“Having Oz travel with us is really useful since he’s so strong, even if his gnosis was taken,” Cain remarks, twirling his sword about and placing it around his back, letting it float about behind him. “Archons sure are something, huh? I can’t believe we’re traveling with one right now… but, I guess Akira is pretty amazing too.”
Paimon pipes up, grinning as she flexes her hands. “I agree!”
“Where did that come from?” Akira sputters slightly, a bit flustered by Cain’s usual kind words and Paimon’s quick reassurance, “I’m just glad I could help Central Country. It’s just a shame that Oz didn’t know anything about my sister’s whereabouts.”
“We’ll help you on your journey,” Arthur interjects with a reassuring smile, “I’m glad that you’re letting me come along to the next place too, Traveler. But, I think I’ll have to leave you guys since there’s a lot of work waiting for me back at the castle.”
“T-That’s understandable… thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to accompany us this far.”
“No problem! I had to fetch something from Southern Country anyway before this next meeting. It’s good… uh… collateral, let’s say. We’ll just part ways once we arrive at the City of Clouds.” Arthur explains, exchanging a grin with Cain.
Akira spares a glance at Cain, who laughs and flashes him a smile. “Oh, don't worry. Nicholas will be in charge of the knights while I'm gone. Prince Arthur asked me to protect you in his stead, you see.”
That's somewhat a relief. He's grateful he has companions for the journey besides Paimon, as entertaining as she can be, but having more allies is beneficial for adventuring. He hadn't yet met anyone who works for the adventurer's guild. Although, he's certain he will soon. Maybe they should get Oz to join since he's no longer residing in his lair. (That… does make him sound quite scary, doesn't it? He supposes Oz was quite scary in the past.)
The church's idol, a young blond boy named Riquet, nods in unison. "May Baal guide us all. As the church's beloved idol, I will make sure we head in the right direction as He decrees." But it's a little awkward, considering that Baal is traveling with them. Akira glances over at Oz, but his expression doesn't change. At all. He's completely unfazed. So that's how it's like to be an Archon, huh… such things don't phase you anymore.
The journey to Southern Country isn't eventful aside from the number of mountains to bypass. Arthur chatters happily by Oz's side along with Riquet, while Cain and Akira lead the vanguard. Cain's quite combat happy, chasing after any slimes or treasure hunters he sees. Noticeably, he leaves the hilichurls alone as long as they're not attacking him first. Akira's expression softens at these times, noticing his intentions. Maybe he should have Cain tag along for that Hilichurl talking commission next time. However, when the Fatui appears, both Cain and Oz go for their jugular, seeking to eliminate them as fast as possible.
Looks like their encounters with the 8th harbinger, Owen, were enough to put a bad taste in their mouths.
"Why must you be so quick to violence?" Riquet catches up with Cain, glancing over at him as he clutches his lantern, nudging it over at Cain's side as anemo emanates from his catalyst and heals up Cain's injuries. "We shouldn't be picking fights with the Fatui, you know?"
Cain laughs, rubbing the arm Riquet just healed as his weapon dissipates from behind, signifying the lack of danger. "I don't know about Oz, but I had a mission to infiltrate the Fatui headquarters in Granvelle once. It didn't work out. Do you see how I have different colored eyes? Well, that's because Owen completely beat my ass with his magic, and I lost the battle. I almost died, even. He switched our eyes... I don't know why, but I'm going to get my eye back. Most of my men did manage to get away in that battle; however, it was kind of a real blow to me as knight captain. I didn't get fired, obviously, but I can kind of feel some animosity from the other knights not under my direct command."
"It's a long story," Arthur frowns, letting out a sigh of disapproval, "but as it stands, the Fatui is our enemy. I don't see how picking fights with lackeys is going to help much."
"I'll kill them," is all Oz contributes to that conversation.
It takes another day for them to reach their destination, a sleepy place in South Country known as the Town of Clouds. They’re not quite inside the town yet, still wandering around its outskirts. Since it’s a new place and they don’t have someone guiding them inside the town, the team decides to hold a quick meeting.
