Jean strides into the library, swift and stiff, a letter held loosely between agitated hands, and when Lisa looks up to greet her the smile fades from her lips, replaced by concern for the dread in Jean’s eyes.
“What is it, Jean?” she asks, hastily rising from her seat, rounding the corner of her desk to meet her. “What’s wrong?”
Jean clenches her jaw before she answers, fingers tightening like a vise at the paper’s edge. She takes a deep breath, releases it on a sigh, and locks eyes with Lisa’s with a look of dismay, emerald green lost in tempestuous blue.
“It’s my mother,” Jean says, tone heavy with tension, and ah, Lisa thinks, that explains everything. “She has demanded that I visit her for the weekend, and I suspect she sent this late as a deliberate ploy to prevent me from avoiding her again.”
Lisa crosses her arms over her chest, lips downturned in a serious frown. “Can you not tell her you’re too busy with work?”
“That has been my default excuse for the last several requests.”
“You could pretend to be sick—”
“I actually was ill last time,” Jean replies, “I do not think she will believe it twice in a row.” She crumples the letter further with a frustrated sound in the back of her throat, deep and low and resounding like thunder. “And she is sending a carriage to fetch me tomorrow afternoon, no doubt to further ensure my compliance.”
Lisa huffs a humourless laugh, eyes narrowed and flashing with the force of her animosity.
“Controlling every last detail to guarantee she gets her way… how unsurprising.”
Silence descends, thick as midnight, Jean painstakingly unwrinkling the paper in her hands, and when next she speaks it is strained with her guilt, so quiet that Lisa almost does not hear her:
“My availability is not the only thing I have been lying to her about,” she says, releasing her breath on a long, regretful sigh. “She has been pestering me about taking over as Head of the Clan, and how I must uphold the Clan’s honour and preserve the family name by producing an heir, and I… may have rashly mentioned to her that I have a partner, and she has made it clear that she wishes to meet them.”
“I see,” Lisa says, and while she knows it is untrue, the thought of Jean involved with anyone else except her fills her with a sorrow that creeps over her like rime, spreading from her heart to the furthest reaches of her body. “Why not ask Diluc?” she manages to suggest, grateful when her voice comes out stable and smooth, “or Kaeya or Eula or Vind? Surely Frederica would be satisfied with someone from a Clan as distinguished as theirs.”
“I grew up with them—she would see through the ruse immediately. And as much as I trust Eula, bringing a Lawrence into my mother’s home would be… most unwise.” Jean sighs again, running a hand absently through her ponytail. “Eula endures enough from the townsfolk, besides; I would never want to place her in such an uncomfortable position.”
“Hmm,” Lisa says, a soft, pensive hum, “there are a few other noble families to choose from—”
“Will you go with me?”
Lisa’s eyes grow wide, unable to hide her surprise, and she raises a hand to her rapidly flushing chest, fingers brushing against the glowing surface of her Vision. “… Me?”
“You may not have been born among the nobility, but you are noble in character,” Jean says, earnest and kind, “and your impressive list of accomplishments will work in your favour. But most importantly, you are my dearest friend—if anyone could convince my mother, it would be you.”
Lisa’s breath stutters hard in her lungs, heart racing and rhythmic and pulled taut like a bowstring.
Fake a relationship with Jean?
She thinks of the closeness, the contact, the caring, tender gazes; of holding her in her arms and drowning herself in her eyes and kissing those sweet lips for which she has yearned, wishing year after year for a chance to taste… and Lisa thinks of the agony that would pervade her like poison, from the knowledge that it would all be little more than a lie.
She wonders, then, if she is strong enough for this.
But she thinks, too, of Jean having to brave her mother alone, the woman who dictated her life and tormented her mind; thinks of Jean as a child, neglected and forlorn, burdened by duty and isolated from the world…
Lisa makes her choice, her own agony be damned: she will not abandon Jean, not now, not ever—no matter how much it will hurt her.
“Alright,” she agrees, voice soft as starlight, and she nods to herself in reassurance. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”
Jean enfolds her in safe, secure arms, and Lisa clings to Jean with just as much energy, warm and wonderful and almost more tantalizing than she can bear.
“Thank you, Lisa,” she says, the profound relief in her voice muffled by honeyed, rose-scented hair. “Thank you.”
Jean does not stay for tea, must arrange things with Kaeya—must prepare him for the sudden influx of work she’ll need done—and Lisa returns bereft to her desk as she summons her favourite plum-and-lavender teapot, pouring herself a cup as the Cathedral’s bell tolls, declaring the time to the whole of Mondstadt.
She sits with a sigh and sips at her drink, thoughts swirling in her mind like a fierce summer storm, and as Lisa massages her temple, silk soothing against her skin, she begins to lay plans for facing Frederica…
… and she prays to Barbatos, Kusanali—whatever gods are listening—that her foolish heart will survive the weekend unscathed.
Lisa spends most of the morning ensconced among the books, completing any tasks that require her authority, before returning home for a meal and a last-minute bath with the library left in Amber’s capable (if overly-enthusiastic) hands.
She packs a small case of her most refined clothes, conscious of the standard Frederica will expect, and for the first time in years, she dons her ceremonial robes, a relic from her days at the Academia.
The robe is meant to display her eminence: regal and luxurious and bespoke just for her. It grazes the floor in hues of violet and gold, richly embroidered with midnight-dark roses that glimmer when she moves, and she ties a golden sash asymmetrically around her waist, exquisitely embellished in the style reserved solely for Sumeru’s highest-ranked mages. The finishing touch is her Vision, unfastened from her neck as she affixes it to the sash with a cord looped and beaded with sparkling gems, its purple sheen proud for all to see.
She then coils her hair at the back of her head, holds it in place with a pin of finely-wrought flowers, and when she looks at her reflection in her bedroom’s tall mirror, Lisa almost does not recognize herself.
She looks older, wiser, far more formidable—elegance radiating from her frame as dazzling as the sun—and she looks like the Sage she was expected to be, before she forsook that path and embarked on another.
Lisa straightens her shoulders, hardens her eyes, practices a look of haughty contempt that will match what she anticipates she will receive from Frederica, and she delves deep within herself to retrieve the Grand Mage and the prestige that goes with her, all but forgotten.
