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Celestia Academy

Chapter Text

“Promise?” I blinked away the threat of tears.

Moonlight shone on Aether’s face, casting a soft glow on his golden hair and small smile.

“I promise,” my brother smiled. “Nobody can separate us. We’re in this together.”

“But you have the chance to live with a family,” I countered. 

“You are my family. You know that.” Aether reminded me. “If they want to adopt me, they’re gonna have to take you in too.”

A beat of silence.

“Okay,” I sighed and suppressed a yawn. “If you say so.”

“You should get some sleep.” He turned to face the window. “Or else you’re gonna be shorter than me forever.”

I gasped in disbelief, the possibility of my brother’s adoption gone from my mind. “I am not shorter than you! We’re twins! Twins are the same height!”

“Not according to Miss Katheryne,” he chided. “She said I was a whole inch taller than you last week.”

“That was last week .” I rolled my eyes. “I’ve caught up now.”

“You can’t grow an inch in a week.” He lifted his chin with a smirk. “That’s physically impossible.”

“Well, you’re...you’re,” I sputtered. “Oh, you’ll see! I’m only eight years old. I’ve got time to grow.”

“Me too!” Aether grinned. “I’ll get stronger tomorrow, too. Even more the next day after that.”

I turned away from my brother, stomping down the hallway in determination to get the best height-enhancing sleep I’ve ever had.

✧✧✧

I woke with a start and winced at the bright rays of sunlight streaming through the window. It’s been a while since I had that dream. 

Over ten years have passed since my brother and I were adopted from the orphanage. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay together after all. I don’t blame him, of course. Aether and I were just ten years old, kids who didn’t know any better. 

My heart clenched as I remember how I felt waking up the morning after his promise. When I ran to the breakfast table with a ruler in hand, eager to prove to my brother that we were the same. Only, he wasn’t at the table that morning. Nor was he at our secret hiding spot in the woods. He’d been adopted in an instant, and so was I, just one week later.

“Lumine?” a soft voice called from downstairs. “Lumine, are you awake? You’ve got a big day ahead of you, girl.”

“Yes, Madame Ping!” I answered, swinging my legs out of bed and glancing at the acceptance letter on the nightstand. “I’ll be down in a minute.”

The golden embossed sigil of Celestia Acadamy gleamed in the morning light. I lifted the paper for what felt like the millionth time and reread the fancy lettering.

Dear Lumine,

Congratulations! We are delighted to inform you the Committee of Admissions has admitted you as a part of the next class of Celestia Academy. We consider each application with great care, assessing to admit those who use their talents to the fullest and continue excelling in their achievements across all of Teyvat.

Yours Sincerely,

Katheryne

I smiled at the signature of the letter, remembering the kind woman from the orphanage. Though I highly doubt she was the same woman from my childhood as the name could be common, it still brought me comfort.

Getting dressed and rechecking all of my packed belongings, I tried to contain the growing excitement that was threatening to bubble up and burst out of me. I was really going to Celestia Academy, a dream for all and impossible for nearly everyone. It’s a prestigious institution with the most competitive acceptance rate in all of Teyvat. Those with a Vision are typically accepted with no issue, but those without have to prove themselves as combat champions, exceptional intellectual scholars, or skilled mages well-versed in ancient texts and alchemy.

I myself am without a Vision, making me all the more prideful in my acceptance. Of course, it was not without hard work that I have gotten this far. After Madame Ping took me in just one week after my brother left, I was introduced to a whole new world of opportunity. After getting adjusted to my new home, I was enrolled in a myriad of courses that ranged from archery to horticulture.

I never complained, though. I disciplined myself into being the best version of myself because I knew that wherever Aether was, he would be doing the same. 

Lugging my suitcase down the creaky steps, I grinned at the lingering scent wafting from the kitchen. “Are those Mondstadt Hashbrowns I smell?”

“Only the best for you, my dear.” Madame Ping set down a hot plate on the table. “Now, eat up! We can’t have you traveling across the seas and getting lost on an adventure on an empty stomach.”

“I’ll be in school. I won’t have time for any adventuring,” I mumbled in between bites.

“That’s what you think,” she countered. “You may be grown up now, but don’t think for a second I’ve forgotten all the times you snuck out to find the Legendary Love Potion of Liyue.”

“That was a long time ago,” I blushed. “And it wasn’t a love potion.”

“Or how about when you nearly lost your head after traversing in the ruins of a domain overrun with hilichurls?”

“Those hilichurls didn’t stand a chance,” I rolled my eyes. “It was the ceiling collapse I wasn’t expecting.”

“Mhm,” Madame Ping harrumphed. “Just promise me you’ll be careful out there.”

“Yup.”

“Lumine,” she warned.

“I promise I’ll be safe.” I stood up to place a kiss on her head. “You’ve done so much for me already. It’s the least I can do to ease your mind.”

“Oh, stop it you,” she swatted me away.

We continued a light conversation throughout the rest of the meal, reminiscing over the years we’ve had together and speculating what to expect once I’ve crossed the sea and arrived on the private island owned by the academy.

“Well, it’s about that time now.” Madame Ping swept crumbs from her lips with a napkin.

“It is,” I nodded, suddenly feeling nervous. “I’m ready.”

“Oh, don’t make that worried face,” she murmured. “You’ll be fine. Go and make friends while you’re at it.”

“Hey,” I frowned. “I have friends.”

“Maybe even find yourself a boyfriend while you’re at it.”

“Madame Ping!”

“Or maybe two,” she laughed at my red face. “You’re quite the catch, you know. Beautiful inside and out.”

“Okay, okay,” I smothered her in a big hug and made a big show of gathering my things. “I’ll be off now!”

✧✧✧

“Are you boarding for Inazuma?” The man at the dock station inquired.

“No,” I shuffled around my bag and pulled out the pass for my voyage. “I’m on the one for Celestia Academy.”

“Celestia Academy?” His brows shot up and he reached out for my boarding pass, eyes scanning the paper. “Congratulations miss, that’s no easy feat.”

“Thank you,” I tried to be nonchalant. “Do you know which ship is mine?”

“White one down there,” he leaned over the counter and pointed to the ship at the far end of the dock. “Safe travels.”

I thanked him again and rolled my suitcase down the boardwalk. The ship in question was quite modest in comparison to some of the huge cruise liners in the bay. A bright flag with the academy’s sigil flapped in the wind, and I spotted a few others boarding the ship.

The employees on deck directed me to my cabin was to store my luggage and sleep for the overnight journey. I made it to the cabin, no problem, but I was surprised to see there were two beds in the room. Whoever I’d be sharing the cabin with had already arrived, their suitcase tucked neatly under the bed and a bunny-girl doll sitting by the pillows.

I’d just set aside my own belongings when the door swung open and a brunette with a cheery smile bounced in.

“Oh, hi! You must be my roommate. I’m Amber!” She stuck out a hand which I politely shook.

“I’m Lumine,” I smiled. “You’re here for Celestia Academy?”

“Well, of course! I almost didn’t make it here, got lost on the way,” she laughed. “I’m just a first-year, after all. And you?”

“Also a first-year.”

“Cool! What’s your Vision?” She tilted her head and scanned my outfit. “If you don’t mind me asking.”

“Oh, I actually don’t have one.”

“Really?!” she gasped. “Wow, you must be super talented. I’m surprised I haven’t heard anything from you before. Normally, the non-Vision holders that go to Celestia are also members of the Adventurer’s Guild.”

“I’ve had a lot of private lessons,” I supplemented. “Lots.”

“I’m sure you have! Have you met anyone else on the ship yet? It would be good to meet new people since you haven’t been in the community before.”

“No, I just got here. How many others are there?”

“Well, this isn’t the first ship to Celestia, so not everyone is on board,” she mused. “But there’s still quite a few left! Let’s see, I’ve talked to Bennett, Barbara, Xiangling, and Childe. There are a few others, though.”

“And they’re all first-years too?”

“Everyone but Childe,” she replied and plopped on her bed. “He’s a second-year. Though, I hear he’d be a third-year if it weren’t for some disciplinary action from the board.”

Everyone knows that the academy didn’t go easy on rule-breakers, and no sane person would risk losing enrollment over bad behavior. “What did he do?”

“Don’t know,” she shrugged and hugged her plushie. “He wouldn’t say. Though, I’ve heard rumors that he summoned an ancient god on campus to sabotage finals week.”

“That sounds pretty serious,” I raised my brows. “And also a bit impressive.”

“Oh yeah,” Amber grinned. “Basically everyone here is impressive in their own way. If you ever see Bennett—er, if he ever runs into you—you’ll see he can be impressively unlucky.”

“Is that...a good thing?”

“He’s got a good heart,” she giggled. “I hear some of the third-years at Celestia are really something, though.”

“Well, we can’t let them intimidate us.” I crossed my arms. “We may be new, but we were accepted for a reason.”

“You bet!”

I remembered Amber’s question about my nonexistent vision and couldn’t help wondering about hers. “And your...Vision? What element can you harness?”

“Oh right, I’m Pyro!” She lifted the amulet hanging at her waist. “I use Barron Bunny here for some pyro explosions, and I also have my bow.”

“That doll explodes ?” I inched away. “Like a bomb?”

“You have nothing to worry about,” she reassured me. “It’ll only go off when I activate it myself.”

“Alright,” I laughed. “I trust you.”

And I did. I’d only just met this girl, but her bright personality and ease of conversation have made her very likable. I can’t imagine how anyone could dislike Amber after getting to know her for just a little bit.

We talked for a bit more, discussing how excited we were to get to the island and wondering how difficult the classes may be. After some time, Amber left to grab something to eat from the ship’s food bar. I was still full from Madame Ping’s cooking but figured it would be worthwhile to check out what was above deck. I hadn’t realized we already set sail, there was nothing but ocean all around us and I was momentarily speechless over how vast it all seemed.

“There’s nothing quite like it,” an unknown voice said from beside me. “Large, seemingly empty waters. I bet the deep end is teeming with sea monsters just begging for a fight.”

I looked up to see a tall, lean man with ginger hair leaning over the railing, peering into the waters. He seemed like he was ready to hop off the deck and actually fight these imaginary beasts.

“Careful,” I warned. “I don’t know if they’re prepared for a search-and-rescue if you fall off.”

He threw his head back in laughter and moved away from the railing. “I’m not worried about that. Nice to meet you, girlie. I’m Childe.”

“My name is Lumine.” Not girlie. “So, you must be the second-year troublemaker?”

“Depends on your definition of trouble,” he winked. “I hear my name has gotten around. What have you heard of my magnificent feats? Go on.”

This guy was so full of himself.

“Hm?” I blinked innocently. “I thought you were held back for...skipping classes? Or perhaps they were too difficult for you.”

“There’s nothing at Celestia that I can’t handle,” he insisted and studied me. “Though, I’m not sure you’ll be quite alright, girlie.”

“Oh?” I cocked a brow. “Careful now, I can get competitive.”

“Competition is one of my middle names,” Childe smirked. “We’ll have to see about your confidence.”

One of your middle names?”

“I’m a man of many names. Many talents. Many glorious triumphs and—”

“Let me guess, you’re Hydro?” I eyed the Vision on his waist.

“Curious about my abilities?” He leaned in close, catching me off guard when his face came up to mine. “What about you? I don’t see any Vision on you.”

I refused to back away. “Yeah? I don’t need a Vision to fight a guy like you. I could take you on with a dull blade any day.”

He laughed again. “Oh, I like you. I think I’ve got someone to look out for, then.”

Childe was interesting, to say the least. He didn’t seem so bad, actually.

“Let’s fight.”

Huh? 

“What, right here, right now?” I eyed him warily.

“Of course not,” he shook his head. “Once we get to the academy when you’ve had a couple of combat lessons. We’ll see how strong you really are.”

“I don’t need combat lessons to beat you,” I scoffed despite never seeing this man in action myself.

Childe shrugged. “So you say, but I’m sure some tips from the Conqueror od Demons would make our battle a lot more...interesting.”

“Conqueror of Demons? Who is that?”

“You’ll see,” Childe grinned. “Take advantage of this time to relax, while you can. I’m heading back to my cabin. Don’t miss me too much.”

“Why would I…” I trailed off after he’d already walked out of earshot.

With a sigh, I leaned back against the railing and simply watched the waves and the others on board. I spotted Amber at the food bar helping a boy who tripped and sent his food flying. Hm, that must be Bennett. I noticed how there were more students with Visions than without, and I’m beginning to truly worry if I could handle what awaited me at Celestia. Seemingly harmless amulets donned as vital accessories seemed to be the key to power in this world. Do I really have what it takes?

“I’ll get stronger tomorrow, too. Even more, the next day after that.”

The memory of Aether resurfaced, and I smiled. Yeah, I do.

Chapter Text

“Please remember to retrieve all of your belongings before leaving the ship!” An announcement rang through the cabins.

The overnight trip to Celestia Academy went by faster than I’d expected. Despite not being able to sleep last night and waking far earlier than usual in the morning, my body felt light with excitement and curiosity. 

I’d readied my luggage as soon as I spotted the island’s silhouette on the horizon, but now that we’ve reached land, I hesitated before walking down the ramp leading to the dock.

There seemed to be a small port village surrounding the docks, which I wasn’t expecting since I thought this island was privately owned by Celestia. Beyond that, a massive mountain rose above the waters, surrounded by rocky beaches and covered with tall pine trees. The foliage looked thick with life, I could hear the chirps of forest birds beyond the squawking seagulls on the shore.

And...is that? Squinting my eyes, I just barely made out the peaks of what looks like caste towers from between the trees, high up on the mountain.

“Celestia Academy,” I breathed in awe.

“Wow,” Amber gasped. “This place is gorgeous. You can even see the academy from here!”

Eyeing the height of the mountain, I imagined how difficult it might be to carry our things to campus. “How are we supposed to get up there?” 

“Ad Astra,” a woman at the foot of the dock announced to the group of approaching students. “Welcome to Celestia.”

“Katheryne?” my mouth held agape, I stood frozen after recognizing the kind woman who worked at the orphanage of my childhood.

“Hm?” she heard me despite the clamor of excited students spilling from the dock. “Ah, Miss Lumine. Lovely to see you. I’m glad we can all be together again.”

“You know her?” Amber cocked her head to the side.

“Yeah, she was my…” I trailed off, not wanting to see the pity in Amber’s eyes after learning I came from an orphanage. “I’ve met her once before, a long time ago.”

Katheryne’s blue eyes seemed to pierce through my own before she turned to address the group as a whole. 

“My name is Katheryne. I am the head secretary here at Celestia Academy. First-years, please wait for the air balloons to arrive.” She gestured to the sky where I could make out the growing shapes of hot air balloons slowly drifting to our location. “They will transport you and your belongings to the academy. Second-year through fourth-years, you may use the teleport waypoint in town. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask me.”

“See ya on the other side, girlie.” Childe hopped off the deck with a kick in his step. “Oh, and here’s a tip: don’t trust anyone you meet with an eyepatch.”

“Eyepatch?”

“Keep an eye out,” he winked and ambled towards the town.

“You two are friends?” Amber mused.

“We’re,” I paused to find the right word. “Acquainted. He wants to spar with me.”

Amber’s expression went blank before morphing into a mischievous grin. “Spar with you, hm?”

“Not like that,” I rolled my eyes.

“That wink says otherwise,” she giggled before nudging my arm. “I’m kidding! C’mon, looks like the air balloons are about ready to land!”

She dragged me forward to where students were beginning to line up into their own air balloons. We passed by Katheryne, who spared me a smile. She’d said to ask questions if necessary, but I feel like bringing up the past and asking how she came to be here today isn’t what either of us has in mind right at this moment. I’ll be sure to find her office once I’ve settled in.

There were enough air balloons for everyone to have their own. With how far away the academy seemed, the transport went by much faster than expected. I’d barely gotten a chance to appreciate the beauty of the island and pick out the small buildings of the port town. 

At last, Celestia Academy came into full view. A large, iron gate adorned with the academy’s sigil stood boldly in front of the pristine, white bricks that made up the campus buildings. It appeared as though no structure was safe from the lush, green ivy that wrapped itself up and over the tops of the towers on either end of the campus. Actual towers. For a place that accepted so few applicants, its size surprised me.

The air balloons floated harmlessly over the golden, pointed spikes that sat atop each iron bar of the gate, and we landed in the middle of a well-groomed courtyard at the front entrance. A group of footmen was waiting at the dropoff location to help students with their bags. My balloon came to a stop and the door swung open before I got a chance to touch it.

“Greetings, Miss…?” The footman trailed off, waiting for my answer.

“Lumine,” I nodded and hoisted one of my bags onto my shoulder.

“Oh no, please!” he held out a hand to help me off the still slightly-elevated aircraft. “Allow me to carry your luggage to your room.”

“That’s fine,” I declined. “I can carry them on my own.” 

Living with Madame Ping all these years meant learning to take care of laborious tasks on my own in addition to helping others when they needed it. I didn’t mind it at all. This man could probably aid one of the other students about to arrive. Especially Bennett, I thought to myself.

“Miss Lumine, I appreciate your efforts, but—”

“I insist,” I shook my head. “I can handle a few bags. Just point me in the direction of the dorms and I’ll be on my way.”

“I don’t think you understand,” he scratched his head.

“I’ll take it from here,” someone interrupted.

Turning to face the newcomer, ready to decline whatever help he was about to offer. I stopped short after taking in the man’s appearance. His hair was the color of night in the moonlight, and his outfit was quite something as well. I would have blushed at the amount of exposed, tan chest if it weren’t for his eyepatch that caught my attention.

“Don’t trust anyone you meet with an eyepatch,” Childe’s words echoed in my mind before I mentally shook them away. I shouldn’t let some guy I just met one-day prior influence my first impressions of…

“Kaeya Alberich,” he gave a slight bow. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lumine.”

“How do you know my name?” That was suspicious.

“Hm?” he mused. “I overheard your conversation here with Nimrod.”

Doubtful, since Kaeya was nowhere near my air balloon when I had landed. Wait, Nimrod? I turned to look again at the footman who had already begun to load up my baggage onto a cart. In what world would parents ever decide to name their child ‘Nimrod’?

Kaeya smirked at my reaction as if reading my thoughts. “Please, allow him to relieve you of your things. I am acting in place of the student president and will be leading orientation for all first-years.”

“Hm, I don’t know.” I eyed him. “I’ve been told not to trust anyone with an eyepatch.”

“Oh?” he raised a brow. “And who, pray tell, warned you of that?”

“Childe.”

“That Tartaglia,” the furs of Kaeya’s accessory rose and fell as he sighed. “Well, I can’t say there isn’t any truth in that statement. You should be careful of who you trust anywhere. Come on now, let’s get going. We’re not frozen in place, after all.”

Kaeya rounded up the rest of the first-years into a group and led a tour of campus. We began with buildings that were not much different from a typical campus: faculty offices, auditorium, dining hall, gymnasium, and library. But after a few turns, I realized that was where the resemblance ended.

“This is our apothecary.” Kaeya gestured to a steel dome with skylights reflecting the sun’s glare. “It is often used by the Alchemy class, and sometimes those in Horticulture. Professor Kriedeprinz leads the majority of the Alchemy courses here at Celestia, including the beginner’s class you all will be partaking in.”

The next location was a large, empty ring made of dirt and surrounded by weaponry.

“Your Physical Combat course will take place here, lead by Instructor Xiao,” he announced. “Some of your time may be spent building muscle in the fitness center to your left, but rest assured, there will be plenty chance to spar with you peers to test each other’s strength.”

My gaze lingered on the racks of swords that hung on their posts, ready to be swung and propelled with precision. It’s been a while since I’ve practiced my swordplay, and I’m ready to change that.

“Physical Combat is mandatory for all Vision holders, as is Vision Studies with Professor Minci. However, those without a Vision,” he paused to take a moment to glance my way. “May also join, if they so choose.”

The tour went on for another half hour before ending at the student dormitories.

“Dorm floors are co-ed and separated by Houses,” Kaeya explained with a stifled yawn. “There is one floor per House, and each House corresponds to a Vision.”

“And for those who have no Vision?” A voice piped up from the crowd, and I spotted a brunette with a ponytail raising her hand.

“Don’t worry,” Kaeya’s attention skipped by me once again. “There’s a floor for you too. Though, the House community is not as large.”

I stood and watched as the previously combined group of first-years slowly began to separate into sections based on their element. I was starting to think making additional friends might be harder than Madame Ping suggested.

“Hi,” the girl who spoke up earlier approached me. “I’m Ellin. You don’t have a Vision either?”

“Nope, no Vision here.” I smiled and shook my head. “I’m Lumine.”

“Well, us Visionless need to stick together!” Ellin asserted.

“Why?”

“I heard that, sometimes, Vision holders aren’t as...welcoming to people like us.” She lowered her voice. “It’s a power dynamic thing.”

I thought back to meeting Amber and Childe for the first time. Neither of them changed their opinion of me after learning I had no Vision. Even Kaeya—who seemed to know from the start—paid the same amount of attention to me as the rest of the students, if not more.

“Ease up, Ellin,” I patted her shoulder with a smile. “I get it. It’s easy to question yourself. But we are just as deserving as the rest. With or without a Vision.”

“Alright everyone,” Kaeya clapped to get our attention. “You’re free to explore on your own for the rest of the weekend. If you need me for anything, it would be best to talk to Katheryne instead. Classes start Monday.”

Chapter Text

It was a beautiful day today, not a cloud in the sky. Alas, that also meant that the sun was shining as strong as ever. Shielding my eyes and ducking under shade when available, I decided to take myself on my own tour of campus. Rather than unpacking my belongings and getting cozy in the dorm, I wanted a closer look at some of the places Kaeya had glossed over. 

I actually noticed there was a lush greenhouse, hidden behind the giant dome that was the apothecary. There were also separate, smaller sparring circles in addition to the main fighting ring for Physical Combat.

“Hm,” I mused to myself. “Was Kaeya slacking off during orientation?”

Probably. If I recall correctly, he did mention that it was the student president who was supposed to be leading the first-years around.

Throughout the bright afternoon, I’d tried the doors of several unmarked buildings on campus, but they all appeared to be locked. That makes sense since the school year has yet to be in session. While I hadn’t intended to stop by the library, I noticed the library’s main door was slightly left ajar.

Curious, I decided to check it out anyway. After pushing past the large, wooden doors that magically did not creak obnoxiously, I was immediately sheltered from the beaming rays of sunlight. My eyes adjusted to the ambient glow made from lit sconces that lined the walls.

One end of the library contained rows of bookshelves nearly three times my own height. Though, the embellished ceiling could make room for a few more of those shelves with how high it is. The other end had shorter shelves and cabinets that surrounded a section of wooden tables and velvet chairs. Muted light from the tall windows cast shadows along a set of stairs in the back, leading to a second floor with even more bookshelves. 

“Wow,” I breathed in a slight whisper. Nobody else appeared to be in here, as classes have yet to begin, but I couldn’t help but respect the atmosphere.

Aether would have loved this.

Though I remembered us to be equal in both strength and brains, Aether was always more eager to dedicate extra time to old books and strategy manuals. I could list off multiple accounts where he’d be late to lessons after getting lost in a world made from paper and ink. The pull to a place like this is understandable. After selecting a random hardcover from the shelves, I’d nearly forgotten where I was if it weren’t for a small rustling sound coming from the tables.

I flinched back into reality and set the book back. Was someone else here?

Tiptoeing to the main floor where the tables sat, I peeked around a bookshelf to see who the newcomer could be.

A man with scarlet hair and dark clothes sat alone at a table with his back facing me. Though, he had no books with him. I watched as he pulled out a slab of wood from a nearby cabinet and recognized it to be a chessboard. 

Who was he playing chess with? My eyes darted around the room, but only he and I were its occupants.

He continued to set up the chessboard, aligning each piece to where it belonged. And then, he began a match. Alone.

How...odd.

Wait, why am I hiding? I frowned to myself.

I could just walk out there and act like I wasn’t just spying on this man. But then, I realized I’d waited too long to reveal myself, distracted by each move made as himself and the opponent. If I went to leave now, it would be too obvious. There’s also the possibility of waiting him out. Then again, who knows how long that could take. Though, he is just playing by himself. I’m sure the match will be over in no time.

✧✧✧

The match was not, in fact, over in no time. This man went at a leisurely pace, thinking out each move with care and placing the pieces with precision. And I was beginning to grow hungry.

Ah, a thought occurred. Perhaps there was a back door.

“You can come out now.” A smooth voice interrupted my thoughts.

I froze. Was he talking to me?

“I was wondering if you were going to say something,” he sighed with his back still towards me. “But it appears that you are content on spying.”

“I wasn’t! I wasn’t spying. I was, um,” I blindly swiped a book from the closest shelf and held it to my chest. “Reading a book.”

“Really?” he finally turned and assessed me with striking eyes the same shade as his hair. “You’ve been reading a book? While standing in the darkest section of the library for nearly fifteen minutes, even though there are perfectly good seats and lighting over here?”

“It’s a quite fascinating novel,” I asserted and moved to face him since my cover had been blown.

“Oh?” his expression was unreadable. “Tell me, what do you find so fascinating about slime reproduction?”

Was that what the book I randomly chose was about? I glanced over the cover, of course, it was. I cringed. “Lots.”

He shot me a blank stare.

“Why do you play by yourself?” I gestured to the chessboard, desperate to change the subject.

He didn’t respond for a moment, and I was beginning to worry he’d labeled me as a creep who liked to spy on unsuspecting students while reading about slime anatomy.

“There’s no one here on my level.”

I let out a relieved sigh before his words fully registered. “Are you sure? Aren’t students here the brightest minds in Teyvat? There has to be someone you can play.”

“Trust me,” he turned back to the chessboard and had a dark knight capture the light king. “There is no one.”

“Well,” I said. “Maybe you haven’t challenged everyone yet.”

“I know of everyone’s capabilities.” He cleared the board of its remaining pieces and began to set it up again. “But I do not recognize you. First-year?”

“I am.”

“Hmph,” he grunted.

What’s that supposed to mean? I watched as he continued on without a word. “May I join you for a game?”

His hand hesitated before placing the final pawn.

“Who knows, maybe you’ll finally have met your match,” I suggested.

“Doubtful,” he scoffed lightly before gesturing to the empty seat across from him. “Please, show me what you can do.”

✧✧✧

“Checkmate.”

I slumped back down into my chair as he captures my king. This was our fourth game and my fourth loss of the day. 

“Do not look so forlorn,” he smiled. “I did tell you there are none who can match me. Still, it’s been a while since someone tested me this much. Thank you.”

The beginnings of my dampened mood were washed away as his smile transformed nearly every feature of his face. His previously solemn eyes had shifted to carry a brightness to them that surprised me.

“What’s your name?” I blurted, having just noticed I still had no idea who my partner was.

“Of course, where are my manners?” He held out a gloved hand. “Diluc Ragnvindr.”

“Lumine,” my smile mirrored his own. I reciprocated with my own hand, though it was engulfed by his large one in a strong but gentle handshake. “I really thought I had that last one.”

“What a beautiful name.” He pulled back with a start as if he hadn’t intended on speaking that aloud. “Who have you played chess with before? It takes a skilled partner to be able to master some of the strategies you pulled.”

“It’s been a while for me, actually,” I confessed.

Aether had gotten into chess first before nagging me to play against him. I caved eventually, of course. Thinking back on it, I suppose we had gotten a bit too invested in our chess games at the age we were.

“So, I’m hearing that with a little more practice, you might stand a chance against me.” Diluc began loading the chess pieces into their container. “I cannot stay for any longer, but if you wish to play in the future…” he trailed off and his expression grew hesitant.

“I’d love to play another game with you, Diluc,” I answered his unasked question.

“Wonderful,” his smile returned. “Shall we head out, then? Or do you wish to continue your research on slime—”

“I wasn’t actually reading that, you know,” I mumbled and swiped the book in question off the table and placed it back on the shelf.

“Of course, I know,” he chuckled and opened the door for me to exit.

Only, there was someone else on the other side.

“Diluc,” Kaeya’s eye widened a fraction before his expression melted into the same easygoing nature I’d seen earlier. “Wasn’t expecting to see you so soon. How was the vacation?”

I watched as Diluc’s chuckle died and his brows turned down into a scowl.

“Please, move out of the way.” Diluc ignored the question and crossed his arms. “I have somewhere to be.”

“But of course,” Kaeya stepped aside and Diluc brushed past him.

“Thank you again for the match, Lumine,” he nodded towards me. “I’ll be off.”

He walked off almost in haste, despite his leisurely pace from just a moment before. 

“What happened between you two?” I turned to Kaeya.

“Oh, just a bit of family drama,” he smirked with no real answer. “Never mind him, how about you and I go for a meal?”

“A meal?” I blinked in surprise.

“Dinner is about to start in the dining hall. I figured you might have missed lunch after going off on your own.”

I frowned. “How did you know where I was?”

“I didn’t,” he shrugged. “It’s my temporary job to be in charge of the first-years. I couldn’t help but notice there was one unaccounted for in the dorms. Luckily, it only took half an hour to find you.”

“I wanted to explore on my own,” I explained. “Didn’t know there was some rule against that.”

“Of course not,” Kaeya grinned. “On the contrary, I prefer that you do. Those who are more informed become the least ignorant.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, but I didn’t have to. My stomach let out an embarrassing growl. “Ah, yes,” I blushed. “You said there was dinner?”

Thankfully, Kaeya didn’t acknowledge my audible hunger. “Lead the way.”

Chapter Text

“So, did you find anything interesting on your solo trip around campus?”

Kaeya and I walked down the corridor that led to the dining hall.

“Nothing much,” I shrugged. “Just a greenhouse and some extra sparring circles.”

“That’s all? Y’know, there’s a school legend that great treasure was hidden somewhere nearby just after the academy was established.”

“Oh?” I raised a brow. “What kind of treasure?”

“Who knows,” Kaeya mused. “It could be a trove full of luxurious chests, or perhaps even a magical artifact. Whatever it may be, there’s also a chance that someone has already gotten to it. This academy is nearly five hundred years old, after all.”

“Well,” I thought about it, letting the adventurer in me wonder. “It’s not improbable that the treasure still exists, right? Do you know anything about who left it behind?”

“I thought you might be curious,” he smirked. “I can’t reveal what I know, for now, the walls have ears. But p lease, feel free to join me on the treasure hunt. It would be far more entertaining than any of the usual stuff.”

“You mean like completing the tasks you were assigned?” A voice I didn’t recognize came from behind us.

I swiveled around to face a woman with crossed arms and blonde hair tied up in a ponytail. She looked stressed.

“Jean,” Kaeya greeted her. “So good to have the student president back here with us. I wasn’t expecting your return to be so soon.”

“Right,” she sighed. “However, I am only here on a brief reprieve. There are additional meetings scheduled for tonight. Lumine, how was orientation?”

“Oh! It was alright,” I nodded. “Kaeya has been an excellent guide. Wait, how do you know my name?”

“As student president, it is my job to commit to memory all of the names and faces of Celestia Academy’s attendees,” she replied with sincerity. “It’s nice to finally meet you in person. I am Jean Gunnhildr.”

“You see?” he grinned, resting a hand on my shoulder like we were the best of buds. “I am very dedicated to the job that’s been handed off to me.”

“Then tell me, have the schedules been distributed to the student dorms?”

“Ah,” Kaeya breathed. “You wouldn't happen to be talking about the stacks of envelopes that were left in front of my door this morning?”

“Yes,” her eyes narrowed. “I am.”

“Well, I thought they were letters of confession,” he shrugged. “I can’t help that I’m popular.”

“Per Katheryne’s instructions, those schedules should have been handed out before students left for dinner,” Jean sighed and massaged her temples.

Kaeya stepped away reluctantly. “I’ll be right on it. Sorry Lumine, you’ll have to go to dinner without me.”

“I’ll be fine.” It was just dinner. “See you around.”

✧✧✧

The dining hall hummed with conversation as I pushed open the doors. Immediately, my head turned to where the delicious scent of hot food was coming from. I instinctively followed the line forming at a counter where it food was served, and I shuffled forward with everyone else. Once I’d made it to the front of the line, an empty tray was slid towards me.

“What would you like?” The woman at the counter asked.

“What is there?”

She listed off a handful of specials for the day and was kind enough to point out the individual side options at the food bar further down. Not wanting to hold up the line, I quickly piled up my tray with a Teyvat fried egg, some Puppy-Paw hash browns, and the Universal Peace special. Satisfied with my tray, I turned away from the counter only to be met with an obstacle I hadn’t anticipated.

Where should I sit?

It occurred to me, just then, that students were grouped up with their elements. At this point, I wasn’t surprised by this development, but it kind of irked me how sectioned off this school was, intentional or not.

Spotting Ellin sitting with a group of other non-Vision holders that I didn’t recognize, I thought about sitting with her before deciding against it. I wouldn’t let this school’s social dynamics isolate my options.

“Hey there,” a voice cooed as a minxy girl with green hair and a purple hood stepped in front of me before I made a decision.

An almost identical girl slid up beside the first, except she had white hair with a blue hood. “You must be a first-year.”

“I’m Cici,” the purple one introduced and pointed to the blue girl, who waved. “And that’s Cicin.”

“You can come and sit with us if you want.” Cicin gestured over to a table in the far back. “What’s your Vision?”

“Are you strong?” Cici piped in.

“None to the Vision question, and I'd like to say I’m strong.”

Cici and Cicin’s faces pinched in unison as they turned to look at each other. After an unspoken conversation passed between the two, they turned to face me again. 

“It’s okay if you don’t have a Vision!” Cici’s purple hood bobbed.

“Neither do we,” Cicin admitted with a bite in her tone. “But it’s not like we want to sit with them .” Derision dripped from her voice as she glanced over to the table where Eliin sat. “The Visionless aren’t worth our company,” she chuffed. “Pathetic weaklings.”

“We can tell that you’re strong.” Cici nodded at me. “But you can be stronger. Just like us.”

“We’ve been told to scout out potential in the newest class,” Cicin continued. “And we think you have it. Sit with us.”

Cici took my hand and cocked her head to the side. “What was your name, again?”

Politely, yet firmly removing my hand from her grasp, I took a step back and tried to not sound nearly as appalled as I felt. “I will not be sitting with you.”

“What?” Cici blinked in surprise before souring. “You think you’re too good for us?”

“I don’t think I’m ‘ too good’ for anyone,” I countered, annoyance creeping in. “How could you be so dismissive of the other students? They have no Vision, just like you!”

“La Signora took us in.” Cicin crossed her arms. “As long as we are loyal to her, we can have power equal to having a Vision. You can too.”

If you know your place.” Cicin narrowed her eyes. “Last chance, blondie. Do you want to sit with us or not? Don’t you want to become better than those worthless humans?”

“I can’t believe this,” I muttered and squared my shoulders, walking away from the pair.

I made a beeline towards Ellin’s table and couldn’t help but feel the sharp glares stabbing me in the back. Those girls...well, I can’t say I’m surprised that power would be important in any social setting, but I didn’t think there would be those who think so little of non-Vision holders. 

“Hi Ellin,” I sat beside her.

“Hey Lumine,” she eyed me warily. “I see you’ve met the Twin Mages.”

“Is that what they’re called?” Stabbing a fork into my egg, I chewed with vigor. “What a nasty duo.”

“No kidding, they cornered me in the hallway earlier today,” she sighed and looked down at her plate. 

“You turned them down, too?”

“What?” Ellin looked surprised. “Gods, no. They didn’t offer me anything but the promise that I’ll never amount to anything.”

“Seriously?” my jaw dropped. “That is so out of line, Ellin. I’m sorry that happened to you.”

A boy sitting next to Ellin had already laid a comforting hand on her shoulder. “They do this every year,” he informed. “Everyone knows about it, but the Twins never push far enough for the higher-ups to do anything about it.”

“What about other students?” My fist clenched. “Don’t they stand up for each other?”

“Getting involved with Singora and her groupies is, well, not something to look forward to,” he shrugged. “We make do, though. I’m Timaeus by the way. You’re Lumine?”

“Yeah.”

“Welcome to Celestia Academy,” he greeted. “This is my second year here now, but I’ve spent a lot of spare time studying the intricacies of this place. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.”

“Thanks, Timaeus,” I smiled and turned back to my meal.

“As I’m sure you’ve noticed,” he went on. “This is where all the students without Visions typically sit. Most of the elements stick to their own tables as well, but they have mingling friend groups every now and then.”

“Based on how the Twins act, it doesn’t look like any Vision holders would want to be seen with one of us,” Ellin sighed. “I was worried things might turn out this way.”

“They aren’t all that bad,” Timaeus shook his head. “Just a few bad apples.”

“If you ask me,” she mumbled in between bites. “I think those Twins are so...so…”

“Ignorant? Wicked? Childish?” I supplemented.

“Did somebody say my name?” I felt a familiar presence behind me. “I didn’t realize I’d made such a lasting impression.”

“Hello, Childe,” I swallowed a forkful of rice. “What brings you here?”

“Didn’t you see me waving?” he pouted. “I saw you there, standing alone with your tray. It’s your first day here, after all. I was hoping we could catch up on details for our big match.”

“Lumine,” Timaeus whispered. “How do you know Tartaglia?”

“Tartaglia?” I frowned. “His name is Childe.”

“Only to those who can beat me in a fight,” Childe chimed in. “Or they don’t know any better, in which case they’ll soon learn.”

“But we haven’t—”

“Not yet , girlie,” he winked. “But I have a feeling that you’ll impress me. Call me Childe, I insist.”

“Will please stop calling me that?” I rolled my eyes. “It’s Lumine. Do you need me to spell it out for you? L-U-M-I—”

“Alright Lumi,” he chuckled and lowered himself to sit by my side. “If you won’t come over to my table, I’m fine with staying here with you.”

I sensed a hush fall over the rest of the table at Childe’s unprecedented action. The atmosphere of the dining hall itself even shifted, as if everyone was holding a breath.

“Are you sure you’re supposed to be sitting here?” I eyed him.

“People here know my strength.” He rolled his shoulders and swiped a hash brown from my plate. “I’ll sit where I what.”

“Hey!” I protested and reached out to grab it back, but I was too late. “That was my last one.”

“You’ve got to be quicker than that, Lumi,” he grinned. “Especially if you ever want to win against me.”

“Whatever,” I huffed and guarded the rest of my plate with my life. “But take any more of my food and I might have to get serious.”

“That’s what I’m hoping for.”

Chapter Text

I woke with a start as the wind-up alarm clock that sat on my nightstand chirped incessantly. Flipping the switch that shut it off, I rubbed the grogginess from my eyes and glanced around my dorm room.

I’d slept here two nights already, the weekend passing by in a blur after meeting so many people and getting adjusted to the academy. Luckily, I didn’t have to share the room with anyone. I don’t know if it’s because there weren’t as many students without a Vision that our floor had enough single-use dorms for everyone, but I appreciated it.

The room was furnished with a standard-sized wardrobe in the corner, a desk and wooden chair stationed by the window, a single nightstand, and a bed just large enough that I could fully stretch without my feet hanging off. There was even a full-length mirror hanging on the back of the door. While I had the room to myself, our bathrooms were communal and split by gender on either end of the hall.

Rolling off of the mattress, my feet landed on the plush rug that covered most of the wooden floorboards. Time to begin my first day of classes.

After walking down the hall to wash up, I returned back to my dorm room and selected my outfit from the wardrobe. The school uniform. I sighed as I donned the stockings and plaid skirt that fell just above my knees. While I would prefer to wear my own clothing throughout the day, our uniform didn’t look all the bad and was only mandatory during official school operating hours. I stared at my reflection in the mirror and admired the academy’s crest stitched in gold thread.

Double-checking to make sure my schoolbag had the necessities, I glanced over my schedule once more. First up: Beginner’s Gliding with Instructor Barbatos.

“Let’s do this.” I squared my shoulders and walked out the door.

According to the school map, the location for this particular class is at the back end of campus, close to the cliffs. Luckily, I had done enough exploring around campus that I knew which paths to take without getting lost.

A light breeze tickled my face as I crunched along the gravel path that split from the main stone walkway. The walk took a bit longer than I thought it might, but I was still one of the first students to arrive in the clearing. Natural bleachers were carved out of the ground, facing a row of platforms and a wide, empty field that led to the cliffside.

Each of the platforms stood in order of height, with the shortest being about my size, and the largest could pass for a slender building. I craned my neck to see the top of it, spotting a tiny figure sitting on the edge. How did they get up there?

“Oh,” the person’s voice seemed to be carried by the wind to my ears. “I see my students are finally arriving.”

The figure hopped off the platform in a freefall, and I had to stop myself from reaching out to catch him. At the last moment, his descent slowed enough for him to gracefully land in the field. Though I’ve never glided before, I was still aware that in order to do so, one would need a windglider. But this boy wasn’t equipped with anything but a...was that a lyre?

I gaped. “How did you do that?”

“Do what?” he blinked and then looked at his instrument. “Oh, this? You flatter me. My skill with a lyre has been honed for longer than you could imagine. Of course, you’re impressed. I’d be surprised if you weren’t.”

He thought I was talking about his lyre? I hadn’t even heard him play. “No, the gliding without a glider .”

“I don’t need a glider for that,” he smiled. “I trust you’re here for Beginner’s Gliding? I will be your instructor for the course.”

“You’re Professor Barbatos?” I couldn’t keep the shock from my voice. “I thought you were a student.” Or a student’s younger sibling.

“Please, call me Venti,” he insisted.

“Lumine! Hey!” a bright voice interrupted and I turned to see Amber enter the clearing along with a group of other students. “It’s so great we have Beginner’s Gliding together! I’ve been wanting to glide for ages .”

The excitement from other students was audible in their growing murmurs and optimistic expressions. Venti introduced himself to the rest of the class before instructing us to have a seat.

“Welcome to Beginner’s Gliding,” he began. “Now, I’m sure all of you are eager to shoot off into the skies with the wind in your hair and worries cast aside, but we first must go over formalities. Number one: a windglider is not a plaything. Treat it with care and try not to lose any feathers. Number two: it’s always important to glide responsibly. That means no using Anemo slimes to boost you into the air.”

“Why not?” someone from the crowd asked.

“The currents created after an Anemo slime’s death are unpredictable and often difficult to maneuver,” Venti responded. “Number three: always make sure you have enough stamina before taking a trip off a cliff. Your glider won’t save you if you don’t have the energy to support it.”

Venti continued on like this for quite some time with a seriousness that would convince anyone that he was an instructor at Celestia, despite his appearance. I noticed the other students express signs of boredom as he went on, but not me. Not Amber, either. 

I smiled as her eyes twinkled with delight after Venti finished up with his speech and wheeled out a cart full of windgliders.

“Today, we will be starting small,” he announced. “See these platforms here? You will practice jumping off each one with your windgliders. Starting with the shortest. I will provide a demonstration!”

Venti equipped his own windglider, a magnificent set of wings that gleamed azure. Beginning with the shortest platform, he stepped up and hopped off. Because the distance was so short, his glider was only out for a brief moment before landing.

“And because we’re also here to have fun.”He was magically lifted to the tallest platform. No, not magically—using Anemo. With a leap, Venti flew through the air with his windglider. A chorus of oohs and ahhs echoed as we watched him do a fancy trick in the air before landing. “You lot probably won’t get to the final platform until much later, ehe,” he grinned. “Go on, pick your glider and line up!”

We didn’t need to be told twice. Students rushed over to where the gliders were and grabbed the first ones within reach. I waited a bit for the frenzy to die down before selecting one of the remaining ones.

Up close, the glider looked a lot larger than I was expecting. Surprisingly enough, it didn’t feel nearly as bulky as I thought it would, once I had it fashioned on my back.

“How do I look?” Amber grinned and did a twirl before striking a pose.

“Like you’re ready to become a gliding champion.”

We waited for our turn as students hopped off the first platform with varying degrees of success. Some were able to snap the wings out, but lost control of their balance and had a rocky landing. A few students couldn’t manage to activate their gliders at all , so Venti coached them through natural movements and mechanisms.

My turn finally arrived, and I hesitated for only a brief moment before going with my gut and leaping off the platform. I felt the wings at my back catch in the wind and lift my whole body slightly before touching the ground.

“Nice work, Lumine!” Venti praised.

Amber was a natural. She jumped off, got her glider out, and landed with a pep in her step. “Ready for the next one?”

“You bet,” I nodded and moved to the second pillar.

A few other students also successfully passed the first height, while others had to stay behind until they got it right. The next few platforms were a breeze. The more time I got to spend in the air, the more I wished I could actually fly.

“I’m so jealous of birds.” Amber looked to the skies, echoing my thoughts.

At this point, the platforms we took on were tall enough that we had to climb up a ladder to get on top, rather than go up steps. I went first, hauling myself and my glider up the rungs and reaching the top with a satisfied huff. The wind blew slightly stronger at this elevation, and I could sense that this height might be a challenge.

I stood, ready to take flight, but then a sudden chill shot down my spine. I shivered.

“Must be the wind,” I rolled my shoulders. “Maybe I should have brought a sweater.”

Disregarding the momentary cold, I jumped off the platform as I had gotten used to, but the wings of my windglider didn’t snap open. My heart rate kicked up a notch as I tried to get the feathers to spread. They wouldn’t budge.

“Lumine!” I could hear Amber’s worried shout. “Open your wings!”

I can’t! I tried to yell but choked on the wind.

The ground was quickly approaching, and I was still struggling. For a moment, it seemed that I might not make it out of this class with all of my bones intact. Suddenly, a whoosh of air came up from below me, the bright glow of Anemo power catching my fall.

“Lumine! Are you all right?” Venti outstretched his hand for me to grab, pulling me off of the current. “What happened?”

“I...I don’t know,” I breathed and rubbed my shoulders. “My windglider...it wouldn’t deploy.”

“Strange,” he frowned. “May I take a look?”

I nodded and slung off the glider, handing it to him.

After inspecting the feathers and joints, he said, “Other than a bit of dampness at the center, there’s nothing out of the ordinary with this pair.”

“Dampness?”

“Here,” he pointed to where the two wings met. “Though, I can’t see how that would affect the glider’s performance. How odd. These should be brand new, so this shouldn’t have happened.”

I drew in a shaky breath. “Good thing you were here.”

“But of course!” Venti agreed. “As your instructor, it may be my job to teach, but protection is a priority for my students. I’ll take this windglider for further inspection and double-check the others,” he turned to face the rest of the class, who I noticed had paused their gliding activities to gather and see what happened. “That’s a wrap for class today!”

Some students reluctantly removed their windgliders while others seemed happy to be rid of theirs. I guess gliding wasn’t for everyone. As students began to break off into their own groups and head back towards the main campus, I could have sworn I saw a flash of blue and white in the crowd.

“Are you alright?” Amber’s concerned face came into view. “I was super scared, and it wasn’t even me who was falling!”

“Did you sense anything...different up there?” I asked her, remembering the chill I had felt.

She shook her head, “I didn’t even get the chance to climb up before I saw you go down. Why? Did something happen?”

“It’s nothing.” I shook away the thought. “I’m fine now, really.”

She stared at me for a moment, truly making sure I was alright before moving on. “Well, that was certainly enough excitement for one day, and it’s still morning! What’s your next class?”

“Physical Combat.”

“Good luck,” she patted my shoulder. “I hear Professor Xiao doesn’t go easy. Not even for first-years.”

“It can’t possibly be any worse than almost falling to my doom,” I joked. “Right?”

Chapter Text

Walking to my next class, I rolled my shoulders back, feeling an ache set in. I guess using the windglider activated muscles in my back that I don’t typically use. Hopefully, the soreness won’t be too extreme and I can still glide as easily as I had today. I also hope there aren’t any future glider accidents. Assuming the location of my gliding class meant we’d be jumping off cliffs eventually, I shuddered at the thought of what might befall someone if their windglider malfunctioned as mine had mid-flight.

Venti’s Anemo power really was impressive, for him to conjure up a gust of wind strong enough to keep me from falling to the ground. The instructors at this academy must be at an extreme level for him to exhibit such a skill with ease.

Lost in thought, I hadn’t realized my walking speed slowed until I heard the telltale sound of a bell ringing. I was about to be late to Physical Combat. If the rumors about Instructor Xiao were anything to go by, I suppose it wouldn’t be good for me to show up tardy.

I sped up to a light jog, luckily the fighting ring wasn’t too far. As I approached and heard the sounds of battle, I feared class had already begun. Though, it seemed that the crowd of students gathered around the ring wasn’t participating in any sort of combat activity yet.

Weaving through the group, I caught a glimpse of a person moving so fast that I could barely land my eyes on him for more than a second. He was attacking a wolven...thing. It hovered in the air, swooping down to attack the lone fighter and teleporting away whenever its opponent advanced—but he was quick to anticipate where the monster would spawn next.

“Are we going to have to fight that thing, too?” I heard one student worry. “It’s just the first day!”

“Our instructor is super scary,” another whispered. “I can’t believe they imported rifthounds on campus for practice . He’s taking it down as easy as a regular hilichurl.”

I’d heard of rifthounds before, but I’d never seen one in person. The man, who I suspected to be our instructor, drilled into the beast with a burst of Anemo.

“Disappear!” he snapped, and the rifthound retreated into a dark portal with an angry howl. 

Cheers went up from the crowd, but Xiao didn’t seem to pay them any attention. He looked on edge still. Twirling his polearm to sit on his back, Xiao finally acknowledged his audience—his students—with a scowl. He seemed to be assessing us as a class and as individuals. My classmates shifted uncomfortably as his unwavering glare passed each of their faces. When his sharp gaze landed on me, I felt tempted to look away but decided to lift my chin and return his stare.

His expression shifted, eyes narrowing ever so slightly. I had a fleeting thought that maybe challenging his gaze wasn’t the right move. Did he think I was being arrogant?

“This is Physical Combat,” he stated. “You will learn how to fight properly without the use of a Vision.”

“No Vision?” Someone cried out. “But that’s what—”

“Silence!” He barked at the student. “I will not be repeating myself. Your strength should not depend on a little trinket. Your strength comes from your body. Your skill. Your willingness to persevere.”

He stalked the perimeter of the fighting ring, golden eyes trained on us. “If you cannot bring yourself to fight without a Vision, leave .”

No one moved a muscle.

“Hmph,” he grunted. “Seeing that you’ve all made it this far, I assume you know how to handle a weapon.”

He gestured to racks of weapons on the sidelines. They were simple training weapons made of wood, but there was a decent variety of bows, polearms, claymores, and swords.

“Go. We’re wasting time standing around here,” he huffed. “Choose the weapon you believe yourself to be most proficient in. If you are a ranged fighter, move to the field for target practice. If your style is melee, select a partner to spar and move to the outer circles.”

We didn’t need to be told twice. Our group migrated to where the weapons lay, but some seemed to be more hesitant than others. I was quick to single out a wooden sword from the racks. 

Swordplay had always been a favorite of mine, growing up. Madame Ping had enrolled me in sword-fighting lessons upon multiple requests. She didn’t like that I wanted to fight so badly from such a young age, worried that I’d be more likely to injure myself than an opponent. But I had heard countless times of bands of hilichurls attacking unsuspecting caravans and travelers. I wanted to be able to defend myself if I were ever to explore this world on my own. If I wanted to find my brother.

The training sword was light in my hands, as the wood was less dense than the steel I was used to fighting with. After taking a few practice swings, I scanned the crowd for a partner.

“Hey,” a guy with styled hair waved at me. “Do you want to be my partner?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “Let’s go find a sparring ring.”

We walked together away from the main ring, and he started to make light conversation. “My name’s Huffman. You’re Lumine, right?”

“Yeah,” I blinked in surprise. “How’d you know?”

“We were in Beginner’s Gliding together,” he scratched his head. “Guess you don’t remember me, huh?”

“Oh,” I didn’t know what to say for a moment. “Well, I guess I was just so focused on gliding? Sorry.”

“Oh no, don’t worry about it!” He assured me as we found an empty area. “You and that other girl were really amazing with those gliders. You sure you’ve never glided before?”

“Her name’s Amber, and no, I don’t have a gliding license.”

“I myself was struggling a bit,” he admitted sheepishly. “If you’re free sometime, would you mind giving me some pointers?”

“Um,” I sensed that we may be doing a bit too much talking and not enough sparring. “You think we can start now?” I lifted my sword. “I don’t want to get in trouble with Instructor Xiao.”

“Oh sure,” he nodded and readied his own. “Instructor Xiao...I respect the guy, but seriously? No using Visions? I mean, I don’t have a Vision, but who in their right mind would choose to fight without one, given the opportunity? He’s a bit of a hypocrite too,” Huffman lowered his voice. “I saw him using Anemo against the rifthound.”

“Huffman,” I took my fighting stance and positioned the blade. “I hope you’re as ready with a sword as you are to make judgments.”

He held off from any further commentary after finally noticing my reluctance to gossip. “Right.”

I came at him with my sword, swift and neat as I had learned to become. My attack was parried by the length of his blade. Huffman pushed me away and lunged towards my center. His footing gave away his intentions, and I easily dodged before feinting a low attack, coming for his neck instead. He blocked me, just barely, but he wasn’t expecting the strength behind my blow, nor was I. Still not quite used to the weight of the wooden sword, I knocked into Huffman with such force that he lost his grip.

Picking up the blade that had clattered to the dirt, Huffman returned to fighting position. “You’re good.”

“Thanks,” I launched myself once more.

Our brief spar ended once again with Huffman’s empty hands. And the next one with him landing in the dirt, breathing heavily. “Are you sure you’re a first-year?”

“Positive,” I held out a hand to help him up and he accepted.

“Can we take a break?” he asked, not letting go of my hand. “I didn’t expect to be worn out so fast.”

“You should work on your stamina.” I pulled out of his grasp. “Run up a mountain. Maybe do a perimeter around the island.”

“I normally like to have a running buddy, but I haven’t met anyone willing here.” He looked at me expectantly. “So far.”

I examined the wood grain on my sword and said, “Running can be a solo activity.” 

“Maybe you could—”

“I don’t see any blades crashing.” He was interrupted by Instructor Xiao, and I straightened my spine. “Why is that?”

“Huffman seems to be out of commission.” I gestured to my partner.

“Already?” Xiao looked down at him in disdain.

“I—Well, Lumine wasn’t really pulling her punches,” Huffman explained. “I thought this sparring was supposed to be more of a warm-up exercise. It’s only the first day.”

“Lumine,” Xiao crossed his arms and nodded in the direction of another student. “Go spar with Xiangling. She also had an incompetent partner.”

Huffman gaped. “In-Incompetent?”

“Huffman, I want pushups from you. Three hundred. Now.”

“Yes, Instructor Xiao,” I nodded and jogged over to where Xiangling was, and the sounds of Huffman’s sputtering faded away.

As I neared Xiangling, I noticed she was distracted by something in the grass. She poked and prodded before bringing up a piece of something and sniffing it. I watched as she took a pause, contemplation written all over her face.

“What are you doing?” I leaned over to get a closer look.

“Oh!” She hopped back. “You surprised me.”

“Is that grass?”

“I was getting bored waiting for a new partner.” She stood and brushed off the dirt from her clothes. “And then I noticed an unusual herb growing here? I thought I could try adding it to a new recipe. Never mind that, though. Are you my new partner?”

“Yup,” I smiled at the interesting girl. “Let’s fight.”

Xiangling wasted no time, which I greatly appreciated. Unlike Huffman, she was focused with her polearm. She cut through the air and jabbed with precision. It took more effort for me to dodge the attacks and return with some of my own. Ducking under the length of her weapon as she swung at my head, I swiped at her ankles.

“Woah!” she nearly toppled over before making a quick recovery.

Dashing to the side, she lifted the wooden polearm in an upward strike, and I jumped back just in time to avoid a nasty bruise. We continued like that, our attacks and sidesteps working together despite fighting against each other. I soon found a smile blooming on my face, and I could tell Xiangling was having fun as well.

Our sparring lasted much longer than I thought it would, but the match came to an end when I managed to break through her defense and point the end of my sword at her neck.

“That was so fun,” Xiangling beamed. “You’re great with a sword.”

“You’re not so bad yourself. Want to go again?”

Before she could respond, Xiao announced for everyone to find new partners. Xiangling and I sighed in unison and waved each other off. Scanning the area and latching my eyes on my next partner, I approached the boy out of curiosity.

“Hey, Bennett,” I greeted. “Want to spar?”

Surely, his luck couldn't be all that bad.

“You’re the first person to ask.” His eyes twinkled with glee, pumping a fist in the air. “I’m all fired up!”

We took our opposite ends of the sparring circle before running toward each other at the same time. Swinging my sword to knock him down, he hopped away with finesse before I could even get close.

My brows shot up in surprise at his quick reaction, and they climbed even higher after he tumbled backward into the dirt.

“Oops,” he sprung back up as if nothing had happened. “Tripped over my own feet, again.”

I could recognize that Bennett had the skill and perseverance that Xiao had mentioned earlier. The kid was relentless in his fight against himself. He would fall forward unexpectedly and turn it into a dive roll that worked surprisingly well. Even though my quick sidesteps were meant to mess with his footing, Bennett held steady and only tripped up by some miracle of an invisible rock in his path.

Our match ended with him entirely worn out, but with the same bright optimism as before we had begun. It was admirable.

“You’re a good fighter.” I nodded to him.

“You don’t have to say that to make me feel better.” Bennett shook his head. “I know I’m a clumsy mess.”

I frowned. “Don’t say that. You just need to be more aware of your surroundings. Noticing your opponent is one thing you’ve got down,” I assured him. “Noticing the elements of the environment you’re in is something else that needs to be...considered.”

“Thanks, Lumine,” he nodded with determination. “I can work on that.”

Smiling at his newfound resolve, I outstretched my hand. “Here’s to a good match.”

Bennett gave an eager shake before letting go to swipe at his brow. “Phew, this class sure is something. I kind of like not having to use my Vision. Less people get burned.”

A sudden, sharp clapping sound cut through the air and we turned to look at Xiao standing in the main fighting ring. “That’s enough for today. Return your weapons,” he announced.

We walked back to the weapon racks, hanging up our swords and regathering around the big circle where Xiao stood, arms crossed.

“Most of you fought well today,” he informed. “Some of you need to understand what it means to fight. For those who are not up to par, I suggest you drop the class.”

My gaze unintentionally flicked to a wheezing Huffman.

“I have no time to teach worms how to grow a spine,” Xiao bit out.

A few people in the crowd flinched at that, even I thought it was a bit aggressive.

“You are dismissed,” Xiao turned from us. “Class is over. Lumine, a word.”

Me? I balked and stepped forward as the rest of the class moved away. I caught Xiangling and Bennett shooting me an encouraging thumbs-up.

“Is something the matter?” I spoke hesitantly.

“Nothing of the sort,” he looked me over. “I wanted to let you know that your fighting was the most formidable I have seen amongst the rest of your peers.”

He’s praising me? “Thank you.”

“I understand this was the first day of class as a first-year,” he went on. “But if you wish to consider moving to the second-year level of Physical Combat, know you have my full support.”

“Are you sure?” I was shocked. “I didn’t think my matches today were a true reflection of my skill.”

Huffman was less than ideal, and Bennett was struggling with his odd, self-sabotaging antics. Xiangling and I had a good run, but then why hadn’t Xiao also spoken to her?

“I know a good warrior when I see one.”

I was speechless. From what everyone had said about Xiao, Conqueror of Demons, I was expecting him to be some ruthless brute who only cared about fighting and making students weep. And though some of that appeared to be true, he was also observant in a way that showed he did care—to some degree—that we achieve our full potential.

“Thank you,” I said again.

Students in the next class were beginning to filter in, and I took that as my sign to leave. “See you in tomorrow’s class.”

He responded with a simple nod, and I hurried back to grab my bag.

“Let me guess,” Childe had my schoolbag in his hand, this must be the second-year class then. 

“Instructor Xiao held you back after class? You didn’t happen to be facing his disappointment, did you? Don’t worry about it, Lumi, it gets easier.”

“On the contrary,” I swiped my bag from him with a grin I couldn’t hold back. “He quite likes how I fight.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he chuffed. “Xiao doesn’t like anything.”

“Not true,” I rolled my eyes.

“You’re right,” he hummed. “I think he might like torturing his students.”

“He did have my partner do three hundred pushups,” I mused. “Ordered it, even.”

Only three hundred? One year, he had a student teleport to the base of the mountain, run three laps around the island, and climb up a cliff all within the span of one class.”

“Really?” I gasped in shock and Childe laughed. I thwacked his arm. “Stop lying, there’s no way.”

“I’m not lying, really,” he affirmed. “You should have seen the look on your face, though.”

“Xiao had Huffman do three hundred pushups because he wasn’t strong enough for me,” I shrugged. “I wonder what the student in that class must have done to deserve something like that.”

“Honestly, it was just a little prank. Hilarious, if you ask me.” Childe sighed. “Goes to show Instructor Xiao has no sense of humor.”

“Wait a minute,” I looked at him. “Was it you ?”

“What do you think?”

“Hm,” I tapped a finger on my lips. “I think you probably deserved it.”

“Probably, but I made it back with minutes to spare,” he bragged. “People are constantly underestimating me. Even you, Lumi.”

I couldn’t help but share the news. “Well, I guess I’ll have to see you in action, then. When I’m in your class tomorrow.”

“You’re gonna watch me fight?” Childe’s eyes brightened.

I shook my head. “Xiao suggested I move up a level.”

“My, my.”

“Impressive, I know,” I shrugged. “Even more so than three laps around the island.”

“And I climbed the cliffs. Don’t forget that part.”

“Mhm,” I patted his shoulder dismissively. “I’ve got lunch now. Try not to get in any more trouble while Xiao’s in a good mood.”

“I’m telling you, Lumi, the man has no good moods.”

Maybe not, I shrugged. Or maybe no one takes the time to notice them.

Chapter Text

I hadn't realized the extent of my hunger until I finished off the last of my matsutake meat rolls with a satisfied sigh. Downing the rest of my water, I paused to let the food settle and looked over my class schedule once more. After lunch, there was Vision Studies, History, and then Horticulture. With my physically demanding classes done in the beginning of the day, my body gets a break while my academic skills are put to the test.

I was so focused on my meal, that I didn’t notice the others at the table. They were all deep in their own conversations, so I guess there’d be no need for me to interject myself. I’d sat with the non-Vision holders once again, but I should probably try branching out next time. Maybe Pyro? I’d already gotten to know Amber, Xiangling, and Bennett well enough that it would be comfortable to have a meal with them. I mulled over my options.

There was still a bit of time left before my next class, but I suppose it wouldn't hurt to get there early. Leaving my empty tray at the drop-off station, I exited the dining hall and entered a courtyard quartered off by a set of buildings. If I mapped things out correctly, Vision Studies class should be in the building adjacent to the library.

Pushing through the same wooden doors that nearly every building on campus seemed to have, I trailed down the empty hallway and passed several classrooms until reaching a metal plate engraved with the words “Vision Studies” mounted on the wall next to a door.

Turning the knob, it didn’t occur to me that another Vision Studies class may be in session until I found myself walking in on a group of upperclassmen. I froze like a squirrel cornered by a horde of hilichurls as thirty pairs of eyes turned to focus on me. The room was silent save for the woman at the front of the room.

She wore a large purple hat and had her back turned, writing something down on the board. The woman turned to face the disruption— me —with a coy smile. “Are you lost, sweetie?” She must be the professor.

“Ah—no,” a wave of heat crept up my neck. “Sorry!”

Without a second thought, I quickly backed out of the room and swung the door behind me.

“Oh my gods,” I muttered and lightly thumped my head against the wall. Pressing a hand to my chest, I commanded my erratic heartbeat to calm down.

In an attempt to pretend like that never happened, I decided to visit the library since it was so close and guaranteed to not have a classroom full of students mid-lecture. Luckily, there was no one else in these empty halls to notice my hasty retreat, and I was sliding behind the library’s doors in no time. 

There were a few people milling about, as opposed to the empty library I saw before. Most of them were students gathered around the study tables, conversing in hushed whispers and pointing to diagrams in large textbooks. School has been in session for not even a day and students are already studying. As expected of Teyvat’s finest academics.

My wandering gaze halted on an empty study table in the corner, the same one where I played chess with Diluc days ago. I smiled at the memory before a thought crossed my mind, who even is Diluc?

He’d mentioned that he knew information on all of the students at the academy, save for the new first-years. So, that must mean he’s at least a second-year. Based on his chess skills alone, I’m willing to bet he’s an upperclassman. Or a prodigy. Maybe both.

I could ask him the next time we play chess, of course. Then again, not knowing much about Diluc also meant I had no idea how to contact him for another game. Biting my lip, I considered my options before remembering his interaction with Kaeya. I looked over to the entrance where the encounter took place.

Those two seemed to know each other well enough. If I recall correctly, Kaeya had said something about family drama. Could they be brothers? They look nothing alike, though.

“Hm, they could be adopted,” I murmured my own thoughts aloud.

“Who?” A sly voice whispered next to me and I nearly fell over in surprise. 

Kaeya, jeez,” I put a hand to my chest. “When did you get here?”

“Not too long ago,” he mused. “I’m taking a break from class.”

“Has anyone ever told you it’s rude to sneak up on others?” I crossed my arms and rested against a bookshelf. “I didn’t know we were allowed to take breaks from class.”

“Well, that’s because we’re not,” he leaned back against the opposite shelf. “Has anyone ever told you to be aware of your surroundings?”

“So you’re skipping?”

“I’m on a mission.”

I raised an eyebrow, “For?”

Pushing himself off the shelf, Kaeya moved forward, and his face came up close to mine. The scent of salt and pine washed over me as he reached out his hand. His fingers lightly brushed my hair to the side, and my breath hitched. Or maybe I just stopped breathing. 

Kaeya’s eye caught mine, and for the first time, I noticed its uniqueness. Weren’t most pupils round? Icy blue and twinkling with mirth, the center seemed to be carved from the night sky itself. His gaze flicked down from mine a fraction, and I instinctively shifted my own, landing on his mouth—quirked to the side in a smirk.

“Are you checking me out?” His lips moved.

“Huh?” I breathed in barely a whisper before snapping back to reality. “What are you—why are you so close?” 

If anything, I’d say he was the one doing the checking out.

“That’s because I am,” he chuckled.

Did I say that out loud? “I—you—what?”

“I’ll be taking this now,” Kaeya shifted even closer, his shoulder brushing with mine, before backing away with a book in hand. “I was sent here on book-duty. Professor Minci let me go early so I could grab an extra copy for the next class. It needs to be checked out first, though.”

Oh. 

“Right,” I blinked. “That makes sense.”

“Hm?” His head tilted to the side. “Are you feeling unwell, Lumine? Though it’s an attractive shade of pink, you should maybe take care of that fever.”

I’m not —I’m fine,” I cleared my throat. “So, not skipping class then?”

“Not today,” he shrugged. “Is this where you’ll usually at be this time of day? I may have to start leaving early more often if it means checking out what the library has to offer.”

“I just came here because I finished lunch early,” I willed the blood in my body to not rush to my face. “And the classroom for my next class was still in session.”

“Not for much longer. I can assure you it’s now possible to go back to the Vision Studies room without the risk of interruption. The period is about to end.”

“Wait, how did you know that I…” my words trailed off as I took in the title of the book Kaeya held. Introduction to the Elements and Visions. “You were in that class I barged into,” I groaned and covered my eyes.

“You could have stayed,” he shrugged. “There was an empty seat next to me.”

“No thanks,” I shook my head. “What level is your class, anyway? What year are you?”

Now she wants to get to know me,” Kaeya flipped through the book. “After all this time we’ve spent together.”

“I can count the number of conversations we’ve had on one hand,” I rolled my eyes. “You’re so dramatic.”

“Ah,” he tutted. “Only one hand? I think we should change that. For your information, I am a third-year at Celestia, and so is Diluc.”

“Diluc?” I questioned. “Why are you bringing him up?”

“Well, I couldn’t help but think it odd that you two have gotten so close after only just arriving,” he shrugged. “What do a green first-year and a seasoned third-year have in common?”

“We were playing chess,” I informed him. “What are you trying to say? Diluc and I are just...acquantinced.” I wasn’t sure if friend was the right word to describe him. We had only met once, but I truly did enjoy the time we spent together.

Acquaintanced,” Kaeya chuckled. “Good, good. I’m glad to see it.”

“Really?” I didn’t believe him. “What happened to first-years and third-years being so different?”

“Diluc needs more friends,” he shrugged and his grin fell slightly. “Life is full of pitfalls and that man stubbornly trudges through them all without ever reaching out for a helping hand.” Before I can get a word in, asking about what exactly Kaeya is talking about and if it has anything to do with the family drama from earlier, he moves on. “The only difference between students’ years here at Celestia is the quality of skill. Typically, first-years are the weakest, the least experienced. Fourth-years are far more advanced in all areas of discipline.”

“Are you saying I’m weak?”

“I did say typically,” he reminded me. “There are exceptions for every rule. While you may not be the first exception, I have a feeling you’ll impress us all in the most...interesting of ways.”

“Okay, Mr. Cryptic,” I eyed him warily. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to class already?”

“Why don’t we head there together?” Kaeya suggested. “I can show you a shortcut.”

“The classroom is in the building right next to this one,” I crossed my arms. “It doesn’t get much shorter than that.”

“I may have left out some details during the orientation tour,” he admitted. “Including the ones about Celestia’s secret passageways.”

Chapter Text

I followed Kaeya to the back end of the library, where the lit sconces barely reached some of the dustier shelves. He stopped suddenly, standing in the corner where two large bookshelves met. Placing his hands on his hips, he turned to the side to look at me, “Here we are. Hold this book for a moment, will you?”

“The secret passageway?” I took the Vision Studies textbook from Kaeya. “These are just shelves.”

“True,” he nodded before turning forward and grasping the wooden frame. “But if you give it a little push.”

With a slight grunt, he shoved forward and the shelf moved into the wall. My eyebrows lifted a fraction as I watched the slow process that revealed a small, dark room. Kaeya took a step back from the shelf and made a gesture as if to say ta-da.

Hesitantly, I took a step inside and gave my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the low lighting. In one corner, an abandoned desk sat with aged paper scattered about, and a simple wooden chair was knocked off-kilter. Besides that and a few cobwebs, a door stood at the other end of the room, illuminated by a single flickering sconce. 

“I wouldn’t call this a passageway,” I spared him an unimpressed look.

“Sure is a secret, though,” he straightened out the chair and moved the bookshelf back in place. “You wouldn’t have thought a place like this would be here, am I right?”

“Well, I wasn’t planning on going around, shoving bookshelves into walls,” I rolled my eyes. “Let me guess, that door leads to the lecture building?”

“Naturally,” he stepped up and jiggled the doorknob. After a few tries, it swung open with a slight creak and crumbles of dust. “After you.”

“How’d you come across that place, anyway?” I ducked under the low frame and found myself in the lecture building, just as promised.

“I happened to come into possession of old blueprints of the school’s original layout,” he shrugged and closed the door behind him. Except, instead of a door, the other side was wall paneling identical to the rest of the hallway. “Celestia is thousands of years old, so of course renovations have gone underway.”

“Okay, but why a tiny room?”

“It could have been a study room,” he supplied.

“I feel like it shouldn’t be easy for a student to just find old blueprints,” I frowned and began to walk down the hall to class. “Shouldn’t that be classified?”

Kaeya shrugged. “I never said it was easy.”

“We could have taken the outside route,” I continued. “What made you decide to show me this secret?”

“If I’m to have a treasure hunting partner, I’ll need her to know the lay of the land.”

“That again?” I side-eyed him. “I thought you were joking earlier.”

“I don’t joke about treasure,” Kaeya leveled his gaze. “Especially mine.”

I frowned, “You haven’t even found it—if it even exists. How could it be yours?”

“Oh, it will be,” he smirked.

“Why me?” I stopped. “Say I do believe you about this whole treasure mystery. Why would you want a—how did you put it— green first-year as your partner in all this? You don’t even know me all that much.”

Just then, a growing clamor of conversation rose as lecture doors swung open and students began to spill into the hall. 

“Oh, would you look at that?” Kaeya plucked the Vision Studies textbook out of my hands and picked up his pace. “Class just ended.”

“Kaeya,” I said in a warning tone. “Answer my question.”

“You speak as though I’ve done something wrong,” he held a hand to his chest. “Must we quarrel in front of our peers?”

I look over to the bustling students, busy getting to their next class. I sighed, “Whatever, it probably doesn’t even exist.”

He hummed in response, saying nothing.

“I still want to know why you’re paying so much interest in me,” I stopped outside the Vision Studies lecture room and stared him down. “It’s highly suspicious.”

“Call it a certain feeling,” he smiled slowly, returning my stare. “Intuition.”

“We’ll see about that,” I narrowed my eyes and stepped closer to him so that no one could overhear. “Don’t think that just because I’m a first-year, I’ll let you trick me into something.”

“Noted,” Kaeya nodded lifted the book in his hands. “Will you hand this to Professor Minci for me? My next class is quite far and I must get going.”

“Sure,” I grabbed it from him and quickly pulled away after our hands grazed. His fingertips were like ice. “Are you sure fingerless gloves are the best option for warmth?”

“It’s all about style, Lumine,” he walked away, disappearing into the crowd. “Have fun in class.”

Entering the lecture hall, I continued to wonder what Kaeya could be up to. I remember Childe mentioning to not trust anyone with an eyepatch, and it’s clear now that he was talking about Kaeya. Knowing that Childe was held back a year, it makes sense that those two would have had time getting to know each other. Maybe I’ll ask Childe about Kaeya’s antics.

“Hello, sweetie,” Professor Minci called out, pulling me from my thoughts. “Have you brought a gift for me?”

“Oh right,” I stepped to the front of the class and handed her the textbook. “This is from Kaeya. He said you sent him to grab it from the library.”

“That was quite a while ago,” she mused. “He must have gotten distracted. Though, I can see why.” Professor Minci’s eyes darted across my face before traveling down my body and coming back up again. “What a particular face.”

“Sorry?” I lifted a hand to my cheek. “Is there something on my face?”

“Oh no,” she dismissed the notion with a giggle. “That’s not what I meant. Please, take a seat. Our class will begin soon.”

“Yes, Professor,” I quickly moved away from the woman’s lingering look. 

Stepping up the shallow stairs, I debated where I should sit for my very first academic class. My eyes skipped to the very back rows before deciding against that. It would be hard to focus, and I needed to pay as much attention as possible. 

“Move it, Blondie,” a voice snapped and I turned to find none other than the Twin Mages frowning at me. “You’re in the way.”

“You’d better not be thinking of sitting back there,” the white-haired one—Cicin—glowered. “That’s our spot. We claimed it last year.”

“What are you even doing in this class?” Cici’s violet eyes narrowed. “You don’t have a Vision.”

“That’s none of your business,” I brushed past them and went for one of the front rows. “Don’t bother me and we won’t have an issue.”

“What did she just say?” One of them hissed behind me, but I ignored them and continued on.

Finally sitting down and trying to ignore the daggers being glared into the back of my skull, I set my bag down and pulled out a notebook. What were Cici and Cicin doing in a beginner’s Vision Studies class? Since they were second-years, I would have assumed that they’d be in a different level. Hold on, now that I think about it, they didn’t have Visions either. Hypocrites.

“Hey, Lumine!” A student slid into the seat on my right, and I smiled to greet Xiangling’s familiar face. “Mind if I sit here?”

“Me too!” Amber plopped down on my left.

Bennett also showed up, sporting a bandage on his leg that hadn’t been there during Physical Combat.  “Is there room for one more?”

“Sure, the whole row’s empty,” I gestured to the seats.

“So,” Xiangling leaned in. “What did Instructor Xiao say to you?”

“Oh, right! Your Physical Combat class,” Amber nudged my arm. “Feeling sore yet?”

“Actually, it was—”

“Welcome to your first day of Vision Studies,” Professor Minci’s voice cut through the lecture hall. She stood from her desk and moved to the podium at the center of the floor. “We have plenty of material to get through today, so please do not waste my energy with side conversations.”

Tell me about it later,” Amber whispered with a wink.

“My name is Lisa Minci, and I will be your professor for this course. Vision Studies will be split into two sections: the first will focus on learning, and the second will focus on practice. Using your Vision is like using a muscle—your power will only grow as you actively use it with proper knowledge,” she moved away from the podium and began to leisurely pace across the floor. “While this is the first day of Vision Studies, not everyone here is a novice to the course. This year, we have decided to combine classes of first-years and second-years. The board has decided that first-years would benefit from having a peer guide, and this is a wonderful opportunity for second-years to gain mentorship skills.”

So that’s why the Twin Mages were here. I scoffed lightly at the thought of either of them being good human beings, let alone mentors.

“As indicated in the syllabus, second-years will have supplementary readings and advanced assessments to match with their prior knowledge. Now,” she stopped at the podium and lifted a sheet of paper. “On here I have a list of randomized pairings that will remain for the rest of the semester. Please find your partner and take a seat together.”

“This sounds exciting,” Xiangling beamed.

“I hope I get another Pyro,” Bennett looked around. “They might be able to help me control my flames.”

Similar murmurs and whispers broke out across the room. 

“I know who I wouldn’t want to be partnered with,” I sighed and looked to the back of the room. “That would be unfortunate.”

“Everyone, keep the inside volume down,” Professor Minci sighed. “Now, please raise your hand when your name is called. The first pair is Amber and Rosaria.”

Amber’s hand shot into the air with surprising speed, and I glanced around the room, curious to see who Rosaria might be. At first, I couldn’t pick out any other hands from the students, but then I noticed the slow, almost reluctant hand of a dead-tired student sitting by herself.

“I see her!” Amber whisper-yelled and began collecting her things. “Wish me luck!”

Professor Minci went on, “Bennett and Chongyun.”

“Oh boy,” Bennett stood straight up as his name was called and swiveled around. “I see him. Coming!”

I watched as he clambered over to the reserved student, his frosty eyes took in Bennett warily. 

“Xiangling and Xingqiu.”

“See ya!” Xiangling left after spotting her partner, sitting by Chongyun and Bennett.

“Ellin and Cici.”

I blinked in surprise, not realizing Ellin was in this class as well. It was comforting to know that another person without a Vision was eager to still learn about the elements, but now I was worried for her. I spotted Ellin from across the room, her eyes widened enough that I could clearly see the whites of them. From the back, Cici’s sputtering was audible.

“You can’t put me with her!” The mage stood up. “She’s Visionless!”

“All pairings are final,” Professor Minci shook her head. “You must find a way to work together.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” Cici sat back down and glared at Ellin. “Well, are you just going to sit there with that stupid look on your face? Get back here already, Ella.”

“My name is Ellin,” she shuffled up the steps.

“It might be a good time for me to mention that a peer evaluation will be administered at the end of the semester,” Professor Minci stated. “This will be based on performance and contribution to work. Your grade in this course is contingent upon this evaluation.”

There were no more outbursts to the partner assignments after that, not that I’d expect anyone else to be as disrespectful as Cici and Cicin. 

“And for our final pairing,” Professor Minci looked at me and I straightened my spine. “Lumine and Thoma.”

Chapter Text

I raised my hand and turned my head to survey the rest of the class. There was only one other student without a partner, so it should have been obvious as to who my partner would be. Even so, one student sitting in center row held his hand up and did a little wave when our eyes met. I moved to gather my things and relocate to his seat as the rest of the first-years did. Before I could stand, he was already walking down the aisle towards me.

“You can stay where you are,” he smiled. “I am fully capable of moving down a few rows myself. Besides, as your new mentor, I wouldn’t want you to go through the hassle.”

“Thanks,” I smiled back at him and settled in once more. “It’s nice to meet you, Thoma.”

“You too, Lumine. I look forward to working with you.”

Looking at him up close, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a certain someone. Sure, Thoma’s hair was a bit more blond and his eyes were a pretty olive rather than ocean blue, but the resemblance was still there. Could he be related to Childe in some way?

“This might be odd,” Thoma looked at me carefully. “But have we met before? You look familiar.”

“I was just about to ask if you had a brother,” I responded in earnest. “I’m pretty sure this is the first time you and I have met, though.”

“A brother?” He pulled back and looked up thoughtfully. “Last I checked, I was an only child.”

“Are you sure?”

Thoma laughed, “Positive. Why? Do you have somebody in mind?”

“His name is Childe,” I nodded. “He’s tall, about your height. Ginger hair, blue eyes, Hydro Vision, super arrogant.”

Thoma’s face lit up with recognition, but there was another reaction there that I couldn’t quite place. “Oh, you mean Tartaglia.”

“Right,” I forgot that’s how most students referred to him.

“I can’t say I don’t know him,” Thoma furrowed his brows. “He has quite the notorious reputation among the student body, and not for good reason. Do I really remind you of him?”

“Not in that way,” I shook my head and held up my hands. “Just the appearance.”

“That’s good,” he sighed. “Being associated with Tartaglia doesn’t usually end up well for anyone. He’s an incredible force, and I admire his drive to constantly achieve and grow stronger. Sometimes his power can be quite frightening,” Thoma scratched his head. “I’m afraid someone might get seriously hurt because of him one of these days.”

I didn’t say anything as I let Thoma’s words sink in. From what I’ve heard from students so far, Childe really does seem like a force to be reckoned with. Though, he’s been nothing but welcoming to me—albeit a bit too eager for battle. Now that I start to think about it, Kaeya might not be the only one with secrets. There’s got to be some reason why Childe is so convinced I’m worthy enough to go up against him in battle.

“Okay, class,” Professor Minci called our attention and I temporarily let go of my thoughts. “Now that you and your partner have gotten to know each other for a bit, let’s jump straight into today’s lesson: an overview of the seven elements.”

She picked up a piece of chalk and began to draw a set of seven symbols in a circle. I recognized them to represent the elements in question.

“First, we have Pyro,” she pointed to the Pyro symbol. “Can all the Pyro users in the room please raise their hand?”

Several students lifted their hands, including Thoma.

“I see there are quite a few of you,” Professor Minci nodded. “Thoma, please tell us about Pyro.”

“Pyro is the element attributed to fire,” he began immediately. “When interacting with other elements, Pyro can trigger a different set of elemental reactions. Vaporize occurs with Hydro, overload occurs with Electro, burning occurs with Dendro, and melt occurs with Cryo. Pyro can also be swirled with Anemo and crystallized with Geo.”

“Well done, Thoma,” Professor Minci nodded towards him appreciatively. “We are just covering the basics today, so you all do not need to know the specifics of each reaction. Next, will all of our Hydro students please raise their hand?”

Time continued with Professor Minci announcing an element and calling on a student with that element's Vision. I noticed that there were more Pyro and Cryo users than any of the other elements, but nobody else had gone in nearly as much depth as Thoma had. I copied down the circular format of the elements on the board and listed the element attributes as quickly as I could.

“Now that we have covered each element, we can move onto reactions,” she used the chalk to draw lines connecting Pyro to the other elements. “As mentioned earlier, Pyro is necessary for these following reactions.”

She attached the names of the elemental reactions along each corresponding line, and I did my best to create a similar diagram in my notebook. There were a lot of reactions, though, and this was just the first element. I tried erasing and redrawing some of the elements to be further apart to make more room, but eventually settled on a semi-squished image. Staring at my messy drawing, I shrugged in defeat. As long as I could tell what I wrote down, this should be fine.

“With Hydro, we have the following reactions,” Professor Minci grabbed another piece of chalk of a different color and made more lines. “Frozen with Cryo, electro-charge with Electro, swirl with Anemo, crystallize with Geo, and the aforementioned vaporize with Pyro.”

More notes. Less space. I tried not to panic as the professor moved on to the next element. Luckily, Anemo was a breeze as there was only one reaction for four of the other elements. I thought of creating a sidenote that Geo and Dendro do not apply, but the real estate of my page said no.

The following reactions for Electro, Dendro, Cryo, and Geo passed by all too quickly. I flexed my right hand to prevent it from cramping up after furiously taking notes the entire time. Staring down at the finished page, it hardly compared to the carefully structured diagram on the board.

“I trust you’ve all been taking diligent notes on this subject,” she surveyed the class. “You can pick up the textbook for this course on your way out. I have them here by the door,” she walked over to the stack of books. “The information in the book is the same, but not presented as-is in lecture. You will have a quiz on elemental reactions at the end of the week, so study well.”

“How are you holding up?” Thoma leaned over and glanced at my notes.

“Don’t look!” I shielded my poor scribbles. “It’s a work in progress.”

“This class is fast-paced. It can be hard to keep up,” he chuckled lightly before turning to dig in his bag. “Luckily for you, I brought my old notes from last year. Take them. They should be useful for the quiz.”

He pulled out a well-worn notebook and opened to the very first page, revealing an elemental reaction diagram evenly spaced out with clean lines and color coding. It was even more impeccable than the one Professor Minci had produced.

“Your notes are gorgeous,” I gasped. “Are you sure you won't need these?”

He shrugged, “It’s hard to forget about elemental reactions once you learn to use them in your favor. Taking notes is only half the battle. Practicing with your Vision is key, just as Minci was talking about earlier.”

For the first time, an uneasy feeling settled in my gut at the mention of not having a Vision. Normally, I wouldn’t have labeled my lack of Vision to be a setback, but it’s different now that I’d be working with Thoma and his grade might be affected.

“About that,” I cleared my throat. “You’ve probably realized, but I don’t have a Vision to harness any elemental power. This is probably a huge inconvenience for you, especially since we'll be working together for the rest of the semester. I understand if you feel like it’s too much of a struggle, and we can absolutely try to work something out with—”

“Lumine, it’s okay,” Thoma interrupted and slid his notebook towards me. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a Vision. I’m sorry, it was insensitive of me to talk about something like that. We’ll be fine working together. I promise.”

I took a calming breath, “Really?”

“You’re not the first student to go through this class without a Vision,” he mentioned. “We can double-down on studying the elemental reactions together outside of class, if necessary.”

“Are you sure? You’re being a huge help already with lending me your old notes,” I continued. “I can take these, study on my own, and give them back right after the quiz. I don’t want to burden you with any more work than I will be.”

“You’re not going to be a burden,” Thoma placed a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “I’m your mentor. It’s part of my role to help out, but it’s also something that I want to do for you. Since we’ll be spending so much time together, I’m your new buddy—as long as that’s okay with you, of course!”

“I would like that,” I said after a moment. “You’re the best, Thoma. I got really lucky with this whole partner thing, huh?”

“Don’t sell yourself short,” he poked at my notebook. “If you continue this class with just half of the dedication you put into today’s lecture, I’m sure you’ll surprise both of us with how much you can accomplish.”

I picked up Thoma’s old notes with great care, “I’ll keep this safe. I'll guard it with my life, even.”

“That’s the spirit,” he grinned and shuffled his things together. “We should leave before the next class shows up. Come on, I’ll grab you a textbook.”

“I’ll grab you a textbook,” I slipped past him and took two copies from the pile. “Can’t have you doing everything in this pairing. It’ll make my evaluation look bad.”

“Sure, sure,” he grinned and accepted the book. “Where’s your next class? I have lunch now, so I’m free to walk you over.”

“History,” I responded. “It’s in this building—just a few floors up.”

“With Professor Morax?”

“I think so,” I tried to recall the details of my schedule.

“He’s a real delight,” Thoma held the door open for me before exiting the lecture room. “Morax has the most interesting stories to tell. It’s as if he’s lived a long life, but he doesn’t have a single grey hair.”

“Is it paced anything like Vision Studies is?” I asked with a bit of worry.

“Not at all,” he shook his head. “The class material is slow and gets a bit dry sometimes, but such is necessary to cover important details.”

“Hopefully, I don’t fall asleep.”

“Listening to Professor Morax speak never gets dull,” Thoma added. “You’ll see.”

Chapter Text

Thoma wasn’t kidding when he said listening to Professor Morax wouldn’t get old. Everyone in the class, including myself, was entranced by the way his low voice carried across the lecture hall.

“And that concludes the syllabus portion of today’s class,” he finished up with the introduction and surveyed the room. “Are there any questions?”

A few moments passed with no hands being raised.

Professor Morax cleared his throat before proceeding, “Well then, please open up your textbooks to chapter one. It’s time for an overview of Teyvat’s history, starting with Mondstadt. The City of Mond, also known as the City of Freedom, was once ruled under a great tyrant. Actually, I know of a tale that a friend of mine once relayed through a song.”

The rest of the lecture continued with Professor Morax reciting legends and myths that have originated from Mondstadt. A quick glance at my textbook revealed that we were supposed to be going over the tyrant’s bloodlines and the dynamics of nobility factions. 

“Speaking of Dvalin, there also existed a dragon that terrorized Mondstadt,” he went off on another tangent. “That dragon’s name was Durin. If one of you souls happens to cross through Dragonspine, you might come across Durin’s remains and—ah, it would appear we have run out of time for today.”

Professor Morax regarded the clock that hung on the wall, “Actually, I may have gone a bit over time. My apologies. Please keep in mind there will be a brief assessment at the end of the week to measure your knowledge on the topics we’ve discussed. You are dismissed.”

Students rustled their belongings and ushered to the door. Carefully stowing away my notes—which consisted of an unfinished sketch of the Wolf of the North that Professor Morax had gone into detail of—I pulled out my schedule for the last time today. 

Horticulture with Professor Baizhu. All the way across campus.

I thanked Professor Morax for the lecture on my way out and quickly descended the staircase. The crowd of students going to their next class was beginning to thin out by the time I made it outside. Luckily, I had the stamina to spare after sitting through two classes with no physical activity.

I spotted the apothecary’s shiny dome and the greenhouse that hid behind it. According to my schedule notes, the Horticulture building was not far off.

“Lumine, over here!” someone shouted from behind and I turned to find Xiangling running up to greet me. “Do you have Horticulture now by any chance?”

“Yup,” I nodded and kept up my pace. “Though, I may be running a bit late. You too?”

“Mhm, I sort of got lost on the way here,” she admitted. “C’mon! There’s still some time left. I’m sure Professor Baizhu wouldn’t mind. It’s the first day, after all.”

Together, we entered the building and found the classroom. It was set up with tables instead of lecture seats, each sitting two students, and nearly all of them were filled.

“A couple of latecomers we have,” a man—I assume the professor—at the front of the class mused. “No worries, it is the first day. Find an empty seat, we were just beginning.”

“See? I told you,” Xiangling whispered to me and we found a table with two seats open. “He seems like a very nice and practical guy.”

“Announcement for everyone,” Professor Baizhu clapped his hands together. “After today, I will not tolerate any tardiness in my class. Horticulture may seem like nothing but silly plants to some, but the work we do here is important. What you learn here may one day be advantageous in a dire situation. If you are late to class, I will deduct one letter off of your final grade. No exceptions.”

Xiangling gulped beside me.

“Now, where were we?” Professor Baizhu hummed.

“You were about to pass out today’s observation materials,” a sly voice responded.

It was then that I noticed that the thin, white scarf draped around his shoulders was no scarf at all. It was a snake. A snake that could talk. A talking snake.

“Ah, right,” he nodded and gathered some materials from inside his desk and began to disperse them to the class. “Each table will receive a book, magnifying glass, and a bundle of blooming flora that can be found in Teyvat. After you are done inspecting your item, please pass it on to the next group in a clockwise formation. Be gentle with your specimens.”

Professor Baizhu placed two items on our table, one horticulture guide and a box labeled Small Lamp Grass. Xiangling was the first to reach inside, pulling out the buds and a magnifying glass. “Oh! I know what these are. I use these Small Lamp Grass all the time in my cooking. They’re really good for enhancing other flavors.”

She held up the stems of the plant for me to see.

“It looks like it’s glowing a little,” I took the magnifying glass and examined its veins.

