…

Beidou never would have let them. She never would have let anyone kill him, not without fighting tooth and nail herself, not without taking as many of them down as she could before someone drove a sword into her heart. Unless it was the sea that took her first. No, the sea never would have been enough, it would have had to have been…

The rumors were true.

“Lady Ningguang…”

Beidou, that bullheaded fool…

“We have to go back and alert the other Milleleth and the Qixing. There’s too many…”

“Stay behind me,” Ningguang ordered.

“L-Lady Ni—”

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

“Ningguang, surely you don’t plan…?”

Ningguang walked forward with steady step although trudging through mud. These pirates were making no attempt at subtlety, so neither should her. She walked with her focus set on people busy at work raising their useless palisade…

“Ha ha, well!” A cocky-looking man stepped forward with a ravenous grin. “Look at what we have here!” He shouted to be heard above the wind. “Some fancy lady and the Milleleth! Only four of you, too! How bold!”

“Tell me your purpose here!” She shouted back at him over the sandy shore.

“Isn’t it obvious? We’re taking what’s ours! Your dead archon isn’t going to come to save you now! And we know that the adepti won’t be friends of yours without him! So give it up!”

So they received flawed information, then. They believe the adepti and the Qixing are still at odds…no matter.

Ningguang materialized her catalyst and made certain that the glow of her Vision would be clearly visible, her message clear.

“Don’t think your Vision will be enough!”

A few men started charging at her. It was their mistake, underestimating her. Not surprising—she was a businesswoman, and her element was Geo. It was not an element known for its offensive capabilities, being most effective in the creation of shields, and to be used as support. But if they believed that rock was somehow inherently weak, well…then they must have neglected their research of her archon.

In the same instant, Ningguang threw up a screen to block the advance of the charging men, and she sent a single geo stone to home in on the ringleader who spoke to her—much faster than she usually did, and focused specifically on his head. Anyone who knew her would know—Ningguang’s accuracy was unparalleled.

This was for Beidou.

The rock hit him, straight in the right eye, with a cracking sound rivaling the thunder, and kept going until it lodged in the sand, taking a chunk of his skull in pieces with it.

His body fell to the ground amidst a fountain of blood, contorted in the rain-soaked sand, the other goons thrown into a frenzy.

Shouts and cries and “get her!” erupted, and Ningguang stood and strengthened her shield between them and her men. Not a perfect shield, but it slowed their approach as she threw out several more manifestations of geo as homing missiles. From behind her, her men let out a war cry and ran in to join the fray.

Ningguang’s appearance was emotionless, her eyes dead as she dared the rain, the Blackstar, the lightning—anything to stop her. Whatever they did, whatever trick this scum of the earth pulled—they would pay for it. It shouldn’t have happened like this. Beidou’s antics were going to get her killed someday, but not like this. Not this soon. Not without warning. Not without the chance for one last throw by Beidou of that infuriating smile of hers, one last discussion bound to irritate them both, one last walk around the Harbor, one last chess game…

Ningguang may not have asked for her Vision or cared for it, but one would be sorely mistaken to think she did not seek perfection with her use of it like she did for everything else she put herself to. She may even use it for only light damage most of the time, but with enough focus and energy, those same techniques could be used to kill.

A bold but foolish swordswoman dropped dead at her feet with a hole bored half-way through her chest, her blood pouring into the ground. Ningguang looked up and saw that the barrage was not letting up—the pirates had retreated back across their half-made defenses, and they were starting a barrage…

One of her men was struck in the shoulder and felled, and Ningguang rushed to throw up another Jade Screen to protect them. It was, however, a better technique to pair with her own catalyst than with the Milleleth’s polearms…if they couldn’t be on offense, then…

Then Ningguang saw a flash of lightning, from the other side of the barricade. But not from the sky, it was…

“Men, attack!”

Ningguang could have sworn she imagined it. It must have been the wind and the waves playing tricks, it must have been her own imagination, that must be some other army emerging from the rocks to fight…

But then she saw a glimpse of a swordsman propelling himself into the air and landing a slash against one pirate’s back. Even from a distance, she recognized that hair and those clothes anywhere—it was Beidou’s kid.

She ran ahead, presumably to assess the situation and join the fray, but really, she was scanning the chaos for one single face, one among the fighting Alcor crew…

There she was. In the middle of it, as always, her claymore swinging with deadly strength. Blazing Electro surrounding her as a shield.

The idiot really was alive.

+++

“We were in a rough spot,” Beidou told her afterwards, the hollowed-out cavern by the domain providing cover from the rain for the moment being, not as if it mattered much since they couldn’t be more soaked to the bone than they already were. Beidou’s clothes were stained with blood, and there was a gash over her eye, but still she stood tall. She ordered her surgeon to help the rest of the crew first. “The rudder was shattered, so there was no way we could all head to Liyue Harbor without slowing the other ships down. Plus, we weren’t about to lure the Blackstar fleet any closer to the Harbor; it was obvious they were getting ideas on Liyue, so I figured the Alcor would make a suitable temptation for them to take down before doing anything else. And my men were on board with the plan.”

Beidou exhaled sharply then. “Not that it was easy. The Alcor is in bad shape, and so was the crew after that second battle…but we were ready for the third. Making them believe I was dead worked well for a false sense of security. And in the end, we made it. I didn’t lose a single man. Not a single one.” Exhaustion seeped through her smile, but she smiled all the same.

“The news of the Alcor’s demise spread through Liyue. You must realize the state everyone was in.”

“Enough to make even the high and mighty Qixing come after us?” She smirked. “It’s almost as if we were on good terms.”

“Well, don’t go expecting a tearful reunion from me.”

“Ha! Wouldn’t dream of it!”

“And I’ll have you know, this stunt will not go unpunished. My men were injured in this fight that you started.”

“Really?” Beidou crossed her arms. “Even at a time like this, you pin the blame on me?”

Ningguang didn’t have time to argue. “So as punishment, I request one chess match.”

She never could have found another chess partner quite like her, someone who both could keep up with her and dared to never hold back.

Beidou’s confused expression quickly morphed into a wide smile. “Well then, you’re on!”

Chapter Text

Whelp, looks like he did it again.

Ajax breathed in deep as he steeled himself to assess the damage, here alone in his rented room in Liyue Harbor and decidedly far away from the Fatui soldiers under his command. He got in front of a mirror and started to remove his shirt, flinching a little more dramatically than he would have liked in the act. It stung like fire, and every little movement of fabric brushing up against it felt like sandpaper with thorns. Not that it wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle—or anything that even held a candle to the pain he felt before.

It looked just like he expected it would.

Across his bare chest were a number of scars, with two most prominent—a slash slicing across his right pectoral horizontally, another slash stretching vertically, a little to the left, from that time a bone monster attempted to rip his stomach open from bottom to top. Both of those wounds in particular had flared up, again. The skin around them had turned a splotchy dark purple and black, its texture rough to the touch, and flaking. Just a little touch to them right now sent his skin crumbling off of him as dust.

It was that corrosion effect, annoyingly still latent inside him, even after all these years. The scars didn’t bother him at all, usually. He kept them hidden most of the time, but if anyone ever did see and wonder (especially if they did get discolored, again), it was so easy to laugh it off as a hazard of his trade, the product of some great fight he once had. He would flash that slightly unhinged toothy grin at whatever poor subordinate had the misfortune of noticing, letting them know that whatever he fought, it was much stronger than anything they could ever imagine, and the important part was that Tartaglia won.

It still hurt like hell, so hard that Ajax found himself gripping the sides of the counter and refusing to move from this spot. This is what he got for fighting Abyss monsters. It wasn’t like he was weak to them, or anything, but sometimes, when the fight went on too long, or he took one too many hits, it would awaken that corruption inside of him again, and he would be forced out of commission in a way that just a normal flesh wound could never accomplish.

“Keep breathing, Ajax,” she told him, her gaze serious but without a single ounce of shock or revulsion as she treated the grimy, decaying wound. “Look at me, focus. Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep, go it?”

He wouldn’t dream of taking this to a Fatui medic. That would be tantamount to shooting himself in the leg, letting the Fatui see his weakness, see how damaged he really was. He didn’t go to them for anything at all, really. It wasn’t like he had anything to prove to them, but that didn’t mean he wanted to bare himself so easily.

Going to a hospital here in Liyue was a strict no-go, as well. For one thing, they really didn’t like him all that much, anymore. Even if most people didn’t know how, erm, involved he was with the Osial incident, he was still a Harbinger, and the Fatui were hardly going to be welcome here now. He was just sticking around a while…for reasons. Because as much as he would like to see his family again, he didn’t want to go back to Schneznaya. He didn’t want to deal with things. He didn’t want to see Signora…oh, right, she’s dead now…well, yeah. Still.

Still, even if Liyue Harbor loved him, it wasn’t an option to ask for help. Not when it was the Abyss that was involved. No one could help him, even if they tried.

Ajax winced over the counter with intensity, continuing to grip it hard for support, breathing in and out, in and out. He just had to grit his teeth and wait for it to end. Just like he always did.

Chapter Text

“Tried everything we could think of,” she said. Ha, as if that would stop him! He was a pirate of Inazuma, a ruler of all the seas! They faced the Shogunate and won! The Cataclysm happened, and guess what? They still survived! As if a few little islands would get them down…no no nope, that wasn’t about to happen.

He told the kind islander as much, with a wide smile and chest puffed up with his arms crossed on top of it. “Maybe you could learn a thing or two from our expertise!” he said. In a way, these islanders were kind of lucky to have…

“The same expertise that got you stranded here?” the islander girl, Haru, droned. 

Ako Domeki, master of the seas, responded to the retort with a sour grunt of indignation, turning away from her with arms still crossed. “Hey, well, we’ll find a way, just you watch!”

Funny, this girl kind of reminded him of Hibiki, in a way…so naggy and fretful, never giving an inch to his antics, not ever…

He wondered how she would be, once he got back to Serai Island. She would be so angry at him, wouldn’t she? The thought brought a smile to the stranded pirate’s face. Aunt Hibiki would surely be there to give him a tongue-lashing like she always did.

(But she broke the ward. No one else could have done that. He tossed her off his ship, giving some wild excuse about how “women would slow him down” to keep her from being implemented in his war, and then she went and broke the wards keeping the violet glede at bay. The Shogunate fleet was torn to pieces by the ensuing storm—such a poetic end for the followers of the Electro archon. But Hibiki, that old hag, really went and did it herself…was she alright? Did something happen to her when she did that? Did the Shogunate get to her? Nah, no, that was impossible. She was too stubborn. She would still be there, when he came back…she was still waiting for that Konbumaru guy to come back, she couldn’t kick the bucket yet…)

Domeki had to keep his head about him, for his own sake and for his men’s sake. But this really was creepy as hell. He took the ship in a single direction, into the fog, and somehow, he ended up returning to exactly the spot he came from. There were no restless seas to steer him off track, no weird currents that he could make out. Just that same damn fog.

He took the ship out again and again. The results were the same. Now it was just him, his crew (the remainder of them who survived that battle with the Shogunate), and that samurai puppet. His men mourned the loss of their treasure, but as the awe-inspiring captain he was, he laughed it off as another cruel twist of fate.

At least the islanders were good to them, for the most part. Some weren’t so keen on the presence of the rough-looking strangers, or on the presence of that samurai puppet, but they were all still good people. The longer he spent here, the more ol’ Captain Ako was of a mind that he couldn’t possibly leave this place with only his crew, although that was his initial intention. He was going to leave with everyone else who wanted to.

It was probably what auntie would have done, anyways.

“Why are you still waiting for that old gambler, anyways?” Domeki asked one day while helping Hibiki do upkeep on the shrine offering box. “Isn’t he married, or something?”

Hibiki sighed sharply, as if she thought the question childish somehow. “I’m not entertaining fantasies of being with him, if that’s what you mean. I just have his bow, that’s all. I plan to give it back to him one day.”

Right, the Thundering Pulse. Nice bow, but too much of that Shogun purple for his tastes. Of course, it was no fair comparison when every weapon out there surely paled to his own! Although Hibiki always said his “The Catch” looked like an overgrown fork…

“Yeah, you mentioned that it was a bet or something. He returns safely from his battle with the Abyss, you give it back to him, right? But that was years ago. Don’t you think he might be, well…you know…”

“Dead?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, that is for time to decide.” She looked back at him solemnly, a sort of weird deepness in her eyes. “Relationships will come and go, Domeki. You’ll learn that, one day. Our job is simply to do our part for the people we do have, whether they are with us or not. Not that responsibility is something that someone like you could possibly comprehend. But you’ll learn. I know you’ll learn.”

 

He figured it out. By the stars above, he figured it out. He knew he would.

“The fog seems to come and go following a regular pattern!” he proclaimed, proceeding to explain to everyone gathered how it worked. He was sure he got it right, this time. He was too stuck on trying to explain the phenomena naturally before, figuring it through in a way that would put his nautical prowess to use. But in the end, it was just a puzzle. A matter of seeing the pattern that lay hidden in the fog all along. “…All we need to do is find it, and we can get everyone out of here!”

“Really?” Haru’s eyes, so skeptical of him before, now shone with just the faintest glimmer of hope. Everyone here had that same glimmer—subtle, like they were scared it might still go wrong, but not so drenched in negativity that they would pass this chance up.

“Take me with you!” she declared, and Ako Domeki, for one, wasn’t about to tell her ‘no.’

 

They were getting out of here today, and he was going back to Serai Island and Hibiki as soon as it was over. Who knows? Maybe some of these islanders would like to tag along. He would be only too glad to introduce them to his favorite naggy old shrine maiden and her cats.

Chapter Text

“You’re really testing my patience, traitor.”

There was a slow ripping sound, followed by a scream. Diluc’s scream, not Kaeya’s. Kaeya’s mouth felt like cotton, painfully numb and dry. He tried not to look at Diluc. He couldn’t guarantee that his strength or his sanity would hold out if he did. Still, it really didn’t help to look down at the floor, since he was unable to look away at the blood dripping from the arm of Diluc’s chair, making tracks across the metal, producing an ever-growing pool on the floor.

Kaeya had a nightmare like this. So, so many times.

The man with the silver mask stormed up to Kaeya yet again, slamming his left hand next to Kaeya’s head, one visible eye with that tell-tale star-shaped pupil boring into his with not-so-repressed anger. “I’ll ask you again,” he growled. “That ‘Acting Grandmaster’ of yours. Where is she?”

“Don’t…” Diluc’s voice came out like a hoarse rasp, like a beg far too feeble to be coming from him. Kaeya knew by the way he sounded that he was trying hard—desperately so—to not show them any more weakness than he was forced to. He would never crumble, never beg for mercy—no matter what they did. But even Diluc couldn’t stop himself from screaming.

Kaeya stared back into the man’s furious eye. He felt like he knew them, somehow. Both him and his partner, the woman standing wordlessly a short distance behind him with bloody forceps in hand, her mask a dark blue but of the same design as his, her gaze regarding Kaeya with nothing but cold spite. Their masks covered their cursed right eyes, just like Kaeya had for so many years covered up his. He wondered if the pair felt vaguely familiar because he knew them when he was a kid, or because he shared some inexplicable connection with other Khaenri’ahns. Not that it made any real difference, to him. Kaeya would never be on their side, regardless. Especially not now.

“As if I know,” Kaeya lied to his former countryman’s face, a slight smile of pure delirium forming. “You really think that after all of this, the Knights would let the Khaenri’ahn in on their plans?”

Mr. Silver Mask slapped him across the cheek with the vengeance. “You think playing dumb will work!?”

No. No, he didn’t. Kaeya didn’t feel half as confident as he made himself to sound. Not with Diluc here. Every guttural instinct he had raged at him to give up so they would stop hurting him, to give himself up and let it all be over. And then, that last shred of common sense he had would remind that he was not they wanted. It was Jean. And Aether, and Albedo, and everyone else by extension, even if they didn’t know that yet. And that was a price neither Kaeya nor Diluc would ever consent to pay. Kaeya’s head on a platter wouldn’t be good enough. They wanted Mondstadt. And he wasn’t giving that to them.

He never would. He decided this many years ago. He never would.

In Kaeya’s nightmares, it was his own father standing in front of him right now with furious disappointment. It was his father who would hurt Diluc, hurt Crepus, maybe even kill them, and watch as Kaeya screamed and tried to help them, tried to lift their bloody contorted bodies from the ground, tried to make them breathe again. The older he got, the more people his father would try and succeed in hurting. He saw Jean with a slitted throat, Albedo cut into pieces, Klee coming up to him crying fiercely, a gaping hole in her stomach, asking him why he did it. Why did he kill her?

Kaeya tried to console himself in his waking hours with the unreality of it. In real life, his limbs wouldn’t be heavy like lead, he wouldn’t run like he had to fight the ocean to do so, he wouldn’t be physically unable to speak a single word of warning, he wouldn’t fight back so badly. And yet now, what difference was there? He was stuck in place with his hands tied behind his back and his body bound to a chair that was bolted to the floor. His injuries from the battle they just had forbid him from brute forcing his way out even if he ever possibly had that ability. He couldn’t move, he didn’t have his Vision, and he couldn’t say a single word good enough to save them.

“Take another one,” the man ordered, and Kaeya wanted so hard to beg. Please don’t do this, leave Diluc out of it, hurt him instead, please, anything, don’t keep—

Diluc’s scream dug into Kaeya’s skin, pulsated through his spirit, grated against every bone and every nerve. The sound seemed to settle into his heart and drag it further with something like guilt. Guilt for Kaeya’s own existence.

That made four fingernails, now.

“Well!? Will that be enough!?” Silver Mask grabbed Kaeya’s collar and roughly pulled him forward with it, pressing Kaeya’s chest hard against the tightly bound ropes. “How much more will it take for you to give up!? Is it worth it for this nation of heathens!? Well, is it!? You were supposed to be our hope! You know how much everyone had to sacrifice!? You ungrateful traitor!”

“You…you traitor!” The look in Diluc’s wounded eyes, equal parts distraught and furious, said it all. Kaeya was a stranger to him now. Because Kaeya lied to him. For nearly ten years he lied, to both him and to their father.

Or to Diluc’s father, rather.

Kaeya saw Diluc materialize his claymore and set flames to it. “Draw your sword!” he ordered through his tears.

That was fine. If this was what Diluc wanted…Kaeya would take it. Because he really was as bad as Diluc said. He really was sent here to be a traitor, even though for years, Kaeya agonized over the choice of who he would be a traitor to. His birth father, or his adopted one? Maybe that was why, when Crepus died, he could only hang back and watch…he couldn’t be there for Diluc like he should have been, because he was never one of them truly…

The past reverberated through Kaeya’s mind, reminding him of how long his path had been marching towards this fate, reminding him of the first time he failed Diluc…at least, their fight years ago didn’t stop them from being by each other’s sides now—or so Kaeya thought before they got caught. It was both of their decisions to stay and fight until they couldn’t fight any longer, to buy time for the others. Yet even Kaeya failed to plan for what would happen afterwards.

Jean knew, now. She knew everything: about Kaeya, about the Abyss, about what they were trying to do. Aether, Paimon, and Albedo knew about Kaeya to some lesser degree—perhaps Jean would tell them the rest, along with the others joining them who probably were confused as hell about what was going on right now. He didn’t mind if she did. She could tell the entire knighthood the truth about him—those secrets didn’t matter anymore.

 

“I can’t leave you two.” Jean’s words were pained and desperate, her eyes pleading. “You don’t understand: Mondstadt needs you, I need you…”

“And I need you to make sure there’s a Mondstadt left to go back to.” Kaeya smiled sadly. “Don’t worry; we won’t fall easily.”

 

“You do realize I’m the last person you should trust to purify anything?” Albedo’s arms were crossed, his tone serious. Kaeya responded with a smile and a shrug.

“That’s what I’m counting on. Your vast wealth of personal experience.”

“It was one time.”

“Then honestly, what are you worried about?”

 

“We’re coming back for you,” Aether promised with a fierceness in his tone and also something much sadder, a subtle fear behind his eyes, a subtle reminder of all the people he’s already lost to this convoluted war. “Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself like this.”

 

“Why can’t I come with you?” Klee cried, clinging tightly to his leg.

(That was before they left, before they ran headfirst to save their decaying sky, before Diluc and Kaeya chose to stay behind in that dark cavernous tunnel and make certain that the Abyss would never find where they went).

“It’ll be okay, Klee,” Kaeya told her, bending down to meet her eyes. “We’re going to fix this, and we’ll find your mom, too. But you have to stay safe for everyone, okay? Trust us.”

 

Kaeya trusted that they could do it. The fact that Aether was here with them gave him a special hope as well: he purified Dvalin when he was corrupted and he purified Albedo when he transformed into that demon-dragon thing—if anyone could rid the world of whatever disease the Abyss created, he could.

All they needed was time. But there was no guarantee that they would ever see each other again.

Kaeya finally permitted himself to look up, to look past Mr. Silver Mask and at Diluc, instead. Diluc, whose hair was matted with dark blood that also ran down his face and neck, whose right hand was mangled brutally, who was heaving heavily with every single breath. Diluc, who was only here because of Kaeya. Because Kaeya entered his life all those years ago, because Kaeya launched this plan to stop the Abyss in the first place, because Kaeya failed to protect him. Diluc’s eyes blinked open and looked into Kaeya’s. Amidst the all-pervasive glaze of pain, Kaeya couldn’t tell what emotion they had, but the longer he stared, the more the word “defiance” came into mind. But it wasn’t directed at Kaeya. Somehow, Kaeya was sure of that. But he almost wished it was. Now, of all times, Diluc should be allowed to hate him.

“I have a thought,” Silver Mask spoke up out of the blue, his lips upturning into a slight ravenous smile. “I want his eye.”

No. No. He couldn’t—

“Whose? The Ragnvindr’s?” Blue Mask droned with a bored tone.

“Of course. I want his right one, of course. Give it to me in a jar, will you? Maybe then, we’ll see how much our traitor friend actually cares about this Mondstadt heathen scum.”

Kaeya felt his blood freeze in his veins, his thoughts falling numb where they stood. His heart pounded in his skull where his ideas should be. He couldn’t let them. He wouldn’t let them. He watched the woman move again to her bloody table of instruments, pick out a paring knife—

Kaeya laughed. He laughed before he knew what he was doing, commanded the Silver Mask’s attention while he was still holding his collar. “Weak, so weak…” Kaeya flashed him a crazed smile, made the man look taken aback, if only for a moment.

“You’re really that scared to touch me?” Kaeya taunted with a smiling vengeance. “You’re really that proud? You can do this to a Mondstadtian, but you can’t rip out the eye of one of your own? Or are you just scared of what would happen?”

“You…you insolent…”

“Well? Why is it? What if I dare you to do it?” he taunted. He begged.

“You filthy…treacherous…” His one visible eye narrowed at him, his grip became tighter. “You would bring shame to your father even more by acting like this?”

“I don’t have time for this,” the woman declared.

Kaeya didn’t have time to say anything else, then. She took the knife and made her mark.

Chapter Text

Xinyan was already beyond panicked before she made it to the bottom of the cliffside, freefalling and smashing her claymore into the ground to save a precious few seconds of time, before frantically looking around to figure out where Xiangling was. It wasn’t like she didn’t think her friend could handle getting knocked off a mountain every now and again—usually—but she heard her scream and that did not sound good and now—

It was as bad as she thought—no, worse. Way, way worse. Xinyan felt her heart rise to her throat as she looked and saw Xiangling crumbled on the ground beside these rocks, the contents of her pack scattered haphazardly around her, lying amidst way too much blood…

Xinyan forced herself to snap out of it and do something, dragging Xiangling to a better patch of ground and an un-crumbled lying position. “Hey, hey, Xiangling! Speak to me!”

