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kindness is a man's memorial

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With his hands full managing the exiled sages and clearing the last Withering Zones, Tighnari has neglected Karkata’s maintenance for too long, so he has set aside time this evening to visit Pardis Dhyai and do just that.

Settled down and tinkering away at Karkata’s parts, his mind drifts with the routine of it. It has been a whirlwind of a month since the upheaval of the Akademiya, the reinstatement of Lesser Lord Kusanali, the closure of the Akasha, and the recovery of the Irminsul. All of Sumeru is abloom with change, from the forest to the desert.

In the silence of the evening, it is easy for him to hear the sound of footsteps approaching. This is unusual in itself: it is rare for anyone to be here this late, and he does not recognise the rhythm of the newcomer’s footfalls against the paven pathways of Pardis Dhyai.

Sliding one final part into place, he nudges Karkata gently. The mechanical crab obediently returns to its cube form, nestled among the flaming catalyst flowers and brightwood trees in the corner of the greenhouse. Rising to his feet, Tighnari dusts himself off and heads outside.

As he steps into the cool evening air, he sees immediately the newcomer standing before the fountain in the garden. They are wearing a large hat and dressed in foreign garb, though the night leaves their face cast in shadow. Probably a traveller who had taken a wrong turn while on the way to Port Ormos, Tighnari surmises. They would not be the first to do so; even if unintended, Pardis Dhyai, at least, is sheltered from the elements and makes for a good rest stop.

At his approach, the person looks up. Moonlight illuminates their features.

Tighnari freezes.

He has never met this person in his life, but he knows them. It was one of the last things he ever received on his Akasha Terminal, a message from Lesser Lord Kusanali herself as she and the Traveller confronted the sages’ false god. Tighnari had, sitting in the greenhouse then, seen the very face that looks up at him now.

This is the would-have-been vessel for the Akademiya’s false god. The Balladeer of the Fatui Harbingers, or so the Traveller had called him. As far as Tighnari knows, there had been no news of his whereabouts after the plan was foiled, only that he was in the Lesser Lord’s custody.

The strange thing about this encounter, Tighnari muses, is the stark difference in expression the person before him bears, from the one in his memories. The person that stands in Pardis Dhyai now still bears the same proud arch to his brow as the one Tighnari had seen over the Akasha, but gone is the maddened twist to his features. Instead, his expression is measured, curious even, as he stares back at Tighnari.

Well. If this is a trap, Tighnari will bite the bait.

His bow just a finger’s reach away, he calls down to the person, “Are you lost?”

The person seems to pause for a moment, before tipping his hat, an audible smirk in his voice. “I am quite where I intended to be, Forest Watcher.”

He knows me, Tighnari thinks. He steps away from the railing and makes his way down the rampway that leads to the fountain, keeping his eyes trained on the visitor until they are standing face to face.

“What business do you have here, Balladeer?”

A crack of surprise flits across the Balladeer’s face, before his lip curls into a smile that falls just short of mocking. “I’m not here for a fight.”

“That’s hard to believe, given you and your colleagues’ track record,” Tighnari says, biting back the urge to call his weapon to hand. “I would watch your words if I were you.”

He is answered by silence– far too much, now that he pays attention. He cannot hear the Balladeer’s heartbeat.

The Balladeer does not have a heartbeat. Tighnari files this information cautiously away into a corner of his mind.

“I came to ask you a question,” the Balladeer says.

“Just like the Doctor did before you,” Tighnari says dryly.

“Do not bring up that imbecile,” the Balladeer snarls.

 

The Forest Watcher’s feet do not falter as he approaches the puppet. The puppet does not expect them to– he has watched the Forest Watcher for a long time, and has felt his hands through Haypasia’s skin. The Forest Watcher has always been steady and careful with his motions, a kindness to his touch that the puppet had shied away from the first time he experienced it through Haypasia's consciousness.

The puppet had never reached out to him, only ever observing. The Forest Watcher has done many things for Haypasia: gathering and grinding medicinal herbs by hand, then feeding it to her spoonful by spoonful, covering her body with layers of cloth whenever night approached. Sometimes he would sit down next to Haypasia's resting area and read aloud, other times he would nudge the puppet into awareness with his boots streaked with mud and blood up his arms as he coaxed medicine into Haypasia.