She takes a long, calming breath, nods to her reflection, and when she picks up her bag and locks the door behind her, Lisa feels as prepared as she could ever hope to be.
Her stroll through the city is an uncomfortable one—townsfolk staring from the moment she leaves her apartment—and Lisa feels as though she has stepped back in time to the day she first returned from Sumeru. People’s eyes had been on her, wary and curious, whispers and rumours following her every move as she had made her way up through her once and future home, standing out like a sore thumb in her Academia robes.
The staring this time lacks the prior mistrust, but the curiosity is touched by an air of intimidation; passersby averting their gaze or adjusting their posture, affected by this persona that fits her like a glove.
They have never seen Lisa quite like this—practically glowing with grace and the evidence of her power—so it is only natural that they should be somewhat awed, and Lisa wonders if perhaps this is what her life would have been, had she accepted the Academia’s offer of Sagehood…
She shakes herself from her thoughts when she sees Jean at the gate, waiting for her with her bag by her feet, and when Lisa approaches, Jean turns with a smile that vanishes the moment she lays eyes on her.
“Oh,” Jean gasps, jaw dropping open, before she remembers herself and snaps her mouth shut, the faintest of blushes dusting the tips of her ears. “You are a perfect match for your title, Lisa, more so than usual,” she says, her smile returning small, but true. She bows to her with a hand over her heart, respectful and gracious as she always is. “I am glad to have the Witch of Purple Rose on my side.”
Lisa tamps down a flush. “That title was conferred upon me when I became a Grand Mage, and these robes were a gift from my mentor to honour the occasion,” she explains, her flush threatening to escape as Jean looks at her again. “Aside from a ballgown, this is the most formal item of clothing I own, and I thought it would be prudent to make a grand entrance.”
“You look—” Jean pauses, the shade of her ears deepening to scarlet, and seems to rethink whatever she’d meant to say. “My mother will certainly take you seriously at first glance,” she murmurs instead, and Lisa feels vague disappointment pull at her heart, wishing that Jean had finished her sentence.
“But she is not one to be easily impressed by appearances.”
Lisa rallies quickly, and replies with a wink:
“It’s a good thing there is far more to me than appearances, then,” she says, revelling in the way Jean’s blush spreads to her cheeks. “Remember that I am the Academia’s most distinguished graduate in the last few centuries, darling.”
She takes Jean’s hand, gives an encouraging squeeze, and feels her heart soar when Jean squeezes back.
“I think I will be able to hold my own.”
The ride to the Gunnhildr Estate is not nearly long enough for Lisa to fully quell her nerves—the manor in the countryside overlooking Dawn Winery, its views wide and majestic and befitting the Clan’s lofty reputation. Dragonspine looms like a shadow behind with the Cathedral’s tall spires just visible between the trees, hazy at this distance, but unmistakable, nonetheless, amid the beautiful, vibrant colours of Mondstadt autumn.
Their path diverges from the road leading to the Ragnvindr Estate, for all intents and purposes the Gunnhildrs’ closest neighbours in spite of the high cliffs that separate them. They wind their way upward through the rolling hills, the serenity of the scenery a balm to Lisa’s heart, until a colossal mansion rises from immaculately landscaped grounds—not a single hedge or topiary or amber birch out of place—and as the carriage slows to a stop outside the dignified front doors, a woman steps forth to meet them who needs no introduction, for Lisa would know those eyes anywhere:
They are the same subtle hue as Barbara’s and Jean’s, a swirl of blue and grey like storm-tossed seas, but they are frigid as the snows of the mountain nearby, acutely intelligent and almost cruelly keen, lacking any trace of her daughters’ warmth.
Jean exits first, opening the door gallantly for her as she offers her hand to help her to the ground, and while Lisa still has a second to collect herself, she inhales a deep breath, steels her spine, and begins the performance of a lifetime.
Taking Jean’s hand, they face Frederica together, and this close Lisa can see the judgment in her eyes, though for her or for Jean, she cannot yet tell.
“Welcome home, Jean,” Frederica says with a slight nod of her head, and her tone is anything but welcoming.
She is a severe woman, dressed in an equally severe long navy coat—prim and proper and crisply pristine—adorned with honours and markings that display her status as a celebrated Master Emerita: Jean’s predecessor in position as well as in parentage. Her hair is tightly wound in an impeccable bun, making her features appear even more stark, and though it has gone nearly completely silver with age, it still retains strands of that Gunnhildr gold.
She is sharp where Jean is curved, hard where Jean is soft, her clothes and demeanour dark where Jean is light, and Frederica Gunnhildr effuses an aura of such sheer cold that Lisa would expect to see a trail of frost forming in her wake, if she had a Vision with which to create it.
“Hello, Mother,” Jean says with a bow in return, and though outwardly Jean is stoic as stone, through the connection of their hands Lisa can feel her energy spike—can feel the turmoil that unfurls through her body like the delicate leaves of new growth in spring—and Lisa tightens her grip imperceptibly on Jean’s hand; I’m here, she thinks, hopes Jean understands. I’m here for you, don’t let go.
Frederica’s shrewd gaze shifts down to their hands before rising to meet Lisa’s eyes for the first time, and Lisa runs her thumb in gentle circles over Jean’s glove, her own gaze like adamant—inscrutable and unyielding—but with just enough love to show she is serious, to show Frederica where her priorities lie.
“You must be Jean’s… partner.”
“Lisa Minci,” she says, ignoring the disdain that has already taken up residence in Frederica’s curt tone, stooping ever so slightly in the most perfunctory of bows. She is unwilling to submit any more than strictly necessary to this woman who attempted to mold Jean in her image, who bent her and broke her and battered her spirit; wounds from which Jean has never truly recovered. “It is an honour to meet you at last, Master Gunnhildr—I have heard so much about you.”
“I am afraid that I cannot say the same, as I have only recently learned of your existence at all.”
Lisa grins, diplomatic and reserved. “A shame, I’m sure.”
“Quite,” Frederica replies, and her saccharine smile is at odds with the dangerous glint in those frozen blue eyes. “We shall simply have to acquaint ourselves with one another during your stay.”
They are spared further pleasantries by a butler announcing tea, and Frederica gestures politely toward the manor. “After you,” she says. “I insist.”