“They do! At night,” Xiangling nodded.

“Make sure you are taking notes of each plant,” Professor Baizhu added. “There will be a quiz at the end of this week.”

“I can do the notes for this one,” Xiangling nodded. “You can keep looking.”

After the Small Lamp Grass came Calla Lilies, which Xiangling was also familiar with.

“You can find these near water,” she recited and I copied her words onto paper. “I’ve gotten a fair share of socks wet collecting them. Their petals get rather chunky after cooking, but the sweet and bitter flavor is so unique!”

Next came Snapdragon.

“They make for an excellent spice.”

And then Sweet Flower.

“I extract the sugars for my desserts!”

Some Mint.

“These are everywhere,” I commented. “I can name more places with Mint than places without.”

Eventually, there came plants that neither Xiangling nor I were familiar with, so we consulted the horticulture guide. One flower, in particular, had bright crimson petals curling outward with leaves that matched in coloring.

“Hm,” I flipped through the guide. “I think this one might be Dendrobrium.”

“Looks like it,” Xiangling nodded. “The description says it blooms the most where blood has been spilled. How creepy is that?”

“It’s pretty, though,” I admired the petals. “Do you think it’s this red because of the blood?”

“I wonder what flavor it could add to a dish,” she sniffed it.

“Please refrain from eating the specimens,” Professor Baizhu looked right at my partner. “We have a limited supply.”

“I wasn’t going to eat it,” her face bloomed pink.

“Are you sure?” I teased. “It sure looked like you were just about to.”

“Well,” she huffed. “Not in class. Maybe another time when I pick my own sample.”

I chuckled before letting it go, and we finished observing the rest of the plants. Horticulture went by quite fast, and we filled our notes with the important details as things wrapped up.

“I can’t believe we have an upcoming quiz for this class,” I sighed. “I’ve got two other quizzes at the end of the week too. Vision Studies and History.”

“Not good at studying?”

“I prefer studying the blade,” I looked out the window and thought of Physical Combat. “Oh right, I won’t be seeing you in Physical Combat tomorrow. Professor Xiao moved me up a level.”

“Really? I can’t say I’m surprised,” Xiangling shrugged. “You were fighting like a pro.”

“My quite literal strong suit.”

“Class is dismissed. Return your items to my desk. ” Professor Baizhu announced curtly. “And remember, no more tardies.”

We both nodded sharply at the comment directed towards us and swiftly left the room with the rest of the students.

“Did you hear the talking snake?” Xiangling's eyes widened as soon as we were outside. “How crazy is that?”

“Okay, so I’m not the only one who was surprised by that,” I replied. “Do you think it was born that way? Or maybe it was taught?”

“Who cares about that,” her eyes gleamed. “I wonder if a talking snake tastes better than the regular ones.”

I gasped, “You can’t seriously be thinking about eating the professor’s pet.”

“Nah, nope,” she shook her head unconvincingly. “No way. I definitely won’t be getting to class extra early from now on to swipe some scales.”

“Alright, go to the dining halls and eat something before you do something crazy.”

“Do you want to join?” She wiggled her eyebrows. “I hear they have Jueyen Chili Chicken on the menu!”

“Maybe some other time,” I dismissed her. “I need to rest a bit. It’s been a long day.”

“Sure thing, see ya later then,” she waved goodbye and we went our separate ways.

✧✧✧

I had initially planned on heading directly to the dorms so I could lie in bed for a while. There was already an ache beginning to settle in my body. But as I crossed through the main courtyard of Celestia and passed by the administrative building, I remembered there was one person who I hadn’t gotten a chance to have a talk with yet.

Katheryne.

It took a few wrong turns and winding hallways to get to the secretary’s office, but I eventually found it. The door was closed, so I softly knocked and waited for a moment.

“Come in,” a feminine voice came from behind the wood.

Turning the knob, I took in the room that was both tidy and cozy. A coffee table and upholstered chairs sat in the corner by a collection of bookshelves and office cabinets, and stacks of papers lined the desk in the middle of the room where Katheryne sat.

“Miss Lumine,” she smiled. “How wonderful for you to stop by. Have you enjoyed your first day at Celestia Academy?”

“My classes have been eventful,” I answered. “I’m really glad to see you again, Katheryne. It’s been such a long time.”

“You’ve grown to be a beautiful young woman,” she gestured to one of the chairs. “Please have a seat. There is much work to be done in the office with the year kicking off, but I can spare some time to chat with you.”

“When did you leave the orphanage?” I settled in and she took the seat next to me. “I thought you loved spending time with the kids.”

“It wasn’t long after you and your brother were adopted,” she said thoughtfully. “I’d been at the orphanage for a long time, and the Academy reached out in request for my skills. I’ve had some time managing an adventurer's guild, you know. Nevermind that. I felt it was time for a change. Why the solemn look on your face?”

“Huh?” I relaxed my slight frown. “Oh, sorry. I guess hearing someone mention Aether is a bit, well, I’m not sure how to put it.”

She lifted a hand to her chest, “Is it a heavy feeling, right here?”

“I…yeah I guess it is,” I admitted. “I miss him.”

“If it is any consolation, know that your brother is doing well.”

“What?” My heart skipped a beat. “Do you know where he is? Who adopted him?”

“My apologies, but I cannot say much else on the subject,” Katheryne shook her head. “I may no longer be employed by the orphanage, but I am still under contract to not divulge any details of adoptees. It is for security reasons.”

“I understand,” I sighed. “But you said he is doing well. In the present tense. Surely you can say something to that.”

“There have been recent,” she hesitated before finding a word. “Circumstances. Of which I also cannot speak of.”

“Why not?” I pressed on. “He’s my brother. I should have the right to know.”

“It is not in my place to say,” she shook her head once more. “It is up to higher powers.”

Higher powers? I frowned and stared hard at Katheryne. It was difficult to not be upset with her. Why would she tell me about Aether in the first place if she wasn’t allowed to say anything else? Why even bother?

Aether is doing well.

My heart warmed and I thought about what that meant. I thought about why Katheryne would even know about him presently at all. Could it be that he also attends Celestia Academy? Possibilities and scenarios began popping into my mind, and I found a new goal to achieve in addition to passing my classes.

“Thank you, Katheryne,” I smiled at her and stood. “Again, it’s been wonderful to see you.”

“I hope you find Celestia suitable, Miss Lumine,” she nodded. “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

“Hey Lumine, can I try a sip of your Berry & Mint Burst? They were all out by the time I got to the counter,” Bennett asked from across the table.

I wordlessly slid over the blue drink without breaking my gaze from my target across the dining hall. Kaeya sat with a group of other third-years that held a variety of Visions. After a week of memorizing the names and faces of everyone I could, I deduced they were a table of student council members. There was Kaeya, Jean, and also a few students that I hadn’t got the chance to officially meet.

Kaeya threw his head back in laughter at something Eula had said, but her cold glare suggested she didn’t take the matter so lightly.

“What are you staring at?” Next to me, Amber leaned in to follow the direction of my gaze. “Oh! Aren’t those the student council members? Do you want to join?”

“Not necessarily,” I shook my head.

Initially, after learning that there was a chance my brother attended the Academy, I did my best to keep an eye out for him. However, Aether was nowhere to be found. It was obvious enough that he couldn’t be a first-year like me, despite the fact we’re twins—it’d be no surprise that he could have had an advanced placement into a higher year. But even after stealing glances into lecture halls of upperclassmen, there was no sign of him.

“I can’t believe the first week of classes is already over,” I overheard Amber talking with the others. “It all went by so fast.”

And so, my next move was to close in on Kaeya, a member of the student council and surely someone who has access to all student records. Even if he doesn’t, I’m sure he could find a way. Problem is, I haven't been able to speak with him at all since the first day of class. Moving to Physical Combat II meant that meeting Kaeya in the library before Vision Studies wasn’t possible, but I’m beginning to have the sneaking suspicion that Kaeya Alberich was avoiding me.

The man in question cocked his head to the side, his eye catching mine before quickly darting away.

Yeah, there’s something going on with him.

I stabbed into my Tianshu Meat and forgot to savor the matsutake flavor as I considered what could be up. Was he trying to keep a distance after I called him out that one time? No, I feel like he wouldn't let a little confrontation change his antics.

“What about you, Lumine?” The question broke me from my zone of thought.

“Huh?”

Bennett cupped his hands around his mouth and spoke louder. “How have your classes been?”

“Geez, stop yelling!” Xiangling covered her ears. “We can hear you just fine.”

“Sorry,” Bennett scratched his head. “Lumine wasn’t responding, so I thought it was too loud in here.”

“That’s my bad,” I offered. “Lost in thought.”

“We were talking about our first week,” Bennett supplied. “Mine could have been better, but I’m used to it.”

“Oh, I’ve been doing alright,” I looked up thoughtfully, recalling the past week. “Beginner’s Gliding has been going smoothly—there haven’t been any incidents like in the first class. Venti started conjuring Anemo currents to increase our air time, it’s nice.”

I gave a brief overview of the rest of my classes. Moving up a level in Physical Combat was quite underwhelming as we focused on strength and conditioning in the fitness room. Much to Childe’s disappointment, we haven’t gotten the chance to spar yet, though we did race each other during warm-up laps at the start of each class.

Thoma was in Physical Combat II as well, but we didn’t spend as much time together as we did in Vision Studies. Childe immediately claimed the role as my spotting partner before we were even introduced to the fitness room. Though, Thoma walked with me to Vision Studies together right after, and we spent extra time in the library after classes to study for the quiz.

“I barely passed Minci’s quiz,” Amber sighed. “Who knew there would be so much to all of the elemental reactions?”

“I failed,” Bennett’s head thumped on the table. “I have to retake it next week.”

“Second time’s the charm!” Amber patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Or is it third?”

“I think it’s fourth,” Xiangling added.

“No,” Amber frowned. “I’m pretty sure it’s third.”

Movement from the other end of the dining hall caught my eye, and my attention was once again pulled away from the table. Kaeya had gotten up and was leaving the dining hall.

Quickly clearing my plate of food, I bid my Pyro friends goodbye.

“You’re not grabbing dessert?” Xiangling protested. “They have Sakura Mochi!”

Kaeya disappeared through the exit.

I shook my head, “I gotta go.”

The hallway was empty by the time I had finally made it out of the dining hall, and there was no sign of which way he could have gone next.

“Damn it,” I bit out. “Why is he so quick?”

I perused the perimeter of the dining hall building with no luck in picking up clues on his whereabouts. Considering all of my options for a moment, I set out in the direction of the student dorms. He’d have to go to sleep at some point, right?

Crossing campus swiftly, I thought of how I might bring up the student roster without seeming suspicious. Of course, I could always outright mention I had a dear twin brother long lost to me since we were children at an orphanage, but I didn’t fully trust Kaeya. Nor did I care to indulge anyone else at the Academy of my life story during week one. Besides, if the circumstances Katheryne spoke of were nearly as sensitive as she made it sound, I wouldn’t want other people poking in Aether’s business.

I’m his sister, so it’s fine.

My beeline towards the dorms slowed after I caught a flash of crimson close to the library.

Was that who I thought it was?

Approaching the library doors, I hesitated for only a moment before pushing them open and stepping in. The night was still young, and I’m sure I could catch Kaeya later on. I may not have any leads on my brother, but if I’ve ever had anything, it was plenty of time.

Normally, I’d be in the library at this hour with Thoma, pouring over notes together and trying to make sense of examples given in Minci’s class. Now, it was just me and a handful of other students catching up on work.

And then I spotted him.

Diluc Ragnvindr was setting up yet another solo game of chess at one of the study tables.

“Well if it isn’t Diluc,” I approached with a smile and sat in the seat across from him. “Long time no see.”

“Lumine,” he regarded me before gesturing to the chessboard. “I was just settling in for a game of chess. Would you like to join?”

“Of course,” I nodded and selected the white pieces for myself. We silently arranged the board together before I spoke again, “You haven’t been in the library for a while.”

He looked up at me, “Have you been keeping tabs on me?”

“Not at all,” I shook my head. “I just come by here a lot to study and notice who’s around. Y’know, we said we’d play another match in the future, but I don’t know where to find you.”

“I visit on occasion,” he waited for me to make the first move.

“Hm,” I selected a pawn. “It’d be nice if we could have regular matches.”

“It would,” he agreed and moved his own pawn. “Though, during the week is quite busy, which is part of the reason why I do not frequent the library nearly as much as I would like.”

“Weekends are fine,” I shrugged. “But if you really are so busy, I don’t want to add on to that.”

“Nonsense,” he waved off the notion. “Time to unwind is essential. A match of chess offers both the opportunity to engage the mind while also taking a break from...everything.”

Other students in the library milled about with hushed whispers and rustling papers. We continued on with the game, and I was hardly surprised to see Diluc’s strategy playing out in his favor—signaling the end of our first game.

“I was just warming up,” I sighed as his queen took my king.

“What do you think of Celestia? Have you met any interesting individuals?” He prompted.

“Everyone here is interesting,” I cleared the board and rearranged my pieces. “Hey, how about you be on the light side this time? Maybe the dark pieces are luckier.”

“You and I both know luck has nothing to do with who wins,” he chuckled softly. “But, if you insist.”

He flipped the board around and I continued, “I’m sure you know about Childe—er—Tartaglia. He’s one of the more interesting characters around here.”

“I know him,” Diluc grunted. “He’s not a good influence.”

“Believe me, I know,” I sighed. “Kaeya is up to no good either.”

“Kaeya?” Diluc’s gloved hand tensed, hovering over a white knight. “You can only trust half of what he says…at best.”

“I noticed the first time we met,” I decided to pry, just a little. “Not on good terms?”

“Far from it,” he grumbled as we exchanged turns. “I would suggest that you keep your distance from him if you know what’s good for you. But I trust you can make your own decisions on the matter.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

Diluc nodded in response.

“What happened with…” I was about to ask about their past but decided against it after observing the stormy expression that shadowed his eyes. Okay, maybe I’d be better off getting information from Kaeya, instead. “I mean, what are the upperclassmen classes like?”

“Tedious,” he began the next game. “Nothing you should worry about, just focus on getting to your second year. You’d be surprised to hear just how many drop out after their first year.”

“I’m already in Physical Combat II.”

“Really?” His scowl washed away. “How are you holding up with that?”

“It’s fine,” I shrugged. “Instructor Xiao is—”

“Don’t let him get to you,” Diluc interjected. “He’s harsh on everyone.”

“Nice,” I finished. “He’s a good instructor.”

“You think he’s—” he didn’t bother hiding his surprise. “Well, I suppose there is a first time for everything.”

I knocked out another loss and went into how my other classes have been. History with Professor Morax was proving to be the most troublesome. As much as I enjoyed listening to his stories, they were never about the material in the textbook covered in the quiz. I had to go over the book on my own time and take extra notes in class to be able to keep up with everything.

Baizhu paid me no attention now that I’ve made it a point to get to Horticulture early. Sure, it required me to deplete all stamina sprinting across the campus, but my grade was safe. Learning about plants was beginning to get monotonous, though.

“You move onto Alchemy in your second year,” Diluc mentioned. “Professor Kriedeprinz is extremely talented in that regard. Also, checkmate.”

“In my defense, I was distracted by telling you about my classes.”

“Ah, yes,” he leaned back into the chair and crossed his arms. “I would be doomed had it not been for your wandering mind.”

“I wouldn’t call it a wandering mind,” I huffed. “Listen, I’ll win against you one day.”

“Will you, now?”

“Next time,” I stifled a yawn. “Next week.”

“Make sure you’re getting proper rest,” he began to clear the board and I helped to put the materials away. “It’s gotten quite late.”

“Has it?” I looked around and noticed for the first time that we were the only ones left in the library. A few lamps had been left on at the other tables, but everyone else had retired for the night. “I guess I should sleep soon.”

“Alright,” he walked with me to the library exit. “See you next time. I’ll make sure you leave safely.”

“Next week, same time?”

He nodded in confirmation, pulling the door open for me to step through. Diluc and I walked the way to the student dorms in amicable silence. I regarded the moon that had already risen to the highest point in the sky, it really was late.

Too late for me to intercept Kaeya.

“You’re going to sleep too, right?” I turned to Diluc once we had gotten to the front lawn of the student dorms.

“There is still work to be done,” he shrugged. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”

“No, no,” I grinned. “I’m not worried. The more tired you are, the better I can envision my future win.”

“Then that would make it,” he hummed. “Lumine: One, Diluc: Thirty? If you’re lucky, that is.”

I crossed my arms, “It’s just as you said, luck has nothing to do with it. And you have not had thirty wins.”

“Yet.”

“I’m going to sleep,” I feigned frustration and walked towards my House floor—conveniently with its own separate entrance since it was on the ground level. “Prepare yourself to lose.”

Diluc wasn’t fazed at all, “Sleep well, Lumine.”

Chapter Text

Running off the tallest platform in the clearing, I leaped into the air and let my windglider catch in the Anemo current rising above. The wings at my back snapped open and my body was carried high enough to see the entirety of campus.

Gliding back towards the ground, I faced the first obstacle that Venti had brought in for this week’s lesson. A giant, floating boulder.

“Gliding in the wild won’t always be clear skies and fun times,” he had informed at the start of class. “When navigating difficult terrain, such as mountain ranges, you need to be able to make sharp, accurate turns.”

The open field was sectioned off into lanes with different obstacles to maneuver around. Most of them were rock pillars or floating boulders like the one in front of me, but some were obnoxious balls of dirt that exploded on contact. Venti called them “foggy-groggy kaboomballs.”

“The goal is to glide from the platforms to the edge of the forest,” Venti instructed. “Try your best to stay elevated with Anemo currents in the area. If at any point you feel unsafe, or that you’re nearing too close to the cliffside, do not hesitate to make a premature landing. Those of you who still haven’t perfected free-gliding, come with me!”

From my height, I could make out the few specks that consisted of Venti and a handful of other students working on hopping off the platforms.

I easily dodged the levitating rock in front of me, sinking lower before rising in another gust of Anemo. After swerving around a few more obstacles, the line of trees that marked the finish line came into view.

“Aw, I was just about to beat you!” Amber landed beside me just after I had touched down.

“We landed at basically the same time,” I insisted.

She placed her hands at her hips, “Another round!”

“Alright, alright,” I laughed and jogged beside her to the start. “Maybe I’ll let you have this one.”

“You’d better put in full effort, Lumine,” she warned. “Otherwise, I couldn’t call myself a true Gliding Champion!”

“Everyone at this school is so competitive,” I sighed and began to climb up the platform. “I love it.”

I waited for Amber to reach the top beside me, and we took off at the same time after sharing a mutual nod. Weaving in-between the floating rocks and exploding dirt balls was the easy part. I’d soon figured out that keeping an eye out for a consistent source of Anemo was key if I wanted to avoid landing before reaching the forest.

“No, no, no!” Amber whined beside me when she missed a gust of Anemo—it died down just before she was able to reach. “Aw, man!”

“Ha!” I craned my head to watch her descent to the ground. “Maybe next time you should— ack!

I’d collided with a foggy-groggy kaboomball and got a mouthful of dirt in my mouth. Swatting away the dust that clouded my eyes, I resisted the urge to cough up a lung and spat out the residue. Eyes stinging, I fought to keep my vision clear, else I collide with another dirtball.

“Ha!” Amber parroted my tease. “You should look where you’re going.”

At this point, we had both failed the task at hand and landed in the middle of the obstacle course. Looking up at the rocks and dirtballs above us and then to the finishing area, I fought off a smirk after formulating my next move.

“Race you there!” Amber was already taking off in a sprint and my jaw fell open.

“Hey,” I started after her, digging my heels into the ground. “That’s cheating!”

“Oh, don’t tell me you weren’t about to do the same thing,” she hollered and I laughed.

She slapped a hand on the bark of the closest tree one second before I could tug her backward and claim victory. “Heh heh,” she panted in weak laughter. “I’m always one step ahead.”

“We’ll—” I leaned against the tree to catch my breath. “We’ll see about that. I call for a rematch.”

“You’re on,” she agreed. “You think there’s still time left in class?”

Glancing back to where Venti’s group was, I watched as Huffman tripped over his feet on his way off the platform. Venti immediately conjured enough Anemo to break his fall, almost tiredly so, as if he was more disappointed than surprised. Huffman, looking worn and forlorn, began to climb back up again.

“Oh yeah,” I nodded. “Plenty of time.”

The class passed quickly as we competed again and again. My back tickled as beads of sweat began to trickle down, and I noticed Amber’s red face as a sign of her own weariness. Without a spoken word, we both decided a break was in order and we silently collapsed onto the lush grass covering the clearing.

I stared above at the blue sky, watching the silhouette of other students gliding by as my heart rate returned to normal. Glancing to the side, I watched Venti struggle with another student that couldn’t keep her left-wing open. I felt bad for him, handling so many students by himself. Maybe I could help out?

Propping myself up on my elbows, I considered my own level of ability. Gliding felt natural to me, even after just one week of practice. Then again, I was just a student—a first-year at that. I had no place teaching others who were in the same level as me. But maybe if there were two of us offering to help out…

I looked down at Amber, but the suggestion died down as I watched her sigh deep into slumber.

“Did you seriously fall asleep outside?” I prodded her arm. “The sun is shining.”

No reaction.

“Hm, what a shame it would be if I got some extra practice,” I goaded on. “I’d be leagues ahead of you by tomorrow.”

Amber snored softly.

I smiled at her peacefulness before pushing off the ground and brushing bits of grass off myself. I’d practice for the sake of my own progress. I doubt an extra glide or two would separate our abilities.

Climbing up the platform ladder once more, I was beginning to feel a strain in my arms and winced at the thought of what that meant for my later class. I should focus on more legwork in Physical Combat, then.

After a quick stretch, I inhaled deeply and sped off the platform with an exhale. The wind tousled my hair and I felt my body grow lighter as Anemo swirled around the windglider. Gliding with Amber was fun, but being alone up in the air was another experience.

I twirled around a boulder and ducked under a foggy-groggy, almost sensing the Anemo before it even arrived and letting it carry me further along the course. A simple routine settled into my bones as the whistling winds blew past my ears. The breeze kissed my cheek, a cool reprieve from the sun in a cloudless sky.

A shadow crossed from above.

Okay, maybe one cloud in the sky.

I spared an upward glance, keeping in mind to avoid another foggy-groggy collision, but there was nothing there. Huh, weird.

A buzzing noize zipped by my ear, not at all like the melodic wind.

“What the—” I reared backward at the sound, gliding into Anemo carrying me high enough to catch sight of anything out of the ordinary.

Scanning the clearing, there was nothing suspicious that stood out.

And then, a shivering cold bloomed at my back.

I groaned, “Not again.”

Spinning around to catch the source of my dilemma, there was only empty space. Well, save for the blurred movements of a tiny, blue…was that a bug?

Before I could get a clear image of the thing, it zipped behind me with surprising speed. Anticipating another cold attack, I threw my right arm out behind me and blocked the icicle aimed at my windglider on instinct.

“Agh!” I faltered, clutching my arm.

The school equipment was spared from further damage, but my wrist was stinging with pain. What the hell was that thing?

Fighting in the air wasn’t going to happen, so I carefully descended in a downward spiral. It would be faster to simply deactivate the windglider mechanism and freefall until the last moment, but Venti had insisted we not attempt that until after we successfully glide down the cliffside.

Unfortunately, my spiraling was too slow for the evil little creature.

Two more icicles shot at my wings. I dodged both—barely—and nearly knocked into a pile of rocks. I did my best to keep the pest in sight, but I wasn’t counting on three more flying out of nowhere.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered and angled my windglider to go faster, but it was no use.

A shower of ice was descending upon me, and this time I wasn’t so lucky with all of my dodges. One shard struck me square in the back and I felt the familiar sensation of the wings refusing to move properly.

This was bad. I still had a long way down, and the next Anemo current was a good distance away. Torn between making a safe landing and not returning to the ground as a living popsicle, my luck worsened as a wretched brown ball floated in my path.

I had to deal with these bugs. It was hard to keep track of how many were flitting around me now. All I knew is that me. The floating dirtball was fast approaching, and a sudden idea popped into my head. Only gods knew if it would work.

“Alright,” I grit my teeth. “This seems rather unfair. I think it’s time I introduce you lot to my little friend. Fiends, meet Foggy-Groggy.”

Drooping down my windglider for a moment, I allowed myself to fall underneath the foggy-groggy and swung my leg with a hard kick at the dirtball. The satisfying smack of my foot on the orb launched it into the sky, exploding all around the little buggers.

“Aha!” I let out a whoop.

And then, my stomach dropped—along with the rest of my body.

My short-lived victory came to an end with the realization that my windglider, frozen solid in some places, refused to reactivate. I tried to scream, but the sound got caught in my throat as wind tumbled all around, and the ground came up to greet me. I held my hands out in a poor attempt to break the fall.

Something flashed before my eyes and the world slowed. Was that my life?

No, it was bright wisps of the wind. Anemo. Venti.

My composure relaxed with the knowledge that I could live to see another day, but the Anemo that had swirled up to catch me suddenly stuttered and faded away.

What?

The ground sped up once again and I landed. Hard.

My left foot hit the ground first and slipped on the grass, twisting at an angle. A sharp twinge of pain shot up my leg and I immediately curled inward to cradle the injury.

“Lumine!” A voice called from afar and similar shouts followed.

A flurry of footsteps rushed up to where I had pulled myself into a sitting position, and nearly half the class had ceased their gliding activities to see what was going on. Venti broke through the crowd, his face contorted with concern.

“What happened here?” He knelt down to examine the injury. “Did you fall?”

“I…the shooting icicles,” Wheezing through the pain, I tried to form a coherent sentence. “I kicked the foggy-groggy at them. And then—ngh—Anemo. Your Anemo. It stopped and…”

“You kicked a foggy-groggy?” Amber barreled through.

“Amber, please give us some space,” Venti held her back. “Everyone turn in your windgliders. Class is done for today!”

The pain in my ankle was beginning to dull, and I rolled it once with only minimal discomfort. “It’s okay. I think I only twisted my ankle a little.”

“You’re lucky if that’s the case,” Venti helped me stand. “A fall from that height…it’s a miracle you hadn’t broken a leg. Or some ribs. Or both legs and all of your ribs.”

I winced at the image he brought up.

“Are you sure you’re alright?”

“Yeah,” I gingerly leaned half of my weight on my left side, testing the movement. “I…I think I can manage.”

“To be safe, I want you to visit the school infirmary,” his bright eyes flicked from my ankle to my face. “You can tell me about what happened after we make sure you aren’t seriously hurt.”

“Okay,” I nodded and carefully detached my windglider. “Although, I think you might want to take a look at this before the next class goes in the air.”

“I can walk you to the infirmary!” Amber swooped under my shoulder. “Here, let me take your bag.”

“I can hold my own bag,” I insisted. “Don’t you have a class to get to?”

“Well, yeah, but it’s just Horticulture,” she shrugged. “I’m sure it’ll be fine if I’m just a little late.”

“Absolutely not,” I shook my head.

“What?” she frowned.

“Horticulture with Professor Baizhu?”

“Um, yeah?”

“Go to class, Amber,” I stole my bag from her. “He’s absolutely going to tank your grade if you don’t show up on time.”

“Oh come on,” she sighed. “I’m sure he’ll understand once I explain the situation.”

“I don’t want to risk it,” I tightened my grip on the bag. “Go. I have lunch this period anyways. I can take all the time that I need to get to the infirmary.”

She stared at me for a beat and I stared right back before she folded. “You’re so stubborn, Lumine.”

“Don’t be late!” I warned her.

She slung her own bag onto her back and gave one last pointed look at my ankle. “Make sure you get that checked out.”

I assured both Amber and Venti I would be going to the infirmary as soon as I left the clearing, but it didn’t occur to either of us that I wasn’t quite sure where that was until I was alone on the way back to the main campus, facing a fork in the path.

“Hm,” I looked to the left and then the right, flexing my ankle to keep the dull pain at bay.

My ankle wasn’t the only part of me hurting. I was reminded of the hit I took on my wrist as a warm throb settled in. Great.

Venti was right, though. It could have been worse. A shiver ran through me at the thought of my broken body lying in the center of that field.

Suddenly, a feminine sneer came from behind, “Getting a little cold?” 

 

Chapter Text

I snapped my head around to see who approached.

There stood Cicin, with a smirk planted on her pale lips. A frosty blue lantern hung from her hand, even though there was plenty of light in the morning for her to have no need for it.

“What are you doing here, Cicin?” I narrowed my eyes. “I’ve already had enough pests bothering me today.”

“Oh?” She giggled. “I see you’ve become familiar with my pretties.”

Holding up her odd lamp, she shook loose more of those icy blue bugs from earlier. They zipped out from the lamp and darted in every direction, staying close to their master. Cicin gestured forward and they all fluttered to encircle their target—me.

“Ambushing after underhandedly injuring a fellow student,” I clenched my fists. “Wow, you’re a real fighter.”

“We warned you,” she tilted her head. “You shouldn’t have rebuked our offer.”

I scoffed, “To get so-called stronger? This isn’t strength .”

“You’re right. This is a reminder,” Cicin sniffed. “A reminder to mind your place.”

“What are you talking about? I haven’t done anything to you. I haven’t done anything to anyone.”

“You shouldn’t be associating yourself with Tartaglia,” she tsked. “He is far too powerful to hang around with the likes of a Visionless student like you. Signora has plans for him, and she doesn’t want to entertain the thought of you as a distraction.”

This was because of Childe? I wouldn’t have guessed that he had any connection with the Twin Mages, but that goes to show just how much I don’t know about him. His playful, albeit sometimes unhinged, nature around me goes against what other students have to say about his character.

“If this Signora has an issue with me, she should tell me herself,” I responded. “Better yet, why don’t you just tell Childe off instead of sneaking up on me? Oh, don’t tell me you’re scared .”

Cicin scrunched her nose before stepping backward, her bugs following in retreat. “Hmph, I’ve done my job. If you don’t want to heed our warning, so be it. I wouldn’t mind letting my pretty little cicins reduce your body temperature to zero. Watch yourself.” With one final glare, she turned and walked off into the trees, melting in with the foliage until she disappeared.

A sigh escaped from me, and I unclenched my fists. I hadn’t actually planned on fighting her right then, not with my wrist and ankle being out of commission. If she really continued to attack with those…cicins…I’m not sure what would have happened.

Focusing on getting to the infirmary, I decided to take a left turn in the path and kept close attention to my surroundings—lest another person tries to ambush me with their power complex. Luckily, I had a break this period after switching Physical Combat classes. There was plenty of time for me to look for the infirmary, but my movement was slow as I tried to avoid straining my ankle any further.

My stomach growled.

Well, I couldn’t expect to be healed while on an empty stomach. A detour to the dining hall was in order, and while I found the Teyvat Fried Egg and Lighter-Than-Air Pancakes appetizing, I only had enough time to scarf down a Sunsettia before the period was almost over.

I considered whether or not my infirmary search should continue, or if I should head to Physical Combat. Thinking of Instructor Xiao, I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate any student showing up late—let alone not showing up at all.

“I have no mercy,” he once said during class. “If you cannot stand your ground alone, forget it.”

Yeah, I should get going.

✧✧✧

Panting, I kept a straight face as I participated in the warm-up laps around campus. I took care to step lightly with my left foot on the way to class, but I couldn’t afford to cut any corners under Xiao’s watchful eye. Though just a warm-up, he treated every aspect of Physical Combat as a vital component of one’s fighting ability. Building and maintaining stamina was a foundation to one’s skill.

“What’s the matter with you today, Lumi?” Childe slowed his pace to speak to me. “You’re normally tripping over roots trying to get ahead of me.”

I twisted my face in a scowl and huffed, “Liar. I’ve never tripped over a root.”

He’d noticed that I was off my game, then. 

I mustered up the physical energy to increase my speed and the mental energy to block out the steadfast throbbing in my ankle. Refusing to back down, Childe sped up once more and caught up. We were several paces ahead of the rest of our class, for each of these warm-up laps seemed like an invitation for a challenge rather than practice for Childe.

“If you’re not tripping over roots, then you’re slipping in puddles,” he egged on. “Seriously, you look like you should take a break. It’s alright if I’m a natural winner. I’m used to it.”

Please,” I huffed. “One more lap. I’ll beat you. You’ll see.”

Childe laughed at my declaration and gave me a look that said we’ll see about that. He lingered for a few moments longer, doubt crossing his eyes for a second before he shook it off and followed with a sprint. I was left in his dust, and I could hear the footfalls of my peers approaching.

Pushing forward, I didn’t notice the gnarly tree root sticking out of the ground. My left foot caught the root and I winced as a stab of pain shot up my leg. Thankfully, I was able to avoid falling over, and I was even more thankful that Childe went ahead. If he’d seen me actually trip over a root…I would never hear the end of it.

Reluctantly, I decided it was best to not run too hard—for now. I continued at a steady pace, allowing my ankle to recover and catching my breath. While students passed on my left and right, I paid no heed to them. As long as I performed well during today’s activity, I’m sure Xiao wouldn’t call me out.

“Hey, you doing alright?”

I spared a glance to the side to see Thoma running alongside me.

“Oh,” I panted. “Yeah, just taking it easy today.”

“Are you sure?” His concern deepened. “You’re normally going head-to-head with Tartaglia during these warm-ups. Plus, you seem really spent for just a run.”

“I’m okay,” I insisted. “Really.”

Thoma looked down, “You’re limping. What happened to your left leg?”

I squeezed my eyes tight as one particularly uneven step jolted my ankle. Thoma noticed this, of course, and his frown only deepened. “Lumine.”

“I know, I know,” I breathed. “Just—let’s finish this final lap. It’s hard to run and talk for me right now.”

He nodded silently and kept the same pace for the rest of the way. I appreciated the thought of keeping me company, but the waves of concern coming off of Thoma left me feeling too scrutinized.

At last, we reached the fighting ring and slowed to a stop. There were still a few students who needed time to catch up, so the rest of us were allowed to take a break for the moment. I spotted Childe doing push-ups alone, unsurprisingly.

I found a soft patch of grass and sat down, carefully massaging my ankle as inconspicuously as possible.

“See, I knew it,” Thoma sat beside me. “Your ankle, can I see?”

“It’s not much,” I sighed, pulling out my leg anyway. “Rough landing earlier in Beginner’s Gliding, that’s all.”

“Why didn’t you go to the infirmary?” He reached out to feel the slight swelling on my ankle. “This looks like a sprain, Lumine. I’m sure Instructor Barbatos would have let you go.”

“Well,” I looked to the side. “He did. I just couldn’t find it.”

Thoma sighed, “You could have asked someone to help you find it. Better yet, you should have opted out of going to class today. Rest is a priority.”

“Well, I’m here now,” I shrugged. “Call me a dedicated student.”

“You really are something else,” he looked at me with a mix of awe and exasperation. “I can take you to the infirmary before Vision Studies to get that ankle checked out. Oh! I just remembered. I have some bandage wraps in my bag. Let me get them for you.” 

Thoma stood up and jogged over to where students stored their belongings. I watched as the remaining students began to file in, each one looking a bit worn. Pulling at the grass, I flexed my ankle once more and was surprised to find it didn’t hurt so bad anymore.

Someone's shadow fell over me.

“Thanks, Thoma,” I hummed. “I think I’m feeling better now. You don’t have to do all that for me.”

“Do what for you, exactly?”

I looked up to see that it was Childe, not Thoma, who approached. He was standing with his arms crossed, and his eyes were trained on mine before flicking to my injured leg.

“Nothing,” I pushed myself off the ground and began walking towards the fighting ring. “Looks like Instructor Xiao is here. We should get with the rest of the class.”

“Is that why you were slower today?” Childe stopped me and looked back down at my leg. “You should have told me.”

“It’s okay now.”

“Really?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, really. Now c’mon, let’s go.”

“Hop on one leg, then.” He nodded at me. “Go on.”

Why couldn’t he just believe me? I stared at him, his serious expression was unwavering. 

“Fine,” I stood on my left leg. “See? Just one hop and—”

I hissed as my knee buckled at the unexpected wave of pain, but I managed to straighten it out before I could fall over. Placing my right foot firmly on the ground, I coughed lightly and avoided Childe’s eyes. “Anyways, we should get going.”

“Girlie, if you’re hurt, just tell me,” Childe sighed. “You need to be in perfect shape in order for my victories to be well won.”

Is that what this was all about? Of course, it was. “Back to calling me girlie again?”

“Does it bother you that much?” he frowned and I considered his expression.

“Well, it’s not my name,” I stated. “But I wouldn’t say I mind—”

“Perfect,” he clapped me on the shoulder. “Now, don’t go off thinking we’ve changed topics. I’ll carry you to the infirmary if you’re so stubborn.”

“You will not, ” I backed away.

It was then that Thoma returned, a bundle of white bandages in one hand. He smiled as he approached, but that quickly faded once he took in Childe standing at my side. 

“Lumine,” he turned to me and renewed his cheerful expression. “I brought the bandages. Do you know how to wrap it, or I can if you want?”

“She’s fine,” Childe stepped forward and held out a hand. “I can take the bandages.”

“Um,” Thoma scratched his head. “Lumine, are you sure your ankle—”

Childe interrupted, “I said she’s fine.” 

She can speak for herself,” I stepped around him and took the bandage from Thoma. “Thank you, Thoma. My ankle is—was feeling better. That was before someone made me put it to the test.”

I plopped myself down on the grass and began to hastily wrap it around my heel and ankle. Over the years, I’d gotten my fair share of injuries, many of which I earned during solo adventures not privy to Madame Ping. That meant I’d had to learn to take care of myself, otherwise, I’d be subject to an earful—a fate worse than the injury itself.

“There,” I finished with a satisfied grin and stood up again. “Now we can finally get to…”

I lost the rest of my sentence after noticing the silent staring contest I found myself standing in the middle of. Thoma stood expressionless, unyielding against Childe’s cold, harsh glare. What was going on with them?

Chapter Text

My eyes flicked from Childe to Thoma, and finally, to the fighting ring where the rest of the class had completely gathered. Xiao was there too, and his cutting glare was aimed in our direction. Not wanting to get in trouble for slacking, I rolled my eyes and stepped between the two.

“Instructor Xiao is going to give us extra laps if we don’t move,” I sighed. “Whatever silent conversation you guys are having…well, stop it.” Not bothering to see if either of them followed, I picked up my pace to join the others.

Xiao had already begun explaining today’s lesson by the time I got within earshot. “It’s important to know how to wield more than one weapon, to master a variety of fighting styles,” he stated. “You never know when your reliable claymore might get flung into the sea, only to be left with a bow and arrow to defend yourself.”

Today, he wanted us to practice with any weapon besides the one of our own personal mastery. That meant no sword for me, I suppose.

“Pair with a student wielding a different weapon than yourself,” Xiao instructed further. “You will teach your partner how to properly handle your own weapon while learning from them about theirs. This is a test of effective teamwork. I am giving you the option to choose your partner—make sure you are compatible.”

“I’d say we’re pretty compatible,” Childe leaned close to me. “Wouldn’t you think?”

“Sure,” I cast him a sideways glance, but Thoma wasn’t here. “Where’d Thoma go?”

“Hm?” Childe made a show of looking around before shrugging. “Not sure.”

I frowned, pressing on. “Childe…”

“You know the drill,” Xiao announced. “Weapons are on the rack. Archers at the range. Begin.”

Childe took my shoulders in his hands and walked me over to the weapon racks—away from the crowd of students I was scanning. “What’ll it be, girlie? Want me to show you the ropes first, or do you want to take a stab at teaching me the ways of the blade?”

“Did you say something to scare him off?” I halted and pointed a finger.

“Who?” 

“Thoma,” I crossed my arms. “Don’t play dumb—though I’d understand if it wasn’t an act.”

“You wound me, Lumi,” he held a dramatic hand to his chest before gesturing in the direction of the claymore users. “Relax. He’s over there, you see? Getting friendly with Miss Pyrotechnics.”

Sure enough, I managed to spot Thoma with another student, each of them with a practice claymore in hand. He seemed to be struggling with the weight, but the girl—Xinyan—had an encouraging smile.

“Here,” Childe slid into my line of sight, holding up two weapons. “I got us swords.”

“I’m up first, then?” I accepted the sword and we walked together to an empty sparring circle. “How much do you know about swordsmanship?”

Childe lifted his weapon and twirled the hilt at an angle, his feet separating to widen his stance. I observed him in silence. Everything about his form—from his balanced weight and careful positioning—held enough information to tell me what I needed to know.

“You’re good,” I surmised. “Quite skilled, even.”

He grinned, “You haven’t even seen me in action yet. Why not we give it a go?”

“This isn’t a sparring day,” I smiled despite my words. “But I suppose I could enlighten you.”

Walking over to my end of the sparring circle, I kept my eyes trained on his. After getting into position, I held my sword to the side, ready to launch at a moment’s notice. 

Childe winked and took off in my direction with a swift sprint. I met him in the middle, the dull thunk of our wooden blades was hard and sound. He’d come to spar with full energy, unyielding and on the offense.

“Your left is open,” he cut at my leg, missing me by just a hair as I bounced backward.

“Low blow,” I grunted and charged forward. “You know I have a freshly bandaged wound.”

He laughed and easily dodged my attacks, “You’ll find no mercy from me, girlie.”

Childe raised his blade, and I anticipated the incoming downward attack, holding my sword horizontally to parry his strike. Our weapons cracked against each other, and I faltered slightly as my wrist reacted with a stabbing wave of heat.

Ah, right. The cicin attack.

I cringed inwardly, second-guessing my hearty acceptance to spar. Perhaps it would have been best to save this for another day.

Childe swooped at my crippled ankle, and I slid away before more damage could be done. “Not bad…not bad at all!”

He was quick.

“Hah!” Another attack came straight for my sternum—I ducked and went for his legs. The sudden increase in downward force reawoke the flare in my leg. This time, I had no power to stop my knee from buckling and slamming into the ground.

I grimaced on impact but still had enough sense to swivel around and raise my sword to block another blow from above. He was getting predictable.

Predictable or not, he was strong and had the advantage of gravity. Childe’s sword came crashing down on mine, and I could barely put up an effective resistance before my weapon was knocked away, clattering to the ground.

“Amateur mistake,” Childe pointed the tip of his sword at my neck. “Though, I can’t say I didn’t expect this outcome.”

I grit my teeth and propped up a knee to stand, but the edges of my vision blurred as a fresh wave of pain came over me.

The threatening sword was suddenly replaced by a hand, and I accepted it with reluctance. Childe hauled me up, still sporting that same cheeky smirk from the very start of the match.

“Maybe I should be the one giving you pointers,” he picked up my sword and returned it to me. “Tip number one: know your limits.”

“I know my limits.”

“Do you?” Childe reached over to grab my right arm. “What happened here?”

“Gliding accident,” I huffed. “Same for my ankle.”

He pulled in closer, fingers tenderly skimming the area where Cicin’s icy attack had struck me earlier. There wasn’t much visible to the eye besides a pinkish undertone in the affected area, but that didn’t escape Childe.

“This looks like a burn,” he murmured. “Were you fighting with someone else before me? I thought that was supposed to be our thing.” Despite his teasing words, Childe’s tone was anything but. “A sprained ankle from falling, that I can believe. But this? I see you’ve already made a few enemies.”

“I can handle them,” I pulled my wrist from his hold.

He frowned, “Who was it?”

“No one I can’t take care of myself,” I insisted. “Have you ever heard of the Twin Mages? They’re notorious for being the worst.”

“Calculated attacks and planned sabotage,” Childe hummed. “Yes, I am familiar with quite a few students who might try something like that. As for me, I prefer a more…direct method to reach what I desire.”

“And what is it that you desire?” I went along.

“Unpredictable change, unprecedented power, the heat of battle, and to come out as the winner of it all…amongst other things,” his gaze lingered on my face before honing back on my wrist.

“They’re aligned with Signora, you know,” I added. “Cicin says she has plans for you. Maybe you should be careful.”

Childe’s eyes widened before he burst into laughter. Clutching his belly, he slapped at his knee a few times before calming down enough to say, “Signora? Yes, I am well aware of who she is.”

I narrowed my eyes at his easygoing reaction, “You don’t seem too concerned.”

“And why would I be?” He wiped away a tear. “We both come from the same country, my homeland of Snezhnaya. She and I are in the same program partnered with the Academy—call us exchange students, if you will.”

“Okay, what does Signora want from you so badly that she feels the need to send her subordinates after me?” I frowned. “You lot seemed to be obsessed with power.”

“Only because of what one can gain from it,” Childe aimlessly twirled his sword. “As I told you before, I have a desire for conquest. Signora’s wishes are far more devious.”

“You’re quite devious, yourself,” I pointed my sword at him accusingly.

“Call me chaotic, unhinged, immoral,” he lightly knocked my blade to the side. “But I only yearn out of personal gain. Signora is quite a sinister narcissist, and I know not of what she schemes in secret, nor of how it has any connection to me. Her goals only hold importance when they interfere with mine.”

“So, that’s all you live for, then?” I crossed my arms. “World domination?”

“Of course not,” he shook his head. “How could you think me so heartless? I love ice fishing.”

“Ice fishing?”

“Oh yes, it’s my favorite hobby,” he nodded in earnest. “A wonderful opportunity to train, both physically and mentally. You should join me, sometime.”

Who would have guessed that the infamous Tartaglia—known for causing trouble to both faculty and students alike, constantly arming himself with promises of battle and conflict—would be into ice fishing?

“What’s with that look on your face?” He peered at me.

“I—nevermind,” I shook my head and stepped away. “We should go to the archery range. You can show off your fancy skills there.”

“All of my skills are fancy,” he followed. “Do you really think I’m going to guide you through archery with your wrist like that?”

My steps faltered, dammit he was right. “What else would you suggest, then? This is the task Instructor Xiao gave us.”

Childe scoffed, “Instructor Xiao’s orders can be taken lightly.”

“Not by me,” I disagreed. “Not if I want to get stronger. We’ve all seen him in action enough to acknowledge that he know’s what he’s talking about.”

“Fine then,” Childe shrugged and we carried on to the archery range. “If you wish to be so reckless with your health, who am I but a deeply concerned friend to have any say in it?”

I refused to fall for him guilting me. Though it was true that any further strenuous activity would only make my wrist worse, at least my ankle could catch a break. Besides, as long as I pull the string with my left arm, my right won’t be nearly as afflicted.

“If you ever find yourself in a pinch, compromise,” Xiao had once said. “Survivors do not make it out alive by backing down.”

Of course, this was far a less dire situation than life or death, but I prefer to think that the same concept applied. I selected a bow from the rack befitting for my modifications.

“Have you practiced archery before?” Childe stepped beside me.

“Once,” I examined the weapon. “I wasn’t a fan. Melee fighting is more my style.”

“Same here,” Childe nodded. “I knew we were compatible.”

I frowned, “But don’t you use a bow?”

“I do.”

“Then why…” I trailed off and gestured to our bows.

“Oh, Lumi,” Childe sighed and placed a hand on my shoulder. “You still have so much to learn in regard to overcoming your own faults. This bow here? I am least adept with. Give me a sword, polearm, even a claymore—total knockout. The challenge of working with weakness is part of the fun.”

“You’re not making any sense,” I deadpanned. “Doesn’t it hinder you?”

He leaned in to whisper, “Sometimes I throw my arrows.”

Childe really was something else.

“You ready?” He gestured for me to lift the bow and I complied.

Reaching into the nearby quiver for an arrow, I notched it onto the string and inhaled with control as I pulled back.

“Preserving your right arm,” Childe noted. “I can see what you’re trying to do, but that’ll make your aim difficult.”

“Working with weakness is part of the fun,” I half shrugged. “Someone told me that, once.”

Childe laughed and settled his hand on the elbow I had drawn back, lowering it. “He sounds highly intelligent. Careful not to keep this arm so straight,” he slightly pushed out my right elbow. “You don’t want to get string burn.”

After a few more adjustments—parallel feet, relaxed bow grip, hips straight—my form was steady enough to aim the arrow at the makeshift hilichurl target in the distance.

“One more thing,” Childe reached to my left hand, shifting it lower. “Keep the string closer to your mouth than your nose. Use your lips as an anchor. Okay, now just breathe and release.”

Breathe…release.

Chapter Text

Thunk.

“I’m impressed,” Childe applauded as I lowered my bow. “That’s three for three. Are you sure you haven’t practiced archery more in the past?”

“I prefer the sword,” I rolled my shoulders back. “But maybe I should consider archery more? Perhaps I’m just naturally good at it.”

“Beginner’s luck,” he laughed. “That, or you have an excellent teacher.”

I thought about it, “Nah, I think I’m just better than you. I didn’t even have to throw any of my arrows.”

Though I hit the hilichurl target three times in a row, none of the arrows struck the mark I had in mind—its mask. A headshot was best to deal the most damage—everyone knew that—and with hilichurls being the most plentiful of mobs in Teyvat, it was necessary to hone skills that would take them out the fastest.

“Turn in your weapons,” Xiao announced to the whole class. “You’ve done well today. We will pick this up again tomorrow. Class dismissed.”

After hanging my bow back on the weapon rack, I jogged over to the hilichurl target to retrieve my arrows. I grasped the first arrow, lodged in the hilichurl dummy’s midsection, and pulled. Nothing.

With a huff, I braced my left hand on the dummy and gripped the arrow firmly with my right, and yanked hard. I felt the tip give, and the shaft shifted outwards by a fraction.

“What is this thing made of?” I muttered to myself. “Steel?”

One last aggressive pull and the arrow finally popped out of the hilichurl, but I overestimated the amount of strength needed, and the excess force knocked me backward. I stuck out both arms behind me to break the fall, but that wasn’t necessary.

“Careful,” Childe oomfed as my back collided with his chest, his arms wrapping around securely. “Trying to catch yourself like that with an injured wrist? I thought you were smarter than that, girlie.”

“Thanks,” I angled my head to look up at him.

“I’ll grab the other two,” he offered and slipped away from me.

Using just one hand, Childe effortlessly removed the remaining arrows from the dummy and turned to face me with laughing eyes. I rolled my eyes and took them from him, dropping the arrows into a quiver.

“Lumine, I would like to have a word with you,” Xiao called over from the main fighting ring, and I faltered in surprise before jogging right over.

“Someone’s in trouble,” Childe snickered from behind, I ignored him and carried on.

“Yes, Instructor Xiao?” I straightened my spine once I approached.

“I’m disappointed,” he frowned. “Would you care to enlighten me as to why you spent the entirety of today’s class with two injuries?”

My eyes widened at his observation. I didn’t think Xiao would have noticed anything, especially since he was at a distance from me the whole time. It took both Thoma and Childe direct confrontation for them to sense something was off, but not Xiao.

“I am injured, yes,” I bowed my head slightly before facing him. “But I thought it would be best to not let it get in the way of my progress. I planned to go to the infirmary earlier, but I had some trouble finding it, and I didn’t want to miss your class.”

Xiao stared at me in silence before releasing a sigh, “Your dedication is praiseworthy, but I cannot allow you to worsen your condition. I expected you to back down during your swordplay, but you did not. I expected you to take a break before resuming with archery, but you did not. As dedicated to progression you may be, it does no good if you are crippled.”

“I understand.”

Xiao nodded at my admission, “Your health comes first, Lumine. Now tell me, what do you plan to do now that class is over?”

The right answer would be to go straight to the infirmary, that much was clear. However, I did have Vision Studies right after, and I wouldn’t want to show up late without any forewarning.

“I will go to my next class and let my professor know I have to stop by the infirmary.”

He sighed again before calling out, “Thoma.”

Only a brief moment passed before Thoma showed up, visibly nervous as nearly any student would be if Xiao had something to say to them.

“Show Lumine the way to the infirmary,” he ordered. “I’m sure you are aware of the condition of her ankle and wrist.”

“I am,” Thoma stated. “We have our next class together, but I will take her straight to the infirmary and inform Professor Minci of the situation after.”

Xiao, seemingly satisfied with Thoma’s response, gave a slight nod before stepping away. “You may leave.”

Thoma and I returned to the area where our belongings were. I bent down to grab my bag, but Thoma beat me to it and swung both his and my things over his shoulder. “You didn’t tell me you hurt your wrist, too.”

“I forgot about it,” I admitted sheepishly as he motioned for me to show my injured wrist—it had deepened from a light pink to a rosy red. “It only started acting up when I was sparring with Childe.”

Thoma halted, “Did he do that to you?”

“What?” I blinked. “No. It was from before.”

“Lumine,” he pressed his lips together in concern. “You don’t have to cover for him. I thought you two got along pretty well, but if Tartaglia is secretly causing you any harm then—”

“Seriously, Thoma,” I interrupted. “He had nothing to do with it. My wrist got a little worse because of the extra force I exerted. Childe would never intentionally harm anyone.”

“Are you certain?” He looked unconvinced, and I couldn’t blame him.

“Well,” I bit my lip. “Okay, he wouldn’t intentionally harm me .”

“Are my allergies acting up, or am I sneezing because people are gossiping behind my back?” The man in question walked into the conversation.

Childe looked at me with an easygoing smile, but it soon faded as he faced Thoma. A moment of deja vu struck me as I recalled their interaction from earlier, which also regarded my injury. Perhaps Xiao was right, if I just went directly to the infirmary—even if I had to spend extra time searching for it—both the issue of my physical and mental pains wouldn’t be here right now.

“Do you guys need to talk something out?” I frowned. “Here, I’ll be the mediator to prevent bloodshed.”

“Where are you two headed, Lumi?” Childe turned to me. “Normally, you and the Kamisato lackey go to Vision Studies after this class, no? Are you skipping together?

“Instructor Xiao asked me to take her to the infirmary,” Thoma responded in my stead. “We’re going there now. My name is Thoma, and I am no one’s lackey.”

“I see,” Childe murmured before taking my good hand. “Well then, Thoma. Thank you, really, for going this far. I can bring her from here.”

Thoma still had a hand on my wrist, and he lightly tugged me towards him. “I’d like to make sure Lumine gets there all in one piece, if you don’t mind.”

“And why wouldn’t she?”

“You knew she was hurt in two places,” Thoma took a step toward Childe. “Yet you continued to spar.”

“It’s what she wanted,” Childe scoffed.

“Really, Tartaglia?” Thoma’s frown deepened. “Archery with her wrist like that?”

Childe’s hold on my hand tightened by a fraction. “Watch it. Don’t you think you’re overstepping your bounds?”

“I’ve heard enough,” I shrugged off both their hands. “Thoma, don’t be so hard on him. I knew my limits and chose to ignore them. Xiao already chastised me for that. And you,” I cut a look at Childe. “What are you so insistent for? Thoma can relay a note from the infirmary to Professor Minci for me.”

Neither of them said a word for a moment. Thoma looked to the ground, as if ashamed for his words. Childe, on the other hand, only cast an angry glance at Thoma. I was ready to knock some sense into the instigator, but he suddenly flashed a smile at me.

“Gotcha, girlie,” Childe scratched his head and backed away. “Gee, I sure am relieved you’ve got such a great friend to take care of things for you. I’ll be out of your way, then.”

Thoma’s head flicked up, and his surprised expression mirrored my own. I hadn’t expected Childe to give in so quickly. I mean, the points I made were solid, so there was no reason for either of them to have an objection. Childe just seemed like he would have put up extra resistance because of who he is as a person.

“Wait,” I snagged his sleeve before he could take off. “Just like that? You’re not planning something, are you?”

“Your lack of faith in me is staggering,” Childe looked at my hand on his sleeve with a fond smile. “Wipe that worried look off your face. I have my own places to be.”

“Okay,” I let go of him. “See you tomorrow.”

He didn’t say anything to that, only darted one last glare in Thoma’s direction before turning at his heel and walking away. I watched Childe go, curious at his behavior. Character development can sneak up on you when you least expect it, I suppose. Thoma was also keeping an eye on Childe’s retreat.

At last, I decided it was time to move on. “To the infirmary!”

✧✧✧

There was no one in the infirmary.

Thoma brought me to the administrative building, informing me that a large section of the east wing was comprised of the infirmary. I was probably unable to find it because the directory board was inside of the building, rather than out front. Nevertheless, he led me inside and we found ourselves in the reception area with a tall desk that blocked off a hallway.

“Um,” I stepped up to the desk, looking for a bell I could ring. “Is anybody here?”

“Hi,” a dull voice answered.

How odd. The response came from right in front of me, but after spending a few seconds scanning the area, there was still no sign of anyone. Thoma spared me an amused smile and pointed down at the desk.

Following his gesture, I looked over to the other side and caught a glimpse of a small purple hat. It meandered from side to side for a moment before hopping up onto a chair, revealing a little girl with tired eyes and a talisman partially hanging over her face.

“Hello, Qiqi,” Thoma smiled. “I’m here to drop off a friend. She needs some care for her left ankle and right wrist.”

The girl, Qiqi, stared dubiously at me for a moment before rummaging around the desk, procuring a heavy book and feather pen. “Sign your name here, please. Date and time.”

I followed her instruction and she looked over my work with a satisfied nod. “Nice to meet you, uh, Lumine.”

“Qiqi, may I bring a note from you to Professor Minci?” Thoma inquired. “Lumine will be missing part of class for her treatment.”

“I can do that,” she answered before scribbling down on a piece of paper. “Here you go.”

Thoma accepted the note and looked it over. “This is perfect, thank you. I’ll get going now, Lumine. Unless you want me to stay?”

“I can take it from here,” Qiqi hopped off her chair and walked around to the front of the desk. “Follow me.”

I bid Thoma farewell and let the small receptionist take me down a small hallway that opened up to a larger room. This section of the infirmary was very clearly meant for patient care. About two dozen beds lined either side of the wall, and sunlight streaming through the tall windows shone onto the empty sheets. 

“Please wait here while I call for your healer,” Qiqi pointed to the closest bed and disappeared back down the hallway.

I sat on the edge of the bed and glanced around the room. It was quite large, and I couldn’t see why the Academy would need so many beds. Unless students are getting injured left and right, which isn’t something I’d noticed, these healers must have a lot of time on their hands.

“You must be Lumine!” My healer appeared with a clipboard in hand. “I’ve never seen you in here before, so I’m guessing you’re either a first-year or indestructible.”

“The former,” I smiled. “I don’t think anyone here is indestructible.”

“You’d be surprised,” she winked.  “My name is Barbara, and I will be caring for you today! Let’s see…Qiqi wrote that you’ve injured your ankle and wrist?”

I held out both appendages for her to observe.

“Oh my!” She gasped. “Yes. They are quite inflamed. I’ll get right to it, then!”

Barbara knelt to hover her hands around my ankle, and a bubble of water began to form at her fingertips. She directed the water to my injury, and the entire area was submerged. Immediately, I could feel the nagging pain begin to fade away as Barbara hummed a light tune.

“Are you a student here?” I asked as she worked, for couldn’t help but notice how young she was.

“Me?” Her blue eyes blinked. “No, I work for Celestia. I did have the opportunity to study here, but I opted for an apprenticeship, instead. I do some other work on the side, so it would be difficult to keep up with the Academy’s workload.”

An apprenticeship? I didn’t realize that was an option. “What kind of work?”

“It’s a bit embarrassing to say out loud,” she blushed. “But I’m something of an idol. You might hear some of my songs if you pass through Mondstadt. Alright, your ankle is fully healed! May I see your wrist?”

I let Barbara use her Hydro Vision to repair my wrist. It didn’t take long for her to finish, and she handed me a fluffy towel to dry off once the procedure was complete. I felt like new.

“Thank you, Barbara,” I smiled. “You’re amazing.”

“I’m just doing my job,” she blushed again. “Please, take care of yourself! If you ever find yourself in need of healing in the future, do not hesitate to visit.”

Now that I know where to find the place, I assured her that I would stop by first thing—not that I intended to get hurt again anytime soon. Barbara walked me back to the reception desk where Qiqi was waiting.

“Sign out, please,” Qiqi pointed to the same book and pen from before.

“Are you an apprentice, too?” I asked the girl while filling out the page.

It was surprising enough to me that someone as young as Barabara would be a part-time apprentice and part-time idol, so I can’t imagine how Qiqi found herself in this role of a receptionist.

“I am a zombie,” she yawned. “Have a good day.”

Not knowing how to respond to that, and not wanting to show up any later to Vision Studies, I simply smiled and waved goodbye. This school was constantly surprising me, and I was starting to get used to it.

Chapter Text

I expected to enter Vision Studies in the middle of a lesson, dreading the interruption and looks from other students I might draw. However, the room was devoid of students when I opened the door. Oddly enough, students’ backpacks and notebooks were still scattered around the room.

Vision Studies Level One -  Meet in the arena for interactive practice with elemental reactions.

Professor Minci’s message was displayed on the front board in her elegant script. With a sigh, I turned around and quickly left the room. I already missed a chunk out of class time, and I didn’t want to fall behind the rest. 

On my way to the arena behind the Vision Studies building, I thought of what today’s lesson might entail. I’m not sure what interactive practice with elemental reactions I could contribute to, given that I didn’t have my own Vision. So far, we’d only been learning about elements and how to utilize a Vision via textbook references, so my lack of a Vision hadn’t affected my participation in the class whatsoever. I guess the real test begins now, then.

I left through a side exit door and rounded the building to find the rest of my classmates in the wide, open arena. Students were scattered and spaced out in their assigned pairs, fighting slimes.

A deep groove in the ground was filled with a puddle of water where Hydro slimes were throwing themselves at two students—Amber and Rosaria. In lecture, Rosaria always looked so dull, as if she wished she were anywhere else. But watching her come alive in a fight, even against small Hydro slimes, was quite exciting.

She had her polearm poised before striking down, “You can’t run!”

After freezing the slime, she threw an arm out at Amber to signal their next attack, “Go, go, Baron Bunny!” Amber promptly tossed her Baron Bunny doll at the frozen Hydro slime. What an interesting skill.

Baron Bunny spent a moment doing dance moves before exploding in a blast of Pyro. Although, Rosaria’s Cryo attack wore off before Baron Bunny exploded, leaving the Hydro slime with vaporized damage, but still alive.

“Amber,” Rosaria snapped. “How many times have I told you that your little doll thing takes too long to activate?”

Amber scratched the back of her head sheepishly. “It did do some damage, though!”

“It would have done more damage if it exploded while the slime was still frozen. Next time, shoot Pyro arrows while we wait for your skill to detonate.”

“Lumine,” Professor Minci cooed, drawing my attention from the pair that had gone back to coordinating their attacks.

I turned to find her sitting far from the arena and closer to the main building. She was surrounded by lush trees giving shade, sipping tea at a garden table. I moved away from the arena and walked to her, prepared to explain myself.

“How wonderful for you to join us,” she smiled demurely. “Thoma informed me of your situation, and I’m glad you were able to get those injuries healed up before the end of class.”

“Thank you,” I said. “What have I missed?”

“Just a few explanations that wouldn’t do you much good anyway,” she waved a hand. “The Vision holders have been instructed to pick up their preferred weapon and channel their Vision to wield elemental energy. I gathered these cuties for your classmates to test elemental reactions.”

“By cuties, do you mean…slimes?” I watched as a pair of students were chasing down a group of Geo slimes.

“Slimes are beings of pure elemental energy, you know,” she sipped her tea. “You may find your partner and…take notes on what you observe. There’s not much else you can do during our hands-on lessons.”

“What if he needs help?” I scanned the students, looking for Thoma. “Surely there must be some way I can…”

“Aw,” Minci puckered her lips in a slight pout. “I’m sorry, but no matter how hard you work in this class, some things simply cannot be done without a Vision. This is one of them.”

So far, I’d been able to manage and do quite well in my other classes without the need for a Vision. History and Horticulture were simple enough. Sure, I had to spend extra hours memorizing facts and timelines, but it was something I could do with dedication. Gliding and Physical Combat required agility, strength, talent, and skill—all attributes that aren’t easily acquired but attributes that I’ve been able to grow with my own ambitions.

Choosing to enroll in Vision Studies, I knew that it would be impossible for me to trigger superconduct, or inflict a vaporized reaction on my own. I knew that I would face setbacks and that those setbacks didn’t define my strength. But, watching the rest of my classmates attacking slimes in front of me…I didn’t expect to feel so left out.

Taking a deep breath, I shrugged off the weight of disappointment and shook away the mental fog threatening to darken my mood. I am here now, and I will do the best I can with what I have.

Searching the arena once more, I found Thoma pacing around one section with particularly tall grass. He had a polearm in one hand, and his attention was focused intently on the ground. I watched as he suddenly sprung into action, erecting a shield that surrounded him and lighting the grass on fire.

Small, leafy Dendro slimes popped out of the ground and began to bobble around erratically. Thoma used his polearm to strike them down, his shield preventing any damage to himself from the circle of burning grass.

I walked to the edge of the area where the grass deadened and flames no longer burned. I was intent on watching Thoma fight and seeing how quickly the Dendro slimes took damage, but his head turned in my direction as soon as I approached.

“You’re here!” He jogged over to me with a big smile, and the slimes retreated back underground to ward off the flames. “Barbara healed you up faster than I thought. Are you feeling better? You look a lot better.”

“Thanks,” I smiled. “Barbara was great. Did you know she’s an idol on the side? That’s pretty impressive for—wait. Sorry, I don’t want to talk about something off-topic and detract you from class. You can get back to burning those slimes. I’ll just…” I rummaged around in my bag and pulled out my notebook. “Take notes.”

“Careful not to get those pages burnt,” he warned. “You should step further away from the tallgrass. Pyro can cause the environment to get very dangerous very fast. I wouldn’t want you to take a second trip to the infirmary in one day.”

“Right,” I stepped back into an area that was more dirt than grass.

Thoma nodded, satisfied with where I stood, before looking at me with a hint of worry in his eyes. “Will you be alright?”

“Fully healed,” I reminded him.

“Not that,” he shook his head. “I’m talking about today’s exercise. I know how much being an active member in class means to you.”

“Oh,” I blinked. “That? It’s fine. I can learn a lot from taking notes, just like how I’ve learned so much by taking the same notes all last week. These new notes will be even more…informational.”

“If you say so,” he eyed me. “I did see a bucket for water in case you wanted to douse the flames or even toss water on the burning slimes for some vaporize reactions. But if you’re so keen on notetaking, go for it.”

“A bucket of water, you say?” I nonchalantly darted my eyes around, looking for the bucket in question. “I mean, if it’ll be of help then I guess I can sacrifice my notetaking time.”

Thoma laughed, “I thought you might say so. It’s over by the Hydro slime pool—careful not to get wet.”

I hurried over to the Hydro slimes that Rosaria was still mercilessly attacking with her polearm, and I spotted an empty wooden bucket sitting by the water’s edge. Quickly, I picked it up and dipped it under the water’s surface. Once it was full, I walked back carefully as to not spill any water.

My slow return to Thoma and the Dendro slimes was nearly thwarted as a purple blur darted at me. I managed to swivel at the last second without dropping the bucket, but some water sloshed out and landed on the blob. A bolt of electricity arced up from the blob to the bucket of water—zapping my hands and causing me to drop the bucket.

An Electro slime.

“Sorry!” Bennett came running at me, with Chongyun following close behind. “That one got away from us. I’ll take care of it. Let’s light it up!

Bennett’s sword alighted with Pyro as he charged his skill, aimed at the Electro slime. He rocketed forward and hit the enemy, but then he promptly exploded backward and landed with a tumble.

“This is the fifth time,” Chongyun sighed at my side. “My partner appears to be plagued with evil spirits that have cursed him with unfortunate luck. It is the most I can do to put out his unruly flames with my spirit blade.”

I watched as Chongyun ran after Bennett and the runaway Electro slime before turning back to refill the now-empty bucket. This time, I made sure the coast was clear before charting my course back to Thoma. 

I noticed he kept a distance from the Dendro slimes, perking up at my return. “Oh, good! You found the bucket. Ready to take on these slimes?”

I nodded and readied my bucket, feeling only a little bit ridiculous as the rest of my classmates utilized their Vision with an actual weapon. Whatever. If a bucket can get the job done, then a bucket wielder I will be.

Thoma walked back into the tallgrass stealthily with me close at his heel. After spotting the leafy top of one Dendro slime, we shared a nod before he went on the offense, springing his shield up and igniting the environment around him. The Dendro slime was quick to pop up and escape the inferno, but I was waiting for it.

I gripped my bucket securely before sloshing a good amount of water on the Dendro slime, dousing the flame with a vaporize reaction. A great billow of steam wafted up and the weakened Dendro slime began to flee.

“Oh no you don’t,” Thoma followed and used his skill again. “Don’t get too close!”

This time, my bucket and I weren’t necessary as the Dendro slime was at its last leg, perishing in the flames. I used some water anyway, splashing the area to prevent the fire from getting out of control.

“Nice work, Lumine!” Thoma smiled. “I think you should start using a bucket during Physical Combat. Who knew it could be such an effective weapon? We can give you a fighter name. Hm, how about…Bucket Banisher?”

“How about we get back to the slimes?” I laughed at his joke. “Your shield looks pretty impressive.”

“I like to focus on protection,” he said. “We’re working on our elemental skills for today—especially the first-years—so I’ve been utilizing my shield.”

We went back into the tallgrass to snuff out more Dendro slimes. It got frustrating when they blended in so well with the natural earth, but Thoma would eventually force them out with his Pyro. I had a couple of close calls trying to douse unruly flames while also vaporizing the slimes, but he always had my back.

Soon, I’d noticed the weight of my bucket begin to lighten, and I signaled to Thoma that a refill was in order. He was distracted fighting off a large Dendro slime, so I quickly decided to grab more water to help out. 

I didn’t realize I had followers.

A group of small Dendro slimes—on fire—came running at me. I could only assume they were trying to flee from Thoma’s attack, as they weren’t going after me in particular, but in the direction of the Hydro slime pool.

Still, the Dendro slimes were barreling at me in blazing glory, and I had only the bucket to stave them off. I was able to knock back a few before the bucket—the wooden bucket—also caught fire, and I was forced to abandon my trusty weapon. 

All of a sudden, with their leafy tops burned off, the Dendro slimes stopped panicking and turned to face me. I sensed something sinister coming off from them as if they wanted vengeance for their lost carrot tops. The grass around me was all on fire, the Dendro slimes spread it in their haste. Empty-handed and with nowhere to turn, I began to sweat.

“Hyah!” I threw a fist at the first Dendro that tried me, launching it back into the flames.

Two more jumped at me, but I kicked them with my fully healed leg. “Hah! I could do this all day.”

Despite my words, I was making very slow work of these Dendro slimes. I was hoping that Thoma, Professor Minci, or anyone would catch sight of the situation, but they were all either busy with their own practice or didn’t think a Visionless student would dare walk into a field of tallgrass alight with Pyro. 

The flames should be dying down any moment now, I wiped at my brow. However, these Dendro slimes were persistent, and a ball of dread grew in my stomach as I watched them form a unified group to attack me head-on.

My heartbeat thumped in my ears, louder than the roaring fire around me, and I felt something in my chest flutter. A sense of…lightness filled my body, and I recognized it. It was a new feeling, but somehow still familiar. My limbs moved swiftly as if air hollowed out my bones. A breeze picked up, rustling through my hair, yet no wind blew at the flames.

It was just like the Anemo that cushioned my fall in Beginner’s Gliding, I realized. But…how could that be? Venti wasn’t here, nor was there anyone in this class with that level of Anemo capability. Where was this power coming from?

The familiar glow of Anemo shone in the sights of my vision, but when I turned to find its source, there was no one there. It was just me, and the origin of the glow…the Anemo power was coming from…my own hand.

My hand was glowing. A bright, brilliant teal.

Chapter Text

Before I could fully grasp the situation and allow myself to freak out over the Anemo currently coursing through my hand, I had to act against the Dendro slimes that were closing in on me. 

I held my Anemo infused hand out in front of my body and watched as Anemo began to wrap itself in a ball in front of me, blades of wind whipping about. The Dendro slimes were slowly pulled inward towards the whirling vortex at my fingertips, and I gasped as their Pyro mingled with the Anemo in a powerful reaction.

So this is what swirl looked—felt like. The teal wisps of Anemo quickly blended into a fiery red, cutting and burning away at the Dendro slimes until they were nothing but ash in the wind. Absentmindedly, I worried that the swirling of Pyro might have resulted in an even bigger fire, but luckily, there was not enough living grass in the area for it to catch.

With the Dendro slimes vanquished, it was just me left standing in a field of burnt grass. 

I looked down at my hand in awe. The glowing Anemo faded away, but I could feel the remnant power beneath the surface of my skin, a tumultuous ball of pure elemental energy. The lightness that came with using Anemo disappeared, leaving my limbs feeling heavier than they were before, and the weight of exhaustion settled in.

Glancing around to see if anyone else noticed my miraculous feat, my suspicions from earlier were confirmed. Nobody saw a thing—they were all busy with their own slimes. What felt like a painstakingly long, dire situation to me must have spanned only a brief moment in real-time.

My mind was frozen in shock. With just a bare hand, I controlled an element. Me.

No. My breath hitched at the sudden realization of what this development meant. I’ve been granted a Vision. An Anemo Vision. After all this time…

Quickly, I began to search my body and patted around my school uniform, looking for the small amulet that was my connection to Anemo. There was nothing at my waist. My hands came up empty toward my back. Only flowers decorated my hair. Even the gaps of my shoes contained no such Vision.

I frowned. Where could it be?

“Phew!” Thoma bounded towards me. “You should have seen that large Dendro slime. Those guys can sure put up a fight…Lumine? Did you lose something?”

“Huh?” I blinked out of my mental stupor. “Oh, um, I was looking for a…”

“What happened to your bucket?” Thoma spun around in search of the late wooden bucket. “Can’t conquer those Dendro slimes without it.”

Or so he would think.

“Thoma, I have a question for you.”

“Sure, I can answer anything you have to ask,” he paused. “Assuming I know the answer, of course. If not, I’ll do my best.”

“When you got first got your Vision,” I began. “What was it like?”

“When I first got my Vision?” Thoma fingered the Vision at his waist thoughtfully. “Well, it’s a bit of a long story. You know how I serve under the Kamisato Clan in Inazuma?”

I nodded. Thoma and I spent hours and hours after school in the library to study for the Vision Studies quiz, but we would sometimes get off track and start talking about other things. I told Thoma all about Madame Ping and living in Liyue with her, and he’d mentioned how he worked for the Yashiro Commission in Inazuma. If I’m being honest, I don’t quite fully grasp Inazuman politics nor what it entails to work for the Kamisato Clan. I guess it’s something I’d have to see in person in order to understand.

Thoma’s been with them for a while, and it seems like he really looks up to the Kamisatos—Ayaka and Ayato. I’ve seen Ayaka around the Academy in the hallway, and Thoma always points her out and speaks of her highly. I can only assume that he’s treated well in Inazuma.

“Life in Inazuma has been quite uneasy for a while now, and it’s only recently starting to get a little better,” he continued. “Political tensions are high, and it leads to public outbreaks more often than not. I once told you that I’m from Inazuma, but I was actually born in Mondstadt.”

I widened my eyes in surprise. I wouldn’t have guessed that, but I can’t say I’m surprised either. Thoma doesn’t look like a typical Inazuman.

“Life in Mondstadt was more…leisurely, to say the least,” he sighed. “And when Inazuman turmoils kept arising, I was given the opportunity to go back to my old life. I declined. I’d come to realize that the Kamisato Clan gave me so much, they trusted and believed in me—a foreigner—when no one else would. I couldn’t bear to abandon them in their time of need. After I made the decision to stay,” he lifted his Vision. “This popped up right beside me.”

“I had no idea,” I murmured to myself before remembering why I asked in the first place. “So, it just appeared out of thin air?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“Right beside you?”

“As close as you are to me right now,” he smiled. “Like magic.”

“Interesting,” I hummed and scanned the area around me once more. There was still no Anemo Vision to be found.

“What prompted this question?” He asked. “If this is about you not having a Vision, Lumine, I think you’ve proven to everyone that you’re fully capable without one.”

“Yes, yes,” I nodded. “But what if I told you I didn’t need a Vision?”

Thoma pinched his brow, “That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”

“No,” I whispered. “I mean, what if I could control—”

A feminine scream interrupted my words and we both whirled our heads in the direction of its source. Other students around us also stopped their practice to turn their attention to the girl falling over her feet with chattering teeth.

Ellin?

“Please!” She gasped as a gang of Cryo slimes closed in on her. “Cici, do something!”

Her partner snickered off to the side. “Aw, but you can’t possibly expect me to do everything in this class. That wouldn’t be fair.”

“I took down notes for the both of us all last week!” Ellin cried as the Cryo slimes chased her in a circle. “You’re the one with the Electro power. Now’s the time to use it!”

“Don’t tell me what to do,” Cici hissed. “But if you really want my help, then fine.”

A purple lamp materialized in Cici’s hand, and I recognized it to be almost identical to the blue one Cicin wielded. And so, I wasn’t surprised to see purple cicins zipping from her lamp; though,  I was beginning to question where the Twin Mages got their power, if not from a Vision. Was it anything like how I was able to control Anemo?

The purple cicins shot Electro bolts at the Cryo slimes, but a few of them missed—hitting Ellin instead.

“Oops,” Cici chirped with a coy smile. “You should move out of the way next time.”

Ellin squealed and sprinted out of the arena entirely, panting hard. The Cryo slimes were taken care of, and the Electro cicins returned back into their master’s lamp.

“See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“You…you’re detestable!” Ellin spat. “Why are you like this?”

“Why are you in this class?” Cici shot back. “Give it up, Erica. You’re nothing but a Visionless nobody.”

“You have no Vision!” Ellin retorted. “We are the same.”

“Oh, but I’m not a burden.”

“How can you use Electro without a Vision?” Ellin demanded. “Tell me, and I’ll show you! I’ll get that power and…and I’ll…”

“I hear a lot of fighting,” Professor Minci waltzed into the fray. “And not the kind that I instructed for today. What is the meaning of this? Do I need to teach someone a lesson—ah well, that is my job as a professor, after all.” 

“Professor Minci,” Ellin balled her fists. “How can I wield an element without a Vision?”

“You can’t.”

“Cici can!”

“Cici has been granted a manmade conduit under an agreement that Celestia Academy has with the Snezhnayan Department of Education and Arts. If you observe closely, you will find that it is not Cici who directly controls Electro, but her…what has she named them again?”

“Cicins,” Cici provided.

“Right, how creative,” Professor Minci carried on. “Ellin, dear, any grievances you have can be taken up with their student representative, Signora.”

“There must be some other way,” Ellin pleaded. “Is there no historical record of someone using an element without a Vision? Are Visions really the only way?”

“While I cannot say that anything is impossible in this world,” Professor Minci folded her arms. “The claims you suggest are highly, highly improbable. Visions are stable conduits to nature’s purest elements, bestowed upon individuals by Higher Powers. For an individual to wield an element without a Vision, well, the limitations of such a power are unknown and likely dangerously volatile. They would pose a threat to both themselves and the people around them.”

“And if I found a way to do it?” Ellin fiercely pursued the topic.

Professor Minci sighed and said nothing for a moment. “Then you would be confined for the safety and protection of others. A student like yourself, new to the basics of elemental reactions and simple theories…it would be our duty as instructors at Celestia Academy to keep this hypothetical power restrained. To be secured in extreme captivity while under direct observation is the best measure.”

I blanched.

Ellin sputtered, “That…That seems a bit extreme.”

Indeed.

“It would be necessary,” Professor Minci shrugged. “If that is all, then the rest of you should finish rounding up the rest of your cuties. Once the last of them are put away, you may leave.”

By put away she meant put to death, but nobody minded as the slime population was incessantly on the rise. I watched as students went back to finishing off their slimes, but I wasn’t really seeing anything. My thoughts were elsewhere.

You would be confined.

My palms became clammy as I considered the situation I was in. As far as I could tell, it was me who controlled Anemo. And as far as I could tell, I didn’t have a Vision. Based on these glaringly obvious facts, I could be facing confinement if word ever got out about what I could do. No, that wouldn’t do. That wouldn’t do at all.

“Wow,” Thoma breathed. “That sure was something. So, what were you about to tell me earlier?”

“Huh?”

“You were saying something about a Vision? Or was it not needing one?”

“Oh,” that’s right. “ Oh! Ah, no…what I meant was um, you’re right. About the whole ‘being strong just as I am’ thing. Thanks, Thoma.”

“Of course,” he smiled. “Are you sure that’s all you had to say?”

Thoma’s olive eyes stared at me, full of honesty and openness. I trusted Thoma. I really did. And I wanted to tell him about what I just discovered, but…I couldn’t—not after what Professor Minci said. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with my body and this new Anemo. It could have been a fluke.

It probably wasn’t a fluke.

Alas, maybe I should do some research in private before opening up to anyone, just to be safe.

“Yup,” I nodded. 

“Alright then,” he believed me and a tiny prick of guilt stabbed into my chest. “I want to go over to see how Ellin is doing. Her partner seems to be very cruel. I don’t want her to think any less of herself because of that.”

Coming here just one week ago, I remembered Ellin’s optimism on persevering no matter what and sticking together to tough it out. I agreed with Thoma, and we decided to approach Ellin together. She was physically fine, for the most part, even after the Cryo slime and Electro cicin ordeal. Emotionally, it took a few words of affirmation and positive coaching before she regained her usual backbone.

Business in the arena wrapped up, and we went back into the building to collect the rest of our belongings. I still had two more classes left in the day and a yawn overcame me just as my stomach grumbled. 

I was exhausted.

On my way to History, I looked at my open hand once more. Did Anemo really grace these fingertips? Was I capable of controlling an element all on my own?

With just these thoughts, I felt the beginnings of a breeze tickle at my palm. Panicked, I quickly clenched my hand into a fist and let it hang at my side. I’ll have to be careful. No one else can know, for now. My freedom was at stake.

But still…I smiled.

Chapter Text

“Ready or not, here I come!”

I giggled in my hiding spot before quieting down and waiting for my seeker to start his search. We chose nighttime because hide-and-seek was too easy in the day. Both Aether and I agreed that we were too clever and that we needed to play the game in hard mode. We had to sneak away after lights out and make sure Katheryne didn’t catch us like she did the last time.

“Lumine!” Aether called out into the dark forest. “Where are you?”

I rolled my eyes. I wouldn’t reveal my position—not for a million mora.

My eyes had adjusted well enough to the dim moonlight, but I heard my brother bumbling through the bushes before I saw him. Double-checking my position, I made sure I was securely crouched in the branches of my tree. I picked this tree out earlier today because it was the tallest, and it had so many wide leaves—perfect for hiding.

I spied the golden sheen of Aether’s hair as he searched the area close to the bottom of my tree’s trunk. Hm, there were tons of forest area to cover…how did he know to look here first?

“There you are!” Aether exclaimed and my jaw dropped open, he was pointing right at me.

“No fair!” I cried. “You cheated.”

“How could I cheat?” He grinned. “I covered my eyes on top of a blindfold that you double-knotted. I win fair and square.”

“You haven’t won yet,” I refused to admit defeat. “You still have to catch me.”

“That’s not in the rules!”

“Yes, it is!”

I could make out Aether’s frown through the leaves, “Since when?”

“Since now,” I smirked.

There was no way Aether could catch me all the way up here. It took nearly all of my stamina to get to the top of the tallest tree in the forest, and I had to take breaks! Plus, I accidentally broke a few of the branches toward the bottom on my climb up here—he couldn’t make it if he tried.

“Fine,” he said after a moment. “I’ll catch you, Lumine.”

“We’ll see about that!” I hollered from my spot in the branches.

I watched as he began his climb up the tree trunk. He got in a few good grips and branches to hold onto, but just as I expected, he couldn’t make it much further past the broken ones. All according to plan.

“Just give it up. You’ll never make it.”

Aether didn’t say anything to that—he just continued to grunt and pant as he failed to secure a proper branch time after time. Soon, he had found one branch that was firm enough to hold, and my smile melted away.

“Really, Aether,” I rolled my eyes again. “Stop trying, or I’ll…I’ll throw a pinecone at you!”

“Now that would be cheating,” he replied and continued to climb higher and higher.

He was halfway up the tree now, and I was growing more nervous by the second. What should I do? If he really makes it up here, and if I lose…I’ll have to do his chores for a week! No. I wouldn’t allow it.

Plan B: Escape.

I spied a branch from another tree hanging low close to me. I could probably hop onto it if I tried, but would it hold? Hm, maybe I should—

Crack!

“Uh, Lumine?” Aether’s voice quivered. “I need some help.”

“You can’t trick me into coming down there,” I hesitantly looked down to where he paused on a branch. “I’m not that…that…”

“Gullible?”

“Yeah,” I sniffed. “I’m not that gullible!”

“Lumine, look! The branch is broken.”

I focused all my attention on the branch Aether stood on, but I couldn’t see anything wrong with it. I didn’t want to believe him, but still. What if he was telling the truth? My stomach dropped. This was bad. I was way on top of the tree, but this was still a really tall tree. Aether was pretty high up. If he were to fall…

“Wait right there!” I commanded and began to slip down the branches to get close to him. “Try not to move.”

Aether obeyed my words and stood as still as a frightened mouse. The branches I hopped down on creaked with my weight, and the tree swayed in the wind. Next time, I will pick a better tree.

“Okay,” I jumped over to the branch just below him. “Bend down slowly and give me your hand.”

I reached my arm out to him as he began to slowly lower himself down from the broken branch. He was so close! Our fingertips touched and I got excited and quickly stood on my tiptoes to grab his hand. 

“I got you!” I smiled brightly at our success.

“No,” Aether swiftly hopped down onto my branch and trapped me in a hug. “ I got you. You lose!”

My jaw dropped open in shock, but before I could complain, the branch below our feet suddenly broke apart. 

A scream escaped me, and I could feel Aether’s arms tighten in a protective embrace. We tumbled down the tree in a mightly drop. Sometimes, other branches would come up and smack into us, and my arms got all scratched up. I couldn’t see how far we were from the ground—it was too dark—but we landed really quick for how long the fall went.

“Ow,” I croaked out loud.

“Are you,” Aether coughed. “Okay?”

Aether had landed on his back, while I landed on top of him—his arms were still secured around me, and I quickly rolled away to see if he was hurt badly.

“Aether!” I panicked, thinking he broke his spine or something. “Aether, speak to me!”

“I was speaking to you just now, wasn’t I?” He slowly sat up with a wince. “Good. You’re well enough to worry about me.”

“You shouldn’t have climbed up that tree,” I frowned.

“And If you’re well enough to worry about me,” he grinned mischievously. “Then you’re also well enough to wash my laundry! Loser.”

The pain of knowing I had lost the game hurt almost as much as my pains from the fall. Almost.

“How is it that you always win when we play hide-and-seek?”

Aether stood slowly, bracing himself against a tree trunk, and dug into his small pockets.

“You dropped one of your flowers,” he pulled out a white flower and tucked it back into my hair. “And you’re too trusting, Lumine. I didn’t expect you to actually fall for that.”

“I was worried about you,” I muttered. “And now I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never be worried about you again!”

Aether sighed, “ Then I guess I’ll just have to worry for the both of us.”

✧✧✧

I jolted awake in my bed as if I had just freshly fallen from the tallest tree in my memories. A smile marked my lips as I remembered how the rest of that night had gone. Aether and I went stumbling back to the orphanage, covered in dirt, and Katheryne was waiting for us. She was ready with a lecture, but then noticed the state we were in. She took us inside for treatment and lectured our ears off while we were being healed.

There really never was a dull moment with my brother.

My stomach growled low and strong, and the remnants of my dream faded away. After classes ended for the day, I had stopped by my dorm room in further pursuit of finding a Vision. There was nothing in my study desk or wardrobe drawers. When I had gone to check in my bed, a wave of exhaustion took over me, and I had fallen asleep.

I intended for it to be a short nap, but the darkness in my window indicated that several hours had passed by. My stomach growled again, and I could only hope that I wasn’t too late for dinner. Quickly, I threw my shoes back on and left the student dorms in the direction of the dining hall.

Dinner was over.

I thunked my head on the locked door that was the entrance to my meals with a sigh. For the third time, my gut grumbled and I patted it lightly in acknowledgment. I would have to wake up early for a heavy breakfast the next day, then.

I sighed once more and turned to my next destination—the library. While I couldn’t satiate my hunger for food, I could at least attempt to satiate my ever-growing curiosity of how I am able to wield an element without a Vision. With Celestia’s library being as extensive as it is, I’m sure I could find something on the matter.

The library was a lot more empty of people than I had expected, and I couldn’t have wished for anything better. The fewer people here, the better. While the library was a private, quiet space by nature, I would like to avoid drawing attention to any of my research as much as possible.

Scanning through the numerous aisles of bookshelves, I picked out the titles that spoke to me. History of Great Vision Holders. Controlling Visions: Picking a Weapon. Autonomous Elements. A Visionless World: Natural Elements. Elemental Beings. And so on.

I carried my pile of books over to a study table and spread them out in order from most to least relevant. I suppose I could start with Autonomous Elements. The book was rather thick, and I could tell from the front page only that the material would be dense. No matter, I’d gotten plenty of sleep during my nap. The night was still young.

I pored over the texts and took note of each diagram, example, hypothesis, and summary. Most of the information I could find all pertained to monsters in this world that are connected to elemental energy. Slimes, hypostases, specters, regesvines, whopperflowers, vishaps, cicins…but nothing on regular people. I quickly flipped through the pages of the next book I’d picked up.

Nothing.

Next book. Nothing. Next. Nothing.

I was hoping that perhaps History of Great Vision Holders would have a section on anyone else who was so great that they didn’t need a Vision. So far, it seemed promising. It looked like there was a section on Visionless fighters who—

An unexpected hand suddenly clamped down on my shoulder and I jumped. Quickly utilizing the self-defense moves Xiao had taught us, I slid out from my chair and took hold of my assailant’s wrist, pulling them forward as I pushed myself backward. I slammed their chest on top of the table, bending their elbow backward and immobilizing them.

My mind soon caught up with my body, and I could almost recognize the brown head of hair pushed into the table. He was a student.

“P-Please let me go,” his voice wobbled. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“Huffman?” I let go and took a step back. “Why did you sneak up on me like that?”

He rubbed his wrist, “I didn’t mean to. I was whispering your name—this is a library—but you couldn’t hear me. I guess you were distracted with your books.”

“Yes,” I frowned. “I was reading because, as you said, this is a library. Did you need me for something?”

“Ah, well, I just wanted to…you know,” he scratched the back of his head. “I wanted to see what you were doing.”

“Seriously?” I balked. “You invaded my personal space.”

“Sorry,” he offered. “I mean, I guess I just got a little excited. I didn’t see you in the dining hall for dinner, so I thought you might have gone to study at the library with that Pyro shielder again. But then I saw he was still at dinner, so I thought that maybe we could study together for once. You weren’t here when I checked the first time, but I’m glad I came back.”

I moved to stand in front of the books I’d gathered so Huffman wouldn’t take notice. “I’m studying for Vision Studies. You’re not in Vision Studies.”

“We can still share the same space,” he suggested.

“I don’t understand,” I sighed. “There’s practically no one else in the library right now.”

“I know,” he smiled ruefully.

I continued, “Meaning you have all of these study tables to choose from. We don’t need to be cramped up at the same one. I have a lot of books.”

“That’s okay,” he shrugged. “I only have one book.”

“Why do you insist on studying together?” I crossed my arms.

“I only see you in Beginner’s Gliding, and even then we don’t talk. I thought we might get to know each other in Physical Combat, but you moved up a level, so that wasn’t possible.”

“Okay…?”

“Lumine,” his face turned red. “You’re…you’re pretty rad.”