"Who should we be trying to meet?" Akira asks, inhaling the air deeply as he takes in the surroundings. “Like… who is the archon of Southern Country?”
Arthur hesitates for a moment but then shakes his head. “I’m not sure, to be honest. I heard rumors that the Hydro Archon went… missing.”
Akira notices Oz’s eyes flash with a certain yearning for a moment, but Oz quickly turns away, obscuring his expression to the rest.
“There are rumors that he died,” Cain reports, “but I haven’t seen the situation personally, so that’s just gossip.”
“Gossip is bad,” Riquet pipes in with a disproving shake of his head.
Arthur and Cain share an awkward laugh, with Cain shrugging his shoulders. “It’s good for finding a lead, at least. They’re not necessarily the truth, of course. I’m aware. I’ve heard a lot of
contrived rumors about myself…”
“Ah, like the one where a Fatui harbinger seduced you and stole your e—”
“How do you even know that one, Prince Arthur!?” Cain gasps, and that’s the moment Oz whips his head around.
He’s staring at Arthur with narrowed eyes, but Arthur flushes and dips his head before Oz can say anything.
“I’m sorry! Let’s not talk about this, then!” The prince stammers in response, snapping his grimoire open and running toward a hydro abyss mage and veering from the city.
Cain and Riquet follow suit, leaving Akira alone with Oz for a moment. Akira glances up at Paimon, who has been oddly silent. “Paimon..?”
“Paimon didn’t want to butt in,” She returns with a bit of a nervous giggle, “I know it’s rare, but! I didn’t feel like it was right to. I’m still your guide, but there are some things Paimon doesn’t know…”
“He’s not dead,” Oz says with finality, crossing his eyes as he grasps his scepter tightly. “I would know if he was.”
“Is that so, Sir Oz?” Akira asks cautiously, letting out a sigh as they idly hold their sword. Considering that they were able to resonate with Hydro and activate the Statue of Seven, the Hydro Archon very well may be alive.
“Oh, right! Don’t you know him personally?” Paimon gasps, floating away from Akira to start circling about Oz. Oz doesn’t seem to care that much, sighing and closing his eyes for a moment.
Oz stays silent, though, which causes Akira to feel a pang of some sort. He’s painfully aware that Oz is a man of few words, requiring Arthur to translate for them. Misunderstandings came as a result of Oz’s standoffishness, but Arthur always assured everyone that Oz is a kind person. Cain confided in Akira that he had his doubts, especially when they had to cooperate with him to subjugate the Leviathan he had summoned. However, it ended smoothly.
“I did. As a traveler, it makes sense that you’re not aware of our history…” Oz closes his eyes, “I won’t say more.”
“What a tease!” Paimon pouts as she crosses her arms, “alright, Akira! We’ll just make sure we find the Hydro Archon so they’ll answer everything!”
“Hmph.” Oz returns with a hefty sigh. Before Akira and Paimon could make him spill anymore, the other three return with drops from the abyss creatures.
“That mage was a pain in the ass! We kept freezing and melting it, but…” Cain sighs, but then shakes his head, “well, we got it for the most part. Akira, can I see your map?”
“Sure,” Akira replies, taking out his map and rolling it out before passing it over to Cain.
“What vulgar language. But I’ll forgive you, Cain.” Riquet says with a huff, pressing his hands together, “I shall pray to Baal that your mouth becomes clean and free of sin…”
“Gee, I hope it works out,” Cain jokes sarcastically, glancing over at the map and noting their current location on it. “Looks like this is it. Your Highness, the journey back will be tough… will you be okay?”
“Of course!” Arthur exclaims with a wink, “I can just use a teleport point, so you guys can visit anytime!”
“That’s true. Teleport points make traveling much easier, but it seems like it only works when we’re with Akira. What magic are you hiding, man?” Cain scratches the back of his neck, rolling up the map and handing it back to Akira.
“Nothing, it’s just… how it is. Maybe it’s Paimon’s abilities?” Akira ponders out loud, pivoting attention on his travel buddy.
Paimon’s eyes widen, and she squirms a little, “You think I have abilities?”
“You don’t? You’re just here to eat and talk then?”