Lisa feels the hairs at the nape of her neck stand on end, Frederica’s presence ominous at her back, and when they walk through the double doors, ornate and imposing, she calms them both with another squeeze of Jean’s hand, the rush of her magic familiar and soothing as it courses through their veins like a sweet summer breeze.
Lisa forces cordial conversation during the otherwise awkward tea—beside Jean at the table, but unable to touch, and Frederica at the head watching with alert iron eyes. The atmosphere is thick with an abundance of apprehension, as Lisa relates to Jean’s mother her background and expertise, sparing no detail of her world-renowned achievements.
Frederica sips daintily at the exquisite tea (the finest imports from Liyue served in cups just as fine—a reminder to Lisa of just whose home she has entered, lest she make the mistake of dismissing it), and after conversation has stalled, the silence stretched thin, she glances at Lisa over the rim of her cup, eyes flashing metallic in the candlelight.
“Tell me, then,” she says, the curve of her lips calculating and cool, “what is a mage of your calibre doing as the librarian for the Knights of Favonius? Surely that is far too… humble a position for someone like yourself.”
She says humble, but means inferior—Frederica’s doubt of Lisa’s credibility clear under her guise of benign curiosity—and Lisa can feel Jean’s anger rolling off of her in waves. She suppresses her emotions, moved beyond words as her heart skips a beat that even here in this place trapped beneath her mother’s thumb, Jean’s first instinct is to protect her.
But Lisa is no stranger to other people’s doubt—has heard the few foul whispers from the mouths of the townsfolk in opposition to the admiration that follows her—insolent tongues that wag and profess that her reasons for leaving the Academia behind were not nearly as legitimate as she claims they are. And though these assertions ring true more than they realize, no one in Mondstadt is aware of it.
No one, of course, except Jean.
But Lisa is an exceptional liar, her ability to spin deception an effortless art, and the answer she gives Frederica is a half-truth—one that she has fed to countless others before—the words sailing smoothly from her beguiling, silver tongue, though lacking the pang of guilt that so often accompanies them.
“I left because the Academia had nothing more to offer me,” she says, and while she keeps her eyes trained on Frederica, Lisa senses Jean’s gaze fall upon her like a beacon, her guiding light amid the encroaching shadows of her past. “I had gained enough power and learned enough secrets and risen as high as I could have without pledging the rest of my life to the institution.”
(She purposely omits the parts of her time in Sumeru where she could feel herself descending into darkness—forbidden knowledge and magic so terribly tempting that her heart very nearly succumbed to its magnetism. She omits, too, the fact that she was pulled back from the brink before she could pass the point of no return, her beloved mentor her pillar of strength to whom she had clung in her desperation. And lastly she omits the aftermath of her experience, shaken to the core and lost at sea, when she decided then to leave the Academia for good, a decision mourned, but supported, by those closest to her.)
“The atmosphere was stifling,” Lisa continues, one shoulder rising and falling in an elegant shrug, the perfect forgery of nonchalance, “so I chose to return home, to better pursue my own interests unencumbered by the Academia’s oversight.”
Lisa turns to Jean, meets her warm gaze, and the next part comes easy, as it is not a lie at all. “And I am eternally grateful that I did—otherwise I doubt I would have ever returned to Mondstadt, and I certainly never would have had the opportunity to meet Jean.”
She takes Jean’s hand tenderly in her own, raises her knuckles to her lips without breaking eye contact; and while Lisa does not have to feign the love in her eyes, Jean plays along well, her face bright with affection and a beautiful sort of joy mixed with the faintest hint of unbearable longing. Lisa does not regret agreeing to this for Jean’s sake, but she feels her heart splinter like glass in her chest, shards sharp and vicious and unlike any pain she has ever known.
She looks back to Frederica with a devout gleam in her eye, and bares her soul with Jean none the wiser, still focused on her with that longing in her gaze.
“Your daughter is the love of my life,” Lisa says, breathless as static sparks on her skin, dancing from her to Jean and back again. “And I have every intention to remain with her, for as long as Jean will have me.”
Tea extends into an early supper, passing quickly with no further questions as Frederica seems content to bide her time.
Afterwards she ushers Jean away for a private chat, the pair heading toward her personal study tucked deep among the halls of the labyrinthine manor, all but disregarding Lisa completely as she gestures for the butler to lead her to the room where her and Jean’s belongings had been stowed upon arrival.
She thanks the kindly old gentleman with a benevolent smile, and Lisa is surprised to see that both of their bags have been placed here—convinced as she was that Frederica would have opted to separate them. Lisa surveys the room with discerning green eyes that widen when she realizes just whose room she is in:
This is Jean’s bedroom, the one she grew up in, and suddenly its barrenness makes perfect sense.
It is sparsely decorated with little personality, smothering in its sterility and not meant for relaxation. The sole unique touch that gives it away is a small framed photograph on the bedside table of adorably young versions of Jean and Barbara, Kaeya and Diluc, holding twin tortoises between them.
Lisa picks up the frame with gentle hands, runs a gloved finger over Jean’s beaming face, her two front teeth missing and eyes filled with joy. One of the few happy memories from her childhood.
She replaces the picture with an unsteady breath, moving across the room to gaze out the window onto the grounds below, and the view looks slightly to the northeast, the shine of the city just visible on the horizon. Lisa then wonders if this vista was chosen as deliberately as everything else in Jean’s life. If, from the start, Frederica had positioned Jean physically in a space where her duty to Mondstadt was always in sight and just out of reach; a constant reminder of what her future held, and everything that she was driven to strive for…
Lisa sighs to herself, heart aching for Jean, and runs an absent thumb along the curve of her Vision, taking solace in its warmth as she falls prey to her worry.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, standing in the middle of the lacklustre room, Lisa conducts her nightly routines though it is still early, the last rays of twilight a dim glow in the west. She settles into bed, one leg over the other, and puts on her reading glasses in the pale candlelight, flipping through the pages of her favourite journal, the latest issue delivered from Sumeru a few days prior.
She resumes where she left off the previous night—three quarters of the way into an article by a mage she’d attended the Academia with, now a professor in the Medicine Department with whom Lisa occasionally exchanges letters. Though the article is fascinating, her attention is divided, eyes watching the clock as it ticks on the wall and shifting to the door at every sound.