She heard the sound of Guoba running up behind her (oh, she forgot about him, didn’t she?), making distressed noises as he walked up beside Xiangling’s head and looked at her forlornly. Gently he sat next to her.

Blearily Xiangling opened her eyes. There was a scratch on her cheek and on multiple places elsewhere, her body roughed up in general from her fall that very unluckily landed her on those rocks, but the worse part was definitely her left leg. There was a deep gash running across it, definitely the fault of those rocks, and it was bleeding really badly. Already it was smeared all the over the ground and Xinyan’s hands and knees.

Xiangling groaned in lieu of proper, weakly trying to make herself move. “X-Xinyan…” her voice sounded awful, “…I…I think I…”

Then Xinyan heard some telltale noises behind her. Now of all times. This was more than just a nuisance, she felt herself get very angry.

“Look what we have here? Gonna be more cooperative, or you wanna taste of my hammer?”

Xinyan and Xiangling (and Guoba) had had a run-in with a Treasure Hoarder camp just south of Mount Aoyang. They were just on a normal collection mission—Xiangling wanted to pick some fresh Violetgrass and search out whatever other ingredients she could find, and Xinyan opted to tag along to keep her company. And maybe now, to do everything she could to help…usually, the Treasure Hoarders wouldn’t be much of a problem for either of them, but this time, one guy threw a potion that blasted Xiangling off the mountain, making the situation a whole lot more serious than it should have been.

Hurriedly, Xinyan got up and prepared to face the Treasure Hoarders who thought it’d be a good idea to follow them down here in their usual very much not rock n’ roll way. She positioned herself so that Xiangling and Guoba were behind her, throwing up her blazing shield…

And then watched as an ice-infused arrow came out of nowhere and struck the hammer-wielder in the chest.

Xinyan looked up in surprise to see flash of blue leaping over her, coming in on the attack on the small mob of Treasure Hoarders. Once she landed, Xinyan noticed that she looked kind of human but also had atop her head of light blue hair these dark red horns that looked like something an adepti would have (she guessed they were kind of in adepti territory, weren’t they?), and she thought she looked…familiar? But she couldn’t put her finger on it.

But Xinyan stopped gawking very quickly so she could join in the attack too.

The Treasure Hoarders, very quickly, decided that it wasn’t worth it. With a few curses they backed off, doing their disappearing act to who-knows-where. It was good they stopped, too, because Xinyan really did not like the idea of wasting time when…

“How is she?” the adepti asked as soon as the coast was clear, concern and seriousness very evident in her voice as she immediately went to where Xiangling lay.

“Can you help?” Xinyan asked with desperation. “She fell off a cliff, and…”

“Oh…” The adepti’s eyes went wide for just a moment, crouched down in front of Xiangling, her entire expression freezing for just a second in time, before she started acting just as quickly.

“Put pressure just above the wound,” she ordered. “And keep speaking to her. It’s imperative she does not fall asleep.”

Xinyan, though feeling a bit of sudden whiplash from the fact that she did definitely know what she’s doing, obeyed very readily. Even though, it was…a lot harder than would have thought it to be. “Hey, Xiangling?” Her eyes were closed now, her head rolled limply back into the dirt. She didn’t look that conscious. “Hey, Xiangling, wake up! Please!” Xinyan could feel her blood all over her hands and wrists now, making its way thoroughly under her fingernails. She put pressure, but it just kept coming. She…she felt sick, but she had to push past all that…

“She’s going into shock, her blood loss is too heavy…” The adepti’s voice sounded out-of-breath, like she had been running. “We need water!” she shouted, as if there was someone else around to give directives too.

Guoba made another pained wailing sound and looked up at the adepti as if trying to figure out what she was saying.

“Uh, you want me to find water?” Xinyan looked back anxiously at where Xiangling’s things lay on the rocks. “Xiangling was holding the canteen, but it fell and…”

“No, you’re right…” she shook her head tensely. “You need to stay with her, I’ll go find—no, we’ll switch—no, we have to get her back to the medic tent. It’s our best option, but we have to act quickly—”

“H-Huh?” Xinyan felt absolutely blindsided. “What are you talking about!?”

 The horned adepti paused for a second, as if realizing what she just said. “O-Oh. Right. I’m so sorry.” She shook her head with a sharp exhale. “We have to close the wound, then. We’re fortunate that it’s not too terribly mauled, but with a deep incision like this, cauterization would be our best option. You have a Pyro Vision, yes? So you can provide the fire. We need to act quickly!”

“Wait…what?” C-Cauterization? Xinyan had never done anything like that before! She hardly even knew how any of that even worked! “I-I’m sorry, I don’t know how, and I’m…not that delicate with…”

“It’s okay,” she countered, her tone and expression sympathetic. “There’s…always a first time. In war, you’ll have to—I mean, never mind. Xinyan, is it? All I need is for you to set fire to a clean branch. I’ll take the lead. Let me go ahead and use my glove as a tourniquet. I can use my Cryo Vision to help numb the pain afterwards, but for now, get her a strip of leather—I mean, anything soft and thick like that for her to bite down on.

Errrmmm…” Xiangling groaned incoherently. Her eyes opened halfway, but remained very glazed.

Xinyan still felt as tense as a bowstring, but…she’ll do whatever the adepti lady said. Whatever it took. “I’ll…tear off the strap from Xiangling’s pack,” she decided.

Xinyan ran and did just that. She gave it to Xiangling to bite down on, and then, she made the fire just like her new field care 101 instructor asked.

“Hang in there,” she told her friend with a weak smile, feeling now completely out of breath. “You can hear me, right? Just hold on for a little longer, okay? This…this is gonna hurt a bit.”

Chapter Text

Noelle lifted her burden above her head with painful slowness, and in that rare moment, felt her knees and arms begin to tremble.

And they kept shaking. Noelle tried so hard to push the pain aside, to keep steady, to keep her geo shield around her strong to give herself every bit of support she could get. It didn’t help that this was Dragonspine, and she felt the sheer cold seep into her bones with every second—but she would try not to focus on that. There were people who needed her to be strong now.

“Go, quickly!” Noelle shouted to the terrified adventurers, urging them to move both for their own good and because she realized she did not know how long she would hold out. They were rather worse for wear, and one seemed to definitely have a broken leg, but at least they didn’t get crushed completely. If they helped each other, they could get to safety.

Noelle held on while the party of four did just that. What happened was, there had been a rockslide. These adventurers who had been out exploring the steep mountainside to the east had ducked into a small enclave from an overhang in the rock for quick protection and found themselves trapped. Noelle just so happened to be in the base camp at the time, so when she heard the news about the rockslide, she immediately went to help.

But now…there was another problem. Noelle could lift the entrapping rocks and throw them down the mountain just fine in order to open a path to the adventurers, but…the overhang, it wasn’t stable. The moment Noelle removed the fallen rocks around it, the much, much larger mass of rock threatened to crumble down and bury them all.

Noelle’s breath got heavier. Her head felt light. The adventurers were out, but…but Noelle didn’t think about what to do next. She was holding the mountain up, but if she let go…

“N-Noelle! What are you doing!? Get out of there! Make a run for it!”

But…how?

Her arms continued to shake. Noelle was told, by a few people actually, that her strength was “inhuman.” She believed it was meant to be a compliment. She didn’t think much of it, though. Whatever she did, she was just doing her duties like a good knight should, or just…helping people in any way she could, like any person should…

The pain in Noelle’s arms screamed at her, reminding her, that whatever abilities she had, she still might not be strong enough…

“I…believe I would need help…” she started to tell them…

…before her arms and her shield finally gave out. In an instant, there was the thunderous roar of falling rocks, and Noelle was crushed to the ground, the mountain on top of her.

 

No…can’t…they still need me…

 

“She’s here!”

 

There was a brush of wind, a strange weightlessness for just a moment.

 

“Noelle! Please, Noelle!”

 

I’m sorry. I made you worry, didn’t I?

 

“The Geo…will be fine…be gentle…”

 

“Noelle?”

 

“N-Noelle! Oh, you’re awake! She’s awake!”

Noelle opened her eyes blearily to see Sucrose standing over her, excitedly but also anxiously beckoning the others over. “Noelle, please, can you hear me?”

Noelle found talking…difficult. She found…she didn’t want to move any part of her body at all. She wasn’t sure if she could. She ached all over…but, it could be worse, very likely.

“Su…Sucrose.” Noelle smiled. “It’s nice to see you.”

She realized, quickly, that she wasn’t alone. She endeavored to at least turn her head in the bed where she lay (such a soft, wonderful bed, actually) so she could see everyone else gathering around. There were…quite a few, actually.

“Well hello there, cutie, thought you’d never wake up.” Lisa smiled at her playfully, though worry was all too evident behind her eyes.

“W-What, Noelle’s awake? Thank Barbatos!” Barbara exclaimed with hands clasped to the heavens.

“Thank Barbatos indeed…but please, everyone, don’t crowd her!” Jean ordered.

Noelle looked and saw around the corners of the room Albedo, Kaeya, Klee, and even the bard Venti, for some reason. “What…happened?” she managed to say.

“You might really have the archons to thank, that’s what,” Kaeya explained calmly. “You were…crystallized, in a way. We found you with Geo energy very active all around you, like a cloak.”

“A fascinating phenomenon, really,” Albedo commented solemnly. “Things could have been…much worse, otherwise.”

“And on an unrelated note,” Kaeya added, “Venti here used his Anemo Vision to lift the entire mass of rocks off of you.”

“Just doing my duty as your friendly neighborhood bard!” Venti laughed.

“This means Noelle is going to be fine, right?” Klee piped up hopefully. “Klee has been waiting all night!”

“H-How long?” Noelle instinctively became worried.

“Noelle, don’t worry about it,” Jean instructed. “Your injuries will need time to heal…you should take as much time as you need. Sleep would be good for you.”

It did hurt…quite a lot. Noelle still felt so dazed…she wasn’t even sure where all the pain was coming from. Perhaps sleep would be nice…perhaps.

“I’m sorry…” she spoke slowly. “I…I wasn’t strong enough to…”

“Hey, you did fine.” Venti walked up closer to her bedside with a soft, gentle smile. The breeze stirred up a little, probably by his doing, and it felt so very soothing…if Noelle didn’t know any better, she’d call it a blessing from Lord Barbatos himself.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” he repeated what Jean just told her with a tone light but earnest. “You did just fine.”

Chapter Text

He hid himself away alone in the freshly thawed forest, hoping that the sound of the birds in song would drown out the restless thundering in his ears. He clutched his knees for support as he saw a human once do—this form was not his own, but it was comforting. Selfishly comforting. It was a song of hope and a genuine smile, a dream spoken aloud gentle amidst the chaos. A dream of freedom, not just for oneself, but for everyone.

(It wasn’t this crawling, this itching beneath his skin, this presence choking him, blinding him, ringing in his ears, laughing cruelly.)

Such a fool, such a foolish, wretched shrimp you are…when will you start listening?

Venti, or maybe Barbatos, sat in the shade of gnarled tree and desperately covered himself with wings that did not belong to the body’s original owner to block out the world, his head still throbbing, his skin hot to the touch. Barbatos was the name that Celestia gave him, when they told him that he had won. He ascended.

But he wasn’t trying to. This wasn’t what he meant.

He had no name, as a wind spirit. He had no need. He flowed where his heart led him, he observed the way of the world and of the creatures in it but never acted in response.

“Well, I need to call you something,” he pointed out with a light laugh. “What do you want to go by, Mr. Wind Spirit sir?”

“Hmm, yes, Venti does have a ring to it.” The young bard’s eyes still danced as he rested on the grass across from the wind spirit with the same face as his, who dared to open up his newborn wings so he may look at him. “So come hither and tell me, Venti, what’s wrong? The sky really is as nice as you said it to be. And the blizzard has stopped. So the gods really do have their eyes on us, don’t they?”

He appeared just as he always did, with small braids of dark blue, brown cloak, and lyre. Venti had a lyre too, now. It sat uselessly by his side. He hadn’t figured out how to play it, yet. But he thought, if he took his friend’s form, then perhaps…perhaps he could make his song live on. He would learn how.

“If someone plucks out your tongue, you can still sing with your eyes.”
“If someone blinds you in both eyes, you can still see with your ears.”

The song was an old traveler’s song, one the people knew very well. But when the bard sang the cry of his heart, he changed the ending from a story of acceptance to one of rebellion.

“But if anyone dares to steal your song, the freedom you yearn for,”
“— That alone, that alone shall never do!”

“You remember it, right?” he asked with a boyish laugh. “Can you sing it for me, like you did before?”

Venti found that he couldn’t. As punishment for that failure, another familiar shape emerged behind his friend.

“B-Behind you…” his voice finally worked. “Please…please, you have to…”

 “What’s the matter?” the bard asked.

“Run!” Tears appeared on Venti’s cheek without any knowledge of when they started. “Please, you need to—!”

His friend was still smiling when the sword ran through him, still oblivious when he dropped limply to the ground in a pool of blood, when he was kicked roughly to the side.

“Hmm, so pathetic.”

Venti rose up to do something, anything. He trembled with clenched fists before the old man with the iron crown who looked back with a cold and passive gaze, his sword continuing to drip blood.

So, so much blood. Venti should have known. He knew about the wars, about the many, many clashes between the gods of this world, but that wasn’t him. He was only the one who blew through the battlefield after it was over with a mournful howl, a song of sorrow…but it wasn’t real. He didn’t know them. His sorrow was fake. Everything was fake. He knew these people who lay in pieces before the tower. But even so, he couldn’t bring himself to leave the side of the one to mourn the others. He couldn’t let go.

“Bring him back!” Venti shouted at the old man to do something about the boy—the young boy who was innocent, who didn’t deserve this, who didn’t deserve to be born in a land with no sun. “Y-You...why!? Why did you do this!?”

“I did nothing,” he countered with a bored tone. “You’re the one who keeps forgetting he’s dead.”

That’s right, he…he never made it this far. He never saw the sky, not even for just one moment.

“So, Barbatos, when are you going to move on? You won, didn’t you?”

Venti shook his head, unable to think above the sound of vengeful winds. He couldn’t run. He kept trying to run, but he couldn’t. Not when Decarabian was with him no matter where he went.

“Please stop,” Venti whimpered weakly, holding himself tight as if to convince himself that the form wouldn’t fade away and change into something else he didn’t want it to be.

“Well, didn’t you? You’re the Anemo Archon now. Aren’t you going to start acting like one, pathetic wind spirit?”

“I wasn’t trying to…”

“Well, are you?”

Venti didn’t realize how it worked, not at first. Gods didn’t die, not without consequences. Their power and their spirit were too great to simply fade away—they would cause a catastrophe in their wake. The god of the north sea drowned an island and the city atop it upon death; Havria, the god of salt, turned her own city to salt when she was slain. This was why only gods could truly fight a god, for only gods were capable of absorbing the attribute of their slain foe. This way, they made themselves stronger.

Venti was not a god, but he was a spirit of the element that Decarabian commanded. He was compatible. He was capable of absorbing the fallen god, and for this, Venti was…glad, that the people of Mondstadt were not destroyed by a storm for their mutual ignorance, but…but now…

“I…didn’t do it for the power…” Venti fought to find his words.

“That’s right. You didn’t kill me. You weren’t strong enough to do even that. It was that wretched slave girl…”

“Amos loved you!” Venti bit back, sudden fury welling back up inside. “So don’t you ever talk about her like that!”

“That coward didn’t realize…”

“No.” Barbatos’s voice tensed, his eyes still welling with tears. Tears like a human had. He was surprised to find out how much they hurt. They made his eyes sting and face feel raw, and yet at the same time, they were a relief. The people of Mondstadt hadn’t been allowed that relief, for so long. If anyone showed discontent, Decarabian became suspicious of them.

“They were brave,” he continued. “Everyone—Amos, Gunnhildr, the wandering warrior…they were all braver than you’ll ever be.”

“Even now that I live in you?”

“Y-You don’t. It’s only—”

“But what would you do without me?” Decarabian shook his head with a cold laugh at the sky. “What comes next, little elf? How are you going to protect that ungrateful city that now loves you oh so very much?”

“They’re strong,” Barbatos insisted as he eased his breath. “They don’t need me to—”

“Oh, do they!? They would have all perished without me!” Decarabian’s voice boomed into his ears, into the very depths of his too-small soul.

“WHO saved them from Andrius and his ceaseless blizzard? It was me! I did EVERYTHING for their own good! I was their savior! Their protector! Can you do better? Now that the barrier is gone, nothing will stand in the way of those faithless humans and death at the hands of the more powerful!”

“N-No! You have it wrong!” Barbatos felt his head ring, his voice tremble. “Andrius’s war was with you, not the people, and…he stopped the storm willingly! Unlike you!”

“So what, he’ll be your ally, now?” The old king scoffed.

“Y-Yes!” Yeah, Venti will make friends with him, just to prove Decarabian wrong!

He wasn’t real though this wasn’t real he wasn’t here he was dead. He was still dead.

“HA!” Decarabian laughed with a cruel grin, walking too way steps closer to where Venti still stood. The young god’s small form refused to move an inch when the dethroned king stepped up to whisper words into his ear, words that crawled into his brain and wriggled under his skin. “So what’s it going to be? You’ll see, soon. Have you thought about what you’re going to do, when the other gods come from you? Think about all those gods in the mountains to the south, hmm? Wouldn’t they love to come here and kill such an easy target? And what are you going to do when all the people forget that they love you? How will you lead this place? You’ll see, soon enough. You can’t survive like you are. To survive, you’ll have to become just like me.”

“NO!” Barbatos finally found the strength to move, to shove the fallen archon away from him with all of his feeble might. “I won’t! You’re wrong; I don’t have to be you! I won’t ever hurt Mondstadt like you did!”

“Do you really have a choice, though?” He cocked his head, seeming perfectly calm about this. “My soul is stronger than yours. You’re little more than a blank slate, to begin with. Eventually, you will become me naturally. That’s what it means, to be the Anemo Archon. Anemo is a harsh element, a relentless one, is it not?”

“No…no…” Venti covered his ears tight, shook his head to throw off the noise. “You…you don’t know how it works. It’s not going to be like that. You don’t know.”

“Right, you don’t know. You let all those people believe in you and that bard, and you don’t even have the strength to understand how your own world works? How pitiful.”

“SHUT UP!” He spat as he tried to cover up eyes and ears at once. His head kept ringing…kept…kept processing. Kept trying to finish this merge without regard to the outcome.

He couldn’t take it. On the day of the revolt, he felt the aura of the archon up close for the first time, as the furious king brought down raging winds on them all. Some of the Mondstadtians were swept off their feet and thrown to the ground and to the tower walls, their bodies crushed repeatedly against the stone, brought down to a bloody pulp. Venti tried everything he could to counter those winds, to fight back with every bit of power he had. But the very sight of what was happening made him lose his grip on his heart and his focus with it. He wasn’t used to war.

“Can do!” he chirped with an excited nod. Hidden in a secret room in the city depths, his allies dared to smile in agreement. The bard stood over a map smuggled to them by Amos, confident that his friend the wind spirit could help him against the sure-to-be fierce gales the archon would throw at them. Gunnhildr and the red-haired warrior stood at his right hand, at the ready, their peerless strength with the sword an inspiration to all others present (they all had lived here forever, and were never allowed to learn a weapon at all). Gunnhildr had assumed her father’s place as head of her clan, and now she returned to her home city with that clan in tow who had spent so long being nomads in a frozen wasteland…they were now ready to take this city as their own. The red-haired wanderer had few ties to the city but chose to fight beside them for the sake of the people he called friend, him becoming the very first to pass the secret sign of Windblume to the revolutionaries-to-be, the oppressed people of the city.

No one expected the revolt to be easy, but with Venti, some mused that it was as if the wind itself were actually on their side, despite the one who called himself the archon of Anemo.

In that way, Venti’s rebellion might be considered a personal one, the wisp of wind fighting against the will of the wind’s commander.

Maybe Decarabian was always a part of him.

But that day was the first time he felt that vengeful aura up close, of the one who believed his reign of fear and confinement was righteous to the very end.

Venti has been feeling remnants of that aura ever since.

“Is that how it is, Barbatos?” Decarabian boomed mockingly. “Too busy enjoying life as a brand-new god to consider the consequences? Or, would a new demon be more like it? Isn’t that what we all have been all along, really?”

“I’ll…never…I’ll never listen.” He gulped, feeling like in his throat a rock was left behind. “Just leave. Now.”

“Oh? What was that?”

“GET AWAY FROM ME!”

He screamed into the quiet company of birds and trees, burying his face inside his legs. It was his fault. He shouldn’t have let it happen like this. He couldn’t save his friend—his first friend, his closest friend, the person who should have been here to see the victory, to continue to inspire the people he loved. Barbatos could never be that. He could never guide them, never trust himself fully, because he was him.

No, no, he wasn’t. He didn’t care if the world was at war. He didn’t have to curse his own people like that. And he didn’t regret giving them hope. He didn’t regret going through with that battle, the first battle he ever himself fought.

But what if he could have done better? What if they could have still lived to see tomorrow?

He made a promise to him. But he broke that promise. He promised the bard that he would see the sky.

But they were free now. He had to believe it would be better, now that they were free. It was what his friend wanted. What he believed in. He was willing to risk everything so that the city could be free at last.

Did Decarabian ever believe in that, once? Did he ever enjoy the sunshine on his skin, the bliss of a walk through the tranquil forest? Did the people once love him, too?

 

“Hey, sir? Are you okay? W-Wait! Are you…!?”

Venti already felt her coming, because she was one that he already knew very well, and the flow of the wind was always very telling. Still he struggled to unfold himself and look up at her through tear-soaked eyes. He was afraid to see Decarabian behind her with that sword of cold wrath, but he wasn’t there. Venti didn’t want to try to look for him.

“Gunnhildr…” He felt like he was choking the name out despite wanting to sound better than he was. “No…I’m not him. It’s me…Venti.”

But that name wasn’t really his, anymore. It belonged to a newly named wind spirit who didn’t know what war was really like despite seeing it for many centuries. A tiny, chirping voice in a secret room.

“Actually…I’m going by Barbatos, now.” He still had his friend’s clothes, but he would change his appearance just a bit, when he decided to show himself to the people. He would make himself something archon-like…but, not like Decarabian. Not a dark, looming force in heavy robes, but…whatever was the exact opposite of that.

Gunnhildr crouched down in front of him, the worry clear in the swordswoman’s eyes. “You…I apologize for the offense, but you look awful. You’re pale. And you’re shivering. Please, is there anything I can do?”

Barbatos still felt it, still felt the itching, the crawling, the pervasive weight of an angry storm… “I’ll be fine,” he said with a weak smile. “Thanks for coming, I…must have sounded pretty bad, huh?”

Ascension was difficult, that was all.

The hand she placed on his shoulder felt soothing, felt real. “Yes, you…no, never mind. I’m simply worried. Are you sure that you’ll be okay?”

“Yeah, I’m just feeling under the weather, you could say.” His voice sounded far too rough, but he convinced himself that it would pass.