Paimon pouts at that, crossing her arms and fluttering ahead, “I’m your GUIDE! Anyway… let’s get going!”
Before doing anything else, it seems like the Adventurer’s Guild branch for Southern Country is stationed in this town, allowing Akira to sign in with them, also switching the daily commissions to this area for sake of convenience. They are also able to sign up Oz with the guild. Although he seemed pretty hesitant about it, he was deemed as part of Akira’s adventure team. Or something like that.
“Prince Arthur, shouldn’t you get going now?” Riquet blinks, clasping his hands together. “Don’t leave without having lunch with us first, though!”
Arthur hesitates but then nods in agreement, “I am pretty hungry! I wish I could stay in everyone’s company for longer.”
Before another word can be spoken, a figure approaches the group with considerable speed, sporting a wind glider on his back. It’s a young man with blond hair and a wide smile with a younger boy with brown hair following him.
“Brother! I can’t keep up with you when we’re gliding, you know… how are you even faster than the wind!?”
The blond laughs melodically, gracefully settling himself down and holding out a hand for his younger brother. “I use the power of anemo. I’m not cheating, am I?”
“You are, and you’re going to get your wind gliding license revoked one of these days. Especially if you pulled that stunt in the capital,” The brunette protests, but his eyes widen when he finally notices Akira’s party. “Huh, are you guys travelers?”
“You can say that,” Akira speaks up with a sheepish smile, “I’m looking for my sister, so I’m trying to meet the archon.”
“Oh my, the Hydro Archon? Unfortunately, fellows like us lack those sorts of connections. But we love visitors, so I’m happy to act as your rest stop,” The taller blond chirps happily, his anemo vision glowing as he calls upon a gust of wind to straighten his and his little brother’s appearance. “I’m Rutile, a teacher at the local school. This is my younger brother, Mitile.”
“I’m Akira, a traveler from another world,” Akira introduces himself with a bow, “and this is…”
“I’m Paimon! I’m the traveler’s tour guide!” Paimon then circles each of the party members, “And this is Prince Arthur, we just tagged along since he has business in the South’s capital. This is Cain, Prince Arthur’s knight..? Not his guard, but he’s the captain of the Granvelle Knights! And this is Riquet, the church… idol? Finally, here’s Oz. He’s the electr—”
“Master Oz is my magic teacher and now he’s an adventurer!” Arthur cuts in with a nervous laugh, waving his hands about the tall man, “either way, it’s nice to meet you.”
“B-Brother, a prince is in front of us!?” Mitile sputters, his voice dripping with disbelief, “now I’m a little nervous.”
“Ehehe, it’ll be okay, Mitile. They’re very friendly,” Rutile smiles, extending a hand out for Akira to take, “How lovely. You came just in time for lunch. I’ll ask Doctor Figaro if he’s willing to take you guys in for a bit. He tends to cook a little too much at once anyway!”
Akira nods in agreement, taking Rutile’s hand without much fanfare.
Oz freezes at the mention of that unfamiliar name like a deer in headlights, two simple words weighing heavy on Oz's thoughts—why that is so, though, the others can't tell. Oz's reaction, uncharacteristic as it is, earns him a few surprised looks. Arthur is quick to notice, but he doesn't say anything. Instead, Arthur brings a finger against his lips, asking them to keep their silence with a single gesture.
Mitile speaks up, hands fumbling with the vials at his waist. “Brother, are you sure? We can just go to a restaurant—”
“I’ll leave that for Dr. Figaro to decide,” Rutile shrugs, gesturing for Akira’s team to follow him.
Needless to say, Doctor Figaro was surprised by the number of visitors that came to his clinic. However, he’s quick to go with the flow and takes them to a local restaurant, declaring that he would foot the bill. In the process, they repeat the introductions to Figaro once more. While Akira notices that Figaro seems to have taken a certain interest in him, he senses something else. Figaro keeps it at bay quite well, but Akira doesn't miss how bothered this man is by Oz's mere presence. Perhaps bothered isn't the correct word. Rather, there was a crack in Figaro's expression once his eyes landed on Oz. This detail is something that Cain’s quick to whisper to him about.