Jean finally returns, wan and weary, the stars in her eyes dull and almost burnt out, but they reignite one by one as her gaze falls on Lisa, a faint cherry flush colouring the rise of her cheeks.
Lisa removes her glasses and sets down the journal as Jean takes a seat on the bed by Lisa’s feet. She enfolds one of Jean’s hands with her own, relieved when Jean transforms into herself again, the unfeeling statue carved by her mother’s influence crumbling away like an avalanche.
“Are you alright?”
“I am… fine,” Jean replies, her smile soft and grateful, weaving her fingers with Lisa’s. “She was unusually civil, which leads me to believe she is saving her more probing questions for tomorrow.” Jean’s smile dips as she shakes her head, meeting Lisa’s eyes with cloudy trepidation. “I certainly do not expect this mild behaviour to last.”
“I will be sure to prepare myself accordingly,” Lisa says, eyes creasing in affection as she trails her thumb along Jean’s skin, her worry abated, at least, for now.
After a moment of silence, soothing and safe, Jean rises to change out of her formal attire, and when she rejoins Lisa, softened by the cornflower blue of her nightclothes, she glances out the window, at the walls, at the floor—seemingly anywhere and everywhere except Lisa and the bed.
“I can sleep on the sofa if you are uncomf—”
“Get in bed, Jean,” Lisa interrupts with a fond roll of her eyes, small smile tender as she pats the spot next to her. “I don’t mind. And this is your room, after all—if anyone should offer to move, it ought to be me.”
“No!” Jean says, too fast, too sharp, eyes darting away to the wall again. “No, you are a guest, and you deserve to be comfortable. I take no issue with sharing with you.”
She rummages through her bag before coming to rest beside Lisa, stretched out in bed with her novel in hand, and as they read side-by-side, quietly into the night, Lisa watches Jean from the corner of her eye. She wishes more than anything that she could bridge the divide and take Jean in her arms; wishes that her evenings were always filled with such peace.
When the hour grows late, the candles begin to burn out one by one, and Lisa yawns wide as she sets her journal and glasses aside, sinking into the mattress and staring at the ceiling. She forces herself to ignore the pulse of Jean’s presence, the elemental energy in her body reaching out to meet Lisa’s, coalescing between them in an almost tangible storm, wind and lightning fusing as one.
“Goodnight, Lisa,” Jean says, rolling on her side, facing the window away from her.
“Goodnight, Jean,” she replies, soft as a sigh, extinguishing the last candles with a wave of her hand, and as they are plunged into darkness, Lisa closes her eyes, her heartbeat and Jean’s in blissful unison.
Lisa wakes early when Jean begins to stir, unused as she is to sharing a bed with someone. After a drawn-out moment of blinking blearily at the wall, Lisa’s eyes fly open, swallowing a hitched sigh, as she has the abrupt realization of how she and Jean are positioned:
Sometime during the night, they had gravitated toward one another: Jean flush against her back with an arm flung over her side, fingers brushing her stomach with every deep breath, and Lisa feels Jean’s touch through the thin fabric of her nightgown like a wildfire licking furiously at her skin, spreading a flush across every inch of her body with wave upon wave of vast, volcanic heat.
She desperately ignores Jean’s breath on her neck, and the sensation of Jean’s frame seamless against her own; ignores the way her fingertips swirl the storm in her blood and how the scent of dandelions mixes with rose. And Lisa ignores with all her might the overpowering awareness of Jean’s breasts at her back, pressing comfortably against her shoulder blades in a tender embrace…
Lisa would think she’d awakened in the midst of an illusion, were it not for her heart pounding like thunder in her chest—a vicious reminder of what remains of her prudence that none of this should be happening at all.
The last thing she wants is to see Jean’s horrified gaze, so Lisa calms her breathing, closes her eyes, and is mercifully oblivious when Jean withdraws from the bed an hour after she has fallen back asleep, hope and despair warring in Lisa’s heart as she descends into the depths of her impossible dreams.
Most of the morning is spent in Frederica’s grim company, breakfast on the veranda accompanied by stilted conversation, and though her behaviour throughout the meal has remained on the lighter side of abrasive, as Jean had predicted, it does not last long.
As soon as Jean is fully out of earshot—dragged excitedly beyond the hedge by the housekeeper’s children to the training grounds for a demonstration of true Favonius bladework—Frederica turns to Lisa with a gleam in her eyes like the reflection of sunlight off fresh powder snow, cold and bright and blinding in its intensity.
Lisa has been waiting for this change in the weather, has expected it as surely as she can sense a brewing storm, and while she has developed a thick enough skin to repel any insults Frederica may sling at her, Lisa hardens her heart and sharpens her tongue—ready to fight for Jean at whatever cost to herself.
She raises her cup to her lips, wary and watchful, and when lightning strikes, it does not disappoint:
“She has grown lax and indulgent since meeting you,” Frederica says, without preamble or further acknowledgement of Lisa’s presence at all, simply sipping her tea while looking again straight ahead, gloved fingers drumming a ceaseless beat against the surface of the wrought iron table. “Ah, yes, I have known about you, though not directly. You see, Jean can hide very little from me, and in the years since your arrival from the Academia there has been a shift in her behaviour. Subtle, at first,” she takes another drink, glaring at Lisa from the corner of her eye, “but now far more noticeable.”
Lisa sips delicately from her own steaming tea, mind racing with the implications of what Frederica has said, but she knows well that this woman is a master of manipulation, aggravating the waters in an effort to capsize her…
… Lisa knows, too, it is the hope that will kill you, and so she buries it deep in her traitorous heart, and turns to Frederica with a venom in her eyes that is in direct conflict with the devotion laced into her words.
“Do you not wish for your child to be loved?”
She huffs a laugh, jaded and dismissive. “Love will not hone her skills, or prepare her for what is to come.”
“I think her skills are finely honed enough.”
“You genuinely do not understand, do you?” she replies, and Lisa feels her frozen gaze like shards of ice slicing her skin. “Such a pity… Jean does not have time for this. She does not have time for you.”
Lisa tries not to flinch, just barely succeeding, but Frederica’s words pierce a raw nerve—a fear that Lisa carries in the pit of her stomach. And though Lisa’s face remains impassive, she has the distinct feeling that Frederica can sense her tension as if she were a predator; like a wolf’s keen sense of smell finding blood in the air.