The puppet knows very well the difficulty of caring for one who remains unwaking. It is undoubtedly the Forest Watcher who had kept Haypasia alive.

It is the Forest Watcher who had protected her, as well. In recent days the puppet has discovered, through incessant jogs of his memory by Buer and the Traveller, that the Forest Watcher had been engaged in combat with Dottore's men, the day he sent lightning down upon them.

The puppet remembers little of that day, but he knows that the Forest Watcher had been nursing injury when he tended to Haypasia after. An injury inflicted by his lightning, the furious Traveller had informed him a few nights ago.

It was the first time he had felt the Forest Watcher's hand tremble.

Well, it was stupid of the Forest Watcher to get hit by divine lightning, the puppet thought at first. Those ears of his could well be lightning rods with how tall they were.

But the Forest Watcher had been injured in defense of Haypasia, so it was a rather stupid situation all around.

Which is why he is here, in front of the Forest Watcher, because of that annoying voice in his chest that keeps nagging at him to do something. Nobody told him that Visions could talk.

He hadn't expected the Forest Watcher to recognise him. Damn Buer and her meddling.

The Forest Watcher hasn't pulled out his weapon, at least. He's guarded as he regards the puppet, but he still looks the puppet in the eye when he speaks, which is more than the puppet can say of his ex-colleagues.

"I don't care what business Dottore had with you," the puppet says, spitting the name with malice. "I was told you were struck by lightning."

The Forest Watcher's eyes drift down, clearly to the glowing anemo Vision pinned to his chest, barely veiled interest brimming in his gaze. The puppet has been subject to this same look far too many times in recent days, and it makes his skin crawl.

"And my injury is your business, because?" the Forest Watcher asks. All of the warmth the puppet has heard in the Forest Watcher's voice in days past is gone, leaving only words as cold as stone. This, the puppet had expected. He is used to it. This is the way people talk to him.

He shrugs, observing how the Forest Watcher's fingers twitch where his arms are crossed in front of his chest, and reaches into his inner pocket to pull out the sachet he has carried with him since he left that place. He tosses it at the Forest Watcher, who catches it as if on muscular reflex.

While the Forest Watcher is studying the sachet in his hand, the puppet turns to leave.

 

Tighnari stares between the Balladeer's back, and the unmistakable sachet of Naku Weed he has just been thrown. The Naku Weed is untainted, and looks sprightly and firm enough to be freshly cut from the soil of Tatarasuna, never mind that it is a good eight day journey from Inazuma to Sumeru.

"Wait," he calls after the Balladeer's retreating back. To his surprise, the Balladeer stops.

His head is full of questions, and he has no idea where to even begin. Why is the Harbinger who had attempted to take their Archon's place now standing here, with a Vision pinned to his chest? Offering him herbs for lightning burns that, if the Traveller were to be believed, he had caused in the first place? (His injuries have long healed, but that is beside the point.)

Briefly Tighnari considers the possibility of the Balladeer having a kinder twin sibling, then dismisses the thought. The arrogance in the Balladeer's person is not one that can be replicated, twin sibling or not.

Something must have happened between then and now.

"How fresh are these?" he asks at last.

The Balladeer stares at him like he's grown a second head.

Tighnari raises the sachet in silent question.

"As fresh as they can be," the Balladeer says with narrowed eyes and no further explanation.

“Thank you,” Tighnari says, glancing cautiously once more at the herbs. "Port Ormos is down south from here."

"I'm not headed there," the Balladeer says.

Tighnari looks up at that, curiosity piqued. "So where are you going?"

The Balladeer shrugs. "I'll find out."

That draws a raised eyebrow from Tighnari. "Do I need to warn you against destroying the forest?"

"You think Buer and the Traveller will let me do that?" the Balladeer scoffs.

Tighnari blinks. It is rare for anyone to address Lesser Lord Kusanali by her Archon name.

"I'm not wasting any more time here," the Balladeer says. “Toodles.”

When he turns on his heel, Tighnari doesn't stop him. He can get the answers he wants from the Traveller later.

But really, toodles? Who says that?