“Then you should have a bed to rest on,” Gunnhildr spoke in earnest, extending her hand. “The people are hard at work choosing a site for our new city, but many are injured or ill, and they are resting. And you…you’re one of us, whoever you are.”

“Thanks,” Barbatos spoke with a smile as he nodded, pushing down the ever-resounding chill in his bones. “Just, please, don’t tell anyone, okay? I…have a lot to explain, but I’ll do so later.”

“Alright,” she agreed readily. “On my honor, I will never speak of this moment to a soul.”

Chapter Text

“Can I see it?” Kokomi asked with concern and some measure of uncertainty, wondering if she might only succeed in bringing her general worry by betraying her own.

Not just her general—her friend, if she would be so bold. Maybe, now that the war was over, her friend may just be all that he would be…not that she expected the need for war to ever cease.

“Oh…okay!” Gorou seemed a bit taken aback by the question, but consented anyways. “But, you really don’t have to worry about me, your Excellency. It’s not a problem.”

He rolled up his sleeve and remove a piece of his armor to reveal his right shoulder, the one that Kokomi sensed was hurting him by the way she saw him wince when he attempted to pick up a heavy load. All of them had been very hard at work, these past few weeks. Though the peace talks had concluded and their trials were officially deemed over, they needed to rest and rebuild. Their food supply needed to be rebuilt and made stable. People needed their help—those who were suffering from lack of supplies, soldiers with still-grave injuries, families with fathers and brothers who were never coming back home to them, or who may be coming back without a leg, or an arm, or even more than that…

It was natural that to fulfill her responsibility to her people, Kokomi needed to work around the clock to help them in every little way she could. As it would happen, this duty was one that would fall to her most trusted subordinates as well, people like Gorou especially, who had been faithful to look out for the needs of everyone under him ever since the beginning. However, that did not mean that he wouldn’t also be in need of help, himself.

The scar looked as bad as she feared. The mark on his skin was deep and jagged, a testament to the fact that the heal was not a clean one, that one dark discolored mark also acting as a center point for many prominent red lines stretching across his skin from just beneath its surface, blooming into a delicate but all-encompassing fractal pattern. The Electro-induced scar’s pattern and large size was to be expected, but…it did seem like it was swelling in places and producing small bubbles of puss beneath the skin. Plus, the state of the mark where the arrow entered his body and ran through to the side…although it may not be a serious infection, Kokomi was concerned. She noticed a slight smell upon closer inspection, one which she knew that Gorou, considering his species, could be very, very aware of. One of his sisters was a medic, and she could smell a wound acutely from many meters away, Kokomi knew.

“You really need to have this checked on regularly,” she instructed before taking the liberty to soothe it here and now with the power of her Vision—a power which, though very helpful, couldn’t heal every ailment completely. She couldn’t make the wound go away, just like she couldn’t for so, so many others. “I know you would have your men do the same.”

“Understood.” Gorou nodded, then sighed with a slight smile. “I guess I just forgot to think about it, to be honest. There’re still so many others in far worse condition. Mine can wait, but you’re right, I’ll try to see to it that it heals. Eventually, this’ll be nothing more than a little reminder of the trueness of Madame Sara’s aim!”

That wasn’t true, though. If her aim was flawless, then the arrow would have landed in his neck.

Kokomi felt…a certain not-unfamiliar weight, right then, here among the bundles of building materials, looking at Gorou with his indomitable smile and sincere gaze. His trusting one. Gorou trusted her—she was very aware of this. It was a trust that went two ways and kept Kokomi going at times she might have otherwise lost faith in herself. Because, in one way, she did possess much support from her people as a leader. They would speak highly of her, but…she didn’t know what that really meant, sometimes. Because that support wasn’t always enough to make them listen and follow orders when the situation was dire. It wasn’t always enough to keep things from happening behind her back, as was the case prior to the peace talks that could have easily ended in catastrophe, due to those soldiers who did not want the war to end.

Kokomi wondered, sometimes, if she could trust herself, as well.

Her position, in some ways, felt like a gracious turn of fate, for military strategy was already something she had passion in, and a military leader was exactly what her people came to need. But, she didn’t think that war was truly what she wanted. She simply knew that even in times of peace, threats would always abound. There would always be monsters, ronin, pirates, and thieves, so there would always be need for tactful strategy, the kind that put your every strength to full advantage while minimizing losses. When she was young, Kokomi dreamed of doing just that. She liked reading books on military strategy. It was something that made sense to her. In turn, having the power to analyze a situation and conceive a solution for every possible outcome made the world make sense to her. Thus, she wanted nothing more than to be an advisor, to make books of strategy that she could hand off without having to interact with people much at all. It wasn’t as if she disliked people, but…they were tiring. It was impossible to conceive every possible outcome of a conversation as it was in its course. Keeping up was…tiring.

But then, Kokomi ended up being given the role of Divine Priestess, and she was there to witness the start of the war, the support of which seemed nearly universal.

But…even with that support, even with her strategies that tried so hard to protect her own while crushing the other…war was still too high a cost.

“Don’t let Orobaxi’s sacrifice be in vain,” they said. Over and over again, that’s what they told her. That was the true reason. The Vision Hunt Decree was a cause for outrage, but perhaps, if Kokomi were to truly consider the situation, it was only an excuse. The people of Watatsumi had been at odds with their fellow Inazumans for centuries, it would seem. They held different beliefs, different customs, worshiped different gods. Watatsumi did not involve themselves heavily in the affairs of the rest of the nation, nor could they. None of them could ever dream of taking an office in the Tri-Commission, or even just joining the army. It was one reason why Kokomi knew she could not consent to Kujou Sara’s request to merge their armies under the authority of the Tenyrou Commission…they would never be in unity. There would be a foreignness, and her people may be subjected to mistreatment.

In this way, Kokomi had to wonder…in the aftermath of the war, would anything change? She wanted her people to be happy and free, first and foremost. But could she give them what they really wanted? Could she avenge their fallen god? Should she?

Kokomi looked back at Gorou’s trusting eyes with an inevitably heavy heart. She did not know the future. She could never guarantee that peace would last. And even if civil war was never renewed, she couldn’t be sure that she wouldn’t lose Gorou to something else.

“Thank you,” she spoke with a smile that buried every other feeling and worry deep, deep down, only to be released when she wrote about it later. At least, she could trust that Gorou would always follow her instructions, even if his regard for personal well-being was low otherwise. He…would follow her directives even to death itself, if she were to fail, wouldn’t he?

Maybe this was why, that even in a time of peace and recovery, Kokomi knew that she would again be able to truly rest.

 

Chapter Text

“R-Razor? Hold on…hold on, please! Don’t move!”

Razor knew that what Bennett said was truth, but his body did not want to listen. It wanted to fight. It wanted to fight the trap with great steel teeth and pull away, but when he pulled, there was more pain. And more blood. The trap was like the ones he used before, but bigger. He used steel teeth traps for boar. But he was not a boar. He should not be in boar trap.

“Razor, I-I’m so sorry, I’ll get you out, just please stay still.” Bennett looked worried. Very worried. Razor had to stay still so he wouldn’t worry as much. But now he was also confused.

“Bennett…sorry? Bennett lay trap?”

“No, no.” Bennett shook his head, still very distressed. “This…it’s one of the traps the Springvale hunters made. Some of them said they wanted bigger and stronger ones, to protect the village from those wolves—the Black Wolves—but…you were with me when you got caught…and…I…my bad luck must have…!”

“No,” Razor refuted firmly. “Not Bennett fault. Not—AGH!”

He moved a little, by accident, and it hurt really bad. His ankle was bleeding a lot. He was…fine…because Razor had many bad hurts before, but…

“Okay, okay, hang on; I’ll release the trap and hold it open, and you take your foot out, as fast as you can,” Bennett instructed, looking at him like he was begging.

Razor nodded. He trusted Bennett…most of the time.

Bennett hurried to undo the mechanism, and Razor felt the sudden release of his entrapment and hurried to get away from it. There was still lots of pain, and blood, but he felt relieved, because he could move now. He was free, but…still not safe. He wanted to get far away, because this was not a trap for boar, it was a trap for wolves.

He got up quickly and grabbed Bennett’s hand. “Must move; quickly!”

“Uh…Razor!? What are you doing? I need to give you first aid now!”

“No, Springvale hunters will come for prey. Must get to safe place.”

“N-No! You got it all wrong!” Bennett pulled his hand away from him in protest. “The Springvale people weren’t trying to hurt you; they were just trying to protect themselves from the bad wolves! Not you or your lupical! Well, I mean, it was kind of reckless putting traps out like this that adventurers could easily stumble into…but, still, it was an accident!”

Razor listened to Bennett’s words, and they made sense, but… “But, even if accident, Springvale…does not like Razor. Because, Razor is a wolf.” The memories were…still clear. Of the time he first met Traveler, and the other burny girl who was not as burny as Klee. The time soon after the Black Wolf attacked. The villagers…thought Black Wolf was his lupical, but they were not. They did not trust him. He did not trust them, either. They hurt his lupical, his wolf family. They could do it again.

“Well, they…they wouldn’t hurt you for no reason. They know who you are now.” Bennett sounded confident, but his eyes had tiny doubt. “At least…not while I’m around, they won’t!”

Razor paused. He guessed that Bennett meant…if he was with human, they would think of him as human? But Razor did not know what Razor was. Maybe, it didn’t matter. Andrius told him he should be with humans, and he listened…a little. He did not want to live in city, but he did spend more time with human people. Like Bennett. And Klee. And Traveler. But not inside city. Or inside Springvale. He still did not believe they liked wolves…even if only a misunderstanding.

“How about this?” Bennett offered. “You stay for just a few minutes so I can patch you up, and then, we leave right away. I can carry you, even! At least, for a while. We don’t have to stay near Springvale, but…I don’t want you to get hurt running on your bad ankle! You’re losing a lot of blood already, and, it could get way worse.”

Bennett…did seem to have smart ideas, sometimes. Razor did not want to stay. But he did not want bad ankle and bleeding. So, he nodded. “Okay. I will stay, so Bennett can fix.”

“Great!” Bennett laughed with relief. “Lucky for you, I get hurt all the time, so I’m an expert at Field Care 101!”

Chapter Text

“I…appreciate the concern, Hu Tao, but trust me, I am fine.”

“Aiya…so stubborn now, are we?”

Hu Tao shook her head with the solemnest gravity, quite determined to not let her precious funeral parlor consultant neglect himself so. Besides, as his boss, it was clearly her responsibility to make certain that his wellbeing was accounted for. Plus, he was technically hurt on the job.

“At the height from which you fell, your back would most certainly be broken, would it not?”

Zhongli sighed heavily, rubbing the bridge of his nose like he always liked to do when talking to her specifically. “It’s not broken.”

“But might one of the tiny soap dish bones have burst into a million pieces?”

“The…what?”

“Ah, see, you do not know. So, I will take you to the doctor now! I insist!”

Hu Tao has observed skeletons a nice handful of times in the past, so she definitely knew what she was talking about.

Zhongli’s deep exhale followed a rubbing of the back of his neck did not go noticed. He was most certainly both injured and exhausted. He had been working on repairing the roof of the funeral parlor, and Hu Tao might have accidentally surprised him just a little by climbing onto the roof and sneaking up behind him while wearing that cool new mask she just found and then yelling “BOO!” into his ear. Sadly, in his surprise, Zhongli fell off the roof. Landed flat on his back. Hu Tao really was very sorry—so, she’ll make it up to him by seeing that he gets all the treatment he needs!

“Very well. I will…find a doctor to pay a visit to.”

“Oh, that’s fine, I have someone in mind already!”

“That won’t be—” Zhongli started with both exasperation and caution in his tone.

“Oh no, it absolutely necessary!”

 

+++

 

Hu Tao was pleased by Zhongli’s inevitable surprise—a good surprise, she would guess. It wasn’t so hard to see right through him, really. When he said he didn’t want a doctor, he really must have meant he didn’t want a human doctor. She understood entirely; that simply would not do. This was all simply part of her normal job, really—making sure everyone is taken care of in the way that best suits their needs—human and adepti alike. And, as the director of Wangsheng Funeral Parlor. Hu Tao was very familiar with the adepti of Liyue, their hostess for today included.

“So you’re coming to me for your back, I see?” Madame Ping asked Zhongli with just the slightest trace of amusement in her voice. “Those old bones are finally giving way.”

“I…fell off of a roof,” Zhongli explained before clearing his throat and turning his eyes to the interior of Madame Ping’s teapot rather than Madame Ping herself.

“Is that so?”

“Yep!’ Hu Tao confirmed. “It was an accident that occurred in service to the funeral parlor, and as such, I take full responsibility. I had a feeling you might be able to help?”

“Of course!” Ping smiled amiably. “I am no medic, but I do know a thing or two about healing an injury and other little things of the sort. Plus, I do understand very well how one’s body can get with age—random aches and pains, stiff joints, chronic lethargy. At your age, it would be no wonder that your back would go out so easily, isn’t that right, Mr. Zhongli?”

“Madame Ping…” Zhongli sighed heavily. “I must assure you, I am experiencing no such symptoms—”

“Oh, tsk, tsk,” Hu Tao clicked her tongue and shook her head solemnly. “You really are in denial; this is even more serious than I thought.”

Madame Ping chuckled lightly. “Well, Mr. Zhongli, you should listen to your boss, then. Oh, but do relax; I’m not here to do anything drastic. Just sit down; enjoy the scenery. I’ll go get you some tea. I know the ways of medicine are very complex these days, but I still would never underestimate the benefits of the right herbal blend.”

As requested, Zhongli finally sat himself down. Hu Tao was satisfied; she figured that if he would listen to anyone, it would be Madame Ping. He’s been avoiding her a lot lately, but that’s just all the more testament to the fact that they knew each other well.

The reason for the avoidance could be because of the changes, she surmised. But change was not always a bad thing. A lot of things, even the things that were bad, were never really as bad as people made them out to be.

Hu Tao did wonder, still. Even now she could not help but look at her grandpa-like consultant with a studying eye. When they first met—Zhongli showing up completely out of nowhere with the idea that he was going to work with them as a consultant—there was a glowy thing on the inside of him. That glowy thing was not there anymore. It disappeared not all that long after Rex Lapis died—what a coincidence, right? But Hu Tao did not know what it was. It could be a fragment of his soul, a warm fuzzy rock, a spirit of some other god long past, a dread binding contract with a heavenly power greater than he who might have annihilated a nation or two once upon a time, or, it could be a nightlight!

It might be unimportant, really, but Hu Tao did notice other things about his spirit that have been there ever since they met and would stay for a long, long time…it was all those little cracks. Like little pieces, flying away bit by bit, eroding into dust. Adepti—the strong ones, especially—did not age like humans did. Their bodies didn’t start decaying in little obvious ways that affected their health and let them know when their time was coming. No, it was their spirit itself that was affected, the very essence of their being—something that extended to the mind and heart, as well. Maybe that’s what made it so hard for the adepti, sometimes. They lived for so long, but no one lives forever. It was just odd for them since so often, it was war that took them first.

Hu Tao was a human, so there was a good chance Zhongli would still outlive her by a lot. This made for a good reminder for Hu Tao, as she plopped down to sit on the bench beside him. She needed to remember how important her job was, and how important it was that she found a good successor to take her place. Because, she might not be around to see Zhongli to the other side. It could be that successor of hers, or their successor after that, or their successor after that. It would be quite the momentous occasion, when that does happen. The Wangsheng Funeral Parlor has seen many adepti to the other side, but no one quite like Zhongli.

So, this was why it was important, Hu Tao thought. She should get her friend used to the idea that he was old, so that one day, he may pass peacefully. He should have no regrets, knowing that his many duties have been fulfilled and finished, and he didn’t need to worry about Liyue, anymore. Then, perhaps, they will see each other again, in whatever land lay beyond.

“I think we should commemorate this occasion!” Hu Tao declared suddenly, beaming at Zhongli with a wide grin. “You haven’t been to the doctor in a long time, I’m guessing?”

“Well…Madame Ping isn’t exactly a…”

“Oh, no matter!” Hu Tao waved it off before revealing her little surprise. “Look at this! It’s one of those Kameras from Fontaine. Neat, right? Now, smile!” She got in close to him and held out the Kamera at arm’s length. It was really tricky to hold it like this (maybe they’ll invent a special stick for this, one day?) but still, she was able to snap a photo of the both of them. “There, perfect!” she declared, just as Madame Ping returned to them with tea.

“Ah, looks like you two are having a good time,” she mused with a smile. “Now, here. This is certain to soothe your joints. It’s a little on the bitter side, but I’m sure you could handle it.”

“Thank you, Madame Ping,” Zhongli thanked her formally, taking the tea with his usual poise. His eyes then widened in a bit of surprise upon drinking it, but probably not because of the bitterness.

“I…haven’t tasted this flavor in years,” he noted with obvious recognition and shock. “You grow this?”

Ping chucked a little again. “What do you think? You’re not the only one with interest in plants, Mr. Zhongli.”

“Hmm, I see.” He smiled warmly, taking another sip. “Well…your concoction is both as fine and as soothing as always, Madame Ping.”

“Well then, all the more reason for you to visit more often, now isn’t it?”

Chapter Text

All it took was one moment of weakness for everything to go wrong.

Ayaka realized it the split second before it happened, when she sensed the ronin’s presence but failed to dodge completely before his sword pierced through her back and into the flesh of her stomach. She couldn’t stop herself from releasing a strangled yelp of pain and beginning to lose her balance and fall forward. Time slowed, and she was gripped with the reality of knowing how badly she just faltered…but she wouldn’t let that moment last for long.

Ayaka disappeared into the ground in the form of ice and reappeared behind her attacker with a swift sword slash to the back in kind. Then she rushed to meet the sword of the next one. There were seven of them, that she was fighting—a gang of ronin who she saw attempting to rob a pair of travelers on the road from Chinju Forest to Inazuma City.

“You must leave. Quickly!” She had cautioned them in haste before turning to face down the gang alone. It was far from the first time she was outnumbered in such a way. She was confident in her abilities…however, one of their number was a fire-wielding kairagi warrior, which did make things difficult. Fighting a user of the elements somewhat mitigated the unfair advantage she usually received from being an allogene. Or, rather, it made her focus all the more important.

Her focus, which she just lost when it was most crucial. Ayaka tried her best to stay on her toes but found that hard when every movement brought a fresh and sharp sting of pain—instinctively she clutched her hand over the wound and succeeded in doing nothing but confirming it was still there—the blood actively making a wet stain on her dress and her hand. The kairagi made a leap for her with a downward smash of his fiery sword, and she quickly blocked it with her ice-infused one but felt herself be pushed a little further back.

Ayaka both hoped for and dreaded someone else to come, right about now. Her wound screamed at her desperately to hope for help, but her pride dreaded the aftermath—she wasn’t even supposed to be out here alone this far from the estate, for one thing. She was simply going on a walk, and it certainly fell outside her duties to get into a fight on said walk without seeking help first, but then, it would have been out of the question for her to just pass those travelers by. So, there was that matter to contend with in her interactions with whatever guardsmen came her way, but also, the fact that she allowed herself to get wounded at all. She still wasn’t that skilled of a swordfighter after all, it would seem. Even after all her training, she would still mess up…

“How’s this!?” A ronin taunted with a forward slash, and Ayaka quickly dodged his heavy attack and met him in the side with a swifter one. But even though she met her mark, her precision was getting weak. The pain felt increasingly blinding. She had to wonder, if she should attempt to run…

…when she witnessed that same ronin warrior get brought down by a fiery arrow to the head.

“Ayaka!”

She heard Yoimiya’s voice and instinctively to see where she was coming from but was met with a Nobushi attempting to make a quick dash attack at her instead. Ayaka needed to keep her attention on them. She disappeared again into the ground leaving a trail of frost in her wake—changing the state of her whole body to that of her element certainly did no favors for the wound, but it was very helpful for dodging and keeping the element of surprise.

She met her attacker sword-to-sword and just past him saw Yoimiya there and engaged in the fight with vigor as if she had been there since the start, and then, behind her…

“Miss Kamisato!”

“Thoma?”

Ayaka was surprised to see him here too, clashing with the ronin with a sweep of his blazing spear, and without a single official guardsman of the Yashiro Commission in tow…actually, never mind, she really wasn’t that surprised at all.

“Ugh, more trouble; let’s move!”

It would seem that the gang quickly decided that it wasn’t worth it with the three of them to face off against, and they disappeared into the forest—the ones that were able, that is. Ayaka was about to ask her companions to follow after them, since she didn’t think she’d be able to run, but…

“A-Ayaka! Are you okay!? Oh, that looks bad…”

“Don’t worry, we’ll get you to safety quickly. How are you holding up?”

Ayaka felt both relieved and overwhelmed by their presence, Yoimiya and Thoma both hovering over her like this with an intense worry clear in their eyes—she was about to tell them she was fine, but she felt her knees grow weak…

“I’m…I’m sorry,” she stumbled through her words, again clenching the stinging wound now that she had no sword to contend with, but hating the sensation of the blood on her hands. “I…” She had to be rescued by them. “I’m so sorry.”

“Hey, what are you apologizing for?” Thoma looked her in the eye with one hand on her shoulder gently for support, his expression tense with stress but soon replaced with a half-attempt at a smile. “Look, no worries, right? They’re gone, and it’s all over now.”

“Yep, got that right! May I?” Yoimiya gestured to her with wide arms, and Ayaka had no idea what she was referring to until the archer picked her up for the purpose of cradling her in her arms. “Does that hurt? I’ll try to move really gently, I promise! I’m sorry I don’t have any healing abilities though. But yeah, you alright with going back to my place, and then we’ll get somebody? It’s not that far!”

“I…uhhh…” This was probably breaking…many, many rules, but…that didn’t matter so much. She appreciated the help. Especially since she really wasn’t keen on moving another step, or forcing herself to stay at attention for much longer… “Yes.” She exhaled in relief. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

“Well, well, who’s the tough one now? You meddling brat!”

He threw Xingqiu roughly to the ground as if to accent that declaration, the latter’s head bouncing harshly against the hard stone and then subjected to even more abuse when the furious Treasure Hoarder kicked him in the face. Twice. Ears ringing and pain throbbing through what seemed to be every inch of his being, he weakly pulled himself up and spit out blood—probably not the best of signs, but not enough to keep him from bringing himself back into a kneeling position and leveling his best glare at his captors. His hands were bound firmly his back, but his spirit would remain unfettered still. “Your insults are terribly uncreative,” he countered despite his unfortunate lack of breath.

“Heh, bold words.” A woman crouched down and gripped Xingqiu roughly by the collar like her accomplice did, her expression taunting behind the bandanna that masked half her face. “But useless, really. Though I gotta hand it to ya, thanks to you, we just lost our source of information. So congratulations, you’re a real pest for such a shrimp of a kid.”

“Well, on the contrary…I think…I did you a service,” Xingqiu taunted back in between heavy breaths, looking her straight in the eye. “You all can be actual treasure hunters now, since you’re going…to have to do the hard work yourselves. Right?”

“Hmph, how cute.” The woman dropped him and straightened back upright again, and then kicked him hard in the gut with ruthless vigor. Xingqiu doubled over in pain, but…worth it.

“Well, at least we can get some money off of him, I’m sure. What do you say, use one of those rooms underground we found?” the woman asked one of the others.