“She will become Grand Master,” Frederica continues, “and she will realize that romance is a distraction, as I did, and that this relationship is nothing more than a dereliction of her duty.” Her voice is forceful with the weight of prophecy, but Lisa reminds herself that there is no relationship to break; reminds herself that Frederica has no power over them. “What she needs is someone with equal political standing, someone with whom she will not become emotionally entangled, and I will not allow her to throw away two decades of dedication for something so frivolous as infatuation.”
Lisa feels anger spark in her heart, and the air around her shimmers like a desert mirage, alive with the heat of her fury; her body feels tight, prickling with electricity that begs for release as her pulse beats its incessant alarm in her ears, but outwardly she is as unruffled as ever, save for the flash of lightning in narrowed emerald eyes.
She simply finishes her tea, static warm beneath her skin, and turns to Frederica as she stands.
“The trajectory of Jean’s life is not yours to determine anymore,” Lisa says, the Witch of Purple Rose baring her thorns, and her voice is steady as the roots of the mountain, and does not betray the rage in her veins. “She fights for the freedom of Mondstadt, as always.”
She pauses as Frederica glares at her, and Lisa runs her thumbs along her fingertips when she feels her emotions manifest in her palms.
“And that includes her own.”
She does not wait for Frederica’s response, heading toward the training grounds with her head held high, and as she stalks away she can feel frigid eyes at her back, tracking her progress across the neatly landscaped lawn.
They finally receive a few moments to breathe as Frederica retreats to her study, adhering to her strict schedule before the post can arrive, so she can compose her correspondence in time.
Jean takes the opportunity to give her a proper tour, telling stories of her childhood growing up in this place, and though some of her memories seem to be genuinely fond, the majority of her tales are touched with vague disenchantment, as well as nostalgia for something she never really had.
Despite the echoes of her past that wander the halls like ghosts, Jean’s mood has relaxed dramatically. They walk the corridors and various rooms serenely arm-in-arm, comfortable together as they always are.
Jean’s smile turns wide as they approach another room, and she unlocks the door with the key on her belt.
“You are going to like this one,” Jean says, pushing open the door for Lisa to enter. “I promise.”
The room is lit by its large windows to the south, sunshine streaming in with a bright, golden glow, and Lisa almost gasps at the rows of books, shelf after shelf of ancient Mondstadt history.
“The collection was compiled over the centuries by my ancestors,” says Jean, soft and low as she watches Lisa, emerald eyes wide with excitement. “Some of these books date back to even before Gunnhildr herself became head of the Clan, in the days of Decarabian during the Archon War.”
Lisa approaches a shelf, runs gloved fingers reverently along cracked leather spines, gold and silver letters flaked beyond legibility as the entire room thrums with knowledge just waiting to be absorbed, reverberating in time with the magic in her veins.
“This is where I would come to escape my training. It was easy to make it seem as if I were studying, when in reality my mind was a million miles away…”
“It’s wonderful,” Lisa says, on a soft, breathy sigh, struck by the sheer number of books present here that are unavailable in the Favonius library. When she turns to Jean, hands clasped over her heart, she is struck further by the smitten look in Jean’s eyes—affectionate beyond measure and creased in absolute joy, as if Lisa were the only star to shine in her sky.
“I am glad that you like it.”
Jean draws close, close enough to touch, and rests a tentative hand on the curve of Lisa’s waist, and Lisa cannot help but lean even closer, eyes briefly shifting to Jean’s inviting lips.
“It’s just the two of us, Jean,” Lisa whispers, intolerable hope swirling like a tempest in her chest. “There’s no need to perform while we’re alone.”
Their noses brush, and Lisa shudders, hard.
“I know,” Jean says, the gap between them shrinking by the second, and just as their lips barely graze one another, Frederica’s voice rings clear from the hall, and Jean recoils with wild terror in her eyes, hands clenched into fists as they fall to her sides.
“I—” she heaves a breath, flushing bright apple-red, “I have to go.”
She flees the library, steps loud in her haste, as she races to meet her mother in the corridor. Lisa sinks against a shelf, head thrown back against the dusty old books while she desperately attempts to slow her breathing and stem her tears, and she curses herself for this unattainable wish, as she becomes further ensnared by a fantasy.
Lisa hides in the library for the rest of the afternoon, distracting herself with the trove of ancient and rare books, but they eventually reconvene in the hour before dusk, taking advantage of what sunlight remains to them for a walk, mute and restless, through the gardens.
They are sprawling and spotless, no leaf out of place—the hedges, trees, and flowerbeds pruned to perfection with Frederica’s oppressive influence extending even here. She has said little as they’ve walked among the greenery, hands folded at her back with strict military precision as she’d marched ahead with all the purpose of a sentinel, always within range to overhear Lisa and Jean.
Lisa cannot tell what Frederica has planned, feels dread begin to crawl from the base of her neck, and the farther they walk, the more Jean seems to wilt, the manor shrinking behind them with every tense step. Lisa takes her hand staunchly in her own, musters her strength and lends it to Jean, and hopes that she can see the support in her eyes whenever she glances over to look at her.
Eventually they slow when they reach the tree line, the house still visible from their position on the hill where the Estate meets wilderness at the roots of the mountain, Dragonspine looming overhead like a warning, an omen.
But Frederica continues onward into the shade of the trees, drawing Jean aside with a no-nonsense frown, and Lisa knows she is unwelcome by the glint in her eyes—stays right where she is by the last of the flowerbeds and meets Frederica’s glare with the defiance in her own.
She brushes her thumb across the back of Jean’s hand before letting go with gut-wrenching reluctance, watches as her mother leads Jean away while Lisa remains wary and uneasily alone.
She cannot hear a word they say—sees only Jean’s rigidity, how she stiffens even further; how she flinches violently when Frederica touches her Vision before reining herself in and all but turning to stone. Lisa feels static gather dangerously in her blood; ignores the call of thunder that begs her to intervene.
Frederica steps back following several minutes of censure, the set of Jean’s shoulders giving her emotions away. She saunters past Lisa with an almost taunting air, returning to the manor with her mission accomplished, the light on silver hair like the stark and sinister reflection of midwinter sun off the edge of a blade.
Lisa closes the distance in quick, fretful strides, standing before Jean as she loses control of her worry, and she nearly gasps at the empty look in her eyes—hollow and hurting and a mere shadow of herself.