“Huh, do you think Dr. Figaro knows Master Oz? He looked surprised when he first saw him and Arthur… it’s a little too strange and coincidental for my comfort. I’ll protect you if it comes to it.” Cain mutters, his eyes narrowing out of suspicion.
To that, Akira first shakes his head out of shock but eventually accepts it with a faint smile. “Thanks, Cain. I would hope it’s nothing too big, though.”
“What a surprise! To think our humble town would be graced with a personal visit by the Central Country's beloved Prince! I suppose this is to help with the restoration of the castle?” The doctor asks with a laugh, tilting his head to the side as he takes a sip of his wine. Mitile looks unfavorably upon this, his electro vision flashing dangerously as he administers a quick shock Figaro’s way.
“A-Ah! Be careful with that, Mitile! Geez, guess this will be my last glass,” Figaro admits defeat pretty quickly with an awkward laugh. He then glances over at Akira, waiting for his answer, “So you’re seeking the Hydro Archon to obtain a lead on your missing sister, was it? You believe she was taken by another God?”
“That’s about it,” Akira returns awkwardly, ladling a spoonful of stew to his mouth. “However, I heard that the Hydro Archon is dead, or at least missing. If that’s so, how is this nation…”
“Humans are amazing, aren’t they?” Without missing a beat, Figaro shifts topics like he's only breathing. As he does, Akira notices Oz's expression changing into one he can't read. “The Hydro Archon remains in their hearts as their ruler, yet they have adjusted to ruling themselves without an Archon’s guidance. The South is quite soft, as you’ll find out. We people and we vision bearers look out for each other regardless. We look out for others. We support each other. So that’s why an Archon’s existence isn’t that necessary. Just as the river flows without us even noticing, the will of the Hydro Archon remains flowing on through the Southern Country’s people.”
“That’s wonderful to say, Dr. Figaro.” Rutile chimes in with a sweet smile, taking a sip out of his glass, “I agree. As Dr. Figaro suggests, I don’t believe the Hydro Archon is dead. He exists with us and not above us. We’re all working together!”
“It’s different from Central Country, I guess. The people there revered their Archon out of fear, right? He was a tyrant, after all…” Mitile blinks as he clutches onto his vision, “but he’s really powerful, so I can admire that. I have an electro vision, so I think we have an understanding of each other. I think his existence is still really important to Central Country, even though he’s become a fallen tyrant by an outlander— wait! That’s you, right? You took down the Electro Archon?”
Akira blinks, almost stunned by Mitile’s quick detective work. “Um, not just me. We all stopped him. Of course, Central Country is in the phase of recovery now, as Dr. Figaro mentioned earlier… but it’s all fine now.”
“What a relief. Little Prince Arthur, looks like you have a lot of work ahead of you! I wish you the best with it,” Figaro smiles, “I could have Rutile and Mitile escort you to the capital and then have them go with you to Central Country. I’m sure they could use the experience.”
“Are you sure, Dr. Figaro?” Mitile blinks, “I-I mean… I would like to go! I would enjoy that very much!”
“Oh! That sounds lovely! We’re going to be escorting a prince, hm? Sounds like a fun field trip for us, Mitile,” Rutile beams, giggling as he exchanges a glance with Arthur. “If you wouldn’t mind, your highness.”
“Of course not,” Arthur smiles, “Pardon the inconvenience. In exchange, I promise to show you the best time in my home.”
Riquet seems to be a bit antsy but then shakes his head. “That sounds lovely, but I need to ensure that Oz does not stray from his path, so I will stay with the rest here.”
Arthur blinks, and then places a reassuring hand on the other boy’s shoulder, “Of course. I appreciate it, Riquet. I’ll leave that responsibility to you, then.”
“O-Of course, Prince Arthur!”
With that, they've settled on their next steps. Arthur parts ways with them after lunch, with Rutile and Mitile electing to have Arthur stay with them for the night.
Meanwhile, Figaro has allowed them to stay at his house for the time being. At a later date, they will head to the capital too, intent on getting more information regarding the situation in Southern Country. For now though, Figaro has suggested that everyone take some time to recuperate in their rooms.