“Works for me, but we gotta act fast. Those damn researchers are probably halfway to Liyue Harbor by now, so who knows when they’ll decide to show up again with backup? I mean, they’ll keep away if they know what’s good for them, but I’m not taking that chance. Let’s just find this thing already.”

“Heh, sounds good to me.”

 

 

They dragged Xingqiu somewhere deep inside the ruins, tossing him into a small and unfortunately very intact underground room and then locking the door behind them. After just a brief moment of lying there alone with his throbbing head and chest, Xingqiu attempted to bring himself back into an upright position and get a better grasp of the situation. There were no windows in this place, just a few slivers of light coming from cracks in the ceiling. From what little he could see, the room was bare, with the exception of a couple of brackets in the wall where a torch might have been placed, back in the long-forgotten day of these ruins’ glory. Also on the walls was a dark and slimy wet mold—which he could kind of smell as well, unfortunately. Judging from the slight sheen of wetness on some of the lower elevation parts of the floor, the rain probably made its way in here, sometimes.

Xingqiu wriggled his hands around a little, wondering if there was a way he could force them out of the bonds, although all he seemed to be accomplishing was making his wrists even more raw. The ropes were very tight… He wondered, could he break his own wrists to get out of them? He read about that in a book once, but he admittedly wasn’t all that sure how to do that, exactly. This was a first for him—kind of a special occasion, in a way. He’s been in tough spots before, but actually getting himself captured was a new one. He’s thought about what he would do in this kind of situation before, but admittedly, he didn’t take into account that he would only be in this bind because he lost a fight…and thus, would be in a great amount of pain already. It made it hard to think straight. It also made him less enthusiastic about breaking his wrists. But, for the record, it wasn’t necessarily a loss in its entirety—he did succeed in helping those researchers, at least. All of this started because he spotted that group of Treasure Hoarders interrogating three kidnapped archeologists—they were by all beside the shore of this lake around which the ruins were built, threatening to drown this one guy if he didn’t give them the information they wanted. Xingqiu stepped in without a moment of hesitation, and he succeeded in freeing all three of them and giving them the time they needed to escape…however, the rest of fight didn’t go exactly as well as he would have hoped. Although he would never dream of wishing for any Vision other than that which he was given, it did make fighting against those Cryo potioneers…tricky, sometimes.  

Hopefully the researchers made it to safety without any further trouble. He would put the progress of their flight a little slower than that one guy’s estimate, since one of them had a deep cut across her calves that made walking clearly very difficult and painful—he wouldn’t imagine that they would even consider leaving one of their own behind, so it might take them a bit of time.

For now, Xingqiu had to…consider his options, as he was left sitting on the cold damp floor without a plan. He could always opt to put up a fight when they came back for him. It would be ideal if he could escape beforehand, but admittedly, his abilities were proving lacking in that department. He could make a new plan once he learned whatever foul villainous plans they had for him. They mentioned making money off of him…that unfortunately might just be a ransom, most likely. If it didn’t have something to do with this “test subject” business that they all kept going on about which he still didn’t understand. But alas, a ransom was too often the fate of a hero cursed with being of a family with known wealth…or, actually, not that often. The person kidnapped for ransom was always the poor hapless heir or heiress who would need to be saved by the hero. No, when the hero was the one kidnapped, it was usually for a much darker and more elaborate plan, because they were needed for something very important to the villain. Sadly, Xingqiu could not think of any such possibility for himself, but maybe one day, he too would be a renowned enough warrior of the Guhua art to have some elaborate scheme hatched against him.

Xingqiu slunk further into the floor for a vain attempt at comfort for his bruised and aching everything. It was far too quiet in here. He couldn’t even hear the Treasure Hoarders doing…whatever it is they might be doing right now. Nor could he hear any creatures or monsters scuttling about. It was just completely silent. It was maddening. Xingqiu tapped the side of his foot against the floor to make his own sound as the minutes dragged on by. Has it been an hour, yet? But in a way, this did seem painfully ironic for him. So often he longed for a precious moment of solitude, that chance to get away from everything and immerse himself in a book with the sound of silence or maybe the soft calls of songbirds as his background. He just…liked being studious, was all. And he got so weary from doing other things and interacting with people so much—not that it was a problem or anything. He was quite adept at socializing; it was just that some people were more tiring than others. There was a precious few whose presence was akin to the relaxation solitude provides; people like Chongyun, for instance. Although he may not know or care much about books or the finer details of chivalry, he would still listen to him talk about it for hours, just like Xingqiu would listen to him talk about exorcism and the art of thaumaturgy, which he knew very little about. So much that Chongyun knew wasn’t written in books easily accessed, anyways, as it was passed down through his family. Despite not having much interest in those particular arts himself, Xingqiu would listen because he was a good friend—and also he could get more material to make his fabricated ghost scenarios more convincing. Also as a friend, of course. Xingqiu just needed to give Chongyun a little boost to keep his spirit and hopes high—it would all work out perfectly, one day.

What he wouldn’t give to have Chongyun with him right about now…or anyone besides those Treasure Hoarders, for that matter. Not also kidnapped, of course.

But, that was fine. Xingqiu would find his own way out, eventually. Preferably before those fiends weaseled money out of his family or anyone else (that would be an unfortunately awkward situation to deal with in the aftermath, among other things), or, well, sold him somewhere. He wasn’t going to think about that, because he was convinced he wouldn’t let this go on so long, but now he had nothing to do but wait and he couldn’t just keep waiting like this. Because then, he would think about this too much. The most unfortunate possible end result, that is. He needed to keep steady, keep his focus—not on the silence, or the still-resounding pain, or that naked feeling he got from not having his Vision by his side, present only as a distant echo from wherever they were holding onto it. He could…

And then, he heard something. Just one singular noise, belonging to neither human nor monster nor bird. It was a clicking sound, echoing across the stone halls, like the sound of something shifting.

Then, he heard the sound of rushing water. One look at the crack underneath his door confirmed it.

Xingqiu was brought to full attention in an instant, instinctively backing up away from the pool of water washing in from underneath the ancient room’s heavy door. And it…kept coming. Kept flowing in, the wash of water steadily making its way across the dimly lit stone floor.

Xingqiu realized what was happening. The Hoarders—they must have activated a mechanism of some kind. He knew that some of the ruins around here had systems like that, ancient mechanisms that must be activated to make the water levels fall…or rise.

He glanced up at the ceiling as if to confirm that it was indeed very solid and very void of any opening of significant size. He didn’t know how high the water would rise, but he really didn’t want to wait to find out.

He needed to get out of here. Now.

Xingqiu pulled himself up on his feet, looking around with new and frantic desperation as the water gathered around his feet. His ropes…the torch brackets. How could he have not seen it before!? The metal part was rusted and looked sharp enough—only problem was, it was a little high. But not impossibly high. He backed up to one of them and tried to lift his hands with incredible awkwardness, feeling intense pain in his shoulders and back as he did so. But as the water came to his ankles, he grew more desperate, and…

He heard and felt a very loud pop in his left shoulder and released a strangled cry of pain in the same instant in spite of himself. But he got there. The rope in between his wrists became fixed atop the old metal bracket, and he leveraged his body weight to try to cut it—although only his right arm was really functioning right now.

Long moments passed as the water rose halfway to his knees, soaking his socks thoroughly through, but in the turn of an instant, it worked. He heard a loud snap as the rope broke and he was sent falling to the stone for the umpteenth time today, now accompanied by a hard splash of rising water. But he got back upright and breathed in deep. He was free. He actually did it. His wrists were very much bleeding now, and his left shoulder hurt in blindingly high measure, but…but he did it.

But, the door.

Xingqiu’s first attempt was to push himself against it, fighting for leverage in the knee-high water, but it wouldn’t budge. It seemed it really was locked as much as he feared. Could he break the latch? Brute force his way out? Could that bracket still be useful? But then he would need to waste time ripping the bolts from the wall, and the water was up to his thighs…

He slammed his weight against the door on his right side, his left arm dangling near-uselessly on the other, but that caused him to slip and fall backwards into the water. It was at his waist and rising more quickly now, the motion of the torrent making it hard for him to remain standing. He got up again and started pounding against the door, as if that would help. The water rose to his chest and quickly began to eclipse the door entirely, the water in a wave rushing over Xingqiu’s head and dragging him under with violent force.

This was…also painfully ironic for him, personally. Trial by water…

But it wasn’t over yet. Xingqiu found that the water had risen above his head, so he swam underneath the surface to make one last attempt at the door—but no, that wasn’t working, he would have to try the ceiling. Light was still coming in through the ceiling. The stone could be loose somewhere. He swam back up with most of the effort put in by his feet and one good arm, breaking through for a desperate gulp of air. Then, he punched the stone above him.

It was a difficult action, having no support for his feet whatsoever, and it did nothing. Nothing moved, nothing crumbled even a little. So he tried another spot, went for those few little cracks of light and tried desperately to find some part of the smooth wet stone he could grasp. With nothing to grasp, he pounded against the hard ceiling with as much force as he could manage, waiting for the moment something would give way. The space of air between him and that ceiling grew rapidly smaller. He went up again for air, but got only a large gulp of sloshing water.

The rising water churned violently, and in an instant, his lungs became filled with it. He kept swimming upwards, or trying…but his movements were growing slow, his vision going black, and the only part of him that found the air again was his hand. He thought…he might burst from the inside out…or the outside in…he was falling, he…

He felt the water toss him around, and then, something big fell…the falling stones churned up the water even more and carried him into a tumble…then, he felt someone’s hand…

.

.

.

Xingqiu awoke to a blinding light and a mouthful of water leaving his lips. The first thing he saw was Chongyun’s face hanging over him, soaking wet from head to toe, his hands in the middle of the action of pumping water out of Xingqiu’s chest. He stopped as soon as he saw that Xingqiu’s eyes were open, at the same moment his body told him it was time to start coughing violently into the grass. Water made a painful exit with every convulsion, so that when it stopped Xingqiu felt even more exhausted than in the instant when he woke. He dropped back flat on his back to catch his breath.

“Xingqiu!” Chongyun hovered over him still, breathing as heavily as he was, the stress in his voice palpable. “Can you hear me? Are you…?”

Xingqiu felt lightheaded. Everything was blurry… “What happened?”

“I was in the city when those people you helped showed up. The Milleleth are here, somewhere, and I came with them. I didn’t think anything would actually have happened, but…but then…”

“All is well.” Xingqiu smiled weakly, his chest in pain with every breath but grateful to have breath at all. “’Twas…an error on my part…I was outplayed. But no matter the outcome…to have tried is enough…and to have seen you here is a blessing greater than I have earned. But it would come to past that the element from which my awakening was birthed would come to claim me…”

“St-Stop talking like you’re dying! Xingqiu!”

Oh. Chongyun actually looked scared. By a lot. “Oh…my apologies.” Xingqiu hardly felt that fear himself…anymore…everything was just a milky haze…

“Oh, there you are!” Some man’s voice—a Milleleth, probably—called over from somewhere. “Wait, you found him! Thank the archons, is he…?”

“As alive as a fresh drop of dew,” Xingqiu responded through the haze, hand lifting up ever so slightly. Wait, no, that wasn’t the line he rehearsed…

“That’s a relief. Hang on right where you are; we’ll get medical attention immediately!”

That was a relief…although…he’s sure he’ll be fine…aside from his lungs, and his shoulder, and, well, everything else.

He looked back up at Chongyun, still out of breath, his hands on his knees. He must have been the one to break through that ceiling. Surely there was something Xingqiu meant to say…oh, right. “Thank you.” He smiled again, not having the energy to move any other part of himself. “I’ll be fine…I promise.”

Chapter Text

Xiao never cared much for his appearance, nor what people thought of him—now less than ever.

The blood that cloaked him now was a tangled mixture of his own and a thousand other’s—matting his hair, making streams down his face and neck and fingers, staining his clothes. He knew that some must be his partially because of the aggravated wound on his right arm—once treated and bandaged, the deep cut had reopened in the midst of his fighting and colored the wrappings a dark wet purple—but this, and whatever other wounds he had, didn’t matter to him. He didn’t care to go out of his way to identify them or treat them. Eventually, they would all heal, like they always did. To say that he was in pain was irrelevant. Pain was simply something he was never free of, not completely. And even though he too knew cleanliness enough to feel filthy and disgusting in the state he was in, he felt no hurry to get rid of it.

It was no wonder that the miners he ran across were terrified of him. Although it was their fault for being here in the first place. The Chasm was a war zone still, and Rex Lapis had officially closed it off, but it seemed they were trying to go back to get their tools, or some other useless human reason like that. With the days of the Cataclysm now firmly in the past, they must have thought they were safe—but one look at Xiao, and they ran for it. That was fine. They should fear him. Xiao was an instrument of war, and he did not seek the affection of those he swore to protect. Their place was in the battlefields unseen, and they would give everything to—no, not them…him. It was just him, now.

He walked into the old mining site, already a ruined wreckage from the battle that took place six months before…or seven. However long it’s been. He looked at their gathered things left behind in a hurry that would likely stay there forever. The entire Chasm had been tainted with the corruption—there was nothing safe about it anymore. That’s why Xiao was here—to continue fighting. To find every remnant of the Abyss that dared to remain in Liyue, as well as every aggravated remnant of a dead god like the ones he had been fighting for centuries. Ever since the end of the Archon War, and they all made a new contract with…

“Xiao.”

He heard Rex Lapis’s voice—sensed his presence sooner than that. He looked up at him, still leaning on his spear for support. It had been several days since he last dismissed it, and its once vibrant shade of jade was as cloaked in ilk as he was—in the many dark colors of the blood and ectoplasm belonging to many monstrous creatures, all combining into an inky black.

“What is it?” he asked without formality, noticing an exhaustion in Rex Lapis’s stance that usually wasn’t there, as well as a similar smear of blood across his white archon robes and geo-clad arms.

Rex Lapis exhaled heavily, keeping his distance while speaking to him on the deserted mining grounds. “You’ve been out here alone for weeks. Months, rather. You can come back to Jueyun Karst…the danger here has been quelled well enough.”

“You’re asking that I leave?” Xiao’s words came out harsher than originally intended, but he made no move to take them back. “Why?” He already knew why, but he didn’t care. “You know why I have to be here.”

“To rest.” Rex Lapis looked him straight in the eye, for a moment feeling more like Zhongli in his expression—that person who co-ruled Guili Plains so many years ago. “Please, your diligence is not unnoticed or unappreciated, but you must take a moment to see to your wounds. And take your medicine, as well.”

“And who will be here while I’m not?” Xiao countered harshly, his grip tightening around his spear, feeling glued to it.

“The other adepti—”

“They’re not the yaksha. There’s a difference.”

“Xiao, please—”

“I’m not going to leave!” he countered with biting fury. But…not at Zhongli. Never really at Zhongli. “I can’t leave.” Not like Bosacius just did. Not like Bonanias…when he died. The geo yaksha died in this very chasm during the battle, just a few short years after he killed Menogias. He talked to the rest of them very little after that happened, but when he did, it made Xiao uncomfortable. Made him wonder if he had wished for death. Menogias had gone mad with the corruption when she fought him, but he was not in his right mind as well. They were both tainted with the weight of karmic debt, and nothing the rest of them could do was enough to stop them.

The five of them used to fear nothing, when they were at each other’s side. Xiao had fought with many yaksha over the centuries, but those four were the ones he was a team with for the longest by far. He remembered Indarias with her fiery smile and boisterous laugh and raw power to match, Menogias with her quick wit and playful spark and endless supply of ideas, Bonanias and his steady thoughtfulness and long ramblings on a subject only he seemed to take interest in, Bosacius and his indomitable will, independent to the very end, but always the first by the side of someone in need…but even he turned cruel in the end, his personality changing little by little until Xiao could hardly recognize him…

Xiao knew, then, that it was only a matter of time before the corruption took him, too.

“I can’t leave,” he repeated again. He couldn’t, because…this was where they used to fight. Where the last stand of them and so many others was held. He was so foolish, to dare to believe it would last. To believe that their endless battle wouldn’t one day claim them. For many years, Xiao fought alone—first against his will, and then by his own choice—but once peace came to Teyvat and their new war began, led by the strong surviving few from those days of the Archon War…it all seemed like it would be different.

“It doesn’t have to end, for you,” Zhongli told him in a gentle voice, his eyes beseeching. “I’m…sorry, for what happened. But this does not doom you to the same fate.”

Xiao huffed, looking down. “Why are you apologizing?” He didn’t blame Zhongli. Maybe…he was upset, about some things. About how on the day of the Cataclysm, Rex Lapis was nowhere to be found. None of the archons were. It was the first time Xiao had ever known him to not be there for Liyue, and it happened to be the one time his absence would be felt the most.

Centuries ago, Xiao made a contract with Rex Lapis. It was more important to him than anything else ever was, in part because it was the first battle he entered by his own choice. He’ll never forget what Zhongli did to free him from his enslavement to the god of dreams—but even so, he wouldn’t call his actions something so shallow as repaying a debt. It was done out of respect and a solemn oath to the land itself—and nothing that happened would change that.

“Because, your wellbeing is my responsibility, as well,” Zhongli finally answered, his words carrying a heavy weight to them.

Xiao grunted in response. Then, he just went ahead and asked. “What happened?” He looked his archon in the eye again. “On the day of the Cataclysm?”

Rex Lapis appeared hesitant. “There were…a great many creatures living underneath the earth…”

“No, what really happened.”

Rex Lapis looked down, ever so slightly. “I…cannot say. I signed a contract, for my silence.”

“Fine then.” He would accept that. If Zhongli signed a contract, nothing would be enough to make him break it. And if he agreed to hide the truth…then whatever the terms of that contract were must have been favorable to him.

Xiao remained unmoving on the hard stony ground, and he wondered if whatever happened half a year prior would happen again. He wondered when the battle destined to take his own life would come. He was…tired. Of everything. Of everyone. He never thought that he would be the last to remain. He should have been the first to fall.

For all these weeks he had been out here, he had been avoiding everyone. The news of Bosacius’s departure hit him like one final knife in the gut, and he didn’t want to talk about it to anyone, not even Rex Lapis. He had been avoiding him, too. But… “If you’ll leave me be after this, I’ll come back with you. For a short time.” There was no reason Zhongli should worry about him like he did for everyone else. He was already damaged when he found him.

“Well…” Zhongli smiled weakly. “I suppose, I must accept your terms as good enough for now.”

Chapter Text

The four of them were rendered speechless, just for a few moments. They were given warning of what they were going to see ahead of time, first by Fischl and then by Eula and her company, but coming here was clearly another matter entirely. The dark aura was palpable, the single glowing orb seeming to absorb all of the energy and light in the room, and the putrid stench of the decaying corpse at the altar was certainly not helping the overall pleasantness of the situation.

The distinctive aura part was…admittedly, not all that unfamiliar to Albedo, but he could imagine how the others might feel.

“I…I don’t get it! Why!?” Amber finally spoke up, herself perhaps the most visibly revolted by the sight. Jean and Kaeya’s expressions were more grim and restrained, but they were certainly disturbed by it, as well. Jean especially. Kaeya…seemed like he might have saw this coming, somehow.

“It…could be a message,” Jean suggested. “An affront to Mondstadt itself. The Abyss order has always made their intentions clear, but…this I still don’t understand. When did the statue go missing?”

“An excellent question. A bit of research might be in order,” Kaeya suggested, his form visibly tense and his grip tight on his still-summoned sword, as if he expected something to show up any moment now.

Albedo looked up at the upside-down statue, instinctively observing it thoroughly for clues. It was a Statue of the Seven, with the likeness of Barbatos himself, which was chained to the ceiling in a sight that was bound to be deeply disturbing for any Mondstadtian. Thus it would feel personal to them, even though this was Liyue territory. From the sounds of it, it’s been here for a long time…that dead body was of a treasure hoarder leader who had reportedly showed up months ago and then disappeared, that issue being wrapped in a commission with the adventurer’s guild—coincidentally, one which the Honorary Knight himself had taken, they said. But apparently, the commission was never completed. It never got officially resolved, and thus it was dropped. But then, Fischl in her collaborations with the Liyue branch of the guild learned about this and happened to find the cave in her investigations…and then, she reported it straight to the knights. Albedo wondered, did Aether and Paimon find the statue here like this, all those months ago? Or was this new?

“So…should we take it down?” Amber asked, an arrow now notched in her bow as if also anticipated that something would come for them. “Can we take it back?”

“If possible, destroying it seems like the better option,” Kaeya countered. “It’s corrupted. Tainted by the Abyss, clearly. It could be toxic.”

“Which makes destroying it all the more difficult…” Jean pondered stressfully. “If we do it here, we risk spreading the corruption to Liyue’s land. The proper thing for us to do would be to take such measures in our own territory, but then, the problem remains. We could be bringing the taint to Mondstadt if we’re too reckless.”

While they deliberated, Albedo walked closer to the statue, stepping around the treasure hoarder’s corpse to do so. The weight of the abyssal energy grew increasingly more uncomfortable to him with every step, and he wondered if exposing himself to this was even wise. However, his curiosity was stronger. Plus, his duty to the Knights was a good reason too, he supposed. He needed to know…what did the Abyss have to gain, by doing this? What did they do to corrupt the statue in the first place? Although the ‘how’ might be inexplicably intertwined with the ‘why.’ It was all guesswork, though. So, he sketched it, to save the image for later. He took a few steps and made a rough outline, focusing his attention on the part that was different—the orb. It certainly held a kind of power, but…compared to other similar cores he has seen, it might be considered weak, as hard as that was to believe. He wondered if it was a project in progress, if perhaps they needed something else to make it complete. Because otherwise, it would continue to live on like this, but it wouldn’t actually do much by way of destruction on his own.

However, even without much force behind it, it has…been a while, since Albedo was exposed to pure abyssal energy, wasn’t it? He felt himself start to get a headache and dizziness, with a trace of nausea…he’ll write that part down, too. But then, did he really know what it was? Despite the familiarities, it would seem that some power must be a distortion of the statue’s energy itself. But this too was a place of unfamiliarity for him. The statues were made so long ago, it was uncertain the details of how they were made. They were mostly seen as symbols by the people, but they did have power. But…where did it come from?

“Oh, hey? Albedo? You feeling okay?” Amber asked in interruption to her and Jean and Kaeya’s continuing conversation, and it was only then that Albedo realized he had taken a protracted pause in his sketching with a blank stare at nothing accompanying it. The steadily increasing sense of nausea was making him sluggish.

“I’m…fine,” he assured them weakly, shaking his head but feeling discomfort in the movement. But then, he was reminded, very starkly, of what he was working with. It was followed by a sudden thought of what might be the worst possible result of this scenario. “Actually…no. I can’t say I’m feeling all that well. What about you?” Could the symptoms be universal?

“Uh, I’m fine, just…icky.” Amber shuddered dramatically. “Everything about this place is creepy, like there’s something watching us. But what about you, Albedo? You look pale. Are you sick?”

“I need to leave.” Albedo made the decision very suddenly, mainly because of that one looming worst case scenario that kept looming ever larger in his brain. “I’m sorry, I’ll formulate my input on the discussion later, I just…”

“No, it’s fine,” Jean cut in quickly, now seeming panicked for his sake. “We’ll leave together. This corruption could be even more noxious than we presumed. We’ll discuss this later; for now, let’s hurry.”