“I’m rad?” I repeated. “Um, thanks?”

“No! Ugh, what I mean to say is,” he continued to grow more flustered. “I…really like you.”

Is he saying what I think he’s saying? Surely not. We’ve had maybe one interaction, and that was when I made him eat dirt in the sparring circles.

“I like you, Lumine,” he repeated with more confidence. “You’re so talented and skilled. Even without a Vison you still show up all the other snobs who think they’re hot stuff because they have one. You’re different. Gorgeous and—”

“Stop right there,” I held out a hand. “It’s not gonna happen.”

“Wh-what?”

“You should leave, Huffman,” I sighed. “Leave behind any hopes you have with me, too. I’m not interested.”

“B-but…” he reached out to me with a shaky hand and I swatted it away.

Huffman,” I snapped. “You’ve already touched me without permission once. Don’t make me show you exactly what the Conqueror of Demons teaches me while you’ve been stuck doing push-ups.”

“Lumine—”

Go, ” I cut at him and turned to sit down without even looking to see if he left.

He must have gone eventually, though. Soon, the sound of tears and sniffles faded away into an echo, and I was once again left in peace. Finally, back to doing my research. I returned my attention back down to the endless supply of words in front of me, but none of them were processed.

I couldn’t focus.

The whole interaction with Huffman, from start to finish, was so surreal. How could Huffman have feelings for me? I’d only been tolerating him when he’d tried to push for partnered exercise and private gliding lessons. Huffman was…just Huffman. 

Maybe I had been a little bit mean, but I blame my lack of a meal for being so harsh. The mixture of frantic researching to save my own skin with a side of hangriness didn’t make for the most polite letdown. Plus, Huffman was really out of line. How was he so sure I would be at the library? It made me uneasy.

“Ahem,” someone cleared their throat and I looked up to find Kaeya. “Would now be a bad time to get down on one knee and present you with a bouquet of flowers?”

My eyes widened in shock before I realized Kaeya must have been nearby and witnessed the whole Huffman fiasco. “You heard all that, didn’t you?” I groaned. How embarrassing.

“You didn’t give him a chance,” Kaeya tutted. “Poor guy burst into tears on his way out the door.”

“I know,” I sighed. “I heard.”

“I’d expect nothing less,” Kaeya settled in the chair across from me, and I tried to swallow my panic since my research was currently very observable. “He had more of a spine than I thought, but it seems not everyone is able to read the room.”

“Right?” I casually reached out to pull the books closer to me, stowing them away under my seat.

“Speaking of reading,” he went on. “What material has you so engrossed?”

“Oh you know,” I waved a hand. “Stuff. Vision stuff. You know Visions...people have ‘em.”

I looked around the room, desperate for a change of subject that didn’t involve my research or my rejection of Huffman’s affections. This was Kaeya, so…wait a minute. This was Kaeya. I nearly forgot about my plot to get him to reveal the full student roster to me so I could get potential information on Aether.

You,” I pointed an accusing finger. “You’ve been avoiding me.”

“Have I?”

“Don’t play dumb,” I glared at him. “One moment, you’re expressing a concerning amount of attention towards me, and the next, you’re giving me the cold shoulder.”

“Aw,” he propped an elbow on the table and rested his chin on his hand. “Do you miss me?”

“I need you for something,” I confessed.

“Even better,” his eye twinkled. “And what might that be?”

“You’re a member of the student council, right? The student council, wow, what an honored and glorious position. You must be, uh, pretty rad.”

“My interest has piqued,” he said. “Now you’re trying to butter me up with the same words your spurned admirer used.”

“Do you have access to the student roster? I mean, the one for the entire school,” I got straight to the point.”

“I do.”

Perfect.

“Can I see it?”

“Depends,” he drawled. “Why?”

“I’m looking for someone.”

“I figured that much,” he nodded. “Who?”

“It’s personal.”

“I can’t help you if you won’t tell me.”

“Oh, come on,” I huffed. “Whether or not you know who I’m looking for—you can still show me the roster.”

“Hm, you’re right. I won’t help you if you won’t tell me.”

“You’re insufferable,” I muttered.

“So I’ve been told,” he smirked. “Although, I suppose I wouldn’t mind handing over the roster if you instead indulged my curiosity. Why are you reading up on Visions and elemental powers that have no tie with them?”

“It’s for class.”

“Ah, she lies,” Kaeya hummed. “Fine, then. I’ll show you the student roster if you help me.”

I frowned. What could he possibly need help with from me? There was only one thing I could think of. “With your treasure hunt?”

“Precisely.”

“Do you have any leads? What information do you have on the treasure? How do you know if it even exists? And why do you want to scout out me to be your partner?”

“All good questions,” he tapped his chin thoughtfully. “Questions that I can answer for you, once you accept.”

“I can’t accept a request without knowing the details,” I frowned, growing frustrated. These men were trying my patience today.

“Sure, you can.”

“Fine,” I bit out. “I’m getting a cut of the treasure, too.”

Kaeya grinned wide and held out a hand, I grasped it and we shared a firm handshake. “It’s a deal. And as a treat for this momentous occasion, I have brought you a peace offering.”

He lifted a box out from under the table and slid it towards me. The box was nothing special—about the size of a textbook and carved out of plain wood. I eyed him warily before finding a latch. I opened the box.

“Fruity Skewers!” Kaeya cheered. “You missed dinner, didn’t you?”

I didn’t hesitate to pick up one of the skewers, biting into and savoring every bit of the chicken and mushroom before quickly devouring it whole—minus the stick. At last, my hunger pains finally went away.

“Tasty?” He asked. “I made them myself.”

I could barely speak in-between bites, “I think I might love you for this.”

He chuckled and put a hand to his chest, “My condolences to Huffman.”

Chapter Text

I pulled the last piece of chicken off the final skewer and set the remaining stick back down into the box. I only ever had regular Chicken-Mushroom Skewers in the dining hall, and Kaeya’s Fruity Skewers were so much better.

“My compliments to the chef,” I offered. “Now, what do you know about the treasure?”

“Not so fast,” he pointed to his mouth. “You’ve got something right there.”

I licked my lips, “Did I get it?”

Kaeya shook his head and pulled a small handkerchief from his breast pocket. He leaned over the table and reached out to my face with the cloth, wiping at one corner of my lips. My heart stuttered.

“I-I can do it,” I swiped the handkerchief from his hand, dabbing at the spot and hoping it covered the warmth I felt flooding my cheeks. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“How could I be so sure you would return my handkerchief?” he asked. “They aren’t easy to come by.”

“Here,” I held it out to him before snatching my arm back just as fast. “Wait, I’ll clean it first. I’ll make sure it is carefully washed and pressed, even. Only the best for you.”

“I sense you may be mocking me,” he scoffed. “Did I not just offer a peace treaty?”

“Oh right,” my bad. “I don’t think I thanked you for those yet, so…thank you for the meal.”

“Anytime,” he leaned back into his chair. “As for details on the treasure, I have collected information and stored quite a bit of it up here,” he tapped his temple. “But if we want to get into depth, we’ll have to go to my room.”

“Your room?” My eyebrows shot up. At this time of night? “Why?”

“Well, I can’t let my intel fall into the wrong hands, now can I? My room is the most secure place at the Academy to store the documents I’ve gathered. I don’t trust anywhere else or anyone else to not leak my sources.”

“Except for your partner, me,” I narrowed my eyes. “Right?”

“But of course,” he nodded and motioned for us to stand. “Now then, shall we get going? I see you have your own secretive research going on, so unless you want to continue with that…?”

“No, it’s alright,” I gathered the materials in my arms. “These books weren’t of much help, anyway.”

“Really?” Kaeya picked up a few and helped me return them back onto the shelves. “Whatever you’re searching for, there’s a chance I might know something about it, don’t you think?”

“Doubt it,” I shook my head.

Kaeya shrugged, “If you’re certain.”

After putting the books away, I walked with Kaeya back to the student dorms and we bounced ideas off each other on what the treasure could possibly be. I thought Kaeya was referring to literal treasure chests that one would find in the open-world—possibly a highly coveted one—like a luxurious chest. Kaeya, however, was a firm believer that the treasure was something more than material.

“You’ll see,” was the only reasoning he gave when I questioned his standpoint.

Once we got to the dorms, we entered a stairwell and I grew to have a newfound appreciation for my first-floor Visionless House. The Cryo House was located on the seventh floor of the building, and while the Academy definitely had enough funds to install automatic lifts like one I’ve seen at Wangshu Inn, apparently they prefer students to suffer through the extra exercise.

At last, we completed the final flight of stairs and entered the Cryo House corridor. For the most part, the interior looked the same as the first floor did. Same carpeting, same walls, same sconces…everything but the temperature.

“Is it always this cold in here?” I rubbed my prickling arms.

“Hm?” Kaeya frowned. “It’s not cold.”

“Yes it—nevermind,” I waved away the notion. It was probably a Cryo thing. “I just hope your room has proper insulation.”

Kaeya led me down the hallway, and we passed a handful of bedroom doors before finally stopping at his. It looked normal.

“This doesn’t seem very high-security,” I crossed my arms. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”

“They haven’t taught you about elemental sight yet, have they?” He pulled out his room key and unlocked the door.

“Elemental sight?”

“I’ll take that as a no,” he chuckled and welcomed me in. “Come on now, don’t be shy.”

Not only was this the first dorm room I’d entered that wasn’t my own, but it was Kaeya’s. Of course, I was hesitant, but I refused to reveal that to him. “I’m not shy.” 

I walked in and brushed past his shoulder. Kaeya’s room was much like mine in terms of structure and furniture, but that’s where the similarities stopped. He had expensive ceiling-to-floor velvet curtains, in his signature navy blue, draping down the sides of the window. His bedspread was the same shade, dramatically covered in thick blankets and decorated with plush pillows wrapped in golden silk. 

At his desk, a dozen delicate, glass bottles were lined in a neat row. Each bottle was swirling with a variety of vibrant colors, and I fought the urge to pick one up to see what was inside.

I thought my room had a nice rug, but his was made from warm furs, like the kind hanging off his shoulder when he wasn’t in school uniform. Was Kaeya the heir of some rich noble or something?

And finally, the last detail I took in was probably the most important. Kaeya had arranged a large bulletin board to take up an entire wall. It was posted up with an arrangement of papers that varied from scribbled personal notes, older documents, and even a few worn pictures. Lines of red string connected the spread together in a crazy web, and I wasn’t sure how anyone would make sense out of it all.

“This is it,” he stood in front of the board and crossed his arms, assessing the view. “This is the result of months of researching. I’m close now, I can feel it.”

“How did you even get ahold of all this?” I stepped up to get a closer look. “And no one else knows?”

“As you suspected, being in the student council has its perks,” he smirked. “Sure, President Jean is always giving me work to do, but I always find time to work towards my own interests with easy access to school records. Though, the Academy does keep some documents hidden from the student council, so then I get close with the faculty.”

"Kaeya!" I spun to gawk at him, “By close, do you mean…”

“Of course, not,” he laughed and I shut my mouth. “I run errands, do favors, help clean up after class, and assist in their research. In turn, I’m allowed to linger in their office for a few extra moments, I gain access to hundreds of restricted files after being sent to retrieve just one, and I am rewarded by their trust.”

“You’ve been playing the long game,” I surmised. “Explain this board to me. What does it all mean?”

“Everyone knows Celestia Academy was founded five-thousand years ago,” he began. “It’s etched into statues and plaques all around campus. That number is important, remember it. Moving on, look at this photo here.” Kaeya pulled off a photo from the wall and held it up for me to see.

It was an image of a cave mural that had faded away with time, but I could tell that the design must have been incredibly detailed and created by someone of high artistic ability. The most prominent figure in the image was something shooting across the sky…a star? Underneath it was a complicated structure that I could only assume to be Celestia Academy. Below the school was darkness, slashes of black that cut into the foundation of the earth.

“I have reason to believe this photo was taken somewhere in a cave on this very island,” Kaeya hung it back up onto the wall. “As for how someone would get to the cave, there are two possibilities: traversing in the mountains outside of campus, or locating a secret passageway that’ll take us down directly to the cave.”

“Why does the cave matter?” I questioned. “What does the mural mean?”

“I’ll get to that,” he nodded before reaching up to snatch another piece of paper from the board. “What’s important to note is the comet in the sky. According to these astrological documentations, Comet Paimon reaches Teyvat once a millennium. Every one-thousand years. Celestia is how old, again?”

“Five-thousand years old,” I recited.

“Precisely,” he nodded. “As a first-year, you may not know this, but at the end of each academic year, Celestia holds a Grand Tournament and selects a Champion after a week of trials and—hey, wipe that look off your face, I’m going to be winning this year. The Grand Tournament is tradition, but only because of the First Tournament.”

“What was the First Tournament?”

Kaeya singled out more records. “War ravaged Teyvat for a long time, and as devastating as that may have been, war is also the seed to prosperity and change. I couldn’t find exact details on the war that preceded Celestia, but I’ve figured out that the First Tournament was held in commemoration of the final war—selecting a Champion to lead the new era.”

“Okay, and so each year after that, they selected a new Champion?”

“Wrong,” Kaeya shook his head. “The Second Tournament came one-thousand years later.”

“Comet Paimon crosses the sky once every one-thousand years,” I recalled. “Was Celestia founded during the crossing of Comet Paimon? And a new Champion is heralded with each passing of the comet?”

“I knew you would catch on.”

“Kaeya,” I looked from him to the board and back to him again. “I’m sure I can learn all of this in my History class. What do Champions and comets have to do with treasure?”

“Hang on. It’s just as you said. With each passing of Comet Paimon, a Tournament was held and a Champion was selected. And once there was a Champion, the Academy came into possession of bountiful treasure troves—I’m talking about Liyue levels of wealth. However, after a Tournament was held, there were no further records of that Champion.”

I frowned, “That doesn’t seem right.”

“There’s more. Only the first three Tournaments came to pass. Four thousand years after the Academy was established, there was supposed to be a Fourth Tournament, but it never was held.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know,” Kaeya confessed. “But what I do know is that Comet Paimon is coming again. This academic year.”

“During the Grand Tournament?”

“Should be,” he nodded.

“Wait,” I stopped him. “You said that, historically, the Champions would essentially disappear without a trace after winning a Tournament. What about the ones held yearly today?”

“These are just regular trials, meant for fun to boost morale,” he explained. “The Champions nowadays automatically ace their classes and gain some mora, but it’s nothing compared to what could be won thousands of years ago.”

“Who won last year?”

Kaeya stared at the floor and didn’t say anything. 

“Kaeya,” I pressed on. “Who won?”

“I can’t remember,” he whispered.

“What?” I breathed. “How can that be?”

“I don’t know,” he gritted his teeth. “No one else seems to remember either. Every time I bring it up with someone, they just change the subject. I may be the only one who recognizes this lapse in memory because of the knowledge I’ve uncovered so far.”

“Are Champions disappearing again, then?”

“It is possible,” Kaeya nodded. “Though, I don’t know why a disappearance would happen one year shy of Comet Paimon. It doesn’t make sense.”

“How long have Grand Tournaments been held?” I asked.

“This year marks the seventy-seventh,” he informed. “Not very long in the grand scheme of things.”

“And you want to win this year? To become Champion and risk falling off the face of Teyvat?” I frowned. “I won’t help you with that.”

“You won’t have to,” he smiled. “We’re going to find the treasure before the Grand Tournament begins.”

“And how might we do that?”

“It starts with the cave,” he gestured back to the mural photo. “There will be answers there—I know it.”

This was so much more information than I had expected, and I understood now why Kaeya had insisted I visit his room to discuss our plans. I sat myself down at the edge of his bed and thought about what this all meant. Kaeya breathed out a sigh and fell down next to me, lying flat on his back and staring at the ceiling.

For three thousand years, there used to be a once-in-a-millennium Tournament—signaled by the arrival of Comet Paimon—that granted riches to Celestia, but their Champion would be lost each time. The Fourth Tournament got canceled somehow, and now a more modern take, Grand Tournaments, is carried out as a nod to an old tradition. 

“Oh,” Kaeya jumped up and pulled out one last sheet of paper. “There was also this. I saw a preserved scrap of paper framed in the headmaster’s office, once. It was written in an ancient language, but I managed to transcribe it after looking up old texts.”

I took the slip of paper from his hand and read the transcription aloud.

Streaking star against the skies,

Shadows kiss the edge of light,

Blood and power reward a prize,

Ties of yore bloom into sight.

Something about this script caused a shiver to run down my spine. I wasn’t so sure about the treasure hunt anymore. 

“What do you think it means?” I looked to Kaeya.

“I have a feeling you won’t like this,” he looked at the cryptic message. “The first line has to be referencing Comet Paimon, and I’m sure the third line is about the Tournament and Champion. As for the shadows…”

“What is it?” I nudged his arm.

“You saw those black streaks on the mural, right?”

I nodded.

“We may be dealing with the Abyss.”

Chapter Text

After Kaeya’s overview of the treasure situation, we began to make our game plan. Because classes were during the week, it was decided that our first search for the cave would be over the weekend. Kaeya opted for option number one—secret passageways—since he was familiar with the layout. He gave me a copy of the Academy’s blueprints, and I had to study it before our next meeting. 

The plan was simple. First, we will scope out the entirety of campus separately, each of us covering one end of the Academy. Then, we’ll find each other and do a recon of any promising locations. Hopefully, we’ll have found something relevant. If not, we would have to consider option number two—exploring the mountains.

I’d left Kaeya’s room much later than I intended. The beginnings of dawn were creeping into the sky by the time I turned in for sleep, and fatigue was pulling at me all day. In Beginner’s Gliding, I took it easy with the obstacle course and didn’t go for any races with Amber. Now, in Physical Combat, I fought to stay alert while showing Childe proper swordplay form.

Instructor Xiao told everyone to stop sparring and focus on technique, and I suspect that may have been because of our rather aggressive practice from yesterday.

“Point your toe in the direction of your attack for balance,” I swiped my wooden sword in the air and demonstrated the move. Both Childe and I were fully aware he needed no such instruction, but it was a formality at this point. “Make sure your knees don’t lock. Okay, now practice your form with ten lunges.”

I watched as Childe expertly handled his sword. His motions were quick and deadly—in a sort of beautiful way. It was hard not to be mesmerized. 

Still, my mind wandered and went back to the treasure hunt. Kaeya had said that we may be dealing with the Abyss. As much as I didn’t want to believe it, all signs were pointing to its possible involvement.

Everyone has heard about the Abyss Order—a dark organization that wreaks havoc upon Teyvat when the opportunity arises. Most mobs were the result of their interference, especially the hostile ones. No one knows where the monsters of the Abyss Order come from, but they normally spawn in remote locations. Hilichurls were the most common threat, though their low levels of intelligence made them fairly easy to handle in small numbers. Large groups led by Abyss Mages—that was when true danger began to form. Organized hordes on that scale were rare, though, just for the moment.

I have taken notice of increased activity over the years, through word-of-mouth and my own accidental encounters. Regular hilichurls were doable if I were to take them down one at a time, but I wouldn’t dare face a mob on my own.

“Hey,” Childe stabbed his weapon at me. “Keep your eyes on me.”

“We’re not supposed to be fighting,” I parried.

“Then stop daydreaming,” he scoffed. “What’s got your mind so preoccupied anyway? You’ve been distracted nonstop all class. Normally, my partner isn’t so mindless and dimwitted.”

“Why are you being so hostile?”

“Aren’t I always hostile?” He shrugged. “Maybe I should rephrase my question. Who are you thinking about?”

“No one.”

“Really?” Childe narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure you’re not drooling over Kaeya Alberich?”

Kaeya? ” I balked. “Why would you think that?”

Childe flipped the hilt of his sword with the beginnings of a glare. “I talked with Signora, you know. Asked her why she was bothering you, and what that might have to do with me.”

“What did she say?” And what did that have to do with Kaeya?

“It doesn’t matter what she said,” he bit out. “Not anymore. What matters is that she was so kind as to inform me that she saw you sneaking into Kaeya’s room last night. Apparently, you were with him until morning.”

I let out a gasp. “She was spying on me?”

“Signora has a Cryo Vision,” Childe rolled his eyes. “She lives in Cryo House and is very perceptive. It’s true then? You and Alberich?”

“She wasn’t lying,” I shrugged, and heat crept up my neck at the implication. “But we weren’t like that.”

“Sure,” he sneered. “That’s why you’re turning red as blood on a battlefield, right? Because you weren’t like that?

“I—” I sputtered. “Whether or not you believe me, why do you care who I choose to hang out with?”

“Because you're my partner,” Childe stepped close to me. “No one else’s.”

“In class,” I reminded him. “You can’t just claim me as your partner in everything else.”

“Why not?”

“We’re friends, Childe,” I sighed. “You and I, friends. Kaeya and I, friends.”

“Didn’t I warn you about him?”

“I vaguely remember that,” I recalled my first day here when Childe made a cryptic comment about an eyepatch. “But I’ve spent enough time with him to know he’s not a bad person. Don’t you trust my judgment?”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of time with him,” Childe remained unconvinced.

“And I spend plenty of time with you,” I reminded him. “Every day.”

“In class,” Childe muttered.

“You’re always trying to fight me,” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Inside and outside of class. Believe it or not, I have other things to worry about.”

Like doing well in all of my classes. And keeping an eye out for Twin Mages’ behavior. And trying to figure out how I can use Anemo on my own without getting caught. And finding my long-lost twin brother. And uncovering a secret treasure while possibly getting involved in Abyss Order business. Wow, I’d really built up quite the to-do list.

“You shouldn’t have to worry about anything,” he looked at me. “What’s bothering you? I’ll handle it, and then we can focus on our matches. Need me to end a few enemies?”

“I can handle it,” probably. “What I can’t handle is you being like…this. Where’s the easygoing Childe focused only on getting strong enough to raze the world?”

“I have other pursuits,” he stared at me before switching up his whole demeanor with a grin. “Fine. I’ll save the fighting talk for class.”

“Good,” I huffed with a nod. “I’m glad we cleared that up.”

“And I’ll see you for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

“What?”

“You used to sit at the Visionless table for meals. It was easier eating with you then,” he sighed. “But now that you’re always at the Pyro table…they’re annoying.”

“Hey,” I punched his arm. “Those are my friends you’re insulting.”

“I suppose I can withstand their chatter, though,” he smiled. “Then we can hang out more.”

“Right,” I eyed him warily. “You’re not planning something, are you?”

“Is it a crime, wanting to spend extra time with you?” He raised his brows. “Or could it be that you wish to spend your time with someone else ?”

“Okay, okay,” I rolled my eyes. “Let’s get back to swordplay before Instructor Xiao yells at us.”

✧✧✧

“Whoa, Bennett,” Xiangling gasped. “Where did you get those bruises?”

“I had some trouble with my windglider today,” he laughed sheepishly.

“You have a black eye,” Amber stared, horrified. “What kind of windglider trouble could cause that?”

“It was all a blur,” he confessed. “One thing led to another, with my luck, and I glided straight into a floating boulder. Then I fell onto a foggy-groggy before a bird flew into my eye.”

“Why haven’t you gone to the infirmary?” I asked, also horrified. “I can take you if you can’t find it.”

“Oh, I know where the infirmary is. Barbara heals me on a daily basis. She’s always lecturing me on basic safety,” he laughed. “I couldn’t wait to get to dinner, though. The Sweet Madames they’re serving today are my favorite!”

We all chimed in to tell Bennett that he should prioritize his wounds over food, but he insisted that he heals better on a full stomach. The Sweet Madames really are delicious, though. I went to grab a second plate and returned to find that Childe had filled the empty seat next to mine.

“Hey, girlie,” he munched on a chicken bone. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“That’s Thoma’s seat,” I pointed out. “He should be here any minute.”

Childe’s eyes darkened, “He’s not here right now, is he?”

“Well no,” I acknowledged. “But with so many Pyro at this school, there won’t be any other seats open at the table.”

“I thought we were having dinner together? If Thoma wants a seat at the table, then he should get here in time.”

I couldn't argue with that, nor could I shoo Childe away after he expressed such a strong desire to spend quality time together. Placing my tray on the table, I noticed my friends had gone silent. Oh boy. How was I going to get Childe to be less threatening?

“So,” he drawled. “How have your classes been?”

“Yeah, Amber,” I pulled her into the conversation for the sake of inclusivity. It was time for him to play nice with everyone else. “How are classes?”

“Me?” A piece of chicken fell off her fork. “Oh, um, they’ve been good. I was finally able to guess all the names of the plants correctly in—”

“That’s nice,” Childe turned back to me. “I want to know about Lumi’s classes.”

“Childe,” I shot him a reprimanding look. “Let her finish.”

“That’s okay!” Amber waved her hands. “Nothing much to say.”

“No,” I shook my head. “If he wants to sit here, then he will be fully engaged with everyone else. Isn’t that right, Childe?”

“Fine.”

He gave in to the pressure of simply fitting in, and we were able to go around the group discussing their classes and worries about upcoming exams. I made sure to get everyone to say their piece before the conversation circled to me, and I could tell Childe was close to losing it. Though, he was polite and even coughed up a few follow-up questions to prove he was paying attention. I was proud.

“Sorry I’m late,” Thoma walked up with a tray of food. “A staff member needed help carrying boxes and I—oh. Are there no seats left?”

“Ah, what a shame,” Childe exclaimed as unremorsefully as possible. “Looks like you’ll have to find somewhere else to get lost—I mean, sit down.”

His amended words were due to my swift kick under the table.

“Sorry Thoma,” I met Thoma’s gaze.

“That’s alright!” He reassured me. “I’ll just eat with Miss Kamisato, then. Enjoy your meal!”

Childe snickered as Thoma left, and I kicked him again. “You’re supposed to be civil, remember?”

“Old habits die hard, I suppose,” he shrugged.

“Kill them faster.”

“And what about your classes?” He changed the subject. “May I finally hear about how you’ve been doing, after all this time?”

I gave him one last withering look before moving on. Today in Vision Studies, we were fighting with slimes again, but I purposefully steered clear from the action. It’s not that I didn’t want to splash water on slimes, I just couldn’t risk flaring up my Anemo in the event of another emergency. I took more notes than preferable, but it was necessary at this point. The rest of my classes have been stellar.

When it came for Childe to talk about himself, he didn’t hesitate. There were a lot of, “no one else can best me,” and “my classes are too easy.” But he shut that down quickly after I reminded him he found them easy because he got held back for behaving like an idiot.

“In a non-academic sense,” he corrected.

“Tomatoes potatoes.”

Xiangling frowned, “Isn’t it tomatoes tomahtoes?” 

“It’s whatever she says it is,” Childe asserted.

“Thanks for the support, but it’s not that serious,” I patted his shoulder and tried to suppress a yawn. “Okay guys, I think I might sleep early. It’s been a doozy of a day.” Especially with my irregular sleeping patterns.

“I’ll walk with you,” Childe stood and picked up both of our trays, walking them to the return area.

“Sure,” I bid farewell to my friends, all of which seemed to let out a simultaneous sigh of relief once Childe walked away, and I felt a bit bad for them. “Sorry about Childe being all…y’know. I think he’s getting better, though.”

“It’s fine!” Amber beamed. “It’s kind of nice, actually. He doesn’t seem so bad.”

He jogged back with a smile, “Let’s go.”

✧✧✧

“See? I wasn’t so bad at dinner,” Childe applauded himself as we reached the student dorm building.

“For the most part,” I agreed. “This is goodnight, then.”

“Let me take you to your room,” he offered.

“You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” he opened the door for me. “I’ve never really walked down this floor before. Visionless House looks the same as all the others, I guess.”

“And why would it look any different?” I frowned. “It’s a building, not a contest.”

“Oh you know,” Childe shrugged. “Each floor can be a bit—”

He abruptly halted in his tracks, and I didn’t need to ask why. Kaeya was leaned against my door, though he hadn’t noticed our approach. He was studying a bundle of papers tucked neatly in his hand. Childe’s smile dimmed, as did the light in his eyes that had sparked during dinner. He was so hung up on Kaeya before, and I could only imagine what kind of outlandish thoughts were going through his head right now.

“Childe,” I started, but he was already making a beeline toward my door.

“What do we have here?” Kaeya pushed off the door as Childe approached. “Lumine, I wasn’t expecting you to have company.”

“What sort of business do you have with her?” Childe asked with an emotionless tone. “At this hour?”

“I need to speak with her,” Kaeya looked at me. “In private.”

Childe crossed his arms, “No.” 

Kaeya ignored him, “Lumine, may I have a word with you?”

I turned to face Childe, uncertain if I could get him to back down, but still willing to try. “Thanks for walking me back. You can leave now. Kaeya and I just need to go over a few things.”

“I’ll leave when he leaves,” he didn’t budge.

Kaeya smirked, “I’m not leaving until you’re out of the way.”

“Say that again, pirate boy,” Childe took a menacing step forward and I grabbed his arm, pulling him back.

“Pirate boy,” Kaeya laughed. “Not the most creative taunt. Surely, you can do better.”

Childe clenched his fists, “You want to see what I am capable of? Gladly.”

“No fighting outside of class,” I stepped in front of him. “Remember?”

“With you,” he recalled. “No fighting with you, girlie. Alberich is fair game.”

“He is not,” I shook my head. “You were nice to my friends earlier, so you can be nice to Kaeya. He’s my friend, too.”

Just a friend?”

“Yes,” I sighed and lightly squeezed his arm. “Trust me, okay?”

Childe remained silent, shooting daggers at Kaeya before looking back at my pleading expression. I wouldn’t know what to do if they broke out in a fight, not that I expected Kaeya to actually fall for Childe’s taunts. He was doing so well earlier, but I can’t say I’m surprised that seeing Kaeya put him on edge.

After what felt like forever, Childe finally nodded slowly, and I let out a breath of relief. He reached down to grasp my hand at his arm and squeezed back before stepping away. The tender gesture stunned me, and some part of me wished for him to stay a bit longer.

“See you at breakfast,” he let go of my hand.

“I’ll try to wake her up before then,” Kaeya smirked and I whirled on him.

“Kaeya!” I hissed.

He laughed, “Kidding.”

I found no humor in the situation, nor did Childe. I swear he was about to assault Kaeya right then and there, but he held back. Surprisingly.

“If you try anything with her…” Childe trailed off and the threat hung in the air for a moment, loud and clear. With that, he stalked away down the hall.

Kaeya let out a chuckle and I glared at him, shutting him up. “Why are you like this?”

He held up the papers he’d been holding. “I brought you the student roster.”

“That’s what that is?” I gasped—gripes forgotten—and moved to grab them. “Let me see.”

“Ah, ah,” he held it out of my reach, and I seriously considered delivering a blow to his kneecaps. “First, would you mind telling me exactly what kind of relationship you have with Childe? I didn’t expect this.”

“We’re friends,” I stood on my toes. “Give me the roster.”

“Just friends?”

I let out an exasperated sigh, “Not you, too.”

Chapter Text

I sat at my desk with the student roster in hand, scanning and flipping through the pages. There were a lot more students at the Academy than I thought there were. I guess I still have more people to meet down the line. After a few minutes, I was able to deduce that Aether was not amongst any of the other first-years, just as I expected. The other years took a bit longer to check. I spent extra time on the upperclassmen and triple-checked each sheet.

His name was nowhere to be found. Trying to not get too frustrated, I went back for a fourth time—just to be sure.

“Who are you looking for?” Kaeya asked from where he lounged on my bed.

He made himself cozy per his own request, and I was too preoccupied with the lists in front of me to care all that much.

“Nobody,” I murmured.

“Clearly not a nobody,” he countered. “Not with you being so desperate to find them. What’s the matter? You don’t look happy.”

Of course, I’m not happy. Katheryne gave me one nugget of information on my brother, the best lead I’d had in years—not that I was searching for all that long. It was disheartening that even with this roster, with so many names available to me, none of them were his. This could only mean one thing.

“He’s not here,” I whispered. And from the looks of it, he never was.

“A he?” Kaeya sat up straighter. “Don’t tell me you came to Celestia Academy looking for a distant lover.”

I barked out a harsh laugh, “No, not a lover.”

“Good,” Kaeya settled back into my pillows. “There’s already Childe to worry about. I can’t have your attention being drawn away in too many directions—from the treasure hunt, of course.”

I rolled my eyes. I’d already told Kaeya there was nothing going on with Childe, not in that way. Though, I suppose we’ve grown to be closer than I thought. Amber was right. He’s not that bad, and Childe had a charm to him that most people failed to notice—his fault for being so chaotic. Or maybe that’s what the charm was.

I finished my fourth round of studying the student roster with the same result. Nothing. I slapped the papers on my desk with a bit more force than intended, causing a few pages to flutter away onto the floor. As I bent down to pick them up, a sudden wave of emotion came over me.

I should have been nicer to him. When we were children, I would always find a reason to bicker and fight because it was fun. I loved butting heads with Aether, but maybe if I expressed myself as a more caring sister, as someone who would do anything for her brother, maybe his adopter would have taken me too. Maybe we could have grown up together. Spent our life together.

Madame Ping was like a mother to me, like family to me, but I missed my blood brother. Will I ever see him again? The memory of Aether’s face flashed before me, same golden features as mine, chubby-faced as a kid and with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Am I to go the rest of my life without my other half?

“Hey,” Kaeya moved off the bed and crouched beside me, collecting the papers himself. “Are you okay?”

I bit the inside of my cheek and willed myself to push it away. To push away the possibility of Aether truly being gone. “Mhm.”

“He must mean a lot to you,” Kaeya set the papers back onto my desk and pulled me up. “I hope he cares as much for you as you do for him.”

My breath hitched, and I sat cross-legged on the bed before confessing, “Aether. His name was—is Aether.”

“Aether,” Kaeya repeated and sat next to me. “Can’t say I’ve heard of him before. If you don’t mind me asking…who is he to you?”

“My brother,” I whispered and felt a sting in my eyes. Damnit, Lumine. Don’t cry in front of Kaeya. He’ll never let you live it down. “We were separated when we were children.”

“And you haven’t been in contact since?”

“No,” my voice wobbled, and I cursed the single tear that escaped my eye. I turned my head to the side in hopes Kaeya wouldn’t take notice.

I practiced taking in deep, controlled breaths to clear my head and stop the waterworks. Kaeya hadn’t said anything for a bit of time, and I risked a peek in his direction only to find he held a handkerchief in his hand. 

Ah, so he saw.

Wordlessly, I took it from him and wiped away two more runaway tears, sniffling. “I thought you said handkerchiefs were hard to come by, yet you’ve given me two in less than twenty-four hours.”

More silence.

“I have a brother, too,” he said at last. “You’ve met him. Diluc.”

I suspected they were related, based on snippets of information Kaeya mentioned about family drama and not getting along with Diluc. However, I wasn’t so sure since they looked so different from each other.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he sighed. “We’re adopted. Or at least, I am.”

“What happened?”

Kaeya laughed with no real emotion, “You mean why does he loathe me?” His eye darkened. “Things were better when we were children. I wish we could have stayed like that, but I screwed everything up. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I was young and foolish, arrogant and clumsy. When dad died I—” he cut himself off. “I wasn’t a brother to Diluc. Not in the way I should have been. I deserve his hatred.”

Kaeya’s expression twisted from guilt to anguish, though he tried to hide it by turning his head just as I did.

“You don’t,” I nudged his shoulder with mine in earnest. “I don’t know the details, but I know you don’t deserve that.”

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help you find your brother,” Kaeya shifted focus. “Even after all these years, I can tell you love him a lot. You’re an amazing sister, Lumine.”

“And you,” I nodded to him. “You still care for Diluc. It hurts that there may be no possibility of me reconnecting with Aether again, not knowing if he’s…if he’s still around. You and Diluc are right here at the same Academy. Living under the same roof. There’s a chance you can make things right.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Kaeya shook his head and plastered on a fake smile. “Diluc is a stubborn man. I advise you never get on his bad side.”

“I suppose stubbornness runs in the family, then?” I tried to joke. “You seem dead set on avoiding reconciliation.”

“Believe me, I’ve tried,” he murmured. “You know, this isn’t how I imagined our first heart-to-heart in your bed would go. I was thinking it’d be less woeful and a lot more sensual.”

“Archons,” I rolled my eyes and tried to push him off. “Again, why are you like this? You’ve gone and ruined the moment.”

Kaeya laughed as he hit the floor, “There’ll be plenty of other moments. You can count on it.”

“Out,” I swooped up the student roster papers and slapped them into Kaeya’s chest. “Shoo, shoo. All this treasure hunting hypothesizing and crying is making me sleepy.”

He accepted the papers and looked at me intensely. “Will you be alright?” 

“Mhm,” I shifted my eyes to focus on the wall behind him.

“You’re not going to cry yourself to sleep, are you?” He frowned. “If so, I can stay the night here. I’ve got a nice shoulder. Go on, cry on it.”

“I think you mean well,” I sighed. “But no, thank you. I want to be alone with my thoughts for a while.”

“Just know you don’t have to be.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I nodded. “And Kaeya? Don’t be too hard on yourself.”

He opened my door and crossed over the threshold, “Sweet dreams, Lumine. You can keep the handkerchief. That way, I’ll always have a reason to come back and pester you for it.”

Kaeya shut the door before I could respond. I smiled, placing the new handkerchief next to the one already sitting on my nightstand. As much as sleep pulled at me, and as much as I felt the need to self-indulge myself in a pity party crying session, there were a couple of things I had to take care of.

The first was schoolwork—I wouldn't dream of falling behind. Classes were moving at a fast pace, and while I was doing exceptionally well at the moment, I needed to make sure I could keep it up. As for the second thing…well, I couldn’t just discover new power and not hone it down in my free time, now could I?

✧✧✧

The rest of the week passed by in a blur. Childe held true to his words and accompanied me for each meal—besides lunch. Our lunches were at separate times, and though he tried to change his schedule to make the timing work, I insisted that would be too much. His company was a lot nicer than I expected in the long term, and I’m sure not having to fend off an attack every five minutes was part of it. My Pryo friends were also beginning to ease up around him, too. Though, none have gathered the courage to drop the Tartaglia and call him by his actual name.

Each night, I’d passed out the moment I hit my bed as a result of spending an hour working with Anemo. So far, the most I could do was lift a sheet of paper into the air and wobble a tower of books. I wasn’t sure how to manifest the same level of power as when I cushioned my own fall or swirled the dendro slimes to death, but I suspect it was an adrenaline thing. Still, lifting papers alone was enough to completely drain the energy I had by the end of the day.

Now that the weekend was here, the treasure hunt could begin. I woke up bright and early, so early that Childe wasn’t even waiting for me in the dining hall yet. I wasn’t sure if his desire to dine extended to weekends, so I mentally apologized in advance. After quickly finishing breakfast, I went to the meeting spot Kaeya arranged.

He was there already, out of school uniform since classes weren’t in session. I couldn’t get over the sheer amount of chest that the deep V of his shirt exposed. That was hardly practical, especially since the weather was beginning to get colder.

“There you are,” he waved at me from the fountain on the main quad. “Right on time, too.”

“You’d expect nothing less,” I shrugged and pulled a map from my pocket. “I highlighted the areas I’m investigating. Does it look right?”

Kaeya took one corner of the map while I held the other, analyzing the markings closely before patting me on the back. “This looks perfect.”

“Good,” I smiled and folded it back into my pocket. “See you at sunset,” for our mutual recon.

We separated and I turned in the direction of my assigned area of campus. Kaeya would be covering the west: the dining hall, administrative building, auditorium, fighting ring, gymnasium, and fitness center. I would take care of the east: library, lecture buildings, student dorms, laboratories, apothecary, greenhouse, and art gallery. It was a heavy list for both of us, but that’s why we’ll be spending so many hours inspecting.

I cross-referenced each location with the map containing possible hidden routes. The ones in the library were simple enough to find after Kaeya took me through one before. It wasn’t easy shoving bookshelves around without drawing attention, though. I had to stop on more than one occasion each time another student came by looking for a text. Ultimately, there were nothing but abandoned study rooms that led to the administrative building—which also came up dry with only dusty stairwells and corridors. 

The student dorms were something I looked forward to searching. After only seeing Visionless House and Cryo House, I finally had a valid reason to visit. Starting with Pyro House on the second floor, I wasn’t surprised the temperature was several degrees warmer than comfortable. In Anemo House, I swear almost every room must have had its window open. A constant draft was tickling my skin, and I smiled at the thought of possibly being relocated here one day. 

I found nothing—even after double-checking the map. The result was the same for the remaining Houses. 

Defeated, I left the student dorms and tried to stay optimistic on the way to the laboratories. The doors were locked over the weekend, but Kaeya gave me a master key ahead of time. I didn’t bother asking how he got that. No matter, there was nothing out of the ordinary in the nooks and crannies there.

I came up empty-handed with the apothecary and greenhouse, too.

The sun was lowering in the sky as I reached my final stop, the art gallery. The interior was all polished marble; save for the art, which ranged everywhere from landscape art to abstract sculptures of monsters. I noticed quite a few of the paintings were created by an Albedo Kriedeprinz. If my memory served correctly, he was an Alchemy professor. 

He was quite good. I found myself getting distracted from my mission on more than one occasion.

“This one represents the duality of monsters,” someone spoke at my side and I jumped. He was a man with turquoise eyes and ash blonde hair tousled in a half-up half-down style. “The dendrobium alludes to the violent nature of hilichurls, though their mannerisms are sometimes gentle.”

The painting he was referring to was of a lone hilichurl lying in a meadow, holding a single dendrobium to the skies.

“Hilichurls being gentle?” I chuckled. “That’s an interesting take. I wonder where the artist got the inspiration.”

“By observing them in the wild, of course.”

“Why observe them when we should be fighting them?” I frowned. “Why make art out of something so destructive and senseless?”

“How can we learn if we never observe?” He asked in return.

I pondered over the question, and I suppose he made a good point. “Are you a student?”

“In many regards,” he nodded. “A student in life. Constantly acquiring knowledge new to us and uncovering what was lost to time. At the Academy, though, I am a professor.”

He looked quite young for a professor, “What do you teach?”

“I oversee the Alchemy department,” he divulged. “As well as a few Arts courses.”

“You’re Albedo Kriedeprinz,” I put two-and-two together.

“In the flesh,” he coughed. “Of a sort. We don’t get many visitors at the art gallery. What brings you here?”

Totally not poking around at all the secret passageways the Academy might have to offer. “I was interested in the displays.”

“Are you an artist?”

I grimaced, “Not really.”

“I see,” he murmured. “Given that I’ve yet to have you as a student, I assume you must be new here. Next year, I look forward to welcoming you to my class, Miss Admirer of Great Artwork.”

“Lumine,” I offered my name and he nodded to himself as if mentally filing it away.

“There’s much work to be done back at the apothecary,” he waved to the painting. “Please, enjoy. I will attend to my projects.”

He left with haste, and I snapped back into action once I’d made sure the gallery was empty. Careful not to disturb and possibly wreck any artwork, I looked for anything promising. Nada.

With my route finished and the sun setting, it was time to meet back up with Kaeya. I hoped that he, at least, had a more productive search than I did. I left the art gallery and circled back to the main quad, where Kaeya was flipping a coin.

“Hey, you,” I watched him flip the coin into the fountain. “What did you wish for?”

“That you would make your way back to me,” he sighed wistfully. “That we could once again be together.”

I rolled my eyes.

“And that you found something, anything interesting,” he finished. “As I did not.”

“Neither did I. Unless you count a professor doubling as a hilichurl romanticist.”

“Albedo, eh?” Kaeya perked up. “Were you caught snooping?”

“Nah.”

“Good. That man has a keen eye,” Kaeya informed. “I’m going to head back to my room and write a report. You should find something to eat.”

“You’re not having dinner?”

“I might swipe some popsicles from Chongyun’s stash,” he winked. “That guy has too many for his own good.”

For the second time today, Kaeya and I went our separate ways. I wanted to wash up a bit before going to the dining hall. Spending a day sleuthing around in dusty rooms had me feeling especially grimy. 

✧✧✧

After stopping by the dorms for a shower and change of clothes, I crossed the main quad as I went to dinner. The library was on the way, and I nearly didn’t catch the figure standing by its entrance. My chess partner.

“Diluc!” I waved to him with a smile as I approached, and his head shot up in my direction.

He returned my wave, but not the smile. “Lumine, it’s good that you’re here. I’m afraid I won’t be able to have our chess match after your dinner today.”

“Oh,” I paused. “Why not?”

“There’s been a scheduling conflict at the tavern,” he grumbled. “I have to go into town and handle staffing shortage.”

Diluc mentioned he owned Dawn Winery in Mondstat, a fact that I still found hard to believe since Dawn Winery ran a large business. He said that he had someone on the mainland managing business affairs while he focused on schooling here. Apparently, Diluc also managed Angel’s Share in Mond, but I wasn’t aware there was a tavern on this island under his jurisdiction as well. He was a busy man, it seemed.

“That’s okay,” I smiled. “We can meet tomorrow, still.”

“No, it’s not okay,” he frowned. “I quite look forward to winning our matches.”

“And here I thought you liked my company.”

“That too,” he amended, finally with a smile. “I should get going, duty calls.”

I shrugged as if to say Ah, what can you do? when an idea suddenly struck me, “Hang on. You’re going into town?” I’d be so preoccupied with school, amongst other things, that I’d completely forgotten about the port town.

He nodded.

“Can I come with you?”

Chapter Text

Diluc almost looked surprised at my request, “You want to come with me to the tavern?”

“Sure,” I shrugged. “I haven’t seen the port town yet, and I could grab dinner somewhere down there. I bet they have a lot of good seafood options.”

“Ah, so you wish to see the town,” Diluc murmured. “Have you unlocked the teleport waypoint?”

I forgot about that, “No.”

Diluc crossed his arms in silence, thinking to himself for a moment. From what I knew about teleport waypoints, there needed to be one at point A and one at point B. Not only that, but the user will have needed to physically touch both waypoints to register themselves for teleportation. Because I have yet to touch the waypoint in town, nor have I seen the waypoint on campus, perhaps accompanying Diluc won’t be possible after all.

“Come with me,” he left the front steps of the library, motioning for me to follow. “I can take you to the Academy’s teleport waypoint. Most first-years haven’t had a reason to use one, so I suspect you don’t know where it is.”

“True,” I confirmed. “I haven’t been to the one in town, either. Are you sure I’ll still be able to teleport down there?”

Diluc turned along the path that took us to the main quad, “There is another way.”

We continued down the path while I waited for him to elaborate, but he said nothing. Only after we reached the fountain where Kaeya and I had our rendezvous not too long ago, did he stop and face me.

“The waypoint is at the top of this fountain,” he nodded forward to the cascading water.

There was indeed a structure at the top, but I thought it was purely ornamental. Sure, it glowed blue and—now that I looked more closely—was floating, but I assumed Celestia Academy was so wealthy that they could afford expensive installments everywhere.

“How are we supposed to climb up there without getting soaked?” I eyed the splashing water. “This seems like a rather inefficient design.”

Diluc pointed to the far edge of the fountain, and for the first time, I noticed a set of stone steps leading to the top. The steps themselves were wet with fountain water, though, so my previous statement still stands.

“While it is typical to teleport after already visiting a location,” Diluc tugged off his gloves. “It’s possible to teleport to a new location if you are with someone who has already made contact with the destination’s waypoint.”

“Oh,” I blinked. “That’s convenient.”

“And because waypoints require a physical touch, so does the connection,” he held out his hand to me. “If you don’t mind.”

All I had to do was hold his hand? I quickly obliged and slipped my hand into his. As Diluc walked me up the fountain steps, I couldn’t help but marvel at the feel of his skin on mine. While I expected him to be strong, I was surprised to find his hand was rather rough and calloused. I’d only ever seen Diluc in the context of playing chess, and I wondered what kind of fighting style he utilized to become so tough on the outside.

“Careful not to slip,” Diluc warned as we crossed a particularly slick step. “It can be difficult to see with just the moonlight out.”

My own hands were hardly as soft as a baby’s cheek. With my dedication to the sword and failure to remember to use the special creams that Madame Ping ordered in bulk, I had a few callouses of my own. And yet, as rough as his hand felt, Diluc held onto mine as if it were a delicate feather.

At last, we reached the top of the fountain and faced the teleport waypoint. I could hear the hum of energy pulsing off of the device, and I briefly wondered what kind of power it was operating on.

“Place your hand on the waypoint,” Diluc instructed as he touched the base with his free palm. “Like this.”

I mirrored the action and felt the humming energy float over and settle over my body. Nothing else happened at first, but then Diluc’s hold on my hand tightened. I responded by firmly holding back, and I couldn’t help but shut my eyes as bright light flooded my vision.

It felt as if we were moving at speeds of light while standing still all at once. My body tensed at an unexpected physical strain. I wouldn’t say that the process hurt, though. It was like the shock of an ice bath, except instead of frigid waters, it was waypoint energy.

Thankfully, the unpleasant feeling went away as quickly as it began, and the dark of night replaced the bright light that surrounded us. Blinking hard to clear my vision and trying to not audibly gasp, I regained my bearings.

“I should have warned you,” Diluc frowned apologetically. “The first teleportation is hard on the body, but the feeling subsides over time. I got so used to it over the years, I forgot about the reaction you might have.”

“I sure hope it gets easier,” I breathed.

Diluc squeezed my hand reassuringly, “Do you need some time to recover?”

I shook my head and straightened my spine, “It wasn’t so bad.”

“You’d be the first to say that,” he chuckled. “Go ahead and touch the town waypoint. Don’t worry, there won’t be any negative side effects.”

I sure hope not. Having to go through that sensation again on the way back was not something I was looking forward to. I turned around to face the waypoint and looked to my hand still clasped with Diluc’s.

“We hold hands for this, too?”

“Ah, no,” Diluc let go and began to pull his gloves back on. “After this, you’ll be free to use the two teleport waypoints as you wish.”

I nodded and placed a hand on the waypoint, greatly appreciating the simple wash of energy that skated over my skin. After sensing that the registration was complete, I took a step back and noticed the details of where we were.

“Is this the town square?” I guessed.

The streets were made of paved cobblestone, but the teleport waypoint was situated in the center of some type of plaza. Simple benches and bushes encircled the waypoint as if it were a spectacle to just sit and watch it glow.

“The tavern is down that way,” Diluc pointed to the right. “If you wish to have dinner, there’s also a restaurant nearby known for serving a specialty from each of the seven nations. There is food at the tavern, but it’s nothing to write home about. I’ve been meaning to talk to our cook about that. Hmph, another thing to add to the list.”

The restaurant seemed like an interesting option, but I wasn’t keen on eating alone in a new place. Besides, I wanted to see what Diluc was like when he wasn’t playing chess. “Let’s go to the tavern!”

“If she insists,” he led the way.

I thought the port town would be small, but there were a surprising number of people out on the streets tonight. It could be because it was the weekend and people were itching to spend some mora. Though none of the townspeople approached us, many of them met my eyes with a friendly smile and a wave. A few of them even said hello to Diluc by name.

“Do you come here often?” I asked.

“Not often enough,” he sighed. “And far too many times than I’d like. Ah, here’s that restaurant I mentioned before. And there’s the butcher and bakery.”

Diluc continued his act as town guide, and I learned about the bed & breakfast that only served Teyvat Fried Eggs. There was a general goods store close to the dock that sold more fish than goods people would generally need. To keep up with the Academy’s use of weapons, a blacksmith was also stationed in the town, striking at an anvil even now.

We rounded the corner and there was an immediate increase in foot traffic leading up to one building. Clusters of people gathered around the entrance, though it was unclear if they were trying to enter or preferred to mingle in the night air.

“That would be the tavern,” Diluc sighed. “Seems business is booming as usual. That’s good, I suppose.”

“You don’t sound happy about it,” I followed behind him as he weaved through the crowd of jolly patrons.

He pushed the tavern door open and allowed me to step inside before closing it shut, “That’s because I’ll be manning the bar tonight.”

The inside was even more lively than the outside. Overlapping conversations from all directions assaulted our ears, mingling with a jazzy tune coming from a piano I couldn’t spot. Wooden chairs scraped against the wood floors as people constantly moved around, and it was hard to maneuver without bumping into someone.

“Ah, Master Diluc!” A young man ran up to us. “Thank the Archons you were able to make it. Our usual bartender had an emergency, and we’ve been short-staffed all night! Also, the porter got a shipment of cocktails from Cat’s Tail this morning. Margaret left a note expressing interest in collaborating with our branch on the island since she wasn’t able to obtain a license here herself. The cocktails are a sample for us to try and see if our patrons take any interest, though, we’re not sure where to store them.”

Diluc sighed, “I’ll take care of it.”

I stuck close to his side, not sure where to go, but I nearly lost sight of him after an intoxicated man stumbled into me. His drink sloshed onto the floor next to my shoes, and I hopped back with a yelp. That was close.

“Hey,” Diluc stepped up to the man and grabbed his collar. “Watch where you’re going.”

“S-Sorry ‘bout *hic* that,” the man wobbled and looked at me with a drunken smile. “Didn’t see her standin’ there. Such a *hic* small pretty thing she is, heheh. She sh-should uh…settle down somewhere *hic* quiet. I can show her to a…a corner if ya don’t mind?”

“No,” I stepped close to Diluc. “I’m good.”

“Are ye *hic* sure?” The man chuckled. “Name’s Seven-Fingered *hic* Marley. See?” He spread out his left hand to reveal seven digits. “If ya come with…with me, you can find out why all the ladies—

“She said no,” Diluc tightened his hold on the man’s collar, practically dragging him to the exit. “If you don’t want your name changed to Zero-Fingered Marley. I suggest you leave. Now.

The man wasn’t really given an option. Diluc swiftly kicked the door open and hauled Seven-Fingered Marley outside. He returned just as fast, tugging at his gloves with nonchalance.

“Sorry about that,” he rested a hand at my back and guided me in the direction of the bar. “I don’t allow unsavory behavior in my tavern—customer or not. Have a seat at the counter. I’ll be bartending for the night, and it would do my peace of mind wonders if you remain within my sights.”

The tavern was even more crowded at the bar, but just one look from Diluc scared away enough patrons to open up a seat for me. I hopped up onto the barstool, and the counter was surprisingly clean. Diluc walked behind the bar and took off his dark coat, revealing a white tailored vest on top of a black-longsleeved dress shirt.

“Would you like anything to drink?” Diluc asked before frowning. “Hang on—how old are you, again?”

I rolled my eyes, “Relax. I’ve gone out for drinks before,” I scrunched up my nose. “I don’t like the taste of alcohol. Not even dandelion wine.”

Diluc smiled, “I prefer grape juice, myself.”

“I’ll have some of that, then,” I decided. “You can take care of the other customers first, though. I can wait.”

“Nonsense,” he rolled up his sleeves at elbow-length and rummaged around the icebox. “Damnit, how is it that we’re out of grape juice? I’ll have to have a word with the porter on that. Any other requests?”

“Excuse me,” a woman hollered from her seat. “I need a refill.”

“I’ve been waiting at this counter all night,” another man complained. “What does a guy have to do to get a drink around here?”

I met Diluc’s tired eyes and mouthed Go. I wasn’t particularly parched or anything, nor did I want business to suffer on my account.

“Check the icebox for something you like,” Diluc sighed and began to re-tie his hair into a higher ponytail. “If anyone bothers you, don’t hesitate to yell out for me.”

He turned his attention to the waiting customers, and I hesitated for a moment before deciding to inspect the tavern’s supply for myself. Certain no one would steal my seat while I was gone, I walked over to the icebox and opened the cover.

Hm…Apple Cider, Wolfhook Juice, and ooh pink lemonade. I grabbed a bottle and carried it back to my seat. As soon as I made it to the barstool, Diluc nodded my way and slid a glass with ice cubes down the counter. I caught it before it could smash onto the floor and uncorked the bottle.

A pretty pink stream of lemonade filled the glass, and I took a sip. To my surprise, the taste was not at all like pink lemonade. Sure, there were some light notes of citrus, but the main flavor was a sweet strawberry. It was delicious.

I’m not sure how much Sweet Flower was used to make this juice taste so good, but I didn’t care. I was already pouring another glass before the ice cubes could begin melting, and I cherished the wonderful flavors mingling on my tongue. Ah, there’s nothing like a refreshing juice to end the day.

It’s no wonder Diluc’s tavern was so popular. “This is the best juice I’ve had in my whole life,” I murmured to myself with a smile.

All too soon, my bottle was emptied, but I was happy to go grab another. I grabbed two, just in case, and contently sipped on another glass.

Observing the patrons around me, it was so strange to think that we all lived on the same island together. The atmosphere of prestige and rigorous work at Celestia was quite different from the lightheartedness that the townspeople experienced in day-to-day life. I quite liked it here—maybe I should make a habit of teleporting over when I got the chance.

Diluc couldn’t seem to catch a break. I watched as he made cocktail after cocktail, shaking up the drink mixer as if he’d been doing so his whole life. All of the customers seemed satisfied with their drinks, and he looked good while he worked. I liked the high ponytail. Diluc should keep his hair in a high ponytail more often. Hm, yes…the rolled-up sleeves, too.

I wanted to go up and tell him myself, but he just looked so concentrated. He wasn’t smiling. I sighed, Diluc hardly ever smiles. I wish he would smile more. He has such a cute smile…I beamed at the thought of it.

Diluc looked my way, and I jumped in surprise as I was caught staring. My glass was empty again, so I decided to distract myself by filling it up. Such a pretty, pretty pink color…I wonder what it was called. I would love to keep a few bottles for my dorm room. Best juice in Teyvat.

It was a good thing I grabbed two bottles this time. I realized the contents of my second bottle had disappeared with a gasp. Was somebody else drinking my juice? I turned my head in either direction, looking for a possible culprit, but the quick movement made me a little dizzy. Ah, well. I have another bottle. I reached to uncork it, but a gloved hand snatched it away from me.

“Hey!” I exclaimed. “That’s mine.”

Diluc held my bottle of delicious juice and stared at me, “What is this?”

“My juice.”

“This isn’t something we serve at the tavern,” he frowned. “Where did you get this?”

I leaned over the counter to try and take it from him, “If you want your own, get it from the icebox. Now, give me the bottle!”

Diluc reared backward and held it out of my reach. “You smell like alcohol, Lumine.”

“Duh,” I rolled my eyes. “We’re in a tavern, remember?”

He uncorked the bottle, and I was afraid he would drink it all right in front of me. Instead, he lifted it to his nose and took a sniff. “This must be the batch of cocktails Cat’s Tail sent over. Why didn’t they leave it in the back? I didn’t give approval for it to be put out here.”

“So,” I hummed. “Not juice?”

He was frowning again, “How many bottles have you had?”

“You always look so grumpy,” I mumbled.

“What was that?” He leaned against the bar to hear me better.

I propped my elbows up on the counter and spoke louder. “You always look so grumpy!”

He pulled back, “I asked how many bottles you’ve had.”

How many? I held up two fingers, “Peace!”

“Two?” He confirmed, and I nodded. “You don’t drink alcohol, and yet you’ve downed two bottles all on your own.”

“It tastes like juice!” I asserted. “Really, really good juice. You should try some.”

“Cat’s Tail is known for serving drinks with a pleasant taste, no matter what ingredient is involved. Their bartender has exceptional talent,” Diluc lifted the bottle to look at its bottom. “This batch is called Pinkity Drinkity.”

I giggled, “Huh?”

“Pinkity Drinkity,” he responded with a serious expression.

“Say that again,” I giggled harder. “It’s too funny with you making that face. Pinkity Drinkity. That’s hilarious!”

Diluc returned the bottle back to the icebox, much to my dismay. I didn’t notice there was a back door until he turned to go deeper inside, reappearing with a burger on a plate. He set it on the counter in front of me and then filled my empty glass with clear liquid from a tap. “Eat. Drink.”

“What is it?” I accepted the glass and held it up to my lips. “I hope it tastes just as good.”

It was flavorless.

“This is water,” I frowned. “Why can’t I have more of the Pinkity Drinkity?”

He crossed his arms, “You’re too intoxicated. You have no tolerance for alcohol, and your inhibitions have been drastically lowered. Drink the water, eat your food, and stay put where you are. I can’t have you falling over and knocking into customers.”

I rolled my eyes, “Don’t be so dramatic, Diluc. I feel fine. I feel great, actually. This town is so nice. We should do this again. You look outstanding!”

His eyes widened. “What are you talking about?”

“Your hair!” I pointed at him. “I love the high ponytail, Diluc. Ooh, you should go without a coat more often, too. That vest with the rolled-up sleeves, mm.”

“I—” his expression stuttered and his frown finally dropped! “Eat the Golden Chicken Burger and keep drinking your water. I’ll finish up with these customers here, and then I’ll take you back home.”

“Aw,” I pouted. “That’s lame.”

“Stay right there,” he reminded me and turned his attention back to the remaining patrons.

I downed the glass of water as fast as I could so Diluc wouldn’t pester me about not listening to him. I suppose this was his tavern and I was just a guest, so I’ll follow along. The burger was tasty, very tasty. Now that I think about it, the last thing I ate before now was breakfast. I scarfed the rest down and searched for a napkin to wipe my hands.

Someone bumped at my back, and I nearly fell off the barstool. My head swam as I tried to regain balance, and I swiveled around to catch the offender. Ugh, it was that guy from earlier. What was his name again? I think he had too many fingers.

You, ” he spat into my face. “Ya got me *hic* kicked out of the tavern. I’m—I’m a regular here, ya know. I *hic* don’t care how pretty ya are. Don’t go messin’ with my fun.”

His nose was a lot uglier than before, all bruised and swollen. I wonder what happened to make it match his disgusting personality so well. “Your nose looks like a smashed Sunsettia.” I laughed in his face.

“Pretty girl got jokes? I ain’t never been one to raise a *hic* hand against a female, but there's a first time for *hic* everythin’.”

The man drew back a sloppy fist, bloodshot eyes focused on me. He was slow.

Before he could even manage to lean forward, I hopped off the stool, balling up my own fist and swinging directly at his ugly face. It smashed into his already-busted nose with a satisfying crack. Blood spluttered from his nose and a few unfortunate drops got onto my clothes. 

I whooped in laughter at my success.

“You…” he clutched his face from where he collapsed onto the floor. “You wench!”

“Hey!” A voice boomed across the tavern, silencing the idle chatter and commanding everyone’s focus to its speaker at the bar. “Who’s starting a fight in my tavern?”

The crowd of people around the bar parted. My fist was still clenched and hanging in the air, so I quickly swooped it behind my back. Diluc’s attention snapped to me, and I froze.

“He started it,” I pointed to the man struggling to pull himself off the floor.

Vaulting over the counter, Diluc stalked toward me. His eyes flicked to the bloodstains now decorating my sleeve, and he stopped. His eyes hardened as a dark shadow crossed his features. Was I in trouble?

Diluc slowly turned from me to the man on the floor, and he swiped an empty beer bottle from the counter, holding it by the neck like a weapon. He smashed the butt of the bottle into a pillar, causing bits of shattered glass to rain on the floor. The jagged edge was aimed at the whimpering man.

“Your verdict is death."

Chapter Text

I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or grab another Pinkity Drinkity while Diluc was distracted. I knocked this guy down all on my own. He was nothing compared to what Instructor Xiao made us do in class. Why was Diluc getting so worked up about a regular, albeit rude, dude?

“Diluc,” I stepped behind him and patted his shoulder reassuringly. “Let the man live.”

“Y-yeah!” The man on the floor began to sob. His face was as red as a tomato, probably due to the alcohol, embarrassment, and getting his face smashed in. “P-please…I-I didn’t mean to—”

I glowered at him, shutting him up. “Not a word from you.”

“He bothered you,” Diluc tensed.

I shrugged, “And I took care of it. Look at these hands,” I showed him my fists. “I ascended to Physical Combat II in the span of one class. Look at this strength,” I flexed my arms. “Physique supreme. I’m, like, beyond okay.”

Diluc looked from me to the man, “He would have taken advantage of you.”

“Please,” I snorted. “Stay right there, Diluc. Sir Ragnvindr. I’ll show him out myself.”

“Wha—ack! ” I snatched the bastard by the back of his collar and easily dragged him across the tavern floor. He put up a bit of a struggle before going limp in defeat. Patrons stopped to watch us, but they kindly parted to make way for the door.

“Out with ye!” I grinned and hauled him out the door. He landed in the dirt with a tumble. “And stay out.”

Brushing the grimy man’s residue from my hands, I turned back to face everyone in the tavern. “Alright, back to what you were doing. The show’s over! How about another round of Pinkity Drinkity for the lady, eh?”

Diluc was still standing there, knuckles clenched around the broken bottle. I sighed. What’s it going to take for this guy to relax? Everyone’s having fun. I was having fun.

“C’mon,” I tried to pry his fingers loose from the bottle’s neck. “You’re gonna slice your own hand off with this thing.”

Finally, Diluc let out a sigh and released the bottle with a clatter on the floor. I stared at the shards scattered by our feet. I bent down to pick up the pieces, but Diluc was quick to grab my wrist, pulling me up.

“You’ll cut yourself,” he shook his head. “Plus, your balance is off. Intoxicated, remember?”

“So you say,” I shrugged and smiled. “Yay! You’re normal grumpy now. This is much better than murder grumpy.”

“I’ll go find someone to clean this up properly,” Diluc took both my shoulders and ushered me back to the bar. “You stay put here.”

“I would feel safer by the icebox,” Pinkity Drinkity, here I come.

“Lumine,” Diluc gave me a warning look. “Find more water if you’re thirsty.”

“But—”

“Please.”

“Fine,” I rolled my eyes and clasped my hands together. “Only because the Pinkity Drinkities were on the house. Right? On the house?”

He cracked a smile, “This time.”

My heart swelled at the sight. For the millionth time, I wished he would keep smiling. I watched Diluc order an employee to grab a broom. His smile was gone, again. Fleeting like a shooting star.

✧✧✧

“We’re leaving already?” I sulked as Diluc shrugged his coat back on. “There are still customers here. Don’t you need to bartend?”

“I would rather see you return to campus,” he adjusted the sleeves. “Safely.”

“I know the way back.”

“Can you walk the way back?”

What a silly question, “Of course I can.”

“Go on then,” he crossed his arms. “Walk.”

I stared dubiously at him before hopping off the barstool and walking to the exit. I reached for the doorknob and—oops. I missed. That was weird. I grabbed the doorknob and swung open and—whoa. That was a lot of force. Good thing I had a hold on the door to keep me from swaying. Stepping into the outside air, my foot caught on a cobblestone—a loose cobblestone—and nearly fell over. 

“I’ve seen enough,” Diluc followed me out the door. “You’re a hazard to yourself.”

“Someone needs to fix these roads,” I muttered, scuffing my shoe on the ground. “This is sabotage.”

He grumbled, “Self-sabotage.”

I laughed, “Seems like it, huh? Who would have known I was drinking cocktails this whole time?”

“Anyone with common sense,” he sighed. “It’s a tavern.”

“Ah, semantics,” I waved a hand and walked forward. “Teleport time!”

Diluc grabbed my wrist and pulled me in the other direction, “It’s this way.”

“Right,” I situated myself. “Yes, of course. Teleport time! Oh man, I am dreading this.”

“It’ll only feel worse with you in that condition,” he informed me and my steps faltered.

I hadn’t thought of that. Archons, why didn’t I think of that? Teleporting was absolutely horrendous the last time. My gut churned at the thought of how my body would react now.

“You can hold on to me for support,” he offered. “If you feel the need to.”

What a brilliant idea. Diluc was smart. He’s got that chess brain. I took him up on the offer and grabbed onto his arm, feeling instantly more steady on my feet. I giggled. This was nice.

Diluc mumbled, “I meant for the teleport waypoint.”

“Oh,” I blinked and began to release him.

“Don’t—” he cleared his throat. “If it helps you now, you can stay like this.”

Oh, neat. I returned to my position and walked with Diluc to the teleport waypoint at the center of town. There were fewer people out, probably because it had gotten so late. I was still buzzing with energy, though. I wonder if the Pinkity Drinkity had an energy booster in it. I hummed to myself, thinking about it. No, that’s not how drinks work. I think.

“What are you thinking about?” Diluc suddenly asked.

Definitely not the Pinkity Drinkity. I couldn’t tell him that—he would think I’m a lost cause. Hm, what should I think about instead? The first thing that popped into my mind was the treasure-hunting expedition I did today, but perhaps that should be kept a secret. Kaeya would appreciate it.

He sighed, “You don’t have to tell me.”

“No!” I exclaimed. “I was thinking about, um, Kaeya.”

Diluc’s step stuttered, and I tightened my grip on his arm to stay upright. “Kaeya?”

Oh, shoot. I forgot they were estranged. Kaeya didn’t go into detail, but I could tell it must have been something serious. I shouldn’t have said his name. No worries, I can fix this.

“I meant,” I bit my lip. “Kayaking.”

“I despise deception, you know,” he carried on. “Lies aren’t befitting on anyone. Not even you.”

I gulped, “Sorry. I just know you two aren’t on good terms. I didn’t want to make things awkward.”

Diluc sighed, “I don’t care.”

Didn’t care about what? The fact that I brought Kaeya up, or the fact that I tried to lie about it? I couldn’t help but think it was the former, especially with how Kaeya talked about Diluc earlier. His refusal to reconcile. The pain that was on Kaeya’s face was an expression I was familiar with. Grief over time lost. Grief over a broken bond. They were brothers, yet Diluc was a stranger to him. How could he be so indifferent towards his own brother?

Would Aether behave towards me in such a way? Would I to him? I tried to conjure up a scenario that would validate enough bitterness and hatred to break a bond between siblings, but I only ended up hurting my own feelings. My perspective was biased. Of course, I would want to stay by Aether’s side no matter what.

“Are you,” Diluc halted and turned to look at me. “Alright?”

“Yeah,” I sniffled.

He frowned.

“What?”

He pointed to his cheeks, and I lifted my fingers to find mine were wet with tears. Ah, when did that happen? I sniffled once more and hastily wiped my face dry with my sleeve.

“Those cocktails were pretty strong,” I tried to muster up a laugh and pushed forward. 

I found it hard to bring myself to smile again. For once, I could resonate with Diluc’s ever-present frown. 

“I didn’t mean to,” he stopped once more.

“Mean to what?”

He looked at me apologetically, “Make you upset.”

Diluc thought I was crying because of him? I balked. I mean, I sort of was…in a roundabout way. Though, I hadn’t even realized my own emotions were running so high. I never faced my sadness again after Kaeya and I had our heart-to-heart. It was easier to think about other things.

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted. “There have just been…things weighing on my mind recently.”

We finally reached the plaza, and the teleport waypoint cast a blue glow on Diluc’s features. The contrast softened him.

“Anything I can help with?”

Could he help? I now knew Aether had no involvement with the Academy, despite Katheryne’s connection. Finding my brother was something I didn’t have to do alone, I’d realized that. But I wasn’t just sad for myself. I wasn’t the only sibling hurting. If there was something I could do to help…

“Could you maybe,” I took a breath. “Talk to him?”

I didn’t say who. Judging by the way Diluc’s expression shut down, I didn’t need to. It was worth a shot, I suppose. Kaeya had said he’d tried to reconcile before, and I’m not sure why I would be the one to change Diluc’s mind on a situation I wasn’t involved in. 

“Let’s go,” was his only response, and we walked up to the teleport waypoint. 

He removed just one glove from his hand this time, and we both placed our palms on the device. I bristled in anticipation of the unsettling transit. 

Diluc pulled me in closer and whispered, “Just breathe.”

✧✧✧

My head was pounding.

I clutched it, groaning as I rolled under my blankets. Sunlight streamed through the window, signaling a new day and jabbing at my eyes with no mercy. My mouth was dry as a desert, and muscles all over my body ached from the strain of teleporting last night. 

I remember taking the town waypoint with Diluc, but there was no memory of our actual arrival. Had the pain hit me so bad that I passed out? The thumping in my head distracted me from recollection, and I cursed the source of my suffering. I swear to never touch another Pinkity Drinkity ever again. Evil in a bottle, that one.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

Archons, I might have to stop by the infirmary to take care of this. I winced as the sound thrummed in my head. This headache was like no other.

Thump. Thump. “I know you’re in there.”

Huh? Was the thumping coming from…my door?

“Are you cowering?” My visitor yelled from the other side. “How very uncharacteristic of you. Come on out and face me head-on, girlie.”

Childe.

Chapter Text

What was he doing here? I groaned once more and contemplated whether or not I should respond. There’s a chance he might go away, and then I could try going back to sleep. What could possibly be so important that he’d be at my door this early in the morning? The knocking persisted, and I resisted the urge to yank my hair out.

Stumbling out of bed, I stomped to my door and yanked it open. On the other side, Childe stood with his hand poised—ready to for another knock. I should knock him on the head, instead.

“What do you want?” I squinted in the light, hunched over.

“Good,” he dropped his hand, stuffing it in his pocket. “You’re alive.”

“Of course I’m alive,” I grumbled. “Why wouldn’t I be? If this is what you came here for, I’m going back to sleep.”

“Wait,” he caught the door before it could slam in his face. “Did you not eat at all yesterday?”

I squinted at him. “What? Of course, I did.”

“You weren’t at breakfast.” Childe crossed his arms. “Nor were you at dinner. I even asked Mr. Goody-Two-Shoes Thoma if he knew where you were. He had no idea.”

“Ah,” I wiped at my face with my hand. “Sorry about that. I got carried away after an early breakfast, and dinner was…a blur.”

“You look awful.”

I rolled my eyes and threw myself back into bed. “Thanks.”

“You’re not even wearing pajamas,” he commented. “How long did you stay up last night?”

I wasn’t? Huh, I guess I was still wearing the same clothes I wore last night. Oddly enough, it looks like my shoes were neatly lined up by the door. I didn’t think Drunk Lumine would have the courtesy of such foresight. Good for her.

The pounding in my head subsided now that Childe wasn’t attacking my door, but it was still there—threatening to drive me insane. Ugh, I needed a glass of water or something.

“You’re not going to eat lunch?”

“Lunch?” I spoke into the pillows.

“It’s past noon.”

Had I really slept in for so long? “I’m not hungry.”

Actually, now that he mentioned it, I was famished. However, my exhaustion outweighed my hunger, and I’d rather just perish into my mattress as soon as possible. My stomach, the traitor, growled.

Childe whistled. “It sure sounds like you are.”

“Well, you should get your ears checked,” I grumbled.

“Must we argue?” he sighed. “I thought we agreed on no more fighting. If that’s off the table, then I’d be happy to throw you over my shoulder.”

I turned my head to the side, shooting him a glare that said don’t you dare. “Barbarian.”

“If that’s what it takes to drag you to the dining hall,” he shrugged. “You need to keep up your strength.”

“I am strong,” I muttered. “I beat up a guy last night. I think.”

“Oh?” Childe grinned and sat at the foot of my bed, eager to gossip like some schoolgirl. “Do I know him?”

I tried to recall the image of said man in my memory, but it was all fuzzy. There was something about the man that set him apart from everyone else. Did he have extra fingers? Nah, that sounds like something the alcohol would make up. Then could it be—

A knock interrupted my thoughts, and we both turned to see who was standing in the open doorway.

“Diluc?” I perked up. “What are you doing here?”

He held up a bowl in his hand. “I brought you some Goulash. It normally works to prevent hangovers if you have some before passing out. I suppose the morning after will have to do. I figured you might want a warm meal, but perhaps you need help taking out the trash, instead.”

“What do you mean by that?” Childe pushed himself off my bed, standing at his full height. “Surely, you can’t be referring to me?” 

“Lumine,” Diluc stepped aside to look at me. “Should I dispose of him?”

“I—” I pressed a hand to my temple and waved Diluc over. “No, he can stay. Can I try the Goulash? My head is killing me.”

“But of course,” he nodded and walked past Childe. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“So, you were with Ragnvindr,” Childe assessed. “All night, it seems.”

“Mhm,” I accepted the bowl of stew and blew on the steam wafting up from it. The Goulash smelled heavenly. Childe barked out a harsh laugh, and I frowned. “Are you okay?”

“Am I?” He suppressed himself with a hand over his mouth. “And here I thought I only had to worry about those other two.” He turned to Diluc. “How long has this been going on?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Diluc gave him a blank stare. “Nor do I care about whatever your concerns might be. What I do care about is why Lumine is associating herself with the likes of you. Really, dropping down to second-year status hasn’t humbled you one bit?”

I lifted the spoon Diluc included in the bowl and took a sip of the Goulash. It was perfectly savory, and the soft textures did wonders in my mouth. “Childe is my friend, Diluc. We’re partners in Physical Combat, and we have our meals together a lot.”

“I see.”

“You can, too,” I added. “If you ever decide to show up to the dining hall.”

Childe chuffed. “Our table is full enough as it is. His ego is too big, girlie. Let him be.”

I balked. He was one to talk. “Ego?” 

“Girlie?” Diluc grumbled at the same time as me. “I appreciate the offer, but I prefer to dine alone.”

“A shame,” Childe sounded not at all disappointed. “Thank you so much for delivering the Goulash. I can keep her company from now on. We have lots to discuss, so you are dismissed.”

“We do?” I frowned.

He clasped his hands together. “But of course! You’ve missed out on quite a lot after skipping out on three of our meals—with no warning, by the way.”

I cringed at the broken promise. “Sorry.”

“I’m not leaving until I make sure she’s well,” Diluc glared at him. “You’re in no position to dismiss me.”

“Why wouldn’t she be well? Unless,” he smirked. “Someone put her in a position that was unsafe? That would explain her sickly complexion.”

“Gee,” I projected. “I’m flattered.”

“Lumine makes her own decisions,” Diluc asserted. “Whether or not they be wise ones, who am I to dictate her actions?”

I mumbled. “Valid.”

These two were acting civil enough that I could turn my full attention to the Goulash without worrying if they’d tear at each other’s throats right then and there. Some sort of silent staring contest was taking place, and the lack of hostile words was doing wonders for my headache. Trying not to make a mess, I scooped spoonful after spoonful in my mouth. Once the bowl was empty, a satisfied sigh escaped my lips.

“How was it?” Diluc spoke at last.

“Delicious,” I smiled up at him. “Thanks, Diluc.”

“I don’t go back on my word.” He took the bowl from me. “Rest assured, my promise to you will remain upheld for as long as I am able.”

My mind halted. Promise? What promise? I wasn’t sure whether or not I should reveal just how little I remember of the events that transpired post-teleporting back to Celestia, especially not with Childe here. From what I could piece together, Diluc must have brought me back to my room last night, being so kind as to even remove my shoes. For now, I should go along with it.

I smiled in earnest. “Thank you.”

The corners of his mouth curved upward ever so slightly. “You seem to be doing better.”

“I’m feeling better.”

Childe clapped. “Perfect. She’s well. You can leave.”

I sighed. “What happened to you being nice to my friends?”

“I seemed to have forgotten about that,” he looked up thoughtfully. “The same way you forgot about me.”

Well, when he put it that way…I had enough sense to feel a tad ashamed.

Diluc cleared his throat. “I have other business to attend to before the day escapes me.”

And now I felt bad for taking up Diluc’s time. I take back what I said about Drunk Lumine—she’s the worst. “Don’t let me keep you any longer. We can catch up another day.”

“Of course, during my weekly win.”

I laughed. “Not if I can help it.”

Diluc said his final goodbye, giving a wide berth to Childe without acknowledging him at all on the way out. Childe scoffed, kicking the door shut just after Diluc crossed the threshold. After making sure the room was secure, he turned around to face me with a rather contemplative look. Oh no, a contemplative Childe couldn’t mean anything good.

“I know,” I sighed. “You’re upset. If you want, we can fight it out, just this once.”

“Let’s go into town.”

“That doesn’t mean I’ll let you win. Me being in the wrong is—wait, what?”

Childe chuckled. “I’ve come to a few realizations over the past week, and they’ve become even more clear to me during your abrupt absence.”

“I was gone for one day,” and during the weekend, at that. “Were you really so bothered? I would have thought you spent the majority of your free time challenging yourself with, I don’t know, swinging from ropes laced with barbed wire.”

“An interesting idea,” he mused. “I’ll have to add that to my regimen.”

“Seriously?”

“C’mon, girlie,” he grinned. “You and I, in the town. I’ve got something in store for us.”

✧✧✧

I gave into Childe’s plan, though he refused to let me in on any of the details. He wouldn’t try anything too life-risking in town, probably. He had enough sense to not accidentally demolish a building while showing off a new move, right? I had too much faith in him.

After shooing Childe out of my room so I could change into a fresh set out outside clothes, we met in front of the student dorms and began walking to the campus’ teleport waypoint. A pool of dread filled my stomach at the thought of enduring yet another round of teleportation. Diluc said it would get easier with each time, and I could only hope he was right.

“This is your first time teleporting to the town, isn’t it?” He pulled off his gloves. “Here, you’ll have to hold my hand to get there.”

“Oh,” I blinked at the moment of deja vu.

“I don’t make the rules,” he winked. “That’s just how it is for newbies who haven't unlocked a waypoint yet.”

“I’ve already unlocked them, though.”

He faltered. “What do you mean?”

“Last night,” I stated. “Diluc showed me.”

“Did he, now?” Childe’s cheerful expression darkened a fraction. “Well, isn’t that wonderful? A night on the town.”

I shrugged. “He was there to work at the tavern. I just hung around…mostly.” I did more than just hang around, but it was best to not rehash those events. “Why, does it matter?”

Childe sighed in a sort of defeated way, though I’m not sure why. It was impossible to discern what was going through his mind. One moment, he’s amiable and easy to get along with, and the next he’s either quiet or sardonic. “You seem quite busy for a first-year,” he spoke at last.

I thought about it. “I guess so.”

“Some relaxation would do you good.”

“What do you know about relaxation?” I eyed him warily.

“You know about my hobby.”

“Combat?”

He laughed. “My other hobby.”

Other hobby…other hobby…oh. “Fishing?”

He held out his hand to me. “It’s a port town, after all. Let me teach you a few of my tricks. We can even engage in a little friendly competition.”

“I see you’ve already forgotten I don’t need an anchor,” I accepted his hand despite myself. 

A fishing trip with Chidle certainly wasn’t something I’d expected to do today, or ever. Such a harmless activity with someone so destructive—what could possibly go wrong?

Chapter Text

Diluc was right—my third time teleporting was far more bearable than the first, so much so that I was able to hide any discomfort from Childe, though, his attention was drawn elsewhere.

“The docks are just down that way!” He pointed towards the ocean, pulling me along. “Let’s go find a good spot.”

Compared to last night, there weren’t nearly as many people bustling around, at least, not for leisure. The sounds and smells of a working town were all around us, and I would be tempted to stop by the restaurant serving Teyvat’s specialty dishes had it not been for the Goulash I had earlier.

The docks came into full view, and I wasn’t surprised to see it was all business there, too. Fishermen were hauling nets full of their catch into their boats, while porters were running up and down the docks carrying boxes to be delivered for the day.

“Ah,” Childe smiled. “Perfect weather for fishing! When there’s rain, the sound scares them away, but once it stops, they’re yours for the taking.”

“Noted,” I scanned the area for a spot to settle down, but then I realized one crucial detail. “What are we going to fish with? Did you bring any bait?”

“No.”

I paused, “Did you bring any fishing rods?”

“I must confess, I planned this quite spontaneously,” he laughed. “Don’t look so shocked. There’s a simple way to remedy our dilemma. See that shop over there?” He pointed to a small building where the boardwalk began. “That’s the Fishing Association of this island. I’m sure they’ll have what we need.”

“I didn’t bring any mora,” I frowned.

“Neither did I.”

I can’t believe this guy, “Then why are you still smiling?”

“Not everything is exchanged with mora, girlie,” he winked. “Sometimes, all you need is a bit of bargaining.”

“And what do we have to offer?”

He cleared his throat, “Allow me to handle that.”

Childe confidently walked over to the Fishing Association, and I trailed behind him. Not too close, just far enough that I wouldn't be associated with him in the event that the shopkeeper chased him away for being ridiculous. There was a young woman running the shop, and she looked otherwise bored until she noticed Childe’s approach.

I leaned back onto a post and watched them converse from afar. I couldn’t make out the exact words of their exchange, but it seemed like things were going well. The shopkeeper’s hesitant and slightly suspicious expression shifted into a welcoming smile as Childe leaned up against the counter and made animated hand gestures.

It was interesting to see how friendly he was with a stranger, yet it was rare to find him smiling at anyone at the Academy besides me or another possible challenger. At this rate, I was beginning to believe that we might actually get away with some free fishing supplies with his negotiation skills. She was laughing now, and so was Childe. Surely, the discussion was coming to an end soon. There was only so much bargaining one could do before a mutual decision was reached.

Feigning interest in a message board that was posted close to the Fishing Association, I tried to get closer in hopes of eavesdropping on them.

“Why haven’t I seen you around here before?” She batted her eyes.

He shrugged, “Being a student keeps me busy. I do try to get away when I can, but I’m dedicated to becoming Teyvat’s champion.”

Yes, yes, strong enough to conquer the world. I’m sure everyone but Childe would see that as an entirely unrealistic dream.

“Wow,” her lashes fluttered again, and I reacted with a frown. Was there something in her eye? “That’s really cool.”

“Isn’t it?” He beamed.

Okay, they were entirely off-topic from the initial fishing plan. I didn’t mind that Childe was able to have a civil conversation with another person. I didn’t mind that she wasn’t terrified of him like many students were. I didn’t mind at all that they were getting along so well. However, there was only so much pretending to scan the message board I could do.

“I’m well on my way, so it doesn’t hurt to relax with some fishing every now and then,” Childe went on.

“I totally agree,” the shopkeeper nodded in earnest, twirling some of her hair. “You know, I’m on break soon. We could do some relaxing together. Have you tried the restaurant in town, yet?”

Alright, that’s it.

“Hey,” I entered the scene with a forced smile, placing a hand on his shoulder. “How’s the deal going? Have you two worked something out?”

“Oh,” the shopkeeper looked at me. “Are you a student, too?”

I nodded, “Yeah, I am.”

Her eyes narrowed a fraction, “Do you know her, Childe?”

She called him Childe. Did he not open up with Tartaglia? I feel like he shouldn't be giving his name out to just anyone he comes across.

“I—”

“We’re friends,” I interrupted him. “Friends that plan on fishing together on this wonderful afternoon. I’m afraid there won’t be any time for the restaurant.”

“Just friends?” She hummed. “Well then maybe when you’re done, I can show him—”

“Partners,” I added. “We’re partners, too. It’s Academy stuff, so I’m sure this might be a little confusing for you to understand.”

She sniffed, “I see. Well then, that would be twenty thousand mora for two rods. Five thousand mora for the bait.”

Yikes. I thought he would have worked out a deal where we wouldn’t need to pay upfront? Things were going well until…I cringed. I may have messed it up in my haste to move things along.

“Twenty-five thousand mora is nothing,” Childe laughed, as easygoing as ever. “Unfortunately, I seemed to have misplaced my mora pouch. How about I pay off my tab with dinner later? You can show me that restaurant.”

“R-Really?” She blushed, and I willed myself to stay silent. He had to be joking, right? “Okay! Here—I’ll grab you our best rods and a quality sample of each bait.”

He winked at her, “I appreciate it, girlie.”

This time, I wasn’t able to hold in my gasp. He did not.

The shopkeeper happily gathered our items and handed them over to Childe, who accepted them with another good-natured smile. Really, where was all this charisma coming from?

“See you tonight,” she giggled.

✧✧✧

Childe had navigated us to a bench on the docks facing the open water. There were all kinds of fish in the area, mostly bass, that were fairly easy to capture. The more exotic fishes were clustered together, and Childe taught me about the unique traits of each one. We were fishing for medaka first, and those required fruit paste bait.

“You’ll scare the fish away with that scowl on your face.”

We had cast our lines in the water, and I hadn’t been able to catch a single one while Childe threw back his sixth medaka.

“Why aren’t they biting?” I grumbled.

He sighed, “It’s the hostility.”

“What hostility?” I bit out. “We’re relaxed. Fishing is supposed to be relaxing. That’s what you said.”

“Not if you have other thoughts interfering with concentration,” he countered. “Tell me, girlie, what’s got you upset?”

“Don’t call me that.”

He blinked, “I thought you didn’t mind.”

“I didn’t,” I mumbled. “Until I realized that’s what you call every girl.”

“What do you—”

I recast my line in hopes of drawing the medaka’s attention. “Nevermind. Just call me Lumine.”

Finally, a pink medaka came swimming over, taking interest in my bait. It swam up and nibbled just once before going all in, and I launched into action. The battle was brief, and my win was easy as I reeled the twitching medaka out of the water. I grinned at my first success and looked at Childe.

“I got one!” I held it up for him to see, but he was staring at me with a mischievous grin. “What is it?”

“Lumi, could you be jealous?”

“What?” Startled, my hold on the medaka slipped, and it flopped back into the water. “Why would I be jealous? You’ve only been able to catch more than be because fishing is something you practically train at. I’m quite proud of my single fish, and there’ll be more where that came from soon enough.”

He laughed, “That’s not what I’m referring to. Congratulations, by the way.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I avoided his gaze and recast my line with fresh bait.

“The Fishing Association girl.”

My grip on the rod tightened, “What about her?”

“Lumi,” he chuckled. “Don’t be like that. I did what was necessary to get our fishing gear.”

“And I appreciate that,” I sighed. “Now, can we focus on the actual fishing?”

He hummed, “I’m having fun with this, though. You’re upset because I called her girlie, is that it?”

“No.”

“You are,” he laughed again. “Or maybe…do you not want me to go to dinner with her?”

I fought the urge to use my fishing rod as a polearm against his antics, “You can do whatever you want. If you have dinner with her, that’s fine with me. I’ll just teleport back on my own.”

“I won’t be having dinner with her, Lumi.”

“But you said—”

“What she wanted to hear,” he shrugged. “There was an opportunity to get what I wanted, which was the fishing equipment so I could spend time with you. I simply found her weakness and exploited it. When I ultimately don’t show up at the restaurant tonight, what can she do? Nothing. And where will I be? Dining with you.”

I stared intently at the medaka.

“I only called her girlie because I couldn’t bother to remember the name she gave me,” he added.

“Okay,” I breathed. “Thanks for the rundown, but I really took no offense. It’s…good to see you being friendly with others.”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“Let’s fish,” I ignored him.

Finally, he let the subject go, and we continued to catch our medaka. Though we sat in silence, the tension from before dissipated with his explanation. Somehow, it did make me feel better knowing we would be heading back to campus together. Every now and then, I would catch him with a gloating grin that I suspect had nothing to do with his rising catch count.

The day went on, and we switched from medaka to bigger fish. The sticklebacks were slightly harder for me to catch, and the pufferfish were extremely stubborn. After I lost yet another bitter pufferfish, I gave up on the fake fly bait and went back to fruit paste bait for the easy medaka.

Childe suddenly spoke, “When I was a kid, I would fish with my father all the time. He told me stories of great adventurers, and soon I wished to become one myself.”

I reeled in a glaze medaka, and its purple scales glittered in the sun. “A family tradition, then?”

“Ice fishing is superior to this,” he smiled. “The cold tests your resolve. I like to use it as an opportunity to hone my endurance and contemplate combat techniques.”

 I snorted lightly, “That doesn’t sound very relaxing.”

He laughed, “Things are different back in my homeland. What may seem jarring for you would be quite the norm for even the youngest of my siblings. Snezhnayan temperatures are so cold that you’d freeze to death by just standing still.”