Ensuring that the others were fast asleep, Oz slips out of the guest bed and moves as quietly and swiftly as he can out of his bedroom. He wanders into the parlor, his gaze locking onto the doctor, who nurses a drink near to his chest.
"Figaro," Oz speaks up quietly, moving quickly to sit next to him, his eyes flitting over to the drink in his hand. "Why are you doing this?"
"Doing what?" Figaro asks with a smile, lifting his glass and taking a sip. "Want some wine too, Oz? Or should I say, Baal?"
"No. I'd rather not get tipsy," Oz crinkles his nose, his expression flat as he stares at Figaro. "Why are you pretending to be human?"
"Oh! Well…" Figaro laughs, nerves spiking under Oz’s pressing. Figaro glances away as if avoiding his questions—avoiding Oz . In a whisper, he answers, "I got tired of being a God, maybe?"
"Really,” Oz speaks without a tone, though it’s clear he needs more than that “But at that time…"
"We were both power-hungry! We wanted to oppose Celestia itself.” A flash of their past, the dreams they had together—the mistakes that they’ve accumulated as they sought after needless bloodshed. “We wanted the world for our taking so no one could speak ill of us. We wanted to be the ones in charge so we were the ones who defined expectations." Figaro continues on his spiel, sloshing the wine around in his glass, careful not to let any of it spill. "We didn’t know it at the time, but… expectations came with being so ambitious. Well, that's all done after the war. Whew, how long ago was that?"
"Don't know." Oz returns gruffly, accompanied by a feeble sigh.
"No idea. We parted ways long before that." He shrugs, pausing as if lost in thought.
Oz twitches, raising a hand with electro fizzing from his finger. "You left. You ran away. You pretended to die. You pretended to go missing. Now you're playing at being a doctor."
Figaro laughs, his fake hydro vision flashing in the dim lighting of the parlor. "Not playing! This is my genuine work now, you know?” His smile falters, eyes fixated on the glass in his hand. He’s thinking, Oz can see the gears turning in Figaro’s head from a mile away. What about, though, Oz can no longer tell. Figaro continues before Oz can keep up, “The truth is, I wanted to be human. I wanted to see how they enjoy life, with my own eyes. I always wanted to live among the people, and now I have that wish fulfilled."
"You abandoned your people."
"And you?” Figaro interjects coldly. “You ruled your people with an iron fist. You’ve pushed them to the point of them rebelling against you. Even Arthur had to stand his ground against you."
Oz freezes at that, his throat dry. "You don't understand."
Figaro's expression softens, "Maybe I don't. I'm glad you still care so much for that kid, and that he loves you enough to stop you from continuing such a miserable life. He truly believed you were possessed, didn't he?"
Oz stays silent for a moment, glancing around his surroundings for whatever reason. Afterward, he briskly nods. "Yes."
"That's just like him. He always had such unwavering faith in you, and he continues to believe in you even now," Figaro hums, taking another sip of his wine, then turning to Oz. He brings the wine glass to Oz’s lips—it’s cool, though it fails to quell the shimmering blaze within Oz. "Isn't it nice? To be loved so earnestly. To be admired. To fulfill—"
"No." Oz bites back but does nothing to move the wine glass away. "I don't like expectations."
"I do. I love being helpful and relied on," Figaro says with a smile, fingers hovering near Oz's lips, splaying about his chin, coaxing Oz to open his mouth. "This is where you go with the flow, Oz. Let Doctor Figaro take care of you since we both have become mortals."
Annoyingly enough, there's something about the soothing timbre of Figaro's voice. His words reverberate in Oz's head, leaving the Electro Archon no choice but to listen. He parts his lips hesitantly, and as soon as he does, Figaro dips the glass toward him, wine cascading down the glass and into Oz's lips.
It's not a sweet wine by any means. It's a bit dry and a bit bitter. It burns as it goes down Oz's throat. "... unpleasant."
"You prefer sweeter things, don't you?" Figaro asks almost rhetorically, "Perhaps I do as well. My life right now is quite blissful, especially taking care of those two young boys for Tiletta."