 

 

Albedo broke away from the rest of them as soon as he got the excuse to, citing a need to rest before finding his room in the barracks…and then grabbing his things and some food to prepare to leave the city for the night. He just needed to get away. Go to the Dragonspine camp. That was always his instinct now, when he needed to be alone. He was fairly certain that Timaeus was still in the city, for now.

His head still hurt. He should have known this would be a risk. The Abyss Order…they’ve been very active, as of late. And with every new attack, every near-infection to the city, he felt it.

There was a reason why he stayed as far away from Mondstadt as possible during the Stormterror incident, although it wasn’t until afterwards that what he already suspected got confirmed—it was Durin’s blood that corrupted him.

 

“What are these drawings?” Albedo asked Lisa, trying to hide the tenseness he felt when holding that innocuous book in the library, as if it held some foreboding curse of present doom and not merely the historical records of five hundred years prior.

“The creatures of the Cataclysm, as the title of the chapter would suggest.” She smirked at him with a bit of lighthearted amusement at his seeming inability to read. “They were made by the very people who witnessed it,” she continued to explain in a bit more somber of a tone. “And you’ll find similar accounts from every nation on Teyvat. Still, those records can be seemingly contradictory, as no one can quite agree on what happened and why. It must have been such a chaotic time…a terror beyond anything we’ve seen or imagined in the present, I’m afraid.

None of that answered what Albedo really wanted to know, though. But what he wanted to know wasn’t a question he could ask, nor was it a question. He wondered…how it was that nearly every ‘monster’ in this book were a creature he has seen before. In the present. As a beast bursting forth from a culture tank, a demonstration of Khemia that would take Albedo decades of practice and study to even hope to replicate.

“Who created them?”

“Hmm, that is quite the question. ‘Khaenri’ah’ is the simple answer, of course, but there’s a few stories out there with a little more than that. There’s a few ancient texts that attribute it to an alchemist named ‘Gold’ that seem like they might have a shred of truth to them, in fact.”

Albedo’s heart went cold, but he didn’t say anything. Just kept staring at the book.

“But don’t worry, cutie,” Lisa chuckled. “I’m not trying to put a bad name on alchemy, by any means. I think we can trust you to not try to manufacture an apocalypse in your downtime.”

 

At his research camp, Albedo found himself staring at that vial of Durin’s essence once again, what he extracted from the Festering Desire several months earlier. He couldn’t make sense of it. He could be right next to Durin’s corrupted blood and not feel anything at all—feel at ease, even (perhaps that was the part that made him most nervous). But that dark abyssal energy…he felt a pull and a resistance, simultaneously. He didn’t know, empirically, what that meant. He didn’t know how his body was supposed to react.

What made Durin become corrupted, in the first place?

For most of his life, Albedo traveled by his master’s side, learning from her everything that she knew, and assisting her however he was asked. He went places and saw things that many people did not even know existed, like the true petrified trees of the underground, those giant behemoths with those large and rather delectable spiders at their roots. In those travels, he watched his master continue to create…for that, naturally, was the way of the alchemist. To continue to press past the limits of what could be. To keep creating until perfection was gained. There was nothing wrong with that, he thought. No matter what it was she made, Albedo looked at it with a studious wonder, along with that knowledge of the sheer gap between his and his master’s abilities.

Perhaps it wasn’t until his time in Mondstadt that his opinion began to shift…although he didn’t know what that shift was to. Those creations of Khemia were…rather horrendous, weren’t they? Engines of destruction. But was that their purpose? To destroy? Was that the design, or simply the result? He reminded himself that he didn’t know for certain…he didn’t know if Rhinedottir was ‘Gold,’ or simply a successor to them…but, Durin was indeed her doing. Albedo suspected it, but through his research, he confirmed it. He and Durin were one and the same. So, was he the same as…everything else, too?

If the creatures of the Cataclysm were indeed ‘monsters’ in every sense of the word, then what was he?

The illness that Albedo felt persisted as he tried to keep his focus on his notes, the sky growing dark with night. He wasn’t sure what he should worry about more—what the Abyss Order was planning, or about himself. Or…both? This was…also confusing to him. Because, he knew where his master came from. He knew where their school of alchemy originated from. It was Khaenri’ah. The cursed, godless land existing only in legends today. But then there was the matter of the Abyss Order, which had so many signs of being connected to his master’s homeland, but Albedo did not know how. He didn’t know if their designs were one and the same with Khaenri’ah, or with Rhinedottir, or…even what any of them wanted in the first place.

Albedo’s destiny felt at times inextricably linked with his master’s will and design. He wasn’t complaining about that. It seemed…natural, that it would be that way. She meant everything to him.

“Please, just call me mom!” Aunt Alice had told him once—no, many times, actually. She would say it in that usual boisterous carefree way of hers…as if it were an easy thing to ask. Albedo felt great fondness for her—and for Klee, as well. He supposed, they were like family, because Klee was certainly like a sister to him, but…calling someone else mom? It seemed like too much to ask. Because he had his master, still. He never called her “mother,” nor did she ever ask him to, but she was still something like family, maybe? Or even more than that. Again, she was everything. He was one of hers; she was the reason he was alive. Though her reasons were a mystery to him, his existence was linked to that reason. Was that not still akin to what “motherhood” was?

And yet, whenever Durin and the Cataclysm was spoken of, “evil” was the word that came to people’s minds, time and time again. In regard to the Abyss, Albedo was not in disagreement. But that link…that unknown link…if he was really little more than an abyssal creature in a human cloak…

“ALBEDO! AL-BEEEE-DOOOO!”

Albedo froze when he heard that voice. It was Klee…who he was not unhappy to see, by any means, but it was late, and he really hoped she didn’t come to Dragonspine alone…

She came to Dragonspine alone.

“Klee!” Albedo exclaimed in greeting when he saw her running up the path, bounding over the broken bridge with ease as usual.

“Albedo! I found you!” Klee leapt into his arms with glee. “I was looking for you but Master Jean said you were sick and you were in your room but then you weren’t in your room and you weren’t in your lab either so I thought you must be here and I was right!”

Albedo breathed out a heavy exhale, letting go of Klee and then inviting her to sit down on a stool next to him. “Klee, please, you have to let someone know when you’re going off this far, alright? But, I am sorry I worried you.”

“Are you still sick?” Klee looked up at him with worry.

“Yes…that is true. It’s not terrible; I’m just feeling a little…off.” By a lot. His head was still dizzy. And he was still nowhere closer to the specifics of his ailment.

“Oh, Klee understands.” She nodded. “It feels bad to be sick. You look a little weird, too. Is that—?”

“KLEE, GET DOWN!”

It all happened in the same instant. Albedo seeing the pair of Cryo Abyss Mages, one of them firing a shot, Albedo jumping on top of his sister to keep her from being hit. The shot crashed into a few vials on the table instead, shattering the glass with a loud burst.

Albedo wasting no time in summoning his sword and coming for them, his instinct for battle overtaking his confusion—they never attacked the camp, before. Them and all of the other monsters alike would always avoid the trouble, so why—?

“Yesss, this is it!” One cackled. “This smell!”

Well, perhaps that was it.

Albedo unleashed a burst of Geo, his Tectonic Tide producing a brief shock of spikes from the earth to drive them back. It was followed by a blast of Pyro from a bomb thrown at their shields.

“Take that, you big bully!”

But it wasn’t enough to make those Cryo mages run off (then again, did they ever?). They teleported to different spots and unleashing another wave of attacks.

“Klee, get on!” Albedo slapped his Solar Isotoma on the ground, rushing to give her a position of relative safety (which also just so happened to be her favorite vantage point for unleashing fiery destruction).

“Heh heh heh, feeling better now, aren’t you?”

Albedo still came for them, his sword at the ready…but then, he stopped suddenly and completely. He was distracted, and his head rang like a trapped beating drum, and he wondered…when was the last time he observed himself?

On his arms, his veins were showing. And…they were a dark, luminescent purple.

In his daze, he got hit by a Cryo attack, sending an icy shock through his body and making him stumble backwards.

“Albedo!” Klee cried out, before another wave of her bombs hit the mages. Their shields would be gone before long. No—there they went. But Albedo…he should be fine. He wasn’t feeling that bad. He could focus. He could fight.

(He should leave. Something was happening to him, he’ll hurt Klee, he’ll hurt everybody)

Another hit by a Cryo attack. He swung with his blade but missed.

(He was missing something. Something important. Why did Durin get corrupted? Was that his design, or was he cursed by something else? Was Albedo cursed too? If he didn’t know how it happened, how could he avoid that same fate?)

“ALBEDO! Get away from him you—AGH!”

He heard a cry of pain from Klee, and his body reacted.

He held on to a shieldless Abyss Mage—gripped it by the throat with a strangled cry by the latter. He did it with gaunt discolored palms and long black claws turning his own gloves to tatters, piercing in to the monster like the spawn of a dragon, or a monster in kind.

(He failed, in so many ways. He never found the truth of this world. He was distracted from that goal, since the start. He always wanted to know the truth about himself, too. He never wanted to destroy Mondstadt.)

He wondered how long it would take before she came back. She always threatened to leave him, if he failed. So, he must have failed. Because, she was never coming for him. He was one failed creation among many…

 

“Albedo! Albedo, wake up! Please wake up!”

Albedo opened his eyes to find himself lying on the cold ground, that biting cold mitigated by the warmth of the fire nearby. He was in the camp, still. And Klee was still here with him.

“Klee…” His voice choked out as he blinked away the haze. “I’m…so sorry. I hurt you. I can explain…”

“No you didn’t.” Klee shook her head, confused. Albedo saw there were dried tears in her eyes. “It was the mean Abyss Mages. But it’s okay! I beat them with my bombs. You told me that Mr. Fluffy’s cousins were all bad guys, remember?”

Wait, did he…not do anything? Did nothing happen?

Albedo got himself up, his headache alive and well, and with incredible hesitation, he looked at himself.

His arms were…normal. As were his hands. Besides the state of his gloves…nothing looked wrong, not at all. He looked…human.

“Klee…” He felt breathless. What was he supposed to do now?

“Are you feeling sick still?”

He wasn’t sure what to say, he just… “Let’s…go back to Mondstadt.”

That could be a terrible idea. The worst idea. But, in spite of himself, it felt like a safe one. For Klee, at least. They needed to get back off this mountain. It must be midnight, by now.

Albedo felt numb to the circumstances and overwhelmed by them. Did this mean he didn’t have much time left?

But…he wouldn’t give up, not yet. It was the way of the alchemist to keep pushing past boundaries.

He would find out what just happened. He would stop the corruption. Or…he would find someone to cleanse the corruption for him. Like the Traveler, that one on whom all his hopes seemed to rest. Even if that cleansing meant destroying everything that he was.

Chapter Text

It didn’t take long being in this place for Thoma to really start feeling bad about bringing Yoimiya along…or allowing himself to get roped into this, for that matter. But then, that was precisely the point—when taking a visit to a probably sketchy maybe-black-market-affiliated auction inside an obscure and remotely located creepy old mansion, it was a generally good idea to bring a friend for backup. This just meant that he was about to owe her a lot when this was all over. He had been saying for a while that they should really get together sometime when they weren’t busy—this wasn’t exactly what he had in mind.

It wasn’t like there was anything overtly “illegal” about the place, though—at least, not from first glance. It was just an art auction, the silent kind where people milled about and made their bids on their items of interest, just with a few speeches by the vendors as well, intermixed in the crowd. But something about the people themselves had him instinctively on edge—all of them had guards, from the looks of it. As in, not the usual security detail for the auction site itself, but separate groups for each individual very-wealthy-looking auction-goer…in addition to the security detail for the mansion. And the way they acted—behind the lighthearted small talk and easy laughter, many of them seemed tense. Suspicious. Not actively so, but like mild suspicion was just a matter of course. Thoma couldn’t help but wonder, then, if that personal security detail had a little less to do with the usual threats from the outside, and more to do with, well, other people’s personal security detail.

He really hoped he was overreacting, though.

“Well, uhh…” Yoimiya laughed awkwardly to fill the brief silence between them. “Nice lacquerware, huh?”

She gestured to a particularly ornate large serving bowl with floral patterns—an antique, probably, judging from the design.

“Yeah…so, you feel it too?” he asked in a voice just quiet enough to still look and sound natural from a distance. The two of them just kept meandering their way through the crowd as if they belonged, looking at the art pieces for sale as if they were the thing of interest.

Yoimiya nodded, also seeming to do a good job of making it look like it was the bowl she was interested in from a distance away. “Heh, yep…not exactly getting the warm fuzzies either. But, uhh, this could also just be how some rich people are. Not too surprising why we’d be out of place in that case, right?” she teased.

“Oh, because a few of them are wearing my whole year’s salary?” he followed along, welcoming the little laugh that followed as a way of easing the tension.

“Well, sure they would, with the price of silk now!” Yoimiya chuckled. “So, do you see that guy you’re supposed to meet?”

“Not yet. I think we might just need to keep wandering for a little while longer.”

Although, he admittedly wasn’t entirely sure what to do once he did find him. He was kind of figuring this out as he went along. As much experience as he had talking to people and making negotiations and such, this particular scenario was a little…new.

 

“I want to know more about him—what his affiliations are, whatever you could find,” Hiroshi instructed him with dead-set deliberation. “I need to know if he is to be trusted.”

Thoma felt uneasy at the request from the start…though, he did understand, in a way. Hiroshi was a merchant, and Kenji was one of his key suppliers. They’ve had a business relationship for quite some time now, but Hiroshi was having suspicions about the source of Kenji’s goods. He caught him with suspicious characters on more than one occasion, and Kenji had repeatedly been very slow to give information about things. He was even caught lying on a few small matters. Granted, Hiroshi was obviously being very meddling in his handling of this, so Kenji could have just been nervous about the excessive questions.

“I especially want to know about this large sum of money he’s supposedly handing over in three days,” he repeated that key part of the matter as explained before. “The guys at the detective agency gave me a report of that correspondence of his with that Fujimaki Taichi character—who I also don’t trust, by the way. Kenji promised to give something to him, and if that doesn’t scream ‘secret black market deal,’ then…”

“Uh, Mr. Hiroshi, if I may…” Thoma interjected before the rant could repeat all over again. “I am really flattered by your faith in me to find information, but, if you’re suspecting something illegal, I really don’t think I’m the best person for the job. This is more of a matter for the Tenryou Commission, or even the detective agency you hired to get you this information in the first place.”

“Yes, but detectives cost money, and you owe me one, remember?” he pointed out as if it were obvious. Which…was true, but… “And you seriously think I’d take this to the Tenryou Commission? Bah! They probably have their slimy hands in whatever sketchy matter is going on here! Of course I’m never going to trust them! Seriously, you of all people should understand…”

 

And…now he was here. Following a lead gained first by the Bantu Detective Agency themselves, probably in way over his head if it really was as serious as Hiroshi thought. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to help—doing favors for the many merchants in his network was a big part of the job, after all—but the fact that Hiroshi wanted Thoma specifically to be the go-to for something like this was…unsettling, in a way. Like, he was just here because of Hiroshi’s distrust for the law enforcement. “You of all people,” he said. Thoma…really wasn’t sure he liked the implications of that. For the record, he did not hold a grudge. Really. He was very much glad that all of this mess with the Vision Hunt Decree and the civil war was over, and that maybe, Inazuma could go back to being a peaceful place again, with all the corruption in the Tri-Commission (supposedly) ironed out. Hey, he was grateful that he got an official pardon even after maybe sort of throwing a spear at an archon’s face, just a little. And running off with Inazuma’s new public enemy #1, as well. It…should all be fine, now.

Although, he would admit that it was still, well, difficult, moving past this. Maybe it was because it ended so quickly. “Easy come, easy go,” as they say. If the Decree was abolished because the Raiden changed her mind, what if she changed it again? Although, he knew it wasn’t quite that simple. He knew there was more to the story that he didn’t know, and he had faith in the Traveler to have a good reason for being at ease now, herself. But, even as much as Thoma really wanted to move on, he couldn’t help but just…feel a residual tenseness, when he passed Tenryou samurai on the street—or rather, when they walked towards him. When one of them seemed to look at him a certain way that he couldn’t discern, or spoke in a loud voice…or, well, when anyone startled him, really.

But, it was fine. He would get over it, eventually.

He just…really wasn’t as prepared as he should have been. The Vision Hunt Decree had dragged on for nearly a year, and not everyone’s Visions had been taken all at once. It was like it was happening in stages, or on a whim. Thoma had gone a very long time without being targeted, so, he began to think (very foolishly) that he might not be. That maybe, his affiliation with the Kamisato clan might be enough to save him—not that he was trying to prop himself up or set himself apart from all those people who were suffering, it was just…all too easy to take every bit of hope he could get. But it really didn’t mean much, in the end. When they arrested him, no one was there to protest. It happened in the middle of the public square, so many were there to watch, but no one dared say a word in his defense—not that he expected them to. There was just…nothing he could do. He was the lucky number 100, the guy they were about to make an example of. He remembered how consumed with dread he had for what would happen next—he and Ayaka had been trying to help those who had lost their Visions for a very long time, so he was acutely aware of what would happen. Or, what might happen. He didn’t know what memories he could be about to lose, or if he would still be himself at all. He could forget his family, forget the Kamisatos, forget Mondstadt—he could forget what he was doing here in the first place, or the reason why he could still be happy because of the people he now knew and because he loved the work he did, and not get crushed by the weight of being a stranger in a land he never planned to stay in, here with plenty of people disgruntled by his very presence in addition to those few friends, some part of him wanting desperately to go back to his homeland but simultaneously unable to stand the idea of going back to an empty house.

He remembered thinking with a bitter internal laugh about how he wished he had written a memoir for himself just in case this happened. There was so much he had never told anyone here, but still just as strongly did not want to forget. However, he really had no idea how much was tied to his Vision. Maybe, if he just let go and didn’t care about any of his aspirations anymore, the results of losing his Vision wouldn’t be so bad…but, he wasn’t so sure he knew how to do that.

He was getting distracted, wasn’t he? Thoma cleared his head quickly the moment he realized he almost failed to notice the growing cluster of people in this one spot, the activity which seemed to be catching Yoimiya’s attention as well. They saw this guy get up on a small platform, as if about to say something…

“Harness the power of the gods!” he announced. “No restrictions, guaranteed! This model is certified to be fully authentic, the product of the finest and most up-to-date technology!”

To demonstrate, he produced small electro sparks between his fingers, and the auction-goers were quick with their questions to follow up. He couldn’t make out all of what they were saying, largely because of increased noise coming from the larger crowd, but it would seem that he and Yoimiya both were too busy staring blankly at this thing to listen closely anyways.

The vendor representative held a purple orb in his hand, looking a lot like a Vision. Except, Thoma was very positive that it definitely wasn’t.

“That’s a Delusion!” Yoimiya took the words from his mouth in a whisper-yell. “They…but…I thought…”

“They…would have destroyed those already?”

“Yeah!” She turned to him, looking like her mind was buzzing. “Thoma, did Lumine tell you? About what happened?”

“About the Sangonomiya, the soldiers experiencing accelerated aging, and…her friend?”

“Yes! She told me about that, too! Oh no, this is bad…” she stressed, although he wondered if she had any more of an idea about what to do about this than he did. This was entirely outside the scope of their mission, he wasn’t sure if there was anything they could do. “What if someone…?”

“Ha, well! Thoma! Didn’t expect to see you here!”

Thoma froze at the sound of the voice, as if he was caught doing something even though he hadn’t…yet. It wasn’t even a bad voice. This just wasn’t the best time or place for meeting anyone familiar.

“Yosuke-san, what a nice surprise!” Thoma turned around to face the merchant with his best congenial smile, suppressing the awkwardness in his laugh as best he could. He was also someone he’s worked with a number of times before, who he wasn’t exactly expecting to see here, but considering the fact that Thoma’s worked with a lot of people, the chance really was far from zero. Plus the fact that he did pull a few favors of his own from people he knew just to get entrance into the auction at all.

Yosuke had no guards close by his side—the very visible sword on his belt and his own tall and broad strong frame seemed to be security enough for him. “Heh, same to you!” His smile was warm and friendly. “So what business brings you here? And your friend—wait, I know you—Naganohara girl, right?”

“Yep! That’s me!” Yoimiya’s laugh was a little more noticeably awkward behind her wide smile and confident hands on her hips. “The ol’ firework girl! That’s who I am! Yeah…”

“We are just…here to pay someone a visit!” Thoma made his explanation short and sweet with a clap of his hands. “Just a quick meet with a contact, is all. And we thought we’d look around at the auction while we’re at it! Just to look, of course. So, how about you? Any pieces that catch your eye?”

“On the contrary, I’m the seller of several of the items here,” he corrected. “Including that little cash prize over there.” He gestured to—of course—none other than the Delusion on its pedestal.

“Oh! Well…that’s interesting!” Thoma so had no idea what he was doing.

“Heh, you interested?” he prodded good-naturedly, as if there were absolutely nothing wrong with this picture at all.

“Heheh, nope! Not really! Already got one, see?” Yoimiya bounced in with an equally lighthearted tone.

“Nothing to say you can’t have both.” Yosuke shrugged. “I heard that one of the Fatui Harbingers is also a Vision-wielder. Having more than one element at your fingertips would be quite the upgrade, right?”

“Well, that’s no matter anyways,” Thoma laughed it off. “We’re not here to buy anything.” They definitely couldn’t even if they wanted to. Thoma made a decent enough living, but it certainly wasn’t anywhere close to that much, or so he could confidently guess even without having seen how high the price was on the Delusion yet.

However, unfortunately, Yosuke was at least somewhat astute. “Hmm, you both disapprove, don’t you?” He crossed his arms and regarded them curiously.

Oh, how was he going to say this? “Right, yes…Yosuke, I really don’t mean any offense to you or how you do your business, it’s just that we’ve both heard…rumors. That the Delusions are…dangerous, perhaps?” Nothing major, just in a risk of death sort of way.

Granted, he didn’t know exactly how much everyone here would even know…most of the citizenry really did just know about this through rumors. Tales of the Delusions as this sinister Fatui scheme, hatched on the hapless rebels of Sangonomiya. Thoma and Yoimiya both were at a bit of an advantage information-wise, having a mutual friend who happened to have been involved right at the heart of it all.

“I understand.” Yosuke seemed to be taking the disagreement graciously, at least. “You’re not wrong, necessarily. This did indeed cause some people their deaths, but that result is far from universal. A person would be fine if they’re strong enough. Many of those rebels hardly knew how to fight, anyways. It’s no wonder they couldn’t handle it. You just must understand—for many people here, the risks are indeed known, but they’re willing to take them. That just might be hard for you to understand, as an allogene. Not everyone has been lucky enough to be blessed by the gods.”

Yeah…blessed by the gods to have part of their soul attached to a very removable trinket that some other god might decide they didn’t deserve to have anymore. It was great.

“Well, yeah, but it’s still dangerous!” Yoimiya spoke her piece without hesitation. “If strength is all you need to not have the Delusion backfire on you, how can you know if you have enough before something bad happens? Besides, are you really sure it’s okay to just…sell this?”

“It’s not illegal, just so you know.” Yosuke breathed out a heavy sigh. “There is no official government policy on these items whatsoever. They might as well not really exist. Look,” he spoke with a lower voice, “I get it. You’re worried. But all I’m doing is providing a product that people want. I’ve had to get creative, as of late. The Sakoku Decree evaporated nearly half of my business overnight. I’ve had to lay people off. Back in the day, I used to sell off dead Visions that were found unclaimed. A lot of people were willing to pay a good price for the hopes that it might awaken for them, or just to wear it for show. But that is nothing compared to the market for a Delusion. You don’t have to wait for a turn of fate to get it to work for you. Anyone can use it. It’s a power that’s guaranteed.”