“You have younger siblings?” I perked up. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”

“Why? Does it not seem like I would make a good older brother?” Childe chuckled once more and pulled a golden koi from the water. “Rest assured, I care very deeply for each of my siblings. With as many gifts I send, they’re terribly spoiled.”

“Family is important to you,” I smiled. “Me too.”

“How many siblings do you have?”

I sighed, “One. Just one.”

“Older or younger?”

“We’re twins.”

“Really?” Childe mused. “You must be the better twin, then. Were they not able to get accepted to Celestia?”

Don’t cry. Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

“Lumi?”

“It’s a long story,” I said at last. “I haven’t seen him in a while.”

I could sense that Childe wanted to ask more questions, but thankfully, he didn’t press any further.

I felt another fish nibble, but to my surprise, it was a medaka with a different coloring from the rest. It had predominantly black scales with an orange and green pattern that was strikingly beautiful.

“What is that?” I gasped.

Childe leaned forward to get a closer look, “Dawncatcher medaka. Those are rare and not easy to catch. You might not be able to get this one.”

The medaka took the bait, and my challenge began. Childe wasn’t kidding, this little guy was putting up a fight. Just when I thought it was secure, the medaka would suddenly gain a boost of energy, and it would almost get away from me. I gritted my teeth and persevered, holding out just long enough to swing it out of the water.

Childe let out a whoop, and so did I.

“That’s my girl,” he beamed. “I knew you could do it.”

A rush of heat flashed up my face, “You had your doubts.”

“Nonsense,” he denied. “I was cheering you on. I always do.”

I reached into the bait bin beside me, only to find it was empty, “We’re all out.”

“Do you want me to go back and ask for more?” Childe offered.

I jumped, “No! No. That’s alright.”

He smirked, “Are you sure? I’m don’t think the shopkeeper would mind.”

I stood and took a step forward, motioning to push him off the dock. “I wonder if your Hydro Vision will save you from drowning?”

“Okay, okay,” he laughed. “I must say, this shade of green looks good on you.”

“I’m leaving,” I rolled my eyes. “Are you coming or not?”

✧✧✧

Childe and I made our way back into town, and the sun cast glorious peachy tones across the sky as it was setting. We left the fishing supplies on the dock bench, and we were careful to sneak past the Fishing Association so they wouldn’t notice our disappearance. It was probably unethical for us to do so, but I couldn’t bring myself to feel bad at all.

We were close to the town square, passing by the blacksmith who was steadily hammering at his anvil. Suddenly, a loud clang interrupted the rhythm, and the burly man jogged over to us with a desperate look in his eyes.

“Excuse me,” he wrung his hands. “Are you two students at Celestia Academy, by any chance?”

“Who’s asking?” Childe frowned.

“Please, I need your help,” he begged. “Yesterday, my son went to go play by the woods like he always does. We make sure he never goes too far, just by the forest line. This time though, he wasn’t back by supper. He hasn’t returned, at all. My wife and I were about to send a contact up to the Academy, but because us townfolk aren’t able to use the teleport waypoint, that trek would take half a day.”

“You want us to look for him?” I guessed.

The blacksmith nodded, “We’ll pay you, even. It’ll be a commission.”

Suddenly, an older woman came running out of the smithy with a thick bundle in her arms. “Oh honey, are these two going to help us find Timmie?”

“We accept,” I offered after taking in her worried expression. “We’ll look for your son.”

“Thank the Archons,” she cried. “Here’s my little Timmie’s jacket, please make sure he is warm when you find him. The temperatures have been dropping quite low with the seasons changing. I’ve been worried sick about him all day. I pray he’s alright.”

“Is the forest dangerous?” 

Childe shook his head, “There are no monsters on this island. At least, none that aren’t confined to the Academy.”

“He’s only six years old,” the woman sniffled. “I’m afraid he might have tripped over a rock and hit his head. Or maybe he fell into a creek and…and…” she burst into tears, and her husband wrapped his arms around her in a consoling embrace.

The blacksmith looked to me once more, “Please hurry.”

Chapter Text

“Hopefully, we’ll be able to find Timmie before it gets too dark.” I stepped over a fallen branch. “It’s already getting harder to see now that the sun went down.”

Childe and I had left the town center and went to the forest’s edge that the blacksmith’s wife led us to. She also gave us a small sack that was packed with cheese and bread. For my little Timmie, she had said. He’d been missing for a full day now, so the kid was probably hungry.

I slipped the sack into Timmie’s jacket, which I had tied around my waist to keep my hands free. 

“I’m an expert at tracking,” Childe proclaimed. “How much do you want to bet I’ll be the one to find him?”

I rolled my eyes. “This isn’t a competition, Childe. It’s a kid’s life.”

“Surely, you don’t think he’s in any real danger, do you?” Childe shrugged. “As I said, there are no monsters in this forest. Why, when I was six, I’d go hunting in the forest by myself all the time. I was successful, too.”

“Yeah, well, not everyone can be like you.” I sighed, “There may be no monsters here, but it wouldn’t be impossible for a spooked boar to have run him down.”

“You make a good point.”

The forest on this island was much like any other forest I’ve seen. Tall trees, large bushes, and tiny wildlife chirping all around. With evening creeping in, I was reminded of the hide-and-seek games I would play with Aether when we were children. I never did manage to win as the seeker, but my hiding spots were always very clever. Looking to the tops of the trees, I contemplated if our search would benefit from higher ground. Better yet, perhaps Timmie himself was holed up in a tree.

“Hey, girlie,” Childe pointed to a low-hanging branch. “Look here. A scrap of fabric.”

I followed his direction and plucked the blue cloth entangled in the branch. Besides being a bit torn, it was otherwise clean. I suspect the branch had snagged on Timmie’s clothing while he was running off into the woods. My gaze then landed on slight indentations in the dirt.

“Footprints,” I bent down to touch the tracks. “Small enough to be a kid’s. Timmie must have gone this way.”

Childe nodded and we continued forward, going deeper into the forest. Occasionally, Childe would catch sight of another sign where Timmie passed through, but the evidence was less and less promising each time. 

“These are apple cores.” He bent to pick up the remains. “Could have been the kid.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Or an animal that also eats apples—which could be any of them.”

“Oh, but what animal would be so picky as to leave behind the core?”

“Alright,” I conceded. “Let’s follow the apple core trail.”

The night was approaching, and a blanket of darkness began to creep in on the forest. The only sounds I could hear were of us trampling through the foliage and the occasional startled bird chirping in surprise. Everything was beginning to look the same, and I fought to keep a sharp focus on finding Timmie.

Because Timmie was so young, I kept an eye out closer to the forest floor. Maybe I would be able to catch his head bobbing through the leaves or spot him collapsed underneath a bush. While I certainly hoped it wasn’t the latter, I didn’t want to ignore the possibilities. Sometimes the moon would peek out from the canopy of trees, casting shadows from the leaves rustling in the wind. An owl hooted in the distance. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught an unnatural shift to my left. “Did you see that?” I whipped my head around to catch the source, but there was nothing there.

“Just a moving shadow,” Childe said. “We need to keep our attention sharp. I didn’t think we’d waste so much time out here. Where is that kid?”

Another movement on my right. I quickly turned again, and I could swear there was a small, bright blue orb that faded behind the brush. “I saw something.” 

“Kid!” Childe shouted. “If you’re out there, you can show yourself to us. We bring delicious snacks.”

Silence.

He sighed, “Whatever you saw must have been an animal of some kind.”

“Maybe,” I mumbled, not quite sure what to believe. My patience for finding Timmie was running thin, and now my interest has piqued after seeing that floating orb. What could it be? “Hey, what if we split up? I’m sure it would be faster to find Timmie that way.” 

I bet Childe, being as skilled as he is, would have no trouble finding Timmie on his own. As for myself, I wanted to further investigate the mysterious glowing orb—while also continuing my search for the kid, of course.

Childe considered it. “No.”

“Why not?” I frowned and an idea popped into my head. “It can be a contest. Whoever finds Timmie gets, uh, bragging rights. I know how much you love to brag.”

“You said this wasn’t a competition.” He crossed his arms.

“Well,” I sighed. “Time is getting away from us. If a competition means we find Timmie faster and bring him home, it’s a win for everyone.”

“No.”

“Seriously?”

“I want to keep you by my side.”

“I’m not going to get lost.” I insisted, “I’m not a six-year-old kid.”

He shook his head. “That’s not what I meant.”

“Then what do you—”

“Shh,” Childe held up a finger to his lips and stilled. “Do you feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“The wind is picking up.” He darted his gaze in the direction where the wind was coming from. “There is conflict in the air.”

My brows furrowed, “What is the correlation between wind and—”

The bushes on our left rustled loudly and both froze, looking at each other. It rustled once more before the leaves parted to reveal a hilichurl. It was alone, armed with a bow, and looked just as surprised as we were.

It stared at us. We stared at it.

Slowly, I reached to my waist for a sword, but then I realized I didn’t bring a weapon with me. This forest was supposed to be harmless, after all.

“Ya!” The hilichurl took aim with its bow.

Childe quickly took action before the arrow could be let loose. He darted toward the hilichurl and knocked it square in the jaw with his fist. The hilichurl was launched backward and landed in the dirt, raging all the way down. Childe picked up the hilichurl’s discarded bow with a grin and notched an arrow on the string, aiming the tip and striking the hilichurl’s mask. It cracked and fell apart as the hilichurl died with one last growl before fading away.

“That was a hilichurl,” I breathed.

Childe chuckled, “And it wasn’t the only one. Hilichurls are social monsters, so the rest of the mob should be nearby. How exciting.”

“You said there were no monsters in this forest.”

“I did, didn’t I?” He paused. “There shouldn’t be.”

Realization dawned on me, “Timmie.”

We’d been searching for him this whole time thinking he couldn’t possibly be in any real danger. His mother was worried over him against slippery rocks, but the reality could be much, much worse. If Timmie had a run-in with the hilichurls, and if the hilichurls took any interest in Timmie…

Without a word, Childe and I pressed on further in the direction where the hilichurl had come from. Luckily, the monster was fairly clumsy in its travel, leaving a clear path that led us directly to a hilichurl cap set up in the middle of the forest. We hunched in the bushes, careful not to be seen, and surveyed the area.

Two sentry towers, three watchtowers, an outpost hut, and horned pots next to a roaring fire pit. There was one shooter hilichurl stationed at each tower, and three hilichurl grenadiers by the firepit. A mitachurl was resting by the outpost hut, with its blazing axe sitting off to the side. And to top it all off, a Dendro samachurl was standing on guard.

“Where’s Timmie?” I whispered.

Childe touched the side of my cheek and turned my head in the direction of the mitachurl, pointing to a cage I hadn’t noticed close to the outpost hut. Sure enough, the figure of a passed-out kid was lying at the bottom of the cage. My stomach dropped.

“Okay,” I gulped. “Rescue mission.”

“I’ll take care of the monsters,” Childe adjusted his stolen bow. “You free the kid.”

“Can you handle them all by yourself?”

He scoffed, “Of course, I can. I’m Tartaglia. Just make sure you don’t draw their attention away from me. Get in and get out.”

I nodded in confirmation and stealthily walked around the perimeter of the hilichurl camp. Careful to stay hidden in the shadows, I approached the cage just as one of the shooter hilichurls fell from a sentry tower with a howl. A Hydro arrow came from the shadows, smacking into the same hilichurl and triggering three additional Hydro attacks that slashed into its body.

Childe came out of the shadows and laughed with a manic glint in his eye, “Who’s next?”

The rest of the hilichurls jumped to attention and simultaneously let out a battle cry, “Ya ika!” before lunging at their target.

Trusting that Childe would be fine, I hurried over to the caged Timmie and hoped he was just asleep and not forever asleep. It was strange for the hilichurls to capture an unarmed child, so I was hoping the oddities didn’t end there and that they kept him alive. Though the cage was old and rusty, the bars were secured by a padlock, and I uselessly yanked at the door. It wouldn’t budge.

“Timmie,” I whisper-yelled. “Timmie, wake up! Can you hear me?”

No reaction.

Damnit, I bit the inside of my cheek as I studied Timmie’s body. Once I was able to catch the subtle rise and fall of his chest, I let out a sigh of relief before facing the issue of getting him out of that cage. I needed a key.

Key…Key…there wasn’t anything helpful in the immediate area. If I were a captor, I would keep the cage’s key close to me. On my person, even. One of those hilichurls couldn’t possibly have the key on them…could they?

I turned to face the battle in the hilichurl camp. The remaining shooter hilichurls were aiming at Childe from different directions. One was shooting Pyro and the other Electro. If he wasn’t careful, he could become the victim of an overload reaction. Childe lithely hopped out of the range of fire, and he switched from his ranged bow to a melee style with weaponry made purely of Hydro.

My jaw dropped. I didn’t know he could do that. In Physical Combat, Xiao forbade the use of Visions, so Childe’s full abilities were unknown to me until now. He was even better in melee than he was with a bow. The hilichurls didn’t stand a chance. Maybe I could steal the key off from a dead hilichurl once he was done with them.

Childe sliced through a hilichurl grenadier before it could launch a Pyro slime at him, and it dissipated into nothing as it perished. Including all of its belongings. That settles that—I would need to grab the key before Childe kills its possessor. 

Keeping a close eye on the remaining enemies, I noticed the mitachurl had a sizable belt with miscellaneous charms hanging from it. Not just charms, but a rusty key. That had to be it.

Quickly, I darted away from the cage and towards the mitachurl. It was swinging its blazing axe at Childe, who effortlessly dodged. The mitachurl’s attention was so focused on Childe that it didn’t notice my approach. Good.

Suddenly, thorny vines sprouted up from the ground and blocked my path—the Dendro samachurl. Not good.

Swiftly avoiding the vines before I could cut myself on them, I attempted to reroute myself. The Dendro samachurl waved its staff in the air with a cackle and summoned more thorny vines to encircle me.

“Lumi, what are you doing?” I could hear Childe yell. “You were supposed to be saving the kid!”

“The cage is locked!” I yelled back. “I need the key. It’s on the mitachurl.” 

He nodded, “I’ll grab the key. Can you handle the samachurl?”

Without Pyro to burn the vines? “Yeah!” 

I’m sure I could figure something out.

Chapter Text

The Dendro samachurl giggled maliciously as it hopped side to side. I rolled my eyes at its little dance and searched the ground for something, anything, I could use to cut these pesky vines down with. 

All of a sudden, the Dendro samachurl lunged at me and tried to smack me with its staff. Because the monster was so small and the staff was disproportionally large, the attack was misguided, and I sidestepped without having to try. The Dendro samachurl fell over in its attempt at offense. I snatched the staff out of its grasp.

“Hah!” I exclaimed and broke it in half over my knee.

The thorny vines surrounding me fell apart, and I was free. The Dendro samachurl stumbled backward before attempting to run away. A Hydro arrow whizzed past my ear, hitting it in the back, and it collapsed onto the ground.

“That was supposed to be a headshot,” Childe grumbled from beside me. “I need more practice.”

He finished off the Dendro samachurl with a proper strike to the head and it wailed, crumbling away into nothing.

“Did you get the key?” I scanned the camp to find that all of the hilichurls were gone—dead.

Childe held up a key ring with a single rusty key hanging from it. “Yup. Is the kid even alive?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s get him out of that cage, then.” Childe passed me the key and we returned to the caged boy.

After twisting the rusty key in the padlock, the cage door clunked loose. It creaked loudly as I pried it open, but Timmie slept soundly. His deep slumber was beginning to worry me—no way could a kid manage to sleep through all that fighting. Maybe he was concussed? In a coma?

“Timmie?” I lightly prodded his shoulder. “Timmie, wake up.”

He shifted a little, but not by much.

I grabbed both of his shoulders this time and shook the boy with all my might. His head limply flopped back and forth for a moment before his eyes finally cracked open. Immediately upon regaining consciousness, Timmie broke out into a loud sob.

“Girlie,” Childe sighed and bent down to console the kid. “You scared him.”

He scared me,” I countered. “I thought he wouldn’t wake up.”

Timmie wailed, “Wh-Where am I? Who *sniff* are you? What happened to the *sniff* the scary monsters?”

“You’re safe from the monsters,” Childe assured. “Lumi and I are here to take you home.”

I untied Timmie’s jacket from my waist and offered it to him. “Are you feeling cold? Your mom gave this to me to keep you warm.”

“I miss my mommy!” Timmie cried again. “I want to go home.”

“Are you tired?” Childe asked in a surprisingly calm tone.

Timmie sniffled. Then nodded.

“Do you want me to carry you on my back?”

Timmie hesitated. Then nodded.

Childe chuckled, “Alright, then. Up you go.”

I watched in amazement as Childe carefully hoisted him up onto his back. With Timmie in his care like that, Childe almost seemed…

“What is it?” he asked me. “You’ve got this strange look on your face.”

“You’re surprisingly good with kids.”

“I would hope so,” he smiled softly. “I’ve got three younger siblings, remember? Teucer, the youngest, is just about Timmie’s age. I would give him piggyback rides like this all the time. I figured Timmie wouldn’t mind. How are you feeling up there, kid?”

“This is really nice, mister!” Timmie sniffled once more. “Can I see my mommy now?”

“Okay, okay,” Childe made a few adjustments. “Let’s get you home.”

Timmie fell asleep on Childe’s back soon after we left the camp. The forest was quite dark on the return to town, but we were able to easily navigate the area after spending so much time familiarizing ourselves. 

“We need to talk about those monsters,” I said after a while.

“What about them?”

“What were they doing here? If this island is under Celestia Academy’s protection, if this island is a safe haven from monster activity, then we need to tell someone that the peace is being disrupted.”

“The battle was brief,” Childe said. “Those hilichurls were light work.”

“Still,” I persisted. “They may be low-level monsters, but now we’re at risk for more dangerous mobs. Hang on, how is it that this island was safe from monsters in the first place? What was stopping them from spawning?”

“Celestia Academy owns these lands,” Childe shrugged. “I never thought much more beyond that. What sort of mob would be stupid enough to get so close to the most powerful budding fighters in all of Teyvat?”

He made a good point, but I was still uncertain. This was the Abyss Order we were talking about. Perhaps they thought they could get away with a covert invasion under the cover of the forest. There weren’t many people who ventured too deep, so it would be easy to go unnoticed.

“We need to tell the Academy.” I decided.

Hilichurls weren’t the only unusual lifeform wandering this forest, but they were the most important to address to authority. 

I also thought back to the mysterious blue orb I saw floating around. Something like that would be better left to investigate on my own.

✧✧✧

“Mommy!” Timmie hopped down from Childe’s back the moment he spotted his mother waiting by the blacksmith’s shop.

She ran up to him, embraced him in her arms, and cried out, “Oh, my little Timmie! Thank the Archons you’re alright.”

Childe muttered to the side, “She should be thanking us.”

The mother pulled away from Timmie, and her teary-eyed expression shifted to something more stern. “What did you think you were doing, going off into the forest by yourself like that? Mommy and Daddy have warned you time and time again to stick close to where people can find you.”

“I was just worm hunting!” Timmie proclaimed. “And then I saw the Seelies, Mommy! I wanted to follow them, so I could eat the biggest frosted chocolate cake in the world!”

“Seelies aren’t real,” she sighed. “Your father should have known better than to fill your head up with those silly little tales.”

Timmie stomped his foot. “They were real! I saw them.”

“Ahem,” Childe cleared his throat. “Our commission is fulfilled.”

“Timmie!” The blacksmith ran out from his workplace, carrying a pouch of what I hoped was mora.

Timmie ran up to his father and jumped into his arms, “Daddy! I was so scared. There were monsters.”

The mother gasped, “Monsters? In the forest?”

“Not the kind of monsters you might be thinking of,” Childe laughed. “Just a few scary shadows and spooky sounds. The forest is teeming with the unknown for a little kid. You can see how his imagination might get away from him.”

“Right,” she nodded. “Of course, we’re safe here on this island.”

The blacksmith handed the pouch to me with a warm smile, “Thank you so much for finding our boy. It isn’t much, but here is our payment. If you stop by the town in the future, I can have weapons specially made for you two as a show of our appreciation.”

“Really?” My eyes widened. “That would be amazing.”

“Since you offered, I’ve been meaning to get my hands on a bow with an arrow rest large enough to shoot multiple at a time,” Childe said. “Is that something you can manage?”

“Well,” the blacksmith hummed. “I’ve never tried something like that, but for you, I’ll do my best.”

“Perfect,” Childe grinned and turned to me. “Well then, shall we get going?”

✧✧✧

Teleportation number four: Not Terrible. I only needed a few shaky breaths before my body returned to normal, so maybe I won’t be developing an aversion to waypoints like I thought I would. Childe was unfazed as we descended from the campus fountain.

“Dinner?” he proposed.

I shook my head, “I really want to speak with someone about the monsters we saw in the forest. You lied to the townspeople about it being safe.”

“It wouldn’t do any good for them to worry, now would it?” he shrugged. “I doubt any of them would be venturing in the forest, anyways. Let the Academy handle it, Lumi. They know what they’re doing.”

“The Academy won’t know there is an issue if we don’t say anything first,” I continued. “So, I’m going to speak with Katheryne.”

“By all means,” he said. “A shame I won’t be joining you, then. Katheryne is a thorn in my side that I would quickly eliminate if I could. However, since she is staff, I have to hold back.”

“Katheryne is nice,” I frowned.

Childe laughed, “I’m sure she is—if you’re not on the receiving end of the Academy's discipline. Trust me, girlie, she and I haven’t been on good terms ever since I flooded Pyro House.”

Of course, he did. “Do I even want to know the details?”

“A story for another time,” he grinned. “Don’t be too late for dinner. I’ll find you.”

I didn’t doubt it. “Save me a seat?”

“Always.”

✧✧✧

Katheryne’s nimble hands hesitated over a stack of paperwork. “Monsters, you say?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “Childe and I were deep into the forest, but we were still close enough to the port town. It was a hilichurl camp, and there were seven of them total. I’m not sure what they were doing there, but they captured a kid from who wandered in too deep.”

“Goodness!” she gasped. “Is he alright?”

“He is now,” I affirmed.

“This is good to know,” Katheryne picked up a pen and began to scribble some notes down. “There are preventative measures set in place by the Academy that eliminate the threat of mobs. I can assure you something like this will not happen again.”

“What kind of preventative measures?” I asked. “How is it that they were able to spawn within the island bounds?”

“In the foreseeable future,” she continued. “I suggest you stay away from the forest. Celestia’s students are strong, but they aren’t invincible.”

“What about the townspeople?” I questioned further. “Can their safety be guaranteed?”

“Yes,” she asserted. “Trust me, Miss Lumine. The Academy is more than capable of protecting one town, and the campus is even more secure. You have nothing to worry about.”

There were still questions she wasn’t answering. “Does this have something to do with the Abyss Order, by any chance? Hilichurls are monsters of the Abyss, so maybe the Order’s power has strengthened. If we don’t do something, they could be strong enough to—”

“That’s enough,” she cut me off. Her usual demeanor hardened in her sternness. She wore the same expression as she did back at the orphanage whenever Aether and I were caught in the middle of our schemes. 

“Katheryne?”

“Miss Lumine,” she melted into a polite smile. “Thank you for your intel on the situation. You have been most helpful. Please, use the rest of your free time to enjoy dinner.”

“But—”

“If there are any updates, I’ll be sure to let you know.”

I sighed, “Okay.” 

I wouldn’t be getting anything out of her, that much was clear. The way she responded to my questions was concerning. What could possibly be the reason behind her secrecy? If I hadn’t known any better, I would have assumed Katheryne simply didn’t want to alarm me, just as Childe was with the blacksmith family earlier. However, because I do know better, her reaction was suspicious.

I needed a second opinion, and one person with calculating insight and access to all things confidential came to mind.

Chapter Text

“We last left off with ancient Liyue, and today I will delve deeper into the history of Wuwang Hill. If either of you have taken the time to traverse through the terrain, you may have realized that light does not reach Wuwang Hill’s eerie nature.” Professor Morax paced across the lecture floor. “Regardless of the time of day, Wuwang Hill is cast in a state of perpetual darkness. There are no notable lifeforms in this area, besides the occasional monster, and that is due to the unseemly demise of Wuwang Hill’s residents.”

A few days had passed since my fishing trip and rescue commission with Childe. I hadn’t gotten the chance to speak with Kaeya yet since classes were back in session. Since we planned to meet over the next weekend to continue our hunt, I could speak with him then about the unusual forest and Katheryne’s reluctance to give information. But because it was about monsters, I was anxious to speak with him sooner.

“A sea monster lured the children to drown in Bishui River, lulled by a whale-like song,” Professor Morax paused. “The elderly passed on naturally afterward. Though Wuwang Hill’s atmosphere is most certainly dark, there are some pockets of light scattered about. Some have described them to resemble bright, blue orbs that glow and fade with the wind.”

Wait, glowing orbs? Professor Morax’s words tickled my brain, and I thought back to a similar phenomenon I witnessed in the forest. Could what I saw be related to what’s on Wuwang Hill?

“Legends say these bouts of light are spirits. Ghosts. The souls of those who have been unable to find their peace. And so, they lead wanderers and travelers alike into the depths of Wuwang Hill—ultimately to their own deaths.”

Oh.

“Of course,” a note of a smile crossed his lips. “This is not factual—a simple legend. But remember, there is often truth in these fabrications, is there not? Ah, this reminds me of another myth that is widespread across Teyvat, not concentrated to any particular region.”

There he goes again, off on another tangent.

“Seelie have a similar appearance to ghost spirits,” he began. “But their connotations are largely different. They are remnants of a bygone race lost to time, beings that once held immense beauty, power, and wisdom. As you may have come to realize throughout the course of this class, no demographic is exempt from the ruins of calamity. The Seelie eventually found themselves lost, merely fragments of themselves, and set to wander the lands of Teyvat.”

Rather than the ghost spirits of Wuwang Hill, it was more probable that what I saw in the forest was a Seelie. If I remembered correctly, Timmie had even mentioned something about seeing a Seelie and being drawn further into the forest. His mother had disregarded it as a baseless fairytale, but if Professor Morax had knowledge on the subject, then perhaps there was more to it.

I raised my hand.

“Lumine,” he called on me.

“What would happen if one were to come across a Seelie?” I asked. “Assuming the myth is real, would they also lead you to your death as the ghost spirits would?”

“An excellent question,” he nodded. “On the contrary, Seelie are said to lead one to what which their hearts most desire. This can be a material item, such as treasure or a lost loved one, and also intangible dreams. A successful journey, closure on unresolved troubles, or even the road to fame. Where a Seelie leads you depends on who is being guided.”

Treasure or a lost loved one. I tried not to put too much faith in the idea, especially if Seelie truly were fictional, but now I’m certain of what I saw that day in the forest. If it were a Seelie, it was something that could take me to what I desired most. Aether.

And, if I brought Kaeya along with me, it may just lead us straight to the treasure he’s been seeking. Finding the Seelie again might be difficult, but I’m sure the search for a glowing orb in a dark forest would be far easier than chasing assumptions and hypotheticals. Hope sparked within me, and I fought to keep my attention on the lecture.

Eventually, Professor Morax circled back to pertinent historical events in Liyue, but the class was soon over after that. With this new information on my mind, I quickly packed my things and rushed to Horticulture on autopilot. Not being late to class was second nature at this point.

Out the lecture hall. Exit the building. Cross the courtyard. Go with the flow of foot traffic. Pass under the open hallway. Get intercepted by a mysterious woman with a strikingly cold presence.

Wait a minute.

“Well, well,” the unknown student assessed me. “If it isn’t the Visionless upstart.”

She was taller than most students here, and I’m sure the stiletto heels added to that. Her platinum-blonde hair was twisted in a loose half-up half-down style that cascaded down one shoulder, and a tiara-like clip sat on her head. It was dark and intricate, much like the lacy mask that covered her right eye.

“Who are you?” 

“Hmph,” she narrowed her eye. “I expected my name to be known to all of the first-years by now. As ditzy as this year’s batch is, it is still disappointing to see how far Celestia Academy’s standards have fallen since my own acceptance. You would do well to remember who I am from here on out, for I am La Signora .”

Oh, so this was her. The ringleader of the Twin Mages and an apparent thorn in my side. What did she do again? Order her minions to belittle anyone without an appraisable amount of power? Intimidate and discourage people from trying their best for no good reason?

“Good to know,” I muttered and tried to sidestep her. Keyword: tried.

“I wasn’t finished with you.” She blocked my path. 

Seriously? Whatever she wanted to say to me could wait until after classes were done for the day. There was just one period left, after all. I couldn’t risk being tardy to Horticulture, though I’d made good time so far, idle chatter would be pushing it.

“My little mages have told me about you,” she said. “A stubborn bug who refuses to acknowledge her place in the world. Her rung on the ladder. Her level on the pyramid. Her—”

I rolled my eyes, “Yes, yes. I haven't bent over backward at the Twin Mages’ request despite being so-called powerless. I’ve heard this all before. There’s a class I need to get to, Signora, but I’ll spare my time to tell you this: I don’t care what your name is, where you come from, or how powerful you are.”

A wall of ice shot up from behind her, indefinitely blocking my path, and I nearly cried out in frustration at the glow of her Cryo Vision. Was this really necessary? It was now just Signora and me in the outdoor corridor. The rest of the students had probably made it to class already. On time.

“How impudent,” she growled. “You're even worse than I thought. And to think you have Tartaglia wrapped around your finger is ridiculous. Getting to your juvenile class on time should be the least of your worries.”

“What do you want from me?” I grew impatient.

If looks could kill, she would have impaled me with Cryo daggers shooting from her eye by now. “Initially, I was interested in adding to my following. I saw potential in you, rat. My mages were sent to recruit your presence, yet you rebuffed the opportunity for greater power.”

Right, I remembered my first night at the dining hall. Cici and Cicin had approached me and asked if I wanted to sit with them right before insulting all of the student population who haven’t been granted a Vision.

“What of it?” I crossed my arms. “I’m doing just fine without a Vision.”

And I’ll be doing even better once I fully harness my new Anemo powers.

“Strength means nothing if its wielder is a witless twig,” she spat. “Visions aren’t the only gift of power, not anymore. If you knew any better, you would have accepted our proposal. We could have offered you access to power via an apparatus akin to that of a Vision, if not superior.”

“I don’t need a bug lamp.”

“The Cicin Lantern is child’s play,” she tutted. “Your peabrain would hardly be able to grasp the immense capabilities of a Delusion. I would fault myself for even attempting to make you understand, but I have no flaws.”

“I don’t need a Delusion, either.” Whatever that was. “If anything, I’d say your whole philosophy on life is rather delusional . What could have possibly triggered this level of a superiority complex that you don’t see your fellow students as, well, fellow students? You’re no better than the rest of us.”

“You will not speak to me in such a way.” She jabbed a finger at me. “I am an upperclassman.”

“And I’m late to class,” I fumed. “You and your whole posse make me sick.”

She gave me a tight-lipped smile. “Is that so? I’m sure Tartaglia would be most stricken to hear of that. Though, that would be unsurprising since he is most weak-minded.”

What did Childe have anything to do with her antics, besides them both originating from Snezhnaya? 

“Oh?” she snickered. “Did you not know? You two spend a disgusting amount of time in each other’s company. Was he not also goading you into joining our affiliation? He has a Delusion, you know.”

“I don’t care.” Lie. My very minimal interest in Delusions has significantly increased. Was Childe really complicit in her schemes? I would have to have a conversation with him later. Depending on his answer, our relationship may be on the line, and I was dreading the confrontation—he’d grown on me.

She assessed me, “Stubborn till the very end.”  Signora gracefully waved her hand to the side, materializing what looked like a catalyst floating above her right shoulder.

“What are you—”

My question went unfinished as I caught sight of a stream of deadly Cryo daggers shooting at me from her catalyst. In rapid succession, they smashed into the stone floor where I had barely managed to dash away. Cryo shards spilled onto the floor, and a frosty draft breezed over my body.

My gaze darted back to her icy glare. “I’m unarmed.”

“I know,” she smirked.

“This isn’t a fair fight.”

“Against me, there is no such thing.”

Despite the drastic drop in temperature, I began to sweat. If she was serious about fighting me here and now, there was no way I was coming away unscathed.

Another round of Cryo daggers flew at me, this time from two directions. I dodged the row that came at me directly, but I wasn’t fast enough to avoid the attack that curved behind, aimed at my back. Bracing myself for the pain, each Cryo dagger smashed on impact like the sound of shattered glass.

Not a single one had struck me.

I heard slow footsteps approach from behind, but I didn’t dare turn around to see who it was. Signora was proving to be most unhinged, even more so than Childe, and I couldn’t afford to take my attention off of her.

“Oh, so sorry!” A smooth, familiar voice entered the scene. “Have I interrupted something?”

My stomach fluttered, and a wave of relief came over me.

“Kaeya,” I kept my eyes trained on Signora. “Someone’s upset I didn’t want to join her fan club. Unsolicited attacks on other students during school hours has got to be breaking some kind of rule, no?”

He brandished his sword. “Time to fight back, I s’pose.”

Chapter Text

Signora narrowed her eye on Kaeya, “You.”

He chuckled, “How rude of you to not call me by my name. We are in the same year, after all. Could it be that the mannerisms in Snezhnaya aren’t up to date with the rest of Teyvat? What a pity.”

“How dare you insult my homeland?” She took a bold step forward before hesitating. “I will not waste my time on the likes of you. I’m here for her.”

“Oh?” he twirled his sword. “Afraid of a fair fight? I promise to go easy on you.”

“In your dreams,” she sneered. “Members of the student council are lapdogs to the administration. I am well aware that you are disgustingly wily. As such, you have gained enough of the Academy’s favor to possess heavy influence over their dealings in student affairs.”

“Have you been keeping an eye on me?” he smirked. “I didn’t realize I had a secret admirer. Though, I can’t say I’m surprised.”

“Save it,” Signora cast away her catalyst with a simple wave of her hand. “I’ll not jeopardize my standing with the Academy by your hand.” She looked back at me, “I already have enough problems to be bothered with. Until next time, wench.”

She stomped a heel that clicked loudly against the stone path, and a flurry of snow accumulated around her body. The wind created from the activity blew my hair back, and goosebumps crawled up my arms as I faced the cold front. 

The blizzard wrapped around her form in a vortex, completely concealing her presence before falling away to reveal nothing. The only telltale sign that Signora was even here was the Cryo wall she had erected to block my path, now melting at an accelerated rate into a sizable puddle.

“Well, that was rather anticlimactic.” Kaeya put away his sword. “Care to enlighten me as to what she wanted from you?

I stared at the spot where Signora had stood moments before. “She was upset I didn’t want to be recruited into…whatever her judgemental group was.”

“She normally isn’t so brazen with it,” he said. “Most of Signora’s victims are found shaken and disturbed days after she’s through with them. Some have even discontinued their enrollment after a single encounter.”

My jaw dropped, “And the Academy allows for this to happen?”

“Of course not,” Kaeya shook his head. “Her presence alone is enough to keep others silent. However, students like us who refuse to bend a knee and would prefer to personally take her down have never obtained solid proof of her tormenting. That is, until now.”

“We don’t have proof.” I frowned. The Cryo wall had melted entirely at this point, and the remaining water dribbled off the path to be soaked up by the grass.

“Oh, but we will,” his eye twinkled. “Now that we know she’s out to get you, we can stage the scene by our own design. We’ll lure her in while an authoritative figure witnesses her rotten nature firsthand.”

“You want to use me as bait.”

He patted my shoulder, “Come now, don’t look so offended. You’ll be saving the rest of the powerless student body from her temper. There will be no need to watch your back while idly wandering the halls. Say, don’t you have somewhere to be?”

My stomach dropped. “I’m late for class!”

He shrugged, “Happens to the best of us—me. Happens to me.”

Straight away, I continued my route to Horticulture, picking up speed into a brisk walk. I’m not sure if I could afford to be any later than I already was.

“What’s the class?” Kaeya kept up with me.

“Horticulture.”

He whistled, “Baizhu is a tough one.”

“You don’t need to remind me.”

“It’s a good thing you weren’t debilitated by Signora’s attack. It worries me how far she might have gone if I didn’t show up,” he said. “Nice dodging, by the way.”

“Thanks for blocking the attack from behind.” I offered as we rounded the corner of a building. “Though, I’m sure a trip to the infirmary would be a good enough excuse for my tardiness. I’d rather be gravely wounded than have a letter grade knocked off.”

Kaeya halted briefly, falling behind. “Don’t,” he caught up with me. “Don’t ever joke about your well-being. Always prioritize your health and safety.”

“It’s not that important,” I frowned. “Barbara can heal me in a flash.”

“It’s important to me.” He pressed his lips together, “Your safety is important to me, Lumine. I’ve seen too many people in my life that I care for in pain. If I can help it, you will never be one of them.”

He was being serious, I realized. We reached the laboratory building where Horticulture was held, and though I was eager to get there as soon as possible, I wanted to reassure him. “I’ll try not to get hurt.”

“Promise?”

I nodded.

“That’s not good enough for me,” he looked me in the eyes. “Out loud.”

“I promise.”

Satisfied, he nodded once and opened the door for me. “Good girl. Now, get to class.”

✧✧✧

Taking a slow breath, I braced myself for Professor Baizhu’s reprimands as I entered the Horticulture room. The door swung open with an unhelpful creak, alerting my presence to the entire class. Everyone turned to the source of the sound, and I fought the urge to spin on my heel and walk out the door.

Professor Baizhu was facing the chalkboard and turned away from his unfinished sketch of a Mist Flower. He looked at me through his glasses with a silent, disappointed stare. Crossing his arms, Professor Baizhu said nothing. The tail of the white snake coiled around his shoulders swished from side to side.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” I spoke at last. “I was on my way to class and—”

“Have a seat,” he said with a flicker of annoyance. “You’ve missed much already, Lumine.”

Cheeks flaming with embarrassment, I quickly found my seat next to Xiangling. She shot me a wide-eyed look before shifting her notebook to my side of the table. Her notes on Mist Flowers and Flaming Flowers were fully written out, and I whispered a quick thank you as I pulled out my own notebook to copy them down.

“As I was saying,” Professor Baizhu added to his sketch on the board. “With any lifeform, there is the potential for mutation. In the case of the elemental flora, a mutagen backed with the right amounts of elemental energy will grow an entirely new lifeform—the Whopperflower.”

I paid close attention and took detailed notes on the Whopperflower lesson that soon deepened into an overview of Regesvines. There was no hands-on observation during this class, meaning we would be directly dissecting Mist Flower Corollas and Flaming Flower Stamens in tomorrow’s class. That was a relief, I learn best when I can physically interact with the material.

“As with all element-based lifeforms, these plants have an increased resistance to their own element.” Professor Baizhu added notes to the plant anatomy drawn on the bard. “Just as Mist Flower Corollas can be accessed via Pyro, a Cryo Regesvine is best taken down with Pyro attacks. The same goes for Flaming Flower Stamens and Pyro Regesvines—Hydro and Cryo attacks. This is one of many examples where what you learn in my class is pertinent to your survival in the real world.” He cut a look at me, and I gulped. “Missing any part of my lessons could very well put you at risk in the future. With that said, class is dismissed.”

Chairs squeaked and papers rustled as my peers gathered their belongings and left the room. Xiangling was still doodling around the Pyro Regesvine in her notebook, surrounding it with blazing flames in red ink.

“Xiangling,” I nudged her. “Class is over.”

She jumped, “Oh, is it? Perfect, I’m starving!” Xiangling shoved her notebook into her bag and carelessly tossed her pens in as well, not bothering to maintain any semblance of organization. “Wanna grab an early dinner?”

I shook my head, “I need to speak with Professor Baizhu about my tardy.”

“Ah,” she squeezed my shoulder. “Good luck, Lumine. Maybe you can convince him to take off only half a letter grade instead of a full one? I don’t know, though. No one has dared to come in late after we were on the first day. He might make an example out of you.”

“I have to try,” I insisted.

“I’ll cook you a special meal,” she sighed and bowed to me as she turned to leave. “For my condolences.”

Her lack of faith was astonishing, but I couldn’t blame her. At this point, the last of the students had filtered out of the room, and it was just Professor Baizhu and me. He was carefully organizing his lecture papers at the front desk, and I waited until he was finished before speaking.

“Staying in the room longer won’t make up for the time you missed at the start of class, you know,” he said before I could get a word in.

“I really am sorry,” I began to sweat. “I got held up by an upperclassman who had differences with me. She wouldn’t let me pass until I gave her a response she wanted.”

“Social interactions are no excuse for tardiness,” he shook his head. “If anything, this is worsening your case, Lumine.”

I didn’t bother trying to explain how my encounter with Signora was anything but a frivolous social interaction. At this point, I had to focus on current actions rather than try to change his mind on what was in the past.

“Is there anything I can do to avoid the tardy penalty?” I pleaded. “I’ve been incredibly committed to your class, Professor Baizhu. For an entire letter grade to be taken off, that would derail from my hard work.”

He stared at me thoughtfully, and his snake lifted her head to his ear, hissing something I couldn’t quite catch. Professor Baizhu stashed his papers away into a briefcase before turning back to me. “It pains me to do this to you, Lumine. You currently have the highest scores in my class. From lab assignments to holistic exams, you exceed your classmates’ work each time. However, you were tardy by a wide margin, and I have my limits.”

He was cracking, I could tell. I just needed to push a little further, and maybe something could be worked out. “Extra assignments, grading work, even petsitting your snake—I’ll do anything. Just, please. Let me correct my mistake.”

“I am no pet,” the snake spoke, and its tail snapped around erratically. “I take offense to the insinuation.”

“Sorry!” I jumped to apologize. “I didn’t realize.”

Professor Baizhu laughed, “She meant no ill will, Changsheng, let it be. I appreciate your dedication to academics and tenacity to right wrongs, Lumine. Just this once, I will refrain from deducing points off your grade.”

A sigh of relief escaped me, “Thank you so much, Professor. I promise I’ll never—”

“If,” he held up a finger. “You help me with a task.”

I nodded in earnest, “Of course, what can I do for you?”

“Instructing courses here at Celestia is only a fraction of what I do,” he began. “I am also the owner of Bubu Pharmacy in Liyue Harbor. One of the benefits of partnering with the Academy is that I am allowed full access to all plant life specimens that the island has to offer. However, because instructing fills much of my schedule, I do not always have the time to collect the herbs I desire. I want you to descend the mountain and venture into the island’s forests to pick them for me.”

“I’ll do it.” I agreed without hesitation.

Picking herbs was an easy task, far more simple than what I anticipated from him. Even better, I now have a valid reason to traverse the forest on my own. A plan was already beginning to form in my mind, and I felt the excitement build up at the opportunity. While gathering the herbs for Professor Baizhu, I could also spare some time to look for the Seelie. If I’m lucky, the Seelie might even find me first. Two pairs of eyes would be better than one, so I’ll have to scout out Kaeya before I begin.

“You will be accompanied by my assistant,” Professor Baizhu continued. 

There goes my plan.

“This is not to say I do not have trust in your abilities to pick herbs. My assistant has lived a long life and is quite knowledgeable in the locations of the herbs that I require. Though, she is often forgetful and cannot be left on her own for too long. She, too, has multiple occupations and works in the Academy’s infirmary as a receptionist. You may find her there.”

His assistant seemed familiar by description alone. Could she be…

Chapter Text

“Qiqi?”

I stood in front of the infirmary’s reception desk, but she was nowhere to be found. Professor Baizhu told me the herb collecting was to be done before the day’s end, so I went to see her immediately after meeting with him. Standing on my toes, I even peeked over the desk in case her short frame was obscured. There was nothing but a stepstool.

Leaning against the desk, I tapped a finger on the wood and thought of how long it may take for her to show up. Foraging for herbs in a massive forest with a child-sized guide would take some time, I’m sure. I would go off and get them on my own, but Qiqi was the one who knew which herbs to gather in the first place. 

“I’m here,” a soft voice said.

I spun around to find Qiqi standing behind me. I didn’t notice her entrance at all—the door didn’t make a sound. How long had she been standing there?

“Hi Qiqi,” I smiled. “Professor Baizhu sent me to you for some herb collection.”

“Oh,” she stared at the floor. “I will…bring my notebook.”

She walked around the reception desk and hopped up on the stepstool. Reaching her arms into the drawers behind the desk, Qiqi rummaged around before pulling out a tiny notebook. It was labeled Things for Qiqi to Remember in fine script, and she flipped through the pages. After a moment of reading, she suddenly gasped and acknowledged me once more.

“I just remembered something. I forgot to help Dr. Baizhu collect herbs.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” I reminded her. Qiqi’s memory was worse than I thought. “Are you ready to go into the forest?”

She said nothing and only hummed a light tune, going back to the reception desk and reaching under to grab what looked like an empty knapsack. That must be for the herbs.

“I will go with you,” she nodded. “Follow me.”

✧✧✧

I let Qiqi guide us past the edge of the forest bordering campus. Despite her poor memory, it was clear she knew the right way to go judging from the precise turns she made at seemingly random locations. Qiqi stayed silent as we walked, and she would occasionally stop to stretch her limbs. Sometimes, she gasped whenever small wildlife crossed our path. Finches got her the most distracted, and I often had to remind her of why we were here after she was finished marveling at them.

Because the Academy was at the top of the mountain, there was quite a bit of scaling down steep slopes. For myself, I had no trouble finding the right footing or hopping down to strong ledges, even if they were far apart. I was more worried about how Qiqi fared in these conditions. So far, her small size proved to be of no issue as she slid down the rockface.

At last, we made it to an area where there were more trees than rocks. Qiqi reached into her knapsack and pulled out the notebook. She stared at the cover. Then, she put the notebook back inside without even opening it. Instead, she reached in once more and pulled out a glass bottle of…is that milk?

Popping the lid, she guzzled nearly half the bottle before letting out a satisfied exhale. “I like coconut milk.”

I’ve never tried coconut milk before. “What does it taste like?”

She looked to me and then to the bottle. “I don’t know,” she shrugged and switched her drink for the notebook. “We need…Violetgrass.”

If I remembered correctly, Violetgrass was a plant originating from Liyue. Not only were they sparsely located, but they only grew on cliffsides. I looked back up to the stone cliffs we just descended. It probably would have been better for us to pick the Violetgrass before we got this far down. Did Qiqi forget?

She was already beginning to climb back up.

I watched for a moment as she made very, very slow progress. Her arms and legs were far shorter than mine, and I can’t imagine how long it took her to collect herbs for Professor Baizhu on a normal basis.

“Qiqi,” I climbed after her. “Let me handle things from here. Just point to where the Violetgrass is, and I’ll pick them. You can wait at the bottom.”

She stopped climbing and tilted her head to the side, “But…I need to stay busy or else I may forget what I’m doing. And, uh, my joints might lock up if I don’t move enough.”

“How about you look for other plants we need that are close by?” I suggested. “You can even take a break and drink more coconut milk.”

“Oh, okay. Violetgrass is over there.” She pointed to a far spot on the cliffs where a small shadow shaded some of the rock. 

Wait, that wasn’t a shadow. Squinting my eyes, I made out the faint shape and deep purple of the Violetgrass. Finding it all on my own would have been near impossible. How Qiqi was able to spot it, I’ll never know.

After making sure Qiqi made it safely to the forest floor, I steeled myself for the upward climb. The sun was shining on this side of the mountain, and a bead of sweat began to trickle down my back just as I made it to the bundle of Violetgrass. Soon, I realized I had nowhere to put them. Qiqi had the knapsack with her, so I decided to delicately tuck the stems in my waistband, careful not to crush any petals.

On my way back down, I somehow managed to spot another shadow—Violetgrass—further along the cliff. It was at the same altitude, so I didn’t have to worry about pulling myself up any higher. I did, however, need to keep my stamina in check. A small ledge jutted from the cliffside, and I took a moment to rest there while the burning in my muscles subsided from the constant effort. 

Waiting for my energy to recharge, I spied Qiqi sitting on a fallen log with her too-short legs dangling in the air. Her feet swung back and forth as she sipped on some coconut milk, and I smiled. For as old as Baizhu made her out to be, Qiqi acted like a kid. She did mention something about being a zombie, though. I wanted to learn more about that particular story.

Ready to go, I gripped the rough edges of the cliff and climbed in a horizontal direction. Once I’d made it to this section of Violetgrass, I carefully extracted them from the rock crevices and tucked them with the others. Now all I had to do was descend—gravity was my friend.

“Here’s the Violetgrass.” I handed the flowers to Qiqi, who was staring at her now-empty bottle.

“Wasn’t there something in here a second ago…?” Her usually dull voice held a hint of sadness in it.

“You drank it all,” I reminded her. “The coconut milk.”

“I like coconut milk.”

Qiqi’s knapsack was leaning against a boulder, so I took it upon myself to store the Violegrass there. I spotted Qiqi’s notebook in there as well, and I handed it over to her. “What’s next on the list?”

“Qingxin,” she said without looking at the notebook. “Up there.”

She pointed to one of the lower peaks of the mountain, but it was still a peak. I fought to keep a pleasant expression on my face. I to climb again? If Qiqi brought up the location sooner, we could have glided down to that peak from the very top of the mountain and saved energy. Scaling that height…I was now beginning to understand why Professor Baizhu thought this to be a fair task in return for keeping my grade.

A family of finches chirped loudly from a nearby tree. “Ooh, pretty,” Qiqi gasped and stared up at them in awe.

I couldn’t be mad at her, but I could prepare myself for the future plants. If I know what to look for ahead of time, a more efficient route of collection could be set in place.

“Qiqi, may I see your notebook?”

She handed it to me, “Okay.”

I flipped through the pages, seeing that quite a few of them held snippets of information on people. There were mostly notes on physical appearances, but memories and personalities were listed as well. I didn’t want to invade Qiqi’s privacy, but I couldn’t help but pause on one particular page that stuck out to me.

Hu Tao

  • Punchable face
  • Tried to bury me
  • Must throw into a fridge 
  • Warm
  • Fake smile
  • Death
  • I despise Hu Tao

 

I…wow. I didn’t realize someone as docile as Qiqi would bear so much hatred towards another person. I’ve never met this Hu Tao, but they sounded interesting—to say the least.

At last, I reached the list of plants for us to gather. Violetgrass and Qingxin were at the top, followed by Horsetail and Lotus Head. Alright then, we’ll be halfway done once I muster up enough physical and mental energy to collect the Qingxin. Once we get this over with, I’ll be in good standing with Professor Baizhu again. Once we get this over with, I could take a nice shower followed by a long nap.

✧✧✧

“This should be the last of it.” I shook the water from my hands.

The Lotus Heads were further into the pond than I thought. It was only with the help of Qiqi’s Cryo skill that I didn’t have to go knee-deep in the water. They were heavy in my hands, and I hoped Qiqi’s knapsack had enough room left with all the other plants we’d gathered. The Horsetails were the easiest to find, being so close to the shallow end, and the Qingxin flowers were safely secured on top of everything else. It took me longer to grab those than the Violetgrass, including when I double-backed for more Violetgrass upon Qiqi’s request. Apparently, this island’s mountain had multiple peaks, but there were only a couple of Qingxin on each one—climbing was agony. This is another form of training, I guess.

I stashed the final plants into the knapsack and swung it onto my back—the weight would surely tip Qiqi over if she tried.

“Shall we head back?” I asked.

She nodded, “Go.”

Qiqi navigated us back towards the Academy, one last upward climb. This time, we took a route with a more gradual slope. It would take us a bit longer to head back this way, but I didn’t mind going easy.

“Hey,” Qiqi stopped and turned around to face me. “Do you know what?”

“No, what is it?”

“Uhh…” she looked to the sky. “Neither do I. I…already forgot.”

An odd one, she was.

Eventually, I could spot the roofs of the taller buildings on campus, signaling we were quite close. I readjusted the straps of the knapsack just when a strong gust of wind blew down from the top of the mountain. Qiqi stumbled backward a bit, and her hands immediately reached for the talisman flapping on her head. She tugged on it twice, making sure it remained secure. 

That talisman…could it have something to do with Qiqi being a zombie?

“Qiqi, can I ask you a question?”

“Okay.”

“How did you become a zombie?”

She hopped over a tree root and held both arms out to maintain balance. Another wind current whipped down the mountain, and it would have knocked her flat onto the ground if I didn’t catch her in time. Strange, it hadn’t been this windy earlier.

“The wind is picking up. There is conflict in the air.”

The memory of Childe’s comment came back to me, and I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. Before, the wind had led us to a hilichurl camp. But this time, it was coming from the Academy.

“Did you ask me something?” Qiqi looked back at me, “Sorry…I forgot.”

I smiled, “Nevermind. Let’s just get back to campus, okay?”

Qiqi reached out to me. “Hold my hand, please. This wind could blow me away.”

We walked together hand-in-hand up the rest of the way. I found that holding Qiqi’s hand was effective, as she was less likely to be drawn away to the finches. Soon enough, the rough trail we walked on morphed into a more solid dirt path as we got closer. The wind picked up again, stronger than ever, and it whistled past my ears.

“What’s happening?” Qiqi slowed.

I frowned, “What do you mean?”

She pointed to the Academy’s gates peeking through the trees. “Oh no…monsters.”

Chapter Text

I tightened my hold on Qiqi’s hand as we approached the Academy’s gates. As usual, they were left open for ease of access during the day. While the gates themselves had no signs of damage, the same could not be said for the rest of the place. 

Qiqi and I both gasped as we took in the sight of the wide lawn with chunks of dirt dug up in random places. Bits of stone were missing from the main pathway, and I spied the wayward rocks strewn in the grass next to monster drops. Slime secretions, damaged masks, broken arrows, and chipped horns were scattered everywhere. The number of shiny monster drops was immense. Just how long ago did the monsters storm campus, and how many were left?

Evidence of monster activity didn’t end there. While the actual campus buildings were further off, I could still see some walls that collapsed and corners crumbling away. Pillars of smoke rose from the rooftops of some buildings, and shattered glass marred the majority of the ground-level windows.

With all this carnage, I was expecting a battle of some sort to actively be taking place, but there was no one in sight. At this time of day, students would normally have been heading to the library to study after class or to the dining hall for dinner. I can’t imagine what the chaos of a monster raid must have been like when that peace was disrupted. 

“Qiqi,” I looked down at her. “What are the protocols for active monster activity on campus?”

Qiqi reached up to the knapsack on my back and hopped a few times in an attempt to reach it. Quickly, I slipped the straps off my shoulders and lowered the knapsack enough for her to grab the notebook. Somehow, the very first page she turned to held the answer I was looking for.

“All available faculty and staff take position to defend against the monsters,” she read. “Healers place themselves in the infirmary for potential patients. I am a healer. I should go to the infirmary now.”

“What about the students?”

“Hm,” she stared at the page. “Underclassmen take shelter in the auditorium. Upperclassmen take position to defend against the monsters alongside employees.”

So they wanted the less-experienced students to gather all in one place to avoid the risk of injury. A trusted Academy employee was probably protecting those who couldn’t defend themselves, but there were quite a few underclassmen. Could they have all made it to the auditorium without being intercepted by monsters?

“I need to go to the infirmary,” Qiqi repeated. “Are you…an underclassman or an upperclassman?”

“I’m a first-year,” I told her. She would have known this if her memory wasn’t so terrible. I did write it down on the infirmary register the first time we met, after all.

“Okay,” she nodded. “You should go to the auditorium. Stay safe.”

I shook my head, “I’m not letting you walk off to the infirmary all by yourself. You’re so small, Qiqi. What if a monster shows up and attacks you?”

“I can do it.”

“Alone?” I grabbed her hand again. “You don’t have to. We can go to the infirmary together. I may not be an upperclassman, but it would make me feel better if I could see you reach the infirmary safely.”

“I should have stayed indoors today,” she sighed.

“Let’s go,” I smiled and led us in the direction of the infirmary. “We’ll have to be quick, though. It would be bad if a big monster or a bunch of little monsters saw us as a vulnerable target.”

“Faster?” Qiqi began to run. “Okay, faster.”

Together, we rushed past the piles of monster loot and Academy rubble in a beeline to the infirmary. I kept my attention hyper-aware in the event that a monster was right around the corner, and I could even hear a few roars and growls in the distance. 

Flashes of bright colors and loud booms echoed in the air as we drew closer to active combat. The employees and upperclassmen were still engaged in battle, it seemed. Luckily, none of the violence stood in the way of our end goal, and we reached the administration building where the infirmary was. Qiqi breathed heavily, and I felt bad for rushing her tiny frame.

“We’re here,” I pushed the door open and ushered Qiqi inside.

Qiqi nodded, “I’m here.”

I peeked down the corridors from the front hall. They were empty. I strained my ears to listen for sounds of conflict. There was nothing. Qiqi should be safe here.

“Do you remember which way to the infirmary?”

She pointed eastward. 

“Good,” I smiled and handed her the knapsack. “You can have this back now. Take good care of the plants we gathered, okay?”

“Okay.”

Assured she would be well enough on her own, I squared my shoulders and left the administration building.

The auditorium was oh-so-not conveniently located on the other side of campus, and I needed to stay on high alert for the entire duration. I proceeded quickly, sticking close to the sides of buildings where I could hide best and potentially jump through a broken window in case a monster was nearby.

Though time was of the essence, I hesitated after passing by the main fighting ring where Physical Combat was held. The weapon racks that were normally perfectly lined up and neatly organized were smashed to pieces. The splintered wood littered the dirt, and training weapons lay abandoned on the ground.

Sparing a precautionary glance in either direction, I jogged to the area and picked up one of the swords. This one had a metal blade, rather than the wooden ones we normally practiced with. The edges were rather dull, but it was better than nothing. If I were to run into a monster, at least I would be armed. There was also a worn belt sheath covered in dirt, and I quickly fastened it around my waist. Once the sword was secured in its sheath, I continued to move.

Suddenly, a high-pitched shriek sounded from behind a nearby building. It was very much human, and my stomach dropped at the thought of a helpless student getting mauled by a hilichurl—or worse. Without hesitation, I abandoned the auditorium route and carefully approached the source of the noise.

Kneeling nearby some bushes, I peered through the shrubbery to get a good look at what I was dealing with. There was a group of hilichurl fighters circling someone on the ground. I couldn’t tell who it was since they were hunched down with arms lifted up to cover their head. An Anemo samachurl swung its elemental staff in the air, creating multiple Anemo currents even I could feel from where I hid. 

I’d seen enough.

“Hey!” I jumped out from the bushes. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The hilichurls jolted in unison and turned to see who the intruder was, shouting complaints I couldn’t comprehend. The student cowering in the center looked up, and a flash of recognition crossed his tearful eyes.

“L-Lumine?”

“Huffman?” I gaped. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be in the auditorium with the rest of the underclassmen? How did you end up—hold on a second.”

Our conversation couldn’t go on with the hilichurls rushing at me. They aimed for my head with their clubs and shouts, and I unsheathed my blade. Muscle memory from weeks of practice in Physical Combat kicked in as I dodged and dived their clumsy attacks. They all growled in frustration.

I smirked, “My turn.”

I launched myself at the closest hilichurl, striking it in the neck first with a horizontal strike. My attack followed with an upward backhand that carried my sword to a downward swoop. The three-hit combination was enough to take the one hilichurl down, but now the rest were coming at me as a group.

“I-I can help,” Huffman offered.

I angled my sword at the raging hilichurls, “How?”

“Um…”

“Just stay out of my way,” I attacked the group and avoided their counterstrikes. “I don’t want to accidentally chop your head off.”

“O-Okay…”

Another horizontal strike, but this time I charged my attack in a fury of slashes. This knocked the group of hilichurls back all at once, but they were quick to regain composure. To make matters worse, the Anemo samachurl began creating currents that pulled me inward, messing with my balance and kicking dirt in my face.

I squinted through the Anemo and tried to focus on the enemies, but my stance was off and I couldn’t land any hits on their weak spots. If it weren’t for all this Anemo…hang on. Two can play at this game. It was a risky gamble, having Huffman here with me, but I couldn’t think of any better way to take out a group of monsters.

It was time to fight Anemo with Anemo.

After so many hours of honing in on my Anemo power, it was easy for me to locate the slight elemental pulse that dwelled deep in my core. As I reached for it, the dormant Anemo began to stir and grow, lightening my limbs and brightening the palms of my hands. To my surprise, Anemo extended to the sword in my grip. The dull blade held a faint glow as the essence of Anemo caressed its length.

I spared a quick glance at Huffman. He was in visible turmoil over the number of monsters, and I highly doubted he took notice of my change in ability.

Striking my opponents, they grunted and yelped as the sword cut through their feeble armor with ease. The elemental energy sharpened my blade, and I concentrated a heavy amount of Anemo at the tip of the sword. It gathered in a whirlwind and pulled the hilichurls—including the Anemo samachurl—in one helpful cluster. I struck them down with one final charged attack powered by Anemo, and the monsters wailed in agony as they were cut into pieces. The hilichurls fell away, mere dust in the wind. The echoes of their screams and the monster drops were the only remaining evidence they’d ever existed. 

I let my Anemo power recede, expecting to feel the strong wave of fatigue that often ailed me after heavy usage. To my surprise, only a fraction of my energy was missing. The only difference in how I applied Anemo was how I wielded it with a sword. Could it be that using Anemo with something tangible made it less draining on the body? I stared at the sword in my hand, marveling at the notion.

Professor Minci once said Visions were conduits to the elements. It made sense that using my own body as a conduit would be physically taxing. Instead of using my bare hands to pull Anemo together, the sword can handle its power. This way, I can wield Anemo in any direction, with any amount of force, and as fast as I pleased.

“Archons, you did it!” Huffman exclaimed. “I knew you were crazy strong, but I didn’t think you’d actually be able to take on a mob by yourself.”

“Is this how you thank your savior?” I sheathed the sword.

“Y-You’re absolutely right, thank you! Thank you so much, Lumine.” Huffman wrung his hands. “If you hadn’t shown up when you did, I would have been a goner for sure.”

“Why aren’t you at the auditorium?” I asked once more. “It isn’t safe for you out here. Did you not have enough time to get there?”

He coughed, “Well, I actually was at the auditorium. I was headed to the library when the monsters attacked out of nowhere, and a bunch of professors jumped into action right away. Most of them went off to fight, but a few ushered the younger students to the auditorium. It really was a secure location.”

“So, why did you leave?”

“They took attendance,” he explained. “To account for all students. Most of us were accounted for, but a few people were missing. They sent out qualified upperclassmen to look for them, but I got really nervous and wanted to find her for myself. She has no Vision, so I thought she would need help with—”

“Who?”

“Ellin.”

“You left the safety of the auditorium to save Ellin?”

“Y-Yeah.”

“Because she doesn’t have a Vision?”

He nodded.

“Huffman,” I tried to make sense of his actions without giving myself a headache. “You don’t have a Vision, either. What made you think you’d be able to save her—assuming she needed saving? It would have been best if you stayed put and let the upperclassmen do their job.”

“You handled those hilichurls without a Vision just fine! I even saw you strategize your attacks and use the Anemo samachurl’s power in your favor.”

Oh, so he did notice. At least he misinterpreted my Anemo for the samachurl’s Anemo. Huffman’s lack of awareness wasn’t so bad, after all.

“Ellin is safe,” I assured him.

“You don’t know that.”

“Why are you so sure the upperclassmen don’t have things under control? There are barely any monsters left compared to the numbers they started off with, from what I can tell.”

He sighed, “Ellin likes to train in private. She sees you as a role model, we all do. The Visionless student who has the power to break through expectations, that’s you. She dreams of achieving even a fraction of your success one day. I know she goes off to secluded locations, practicing with various weapons away from the eyes of our more…judgemental peers.”

“You think that’s what she was doing when the monster raid began,” I assumed.

“If she hid herself well enough, those upperclassmen would have a hard time finding her.”

“I’m beginning to understand,” I nodded. “Do you know where Ellin likes to train? Is that why you left the auditorium?”

“Well,” he scratched his neck. “Not exactly. I’ve been getting closer with Ellin lately, and we have deep conversations about what it’s like being an outlier. Occasionally, I’d catch her on the way to her training sessions, but she never let me come along—even though we’re so close.”

“So, you don’t know.”

“I thought our connection would have led me to her.”

There it was, the headache. “Huffman, go back to the auditorium.”

“But—”

“Go,” I pointed away. “I’ll find her. I’ll find Ellin.”

“How can you be so sure?”

I stared at him. “Am I not your role model?”

“I did say that,” he sighed.

“Then trust me.”

Chapter Text

I watched as Huffman finally ran off in the direction of the auditorium. Sheathing my sword, I thought about the rescue mission I’d spontaneously taken up. If I were Ellin, and if I wanted to find a hidden spot to train, where would that be? My mind first went to the abundance of secret passageways that served more as convenient shortcuts. Even if Ellin was aware of them—which I highly doubted—none of those places were suitable for swinging a sword or shooting a bow. 

Had she really been picking up different weapon types? I’d be impressed if that were true. Though, at the same time, she wouldn’t be able to truly hone in on one ability while trying to juggle other weapons. Jack of all trades, master of none sort of deal. 

Hang on, weapons. Before going anywhere to train, Ellin would first need to acquire a weapon to train with. The fighting ring would have been her first stop. I’d already stopped by for a sword, but I didn’t look too much into the area then. From there, I might be able to gather some clues as to where she could have gone next.

It was settled, then. I lightly jogged back toward the fighting ring, careful to avoid crossing any of the open, exposed areas amidst the rubble and distant sounds of battle. As I traveled, my mind wandered to what Qiqi had said about the upperclassmen fighting monsters alongside professors. Huffman had also mentioned that upperclassmen were sent out to look for missing underclassmen. Was Childe somewhere out here, living his best life basking in the heat of battle? What about Diluc and Kaeya? Were they working together to take down a mob, or did they go their own separate way? Pyro and Cryo—two elements that would work well to take down just about anything. If only there was something that could break down the invisible wall separating them.

I was one of the underclassmen unaccounted for, I realized. Had they sent someone to find me? Surely, upon Huffman’s return, he would notify them that I was doing alright. Surely, there wasn’t a student out there spending time looking for me when they would be better off protecting the campus? I should probably find Ellin as fast as possible so our forces could commit themselves fully.

At last, the fighting ring came into view, and I entered the scene with relatively low hopes. It looked the same as how I last saw it—tattered and desolate. Though, I did notice a few of the weapons scattered in the dirt were missing. Whether a student or enemy had picked them up, I wasn’t sure.

Okay, fighting ring for the weapon. Where to next? Somewhere to train. Most students would go to the fitness center to do so. While hardly what I would consider a secret location, it could be my first lead. The fitness center was located next to the fighting ring and nearby sparring circles as Instructor Xiao would often blend class as a mix of combat with strength and conditioning. 

The building was shorter than most in the Academy, only two stories tall, and I noted one corner had crumbled into a pile of broken stone. With the interior partially exposed, I caught a glimpse of some of the exercise equipment that had toppled over. Slowly, I stepped over the rubble and poked my head inside, scanning for monsters. It was dead quiet inside, and other than the equipment racks that had fallen over due to its proximity to the wall, the rest of the center remained untouched.

It didn’t even look like students were using the place when the monsters initially attacked, and disappointment weighed on my shoulders. I already wasn’t expecting much, but it would be hard figuring out where else Ellin could be. The forest, maybe? I readied myself to hop back over the collapsed wall, but then a small sound caught my attention.

Sniff.

I paused.

Sniff. Sniff.

I walked deeper into the fitness center, straining my ears to locate the source of the sound.

Silence.

Great, I was imagining things. Either that, or there actually was someone or something in here. Question is, why didn’t they reveal themselves when I first walked in? I kept my guard up as I searched the room. There was nothing behind the stacked mats. Rows of dumbbells lined a mirrored wall, and next to them were the bench presses in a corner. Something about the benches was off, normally they lined the adjacent wall. How had all of them ended up in the corner?

I bent down to look underneath the benches, and sure enough, a student was huddled there—not just any student.

“Ellin,” I breathed. “What are you doing?”

Knees pulled close to her chest, Ellin was hugging her body in a tight ball with her head down. After I spoke, she looked up with teary eyes and a hint of snot drooping from her nose. She was backed up inside the corner, using the bench presses as a barrier to the outside world.

“Lumine!” she sniffled. “Th-There are monsters terrorizing the school!”

“Shh,” I stepped closer. “I know, I saw them. Why didn’t you go with the others to the auditorium? Huffman was risking his life trying to find you before I stepped in.”

“I,” she sniffled again. “I was getting ready to train. I want to become strong, Lumine. I’m at this school to become stronger, but I’m still too weak. Th-This place is supposed to be safe from the monsters. I c-can’t…I’m not ready t-to…” 

“You’re okay,” I dragged the first bench away. “I can take you—”

“No!” she lunged forward before receding back into her ball. “Please don’t move them. If I stay here like this, the monsters can’t get to me.”

“Do you really think this equipment will be enough to stop them?” I frowned. “You’re smart, Ellin. I know you are. I also know that you’re scared, and that’s completely fine. What I need you to know is that you are safe with me. You are strong, and you can get past this fear.”

“I…” she shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

“Listen to me,” I moved the bench anyway. “I’ll carry you out of here myself if I have to. We’ve people out there looking for you, looking for us. You think you’re weak? That’s fine. I’ve got your back.”

If anything Huffman said about Ellin looking up to me was true, I was hoping at least these words would get to her. Still, I was having a hard time imagining how I turned out to be such a shining star in her eyes. Just like with Huffman, we’d only had the occasional conversation together. What if it wasn’t just those two? What did the other Visionless students think of me?

Slowly, Ellin dissolved out of the fetal position and began to raise herself from the barricade of bench presses. I reached over to help pull her out, and her trembling hand held a surprising amount of grip strength as she grasped mine.

“See?” I smiled. “That wasn’t so bad.”

She shuffled her feet. “It’s safe inside. It won’t be out there.”

“You’re right,” I nodded. “It is safe inside, even safer in the auditorium. As long as we keep at a fast pace, we can get there in no time. Don’t freeze up on me, okay? If a monster does attack us,” Ellin jolted. “you need to move a safe distance away. Can you do that?”

“I don’t want us to separate,” her eyes widened.

“Then you’ll need to be prepared to fight by my side. Huffman told me you’ve practiced with multiple weapon types. A bunch are lying out in the fighting ring right now. We can pick one up for you there.”

“Are you sure?”

I frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Fighting with me,” she chewed her lip. “Won’t I just get in the way?”

“Us Visionless need to stick together,” I grasped her hand tighter. “That’s what you told me the first time we met. I know it hasn’t been easy putting up with students who believe having a Vision is essential to succeed, but they’re wrong. Do you want to know the truth?”

“What truth?"

“You don’t need a Vision,” I shook my head. “What you need is ambition, and whatever comes after that is a result of your own efforts. It’s not always about the elemental energy, Ellin. It’s about drive. It’s about power. Put in the work, and don’t give up.”

“Ambition,” she whispered and released a slow breath. “Okay, let’s do this.”

✧✧✧

To my surprise, Ellin had selected a claymore to take with her from the fighting ring. I was concerned the weight of it might be too taxing on her, but she quickly found a sling just as I had a sheath. Ellin strapped it to her back, and once the claymore was in place, we were on the move.

“You said you saw Huffman?” she asked.

“He was jumped by a bunch of hilichurls when he went looking for you.”

“He looked for me? ” she gaped. “Why? We barely even talk.”

Oh, Huffman.

“Not sure, but you can ask him once we get there,” I led us to the area where I had last seen him. “I took care of the monsters there when I rescued him, so it would be safest to go this route.”

Ellin nodded as we rounded the corner. I tried to keep a close eye on her—she still exhibited some ansty behavior—in case she fell behind. For the most part, she stuck to my back like glue, and we were well on our way to the auditorium. That is, until we were doused with a wave of water.

Ellin shrieked and I jumped as the cold water soaked through my uniform. Where had that come from? There was no way a mob was this closeby. Unless…did another one spawn in the same spot?

In paying attention to Ellin, I had missed the hilichurls that replaced the ones I’d offed not too long ago. This time, there was a single Hydro samachurl flanked by two Cryo hilichurl grenadiers. The monsters cheered in their successful attack, and I quickly pulled out my sword. Shoot, how was Ellin doing? I turned to glance behind me and was pleasantly surprised to find she already had the claymore off her back, held in front of her shaky body. 

One of the Cryo hilichurls reached for the ground and began digging in the dirt, pulling out a Cryo slime and launching it into the air. If that slime hit us now, drenched and all, we’d be in trouble.

“Oh, no you don’t!” I lunged forward and sliced the Cryo slime in two.

It disbanded into nothing before the halves could even touch the ground, but I didn’t have time to celebrate. Another Cryo slime was sent from the other hilichurl. Ellin stepped in to slam it down with the claymore. The slime fell away into pieces, and she looked at me with a surprised look.

“I did it!”

“We’re not done yet.”

The Hydro samachurl waved its staff in the air, generating a rain of Hydro contained just in the space we stood in. There was no avoiding the droplets, so I concentrated on not slipping instead. The Cryo hilichurls were back at it again, tossing slimes left and right. The longer we let this go on, the greater the chance one of us got turned into a human popsicle.

“Ellin, take the one on the left!” I charged at the hilichurl on the right and knocked it with the butt of my sword before slashing its chest.

It didn’t die instantly, so I jabbed with extra force into its midsection, twisting the blade with finality as the hilichurl wailed away. That was one down. I turned to see how Ellin was faring with her hilichurl, only to see she had been hit by a Cryo slime.

She was poised with both hands raised above her head, gripping the claymore aimed at the Cryo hilichurl that now taunted her. From beneath the Cryo encapsulating her body, it was hard to see what kind of expression she wore, but her mouth was held open as if in mid battle cry.

I narrowed my eyes first on the Cryo hilichurl before deciding to go for the Hydro samachurl instead. This little guy is what got us primed for freezing to begin with, and the risk would always be there so long as Hydro pellets kept coming our way. I slashed at the samachurl in a charged attack, infusing a bit of Anemo for an extra kick. I needed the kill to be fast so I could attend to Ellin—I worry her resolve may have wavered after this.

With the Hydro samachurl gone, I went to face off the final monster, discovering that Ellin had broken free from her literal frozen state and was pommeling the Cryo hilichurl into the ground. Its arms and legs flailed as she dug deeper with the claymore, pinning it into the dirt before it passed on with one final shout.

“That’s one way of doing it,” I whistled. “How are you feeling?”

“I never want to do that again,” she looked at me, haunted. “Have you ever been frozen like that before? The Cryo felt like needles prickling all over my body. In my limbs. In my head. In my veins.”

“You killed it, though.”

She nodded slowly and slung the claymore onto her back. “I did, and I couldn’t have done it without you, Lumine. You helped give me this courage.”

“I helped you find it,” I patted her shoulder. It was as cold as I was wet. “It was there all along.”

“Let’s just get to the auditorium,” she shivered. “Maybe they’ll have a blanket for me and dry clothes for you.”

✧✧✧

“I don’t remember it being this far,” Ellin grumbled.

I sighed, “We would have gotten there sooner by cutting across the lawns., but that’s not really possible if we want to lay low. Trust me, I want to get there as much as you do. I feel like my whole body is soaking in a wet sock. A cold, wet sock.”

I’d kill that Hydro samachurl again if I could.

“I can’t believe I was so scared before,” Ellin shuffled beside me. We were weaving through a row of decorative trees. “It’s not all that bad. Those hilichurls were pesky but doable.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“There doesn’t seem to be any monster activity in this area at all,” she glanced around. “And all the sounds of fighting faded away. Maybe it’s over?”

I thought about it. “Possibly, but we can’t be too sure.”

“We could cut across this field and reach our destination in half the time.”

“There’s no need to rush it,” I shook my head.

She paused. “What about the full-body wet sock feeling?”

“It’s better than being jumped by monsters.”

“We’ll be fine,” she insisted. “There’s nothing out there, and even if something does show up, we can take it out like we did those hilichurls.”

“Your boost in bravery is great,” I sighed. “But our priority is safety, and—”

Ellin took off into the open field. 

“Ellin!” I hissed at her, but she was far from the whisper-shout range.

She sprinted across the grass and made it halfway to the next condensed area of shrubbery when I felt the ground rumble. She must have felt it too because she stopped in her tracks and immediately spun around to look at me as if I had the answer to what that was. The rumbling only lasted for a brief moment, but then I felt it again. The ground shook with a steady rhythm, slowly getting stronger, and I realized all-too-late what this signaled. A monster was approaching, and it was a big one.

Ellin came rushing back toward where I was hiding in-between the trees, but before she could reach me, a stonehide lawachurl entered the field by slamming down into the ground from a great height. It tossed its rocky frame backward, glowing amber and releasing a bellow that rattled through my bones. The roar was so loud, I could barely hear my own thoughts. I had to save Ellin. She had frozen again, this time from fear. I revealed my position to the lawachurl and dashed out onto the field in the opposite direction from where Ellin had seized up. 

The lawachurl instantly caught onto me, a tiny human with a dull blade, and it reached deep into the earth. What was it doing? I’d never fought a lawachurl before, so its attack pattern was unfamiliar to me. However, because it was of the hilichurl species, I wasn’t surprised to see a large Geo slime in its blocky hands. The lawachurl launched the massive slime in my direction with alarming speed. I dashed out of range and had to roll away to avoid being hit.

Just as I recovered from my slime escape, the lawachurl was already making its next move. It lowered onto its Geo haunches and rocketed itself directly at me. Archons, it was fast. I tried to sprint away again, but its rough shoulders managed to clip my side. Just the barest of contact threw me into the air, and my body collided not once, but twice onto the ground like some ragdoll. My head had smacked into the earth, and everything in front of me blurred. Already, I could pinpoint where the bruises would be forming along my side, and a bite of pain flared in the areas where my limbs scraped the ground. 

The collision hurt, and the fall hurt just as bad, but I couldn’t let the pain get to me. I couldn’t slow down. I got the lawachurl’s attention just as I wanted, and I hoped Ellin remembered my words from earlier. She couldn’t fight this thing. She had to get a safe distance away.

“Go!” I shouted.

The lawachurl roared once more, but I wasn’t speaking to it.

“I can’t.” Ellin finally found her voice.

“Move!”

“I can’t leave you here!”

Oh, she was worried about me? “I’ll hold it off for now. Go get back up!”

“Are you sure?”

“Go!”

Finally, she listened to me and I watched from the corner of my eye as Ellin crossed the rest of the field in a hurry. Once she was out of sight, I turned my full attention to the lawachurl—the lawachurl that was no longer standing ahead of me. A shadow darkened the spot of land directly above where I was standing. Another jumping slam. I rolled out of its range of impact just in time, but before I could fully stand, it raised both fists into the air. For a monster so large and clunky, it could sure move fast. I hadn’t even gotten a chance to draw my sword. It was going to slam me into the earth. 

I was going to become a fossil forever imprinted into the ground. Ellin would return with a group of capable upperclassmen, and the lawachurl would be munching on my fossilized bones. There’s no way I could survive a shockwave like that. Still, I found the strength to lift my sword to block the attack. It wouldn’t prevent any real damage, but it’s the effort that counts, right? Stand your ground, Lumine. Instructor Xiao would be proud if he saw me now. Then again, I was about to get wrecked, so maybe not.

After what felt like forever watching the lawachurl bring its fists down, they came close enough for me to taste death and my breath hitched. I was scared.

“Stabilize!” A deep voice commanded.

I didn’t see the lawachurl’s attack collide with my sword. I couldn’t see anything at all. A brilliant flash of vivid amber took over my field of vision as a bold shield of translucent gold wrapped around my body. Bits of Geo particles materialized throughout the shield, dark bedrock that reinforced the structure. I was alive.

“Lumine,” I looked up to see Professor Morax extend a gloved hand. “Are you alright?”

I reached out to accept when a bright flash of Anemo bloomed across the field for a brief moment before condensing into a single form. Instructor Xiao stood in front of the lawachurl, but I couldn’t read his expression. He had donned the mask that normally hung from his waist, and a chill shot through me at the sight of dark tendrils radiating from his aura.

“Evil conquering!”

Chapter Text

The stonehide lawachurl was fast, but Instructor Xiao was faster. He launched himself high up into the air before plunging down with a jade polearm. The lawachurl was knocked backward and roared with rage, but Xiao wasn’t done with it yet. Again, he jumped and plunged. Jump. Plunge. His attacks were relentless. The lawachurl barely had any time to recover, and it no longer held an amber glow.

“Boring!” he shouted.

In mid-air, Xiao horizontally dashed from side to side with his Anemo-infused weapon. He struck the lawachurl in the head, and bits of Geo broke off as it began to crack and fall apart. The lawachurl bellowed in pain before falling onto its back, crumbling away into dust.

I closed my jaw that had somehow fallen open. So this was the full power of the Conqueror of Demons. He removed the mask and turned his face away as he hung it back onto his belt.

Professor Morax stood next to me with his arms crossed. “It would appear that was the only monster to be dealt with. Am I correct?”

I nodded.

“Then, we should get you to safety. If we are attacked, you do not have to worry. My shield will hold until we reach our destination. No matter what comes your way, nothing will be allowed to hurt you.”

“I can make it on my own.”

He frowned. “Are you sure? Xiao and I have taken care of quite a few monsters thus far, and while their numbers are dwindling, evil still walks on Academy grounds.”

“With the shield, I’ll be fine,” I insisted. “You’re right about the monsters—they’re still lurking. I don’t want to detract you from taking them down.”

Xiao marched over to where we stood. He looked upset. “The limit to one’s power is self-destruction. Answer me. Why do you persist?”

“Huh?”

“What he means to say,” Professor Morax stepped in to explain. “Is why were you out here fighting the stonehide lawachurl on your own? It would have done you better to escape rather than fight. Knowing the limits of your power is necessary to survival.”

“I didn’t stand a chance,” I sighed. “I knew that going in, but I had to distract the lawachurl from attacking another classmate of mine. Thankfully, she was able to escape.”

Xiao grunted. “Next time, call out for help.”

“There was no one nearby.”

“I should have known better than to trust the administration in charge of security here,” Xiao folded his arms. “It comes as to no surprise that Morax and I were the ones to come to your aid. From now on, rely on us. If you awake to a knife at your throat, if monsters dig their claws into you, if death comes knocking at your door…call out my name. I will be here when you call.”

“Okay,” I nodded slowly.

I wasn’t sure how quick of a response either of them would have if I were to call for their help. What if they were out of hearing range? What if they were engaged in a separate battle or handling important matters? However, as my instructor, I had full trust in Xiao’s capabilities. Especially after watching him take down the lawachurl all on his own.

“Good,” he nodded once. “Then I will take my leave. There are still demons about. Morax?”

“Stay well, Lumine,” Professor Morax said. “Make sure to get checked out at the infirmary when this is all over.”

“I will.”

He smiled at me and stepped back to stand by Xiao. They shared a mutual glance at each other before disappearing into thin air. Xiao vanished in a haze of Anemo and shadows, while Professor Morax flashed away in a beam of gold.

I was alone again. Though, I didn’t feel truly alone. Professor Morax’s shield still surrounded my body, and the Geo energy humming around me felt like his presence was still watching over me. I reached out to touch the shield, but it moved away as I got closer. Interesting. 

With my protection guaranteed, I did not focus as much on stealth and took the quickest route to the auditorium. The areas I passed through were empty, and I hoped Ellin took this route as well.

When I finally caught a glimpse of the auditorium, it was a hard sprint from there. About time. Today was undoubtedly one of the longest days of my life. First, I was confronted by Signora and essentially told to go rot in a hole. Then, I spent the better part of the afternoon foraging for plants. Amidst the monster invasion, I used all my energy escorting Qiqi, rescuing Huffman, and convincing Ellin she was worthy as a student here. The lawachurl was truly the final straw for me. My body was drained, and I happily pulled on the door handle to let myself in.

It wouldn’t budge.

“Seriously?” I grumbled and tugged harder.

Still nothing.

“State yourself,” a muffled voice sounded from the other side.

“It’s Lumine!”

The voice didn’t say anything in return. Instead, the handle jiggled in front of me, and I heard the clinking of locking mechanisms being undone. The door opened up just a crack, and a pair of golden eyes stared at me.

“Lumine, it really is you,” it opened wider to reveal Professor Baizhu standing on the other side. “Marvelous, we’ve been looking for you. Come on in. It’s not safe to leave these doors open for too long.”

He ushered me inside and shut the door behind him. As I stepped over the threshold, Professor Morax’s Geo shield faded away. Despite now being safely indoors, the absence of the Geo energy left me feeling exposed and vulnerable.

I watched as Professor Baizhu attended to the multitude of locks lining the door, resecuring each one and double-checking the handle before turning back to me. We were in a small reception area meant for receiving attendees and holding coats, but it was currently decked out in weaponry.

“In case there is a breach,” Professor Baizhu supplied. “I must say, it is a relief to see you, Lumine. I feel terrible for sending you off into the forest, essentially separating you from all possible aid when the monsters attacked. Qiqi is not with you?” Worry creased his brow. “Did the two of you get separated?”

I shook my head. “Please, don’t feel bad. There’s no way either of us could have known this would happen. As soon as Qiqi and I saw what was going on, I escorted her to the infirmary myself. She said it was protocol for her to be there, and I didn’t want her going on her own.”

“Blessed Archons,” he sighed in relief. “You have my sincerest gratitude. The underclassmen are in the main auditorium hall. There are refreshments and first aid available, though if you are in need of more intensive care, you will have to visit the infirmary another time. Judging from your state, I assume you’ve run into monsters?”

“A few,” I nodded. “I’ve got a few minor scratches and probably some bruises, but besides that, I think I’m doing alright. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare set of dry clothes, would you?”

“A battle with Hydro, was it?” he chuckled. “I’m afraid not, though we do have blankets if you need to stay warm. We actually just had a student run in here not too long before you showed up. She grabbed two.”

“Ellin?” I gasped. “She made it?”

He smiled. “And she was worried sick about you as well. What was it, a stonehide lawachurl? How did you manage to deal with that all on your own?”

“I didn’t. Professor Morax and Instructor Xiao saved me.”

“An unstoppable duo,” he whistled. “It’s a good thing those two stepped in. If it were someone like me, well, Dendro can only go so far. Besides, though all professors at the Academy must have some level of combat skill, my specialty lies in the pharmaceuticals.”

“Why do all professors need to know how to fight? Is it for emergencies like this?”

“No,” Professor Biazhu’s eyes darkened. “A raid on the Academy isn’t something I’d ever dream of. Such a feat should never have been possible. With such an unprecedented occurrence, I’m sure the administration will take better measures to ensure everyone’s safety. It is strange, though. There have never been any signs of potential weaknesses or breaches in the Barrier.”

“The Barrier?” I frowned. “Is that what’s been keeping monsters away from the island?”

“Precisely. Celestia Academy harnesses a great amount of power to cut off the negative energy that monsters typically emanate. I won't go into the specifics, my lecturing time is done for the day, but just know that it should be near impossible for monsters to have spawned within the Barrier.”

Professor Baizhu said there were no weaknesses, but he didn’t know about the monsters I saw in the forest days ago. I had warned Katheryne, and she assured me the issue would be taken care of and that the Academy knew what they were dealing with. Evidently, things got way out of hand, and now I wondered if Katheryne told anyone at all. Since the professors had no idea, what did she do with that information?

“Hey, Professor! I brought you some water in case—oh! Sorry, I didn’t see you were talking with…Lumine?” Thoma entered with a bottle of water in hand, nearly dropping it when he saw me. “Thank goodness you’re alright! Wait, are you alright? You look…we should get you some first aid.”

I’m sure I didn’t look that bad. Sure, my clothes were tattered and some blood was seeping through the fabric. Sure, my ribs ached whenever I drew in a deep breath. Sure, I found it a bit difficult to focus on one object without getting dizzy. Okay, first aid it was.

“I’d like to sit down now.”

“Follow me,” Thoma took my hand and frowned. “You’re freezing, Lumine.”

“I had a bit of an altercation with a Hydro samachurl, hence the soaked clothes.”

“If you stay in those, you’ll risk catching a cold,” he murmured.

I shrugged. “Baizhu said there were no extra uniforms. The only other option would be to take off all my clothes, but I’m sure no one wants to see that happen.”

“No—well, yes,” Thoma sputtered, his facing turning red. “You’re right. What I meant to say was yes, you’re right. Taking your clothes off would be…um, anyways. There is an alternative.”

He led me to the main hall of the auditorium. The seating area was sprinkled with underclassmen here and there, while the wide stage also had students occupying its space.

It was transformed into a place where students could lie down or even sit in groups with each other. Tables were set up and stacked with water, fruit, and medical supplies to treat minor wounds. I noted that while most of the people here were students, a few guards were placed by the exit doors as well.

“An alternative?”

“Yes,” he nodded and gestured to the closest seat. “Please, sit right here. I’ll be back with some supplies.”

Not sure where he was going with this, I sat down in the surprisingly comfortable seat. It was large enough to fit two people even, plush and perfect for lounging. How anyone could sit here and listen to a speech without falling asleep was beyond me. A wave of tiredness came over me, and I contemplated whether I should take a nap or not when Thoma came back.

With him, he brought a cloth, water, and…was that a mop?

“You want me to clean? Did I drip too much water on my way in here or something?”

“What?” he chuckled lightly. “Of course not. The water is for you to drink. The cloth is to help clean your wounds. This mop here is for me. While I am quite familiar with housekeeping, this isn’t for anything like that. I didn’t want to take away from the weapon rack, and I figured a mop would work well enough.”

“To do what?”

“When I activate my elemental skill, I create a Pyro shield,” he explained. “Because it’s made from Pyro, it naturally gives off heat. While I cannot share my shield with others, I was thinking being in close proximity would get the job done of drying off your clothes.”

“I see,” I smiled. “That’s your polearm, then?”

Thoma laughed and kicked into the air, swinging the mop. A Pyro shield that I was familiar with from our time together in Vision Studies surrounded his body, lightly decorated with dancing flames. Standing in front of me, I could already feel the heat coming from the shield.

“Wow,” I held my hands out to warm them. “I can’t believe I’ve never noticed its heat before.”

“That’s because you’ve never gotten cold enough,” he sighed. “Do you think this will work to dry off?”

“Maybe,” I considered it. “Your shield feels warm from here, but it might not be enough to actually dry all…this. You’d have to come closer.”

“Sure, I can sit in the seat next to you.”

I patted the extra space beside me. “There’s enough room here.”

“Really?” he hesitated.

“Of course,” I scooted over. “Come on, I’m not getting any drier.”

Thoma smiled brightly and sat close to me. I could instantly feel the shift in temperature. Being next to his shield graced me with a bit of warmth, but being inside his shield amplified the heat a lot. At first, I thought it might be too much and that I’d start sweating, but my body soon got accustomed to the heat. I relaxed.

“Are you sure it’s not too hot?” Thoma asked and I turned to look at him. Our faces were close. “Pyro can be a lot to handle if you’re not used to it.”

“It’s perfect,” I smiled, and his face reddened like before. “Though, you still seem to be getting used to it.”

He looked away. “I do feel…warm,” he coughed. “How about I help clean up those scrapes?”

“Mm,” I mumbled. “They’re not that bad.”

“Still, I don’t want you to risk infection. What happened out there, anyway? When you weren't here for attendance, I had to avoid thinking the worst had happened. I know you’re fully capable of being on your own. While it took everything I had within me to refrain from looking for you myself, I still worried about you.”

“I wasn’t there during the initial attack,” I recalled. “And my journey to the auditorium was met with a few hilichurls, but the main cause of these injuries was a stonehide lawachurl.”

Thoma gasped and turned back to face me, olive eyes clouded with concern. “Archons, a lawachurl? And you only have a few scrapes? That’s amazing.”