“Jean,” Lisa says, terror gripping her heart, and Jean bites her lip, closes her eyes tight, does not reply as she fights against her tears.
“I can take us back to the house, if that’s what you want,” Lisa offers, soft despite the wrath that crackles beneath her skin. “Right now.”
Jean does not speak, can only nod, and Lisa steps closer and holds out her hand.
“I need to touch you in order to bring you along with me. Is that alright?”
Jean nods again, and Lisa takes her hand, breathing deep the forest air as they vanish from sight in a glittering burst of violet, and when they reappear in Jean’s bedroom, she leads her to the sofa, where Jean collapses against Lisa as her defenses fall apart.
She quietly weeps, her whole body trembling as she clings to Lisa’s hand—sobs without sound in a way Lisa thinks must have been learned, and she thinks of Jean as a child crying hushed and alone in order to avoid her mother’s detection. As Lisa unties her ribbon, carding gentle fingers though thick, golden hair, she casts a silencing spell over the room and wards the door—the magic effortless and warm when it rushes through her veins, her need to protect Jean fueling her power as it enfolds them in violet and its tranquil embrace.
“Let it out, Jean,” she murmurs, pressing a kiss to her hair. “You’re safe here.”
You’re safe with me.
Jean buries her face in the crook of Lisa’s shoulder, her clothing becoming damp, though she does not care, and her eyes almost glow in the twilit room as her heart is cleft in two, breaking for Jean.
They sit for several minutes as Jean begins to calm—soothed by Lisa’s touch and the rose-scent of her magic—and eventually she sniffles, her tears running dry, and her voice is muffled and strained as she speaks against Lisa’s skin.
“She said that I have become weak,” Jean begins, and the shards of Lisa’s heart break impossibly further. “She said that compassion and love have diminished my resolve and are hindering my ability to serve the Order as Mondstadt deserves.” Jean pauses, pulling back, and looks up to Lisa with red-rimmed eyes. “She said that my behaviour is a disgrace to the sacrifices of our Clan—that I am proving unworthy of the Gunnhildr name.”
Lisa’s eyes flash with righteous fury, vibrant green flaring like a bolt from clouded skies, and she suppresses the rage that boils her blood as static ripples down the length of her spine. She raises one hand to caress Jean’s cheek, thumb tracing circles over tear-stained skin, and her words are unwavering—steadfast and true—meeting pained ocean eyes with her own.
“Kindness is not weakness,” she says, the fingers twined in Jean’s hair falling to brush her opposite cheek, holding her face tenderly between lithe, bare hands.
“I know, but—”
“And cold dedication is not strength.”
Jean’s breath hitches and Lisa draws her closer, pressing her lips to Jean’s forehead in a kiss that conveys her undying devotion, and when she leans back, Jean’s lips quiver and quake with the strength of her emotions, eyes glimmering with her gratitude and no small amount of awe.
Lisa’s arm wraps around Jean’s shoulders, pulling her into her side as Jean settles against her, and Lisa closes her eyes to quell her temper, breathing slow and deep and holding Jean tight.
“You surpassed her long ago,” she says, serious and soft, inhaling the fragrance of her dandelion-sweet hair, “and your life is your own, now. Live it as you see fit, Jean—the Knights will always be here to support you.”
She lays another kiss feather-light to the crown of her head, heart in her throat as she speaks on a sigh, her love for this woman imperishable.
“And so will I.”
Their evening meal is awkward, insufferably so, and Lisa spends most of it cloyingly polite while bearing an expression as sharp as Jean’s sword, honed and refined and keen enough to kill.
The conversation is stilted with long gaps in between, Jean closer by Lisa’s side than ever before, and Frederica appears almost to be losing her cool—a fire in her eyes awakened and bright, melting the frost that envelops her.
She hurls thinly veiled insults in Lisa’s direction: comments about her upbringing, her humble position among the Knights—questions further her reputation and the fame to her name with a ruthlessness that borders on outright loathing—and Lisa can sense Jean bristling through the tirade, coiled like a snake preparing to strike.
But Jean’s control does not fracture until their post-supper tea, her anger frothing and foaming before boiling over completely as all her resentment breaks free at once—as if the barbs meant for Lisa were piercing her own skin—and Lisa watches, enraptured, when Jean stands from her seat, abrupt and incandescent in indignation.
“Mother, that is enough!” Jean says, eyes ablaze, and they radiate a fierceness at odds with her tone—with the pure adoration that infuses her words: “I love her,” she says, breathless with joy, and Lisa’s breath catches in the back of her throat as her heart is overwhelmed by desperate yearning. “I was afraid for so long,” Jean continues, “afraid that I would hurt her, or that she could never love someone like me. But she chose me, Mother, in spite of everything, and I can have both Lisa and Mondstadt without compromising my commitment to either.”
Lisa bites her tongue to stem the onset of tears, hands clenched into fists, nails digging into her palms—imprinting tiny half-moons like thorns into her skin—to distract herself from this absolute anguish as she reminds herself endlessly:
It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real…
“I love her, Mother,” Jean repeats, and Lisa feels those words for which she has wished as if they were a physical blow. “And nothing you can say will ever change that.”
Jean extends her hand for Lisa to take, and Lisa does not hesitate—lacing their fingers with gentle reverence—and as she rises from her own chair to stand beside her, their eyes lock without a key, eternally bound, the air around them pulsing with a dense electric charge.
Jean leads her from the room, posture straight and proud, performing her placidity with superlative skill, and as they ascend the stairs toward their room for the night, Lisa can feel Jean’s hand begin to shake, her composure cracking under the weight of what she’s done…
Lisa squeezes her hand, reassuringly firm, and vows to herself that she will never let go.
They avoid each other’s eyes as they prepare for bed, the room filled to the brim with restless energy as the trials of the day take their toll. When they lay down to sleep on the far sides of the bed, Lisa acknowledges the magnetism that pulls her toward Jean, and knows she’ll awaken in her arms again.
Lisa’s sleep is disturbed in the middle of the night by the sound of the floorboards creaking under Jean’s feet as she stands by the window, staring at the moon, arms folded across her chest as if to comfort herself.