“Right, well…I understand.” Thoma wasn’t going to argue with him. That really wasn’t what he was here for. Whatever kind of auction this was…that didn’t matter. He just needed to find Kenji and find out why he was handing off money to that Fujimaki guy who happened to be the head of the clan who owned this mansion and also just so happened to be considered sketch by some people. But it was just rumors—illegal trade, bribery to the army, threatening his rivals—that kind of thing. It could be absolutely nothing, but he owed Hiroshi a favor, and this was it.

“Hey, but actually,” Thoma started to change the subject, thinking he might as well ask about the matter at hand. “Could you help us, by any chance? We’re looking for an ore distributor by the name of Kenji. We were told we could meet him here, at the auction tonight?”

“Hmm…” Yosuke thought about it. “I know who you’re talking about, but I can’t say that I’ve seen him anywhere. But you could always ask Fujimaki Taiki himself. This is his estate; I’m just here as a vendor. Whoever is here, he would probably know. He’s over that way.” He pointed to a small cluster of samurai guards off to the side of the crowd with just a glimpse of someone in the middle, plus a few people resting in a sitting area behind them.

Talk…to Fujimaki directly? “Oh, thank you! I’ll have to see if I can gain an audience.” That didn’t seem like the best idea, just because it was…well…the owner of the sketchy maybe-black-market art auction making sketchy deals who also happened to probably be very powerful in circles very inaccessible to someone as ultimately insignificant at the end of the day as Thoma. No matter how much the people in Ritou liked him.

He and Yoimiya parted ways with Yosuke right after that, drifting a little closer to the location of the big man in charge. “So, you gonna do it? You want to talk to him?” Yoimiya asked in a tone as if she fully expected this to be the way to go.

“I…don’t know. Seems a little bold, right?”

“Well, you could just do what you usually do,” Yoimiya proposed with a sweeping hand motion to follow. “Stride in like you already know everything that is going on and all of everyone’s secrets and what needs to be done!”

Thoma chuckled awkwardly a little. “Heh, is that how I come across?”

“Oh, come on! Have a little more confidence!” She elbowed him lightheartedly. “Think of him as just another client. Same with everyone else here, for that matter.”

“Alright, well…” He exhaled sharply. “Since I still don’t see Kenji, I guess it’s worth a shot. Maybe if I’m lucky, I can glean a few clues directly.”

So, he did just that. Walked straight up to Fujimaki and his guards, Yoimiya close behind, and he asked one of the guards if he was available. Turns out, it really wasn’t going to be as hard as he thought, because Fujimaki spotted him first before the guard could pass on the message.

“You there! You have business with me?” He made a motion of shoving his guard to his side, suddenly facing Thoma directly. It was Thoma’s first time meeting him—he was very imposing, both in voice and stance, despite not being particularly large, though he certainly did not look like a slacker in a fight, either. He seemed cross, but, not mad, necessarily, so Thoma would count that as a good enough sign.

“Yes.” He would be straight to the point. Act like he belongs here. “I have business with Kenji, a specialist in ore distribution. He was going to—”

“Oh, so he hired you as his representative? Of course the coward wouldn’t show up himself. He’s kept me waiting long enough.”

“Ah…” Think, Thoma, think! He couldn’t just lie to him, but here he just made it obvious that Kenji is definitely not here and he just needed to get this information— “…yes.” What was he doing?

“Hmph, fair enough. So, who are you?”

“It’s Thoma, sir.”

“Oh, Thoma, is it? The ‘fixer’ of Ritou? Yeah, I’ve heard of you before.”

Wait…he has!?

“In that case, I’ll accept this. But if you’re here to negotiate, I’m afraid you will be sorely disappointed. The sum is twenty-four million mora. I’m being generous. He owes me twice as much as that, and I have been extending his deadline for months. I am giving him one more night.” He held up a single finger to accent his point. “He brings the money, he can have her back. So, do you have it?”

“Ah, no, I apologize. He…didn’t give me anything.”

Wait…’her’? Did he just say ‘her’? As in, personal pronoun belonging to a person? Or…or a boat! He was definitely talking about a boat.

Fujimaki crossed his arms and solemnly shook his head. “That’s no surprise. He really believes he can keep pushing this on?”

“One week.” Thoma made up something on the spot. “He simply wants an extension for one week longer. Having a longer wait is better than not having the money at all, right?”

As subtly as he could manage, Thoma started looking past him just a little. He wasn’t paying attention to them before, but, those people in the sitting area…

“Ha, figures you might say that.” The guy smiled at him, but not exactly in a congenial way. “But you have to understand, it’s not just a matter of getting the money. Reputation is at stake. If I keep being so generous, would not more people think they could get the same treatment? You should know how difficult doing business is these days. This is nothing personal; it’s simply a matter of survival.”

…there was a child. Thoma saw two people standing there talking to each other, one woman half-asleep in a chair, not paying attention to anything, and, alone in another chair, a young girl—probably seven or eight, if he were to guess. There was a samurai guard flanking her on either side. And she was just…looking down at her hands, not doing or saying anything at all.

“Did you want to see her?” Fujimaki seemed to cut into his very thoughts with the question, and Thoma fought hard to suppress a shudder. “Right over there.” He gestured to the child. “Not a scratch on her—nothing too major, anyways. Just a few bruises. Just go back and tell Kenji that I’m a man of my word. He gives me the money, and he can have her back, just like nothing ever happened. And you know what? For your sake, I’ll even extend the deadline. Two days. Midnight of the day after tomorrow is his final chance.”

Thoma froze in place—lost his breath, his words, his everything—he’s not sure he even blinked. This…this was…

“Y-Yoimiya!”

It was the girl who shouted her name out. In an instant, she went from quiet and barely noticeable to wide-eyed and rising up partially out of her seat, only to be forced back down by a guard’s firm hand on her shoulder. There was a desperation in her tone and her eyes that made every shred of doubt left about what exactly was happening here vanish.

Kenji wasn’t handing over money for just some black-market deal, he was…

“Hey, keep her quiet, will you!?” Fujimaki barked to his guards with irritation, then turning to face Thoma. “Who’s she talking about? That guard of yours?” He gestured to Yoimiya.

His…guard? “Oh, yeah! Yes, she’s a guard and my…consultant! And I am so sorry for the disturbance; let me just take her to go…consult together, and I will be back with you shortly!”

The two of them left the scene in a hurry, just not so much in a hurry to attract attention…hopefully. He felt a sort of relief just to get away and be obscured by the crowd and actually have to chance to talk to Yoimiya face-to-face again, even if though he was still very much stressed for very obvious reasons.

“Oh, this is bad!” Yoimiya gripped her fingers into her hair, certainly looking just as shocked and panicked as he was. “This whole thing…this is a ransom?”

“Or, a threat to get Kenji to pay back his debt. But, basically that, yes. You know her?”

Yoimiya nodded vigorously. “She’s from Inazuma City! I’ve played with her many times before, along with all the other kids. I haven’t seen her in weeks, but I didn’t exactly think anything of it; I knew her dad was a merchant of some sort, and that he was a single dad, so I figured they’d just be traveling together, or something. Her name’s Ayame, by the way! I can’t believe I completely missed her at first; I wasn’t paying attention but then I did see her and I panicked but you were still talking so I didn’t say anything and I really hoped I was wrong about her being in trouble but she most definitely is—Thoma, what are we going to do!?”

“I…I don’t know, the obvious answer is to get help, but…”

“But, we’re so far away from everything and they’re just…there!”

“In plain sight,” Thoma mused in agreement, trying to pull his thoughts together. It was true: with the way things were, a Tenryou officer could walk in here right now and very likely come to the conclusion that nothing was wrong—maybe besides that Delusion, that is. Ayame would look like she was just fine at first glance. “And unfortunately, I don’t exactly have twenty-four million mora lying around.”

“Then let’s do it.” Yoimiya’s stress quickly morphed into determination, with a just a few glances around to make sure no one was listening to them. “I’ll make a distraction, you grab Ayame, we bolt.”

“Whoa, whoa, wait!” He was on board with the general idea, but… “I can’t just…grab her! I could scare her! She’s probably so on edge already, I…I don’t know, we have to give her peace of mind.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Yoimiya conceded with a heavy exhale. “She was always so shy, too…she liked being with the others, but she was cautious and it would take her a little bit to get used to new people. I can only imagine…” She cut herself off with a shake of the head. “Okay! In that case, I’ll get her, since she knows me already. You can be the distraction! Here, you can take my fireworks!”

“You…brought fireworks?” He did admittedly have just an inkling of a feeling that this was what she had in mind by ‘distraction,’ but still.

Yoimiya gave a brief teasing smile at that. “Hey, you asked me to come with you to a maybe-sketchy auction, what else would I bring?”

“Heh, thanks!” He expected nothing less. “But…I might not start with the fireworks show, though.” He glanced over at the crowd again. “It’ll cause chaos for sure, but if we do that, the first thing those guards are going to do is whisk Ayame away, probably to somewhere else in the mansion. I need to get their attention first, and then use the element of chaos at just the right timing.” Not to mention that they were probably already suspicious of Thoma and Yoimiya both, to some degree. He was on their good side now, but he couldn’t count on it to last. Obviously, the safe thing would be to not make a move at all right away, but…the way he saw it, there really wasn’t any other choice. He couldn’t just walk away and pretend he knew nothing. He couldn’t guarantee that he could actually find Kenji, get that money, get help, or anything of the sort, as Ayame could easily end up somewhere no one would ever find.

Thoma would have plenty of time later to process how exactly he slipped and fell and ended up in yakuza territory (because there no way this was going to be without future consequences), but for now, he had a new mission to carry out.

“Alright, gotcha! You got something in mind?”

“Yeah…I think so.”

 

It could be a very bad idea. But…it could work. Thoma just figured that, if he was going to start getting people’s attention in an auction, the best target to go for would be the most valuable item on the floor.

He wove through the crowd and went straight for the Delusion. There were still a number of people hovering around, though mostly just talking to each other. So, he positioned himself naturally, observing the Delusion on its pedestal like he was interested in it. with a short glance to watch Yoimiya slink away from the crowd to be ready to make her own move.

He spoke up just loudly enough to get everyone’s attention, but not enough to be too obvious. “I think this Delusion’s a fake.”

He heard a number of idle conversations vanish in an instant. He continued to observe the Delusion as he felt many curious gazes turn to him, just as the representative making the announcements before rose at once to the challenge.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It could be fake,” Thoma started simply, easily. Just like he knew exactly what he was talking about. “The color of the metal is off. There should be a slight copper varnish to the edge of the frame, but the slight reddening here seems to be a sign not of that but of the metal wearing away.”

They probably had to wash it thoroughly beforehand, to get the blood off. He had a guess that this could have come off of a dead resistance fighter, if they hadn’t somehow gotten a hold of the Delusions that were confiscated.

“And you are…?”

“Just a representative scouting a product for my client.” He smiled easily, even though he could feel so many intense gazes bore into him, including, at the very edge of the crowd, Yosuke himself.

Thoma felt bad about this. It really honestly stung. Yosuke had been nothing but friendly to him. He did nothing to earn Thoma’s ire—besides the questionable business practices, that is. This really wasn’t a bridge he wanted to burn. This just happened to be the best idea he could come up with on the spot.

“Hmph, nonsense,” the rep scoffed. “That detail is insignificant; it is a used item, so it is only natural that there would be wear. Weren’t you here to see the demonstration earlier?”

Perfect. That was exactly what he wanted to hear. “Yes, that is true, but you have to show more than a few Electro sparks to really be convincing. Something like that you can do with just a cured Electro crystal, right?”

There was murmuring in the crowd. Now he got their attention.

“Well, what more do you expect?” the rep countered testily.

“Simple. Give a demonstration to the fullest of the Delusion’s ability. Call down lightning, right here and now. I will gladly consider myself proved wrong.”

“Ah, well…that is nonsense!” he stammered. “This is a high-class hall, a crown of the Fujimaki estate! I would never do something so destructive inside this place! This is a very powerful item!”

“Well then, just control it so it doesn’t call the roof down. I’ve seen plenty of people master these things like that; it’s really no different than a Vision, right? I could use my Vision without setting the house on fire, easily.”

“W-Well, like you said, that does require experience and training…”

“So you’re selling it without knowing how to use it yourself?”

The rep’s expression grew increasingly more irritated. The murmurs of the crowd grew louder and closer. The rep walked a few steps closer and hissed at him in a lower voice. “You…you plebian! What do you think you’re doing?”

“Heh, sorry for the trouble! I just assumed it’d be a simple matter.”

“But I can’t. It’s not that simple at all!”

“Well, you’re the one who said that this was a perfect substitute for a Vision.” Thoma shrugged. “And they don’t come with instruction manuals—believe me, I should know!” he pointed out with a lighthearted laugh. “It comes naturally, so why should this be any different? Unless…you think it isn’t safe?”

The rep glared daggers at him as he stepped back. “Alright then!” He spoke in a loud voice now, although several people probably heard the softer conversation as well. “Since you are someone with…experience,” he challenged while pointing accusingly at the Vision on Thoma’s belt. “You use it! See for yourself the power that the Delusion has!”

Yeah, he figured the conversation would go in this direction. Thoma breathed out an imperceptible breath to steady himself. “Alright, I will.”

It was no surprise that he felt nervous when the representative took the Delusion and angrily placed it in Thoma’s hand, as a crowd began to gather around them both.

“It…steals your life force, I think,” Lumine told him, her tone steady by her expression obviously still haunted by the memory. Paimon hovered close as a comforting presence by her side. “Just drains everything you have to fuel it. Like a Vision’s exact opposite, in a way.”

“Thoma, what are you doing!?”

He heard Yosuke hiss at him in a low voice, coming up behind him in the midst of the crowd, sounding more shocked than anything else. “I thought we were at an understanding!”

“I’m sorry,” Thoma whispered back, genuinely meaning it. “I can explain later—"

“HEY, I know you!”

A woman’s voice shouted from the midst of the crowd, drawing everyone’s attention all at once. “You’re that guy from the statue ceremony! One of those allogene troublemakers!”

Thoma felt his blood freeze at the accusation, wincing in spite of himself. He didn’t have time for—no, he did. Actually, this was perfect. The more attention on him, the better. He glanced over at the corner of the room where Fujimaki Taiki was, noticing how both he and his guards were making their way closer, wondering what was going on. This was his chance.

Thoma turned to the woman with a smile like nothing about this bothered him at all. “Heh, that would be correct! But, I’m not here to cause trouble, I promise! I’m just going to try a little demonstration. So, assuming this does work, I would advise everyone to stand a little further back, alright?”

With the help of some of the guards, they did as he said. Now Thoma was alone in the center of the circle. He looked at the Delusion in his hand and breathed out another steady exhale.

Sorry, Lumine. I’m about to ignore all of your good advice.

He activated it.

In a way, drawing on the Delusion’s power really was similar to the Vision—in basic mechanic, that is. The feeling, however, was entirely different. He felt the energy course through his body, making a loud and harsh entrance like the foreign entity it was, like it was running through his blood upstream—while simultaneously consuming him from head to toe. Without feeling the energy loss instantaneously, it really felt like it was eating him alive. But he did, at this moment, activate his actual Vision to a subtle warm glow as well—he figured, if the Delusion took and the Vision gave, then his Vision might help him out to provide a little more supply. That way, he might not…well…die.

Violent sparks of Electro emerged from his hands and forearms. He fought hard to control it just so he didn’t set off the firecrackers on his person too soon. He watched for the crowd’s reaction as well as Fujimaki and his guards. The crowd seemed fascinated by the display, and the guards seemed quite displeased. Then, some of them started to make their way over to him, pushing through the noisy crowd. Thoma made the sparks get stronger as he looked into the distance and tried to get a glimpse of Ayame. Finally, he saw her through the crowd, still in the same chair as before, but looking at something under a nearby table—or, someone: Yoimiya. But the two guards flanking her were looking at him.

This was his chance.

Just as promised, he called down a bolt of lightning from the ceiling, feeling all the muscles in his arms scream at him as he did so, although it hardly took more than a second to do. And then, the moment the bolt came crashing down, he threw a number of small firecrackers on the ground and preemptively dropped the Delusion and started to run.

The chaos was instantaneous. Loud explosions rang out accompanied by a thick cloud of dust and smoke, accompanied by many shocked and angry shouts from the auction-goers and their guards, all at once turning on each other while Thoma hastily made his exit, ignoring all the angry shouts and orders to stop directed at himself specifically.

Through the thick smoke, he caught a familiar glimpse of orange and red. The relief he felt when he saw Yoimiya run up to him while holding Ayame, both of them unscathed, was more than what he could put into words.

“Come on, let’s go!” she urged.

They ran for the exit, and it wasn’t long until the smoke cleared enough that they could be noticed. Guards working for Fujimaki ran for them in full pursuit, while others moved to block the entrance.

“Ayame, hold on, please!” Yoimiya got Ayame to move to clinging to her with her hands around her neck and her legs around her waist while she used both hands to summon her bow and fire it at the pursuers—one charged shot nailing one guy in the chest while separate fiery sparks honed in on all of the others. At that same moment, Thoma summoned his own spear and went for the guys at the doorway before they had a spare second to react, slashing through with a fiery burst and knocking a cluster of them to any which side.

Yoimiya shifted back to supporting Ayame in her arms, and they ran out the doorway that was now very much on fire.

They bolted into the forest, more samurai guards emerging in pursuit. One of the stronger warriors sent a shockwave into the ground with a heavy strike of his sword, and Thoma hastily pulled Yoimiya and Ayame to the side to keep them from losing their balance. Several paces later, Yoimiya stopped again to fire more shots in rapid burst. Thoma gave them a few more seconds of a head start while he slammed down another quick fiery blast at them with his spear.

They kept running, probably nearly halfway across Narukami Island. In time, the pursuers footsteps could no longer be heard, but they didn’t stop—not until they reached Konda Village. The first safest spot of civilization that they found.

They fell to their knees just outside the village, panting hard. Thoma was aching in so many ways—he still felt sparks crawling up his arms, though they may just be his imagination.

“Hey…it’s okay! Ayame, we’re safe now! You can let go!”

But Ayame, even while Yoimiya was kneeling down, wouldn’t stop clinging to her, her face buried firmly into her chest. Thoma saw that her shoulders were shaking jerkily, like she was sobbing.

“Hey…it’s okay. You can cry all you need to. It’s alright. You’re safe now. I promise.”

Yoimiya looked up at Thoma, a condensed wave of emotions all over her face. “I have some friends here. We can go to the Imatami’s place; I’m sure they’ll take us in.” She looked up at the pitch-black night sky. “I’m sure of it; everything will be okay, now.”

Chapter Text

The longer Rosalyne stayed in Mondstadt after that, the more unbearable it became.

It wasn’t just the fact that it was now a ruined city. Given what happened, it was no surprise that the homes, streets, and walls were in tatters, with many of the farms and villages outside those walls nearly leveled in the disaster. Mondstadtians were a resilient people, and they wasted no time rebuilding what was lost. Rosalyne was part of that rebuilding process, just one of many taking some share in the load, though because of this she forced to hear her countrymen talk about hope over and over again, and sing praises to Barbatos, for showing up in their time of need alongside Dvalin to kill the poisonous black dragon, Durin.

Rosalyne felt her blood go cold every time, a bitter retort on her lips that she never found the means to say—why thank Barbatos, at a time like this? Why praise him just for showing up at all, when he should have been here much, much sooner?

It didn’t matter what they did. It didn’t matter if they rebuilt everything and made the city look like it would have if never ever happened. It wasn’t going to bring the dead back.

Even in ruins, Rosalyne found that the streets looked far too familiar to her. She would walk down the same streets they walked, stand silently in the same square where she used to sing.

“The west wind bears wine's fragrance away,
The mountain wind brings glad tidings new.
The breeze from afar tugs at my heart,
It sings of my longing for you.”

That was one of the many songs she sung, and likely the one most precious to her. She sang it on the day she believed was the first time she saw Rostam smile.

 

“A Wolfhook berry? Really? It wouldn’t by any chance be your title that led you to such an incredibly erroneous answer, now would it?” Rosalyne teased him as they sat at their usual table on the corner of the square, a light meal of Fisherman’s Toast half-eaten before them.

“It’s a true symbol of freedom,” Rostam replied back matter-of-factly with half a smile, almost imperceptible. “The way I see it, Wolvendom is the perfect mirror to Mondstadt: wild and unrestrained, and yet at the same time, the wolves are a picture of nobility I think every Mondstadtian could learn from.”

“Hmm, all good points, but it’s not a flower.”

“Who says the Windblume has to be a flower?”

“Well, we do have many a flower to choose from, so the I way I see it, probability is on its side.”

“So, you have a flower in mind?”

“Yes, the Cecilia, of course. It’s beautiful and elegant. Simple as that.”

Rostam shook his head solemnly. “You expect me to believe your answer is ‘simple as that’?”

Rosalyne quirked a smile, taking his doubt as a compliment. An expected one. “Cecilias grow where the wind is strongest,” she explained. “They’re resilient. Just like a Mondstadtian. However, the best part is that they grow nowhere else. You can’t grow them anywhere other than Starsnatch Cliff, because they choose the place with the most resistance. They wouldn’t have it any other way. So, to your point, I think many people in this city can learn a thing or two from them, as well.”

 

Rosalyne stared at the corner where that table used to be, now nowhere to be seen, with only a cracked stone floor in its place. She always enjoyed those moments, the two of them talking about anything at all for as much time as they had the luxury to spare. She remembered in those moments watching his brow finally unknit time and time again, seeing him relax into that one small smile reserved only for her. It always felt like a victory, to make him happy. He was so serious most of the time, burdened by the weight of his duties to the knights and to Mondstadt itself. He was Arundolyn’s shadow, that silent figure in the background, the one who worked long and hard for the knights by day and did what needed to be done on his own at night, the one subjected to continual teasing by his old friend for how somber he always was, this one who had inherited Kreuzlied’s society and operated it faithfully behind the Grand Master’s back. In these things, Rosalyne always felt she understood him to some degree, despite not belonging to the same world as he. Actions meant more than words, meant more than the praise of others. Arundolyn was praised for the way he kept the peace in Mondstadt, without anyone knowing a thing of the work Rostam did behind the scenes. Rostam didn’t resent him for this, though, and neither did Rosalyne, although she never believed she could see eye to eye with the Lionfang Knight for this reason. She never wanted to receive praise for another’s toil, nor did she feel comfortable working to appease the public eye at all. The only people whose opinion mattered were those she was close to.

She didn’t have anyone whose opinion she cared about, anymore. The few close to her had left her, one by one. Rostam was the last.

Rosalyne went alone to her temporary home at night, one room in a common house hastily thrown back together by the citizens of the city. She didn’t have a home beforehand, anyways—she lived in a rented room that she left for good when she left for Sumeru to do her studies, living as a student until the day the disaster happened. She left for home as soon as she could. Turns out, she became the first to tell the Mondstadtians that yes, the disaster hit Sumeru, as well. Not Durin, but something else. All of Teyvat was hit by something, it would seem.