“Well,” I cringed. “I might be bruised in other places. My head smacked into the ground, too.” I pressed a hand to my temple to soothe the pressure that had been building up. “Professor Morax said I should visit the infirmary.”

He sighed. “I second that.”

“For now, I just want to sleep.” I leaned back into the seat as fatigue took over me, and my head fell onto Thoma’s shoulder.

He nudged me lightly. “I’m really sorry, Lumine. You can’t sleep just yet.”

“Why not?”

“You might have a concussion, so we need to keep an eye on your condition for a few more hours,” he sighed. “What if you fall asleep and don’t wake up?”

I grumbled in annoyance.

“You can still rest. Just no sleeping, okay? I’ll watch over you.”

“Okay,” I whispered, fighting off sleep. Though, sitting this close to Thoma didn’t make it easy. “Mm, cozy. You make me warm, inside and out.”

“So do you.”

Chapter Text

“Hey,” Thoma nudged my head resting on his shoulder, and I jolted awake. “You’re not sleeping, are you?”

“No.”

“You’re drooling.”

Was I? I quickly wiped at the corner of my mouth only to find it was dry. “I was not.”

“Ah, so you did fall asleep,” he chuckled. 

I rolled my eyes. “If you don’t want me falling asleep so bad, then maybe you should make your shoulder less comfy.”

“Looks like your clothes are finally dry,” Thoma observed, dispelling his shield.

The warmth surrounding us fell away, and a wash of cool air settled over me. He was right, I thumbed my shirt fabric to find it was bone dry. My previously damp hair had also fluffed out, and I was no longer akin to a wet sock.

“Does that feel better?"

I cracked a smile and stretched my limbs. “Much. Thanks, Thoma.”

“Of course,” he returned the smile. “Now, let me take a look at those scrapes. A few have already begun to scab over, but I want to make sure all that dirt is cleared out of the way. We don’t want to slow the healing process.”

I watched as Thoma wet the cloth he brought. “Does it really matter? I’m sure a bit of grime won’t affect Barbara’s healing energy.”

“Well,” Thoma sighed. “You should know that Barbara and the rest of the infirmary’s healers aren’t available to fix just any wound. Using their skill takes up energy, just as with any Vision. Minor scrapes are best left to heal naturally on their own so they can focus more on major injuries.”

“That makes sense,” I mused. “Especially if people engaged in battle are hurt badly. You’re right. I don’t want to waste their time on a few cuts. Barbara would be better off healing something that can’t just be ignored.”

“Like a concussion.”

“I know, I know,” I sighed. “I already said I’d be getting my head checked out.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time you prolonged a needed visit to the infirmary,” he reminded. “And a potential head injury is far more serious than a twisted ankle or burned wrist.”

I scowled. “It’s not like you to scold me.”

“You think?” he looked at me expectantly. “What am I like, then?”

What was Thoma like? I inhaled a deep breath as I thought about the question. From our very first Vision Studies class together, Thoma has been nothing but kind and supportive. He lent me his notes, spent extra time helping me study, and constantly motivated me to do my best. Despite the times when Childe would try intimidation tactics, Thoma didn’t back down. Without his guidance and affirmations, I didn’t know if I would have been able to make as much progress in both my academics and confidence. He was resilient and loyal. Sweet and understanding. I couldn’t think of anyone better to rely on.

“Someone who I want to keep by my side.” The lingering energy from Thoma’s shield must have been present, for I felt warm once more.

“Do you really mean that?”

“I’m glad Professor Minci paired us together on that first day,” I recalled. “What a disaster my life would have been if I ended up with one of the Twin Mages.”

“Me too,” he angled his body to face me properly as we shared the single seat. “I’m glad it was you, Lumine. To be honest, I was a little nervous when it was announced that second-years would serve as mentors. However, after seeing you and your devotion to class and helping others, genuinely…I wouldn’t dream of being with anyone else.”

Now, I realized the warmth wasn’t coming from the remnants of Thoma’s shield at all. Nor was it just our shared body heat in a close space. My body tingled with the warmth of Thoma’s sincerity. While I could feel the light thudding of my heartbeat grow louder in my ears, a heavy weight also settled over my chest. Thoma was someone I wanted to keep close, yet I felt ashamed.

I wasn’t being fully honest with him. Not once has Thoma given me a reason to not trust him. Not once has his unwavering support faltered, so why did I hesitate to tell him about my Anemo power that day? Why did I continue to keep it a secret? All this time, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to improve my Anemo skill alone, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Thoma was here for me. It was time, I decided.

“Thoma, I have to tell you something important.”

“Wait,” he reached out to take my hand in his. “So do I. Let me be selfish just this once, please? I want to speak first.”

Silently, I nodded for him to continue.

“Lumine,” he held my hand tighter, eyes looking down into mine. “I—”

A loud bang interrupted what Thoma was about to say, and we both jolted in surprise. The sound came from the direction where the auditorium’s foyer was, where Professor Baizhu watched the main entrance. Everyone in the auditorium stopped what they were doing to see what the disruption was.

“We can’t find her,” a bold voice declared. Diluc. “We’ve searched the whole damn campus, Professor. Inside and out. The monsters are all gone, so where is she?”

“Be more gentle with the weaponry, Mr. Ragnvindr,” I heard Professor Baizhu tut. “Why don’t you go further inside and take a seat, hm? Maybe you’ll calm down after—”

Diluc all but yelled. “How can you expect me to be calm?” 

“We found these two, at least,” a feminine voice echoed. Jean. “They were holed up in the apothecary. It seems the monsters wanted nothing to do with Professor Kriedeprinz’s work. Razor seems to be doing fine, but Bennett will need to go to the infirmary as soon as possible.”

It came as no surprise to me that Bennett was one of the unlucky students unable to properly make it to this sanctuary. While I hoped he was doing alright, I couldn't help but marvel at the auditorium’s efficient design. Even from the audience rows, I could clearly make sense of the conversation being had in the foyer. It helped that I was familiar with their voices, but the acoustics were stellar in projecting even their emotions.

Diluc asserted loudly once more. “There. We’ve done our report. Now, I’m going back out there to find her.”

“Mr. Ragnvindr,” Professor Baizhu spoke with an even tone. “I can assure you, you will have no luck in finding Lumine out there.”

It was me they were looking for? I blinked in surprise, forgetting that the team of upperclassmen sent out to locate missing students would not have gotten the update that I was already here. I thought to announce my presence, but then I heard Kaeya speak. They were together after all.

“He’s right, you know,” his smooth voice rang out. “We’ve been operating on high alert for an extended period of time. It would be best to rest now and continue our search later.”

“I don’t want to hear that from you,” Diluc snapped. “After you let Childe go off on his own, slaying monsters with no regard for our mission. Do you even care that she might be gravely wounded? That she could be—”

“Of course, I care!” Kaeya cut in. “Of course, I’m worried about Lumine. Archons, I didn’t bother stopping Childe’s rampage because he was getting those monsters out of our way. Though technically a second-year, he insisted on joining the group. He’s…I know he wants to find her, too.”

Diluc grunted. “He can’t possibly have the capacity to do so. All that man knows is battle and bloodshed. There’s no getting through to him the severity of any situation, let alone Lumine’s safety. He would risk her life if it meant getting his way.”

“You don’t know that, brother.”

“I know enough,” Diluc seethed. “Do not call me that. I am an only child.”

An uncomfortable silence.

“We will rest here a moment,” a newcomer cleared her throat. “I am well aware that our spent energy will do no good in assisting our search for the last student. I myself do not know Lumine on a personal level, but as a fellow peer and member of the student council, I swear to enact proper vengeance on the Abyss Order if she is mortally wounded.”

“Thank you, Miss Lawrence,” Professor Baizhu sighed. Eula, then. “Though, I must urge all of you to just enter the main hall already. It would relieve a great deal of…stress.”

The sound of shuffling feet grew louder as the group entered the auditorium. Diluc was first to enter, head down with a deep frown creased onto his face. He snatched a bottle of water from one of the stage tables and merely clutched it in his clenched fist. Kaeya followed in after him with a placid expression, not at all affected by Diluc’s harsh words. Then, Bennett and Razor filed in alongside Eula and Jean. Thoma and I were in the audience where light from the illuminated stage did not fully reach the shadows, so I didn’t think they noticed me sitting there.

Razor had scratches all over his body, blending in with the majority of his scars. Bennett was leaning on Eula with a noticeable limp. From here, I couldn’t clearly see what ailed him, and I wanted to ask how he was doing as well as let the group know that I was, in fact, alive. I stood up from the cushioned seat, giving Thoma’s hand a light squeeze before letting go and walking down the side aisle towards the stage. 

Kaeya was the first to notice. He had unscrewed the cap of his own water bottle and was about to take a sip. It never made it to his lips. “Lumine,” he breathed, eye widening.

I waved. “Hi, sorry for worrying you guys. I know you must have spent a lot of energy searching, but I made it here not too long ago and—”

Kaeya had swiftly crossed and hopped down from the stage to where I stood, crushing me into a hug. “You’re alive.”

My bruised body screamed at the sudden pressure, and I wheezed. “Kaeya…ow.”

He quickly let go only to rest both hands on my shoulders, scanning me from head to toe. “You’re really here,” he whispered. “Albeit, a bit banged up.”

“Lumine?” Diluc appeared at Kaeya’s side. “Where have you been?”

“Here and there,” I summarized. “The forest, initially.”

Diluc frowned. “We searched the forest. At least, the portion in close proximity to Academy grounds. I would have searched this whole damn island if I could.”

“I ended up at the infirmary to make sure Qiqi was safe, she’s the—”

“I know who she is,” he crossed his arms, suddenly stern. “Why didn’t you immediately go to the auditorium? Better yet, why didn’t you just stay at the infirmary?”

“Qiqi insisted I go where assigned,” I explained. “I ran into a few other students who needed my help and—”

“You should have come directly here.”

“I’m here now.”

“You’re hurt.”

“I’m not the only one,” I countered, casting a glance at Bennett.

“You should focus on yourself, on your own safety.” Diluc pressed his lips together as if he wanted to say more.

Kaeya interjected. “Normally, I would say Lumine can do as she likes.”

“I didn’t ask—”

“But I have to agree with you, Diluc,” Kaeya finished. “You promised me, Lumine. You promised me you wouldn’t put yourself in unnecessary danger.”

I shook my head. “I promised I would try to not get hurt. When I saw others that needed my help, I helped them. You would do the same.”

Ellin showed up, then. She was huddled under a load of blankets with Huffman beside her. She was astutely ignoring him, and while his eyes clearly lingered on her, he also turned to face me. Ellin stepped up to Kaeya, looking the fiercest I’d seen her all day. After an impromptu battle with hilichurls and escaping the stonehide lawachurl, that was really saying something.

“Be mad at me,” she demanded. “Not Lumine.”

“If it weren’t for her, I’d probably be half dead by now,” Huffman confessed. “Lumine saved my life.”

“And she showed me strength,” Ellin continued. “In that way, she saved me too. I know that you…you Vision holders think you’re all that. I know that you probably think we can’t handle ourselves, but Lumine is proof that we can do it. On our own, we are capable.”

“Ellin,” I smiled at her and she gave me an aggressive thumbs up.

“I know,” Kaeya looked from her to me, and his shoulders deflated. “Trust me, I know, but that won’t stop me from worrying.”

“I made a promise to you, Lumine.” Diluc pushed past Kaeya and lowered his voice so only I could hear. “I don’t believe in broken promises, but I failed you today. And for that, I apologize.”

I widened my eyes. “Diluc, don’t be sorry. Me getting stranded out there had nothing to do with you. And, if I’m being honest,” I took a breath. “I don’t remember what your promise was.”

“You…don’t?” 

Whatever he had promised me, it was at a time when my mind was beyond retaining any valuable information. I’d spent days after the Pinkity Drinkity incident trying to recall the promise Diluc briefly mentioned, but nothing came to mind. I had hoped it was something minor, and that it would be fine if I didn’t know the details, but it must have been important to him for it to be brought up at a time like this.

“Lumine hit her head,” Thoma appeared behind me, resting a hand for comfort on my shoulder. I leaned into the familiar warmth. “It could be that her memory loss stems from that.”

It most certainly did not.

I noticed Diluc’s eyes flick to my shoulder, and his eyes narrowed. “She should go to the infirmary. Memory loss inducing head trauma is more severe than a concussion.”

Thoma stepped closer to me. “I know. We were waiting for the raid to be over with.”

“They’re all gone.”

I gasped. “Really?”

“Really,” Diluc’s hard expression softened at my hopeful tone. “Campus is once again secure.”

I wondered for how long.

Chapter Text

Unlike the previous time I had visited the infirmary, nearly all of the beds were occupied by students and staff alike, each with varying injuries. Healers and assistants hastily went about, and I watched the commotion from my own bed. Thoma had walked me here, but Qiqi forbade him from taking one step past the reception area, insisting that space was needed. He was quick to understand, though reluctant.

“I’ll wait here for you,” Thoma had told me.

It had been a while since then, and I hoped Thoma didn’t have to wait too long. After all, I was also eager to hear what he had to say before the upperclassmen group had interrupted. Just thinking about the way he looked at me, bold yet cautious, the curiosity made my heart race. Of course, I wanted to tell him about my Anemo power as well. It was a secret I’d kept for too long.

“Sorry for the wait!” Barbara bumbled toward my bed. “Everyone was working super hard to defend campus. Leave the healing to me! So, what am I looking at here?”

I pointed to my head. “I’ve been told I may have a concussion.”

Barbara gasped and put a hand to her mouth. “Oh my! Why didn’t you say so sooner? Are you experiencing any symptoms?”

“I feel a bit dizzy sometimes.”

She stepped up close to my face and stared. Her sparkling blue eyes held an immense amount of concentration as she looked intently into mine. “Your pupils are a bit off. I’ll take care of it! Please, continue to face forward.”

Barbara moved around the bed to face my back. From my peripheral vision, I could see her hands held out on either side of my head, and the blue glow of her Hydro power shone from them. A bubble of water clung to the back of my head, soaking my hair once more. To the side, I noticed a catalyst hovering over the bed, and its pages were constantly flipping as Barbara used her elemental power.

Before, when she had fixed my wrist and ankle, the process went by fairly quickly. This time, however, healing took a great deal longer. The tune that Barbara hummed on occasion repeated over and over, and she even added a variation as time passed by. Eventually, the Hydro retreated as she removed her hands.

“Phew!” she sighed. “Sorry, that took so long. With head injuries, I have to be very careful in locating the problem and properly taking care of it. The brain is a very delicate and important part of your body.”

“No worries,” I shook my head with a smile. “Thank you, Barbara. I think the dizziness is completely gone now.”

She clapped her hands together and beamed. “Oh, wonderful! Is there anything else you want me to take a look at? I see some blood on your clothes.”

“They’re just minor scratches.”

“Are you sure?” she furrowed her brows. “Nothing at all?”

“Conserve your energy for those who need it more than I do,” I insisted. “Though, would it be possible to get a towel for my hair? I don’t want to drip everywhere.”

“Of course! Just wait right there.”

Truly, my head did feel better. Initially, I attributed the occasional dizziness sensation to being disorientated and shocked by the events that had unfolded. Now, my thoughts had become more clear, and I was able to focus without getting a headache. Reexamining the room around me, I saw that there were a lot more students than staff in need of care.

Bennett was several beds down from me, asleep. His injured leg was wrapped up in a damp towel with a few spots of red, but he looked at peace. He and I were the only underclassmen that I could recognize, though. There was one girl I didn’t recognize with her brown hair tied up in two long pigtails. Despite the visible burns on her body, her flowery eyes were bright and held a wicked look to them. She caught me staring and waved energetically.

“Here you are,” Barbara came back with a thick towel in hand. “I have to go now. More patients to attend to. If you need anything else, let Qiqi know!”

I thanked her once more and began to pat my hair with the towel. Once the soaked ends were reduced to being damp, I let the towel hang from my shoulders. With the concussion taken care of, I could finally see Thoma again.

“Hey, girlie,” in walked Childe. His uniform was dirtied and torn so severely that his entire midriff was exposed. “Good to see you’re still alive.”

“Where have you been?” I scanned him for any injuries but didn’t find any visible ones. “And why are you here?”

He chuckled and landed in the bed next to mine with a bounce, hands placed behind his head in relaxation. “Where do you think? I was just single-handedly offing all the monsters that invaded the campus. You should have seen me. They didn’t stand a chance. Oh, what a joy it was. If only we could have something like this occur more often. A weekly battle, perhaps?”

“You don’t seriously mean that,” I narrowed my eyes. “Did you not see all the damage it caused? People got hurt.”

“People get hurt all the time,” he shrugged.

“Even you, it seems.”

“Me?” he blinked. “Oh, don’t get confused. I’m far from being injured. A bunch of high-strung instructors demanded that I stop by and get looked at. Though, I’m not sure why they’re so concerned. It is me that we’re talking about, after all.”

“Then why come at all? You never struck me as someone who listened to an authority they didn’t believe in.”

He propped himself on his side to face me. “Because you’re here,” his gloating demeanor fell away. “Don’t tell me one of those weak monsters actually landed a hit on you.”

“Who told you I was here?”

“You seem to be doing fine,” he sighed. “Barbara got to you, then? I must say, it is disappointing to see how far you’ve fallen.”

I frowned. “I never claimed to be a star.”

“You should be,” he turned to gaze at the room’s commotion. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“Why wouldn’t I be here? Where else would I go for a healer?”

“You should never have gotten hurt,” he looked to the floor. “This is a place for those who are unable to stand for themselves—those who do not have proper protection.”

I scoffed. “Are you saying I need protection? What, that you’ll protect me?”

“Of course not,” he laughed. “What I’m saying is that, with your potential, you should have been able to fend it off yourself. Whatever monster came at you, you should have been able to take it down in one shot. Lumi, have you ever wondered why I like to stick around you so much?”

“Actually, yes. I have.”

He sat up on the bed. “A warrior’s intuition. That’s what I felt when we first met. I’d since come to learn you have a complete disregard for hierarchy and an assuredness in your own capabilities. In that way, you’re just like me,” he sighed. “If only you had a Vision.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I remembered my conversation with Signora earlier. She thought of people with Visions as less than dirt, and she went so far as to spread that ideology to crude students that wanted a taste of power for themselves. Signora had hinted that Childe was no different, and now was my chance to find out.

“In every way,” he stared at me. “You’re perfect. And yet, power goes beyond perfection. Wielding a Vision, once you’ve sampled that level of power, there’s no going back. I can’t expect you to understand, and it pains me that you’ll never be able to shine even brighter than you do now.”

“Tell me,” I drew an even breath. “Do you think of yourself as better than me because of that? Nearly every single person in this room owns a Vision, and they’re still injured. Owning a Vision doesn’t make you invincible.”

“It makes me invincible,” he disagreed. “And it could make you, too.”

“I don’t believe you, and I don’t care about invincibility.”

“Why not?”

“You’re free to have your own opinions, Childe. What matters to me is that these opinions affect the lives of others. Do you have any idea what Signora does to students who she finds to be weak?”

He said nothing.

“You do, don’t you?” I glowered at him. “Aren’t you two from the same place? Can’t you get her to stop?”

“I’ve told you this already,” his jaw ticked. “As long as she stays out of my business, I don’t care what she does.”

“You should!”

“Why?”

“She’s immoral.”

“If students don’t want to be harassed, they should learn to strengthen up and fight back.”

“Against someone like her?” I shook my head. “You can’t possibly mean that.”

“Then they don’t belong here,” he shrugged. “Celestia Academy isn’t for the weak.”

For him to be so nonchalant when speaking in this way, I wanted to be shocked. I wanted to be surprised that Childe was so cruel as to condone such behavior, but I wasn’t. All this time together, not once has he stood out to me as someone who would genuinely care about helping others. Childe was only focused on himself.

“You’re no better than Signora.”

He scoffed. “That’s not true. I don’t actively go out tormenting others.”

“The only thing that matters to you is power.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that.”

“Not even a Vision is enough for you,” I went on. “Tell me, does possessing a Delusion satisfy your cravings?”

He stilled. “How do you know what a Delusion is?”

“Where does it stop? When will it be enough?”

“You wouldn’t understand,” he sighed. “I can’t blame you for it, either. Natural talent and honed skill will only get you so far, Lumi. Take today, for example. Without help from others, you would have been dead. With a Vision, you could have fended for yourself. With a Delusion, you could be unstoppable. When you're unstoppable, when no one can reach your level of greatness, the feeling is…indescribable.”

“What’s the point if you’re the only one?” I clenched my fists. “If you treat everyone as an underling, you’ll be alone. All that power with no one to experience it with. You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” I stood. “To associate myself with someone who holds such little regard for the lives of others…I want nothing to do with you.”

His face twisted into a pained expression, and I turned away. “Lumine—”

“Goodbye, Tartaglia.”

Chapter Text

I hurried out of the treatment room, careful not to look back at Childe no matter what pleading expression he wore. If being so power-hungry was the most important thing in the world to him, so be it. I tried to avoid thinking about how this rift might affect our time in Physical Combat—he was my partner, after all. 

No, he was a close friend. As questionable he was sometimes, I enjoyed the moments we had. I enjoyed the banter, the challenges, constantly pushing each other to be better. I was aware that it’s possible for people to change, but I wasn’t sure Childe wanted to. What reason would he have? Did he value the time we spent together the same as I did? There was a chance, but I didn’t want to put too much hope into it. I didn’t want to be disappointed. Just maybe…I pushed the thought away for another time.

Right now, I was to meet Thoma out by the reception office. I made it to the desk where Qiqi was quickly scribbling notes down into her notebook, but my step faltered when I found that Thoma was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the waiting area was occupied by someone that I hadn’t expected to see, Diluc.

He was leaned over, elbows on his knees and chin rested on his gloved fists. He hadn’t noticed me enter, for his eyes were intently focused on the wall ahead of him. What was he thinking about?

“Diluc?”

He jolted from his thoughts and immediately stood. “Lumine, I…good. You’re here.”

“What happened to Thoma?” I scanned the area in hopes of finding something that signaled he’d be making a return, but it was just Diluc and me. And Qiqi. “He said he’d wait for me here.”

“Ah, right, he was here when I first arrived. While waiting for you, a group responsible for restoration came by to drop off a few injured. They expressed that a great deal of additional assistance was needed, and Thoma didn’t hesitate to offer his hand.”

I smiled. “That sounds like him. So, what brings you here?”

“I came here to see you,” he stated. “You’re done with treatment already? I trust that the injury wasn't too serious. There should be nothing to worry about, then.”

“Barbara was exceptional as always,” I confirmed. “You just wanted to check in to see how I was doing? I don’t think there was any ever doubt that the infirmary wouldn’t take care of me well. You could have gone with Thoma to help out.”

“They’ll be fine,” he cleared his throat. “I know that it’s…irrational for me to be so uneasy. The monsters were all taken care of, and recovery is going according to procedure. Everything is in order, but I couldn’t rest easy. After spending so long in our search, after our brief encounter in the auditorium, I hadn’t properly gotten the chance to confirm for myself if you were alright. Even standing in front of me, I can see that you are well. And yet…” he trailed off.

“What is it?”

He let out a heavy sigh. “Forgive me if I am being too overbearing, but I would like to keep you within my sights. For just a moment, perhaps I could walk you to your next destination.”

Did my well-being really weigh so heavily on his mind? After hearing his outburst upon first entering the auditorium, it was obvious to anyone listening that finding me was important. Though, I would have expected him to express the same amount of concern for any student. For him to still be worried even after the fact…he was more shaken than I thought.

“I don’t mind,” I shook my head. “Barbara took away the physical injury, but my body is still exhausted from all the running, fighting, and defending. I was thinking of going back to my room and sleeping it off.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” he nodded and held out his arm. It was positioned towards me. Did he want me to take it? The confusion on my face must have shown, and he quickly dropped the arm. “Sorry,” he cleared his throat. “I suppose a habit is developing. I’m sure you can walk well on your own. We should get going.”

I couldn’t help but smile at the gesture. “I don’t know…I do feel awfully tired. Just standing on two feet is an enormous effort.”

“I cannot tell if you’re being serious with me, Lumine.” He looked at me with a hint of doubt. “Do you need my support?”

I tucked my hand in his elbow. “C’mon, let’s get going already.”

“Sign out, please,” Qiqi piped in.

✧✧✧

Diluc had said that a restoration group was in the process of attending to the destruction, and I was surprised to see just how much clean-up had been done already. The clumps of dirt and clusters of rocks that had scattered the lawn were no more. The grass itself had been repaired—there wasn’t a bald patch of dirt to be found—and I assumed someone with a Dendro Vision was to thank for that.

As Diluc and I made our way to the student dorms, I watched as campus staff went about clearing rubble and repairing walls. Piles of monster loot were steadily being collected, and I thought of what use the Academy might have for them. More hilichurl dummies?

“I must say,” Diluc spoke for the first time since we’d left the infirmary wing. “Based on what those underclassmen said about you rescuing them, you were quite reckless.”

I nearly tripped. “What do you mean? Was I supposed to not help my classmates in need?”

“I’m sure a more qualified person would have made an appearance.”

“But—”

“Though, I cannot say for certain they would have made it in time,” he finished. “You were reckless, yes, but you were also very brave. Jumping straight into a situation without knowing the full details, putting your life on the line with no certainty of success, what a naïve strategy to have.”

“It turned out well enough,” I mumbled.

“This time,” he sighed. “Hopefully, there won't be a next time. However, in the future, I ask that you know your limits. As an underclassman, there is still much that you have to learn. It is important for you to remember how your power compares to others—whether they be your classmates or your enemies.”

Xiao had said something similar about knowing my limits, something about it leading to self-destruction. It also wasn’t the first time I was being told to think about the length of my power, or rather, how it falls short. Did Diluc also believe I couldn’t hold my own because I didn’t have a Vision? Was he escorting me now because he didn’t trust me to handle a simple walk on my own? I dropped his arm.

“I’m doing fine as I am,” I stopped walking and looked at him. “I don’t need to be babysat. I don’t need to be coddled. I performed just as well as I could during the raid, as well as some of those on the front lines, even. Celestia Academy accepted me because they saw my strength, and I continue to grow. Why can’t you see that? Me not having a Vision doesn’t devalue who I am.”

“I never said that it did,” Diluc frowned. “Not once have I ever doubted you, Lumine. Just because you have my trust, that does not mean I will not worry. Even the strongest of fighters find themselves in an unlucky situation where they cannot win—Vision or no Vision. Truth be told, with the amount of ambition I’ve witnessed in our short time together, I’m surprised that you haven’t been granted a Vision. Whatever the Higher Powers may be thinking, they’ve made a mistake by not recognizing you.”

I hesitated. “Really?”

“Oftentimes, a Vision gives the mere illusion of power,” he sighed. “I’ve seen Vision holders get carried away with the idea that because they were chosen, their existence matters more than that of a regular civilian. This is far from the truth. There is a responsibility that comes with power. With this gift, I must use it to fight for retribution. I know you would also do anything within your power to fight for what you believe is right.”

“That's very…noble of you.”

Diluc smiled ruefully. “Do not be fooled. I haven’t always thought this way. Like you, I used to be rather reckless. Well, I suppose I still can be.”

“Like when you were about to send that man to his grave,” I recalled. “Back at the tavern.”

“That can still be arranged,” his eyes tightened. “If I ever catch sight of him again, I’ll—”

“I get it,” I laughed and resumed our walk. “I’m sorry for doubting you, Diluc.”

“Nonsense,” he walked by my side. “If you ever have any doubts, on any situation, you can always feel free to consult with me. I would be more than happy to ease—or validate—your concerns. Just say the word if you need anything.”

Once more, Diluc held his arm out ever-so-slightly. I let him lead me the rest of the way.

✧✧✧

We had reached the dorms sooner than I would have liked. Walking did wonders to take my mind off the conflict with Childe and lingering thoughts on the state of campus safety. As much as I believed I didn’t need a protector of any kind, being with Diluc made me feel safer than I had all day. He insisted on walking me all the way to my room, and I would have suggested we walk for longer if I wasn’t so tired.

“Before I leave,” he cleared his throat as we stood outside my door. “I have to ask, did Barbara’s healing help bring back the memory of the promise I made to you?”

“Ah,” I racked my brain one last time. “No, sorry.”

He shook his head and smiled softly. “I do not mind repeating it again. Perhaps this time, it will hold true. Lumine, I promise to be here for you. You have my word.”

It was then, of course, my memory of that night resurfaced.

✧✧✧

I wanted to die. The combination of the Pinkity Drinkity mixing with the effects of teleportation made me want to die ten times over. I stumbled down the teleport waypoint and nearly flopped into the fountain water. Diluc caught me by the waist with a grunt, and my head spun.

“It hurts,” I complained.

“Where?”

I groaned in response. Talking was too hard.

The next thing I knew, I had made it to the bottom of the fountain. Solid ground was within reach, but it somehow floated before me. No, I was the one floating. No, Diluc was carrying me in his arms. He was steady. I was steady. At last.

“Where are we going?” I looked around once Diluc began to walk. My vision blurred, and my head started to throb. Seeing hurt too much. I decided to close my eyes and tuck my head closer to Diluc’s chest. He was steady, but his heartbeat wasn’t. Strange. 

“I’m taking you back to your room.” I felt the vibration of his voice rumble through his chest.

I opened my eyes to see that we were already in my room. Did I fall asleep in his arms? No, Diluc must be really fast. He set me down in my bed. The moonlight made him look so pretty.

“Pretty?” his lips parted in shock. “Well, that’s a first.”

I giggled. I yawned. “Goodnight, Diluc.”

“Not yet,” he sighed. “You need to remove your shoes.”

I kicked at my feet in an attempt to pry the shoes off without using my hands. They didn’t budge. How annoying.

He bent down and undid them himself. “Properly, now.” Diluc was so gentle. He even set my shoes neatly together by the door. “Will you be alright by yourself?”

Will I be alright? Of course, I will. It’s always been just me. Well, it used to be me and Aether. Aether said he would never leave. He said that we would stick together because we’re family. Madame Ping was my family too, but both she and Aether weren’t with me right now. Madame Ping won’t be here for me forever. I knew that. I’ll probably never see Aether again. Our worlds were separated the day he was taken from me. Will I be alright by myself?

“Hey,” Diluc gently lifted my chin to see my face better. “Please, don’t cry. Did I do something wrong?”

“You’re going to leave me.”

“For tonight. You need to sleep, Lumine.”

“Please,” I sniffled. “Stay with me.” I couldn’t really see Diluc anymore. He looked all wobbly and blurry in my eyes.

The shape of his body shifted forward before pausing. “I can’t.”

My spirit wilted, but I nodded in understanding. Diluc had his own life, of course. Surely, I could continue to figure things out on my own. Surely, I could find Aether one day. Surely, I could…I think I could…

Diluc took hold of my hand—he had removed his gloves. I felt his skin. Rough and strong. 

“It is…probably not in my place to do so, but I promise to not leave your side. I do not mean this in the way you want at this moment. Trust that I will be here for you, Lumine. When you need me most. When I am able. I swear it.”

Tender fingers wiped at my cheeks, and I could see clearly once more. Diluc was kneeling before me, scarlet eyes blazing like an inferno. His promise burned deep into my heart.

✧✧✧

My eyes widened. “I remember.”

“Do you?” Diluc took the same hand as he did that night. While he still wore his gloves, I felt the same connection as when our skin touched. “I am relieved. It is my hope that, from now on, you are able to remember all of the moments we share together.”

“I will,” I held his hand tighter. “Let that be my promise to you.”

Chapter Text

My eyes snapped open, and I found myself kneeling on a cold, hard surface. Dregs of fog and confusion clouded my mind as I shakily stood. I looked around and blinked hard to focus on my surroundings, but the space before me constantly shifted in and out with shadowy darkness. Eventually, the shadows stilled and sank away to simply hover over the floor like a dense mist.

From what I could tell, I was in a rather large room with only the moonlight that shone through shattered stained glass for dim lighting. There were obsidian pillars, fractured and dull, reaching high into a ceiling I couldn’t quite see. I strained my eyes as I stared above, but the walls disappeared into darkness the higher they climbed up. 

Along the walls stood empty husks of giant armor more than twice my own height. As daunting as they appeared, they were blighted with varying degrees of decay. The shadows reached up from the floor and seeped into the cracks, coalescing around the weapons in their grasp. The shadowy husks were equipped with wide lances, flagged spears, and massive shields. They stood ominously. Silent. Waiting.

A shiver shot down my spine, and I felt as if my body was numbed. I couldn’t raise my arms nor move my legs properly. My thoughts were slow to form as I took in the once-regal room. What had happened here to leave these ruins? Shadows lapped at my feet, chilling my bones and leaving a lingering sensation of unease. Dread. Fear.

I tried to kick at the shadows in an attempt to keep them at bay, briefly revealing dusty floors that were probably once polished. The shadows parted then, split down the middle of the room. Up and up, the shadows rolled away to the foot of a staircase. Hints of gold and embedded gemstones sparkled along the sections of handrail that hadn’t crumpled to the floor. The steps, too, were reduced to ruin. I highly doubted one could ascend them without tripping over themselves, yet I moved forward.

I didn’t want to move. My footsteps echoed in the desolate room, and I commanded for my feet to stop. It was no use. Only after reaching the bottom of the staircase was I able to halt. Compelled by the grand steps before me, I looked up to see where they led. A throne.

This was a throne room. Amidst the endless decay, the throne sat at the top of the stairs in perfect condition. The back rose high, made of dark, plush material. It was regally framed by shards of glass, bits of ore, and gilded gold that branched out like brilliant rays of light in a lightless world. It was breathtaking. Beautiful. Haunting. Lead weighed my limbs once more, and my feet were glued to the floor.

A whirlwind of shadows swirled up in front of the throne, materializing two humanoid figures. They were just as imposing and abnormally tall as the shadowy husks, but these two were animated. They looked similar in the design of their armor but were distinctly separate in color—a captivating violet and sapphire. They hovered there. Silent. Staring at one another. Neither had seemed to take notice of me standing here. Was I invisible to them?

“Herald,” one of them spoke. I could not tell which, for their intricate armor reached from head-to-toe, masking their faces entirely. “How fortuitous.”

The sapphire one nodded its head. “The agenda is proceeding accordingly, Lector. By now, Celestia is well-aware that our power did not die out as they had hoped all those millennia ago.”

“They have grown to be too complacent in their position above,” the violet one grumbled. “The time has come for the Abyss to claim what rightfully belongs to the Order. With Comet Paimon fast approaching, we cannot allow for the opportunity to slip from our grasp a second time.”

No way. If my body wasn’t already involuntarily bound to stillness, I would have frozen. This place…these figures…they were part of the Abyss Order? Strange. None of what I saw before me aligned with the Abyss exposure I’ve had so far. Where were the unruly monsters, the unintelligent hilichurls? As much as I was intrigued by this reveal, the unknown structure of the Abyss Order was overshadowed by my growing panic. 

“There is still no information on the original Source?” the Abyss Herald inquired.

“Affirmative,” the Abyss Lector responded with sparks of Electro crackling from its fingertips. “We were too hasty, too eager with its appearance last year. The Source’s whereabouts continue to elude us. It is no matter, for we have located a new Source.”

Hydro energy swirled around the Abyss Herald as its voice boomed. “The search for the original Source must continue. If the Order obtains them both, our power will go beyond what our reservoirs have ever beheld. We will breach the threshold and ensure that Celestia pays for their betrayal. An agreement established for thousands of years suddenly voided with no appropriate cause beyond their own greed—this treachery will not go unpunished.”

“Retribution is well within our sights, Herald. I have the utmost certainty that the new Source has already been primed for the initiation.”

“It is willing?”

The Abyss Lector shook its head. “It is not yet aware.” 

“It must be willing. The transfer of power will not come to fruition in the absence of consent.”

“The energies we left behind in their domain are already in the process of seeping further into Celestia’s defenses. There is no doubt that the new Source had fought one of our monsters. We will garner its favor.”

“In time,” the Abyss Herald said. “It will have aligned itself to our side in time for Comet Paimon. We must be sure of it.”

“As for the next phase, it would be best if—” the sapphire figure stopped. 

“Lector.”

“Herald.”

The violet Abyss Herald tilted its head. “You sense it too, then?”

They fell into a mutual silence before suddenly pivoting their levitating bodies to face my direction.

“The Source.”

“It’s here.”

“But how?”

The invisible hold around my body vanished, and I stumbled backward under the pressure of their attention. I could not see their faces. Their eyes were mere glowing orbs of elemental energy peeking out from their armor. And yet, I felt their stares honed in on me. Snapping out of the fear that hammered in my chest, I backed away.

“Its energy is strong,” the Abyss Lector lowered itself down the steps. “Though, not strong enough. Its physical presence is not yet tangible. More time is needed for it to attain maximum power.”

“Source,” boomed the Abyss Herald, and the shadows around me began to take the form of weaving tendrils. “Reveal yourself.”

The shadows shot into action. Like an invasive ivy, they coiled up my legs and wrapped around my arms, pulling me closer to the Abyssal figures. As each tendril made contact with my skin, the fear within me heightened, and I began to sweat. A scream rose in my throat but failed to come out. Fighting against them was useless. 

Cold. It was so cold.

Darkness swept through my vision as I was hurtled straight toward the throne.

✧✧✧

I shot up from my bed, sweating and breathing heavily. Frantically, I wiped at my arms and kicked my legs, desperate to remove the shadows, but there was nothing there. My mobility was fully restored as I sat in my bed. My bed. It was a dream. I was only dreaming about the Abyss. 

Surely, there wasn’t actually an Abyss Herald and an Abyss Lector plotting to drag me into the darkness. After the events of today, I had gone to sleep exhausted, and my imagination had gotten the better of me. The dark throne room didn’t exist. The Abyss Order’s plot to wreak havoc on Celestia Academy had nothing to do with me.

“Stress,” I panted. “It’s…It’s just the stress.”

Although, assuming what I saw wasn’t pure imagination, they were talking about a Source. A Source of what? Power? If that were the case, why did it seem like I was this Source they were referring to? I tried to recall the details of the conversation, but they were quickly slipping from my mind. 

I shivered. So cold.

My neck itched with the amount of hair plastered to it like glue with all the sweat. If I was sweating so much, why did I feel so cold? A quick glance at my closed window told me it wasn’t coming from outside. The moon was still out. I hadn’t been sleeping for long, then.

Quickly, I got out of bed with shaky knees and fumbled around my desk for a sheet of paper and something to write with. I had to document what I had seen—what I had heard—before it was gone completely. The planned monster raid, the timing of Comet Paimon, a mysterious Source of power that went missing. And…me? A new Source? Another shiver came at the thought of the Abyss Order coming after me.

There was only one other person who knew about Celestia Academy’s secrets. Only one other person had a hunch that the Abyss Order might be involved in Celestia Academy’s affairs. What started out as a simple treasure hunt…I swallowed hard.

I wasn’t sure if it’d be so easy to go back to sleep after having a dream like that, but I had to try. Maybe this will all make sense in the morning. Maybe I’ll have another dream that explains everything—without the shadows.

✧✧✧

The sun had just risen. I was awake in bed. Not one wink of sleep. 

I got out of bed for the second time, tired yet determined. After quickly getting dressed and grabbing the notes I had jotted down in the middle of the night, I left my room and prepared myself to climb six flights of stairs. I know it was still fairly early in the morning, but it couldn’t wait. Kaeya had to hear about my dream. I had to tell him so he could make proper sense of what was going on. I’m sure Kaeya would know what to do.

Once I got to his door, I knocked twice and waited for a response. There was no sign of him. I expected this, of course. I’d probably just woken him up, and he needed some time to get ready. I continued to wait, bouncing on the balls of my feet with anxiety. Still nothing.

I knocked again. He’d probably be annoyed at this point, but I could live with that. I waited, burning a hole in his door with my fierce stare. It didn’t budge. For the third time, I raised my fist to announce myself, but then a hand caught my wrist before my knuckles could make contact with the door.

I spun around to see who had snuck up behind me, and my eyes widened. It was Kaeya. In a towel. Nothing else.

“To what do I owe the pleasure of seeing you at my door?” he drawled.

He must have just gotten back from a shower. That would explain his damp hair and the state of the towel wrapped around his waist. The rest of his toned body was left exposed to the world. I thought I would have gotten used to seeing Kaeya’s sculpted chest. For as much as he modified the school uniform to leave room for an open-chest window, without clothes, he was…I shut my jaw and focused intently on the wall behind him. It’s not surprising that Kaeya was so fit, the curriculum basically demanded every student to maintain their physique.

“I came here to,” I began. “Well, you see, you’re this dream—I mean—I had this dream.”

He chuckled. “You can’t even bear to look at my face when speaking to me. Am I really that displeasing to the eye?”

It was quite the opposite, and he knew that. I forced myself to meet his teasing look, and I noticed that he still wore his eyepatch. Did he shower with it on? Stop. Don’t think about Kaeya in the shower. Focus on his face, Lumine. His face, framed by damp hair that led rivulets of water to cascade down the front of his bronze chest. Defined muscle carved out a path that led the water down his tapered waist before getting soaked up by the towel.

“I must say,” he lowered my wrist. “You seem awfully flushed, Lumine. Are you sure you got all the treatment you needed at the infirmary? I think you may be running a fever.”

I cleared my throat. “Not a fever. I was just…taken by surprise.”

“I’m sure,” Kaeya smirked. “Now, what was it about me being dreamy?”

“That’s not—” I took a breath. “Look, can we talk after you’ve covered up a bit?”

“If you insist,” he stepped forward, and I instinctively took a step backward, colliding with the door. “I’m afraid you’ll have to move aside if I am to get dressed. You’re welcome to follow me inside, though that may slow the process.”

I stepped away from the door, letting him pass. “I’ll wait out here. Let me know when you’re, uh, decent.”

“It doesn’t get any more decent than this,” he turned the knob. “I won’t keep you waiting too long.”

I simply nodded in response and waited for Kaeya to disappear behind the door before letting out a deep breath. For the past few hours, I wasn’t able to shake off the eerie chill that clung to me after that dream. And yet, after seeing Kaeya like that, I was grateful for Cryo House’s curiously low temperature that helped to cool me down.

Chapter Text

True to his word, I didn’t have to wait long before Kaeya had reappeared. Fully clothed, he had me sit at his desk and recount every last detail of the strange dream. After I went over it once, he insisted I tell it again slower. I rubbed at my arms as I ended with how the shadows came for me and pulled my body towards the ominous throne.

“I see,” he murmured from his spot on the bed. “Well, this isn’t good.”

I sat at his desk, and we both scanned the bulletin board of Kaeya’s research. He pushed up from the bed and immediately swiped two items from the board, ones that I recognized. It was the Kamera photo and vague verse. Kaeya walked to the desk and placed them down so I could see them clearly.

“Assuming this dream you had wasn’t a dream at all,” he began. “I believe we can draw the conclusion that Celestia Academy and the Abyss Order had some sort of an arrangement made when the institution was first founded. The Academy has since voided this agreement, though the Abyss Order doesn’t seem to have come to terms with that.”

I nodded my head. “Then, just last year, the Abyss Order found some type of power, a Source, that would have given them an edge to face Celestia adequately—to be strong enough to take revenge.”

“Until it went missing,” Kaeya leaned against the desk. “The Source went missing one year ago. This sounds familiar, does it not? Who do we know, or rather, who do we not know went missing last year?”

“The Champion,” I gasped. “The winner of the Grand Tournament that the Academy holds each year. You said there were no records of the previous winner.”

“Everyone’s memories of the Champion are also gone,” Kaeya nodded. “I think the Source and the Champion are one and the same. To win the Grand Tournament, you need to be the strongest student with endless potential. Our lost Champion is definitely the Source that the Order desires.”

“Is that why the Champion disappeared?” I wondered aloud. “To stay hidden from the Abyss? Could they have been so powerful as to erase the memory of their own existence?”

“It doesn’t matter that they disappeared. If the Champion was hoping to dissuade the Abyss Order from taking control, it didn’t work.” He pointed to the verse copied down in his neat script. 

Streaking star against the skies,

Shadows kiss the edge of light,

"The Abyss Order will appear in Celestia Academy’s territory when Comet Paimon arrives," Kaeya paused. "I’m certain of it."

Blood and power reward a prize,

"The transaction of power for a reward,” he went on. “Every thousand years, when the original Tournaments had taken place, Celestia’s fortunes grew by an immense amount. This just so happens to also be when the Abyss Order made its presence. A Champion was heralded, a Source of power was gained."

Ties of yore bloom into sight.

"They made an agreement of some kind. One which both the Abyss Order and Celestia Academy benefitted from. Power for prestige. The Champion for fortune.”

Kaeya set the verse down back onto the desk, and I stared at it with disbelief. His interpretation, while reasonable, couldn’t possibly be true. The Abyss Order was a force that terrorized Teyvat—it was pure evil. Why would Celestia Academy, a place dedicated to build up its students to be strong enough to fight the Abyssal monsters, strike a deal with the enemy? Prestige and fortune were hardly valid bargaining chips.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Kaeya sighed. “And I don’t want to believe it either. However, when you think about it, morality often matters little to those who crave status, who desire prestige, who want to come out on top.”

With those words, the first thing that came to mind was Childe. I had no doubt that he would do anything to obtain more power. Was he like the Abyss, wanting to be strong enough to take down anything in his path? Or was he like Celestia, striving to be the best for the sake of world recognition and fame? No, this was bigger than Childe’s fantasies of being number one.

“They handed the Champions over to the Abyss,” I whispered in mild horror. “Just so they could get richer than they already were, and they did this for ages. Those weren’t winners. The ancient Champions were sacrifices.”

“But,” Kaeya snapped his fingers. “Celestia stopped. For whatever reason, the Academy didn’t follow through with their deal a thousand years ago. A Champion was spared, and the Abyss Order did not receive their Source.”

I scoffed. “That’s supposed to make it better?”

“At least we know Celestia Academy will have no intention of turning in this year’s Champion,” he sighed. “Though, now that I have some idea of what we’re dealing with, the appeal of winning the Grand Tournament has dulled somewhat.” Kaeya sat back down on the edge of his bed, and the mattress dipped under his weight.

We fell into silence, and I found myself distracted by the old Kamera photo of the cave mural. The jagged lines of black that reached up from the earth eerily reminded me of the shadows that existed in my Abyss dream. There was no denying it. The verse and the photo—they were both a record of the past and promise of the future.

“Lumine,” Kaeya snapped me from my thoughts. “What aren’t you telling me?”

“What do you mean?” I frowned. “I told you everything of what I could remember from my dream. If you want, you can look at the brief notes I took.”

He leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. “According to your dream, which I would prefer to call a vision at this point, the Abyss Order sees you as their new Source. The shadows were after you, taking you towards the throne.”

“That’s what it seemed like.”

“I cannot fathom what sort of power the last Champion had to draw the attention of the Order. Champions in the past have been strong, yes, but never to such an extreme degree.” Kaeya studied me. “No offense, but you have no Vision. What power could the Abyss Order have possibly sensed from you?”

I tensed at his inquiry, and I’m sure he noticed. Visions weren’t the only source of power. Now that Kaeya had brought it up, it became obvious to me that the only reason the Abyss Order saw me as a Source was because of my ability to use Anemo with no Vision. The amount of power needed to wield an element with no conductor was undoubtedly a sign of immense strength. While I myself have been unable to explore this ability to its full potential, I have no doubt that the Abyss Order would find some way to harness it. They would use me, my power, to carry out their sinister goals.

“Well?” he prompted. “Care to enlighten me?”

My mouth dried up as I thought about revealing my secret. I had planned to tell Thoma after realizing he was someone I could trust. With the looming possibility of Celestia whisking me away to some fortified facility to keep me contained, I didn’t want to risk the information getting into the wrong hands. Though, the more that I thought about it, Kaeya was the only one who I could talk to about the Abyss situation. Before, it was a matter of my personal well-being. Now, with the threat of a full-on Abyss Order invasion, the lives of everyone at the Academy—and probably others—was at stake. Staying silent would do more harm than good.

“I,” I hesitated. “I don’t need a Vision to do what you do.”

“You mean fighting?” he narrowed his eye. “Yes, I’m well aware.”

“No,” I shook my head. “That’s not what I meant. Listen, what I’m about to tell you is something I haven’t told anyone before.”

Kaeya nodded slowly. “You can trust me, Lumine. Whatever it is, I’m on your side.”

“I can control Anemo.”

He stared at me. Blinked. Slowly, a dubious expression began to form on his face.

“I can prove it,” I asserted.

“Please,” he waved a hand. “A demonstration would be most appreciated.”

A bundle of nerves unfurled from within me, and I tried to contain the shakiness in my hands to a minimum. After hiding my ability for so long, I would finally be showing someone else. Some part of me wanted to create a grand display of Anemo, to impress Kaeya with what I could do. And yet, I knew that I had to carefully conjure the Anemo and keep it small. With no sword on hand to manage the flow of energy, my body would be completely spent.

“Take your time,” Kaeya’s expectant gaze never left me.

Drawing in a breath, I visualized the elemental energy that normally resided in my core. Within my chest, the familiar Anemo power whirled in a tight ball. I prodded at the energy, allowing it to release itself and expand until the power had spread to cover my entire body. It left me feeling so light, I wouldn’t be surprised if I lifted from the chair I sat on. I’d learned that my stamina drains the fastest when Anemo is in this state, so I quickly condensed the power to just my right hand before it could materialize.

The Anemo took shape. Floating in my palm was a tiny whirlwind. Its power was so strong, I could hear the wind whipping around, and its teal glow cast dancing shadows around the room.

I looked to Kaeya to find that his lips had parted in shock. He focused on the Anemo, unblinking.

After confirming that Kaeya had no reason to doubt me now, I dispelled the Anemo and immediately felt the draining effects on my body. After barely getting any sleep last night and going all out yesterday, I was in poor shape.

“Well?” I crossed my arms. “Do you believe me?”

“That was,” he breathed. “Incredible.”

I smiled. “I know.”

“How long have you been able to do this?”

“I found out during the second week of school,” I recalled. “We were practicing elemental reactions in Vision Studies. A bunch of Dendro slimes had come after me. The next thing I knew, I had swirled them to death.”

“Are you sure you have no Vision?”

“Positive.”

“What else can you do? I know it’s wild enough for you to control Anemo with no Vision, but I have to ask, are there any others?”

“Any other elements?” I raised my brows. “No, Archons no. Using Anemo alone is extremely draining for me. I’d only just figured out that I can take most of the strain off by using it with a weapon in hand. I can’t imagine being in control of two elements.”

“Do you have any idea how you’re able to do this?”

“No.”

“Are you certain? What was your exposure to Anemo like before you realized this power?”

I thought about it. “Nothing, really. The only thing I can think of is when Venti would conjure Anemo currents for us to use in Beginner’s Gliding. Everyone was exposed to that, though. I don’t see why it would have affected me any differently.”

Kaeya rubbed his jaw. “It’s hard to say. No one else knows you can do this?”

“Like I said before, you’re the first that I’ve told.”

“Why?” he frowned. “Why would you keep this a secret? It’s…you’re incredible, Lumine. I’ve always sensed it, but this. My, you’re full of surprises.”

I wrung my hands. “It’s because of what will happen to me if the Academy finds out. I heard from Professor Minci that if a student is found to wield an element with no Vision, they would be confined for the safety and protection of others. According to her, someone like me is too inexperienced, too volatile to be trusted to handle this power. They would send me away, Kaeya. I would have to—” A thought occurred.

“What is it?” Kaeya stood and walked over to me, concerned.

“Disappear,” I finished. “I would have to disappear. Kaeya, I don’t think the Academy would send me away solely for protection.”

Understanding dawned on his face. “They’d do so to hide you. They would want to hide your power to avoid being discovered by the Abyss Order.”

I also stood and began to pace around the room. “Do you think that’s what happened to the Champion? That being a Visionless element wielder is what made them so exceptional?”

“If we’re right about this, then I could see why you would be the ideal candidate for a Source,” he murmured. “And I could see why the Academy would want to keep you safe—to keep everyone safe.”

I halted. “You can’t turn me in. Kaeya—”

“Don’t worry,” he stepped in front of me. “I wouldn’t dream of letting them send you away from me. I meant it when I said you can trust me. The Academy’s idea of safety doesn’t quite align with mine. If hiding away the first Champion didn’t work to stop the Abyss Order’s schemes, what’s to say doing the same with you would? We’re better off facing the threat than retreating from it.”

“Okay,” I let out a sigh of relief. “Okay.”

“Besides, with the monsters breaching the Academy’s defenses for the first time yesterday, there’s no telling if they’ll be able to keep you safe anywhere else.”

“Actually,” I lifted a finger. “This wasn’t the first time monsters made it to the island.”

He frowned. “What are you talking about? I would have known if there was another attack.”

I proceeded to recount the time Childe and I were tasked with rescuing little Timmie from the forest. Kaeya didn’t look surprised when I got to the part where we found the hilichurl camp. Instead, he looked disturbed once I mentioned that this same information was given to Katheryne right after it happened.

“If you told Katheryne, then I should have caught word about this,” he murmured. “How peculiar.”

“Would something like this normally fall into the jurisdiction of the student council?” I frowned. “I wouldn’t have thought you were given the capacity to handle such matters.”

“You’d be right,” he smirked. “If you told Katheryne, then she would have told the administration. I prefer to keep myself in the know of all administrative affairs, so it perplexes me how something of this magnitude hadn’t reached my ears. This can only mean one thing. Do you know what that is?”

If Kaeya would have found out about the hilichurl camp after Katheryne passed the message on, then for him to not know about it…“Katheryne never told anyone.”

He crossed his arms and nodded. “The next question is why, and it’s high time we find out. Say, why don’t we take a little trip down to the head secretary’s office?”

Chapter Text

Kaeya and I exited his room and walked down the hall of Cryo House as we made our way to see Katheryne. Some time had passed since I went up to talk to him, so more students were awake and walking around. I kept my eye out for Signora, knowing that she had a Cryo Vision. I was sure she wouldn’t try anything within the dorms and in front of so many people, but I also didn’t want to be taken by surprise.

“It’s still early,” Kaeya stretched his arms. “But I have no doubt Katheryne will be working in her office. The day after a monster raid makes for a hefty amount of paperwork.”

Thinking about my last interaction with Katheryne, she was very good at her job when it came to maintaining confidentiality. “She’s very tight-lipped,” I murmured. “It might be difficult to get her to tell us anything of value.”

“Ah-ah,” Kaeya tsked. “You’re forgetting that I can be very persuasive.”

We made our way down the multiple flights of stairs before reaching the foyer and leaving the building. The morning air was crisp, and there was little to no sign that any disturbance occurred. The restoration crew must have been working well into the night. Still, just because there was no evidence of the attack, it didn’t mean that it never happened. An air of unease hung around the students walking toward the dining hall for breakfast, and I kept up my guard in case a hilichurl popped out from the bushes.

“I almost forgot about breakfast,” Kaeya snapped his fingers. “Who knows how long our interrogation will take? We can’t go convincing anyone on an empty stomach, now can we?”

I considered it. As much as I wanted answers from Katheryne, I was still hungry. “We could stop by for a bite.”

“How lovely,” he smiled. “I get to enjoy a meal with you in addition to our stolen moments together solving the case. With how much time you’ve spent with Childe recently, I was beginning to think our time together would be coming to an end soon.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I reared. “He and I only—”

“Eat every single meal together?” Kaeya supplied with a smirk. “In addition to the date the two of you shared in town. I must say, how clever of him to entertain you with something you’ve never done before. In that case, why don’t I introduce you to a new experience as well?”

I felt my face heat at the suggestion. “We didn’t go on a date. It was just fishing.”

“Is that what you think? I’d like to hear what he has to say on the matter.”

If Kaeya were to ask Childe, he would get the same response. A date was something done between two people who actually cared deeply for each other. Obviously, I care about all the friends that I’ve made at this school. As infuriatingly dense as he was on the morality level, I still cared about Childe’s well-being. As for him, I was certain he only saw himself in the spotlight. The only reason why he took me fishing in the first place was to…to make me feel better and relieve some stress. I suppose when put that way…no. Childe just wanted to fish. He likes fishing. Whether or not I came along with him wouldn’t have made a difference. It wasn’t a date. He only cared about himself.

Childe had made it clear to me yesterday that he only cared about power. He had no feelings for me beyond competitiveness. 

“In every way, you’re perfect.”

Those words Childe spoke echoed in my mind. I was so upset with him at that moment, I hadn’t gotten the chance to ask what he meant by that. Because it was Childe, I could only assume he was referencing my fighting spirit, right?

“I want to keep you by my side.”

In the moment when we were looking for Timmie in the forest, he refused to split up our search. Regardless of if it would have helped us find the kid sooner, he didn’t want me to leave him. No matter from which angle I looked at it, that had nothing to do with fighting spirit.

“You're my partner, no one else’s.”

From that day on, Childe had made a point to be close to me, even if it meant playing nice with my Pyro friends during meals. There was no reason for him to do that. Our daily meals had no effect on sparring matches or strength in general. It was quality time together that I enjoyed, that I would miss.

Lastly, my mind flashed back to the gutted look Childe wore when I called him Tartaglia. The name felt wrong in my mouth, yet I said it anyway because that’s what he deserved. If he wanted to act so removed from the rest of the student population, then there was no sense in maintaining any familiarity. And yet, there was something in his eyes, or rather, something that died in them when I said “Tartaglia.” When I erased our relationship. What was our relationship?

“I can practically see the gears turning in your head,” Kaeya interrupted the stream of thoughts rushing through my mind. “I take it that you’ve finally realized the man is head-over-heels?”

I shook my head. “That can’t be.”

“Oh? And why is that?” he opened his mouth to say more before hesitating and closing it. Kaeya cleared his throat, “Could it be that you don’t feel the same way about him?”

“I,” my mind fought to keep up with my racing mind. Kaeya said that Childe was head-over-heels. In love? With me? How he came to that conclusion without knowing any details, I wasn’t sure. How I felt about the possible, highly unlikely idea that Childe had fallen for me, I wasn’t sure. How I felt about Childe…it may have hurt me just as much as it hurt him when I left him in the infirmary. “I can’t allow myself to have feelings for someone like him.”

Right. Yes. Childe has decided to walk down a path only wide enough for himself. 

Kaeya made an amused sound. “That was quite the hesitation. Though, I’m satisfied with your rather vague response. For now.”

“For now?”

“Ah, we’ve made it to the dining hall.” He changed the subject. “I suppose I should make myself scarce before your redhead aims an arrow at my chest?”

“He wouldn’t do that,” I rolled my eyes.

Kaeya sighed. “Maybe not, but you already have.”

I’ve since learned to gloss over Kaeya’s nonsense, no matter how much it made my heart flutter. “Childe and I won’t be eating together anymore.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Well then,” Kaeya opened the doors for me and we walked closer to the aroma of food. “Mind if I join you for breakfast?”

“Don’t you normally sit with the student council?” I raised a brow. “Besides, I think the energy at the Pyro table may be too chaotic for your liking.”

“Anywhere you are is to my liking.”

✧✧✧

Bennett animatedly told the story of how he got bested by a hilichurl. According to him, it wasn’t just any hilichurl. This one was unusually powerful and had massive muscles.

“I’m telling you guys, it was super strong!” he waved his arms around. “When you think of a hilichurl, what kind of weapon does it have?”

“A club?” Xiangling suggested.

Amber added, “A shield.”

“Bow,” I snapped my fingers.

Kaeya nibbled on his Fruity Skewer and said, “Torch.”

“Hm, maybe their fists?” Thoma hummed.

Bennett proceeded to slam both of his hands on the table. Leaning forward, he said, “This hilichurl had a briefcase!”

“You,” Xiangling tried to hold back her laughter. “I’m sorry, but you got beat up by a hilichurl wielding a briefcase? There’s no way.”

Bennett crossed his arms and sat back down. “I’m serious. It opened up the briefcase and started throwing all sorts of things at me. Dolls, cabbages, mysterious gems. They really hurt, too.”

“That’s how you broke your leg?” Amber gasped. “You got hit by a cabbage? It must have been super raw.”

“No, no,” Bennett sighed. “My leg got messed up after the unusual hilichurl started running at me and using the briefcase itself as a weapon. Its swings were crazy! I don’t know what the briefcase was made of, but it packed a heavy punch. I was lucky Eula came to save me in time, otherwise, I might have found myself in a hilichurl cabbage soup.”

Xiangling wrinkled her nose. “I’m sure even hilichurl cabbage soup would taste better than that…concoction you’ve mixed up.”

“Hey!” Bennett protested and pulled his bowl close. “It’s nutrition over taste.”

“Listen, I’m all for a culinary adventure, but I have to draw the line at combining Apple Cider with Bamboo Shoot Soup,” she sighed.

I nodded in agreement. “You could always just consume them separately. I can’t imagine what a carbonated soup tastes like.”

“Wanna try?” he held the bowl up to me, eyes sparkling.

“Ah,” I held up my hands. “No, thanks.”

Thoma laughed at Bennett's antics and went back to eating his Black-Back Perch Stew. The items on the menu today were all recovery dishes, and I suspected it was to help everyone bounce back somehow. I went with a simple Tea Break Pancake, it was breakfast time after all. Xiangling had grabbed a few Rice Buns and Mint Jelly, while Amber happily sat with two Outrider’s Champion Steaks. 

“I gotta say,” Bennett said in between slurps. “It’s weird now, not having Childe sit with us. Where did he go?”

All eyes turned to me, and I tried not to show any discomfort. “I don’t think he’s going to be joining us anymore. After the attack, he’s decided that getting stronger is more important than spending time with us regular people.”

“Really?” Amber frowned. “That’s too bad. I was beginning to look forward to the stories he’d tell about Snezhnaya. That place seems so unreal.”

“Remember that rhyme he told us about?” Bennett grinned. “You make a pinkie promise, you keep it all your life. You break a pinkie promise, I throw you on the ice. As scary as that sounds, I thought it was a fun idea.”

Xiangling nodded. “Childe in a nutshell. He seemed to be this super mean, tough guy. Based on what the other students were saying about Tartaglia I thought he’d be a bully. He’s not so bad, though.”

My stomach twisted and all appetite left me as my friends continued to shed a positive light on Childe. They were wrong. He was a bad guy. All those stories he’d tell at this table, those were just stories, not an offering of friendship. 

“We would have never known about his soft side if you didn’t introduce us,” Amber looked at me from across the table. “It’s cool to have such an experienced student around! He seems especially approachable whenever you’re close to him.”

“Then it’s unfortunate he won’t be sitting with us anymore.” I forced a smile and tried to think of some way to steer the conversation in another direction. Kaeya sat on my left, with an amused expression plastered on his face. I had no doubt he was enjoying this. On my right was Thoma. He hadn’t said much for the entire meal, and then I was hit with a reminder. “Oh, right! Thoma, you told me that you had something to say yesterday. What was it?”

I had caught him mid-bite, and he choked on the spoonful of stew. Startled, I reached over to help pat him on the back until he got it under control. 

“Ah, that,” he cleared his throat and rubbed at his neck. “Well, you see, I was hoping I could tell you about it in private.”

“What’s wrong?” Kaeya chuckled. This entire time, Kaeya mostly sat on the sidelines of our conversation, only pitching in a word or two every now and then. His sudden interest and sly grin made me suspicious. “Your face seems to be turning an alarming shade of red, Thoma. Is the stew too spicy for you?”

Xiangling jumped in. “It shouldn’t be! That dish only requires one Jueyen Chili pepper. Your spice tolerance isn’t that low, is it? I would have thought all of us Pyro Vision holders had good control of heat.”

“N-No,” Thoma laughed sheepishly. “It’s not too spicy for me. As a matter of fact, I love throwing in all kinds of spicy ingredients into hot pot.”

“Then, could you be blushing because of whatever you wish to tell Lumine? If you think it’s embarrassing, I can assure you we all won’t laugh or see you any differently,” the mischievous glint in Kaeya’s eye was in full force.

“If he doesn’t want to talk about it, he doesn’t have to.” I cast Kaeya a warning look.

Kaeya shrugged. “We’re all friends here, are we not?”

“Well,” Thoma looked at him. “You did just get here. Sitting at this table just once doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve become a friend of ours. Of course, as a member of the student council, I appreciate all that you’ve done to help keep the student body informed and satisfied. I just think we need more time to get to know each other first.”

“We all have our secrets,” Kaeya hummed. “Feel free to keep them. I can’t help but put two-and-two together.”

Thoma stilled. “What do you mean by that?”

“Oh, you know,” he waved a hand between the three of us, not divulging any more information. “Just when I thought Childe was dealt with, too.”

I was about to ask Kaeya exactly what he meant by that when Jean walked up to the table. She looked stressed, more than usual, and held a thick folder in hand. Kaeya noticed her at the same time as me, and I watched as his shoulders slumped slightly.

“Jean,” he smiled. “How was your breakfast?”

“I need you to come with me,” she responded, flipping through the folder. “We have a student council meeting happening in,” Jean checked her watch. “two minutes ago. We have much to discuss pertaining to the events of yesterday and how we are to move forward.”

“The work never ends,” he sighed and slowly stood. “It was interesting eating with you all today. I cannot promise it’ll happen again, but I was entertained.”

Wait, Kaeya couldn’t go. If he was leaving for the student council meeting, he won’t get a chance to confront Katheryne with me. I needed his persuasiveness if I were to get her to spare even a single detail, and I worried if seeing her on my own would be productive at all. Kaeya must have sensed my dilemma, for he leaned close to whisper in my ear.

“I’ll be there. Don’t worry.”

I nodded in response and watched as he left the dining hall with Jean. She was already pulling papers from the folder and handing them to Kaeya for review. Once they had left, we all went back to finishing breakfast. Bennett visibly gagged on his mixture.

“See!” Xiangling jumped. “You can barely stomach it.”

His face pinched, color fading away. “Anything. For. Nutrition.”

“Please,” Thoma laughed, clutching his side. “Don’t push yourself. Ah, this takes me back to when I would create the most monstrous of combinations for a hot pot meal.”

“Ooh,” Amber set down her glass of water. “You did say something earlier about hot pot.”

“It’s something I enjoy often,” he nodded.

I nudged his shoulder with mine. “Why is this the first I’m hearing of this? You’ve never mentioned hot pot before. I’d love to try it sometime.”

“Really?” he set down his spoon. “There’s a restaurant in the town that specializes in a lot of Teyvat’s specialties. They even have a hot pot area set up.”

“I’ve been meaning to go there,” I smiled. “There’s so much talk about this restaurant, but things have been so busy lately. There was never the time.”

“We can,” Thoma cleared his throat and rubbed at his neck once more. “We can go together if you would like. Of course, when your schedule opens up. I’d be happy to take you.”

“I would love that, Thoma,” I smiled.

Bennett chimed in. “Now that I think about it, I’ve never had hot pot either. Maybe I could—”

“Bennett,” Amber suddenly pulled at his arm. “Was there anything else interesting about the unusual hilichurl? In case it shows up again in the future, we should start brainstorming ways to take it down.”

“What a great idea,” Bennett nodded in earnest. “Let me think, there was a really strange marking on its mask. Oh! It was also decked out in weird hilichurl jewelry.”

He dived back into the unusual hilichurl story, and how Eula ultimately took care of it without even having to use her Vision. I continued to eat my pancakes. They were delicious as always, but after all this talking, they had gotten to be a bit dry.

“Syrup?” Thoma offered, pulling a bottle of syrup from nowhere.

I still had pancake in my mouth, so all I could do was nod. He chuckled with a smile that lifted his entire face, drizzling the syrup and stopping after the perfect amount had glazed over my plate.

I swallowed the mouthful. “Thank you.”

“Of course,” his shoulder brushed mine as he set the bottle down. “So, about that hot pot. When would be a good day for you? If it’s just us, I can wait till then to tell you what I wanted to say.”

“How about this weekend?” I suggested. “I’ll tell you what I have to say, too.”

Despite the dangers of too many people knowing what I can do, lest the Abyss Order catches on, I still wanted Thoma to know. I trusted him as much as I trusted Kaeya, and holding this secret from him any longer felt wrong to me.

He smiled softly. “That would be perfect.”

Students were already beginning to clear the dining hall as breakfast came to an end. I tried to prolong my meal for as long as possible, prodding at the leftover pancake pieces. If I stalled long enough, Kaeya would have time to get through the student council meeting and meet me at Katheryne’s office. We would confront her then and get answers. I was sure of it.

Chapter Text

Relief washed over me when I spotted Kaeya leaning against the wall flipping a coin. He was waiting for me next to the head secretary’s office, and his head flicked in my direction the moment I entered the hall. How he was able to go through an entire student council meeting and still have time to get here before I did, I’ll never know.

“Lumine,” Kaeya caught the coin mid-air and tucked it into his pocket. “How wonderful for you to join me.”

I grinned. “How was the meeting?”

“Nothing special,” he pushed off the wall and gestured a hand to the door. “Are you ready?”

I steeled myself and nodded. Katheryne was a friendly face, but I couldn’t let our familiarity get in the way of questioning. She had a lot to answer for. Kaeya lightly rapped on the door, and we waited for a response.

“Come in!” a muffled, cheery voice called.

We shared a glance before I turned the knob, swinging the door open to face Katheryne properly. After first walking in, I didn’t notice that the woman sitting at the desk with dark hair and blue eyes was any different from how I last saw her. Except, those weren’t the dark hair and blue eyes that belonged to Katheryne.

“Who are you?” I immediately asked.

“Nice to meet you,” she smiled cheerfully with more energy than Katheryne would ever exhibit. “I’m Katheryne.”

“No, you’re not,” I frowned. “You look different.”

They were similar, yes, but this stranger would pass more as Katheryne’s cousin rather than an identical twin. I wasn’t sure who she thought she was fooling, but it wasn’t me.

“Different?” she tilted her head to the side. “I’m not sure what you mean by that. This is the first we’ve ever met, so how would you know if my appearance changed?”

Kaeya stepped into the conversation with a calm, leveled voice. “What happened to the Katheryne who worked here before?”

“Oh!” the fake jumped in her chair. “I see, so that’s where the confusion is coming from.”

The fake Katheryne then reached into one of the drawers of her desk and pulled out a metal plaque. She brushed it off with a satisfied smile and neatly put it on the desk for display. It was a nameplate, one that read: Catherine.

“Catherine,” I stated. “Not Katheryne.”

“A bit of a funny coincidence,” she giggled. “I’m sure you two won't be the first to get us mixed up. My bad, I should have put this on display sooner.”

“Why are you here instead of Katheryne?” I crossed my arms. “Where is she?”

“Hm,” she tapped her chin and looked up thoughtfully. “I can’t tell you the details, but Katheryne has departed on a leave of absence for an unspecified amount of time. She was very, very reluctant to do so, but it was the matter of a personal emergency.”

Katheryne’s actions were suspicious before, but now I had no doubt she was somehow involved in the Abyss Order’s activity. My gut wrenched at the thought of her siding with them, and I didn’t want to jump to that conclusion right away. I’m sure she must have some reason for keeping her secrets, but to run away after the events of yesterday made it hard to believe she was good. What was Katheryne planning, and did Catherine really not know what was going on?

“How unfortunate,” Kaeya sighed and sat down in one of the chairs facing Catherine's desk. “We were looking forward to asking her a few questions. I doubt you would be able to answer them, unless?”

Catherine sat up straighter. “I can definitely try! While Katheryne had been head secretary for quite some time, I myself have been a secretary at Celestia Academy for several years now. I’m sure I can figure something out. So, what’s the question?”

I hesitated, not sure if Catherine would be helpful at all. Her demeanor was far less composed than Katheryne’s, and though she claimed to have been around long enough, Catherine didn’t seem like she would be knowledgeable of the monster activity. 

I sat down in the empty seat next to Kaeya. “Why didn’t Katheryne notify the higher-ups about monster activity that was reported prior to yesterday’s raid?”

“What do you mean?” she looked shocked, just as I expected. “Was yesterday not the first occurrence?”

“It wasn’t,” I sighed. “Did Katheryne leave behind any notes of her activities or plans as head secretary?”

Catherine shook her head. “I wouldn’t be able to share them with you.”

“So she did,” Kaeya mused. “There are notes, then? I’m sure they would be of no help to us given that you hadn’t known about the previous monsters that had invaded our territory. No matter, we want to know more about the attack.”

“We are still investigating,” Catherine pursed her lips. “This is my first time meeting you, but I am aware of the student council members. Mr. Alberich, could you be seeking information to further student council activities? I do not think you can do anything to help.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Kaeya tsked. “The student council is responsible for distributing imperative information to the student body. All matters of scheduling, school announcements, management of extracurricular clubs, reaching out to achieve reformations, and even social events are managed by us. If I am to properly do my job as a council member, I need to ease the worries that currently permeate the student body. How can I do that without the means to properly assure that Celestia Academy is doing everything in its power to eliminate the threat of another attack? Katheryne and I had an understanding, and I’m hoping you and I can reach a similar one.”

“Well,” Catherine folded her hands atop the desk. “In that case, I suppose I can tell you some things. Now that I think about it, it’s good that you’ve stopped by! If the student council would be so kind, I need you to send out an announcement that all classes will be canceled for the remainder of the week.”

“Classes canceled?” I shifted in my seat. “For what reason?”

“Repairing the broken infrastructures will take some time, ongoing investigations require unobstructed access, the Barrier needs to be thoroughly reinstated, and recovery is still taking place,” she listed. “The Academy believes that continuing classes in these conditions wouldn’t be effective at all in ensuring a proper education. And so, you get a few days off! Isn’t that lovely?”

“I wouldn’t call getting attacked by the Abyss Order and letting them get away with it lovely,” I mumbled.

“Oh no, of course, it isn’t!” she waved her hands. “Hm, I guess it also wouldn’t hurt to inform you that we will be increasing the CATF activity to assure security from both inside and outside of campus. If the Abyss Order decides to try us again, they’ll be in for a real shock.”

The CATF? I frowned as I tried to make sense of the unknown term. I hadn’t heard anything like it before.

“Celestia Academy Task Force,” Kaeya noticed my confusion. “Their members consist of the hired guards you see around campus occasionally.”

Catherine nodded. “That’s right. Normally, the guards run mild shifts, nothing too serious. So, we were unfortunately taken by surprise when monsters suddenly appeared out of nowhere in various areas across campus. The CATF will bump up their patrols to one-hundred percent, operating at all hours of the day for every day of the week.”

“Wow,” I breathed. “That’s…a lot.”

“It’s necessary!” she affirmed. “And so is the curfew effective immediately.”

Kaeya made a disgruntled sound, and I didn’t bother hiding the surprise from my face. “A curfew?”

“Yes. From here on out, all students are expected to return to their dorms by 9 o’clock at night. No student will be permitted to wander the campus. This is for your safety, and the CATF will be responsible for monitoring this mandate. If one of the guards come across a wayward student, well, consequences will be in order.”

“How does enacting a curfew ensure safety?”

“I know this may seem restrictive,” she cast me a sympathetic look. “But this is in your best interests! If a monster were to appear when it was dark and difficult to gather everyone, a lone student would be put at risk. It might be worth noting that these proceedings will be overseen by the CATF’s commander herself. She has made plans to limit all transportation to and from the Academy.”

“That sounds rather extreme,” Kaeya’s face finally revealed a hint of displeasure. “Would you mind elaborating?”

“Oh sure!” Catherine shuffled around the desk, scanning until she located a document. “Here we are. Let’s see, the report I was given states that students will no longer be allowed to access the teleport waypoints. They will stay on campus grounds and not venture into the surrounding area at all. As for the townspeople, the teleport waypoint will also be disabled. Imported goods will be heavily surveilled as well. The commander put a label on this plan, where is it? Ah! Yes. The Sakoku Order.”

“Th-That’s,” I stuttered. “She can’t do that!”

“She absolutely can,” Catherine nodded matter-of-factly. “The CATF is comprised of highly trained individuals that originate from Inazuma. Their sovereign herself sent the task force to Celestia Academy as an offering of goodwill. The CATF commander in chief, Raiden Shogun, is quite strict but means well. Just like the curfew, the Sakoku Order is effective immediately.” 

“So, what,” I toned my voice down. “We’re stuck here? We’re not allowed to leave campus at all, for any reason? How long does the commander plan to continue this?”

Catherine shrugged. “As long as it takes to get to the bottom of the Abyss Order’s schemes, I suppose. Or at least, maybe until campus safety has been assured. It’s hard to tell. I would suggest you go and ask her yourself, but not even I know of her whereabouts.”

“The student body will be most upset with this,” Kaeya grunted. “This Sakoku Order would be an inconvenience on many fronts. If speaking with the commander isn’t an option, who else can we express our concerns with?”

“And here I thought you’d be happy to settle with a few days off from school,” Catherine sighed. “I'm afraid none of this is negotiable. As mere students, there is nothing you can do to convince me, the commander, or even the headmaster. Seeking an audience with him would be even more difficult than getting ahold of the Shogun.”

Too baffled to think of other questions or attempt to protest any further, I mulled over this new information. Kaeya also seemed to be at a loss for words for once, and we sat in silence. Catherine’s head turned from side to side, looking from me to Kaeya expectantly.

“Well?” she smiled brightly, too brightly. “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

Kaeya stood from his seat. “I will pass the message on to our student council president. Knowing Jean, she’ll have an announcement sent out by the end of the hour.”

“Perfect!” she clapped her hands. “Well then, I’m afraid I no longer have the time to chat. These head secretary duties are no joke. Katheryne sure is something else. Have a wonderful day!”

✧✧✧

Kaeya met me in my room after delivering Jean the news. He wore an easygoing expression that suggested he wasn’t affected by this development at all, but his wariness was clear in the way he sat stiffly on my bed. Because it was Kaeya, I had expected him to be lounging like a relaxed cat. I, on the other hand, couldn’t stop pacing.

“There go our plans for future treasure hunting,” he commented. “I was hoping to search the island for that cave’s location. Perhaps there's more to it than just a mural. Then again, the administration does have a valid point. Keeping students away from locations where monsters are most likely to spawn would be ideal.”

I bit my lip in concentration as exhaustion began to weigh on my shoulders. “The timing is unfortunate. Remember when I told you about when Childe and I found the monster camp in the forest?”

“After the date? Yes, I seem to recall.”

“Not a date,” I glowered at him and ignored the heat that skimmed my cheeks. “Anyways, I saw something in the forest that might have helped with the hunt. A Seelie.”

“You’re not talking about the myth, are you? Seelies are just fairytales told to children that still have an imagination.”

“I know what I saw,” I rolled my eyes. “If you don’t believe me—”

“I believe you,” he said with a low, sincere voice. “I’ve come to learn that you have a way of making the impossible, well, possible. So, you believe the Seelie will guide us?”

I nodded. “It may lead you to what you desire most. The treasure.”

“Who said the treasure was what I desired most?” Kaeya tilted his head, gazing at me. “Why, of course, it’s enticing. Though, to say that a small fortune is what holds my heart captive is most incorrect. I’m afraid if we discover the Seelie once again while together, we’d be left standing in place.”

“You don’t think it would guide us anywhere?” I frowned. “That could be problematic.”

Kaeya stared at me blankly.

“What?”

He burst into laughter. “It’s nothing. Lumine, would you mind me asking how your grades are doing?”

“My grades?” That was random. “They’re great, actually. Why?”

“I just,” he chuckled once more. “Can’t see how someone as intelligent as you could be so utterly, heart-wrenchingly dense.”

My jaw dropped. “What’s that supposed to mean? I’m not dense.”

“And yet, there must be something wrong with me. I find your ignorance to be quite charming.”

The compliment confused me, but his face softened and a kind smile graced his lips as he said those words. Despite knowing he was a constant flirt, I couldn’t help but blush. Not only did Kaeya have a way with words, but he knew when to use them. Whether it be figuring out an obscure verse, interrogating staff, or easing my worries, Kaeya always found some way to get what he wanted. Though, I was still unsure of what he really wanted, if not the treasure. 

“Where would it lead you?” Kaeya asked. “Say the Seelie decides to recognize you to guide instead. What do you desire?”

“To see my brother again,” I said without hesitation.

“Ah, of course,” he sighed. “It would be interesting to see how that would play out. How far would a Seelie go to deliver its wanderer? A shame we have to wait so long to find out.”

“I can’t believe they won’t even let us go into the town,” I complained. “Surely, there’s no serious threat with using the teleport waypoints and—oh no.”

“Oh no?”

I sat beside Kaeya and rested my head in my hands. “I was supposed to go to the restaurant with Thoma this weekend.”

“Another date?” he whistled. “Lumine, you two-timer. Wasn’t I supposed to be the heartbreaker?”

“Not a date!” my head shot up. “I just…he just…we have things to say to each other, and I’ve never had hot pot before.”

“Let me guess,” Kaeya leaned back onto his elbows. “He offered to take you?”

“He did,” I confirmed.

“A date.”

“It really isn’t.”

“Tell me, what is it that you have to say to each other? Seems awfully important if you’re waiting to meet at that restaurant to talk.”

I wet my lips, hesitant. “I’m going to tell him about my Anemo power.”

“Do you trust him?” he sat up straighter. “Lumine, it’s risky.”

“I do. I do trust him. Thoma’s a good friend, Kaeya. Just like you, I’m positive he wouldn’t tell anyone if I asked him not to.”

He smirked and fell back onto the bed. “Just like me, huh. Do you have an idea of what he might have to say to you?”

“I’m not sure.” I also settled in more, feeling my eyelids droop.

“Not even a clue?”

I yawned. “Nope.”

Kaeya sighed, and I felt the mattress shift. Opening my eyes, I saw that he had stood up and was stretching out his arms. Hang on, when had I closed my eyes?

“You should get some rest,” he looked at me. “You didn’t sleep for long before the vision woke you, correct? Judging by how early you came to see me this morning, I doubt you were able to sleep at all after that. Aha, that look on your face confirms it. You’ll never properly recover your energy from yesterday if you keep straining your body.”

“I can’t help it,” I yawned again. “There’s so much to worry about.”

“I’ll worry about it for you. In the meantime, I want you to sleep.”

“But,” I looked out the window to where the sun was shining. “It’s still—”

“I don’t care if it’s still daytime. Have you ever heard of a nap? Take advantage of the canceled classes. Take care of yourself.”

I rolled my eyes, though appreciative of the suggestion. “Alright, alright. You’re gonna have to leave if you want me to sleep.”

“What if you get spooked by another vision?” He rocked back on his heels. “Imagine how nice it would be to wake up next to someone to comfort you.”

My first instinct was to brush him off, but I couldn’t deny he had a point. Waking up last night, cold and shaking, the fear had a tight grip on me. If it wasn’t so necessary, I would avoid going back to sleep altogether.

“Lumine?”

I shook my head. “I’ll be alright, but thank you for the offer.” With the sun shining so brightly, I couldn’t help but feel like the Abyssal shadows had no chance of reaching me. Kaeya nodded in response and began to walk out the door. Something gripped my heart, then. Whether it was the fear of the shadows prevailing or not entirely wanting him to leave, it was hard to say. “Maybe next time.”

Door ajar, he halted and looked back at me with a startled expression that quickly morphed into delight. “Don’t forget to dream about me,” he winked.

Chapter Text

“Are you ready?” I stood at the edge of the lake, hands on my hips and raring to go.

Aether was still stripping down to his swimwear. “Hang on! Hang on! I still have to put my notebook away.”

“Come on, Aether,” I rolled my eyes. “Why would you take that with you here?”

He neatly tucked his items next to a boulder. “I like to take notes and keep myself informed on new things I see. There’s tons of stuff to learn in a forest, y’know.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I waved a hand. “Get over here so I can win already!”

“In your dreams.” He marched over to me, and we both eyed the far edge of the lake. “Ready?”

“I was born ready.”

“Ready to lose?” he sneered.

I laughed. “Oh, you’re on. Go!”

At my signal, we both launched ourselves into the lake. The chilly water was welcome when partnered with the summer heat. The orphanage didn’t give us as many lessons at this time of the year, so we had much more free time to test who was the better twin. Obviously, it was me, but I didn’t mind proving myself. It was fun.

The goal was simple: swim to the other edge of the lake first. I was naturally a good swimmer, and I flutter-kicked with a passion. I couldn’t see anything beyond the sparkling water nor hear anything besides my gasping breaths and splashing. Though I couldn’t see where Aether was, there was no way he would be able to get ahead of me. Not by a long shot.

By this point, I had to have gotten at least halfway across. Ignoring all stamina-saving measures, I decided to go all out. Or at least, I tried to. Something wrapped around my ankle and yanked me backward. Surprised, I flailed my arms, fighting to keep my head above water. I caught the sound of maniacal laughter as the hold on my leg released, and I gasped at the sight of Aether’s golden head of hair going right past me. Two can cheat at this game.

Quickly, I sprung back into action and swam so hard, I felt a burn in my arms. Aether’s feet were kicking waves of water into my face, but I managed to snatch his leg once I got close enough. Using all of my might, I tightened my grip and pulled him downwards. I heard him yelp in surprise and choke on some water.

“Ha!” I managed to shout at him before focusing on getting ahead again.

There was no way I could let him win. My pride depended on it. No other thought came to my mind as I swam the last of the way. The water began to get murkier, meaning that land was close. At last, my feet skimmed the mud resting at the bottom of the lake, and I stumbled onto solid ground with a whoop.

“Aha!” I breathed heavily. “Lumine does it again!”

“Not so fast,” Aether flopped out of the water onto his back. “We made it at the same time.”

“We did not!”

“Did too,” he snickered. “You may have walked on land, but I still got to touching it. I just had to swim a little deeper.”

“I didn’t see that.”

“That’s not my problem.”

“You!” I splashed water at him. “You tried to drown me!”

He laughed. “Stop being dramatic. We both know you wouldn't have drowned by a little tug. Besides, you did the same to me!”

I scoffed. “Cheater.”

“Takes one to know one.”

Blub blub blub.

A gurgling sound interrupted the next complaint I was about to throw at him. It was coming from the water. Aether and I both looked at each other with wide eyes before walking close to the lake’s edge.

Blub blub blub.

The water began to bubble up, ripples disrupting the surface.

“What is that?” I peered down into the water but couldn’t spot anything.

Aether sighed. “I wish I had my notebook with me.”

The ripples grew larger and larger until the very center of the bubbling water rose up and above the surface. A watery blob floated in the lake. 

My jaw dropped. “Is…is that a…”

The blob slowly turned around, revealing two simple eyes that blinked at us.

“Slime!” Aether gasped aloud.

I screamed and ran away from the monster. Except, my foot slipped in the mud and I fell on my back. The slime jumped in surprise at the commotion, and to my horror, it began to inch out of the water. Frantically patting the ground around me, I located a solid rock and threw it at the slime. The rock sailed through the air and bounced harmlessly off the slime. It showed no reaction at first, but then I could have sworn its eyes tilted in a frown.

“Get away from there!” Aether scrambled toward the trees. “To the forest!”

The slime momentarily inflated before popping out a bubble from its round body. I shrieked and ran away, only to find that the bubble was following me.

“Aether!” I yelled. “It’s chasing me!”

Panic gripped me as I tried to run in a zig-zag pattern. No such luck—the bubble persisted. Off to the side, I was appalled to hear the lighthearted sound of Aether’s laughter. He was actually laughing while I was being attacked by this monster. The nerve!

“It’s moving so slow.” He slapped his knee. “You look ridiculous, Lumine!”

“Stop laughing and help me get rid of this thing!”

Aether grabbed a fallen stick and chased after the bubble that was chasing me. With just one poke, the bubble popped and water rained onto the ground. At last, I could stop my sprinting and catch my breath.

“Here,” Aether handed me another stick. “Let’s teach this slime a lesson.”

I accepted the stick with a grin. Now that we had the upper hand, this slime would be nothing. We advanced on the tiny monster that simply hopped a short distance into the air before lightly plopping back onto the ground. Once we reached it, we raised our sticks.

“Ready?” I giggled.

“Go!”

Aether and I beat the slime with our sticks. The dry wood slapped against its watery body, and the slime shrunk down to a smaller size. Eventually, we smacked it so much that it fell apart into tiny globs of itself. The globs didn’t move at all.

“We won!” I shouted with glee and tossed my stick to the side.

Aether bent down to scoop up the remaining slime bits. They looked gooey in his hands, and I reached out to touch them. The texture was super goopy and stuck to my fingers a little.

“Gimmie half,” I reached out my hand. “I want to play with it.”

He split up the slime goop, and I pulled and stretched at it as we walked around the lake to our starting point. My stomach growled, and I couldn’t wait to eat dinner soon. Suddenly, an idea popped into my head, and I clenched the slime in my fist.

“Wanna race back to dinner?”

Aether’s eyes sparkled. “Wanna see who can eat the fastest?”

“Let’s go!”

We quickly got dressed back into our normal clothes and took off into the forest. There wasn’t much space between the group of trees and the orphanage building, and I made sure to take all the shortcuts I could find. Aether was panting and laughing behind me, too close behind me. I pumped my legs as hard as I could, spotting the outline of the building through the trees.

Once into the clearing, I pumped my fist into the air. “I made it out first!”

Aether wasn’t here yet. That was weird. Normally, he’d be right at my heel making up some excuse as to why I wasn’t actually the winner. I stood there, waiting for him.

“Aether?” I called out to him. “Stop being such a slowpoke!”

No Aether. My hands began to sweat, and I dropped the slime.

“Aether!” My voice had gotten lower, more mature. “Aether, where did you go?”

I scanned the area around me, thinking that maybe he was trying to give me a jumpscare. To my surprise, the orphanage was no longer the orphanage. It was a collection of regal buildings with smashed walls and broken windows. I wasn’t a kid anymore. I was at the scene of the monster attack on Celestia Academy.

This specific location…oh no. My stomach dropped as I recognized it to be where the lawachurl attacked. There was no lawachurl here, though. My shoulders slumped in relief upon realizing it was just me standing in the grass.

A bellowing roar.

There it was.

I braced myself for the rocky impact, but the stonehide lawachurl was quite far. It still noticed me, glowing eyes locked onto mine. Another roar. I ran away from it, defenseless. To my dismay, another lawachurl smashed into the ground, and I stopped in my tracks. There was one on each side now, slowly marching toward me. Closing in on me. They thumped their stony hands on their chests before advancing in a full sprint.

My limbs locked up, and I couldn’t breathe. Fear permeated my body as their massive forms slammed just a hair’s breadth away from me. They didn’t attack, and I allowed myself to blink.

“Come with us,” one of the lawachurls hissed in an eerily familiar voice.

The other lawachurl reached out its hand. “Join us.”

This was too unreal. Lawachurls couldn’t speak. At that thought, their rocky faces cracked and shifted, shadows seeping out from them and rearranging features to resemble that of the Abyss Herald and Abyss Lector. As humorous as it was to see a lawachurl with a head of armor that didn’t match, I wished to be anywhere else.

“We can make you stronger.” Lawalector cocked its head. “You can make us stronger.”

Lawaherald reached out to me. “Together.”

“No!” I spat out, shaking my head. “I would never join the Abyss Order.”

Both monster conglomerations froze and began to shake. Sinister laugher echoed and rumbled deep within my bones, but the laughter soon morphed into sharp barks of rage. The Abyssal lawachurls were no more. Instead, they were simple, deadly stonehide lawachurls once again. The monsters raised their mighty fists into the air, preparing to embed me into the earth.