Lisa sits up, rubs the sleep from her eyes, clutches the quilt with a white-knuckled grip when worry begins to churn in the pit of her stomach. “Jean?” she asks. “Is everything alright?”
Jean remains silent for several long moments, the air heavy and saturated with words unspoken, and Jean faces the city barely visible beyond the hills, her back turned to Lisa as she breathes deep of the silence.
“I am sorry for dragging you into this, Lisa,” she murmurs, so soft and strained that Lisa can barely hear her. “I am sorry you’ve had to endure my mother’s insults, and I’m sorry you have had to take care of me. I am so, so sorry.”
Lisa rises from the bed and strides to meet her, standing by her side close enough to touch, but she does not reach out, tangling her fingers over her abdomen instead, and seeks out Jean’s gaze to no avail.
“Why are you apologizing?” she asks, quiet and kind, and pointedly ignores the pang in her chest. “You didn’t coerce me into joining you here—I accompanied you of my own free will with full understanding of what I was walking into. If anyone needs to apologize, it is your mother, and nobody else.”
The subsequent silence reminds Lisa of Sumeru’s humidity—a palpable presence one could cut with a knife—and she waits as Jean swallows the words on her tongue, reflected bright in the shame at the corners of her eyes.
“Lisa, I…” she starts, stops, braces her shoulders. “I invited you under false pretenses,” Jean finally admits, no more than a whisper, tightening her arms wrapped around herself as she diligently trains her gaze out the window. “The truth is that I could have asked Kaeya or Diluc or someone else from the nobility. But I chose you to be by my side—I wanted your comfort and encouragement and peace of mind, and most of all I just wanted you, Lisa. I wanted to pretend that this was real, even if only for a day or two.” Jean’s guilt is tangible, seizing her frame, but Lisa’s hope flares brighter than the sun, like a star erupting in a burst of blinding light, spreading warmth and joy along every nerve even as Jean sinks further into remorse. “That was selfish and deceitful, and I apologize.”
Jean’s lips press into a line, taut and thin with a long, painful pause, and she releases her breath on an unsteady sigh, stiffening like stone as she waits for Lisa’s response—as if she were expecting some kind of punishment.
“I will understand if you decide to keep your distance from now on.”
Oh, Jean… she thinks, my darling Jean. I could never keep myself from you.
Lisa lays a hand on her cherry-flushed cheek, guiding her head with gentle pressure until she can drown her heart in those storm-tossed eyes, and Lisa’s own shine with the light of whole galaxies—brilliant and beautiful and solely for Jean.
“Say that again,” she says, breathless and low, faint with the sheer magnitude of her longing.
Jean merely blinks at her in mounting confusion. “Say what?”
“That you want me.”
Lisa can see the moment Jean understands, comprehension dawning in her wonderstruck eyes like the glorious rose-gold gleam of sunrise, and she sharply inhales, exhales on a sigh, does not avert her gaze as she takes Lisa’s hand, weaving Lisa’s fingers together deftly with hers as if they were always meant to be there. “I want you,” she repeats, soft and sincere, “I have wanted you for years.”
Lisa cuts herself off with a long-awaited kiss, surging forward with the force of her buried desire, the hand on Jean’s cheek sliding into her hair as she pulls Jean closer in her urgency.
Jean matches her fervor, releasing Lisa’s hand as she winds her arms around her waist instead, their bodies flush as the sky meets the sea, where Lisa ends and Jean begins lost in the shrinking horizon between them.
Lisa presses her lips to the curve of Jean’s shoulder, kisses her way up her neck, jaw, cheek, before pulling back entirely to meet her eyes again, magic sparking on her skin in scintillating violet as her emotions run wild, vital and free.
They stare at one another as the seconds tick by, unwilling to break this moment of infinite relief, electrified with the knowledge that their love is returned; that their brief journey home will not herald their separation, but rather will portend their happiness to come—the life they’ve always wanted just within reach and theirs for the taking at long last.
Lisa rests her forehead tenderly against Jean’s, chases her lips for an exquisite kiss that nearly leads them astray all over again, before she raises her hands to frame either side of Jean’s neck, thumbs blazing a path along warm, pale skin.
“I have wished for you and dreamt of you almost as long as I have known you,” Lisa says, revelling in the shudder that wracks Jean’s body as her words caress her kiss-reddened lips, “and waking in your arms was the most bittersweet experience, thinking that it was all an honest accident.” She kisses her once more, enchanting and bright, a barely-there touch followed swiftly by another. “I love you, Jean, and I will always love you, regardless of what happens next.”
Tears spill unchecked down Jean’s flushed cheeks, glistening in the moonlight like a rushing cascade, and Lisa wipes them away with utmost care—the affection in her eyes and the soft curve of her smile effusing her joy in perfect harmony.
“I am not sure that I deserve you,” Jean mutters, just under her breath, and Lisa’s heart flares with her anger again—that this is the legacy Frederica has passed down: these scars left on her daughter that impair her even now.
“Jean…” she says, with a love to move mountains, “you deserve everything. You deserve the world. And I would gladly give it to you, if you’ll let me.”
Jean looks at her, eyes wide and overwhelmed, as if she cannot quite believe that Lisa is real, and as she whispers her love between reverent kisses, lain across her skin anyplace she can reach, Lisa sinks deeper into Jean’s warm embrace, Jean’s name on her lips like a promise.
Lisa wakes in Jean’s arms, twined together like vines, Jean’s lips dropping kisses to the back of her neck, and Lisa’s breath hitches as Jean’s hand begins to wander, feather-light fingertips grazing her stomach over the bold violet fabric of her nightgown.
“Good morning, Jean,” she says with a starlight-soft sigh, stretching catlike and cozy beneath Jean’s attentive touch. “Mmm, careful darling—I could easily get used to waking up like this.”
Jean presses another kiss to the spot beneath Lisa’s ear, sensitive and ticklish as her body ignites. “That is my intention.”
She chuckles to herself as she turns in Jean’s arms, capturing her lips in an indulgent kiss, unhurried and thorough and better than any dream—Jean’s body warm against her own and growing warmer still as they rapidly lose themselves in one another.
She pushes Jean onto her back and straddles her hips, leaning over Jean with her hands on her cheeks as honey brown hair falls around them like a curtain—veiling them from view in their own private world. Lisa quakes in Jean’s hold at her tantalizing touch, fingers just sneaking beneath the hem of her nightclothes.