So she went to this home and she would pore over her notes, her books, everything she dared to bring with her at risk of being slowed down in her flight to Mondstadt. Her world was that of a scholar—as a scientist and an alchemist. She too had her sights on changing the world from the shadows. She despised all those empty drawn-out conversations with the pretentious that she had to go through while acting in the world of academia, but she found pleasure in long nights of work on a problem only very few eyes would get to see the process for. She wanted nothing more than to do her work to excellence, and then use it as she willed.

There was a something in particular she was working on, something she had dabbled in ever since she was an apprentice. Her results were minimal; her theory on success remaining only as words and diagrams on a paper, because if she was correct, the cost would be high. Now, she studied those diagrams, over and over again. She studied as she thought of what happened here in Mondstadt, as she despised herself for not being here to see the end. Not being here to fight by Rostam’s side until that black fire consumed them both. She wasn’t a fighter, but she could be. She fought on the side, as a necessity, as part of some experiment that required a practicing of skills. But she could go further. She could go so much further.

Humans were despicably fragile things. What happened to them all on that day proved that this was a world they never really belonged in—it was a world of gods and monsters that they were always at the mercy of, unless some other god came to save them. Some other god that, when it mattered most, never truly cared. Barbatos was no guardian of Mondstadt. Never was Dvalin. And she wasn’t asking them to be. She wasn’t going to beg—never would she beg.

She disappeared from the city one early morning with just a few notes in hand. She was glad she chose a remote place to do the experiment—she couldn’t do much to stop the screams of pain that burst from her lips when she did it. She struggled to complete the procedure, but she did. She didn’t back away when she felt the flames burn away her flesh, burn into her very soul. This was how it had to be done—to piece by piece, replace her mortal flesh with liquid fire in human shape.

She didn’t need a Vision to wield an element. On that day, she finally proved it for good.

She walked away with a cold stare in her eyes, the timepiece he gave her at her side—once Hydro, now liquid flame. She need not answer to anyone. She need not work for anyone’s praise. She would destroy the monsters of this world, even if it meant her humanity must be sacrificed.

A little sacrifice when no one was around for her to keep her humanity for.

 

She stood before a field awash in fire, a hoard of monsters reduced to ashes.

 

She walked through the city again, but the people cowered away in fear, closed their windows and tried to drive her off. They hardly recognized her, it would seem. No longer was she the young maiden singing in the square, her innocent melody drawing the pleased attention of all who walked past. But that didn’t matter to her, not anymore.

 

“I-I’ll talk! Anything!” The abyss mage squeaked in terror while in the fiery grasp of the Crimson Witch of Flames herself, stumbling through its words to tell her of their plans.

“Okay then. This is for wasting my time.”

She burnt it as it screamed. Only ashes remained.

 

“The dandelions carry in the summer wind.”

Her new song began with light words but a somber tone, as she walked through the field of scorched earth.

“Autumn brings the fragrance of rain.”

They called her a witch, so she donned a scorching hat to match the title, as much as she despised it. The monsters feared her, far and wide, and she would keep it that way.

“But no wind in any season on earth…”

She selfishly wished he could have been one of the few who made it. He should have. He cared about Mondstadt. More than she ever truly did.

“…shall have you gaze upon me again.”

No one was there, this time, to hear her song. No one was there to laugh with her or to cry, to be affected at all. Her audience was a field of corpses.

 

That night, she discovered that even a body of flame possessed the ability to shed a tear.

 

Chapter Text

“Over there! Get her!”

An arrow lodged itself in the tree overhead. Then a second and a third. Sayu crouched in the bushes just long enough for their attention to move elsewhere before again making a run for it.

Her ankle was bleeding, and it made running really hard. So did the wound from that arrow that hit her above the elbow. She usually could get away without getting caught or getting injured at all—or maybe injured just a little. But these guys were strong, and they wouldn’t stop following her.

She didn’t even know why the information she just got was so important, anyways.

Getting too tired to even run right, she tripped over a root and fell. It didn’t take long for them to catch up to her the rest of the way.

“Ha! Nowhere to run, you little rodent.”

The archer set his sights on her without hesitation, and Sayu rushed to roll out of the way, her heart pounding in her head and making everything even more dizzy. She couldn’t fight—not that well. She was way too small for that, and ninjutsu wasn’t any good for fighting. Only escaping. And now, she couldn’t even do that right.

She wished her sensei were here.

She didn’t get to say goodbye before he left. She was desperate and worried, so she went straight to the Shuumatsuban clan elders with it, but they told her everything was okay. She should be on her own now. She would be just fine on her own.

A woman threw two daggers that stopped Sayu in her tracks before she could vanish into the undergrowth again, one lodged in the dirt by her feet and the other in the tree by her head, both avoided only very narrowly by her freezing in place.

She was so tired, she felt like she could pass out any moment now. These people wouldn’t stop. Why was this so important?

Sayu made a sudden scream of pain. Ninjas weren’t supposed to make noise, but she did. She tried to use a blocking technique to stop another dagger, but it didn’t work quite right. She stopped it from hitting her face, but only by letting it pierce through the palm of her hand.

She ran away again, tried to lose them this time.

Should she try to fight better? But she didn’t know if she could. She was much weaker than them—and smaller, and younger. Was this how animals felt, when they ran away from something hunting them. But…but then, even if that was the case, even if those animals were weaker, they still lived, sometimes. The weak have their own way of surviving. So, even if the chances were slim…

She stopped in place, exhausted and bleeding. She turned around to face her pursuers, and she tried her best to remember. She needed to remember all those techniques her sensei taught her. He always said she should keep calm and keep levelheaded. So, if she could figure out how to do that, she could be okay again. Just like when he was here with her.

She faced them and watched the path of their weapons. And then, before the arrow could hit her, she vanished, just at the same moment the leaves fell.

It was a secret art she had yet to master, but it worked. She was nowhere to be seen, because in a flash, she was nowhere around.

 

Sayu struggled to get up the next morning from her hiding spot in the tree. Everything still hurt, her wounds had dirt in them—which was bad, probably—and she was so, so tired. But she had the information, just like she was supposed to. But the ninja pack strapped to her leg…where did that go? It was nowhere…

…but there was a Vision in its place, gleaming in the sunrise. Sayu blinked her eyes in shock.

Maybe…did this mean, she wasn’t going to be weak anymore? Maybe, if she was lucky, this could even make her grow taller, too.

Chapter Text

“Outlanders, your journey ends here.”

She came at them with a show of power they should have been able to face. They should have won. But all it took was one hit by those…those things…the same things they saw…

“Lumine!”

Panic shot through him like a bullet. It was happening too fast—

“Wait! Don’t go!”

He couldn’t move. He couldn’t fly he couldn’t

“Give my sister back!”

 

The last thing he remembered was a black nothingness, and falling. A weightless, blind descent into the thick dark ether—where he couldn’t breathe, couldn’t change his course, couldn’t grasp a single thing. It could have been real, or it could have been all in his mind. The distinction didn’t always matter that much, depending on the world.

He opened his eyes in a quiet forest, breathing heavily despite the exhaustion being long passed. What…what happened?

He remembered every event that just happened distinctly, and yet, it still all felt like a blur. His sister had been the first to wake up, after their arrival in this world. When she woke him up, it was in a panicked hurry—the world was ending. This nation called Khaenri’ah had plunged the world into chaos, and they needed to leave—now. But they didn’t; they were blocked by this god and she just…she took her and…

And Aether…didn’t feel right.

He shot up to sit upright on the grassy earth, flexing the muscles in his back frantically, trying to summon them, but they wouldn’t come. He brought himself to stand upright and tried again—still nothing. With every second that passed, he hoped he would just snap out of it and feel right again, but it wasn’t happening. Aether stilled, standing there with his heart sinking as if it could possibly sink any further after the loss of Lumine.

His wings were gone. And…it seemed like most of his power was gone with them.

He looked up at the sky with desperate longing. He needed to get out of here, go and find her. How was he supposed to get back to that place where he lost her if he couldn’t fly? He was…stuck. And clueless. He knew nothing about this world. He knew nothing about that strange god who barred their path. Why did she do it, even? Why did she care about them? They were just Travelers. This world wasn’t theirs. Did that unknown god just stand as the gate, barring everyone who did not come and go with her permission on principle? Or…did she want to use them, somehow?

Was Lumine safe? Did she escape? How long has it been?

Aether looked at the scenery and felt unmoved by its tranquility. Though he did wonder—did the world really get destroyed? This place seemed fine. However, it could have been many years since then. Nature often would reclaim the land eventually like that. They’ve seen it before—he and Lumine travelled through countless worlds, in so many different stages of life. They saw their birth and their end, as well as that rebirth that may occur after the end. It was one reason why they knew they had to leave…they had witnessed apocalyptic nightmares before, their own home world included. They had fought for those worlds before, witnessed humankind trying to preserve a world that was doomed…after a while, they stopped getting involved, all that much. They didn’t get attached to the worlds they visited or the people in them. They didn’t try to fight their battles.

Even if…well, sometimes. Maybe sometimes. Aether had seen enough wars and disasters for it to be nothing new, but that didn’t mean he was okay with watching people suffer. Because…he knew what it was like. When some world is your world, you would give everything for it. It didn’t matter if you were one among many; those were your people. It was important.

Aether supposed…perhaps, he could figure out what was going on. If people were indeed still living in this place, he could find out who their deities were, and then, he could seek those gods out until he found the one that took her.   

He didn’t know how he would do that, now that he was…stuck like this. He just had to try. His sister was the only one he had left. She was everything to him. He wouldn’t abandon her—not for anything.

Even if…right now, he had no choice but just to wander aimlessly, feeling naked without the power that used to glow inside of him or his wings. He didn’t know what he was looking for. He just had to assure himself that he had time—they always had time. He found some unintelligent life—some slimes that were similar to what he’s seen in many worlds before this one—but he needed something he could get more information out of. He wasn’t looking for anyone to help him, nor was he even going to get his hopes up for a trusted confidant. All he needed was information.

Then, he found it. Found her. His first encounter with intelligent life.

Heh, maybe “intelligent” was too strong a word.

(No, no, she was fine; she was just so easy to tease).

After wailing about how she almost drowned, Paimon proceeded to talk for nearly a straight four hours. Aether was no closer to reaching the sky again, or getting to his sister, but somehow…he didn’t mind the companionship. Maybe he wouldn’t be quite so alone in his journey, after all.

Chapter Text

Jean read over her notes for her schedule for the day, surprised at just how daunting it suddenly felt. Not that it was anything much—just catching up on paperwork, fulfilling that training demonstration she promised with the new recruits, checking in on patrols, helping old Miss Agatha with her gardening…plus several other small tasks, here and there. She promised many things to many people, but to her, even the mundane was all wrapped up in her role as acting grandmaster. She wanted to help people, to be someone they could rely on. To make the knighthood itself something every citizen of Mondstadt could have full trust and confidence in. Her duties were a small price to pay—granted, she did find herself overwhelmed with all the small errands, sometimes…honestly, she just wasn’t all that great at saying ‘no.’

Jean mentally planned her day and fought a headache in the process. She felt dizzy, but she pushed that feeling to the side as she turned back to sorting through paperwork. It was slow-going, which was unfortunate. She really shouldn’t be having a problem, right now. She must be feeling worn out from her lack of sleep the night before, which admittedly could have been avoided. There was nothing she should be stressed over—no grave dangers, no serious unsolved crimes, no pressing crises to deal with. She had no reason to be this tired. The fact that she stayed up late…it was just little things, all piling up. Although admittedly, she just wasn’t used to operating any other way.

Jean gathered up a few things that she needed to hand off to Hertha and started to make the trek. Her head felt more clouded than it did when she last sat down a half hour earlier. Or…how long has it been? She stopped at an open office to look at a clock. Closer to an hour, it seemed. She was acting too slowly. She turned around and rested her hand on the doorframe, lingering there. Her hands…felt flushed, oddly. Like heat was radiating off of them, while also being pricked with tiny needles. Should she…take a look at that? If there were any visible symptoms, she couldn’t see it through the gloves…was she getting sick? She did feel rather nauseated, actually, although that could just be a direct side effect of the headache. She hoped she wasn’t sick—she really didn’t have the time.

“Hiya, Jean!” Amber sounded from across the hallway, coming up to her with a bounce. “Hope you aren’t too busy; I have a quest…ion…” she stammered at the end, expression changing in an instant as her eyes went wide with worry. “Jean! Are you okay? You look pale!”

“It’s fine.” Jean waved her off, moving away from the doorway, steps feeling heavy as she did so. “I just have a headache, unfortunately. I’m leaving now, I…oh, wait. You had a question?” she asked blearily.

“Uhh…” Amber acted as if she instantly forgot. “Well…you see…I was just out on patrol and I found…umm…it’s a long story, are you sure…?”

“Well, what’s the big fuss about?” Kaeya appeared to the scene, coming up down the hallway to join them with easy gait and tone, which changed instantly the moment he saw her. His expression grew serious and very much worried, and that alone arrested Jean’s attention even before he said a word. “Jean? Are you alright?”

“It’s…a headache. I’m fine,” she assured, though regrettably weakly.

“You should lie down. Get some rest,” Kaeya’s tone bore no room for debate. But even so, he seemed…to have more in mind than he was saying…? “Please. We can handle this.”

But surely…she felt just fine this morning, it couldn’t be that… “I’m fine. I prom…” she started to speak, but ability to do so just left her. She ached all over and just felt…so tired…

She felt herself lose feeling in her legs and fall to the floor—or so she would have, if Kaeya didn’t catch her first.

“Jean? JEAN!”

“Oh no, Jean? Jean, are you okay? Please, we’ll help, we’ll…”

“…get help…get her to…her eyes…”

.

.

.

.

.

.

When Jean opened her eyes, it was to a room nearly pitch-black save for the still-burning candle in the corner and the shine of the moon outside her window. Or…not her window…nor was this her bed. Where was she, right now? This was…oh. This was Kaeya’s place. So, why was Barbara here?

She looked over and saw her sister dozed off in a chair beside the guest bedroom’s bed, the room’s only other resident, at least currently. Jean felt an achiness all over, but she didn’t feel as, well, inflamed as before. Though it was her hands and feet that felt the worst. She couldn’t really move them right now, nor could she move much of anything. She just felt…heavy.

“J-Jean?”

Though her stirring was light, she seems to have woken Barbara up. “Barbara?”

She noticed at that moment that Barbara’s face was flushed red, her eyes ever-so-slightly bloodshot…like she had been crying, some time ago?

“Oh, Jean! H-How are you feeling? Can you understand what I’m saying?”

“Yes…I can hear you just fine.” Jean smiled softly, her voice unfortunately raspy and labored. “And…I feel okay, as well. Not great, but…I’ll be fine. Please, tell me, what happened?”

Barbara nodded vigorously, releasing a held breath in relief. “Yes, okay! Just…let me know how you feel, okay? I’m…out of energy, at the moment, but I will heal you in every possible way I can!” She sounded tired, but still seemed to be trying her best to put reassurance into her voice. “As for what happened, well…you were with Kaeya and Amber, and…then you collapsed, and they ended up bringing you here. All of them are out, right now—oh, no, Amber and Noelle are keeping watch! On the roof! They have that under control, and, well, Kaeya’s out with Diluc investigating—oh! I’m sorry!” She shook her head, although it seemed like Jean wasn’t necessarily the one she was apologizing to. “I wasn’t supposed to—no, well, you can know, I think. Diluc asked me to not tell anyone he was involved. I hope it’s okay; I know he’s not a knight anymore but he’s just…worried, that’s all.”   

“Diluc?” Something…was missing here, Jean quickly realized. Keeping watch? There must be something wrong—something besides just her being sick. “Barbara…what happened?” she asked again, patiently hoping for a clearer answer. Although she knew that her sister must be so exhausted.

Barbara looked down at her hands as she wrung them, seeming to understand what she meant. “Right…I’m sorry. Jean, you…you were poisoned.”

Poisoned? The word rung deep through Jean’s mind, all the implications sinking into her like a heavy stone. That…made sense, given what Barbara just said, but… “How?” She knew, very well, that this was a risk with a position like hers. She was well-versed in many types of poisons and how to identify them in her food and drink—perhaps, given this time of peace, she didn’t always check so thoroughly; it was just a passive habit ingrained into her. Still, surely, she should have noticed.

“It was a Startrap extract.”

“A…what?” That was something she had never heard of before, actually.

Barbara nodded. “Yeah, I never heard of it either. Lisa did the research and said that it grows on the top of Mare Jivari, far beyond where most adventurers make it if they were to travel there. Albedo said that the plant’s sap attracts Crystalflies and kills them, and that it’s very dangerous to humans but probably tastes just like syrup. All of them…they’re all working really hard to find a cure—Sucrose and Timaeus too. Kaeya said that we should be careful not to let too many people know, but Eula and some of her team are also out on the case right now. They’re trying to find out who did it; I don’t really know what all is happening though; I’m sorry.”

It was…slow, processing what was happening. Jean had just woken up, and she still felt awful, although she was grateful to Barbara for everything—and to everyone else, for that matter. This could have gone much worse. But even so, the fact that they didn’t know who did the act…it bothered her, Barbara’s recounting of Kaeya’s words. The suggestions that he was keeping this from the majority of the knights. She wondered if, outside of that trusted inner circle, he considered them to be suspects…the thought sent a cold chill down Jean’s spine, as well as a pang of guilt. She really was starting to believe they were past this, by now. She remembered all too well that time when distrust and corruption ran high. She didn’t know it, at first. When Jean first joined the knights as a young teenager, she thought nothing but the best of them, and both her idealism and hope for the future were high. Then, Crepus died, and everything seemed to fall apart all at once. Diluc quit and left Mondstadt entirely, he and Kaeya stopped talking to each other, the leader of the Outriders left without a trace, Inspector Eroch was revealed to be a traitor, and after that, they had to deal with all of his allies still hatching schemes from within the knights. Not to mention the arrival of the Fatui, for added pressure from the outside. It was…a terrible time, all around. Jean did not truly know stress until that fateful year. However, it wasn’t forever. They clawed their way to stability again, and there they stayed. The knights would be whole again, uncorrupted and finally a fitting protector of Mondstadt once again. Jean would give everything she had to make that dream a reality, and to see to it that her homeland was safe and its people happy and free.

Now, she was left wondering about who it could have been. Who found this poison from the ends of the earth and managed to lace it into her food? It was disturbing that it happened at all, and she was glad it happened to her and not someone else. And she really, truly hoped it wasn’t a mole in the knights…she was sure to have plenty of enemies, elsehow. She just wondered which one.

“Take me to them,” she requested with the tone of a command, by way of habit. “I need to know what’s going on.” This wasn’t about her. This was about Mondstadt, now.

“J-Jean!” Barbara sounded very stressed and worried…enough to make Jean feel guilty for her part in it. “I…I can’t! No! You just woke up, and you need to rest! Besides, I don’t even know where Kaeya, Diluc, or Eula even are right now!”

“Then…the lab. You said Albedo, Sucrose, Timaeus…and also Lisa were together? I’ll talk to them?”

“They are together, but…no.” Barbara put her proverbial foot down. “I won’t allow it. You need rest, and you know it. So…not until the morning!”

Jean paused for a moment, eyes widened. She…wasn’t used to Barbara being forceful, like this. Though admittedly, she was right. Jean really didn’t feel as if she could move. In a way, she was glad that Barbara didn’t back down.

“Okay.” She smiled weakly again. “I’m sorry. I’ll rest until morning, like you said.”

It was only then, settling back into the mattress, that Jean lifted up her hand to look at it. Her veins were protruding ever-so-slightly from her skin, and colored a starch black, with a tinge of icy blue around the edges. She…wondered if Kaeya noticed discoloration elsewhere, when he saw her before.

It would seem…if she were to hide her being poisoned from everyone else, she would have to ensure that she was wearing her gloves again, when she left for the lab tomorrow morning. She might need a few other extra coverings, as well.

Chapter Text

They were in an open field, something like the tranquil grassy hills of southern Narukami but not quite the same. They were eating a meal, and Tomo was talking to him. Telling him in detail about his misadventures with a certain mischievous tanuki. Kazuha had heard this story before, he believed. The one that ended with him chasing the tanuki all the way to the Grand Narukami Shrine to retrieve a pair of chopsticks, only to just decide to let the tanuki keep them, in the end. While he was left fixing up the damages they made to said shrine.

“Why did you just let the tanuki go, if you already went through all the trouble of catching him?” Kazuha heard himself ask. He said this before.

Tomo laughed—such a vibrant laugh, that he always had. Like the twinkling of stars. “Well, I figured, it went through a lot of trouble too, right? The tanuki probably would have more use for it than I would!”

Kazuha smiled, looking down at his bowl of soup. He anticipated an answer like that, making no sense and all the sense in the world at the same time. Yet his smile felt hollow, somehow. Though he should be content.

Before he looked up again, Kazuha knew that Tomo was walking away. The words almost left him. He got up quickly, the small spread of food at his feet vanished. “Tomo!” His voice felt thick as he stared into the back of Tomo’s head, walking with his sheathed sword rested across his shoulders and Haru at his heels. “Where…where are you going?” he choked.

Tomo turned back halfway, giving him another easy smile. “I’ll be back. It won’t be long, I promise!”

Kazuha watched him leave. The scene starting to grow darker, like the sun was setting. There was a dense cluster of trees up ahead that Kazuha didn’t see before.

Why was he leaving? He can’t. He promised he would be back, one day.

Kazuha couldn’t say anything. Couldn’t tell him to come back. So he ran.

Panic settled deep into his heart, but he couldn’t remember why. He had to get to him. He had to get to him quick. Tomo walked forward at a steady gait, his robes shifting gently in the breeze as he walked. Kazuha ran at full speed into the dark woods, but he couldn’t keep up. Tomo looked down and talked to his cat, scooped her up to give her a ride in his coat—she was a kitten again, suddenly—but he couldn’t hear Kazuha. He didn’t know he was there.

Kazuha had to hurry. He felt his legs give way, refuse to move, refuse to do what he asked—

“Glory to the Shogun!”

Someone yelled, and Kazuha blinked his eyes to find the forest had disappeared. They were at a palace, much larger than he remembered, with a courtyard stretching to the horizon and walls stretching to the sky. Tomo walked silently out onto the stone.

“Tomo!” he finally screamed. “Stop! Please, stop!”

He ran forward, reached out his hand, fingertips just a hair’s breadth away from his scarf. He would grab his hand, and they would run away. He’ll take him as far away as he possibly could.

Then a rough hand grabbed him and threw him back. Tomo was out of reach. The Shogunate samurai pulled him back, held him in place.

“Filthy ronin!”

“Tomo!”

Kazuha was speared through the chest. Then, the guard did it a second time. Pain coursed through him, but he didn’t care. “Tomo!” He tried to pull away, but was held down firmly. Tears stung his eyes. They tied his hands behind his back and kept him on his knees.

Tomo opened his arms wide, his back to Kazuha, and his front to dark form looming ever closer.

Why did he do that? Why didn’t he care if he died? He knew. He knew what would happen.

Lightning struck, and the thunder rattled the ground like it was an earthquake instead.

Kazuha forced himself free from his bonds and ran to him.

Tomo lay face up on the stone, a hole in his chest, blood flowing from that and trickling from the corners of his mouth, no life in his eyes. Kazuha felt himself scream, but no words came out. The Vision was in his hand. The light from it was disappearing. It was growing colder. Cold and dead and it would never came back, no matter how much he willed it. Blood continued to flow from his own wounds. But a hand grabbed him before he too could sink to his knees.