I couldn’t survive, but this was just like the last time. How did I survive the last time? Oh, right. I had people come and save me. Professor Morax had shielded me. He kept me safe. Shield…shield…I needed a shield. Who else was there? Instructor Xiao. He had knocked out the stonehide lawachurl like it was nothing. Xiao was strong enough. He could take them on.

I needed some way to protect myself. 

Their fists came crashing down. I flung up my arms.

“Xiao!”

✧✧✧

A loud boom sounded.

My body spasmed, and my arms shot out as I snapped awake. Another nightmare. Still, I felt the phantom pains of the lawachurls breaking every bone in my body. My pajamas clung to my skin, and I wiped off a bead of sweat from my forehead. Slowly, my heart rate calmed down, and my head cleared enough to notice two major changes in my room. The first being that it was entirely dark, meaning that I had somehow slept the entire day away. The second, more concerning, difference was that one of my dorm room walls had caved in.

It was crumbled into a pile of stone and dust, resulting in a massive hole that allowed me to see into the room adjacent to mine. Through the dust, I spotted a sleepy Timaeus slowly wobbling out of bed to investigate. Before my shocked brain fully grasped the situation, I found the culprit—it was fused into the floor of my room where the wall once was.

It was a large rock. No, it was more of an extravagant boulder. A glowing meteorite. Swiftly, I leaped out of bed to approach the structure. There were golden shards of ore jutting out from the bottom and something peeked out from inside, rotating and glowing a soft amber. Before I could get a chance to investigate further, a heavy knock banged on my door.

I jumped in surprise, and the mysterious structure burst into a thousand pieces of golden light that fell to the ground, fading away until nothing was left but regular bits of wall.

The door banged again, and there was a shout. “Lumine! Open the door.”

Xiao?

Chapter Text

Slightly panicked, I went to open the door for Xiao. My hand barely turned the knob, and he came barreling in. I jumped back as he surveyed the room, jade spear in hand. His keen eyes scanned the entire area, honing in on the broken wall and settling on me.

“What happened?”

“I-I don’t know,” I told the truth.

“You called for me.” His eyes flicked around for any potential threats, on edge. “I thought there was another attack.”

I frowned. “I didn’t call for—oh,” I blushed. “Sorry, I must have been sleeptalking.”

“Sleep…talking?” His rigid posture lessened a fraction. “You mean to tell me that there is no danger here?”

“Not at the present moment.” 

He looked unconvinced, and I could understand why. A few loose rocks toppled from the top of the wall, falling onto the pile of rubble. Timaeus had finally come to, and he coughed on the lingering dust.

Xiao gestured to the mess. “How did this come to be, then? Was it you?” He pointed his spear at Timaeus, who stumbled back in shock.

“M-Me?” Timaeus quivered. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. All day, I was in my room working on these potions for Alchemy.” He gestured to his desk, where rows and rows of bottles sat. “I’d only just gotten to falling asleep before a loud boom woke me up. Next thing I knew, the wall was falling apart.”

“Who are you?” Xiao barked. “And why have I not seen you before? You mean to tell me that you’re an actual student here?”

“I am!” Timaeus affirmed. “I just don’t take any of the Physical Combat classes. I’m here to learn the craft of alchemy. Exploring the natural elements of the earth is fascinating to me. Why, my current research pertains to—”

Xiao cut him off. “Then it was your potions that caused the explosion.”

“My potions?” Timaeus gasped. “The odds for a spontaneous combustion of this scale is close to zero!”

“You did it on purpose?” Xiao took a threatening step toward Timaeus. “What vendetta do you hold against Lumine to resort to such measures?”

Timaeus retreated even further until the back of his knees hit his bedframe. “I never said that! The chances of me ever setting off something so dangerous intentionally is even less likely than it happening by accident. I swear it.”

“Xiao,” I held out a hand. “He’s telling the truth. Timaeus and I don’t talk much, but I know he’s a good guy.”

“Then how would you explain this?” He crossed his arms.

That was a question I was only beginning to tackle myself. The likely cause was found on my side of the room, but it had disappeared just as quickly as it arrived. One thing was for certain—it was made from Geo energy. I needed more time to think, to figure out what was going on, before I was to give a proper response. For now, I quickly thought of the next best thing.

“It could have been damage done during the monster attack that went unnoticed. The possibility for a minor fracture to develop into something disastrous isn’t unlikely.”

Xiao grunted and examined the damage.

My door had been left wide open when Xiao entered, and I heard shouts coming from down the hall. Not a moment later, task force guards were spilling into my room. With so many bodies entering such a spall space with no notice, I tensed. They were in full gear, shouting orders and pointing to the damage. As for me, I was still in my pajamas.

“Everybody out!” Xiao ordered. “Give her some space.”

The guards were hesitant, and one of them spoke up. “I’m sorry, but we must follow the commander in chief’s orders. The Raiden Shogun has instructed us to—”

“I don’t care.” Xiao leveled the deadly end of his spear at the guard’s face. “Get out.”

They didn’t need to be told a third time. In a matter of seconds, all of the guards had cleared out from my room, and I was able to relax. Well, as much as I could considering the situation. Xiao firmly closed the door and once again turned to me.

“You said you were sleeptalking. Why would that involve me?”

“Well,” I thought of the dream. “I think it was a gut reaction to me having a…a nightmare.”

“Nightmare?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I was dreaming about the lawachurl from before. I guess what you said really made an impression on my subconscious. You know, if death comes knocking at my door and all that. Sorry for disrupting you from, well, whatever it was you were doing before coming here. I’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Even if a false alarm, I would rather you still call for me if the situation demands it. I was on my own patrol. It’s not part of the job description, but I don’t trust the CATF to do their job properly. Their tardiness just now only proves their incompetence.”

“Uh,” Timaeus stood on his side of the broken wall. “What should we do about this? I don’t think going back to sleep here is an option.”

“Find somewhere else to sleep,” Xiao sighed. “Don’t ask me where. It is none of my concern. All I wish to confirm is safety.”

“O-Okay,” Timaeus awkwardly began to shuffle through his belongings. “Visionless House has the least amount of students, so there are some spare rooms available. Lumine, I’m sure you and I can find something.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I agreed. “I guess I should also get packing.”

“Not so fast,” Xiao stepped in front of me. “How are you feeling?”

“About the wall?”

“Not that. You said you had a nightmare.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that! I know it wasn’t real, so there’s no reason to bring it up now. I was caught off guard. It just spooked me a little.” I attempted to laugh.

He narrowed his eyes. “I’ve had my fair experience with dreams. Fond dreams are light and silky. The tainted ones are rather unpleasant, even for me. Do you have these nightmares often?”

I shook my head.

“It must be due to the residual energy those demons left behind,” he grunted. “I’ve been eradicating it all day, but the shadows persist. No matter. If you continue to find yourself plagued by these nightmares, I have a suggestion. Almond Tofu. It feels like a sweet dream, one that is sure to keep the evil at bay.”

A dish recommendation was the last thing I expected from Xiao, let alone one that apparently soothed dreams. I can’t imagine what sort of nightmares he must have had to discover this. Either that, or he was a secret foodie.

“Thank you,” I managed to reply. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

He nodded and surveyed the room once more. “The essence of evil in this place is present but too faint to have been the reason for such damage. Perhaps your theory about infrastructure failure is correct. There is also a faint trace of Geo in the area, but its source eludes me. In that case, this needs to be reported and repaired immediately.”

“Who should I go to?” I highly doubted Catherine was in the office at this hour.

“Do not worry,” Xiao opened the door and stepped into the hallway. “I will take care of it. In the meantime, sleep.”

And with that, he closed the door behind him. The sound of Timaeus gathering all of his potions together reminded me to arrange my own things. Dazedly, I found my bag and piled the necessities inside. 

It was hard to focus on the task when my mind revisited the Geo structure that was in my room. As foreign as it was, the energy radiating from it felt familiar somehow. Where had it come from? The question replayed over and over in my mind as I zipped up my bag. Could it be…? No. I shook the thought away. There was no way I had an affinity for both Anemo and Geo. That would be ridiculous.

Satisfied with what I had packed, I stepped into my shoes and walked out the door only to find that the CATF guards never left. They were waiting for me, polishing their spears and making small talk. The guards weren't the only ones milling about either—a growing number of pajama-clad students were whispering to each other, curiosity on their faces.

At my appearance, all small talk and activity stopped, and they stared at me. Timaeus also walked out of his room, and they split their focus to him. 

“If you don’t mind,” one of the guards walked up to me. “We’ll be inspecting your room now.”

I nodded and stepped aside so they could go ahead. One by one, the guards marched inside, shutting the door behind them. I could hear murmurs coming from behind the door, but it was unintelligible. Now, it was just students staring at us.

“What happened?” Ellin gasped. “It felt like the whole building shook. Then, guards were shouting everywhere!”

“I thought there was another attack,” Huffman worried. “Thank the Archons it wasn’t.”

“Lumine!” I spotted the bunny ears of Amber’s sleepwear headband peeking out from the crowd. “Are you okay?”

I shouldered my bag and began to push through the students until we were face-to-face. “Yeah, just a little shocked.”

“It took forever to get down those stairs to see what was going on! I’m lucky my door is closest to the end of the hall, otherwise, I would still be stuck there. I don’t even think the other Houses got past their own crowded floors. So, what happened?”

Everyone was listening.

“Well,” I took a deep breath. “One of the walls in my room got busted somehow. The damage was so bad, there was basically nothing separating my room from Timaeus’ room. We both have to find another room on this floor to sleep in for now.”

“I saw Instructor Xiao come out of there,” Amber whispered conspiratorially. “What did he have to do with it?”

“He just sensed the danger,” I shrugged.

“Wow,” she breathed. “He’s got really good sense. That’s to be expected from him, I guess. What about—”

“Lumine!” someone came barreling through the group of students. They all quickly parted to make way for the upperclassman gripping a daunting claymore. Diluc’s chest heaved once he got to Amber and me. “What’s the situation?”

“Where did you get that weapon?” Amber’s eyes bugged out of her head. “It’s so…so red and scratched up. Is the tip missing? How are you carrying that right now?”

He grunted and leaned the weapon against a wall. “I like to keep it under my pillow while I sleep. In the event that a threat suddenly arises, I refuse to be unarmed.”

“Claymore and pajamas,” I tried not to laugh. “Very intimidating.”

He was wearing a pajama set. While other students had some mismatched combination of a comfy top and bottom, Diluc wore a maroon button-front silk shirt with an embroidered chest pocket and a pair of matching bottoms. The hems were woven with silver thread that offset the roughness of his stature. He was even wearing fuzzy, burgundy slippers that really tied the look together. The pajama set and intimidating claymore clashed so terribly, it was cute.

Diluc pinched the bridge of his nose. “I may have overreacted by bringing my Wolf’s Gravestone. What’s going on?”

“Her wall went kaput,” Amber blew a raspberry. “Basically, Celestia Academy has their first double dorm room. Nobody knows how it happened though, right Lumine?”

“Right,” I sighed. “And now I have to find a spare room to sleep in for the night.”

“Are you sure it wasn’t an attack?” he frowned.

“I’m unharmed.” I gestured to myself. “You can see for yourself.”

“I’ll take your word for it, then,” he grunted and rubbed his eyes. “Do you need help finding a room?”

Amber snickered. “Are you offering?”

“Am I—” he cleared his throat, rubbing his jaw. “Of course not.”

“I think the ones at the end of the hall are open,” I smiled. “I should be fine.”

It was then that the CATF guards exited the site of concern. By the perplexed looks on their faces, I could only assume that they also couldn’t come up with a reason as to what happened. 

“Nothing to see here!” one of them announced. “Go back to your rooms! Curfew is still in place.”

“We’re still allowed to roam the building!” someone protested. “You can’t boss us around here.”

A few more students spoke out, and the guards shifted uncomfortably. 

Diluc stepped to the front with his weapon. “If there is nothing for you to do here, I suggest that you leave. We students need to get all the rest we can in order to perform well in school. Your presence is hindering.”

“Yeah,” Amber whisper-yelled beside me. “You tell ‘em. By the way, Lumine, would you mind telling me why the Diluc Ragnvindr is so concerned about you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on,” she tilted her head in his direction. “Everyone knows Diluc likes to keep to himself and that he generally doesn’t get along with anyone. Some students have even said it’s because he’s high class and snobbish, but I haven’t gotten that impression at all. Lumine, Diluc didn’t come down here to check out what happened like the rest of us. He came here specifically looking for you. Is there something going on between the two of you that I don’t know about?”

“We just play chess.”

“Only chess?” she pressed further. “Are you sure?”

“I guess we went into town once.”

Her jaw dropped. “You went into town. With Diluc. Alone.”

“Um, yeah?”

“Answer me honestly,” she gripped my arm. “Was it a date?”

“No! Archons, what is it with people assuming I’m going on dates all the time? He had to take care of some tavern business, and I wanted to see what that was all about.”

“Hm,” she stared at me intently. “It’s no use. I can see it in your eyes.”

“What’s in my eyes?”

She smirked. “Denial.”

“About what?”

Amber simply sighed and placed her hands on either side of my face, directing me to where Diluc continued to berate the guards for imposing on our residential dorms. She whispered in my ear. “Repeat after me: Diluc.”

I followed. “Diluc.”

“Likes.”

“Likes.”

“Me.”

“Me.”

Amber nodded. “Say it all together.”

“Say it all together.”

“Goodness, Lumine,” she groaned and finally released my face. “Say the words all together.”

“Diluc,” I paused. “Likes me? As a—”

“If you say as a friend’ I will sic Barron Bunny on you,” she hissed. “And I know you understand what I’m talking about. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be blushing so hard right now.”

I sputtered. “I-I’m not, well, only because you...how are you even so sure that…”

Diluc turned around with satisfaction lingering on his face once the guards finally began to leave. A few students cheered him on while others were beginning to yawn and turn back to their rooms. His scarlet eyes met mine, softened by a smile. A smile that I’ve been seeing more and more frequently from him. My heart skipped as he approached, and it thudded louder with each beat as realization dawned on me.

“That’s taken care of.” He looked from me to Amber. “Did I miss something? The atmosphere has changed.”

“Oh, you know,” Amber whistled. “Just girl talk.”

He chuckled. “Alright, then. I’m going to head back up if I’m no longer needed. The sun will be up before we know it. Lumine, stay well.”

I couldn't get a word out before he turned away and walked toward the stairway. 

“Well?” Amber grinned at me.

“You,” I held a hand to my chest in an attempt to slow the palpitations. “Might be onto something.”

“I’m not onto something, I’m already there,” she winked. “It’s good that you’re coming around, but there’s just one more thing.”

“What else could there possibly be?”

“You like him, too.”

Amber made the statement with such confidence, there was no rationale or alternative my brain could muster up to counter her. My brain wasn’t working at all. I couldn’t speak. The only functioning organ in my body was the heart that swelled in my chest so much that it could burst.

Chapter Text

Fortunately for everyone, there was no further destruction to campus or threatened safety. Unfortunately for me, there was a nonstop commotion going through my mind. For the past few days, all I could think about was the root cause of the wall destruction—no one had figured out that one out yet—and Diluc. More specifically, whether or not Amber was right on both fronts. 

I couldn’t entirely discount the idea. She made a good point when she brought up how he was more concerned for me than for the state of the building. When I thought back to how he responded post-raid, he did behave similarly. His worry was far greater than someone who just considered me as a friend. As much as I wanted to believe he would react the same for any other student, I couldn’t see it. 

Then there was his promise. If Amber knew about the promise he made to me, I don’t doubt she’d have a field day. Then again, I’m beginning to think she may jump at any crumb of information. In that case, it could be possible that her suggestion was exaggerated.

Diluc may have deeper feelings for me, or I could just be his first genuine close friend at this school—possibly ever. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions about it and assume he was attracted to me, but the idea was constantly lingering in the back of my mind. It was stuck with me. Hovering. Entertaining.

“You like him, too.”

Amber’s words echoed in my mind once again, and I quickly skimmed over the notion. Thinking of how I felt about Diluc quickly turned my mind into mush—this was concerning because that meant there was truth in her statement. What I couldn’t understand was why

Sure, Diluc was intelligent and quick-witted. He knew how to handle large groups of people—even those with more authority than him. Though he didn’t express himself as much as a typical person, it was admirable how he was able to convey his words with simple grunts and the occasional grumble. And when he did express himself, his smile would lighten the room—spreading to my own face—and his glowers were incredibly effective. Not to mention his protectiveness and caring nature, which he knew how to tone down when appropriate.

My chest tightened. Strikingly handsome features with an air of elegance, there was no one quite like Diluc, and it’d be impossible for me to not have these feelings for him, right? Being drawn to him was completely reasonable, anyone would after getting to know him. Besides, just because I found him attractive didn’t mean that…well, there were other guys here that could also be considered handsome.

For example, Kaeya, Thoma—even Childe when he wasn’t being insufferable. When I thought of them, I wan into an equally flustering bundle of emotions. There’s no way I had feelings for all four of them, Amber would have to agree. That would be impossible.

“You have a way of making the impossible, well, possible.”

Kaeya had said that. He’s never given me a chance to doubt him, so maybe—no. He was referencing a completely different topic. What would he know? Well, he’s a huge flirt, so he might know something.

Enough thinking—I was beginning to feel flustered again. The day has come for our weekly chess match, and I needed to keep myself focused. Dinner was over—early because of the new restrictions—and I was on my way to the library. Students were already making their way back to the dorms, but we had at least another hour before curfew rolled around. Once I got to the library, Diluc was already there at the table. He had a small plate next to the chessboard. Was that all he had to eat for dinner?

“Hey,” my voice came out too high for some reason, I cleared my throat. “What’s that you’ve got there?”

“Just some caramelized Sunsettia slices,” he pushed the plate aside. “Unfortunately, we don’t have the leisure to spare a few hours this time.”

I sighed and sat across from him. “How many games do you think we’ll be able to get in? Three?”

“We could make things interesting,” he hummed. “Have you ever done blitz?”

“Speed chess?” I raised my brows. “No, but I’m familiar.”

“Well then,” his lips quirked to the side in a smirk—something I didn’t see often and couldn’t help but notice looked good on him. “I have my pocket watch with me. How about we go five minutes each?”

“For an entire game?”

“Of course, if you don’t believe you have the skill to—”

“Five minutes it is,” I scoffed with a grin. “Don’t go changing your mind when you get close to zero seconds.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he adjusted his collar. “Ready?”

I nodded.

He pulled out his pocket watch and clicked the button to begin. I made the first move.

✧✧✧

“You’re the worst.” I moved my king back one space.

Diluc clicked his pocket watch again and reached to advance his queen. “Says the losing player of our 5-0 match.” He clicked the button, signaling that it was my turn.

I scanned for all possibilities on the board, but there was no use. I was down only to my king, and Diluc had his king and queen. With great reluctance, I moved my king back diagonally into the corner. Click. Diluc moved his queen again, just one move away from putting me in check. Click. I only had thirty seconds left. This was our final game and my last chance at making some sort of comeback. No matter which way I took my king, I wouldn’t be able to escape. There were no legal moves for me to make.

“Stalemate,” Diluc chuckled. “Nice play.”

My eyes widened. This was a stalemate. “Yes. I did this on purpose,” I nodded assuredly. “You fell into my trap.”

He leaned back into his seat with a smile. “Did I?”

“You’re unable to win,” I shrugged. “It may not go towards the final score, but it’s a win for me.”

“Congratulations,” he laughed more openly, and a breath caught in my throat. He had a beautiful laugh. “You’re one step closer to defeating me. I’ll have to stay on guard as to not let that happen.”

“Would it be so bad for me to win once?” I pretended to be upset, but a traitorous smile spread onto my face.

“How can I allow myself to lose?” he raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms. “Why, you might just go off looking for a more challenging partner.”

“Nonsense,” I shook my head. “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather play with. You’re stuck with me, Diluc.”

His smile fell by a fraction. For a moment, I thought he was reverting back into his signature frown, but his face faltered into a quiet surprise. It was then that I realized that, considering Amber’s words, what I said could be interpreted differently. I began to think of a way to remediate what I meant, but did I want to? Diluc picked up a fallen chess piece—my queen—and toyed with it in his gloved hand.

“I don’t mind,” he said softly. “I never would have thought, that in such a short amount of time, I would find myself with someone that I can truly be at ease around,” he paused and looked straight at me. “Lumine, you should know that your presence, to me, feels like the start of a new day. Your hair, your eyes—they’re like the sun, but you shine even brighter. How I lived before meeting you that day—I never wish to experience such darkness again.”

Amber was right. Amber was right

Feeling my hands begin to shake, I clasped them together. There was nothing I could do about my flaming face, though. Diluc’s gaze towards me, I could see it now. It was full of fondness, hope, admiration, and I couldn’t look away. I had to, though, if I wanted to form a coherent reply. How was I supposed to respond to being compared to the sun? Diluc cleared his throat and looked down to the table, removing the chessboard of its remaining three pieces and organizing the rest. I worried that my silence discouraged him, so I quickly reached out to grab his hand.

“Wait,” I said. “Thank you, Diluc. It’s hard for me to think of a proper response to something so sweet, but I appreciate it a lot. I really do. I—you—” I needed to take a breath. 

“I understand,” he lowered his hand and placed his other one on top of mine.

“You do?” I wasn’t sure what I said conveyed my feelings at all, especially since not even I was fully certain of what they were. He deserved someone who was confident in their heart to say it straight. All I knew was that I wanted to keep seeing Diluc like this—happy.

“It is more than enough for me to continue meeting you here in the library, listening to your stories, and watching you thrive. Don’t be afraid to pace yourself—your goals will always be there waiting for you. Unlike with speed chess, please, take your time.”

I squeezed his hand. “I will.”

The library doors creaked, echoing in the space only occupied by us. The intimacy of our conversation flickered away as Diluc tensed, and I turned to see who it was. A guard.

“I suggest you two get back to your rooms now,” the guard said. “Curfew is approaching.”

Diluc’s jaw noticeably ticked, but he smoothed out the irritation with a flat look. “Alright, we’ve got it.”

The guard stood there.

“You can leave, now,” Diluc grumbled.

The guard remained. “I’ll keep watch here.”

“Come on,” I got up and waved Diluc over. “Let’s play a game on our way back—one that I’m sure to win at least once.”

He followed me, amused suspicion on his face. “And what might that be?”

We exited the library, and I was sure to give the guard a slight nod of acknowledgment as I left. I was just as apprehensive about the increased task force activity as everyone else, but it wasn’t his fault—he was just doing his job. I could only hope that the student council could convince the Raiden Shogun to be more lenient as soon as possible.

Diluc held out his arm, but I didn’t take it. Before he misunderstood the gesture, I held out both of my hands—one in a closed fist and the other underneath it with an open palm facing upwards.

“Rock Paper Scissors.”

He laughed for the second time tonight, and I joined in. We traded off wins and losses back and forth. Just when I was beginning to get a sense of his ticks, Diluc would throw a completely different hand. The lack of strategy in a game as simple as this was exciting, and the permanent smile that lifted his face told me we should play it more often. As long as I could keep seeing that smile, I didn’t mind losing at all.

In the back of my mind, I had a feeling that whatever might happen in the future—just as he promised—Diluc would be there for me. He was right, this wasn’t a blitz round. Life wasn’t like chess at all, and something told me there would be an eventual end to this stalemate. 

Chapter Text

Classes resumed today, and I quickly made it to my first class out of pure excitement. Catherine made it sound like a few days of no class would be somewhat of a blessing, but it was actually a bit boring. Besides playing chess with Diluc and eating with my friends, I had been mostly holed up in my room worrying. Worrying about the Abyss. Worrying about the Geo phenomenon. Worrying about getting called out by a guard for no reason. The list goes on.

“Welcome, welcome!” Venti greeted us. “Okay, I want everyone to gather. Sit in the grass and get comfortable! There is something important I have to go over.”

I scanned the group of students to see if Amber arrived yet, and I made eye contact with a sitting Huffman. He sat up straighter and patted the grass next to him, and I was quick to let a tweeting bird capture my attention—wandering to the opposite end of the group. I found a spot for myself and sat crosslegged. Amber arrived, then, with a half-eaten bread roll sticking out of her mouth. I waved at her, and she quickly plopped down beside me.

“Scho, ha wa jer theegend?” she said in between bites.

“I don’t speak mouthful.”

“How was your weekend?” She rolled her eyes. “You knew what I was trying to say.”

I laughed. “I really didn’t.”

“You had your chess match with Diluc again, right?” She wiggled her eyebrows. “How did that go?”

“F-Fine,” I stammered out and found that bird again.

“Looks like everyone is here!” Venti clapped his hands with a cheery grin, standing in front of us.

Amber pouted, no doubt wanting to continue the conversation about Diluc. 

“As you all know,” he began. “Your midterms are coming up in two weeks! Scary, right? Your first set of midterms—nay—your first set of official exams at such an amazing school! You have nothing to worry about. I know each and every one of you is promising and has the right amount of wit to figure things out. Now, as for this class, the midterm normally consists of a gliding assessment down the cliffside and around the island. I like to have you weave through the trees, hang over the ocean, and do all sorts of fun stuff! Unfortunately,” he slumped. “That won’t be possible with the whole Sakoku Order going on. Trust me, I tried reasoning with the headmaster, but he wouldn’t budge! Apparently, the only word that matters is Raiden’s. How cumbersome.”

“What will we be doing instead?” Amber asked with her hand raised.

Venti snapped his fingers. “Excellent question! I was just getting to that. My first thought was, ‘Hey! Why don’t I have my students come down and listen to me perform at the local tavern? Their attendance alone would be proof of dedication and worthy of full points!’ but then, I remembered you’re not even allowed to use the teleport waypoints,” he sighed. “And so, another alternative will have to do. It has nothing to do with gliding, but my hands are tied! I’m willing to give you two options.” Venti held up two fingers with a wink. “You can either come up with your own epic story to sing to the class, or you can provide detailed feedback and analysis of my own tunes.”

Crickets. There were crickets.

“Why don’t we take a vote?” Venti beamed. “All those in favor of singing for your classmates, raise your hands!”

No one moved a muscle.

Venti scratched his chin, laughing to himself. “Wonderful! I’m absolutely ecstatic to have such an eager audience. Well, I should get started! Let’s see, from now until midterms I will sing one song per day. You can pick which song you wish to analyze, but your response has to be as detailed as possible. Ooh, and do not hesitate to give any praise!”

Amber whispered beside me. “Is he serious?”

“It doesn’t seem like one of his usual jokes,” I stared straight ahead. “We can tough it out.”

Venti materialized his lyre and began to strum its strings. “This first song is about a glorious kingdom in the heavens that tasked their first heir with seeking a special item from the Kingdom of Darkness, a Genesis Pearl,” he paused seemingly for dramatic effect. “You’ll hear what fate decides soon enough. Ahem!”

Venti began to sing the story of the heir, and I couldn’t help but be enraptured. Sparing a look at everyone else in the class, they were also deeply invested in this story. As a bard, Venti wasn’t so bad. Eventually, the tale came to an end and so did our time. There was an open ending to the second heir’s journey, and Venti promised us that the next song will give us answers. I was looking forward to it.

“You’ve got Physical Combat next, right?” Amber shouldered her bag as we left the field.

“Lunch first,” I sighed. “I know, it’s early.”

“Food is food!” she beamed. “Hey, would you mind asking Childe what’s up? I’ve seen him a couple of times recently, just walking around. The guy could pass for a dead ghost!”

“Ghosts are dead by default,” I chuckled.

“You know what I mean.” She rolled her eyes. “Anyways, I know he doesn’t want to sit with us anymore. As much as that sucks, it’s whatever. I just hope he’s doing okay, and I have a feeling you’ll be able to get him to open up.”

I hesitated. Was Childe really so unwell?

“Uh oh, I gotta go before I’m late for Horticulture,” Amber waved. “Thanks in advance!”

“Wait,” I reached out, but she was already taking off.

✧✧✧

It’s a good thing I had a break in between classes—there was plenty of time to think. I sat in the dining hall and idly ate a small plate of Almond Tofu. After Xiao had recommended it to me, I made sure to eat at least a side of it for dinner every day. Initially, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the dish, but it was surprisingly sweet and just as silky as he described. Its nightmare-preventing qualities also seemed to be working just as Xiao said, so I’d grown to enjoy the dish quite a bit.

As my fork easily sliced through the tofu’s jiggly body, I sighed. Just when I had the situation with Diluc figured out to a degree, facing Childe became my next dilemma. At this point in the school year, partner pairings in Physical Combat were established, and I would have to keep working with him. It’s not that I didn’t want to have him as a partner in class, I was just worried about how our dynamic would have shifted.

We wouldn't be able to casually spar or joke like we used to. He’d probably no longer open up about his strategies or give me pointers. Honestly, it was hard for me to imagine how Childe would react to us going back to normal practice again—if he even wanted to. 

According to Amber, he didn’t look like he was doing well, but what did ‘passing for a dead ghost’ even mean? Was he not eating well? I haven’t seen him in the dining hall at all. Was he not getting enough sleep? Was he overexerting himself? I worried my bottom lip thinking about how he might be spiraling, but I forced myself to stop. I shouldn’t care about how Childe was doing anymore. He could take care of himself, and it's not in my place to worry if he didn’t.

Amber did ask me to check up on him, though. Despite me never explicitly agreeing, I could tell she meant well and didn’t want to let her down. Plus, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious as to why Childe of all people was feeling so low.

I cringed at the thought of approaching him again—it would be awkward. The rest of the hour passed by much too quickly, and the next thing I knew, I was on my way to class. To see Childe. To see Childe and act completely natural. I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to take a longer path. I wanted to admire a more scenic route, especially after the restoration crew put so much work into making the campus look untouched by monsters. Yes, I was very much appreciating nature and absolutely not stalling.

Eventually, I found myself approaching the fighting ring where it appeared everyone in the class had already arrived. Instructor Xiao stood off to the side by himself. Normally, he’d be beating up one of the monsters that Celestia Academy held for educational purposes, but now he only gripped his polearm with a grimace.

Childe was nowhere to be found.

“You know the drill,” Xiao assessed us. “Change into your activewear and start laps.”

Students headed to the fitness center’s dressing room, and we all quickly got into our activewear uniforms. As I changed, I thought about how Childe would be getting an earful, or possibly a punishment, from Xiao for showing up tardy. But then, after emerging back outside, I saw that Childe still hadn’t shown up.

I’d heard that he would skip in the past, but he never did with our Physical Combat class. What was he doing? Warmup laps began, and with each loop around the inner perimeter of campus, I found myself searching for his familiar head of ginger hair. Even after the warmups, Childe remained absent.

“Get into your pairings,” Xiao instructed once we’d all made it back. “It’s time to brief you all on the nature of the midterm.”

Students shuffled around to find their partners, and I found myself gravitating toward a pair—Thoma and Xinyan—so I wouldn’t stick out as someone who’s been left out. Thoma caught my eye right away, and he made a gesture as if to say ‘where’s Childe?’

I shrugged in return, not wanting to admit I wished he were here.

“Huh?” Xinyan snapped her head to either side. “Where’s Red?”

Xiao raised his voice. “Do I hear talking?”

She jumped a little, slapping a hand over her mouth.

“Thought so,” Xiao grunted. “As I was saying, I don’t do exams in my class. Instead, a practical demonstration of skill is enough to prove to me that you have progressed from day one. To do so, I typically prefer for pairs to face a demon on their own—one befitting for students of your level. However, with this new Sakoku Order,” he seethed. “That is not possible. And so, your opponent will be me.”

Students collectively gasped.

“Within two weeks, you and your partner will devise a strategy to face me. This will be a test of partnership, of knowing your opponent, and your ability to fight. There’s no need to look so appalled. I’m sure you hold an aversion to losing to me, but I will not be returning your attacks nor will I make use of my Vision. Land one blow on me—that is all. Any questions?”

“Yeah,” Xinyan threw up her hand. “What’ll you be doin’ if not attackin’ us?”

“Evading.”

She tapped her jaw. “And what if we don’t get in a hit? Do we fail?”

“Not necessarily,” Xiao shook his head. “While striking me is the end goal, there are other factors that have an influence on the outcome of your grade. I said them once before, and I will not repeat them again.”

“Gotcha,” her hand dropped like a stone.

No one else spoke.

“You have free reign over all training and fitness equipment,” he announced. “From now until the day of the midterm, I will meet with one pairing each day. Who wishes to be today’s pair?”

Students murmured to themselves, nervousness floating in the air. Because no one seemed eager to volunteer, and because there wouldn’t be much for me to do without Childe here, I decided to take one for the team. I raised my hand, and a wave of relief could be felt passing through each student. Xinyan gestured an encouraging thumbs up with a cheeky grin.

Xiao looked at me, and his eyes narrowed. “Very well. Everyone else, go train.”

Most of the students immediately went inside to use the fitness room’s equipment, while a few others stayed back to make use of the training weapons. I bid Thoma and Xinyan a quick farewell before squaring my shoulders and walking towards Xiao. He was waiting for me, polearm in hand, and his analytical gaze never faltered.

“Where is your partner?” he grunted.

“He’s absent.”

“For what reason?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged.

“Aren’t you two close?”

“I,” my throat dried up. “We were.”

“For your sake, let’s hope he decides to make an appearance tomorrow,” his jaw clenched. “I will not tolerate unnecessary absences in my class, especially those that negatively impact the performance of others. By now, he should know better than this. Perhaps I should instill a punishment.”

“No, don’t,” I couldn’t help but jump in. “I heard that he’s not feeling well. That could be it.”

“I’ll confirm that for myself when I see a note from the infirmary. In the meantime, how do you wish to make use of your time with me?”

I thought about my biggest concern with going up against Xiao. His fighting style was like none I’d ever seen before, so quick and ruthless. After witnessing him in action in class and during the raid, it was obvious enough that he’d be too fast to keep an eye on. His speed would be the most difficult hurdle to get over.

“How do you slow an opponent?” I asked.

His monotonous expression lifted. “Good question. Take up your sword, and allow me to make a demonstration.”

Chapter Text

With great effort, I managed to sling my bag around my shoulder. Arms weak from overexertion and legs quivering from all the side-dashing, the drills that Xiao insisted I work on were no joke. Under his direct instruction, training was brutal, but I feel as though I was already beginning to improve my speed. Whether or not I’ll ever get fast enough for him to lose track of, that was yet to be seen.

“Hey,” Thoma jogged over to me, wiping the sweat from his brow. “How was your one-on-one with Instructor Xiao?”

“Probably would have been easier if Childe was here,” I stretched my back. “But we got a lot done with just the two of us. You should volunteer next.”

He chuckled nervously. “We’ll see about that. Xinyan and I are still working on getting our attack timings right. Sometimes, she seems to be running on a completely different rhythm—switching it up constantly. I thought our fighting styles might be compatible since we both have shields, but that doesn’t translate very well when you subtract our Visions from the equation.”

“Do you think you’ll be ready in time?” I asked as we began to walk to Vision Studies.

“I’m not sure if we can land a hit,” he shrugged. “But I’m optimistic about scoring good marks. As long as we try our best, I’m sure Instructor Xiao will grade fairly. What about you? I know Childe wasn’t here today, but I’ve seen the two of you practicing together pretty well before.” Even Thoma had gotten used to calling him Childe. Well, he had a way of finding the good in any person. He tilted his head toward me with a smile. “You two definitely have a chance at getting to Instructor Xiao.”

“We might,” I smiled tightly.

“What’s wrong?” his brows pinched. “You don’t seem too sure. Is something worrying you?”

The real question should be what wasn’t worrying me. I pushed out a heavy breath and tugged at the strap of my bag. “Well, for starters, we had a disagreement of sorts right after the monsters attacked. Remember what I said a few days ago about Childe not wanting to sit with us anymore because of his focus on getting stronger?”

Thoma nodded.

“That was a lie—er—it wasn’t the entire truth,” I sighed. “Childe is—he’s turned out to be not the best person. I know that was obvious to the general population, but I didn’t think he was that bad. Anyway, I basically told him to stay out of my life because…well, I can’t tolerate that. And now that he hasn’t shown up for class, I’m worried he might not show up at all. Sometimes, I wonder if I was too harsh on him. Amber said that he looks terrible right now, and I’m worried it might be because of me. What if Physical Combat isn’t the only class he’s skipping?”

“If you could go back to that moment,” Thoma spoke after some silence. “Would you do anything differently?”

We rounded the lecture building as I thought about it. “No.”

“Then try not to focus on what happened in the past,” he advised. “Just think about the future and what you can do to influence it. Whether or not Childe takes your word seriously is up to him. I want to be optimistic and say that he’ll come around, but it’s also not worth it to stress over something you no longer have control of. Focus on your own life, and avoid getting bogged down by someone else’s if they’re not putting in effort themselves.”

Thoma’s words were like a welcome shock of cold water. “You make a good point.”

“And,” he hesitated. “I know you and Childe were close. This sudden separation might not only be affecting him. You’ve been so worried about how he’s taking it, but what about you? How do you feel about this rift?”

“It sucks,” I said flatly. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy to cut ties with him. I would prefer if he could just be good for once, so then we never would have had to end up this way. He has potential, I know he does.”

Thoma nodded to himself, lips pressed tightly together. “I see.”

“Of course, this isn’t the only thing weighing on my mind,” I sighed once more. “As you may recall, my wall spontaneously decided to crumble the other night. It’s since been fixed, but the hopping between rooms didn’t help me to relax much. This is on top of the…the weird dreams I’ve had.”

“Are you not sleeping well?” Thoma pushed the main door open, holding it for me to pass.

“I am now,” I asserted. “After I started eating Almond Tofu—don’t give me that look. It really works! No more weird dreams.”

“If you say so,” he chuckled. “I’m happy to hear that, then.”

“The Sakoku Order,” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “What’s up with that? All of these restrictions on us—mere students—have nothing to do with the real threat. I can’t see how penning us all up like livestock helps with anything. You and I couldn't even make it to the restaurant this weekend because of it. At this point, who knows if we’ll ever get the chance?”

“I know,” Thoma’s shoulders slumped. “When the announcement was spread, I didn’t want to believe it.”

“I’m beginning to think there may never be a right moment to tell you.”

It’s not like I could just outright say ‘Oh hey, I have Anemo powers!’ right here and now. Nor could I bring it up during our class exercises. The dining hall table was also out of the question. Besides, I felt that context was important. If Thoma was telling me something equally significant, though I doubted there was anything he could say of the same magnitude as my ability, it would be fitting for me to reveal my secret then.

“It doesn’t have to be at the restaurant,” he walked beside me down the hallway. “Anywhere private would do.”

I stopped short. “You’re right.” Why hadn’t I thought of that? I mean, I revealed my ability to Kaeya while we were in the privacy of my room. It would be simple to do the same with Thoma. Then again, Kaeya had been in my room to discuss Abyss Order business, in the first place. “Do you want to meet in my room?”

Thoma tripped, but there was nothing obstructing the floor when I checked. “Your room?”

“Yeah, why not?” I shrugged. “It’s as private as it gets. Don’t tell me you’re wary about it collapsing altogether. I’m pretty sure the wall thing was a one-time deal.”

As far as I knew, at least. I needed to speak with Kaeya about the random Geo object, but he’s been so busy with his own assignments and council work, I hadn’t gotten the chance to meet with him.

“Or,” we crossed into the Vision Studies room, and I walked up a short set of steps. “I could go to your room.”

Thoma somehow tripped up the stairs.

“Are you okay?” I asked. 

He brushed off his clothes with a light chuckle. “Sorry, you just caught me off guard a little. I’ll be okay with meeting wherever you are most comfortable.”

I considered the two options. “If you don’t want to decide, we can just do my room. You’ll get the chance to see Celestia Academy’s newest wall—a real honor. As long as I’m with you, I’m always comfortable.”

Thoma didn’t say anything to that. He had turned to look off to the side, ears turning pink.

“I was just kidding about the honor thing,” I leaned over to angle my face directly in his line of sight. “No need to be so bashful about it.”

“That’s not what—” Thoma covered his mouth as he met my gaze. “We should get to our seats before Professor Minci begins the lesson.”

My mouth popped into an ‘o’, and I followed Thoma to our seats. “Right then. So, my room. When do you want to do this? Today?” I could do it today. The sooner I got this off my chest, the better.

“T-Today?” his face flushed to match his ears. “Um, how about we wait until after midterms?”

I frowned. “Why? Weren’t we going to tell each other last weekend, anyway?”

Thoma cleared his throat. “Because it is a stressful time, it might be best to get past our exams first. That way, we’ll have something to look forward to—something to motivate us. I also need the time to mentally prepare.”

I nodded slowly to demonstrate understanding. Truth be told, I couldn’t see why he wanted to wait so long for us to finally get together. I guess two weeks wasn’t terribly long in the grand scheme of things, and because I also wanted Thoma to feel comfortable with this decision, I didn’t mind too much. I was willing to wait for him to be ready.

“That’s fine with me. This isn’t a game of blitz, after all.”

“A what?”

“Never mind that,” I grinned. “We can still get hot pot after, right? Whenever the Raiden Shogun decides to lift her mandate, that is.”

He nodded. “It’ll be my treat.”

“Lovely.”

I moved to reach down into my bag, grabbing my Vision Studies notebook and a sharpened pencil. While flipping to the next empty page, I thought I heard Thoma whisper something along the lines of “you are,” but he was also going through his own notes. I shook off the wayward thought and instead wondered if his cheeks would ever fade back to their normal color.

✧✧✧

On second thought, maybe Thoma had the right idea about waiting for midterms to pass. A week went by already, but it felt like a single day with the amount of schoolwork that piled up onto my desk. 

In Vision Studies, Professor Minci said that the midterm would consist of two parts. The first would be an open-note written exam, consisting of all the material included in the first half of the textbook. She assured us that it wouldn’t be too difficult as long as our notes were up to par, and I felt confident in that aspect. The second portion of the exam would be a Vision practical. She didn’t go into much detail about it, only claiming that Visions would be put to use. Ellin and I, the two Visionless students in class, wouldn’t be participating. Instead, we were tasked with writing a research paper based on a literature review of three different texts that we had to outsource ourselves from the library. The topic was left open-ended, her only requirement being that it pertained to Visions.

Professor Morax simply stated that the answers for the History exam should come naturally to us, but I think he was speaking for himself. For a man who gets lost in the facts and his own retellings, he would have no trouble with getting everything correct. His vagueness worried me, so I’ve since decided to reread and take a second set of notes for each section covered—just in case.

Horticulture was probably the midterm I was least looking forward to. As strict as ever, Professor Baizhu asserted that there would be no books or notes allowed. Just like with Vision Studies, there would be two sections. The first was a dissection lab and the second was a long-form essay explaining the plants dissected—including their origin, genealogy, purpose, traits, and harvesting procedure.

Venti’s daily songs were beginning to become the highlights of my day. His melodies always carried a soothing rhythm. And though most of what he sang were tales of tragedies, I ended up feeling more whimsical than sad. So far, the story of the Genesis Pearl was what I was most inclined to write about, but there was still a week left of Venti the Bard.

As for Physical Combat, Childe was gone all week. No one knew what was going on with him, and though my friends reported that they’d seen him skulking around, I never crossed paths with him. By this point, it was obvious that Childe was avoiding me. I did say I wanted nothing to do with him, but I was surprised that he’d go so far to stay out of my way. There was no doubt that his grade was plummeting in Physical Combat, but I forced myself not to worry on his behalf. Just as Thoma said, I would focus on myself and the people who cared about, well, other people. 

I had no doubt that Childe would also be absent today, so I ate my lunch while thinking about how else I could use my time in Physical Combat with no partner. I’d spent most of last week working on endurance and strength in the fitness center.

“Technique, I guess,” I murmured to myself, prodding at my Almond Tofu.

An amused chuckle came from behind me, and I turned to see Kaeya moving to sit down. It was just us at this table—most students didn’t have their lunch at this hour, and the ones that did tended to scatter themselves around the dining hall to better study in peace while they ate.

“Technique, is it?” he mused. “What sort of technique are we talking about?”

“Kaeya,” I blinked in surprise. “It’s been a while.”

He sighed. “I would even say that it’s been too long. You have no idea what kind of tasks and side tasks Jean has been giving me lately. With the number of errands I run and petitions written up to submit to the administration, you would think I’m the student council president here.”

“Since when did you actually do all the work you’re assigned?”

“Since the Sakoku Order has become enemy number one in the eyes of the student body,” he propped his chin up with an elbow on the table. “I’m sure you’ve heard some complaints from your peers.”

I nodded. “Even my professors.”

“I hear all that feedback tenfold. In addition to my own exams, I’ve hardly found the time to take a break. As a matter of fact, I only decided to stop by here to grab a quick snack before my trip to the head secretary’s office. Because I’ve been such a good member of the council as of late, I think I deserve to stall for a minute. Let’s talk.”

“About what?”

“Well, for starters,” Kaeya picked up my fork and began to toy with it. “There was the mishap with your room quite a while back. As you know, I like to keep myself informed, but there seems to be no information floating around regarding the cause.”

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” I lowered my voice.

“Oh? Only that?” he tilted his head. “Not about how much you’ve missed me?”

I snatched my fork back and took a bite of my tofu. “I had a crazy dream, and a weird Geo thing had broken the wall when I woke up.”

“Geo?” his expression grew serious. “Are you sure?”

“It glowed the same amber color as Professor Morax’s power after he saved me that day. Besides that, its traits resembled a big rock.”

Kaeya hummed. “After Professor Morax saved you, hm? Now, how did he go about doing that?”

“He used a shield,” I recalled. “It was the most sturdy and long-lasting one I’d ever seen.”

“If I recall correctly, Instructor Barbatos had also saved you from falling once. What was it, a great conjuring of Anemo that lifted you up?”

“Yes,” I narrowed my eyes as I thought about it. “What does that have to do with—do you think that—”

“It’s very much possible,” Kaeya reclaimed my fork and prodded at one of the tofu pieces. “May I have a bite? I can’t say I’ve ever tried this dish before.”

I waved for him to go ahead and glanced around us, making sure no one was within earshot. “Of course, the thought crossed my mind. Because the Geo structure was in my room, it would make sense that I could be the cause. I just thought it was miraculous enough that I could control one element with no Vision. Controlling two elements, well, that would be—”

“Impossible?”

“I know, I know,” I reached for the fork so I could have another piece. “Nothing’s impossible when it comes to me, apparently. But seriously, Kaeya, do you really think that—hey, give me the fork.”

He smirked. “Are you hungry?”

“It’s my lunch,” I reminded him. “If you want your own plate of Almond Tofu, you can get one for yourself. They’re still serving.”

“Here,” he reached over and picked up some tofu with the fork, holding it up for me. “Go on, say ‘ah’.”

After being around him for so long, I don’t know how I haven’t gotten used to these antics. My jaw fell open at the shock of his insinuation, but before I could get a word out about how ridiculous he was, Kaeya took the opportunity to slip the fork into my mouth. Fire danced across my face, and there was nothing I could do at that point besides fully committing and accepting the tofu. His eye twinkled as he slid the fork out from my lips, setting it gently back onto the plate. As always, the sweet tofu melted on my tongue, but I had a hard time swallowing without choking. I put a hand to my mouth and shot him a look.

“How does it taste?”

“Like audacity.”

“Have you found yourself exhibiting any Geo powers since then?” Kaeya circled back to our original conversation, but his smug expression suggested he was thinking of other things. “Your dream was the most likely trigger. What was the emotion you were feeling at that moment?”

“Fear,” I sighed. “I was afraid and wanted something to protect me.”

He sobered and lowered his voice. “Maybe you should tap into the sense of protection once more. It could bring out the potential Geo energy within you. When you reach for your Anemo power, how does that work?”

“It’s hard to explain,” I put a hand to my chest. “I feel it here in the center, like dormant energy. Once I start thinking about wanting to use it, Anemo sort of bursts out. It took a while to learn how to reign in the energy, but now I can direct it at will.”

“Do you sense a second power there, or anywhere else?”

“I never thought to look within,” I murmured. “I could try.”

“Another time,” he stood. “The dining hall wouldn’t be the most ideal practice ground. Once you get the chance to figure it out, I’m sure we’ll have our answer.”

“Are you leaving?”

“Why, do you want me to stay?”

I prodded at the single remaining tofu on my plate. “What if I said ‘yes’?”

“Lumine,” Kaeya drawled. “How can you play with my affections like this, knowing that my busy schedule keeps me away from you against my will? I really would stay if I could, but duty calls. Of course, if you really want me to—”

I rolled my eyes. “Never mind, I should just let you go before you get any ideas.”

“I already have ideas,” he chuckled. “Don’t worry, you’ll know what they are in due time. For now, we just have to see how my absence makes your heart grow fonder.”

And with that, he was already walking towards the door. I noticed his shoulders slump lower just before he disappeared, and I bet the weight of his responsibilities affected him even more than he let on. If talking with me helped him forget any of that, even for a short while, I didn’t mind entertaining him. It’d be a lie to say I wasn’t entertained myself—time went by exceptionally fast whenever we got together.

The hour was up, and it was time for me to spend yet another session of Physical Combat on my own. As I made my way, I started rationalizing with myself that I’d gotten used to it at this point. Today, I’ll make a point to ask Instructor Xiao if I could get a handicap for being partnerless. While I could entirely see him scoffing at the idea, I felt it was fair.

In my head, I practiced how I would approach Xiao with the topic without sounding like I wasn’t asking him to go easy on me. Investing in getting the wording just right, I didn’t realize I’d already reached the fighting ring until my eyes caught on something—someone—that rendered my thoughts to nothing.

Childe was here. He truly did look like a dead ghost. His skin had paled, and shadows marred his eyes. His posture, something that usually stood out as confident, was reduced to an uncomfortable rigidness. He was already dressed in the activewear uniform, so he must have gotten here much earlier.

Before Childe could catch me staring, I ducked my head and made a beeline for the dressing room. Taking my time, I undressed and carefully stashed my uniform in the provided locker. Idle chatter from other students floated around me, but their voices were easily filtered out by the growing anxiety I felt at Childe’s sudden reappearance. I should be relieved that he’d decided to show up. After all, we could finally get to working on a strategy together for the midterm.

I walked out with the rest of the students, and though a pit of dread sat in my stomach, I decided to approach him outright. Before the warmup laps could begin, I wanted to set a few things straight. As soon as I’d made that decision, setting my eyes on him, his head picked up and turned to me—almost like he’d noticed my intention.

All too soon, I faced him. “So, you finally decided to show up.”

“I had to settle a few private matters,” he shoved his hands into his pockets.

“You could have given me a heads up,” I pressed my lips together. “You do know we have to work together for the midterm, right?”

“Xiao briefed me,” he responded flatly, looking towards me but not at me. “Listen, you don’t have to worry about me messing up—not this time.”

I eyed him. He was being civil and straight to the point, something that I wasn’t expecting and could absolutely get behind. Perhaps our continued partnership wouldn’t be as strained as I thought.

“Okay,” I said after a moment. “I had a one-on-one session with Instructor Xiao last week. We can go over his suggestions after warmups. Besides that, I just did personal strength and conditioning. It’s a good thing you’re here now since I planned to go over technique this week.”

“That works with me,” he said to the spot next to me.

“And, um,” I pushed out a breath. “Are you okay?”

Amber had been pestering me to find out what was going on with him. From just one glance alone, anyone would be able to tell he wasn’t how he used to be. After exchanging a few words, there was no doubt that something was off, and I was beginning to feel genuinely concerned. This wasn’t the Childe that I knew.

“Don’t,” his eyes met mine for the first time, haunted. “Please don’t ask me that right now, Lumine.”

“If this is about—”

“Begin warmups,” Instructor Xiao announced. “I want to see everyone’s time cut down today by at least thirty seconds, no less.”

Childe offered a hesitant smile, almost replicating the nonchalant air he used to carry, but I still caught it—a flicker of sorrow—before he turned away to begin laps. I stood there for just a moment, lost in the alienness of his behavior and how wrong it felt, before joining the rest of the students in a fast-paced jog.

I got through to him, that much was clear. While the dispute appeared to hurt both of us, he was taking it considerably harder than I ever thought he would. Did that mean he was willing to change? I couldn’t tell. This shell of a person wasn’t what I had in mind after asking him to reevaluate himself. When considering Childe’s previous week-long absence, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on behind the scenes. 

Chapter Text

All too fast the days went by, and the next thing I knew, my midterms were tomorrow. Today’s Horticulture class consisted of material for review, and Xiangling anxiously tapped her pen on the table. Students were raising their hands, asking questions left and right, but I actually felt pretty secure for this exam. While Professor Baizhu refused to give any details on what exact plants we’ll be dissecting and writing about, he did hint that they could be found on this island. Of course, the island had tons of biomass to offer, and no one was currently allowed to go exploring, but I had some idea of what to expect. My herb collecting venture with Qiqi might just come in handy, but I’d know for sure once tomorrow rolled around.

“If you have any further questions, I’m afraid that’s too bad because we’re out of time.” Professor Baizhu’s reptilian eyes squinted as he smiled. “Just kidding. I’ll be here for a few minutes after class. Section three of the textbook is something I highly suggest you revise. Also, be sure to know your plant anatomy.”

Xiangling tapped her pen faster as students began to depart, and I caught her wrist. “Hey, you okay?”

“Huh?” she blinked out of her trance. “Oh, yeah. Just worried about the midterm.”

“I thought you knew all sorts of things about plants.” I slipped my notebook into my bag. “You had so much to say about them from our first day, even. What happened to the ingredient-savvy, confident chef?”

She knocked her head on the table. “I know about how they influence flavor and texture! Being able to reference things like genealogy is another story. How am I supposed to analyze cells and photosynthesis? I can’t taste that.” She made a good point.

“Do you want me to help you study later?”

“No, no,” she waved a hand. “It’s okay. I just need a real hearty meal to get my spirits up. The pre-midterm jitters are getting to me.”

“If you say so,” I patted her shoulder. “Let me know if you change your mind. Are you going to the dining hall, then?”

Her face split into a smile. “You know it. I hear the special today is Golden Crab! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had crab? Too long, Lumine.”

“Is it that good?” I laughed.

“Absolutely,” Xiangling stood and grabbed both of my hands, shaking them up and down. “Oh, you have to try it! Please divert your tastes from Almond Tofu, just this once.”

“I haven’t been eating Almond Tofu that long,” I shrugged. “Just for the past few days.”

“The past two weeks!” she shook her head. “Honestly, I love the dish as much as you obviously do, but I couldn’t stomach the same thing day in and day out. You need to spice it up a little! Throw in a surprise ingredient, maybe.”

“I’ll stick with the original recipe, thank you very much.” I didn’t bother mentioning its dream-influencing abilities. It was enough for her to think I just got attached to tofu all of a sudden.

“Okay,” she eyed me. “Are you coming with me, or what?”

“I’ll meet you there after I drop off some books at the library.” I lifted my bag.

She shuffled toward the door. “I’ll try to save you some crab! No promises, though.”

“I’ll be quick with it,” I assured her before she left the classroom.

The books in question I had to return were for the Vision Studies research paper that I’d spent the past week writing. Finding the right texts was the easy part, but it took a great deal of time for me to weave the separate ideas into a cumulative paper. I’d only just finished it last night, and I was eager to finally get these books off my hands as soon as possible. Besides the paper, there was still the written exam portion tomorrow, but I had exceptional notes thanks to Thoma.

The Vision Studies paper wasn’t the only thing I’d gotten done. Venti’s spontaneous essay idea had also kept me occupied for the better part of the week, and I actually had an enjoyable time crafting an analysis of the Genesis Pearl story. He said that we could interpret his songs as our hearts desired, so I was able to flourish the unsung details and interject my own opinions on what the lyrics meant. As for his technical singing, I was sure to leave copious amounts of positive feedback, not just because he asked for some, but because he deserved it. Venti should really consider becoming a music instructor on the side.

Once I got to the library, I was immediately glad returning the material was my only goal. Every table was piled high with study tools, and each seat was occupied by a stressed student—even the lounge couches that sat by the windows. The library’s reception desk was normally operated by a staff member, but I was surprised to find that Professor Minci was here instead.

“Hey there, cutie,” she winked. “Are you here to study as well? How lovely.”

I swung my bag to the side and pulled out the three texts. “I’m here to return these, actually.”

“Oh?” she lifted a gloved hand to her lips. “Done with the research paper, I see. I can’t wait to give it a read. I must thank you for your dedication in making a prompt return. You have no idea how hectic it gets around exam season. We often don’t see books checked back in until finals.”

“Do you manage the library inventory often?” I asked. “I would have thought your hands were full with Vision Studies alone.”

She giggled. “I’m the head librarian here, cutie. Of course, I stay involved.”

My eyes widened with surprise. I had no idea.

“Are you impressed?” she cooed.

“That seems like a lot of work,” I nodded.

Professor Minci pouted. “Oh, it really is. The Academy doesn't know when to stop assigning me work. Trust me, I’d much rather spend all my days here in this library, scouring ancient texts and formulating my own theories. Alas, I still get the chance so long as I uphold my role as a professor.”

“You’re an excellent professor.” I tried to uplift her. “I’ve been able to learn so much about Visions, despite not having one.”

“Are you trying to flatter me?” she smirked. “It’s working. My, I shouldn’t be surprised you’re a smooth talker—not with how smitten your partner is.”

Placing the books on the counter, I gave her a curious glance. “Thoma?”

“Of course, when I assigned partners, matchmaking was far from my original intention.” She reached forward to slide the books over. “In the future, it might be entertaining to get to know my students first before pairing them up. I bet I’d manage to get at least three couples together by the end of the semester.”

“Oh,” I shook my head. “Thoma and I aren’t a couple.”

She drew up short with an offended gasp. “You’re not?”

“We’re class partners,” I stated before adding, “And friends.”

Professor Minci pouted. “Oh, that poor boy. Let me give you some advice, cutie. When you get the chance, why don’t you stop by an optometrist? I’m not entirely certain if our infirmary can assist you with that, though.”

“An optometrist?”

“To help you see the obvious,” she winked. “Well, I suppose you could also just wait it out. I’m sure he’ll get around to saying something eventually.”

“Professor Minci, I don’t think I understand what you—”

“Please,” she waved her hand. “Just Lisa is fine when we’re in the library. My role here has nothing to do with professerly duties.”

“Lisa,” I tested the name in my mouth. It felt odd addressing her so casually, but I didn’t want to reject her suggestion. “Are you saying that Thoma has—that he thinks of me to be—”

Lisa leaned forward onto the counter, putting her face as close as she could to mine with an energetic force. “Yes.”

“I didn’t even get to finish what I was saying.”

“We both know where you’re getting at,” she fingered the rim of her hat. “Don’t we? Trust me, I didn’t make it here to teach at such a prestigious school without keen observation skills. I know as much about Thoma’s intentions toward you as I do with, say, Xingqiu’s toward Chongyun,” she chuckled. “They’re an amusing pair to watch, but I won’t say any more on that.”

Lisa’s suggestive glance toward me made my face heat up. Regardless of whether what she said was true, anyone would react the same way at the lilt of her voice. Also, because this was coming from Lisa, someone who I learned to have a keen eye for detail, the possibility stuck with me. That important thing Thoma had to tell me—could it be a confession?

“Ah,” Lisa swooned. “There it is.”

“There what is?”

“Realization,” she languidly pointed at me. “You should have seen the way your face reacted just now, cutie.”

“Should you be calling your students ‘cutie’?” I took a defensive step back.

“He’s made it obvious, has he not?” she continued. “A few kind words here and there, maybe even a close moment of physical intimacy? It might be soon, but I suspect he’ll even ask you out on a date—a dinner, perhaps.”

Physical intimacy with Thoma? My face heated to an even higher degree at the notion, and I was expecting a Pyro Vision to show up at any moment after I thought back to when he’d offered to dry me off with his shield. When I gave that moment a closer look, it wasn’t something that a simple partner or friend would offer. Besides, he did ask me out to dinner. A date.

“Just as I thought,” Lisa leaned back, satisfied. “Well then, I’ll let you decide what to do with this new-to-you information. It’s been a pleasure enlightening you. Perhaps my work as a professor extends beyond that of the elements.”

My mind faltered, and it was all I could do to murmur a polite thank-you before fleeing from her teasing demeanor. I felt Lisa’s emerald gaze at my back until I was well past the library’s exit, and my previous thoughts about midterms were now taken over by Thoma.

Thoma. Someone who I felt immediate trust toward since our first meeting. Thoma. Someone who supported me with unwavering loyalty and an abundance of helpful advice. Thoma. Kind to everyone, even if they didn’t deserve it. Thoma. He spoke out against injustice when he could stop it. Reliable, warm, friendly, charming—he was someone who I couldn’t see myself being without. If what Lisa said held any truth, my relationship with him ran deeper than I thought. Whether my feelings matched in a platonic or romantic sense…my heart squeezed, and I found the sensation wasn’t unfamiliar. 

Crystalflies fluttered in my stomach. 

It’d only been two weeks since I realized the connection between me and Diluc. How was it that I felt similarly with Thoma? In terms of personality, Diluc and Thoma were hardly the same, yet I found myself captivated by both of them. The brightness that Diluc saw in me, I saw in Thoma. His honesty and gentleness never failed to greet me like a welcome embrace. For me to have such an attachment toward two people—was that okay?

“Hey, watch where you’re going!”

Lost in thought, I’d accidentally bumped into a pair of students going the opposite direction.

“Sorry,” I mumbled as I looked up to see—to my dismay—the Twin Mages.

Immediately, I braced myself for a nasty reaction from both of them. Cici looked me up and down with her sharp, violet eyes. Cicin simply stood in cold silence, her expression flickering from annoyance to resolution. Instead of lashing out with a taunt or advancing with a physical assault, they surprised me with civility.

“It’s fine,” Cicin sighed. “Right, Cici?”

Cici stared at me, hard. “Right,” she grit out. “We know you didn’t mean it.”

“That’s it?” I blurted out, too shocked to filter my words.

Cicin scoffed lightly. “Yeah, that’s it. Why? Are you actually looking for trouble?”

“Because you won’t find it here,” Cici tugged Cicin’s elbow. “C’mon, let’s get out of here. We got done what he wanted us to do already. There’s no use in sticking around to risk her making us look bad.” Cici shot a hesitant glance toward me when she said that, and I couldn’t help but feel put on the spot despite the lack of hostility behind her tone. 

“See you around,” Cicin tossed her ice-white hair over her shoulder as the two of them passed, leaving me bewildered in the spot I stood. “Good luck with your exams.”

Slowly, I moved on auto-pilot as I tried to process what had just happened. My previous spiraling feelings about Thoma were muted with this character development. I wouldn't have expected kindness from those two in a million years. Was it really possible that the Twin Mages learned to be decent human beings? If so, what on Teyvat could have brought on such a change?

This time, I didn’t let my wandering thoughts distract me from the path ahead. Not long after running into Cici and Cicin, I saw Ellin sitting on a bench with a slackened jaw. She looked panicked and alarmed, hands clenched together so hard that her knuckles had turned white. Alarm bells rang off in my mind as I jumped to the obvious conclusion. Ellin was ahead of me—the direction that the Twin Mages had just come from. The only reason why Cici and Cicin didn’t want to bother messing with me was because they just finished tormenting Ellin yet again. My guess was that they had some sort of sinister quota to fill, and I wasn’t today’s target.

“Ellin, hey,” I quickly sat beside her. “What’s going on?”

“I,” she shook her head slowly, staring at the ground. “I can’t believe it.”

“Then don’t,” I urged her. “Whatever the Twin Mages told you just now, don’t listen to them. Remember what we talked about a couple of weeks ago? Remember the strength you showed to me, and most importantly, to yourself? Don’t doubt that.”

Finally, she glanced up at me. What I saw in her eyes wasn’t weakness—it was genuine surprise. “The Twin Mages didn’t say anything mean to me. They were nice.”

“Nice to you?” I balked. “What do you mean?”

“I was just walking back from class,” she recalled. “Then I noticed someone was following me. When I realized it was Cici and Cicin, I thought the worst was about to happen. They cut ahead and didn’t let me get any further, which was weird because it’s broad daylight and so many people are around. But then…”

“But then?”

“They apologized,” she whispered. “They said they were sorry for judging me so hard without ever getting to know me. Cici even offered to help me with my Vision Studies paper. I already have it done, but she really, truly wanted to help.”

“You don’t think it was some sort of trick?” I furrowed my brow, trying to see through their plan.

“Not at all. Trust me, after being harassed by them for so long, I’m able to sense the ill intent. They expressed nothing but pure remorse. Lumine, do you think that I’ve finally done it? That I’ve finally proven to them that the Visionless can be strong, too?”

My mind reeled with this information, and though I was still trying to properly understand, I didn’t want to dampen the glowing hope that radiated from Ellin’s face. “Anything is possible,” I said at last.

Ellin surprised me with a sudden hug, her arms wrapping around my shoulders. “This is such a relief,” she sighed before pulling away, small tears in her eyes. “Maybe the rest of our time here won't be so bad, after all.”

“Right,” I replied automatically. “Things are really looking up.”

Ellin rubbed at her eyes and promptly stood, pumping a fist into the air. “I can’t waste this sudden stroke of luck just sitting here. I think I’ll crank out some extra hours in the library for midterms. At this rate, success is well within my sights. Lumine, best of luck with your midterms tomorrow!”

“Thanks, Ellin. You…” she bumbled off before I could finish. “Too.”

Now it was just me left sitting on the bench in shock. Suspicion still lingered in my mind, but the sheer force of Ellin’s optimism was doing wonders to clear that away. The biggest change that happened at this school was the Sakoku Order, and that was because of the monsters. Could it be that such a scare had Cici and Cicin reevaluating their morals and life choices? I sure hoped that was the case, and that they weren’t playing the long game of wearing down Ellin’s resolve.

My stomach made a low grumble, prompting me to continue my original path to the dining hall. While it wasn’t entirely unbelievable that the Twin Mages had turned over a new leaf, I highly doubted that Signora would have a similar change in heart. And because Cici and Cicin were under her guidance, who knew how long this development would last? Once midterms were over, I’d have to keep a close eye on them, just in case.

Chapter Text

The dining hall didn’t have as many students around as usual, even though it was prime dinner time. I suspected that anyone not currently eating was either holed up in the library or engaged in isolated study as a last effort to boost their brains for tomorrow. Even Bennett told us that he’d be studying at this time in an attempt to counter his bad luck. While I doubted luck had any say in a situation where only experience matters, Bennett was adamant that he couldn’t take any risks. 

“You’ll be fine,” Amber assured Xiangling for the third time since she got here. “Do you know if the midterm is curved?”

Xiangling groaned. “This is Professor Baizhu we’re talking about! Of course, it isn’t.”

“Okay, how about a dissection study right here and now?” Amber fished out a Snapdragon from her Jewelry Soup. “Name all the parts.”

“I know this one.” Xiangling’s eyes brightened and she pointed to different sections of the cooked plant, growing more confident with each answer.

Thoma arrived then, sitting in the spot next to mine. I never thought twice about him sitting next to me before, so why was it that my chest tightened and looking his way made a breath catch in my throat? Bennett, Xiangling, and Amber never really stuck to one seat—they just sat in the same general area when spots were open. Thoma was always by me.

Stop it, Lumine. The only reason why his presence was having such an effect on me was because Professor Minci—Lisa—had put the suggestion that he had feelings for me in my mind. If she never said anything, I’m sure I’d be feeling just as I always had around him. Safe, warm, seen, cared for—not this again. Thoma had a keen sense of other people’s emotions, so I had to be careful and not let my thoughts show onto my face.

“Hey, Lumine. Look what I’ve got,” he set down his plate of food. It was Almond Tofu. “I figured I should try some, seeing how much you’ve taken a liking to it recently. Anything you enjoy, I’m sure will taste delicious.”

“Not you, too,” Xiangling sighed. “Why would you go for Almond Tofu when there’s Golden Crab on the menu?”

“Xiangling,” Amber snapped her fingers and pointed back into the bowl. “Focus.”

She jumped. “Right! I’m back on it.”

“You got Almond Tofu because of me?” I asked, touched.

Why I was touched by Thoma simply wanting to have a taste? The mere notion that he was interested in something I was interested in was due to him being interested in me made my heart skip. It was silly. Ridiculous, even. So ridiculous, that I paused my feelings to wonder if they were genuine. Was I only reacting this way because of how he felt for me? If that’s the case, did I actually have this strong of an emotion for him in the first place, or was it a reaction to being liked?

“Mm,” he slipped a forkful of tofu into his mouth with a slight moan. 

“D-Do you like it?” I asked and promptly bit the inside of my cheek.

Archons, did I just stutter? What was that for? The captivating sound that he just made and wanting to hear more of it? Or was it because of how his eyes fell shut in heavenly bliss—a natural reaction to Almond Tofu—made me imagine how soft and peaceful he must look when asleep? Something I’d never get to see for myself unless we…in the same bed…

“Mouthwatering.”

Yes, yes, the idea was very mouthwatering.

“I might have to grab seconds. What’s wrong, Lumine? You’ve hardly seemed to touch your own food.”

“Huh?” I blinked back into reality to his curious eyes scanning my face. “Oh! My food.”

“Lumine’s been spacing out a lot,” Xiangling commented. “She’s lucky she didn’t get any Golden Crab today, otherwise I would have snuck it all onto my plate.”

“You’re easily distracted for someone worried about their Horticulture midterm,” Amber tsked and munched on the Snapdragon. “I guess you won’t be needing this anymore.”

Xiangling sighed and picked at the garnish on her plate. “Cucumbers, carrots…hm. I don’t think any of these will be useful.”

“Spacing out is no good,” Thoma nudged my shoulder. “Is something bothering you? It’d be a real shame if you’re not able to focus properly tomorrow.”

“Me? I’m fine,” I smiled brightly. “Just thinking about how you—how to, um, do well on the Physical Combat midterm.”

“Report!” Amber suddenly exclaimed, pointing directly at me.

I sighed, not needing an explanation for what she meant.

“He’s doing better,” I idly stabbed my tofu. “Physically, I’d say he’s even back to normal. No more ghostly skin or baggy eyes.”

“But?” Amber frowned. “Why do I sense a ‘but’?”

“I don’t know,” I shrugged. “Our dynamic…it’s tense. Too tense. I’m worried that our attacks won’t sync up as we planned and that Instructor Xiao will take notice.”

“He won’t let you down.” Thoma set his fork down. “I’m sure of it.”

Sure, Childe’s energy had gotten back up to normal, and he even made some quips like he used to. Despite that, he avoided looking me in the eyes if he could. It was almost as if our severed connection made it impossible for Childe to withstand my presence. And yet, he did try. Just as Thoma said, Childe was putting in the effort to make the midterm a success. I appreciated it, I really did, but there was still something missing.

I cleared my throat, appetite lost. “I think I’ll cut dinner short today. One last study session couldn’t hurt.”

“Are you going to the library?” Thoma reached to grab his things, but I held out a hand to stop him.

“No, I think I’ll go to my room. The library was packed when I last checked.”

“That makes sense,” he nodded to himself and moved to leave once more. “In that case, why don’t I walk you to—”

“It’s ok!” Panic rose at the thought of me walking with Thoma. Alone. To my room. I might spontaneously combust, and that wouldn’t be ideal. “Really. You haven’t finished the rest of your Almond Tofu. Thoma, I didn’t think you were one to waste food.”

“You’d be correct,” he blinked, clearly confused. “Alright, then. I hope you’re able to get a lot done.”

I nodded with a tight-lipped smile.

“Best of luck on your midterms,” he continued. “Though, I’m sure you won’t need it.”

Guilt ate at me for pushing him away.

“And sleep well,” Thoma smiled his sweet smile. “The weather’s getting a bit cooler, so bundle up on some blankets.”

“Will do,” I gave two thumbs up and inwardly cringed at my awkwardness. “And, uh, you as well.”

After dropping off my empty plate, I turned back to look at Thoma one last time. I was already regretting telling him to stay behind. Walking with Thoma to the dorms was something that I looked forward to, even now, but I needed to spend more time to think this out for myself. Thoma was gentle-hearted, and I didn’t want to ruin things between us by making quick assumptions about my feelings—or his.

✧✧✧

It was quite some time before I was actually able to get any studying done. Revising my Vision Studies notes simply reminded me how dedicated Thoma was in helping me study and spending extra time in the library with me on assignments. It was much better from my mental psyche to stare at deconstructed diagrams of plant systems for Horticulture. There was nothing to get flustered over with Calla Lilies or Lotus Heads.

At some point, the sun had gone down and I found myself straining my eyes to read. After debating whether or not I should just sleep early or study some more, the good student within me fought to keep going for just a bit longer. I stretched, clicked on my lamp, and noticed a small piece of paper lying on the floor next to my door. When had that gotten there?

Padding over to the mysterious scrap, I picked up the paper. It was folded neatly, so I went back to my desk to smooth out the seams.

Lumine,

Meet me by the art gallery. I have something important to share with you.

K

“Kaeya?” I whispered to myself, tracing the initial with my finger.

I’d seen his handwriting before—it scattered his research board in a multitude of detailed notes. The script on this note matched Kaeya’s, and I couldn’t think of anyone else who would not only go by “K” but also send something so cryptic. I read the brief message several times, trying to make sense of what he meant.

It was odd for him to arrange a meeting by the art gallery, especially since all of our meetings so far have generally been somewhere private. If he had the time to slip this note under my door, why didn’t he just knock and come in himself? I would have let him in—he knew that. Not to mention the time of day. I looked out the window once more, hesitant about how close curfew was. Of course, I wasn’t sure for how long the note was sitting here. Had I been making him wait this whole time?

After a moment of debating, I decided it couldn’t hurt if I was quick. I grabbed a light jacket to put on—Thoma was right about the weather getting colder—and tucked the note in my pocket before leaving my room. At this time, most everyone was in the dorm building, and I didn’t want to stick out as someone about to leave. Of course, that wasn't something I had to worry about if students were in their rooms, but someone caught my attention as I passed by the stairway.

“Xiangling?” 

She froze in her step, hunched over and carrying a mysterious bundle.

“Lumine,” she chuckled nervously. “Fancy seeing you here.”

I narrowed my eyes. “What are you carrying?”

“Oh, nothing!”

“It doesn’t look like nothing.”

“Well…what are you doing, Lumine?” she shot back. “It looks like you’re leaving the building, but that can’t be. Where could you possibly be going so close to curfew?”

“Touché,” I chuckled. “I guess we should both be on our way, then. I won’t ask any more questions if you don’t—”

A small object fell out of the sack that Xiangling hugged to her chest. It made a dull thunk on the floor before rolling towards me, stopping once it hit my foot. It was a potato. I bent down to pick it up.

“Ah!” she gasped. “Is that a potato? Where did that come from?”

“You dropped this,” I held the potato out for her.

“No, I didn’t.”

“It’s a potato, Xiangling,” I laughed. “Not incriminating evidence. Here, I’ll put it in the bag for you.”

“No, no, wait!” Xiangling shied away as I moved forward, but I caught a glimpse of what was inside the sack before she could hide it.

My jaw dropped. “Did you rob the kitchen?”

“I just—well I wouldn’t call it a robbery,” her shoulders slumped. “You know how stressed I am about midterms! What normally helps me calm down when I’m flustered or worried about something is a little cooking. I stayed behind after dinner passed and swiped a few produce items that weren't in a container, that’s all.”

“How do you plan on cooking them, though? Our rooms don’t have a stove.”

“Your room doesn’t have a stove,” she winked.

“Don't tell me…did you steal one?”

“Of course not,” she stomped her foot. “I have my own makeshift version. It’s something I did a lot when looking for ingredients in the wild. Any time I came across something interesting and couldn’t wait to cook it right at that moment—ta-da! Impromptu stove.”

“You’re really innovative when you want to be,” I whistled. “Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone what you’re up to.”

Her eyes sparkled with relief. “Really?”

“You’re my friend,” I scoffed. “And it’s just cooking.”

“Phew,” she readjusted the sack of food in her arms. “Well, thanks! I’m not sure how that potato got out just now. I hope there isn’t a hole in this bag. Hm, I should probably get up the stairs quick before a bigger tear shows up.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” I nodded.

“But before I go,” she eyed me. “Where are you going? I won’t tell, either. I’m just curious.”

I hesitated for only a moment. This was Xiangling, after all. “I’m meeting Kaeya.”

“Kaeya?” her eyebrows shot up. “What for?”

“Not sure,” I shrugged. “Honest. I found a note from him asking to meet. It’s cutting close to curfew, but I know Kaeya. Whatever it is he has to tell me, I’m sure it’s important.”

“Probably,” she shrugged, indifferent. “Make sure none of those guards catch you. I’ve seen them hassle with students even before curfew drops.”

“I’ll keep an eye out. Have fun cooking.”

“I will!” she grinned and went back to shuffling towards the stairs.

After making sure she was able to et up the first few steps alright, I continued down the hall and prayed that I didn’t cross another student. All was well until I reached the main door. As I went for the handle, it swung open before my hand even made contact. Someone had just returned to the dorms, and that someone was Childe.

“Oh!” I said in surprise, stepping out of the way. “Go ahead.”

His open expression revealed that he was just as shocked to see me standing on the other side, but he covered it up quickly with a stoic mask. If I knew anything about Childe, it was that he could be troublesome when trying to get his way. Under different circumstances, he’d probably be pestering me to figure out what I was up to even more than Xiangling had. For once, I was glad that he had resigned to no longer making conversation. Or so I thought.

“Where are you going?” he asked after a moment.

This time, it was me who avoided his gaze. “Out, why?”

“It’s almost curfew.”

I furrowed my brows at that, looking up to see suspicion on his face. “And? Why does it matter to you?”

“You normally know better,” he pressed his lips together. “I was just curious.”

“I’ll be back soon enough.”

He simply nodded at that, stepping over the threshold. “Don’t get caught by the guards.” It was the first thing he’d said to me that wasn’t strictly class-related. 

“I won’t,” I replied quickly before slipping past him and out the door. I made sure to spare a few looks back in case Childe followed me, but that didn’t seem to be the case. He was leaving me alone. 

After the CATF had been on full patrol for weeks now, I’d gathered some sense of where their routes crossed. As I took the most inconspicuous paths possible, I thought about what the important thing  Kaeya had to tell me was. He’d been busy as of late, working to carry out his student council duties, so it made sense that this was the best time he could find to talk. 

I doubted it related to the Abyss Order in any way because the location he’d chosen would be too revealing. If not about the Abyss Order, could it be that he wanted an update about the Geo energy? I hadn’t gotten the chance to look into that ability yet. With midterms swirling around, there wasn’t enough time. Besides, I didn’t think it was that either—it was also too sensitive of a topic to air out on campus.

Then what could it be?

Answers would come soon enough. I was nearing the art gallery when a flash of white caught my attention. It hovered close to the ground by the art gallery’s entrance, and I soon saw that it was a cluster of ice crystals sparkling in the moonlight.

I walked up to the glittering crystals, and they began to shift forward as I got closer. They formed a path, leading me to the other side of the building and melting away as I continued along. I found myself incredibly intrigued and fascinated by these twinkling crystals. How had Kaeya managed to create something so delicate and sensitive to movement?

On and on, the path circled around to the back and across a short distance of grass. I kept an eye out for guards, but it seemed that the ice crystals were leading me to a hidden location. At this rate, the guards would have a hard time spotting me.

Finally, the glittering path stopped once I’d made it to a grove of trees. It was still campus property, not quite the forest, so I stepped inside. The trees weren't nearly as dense as they appeared from the outside—a small clearing immediately opened up with a structure in the middle. A gazebo.

In the center of the gazebo stood the silhouette of a person.

“Kaeya?” I questioned the figure.

The person laughed. It was a low, feminine chuckle.

“Just as I expected, unsuspecting and naive,” they stepped out from under the gazebo, and my body tensed. “You made me wait far too long, brat. I was beginning to consider I may be mistaken and that you wouldn’t take the bait, but here you are. I’m never wrong.”

“What do you want, Signora?” I clenched my fists. “Why did you bring me here?”

“You were a simple annoyance at first.” She inspected her nails. “I planned on a scare or two to put you in your place, but I suppose I took too long in that regard. Who would have thought you’d grow to be such a nuisance as to interfere with my plans?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Really,” she snapped. “Now you want to play dumb? I’ll make you pay for swaying Childe so far in the wrong direction. He was complacent before, you know. Now, he’s become a threat. What did you do, seduce him?”

“Seduce him?” I gawked. “I would never—he doesn’t even speak to me anymore!”

“Save it,” Signora glowered. “You’re here now. Alone. Vulnerable.”

Slowly, she advanced, her heels digging into the grass. I took a shaky step back, but she lashed her hand out before I could get very far. An accumulation of Cryo energy shot up from the ground and fully encased my legs until I was literally frozen in place. 

I opened my mouth to call for help when a single icicle arched from the Cryo mass. Its razor-sharp end halted at my neck, pressing into my skin. I felt an ice-cold, pinprick of pain. 

Signora tilted her head to the side, watching me struggle, and laughed.

“I’ve got you now,” she sneered. “And no one is coming to save you.”

Chapter Text

The first thought that came to mind as I futilely struggled to break through the block of ice around my legs was that I probably should have told Xiangling where I was going. Signora did an excellent job of luring me to a remote location, but if at least one person had an idea of the general area I went to, there might have been a chance that they would look for me here. Alas, my secrecy worked a little too well.

“You have to congratulate my clever technique,” Signora smirked. “Who would have guessed that a simple note, signed off with a mere ‘K’, would have you run straight into my trap? Me. I would have guessed. I’m not sorry to say that Kaeya will not be meeting you—he never was. I’m sure the dutiful student council member is sleeping away, unaware of his little girlfriend’s predicament.”

“I’m not his girlfriend.”

Of course, there were more pressing matters at hand, but that was the first detail I decided to call out. The feeling in my legs was beginning to fade as the merciless cold seeped in, and I strained my neck to keep away from the deadly icicle aimed at me. Wearing a jacket to stay warm in these conditions was like throwing a pebble at a lawachurl.

Signora rolled her eyes. “So you say. I was suspicious at first—I always am. You and Alberich haven’t been making your meetings very secret, you know. At first, I thought the two of you were conspiring against me. Especially after that run-in, well, let’s just say I couldn’t afford to wait around for the two of you to hatch some devious plan. The last thing I need is for some faculty member to catch on.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. That’s exactly what Kaeya and I planned to do. Before the monster raid, restrictive Sakoku Order, and the turmoil of midterms, Kaeya had mentioned wanting to set up Signora to be exposed. Once there was clear evidence of her sinister actions against weaker students, she would finally be punished. We got distracted, and Signora got one step ahead. 

“There,” her eyes narrowed. “That look on your face proves it. Well, you can believe that I’ll never fall for such a scheme. What do you have to say for yourself? Go on, speak.”

“The Academy has been so worried about keeping monsters away from campus,” I grimaced. “They never would have expected that the ugliest monster was standing in front of me right now.”

Signora’s eyes darkened at that. I probably should have held my tongue and tried to ease the situation, but her pretentiousness was getting to me. Ice climbed higher up my body, wrapping around my waist and dropping several more degrees. She smoothed her displeased expression to look unbothered, but the increase in her power just now revealed her annoyance. 

“You’re confident,” she stated. “Far too confident for a Visionless student. I know you’re hiding something.”

“If you know so much, then why haven’t you figured it out?” I managed to say. “Assuming you're right.”

“I’m always right.” She flicked a lock of hair from her shoulder. “Tell me what it is, and I might just let you go with only a few scratches. If you continue to be so stubborn, I suppose an extra dose of convincing is in order.” The icicle pressed into my neck once more, causing pain to flare up. I felt something warm trickle down to my collarbone. “Careful now. If you test my patience too much, I might just forget myself and end this interrogation along with your life.”

“You wouldn’t kill me,” I scoffed.

She said nothing to that, simply staring at me with an amused smile. Somehow, I managed to sweat amidst the ice that surrounded me. While I was well aware Signora was powerful in terms of her influence and Vision, I hadn’t considered the strength of her desire to get what she wanted. She might actually kill me. Should I stall for help to arrive?

“We have all night,” she hummed. “Trust me, this is just as painful for me—spending this much time with the likes of you. Why don’t you be an obedient brat and spit it out already?”

My heart rate picked up as I began to realize the quickest way to make it out of this situation would be to tell Signora about my Anemo power. Kaeya and I thought we needed to worry about the Abyss Order targeting me and the Academy finding out, but it might be even worse for Signora to know. There was no doubt in my mind that she would use this information to blackmail me, threatening to tell everyone. Would she make me be one of her lackeys? No. I couldn't tell her, and for that same reason, I couldn’t use Anemo to break out of this either. The risk was too high, and a small part of me believed that murder wasn’t on her to-do list tonight.

“Don’t tell me,” she tapped her lips. “Did Childe give you a Delusion? Is that what’s going on here? You wanted a taste of real power and seduced him into pulling a Delusion from our keep.”

Not this again. “I didn’t seduce him.”

“Then, you had the nerve to order him to shut down my followers.” Her brows knitted together. “Kerry and Karen have been avoiding me. When I finally caught those two, they disgustingly broke into tears spouting nonsense about not wanting to take advantage of others anymore.”

“Cici and Cicin,” I corrected her. “You don’t even know the names of your own subordinates? No wonder they don’t want to—” The ice spread further, so I shut my mouth.

“I thought about disposing of them,” she continued. “But there’s no way those two could grow a proper backbone on their own. After a bit of convincing, of course it was Childe behind this headache. You pretend to be such a righteous, impeccable student, but you’re just as conniving as me.”

I was nothing like her, but I’d learned to stay silent. What I needed to figure out next was how to swing this in a direction where I had some pull. At this point, stalling for help would do me no good. No one knew where I was, and I needed to make it out on my own.

“A student council member and one of the most feared in the Academy,” her eye twitched. “They’re under your thumb, it seems. That’s an awful lot of power for a little first-year.”

Power. Power was something Signora obviously cared about more than anything else, and I had what she wanted. Was she jealous of me? No. I know what I could do with this.

“You’re right,” I said with a fake grin. “And if I’m being honest, it’s gotten quite boring.”

“Boring?”

“What’s the point of having so much influence over them when there’s no one to scheme with? Just like Cici and Cicin, Kaeya and Childe are pawns to me. It was all too easy to,” I forced myself to maintain character. “seduce them. But now what? I find myself at a loss for how to make use of all this power. I got Childe to whittle down the Twin Mages because it bothered me to see someone else with such loyal followers, but now I’m bored.”

A flash of curiosity crossed Signora’s face as she eyed me. The threatening icicle melted away. Good. Now, all I had to do was continue this act and convince her that teaming up together would be her idea. Just the thought of partnering with Signora made me sick, but if things went my way, I’d only have to put up this front for a little longer.

“I wouldn’t describe being in a position of power as boring.” She crossed her arms. “Perhaps it’s because I have a clearer vision of what I want to build for myself in the future. I do admit that it gets rather cumbersome, being surrounded by clueless dolts. After learning of your motives, there may be an opportunity.”

I plastered on a hopeful expression. “An opportunity?”

“Yes,” Signora chuckled darkly. “I’m willing to consider a partnership—no—an apprenticeship. I will guide you, help you tighten your hold on these men, and many more. In return, you will work with me to establish full control over the student body. With a council member under us, this would be quite simple.”

“That’s,” I licked my lips, trying to think of a convincing reaction. “An attractive offer. Quite brilliant, really.”

She preened. “Of course.”

“I guess I can look past this.” I gestured to the remaining ice that trapped me. “And we can overcome our differences to work together. I accept your offer. I’ll be your apprentice.”

“Will you, now?”

I nodded. “Now that we’re on the same page, it’s unnecessary to hold me captive.”

Signora walked up to me and waved a hand in the air. Her catalyst materialized as the block of ice cracked apart and shattered. Finally free, I didn’t expect my legs to collapse, dropping me to the ground. After being frozen for so long, they had become numb, and the first tingles of sensation were beginning to reach my toes.

“This is a nice view,” Signora said. “On the ground. In the dirt where you belong.”

“Signora?” I looked up at her, tense. “We had a deal.”

“Did we?” her catalyst whirred in the air. “I never said I would take you in. I merely suggested it. You were the one who jumped at the offer.”

“I thought you wanted this,” I sputtered.

“No,” she growled. “You tried to trick me. As I said before, I’ll never fall for such a scheme.”

Just when I was able to properly move my legs again, Signora looked down at me as she conjured a circle of Cryo daggers aimed at my head. My face paled as I realized there was no rationalizing with her. She couldn’t be convinced. I had failed.

With a snap of her fingers, they shot forward. 

I felt a pulse of something from deep within me, but before I could examine it, a flash of blue blocked out everything around me.

“Get away from her,” a low voice spoke.

Drops of water splashed onto the ground that was now littered with broken fragments of Signora’s Cryo daggers. I looked up in surprise to see Childe standing over me, gripping two Hydro blades. He looked over his shoulder to where I shakily stood.

“Are you hurt?”

Dazedly, I shook my head. His eyes scanned my body, beginning with my quivering legs and trailing upwards. He halted before reaching my eyes, and I instinctively reached for the wound on my neck where the icicle had cut me. Childe’s expression tightened, and he spun back around to face Signora.

“Look who it is,” she sniffed with derision. “You’re interrupting a private meeting, Childe.”

“You have thirty seconds, Signora,” he spoke with barely-contained rage. “Thirty seconds to convince me why I shouldn't remove your head from your shoulders right now.”

She laughed. “My, my, are you seriously that upset? How many times have I told you to stop letting that one affect you? You’re better than this.”

“Better than what? Picking on students who don’t bend over backward to appease you? Better than coercing the Visionless to drop out before they’re even given a chance to grow?”

“I do this to better my reputation.” Signora’s face grew stony. “To better your reputation. Celestia Academy will lose its status if we continue to let these doormats become alumni.”

“Twenty seconds.”

“Does it not bother you?” she spat. “How these people think they can just go around and have fun in a place meant for rigor? They are not built for this. I cut them down to make room for actual warriors. I weed out the frail and am not ashamed of it. I don’t care if you stand in my way. I will make sure that she,” Signora lashed a finger out at me. “Doesn’t make it to see the end of her first semester.”

Childe took a single step toward her. “Ten seconds.”

“You don’t scare me,” she scoffed. “There’s nothing you could do or say to stop me. You’re too soft, Childe. I have no doubt that you’re more afraid of your precious printsessa seeing you like this. Do you really think she’d want to be with someone like you? I’m sure she’d rather die.”

“Five seconds.”

She cast one final look at me. “And I’d be happy to do the honors.”

Childe twirled his Hydro weapons in the air, fusing them together to make one long polearm. Advancing on Signora, he swung at her neck and I watched in horror as she made no move to step back. Signora’s smug grin remained as the tip of his weapon graced the air just a hair’s length away from her skin. 

“No remorse till the very end.” He stabbed the Hydro weapon into the ground, and it puddled into the grass.

“This is just the beginning.”

“Is it?” Childe tilted his head to the side before facing the trees. “What do you guys think?”

Confused, I turned to look into the trees that Childe spoke to. They were just as still and empty as when I got here, but then I caught movement in the branches. After a moment, Kaeya emerged. 

“I’d say we’ve seen enough,” Kaeya’s usual smirk was missing. “Those weren’t very nice things for you to say, Signora.”

She chuckled. “What’s this? Your presence means nothing to me. You may be on the student council, but you’re still just a student. The Academy won’t believe anything you say unless they see it for themselves.”

The tree branches shuffled once more, and a guard stepped out. And another. More guards emerged from the trees all around us, advancing forward until Signora was completely surrounded. Her eyes flicked from left to right, but she stood still.

“This evidence is satisfactory,” someone spoke.