“As much as I wish it were otherwise,” she says, laying kiss after kiss along the ridge of Jean’s collarbones, “we don’t have time for this, Jean. Not for all the things I have planned, anyway.” She pulls back with a grin, swallowing against her need—watching as Jean flushes a rich shade of scarlet, ocean eyes dark with identical intensity.
Lisa rolls off of Jean and steps from the bed, and she winks to Jean over her shoulder. “I’d much prefer to take my time with you.”
Jean groans low and throws her head against the pillow, glaring at Lisa with a frustrated frown betrayed by the amusement that twinkles in her eyes, and after coming as close to a sulk as Lisa thinks she is capable, Jean joins her across the room, plants a kiss to her cheek, and begins searching her bag for fresh clothes to wear.
“We’ll be home soon,” Lisa says, with a slow, sly smile, “and we both deserve a reward for surviving this weekend, don’t you think?”
Jean cannot contain her laughter, softening as she rolls her eyes, the heat in her gaze diminishing to a simmer as adoration and tenderness spread across her face.
They dress quickly and pack up their things, preparing for the day ahead of them—maneuvering around one another in a choreographed dance as if they have always shared a space, heart, mind—awareness of the other an almost physical thread that secures them and sustains them, together as one.
Their tasks complete, they leave the bedroom behind, heading down the hall untroubled hand-in-hand, and as they descend the grand staircase to face Frederica once more, Lisa and Jean only have eyes for each other.
They eat a brief breakfast with a scowling Frederica, and though she says nothing further on the topic of their relationship, Lisa follows her eyes as she glowers at their hands, laced together atop the table as they sip at their tea.
The time passes with the swiftness of Dragonspine’s winds, equally as brisk and twice as cold, and soon enough their bags are loaded again in the carriage, the Gunnhildrs and Lisa standing outside the Estate enveloped in an increasingly oppressive silence.
Lisa says nothing, merely clings to Jean’s hand, squeezing in support as she bows to her mother, stiff and stony and for the sake of formality, her eyes dull and lacking their usual spark.
Frederica offers Jean a firm nod in return, icy and inscrutable as ever, but she takes a slow breath, releases on a sigh, and her parting words are softer than Lisa has ever heard her.
“May the Wind guide you, Jean,” she says, and Jean’s fingers tighten around Lisa’s.
Jean pauses, uncertain, her heart in her throat, before she turns toward Lisa to go.
“And you, Mother.”
They spend their return journey in companionable silence, hands held between them on the fine leather cushions. They absorb the other’s presence like the calm before the storm, neither pressured to speak further while Mondstadt passes them by, anticipation bubbling beneath the surface of their skin.
Upon arriving in the city they walk the streets with quick strides, waving distractedly to those who greet them, and without thought or discussion Jean accompanies Lisa home—Lisa’s gaze burning with the flames of her need as she sneaks glances at Jean from the corner of her eye.
They finally escape inside Lisa’s building, practically vibrating with the vastness of their mirrored desires, and when Lisa unlocks her door with an unsteady hand, they stumble into the apartment together, setting their bags heedlessly on the tidy wood floor. Lisa all but throws herself into Jean’s waiting arms, seeking out eager lips as they fall into one another, restraint tossed to the breeze along with their patience as years’ worth of longing bursts forth simultaneously.
Lisa shuts the door behind them with an absentminded wave, fastening the bolt securely with another, and she steps away from Jean, emerald eyes bright, just long enough to drag her to her bedroom.
Jean backs her onto the bed with supple speed, clothes haphazardly strewn across the floor as they go, and once they are laid bare to one another at last, Jean’s lips waste no time against her neck, breasts, stomach, trailing kisses over her body with unbearable reverence and a hunger Lisa feels like an inferno.
Jean slides down the sheets to kiss between her thighs, stealing the breath from her lungs and hastening her heart, and Lisa has seen stars, though none quite like this, when Jean’s mouth descends low to the very core of her.
She pulls at Jean’s hair in sync with her tongue, moans drawn from her throat with every movement, and she closes her eyes tight as she flies over the edge—soaring to the vaulted heights of the heavens themselves with Jean’s name on her lips like the holiest of prayers.
She comes back to herself and flips them over with grace, breaths harsh and heavy as she stares at Jean, and Jean’s breath catches as Lisa nips at her skin, and they sink beneath the waves of their passion again.
They fade in and out of sleep, wrapped in the other’s arms, as inseparable as thunder rumbling in the wake of lightning’s glow.
Lisa curls against Jean, breast to breast, thigh to thigh—more comfortable now than she can ever remember before—and she brushes pink lips against the hollow of Jean’s throat, relaxed with Jean’s fingers stroking slow through her hair, tousled and gleaming in the afternoon sun.
Jean sighs her contentment, peaceful and pleased, though the corners of her mouth become pinched in pensive disappointment, downturned as her brow furrows with her regret.
“What is it, Jean?” Lisa asks, propping herself on one elbow, meeting Jean’s gaze with the concern in her own.
Jean huffs a small laugh, humourless and defeated, and lowers her hand to brush Lisa’s cheek, fond beyond measure in contrast to her melancholy.
“I genuinely thought she might approve of you,” she says, quiet and calm in Lisa’s ear. “I truly thought…” she holds Lisa tight, tucks her head beneath her chin, and presses a gentle kiss to the top of her head. “It simply proves that nothing will satisfy her—that nothing I do will ever be enough.”
Lisa lifts her head again, a hand on Jean’s neck, and her eyes shine with love and boundless admiration as she lays leisurely kisses along the line of her jaw.
“You are more than enough, Jean,” she earnestly replies, with a lingering kiss to her golden brow. “You always have been and always will be.”
She kisses her properly, fervent and tender, and settles against Jean beneath the warmth of her quilt.
“And I will tell you so as many times as you need to hear it, for as long as it takes to sink in.”
“It may take forever,” says Jean with a grin, blushing and bashful and beautiful as the dawn, and though Lisa can still see the pain in her eyes, the lasting effects of her mother’s hold on her mind, Jean’s face is alight with love just for her, and she leans even closer, hovering above her lips—
“Forever, then,” she murmurs, soft and serene, and imagines them together for endless tomorrows as she presses her smile to Jean’s.