“Kid, run!”

Beidou grasped his hand firmly and forced him to keep to his feet. He looked up and saw dark clouds forming. Behind him, the army was coming for them. “Beidou! Beidou, I’m sorry…”

“We’ll get you out of Inazuma, Kazuha.” Her voice was reassuring, but the panic remained in full force. “We’ll make it.”

No, he shouldn’t. He failed. He failed he failed he couldn’t

He ran beside her through a vast field of crumbling earth, lightning breaking up the ground at every turn. The field was never ending. Then, Kazuha tripped and fell. He hit the ground violently, forgot about the army behind him the moment Beidou picked him back up.

“Kazuha, are you okay?”

“Beidou…” His voice left him, and his eyes looked downwards in horror. Blood smeared all over her chest, a stream of it flowing freely from a hole where her heart should be.

“Hey, hey, look at my eyes.” She tilted his chin up. “You’re going to be okay. You’ll make it.”

The words went thick in his throat again. Kazuha lost the feeling in his tongue.

“Kazuha, trust me.”

A looming shadow materialized behind her, a dark figure with the Raiden’s shape, cold and cruel with eyes like the Abyss’s deepest depths. Lightning crackled around her. Beidou didn’t notice; she continued to grip Kazuha by the shoulders, to reassure him.

With a swift strike of the sword, the Raiden slit Beidou’s throat.

She slumped forward into his arms. Kazuha’s breath ceased. He felt like he was dying. Her Vision rested in his hand, and the light was dimming. It was growing colder. Kazuha couldn’t scream anymore. There was a crackle of lightning, thunder like an earthquake. The thunder roared a second time. The Raiden stood over him.

Kazuha clung to Beidou, waited for the next sword strike that would kill him, this time. It didn’t come.

“You couldn’t save them,” the Raiden told him. “Fitting, you were useless to begin with. You never deserved to have anyone.”

Kazuha screamed.

 

 

Kazuha bolted up in bed to the sound of thunder rattling the window. His eyes were wide open; he heard footsteps; he climbed to his knees and summoned his sword quickly…

“Kazuha?”

Beidou opened the door quickly, a very pointed worry in her eyes. Just her, no one else. The small room was empty. Then, lightning struck outside the window again, thunder booming less than a second after.

“Beidou!” At the first sight of her, his panic only rose. The sound of thunder reverberated in his ears. “I’m…I’m sorry.” They were running from something why weren’t they running anymore? They were trapped “Please, leave quickly! I’ll catch up.” They weren’t going to make it “I’m sorry!” he cried. He couldn’t breathe. His hands shook as both of them grasped his sword. This was all his fault he was so sorry he…

“Kazuha, hey! Hey, look at me!”

In an instant, Beidou was at his bedside, cautious but earnest, looking into his eyes while keeping one of them halfway on his sword.

“Breathe,” she ordered, one hand moving to his shaking wrist and ever so slightly lowering it.

Kazuha wanted to resist the movement. He needed to leave, needed to fight. The Shogunate was going to find them, and it was all his—

No. No…they weren’t. Reason slowly made its way into his brain, hampered by his tense heart and shallow breaths. He was in Liyue Harbor. Staying at an inn. He wasn’t in Inazuma.

“It’s just a storm,” Beidou tried to assure him, her voice carefully steady. “There’s nothing to worry about. The storm is just a storm—nothing else.”

Kazuha didn’t say anything. Just stayed frozen in place and breathed. In and out, in and out. Finally, he dismissed his short, slowly unfurling his fingers away from that phantom position.

Beidou breathed a distinct sigh of relief. She placed her hand on his shoulder, knowing nothing of the scene that now made him think of. “Are you okay, kid? It was a nightmare, wasn’t it?”

Kazuha nodded mutely. He slowly released another breath. “Yes, I’m…sorry I woke you up.” Did he scream out loud? Was that what happened? The reason his throat felt so raw?

“Nonsense.” Beidou smiled, the worry still ever-present behind it. “It’s not your fault. Just know that you can talk to me, okay? About anything at all. If not as your captain, let’s just say as your friend, okay? Or, if you don’t want to talk, that’s just as fine.”

That’s usually what he did—the second option. He told the Crux crew so little when he first joined them in his own desperate attempt to leave Inazuma. He talked little at all for weeks. He said more to them later, but…there was also so much he didn’t, not even to Beidou, who knew by far the most. That he shouldn’t. This was his own burden to bear.

But he was tired, and too many thoughts were ringing through his mind—he felt relieved but he didn’t feel safe, he was glad to have Beidou here but he felt scared, he felt he had to go. Do something. Try anything.

Tears started to leave his eyes, then and there.

He didn’t mean to cry, but he did. The stress of everything felt like it would tear him to pieces. Feeling far too frail, far too weak, his shoulders convulsed with sobs, and then he felt Beidou’s arm around them. She sat beside him on the side of the bed now, himself in a similar position, and she just held him from the side. Didn’t talk until he found the words to do so himself.

“I’m sorry,” he said again in a choked voice, unsure of what else to do. “I’m…sorry.”

“There’s nothing you did wrong, kid. I promise you.”

“I could have saved him.” His eyes stung from the tears. “I could have done something.”

“He made his own choices. I’m…sure he knew what he was getting into. And I also have a feeling that you feeling guilt for it was about the last thing he would have wanted.”

You never deserved to have anyone. You didn’t deserve them. The voice from his dream mingled with the voice inside his head. Gave a voice to the reason why this stung in so many different ways that made so little sense. For so long, Kazuha was alone. Since he was that way forever, even when he was a child with a roof over his head, he didn’t know what having a friend even felt like. What having a family felt like. When he was an heir, his heart longed not to be, preferring the idea of freedom over whatever few possessions he had. When he was a wanderer, he wanted nothing at all. He needed nothing but the sky above his head and just enough food to get by. He had a few other companions, along the way, but…having Tomo…it felt like having something that for the first time in his life, was actually real. Was permanent, even. He treasured their friendship—it was something he wanted. But he wasn’t supposed to be a person who wanted anything.

In that way, by some cruel twists of their fates written in the stars, it really did feel like his fault.

Kazuha’s hand found Beidou’s, and he clung to it. Grasped it tight. He was selfish—he shouldn’t be burdening her with his problems. He shouldn’t be endangering the crew with his presence (if they returned to Inazuma, he feared that nightmare may be true). He didn’t deserve anyone. He has never done anything to make himself worthy of that. He was useless.

Sometimes, when he was traveling through some village, and he walked past some small home with activity bustling in and around it, he wondered what having a family must feel like.

“I know,” Kazuha replied, grasping Beidou’s hand and leaning into her shoulder as she could continued to hold him steady. He knew that she was right. And perhaps, she would know—she never met Tomo and never will, but they were of the same vein, in some way. Both Electro allogenes, bold and independent, always ready to take on the fiercest battles with open arms. It brought back pleasant memories, seeing those little things they held in common, but it scared him, as well. An Electro feared nothing…not even a god, it would seem.

“I know,” he said it again, though he hated it that he still felt both the dream and the memory so strongly in his mind. “…thank you,” he said after a long pause of silence. “Thank you, Beidou.” It was comforting, having her here. The lightning and thunder continued to resound from the outside. But she was still here. Still alive. “You didn’t have to stay.”

He felt Beidou smile, even though he wasn’t facing her now. “Sleeping on dry land is bound to go poorly, anyways,” she countered lightheartedly. “Don’t worry; it’s not a problem. I can be here for as long as you need. Nothing’s going to snatch me away,” she added with a small laugh. “I promise.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, one question: how are you still not dead?”

Rosaria didn’t have time or patience for niceties—she was going to say this blunt and to the point. Not that it helped, all that much. Barbara stood before her with lines under her eyes, looking like she could barely put one foot in front of the other, and yet, her expression was wholly unrepentant. “I…I’m fine!” she insisted with as much strength as she could put into her voice. “Really! I just…need to do better, that’s all. There are a lot of people who need me, so I have to do my best to help!”

As if. Sure, her whole ‘helping people’ thing does include all those people with injuries looking to her for healing all the time, but many of those cases are just minor wounds that most certainly can wait. They can get over it. And ‘helping people’ for Barbara would also include all those starstruck fans looking for attention and autographs and whatever, which definitely can wait. And that wasn’t even getting started on her duties to the church as a deaconess. There were so many pointless rituals to fill up the time that Rosaria could honestly care less about.

“How much did you sleep last night?” Rosaria asked pointedly.

“Th-That’s besides the point!” Barbara deflected, the nerve clearly struck. “It was…plenty, I promise! How…how much did you sleep?”

“Entirely besides the point.” Shit, she walked into that one. At least Barbara was starting to get a backbone. Sleep deprivation will do that to you sometimes. Rosaria just…coincidentally happened to be up all last night doing her “nightly duties,” so to speak. Whatever, that didn’t count. She was perfectly fine running on less sleep than normal people did; she was used to it.

Maybe, Barbara was also “used” to it, but that didn’t change the fact that she needed to learn how to tell people ‘no’ every once in a while. Rosaria just got done watching her run this way and that, attending to an especially large crowd of people for hours. She had this concert, which ran long because of all the fans at the end, and then they whisked her away to the infirmary because of the multiple ‘emergencies’ that absolutely needed her for some reason. Probably just because she was an allogene with healing powers, so herbs and rest just weren’t good enough for people anymore—they needed her to magic them to health. Rosaria was so glad the gods didn’t make her a Hydro, or just…healing-aligned, in general. Or was that the subconscious choice of the Vision-holder? Hard to say.

Point was, it was 4PM, Barbara had not eaten lunch yet, and she looked like she was about to pass out in the hallway where she stood. And Rosaria just…was irritated by that. It wasn’t like she cared enough to tell the Deaconess how to live her life or pity her for working herself to the grave; she just couldn’t take it anymore. Not like she hadn’t told her this before, though. Seriously, Barbara was just as crazy as her Acting Grandmaster sister sometimes, doing way too much for far too little. Rosaria never did more than what she had to do; she wasn’t about to work overtime just because someone batted their eyelashes at her and said ‘please.’ Rosaria knew what it was like to live at someone else’s beck and call without a choice otherwise…she was honestly glad she never had to do that anymore.

“Wait, you were up last night too?” Barbara sounded like she was surprised by the implication, immediately going into ‘nurse’ mode after that. “Oh, that’s not good at all! You weren’t drinking too much, were you? I know that you like alcohol and I understand but you can’t stay up all night like that, it’s not good for your health!”

Well, at least Rosaria was once again not the only hypocrite in this room.

“I wasn’t drinking,” she refuted in a tone both bored and annoyed. That’s not even how alcohol works, sister. If she had a hangover, she would still be asleep right now, and she didn’t, because Rosaria could hold her alcohol very well, thank you very much. Better than just about anyone, in fact (except maybe that green bard…she swore he wasn’t even human). “And stop deflecting the subject. We’re getting you food, right now, and then, we’re going somewhere where no one can bother you, got it?”

“Oh! Uh…okay. Thanks!”

 

+++

 

“I got to spend some time with the Honorary Knight, the other day!” Barbara told her with a smile, perched happily atop the city wall, looking out across the lake at Windrise in the distance. She was looking better already, it would seem—probably getting some food in her helped. “We gathered some ingredients so I could make my special homemade chilibrew for them! It was…a process, for sure—had just a few adventures along the way—but after all the prep work was over, I really enjoyed the chance to just relax with them for a while! So, I was actually thinking about that earlier…it would be nice to take the time to sit down a little more often. So, maybe, we could have lunch together again every now and then! I don’t get to talk with you all that often. This is nice!”

Slow down there, Rosaria wanted to say. They weren’t exactly friends yet. She still found Barbara’s cheeriness and insistence on Rosaria’s participation in church events to be annoying, for the record. She was just stepping in because no one else was going to do so today. Still, she didn’t bother to try correcting her. It would be too much work.

“Yeah, you should take breaks,” she said instead. “Stop acting like you owe everybody something just because they say they need you. They can take care of themselves, you know.”

“Well, true, but…” Barbara trailed off, looking to the side with that weary voice making a sudden reappearance. “It is my responsibility, in a way. I’m the Deaconess, so it’s my job to help everybody I possibly can. Plus, I’m an allogene now, so I can help heal people better than I did when I wasn’t. And now that I sing for people in public, I can make people even happier! And, that makes me happy, as well! I just want to brighten everyone’s day, even if it does get…tiring, sometimes. But, my life really isn’t that hard, not really…I can handle it.” There was a short pause as Barbara exhaled a long breath, then forcibly perking up. “I’ll just have to get better at it all, I think. I’ll make it so that, when my father gets back, he’ll be rest assured that everything went perfectly smoothly when he was gone!”

“Right, your father…the Cardinal, right? Secant Chegg?” Wait, that wasn’t right. Shamus?

Barbara nodded. “It’s…Seamus Pegg, and yes. Yes, he is.”

Yeah, Rosaria remembered him. With him technically being her boss all these years, before he left with Varka to do whatever it is they’re doing. It really was easy to miss that he had kids. “So that’s it? You’re thinking about what he would think?”

“Not…really?” Barbara pondered on it for a second. “I really do like being with the church, and even though I started because of my father, it does feel more like it’s just…me, if that makes sense. Like—oh, sorry if the story is a little boring, but, I know you know about who my sister is and, well…to be honest with you, I never felt like much of a Gunnhildr, really. Even when I was younger and my parents were still together, I wasn’t good at any of the things someone of my blood should be good at. I wasn’t a Gunnhildr, but…I’ve never felt like much of a ‘Pegg,’ either. I’m just…me, and, I would love to make my parents proud, but…I think I’ll fine if I don’t. Would be a little hard to make both of them proud, anyways.” She made an awkward attempt at a lighthearted laugh. “So, now that I’m older, I can just focus on making all of Mondstadt proud, instead!”

“Mm-hmm,” Rosaria hummed, deeming that answer…okay, but… “Well, you don’t have to prove yourself to anybody, just remember that.” Rosaria certainly wasn’t going to try to live that way…at least, not in a public sense. Admittedly, she did sometimes consider her vigilantism to be fitting payment for her debt—or better put, her choice to fight for the one thing she believed in—Mondstadt’s freedom. She would gladly take on the dirty work herself so that the innocent civilians who lived in the light of day could stay that way. She was…glad, to be a Mondstadter, as strange a notion as ‘happiness’ sometimes was. There was a reason why she ultimately chose to stay. Because she may not care about rites to some unseen god, but keeping this place a city of freedom? That was something she could get behind.

She and Barbara were worlds apart—she knew that. Barbara lived a sheltered life, and Rosaria did not begrudge her that. It was good that she grew up in Mondstadt, shielded from the darkness of the outside world. But they didn’t mean she or any of the others should just…make ropes for themselves, because they didn’t have any already. She didn’t owe anything to anyone. Rosaria was for far too long confused about that very thing—that one elder of that bandit gang was her captor, but he was also the closest thing to a father she had. She was too young when they took her to remember her real family. So, she wanted to please him, wanted to make him see her as worth something, while all the while she fought tooth and nail with the gang to survive. When they refused her food, she stole it from them. Or fought for it. She proved her worth, day after day, while her rank never rose from that of a slave, forced to endure whatever hard labor they subjected her to. At least, not until the day she tried to escape, and her “father” caught her and forced her to fight to the death, and she received a Vision…now she was worth something to them.

The best thing about Mondstadt, to her, was that as insufferable as they may be about a myriad of pointless things, they would never attach her worth to her ability to complete them. Well, some would, but she had no reason to care about their opinion.

If Barbara was feeling this tense and awkward about her parents because she felt like she couldn’t please them, then, well, screw them. Who cares if they were nobility or the cardinal or whatever.

“…right. Yeah, you…do have a point, in a way. I’m still going to try my best, but…guess I can’t worry about it all too much, right?” Barbara paused thoughtfully, then brushing it off with a smile. “Well, I’m sure that a few breaks in the midst of our hard work will be a good enough start to a new and healthier lifestyle!” She beamed with a giggle. “Maybe, next time we have lunch, I can brew my special chilibrew for you!”

Yeah, Rosaria may fear no drink, but she was still a Cryo, after all. “Yeah, pass. No offense, but you can take that freak of nature to Traveler to try, thank you very much.”

Barbara just responded with a laugh.

Chapter Text

Zhongli lay motionless in a canyon of his own creation, his serpentine form twisted and contorted atop the rocks, his dark gold-tinted blood making streams in the dry ground. The danger was past. The reawakened and corrupted dragon had been killed, and the harbinger had disappeared, likely making assumptions about his fate. Assumptions that…had a chance of being correct in some way, unfortunately.

He never broke his contract with the Tsaritsa, nor did he ever intend to. It was unfortunate, then, that this would still occur—a situation in which he simply had no choice but to stand on the opposing side to her chosen forces. It was never a question, when it came to the safety of the people of Liyue. Even though he backed down from his position as archon, it would seem he really hadn’t relinquished that responsibility in its entirety…as if he ever could…

His breaths came heavy and labored, like they were grating across a lacerated throat. His wounds were each a deep stain that continued to corrode into his flesh even now. The Abyssal corruption was strong, and not even someone like himself was immune to it. He was growing weak, even before this fight. He was…fading, in a way. Such a way that he had to wonder. He didn’t have the strength left to move, right now. Perhaps, he still could, if he must, but…

“ZHONGLI!”

The cry of distress was familiar, even though he wasn’t sure he had ever heard a tone quite like that from him before—desperate and panicked. He heard Childe’s footsteps running across the rocks, pace only slowed when he had to wade through the ankle-deep pool of blood.

He didn’t look all that well, himself. A gash across his face was still bleeding heavily, and the rest of his battered form was covered with an incomprehensible mix of what blood was his and what wasn’t. He was out of breath when he reached Zhongli’s head, facing him with a look of pleading. “You’re…you’re alive.” But he looked as if he had doubts.

“Childe…” Zhongli’s voice felt raspy and strained, like he couldn’t quite make out the words like he believed he should. “I thought…I told you…to escape with…”

“Everyone’s fine,” Childe assured him quickly. “I…I promise. Really. Everyone is safe. Besides those Milleleth who—you know…but…Zhongli, you gotta come back. Your people need you. Please.”

Zhongli forced himself to smile, just a small bit. “Then, if they are safe, that means my duty is fulfilled…”

“No, no, comrade, hey, don’t talk like that! I’m…I’m sorry! I’m sorry for everything! But I…I didn’t know! I promise I didn’t!”

The shimmer of tears was starting to form in his sharp blue eyes. Zhongli maintained his weak smile, genuinely glad to see that he, too, was alive. He didn’t take care to remind him that his coworker was not the first harbinger to summon an ancient hostile god upon his city. He didn’t remind him that he first came to Liyue only to rob him of his gnosis, all that time ago, or that their initial companionship was one built on false pretenses—on both sides, really. That mattered little, even if it should.

“I know,” he responded simply, reassuringly—or as much as he could be with the roughness of his voice. “I know.”  

Although the two of them were very different, Zhongli couldn’t help but see just a piece of himself in Childe—that is, in the way he used to be. Scarred by war at a young age, and yet yearning for it. In Zhongli’s case, becoming the god of war was hardly a conscious choice at all—it was fate that he would grow stronger, that he may hold his ground against all the others, and eliminate each threat one by one. There was many a field in that day bathed in blood by largely his own design. And yet, he stood for nothing. Although some matters were personal, and some a matter of a contract broken…he had nothing to fight for, except the will to keep fighting. He never truly believed he would live all that long, nor did he believe that someone like him could ever meet someone like Guizhong, and find a purpose that did not revolve around a heartless clawing for survival…

It took only a short time of knowing him to see that Childe stood for nothing. Allegiance meant nothing to him. In a way, that should have been enough to earn Zhongli’s ire, for his disregard to his own contract, even if that contract stood against Zhongli. However, he found that he understood. Childe was driven solely by his own thirst for battle, although he still yearned for other things that his own mind could never express. He clung to survival, and yet did not care if he lived or died.

Zhongli…did always hold on to a hope, that he would have the chance to see him grow, before he was consumed by his demons.

“Then…you have to come back,” Childe’s voice was broken. “We…never sparred together, not even once. I can’t let you go yet. It’s…unacceptable.”

“If I do go now, I won’t disappear entirely,” Zhongli told him. “My spirit will go back into the earth.” He wasn’t sure, though. He had seen many a death over the years, but he had gone so long without being close to his own, that he wasn’t sure what it should feel like. He should choose to leave, before erosion took him first. Before the corruption made a permanent stain. It’s possible he might come back again if he released himself now, though likely without his memories, at least not in their entirety. Releasing himself…that might be the best thing he could do. It was fine…he already knew that he finished his duties. Maybe now, he could see her, again?

“No. No!” Childe insisted. “That…that is not good enough! You can’t leave now; I just saw you fight! You can’t make me believe that you’re not the type to keep fighting, because, because you just gave everything out there, so it’d be a waste if you didn’t keep trying to the bitter end!”

“Childe, you…don’t understand. I…I’m eroding. I already was. If I hold on, I might not remain as myself. Not forever.”

“Then let me be the one to bring you back.” His gaze turned fierce. Determined. Like he had something to fight for, now. “Let us. This battle is not over!”

“I know, and…I’m sorry, that you have to inherit this fight. But, you and Lumine will know what to do. I have faith in you.”

“Then have faith in us to help you! I…I can’t…I’m sorry—I…”

Childe lost his words, tears probably suppressed for years finally making their appearance on his cheeks. Zhongli responded by leaning in a little closer, his rough and scaly snout in this form probably doing little by way of comfort, but Childe took it anyway. Clung to it. Buried his trembling, bleeding forehead into it. Several long seconds passed. Zhongli realized just how tired he felt. He was sure his friend felt the same.

“YOU! Don’t you dare touch him!”

“I’m not doing anything!” Childe released him, wiping his eyes with his dirty sleeve as subtly as he could.

“Please,” Zhongli endeavored to stop them, before a fight began. Xiao was here now, looking every bit as battered as Childe did, and…it made sense, that he would be upset. Angry. Desperate. “Both of you…please.”

“Zhong—Rex Lapis, I…” Xiao lost sight of what he was going to say as soon as he began it, it seemed. He too jumped down into the ditch, forced to wade through the blood which continued to flow from Zhongli’s massive form. “I…please, tell me how I should help. Something. Anything. We have to—”

“If the threat is passed and the people are safe, that is good enough for me. Thank you,” he spoke warmly. Xiao had been such a faithful presence, all this time…Zhongli hoped that, when the war was over, he too would find rest, and peace…

“But, we have to help you!” Xiao’s composure chipped away by the second. “The Traveler…she’s on her way, too. We can’t…not until…”

Zhongli wasn’t sure what it was he should say for comfort. He still felt great pain, not that it was of much consequence—still, he wasn’t sure if he could get up, right now…and…he also wondered if he should. If this was his time. But seeing them here, along with the many faces in his memories, it made it difficult.

Even the greatest stones will one day turn to dust. Whether on this day or another. Every journey has its final day.

“I won’t…leave quickly…” Despite the pain, his aging heart was filled with warmth. He was glad he spent these last few years as he did, walking among the people, experiencing Liyue, and…experiencing much more than he expected to. Zhongli smiled once again, speaking words meant for them both.

“All I ask of you is that you move forward, regardless. I trust you.”