It was a voice I’d never heard before. Elegant and firm, a tall woman stepped out from the trees. She wore a long, thick braid that contained deep violet hair. The woman commanded respect, and all of the guards faced her with their full attention. While she dressed similarly to the task force, her uniform was fitted with badges.

“Who are you?” Signora demanded with less confidence.

“I am the commander-in-chief of the Celestia Academy Task Force,” the woman stated. “You may address me as the Raiden Shogun. I am well aware of who you are. Rosalyne-Kruzchka Lohefalter, you’ve admitted to actions and intentions that go against what Celestia Academy stands for.”

“I would never,” Signora gasped. “You don’t know that I—”

“As a key witness to your violations,” the Raiden Shogun interrupted. “I can affirm that you will not go unpunished.”

“What do you—”

“This is grounds for expulsion.”

Chapter Text

I watched in stunned silence as two guards moved to grab both of Signora’s arms. She gasped with rage and tried to fight them off, but it was no use. The Raiden Shogun reached for Signora’s Cryo Vision and removed it from her without a flicker of emotion.

“A temporary measure,” she said before turning to me. 

Her eyes seemed as if they held an endless amount of intelligence, and their purple irises were as vibrant as Electro. Though she had no Electro Vision explicitly on display, I didn’t doubt that was her power. The tension in the air practically crackled with it.

“Lumine, I commend you for your diligence in maintaining a safe space on this campus. I must assert that, in the future, you conduct such matters within the boundaries of the Sakoku Order.”

My mouth dried up, so I simply nodded. That seemed to be enough for her as the next person she addressed was Kaeya.

“Mr. Alberich, you will need to come with me, considering the circumstances. A report must be filed, and we haven’t a moment to lose.”

“More paperwork,” Kaeya assumed his usual nonchalance. “If you insist. Lumine, good work today. It took longer than intended for us to arrive, and I hope Signora didn’t go too far. You’re uninjured?”

My brain fizzled out as I tried to understand what Kaeya was talking about. He made it seem as though I was in on this plan to catch Signora red-handed. Knowing him, he probably made up a quick story to cover for me breaking curfew and sneaking around. I had questions—like how they knew where to find us and why Childe was in on it—but asking them now would only reveal that I was not, in fact, an accomplice in the plan. For now, in the presence of the CATF, I could play along.

“I’m fine,” I swallowed. “Just a bit of a scratch.”

His gaze lingered on me, and I wasn’t sure if I convinced him. “Don’t hesitate to stop by the infirmary if you need to.”

“Kaeya Alberich,” the Raiden Shogun turned away to walk down the path I used to get here. “Any day now.”

“Alright, alright,” he followed her. “Let’s make this quick, shall we? I’ve got midterms tomorrow.”

The Raiden Shogun made no comment to that. Instead, she gave one final order to the guards. “Deliver the guilty party to our holding center. She is to remain there until judgment has passed. As for the remaining two students, escort them to the dormitory. Their efforts are appreciated, but it is time to reinforce curfew.”

“You can’t do this to me!” Signora shouted as the guards dragged her away. “I am a Snezhnayn exchange student. Unhand me or you will be hearing from my sponsor.”

Her angry complaints faded away as the guards made quick work of clearing her from the premises. Two guards stepped up to where Childe and I remained standing, and one of them cleared her throat.

“Come with us, please.”

We didn’t have much of a choice, and I was eager to get back anyways. The adrenaline of facing Signora coupled with the shock of the events that followed was beginning to wear away. Exhaustion pulled at my body, but there was also a bundle of anxiety that remained. Childe walked beside me as the guards led us to the dorms, and I itched with the sense that he was staring at me. He probably had his own questions and was also waiting for the guards to disappear before saying anything.

The walk back was painfully slow and quiet, but then they finally dropped us off by the front doors.

“We will wait out here,” one guard commented. “This is our post for the night.”

They were probably ordered to keep watch to make sure no other students were sneaking out. I thanked them for the escort and passed through the entrance. Childe followed quickly behind, and the door shut with a weight of finality to it—as if signaling the end of one dilemma and the beginning of another. I might as well be the one to start.

“Thanks for jumping in back there.” I looked at him. “If you hadn’t shown up when you did, then I might have been, well, you know.”

“She didn’t hurt you anywhere else, did she?” Childe scanned me once more, and it was the first time he’d been so direct with me in weeks. His previously hesitant demeanor all but disappeared with his concern.

“No,” I shook my head. “Just a prick.”

“You aren’t frostbitten anywhere?” his brow creased.

“It was cold,” I admitted. “But not that cold. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

Childe pressed his lips together as if holding back on saying more. Our dynamic has been tense, but I could understand some of his worries. Still, I didn’t expect much else besides this—polite concern. 

“What were you thinking?” he surprised me with his reprimanding tone. “Meeting Signora alone in such a secluded place? You’re smarter than that.”

“I didn’t know I would be meeting her,” I replied defensively. “I got an anonymous letter. Well, it wasn’t entirely anonymous. I thought it might have been from Kaeya.”

“So you just went out there to meet him without knowing any details?”

“I had my reasons,” I mumbled before coming to my senses and questioning why Childe acted so familiar—why it seemed like he suddenly cared. “How did you manage to find me, anyway? You didn’t follow me after I left the dorm, and none of the guards saw me pass through campus, either.”

Childe’s tired eyes clung to mine, and he sighed. “When I asked where you were going, you just said ‘out’ with no detail. Obviously, you’re your own person and I don’t have any right to pry, so I didn’t. For the past few weeks, I’ve been—I’m trying to let go, Lumine. But then, I saw Xiangling.”

“Xiangling?” I didn’t expect her name to come up.

A quiet chuckle escaped him. “Yeah, Xiangling. After you left, I went to go up the stairs, and I saw her. A whole kitchen’s worth of produce was tumbling down the steps, and she was a panicked mess. Of course, I offered to help pick them all up.”

I suppressed a smile.

“She wouldn’t stop thanking me,” he recalled. “Xiangling was going on and on about a…marvelous multi-colored super pancake? Something to help with midterms, I think. Anyways, I couldn’t help but ask about you.” He cleared his throat. “I just wanted to know if she had any idea of where you might be going. Xiangling stalled at first, but I guess she was so grateful about the food thing that she told me you were seeing Kaeya.” He said Kaeya’s name with a hint of disdain, but it was less than usual. “Lumine, I said I was trying, but I…I don’t know. I guess I wanted to check for myself. To see if you really—ah—anyways, I thought he might still be in his room about to leave. I wanted to confront him.”

I made a point to listen quietly and not jump in about Childe getting into my business. This was the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to hear him talk—really talk. It was odd, his uncertainty. The Childe I used to know was confident and ran his mouth as he pleased, but now it seemed like he was faltering. Then again, the Childe I used to know thought only of himself, but that also changed. Signora’s comments from earlier nagged at me, but I waited for Childe to finish before I mentioned it.

“Kaeya was in his room and didn’t at all look like he was about to leave,” he continued. “When I brought up your meeting with him and he claimed to have no knowledge of it, I believed him. Normally, I wouldn’t have, but Kaeya was too tense—too alert. He wanted me to explain, but I only knew what Xiangling told me. We both realized then that you were set up by Signora.” Childe paused to unclench his fists. “After that, I wanted to look for you immediately. I was already heading out the door, but Kaeya said to wait. I swear I would have knocked him out for trying to stop me. He insisted that there was an opportunity.” He barked out a laugh. “I couldn’t believe it. Your life was in danger, yet he saw an opportunity . Listening to others isn’t my forte, you know that, but I thought to give it a shot. As much of a thorn that guy can be, I knew he also cared. He wanted to see you safe as much as I did. I don’t know all the details or how he was able to pull the strings that he did, but the task force got involved—Kaeya convinced them of a plan.”

I pieced it together. “Kaeya must have told them that I lured Signora out on purpose. I supposedly played the part of a vulnerable student so that she would let her guard down. Assuming that she would air out all her wrongdoings unknowingly within earshot of a faculty member, we would have our proof. Yes, this was something that Kaeya and I briefly talked about. We never actually got around to planning it, though.”

Childe let out a deep sigh. “Even a hypothetical plan like that would have been risky with Signora. Knowing her, she would have caught on and not even showed.”

“Still,” I frowned. “How did you manage to find me? The note I got said to meet by the art gallery, which would have been easy enough to spot if it weren't for the hidden gazebo she led me to.”

“I knew we had to be quick,” he whispered. “Signora bores quickly, and we didn’t have time to spare searching every corner of campus. You saw for yourself. If I was just one moment too late, you would have been,” his voice crumbled. “She really would have killed you.”

Signora was confirmed to be crazy. “So, how did you know where to look?”

I waited for him to explain, and at first, it didn’t seem like he was going to say anything at all. Childe cast a pained look to the floor before clearing his throat and looking directly at me for the second time tonight. 

“Do you remember what you said to me on the day of the monster attack?”

I nodded. How could I forget?

“Never,” he shook his head. “Never have I ever had someone confront me like that. Never have I ever had someone stand up to—stand against what I’ve been so passionately set on my whole life. And you know what? If it were anyone else, I probably wouldn’t have cared. Because it was you,” Childe swallowed. “Before you, I had nothing to lose. There was only power to gain—that was the meaning of my life. I was selfish, yes, but I was also afraid.”

“You don’t strike me as the type who would be afraid of anything.”

“I know,” he let out a humorless laugh. “And that’s what I’ve been trying to convince everyone, to convince myself.”

“Then,” I peered up at him. “What are you afraid of?”

“When a was a kid,” he shuddered. “I went exploring in the woods outside of my hometown a lot. My mother always warned me not to stray too far. Now that I think about it, I was a lot like that Timmie kid we saved a while back. Except, Timmie was lucky he only ran into a hilichurl camp.”

“What could be worse than that?” I wondered. “For a kid that age, I can’t imagine anything more terrifying.” A surprise Hydro slime was enough to scare me witless back then.

“I fell into the Abyss.”

A soft gasp escaped my lips.

Childe grimaced. “I fell in, and for what felt like forever, there was no way out. What I saw down there—it was a nightmare, Lumine. The monsters in that pit were nothing like the hilichurls we saw here. I’ve since blocked that part of my life out, so my memories of it are hazy. When I finally came to the surface by chance, my family claimed I was only missing for a day. That felt impossible, but my guess is that time passes differently down there.”

As he retold the story of his childhood trauma, I couldn’t help but reach out a comforting hand over his. “You made it out, though. It’s over now.”

“That’s the thing,” he sighed. “It never really ended. What felt like a nightmare then became actual nightmares for me. For weeks, I couldn’t sleep as the Abyss monsters haunted my dreams. My parents were worried sick up until I found the strength to regain control of my mind. I was tired of feeling weak. One day, I decided that in order to overcome the nightmares, in order to no longer be afraid, I had to become stronger than what I feared.”

“Oh,” I whispered. “Did it work?”

He shrugged. “Sometimes. Most times. The nightmares aren’t as frequent as they used to be, and I’ve since learned how to cope with them. I’ve been able to find the most peace when I achieve tangible power. After receiving my Hydro Vision, the nightmares were reduced by half, and they go away even more with a Delusion. All that mattered to me was eradicating them completely. That is, until you.”

“Well, you didn’t have to be so condescending towards everyone else,” I reminded him softly. “I never would have guessed that this was what motivated you. I thought you were just a jerk.”

“I was,” Childe chuckled. “I really was, and you helped me see that. You also helped me with something else.”

“Which was?”

“The nightmares were never completely gone,” he hesitated. “At least, not until I met you. Since the beginning of the school year, I’ve barely experienced any. At first, I thought it was because I progressed so well, but I’m beginning to think it’s because of you.”

“What do you mean?” I furrowed my brows. “I didn’t know about your nightmares until just now. How could I have been the one to stop them from happening?”

“That, I’m not sure,” Childe rubbed the back of his neck. “All I know is that when you pushed me away—I deserved that—they came back. Once I stopped spending time with you, the nightmares started to show up more frequently, and they were worse. Just like when I was a kid, I couldn’t get a wink of sleep. My life felt like a living hell, and the worst part wasn’t even the nightmares. It was being apart from you.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. For starters, I was still trying to understand the whole me-influencing-nightmares deal. Of course, it’s possible for anyone and anything to affect how a dream plays out, but I’d never heard of such nightmare suppression before. The only thing that came close was Almond Tofu. Was I the Almond Tofu in Childe’s life? What Almond Tofu and I had in common, I had no idea. Perhaps Xiao would know something about it.

Then, there was the last thing Childe said.

“I said I wanted nothing to do with you,” I recalled. “But if I had known—”

“No,” he interrupted. “There’s no excuse for my actions. It’s just as you said, I was no better than Signora. Since then, I’ve tried to fix it.”

“You made Cici and Cicin stop tormenting students, and you tried getting Signora to stop being the worst person in all of Teyvat.”

He nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell me then?”

“I should have done this long ago. Standing up to Signora isn’t something that I should be praised for. Honestly, correcting the behaviors of Cici and Cicin was doing the bare minimum. I don’t expect forgiveness, Lumine.”

This was the most sincere I’d ever seen Childe. Everything made sense now. His incessant desire to outdo everyone wasn’t born from egocentric roots. When Childe looked like a dead ghost for the first week after our disagreement, it was because the nightmares were getting to him. He did improve after going back to being my partner, which supports his theory of me as a nightmare banisher. I certainly didn’t expect Childe to oppose Signora after ignoring her for so long. He’d been going through all of this, trying to do the best he could, and I’d passed him off as broody.

“I know you probably can’t stand being in my presence. I’m just glad this whole thing with Signora is finally over, and you have one less power-drunk idiot to worry about.” He adjusted his stance. “It’s a big day tomorrow. You should probably get some rest.”

“Wait,” I called out before he could leave. “This is a lot to take in. I don’t want you to mistake my silence for dismissing everything you just said, and you never answered my question.”

“Huh?” he blinked.

“I asked how you knew where to look,” I reminded him. “There are tons of places to search on campus.”

“Oh, right,” his eyes widened. “Being able to spend time with you before—before we fell apart was like a breath of fresh air. You make me feel light—like how I used to be before I fell into the Abyss.”

I tilted my head in confusion. “Like a kid?”

“Not really,” he mused. “Let’s just say you‘ve reminded me what kind of person I could be. Someone admirable and looked up to by others. Someone who enjoys the little things. With you, I’m able to smile freely and live without being so afraid.” Childe broke eye contact. “As for how I was able to find you based on that—I had a gut feeling.”

“A gut feeling?”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “I sensed you would be in that area. We had no leads, and I trusted the feeling I had when thinking about you.”

“That’s quite the gamble,” I sighed. “Though, your gut ended up being right. Thanks, again.”

“You don’t have to thank me.”

“I want to,” I insisted. “You deserve it, Childe.”

His expression stuttered from remorse to hope. “Do you really mean that?”

“Am I actually grateful that you were able to stop Signora before she offed me?” I snorted. “Of course, I am.”

“Not that,” he shook his head. “You called me Childe.”

Huh, I guess I did. After everything that’s been uncovered just now, I found it hard to maintain the same composure around him as I had for the past two weeks. Childe showed me that there was so much more to him, and I wish he’d opened up sooner. If I had known about the nightmares, we could have been eating Almond Tofu together this whole time. If I had known how much Childe struggled and what it meant for him to be able to spend time with me—to be normal—then maybe we would have seen eye-to-eye.

I knew now, though. 

“Well, yeah. That’s your name.”

“Actually,” he broke into a grin. “It isn’t.”

I simply stared at him with equal parts of confusion and expectation.

He laughed. “I did tell you I was a man of many names.”

“So I seem to recall.” I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Who are you, really?”

“If you're asking about my birth name,” he hummed. “To my family, I’m Ajax.”

“Ajax,” I repeated. It certainly had a different feel than ‘Childe,’ but both names suited him in their own way.

“That’s me,” his face brightened. “Though, if I’m being honest, I haven’t been Ajax since I fell into the Abyss. The boy I was before—he was pure and fearless.”

“Everyone changes,” I nudged him. “Nobody is the same kid they used to be, not entirely, but I think a little bit remains. Ajax is still in there, I know it.”

“Thank you, Lumine.”

I quirked my brow. “What are you thanking me for?”

“For believing in me.”

It was now that I realized I never stopped. The reason why it hurt so much to leave him when I did was because, even then, I still believed in him. I’d watched Childe become aware, seen him try to fit in. Though I didn’t know of his internal pains at the time, I had a feeling that Childe was overcoming something greater than what he let on. And now, he’s proven that he could be just as honorable as I’d hoped.

My heart swelled with emotion. It was good to have him back.

Chapter Text

No.

No. No. No.

This couldn’t be happening.

For the second, and then for the third time, I read over the dining hall menu. Everything looked how it normally did. There were the typical fruits and drinks. A specialty of the day was showcased in bold letters. However, under the list of regular dishes offered, just one was missing. 

“Excuse me,” the woman from behind the counter spoke up. “Can you please make your choice? There is a line forming behind you.”

I turned around to find that there was, in fact, a line. I would have to make a decision soon. Never before had breakfast left me feeling so lost. So hopeless. What was I to do in such a situation? Maybe this was all a misunderstanding. A simple mistake.

“May I have some Almond Tofu?” My voice quivered slightly, and to my horror, she began to slowly turn her head from side to side.

“Sorry, we’ve encountered some difficulties with acquiring enough almonds to make our usual batches. With the Sakoku Order, almond imports from Liyue haven’t been able to make it to the island.”

The Sakoku Order. I clenched my fists and silently cursed the Raiden Shogun. What was so dangerous about almonds? How could she let this happen? On the day of midterms, too.

I took a measured breath. “Mondstadt Hashbrowns, please.”

“Coming right up.” She smiled sweetly and loaded a tray full of hashbrowns before passing it over to me.

I politely accepted the serving and stared down at the pieces with emptiness in my soul. I loved Mondstadt Handsbrowns. Their crispy, salty exterior coupled with a side of ketchup made for a perfect savory breakfast. But it wouldn’t hold off my Abyss dreams the way Almond Tofu did. With a sigh, I carried the tray back to the table and sat down.

“What’d you get today, girlie?” Childe looked over from my left.

Despite my distress, a smile grew on my lips. Childe was back to sitting with us as if he’d never left. 

“Are those,” Xiangling leaned in with a gasp. “Mondstadt Hashbrowns? I can’t believe it! Have you finally been freed from the Almond Tofu curse?”

“There’s an almond shortage.” I hung my head. “This is what I’m left with.”

Childe laughed. “Hang on, what did I miss? I thought you loved Mondstadt Hashbrowns. Didn’t you say they reminded you of the ones Madame Ping made you back at home?”

My lips parted in small surprise. I may have mentioned such in passing before, but I didn’t think Childe would remember a detail like that.

“Lumine’s been eating Almond Tofu for weeks,” Amber said in between bites.

Xiangling nodded. “Like her life depended on it.”

“What’s so good about Almond Tofu?” Childe asked and snapped his fingers. “Does it have special properties like boosting your attack after eating? I know I feel a bit of a power-up after having an Adventurer’s Breakfast Sandwich.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. “Well, I don’t know. I’ve never experimented with food and fighting before. I’d just grown to like Almond Tofu a lot, that’s all.”

Thoma took a sip of juice and set his glass down. “That’s really too bad, Lumine. This is because of the Sakoku Order, isn't it? Maybe they can find a way to outsource some almonds from one of the other nations.”

“Maybe,” I munched on a hashbrown. “It’s fine, really. I can’t afford to be worried about a dish right now. Midterm mindset only. Xiangling, how are you feeling?”

She pumped a fist into the air. “Ready! Professor Baizhu is gonna wish he’d created a harder exam after I pass with flying colors.”

“I don’t think there’s a professor here who doesn’t want their students to succeed,” Amber laughed. “Looks like you got a lot of studying done last night, then.”

“Studying?” Xiangling blinked. “Oh, yes. I studied a lot of, um, plants.”

“Edible plants?” I smirked knowingly.

She giggled. “Of a sort. I was up so late last night studying , I’m surprised I was able to wake up in time for breakfast.”

“Speaking of waking up in time,” Thoma hummed. “We’re missing Bennett.”

Amber covered her mouth. “You don’t think that he’s still…” The table fell quiet as we all exchanged glances. This was Bennett we’re talking about. If anyone was going to oversleep their midterms, it would be him. Amber sighed with a smile and got up from her seat. “I’ll go get him, see you guys later!”

She left without finishing her breakfast, and I made a mental note to swipe some toast for her in case she didn’t make it back before classes started. She’d have plenty of time to enjoy it in Beginner’s Gliding since the only thing we had to do was turn in our papers.

“Midterms this, midterms that,” Childe leaned back. “Trust me, you guys have nothing to worry about. Take it from someone who’s been through multiple rounds of exams at this school.”

“Are they not hard?” I frowned.

“Oh, they’re only challenging if you let yourself be challenged.”

“How can you learn anything if you’re not challenging yourself?” Thoma asked. “I think it’s nice to have a chance to test your strength and knowledge every now and then. Otherwise, how would anyone know if they’re actually making any progress?”

“Listen,” Childe shook his head. “All you have to do is find a pen with a fine enough point to get all your notes written on your palm.”

“Childe,” I chastised. 

“Or your arm,” he shrugged. “I won’t judge.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s cheating.”

“Only if you get caught.”

“I—no. That’s cheating regardless if you get caught.”

“Then don’t get caught.”

“You don’t get caught,” I sighed. “I actually studied, so I won’t need to use underhanded methods.”

Childe held a hand to his chest. “You make it sound as though I’m the lowest lifeform in Teyvat. Ah, who would have thought my resourcefulness would have yielded such scorn?”

I smiled as his antics went on for the rest of the meal. It was only when students were beginning to return their trays and nervous chatters flitted about that Bennett burst through the dining hall doors. His goggles were slipping off the top of his head, and his academy uniform wasn’t fully put together. Amber came in after him looking more exasperated than amused, and the two of them walked over to where the rest of us were finishing up.

“Childe!” Bennett stepped back in shock before recovering with a wide grin. “You’re sitting with us again?”

“I was away for too long,” Childe shrugged. “Sitting with you guys helps to keep my food warm for longer. The beauty of a Pyro Vision.”

Bennett’s jaw dropped. “Pyro Visions can do that?”

“He’s joking,” I shook my head with a smirk. “Childe just came back to his senses. I see Amber woke you up just in time.”

“I don’t even remember falling asleep!” he sagged. “One moment I was studying with the moon out, and suddenly I open my eyes after hearing Amber knocking on my door. This is just my luck.”

“Here,” Xiangling tossed him an apple. “Eat this.”

Bennett managed to catch the apple after fumbling with the air while Amber swooped in to finish the rest of her food. 

“Err woo addy oo go?” She spoke through her stuffed cheeks.

“Yeah, I’m ready to go.”

She swallowed her food. “I knew you could understand me.”

“I’ve since learned how to speak mouthful Amber,” I grinned. “Figuring out your speech has basically been a sixth class for me.”

“Ha ha,” she grabbed my empty tray and piled it on top of hers. “C’mon, let’s get going. I think Venti might let us glide around the clearing once everyone turns their work in. It’s been a while since I could stretch into the sky with the birds.”

I followed Amber. “Good luck with your midterms, everyone.”

“See you in Physical Combat,” Childe winked. “We’re going to take Xiao down before he realizes what’s going on.”

“The goal isn’t to take him down.” I reminded him. “We’d be lucky to get close enough to land a single hit.”

He cracked his knuckles, not listening to me at all. “We’ll see about that.”

✧✧✧

Instructor Xiao waited for everyone to change into their activewear before giving any extra details about the midterm. At the center of the fighting ring, there was an interesting mechanism that I'd never seen before. A stone mount provided a foundation for a red symbol that glowed, hovering in the air. Students kept their distance from the mechanism, and there was no doubt it had something to do with our midterm.

Childe caught my eye with a friendly wave as he came out from the fitness center, and I returned it with a relieved smile. A day ago, I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to cooperate as a team, but now I was certain we could prove to Xiao our full capabilities. 

Thoma also emerged from the fitness center, and I waved to him. His eyes brightened as he offered a smile, but then he nearly got tackled by a panicked Xinyan. She was waving her arms in the air and shouting something I couldn’t quite catch. Occasionally, she jabbed a few pointed fingers in Xiao’s direction, and I guessed she was pretty nervous. Most of the other students looked just as worried, though they were able to contain their anxiety. I could agree that going up against a single monster would be much less stressful than facing Instructor Xiao directly. We knew he wouldn’t be on the offensive side, but he was still quite daunting. Childe didn’t seem to share this sentiment at all.

“It’s you and me, Lumi,” he reached me and placed his hands on his hips. “Against the world.”

“Against our instructor. Stop being so dramatic.”

“I finally have my chance to fight the Academy’s finest.” Childe quivered with excitement. “Do you think they’ll demote him once I hook him in the jaw?”

There was no use in talking any sense into him at the moment. Reckless fighting seemed to have wedged itself into Childe’s personality completely. For better or for worse, he was always raring for a fight. I just hoped he’d remember to stick with our planned strategy and not lose himself in the moment.

“Everyone is here,” Instructor Xiao stated and moved inside the fighting ring. “Good. As you all know, I allowed each pair to have a personal meeting with me. Some of you wished to go over technique. Others polished off their raw abilities. Each of you has put in the work to succeed today, and it is time for me to judge your efforts. You will participate in a time trial challenge. This mechanism will activate with the start of each match, and a timer will count down from sixty seconds.”

“We only get a minute?” someone gasped.

“One minute is all I need to assess you.” Xiao cut a look into the crowd. “The provided area in the fighting ring will not be enough, so we will be using the cumulative sparring space. Each pair will have one minute to go over any final preparations before beginning the challenge. As for who goes first, we will proceed in the same order of the pairs I met with.”

I gulped. That meant we were first.

“You are allowed to attack with your weapons. Don’t hesitate to use them to your full ability. I can assure you that you will not draw blood from me,” he scoffed. “That would be impossible. Anyone not currently participating will remain in the fighting ring. One last thing, I require a volunteer to activate the time trial mechanism while I am out in the field.”

He waited.

Thoma raised his hand.

“Good,” Xiao nodded. “Pairing number one, your time begins now.”

Students around us erupted into chatter as I situated myself. Childe and I picked out our weapons and walked out into the area made up of multiple sparring circles. There was a lot of ground here to work with, which was both a hindrance and a benefit. Childe would be able to shoot at Xiao from a distance, but I would have to do the work of chasing him down. Though Xiao would also be running around, I’m sure his stamina was far greater than mine. My moves would have to be calculated.

“Ready?” Childe hooked an arrow onto the bowstring.

I nodded. “Remember what we planned?”

“Keep him to one side.”

“And don’t accidentally hit me.”

His giddy expression sobered. “I would never.”

“Just making sure,” I patted his shoulder. “Hang in the outfield.”

“You take the infield.”

We nodded to each other at the same time, and Childe held out a fist. I smiled at the gesture and knocked mine into his before jogging further into the sparring area. Xiao was already waiting there with his arms crossed, and his keen eyes flicked to where I stopped and where Childe was positioned. He gave no reaction to our formation, and I fought the urge to look back at my partner. We could do this.

Once everything was settled, Xiao turned his head to look at the spectating students. “Start the mechanism.”

I couldn’t see Thoma activate it, but I saw the floating red symbol lift to a higher level. It shifted to a light blue, and a timer appeared above it, reading one minute. The numbers ticked down to fifty-nine seconds. Time to go.

I launched myself toward Instructor Xiao, but he effortlessly darted to the left. Just as we planned, a sharp arrow whistled in the air to where Xiao had evaded me, forcing him to change paths. Xiao was light on his feet as he came to a stop a few yards away, but he couldn’t hold still for long. Childe’s arrows expertly found their way to where Xiao’s stood with each evasion, forcing him to cut across the area to where I waited with my sword. After a week of strategizing, Childe and I decided the best course of action with our skill sets would be to herd Xiao like a sheep. Once forced to be within close range of me, it was my job to land the hit.

To my surprise, it was actually working. A trail of arrows stuck out from the ground, leading to where Xiao was now bounding away from each of my advances. I’d yet to swing my sword at him—making that sort of move required energy I couldn’t afford to waste. I needed to get closer.

Concentrating on forcing my legs to propel me faster, I dashed from side to side I following Xiao’s movements. He ambled away gracefully each time, but I was beginning to catch a pattern. Xiao fell away to the left, and then to the right. Left. Right. Zig-zag. I kept up with each of his dodges until I was sure of what I saw.

I spared a quick glance at the timer. Twenty seconds.

Drawing in full focus, I put my all into bursting ahead to the right just as Xiao bolted to the left. My anticipations were correct as I watched Xiao automatically break for another right—directly to where I was readying my sword. His face rushed up to mine, his velocity making it impossible to stop or change direction without falling over. Without a second thought, I continued to charge forward and sprung at him with my sword. One quick swipe was all it would take. The blade sailed for Xiao’s neck, and I let the momentum aid me in delivering my first and final blow.

It cut through the air.

I skidded to a stop and stared in shock at the space where Xiao disappeared. He hadn’t gone any further to the right or backed off. The only other possible direction was up, but Xiao wasn’t using his Vision. There was no way anyone could jump high enough to evade such an attack. Despite my rationale, I dared to look up.

Xiao had reached the peak of his jump, blocking out the sun.

I made out the faintest smirk and teasing look in his eyes before he began to descend. Now was my chance. Avoiding a hit while falling wouldn’t be doable, not even for him. As I positioned my sword for a second time, I realized why Xiao had given such a look as the timer went off before he was within reach. My shoulders sagged, and he landed softly next to me.

“Time’s up,” he barked loud enough for everyone to hear. Then, Xiao lowered his voice to say, “That was impressive footwork, Lumine.”

Still caught up in his airborne feat, I looked at Xiao with awe. “How did you jump so high?”

“Training,” he said with no elaboration. “Go. You have the rest of the hour to watch your classmates’ performance. I doubt any of them will get as close as you did just now, but we shall see.”

Xiao remained in the sparring area, waiting for the next pair to step forward. I followed his order and met back up with Childe, who had already reached the fighting ring’s outskirts. He still had his bow with him, and the dark look he trained on Xiao gave me some concern. Was he going to aim? Childe’s face cleared up once I approached, and I shook away the thought.

“Sorry, I missed him,” I returned my weapon to the rack. “To be fair, I don’t think anyone saw that jump coming.”

Childe hung up his bow. “Don’t worry about it. He said our grade doesn’t entirely hinge on whether on not we land a hit. It’s all about our cooperation, and I’d say we coordinated our attacks pretty well.”

“That’s right,” I stared at him with creeping suspicion. “What a very reasonable response. Who are you and what have you done with Childe?”

“Well, it’d be a lie if I said I didn’t think about shooting him while he was up in the air. The trajectory would have landed a guaranteed hit. Ah, but I decided to hold back, lest I actually get in trouble for dealing a lethal blow.”

I poked at his side. “Seriously, who are you?”

“Careful now,” he grabbed my hand, pulling me close. “If you touch me like that, I might start getting ideas.”

I drew back. “Ideas?”

He simply smirked and let go of my hand. “C’mon, girlie. Let’s find a good spot to watch the rest of our class fumble around. Who knows, maybe Xiao will tire out and lose his edge halfway through. I’m sure we wore him down enough to give the others a fighting chance.”

We found a spot in the grass close enough to the fighting ring but with enough space to unwind. There’s no doubt my legs would be sore tomorrow, but stretching out felt good. Childe rolled his shoulders, alternating between each one as he made commentary on everyone’s strategies. His guess that Xiao would eventually get tired was far from the truth. Everyone gave their all, but as the time trial mechanism signaled the end of the final match, Instructor Xiao remained unscathed. 

Chapter Text

Two down, three to go.

“Are you ready for Vision Studies?” Thoma asked as we walked to our next class together. “You brought your notes with you, right?”

I patted my bag. “Got ‘em right here. I should be the one checking in on you. The Vision part of Vision Studies isn’t something I have to worry about.”

“I’ve got the hang of everything Pyro,” he shrugged. “Overload, melt, vaporize—I’m not sure exactly what Professor Minci has in store, but it shouldn’t be anything we haven’t covered. The only thing I really need to watch out for is getting distracted.”

“Distracted?” I frowned slightly. “You’ve never had trouble staying focused before. What makes today any different?”

“Ah, well,” he coughed. “There’s just a lot to think about. In particular, I’m more excited about finally being alone with you rather than getting these midterms out of the way.”

My eyes widened at the reminder. We did decide to finally have our talk once midterms were over. The talk in which I would reveal to Thoma my secret, and he would tell me that he…Thoma would confess his…

“When are we doing that, again?” I squeaked. “Right after class?”

Thoma fiddled with the braided strap on his bag. “Actually, I know we said to meet in your room, but I had an idea to set something up on campus. Don’t worry, it will still be private—no one will barge in or anything—as long as that’s alright with you, of course.”

We wouldn’t be in my room? For some reason, I felt marginally relieved and nodded. “It’s not a problem. Where are we going?”

“That’s a secret.” He winked and held a finger up to his lips. “I’ll meet you outside of the dorms to take you there. I know today is busy for everyone, and who knows where our energy levels will be once classes are done. How about tomorrow morning?”

“After breakfast?”

Thoma shook his head. “Before. We won’t need to stop by the dining hall.”

“Well, I can’t guarantee my stomach won’t be complaining the whole time.” I eyed him. “Are you making something for us to eat?”

“Secret,” he grinned.

“Fine, fine,” I smiled. “Keep your secrets. I can wait till tomorrow morning. Just so you know, I have a secret for you, too.”

“What kind of secret?”

“Can’t tell you,” I sniffed. “That defeats the purpose.”

“Ah, you’re teasing me because I won’t give you a hint? That won’t work on me.” Thoma laughed quietly, and his face slipped into a thoughtful expression.

He seemed to be contemplating something important, and I wondered if it had anything to do with his secret plans. At this point, I wasn’t sure if there was anything he could arrange that would impact me nearly as much as what he had to say. Just thinking about it made my heart squeeze—definitely not a normal reaction.

Before, I had been worried that my newfound reactions around Thoma were because of his possible feelings for me. I thought they may never have manifested if I remained unaware, but now I’m beginning to believe that wasn’t the case. It’s not that my heart pounded harder with the thought of someone crushing on me, it was the realization that I felt the same way. I definitely didn’t see Huffman any differently after he’d professed his attraction. A shudder threatened to take over my body after remembering Huffman’s confession.

“I see you patched things up with Childe.” Thoma jolted me from my thoughts. “He was eating at our table as though nothing happened at all. The two of you also had the best synergy in Physical Combat today than all the other pairs.”

“He cleared some things up for me yesterday,” I explained. “If I’m being honest, I believe everything he said. I learned a lot that I didn’t know before, and I can see that he’s put in the effort.”

“He must have really wanted to get back on your good side.”

“I think it was more about becoming a better person.”

“I’m sure that had some influence, but I don’t doubt that keeping away from you—that would be hard on anyone.”

“Anyone?” I scoffed. “There are tons of students who I still haven’t met. I’m sure they’re doing just fine.”

“Anyone that’s gotten to know you,” Thoma amended solemnly. “At least, I know I’d have a difficult time bearing with it.”

“Hey,” I looked up at him. “What’s with that face? I don’t plan on going anywhere. Besides, I didn’t drop Childe on a whim or anything. It takes a serious moral offense to push me away, so you have nothing to worry about. Out of everyone I’ve met here, you’re probably the most compassionate and supportive, friendly and warm—someone who I can always trust to—”

“Lumine,” Thoma interrupted, his cheeks painted with red. “That’s…thank you.”

I realized that I accidentally went too far in expressing how I felt about him. It would have been enough to say that he was a nice person, even though he was so much more. I cleared my throat and felt the beginnings of a blush creeping its way up my neck. Ah, well, I should probably get used to this. Otherwise, there’s no chance of me maintaining my composure tomorrow. Tomorrow—how would I respond?

We entered the lecture building and followed the crowd of students down the hall. Though there were a lot more people surrounding us now, it felt as though Thoma and I were in our own space. I stepped closer to him so I wasn’t in anyone’s way, and he surprised me by placing a hand on my back, guiding me to walk alongside the wall. His touch lit a fire under my skin.

“Ah!” someone collided into Thoma—where I was standing just a moment prior—and Thoma bumped slightly into me. He recovered quickly, wrapping an arm around my shoulder so I wouldn’t knock into the wall.

“Sorry about that!” It was Bennett. “Oh, it’s you guys. That’s good. As long as you two are still out in the hallway, I’m not late for class.”

“We’ve got a few minutes.” Thoma removed his arm, but the sensation lingered. “Not enough time to crunch in any extra studying, but by the looks of your notes, I think you’ll crush it.”

Bennett held a thick notebook in both of his hands. There were colored tabs sticking from the edges, and wayward sheets also fluttered at the sides. He raised the notebook to his chest with a fierce look. “I made sure to keep my notes in my sights all day,” Bennett asserted. “If they disappeared for even one second, I’d lose them for sure. I just hope knowing all this stuff will actually come in handy for the Vision practical.” He shook his head as if to clear away any lingering negativity. “Don’t worry. I got this.”

Professor Minci was leaning on the podium with a neat stack of papers. A line had formed leaning up to her, and students found their seats after she’d handed them each a copy of the exam. I got into line behind Thoma, and then I noticed Ellin step behind me.

“Hey, Lumine,” she smiled brightly. “Aren’t you so glad we only have to worry about the first half? I think I might take a nap right after, what about you?”

I hadn’t thought about what to do after turning in my exam. It’s true that because we wouldn’t be participating in the Vision practical, we were allowed to leave class early. While it might be a good idea to use that free time to study more for my History midterm, I think I’d done enough of that already.

“Maybe I’ll watch the Vision practical,” I decided. “It’d be another way to learn.”

Her jaw dropped. “As expected of you, Lumine. You’re always thinking one step ahead. Alright, I’ll do that too!”

“Ellin!” someone called and we both turned to see Cici waving from her seat. “I already grabbed one for you.”

My eyes widened with the shock of such a thoughtful gesture. Childe had made sure Cici and Cicin weren’t committing any bad actions, but I didn’t think either of them would be so inclined to actually be helpful for once. Ellin showed an equal amount of surprise, but that quickly fell away to pure joy.

“Thanks, Cici!” she waved at her partner and left her spot in the line. 

We inched closer to the podium, and Thoma half-turned to look at me with bewilderment. He must have overheard. I simply shrugged—there wasn’t much I could say without causing additional confusion. He turned back around to accept his exam from Professor Minci. When it was my turn, she handed me a thin packet. However, when I tried to pull it from her, she wouldn’t let go.

I looked up at her, confused. It was only after she shot me a sly wink that she released the exam. No words were exchanged, but her teasing eyes flicked to where Thoma was walking away, and I knew. Quickly, I turned away from her small giggle and banished anything unrelated to Vision Studies to the recesses of my mind. With my notes and my exam, I sat down and deliberately angled myself away from Thoma. Focus. I needed to focus.

A tiny slip of paper landed next to my notebook.

Cautious, I reached out to grab it. Thoma was also positioned away from me, but because I sat at the very end of the row, he was logically the only one who could have passed it over. He hummed a quiet tune, waiting for Professor Minci to give further directions. I unfolded the slip and read the simple note with a heart sketched in the corner.

your hard work is about to pay off! i believe in you, lu ♡

In utter awe, I traced the heart’s outline with my finger. Thoma was still facing the other direction, but he couldn’t hide the color blooming at the tops of his ears. A soft smile crossed my lips as I reread the note. 

Lu.  

He’d never called me that nickname before. Maybe he'd done so because it was quicker to write? I found that I didn’t care about the reason, only that it cleverly rhymed and made my breath catch. Before I could even begin to think of a note to send back, Professor Minci announced we were allowed to begin.

✧✧✧

“Piece of cake,” Xiangling giggled. “I don’t know why I was so worried.”

We’d freshly finished our Horticulture midterm, and for once I was eager to immediately join Xiangling for dinner. Amber and Bennett were already here, and they looked ready to fall over from exhaustion. I felt the same fatigue and hoped to stuff up on enough food to put me in a deep sleep—deep enough that my brain wouldn’t have the energy to conjure up a single dream. The best-case scenario would be a blissful night of pure nothing. 

“Thanks to our dinner dissections, I bet,” Amber winked. “Those Sea Ganodermas were sure tricky to cut through. Mine almost slipped off the table.”

“Sea Ganoderma?” Xiangling cocked her head. “We were given Naku Weed and Noontide Silkpods.”

“Professor Baizhu said each Horticulture class would be getting different specimens,” I reminded them. “That way, students wouldn’t give the future classes a heads-up.”

“Paranoid for no reason,” Xiangling waved a dismissive hand in the air. “It feels so good to finally have everything done.”

Bennett cut through his Teyvat Fried Egg. “Tell me about it! I think the trickiest one for me was the Vision practical. It makes sense that we’d interact with other elements, but I didn’t think the professor wanted us to trigger at least four different reactions within two seconds. It took my group forever to get that down.”

“That’s what you guys did?” I had no clue.

Unfortunately, Ellin and I weren’t allowed to spectate the Vision practical as we’d hoped. Once everyone turned their exam packets in, Professor Minci took students to a separate room in groups of four. I didn’t know what their task was, but I did catch that for all the groups, each student held a different Vision element.

“Yeah,” Bennett slumped. “Rosaria looked like she was ready to freeze my fingers off with how many times I messed up. Luckily, Xingqiu managed to calm her down.”

Amber beamed. “My group had so much fun! Barron Bunny did a great job.”

A tray stacked with Tri-Color Dango appeared on my right, and Thoma greeted everyone with a sheepish smile. “Sorry, I’m a bit late. I was helping Professor Kriedeprinz clear off the crafting benches with Sucrose.” That was a name I hadn’t heard before, and Thoma caught my confusion. “She’s a third-year and the professor’s assistant for Alchemy courses.”

“I didn’t know students could be assistants.”

“Normally, they aren’t.” He ate one dango off its stick. “But Sucrose is exceptional at alchemy. You know Timaeus, right? He’s been trying to become an assistant for over a year, but Professor Kriedeprinz keeps turning him down. There’s no one here who can match her knack for alchemy—other than the professor, of course. It’s practically her whole life.”

“Sounds impressive,” I poked at my dinner.

“Are you guys talking about me, again?” Childe made an arrogant appearance and sat on my left. “I’ll let it slide, knowing there’s only praise to say.”

“We were talking about Sucrose.” I rolled my eyes. “Do you know her?”

“Sucrose?” he frowned. “Oh, wait, I know this one. Sugar, right?”

I shook my head. “She’s a third-year. Alchemy assistant.”

Childe stared at me with blank eyes.

“Aren’t you technically a third-year? You should know the people in your grade.”

“The only sweetness I’m familiar with is you, girlie,” he winked. “Well, that’s not entirely true. You’re quite bitter when you lose.”

Thoma cleared his throat. “I think I grabbed one too many Tri-Color Dango. Lumine, would you mind taking some off my hands?”

“Sure,” I agreed as I cast a dirty look at Childe.

Tri-Color Dango was sweet, and I already had some Sticky Honey Roast on my plate. I wouldn’t want the two to touch, so I’d have to eat one completely before beginning the other. My mind whirred as I thought about it. Dessert before the main dish? Why was Thoma eating something so sweet for dinner in the first place?

I noticed Thoma hold out a stick of Tri-Color Dango in my peripheral vision.

Absentmindedly, I opened my mouth to take a bite out of it. I guess it couldn’t hurt to have some dango as a bit of an appetizer. Besides, I’d been eating Almond Tofu for so long, it felt natural to keep things sweet. Oh, what a fun, chewy texture.

“Ah, Lumine?”

“Hm?” I focused my full attention on Thoma, who was oddly blushing.

Pulled from my thoughts, I noticed the table had fallen silent. Xiangling looked rather perplexed, Amber’s eyes sparkled with something devious, and Childe’s face had hardened to be stone cold. Bennett was the only one who looked relatively normal. His general confusion mirrored my own until I realized what I’d just done.

“Sorry,” I quickly apologized and properly accepted the stick of Tri-Color Dango. Lost in thought, I had unintentionally made Thoma feed me the dessert. My mind immediately went back to when Kaeya fed me Almond Tofu. Except this time, Thoma was innocent. I was the one who made the move. “I didn’t mean to—I wasn’t paying attention.”

“It’s alright.” He recovered from the shock with a closed smile. “I didn’t mind.”

Amber squealed.

“Well, I did mind.” Childe cut through the conversation. “Are table manners obsolete nowadays? Where is the decorum?”

“Since when did you care about table manners?” I narrowed my eyes at him.

“Since,” he sputtered. “Since I always have.”

I finished the remaining two dango pieces.

“Did you like them?” Thoma asked.

Childe suddenly reached over, and I had to lean back to get out of the way. “Give me one.”

“Oh, sure,” Thoma handed him a stick.

Childe snatched it away and fell back into his seat. I would have been amused with how he aggressively pulled off two dango pieces in one bite if weren't for the frosty glare he cut towards Thoma. Childe’s mask of resentment slipped momentarily, and I could only guess the dango’s flavor got to him. It was then that I laughed.

“You like?” I asked him.

“They’re good,” he mumbled and held the stick out to me. “I’m full now. Can’t finish the last one. Here, you have it.”

“Okay,” I reached out my hand, but Childe pulled back.

“I can hold it.”

“So can I,” I countered.

“You don’t have to.”

“Neither do you.”

“I don’t get it,” Bennett mused. “What’s the big deal about holding the stick? Oh! Are you worried you might accidentally jab the inside of your mouth with it? It’s happened to me twice, so that’s a valid concern.”

I rolled my eyes and grabbed the final piece of dango with my fingers, sliding it off the stick and popping it into my mouth. 

Childe stared from the now-empty stick to where I was happily savoring the dessert. It must not have been a big deal because he simply tossed it to the table with a light chuckle. He normally didn’t back down so quickly, but then again, what was he backing down from? Offering me food wasn’t a competition…was it? Thoma ended up giving Bennett, Amber, and Xiangling each their own Tri-Color Dango.

“Wow, I didn’t jab myself this time!”

“It must be the midterm luck.” Xiangling patted Bennett on the shoulder.

Amber jumped in. “Don’t jinx it.”

“Midterms are over,” I shrugged. “What’s there to jinx?”

“You don’t need luck if you have skill.” Childe crossed his arms. “Which is something I can help you with if you’re really feeling hopeless.”

“Really?” Bennett gasped.

“But of course,” Childe grinned. “I love a good challenge, and turning you into a properly functioning person seems to be the biggest one yet.”

Bennett nearly fell out of his seat. “This is great!”

That had sounded like somewhat of an insult to me, but Bennett didn’t seem to take it that way, and Childe looked genuinely interested in helping him out. The thought of the two of them training together made me smile—it would be disastrously chaotic in the best way possible. For now, Childe instructed Bennett to use his leftover stick as a miniature sword. Together, they looked ridiculous—mimicking techniques with a tiny piece of wood. 

I couldn’t help but join in on the fun.

Chapter Text

Déjà vu. That’s what this was.

It felt like so long ago when Childe had walked me back from dinner only to find Kaeya waiting outside of my room, but I clearly remember how that interaction went. Today was the same. We entered Visionless House, and Kaeya was leaning against my door. A metallic ping rang in the air as he flipped his coin, and I kept a close eye on Childe’s reaction. Much to my surprise, he didn’t seem at all bothered by Kaeya’s presence.

“Look who we have here,” Childe walked ahead. “If it isn’t Kaeya Alberich.”

Kaeya quirked a brow. “We’re on full name terms, now? What happened to ‘pirate boy’?”

“After everything we’ve been through in the past twenty-four hours, I’ve decided you aren’t so bad after all. Anyone working in the best interests of Lumi is someone I can respect to a degree.”

“Good to know,” Kaeya chuckled. “In that case, you surely wouldn’t mind that I talk with her alone. I can assure you that our conversation will be in her best interests.”

They were actually getting along. Could it be that these two finally learned how to coexist?

Childe folded his arms. “Alone? That won’t be necessary.”

Nevermind.

“It’s probably about the Signora situation,” I sighed and looked at Kaeya. “The Raiden Shogun made you file a report, right? They’ll probably want to talk to me to confirm the narrative. It’d be a good idea for us to agree on the same story.”

“I was there too, wasn’t I?” Childe looked around. “Why don’t I join in?”

He had a point. Kaeya’s expression pinched with slight annoyance, and I worried what he actually had in mind wasn’t related to Signora at all. Besides her, there was the Abyss Order situation and my untapped potential with Geo energy. No developments in either of those areas had been made, so it wouldn’t be much of a productive conversation.

Kaeya cleared his throat. “Actually, I wanted to see how you were faring, Lumine. The commander in chief took me away so quickly that I didn’t get the chance to approach you until now.”

“She’s fine.”

“I was talking to Lumine, not you.”

“Thanks for checking in, Kaeya,” I smiled. “The only damage Signora did was a scratch to my neck. Honestly, that was on me for provoking her in a situation where she clearly had the upper hand. If I tried to appease her, maybe she wouldn’t have resorted to such violence.”

“No,” Kaeya’s jaw tightened. “Don’t fault yourself for something she did. While I would prefer you didn’t poke the bear, there’s not much anyone could do to stop Signora from being what she is. In filing the report, I was able to glean some details of her expulsion.”

Childe grumbled. “She hasn’t been shipped back yet?”

“The administration is still pulling together the evidence.”

“What more evidence do they need?” Childe’s face twisted with vexation. “She was caught red-handed.”

“Yes, but these things take time especially with affairs considering Snezhnaya. I’m sure you recall the multiple petitions to have you expelled, Childe. The Sneznhayan administration interfered each time to save face,” Kaeya tsked. “However, there’s no way to cover this up, and it looks like she’ll be officially expelled within the next day or so.”

“Good. I can’t wait to see what sort of punishment they’ve dealt her once I return to Snezhnaya over winter break. Oh, how amusing it will be to see La Signora revoked of her status.”

“Besides that,” Kaeya went on. “Lumine, you make a valid point. We need to go over exactly what happened last night and tweak our responses to match. I’m sure the general gist of things is easy enough to formulate, but we should work on a few specifics in case they ask deeper questions. Such a sensitive topic should be taken elsewhere.”

By elsewhere, he meant my room. 

Childe looked between us. “I’ve got time.”

✧✧✧

How was it that this was my room, yet those two looked more comfortable than me? Kaeya lounged on my bed, as usual, hugging one of my pillows to his chest as we went over our story for the final time. Childe paced around the entire time, inspecting the brightness of my lamp, tugging at my rug, and even patting my walls. I wasn’t sure if this was a briefing or a home inspection sleepover.

“That’s all easy enough to remember,” Childe hummed. “I like this rug.”

“Doesn’t everyone get a rug in their room?” I frowned.

Kaeya’s rug was far more extravagant and fluffier than mine, so maybe Childe was referring to its quality.

“They took mine away after I accidentally injured a student with it.”

I stared at him with unfiltered bewilderment, and he laughed.

“Hear me out. You know how the gliding instructor conjures up his Anemo currents all over the place during class? I thought it’d be a cool idea to ride on those currents with a rug. It’d be like surfing waves on a surfboard, but flying through the air on a carpet. How was I supposed to know that simply tossing the rug into Anemo wouldn’t be enough to effortlessly lift it into the air? The next thing I knew, it went careening into some poor guy’s head. Let’s be real, that mistake could have easily been made by anyone.”

“Anyone without common sense,” Kaeya chuckled and Childe turned on him.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, why are you in Lumi’s bed?”

I waved off the notion. “He does that all the time.”

Kaeya smirked.

“All the time?” Childe narrowed his eyes.

“Sometimes, I even let her join me.”

I rolled my eyes. “Kaeya complains that he’s overworked.”

He pouted in jest. “Because I am.”

“So, I take pity on him.”

Kaeya snorted.

Childe slapped a hand into the wall with such force, I thought it would crumble on the spot—again. He eyed the two of us, and I expected him to cut Kaeya some snide remark. For the most part, he’d oddly been tolerating Kaeya this whole time, but I guessed Childe was at his limit. I readied myself to intervene and preserve the state of my room.

Instead, his simmering eyes squeezed shut, and he sighed. Upon reopening them, Childe’s face melted into open curiosity. “So, this is the wall behind all that fuss a few weeks back?”

I blinked in surprise. “Yeah.”

Childe slapped it a few more times, and it appeared he was just checking its structural integrity. “Seems like it’ll hold. I heard the previous one broke apart randomly, and nobody knows how. Not even you.”

“Not even me,” I nodded with a tight smile. “Not a clue.”

Maybe one clue.

“It’s pretty odd for one of these walls to break just like that.” Childe snapped his fingers. “Even if a casualty of the monster attack, strange that none of the other rooms were affected. These walls are thick, made from the hardest rocks. The support beams should have prevented such a dramatic fallout.”

“You sure know your carpentry,” I commented.

“I wouldn’t say that.” He patted the wall once more. “I do know my elements, though.”

Kaeya and I shared a look.

“What do you mean by that?” I eyed Childe quizzically.

“It would take something of elemental substance to knock this down. A physical blow is also a possible cause, but only with multiple hits from a heavy weapon. You wield a sword.”

“Why does it matter what I wield?”

“Because I know you,” Childe stated. “And you’re far too calm for what happened here. If you truly had no idea what caused the wall to cave in, you’d be more concerned. Girlie, you’re too stubborn to not demand answers.”

I held a breath. Of all the things we could have discussed, I certainly didn’t expect Childe to mention the wall. We weren’t on speaking terms when it happened, but it was naïve of me to think he wouldn’t have been interested. Somehow, Childe managed to catch on to something neither the task force nor the Academy had been able to figure out. Not even Timaeus, the one other person directly impacted by the wall incident, thought to piece together the logistics. Above all, Childe factored my personality into this, and he was right. If I truly had no idea what happened, I wouldn’t have let it slide as quickly as I did. My instincts would have driven me to crack down on the cause as soon as possible. 

Kaeya gave no reaction to Childe’s words, and I also tried my best to not let anything show.

“As for which element I believe to be the culprit,” he continued. “It’s obviously Geo.”

I pressed my lips together.

“Now, then. Who at this school has a Geo Vision?”

“Ningguang,” Kaeya supplied.

“Not her,” Childe shook his head. “She’s too stiff for something like this. Isn’t she on the student council, too? Sounds like you’re trying to throw her under the bus, Alberich.”

He shrugged.

“Professor Morax?” I wrung my hands.

“Not a faculty member, either,” Childe tsked. “Which also rules out Kriedeprinz. There’s no motive for a professor to cause such property damage. As far as I can tell, there’s no motive for anyone—making enemies isn’t a pastime of yours. This leaves one final option.”

I hesitated. “Which is?”

“It was an accident. One that you caused.”

“That’s ridiculous. I don’t have a Geo Vision. I don’t have any Vision, remember?”

Childe watched me dubiously. “So you say.”

“Because it’s true, right Kaeya?”

Kaeya bobbed his head, still hugging my pillow. “This is correct.”

“Interesting how you refer to him for confirmation,” Childe mused. “Almost as if he’s in on the secret.”

I began to sweat. “There is no secret.”

“In which case, your frequent meetings make sense. I’ll admit Kaeya is very knowledgeable. Reaching out to a trusted upperclassman is a wise decision, Lumi. What I can’t wrap my head around is why you choose to hide your Vision. Why not embrace it?”

I couldn’t embrace a Vision I didn’t have, nor could I embrace my power without being carted away. Childe was very, very close to uncovering everything—almost everything. It was only Geo that he’d caught onto, and he couldn’t possibly make a connection with the Abyss Order’s actions. 

The Abyss Order.

An idea flickered in my head. Childe fell into the Abyss when he was just a boy. He’d been there, to where I’d been sucked into while dreaming. He had his nightmares, and I had mine. In that sense, our circumstances weren’t so different. Unlike me, Childe had been aware of the Abyss’ powers for years. I wasn’t sure how much he knew or how far he’d be willing to probe into his memories, but there’s a chance Childe could help us figure out the Abyss Order’s ploy.

Just like me, Childe would stop at nothing until he was satisfied with an answer. I knew lying about having a Geo Vision wouldn’t get me anywhere, not when he’d ask for proof. Besides, I didn’t want to lie to Childe. Initially, I’d only divulged my secret to Kaeya because it was helpful in our investigation, and I trusted him. Childe, on the other hand, had been a wild card up until recently. There wasn’t much I could say about his integrity, but that was then.

With his extra intel on the Abyss, and with my newfound confidence in his character, I considered letting Childe in on my secret. The only thing holding me back was knowing I also planned to tell Thoma tomorrow. Having three people know what I could do was risky. Looking to Kaeya for guidance, I found that he was already staring at me with a speculative expression. 

His head tilted by a slight degree as if to say, Whatever happens next is up to you.

That was that. Childe proved he had a knack for picking out information. A skill like that would undoubtedly help with our treasure hunt and subsequent Abyss Order research. Childe spent enough time with me anyways—he was bound to find out eventually. After reaching my final decision, my body lightened. Hopefully, he wouldn’t overreact. I couldn’t expect everyone to handle this news with as much composure as Kaeya did, and this was Childe of all people. Yet, in the time it took for me to think this through, he’d remained silent. Patient.

“Okay,” I breathed. “You’re right.”

“About you having a Geo Vision?”

“Not exactly,” I shook my head. “We don’t know for sure yet, but it’s definitely not a Vision.”

“I don’t understand,” Childe frowned. “Are you saying you used Geo energy without a Vision?”

I shrugged. “There is a strong possibility.”

“How are you so sure of this possibility?”

“Because I can do this.”

Without further explanation, I raised my arm with an upward palm and extracted the Anemo energy from my body. It came naturally to me, contained in my hand and shining just as bright as the day I first discovered this power. After confirming that Childe properly witnessed my feat—his eyes looked ready to pop from their sockets—I dispelled the energy and waited for a response.

“You don’t have an Anemo Vision,” he stated.

“I don't.”

“You can control Anemo anyways.”

“After some practice.”

Childe swiveled to look at Kaeya. “You knew?”

“I was the first she told,” he smirked.

“Am I the last?”

“You’re the second.” I cut in. “Listen, Childe. I’m not telling or showing you this only because you figured out the real reason behind the wall collapse. I’m trusting you with this information even though it’d jeopardize my position at the Academy and put me at risk with the Abyss Order.”

“What does the Abyss Order have anything to do with this?” He drew in a sharp breath and moved from the wall to stand by me. “They’re the real deal, Lumine. You know about my past. Please, don’t tell me you’ve gotten yourself involved with them.”

This was going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

I woke in shock.

There were two things that left me confused. The first was that I didn’t remember going to bed at all. Kaeya and I had gotten deep into explaining to Childe everything he needed to know—from my Anemo origin story all the way to the Abyss Order’s movements. Childe had seemed increasingly concerned once I brought up my nightmares, but that was out of our control, at least, it was unavoidable without my trustee Almond Tofu. I didn’t get the chance to tell the two of them about that, but I felt it’d be hard to convince them that Almond Tofu had such a special property in the first place. 

Sunlight spilled out from under my curtains, and my eyes squinted as I tried to recall how the rest of the night went. When had I gone to bed, and how is it that my sleep was uninterrupted by nightmares? It felt as if we’d talked for hours. I remember getting drowsy, but I spent the entirety of the conversation sitting at my desk. At some point—probably when I had fallen asleep—they must have left. It was odd how I was now tucked in bed, though. Had one of them moved me?

Shyness overtook me as I thought of who it could have been. Did Kaeya get off the bed and carry me over? Or did Childe shoo him away and make a place for me? Kaeya’s scent lingered around my bed, so maybe it was him. Then again, he did keep my pillow close to his chest the entire time.

I fluffed up my pillow, hugging it just as he did. It smelled nice—as though his presence still lingered. Comforting. My breath caught. The pillow—no—Kaeya soothed me just as Almond Tofu did. Albeit in their own unique way, the feeling was the same. Despite not having any Almond Tofu yesterday, my sleep was nightmare-free. Was this because of Kaeya? Wrapped up in that idea, I examined the pillow closer until a more pressing matter popped to the forefront of my mind.

Thoma was probably waiting for me outside of the dorms right now. I rushed through my morning routine and opted for my regular outfit since it was the weekend and uniforms weren't necessary. Staring at my reflection in the mirror, I adjusted the ends of my hair so they looked symmetrical enough. Were my flowers crooked? I tweaked them once, then twice, and then I began to question the look of my feather accessory. Maybe I should move it higher? Lower?

The longer I spent worrying, the longer I was keeping Thoma. Forgetting my nerves, I finished off by pinning the feathers in their original position, throwing on a jacket, and hastily leaving my room. Luckily, being on the first floor meant a quick exit. I found Thoma sitting on a bench to the side of the main entrance, and he noticed me at the same time.

“Lumine, hey,” he waved. “It’s good to see you.”

How long had he been sitting there? “Sorry, I’m late.”

He shook his hands out in front of him. “No, no, not at all! I actually just sat down. You have nothing to worry about.”

“Oh,” I blinked. “In that case, should we head to this super-secret location of yours?”

He laughed. “I wouldn’t call it a super-secret. There are a few who know this spot, but it’s generally hidden in comparison to other places on campus. Come on, you must be hungry, right?”

“Is that what you’ve got in your bag? Breakfast?” I tilted my head to get a better look at the bag hanging from his shoulder.

“You’ll find out soon enough.” He winked and took the lead. “Oh, by the way, did you hear the news about Signora?”

I sped up my pace to walk at his side, intrigued. “What about her?”

“She’s been expelled. Apparently, she was caught harassing some student on the night before midterms by the Raiden Shogun herself.” Thoma let out a low whistle. “It’s about time Signora got punished for her actions, but I didn’t think they’d go so far as to expel her entirely. What she did must have been really serious. Anyway, people are especially invested in this because her expulsion means that she’ll be sent back to Snezhnaya—ultimately breaking the Sakoku Order. Ah, well, it can’t be helped.”

“Is she gone now?” The shock on my face wasn’t fake. I didn’t expect the news to spread so quickly.

Thoma shook his head. “I heard they’re sending her off on a boat tonight. The whole ordeal is supposed to be heavily supervised, and I can imagine why. I’d never heard of a student being expelled before—dropping out or being suspended, sure, but nothing this severe.”

“She had it coming,” I sniffed. “At least her followers stopped being so nasty when they did. Otherwise, they might have been implicated in her actions and expelled as well.”

“You’re right,” Thoma nodded. “But I also hope this is a chance for Signora to reflect. It’s not every day she gets exposed for who she is, so this could be a good wake-up call for her.”

I scrunched up my nose. “Are you saying she can be redeemed?”

“Not Signora as she is now, but maybe somewhere down the line. I think everyone has a chance to change—for better or for worse.”

“Well, I don’t think she could get any worse,” I shuddered.

“I’m happy that everyone can breathe a little easier now,” he hummed. “Though, I wished I could have done something about it myself before she got caught. As I am right now, she would have made a lot of trouble for me, too. Ah—we’re almost there.”

We had reached the art gallery, and it was when Thoma turned to walk around the building and off the main path that I was struck with a sense of familiarity. It had only been the other day when I found myself going along this same route, but the situation was drastically different. With the sun shining and Thoma here for conversation, the scenery felt new as he led me to that same grove of trees concealing the gazebo.

“Here we are,” he walked down the stone path, sitting on the built-in bench that stretched around the gazebo’s interior.

I hadn’t noticed there was a bench before, nor did I notice the clusters of Windwheel Asters that dotted the surrounding area. After getting caught in Signora’s web, there had been other things on my mind at the time.

“It’s beautiful,” I breathed. “And quiet.”

“The view here isn’t as spectacular or grand as other places on campus, but if you’re looking for a relaxing spot, you can’t beat this one. It’s perfect for what we had in mind.” He reached into his bag. “But first, we should fill our stomachs with something. How about some Almond Tofu?”

I gasped and immediately sat beside him. “You’re kidding.”

He laughed and pulled out a square container. Sure enough, its inner contents held enough Almond Tofu to serve two people. 

“But,” I looked at him in awe. “How? I thought the almond shortage made it impossible. Did you substitute it with something else?”

Thoma smiled. “Nope.  I was actually late to dinner yesterday because I was busy getting Professor Kriedeprinz’s permission to harvest some almonds from the greenhouse. He co-manages it with Professor Baizhu, so then I had to find him as well.”

“You went almond hunting just for me?”

“I know how much you’ve taken a liking to it recently.” He pulled out two forks wrapped in a napkin. “And I couldn’t bear seeing you so upset over the menu, so I thought I’d try and make some for you.”

My heart swelled. “That’s really sweet of you, Thoma. Thank you.”

“I’m not the only one who deserves your thanks.” He fiddled with the forks. “I had to call in a favor with Xiangling. I’m familiar with cooking a lot of dishes, but Almond Tofu was something I’d never tried before. She walked me through the proper steps of preparing the tofu. You should be warned—it probably won’t taste as good as what they serve in the dining hall.”

“I’ll thank her when I see her,” I smiled. “And your Almond Tofu will taste amazing.”

“You haven’t had any yet. How can you be so sure?”

“Because you made it,” I grinned, reaching for a fork. “Now, let me try.”

Thoma handed me a fork and held the box out to me. As far as appearances went, it looked the same as the dining hall’s Almond Tofu. Knowing that the dish originated from Liyue, I made a mental note to see how it tasted there, but my thoughts were chased away as soon as I took my first bite. Somehow, Thoma’s version was even silkier and nuttier than any Almond Tofu I’d ever had. So shocked by its flavor, I forgot to express any outward reaction.

“Do you like it?” Thoma asked hesitantly. “You paused a little. Is there something wrong with the texture? My first batch did come out sort of chunky, so maybe that’s what—”

“It’s delicious,” I interrupted. “Really. I’ve never had better Almond Tofu in my life.”

“You flatter me.” He scratched his jaw. “Though, if you really like it so much, feel free to have the rest.”

I shook my head, pointing into the box. “That’s nonsense. You eat some too. I can’t be the only one floating on cloud nine.”

“Who said I wasn’t?” Thoma shrugged and picked up some tofu with his own fork. “Wow, this really is good! I guess I got lucky.”

I didn’t bother countering him, too absorbed with how good the Almond Tofu was and even more absorbed with the amount of effort he put in to make this happen. I never would have guessed I’d find myself back in this spot—just two days after being attacked by Signora—enjoying a pleasant meal. I took a peek at Thoma with growing emotion. He seemed content as he always did, but there was more than what his smile let on. He’d noticed I was upset over the Almond Tofu business and even went out of his way to gather the ingredients and learn to make it just for me. He’d managed to turn this gazebo into a positive memory, a place where I truly could relax.

More than ever, I believed what Lisa told me that day. More than ever, I was certain that there was something there within me, too. Thoma was special to me.

We finished the Almond Tofu together much faster than I’d anticipated, and a moment of silence befell us. Thoma fiddled with the strap on this bag, something I noticed he did when nervous, and I knew the time had finally come.

“It’s funny how I’ve been anticipating this moment for so long now,” Thoma chuckled. “And yet, suddenly I find myself at a loss for words. Please bear with me while I try to not trip over my tongue. This is the first time that I’ve ever—well—you’re the first person who has…Lumine?”

“Yes?” I held my breath.

“I…I don’t want you to take this the wrong way. Before I say anything, I want you to know what’s most important first. Whatever ends up happening after this, I don’t want to risk losing you, so please don’t feel pressured by anything. I’ve never felt so strongly before, but I don’t want my emotions to force you into a bad spot. Whether or not you accept my feelings, or if you reject them outright, I still hope that we can remain friends.”

I nodded.

“Well, I think it’s a little obvious where I’m getting at by this point,” he blushed. “But sometimes, I assume something is obvious, yet you don’t quite catch on. So, I’ll say it straight. Lumine, I’ve…I’ve fallen for you.”

My heart thudded loudly in my ears at his blatant confession, but Thoma wasn’t done.

“If you ask me when—I can’t say there was an exact moment. Somehow, in the moments we shared in Vision Studies, studying in the library, and even just walking to class, I’ve been entirely captured by your radiance. I can’t think of any other way to put it. The way you interact with others, the way you stand up for your beliefs, your perseverance, your kind heart—I…I love it all. You have a beautiful soul, Lumine, and I can’t be any more grateful that I’ve been able to meet you.”

Even though I had expected this, I was still stricken with his honesty. In this moment, Thoma was bold in a way I’d never seen him before, and my face was aflame with his confession. In the weeks that led up to this, what was going through Thoma’s mind each time there was a setback? How was he able to contain such an intense emotion without me noticing?

Then again, this wasn’t the first time I was so unaware. Without Amber’s prompting, who knows when I would have realized Diluc’s feelings toward me and the ones I had in return? Diluc. Diluc and Thoma. While I had come to terms with their emotions for me—with my emotions for them—I still hadn’t figured out what to do with feeling this way for them both at the same time.

“Thoma,” I spoke. “Your feelings—I recognize them. I even find myself sharing the same for you.”

His expression lifted with hope, but there was some hesitancy in his eyes. “Lumine, you have no idea how happy I am to hear that, but why do I sense there’s a ‘but’?”

“Because there is,” I sighed.

“I’m not—If you’re not ready for a relationship, I understand,” he added. “I didn’t tell you this because I wanted to start one right away or anything. Though I’m sure that would be as lovely as you are, my initial point still stands. I’d be perfectly okay with remaining friends.”

“No,” I shook my head. “It’s not that. I just, well, I feel horrible for what I’m about to say.”

“Knowing that part of you feels the same way, nothing you could say could be so terrible.” Thoma reached out to hold my hand. “Trust me, you have nothing to be worried about.”

“You’re not the only one,” I rushed out. “You’re not the only one who I’ve connected with like this. I know it seems unreasonable because I’m only halfway through my first semester here. How could I possibly have developed such deep feelings for more than one guy? Anyways, it’s not fair to you for me to split my feelings like this. You deserve someone who can give you their full affections.”

Thoma paused for a moment, his expression unreadable. With a sinking feeling in my gut, I assumed he’d concluded that there was no use in trying to pursue this any further, but he surprised me. 

“I can’t say that I understand having feelings for more than one person at a time,” he began. “But I’m not surprised you find yourself in this situation. It’s as I said before, you have a kind heart. When it comes to someone as open and caring as you are, it’s not unlikely that your affections would be captured more than once. I can’t expect a heart as big as yours to only have room for just me.”

“So,” I hesitated. “What does this mean?”

Thoma’s eyes softened. “Nothing has changed for me, Lumine. Knowing how you feel about me, even about someone else, makes me cherish moments like these even more. The fact that I managed to capture your heart at all—I’m satisfied with that. What’s more, is that you have no reason to feel ashamed. We can’t control who we love, and I think there’s something beautiful in that. Whoever it is that you also feel connected to, I know he must be special.” He squeezed my hand lightly before letting go. “I’m not asking you to choose. I would never demand you make a decision. With strong feelings of the heart, these things take time to develop and even more time to figure out. Just know that whatever you decide, whether it’s me or him—neither of us or both of us—you’ll always have me in your corner. ”

He finished his piece, and I sat on the bench in silence. Trying to absorb everything that was said, I felt more relieved than anything else. The internal conflict I faced was all but washed away with his words of affirmation, and I was once again reminded of why I admired him in the first place. I was lucky to have met Thoma, to have experienced school life with him, and for him to be so considerate. Diluc had said something similar—about taking my time—though, he wasn’t aware of my dual-crush situation. Would he be as understanding as Thoma? I could only hope. What I knew for certain was that this turnout was better than anything I could have possibly imagined, and I wouldn’t dream of pushing Thoma away.

“Okay,” I said at last. “You’re right, we do have time.”

“Nothing has to change,” he reminded me. “We can still be as we were five minutes ago.”

I nodded. “We can, but I don’t want to pretend this didn’t happen. I want to continue working on my feelings,” I hesitated. “And having more moments like this with you.”

“I would love that.” His eyes brightened with a smile. “There is just one thing I’m wondering about if you don’t mind me asking.”

“What is it?”

“The other guy,” he cleared his throat. “Does he feel the same way?”

I wasn’t expecting that, but it made sense that Thoma would be curious. “I—yes. He does.”

“Well, then. I can make a solid guess as to who it is.”

I sputtered. “How?”

Thoma and Diluc hardly ran in the same circles. I’d love to hear how he was able to pick up on Diluc’s feelings—feelings that took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out for myself. 

“I thought it was obvious,” Thoma laughed. “I mean, as someone who shares the same feelings for you, that is. It’s easy to recognize when others might be feeling the same way. I had my speculations before, but it was only within the last few days that I knew for sure.”

I frowned. “I haven’t seen Diluc since our last play.”

“D-Diluc?” Thoma almost fell from the bench.

“Yeah,” I widened my eyes. “Were you not talking about Diluc?”

He made a quick recovery. “I barely know Diluc.”

“Then who else could it be?”

He stared at me with a barrage of emotions flying across his face. First, there was shock. Confusion followed quickly after. A look of amusement stuck on his face for just a brief moment before a curtain of seriousness took over. A smidgen of worry and a dash of contemplation continued to make it increasingly difficult for me to figure out who this mystery guy could be.

At last, Thoma revealed his guess. “I thought it was Childe.”

“Ch-Childe?” my face flamed up again. “You thought that he—that I—”

“Well,” he laughed sheepishly. “Can you blame me? Think about it. He was clearly stricken with grief when you shut him out completely. After rejoining our group, he hasn't taken his eyes off you. Actually, he’d hardly done so even before the falling out, but now his dedication has increased a great deal.”

“Childe?” I repeated, still in shock.

“If I’m being honest, I was selfishly relieved when the two of you stopped being on good terms. You got along with him in a totally different way from how you acted with me. I guess you could say I was jealous, but only for a moment. Even I was hoping for some sort of reconciliation after seeing how much it affected you,” he sighed. “Did you not notice how upset he got over the Tri-Color Dango last night?”

“After you fed me,” I was too warm. “He wanted to do the same.”

“You really had no clue,” Thoma mused. “Of course, I could be wrong about this entirely, so don’t take my word for it.”

Yes. Right. There was no way to know for certain unless I asked Childe about it directly. Or Amber.

“You’re turning really red, Lumine.” Thoma leaned in. “Are you sure it isn’t Childe?”

“Am I sure?” I thought about it. “Y-Yeah, I’m sure it’s not him.”

“You stuttered.”

“Anyone would stutter after an assumption like that!”

“Would they, though?”

It felt as though both my head and heart were about to explode. How could this have happened to me not once, not twice, but three times, now? Kaeya had said something crazy like this at one point. He also said I was oblivious, and as much as I didn’t believe him then, those statements were becoming glaringly true. I needed to keep a better eye on my observation skills.

I cleared my throat. “I think we should move on to the secret I have for you.”

“Was that not the secret?” He blinked in surprise. “That you liked me as well as Diluc and—well—just Diluc for now.”

Ignoring that last bit, I shook my head. “No. This is something I should have told you a while ago. I was scared at first, but now I know what I’m dealing with and who I want to trust with it.”

Thoma nodded with sincerity, and I spared a glance around our surroundings. The gazebo was located in a relatively remote area of campus, so the likeliness of any passerby was low. Still, I lowered my voice to only be heard in the space between the two of us—just in case.

“I discovered something about myself, something big,” I took a breath. “Wielding an element isn’t limited by a Vision, not for me. During our first Vision Studies exercise fighting slimes, I found out that I could use Anemo.”

I waited for him to say something. Unlike Childe, Thoma remained quiet for a while. Before, his face was open with a mosaic of expressions, but now it was near unreadable. I decided to break the silence.

“I know that sounds crazy, and I would show you now if I could, but the risk is too great.”

We could go back to the dorms, and I’d show him then.

“I believe you.”

“Once I prove it to you, then—wait, what?” I pulled back. “You believe me?”

He nodded. “I don’t have any reason not to, do I? I’ll admit, the idea seemed far-fetched at first, but you wouldn’t lie about something like this. After discovering this on your own for the first time, I couldn’t even begin to imagine how startling that must have been. So, thank you for trusting me enough to share this with me.”

Guilt stabbed at me. “Kaeya and Childe know, too.”

“Kaeya?” Thoma’s mouth fell open in quiet surprise.

“I can explain it all later,” I continued. “Not because I want to put it off, but because it would be easier if all three of you were in one spot. That way, we can all form the same understanding.”

“Is there something else left to understand?”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Anemo might not be the only element in my power. Geo seems to be a promising one as well.”

Thoma fell silent once more.

My shoulders slumped. “You don’t believe me, do you? Surely, after throwing in Geo, you couldn’t possibly—”

“I believe you, Lumine,” he asserted. “Please, never question the trust I have in you.”

This time, it was my turn to drop my jaw in surprise. “Oh.”

Thoma chuckled. “Anything else?”

“Not at this time.”

“Good,” he grabbed the empty food container and dropped it into his bag. I didn’t expect him to pull out another object. “Now, I can finally give you this.”

Curious, I watched as Thoma opened his palm to reveal a wooden amulet of some kind. It was predominantly red, with black and gold embellishments and a unique fire pattern. Yellow thread roped the amulet at the top, forming a large loop that fed into three smaller ones where a small tassel hung in the middle. An elegant bead was placed in the center of the three loops. I’d never seen anything like it before.

“It’s an omamori,” Thoma explained. “I always carry it with me. According to Inazuman tradition, it can bring the bearer good luck.”

He held the omamori out for me, and I accepted it tenderly before stopping short. “Are you sure you want to give this to me? If you've been carrying it around for so long, won't you be losing out on luck?”

“I want you to have it.”He insisted and reached into his bag once more, pulling out an identical omamori. “Besides, I managed to order another one from Inazuma before the Sakoku Order was put in place.”

“So, we’ll be matching? I grinned, holding up my omamori to his. “Thank you, Thoma. I already feel lucky enough knowing you’ll continue to be here with me.”

His cheeks turned pink. “Hopefully, this omamori can bring you more good luck.”

Judging by how future events continued to loom over me—over all of us—I hoped that it would, too.

Chapter Text

Humming a light tune, I pushed open the library doors and mentally prepared myself for tonight’s chess match with Diluc. I was in a good mood, considering how well everything has been going. Signora was out of the way, midterms were a sinch, Kaeya and Childe were generally getting along, and my morning with Thoma was the cherry on top. If this keeps up, maybe my lucky streak will be strong enough for me to beat Diluc this time. Unlike just a few days before, the library was near empty. There was no longer a reason to spend extra hours studying, and I know Diluc would appreciate the silence. Surprisingly, I didn’t find him sitting at our usual table. Normally, he was the first to arrive, but this could be another sign that I was set to win tonight.

Thinking ahead, I first went over to the cabinet storing the chess materials and decided to set the game up myself. Diluc always had the courtesy to do so, ensuring that our games started right away, and I wanted to return the favor. I neatly sorted the pieces to their designated positions and finished off by lining each side with a row of dutiful pawns. Taking great care to make sure the board was as neat as possible, the setup took more than enough time for Diluc to arrive.

He hadn’t shown up yet.

I frowned. Was there something keeping him? There’s no way he was busy with tavern work, not with the Sakoku Order still in place. It’s not like him to be tardy at all, and I contemplated whether or not I should tease him for it when he did get here.

I waited some more.

Time went on and worry began to pick at me. Though I doubted it, there was a chance Diluc was skipping out on tonight, but why wouldn’t he warn me beforehand? If not busy, was he upset? The last time we met, he’d made his feelings for me clear. Even though I wasn’t able to properly express the same to him, he said he was alright with that. Diluc’s unyielding patience assured me we could continue as we were, but what if he changed his mind since then? He was always so sure of himself—what if he wanted nothing to do with me, someone who couldn't sort out her own feelings until it was too late?

My hands began to sweat as I spiraled into an endless loop of what-ifs, and I forced myself to take a steady breath. Nothing could be said for sure until I spoke to him myself, and I had the time. I could wait all night if I had to.

✧✧✧

I was not able to wait all night. The guards didn’t allow it.

Now, after being chased out of the library and ushered back to the dorms, I lay restless in bed knowing there would be no chess tonight. That was fine—there was always tomorrow. Diluc had to show up tomorrow, right? If not, I don’t think I’d have any choice but to track him down and confront him myself.

Would that be too forward?

I shook the doubt away. Diluc and I were friends first, and friends check in on each other. He’d promised to be here for me, and I wanted to be there for him as well. Whatever it was that kept him occupied, I hoped it wasn’t too serious. If it was, I hoped there was some way I could help him out—he would do the same for me. At least, he would if he knew everything. As far as Diluc was concerned, I was just doing my best to get through a regular year at the Academy, but there was so much more to that. 

Kaeya, Childe, Thoma, and now…Diluc?

With a groan, I squished my face into my pillow. It still smelled like Kaeya—not what mattered right now. I trusted Diluc. I really did. Though, it did make me uneasy for a fourth person to know. At this rate, my entire friend group would be a part of Operation: Uncovering Lumine’s Hidden Power in addition to the treasure hunting turned Abyss Order side quest that would undoubtedly put them at risk. I didn’t want that for them. Ideally, everyone would be doing their best to get through a regular school year.

What’s more, is that I was nervous about how Diluc would respond. He was someone who didn’t tolerate lies, and though omitting information wasn’t necessarily lying …I winced. He might see it as a lie. Not only that, but he might be upset once he finds out I told three other people first. I worried more about that than Diluc wondering why I waited so long to tell him.

I forced my eyes shut in an attempt to fall asleep. Instead, an image of Diluc flickered in my mind. How I envisioned his reaction to my truth—a stony expression, eyes that grew distant. Disappointment. Frustration.

I imagined him saying, “I should have known better.”

Worse, “I understand. If you find no need to concern me with the important factors in your life, then perhaps I should not be concerned with you at all.”

My heart sank. I would rather have nightmares than cause him to look so crestfallen. The more I thought about it, the more realistic it seemed that Diluc would want nothing to do with me. In his eyes, he would think that I didn’t trust him enough—that he wasn’t deserving of it.

Stop it, Lumine. Think positive thoughts.

Maybe it wasn’t too late. I still had a chance to tell him, and it’s better late than never. Whatever his reaction may be, I would have to accept it no matter how much my heart hurt.

✧✧✧

Without a shred of an appetite, I entered the dining hall and stifled a yawn. Diluc was the last topic on my mind when I went to sleep and the first to pop up once I woke up. By the end of today, I would know for sure how things turn out. Making it to tonight’s chess match without stressing myself to death was what I had to worry about for now.

“Hey, girlie,” Childe swooped in at my side. “What are you feeling for breakfast?”

I shrugged. “I’m not really hungry, so maybe I’ll just grab a glass of juice.”

He paused with a frown. Ocean-blue eyes scanned me and probably noticed the tiredness that dragged at my face. “Did you have one of those nightmares last night?”

“Haven’t had them for a while,” I shook my head. “Just didn’t get good sleep.”

“In that case, we need to make sure you get your energy somehow,” he sighed. “Just juice won’t do, how about some Omelette Rice?”

I scrunched up my nose. “Too heavy.”

“Onigiri, then?” he suggested.

I considered it.

“I’m not letting you leave this building without eating something first.”

“So demanding,” I sighed. “Fine. Onigiri it is.”

“Perfect,” he grinned. “I’ll get the same.”

Childe stood by me as we waited in line for our breakfast, and I did my best to shake off last night’s rabbit hole of worst-case scenarios. With how perceptive Childe was acting right now, I’m sure he would notice if I let my mind stray back to Diluc. For now, I could distract myself with food. When it came to my turn to order, I asked for one Onigiri.

Childe interjected. “She’ll have two.”

I shot him a look, and he simply shrugged.

With our identical trays in hand, the next stop was our table, but a commotion in the center of the room caught my attention. Students were excitedly murmuring to themselves, clustering around one table in particular. I couldn’t get a clear visual of who was sitting there, though. Too many bodies were packed around it, and curiosity got the better of me.

“Hang on,” I switched directions. “I want to hear what they’re talking about. You can head to the table. I won’t be long.”

Childe followed me anyways. “I didn’t know you were into hot gossip.”

Once I got close enough, I stood on my toes to catch a glimpse of a pointed hat that drooped to the side. The face of its wearer remained obscured, and I grumbled in my frustration.

“Who is that?”

“Oh, her?” Childe said. “That’s Mona. I know her from the Astronomy elective I took last year. She’s such a try-hard.”

I craned my neck to look at him. “Are you sure you just aren’t a slacker?”

“Trust me,” he said. “From the very first day in that class, Mona made it extremely obvious she already knew everything about the stars. That aside, I asked if she could tell my fortune once, and she said the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard.”

Just then, the girl sitting at the table—Mona—cleared her throat. All chatter quieted as everyone turned their full attention to the third-year. Slowly, she lifted her head, and the brim of her hat revealed eyes full of mirth.

“Come on,” someone cajoled her. “Tell us what happened with Signora last night!”

Mona laughed quietly. “You may address me as Astrologist Mona Megistus, meaning ‘The Great Astrologist Mona.’ If it is divination you seek from me, then I ask you respect my name by learning it wholly, here and now.”

Divination? Was she some type of fortune teller?

A coin pouch full of Mora jingled as another student tried to get her attention. “I’ll pay if you go into detail about it!”

“You can't use things like Mora to determine the value of astrology!” Mona gasped. “Astrologers must rid themselves of material desires. Furthermore, the work of the astrologer is to show people what fate has in store for them, not look into what occurred in the past.”

“But aren’t you the great Astrologist Mona Megistus?” Childe jumped in with a mischievous tone. “I guess astrology isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be if you can’t even look into the past just a little bit.”

I whispered to him. “Looks like I’m not the only one interested in hot gossip.”

“She’s dragging her feet,” he whispered back. “Mona likes drama as much as the next person. I’m sure she’ll crack eventually—just wait and see.”

“Alright, alright,” Mona sighed with a slight smile creeping onto her face. “I suppose I could take a quick peek. What was it again, last night at the docks? Hm, yes, my scryglass will be enough to do the trick—no need for the celestial globe.”

We all watched in anticipation as Mona summoned an intricate circle made from Hydro. It floated in the air in front of her, put together by a series of runes and shapes I was unfamiliar with. At the center of the circle glowed the shifting image of a starry night sky. The depiction of the stars was so detailed, it felt as though I was staring directly into a galaxy. I couldn’t make sense of any of it, but Mona’s eyes scanned the circle as if it were a complex book. Her brows drew together with focus, and she would occasionally widen her eyes. Whatever she saw, it must have been interesting. Mona reached her hands out to the circle, and I noticed she wore gloves—probably to keep her hands dry. With nimble fingers, she adjusted the outer rungs of the circle at different angles.

“I see,” she said as her scryglass circle burst into tiny droplets of water. “I wasn’t able to glean any of the conversations had, but there is a clear picture of what happened with Signora last night.” She paused, and everyone kept their attention sharp. “As we all know by now, that terrible tyrant got expelled and was supposed to be sent back where she came from. The guards were there to make sure she didn’t escape, but what they didn’t count on was someone else’s interference.”

Did someone try to stop Signora’s expulsion?

“She was lucky to escape with her life,” Mona murmured.

Everyone gasped, including me.

“Hm, how should I put this? She made it to the docks fine, no issues at all. But then, almost out of nowhere, she and the guards were jumped by a…I guess you could say an onslaught of flames. The assailant was quick and tenacious—her dress even caught fire. To save herself, Signora ultimately dove into the water.”

Giggles filtered through the crowd.

“The guards fished her right out, and there was no further sign of the mysterious assailant as if they disappeared into the night. Not even I was able to discern who they were, only a dark shadow. Perhaps someone wished to deal out their own punishment to Signora before she was gone for good.”

“Do you think a student did it?” I wondered aloud.

Mona’s eyes latched onto mine. “I did sense a certain element of…vengeance.”

“It could have been anyone,” Childe scoffed. “She’s wronged more people than she hasn’t.”

“This is true,” Mona nodded. “I do not need to make use of my divination to be aware of that, but don’t go asking me who it was. My powers do not reach into the territory of identification, and I’m afraid my salad will wilt if I spend any further time entertaining you all.”

With her dismissal and everyone’s curiosity mostly satisfied, students dispersed to their own tables. I caught snippets of side conversations as Childe and I crossed the dining hall. Speculations over the attacker’s identity were in full force, and not-so-subtle glances were being directed toward the Pyro table.

“Oh, good!” Amber waved at me once we sat down. “I was going to go over there myself to see what everyone was talking about, but I figured it’d be easier to just wait for you to come back. So? Anything interesting?”

I relayed the information about Mona’s divination. When I got to the part about the attacker, Amber’s fork clattered to her plate. She covered her mouth with both hands, and her eyes had widened with shock.

“That’s terrible,” she whispered.

“At least no one else was hurt,” Thoma commented. “If the docks caught fire and it spread any further, that would have been a lot of trouble for the townspeople.”

“Whoever it was had a good reason,” Childe shrugged. “No use in dwelling on it now. The past is in the past.”

“Violence is never the answer,” Amber murmured.

Bennett jumped in. “Do you think Signora was scared?”

“Of course, she’d be scared,” Xiangling said. “Anyone would be!”

Amber looked at me. “Are you sure they have no idea who it was?”

“The best lead would be a Pyro Vision holder, I guess.”

Bennett’s jaw dropped. “Do you think people are going to start suspecting us?”

“There are other ways to attack with fire,” Thoma added. “Like with alchemy. Let’s not worry about it too much until more news comes out. Breakfast is getting cold.”

“You’re eating Mint Jelly,” Childe rolled his eyes. “It’s already cold.”

Thoma blinked down to look at his plate and laughed. “Oh, you have a point there.”

The conversation then fell to what Amber and the others were discussing before—their thoughts on when the Sakoku Order would be ending. The general consensus was that the Raiden Shogun had to lift it sooner rather than later, especially with the lack of Abyss Order activity since the monster attack. I was only half-tuned into what everyone had to say. My mind continued to wander back to what Mona said, her piercing eyes so certain of her revelations.

The mysterious attacker was prompted by vengeance, and they wanted to get to Signora while they still had the chance. Was the ultimate goal to scare her? Wound her? Kill her? I couldn’t decide on which one, but a part of me was oddly appreciative of the attack. When it came to Signora…I could make an exception for the violence. The Academy would positively be seeking out that person’s identity, and that would probably lead to another expulsion. With the consequences in mind, I hoped the attacker’s identity would forever remain a secret. 

Chapter Text

I finished off my first Onigiri and was surprised to find I still had room for the second one. Now that my mind had partially cleared of worry, my appetite came back. It’s a good thing that Childe made me get two Onigiri, then. Savoring the rice, I let my eyes wander around the table as I thought about Mona again. She really was quite peculiar, and I wondered if she’d be able to use her powers of divination to somehow reveal the truth of the Abyss Order’s plan. Of course, that’s a big ask and not one I was willing to make—not when we still had time to figure things out with our own leads. They weren’t very strong leads, though.

“Do you think I could get Mona to look into my future?” Bennett asked. “I’ve gotta say, it’s killing me to find out if I’ll forever be this unlucky. Getting used to my bad fortune hasn’t been easy. Even though I made it this far, a lucky streak would be nice.”

Childe scoffed. “Don’t worry about all that fortune-telling stuff. Seeing as you’re able to talk and eat with the likes of me every day, I’d say you’ve been in luck.”

“Wow, I never thought of it like that,” Bennett said.

“That’s because Childe’s ego is doing all that talking,” I interjected. “What he means to say is that we’re all lucky to have the chance to spend time together. Even if it’s just meals or a few classes, it’s nice knowing we have each other’s backs, right? Though, if you still want to get your fortune told, it can’t hurt to ask.”