"... do you still have your gnosis?" Oz asks quietly, a hand finally taking Figaro's glass by the stem, gently wrestling it out of the other's grip.
Figaro smiles as if he knew such a question would come out of Oz’s lips. "Not for long. It seems like one of the Fatui Harbingers will come to collect it soon. I offered it to her."
Oz blinks, "But you have nothing to gain."
Figaro sighs, throwing his hands up in the air. "Dear Oz, you still don't understand. You will find my reason soon, I'm certain. The beauty of the mundane. She's given me a peaceful life in exchange for my gnosis. She has blessed me with taking care of her children to raise as my own. What more could I ask for?"
"You live as a liar." Oz mutters, "I don't see what's so great about that."
Figaro laughs and smiles gently, taking Oz's free hand in his own. Figaro’s hold is warm, unlike the emptiness that Oz was left with when Figaro disappeared from his life, leaving nothing but cold, cold, cold. "I'm a coward,” Figaro admits so easily. “I don't care if I live a lie as long as I can have some semblance of happiness. Look, Oz.” Figaro gives his hand a gentle squeeze, a reassurance Oz struggles to place his faith in. And yet, Figaro continues to smile. “You've become a liar too." He states with a cruel and tender conviction.
"Not my intention.” Although Oz’s lips are curving into a frown, there’s a strange heat blooming across his cheeks, betraying his wishes along with the bubbling spreading within his chest.
Oz recalls those days spent with Figaro— ruthlessly slaying whoever stood in their way. That only came to an end due to the tragedy that crushed Oz's thirst for conquest. That terrible day when Snow killed White.
Those days are long past, but that fleeting comfort that came whenever he’s with Figaro never left—even after they’ve spent years apart, even though Oz was certain they’d never see one another again, even when Oz forced himself to believe that their separation was destiny running its course, his resolve is wavering the longer he stays in Figaro’s orbit. It’s all becoming much clearer now, and it's irritating.
Oz remains silent, but ruby eyes look up at Figaro— their gazes meet, intense and heavy.
"Did you miss me?" Figaro breathes out, lit with a desire that Oz can taste at the tip of his tongue.
If the lightning is the truth itself, so is Oz. "... yes."
"I missed you too.” The liar says, but Oz swallows Figaro’s words like they’re an absolute truth. “I'm sorry for running, Oz," Figaro says a little more thoughtfully, more contemplatively. "It is important that we keep our shared past a secret from the Flores brothers. I don't want them to know anything about the Hydro Archon."
"It wouldn't make a difference." Oz sighs, taking the wine glass and offering it to Figaro. His original plan is to smash it against the floor if Figaro pisses him off enough, but he won't.
"You think so? I can't let it happen, nonetheless. I don't want them to know the truth." Figaro chuckles absentmindedly, "it's nicer if those brothers can live peacefully and uninvolved. They don't need to know that their mother is the very one ordering the others to cause mayhem in all the other countries. The one causing trouble in this country."
"And for you?"
"It's better they believe I'm just a young and kind neighborhood doctor," Figaro continues with a flourish, lightly taking the glass from Oz and draining it of its remaining contents. "That's a good example. Expectations, you know?"
"I still hate them."
Figaro sets his glass down and then leans closer to Oz's face. Oz can see the way Figaro is stretching his lips, concealing another laugh. It never reaches Oz’s ears, sealed away with a kiss Oz wasn’t prepared for.
Oz holds his breath, but he finds that he doesn't hate it. He never truly hates what Figaro does to him. He enjoys it, even. Before Figaro can pull away, Oz returns the kiss with fervor, wrapping arms around Figaro's body— still cool to the touch, as expected of the Hydro Archon.
The two part when Oz needs to breathe, embarrassment settling in his cheeks.
"You hate expectations, but somehow I betrayed them," Figaro concludes with that same grin on his face.
Oz blinks in return. He doesn't know what else to do other than electrocute Figaro again.
"H-Hey, stop! You're going to wake up the others— owww… how could I forget about how badly our elements go together…"
"It was effective in the past. You just say that because you're in pain." Oz points out, hiding a smile he thought he had abandoned all those years ago.