“I’m warning you,” Childe leaned in. “Mona can be really picky about her divinations. If she gives you a vague response and you ask her to clarify exactly what she means by ‘intertwined constellations’ and ‘there will come a time when you are challenged with appreciating what you value most,’ she’ll just brush you off and move on to the next person.”

“Is that what she told you?” I chuckled.

“Amongst other things,” he grumbled. “According to her malfunctioning scryglass, I can’t have what I desire most, at least, not all to myself. She said—I remember her exact words because I wasted so much time trying to decipher them—my greatest desire in life will be divided amongst others. What’s that supposed to mean?”

Xiangling gasped. It seemed like she was struck with an epiphany.

“What is it?” Childe spun to look at her. “Did you figure it out?”

“I think I left the stove on,” she said. “Yikes. I’d better go check—just to be sure.”

“You have a stove in your room?” Bennett frowned. “Isn’t that a fire hazard?”

Xiangling held a finger to her lips with a sheepish smile. “Shh! Not so loud, okay? I gotta go quick. See you guys later!”

Quite obviously in a panicked state, Xiangling swept up her things and made a mad dash out the door. Amber shook her head and murmured something about another Pyro incident getting the Academy’s attention.

“Hey, Childe,” Thoma piped in. “I have an idea about Mona’s divination. The first step to figuring it out would be establishing your strongest desire. Do you know what that is?”

Childe narrowed his eyes at Thoma, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head. What did Childe desire most? If this question was asked a few weeks ago, I didn’t doubt he would have proclaimed his wish to be the strongest in Teyvat. With that in mind, Mona’s divination certainly made no sense at all. How could one be the strongest in the world, yet also share that power with others? Then again, Mona said astrologers show people what fate has in store for them. Childe had no way of predicting his future desires, so maybe being the strongest really was out of the picture.

If not power, then what? Because Thoma asked the question, I briefly wondered if he was up to something. Childe was still silently sorting out his own thoughts, so I looked over at Thoma. I didn’t expect him to already be staring at me, and my cheeks involuntarily heated at the eye contact. As he caught my reaction, a knowing smile quickly formed on his face.

“I don’t know,” Childe breathed out in frustration. “Originally, I would have said that I wanted to become number one. The top fighter. A Champion.”

Just as I thought.

“But now, that doesn’t matter to me as much anymore.” He rubbed his temple. “My outlook on life has since changed.”

“What caused it to change?” Thoma prompted, looking more at me than at Childe. “Was it a sudden revelation? An event?”

“No, I wouldn’t say so. You’re awfully invested in a fortune that has nothing to do with you.” Childe looked at Thoma with suspicion. “Why is that?”

“I wouldn't say it has nothing to do with me,” Thoma shrugged. “Not just yet. I’m just trying to help you out as a friend, Childe. If not an event, then maybe…a person?”

The last bit of my Onigiri went dry in my throat as I realized where Thoma was going with this. I forced it down as best as I could without choking. Thoma passed me a glass of water, and I graciously accepted it with a stifled smile. The water chased away the stubborn clump of rice, allowing me to fully focus on a much more pressing matter. Judging from the expectant look in his eyes, Thoma still fully believed that Childe had feelings for me. Like Thoma did. Like Diluc did. This was beginning to seem unrealistic, but then I remembered Thoma wasn’t the first to point out the idea to me. Kaeya guessed it ages ago.

“A person?” Childe looked to the ceiling as he thought about it.

Then, he looked at me.

I think my heart stopped.

“Is this seat taken?” 

Everyone turned their attention to the newcomer—Kaeya—who sat where Xiangling had been just a moment before. He had a simple tray of Fruity Skewers and nothing else. Kaeya’s eye swept from Thoma to Childe before landing on me.

“Good morning, everyone,” Kaeya picked up a skewer. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything.”

“We were just talking about Childe’s fortune,” Bennett informed. “Did you know Mona was an astrologer? It’s really amazing. Thoma just asked if there was a special person that might have transformed Childe’s passions in life.”

I cut in. “He didn’t say it like that.”

“Oh,” Bennett shrugged. “That’s what it seemed like to me.”

Amber nodded aggressively. “Me too. Childe was just about to give his answer.”

She looked at me. Archons, why was Amber looking at me? It was more how she looked at me that caused my pulse to quicken. I’d seen that expression on her face once before when she was insistent about Diluc. When she was right about Diluc.

Childe cleared his throat. “Good morning to you too, Kaeya. Do you have any particular reason to be sitting with us today?”

His formality was off-putting. To an outsider, it seemed like Childe was being polite. Even I was almost tricked into assuming the same. Except, Childe was never formal.

“As a matter of fact, I do. Of course, this isn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed breakfast at this lively table. You missed out on quite a lot, Childe,” Kaeya goaded. “Lumine, tell him about the fun we’ve had.”

“You sat here one time.” I reminded him. “And said that it wouldn’t happen again.” 

Kaeya tsked. “I said that I couldn’t promise it would happen again. You make me sound so cold.”

“Cryo Vision,” Childe coughed to the side.

Kaeya turned his head slowly in Childe’s direction. “Ah, yes. I do remember learning of a particular little rhyme from Snezhnaya. Bennett was especially excited about it.”

“The pinkie one!” Bennett nodded. “The cold will kill the pinkie that once betrayed your friend, the frost will freeze your tongue off so you never lie again.

“Childe must be no stranger to the cold,” Kaeya sighed. “My presence should be most comforting, then.”

Childe shot back. “I could do without it.”

“Oh, I just remembered another memory.” Kaeya looked at me with a mischievous glint in his eye. “Lumine was so stressed, I took the liberty of feeding her Almond Tofu. She even commented that it tasted sweeter off of my fork.” 

My jaw fell open. “I did not!”

Kaeya quirked his brow. “Did you not eat Almond Tofu off the fork in my hand?”

“Well,” I stammered. “That part is true.” 

“And the rest is history,” he chuckled. “Now, now, don’t give me that look.”

The look in question was that of barely restrained infuriation on Childe’s end. I was a bit taken aback by how openly Kaeya made his remarks. Normally, his teasing was more subtle and reserved for private moments, but now…the whole table was all ears. Including Thoma’s. His green eyes quizzically darted from me to Kaeya, and I inwardly sighed. Explaining Kaeya’s natural tendency to flirt, though I didn’t know why it persisted so much, would have to be gone over at another time.

“Back to the point,” Kaeya’s amused expression deflated. “I actually wanted to bring up some business matters. Lumine and Childe, I cannot thank you enough for volunteering your time to help sort out the responses that Jean collected.”

I paused. When did I volunteer for something like that?

“Ah, so that’s what you’re here for,” Childe fronted with a smile. “You should have led with that, Kaeya. Assisting the student council is the least I could do after benefitting from their services all these years.”

“Huh? What are you guys talking about?” Bennett swiveled his head around. “Are you two joining the student council?”

Bennett’s questions echoed my own thoughts, and I was most confused as to why Childe was going along with it.

“Not at all,” Childe shook his head. “Kaeya simply asked for a helping hand.”

“Jean went around the school and asked students their opinions on the Sakoku Order,” Kaeya explained to the table. “With how long it’s been in place and how restless everyone has become, she decided to put together a formal proposal for the headmaster to consider. Her questioning was very successful, and that unfortunately means a lot of work for me. I have hundreds of responses to filter through and compile onto one document.”

“I said I would help with that?” I asked.

“You don’t remember?” Kaeya tilted his head. “We discussed it. Hm, was it last night? No, I believe it was the night before.”

The night before. That was when the three of us were in my room revisiting my powers and the Abyss Order. Nothing was said about student council matters, though. I would have remembered that much. Seeing as how Childe was in on this somehow, maybe there was a hidden meaning to all this.

“After classes tomorrow, we should meet in the official student council room to get things sorted,” Kaeya informed. “There, we can continue our work with no interruptions and utmost confidentiality. We can’t have the students’ responses getting leaked before the document is ready, now can we?”

“That would be most unfortunate,” Childe agreed.

Understanding dawned on me. This wasn’t about helping Kaeya with student council duties. This was about continuing where we left off after I fell asleep that night. I could see how meeting in the student council room rather than my dorm was more appealing from an organizational standpoint. I’d never seen the student council room before, but it would undoubtedly be a less suspicious location for us to gather, and at a much more reasonable time of day. Kaeya and Childe must have agreed on this beforehand, probably while I was sleeping. If that was the case, then I had one more thing to bring to the table.

“Thoma, why don’t you join us?”

“To help out?” Thoma looked at me. “Sure, I don’t mind.”

Childe cleared his throat. “We don’t need any additional help. Lumine, there needs to be a limit on how many people handle this matter. It’s because of the confidentiality Kaeya was talking about.”

Childe looked at me with urging eyes as if trying to get through to me the real meaning of the conversation. I understood it completely. It’s just that Childe didn’t know Thoma was in on my secret—neither did Kaeya.

“Thoma can join,” I insisted. 

Kaeya hummed with interest. “Is that so?”

“After class tomorrow, right?” Thoma asked with an eager smile. “I have time. How many responses are there again?”

Childe crossed his arms. “Hundreds—no—thousands. Far too many for you to concern yourself with.”

“There aren’t even a thousand students at this school,” Amber said. “Unless people submitted more than one. If there really are so many, why don’t I also join in?”

“Childe was exaggerating,” Kaeya sighed. “Just the four of us will be enough, but thank you for the offer, Amber.”

Childe was visibly against having Thoma join us while Thoma appeared rather perplexed. He didn’t know the truth behind Kaeya’s student council story, and an innocent smile remained on his face this whole time.

“Wait,” Childe frowned slightly before casting a slight accusatory look at me. “I get it now.”

“Get what?” Thoma blinked between the both of us. “Am I missing something? Could it be that there is other student council work you want me to do?”

Childe sighed and unfolded his arms. “At least I wasn’t the last one.”

“What Childe means to say,” Kaeya cut in. “Is that having you as our final contributor would be most appreciated. We can fill you in on the specifics later, but for now, don’t be late for the meeting.”

“Got it,” Thoma nodded. “You, me, Lumine, and Childe. Should I bring anything to prepare?”

“Just yourself will be enough,” Kaeya said.

Kaeya didn’t stay long. After delivering the information on our meeting, he quickly excused himself to attend to actual student council duties. For some reason, Childe’s mood never recovered even after Kaeya left, and I had a sneaking suspicion it was because of Thoma’s sudden involvement. Was he annoyed that yet another person knew, or…I thought about Thoma’s theory. Was he jealous that Thoma in particular knew? Whatever the reason, Childe would simply have to get over it. 

Between Childe, Thoma, and Diluc, I’ve been through an emotional rollercoaster as of late. I was grateful that Kaeya, at least, had remained a constant through it all. I didn’t know how I would have been able to process any of this without him. Even though Kaeya got so busy with his upperclassman schedule and role as a student council member, he still found the time to reach out and make sure everything was going alright on my end. Sure, Kaeya was a tease, but I guess there had to be something to balance him out—though I could admit his antics weren’t all that bad. No one could be immune to that level of charm. The Signora situation alone was enough for me to realize how much I could count on him. 

Tonight, I would see Diluc. He was the one other person who I wanted to be completely honest with. For the first time, I felt truly nervous over how one of them would take it. Kaeya and Childe were quick to view my powers from a more technical perspective. Thoma had been more concerned with our mutual feelings and was willing to accept anything that followed. While Diluc was the most enigmatic of them all, I couldn’t prolong the truth any longer. Because Kaeya’s plan was happening tomorrow, this was my last chance. It was about time all five of us finally came to one place, and hopefully, to the same understanding. 

Chapter Text

Diluc was here.

My step faltered as I entered the library, but I quickly recovered as a relieved smile bloomed on my face. Of course, Diluc would be here. I don’t know why I had worried myself so much. Yesterday’s absence was probably due to something he couldn't avoid, and I’m sure it was completely reasonable. He hadn’t seen me come in yet—his back faced me—so I took a quick moment to reason away any lingering doubts.

It was just him, me, and the librarian tonight. She was sitting far off at the reference desk, so it was as though we had the whole space to ourselves. As usual, he was sitting at our table. As usual, the chessboard was already set up. And, as usual, Diluc’s face was set with a slight frown. The corners of his lips lifted by a mere fraction as I approached, and he offered a small nod.

“Good evening, Lumine,” his brows knitted. “First, I want to apologize for my absence yesterday. I hope you didn’t wait in the library for long.”

I pressed my lips together into a tight smile and shook my head, sitting down. “I only hung around long enough for the guards to snuff me out.”

“You were here for that long?” His face fell, twisting into shame. “Until curfew?”

I shrugged. “I didn’t want to risk leaving just before you showed up.”

“I am sorry.” Diluc’s forearms rested on the edge of the table, and his hands spaced on either end of the chessboard clenched into fists. “While I knew beforehand that I wouldn’t have made it to our match yesterday, I should have at least left a note for you. There was a unique circumstance I had to attend to urgently. Otherwise, I—”

“It’s fine, really,” I reached out to grab one of his hands. “When you didn’t show up, that meant extra time for me to strategize for today.”

Lie. I had been just as worried as he looked right now.

Diluc’s hands relaxed. “Is that so?”

“You bet,” I winked. “You’re going to regret taking your one-day vacation once I pluck your king away. Though, I can’t help but be a little curious. Where were you last night?”

“Ah,” he sighed. “I want to hear about you.”

“What about me?” I released his hand and leaned back in my seat. “You’re the one being mysterious.”

“How did your midterms go? Were you able to get past your differences with Childe and succeed in Physical Combat?” he paused. “Has anything interesting happened? Are you still only eating Almond Tofu? You need to diversify your diet, Lumine. Nutrition is important.”

“Okay, Okay,” I laughed. “I wasn’t expecting all of that.”

“I want to know how you’re doing. Regrettably, we do not get the chance to see each other often.”

“This is true,” I sighed. “Alright, as for your first question—my midterms went well. They were great, actually. I feel confident for once that I aced everything—even Physical Combat since making up with Childe.”

Diluc’s eyebrows raised slightly. “You’re on speaking terms?”

“It’s a long story,” I shrugged. “What you may find even more interesting is that no, I am not just eating Almond Tofu.”

“Does this have anything to do with the almond shortage?”

He got me. “Obviously not,” I rolled my eyes. “A girl can only take so much Almond Tofu.”

“Of course,” he smirked. “And…anything else particularly interesting?”

Anything else? Yes. Quite a few things, actually. The real question was how I should tell Diluc and in what order. There was the incident with Signora that didn’t technically end with me, and there was my big secret. The former was far easier to get through than the latter, which is crazy since a near-death experience would normally be ranked as the most important news. Despite it being on my mind for the past twenty-four hours, I was still at a loss for how exactly I should reveal my secret to Diluc. He looked at me now, expectant—no—it was anticipation in his eyes. Why did it seem as though he knew something interesting had happened?

“Well,” I cleared my throat. “It’s pretty big news all around campus that Signora got expelled.”

“I did hear something about that,” he hummed. “Please, tell me more.”

Diluc was all ears, and I went through the still-vivid memory of being outwitted by Signora. Finding myself in the gazebo surrounded by trees. Signora essentially making me look like a fool for the sole audience of her own self. How I was too weak to stop her attacks until it was too late—almost too late. Once I got to the point where Childe, Kaeya, and the task force showed up, my words were rushing from my mouth as building anger took over me. Signora really had some nerve. I couldn’t believe she was able to get so far. How many other students had she cornered just like she did to me?

“She should have been expelled years ago,” I seethed. “No one was expecting the mysterious attacker that got Signora at the docks. I know it looks like villainous behavior to a lot of people, but I think they’re a hero to everyone who suffered at her hands.”

“Thank you,” Diluc said. “For telling me everything. It must not have been easy to revisit those memories. Watching you share your story—it brings me immense joy to know you have this level of trust with me.” 

I clasped my hands together. “If I’m being honest, it feels good to finally tell someone who wasn’t involved. I could have told Amber, Bennett, and Xiangling, but they’ve been so high-strung lately with testing and restrictions, I didn’t want them to worry about it. After sharing it with you, though, it might be a good idea to bring it up eventually.”

“That is something to think about.” He cleared his throat. “Allow me to also be honest. I already knew.”

“You…what?”

Diluc sat up straighter, and a steely look crossed his features. “I knew what Signora did the morning after it happened—all of it. I was never a firm believer in the quality of the task force’s members. The guards are loose-lipped, and while that does undermine our security, it also allows me to source my own information. Though, I have to admit, when I heard that Signora fell into a trap staged by other students, I didn’t believe it at first. She has been an incessant thorn since the moment I was aware of who she was.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. A small part of my brain made a connection between Diluc’s mode of information collecting and Kaeya’s tactics. They weren’t so unalike in their clever attention to detail and swiftness of putting a plan together.

“If you knew what happened the whole time,” I pressed on. “Why didn’t you ask me about it? I don’t want to make assumptions, but I thought you would have been concerned.”

“Trust me,” he chuckled hoarsely. “From the moment I found out it was you who was involved in this plan, I wanted to go to you directly. Immediately. When I said the guards are loose-lipped—they really love to gossip. I know you got hurt.” His words quieted in that last sentence. “But I didn’t want to overwhelm you. What you experienced was what I can only imagine as unfiltered terror, and I wanted you to have the chance to process it without me being overbearing on top of it. And…” he trailed off.

“What is it?” I frowned. “I don’t think you would have been overbearing, Diluc. Anyone would have reacted with a lot of concern.”

“I wanted to see if you would come to me.” His eyes met mine. “I told you I would be here for you, and yet, two days have passed. Why didn’t you reach out?”

I tried to find my words, but I couldn’t get past the injured look in his eyes. The Signora incident felt like a lot longer than two days ago. So much had happened since then, but Diluc was right. Even though I was busy, even though I had Childe and Kaeya to sort things out, I shouldn’t have waited for a convenient time to tell Diluc. I had been so wrapped up in my own feelings that I didn’t stop to think about who else might have cared—who else would have been worried. After the words we exchanged in our last meeting, I could understand why he was hurt, and that made me even more nervous for my second reveal of the night.

Diluc turned away. “I should have known. The fault lies with me.”

“What? No,” I inhaled sharply. “You couldn’t be further from the truth.”

“It was too much, wasn’t it?” His throat bobbed. “I will admit that I am not the best when it comes to personal interactions and strong…emotions. I understand if my words from last week pushed you away. It was unbecoming for me to expect anything at all.”

I reached over to take hold of his hand once more. “Listen to me, Diluc. You didn’t push me away. That day, you thought of me as brighter than the sun. The sun, Diluc. Do you know how it made me feel to be compared to the sun? Elated. Treasured. Adored. I felt all those things then, and I still feel them now. When I’m with you, everything is clear to me. I know who I am. I know who you are. When we’re not in this library—when you and this chessboard aren’t here grounding me to the present moment, I feel like I’m all over the place, and I worry so much that I forget the important things.”

“What are you worried about?” Diluc turned over his hand so he could hold mine back. “Signora is out of the picture now. I made sure that she’ll never even dream about going after you like that again.”

“I’m worried about—wait, what?” My brain stuttered as his words fully registered. “What do you mean you ‘made sure’?”

“The mysterious attacker people are talking about,” he toyed with my fingers. “It was me.”

I nearly dropped his hand out of surprise. “You were the one who,” I lowered my voice. “You attacked Signora at the docks?”

He nodded curtly. “It was the reason why I didn’t show up last night. I needed to make the proper preparations and get there without use of the teleport waypoint in time. My constitution would not allow for her to get off so easily. Expulsion is a mere slap on the wrist.”

“Vengeance,” I recalled Mona’s divination. “That was…you did that for me?”

Was it wrong for my heart to flutter at the idea of a violent attack on my behalf? I didn’t care. This whole time, I was worried that Diluc’s absence meant he wanted to distance himself. In reality, he had taken up his greatsword and actively hunted down my tormentor in the name of justice. I couldn’t stop a smile from creeping onto my face. It was sweet—romantic, even.

“My only regret is that we were by the water,” he grumbled before his eyes widened, and he let go of my hand. “Again, if my behavior is too overwhelming—”

“Thank you,” I beamed at him. “She deserved that.”

Diluc hesitated for only a moment before returning my smile. “That she did. So, am I right to believe you do not find me too forward? You still wish to…are you alright with me as I am?”

“Yes, Diluc,” I nodded. “And I have to tell you something. It’s even more important than Signora, so I’m glad we got her out of the way.”

After clearing the air of our misconceptions, I was feeling marginally better about telling Diluc my secret. The look he gave me now was slightly wary, and I couldn’t blame him. In this case, there were no amount of Pyro attacks he could put out to alleviate this predicament.

“A while ago,” I began in a hushed tone. “I found out I could use Anemo without a Vision. It came to me suddenly one day, and we think the origin might have come from Venti—er—Instructor Barbatos, the gliding instructor. There’s also a slight chance of me being able to wield Geo, but that’s yet to be confirmed. We only think so because I was also exposed to Professor Morax’s Geo shield, but we don’t know why it’s happening to me.”

I paused, waiting for a reaction. There was more to say about the Abyss Order and my dreams, but Diluc’s flat expression planted a seed of uncertainty in my mind. For the second time tonight, I thought of how he and Kaeya were similar. Kaeya was also quite doubtful when I told him. Even after demonstrating my powers, he had questioned if I was certain I had no Vision.

“Lumine,” Diluc’s lips were set in a firm line. “Did Signora hit you in the head?”

“No, it was just a cut on my—” I stopped once I saw his eyes darken. “Nevermind that. She didn’t hit me in the head, and I’m not crazy.”

“You said ‘we’ more than once.” He eyed me. “Are you hallucinating other people?”

I wiped my face with my palm. “No head trauma, really. I said ‘we’ because, well, there are three other people who know about this.”

“And they all believe you?”

“Yes, because I showed them. Well, Thoma believed me without a demonstration.”

“Thoma,” Diluc said the name slowly. “He’s in the year above you.”

“One of my closest…” I blushed. “Um, we’re close. The two other people who know—I don’t intend to tell anyone else after you—are Childe and Kaeya.”

Diluc snapped from calm wonder to sharp attention. “Kaeya? You can’t trust him.”

“I can,” I asserted. “What happened between the two of you, anyway? I know that you’re—that you used to be brothers. Did Kaeya do something to mess that up?”

I couldn’t understand how anything would break a bond between siblings, adopted or not. Family was family, and I knew Kaeya would want to have his family back. Hopefully, based on Diluc’s answer, it would be revealed that he did, too.

“That is for him to say and me to never forgive,” Diluc grumbled.

Okay, I’ll add ask-Kaeya-about-family-drama to the list. The subject was obviously sensitive for Diluc and not at all productive in our current conversation. Regardless of that, my fear of Diluc being offended for being told last has been greatly undermined by his immense skepticism. I should have known he would have been the most difficult to convince, especially since I couldn’t just use my Anemo right here and now. Even though the librarian was in her own corner of this space, it was too open. Too risky.

“Are you sure you can trust him with this information?” Diluc’s nose wrinkled. “Assuming what you say is true—”

“It is.”

“Why even keep it a secret?”

I sighed. “This is when I ask if you’re busy after class tomorrow.”

“Why is that?”

“Kaeya, Childe, Thoma, and I will be meeting in the student council room to discuss it all. Everything from my powers to the Abyss Order.”

Alarm flashed on Diluc’s face.

“If you’re free, I promise I can fill you in then.” I nudged my head in the direction of the librarian. “Privacy concerns.”

“After classes tomorrow?” he sighed. “This is a rather sudden proposal. I normally have other responsibilities to take care of, but I can move them around for you.” Diluc rubbed his jaw in thought. 

Silence overcame us, and I could tell Diluc was still thinking about everything I’d just told him. Even though it was my fourth time revealing this secret, I was still quite hesitant myself. Diluc may be doubtful now, but there would be no denying my power once we got straight to it tomorrow.

Diluc adjusted his gloves and gestured to the chessboard. “In the meantime, why don’t we get started? These white chess pieces aren’t going to get captured by themselves, you know.” A slow smile found its way onto his face, and my heart lightened.

A laugh escaped me. He melted away my budding stress like it was nothing. “I won’t hold back, Diluc Ragnvindr.”

“I ask that you never do, Lumine.”

Chapter Text

I was standing in a field of grass. 

Except, this was unlike any other field of grass I’ve ever been in. For starters, not only was the grass black but there was nothing else accompanying it. No weeds, no flowers, no bugs, no wildlife. For as far as I could see, there was just black grass that grew up from the equally dark earth to tickle my ankles. Looking to the sky, I found a reflection of the grass—black. Only, a smattering of faint stars shed that barest of light over the dull landscape. Seemingly even higher than the stars was the moon. I wasn’t sure if it was the same moon that I knew, for it seemed to be placed too far away—I could barely make out the shadows of its craters. Was the grass truly this color? Maybe because it was nighttime, maybe because the moon was so far away, its true color was muted. Yes, that must be it. In what sort of world was there black grass?

A wiry arm shot up from the earth just a few paces from where I stood, and I jumped back in shock.

An arm meant there was an attached body—I hoped—but how had I not noticed it before? Ah, right. I was distracted by the absurd darkness in this world. My heart thumped loudly in my chest as I recovered from the surprise, and I curiously stepped forward to get a closer look at the arm. The end of it—a hand—reached out to the sky in a closed fist. It was holding something tiny. Something white. Curiosity gripped me as I followed the length of the arm down and down to where the rest of the body was. Indeed, there was an accompanying body, but I almost wish there wasn’t. The arm belonged to a hilichurl.

I shuddered with the realization that I’d never been this close to one of these monsters before, at least, not while being so still. Unease gripped me. If I saw the hilichurl, then the hilichurl could see me. Granted, its cracked mask would give anyone the assumption that its eyes were obscured, so maybe it couldn’t see anything at all. Hilichurls always had their masks on, though.

My feet crunched in the grass as I took a cautionary step back from the monster, content to watch from afar. Watch what, exactly? The hilichurl wasn’t doing anything except holding a…a Cecelia. My eyebrows picked up as I noticed the flower. Where had the hilichurl gotten it from? I swiveled my head around, scanning the sea of endless black grass for a patch of Cecelias, but only one Cecelia existed here—plucked and gripped by this monster so delicately.

I only had the chance to marvel at the sight for a brief moment before a sharp wind cut through the air. The hilichurl’s arm disintegrated into dust along with the rest of its body, and the Cecelia’s petals fluttered away.

“Depressing, isn’t it?” a warped voice suddenly gargled from behind me, and I jumped a second time.

Standing next to me was a true monster of the Abyss Order. It looked just like the Abyss Herald and the Abyss Lector, except red. Pyro was the first thought that came to mind, and I looked at the grass with newfound insight. Instead of naturally growing this black, had this Abyss monster scorched the entire earth? Was this monster the cause of desolation in this area?

It was then that I came to my senses. This world was so odd because it wasn’t a real world at all. I was dreaming again, and the Abyss’ influence was back. I began to sweat as I thought of a way to break free, to wake up, but I couldn’t remember how I’d done it the last time.

I pinched my arm.

No such luck.

“Oh, come on now,” the Abyss thing laughed. Laughed . “That’s not going to work.”

I swallowed hard. “Who—What are you? And why do you insist on haunting my dreams?”

“Ah, how accusatory. I’m not haunting you at all. As a matter of fact, I believe this is the first time we’ve ever met. Have I really made such a bad impression already?” 

“Don’t act like you don’t know what’s going on.” I kept my guard up. “I’ve seen things. I’ve heard the conversations that the Abyss Lector and the Abyss Herald had. I know the Abyss Order is up to something, and it isn’t good.”

The monster snapped its fingers. “So that’s what you’re talking about. You saw my colleagues before, hm? I think I remember them saying something about our little Source becoming self-aware. I also remember reprimanding them for being so careless. It seems I was right and they have scared you off, after all,” it sighed. “Sorry about that.”

“‘Sorry about that’?” I echoed incredulously. “That’s all you have to say for yourself? After attacking Celestia Academy and injuring innocents, an apology like that won't do.”

“Eh,” it said. “We gotta do what we gotta do, even if we don’t really want to do it.”

“What are you?” I asked again.

The relaxed nature of this monster was weirding me out. I’d never held a conversation with one before. Besides the Abyss Lector and Abyss Herald, I didn’t even think any of the other Abyssal monsters could speak the language we used in Teyvat. I’d only ever heard them mumble incoherent jargon and give garbled shouts when in a fight.

“Who. We should stick with asking ‘who’,” it hummed. “How about you call me ‘Enjou’?”

“Enjou?” I tested the name in my mouth with a confused frown. “You’re lying.”

Enjou scoffed. “Why would you ever say that? I’m not a liar.”

“Your name should be Abyss…Abyss something. Enjou sounds like a human name.”

“Ah, right,” Enjou cleared its throat. “Give me a sec.”

Its large form seemed to decompress, taught shoulders relaxing and head sagging. This whole time, the thing that called itself “Enjou” had been floating above the black grass just as the Lector and Herald had floated in the strange castle ruins. There’s no doubt they were connected—Enjou had even said they were colleagues—but this one was strange. Enjou’s armored feet touched the ground, and its firey aura began to fade away. Once the imposing figure shrunk down to my size, its armor dissolved to reveal a man.

A regular, human man.

He was so regular, in fact, that he wore glasses and a kimono, of all things.

My alarm heightened with his transformation. This wasn’t normal.

“You can’t trick me.” I took another step back. “I saw your original form.”

Enjou rolled his eyes at me. “I’m not trying to trick you. I just thought it might be easier to talk like this, y’know?”

“I don’t want to talk to you.”

“You can leave if you want. Do you know how?”

I stayed silent.

“Perfect,” Enjou clapped his hands together. “We can do a little catch-up. Alrighty, you know my name, so what’s yours?”

My eyes narrowed. “Is Enjou really your name, though?”

“Believe me. Don’t believe me. It doesn’t matter much.” He crossed his arms with an unbothered smile. “I, for one, won’t question your identity.”

“What do you want from me?” I held my ground.

“So tense,” he tutted. “It’s fine, though. I totally get it. So, what we’re actually after is world domination, world destruction, and world—uh—world desecration. Is that what you wanted to hear? It seemed like you’ve already made such an assumption. Well, don’t worry because that was all a lie. I just want to chat with you.”

“About?”

“About what you can do for us—for me. Once you introduce yourself, we’ll be one step closer to becoming friends. Friends do favors for each other, right?”

I gritted my teeth at his ridiculous words. “I’d never become friends with you. You’re a monster.”

“Another colleague, then,” Enjou sighed. “That’s cool, that’s cool. Colleagues still have to cooperate.”

“I’d never cooperate with you, either.”

“Ah, but you’ll have to. Eventually, you won’t have a choice, human.”

My face twisted. “Don’t call me that.”

“Well, what else am I supposed to call you?” Enjou tilted his head. “I’ve only got your description to go off of. Should I call you ‘Blondie’ instead?”

“My name is Lumine.” I gave in.

Enjou’s thoughtful gaze snapped into a bright grin. “Lumine! Wonderful. I have a proposition for you, Lumine.”

“I won’t hear it.”

“Are you gonna plug your ears like some kid?”

That wasn’t a bad option.

“Don’t be like that,” Enjou wilted. “Just hear me out, okay?”

“I want to know why the Abyss Order attacked Celestia Academy.”

Enjou stretched out his arms and legs. He craned his neck and twisted his back, cracking its joints. At last, he fell down into the grass, sitting with his legs crossed as though standing was too much effort. With a relaxed sigh, he patted the grass in front of him with an encouraging smile.

“I’m not sitting in the grass with you.” I set my mouth in a firm line.

This guy was so off.

“It’s a long story.”

“I can stand.”

He shrugged. “Suit yourself. Okay, where do I begin? I guess the very beginning makes sense, doesn’t it? Once upon a time—the time being five thousand years ago—your world was really going through it. War. I’m talking about war. And it wasn’t even a very good war, either.” Enjou scrunched up his nose. “Meanwhile, we—so-called monsters—lived with no war. Funny how the supposed civilized ones were fighting over trivial matters like territory and supernatural powers. You call ‘em Visions, right? The Abyss had no need for the blessing of the gods. We had our livelihood sorted out just fine without the need to fight over anything. Our own power. Our own peace.”

I didn’t say anything to that. So far, everything Enjou said checked out with what Kaeya and I had deduced from his research board. There was no way I could trust Enjou, a blatant member of the Abyss Order, but I could gather some sense of his honesty based on how closely his story lined up with our research. I felt no hostility or ill-intent coming from Enjou, so it wouldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say.

“All good things must come to an end though, right?” he sighed. “The Abyss is darkness. The darkness is the Abyss. And yet, darkness cannot exist without light. You can see it for yourself up there.”

Enjou pointed to the sky, where the dim stars and tiny moon were fixed.

“Are you saying that we—that I’m in the Abyss right now?” My eyes widened as his words registered.

“Hey, don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I pulled your subconscious here or anything. You did that all on your own.”

All on my own? That couldn’t be. Each time I’d dreamt of the Abyss, it had been involuntary. I still remember the first time when I was in that creepy castle full of shadows. There’s no way I’d ever intentionally put myself in a place like that. This whole time, I thought it was the Abyss reaching out to me, polluting my dreams with its evil intent.

“I’m just sleeping.” I shook my head. “I’ve been actively trying to avoid dreaming about the Abyss, even.”

“Oh?” Enjou’s mouth popped open slightly. “How does one even avoid a dream? I’ve never had a dream myself, so the concept is lost to me.”

“You just—” How did I explain dreaming to a monster? “See things in your sleep.”

“If you don’t want to dream, then don’t look,” he grinned. “There. Problem solved.”

I shook my head. “You can’t control what you see in a dream."

“Then how did you stop from projecting to—er—dreaming about the Abyss? Clearly, your attempts failed. What changed?”

“Almond Tofu,” I muttered.

“Huh?” Enjou cupped one of his ears with a hand. “What was that?”

“I ate a special food that stops nightmares,” I explained. “I ran out, though. Things were actually going pretty good without it for a while. Obviously, my luck ran out.”

Enjou laughed. “I may not know what dreaming is, but that sounds ridiculous. Special food? Though I don’t need to eat, I certainly know what food is. No amount or quality of food can influence your subconscious.”

“You don’t know that.”

“It must have been something else about your interiority,” he hummed. “Something you attributed to the food. I think the Almond Tofu was a placebo. What gave you such an idea in the first place?”

“Instructor—” I bit my cheek. ”You don’t need to know who he is.”

“Ah, someone you look up to?” Enjou nodded. “That makes sense. Confidence is a strong force to possess.”

“So, are you saying it was my confidence in the Almond Tofu that kept the Abyss away for so long? What about the few days when I didn’t eat it?”

“There must have been something else bringing you peace of mind. I don’t know. Not my problem. Ahem,” Enjou rolled his shoulders. “Back to the story. So, we need our light—ironic it may be. Unfortunately, our light was fading out—I mean, look at the size of our moon. Naturally, when a lightbulb goes out, you replace it with a new one. It’s not easy finding another lightbulb, not for us. We needed to outsource one.”

“The Source,” I whispered. “You get your Source from Teyvat.”

“Bingo,” he nodded. “We made a deal. An excellent deal. The Abyss isn’t just monsters, Lumine. You have to know that. We have an abundance of what you would call treasures. To us, they’re the average stuff, but Celestia Academy was very interested in our average stuff. They were so interested, in fact, that they agreed to strike a deal. Once in a while, a thousand years give-or-take, the bridge between our worlds becomes most solid—perfect for doing business.”

“A trade,” I edged on.

“Precisely. You’re a smart one, Lumine. I think I know why Lector and Herald saw so much potential in you. Anyway, a trade between worlds. A bit of our treasure for a bit of your light. It worked well until it didn’t—not our fault. You guys flaked out on us during the last rotation. Rude.”

“So, what?” I crossed my arms. “You want revenge?”

“We want to live,” he sighed. “Who doesn’t? We need Teyvat’s light to do so, and there’s no other option. Your world has plenty of energy to go around. Sparing us one bit couldn’t hurt.”

I shook my head. “No one would want to descend to a world full of monsters. It’s suicidal.”

“Who said anything about death?” Enjou reared back. “My, you make us sound so treacherous.”

“Because you are,” I insisted. “What was the point of the attack?”

“To remind Celestia Academy not to go back on our deal a second time, that’s all. It seems we’ve gotten our message across. Even better, we were able to establish a bond with our next Source, too. Isn’t that nice?”

“I’m not going to be your Source.”

“Hm,” Enjou tapped his chin thoughtfully. “It makes sense why you wouldn’t want to, and it’s not like we can just forcefully extract your power. The Sources before—they always looked surprised to find themselves in the Abyss as their corporeal selves. I don’t think they knew what they agreed to when coming down here which really made the process easier. Since you decided to pop by early, I’ve made the executive decision to give you this orientation. Once you realize that we’re not really bad guys, the adjustment should go smoothly.”

“And if I refuse to go along?”

“I can be very convincing.”

I scoffed. “Nothing you say or do could get me on your side. I belong on Teyvat. It’s my home.”

“I’m sure you have many loved ones that would miss you.” Enjou nodded to himself. “I am also sure you would miss them, should anything unfortunate happen.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a nudge.”

“A threat.”

“A hypothetical situation,” he amended. “Once that could very well become reality. Oh, don’t give me that look. It’s not so terrible over here.”

Fear gripped me. The Abyss Order wanted me as their Source so badly that they were willing to use the people I care about as leverage. It was a clever tactic, and one I wasn’t sure how to get around. Would I give myself up to save them? Against the Abyss Order, I had faith that some of my friends would be able to hold out on their own. Diluc, Thoma, Childe, Kaeya…they were strong. Stronger than me. However, my first-year friends…Madame Ping…there was a great risk.

“I see you’re mulling it over.” Enjou interrupted my thoughts. “That’s good.”

“Nothing about this is good,” I grumbled.

“It can’t be helped. The Abyss is specially pressed for finding a Source this time around after barely surviving the past millennium without one. I do feel kinda bad for you, but we all have to find a way to live somehow.”

I nipped at the budding sympathy within me. 

“Think about it,” Enjou stood up from the ground, brushing blades of black grass from his kimono. “In the grand scheme of things, there’s not much time. I do hope you can understand where I’m coming from. You’re a student, right? Think of this less as a sacrifice and more as a…permanent exchange program. If you’ll excuse me, I have an appointment to get to.”

He snapped his fingers, instantly transforming back to his Abyssal form. Enjou’s feet lifted from the ground once more, and a flicker of firelight danced on his shoulders. I’d nearly forgotten how intimidating he was in this form, and maybe he was right about it being easier to talk when he looked human. That was the only thing he could ever be right about.

“You’re still here,” he observed. “Do you want to hug goodbye or something? We’d need to be friends for that to happen, I’m afraid.”

I recoiled. “I don’t know how to leave.”

Enjou reached out an arm, and I shifted away. Was he actually going for a hug? No. A ball of Pyro appeared in his hand.

“I can send you off.”

“By setting me on fire?” I held my arms up defensively.

Enjou shrugged his massive shoulders. “It won’t hurt. You’re just a projection.”

“I don’t think—”

“Ah, well, I can’t have you roaming around on your own.”

With a flick of his wrist, the Pyro leaped at me. I swallowed a scream as a column of fire encased my body. Looking down at my hands, I found that my fingers were burning away, yet it wasn’t hot at all. I felt no pain. Slowly, the rest of me burnt off in the flames. 

“Told you so.”

I still felt some warmth, though. It reminded me of…a hug? No way.

“Maybe we could still be friends,” Enjou said as I faded away. “Once this is all over, of course.”

“Never.”

My awareness of the Abyss—of the black grass and weak night sky—melted away to nothing. Only the lingering echoes of Enjou’s laugh remained. 

Chapter Text

“One last thing before we end class,” Professor Baizhu erased the board. “I’ve finished grading about a third of your midterms, and you will get them back at the end of this week. As for the class average, I am most pleased with the results thus far. You are now dismissed.”

“Dinner?” Xiangling swooped up her bag.

I shook my head. “I have a meeting in the student council room with Kaeya.”

“I did hear something about that. Make sure he doesn’t give you too much work. If he does, you can always try to sneak out.”

“I’ll see if I can,” I smiled. “The meeting could run long, so I might not be there for your early dinner.”

Xiangling shrugged. “There’s always my second dinner. Let me know how it goes! I want to know all the student council secrets, internal drama, juicy gossip—give it all.”

“Something tells me you’re going to be disappointed. Once I get to the student council room, I’ll—” Wait a minute, how would I get there? I’d never been there before, so I didn’t know where to find it. “Xiangling, you wouldn’t happen to know where the student council room is by any chance?”

“Nope, sorry,” she offered me an apologetic smile. “You should try asking someone else—ooh maybe Professor Baizhu knows. He works here, so I think he should.”

“Good idea.”

Xiangling left in good spirits, and I waited for Professor Baizhu to finish organizing his lecture notes before approaching him with my question. I noticed he took a bit longer than usual, and his pet snake—Changsheng—seemed like she was hissing something in his ear. Not for the first time, I wondered about how Professor Baizhu and a talking snake became so close. While I’ve encountered crazier things as of late, their relationship was far from normal. 

“Hi, professor,” I approached him. “Do you know where the student council room is?”

“The student council room?” he blinked slowly. Changsheng stared at me. If snakes had eyelids, I feel like she also would have blinked. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“Ah,” I began to worry. “Thank you.”

Professor Baizhu continued. “Lumine, I have to say I am most surprised by your midterm.”

My worry intensified. “Was it bad?”

“Quite the opposite,” he shook his head. “For the sake of fairness, I cannot tell you your score until the rest of the class gets theirs. Though, I will say you scored the highest of all your peers.”

A buzz of surprise ran through me. “Really?”

“So far,” he winked. “Though, I doubt anyone could top your performance.”

“Thank you,” I smiled.

“Don’t thank me. It is the result of your great efforts that earned you your grade. My excellent teaching does play some part, of course, but it all comes down to how hard you work for it.” Professor Baizhu looked down at his wrist, checking his watch. “Ah, I must be off now. Kriedeprinz warned me he’d be tinkering with a new potion design of his, one that involves my stock in the greenhouse. I must get there before he siphons off one too many precious herbs. Good luck with finding that room of yours.”

And with that, Professor Baizhu was gone from the classroom. I hurried out behind him, desperate to quickly find the meeting spot. I had about ten minutes before Kaeya chastised me for wasting time—not that I intended to. Exiting the laboratories, I tried to think of a likely location where the student council room would be. The laboratories were out, and so were the student dorms and dining hall. 

The library?

There were a few doors beyond the ones hidden behind bookcases. I’d never taken the time to look into them, so maybe that’s where I could find it. Quickly, I crossed the main quad and entered the library. Alongside one wall with the least amount of ornamentation were three doors. I checked the first one—full of archive boxes. The second one was a small study space. The third one had a Kamera station set up. Not the library, then.

I chewed my lip as I rushed out of the building, trying to think of the next best option. The lecture building had a lot of classrooms. With classes over for the day, all of those rooms would be empty. I highly doubted the student council would get a room just for themselves, so it could be that a lecture room was transformed for meeting purposes. Before I second-guessed myself, I passed through the quad once more, crossing under trees painted with bright red leaves that signaled the height of autumn.

The lecture building was dauntingly large, but I refused to leave unsuccessful. Luckily, small windows fitted the majority of the doors in the hallways—just wide enough for me to peek in and see if the room was occupied. I dashed down one hall, skimming through the classrooms. Nothing. I climbed up the next flight of stairs to do the same. No Kaeya, Childe, Thoma, or Diluc. Two more floors yielded the same results, and I was sweating from the effort. Not the lecture hall, then.

This was bad. Ten minutes had gone by at this point. Why hadn’t I asked Kaeya where the student council room was when he first mentioned it? The others probably knew where it was since they’d been students here longer than me. I cursed my thoughtlessness as I wandered back to the main quad. 

“You seem lost,” said a calm voice.

I tensed. No one was standing in close vicinity to me. Where had that voice come from?

I heard the person clear their throat. “Pardon me. This isn’t the best position to hold a conversation.”

It came from...above? I tilted my head up and looked to the trees. Sure enough, there was a student perched between the branches. He looked so serene, I almost felt bad for disturbing his peace when he leapt down and landed on the ground beside me. The action rumpled his clothes, and he straightened his uniform. A single streak of red ran through blond hair, how interesting.

“Clear weather all around brightens the heart.” He looked to the skies with striking red eyes that reminded me of Diluc. “Yet you seem troubled and make haste in this space. I noticed you running here and there, never staying in one building for too long.”

He’d been watching me from that tree? “I’m looking for the student council room.”

“It’s in the administration building.” He tilted his head. “Do you wish for me to bring you there? I know the exact room.”

I nodded with growing appreciation. “That would be great, thank you.”

“Alright, let's head off.” He left the gathering of trees, and I followed. “I am Kazuha, a first-year who wanders often. That is why I know the location of the destination you seek.”

“Nice to meet you, Kazuha. I’m Lumine,” I paused. “Do you know where everything is on campus?”

“I never stay in a single place for very long,” Kazuha said after a long pause. “While I am still able to, I want to explore all that I can of this school.”

Kazuha had begun at a leisurely pace, but his strides lengthened to match my hurried walk. Though it was nice to meet a new face, I was late, so I appreciated his consideration. We entered the administration building, and Kazuha gestured to a wide staircase.

As we climbed the steps, he said “I am no stranger to feeling lost. By guiding you to this place, I was hoping to alleviate at least one soul from the predicament. It seems that your desire to find the student council room wasn’t what I sensed, though.”

“What do you mean?” 

“My comforts are with hearing the voices of all things in nature,” Kazuha hummed. “Because people belong to nature, that includes yours. My belief that you are lost in a holistic sense remains firm, but this is just an observation. Please, do not take my musings to heart.”

We lapsed into silence as Kazuha led the way down the second floor. I thought about what he had said, about me being lost, and tried to pinpoint what about me gave such an impression. Stealing a look at Kazuha’s face, I saw that he wore a faint smile, as if he was the sole keeper of a secret. This guy was just as mysterious as his words. For a first-year, he seemed to have the wisdom of someone who had graduated years ago. I wondered how we’d never crossed paths so far. 

“This is the room.” He stopped in front of an unmarked door. “If you find yourself lost again, well, I am but a wandering student that you could run into just about anywhere.”

The door swung open abruptly. Neither Kazuha nor I had touched the doorknob, and we turned to see who was stepping out of the room. It was Childe.

“There you are, Lumi,” he breathed out before cutting to Kazuha. “Who the hell are you?”

“Childe, this is Kazuha. Kazuha, Childe,” I introduced them. “I didn’t know where to find the student council room, and Kazuha was nice enough to show me the way.”

Childe narrowed his eyes. “What a gentleman. I was just about to go looking for you. You don’t need his help when you have me.”

“I can’t just deny help when offered.” I placed my hands on my hips. “I’m here now, so we can get the meeting started. Kazuha, thank you again.”

For an odd moment, Kazuha didn’t say anything in response. Instead, he calmly looked at Childe, me, and back to Childe again. It could have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a flash of amusement cross his features. Because I’d just met him, it was hard to figure out what could be going through his head. 

“She said ‘thank you’. That means you can leave now.” Childe shooed with his hands. “You’re not a part of our meeting, so I suggest you get lost.”

Kazuha sighed. “I have heard much about you, Childe. I wonder if the rumors are true.”

“You need to be more specific.” Childe crossed his arms. “Which rumor?”

Ignoring him, Kazuha faced me with a thoughtful expression before reaching out to my face with a hand I noticed to be wrapped in bandages. His hand passed by my eyes and I felt a tickle in my hair before he pulled back, holding a maple leaf between two fingers. There were leaves in my hair? I ruffled the top of my head to loosen up any remnants of the outside. Most of the seasonal trees were in the process of shedding their leaves, and one must have gotten stuck when I was running around.

“This was the only one.” Kazuha toyed with the leaf, his gaze sliding to Childe. “Ah, that confirms it.”

Childe’s fists were clenched tightly, and his eyes had zeroed in on Kazuha’s smug expression. My disaster-prevention senses tingled at his reaction to Kazuha’s innocent behavior—it was as though Kazuha had personally offended him. Because Childe looked so ready to throttle my new acquaintance, I quickly stepped in front of him in an attempt to block Kazuha from his sight. Childe was taller than me, though, so the best I could do was act as a protective barrier.

“You should probably get going,” I rushed out. 

Childe barked out a laugh. “He should stay for a chat. I’m quite good at talking with my fists.”

“He’s joking,” I explained.

“I’m not.”

“Do not fret,” Kazuha shook his head. “There was an urge to confirm my intuition, and I am most satisfied with the results. I have no intention of lingering a moment longer. In the interest of the student body, I hope your meeting goes well.” He bent his head slightly before turning away down the hall. A faint draft blew through my hair as he walked past me, carrying the scent of autumn winds.

 Beside me, a light scoff escaped from Childe as he ran his fingers through his hair. “You know him? He seems pretentious.”

“We just met. I thought he was nice.”

“How about you two bring the conversation in here?” Kaeya’s voice came from inside the room. “There’s plenty of work to go around.”

Work?

Childe’s shoulders stiffened, and I followed him into the student council room. After ensuring the door clicked shut behind me, I turned my full attention to the interior. There were multiple tables lined up to form a conference arrangement that spanned the length of the room. Wooden chairs padded with teal cushions surrounded the area, but only two of them were occupied. Kaeya sat at the head of the table, closest to the floor-to-ceiling chalkboard, and Thoma sat next to Kaeya at the corner with his back facing the arched windows that lined one side of the room. On the opposing wall hung a large bulletin board pinned up with calendars, reminders, and highlighted material for upcoming student council projects. The sun was beginning to set, and a golden hue was cast over the scattered papers that piled next to both Kaeya and Thoma.

“What’s all this?” I picked up a stray slip of paper and read the hand-written text out loud. “The only place to get a good drink on this boring island is the tavern in town. Abolish the Sakoku Order so I can finally get peace of mind.”

“That one was most likely Rosaria,” Kaeya chuckled. “I’ll reword it on the master document to be more appropriate for the proposal, but she makes a good point.”

“The master document?” I echoed. “Wait, don’t tell me you brought us here to actually do student council duties for you.”

Kaeya tsked and marked down a crisp sheet of paper. “Not for me, Lumine. With me. This is a team effort.”

“While we were waiting for you to get here, lazypants brought out this nonsense to pass the time,” Childe grumbled. “I didn’t sign up for this.”

“Lumine, hey,” Thoma waved with a piece of paper in hand. “It slipped my mind that you might not know where the student council room was. That must have been pretty stressful for you, sorry about that.”

“It’s alright,” I rounded the table and pulled out a chair next to him. “I met someone who showed me the way. Since you guys were working on actual work this whole time, I guess I didn’t miss much.”

“That’s my seat,” Childe jumped and slid across the table, landing on the other side to point at the chair I was about to sit in. “I was sitting there before you got here.”

“You were sitting next to Thoma?” I blinked in surprise.

“Yes,” he nodded firmly. “So, unfortunately, you can’t sit next to him. My spot.”

Thoma tilted his head. “You were pacing around the room the whole time.”

“The intention was there,” Childe sniffed. 

I couldn’t get a sense of what was going on with Childe today. He was incredibly standoffish toward Kazuha only a moment ago. Now, he wanted to sit next to Thoma—someone who he had an issue with for no reason from the very beginning. Though, if he suddenly got along with Thoma, then there was no reason to look into it too much. This was probably an extension of Childe learning to get along with people that—

“Anyways, you can sit in the seat next to me, Lumi.”

Ah, that was his ploy. I ruefully shook my head, thinking that I should have known better before a slight pause grabbed me. What exactly was Childe’s ploy? He didn’t want me to sit by Thoma who was shooting me a see-what-I-mean? look. Seeing how Kaeya quietly watched the whole interaction with his signature smirk, there was no denying it. Thoma made Childe jealous. Kazuha had made Childe jealous—Archons, even Kazuha picked up on it before I did, and he was a fresh set of eyes. If I was looking for proof, I’d be blind not to see it now.

“C’mon, girlie,” Childe pulled a chair out for me. “Let’s get the real meeting started.”

I cleared my throat in part to focus on the task at hand, but mostly to distract myself from the confirmation that Childe also held feelings for me. It was betting to feel warm in here. Sitting down, I focused on what was most important. “We’re missing Diluc.”

“Diluc?” Kaeya’s hand bumped into the neatly stacked pile of sorted paper, knocking them askew. His quiet alarm was evident for only a moment before schooling his features. “Why would Diluc be coming?”

“Him, too?” Childe shook his head. “The whole school is going to know at this rate. Aren’t you worried about the Academy finding out?”

“I had a feeling there was something more to this meeting,” Thoma said. “Lumine, that day when we—you said you would explain it all later. I take it now is the later?”

I nodded.

“Well, then I can see why you also chose to tell Diluc.”

“Why?” Childe gripped the backrest of Thoma’s chair. “Why would she tell Diluc?”

My face flamed. “Let’s not get off-topic. I told Diluc we’d be meeting here to go over everything after class today, even though he was skeptical. Because I arrived so late, I thought everyone would be here by now.”

“Diluc is a very practical man,” Kaeya said. “Unless he sees tangible proof in any situation, he’s not one to be easily convinced. On top of that, I’m sure he knows I’ll be here.” He stared at the table. “The odds of him attending are low.”

“He said he would,” I asserted. “I believe him.”

Childe kicked back in his seat. “We don’t need Diluc. The four of us are enough.”

“I need Diluc,” I blurted. “I mean—it would be helpful to have someone like Diluc to…he’s very…”

Oh no. My face was growing hotter and hotter. How was I supposed to explain my trust in Diluc without being too obvious about my feelings for him as well? While Thoma simply nodded to himself in understanding, Childe looked increasingly alarmed, and Kaeya looked…resigned somehow. Their mixed reactions did nothing to help me find my words.

A knock sounded at the door.

We all looked at each other, and Childe was the first to spring up from his chair. Without hesitation, he swung the door open—just as he had done when confronting me and Kazuha—to reveal none other than Diluc on the other side. Diluc’s eyes immediately snapped to glare at Childe, and while I couldn’t see Childe’s expression since he faced away from me, I could easily imagine the critical stare on his face. They stood there only for a moment before Childe dramatically turned his head away and walked back to his seat.

Relief squeezed in my chest. With Diluc’s presence, it felt like the final piece of a shifting puzzle finally snapped into place. He looked at me with a hint of softness before disdain flickered in Kaeya’s direction. Hopefully, the two of them could put their differences aside and work together on this. Though some tension was expected, I also hoped that by the end of it all, Kaeya wouldn’t stiffen each time Diluc was around. 

“Diluc is here,” Childe dully announced.

“I apologize for being so late,” Diluc fully closed the door. “My plans were intercepted by a few task force members who wanted to take me in for questioning.”

I gasped. “Did they find out it was you?”

Diluc took the seat across from me. “They had their suspicions, but my alibi cleared all of that. Now then, what did I miss?”

“Alibi for what?” Childe leaned in. “Don’t tell me the Diluc Ragnvindr isn’t actually a perfect, rule-abiding, model citizen with a permanent stick up his—”

Kaeya interrupted. “Now that everyone is here, I think it’s time for a proper recap.” After shuffling the feedback papers, he set them to the side and looked at me. “Childe and I are up to date, but it would be helpful to ensure everyone is on the same page.”

“Actually, I had another dream last night.”

Childe stopped judging Diluc for a moment to look at me with worry. “A nightmare?”

“I wouldn’t call it a nightmare,” I spoke softly. “I’m starting to think they were never nightmares.”

“What are you talking about? What nightmares?” Diluc folded his arms on top of the table with sharp concern.

“I think it would be good to start with last night and work backward from there.” I pushed away from the table to stand up. “Is there chalk for the board, Kaeya? Writing out the key points would help situate everything.”

Kaeya procured a piece of white chalk and held it out to me. Our fingers brushed ever so slightly, and I almost didn’t catch the acute glare that both Childe and Diluc aimed toward the contact. Thoma, at least, smiled with encouragement. I steeled myself for a detailed recollection of my dream—my projection into the Abyss. Facing the board, I reached up to write down the first major piece of information. Before I could get any further, Childe asked the first question of many.

“What’s an Enjou?”

Chapter Text

“That’s just about everything,” I added one last stroke of chalk on the board as I finished the timeline of events. “Any other questions? Diluc, you look like you want to say something.”

He was frowning again. “It’s unnerving to find that my memory has been tampered with. If you hadn’t pointed it out, I don’t think I ever would have noticed the identity of last year’s Champion was completely missing from my mind. Whoever has the power to do such a thing—we should be careful with how we proceed.”

“I have to agree,” Childe piped in. “Especially since I was planning on winning the Grand Tournament this year, we can’t have me disappearing into thin air. You wouldn’t forget me, right Lumi?”

Kaeya pressed his lips together. “Winning or losing the Grand Tournament shouldn’t be a priority, not until we figure out a way to stop the Abyss Order from succeeding in their goal—Lumine. As unfortunate as the monster attack was, we should be grateful they didn’t take you by force straight away.” 

Wiping the chalk dust from my hands, I walked back to my seat and sat down with a sigh. “That’s true. It looks like they want me to come willingly, but I don’t know how long that will last. Enjou made it seem like I was their last hope.”

“But there’s another Source, isn’t there? The one that went missing,” Thoma reminded. “If we find that person, then maybe you won’t be the Abyss Order’s target anymore.”

Diluc shook his head sternly. “This is the Abyss Order we’re talking about. Even if the other Source were to suddenly appear again, I have no doubt Lumine will still be on their radar. Obtaining two sources of power and using the surplus energy to wreak havoc as a means of getting revenge is not an unlikely outcome.”

“I don’t know.” I squeezed my fingers. “Based on how things looked in the Abyss, I never caught any hints of anger. There was just…empty sadness. Enjou and the other Abyssal creatures are just trying to live.”

Diluc persisted. “If this ‘Enjou’ really had good intentions, it would have at least mentioned the other Source. By highlighting you as their sole savior, it was trying to corner you—to trick you into thinking there was no other choice. I don’t care how human that thing may have looked, it is still a monster and will forever lead with an agenda that benefits the Abyss Order.”

I sighed. “You’re right.”

I had to remind myself not to be swayed by Enjou’s words. No matter how nonchalantly he reasoned, no matter how friendly he looked, I couldn't let myself be tricked into falling for any of it. If I did, that would put the lives of everyone in Teyvat at risk. A stronger Abyss Order meant a stronger presence of monsters popping up all over our world causing more chaos.

“What worries me,” Kaeya leaned in. “Is that Enjou may be right about one thing—this link you have with the Abyss. Dreams, projections, whatever you may call them—they’re very real, and they’re very dangerous. Have you thought about the reason why you were able to suppress it for so long?”

“I guess it does seem silly that Almond Tofu had any power against the mighty Abyss Order,” I blushed. “Enjou mentioned confidence, so it could have something to do with my state of mind. By simply believing I would be protected from the Abyss, the dreams go away.”

“So, when there was no more Almond Tofu, what was it that made you feel this same protection?” Kaeya tapped a finger on the table.

I closed my eyes, trying to think. There was nothing I’d done during the day to affect how I would sleep that night, nor was there anything special about my sleeping arrangements. Because it had only been a couple of nights where I was Abyss-free, there wasn’t much to go off of. Protection…protection…safety? Comfort? If I were to tweak the meaning of protection, one thing did stand out to me. In the nights that followed after Kaeya and Childe visited my room, I’d held onto a certain someone’s scent that lingered on my pillow right before falling asleep. Eventually, it faded away—the same night when I dreamt of Enjou.

“What is it?” Thoma tilted his head. “It looks like you realized something.”

“Nope,” I felt another blush creep up my neck. “Not a clue.”

Thoma frowned. “You gasped, though.”

Did I? I was too wrapped up in the embarrassment of knowing that it was Kaeya’s scent that brought me comfort. The reminder of him put me at ease, but saying that would surely result in his flirting being increased tenfold—not to mention how the other three people in the room would react to this news.

“Ah,” I laughed. “It must have been the, um, the…”

“You’re avoiding eye contact completely,” Kaeya observed with a growing smirk. “Could it be that it involves one of us?”

How was he so spot on?

“One of us?” Diluc’s contemplative frown shifted to a confused frown. “I was under the impression that this influencing factor is something present with you before going to sleep. No one else is with you at night, so—” His nostrils flared as he turned his attention from me to the three guys in the room. “Which one of you pricks is sharing a bed with Lumine?”

“Diluc!” I gasped. “I haven’t—nobody has—”

Kaeya was laughing. Childe looked like he didn’t know whether to be as amused as Kaeya or alarmed like Diluc. My face was growing hotter by the minute. Did Diluc really think I was spending the night with someone? I pictured how that might go with either of them, and it wasn’t a terrible idea. I only became more flushed as I realized how much it tempted me. If something as simple as Kaeya's scent was enough to assure my subconscious, having the actual person with me would be…

“I don’t think that’s what’s going on here,” Thoma cleared his throat. Somehow, he looked just as flustered as I felt. “We’re all friends with Lumine. While the degrees of friendship may vary, something like that would be out of line.”

Pretending like I wasn’t just entertaining the very out-of-line suggestion, I went along with Thoma’s input. “Yes, exactly. Thank you, Thoma.”

“For now, at least,” Kaeya winked. “Later down the line…who knows? Winters here are cold, and Lumine might need someone to help keep her warm.”

“By that logic, you’re out of the picture, Cryo Vision,” Childe smirked.

“I think I prefer it when you call me ‘pirate boy.’”

“And I think I prefer it when you’re not talking,” Diluc grumbled. “Lumine, I’m sorry to have jumped to that conclusion. After giving it some thought, it’s obvious that none of these idiots would ever get the chance. No offense to you, Thoma. We’ve only just met, but I have gleaned at least some sense of honor from you.”

“None taken,” Thoma replied curtly.

“Are you looking for a fight, Ragnvindr?” Childe pushed up from his chair.

I grabbed his arm and yanked him back down. “Nobody is fighting.”

He looked down at my hand with indignation for only a moment before quirking into his usual composure. “I guess I can’t do much with you holding me down, girlie. Just don’t let go.”

With a fluttering heartbeat, I dropped his arm and pulled my hand away, but the movement was jerky. “Anyways, back to the point.”

“Right,” Kaeya drawled. “The point being that you haven’t been using us to reinforce your mind along with your heart. It seems I still have much work to do.”

“Enough, Kaeya,” Diluc cut in. “Can’t you be serious for once?”

“I am serious, Diluc,” Kaeya hummed back. “I can’t afford to not be.”

At least they were talking.

“Actually,” I took in a slow breath to steady my thoughts and prepare to face Kaeya at the height of smugness. “I slept well after going over details with Kaeya and Childe one night.”

Diluc narrowed his eyes. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“For whatever reason, Kaeya was hugging my pillow the entire time,” I began to explain.

“It smells like you,” Kaeya interjected. “Like rainbows and sunshine.”

I rolled my eyes and tried to ignore the stutter in my chest. “Rainbows and sunshine? Really?”

He shrugged with a teasing grin. “You’d have to come a little closer for me to give a more detailed account. There’s no room left on this chair, but my lap is feeling rather empty.”

There was no mirror for me to look in, but I didn’t need one to know my face was bright red. As red as Diluc’s hair, in fact. Diluc—with his stormy frown. Not just stormy, downright murderous. The last time I saw him this upset was when that drunkard was bothering me in the tavern.

I did my best to steer us back on track. “What a coincidence. Kaeya thought my pillow smelled like me, and I thought my pillow smelled like Kaeya. He hugged it so much that his scent sort of stayed for a bit, and I found it to be comforting. Moving on—”

“You can’t be serious,” Childe gaped. “Kaeya? Girlie, the next time I go to your room, I’ll be borrowing that pillow.”

Diluc shifted his glare. “Bold of you to assume there’ll be a next time.”

“Kaeya,” Thoma mumbled softly to himself. “Interesting.”

“Oh, but Childe, it’s been proven that I’m the one who keeps the monsters at bay—at least in her dreams. Why don’t you leave the bedroom magic to me?” Kaeya’s grin grew wider, and there was a lightness to it that suggested this was more than just teasing to him. Kaeya seemed genuinely elated. 

“I’m beginning to think bringing you all together was a bad idea,” I grumbled. “If we can't work together after all, then my plan B would have to be asking Enjou for more information. Maybe he and I could work something out.”

Everyone’s head snapped to look at me with alarm.

“No,” they all said in unison.

I was stunned by how quickly they agreed. “No?” 

“Not a chance,” Childe set his mouth in a grim line. “I don’t care if it means you hanging out with Kaeya more, exposing yourself to that Enjou guy is bad news.”

“It could corrupt your mind,” Diluc said. “Or lull you into a false sense of security over time.”

Thoma nodded. “We’ve got your back, Lu.”

“Under any other circumstance, I doubt the four of us would have ever found ourselves teaming up to work together,” Kaeya leaned back in his seat. “Because it’s you and the fate of many others, you can trust us, Lumine. Extraordinary powers and extensive planning aside, trust is what will get us through this.”

I looked at them individually. Though they were entirely different people, and though clear tensions hung in the air, one common variable remained present in their gazes—unfaltering loyalty. Without a doubt, I believed in the trust Kaeya talked about. I wouldn’t have confided in them if I hadn’t.

“Thank you,” I smiled tightly. “If I’m being honest, when Enjou said something bad might happen to the people I cared about if I didn’t comply…it scared me. It’s a relief knowing that I’m not alone, but worrying about myself is one thing—I don’t know what I would do if someone got hurt because of me.”

“The Abyss Order won’t be using anyone against you,” Diluc said. “Not if we can help it.”

Kaeya shrugged. “As a member of the student council, it’s my job to make sure everyone is safe and attended to. Once this is done and over with, I should ask Jean for extra benefits. It’s the least she can do.”

“If it makes you happy, I’ll keep an eye on everyone. I can’t promise to save Bennett from himself, though,” Childe grimaced. “That kid really is something.”

“I didn’t invest my Pyro talents into a shield for nothing,” Thoma smiled at me. “If there’s one thing I pride myself on, it’s looking out for others.”

Filled with relief, happiness, and overall appreciation, I couldn't help but smile brightly at the group. There was still much to get through, but I didn’t need to depend on hope anymore. These guys were enough to reassure my heart, to convince me that things might just turn out alright after all. I did my best to hold back happy tears.

“Right then,” I sniffed. “Onto the next matter. I still need to show Diluc my Anemo ability. Thoma too, but I have to prove that I haven’t lost my mind.”

“My kind of crazy,” Childe openly grinned.

I ignored him. Partially. There was only so much I could set aside for later, and Childe’s blatant heart-eyes were so different from Kaeya’s strategic flirts. Really—how did I not see it before?

“Kaeya, do you mind if I rustle a few papers?”

“Use these,” he gathered sheets that hadn’t been sorted and slid them across the table.

“Thanks. Now, watch carefully.”

I reached out to the cluster of papers, not to grab them, but to direct the Anemo. This time, I was aiming for a more extravagant display. A simple show wouldn’t do, not when I had four pairs of keen eyes trained on me. I wanted to impress them, even if I felt a bit drained after.

Wisps of Anemo carefully picked up the paper to float in the air like leaves in the wind. Instead of letting them hover, I twirled my wrist with a flourish and the Ameno spun into a small whirlwind that was visible by the sheets fluttering in a circle above our heads. Taking a peek at Diluc, I smiled with satisfaction once his eyes slowly widened in awe. Thoma’s mouth was agape—not surprising. Even though he’d said he believed me, seeing it for himself had its impact. Gradually, I let the papers fall back to the table, and I even conjured Anemo currents to sweep inwards so none of them slipped to the floor. A weight settled over my arms once I’d retracted the power, but it wasn’t as intense as I expected it to be. 

Diluc was the first to say anything. “Seeing is believing.”

“Do you think you could do that to the leaves outside?” Thoma asked. “Blowing them into one neat pile, oh how convenient that would be.”

“She’s not a groundskeeper,” Childe grumbled.

“I know that,” Thoma’s cheeks tinted. “I was just thinking out loud, that’s all.”

“I can try when there’s no risk. It’d be a good large-scale practice.”

“Practice for Anemo is good and all,” Kaeya said. “What about Geo? Have you figured out a way to harness that energy?”

 Childe sat up. “Hang on, Kaeya. Are we sure that’s a good idea? Lumi, you broke a wall the last time you used Geo.”

“The Academy was easily able to look past that the first time,” Diluc begrudgingly agreed. “Another case of property damage would certainly turn some heads. Is there any particular rush for you to explore these Geo powers? I don’t want you to strain yourself.”

“I can handle it. Childe brings up a good point, though. Figuring out how Geo works while indoors wouldn’t be the wisest decision.”

“The gazebo is private, but not private enough for something of that scale,” Thoma added. “I’m afraid there aren’t any good options.”

With the gazebo, there was a shelter of trees and some distance from the main campus to keep things hidden, but Thoma was right. One other location would be the surrounding forest. Not only was it covered with even more trees, but I could get even further from campus to avoid detection. There was just one obstacle in the way.

“Kaeya,” I rested my elbows on the table. “With these Sakoku Order protests, how much longer do you think it’ll take until the Raiden Shogun finally lifts it?”

“How long?” he rubbed his jaw. “If Jean really pushes for it, which I think she will, we’re looking at around a week or two. Worst case scenario is never, but that won’t do. After winter break at the latest.”

Diluc tutted. “Vague.” 

“It’s not up to me,” Kaeya shot back. “What is up to me is putting these responses together. The faster that gets done, the faster Jean can make the proposal. If all of us chip in, this work could be done by the end of the night.”

“Good idea,” I brushed back my hair. “I don’t mind helping out, then.”

“No wonder the student council is slow to produce results,” Diluc grunted. “Tasking a single person with a job. Always so inefficient.”

Kaeya tilted his head. “Agree to disagree.”

“So, you guys in?” I looked to Childe.

He eyed the pile of work. “It couldn’t hurt to get through some. Besides, I need to stay and make sure Kaeya doesn’t try anything funny.”

“Uh-huh,” I blushed. “Thoma?”

He looked up from a piece of paper already in his hand. “What’s that? Oh, of course, I’d be happy to help.”

Then, there was just one more.

“Diluc?”

He crossed his arms, and I was sure Diluc would decline help entirely. He did mention there were other responsibilities for him to attend to, so I could understand that. With the additional fact that he’d continue to be stuck in the same room as Kaeya…now was his chance to escape. It was clear from the look of disdain on his face that student council work was probably the last thing he wanted to be involved in.

“What exactly are we doing here?” he sighed. “I suppose I could stay for a bit if it means moving things along faster.”

Kaeya shifted in his seat, and I peeked at him to see he looked just as surprised as I felt. Before Diluc could change his mind, I grabbed a wayward piece of paper and placed it in front of him. Assuming his role as a student council member, Kaeya explained to everyone how to categorize the responses, and my shoulders relaxed. Finally, something normal.

✧✧✧

Diluc didn’t stay for long. I was still surprised that he stayed at all to sort several dozen responses on his own. He didn’t say anything directly to me before leaving, and I could tell having the others here was most likely the reason for that. Despite his aloofness, I felt there was something there—a chance that Diluc could become indifferent to rather than annoyed by Kaeya’s presence over time. It was hard to tell what the future would hold, and I switched mental tracks to focus on the task at hand.

I grabbed my first response slip. The student’s handwriting resembled chicken scratch, but at least the message was simple.

I like to hunt. No forest means no hunting. This makes Razor sad.

That would go in the freedom-to-explore-the-forest pile.

Her Majesty beseeches you to cease the restrictive ordinance. Should this world capture the attention of such violent beasts, then I shall fell it with my ensorcelled arrows of judgment!

Her Majesty? I reread the slip and tried to make sense of what this student was trying to say. It sounded like they wanted to take the Abyss Order head-on. While I admired their fighting spirit, I highly doubted the Academy would allow it. For now, I put it in its own pile.

Nothing beats looking out over the ocean and drinking a cold beer after a hard day's work. I miss talking with the passing crew, and I want to know if they're doing alright. Let us use the waypoints again.

I placed that in the teleport-usage pile.

I want to eat at the restaurant in town! I didn’t even know there was one until my friends brought up it had hot pot. I love hot pot so much and can’t wait to toss in my special ingredients.

This one screamed Xiangling. I also put that in the teleport-usage pile, and my stomach growled when thinking about what delicious combinations Xiangling could make if the right tools were available to her. I would have to stop by her room one day to see that stove for myself and maybe convince her to make me one of her specialties.

“Are you hungry?” Childe asked.

“A little,” I admitted. “We still haven’t eaten any dinner yet, but I want to make sure this gets done first.”

Thoma’s head picked up. “Do you want me to grab something to eat?”

“I can stop by the dining hall and pick up some food,” Childe said at the same time.

“I’m feeling quite peckish myself.” Kaeya chimed in. “Any volunteers for me?”

Crickets.

“Ouch,” he chuckled. 

“I do have two hands,” Thoma got up. “Carrying more than one plate shouldn't be a problem.”

Childe also stood. “You’re too thoughtful. How about I do the honors instead?”

“Four hands are better than two,” Thoma smiled. “We can grab the food together.”

“Together? How about we see who can carry the most food and get back the fastest?” Childe proposed. “The winner can sit next to Lumi, and the loser is banished to the other side of the table.”

“Deal,” Thoma said with no hesitation.

With that settled, they made haste in their mission to deliver food. Competing for something as trivial as sitting next to me, surely that was too much, right? The thought of dinner on its way boosted my energy somewhat, and a smile touched my lips as I pictured them in the dining hall. Hopefully, they didn’t cause too much chaos.

“And then there were two,” Kaeya set down his pen and looked at me with a playful smile. “I will say that I was only joking about what I said earlier—that you were thinking of one of us before going to sleep.”

“I can’t help what I smell,” I mumbled.

“If you want, you can take one of my pillows. The scent has faded on yours, has it not?”

“One of yours?” I shook my head. “No, that’s fine. Now that I know what the underlying reason was, I can just think about the subject directly  instead of relying on a pillow.”

“You mean you’ll be thinking of me before going to sleep each night?” he smirked.

My face heated. “When you put it that way, yes. It would also be worth thinking of other…people.”

“Other people? Is there someone else who makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside? Who is it, Thoma or Childe? Maybe even Diluc?”

There was an opening there for me to talk about Diluc with him, and I latched onto it. It also allowed me to change the subject. Two birds, one stone. “Speaking of Diluc, I asked him about what happened in your past.”

“Did you?” Kaeya’s smirk faltered. “And what was his response?”

“That it was for you to say and him to never forgive.”

He sighed. “Yes, that sounds like him. You want to know about our past, hm? I would have thought today’s quota of serious topics had been met already.”

“That’s alright,” I quieted. “I don’t want to force you into saying anything you’re not comfortable with.”

“No, no, I’m completely comfortable around you,” Kaeya insisted. “I am grateful you decided to bring it up now while those two made themselves busy. I would prefer this stay between us, Lumine. I am…not proud of my past, and Diluc has every right to hold the resentment he does.” He sighed heavily and rubbed his jaw, looking out the window to where night had just fallen. “As you already know, I was adopted into Diluc’s family when I was young. Before meeting his father, Crepus, I was an orphan that roamed the streets of Mondstadt. Some nights, I went hungry, and there was no option to provide for myself other than petty theft. Nobody looked at a defenseless child and thought ‘pickpocket suspect,’ so I got away with it until the wrong people caught me.” 

“The Knights of Favonius?” I guessed, having some sense of the authorities in Mondstadt.

“No,” he snorted. “I wish. I had come across a band of traveling treasure hoarders, though I didn’t know it at the time. All I saw were shiny trinkets hidden in shallow pockets that could earn me my next meal. As swift as I had become with practice, I wasn’t quick enough to get away from them in time. The treasure hoarders caught me, dragged me to an abandoned alley, and threatened my life,” he paused. “Then, they gave me an ultimatum. I would either pay for my crimes the treasure hoarder way, or they would take me in as one of their own.”

I gasped. “You joined the treasure hoarders? I didn’t know they let kids in.”

“They do if you’re a kid with promising talent and no family,” he said bitterly. “I couldn’t say no to a roof over my head, and I was gullible enough to believe they meant well. The treasure hoarders took me in, gave me a home—a life—and all I had to do was prove myself useful. That arrangement didn’t last very long, though. I got caught again.”

“Was it the Knights this time?”

He chuckled. “It was Crepus.”

Diluc’s dad. “What did he do? Did he turn you in?”

“He was going to,” Kaeya stared at the table. “I don’t know why he didn’t. At the time, I thought all grown-ups were weird and lonely because he decided to adopt me just as the treasure hoarders had. Of course, I knew better than to reveal my alliance with them— thinking he would have thrown me out for sure. In retrospect, it would have been best for me to come clean straight away. I’d come to learn that Crepus wasn’t just an honorable man, but a compassionate one. He took me to his manor and gave me a real home with no strings attached. Even better, he gave me a family.”

“How did the treasure hoarders respond?”

“They were excited about it, actually,” Kaeya grimaced. “They saw me as their ‘in’ to a bigger job—the ultimate heist. All I had to do was act like a good son while leaking information about the winery’s business so they could predict the market, intercept cargo, and fill their pockets. I thought I didn’t have a choice. The treasure hoarders were the first to show me kindness, and I felt indebted to them because of it. As time went on, though, I didn’t want to be a part of the scheme anymore. I loved Crepus like he was my own father, and I couldn't stomach any further betrayal. My timing in realizing this was…most unfortunate.” Kaeya clenched his jaw as a faraway look took over his eyes. “I planned to tell Crepus everything as well as Diluc—another person who had accepted me into his life with open arms,” he swallowed. “On that day, I came back to the manor after a personal outing, and what I found was…father had passed away.”

The pain in Kaeya’s voice carried over into my own heart. I’d never heard of Crepus until today, but it was clear just how much Kaeya cared for him.

“Still, in the height of my grief, even though Diluc was in great agony, I committed to telling my truth. He…didn’t take it very well. Father might have been forgiving, but Diluc turned his blade on me in an instant. We fought, and things were never the same.”

He finished with that, and it was hard for me to find something to say in response. The guilt Kaeya harbored because of his lies in addition to the immense betrayal Diluc must have felt on the day of his father’s death was a lot to take in. I never would have imagined their differences stemmed from something so serious and heartbreaking, and I couldn’t blame Diluc for holding on to the hate. Hate was easier to cope with than grief.

“That’s everything,” Kaeya’s lips quirked into a half-smile. “As you can probably tell, trust is something that matters very dearly to Diluc. So please, don’t make the same mistake I did.”

“You didn’t know any better.” I pressed my lips together. “You were just a kid.”

He looked at me with a weak smile. “Thank you, Lumine. At this point, there is no sense in thinking of what could have been, so your reassurance is refreshing. It’s been years since that event occurred, and I’m only bothered by it on occasion. Diluc’s new involvement will certainly be interesting, but I’ll manage.”

“Kaeya…” I wanted to hug him.

The door burst open.

“Did someone make a double order of Golden Crab?” Childe stood with two plates, one in each hand.

Thoma pushed past him, holding another two plates of the same dish, and another two servings were balanced on his forearms. “Why have two when you can have six?”

“Looks like Childe wins by getting here first,” Kaeya applauded, all signs of our conversation erased from his composure. “Thoma did bring more servings, though.”

“Was Golden Crab the only thing on the menu?” I asked. “Talk about overkill.”

Thoma chuckled. “Xiangling piled them on. She insisted we eat only the best in return for the work we’re doing.”

“She also told us to rescue you from Kaeya’s labor.” Childe set down the plates. “Your time is up, pirate boy. Now, we feast.”

Kaeya laughed at that, and I wasn’t sure if it was in response to being called ‘pirate boy’ again or because of the ridiculous spread of pure crab that now cluttered the table. His reaction was genuine, though, and it warmed my heart to see it. Knowing Kaeya could still smile so brightly even after enduring a past that haunts him even now, I was awed by his strength. 

“I call dibs on the Golden Crab,” I grinned. 

Kaeya scanned the table. “I’ll try some of the Golden Crab first and see if I have room for Golden Crab later.”

“Good choice,” Thoma went along with the bit. “My personal favorite is the Golden Crab.”

“Studies have shown Golden Crab is an excellent boost for defense,” Childe reported. “If you have a healer with you, the effectiveness of that is also increased.”

“Nerd,” I snickered. “Since when did you do actual learning at this school?”

He shrugged. “Xiangling once told me that the way to a person’s heart is through their stomach, and I believe you deserve the highest quality dishes.”

“Less talking, more eating,” I ducked my head to hide my blush. Unlike Kaeya, it seemed that Childe didn’t even know how his words could affect me—his oblivious smile never wavered. “Then, it’s back to work.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Chapter Text

It would be a lie to say that the week following our confidential meeting was boring. Classes picked up in full force after midterms, and I barely had time to think about what we discussed. Each day, it was more drills and new lessons. Each night, it was a mountain of homework and focusing my mind before bed. Though I was tempted to learn more about Celestia Academy’s history with the Abyss Order, I refrained from letting that wonder seep into my dreams. Thinking of how it was important for me to stay grounded in this reality—where there were people I could trust who also placed their trust in me—was enough to yield dreamless nights. Well, mostly dreamless. 

I held on to bits of memories when I dreamed that Kaeya and Diluc got along. One time, I dreamt that Childe’s head turned into a giant Golden Crab, and that image stuck with me for a whole day. Next to Kaeya’s handkerchiefs, scribbled notes of my dreams were on my nightstand. Fighting ocean monsters in Liyue, climbing the snowy mountain in Mondstadt, facing the thunder manifestation of an angry Electro bird in Inazuma—these were all the senseless dreams I’ve had. They made for great stories at the dining hall table, that’s for sure.

“No way,” Amber gasped. “An evil twin?”

I shook my head. “Not a twin, an imposter. Then, there was another version of Professor Kriedeprinz that was even more corrupt. It turned into a giant Cryo whopperflower.”

“What did I do?” Bennett’s eyes sparkled. “You said Amber and I were there too, right? Did I help?”

“You did, actually,” I recalled. “When the Kriedeprinz imposter suddenly attacked, you ran in with your burst ability and made a big red circle that covered the ground.”

“Wow,” he breathed. “I haven’t even perfected my burst yet. I bet Dream Bennett was so cool.”

“Okay, that’s great and all.” Childe swirled his cup of Sparkling Cider. “When do I come in? Do I chop its head off?”

“You weren’t in that dream, Childe.”

The corners of his lips turned down. “Why not? You put Eula in the dream. You don’t even talk to Eula.”

“That’s true,” I sighed. “But I can’t control what I dream. Oh, don’t look so sad. Remember Crab Childe?”

Thoma chuckled. “The dream where Childe’s head turned into a giant—”

“Golden Crab. Yes. I am well aware of that supposed dream,” Childe grumbled. “Girlie, how could your subconscious do that to me? I’m more than just a piece of meat, you know.”

Everyone at the table laughed.

“I sense high spirits over here.” Kaeya approached our table and leaned on one end. “Allow me to add to it. I bring good news.”

My head picked up. “Is it about the Sakoku Order?”

“Indeed,” he nodded. “Jean made her proposal to the headmaster yesterday. According to her report, it seemed to have gone quite well. Showing up well-prepared with first-hand accounts from the student body was an excellent choice.”

Childe set down his Sparkling Cider. “So? When are we free?”

“That is yet to be decided by the higher-ups.”

Everyone at the table deflated.

“I just want to stop getting yelled at by the guards.” Xiangling pouted. “They treat me like a criminal when they catch me picking Glaze Lilies. I have no choice but to wait for the moon to come out!” 

“I didn’t know you were growing Glaze Lilies,” Amber commented.

Xiangling winked. “That’s because I’m not. There’s a small patch that grows in the courtyard by the lecture building.”

Thoma turned a concerned look in her direction. “The guards probably don't want you picking campus flowers meant for decoration. In addition to being out past curfew, it’s no wonder they’re so harsh.”

“Well, then that’s a waste of perfectly good ingredients.”

“For the sake of our campus greenery,” Kaeya smiled ruefully. “Let’s hope the Sakoku Order is lifted soon. With a whole forest at your disposal and no curfew holding you back, I’m sure your culinary ventures will be well supported.”

“For the sake of our sanity,” Childe amended and looked at me. “Amongst other things.”

Treasure hunting. Geo powers. Uncovering ancient secrets.

“Yes,” I agreed. “The sooner the better.”

✧✧✧

Another week went by, and I equipped a windglider to prepare for our usual drills in Beginner’s Gliding. Venti had been conjuring up a variety of obstacle courses and endurance exercises with slight alterations each class, but he never failed to mention how much he wished we could glide off the cliffs.

“Under normal circumstances, you all would have gotten a chance to glide to the shore,” he had grumbled. “There, we would have had a fun beach episode! It’s a real shame the weather has gotten too cold for that.”

Underneath my windglider was a thick jacket that the Academy gave to all students to prepare for the winter. Kaeya said it got cold on the island, and while snow would be lovely to see, I didn’t appreciate how quickly my fingers got numb outside of my pockets. The windglider itself weighed like nothing on my back, unlike the first time I had put one on. After months of practice, it now felt like second nature to activate the equipment and jump into Venti’s Anemo currents. Briefly, I wondered if my Anemo would ever get to be as strong as his.

“Lumine!” Amber bounced over, dropping her schoolbag and picking up a windglider. “Did you hear about the Sakoku Order being lifted?”

My mouth fell open. “Really?”

She paused. “Well, not entirely. Only deliveries to and from the island, but that means almonds will finally be back in stock again! Aren’t you so glad you can eat Almond Tofu all day, every day?”

“I don’t know about that,” I laughed. “I’ve grown out of my Almond Tofu phase, but it would be nice to try it again every once in a while. Only deliveries? That’s a start, I guess. I can see how the Academy probably wants to open things up slowly so they can better monitor the situation.”

“Jean proposed it a week ago, right?” Amber inspected the tips of her windglider. “Maybe next week they’ll open up even more.”

“Hopefully.”

“You’ll have to complain to Kaeya if they don't.”

I frowned. “How would that solve anything?”

“Kaeya will listen to you.”

“I’m not even a member of the student council.”

“Yeah, but,” she grinned. “He asked you for help with organizing those responses so long ago, right? I think he thinks you’re a good fit for the student council. There’s a chance he could try to recruit you.”

“Me joining the student council?” I thought about it. “That seems like a lot of work, but I’ll admit it does feel rewarding. Knowing that Jean’s proposal was only made possible because of the hours we spent on that task—it’s nice.”

“Childe, too.”

I scrunched my nose. “Kaeya would never recruit Childe.”

“No, no—Childe might want to recruit you.”

“Recruit me? Childe?” I frowned. “For what? He doesn’t run any club on campus.”

“Maybe ‘recruit’ isn’t the best word,” Amber hummed lightly. “It would more fitting to say…he wants you.”

Oh no. 

“Please, please, please tell me you at least noticed it this time.” She suddenly grabbed my arm. “With Diluc, fine. I can see why you didn’t catch on. Childe is way, way more obvious.”

She would probably be delighted to learn that I was, in fact, aware of this information. While I hadn’t confirmed it for myself by asking him outright, the signs were clear to me now. The signs were clear…and I didn’t know what to do with them. How was I supposed to approach him about it? Asking Childe outright was one thing, but responding with my own feelings on the matter was something else entirely when I had both Thoma and Diluc to factor in as well.

Amber went on. “He’s taking the whole Thoma thing pretty well.”

“When did I tell you about Thoma?”

“You didn’t.”

“Then how did you—”

“Shh,” she interrupted. “Don’t ask questions you already know the answers to. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice the matching omamoris hanging from your bags? I wish you would have told me, but I think it’s good I didn’t get involved. That way, I know my instincts are real and that I’m not just forcing feelings around.”

Amber did have a good eye for these sorts of things, but her guidance would have been helpful. Though, there was some satisfaction in figuring it out by myself with a minor push from Professor Minci. Okay, a big push. Now that Amber brought the topic up…

“What do I do?” I pleaded. “There’s three of them, now.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“I—no,” I whispered. “Not when I think of them individually. Thoma and Diluc are both so understanding, Amber. I’m super lucky to have them by my side and willing to cooperate with other people I care about, willing to take things slow…but then there’s Childe.”

“What about Childe?”

“You know,” I sighed. “For starters, he’s a bit…”

“Possessive? Jealous?”

“In addition to being competitive and unknowingly aggressive, I don’t know what to do with him sometimes.”

“Are there things you want to do with him?”

“What do you mean? Like spar?”

“No, dummy,” she chuckled. “We’re not talking about Childe as a peer or partner. What would you want to do with Childe as a partner partner? You like him too, right?”

I blushed. “It’s not the same as Thoma and Diluc. With them, I feel calm and cared for. Diluc is always looking out for me, even when he can’t see me every day. Thoma is so thoughtful all the time, and he passes me the cutest notes in Vision Studies. Childe is different. His personality is so wild. When we spar, even though we’re not serious about it, I feel exhilarated. I like how quickly he’s motivated to do something, how easily his interests are sparked, and how he always matches my energy. Don’t get me wrong, it does get annoying when he starts fights, but if I’m being honest, it’s kind of cute sometimes. Besides, Childe has been through a lot, and I know he means well—most of the time. He’s a handful for sure, but I…I like Childe just the way he is.”

Amber silently wiped at the corners of her eyes without saying anything.

“What?” My blush deepened. 

“You were smiling from ear-to-ear this whole time, Lumine,” she said. “Sometimes you look like you want to punch Childe in the face, so I wasn’t expecting this much from you.”

“Maybe not in the face.”

“Really, Lumine,” she grabbed my shoulders. “My inner romantic is bursting with joy right now. There’s something special going on with you and three other people. I can sleep well knowing my friend is not so oblivious after all, that her mind is sound. Seeing your face light up when talking about Childe of all people—my heart is full.” Her grip tightened. “And that is why, if for any reason, one of those guys messes up—if they ever dare to play with your emotions, to break your heart—I will make them regret it. Do you hear me?”

“Thanks for having my back.”

I wasn’t sure what Amber could do against any of them, but I also doubted Thoma, Diluc, or Childe would ever turn against me. She had nothing to worry about, but the fierceness in her eyes brought a smile to my face. Amber released me, scanning the clearing where most everyone had already equipped their windgliders. Venti was nowhere in sight, so we were all engaged in our own separate conversations. 

“Good. I think Venti might be coming in late with another hangover,” she grinned.

I frowned. “Why is this a good thing?”

“Because now we have more time to talk about how you plan to confess to Childe.”

✧✧✧

Diluc only had time to meet once this weekend. One week after the Sakoku Order was lifted to permit deliveries, that leniency was extended to the teleport waypoints. The only catch was that all teleportation activity would be heavily monitored, and only students with granted approval got the chance to teleport to the town. For most of us, our hopes to spend time by the ocean or take a look at the local shops were shut down. For Diluc, that meant he was finally able to attend to official tavern business that had been piling up. He’d left me a note promising that he could play chess the next day, and true to his word, I found him setting up the chessboard in the library tonight. 

“Good evening, Diluc,” I smiled at him.

“Lumine, you look as lovely as always.” He returned my smile. “How was dinner?”

“It was hot pot night, but I’m sure it doesn’t compare to the restaurant in town,” I blushed. He’d called me lovely. “Speaking of the town, how was it? Did you get everything taken care of?”

“The town is still there. Same buildings. Same faces. The air is chiller since they’re c